Cillian Murphy

Anna

11/07/19

Director Luc Besson has been having a thin time of things lately. His love project, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, was a baffling and expensive flop, so it’s little wonder he’s returned to more familiar ground with Anna, which has been awaiting release for some time. This histrionic spy-thriller has the feel of an 80s bonkbuster about it: patently absurd, but nonetheless rather enjoyable as it galumphs gleefully across the career of the titular hero (Sasha Luss), a young woman forced to become a high level assassin.

When we first meet her, she’s down at heel, addicted to drugs and enduring an abusive relationship with her no-good boyfriend, Piotr (Alexander Petrov), who gets her mixed up in some very bad business. But she is rescued (if that’s the right term) by KGB man, Alex (Luke Evans), who offers her an opportunity to ‘better herself.’ From this point, the film cuts to five years later – and from there to three years earlier; and we continue to switch back and forth in time like an out of control roller coaster. While it’s occasionally hard to keep track of exactly where we are, it means that the story often pulls the rug from under the viewer’s feet, throwing out some real surprises. It’s never dull.

Complications arise when CIA man, Lenny (Cillian Murphy), appears on the scene.  Anna carries on doing her missions, whilst longing for the freedom to walk away from something that has become an absolute chore.

Most of the familiar Luc Besson tropes are here: savage punch-ups with Anna taking on entire armies of black-suited hit men, casual executions in glamorous settings and young women slinking around in high end fashions (Anna’s cover identity has her posing as a model). There’s also a lovely turn from Helen Mirren as Anna’s chainsmoking KGB handler, Olga, having great fun in a show-off role.

Everything builds to a cross and double-cross conclusion and, while this isn’t Besson at his very best, it’ll certainly do until his next effort comes along. Just don’t think about that labyrinthine plot too much. You’ll tie your brain in knots.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Party

26/10/17

Shot in stark (and very unforgiving) black and white and confined pretty much to one set, The Party feels like the kind of thing that Mike Leigh has done so brilliantly in the past – indeed, if it resembles one of his works in particular, it certainly has echoes of Abigail’s Party about it. With a sprightly running time of one hour and eleven minutes, this film, written and directed by Sally Potter, canters amiably along but, though it can’t be accused of overstaying its welcome, it never entirely manages to blow you away.

Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) is in the mood to celebrate. She’s just been appointed shadow health minister for the ‘opposition’ and has invited some close friends around for vol au vents and bubbly. They are: her snarky best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), and her partner, the hippy-dippy faith healer, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); feminist university lecturer, Martha (Cherry Jones) ,and her wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who is currently expecting the patter of er… little triplets; and, definitely the odd one out at this gathering, handsome young property developer, Tom (Cillian Murphy), who explains that his wife, Marianne, will be ‘along later for dessert… or maybe just coffee.’ But it’s not destined to be a happy occasion, because Janet’s morose husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), has something he really needs to get off his chest…

Relentlessly middle class in its themes, the story is mostly about people being unfaithful to one another and, though the performances are generally pretty good, the protagonists cannot seem to help slipping into caricature. April can’t open her mouth without insulting somebody, Martha and Jinny say things in public that any rational person would surely save for later on, and Gottfried is so glib it hurts – but then maybe that’s entirely the point of him. Only Tom seems to have convincing reasons to act the way he does and, indeed, Murphy’s performance is the strongest one here – a man driven by jealousy to do something unspeakable.

Mind you, there’s a conclusion that I really don’t see coming and, all in all, this film makes a decent antidote to the steady diet of superhero movies we’re constantly being offered. I can’t help feeling though, that given the same set up and the same cast of characters, Leigh would have knocked this out of the park.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Anthropoid

anthropoid

11/09/16

Based on the true story of the WWII Operation Anthropoid mission to assassinate Nazi third-in-command Reinhard Heydrich, this is a hard-hitting film, which offers very little respite from the bleakness it portrays. It’s unflinching, forcing its audience to confront the awful brutality of war, the vile atrocities we commit in the name of patriotism or fear. And it’s quite difficult to watch.

It’s 1942; Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) have been tasked  with assassinating the Nazi leader of the protectorate, both to reassert the legitimacy of the exiled Czechoslovakian government, and as retribution for his harsh rule. Heydrich (who was also in charge of the so-called Final Solution) was clearly a hateful man, and this film focuses firmly on the victims’ experience; the Nazis are portrayed as a terrifying mass, with nothing to differentiate between them; they are uniformly evil. And that’s fair enough, I think; that’s how they would have appeared. I don’t imagine the people whose countries they occupied cared much about individual German soldiers’ situations, nor how propaganda and forced-conscription would have swelled the Nazi ranks. This film belongs to Jan and Josef, and the courage they and their tiny band of resistance fighters showed in taking on such a mighty foe.

The first half is slow and meticulous, focusing on the minutiae of living secretly and planning. Their developing relationships with Maria (Charlotte le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová) are subtly told, and the sense of imminent threat is ever present.

Once the assassination attempt is under way, the pace picks up, and the tension is unbearable. Indeed, the final battle is a fast-paced, relentless shoot-out, a bloodbath of the most ugly kind. No punches are pulled here. We see bullets rip through flesh. We see people being tortured until they lose all sense of who they are. But, ultimately, this is a tale of hope. Yes, human beings do terrible things. We can’t deny it. But other, better human beings will always try to bring them down. And, sometimes, they will succeed.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield