13 hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi


Director: Michael Bay (2016)

No guns are too big in this crunching and confusing action story.

It’s a typically glossy, macho and bombastic encounter from director Michael Bay, the man who unleashed four Transformers movies on the world.

This real story is set in 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi.

Lead by the James Badge Dale as former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, six CIA employed mercenaries defend a US compound against a vastly superior force, in Benghazi, Libya.

With sweat, blood, tears and ammo they must hold out until reinforcements arrive.

But local allies can’t be trusted and the US military are held up by diplomacy.

In a weak attempt at humanising the men, we see them posing in cool blue shades and suits, working out and face-timing their families back home.

Presumably because the director can’t abide not having an attractive in his movies, Alexia Barlier is thrust into non-scenes in a non-role as an undercover CIA operative.

Despite the battles being staged on an impressively large scale, it’s a glossy, video game vision of war.

The kinetic camerawork aspires to make the land seem as alien and threatening as possible.

The use of strong colour recalls the work of Tony Scott and the subject matter the superior war film Black Hawk Down (2001) by his brother Ridley. But nothing here is as good as their best work.

Written to sound good in the  trailers, the jargon heavy dialogue is barked between bursts of gunfire.

An anti intellectual script abandons global politics and blames the resourceful men’s predicament firmly on military cutbacks and weak willed pencil pushers.

Not afraid to make comparisons to the famous defence of the Alamo, it’s a hymn to the second amendment right to bear arms and could be interpreted as a call for the US to adopt an isolationist international policy.

As hordes of nameless militia are gunned down with pin point blood splattering accuracy, I often had no idea which of our heroes was whom, making it hard to care who makes it out alive.



Director: Tom McCarthy (2016)

Stop the press for this Oscar nominated drama of award winning journalism.

Based on real events, a US newspaper team fight to reveal the industrial scale cover up of child abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church in Boston.

It’s gripping tale which allows for the redemption of an individual, the validation of journalism and the recovery of civic pride.

So exactly the sort of worthy subject matter which allows Hollywood to feel good about itself and self-righteously pat itself on the back for making.

Consequently it’s garnered 6 Oscar nominations including best picture and director ,as well as for individual nods for performers Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in the supporting acting categories.

It’s set in the early 2000’s in the basement office of the close knit Spotlight newspaper investigations team of The Boston Globe. The real Spotlight Team earned the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Michael Keaton is weathered and wary as ‘Robby’ Robinson, veteran leader of the four strong department.

Sporting a supportive if volatile chemistry, they’re played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James.

They face the double threat of the burgeoning new media world and a new editor, played with softly spoken steel by Liev Schreiber.

Marty requests the team investigate complaints made against the church.

Being from out of town Marty is immediately considered someone not to be trusted. A situation compounded by being Jewish in a Catholic dominated city.

It is strongly in part to this insular attitude which allows members of the Catholic clergy to spend years abusing their flock, and for the hierarchy to systematically cover it up.

The powerful and wealthy institution has long put the fear of god into legal profession, justice system, police and even parts of the press.

We follow the team undertaking journalistic procedure of voluminous research, copious coffee consumption, door knocking, meetings with lawyers, prodigious note taking and telephone calls.

As files of evidence go missing from the courthouse, the team realise they can’t trust their colleagues, the police or the courts.

This is all familiar procedural stuff and it’s the high stakes and charisma of the actors which brings it alive.

We are drawn in by the performances, intrigued by their work and disgusted by the subject matter.

Covering a difficult subject in a dignified and sensitive manner, a strong narrative framework provides essential information in a clear manner.

But the film struggles to open out from a series of meetings into something more grand and cinematic.

More than one scene has the team gather around a telephone speaker to receive vital information from a Deep Throat type whistleblower.

As efficient as Spotlight is, it‘s the grim truth which keeps us watching, not the drama.


The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay (2016)

Take cover from an atomic bomb of fraud and stupidity in this knockabout drama based on the catastrophic financial crash of 2008.

Based on Michael Lewis’s account published as The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (pub. 2010) it’s been nominated for five Oscars including best film, best director and best actor for Christian Bale.

Ryan Gosling plays narrator Jared Vennett, an unrepentant bond salesman at Deutsche Bank.

Vennett meets the one-eyed Aspergers sufferer Michael Burry. Played by Bale in a bad haircut,  he’s a maverick hedge fund manager.

Burry’s discovered Wall Street has been selling mortgages to people with no jobs or income.

So he’s ‘shorting’ the housing market, i.e. betting it will crash and anticipates making billions of dollars by betting millions.

Vennett teams up with Steve Carell‘s permanently angry banker Mark Baum to get rich quick.

Yet no-one seems to have fun with the money they’re making or have any idea what to do with it, or even why they’re doing it.

The script wants us to like these guys, showing us their life traumas to garner sympathy.

They’re fictitious versions of real people and we’re encouraged to see them as heroic outsiders, uncovering the impending crisis.

But they willingly keep schtum and treat it as another investment opportunity.

Then the film’s millionaire movie producer Brad Pitt turns up looking like a retired geography teacher and flexing his social conscience, much like he did in his self-produced project 12 Years A Slave (2014).

Pitt plays another banker who makes a min out of the misery of millions..

Financial flicks Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (2014) and J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2013) have already covered much the same ground as The Big Short.

This hasn’t the blistering riotousness and moral vigour of the former in which Margot Robbie also appeared, and lacks the sober cynicism of the latter.

It’s all very Scorsese light with an up tempo pace and jokey tone created by pop tunes, freeze frames, frantic editing and characters regularly speaking directly to camera.

Plus it’s full of great performances, very energetic and niftily employs a game of jenga to explain what causes the banking meltdown.

But it’s misjudged in its sympathies and patronisingly employs Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez as themselves to explain the maths.

But The Big Short fails to condemn these hypocritical parasites – the bankers not the actresses – and instead dresses them as heroes.

They should be strung up from lamp posts with the rest of the bankers responsible.









David Bowie & the movies

From Elvis to Mick Jagger and Madonna, most successful musicians gravitate to the big screen and David Bowie was no exception.

Relaxed on camera, practised at performing to cue and no stranger to adopting a stage persona, Bowie was a natural fit for cinema.

However his greatest contribution to cinema wasn’t his thespian ability or his music, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Never one to repeat himself creatively, Bowie’s film career as an actor suffered for the same reason his recording career.

An inclination to experiment saw him explore creative opportunities with varying degrees of success.

His charisma, intelligence and otherworldly demeanour lent itself to portraying outlandish characters such as an alien, a vampire, a goblin king or a mad scientist, respectively in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) The Hunger (1983) Labyrinth (1986) and The Prestige (2006).

An audience watching these films would find it easy to suspend their disbelief with Bowie in these roles, the persistent suspicion being Bowie may have been one or all of these things in real life.

It’s far more difficult to imagine the onetime Ziggy Stardust as an ordinary person, so less successful were his attempts to essay straight roles such as his second world war P.O.W. in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983).

Unable to secure leading roles, there was a small role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1992) while more typical were cameos such as in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992).

There were many TV appearances as himself, including one in the short lived Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement scripted series, Full Stretch (1993).

Far from the best series from the creators of Whatever happened To The Likely Lads (1973-74) Bowie gamely played himself asleep in the back of a limousine.

Away from acting Bowie contributed the eponymous tracks to Cat People (1982) and Absolute Beginners (1986). Two great songs worthy of better films to accompany them.

The latter is a muddled British musical mostly remembered for launching Patsy Kensit onto an unsuspecting world.

Bowie’s singing and dancing contribution lifts the film in what is far less than the sum of its ambitious parts.

The former is a glossy retread of a 1942 classic horror and though a complete bomb on release, Bowie’s track is so good Quentin Tarantino used it as part of the soundtrack to Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Containing narrative based lyrics and dramatic swells, Bowie’s songs contain a cinematic air.

Plus the singer possessed non of the reluctant fear of, say The Beatles, to allow others to creatively use his music.

As a result Bowie’s tracks have been used in part or in whole in over 450 different movies.

This may not be a record for an individual artist but it feels like one.

Yes this includes concert recordings, documentaries and the like, but it’s still an impressive total.

The royalties accrued may have been a nice pension for a man who never retired but I feel he was at least equally interested to see how his music would be adapted and used.

Movie-makers have rewarded Bowie’s faith with a genre hopping mix of films.

From sci-fi such as Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) to football drama The Damned United (2009) musicals Moulin Rouge! (2001) thrillers American Psycho (2000) and romcoms Pretty Woman (1990) all have benefitted from Bowie’s music accompaniment.

However it’s certain Bowie considered his greatest contribution to cinema to be his most unique and personal, his son.

Duncan Jones’ debut directorial effort was the tremendous sci-fi thriller Moon (2009). This was followed up by the tricksy time-bending action adventure Source Code (2011). Next up is the much anticipated mega budget big screen adaption of online game Warcraft (2016).

From performing to soundtracks and bequeathing cinema an exciting new directing talent, its an extensive legacy for a man who was primarily a rockstar.

David Bowie. 1947-2016


Director: Ryan Coogler (2016)

The long running boxing saga of Rocky Balboa is given fresh legs and a face lift in this knockout sixth sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976).

It bursts out of its corner to challenge the box office clout of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), itself the sixth sequel to Star Wars (1977).

Both new films utilise fresh talent while returning the familiar fan base-pleasing elements, enabling the franchises to maintain their core audience while attracting a younger demographic.

Of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Creed (2016) it’s the latter which rejects the opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and sets out to make a name for itself, much like its titular character.

Coming to terms with one’s legacy is the dominant theme of Creed.

Although many plot points will seem very familiar to fans of the original Rocky, director Coogler is determined to give the franchise a new perspective while always respecting the spirit of the series.

Plus his talent, energy and superb eye allows him to carry off some moves of breathtaking technical accomplishment, especially considering it’s only his second feature after Fruitvale Station (2013) and he’s not even 30 years old.

Coogler has been astutely teamed up with the veteran cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Her CV boasts of working alongside Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes, Michael Apted, Alex Gibney and recently M. Night Shyamalan for The Visit (2015).

Following the work of directors John G. Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone, Coogler references old characters, re-uses locations and gives new impetus and meaning to memorable scenes.

For long standing supporters of the franchise, the first whisper of Bill Conti’s outstanding theme tune will have your neck hair on end.

Composer Ludwig Goransson uses it intelligently and sparingly and incorporates it alongside more contemporary tracks.

They  share a similar approach to the casting, replacing the old white characters on centre stage with a young black talent, with the emphasis on talent.

The excellent John Boyega was pushed to the fore in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in Creed it is the charismatic Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson.

Black characters were supporting roles in the early films and unequivocally the bad guys. First Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, then Mr T’s James ‘Clubber’ Lang existed to be beaten down and metaphorically emasculated.

In Creed not only is Adonis the central character but he is absolutely the sympathetic and rampant beating heart of the story.

Stallone offers a poignant gravitas as Rocky, the former champ who’s still taking life on the chin.

Never more comfortable than in the Italian Stallion’s pork pie hat, the actor wisely refrains from donning his old gloves.

Rocky’s persuaded to train Adonis, the illegitimate son of one time adversary turned friend now deceased, Apollo Creed.

Creed’s death in the boxing ring weighs heavily in different ways on both characters.

Boxing offers Adonis the opportunity to come to terms with his father’s absence during his life, to honour his legacy while breaking free of his shadow.

Rocky has no desire to see another colleague and friend die from boxing injuries.

Living downstairs in Adonis’ Philadelphia apartment block is Tessa Thompson’s aspiring musician Bianca.

The fluid chemistry between the young actors serve as much as any aspect of the film to invigorate it.

Putting the focus on the pair allows for an introduction to a new generation of movie goers for whom the Rocky franchise may possess scant cultural cachet.

Events allow Adonis a title bout against the world champion Ricky Conlan.

Presumably real life boxer turned actor Tony Bellew was given his shot at the big time to add verity to the boxing scenes.

However he’s a less cinematic pugilist than Jordan and lacks the on-screen menace of the opponents in previous films.

Conlan is well short of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago from Rocky IV (1985) to name but one.

With artifice working more effectively for cinema than reality, this suggests it’s better to employ actors who can pretend to box than have boxers who aspire to act.

Despite this, the urgent and bloody bouts are pure Hollywood fiction in the best Rocky tradition and the story lands some brisk emotional punches.

The big fight takes place at Goodison Park, home of Everton FC. It’s the best drama seen there all season.


Director: Lenny Abrahamson (2016)

Disturbingly dark and horribly tense, this modern day fable is all the more gripping for the love at the heart of its story.

It’s told through the eyes of five year old Jack via Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing emotionally truthful performance.

He’s grown up in a decaying and cramped single room, entertained with tales of imaginary worlds told by his only companion, his mother Joy.

She’s played by the staggering excellent Brie Larson and the pair share a wonderfully warm chemistry.

Larson has been deservedly BAFTA nominated for leading actress and named as one of their Rising Stars of 2016. An Oscar nom should also be forthcoming.

At night Jack must hide in the cupboard to sleep because a bogeyman called thrusts himself into their world.

We hear of him and hear his voice long before we see him and Sean Bridgers is brilliantly and pathetically creepy as the predatory Old Nick.

Joan Allen and William H. Macy provide strong support as Joy’s parents Nancy and Robert.

As adults we can guess at the truths hidden from Jack and our fears for him and Joy make for a thoroughly unsettling watch.

A great deal of this could have oozed from the mind of Terry Gilliam in his disturbing Tideland (2006) phase.

After confronting Old Nick it is Jack’s turn to keep Joy from the grasp of the room’s demons.

Their mutual love is the thin thread of hope to which they cling to survive

The extraordinary central performances are supported by smart direction, scriptwriting and cinematography.

Emma Donaghue’s screenplay from her novel (pub. 2010) has been nominated by BAFTA for best adapted screenplay. Apart from this category and Larson’s acting nod, the film has sadly been overlooked for British honours.

Room was lensed by Danny Cohen, one of Britain’s most illustrious and hard working cinematographers.

Along with Roger Deakins, Cohen seems destined never to win an Academy Award for his work.

He was nominated for Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) and worked again with the director Tom Hooper on the The Danish Girl (2016). Other recent work includes X+Y (2015) and London Road (2015).

Cohen has frequently collaborated with Shane Meadows on the This Is England TV series and his ability to capture grimy realities is fully exploited in Room.

There’s always room at the top for films this good.


A War

Director: Tobias Lindholm (2016)

Guns, grenades and gavels will shred your nerves in this riveting courtroom drama set in the Afghan war.

An army commander is looking down the barrel of a long prison sentence for killing civilians in the act of saving his men.

A smart script gives meaning to the intense battle scenes and the film is always sympathetic to the soldiers.

We fear for the soldiers, worry for the dirt-poor locals and agonise for the families back home.

Danish duo Tobias Lindholm and Pilou Asbaek team up for the second time as director and star respectively.

They previously collaborated on the gripping A Hijacking (2013) where Asbaek played a ship’s captain held hostage by Somali pirates.

A Hijacking was followed into cinemas by Paul Greengrass’ similar though not superior Captain Philips (2013) which starred Tom Hanks.

As well as directing, Lindholm also writes his own scripts and was responsible for writing the Mads Mikkelson drama The Hunt (2012).

All three scripts feature men under intense pressure stemming from decisions made under stress at work.

Asbaek plays Company Commander Claus Pedersen. He is brave and devoted leader of his team, accompanying them on patrol to restore moral after the loss of one of his men to an IED.

Gallows humour peppers the dialogue and there is an absolute lack of gung ho jingoism.

The tumult of a firefight is created with great sound editing, dust clouds and frantic camerawork.

Having the cast scream at each other in their native Danish adds to the turmoil.

The Taliban are a mostly unseen if ferocious enemy, portrayed by the chaos and death they cause. Their victims are all too easily identifiable.

There are no overt political points being made but the mere presence of Danish nationals patrolling the plains of Afghanistan is a defiantly curious phenomenon.

I spent a lot of time urging them to keep their bloody heads down – while I crouched behind the back of the chair in front.

Being in court is more stressful than the battleground for the heroic Claus. His fight on either front will keep you gripped.

Bolshoi Babylon

Director: Nick Read, Mark Franchetti (2016)

This intriguing documentary allows us to peek behind the stage curtain of the world renowned Bolshoi, the ballet company described as as a mirror of Russian society.

The Bolshoi is the focal point of Russian high culture and Prime Minister Dimitry Medveved boasts of it as a secret weapon selling Russia to the world.

Overlooked by the Kremlin just down the road, it’s been the place for Russian leaders from Stalin onwards to entertain visiting dignitaries such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the USA’s Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.

Her predecessor as Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Russia as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma‘ with the key being Russia’s national interest.

It’s the first time anyone has been granted uncensored access to the theatre and directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti take full advantage.

Peering about the dark nooks and crannies of the grand old building, they uncover the egos and rivalries of performers and executives.

They capture spectacular shows and candid catty comments of dancers waiting in the wings.

The performers delight in demonstrating the great grace, strength and finesse of their olympian bodies.

And we’re close enough to see the sweat and strain beneath the heavy stage make up and beautiful costumes.

The institution is rampant with accusations of corruption and incestuous staff relations.

The Bolshoi was rocked when former lead dancer turned artistic director and establishment baiting Sergei Filin was blinded in an acid attack.

His rival dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko is arrested with unseemly haste and packed off to six years hard labour on a penal colony. I’m guessing Siberia.

The Kremlin take advantage and send in new broom director Vladimir Urin to sweep away Filin’s regime.

His ruthless top down management structure is powerless to prevent patronage from the powerful political elite on whom it is dependent for state funding.

As various interviewees talk at length while trying to give little away, the material is carefully organised to present an uncompromising picture and hint at one even darker.

 Nothing seems to have changed too too much in modern Russia.