The Monuments Men (2014) dir: George Clooney

Well I wasn’t expecting Ocean’s Eleven meets the Dirty Dozen, but I was expecting to be entertained. With such star wattage on the screen (Blanchett, Bonneville, Clooney, Damon, Dujardin, Goodman, Murray) and having such a talented guy in George Clooney behind the camera and a crack writer/producer team (including Grant Heslov – look him up!) – what the hell went wrong?

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It’s 1944 and the Nazi’s are looting Europe’s finest artwork, so Frank Stokes (Clooney) assembles a team of crack art experts to go to war torn Europe to try and rescue mankind’s heritage. Unfortunately as well as the Nazi’s these guys (based on real people who risked their lives to do this) also have to face limp dialogue, zip chemistry, lack of tension, and a death scene that looked like it came out of a 3rd rate school play.

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The whole thing was just….well flat. All that effort to re-create the backdrop of WWII totally wasted.

I was so disappointed!!

A long way from home (2013) dir: Virginia Gilbert

A bit of a curiosity for me is this UK/French co-production, as there were things I liked about this film and stuff that really annoyed.

Based on a short story by the writer/director Virgina Gilbert the film tells the story of a retired couple  in their late 60s early 70s, Joseph and Brenda (James Fox and Brenda Fricker), who now spend their empty days in a monotonous routine in the South of France. When they meet a young couple on holiday (Natalie Dormer and Paul Nicholls), Joseph finds himself irresistibly drawn to the woman – the beautiful Suzanne.

So the annoying stuff first:  story? Ahh, it just didn’t really feel meaty enough, the frailty of growing old is touched upon then forgotten and the whole endeavour wasn’t helped by the use of a lot of cutaways (shots of stuff edited in between scenes) and long starts to scenes (often using lengthy pans before the ‘action’ began). For me some of these really jarred and it just felt like they were being used to pad out the film’s 80 odd minute running time. Basically the film could have been a great short film – but then that would have made it a bit of an expensive undertaking.

I’m pretty rock solid when it comes to paying attention in films and suddenly the story picked up dreamatically (and I mean dreamatically):  Joseph lies to his wife, Brenda, about a day trip he is undertaking when in fact he is secretly meeting up with Suzanne. He takes her and her boyfriend, Mark,  to a vineyard just so Joseph can be with her, and there’s a definite sexual frisson happening when they’re together. After the day out Mark wants to thank Joseph by taking him and Brenda  out to dinner.  Joseph makes some excuses. Fails to put Mark off. Oh fuck. How’s Joseph going to handle this? Brenda’s shown a sign of Alzheimers, maybe (we never know), perhaps he’ll use that to make his lie work? Now things are beginning to motor. We’re going some where.

Next scene Joesph’s with Brenda and I discover that I must have misheard the whole thing,  as Brenda clearly knows about this day out – it wasn’t a secret tryst  at all. No lies.  No deceit. No tension.  It was all wishful thinking on my part. Crap.

Sorry but it would have been better if Joseph had lied to his wife about this!

And what the fuck was the old man at the game of Boules about? Please tell me!

And it has a poor use of music…..I’m making the film sound terrible it is not, just really annoying in parts… it could have been…. so…

Stuff I really liked and which make the film worth a look: James Fox and Brenda Fricker. In particular Brenda Fricker who delivers a masterclass in how a look can convey a thousand words. These two fabulous actors raise the film above it’s source material and imbue their characters with real humanity.  They live the dream but the dream is empty.

The Sessions (2012) dir: Ben Lewin

This film is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 36 year old poet who has been paralysed from the neck down since the age of 6 and has never had any sexual experience – ever, and spends most of his life in an iron lung. With the support of his priest (William H. Macy) he decides to see a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt, in a truly committed performance).

It doesn’t sound particularly cheery and to tell the truth, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if it hadn’t been for my wife. I thought it was probably some biopic of a rock band I’d never heard of.

So let me tell you that the film was full of humour, hope and love, and is extremely frank with the subject matter. I was captivated for an hour and a half.

Ok.

I was moved.

Excellently performed by all the cast, especially Helen Hunt, and unobstrusivley directed by Ben Lewin – the last film he did was 18 years ago  – ‘Paperback Romance’ – nope I’d not heard of it either – he definitely needs to be making more films.  In one scene, my wife almost broke my arm she grabbed it so hard:  It’s the middle of the night. Mark is lying in his iron lung. He’s alone, thinking. We’re listening to the sound of the equipment burbling away. The lights go out and the lung stops…

The film’s main source is Mark’s essay ‘On seeing a sex surrogate‘ written in 1990, and a short documentary called ‘Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien’ won an Academy Award in 1997.

Albert Nobbs (2011) dir: Rodrigo García

I didn’t know anything about this movie but was curious as Glenn Close was the lead -and having seen her in ‘Damages’ I was reminded that she has been noticeably absent from the big screen recently.

This film is based on the short story ‘The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs’ by Irish novelist George Moore which first appeared around 1918 and Close played Albert in the stage play back in 1982 – the film has been a personal project of hers for a number of years.

I read Empire’s review of this movie before writing this (not something I normally do) and although I love this magazine, I thought the reviewer was being a total dick.

Set some time in the late 19th Century in Dublin, Albert Nobbs is a woman who has masqueraded as a man so that she is able to work as a head waiter in a posh hotel. Dedicated to her job, naïve, introvert and dreadfully lonely, she carefully saves her hard earned money so that she can one day buy her own business. Her world suddenly changes when her actual sex is discovered and this opens her eyes to the possibility of a future where she perhaps doesn’t have to be alone.

It was interesting watching such a quiet understated performance from Glenn Close, no barn storming here, in fact so understated that I could feel how squashed this character had become, a cog in a wheel, not wanting to bring attention to herself, not wanting the masquerade to slip – but still daring to dream.

I’m not going to go through the various plot machinations, but I was kind of expecting the various strands to be predictable and actually – they weren’t. The supporting cast all do pretty well with their Irish accents (to my non-Irish ear anyway) and although small scale I was hooked to the end and came away curious to know whether such things (you’ll know what I mean if you see the film) actually happened.

Never Let Me Go (2010) dir: Mark Romanek

Haven’t had much of a chance to see many movies recently, and this definitley wasn’t on my list, so it hadn’t registered with me, especially as it looked like a dull kitchen sink drama from Britain’s Film Four with Kiera Knightley.

Then I heard it was a genre film.

OK. That piqued my interest.

And it was written by Danny Boyle scribe Alex Garland.

Uh oh. A fine writer who showed his lack of sci-fi film knowledge and totally wrecked Sunshine.

The story is set in an alternative Britain and centres on the relationship of three friends over 20 years, starting at school. The children have no parents and are told that they are special. Their health is monitored and they are encouraged to paint and to learn a little about the wider world, though they are conditioned to never want to leave their surroundings and not to question what is happening to them and the purpose of their short lives.

At the heart is a love story, and the three grown up children are played by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and the fantastic Andrew Garfield, who I’ve been a huge fan of since ‘Boy A’ – which you must check out if you can find it – he’s going to make a superb Peter Parker/Spiderman. The sci-fi trappings of the film are very low key but as the story progressed there was a real sense of loss and pain, which I was quite surprised by. And even though I had trouble with the characters simple acceptance of what they were to become, it kind of made the whole thing even more poigniant.

Incredibly sad but brave as well.

Don’t Worry About Me (2009) dir: David Morrissey

David Morrissey is one of the UK’s great actors and this is his first feature film as a director. Adapted from the play ‘The Pool’ originally written and performed by Helen Elizabeth and James Brough, Morrissey worked on the screenplay with them and bravely cast them in this film. Shot in three and a half weeks in Liverpool with the £100K budget raised from local businesses, the film is about a new romantic relationship, spread over one day, between Tina (Helen Elizabeth) and David (James Brough), and how this relationship allows Tina to address her painful past and move on with her life.

Simply shot but often effectively framed by stills photographer Stuart Nicolas White, the film pretty much stands or falls on its two leads who are at the centre of the story and this I felt was it’s great strength and weakness. Neither actor had worked on screen before so the director obviously brought his considerable experience to aid and refine their performances. The result is that Helen Elizabeth is fantastic in her role, making her character ‘Tina’ a real natural screen persona. She’s so good that James Brough’s ‘David’ can be seen very much acting his socks off, but his director is not getting the same level of natural performance from him.

The film is definitely worth catching for Helen Elizabeth’s fine portrayal. It’s an interesting story and you definitely care about the characters and want to know what will happen to them. David Morrissey has done a pretty good job with his first film and I look forward to his next. In the UK it’s being released on DVD and being screened on the BBC in March.

Freestyle (2010) dir: Kolton Lee

The third project from Film London’s microwave scheme where a film is produced for a budget of £100,000 (with all the constraints that brings), ‘Freestyle’ is the sort of story that usually comes out of American indie cinema and is probably the first British basketball related movie.

The story of two black teenagers from ‘opposite sides of the tracks’, ‘Ondene’ (Lucy Konadu) from a well off family who have hopes of her going to Oxford University and ‘Leon’ (Arinze Kene) a basketball freestyler who lives on a council estate. Leon is secretly studying and has dreams of going to university but needs to win the Freestyle championships so he can use the prize money for his tuition fees.

The film is small scale, though thanks to director Kolton Lee and the producing team around him, achieves much beyond its budget. The story is simply told but wears its heart on its sleeve. I have to say that I didn’t immediately warm to the film but by the end was won over by its charm and the enthusiasm of the cast.

Talking of which, the cast had a mixture of non-actors (who would actually be able to freestyle for the film) and experienced actors. Both groups acquit themselves pretty well, in particular Rhoda M’Hango (‘Prunella’) a basketball enthusiast who went for the part of an extra but is great here as Ondene’s antagonist and Alfie Allen (‘Jez’) who has all the best lines and really carves out his role.

In the UK it has a multi-platform release (including selected independent cinemas) on the 26th February and is out on DVD a week later, and although aimed squarely at a teen audience has much to offer anyone looking for a different type of British film.