Friday, 15 January 2021

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face-off in famous interviews in Frost/Nixon

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Frank Langella (Richard M Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Irving “Swifty” Lazar), Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jnr), Clint Howard (Lloyd Davis)

If there is a bogeyman in American politics, it will always be disgraced President Richard Nixon. Because, however divisive Donald Trump is, Nixon will always be the king who was toppled, the man some consider a crook and a war criminal, others a gifted politician and negotiator. The truth is somewhere, as always, in the middle – but what seems inarguable is that Nixon was a man of deep personal flaws, which contributed considerably to his fall. Peter Morgan’s play explored the complexities of Nixon’s character through his famous TV interviews with British talk show host David Frost, a man with a few chips of his own. Ron Howard takes what was already a fairly cinematic script by Morgan, and produces a smoothly professional, entertaining and very well acted film.

After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has been forced into resigning, he is in the political wilderness. Watergate engrossed the world, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in to follow every detail. Who in television could resist those numbers? Certainly not David Frost (Michael Sheen), who believes if he can secure an exclusive interview with Nixon he could have a television package that could pull in millions of viewers, make Frost a fortune, and catapult him into the front ranks of TV interviewers. Slowly the project comes together. But both participants have a lot to prove: for Nixon this could be a chance of redemption; for Frost to prove he is more than a chat show host better suited to grilling the Bee Gees than the President. With both men underestimating each other, who will emerge on top in the interviews?

One of Ron Howard’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to elicit fine performances from good actors. This is the real bonus he brings to this faithful adaptation of Morgan’s award-winning play. He presents it with a highly skilled professionalism and a refreshing lack of distraction that allows the audience to focus on the acting and the dialogue, its real strengths. Frost/Nixon is sharply written – with Peter Morgan’s expected mix of careful research and dramatic licence (most especially in a late-night phone call between the two men before the final day’s filming) – crammed with fine lines, well drawn characters and fascinating insights into both politics and television.

Perhaps Howard’s finest decision was to ensure the two stars of the play (in both the West End and Broadway) were retained for the film. Langella and Sheen’s performances – already brilliant in the stage version, which I was lucky enough to see – are outstanding here, both of them completely inhabiting their characters. The comfort and familiarity between the two performers are crucial – and ensure that the vital scenes between the two characters carry an electric charge.

Langella brilliantly captures the physicality and voice of Nixon, but also finds deep insights into the President’s tortured soul. He communicates Nixon’s sense of inadequacy and bitterness, his resentment at having to fight all his life for things others have been gifted. He balances this with Nixon’s pride and paranoia that constantly leads him to cheat others first. Langella’s Nixon, lost and bored in retirement, is desperate to regain his statue, but also tortured by a guilt and regret he can hardly bring himself to name. Under his robustness and confidence, lies deep shame and sorrow. It’s a brilliant capturing of perhaps the most psychologically complex leader America ever had.

Sheen is just as superb as Frost. As you would expect from an accomplished mimic, the voice is almost alarmingly accurate (he makes a better Frost than Frost did!). But just as insightful is his understanding of Frost’s psychology. Just like Nixon, Frost is a hard-working lad from a poorer background who has had to fight for everything he has. Sheen’s Frost is a phenomenal hard worker – producer, financier and star of his own career – who works hardest of all to appear an effortlessly confident dilettante. Sheen’s Frost balances immense pressures – facing personal and financial ruin – with an assured smile, keeping every plate spinning by never allowing a moment of doubt.

It leads into fascinatingly different attitudes to the interviews themselves. Nixon prepares in detail – and determines his best strategy is long winded answers that present his case and prevent attack. Frost is so focused on delivering the interviews that he sacrifices his actual interview preparation (certainly more so than he did in real life). Morgan uses the conventions of boxing dramas – corners, breaks between ‘rounds’, advice from their trainers – to capture a sense of gladiatorial combat.

However, the play is more complex than this. The reason why Frost struggles to land a glove on Nixon in earlier interviews on his domestic and foreign policies is that Nixon genuinely believes he is in the right – but (perhaps as Frost understood) the final interviews based on Watergate will see a more vulnerable Nixon as on that subject he knows he’s in the wrong. I suspect the real Frost knew that to get to Nixon on that final topic, he needed to be ‘softened up’ first to feel comfortable and produce a revelation.

Because the film is refreshingly positive in its view of television. A medium that films often attack for being trivial and boiling things down to soundbites and snippets, here acknowledges the strengths that can bring. A single snippet of an apologetic and crushed Nixon is worth thousands of words – and small moments can turn a TV programme from a failure to an event. Howard uses the power of the close-up at these moments to demonstrate how TV can zero in with a merciless gaze on a single moment. It’s a defence of the power of TV and its ability to reduce things down to moments.

Howard’s understanding of the strengths that lie at the heart of the play – and to tell the story simply – is what makes an already cinematic play translate wonderfully to the screen. With Langella and Sheen outstanding (with the supporting cast all equally excellent), the film entertainingly demonstrates the preparation and delivery of the interviews, while offering shrewd psychological insights into two men who had a lot more at a stake – and in common – than at first appeared. Professional, handsome and captivating, this is Hollywood movie making at its best.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Harrison Ford goes in search for treasure in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (René Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr Marcus Brody), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Major Gobler), Alfred Molina (Satipo)

Indiana Jones is now one of the most beloved – and instantly recognisable – film characters ever created. So, it’s strange to think that Raiders of the Lost Ark was released to such little fanfare. That soon changed when the film came out. In some cinemas it was so popular it played for the whole year. It became a box-office smash, turned Harrison Ford into Hollywood’s leading movie star for the next 20 years, and made Steven Spielberg Hollywood’s leading director. And it did all that because I’m not sure there is a more entertaining, tightly made, funny, thrilling and (at times) scary adventure film out there. Spielberg and producer George Lucas may have wanted to make a film that aped B-movie adventure serials – but they ended up reinventing an entire genre.

It’s 1936 and the Nazis are in search of occult relics. Their latest target is the Ark of the Covenant, which Hitler believes will make his armies invincible. What chance is there of stopping him finding it? Well obviously the US government must put its trust in Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), one of the world’s leading archaeologists who also (fortunately) is pretty handy in a fight. Not only that, but his ex-girlfriend Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen), daughter of his former mentor, holds one of the keys to finding the Ark. Indy and Marian end up on an adventure that crosses continents, taking on the ruthless Nazis and mixing with profound mysteries that man is not meant to know.

Hollywood wasn’t happy about Spielberg making the film. His previous film – the war comedy 1941 – had bombed, losing millions. The studio was insistent with producer George Lucas: if he wanted to see his dream of making an old-fashioned B-movie with his friend Spielberg come true, then he would need to stick tightly to a budget. After all, Spielberg had a reputation for delivering films overtime and overbudget. Our heroes stuck to this deal – and Spielberg has said it was a blessing, as it forced him to keep the film lean, tight and, above all, free of indulgence. Spielberg’s direction is perfect, so good in fact that he set the template for nearly all big-budget directing (in terms of tone, pace, mood and tempo) to come. Every action film since owes something in its DNA to Raiders.

Raiders is far more entertaining – and brilliant – than it has any right to be. It’s effectively a series of set-pieces, threaded together by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan into a plot. Kasdan’s dialogue though was spot-on – like the film, lean, tight and perfectly focused. With exceptional brevity and focus it brilliantly creates a small core of characters, and then gives them room to bounce off each other. Its dialogue is quotable, fun and punchy. He – with Lucas and Spielberg – also crafts a central character who is flawed but deeply likeable, and a heroine who is independent and dynamic. The script is a big part of the reason why the film is a success – it makes us care deeply for the characters as they get involved in the death-defying stunts and action set pieces that make up a lot of the film.

And we don’t follow any character more than Indy himself. Thank God Tom Selleck had to withdraw at the last minute. George Lucas had resisted casting Harrison Ford as he was worried about the overlap with Han Solo. But the part fits Ford like a glove. Sure, it comes from the same wheel-house as Solo – although Indy is more taciturn, intellectual and a degree less cocksure than Solo, more a man reluctantly forced into danger than a swaggering pirate – but Ford’s skill is faultless. Ford has an everyday quality to him, and he brings a world-weary tiredness to Indiana. He has the confident grin, but he’s just as likely to see that switch to concerned desperation (there is a perfect moment of this in the opening sequence, when the vine he is grasping on a cliff top suddenly works loose). He may be a bit of a rogue (not averse to shooting a swordsman) but he’s also a good man, with the street smarts of a ruffian, who is frequently exasperated by the errors of his sidekicks. This is the sort of man that men want to be and women want to be with – an impossibly difficult trick to pull off.

We relate to Indy because he’s vulnerable. He’s an underdog. The outstanding opening sequence – basically a little mini-movie in itself – showcases this. As Indy heads into a hidden temple for an idol (dodging spiders, bottomless pits, arrows from walls and most famously a huge boulder – a stunt Ford did for real) we get his entire character showcased. He’s astute, resourceful, trusting (sometimes too trusting) and ingenious. But he also takes a hell of a physical pounding, gets scared and above all goes through huge danger only to end up empty-handed. And of course, we find out he can cope with all this, but definitely not snakes (is there a better action set-piece punch line than “Grow a little backbone, will ya!”). It sets the tone for the rest of the film – in fact with the first five minutes alone, Raiders is already better than 99% of all other adventure films.

But then this is a director working at the top of his game. All the elements come together perfectly here: Spielberg always knows when to keep the tempo up, cuts the action superbly and also presents us with a brilliant mixture of tension, excitement and awe. He and Lucas brilliantly understand the power of images – there is a reason why a rolling boulder has become part of cinema’s language. The design of Raiders (one of its five Oscars) is absolutely perfect. Nothing like these temples could really have existed in real life – but as an evocation of 1930s adventure serials they are perfect. Mix that in with that brilliant sound design (those whip cracks for staters) and John Williams’ majestic score (from the classic Indy march to the haunting strains that tie in with the Ark) and this film is a masterclass for affecting the senses.

Then those set-pieces are told with just the right balance between thrills and wit. Again, Harrison Ford is a big part of this: he’s never smug, his trademark furrowed brow suggesting stress as much as his grin communicates relief at surviving. The truck chase – which sees Indy move from horse to truck, to under a speeding truck to back in the driving seat, half the time with a bullet in his arm – is a masterclass in thrills and superb editing. It’s such damn good fun that the film even gets away with a nonsensical beat where a car-load of Nazis is pushed off a huge cliff (the first and last indication that we are anywhere near a cliff in the whole scene!). Just like the opening sequence our hero’s combination of ingenuity, never-say-die determination and vulnerability is what makes it compelling (the Williams score also plays a huge part in building both the excitement and the triumph).

The whole film is a series of triumphant set-pieces. Spielberg also tinges the film with just enough darkness as well. The Nepal gun battle carries a real sense of danger, Indy’s fight with a tough Nazi air mechanic culminates in a quite gruesome death (although the fight beforehand has plenty of wit to it, as Indy is hopelessly outmatched physically by this giant). That’s all before the film’s famous closing sequence as the Ark finally opens up to reveal the power of God – bad news for the assembled Nazis crowded around it. The face-melting horror (and it’s hard to imagine any action adventure film doing something this horrific today) is impossible to forget, brilliantly executed and carries just the right amount of dread.

The darkness though is counter-balanced throughout by sly wit and a sense of fun. Wonderful jokes – from Major Toht’s nunchucks that become a coat hanger to an exhausted Indy responding to Marian’s kisses by falling asleep – pepper the script. The cast are fabulously chosen. Karen Allen is perfect as the independent Marian. Paul Freeman is chillingly austere and charmingly amoral as Indy’s rival Belloq. Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody is excellent as an older, wiser version of Indy very different from the comic buffoon he would become. The same can also be said for John Rhys-Davies Falstaffian but shrewd and loyal Sallah.

Raiders of the Lost Ark sees every element come together perfectly. Spielberg’s direction – the film did come in on time and on budget, going on to be the biggest success of its year – is completely perfect. Ford creates a character who from his first appearance is iconic (the zoom to introduce him is a wonderful tip of the hat to John Wayne’s classic entrance in Stagecoach – continuing the homages, the final shot is also a lovely nod to Citizen Kane). Every action set piece is a brilliant mix of thrills, danger, triumph and even a touch of horror (be it gruesome deaths or dreadful beasts). It’s a film that can not fail to entertain, raise a smile – and still have you hiding behind the sofa at points. Lucas and Spielberg wanted to make a film that would remind them of the adventures of our childhood. They were so successful that their film ended up defining the childhoods of millions of us.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Peter Cushing is the great detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), André Morell (Doctor Watson), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), David Oxley (Sir Hugo Baskerville), Francis de Wolff (Dr Mortimer), Miles Malleson (Bishop Frankland), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), John Le Mesurier (Barrymore), Helen Gross (Mrs Barrymore)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story hardly needs introduction. In 1959 it was told with a Hammer Horror twist. With its demonic dog, fog covered moor and blood-laden backstory surely no Sherlock Holmes story could be better suited to the studio. The film is fairly faithful to the basic outline of the original, although with added tarantulas and (more controversially) a new villain.

But it all works pretty much a treat, largely due to the performances of Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson. Cushing’s Holmes is sharp, analytical, has bursts of energy mixed with impatient distraction. Cushing went back to the stories and threw in many small details – from lines from Doyle to physical moments such as securing notes to the mantelpiece with a knife. His Holmes also uses rudeness in a Doylesque way he rarely does in film. Cushing has the intelligence and dynamism of the Detective – he’s one of the more overlooked actors to play the role – and had been determined to be faithful in his interpretation (sadly sequels were not forthcoming, although Cushing played the role several more times on the BBC).

Morell also returned to the novels to present a Dr Watson who was smooth, professional, assured and competent if uninspired. It’s was a far cry from the blundering buffoon which – thanks to Nigel Bruce – the public expected from Holmes’ faithful Boswell. Morell’s more patrician style made him a fine contrast with Cushing’s bohemian tinged Holmes. The two actors also spark beautifully off each other and create a feeling of a genuine friendship, underpinned by affection and loyalty, frequently showing genuine concern for each other’s safety.

Aside from these two excellent performances in the leads, the film is a solid if not spectacular adaptation, competently filmed. Terence Fisher’s direction sometimes struggles to cover the cheapness of the enterprise and some sets convince more than others. For a film that is quite short, the pace sometimes slackens (the Baskerville legend in particular gets far too much screen time, probably connected in part to the presence of the buxom servant girl Sir Hugo is planning to bed). Moments such as an attempt to assassinate Sir Henry via tarantula in London (which makes no sense at all) provides decent moments of tension but are basically filler.

The film does manage to address some of the problems of the novel by introducing a greater sense of mystery, in particular by providing motivations for several characters. Saying that, just as in the novel (where the mystery is solved by Holmes travelling to Scotland and reading some records – not good drama), here much of the mystery is resolved by Holmes carrying out an off-stage conversation with convict Seldon. Much as in the book, Holmes travelling to the area incognito doesn’t really add much to the story other than providing a late reveal.

Better invention however comes in the introduce of a femme fatale in Marla Landi’s Cecile Stapleton, here re-imagined as a sexy, wild girl of undefined (and nonsensical) European origin. She sparks off a neat chemistry with Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry – here playing for the only time in his career not the villain but the romantic lead! – and her development late in the film presents a fresh take on the resolution.

It’s certainly a little more fresh than the eventual scuffle with the dog – which to be honest doesn’t look either that intimidating or convincing. The dog itself is rather underwhelming, and more threat is actually conveyed by the moor itself, a mysterious stretch of land coated in fog covering treacherous bogs.

What Fisher and Hammer do really well is atmosphere, and the gothic feel of the piece is pretty much spot on. There is the expected claret red blood – and a suggestion of something really grotesque which befalls a victim on the moor – mixed in with sexy ladies. It’s an exploitation twist on Holmes, but then the novel itself was basically pretty much a B-movie in text. And the fundamental story is largely unchanged, with both the virtues and vices of the book captured.

The finest thing about it is the acting. Several scene-stealing actors chuck in neat cameos. Le Mesurier is perfect as the reserved butler Barrymore. De Wolff is a sharp and arrogant Mortimer. Malleson steals his scenes as an absent-minded Frankland (here re-imagined as an eccentric cleric). Christopher Lee relishes the chance to play against type, making Sir Henry a pillar of upright, honest decency. But the real delight is Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson, a brilliant combination.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Spotlight (2015)

Ruffalo, McAdams, Keaton and James head up the investigation into the church in Spotlight

Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Michael Keaton (Walter “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (Michael Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Brian d’Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee Jnr), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian), Billy Crudup (Eric MacLeish), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Sullivan), Paul Guilfoyle (Peter Conley), Len Cariou (Cardinal Bernard Law), Neal Huff (Phil Saviano)

True villains are hard to spot: those clothed in good deeds are particularly well hidden. Few clothe themselves in good deeds more effectively than priests – and the small minority who use their positions of trust and power to abuse vulnerable children. It’s an unforgiveable, abominable betrayal that has ruined the lives of thousands of victims around the world. This century, the Catholic Church was rocked by a scandal: many in the church hierarchy were all too aware of these appalling acts, but protected priests from exposure rather than submitting them to well-deserved punishment. It took the work of crusading journalists to lift this veil and force the Church to begin to change its policy from protecting priests to protecting children.

The story was bought to wider attention by the dedicated work of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team – the US’s finest investigative journalist team, a small team of reporters who work for months at one story. Boston is a firmly Catholic city, where the Church still holds a huge influence over the lives of its population. For years, faint suspicions of misconduct from any of the nearly 1,500 priests in the city was hushed up. It takes the arrival of an outsider at the Boston Globe – the paper’s unassuming new Jewish, Floridian editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) – to push the Spotlight team to delve deeper into this story. He finds plenty of support from the team – respected editor “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the passionate Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), dedicated and empathetic Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and increasingly disgusted Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Using tried-and-trusted journalistic methods, passionate investigation, archival work and winning the confidence of survivors, the team piece together a systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church that extends all the way to the Vatican.

Spotlight scooped the Oscar for Best Picture (along with an Oscar for its brilliantly researched screenplay). It feels like a late Oscar partly awarded in memory of All the President’s Men, the film that Spotlight bears the most relation to. But, even more so than Pakula’s film, this is a low-key, reserved but strikingly effective and engrossing film that takes an almost documentary approach to the patient work required to uncover a story (no Deep Throat here) and the grinding shoe leather needed to get there. Fittingly, given the tragic story the team were reporting on, Spotlight is almost totally devoid of histrionics (there is at best one scene where a member of the team gets angry – only to be met with a quiet “are you done?”), instead being a tribute to the professionalism and integrity of journalists powered, but never overwhelmed by, their anger.

McCarthy’s film is refreshingly free of flourish or over-emphasis. It’s brave enough to let the story speak for itself, and trusts the viewer to understand both the emotional weight of abuse and the feelings of those involved without resorting to dramatic speeches or tearful dialogue. The details dominate – searching through archives for old newspaper clippings, waiting for access to court papers, days spent reading over a decade of parish records. Nothing is earned cheaply: every revelation the result of patient leg-work and following where the story leads without agenda or bias.

Agenda is something these journalists are deeply aware of. All of the team were raised in the faith to one degree or another, with strong roots in a community. The team’s leader, Robby, is an esteemed alumnus of a Catholic school one of the guilty priests worked at when he was a child – a revelation that quietly leads him to question both his implicit turning of a blind eye, but also how only a single man’s choices prevented him from becoming a victim. There is discomfort throughout the Boston Globe at the story – assistant Editor Ben Bradlee Jnr (a fine performance from John Slattery), while supportive of the team, is prickly at revelations that the Globe had previously not followed up reports of abuse and is deeply unhappy at the thought of accusing the Church itself.

The power of the Church in communities like this is subtly, but brilliantly, depicted. The film opens in the 70s with a paedophile priest having his actions being quietly hushed up by the police after the intervention of an ADA. Virtually every important person in the city is a Catholic and, like Robby, has been bought up and schooled in the Church. In exterior shots, McCarthy’s camera constantly frames churches on the edges of shot, their spires visible over residential blocks. The scale of the power of this institution – its reach and influence – is constantly demonstrated. It’s a big challenge for the team to take on – and one which they are not even sure their readers are ready to read about.

But McCarthy’s film isn’t crude. It’s made clear that these priests are a minority – 6% – and the anger is not with faith itself, but with the flawed and wrong decisions taken by men (the psychologist the team consults, an ex-priest, makes clear his faith is not shaken by his discoveries, only his trust in the institution). Equal care is given to the victims themselves. Their stories are reported by two characters in the film, each time with a careful lack of over-emphasis and a quiet, yet emotional, honesty. No attempt is made to sensationalise any of this.

And the film also makes clear that everyone is in some way complicit in this. The Globe has failed to report it. The police and government have covered it up. People might whisper about it – or say a particular priest is “dodgy” – but no one has made an effort to rock the boat and find out about it. Instead, victims are paid off, priests are moved to new parishes and everyone tries to carry on as normal. It’s a grimy and quiet conspiracy – miles away from the Grisham-esque danger the film’s trailer suggested – rather a collective failure of moral responsibility.

The film’s low-key approach, professionalism and absorption in how people do their jobs is deeply engrossing. Few things, after all, are as involving as watching highly professional people execute their jobs flawlessly. The performances are superb. Michael Keaton gives possibly the finest performance of his career – surely connected to it being his most restrained – as the team’s leader, whose sense of personal guilt and regret quietly build along with determination. Ruffalo (Oscar-nominated) is fantastic as his passionate, committed colleague (he gets the one shouting scene). McAdams delivers quiet empathy and powerful intelligence. Schreiber confounds expectations as the numbers man who emerges as a dedicated searcher for the truth.

The truth is exposed – but it’s just a tip of the iceberg. The story might be out there, but as the film shows in its coda, the struggle goes on. Crusading maverick lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, very good) can’t celebrate the story’s publication – he’s got two child victims he needs to talk to. Cardinal Law (a fine performance of assured, misguided, certainty from Len Cariou) is promoted to the Vatican. Similar scandals emerge across the world. But the problem doesn’t go away. Just as the story needs time and work, the same qualities are needed to reform the Church.

Spotlight is quiet, engrossing and finely moving and triumphant film-making. It focuses brilliantly on professionalism and dedication producing results and shows that hyperbole and embellishment are not needed for outstanding drama. Told with documentary realism, acted with reserved grace and skill, McCarthy’s film is a call-back to 1970s film-making in the best possible way. A deserved winner and a small triumph.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Atonement (2007)

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are lovers divided in Atonement

Director: Joe Wright
Cast: James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, aged 13), Romola Garai (Briony Tallis, aged 18), Vanessa Redgrave (Older Briony Tallis), Brenda Blethyn (Grace Turner), Juno Temple (Lola Quincey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Paul Marshall), Patrick Kennedy (Leon Tallis), Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis), Peter Wight (Inspector), Daniel Mays (Tommy Nettle), Nonso Anozie (Frank Mace), Gina McKee (Sister Drummond), Michelle Duncan (Fiona)

The past is a foreign country. Sadly, it’s not always the case that they do things differently there. Instead, it can be a land of regrets and mistakes that we can never undo. Events that once seemed so certain, end up twisting our lives and shaping our destinies. A single mistake can mean a lifetime of never being able to atone. These are ideas thrillingly explored in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, one of the finest in his career. The same ideas carry across to this handsomely mounted adaptation, which looks gorgeous but often tries too hard to impress.

In 1935, the Tallis family owns a grand country house. Precocious Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is on the cusp of her teenage years, and believes she understands the world perfectly. A budding writer, her imagination, curiosity and romanticism overflow. But her youthful mis-interpretation of the romantic interactions between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy)ends in a tragically mistaken accusation that destroys Robbie’s life. Five years later, Robbie serves as a private during the British retreat from Dunkirk, Cecilia is a nurse in London and Briony is training to become the same – their lives still shaped by those misunderstandings on that fateful night.

Atonement is a film I’m not sure time has been kind to. Released in 2007 to waves of praise (including Oscar nominations and a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Film), it has the classic combination of literary adaptation, period beauty and big themes. But re-watching it (and it’s the third time for me), the film rewards less and less. Instead, my overwhelming feeling this time was it was a tricksy, show-off film that – despite some strong performances, in particular from McAvoy and Ronan – strained every second to demonstrate to the viewer that Joe Wright belonged with the big boys as a cinema director.

Constantly, the emotional impact of the film is undermined because nearly every scene has an overwhelming feeling of being ”Directed”. Wright pours buckets of cinematic tricksiness and flair into the film – so much so that it overwhelms the story and drowns out the emotion. With repeat viewings this overt flashiness becomes ever more wearing. Scenes very rarely escape having some directorial invention slathered on them. Direct-to-camera addresses where the background fades to back (giving the air of a confessional). Events unspooling (and at one tiresome moment played in reverse) to illustrate time reversing to allow us to see events from a different perspective. Other visual images seem cliched beyond belief: a divine flash of light behind McAvoy while he struggles against death in Dunkirk or, worst of all, Nurse Briony talking about never being able to shed the guilt from her childhood actions while vigorously washing her hands.

Perhaps most grinding of all is the (Oscar winning) score from Dario Marinelli which hammers home the questionably reality of some of the scenes we are watching (or at least the creative filter that Briony is placing over them) by building in excessive typewriter whirs and clicks into its structure. It hammers home one of the film’s key themes: that at least part of what we are watching is based solely (it is revealed) on the recollections of the much older Briony, now a respected novelist. That perhaps, some of the events are her creative interpretation, wishes or even flat-out invention. This is a neat device, but perhaps one that could have worked better with a framing device to place it into context. Instead the reveal feels tacked on at the end – for all that this is the same approach McEwan takes in the novel (with greater effect).

But then, for all the film faithfully follows the structure of the novel (in a respectful adaptation by Christopher Hampton), too often its warmth and feeling get lost in the showy staging. Although part of the tragedy is that Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship is destroyed before they even get a chance to explore it fully, the chemistry between the two of them isn’t quite there and the film doesn’t quite communicate the bond between them being as deep as it would need to be. So much of this in the book was communicated through interior monologue – and the film refuses to take a second away from its flashiness to compensate for this by allowing the relationship between the two to breathe.

Instead Joe Wright prioritises his directorial effects. For all that his over five-minute tracking shot through the beach of Dunkirk is hugely impressive and dynamic – and it really captures a sense of the madness, despair, fear and confusion of the evacuation – this isn’t a film about Dunkirk. It is a film about a relationship – and using the same flair to make us fully buy into, and invest in, this relationship would perhaps have served the film better. It’s striking that, in the long-term, the most impressive scenes are the quieter ones: Benedict Cumberbatch’s chilling house guest’s subtly ambiguous conversation with Briony’s young cousins, or Robbie and Cecilia meeting in a crowded café after years and struggling to find both the words and body language to communicate feelings they themselves barely understand. In the long term, scenes like this are worth a dozen tracking shots – and demonstrate Wright has real talent behind all the showing off.

But the film is striking, looks wonderful – as a mix of both The Go Between and a war film – and in James McAvoy’s performance has a striking lead. McAvoy’s career was transformed by his work here – boyish charm with a slight air of cockiness under his decency, turned by events into fragility, vulnerability, fear and an anger he can’t quite place into words. Knightley gives one of her best performances – although, as always, even at her best she hasn’t the skill and depth of a Kate Winslet. Or a Saoirse Ronan for that matter, who is outstanding as the young Briony – convinced that she is right and that she understands the world perfectly, but as confused and vulnerable as any child thrown into a world that in fact she doesn’t comprehend.

Atonement has its virtues. But too often these are buried underneath showing off, ambition and tricksiness. Sadly this reduces its effect and leaves it not as successful a film as it should be.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Harry Hamlin takes on monsters in Clash of the Titans

Director: Desmond Davis
Cast: Harry Hamlin (Perseus), Judi Bowker (Andromeda), Burgess Meredith (Ammon), Maggie Smith (Thetis), Sian Phillips (Cassiopeia), Claire Bloom (Hera), Ursula Andress (Aphrodite), Laurence Olivier (Zeus), Susan Fleetwood (Athena), Tim Pigott-Smith (Thallo), Jack Gwillim (Poseidon), Neil McCarthy (Calibos), Donald Houston (Acrisius), Flora Robson, Freda Jackson, Anna Manahan (Stygian Witches)

It’s almost impossible not to have a soft spot in your heart for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion magic. The best of Harryhausen – and for me surely that’s his superb Jason and the Argonauts – has a magic that few other films can match. A magic born of awe at the technical skill and patience needed to bring it to the screen and the boundless imagination behind them. For all that they are no more real than the CGI of today, there is an emotional connection you can form with watching something where you know each frame was painstakingly hand-made, that you can’t quite feel for the scope of a computer-born Marvel world. Clash of the Titans was the last hurrah for Harryhausen. It’s far from perfect, and even in 1981 it looked dated and almost a relic from another era – but it still carries enough entertainment value.

We’re back in the mythology of ancient Greece. As a boy, Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and his mother are sent out to sea to drown by his Grandfather King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston), jealous of her love from Perseus’ father, the God Zeus (Laurence Olivier). Zeus orders Argos destroyed by the Titan sea monster the Kraken. Years later Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) of Joppa is due to marry Calibos (Neil McCarthy), son of the Goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith). But Calibos is cursed by Zeus, turned into a monster for his crimes. Andromeda is cursed by Thetis to only marry a man who can answer a riddle (set every night by Calibos). Perseus – using gifts from Zeus – discovers the answer to the riddle, confronts Calibos, cuts off his hand and is set to marry Andromeda.

But when Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) claims her daughter is more beautiful than any of the Gods, Thetis condemns the Andromeda to be consumed by the Kraken, or the city to be destroyed. To stop this, Perseus – with the quiet help of Zeus and his winged horse Pegasus – must travel across Greece to obtain the head of Medusa, who turns all who look upon her to stone.

Well, in case you were in any doubts (and I really struggled to write those last couple of paragraphs), one of Clash of the Titans main faults is that it’s plot is a mess (a combination of several Greek myths into one story) and lacks either a clear narrative thrust or a clear villain. It’s without focus, flabby and has so many sub-clauses in its structure, you either need to concentrate or just switch off and take it on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s summed up by the meaningless title which – for all Flora Robson’s Stygian witch shrieks “a titan against a titan!” mid-way through the film – barely relates to the plot.

The film also suffers from an over-abundance of characters (Gods, Kings, warriors, monsters) many of them only vaguely outlined. But with so much going on (and so much plot to cover in the slight running time) it all pulls focus from our two leads. Harry Hamlin’s Perseus is a dull, uncharismatic figure who it’s hard to get interested in. Judi Bowker fares a little better as Andromeda, but her brief moments of proactivity are only byways before she becomes a damsel in distress, chained to a rock. Neil McCarthy as nominal villain Calibos is undermined by only getting to play the character in close-up (in all other shots he’s all too obviously replaced by a tailed stop-motion monster), and in any case the character is barely given any decent motivation or background.

It doesn’t help these underpowered leads that there are a host of famous actors picking up pay cheques around them. Laurence Olivier made no secret of the fact that a large cheque (and only a week’s shooting time) was what bought him on board as Zeus (although the part is a good fit for his grandeur). Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress signed up for similar reasons. Maggie Smith (who was married to the screenwriter) seemingly did the film as a well-paid favour. Burgess Meredith repackages his role from Rocky as a poet turned advisor to Perseus. I will say Tim Pigott-Smith does a decent turn as the head of Joppa’s royal guard. But these are paper-thin characters, given what life they have by the actors rather than the script.

But Clash of the Titans is all about those Harryhausen set-pieces, with everything else just over-complicated filler to get us from place-to-place. Desmond Davis’ uninspired and flat direction doesn’t help, with the action too often presented in basic medium shot and frequently over-lit – a lighting set-up that doesn’t help to make the effects look particularly convincing. The film feels confusingly pitched, part a kids film, part an appeal to nostalgic adults. Neither seems to particularly work, and the film ends up looking rather uninspired.

This was the last hurrah for this sort of stop-motion. Star Wars had reset the table completely for adventure films like this. Clash of the Titans feels like a feeble attempt to address this challenge – right down to the irritating robotic owl Bubo, a clear rip-off of R2-D2 right down to his bouncing movement and dialogue of beeps. The film goes for making things as big as possible – the gigantic kraken, the huge scorpions – but everything in it looks a little tired.

Davis’ uninspired direction and the film’s flatness doesn’t help – or its general air of fusty, dusty oldness. If Jason and the Argonauts has all the charge and energy of a young man’s film (from its sharp direction, pacey plot, neatly drawn characters and Herrmann’s score), this really feels like a middle-aged Dad trying to be hip. The Kraken’s destruction of Argos seems to consist of little more than a few toppling pillars. The beast is slow, cumbersome and takes forever to do anything. An extended sequence where our heroes fight a two-headed dog is both dull and laughable. The only classic piece of stop-motion here is Medusa. Surely no coincidence that this is the most atmospherically shot sequence, with lighting that helps to hide the joins between stop-motion and reality in a way the rest of the film ruthlessly exposes.

Clash of the Titans is a film you can feel a nostalgia for – but really it’s actually rather naff. It’s badly plotted – surely the story could have been told in a cleaner way than this confused mess. Too many actors either phone it in, or fail to deliver the charisma needed (Todd Armstrong in Jason is no Olivier, but at least he had a matinee idol robustness Hamlin lacks). It’s limply directed. Worst of all, too much of the stop-motion looks a little silly – the film failing to cover up the cracks and too frequently exposing the joins rather than disguising them. Show this one to someone first, and you’ll never get them back to watch the best of Harryhausen. While I always enjoy it - for nostalgia if nothing else - its a cult classic, but no classic.