Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

A deserving subject is given an ill-deserved biopic treatment in MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. Though Justin Chadwick’s film may work as a superficial overview of the late icon’s life, from his upbringing in a tribal village to the moment he entered office as South Africa’s first black president, it suffers from a script that tries to do too much in too little time and is chock full of trite directorial devices, as though the audience couldn’t be trusted to stay awake. What makes the film entirely watchable are the central performances from Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, who bring much needed dignity and gravitas to the piece.

Full review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom | TAKE ONE

Review: The Innocents (1961)

If a gold standard for gothic cinema had to be chosen, then Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS would surely be on the shortlist, probably at the very top. No other film can touch it in terms of subtle emotional complexity and haunting resonance. On the surface a deceptively straightforward tale of spooky visitations, it’s only with repeated viewings that its true mastery reveals itself. Coming back to the film after a prolonged gap, the thing that really takes you aback is how creepy the story is – and not just in a supernatural way. Dark forces are very much at work in the real world too, blurring the lines between reality and imagination.

Full review: The Innocents | TAKE ONE

Review: Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)

If you want see, touch and feel the highs and lows of young love in a way that only cinema can conjure, then BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR is the film for you. It’s an extraordinarily vivid portrayal of a romantic relationship, from the giddy upswing of its early halcyon days to its later violent and traumatic collapse. It even manages to transcend the highly misleading, and slightly distasteful, lesbian love drama label that it has been stuck with ever since it wowed audiences at Cannes earlier this year, where it collected the Palme d’Or.

Full review: Blue Is the Warmest Colour | TAKE ONE

Review: Philomena (2013)

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench have to be among the more unlikely of odd couples seen on the big screen in recent years – uniting Alan Partridge and M sounds like one of the Norfolk DJ’s more outlandish fantasies – but the combination works beautifully in PHILOMENA. This perfectly pitched dramatisation of Martin Sixsmith’s book walks the tightrope of comedy and pathos with such precision that there is no doubting the sure hand and light touch of an experienced director. Take a bow then Stephen Frears, whose earlier MADE IN DAGENHAM similarly tackled serious issues camouflaged as comedy; he allows the story to unfurl gently yet effortlessly, letting each new twist surprise and quietly enthrall.

Full review: Philomena | TAKE ONE

Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

For a film that wrings such expertly orchestrated tension from real life events, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS turns out to be surprisingly unmemorable. In adapting the widely publicised hijacking of an American container ship in 2009 by Somali pirates, Paul Greengrass proves once again that he can do suspense standing on his head, with one hand tied behind his back. But his familiar documentary-style approach fails to add any sort of depth to the characters in this story. The games of cat and mouse between the US crew and the Somali pirates are absorbing, even exciting; but the characters remain frustratingly one dimensional. Only Tom Hanks, in his reliable everyman mode, provides an emotional point of connection.

Full review: Captain Phillips | TAKE ONE

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Round-up

Cambridge Film FestivalIt’s astonishingly late, but at last here’s a round-up of my reviews for TAKE ONE from this year’s Cambridge Film Festival. There was, as ever, a fine selection of films and special guests; when there are several movies you want to see all being shown at exactly the same time, then you know it’s going well. Two of the reviews below are actually of my favourite films in the whole line-up: the re-release of NOTHING BUT A MAN and the Middle Eastern western MY SWEET PEPPER LAND, and I was chuffed to be able to introduce the latter. Neil Brand’s two appearances – brilliantly accompanying the restored print of NOSFERATU and his NOT SO SILENT MOVIES family show – were also a highlight. The bar was always humming with activity and chatter, and the staff and volunteers were incredibly helpful and friendly (not always easy when the inevitable last minute hiccups pop up). Not even the stinking cold I caught at the midway point could keep me away.

A pity then, that the excitement and atmosphere was somewhat dampened by the unsettling prospect of a death sentence being handed to the Arts Picturehouse by the Competition Commission, in its inexplicable bid to wreck one of Cambridge’s cultural pillars. We’ve yet to learn which of its cinemas Cineworld will sell in Cambridge, but the signs aren’t promising: the Picturehouses in both Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen have already been given their marching orders, and Cineworld don’t appear to be interested in appealing the Commission’s decision. So what becomes of the Festival next year is anybody’s guess.

Press pass

However, that didn’t stop Tony Jones and his seemingly tireless team from putting on a great show. All sort of new discoveries, old faithful friends and other intriguing oddities were given the big screen treatment. If this does prove to be the last festival in its current form, then at least it bowed out with grace and pride intact. Well done to all.

So here are my reviews:

My Sweet Pepper Land
A satisfying blend of Middle Eastern drama and spaghetti western homage, MY SWEET PEPPER LAND is a flavoursome brew to savour. Director Hiner Saleem (himself a Kurd) has created, in some ways, a rather old-fashioned drama which frequently raises the expectation of violence in one form or another, but mostly backs away from the bloody retribution normally associated with the genre. The result is a film where tensions remain bottled and passions are kept in check, with the outcome feeling slightly unsatisfying as a consequence.

My Beautiful Country
A new spin on the old biblical story of The Good Samaritan, MY BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY delicately explores a tentative romance between a young Serbian widow and a wounded Albanian soldier against the backdrop of the 1999 Kosovo War. Whilst there may not be anything dramtically fresh or new in Michaela Kezele’s film, it does wield plenty of emotional heft in its focus on a forbidden romance and the unforeseen consequences of helping someone who has suddenly become the enemy. It also attempts to raise awareness (none too subtly) of the use of depleted uranium ammunition by NATO in the conflict, through a sub-plot centred on children’s wartime experiences.

Machete Kills
Danny Trejo’s indestructible federale returns in this amusing if nonsensical sequel to the original 2010 grindhouse-inspired parody. Changing tack from the down-and-dirty revenge movies that drove the earlier plot, the inspiration this time around is late 70s/early 80s action films; and director Robert Rodriguez takes his cue from Roger Moore’s Bond era, when gadgets and fantastical action came to the fore. This entry is basically Rodriguez reconfiguring his family SPY KIDS movies for adults, adding lashings of violence and saucy humour to the mix.

Nothing But A Man
A low key yet unwaveringly honest assessment of racism in the American South during the mid-Sixties, NOTHING BUT A MAN is an unfairly neglected gem that fully deserves its forthcoming BFI re-release. Directed by Michael Roemer – a man with barely a handful of credits to his name – its poignant tale centres on black railroad worker Duff (Ivan Dixon), an easygoing free spirit who tries to improve himself by settling down with schoolteacher Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and working in a ‘normal’ job. He slowly discovers that little has changed while he’s been away; the local white population still call the shots, and anyone who acts above their station is quickly and comprehensively shut out of the community.

Google and the World Brain
Just how much intellectual property should be placed in the hands of a single entity? And who exactly should profit from it? It’s a moral dilemma that Ben Lewis’ compelling documentary attempts to pick apart through an investigation of Google’s digital books project. Inevitably it fails to explore the issue in as much depth as the subject truly deserves, but given the importance of the debate, Lewis should be applauded for getting it this far into the public eye. After all, the decisions being made now about how far one company can go in publishing any book it chooses may have far-reaching consequences for us all.

What better way to open this year’s Cambridge Film Festival than with an exploration of one of its most famous residents? HAWKING is an intimate look at the life of the renowned physicist. Switching between his current hectic schedule of lectures and media appearances, and pottering through a history of his life to date, the film gives a polished overview of its remarkable subject and his defining achievements.

Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

There’s a lot to like about THE WAY WAY BACK. That may sound like a broad, yet slightly reserved recommendation, and indeed it is; there’s some very good performances, the heartfelt story rings true and despite being largely a family drama it’s one of the funniest films of the year. But there’s also a distinct lack of surprise underneath that likeable surface. It is nothing if not predictable: if you’ve seen the trailer, then you essentially know the major plot points as well as the final outcome. Thankfully, the journey is still a pleasurable one – just don’t expect to be blindsided by any sort of plot twist, or even gentle kink.

Full reviewThe Way Way Back | TAKE ONE

Review: Journey to Italy (1954)

Rescued from obscurity by the French New Wave, Roberto Rossellini’s deceptively mild tale of marital distress still captivates almost sixty years after its original release. You would be forgiven for thinking a melodrama about a marriage in crisis from the 1950s would have little to say about relationships today, but JOURNEY TO ITALY retains a peculiar resonance; the gaping void where love ought to be in the lives of this couple is something that many will sadly relate to, particularly in these days of high divorce rates and family breakdowns. But it’s a journey that fascinates, intrigues and challenges too.

Full review: Journey to Italy | TAKE ONE

Review: Dial M For Murder (1954)

“Hitchcock’s 3D Masterpiece” proudly proclaims the re-release trailer for this 1954 effort by the Master of Suspense. Frankly “masterpiece” might be pushing it, but Hitch’s only excursion into three dimensional filmmaking is still an enjoyable, if unexceptional, entertainment. The director’s distinctive black humour and thematic preoccupations remain intact, but he tackled similar subject matter in many other, much better works. He was basically treading water creatively, yet the use of 3D does add a little interest to what is otherwise a fairly by-the-numbers exercise.

Full review: Dial M For Murder |

Review: A Field In England (2013)

A mesmerising exercise in Lynchian weirdness and English folk horror, Ben Wheatley’s latest project cements his claim as British cinema’s most promising genre talent. Though there’s very little in the way of the usual horror trappings, the terror here is all in the mind, as befits a film made on a shoestring budget and confined to a (more or less) single location. The film’s multi-platform release – simultaneously in cinemas, online, on DVD & blu-ray, and the Film4 television channel – has at the very least given it a degree of exposure it could never have hoped to achieve under normal circumstances, which means Wheatley’s star should now ascend even further.

Full review: A Field In England |