Month: September 2014

The Borderlands

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19/09/14

Found-footage movies seem to dominate the horror film market these days, so it’s refreshing for once, to find one that’s a cut above most of the competition. The Borderlands deals with paranormal goings-on in a remote West Country church, reported by its decidedly twitchy priest. A team of Vatican investigators are sent to try and fathom what’s going on. Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) is a hard-bitten cleric who has experienced spooky events all over the world. Mark (Aidan McCardle) is the official team leader, a real ‘by the book’ stickler (and frankly a bit of a twerp). The third member is Gray (Robin Hill) a ‘techie’ and a man with no religious beliefs whatsoever. He sets up countless hidden cameras and equips everyone with radio controlled head cams, which  immediately makes the ‘found footage’ side of things more believable than most of the other films in the genre, where we’re expected to believe that characters will keep pressing ‘record’ while their pals are being slaughtered.

Director, Elliot Goldner, deals in suggestion. Things are glimpsed in the dark, but never properly seen, there are sounds in the night that are never readily identified, and the three investigators encounter things that they cannot easily explain. It all goes to generate considerable (sometimes almost unbearable) tension. What’s particularly intriguing about the story is that Gray, the confirmed Atheist, turns out to be much more suggestible than his Catholic companions. As is generally the case in films of this kind, the tension is gradually cranked up to max and there’s a labyrinthine conclusion that will have claustrophobic viewers climbing the walls. If there’s a major criticism, it’s having brought us to the brink of terror, the film doesn’t really know what to do with us, but maybe that’s beside the point.

If you’re looking for something to give you some decent chills after a night at the pub, this one should do nicely.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Killing USA

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17/09/14

As a fan of the original Swedish series, Forbrydelsen, I had mixed feelings about watching this. After all, wouldn’t it just be a pale rerun of Sarah Lund’s adventures? Here, Lund has metamorphosed into Seattle-based Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) a nervy and committed detective about to quit the force and marry her fiancé. On the eve of her departure, she’s teamed with a new partner, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) a hip, jive-ass, chain-smoking low life, initially much more unlikable than his Swedish counterpart. Just as Linden is about to depart, news comes in of the murder of a teenage girl, Rosie Larsen and Linden starts putting off the nuptials in order to stay at the helm of the investigation.

So far, so like the original – but just as I was at the point of abandoning this as a ‘seen it all before,’ something strange happened – something that demonstrated that the ‘perp’ from the original story, couldn’t have committed this murder. Having established the basic outlines, the producers of The Killing USA had decided to run with the idea and introduce a few tropes of their own. Chief amongst them, was the decision that rather than tie the whole thing up neatly in one series, the Larson investigation would actually extend over two and would be a much more complicated affair than its Nordic progenitor. So, in come a whole bunch of plots and sub plots. Rosie’s Dad, Stan (Brent Sexton) used to be a mob hit man. His wife, Mitch (Michelle Forbes) suffers a nervous breakdown and goes on the lam. Then there’s the machinations of would-be city Mayor, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) and the many shady people who work for him and oppose him. Even more complicated is the fact that Linden and Holder both have ghosts of their own lurking in their respective pasts. After initial hostility, the two detectives gradually establish a working relationship and both actors deserve plaudits for making their characters so believable and (against all the odds) really likeable.

The result is that a few episodes into season one, the story begins to grip and apart from a few soggy stretches towards the middle of season two, it manages to keep you hooked to the end. Only the finest armchair detectives will work out whodunnit (I was left guessing until the final moments). This being an American production, of course there are some elements of sentimentality, you won’t find in the original, but at the same time, there’s a final episode twist that is so cynical, such a vicious slap in the face, it literally left me gasping.

Season three takes a major step away from the source material. Linden and Holder team up again investigate a series of killings that appear to go back years, while the man who was originally charged with the murders, Ray Seward (Peter Sarsgaard), awaits imminent execution on death row. But, if the killings are still being perpetrated, how can Seward possibly be guilty? Freed of the constraints of following the original storyline, this is the best season of the three. The relationship between the two detectives deepens (at several points incorporating a tantalising ‘will they, won’t they’ element), the desperate race against time to exonerate Seward is nail biting by the final episodes and there’s a last minute reveal that most viewers will not see coming.

The Killing USA is therefore not the pale imitation you might have expected, but a complex and entertaining drama with an identity of its own.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Pride

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14/09/14

Set in 1984, at the height of the miner’s strike, Pride tells the true-life story of Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) a young gay activist who manages to persuade a group of like minded-friends to form LGSM (Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners). They start to collect money on behalf of one particular group of strikers, in South Wales and are so successful, It’s not long before the group meets up with likeable Union man, Dai (Paddy Considine). He invites them to the sleepy village of Onllwyn, to meet the miners in person – where inevitably, they encounter resistance from some of the more reactionary inhabitants – but after an initial frosty reception, they start to find allies in some rather unlikely places…

Pride is simply irresistible. Cut from the same cloth as films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off, it features a terrific ensemble cast – Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West are undoubted highlights, but the overall casting is note-perfect. While it occasionally plays for easy laughs, (‘Dai, your gays have arrived!’) it’s never less than entertaining stuff and also takes the opportunity to slip in some genuinely throught-provoking moments.

It would be a cold heart indeed that doesn’t shed tears at the film’s emotional conclusion. Like most ‘true-life’ stories, there remains the conviction that dramatic licence must have been exercised on some of the actual events, but nevertheless, this is a successful slice of drama, snappily directed by Matthew Warchus, wittily scripted by Stephen Beresford and one that manages to keep itself just the right side of sentimentality.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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