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

Magic in the Moonlight


Emma Stone is shocked to discover she's co-starring with an Oscar winner.

Emma Stone is shocked to discover she’s co-starring with an Oscar winner.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, George Shamos, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Ute Lemper, Didier Muller, Peter Wollasch, Antonia Clarke, Natasha Andrews, Valerie Beaulieu, Lionel Abelanski. Directed by Woody Allen

The world is fairly evenly divided between the romantic and the pragmatic. Pragmatists believe that everything is explainable and that there is little to no mystery left in the world. Romantics believe that there is much more to life than what the senses perceive and that there are things in the world that can only be described as magic.

Stanley (Firth) certainly counts himself among the pragmatic although, perhaps oddly, he makes his living as a magician, masquerading as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo. While he would say that he does so to maintain his privacy as well as the illusion of mystery, it seems somewhat hypocritical at the very least and cynical for certain. In 1928, however, this isn’t really an issue.

Stanley is the sort that can alienate the nicest of people in a matter of seconds. Pompous, arrogant and smug, he is completely certain that he is right in all things and the smartest person in the room. The trouble is, he usually is. He is engaged to Olivia (McCormack), a fellow intellectual pragmatic and a fine looking woman as well. They are very well-matched on the surface and Stanley feels a good deal of affection towards his bride-to-be. At the end of his world tour, he intends to vacation in the Galapagos with her.

 

However at the close of his Berlin show he is met by his old friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (McBurney) who comes to him with a challenge. A woman by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone) purporting to be a psychic has attached herself to the Catledge family of Pittsburgh who happen to be friends of his. Their callow son Brice (Linklater) has become smitten with the girl, having already proposed marriage. Mother Grace (Weaver) is obsessed with making contact with her lately departed industrialist husband.

Stanley, a notable debunker of charlatans, leaps at the chance. Burkan drives him to their home in the South of France with a brief stop to lunch with Stanley’s dear Aunt Vanessa (Atkins) who practically raised him and instilled in him the practicality that makes up his personality, although she despairs at his prickliness that makes him something of a social hand grenade.

Nobody knows who Stanley is once they arrive at the Catledge villa; he introduces himself as an importer of Brazilian coffee beans. He meets Sophie and her suspicious mother (Harden) and proceeds to let slip his disbelief in the occult. However at a séance, he is unable to detect how she makes a candle levitate nor does she seem to be the source of the rapping noises that are overheard. The great debunker has to admit he’s perplexed.

 

He grows further so when she seems to know things she couldn’t possibly know – even Aunt Vanessa is taken with the charming young lass. The more he begins to doubt his own convictions, the more alive Stanley feels – and the more he begins to fall for the beautiful young girl. However, he can’t keep that nagging feeling out of his head that there is no such thing as magic. It’s a war in his soul for which it seems there can be no compromise.

Allen has been in a bit of a career renaissance in his 70s with nine films released including two of his most acclaimed and commercially successful – Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. I will admit that I had fallen out of love with Allen not long after Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo – it seemed to me that most of his movies between then and now were passionless and seemed to be the work of someone who was working to stay busy. However Midnight in Paris did change my mind and I have again begun to look forward to his new movies – not that all of them have been great. Still I had high hopes for this one.

It is charming to be sure, a throwback to an early era – not just the era of the flapper when this is set, but also to the comedies of the ’70s which this is more akin to which were in turn inspired by comedies of the 30s and 40s. Call this a throwback of a throwback if you will.

 

Firth proves himself a phenomenal performer, once again showing that he may be the best male actor of this decade. His Stanley takes the guise of an inscrutable Oriental because Stanley himself is inscrutable; for all his bluster and bravado he is unable to express his emotions any better than those he despises can express their intellect. Stanley is clearly not a likable fellow yet Firth makes us like him in spite of his faults and by the time the movie ends, Stanley has made an organic and believable change. It’s not just good writing that accomplishes this – Firth makes it real.

Most of the rest of the cast does the kind of solid work you’d expect from a cast with this kind of pedigree – not to mention from a Woody Allen movie. Allen has always been able to get good performances from his actors.

I’ll have to admit that the second act seems a bit rushed and that the movie ends up a little bit more neatly tied up in a bow than I might have expected. I supposed when you’re 79 years old and you’re still churning out a movie every year (and sometimes more) without fail, you can be forgiven for taking a few short cuts.

 

Nonetheless this is solidly entertaining and charming. I have to admit that I do love movies set in this era and I love those kind of 70s-era all-star events that made the Agatha Christie movies so entertaining. While not a murder mystery per se, it has some elements you’d find in a movie by the mistress of the murder mystery. If Allen continues to make movies of this quality, I for one won’t be disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Colin Firth is really, really good. Overall charming and recalls not only the Roaring ’20s but also the ’70s as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is rushed a little bit. A few shortcuts are taken.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some innuendo and period smoking (which is apparently a big no-no for the MPAA these days).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth movie made while Woody Allen was in his 70s. Should he release a movie next year, it will be his tenth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Gatsby

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Giver

Shadow of the Vampire


Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

(2000) Horror (Lionsgate) John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Aden Gillett, Nicholas Elliott, Ronan Vibert, Sophie Langevin, Myriam Muller, Milos Hlavak, Marja-Leener Junker, Derek Kueter, Norman Golightly, Patrick Hastert, Sacha Ley, Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by E. Elias Merhige

 

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can’t see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imagination more than anything else.

That fear was never better crystallized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula. It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century and most likely beyond. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh. That’s a dangerous thing in and of its own self.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway.  Murnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means “shriek”) to play his Count Orlock, the Dracula of his film. Schreck (Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times. Most of the cast and crew assign this as the quirks of an actor and think nothing of it.

It appears that Murnau’s vision is being realized. The film, Nosferatu, is turning out to be everything he hoped – one of the classic horror films of all time. Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production.

When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (McCormick, Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he actually IS undead.

What a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. Nosferatu remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. “Max Schreck” was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, for all we know he could have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau’s crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Director Elias Merhige (Begotten) has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance (and in fact he was nominated) as the sinister Schreck, an ancient creature who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film’s climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe’s performance by itself is commendable. It’s funny, sad and terrifying all at once. Shadow of the Vampire wisely uses the best monster of all – our imaginations and our fear of the dark – to its advantage.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Dafoe. Brilliant concept. Creepily atmospheric.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Style over substance. Overly long opening titles sequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of horrific images, some drug use and sexuality, a bit of violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The producers of Spider-Man hired Dafoe to be their Green Goblin based on his performance here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a make-up montage that shows the process of actor Willem Dafoe going from human to Nosferatu in a matter of minutes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORANCE: $11.2M on an $8M production budget; the film was shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream 3

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Internship