The only difference between Jack Reacher and Ethan Hawke is that the latter dresses better and drives cooler cars. But they both present intriguing questions of post-modern art appreciation. Is Tom Cruise cleverly suggesting that these two killing machines are actually automatons, like Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (and hence offering a devilishly cunning comment on the nature of government executions) or is Tom Cruise himself an automaton, controlled by an algorithm that hasn’t as yet managed to finesse the finer points of human-like expression?

A human acting as an automaton, or an automaton acting as a human. Fascinating.

What other reason could there possibly be for so many talented people (director Ed Zwick; writers Richard Wenk of The Magnificent Seven and Marshall Herskovitz of The Last Samurai etc) coming together to produce what is (no question about it) on the surface, such staggering hokum.

The movie…let’s call it a screened and recorded version of performance art, centres around Jack’s attempt to date a voice he’s fallen in love with. (There’s obviously a clue here: he or it, isn’t attempting to date a real human, merely a disembodied voice that demonstrates human empathy).

Anyway the owner of the voice is the stunning (aren’t they all?) Major Turner (Cobie Smulders), who’s just been arrested. She just knows too much (A cynical comment by director Zwick on the future threat of android cognition?) and must be killed. Reacher wanted to date her. Baddies simply want to take her out.

Android Jack (who himself is being framed for fathering an offspring, or replicant, as I think they’re called) knows she’s innocent. This knowledge (Reacher is programmed to defend the innocent) triggers its lean, mean fighting machine neurons; and from that point on, it’s all running, jumping, shooting and kicking. Once Jack’s neurons have been activated, there’s no turning them off until all perceived threat has been terminated.


Elon Musk, the billionaire financier behind Space X has suggested, along with quite a distinguished group of physicists, that perhaps we’re all really living in a Matrix type reality. We’re not really here…all part of a vast imagined consciousness. Perhaps Jack Ryan: Never Go Back, so close to Warcraft or one of those hyper-real video games, is just a sly way of helping us realize and get used to the idea that what passes for real, call that “human”, is simply a real-esque facsimile of what we imagine real to really be.
It’s damnably clever


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Dir: Edward Zwick (“Defiance” “Blood Diamond”) . With Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”) , Danika Yarosh. Screenplay: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz from the book(s) by Lee Child

I, DANIEL BLAKE***** Outstanding. Movie of the Year


This is a blistering, emotionally draining, mercilessly honest look at a side of Britain – ever growing- that remains well out of sight from the bubble of wealth and class that the country likes to present to the world. This is the Britain that the government either demonizes or pretends not to exist: a distressing world where a maze of Kafka-esque processes, driven by a pernicious ideology bent on emasculating social services, have been designed to intimidate, dehumanize and frustrate people out of the system (for which various private companies are well rewarded)

The movie centers around the twin stories of the eponymous Daniel Blake (Dave Jones)- a decent, hardworking widower, who has been forced into seeking social assistance due to a heart attack which, on doctor’s orders, prevents him from working –  and, Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two who’s been kicked out of her flat in London and forcibly rehoused in Newcastle, a place where she knows no one and has no work.

The movie follows the downward spiral of these two as they try to find their way in a system deliberately stacked against them. Blake, computer illiterate in a world that only allows digital communication, is deemed to be well enough to work by one program,  despite the professional opinions of his doctors. This as a result forces him into seeking out a job by another government program (Jobseeker’s Allowance). Should he get a job, which he does, he cannot accept it, because he’s not well enough to work. Its not just “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. You’re simply damned. And as he bounces between one department and another, waiting in line or hanging on the line (for hours) and trying to make sense of pages of asinine questions… to await the judgment of a faceless Decision Maker, he receives neither assistance nor money. And the bills mount.

Katie too, her children shivering in a cold flat, their shoes falling apart and forced to rely on Food Banks, grows, like Blake, increasingly desperate. Desperate enough and dehumanized enough to do just about anything.
This is the everyday story of tens of thousands of Britons, essentially shunned by a vicious government.
The brilliance of the movie lies in Ken Loach’s (Jimmy’s Hall, The Wind That Shakes The Barley) low-keyed, understated naturalism (the reality needs no gloss) and writer Paul Laverty’s tremendous ear for the cadences of ‘real world’ dialogue. We’re never in the presence of stock characters, there to ‘represent’ a point or make a political statement. Loach’s characters – effortlessly brought to life by Dave Jones and Hayley Squires – are living breathing people; and the tenderness…the emotional honesty of their relationships (even that of some of the faceless bureaucrats) are what contribute toward making this such a deeply affecting, such a profoundly humane, but angrily revolutionary film.
For in the end, as the lights come up, once the trembling sob in the heart is brought under some semblance of control, there is only one emotion left: anger. Howling, raging, pick up a brick and throw it anger. And if Daniel Blake’s cry of anger is his shout to defy the system’s perniciousness, to proclaim his humanity: he’s not a client or a number or a statistic or a burden on the state; he as a person, an “I”. Then our cry at what’s going on in this country must join that of Kurtz in the Congo: ‘the horror, the horror”

And the disaster of Brexit hasn’t hit as yet!


I, Daniel Blake. Dir: Ken Loach. Writer: Paul Laverty (Jimmy’s Hall). With Dave Jones, Hayley Squires. Production Designers: Fergus Clegg (Jimmy’s Hall) and Linda Wilson


THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN**** On the right track


PAULA HAWKINS’S BLOCKBUSTER has been turned into a sharp and cleverly realized psychological thriller that, despite the silly carping of ‘purists’, makes the shift from England to the suburbs of New York with nary a hiccup (OK, truth be told, the English trains generally are far more sluggish and veer closer to houses than the New York ones, which whoosh along…). Emily Blunt (“Sicario”, “Edge of Tomorrow”) is Rachel, a seeming basket case. She’s a serially drunk alcoholic whose daily rides into the city passes by the home of an attractive young couple, Megan (Haley Bennett from “The Magnificent Seven”) and Scott (Luke Evans of “The Hobbit” and “Fast and Furious”). As she feasts, voyeur-like upon their glowing good looks, she spins their lives into a fantasy of perfection. And then one day, she observes Megan kissing another man.
And then the next day, the woman is gone. Dead and gone.
Gone, girl!
The trick with a thriller is to keep the audience so spellbound looking in one direction that it’s a genuine surprise when the killer emerges from the other. And the one direction we’re focused in on is that of Rachel: her drunk binges, her blackouts, her lies to a friend whose hospitality she’s abusing, her obsessiveness with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) and his attractive wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and the fabricated story she weaves for the young couple. Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and Emily Blunt coax the audience to feel both revulsion and fascination for Rachel. And for all her red-nosed inebriation, Blunt gives us a character that’s just about empathetic enough for us to root for… and hope she isn’t the killer.
The compelling theme that knits the story together probes the gulf between what you see and what’s real; what you think you know (the characters and the audience) and what’s the truth. Simply put, things ain’t as they seem. And the way Taylor lays out his story for us – told through the subjective eyes of his principle female characters- is like a nicely swaying pendulum: we keep veering between what the character (and the audience) sees… and what the reality might be.
What do you trust? What you see or where the evidence points toward? And whom do you trust? A drunk, obsessed, potentially violent woman, or her charming loving ex-husband who’s scared of her? A muscled, controlling abusive lover or his hard done by, guilt-racked partner? And for Rachel herself, which side of her can she herself trust? The sad, sniveling alcoholic or the potentially violent alcohol-amnesiac?
The detective, whodunnit side of the story, is the movie’s weakest point, with gaping loopholes and, by CSI standards, a generally shoddy piece of investigative work. But this weakness fortunately does not intrude into the tightening drama of the tale.
With its echoes of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the frightening mind control mystery of George Cukor’s “Gaslight”, deliciously conjured up by Danny Elfman’s (“Spider-Man” “Before I Wake”) haunting score, there’s more than an affectionate homage to 50’s noir at play here. “The Girl On The Train” is like an Alice in Wonderland summons, leading you down, down, down into its own broken world.

Megan (HALEY BENNETT) in DreamWorks Pictures’ "The Girl on the Train," from director Tate Taylor and producer Marc Platt. In the thriller, Rachel (Emily Blunt), who is devastated by her recent divorce, spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until one morning she sees something shocking happen there and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds.

Blunt is tremendous as the befuddled and potentially dangerous Rachel. She nicely evokes her character’s struggle as she tries to figure out not only what happened, but how best to rise up above her own debilitating alcoholism. The rest of the -female- cast give her strong support: Haley Bennett’s Megan is both a weak, defenseless victim and ruthless vamp; and Rebecca Ferguson’s (“Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation”, “The White Queen”) Ann is the thoroughly sexy snooty, self confident woman who has to force her inner killer from her to be able to deal with things.


All these girls: the one on the train…the Gone one…the one with the Dragon Tattoo. This is clearly either the new movie woman zeitgeist or the sum of all men’s fears: woman as smart, seductive and also lethal
(And of note, the crew on the movie features an unusually high percentage of women: the writer, art director, cinematographer, two of the producers, set decorator, the two costume designers, production manager etc. Way to go)
“The Girl on The Train”. Dir: Tate Taylor. With: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney. Cinematograaphy: Charlotte Christensen (“Far From the Madding Crowd”). Composer: Danny Elfman. Screenplay: Erin Wilson (“Vinyl”) and Paula Hawkins



This is a well made, genial enough buddy movie with two engagingly watchable lead actors. Sam Neil is a curmudgeonly Hec, the reluctant father figure to a young boy – Ricky (Julian Dennison)- who has found  himself in Hec’s care. The story essentially pits these two protagonists against an unfeeling and repressive state system (epitomized by Bella, a Miss Trunchbull-esque Rima Te Wiata) intent on bringing them to heel. Ricky is an orphan branded as unruly and dangerous (“he kicks…and breaks things”), who’s shunted around from place to place in search of a home. But no sooner than he begins to fit in with Hec and Paula (Rachel House) his new foster parents than things go awry. He and Hec are forced together; and together they choose the freedom of the open road (or really, as this is New Zealand, the freedom of the open forests) where they bond as they dodge and weave the faceless forces of the state.

But this is no dark tale. It’s a comedy.

Ricky and Hec have cute exchanges; Ricky (a cute fat kid) dances jokily, they encounter and foil various – mean, ornery- hunters, they endure narrow escapes, the awful grimaces and curses of Bella are balanced by her sweet-obsessed dumb colleague (Oscar Kightley), the media are charmed by the antics of the two fugitives and in the end, a good time was had by all.


Based on the book of the same name (by Barry Crump) Hunt For The Wilderpeople has a huge claim to fame: it’s the highest grossing New Zealand movie ever (the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series are excluded, having been American funded). Director Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords) has given us a movie that, in its affectless racial integration feels genuine and ‘innocent’. There’s not a shard of pretentiousness or faux sentimentality in the movie. And many of the patrons in the cinema laughed uproariously. Often. (Stoned?). So there’s no doubt that this pleasant crowd-pleaser story has hit a chord.

But the response to comedy tends to be very subjective. Though I admire the strong production and storytelling skills on display here, and though it did have its moments (in particular a wild man covered in bush: a bush man) I kept hoping I’d find it funnier. I was clearly missing out on the fun. Perhaps it’s this: if you coo over cute videos of cats and dogs on social media, this movie may be the one for you. But if such (cloying) cuteness leaves you unmoved…if you need more of a shot of biting, adult satire laced with sarcasm, irony and a -jaundiced- take on the human condition, perhaps you should stick to the US Presidential debates or the knockabout fights in UKIP. You might just get more of a laugh.


Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Dir: Taika Waititi (and screenplay). With Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Tr Wiata, Rachel House. Cinematographer: Lachlan Milne


el PORTIL. A brief holiday in Spain


El Portil

Go West from Seville, a scant 50km from Portugal and you’ll find, wedged up against an endless stretch of a flat sunny beach, a whisper of a town: el Portil. It’s one of the many conurbations dotted along the long bank where the Rio Piedras, barely separated from it by a thin finger of sand, merges into the Bay of Cadiz. The town, like its twins, Nuevo Portil, el Rompido , Isla Christina and dozens more, is not much more than a sprawl of tourist apartments, townhouses and villas bracketed by a golf course at one end and a trace of a town centre at the other.

There are a few restaurants, a few bars, a few farmacias and a few small supermarkets. When we were there, at the end of September, a few weeks after the season had ended, there were hardly any people. Where do all the restaurant waiters, the chefs, the bartenders, the sellers of trinkets go when the season dies and all the (mainly Spanish) visitors have migrated back to homes and jobs and cares? To some, this end of season silence would be dreary. Where’s the buzz, the bronzed beach-bound bodies (there were still a few casually naked in Fashion Beach), the clatter of tapas in crowded bars? To us, despite the inconvenience of closed restaurants and the often bizarre opening times of supermarkets (Carrefour closed from 2:30-5:30 on a Friday???), the quiet beaches and traffic free roads slumbering under perfect blue skies without a trace of rain, was a treat.

For buzz, further West there’s el Rompido. This is also a mainly tourist town, but there, the draw is it’s large, bustling, marina and its small fishing fleet. There are lighthouses; there’s even a church. Whereas el Portil’s few restaurants are all well away from the water; in el Rompido, they all seem to cling to the beach like barnacles. The one we ate in was, like most of them, crowded, lively, jolly and child-friendly. The cuisine was also tasty but fairly rudimentary. Maybe it’s the season…but I think I can find better Spanish fare in Brixton.

The big town in the region is Huelva, about 15km away.

Ah, history at last! The origins of this town go back some three thousand years to the Phoenicians. This rich historical vein, along with the Moorish charm you’ll find in the nearby cities of Seville and Cadiz is not immediately apparent, the city having been flattened by an earthquake about two hundred and seventy five years ago. So from the outskirts, it’s a pretty boring looking place: an indifferent lurch of drab industrial buildings. But the charm is still there. The place was once a company town: the main employer was the dread Rio Tinto, the (then) English mining company. The only trace of this element of this past is the Muelle: a long, curving two tiered wooden rail track, now converted into a pleasant boardwalk; it juts out into the wide mouth of the Odiel river, once the main artery of ore-gorged vessels. Now it seems to come from nowhere, and goes nowhere…hopefully not a symbol of the city’s future. The Muelle runs parallel to a long, elegant river walkway that seems to frame an entire side of the place. Here, bars, coffee shops and the gaiety of school outings add a specialness you won’t find in the architecture

It is in the centre of town, the Plaza de las Monjas, where you’ll find the stronger traces of its Moorish past and where stands an imperious statue of Columbus, the area’s claim to fame. (Just don’t be tempted by its underground car parks, designed I think for pack animals and definitely not for large Renaults, whose wing mirrors do stick out so inconveniently)


It was near here, just a few kilometers away (in Palos de la Frontera) that Columbus, with his discoverer’s zeal, persuaded Queen Isabella’s confessor Antonio de Marchena to lobby on his behalf. He succeeded with the Spaniards where he’d failed with the Portuguese: to get funding for his wild-eyed voyages. The Spaniards weren’t happy that their smaller neighbour to the West was making all the breakthroughs: first Henry the Navigator had pretty much invented the caravel (finally a boat whose sails allowed you to tack against the wind); then Vasco da Gama and Bartholomew Diaz were making all the exploratory headway. To los Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, Don Crístobal Colón must have seen like a blessing. And It was here in Palos that he built his ships and from here he sailed. In nearby la Rábida, there’s a nicely done reconstruction of the three caravels (so surprisingly tiny) in which he and his hundred sailors crossed the Atlantic and changed history.



So now we’re back to the bay of Cadiz. Back to August 3, 1492 when the Nina, the Pinta  and the Santa Maria sallied forth to usher in two hundred years of Spanish supremacy…none of which is apparent here in sleepy el Portil.

Only, perhaps,  the memories of greatness linger


DEEPWATER HORIZON****One to Gush About


THE DECISION BY director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Hancock) to recreate an 85% scale facsimile of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig (it took eighty five welders eight months to weld it all together) was a brilliant one. There’s an authenticity and a frightening immediacy to the movie that’s a high-water mark of cinema craftsmanship (and one of the best disaster movies ever)

This is of course the movie version of the tragic blow out in the Gulf of Mexico… that resulted in a loss of eleven lives, a spillage of 3 million barrels of oil in the gulf and a £62B bill for BP. “Beyond Petroleum” indeed.

The movie centres on – real life – Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the popular head maintenance engineer on the rig… and an ideal role for blue-collar everyman, Wahlberg. Mike, like his boss Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) and various other experienced rig crewmen have an uneasy feeling about things from the get-go. Core safety procedures are being bypassed by BP, in the person of a Mr. Vidrine (a sleazy scheming John Malkovich), intent on saving time and money; and indifferent to the hazards their shortcuts pose. Realistically, Mike is no rebel. He’s worried about the risks being taken, but the murky chain of command allows pretty much everyone an escape valve (no-one was prosecuted for the disaster). Mike simply keeps his head down, mutters his concerns and gets on with his job.

Though the happy-happy scenes of him and wife (Kate Hudson…Kurt’s real-life daughter) are corny and unreal, by and large, the pre-disaster drama is skillfully handled. Writers Matthew Carnahan (World War Z) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) weave the macho banter of the rig crew and the technical discussions about bore pressures and what have you with what seems to be a real ear for the balance between the personal and the professional. Scenes of massive pipes being connected and multiple underwater shots of the three miles of pipe descending into the murky depths of the gulf deliver both veracity and a feeling of dread. It’s old fashioned movie craft that when you introduce a gun in the first scene, somebody’s going to get shot in the second or third. So too, the initial almost fetishised images of the rig (which is actually a vessel) as a massive impregnable steel erection (pun intended) simply foreshadow its fragility once things go awry.

Berg’s version of the story omits all those troubling details about Halliburton’ incompetence and simplifies things to a binary storyline: good, responsible Americans who manage the Transoceanic-owned rig have their better judgments countermanded by the henchmen of the irresponsible Brits (BP: the rig’s Client) ever ready to put profit over process.

This simplification was probably less about chest thumping jingoism and more about centering the drama on the fight to survive and less on the politics of the industry. And what a fight to survive it is. For in the end, the tug o war between Transoceanic and BP is small potatoes compared with the almost Biblical vengeance unleashed when built-up pressures explode in an Armageddon of mud, explosions, thundering noise, flying projectiles and falling cranes. The once so cocky humans now running, dodging and scampering for their lives is heart-stopping movie making.
You can almost feel the heat.

But it’s not just Berg’s terrific visual direction that delivers the punch, it’s Harry Cohen’s (The Hateful Eight) superb sound design – of the rig’s mechanical clanking; the otherworldly sounds of the deep water; the hisses of the fire etc. – that helps make it all so tangibly and nerve-tinglingly real.

Berg also allows us to feel for Wahlberg’s character, who is both (the expected) fearless hero and, at the end of it all, a very ‘unheroic’ quivering mess. Mark Wahlberg has never been an actor capable of exuding a lot of emotional nuance, but here, near the end, his anguish is almost touching; unexpected in such a testosterone-fuelled movie.

To Berg, the morale to this story is more to do with the necessity to follow procedures at all times even at the expense of profit. But to me, there’s a deeper question we must ponder: deep water drilling, fracking, nuclear power, genetically modified agriculture…what could possible go wrong?


Deepwater Horizon: Dir: Peter Berg. With: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson. Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak (“The Maze Runner”). Editors: Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr.


THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN** Seven, Yes. Magnificent, No


ANTOINE FUQUA (Southpaw, The Equalizer, Training Day) HAS managed to transform the joyful excitement of The Magnificent Seven into a dull, leaden, sourpuss movie. Unlike the exciting original, with its glittering cast of characters (Yul Brynner going toe to toe with Steve McQueen. Imagine! And backing them up, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach and James Coburn among others) Fuqua’s … Magnificent Seven offers up a mainly charm-free bunch of heroes that go through the motions, energized only by Fuqua’s payroll and by no discernible motivation for their selflessness. Only Chris Platt manages to add much needed swagger and roguish dynamism into this shoot ‘em up by numbers (and there are thousands of them) gang.

The (well-known) story centres around the struggle of a small town, bent under the heel of a land-grabbing, money hungry baron, that appeals to a stranger for help. These simple townsfolk are cowed by the cartoonishly evil Bartholomew Brogue (Peter Sarsgaard, almost twirling his moustachioes in full pantomime villain style), whose henchmen kill at will. One person they kill is the husband of feisty homesteader Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, who also appeared with Denzel Washington in Fuqua’s last outing, “The Equalizer”). Her search for help leads her to Chisolm, a fast-shooting traveling lawman (A bored looking Denzel Washington whose career seems to be trapped in B movie hell). In the best line of the movie, she says she’s seeking righteousness, “…but revenge will do”

Chisolm rounds up his crew of action heroes (motivated by the money? Some existential need to do the right thing? Perhaps some deep-seated grudge against Brogue? His moustachioes perhaps? Who knows?) And then, having set a few traps, the action begins. It finally ends after, it seems, most of the villains on the Eastern seaboard have been blown up, axed, stabbed or shot.

Fuqua, seeking some sort of gravitas opts for ‘meaning’ in place of either verisimilitude or fun. The magnificent seven we meet are a typical group of nineteenth century Cowboys: a perfectly harmonious mix of Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche (played by Alaskan Martin Sensmeier) Chinese (played by Korean Byung-hun-Lee) and White gunslingers (including Fuqua regular and absolutely lost in a fog of despair, Ethan Hawke) lead by a Black man. Unlike the original, where the round-up introduced us (with great wit and charm) to the characters…as people; here we’re introduced to the characters as symbols of American history: the Mexican and the Indian representing, like Emma Cullen and her lot, people whose land was stolen by a more powerful force. The Chinese man, his back crisis-crossed with knives and swords, like a cowpoke Sheera, is, like Chisolm, a part of the unvalued working man who won the West…now being leveled by the democracy of the gun.

The all round bad robber baron is exploitative capitalism, ever greedily seeking to rip off the country, which has finally found the leadership to take back what’s rightfully theirs under the leadership of an incorruptible Black Man (Obama?)
There’s not a lot of ambiguity at play here

Westerns have always been parables for grand ideas…and in the right hands, like all good movies, they’ve operated on multiple levels: the credibly human and the insightfully metaphorical; all driven by some powerful governing idea. Fuqua’s one level The Magnificent Seven is all dehumanized metaphor without insight, energized by an idea of leaden triteness. And what a drag that is.

It’s not been a great year for reboots: Ghostbusters and Jason Bourne were both tiresome copies, shorn of the original magic. Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven” joins the list. The lightness and sparkle of the John Sturges’ original have gone AWOL. Even Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music has been relegated to the credits at the end; a mere afterthought and a reminder of all that we’ve missed


The Magnificent Seven. Dir: Antoine Fuqua. With: denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun-Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett. Screenplay: Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective episodes). Composer: Simon Franglen and James Horner (Southpaw)