Kingsman

This is part action film, part spoof, part unknown – in short, a strange cocktail of a film that veers from the sublime to the ridiculous too often. It’s great entertainment in that the time sure flies past fast, but it’s neither smooth nor sophisticated, and jars somewhat.

Plot: there;s a super secret spy body of gentlemen. One of them is killed mid mission, giving his life to save that of his fellow operatives. Fast forward 18 years and his son, who has gone somewhat off the rails, is offered a chance to join the gentlemen. At the same time as he is undergoing the rigorous selection process, a super villain is progressing his plan for world dominance.

So, think Bond mixed with a bit of Our Man Flint, Austin Powers, and Mission Impossible. Be warned: the violence – and there is a lot of it – goes from gruesome and nasty to Tom & Jerry style. It is not a quiet film; rather it’s a bawling, screaming cannonball. Quite an irony given the gentlemanly theme.

There are some good moments, and the actors – Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson, especially – do a credible job of suspending disbelief among viewers. But, overall this was more disappointing because of the lack of a firm directorial hand that was needed to keep the film on one track, and stop it trying to be all things to all men. All gentlemen, that is.

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Fury

fury

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

This is a film about a USA Sherman tank crew in Germany in April, 1945. Led by Sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), they fight, fight, and fight again. Mostly the enemy, but sometimes among themselves, especially with the addition of a rookie soldier, ex typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) to replace a fatal casualty. The crew is rounded out with Boyd Swan (Shia Lebeouf), Trini Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady Travis (John Bernthal).

The action scenes are well done in the main, though the concluding scene is frankly utter nonsense, and any historian watching it will be shaking his head. For example, there’s not a single USA artillery unit in action for the whole film. Considering how well stocked that army was with artillery support, that is stretching disbelief too far. (I am sure it was important for some artistic reason. But it’s daft.)

The performances from the crew are tight, believable, and often intense, but never over the top. The cinematography is good, though the abundant supply of tracer ammunition lighting up the combat scenes is a little off putting. Only a little. It doesn’t make it too much like Star Wars!

There are some flourishes that jar, such as the opening scene of the German officer on the white horse, and the later appearance of a(nother?) white horse. The love interest is unnecessary and a strange mix of saccharin and vinegar. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say, there are several war crimes committed by the USA forces in the film. We do also see some German atrocities, but the free wheeling dispensing of death by Wardaddy especially may jar. That’s not necessarily historically lacking, but the film’s treatment of these episodes seemed lackluster and offhand. Maybe that was the point.

If nothing else, the film is an excellent reminder of the bloody bill of war, and the dreadful sacrifice paid by the young. History is, indeed, violent.

Well worth seeing.

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The Imitation Game

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The Imitation Game is a film based – loosely – on the life of Alan Turing, the British mathematician (and eccentric character) who was central to the British WW2r effort to break the German Enigma code. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing – with a wonderful acting performance, backed up by the impressive Keira Knightley, and others. For example, I thought Charles Dance was perfect in the role as the establishment officer, and Mark Strong is equally good as the MI6 man. Roy Kinnear – so much like his dad – is good, though his role is a bit clunky. I suspect the editing there was less than the best it could have been.

The story is interesting – but hopelessly inaccurate, so do not take it as history, please – and there were very few dull moments. However, some of the cinematography is poor by modern standards. For example, the blitz scenes showing daylight damage are so obviously fake – the background shakes! – that I wonder why they bothered.

Overall, well worth seeing, provided you see it as entertainment.

Incidentally, apparently the film screenplay is by Graham Moore and based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.  The book gets rave reviews and seems to be genuine history and biography.

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Lucy

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Lucy is an ordinary (albeit beautiful) girl, asked by her boyfriend of one week to deliver a briefcase. That straightforward task propels her into a nightmare encounter with a drug lord who recruits her as a drug mule. From there on, the film goes off in an unexpected direction as the crime caper becomes a science fiction tale.

The central idea and message is simple enough, though I found parts of how the film portrayed this as daft. (I’ll leave the details to avoid spoiling the plot, but you can get the gist from the film’s poster.) However, Scarlett Johansson is terrific in the lead role, and almost makes you ignore the silly bits. Morgan Freeman adds gravitas where it is needed, Amr Waked is perfect as the police detective caught in the fallout, while Min-sik Choi is a wonderful crime lord.

In short, fine acting performances and a decent idea, combine well. Some of the cinematography – such as the flashbacks – was excellent, but the fight scenes did not have the same quality; they were missing something.

The ending, and the film’s message, are a good way to send you away in a thoughtful mode. It’s decent entertainment with a bit added on. Not bad at all, and definitely worth seeing.

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Israeli Cinema Favorites

Here’s a link to the Jerusalem Post‘s top ten films that played in Israel in 2014. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of local films on the list. The rest are of a type much lauded by typical cinema snobs, but unseen by many – including me. The composition of the list means I won’t be looking to the Post for any film recommendations. But tastes vary, so maybe these are more to your taste. And the composition also suggests the editors should have done a better job of presenting and describing the list as the non-Hollywood list, which is what it surely is.

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The 10 best films of 2014

You can see the BBC’s list here.

I’ve seen only three of them (Whiplash, A Most Wanted Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy), with one more (Birdman) that I want to go and see when it is released here. The other six do not interest me.

How about you?

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Interstellar

interstellar

This is one of the highest rated films on IMDB. Despite that, for some it may be enough to know that when we came out of the cinema after watching Interstellar, Susan said: “That’s one of the worst films I have ever seen.

If you are still reading, here are my thoughts. There may be some plot spoilers in what follows.

The earth is slowly dying, with a blight gradually destroying the planet’s crops. Farms are becoming dust bowls.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) becomes part of earth’s last hope: a mission to find a habitable planet to become the new home of humanity. But having left his family behind, Cooper’s promise to return may be one he cannot keep.

The film depends on a number of super science props. For example, there’s no earth like planet within reach of earth. But a wormhole appears – essentially a time and space bridge – that opens up the path to several possible destinations. As a viewer, you either go with the flow or start to lose interest.

At this point, both of us were still interested enough. However, the climax of the film depends on an even more fantastic super science plot device that broke our suspension of disbelief. It’s daft. It’s preposterous. It did not work for us.

So, for Susan, this killed the whole film. For me, it hung like a dark cloud over a summer picnic. For me, parts of the film were very good indeed. McConaughey’s performance is wholly credible and engrossing. If you take the science stuff out of the plot, there is an interesting story and also there are some challenging moral issues. The cinematography is often stunning. The special effects are seamless and look realistic.The sound track was very different and truly helped maintain the, er, atmosphere.

There are several standout scenes. For example, the encounter on the water planet is almost a self contained thriller episode. The death scene with the lead NASA scientist is short but sharp and effective. The (surprise) appearance of Matt Damon as Dr Mann and his interaction with the team are a welcome twist to the story. Incidentally, according to IMDB:

Actor Matt Damon was not included in the promotion for the film. His name was not mentioned and he did not attend any of the premieres. In fact, his role was kept secret until the release of the film.

There are several apparent plot holes. Some of these may have arisen because the science was not so readily understood or obvious. Some of these may have arisen because I wasn’t paying close attention – this may explain the repeated viewing some fans of the film have undertaken. Some are more material than others. The sheer number troubled me when I thought about them later. Maybe you are supposed to ignore them?

At least one plot hole – or challenge – is part and parcel of one central motif in the film: the library in the Cooper household, where Cooper’s daughter (Murph) sleeps. Strange things happen there, like books and stuff mysteriously falling unaided from the shelves. In the early part of the film, this is referred to as Murph’s ghost. The various happenings in the library return as part of the film’s key concluding events. Some of it is clever, but to my mind most of it suffers from the fact that the super science prop doesn’t work for me. I don’t know if this is because my brain is too small to understand it, or it’s not well explained, or something else. And plotwise, as mentioned, there are still some holes.

While I wasn’t left with such a negative view of the film as Susan, I certainly struggle to understand the ridiculously high rating it got. I could see the ambition and understand the buzz the film could generate. But it was not consistent enough. There were many great bits of the film, but the negative aspects make for too many peas under the mattress.

This is a big screen adventure. Parts of it will die on the small screen. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Overall, it’s a flawed film, but it is worthy of your time. Besides, maybe you will get more out of the fifth dimension than Susan or I did.

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Footnote: I mentioned plot holes. IMDB has a terrific fan post which does a decent job of trying to answer ten of them. (There may be more!) The post doesn’t change my view of the film, but it did enhance my understanding of some aspects. Give it a read.

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Nightcrawler

nightcrawler
At its heart, Nightcrawler is a satirical and cynical look at TV news in America, specifically Los Angeles.

The story is, on the surface, routine: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a self-help junkie who can regurgitate the wisdom of others, but has little of his own. He steals – sometimes with violence – but craves his version of a straight life with a job and an eventual journey up the ladder of success.

This strange individual chances upon a freelance camera crew at the scene of an accident. He sees an opportunity, and armed with a crappy video, a police scanner, and patience, sets off on his new career. After a lucky break he gets a piece of video that he sells to a local TV station. He is now on the right path.

He recruits an assistant (Riz Ahmed) whom he torments with his self help dialogue and abusive management technique, not to say the threat of violence.

And he forms a working relationship with Nina (Rene Russo) at one local TV station that he leverages into something different.

We see Bloom push the borders further and further. He rearranges an accident scene to get better footage. He ducks into a crime scene to get more bloody footage. He fights off the competition. And then his crowning achievement when he arrives at the site of a home invasion before the police – and even before the invaders have finished. Once again, Bloom leverages the footage and the situation in a way the audience can only squirm at as the consequences inevitably turn bloody.

It’s a long film without any dull moments. I was engrossed. Gyllenhaal’s performance is focused, manic, and thoroughly convincing. Rene Russo’s support role is well done. Some of the encounters between those two are brilliantly scripted. There is plenty of sharp and judgmental material delivered in an understated way. I was also impressed that the writer didn’t insult his audience with gratuitous sex scenes. Part of the attraction of the movie is that we know some of what is going on behind the scenes, but we are not certain, and we are never simply told. Riz Ahmed fills his position with a measured dose of naivety, vulnerability and slow burning resentment.

The cinematography was excellent, and Los Angeles formed a perfect backdrop to this almost gladiatorial contest for bloody pictures and success in the ratings war.

Thoughtful, intelligent, entertaining. Great cinema.

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Whiplash

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Whiplash is a movie about music, ambition, dedication, persistence, and power. The central story is that of a would be drummer at a top musical school, egged on by a dangerously manipulative teacher, who will go well beyond the normal boundaries of encouragement to get the best out of his students.

Miles Teller plays the part of the drummer Andrew and is perfect. He’s a real drummer, which is a big advantage. But do not let that detract from his actual acting performance. He can play the drums, but he can also act.

Jonathan Kimble Simmons is the abusive teacher (and conductor and band leader) called Fletcher and his performance is equally good. It’s a great role, and he delivers it with gusto. I expect he really enjoyed the part, and that comes across in his very natural poise and presence through a variety of key scenes.

Beyond that, there is a plot that has a bit of padding and couple of well done nasty twists, and the music.

First, the plot. There’s a bit of padding with some love interest between Andrew and a young girl, and there’s also Andrew’s family situation featuring a single parent father.

Oh, the music. The focus here is on jazz music. I don’t like jazz music. There were times when I could have done with less of the music, but I expect my opinion to be a minority one. Further, it may be taken as greater praise that I liked the film despite the music!

Go see it. It’s a smart film with a bit more depth than the ‘boy out to make his way in the world’ story might sound like. And if you like jazz, you would be mad to miss it.

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Food Porn

The film is The Hundred-Foot Journey. In a wave of political violence in India, the Kadam family are among those who lose out, badly. Their restaurant is burned down and the mother killed. They flee. They are given political asylum in the UK and set about starting again in London. Living in the Heathrow flight path and the British weather are probably just two of many reasons the patriarch of the family decides they should go to mainland Europe. Where exactly is left open.

Somewhere in France, near the village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, the brakes on their ancient vehicle stop working. and after a near miss on the road, they get help in a garage and hospitality from one of the locals – Marguerite. She is a sous-chef in Madame Mallory’s acclaimed haute cuisine establishment.

In the village is a run down, abandoned, former restaurant. The patriarch sees this as a sign. The family are going to stay and open a new family restaurant there.

It is across the street – a hundred feet away – from Madame Mallory’s place.

Cue competitive culinary action, and love interest and conflict. The rivalry is serious, and soon gets out of control.

Helen Mirren plays the part of Madame Mallory. She does not have a good French accent, but once you get over that it is another truly professional performance. The patriarch is played by Om Puri and he is certainly not outshone by Mirren’s star. The other two main actors – Manish Dayal (as the chef who has the magic ingredient to make it to the top of the profession) and Charlotte Le Bon (as Marguerite) – deliver good, solid performances.

It’s a nice film – not a great film – which sometimes comes dangerously close to being overly sugary and sentimental. And while the moments of real world violence and chaos probably help to rescue it, the food porn means you may forget the ‘happy ever after’ style of the story. Indeed, the food and the cooking thereof ranks as another star performer. There are the market scenes, the kitchen scenes, the restaurant scenes, the cafe scenes, the woodland scenes, the cookery book scenes, and so on and so on. There’s buying, preparation, cooking, presenting, serving, tasting, and scoring of food. There are the ever present Indian spices that you can almost smell across the screen. It all looks amazing. (I should confess I prefer the Indian food on offer.) I was hungry afterwards.

The plot is instantly forgettable. The cinematography is fine, apart from the main overhead setting showing the two restaurants, across the road from one another. The backdrop stinks of artificial effects and makes it look almost as if this is a huge stage play. OK, a slight exaggeration. But it does stand out as a really crappy piece of filming.

This is a film that is worth watching – once – but do not make a special journey to the cinema for it. If there’s nothing else on, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, wait for it to appear on your TV screen.

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