Mrs Doubtfire: will Robin Williams’ unforgettable housekeeper ever return?

It’s been so long since the idea of a sequel to 1993’s Mrs Doubtfire hit the news radar that many – myself included – were beginning to think it would be the latest victim of the current trend for reboots, before any official follow-up happened. But Fox 2000 seems determined to bring Euphegenia Doubtfire back to our screens, reportedly making a new attempt to convince director Christopher Columbus and star Robin Williams to re-visit the character.

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After the original film grossed $441,286,195worldwide (against its $25 million production cost), a sequel was always on the cards. Indeed, all involved were convinced a second film would be produced. But no-one could find an idea they liked.

Bonnie Hunt was hired to write a script in 2001, but as other scribes came and went, the excitement for the idea waxed and waned until, around 2004, the last mention of it flickered and faded.

Now, Elf screenwriter David Berenbaum is on board to try again. His actual concept for the sequel isn’t clear, and we don’t know yet if it will acknowledge the passing of time – after all, would anyone believe that Mrs. Doubtfire would still be alive after all this time? And why would he need to dress up given that everyone came clean last time? Perhaps Williams’ Daniel Hillard will resurrect her to care for his grandchildren?

However it turns out, Columbus and Williams are reportedly attached to the project, but will wait to see the script before deciding to take things further.

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The original film, of course, saw actor Hillard disguise himself as a female housekeeper after a bitter divorce, in order to spend secret time with his children.

Williams donned a fat suit and prosthetic makeup to play the unforgettable nanny, with Sally Field as the uptight mom who has no idea that her new, perfect employee is her ex-husband in disguise.

Although the broad comedy of the first half soon gives way to a tidal wave of sentimentality, this is still a laugh riot – and the sight of our hero setting fire to his false boobs never fails to amuse.

Let’s hope Columbus, Williams and Berenbaum can find the right story to bring Mrs Doubtfire back to our screens – I, for one, would be delighted to see her again.

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Braveheart: how William Wallace’s legacy gave Mel Gibson his finest hour

Sir William Wallace was a Scottish landowner who became one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence.

Along with Andrew Moray, Wallace defeated an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297, and was appointed Guardian of Scotland, serving until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. In August 1305 Wallace was captured in Robroyston near Glasgow and handed over to King Edward I of England, who had him hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason and crimes against English civilians.

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Since his death, Wallace has obtained an iconic status far beyond his homeland. He is the protagonist of the 15th-century epic poem The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, by Blind Harry. He is also the subject of literary works by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Porter. In 1995, Mel Gibson immortalised him on screen in Braveheart.

Gibson directed and starred in the $72 million-budgeted picture, a production which endured its own struggles and share of hardships. Gibson’s Icon Productions had difficulty raising enough money, even with him in the central role. Warner Bros. was willing to fund the project on the condition that Gibson sign for another Lethal Weapon sequel, which he refused. (Ironically, of course, he would end up returning to the franchise for Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998.) Paramount Pictures only agreed to American and Canadian distribution of the film after 20th Century Fox partnered for international rights. Even during the shoot, the budget was notoriously tight, with constant reshoots due to extras wearing wristwatches and the like allegedly leading to rationing of essentials for cast and crew.

The end result was worth it, though, winning five Oscars from ten nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Best Film Editing, and eventually grossing $210,409,945 worldwide.

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In 14th century Scotland, William Wallace leads his people in a rebellion against the tyranny of the English King, who has given English nobility the ‘Prima Nocta’ – a right to take all new brides for the first night. The Scots are none too pleased with the English invaders, but they lack leadership to fight back. Wallace creates a legend of himself, with his courageous defence of his people and attacks on the English.

Braveheart proved to be that rare film that reawakened a nation’s interest in its own history. The story began when American screenwriter Randall Wallace was visiting Edinburgh. Intrigued to see an impressive statue of William Wallace, the writer asked who his namesake icon was. “He’s our greatest hero,” replied a tour guide. The rest is history – or, at least, a Hollywood tribute to it.

Returning home, Wallace became obsessed with the Scottish rebel. His passion was infectious. When Gibson read the resultant script, he immediately felt a powerful identification with the central figure, who would provide his greatest screen role. Determined to retain his own vision of what Braveheart should be, he insisted on directing the project as well as well as starring in it. The result was not so much a film as a phenomenon.

Braveheart

Inspired by the great movie epics – notably Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus – Gibson threw himself into the project. From the rain-soaked, mud-splattered shoot near Inverness, to the fields of Ireland (employed for the sweeping battle scenes), the star found himself evolving a no-frills, rapid-fire directing technique which he described as, “Hopping in front of the camera, doing the scene, and if it’s not a complete disgrace getting the hell out.” Cast, crew and many hundreds of extras were treated to the sight of their leading man commanding the action in full William Wallace wig and blue face paint.

In Gibson’s version of events, William Wallace is an educated commoner who turns outlaw in 1290s Scotland after the English slay his sweetheart Murron (played by the hauntingly beautiful Catherine McCormack). Taking command of the Scottish rebel effort brings Wallace into direct conflict with the fearsome English King, Edward I – also known as the Hammer of the Scots or simply Longshanks. Sticking fairly close to historical events (despite playing merry hell with chronology), the movie depicts Wallace’s victory over the English forces at Stirling, his betrayal and defeat at Falkirk and his final capture, subsequent show trial and brutal execution in London.

Taking the villain’s role as Longshanks, Patrick Mgoohan, in an all-too-rare big-screen outing, is a malevolent revelation. If the rest of the English are portrayed as either murderous thugs or hopelessly effete, McGoohan’s gleeful portrayal of pure evil is a crucial counter-balance to the essential goodness of Wallace.

Fleeting romantic interest comes from Sophie Marceau, playing the luminous French beauty trapped in a loveless marriage to the homosexual Prince of Wales, who attempts to intercede on Wallace’s behalf. Also making a strong impression is Angus MacFadyen as Robert the Bruce, the Hamlet-like figure who, unlike Wallace, will one day be King of Scotland. Randall Wallace went so far as to suggest that the dynamic between Wallace and the Bruce may be the “true heart” of his story.

Historical context aside, a major factor of the Braveheart sensation was the scale and ferocity of its battle scenes. Marshalling 1,600 extras from the Irish Army Reserve and employing mechanical horses to perform stunts far too dangerous for the real animals, Gibson recreated the brutality of medieval combat to breathtaking effect. And it’s in the heat of battle that Wallace the man of peace is transformed into a butchering berserker.

Of course, the defining characteristic of Gibson’s Wallace is heroism. His patriotism is backed by boundless reserves of courage; his natural leadership and military brilliance ensure that his men will follow him into Hell itself. Gibson embodies this with absolute conviction – it’s no wonder that in Scotland they started erecting statues of Wallace that bear his features.

Braveheart was criticised for its strongly anti-English sentiments, and for playing fast and loose with Anglo-Scottish history (Randall Wallace’s “don’t-let-the-facts-get-in-the-way-of-a-good-story” attitude to his subject matter provoking the most ire). But does Gibson’s film really distort Scottish history any more than Shakespeare did with Macbeth? It certainly provoked a massive resurgence of interest in the history of Scotland and its national identity. William Wallace would have approved.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Marvel’s web-slinger returns as Sony builds its own expanded universe

Peter Parker continues to struggle with balancing his life as a high school student and his responsibilities as Spider-Man. When he begins to investigate more about his father’s past, thanks to the help of his friend Harry Osborn, he begins to realise that the new threats of Electro and the Rhino have one thing in common: Oscorp.

Electro

Yes, Marvel’s web-slinger is back, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Marc Webb returns to the director’s chair, with Andrew Garfield once again donning the red-and-blue costume, and Emma Stone back on duty as love interest Gwen Stacy.

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Known as The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Rise Of Electro in some markets, the sequel was greenlit after the $752,216,557 box office success of the previous film. Columbia Pictures and Marvel Entertainment hired James Vanderbilt (White House Down) to write the screenplay, which was subsequently re-written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness). Producer Matt Tolmach stated that there “will be more than one [sequel] and at the very least three”, while Webb revealed that the origin story would continue to unfold in the second instalment, with the closing-credits scene in the 2012 movie having generated the predictable Internet speculation about Spidey’s next villain. The helmer claimed that he “wanted to create a universe that not only can withstand but anticipate future storylines” while also “working in and of itself for one movie”.

With the original costume and mask from Webb’s first film altered to include lenses in the mask, making the eyes bigger, and with modified web-shooters, filming commenced in February 2013, in what was the largest film production ever in New York City. Photos from the set, showing Jamie Foxx in the role of Electro, were leaked in April last year, and shortly thereafter rumours about the involvement of the Green Goblin and the Rhino began to circulate. Needless to say, anticipation for the $200 million-budgeted superhero blockbuster was at fever pitch long before it hit multiplexes.

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No two subgenres are currently ruling the worldwide box office more consistently than superhero and young adult. So for all the backtalk about Sony playing bitter second fiddle to Marvel, their re-booted Spider-Man series does have one major advantage over the competition in that it combines both. Consequently, Marc Webb once again capitalizes on the charms of young stars Garfield and Stone, to craft a movie that feels youthful and exuberant, with romance and web-slinging action in (more or less) equal measures.

Part and parcel with the teenage lens comes an obsession with parents and the legacy they hand down to their unsuspecting children. Peter has settled into his Spidey suit, but is still haunted by unanswered questions about his parents, who abandoned him in childhood for shadowy reasons unknown. Haunting him too is the ghost of Gwen’s father, who used his dying breath to warn Peter away from his daughter; this paves the way for some thorny but refreshingly angst-light relationship troubles.

And then there’s Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn, a childhood friend of Peter’s who returns to New York just in time to be handed a poisoned chalice by dying daddy Norman (a malevolent Chris Cooper). Garfield and DeHaan are undeniably effective together, and Peter and Harry’s reunion gives the former a welcome edge of normality. Unlike Toby Maguire’s Peter, there’s no sense here of his attempting to live a normal life post-high school – Spider-Man seems to interact with the real world more than Peter Parker does.

The bad guys are a clear strong suit, in contrast to Webb’s first film; both Harry and Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon are villains who only become so because the world has so entirely mistreated them. DeHaan plays Harry like a twitchy, anguished coiled spring, every movement and sentence wound tight – it’s a compelling contrast to Garfield’s energy, all loose limbs and heart-on-sleeve emotion.

There’s real poignancy to Max, too, a nerdy, perpetually overlooked electrical engineer with no friends or family whose obsession with Spider-Man turns nasty after a workplace accident sees him transform into the super-powered, super-pissed Electro.

But it’s hard to shake the sense, given the narrow production window, that the script was rushed into production in less-than-complete form – the fact that Divergent’s Shaileen Woodley was cast, filmed and later cut as Mary Jane speaks volumes. Electro becomes superfluous as the increasingly unstable Harry takes centre-stage, and when DeHaan is on screen it’s impossible to look anywhere else. Another reworking of the script could have pared the focus right down to Peter, Harry, Gwen and Oscorp, and in turn cut down the baggy running time by around twenty minutes.

Sony’s intention is clear, though – they want their own expanded universe to rival that of Marvel, since Spidey joining the Avengers will remain the stuff of Garfield and other fans’ dreams. Paul Giamatti’s Rhino and Felicity Jones’ Felicia Hardy are given glorified cameos clearly designed to pay off down the line, in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 or 4, or possibly the already-promised Sinister Six spin-off.

What all of this means is that the film often seems more focused on franchise-building than storytelling, nowhere more so than in its final few scenes. With Spidey’s quippy wiscreacking turned up to 11, Webb seems committed to comedy above all – it’s hard to think of another series that has so effectively used stuntwork as slapstick – which makes for some jarring segues back into darker material.

Stone’s Gwen remains a breath of fresh air for women in comic book movies; she has smarts and spirit, without needing to be a quip-slinging badass, and her intuitive chemistry with Garfield remains as much of a joy to watch as it was in 2012. It’s only when the script actively tries for affecting that it falters, bordering on mawkish in some moments with Sally Field’s Aunt May in particular.

Garfield’s raw and heartfelt performance helps sell the cheese, but the clunky foreshadowing is harder to swallow – a third act gut punch is telegraphed so blatantly and repeatedly that by the time it arrives, half the impact is gone.

Bright, punchy and earnest, Webb’s affable sequel is hard to dislike – despite its tonal whiplash and clumsy script, which is redeemed by Garfield, Stone and DeHaan’s powerhouse trio.

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Fatal Attraction: the ultimate adultery deterrent

Bunny boiler n. after a relationship break up, the person who wants some kind of revenge, like stalking, or harrassment

 

The film that brought the above term for an obsessive ex into popular parlance was, of course, Adrian Lyne’s 1987 psychological thriller Fatal Attraction. Adapted by James Dearden and Nicholas Meyer from an earlier 1980 short film by the former for British television, titled Diversion, this became the second highest-grossing film of 1987 in the United States (behind Three Men And A Baby) and the highest-grossing worldwide, with an eventual worldwide total of $320,145,693 (against its $14 million production cost). The film was also nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Glenn Close and Best Supporting Actress for Anne Archer.

A play based on the movie is running, as I write this, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, with Dearden having once again adapted his tale.

Apparently loving husband Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) embarks upon a frantic one-night affair with unhinged book editor Alex Forrest (Close), only to be made to pay for his sins with her campaign of crazed retribution – the murder of the family pet being one of her tamer actions…

Fatal Attraction

It was the remarkable double of this followed by Wall Street that vaulted Douglas to the top of the A-list of desirable leading men. Lyne’s slick, racy thriller was read as a timely parable about the dangers of indulging in unsafe sex. Sex certainly never came more lethal than this…

From the first ominous tantrum as Gallagher attempts to say goodbye, the unease is wound tighter and tighter through such staples of screen psycho behaviour as destruction of property and the old mutilation of a family pet routine (rendered with an appalling difference) to outright horror. This is all wildly gripping, suspenseful fare, with a masterfully executed, heart-stopping climax – although the last Grand Guignol split-seconds are never quite as scary as the first time you see it.

With the twist that so captured the public being the depiction of the man as the stalked victim, Douglas is attractive and believable, but he does take a backseat to Close’s spectacularly crazed performance. The original ending – which American test audiences couldn’t stomach – sees the Madam Butterfly motif reach a logical, very much more downbeat conclusion, with her suicide leaving him framed for murder.

These two absolutely riveting lead performances and a smart reversal of the usual male-female stalker scenario leave behind a nasty taste – and an unforgettable cinematic experience.

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Monster’s Ball: Halle Berry shines in a powerful tale of transformation and hope

Corrections Officer Hank Grotowski heads the prison squad supervising Lawrence Musgrove, awaiting execution after eleven years on Death Row. Distressed by his duties, Hank’s son Sonny is also on the team, while Musgrove’s emotionally drained wife Leticia struggles.

2001’s Monster’s Ball saw Halle Berry, given the (too-rare) occasion to show what she can really do, seize her role as an exhausted woman at the end of her rope with such naked desperation and need that it’s hard to watch – and harder to forget. No wonder she won the Academy’s Best Actress statuette.

Billy Bob Thornton should certainly also have been in the Oscar stakes, as he is riveting as a man of few words who initially seems unforgivably cold and harsh, but subtly (and miraculously) evokes understanding and pity.

Monsters Ball

Reduced to basics, this is a prison drama/romance, but it’s actually about many things, all of them to do with compassion, humanity and the need for love. Fathers and sons are a major theme. Widower Hank (Thornton) is the son of an irredeemably selfish, racist, retired prison guard (a spectacularly horrid Peter Boyle). Hank’s sensitive, unloved son (Heath Ledger) is a third generation prison guard, bullied into the bitter family inheritance and rituals of small, mean lives. They are imprisoned as surely as the cop killer sitting on Death Row.

The condemned man, Musgrove (Sean Combs, doing a smart and impressive volte-face from his cool comedic role in Made), also has a browbeaten son. The bashful, ungainly boy has inherited his father’s artistic talent and has eaten himself into obesity on the junk food and chocolate bars that are his only comfort.

The highlight of the powerful performances on display here is, of course, Berry’s weary waitress Leticia, a bravely unflinching portrait of a woman so crushed, she’s a drunk, abusive mother, with a palpably agonising need to feel something, anything. The weight of cares and catastrophe on both her and Hank is what makes it possible that these two, when their paths collide, can so touchingly, vulnerably and tentatively try to find their way back to life together.

As is so often the case with émigré directors, German-born, Swiss-raised, N.Y.U. graduate Forster brings an alert eye for specific detail and mood to the American scene. The heavy, stultifying atmosphere of the poor, rural, Southern setting dominates everything. Written by struggling actors Milo Addica and Will Rocos, who showed remarkable tenacity and integrity by holding out through six frustrating years of negotiations with studios anxious to soften the script, this is a very adult, human drama.

Powerfully affecting, with superb performances that add complexity, depth and feeling to an uncompromising piece, Monster’s Ball may seem dour on the surface, but it is an unsentimental, yet achingly eloquent, affirming story of transformation and hope.

Berry deserved to be Hollywood’s golden girl after this world-class performance. Yet, apart from reprising her role as Storm in the über-successful X-Men film series, she must have soon realised that she needed a new agent, as she spent the next few years playing a one-dimensional Bond girl in Die Another Day, struggling against a diabolical script, limp direction and everything else that makes a supposed blockbuster sink in Pitof’s risible Catwoman, and having her time and talent wasted again, along with that of Robert Downey Jr. and Penélope Cruz, in supposed psychological horror Gothika. Yet her reputation has survived intact, thanks largely to further opportunities to demonstrate her considerable talents in the likes of Things We Lost In The Fire and Cloud Atlas. She will soon be returning to our screens as Storm in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, due for release on May 22.

Berry Oscar

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Ben Affleck: the case for the defence of DC Entertainment’s new Batman

Much controversy still surrounds the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. DC Entertainment needs a strong Caped Crusader to stand alongside Henry Cavill’s promising Superman in the forthcoming Superman Vs. Batman or Batman Vs. Superman blockbuster, set for release in 2016. That movie will, in turn, be the make-or-break moment for the much-anticipated Justice League movie, with DC hoping to compete with the runaway success of The Avengers / Avengers Assemble and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With so much riding on such a key role, the decision to cast Affleck will not have been taken lightly. He has certainly matured as an actor and a filmmaker since the disappointment that was Daredevil in 2003, and let’s face it, every major figure in Hollywood has a Gigli on their CV somewhere. Maybe not quite that level of horrendous, but let’s move on.

For proof of Affleck’s abilities both in front of and behind the camera in the here and now, you need look no further than his Best Picture-winner Argo. But before his triple Oscar-winning political thriller, he had demonstrated his skills as a screenwriter and director with three fine pieces of cinema, which will form the basis of today’s offering from Yours Truly.

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1997’s Good Will Hunting was written by Affleck and his childhood friend Matt Damon. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring the duo, along with Robin Williams, Minnie Driver and Stellan Skarsgård, the film was met with universal acclaim and was also a financial success, grossing $225,933,435 during its theatrical run, with only a modest $10 million budget. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning Best Original Screenplay for Affleck and Damon, and Best Supporting Actor for Williams.

Twenty-year-old Will Hunting (Damon) is a janitor at MIT in Boston. He’s also a mathematical genius with a chip on his shoulder. He’s discovered by a professor (Skarsgård) solving a formula, but isn’t interested in academia. Trouble with the law changes everything, and soon Will is discussing his abilities, but more importantly receiving counselling, from working-class psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Williams).

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Affleck and Damon originally wrote the screenplay as a thriller: Young man in the rough streets of South Boston who possesses a superior intelligence is targeted by the FBI to become a G-Man. Castle Rock Entertainment president Rob Reiner later urged them to drop the thriller aspect of the story, and to focus on the relationship between Will and his psychiatrist. At Reiner’s request, noted screenwriter William Goldman read the script and suggested an alternative ending . He has, though, consistently denied the rumour that he rewrote the script, or even acted as a script doctor.

Castle Rock bought the script for $675,000 against $775,000, meaning that Affleck and Damon would stand to earn an additional $100,000 if the film was produced and they retained sole writing credit. However, studios balked at the idea of the duo in the lead roles, with certain studio executives stating that they wanted Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. At the time the young actors were in talks with Castle Rock, Kevin Smith was working with Affleck on Mallrats (1995), and with both on Chasing Amy (1997). Seeing that the two friends were having trouble with Castle Rock, Smith and his co-producer Scott Mosier brought the script to Miramax, which eventually resulted in the duo receiving co-executive producer credits for the film. The script was put into turnaround, and Miramax bought the rights from Castle Rock, before green-lighting production.

Several well-known filmmakers were originally considered to direct, including Mel Gibson, Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh. Affleck invited Smith to direct, but the Clerks helmer declined, saying they needed a “good director” – and that he only directs what he writes. Affleck and Damon eventually chose Van Sant, whose previous films, including Drugstore Cowboy (1989), had left a favourable impression on the fledgling screenwriters.

Despite the fact that the script deals with the commercial double suicide that is mental health issues and genius mathematicians, this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. Good Will Hunting’s strength lies in the amazing assurance of its script, and the backing both its cast and makers give it. Van Sant steers clear of unnecessary sentiment, opting instead to find the emotional reality and harshness within the story. Damon is superb, and Affleck equally strong. In a movie the exudes quality, however, it is Williams that provides both the heart and the highlight of the piece.

The Oscars, in this case, were both entirely deserved. This is one of the reasons why I love movies so much.

Affleck made his feature-length directorial debut with 2007 mystery Gone Baby Gone. He co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, basing it on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and Shutter Island.

When four-year-old Amanda McCready disappears, detectives Patrick Kenzie (the helmer’s brother Casey) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are brought in by the child’s aunt and uncle, despite the antagonism of the Boston P.D. and the bad attitude of the child’s mother.

Crime novelist Lehane is known for the acute sense of place and mood of desolation he evokes in writing of working-class Boston, specifically the tough Dorchester area where he has lived all his life. With the bleak but fascinating Gone Baby Gone – adapted, in some scenes almost verbatim, from the fourth of Lehane’s books about private investigator partners Kenzie and Gennaro – Affleck clearly took a thoughtfully subdued approach to the material. He sustains a concrete, authentic realism in what is, after all, his hometown setting.

It’s a major directorial debut, successfully combining the elements of a smart, intriguing police procedural with a distinctive Bostonian flavour and the psychological sophistication and moral complexity that distinguish the very best mystery thrillers. It also marked a stunning reversal of reputation for the man whose credibility plunged from Oscar-winning screenwriter and Hollywood young lion through ignominies like his performance in Armageddon and the obsessively paprazzi-chronicled Bennifer years. The climb back to creative respect that began with his almost grudgingly praised performance in Hollywoodland (2006) was well and truly complete.

The plot is labyrinthine and, on close inspection, depends on some perhaps improbable clumsy mistakes, coincidences and convergences. But the director and his co-scribe lay it out beautifully, coherently and heartbreakingly.

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Of course, all is not what it seems and people are deceitful keepers of secrets and lies. The little girl may indeed have been snatched by a known serial paedophile, whom the police quickly identify and pin for the outrage. But the child’s pathetic, spotlight-basking mother, Helene (Amy Ryan) is strangely, obnoxiously unhelpful and obviously knows more than she’s saying. Academy Award nominee Ryan’s brilliantly observed, trashy character is a foul-mouthed boozer and user. Like Monaghan’s disapproving Angie, we are tempted to feel that wherever little Amanda is, unless it’s at the bottom of a quarry, she may be better off, and that her abductor or abductors, unless they are sexually deviant, may have simply beaten social services to the child’s rescue. Then there are the girl’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver), apparently the only people in the world who gave a damn about Amanda before her disappearance, who begin to look shifty, too.

There is no shortage of potential suspects in the local criminal fraternity either, whose possible motives for revenge add strong undercurrents of suspicion. The police in the frame – Morgan Freeman’s respected, formidable Captain Jack Doyle, who has a strong personal motive to solve the case, and his dodgier lead detectives, Cajun hard man Remy Besant (Ed Harris, giving expert intimidation and inscrutability) and bullish sidekick Nick Pool (John Ashton) – have their agendas and are clearly working at resentful odds with Patrick.

Patrick and Angie are young, which immediately ups the stakes and personal jeopardy for them. There are running comments on the former’s boyishness, which exacerbates the cops’ hostility and disdain. He lives and works by a somewhat romantic gumshoe code of honour which gives him a certainty about what is just and right. It is the more intuitive Angie who foresees what an unhappy outcome to the mysterious case of Amanda could do to them, both professionally and personally. She knows they are unprepared to swim in dark water, and she is proven horribly right when they find themselves neck-deep in duplicity, murder, sociopathic drug dealers, horrific paedophiles, enigmatic cops and puzzles that can have no satisfactory solutions.

Some way into the film a nerve-shattering plot resolution seems to have been reached, but there is more to come. Clues are there for the alert, but the revelations that emerge, one after another, take us to disturbing places we could never anticipate.

In another superlative turn (after his Oscar-nominated performance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, ensuring that he will never again be thought of as just the ‘kid brother’) Casey maintains an outer calm, visibly and vocally holding Patrick’s churning emotions in check, while microscopically suggesting Kenzie’s sharpness and overwhelming inner turmoil. Even in the seasoned company of Freeman, Harris and Madigan he commands the centre, in a drama that is compelling and demanding from start to finish. Pay attention to his opening voiceover, which is key to understanding why Patrick makes the difficult decision he has to live with at the end of the story.

Gone Baby Gone’s UK release date was postponed from its original September 2007 scheduling over fears of causing offence or distress with its inevitable reminders of the Madeleine McCann case (the child actress in the film, whose name happens to be Madeline O’Brien, does resemble the missing girl). But that tragedy shouldn’t overshadow this completely unrelated story. A superior, thought-provoking and haunting thriller of abduction, deception and ethical dilemma, this is a piece that demands strong debate outside the cinema.

2010’s The Town saw Affleck star, co-write and direct an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince Of Thieves.

In 2006, director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) brought the novel to producer Graham King. King in turn showed it to Warner Bros., who agreed to fund an adaptation with Lyne at the helm, and written by Sheldon Turner. After Turner, Peter Craig and even Hogan himself failed to craft a script that fit the studio’s requirement for a standard two-hour-long movie with a $37 million budget, by 2008, Affleck had been brought aboard the project, now titled The Town. He wanted to direct a movie “I personally researched and understood”, inviting high school classmate Aaron Stockard to work with him on the script.

Following a heist, professional thief Doug MacRay (Affleck) keeps tabs on bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the only witness who could identify MacRay’s gang. As the couple slowly fall for each other and FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) closes in on him, MacRay begins to question the life he leads.

Affleck’s second directorial feature invites certain comparisons to Good Will Hunting: both are about the restrictive nature of class pride, the push and pull of the old Boston neighbourhood versus the promise of a new life with a girl, and the burden of betraying lifelong friends. As if that comparison were not recommendation enough , this is also a terrific crime thriller, full of both compelling cat-and-mousery and full-throttle action, showcasing some of the most exciting acting talent around – including Hall, Jeremy Renner (who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination) and Blake Lively, alongside the ever-reliable likes of the late Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper. It also confirmed Affleck’s innate abilities as a director. Quite simply, this is essential viewing.

The Town

The Town’s ideas aren’t 100 per cent original – the criminal who wants to leave his bad ways behind, the kidnapper who gets involved with the hostage, and the neighbourhood overrun by a criminal fraternity who live and die by their own rules are all story cores that have filled up crime movies for years. But Affleck has an affinity for Charlestown, the one-square-mile district that accounts for 300 robberies a year, a place where the criminal kingpin (a creepy Postlethwaite) masquerades as the local florist, where even the children can spot a black FBI van surveying a barbecue and where closing the bridge is the best way to hem in a getaway car. This isn’t the big-time Boston underworld of The Departed. This is much more small-scale, homespun and younger.

The helmer starts his movie with a terrific set-piece straight out of the Point Break playbook. MacRay’s gang, a band of “Skeletors with AKs”, bust their way into a bank, the slick, well-drilled manoeuvres covered in swift, hand-held strokes but never to the point of motion sickness. None of the action in The Town is overblown or Hollywood-esque. A thrilling middle-act car chase takes place in narrow streets, more concerned with getting out of tight corners than flipping cars in slow-motion, and ends on a heart-stopping, very human moment. Affleck is particularly good at mounting short bursts of violence that end almost as quickly as they have begun. His fights are brutal and wince-inducing but always believable.

Yet none of this comes at the expense of the drama, which is credibly delivered by the strong cast. Renner, in particular, is a force of nature as MacRay’s wildcard friend Jem, a volatile, deluded, unpredictable presence. There is a scene where he catches Doug and Claire having a clandestine lunch away from prying eyes. As he pulls up a chair to join them, what plays out is tense, awkward and nerve-jangling, with Affleck the director having the sense to pull wide so we see all the dynamics at play.

In contrast, he draws the relationship between MacRay and Claire in tentative strokes. It’s one of the more miserable courtships in modern cinema, bonded by a shared experience that only one of them knows they share. It’s an interesting relationship, and Affleck and Hall give it charm as well as acting chops.

The other plot thread is the investigation into the robberies. In a film that asks you to empathise and, in some senses, root for the bad guys, it would be easy to paint Hamm’s Fed in the role of Agent Hard Bastard. But he does something more interesting, painting Frawley as driven and tough but also intelligent and quietly Machiavellian. His interrogation of MacRay is gripping stuff, two intelligent men butting heads, Frawley giving it maximum vitriol. Yet Hamm also shines in his grilling of MacRay’s ex, Krista (an addled Lively, with this and The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee putting the fluff of Gossip Girl well behind her): starting as a guy chatting up a girl in a bar, it turns into a master class in manipulation. This is nothing less than a demonstration of the powerhouse movie starr Hamm could become.

Of course, The Town is not perfect. Some of Affleck’s stylistic tics – black-and-white flashbacks to crime scenes, a slow-motion moment where a robber, in a nun’s disguise, catches the gaze of a small child – feel like affectations, and it isn’t as complete a picture as Gone Baby Gone. But it does confirm Affleck’s commitment to ambition, and his nostalgia for his hometown softens the hard-boiled feel.

Emotional, smart and muscular, this is a strong human drama that is a rare, grown-up genre movie, full of compelling character dynamics and a clutch of pitch-perfect performances. It also proved that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke, and confirmed Affleck as a major director in the making – a filmmaker who would be rewarded just two years later with a Best Picture Oscar, for Argo.

While the debate over Affleck assuming the mantle of Bruce Wayne - who has retired as the Dark Knight so he can focus on rebuilding Gotham – continues to rage, he is working on his next directorial feature, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Live By Night, which is due for release in 2015. Also in development is an as-yet-untitled Affleck/Will Staples project, which will follow a team of mercenaries who set out to kill a brutal warlord in Africa.

Affleck Batman

If this missive has shown anything, it is that Affleck is capable of far more than dross like Gigli and Reindeer Games, and that he has certainly matured as both an actor and a filmmaker since the let-down that was Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil. If I, as one of the biggest fans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, then so can most!

He has certainly earned his place as one of today’s finest filmmakers.

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The Raid 2: Berandal – a slower, but still bloodthirsty, sequel

Sorry Geoff, I’m back to my old ways…

Following 2009’s Merantau, director Gareth Evans and his producers began work on a project called Berendal (which is Indonesian for “Thugs”), a large-scale prison gang film intended to star not only Merantau actors Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Donny Alamsyah, but also an additional pair of international fight stars. A teaser trailer was shot, but the project proved to be more complex and time-consuming than they had anticipated. After a year and a half, Evans and his collaborators found themselves with insufficient funds to produce Berendal, so they changed to a simpler, but different story, with a smaller budget. They called the project Serbuan Maut (The Raid). This film would, of course, go on to become an international hit under the title The Raid: Redemption.

Evans and co. still had plans to produce Berendal, though, now linking it to Serbuan Maut as a sequel, potentially part of an action trilogy. The success of The Raid resulted in the green light for the follow-up, to be released in North American / Western markets as The Raid 2, with a considerably larger budget of $4.5 million (amusing by Hollywood standards, but a King’s ransom compared to the first film’s $1.1 million).

This time Rama (Uwais) is out of the tower block, but not out of the woods. An undercover mission places him among Jakarta’s most nefarious criminals, including the trouble-making Bejo (Alex Abbad) and petulant Mob heir-apparent, Ocok (Arifin Putra)…

Raid 2

Rather than taking the standard action-movie route of retreading the path of the first film, Evans escalates his ambition here. While this film has its flaws, it’s still a monumental experience to sit through, and one that proves beyond a doubt that this is a director with talent to spare.

The Raid 2 is set over a period of years, rather than a single day. It devotes hefty chunks of screen time to the various factions of the Indonesian underworld. And the pared-down, rip-roaring quest narrative of the original is replaced by a spider-web of murky, shifting allegiances. Plus, as the 148-minute run-time suggests, there’s plenty of dialogue before the action kicks in. The Godfather is the obvious model, but in fact, this movie’s plot calls to mind a number of crime classics, not least Infernal Affairs (which was remade as The Departed, by Martin Scorsese).

From the start Evans’ casting is once again spot-on, and his abilities to simmer the tension are masterful: behold the shots of a door lock quaking apart as enraged convicts batter it down to get to Rama.

Having said that, while the dramatic scenes are individually strong – particularly one portraying a karaoke session that goes sour – there is an enormous amount of information to take in and a surprisingly measured, meditative tone, reminiscent of Only God Forgives, with the story cogs taking a while to start whirring. Uwais is also somewhat sidelined this time around. In short, the fact that this has been reverse-engineered into a Raid sequel can sometimes be felt.

But if the writing is somewhat knotty, Evans’ characterisation remains razor-sharp. Memorable new additions to the swelling Raid mythology include Bejo, a dapper psycho with shades and an unexplained limp, a Japanese crime syndicate (headed by Kenichi Endo, star of the spectacularly titled Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger The Movie: Full Blast Action), and a pair of assassins named Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman), who live up their billing and then some. Though the latter two sound like they belong in Kick-Ass 3, they deliver exactly the kind of insane carnage Raid-lovers have paid to see. There is an astonishing amount of violence here, captured with such an unflinching gaze that even the strongest stomach might spasm.

Yet, however shocking things get on screen – and often the only possible reaction is to laugh – the action is choreographed with a precision, wit and scope that keeps you on the edge of your seat. An early prison-riot scene is a startlingly harsh, expansive mêlée, the roving camera hurtling between the mud-splattered combatants. A fracas in a porn studio features a shotgun and a dildo. But the movie saves its real goodies for the final, exhausting, utterly insane 40 minutes, in which the relentless spirit of its predecessor is restored. It’s a reel that begins with a brace of assassinations, ends up at a restaurant/henchman factory, and throws in a car chase long the way for good measure. Among Evans’ many new tricks this time around: the invention of seatbelt fu.

The Raid 2 might be a bulkier, slower beast than its predecessor. But once the action kicks in, it’s more raucously bloodthirsty than a million pretenders to the throne.

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