Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Country: USA

Runtime: 95 mins

Cast: Joaquín Phoenix (Prof. Abe Lucas), Emma Stone (Jill Pollard), Parker Posey (Rita Richards), Jamie Blackley (Roy)

In a directorial career as long as Woody Allen’s it is inevitable that there will be a few misfires between the hits. After the well-deserved success of 2013’s Blue Jasmine, I’m afraid Irrational Man is a bit of a dud. Joaquín Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a star philosophy professor who finds that his lingering depression disappears the moment that he decides to murder a corrupt judge for no other reason than that it will make the world a better place.

Lucas’s turn around happens when he realises that he is being held back by his endless philosophising. Action is what matters, and action is only possible if you embrace your intuitions. Later, when his student lover Jill figures out that Lucas murdered the judge, he insists that he did what he believed to be right. There  are echoes here, perhaps, of certain politicians’ justifications for authorising military action against Iraq. Does Allen intend a coded message for us?

Phoenix himself is fully believable as the anguished academic and receives solid support from Emma Stone and Parker Posey as his love interests. However, the film is too much of a one-tone piece, for which the blame must fall upon Allen’s screenplay. It lacks any real tension and drama. Neither Abe Lucas or Jill Pollard are particularly likeable or sympathetic characters, which makes it hard to care too much whether or not Lucas will get away with his crime. This is a shame as the film’s basic idea holds quite a lot of promise, but it feels like an idea that was never fully developed, and so ultimately Irrational Man just doesn’t deliver.

Rating: 3/5

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Director: Alan Rickman

Writers: Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman

Country: UK

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Kate Winslet (Sabine De Barra), Stanley Tucci (Philippe, Duc D’Orleans), Jennifer Ehle (Madame De Montespan), Alan Rickman (King Louise XIV), Helen McCrory (Madame De Notre), Matthias Schoenaerts (André Le Notre )

A stylish but undemanding period romance

Let me say right away that I think I may have enjoyed this period drama rather more than it deserved to be liked. Directed by Alan Rickman, A Little Chaos has some genuinely good qualities. The sets and costumes are lavish, the cinematography is beautiful, and there is some top class acting. Notably, Kate Winslet is in her element playing a woman striving for independence in a man’s world, smart but not overconfident.

As Sabine De Barra, a landscape gardener, she secures a position – in the face of male competition – to lead the construction of the grand gardens at the Palace of Versailles. The man who appoints her is André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), the head gardener to King Louis XIV. At Sabine’s first interview, however, André is not impressed by the lack of order in her designs, telling her: “In my world anarchy is by royal command and even chaos must adhere to budget”. However, upon reconsideration he decides that she can provide the kind of original eye that the gardens need.

His decision marks him out as a man of sensitivity and, unsurprisingly, an attraction develops between him and Sabine. But in time-honoured fashion there are barriers to any romance. She is widowed and with a secret that is hinted at by the visions she has of a young girl dressed in white; he is in a loveless marriage to a woman who thinks nothing of paying men for sex but who will not tolerate him forming outside attachments. Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory) also has the ear of the Queen, so is able to exert control over her husband.

Sitting above all the courtly intrigue is the King himself, adroitly played by Alan Rickman who alternates between being fearsomely imperious and quirkily amusing. Will Sabine’s idiosyncratic vision meet his exacting requirements? And in the face of adversity will the gardens even be completed on time?

The film’s central weakness is its essentially Mills and Boon-ish plot, coupled with a certain lack of pacing. It’s pretty undemanding stuff, but may well find an audience for those who enjoy a straightforward old-fashioned romantic tale.

Rating: 6/10.

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Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Country: UK

Runtime: 104 mins

Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia), Chiara d’Anna (Evelyn), Fatma Mohamed (The Carpenter), Eugenia Caruso (Dr Fraxini), Monica Swinn (Lorna), Eszter Tompa (Dr Viridana), Kata Bartsch (Dr Lurida), Zita Kraszkó (Dr Schuller)

This pastiche of seventies soft-core movies has a serious theme at its heart

Aware that The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of a S&M lesbian relationship, the biggest surprise for me was just how funny this picture is, sometimes in a laugh-inwardly kind of way but also with quite a few laugh-out-louds (at least that was the case with the audience I sat among). There is little, if anything, by way of titillation, and in fact no nudity, so anyone expecting this is likely to be disappointed. Paving the way for the subsequent deadpan humour, the visuals accompanying the opening credits are pastiches of soft-core seventies movies, involving a series of fuzzy freeze-frames as a woman cycles through the countryside. The credits themselves include one for the provision of perfumes as well as a “human toilet consultant”.

The story begins with a primly-dressed young woman, Evelyn, arriving at a rather grand country house, where the imperious unsmiling Cynthia orders her to perform various cleaning duties around the house. The tone of command hints that this isn’t a straightforward employer-employee relationship, as does the instruction to Evelyn to hand-wash Cynthia’s panties. The suggestiveness is ramped up a bit more when Evelyn is ordered to provide a foot massage. However, when Cynthia discovers that Evelyn has failed to complete one of her duties properly the younger woman is marched towards the bathroom for punishment. The door closes behind them and the camera remains outside focused on the frosted glass, as we hear the unambiguous sound of Cynthia urinating into Evelyn’s mouth.

However, this sub-dom relationship is not quite what it seems. The apparently dominant Cynthia is actually following a script that has been written by Evelyn, a script that they seem to repeat most days. Evelyn is thrilled to have found someone who is happy to fulfil her particular desires and eager to find new ways to be dominated (such as being locked in a trunk overnight). For Cynthia, though, the older of the two women, the game is starting to get a little stale. She complains that she needs an instruction manual to get into the clothes that Evelyn buys her and rebels by dressing in baggy pyjamas. And she is less than impressed by Evelyn’s obsessive wish to carry on their sub-dom games even when she has ricked her back.

Here lies the more serious heart of the film. Director Peter Strickland poses the question of how two people can continue to fulfil each other as a relationship matures. This clearly applies to any relationship, whether gay or straight, and regardless of whether the sex is kinky or vanilla.

There are no men in The Duke of Burgundy. The title itself refers to a species of butterfly, an insect whose shape has an obvious sexual connotation. Cynthia herself is a lepidopterist and, with Evelyn, attends talks about butterflies at a scientific institution. For no obvious reason, apart from continuing the soft-core pastiche, all the speakers and audience members are women. One senior member, Dr Fraxini, gives every impression that she too might well enjoy lesbian S&M. She always stands at the side of the stage, dressed in tight-fitting clothes and tall black leather boots, her dark eyes staring down at the women. At one point she crops up as a figure of jealousy in an argument between Cynthia and Evelyn, after the former reveals that Evelyn has been seen cleaning Dr Fraxini’s boots.

As the story moves into more serious territory there is a rather dark and gothic sequence, recalling Strickland’s previous film, the giallo-inspired Berberian Sound Studio. But as the final credits roll, Strickland’s humour is once again evident as the names of various butterfly species scroll before our eyes.

The performances of the two lead actors cannot be praised enough. Sidse Babett Knudsen (familiar to many viewers as the Prime Minister in the Danish TV series Borgen) and Chiara d’Anna (who featured in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio) play it straight – so to speak – all the way through, which makes the absurdity of their games all the funnier. But they also convey a real depth of emotion. There is no doubt about the love the characters feel for each other, which imbues the conflict in their relationship with a real sadness.

Rating: 4/5

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Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins.

Cast: Miles Teller (Andrew Neiman), J.K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher), Paul Reiser (Jim), Melissa Benoist (Nicole), Austin Stowell (Ryan Cooper).

Blood, sweat and tears in the struggle to be great

Whiplash is a terrific psychological drama about the tense professional relationship between two men. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young drummer enroled at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where he catches the attention of jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew wants to become one of the greats whereas Fletcher is driving his players to become great. But the pressure that Fletcher applies to his musicians goes beyond merely having high expectations and tips over into outright bullying. However, his contention is that the only musicians who truly become great are those who care enough to transcend anything that life can throw at them. Fletcher continually plays mind games with his musicians. No sooner does Andrew get elevated to the role of core drummer in Fletcher’s jazz orchestra than it is cruelly snatched away again.

We also see various other musicians being subjected to degrading treatment for failing to meet Fletcher’s impossible-to-meet expectations, but it is always clear that Andrew has the greatest drive to fight for a place in Fletcher’s band and to achieve greatness. However, Andrew’s own determination leads to a disaster that threatens both his career and Fletcher’s.

It is hard to think of another film that has given such a visceral depiction of a musician’s striving to be the best there is. This is literally a struggle involving blood, sweat and tears. Miles Teller is splendid as Andrew, but the greatest plaudits must go to J.K. Simmons for his terrifying portrayal of Fletcher (he has been nominated for an Oscar, but quite why he falls into the “Supporting Actor” category I don’t know).

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman

Country: USA

Runtime: 129 mins

Cast: Steve Carell (John du Pont), Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), Mark Ruffalo (David Schultz), Sienna Miller (Nancy Schultz), Vanessa Redgrave (Jean du Pont).

Steve Carell is a revelation in this magnetic real-life tale of tragedy

Full of dark foreboding right from the start, Foxcatcher is definitely not one of this year’s feel-good movies. This is a story of loneliness and family tensions, and shows that for some people no amount of wealth can bring happiness. In the opening scene we see Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), giving a lacklustre talk to a hall full of puzzled schoolchildren about what it took him to become the 1984 Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling. Afterwards, he collects his cheque from the school administrator, who mistakes him for his brother Dave (also a gold medallist, and who had originally been booked to talk).

This moment is indicative of the relationship between the two brothers. We learn that Mark was raised by his older brother after their parents separated, and that Mark relies on the tactical advice of Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in order to succeed in wresting. Whereas Dave is cheerful, gregarious, and has a wife and family, Mark lives alone, is quiet, serious, and less articulate. Mark is approached by John du Pont, heir to America’s wealthiest family, to join his Foxcatcher wrestling team. He does so, but when brother Dave is also approached he declines to answer the call because he doesn’t want to uproot his family.

Subsequently, du Pont takes on a fatherly role towards Mark, deliberately playing on his insecurity that his success is owed to Dave. But underneath all his talk of leadership, du Pont is also insecure, the product of a troubled background. He only had one friend as a child, who – it turns out – was paid to be his friend. He hates horseriding, the favoured sport of his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) who still lives on the estate and manages a large stable. In turn, she regards wrestling as a ‘low’ sport and looks upon her son’s involvement with disdain. Although she only makes a couple of brief appearances in the film, it is strongly hinted that the difficult mother-son relationship underpins John’s increasingly erractic behaviour, leading ultimately to tragedy. Jean would appear to be the ‘foxcatcher’ of the title, a reference to her involvement in hunting with hounds.

After some early success, everything starts to go south for Mark. Du Pont introduces him to cocaine with predictably disastrous results and Dave is offered a sufficiently large sum of money to induce him to join the Foxcatcher team. The already unsettled team dynamics worsen further following the death of Jean.

Steve Carell, best known for his comedy roles (The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Office), is a revelation as John du Pont. From the outset he appears only partly connected to reality, with a way of speaking that is strangely distant and affectless. One of the oddest moments occurs early on, when du Pont turns up at Mark’s house late at night to talk about bird-watching, a topic on which du Pont has written books. He tells Mark: “You can learn a lot from birds. I’m an ornithologist. I’m also a patriot”. The flunkies around du Pont are mostly unfriendly and uncommunicative, presumably not wanting to openly comment on their boss’s oddness but yet happy to collect their handsome salaries. Dave rightly asks just why this wealthy man would be interested in creating a wrestling team.  The answer would appear to be that he hopes to receive the recognition from his country that has been denied him by his own mother.

Foxcatcher moves along at a fairly stately pace, building an atmosphere of strangeness and slowly revealing the complicated relationships of the key characters. For those more used to a punchier kind of pacing in films, Foxcatcher might seem a little slow, but I found it utterly magnetic albeit gloomy. As well as Carell’s outstanding performance, Channing Tatum also turns in an impressive performance as Mark Schultz.

Rating: 5/5

Kajaki: Directed by Paul Katis; Written by Tom Williams; Country – UK; Runtime – 108 mins.

Cast: Mark Stanley (‘Tug’ Hartley), Malachi Kirby (Snoop), David Elliiot (Mark Wright), Paul Luebke (Jay Davis), Ali Cook (‘Spud’ McMellon), Bryan Parry (Jonesy), Grant Kilburn (Alex Craig), Andy Gibbins (Smudge), Scott Kyle (Stu Pearson), Jon-Paul Bell (Luke Mauro), Benjamin O’Mahony (Stu Hale), Connor Mills (voice), John Doughty (Dave Prosser), Liam Ainsworth (Ken Barlow), Robert Mitchell (Faz).

American Sniper: Directed by Clint Eastwood; Screenplay by Jason Hall, from the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice; Country – USA; Runtime – 132 mins.

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Cole Konis (young Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Max Charles (Colton Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston), Sam Jaeger (Captain Martens), Jake McDorman (Biggles), Cory Hardrict (‘D’ / Dandridge).

*** SPOILER ALERT: Each film reviewed here is based on real events, and these are described in my review. ***

War – what is it good for?

British armed forces have been engaged in continuous conflict somewhere on the planet for the past hundred years, and for several decades after World War Two war movies were a regular part of the film industry’s output. Even in the late seventies and early eighties good business was being done by films like The Eagle Has Landed, The Wild Geese, and The Dogs of War. However, ever since the televised images from the Falklands War brought the shocking reality of conflict to a new generation it seems as though British film-makers have lost their enthusiasm for war films. There are of course some exceptions, such as Regeneration (1997) and Enigma (2001), the former set in Word War One and the latter concerned with a mystery among Bletchley Park’s codebreakers in WW2. However, it is hard to think of any British movies that deal with our more recent conflicts. Perhaps film-makers have been cowed by the intense controversy that surrounded the TV Falklands drama Tumbledown (1988). Even representations of earlier conflicts can arouse establishment ire if they are felt to question the authorised version of history, as with The Monocled Mutineer (1986).

By contrast, Hollywood has produced several films that are based upon recent conflicts. The best-known of these are Three Kings (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008), The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) – based on the book by British writer-journalist Jon Ronson, Jarhead (2005), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). However, it may be that 2014 represents a turning point in the decline of the British war film. We have had another Bletchley Park drama, The Imitation Game, the thrilling adventure film ’71 set in “the troubles” of Northern Ireland, and – most significantly – Kajaki, a true story concerning the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“3 Para”), during their 2006 deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The film itself is an exercise in realism, focusing on three themes: the bravery of the men in extreme circumstances, their earthy humour (Kajaki is frequently very funny) and the terrible injuries – shown in graphic detail – caused by landmines. The opening scenes are largely concerned with boredom. 3 Para have the task of guarding the Kajaki dam, and do this from their position on top of a nearby hill. In the heat of the Afghan sun all they do is watch. And watch. And when not assigned to the task of watching they read messages from home, talk, joke, drink tea, and exercise.

But these are one of the army’s elite units and the men long to fight. When a small group of Taliban (referred to throughout as “Terry”) are spotted setting up an illegal roadblock down below, a small group is assembled to go and tackle them. However, this is an unauthorised mission: the men are told they need to obtain permission from a senior officer, but never do. Presumably they regard a tiny group of Taliban as no match for their elite skills. But as they reach the bottom of a hillside path disaster strikes. One of the group steps on a mine and is severely injured. From hereon in things go from bad to worse. The men are trapped in a Soviet-era minefield that was not marked on their map. In the attempts to rescue the injured and escape, yet more soldiers are hurt. Communications equipment does not work properly and it is only when a couple of Americans arrive that there is reliable radio. When the RAF are contacted they don’t send a helicopter with a winch, as requested, but instead send a Chinook that tries to land and whose downdraft is so strong that it explodes another mine.

But remarkably, as the situation deteriorates the men continue to joke, even those who are hurt. By contrast, the quips of the fictional James Bond seem quite restrained. At one point, ‘Tug’ Hartley tries to work his way through the minefield towards an injured comrade by tossing his backpack ahead of him and then leaping on top of it. As he does this one of the lads calls from the sidelines “That’s how he mounts his missus!”

The film is a fine tribute to the bravery of these men of 3 Para, and brilliantly conveys the tight-knit bond that spurred them on through this most terrible of situations. Kajaki does not make any overt political statements about the Afghan conflict, but the fact that it was a Soviet minefield that did for 3 Para can’t help but serve as a reminder that Afghanistan has long been known as “the graveyard of empires”.

It should be said that Kajaki will be particularly tough viewing for the squeamish, and the special effects and makeup teams are surely deserving of an award for the realistic depiction of physical wounds.  In this viewer’s opinion, Kajaki stands among the best British war films to have been made, which is all the more extraordinary when you realise that it was put together through crowdfunding. The Ministry of Defence, however, withdrew their support for Kajaki during filming, perhaps because of some of the rather unflattering depictions of British military operations.

RATING: 5/5

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a different kettle of fish altogether. It tells the story of Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land), Chris Kyle, based upon his own memoir. Kyle served as a sniper during several deployments in the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and claims to have been the most lethal sniper in US Navy history. With an excellent performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle, Eastwood depicts this big patriotic Texan as a man driven to save good people from evil. As a child he is told by his father that there are three types of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves want to devour the sheep, who are too weak to fight back. Sheepdogs fight to protect the sheep. Kyle senior tells his boy that he expects him to be a sheepdog.

However, at age 30 Chris Kyle appears to be pissing his life away as a womanizing wannabe cowboy. When a girlfriend dumps him with a few harsh truths in the process, he starts to reevaluate his life. Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center Kyle sees the opportunity to become the kind of man his father wanted him to be. He joins the Navy and becomes a sniper with the SEALS. When America leads the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Kyle is sent to Fallujah. Working as a rooftop sniper, he is utterly driven. His kill rate is so high that he becomes known as “the legend”, although he finds the label hard to live with. Whilst home on leave, he takes his new wife, Taya, for a checkup at the hospital. The nurse there quickly spots that this is a man who is bottling emotions up inside. She takes a blood pressure reading from Chris, which turns out to be abnormally high. On each home visit Taya struggles to communicate with Chris, who seems to be lost inside his own thoughts and becomes twitchy around ordinary everyday events. When he eventually quits the service he ends up seeing a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital, and with his assistance (although the details are skated over) manages to re-establish his relationship with Taya.

It is possible that hawkish Americans will view American Sniper as a patriotic tale of a soldier who did a great job, at personal cost, in a just war. However, I don’t think that is the real story we are being presented with. This is not the Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry movies, but the more considered and questioning Eastwood of Unforgiven. Chris Kyle is essentially presented to us as a metaphor for America itself. In his attempt to be the saviour of good people, Kyle represents the America that sees itself as the world’s policeman. But whilst serving in Iraq Kyle makes promises to local people that he is unable to keep, again like America towards Iraq in general. He tells a frightened Iraqi that he will be able to protect him and his family if he provides important information. Subsequently, the man’s son is tortured in front of him and then the man himself is shot. Those responsible announce to the neighbourhood that this is what happens to people who talk to the Americans.

When one of Kyle’s close comrades is killed by an Iraqi sniper he becomes driven by revenge. During a mission he disobeys an order to “stand down” and kills the sniper from a distance of over a mile. However, in doing so he gives their own position away and his unit find themselves embroiled in a firefight with overwhelming enemy numbers. As the SEALs eventually manage to escape they are literally enveloped in a “desert storm” (the name given to the first invasion of Iraq in January 1991), symbolically representing their inability to impose order on the country. It is after this event, in which Kyle is injured, that he decides to leave the service.

Kyle devotes himself to helping other veterans, whether they are physically disabled or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It is in his attempt to assist a soldier with PTSD that the final – metaphorical – irony lies. Whilst on deployment Kyle had stated that one of the reasons for fighting was to prevent terrorism back home. Yet Chris Kyle is shot dead, not by a terrorist, but by a disturbed veteran that he is trying to assist. The message seems to be that America, in trying to police the world, not only deviates from the path of justice to one of revenge, but also ends up damaging herself in the process.

RATING: 4/5

CORRECTIONS: My original review accidentally referred to Clint Eastwood’s earlier film as ‘Forgiven’, when it should of course be ‘Unforgiven’. Also, Chris Kyle joined the Navy after seeing the 1993  bombing of the World Trade Center on television, not the 9/11 attacks (though those are shown too, after which Kyle is sent to Iraq with the SEALs).

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Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian

Country: UK / USA / Spain

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramses), John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Viceroy Hegep), Maria Valverde (Zipparah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun).

Not so much an epic, as an epic failure

If 2014 is anything to go by, filmmakers just can’t do historical epics like they used to. William Wyler (Ben Hur) and Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) would appear to have nothing to worry about in the competition stakes. I thought Noah was pretty bad (reviewed here on 5th April), but in retrospect it did at least have a fairly bonkers quality that made it watchable. Ray Winstone fighting Russell Crowe, together with those living stone creatures, had some entertainment value. By contrast, the deadly earnestness of Exodus: Gods and Kings, together with the lack of any dramatic tension, makes for an excruciatingly dull 150 minutes.

The story begins in Egypt, 1300 BCE, where a bunch of white guys have somehow bucked the regional tendency towards dark skin and rule the roost, keeping a large number of Hebrews as slaves. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) are brothers, though Ramses appears to have senior military ranking despite having less understanding of military tactics. On a trip into town Moses is appalled at the terrible way the Hebrew population are treated, but then it turns out that he himself is actually a Hebrew and not Ramses’ brother at all, a fact that is revealed by a local elder called Nun (Ben Kingsley).

When Ramses discovers the truth he banishes Moses to the wilderness. Sunburnt and thirsty, Moses finds water and rest at a tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere. At the watering hole some local blokes are trying to muscle in before a group of thirsty girls, but Moses flashes his imperial sword (not a euphemism) and the men back off. One of these girls has maintained a good moisturising regime and has brightened herself up with some eyeliner and lipstick; guess which girl Moses falls in love with? So Moses marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who bears him a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson).

When Gershom is nine, he tells Moses that climbing the nearby mountain is forbidden by God, because mum says so. So of course Moses tries to climb it. In the Old Testament such disobedience would normally be punished with a little mild genocide, but on this occasion Moses only suffers a falling rock to the head and thereafter receives visitations from God in the form of a young boy, Malak (Isaac Andrews). Malak tells Moses that he should journey back to Egypt to witness how bad the social conditions have become. Zipporah isn’t too keen on Moses disappearing on this quest, thinking – not unreasonably – that the whole visitation from God thing was just a delusion brought on by the blow to Moses’s noggin.

But back in Egypt, Moses discovers that Malak was right. The Hebrew slaves are suffering badly. Moses gets a group of followers together and trains them up as a fighting force. However, they can’t take on the army directly because they are so badly outnumbered. Therefore, Moses’ plan is to destroy provisions that are en route for the civilian population, thereby making them angry at the rulers and so fomenting instability. This is basically terrorism, of course, but maybe that’s OK when God’s on your side (because, obviously, God takes sides). As it happens, God (Malak) turns up and tells Moses that his methods will take far too long. “Watch this”, says God, “I’ll show you what real terrorism looks like”, and launches a series of attacks on the civilian population, not to mention the local animals. First of all, he wipes out all the fish in the sea. This is followed by plagues of frogs, lice, and flies. Moses visits Ramses and tells him that worse is to come unless he relents and frees the slaves. Ramses says that this is not economically viable, so then God starts to wipe out the livestock and visits plagues of boils and locusts upon the people, as well as hail, thunder, and darkness.

Even Moses starts to think that God is going a bit far when he reveals his plan to kill all newborn children, but God tells him that no punishment is harsh enough for those who have enslaved his chosen people for over 400 years. Nonetheless, Moses is able to mitigate the effects of the almighty’s genocidal rampage by advising the local Hebrews to smear lambs’ blood over their front doors as a protective agent. But God’s war crime works: when Ramses discovers that his young child is dead, he relents in the face of Biblical firepower and frees the slaves. Moses then entreats the Hebrews to follow him to the promised land and so they head off into the wilderness with him. By now, Ramses has got his act together again and sets off with his army in pursuit of Moses.

Moses gets a bit lost in the mountains and calls upon God for assistance. But guess what? Despite all the help that Moses gave God, God’s nowhere to be seen when Moses needs a bit of help with the old map-reading business. Maybe God tired himself out with all that genocide stuff and was having a rest. Still, somehow Moses gets his people to the Red Sea which – as we all know – conveniently parts in order that they can cross to the Holy land. Moses is reunited with his son and his wife who, when he rocks up at their home, is still wearing full make-up. No sooner has Moses returned when God gets him busy chiselling the ten commandments into lumps of stone. “I quite like that you don’t always agree with me” God tells Moses, thus revealing a bit of a soft spot that the Old Testament God doesn’t normally extend to dissenters.

And that’s about it story-wise. I’m not qualified to say how closely Exodus follows the Old Testament story of Moses. However, the tale presented here is seriously lacking in dramatic tension. Moreover, I found it difficult to care about Moses and his battle with Ramses. Christian Bale does a perfectly fine job as Moses, though the story doesn’t really allow him to shine. In fact, all of the actors are somewhat overwhelmed by the combination of CGI and 3D (perhaps the 2D version works better). It is as if Ridley Scott was so concerned about conveying visual epic-ness that the basics of storytelling got left behind. In some films 3D works really well. Gravity is probably the best example. But in Exodus the screen just seems too busy, which is a distraction.

Rating: 3/10

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Director: James Marsh

Screenplay: Anthony McCarten

Country: USA/UK/Japan

Runtime: 123 mins

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Alice Orr-Ewing (Diana King)

Tears and laughter abound in this tale of romance, religion, and theoretical physics

It is a splendid coincidence that 2014 has seen two major movies about great British scientists, first Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and now Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. When, as a young doctoral student, Stephen Hawking was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease he was given two years to live. Now aged 72, he continues to work on the very thing that he himself has cheated: time. The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir of Hawking’s first wife, Jane, titled “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking”. It tells the intertwined stories of Stephen’s intellectual indomitability in the face of a debilitating, incurable illness, and his life with Jane until their eventual separation in the mid-90s.

Despite the reputation of Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time” as a book that many have bought but fewer read, The Theory of Everything doesn’t burden the audience with scientific detail. In fact, I envisage that from this point on physics teachers across the land will use a potato and a pea to explain the tension between gravitational forces and quantum forces. It is Stephen and Jane’s romance that is to the fore through much of the film. With his large glasses permanently perched halfway down his nose and hair swept across his eyes, the young Stephen appears superficially to be the epitome of the nerdy scientist. Yet his personality is a curious mix of bashfulness and confidence, laced with humour. He and Jane, who studies medieval Iberian poetry, are clearly attracted upon first meeting, despite their first conversation revealing that he is an atheist and she a Christian.

At the Cambridge May Ball, when asked about the poetry of the 1920s Jane teases Stephen with Yeats’s lines: “Seek then / No learning / from Starry Men / Who follow with Optic Glass / The Whirling Ways of Stars that Pass”. “Ouch!” says Stephen. He in turn, asked about the science of the 1920s, talks romantically about space and time in relationship terms: “People always thought they were too dissimilar, couldn’t possibly work out. But then along comes Einstein, the ultimate matchmaker, and decided that space and time not only had a future, but had been married all along”. Standing beneath a starry sky, Jane quotes the bible (“In the beginning was the heaven and the earth…”), which leads Stephen to take her hand and ask her to dance, a significant moment because he earlier said that he never dances.

Stephen’s illness manifests itself even before he has been awarded his PhD, but despite the prognosis of imminent death he continues to work. Jane determines that they must fight the disease, even though she has been warned that the only outcome can be defeat. She and Stephen get married, have children, and she does all she can to support Stephen. Over the years, however, the strain begins to tell. At Stephen’s suggestion Jane joins a local choir, only to find herself attracted to the widowed choirmaster. Later, Stephen finds himself attracted to Elaine, a nurse who has been brought in to assist with his caring. Following the publication of “A Brief History of Time” Stephen tells Jane that Elaine will be accompanying him to a meeting in America, at which point it becomes clear that their marriage is at an end.

Anthony McCarten’s sparkling script is full of wit, which adds depth and variety to a tale that might otherwise have been a standard one about triumph over adversity. Those of us who have recently seen the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot fail to have been thrilled and amused by the first words that Stephen speaks with the aid of his voice synthesiser: “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do…”. Although there is not a natural dramatic end point for the story, McCarten contrives a device to wrap things up that is moving and satisfying.

Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkable performance as Stephen Hawking, whose increasingly severe symptoms are displayed, with attendant frustration, in accurate detail and without exaggeration. Nonetheless, even when Stephen has become entirely immobile Redmayne is able to convey his mischievous wit with just a look. Surely Redmayne will be shortlisted for the upcoming Oscars. Alongside Redmayne, plaudits are also due to Felicity Jones for her portrayal of Jane, who is absolutely convincing as the woman whose love and devotion eventually gives way to exhaustion and resentment, but ultimately mutual acceptance.

Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography must also be mentioned. Almost every scene, both interior and exterior is bathed in glowing – often golden – light. Cambridge has surely never appeared so beautiful. This lighting not only suits the theme of romance, but also serves as a reminder of Jane’s religious belief and Stephen’s interest in the stars.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderful film that will have audiences laughing even as they choke back the tears.

Rating: 10/10

The Theory of Everything was previewed at the British Film Institute on 8th December 2014.

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Director: Edmund Goulding

Writer: Jules Furthman

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith

One of the darkest of all film noirs

Nightmare Alley was the second film made by Tyrone Power, one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, following his return from wartime service in the Pacific theatre. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it was a film that Power fought to make in the face of opposition from studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who feared that the dark role of the protagonist might damage Power’s image. Although that didn’t happen, the film was not a success at the box office. Power was praised by critics for his performance, however, and Nightmare Alley has subsequently come to be regarded as a film noir classic.

Power plays Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a relatively junior carnival barker who is still learning the trade. Stan is an assistant for Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), the carney’s fortune teller who is trying to keep her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith), on the straight and narrow. Eager to make the big time, Stan begins to see dollar signs when he learns that Zeena and Pete once had their own highly successful psychic act outside the carney, in which Pete used a linguistic code to communicate the punters’ secrets to Zeena. Stan also learns a valuable lesson when Pete fools him with a psychic reading, in which Pete apparently sees Stan as a boy running through fields with his pet dog. Pete breaks the news that this was a stock reading: “Fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog!” Learning from this, Stan finds he is able to exercise the gift of the gab to the extent that he can prevent a hostile policeman from closing down the carnival.

Following Pete’s death Zeena teaches Stan the code. She is helped in this task by Molly (Coleen Gray), the strongman’s girlfriend. But Stan has been dallying with both women and finds himself forced into a shotgun marriage with Molly. Seeing this as a golden opportunity, they set up a highly successful act in the big city. But events take a darker turn after Stan links up with a corrupt psychoanalyst (Helen Walker), using her client information to trick wealthy society folk out of their money.

Unlike many of the most famous film noirs, such as The Maltese Falcon, there is no humour in Nightmare Alley’s characters. It is surely one of the darkest film noirs ever made, a rise-and-fall story that presents us with a kaleidoscope of human desperation, degradation, duplicity, gullibility, and alcoholism. Many of the scenes take place in darkness, but with the characters’ faces brightly lit, exposing – by turn – their hope and hopelessness. The opening scene presents us with the carney geek, the most degraded and abused figure in American carnivals, a man – typically an alcoholic or drug addict – who would bite the heads off chickens in front of a delightedly horrified audience. But everybody is looking for something, even the wealthy, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Accordingly, one of the most pitiable figures is the society man Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), whose skepticism about the “Great Stanton” crumbles when Stan, furnished with information provided by Lilith, divines that Grindle is still in love with a woman who died thirty-five years ago. He then tries to manipulate Grindle for his own gain.

Whether Stanton Carlisle is a borderline psychopath or simply the product of his own desperate background is perhaps a matter for debate. I am inclined to the latter view, as Stan appears genuinely horrified by the sight of the geek, and also seems concerned for Pete’s suffering when deprived of alcohol. Stan also displays his own gullibility at times, a trait that eventually leads to his own downfall.

Given the bleakness of its vision, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nightmare Alley was a failure at the box office. Indeed, its “scandalous” content led to a number of protests. But the story is beautifully structured and absolutely compelling. Tyrone Power is riveting to watch, but also wonderfully supported by a superb cast. Joan Blondell (another Hollywood great) excels as Zeena, displaying a mixture of strength, sadness, and vulnerability – including vulnerability to temptation. Zeena describes herself to Stan as having “a heart as big as an artichoke and a leaf for everyone”. As her alcoholic husband Pete, Ian Keith switches between uncomprehending drunkeness and a kind of sad wisdom, whilst Taylor Holmes’s performance as Ezra Grindle brilliantly demonstrates the cruelty perpetrated when the innocent are hoodwinked by the cynical.

Rating: 10/10

Nightmare Alley is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘The Studio Collection’ .