A Hologram For The King

Director: Tom Tykwer (2016)

The desert sun shines a soft light on a middle age crisis in this culture clash comedy drama.

Handsome, sentimental and undemanding, it relies heavily on the charm of a hangdog Tom Hanks to hold our attention.

He plays a salesman in a slump called Alan Clay, who jets off to Saudi Arabia to sell an innovative holographic conference call system to the King.

But he finds himself trapped in a Kafka-esque routine of cancelled appointments, stone-walling receptionists and elusive contacts.

This multiplies Alan’s many anxieties which manifest themselves as a cyst on his back and panic attacks.

Seeking treatment he’s befriended by glamorous doctor Zahra and his wild haired driver Yousef.

They’re played with graceful intelligence by Sarita Choudhury and a deceptive deapan delivery by Alexander Black. Ben Whishaw and Tom Skerritt appear briefly.

Hologram opens with an agitated Clay singing Talking Heads 1980’s ode to existential angst Once In A Lifetime.

This fabulous if too short sequence is the only time the film offers any daring. After which it settles into a comfortable rhythm, rolling along as gently as the desert dunes which stretch interminably along Clay’s horizon.

There’s a running joke involving Clay falling off his chair and watching Hanks tapping out flirtatious emails at his computer has echoes of Nora Ephron’s comedy You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Adapted from Dave Eggers novel of the same name, the script leaves politics and religion in the shade and offers a sunny outlook on the possibilities which exist in even the most unpromising terrain.

 

 

 

In The Heart Of The Sea

Director: Ron Howard (2015)

It’s all hands on deck for an epic old fashioned adventure on the high seas.

Based on the events which inspired Herman Melville‘s classic novel Moby Dick, it’s a shipshape and manly yarn full of arrogance, greed and danger.

The story is anchored by the reliable talents of Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson as novelist Melville and drunken old sea-dog Thomas Nickerson.

One dark night in 1850, Melville pays Nickerson to tell the truth behind the voyage of the whaling ship The Essex, on which he served on as a cabin boy thirty years earlier.

Whaling is a dangerous and potentially lucrative industry, harvesting the seas for oil to serve America’s fast growing population.

Back then Nickerson was in the charge of Owen Chase, an experienced first mate, played with manly gusto by Chris Hemsworth.

The star of Marvel’s Thor always gives good smoulder and here he glowers with resentment.

Impoverished and eager to provide for his pregnant wife, Chase’s ambitions to captain his own ship are thwarted by the shipping company directors.

They make him serve under Benjamin Walker’s novice Captain Pollard, the privileged son of an important investor.

Lashed together in mutual antipathy and greed, they sail from Nantucket round Cape Horn to the Pacific ocean.

The scenes where the crew row out in tiny boats to manually harpoon their enormous prey are terrific.

But the increasingly desperate hunt for whales goes awry with the crew facing fires, storms, mutiny and of course a very angry white whale.

The heart of the sea becomes a very dark place indeed as despair and madness grip the sailors.

Following Rush (2013) the biopic of motor racing star James Hunt, this is the second film Ron Howard has made with Hemsworth.

Exciting, intelligent and respectful to it’s source In The Heart Of The Sea is the sort of film Hollywood is now accused of not making any more.

Well now they have so you really should go and see it.

 

 

 

Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes (2015)

From the breathtaking beginning to the doom laden finale, the 24th James Bond adventure is an extraordinary explosive and epic episode of the franchise.

The spy filled cinematic year has included reasonably received riffs on the genre including Kingsman, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man From UNCLE.

Now the daddy of espionage returns to slap down the young pretenders.

Returning in his fourth and possibly final film of an extraordinarily successful tenure, the 47 year old Daniel Craig offers an interpretation of Ian Fleming’s alter-ego at least equal to the very best.

Spectre is fresh and ambitious despite the weight of history and expectation.

So spectacular, sexy and superb in all departments, it sometimes feels less than the sum of its magnificent parts.

Yet British director Sam Mendes is playing a bigger game than merely creating a standalone action thriller.

He’s also made a fabulous final chapter in a four film reinvention of an overly familiar character.

Prior to Craig each Bond movie was a self-contained story connected not by story but by character.

It’s now clear we’ve been watching a long form story which began way back with the Englishman’s debut in the role in Casino Royale (2006).

It’s a bold strategic 9 year move inspired perhaps by the 10 year long Harry Potter series and a forerunner of Marvel‘s creation of a cinematic universe.

This approach won’t harm the home entertainment box-set sales.

The famous gun barrel opening sequence is re-installed and few themes create a shiver of expectation as effectively as Bond’s does.

Following on from Skyfall (2012), a message from beyond the grave sends 007 off-piste and outside the law.

As he follows a trail of clues from Rome, to Austria and Morocco, he once more encounters the deadly Quantum organisation.

It’s a procession vodka martini’s, dangerous women, gorgeous locations, terrific stunts, powerful henchmen and a completely cuckoo villain. Bond’s car is quite beautiful even by his standards.

There’s paranoia, conspiracy, betrayal, torture, sex and death.

And as a riposte to those who suggest Craig’s interpretation lacks humour, it’s also very funny.

A trio of European stars add indispensable talent and glamour.

As the oldest actress to be cast opposite Bond, Monica Bellucci’s widow riffs on a character on in The Italian Job (1969).

Lea Seydoux is an excellent foil and Christoph Waltz mercifully keeps a firm hand on his inclination to camp.

An intelligent script works hard to give ample screen time to Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw who return as MI6 stalwarts Moneypenny, M and Q.

They also contribute to the two and a half hour running time and if anything was to be trimmed, it would be this extra muscle.

As cinema owners will be forced to have fewer screenings per day to accommodate Bond’s length, it will be interesting to see if this affects the box office.

This potential shortfall may be compensated for by more expensive IMAX tickets. The opening Mexico sequence certainly warrants the extra cost to the cinema-goer.

It’s dynamically photographed by Dutch-Swedish Hoyte van Hoytema. His work on Interstellar (2014) was one of the few high points of Chris Nolan’s pompous ego trip.

But here the rich wreaths of shadows he wraps around the players are more reminiscent of his glorious work which contributed so much to the success of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Sam Smith’s theme song sounds thin on the radio but works well in situ over the sensual opening titles.

Mendes encourages his actors to play every scene as if it’s their last. Which for Daniel Craig, may well be the case.

Suffragette

Director: Sarah Gavron (2015)

Political passion and personal punishment power a prodigious performance in this stirring historical drama.

In the dark, violent world of 1912, a young mother risks everything as she battles the government for the right to vote.

Fictitious characters mix with real people and events to create a gripping story filled with emotional truth.

Following her excellent turn in Far From The Madding Crowd (2015), Carey Mulligan gives another mesmerising performance as factory worker and reluctant activist Maud Watts.

Her young son George is ominously diagnosed by Helena Bonham Carter’s chemist as ‘a bit chesty’.

Hardworking and aspirational, Maud is drawn into the bosom of the suffragettes and their world of nighttime rallies, back room meetings and property attacks.

Soon she feels the full force of the law in the form of the intelligence gathering Special Branch and truncheon wielding constables.

With Maud’s behaviour considered to be madness not badness, she’s ostracised, beaten, jailed and endures a hunger strike.

Radicalised by her experiences, she is soon waging a guerrilla war alongside veteran campaigner Emily Davison.

It mostly involves blowing up the UK’s communications infrastructure. i.e. postboxes.

Corrupt politicians collude with the media to keep the violent campaign off the front pages.

In desperation to  be heard, the women seize upon a target so big as to be impossible to ignore.

At times the heartbreaking events resemble the grimmer moments of Les Miserables (2012). With the thankful exception of the awful sing-alongs.

It’s an inspiring tale of kindness, courage and comradeship Which at times tries too hard. We’ve long since been won over by Maud by the time she’s reduced to waiting in the rain.

An intelligent script insists the women are fighting a war and the dialogue includes frequent exhortations for them never to give up.

It celebrates their bravery and solidarity against the state who use covert surveillance and brutality to suppress a popular political uprising.

However it aligns the direct methods and organisational prowess of the suffragettes with historical and contemporary terrorist groups such as the IRA.

This may prove problematical to viewers. It’s certainly the starting point for an interesting debate.

Cinematographer Edu GrauIt captures the drama in palettes of browns and greys, as films of this sort so often are.

Better known as James Bond’s Q, soft spoken Ben Whishaw is counter-intuitively cast as Maud’s working class barrow boy husband Sonny.

His subtle acting suggests a marriage of convenience and as the story progresses, Sonny’s feebleness adds perspective to Maud’s situation.

Geoff Bell stops shy of pantomime as an abusive factory boss and the film is not too sure what to do with Brendan Gleeson’s cop. His concerned reasonableness challenges you to remember he’s one of the guys.

Meryl Streep makes a brief and typically stagey appearance as head girl Emmeline Pankhurst. It veers towards an impersonation of Maggie Smith in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In The Iron Lady (2011) cinema’s grand dame won an Oscar for playing the famously unsisterly first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

During her divisive time in office she was not for turning when it came to civil unrest and terrorist campaigns.

Spoken of in hushed voices in her absence, Pankhurst addresses a crowd messianically from a balcony and a signed book is passed around as if a holy relic.

This is the nearest religion comes to being referenced in the film.

There are no priests in the church which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed and the position of the established church seems to be one of benign neutrality.

This despite organised religion having a poor track record in the public arena of women’s rights.

Made In Dagenham (2010) showed car factory workers campaigning for equal pay in the 1970’s. Suffragette is a spiritual prequel and in the 60 odd years between the periods portrayed, it’s sobering to realise how little progress had been made.

As a representative of all the foot soldiers of the suffrage movement, Mulligan’s emotional performance puts us at the heart of their struggles against the established order.

She easily wins my vote for 2016’s Best Actress Oscar.

The mythical James Bond, 007

BOND AND KING ARTHUR

King Arthur

In the 23rd James Bond thriller,  Skyfall, director Sam Mendes sought to elevate super spy James Bond, from mere Hollywood action star, to a heroic symbol for England.

By employing poetry, imagery and story elements of Arthurian legend, Mendes stretches an umbilical cord through time to connect Britain’s most modern fictitious national hero, Bond, with it’s most ancient and legendary, King Arthur.

In Le Morte d’Arthur (pub. 1485), Thomas Malory codified the legend of King Arthur from disparate sources and established what we now consider to be the definitive legend.

Arthur is an orphan who wields a weapon only he can command and must fight a traitor, his step-brother Modred, to save his kingdom. Arthur is betrayed by a woman, is mortally wounded in action and hidden away from the world by the lady in the lake. There he will await until his return to once again rescue his land at the hour of his country’s greatest need.

In Skyfall these events and all occur, though not in this order, and are there to subliminally underscore how mythical Bond is.

In the pre-title sequence we see Bond shot by fellow agent Eve, before falling into a river and being pulled under water by a godlike female hand. Being brought low by a woman named Eve is obviously a very Christian idea, reminding us how closely Arthurian legend deliberately echoes the story of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, death and his resurrection.Skyfall

Bond undergoes a symbolic Christian death at the hands of his followers, but remains in limbo waiting to be reborn. He only returns from the dead , when England is threatened by terrorists lead by a former British agent.

In Skyfall Bond/Arthur are tasked with defending Britain from Javier Bardem’s Silva/Mordred. All are orphans raised to be warriors.De la croix

And just as Arthur and Mordred were related, so we have lots of references to Judi Dench’s M as their metaphorical mother.

Bond is revealed to have a birth mother with the name De la Croix.

De la Croix translates as ‘Of the cross’ and so ties in with the idea of resurrection. This feeds neatly into the conceit of Bond regenerating every time a new actor assumes the role.

It’s also a nod to Ian Fleming’s socialite mother, Evelyn Beatrice St. Croix Rose.

Bond’s Merlin figure of course, is Ben Whishaw’s Q. He provides Bond with a pistol registered to his unique palm print so only he can use it. It’s an updated Excalibur, the sword in the stone.

Bond sails through a dragon’s mouth prior to sleeping with his enemy’s mistress.

Dragon mouth

Compare this to how Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon has Merlin invoke the Dragon’s breath to seduce lgrayne, the wife of Duke of CornwalI. John Boorman vividly illustrates this in his excellent telling of the Arthurian legend, in 1981’s Excalibur .

We hear how following the loss of his parents, the barely  teenage Bond spent three days in a tunnel before emerging an adult. An echo of the vigil an aspiring knight had to endure before being allowed to join the chivalric order.

Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson wrote a cycle of narrative poems concerning King Arthur called Idylls of the King (pub. 1859). This is the pertinence of Judi Dench’s M quoting Tennyson as Bond races to her rescue.

All we’re missing is a character called Mallory to appear and oops, that just happens to be the new M’s real name.Fiennes

I don’t believe a director as erudite as Mendes would incorporate these details by coincidence. It would almost impossible to do so by accident.

These details in the subtext of the film echo in the subconsciousness of the viewer. They reinforce the idea of Bond as heroic saviour of the British people.

The conflation of Bond and Arthur places 007 at the centre of British literary, cinematic and Christian cultural tradition, elevating him from the contemporary to the mythical, the once and future king of the franchise.

Paddington

Director: Paul King (2014)

In a huge bear hug of fun to warm your family, Paddington the loveable orphan bear from deepest darkest Peru makes his big screen debut.

This marvellously magical and funny adventure retains all the silliness and charm of Michael Bond’s original books. And hidden in the script is a hatful of kind messages, handed around as often as Paddington offers out his beloved marmalade sandwiches.

The computer-animated bear, endearingly voiced by Ben Whishaw, blends seamlessly into his real-life surroundings.

When a British explorer in Peru found a family of extraordinary bears, he left them with a passion for marmalade and a gramophone for learning English.

Years later an optimistic young bear stows away to find the explorer but London is not as warm and welcoming as he has been led to believe.

As in the book, he’s discovered at Paddington station by the Brown family who name him after the first sign they see and then take him home for the night.

Mrs Brown (a wonderful Sally Hawkins) and son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) take a shine to the bear. But teenage daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris) is embarrassed while uptight Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) simply wants rid of him.

Mrs Brown helps Paddington search for the explorer but wicked Millicent wants to add the talking bear to her collection of stuffed animals.

She’s played by a snakeskin-clad Nicole Kidman, who’s always better when she’s being bad. There is a brief showing from Jim Broadbent as antiques dealer Mr Gruber, Broadbent channels Benny Hill’s performance as The Toymaker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Paddington inadvertently causes mayhem in a series of imaginative stunts and the film romps along before the slapstick ending in an exciting night at the British Museum.

If young kids don’t enjoy this treat I’ll eat Paddington’s hat – and all his marmalade sandwiches.