True Story (2015)
Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is a down on his luck journalist. Having been fired for a misleading article he also becomes victim to identity fraud when alleged murderer on the run, Christian Longo (James Franco) is caught in Mexico having been using Finkel’s identity! Instead of the matter being concluded by the police, Finkel and Longo come together with the journalist finding a story as Longo heads to court facing murder charges. This reminded me of Capote where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote delved deep into writing a book about a murdered family. There are some parallels here and although this doesn’t reach the same heights as Capote in the acting stakes I still found it engrossing until the conclusion.
Natalie Portman’s was nominated for an Oscar for her depiction of First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, wife of John F. Kennedy. The film focuses on an interview Jackie takes part in and looks back on the assassination of her husband and how she tries to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Portman is convincing in the lead, portraying a woman bound by her duty as First Lady and nursing a whirlpool of emotions not only at witnessing first hand her husband’s murder but trying to reconcile her world in the months that follow.
About a Boy (2002)
Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, our story centres on Will Freeman (Hugh Grant), a bachelor who lives off the royalties of a Christmas song his father wrote years before and is immature to say the least. When Will meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), an outcast at school and supporting his fragile mother at home, the two form an unlikely bond and begin to help one another. There are no great surprises in About a Boy but it is enjoyable seeing Hugh Grant take on a different persona as someone quite unlikable at the outset though it’s hard to shake the idea of Grant being anything other than a nice guy. Hoult shows the early potential that has since seen him carve out an acting career as an adult.
My Name is Joe (1998)
This gritty drama from Ken Loach sees recovering alcoholic, Joe (Peter Mullan) start a relationship with health worker, Sarah (Louise Goodall). Joe has a troubled history with alcohol but has been sober for some time and in Sarah he sees the potential for a new and better life. The romance is often tender but Loach’s trademark is uncompromising reality and he does not shirk from that here. He depicts the harsh terrain of Glasgow’s community and the dangers that can be wrought from the abuse of alcohol, drugs and gambling.
Germany Year Zero (1948)
Roberto Rossellini’s post-war drama is set in Allied occupied Germany and centres on one family who are struggling to stay alive amidst the ruins, destitution and rationing of their defeated nation. The film focuses primarily on Edmund Kohler, a mere 12 years old, who is forced to try and make ends meet for his family with his father being ill in bed and his older brother, a former soldier, in hiding for fear of retribution from the Allies. Rossellini is uncompromising in his depiction of the poverty faced by the Germans after the fall of the Nazis and as the narrative grows ever darker the emphasis on a time of seemingly no hope becomes ever greater.
The Rules of the Game/La regle du jeu (1939)
Jean Renoir’s comedy drama combines different classes into a weekend retreat to a country estate owned by a Marquis, Robert, and his wife, Christine. The couple’s marriage is far from stable and Lisette, Christine’s maid, is her constant support. With an array of guests descending on the country house there is dining, drinking and hunting in the local woodland. Add to this some complicated love triangles with Christine having more than one admirer and Lisette enjoying the attentions of other men under her husband Schumacher’s nose, then you have a recipe for both laughter and disaster. It’s not the way I’d want to spend a weekend but it’s certainly intriguing to watch the joyous atmosphere quickly unravel and take a surprisingly dark turn.
The Collector (1965)
William Wyler’s dark thriller sees a young man, Frederick Clegg (Terence Stamp), see an upturn in his fortunes when he wins the football pools and a life-changing amount of money. Something of a loner and social outcast, Frederick kidnaps an art student, Miranda (Samantha Eggar) and keeps her imprisoned in his cellar. Frederick hopes that over time Miranda will fall in love with him but she is determined she wants to be free. Something has to give. This is one of Stamp’s earliest films and he shows his talent here as Frederick who veers between calm and polite to aggressive and sinister in the blink of an eye. Eggar is also very good as the imprisoned Miranda. I had my assumptions about how the narrative would unfold here and found myself way off the mark which is always a pleasant surprise.
Werner Herzog’s 1977 film tells the story of Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), a street performer who struggles with alcohol. At the outset Bruno is released from prison and warned to stay away from alcohol. Life in Berlin is tough so when the opportunity to move to Wisconsin in the US comes along, Bruno follows his neighbour, Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), and brings along his friend, Eva (Eva Mattes), who is a prostitute but looking for a fresh start. Three Germans adapting to a different world in the US becomes the focal point and for each individual the experience is different. At times funny and poignant, Stroszek is slow-moving, well-acted and utterly absorbing from start to finish. There are no fairy tales here, just the hardship that can come with starting afresh with nothing and the film never strays away from realism into the whimsical.
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 drama is set in 1920s Denmark and focuses on the very devout Borgen family. The family is headed by Morten whose faith remains strong despite challenges posed by his three sons. Mikkel and his wife, Inger, are expecting their third child and she had promised Morten this time she will give him a grandson. Johannes is mentally ill and wanders the home believing he is Jesus Christ. Anders is the youngest and wishes to marry a young woman named Anne who Morten disapproves of. This close knit family, bound by their faith, face numerous challenges during the film and some obstacles make them question their beliefs. The film boasts some stunning visuals with gorgeous scenery and though it begins slow, you soon find yourself immersed in the home of the Borgen family and start to empathise with many of their struggles. I was torn about the film’s conclusion but as a whole it’s an effective drama that is well-acted and is often easy on the eye.
Memories of John (2012)
In this short documentary Peter Falk and Al Ruban reminisce about the life of director/actor John Cassavetes who they both worked with during his career. At only half an hour there isn’t a huge amount of substance here but it was still interesting getting different perspectives from each of the actors into how Cassavetes worked and the impact that he had on them.
Iron Man (2008)
The first in a trilogy of films about Iron Man, not to mention appearances in Avengers and other recent Marvel adaptations. This one deals with the origins of Iron Man with heir to Stark Industries, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), finding himself in the heart of Afghanistan to secure the latest deal for the company he inherited from his father. After being captured by a terrorist group known as Ten Rings and charged with building weapons to aid their cause, Tony secretly begins work on a prototype for a new type of weapon – a mechanical suit – to aid his escape. I’d already seen Downey Jr in some of the Avengers films so knew what to expect with the rebellious but gifted Tony Stark. While there were some predictable elements in the second half of the film, this proved to be solid origins tale and it’s not difficult to see how it spawned two sequels and the numerous Marvel collaborations.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
This second outing for Iron Man picks up straight after the first film. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is globally famous as the Iron Man but the glitz and glamour of this new lifestyle can’t possibly last. Tony has the problem of the palladium core – that controls his suit and keeps him alive – slowly poisoning him. Add to that the emergence of a Russian, Anton Vanko, who is equally gifted with technology and you have the recipe for another two hours of thrills, explosions and some wisecracks from Downey Jr who is completely at ease in the role. While not as memorable as the first film, this sequel is still a decent enough outing and the addition of Don Cheadle and Scarlett Johansson the cast is a welcome boost.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Marvel movies get a tad confusing with Iron Man 3 with the story here set after the events of Avengers which I had seen prior to watching any of the Iron Man films. Confused, I was. This time Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) faces multiple struggles. His relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn’t great, there is a new terrorist threat in the form of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and an old nemesis, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is also on the scene to complicate things. Can Stark ever catch a break? This third outing, like Iron Man 2, has some welcome additions to the cast with Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall and Ben Kingsley all slotting nicely into the story. If you’ve seen a Marvel film you come to expect more of the same sort of action and special effects but this is still an enjoyable entry in the universe.
Wrong Move (1975)
Wim Wenders’ road movie follows the journey of aspiring writer, Wilhelm Meister, who leaves his mother and girlfriend behind and sets out on the road in search of inspiration and meaning. Along the way he meets a varied group of people including an old man, a beautiful actress, a mute acrobat and a poet who is also looking for inspiration. This is the second of three road movies from Wenders and followed the excellent Alice in the Cities (1974). In terms of storyline, there isn’t a great deal that happens here. It’s a ponderous film interposed with voiceover from Wilhelm whose ruminations echo throughout. I didn’t find this as accessible as Alice in the Cities but if one is willing to devote the time the film still has a lot to offer.
I Was Born, But… (1932)
Yasujiro Ozu’s 1932 silent films centres on two brothers – Keiji and Ryoichi – who have just moved to the Tokyo suburbs with their parents. The boys’ father is an office worker and they look up to him as a strict disciplinarian but their world is soon about to come unstuck. The brothers’ have to contend not only with school bullies but the reality that in the workplace their father is a far cry from the imposing figure he appears to be at home. I’m aiming to work through as many Ozu films as I can and this early effort from the Japanese maestro did not disappoint. The story is simple enough but in its second part in becomes profound and deeply moving as the relationship between father and sons teeters on the edge of oblivion.
Richard Adams followed up the success of Watership Down (1972) with this epic novel about a giant bear named Shardik. The novel focuses on a hunter named Kelderek who happens upon a wounded and weary Shardik in the forest and believes him to be Lord Shardik, a deity of ancient legend. The bear is taken to Kelderek’s people – the Ortelgans – and becomes a key symbol in their battle to restore themselves to former glories. I’ve previously read both Watership Down and The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams and loved them both. While I did enjoy Shardik I didn’t find it as accessible as Adams’ other work. While there is no denying the depth to the story, the characters just didn’t resonate with me as much save for Shardik who is brilliantly created here as a tower of strength but a tragic figure as well.
Lawrence Freedman – The Future of War: A History (2017)
Freedman’s books looks at wars that have been and wars that may yet come to pass. In his study of modern war Freedman recounts the many conflicts, particularly from the 20th century, and how many of these did not pan out the way that the protagonists expected. He devotes the later sections to the changing face of war with improved technology and considers how wars of the future may be fought. I’m currently studying an MA in Military History and Freedman’s book has been a useful companion for my studies.
Bioshock 2: Minerva’s Den (2010)
Originally released as a download in 2010, Bioshock 2: Minerva’s Den is now available on the Bioshock: Collection on PS4 along with Bioshock, Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite. Set once again in the underwater city of Rapture, you take charge of a Big Daddy known as Subject Sigma and under the guidance of Charles Milton Porter you are charged with entering Minerva’s Den and hunting down the Thinker, a valuable computer, which is to be taken to the surface. However, as with most of Rapture, Minerva’s Den isn’t the safest of places. Although considerably shorter than Bioshock and Bioshock 2, Minerva’s Den is a great experience which allows you to gather a rich array of weapons, plasmids and gene tonics to bolster Subject Sigma and there are plenty of enemies and precarious situations to keep you on your toes. As with the other games, this one delivers on storyline very impressively, packing an absorbing narrative into a short space of time with a memorable conclusion for those that make it through Minerva’s Den.
Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode One (2013)
This is the first of two episodes that expands on the events of Bioshock Infinite. Once again we are in the company of Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth from the previous game. The setting is switched from the aerial city of Columbia in 1912 to the underwater city of Rapture in 1958, two years prior to the events of the first Bioshock game. Booker is a private detective hired by Elizabeth to search for a missing girl in Rapture known as Sally. Booker is similar to the character in Bioshock Infinite but here Elizabeth is a mature and femme fatale character, a far cry from her role in the previous game. Immersing yourself in Rapture once again is memorable and we get to see the city and its inhabitants here before the destitution and corruption has taken hold. The city is beautiful, colourful and peaceful…at least initially. Initial reservations about Burial at Sea Episode One were its length and this is a concern if you rush through the game. I played steadily, uncovering as much as I could in terms of items and audio logs and didn’t feel the short run time to be a great hindrance. The storyline is good though inevitably a flash in the pan rather than an immersive narrative, something Minerva’s Den did well though its short playthrough was more substantial than here. Episode 2 is up next and I am still intrigued to see where the story goes next.
Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 2
Episode 2 picks up after the events of Episode 1 but this time you take charge of Elizabeth instead of Booker. In Rapture, the rebel leader Atlas has taken Sally hostage and in exchange for her life you assure him you can find Dr Suchong who works for the head of the city, Andrew Ryan. Episode 2 has some great contrasts to Episode 1. Firstly, it’s a longer game so if you take your time there is plenty to enjoy. Another plus is that your progress through the game throws in a moral dilemma. It is possible to go through the game all guns blazing as you had to in every other Bioshock game. However, it is also possible to sneak your way through the game, knock enemies unconscious and ensure you don’t spill a drop of blood. I went for this option and it was a fun challenge and gave a whole new dynamic to the series. As with the other games, the story is compelling with many twists and turns. I particularly enjoyed how this game linked the underwater city of Rapture to the aerial city of Columbia with a great deal of depth. If this is the last we ever see of Bioshock it is a fitting conclusion, but I live in hope we may have another instalment, so long as the story remains as good as this.