Director: Adam McKay
Stars: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd
Plot: The continuing on-set adventures of San Diego’s top rated newsman.
Release Dates: TBC 2013 (US, UK)
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Stars: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant
Plot: As Margaret Thatcher, in her twilight years, talks to the imagined presence of her husband Dennis, she recounts her life from childhood to Prime Minister.
As far as biographies go, it is surely those of world leaders that are the most fascinating. Hollywood stars, musicians and so-called celebrities bring out countless books from around the age of ten, rambling on about who they’ve met and their experiences, how many times they got drunk and/or high. But if you’re in charge of a country there is little time for such shenanigans – you have to take the credit for success as well as failure, making tough and often unpopular decisions along the way. Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady depicts the life of Margaret Thatcher from her early days working in her father’s shop to the present day, but how do you cover so much in little under two hours?
In 2008, against the backdrop of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, an old lady living in London visits the local shop for a pint of milk, returning to her flat and engaging in conversation with her husband about the recent news events. We soon learn that this diminutive woman was once one of the most powerful in the world – it is Margaret Thatcher (Streep) who is now living with dementia and frequently having conversations with her husband Denis (Broadbent), who died five years previously. Thatcher has difficulty distinguishing between the past and present, with her relationship with son Mark being very distant (he now lives in South Africa) and only now having regular visits from daughter Carol (Olivia Colman). She is effectively a prisoner in her own home, due to her condition but also as Carol disapproves of her being let out alone – there is also a policeman on guard as per protocol for all past serving Prime Ministers.
Using flashbacks, Thatcher reminisces about her youth (where she is played by Alexandra Roach as Margaret Roberts), starting in Grantham – her fellow peers mock her for concentrating on work and study, but she is heavily influenced by her father who was the mayor of her hometown. She is accepted into the University of Oxford at the age of eighteen to read chemistry, meets her future husband Denis and moves into a political career at Westminster, where she finds herself in a tiny minority of women MPs. After being urged to run for Conservative party leader, Thatcher is given vocal coaching to make her appear more authoritarian. She wins the contest and the main events from her premiership are shown – the Brixton Riots, miner’s strike, the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, the Falklands War and the Poll Tax. However, by 1990, Thatcher is seen to be losing her grip on her cabinet, as Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) resigns and Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) challenges her for the party leadership – her political demise is complete.
The Iron Lady is a very ambitious film as it attempts to take in as much of Margaret Thatcher’s term in office as possible – and here lies the problem. Trying to cover so much ground dilutes the impact that the plot has. At first, the pacing is quite even as we’re introduced to this little old lady and follow her rise from a shopkeeper’s daughter from Lincolnshire to Prime Minister of Great Britain. Once Thatcher begins to walk the corridors of power, the storyline runs off like an over-excited dog, eagerly jumping around without really concentrating on one period of time with due care and attention. It would have been far better for screenwriter Abi Morgan to maybe take the Falklands War as the ‘present’ and have Thatcher looking back on her childhood and early career to convey her bulldog spirit in the face of adversity. Instead, we move from one significant point to the next, while jumping back to the present day and losing the dramatic momentum that had been built up.
Meryl Streep’s transformation is nothing short of astonishing. Particularly as the old Margaret, if you saw her in your local shop buying milk, no doubt you wouldn’t look twice. Streep also has the accent down well, although the scene in which she has voice coaching doesn’t appear to make a great deal of difference. Her overall portrayal of Thatcher is very good though and is the best aspect of the entire film. While Streep has been receiving most of the plaudits, lets not forget the terrific performance of Alexandra Roach, whose young Thatcher is just as remarkable – she is definitely an actress to keep an eye on for the future. With a supporting cast of Broadbent, Colman (who doesn’t mention “witchetty gwubs” unfortunately), Richard E. Grant and Anthony Head (both of whom only appear fleetingly), there is a good mixture of luvvies and gritty Mike Leigh film stalwarts. All of them do their bit, even if some of the more prominent characters aren’t given much of a look-in.
The Iron Lady is a rather sympathetic depiction of Margaret Thatcher, which will no doubt be difficult to swallow for her most vehement of critics, even now. Despite the swathe of material on offer and the grand opportunity to really get under the skin of the Thatcher years, we are left wanting as far as a meaty script that would match Streep’s fine central performance is concerned.
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Plot: Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner now living on Long Island, finds himself fascinated by the mysterious past and lavish lifestyle of his neighbor, Jay Gatsby. He is drawn into Gatsby’s circle, becoming a witness to obsession and tragedy.
Release Dates: 25th December (USA), 26th December (UK)
Steven Soderbergh is the cinematic jack of all trades, but certainly not the master of none. His varied career has seen credits as a producer, director, cinematographer, writer, editor, actor and composer, so it’s no surprise that film studios clamour to his services when he can turn his hand to so many tasks. Soderbergh happened upon the idea for Haywire whilst watching star Gina Carano in a female-only ultimate fighting competition on TV and wondered why there weren’t more spy thrillers featuring women in the lead role. Cast for her moves rather than an acting ability, does Carano convince as a bona fide action heroine?
Mallory Kane (Carano) enters a diner in Upstate New York and sits at a table. Soon after, Aaron (Channing Tatum) arrives and after a brief conversation they end up having a very physical fight on the floor. Scott (Michael Angarano), a customer sitting nearby tries to help Mallory who manages to break Aaron’s arm and they both escape in Scott’s car. As they drive away, Mallory begins to tell Scott about the series of events that unfolded to lead her there in the first place. Through flashbacks we learn that Mallory and Aaron work for a private contractor to undertake covert operations on behalf of the American government. One week before, the director of the firm Kenneth (McGregor) met with government agent Coblenz (Michael Douglas) and Coblenz’s Spanish contact Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) in Washington D.C. to arrange the rescue of Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong) who is allegedly being held hostage in an apartment in Barcelona.
Mallory, Aaron and their team travel to Barcelona and manage to extract Jiang from the apartment and transfer him to Rodrigo. Back in the US, Kenneth asks Mallory to take on another assignment, this time posing as the wife of British MI6 agent Paul (Fassbender) in Dublin. Mallory agrees to the operation and accompanies Paul to a party at Russborough House where they meet Paul’s contact Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz). Paul and Studer meet in secret, with Mallory watching from a distance – Paul goes into a barn and after he leaves, Mallory goes in to investigate. She finds Jiang dead on the floor, holding a brooch that Paul insisted she wear at the train station so he could recognise her. Mallory realises she has been set up and tries to discover the extent of the betrayal. When Paul attacks her, Mallory subdues and kills him but has to go on the run from her employers and the police when she is implicated in his death.
Haywire has a certain malaise from the very first scene, which it never manages to climb out of. Like a slow episode of Hustle or a watered-down version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), the jazzy soundtrack combined with the odd, frenetic fight scene seems to suggest Soderbergh is trying to launch a new female Bourne-style genre of his own but on this evidence, one that will never take off. It’s a smart idea having a woman at the centre of intrigue instead of your usual macho agent, but the action needs to keep moving along, which it fails to do. The plot is particularly convoluted and obviously geared towards being clever instead of using simple techniques to keep us interested. With so many characters and shady double-dealings to keep track of, it’s little wonder that when an exciting scene does come along, it’s sting has been removed through sheer exhaustion in keeping up with the story.
The choreography of the fight scenes, however, is exquisite and we get a real sense of pain as certain characters are literally smashed back and forth against anything breakable. The 1970s feel of the film is palpable which is reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal (1973), although the finished product isn’t nearly as clinical, it is a welcome element which serves the movie well overall. Gina Carano has an evident talent in agility – she gets the moves spot on and her acting isn’t bad at all either. There are particular shots of her, especially towards the end, where a camouflaged Carano resembles Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander from the original Millenium Trilogy – though whether this is intentional or not remains to be seen. An A-list supporting cast does Soderbergh proud with Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender all chipping in with their usual stellar performances.
Haywire struggles to justify being called a Jocelyn Bourne for a different gender, but there are flashes of brilliance. Steven Soderbergh has made and will make better films, but this is a solid thriller that will do the job for a rainy afternoon.
Director: Lance Daly
Stars: Orlando Bloom, Riley Keough, Taraji P. Henson
Plot: A doctor becomes enamoured with one of his patients and when she starts getting better, he starts tampering with her medicine to keep her sick.
Release Dates: 31st August (USA), TBC (UK)
Director: Joe Carnahan
Stars: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
Plot: After their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, seven oil workers must survive the cold and unwelcome attention from a pack of wolves.
A group of men surviving alone whatever nature throws at them after a plane crash is a well-worn concept. Alive (1993) pitted a Uruguayan rugby team against the elements, as they were forced to eat the dead in order to stay, well, alive. The Edge (1997) had the harsh wilderness and a Kodiak bear in one corner and three men including Sir Anthony Hopkins (no contest then), in the other. The Grey is along the similar lines of the latter, but here the protagonists have a pack of wolves on their tail and must escape their territory as the hungry mutts start picking them off, one by one.
John Ottway (Neeson) works for an oil drilling company in Alaska, shooting wolves who get too close for company to his colleagues. On the last day of his contract, he writes a letter to his wife Ana (Anne Openshaw) saying that he is going to commit suicide. Just as he places a gun in his mouth, he hears a wolf howl and stops himself. John and the rest of his team head home on a plane, but they encounter a blizzard and the plane crashes, breaking up on impact. John comes round and finds himself sitting in the snow away from the wreckage. He runs over to find a total of seven survivors, although one of the men, Lewenden (James Badge Dale), is near death so John comforts him until the end. John finds a woman in need of help, but as he approaches, he sees that she is being devoured by a grey wolf which also attacks him. When the others rescue him, John tells them that he believes they are in the wolves’ territory.
John gathers the survivors together to build a fire and organises a two-hour watch for the wolves. Hernandez (Ben Bray) is killed while on his watch but the body isn’t discovered by the others until the morning. John decides that they should abandon the crash site, as they are leaving themselves open as easy pickings. Diaz (Grillo) questions John’s authority as they sort through the wallets of the dead so that they can be passed to their families. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) says a prayer as the group head for the distant treeline and hopefully for safety. As the men approach the trees, they spot a line of wolves coming at them from both sides and are forced to make a run for it as best they can in the deep snow. During the chase though, Flannery (Joe Anderson) falls behind and is taken down by three wolves. The rest make it to the initial cover of the forest, but with a multitude of hungry eyes watching them from the shadows, it isn’t long before the group cross paths with the wolves again.
Liam Neeson has apparently upped his game. Tired of punching foreigners in Taken (2008) and Unknown (2011) he is now beating up wolves, although on this occasion, no-one has been kidnapped (that we know of). The Grey looks at first like it is going to break the mould, with its stylish scenery and a touchy-feely central character who often daydreams about his wife and has an obvious respect for his lupine victims whom he shoots for a living. After the plane crash however, normal service is resumed as Neeson’s John Ottway turns into Rocky meets David Attenborough, dispensing advice about wolves’ behaviour in between giving numerous batterings to any wolf that dare comes near. A film like this needs a character like Ottway, but the way in which we are constantly reminded that he is sensitive at heart (cue dream sequences) appears to be just a contrivance to make him stand out from the usual tough guys of the film world.
To be fair to Ottway, his company is less than useful. The rag-tag group of men who survive the crash are more of a hindrance than a help, as the Stranded in the Wilderness Book of Film Clichés dictates. Their numbers dwindle with each attack (except one, when one wolf is served up for dinner) and you feel that John would have more chance on his own. Having said that, these are very considerate wolves – not only do they stay back to let characters say their lines in full, but also leave the men alone when they are reminiscing about their families. The supporting cast is strictly limited by the script in any character development they might have, but the focal point is always Neeson’s Ottway – maybe one or two could have been given more screen time for an interesting subplot. Director Joe Carnahan has created a fascinating world and there is much to like about his style despite the script’s lack of originality – one of his early films, Narc (2002), comes highly recommended.
The Grey has some nice moments early on as the scene is set, but falls into the same old trap of stereotypes once the survivors are introduced. You’ll probably learn two things here: something about wolves that you didn’t already know and how not to write an original script.
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Daniel Craig, Helen McCrory, Javier Bardem
Plot: Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.
Release Dates: 26th October (UK), 9th November (USA)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis
Plot: Albert Narracott and his horse Joey are separated by the onset of the First World War, but he resolves to be reunited with his best friend by enlisting in the army.
How do you produce a film about a bloody war that is aimed at a family audience? The central theme of War Horse is a story of friendship between a farm hand and his horse, but it doesn’t take long for the action to be transferred to the muddy, WWI battlefields of Northern Europe. But Steven Spielberg has done just this – by bringing Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel of the same name to the big screen, he has managed to craft a harrowing plot to appeal to all ages.
In 1912, Albert Narracott (Irvine) lives in the Devon countryside with his parents Rose (Watson) and Ted (Peter Mullan), who are struggling to pay the rent on their farm. Albert witnesses the birth of a foal and marvels as it grows into a fine animal. A couple of years later, Ted buys the colt, to plough their fields, at an auction for an inflated price much to the dismay of Rose, who is concerned that the rent will not be paid in time. The Narracott’s landlord Mr. Lyons (Thewlis) turns up at the farm, demanding payment, but is promised by Ted that, having only paid part of the rent, he will get the lower field ploughed despite the fact it is very stony. Albert names the horse Joey and trains him various commands so that he is able to plough the field. After a few unsuccessful attempts, it beings to rain, softening the ground enough for the field to be ploughed, but the resultant crop is wiped out by a storm.
In August 1914, Britain declares war on Germany and the call goes out for horses to be sold to the cavalry, along with men to join the army. Ted decides to sell Joey to the military to pay the rent without telling Albert, who rushes into the local village to stop him. Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a young cavalry officer pays for Joey at a lower price than Ted needed before Albert can get there. He tries to enlist in the army, but is told by Nicholls that he is too young – instead he ties a lucky charm to Joey’s bridle and promises that they will be reunited. Nicholls and Joey are sent to France to take part in the opening skirmishes of the war. Joey becomes attached to Topthorn, a black horse who belongs to Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch), Nicholls’ superior in apparently more ways than one. When a charge against the Germans goes horribly wrong, Joey and Topthorn fall into enemy hands and go on an adventure of their own, but will Joey ever return to the rolling hills of Devon and back to his master?
In any other director’s hands apart from Steven Spielberg, War Horse could have been an overly sentimental Hollywood slush-fest, but instead it’s both a wonderful depiction of a heartwarming story but also the heartbreaking situation faced by soldiers on both sides in the trenches. Aimed primarily at teenagers, the plot has enough substance to entertain a very wide audience indeed. Spielberg’s ability to crank up the romanticism of the proceedings, whether the action is in the relative comfort of the Devon countryside or in the deadly no-man’s-land of The Somme, is second to none – this is a master at work. You could say War Horse is an amalgamation of two of his best films – E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) – the relationship between a boy and a non-human combined with visceral fight scenes harks back to memories of Spielberg firing on all cylinders.
Newcomer Jeremy Irvine is perfectly cast in the central role of Albert. Although he shares the screen with an illustrious roll-call including Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and Niels Arestrup, his performance sits very comfortably among his fellow co-stars – despite the fact he spends most of his scenes knee-deep in mud. In stark contrast to his poor showing in the drab affair that was The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Hiddleston’s Captain Nicholls is a much more convincing character than Freddie Page – and he does this in a fraction of the screen time. The cinematography is simply stunning. Janusz Kamiński, who has worked on every Spielberg film since Schindler’s List photographs with his usual aplomb, especially the final scene which features a gorgeous sunset. You can easily see why Kamiński is Spielberg’s tried and trusted right-hand man with the quality on display here.
War Horse isn’t perfect – some of the crucial characters all too fleetingly appear and disappear – but this is both entertaining and an absolute joy to watch. If Spielberg makes another war film, be sure to be first in the cinema queue.
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Plot: A New Yorker’s lifestyle which centres on a sex addiction is interrupted when his sister comes to stay with him.
Alcohol and drug addictions have been well and truly covered at the cinema. Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Trainspotting (1996) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) all illustrated the devastating effect that these extreme cravings can have on a person’s life and all those around them. Shame aims to show the less common fixation with that of sex. There has been plenty of evidence linking certain celebrities with sex addiction, but is the real thing as self-consuming as some of them would have us believe?
Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a thirty-something originally from Ireland who lives a financially comfortable and ordered life in New York City. Trouble is, he has an unquenchable appetite for sex. He regularly picks up prostitutes or random women in bars for one-night stands, swiftly moving from one to the next. His laptop at home is solely used for self-gratification in-between non-romantic trysts, but his boss David (Dale) informs Brandon that his computer at work has been taken away apparently because of a virus. On a work night out, David tries to chat up a group of women, despite the fact he is married with kids – his distinct lack of technique means that he is consistently rejected, although Brandon takes advantage of the situation by having his way with the woman on the sly afterwards. Brandon goes home and discovers there is someone in his apartment. Armed with a baseball bat, he finds his sister Sissy (Mulligan), who has been left troubled by her childhood (the details of which are never revealed), taking a shower.
Sissy begs him to let her stay for a while, as she sorts out certain problems she’s having with her boyfriend. As Sissy is a professional singer, Brandon invites David to one of her gigs, where she sings a very sad, slow version of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The three go back to Brandon’s apartment, where Sissy and David have sex – Brandon meanwhile can’t bear to be around, so he goes for a long run instead. He finds himself pursuing a colleague, Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They go for dinner, but after a particularly awkward conversation about Brandon’s lack of faith in marriage and relationships (his longest being four months), the night ends in a damp squib. As his relationship with Sissy begins to strain and her behaviour becomes more erratic, Brandon tries to change his ways and start afresh with Marianne, but finds it much more difficult than he ever imagined.
What strikes you first about Shame is in the superb way that it is filmed. Director Steve McQueen has created a sumptuous view of New York, not only in the daytime but also at night, where most of the film takes place. One scene in particular sees a tracking shot of Brandon going for a run through the streets of the city – the camera seems to represent his desire for carnal pleasure, something which Brandon appears helpless to resist. There are moments scattered throughout the film where a potential avalanche of dialogue is effortlessly replaced with a look, a gesture or even a song (see Brandon flirting with a woman on the subway and Sissy’s performance). Abi Morgan and McQueen’s script is therefore quite sparse, but nevertheless packs a punch when it needs to – however, it would have been better to have some backstory to Brandon and Sissy’s childhood to reveal what left them both so damaged.
Michael Fassbender, not one to shy away from difficult roles such as Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008) or Rochester in Jane Eyre (2011), convinces as Brandon even though his character’s so-called addiction is not quite all-consuming as it should be – he is merely a lothario with a heightened sense of libido. After Mulligan’s fine performance in Drive (2011) as Irene gained her further recognition as a talented actress, here she once again delivers, although her role is not as meaty this time round. The brother/sister chemistry between the two, despite their obvious generic differences, is not quite up to scratch. There is something amiss when you try to imagine Fassbender and Mulligan being distant cousins, let alone siblings. Nevertheless, as a lead pairing they carry the film well even though there are one or two misgivings in the characterisations.
Shame isn’t the explicit or overly controversial film that the prudes hue and cried over. True, there are one or two scenes which are racy but, as Kenny Everett would have exclaimed, it’s all done in the best possible taste. Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt have raised the bar as far as shooting the city that never sleeps is concerned, but that extra star would have been earned had a little more thought been put into developing Brandon’s relationship with his sister and his addiction.