Stardust

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Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, Stardust is a lavish fantasy of tongue in cheek humour, surprising darkness and a feeling of adventure that can’t be denied. Boasting a game cast and some dazzling scenery/visuals, it’s hard not to be swept up in this movie. 

A rural England town known as Wall is bordered by a giant wall that divides it from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. No one is supposed to go through the portal in the wall and it’s guarded by a man who refuses entry, though one man did and met a beautiful woman who he had a passionate romance with. Nine months later, his son is brought to his doorstep with no sign of the mother. The boy grows up into Tristan Thorn(Charlie Cox), a good-hearted but clumsy man who has a big crush on local beauty Victoria( Sienna Miller). The problem is his love for her is unrequited and Victoria is a selfish and vain woman who enjoys stringing others along. Tristan remains undaunted in his attempts to woo her and this is where things get interesting. In the Kingdom of Stormhold, the old King( Peter O’Toole) is dying and he hasn’t appointed a successor out of his sons. Usually, it’s the last man standing who takes the crown but the King decides to freshen things up a bit. He decrees that the first of his three remaining sons who retrieves his ruby will be crowned. The King throws it into the sky where it hits a falling star. The star is seen by Tristan and Victoria, and the capricious Victoria asks Tristan to retrieve the star to prove his devotion before a deadline. If he succeeds in retrieving the star, Victoria will accept his hand in marriage. Bowled over by her, Tristan naturally accepts the challenge. Little does Tristan realise how far reaching and eventful his quest will be. The biggest surpise is once he passes The Wall, he discovers that the star has taken the form of Yvaine( Claire Danes). She might be a radiant beauty but her personality is feisty and she immediately clashes with Tristan. Both begin to warm up to the other as forces of greed and desperation chase them. The remaining and power hungry princes Septimus( Mark Strong), Tertius( Mark Heap) and Primus( Jason Flemyng)are in hot pursuit, followed by an amusing Greek chorus of deceased siblings. Most evil and menacing of all are witch Lamia(Michelle Pfeiffer) and her siblings, who are fixated on gaining eternal youth of which the star can provide. Lamia in particular is a ruthless being of great power and cunning, who is not to be tricked with once she sets her sights on something. Tristan is thrust into a dangerous adventure to save and get back to The Wall before Victoria’s deadline. But in between dodging death and mischief, Tristan starts to see that maybe Victoria isn’t the girl for him as he develops feelings for Yvaine along the way. 

Matthew Vaughn is on hand for entertaining and dazzling direction, with oodles of style and adventure. He’s a director who knows how to keep a story spinning and very exciting, most evidenced once the breathtaking fantasy elements begin. 
The script is very successful at placing us in the fantasy adventure of the piece while retaining a certain sense of off the wall sheen. Stardust boats a sense of infectious craziness and off kilter magic that marks it out as something different in the fantasy genre. For while it’s very amusing and playfully silly, these are balanced with some rather creepy and sinister moments that are not quite what you expect but add to the overall appeal of Stardust. It is for my money, a film that will appeal across the generations of viewers that see it. With its humour, romance, darkness and thrills, it’s a true delight of a film that transports you into a zany world for two hours. Oh the humour scale, there are a lot of knowing winks to the audience and some fairly naughty jokes that grown ups watching can appreciate. The locations are breathtaking with mountains, hills and that romantic feeling of a hero’s journey on full display for the viewer. The magic is rendered with fun and panache in the effects department, ensuring a film that’s lovely to look and have a good time with. The only flaw I can find is that there is often so much going on that you can lose focus on the events happening. I mean I like when there are various parts to a story, but there are moments when Stardust overdoes it a bit. I’m grateful however that this is the only niggle I have because the rest of this fantasy make up for it. When the three stories gel, Stardust really hits great heights of intrigue and fantastical fun. The score from Ilan Eshkeri matches the heart, romance and adventure of the film and is pretty beautiful/magical in parts too. And Take That provide the irresistibly catchy “Rule the World” to Stardust, which is hard to get out of your head once your eyes have heard it.

A sensational cast is on hand and all up for a fantastic time. In the lead, Charlie Cox is ideally suited for the main hero thrust into the biggest adventure his life has experienced. Cox is fresh faced, personable and full of charm which goes a long way in playing the hero of our narrative and endearing him to us. Claire Danes has an ethereal glow that aids her in playing the personified star Yvaine, while infusing her with a temperamental personality that softens beautifully once her and Tristan get to know each other . Yvaine be the character everyone is after but she is dar from a simpering victim which is fully embodied by a radiant and bristling Danes. The pair have a very entertaining chemistry that sizzles and enthrals.
Standing out and having an obvious ball is Michelle Pfeiffer, who longtime readers know is one of my favourite actresses. She’s relishing playing the lead witch hellbent on getting her youth back and doing it in despicably, delicious fashion. Pfeiffer hits the evil and seductive notes wonderfully, while embracing an eye rolling layer of comedy. It’s a great performance from Michelle Pfeiffer who proves to be a dastardly adversary for our hero but one who’s having a full on blast and savouring this opportunity to play bad to the bone. Robert De Niro has some great comic moments as a space pirate, which finds him playing against his usual image of macho and forceful tough guy. Jason Flemyng and Mark Heap are two of the greedy brothers after the star, though it’s the reliable Mark Strong, on sneering form, who stands out the most as the ruthless brother desperate to be king. I’m not the biggest fan of Ricky Gervais but he’s passable enough as a wheeler dealer. Sienna Miller is effective in her small role as the girl who knows the power of her looks and how to use them to her advantage, which inevitable sets the story in focus. Peter O’Toole contributes an entertaining cameo as the king who sets in motion the quest everyone ends up on before he dies. And on narration duties is Ian McKellen, whose iconic and distinctive voice is richly used. 

So while it is occasionally overstuffed with too many ideas and story, Stardust remains a delightfully different fantasy film with quite a bit going for it. 

Vertical Limit

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A tense action thriller that’s not in any way groundbreaking or original, Vertical Limit gets by on immense adrenaline and a competent cast. It’s a B movie to be sure, but a very good one.

Peter(Chris O’Donnell) and Annie Garrett(Robin Tunney) are avid climbers who frequently engage in this hobby with their father. But one day while climbing Monument Valley, disaster strikes. Two falling amateur climbers cause the line holding the family to become precarious. The father instructs Peter to cut the rope to save his children, which Peter does and in turn his father falls to his death. The act saves Peter and Annie but does immense damage to their relationship. Three years later, Peter has given up climbing and turned his attentions to wildlife photography, while Annie has become a prominent celebrated climber. The two meet once more at the base of K2, which at its peak is the second largest following Everest. The relationship is still damaged between the two and though Peter wants Annie to speak to him again, she can’t bring herself too. She is there to take part in an expedition up the mountain with billionaire Elliott Vaughn(Bill Paxton). For Annie, it’s a chance to carry on her father’s love of climbing mountains, but for arrogant Vaughn, it’s all part of a publicity stunt. Joining them will be experienced climber and level headed guy Tom McLaren(Nicholas Lea), and two other climbers . The group is warned by mysterious climber and legend Montgomery Wick(Scott Glenn) that the weather isn’t forgiving and can turn in an instant, but no one pays much attention. Peter is also worried but can’t communicate with his stubborn sister. So the climb goes ahead, even though there is a chance that extreme weather could hit. Sure enough the elements are against Annie, Vaughn and Tom as Mother Nature hits with a vengeance, causing an avalanche. In the ensuing chaos following the deaths of the two others on the trip, Annie, Vaughn and Tom find themselves trapped in a crevasse that slowly seals, leaving them injured and nearly cut off from any form of rescue. Thankfully, Annie knows morse code as does Peter and manages to briefly contact each other, but it’s not as simple as just finding the place of rescue in a mountain thats unforgiving. The mountain is expansive and dangerous and the group slowly start to feel the effects of the cold and biting sting of dwindling supplies exasperated by the growing tension between the trio. Peter, despite the estrangement from his sister, plots a rescue that will be both daring and extremely harrowing if he wants to save his sister. He enlists the help of gorgeous touch cookie Monique(Izabella Scorupco)who wants a share of money for a new life being offered by the company, brothers and climbing enthusiasts Malcolm and Cyril (Ben Mendelsohn and Steve Le Marquand) and Kareem(Alexander Siddig), whose cousin was one of the ill-fated members of team that ventured up the mountain. The nomadic Wick joins them as he is an expert on the treacherous ascent, though we learn he has another agenda for going up K2. The group have canisters of nitroglycerine in their bags donated by the nearby Pakistan Army, which are incredibly dangerous but will hopefully if used correctly. The clock is on for Peter to rescue his sister and the team with not a second to lose.

Martin Campbell is no stranger to action thrillers having directed Bond flicks GoldenEye and Casino Royale. And his talents in these areas serve him well in Vertical Limit as he cranks up the action and suspense to high degrees. He isn’t going for some intellectual exercise and knows thats not what the audience is craving either. This understanding aids Vertical Limit as a film of action and spectacle for the popcorn crowd where you don’t really have to do a lot of thinking but you sure as hell enjoy it. Granted there are some quite moving moments that you might not expect in such a film, but it’s the sheer adrenaline and energy of the film as the clock ticks away that make it credible. The visuals are pretty on point; capturing the beauty and precariousness of mountains amidst the breaks from action. It’s truly a sight to behold these natural wonders that are enticing but also death-defying in the extreme. Vertical Limit may run on a bit long for my liking with two hours pushing it, but I enjoyed the vast majority of the movie. It piles on the scenes of near death and action in quick succession which actually benefits the film, even when it is fit to burst. James Newton Howard provides an action packed score, focusing mainly on strings and drums for added oomph in the perilous journey on the mountain.

Though the characters are essentially cliched and pretty overfamiliar, a credible cast fills them out nicely. Chris O’Donnell, while not being the most convincing actor there has ever been, is decent enough as the central hero of the piece. He’s passable as the rescuer with baggage and is credible in the action scenes it must be said. Robin Tunney brings out strength and vulnerability as the trapped sister; trying to make smart decisions as she succumbs to the impact of cold weather and being trapped. Tunney makes her character’s suffering and bubbling resolve feel at least genuine whenever she is on screen which goes a long way for me. Bill Paxton and Scott Glenn are however the standouts here as men with shared history and not all of it good. Paxton exudes an underhand sliminess and selfishness that makes you thoroughly despise the character and is a credit to his skill as an actor. Glenn, with a face that is bound to install fear and a little admiration, projects a gruff exterior as the mountain expert with his own personal reasons for scaling K2 and a particular axe to grind. Both actors are very good in their respective roles and I enjoyed seeing both men on either side of morality occasionally blur those lines. Nicholas Lea, taking a break from playing the underhand traitor on The X-Files, seems quite glad to be portraying someone who is actually good at heart but no pushover in the least, even when mortally injured. The beautiful Izabella Scorupco has the right blend of sex appeal and grit to make her quite memorable, while Ben Mendelsohn and Steve Le Marquand offer comic relief in between the nail biting action and terror, with both convincing as stoner brothers in need of that rush of adventure.Rounding things off is Alexander Siddig, whose quite and calming presence is a welcome respite among the chaotic happenings.

So while no Oscars or awards for genre defining content will be awarded to Vertical Limit, it’s action and suspense keep you invested and man if it isn’t a thrilling ride.

Sister, My Sister

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Inspired by the true life case of two maid sisters in 1930’s France who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter, Sister, My Sister makes for rather disturbing but intriguing viewing like a cross between a period study on class and a darkly historical crime drama. Headed by a fine quartet of performances, be prepared for both shock and horror as the story takes you to some uncomfortable places. 

It’s 1932 in Le Mans, France and Léa Papin( Jodhi May) comes from a convent to work as a maid for stern and stuffy Madame Danzard( Julie Walters) and her slovenly daughter Isabelle(Sophie Thursfield). She has gotten the job on the recommendation of her older sister Christine( Joely Richardson), who has worked in the household for a while. The sisters haven’t seen each other in years and are glad to finally be together with the estranged other. Neither group of women speaks to the other, much in the way that a bourgeoisie household works where people know their place and don’t deviate from tradition. Christine and Léa share a room upstairs and a bed, their workload is such that their main day off is a Sunday until 4 o’clock. Out of the sisters, Christine is the dominant sibling with underlying fury, while Léa is ever so eager to please and green in a lot of matters.Though the sisters are close, we see after they visit their mother that we never see, but know favours over Christine and takes a cut of their wages, that their past is very troubled. Her mother’s actions infuriate the temperamental and controlling Christine, who feels the sting of her mother’s abandonment years before to a convent and her deep devotion to her sister. Despite a jealousy towards her younger sister, the cloistered environment in their room and isolation from outside gives way to feelings of love far beyond just sisterly affection. Madame Danzard is rather oblivious to the attraction going on under her nose and is more interested with how well they are as obedient maids for her and her daughter. Her daughter Isabelle is a lady of not much in the way of prospects due to her sullen demeanour and lack of effort in appearance, though Madame insists and brow eats her over searching for a husband to secure her future. With the unhealthy attachment burgeoning between the sisters upstairs, the maid duties carried out by them begins to slip and Madame Danzard, with her beady eyes and vicious tongue, makes it known that she isn’t happy with them. Madame’s initial delight at getting two maids for nearly the price of one melts away to reveal a picky, vindictive woman who goes out of her way to humiliate her servants. Tensions start to boil over as the relationship between the sisters intensifies and Madame becomes more petty and cruel. Finally after nearly a year of suspicion and mounting tensions, everything comes to a head with a savagely, violent act that shatters the house.

Skilled director Nancy Meckler crafts a very claustrophobic and insular atmosphere of repressed emotions and a feeling on inequality amidst the four women, busting taboos too on the topic of incest between sisters. Meckler clearly knows what she is doing because she hooks you from the opening frame with the prospect of mystery, horror and drama with psychological overtones permeating the relationships explored. Sister, My Sister is in effect a chamber piece as it really only features four characters and all are female. A male photographer is heard speaking yet never seen by the audience, making us pay special attention to the ladies at the heart of this twisted yet grimly fascinating film. Screenwriter Wendy Kesselman knows the power of shared silences and how they translate into the struggle of class within the doomed house. They also highlight how not communicating due to the roles that society has doled out to these women can give rise to resentment and much misunderstanding, in this case of a deadly and vicious kind. I don’t believe the film condones the actions of the Papin sisters, rather Sister, My Sister speculates on what may have lead them to this act and does so with intrigue. A little more detail on certain points in the story might have been beneficial, but the impact of this haunting film more than makes up for quibbles. The cloistered environment transports to the viewer as the film rarely leaves the confines of Madame’s home; further sealing the sisters away from reality and letting them retreat into the taboo world of incest. The bedroom scenes between Christine and Léa are unusual and bathed in a bright, almost angelic light, suggesting that their closeness is a result of repression from being in a convent and that they have found an uncomfortably codependent relationship that goes beyond what is right and wrong. Yet they can’t quite see that and have become that isolated that they are above it, making the bright light of the scenes both ironic(given the murders they commit) and starkly noticeable in a film that’s largely quite dark in terms of visual style. Many scenes don’t have music, the main sound being either a clock ticking away or a tap dripping, allowing when music does appear to have atmospheric impact following pronounced silences and uncomfortable pauses.

What really anchors this already interesting and darkly enticing film is the quartet of lead performances. Joely Richardson dominates as the dutiful yet stifled and resentful Christine. Richardson’s faces burns with alarming and disquieting hate that at first is subtle, then blows up in powerful and shocking ways. It’s a credit to Richardson that we are enthralled by this woman who is coiled and just about to snap emotionally owing to not being able to control love, not knowing when to stop and childhood scars that haven’t gone. Jodhi May matches her as the initially timid Léa, who’ll do anything to please but is so easily lead that she can’t help but feel a bit of rebellious streak in the presence of her sister. May has this feeling of innocence to her, with her youthful face and sympathetic eyes, that could just as quickly turn to despair and dangerous once pushed. Both actresses work spectacularly together, possessing a quivering desire, unspoken bond, shared paranoia and feelings that may come spilling out in unexpected ways if they aren’t careful. Julie Walters, who for me never disappoints, shows off her versatility in convincing portraying a petty, vicious and mean-spirited lady who likes everything just so and is clearly a product of her snooty upbringing. Walters covers the part with prim manners and even a bit of humour, but she gets to the heart of this woman who believes she’s above everyone and won’t tolerate insubordination of any kind. Sophie Thursfield is given probably the most underdeveloped role, yet injects what she can into it. She’s mainly required to be the punching bag for her cruel mother but also strangely close to such a horrible woman. The relationship between Christine and Léa may be disturbing , but the one between Madame Danzard and Isabelle is just as alarming in how unhealthy the heaps of abuse Madame throws on her daughter are, who is then bemused, followed by being a figure of loyalty like a servile dog. 

A haunting movie of repression, jealousy and class struggles, Sister, My Sister will no doubt leave you reeling and disturbed by its content that is grimly rendered but very intriguing to watch. 

Murder by Death

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A hilarious spoof of the murder mystery genre that lampoons nearly every cliche there is, Murder by Death benefits from a sensational ensemble cast and a real feeling of delightful mischief shot through its veins. 

The eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain( Truman Capote) is hosting a weekend at his secluded house. Assembled are Chinese Inspector Sidney Wang( Peter Sellers) accompanied by his adopted son Willie(Richard Narita), who he always informs people is Japanese. High society detective duo and husband and wife Dick(David Niven) and Dora(Maggie Smith) Charleston are there, as is prancing Belgian detective Milo Perrier(James Coco)and his much abused chauffeur Marcel(James Cromwell). Also in attendance is hard boiled gumshoe Sam Diamond(Peter Falk) and his loyal but overlooked secretary Tess Skeffington( Eileen Brennan), followed lastly by jolly English sleuth Jessica Marbles(Elsa Lanchester)and her Nurse(Estelle Winwood), who ironically is in need of more care than her patient. After the guests have gathered and met dry-witted blind butler Bensonmum(Alec Guinness) and deaf-mute cook Yetta(Nancy Walker) , the events begin to take form. Twain believes he is the best on the subject of solving crimes and has gathered this group to pose a challenge. He informs his guests that at midnight a murder will occur. Whoever solves this crime will receive $1 million dollars, if no one does their reputations will be in tatters and Twain will have his vain satisfaction. To ensure no one leaves, Twain seals the house off  Sure enough, a murder occurs and thinks get more complex as the hours continue. A discovery that the house has revolving rooms and that the servants are far from what they seem to be adds another layer of mystery. The worried yet mightily curious group resolve to get to the bottom of this. But the case proves to be very twisty for these detectives in their search for the answer, complete with a house that is most unusual and plenty of clues hanging in the air.

Murder by Death has Robert Moore in the directors seat and his  direction is unobtrusive yet very satisfying, allowing the funny moments to really flow and be seen. Penned by the talented Neil Simon, Murder by Death hits the right spot of spoofing the mystery genre and having a ball in revelling in the many cliches that abound. The main group of characters are all fashioned after famous literary and cinematic detectives of whom humour is derived from spoofing their well known personalities. I had a ball seeing the similarities and allusions to the great detective characters of fiction infused with comedic overtones.  The film is undoubtedly silly and yet that is partly the point and Simon definitely seems to enjoy this fact, while layering on red herrings and confounding suspense as to what is transpiring and what is truly real. The dialogue comes quick and fast, like delightful bullets of energy and tongue in cheek humour in the best way that Simon can. Plus you’ll be laughing so much at the film you can overlook parts that are dated and wouldn’t be acceptable now( most prominently the use of yellow face for Mr. Wang.) There’s an argument  that the character is actually supposed to subvert the trope but it’s still problematic in my eyes and will no doubt be a bone of contention for many. Set design is in need of much praise; showing the big country house as akin to a funhouse with rooms that move on their own accord and things ready to jump out. The music score as provided by Dave Grusin has an unending sense of fun too it as if topping its musical hat in a jaunty manner that suits the film down to the ground. 

A star-studded cast is the cherry on top of an already impressive cake. It’s a thrill when an ensemble cast is used and nearly everyone is given something to do. Front and centre, and giving one heck of a performance is Peter Falk. Channeling Humphrey Bogart, Falk plays the tough-talking, rough and tumble detective who says it like it is and doesn’t give a damn what you think. The part is injected with wise-cracking humour at which Peter Falk is mightily skilled at. If you can overlook the problematic yellow face make up sported by Peter Sellers , his performance is quite good and he comes out with some comic one liners of the highest order. As aforementioned some think his portrayal is in fact lampooning the ridiculous cliched nature of the character, but its still something that is up for the viewer to decide. Truman Capote, best known for his writing, is well employed as the mastermind behind the most unusual events going on. With his slightly sneering and camp mannerisms, he is certainly memorable as the instigator of mystery. David Niven and Maggie Smith play off each other wonderfully as the high society couple with exquisite, upper crust manners and dry, cynical humour. Both professionals are a joy in this film and I very much enjoyed whenever they were on screen as they are such a hoot. Eileen Brennan, of raspy voice and good comic yet sympathetic timing, is well cast as the downtrodden, overlooked secretary who clearly has the hots for Diamond but can never seem to catch a break with him, despite her many attempts to instigate something. James Coco has a ball as the arrogant, know it all who is vain beyond belief and argumentative to the last, while Alec Guinness contributes a deep vein of droll humour as the blind butler who might be more than he seems. Nancy Walker does what she can with a small role, she definitely gets a big laugh once murder is committed. Elsa Lanchester and Estelle Winwood are an inspired and ironic duo, with the former summoning up all her gusto and the latter slowly revealing a witty side, despite everyone thinking her character is simply senile. Keep an eye out for a very young James Cromwell as the put upon chauffeur of Perrier, he really shows comedic chops in this movie. Richard Narita is sadly left to flounder with not much in the way of a part, though he manages some moments of humour. 

So if you’re in the mood for a good comedy spoof of the mystery genre, Murder by Death is a glorious and hilarious place to start because of its rapid fire wit and quality laden cast of great stars. 

Children of Men

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A bleak but hopeful film directed by maestro and having a certain prescience with the events of the world today, Children of Men is a futuristic thriller shot through with darkness and the possibility of salvation that’s powerful and thrilling movie making.

The year is 2027 and the world is in meltdown following disease, mass violence and the startling fact that it’s been 18 years since the last baby was born. The United Kingdom is now in the grips of a police state that persecutes asylum seekers by placing them in internment camps once they enter the country and the infertility has caused violent unpredictability in the people who occupy this grey, oppressive time. The world is on the brink of utter collapse as fighting, deceit and mistrust tears apart the fabric of society and rebels and government are pretty much in the same boat of not being entirely truthful or clear cut as they make out. Theo Faron(Clive Owen), a cynical, alcohol dependent bureaucrat with a bruised past, has no faith in this world since he lost his son to a flu pandemic. His only source of some happiness is good friend and ageing pot smoker Jasper(Michael Caine), whose affable natire is a source of brightness in a time of uncertainty and panic . Theo’s existence is shaken up when he’s contacted by his former love and activist Julian Taylor(Julianne Moore) for help with a mission that involves the militant group or ‘freedom fighters’ The Fishes. The two have history as it was the death of their son that tore them apart and some scars are still not able to be healed. She wants Theo to help her secure transit papers for a young refugee named Kee(Clare-Hope Ashitey). Julian offers money to Theo who reluctantly accepts this offer despite having long ago vowing never to return to any form of activism or help of another. Things become more volatile and the stakes are raised when Kee reveals that she’s heavily pregnant( the first person in 18 years to become so), which puts her in a truly precarious position. It also soon becomes clear that some of The Fishes, in particular the beguiling (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and angry, short-tempered (Charlie Hunnam) have less than altruistic motivations for taking an interest in Kee and if the government discovers the pregnancy, it could spell danger and near death. Aided by loyal former midwife Miriam(Pam Ferris), Theo and Kee escape and head towards The Human Project; a scientific group who some believe are just legendary but who may be able to help Kee and her baby, as well as possibly having the cure for infertility. It soon comes down to Theo, who genuinely begins to care for Kee and her baby , to help her carry the fate of humanity and get her to safety before anything more brutal can stand in their way.

Alfonso Cuarón is at the peak of his directing powers here, fashioning a startling thriller and drama of the last hope for humanity in a world that’s in essence dying. infuses the material with imagination and heart, while never shying away from the brutality of what happens society is in free fall. Co-scripting with other talented writers, Cuarón brings out themes redemption, faith and hope when it seems that the world has truly gone insane. And thankfully, these themes don’t fall into the overly preachy category, instead settling for genuine what if possibilities and how when there is something to live for, it can truly inspire even the most reluctant of us. Interestingly as well, the government is portrayed as corrupt but so are the alleged freedom fighters. This adds more to the danger of how skewered the world can be when there isn’t a clear cut, black and white situation at hand and once again feels rather prescient given the current world climate. Children of Men is probably most famous for its visual style and for very good reason. The long takes that Cuarón and talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use are simply exquisite in positioning us right at the centre of events, most prominently in a car scene that turns brutal and a climactic running battle that Theo and Kee find themselves in. Scenes like this and the technical wizardry and panache are why Cuarón and Lubezki make such a fantastic team; they obviously have a very fine understanding of each other’s styles and how to really craft something that looks highly innovative. I can’t wax lyrical enough about how Children of Men looks and how this plays into the overall feel of the movie which is rather prophetic of certain situations occurring right now in the world. A few parts lag but the vast overall impact of Children of Men more than makes you forget them and focus on the sheet excellence throughout . A well chosen soundtrack compliments the movie, as does pieces of heavenly voices that hint at redemption and some light in the darkness that are tempered by a certain ringing whenever something bad is about to happen.

Clive Owen takes centre stage in what is one of his best performances. He starts as a wounded man who doesn’t believe in sticking his neck out for anyone to reluctant protector regaining humanity. Owen owns the part of reluctant hero with his fair share of damage who genuinely goes through a journey in treacherous territory. Owen’s weary and cynical face speaks volumes in his silences, chipping away at a man with no hope who rediscovers his ability to fight and be someone of help when salvation seems at its lowest ebb. In short, Clive Owen is a compelling lead in both terms of action and emerging heart. Julianne Moore, in a short but excellent performance, functions as the propeller of narrative as she is the one who instigates the main undertaking. Considering she’s only on screen for a short duration, the always credible Moore brings gravitas, steel and a sense of lived invulnerability to the part in customary sublime fashion. The same can be said for Michael Caine who turns in memorable, scene stealing work as an ageing hippy who grows marijuana and provides Theo with some sort of family and love. It is Caine who provides some levity to the oppressiveness of things but also has enough subtle shading to also aid the gravity of the situation. Caine wisely underplays the part, never going over the top as a lively, funky old dude with wisdom and playing him with a careful balance of humour and seriousness. Like Moore, Caine isn’t onscreen for a long time but also like Moore, he makes his presence felt. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlie Hunnam are both very effective as respectively a ‘freedom fighter’ whose ideals are skewered beneath seeming kindness and a dreadlocked, trigger happy backup with a bad, surly attitude to most things. In the very important role of the first pregnant woman in 18 years, the young and very talented Clare-Hope Ashitey  portrays vulnerability, feistiness and attitude ensuring her character is far from a victim even though everyone is either out to kill her or use her. Pam Ferris beautifully plays the former midwife who tries to remain grounded through spiritualism and has a calming, maternal effect on the characters and the viewers. Watch out for an eye catching turn by Peter Mullan; here playing a sadistically unbalanced guard who seems to help Theo and Kee but whose unpredictable nature and habit of speaking in the third person set your nerves on a knife edge.

Powerful movie making that delivers on the thriller good as well, Children of Men is an unforgettable movie with the sensational Alfonso Cuarón at the helm and boasting credible performances, stunning cinematography and intense but human thematic value. 

The River Wild

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A well directed action thriller that isn’t breaking any original ground but at the same time isn’t trying to, The River Wild has tension, great scenery and fine acting headed by an athletic Meryl Streep.

Gail Hartman( Meryl Streep) is a history teacher for the deaf who used to be a river guide along the rivers of Idaho. She still occasionally practices something similar, albeit in Boston and with no sign of danger or adrenaline rush. Gail is married to the distant Tom(David Strathairn); a constantly busy architect who spends more time on his job than being there for his wife and kids, in particular Roarke( Joseph Mazzello). The young boy resents his father for never being around and believes that his approaching birthday will be another when his father won’t show. Gail takes Roarke to Idaho for some white water rafting, Tom surprisingly tags along but their journey down river is still awkward as Tom doesn’t know how to connect with his family. Along their journey and as Gail tries to repair her strained marriage, they come across charming Wade(Kevin Bacon) and his friend Terry(John C. Reilly) . They are having trouble navigating the river and are pretty ill prepared. Gail starts to help them, which causes them, especially in the case of Wade, to become closer to Gail and Roarke. Gail enjoys the company of someone she sees as needing help and being likeminded. Roarke finds someone to talk to in Wade, in comparison with his staid father who he doesn’t have the best of relationships with, stemming from Tom’s frequent absence and dedication to his work. Though they are friendly at first, the fact that Wade and Terry keep popping up along the river alarms Tom and later Gail, as does some questionable actions like spying on Gail and Tom when they briefly wander off and being cagey on the reasons they are on the river. A reconnecting Gail and Tom decide to ditch Wade and Terry as subtly as possible after becoming increasingly alarmed by the duo. Just as try to escape with Roarke, they are violently stopped by Wade, who begins to show his cruel and nasty colours . It transpires that the duo have robbed a large sum of money and to evade capture decided to go down the river. They really hadn’t thought their plan through very well as Wade can’t swim and they must advance further than The Gauntlet to get away. The Gauntlet is a death defying set of rapids that adventurous Gail went through in her youth, but it has since been declared too dangerous following a death to one rafter and paralysis for another. Threatening the family, Wade forces Gail to take them to The Gauntlet, despite her warnings of its impending doom and how barely anyone makes it out alive. The family is separated after a scuffle between Tom and Wade. Tom, beginning to shed his image as a boring, corporate drone goes ahead on foot through the wilderness, hoping to figure out a way to ensure the safe return of his wife and son. But just how long can Gail protect her son and herself from danger as treacherous water lies ahead? And can Tom catch them up and derail Wade’s deadly plans?

Curtis Hanson efficiently brings out the adventure, tension and drama at the heart of The River Wild with considerable skill. The story may seem familiar and some beats that you’re well aware of take place, but Hanson has you glued with his direction. He knows it’s all in the mounting of tension and then letting things take flight, complete with some surprises. The use that the family has of sign language is an inspired choice that allows them to communicate in a way unfamiliar to their kidnappers and wonderfully succeeds in being in the family back together in crisis. The first part of the film is all in the build up that effectively introduces terror through little hints that take on greater meaning once the kidnapping and forcing to help begins, the big set pieces come. And they are spectacular scenes as the beautiful yet treacherous landscape is observed( in a stunning showcase of cinematography) as a race for survival ensues. Though not every part of the story works and it can smell of contrivance, the overall content is pleasingly action packed yet has some emotion to make a difference. For a movie conveyed with action and thriller elements, The River Wild doesn’t scrimp on character development or getting us to know the central players in the story. There’s already some tension before anything truly suspenseful happens. The family unit is already falling apart and thankfully being well observed, while resisting the urge to go into full on soap opera on water territory. Jerry Goldsmith is on score duties and his skill in dripping suspense in is key to the atmosphere here; along with sneaking in some gorgeous pieces of moving symphony to compliment the lush surroundings about to be overtaken by nail biting tension.

The acting is of a high calibre it must be said. Heading things is the ever impressive Meryl Streep flexing a sense of physicality we are not used to from her while retaining a humanity that grounds things. Streep is a force of nature; glowing with a radiance and an intimidating stare, coupled with protectiveness, vigour and freedom. Simply stated, Meryl Streep is the driving force behind The River Wild with a dedicated role that shows off her dedication to her work, a great physical presence of toned arms and legs and how she can slot easily into any genre like the true professional she is. Projecting evil and oozing dangerous charm is the talented Kevin Bacon, whose boyish appearance is used to great effect in masking the true depravity and violence of his character before letting it out. Bacon just really knows how to unsettle here as he plays games with the other characters and tries to really get inside their heads. His frequent clashes with Streep are a highlight as they face off wonderfully in a thrill ride of a movie. I always enjoy seeing Kevin Bacon in a film and in The River Wild it is no exception. Also very strong here and an actor that I feel is often overlooked is David Strathairn, who is superb as the absent father forced into action. Strathairn gets the sense of a man too wrapped up in his life that he’s become desensitised to everything important to him and also credibly charts his rise to being a reliable thinker and survivor. Once Strathairn is separated from the others, his journey begins and its pretty great to see him change so realistically and excellently from a boring workaholic to quick thinking and unrelenting in his hope of saving his family. Its a classy turn from the gifted David Strathairn. John C. Reilly shades his supporting role as lackey with some nice grey areas, while Joseph Mazzello plays the plucky kid with the right amount of spirit and hear.

For my money, The River Wild is an underrated action/thriller that is spearheaded by a sensational Streep and generates some real excitement. By the numbers as sine of it is,

Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Action/ adventure was given a new lease of life in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark ; a rollicking, entertaining tribute to old adventure serials with a classic turn by Harrison Ford and all the right ingredients for an energetic blockbuster. Raiders of the Lost Ark is truly one of those iconic films that never gets boring no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Trust me, this movie is simply irresistible.

The year is 1936 and rugged Indiana Jones(Harrison Ford), often refereed to as Dr. Jones or Indy, is an archaeologist/adventurer with a dry sense of humour, skill with a whip, fear of snakes and ability to think quickly on his feet. He works as a college professor when he’s not facing immense danger around the globe. We first meet him in the jungles of South America where he procures an artefact, faces down danger and meets his slimy rival René Belloq( Paul Freeman), who always seems to be one step ahead of him. Back at the university he teaches at, his friend Marcus Brody(Denholm Elliott) a museum creator approaches Jones with two American agents. As Indy has knowledge of ancient relics and cultures the U.S government wants his help in dealing with the growing power of the Nazis. It’s come to their attention that the Nazis are fixed on discovering the burial place of The Ark of Covenant; an ancient and innumerable chest that according to the Bible held the two stone tablets bearing The Ten Commandments. Also housed in it is immeasurable power that the Nazis wish to harness to further advance their cause. Jones worked with Abner Ravenwood, his old mentor and had a relationship with his daughter Marion(Karen Allen). Travelling to Nepal, he meets the tough talking Marion once more and learns her father is dead. She is now in possession of a headpiece that when used properly shows the whereabouts of the Ark. She isn’t too pleased to see Indy as he romanced her and then disappeared, which leaves him with a hell of a punch across the face on their reconnection. The fact that Marion has the key to discovering the Ark puts her in the firing line for trouble. This in turns leads the Nazis to her door, headed by the very creepy and sadistic Gestapo agent Arnold Toht(Ronald Lacey). Escaping and discovering the Nazi’s, along with Belloq are digging in Cairo, Indiana and Marion head there intent on stopping them. With aid from loyal digger Sallah( John Rhys-Davies), it’s up to Indy and Marion to stop the Ark falling into Nazi hands and being wielded as a devastating weapon on the world. 

Steven Spielberg directs this action adventure classic with panache, wit and a rip-roaring sense of entertainment and it ranks as one of his best films. You can clearly see the love and feeling of breathless action he infused Raiders with to make it so rightfully iconic. His infectious enthusiasm to recreate 30’s adventure serials transfers to the audience who are swept along with Indiana Jones in his quest to retrieve the eponymous artefact from the clutches of evil. Raiders of the Lost Ark bristles with excitement right from the celebrated opening and continues on with breathless action that also houses great characters and many instances that have become synonymous with pop culture. You’ve got that opening with Indy retrieving a golden idol from a cave that’s laced with booby traps( including one menacing boulder), a journey into the resting place of the Ark which is littered with snakes, Indy hilariously shooting a show off swordsman in a nonchalant manner, a scintillating truck chase sequence that puts the A in action and the unveiling of the Ark itself. It’s hard to just talk about one moment but I’ll do my best. The cinematography has a warm glow of yesteryear and just adds further to this exciting and escapist adventure that never leaves you. The visual effects still hold up and make the finale a sight to behold in both wonderment and shock. And one of the finest and most fondly remembered parts of this movie has to be the score from the maestro that is John Williams. I’ve long been a fan of his work and his score here is one of the reasons why. I mean you only need to hear a few notes of the now famous theme to feel chills on your neck and know you’re listening to greatness that embodies adventure, danger and just that giddy feeling of something magic at work.

Essaying the role of Indiana Jones is the incomparable Harrison Ford. He’s got the humour down, the intrepid feeling of adventure, plus charm and smarts to burn. Ford is compelling and it’s pretty damn impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part because he makes it his own with star quality, wit and a certain level of old school, heroic cool. It’s hard not to warm to Indiana Jones with Harrison Ford in such fine form and creating one of the most recognisable heroes of the silver screen. Aiding him is the beautiful but strong presence of Karen Allen. She portrays Marion as feisty and not afraid to rough and tumble; thankfully she has more to do that just a be a love interest. Not that her chemistry with Ford isn’t impressive( it’s extremely good), but it’s great to see that she serves a purpose here and can take charge when needed. A slimy turn from Paul Freeman makes Belloq a cultured yet rotten to the core adversary for Indy, while is creepiness personified as the Nazi agent with the most unnerving demeanour. Humour and a certain lovable nature comes courtesy of John Rhys-Davies, making the most out of his supporting role as loyal friend. The refined Denholm Elliott also stands out in a small role with his well spoken air and sense of a gentleman. Watch out for a young Alfred Molina in the opening scene as a treacherous tour guide who meets a grisly end after showing his true, deceitful colours. 

With compelling action, imagination, fine acting and a masterful director at the helm, Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most rip-roaring pieces of adventure entertainment you’re likely to see and trust me, you’ll never tire of it.

8 Year Blog Anniversary

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I was just informed that today is my eighth year on my blog. I’m usually prepared for these things but have been occupied with all the upheaval in the world. I can’t believe it’s been 8 years that I’ve been on here, it’s a wonderful feeling. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank every one of you who has been there for me and supported me on this journey. I love you all.