The Graduate  (1967)    80/100

Rating :   80/100                                                                     106 Min        15

A film primarily famous for its music (scored by Simon & Garfunkel – including their famous ‘Mrs. Robinson’ – who became household names after the success of the movie) and for the central concept of an older woman, Mrs Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft), seducing a younger man, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). This is quite unfair on the film though, as we soon realise we are actually watching Mrs Robinson living in her own personal version of hell, while the young Ben, a creature of great impulse but no real design, processes his angst and feelings of isolation and ennui into an all consuming and obsessive ‘true love’, one befitting the film’s iconic status.

Hoffman shows why he is one of the finest actors of any generation not just his own, and director Mike Nichols won the best director Oscar for his avant-garde and experimental work here – which features a lot of individual expression helping shape the audience’s connection with Ben and his disconnection with the adults around him, even if sometimes if feels like they just thought – ‘Ok let’s put the camera up here and see what happens’. A story with a lot of depth, great performances (also from Katharine Ross in support – all three would garner Oscar nominations), and some wonderful comedy perfectly sewn into the darkness and urgency of the drama. One not to miss.

Rush  (2013)    80/100

Rating :   80/100                                                                     123 Min        15

Director Ron Howard kicks all memories of his lame duck ‘The Dilemma’ (11) into the dust with a fuel injected character study of the real life infamous formula one rivalry between straight laced and professional Austrian Nicki Lauder (Daniel Brühl) and playboy adrenaline junky Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to this, partly because I don’t watch the sport (the only race I did watch was in the late nineties when one of the cars was engulfed in flames whilst in the pits, which certainly adds weight to the statement Lauder makes in the film that each time he steps into the car he accepts a twenty percent chance he will die) and partly due to an overload of marketing and exposure to the trailer at least thirteen times – and multiple different versions at that, in fact not only does each contain major spoilers and play with the narrative in a false way, but they combine to give the feeling of having already seen the film before it’s even started. Crazy.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before I was drawn into the story and the excitement of being thrust into the driver’s seat through multiple close fought, and sometimes catastrophic, races. The film charts the long standing antagonism between the drivers, and successfully plays around with demonstrating the pluses and minuses to each of their individual characters, constantly challenging our sympathies for each and having us second guessing which one we’d actually like to see win. It’s a very good film – one reminiscent of ‘Senna’, a fantastic documentary set in the eighties and early nineties {here it’s the seventies} and focusing on another powerhouse of the sport, Ayrton Senna. In both films, if you are not in the know about the events and drivers concerned then you are at an advantage, as it is far better to go in with no idea what the outcome will be and the two compliment each other nicely. Here, Rush sees both leads giving great, believable, contrasting performances, with equally good support from the likes of Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara.

Behind the Candelabra  (2013)    80/100

Rating :   80/100                                                                     118 Min        15

Michael Douglas gives what may very well be the crowning performance of his illustrious career, as the secretly, but very obviously, homosexual pianist and entertainer Liberace. Matt Damon plays his young love toy, and he appears on the scene looking like a groomed and buff Prince Adam as both he and Douglas prove committed to the full, giving emotional and engaging performances replete with physical alterations to match their character’s changes over time (Rob Lowe is also good in support). The film focuses on the evolution of the relationship between the pair, with the emphasis naturally leaning toward Liberace, though the story is based on the memoir of Scott Thorsen, Damon’s character, and I think I’d put down Michael Douglas as the heaviest contender so far this year for Oscar nomination in the winter (he has one previous best actor win for portraying Gordon ‘greed is good’ Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 ‘Wall Street’).

At time of writing this is set to be the last feature film from director Steven Soderbergh as he takes a break of undetermined length (not ‘Side Effects‘, as was originally reported, although they were likely filmed around the same time) and it would be a ‘fabulous’ way to bow out of cinema, featuring as it does many refinements to his craft, especially the use of music in the narrative, with here the sound never imposing a viewpoint and yet still driving the story forward – with that of the ensuing scene repeatedly preempting the transition by appearing in the current one, and also the subtle thread of devilish comedy (see his excellent ‘The Informant’ (09) for more along that vein, again with Matt Damon). Filmed not long after Michael Douglas’ was given the all clear regarding his throat cancer, you can be sure this will be work he will never forget, as you can tell by his heartfelt press release below. (Incidentally, his cancer was caused by the sexually transmitted HPV virus, of which there are many strains, so much so that many cannot currently be detected and those that can be are often not tested for at health clinics, in many senses it’s assumed that if you’re sexually active, you are probably carrying some version of it. Worth reading here for more, albeit succinct, info).

(As a further aside, in a fantastic strategic move, a couple of years ago researchers looking to solve a genetic problem in the search for an AIDS cure, sent the real life puzzle out to gamers on Second Life, and one of the many thousands of players actually did solve it. Creatively using the computer game trained minds of gamers to help solve humanity’s problems was a great idea, and indeed it remains so for the future)

Lincoln  (2012)    80/100

Rating :   80/100                      Treasure Chest                      150 Min        12A

A film about one of the most iconic of Americans, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, kind of had Academy Award nominations written all over it from its very inception (although, originally, Liam Neeson was due to take on the lead role). Happily, it deserves all twelve of the ones it has received for next month’s ceremony. Day-Lewis plays the man himself of course, sixteenth president of the United States Mr Abraham Lincoln, and the entirety of the film is focused on the last few months of the American Civil War and the politics surrounding Lincoln’s attempt to have the thirteenth amendment (concerned with anti-slavery) officially written into the constitution. As such, there is almost no fighting in the film, instead we are treated to an intricate courtroom drama and character portrayal of the president, and if you are unfamiliar with the exact history of the moment this will certainly put it into an enlightening context.

And who better to play Lincoln than Daniel Day-Lewis. The Red Dragon considers him to be unquestionably the finest actor of his generation, who’s fanatical devotion to method acting each role is legendary, famously living off the land in the forest before shooting ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (92) and flitting between Italian and English with cast and crew on ‘Nine’ (09 – he actually worked as a shoemaker for a while in Italy, for 2002’s ‘Gangs of New York’ Scorsese and DiCaprio reputedly had to track him down and go visit him personally there to persuade him to take part in the film). In an interview Gary Oldman once remarked, upon someone suggesting that everyone has a couple of bad movies, ‘hmm, I’m not aware of Daniel Day-Lewis ever having done any!’.

Here, he completely embodies the character once again with an entirely convincing accent and set of mannerisms to boot, aided by some wonderful cosmetics. He really is something special to watch, and my only, slight, criticism would be that the last ten minutes or so could have perhaps been a little more enigmatic, and it does seem unlikely that Lincoln’s advisers would be quite as surprised as they are by his machinations, but rather they are so in the film in order to make him seem all the more grand. It could be this is consistent with the source material – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’ published in 2005. In any case, this is Day-Lewis’s fifth best actor nomination at the Academy Awards and if he wins, and he certainly deserves to, then he will make history as the only male actor to ever have won more than two Oscars for lead roles.

Despite the dialogue heavy nature of the movie I enjoyed it just as much, perhaps even more so, the second time around. The cast is enormous, perhaps a little distractingly so as it’s easy to spend time thinking ‘hmm, what is that actor’s name again…’ but they unanimously do a great job. In particular Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a combative, long time proponent of slavery abolition, and Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln, both of whom are up for awards themselves, and also Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie playing the Democratic opposition. The set design looks rich and authentic, and is aided by Spielberg’s decision to film a lot of scenes with bright light streaming in from the exterior, much like Ridley Scott did with ‘Blade Runner’ (82), which helps to give everything the sense of a sort of schoolboy nostalgia, something that feels well suited for one of the most iconic and oft mentioned personages, not to mention lasting legacies, of the nineteenth century.

Fascinating and well made, this is one of Spielberg’s finest.

For some insightful primary source material, take a look at The Writings of Abraham Lincoln.

Quartet  (2012)    80/100

Rating :   80/100                                                                       98 Min        12A

Dustin Hoffman’s first time behind the camera is an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play of the same name. Harwood wrote the screenplay, and also wrote that of ‘The Pianist’ (02) and ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ (07) amongst others, and the two artists seemed to have gelled well together, producing a sentimental, reflective piece on the vagaries of growing old. It follows very much in the same vein as ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ (11), and those who enjoyed that will not be disappointed here. However, by focusing on four main characters, and two of those a little more intimately, this has a neater, more personal feel to it.

It centres on a retirement home for musicians, and the four in question are played by Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins. All of the cast are fantastic, indeed much of the support is made up of actual musicians and a nice tribute to them all plays during the credits. A little bit of a fuss has been made over this film being a fairly small scale one going on a wide cinematic release and going toe-to-toe with blockbusters, but frankly if a film has an engaging story and good performances then it is entirely justified in being given a wide release in theatres, and it’s a little misleading to suggest this is the only film out there doing just that.

If I was to criticise something, then it would be that some of the comedy feels a little too obvious, and perhaps the delivery on occasion could have done with a couple of more takes but it’s a small quibble really. Hoffman’s direction feels a little off kilter in places but seems to settle as the film goes on, and his use of classical music and the instruments themselves as a fifth main character, splicing everything together, works well. A certain decision was made toward the end, which makes sense in terms of the filmmakers’/writer’s options, but nevertheless will disappoint audiences a little. Not withstanding that though, it’s the main cast’s ability to engage our empathy that really make this an emotional gem.

The Dark Knight Rises  (2012)    80/100

Rating :   80/100                                                                     165 Min        12A

A satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga. Various issues with plot holes, in fact there’s a lot wrong with the characters, story, and screenplay and yet somehow it’s still a great film. I enjoyed it much more the second time round, and wouldn’t be at all surprised if it became a film that can happily be watched on the big-screen again, and again, and again…

(Incidentally, the aeroplane scene near the start of the movie was filmed near Inverness in Scotland, possibly influenced by similar aerial shots near the beginning of 1980’s ‘Flash Gordon’ filmed over the Isle of Skye …)