Miss Sloane (2016)
Directed by John Madden, this intricate political thriller stars Jessica Chastain as Elizabeth Sloane, a no holds-barred lobbyist in Washington DC, who is at the heart of a congressional hearing and fighting for her career. The story takes us back a few months to Sloane’s refusal to rally voters against the Heaton-Harris bill which is looking to expand background checks on any gun purchases. Sloane instead looks to convince congressional voters to support the bill and with her firm sets about to get the said votes any way she can. The question is will she be successful? There is a lot of intrigue, cloak and dagger territory as we navigate the pandemonium of US politics the unraveling of the story is paced well. Chastain is excellent in the lead, seemingly cold-hearted and bereft of any emotional attachments, driven purely by her career and political survival. Welcome support comes from the likes of Mark Strong and the always reliable John Lithgow but this is unquestionably Chastain’s film and her gripping performance keeps one glued till the end.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Bill Condon’s 2017 musical romance fantasy is a live action remake of Disney’s 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast. Based on the 18th century fairytale, the film tells the story of a cruel prince (Dan Stevens) who is cursed by an enchantress and turned into the Beast of the title while his servants are turned into household items. The only way the Beast can break his spell is to find love but time is ticking, or in this case petals are falling from a rose. Could maladjusted local girl, Belle (Emma Watson), be the answer to the Beast’s prayers? This remake looks great and boasts a good cast with Stevens and Watson being our principal focus but the likes of Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are all tucked in there. If you’ve seen the 1991 animated version then there are no real surprises here and although the musical elements were not bad, I also didn’t feel the film would have suffered without some of them either. I can’t recall one that really jumped out at me. All in all, this is a faithful adaptation, worth an extra mark if you see this version before the 1991 animation.
Even When I Fall (2017)
Directed by Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon this documentary delves into the horrifying reality of human trafficking. Even When I Fall looks at the stories of girls from Nepal who were trafficked and sent to India where they were raised in circuses. Their experiences vary from owner to owner but all are united in being deprived of the kind of childhoods many children experience. We focus in particular on two girls, now young women – Saraswoti and Sheetal – as they are liberated and return home to Nepal. Their homecoming is not without difficulty but over time they find a new purpose by not only founding Nepal’s first circus but by speaking with thousands of their experience. There is brutal reality throughout the film, in hearing the stories of trafficking victims and what they and their families lost because of this. The documentary is heartbreaking, poignant and hopeful all in equal measure. Well worth watching.
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 family drama is the story of Eva (Liv Ullman) who invites her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) to visit her. It has been seven years since mother and daughter have seen one another so the reunion is long overdue. Upon Charlotte’s arrival she is welcomed by Eva and her husband (Halvar Bjork) but is taken aback to learn her disabled daughter, Helen (Lena Nyman), also lives with Eva. As the days pass, old resentments, repressed pain and emotions begin to surface. Autumn Sonata has a small cast and is primarily based within the confines of Eva’s house. It plays as a pleasant family drama to begin with but begins to unravel as conflict arises and with it two stunning performances from Ullman and Bergman come to the fore. One of Bergman’s best.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017)
This sequel to the 2014 Marvel film sees James Gunn return once again as director. This latest film sees the return of the Guardians – Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) – who end up on the wrong side of Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), head of the Sovereign race, who sets out to hunt them down. Following heavy pursuit they find aid from another ship manned by Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals himself to be Quill’s long lost father. He beseeches the Guardians to join him on his home planet but for what reason has he returned? Meanwhile Ayesha recruits Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) to hunt down the Guardians. Vol. 2 is an effects extravaganza, typical of Marvel movies these days, but the cast is even more memorable this time round. The addition of Kurt Russell really spices things up while the Guardians themselves are more settled and at ease in their respective roles. The highlight though is Michael Rooker’s well-judged and memorable turn as Yondu. A third instalment of Guardians is on the way and if it equals the first two it will be special indeed.
The Scarlet Letter (1973)
Wim Wenders’ 1973 adaptation of the novel of the same by Nathaniel Hawthorne is set on a remote and religious island. Among the inhabitants is Hester Prynne who is the mother of a daughter, Pearl, but has not only had the child out of wedlock but she refuses to name who the father is. Forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her clothes marking her out a sinner, Hester and her daughter are treated as outcasts by the community. The arrival of a mysterious doctor to the island threatens to change things but the big question is will Hester confess who fathered her child or will the man himself come forward? This was one of Wenders’ earliest films and was beset with problems during production, the teething problems of an inexperienced director finding his feet, you might say. While it doesn’t stand up to Wenders’ best work it’s still a good adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel and worth a look.
Henry V (1989)
Kenneth Branagh adapts, directs and stars in this 1989 version of William Shakespeare’s classic play, Henry V. The story is of English king Henry V who is considered one of the finest to have ruled the nation. The play focuses in particular on Henry’s invasion of France which continued the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and looked to conclude the struggle in favour of England. Branagh’s film takes us through Henry’s arduous, gritty and bloody campaign, culminating in the memorable Battle of Agincourt (1415). Earlier this month I saw the great Sir Ian McKellen at my local theatre performing a range of acts, including Shakespeare and he made reference to Kenneth Branagh as one of the those actors simply born to perform the Bard’s work. The sentiment is certainly true here. Branagh bagged Oscar nominations for his performance in the lead and for his direction and he is well supported by the likes of Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed (little shouting from Brian here!), Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Briers and a wonderful Derek Jacobi as the Chorus who guides us through the transitions between the Acts. McKellen was right; Branagh found his calling in Shakespeare and he excels here.
Pauline at the Beach (1983)
Eric Rohmer’s French comedy/drama is the story of two cousins – Marion and teenager, Pauline – who are on holiday at the coast. Sounds lovely. Marion is in the midst of a difficult divorce while Pauline is yet to find love though given her young age there is plenty of time for that surely. An old friend, Pierre, and a middle-aged man, Henri, threaten to shake things up a bit for Marion, while Pauline meets a young man, Sylvain, at the beach. Will either of the women find love with these encounters or will this turn out to be a holiday to forget? Rohmer’s film moves along at a steady pace as the characters get to know one another and confusion soon begins to arise amongst the multitude of relationships as they begin to unravel. The injection of realism into the narrative prevents it being a farcical piece; instead we have an intriguing story throughout with an apt conclusion. Nice beach as well.
Wim Wenders’ 1985 documentary is a study of renowned and pioneering director, Yasujiro Ozu who died in 1963 and is famous for, among other films, Tokyo Story (1953). Wenders travels to Japan to learn more about Ozu from the likes of his cinematographer, Yuharu Atsuta, who provides a moving testament to working with his friend. The film is also a study of Japan in the 1980s as Wenders wanders around and takes in the scenery, juxtaposing this society with the depictions of Japan throughout Ozu’s films. There is never a dull moment, even in the long shots where there is no dialogue, while Wenders’ own musings are always interesting. Worth a look for enthusiasts of Wenders, Ozu, Japan or all three.
Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
Fritz Lang’s 1922 epic silent film is the story of Dr Mabuse, who is a criminal mastermind and ardent gambler. Mabuse has the ability to control people’s minds and make them carry out damaging actions for his own profit. His main desire is the acquisition of power, wealth and ultimately the love of a woman seemingly beyond his reach. However, Dr Mabuse may have met his match in the form of State Prosecutor von Wenk who begins to dig into the circumstances of Mabuse’s victims and slowly start to unravel the mystery. The film is split into two parts and weighs in at more than four hours! That in itself should be a warning that a lot of time and commitment is necessary to really appreciate the film. Despite the intimidating run time Dr Mabuse the Gambler never feels overlong, never becomes monotonous, and keeps the interest all the way up to the final reels. An impressive achievement in early cinema.
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary focuses on Cuban music and, in particular, a plethora of memorable artists at risk of being largely forgotten. Wenders follows musician, Ry Cooder, who travels to Cuba to not only meet a series of ageing Cuban singers and instrumentalists but also to get them all together on stage to perform live. The Buena Vista Social Club refers to a now forgotten club where many of the musicians frequented early in their careers. The documentary offers a fascinating insight into Cuba, its people, its music and its heritage. It’s particularly poignant watching the ageing musicians come together and to still sound wonderful in the twilight of their lives.
Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 historical horror is set in fourteenth century Japan at the height of a brutal civil war where samurai choose sides and go into battle against each other. Rather than focus on the warriors we look at the struggles of those left at home. Two women – a mother and her daughter in law – survive by murdering wandering samurai, stealing their possessions, and trading them for money and food. They are managing to survive but the return to their village of a samurai named Hachi with confirmation the son and husband the women have been waiting for is dead turns their world upside down. Hachi settles in his old home as neighbour to the two women and the problems begin to mount. Filmed in black and white and effectively eerie during the night shots, Shindo’s film is small on cast but big on visual impact with the rural setting of a lake and long grassland blowing in the deathly breeze proving decidedly unnerving. A later development in the story, which I will not spoil here, adds to the impact as the relationship between the two women is severely tested by the presence of Hachi. The conclusion is potentially a little too abrupt but everyone else on offer here is superb.