Tag: Liam Neeson

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.

Michael Collins (1996)

Liam Neeson is outstanding as Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Liam Neeson (Michael Collins), Aidan Quinn (Harry Boland), Stephen Rea (Ned Broy), Alan Rickman (Eamon de Valera), Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan), Ian Hart (Joe O’Reilly), Brendan Gleeson (Liam Tobin), Sean McGinley (Smith), Gerard McSorley (Cathal Brugha), Owen O’Neill (Rory O’Connor), Charles Dance (Soames), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Assassin), Ian McElhinney (Belfast cop)

Britain’s colonisation of Ireland left a poisonous historical legacy that blighted much of the twentieth century. The story of Irish independence, is also one of guerrilla and political brutality, civil war and terrible lost opportunities. Jordan’s biopic of Michael Collins is a study of the man who did more than any other to turn the IRA into an effective guerrilla fighting force – only to be consumed by the very same uncompromising ruthlessness he had set in motion. It’s a powerful and beautifully made film that seeks to explore just how and why violence and politics ended up hand-in-hand in Ireland for almost 100 years.

It opens with the 1916 Easter Uprising, an ignominious failure which the British managed to turn into a glorious one by executing rather than imprisoning its leadership. It’s one of many misjudgements in our occupation. It also the impetus for the young Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) to realise that playing by conventional military roles simply means defeat for the Irish time and again. Put simply, the IRA needs to stop trying to be a field army and instead become a guerrilla army, launching targeted hit-and-run terrorist attacks on the British. It’s a hugely successful campaign – despite the doubts of Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), who favours more conventional conflict (“They call us murderers!” he cries, with some justification). But after the British agree a Treaty that divides Ireland, the IRA splinters into pro- and anti Treaty factions. Can Collins put the cork back in the bottle of violence, before the country tears itself apart?

Of course, anyone with a passing knowledge of history knows that he can’t. Hanging over the entire film is the knowledge that Collins’ new methods of political assassination, plainclothes soldiers, bombs and bullets in the middle of the night will eventually expand into the indiscriminate bombing and shooting that consumed Ireland for decades. Not that Collins will live to see it, as he was assassinated aged 31 attempting to negotiate an end to Civil War. What makes Collins such an engaging and intriguing figure is that he (or at least the version we see in this film) was a man forced into methods he knew were wrong, to achieve an end he knew was right.

Neeson is superb as the charismatic, blunt yet poetic Collins who is noble enough to know that training young men to quickly and efficiently commit murder is an ignoble legacy. Jordan’s film doesn’t condone Collins use of violence, but establishes why it was necessary. Playing by more conventional rules simply wasn’t going to work – and Ireland didn’t see why they had to wait for British politics to shift. Unlike, say Gandhi in India (and Michael Collins makes a dark companion piece with Attenborough’s Gandhi, two charismatic campaigners choosing radically different paths to independence), Collins believed Britain had to be forced to see holding Ireland wasn’t worth the blood sacrifice and emotional cost. (Jordan’s film is also clear that Britain’s hands were equally dirty, the British conducting their own counter-campaign of assassination and violence).

The tragedy that Jordan finds in all of this is that, when the British were gone, Ireland had become so used to dealing with political problems with violence that they couldn’t imagine solving their disagreements with anything else. Collins is in fact too successful: and the film demonstrates that in radicalising his followers, he’s unable to gearshift them towards compromise. His attempts to get Sinn Fein to accept a Treaty that offers a workable compromise (as opposed to an unwinnable full-scale war), leads to him becoming a victim of exactly the sort of insurgency he pioneered in the first place. To Jordan he is a man trapped in a world of his own making, unable to remove the gun from Irish politics.

Michael Collins makes some compromises with history – something that was bound to get it attacked when dealing with events of such earth-shattering controversy – but it always feel spiritually accurate. The British Black and Tans really were as brutal as they seem, and while they didn’t use an armoured car on the pitch at the “Bloody Sunday” massacre at Croke Park, they did shoot indiscriminately at the crowd and fire at the stadium from an armoured car outside causing 14 fatalities (including two children) and 80 serious injuries. Similarly, in the aftermath of Collin’s assassination of most of the British intelligence operation in Dublin, three IRA leaders were “killed while trying to escape” (even if these were different men than the one who suffers this fate in the film). Just as IRA killings in the street were swift and brutal, so interrogations in Dublin Castle could stretch way beyond what the Geneva Convention would suggest was acceptable.

Much of the first half of the film is structured in the style of an old-fashioned gangster film, with hits and street gangs. Plucky IRA under-dogs (and Neeson’s Collins is so charming, you immediately root for him), take-on the more hissable baddies in British intelligence (led first by a bullying Sean McGinley and then a suavely ruthless Charles Dance). But the romance slowly drains out of this as lifeless bodies hit the floor – and Jordan always gives the focus to the dead after they fall, regardless of their ‘side’. The film has an infectious momentum, which makes its final acts, with their air of tragedy, even more sad and moving. It’s all also quite beautifully shot by Chris Menges, the film bathed in some of the most luscious blues you’ll see.

While Michael Collins is more sympathetic to the Irish (as you would expect), it clearly shows the psychological damage of killing. Hesitant shooters become increasingly ruthless at the cost of their humanity. Collins spends a ‘dark night of the soul’ openly confessing that he hates what he is making young men do and knows it is morally wrong. In the end this explains why methods were chosen, but doesn’t praise them – just as it doesn’t outright condemn them, considering what the Irish were up against. It’s a difficult balance, but very well walked.

There are flaws. Excellent as Liam Neeson (at the time 15 years older than Collins was when he died) and Aidan Quinn as his number two Harry Boland are, the film’s insertion of a love triangle between them and Collin’s eventual fiancée Kitty Kiernan often descends into weaker “Hollywoodese”. It’s not helped by having Kitty played by an egregious Julia Roberts, who struggles gamely with the Irish accent, and who never transcends her star status.

Additionally, while the film has an excellent performance by Alan Rickman (in a pitch perfect vocal and physical impersonation) as Eamon de Valera, it also repositions de Valera as an antagonist. Although de Valera certainly was a prima donna who associated his interests and Ireland’s as being one and the same, the film implies that de Valera’s actions are motivated as much by jealousy as principle and lays most of the blame for the civil war on him. Not to mention implying de Valera’s complicity in Collins eventual death (a heavily disputed assertion, strongly denied by de Valera).

Michael Collins though is a thoughtful, complex and engaging film that brings a tumultuous period of history successfully to life. Jordan’s film manages to wrestle an enthusiastic admiration for Collins, with a questioning exploration of how his actions (however well motivated) led to a legacy of violence. But it doesn’t lose sight of how Collins was aware he was using wicked methods for a noble aim, or that his goal was to bring peace. Wonderfully acted by a great cast (every Irish actor alive seems to be in it), with Neeson sensational, it’s an essential watch for anyone interested in this period of history.

Schindler's List (1993)

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley excel in Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Ralph Fiennes (Amon Goth), Caroline Goodall (Emilie Schindler), Jonathan Sagall (Poldek Pfefferberg), Embeth Davidtz (Helen Hirsch), Malgorzata Gebel (Wiktoria Klonowska), Mark Ivanir (Marcel Goldberg), Beatrice Macola (Ingrid), Andrzej Seweryn (Julian Scherner), Friedrich von Thun (Rolf Czurda)

It was the film Spielberg spent over a decade building up the courage to make. Schindler’s List not only marked a new era for him as a film-maker, it also helped a wider audience directly confront the horrors of the Holocaust. At a time when Holocaust denial was starting to rise, Schindler’s List straight-forwardly but powerfully placed the reality of this crime firmly in the eyes of the world. Schindler’s List today remains one of the most emotionally powerful Holocaust movies, the standard to which all others are judged – and peerless example of committed and passionate film-making.

Based on Thomas Keneally’s Booker-prize winning “non-fiction novel” Schindler’s Ark, the film is set in Krakow during the Second World War. As the German occupying force crowds the Jews into the overcrowded Ghetto in the first step of what will become systematic extermination, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in town looking to make his fortune. Charming, gregarious and quick with a bribe, Schindler soon makes friends with senior SS members. Setting up an enamelware factory to supply the Wehrmacht, it is staffed entirely by cheap Jewish labour (supplied by the SS) and run by skilled Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) while Schindler handles ‘public relations’ (bribes and schmoozing) with the SS. But, over time, Schindler struggles more and more to close his eyes to the murder of the Jews – a fact made even more prominent with the arrival of brutal SS commander Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes).

Schindler’s List is chillingly, shockingly honest in its depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. But it’s easy to forget how cunningly and gently it eases you into the nightmare you are about to watch. This is after all a film that uses Schindler as its POV character. What we are experiencing is his perception of the Holocaust, and through that trying to grasp what could potentially have made this opportunist and profiteer into a humanitarian. As such, the film is careful to give a slow build to the monstrous genocidal fury of Nazism.

In fact, much of the first thirty minutes could almost play out as a sort of triumphant against-the-odds success of a morally flexible charmer. There are a surprising number of laughs in that opening thirty minutes, at Schindler’s chutzpah and weakness for a pretty face. The opening sequence is a delightful demonstration of his confidence: we know he has nothing but the clothes he stands up in and what cash he can scrape together when he enters a nightclub frequented by the SS bigwigs we needs to impress. When he walks in no-one knows who he is: by the end of the evening a waiter is dumbfounded another guest doesn’t know who Oscar Schindler is. Much of the first act is a chronicle of Schindler playing the angles, crossing the right palms with silver and charming left right and centre to make himself a somebody from nothing.

Imagine you didn’t know what the Holocaust was. You’d think this could be a very different film. There are clues: the unspoken loathing Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern clearly feels for this man who smilingly hires cheap Jewish workers from the SS (the workers get nothing) to staff his factory. The fear any Jewish character expresses when confronted with a German officer. The desperation and dirt of the Ghetto. But, like Schindler, there is enough there for you to think “yeah, it’s tough on the Jews, but it’s could be worse, it’s not my problem”.

Schindler wants to be thought of as a good man, but deep down he knows he isn’t: you can see his discomfort when he’s thanked by a one-armed man Stern has inveigled into working in the factory. He already knows he doesn’t deserve thanks – guilt that expresses itself at anger against Stern for hiring a one-armed ‘machinist’ in the first place. After all he’s running a business here.

That one-armed man is the first death we see, executed at a roadside for not being able to shovel snow from the road. Any chance of turning your face away again is lost with the arrival of Amon Goth to liquidate the Krakow Ghetto and build a new concentration camp. Played with a bloated, dead-eyed sadistic sadness by Ralph Fiennes (Goth bitches constantly about his workload, drinks to excess and is as desperate to be liked as he is uncaringly brutal), Goth oversees acts of inhumanity that leave the viewer shocked and appalled.

Spielberg films the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto like a documentary observer and doesn’t flinch from the brutality: summary executions, dead bodies left in the street, the late night slaughter of any hiding in the Ghetto. Doctors euthanise their patients (who drink the poison with thanks in their eyes) before SS guards can machine gun them in their beds. Spielberg embodies this in a single red-coated girl (one of the few splashes of colour in the film), who walks through this nightmareish hell, witnessed from a hill by the horrified Schindler. Later the same red-headed girl will be wheeled on a cart of twisted, exhumed bodies to be thrown onto a bonfire of rotting corpses.

It’s but an entrée into the nightmare of Goth’s camp and the later hell of Auschwitz. In the camp, Goth snipers those not ‘working’ from the balcony of his hilltop villa. Anyone can be executed at any time. Selections see naked inhabitants of the camp running in circles, the weak pulled out to be dispatched to the death camps. Mountains of corpses are burnt, their ashes falling like snow on Krakow. Later, a misdirected train of Schindler Jews arrives in Auschwitz where human ashes form a constant mist. Terrified the women are stripped, their hair removed and herded into a shower room: the terror of this sequence alleviated only when water not gas falls from the shower heads. Spielberg shoots all this with a careful but horrific immersiveness, which never lingers on horrors but always acknowledges them while moving you onto the next terror.

You can criticise Schindler’s List for focusing on the few thousand who survived this senseless barbarism rather than the millions of dead – but the film offers a cause for hope. That, even when things are at their worst, people can decide to do good. Itzhak Stern (a beautifully judged, deeply humane performance from Ben Kingsley) calls the list “an ultimate good”, with everything around it evil. Faced with such horrors, perhaps we need to know that a man like Oscar Schindler can turn the skills he used to enrich himself towards saving lives: bribing officials, spinning stories, presenting a front to his SS partners of an uncaring businessmen while saving as many lives as he can.

Played with huge charm and authority, mixed with a fascinatingly unknowability by Liam Neeson, the film bravely never offers a definitive answer as to what turned Schindler into a man dedicated to others rather than himself. There is no single moment where he makes the conscious turn, instead the film presents the shift as a gradual but inevitable change: as the real-life Schindler himself said, in such a situation there was no other choice.

Schindler’s List isn’t perfect. Despite his best efforts, Spielberg’s sentimentality creeps in. Neeson’s final scene takes things too far, culminating in a blatantly manipulative breakdown, weeping that he did not do more – as if Spielberg is worried we didn’t get the point. Some moments lean into Hollywood convention, from Goth’s gun repeatedly misfiring when attempting to execute a worker (who survives) to Goth and Schindler cutting cards to decide the fate of Goth’s brutalised maid Helene (a sensitive and heartfelt Embeth Davidtz). But what it gets right far outweighs this.

Spielberg presents the Holocaust with unflinching emotion and a carefully controlled sense of moral outrage. Beautifully (some argued too beautifully) filmed by Janusz Kaminski in cool black-and-white with a sensitive score from John Williams, it introduced the Holocaust to an entire generation. No other director could perhaps have done that.

In a sense Spielberg’s career was building towards this, his mastery of cinematic language (this is a superbly edited film by Michael Kahn) utilised not for thrills but to illuminate one of the darkest hours of history. But with that, it also provides hope for humanity, perhaps the key to its emotional impact. The acting is sensational – Neeson has never been better, Fiennes is extraordinary, Kingsley far too easily overlooked as the film’s heart. Traumatising, horrifying but vital and essential, Schindler’s List brings to life with deep respect the worst of history.

Husbands and Wives (1992)

Woody Allen’s relationship falls apart in Husbands and Wives. Life imitates Art?

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Gabe Roth), Judy Davis (Sally Simmons), Mia Farrow (Judy Roth), Juliette Lewis (Rain), Liam Neeson (Michael Gates), Sydney Pollack (Jack Simmons), Lysette Anthony (Sam), Blythe Danner (Rain’s mother), Ron Rifkin (Richard), Cristi Conaway (Shawn Grainger)

Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) are shocked and confused when their best friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) calmly announce before dinner they are separating. Both find themselves new partners – Judy’s colleague Michael (Liam Neeson), who Judy is also attracted to, and new-age aerobics trainer Sam (Lysette Anthony) – but also discover the grass is not always greener. Meanwhile, Judy is increasingly discontented with her childless marriage and Gabe develops a flirtatious friendship with his student Rain (Juliette Lewis), an aspiring writer with a fixation on older men.

You can’t watch Husbands and Wives and not think about the real-life relationship between Allen and Farrow. The film was their last collaboration and released just as their incredibly public separation filled the newspapers (which it has continued to do ever since). Farrow is cast as a character that, like Hannah and Her Sisters, feels like a twist on her own life – only this time darker. Again, the conceiving of children is a major problem for the Allen-Farrow characters and Farrow’s character is described as considerate but overbearing, with the addition here that she is passive-aggressive and manipulative. You can’t help but think, how much was Allen already resenting her?

But, leaving aside the psychology (I think it’s a fair thought though – Allen’s own films have commented numerous times on how writers re-write their own lives, and there are more than enough signs Allen does the same) this is still one of Allen’s most impressive works. Husbands and Wivesexplores the complex nature of adult relationships, in particular how familiarity can breed a dissatisfaction with our own lives. It also looks at how moving on is never easy and how we are still tied with emotional cords we can’t easily cut to the very people we might want to leave behind.

So, Jack can jump into his new relationship with the younger and sexually exciting Sam (Jack smugly sings the virtues of healthy living and watching silly films). But he is still overcome with jealousy when Sally also starts dating. Sally says she enjoys the single life – but during a date constantly retreats into a side room (where she can be easily overheard by her date) to phone Jack and berate him for moving on so soon after their separation. Allen argues that, discontented and problematic as Jack and Sally’s marriage may be, it is so familiar to them that the idea of leaving it is too much.

Essentially, the shared memories and experiences of a long-term relationship make it too difficult to move on. The separation of their friends makes Gabe and Judy readdress their own relationship – and the find its closer to the rocks than they think. With the passion gone, Gabe feels Judy doesn’t need him while Judy is unhappy with Gabe’s unwillingness to have a child. Judy doesn’t share her poetry with him and Gabe feels she is overly critical of his new novel (and is unhappy about the character in it who is clearly her). Inevitably (it is Allen) sex comes into play – both Gabe and Jack are sexually dissatisfied: Judy has lost interest and Sally can’t enjoy sex (not even with Liam Neeson).

Gabe, therefore, allows himself to get closer to Juliette Lewis’ student on the creative writing course he teaches. Again, being Allen, there is a considerable age difference – but at least that’s addressed in the film, as every single one of Rain’s exes are older men, all with positions of authority over her (a family friend, her psychiatrist, her teacher…). Lewis is rather good as this coquetteish flirt, and Gabe is (at first) much more open to her criticism of his book than he was from Judy (largely as, consciously or not, he wants to get in her pants).

The film is shot with a cinema verité fly-on-the-wall immediacy, echoing documentary. It has the characters pop-up as talking heads throughout, discussing their perceptions and feelings to an unseen interviewer. It’s an approach that has mixed results – although an interesting new way for Allen to use the internal monologue. The documentary approach does, however, produce some excellent scenes. Most striking, the raw hand-held energy of the opening scene, where Jack and Sally announce their separation to the rising horror and shock of Gabe and Judy, surely one of Allen’s finest shot and acted scenes.

Of course, they are mainly horrified because they see they have even less in common, really, than Jack and Sally. While Allen throws in one happy marriage – Rain’s parents seem loving – he also makes it clear their daughter is maladjusted. Husbands and Wives suffers under Allen’s cynicism for humanity – there isn’t a lot of hope in here, other than you might find a more functional type of contented misery. The sympathy also drifts more to the male characters: Gabe is a sort of innocent, Jack impulsive but his actions justified. On the other hand, Judy is a manipulator, Sally an shrill, frigid neurotic, Sam an idiot and Rain a temptress.

The performances are good. Judy Davis is very good (and Oscar-nominated) as the difficult, emotionally confused Sally. Pollack is fittingly smug as a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Neeson rather touching as an overly needy editor. Allen and Farrow play familiar parts, but with an accomplished ease. It’s just that Husbands and Wives is a rather glum watch – for all the jokes. It takes a depressing, rather archly cynical look at a world that doesn’t have a lot of promise in it. While it might well be truthful, the documentary approach of the film sometimes brings it closer to the Allen/Farrow home than you might find comfortable.

Men in Black: International (2019)

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth struggle through the messy Men in Black: International

Director: F Gary Gray

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Agent H), Tessa Thompson (Molly Wright/Agent M), Liam Neeson (High T), Kumail Nanjiani (Pawny), Rafe Spall (Agent C), Rebecca Ferguson (Riza Stavros), Emma Thompson (Agent O), Kayvan Novak (Vungus the Ugly)

Remember Men in Black? An amusing, odd-couple buddy movie about a secret agency patrolling alien activity on Earth. To be honest, the well was pretty dry after when the first movie ended. The formula – with original stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones – attempted to recapture the magic twice with diminishing returns. This, surely final, attempt subs in the stars of Thor: Ragnorak for an over-long, neither terribly exciting nor funny movie that feels like it’s been assembled by an arguing committee.

Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) encounters the Men in Black when they erase the memories of her parents (but accidentally leave hers intact) when she’s a child. As an adult she becomes obsessed with joining them, dedicating her life to building the skills the agency needs. Recruited by shrewd head of US operations Agent O (Emma Thompson) as Agent M, she’s shipped to the UK to join forces with their ace Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), under the direction of branch chief High T (Liam Neeson), to safeguard an alien dignitary. When the dignitary is assassinated, Agents M and H find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy that could destroy the whole world.

Tonally, Men in Black: International is a mess. At times it’s a farcical buddy movie, at others a darker action film. What it is all the time is overlong, meandering and only occasionally interesting. It stretches its slim action over nearly two hours (the first film was barely more than 90 minutes!), with the plot featuring so many diversions and chases down rabbit holes, that you are desperate to get back to the Eiffel Tower for the signposted showdown.

It doesn’t help that most of the events in the film are fairly predictable. You only need to have seen a film before to work out who the ‘surprise’ villain is. Every action scene – flipping heck nearly every joke – has been done in hundreds of films before. Anything remotely interesting – in some version of this film Agent H could have been a washout, coasting on his glory days rather than the stereotypical cocky-but-cool hero he is – has been ironed out. None of the dialogue sticks even vaguely in the head and not one of the punchlines lands.

Every scene is written with a perfunctory A-to-B quality. For example, at their first meeting Agent H is dozing at his desk, when Agent M approaches to ask to join his latest mission. She has a comprehensive briefing prepared for him (because she’s new and eager) which he shoves aside with a few off-the-cuff I’ll-read-it-later gags (because he’s a bog-standard action hero who acts on instinct). He claims he wasn’t dozing but meditating and sends her on her way. As she leaves, she tells him he has a “tell”: when he meditates he snores. This is neither particularly funny or enlightening, but because Agent H needs to be impressed for the film to continue, he is and recruits her. That’s a decent insight into the formulaic writing.

F Gary Gray tried to resign multiple times as the story he wanted to tell – something slightly darker about alien refugees on the run from a hideous force – was forced more and more into cookie-cutter Hollywood summer blockbuster fare by the producers. Fights like this perhaps explain why the motivations and actions of several characters make little sense. While Gray and the producers feuded over their cuts of the films, Hemsworth and Thompson allegedly then hired their own scriptwriters to re-write their dialogue.

It ends up an incoherent film, where it feels like some scenes were inserted by test audiences. For example, Rebecca Ferguson pops up for essentially a pointless cameo where she gains control of the macguffin. This long sequences only exists so we can get: a hot actress as an ex for Hemsworth’s character, a fight between Ferguson and Thompson (because Hemsworth can’t fight a girl, he fights the heavy – complete with lame Thor hammer joke), and an unneeded wrap up of a minor plot hole from the film’s opening. At the end they get the macguffin back again – but you could have dropped the whole sequence and got to the ending much quicker and lost nothing.

Hemsworth and Thompson do their best, although the film can’t decide whether to make them buddies or potentially romantic partners. Perhaps the confusion comes about from the actors’ obvious lack of sexual chemistry (they are much more believable as mismatched buddies). I actually feel both actors would have been better the other way around, rather than the lazy casting here. Hemsworth’s sweet earnestness and geeky charm under the muscle would be better as the newbie agent, while Thompson’s confidence and no-nonsense brusqueness matches the more the experienced agent. They do their best anyway, but they have some piss-poor material to work with.

It says a lot that the best moments of the film feature Emma Thompson coasting with snark through a few minutes of screentime. Liam Neeson seems an odd choice for a character clearly written as a posh English gent. Rafe Spall’s casting memo clearly told him he was in some sort of cartoon farce, so embarrassingly broad is his performance. The CGI chess pawn comic relief character does and says nothing that has even a passing relationship with the word “funny”.

Men in Black: International is a fairly dull, predictable, unimaginative franchise entry that, by trying to appeal to everyone with its derivative stunts and jokes, ends up appealing to no-one.

The Mission (1986)

Robert de Niro turns aside from the Jesuit rule to fight for right in The Mission

Director: Roland Joffé

Cast: Robert de Niro (Rodrigo Mendoza), Jeremy Irons (Father Gabriel), Ray McAnally (Cardinal Altamirano), Aidan Quinn (Felipe Mendoza), Cherie Lunghi (Carlotta), Ronald Pickup (Hontar), Chuck Low (Don Cabeza), Liam Neeson (Father John Fielding)

Spoilers: The incredibly grim and depressing ending of The Mission is discussed in detail.

When the world is run by men, how much of a voice does God have? Roland Joffé’s film explores colonial politics and religious duty in Spanish and Portuguese controlled South America. Needless to say, God doesn’t get that much of a vote when questions of land ownership, slavery and money are in play – and no noble stand from Jesuit priests is going to make a jot of difference. Joffé’s beautifully made and moving epic might be slightly self-important, but it won the Palme d’Or. With powerful imagery and sequences but some under-explored themes and characters, its one of those films that probably would have benefited from being at least an hour longer.

In the Paraguayan jungle in the 1750s, Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) successfully converts a Guarani community at his mission. Problem is to the Spanish and Portuguese empires the Guarani are fit only for exploitation and slavery. Mercenary slaver Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert de Niro) is one of them – but his world collapses after he murders his brother (Aidan Quinn) in a dispute over the woman (Cherie Lunghi) they both love. Mendoza makes his penance with the Jesuits, and the forgiveness he receives from the Guarani changes his life, leading to his conversion. But when a treaty – with the reluctant agreement of papal legate Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) – calls for an end to the mission, Gabriel and Mendoza resolve to fight: one with prayers the other with the weapons he has sworn off. Can they help the Guarani defend themselves from colonialism?

I don’t think its too much of a spoiler to say, no they can’t. The Mission may occasionally muddle itself by trying to say a lot in a short run-time, but on one thing it’s clear: the world is what men have made it, and they’ve made it a pretty dreadful place. The final quarter of the film is entirely given over to the spirited fight to protect the mission, as Mendoza and the other priests take up arms to help these people defend their homes. Joffé doesn’t gloss over the hideous cost of this, with a staggeringly high body count. The Europeans don’t differentiate between combatants and non-combatants, and the killed (and everyone is killed) fall with a sickening finality.

Watching the senseless destruction of this entire community for no purpose other than stripping the Guarani people of anything of value and shipping it back to Europe, you can only agree with Cardinal Altamirano that perhaps it would have been better for all concerned if ships had never crossed the Atlantic. When the dreams of bringing Christian civilisation end with Father Gabriel leading a march of peaceful converts into a hail of bullets, something has gone badly amiss in the world. Hammering home how helpless decency is, Mendoza is fatally wounded (and the village finally doomed) when he is distracted from destroying the bridge into the village, by running to safe a wounded child. No good deed goes unpunished in The Mission.

All of this is, by the way, immensely moving. It’s a tribute to Joffé’s quiet, coldly realistic eye for violence among the natural world that the final half hour is a hard watch. The European invaders may be faceless, scruffy monsters, but even they are briefly halted by the sound of prayer from the village (before they burn it down and kill everyone). The Mission is a profoundly beautiful film, which strains hard for spiritual meaning, and this final sequence is almost impossibly tragic to watch. Just as he had done in The Killing Fields, Joffé’s ability to report without sensationalism on real life tragedy, amongst scenery of great beauty, makes for powerful viewing.

There is so much right about The Mission, it feels harsh criticising it. The film was shot entirely on location (at times the cast show clear signs of the jungle-tummy that spread like wildfire through the cast and crew) and Chris Menges’ (Oscar-winning) cinematography captures the exotic beauty of the jungle, with a powerful visual sense of the spiritual and the sublime. It’s an effect built on immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s extraordinary score (one of the greatest ever recorded), every single note perfectly chosen to communicate the holy serenity of the Jesuits and the dark flaws of mankind.

Its in exploring those flaws that the film feels a tad rushed. I dearly wish this was an hour longer, if for no other reason that it could bring greater focus to the balance between faith and realpolitik in greater depth. Although the Cardinal gets a few moments to reflect on this, and explicitly question the self-appointed right the Europeans have given themselves as masters of the world, the film never quite manages to dive into these. (McAnally however is excellent as this tortured and ashamed man). Too often these ideas are boiled down into “worldly men bad, priests good”.

The role of the Missionaries themselves also goes unquestioned – these are, after all, people who have crossed the seas with the same sort of imperialist missions as anyone else, finding the indigenous tribes and aiming to make them (no matter how decent their motives) as much like the Europeans as they can. Instead there are presented as purely good and holy. Just think what another hour could have done for expanding the insight into the role of the Church here.

There is a few too many blunt statements of intentions and plot information, rather then real insight. You come out of it still with only a most basic idea of why Gabriel and Mendoza make the decisions they do – or what they hope the outcomes might be. More of a dive into the characters could have given more context to their holy intentions.

In the end the film’s main aim is pushing a message of peace. It’s the message Mendoza must learn. The film’s other most successful sequence covers his extraordinary penance, dragging a huge bundle of armour and weapons up a mountain to the mission. De Niro sells the anguish as beautifully as he does Mendoza’s shamed gratitude when he is greeted warmly by the very people he had enslaved. Its moments like this where The Mission achieves its aim of grappling with something close to how spirituality can move and change us – which often gets bogged down elsewhere in ticking off plot.

The message of peace is embodied by Irons’ profound and generous performance as Gabriel, a man who believes the world should be simpler than it is. I just wish the film had given itself more room to delve into its themes. In trying to cover imperialism, religion, spirituality and native rights, all in two hours (the Guarani draw a short story, with not one of them really being given a character) its too much. A richer, more textured film would make for a richer overall experience. It’s a film of great beauty in score and photography, often moving, but doesn’t make its message much more than give peace a chance.

The Bounty (1984)

Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins go head-to-head in The Bounty

Director: Roger Donaldson

Cast: Mel Gibson (Fletcher Christian), Anthony Hopkins (Lt William Bligh), Laurence Olivier (Admiral Hood), Edward Fox (Captain Greetham), Daniel Day-Lewis (John Fryer), Bernard Hill (William Cole), Phil Davis (Edward Young), Liam Neeson (Charles Churchill), Wi Kuku Kaa (King Tynah), Tevaite Vernette (Mauatua), Philip Martin Brown (John Adams), Simon Chandler (David Nelson

The story of the mutiny on The Bounty has intrigued for centuries. It’s been made into plays, novels and no fewer than three films. Most versions have been inspired by a 1932 novel that painted Bligh as an ogre and Christian as a matinee idol. That image was cemented by the classic Best Picture winning Laughton/Gable version. The real story is far more intriguing – and operates much more in shades of grey – and this 1984 film tries to find a middle ground, with mixed success.

In real life, Bligh was a prickly, difficult but fundamentally decent man, who had worked his way up the naval ranks through merit. He was a superb sailor – as seen by his feat of navigating a small open boat of loyalists over hundreds of miles back to a British port. Cleared of any guilt for the mutiny, he had a successful career and retired as Vice Admiral. Fletcher Christian, on the other hand, was an entitled young man who owed everything to his rich family, rather than merit. The truth has been lost in fictionalised versions who were devil and saint. The truth was far more complex.

This film was a long-standing dream of David Lean, who planned the film for many years, before pulling out at the last moment. The script was written by long-time collaborator Robert Bolt (although ill health meant it was finished by an uncredited Melvyn Bragg). Producer Dino de Laurentis – not wanting to write off the money invested – bought in Australian Roger Donaldson to direct. The final product is a competent, if uninspired, middle-brow history film with a slight air of stodge, and a haunting – if incredibly 80s – electronic score from Vangelis. Where the film really lucked out is the superb cast of actors assembled, with Gibson on the cusp of mega stardom and the cast stuffed with future Oscar winners and nominees.

Anthony Hopkins had been attached to the film for almost seven years, and his carefully researched performance as Bligh is what really gives makes the film work. He gets closer to the personality of the real Bligh than anyone else ever has. Awkward, shy, uneasy with men under his command, insecure at his poor background and the West Country burr to his accent, Hopkins’ Bligh is a world away from a bad man. But he is a demanding and rigid leader, who inspires fear but not respect. He’s far from cruel, but he’s short-tempered, inflexible and has trouble empathising. All too often, he relies on his position alone to ensure obedience, rather than building respect. You sympathise with him, at the same time becoming deeply frustrated at his intransigence. You can understand why many would find him an extremely difficult man to work with (let alone work for).

Fletcher Christian is young, naïve and impetuous, a man whose experiences in Tahiti lead him to become surly and impatient with the confines of a naval life. Gibson later said he felt the film didn’t go far enough to depict Christian as selfish and motivated by a desire for the ‘good life’, and the film does try to show him standing up for the crew against Bligh’s demands for perfection. But Gibson is willing to embrace Christian’s darkness. He hurls himself into the (historically attested) near mental collapse, consumed with violent and unpredictable emotion, that Christian demonstrated during the mutiny, losing all control of himself in an explosion of self-pity and frustration.

The film’s highpoints revolve invariably around these actors. Hopkins’ demanding Bligh sets the tone on the ship. The roots of the mutiny can be seen in Bligh’s public bawling out (and demotion) of his first officer Mr Fryer (a disdainful Daniel Day-Lewis) in front of the entire ship, setting a precedent for disrespect. Every action he intends to build spirit and health in the crew has the exact opposite effect (from pushing them to excel, to enforced dancing sessions for exercise). Hopkins is perfect as man believing he is acting for the best but constantly getting the tone wrong, either too distant and reserved to inspire affection, or too enraged to inspire loyalty. Similarly Gibson, in the less intriguing part, really sells the growing self-absorption of Christian, especially his feckless weakness, easily manipulated into actions that go a step beyond his desires (Phil Davis is very good as a darkly Iago-ish Ned Young, using Christian’s popularity to his own ends).

However, the film itself is a little too traditional. Using Bligh’s trial (all captains who lost their ship were placed on trial to judge their responsibility) as a framing device brings us slightly too many interjections of the “and then you did this” variety – even if it allows actors as impressive as Olivier and Edward Fox to narrate us through the film. This stodgy structure carries us into a narrative that is professionally handled but lacks inspiration, ticking off events but not giving them a force outside of the performances of the actors. The film is competently but not inspiringly made, and never quite captures the sense of the epic that the location and scale should bring.

Perhaps this is because a true-to-life version of the mutiny is a little less traditionally dramatic. Despite some truly impressive performances from the leads (and the rest of the superbly chosen cast), it never quite shakes off the feeling of being a history lesson.

Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale redeems the Batman in Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (William Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul), Mark Boone Jnr (Detective Arnold Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Loeb)

In the mid-2000s, Batman on film was a joke. A series that started with the Gothic darkness of Tim Burton had collapsed into the pantomime campness of Joel Schumacher. The franchise was functionally dead, so why hot burn it all down and start again from scratch. It was a radical idea – one of the first big “reboots” of a comic book saga. It was a triumphant success, changing the rule book for a host of film series and one of the most influential movies from the last 15 years. 

After the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) life drifts as he is unable to get over his own guilt at believing he was partly responsible for getting his parents into a situation where they were killed. In a Gotham run by organised crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Bruce exiles himself for years to try and learn the skills he will need to return and try and find some peace and deal with his fears by tackling crime head on. Recruited by his mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) into the League of Shadows – a dark group of ninja inspired vigilantes – Wayne eventually rejects the group’s ruthlessness and returns to Gotham. There, working with his old guardian and family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he starts to build a new identity: by day shallow playboy Bruce Wayne, by night The Bat Man ruthless vigilante, fighting crime. 

Why did it work so well? Because Christopher Nolan understood that the key to making a film that will kickstart a series and win the love of both the casual viewer and the fan is ‘simple’ – just make the film good. Make it a film powered by ideas, characters, a deliberate story and intriguing beats and audiences will love it. Make it a lowest common denominator film offering only bangs and crashes and ‘fan service’ and audiences will reject it. Because at the end of the day we know when we are being manipulated, and the assumption too many people behind making films like that is that people don’t really want intelligent films. They do.

Batman Begins works so well because it places character front-and-centre in a way no other Batman film – and very few superhero films – had before. Unlike all the other Batman films, here Bruce Wayne (and it is definitely Bruce Wayne) was the lead character, not a staid stick-in-the-mud around whom more colourful villains danced. Combine that with Nolan’s inspired idea to return Batman to something resembling a real-world, a more grounded, recognisable version of Gotham which has problems with organised crime that we could recognise from the real world. This are intelligent, inspired decisions that instantly allowed the film to take on a thematic and narrative depth the other Batman films had lacked. 

It’s Bruce Wayne’s psyche at the centre of the film – in an excellent performance of emotional honesty and physical commitment by Christian Bale – and his attempts to find solace in a sense of duty from his fears and his loss of a father figure. It’s Fear that is possibly one of the central themes of Batman Begins and the power it has over us. Fear is what Bruce must master – on a visceral level his fear of bats, on a deeper level his fear that he has failed his parents by failing the city they loved – and fear is the weapon all the villains use. Fear is the petrol for Falcone and his gangsters. Fear is the weapon Batman utilises. Fear is the study of choice of disturbed psychologist Joanthan Crane (a smarmily unsettling Cillian Murphy). A weaponised Fear gas is the WMD that the film’s villains intend to introduce into Gotham.

Understanding fear, working with it, finding its strengths and using these for good is at the core of the film. It’s there from the first beat – a traumatised young Bruce attacked by bats after falling into an abandoned well they nest in – and it’s there at the very end. Bruce’s training with mentor Ducard is as much about understanding and living with these terrors as it is physical prowess. His impact as Batman on the city is central towards channelling his own fears – bats, the dark, violence on an empty street – into universal fears he can use to terrorise criminals. 

It’s all part of the film’s quest to work out who Bruce Wayne is. With Bale superb at the centre, the film throws a host of potential father characters at Bruce, all offering different influences. He has no less than three father figures, in his father (a fine performance of decency by Linus Roache), the austere and understanding Ducard (Neeson channelling and inverting brilliantly his natural gravitas and calm) and the firm but fair and caring Alfred (Michael Caine quite brilliantly opening up a whole new career chapter). 

The influences are all there for Bruce to work out. Should he follow a path of compassionate justice as his father would do? How much muscular firmness and earnest duty, such as Alfred represents, should this be spiced with? How does Ducard’s increasingly extreme views of justice, combat and social order play into this? Which influence will win out over Bruce – or rather how will he combine all this into his own rules? It’s telling that the film’s villain turns out to be a dark false-father figure – the entire film is Bruce’s quest to come to turn with his own legacy and allow himself to accept his father and forgive himself.

It’s also telling that both hero and villain are driven by similar (but strikingly different) agendas. Both are looking to impose justice on the world. But where Bruce sees this as compassion with a punch – a necessary evil, protecting the good in the world while bringing down the evil – the League of Shadows see their mission as one of imposing Justice through chaos, of letting a world destroy itself so that a better one can rise from the ashes. 

Its ideas like this that pepper Christopher Nolan’s film. Throw in his superb film-making abilities and you have an absolute treat. Nolan’s direction is spot-on, superbly assembled with a mastery over character and story-telling. Beautifully designed, shot and edited it’s a perfect mixture of comic book rules and logic – the very idea of the League of Shadows – with the real world perils of crime, vigilanteeism and violence. With a superb cast led by Bale – and Gary Oldman also deserves mention, Nolan finally unleashing the decency, honesty and kindness in the actor that revitalised his career – Batman Begins relaunched Batman as a serious and intelligent series, that matched spectacle and excitement (and there is tonnes of it) with weighty themes, fine acting and superb film making. There is a reason why it’s been a touchstone for every reboot of a series made since.

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Jedi vs Sith – where did it all go wrong in The Phantom Menace?

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Frank Oz (Yoda), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quashie (Captain Panaka), Samuel L Jackson (Mace Windu), Ray Park (Darth Maul), Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum), Kiera Knightley (Sabé), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi), Brian Blessed (Boss Nass), Ralph Brown (Ric Olié)

Has there ever been a more disappointing film than The Phantom Menace? I don’t think any film has ever opened to so much hype and fan expectation. The Second Coming could have trouble competing with the expectations piled onto this first Star Wars prequel. Everyone thought it would be the film of the year. Until they saw it. No one thought it would be the film of the year after that.

Of course you should have sensed a disturbance in the force the second you read the opening crawl. The first sentence “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic” sounds promising right? Well let that expectation die as we hit the second sentence “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute”. Not exactly a flight for the Empire with the Death Star plans is it? Perhaps only a multi-millionaire like George Lucas could have expected a storyline based around a tax dispute would get the pulses racing. 

But then this is a jumping off point for a seriously shambolic film experience. Phantom Menace is a total mess, an incoherent, poorly scripted, farce of a film, a terrible stumble through a dashed off storyline that makes no sense. Anyway, Naboo is a planet under siege from the Trade Federation. Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to negotiate but things quickly turn to violence and they need to flee the planet with its 14 year old (?) elected (??) Queen (???) Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). On the planet of Tatooine they encounter a 9 year old slave Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) with a natural instinct for the force. Qui-Gon wants to train him, while the Galactic Republic tries to resolve the siege of Naboo.

That’s sort of the story – but even writing it down seems episodic and vague. But then that’s everything in the film. Nothing is really clearly explained, and we are never properly introduced to who all the sides are in this film and what they might want. There is a complete lack of any real narrative sense at all. The antagonists and protagonists of the film are hard to define. In fact they are frequently a pile of two dimensional yawns. It’s pretty hard to care about any of them. I guess you feel a bond with Obi-Wan, but that’s based on old films – watch this and Obi-Wan is a do-nothing whiner. 

But all the characters are infected by this. George Lucas is completely unable to bring any characterisations to these people, his lines constantly falling flatly or crappily to the ground, while the actors themselves struggle to find anything to engage it. Harrison Ford famously told Lucas on the first film that “you can type this shit but you can’t say it” – and that’s pretty much nailed on for this film. There is not one single vaguely memorable line in this film. Rather you are struck every second with feeble lines that sound like they might have had depth (“There’s always a bigger fish!”) but when analysed for a second make no sense whatsoever. It’s no wonder Neeson seriously considered quitting acting after this film.

Yes these two characters will get it on in the next film. Yuck.

There isn’t a single character in the film to really invest in. There is no equivalent to your Han Solo, the witty outsider to puncture some of the grandaeur. Instead every character is a flat, po-faced, non-personality who spend all their time in the film very seriously going about their business, never explaining anything. The Jedi are particularly affected by this, written as serious stick-in-the-muds constantly lecturing and ticking off other characters. Qui-Gon Jinn makes a tedious lead character, who constantly gets in the way of the relationship building we need to see between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Because we know where the film series is going, spending time on Qui-Gon feels like wasted time. The backstory is to see the relationship build between Obi-Wan and Anakin – instead they hardly speak in the film, and we instead spend ages on Qui-Gon. It’s poor story-telling and wastes a film showing us unimportant back story rather than spending time on the core stuff. It’s bad enough that we have to waste one third of the prequel series on Anakin Skywalker: The Wesley Crusher Years (seriously has anyone, even a child, ever loved a film where a brattish, super kid is the hero? You won’t be shouting Yiipppeeee…)

Lucas isn’t a director of actors, he’d say the same. But he is supposed to be a master of visuals and special effects. This is a film where everything you could possibly imagine has been thrown at the screen. Each frame is full of complex business, every single section crammed with special effects. There is a lot going on visually all the time, but all of it comes across like an explosion in a colouring book. Unlike the effects of the original trilogy, nothing really feels real or carries any real weight. Instead you see every special effects shot in the film and see frames filled with clutter and shiny, computer generated weightless nonsense. Worst offender is the hideously overextended pod race sequence, like a particularly dull Formula One race, which carries no real stakes (as we all know the result) and, for all the high speed camera work and editing feels not one iota as thrilling as the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi.

On top of this, most of the interventions into the Star Wars backstory makes the original trilogy worse. This is the film that gave us midichlorians, some sort of magic alien thing that lives in blood and gives the Jedi the ability to use the force. The reaction to this midichlorian nonsense, undermining the mystique of the force into something that could measured like a top trump was so negative that it was mentioned at most once in the two sequels. Other areas got similarly scathed, not least turning Anakin Skywalker into the worst form of “gifted child”. I’m not even going to touch on the icky fore-knowledge we have about the fact that Anakin and Padme are going to get it on in the future, something that is hideous to think about.

The most hated character in film history?

Lucas also fudged the new stuff he introduced in the film. The worst element: of course it’s poor old Jar-Jar Binks. I genuinely feel sorry for Ahmed Best, an actor whose career never recovered, who is just doing here what he was told to do. But Binks is the most irritating character possibly ever conceived for a hit blockbuster. An idiotic, comic creation designed for the kids who falls over, trips up, says stupid things and steps in shit he does nothing useful for the whole course of the film and tries to entertain kids who were way more interested in Darth Maul. Binks is almost irredeemable, every sentence enough to send everyone’s teeth on edge. 

Lucas trumpeted how much Binks was setting the trend of being the first major computer generated character. Lucas was incapable of guiding the actors to respond (or even look at) the correct spaces where Binks was standing. And Lucas was so pleased with it, he never stopped to think. Binks makes no sense. Like the rest of the Gungans he’s a joke. There is literally no reason at all for the Jedi to take him anywhere with them, particularly as he constantly gets in the way, causes trouble and offends people. Even in the “desperate” final battle, Binks prats about – compare him to the moments of tragedy and sacrifice given to the Ewoks in Jedi and you’ll see how bad this is.

Yes Watto loves Money. What? What’s the problem?

And of course he and the Gungans are shocking racist caricatures in their Jamaican accent. If you had any doubts that Lucas had no one saying no to him on anything, this film is stuffed with pretty shocking racist characters. Binks is terrible, but the villains of this place are the money obsessed Trade Federation, all with Japanese accents. On Tatooine, Anakin is kept by a greasy, fly ridden, money obsessed, big nosed, fly-covered alien Watto who looks, sounds and acts like a children’s version of The Eternal Jew. Did no one watching the film take a second and say “hang on this looks a bit dodgy…”

All of this nonsense finally comes together in a grand final battle which sums the whole film up, in a sequence where the tone shifts and changes all the time with no sense of a single person doing so intentionally. We have the Gungans comically fighting the droids in a series of awful little vignettes. We have the Queen chasing through the palace in a poorly explained subplot. We have a 9 year old child accidentally flying a ship into space and accidentally blowing up the baseship (Anakin saves the day without even realising it, the one thing that could make the child even more irritating than he already is). And we have the Jedi fighting Darth Maul in a battle that looks impressive at first but is in fact overly busy and overly choreographed. 

The Phantom Menace has few reasons to like it at all. You get bored with the story. You don’t invest in the characters. You don’t engage with the events. You don’t feel your pulse racing. The plot drifts from planet to planet with very little logic at all. The dialogue is terrible. The story telling is abysmal. The direction is flat. The film throws in moments that crap over the original trilogy. Lucas made is wait for decades – but then seems to have produced a film that he didn’t really want to do. It’s a truly dire film.

The Next Three Days (2010)

Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe go on the run in workmanlike thriller The Next Three Days

Director:  Paul Haggis

Cast: Russell Crowe (John Brennan), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Brennan), Brian Dennehy (George Brennan), Lennie James (Lt Nabulsi), Olivia Wilde (Nicole), Ty Simpkins (Luke Brennan), Helen Carey (Grace Brennan), Liam Neeson (Damon Pennington), Daniel Stern (Meyer Fisk)

What would you do to protect the person you love? How far would you go to keep her safe? What would you sacrifice? What rules would you break? Paul Haggis’ serviceable thriller tries to answer these questions, but doesn’t really get much closer to the answers than I have here.

Russell Crowe is John Brennan, a teacher of English Literature at a mid-ranking college. One day, his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for the murder of her boss. Despite her pleas of innocence, before they know it she is sentenced to spend most of the rest of her life behind bars. When desperation at the thought of her fate – and missing the upbringing of their young son – leads her to attempt suicide, John decides to take the extreme step of breaking her out of prison. But where to begin with the planning? And what will he be prepared to do?

It’s the sort of film that early-on has the lead character meet a ruthless expert (in this case an ex-con with a history of prison breaks, played with a growling enjoyment by Liam Neeson in a one-scene cameo) who outlines a list of rules and terrible things that the hero will be forced to do. The hero looks askance – but sure enough each situation arises and doncha know it the hero is forced to bend his own morality to meet the needs of his mission. What a surprise.

Only of course the film doesn’t have the courage to force Crowe’s John to actually do things that bend his morality. There is always a get-out clause. When his actions lead to him taking a petty criminal’s life (while stealing money from a drug den), it’s self-defence. When he looks like he may be forced to put innocent people in harm’s way, he backs away. When he’s asked to sacrifice something major, he refuses. The film wants to be the sort of film where we see the lead character change inexorably as he becomes harder and more ruthless to achieve his mission. But it worries about losing our sympathy, so constantly gives the audience and the character get-out clauses to excuse his behaviour.

Not that Crowe gives a bad performance – he’s actually rather convincing as a humble, slightly timid man way out of his depth at the start – but the film fails completely to show these events really changing the man. It believes that it’s turning him into a darker, more ruthless person, but it isn’t. At heart, this film isn’t really a character-study at all but a dark caper movie. Obstacles are constantly thrown in the path of our hero, many of which bamboozle him: but then when we hit the prison break itself at last, suddenly he’s pulling carefully planned rabbits and double bluffs out of his hat like Danny Ocean. It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it: to show a hero bewildered by his task, in danger from this ruthless world he finds himself in – but also to have him become a sort of long-game con artist thinking three moves ahead of the police.

It just doesn’t quite tie up. It’s the film adapting to whatever it feels the requirements and desires of the audience might be at a particular moment rather than something that develops naturally. Enjoyable as it is to see these sort of games play out, you can’t help but feel a little bit cheated – there has been no indication before this that the character has this level of ingenuity in him.

He doesn’t even really need to pay a price beyond that which he had accepted from the start: at points major sacrifices are dangled before him but he never needs to make any of them. He never has to really bend his personal morality significantly. It’s the cleanest conversion to criminality that you are likely to see.

The film cracks along at a decent pace – even if it is a little too long – and shows its various twists and reveals fairly well. Elizabeth Banks is pretty good as Laura, even though she hardly seems the most sympathetic character from the start (the audience has to do a bit of work for why Crowe’s character seems so devoted to her). Most of the rest of the cast are basically slightly larger cameos but no one disgraces themselves.

The main problem with the film is its lack of depth and ambition. Mentioning Don Quixote several times in the narrative doesn’t magically grant a film depth and automatically create intelligent contrasts with the novel. Instead it just sounds like straining for depth rather than actually having it.