Calvary

Calvary is the new drama from John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh of In Bruges fame, making them the most successful Irish siblings since Jedward.

calvary

Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest, struggling with the strange folk of his remote Irish community – like a particularly pensive episode of Father Ted. And as in the classic sitcom, as well as McDonagh’s previous film The Guard, the rhythm and idiosyncrasies of the Irish dialect is beautifully mined for comedy, giving the film a dark vein of humour typical of the brothers’ work.

calvary-dylan-moran-636-380But Calvary is a serious film, which approaches weighty themes with wit and humanity. An intelligent critique of the Catholic church, the film finds fault in institutions, not individuals. Between this and Philomena, it’s heartening to see cinema finally tackling the institutionalised abuse of children that the Catholic church have sought to hide for decades. Calvary takes on the sensitive issue with bravery, honesty and compassion, through McDonagh’s erudite script and interesting characters.

Gleeson is magnificent, carrying the weight of the world in his bearded face, captured brilliantly in the film’s impressively long opening shot inside a confessional. A secondary school teacher until the age of 36, he has relatively recently emerged as one of the finest actors around, with a remarkably powerful screen presence.

Killian Scott

Killian Scott

Fez

Fez

He’s superbly supported by every other Irish actor ever, resulting in a cast that ranges from Brendan Gleeson to Domhnall Gleeson. Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran are on intensely strong dramatic form, while Killian Scott looks suspiciously similar to Fez from That ’70s Show.

With careful lighting and striking photography of the rolling Irish hills and grey Irish seas, Calvary is a captivating drama that further marks out both McDonagh and Gleeson – and the combination of the two - as important cinematic forces. Refreshingly downbeat yet eminently watchable, it’s a poetic meditation on faith, abuse and death.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

After the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) is still struggling to adjust to life in the 21st Century. Luckily a flirtatious Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) is on hand to help, having seemingly forgotten about her relationship with Hawkeye. Either that or she’s trying to sleep her way through the Avengers. Good luck with Hulk. Ewww. Sorry.

Thanks to Steve’s long freeze, virtually the entire supporting cast from the first movie have popped their clogs, leaving room for Black Widow and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) to plug the gap. Also joining them are Fury’s friend in the government, Secretary Pierce (Robert Redford) and a military veteran befriended by the Captain (Anthony Mackie).

Much like Thor: The Dark World, this feels liberated by not simply being a lead-in to The Avengers. This film isn’t a foundation block for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but an extension of it, so is free to develop as it chooses. The plot twists and turns with surprising frequency, as conspiracy is piled onto conspiracy, resulting in a film that feels like the brainchild of Stan Lee and Dan Brown.

Captain America faces a similar problem to Superman in the fact he’s a pretty dull character. The unequivocally good, moral man is never the most interesting main character for a film. But where Man of Steel shoehorned in some angst to overcome this problem, Captain America: The Winter Soldier shakes up the moral world the Captain inhabits, making him doubt his deepest allegiances. The all-American dork of the first film now questions authority and acts with autonomy. Yet Steve Rogers remains the most boring Avenger, even if Evans does his best, and certainly looks the part.

With the Nazis of the first film fairly thoroughly defeated, the Captain has to find enemies closer to home, resulting in a plot that centres on internal wrangling at S.H.I.E.L.D. rather than big, international villains. It’s a bold move, but one that really pays off, as there’s still plenty of the chaotic carnage of a big superhero movie. Captain America’s fighting style is surprisingly graceful, and makes sense of the CGI madness.

Those worried about the unaccountable power of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Avengers will be pleased to find the spying organisation in the spotlight, with its tactics thrown into question and its power contested, sort of like Enemy of the State with superheroes. Crucially it knows when to be light and when to be serious and provides yet another solid Marvel movie. It’s remarkable that a franchise which puts out at least one new addition a year manages to maintain such high standards, and now the second wave of solo movies is out, we can finally start counting down to The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Bring it on.

Locke

The man in a vehicle sub-genre has recently given us Robert Redford on a boat and Liam Neeson on a plane, and now Tom Hardy in a car.

download

Locke is set entirely in a car (a BMW, for all you product placement fans) and features only one character on screen; a construction supervisor named Ivan Locke (a heavily bearded and heavily Welsh Tom Hardy). Locke drives and makes a string of (handsfree) phone calls, most of which are about cement. It doesn’t sound like much, but five minutes in and you’re completely hooked.

As in the case of All Is Lost, the simple, solitary premise offers rich existential substance. But while the Redford film did so without dialogue, this is all about words, with a beautiful screenplay by the film’s director Steven Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and also co-created Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

p45-locke (6)Locke speaks calmly, poetically and philosophically, his name taking on a significance that I’d understand had I actually listened in philosophy lectures. But the recurring use of metaphor around cement and foundations are hard to miss, in fact sometimes a little too hard to miss. That’s the problem with subtext; lay it on too thin and people will miss it, but too thick and it seems heavy-handed. A bit like cement.

Knight manages to strike this difficult balance, with references to Beckett (Waiting for Godot, not Quantum Leap) and the cinematic language of the road movie adding to the film’s sense of significance. Locke’s liminal journey feels important, as though he’s headed for the end of the earth, via Luton. While exploring these big ideas, Knight also looks closer to home, holding a rear-view mirror to modern Britain, human relationships and middle-class comfort.

His direction is as mesmerising as his writing, alongside Haris Zambarloukos’ hypnotic cinematography. Dappled headlamps and soft streetlights shine through transparent shots of Tom Hardy driving, echoing the screenplay’s combination of the physical and metaphysical.

As for Hardy himself (The Dark Knight Rises, not Tess of the d’Urbervilles), it’s hard to believe that this is the same man who played Bane. The super-strong Batman villain is a world away from the compassionate everyman we can’t help but root for here. But then that’s acting, I suppose.

tumblr_mxdnqzUyej1qe5f96o1_500We only see his face, but his emotions are intense and his vocal performance spellbinding. Locke remains cucumber cool while falling apart inside, joining a rich cinematic history of famous drivers, including Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Ryan Gosling in Drive and Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (by a certain Steven Knight). The rest of the cast exist only as voices, yet Andrew Scott and the brilliant Olivia Colman stand out, as she always does. It would be nice if someone could put her actual face in a film next time.

Despite occasionally feeling hackneyed (it could do without all the football analogies and daddy issues), Locke stands out as a gripping, philosophical and original drama, elevated by Knight’s screenplay and grounded by Hardy’s performance. You instantly feel as though you’re in the passenger seat, next to a man profoundly trying to do the right thing while his life collapses like buildings around him. Not bad for a film where a man in a car just makes phone calls about cement.

The Past

Welcome back to our occasional feature of reviewing new films frustratingly close to the end of their cinematic run. Today is the turn of French drama Le Passé or The Past.

The-Past

Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, The Past is stylistically and thematically similar to his Oscar-winning A Separation, but with the drama moved from Tehran to Paris. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Iran to the home of his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), in order to finalise their divorce, complicated by the presence of her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim) and a whole bunch of children.

131079_blThe best dramas succeed on the strength of their characters, and The Past is no exception, as each person feels completely real, no matter how limited their screen time. This makes it easy to invest in the intricate details of their lives, with great performances all round. Farhadi brings the same level of emotional complexity that made A Separation so compelling, with a similar narrative structure and no easy answers. Layers and layers of revelation each completely change our attitude towards the slowly unfolding story, as every character brings their own subjective interpretation of the same events, like Rashomon but without the samurais.

elfilm-com-the-past-160587This drip-feeding of exposition does feel contrived, in a way it never did in A Separation. It’s unlikely that anyone would actually reveal increasingly startling information at such regular intervals in real life. Every few minutes someone seems to say, “you know why that is, don’t you?” before sharing a dramatic revelation. They withhold everything and release it in well-timed bursts like those plug-in air fresheners, in a way no one would ever do were they not a character in a drama. Even the idea of someone going to live with their ex who’s now in another relationship stretches plausibility, feeling more like the premise for a sitcom. Also, it might just be the translation in the subtitles, but people repeatedly talk about someone who’s in hospital because they “committed suicide”, when they surely only attempted suicide.

While not as good as A Separation, Farhadi’s new film succeeds once again in making us think about the way events are interpreted. It’s never sugary like the occasionally similar What Maisie Knew, but never bleak thanks to Farhadi’s sense of humanity. His interest in families and the way adults’ behaviour affects children is thought-provoking, while his brilliantly drawn characters allow us to believe in the somewhat contrived narrative.

A Hotel Triple-Bill

A recent stay in an Israeli hotel left me with limited viewing options, thanks to the TV in my room exclusively showing movies in which Brendan Fraser gets attacked by animals. Avoiding these like the plague or a charity person in the street, here are the three films I managed to find in English:

fair-game-1995-01-g

Fair Game (1995)

No, not the Sean Penn one from 2010. Not since Gary Oldman and Gary Barlow have two entities with the same name represented such an obvious gulf in quality. This Fair Game stars Cindy Crawford and one of the Baldwins who isn’t Alec.

MSDFAGA EC008William Baldwin plays Max Kirkpatrick, one of those names that exists solely in the world of ’90s action cinema. Max is a cop who has to protect Cindy Crawford’s sexy lawyer from a rogue KGB cell led by Steven Berkoff, who are trying to kill her for reasons that are initially unclear, and remain unclear right up until the credits roll after 90 minutes of incompetent action, ridiculous dialogue and softcore sex.

It’s a notoriously bad film, picking up three Razzie nominations, all of which it would probably have won had it not been up against Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Not only did first-time director Andrew Sipes never make another film, judging by his IMDb entry he disappeared completely.

336995.1

Love Object (2003)

Love Object is a horror film about Quinn from Dexter falling in love with a sex doll that appears to be based on Elizabeth Banks. But at no point does he wear a striped shirt. Now that’s scary.

elizabeth-banks-shoulder-length-blonde-hairstyle

Sex Doll

Elizabeth Banks

Elizabeth Banks

The film follows through on its weird premise with surprising effectiveness. Writer/director Robert Parigi takes ideas from American Psycho and Vertigo and runs with them, sometimes too far, but in a way that’s always interesting, funny and scary. The theme of objectification is tackled with dark humour and creepy surrealism.

Love Object is an example of strong ideas transcending technical clunkiness. As sometimes happens in the case of low-budget horror films, the clumsy technique works in the film’s favour by adding to the overall weirdness, with dodgy lighting and aesthetic lurches adding to the feeling of something being not quite right. Desmond Harrington plays this strangeness well and there’s a welcome appearance by Rip Torn; two things you don’t want to happen to a sex doll.

img10

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

In something of a coup for Israeli hotel TV, they showed a film I’d actually heard of, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Obviously a film called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t likely to win any Oscars, but it’s even worse than its 15% score on Rotten Tomatoes suggests.

jeremy_renner_hansel_and_gretel_witch_hunters_1280x800_27536The plot is of course explained in the title, and it’s no surprise to discover that this is as far as anyone involved got. The name is the joke, the premise, the story… it’s the entire movie. There’s a trend for this kind of lazy crap, whereby something classical is given a B-movie subtitle, such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s easy to come up with your own, mine include William Shakespeare: Ghost Buster and The Three Bears VS The Seven Dwarves. Try it yourself!

So it’s a high-concept with low-results, thanks to its horribly confused style. The whole thing leaves you asking: who is this for?! There’s the CGI monsters of a fun fantasy romp, and the nudity, swearing and gore of an 18. As for the two leads, you’d be hard pressed to find two actors with less charisma than Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner without reaching for some sort of Who’s Who of boring people. She’s named after a stupid plot point from Dream House and he’s so dull he doesn’t even have a proper face.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters doesn’t even live up to its title. It simply yawns its way to an inevitable conclusion one CGI fight at a time. The visuals are terrible, the 3D conversion making it impossible to see anything, which is probably a blessing in disguise. The only interesting thing about the film is that Will Ferrell served as a producer, which goes some way to explaining its intentions. It’s clearly all meant to be a joke, but it’s not even slightly funny. It doesn’t even try. Naturally, the sequel is currently in development.

Animal Crackers

A popular defence of Marxism is that it was “funnier at the time”, and while this may be true, from a modern perspective we can’t help but see it as a template for totalitarianism. Similarly it would be great to be able to go back to 1930 and watch the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers in a packed auditorium, but a modern viewing yields very few laughs.

The plot centres on a piece of art that’s being unveiled at a socialite’s party to celebrate the return of a great explorer (Groucho Marx) from his around the world travels. It’s fairly light on story, with its assortment of fairly disconnected scenes feeling more like a series of rather weak sketches, or even a variety show during some of its musical interludes.

It has a smattering of funny moments, but they’re overwhelmed by the huge number of groan-inducing gags that feel like watching a bloke whose mates all reckon he’s really funny at the pub try stand up for the first time. The explorer, describing his travels, says “the Elks come down for the water hole. They were disappointed. They wanted an alcohol.” Oh dear oh dear. Some lines just don’t make any sense. When the explorer is attempting to get two women to marry him he says “One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother, but who wants to marry your grandmother?” Silliness isn’t enough for hilarity.

Being old doesn’t have to be detrimental to a comedy, as my review of The Great Dictator will show you. The dialogue here is very fast and tightly written, but also falls short of the quality required to be consistently funny. Similarly the slapstick is fairly tiresome.

Originally a play, this is made in a very theatrical way, with long takes, all actors facing the camera at most points, and Groucho repeatedly talking to the viewer. I think it would be far more enjoyable live. Here the actors try and play to an absent audience which doesn’t work at all. It might be better with a laughter track, something I don’t think I’ve ever said before.

Noah

Long-time portrayer of gruff, pseudo-historical leading men Russell Crowe takes centre stage again as the unfortunate soul selected to save humanity from God’s genocidal wrath.

2 at a time, please

Joining Noah are his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They also have adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), and are guided by Noah’s hermit grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). But that’s not all, there’s a race of angels trapped in the bodies of stone giants on hand to build the ark, ward off attackers and generally plug plot holes. Noah embellishes its source material so much it would make Peter Jackson gasp. For three hours.

When interpreting the story of Noah’s Ark for the big screen, a writer faces a number of problems. One of the biggest is that it’s hard to show God wiping out humanity without making him look like the bad guy. This is addressed in the film’s opening minutes, through a bit of Biblical embellishment that makes Noah the only remaining descendent of Seth, Adam and Eve’s good son, and everyone else on the planet an evil descendent of Cain. That is, except Ila, who is presumably a child of one of the evil people, not being related to Noah. In this respect it’s true to its source material, as the women are not real characters, existing outside the paradigm of it being relevant who they are descended from, like some alternative species, there to lend their ovaries to men so their bloodlines can be continued.

Room for an extra Crowe?

Ila’s purpose is really so that the ray of hope for humanity’s survival doesn’t have to be Noah’s sons impregnating their mum, but like so many of the decisions in this film made to solve plot holes, it creates many more. If there;s one good descendent of Cain, how do they know there aren’t more? They save the animals for being innocent, but what about all the children? Ila and Shem’s kids aren’t the product of incest, but who’s going to have kids with them? The film conveniently ends before the inbreeding begins, unless there’s a post-credits scene I missed.

Maybe I’m over thinking it, but I struggle to see how anyone could detach themselves from the fact it doesn’t make any sense enough to enjoy it. The only think that’s watertight in this film is the ark. And this would be the same if this was a piece of original mythology created for the screen. In fact, the recent Thor films provide a more convincing portrayal of how ancient mythology could tie into the real world. Thor.

For its flaws, Darren Aronofsky approaches this almost-unfilmable story in the right way: by treating it as a piece of fantastical mythology. God is never called by name, instead referred to as “The Creator”, in perhaps the best creative decision in the movie. “God” has connotations with an infinitely powerful and infinitely good being, at odds with a character who commits genocide. Treating it as a piece of mythology, with characters at the mercy of an entity very different from the modern understanding of God, is the only way it could really be handled.

But there are still miracles when it suits the plot. The animals know how to get to the ark, and can be put to sleep for the entire journey; rich, fertile land springs up for Noah and co to build from, and water swells from the ground, so we’re still left wondering why The Creator doesn’t just wipe out the bad guys in a heartbeat and be done with it. He sends stone monsters and fertile land to aid Noah. Why not just send him an ark?

Plot holes aside this is in many ways impressive. But for all the action, spectacle, and narrative embellishment, there’s something sorely missing. It’s incredible that a film about a global flood can be so dry, as it takes itself far too seriously. There’s a fair amount of drama inserted into the film – meaning Noah has an arc, not just an ark (sorry) – but much of it comes from his fanatical interpretation of The Creator’s vague messages, leading him to cause harm to himself, his family and most of the human race. This makes him a hard character to connect to, particularly as Crowe never lets us warm to him. It’s not surprising that a film about the earth being wiped out is so devoid of life.

Despite an admirable effort, they can’t make this ludicrous story into a coherent narrative, and for all the spectacle, the zealots of the Bible are impossible for a modern audience to relate to. They do a fine job adapting the source material, but what results is still a film that’s better to avoid.