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Bleak and disturbing
A timely title for Holy Week. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a village priest in a coastal village in Ireland, is told in the confessional that one of his parishioners is going to kill him. The man was abused by a priest for five years as a child; that priest has died, but killing the innocent Father James will be revenge for the other priests's abuse of an innocent boy.
A challenging set-up for a movie, especially one which sells itself as a comedy - albeit a very dark comedy. With Father James we meet most of the locals, a sinful lot for such a small village. The butcher who beats his two-timing wife; the aggressive local publican; the cynical doctor; the alcoholic landowner; the police inspector with a taste for rent-boys; an ancient exiled American writer (M. Emmet Walsh).
Having been married (and widowed) before he answered the Call, Father James has an unhappy daughter (Kelly Reilly) down from the big city, her wrists bandaged from a suicide attempt. A week after the woeful NOAH, I half expected a Flood to overwhelm the village, full as it was of folk sliding into wickedness. The central mystery of which of them has threatened the priest is a bit of a cheat, since surely he would have recognised the voice in the confessional.
The dark mountains and pounding seas which sandwich the village are as atmospherically filmed as they were in David Lean's RYAN'S DAUGHTER, and a fine score boosts the film's seesaw moves between comedy and tragedy. The script is clumsy in parts, but the actors carry us over the bumps. Brendan Gleeson is on splendid form (I wish he'd played Noah last week!) and the rest of the cast turn in believable performances. There is no comedy in the bleak finale. This is a dark and disturbing low-budget movie which, like PHILOMENA, will linger in the mind long after multi-million-dollar blockbusters have faded into a CGI haze.
Taking liberties with The Book
Where is Cecil B. De Mille when you need him? It ought not to be possible to make a dull movie out of the story of Noah and the Ark, but Darren Aronofsky has managed to do just that. This leaden, plodding epic is a real dog's breakfast. The script is unremittingly grim, the music relentlessly dour.
The Bible tells us that "God spake unto Noah"; He spoke very vividly to Charlton Heston in De Mille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. In this version God has a non-speaking role; Noah (Russell Crowe) gets his orders via visions of a drowning world and the appearance of miracles. The Bible mentions that there were "giants" in the world at the time; this version recreates them as a cross between today's Transformers and the Golem monsters of Hebrew folklore - they do most of the labouring jobs and also fight off the Wicked People who, despite being armed with some very medieval weapons, are destined to perish in the Flood..
Taking further liberties with The Book, the writer/director gives Noah's three sons only one wife between them, which makes for an eyebrow-raising Mystery about how the post-Flood world is going to be repopulated. One of the sons of Noah is called Ham, although ham could also be the word that applies to Ray Winstone's performance as the leader of the Wicked People, unnamed in the Bible and here given a role to rival Noah's. Russell Crowe is a commandingly stern presence, a believable if unlikeable patriarch. Jennifer Connelly looks very modern as Mrs Noah, and their sons, like the Giants and the Wicked People, seem to belong more to Middle Earth than to the time before Abraham. Anthony Hopkins has a thankless cameo as Methuselah, Noah's grandpa, here gifted with miraculous powers to rival God's.
God is not called God in this version; He's called The Creator - perhaps in a nod to the Creationists in America's Bible Belt. But when Noah recounts the story of Creation to his family, the accompanying flashback looks more than a little Evolutionary. Trying not to offend people of different faiths, Aronofsky has probably managed to offend them all. GLADIATOR was a thrilling revamp of themes from BEN HUR. This revamp of the many takes on the story of the Ark, despite the addition of Giants and Ray Winstone and state-of-the-art CGI, is anything but thrilling.
Where's the singing nun?
There have been good and bad airplane movies, with CON AIR probably the best and some of the AIRPORT series among the worst. NON-STOP is somewhere in the middle, a bit up or a bit down according to your taste.
Air marshal Liam Neeson's bosses think he's gone rogue and is hijacking the flight. While Liam is trying to figure out which of the passengers and crew can be trusted, the passengers are quickly losing faith in him.
This is hokum, of course, but it's classy hokum, with Julianne Moore as the passenger sat next to Neeson and Downton Abbey's Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) as the chief stewardess. (In the early days of British Airways, some air-hostesses were Honourables - and even honourable!). A few corny elements - Neeson's grieving alcoholic back-story, Moore's mystery-woman, a cute little girl travelling alone - but mercifully no singing nun.
The story has credibility-stretching twists, but the last half-hour is seriously nerve-shredding with special effects bringing to vivid reality every passenger's worst nightmare. Reviewing the original AIRPORT (1970), the great film critic Alexander Walker wrote: "For sheer contentment there is nothing to beat the sight of constant catastrophe happening to others." He was right!
Under the Skin (2013)
Long shots and long silences
The last time I was this bored in a cinema it was during the era of the French New Wave: films like Last Year In Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, which were all about Style (if you can call it that) rather than Substance.
Scarlett Johansson plays a mysterious woman who preys on hitch-hikers and dropouts in Glasgow and the Scottish Lowlands. It isn't confirmed until the end that she's a PREDATOR-style alien being, but the critics have not kept this "spoiler" from us, so I guess it's okay to mention it. Based on a cult novel and with a cult director (Jonathan Glazer: SEXY BEAST), the film is full of long shots and long silences. It's also filmed in near-total darkness, presumably to keep down the cost of special effects, but this means the viewer can't actually tell what's going on most of the time. Is she just killing her victims or is she 'assimilating' them? Don't know and - sorry! - don't care.
I can't imagine why they needed a star of Johansson's magnitude for this low-budget tosh. Nor can I imagine why she took the role. The SPECIES movies covered the storyline more thrillingly and more viscerally. If this is meant to be a pretentious "art-house" film about an alien predating on alienated members of Scottish society, all I can say is it definitely alienated me!
The Book Thief (2013)
A few good Germans
The trailer for THE BOOK THIEF made it look like a new take on the Anne Frank story, but it's both more and less than that. The movie, like the novel on which it's based, targets Young Adults, so there's an element of Holocaust 'Lite' about it (as in last month's THE MONUMENTS MEN): the cinematography adds a glossy sheen to the horrors of World War Two. Nevertheless, we are shown Jews being beaten up in the street and marched off to the camps, so young viewers are not spared the ugly face of history. Having the story narrated by the Grim Reaper is an interesting device.
If Liesel, our heroine (Sophie Nelisse), is perhaps a little too cutesy, her adoptive parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) are almost pantomine characters: the loving father and the flinty mother with a soft centre. All three actors were coached to do German accents of the "Ve have vays of makink you talk" variety, which is seriously overdone and comes close to undermining the seriousness of the theme. But the central message of the story - not all Germans at that time were Jew- hating Nazi thugs - is delivered touchingly, if sentimentally. War brings out the best - as well as the worst - in people.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Pink Panther rides again!
Wes Anderson serves up what might be called a 'romp-com' with this between-the-wars tale of the misadventures of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), concierge at a splendid spa hotel which manages to be located simultaneously in the Alps and Eastern Europe. Falsely accused of the murder of one of the hotel regulars (Tilda Swinton, made to look like a cross between Edna Everage and Miss Havisham), Gustave and his apprentice escape from prison and go on the run, aided by a 'mafia' of continental concierges.
Gustave is more than somewhat reminiscent of Inspecteur Clouseau. Fiennes plays him with an appropriate klutziness that often pleasingly evokes the late great Peter Sellers. There are scenes which appear to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick (THE SHINING and EYES WIDE SHUT) and even Stanley Kramer (IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD). There's an Alpine chase which calls to mind several ski sequences from the Bond franchise. F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody and Willem Defoe give fruity supporting performances; Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are among the many stars who contribute walk-ons, presumably just for the kudos of being in a Wes Anderson movie.
This is a monumentally daft and old-fashioned movie, sometimes hammy, sometimes hysterical. There are a few misfires; the story-within-a- story-within-a-story is clunky (providing roles for Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson); the use of Miniatures is painfully obvious. But the cast are clearly having a fine time, and it's easy to be carried along with the merriment and mischief.
L'inconnu du lac (2013)
Art-house porn. An Aids movie without Aids.
This French 'art-house' movie could easily be mistaken for porno. In the lake beside a gay beach somewhere in the south of France, summertime regular Franck witnesses a hunky newcomer drown his boyfriend. Next day Franck strikes up a relationship with Michel, the killer. Day after day they make out in the nearby woods. When the drowning is investigated, Franck lies to the police inspector.
Clearly, this is a film about living on the edge. A point is made about the importance of safe sex, but is Michel a symbolic figure for the dangers of promiscuity? Is this an Aids movie without Aids? The wind whistling the trees sounds like a warning siren.
The whole movie is shot on the beach and in the woods. The sex is extremely full-on, including what porn producers call a "money shot". Watching two attractive guys make out practically non-stop is a voyeuristic treat, although the viewer is always waiting for the sex orgy to turn to an orgy of violence. The ambiguous ending is clearly designed to suggest that the director is not just churning out porno, but the shallow characterization and the constant emphasis on naked bodies writhing in the sunlight did not convince me that this was much more than a blue movie. 'Art-house porn'.
The Monuments Men (2014)
A barrel of gold teeth is the (only) telling moment
This is a movie which it's easy to watch but harder to approve of. Particular emphasis is placed on a medieval altarpiece and a Michelangelo sculpture of the Madonna, both looted from two churches in Belgium; other works were taken from national collections, but the film also acknowledges that the vast majority were taken from the private homes of wealthy Jews.
In one of the salt-mine hideaways Clooney's team open a barrel filled with gold teeth, a chilling reminder that the Jews were robbed of a lot more than their paintings when they were dragged from their homes and transported to the Eastern death camps. The film needed more moments like this. The overall feel of THE MONUMENTS MEN is of a 'caper' or heist story along the lines of THE DIRTY DOZEN or WHERE EAGLES DARE. 1995's THREE KINGS did a better job of combining a thrilling treasure hunt with a harrowing vision of terrorisers citizens.
George Clooney's character, in defensive mode, more than once argues that the theft of great art is the theft of a nation's cultural heritage. This is true, but the real cost of war (look at Syria and Libya today) is the cost of lives and livelihoods. Yes, this mission saved thousands of precious paintings and sculptures, but the Holocaust and the destruction of entire countries needs to be remembered as more than a background detail.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
An uncomfortable trip down Memory Lane
Matthew McConaughey's performance is the powerhouse at the centre of this movie. The script distorts the historical facts in small but significant ways to give the story momentum and to point up the desperation of the situation HIV patients were in back in those dark days when the only licensed medication was AZT, which was more killer than cure. Ron Woodruff (who was almost certainly bisexual) is here rampantly straight and stridently homophobic until his diagnosis forces him into the company of all those gay men who were the principal victims of Aids in its early days. Rayon, the drag queen who joins Ron in his life-saving enterprise and then becomes his buddy, is a fictitious character but a gift of a part which Jared Leto sinks his teeth into with the kind of relish William Hurt brought to KISS OF THE SPIDER-WOMAN (1985). Jennifer Garner gives a nicely understated performance as the overworked doctor who is not supposed to be sympathetic to Ron's efforts to circumvent the FDA.
For those of us who lost many good friends and colleagues back in that terrible first decade of the Plague Years, this is an uncomfortable trip down Memory Lane. The final scene is ludicrously over-the-top but perhaps forgivable as an attempt to end this morbid movie on a brief high.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB succeeds at every level, entertaining us with the sheer pace of its story, overwhelming us with the mesmerising acting by Matthew McConaughey (who deserves all the awards that are coming his way) and vividly reminding us of the fatal ineptness with which successive administrations and the pharmaceutical companies responded to the challenge of HIV/Aids.
August: Osage County (2013)
Unhappy families aren't always different
Another movie that's already harvested Golden Globes and is nominated for Oscars. Meryl Streep gives a wonderfully fruity performance as Violet: I was at times reminded of Bette Davis as Elizabeth the First! Julia Roberts is also very full-on as the daughter who doesn't take her mother's barbs lying down. Juliette Lewes is on fine form, as is Margo Martindale as Violet's sister and the custodian of a nasty family secret. Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch give a good account of themselves (though I wondered why American actors weren't cast); Chris Cooper is always very solid.
But - here's where I take issue with Mr Tolstoy - this unhappy family is unhappy in ways we have seen before. It's adapted by Tracy Letts from his stage play and although the action almost entirely takes place in and around Violet's homestead, it doesn't seem overly theatrical. But the drama seems to take a dash of Carson McCullers, a bit of Tennessee Williams, a dollop of O'Neill, a large dose of Edward Albee and mix them all up into a family-sized stew without any particularly fresh ingredients.
Worth seeing for the performances, especially Meryl and Julia. I still want Cate Blanchett to win the Big One at the Oscars!