Colin Farrell

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

04/11/17

Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster is a real divider of opinion. Many people love this dark dystopian comedy, while others just can’t get their heads around the surreal craziness of the plot. I suspect the same fate awaits The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which, while it heads into much darker territory than its predecessor, still offers us a story that has very little to do with any kind of perceived reality. And yet, for all that, this bizarre fable about the nature of sacrifice is a powerfully compelling tale that exerts a real grip.

Heart surgeon Steven Murphy (a hirsute Colin Farrell) enjoys a successful career. Married to ophthalmologist, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and the father of Kim (Raffey Cassiday) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), he seems content with his life but talks only in the most banal terms about the dullest subjects – an early discussion with an anaesthesiologist about a watch that Steven is thinking about buying sets the tone.  

We soon learn, however, that Steven has a secret. He is meeting regularly with teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan) and, inevitably, we suspect that there’s something sinister going on. But the film is full of misconceptions. Martin, it turns out, is the son of a man who died on Steven’s operating table and the surgeon is simply trying to be nice to him, possibly because he feels a sense of guilt about what happened. Steven, we discover, is fond of a drink and may not have been entirely sober when he went into the operating theatre. As the film develops, Martin begins to inveigle his way more and more into the Murphy household and even insists that Steven should come to his house and meet his mother (an unsettling cameo from Alicia Silverstone), who Martin claims ‘has feelings’ for Steven. But then Martin says something that will change Steven’s life forever. It’s in the nature of a prediction – and means the surgeon having to make the most difficult decision of his life…

This is a fascinating tale, expertly told. Though it has no rational explanation, there’s a mounting sense of dread throughout and the story (co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) seems to delight in exploding received wisdoms about how people will act under certain conditions. A mother will always put her children first, right? Siblings will always look out for each other, yes? Well, in this film’s worldview, nothing can be taken for granted.

If I’m honest, the movie overstays its welcome somewhat. With twenty minutes cut from the running time, this would have been stronger, but nevertheless there’s still plenty here to enjoy, not least Keoghan’s wonderfully dead-eyed performance as the teenage boy who comes to exercise complete control over the Murphys. Oh, that title, by the way, refers to the myth of Iphigenia, so those of you who have studied the classics might have some intimation about where the story is headed.

As I said at the beginning, some people will inevitably hate this film. For me, though not perfect, it’s even stronger than The Lobster, and I for one will be fascinated to see where this exciting and highly original film-maker goes next.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Beguiled

15/07/17

In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, received wisdoms are questioned at every turn. For a start, we’re clearly positioned on the women’s side, with their talk of ‘our boys’ at odds with the dastardly Union soldiers and the havoc they wreak (disrupting schooling, stealing chickens, killing brothers – the list is long). It’s easy to forget, while watching, that history is on the Unionists’ side: Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is fighting to end slavery. Even if he is a mercenary, he’s doing the right thing.

But this is history Jane Austen-style: the politics and horrors of the outside world barely penetrate these school walls. Oh, their impact is felt and heard: there is shooting in the distance; the girls can’t go home; soldiers pass by the house or come in to search the place – but the focus is on the interior domestic world of women, ostracised by the fighting, trapped indoors, biding their time.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress; the school is her family home. She clings to a sense of tradition in the face of uncertainty, citing the lineage of everything, even her father’s desk and gun. There might be shells exploding on the horizon, but the gates are locked and the girls must learn their French declensions. Everything is very ordered and proper, and decorum is everything.

Into this world comes the injured Corporal McBurney, as charming and handsome as, well… Colin Farrell. He’s discovered by Amy (Oona  Laurence), one of the younger pupils, on a rare and forbidden foray into the woods. She’s looking for mushrooms, but she finds the wounded and immobile soldier instead, and takes him to the school for her teachers to assess. “I couldn’t just leave him to die,” she says, seeking approval, clearly conflicted. Miss Martha agrees: “The enemy, viewed as an individual, is often not what we expect.” (The same can be said, of course, of these privileged women, whose ‘side’ is that of the oppressor, not the oppressed.) But the act of charity is doomed: the house is a hotbed of repressed sexuality, from Miss Martha’s uptight propriety to Alicia (Elle Fanning)’s burgeoning self-awareness, not to mention Edwina (Kirsten Dunst)’s blushing neediness and the little girls’ barely understood desire for male attention. These are women without men in a patriarchal world: Corporal McBurney offers them the chance to relieve their frustrations. They vie for his affections, and begin to fall apart.

It’s a tense, exciting kind of film, in the same way as The Falling or Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s slow and sensual, forbidding and unsettling. The claustrophobia is palpable, and it’s clear that something must erupt from this seething undercurrent of repressed passion. The acting is superb, each character utterly and devastatingly believable. There’s a lovely ambiguity too: who’s really in the wrong? Does Miss Martha really have to take the drastic action she does (I can’t say more without revealing far too much), or is she acting to protect the girls and regain control? Is McBurney to blame for looking out for himself, for using what he’s got to keep himself safe? These are all flawed, credible people, acting and reacting to the cards they’ve been dealt, making mistakes and having to live with the results of them. It doesn’t pull many punches, and it’s really very good indeed. Sofia Coppola’s best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival is very well deserved – let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another fifty-six years before another woman gains this accolade.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

19/11/16

Question: how do you turn a rather slim World Book Day volume into not one, not three, but five big movies? Answer. Ring up JK Rowling. She has elaborated extensively on said slim volume to create a wizarding tale set, not in the familiar confines of Hogwarts, but in New York city in the year 1926. The more cynical amongst us will be tempted to dub this with an alternative title – Newt Scamander and the Cow of Cash – but to give the film its due, it is undoubtedly a serious attempt to step away from the path already trodden and for that, at least, it should be applauded; and the attention to detail that’s been applied to the creation of the wizard world is truly impressive. But the ranks of parents accompanied by bewildered looking youngsters as the credits rolled on the afternoon show we attended, spoke volumes. Despite that 12A certificate, this is not a film for the very young, simply because there’s no child protagonist here to fully engage their attention.

Instead we have English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York city carrying a magical case of strange creatures with him and it’s no great surprise when some of those creatures escape and start running amok in the (beautifully recreated) city. These range from tiny, cute and obsessed with stealing shiny things, to large, rhinoceros-like and ready to mate with something (seriously – you need to prepare yourself for Scamander’s mating dance). Newt soon falls under the watchful gaze of ministry of magic jobs worth, Tina (Katherine Waterston) and things take a more complicated turn when ‘No-Maj’  (the American term for a Muggle) Kowalski (Dan Fogle) inadvertently ends up with the wrong suitcase. Much hilarity ensues, and many landmark buildings are spectacularly destroyed…

Which is all well and good, but it has to be said that something in this mix doesn’t quite work. The resulting film is neither fish nor fowl. Surely, the parade of beautifully rendered CGI creatures are aimed at children, while the human characters behave in a manner that’s more appropriate for their parents – but because neither aspect fully coheres with the other, both sides of the audience are somehow left wanting. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty here to enjoy, not least the delightful Queenie (Alison Sudal, channeling her inner Marilyn Monroe) and Fogle’s winning turn as the poor schlep who finds himself suddenly immersed in a world of wizarding is good too. Redmayne rather overdoes it as Scamander – sure, he’s meant to be shy and introverted but he gurns his way through this first film and I can only hope that he’ll dial it down a bit for episodes 2,3,4 and 5. Whether I’ll be watching any of them is another matter.The major villain here is Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful wizard with a hidden agenda, but he really doesn’t have all that much to do and seems a poor exchange for the villainous Voldemort.

A lot of money and huge amounts of technical skill has clearly been lavished on this project – and it’s by no means the worst thing you’ll see this year – but for me at least, it fails to live up to its famous progenitor. And I can’t help thinking – how are they going to string this out for another four movies?

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Lobster

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18/10/15

There’s no other way of saying it. The Lobster is weird.

This surreal blend of dark comedy and occasional violence won the Jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and it represents Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s first foray into the English language. It was strangely heartening to see that despite its unabashed art house ambitions, it had somehow managed to pull a decent crowd into a multiplex on a Sunday afternoon. Gratifying too, that only a few people walked out of the showing shaking their heads.

David ( a barely recognisable Colin Farrell) finds himself dumped by his wife of twelve years (well, eleven years and one month, to be exact – the film is very pedantic about things like that). In the dystopian society in which the story is set, this means that he soon finds himself whisked off to a mysterious seaside hotel, where he has just forty five days to find himself a new partner. If he fails in his quest, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice and ‘set free’. David opts to be a lobster, because he’s always been quite good at boating and water sports. Meanwhile, he and his fellow guests go out on daily hunting expeditions in the forest, shooting ‘loners’ in the nearby woods with tranquilliser guns. For every loner they bring back, their time at the hotel will be extended. On his first day there, David meets up with ‘the limping man’ (Ben Whishaw) and ‘the lisping man’ (John C. Reilly) and forms an uneasy alliance with them – in this world, people are defined by their characteristics – David, for instance, is shortsighted. The hotel is presided over by Olivia Colman and her partner, (Gary Mountaine) who can always be called upon to perform a hysterically funny version of a Gene Pitney number, when required (trust me, it works!). Indeed, the first half of the film, is often laugh-oh-loud funny. Whishaw introducing himself to the other guests is a particular delight. In the later sections, when David goes on the run in the forest and falls under the wing of a survivalist leader (Lea Seydoux), the laughs are somewhat harder to find, but the narrative still holds you in its grip, right up to the tense and decidedly unresolved ending.

Yes, you say, but what is The Lobster actually about? Good question.

For me, it’s an allegory about relationships and the immense pressure that is placed upon them by the expectations of society. It’s about the way people have to compromise with each other in order to coexist. And it’s about mankind’s inherent selfishness, the casual cruelty that people will often inflict upon one another. It’s by no means a perfect film – but in its own, unconventional way, it’s more challenging than anything else you’re likely to encounter at the cinema, these days. And one thing’s for sure. You’ll talk about it afterwards.

4 stars

Philip Caveney