Tag: Robin Wright

Forrest Gump (1994)

Tom Hanks unleashes some cloying charm in Forrest Gump

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Robin Wright (Jenny Curran), Gary Sinise (Lt Dan Taylor), Mykelti Williamson (“Bubba” Blue), Sally Field (Mrs Gump), Haley Joel Osmont (Forrest Gump Jnr)

Oh dear God. It’s worse than I remembered. I hadn’t watched Forrest Gump since maybe 1995. I hadn’t liked it much then. But that might just have been my contrariness: sure I was going to find faults in the film that became a cultural phenomenon. Rewatching it today: actually no, I had good taste. This must be one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar – and certainly one of the most unsettlingly twee, sentimental, conservative-minded pieces of feel-goodery to ever come out of Hollywood.

You surely know the plot. Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks, who to do him credit plays this one note character with real charm) is a good-hearted man with developmental difficulties (IQ below the 75 mark) who lives through some of the most turbulent times in American history. From racial violence in the 1950s, to Vietnam, the Cold War, the political turmoil of the 1970s, Forrest lives through it all. And largely lets it wash over him, never letting it intrude on his simple, folksy, homespun gentleness. Although that might mostly be because he also doesn’t really understand most of the things happening around him. He’s quite a contrast with the girl he’s loved since their childhood, Jenny (Robin Wright) who embraces everything the modern world brings (protest, politics, drugs) but of course finds her life much less rewarding and happy than Forrest’s “go-with-the-flow” acceptance.

Just writing it down I can feel my stomach turning again. At the time the filmmakers were very keen to promote the film as stridently apolitical. Yeah sure the film never praises, say Kennedy or Nixon, just as it goes out of its way not to state an opinion on either George Wallace or the Black Panthers. But the film is, at its heart, a large, beating, reassuring lump of rank conservatism.

It looks back at America’s past with rose-tinted glasses, portraying a world which would have all better if they had taken a leaf out of Forrest’s book. If we had all been just as uninvolved, decent, kind and stayed at home where we were happy rather than getting engaged in major social and political issues, everything would have been better. Forrest is a celebration of all-American virtues of honesty, bravery and loyalty – but the film is also an implicit criticism of other all-American virtues like curiosity, scepticism and challenging the status quo. Basically, the film celebrates the cosy attitudes conservatives adore and has nothing good to say about more liberal values. Sure, it doesn’t roll out a banner for Nixon – but you can also see this playing well at a Trump rally, with people saying we would be a happier country if we could all be a bit like Forrest.

That’s really tough on the film – and I imagine Zemeckis and co would be rightly horrified about that very idea – but it’s a film that doesn’t once challenge the audience at all. I was reminded throughout of Being There which took a similar concept: a man with low IQ finds himself at the centre of major events. But while that film was a satire – where the characters invest Chance’s gnomic utterings with profound wisdom – this film is a serious drama which encourages the audience to see a “deeper wisdom” in Forrest, to effectively treat him as a sort of prophet. There is a reason bland nonsense like “life is like a box of chocolates” caught on.

The original book was far more of a satire on the shallowness of modern culture. This instead plays like a sort of holy fool pilgrimage, with Forrest’s interaction with historical figures played for laughs. From showing Elvis how to dance, to (in the film’s most cringing moment) inspiring John Lennon with the lyrics of Imagine (another reason to hate Forrest), the film is crammed with gags like this. While the insertion of Tom Hanks into newsreel footage with Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon is impressive (although it has not aged quite so well), it’s not made with any point. This is because Forrest has no real appreciation of what’s happening around him. He’s merely moving from one event from the next – but this lack of engagement and understanding is held up as a virtue. And the very fact that it is, speaks to the film’s underlying conservatism and love for simple, small-town American ideals that shouldn’t be sacrificed to all that uncomfortable social and political change.

The film is particularly harsh on Jenny, decently played by Robin Wright, who is portrayed as someone succumbing to every trend and popular movement of the era. And whom the film consistently punishes for this by showing her emptiness, shallowness and unhappiness, until it finally consigns her to death from AIDS. Just in case we’ve missed the point, Forrest repeatedly urges her to come home – to stop engaging with the wider world and the problems in it and bury her head back into the sands of home, where everything is simple, safe and nothing changes.

The world of Forrest Gump is one where corruption and war mongering don’t matter because it happened a long time ago. A world where racial politics are too distasteful to mention (although since Forrest’s Granddaddy was a leading member of the KKK – a flashback played for laughs – that clearly wasn’t the case). Where the only black people Forrest encounters are the outsider soldier Bubba (who of course dies in ‘Nam – even in serious films, the Black Guy dies first) and his servile family whose names don’t even merit a mention, but who become the grateful beneficiaries of Forrest’s oblivious generosity. But there is no sense here of the dangers and violence of America (bar some nasty jocks at Forrest’s college) – which considering the film has a cameo from George Wallace of all people is really striking.

But then the problems of the world I guess don’t seem that bad if you just don’t think about them and instead go through life with a smile on your face, blissfully unaware of what’s happening around you. The closest the film gets to giving Forrest an opinion on something is when he is asked to speak at a rally against Vietnam – and even then the sound cuts out meaning we can’t hear him (though it seems to have been profound). A wittier film, like Being There, would have made this a moment for satire. Here it seems more like the magic of Forrest’s simplicity mustn’t be shattered for the audience by daring to suggest he actually has a view on something.

The film is a warm and comforting hug, that tells people the past wasn’t that bad and would have been better still if we’d just been nice to each other. That wanting to change the world is dangerous and greater rewards can come from going with the flow. For all Forrest is bereft by Jenny’s death, the film still rewards him with family, home and friends. It’s sentimental, empty, depressing crap. Well made, but simply dreadful. You may not know what’s in a box of chocolates, but you sure as shit will remember after you’ve vomited them all back up after watching this.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

wonder woman 1984
Gal Gadot is delightful again in superior sequel Wonder Woman 1984

Director: Patty Jenkins

Cast: Gal Gadot (Diana Prince/Wonder Woman), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Kristen Wiig (Dr Barbara Minerva), Pedro Pascal (Maxwell Lord), Robin Wright (Antiope), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Kristogger Polaha (Handsome man), Lucian Perez (Alistair), Ravi Patel (Baba Jide), Oliver Cotton (Simon Stagg), Stuart Milligan (President of the United States)

Wonder Woman in 2017 received the sort of rave reviews superhero films dream of. It was refreshing to have an action flick with a woman as the driving force. But Wonder Woman was, aside from that, very much a conventional superhero origins movie, with little truly original about it. Perhaps memories of it as being more revolutionary than it in fact was, lie behind the more hesitant critical reaction to Wonder Woman 1984, in many ways a more entertaining and smarter film.

In 1984, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) works at the Smithsonian, and fights for justice in her spare time as Wonder Woman (it’s not clear how she this striking woman manages to keep her identity secret bar smashing a few CCTV cameras). However, she leads a private and lonely life, still mourning the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) during the First World War. Her confidence is admired by her ditzy and nervous (and clearly smitten!) colleague Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who longs to be like her. An exhibit arrives at the Smithsonian – a mysterious stone that legend has it will grant any wish that the person holding it asks. Diana, in a whimsical moment, wishes for the return of Steve – and is shocked when a man claiming to be Steve appears in her life. Dr Minerva meanwhile wishes to be like Diana in every way – little knowing her secret powers. But the stone has other people interested in it: it could be just the tool that ambitious, but failed, entrepreneur Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) needs to turn his life around. But is there a cost for all this gift giving? What will the stone take in return – and can humanity survive a world where the slightest wish could come true?

Wonder Woman 1984 has a clear theme: taking the easy path might help you to get what you want, but an unearned victory is never a true one. It’s a concept introduced from the start, in an opening flashback section where a child Diana takes a shortcut in an Olympics race, and is denied victory by her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright in a welcome cameo). Antiope, in the way of all mentors, reminds her we learn lessons from loss and defeat, and short-cutting around failure never pays off in the end. It’s a clear message that being granted your wishes without working for them is empty.

And of course there is a cost! The stone takes from you the thing you value most, in exchange for what you want the most. In Diana’s case – having made her wish unknowingly, in a single moment of whimsy – what she loses is her strength, the thing that makes possible the thing she values most: her ability to change the world for the better. In turn, when Barbara wishes to be like Diana, the stone takes from her the very humanity that made her such an endearing and sweet person.

These sort of exchanges are not new to anyone who has ever read a fairy tale. But they are told here with refreshing honesty, not to mention a certain level of charm. Above all, this simple morality tale works because we are invested in the characters. Even without the memory of their relationship from the first film, Gadot and Pine are so likeable and charming in this film (Pine in particular is a delight, his eyes filling with wonder at the modern era – from a childish glee at escalators to tear-filled awe at the space programme) that, even though you know from the start what they are doing is “wrong” (after all Steve is inhabiting another man’s body, and every audience eventually the hero needs to do the right thing and give that body back), you still feel their joy at being together and Diana’s anguish at the thought of giving up the only (selfish) thing she’s ever wanted.

The same is true for the other two characters affected by the stone. Although nominally villains, both Wiig and Pascal play characters who, if anything, are deeply-flawed anti-heroes. Wiig is absolutely endearing as the gentle and shy Barbara, so much so it’s heartbreaking to see her freeze up as the film progresses. Pascal is hilariously overblown as a wannabe Gordon Gekko, but his relationship with his son is nicely drawn and his character is tinged with an underlying insecurity. Wonder Woman 1984 is refreshing in that it doesn’t present heroes and villains, but ordinary people needing to find the courage to reject their dreams for reality. Some do, others don’t.

It’s not a perfect film by a long stretch. As with the previous film, a final act fight scene lacks humanity and is dull. The film is probably fifteen minutes overlong. The various action scenes are well staged, but lack freshness. Some of the humour doesn’t always land. It’s hard not to snigger at a late act revelation of a new power for Wonder Woman. And while the film thankfully avoids the crassness of the first and its trenches setting, a photo of Wonder Woman helping to liberate concentration camps feels horrendously out of place (it’s meant to show her goodness, but I just wondered why on earth did she wait so long to do anything about the Holocaust?).

But the bad is outweighed by the good in a genuinely entertaining and charming movie whose freshness and lightness exceeds the original. Gal Gadot is still wonderful in the lead role – determined but sweet – Chris Pine does some of his best work and Wiig and Pascal are very good. I’d confidently say this is a better film than the first, a richer character study inspired by fairy tales, that really gets to the emotional heart of its lead character. I may be alone in that, but that’s what I think.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig investigate unspeakable evil in David Fincher’s superb The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Slander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Goran Višnjić (Dragan Armansky), Donald Sumpter (Detective Morell), Ulf Friberg (Hans-Erik Wennerström), Geraldine James (Cecilia Vanger), Embeth Davidtz (Annik Giannini), Julian Sands (Young Henrik Vanger), David Dencik (Young Morell), Tony Way (Plague), Alan Dale (Detective Isaksson)

At the time of its release, there was a slightly cool reaction to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most reviewers were already familiar with the story twice over, firstly as the best-selling thriller then as the Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace. Perhaps fans were similarly slightly indifferent, while newbies had already declined the first two options, as the film struggled to crawl its way to breakeven. However, rewatching it, I feel this intriguingly well-made film deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion as another adaptation of a pulp thriller made 20 years earlier: The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is a crusading financial journalist and co-owner of Millenniummagazine, whose career is in ruins after his article about the CEO of a major company leads to him losing a costly legal battle for libel. He is approached by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who asks him to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger, who vanished on their privately owned island estate. Blomqvist is hired after an exhaustive investigation into his personal life by emotionally challenged hacker and private investigator Lisbeth Slander (Rooney Mara), who is facing her own problems of gaining her independence from her position as a ward of the state, represented by her vile guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). As Blomqvist investigates, eventually with the help of Lisbeth, the trail takes a very dark turn suggesting a sinister hand behind the disappearance not only of Harriet but also of a number of other women around Sweden.

Fincher’s crisply made, icily cold movie embraces the coldness not only of wintery Sweden, but also the film’s chilling subject matter. There are very rarely – if ever – flashes of colour or light, with the world taking on an oppressive blackness and grey or windswept bleakness. It’s a perfect metaphor for the horror of what people do to each other. It’s brilliantly assembled, as you would expect from Fincher, and made with such consummate skill and excellence that its professional chill becomes almost oppressively unsettling, much like the plot itself.

Re-watching it I was put very much in mind of The Silence of the Lambs. That too was a masterfully made adaptation of a pulp novel that found a poetry and depth in the book, framing it around a series of unconventional relationships, with a female lead pushed into a role that sharply defies expectations. Both have at their centre a dangerous figure whose interests align with the other characters. Brilliantly, here the role of dangerously unpredictable genius and unexpected female role are both taken by Lisbeth Slander. (In fact Lisbeth is like a fusing of Clarice and Lector into one character). 

Like Lambs, which tapped into the 1990s obsession with the power of psychiatry and self-analysis and used it as the key to uncovering and defeating criminals, this takes our fascination with computers and the internet and uses that as silver bullet for finding criminals. Just as in the 1990s psychiatrists seemed to have access to some sort of mystical alchemy no one else could understand, so the film shows Lisbeth’s hacker skills as some sort of super power that can blow down secrets and accomplish things no one else can do. 

The film also echoes Lambs in its fascinating look at the place of women in the world. The film revolves around historical violence against women – when we finally have the killer unveiled he confirms women have only ever been his targets – and the film is heavy (in often wordlessly narrated flashbacks) with ominous feelings of danger from a domineering male culture. The world clearly hasn’t changed that much either. The killer continues to operate, everyone in a position of influence we see is an ageing man, Lisbeth’s ward is a vile sexual abuser. But, in this milieu of threat to women, Lisbeth becomes a sort of icon of a woman living life on her terms and taking control of her own life.

Impressively embodied by an Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara, Lisbeth is the sort of character you would normally expect to be a man: surly, anti-social, difficult, prone to violence, sexually indiscriminate, determined to always be in control and decisive in her relationships. She quickly takes the lead in her relationship with Mikael, professionally and later sexually (right down to her telling him where to put his hands during their passionate but also functional sex scenes). Mikael meanwhile takes far more the traditional “female” role: dedicated, hard-working, maternal, competent but better placed as the assistant to a true genius. Daniel Craig gives him a slightly rumpled middle-age quality, combined with a feckless recklessness that lands him in trouble.

The film is Lisbeth’s though, and Fincher brilliantly uses early scenes to establish her defiant, independent character. From snatching her bag back (brutally) from a would-be mugger on the underground, to a surly, blunt lack of respect she shows to a client, she’s painted clearly as a person who will respond how she wants, regardless of any “rules”. But Fincher also makes time to show her vulnerability. Lonely and insecure, she has worked hard to kill any vulnerability in her and protect herself from emotional pain. To see the small notes of tenderness she allows out – from her reaction to a former guardian suffering a stroke to her increasing emotional investment in Mikael – is strikingly engaging.

And we definitely see her suffering. If we had any doubts about one of the themes of this film being about how powerful men abuse and control women, the sub-plot of Lisbeth’s abusive warden (played with the pathetic, creepy relish of the small man enjoying what control he has by Yorick van Wageningen) hammers it home. The four key scenes between these characters cover a mini-arc in themselves from abuse of power, assault, revenge and power shift. Lisbeth may suffer terribly – more than she expects, much to her shock – but the sequence not only shows her ability to survive but also to turn the tables to her advantage. You could argue that this sort of rape-revenge fantasy might trivialise the impact rape has on real people – but it’s crucial for the theme of the film that there is hope that the sort of scum that abuse their positions can be stopped and that victims can survive and thrive. 

And you’ll need this as the film expands both into the past and the present day into a series of increasingly grim cases of historical abuse and murder. Fincher presents all this with the same brilliant, non-exploitative control that Jonathan Demme managed in Lambs. Despite the horrors of the themes, there is no lingering on anything graphic. Instead Fincher uses the tension of slowness, of steady camera work, of careful pacing to let tension and unease build up as we feel something is horribly wrong but never can be quite sure what. The final confrontation with the killer is not only deeply unsettling for it being one of the most brightly lit sequences of the film, but also for the middle-class banality of the villain’s taste (you’ll never listen to Orinoco Flow in the same way again) and the fascinatingly business-like approach he brings to his deeds of slaughter. 

The Girl with the Dragan Tattoo is such a well-made film that perhaps that’s its greatest weakness. It’s a little too easy to see a lack of personality in it, a professionalism, a clean perfection, a master craftsman quality, that you feel you are watching a studio picture made by a great director. And maybe you are: but then you could say the same about many of Hitchcock’s film, a director Fincher consciously echoes here. Superbly acted not just by the leads but by the whole cast (Plummer, Skarsgård and Wright are excellent while even Berkoff gives a restrained performance) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the sort of film that will surely only be considered in a warmer and warmer light as time goes by.

Beowulf (2007)

A CGI Ray Winstone faces off against monsters, temptation and fate in Beowulf

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar), John Malkovich (Unferth), Robin Wright (Queen Wealtheow), Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s Mother), Crispin Glover (Grendel), Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf), Alison Lohman (Ursula)

Around the turn of the century a new style of film-making (and I guess acting) burst into the world of Hollywood. There had been special effects and there had been animation. We’d seen actors transplanted by CGI into any number of settings and locations. But motion-capture was something else. Its leading pioneer is of course Andy Serkis, and the art involved essentially placing a load of dots on people’s faces to record every inch of their movements and then feed this physical performance into a computer to create a CGI personality that unified actor and special effect. 

Zemeckis, always a pioneering film maker, was fascinated by the art and had used it on previous films – but Beowulf was his real push to create something that couldn’t have been done without motion capture. So Ray Winstone – a bulky middle aged actor – is here transformed through the computer into a slim, muscular man in his early thirties. Winstone plays Beowulf himself, and Zemeckis’ aim here was to bring to life in a way that had never been done before the ancient poem. And not only the humans would be motion captured: Grendel and his mother (played by Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie) would also be powered by real-life human performances.

It makes a fascinating film visually to watch. Zemeckis’ camera work has the complete freedom to roam anywhere around the actors (every move they made was recorded into the computer from every angle). And he doesn’t hold back, with the camera swooping and sliding around every dimension and angle of the locations, often moving freely and swiftly with a series of engrossing tracking shots and fast moving sweeping panoramas. 

It also means that having real performances behind every creature in the film adds a real human dimension to even the most vile monsters. Crispin Glover’s physical commitment – not to mention the searing, twisted pain in his every moment – humanises Grendel in a way his simple monstrous appearance never could. The later dragon has a real feeling of humanity behind it, for all its scales and arrogant cruelty. Angelina Jolie reported she felt surprisingly uncomfortable when she saw the final realisation of her performance as Grendel’s mother – imagined here as an extremely seductive succubus, permanently naked with perfectly formed curves – but the entire thing works because of the performance behind the animation.

Some of the motion capture isn’t always of course completely successful. There is something still slightly too shiny, slightly too polished about the faces – part of the film being a slightly strange halfway gap between animation and real acting. The eyes suffer most – for all the efforts of the animators there is something still slightly dead behind, something not quite of the human face about them. It’s something that you can’t help but spot, and can’t help but be disconcerted about.

But it largely comes second to some of the imagination that exists in this version of the story. Zemeckis’ film making is often visceral and bloody – and the action sequences are as involving as he manages to make the other sequences are engaging. Not everything works: Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude, and the decision to have Beowulf’s ‘bits’ constantly obstructed by a series of fortuously placed items smacks somewhat of Monty Python and seems tonally off from the rest of the film. But by and large it works.

It does this because the script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery mixes the original poem with something reminiscent of Macbeth. One of its key themes is the seduction of power and the inner guilt of heroes who know that they have feet of clay. Grendel is reimagined as the son of Hrothgar – seduced by Grendel’s mother with offers of power, he creates with her Grendel, the living embodiment of his flaws. Grendel’s mother represents the creeping temptation of greed, ambition and the “old ways” (the film plays up the Christianisation of the Vikings in the background throughout). She’s effectively all the witches rolled into one (but much hotter).

And Beowulf is ripe ground for our temptations as it’s made clear right from the start that – while clearly a great warrior – he is also a triumphalist blowhard who enjoys repeating and expanding his own myth. A story recounted about his fighting sea monsters during an epic sea swimming competition (‘It used to be just one’ comments best friend Wilfric) is a masterpiece of puffed up self-promotion on top of genuinely impressive deeds, Beowulf’s words diverging from the story we see on screen towards in the end is a neat foreshadowing of his eventual seduction by Grendel’s mother. 

Beowulf isn’t an empty boaster though. He’s a sympathetic Macbeth who feels guilt about the “sound and fury” that his life story has become. The aged Beowulf in the second half of the film is weary, tired and full of self-loathing, his great name an oppressive weight he can’t live up to or escape from. He’s a man who knows all the time he has feet of clay, but the name of a God – and that the name is so important he can’t let anything puncture it. Wilfric twice refuses to allow Beowulf to divest his conscience: the legend is so important it’s been printed as fact.

Ray Winstone handles this all pretty well – even if a lot of this requires sorrow behind the eyes, that motion capture simply can’t provide – even if the transformation of his face makes him look more like Sean Bean than a younger version of himself. Hopkins and Malkovich embrace all the cavorting and expressive body movement of motion capture like the old hams they can be. The film’s real highlight is Robin Wright who makes a great deal of Hrothgar then Beowulf’s sad wife, unhappy, quietly aware of both her husband’s flaws and perhaps the only level headed person in the Kingdom.

Beowulf has some fine technical work, but its real lasting interest is the psychological depths it tries to explore in its hero. Far from the perfect warrior, he’s someone doubtful and doubting, whose insecurities and vulnerabilities grow throughout the film and finally – like a mix of Lear and Macbeth – only becomes fully sympathetic at the very end. It makes for an interesting remix of a story nearly older than any other in our culture.

Moneyball (2011)

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill take on maths and baseball (in that order) in Moneyball

Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg), Stephen Bishop (David Justice), Reed Diamond (Mark Shapiro), Brent Jennings (Ron Washington)

Chances are, if I tell you this is a film (a) about baseball and (b) also about sabermetric economics, I’ll lose a lot of you before a single second of the film has rolled. Which would be a shame in this case, as Moneyball is an entertaining, rather affecting yarn that manages to turn subjects that really feel like they should be impossibly dull into a sprightly against-the-odds drama.

In 2002, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has a problem. The As are struggling to pull together a competitive team for the new season, with their best players having been cherry picked away by the larger (and crucially richer) teams, and the money to buy replacements proving incredibly sparse. But after a chance meeting at the Cleveland Indians with young Harvard economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Beane stumbles across another way of building a team. Realising that if he tries to compete on finances with the bigger teams he will always lose, Beane is persuaded by Brand to research player statistics to unearth players undervalued by the big teams. By focusing on specific playing statistics – crucially their on-base percentage – rather than more showy skills, Beane starts to build a successful team, despite the push-back from the more conservative scouts and coaches at the club.

Yes it’s the backroom side of sports, the boardroom politics and business dealings, that come to the fore in this film. But rather than bore, it actually zings along very effectively due, in no small part, to some cracking trademark rat-a-tat dialogue from Aaron Sorkin (polishing a script by Steven Zallian), which elevates conversations about percentages and statistics into something so entertaining you don’t even notice you barely see any actual playing of baseball. 

But then the film comes into shape because who hasn’t wanted to be the visionary, to be the one who tells a stuffy room of old-timers that they are out of date and hell fire I don’t care what you say we’re going to do it the new way or be damned? Based on Michael Lewis’ book, written in heavy collaboration with Billy Beane, the film may well (as some have claimed) play up the conservative prejudices of the follow-your-gut scout and coaches (in particular its portrayal of coach Art Howe as some sort of lumbering dinosaur) but it does make for some damn fine scenes.

And there is a point in there that these coaches feel – perhaps slightly justifiably – that their experience is being disregarded in favour of burying your nose into an online almanac. Crucially, they are proved right (although the film plays it down) when they identify one of the Beane’s signings in advance as a party-hard troublemaker. The film also shows that, while numbers help recruit the players, what actually makes them perform is Beane’s reluctantly taking on the mantle of man-management: talking to the players, explaining what he is doing and motivating them personally. While it’s a film about pushing the boundaries, it also takes moments to show that we can’t junk everything that’s past to build our future.

Moneyball largely manages to make scenes like this dramatic, which is pretty damn good going

A lot of this comes out of Beane’s own personality. It’s a gift of a part for Brad Pitt, who is excellent, mining the deep vein of loneliness and isolation in Beane, whose past is littered with regrets and mistakes. His own baseball career flamed out after early promise, due to his inability to adapt to a higher level of play (Brand wins Beane’s trust by telling him that, based on statistics, he would have picked him very late in the draft not first). It’s an experience that gives Beane a ready-made scepticism for “gut instinct”, but also explains his own unwillingness to get to know the players who (if he needs to) he’ll need to trade in an instant for the good of the club.

Pitt gives Beane this inner sadness, but also a level of warmth fired by competitive zeal. He’s unable to watch the games (so driven is he to win) and he treats his negotiations with other teams and managers with the sort of no-holds barred testosterone that you’d expect he played with. He’s a passionate man who loses his temper and has no time for fools. But he has a deep love for his daughter (of course!), keeps on good terms with his ex-wife and understands deep down that making life decisions is based on a lot more than money.

This also adds a level of bravery to his decision to fly in the face of decades of baseball knowledge – get this wrong and his head will be on the block. This brings added tensions to heated discussions with scouts, frenzied phone calls to secure at the right price the most statistically advantageous players, and clashes with coaches about how to pick a team that has been selected for very specific skills. It adds a human element and guts to the drama.

With super dialogue, a fine performance from Brad Pitt and some good supporting work from Jonah Hill as the (semi-fictionalised) numbers-guy slowly building in confidence, Moneyball has more than enough to recommend it. Sure not much concession is made to baseball muggles, but there’s more than enough heart and drama here to overcome the lack of explanation of how baseball works and what these percentages actually mean – the fact is it works.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Gal Gadot prepares to save the world as Wonder Woman

Director: Patty Jenkins

Cast: Gal Gadot (Diana), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Robin Wright (Antiope), Danny Huston (General Erich Ludendorff), David Thewlis (Sir Patrick Morgan), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Elena Anaya (Isabel Maru), Lucy Davis (Etta Candy), Saïd Taghmaouri (Sameer), Ewen Bremner (Charlie), Eugene Brave Rock (Chief Napi)

The DC universe has largely been a feeble attempt to parrot the success of Marvel, but without the latter’s charm or sense of fun. Each film has been a crushingly, overwhelmingly, teenage-boy focused series of grim super-bashing. So it’s a refreshing change that for their fourth film we get something different: lighter, funnier, warmer and focused on women rather than men.

On a hidden island, the Amazons live in hiding, waiting for the day they will return to save humanity from the villainous fallen god Ares. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the daughter of Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) queen of the Amazons, trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) into becoming their greatest warrior. Their timeless world is shattered in 1918, when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands his plane on the island – and explains the world is torn apart by war. Convinced this is Ares’ influence, Diana leaves the island with Steve – and finds herself thrown into a world she scarcely understands, with only her faith in the goodness of mankind to sustain her.

Wonder Woman is a change of pace from previous DC filmes – largely because it is pretty good. For the first time in this struggling universe, we have a bit of lightness and humour, and some engaging central characters. Which, considering the dark grimness of the previous entries is saying something. It’s bright, feels like a comic book (in a good way), has a decent story arc and, most importantly, you care. Is it the best comic book movie ever made? Of course not, but it’s a damn solid effort.

A lot of this is due to Gal Gadot being such an endearing lead. She gives Diana a perfect blend of serene, super-powered action goddess and naïve, charming lost-out-of-time sweetness. So one minute she can cooing over the first baby she’s ever seen, the next she can be laying out baddies in a scuffle. Her unquestioning faith in the fundamental goodness of people makes her innocence very winning. In fact, her secret weapon is empathy, a quality the film really embraces. Gadot’s skill is in keeping such unremitting goodness and positivity hugely loveable. She is terrific.

The film deals with her head-turning beauty with a witty affection (“You put specs on her and she’s suddenly not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?” Etta comments on one particularly feeble disguise option Steve suggests). In fact, the romance between Diana and Steve (Chris Pine similarly engaging as an “above average” man head over heels in love) is really well drawn – he clearly adores her, while she has a shy, almost teenage crush which blossoms over time into a genuine affection. It’s a very innocent and heart-warming romance, that plays out extremely well.

Needless to say as well, the film makes a fine counter-balance to the leering cameras you see in other films. Diana’s unmatchable competence is immediately recognised by Steve: while Steve understands the world, Diana is very much the hero, for all her fish-out-of-water naïveté. The film holds off a reveal of the costume for a long time – but when it is, it’s not a sexualised moment, but one of awe. The opening section of the movie, with its Amazonian islanders, also allows plenty of ass-kicking to be given to the women (Robin Wright is especially terrific as an Amazonian general – she should get her own Taken style action series).

Wonder Woman is not perfect. Structurally it’s pretty similar to other origin stories. Much of the backstory makes little sense, while the powers (or not) of the Amazonians in comparison with Diana are poorly explained. Away from the charm of the lead characters, nothing feels particularly new – none of the action sequences feel unique, and are shot with competence rather than inspiration. The final battle briefly looks like it might do something different, before it becomes an all too familiar CGI bashing.

I’m also not sure about setting the film in the First World War. Seeing Diana lead a successful charge through the trenches where real people died in their thousands, somehow doesn’t sit quite right. It’s uncomfortable to watch a cartoon hero walking across no man’s land into gunfire, just as thousands of real people had to, but without super-powers to make it a moment of awesome cool. They just died; it wasn’t the setting for an action sequence, oh a moment of “wow she’s cool”.

I’m not sure about the film’s use of the grim trenches of the First World War for kick-ass action

Unlike the Second World War (where at least we know the SS were completely despicable) its portrayal of German soldiers as mostly faceless villains feels unjust – these were largely just ordinary people in a horrendous situation. Making Luddendorf a psychotic, lunatic also feels uncomfortable – he was real. Would it have been so difficult to make up a General von Baddie? (It doesn’t help that Danny Huston gives a truly abysmal performance of over-the-top hamminess). This is an area where Captain America handled its setting much better – the film may have been set in a real war, but the villains are specifically Hydra soldiers, a made-up army of made-up people who had consciously sworn allegiance to Evil. The First World War was a complex tragedy in shades of grey – presenting it as a good vs evil, with the Germans eager to embrace a horrifying nerve gas, just doesn’t feel right.

The strengths of the film are away from the action, and I think that’s why it has formed a bond with people. You genuinely care and root for Diana and Steve. It’s got wit and humour and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When the action really kicks off the film isn’t anything special, but before then it has its moments: a charming sequence where Diana tries on (and breaks with various fighting moves) female costumes of the 1910s; a beautiful Renaissance-painting style flashback to the backstory of how the gods fell; the early fumbling scenes of romantic interest between Diana and Steve. It’s where the heart of the film is.

In fact that’s what the film is really about (and what really makes it work) – the heart at the centre. It gets a little bit lost in all the booms and bombast of the second half, but there is more than enough of it in the first half to carry it through. When the film is tightly focused you can really feel it coming to life. The more of that the better. It’s also a breath of fresh air for presenting such a strong female lead, whom the men are defined by their relationship to (rather than vice versa). It’s fun and it’s heart-warming. Its old ideas presented from a fresh perspective

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Ryan Gosling does a man’s job filling some difficult shoes in Blade Runner 2049

Director:  Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Officer K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Ana da Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Lt. Joshi), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), Carla Juri (Dr Ana Stelline), Lennie James (Mr Cotton), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Barkhad Abdi (Doc Badger), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), Sean Young (Rachael)

SPOILERS: It’s pretty much impossible to discuss Blade Runner 2049 without revealing some of the workings of the plot. Since the film makers have gone out of the way to say “don’t reveal any of the plot” I thought it fair to say I’ll discuss some things fairly freely here. So you’ve been warned!

Making a sequel is a risky business at the best of times. Then imagine making a sequel to a film that is not just a cultural and artistic landmark film but one people genuinely love. The possibility of creating a massive disappointment? Pretty big. You need some guts to take that on – like announcing you are making Gone with the Wind: Blown Away or Casablanca: Everyone Back to Rick’s. That’s the sort of challenge for the makers of the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel. Could they make something that both complemented and expanded on the original?

The year is 2049 (of course!). K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner with the task of hunting down long-lived Nexus-8 replicants – the twist being (and its revealed in the opening minutes of the film!) that K himself is a replicant, a more obedient Nexus-9 model. After “retiring” aged replicant farmer Sapper Morton (a career best Dave Bautista), K locates the buried remains of a female replicant who died after an emergency caesarean section. Terrified that replicants may be developing the ability to reproduce, K’s superiors order him to “retire” the child and all who know of it. As K investigates, his loyalties become ever more divided – while sinister corporate genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Nexus-9 hit-woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) have their own plans for the replicant child.

So the big question is, does Blade Runner 2049 succeed? The answer is a firm and reassuring yes. The big issue is, does the existence of this film affect (or even ruin) the previous film? Blade Runner 2049 not only complements the original, it builds on and expands its themes, and poses far more questions than answers. In some ways it’s even more profound and searching than the original – arguably it engages with ideas and concepts even more overtly (and richly). If your concern going into this film was it would end any discussion about whether Deckard is a replicant or not, then have no fears – the question remains as open as ever (and works either way for this story).

Even more than the original, this film tackles what it means to be human and how we define humanity by the ability to express emotions and empathy. It comes at this from a different stand-point from Blade Runner by removing any doubt about our hero’s nature. What is more, he is a replicant deliberately designed to be more obedient than earlier models. A cool, minimalist actor with a mastery of small expressions, Ryan Gosling is almost perfectly cast as the quiet K, developing deep yearnings to be more than what he is. The entire film revolves around this question of how capable K is not only of forming emotions, but of making his own choices.

The ability to live freely and choose is at the heart of the conundrums for all our characters. To what extent are they able to do this? K goes about his work of dispatching fellow replicants with a quiet reluctance, but does his duty nevertheless. But he is a character yearning to be “more” – and what, in many ways, is more human than that? The film taps into this expertly with K’s belief that maybe he himself is replicant child. The film’s mantra is about choosing what we live and what we die for and, regardless of who or what we are, being able to do this is what makes us “more”.

In a film stuffed to the gills with replicants and other artificial characters, we are constantly asked to address and question how far each of them goes towards achieving “humanity”. Just as with Blade Runner, the only two definitely human characters (Niander Wallace and Lt Joshi) are strangely distant, hard to read or even cruel authoritarian figures, making a damn bad case for real humans.

Joi (brilliantly played by Ana de Armas), K’s girlfriend, is a warm, caring, loving woman – but she’s also a hologram, designed to be the perfect companion. K and she go to great lengths to protect and care for each other over the film – and her final fate is a deeply moving moment. But Joi is a computer programme – and a late sequence in the film where K interacts sadly with a looming holographic advert of another Joi that repeats many of her phrases in a disconnected style casts a sad light on all their previous interactions. Every time Joi said anything with love or affection to K, was this just a computer reflecting back what her owner wanted to hear?

It’s not a great surprise to say K does eventually learn to make his own choices and to decide his own fate. In many ways this is a fable of growing up – K accepting his limitations while forging his own destiny – but it makes a contrast with other replicants. While the older models form their own resistance, K’s counterpart Luv (an imposing Sylvia Huks) can’t or won’t break free of following Wallace’s commands. There are more than a few hints Luv is not always happy with the duties she is asked to perform (at one point she weeps quietly as a replicant is dispatched). But at others, she’s clearly striving as much as K to be “special” – she triumphantly repeats a mantra to herself about being the best, like a daughter trying to impress her father.

These new characters offer such diverse and exciting story-telling opportunities, you almost don’t notice that Deckard doesn’t appear in the film until nearly the third act. Harrison Ford may have been slightly uncomfortable in the original – but he fully understands the more assured, confident Deckard in this film, who has made his peace with leaving the world behind. Ford gives this new Deckard an almost Han Solo-ish shoot-first swagger, but mixes it with a world-weary sadness. I’d go so far as to say he’s actually better in this film than the first one.

Which is a further testament to the strength of this film. All the themes and ideas of the original are used as bouncing-off points for further exploration. This never feels like a retread, reboot or remake – it feels like a rich and rewarding piece of intelligent sci-fi by itself. I actually feel it could be watched independently of the first film, and still have plenty to offer. It’s not interesting in tying the first film up in a bow – instead it serves as a stimulus for future discussion. You could imagine a sequel to this film sustaining enough interest for 35 years.

Technically of course the film is an absolute marvel. Roger Deakins’ photography is gorgeous, capturing every element of this dystopian nightmare world in a series of brilliant images, in turns drained, bleached and sun kissed. Every frame is artfully composed for maximum impact. The production design is similarly magnificent, Dennis Gassner’s work melding the world of the original, with its steam-punk look, with a mix of technological developments. The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is similarly perfect, giving the film a brooding intensity.

But most of this artistry comes back to the film-making mastery of Denis Villeneuve, a director so gifted I think he may be more interesting than Ridley Scott. His control of the pace of the film is brilliant – despite being very long, it never drags – and he shoots every scene with a careful, intellectually engaged brilliance. He is able – possibly even more than the original – to mix emotion and elliptical theorising, and to draw a raft of brilliant performances from an outstanding cast. More than anything else, he treats the audience with respect, giving them a measured and thoughtful film that trusts we have patience. Villeneuve tops Arrival here, and does so with confident aplomb.

Blade Runner 2049 is a film that demands to be seen more than once. It’s a patient and intensely thoughtful piece of science fiction, that asks profound questions about humanity and the characters in it. I don’t really feel from one viewing I’ve got a grip on it – in fact the more I think about it, the more its haunting, elegiac quality starts cramming into my head. You need to be patient and go with it – you need to be in the right mindset for this slowburn concept film. But, get in that mindset and this film is constantly rewarding. If you want to criticise something, I will acknowledge that many of the female characters are a little more clichéd (most are prostitutes or similar) – but this world where many women seem to be in subservient roles to men is in many ways an extension of the world created in the original film (and now an expression of the dystopian future).

However this is a great film. A really great piece of adult science-fiction. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest it is better than the original film.