Month: September 2014

The Guest

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11/09/14

After watching The Guest, I’m convinced of one thing. Dan Stevens is destined to be a big movie star – and this is his ‘breakout’ film. About as far from Downtown Abbey as he could reasonably go, it showcases his handsome, charismatic charms to the max and he has a lot of fun with the role. The fact that it isn’t really that good a film barely seems to matter.

Stevens plays ‘David,’ who turns up at the home of the Petersons, a family who are still in mourning for their son, Caleb, a marine who has (apparently) been killed in action. David claims to be Caleb’s best buddy who was with him when he died. After working his considerable charms on Caleb’s mother, Laura (Sheila Anderson) David is invited to become a house guest  and is soon involved in ‘looking after’ the family members, with particular attention to twenty year old Anna (Maika Monroe) and her teenage brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer). To the latter, he cheerfully suggests that he deals with the school bullies by breaking their noses and carrying a knife. It quickly becomes apparent to Anna (if not her parents) that David may not be the clean cut hero he’s pretending to be…

It’s in these early stretches where the film is at its most convincing, though director Adam Wingard (who gave us the queasily watchable You’re Next) needs to learn about pace – he often resorts to disguising the story’s slower-moving sections by dolloping swathes of electronic music over the top of the action. As the film galumphs shamelessly into its final third, it deteriorates into a risible bloodbath and as the body count rises, so all its hard-earned credibility goes straight out of the nearest window. Lance Reddick as ‘Major Carver,’ has the thankless task of steaming in like Basil Exposition, to explain exactly who ‘David’ is, before heading up a climactic face-off at a Halloween-themed party that looks like it’s stepped out of a Tobe Hooper movie.

OK, this isn’t going to win any prizes for originality… in fact, it’s not going to win any prizes, full stop. If it’s anything, it’s Stevens’ calling card to Hollywood, which suggests in no uncertain terms, that given bigger and better vehicles than this, he’s likely to shine. Watch this space.

3.1 stars

Philip Caveney

Labour Day

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11/09/14

Watching this slice of sweaty, deep-fried Americana, one thought kept recurring. What was Jason Reitman thinking? The director of Juno and Up In The Air is clearly capable of good things, but here he’s given us a slice of overheated hokum that seems largely designed to enforce every outmoded sexual stereotype in existence.

Adele (Kate Winslett) is a depressed mother, separated from her husband and trying to raise her teenage son, Henry (Gatlin Griffiths) to the best of her ability. On a shopping expedition, the two of them are confronted by Frank (Josh Brolin) a wounded criminal on the run and forced to take him back to their house, where he informs them he’s going to be staying for the long weekend of Labour Day. Just so there’s no misunderstanding, he starts by tying Adele to a chair, before cooking her a nice bowl of chilli and spoon-feeding it to her. Frank, it turns out, was in prison for the murder of his girlfriend (a sequence of events explained in clunky and at first, rather baffling flashbacks) but unlike most killers, he’s the extremely helpful sort and it isn’t long before he’s mending leaky taps, waxing the floors and instructing Adele in the fine art of making a peach cobbler. In fact, Frank is so patronising, it’s a wonder Adele doesn’t tell him to sling his hook, but since she seems to have the disposition of the average doormat, she’s soon falling in love with him and making plans to elope across the border to Canada. Meanwhile, she comes in handy for the occasional bit of sock darning and wound tending…trust me, I’m not making this up, it really is what happens.

The events are seen through the eyes of young Henry, who already seems to have a distinctly creepy attitude towards his Mom and there’s the definite feeling that he thinks he’s being in some way usurped by Frank. An early sequence where he gives Adele a card offering to be her ‘husband for a day’ was doubtless intended to be cute, but it’s actually rather worrying and scenes of him shopping for masturbatory material don’t help matters one bit.

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the film offers a conclusion of such saccharine sweetness, you imagine you can actually feel your teeth rotting. It’s always tricky when an admired director offers a less than satisfying film, but for Reitman, this is a disaster he’ll have to work very hard to expunge from my memory. Winslet and Brolin must be wishing they’d never signed their contracts.

1 star

Philip Caveney

Nebraska

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07/09/14

The last time they were handing out Oscars, this low-budget picture by Alexander Payne managed to rack up six nominations, without actually winning anything. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why it was so highly regarded. From the note-perfect performances of the ensemble cast, through to the ravishing black and white images of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, (landscapes which evoke memories of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show – praise indeed) this is a fabulous little film that surely deserves to find a wider audience on DVD.

Veteran actor, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a cantankerous old curmudgeon living in Montana with his fabulously potty-mouthed wife, Kate (June Squibb.) When he receives a promotional flier in the post notifying him that he may have won a million dollars, he becomes obsessed with the notion of travelling to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his ‘winnings.’ Since he can’t actually drive, he keeps trying to walk there, even though it’s a distance of around a thousand miles. His son, Will (David Grant) tries in vain to persuade him that he’s wasting his time, but finally decides to drive him there, if only to spend a little quality time with the father who, because of a lifelong addiction for alcohol, has been notably absent for much of Will’s childhood. Will decides to break up the trip with a visit to Woody’s family en route. But when news gets out that Woody is going to be a millionaire, old rivalries and feuds come bubbling to the surface…

Alexander Payne doesn’t make many movies but this one must rank as his finest achievement. Both Dern and Squibb turn in standout performances, the dialogue is bleakly funny throughout and for once, here’s an American movie that’s prepared to examine the shabby underbelly of a recession-stricken USA. Nice too to see Bob Odenkirk as Will’s older brother, Ross, a role that’s very different to his sleazy turn as Saul in Breaking Bad. Plaudits too for finding a genuinely heart-warming (but never cheesy) conclusion to a story that you know from the outset, is not destined to end happily.

If like me, you let this one slip away on the big screen, here’s the perfect opportunity to catch up with it. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Before I Go To Sleep

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06/09/14

Another day, another literary adaptation. This one is based on S.J. Watson’s above-average page turner and it’s one of those situations where having read the source novel proves to be a distinct disadvantage. There’s a big ‘reveal’ towards the end of the story which simply doesn’t work if you’ve read the book. (Think Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, a devastating ending in the source novel that’s completely defused when you know what’s coming.)

Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes up to find that she doesn’t know anything. (Well, we’ve all done that.) She is introduced to her caring husband, Ben (Colin Firth) who explains that some years ago she had an ‘accident,’ and now her short term memory is so badly affected, she remembers only what happens in any given day. Every night when she goes to sleep, her memory is wiped and she has to start all over again. She receives a call from a Doctor Nash (Mark Strong) who tells her he’s been working with her on her memory and instructs her to look for a hidden video camera, which records her day-to-day progress. He also tells her that her problem wasn’t caused by an accident at all but by a brutal attack…

What worked so convincingly in the novel doesn’t  translate successfully to the big screen. Though the film is well acted by its key players and there’s workmanlike direction from Rowen Joffe, seeing everything in visual terms only serves to accentuate how risible much of the storyline actually is. An ending which I found rather pat in the book, is presented here as double cheese with extra cheese, and prompts difficult-to-answer questions about some of the character’s motivations.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll almost certainly be disappointed by this lacklustre interpretation. If you haven’t, you’ll probably think of it as a moderately successful thriller. Either way, this isn’t going to rock your world.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Invisible Woman

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01/09/14

This slow-burning biopic focuses on Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and the clandestine affair he conducted over many years with young actress Nellie Ternan (Felicity Jones), whilst steadfastly maintaining the outward appearance of a respectable family man. It’s a handsomely mounted production, directed by Fiennes himself, that appears to have taken much of its look from the great Victorian painters.

The story opens some years after Dickens’ death and finds Nelly, living under an assumed name and married to a schoolteacher, but still grieving for the ‘great love’ of her life. The school’s reverend (John Kavenagh) himself a Dickens fan, guesses her identity and encourages her to talk about her past, which is revealed in a series of flashbacks. Fiennes makes a good fit for Dickens, as he is the very picture of the man anyway and it’s interesting to see Jones, that most contemporary of actresses, in a period role, but it must be said that there aren’t many fireworks to be found in Abbi Morgan’s restrained screenplay. Dickens emerges as something of a creep and we never really learn enough about what motivates him to act as he does, repeatedly humiliating his wife of many years, Catherine (Joanna Scanlon) and his children, without so much as turning a hair. The story also examines the void between the great author’s true nature and the image he presented to his legions of adoring fans.

Thoughtful stuff, admirably played by a superb cast but ultimately, there’s not enough here to fully engage and entertain.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney