By the Sea  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     122 Min        15

A film written and directed by Angelina Jolie and starring both herself and her husband Brad Pitt, as Vanessa and Roland respectively – a couple whose marriage is on the not-so-subtle allegorical rocks below the Mediterranean French hotel in which they stay throughout the movie (it was filmed in Malta), was always going to arouse conjecture regarding possible correlations between fact and fiction (this is the first time the lady in question has listed herself as Angelina Jolie-Pitt, perhaps anticipating such gossip), much as orgy themed ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (99) did when it was released with its famous married couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise: shortly before they broke up. Given events in the film, the central pair here will be hoping no one reads into it too much, lest they should encounter whispers of ‘better not invite Angelina and Brad, they are massive perverts’.

There is a deliberate attempt to evoke arthouse film here, with influences from the likes of Antonioni, Fillini and even Bergman, and whilst it never comes close to the work of those masters, Jolie has nevertheless attempted something fairly, if you’ll pardon the pun, off-the-wall, which she deserves credit for – as former dancer Vanessa whiles away her miserable hours in their hotel room, her failed author husband drinking a bottle of beer for every line he thinks about writing, until one day she notices a sizeable hole bored so that the neighbours next door can be spied on at will. After very brief consideration, she partakes.

Jolie’s directing is better than her last attempt, ‘Unbroken‘, at a very fundamental level – early shots of the setting interject closer views of the characters and help to give us a framework, showing us the surroundings in much the same way we take mental snapshots of the most memorable views of the places we visit, and her work behind the camera feels at once marked in the right places and also disguised where it should be (though I note one of the opening brief shots is quite randomly of two cats. A reference to something perhaps?)

There is a conceit with this man-made gap in the wall – as we view it there is no earthly way that the couple next door (played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) wouldn’t notice the thing, especially since they effectively look right at it several times over. However, we see what the protagonists do, which effectively means we’re looking through a lens to cover the space in the room that the view does – of course this is the conspicuous lens of the camera but since we never see the peephole from the victims’ room, who is to say it wasn’t created with an actual lens? If that were the case, whosoever created the thing would have probably also gone to lengths to disguise it, and indeed sound wouldn’t travel as well as it would through a simple hole.

Similarly, regarding the film’s central driving motif – the mystery over why their relationship is in tatters and what connection, if any, this has to the voyeurism, only so many options are dangled in front of us before all is revealed and you’re left both unsurprised and also wondering if it really fits with everything before. However, if you really read between the lines there are a couple of potential events in their past which you could say are hinted at and no more, and if true then they would justify events in the film to a much greater degree, but you really have to want to piece it together and the movie itself isn’t focused enough to deliver where it needed to.

Much of the premise does work, it’s really the middle section that needed to be a lot more intricate – as it is there’s a flatness to it, a cold distance between the voyeur and the act of viewing, as if it’s being done out of simple ennui and that perhaps Jolie wasn’t quite willing to go the full distance and show masturbation onscreen, for example. Though, again, if the lack of arousal was intentional then it’s only really justified by a significant investment from the audience (in the real world). Other peripheral elements could also have been tighter – like the local barkeep, played by Niels Arestrup, divulging his life story and philosophy almost straight away instead of attempting more poignancy later on perhaps.

Still, lots of elements are really well done – the visuals with their prevalence of white against the sunny, sandy landscapes all set in the 60s/70s, are beautifully shot and immediately bring to mind the recent ‘The Two Faces of January‘. Both leads deliver great performances, with Jolie rarely more radiant onscreen and evoking shades of Bardot when she gets dressed up for the evening, and there are a number of key moments that work well, especially when delving into the sadness and pain of each character. The film proves interesting enough to draw you in throughout, and even if it ultimately doesn’t reach the level of the kind of art that inspired it, it is still reasonably successful on its own terms. Plenty of signs of promise from the determined writer/director.

Black Mass  (2015)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                     122 Min        15

Detailing the exploits from the mid-seventies onwards of infamous Boston mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), directed by Scott Cooper (‘Crazy Heart’ 09, ‘Out of the Furnace‘) and written by Jez Butterworth (‘Edge of Tomorrow‘, ‘Spectre‘) and Mark Mallouk in his screenwriting debut, ‘Black Mass’ feels from start to finish like a poor man’s ‘The Departed’ (06), as we simply watch brutal killing after brutal killing take place at either the bequest or the hands of the protagonist, with the ludicrously overt antics of a complicit FBI agent as the only real countermeasure to the bloodshed, bar a few moments with Bulger’s young son and wife (Dakota Johnson) where the film finds some rare flashes of humanity.

It’s a vile film, gritty to be sure, but with nothing more than Bulger killing everyone that slights him as the heart of the piece it becomes difficult to the see any point to the movie other than a warning not to get involved with psychopaths. Joel Edgerton plays FBI agent John Connolly, who manages to persuade his boss (Kevin Bacon) and colleagues (David Harbour and Adam Scott) that bringing in Bulger as an informant is a totally sweet idea and that his childhood friendship with the man in question isn’t in any way a conflict of interests. If it wasn’t true, you would never believe it, but the way Connolly comes across onscreen wouldn’t sell to the least discerning of officials, never mind the Bureau.

Johnny Depp gives a, much touted, thoroughly transformative performance as Bulger, but this is exactly what Depp has being doing his entire career really – even recently in films that underperformed like ‘The Lone Ranger‘ and ‘Mortdecai‘, where the media largely ignored his work and preferred to lay claim to his career being over instead, and even though it’s a noteworthy turn the especially dark writing and material are unlikely to do him many favours come awards season. Indeed, there’s no immediate reason for the movie’s title other than its story representing a relentless physical amalgam of disturbing and pathological violence.

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 …

Burnt  (2015)    35/100

Rating :   35/100                                                                     101 Min        15

Adding somewhat to the title I feel compelled to usher this to its fiery doom after it champions one of the most vile central characters I’ve ever seen onscreen. The film is the third feature from director John Wells, after ‘The Company Men’ (10) and ‘August: Osage County‘, and stars Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones, a chef of almost mythic abilities who is returning to London after having previously abused every drug and woman going and burnt as many bridges as he could in the process. Only thing is, he’s still a massive twat, as we see when something doesn’t go his way at work and he goes apeshit at all the people he’d just brown-nosed to get to work for him, including physically grabbing and shoving poor Sienna Miller, who plays equally gifted sous-chef Helene. During the entire scene Cooper successfully portrays an intimidating psychopathic bully but you can see what looks like pain in his eyes at one point, as if he’s on the verge of tears at having to play out the particularly nasty scene.

Jones tells his cohorts you have to be arrogant to be in his kitchen, and the whole film has that vibe of defending arrogance and trying to say that for some people it’s necessary, but it’s a massive cop-out and this is how people like Jones gain power – by preying on the weak. You have to stand up to them right from the offset and put them in their place, but even then you’re probably looking at having to do the same thing again and again and again so long as they hold to arrogance being in any way and at any time a good thing, which long term is just too exhausting to be worthwhile, and films like this encourage that completely as we see the inevitable female that he’s abusing eventually fall for him – purely as she failed to stand up to him and allowed herself to be intimidated and, literally, pushed around. If someone less scary had tried it she would never have stood for it, like everyone else in the kitchen at the time, but acquiescence becomes justified by people telling themselves ‘they can handle him’ or all manner of untruths as they go through the emotional and chemical changes that result from moments of fear turning to moments of relaxation, as the danger passes and the bully becomes friendly or even complimentary again.

In reality though, it becomes an abusive relationship with the imprint of fear and dominance ever present and in the long run nothing good ever comes from that. Jones is chasing a third Michelin star, and this is supposed to be some sort of heroic quest that is on a par with life-and-death situations, when really it’s all about his ego and nothing more as all his vices are indeed glorified and the screenplay, quite accidentally, shows us that when things go wrong he behaves like a massive coward. There are hints of redemption, and similar ones of comeuppance, but the film reeks of poor writing throughout. Terrible movie, with reasonable acting from the likes of Miller in support but one that also remarkably manages to make even the food seem distant and alien, with too many fast-cut shots that were presumably meant to mirror life in a busy kitchen but would have been better taking cues from ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey‘ (although, bizarrely, Steven Knight wrote the screenplay for both films).

Big Hero 6  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

The latest Disney animated feature film is set in the near future in the fictional San Fransokyo, an impression of what San Francisco might be like if it were in Japan (unless they have gone all ‘Watchmen’ on the story and Japan won World War II, this is not elaborated on) which has allowed the illustrators to tinker with a more Japanese style of animation for various elements in the film (alas, no easily discernible hentai on display). It’s based on the little known Marvel comic of the same name, which Disney is at liberty to adapt having bought over Marvel some years ago now and in fact there are a number of elements similar to the character of Iron Man which are a little distracting, but again they don’t have to worry about encroaching on copyright. It’s a bit of a departure for Disney in many ways as their productions are often marked by their originality, whereas here it is a fairly familiar superhero set-up, admittedly with extremely finessed graphical work.

Hiro (Ryan Potter) is a young tech aficionado whose parents passed away in a tragic accident. His brother creates a medical robot, Baymax (Scott Adsit), who becomes Hiro’s closest friend and adventuring companion when a mysterious fire not only destroys his world changing microbots he had been working on, but also sadly claims the life of his brother as well. Baymax has a bulky frame but one created largely via an inflatable exterior, thus differing from all other big-screen mechanoids, and he brings much needed light relief to the film as the duo are accidentally flung into investigating what really happened on that fateful day.

On his journey of self discovery Hiro will have to question his own feelings of rage, as well as what role other people should play in his life – the other engineers from his brother’s lab are concerned about his welfare but he initially keeps them at a distance, for example. All of these elements are resolved and delivered in a fairly two dimensional way, but there is action aplenty and it all looks and feels fresh enough to entertain even if it is going to appeal in a grander way to a younger demographic rather than adults. Maya Rudolph, Jamie Chung, Alan Tudyk and James Cromwell (as Professor Callaghan – a reference to Harry Callaghan, aka ‘Dirty’ Harry, San Francisco’s very own urban diplomacy expert) are the most recognisable names in the supporting line-up and, as you might imagine, there are Easter eggs galore to spot throughout the film.

Birdman  (2014)    90/100

Rating :   90/100                       Treasure Chest                      119 Min        15

Hot favourite to take home the Oscar for best picture and best actor this year, ‘Birdman’ tells the story of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson who is attempting to put on his first Broadway play: an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ starring, and written by, himself. There is a knowing element of self reference – Riggan is most famous for a series of big-screen hits surrounding the fictional superhero ‘Birdman’, but when he refused to do the fourth instalment his career went on the back burner and then dropped off the radar completely, we are told Birdman 3 came out in 92 which is of course when ‘Batman Returns’ was released and it is fair to say Keaton never really hit the spotlight again afterward until now, although he has had some really good supporting roles recently, in ‘RoboCop‘ and ‘Need for Speed‘ for example.

The story thus allows for a lot of commentary regarding the movie industry as a whole, blockbuster success vs real art, movie stars vs stage and ‘serious’ actors etc. and both particular to the performing arts and also transcending them is the central concept of the need to feel valued, and what damage a fruitless search for validation can do as well as the precipitous dangers of ego. It’s directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (‘Biutiful’ 10, ‘Babel’ 06, ’21 Grams’ 03, ‘Amores Perros’ 2000) and what makes the film primarily stand out is his decision to film the vast majority of the movie in what is displayed as one continuous take – all bookended by a sort of prologue and epilogue, with the take itself interjected by two time-lapses and one fade to and from white (with the occasional bit of digital manipulation to merge locations and so on).

It’s not the first time this has been attempted in a feature film – Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ (48) is the most famous example, and the scene with Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in ‘Hunger’ (08) also springs to mind, but there Hitchcock was hindered by technology: using actual film limited the length of his takes, in the digital era a film in one shot is entirely possible. You do think to yourself ‘well, so what?’ after all, stage performers do continuous takes sometimes twice a day every day for months. As if sensing the obvious attack on his otherwise superlative work, Iñárritu flits continuously and seamlessly between backstage, outdoor and rooftop scenes and those taking place onstage in front of a live audience, beginning with the previews and then the opening night performance. Together with the logistics of filming the thing it is all very impressive – in fact the camera operators in particular deserve a lot of credit. There’s a knowing nod to another classic of cinema as well – ‘The Passenger‘ (as if to lovingly stamp his knowledge of film into the work), where at the end the camera famously travels from an interior shot seemingly straight through a barred window to the outside. To film it a rig was built so that the bars slid apart as the camera moved forwards, and here after one of the time-lapses the camera similarly passes with ease through a barred window – at first I thought perhaps that it was just a zoom and a change, or that there are no bars and it’s simply digital, but I think maybe you can actually hear the sliding of metal if you listen carefully …

On first viewing it was all a little distracting (I had no idea long takes were involved), rather like watching a friend perform you are slightly nervous for everyone and it is relentless, leaving The Red Dragon with a question as to, despite its technical wizardry and craftsmanship, does it really work as a piece of entertainment? On second viewing though, it was a lot easier to relax and appreciate what is on display, and it is pretty marvellous – but it wouldn’t mean half as much without a tremendous and almost faultless central performance from Keaton, whose perhaps biggest achievement is that he always seems utterly in control of what’s he’s doing, despite the onerous weight placed on his shoulders. We watch Riggan run through the gamut of human emotion as he contends with the stress of the venture, the egos of his troupe, his own feelings of low self worth, the distance he’s created between him and his family, and the constant pecking of his alter ego ‘Birdman’ who has been chipping away dangerously at his psyche for decades and whom we see depicted onscreen as well, sometimes literally hovering over his shoulder.

It’s not completely perfect, there are some hiccups like when Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough move in for a lesbian kiss (the lead up to this is probably the weakest part of the film) and where there had been silence, drumbeats kick in – but too early, all but ruining the palpable tension the moment had created, and whilst there appear to be some fluffed lines there equally seems to be great improvisation – in particular from Riseborough who is about to walk in front of the audience when one of the stage hands gets in the way, and she immediately turns back to Keaton to deliver a line instead of just freezing awkwardly, before heading back to the stage. Also in support are Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone (as Riggan’s daughter), Lindsay Duncan, Amy Ryan and Ed Norton, who is nothing short of brilliant and who may or may not be sporting a real boner at one point (he is pretending to have sex with Naomi Watts and, well, he’s going to get one anyway so, as his character concludes, he might as well use it).

The ending is left open to interpretation and initially it did jar a little. In fact, since I really enjoyed everything else this is what prompted me to watch it again and my own personal take is that the central ‘one shot’ epsiode of the film is all real, but both the very beginning and end segments aren’t, they have more to do with a little playfullness on Iñárritu’s part, but also the dreams and desires of Riggan. For me it works well that way at any rate.

I can’t really see anything beating this for best film, actor and director – especially as it’s about the industry and is in itself redemptive, acknowledging its worth, and especially Keaton’s, gives all performers hope, validity and reassurance whether they are currently successful or not. Indeed, I think the best way to approach any artistic or creative endeavour is to simply put yourself into the work, and by that very process you become the thing – if you have sung onstage or recorded music then you are a singer, if you have acted on screen or stage then you are an actor, volume and monetary or critical success aren’t really relevant in terms of validation, if you beat yourself up chasing the latter then what’s the point in doing it in the first place? Enjoy the art of creating, and if fortune smiles your way so much the better, but the pride in actually doing something and having the balls to do it should always be placed paramount above all else. If you love film and/or have spent any time around the vibrant internal organs of a theatre, then you will love Birdman.

Big Eyes  (2014)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

Tim Burton proves once again that he is much, much better at directing more serious story and character focused dramas than he is at helming off-the-wall slices of his own rather repetitive imagination. This is probably his best film since ‘Big Fish’ (03) and it tells the true to life story of the Keanes, the husband and wife soon to become household names in 1950’s America as the ‘Big Eyes’ paintings take the art world by storm. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz play the central couple and they are both a delight to watch here – in fact Adams has just netted herself a well deserved Golden Globe for her performance although an Oscar nomination was conspicuous by its absence, which she can feel legitimately miffed at.

Burton is himself a long time collector and admirer of the artwork, which no doubt goes some way to account for his dedication to the project and should hopefully ensure a largely truthful retelling of the tale, which explores what a marriage as a united entity can mean within a cultural background where the man was very much king of his castle, alongside Mrs Keane’s growing sense of self confidence and a determination to not be ruled by that same social convention and as such the story can easily be cited as anecdotal of feminist struggles and successes of the era. With a light and airy feel, it’s dramatically both fascinating and unfolds slowly but is never disappointing – bar moments where Burton simply can’t help regressing into his penchant for overindulgence, such as when Danny Elfman’s score pounds heavily to tell us this character IS NOW GOING TO ACT IN A VILLAINOUS MANNER and comedy elements in the final furlong are somewhat overplayed. Suitably haunting songs from Lana Del Rey (see below) that were written for the movie and play on multiple occasions throughout round off a very polished and, in terms of popular culture and art history, enlightening biography.

Bogowie  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     120 Min        15

Polish language film documenting the work of maverick surgeon Zbigniew Religa, as he attempts to lead the way in helping pioneer heart transplant surgery from within the confines of his desperately hard fought for clinic in Zabrze in early 1980’s Poland. There is a distinct Frankensteinian air to the core of the debate as to concerns over the morality of the surgery that the bulk of the medical profession raise (as well as in the very notable portrayal of Religa himself by Tomasz Kot) as we see the man bombarded with accusations of egotism and we witness the increasing toll that stepping into the dark against the odds takes on him.

To an extent, the film unfortunately gives credence to these accusations – we are never given the appropriate information to see how the story fits into a wider global or medical context. Almost nothing is said of the work going on elsewhere, and yet any audience has a reasonable chance of knowing the first successful human heart transplant was carried out by doctor Christiaan Barnard in South Africa in 1967 – as we see Religa struggling for success we are thereby unsure if the rest of the world has hit a roadblock, if the first success was short lived/a one off, and if this is then one man determinedly setting out to advance medical science and save lives, or if he is motivated by ego and there is a wealth of other research from elsewhere that he is ignoring. At one point he comes in and announces a solution to a part of the problem they have been experiencing – and yet it appears to have simply come out of thin air one day, inviting more questions than it answers.

Similarly, we do see some graphic images of surgery (which some viewers may find difficult), but we are never really given much in the way of scientific information about the medicine of transplants specifically nor generally, which is disappointing and denies us historical context from a medical progress point of view. Indeed, what transpires is a fairly traditional ‘hero’ film that is interesting and well acted, but is so linear that it feels almost attached to an artificial pump of its own, with the same music continually droning in trying to force the tension as our hero struggles on with nary a moment of sunshine in sight, leading us to potentially doubt the authenticity of all but the most well documented of events.

More flair was definitely needed, and although it makes sense to show that Religa wishes to remain detached from his patients, for the audience adding more emotional connection may have been a better idea as we know next to nothing about the people that are wheeled through the doors of his clinic, their lives very much in his hands. Similarly, showing most of the characters smoking fits the time period, but there was no need to take it to the ridiculous degree that it does – miring the entire movie in a nasty cliche that the industry has moved on from, as we see the main character smoke in virtually every single scene he is in, and if he isn’t smoking he’s drinking. Even if that is historically accurate (and since he was a heart surgeon, one can be forgiven for considering it a little dubious) on film it’s overkill and symptomatic of a movie trying to create a certain style that we’ve seen many times before, rather than a story that feels more real and balanced.

Still, this is a very reasonable film, it’s just a shame that the filmmakers didn’t dare to be more original and take more chances with it, or put more humanity in there to make it feel more authentic. The ending is also delivered with an anticlimactic abruptness that highlights what could have been, as we walk away reasonably sure that we’ve learned about someone of importance, we’re just not entirely sure to what degree. Interestingly, the ending also pointedly omits the fact that Religa, who sadly passed away in 2009, went on to become a very prominent figure in Polish politics, even campaigning for president before eventually giving his backing to Donald Tusk (Prime Minister of Poland from 07- Sep14, and due to become President of the European Council in exactly one month’s time) and instead becoming the minister for health – his successor, Ewa Kopacz, herself a doctor too, is currently the reigning Polish Prime Minister.

Before I Go to Sleep  (2014)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                       92 Min        15

This is the second feature film directed by Rowan Joffé, son of legendary director Roland Joffé (‘The Killing Fields’ 84, ‘The Mission’ 86), after his 2011 adaptation of ‘Brighton Rock’ and once again he has returned to the realm of literary fiction for inspiration, ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ being S. J. Watson’s 2011 debut novel of the same name, written in his spare time whilst working as an audiologist for the NHS. The story centers on Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman), who suffered serious head trauma many years ago and has since been left with the living nightmare of anterograde amnesia, which means her mind can’t record new memories and the events of any given day are effectively wiped whilst she sleeps, very much the opposite of the more traditionally portrayed retrograde amnesia that erases all memories recorded before trauma. She lives with her husband Ben (Colin Firth – whom Kidman requested to work with again after a successful collaboration on ‘The Railway Man‘) and we enter the story as a mysterious new man, Dr Nash (Mark Strong), who claims to be trying to help her, requests that she keep a video diary that she can watch and add to each day, only she should keep this secret from Ben …

It’s a mystery thriller that leads us to question what the circumstances surrounding the primer for her illness could have been (no one around her seems to know), and it’s well acted by the experienced cast, but it is immediately limited by the lack of depth for the setup and somewhat by the lack of experience of the director, who never really manages to create any sense of real tension or excitement. It’s an interesting concept but one also a little forced, and there are only so many different permutations to consider. Managing nonetheless to at least tread water throughout, there must surely be more to the novel than has been transferred to the big screen here as the book became an international bestseller and you would never guess it from this adaptation. We are also treated to a candid view of Kidman’s derrière in the opening scene as she looks at the bathroom wall covered with pictures of her life put up as memory aids, and one can’t help but wonder why this particular angle was selected, or indeed why it was necessary to have her naked at all – it kind of feels like a desperate lack of anything original to grasp the audience with, and the film never quite escapes from a continued similar sense of weak structural integrity.

Begin Again  (2013)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                        Treasure Chest                    104 Min        15

Keira Knightley’s latest sees her as a young singer/songwriter, Gretta, somewhat awash in New York City after a break up with her long time boyfriend, played by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who has just been singed to a prestigious record label and whom she herself helped launch into stardom by writing many of his songs. Enter down on his luck record producer Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo, who is at the bottom of a particularly destructive curve after the break up of his marriage and the parallel nosedive of his career, when he hears Gretta play one of her songs and something in it stirs up long forgotten hope within him. This is where the film opens, as we watch Gretta reluctantly being pulled onto the stage during an open mike night to perform, and as anyone who has ever played or sang in front of people for the very first time will know – you feel like a TOTAL KNOB, and Keira plays out the scene with the perfect mixture of nerves, anxiety and the frustration of being put on the spot.

It is her actually singing throughout the film, with a combination of live and dubbed recordings (she has sung on film before in ‘The Edge of Love’ (08), and was due to play Eliza Doolittle in a modern version of ‘My Fair Lady’ before the project fizzled out), which was a tremendously brave decision and although her voice is soft and tinged with uncertainty, The Red Dragon LOVES IT – it is affectionately sweet, and it also fits her character perfectly, as we learn Gretta simply writes and sings for her own pleasure and has no real interest in putting her work on the likes of Facebook and so on for commercial purposes, preferring to simply entertain her cat with it instead.

Herein lies a central aspect of the film, and one which I really love – the idea of taking music away from the stranglehold of large record companies and back into the hands of the musicians themselves. It’s revealed that the standard rate of return for an artist is about ten percent with their label taking the rest, and a comparison is made with the publishing industry where authors get about the same. This always seemed outrageous to me – in reality I’d be surprised if it weren’t below ten percent, and it’s great that the internet and technology in general have started to dismantle this monopoly. Keira herself is uniquely placed within this scenario as she’s married to the Klaxons’ keyboardist and co-vocalist James Righton.

Gretta and Dan decide to record their own album (the latter having effectively been kicked out of his own company) using creative guile and various locations around the city as backdrops, which is a great idea, and on the way they rediscover how to enjoy themselves and what music means to them, minus the pretension that can sometimes accompany films about the industry. The acting is universally great, including from supporting players Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green, Mos Def and the aforementioned Levine. I actually appreciated this more the second time around (I admit it, I’ve seen it three times now – each time it feels like a different movie somehow), and it managed to not only convince me to dust down my guitar (it was practically white) and finally put some playlists into the ‘Song‘ section, but also consider sorting out the large digital blob which is my music collection.

Written and directed by John Carney, the creative talent behind the indie favourite ‘Once’ (06), this is an uplifting film in which it looks like the actors had as much fun as the characters themselves, further advancing Keira’s penchant for choosing varied and interesting roles, in this case one that absolutely made The Red Dragon fall in love with her just a little bit more …

(for the film’s official website click here, and you can also currently download Keira’s version of ‘Lost Stars’ for free from Amazon)

 Begin Again 2