Essentially a sequel to the 1997 hit Mrs Brown, this film returns Judi Dench to play Queen Victoria in another relationship that shook up the royal household. It's such a perfect role for Dench that it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing her, and this film traces Victoria's final 15 years with plenty of lively humour and some pointed drama. The story is a bit thin, and some elements are difficult to believe, but it's thoroughly engaging.
The story opens in 1887, as Abdul (Ali Fazal) is selected to travel from India to London with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) to present Queen Victoria (Dench) with special honour. In London, Abdul and Mohammed are called "the Hindus" even though they're Muslims, and told to stay out of sight with the servants. But Abdul catches the Queen's eye, and she brings him into her household as a personal tutor in Urdu and Islam. Her staff (headed by Tim Pigott-Smith) doesn't like this at all, and conspires with both the heir to the throne (Eddie Izzard) and the prime minister (Michael Gambon) to undermine Abdul's influence. But Victoria isn't having any of it, demanding that they respect him.
This is a story that was hidden for more than a century, because after Victoria's death all references to Abdul were erased from the official history. It was only the discovery of Abdul's journals that revealed the truth, and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) has clearly taken some artistic licence as he crafted the facts into an entertaining narrative that's packed with hilarious touches. Meanwhile, Stephen Frears (The Queen) directs in jaunty Downton Abbey style, never quite taking anything seriously.
Continue reading: Victoria & Abdul Review
With a cast and crew packed with A-list talent, this film seems like it should be a first-rate thriller. But a deeply compromised screenplay lets it down badly, leaving the actors floundering as people who make little logical sense. Meanwhile, the mystery develops in directions that aren't remotely interesting, leaving the entire movie feeling flat. At least it's beautifully photographed in stunning Norwegian scenery.
It opens in Oslo, as detective Harry (Michael Fassbender) struggles both with debilitating alcoholism and trying to be a father to his teen son with ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is now married to plastic surgeon Mathias (Jonas Karlsson). When he's able to work, Harry is looking into missing women cases with his rookie partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson). And several of these disappearances seem to be connected in some way, linking back to a murder years ago in Bergen that was investigated by two local cops (Val Kilmer and Toby Jones) and was somehow connected to a leery property developer (J.K. Simmons) who is now trying to lure a winter sporting championship to Oslo.
Continue reading: The Snowman Review
Wildly energetic and so cool it hurts, this action movie has been put together in the style of a colourful movie musical, but with the songs playing in the background. Everything is choreographed to the tunes, as the cars veer across the road dodging bullets fired in sync to the rhythm. It's pure candy for the eyes and ears, impeccably staged by writer-director Edgar Wright. And we don't mind much that there's not much more to it than that.
The title refers to Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young man who doesn't talk much. Hiding behind sunglasses and earbuds, he's an expert driver raised by his deaf foster dad (C.J. Jones) after his parents died in, yes, a car crash. He's also in debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey) a criminal mastermind who orchestrates elaborate heists with a variety of low-life goons, all with Baby at the wheel. And things are looking up for Baby when he falls for diner waitress Debora (Lily James) just as he pays off his debt to Doc. But first he has to do one last job, working this time with the loved-up Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez) and the unpredictable, trigger-happy Bats (Jamie Foxx).
Scenes play to the beat of the songs on Baby's iPod, and Wright adds clever touches everywhere. Shooting in long takes with elaborately planned-out mayhem, the film ricochets from one sequence to the next, looking seriously stylish every step of the way. It quickly becomes clear that even the super-efficient Baby is soon going to be in over his head, which helps us root for him as the carnage escalates. The likeable Elgort has a lot of fun with the role, enjoying Baby's wordless swagger while including a touch of emotion here and there. No one else gets a chance to add much depth to his or her role, but at least Foxx gets to steal his scenes simply because no one has a clue what he might do next.
Continue reading: Baby Driver Review
A whooshing pace and snappy dialogue help bring this true story to life, tracing the triumphant and scandalous career of cyclist Lance Armstrong. And the energetic approach helps bring out several layers in Armstrong's perspective, exploring why a top sportsman would cheat to win. It also features a steely performance from Ben Foster that captures Armstrong's physicality and personality, but not in the usual ways.
When he was 25, Armstrong (Foster) was already a star, but his career was cut short in 1996 by advanced testicular cancer. After recovering, he retrained himself as a long-distance cyclist and launched a global cancer charity, then went on to win seven Tour de France titles. His friend, Irish journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) noticed that his improvement was too good to be true, and continually challenged him to be honest about his work with controversial doctor Michele Ferari (Guillaume Canet). Armstrong defended his name in court, but years later the truth came out that throughout his career he had been systematically cheating with banned drugs and blood-cleansing processes. The truth came out in 2010, but he didn't admit the deception until an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013.
Since this was so thoroughly reported in the media, and finely detailed in Alex Gibney's acclaimed documentary The Armstrong Lie, there aren't any surprises in this movie. And despite being based on Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins, the film takes Armstrong's perspective, trying to get under his skin to reveal his motivation. John Hodge's screenplay is insightful, building some strong dramatic suspense along the way, and the film is sharply well-directed by Stephen Frears, a filmmaker better known for softer movies (like Philomena and The Queen). But he guides Foster to a strikingly physical performance that's sweaty and aggressive, and also darkly internalised. Stand-outs in the supporting cast include Jesse Plemons as a fellow cyclist haunted by his conscience and Denis Menochet as Armstrong's team manager.
Continue reading: The Program Review
With visually stunning imagery and a solid A-list cast, this film just about transcends its oddly uninvolving story. Based on true events, the scenes are harrowing and emotive, but spreading the story among an ensemble obscured by mountaineering gear and snowstorms makes it difficult to engage with anyone. And the plot-strands that do find emotional resonance feel like they've been manipulated.
In the early 1990s, companies began selling Everest expeditions to wealthy clients, and by the spring of 1996 there were 20 teams of climbers jostling for position on the slopes of the world's highest peak. Kiwi guide Rob (Jason Clarke) opts for a cautious approach with his team, which includes impatient Texan Beck (Josh Brolin), journalist Jon (Michael Kelly) and the nervous Doug (John Hawkes), who only just failed to reach the summit on his previous attempt. Rob's base camp manager Helen (Emily Watson) keeps everything running smoothly and, since the mountain is so overcrowded, Rob coordinates the climb with a rival guide (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his team. On the day of the final ascent, the skies are clear, but delays along the way and an approaching storm threaten the climbers.
Since the is a true story, it's clear from the start that some of these people won't make it home. And Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur lays on the emotion thickly, with an overly pushy-majestic score by Dario Marianelli and several sentimental phone calls home. Rob's wife is played by Keira Knightley, and you can almost hear the ominous chord when she reveals that she's pregnant. A bit subtler is Beck's interaction with his wife, played with insinuating bitterness by the always terrific Robin Wright. Meanwhile, Clarke's sensitive leader and Brolin's bullheaded alpha male contrast nicely with Gyllenhaal's cool dude, while Sam Worthington is almost lost in the shuffle as a friend who's climbing a neighbouring peak.
Continue reading: Everest Review
Written and directed with a rakish swagger, and featuring two full-on performances from Tom Hardy, this true London gangster drama is hugely entertaining, even if it feels undercooked. Aside from that generic title, the film basically has no plot at all, and it strips real-life people of their complexity. It's as if the filmmakers were afraid to challenge the audience in any way. But the edgy mix of comedy and violence is riveting.
The events recounted took place over about two years in the early 1960s, although the film's anecdotal structure makes it feel more like a decade. As it begins, the fearsome young Kray brothers (both played by Tom Hardy) are consolidating their gangland grip on East London and expanding around the city, with their next target being South London boss Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany). Reggie Kray is the tough-minded businessman, while identical twin Ronnie is a terrifying thug who happens to be openly gay at a time when being so was illegal. As they blatantly manipulate the rule of law, a Scotland Yard inspector (Christopher Ecclestone) is desperately looking for a way to take them down. Meanwhile, Reggie is romancing the 16-year-old Frances (Emily Browning), much to the annoyance of her imperious mother (Tara Fitzgerald).
The tumultuous relationship between Reggie and Frances is the only thing that adds a sense of narrative momentum to the film. Otherwise, it's a series of set-pieces that take a darkly humorous approach to family clashes and criminal violence. Writer-director Brian Helgeland infuses even the grisliest brutality with an amusing smirk, which makes the movie much more engaging than expected. And Hardy storms through the film with real charisma in both roles, as the steely, magnetic Reggie and the more unstable, fearsome Ronnie. Both performances are scene-stealing, nicely conveying how these men managed to hold the entire city in their grip, even though they were only in their early 30s at the time.
Continue reading: Legend Review
Basically the perfect summer movie, this lightweight drama has a great-looking cast and plenty of youthful energy, but not much authenticity or depth. The plot traces a young aspiring DJ trying to make his mark on the music world, and his struggle isn't exactly gruelling. But what the movie lacks in realism it makes up for in melodrama, keeping the audience involved simply because the characters are relatively enjoyable company.
Zac Efron plays Cole, a smart young guy who spends his days and nights hanging with his chucklehead pals Mason, Ollie and Squirrel (Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez and Alex Shaffer), playing music, doing drugs and tormenting the girls. But Cole has skills mixing tracks to keep a dance floor busy, and one night he's noticed by his idol James (Wes Bentley), a star DJ with a hot girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). James helps Cole discover his own distinct voice, while Cole can't help but fall for Sophie. Meanwhile, Cole and his buddies need to make some cash, so they take a job with a dodgy property developer (Jon Bernthal). But Cole is determined that this kind of work won't be his future.
Director-cowriter Max Joseph never really bothers to develop any of this properly, letting the film glide along on Cole's cool beats while indulging in arty touches like an animated drug trip. There isn't much complexity to any of the characters, but the actors add interest in the way they interact, developing camaraderie that says a lot more than their relentless macho swagger. Efron is the only actor who is allowed to offer a glimpse beneath the surface, and he navigates Cole's darker emotional moments nicely. But the script continually undermines him. For example, there are constant references to his strong moral code, and yet he seems utterly unbothered about seducing his mentor's girlfriend. Opposite him, Bentley gets to do some ace scene-stealing, but everyone else fades into the wallpaper.
Continue reading: We Are Your Friends Review
With elements of political corruption and life-threatening prejudice, this film has a rather much darker premise than the youthful Slumdog Millionaire adventure it seems to be. While much of the movie revels in teen camaraderie and finding happiness amid poverty, the plot itself is actually rather dark, intense and violent. All of this kind of muddies any message the story might be trying to carry, but it definitely holds the interest, with lively central characters and an intriguing core mystery.
It's set primarily in the Rio dump, where 14-year-old Rafael (Rickson Tevez) sifts through rubbish looking for treasures. One day he finds an ordinary wallet and splits the cash inside with his pal Gardo (Eduardo Luis). But other contents hint at something much bigger. And that's confirmed when the police swoop in demanding answers. Top detective Federico (Selton Mello) is so intent on finding the wallet that Rafael and Gardo go into hiding, teaming up outcast teen Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) to solve the mystery themselves. But the cops are too brutal to be messing with, and they're right on the boys' trail. The only adults around to help are Father Juilliard (Martin Sheen) and charity worker Olivia (Rooney Mara). And they know better than to cross the police.
Yes, this is a story set in a world of deeply corrupt cops and even more perverse politicians. In flashback, the film also traces the story of the wallet's owner Jose Angelo (Wagner Moura) and his clash with a dirty politician. Director Daldry and writer Curtis struggle to balance the crowd-pleasing aspects of the film with the seriously nasty realities of how people rampantly exploit the poor in Brazil (and everywhere, obviously). The movie wants to be a boys' adventure romp, chasing clue after clue to piece together a much bigger mystery. But the truth of corruption and prejudice is much too big for such a breezy adventure.
Continue reading: Trash Review
An unusual point of view prevents this from ever turning into the standard biopic, but it's Eddie Redmayne's staggeringly committed performance as Stephen Hawking that makes the film unmissable. Based on the book by Stephen's wife Jane Hawking, the film uses her perspective to recount the events with their relationship firmly at the centre, which adds a personal angle the audience can engage with. This diverts the attention from Hawking's scientific breakthroughs, but makes the film both energetic and emotionally riveting.
It opens in 1963 when Stephen (Redmayne) is a rising-star at Cambridge, already a genius who thinks far outside the box. But he also has a sharp sense of humour, which makes it easy to see what Jane (Felicity Jones) sees in this brainy black-hole-obsessed geek. Then just as their relationship begins to get serious, he is diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given two years to live. Instead of giving up, Jane marries him and has three kids as Stephen defies the doctor's prognosis. As his physical condition deteriorates, they get help from two people who become unexpectedly close: widowed choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox) and medical assistant Elaine (Maxine Peake). And even as their marriage comes apart under the pressure, Jane and Stephen remain deeply connected to each other.
Anthony McCarten's script cleverly lets big ideas swirl around each scene without swamping the more human story. The central factor in Stephen and Jane's interaction centres on faith: his in science, hers in God. Stephen continues to seek a theory that will scientifically explain the nature of existence, while Jane catches him out when he takes a leap of faith himself. And the film lets all of this play out through their interaction with a variety of terrific side characters, including Stephen's tutor (David Thewlis), his colleagues (Harry Lloyd and Enzo Cilenti), his father (Simon McBurney) and Jane's mother (Emily Watson). Each performance is packed with telling nuance, while Jones gives the film a textured heart and soul.
Continue reading: The Theory Of Everything Review
This sun-drenched thriller is much more than a pretty picture: it's also a slow-burning story about moral compromises that worms its way under the skin. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, there are clear parallels to The Talented Mr. Ripley as three characters circle around each other and all kinds of Hitchcockian subtext gurgles around them.
Set in 1962, the plot opens with Chester and Colette (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) on a romantic holiday in Athens, where they meet slightly too-helpful American tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac). He's already wooing one rich young tourist (Daisy Bevan) and soon locks eyes on Colette. But it's Chester he becomes entangled with, when a private eye (David Warshofsky) turns up trying to reclaim cash Chester stole from a client. So Rydal helps Chester and Colette flee to Crete and, while they wait for a plan to develop, Chester becomes convinced that Rydal and Colette are having an affair.
Writer-director Hossein Amini has already proven himself as a skilled writer of innuendo-filled dialogue (see Drive or The Wings of the Dove), and here he shows a remarkable eye for setting. It helps to have ace cinematographer Marcel Zyskind and composer Alberto Iglesias adding their considerable skills to the mix. The film looks utterly gorgeous, providing plenty of glaring sunlight and murky shadows in which Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac can bring their characters to vivid life. Every scene bursts with suggestiveness, as the inter-relationships between these three people shift unnervingly.
Continue reading: The Two Faces Of January Review
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