The Criterion Collection: Solaris Blu-ray review

Andrei Tarkovsky’s extraordinary adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris is quite rightly heralded as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. Languidly paced, heavily imbued with religious and mystical symbolism, and meditating on love, memory, and faith, it is by no means a thrill ride through space. It is instead a film that uses space to look inward and explore what it means to be human.

When a Soviet cosmonaut returns from the space station circling the planet Solaris, with tales of strange sightings, bizarre activity, and mysterious deaths, a psychologist – Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) – is sent to investigate. Solaris is an ocean planet, and the ocean has it’s own consciousness. When scientists and cosmonauts have probed end explored this consciousness, the planet has probed right back. Mining the minds and memories of the crew, they have been driven to madness by what Solaris has shown them. When Kelvin arrives, he finds the remaining crew in a very unstable way.

Before long, the planet explores the mind of Kelvin, and he finds himself being confronted by his dead wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk) who committed suicide many years previously. The film evolves into something akin to a philosophical ghost story, with Kelvin being haunted by this physical manifestation of his own memories. Is this a blessing or a nightmare? Tarkovsky explores this with his trademark disregard for traditional narratives and audience expectations. His long takes, and poetic sensibilities eschew what could be a setup for sci-fi-horror, and insteads ask us to ponder what is love, and what does it mean to be human?

Solaris is an extremely long film, and Tarkovsky’s pacing can make it feel even longer, especially in the early parts of the film. Patience and an openness to reflection are key to fully experiencing this film. Despite the weighty themes and subject matter, this remains Tarkovsky’s most accessible film.

If you’ve only ever seen Solaris on the old Artificial Eye VHS release, you have to buy this. It almost goes without saying, but it is startlingly beautiful. With it being such a struggle to get anything made under the Soviet regime, Tarkovsky was a filmmaker determined to make everything he committed to celluloid count, and mean something more than just the image. Hence every frame that makes it to the screen is a work of art.

✭✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

Moana Blu-ray review

2016 was a bumper year for animation, with the likes of Kubo and the Two Strings, Zootropolis, and Your Name all being critical and commercial hits for their respective studios. Added to this already wonderful selection is Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker – the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

Drawing on the myths of the Pacific, the prologue tells of the exploits of shapeshifting demigod Maui – how he stole the heart of Te Fiti (a life giving Island Goddess) and in doing so unleashed monsters, and a slow, creeping death to all life in the Ocean. One of the monsters – a fiery lava demon known as Te Ka – defeats Maui, who loses his powers, and the heart of Te Fiti in the process.

A thousand years later, on the paradise island of Motunui, we meet Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) a feisty and independent young woman, destined to be the chief of her people. She longs to explore the ocean, but is forbidden by the elders. When the fish disappear from the reef, and the fruit turns to rot, and the island starts to die, Moana defies her father and ventures beyond the reef on a quest to save her people, and also discover who she is truly meant to be.

There is nothing particularly new about this story, but it is told with boundless enthusiasm, and bounces along to Mark Mancina’s score, and the tremendous original songs by Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Hamilton star gives Moana some of the best songs to appear in a Disney film since the glory days of Menken and Ashman. There were many debacles on Oscar night, but Moana not winning Best Original Song is most definitely one of them. City of Stars is a catchy little ditty, but it barely registers next to “How Far I’ll Go”, or the hilarious and spectacular Bowie-influenced “Shiny” sung by Jemaine Clement’s giant, blinged-up crab, Tamatoa.

On her journey across the great sea, with just a poor demented chicken named Hei Hei (hilariously clucked by the wonderful Alan Tudyk) for company, Moana finds Maui – the arrogant demigod, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and must convince him to return the heart, and undo the damage he has done. Their bickering relationship provides the heart and comedy of the film. Johnson, as we all know has tremendous comic ability, and even gets to show off his not too shabby vocal range with the up-beat and egotistic “You’re Welcome”.

It seems almost a given in modern cinema that 3D animation is staggeringly detailed and visually stunning. I hope I never become so jaded a viewer that I take these things for granted. Moana is a film so beautiful, in so many ways, and so visually dazzling, I find watching this film to be an incredibly emotional experience.

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho gives a soaring vocal performance, and imbues Moana with such spirit and strength. She is a modern and capable Disney heroine. When she tells Maui that she is not a princess, he wittily retorts that she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick. But that was old Disney. Jared Bush’s screenplay, following the likes of Brave and Frozen is much more progressive. This is no princess looking for her prince. This is Moana.

Joyous songs, spectacular animation, and an inspiring and diverse central character. This is Disney at the top of their game.

✭✭✭✭1/2

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

Snowden Blu-ray review

One of the most fascinating news stories of modern times, and a real black eye for the Obama administration, the NSA leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden is just the sort of story that Oliver Stone excels at. A thrilling, politically charged, ripped-from-the-headlines biopic, about a man who knew too much, and his life-changing decision to share what he knew with the world.

The film opens in Hong Kong in 2013, with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) to tell them what he knows. We then flashback a decade to Snowden as a Special Forces recruit. He is a conservative, patriotic, hail to the Chief, young republican, politically forged in the aftermath of 9/11. When a double leg-break ends his military career before it begins, he winds up taking his self taught computer skills to the CIA.

Stone intercuts the narrative between Snowden working for the CIA, and later the NSA, with the tense meetings with the journalists, hiding in a Hong Kong hotel room. His paranoia effectively portrayed through the visual of him logging onto his laptop underneath a blanket, so that no one can see him typing his passwords. Seeing how he goes from “America…FUCK YEAH!” to Public Enemy Number One, is one of the most fascinating elements of the film.

This emotional journey runs parallel to his relationship with liberal photographer Lindsay, an excellent Shailene Woodley. She is with him on all his assignments around the world – Switzerland, Japan, Hawaii – and their narrative helps to keep the story relatable. Make no mistake, when this film gets techy, it becomes almost impenetrable. It would be easy to zone out, but Woodley and Gordon-Levitt are terrific, and keep the focus on their love story.

Then in Geneva, Snowden is shown not only what the NSA (and CIA and GCHQ) is capable of, but what they are actually doing to their own citizens. The mass surveillance, and constitutional violation of hundreds of millions of people. Does your laptop have a webcam? They are watching. Does your cellphone have a camera? They are watching. Does your cellphone have a microphone? They are listening? Ever used a search engine? They know what you searched for.

This film will make you want to destroy everything electrical you own, and then drop off the grid. It is frightening stuff, and Stone never lets you forget the stakes of Snowden’s actions. His best-case scenario is life in jail. But rendition, torture, interrogation, and execution remain hanging over him. The sequence where Snowden copies the files, and then has to go through security to leave work is a stunning example of expertly crafted tension.

The film boasts an incredible cast – there are so many recognisable faces it is almost distracting – with Joseph Gordon-Levitt at it’s heart. The film lives and dies by his performance, and he nails it. His Snowden is a morally compromised, politically conflicted, flawed young man. It is a superbly balanced performance, and exactly what the film required. Elsewhere we have Rhys Ifans and Nic Cage, both having a whale of a time as his CIA mentors, chewing the scenery to pieces.

What holds the film back are the questions that Stone fails to ask about his subject. Knowing what he knows, and how the Intelligence community operates, why does he keep going back to work for them? After Geneva, why didn’t he leave it all behind? Is he addicted to the intel, or to the power that comes with knowing all this classified information? Is there a streak of self-interest in what he does?

Snowden is a functional thriller about a very politically relevant subject. For a more thorough examination of this story, be sure to seek out Laura Poitras’ Academy Award Winning documentary Citizenfour.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

The Criterion Collection: Lone Wolf and Cub Box Set Blu-ray review

Based on the now legendary Manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub is perhaps best known to Western audiences through the cult exploitation film Shogun Assassin. An English dubbed re-edit of Baby Cart at the River Styx – with elements of Sword of Vengeance also spliced into the finished product – Shogun Assassin toured the grindhouse circuit in America, and nearly found itself caught up in the Video Nasties scandal here in the UK. This plush re-issue from Criterion brings all original six films to blu-ray for the first time, and even includes Shogun Assassin in the supplementary features.

The saga begins with the harrowing execution of an infant lord, by the Shogun Assassin himself Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama). The intro is leaden with exposition, setting up the politics, the rival clans, and various factions of the all-powerful Shogunate.

When we next meet Ogami, he is a sword for hire, wandering the countryside with his infant son in a baby cart. Flashbacks reveal the tragic murder of his wife by ninjas, and the elaborate plot to set him up as a traitor to the shogun, in order that a rival clan takes over his role as executioner. It is ridiculously complicated for such a simple story.

Each film in the saga, sees Ogami and his son Daigoro getting into various adventures – usually involving being hired to rid the world of some bad guys – whilst also furthering his quest for revenge against the evil Yagyu clan. Not as visually stunning as the samurai films of Kurosawa, or as noble and serious as the Samurai Trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki, the Lone Wolf and Cub films offer a more visceral experience. Stylishly filmed, and bursting with colour, they look great in HD thanks to this new transfer – although there’s perhaps a little too much definition for some of the shonky makeup and fake facial hair.

The inventive action is, and always will be the main selling point for these films. The duels are exquisitely choreographed, and often hilarious in their over the top violence. The frame is frequently filled with lots of lovely bright fake blood, spurting, spraying, and splatting everywhere. The many incredible weapons and uses that Ogami makes of the baby cart is also an endless source of mirth. Likewise with the incredibly expressive face of Daigoro as all this carnage unfolds around him.

Tomisaburo Wakayama is no Toshiro Mifune, but he completely dominates these films with his brooding central performance as the vengeful ronin. An expert martial artist, and veteran of hundreds of film, his portrayal of Itto Ogami remains his signature role.

Lone Wolf and Cub is a cult classic, filled with beheadings, scalpings, dismembered limbs, gratuitous nudity, and more arterial spray than is anatomically possible. It is a pure comic book aesthetic, and it is easy to see how its popularity has endured. Look no further than Tarantino’s Kill Bill for an example of its influence. The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves owes it a significant debt.

As previously mentioned, one of the special features in this box set is the 1980 presentation of Shogun Assassin, given the HD treatment as well. There’s also a new interview with Kazuo Koike, the writer of the original Manga series. The disc also includes a 2005 documentary about the making of the series, entitles Lame d’un pere, l’âme d’un sabre. Finally there is a new interview in which Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse discusses and demonstrates the real sword techniques that inspired the manga and the films.

✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Blu-ray review

It was always going to happen. A franchise that lucrative was never going to rest easy, and so somewhat inevitably (a mere five years after He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was vanquished) J.K Rowling invites us once more back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This prequel of sorts promises something fresh and exciting, set as it is in 1920s New York, but also remains tethered to the original saga. The opening sets up a magical world currently being terrorised by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald – a name no doubt familiar to those who paid attention to the Potter films.

Our new story follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young wizard arriving in America with a suitcase full of magical creatures. One of them escapes, and Newt’s attempts to recapture it lead him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a local No-Maj (an American muggle). There is an unfortunate and rather predictable case swap, and poor Kowalski ends up with a bunch of magical creatures let loose in his apartment.

Meanwhile, Newt is finding New York to be a very politically charged place. There is high tension in the wizarding community, compounded by the enforced segregation from the No-Maj’s. The magical world is ruled by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) a highly regulated political body, a bit like the Ministry of Magic. Acronym fans prepare to be delighted further, as we also have the NSPS to contend with – the New Salem Philanthropic Society. A small group of fanatical witch haters.

When Newt is brought before MACUSA by disgraced auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) we learn that there is a beast loose in New York openly terrorising the No-Maj world, and threatening to expose the magical community. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) the Director of Magical Security is leading the investigation. Is Grindelwald linked to these attacks? Is Scamander? There’s a lot going on in these scenes, with lots of chewy mouthfuls of exposition, and lots of characters destined to be more important in future films.

So we have Newt, Tina, Kowalski, and Tina’s sister Queenie (the fabulous Alison Sudol) running around the city trying to capture magical creatures. Based on the title of the film you’d think this was the main plot, but the film is so determined to set up something bigger and more serious, this just becomes a subplot that slows the narrative down. Elsewhere there is a very dark story strand involving the New Salem folk, riffing on occult horror, and strongly hinting at child abuse and torture. Seriously dark stuff.

Redmayne, cashing in some of his Oscar chips for his first big franchise role certainly looks the part as the young magi-zoologist. Scamander is most definitely a triumph of costume design. The actor however is making some strange choices with his performance. Awkward and introverted to the extreme, he plays Scamander like Hugh Grant in a Richard Curtis film, but somewhere on the autism spectrum. It’s an interesting choice – and one suspects it was his, rather than Rowling or director David Yates – but it does not make for a particularly engaging hero.

Visually the film looks good, but not as good as you would hope. Some of the CGI looks rushed, and Yates only scratches the surface of evoking the Jazz era New York of the 1920s. It feels as if he’s holding back by trying to keep Fantastic Beasts looking as if it belongs in the Potter universe. He’s still using that same “grey and ominous” colour palette from the final Potter films. This film should have been bright and exploding with colour. I was hoping for Gatsby with wizards, but instead got Rain Man with drizzle.

There is one lovely sequence however, where the secrets of Newt’s suitcase are revealed for the first time. It is the first moment in the film to have a real sense of magic about it, and remind you of that feeling you had seeing Diagon Alley for the first time. Unfortunately it is too rare a moment, in what is a very grown up film, dealing with dark and scary grown up themes.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

Bleed For This Blu-ray review

Boxing movies are a tough proposition. Whether fictional or based on a true story, there is very little we’ve not already seen, and they are ripe for cliché. There’s a lot of films already out there about working class bruisers, fighting their way off the streets, and then having one last shot to triumph against the odds. Bleed for This ticks all the boxes for the conventional boxing movie, but as a true story of such an extraordinary comeback – perhaps the greatest in sports history – it is never anything but immensely watchable.

The film starts promisingly, with a glimpse into the life of a boxer that is very rarely documented in films – the battle to make weight. As his opponent waits impatiently at the weigh ahead of their title bout, Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) is in his hotel room, wrapped in cling-film, pedaling like a maniac on an exercise bike.

Within the first five minutes, writer-director Ben Younger effectively tells you everything you need to know about Vinny Pazienza. As demonstrated by his attempt to make weight, we know he’s determined. Later that day we see him in the casino playing high-stakes blackjack, so now we also know he’s a gambler. Finally in his press conference before the fight he tells his opponent that he is willing to die in the ring. This all feeds into the decision he makes later in the film.

Vinny loses the fight, ends up in hospital, and is dropped by his manager, who declares to the press that his career is over. With no other options, the washed up Pazienza ends up in the gym of washed up trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), the man who coached Tyson in his prime. Rooney is now an alcoholic mess. These two underdogs are perfect for each other, and Teller and Eckhart are a terrific on screen double act. Rooney convinces Vinny to fight at his natural weight – two classes above his usual fighting weight, and then starts plotting his comeback. There’s a training montage. There’s a fight. Vinny wins against all the odds. The end….right? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

A few days after winning the title, a car swerves into his lane and Vinny is in a head-on collision, resulting in a broken neck. A fraction away from being paralysed, the doctors advise that he should have his neck fused. It will save his life, guarantee against paralysis, but the reduced movement in his neck means he will never fight again. This is unacceptable for Vinny, who instead decides to have ‘halo’ treatment, whereby a brace is screwed into his skull enabling him to heal naturally, and give him the chance to still be a boxer. The doctor tells him that one punch could sever his spinal cord. But we know Vinny is determined. We know he’s a gambler. And we know he’s willing to die in the ring.

The second half of the film intimately portrays the difficulty of Vinny’s recovery. From the overbearing family not sure how to act around him, to the exhausting and agonizing attempt to lift weights for the first time since the accident. Miles Teller absolutely dominates this film, and you can tell he is pouring every bit of himself into this role, and the comeback theme certainly resonates.

Bleed For This is something of a comeback for him too. Whiplash was an astonishing film, but when Hollywood decided to write the narrative for that film’s success it became the Damien Chazelle and J.K. Simmons show. Teller’s amazing contribution to Whiplash was largely ignored. Then there was the disastrous foray into superhero movies with the Fantastic Four reboot. Then he was cast in La La Land, and then unceremoniously replaced with Ryan Gosling. To top things off there was the cringe-inducing Esquire profile, which led to a lot of snap judgment and ridicule.

This all feeds into his terrific performance as Pazienza. Additionally, for the first time in his career, the facial scars from a car crash in his youth are not covered with makeup, but shown in detailed close-up, adding to the damage of the character.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about where the film goes from here, whether you know the story of his comeback or not. This is a sports film after all. Younger’s portrayal doesn’t show things in quite the way it happened in truth, but it hardly matters. If any story deserves a bit of Hollywood gloss, it is this one.

✭✭✭1/2

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

A United Kingdom Blu-ray review

In her follow up to Belle – a film that tackled both the personal and political in its examination of racism and slavery – Amma Asante explores similar themes but on a much larger canvas. A United Kingdom tells the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), who upon marrying a white English woman, creates a political storm that threatens the future of his country.

The woman in question is Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) who meets Seretse when is he is a law student in post-war London. She falls in love with him almost immediately when she hears him speak passionately and idealistically about politics and imperialism. Their romance is quickly and beautifully sketched by Asante, with Seretse’s proposal coming before the film even hits the 15-minute mark. It is believable, thanks in no small part to Guy Hibbert’s excellent writing, but it is the performances of Pike and Oyelowo that really sell it.

Her father disapproves. His friends disapprove. Small-minded idiots attack them in street. But nothing deters them. They are in love, and nothing will get in their way. But their love was more than just a race scandal. There were diplomatic and geo-political consequences to their relationship. And it is through Pike and Oyelowo, and the deft way in which Asante depicts their romance, that we truly believe that their love was strong enough to withstand this pressure.

News of their engagement spreads quickly, and the UK government intervenes in the shape of Jack Davenport’s Sir Alistair Canning. He advises that a black King, installing a white queen would have consequences, not only in the British Empire controlled country of Bechuanaland, but in the neighbouring countries too. The main concern of the British is that it would insult South Africa, who are about to enforce apartheid.

They wed discreetly and the film then shifts to their arrival in Bechuanaland, where Seretse must convince his uncle and the people of his country to support him. If his decision to wed a white woman tears the country in two, it will make them vulnerable to other countries in the region, specifically South Africa. In these scenes, Oyelowo reminds us of his incredible skill at delivering speeches. His call for tolerance and acceptance sadly strikes some very contemporary chords. He wins the support of his people, but the British banish him, leaving Ruth all alone in her new country.

Asante pulls no punches in her depiction of British imperialism. The betrayals, the oppression, and the exploitation all carried out by the colonial powers are a sickening reminder of Britain’s crimes in Africa. With Seretse banished, the British allow an American mining company to begin prospecting the land for diamonds. Jack Davenport and Tom Felton both give suitably sneering, boo-hiss performances as the colonial representatives for the region.

The second half of the film does slow down slightly, as it becomes more of a political drama, and the relationship of Ruth and Seretse takes a back seat. This is of course inevitable when dealing with a true story where the protagonists were separated for a long period of time, but the film sadly does lose something as a result. When Pike and Oyelowo are on screen together the film soars. When they’re not, it kind of stumbles.

The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Asante evokes post-war London beautifully, and the sumptuous visuals filmed on location in Botswana are as good and grand as anything in Out of Africa. Bolstered by terrific, stoic performances from Pike and Oyelowo, A United Kingdom is a romantic, entertaining, and politically important film. It’s a fascinating and overlooked true story that deserves to be widely seen, and should quite rightly mark out Amma Asante as one of Britain’s most exciting and relevant filmmakers.

✭✭✭1/2

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

The Criterion Collection: Multiple Maniacs Blu-ray review

Where does one even begin to try and review Multiple Maniacs – John Waters’ second feature length film? A film that exists so far outside the realm of conventional cinema it defies all criticism. A film made by outsiders, for outsiders. On first release it played on the underground cinema scene, to audiences of hippies, bikers, and speed freaks. Watching this now, on a pristine Criterion Collection blu-ray somehow seems wrong.

Taking inspiration from the Tate murders, and the Manson family in general, Multiple Maniacs sees Waters’ regular muse Divine (performer and drag queen Harris Glenn Milstead) as the leader of a travelling freakshow: Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions. The show – featuring puke eaters, armpit lickers, live sex, and a convulsing smack head trying to go cold turkey – is just a ruse however. The show’s MC, Mr. David (David Lochary) lures in the squares, straights, and rich pigs, so that Divine and her merry band of murdering, thieving freaks can rob them. And kill them if necessary.

There’s no technique evident anywhere in this film. From the hilariously shonky opening credits onwards, there is no real skill on display. Everything looks and sounds amateur. The camera work is terrible, constantly going out of focus. Then you’ve got the actors fluffing their lines, repeating themselves, and improvising all over the place. It is, as the tagline suggests, a celluloid atrocity.

But this is all utterly beside the point. John Waters is a cinematic provocateur, not a serious filmmaker. Certainly not when he made Multiple Maniacs anyway. Even as he matured and moved into making more commercial films in the 80s and 90s, such as Cry Baby, Hairspray, and Serial Mom, he didn’t suddenly become Fellini. But then Fellini never filmed a sex scene in a church between a lesbian and a 300lb drag queen having rosary beads stuffed up her arse.

This film might be trash, but that was entirely Waters’ intention. The end of the 60s was a different world. This was the time of Warhol, Vietnam, Manson, and experimentation. The peace and love era was fading into something nastier and more paranoid. Waters wasn’t trying to create a work of art, he wanted to make something that would shock, and appall, and alienate those daring enough to sit through it. And if you do sit through it, you are treated to a final ten minutes that is so unexpected, and so original, it makes the entire sleazy enterprise worthwhile. I won’t spoil the ending here, but if you don’t know what happens, please don’t look it up. It ain’t divine, but it sure is special.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

The Light Between Oceans Blu-ray review

After the gritty and emotionally raw double bill of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance allows a few softer edges to enter the frame, in this sweeping and romantic drama. Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a traumatised survivor of the Great War. Scarred by his experiences, he seeks isolation from the world, and takes up a post as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Western Australia.

On the mainland he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander) a young girl sensing escape of her own, and the two fall for each other, sending love letters across the sea until they are eventually married. She moves to the island, and all is well. The honeymoon period for this beautiful couple is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. The pastel skies, the blue ocean, the slow dissolves, and the stirring strings of Alexandre Desplat’s moving score, all come together to give the film a romantic streak a mile wide.

Tom and Isabel long to raise a family, but Mother Nature is seemingly not on their side. After two very traumatic scenes of miscarriage, fate intervenes, and a decision is made that will change their lives forever.

When a small boat is spotted crashing in the waves, Tom and Isabel run into the sea to rescue it, and find it occupied by a dead man, and a baby. Isabel, still grieving her recent loss, and driven by her urgent and powerful desire to be a mother, immediately falls in love, and convinces Tom that they keep the child. Tom goes along with this, but is far more conflicted than Isabel.

Fassbender and Vikander are tremendous in these scenes, tapping into primal emotions. Isabel is finally a mother, and nothing is going to take that from her. There’s a beautiful and harrowing moment, where Tom, conspiring to cover their tracks has to remove the grave marker for his most recent still born child. It’s identity taken by the child they themselves have stolen.

Tom soon discovers the identity of the baby’s real mother (Rachel Weisz), which only adds to his torment. Weisz has very little screen time, and her role is vastly underwritten, but she is a class act, finding depths in the character that were perhaps not there in the writing.

Cianfrance’s pacing of the story, as it was with The Place Beyond the Pines, is the biggest problem with the film. It all grinds to a halt in the lethargic third act, which seems to go on interminably. It’s never a good sign when you start looking at your watch, and it’s an even worse sign when the characters you’ve spent 90 minutes with suddenly start behaving like different people. There are some very contrived character beats in the final third, that completely undermine what you’ve already seen, and serve only to remind you that you are watching a piece of fiction.

It’s a shame, because whilst this was never going to be a big awards contender, it could have been a terrific old-fashioned weepy.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

The Accountant Blu-ray review

There’s something kind of charming about The Accountant, in it’s complete disregard for the basic language of cinema. It’s as if the filmmakers had three half decent ideas for films, couldn’t decide which one to develop, so crammed them all into a meat grinder, and gave us this flavourless sausage as a result.

Make no mistake, this is a crazy terrible film. Horribly structured, with a plot that sets up things that never happen, offensive characterisations, hilariously bad flashbacks, and a stellar cast being utterly wasted on this garbage. However, it would not surprise me if in years to come, The Accountant has taken on some sort of weird cult appeal. It is unashamedly bonkers, but so earnest and straight-faced in its ridiculousness, it is almost funny. It’s a film Nic Cage should have been in.

Instead we have Ben Affleck, a man who never seems happy to be at the top of his game. Twice now in his career he has reached the top of the Hollywood A-list, and both times he has shown no interest in consolidating his position. Instead he chooses awful projects, ends up as tabloid fodder, and invariably becomes a punch-line. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.

Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a forensic accountant, who aside from doing people’s tax returns, has a sideline in cooking the books for some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. That’s not all, he’s also a deadly assassin. Wait there’s more….he’s also autistic, which doesn’t really add anything to the character, other than explain why he’s a mathematics genius. Yes that’s right, The Accountant is another film that treats autism as a superpower.

Wolff is being hunted by Treasury Agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) who might as well be called Basil Exposition, because that is the only purpose he serves. In one truly extraordinary scene two-thirds into the film, Agent King sits down and explains the entire plot. Whatever happened to “show don’t tell”?

Meanwhile the plot revolves around Wolff doing the accounts of a large robotics firm, trying to find out who has been stealing money from the company. Elsewhere there are shady assassins trying to take him out. In the middle of all this, the director Gavin O’Connor keeps flashing back to Wolff’s childhood, where his army bastard father thought that violence would cure him of his condition. There is one unintentionally hilarious, sepia-tinged flashback to an army base in the Far East, where he is being taught how to fight by a martial arts master. It’s like something from an early JCVD movie.

His father growls at one point, “aggression correctly channeled overcomes a lot of flaws.” Not in a script this bad it doesn’t.

✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus