Film

The Sisters Brothers

15/04/19

The western movie has ridden some twisted trails over the years, but few of them are quite as strange as the one followed by The Sisters Brothers. The first feature in English by French director Jacques Audiard, it’s based on the acclaimed novel by Patrick De Witt. It’s a good deal more philosophical than your average oater and it takes it owns sweet time to relate a decidedly bizarre tale.

The titular brothers are hired guns, working for the mysterious Commodore (a thankless non-speaking role for Rutger Hauer). Eli (John C Reilly) is the shy, sensitive one, who’s clearly not cut out for this kind of work, but is nonetheless deadly with a revolver, whenever push comes to shove. He tends to play second fiddle to the more nihilistic Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a habitual drunkard, who somehow manages to turn everything he touches into absolute chaos.

For their latest mission, the brothers are despatched to rendezvous with another hired gun, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), in order to apprehend the charismatic Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man with a spectacular (and, it would seem, almost magical) secret. But when Morris bumps into Warm, he soon falls under the man’s peculiar spell and the two of them quickly become business partners – a move which makes the brothers’ latest mission even more complicated than they expected.

This is a weirdly metaphorical film, where strange images loom out of mythic landscapes – a film where blazing horses career through the night and chunks of gold shimmer invitingly at the bottom of a creek – where opportunities pop up unexpectedly from the sagebrush only to metamorphose into death traps. As the brothers bicker and quarrel their way across the screen, we begin to learn that they are pioneers of their own misfortune, doomed to keep running from the seemingly endless adversaries that are pitched against them – and, even when they too find themselves partnering with their former target, it is only to unleash more dangers.

The Sisters Brothers certainly won’t be for everyone – and, with a running time of just over two hours, it will try the patience of those who want something more straightforward. But once settled into its peculiar rhythm, I find myself beguiled and occasionally startled by it. This is a Western the like of which I’ve never seen before and, trust me, I’ve seen many. I enjoy the ride.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Advertisements

Missing Link

14/04/19

Since its Oscar-winning debut feature Coraline in 2009, Laika Animation has resolutely ploughed its own furrow through the world of stop-motion, steadfastly avoiding the obvious and always maintaining the highest standards. Aardman may be the better-known company, but Laika are more consistent – and they seem to have perfected the trick of creating animations that really are suitable for all ages.

Missing Link is a good case in point. This is the story of fearless Victorian adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a man with an unshakable belief in his own brilliance and a matching resolve to hunt down the mythical creatures of the world. When his attempt to photograph the Loch Ness monster makes him a laughing stock at the Adventurers’ Club, he decides to go in search of the legendary American Sasquatch – and, in a plot strand that owes an unspoken debt to Around the World in 80 Days, even makes a bet with the society’s villainous leader, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), that he will prove that the creature is more than just a legend. If he succeeds, he will be granted membership. As insurance, Piggot-Dunceby sends evil assassin Willard Stenk (Timothy Oliphant) to ensure that Frost fails to make good on his wager.

Frost soon locates said Sasquatch, whom he quickly dubs Mr Link (Zach Galifianakis). But he is more than a little surprised to discover that this particular Bigfoot can talk, read and even write – indeed, he has penned the letter summoning Frost to meet up with him. He wants more than just an exchange of pleasantries. He wants Frost to take him to meet his closest cousins – the Yetis of far off Tibet…

Everything about Missing Link is spot on – the gorgeous, idiosyncratic animation, the astute characterisation, the fleet footed storyline that scrambles from one thrilling escapade to the next. There are some very funny scenes here, enough to get a Sunday afternoon audience laughing along throughout and there are also several eye-popping sequences that combine the stop-frame puppets with state of the art CGI work, a storm at sea being a particular standout.

It’s also great to note that Zoe Saldana’s adventurer, Adelina Fortnight, is given enough chops to compete on an equal footing with her male companions, whilst neatly sidestepping the possibility of being cast as (ho hum) the film’s love interest.

This is wildly entertaining stuff – and it’s been quite a while since I enjoyed an animated feature quite as much as this one. If you’re looking for the perfect family feature, you can’t go wrong with this.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Highwaymen

11/04/19

In 1967, director Arthur Penn created the unforgettable Bonnie and Clyde. Featuring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in career-defining roles, it treated the young outlaws as folk heroes and their bloody slow-mo deaths in a hail of bullets transformed them into martyrs. It was emotive stuff and few people emerged from a screening dry-eyed.

John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen takes an altogether more sober look at their three year reign of terror and concentrates on the two elderly men who ultimately brought them to justice. Indeed, here, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are demoted to the periphery of the action, glimpsed only in longshot until the very end – an approach that somehow serves to accentuate their charisma.

Kevin Costner stars as former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, brought out of comfortable retirement in order to hunt down the seemingly unstoppable duo. He teams up with old comrade, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), and the two ageing men embark on the long quest to find their elusive quarry. Their uncomfortable, odd couple relationship lies at the heart of this film, which is beautifully shot by John Schwartzman, the endless vistas of the American plains shimmering enticingly. This is, in many ways, an elegy for the old West, a world where new fangled automobiles struggle to deal with the kind of landscape where only horses previously ran.

Writer John Fusco is interested in the popularity of Bonnie and Clyde, the way they generated a huge fan following in a time of absolute poverty. They were widely seen as Robin Hood figures, outlaws who only ever stole from the rich. The scenes of mass hysteria when the couple’s bullet-riddled corpses are brought before the public are sobering indeed.

It’s interesting to read that the relatives of the real Frank Hamer successfully sued Warner Brothers for defamation of character over his depiction in the Arthur Penn classic. Costner sets the record straight here, playing him as a pragmatist, a man who takes no pleasure in killing them, but sees their deaths as a necessity – mad dogs to be put down in the public’s interest, even if the public don’t realise what’s good for them.

While The Highwaymen doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of high drama, it’s nevertheless an interesting and very different take on a story you may already think you know well. Interested parties will find it on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Black 47

08/04/19

A taciturn soldier deserts the army, heads back to his homeland  and finds that, in his absence, his family has been decimated. Powered by a hunger for revenge, he sets off to exact bloody mayhem on the people who have wronged him.

It sounds like the plot of a typical Clint Eastwood western, but here the army in question is the English forces in Afghanistan, the soldier is Feeney (James Frecheville), his family is based in County Connemara and the year is 1847, when the potato famine is wreaking mayhem on the Irish nation. What’s more, the English landlords are turfing out all tenants who cannot afford their rent, or will not ‘take the soup’ – a free handout that is only given to those who will renounce their Catholic faith and become protestants.

Once Feeney is embarked on his violent mission, old comrade, and former Connaught Ranger, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), is recruited to track him down, working alongside young English officer, Pope (Freddie Fox). But it’s a long journey to bring their man to justice and, as they progress along their corpse-littered route, Hannah begins to realise that the real enemy here is not Feeny, but the oppressive English landlords, who seem to regard the native population as vermin to be eradicated.

Lance Daly’s film, Black 47, was never going to be a big hitter at the box office but, like so many other mid-list titles, has found a home on Netflix. It’s a bleak, hard-hitting movie, beautifully filmed in desaturated colour by Declan Quinn and, while it pulls no punches with its political message, it focuses more on the action scenes, of which there are plenty. There are some superb actors in small roles. Stephen Rea shines as local opportunist, Coneely, and Jim Broadbent, usually such a jovial presence, makes a plausible villain as the sneering, venal Lord Kilmichael. There’s even the presence of rising star, Barry Keoghan, playing (of all things) an English soldier.

Perhaps the film can be accused of a certain heavy-handedness (virtually every English character we meet is a contemptible villain) but this is nonetheless a decent action film that keeps us suitably gripped to the final scene.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Ritual

07/04/19

We missed this at the cinema – not difficult to do, since it had a blink-and-miss-it release – but we saw the trailer and thought it looked promising. But The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner and based on a novel by Joe Barton and Adam Neville, is now happily located on Netflix. It starts well enough, exerting a steadily mounting Blair Witch-style sense of dread, but eventually loses its way.

At the film’s opening, Luke (Rafe Spall) is out with his mates on the town. They are Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton) and Robert (Paul Reid). Luke’s mates are all showing troubling signs of growing up. They don’t want to stay out on the lash and are discussing plans for their upcoming holiday together, which – instead of the usual booze up in a hot climate – is shaping up to be a hiking trip in a remote part of Sweden. Luke persuades Robert to go into a off-licence with him to purchase a bottle of vodka and the two of them chance upon an armed robbery in progress. Luke ducks behind some shelves and Robert winds up bloodily murdered.

Six months later, Luke and the rest of the band find themselves embarking on the long hike that Robert was so keen to do – but Luke is haunted by the fact that he failed to help his friend and is also aware that the others think less of him for not stepping up when push came to shove. The group soon become lost in dense forests and, when a violent rain storm hits them, they take refuge in an old shack for the night, where things turn decidedly scary.

Now they have to continue their trek, horribly aware that they are being pursued by something unseen, something that has a nasty habit of leaving dead animals hanging in trees…

The first two thirds of the film are really rather effective. The edgy interplay between the characters is convincingly written and the terrifying foe is a powerful concept as long as it remains pretty much unseen, which it does for about an hour. But the final section squanders all of that hard-earned suspense by offering a convoluted explanation that feels distinctly risible. It’s not helped that the effect sequences that finally show the marauding beast are rather less than convincing.

Also, there’s something strangely skewed about the logic of this tale. Luke badly needs some redemption but, as it stands, he doesn’t really get any; he just finds himself plunged into a desperate struggle for survival. And I’m desperately struggling to care.

A shame, because this could be a decent little chiller. Instead it feels more like a great big missed opportunity.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Pet Sematary

01/04/19

Since the success of It, Stephen King seems to be enjoying a bit of a cinematic renaissance – and, as most of his books have already been made into films, studios are gleefully remaking the ones that weren’t so successful first time around.

Pet Sematary initially saw the light of a cinema screen in 1989, under the direction of Mary Lambert, and boasted a screenplay by Mr King himself. I know I saw it when it came out but I remember very little about it – other than the fact that I was rather underwhelmed by what I saw. This new version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, certainly offers a more confident approach to the source material, even if there are some inherent problems lurking  in the mix. Essentially a spin on WW Jacob’s famous short story, The Monkey’s Paw, Pet Sematary still harbours some of the tropes that might have passed muster when the project was first conceived, but which look a little dodgy in the current climate.

Here, Louis (Jason Clarke) is the overworked doctor who decides to move his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and his two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie), from the big city to the peace and quiet of the countryside. Major mistake. The family’s new home comes complete with a massive stretch of land, most of which is heavily forested and much of which is the former ancestral burial grounds of the Mic Mac Indians. The land also encompasses the badly spelled graveyard, where the local kids go to bury their dead critturs (though I feel impelled to ask, where are these local kids? We see them only once, wearing creepy looking masks and then never again).

Young Ellie soon makes friends with elderly next-door neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow, twinkling effortlessly), and even introduces him to her beloved pet cat, Church. But the highway beside the house is a regular route for articulated lorries driven by reckless idiots and, when Church winds up splattered across the tarmac, Jud convinces Louis to hide the truth from Ellie and to bury the feline’s remains up on the old Mic Mac land, assuring him that, if he does so, something incredible will happen.

Sure enough, the next day, Church comes wandering home but, as the family soon discovers, something about his nature has changed for the worse…

For the most part, the film holds up well, creating an atmosphere of steadily mounting terror, even if some of the developments do test my credulity. (The family owns a vast stretch of land, so naturally they decide to host Ellie’s birthday party right beside that dangerous highway instead of somewhere safer – like, that would happen, right?) But there are some genuinely nerve wracking scenes here and also some explicitly visceral ones that push the 15 certificate to its very limits.

What really don’t work are the sections that flash back to Rachel’s childhood, when she had a morbid terror of her sister, Zelda – because she had a twisted spine. Sorry, but physical deformity is not fair game for horror and somebody should have thought carefully about those scenes before merrily throwing them into the screenplay – especially when said sister behaves like something out of The Exorcist.

Still, that error aside, this is genuinely compelling in places and offers one of the bleakest endings I can remember seeing since… well, another Stephen King-inspired movie, The Mist. Go to this if you feel like being terrorised but, be warned, some of those body horror scenes have been woefully misjudged.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Out of Blue

01/04/19

Out of Blue is a bit of a conundrum, a real curate’s egg of a film. At times, its audacity is breathtakingly impressive; at others, its pretentious incoherence is, well, kind of annoying.

Patricia Clarkson is Detective Mike Hoolihan, a genre-typical detective with an alcohol problem and a troubled past. When astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found dead next to her telescope, Mike notices similarities to a series of unsolved murders by the so-called .38 calibre killer. As she investigates, long-repressed childhood memories begin to resurface, and her composure fractures, leaving her vulnerable and exposed.

So far, so good, but of course Carol Morley was never going to embrace a straightforward whodunit crime procedural. Instead, we are treated to a philosophical musing on the nature of our place in the universe, looking outwards into the infinite vastness of a black hole, and inwards to the personal experiences that shape who we become. Stylistically, this works: the cinematography is sumptuous, and the blue-red colour palette is bold and arresting. But the endless banging on about Schrödinger’s cat gets a bit wearisome; this is entry level stuff given unwarranted gravitas. And the suggestion of parallel universes seems an unnecessary complication, adding little and muddying the plot.

I like the plot, actually, with its twisty ending (although presumably that’s down to Martin Amis, on whose novel this is based), and Patricia Clarkson’s performance is admirable here. Toby Jones is a welcome addition to any movie, and his depiction of Rockwell’s snivelling boss, Professor Ian Strammi, is no exception to this rule. Jacki Weaver never disappoints either, and she’s on top form as Rockwell’s flaky mother. But even these fine actors are not quite enough to save this film from its own sense of how clever it is. It’s all a bit show-offy for my taste.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield