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 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 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.

Film No 20 (2015) : Spy

spyWell, who’d have thought it? Fat people can be good at their jobs. Amazing isn’t it?

What’s more, they can fall in love with beautiful people, like CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Jeez, talk about Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) punching above her not inconsiderable weight. Don’t worry though, just in case anyone in the film audience might be misled into thinking that the most corpulent member of the CIA office team may be able to make a positive contribution to the protection of national security, we will put her into an array of unflattering, stereo-typed and ridiculous characters when she goes undercover. Tell you what, we will also contrast her with several stick-thin actresses just to push the point home. Yet, Susan Cooper still comes out on top. Despite being a lump.

Do I sound scathing? More than a little. My co-viewers accused me of over-analysing. Maybe I am a little hyper-sensitive being of the chunky monkey variety myself, but my son did concede that ‘Spy’ would not have worked, been anywhere near as funny, had Susan Cooper been a breadstick.

Susan Cooper is the voice in Fine’s ear. Using advanced technology, she is able to track and monitor the agent’s precise location and direct him out of danger. When Fine is killed in action, Cooper persuades her boss Elaine (Alison Janney) to let her go undercover to hunt out the villains. The mission takes Cooper to Paris, Rome and Budapest as she is sent to track and report on the movements of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale). Having not been out in the field for some time, Cooper’s skills are rusty, but she grows in confidence and before long is wielding pistols and hanging off helicopters with the best of them.

I am not daft enough not to be able to see the comedy value of the film. It has a smart script, peppered with witty one-liners and quotable moments. It also has an array of glorious characters, particularly the wonderfully ambigious Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) and egotistical braggart Rick Ford (Jason Statham). The settings are glamorous and some of the action sequences nail-bitingly brilliant; notably, a fight between Cooper and Lia (Nargis Fakhri) in a hotel kitchen, where the choreography is stunning, a decent car chase and several exciting punch-ups. Miranda Hart stars as Nancy but to my mind, she is one of those actors (along with Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy and Billy Connolly) who just play themselves all the time.

‘Spy’ will make you laugh. I just couldn’t get over the insidious underlying messages. To me, laughing at fat people is a cheap gag.

Film No 18 (2015) : Fast and Furious 6

FF6 2I am a bit behind the curve with the ‘Fast and Furious’ series, seeing as how this was the first one I’d watched and it was number 6! I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter because they are all the same etc etc, but I think it would have helped me to understand the plot a bit more quickly, in particular the relationships between the gang members and how they came to be living in all quarters of the globe, if I’d seen the first 5. I had to keep asking my co-pilot (teenage son) for background details, which no doubt hampered his enjoyment of the movie more than it did mine.

So the Fast and Furious (which sounds like my old Classics teacher on a fruitless search for my homework!) crew members are recruited by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to track down a widget in very small, grey metal case. This undefined widget will become the means by which the entire world is obliterated, if it falls into the wrong hands. A hunt develops as Hobbs and the FF gang (lets call them the Goodies) try to catch the other people who have the widget (lets call them the Baddies). As an added complication, a former girlfriend of one of the Goodie gang has somehow become involved with the Baddie gang, but has lost her memory and shoots the guy she used to love. (It turns out she still loves him, but has forgotten). The FF crew will try to get the widget back as long as they are allowed back into the US without being prosecuted; so they must have committed crimes in previous movies.

The main part of the film is then taken up with hunting down the Baddies. The operation is masterminded from a dingy control centre which looks like the cockpit of the Starship Enterprise, even though it is only tracking five individuals, all of whom probably have ‘Find my IPhone’ enabled anyway. There are car chases, fist fights, karate kicks, shooting with bigger and bigger guns, more car chases. It all culminates in a master chase involving people hanging off a Jumbo Jet, ending with the whole thing exploding into flames and someone walking out of the inferno alive and clutching the metal case with the widget inside. I hope I haven’t spoiled the ending.

Special effects and stunts-wise, the movie is extremely accomplished. I couldn’t help paying special attention to Paul Walker though, knowing that he died in a car smash in 2013. He was the passenger in a car which hit a lamppost at over 80 mph. Although movies like ‘Fast and Furious’ provide all-action fun and entertainment, Walker’s appearance is a stark reminder that those metal boxes need to be treated with respect. In real life, people don’t walk away clutching the key to the universe in their hands.

Film No 25 (2014) : The Bucket List

the bucket listEdward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) meet on an oncology ward, where they are both faced with terminal illness. Their lives have been different; Edward has made a lot of money and lived a playboy lifestyle, but is now alone after several failed marriages and estrangement from his daughter. Carter, on the other hand, has had a settled job as a car mechanic and been married ‘long enough for the both of us’. The two men strike up an unlikely friendship and between them draw up a ‘Bucket List’ – a list of things to do before they die. The film shows how they fulfil some of their remaining dreams and make some peace with themselves and the world.

I was having a conversation with a real-life movie buff today and tried to explain that I really have no idea what constitutes a ‘good’ film. For me, it’s usually a case of whether I became engrossed in the story, was not offended by the content, enjoyed the scenes and came away with something to think about. Using those very simplistic criteria, I really enjoyed ‘The Bucket List’. It’s witty and tender, with some genuinely thought-provoking moments.

One of the parts of the film which made me reflect is a short scene in the middle of the film, where Cole and Carter are surveying the view over the Pyramids. Edward explains to Carter that: ‘“You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death.  pyramidsWhen their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions.  Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not.  ‘Have you found joy in your life?’  ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’” I mentally made a list of the things in life that bring me joy (those of you who know me will probably be surprised to know that chocolate didn’t make it into the rankings!) It also occurred to me to think about the ways in which my own life could bring more joy to others, a process which involved a fair amount of honest self-appraisal.

This 97-minute movie made me contemplate some very profound issues and, more importantly, I may make some changes as a result. I can’t guarantee the film will have the same effect on everyone, it might just be a bit too melodramatic for some, but it worked for me.bucket list