Posted in Film Review

One Mann’s Movies Film Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

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Quick pop quiz:  name the four actors who have played Tom Clancy’s CIA character Jack Ryan on film….?    OK – I’ll give you a clue… Chris Pine plays the latest incarnation in Kenneth Branagh’s new film:  “Jack Ryan:  Shadow Recruit”.  This is not a film that is going to challenge for the Oscars methinks, and it doesn’t have the angst or artistry of an art house movie.  But – in the same vein as last year’s ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ – it is a damn good popcorn movie.  

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Following 9/11, we see Ryan persuaded into serving his country before, via a military adventure in Afghanistan, he is recruited into an elite team of – (erm) – accountants by shadowy CIA character Thomas Harper, played by Kevin Costner.  Harper’s team is tasked with stopping the financing of terrorists from attacking US targets (apparently the rest of the world is fair game).  Suspicion falls on Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin played with menacing glee by Branagh himself.  Jack Ryan is sent to Moscow to audit him.  I’d like to pretend that that’s a euphemism for a ‘hit’, but no – he really is sent there to audit his company records.  Not sounding promising is it?  

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Ryan himself is also the subject of suspicion, but this time from his beautiful but rather clingy doctor girlfriend Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley), who is completely unaware that he works for the CIA and thinks he’s having an affair (probably with Alice Eve because she’s seen Star Trek: Into Darkness).  She is clearly cast as the damsel in distress, so you can bet your bottom ruble that she may end up in distress before the end of the film:  the plot of this film is sufficiently linear enough to not disappoint.  

Chris Pine – about as omnipresent on screens at the moment as Cumberbatch – is a ruggedly macho boy scout, at his acting best when he is out of his depth:  a scene where he is talked back into role via a mobile phone call with a monotone CIA call centre prole is particularly good.  Keira Knightley, shapely as ever, plays her American accent really well.  My wife commented that only her dental work (or lack thereof) provides the giveaway to her British origins (“saucer of milk, table 12”)! 

But it is the old boys of the film who have the most fun.  I mentioned in my review of ‘Man of Steel’ last year how good it was to see Costner back on the screen again, and here is again – this time very much in ‘Bodyguard’ mode.  Very good he is too:  steely but with a twinkle. 

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And Kenneth Branagh revels in his role as the evil Russian businessman, bent on the destruction of the US but with some of the most ineffectual security known to man.  But he does find a use for those old energy saving lightbulbs the electricity companies insist on sending you:  worth seeing the film just for that.  

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Branagh directs with good pacing and some nice ‘Bourne style’ editing, especially during an exciting car chase through the streets of Moscow.  This is how “A Good Day to Die Hard” should have been.  Patrick Doyle supplies the thumping soundtrack which supports the action well. 

The story, that seemingly pits the Russians against the Americans is – from the timeline – clearly set in the present day, but seems out of its time:  it might have worked better if the whole thing had been set Argo-style in the 70’s (but then we wouldn’t have had the internet!).  Despite the rather random reference to ‘the Chinese’ at one point, this is a bit inexplicable. But then, this is not a film to think too hard about.  The plot is enjoyably ludicrous, with so much depending on pure lack and the wild mental leaps of Ryan’s analyst (which of course are always 100% right).  Whilst the film could have been sub-titled “Adventures in Accounting” and it shouldn’t work, it really does most of the time:  perhaps the film is targeted at grey pen-pushers who really think they would drive cars like that if they didn’t also want to keep a clean licence?  (Oh! Perhaps I’m one of them!)  It is a couple of hours of fairly mindless escapism and if you don’t see it at the cinema you should watch out for it on your next Transatlantic flight.

And by the way, the answers to the pop quiz are Chris Pine in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”; Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”; Ben Affleck in “The Sum of All Fears” and Alec Baldwin in “The Hunt For Red October”.

Fad Rating:  FFFf.

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Posted in Film Review

One Mann’s Movies Film Review: 12 Years a Slave (2014)

 

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I love this time of year in the run up to the Oscars when the real power-house films come to the fore.  12 Years a Slave is a case in point:  a hard film to watch, but ultimately a must see.   

The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup living life as a gentleman in Saratoga, New York at a time when the divide between the Northern and Southern states on colour was never wider.   Tricked and kidnapped, he is cruelly stripped of his fine clothes, his dignity and his freedom and shipped south to a life of servitude at the hands of a variety of ‘owners’ , some more Christian that others.

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The film is beautifully shot (by DP of Photography Sean Bobbitt) with long lingering panoramas of bayous and vistas contrasting the beauty and quiet of the landscape with the ugliness and brutality of the plantations.  In fact, this film is bound to feature strongly in all of the technical categories at the forthcoming awards:  lighting, wardrobe, editing all magnificent.   And the special effects used in one particularly uncomfortable scene are truly impressive: sometimes you don’t need to be in a galaxy far far away to appreciate the subtle arts of a special effect.

Londoner Steve McQueen directs with true flair.  Some of the shots are long, langourous and without dialogue, letting the audience inside the head of the actor to the point where you want them to cut away because it is becoming too painful to carry on watching.  True directorial power.  He is certainly not afraid to continue to tackle controversial material head-on, given that this is his follow-on film from sex-addiction film “Shame”.  (For female fans it is worth pointing out that there is one shot in particular – in which he wears loose fitting pantaloons – where Michael Fassbender reveals – ahem – the length to which he went in that earlier film).

In the acting department – as for American Hustle – this deserves an award for the ensemble cast who work together splendidly.  The big names – Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt – all perform admirably for the limited time they are on screen.  Giamatti in particular (who impressed in his role as the driver in “Saving Mr Banks”) is particularly chilling as the inappropriately named Freeman, selling on the kidnapped slaves to new owners:  a portrait of urbane callousness.  

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But it is the sparring between London-born star Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, as the evil cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps that really make the acting sparks fly.  It would be no surprise if both actors were Oscar nominated, and indeed a surprise if they were not.  Both are outstanding.  Interestingly Ejiofor made his film breakthrough in another slavery film, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, before going onto greater things (sarcasm) in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually.   
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Also notable is Lupito N’yongo who – astonishingly – makes her acting debut in the role of Patsey, the beautiful but abused love interest of Fassbender’s Epps.  Finally, acting herself firmly into the category of “most despised female of the year so far” is Sarah Paulson as Epps wife, vindictively taking her marital ire out on Patsey.   In Django Unchained I was critical of the way in which the plantation owner’s wife Mrs Candie – who seemed to be, if not good, not fundamentally evil either – got cruelly, albeit comically, dispatched at the end of the film.  No such reservations if Django wants to pay Mistress Epps a visit!

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My one and only criticism of this amazing film is the music score.  I thought that a recurring theme sounded startlingly similar to a theme from “Inception” and I found myself thinking “whoever wrote this must be a fan of Hans Zimmer”.  Then as the credits rolled, I saw the score was written by…. Hans Zimmer.   A quick google of the two films’ titles reveals that my observation hasn’t gone unnoticed by others.   A bit of an irritating distraction for me.  

Many years ago Spielberg’s “Colour Purple” made a big impression, both with audiences and at the awards.  This wonderful albeit gruelling film deserves to do likewise.   It is a sad and astonishing fact that more than 150 years after this film was set, a minority of our ‘civilised’ society still judge a person by the colour of their skin.  As such, and in the same way as Schindler’s List was used as an educational tool, this film could and should be shown in schools as a weapon in the fight against racism.  

For the second time in a week, I will again issue the polite request “Go see it”.

Fad Rating: FFFFf.

Posted in Film Review

One Mann’s Movies Film Review: American Hustle (2014)

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As director David O Russell how to you follow the critical and financial success of Silver Linings Playbook?  The answer is with American Hustle, and boy – what a double bill that is!  

American Hustle is set in the late 70’s – big hair, loud clothes and a disco beat.   Bradley Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, a maverick FBI agent stressing-out his more mainstream boss but impressing his ambitious director with his wildly optimistic plans.  He recruits (read ‘frames’) small time con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to run an entrapment scam to catch local mayor and family man Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who has been righteously greasing a few too many wheels in his ambitious bid to re-build Atlantic City as a Vegas of the east.  A simple FBI playbook (you could even say it was silver lined?) but one that comes under ever-increasing stress due to too key factors:  firstly, DiMaso’s wild ambitions that starts to encircle not just low-level shysters but increasingly higher levels of federal and mafia targets; and secondly Rosenfeld’s unstable and unreliable wife Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence.  

Where does this film succeed?  Well, first and foremost the original screenplay by Eric Singer and David O Russell just drips quality with every line like a beef joint oozing juices.  The opening title card says “Some of this actually happened” but the truth, as much as it was true, has been skilfully extended and embellished by the writers.  This must surely be a shoe-in for a screenplay Oscar nomination, and will be in my predictions for the award.

Secondly, the performances are just top notch.  Christian Bale has never looked less like Bruce Wayne.  Piling on the pounds and having the dodgiest combover since my Dad, his opening scene is just brilliant.  Then Amy Adams (Man of Steel, Enchanted) wades in with such sass and style that you are mesmerised as you watch Adams and Bale bounce off each other.  Nowhere is the acting better than when Bale encounters the most senior mafia head:  played as a cameo (brilliantly) by someone you’d fully expect to play that role (no – not Joe Pesci).  Bale’s terror at realising the depth of water he is in is brilliantly portrayed and your mouth turns as dry as his no doubt is.

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In a supporting role, Jennifer Lawrence makes her first appearance and you think “yeah, she’ll probably get a best supporting actress Oscar nod by default” – she is ‘flavour of the year’ after all.  But that is before her performance really kicks in in the second half of the film – – and suddenly you realise you are in the midst of something really special here.  Seeing her clean her kitchen in yellow Marigolds belting out “Live and Let Die” after stitching up her cheating husband is a sight to behold.   Surely this WILL be another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, and never more deserved.

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Jeremy Renner also impresses in a more understated role, but with a never less than impressive performance at the film’s denouement.

I haven’t mentioned pretty-boy Bradley Cooper yet.  Although he has some great scenes (for instance, when cruelly mocking his morose boss during a victory celebration), overall I was never as completely convinced by his performance in the film as his in his role in Silver Linings Playbook.  Perhaps he was trying a bit too hard.

Finally the music is great:  Danny Elfman does the soundtrack, but the smash hits of the 70’s, including Elton John, Wings and the Bee Gees carry the story along with verve and vigour.   

Where does the film falter?  Well – hardly at all in my view.  Perhaps Irving and Sydney’s altruistic tendencies at the end of the film – given their sociopathic and immoral roots at the film’s start – seem a story step too far.   But overall this is a glossy and deeply involving story that is my best film so far in 2014.   I appreciate that on January 6th, that’s not saying much!   But I fear I might need to wade through a good few dark auditoria this year before I find a film that surpasses this one.  Go see it!

Fad Rating:  FFFFf.