Never one to turn down an opportunity for a new experience, I found myself at the ballet earlier this week.  To clarify “new experience”, my knowledge of ballet doesn’t extend beyond The Red Shoes, Black Swan and Billy Elliot.  It is no surprise that my awareness comes from the movies, but it is also very appropriate as my introduction to the art form was Swan Lake, the background to the movie Black Swan.  The venue was Birmingham’s fantastic Hippodrome, the home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet since 1990.  For those who know even less than me here is the synopsis provided by the Birmingham Royal Ballet:

Ballet’s greatest love story returns in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s lavish production. This romantic fable of ill-fated passion, powerfully illuminated by Tchaikovsky’s legendary score, has bewitched audiences for generations.

By a moonlit lake, a grieving prince witnesses the transformation of a swan into a beautiful princess. Compelled by an evil spell to spend her days in the form of a bird, she can only be saved by the power of love.

Filled with exquisite ensembles, lyrical pas de deux and bravura solos, this Swan Lake is atmospheric, romantic and beautiful – an unforgettable experience.Birmingham-Royal-Ballet-shows-Swan-Lake (1)

The story is split into four acts:


The first was possibly the weakest and felt a little repetitive.  Things got going in act two with the introduction of  Odette, Von Rothbart (the evil sorcerer, who has enchanted Odette) and the swans.  It came as a surprise how long it took to introduce the main character (remember my knowledge costumes and what appears to be hugely technical and complicated dancing and the introduction of Odile (The Black Swan).  The final act starts with the shows standout moment.  For a performance that is all about dancing, the breathtaking moment came from total lack of movement.  The curtain rises on the lakeside we saw in act two.  The stage is filled with dry ice smoke like an 80’s disco (or a scene from Alien).  As the mist pours out over the edge of the stage into the stalls and orchestra pit it reveals a stage filled with the swan-maidens.  The whole performance lasted around three hours including two intermissions, the time flew by.Birmingham-Royal-Ballet-shows-Swan-Lake

You may have picked up from my tone that I enjoyed it, the surprising thing is just how much I enjoyed it.  I have never had any interest in dance or dancing but found the whole spectacle enchanting and enthralling.  I know nothing about technique or the positions and movements associated with ballet but anyone with an interest in art can appreciate aesthetics and form, but like a football match you know when someone has done something special or spectacular.

If you want to know how good the lead dancers were look for a review from someone who knows what they are talking about.  Odette/Odile was performed by Céline Gittens and Prince Singleton by Tyrone Singleton.  I looked them up after the show, they are very highly regarded.  Both are mixed-race, a big deal was made of this when they first took these roles three years ago “it will be the first time the ballerina role has been taken by a black dancer in the UK”.  Although this was portrayed as a positive moment for ballet, it is a shame that it is something was even worth mentioning.  The one thing I did go in knowing a little about is the music.  I have a few albums (yes real albums on vinyl) of ballet music.  It is the one form of classical music that I enjoy.   I am pleased to report that the music performed by The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was fantastic and I would have happily listened to it even if I hadn’t enjoyed the visual performance.rs-swan-lake-celine-gittens-and-tyrone-singleton-sorrow_1000

I am not about to sign up for a season ticket and declare myself as ballet lover, but may well go again in future.  For those interested Swan Lake is on for another few days in Birmingham before going on tour.  

The busiest month of the year so far with a huge variety of films ranging from the disposable to a  couple of instant classics.

Hitman: Agent 47: Good action but a pointless remake that fails to live up to the low bar set by the first movie in this video game based series.Hitman Rupert Friend

We Are Your Friends: A story about friendship and loyalty.  Zac Efron and Wes Bentley impress as an up and coming DJ and a jaded superstar respectively.  At its best when they are making music.We Are Your Friends

Straight Outta Compton: Story of pioneers of Gangsta Rap NWA.  The story is by the numbers and very sympathetic towards its characters but is hugely entertaining and enjoyable.Straight Outta Compton

The Transporter Refuelled: Pointless remake of a franchise that has already been stretched too thin.the transporter Ed Skreintake

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: A high-school student and armature filmmakers is forced by his mother to befriend a girl diagnosed with leukaemia. The pair become friends for real and result in a film that manages to funny at the same time as being heartfelt and touching.  The film reference will amuse movie fans and go over the heads of others.Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

American Ultra: A stoner comedy crossed with a spy/hitman thriller.  Some great scenes but not always as funny as it should be.  Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are great together as they were in Adventureland.American Ultra

Ricki And The Flash: A ageing singer who abandoned her family years before chasing dreams of becoming a rock star returns home at a time of crisis. You know you are in safe hands with a film directed by Jonathan Demme with a script by Diablo Cody.  Meryl Streep is fantastic, the characters are good but the film feels a little episodic.Ricki And The Flash

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials:  Follow up to the Maze Runner.  It doesn’t work as a standalone film as it lacks a begging and an end.  The action scenes are good, as are the young cast but the film lacks the intrigue and the great concept of the first film.  There are clearly twists and turns to come in the plot in the final film The Death Cure due out in 2017.Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

Legend: Tom Hardy is brilliant in a duel role as both the Kray twins.  Emily Browning tries hard in an underdeveloped part, the rest of the characters are thinly written and forgettable.  The film captures the look and the vibe of 60’s London but is glossy and lacks any real depth.  It is however well worth watching for Hardy.legend

Everest: Based on the true story of an ill-fated attempt to climb the worlds tallest mountain in 1996.  The large cast are all good but the star of the film is the photography that is breathtaking on Imax.  If you don’t already know the story go in with as little knowledge as possible.Everest

The Visit: A pair of young siblings spend the week with their grandparents who they have not previously met.  The reveal won’t come as any surprise but the film is fun along the way.  Of the ones I have seen it is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie for a decade.The Visit

A Walk in the Woods: Adaptation of Bill Bryson’s book of the same name about his attempt to walk the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail.  Robert Redford and Nick Nolte have great chemistry.  The film has some funny moments but in a year that gave us Wild it feels a little flimsy in comparison.


Sicario: Emily Blunt plays an idealistic and naïve FBI agent who gets drawn into a shady joint task force in the war on drugs.  Blunt and her co stars Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are all fantastic.  Roger Deakins photography is a spectacular as you would expect and Denis Villeneuve’s direction is sublime.  It doesn’t have anything new to say, but equally it doesn’t tell the audience what to think.sicario

The Martian: Matt Damon plays an astronaut who has to find a way to survive when is left for dead on Mars.  Held together by a great turn from Damon but kept tripping along by director Ridley Scott who has crafted a surprisingly funny and easy going movie.  Scott’s best film since the underrated Kingdom of Heaven a decade ago.The Martian

Ultimately there was no competition, the movie of the month is: sicariSicario character Posters


“The program for this evening is not new, You’ve seen this entertainment through and through” I can’t resist, a good quote from The Doors, but is feels strangle fitting. Sicario feels very familiar as if you already know the beat if not the words. Don’t perceive this to be a problem, it helps the viewer slip easily into a world we don’t and will hopefully never know. The pointy end of the war on drugs.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic and possibly naïve FBI agent. When her job leading a hostage recovery team overlaps with the war on drugs she is enlisted into a joint task force run by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).  Matt claims to work for the Department of Defence but is clearly CIA, he works with Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) whose role and origin is shady to say the least.sicario

When you start a review saying how good a film looks it usually means the film itself was pretty but dull. This is far from the case with Sicario, Roger Deakins brings the same beauty to his photography that he did with Skyfall. The images are often disturbing, but boy do they look good through Deakins lenses. But all like the best cinematography it isn’t just about pretty pictures, it is how the more mundane shots are lit and framed to find the required mood. Back to the film itself.sicario emily blunt

There is a constant sense of dread, melancholy and despair that underlines the film similar to that experienced in No Country for Old Men (2007) and director Denis Villeneuve’s earlier film Prisoners (2013). This we see through Blunt’s character who is both the heart and the moral compass of the film. We as viewers are kept as much in the dark as she is as to the agenda and mandate of the task force.  Like her we are also given the opportunity to make our own mind up of the right and wrong of the situation.  While she is the heart and soul of the piece, Matt is ringmaster and Alejandro a spectre hanging over proceedings.


The film is full of amazing dialogue that tells us all we need to know with without ever becoming Basil Exposition. One quote that frames the film comes when Kate asks Alejandro for an explanation of what is going on, his response: “You ask how the watch is made. Keep your eye on the time.” Another of his quotes is a little more arch, it is directed at Kate but is also an explanation of the film: “Nothing will make sense to your American ears. You will doubt what we do. But, in the end, it will make sense.” There are two more memorable quotes, one from Matt about why they do what they do, the other from Alejandro (again) about justice. I won’t publish them as they could stray into plot spoilers, least to say, they like the actions of the characters firmly nail their colours to the mast. The film doesn’t preach the right or wrong of the situation, it puts its characters in a scenario and lets the audience decide. This is far more intelligent film-making than we normally get from mainstream cinema.sicario Josh Brolin

Anyone who has seen The Wolfman may be understandably concerned by a Blunt / Del Toro reunion, don’t worry, they are both perfectly cast and brilliant as is Brolin. All the characters come across as real people not as sketches whose personality doesn’t stretch beyond the scenario they are in. Emily Blunt continues to show her versatility having done everything from costume drama to sci-fi action via comedy.  A special mention must be made for Daniel Kaluuya as Reggie, Blunts FBI partner, he is totally natural and believable in the role, offering a lighter and sometimes amusing angle without ever distracting from the film. He is a funny guy, not the comic relief dropped into a movie to lighten the tone. I could imagine Jessica Chastain in the Blunt role, other than that I can’t think of anyone else who could have filled the shoes (of flip-flops) of the three leads. The same is true of director, Denis Villeneuve, I can think of many top directors that could have done good job but they are sure to have distracted us with unnecessary flourishes. Interestingly the film appears to be based on an original story (early contender for best original Oscar nomination) by actor and first time writer Taylor Sheridan. It is unclear how much the taut storytelling is down to the director and how much the writer, whoever is responsible did a magnificent job.sicario-banner

The film is honest and brutal, even brutally honest, but still manages to revel in its moral ambiguity and uncertainty.  This is where a review drops in the but…. However, there is no but, I really have nothing negative to say about the film. It may disappoint a few people as it has been sold as more of an action movie than it is, but that is the fault of the distributors not the film or its makers. It is a solid film that doesn’t put a foot wrong. I don’t think it has the originality or is showy enough to win best picture or director at the Oscars, but it certainly good enough for a nomination or seven.


With 99% 0f the population killed by solar flares that have left the earth as an irradiated desert.  The survivors live in cities built by robots.  Robots who are also used as servants for the rich.  The robots have a built in safety feature, they have two unalterable protocols: they cannot harm any form of life, and they may not modify any robot including themselves.  When a cop (Dylan McDermott) shoots a robot that he observes repairing itself insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) gets embroiled.


Existing somewhere between Blade Runner (1982) and I, Robot (2004) but leaning more towards Isaac Asimov than Philip K. Dick.  As you would expect from a film about the evolution of robots there is a strong subtext about what it is to be human.  This is magnified by the apocalyptic setting with humanity on the edge.  The film is underlined with a sense of melancholia reminiscent of Richard Stanley’s B movie masterpiece Hardware (1990).

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen

The use of over bleached photography is getting a little old but still looks good.  Known for his flamboyance, Antonio Banderas gives a perfectly low key performance he is well supported by stalwarts Dylan McDermott, Melanie Griffith, Robert Forster and Tim McInnerny as well as rising star Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.

Autómata Melanie Griffith

The story of robots evolving is juxtaposed with the story of Jacq Vaucan’s pregnant wife.  This prospective is what gives the film the humanity, the soul that elevates it.  The low-key direction won’t impress those looking for an action adventure but those who go in expecting something more thoughtful will be better served.

To be honest the title is misleading this isn’t about a fight between Frank Martin and Agent 47.  But if you are here for that, the answer is simple, Frank Martin would kick the Hitman’s ass if he was played by Jason Statham, and if he isn’t played by The Stath, who cares!  The real story is why have these two franchises being rebooted?  Although perfectly functional and relatively entertaining B action movies, they are totally pointless.  The biggest problem is the total lack of originality.  Given the limitations of the premise the films would never have been totally original, but they could at least have introduced new characters, a different transporter with his own code and a different agent with his own angst.frank martin the transporter

hitman  timothy olyphantFor those not familiar with the two franchises: Frank Martin is the transporter, he will transport a package anywhere, anytime, for a cost, just don’t be late as he won’t wait for you.  Hitman is the story of, Agent 47 and assassin for hire, who is genetically engineered or a clone or something like that.  Both franchises have seen recent reboots, Hitman: Agent 47 and The Transporter Refuelled.  Prior to these new movies, The Transporter consisted of three movie between 2002 and 2008, all three starring Jason Statham as Frank Martin, The Transporter. There was also a TV series of twelve episodes between 2012 and 2014 (I haven’t seen the TV show) Hitman is a successful video game franchise with a novel adaptation and a movie starring Timothy Olyphant as Agent 47.Hitman Rupert Friend the transporter Ed Skreintake

Transporter Refuelled sees a new actor Ed Skreintake on the role of Frank Martin, they make two fundamental mistakes.  While Statham looks like a fighter, Ed Skrein looks like a cross between a twig and a Kelvin Kline model.  Secondly they try to give him a background and back story,  the simplicity and mystery of the character where part of its charm.  The introduction of the father character is clearly aiming for a Last Crusade vibe but misses the mark without the chemistry and charm of Ford and Connery.   But how original was the original film?  Director Luc Besson is the first to admit the influence of The Hire, a series of short films commissioned by BMW to promote their cars.  The films starred Clive Owen as “the Driver” and were directed by a series of Hollywood directors.  Hitman (2007) had its problems but Timothy Olyphant is always a watchable screen presence, as is Olga Kurylenko.  Hitman: Agent 47 is lumbered with Rupert Friend, a fine actor (see Starred Up) but presence and gravitas the role requires.  The plot manages to be both thin and convoluted at the same time.

So why did these films get made? Money!  Every new idea is a risk but every franchise no matter how bad makes money.  But it isn’t all bad, for all its sequels and reboots, companies like EuropaCorp have also made some great original movies. 

Spies Like Us

We are less than eight weeks away from the release of Spectre, the latest James Bond movie.  With a new film every two or three years on average since Dr. No in 1962 there is nothing unusual about a new Bond film, but the big budget Spy Genre is looking more crowded than when Skyfall came out three years ago.  So far this year we have had the following movies (budgets in brackets are estimates from variouse sources) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ($75million), Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ($150million), Kingsman: The Secret Service ($81million), the genre also merged with comedy: Spy ($65million), Mortdecai ($60million) and American Ultra ($30million). Spectre has probably cost around $200million to make (Skyfall is estimated at $150-$200) and will be expected to make over $1billion(as Skyfall did).  But with all the other spy movies will our apatite have begun to fade by the time it hits our screens?   Unlikely!spectre

Kingsman: The Secret Service – Kingsman is an absolute blast, it works as both a homage to and a parody of the genre while managing to be its own thing too.  It is totally unflinching in its violence and it does often push the bounds of taste and decency.  One particular scene has earned some criticism (I think unfairly) for its treatment of female characters.    I’m sure Colin Firth has never been considered to play Bond, but after Kingsman, I wonder why?harry hart

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – The fifth instalment of the franchise takes elements from the previous movies in the franchise and as such finds an identity for the franchise.  Unlike the previous films that took the identity of their larger than life directors, this is a pure Mission Impossible movie.  Tom Cruise returns with even more outrageous stunts than before.  The plot is a little flimsy but all this is forgotten as the film is such fun.Ethan Hunt

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Like Mission Impossible, U.N.C.L.E. is a modern take on an old TV show, but there are two vital differences.  Firstly this is the first of a possible franchise. Secondly, the filmmakers have taken the decision to set the series in the 1960’s where it belongs, and not update it to the modern day.  Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer have great chemistry with each other and co-star Alicia Vikander but all three pale against the real star of the film, the 60’s setting.  This is captured by perfect costumes, sets and photography.  It makes me want a 60’s set Bond reboot more than ever.the-man-from-uncle

I didn’t see Spy or  Mortdecai, find out what I thought of American Ultra in my movie of the month post in a couple of weeks.  I don’t see spy movies overtaking comic book movies at the box office but I do expect to see more of them in the next few years and would like to see more from Kingsman, Mission Impossible and UNCLE, but Bond is the big one and Spectre is my most anticipated movie for the rest of this year.

I recently saw Clouds of Sils Maria on DVD and was planning to write about it as part of my DVD Gems series of great films that didn’t make it to my local cinema.  I didn’t for two reasons; the film is too good, and has too much going on for a three hundred word review; secondly I keep coming back to one thing about the film, Kristen Stewart.Clouds of Sils Maria

The film stars Juliette Binoche as a world famous actress and movie star.  She splits her time between blockbuster/superhero movies and more serious films and plays.  She accepts a part in a play about a destructive relationship between an younger and older woman.  She is cast in the role of the older woman having previously made her name as the younger woman in the first production and subsequent film adaptation.  Binoche is as brilliant as you would expect but so is her co star Kristen Stewart.Kristen Stewart

Stewart plays the personal assistant to Binoche’s star.  The character is more introverted and less emotional that Binoche’s actress but is equally as passionate.  The character exudes an intelligence that is tempered by youth and naivety.  She cannot always express herself in the way she wishes to.  The greatest achievement of the part is that she is always believable.  She never comes across as an actress playing an assistant, she is totally natural and immersed in the role.  Interestingly the only other person I can think of playing her was also in contention for the part, Mia Wasikowska.  Wasikowska is probably my favourite young actress at the moment but probably couldn’t have done any better than Stewart who is totally sublime.  I am clearly not the only person to be impressed, Kristen Stewart won a César (a French Oscar), the first American actress to win one!Actress Kristen Stewart poses with her trophy during a photocall after winning the Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in the film "Sils Maria" during the 40th Cesar Awards ceremony in Paris

We shouldn’t be surprised, this isn’t the first time Kristen Stewart has impressed in a supporting role.  She bought the same naturalism and innocence to Still Alice as the daughter of Julianne Moore’s Oscar winning lead.  This ability should not come as any surprise, she has always been a talented actress.  Take a look at early roles such as Undertow (2004), Panic Room (2002) and Into the Wild (2007).  Her previously most impressive role was in Adventureland (2009) released between the first two Twilight movies.  And that is the crux of why some people don’t like Stewart and why others are surprised when she is good, Twilight!   A lot of people who dislike Stewart actually or even hate the character Bella Swan not the actress.  All the lip biting and pushing her hair back is the character not the actress, ironically, the haters she has attracted for Twilight are actually a sign of how well she captured the character.Kristen Stewart Adventureland

As far as I can see Clouds of Sils Maria is eligible for next years Oscars having received a general release in April 2105 after spending a year doing the festival rounds.  It is unlikely, but possible that Kristen Stewart could receive an Oscar nomination.   If you don’t believe me, check out Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria as well as some of her other movies I have mentioned, if you haven’t already, I would recommend you watch them anyway. 


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