Katya and Alexander were never meant to fall in love but that's exactly what happened. The year was 1959 and the couple were both living in Moscow, Alexander a Soviet politician and Katya a spy for the US. Katya was tasked with infiltrating Alexander's political circle by targeting him. Initially Katya's mission goes to plan but when the couple fall in love, her plan goes awry.
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Gorgeously shot, this period drama has a terrific setting and vivid characters, but is edited together in a jarring way that distances the audience from the situations. As the story progresses, the film also shifts strangely from a riveting exploration of a power couple with a pioneering spirit to a more melodramatic thriller about corruption and murder. It's consistently engaging thanks to the power of the cast, but it should have also been darkly moving as well.
The story is set in the late 1920s, as lumber baron George (Bradley Cooper) struggles under the economic pressures of the impending Great Depression. Then he meets Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) and it's love at first sight. A feisty, outspoken woman with a background in logging, she immediately ruffles feathers in George's camp by giving out advice that's actually helpful. George's two righthand men, accountant Buchanan (David Dencik) and foreman Campbell (Sean Harris), both quietly wonder if this woman is going to mess up their all-male world of underhanded bribes and physical danger. But she develops a rapport with George's hunting tracker Galloway (Rhys Ifans). Meanwhile, the local sheriff (Toby Jones) is trying to get George's land declared protected national parkland.
Oscar-winning Danish director Susanne Bier (In a Better World) gives the film a grand scale with expansive mountain landscapes and a sweeping romantic tone. The Western-style bustle of the logging camp is lively and authentic, as is the continual threat of death or dismemberment on the job. Against this, Cooper and Lawrence have terrific chemistry both with each other and the characters around them, sharply portrayed by strong actors who know how to invest plenty of attitude into even a small role.
Continue reading: Serena Review
Both an intensely personal odyssey and an exploration of the impact of conflict on communities, this sharply involving thriller marks an auspicious debut for director Yann Demange. It also features yet another striking lead performance for Jack O'Connell, who also received high praise for Starred Up earlier this year and has Angelina Jolie's Unbroken still to come. This film puts him through his paces as his character is sent on a relentless journey right into the heart of one of the most complex conflicts on earth.
The title tells us when this is taking place: it's the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as young Private Hook (O'Connell) is assigned to Belfast, where clashes between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists have turned the city into a war zone. While on a mission to diffuse a street riot, things spiral out of control and Hook is separated from his unit. Running for his life, he works his way across the city pursued by a tenacious thug (Killian Scott). He also meets a local leader (David Wilmot) and a couple (Richard Dormer and Charlie Murply) who help him survive. Meanwhile, Hook's senior officer (Sam Reid) works with a pair of British spies (Sean Harris and Paul Anderson) to track him down.
The film unfolds as a series of life-or-death encounters that can go either way, and each adds to the bigger picture of how the Troubles have torn Ireland apart. But the script intriguingly avoids politics to make a deeper comment on humanity, making it clear that this kind of situation certainly isn't unique to this time and place. Demange stages each sequence with bravura touches, using long-takes and intense filmmaking to put us right in the middle of the action. And O'Connell's sensitive, expressive performance makes it very easy to identify with Hook as he's thrown into a situation where everyone has guns and bombs but no experience at battle. This approach is so human that it's deeply unsettling; death is always a possibility, random and sudden.
Continue reading: '71 Review
Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is a British soldier, nervous about his placement in Belfast during the political riots of 1971. With little to no experience being barely out of school, the only thing he can trust is his own instincts, while being uncomfortable and suspicious of both the locals and his fellow soldiers. Unfortunately for him, his fear of the volatile situation is only about to get worse as he finds himself abandoned on unfamiliar streets when his own regiment takes flight. Now all alone surrounded by savage and angry Northern Irish residents, he has to find a way to survive the rest of the night before joining his team once again.
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Solid acting and adept filmmaking help make up for the fact that this film asks us to spend a couple of hours in the presence of a group of truly despicable characters. They're played by some of the brightest (and most beautiful) rising stars in the movies at the moment, but each one of these young men is vile to the core. So the fact that these are supposed to be Britain's brightest and best hope for the future makes the film pretty terrifying.
It's set at Oxford University, where the elite Riot Club (including Douglas Booth, Sam Reid, Freddie Fox, Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer and Olly Alexander) are on the lookout for wealthy white students to complete their 10-man membership. They find suitable candidates in new arrivals: the sneering Alistair (Sam Claflin) and conflicted Miles (Max Irons), whose one drawback is that he's seeing a common girl (Holliday Grainger). After the rigorous initiation process, Alistair and Miles are welcomed to the hedonistic gang at a lavish dinner in the private room of a country pub. But things turn nasty as they drunkenly hurl abuse at the pub manager (Gordon Brown), his daughter (Jessica Brown Findlay) and a high-class hooker (Natalie Dormer) they hire for the night.
Based on the play Posh by screenwriter Laura Wade, the film is centred around this increasingly chaotic dinner party. Although nothing that happens is particularly surprising, because these young men are such relentlessly bigoted, misogynist snobs that it's impossible to believe they belong anywhere other than prison. They certainly don't deserve their self-appointed status as the top students at Oxford, who are getting debauchery out of their systems before taking the lead in British politics and business. But then, that's precisely Wade's point, and she makes it loudly. Thankfully, director Lone Scherfig balances things by offering glimpses into these young men's dark souls while skilfully capturing the old-world subculture and a strong sense of irony.
Continue reading: The Riot Club Review
As the Great Depression begins to sweep across America, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) and Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence) meet and fall in love. The whirl-wind romance soon sees the couple married, and entering into a lifelong partnership with the start of a timber empire. As Serena steadily proves herself to be more capable than any man in the company, she strongly boosts the productivity and the spirits of her husband. But soon, the house of cards crumbles to show the truth of George's hidden past, and expose the secrets he never expected Serena to find out. The Pembertons are thrown against their toughest obstacle yet - can their love truly conquer all, or is it destined to fall apart?
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1971 - The height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. When Gary's regiment is sent to Belfast in an attempt to quell rioting in the area, all hell breaks loose and the unit leaves without him. Trapped in a strange and alien world, Gary is aware that almost everyone in the city wants to kill him. From here, the gripping thriller begins, as Gary struggles to stay alive throughout the night, in a desperate attempt to find rescue and make it back home to his family. '71 has so far received rave reviews from the Berlin Film Festival, where it premiered earlier this year in February.
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The plot feels like a Jane Austen novel infused with a hot-potato political issue, but this is actually a true story. It's been somewhat fictionalised, but the central facts are accurate, and while the production is perhaps a bit too polished for its own good, the solid acting and filmmaking make the story involving and provocative. And its themes feel just as relevant today.
In 1769 London, a young half-black girl named Dido Belle is taken by her soldier father (Matthew Goode) to live with his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). With his wife (Emily Watson) and sister (Penelope Winton), he is already caring for another niece, and the two girls grow up as inseparable friends. Hidden from society, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) inherits a small fortune from her father. And while Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is penniless, her white skin makes her a more suitable spouse. Then family friend Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) foists her son James (Tom Felten) on Elizabeth. To their horror, his brother Oliver (James Norton) falls for Dido. But she's more interested in an impoverished law student (Sam Reid).
Along with these rather standard period-movie romantic shenanigans, there's a major subplot about Lord Mansfield's imminent ruling in the first court case to take on the slave trade, which could destabilise the entire British Empire. And this is where the film jolts into something significant: the UK's top judge had an adopted mixed-race daughter who probably influenced the first landmark decision against slavery. Meanwhile, director Amma Asante also vividly portrays the gritty realities of this young black woman's precarious position in society.
Continue reading: Belle Review
The Riot Club is an elite group of ten Oxford University students; the very best who are almost definitely going to go on to have successful futures. It's hundreds of years old and is notorious for their ritual drunken debauchery, lawlessness and often violent behaviour during their exclusive dinner parties each term. Their current president persuades a pub landlord and his daughter to let the club hire out the venue for the night, as long as he keeps things under control. However, it soon becomes clear that none of these young men are up for a quiet night when one of them hires a prostitute to 'entertain' them. She manages to make a quick escape when she realises what she's let herself in for though, and most of the club decide to take their frustrations out on the landlord and his daughter. Tragically, things get out of hand when one of the men seriously injures the landlord, causing the rest of them to panic. But with reputations at stake, who's going to blamed for it?
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A terrific true story is oddly underplayed in this sober, sedate drama about reconciliation and making peace with the past. Strikingly complex performances from Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman help give the film some deeper resonance, even if even it all seems rather under-powered. But the force of emotion in the events makes the film worth a look.
In 1980 Scotland, railway expert Eric (Firth) has defined his entire life by trains. During the Second World War, he was captured by the Japanese and put into forced-labour to build a railway in Thailand. And more recently he met his wife Patti (Kidman) on a train journey. But their marriage starts to collapse when Eric refuses to face up to his torture at the hands of his wartime captors all those years ago, so Patti turns to his war-veteran pal Finlay (Skarsgard) for help. Eventually, Eric makes the difficult decision to return to Thailand and confront his tormenter Nagase (Sanada).
A more Hollywood-style film would play out as a build-up to roaring vengeance, but director Teplitzky internalises the tone, showing us past events in extensive flashbacks as the young Eric and Finlay (Irvine and Reid) try to subvert the young Nagase (Ishida) at every turn. These scenes are eerily tame as well, and only reveal the true horror of Eric's experience when he finally faces up to it himself. Instead, the focus is on his struggle to forgive Nagase, and this gives the film a strongly moving punch.
Continue reading: The Railway Man Review
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Katya and Alexander were never meant to fall in love but that's exactly what happened....
Gorgeously shot, this period drama has a terrific setting and vivid characters, but is edited...
Both an intensely personal odyssey and an exploration of the impact of conflict on communities,...
Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is a British soldier, nervous about his placement in Belfast during...
Solid acting and adept filmmaking help make up for the fact that this film asks...
As the Great Depression begins to sweep across America, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) and Serena...
1971 - The height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. When Gary's regiment is sent...
The plot feels like a Jane Austen novel infused with a hot-potato political issue, but...
The Riot Club is an elite group of ten Oxford University students; the very best...
A terrific true story is oddly underplayed in this sober, sedate drama about reconciliation and...
Dido Elizabeth Belle is the mixed race daughter of Royal Navy officer Captain John Lindsay...
Eric Lomax was a British Officer in World War II who found himself a prisoner...
Based on the long-mooted Oxfordian theory about the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays and poems,...