Tag: Colin Farrell

Thirteen Lives (2022)

Thirteen Lives (2022)

A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)

In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.

It’s bought to the in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…

Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.

Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.

In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.

Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.

But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.

A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.

Equally, the film  doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.

In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.

As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast,  to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.

Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.

Widows (2018)

Widows (2018)

Sexism, racism and corruption get mixed in with crime drama in McQueen’s electric heist film

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Viola Davis (Veronica Rawlings), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Lukas Haas (David)

A getaway goes wrong and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his criminal gang all wind-up dead and their loot burned up. Their last job was cleaning out the election fund of gangster-turned-electoral-candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning believes he’s owed a debt by Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis). On the hock for millions, Veronica has no choice but to recruit the widows of Harry’s gang to help her pull off the next job Harry planned: cleaning out the campaign fund of Manning’s electoral rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).

Adapted from an 80s British TV mini-series, Widows has been run through Steve McQueen’s creative brain, emerging as a compelling, beautifully shot crime drama mixing social, racial and gender commentary with blistering action. It takes a traditionally masculine genre – the crime caper – and places at its heart a group of women motivated by desperation and survival rather than the lure of lucre.

What’s particularly interesting is that none of these women fit the bill of the sort of person you expect to arrange a daring heist. Viola Davis’ Veronica is a retired teachers’ union rep; Elizabeth Debicki an abuse victim, treated terribly by her husband and selfish mother; Michelle Rodriguez a shop owner desperately trying to give her kids a chance, despite her husband’s reckless gambling. Even the driver they hire, played by Cynthia Erivo, is a hairdresser and babysitter. These women are a world away from the ruthless criminals you’d expect to pull off this kind of operation.

It’s probably why they are routinely underestimated and patronised by men. Veronica is advised clear her debt by selling either everything she owns and disappear. As with the rest of the women, the world expects her to put up and shut up. These are women defined by their husbands and the expectation that their needs are subordinate to others’. Debicki’s Alice is all-but pushed into escort work by her demanding mother, while Rodriguez’s Linda is blamed by her mother-in-law for her husband’s death. But these women have a steely survival instinct that makes them determined and (eventually) ruthless enough to take this job on.

Davis is superb as a determined and morally righteous woman, whose principles are more flexible than she thinks. She efficiently (and increasingly sternly) applies her organisational skills to planning the heist, pushing her crew to adapt her own professionalism. Davis wonderfully underplays Veronica’s grief, not only at the loss of her husband but also the recent death of her son (shot by police officers while reaching to answer his phone behind the wheel of an expensive car – in front of a wall of Obama “Hope” posters, a truly striking visual image).

Her co-stars are equally impressive. Debicki has mastered the mix of vulnerability and strength behind characters like this (how many times has she played suffering, glamourous gangster molls?). Her Alice gains the self-belief to push back against those exploiting her. Rodriguez beautifully balances grief at the loss of her husband with fury at the financial hole he has left her in. Erivo gets the smallest role, but makes Bella dry, loyal and sharp. All four of them use the way men underestimate them – seeing them as widows, wives, weak or sex objects – to plan out their heist.

The reversal of gender expectations crosses over with the social political commentary McQueen wants to explore. This sometimes works a treat: the flashback to the shooting of Veronica’s son is shockingly effective. But the film’s dives into the Chicago political scene and the deep class divisions in the city don’t always have the impact they should. There is a marvellous shot – all in one take, mounted on the car bonnet – as Farrell’s Mulligan travels (in a few minutes) from a photo op in a slum back to his palatial family home, emphasising how closely extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side in America.

Both candidates are corrupted in different ways. Jamal Manning – a knife behind a smile from Brian Tyree Henry – is a thug talking the talk to line his pockets. Farrell’s Mulligan has more standards – and you wish for more with this fascinating put-upon son part on-the-take, part genuinely wanting to help. His domineering dad – an imperiously terrifying Robert Duvall, who wants to backseat drive his son in office – demeans his son, shouts racial slurs and bullies everyone around him. Politics: your choice is the latest off-spring of a semi-corrupt dynasty or a literal criminal.

But the film doesn’t quite find the room to explore these issues in quite as much detail as you feel it could: it’s a strong hinterland of inequality, but you want more. McQueen however, does have a gift for unique character details that speak volumes: the women’s operation is shadowed by an electric Daniel Kaluuya, as Manning’s calm yet psychotic brother, who listens to self-education podcasts on Black history and shoots people without a second thought. He, of course, underestimates the women as much as everyone else. That’s as much of a political statement as anything else: none of the men in this film seem to even begin to think that they could be in a world which is truly equal.

The film adds a late act reveal that doesn’t quite work – and the film as a whole is trying to do a little too much – but it’s a confirmation of what a gifted and superb film-maker Steve McQueen is. McQueen shoots even conventional scenes in unique and interesting ways – check out his brilliant use of mirrors throughout – uses editing superbly to set tone and is brilliant at drawing the best from talented actors. Widows is crammed full of terrifically staged scenes and gallops along with pace and excitement. It’s a fine example of a great director turning a genre film into something deeper.

The Batman (2022)

The Batman (2022)

Robert Pattinson presents a noirish Bat in Matt Reeves’ dark, moody vision

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Robert Pattinson (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Zoë Kravitz (Selina Kyle/Catwoman), Paul Dano (The Riddler), Jeffrey Wright (Lt James Gordon), John Turturro (Carmine Falcone), Peter Sarsgaard (DA Gil Colson), Andy Serkis (Alfred Pennyworth), Colin Farrell (Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin), Jayme Lawson Bella Réal) Rupert Penry-Jones (Mayor Don Mitchell Jnr), Barry Keoghan (Arkham Prisoner)

The rain pounds down on Gotham. In the shadows a masked man strikes terror into the hearts of wrong-doers. It could only be the start of a new Batman trilogy. At least that’s the intention, as DC Comics mines its strongest asset, in a dark, noirish version that positions Batman as a gumshoe pulp detective with fisticuffs. If Reeves film at times has more ambition than it knows what to do with, at least it is ambitious.

For two years Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been crusading on the streets of Gotham as Batman, trying to fix the city’s problems one criminal at a time. He’s formed an uneasy alliance with police Lt James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and is just about tolerated by the official force. That starts to change when unhinged serial killer The Riddler (Paul Dano) begins a campaign of terror targeting Gotham’s elites, who he accuses of corruption. How far will the Riddler go? How do crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and mysterious cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) fit in?

Reeves’ film is a grimy film-noir Batman. Pretty much the entire film is set at night-time, in seedy bars and filthy streets with barely a frame unaccompanied by the pounding of rain on the soundtrack. Atmospherically shot by Grieg Fraser, the film has a rain-sodden canvas with deep blacks and splashes of red. It’s sound design – and Michael Giacchino’s music – uses deep bases and reverbative sounds that give the film an intimidating rumble.

Reeves’ takes Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac as key inspirations, mixed with the shadowy darkness of Pakula and other 1970s filmmakers. Gotham is the hellish noir of Seven, where light is a stranger. The Riddler is radically re-interpreted as an ingenious psychopath, covering his crimes with cryptic clues, cultivating an online audience with videos where he conceals his face behind a sort of gimp mask and prominent spectacles – in methods and style he’s very similar to the Zodiac killer.

Batman is a tech-assisted private eye, working alongside the official forces, doing things they can’t do. Few other Batman films have zeroed in on the detective element of the character as much, but it’s possibly his main skill here: searching for clues, deftly cracking the Riddler’s cryptic clues, chasing down leads, utilising top-of-the-line surveillance equipment (a set of contact lenses that records everything he sees) and making connections from crime to crime. He’s a sort of miserable Sam Spade who punches lots of people.

Setting the film very early in Batman’s crusade allows for a rough and raw quality to Batman’s gear and approach, helped by Pattinson’s age. The suit has a homespun practicality to it, a hulking suit of armour that bullets bounce of, with various useful attachments. The batmobile is essentially a normal car with a massively souped-up engine. Batman often travels on a normal but powerful motorbike, and stakes out witnesses with his armour disguised under a hoodie. At times Bruce misjudges things: a fall from a building that almost goes horribly wrong, the odd fight here he bits of more than he can chew.

With an eemo look inspired by Kurt Cobain, Bruce Wayne is a surly recluse with serious emotional difficulties. He has a tense relationship with surrogate father Alfred (an effective Andy Serkis), who disapproves of how Bruce spends his evenings. The Batman has far less Bruce Wayne in it than almost any other Batman movie. This Bruce only feels comfortable behind the mask and has worked hard to crush all fear and emotion to find security in anonymity. He has cut himself off not only from the city, but from humanity, idealising his lost parents – and is a stern, humourless judge who describes his mission as one of vengeance.

There is a lot of vengeance needed in Reeve’s corrupt Gotham. The film bites off a huge chunk of content around corruption, class conflict and injustice. The Riddler’s crimes are all connected to corruption, people whose hands are actually filthy with drug money. His fury extends to the Wayne family – Gotham’s venerated philanthropists – and the film is at its best with this character when he functions as a sort of avenging angel of class war.

But it doesn’t quite manage to nail down exploring the morality of a serial killer, eliminating pernicious public figures. There is no discussion of the misguided merit in the twisted motives of the killer. He’s always presented as wicked and insane, with no scope given to understand or acknowledge the legitimate social points he makes. A late act reveal of his deeper plot comes from nowhere and (with its indiscriminate destruction) feels inconsistent with any point the film was trying to make earlier. It seems instead to exist to give us a big action set-piece. The film strains towards a coherent message about institutional, systemic corruption, but doesn’t quite give it the depth and shade it needs.

It’s all part of a film that isn’t quite smart enough, or a script that isn’t deft enough. Take a look at those riddles. Darkly fascinating as they are, their never quite strong or enigmatic enough. The film offers no ‘light-bulb moment’ when a hidden message is suddenly made clear. Batman cracks them all quickly, apart from one. Most audience members will quickly suss out that one and you suspect the only reason Batman doesn’t is that if he did the film would end quickly.

Ending quickly is something The Batman isn’t concerned about. At nearly three hours, it is far too long – particularly as it never quite works out what it is trying to say. There are too many sub-plots: an unrecognisable Colin Farrell is good value as The Penguin, but his entire presence is to set up future movies. The film drags out its ending with a sudden twists, which don’t feel like a wider plan playing out behind the scenes rather than slightly jarring extensions.

The Batman covers a lot, but none of it in enough depth. Very good as Robert Pattinson is, I don’t feel we learn a lot about Wayne. The Batman adds a romance with Selina Kyle (a dynamic Zoë Kravitz) and gives her a sub-plot of her own which largely just crowds the film. None of these plots are complex in themselves, but they all play out at the same time, reducing the focus on each of them. It’s all too much for you get to a handle on what the film is trying to be about.

Essentially, you feel Reeves had hundreds of ideas about what he wanted his Batman film to be – and didn’t have the heart to leave any of them out. But, even when over-ambitious, he’s an impressive and exciting film-maker. The Batman is crammed with great scenes (from action to disturbing splashes of horror). When the sequel comes, a clearer overall theme will help a great deal. But, with this dark but beautifully made film – and an impressive Batman from Robert Pattinson – I’ll be excited to see what Reeves does next.

The Way Back (2010)

Harris, Sturgess and Farrell cross a great distance in Peter Weir’s The Way Back

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Jim Sturgess (Janusz Wierszczek), Ed Harris (Mr Smith), Saoirse Ronan (Irena Zielinska), Colin Farrell (Valka), Dragos Bucor (Zoran), Alexandru Potocean (Tomasz), Gustaf Skarsgard (Andrejs), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Kazik), Mark Strong (Andrei Khabarov)

During the Second World War, Stalin spent almost as much time rounding up potential enemies of the state as he did fighting the Nazis. This was also his exclusive focus during the early years of the war when, in league with Nazi Germany, Russia invaded half of Poland. Polish officers were rounded up – many were massacred but Katyn, but some were sent to the gulags of Siberia. Among that number is Janusz (Jim Sturgess). But he is desperate to get home – so, with a collection of fellow prisoners, including American Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and hardened criminal (and pro-Stalinist) Valka (Colin Farrell) he escapes. Trouble is freedom is over 4000 miles away – through Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. To even contemplate the walk is staggering.

Which is more than you can say about the film. I never thought I would see a Peter Weir film that left me cold, but I now I have. How did Weir manage to make a compelling survival story into a film at times so unengaging you feel you have done the walk in real time? The real problem is the lack of characters. Halfway through the film the group encounters a young woman (played by Saoirse Ronan). She asks them what their background is – and they tell her (off-camera). And she tells them to Ed Harris. And he tells her his backstory off camera – and she tells it to Jim Sturgess. And there is the problem in a nutshell.

We’ve spent nearly an hour with this lot by then – and in that hour you’d struggle to know their names and certainly don’t know anything personal about them. We have no idea where they came from, what they lost or what they are yearning to return to. An hour during which it was hard to tell them apart (except for the more famous actors) but the film still wants me to invest in them fighting against the elements. Now, I know for many people, this isn’t be a problem. But for me it was an insurmountable obstacle.

I can admire the work that has gone into location shooting, make-up and costumes that show the ravages of this impossible journey. But, at the end of the day, if I know nothing about these characters and have no reason to invest in their fate, all the skill in the world won’t make this into a film I can invest in. Look at the great survival films – from The Flight of the Phoenix to another true-life (more of that later) story Apollo 13 – what makes them work is the dread that something awful might happen to the characters we care about. Without that feeling, it’s just pictures, nothing more. Weir’s mistake is to focus so much on how the Gulag crushes personalities and creates alliances of convenience, that he gives us no reason to bond with the characters.

The wispy, thin script gives very little for the actors to work with. Colin Farrell has the best part as a blackly comedic man of violence (and he drops out well before the end of the film). Mark Strong makes a big impact from a few short scenes as a prisoner who is all talk but no trousers. The others make little impression. Ed Harris does his trademark gravel, Saoirse Ronan adds much needed warmth (and provides a hugely needed audience surrogate figure – again far too late) but Jim Sturgess lacks the presence or force of character to carry the film. Force of character is missing throughout – you don’t get the sense of the strength of will needed to even undertake this, not to mention the psychological impact of this level of hardship.

It’s also oddly paced – you really lose track of how far or how long they have been travelling. Big time jumps take us from the first day of the escape to a cave in the forest which (we assume) they have spent weeks travelling to, reaching the edge of starvation. Then, before we know it they are at the border, then Mongolia. The film gets lost in a huge sequence in the Gobi Desert (for some reasons the characters always walk in the day and rest at night, the exact opposite of what anyone would do) – emerging with 12 minutes to go, bounding over the Himalayas in about 30 seconds (was it too difficult to film there?). The film caps with a bizarre “he walked forever” sequence, with superimposed walking feet over newsreel footage – a failed attempt to hammer home that Janusz needed to wait until the end of the Cold War before he could get home.

It’s nominally based on a true story. The author of the book it is based on is believed to have either invented or stolen the story from someone else and there is huge debate about whether it happened or not and if so who did it. This should have given Weir some freedom – but instead it seems to have given him too little to build on. Most damning in it I can’t find any reason in it to care whether they make it to freedom or not, instead the time dragging as much as the characters swollen feet. A terrible missed opportunity – and a rare misfire from a great director.

The Beguiled (2017)

Nicole Kidman struggles to resist the charms of Colin Farrell in The Beguiled

Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Nicole Kidman (Miss Martha), Kirsten Dunst (Edwina), Elle Fanning (Alicia), Colin Farrell (Corporal McBurney), Oona Laurence (Amy), Angourie Rice (Jane), Addison Riecke (Marie), Emma Howard (Emily)

A remake of Don Siegel’s adaptation of the original novel, The Beguiled throws a feminist slant on a story of a confederate soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) who, in the later years of the Civil War, is found injured in the grounds of a girl’s school, where the women have continued to run the operation while the menfolk are consumed with (and by) the war. The school is run by the distant Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), with the lead teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and five students of varying ages. All of the girls and women find themselves entranced (beguiled!) with the deceptively gentlemanly McBurney, whose true aims may be darker than assumed.

Sofia Coppola’s version of the story shifts the attention onto the women of the piece, and their plight and emotional journeys. This is a perfectly legitimate stance to take – and showing effectively a colony of girls and women in the 1860s living some sort of structured commune life is interesting and different – but Coppola’s film has a coolness and distance to it that ironically makes it far less than beguiling than it should be.

Beautifully filmed as the film is, it’s slow pace and meditative tone – as well as the rather obvious points it seems determined to make about male and female relations – actually serve to make the film less engaging than it should be. Wonderfully framed and painterly in its execution, with an effective mix of classical and 1970s style, it still never quite sparks into life.

The cast also struggle to bring a heartbeat to their characters. Nicole Kidman brings her customary reserve and elegance to a woman who has hints of a mysterious past that troubles her to this day, but the role remains distant and difficult to read – more than the film really requires. A clash or seduction between her and Colin Farrell’s corporal keeps promising dynamite but the explosions never really seem to come. Farrell laces his role with charm and a gruff masculinity, but the role misses a sense of his own darkness or manipulative nature until quite late, with the final act revelations making him appear more angry and bitter than the role really requires. It all kind of sums up the film that gets lost in its artifice and fails to uncover its heart.

The film, you could argue, does its best to beguile the audience with McBurney as the film’s character are. We are shown at every angle his vulnerability and tender politeness, and hidden from us for too long are his more manipulative elements. Coppola’s film becomes an intense study instead of sexual feelings and relations within a confined space. From sensual hand washes from Miss Martha, to intense declarations with lonely teacher Edwina, to not-so-innocent flirtations with the pupils, there is more than enough evidence that McBurney’s desire to stay may well be as much linked to seeing the school as having the potential to be his own private harem. The film’s failure in this intense sexual politics is that, while it captures moments of the simmer of attraction, it fails to really establish the danger that McBurney could suggest, as a violent man of action with complete control over a group of women.

Indeed the final moments of the film even suggest that the school itself may be a sort of siren’s bay – although lord knows McBurney is no Odysseys – which I found a rather confusing beat. Effective as the final images, or the film’s last supper betrayals, may be, they don’t carry quite enough wait because the film never quite nails the sexual tension it is aiming for, or the sensual danger it is trying to establish as a theme within the film. 

Other changes make less sense as well. Coppola deliberately changes the race of Edwina, from a mixed-race young woman to someone white enough to be played by Kirsten Dunst. While Dunst’s performance is fine, many of the themes of Edwina’s lack of confidence, her self-loathing, her feeling of having no place outside of the school, of being somehow less than other women are left in place. These themes of course make perfect sense for a mixed race woman in the 1860s who has landed a job through the connections of her father, but they make less sense for an attractive young schoolteacher with a privileged background. Coppola made the change because she felt that she could not do the theme justice, but she misses the fact that the very appearance of the character is the context needed for her to make sense.

The Beguiled is beautiful to observe and has its moments, but it never really comes to light the way it should. Thoughtful and poetic a director as Coppola is, she has created a film here that feels all artifice and no depth, that wants to paint a picture of the life of women in the civil war but never really has the energy and fire to make this come to life in a way to make the audience as engaged as they should be.

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson clash on the making of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Emma Thompson (Pamela Travers), Tom Hanks (Walt Disney), Colin Farrell (Travers Robert Goff), Ruth Wilson (Margaret Goff), Paul Giamatti (Ralph), Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi), Jason Schwartzman (Richard M Sherman), BJ Novak (Robert B Sherman), Kathy Baker (Tommie), Melanie Paxson (Dolly), Rachel Griffiths (Ellie), Ronan Vibert (Diarmuid Russell)

Walt Disney was a man used to getting what he wanted. And what he wanted more than anything was the rights to PL Travers’ Mary Poppins series. It was his kids favourite books, and he had promised them he would make the movie. It took decades – and Disney had to wait until Travers needed the money – but finally a deal was struck, with Travers having full script approval. So the hyper-English Travers is flown across the Atlantic to Los Angeles where she reacts with a brittle horror to every single suggestion from the Mary Poppins creative team, and distaste at the commercialisation of Disney’s enterprise. Based on the actual recordings (which Travers insisted on) from the script meetings, Emma Thompson is the imperious PL Travers and Tom Hanks the avuncular Walt Disney.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a solid crowd pleaser that, if it feels like it hardly delivers a completely true picture of the making of Mary Poppins, does put together an entertaining and interesting idea of the difficult process of creation and the tensions when writers (who don’t want to change a thing!) clash with film production companies. These problems being made worse by the clashing worlds of the loose, casualness and breezy friendliness of Los Angeles, and the intensely cold, buttoned-up Edwardianism of Travers, hostile to all shows of affection and any touches of sentimentality.

The film gets more than a lot of comic mileage out of these mixed worlds, with Travers’ every look of aghast, repressed, British reserve (“Poor AA Milne” she mutters while manhandingly a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh toy out of her way, followed by “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety” as she dumps a massive Mickey Mouse cuddily toy against the wall of her bedroom) bound to raise sniggers at both her blunt hostility and cut-glass wit. Against this the American characters – all of them forced to dance to her tune – meet wave after wave of hostility with a practised American friendliness and warmth. It works a treat.

The film walks a fine line with its portrayal of Disney who is both a charming uncle figure and also a savvy and even ruthless businessman. Tom Hanks is spot-on with showing both sides of this man, making it clear how he managed to make so much damn money but also from how he managed to inspire such loyalty from many of his staff. Yes the film soft-peddles on many of Disney’s negatives – from refusing to show a single second of Disney smoking, to no mention of his active union-busting activities – but this is a film focused on Disney the impresario and negotiator. 

And what a person to negotiate with! That the film works is almost exclusively down to Emma Thompson’s imperious performance in the lead role. Thompson has a very difficult job here of turning someone so consistently rude, aggressive, arrogant and unpleasant as Travers (and over half of the film goes by before she says something nice to anyone) into a character we genuinely invest in, care about and laugh with as much as gasp at her rudeness. It’s a real trick from Thompson, adding a great deal if inner pain and vulnerability just below the surface, but only allowing a few beats of letting these feelings out for all the world to see. It makes for a performance that is superbly funny, hugely rude but also someone we end up caring about.

A lot of that spins from the careful recreation of Travers’ past in flashback, particularly her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (played with charm by Colin Farrell), an alcoholic bank manager in Australia when Travers was a child, who lived a life of irresponsibility mixed with bursts of playful, imaginative games with his daughter. It’s the realisation, by the elderly Travers, that her father was feckless and irresponsible that motivates her writing of Mary Poppins, the super-Nanny who flies in and saves not just the whole family, but specifically the father. Equally good in these sequences is Ruth Wilson as the despairing Mrs Goff.

It adds a sadness to the backstory of Travers – and an understanding of why she behaves the way she does – and the film also brings it round to a neat mutual meeting ground between her and Disney, who himself had problems with a father who drove him hard to achieve. It also explains Travers’ growing warmth to her chauffer, played by Paul Giamatti as a loving dad, the one person she demonstrates some affection to within the film.

It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it though, and it can’t resist adding a “happy ending” to the story of Travers finally accepting (even if she denies it) that she enjoys the Mary Poppins film and is moved by the saving of Mr Banks that it contains. In reality of course, Travers hated the film (though claimed some of it was passable) and refused Disney all permission to ever make any sequel. But that hardly matters here, to this fairy tale of saved souls which wants to see Travers saved – even if the truth was far more complex.

Minority Report (2002)

Tom Cruise messes with fate and the future in Minority Report

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Cruise (Chief John Anderton), Max von Sydow (Director Lamar Burgess), Samantha Morton (Agatha), Colin Farrell (Danny Witwer), Neal McDonough (Detective Fletcher), Steve Harris (Jad), Patrick Kilpatrick (Knott), Jessica Capshaw (Evanna), Lois Smith (Dr Iris Hineman), Kathryn Morris (Lara Anderton), Peter Stormare (Dr Solomon P Eddie), Tim Blake Nelson (Gideon)

If you could see what lies ahead for you in your future would you change it? Or would you accept what fate has clearly already decided? It’s one of many questions that Minority Report, Spielberg’s bulky, brainy sci-fi chase movie slash film noir, tackles. And the answer it suggests is: everybody runs.

It’s the year 2054, and murder in the District of Columbia is a thing of the past thanks to the Pre-Crime Division. Using three psychics, known as “pre-cogs”, permanently hooked-up to a machine that can visualise their visions of violent deaths and murders that will occur, the Pre-Crime team led by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) arrest and imprison murderers hours, minutes and seconds before they even commit their crimes. Anderton believes passionately in the system – but his belief is shaken when the next murderer to be identified is none other than himself. Anderton is due to kill in a complete stranger in 36 hours – and immediately goes on the run to work out who this man is, why he would wish to kill him, and if there is any truth in the rumour that the pre-cogs don’t always agree, and that the most powerful pre-cog Agatha (Samantha Morton) can produce a “minority report”: an alternative vision that shows a different future.

Spielberg’s film is one that mixes searching discussion on fate, choice and destiny with the pumping, fast-moving action of a chase movie and the gritty, hard-boiled cynicism and intrigue of a classic film-noir. He frames all this in a brilliantly constructed, dystopian future where adverts and government surveillance can read our eyes wherever we go and identify us immediately (throwing personalised ads in the faces of people everywhere they step) and, in the interests of safety, people who have technically not done anything yet are imprisoned for life on the basis of things it has been determined they will do.

It makes for a pretty heady cocktail, and one which will have you questioning how much of what we decide is our choice and how much is destiny. If Anderton knows his destiny, can he change his fate? Will he have the willpower or the ability to avert his destiny? Or does knowing what will happen and where it will take place only drive him towards his fate? Put simply, does knowing the future in advance give you a chance to change or it or does it make that future even more likely (or perhaps even inevitable)? Spielberg’s film delves intelligently into these questions, throwing paradoxes and causality loops at the viewer with a genuine lightness of touch.

This works because the film balances these more philosophical questions with plenty of adventure and excitement. Several chase sequences – which make imaginative use of various pieces of future tech like driverless cars and jet packs – keep you on the edge of your seat. Spielberg tentpoles the film throughout with some brilliant set pieces, from Alderton’s race against the clock to stop a killer at the start to his own escape from the clutches of his former colleagues. 

These set pieces also differ in styles. These more conventional action sequences are sandwiched between others that are a mix of darkness, comedy, horror and slapstick. In one sequence, Alderton must attempt to hide in a bath of icy water (Cruise holding his breath of course for a prolonged period on camera) to evade a series of body-heat seeking metallic spiders, with Alderton desperate to protect his freshly replaced eyes from being exposed too soon to daylight. Later, Alderton will evade the cops thanks to the advice of pre-cog Agatha whose simple instructions (Grab an umbrella! Stand still for five seconds behind the balloons! Drop coins for the tramp!) wittily use her fore-knowledge of events to guide Alderton through a gauntlet of perils.

The horror is in there as well from those creepy spiders, not to mention the ickyness of Cruise carrying out an operation to replace his eyes to evade that all-intrusive retinal scanning. The sequence – with Peter Storemare as a sinister doctor who delights in leaving unpleasant tricks for the temporarily blinded Alderton (rotten food and sour milk being the most gross) – is a brilliantly vile, uncomfortable piece of kooky surrealism in the middle of a wild chase. And also tees up the bizarre dark comedy of Cruise – attempting to use his old eyes to break back into his former office – dropping his eyes and desperately chasing them as they roll down a corridor towards a drain. 

There are also darker themes in Alderton’s tragic background. Saddled with a drug addiction and a broken home, we learn Alderton is still struggling with the grief of losing a son to kidnappers – a loss he clearly holds himself personally responsible for. Getting tanked up at home and interacting with old home movies of his lost son, Alderton carries within a deep sadness and grief. It’s a challenge that Cruise rises to really well, his ability to bring commitment and depth to pulpy characters perfect for making Alderton a character you really invest in.

It also gives Alderton the tragic backstory and self-destructive problems so beloved of grimy, gumshoe cops of old noir films. That’s certainly also the inspiration for the drained out, greying look of the film that Spielberg shoots, with colours bleached and the future looking a confusing mix of clean, sleek machines and dirty, rain sodden streets. Alderton’s hunting down of his future victim has all the shoe leather and bitterness of classic Chandler. Meanwhile Federal Agent Witwer (a decent performance from Colin Farrell) chases him down with the determination of an obsessed cop, while also showing more than a few of the quirks of the maverick PI himself.

Minority Report is so good in so many places, it’s a shame that the final act so flies off the rails from the tone of what we have seen before, eventually stapling a happy ending onto a film that tonally has been building towards something very different. On a re-watch, there is just enough in the film to allow you to interpret this ending as a sort of fantasy or dream, but you’ll want the film to end the first time it crashes to black (you’ll know the point I mean). I prefer to believe the ending is a sort of dream – although Spielberg drops no hints to this effect in the film visually at all, in the way something like Inception does so well, to leave you questioning reality – because with that thought that final act betrays everything you have seen before in its simplicity and embracing of binary rights and wrongs.

But with that massive caveat, Minority Report is a very impressive film – and for at least the first hour and fifty minutes probably one of Spielberg’s best. It gets lost in the final act – and I know I said this but please let that be a fantasy – but until then this is a brilliant mix of genres and intelligence and Hollywood thrills with Cruise at his best. It’s exciting and its emotionally involving. Ignore that ending and it’s great. When you re-watch it, pretend you can’t see that future.

In Bruges (2008)

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farell excel in hitman comedy In Bruges

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Farrell (Ray), Brendan Gleeson (Ken Daley), Ralph Fiennes (Harry Waters), Clémence Poésy (Chloë Villette), Jordan Prentice (Jimmy), Thekla Reuten (Marie), Jérémie Renier (Elrik), Anna Madeley (Denise), Elizabeth Berrington (Natalie Walters), Eric Godon (Yuri), Željiko Ivanek (Canadian)

Who hasn’t been dragged somewhere for sightseeing and culture, and longed to be somewhere else (anywhere else?). Most of us right? So how many of us are hitmen hiding out after a job gone wrong? Probably not that many (I hope!). It’s this mixture of the everyday and the bizarre that Martin McDonagh nails so well in his debut film, a sharp as nails, laugh-out-loud but also moving piece of work, possibly one of the sharpest written, well-made debut films you’ll find.

Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have been sent to Bruges to hide out for a few weeks after a job gone horribly wrong in Dublin. Ken is fascinated by the city, its culture and buildings and enthusiastically buys a guide book. Ray responds like a surly, miserable kid and is desperately unimpressed with everything he sees. Their long weekend in the city becomes increasingly unusual and dangerous as they encounter angry tourists, a racist dwarf (Jordan Prentice) and a drug-dealing film assistant (Clémence Poésy), and dodge the rage of their boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes).

In Bruges is a hilarious piece of film-making, with every scene featuring some moment of black humour, wry observation or un-PC laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s foul-mouthed, sometimes violent, very rude – but also deals with profound feelings of guilt and regret with a real humanity. McDonagh’s work expertly combines jet black comedy, with a warmth for its deeply flawed characters. It’s got a compelling, masterful story that packs character development, incident and intricate plot threads together with assured expertise.

McDonagh’s gift is to make you relate for all of these characters, all of whom are made to feel very real and human. It skilfully leads you to overlook their many flaws and embrace them as people. It says a lot that the most sympathetic, likeable person in the film is a multiple murderer with an (implied) cocaine habit. Everything we learn or see about the characters is designed to make us understand and relate to them more.

Ray initially seems little more than a foul-mouthed thug. But as the film progress – and thanks to Colin Farrell’s masterful performance of brashness covering deep insecurity and vulnerability – we learn he is a rather sweet, even loving man who has stumbled into a career he is deeply unsuited to. Farrell gets these switches perfectly – and his childishness is hugely endearing. From stropping around like a sulky teenager to bouncing up to a film shoot with a childish, excited shriek of joy, he defies expectations. McDonagh throws in a perfect note of tragedy once we find out the mistake Ray made – and suddenly Farrell’s performance overflows with guilt, self-loathing and an unbearable regret that makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve seen him do.

But then that is the whole film right there: it makes you laugh uproariously, then chucks you a curveball and before you know it you are hugely emotionally invested, with a huge sense of empathy for their slowly revealed depths. That goes for every character – even the nominal villains have a sadness, or a firm set of principles, or a certain dignity to them that makes you care. It’s a brilliant piece of writing and directing – and masterfully acted.

Brendan Gleeson plays the other lead in Ken: and few other actors could surely have managed to turn Ken into such a warm avuncular figure, a gentle giant who feels he has come to terms with his choice of career but experiences a subtle shift over the course of the film. Gleeson’s performance is sublime, warm and witty with a careful thread of sadness underneath it – it’s some of his best work. 

But then the whole cast is great. Prentice’s bitterness as the angry Jimmy is brilliant – and he is very funny – while Poésy’s gentle bad-girl is a terrific, radiant performance. The film also has third act dynamite with Ralph Fiennes’ Harry Waters, a foul-mouthed, furiously angry, tour-de-force character who shakes up the whole film – but who has a strange sense of nobility about him, even while he is (hilariously) effing and blinding left, right and centre.

And the film has a brilliantly anti-PC vein of humour. Jokes about drug-taking and dwarves. Foul-mouthed gags about every subject under the sun. Brilliant encounters with “large” American tourists (brilliantly paid off later in the film), jobsworth ticket sellers, angry tourists in restaurants – the film is crammed with hilarious moments. All of it is brilliantly funny because it comes naturally out of characters who feel real.

It’s also so thematically rich. As the characters stand in front of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement, you realise that the entire film is a metaphor for purgatory, with Bruges’ medieval beauty carefully chosen to reflect this. Our heroes, laden down with sins, wait in Bruges for an unspecified length of time to discover where they will head next. Amends have to be paid, sins have to be reconciled – and all these threads come together brilliantly in a final, dream-like sequence that you suddenly realise the whole film has been carefully building towards from the start.

So the film, after a scabrous, brilliantly hilarious, darkly foul-mouthed start, slowly becomes something which (while still hilarious) is also a discussion of morality, principles and guilt. We see characters do things we might never have imagined them doing at the start, some are redeemed, others make principled decisions. And it’s really funny. I’m not sure Colin Farrell or Brendan Gleeson will ever be better than they are here. It’s a brilliant play script turned into a wonderful film. A classic.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler uncover some Fantastic Beasts

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou Barebone), Jon Voight (Henry Shaw Snr), Carmen Ejogo (President Seraphona Picquery), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack), Ronan Raftery (Langdon Shaw), Josh Cowdery (Henry Shaw Jnr), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindelwald)

Eventually the gravy train had to come to an end. The Harry Potter franchise laid golden eggs for over a decade, until Rowling’s books came to an end. Just as well then that the incomparable JK Rowling had tonnes of invention left up her sleeve, and was keen to look at other elements of the Potterverse. So we got the creation of this sideways prequel, set in the rich backstory of the Harry Potter novels. And it is a bit of a treat.

In the 1920s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts. He’s there to return one of them home – but after a mix-up at a bank his suitcase ends up in the hands of muggle (or as the Americans put it “No-Maj”) and would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As the escaped beasts cause chaos, demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) works with Newt and Jacob to try and recapture the creatures, with the aid of Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sodel). But is all the destruction truly caused by Newt’s creatures? Or are there darker forces at work? 

Fantastic Beasts is a charming spin-off, sustained by some endearing performances, its warm heart and stylish design. Whether the plot is quite strong enough to reward constant viewing as much as many of the Harry Potter films do, I’m not sure (I didn’t find its story particularly gripping the second time around), but I think there are enough incidental pleasures there to keep you coming back for more. It’s actually a film which will be interesting to re-evaluate after the later sequels emerge – there are many suggested threads set up in this one for exploration later.

It’s not a surprise that the initial plot around chasing and collecting the beasts is fairly basic, since it’s based on a slim handbook (itself based on a reference from the original Harry Potter stories) that Rowling published as a Comic Relief fundraiser. Besides the chasing around to capture the animals, it’s only really the backdrop for sight-gags, cute animals and (most importantly) our window for getting to know our leads.

And these leads are certainly well worth getting to know, with a string of excellent performances from the four principals. Redmayne anchors the film very well as the slightly dotty, professorial, socially awkward Newt, whose coy, bashful charm really endears him to the viewer. Dan Fogler is possibly even better as our viewer surrogate, an average New Yorker thrown into a mad world of magic who somehow manages to take it all in his stride and whose growing excitement and embracing of this demented wizard world makes you fall in love with him. He’s helped by a sweet, gentle and touching romance with the effervescent but lonely Queenie (a magnetic Alison Sudol). Katherine Waterston gets the trickiest part as the earnest, try-hard, play-by-the-rules Tina – but her growing fondness for Newt and his creatures works very well.

The moments of the film that focus on the interaction between these four are the finest of the film – as are those that allow us a glimpse of Newt’s wonderful creatures. Housed in a Mary Poppins-ish suitcase of infinite TARDIS-like depth, these beasts are brilliantly designed and wonderfully individual, from a cute mole-like Niffler (naughtily stealing shiny things like a magpie), to a horny Erumpent (like a hippo and rhino mixed), to the majestic Thunderbird, a sort of Eagle-Phoenix, soaring through the plains in Newt’s suitcase. Even the small Bowtruckle Newt carries in his pocket gets to develop a sense of personality. (And yes I had to look all these names up).

These creatures are both individualistic but also used for very specific purposes in the film, from lock-picking to a sort of bizarre self-defence weapon. Despite their horrific appearances, the film treats them with as much understanding sweetness as Newt does – even the dangerous ones are only dangerous when riled or threatened, and Newt’s protective nature helps us to feel as fond of them as he does.

Away from the beasts, the film largely focuses on setting up threads (and threats) for future films. A major sub-plot revolves around an anti-Magical society run by a stern-faced Samantha Morton. The film heads into darker territories here, with its references to both cults and the ill-treatment of children. Ezra Miller does well as Morton’s awkward, ill-treated adopted son, unable to escape from his oppression or express his frustration. Someone in this family is a powerful magical being called an Obscurus, and the film plays a neat game of bluff and double bluff around this.

It continues this game as it fills out the political magical world around Carmen Ejogo’s regal magical President. What game is Colin Farrell’s authoritarian Perceval Graves playing? What of the film’s opening references to dark wizard Grindelwald, and the suggested war that is bubbling under the surface in the magical world? All this darker stuff sits around the edges and margins of Newt’s beast-collecting storyline, occasionally seeping in (let’s not forget at one point Newt and Tina are literally sentenced to death for supposed crimes), but doesn’t overwhelm the lightness.

David Yates directs with a professionalism that comes from being hugely familiar with this world. His later sequences of Obscurus destruction are not always particularly different from other city-smashing scenes from other films. Not every plotline feels fully explored – Jon Voight playing a newspaper mogul and his two contrasting sons seems like a plot we could do without – but Yates does keep the film moving pacily forward, he gets the tone of light slapstick and family warmth and he still shoots the wonder of magic better than almost anyone.

Fantastic Beasts is a film that is perhaps a little too light and frothy to really be a classic – it juggles too many plots and doesn’t always bring them together well. It’s mixture of darkness and lightness is a little eclectic, and it sometimes feel very much like a film designed to set up future films effectively. But when it focuses on its four leads, it’s very strong indeed and all of them – particularly Fogler – are people you want to see more of. It even manages to end the film on both a genuine laugh and a heart-warming bit of romance, tinged with sadness. It’s a fine start to a new franchise.