The Prado Museum – A place of wonders

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Documentary

Availability: In cinemas

Plot: The Prado Museum in Madrid had its 200th anniversary in 2019, and this documentary is a celebration of its enduring commitment to the collection and presentation of western art. We get to see lots of magnificent artworks from leading European artists over the centuries. British actor Jeremy Irons guides us through the precious collections, telling the story of the origins of the museum, its royal patronage, and the social and historical events that have shaped the collection over time.

Cast: While Jeremy Irons takes the lead presentation, and does so with his usual aplomb, the details about the collection and particular works of art are provided by staff and associates of the Prado. They bring vast knowledge, expertise, and passion to the narration. The film is, nevertheless, all about the artists and their works that fill the rooms of this internationally acclaimed gallery – Titian, Raphael, Rubens, Dürer, El Greco, Caravaggio, along with the much loved Spanish artists, Goya and Velazquez. 

Filming and Setting: Three women bring this splendid documentary to the screen. Valeria Parisi directed (Maverick Modigliani), Didi Gnocchi produced the film (with 3D Produzioni – an Italian company that produces some of the best of these art-focused documentaries), and Sabina Fedeli (Hitler versus Picasso) wrote the screenplay. They bring a depth of experience in the arts as they expertly weave together artistic and political histories, along with the human experience of stepping into these interconnected worlds. We also get to hear something about women artists represented in the collection – how they made their mark in a world that is completely dominated by men, and the challenges they faced in both making and presenting art.

Personal Comments: This is a terrific documentary. It is beautifully filmed, and it does an excellent job of presenting an eclectic collection based on the likes and dislikes of the Spanish royals. You don’t need to be an expert on art to enjoy this film. For art lovers though, it’s a must-see. But you need to brace yourself – it will leave you longing for a trip to Madrid.

Percy vs Goliath

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Environmental docudrama

Availability: At cinemas

Plot: Clark Johnson (The Wire) directs this environmental docudrama that tells the story of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer and accidental activist who took on the agricultural corporate giant, Monsanto. Monsanto monopolises the cropping industry through the development and patenting of seed that is genetically resistant to its own widely used weedkiller, ‘Round-up’. Persuasively, Monsanto convinces farmers that by spraying their crops with the pesticide they will never need to worry about weeds again. The only problem is they have to purchase and sow Monsanto’s Round-up resistant seed, which then traps them in a dependent relationship with the corporation. Even farmers who choose to sow their own seeds become vulnerable to legal action from Monsanto when the Round-up resistant seeds accidentally contaminate their farms. Both legally and practically it’s a messy business, and Monsanto reaps the financial benefits as farmers end up having to pay the monopolistic corporation when their crops are found to have Monsanto gene. Loosely based on a true story, Percy Schmeiser is a seed-saver. Like his forebears, he saves the seeds of his strongest plants, which he then plants, creating stronger crops over generations. An independent crop farmer, he wants nothing to do with Monsanto. But when his crop is tested, some seeds are found to have the Round-up resistant gene and Monsanto threatens Percy with court action or a $10,000 penalty. In similar situations, farmers like Percy see no option other than settling out of court and pay the penalty. But Percy is incensed, and refuses. Legal battles commence, and go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the mix, is a parallel story relating to anti-GMO environmental activism that Percy finds himself an unexpected spokesperson for. 

Cast: Christopher Walken is outstanding in the lead, bringing considerable heft to the film. It’s difficult to find any weaknesses in his characterisation. The perfect foil to Walken’s brusque portrayal of Percy, Roberta Maxwell is terrific as his wife Louise, who also bears the consequences of Percy’s fight for fairness. Zach Braff sympathetically plays Percy’s small-town, and sometimes baffled lawyer, Jackson Weaver. Christina Ricci does a good job in playing the rather unlikable Rebecca Salcau, the environmental activist who pressurises and sometimes manipulates Percy in support of the greater good.  

Filming and Setting: This film is beautifully made. The cinematography captures the stunningly flat Saskatchewan landscape across the seasons – the rich colours of growth, and the bleakly beautiful snow-covered plains of winter. Somewhat discordantly, the upbeat country music playing throughout the film is at odds with the seriousness of Percy’s deteriorating legal and financial situation. Ending the film with Woody Guthrie’s ‘This land is your land’ didn’t feel quite right either. A rousing Canadian song would have gone down better. 

Personal Comments: The film does an effective job of showing what an emotionally draining experience it is to engage in an individual fight against a corporation like Monsanto. The underdog versus the all-powerful multinational also has compelling appeal in the same way other films have over the years (for example, Erin Brockovich, and Dark Waters). The main weakness of the film is the way in which it strays into anti-GMO territory, and in particular Percy’s conference trip to India. While it was visually interesting, the David and Goliath story would have been strong enough to carry the action without this meandering fictional diversion.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½ 

Categorisation: Spy Thriller

Availability: Acorn

Plot: Frank Spotnitz (The Ex-Files) creates this 2012 spy series. Sam Hunter is the top Operative (we used to call them agents) for Byzantium, the commercialised espionage firm used by multi-nationals to further their corrupt commercial ends. Byzantium’s clients are cloaked in secrecy. Even the Byzantium team don’t know whom they work for. The series starts in Tangier with Sam undertaking a daring rescue. There are plenty of James Bond-type scenes as she fights her way out of trouble. In fact, throughout the series Sam fights her way out of lots of trouble, often making short work of villains three times her size – and often overcoming six strapping assailants at once (I might be exaggerating here…but not much). Like many protagonists these days, Sam copes with her own demons. Her backstory makes her vulnerable, and also drives the action through flashbacks, as she investigates her tragic past. After the fracas in Tangier, the action moves to London, where Byzantium has its headquarters, and where we meet the rest of the team. Like the Bond films, Hunted has its fair share of sex and violence. There are lots of syringes being plunged into eyeballs, that kind of thing, and Sam uses sex to charm her way into the inner workings of the criminal underworld.

Cast: With the exception of a couple of characters, the acting in this series is pretty mediocre. Stephen Dilane who plays Byzantium boss Rupert Keel, creates a most chilling character, helped along with some of the best lines – ‘of all the infinite variables of chaos that I pondered this morning, the one that never crossed my mind was that you’d be standing in front of me’. The always impressive Patrick Malahide plays the truly evil patriarch, Jack Turner, bringing a good deal of malice to the role. But Melissa George as Sam Hunter and Adam Rayner as Aiden Marsh, her minder and sometime love interest, are both let down by the poor script. They have to rely on the action scenes to redeem them. I must say, I found it difficult to see past George’s permanent pout (I think it has something to do with her top lip). She is always either pouting or fighting. Even with the flashbacks to her past, it must be hard for an actor to develop character under these circumstances. 

Filming and Setting: The cinematography is the strength of the series. It takes us from Tangiers to London, and inside some beautiful places – for example London’s National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows of Byzantium’s office complex looks out onto spectacular sights of the inner city, and we also get to see some of the beauties of Scotland as Sam regains her equilibrium in between operations. The filming is terrific, and often quite beautiful.

Personal Comments: Apparently this series has been hugely popular with viewers, although no second series has been made, nor foreshadowed. There are some interesting things happening in Hunted – the gender-disrupted rent-a spy idea is novel, and it’s fun to see a female Bond character who is every bit as acrobatically ridiculous as the original. But the writing really isn’t good enough, and there is little in the plot that holds up to scrutiny. But if you like an action-packed series, Bondesque but not as good, then this one is entertaining enough.   

Six Minutes to Midnight

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½

Categorisation: Spy Drama

Availability: In cinemas

Plot: Inspired by a true situation, Six Minutes to Midnight was directed by Andy Goddard (Downton Abbey), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones. The film takes us into the world of the Augusta Victoria College, a finishing school for girls that was established exclusively for the daughters of the Nazi elite. It is 1939 and WW2 is yet to be declared. One of the teachers at the school mysteriously disappears, and the headmistress, Miss Rocholl, is having trouble finding a suitable replacement. Soon the reasons for the teacher’s disappearance become clear – there are sinister activities afoot. While wary of Thomas Miller, the new applicant for the position, Miss Rocholl agrees to take him on. Soon they are embroiled in espionage as Britain and Germany teeter on the brink of war and the school finds itself at the centre of it.

Cast: Actor, writer and comedian, Eddie Izzard co-wrote the script and also plays the key role of Miller, the new teacher. Izzard has clearly influenced the feel of the film, variously moving from the suave to the audacious to the comic. Ultimately this is at odds with the film’s initial framing of the story, and it creates a schism with respect to its intent – is it serious as the first scenes suggest, is it (James)Bondesque, or is it a Boys-Own adventure? Disappointingly, as the film progresses, Izzard plays to the latter. Judy Dench as Miss Rocholl tries to bring some nuanced depth to the film, but not nearly enough. Celyn Jones, also co-writer of the screenplay, takes the role of the stereotyped but ultimately heroic Corporal Willis (although we never really find out what happened to him). In this genre-confused film, despite a stellar cast, it’s difficult for anyone to make their mark.

Filming and setting: The Augusta Victoria College was actually situated in Bexham-on-Sea a small town in south east England, but the movie was filmed in Carmarthenshire, a county of South Wales. It is a wonderful setting, and cinematographer Chris Seager gets the most out of the stunning locations, in particular Penarth, Llandeilo and Swansea (Llansteffan Castle is featured early on, as is Penarth’s splendid Victorian pier). Seager excels in the first half of the film. His filming of the Nazi-influenced regimentation of the girls exercising is chilling. Unfortunately it all becomes less effective in the second half, when Seager has to try and make something of the comic scenes where Miller steals the uniform of a brass band musician, and embarks on seemingly never ending chases across never ending fields. Overall, the film has an old fashioned feel about it – one that might have been made in the 1930s or 40s, such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, but with the benefits of modern filming making.

Personal Comments: The Augusta Victoria College existed in real life, and after seeing the film I’m left wondering why the leaders of the Nazi regime sent their daughters to England, and what it might have been like for the girls in a small English town with a swastica stitched into their school badge. It would surely have been a fascinating story, but not one that this film has chosen to tell. Rather, it takes a less interesting route of a fictionalised, and predictable spy drama. But if you enjoy an adventure film in the style of the 1930s then you may well like this one.