Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

There are a number of balls in the air in this film — two teenage girls’ desire to play football professionally, a three-way love triangle they have with their coach, the clash of races and cultures between Sikh and anglo populations in West London, and a coming-out story — and it’s to the director and writers’ credit that everything works out so well. That’s not to say it’s perfect — some of those resolutions are a little strained, and I’ve never been a fan of the angular Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an actor or as a love interest (though at least here he’s playing Irish) — but on the whole it’s all rather sweet. Parminder Nagra plays Jess, the character who dreams, as in the title, of bending the ball into the back of the net like her idol David Beckham, while Keira Knightley is Jules, who happens upon Jess playing with her (male) mates in the park and invites her to join their semi-professional local women’s team. Jess’s family have other ideas for their daughter of course (a solicitor, married to a nice Sikh boy), but the film is about Jess realising her dreams and still making her family proud. It all wraps up rather too neatly — and there’s definitely more than a hint of lesbian romance to the two women’s friendship, though that is quashed by the script via Jules’s mother, an underwritten sub-plot featuring the coach, and ultimately sidetracked into another story about one of Jess’s male friends. However, all that can be forgiven, because after all it’s a comedy and thankfully it’s intensely likeable, in no small way due to Nagra in the lead role, not to mention the interest gained from seeing her family’s story.

Bend It Like Beckham film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges; Cinematographer Jong Lin 林良忠; Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 September 2015.

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Atonement (2007)

Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

Atonement film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

Laggies (aka Say When, 2014)

Sometimes, even though a film isn’t the kind of thing you’d usually make much of an effort to see, you read reviews of it that just seem grossly unfair (hello, The Guardian), and it makes you feel more warmly disposed. It helps that I’ve found Keira Knightley more likeable as an actor in recent years, while Sam Rockwell has always been dependable. Add to that my resolution to see more films by woman directors, and I felt I had to catch this in its brief window of cinema release. I’m glad I did. The American title (not retained for the UK release) is rather idiosyncratic, but captures the sense of the central characters lagging behind their peers. Chiefly this is Knightley’s character Megan, in her late-20s but lacking motivation, with no sense of what she should be doing and with cold feet about her relationship, who hides out at teenager Annika’s home (Moretz). If the central character were male, this kind of regressive ingenuousness would no doubt be grating, but actually I found the friendship between Megan and Annika rather sweet. At a certain level, yes, the film is hardly original, and so many of its details suggest screenwriterly contrivance, and yet I’m willing to forgive all that, because it’s a likeable film which avoids relying on humiliation and pratfalls for its comedy, but rather focuses on likeable people grappling with real, if familiar, issues in an identifiable way.

Laggies film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writer Andrea Seigel; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Thursday 20 November 2014.

Begin Again (2013)

There are Hollywood films where I sometimes wonder if the economics of the thing are driven by the idea of just putting some currently-hot talents in front of the camera even when nothing else seems to have been thought out (the script, usually) and the hope that everything will come together when the camera starts rolling. It wouldn’t be surprising, because sometimes I’ve enjoyed a film perfectly well based on the pleasure of watching some charismatic stars do their thing. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I liked Begin Again, for example, which I only went to because it filled a gap while I was waiting to do something else. It features a handful of actors I really enjoy watching, who generally have the sense of people who are winging it (not necessarily always a bad thing). A particular stand-out is Mark Ruffalo, who does his usual rumpled washed-up shambolic thing with all his customary aplomb. In this, he’s Dan, a music A&R man who’s just been fired by his company, and in a night of disconsolate drinking happens across Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter Gretta in a bar. She’s just been pulled up on stage during an open mic night by her equally unsuccessful friend Steve (James Corden), but Ruffalo sees something in her. We get this scene at least three times, from three different perspectives, and we quickly learn that Gretta’s split up with her rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, himself a lead singer in some kind of rock band). Dan, too, is estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), so this odd couple sort of help each other through their respective issues — I’d say it was another story about a damaged middle-aged male ego being restored by a spontaneous, impulsive young woman, but it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as all that. Nevertheless, as I’ve already hinted at above, these aspects of the story weren’t always convincing to me — certainly, Dan’s plan isn’t, the one to record an album with Gretta outdoors, as a sort of ode to New York — though we do get some nice details about the music industry along the way (with small roles for Mos Def and CeeLo Green). If I’d seen director Carney’s first film Once, I’d assume it was a retread of that with bigger names. Nevertheless, those actors do carry the movie a lot further than it sometimes deserves.

Begin Again film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer John Carney; Cinematographer Yaron Orbach; Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

I remember when Kenneth Branagh used to make serious awards-bothering films. I watched his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996). Twice. I even watched the two-hour cut as well, for some reason losts to the mists of time. I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, very sensibly having re-focused his talents on fun, hammy roles. There was his wizard in the second Harry Potter film, or his Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. It would probably be fair to add the Russian oligarch bad guy Viktor that he plays in this film to that list, though what with all his precise financial machinations, it’s a more underplayed role of brooding intensity and clears the way for Chris Pine’s action heroics.

In truth, though, no individual performance does end up dominating Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — as far as the title goes, it’s more about the shadow than the recruit. Aside from Branagh, we have Kevin Costner playing the guy quietly running the show, while Keira Knightley is an afterthought of a girlfriend. Amongst all this, Chris Pine has his running-around-making-stuff-happen shtick down from the rebooted Star Trek series, but he’s a curiously inert presence. Part of that is do with the way the film downplays the heroics and the patriotic flag-waving. Sure, he’s trained as a Marine following 9/11 and ten years later, gets the chance to save the day in a frenetic sequence based more-or-less at Ground Zero NYC. Yet his character is more of a back office wonk, tracing financial transactions and trying to explain it to Kevin Costner’s Commander, who — no doubt on our behalf — gamely exhorts Jack to use simpler words. And the final confrontation is between the two men, Jack and Viktor, rather than really about global geopolitics or high finance. It makes for a more interesting central character, I think, but perhaps a less satisfying action movie.

Of course, the character is based on famous Cold War-era conservative Tom Clancy’s gung-ho patriotic spook of the same name, developed over a number of novels (and already adapted into a number of films). If some of the jingoism has been toned down by the British director, then we still get some gloriously old-school villains, what with our Soviet Russian baddie, meaning a large chunk of the plot takes place in a Moscow whose modern shiny glass-and-steel edifices jostle with the more picturesque charms the film is at pains to present.

No one’s going to try to argue this is a masterpiece, and it has its longueurs. But it does what it needs to do without too much fuss. The style is all fairly straightforward and unshowy. Pine does his stuff, Knightley scrubs up quite well as a (medical) doctor, and Costner broods effectively. And, like the director he is, Branagh plays a character who thinks he’s in control, but just maybe someone will come along and find a hole in his plotting.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit film posterCREDITS
Director Kenneth Branagh; Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (based on characters by Tom Clancy); Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos Χάρις Ζαμπαρλούκος; Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 12 February 2014.

Anna Karenina (2012)

I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.

The opening 15 minutes or so is probably where Wright’s technical virtuosity is most in evidence, as we see a succession of scenes introducing the central characters for the ensuing drama. These are chiefly Anna (Keira Knightley), her ministerial husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), her dandy aristocratic brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a shabbily-dressed lank-haired friend of Stiva’s who is in love with Kitty. These opening scenes are framed — as are several throughout the film — by the front of a stage with its footlights, as seen in many of the posters. It’s a cute way of presenting the story as a self-consciously staged one, only heightened by the colour and detail of the costumes and the elaborate intricacy of the set design.

Scenes, too, blend into one another, as characters seamlessly move from one geographical and spatial setting to another without any ostensible cuts, another distancing technique which recalls similar sequences in classic post-war new wave filmmaking, but which most brings to my mind the playful experimentation of Raúl Ruiz, especially his adaptation of Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999). Yet where Ruiz’s touch was light and perfectly integrated into the sense of nostalgia and memory that Proust’s work dealt with, here the technique seems far more self-aggrandising, and serves to distance us further as viewers from the grand, melodramatic story being shown.

And it is melodramatic, with all kinds of ridiculous touches, showing excess in the costumes and in the sets (trains entirely encrusted with snow, as just one example). Where the film palpably scores is in some of the supporting acting. While I remain unconvinced by the lovers at the film’s centre, Jude Law imparts real pathos to the upright, slightly dull politician, while Alicia Vikander is charming as Kitty — even if the scene between her and Kostya where they reveal their feelings via coloured alphabet bricks is too cute by half.

Still, it hits all the rights kinds of notes for the sumptuously-staged period drama it is, so those who are partial to this sort of thing will find it passably enjoyable, no doubt.

Anna Karenina film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy Лев Толстой); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)


FILM REVIEW || Director Joe Wright | Writers Deborah Moggach (based on the novel by Jane Austen) | Cinematographer Roman Osin | Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, Donald Sutherland, Kelly Reilly | Length 129 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 21 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

There have been a lot of adaptations and reimaginings of novels by Jane Austen (there was a particular glut of them in the 1990s), and for my sins I’ve seen a fair few, such that I’m never really sure what’s going on and who’s who whenever an Austen film starts. I feel like I should know the stories better, but they always seem to involve a bit of to-do around social status, some mentions of the gentleman’s annual income, several lengthy dance sequences, and many many glorious frocks. As staples of the ‘heritage film’ — a moribund genre if ever there was one, laid out by Merchant-Ivory and focused above all on bloodless period frippery — they should by all rights be terrible, but I must admit I like the odd period film with all their stuffed shirts and wilful heroines.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)


FILM REVIEW || Director Gore Verbinski | Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy | Length 168 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Friday 26 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Walt Disney Pictures

My critical introduction to this film series was via Mark Kermode’s ever more vituperative rants on Simon Mayo’s and his BBC Radio 5 Live film review podcast, and needless to say, hearing his opinion did not engender much of a desire to see the films. There it probably would have ended for me, were it not for my wife’s desire to re-watch them. On this third instalment, I’ve heard plenty of subsequent opinion on both sides of the divide, some saying that the third film is even worse than the second, while other friends consider it not just the best of the franchise but a great film in its own right. If I can’t entirely embrace that challenging position, I am certainly of the opinion that it is a far superior film to Dead Man’s Chest (2006). The real surprise is that the two films were made back-to-back by the same cast and crew, given how differently they turned out.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)


FILM REVIEW || Director Gore Verbinski | Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy | Length 151 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 23 April 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Walt Disney Pictures

Whatever the drawbacks of its source material (it’s based on a carnival ride at Disneyworld, after all), the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003) was at least proficient entertainment with some good actors thrown into the mix. In extending the franchise, the filmmakers have crammed in a whole lot more attractively-shot theme park diversions but seem to have lost a few elements that (for me, at least) make for a good film watching experience.

Continue reading “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)”