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The Magnificent Seven

August 20, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Director: John Sturges
Actors: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Buchholz

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Synopsis: A Mexican town, frequently ravaged by bandits, sends three of its farmers across the border into the States to recruit a group of men to come back and rid them of those bandits.

Review: With Antoine Fuqua’s reboot fast approaching our cinema screens this Autumn, it felt opportune to revisit the original version of The Magnificent Seven – to unpick its true worth away from its enduring, pop-culturally iconic status.

The first thing that screams out to the viewer is Elmer Bernstein’s bombastic, inimitable score – playing over the opening images and credits of the film. Not only is Bernstein’s score one of the most distinctive in the history of cinema, but the broad, literal way that it acts as commentary to the action and emotions of the story stands as emblem for a film that has a straightforward, no-nonsense, old-school charm.

Talking about old-school charm, probably the most enjoyable aspect of the film is watching the now legendary names (Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson) get introduced to the story in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’-style recruitment vignettes. Coburn and McQueen’s codas are the highlights – especially McQueen’s, where with a suitably cool, laconic resignation, he accepts the Mexicans taunting him about his only other option, “working in a grocery store”, just after he’s lost most of his money gambling in a saloon.

One can see why Hollywood might look to revisit this story though. Beyond the obvious (the clear commercial gain in rebooting a popular “brand name” from old Hollywood), there is plenty of room for improvement as a piece of social commentary, more can be done with the characterisations, and also the visceral, action elements could be ramped up a notch. That said, what this version has going for it are the glorious qualities of Panavision and Technicolor. It’s a sumptuous film to look at – freeze an image and you would have a gorgeous oil painting – and Fuqua and co will be hard-pushed to manufacture a more taut sequence than the near-wordless middle-stretch where three of the men daringly head off to intercept some of the bandits’ horses while the Mexican’s raucous village fair is happening. (August 2016)


August 19, 2016

Creed (2015)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Actors: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

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Synopsis: Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of the late former heavyweight boxing champion, Apollo Creed. Adonis – an aspiring boxer – heads over to Philadelphia to enlist the help of Apollo’s old friend and rival, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone)…

Review: Ryan Coogler proves an absolute dab hand at mining the rich backstory of the Rocky Balboa universe to fashion a surprisingly tasteful take on its characters, themes and overall conventions. The “twist” is that this time the hero with the obstacles to overcome isn’t Rocky himself but the young, illegitimate son of his former rival, Apollo Creed. Taking a leaf out of the trend now rife throughout Hollywood for stories that tug at our sense of nostalgia and recognition of ‘brand’ storyworlds, Coogler excels in playing on the quasi-mythological trappings of his backstory – making literal in his opening coda that the film is about a quest to live up to the very name “Creed”.

What Coogler does so well is in honouring the features of the Rocky story we all love (the ‘rags to riches’ sentiment, the indestructible opponent, the inspirational training montages, the love interest, the return to ‘blue collar’ values), while also updating the sophistication of the telling of that story. Coogler wisely recruits actual professional boxers – and world-class ones too in Tony Bellew and Andre Ward – to populate his story, and the fights are brilliantly filmed in vertiginous, de facto single takes, approximating the sensation of actually being in a boxing ring.

Sylvester Stallone’s return as Rocky is a resounding crowd-pleaser as well. It’s a wonderful, humane performance which is beautifully judged by Stallone: in particular, when he makes a cracking joke about not understanding the “cloud” where Adonis has recorded his training notes. It’s arguable whether Rocky needed a cancer subplot as he was already imbued with enough pathos and world-weariness already, but that aside, his turn dovetails expertly with the livewire Michael B. Jordan in the title role, and this is unquestionably one of the best entrants to the entire Rocky series. (August 2016)

Welcome to Argentina: New Argentine Cinema

August 17, 2016

A version of this article is published at:

In the early years of the new millennium, Latin American cinema established itself on the world stage with a series of films of staggering vivacity and lucidity. It truly was an authentic ‘New Wave’: a literal burst of energy; a furious, delirious collage of stories and bulletins from a previously under-represented and underestimated corner of our planet. At the forefront of the movement were the films and filmmakers of Mexico and Brazil. Stunning works emanated from the now celebrated names of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros), Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También), Carlos Reygadas (Japón, Battle in Heaven), Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and Walter Salles (Central Station). Since then, quality films from South and Central America have become less of a novelty, and alongside Mexico and Brazil, other countries have established themselves as hotbeds of cinematic virtuosity: Chile (think Pablo Larraín, Patrizio Guzmán, Sebastian Silvá) and Colombia (anyone who has seen the recent Gente de Bien and Embrace of the Serpent will know this could be the next ‘sleeping giant’ of a country to establish itself cinematically).

Argentina has slipped under the radar somewhat when talk turns to this fabled Latin American New Wave, but there is a compelling case for it having the richest and most diverse of national cinemas across South and Central America. If a striking, vibrant national cinema is about the strong marriage of content (the potential stories and landscapes available to that country’s filmmakers) and form, then Argentina’s fascinating geographical, sociological and historical canvas puts it in a great position to produce world-class cinema. And it does.

Argentina has a huge land mass – the second largest in South America – and interestingly, along with Chile, it is one of the world’s longest countries. Over 3500km in length, Argentina’s northernmost borders touch upon the barren desert scapes of northern Chile and Bolivia, while its southern boundaries are the closest inhabited lands to Antarctica (the port of Ushuaia is the world’s southernmost city). This length and breadth of landscape has inspired Argentine filmmakers to not only make films of ingenious pictoral diversity, but to let compelling stories emerge organically from those terrains. Two of the best recent examples of these are Lisandro Alonso’s hypnotic Liverpool (2008), where a dissolute sailor pitches up in Ushuaia before embarking on an enigmatic pilgrimage into the unimaginably cold confines of Tierra del Fuego, while Pablo Trapero’s Born and Bred (2006) used the beautiful desolation of Patagonia to fashion a moving parable on grief and regeneration.

Of course, mention of a country’s social geography would be remiss without discussing its capital city, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina has a suitably vibrant (sometime incendiary) arena for some of its crackling cinematic tales to play out on. Almost a third of Argentina’s population is condensed in the greater metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, so that has naturally forged – as in other countries with dominant capital cities like the United Kingdom and France – a lopsided financial and political power equilibrium with the rest of the country. Consider also Argentina’s ethnic diversity, with its relatively recent swathe of European immigrants largely contained in Buenos Aires. This number is particularly high in French and Italians – likely cause for Buenos Aires resembling a “southern hemisphere Paris”. The outer margins of Argentina however (notably the North-West and the far South) are home to a large indigenous population. Some films have begun to assess these divides and their likely socio-political implications, most notably Lucrecia Martel’s remarkable The Headless Woman (2008) which is one of the most subtle class critiques going.

Mention of Argentina’s national cinema couldn’t also pass without some reference to the country’s turbulent history. Even the Academy Awards cottoned on to the power inherent in Argentina’s political soul-searching when it gave its Best Foreign Language prize for 2009 to Juan José Campanella’s brilliant The Secret in Their Eyes – a thriller based partly on the murky politics and slippery notions of justice in 70’s Argentina.

Here is our list of Argentina’s top 5 contemporary filmmakers. In the case of Rotter and Trapero, some of their films are playing at this week’s Argentine Film Festival. Try to catch them if you can!

  1. Ariel Rotter

An outstanding filmmaker with two films playing at this week’s Argentine Film Festival. A brilliant visual artist whose The Other won the Silver Bear at the 2007 Berlinale.

  1. Juan José Campanella

He’s now exhibiting his directorial skills on American TV, but his Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes deservedly drew Argentine cinema to wider, mainstream acclaim.

  1. Lisandro Alonso

A distinctive, arthouse filmmaker who has gone on to international success. He turned the southern tip of Argentina into an otherworldly terrain for Liverpool, and created a memorable Danish-Argentine fantasia with Viggo Mortensen for Jauja (2014).

  1. Pablo Trapero

A dynamic visual artist but also a compassionate, humane storyteller too. His films are like an Argentine version of those by a young Martin Scorsese.

  1. Lucrecia Martel

Possibly, just possibly, the most accomplished filmmaker on the planet. She makes films of exceptional subtlety and philosophical richness from La Ciénega (2002) and The Holy Girl (2004) to the staggering microcosm of a social class’s fecklessness that was The Headless Woman. We wait with increasingly bated breath for her next feature (eight years and counting…) (August 2016)

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

August 13, 2016

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2016)

Director: Stig Björkman 

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SYNOPSIS: A study of the life and work of great Swedish film actress, Ingrid Bergman.

REVIEW: If you’re yet to acquaint yourself with one of cinema’s greatest actresses and icons, Ingrid Bergman, then this is the film for you, and there’s enough in it to keep Bergman aficionados happy too.

To read the full article, please follow this link:


August 9, 2016

Notorious (1946)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Actors: Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains

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Synopsis: Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a convicted Nazi operative in the US, is recruited by T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a suspected Nazi ring in Rio de Janeiro.

Review: This moderate conspiracy thriller doesn’t carry the cine-psychological virtuosity of Alfred Hitchock’s best work but it still showcases his inimitable ability to infuse what is essentially hokum material with a superior, gothic feel.

As ever with Hitchcock, there’s the ingenious way he communicates story as much through framing and editing over mere exposition. One instructive example of this storytelling brio is in the opening courtroom scene where the indictment of Alicia’s Nazi father is communicated. Instead of it featuring just a conventional head-on shot of the defendant and associated players in the courtroom, the scene is shot through a gap in the door, implying someone’s reception and processing of that vista (we later assume it’s Cary Grant’s government agent) is as important as the dialogue itself.

While not being in the upper echelon of the Hitchock canon, it’s unquestionably one of the finest hours of its main star, Ingrid Bergman. In a role that was made for her transnational allure/ambiguity, she owns the complex trajectory of her character’s arc from the dissolute playgirl of the film’s opening, to the clever pawn amid all the male characters’ scheming in the middle stretch, to the more conventionally romantic figure who (huge spoiler alert) requires rescuing by Grant at the end. Clad in some gorgeous outfits by the incomparable costume designer, Edith Head, Bergman’s luminosity is probably the most enduring legacy of this classy little number from Hollywood’s golden age. (August 2016)

The Little Prince

August 7, 2016

The Little Prince (2016)
Director: Mark Osborne
Actors: Mackenzie Foy, Jeff Bridges, Riley Osborne

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Synopsis: An eccentric, ageing ex-airman (Jeff Bridges) befriends a repressed and lonely young girl (Mackenzie Foy) and recounts to her the story of the Little Prince.

Review: Unless The Little Prince is a sly anti-Pixar parable (which it isn’t) then this is further evidence of the unattractive industrialism and obsessive control tendencies at the heart of contemporary animation. The films are all too polished, too smarmy, too literate by half, and the smart techs who make them even know their animation lineage to ward against any accusation of a lack of heart and old-school craft.

Ironically, the film’s opening montage betrays its true ethos right away with a sequence gorging on all the mechanical hard edges and fine lines of the lifestyle invented by the lonely young girl’s control freak of a mum. And while one could argue aspects of the film are a refutation of this opening as the story of the Little Prince possesses more of a DIY, eccentric, colourful feel, it doesn’t negate the fact that these polar storylines are rhetorically complimentary.

How can anyone look at this film’s now-commonplace bulbous features of the Little Girl and her mother and tell me they’re more beautiful than traditional hand-drawn 2D animation? If the technicians who make these films are so obsessed by their conceits which mirror and affect real life, then why not just commission a live action feature instead?…(August 2016)

Tale of Tales

July 31, 2016

Tale of Tales (2016)
Director: Matteo Garrone
Actors: Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Bebe Cave

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Synopsis: A tale of three kingdoms: in the first, a childless queen (Salma Hayek) takes on a Faustian pact to become pregnant; in another, a king (Toby Jones) more interested in fleas unwittingly palms his daughter (Bebe Cave) off on an ogre; and in the third, a randy king (Vincent Cassel) gets more than he bargained for when he courts what he assumes to be a gorgeous young woman….

Review: Matteo Garrone’s engagingly idiosyncratic, fantastical adult fairytale, Tale of Tales, is an absolute gem. It would initially seem a remove from his most famous work – the Neapolitan crime saga, Gomorrah – but on reflection, both works are uncannily similar in effect: Garrone revelling in outing the rhetoric and ironies of his stories through a maverick approach to cinematography and the overall geography of his worlds (he loves tracking shots which are almost literalisations of the interlinking architecture of his narratives.)

Befitting the fairytale feel, Garrone has created a work that is visually ravishing and extremely sensual. The music score is like a proto-80s horror synth affair, and there are scenes of marvellous wit and irony: my stand-out two being the simply surreal underwater section where John C. Reilly’s king goes to slay a monster with bizarre results, and the brilliantly-revealed entrance of Vincent Cassel’s lascivious king (he lifts his head dramatically into view after two ladies have seemingly been copping off on their own!)

Perhaps my only marginal contention is that the conceits don’t always justify their long dramatisation – they’re more like vignettes or sketches than scenarios that need two hours of running time; but even then, the film’s continual sense of invention, gallows humour and aesthetic beauty keeps you engrossed. (July 2016)


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