Red Army

Director: Gabe Polsky (2015)

Russian sportsmen skate on the thin ice of Cold War politics in this cracking ice hockey documentary.

With drama on an off the rink, it’s an irrepressible combination of huge egos, fabulous action, political power games and private gain.

This film is built around interviews with the charismatic former champion player Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov.

Hugely rude, arrogant and compelling, he’s also the world’s most decorated ice hockey player.

He’s a shockingly refreshing antidote for anyone who suffers the bland, PR controlled and media-trained offerings of English football’s players and pundits.

The presentation of his achievements is one of many sequences that use humour to hurry the puck of narrative along.

In football terms Slava and his team mates play in a style best described as Total Hockey.

With even my limited exposure to or understanding of the game, the footage is as exciting and demanding as any sport I’ve seen.

Like many players Slava was specifically drafted to be eligible for the army team, it formed the vanguard of the USSR’s propaganda wing.

This relationship between the state and the individual is explored through the prism of Slava’s career, an astonishing accumulation of trophies, teams, air miles and vendettas.

With consummate timing Red Army holds back it’s best shot until the last minute.

For anyone with an interest in sport, history, politics or just wants to admire some really cool cold war kits, this is a brilliant watch.

 

World War Z

Director: Marc Foster (2013)

Max Brooks’ brilliant zombie apocalypse novel has been crunched into an action movie template, given a tremendous blockbuster gloss and lit with Brad Pitt’s star wattage.

There is little humour and not much sentimentality but the performances full of conviction and provide an anchor for the action.

It keeps the real world sense of the book while shedding its multi-storied narrative.

Pitt remains a charismatic screen presence but beyond generic action man qualities, no great acting range is required of him.

He plays Gerry Lane, a UN investigator on a mission to save what’s left of the human race after a sudden, devastating zombie attack.

No one knows where or how the zombie pandemic originated but the globe’s cities are abandoned after the lightning fast and murderous onslaught of the undead.

Leaving his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and daughters Connie (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) in the supposed safety of a US aircraft carrier, Lane flies around the world looking for a cure for what is assumed to be a virus.

Moving swiftly from the US to South Korea, Israel and Wales, the blockbuster’s action sequences keep tumbling over one another like the many frenzied zombies at the walls of Jerusalem. That is one of the many thrilling sequences that are tense, violent and guaranteed to make you jump.

With much twitching, convulsing and moaning, the teeth-knocking monsters operate at two speeds: in the absence of prey they are in a moaning and shuffling semi-hibernation. When they attack they become a scary, swirling, swarm of flesh-hungry predators.

Some smart dialogue is scattered among the skin-crawling sound effects. This helps generate tension by hijacking your imagination to do the film’s dirty work for it.

Among the helicopters, transport planes and aircraft carriers, it unusually features soldiers who can shoot straight. Plus it presents sidekicks to provide fresh meat so we’re never sure who will survive.

Driven with a frantic energy and technical prowess, World War Z is is a exciting action adventure.

Though it’s preposterous by nature, the conviction of the players keep the spectacle grounded.

The plot holes widen alarmingly as the film struggles to conclude and though it struggles to maintain its ferocious pace, Z still keeps you interested until its surprisingly low-key ending.

Anti-social

Director: Reg Traviss (2015)

Illegal street art and armed robbery collide with no great interest in this poorly executed London thriller.

Just as the talent of a graffiti artist offers an escape from his sink-estate upbringing, his hard fought-for future is threatened when he’s dragged into brother’s criminal world.

Believing in the script far more than I did, the earnest cast give their all in this functional collection of uninspired confrontations, punctuated by woeful dialogue.

It has no views on contemporary Britain other than a concrete belief in the integrity of the street and keeping it real.

Neither slick and flash or gritty and hard-edged, it’s edited with energy but not enough control – too many scenes are padded out for no particular reason.

Meanwhile it’s shot through with whip-pans, fast-cuts and lots of shaky-cam – with the occasional slow-motion dropped in.

The soundtrack is loud, busy and contemporary, adding to the overall sense creative decisions were made on the basis of being cool – instead of serving the story.

Skilled and daring artist Dee (Gregg Sulkin) is on the cusp of international fame. He has a model girlfriend, a part-time job as courier and spends his evenings being chased by the police for defacing property with spray cans.

Meanwhile his step-brother Marcus (Josh Myers) is out robbing diamonds with his gang of axe wielding super-bike riders. Myers has a rough-edged lairy charm and a suitably imposing physique but is given the very worst of the dialogue.

They have a likeable chemistry; part brother, part father/son relationship.

When Marcus invests his big score in a drugs deal, he falls foul of the violent West Grove crew leaving him in debt to a feared firm and the target of hit-men. There’s also a police grass at large on the estate.

Dee is called on to help out among the welter of drugs, sex, shoot-outs, rapes and beatings, putting pressure on his fledgling career and on his relationship with girlfriend Kirsten (Meghan Markle).

His mother Nadine (Maria Fernadez Ache) is Spanish and spends her time stoned in her flat and is one of the many weakly written woman who suffer abuse in a variety of ways and are forgotten about by the end.

The unfortunate molls Emma and Tara (Sasha Frost and Sophie Colquhoun) take the worst of it. Only Rochelle (Caroline Ford) serves the story in any way and even her plot arc is left dangling as loose as her over-sized ear-rings.

Though more than one person dies, no-one learns anything or develops as a character. There may be a decent idea buried underneath the geezer posturing and street language the film-makers are overly-enamoured of, but it’s not worth persevering with to unearth it.

Samba

Director: Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano (2015)

This inter-racial romance among immigrants in Paris breaks hearts and cultural barriers with an abundance of humanity and humour.

Working-class Senegalese trainee chef Samba Cisse (Omar Sy) has lived illegally for ten years in Paris. He is arrested at work and placed in a detainment centre next to the airport.

Highly-strung case-worker Alice (Charlotte Gainsberg) helps him with his court case. They are both passionate and give good anger. She’s warned by the younger, sexier, more cynical Manu (Izia Higelin) not to become involved with her clients.

Released and required to leave France but under no pressure to do so, Samba returns to work in a succession of unskilled, casual, cash in hand jobs in security, construction, window cleaning and so on. They all posses an element of danger.

Samba is accompanied by his effervescent Brazilian friend Wilson (Tahar Rahim) and they make a likeable double-act, helping and protecting one another from criminals and the police.

As the tentative relationship between Samba and Alice develops, they have a beneficial effect on the other’s personalities – but Samba’s all too human needs and weaknesses return to threaten his potential happiness and fragile stability.

The ambitious opening scene is a lengthy shot beginning in a lively, wealthy wedding reception. We follow a fabulous wedding cake as it’s transported off the dance floor through the hotel corridors and into the depths of the kitchen where the camera stops and lingers on the men washing dishes.

It is no coincidence these are the first black faces we see and in one wordless, dynamic shot, the film’s occupations with identity, status and employment are established. The shot has echoes of both the opening of The Great Beauty (2014) and the Copacabana scene form Goodfellas (1990).

There is also a virtuoso and vertiginous shot looking down an office block which was sufficiently well constructed to make me dizzy.

Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography avoids making Paris a chocolate box of delight but is presented as a busy, complex, working city. In this film of contrasts, light and colour are used to differentiate between calm and chaos, wealth and poverty.

The music is sparse but used to terrific effect. We hear a confusion of languages which helps the exploration of identity; how it is defined for us but also how we can choose to define ourselves.

An intelligent script takes great delight in pointing out the absurdities and failings of the bureaucratic immigration system, not least in making the observation people are seeking asylum from places the French middle-class go on holiday.

Alice and Samba are hard-working, charming and flawed. In a cafe they’re filmed in shallow focus to block out the world around them, encouraging us to concentrate on their beautiful faces.

They enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy being with them. They’ll always have Paris.

Far From The Madding Crowd

Director: Thomas Vinterberg (2015)

Passion, obsession and betrayal burst from every frame of this compelling, fresh and faithful adaption of Thomas Hardy‘s classic Victorian novel.

His rustic romance of a headstrong heiress and her three wildly different suitors is powered by a first-rate cast on their best form. Carey Mulligan is captivating as Bathsheba Everdene, famously played by Julie Christie in the 1967 version.

The orchestral score swells over the green and pleasant land of a production rich in period detail. The handsome locations are shot on film  – not digitally – in the county of Dorset (Wessex) where the book was set. This beds the story deep in historical and local context.

In an economical piece of character sketching, we first meet the beautiful, intelligent and impulsive Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) riding freely on horseback. She is seen by the good shephard Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is diligently watching his flock. She is sporting a sleek, red riding-jacket, he is dressed in practical working clothes.

Valuing her independence above all else, Bathsheba is saved from an uncertain future when she inherits her uncle’s farm and determines to restore it to it’s once prosperous profitability.

Bathsheba is a political beast who doles out praise and punishments to her workers in public, she not only helps on the farm but is careful to be seen to be helping out on the farm.

She’s aided and abetted by her servant Liddy (Jessica Barden) who’s a useful source of village gossip and accompanies Bathsheba in making merry mischief.

As circumstances turn darker so Liddy slips from the frame. This is a shame as they share a sweet and believable friendship and it offers Bathsheba an extra dimension, preventing her from being defined by her relationship with men.

Bathsheba recognises men are attracted to her but sees it as a trap with no value – until she struggles in the man’s world of business. At the local market she’s reduced using her charm to encourage the local merchants to at least try her merchandise.

Farming life is a wild meadow of activity. As well as harvests, sheep dips and recruitment fairs, there’s bare-knuckle boxing, swordplay, gambling, storms, fires, madness and the tragic death of an infant.

The plot revolves around the ill-considered sending of a valentines card. When she is kissed for the first time Bathsheba is shocked by the strength of her own reaction. It derails her social sure-footedness and leads to choices which shreds her independence and happiness.

Bathsheba receives three propose; from the honest shepherd Gabriel, swaggering soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and the emotionally fragile landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). She sings a duet with one, rides tandem with another and marries a third.

Though the script sensibly streamlines the novel, it remains emotionally articulate and frequently funny. The focus is so tight on Bathsheba, outside of her suitors and Liddy, there’s barely another character who has a speaking role of note.

This is the weakness of the film as we’d like to spend longer here, perhaps wander around the countryside and meet a few more of the interesting looking characters who populate the village.

As the tone grows darker and the story more violent, the assured pacing of Danish director Vinterberg delivers dramatic action which is always underpinned by strong character motivation.

At quieter moments he is able to capture the nuance of social status, such as when characters wordlessly shift seats around a dinner table to accommodate an unexpected, superior guest.

Vinterberg is assisted by the vivid cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and the briskly seductive editing of Claire Simpson.

Although unquestionably a fine and suitably physical actor with the requisite intelligence and stillness of purpose, it’s curious to cast the Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts in a role who embodies what Hardy saw as the great virtues of the English.

Michael Sheen demonstrates his tremendous ability to suggest torrents of inner turmoil with a bare twitch of the mouth. As Boldwood struggles for the correct words, his quiet pleading is magnificently crafted from tight smiles and difficult pauses.

It has echoes of Prince Charles questioning the meaning of love when announcing his engagement to the considerable younger Diana Spencer.

The remarkable Carey Mulligan gives a rich and nuanced performance of acute emotional resonance. Her doe eyes convey Bathsheba’s vulnerability, strength and desire as well as her growing self-awareness and changing values.

Mulligan may not win next year’s best actress Oscar or even make the final cut, but she’s the early high-score on the leader board.

It’s easy to fathom why the men fall for Bathsheba, it’s more of a wonder why more men don’t.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Director: Roy Andersson (2015)

As befits a black comedy filmed in beige, there’s an absolute lack of glamour in this weird Swedish whimsy.

Like the slowest of comedy sketch shows, it consists of a series of scenes loosely connected by recurring actors, locations and characters.

In museums, bars, cafes and street corners we encounter dance students, singing barmaids, a newborn baby, a ferry captain and a King.

Jonathan and Sam (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom) are morose grey-suited salesman selling novelty items because they want to make people laugh.

In a sly comic riff on hit-men in pulp thrillers, they also attempt to collect their arrears from shopkeepers.

Their journey takes them through the pain of existence, encountering war, love, depression and death. There is dance, song and music.

People rue their bad luck in life and search for excuses for their unhappiness. Their loneliness is exacerbated by the laughter of strangers.

Philosophy  and forgiveness are all brought to a premature end because people have to be up early in the morning for work.

The rigid adherence to a life centred on work stifles creativity, torture is ignored and several deaths cause bafflement; to paraphrase Douglas Adams, no one seems to know what to do about the bodies.

The art direction is as measured and controlled as the static camerawork (Istvan Borbas and Gergley Palos). It is equalled by the precise timing of the actors.

With a colour palatte taking in every shade of beige, the worn locations are lent a dreamlike timelessness.

The pigeon appears in a poem, as an exhibit in a museum and off-camera in song. Quite what he makes of it is anyone’s guess – but he probably thinks humans are all cuckoo.

The Falling

Director: Carol Morley (2015)

Mass hallucination, sexual exploration and death combine to cast a spell of barely believable boredom in this boarding school drama.

After tragedy strikes a strict English girls’ school, a mysterious fainting epidemic breaks out. With the authorities denying anything is wrong, it’s up to the pupils to deal with events.

Schoolgirl Lydia (Maisie Williams) is a moody, bookish brunette, her closest friend Abigail (Florence Pugh) is an annoying, more attractive blonde.

They spend their time embracing each other, licking each other’s fingers and sharing bubblegum. They also read poetry to one another and carve their initials in a tree like lovers do.

The actresses deliver literal line-readings and never come close to suggesting their characters possess interior lives.

Abigail sports love-bites and too-short hemlines. Despite her affection for Lydia she openly enjoys the attention of boys who drive fast cars.

Following nosebleeds and medical examinations, Lydia develops a serious twitch and there’s an outbreak of falling over among the school’s population. This becomes laughable the more people it affects.

There’s a suggestion it could all be caused by a magic spell cast by Lydia’s weird brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) – but doctors insist nothing is wrong with the girls.

Lydia’s mostly mute mother Eileen (Maxine Peake) is a homebound hairdresser who silently suffers a great deal of angry abuse from her daughter.

Greta Scacchi and Monica Dolan play stern school-heads who antagonise Lydia by refusing to take her seriously.

The 1969 setting seems designed to avoid the internet and isn’t exploited for any other purpose, certainly not to create a much needed sense of otherworldly timelessness.

Prosaic camerawork and lighting fail to generate any sense of operatic grandness while the pacing is erratic with scenes alternately dragging or rushing. The editor includes many slow-panning shots of leaves and trees.

There’s a lot of poetry and an alarmingly intrusive rock-folk soundtrack – but none of the disparate elements heighten the gothic undertone in the script; consequently an interesting mood of mystery or fear fails to materialise.