The Films 2015 : wack, wack, oops

oscarsOh, come on. How difficult can it be? Every week, watch a film and write about it in an interesting, informative and (if appropriate) amusing way. But, for the second year in a row, I have failed in my challenge to view 50 movies in a year. I only managed 31. Actually, it is 31.5 as I fell asleep half way through ‘A Little Chaos‘ this evening – sorry, Kate (Winslet).

Part of my failure has been that I was also trying to read 50 books during the year, and reading is my first love – I’d rather read a novel than watch a film. Nevertheless, there have been some great viewing moments over the past 12 months and I’ve ordered the movies I did see into the following list, best to worst. Just for fun, there is no critical appraisal here!

What was your must-see film this year? I started 2015 with ‘The Theory of Everything‘ and Eddie Redmayne re-appears in ‘The Danish Girl‘, released tomorrow. I’m planning to get to the cinema to see it – and maybe 49 other films in 2016!

1 Theory of Everything (The)
2 What We Did On Our Holiday
3 Imitation Game (The)
4 Amy
5 Mona Lisa Smile
6 Still Alice
7 Pride
8 Boyhood
9 Life of Pi
10 Insurgent
11 Vera Drake
12 Les Miserables
13 Road to Perdition
14 Talented Mr Ripley (The)
15 Lion King (The)
16 Finding Nemo
17 Amazing Grace
18 Young Victoria (The)
19 Lucy
20 Rush
21 Vanilla Sky
22 Fast and Furious 6
23 The Descendants
24 Hunger Games (The) – Mockingjay Part 1
25 White House Down
26 Maze Runner (The)
27 Parkland
28 Secret Window
29 Girl, Interrupted
30 Saving Mr Banks
31 Spy





Film No 31 (2015) Road to Perdition

Road to PerditionWhen I was a child, the world of adults was a mystery to me. Like a foreign country, I had no passport to travel there and insights into what grown-ups did when we kids weren’t around, were rare and usually unintentional. Adult conversations ended when children entered the room and most of our knowledge came from what the big folk chose to tell us; we were protected. Information about the grown-up stuff was on a ‘need to know’ basis. Mostly, we didn’t need to know. In ‘Road to Perdition‘, young Michael Sullivan’s childhood is destroyed in the instant he crosses the invisible boundary into adult activity, witnessing first-hand what his father does for a living.

Mike Sullivan Sr (Tom Hanks) is a hitman, working for local gangster John Rooney (Paul Newman). Rooney has been good to Mike, raising him as his own, crediting him with more respect than his natural son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Mike has sons of his own, Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken) and one day it occurs to Michael Jr that he has no idea how his father earns his wages. When Mike goes out one night, his son hides in the car. Watching, hidden, the young lad sees his father shoot another man dead.

Having been spotted by Connor Rooney, Michael has unwittingly thrown his family into the path of danger: Connor tries silence the boy but makes a terrible mistake. As a contract is taken out on Mike Sullivan’s life, he and his son have no choice but to run.

Hanks and Hoechlin sidestep cautiously around one another to start with, unused to relating to one another in any other way than as parent and child. But when Mike realises he will have to rely on his son to drive the getaway car, the dynamic of their relationship changes. Sullivan Sr does not want his son to be like him, but has he placed Michael in a position where he has no choice?

Directed by Sam Mendes, this film is beautifully crafted. The cinematography is exquisite, hence the Best Cinematography Oscar and BAFTA in 2003, awarded posthumously to Conrad L. Hall. As well as an impressive cast,  the music is haunting and the plot gripping. Definitely one to watch. Just make sure your littlies are not peeking through the keyhole!

Film No 30 (2015) : The Descendants

descendantsThis DVD turns up quite often in the supermarket bargain bucket, which has always put me off buying it, even though I’ve picked it up many times. Shows how much I know – ‘The Descendants‘ received 130 award nominations and won 65 of them! I watched it on the TV this week, so that was definitely a bargain.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a successful Hawaiian lawyer who is also the trustee of a significant amount of land owned by his family. Selling the land to developers would be lucrative for Matt and his cousins. Married to Elizabeth for many years, the Kings have two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), but life has been challenging of late. The two girls have been behaving badly and Matt and Elizabeth have been having some problems in their marriage. Things take a definite turn for the worse when Elizabeth is badly injured in an accident; doctors tell Matt she is not going to wake up from her coma, and the decision is made to turn off her life support. As if things aren’t bad enough for Matt, Alex then reveals that she knew her mother had been having an affair. With his wife dying and unable to communicate, Matt tries to restore harmony throughout his life.

Clooney plays this part with great sensitivity – feeling his way across the chasms which divide him from Elizabeth and their daughters. Shailene Woodley seems to mature before your eyes as the movie develops; changing from a self-obsessed, self-destructive teenager, to a caring sister and supportive daughter. Matt faces some tough decisions and I believe that this film is essentially about doing the Right Thing, however awkward the consequences.



Film No 29 (2015) : Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa SmileI can’t believe it has taken me so long to get around to seeing this film, which was released in 2013. It is just my kind of movie. Reminiscent of ‘Dead Poets Society‘, it features a strong-minded young art teacher who takes up a position at a women’s liberal arts college. It didn’t get great reviews and the majority of its award nominations were for ‘Best Original Song’! Talk about damned by faint praise.

Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts) realises very early on that her students are capable and also, for the most part, privileged. Despite their potential to gain places at prestigious universities and pursue professional careers, these young women have their sights set firmly on one prize. Marriage. Finding the right chap, settling down and supporting him in his career, is the path for which Joan, Betty et al are destined. Frustrated, Katherine does her best to inspire the students in her care to think for themselves, defy convention and strike out for themselves. Through the medium of art, she encourages independence thought. Of course, her methods bring her into conflict with the powers-that-be at Wellesley.

The film features some engaging performances, not only from Roberts but also Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Stevenson and Dominic West. I liked it, mainly because Katherine Ann Watson leads by example; her own love life is unconventional for the 1950s in which the film is set. What this reminded me is that most of the time talking about principles and ideals is unlikely to change hearts and minds – you can really only achieve that by doing stuff. It’s all very well saying you are a feminist, but change will only be effected by doing things differently, not by standing on our soap-boxes. I would definitely watch this film with an impressionable young woman.

Films Nos 27 & 28 (2015) : Finding Nemo and The Lion King

lion king nemoThe Scandinavians embrace a concept known as ‘hygge’. It doesn’t translate well into English, but a rough approximation is ‘cosiness’. Hygge is probably easier to grasp with some examples – sitting in a log cabin with a roaring fire, drinking mulled wine and playing cards with friends. Snuggling up on the sofa, surrounded by candles and watching an old movie. Walking in autumn leaves, wrapped in woolly scarves and heading home for warming hot chocolate. Get the gist? Well for me and my family, watching a Disney movie together engenders a deep sense of hygge. We don’t watch to discover a new plot together, as we know the stories inside out. We watch to have a shared experience, something we can still all enjoy as a family.

My daughter always cries when Mufasa dies and Simba tries in vain to rouse him. My son and husband can quote huge chunks of Dory’s exchanges with Marlin. We can all sing ‘The Circle of Life’ with realistic passion and I still laugh at Bruce’s ‘Fish Are Friends’ meetings.

‘The Lion King’ is my favourite Disney movie and ‘Finding Nemo’ is my husband’s. My preference for the African saga is largely due to the music, but also the way in which the film captures loss, and our longing to remain connected to those who have passed away. ‘Finding Nemo’ explores the same themes of parental devotion and family bonds – I would certainly swim to Australia to find my children if they were swept away and they know that. Disney reminds us about what is important in these busy lives of ours.

If you read more about ‘hygge’, I am sure you will agree that Disney movies are an essential ingredient. Togther with popcorn, of course!

Film No 26 (2015) : Vanilla Sky

vanilla skyWhen I first started my blog, aiming to watch 50 films in a year, I asked a real film buff what his favourites were, and what he would recommend. ‘Vanilla Sky‘ was in his Top 10 movies, he said. It’s a weird one, that’s for sure.

David Aames (Tom Cruise) is a handsome chap and is worth a few bob as well, having inherited a successful publishing company from his father. He lives the life – fast car, beautiful women. Somewhat unkindly, his best friend interprets David’s relationship with Julia Gianni (Cameron Diaz) as that of ‘fuck buddies’. After his own birthday party, when David is introduced briefly to the beguiling Sofia (Penelope Cruz), Julia confesses that she is actually in love with David. When it becomes clear to her that he doesn’t feel the same way, she rather spectacularly drives her car off a bridge and into a wall. Julie dies, but David survives, albeit with his face severely disfigured. Now he has lost his looks, will everything else disappear as well?

This part of the story is told in flashback, because David is recounting his life to a psychologist, Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). David has been arrested for murder and the Dr. is preparing a report on Aames’ mental state for the courts. There is clearly something wrong with David as he keeps having terrible dreams and nightmares, seems not to be able to distinguish reality from imagination. The reasons for his twisted perceptions are revealed – and it does take a bit to get your head round it! I found the ending ambiguous, probably deliberately written to be so, but that wondering always leaves me feeling a little dissatisfied. I prefer my ends tied up.

I think Tom Cruise’s reputation has been damaged in more recent years, following his marriage breakdowns and involvement with the Church of Scientology. Nevertheless, he made his name as an actor and whilst I don’t think ‘Vanilla Sky‘ is one of his best performances, he’s still good. Cruz, on the other hand had me utterly transfixed! With her lilting accent, gamine figure and expressive eyes, I thought she was wonderful (not that I am prone to girl crushes!). However, my critical skills have taken a bit of a bashing, as I discovered that her appearance in ‘Vanilla Sky‘ saw Penelope nominated for a Golden Raspberry ‘Worst Actress‘ award. I console myself with the knowledge that I am in good company in thinking she’s cool – Cruise dated her for 3 years after they appeared together in ‘Vanilla Sky‘. Surely Tom Cruise and I can’t both be wrong?

Film No 25 (2015) : Rush

RushMotor racing has always seemed like a slightly pointless spectator sport to me; standing about waiting for something which whooshes past as quickly as Harry Potter on his Nimbus 2000, then waiting for it to come around again. I am obviously missing something and can’t help thinking that the whole experience may be enhanced were I to be in the company of an up-and-coming racing driver, like James Hunt. He was apparently as passionate in the bedroom as he was on the track and Hunt’s unconventional behaviour is part of F1 folklore. One of his favourite racing-suit badges read: ‘Sex. The Breakfast of Champions’.

The film stars Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as his competitive rival, Niki Lauda and chronicles the rivalry between the two drivers during the 1970s. There is some archive footage at the end of the movie which shows just how well the actors captured the physical appearances of their subjects, as well as their characters. Whilst Lauda was technically- minded and focussed, Hunt seemed to have a much more opportunistic approach to achieving success. The film obviously has lots of very fast and exciting race scenes and ‘Rush‘ was nominated for awards for its editing, sound and stunts.

Aside from the racing though, the main focus of the story is the relationship between Hunt and Lauda. Although rivals, their circumstances brought them into contact with each other regularly and the pair were firm friends. Niki Lauda was severely burned when his Ferrari burst into flames following a crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix. Even though I am not a race fan, this piece of F1 history is well-documented and I did find myself anticipating the accident throughout most of the first part of the movie. Lauda’s recovery was excruciatingly painful, yet he was spurred on by his need to beat Hunt and was back on the track just 6 weeks later. He didn’t win that Italian Gran Prix, but the race was nevertheless a triumph.

Niki Lauda retired from racing in 1985. James Hunt was only 45 when he died of a heart attack. Asked about ‘Rush‘, Lauda reflected upon his friend; “The sad thing is that he isn’t here now. I wish he could have seen the movie because I know for sure he would have enjoyed it.” I think that is a very positive endorsement.

Film No 24 (2015) : Girl, Interrupted

Girl,_Interrupted_PosterAnother 127 minutes of my life that I won’t get back.

Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie star in this 1999 film about a young woman who is admitted to a mental hospital after she has taken a bottle of aspirin washed down with vodka. Susanna (Ryder) claims that she was only trying to get rid of a headache, but her actions are interpreted as attempted suicide. Once inside Claymoore, Susanna begins to form relationships with other patients, many of whom seem to have far more serious mental health issues than her. Amongst these is Lisa (Jolie) who is rebellious and spirited, inspiring devotion from many of the women, including Susanna.

Jolie won a Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie, but I felt as if she was over-acting. I found it hard to empathise with either her character or Susanna’s, who seemed like a self-obsessed, indulged young woman rather than someone with serious mental health issues. ‘Girl, Interrupted‘ is the film adaptation of an autobiography; I suspect that in the written word, themes such as sanity and madness, institutionalisation, the treatment of depression etc. were explored more fully: in a film, it is very difficult to successfully convey what is going on inside someone’s head. A mental hospital is never going to be a cheery setting and my over-riding feeling throughout the film was one of unending dreariness.

According to internet reviews, the film received a mixed reception. I know what that means. It means quite a lot of people thought it was rubbish. Instead of the few weeks stay intended for Susanna, she ends up staying at the hospital for almost two years. I think the movie was filmed in real time, as I felt every minute of that two years. Seriously, just don’t bother.

Film No 23 (2015) : What We Did On Our Holiday

what we did on holidayThere was no way really that I was not going to enjoy this film. Set in Scotland (including beach scenes from Gairloch) and starring both Billy Connolly and David Tennant, it would have to be pretty dire for me not to have liked it. Thankfully it is not dreadful and, even if you are not a fan of all things Caledonian, I’m sure you will find plenty to make you smile in this gentle film.

Abi (Rosamund Pike) and her husband, Doug (David Tennant), are living separately and negotiating their divorce via lawyers, after Doug was unfaithful. Their three children are aware of their Dad’s infidelity but when the whole family travels North to stay with Doug’s father, everyone is sworn to secrecy about the situation. Gordie (Billy Connolly) is approaching his 75th birthday but has terminal cancer; as this birthday celebration will probably be his last, Doug doesn’t want it to be marred by the news of his son’s marital problems. The family manages to keep up the pretence for a while once they arrive in Scotland, but the children are not great liars and before long they have inadvertently let slip the whole story. As the preparations for the birthday party gather pace, managed with military precision by Doug’s brother, Gavin (Ben Miller), Gordie escapes to the beach with the children. Chilling with his grand-kids, Gordie is clearly relaxed and happy. But when he is taken ill, Lottie, Mickey and Jess take some decisions which show they are more in tune with Grandad than the grown-ups are.

Directed by the makers of the TV series ‘Outnumbered’, many of the film scenes involving the children are improvised rather than closely scripted. This results in some hilarious comedy as the young actors ignore social conventions and say what they think. Equally telling are the adults’ reactions to the dialogue and I rather got the feeling that in several of the scenes, they have forgotten that they are acting and react spontaneously to the children. I’ve never met Billy Connolly so I don’t actually know what he is like, but during ‘What We Did On Our Holiday‘ my guess is that he wasn’t doing much acting at all; he was getting paid to be himself! His delight in the children, and the affable way in which he ridicules the vanities and pretences of his family greatly contribute to the charm of this film.

There is a message at the core of the movie, about being true to yourself and making the most of the opportunities that life presents. Nothing ground-breaking, and the audience is rolled along in the genial sway of the story without a sense of being preached at.

In undertaking the 50/50 challenge this year, I have found it difficult to find films that seeped into my pores the way that some books have. But  ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’ is one of the rare ones that has and I know I will be returning to it time and time again.

(Film available on Netflix.)

Film No 22 (2015) : Amazing Grace

Amazing GraceDue to the vagaries of the English education system, I actually didn’t study History beyond the age of 14. Up until that point, we had ‘done’ Mesopotamia, Iron Age man, Henry VIII, The Industrial Revolution and WW2. As you can see, there are some fairly significant gaps in my historical insight: I’m not sure if I should really admit in public that I do attempt to shore up my pitiful knowledge by watching films such as ‘Amazing Grace‘.

This 2006 production, directed by Michael Apted, tells the story of William Wilberforce, the 18th Century parliamentarian who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. ‘Wilber’ is played by Ioan Gruffudd, supported by an impressive British cast including Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney  and Rufus Sewell. Romola Garai plays Wilberforce’s wife – you may recognise her as ‘Sugar’ from the TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White.

The passage of Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade was not a smooth one, as the interests of merchants were not best served by the prevention of slave trading, particularly in coastal port towns. Despite first-hand accounts of the cruelty of the trade, from both former slaves and sailors, together with petitions and the input of anti-slavery activists, there was still opposition to the Bill. It was not until 1792 that Parliament passed a Bill calling for ‘gradual abolition’.

Incidentally, the film takes its name from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ which was penned by John Newton and published in 1779. Newton was himself the captain of a slave ship and although he continued to invest in the trade after his retirement, he did eventually denounce the inhumanity of slave trading. Wilberforce looked to Newton for spiritual guidance and also used Newton’s accounts of the slave trade to support his political campaign.

With its combination of classical actors, the great oratory and period setting, this film felt to me more like an elaborate stage production. As with most period dramas, I am always impressed by the attention to detail that goes into depicting the clothes, decor and customs of a bygone era and ‘Amazing Grace‘ was no exception.  Maybe not a stunning film, but definitely interesting and worth watching. Added to which, I also supplemented my meagre historical background, which can’t be a bad thing.