Michael Sheen

Slaughterhouse Rulez

14/11/18

Comedy-horror is a notoriously tricky beast to master and few have had better results in this genre than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Both Shaun of the Dead and World’s End fall squarely into this category and even Hot Fuzz (their very best film) sports a handful of horror elements expertly woven into the action. For this first release from their production company, Stolen Picture, they content themselves with supporting roles, but their handprints are all over Slaughterhouse Rulez, even if they are missing Edgar Wright’s sure-footed directorial skills.

After the death of his father, working class lad Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent off by his well-meaning mum to the imposing Slaughterhouse Public School, where she hopes he will have the benefit of a superior education. Once there, he finds himself sharing a dorm room with Willoughby Blake (Asa Butterfield), a louche, moody character who seems to be housing a whole clutch of secrets.

Don’s acquisitive eye soon falls on posh girl Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield), but she seems to have eyes for somebody else – and besides, most of Don’s time is spent coping with the predations of the school bullies, chief amongst them the sadistic Clegg (Tom Rhys Harris). Meanwhile, the preening headmaster, known to the pupils only as ‘The Bat’ (Michael Sheen), has given permission for a fracking rig to operate in the forest that borders the school playing fields, a move that dismays troubled teacher, Meredith Houseman (Pegg), and which leads a band of anti-fracking protesters, led by Woody (Frost), to set up camp in the woods.

As the drill descends into the ancient stones beneath the school, it releases something darker and even more dangerous than shale gas…

The set up here is nicely handled and captures the cruel and venal world of the boarding school all too well (trust me, I speak from personal experience). The large cast of characters are well drawn and engaging and, for the most part, the punch lines land pretty much where they should. It’s only when the film moves into its final third that things start to feel a little too protracted, too teased-out by attempts to tie the plot back to earlier events in the school’s history.

A more direct approach would have paid dividends here and kept the pace from flagging, which it undoubtedly does in places; but this is nonetheless a decent entertainment with some gloriously visceral carnage that’s never allowed to be so icky that it overpowers the humour. Those hoping for a Pegg-Frost reunion will have to be content with the one brief scene they share – but, for their first offering as producers, this really isn’t a bad start.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Passengers

 

30/12/16

It has, for a very long time now, been my custom to go to the cinema on my birthday – and this year, Passengers was pretty much the only film on offer that we hadn’t already seen. We picked an afternoon showing at the small but perfectly formed Cameo 2 and we settled down to watch with open minds. I have to say that I enjoyed this film; it’s a slick futuristic creation that is centred around an interesting question. What are people prepared to do in order not to be alone?

Engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes from suspended animation aboard the Starship Avalon, en route to the ‘Homestead Colony’, where he intends to forge a new life, but an unexplained malfunction in his sleep pod had led to him waking a little bit earlier than planned. Ninety years too early, in fact. And the problem is that none of his five thousand or so fellow-travellers have woken up with him. He is faced with the awful prospect of spending his entire life alone. To give him his due, he manages for about a year before finding himself on the verge of suicide – but then he notices another passenger asleep in a pod, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). He reads her files, which include some of the articles she has written and he starts to think about waking her up.

Right there lies the film’s moral conundrum – to wake her  would be, essentially, an act of murder – but he is going slowly insane with loneliness. Obviously, it’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that he does wake her and that, after a tricky start, the two of them hit if off – but as sure as eggs is eggs, it’s only a matter of time before Aurora discovers the truth about her awakening – and she is not going to be happy about it.

Morten Tyldum’s sleek imagining of the future is beautifully done and, given the absence of many actual characters in this story – the central duo are augmented only by android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen) and one of the ship’s crew, Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne) – it’s amazing that the film never drags. The Starship Avalon itself is a remarkable creation, a towering edifice of lights and movement and the special effects are generally well-handled, but this is essentially an intimate story about a relationship. Lawrence and Pratt make an appealing double act and Passengers is well worth checking out – but the galaxy may not move for you.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Nocturnal Animals

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05/11/16

Nocturnal Animals is a spiteful little film, full of bile and petty score-settling. Beautifully styled and well-acted throughout – with a stellar cast of cameos supporting the leads – this film feels like a tragic waste of talent, a plethora of artistic skill funnelled into a project with a vacuum for a heart. The worldview here is warped. The whole thing – not just the inner story of Sheffield’s novel – feels like a sterile revenge plot, the work of an embittered soul with sadistic tendencies.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful but miserable art dealer, trapped in an unhappy marriage where her riches mean nothing; her life is a hollow shell. When she was young, in grad school, she was briefly married to a different man, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), and he was the true love of her life. But Susan was too greedy, too bourgeois, too much like her mother, to appreciate the creative sensitivity of a man like Edward: she wanted the trappings of a middle-class life, and didn’t support him in his artistic endeavours.

Nineteen years later, a manuscript arrives on her desk. It’s a proof copy of Edward’s novel, soon to be published. It’s dedicated to her, and it tells the tale of a couple just like them, brought to life for us on screen as Susan reads compulsively. The protagonist, Laura (Isla Fisher, styled to look exactly like Adams), is raped and murdered, along with her daughter. Clearly, Edward is still a long way from getting over Susan’s rejection of him.

It’s an ugly, mean-spirited story from start to finish, with a deep misogyny at its core. From the freak-show fat women of the opening credits to the gratuitous nastiness of Laura’s death, it’s lacking any sense of proportion – or of charm. Nor does it work as a study of the dark side of humanity; it’s all too petty and too personal for that. And it’s boring a lot of the time too, all ponderous shots of people in baths, and endless scenes where Adams gasps, startled by what she’s read, adjusts her glasses, then picks up the book again. The novel’s plot is pretty turgid too: after the initial excitement of the murders, it’s a rather dull procedural, where we know exactly whodunnit, and so do the police.

Seriously, this is a disappointing film. It looks fantastic and the cast is a dream-team by anyone’s standards (Adams and Gyllenhaal are joined by Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, among others) but, ultimately, this just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

2.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Far From The Madding Crowd

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11/05/15

Thomas Vinterberg is a brave man – brave enough to take on Far From The Madding Crowd, in the certain knowledge that it is going to be compared to John Schlesinger’s 1967 masterpiece and inevitably found wanting. But perhaps I’m being unfair. Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp – these are all names that belong to another era and will mean very little to young cinema fans – and there’s no doubt that Carey Mulligan’s take on the tempestuous Bathsheba Everdean is as accomplished as you could reasonably want, even if some of her costumes – (the leather riding jerkin in particular,) don’t quite convince as being of the period.

Thomas ‘Chuckles’ Hardy is of course, a writer who excels in miserable stories and few come glummer than this tale of thwarted love and desire. Bathsheba is an orphan, who works as a farm labourer. The neighbouring farm is owned by handsome but taciturn shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoonaerts.) Gabriel takes a shine to Bathsheba and asks her to marry him, but she’s not quite ready to settle down yet and declines his offer. Shortly afterwards, as it is wont to do in Hardy novels, disaster strikes, robbing Gabriel of his livelihood and obliging him to move away. Bathsheba does rather better for herself, inheriting a farm when her Uncle dies unexpectedly. By a twist of fate, (or massive coincidence, whichever you prefer) she finds herself as Gabriel’s employer and is subsequently lusted after, both by her rich neighbour, Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and by a rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge.) Gabriel remains in the background, her ever watchful guardian angel. But which man will she end up with? And how many gallons of tears will be shed along the way?

Vinterberg, who came up through the Danish Festen cinema movement, makes a pretty good fist of this quintessentially English tale. The rolling landscape of Dorset is handsomely portrayed, the performances are all pretty much spot on (Sheen is in particularly good form as the tragic, obsessive Boldwood) and though the Sergeant Troy ‘reveal’ is handled far better in the Schlesinger version, it’s hard to fault such a meticulously rendered production. Hardy fans will perhaps feel that this version is more about Gabriel’s story than Bathsheba’s, but that seems to me a minor quibble. This is superior filmmaking and the results are well worth catching.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney