Domhnall Gleeson

The Little Stranger

22/09/18

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a curiously enigmatic and unsettling tale, and its transition from page to screen is profoundly satisfying. It’s a ghost story without ghosts, a horror film without real scares. And yet an uneasy sense of impending doom pervades the piece, and the tension in the cinema is almost palpable.

It’s 1948, and Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has returned from years of study and army-medic work to his Warwickshire hometown. He’s ill at ease here though, all too aware of his humble origins, and still obsessed with Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked as a maid.

Called to the Hall to minister to an ailing servant, Faraday finds himself drawn to the Ayres family: the ailing matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), who’s haunted by memories of her dead daughter, Susan; Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s struggling to cope with both the physical injuries and the mental stress he’s brought with him from the war; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who – tasked with looking after them both – is bored and isolated in her idyllic country prison. But the relationships they forge are as unhealthy and demanding as the mouldering ancestral home, and it soon becomes clear that things are not going to end well.

This is a fascinating film, directed with the precision we expect from Lenny Abrahamson, following the award-winning Room. I like the careful slowness of it all, the repressed emotions that reverberate and shimmer. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is wonderfully understated, the clenched jaw and tense body language testimony to just how much this man has to conceal: his past, his class, his raging desire.

Ruth Wilson is utterly convincing as the gauche Caroline Ayres, an unhappy blend of self-doubt and entitlement, both poor and rich, privileged and trapped. Of course, the whole film is a kind of commentary on class, on what it makes us and how we respond to it. And it’s as illuminating and disturbing as the shadows haunting Hundreds Hall.

The muted, misty colours of the post-war landscape mirror the shadowy ambiguities of the story, where we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is supernatural or not. It’s frustrating, all this teasing, but that’s no bad thing: it only adds to the film’s potency. Truly, this is an enthralling film.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

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Peter Rabbit

03/04/18

It’s raining. Again. We’ve both taken an extended Easter break from work, but we don’t fancy going ahead with our planned walk around Roslin Glen. Not in this weather. Neither do we fancy staying in though; we’re on holiday, after all.

– Cinema?

– Nah, we’ve seen everything, haven’t we?

– Not quite everything…

– Ah.

And so we find ourselves in Cineworld, in front of Peter Rabbit. Our expectations are low. And they’re met.

It’s hard to know where to start. Except to say that it’s a crying shame this is so… unpleasant. It’s beautifully animated; it’s lively; it’s got some great slapstick routines. It’s got an impressive cast (we’re not part of the anti-Corden brigade; he was ace in One Man, Two Guvnors, not to mention The History Boys, Teachers, Gavin and Stacey, and so on). It’s genuinely funny at times. But, despite quite obviously trying to jump on the same bandwagon, it’s lacking the warm heart that makes Paddington succeed.

There’s so much nastiness here. Even if you removed the much-publicised ‘use-a-person’s-life-threatening-allergies-to-attack-them’ stuff, there’d still be plenty to dislike. Man dies of heart attack: a cause for celebration. Man suffers huge electric shocks: ha ha, how we laugh. There’s no one to root for. Not Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), the man child/disgruntled Harrod’s sales assistant, who inherits his uncle’s Windermere cottage and embarks on a mission to rid his vegetable patch of rabbits. Not Bea (Rose Byrne), the drippy incarnation of Beatrix Potter, who thinks rabbits should have free access to crops. And, sadly, not Peter either, nor any of his chums: they’re all cocky and banter-driven, cruel and bullying.

And, honestly, it all gets a bit dull. I think it’d make a decent short; there’e enough comedy to make a riotous twenty-minute piece. But the plot is too thin and the characters too one-dimensional to sustain a feature film.

But, hey. The kids around us are laughing, clearly enjoying themselves. I know we’re the wrong demographic, and – if this works for its intended audience – who am I to complain? It’s just, y’know, Paddington. We know it can be done.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15/12/17

Well, Episode VIII is suddenly upon us and everybody’s going crazy to see it, so I thought, what the heck, how bad can it be? I know I’ve gone on record as saying that Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises in history, (and I genuinely believe that) but J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was pretty decent stuff, largely because it had the good sense to deliver a sort of ‘greatest hits’ package, featuring all the best bits from A New Hope. This time out, we have writer/director Rian Johnson at the controls and I have to say, rather than the exhilarating flight we had last time, this is more reminiscent of an interminable train journey, packed with passengers you neither know nor care about. Will we ever reach our destination?

Proceedings kick off (of course they do) with a great big space battle, as the tattered remnants of the resistance flee from the overwhelming might of the Empire. (Sound familiar? Get used to it.) You quickly get the sense of worse things to come when the usually reliable Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux is reduced to stamping around and leering at his underlings like a pantomime villain. Yes, there are state-of-the-arts special effects, but I feel completely unmoved by the spectacle. Shortly thereafter, we cut to a remote island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) that he should stop being such a moody monkey and come back to join the rebels. (You may remember this was where we left the previous film.) Luke manages to spend pretty much the entire two hours and thirty two minutes running time trying to make his mind up, though of course, we all know he’ll get there in the end…

This procrastination seems to be key to Johnson’s vision. Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) faffs around trying to decide whether he’s good or bad (when of course we all know which one it is), Rey seems, for quite a while, to be suffering from exactly the same malady and Finn (John Boyega) spends much of his time scampering around a variety of exotic locations with his new sidekick, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). The main problem is, everything feels turgid here and whenever we sense we’re approaching some kind of resolution, we discover that there’s another ending tacked on – and then another, and just for good measure, one more. The film is dedicated to ‘our Princess, Carrie Fisher,’ and perhaps the saddest thing is to see her hanging around in scene-after-scene, with very little to do but look mournful and mutter lines about ‘the Force’. (At one point, the script even has her put into suspended animation, which, I can’t help thinking, doesn’t feel entirely respectful to her memory.)

I’ve already seen a few decent reviews for The Last Jedi and no doubt, the hardcore fans will come out saying they adored it. (They generally do.) But for me, this one ranks very low down the pecking order, better than those terrible prequels, of course (though to be honest being beaten repeatedly over the head with a fresh haddock would be a step up), but limping along behind Rogue One, which at least a few fresh ideas to offer.

I can’t help feeling that the well is running pretty dry and unless somebody comes up with something very inventive soon, it may just be time to press the ‘self-destruct’ button on Star Wars.

Yeah. Like that would ever happen…

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

American Made

 

06/09/17

It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction and the story of Barry Seal could have been created simply to demonstrate that adage. This lively period piece, set against the wilder excesses of the nineteen seventies and eighties, is an enjoyable romp from start to finish.

Despite having a name like a welder from Dagenham, Seal (Tom Cruise) is a pilot for TWA, bored enough to stage episodes of ‘turbulence’ to brighten up his day, a man who makes a little pin money on the side by smuggling boxes of Cuban cigars in his luggage. When he is approached by wily CIA man, Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), and offered a job flying surveillance missions in war-torn Central America, he jumps at the opportunity. His wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), isn’t keen on the loss of security, particularly as the couple have a young family and a new baby on the way. But Barry manages to persuade her that everything will be just fine. Convincing people that he is on the level is clearly his strongest suit. He soon discovers that his peculiar talents are in demand beyond the CIA. It isn’t long before he’s involved with the likes of Pablo Escobar, and the Medellin Cartel, flying plane loads of cocaine from Colombia to Louisiana and making obscene amounts of money in the process. Inevitably, he gets caught by the DEA. And that’s when things get really weird…

Doug Liman is always an interesting director and he expertly mines this story for maximum laughs, but it’s probably true to say that only Tom Cruise could make such a mendacious lead character as charming as he does. The way it’s presented here, it’s  not as if Seal is always on the lookout for dirty dealings. It’s just that powerful people can’t stop throwing opportunities in his direction and he doesn’t want to let anybody down. The jaw dropping escapades he lands himself in would beggar belief if this were a work of fiction. But I have to keep reminding myself: this actually happened. Okay, a few liberties have been taken with the odd detail here and there, but a quick Google search tells me that most of it is pretty much on the button. What the film does better than anything else is to reveal the shameful levels of corruption that were taking place within the corridors of power during Ronald Reagan’s ‘War On Drugs’ campaign.

This being a true story, there’s no happy ending for Mr Seal, but even his ultimate destruction is so skilfully handled that you come out of the cinema with a big grin on your face. This is enjoyable film making. Strap yourself in for a bumpy, but highly entertaining ride.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Ex Machina

06/03/17

There’s always the one that got away, isn’t there? I somehow managed to miss Ex Machina’s all-too-brief appearance on the big screen and I’ve been trying to catch up with it ever since, largely because I’d heard such good things about it. Discovering that it’s now available on Netflix was therefore great news.

Alex Garland’s 2014 movie, is a deceptively simple affair, pretty much a four-hander, laid out with cool clear linearity. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he has won the opportunity of a lifetime – to travel to the remote hi-tech hideaway of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) the CEO of the world’s biggest internet company and to spend a week with him, getting a sneak preview of his latest creation. This turns out to be Ava (Alicia Vikander) an AI, and one so convincing that Nathan challenges Caleb to apply the Turing Test to her – designed to examine a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Is she good enough to pass?

Caleb goes to work and soon establishes a powerful rapport with Ava – but, as he constantly asks himself, is she genuinely interested in him, or simply using him as a way of staying alive? Because, as Nathan makes all too clear, if she fails the test then she is destined to be replaced by a newer, better model. Nathan, meanwhile, is prone to drinking himself half to death and dancing around the apartment with his live-in housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). As the story develops it becomes apparent that nothing in this  state-of-the-art home is quite what it appears to be… and soon even Caleb is questioning his own existence.

The beauty of Ex Machina is the way in which it expertly unfolds its intriguing story, constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer, until you don’t really know what to expect next. Vikander offers a fascinating performance in the central role, and Gleeson, Isaac and Mizono are all totally believable. If like me, you missed this film first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. It’s really rather good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney