The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

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The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death


Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Relativity) Phoebe Fox, Helen McCrory, Oaklee Pendergast, Jeremy Irvine, Pip Pierce, Jude Wright, Amelia Crouch, Adrian Rawlins, Amelia Pidgeon, Casper Allpress, Ned Dennehy, Mary Roscoe, Merryn Pearse, Leanne Best, Eve Pearce, David Norfolk, Chris Cowlin, Julie Vollono, Hayley Joanne Bacon. Directed by Tom Harper

There’s kind of an unwritten law that sequels to horror movies tend to be less scary and of a lower quality than the originals. Hammer Films, the classic British horror factory however has been the exception to that rule for the most part, churning out Dracula and Frankenstein sequels that are just as good if not better than the originals. Would that record hold in the latest incarnation of the studio?

Taking place 40 years after the original Woman in Black with the Second World War in full bloom with the London Blitz in particular at its height. With the constant nightly bombing, the decision was made to evacuate as many children as possible out to the country and a group of school children with their principal  Jean Hogg (McCrory) herding them much like a shepherdess if given an unruly mob of sheep and one of her teachers, Eve Parkins (Fox) to assist.

There is another Nazi raid the night before they are to leave and a direct hit to a nearby house leaves young Edward (Pendergast) an orphan. Rendered mute by the experience, he resorts to making sinister drawings which in turn draw out the cruelty of some children, the sympathy of others with the impatient and imperious Jean leaning towards the suck-it-up school of grief counseling. She is married to a Brigadier General, after all.

Of course with shortages in places  in safe places to stay, this particular group is sent to Eel Marsh House, home of the Woman in Black (Best) who still rages and haunts there after her son was taken away from her forcibly and later drowned. Now, she seems to be enraged at the children in the charge of Ms. Hogg and Ms. Parkins, although Edward seems to be a favored target and Eve’s own maternal instincts are flaring up like the hair on a dog’s back. However, Eve has secrets that have drawn the Woman in Black to her.

I have to say that the first film had much more atmosphere and better scares than this one, which has some good ones but not nearly as many. Whereas the first film was generally dark and gloomy, this one is brighter although just as fog-shrouded with the occasional rainstorm. Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com suggested that the film would have been better off had it been filmed in black and white and I can’t say I disagree with him. In fact, it would have been a capital idea.

Whereas the first film had Daniel Radcliffe turning in a solid performance, the cast of lesser known Brits (at least in this country) do workman like jobs, although McCrory some might remember from the Harry Potter series (like Radcliffe) has some moments and Jeremy Irvine, who plays a dashing English pilot with secrets of his own, has others. Another thing missing from the first is the village of the suspicious people which has been changed to one single demented resident (Dennehy). Doesn’t quite feel the same.

Maternal guilt is a big theme here, particularly Eve’s and it is an interesting twist of normal horror conventions that the children are a means to an end – that end being punishing Eve. However, rather than further exploring that theme, the filmmakers are content to replay the same flashback over and over again, trying to be cryptic I suppose but only a dimwit would fail to realize that the dreams are about a traumatic experience in Eve’s life and why the Woman in Black is drawn to it. Perhaps showing how the event effected Eve’s life and brought her to her teaching position may have been a better use of the filmmaker’s efforts rather than replaying the same scene over and over again. That’s just lazy filmmaking.

This isn’t a bad film at all, although true horror fans might find it a bit lean on scares and atmosphere. However, the film is reasonably well-made and has enough going for it that I can give it a mild recommendation which for films released this time of the year is like gold.

REASONS TO GO: Some great views of misty marshes. Explores maternal guilt. Some effective scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough of those effective scares. Lacks a truly creepy or scary mood. Performances are merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: There are definitely some frightening images, as well as kids in peril. Not a lot of gore or foul language, some of the thematic elements are on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first sequel to be produced by Hammer Studios since 1974, although none of the events of the first film is referred to in this one, nor do any cast members return.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unbroken

The Baader Meinhof Complex


The Baader Meinhof Complex

The German police have a little heart-to-heart with a Left Wing protester.

(Vitagraph) Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl, Stipe Erceg, Niels Bruno Schmidt, Vinzenz Kiefer, Bruno Ganz. Directed by Uli Edel

There is a fine line between commitment to a cause and absolute obsession over it. The committed work hard within the realm of the law; the obsessed seek any means necessary to get their agenda across.

There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the youth of West Germany in 1967. American imperialism as expressed by its war in Vietnam, German corruption, police brutality – what’s a German Marxist to do (other than move to the other side of the Wall)? The German left wing begins to shift its focus when a peaceful protest is turned into a riot when the police exercise a beat down on the protesters; not long afterwards one of the leaders of the Left Wing is shot and nearly killed by a right winger.

When the going gets tough, the tough get violent. At least, that’s the theory according to Andreas Baader (Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Wokalek). The two lead a radical group called the Red Army Faction who are putting their signboards away and picking up guns and bombs. When a well-known journalist named Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck) interviews the rock star/political activists, she finds a strange fascination with their cause. After Baader is arrested, she volunteers to help him escape and leaves behind her husband, children and suburban lifestyle.

The film follows the group from its roots, through its notorious early 70s run of terrorist activities and through the capture of the principles and their subsequent trial. Students of the history of that era will know their fate, which wasn’t pretty; suffice to say that the band wasn’t the same without them.

This is a two and a half hour movie that has the you-are-there feel of a documentary tempered with the breathless feel of a thriller. While the moviemakers have prided themselves on their historical accuracy, the story is nonetheless fictionalized in some places for dramatic and time compression purposes.

The main cast of actors for the most part well-known in Germany but not so much here; they do superb jobs. Gedeck in particular has a schizophrenic role to play; in the beginning she is a wife and mom with a fairly bourgeois mindset albeit more left-leaning than her peers; as the movie progresses she becomes more cold-blooded than you might ever imagine.

The movie does little to explain the motivations behind the people. You get the feeling that Baader wanted to be something of a rock star; he is petulant and childish which underscores a thuggish mentality. Wokalek plays Ensslin as a hard-as-nails cast-iron bitch who doesn’t really care about the lives of the innocent; in her somewhat paranoid mindset, everyone who isn’t for the revolution is automatically allied with the government. For someone who is supposedly doing what she does for the good of the people, she sure doesn’t mind killing off her beloved “common people” for the sake of making a point.

Ganz, one of the best actors to emerge from Germany in the last 30 years, plays Horst Herald, the director of the Federal Police Office, is the conscience of the movie. He desperately tries to understand the minds of the leaders of the RAF in order to better capture them, but they wind up as great an enigma to him as they do to us.

The movie is a bit slow in the middle third, but kicks it into overdrive during the final third of the film. As the RAF disintegrates and the leaders are put on trial, we at last see some of the emotion missing from much of the movie. Those who give up on the movie near the middle might miss out on the best parts of it.

The movie suffers from trying to tell too much story. There are so many characters, all of whom are identified once and then left for us to figure out who they are and what their significance is to the story that after awhile we have no idea of who is doing what to whom. I would have much preferred it if the filmmakers had concentrated more on the three charismatic leaders of the group and left their vicious deeds offscreen; I would have been more interested to know why they did what they did rather than just what they did.

To be fair, it is more likely that the filmmakers themselves didn’t know because quite frankly, the world doesn’t know. Why smart, rational people would turn to such violence and brutality to get their point across is beyond me. We live in a world in which terrorism remains a constant threat; any one of us, at any time could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and pay the price for it, so the movie will still strike a chord with modern audiences.

The scenes of the terrorist acts can be sudden and brutal, and those with sensitive souls are well advised to stay clear, as some of these acts are quite disturbing, even by today’s standards. While most Americans remain basically ignorant of the real Baader Meinhof Complex, those who lived in Europe during the 70s will be very familiar with their actions and their consequences. It is well for us to remember that before there was an Al Qaida, there were the Weather Underground, the IRA and Baader Meinhof. Terror does not have a racial profile.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific recreation of the era and the situation. Some of the scenes of violence are marvelously choreographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We never get any real insight as to why these people did the things they did.

FAMILY VALUES: This is a disturbing film on many levels, with graphic nudity and sex, extreme violence and carnage and a foul word or two. This is definitely meant for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Susanne Albrecht, who is portrayed by Hannah Herzsprung in the movie, was roommates with Herzsprung’s mother Barbara in boarding school.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition 2-disc DVD set includes features on the historical authenticity of the film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The A-Team