Vera Farmiga

The Front Runner

07/01/19

It’s 1988 and Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is the voice of hope for a new generation of American liberals. He’s the clear front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and young people are queuing up to work on his campaign, relinquishing their jobs and moving away from their families, believing they can help to secure real change. Hart has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in four key areas – economics, education, employment and ethics – and the charm and charisma to pose a threat to the incumbent Reagan-led Rebublicans.

But he’s naïve about the extent to which he will be held personally accountable to the public, believing his private life irrelevant to the political sphere. So, when he has a casual and ill-advised affair right in the middle of this most crucial campaign, the resulting press exposure completely kills off his career.

Jason Reitman’s film focuses mainly on this moral conundrum: where do we draw the line? Does it matter if politicians betray their spouses if they’re steadfast in their duties to the state? Or can we infer from their domestic infidelities a sense of how they will treat us, the people that they serve? Does the press have a duty to focus more on policies than peccadilloes? What matters most, in the end?

We’re not really offered any answers here and, while I applaud the lack of sensationalism, it does mean that there’s a certain lack of drama too. The storytelling is so nuanced and subtle that it verges on the dull. It seems a little dated too: in this era of Trumpian excess, an extra-marital fling seems almost too quaint to care about. Where are the porn stars and the Russian oligarchs, the pussy-grabbing and the bogus charities? Ah, maybe that’s the point. Have the tabloids so inured us to scandal that we’re unable to see when it crosses into something truly worrying?

There are some strong performances here. Jackman, of course, excels in the lead role, and Mamoudou Athie and Molly Ephraim stand out as the journalist and intern who, respectively, witness their idol’s fall, forced to recognise reluctantly both the limitations of the man and the demise of their Democratic dream. But Vera Farmiga (as Hart’s wife, Lee) and JK Simmons (as campaign manager, Bill Dixon) are criminally underused, and the whole film feels as if it needs a shot of caffeine or adrenaline.

In the end, this just isn’t compelling enough to make the trip to the cinema worth the effort. Close, but no cigar.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Conjuring 2

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18/06/16

James Wan has been at it again. After the twin successes of The Conjuring and Annabelle, comes the imaginatively titled Conjuring 2, in which paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) take on a couple of ‘real-life’cases with their customary mixture of guts and cheesiness. For the film’s pre-credit sequence, we’re in The Amityville House, (the Warren’s most famous case) where Lorraine encounters the unwelcome attentions of a grinning nun and where she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen to her hubby.

After the credits, we move swiftly on to merry England (Enfield to be more precise) where single Mum, Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’ Connor) and her four kids are getting some unwelcome attention of their own, particularly young Janet (Madison Wolfe) who is the recipient of some rather scary poltergeist phenomenon. (Interestingly, the story has been filmed as recently as 2015 in The Enfield Haunting, a TV mini series which offered a much more credible version of the story. It’s probably important to mention here that in real life, the Warrens had hardly any connection with the Enfield case whatsoever.) The story is set in  1977 but the Hodgsons appear to be suffering levels of squalor more reminiscent of the 1930s – peeling wallpaper, broken furniture and the like. Furthermore, down in their cellar, they have what must be the worst case of damp in history – you don’t need a spanner down there so much as a snorkel and flippers.

Despite the inaccuracies, these early scenes are surprisingly effective; Wan manages to kindle genuine tension in the telling and there are some cleverly handled set pieces that will have even the hardiest viewer grabbing for their neighbour’s hand. But somebody needs to tell him that less is more. After the first half hour or so, the story begins to kick in and as a consequence proceedings move increasingly into the realms of the risible. What could easily have been a four star movie, slips steadily down the ratings, and by the final half hour, you’re as likely to be hooting with laughter as cringing in terror. What’s more, the Warrens turn out to be the most terminally irritating duo of God botherers ever to visit a haunted house. A scene where Ed croons an Elvis song to the Hodgson kids seems to have wandered in from a different movie entirely, while Lorraine has an annoying habit of finding herself wandering about in an alternate world, where ghostly exposition keeps rearing its ugly head.

The film’s ultimate plot twist will have you gasping not in shock but in disbelief that anybody thought we’d swallow such an unlikely idea, even in a ghost story and by then, it’s way too late to rescue this nonsense, which is a shame. Wan clearly has a real talent for scare movies and if he would just exercise a little more self control, he could be creating films of real quality. As it stands this is a major disappointment.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Special Correspondents

Special1

01/05/16

Whatever happened to Ricky Gervais? The glory days of The Office and Extras are now long gone and his occasional forays into cinema have amounted to a few average cameos in other people’s movies and the woeful laughter-free zone that was The Invention of Lying. His new movie, Special Correspondents, is a Netflix original (though actually not original at all, as it’s a remake of 2009 French comedy, Envoyes Tres Speciaux). And, though it pains me to say it, it’s a disaster – a ‘comedy’ that fails to raise so much as a smirk.

Gervais plays Ian Finch, a hapless sound engineer working alongside charmless, bombastic reporter, Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) who has alienated all his colleagues at 365 News and  is now residing at Last Chance Saloon. Ian’s other workmate, Claire Maddox (Kelly McDonald) is the closest thing to a sympathetic character you’ll find in this sorry tale and she isn’t really given all that much to do. Ian is also lumbered with a shrew of a wife, Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) who has all the inherent charm of a car crash and who gleefully cheats on Ian with Frank (though to be fair, Frankdoesn’t know at the time who she is married to).

When a civil war breaks out in Ecuador, Ian and Frank are despatched to cover the story, but Ian, upset by the fact that Eleanor has just walked out on him, accidentally throws their tickets and passports into a passing garbage lorry, leaving them stranded in the USA. Realising that this was his last chance to make good, Frank persuades Ian to help him fake a series of reports from war-torn South America. They are actually holed up in a restaurant across the road with a couple of friends, the almost terminally thick Brigida (America Ferrara) and her husband Domingo (Raul Castillo).

It’s a slight idea and one that is never really nailed – instead, what we get is a lazy, written-by-numbers story featuring embarrassing racial stereotyping, and a series of plot twists you can see coming from several blocks away. More damningly, there’s hardly anyone here you can root for, as McDonald’s character aside, they all appear to be venal, self-interested scumbags with an eye on advancing their own careers. Furthermore, a scene that emulates a faked hostage video is uncomfortably close to images we’ve seen in real life that are a million miles away from anything humorous. I can’t help but wonder if, in the past,  the sadly absent Stephen Merchant acted as some kind of quality control for Gervais. Left to his own devices, he seems incapable of creating anything with any depth.

With a new David Brent movie looming on the horizon, the only hope is that he’s put a bit more effort into that script, because this one is frankly dead in the water.

1 star

Philip Caveney