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

Tommy’s Honour


Father and son have a conversation.

(2016) Sports Biography (Roadside Attractions) Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill, Max Deacon, Peter Ferdinando, Kylie Hart, Benjamin Wainwright, Ian Pirie, James Smillie, Paul Reid, Seylan Baxter, Therese Bradley, Christopher Craig, Andy Gray, Colin MacDougall, Brett Alan Hart, Gareth Morrison, Paityn Hart, Jim Sweeney, Paul Tinto. Directed by Jason Connery

 

Golf wasn’t always the game it was today. It was developed over a long period of time, codified and eventually turned into a game which is played all over the world. It is, in many ways, a game that belongs to Scotland.

Old Tom Morris (Mullan) was one of the great names of golf in the mid-19th century. As the course greenkeeper at historic St. Andrew’s, he was a custodian for one of golf’s most hallowed institutions. As a caddie and a player of some renown, he helped set the standard for the game at 18 holes; he also designed a fair number of historic courses throughout the United Kingdom and was himself an Open Invitational champion, one of the first.

It was his son Tommy (Lowden), sometimes known as Young Tom, who was truly the shining light as a player. He became one of the first touring professionals and one of the first players who would be paid in advance rather than at the finish of his appearance. Young, handsome and charismatic, he became one of the first superstars of the game.

But Tommy chafed at the class distinctions that kept him from making something of himself. His father came from humble origins and remained so; Old Tom expected Tommy to do the same and be content with it. The arrogant Major Boothby (Neill) agrees with Old Tom and tells Tommy in no uncertain terms that he will never be a gentleman.

Tommy, not unsurprisingly, disagrees. What alienates him from his mother (Bradley) is that he’s fallen in love with Meg Drinnen (Lovibond) who has some skeletons in her closet and is somewhat older than he. Despite her own humble status, mom feels that Tommy could do much better when it comes to a marriage. She changes her mind however after a heart to heart with her daughter in law and finds out the circumstances of those skeletons. It is one of the most moving moments in the movie.

But Tommy and his dad unite for one more challenge match, one that will end up having a terrible impact when Old Tom makes an error in judgment. Thereafter, Old Tom will spend the rest of his days trying to reclaim his son’s honor.

This is a nice recreation of the early days of golf. The manicured links of today are much different than what golfers contended with back in the day. That much will be fascinating to students of the game which is where the primary appeal of the film will lie. However, the golf sequences themselves aren’t quite as convincing as athletic sequences in other films.

Mullan with his impressive beard jutting out makes for a kind of stereotypical Scot; aggressive and opinionated but deferential when needed. The red-headed Lowden gives Tommy a temperamental edge but is occasionally on the bland side. Lovibond as the fiery Meg nearly steals the movie out from under everybody.

The pace is pretty slow throughout but particularly during the middle portion of the film which may be okay with golf fans but perhaps not so much with film buffs, particularly the younger ones. More seasoned sorts will appreciate the attention to detail in the film. Looking up the lives of the Morris men, the movie appears to stick pretty close to the facts, another plus.

It is somewhat ironic that this film which is told from a poverty class point of view also celebrates a game that is a symbol of the elitist 1%. That might stick in a few progressive craws a bit. Still in all, the movie has some appeal, particularly to golfers (not all of whom are billionaires) and for those who can’t get out to the multiplex can enjoy the movie when it’s broadcast on the Golf Channel later this year.

REASONS TO GO: The mid-19th century environment is nicely recreated. There are some fine performances, particularly from Mullan and Lovibond.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow, particularly through the middle. The golf sequences are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are not for small children; there is also some profanity and a bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Connery is the son of Sean Connery and played the title role in the British TV series Robin of Sherwood for a season.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Bagger Vance
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

The Wicker Tree


Brittania Nicol is one hot chick.

Brittania Nicol is one hot chick.

(2011) Horror (Anchor Bay) Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Henry Garrett, Brittania Nicol, Honeysuckle Weeks, Christopher Lee, Clive Russell, Prue Clarke, Lesley Mackie, David Plimmer, Astrid Azurdia, James Mapes, Allidh Mackay, John Paul McGilvray, Bill Murdoch, Keith Warsick, Iain Stuart Robertson, Kristin Murray, Keira McMillan. Directed by Robin Hardy

Some may well remember a movie by the name of The Wicker Man that came out back in 1973. It has become something of a cult classic, well regarded both by film buffs and horror fans alike (a rare occasion indeed) and certainly one of the finest examples of atmospheric horror ever. Then along came 2006 and the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man does its level best to wipe out any good will the original film engendered. So the director of the original decides to make a sequel of sorts based on his own novel Cowboys for Christ. Does it regain that good will?

Born-again Christian pop star Beth Boothby (Nicol) and her boyfriend Steve (Garrett) have been on a mission to Scotland to bring those heathen Scots back to the fold of God. She is performing well-attended concerts, he’s been rockin’ his cowboy hat and sideburns. Ayup.

They arrive in the small town of Tressock, invited by Sir Lachlan Morrison (McTavish) and his wife Lady Della (Leonard). The town has a festival coming up shortly and Beth expects to be performing, although she would never guess how she’s intended to perform.

This is a failure on so many levels. although it at least has more restrained acting performances. Like the 2006 Wicker Man there is a plot that meanders from place to place, stopping to view different scenes which end up being apropos to nothing. They even trot out poor old Christopher Lee for a cameo with some of the most horrible green screen you will ever see on a professional production. I mean c’mon, the guy’s old not daft.

Weeks plays Lolly, a very sexy lady who sleeps with all sorts of people including the frustrated Steve who is tired of waiting for the virtuous Beth to commit to a physical and emotional relationship as well as the spiritual one. Beth, whose history had some sordid sexy music videos (by her standards) though is in no hurry to change things up, particularly while she’s on this mission. Weeks, much more than the somewhat stiff Nicol, is something of a force of nature here and makes the deepest impression of any actor in the movie.

One of the things that made the original Wicker Man so outstanding was the atmosphere that it created that looked bucolic on the surface but from the get go you just felt something wasn’t quite right. You can tell that Hardy went for that feeling again but perhaps it was lightning in a bottle the first time because instead of that just off feeling, you get a sense of a village inhabited by nuts and oddballs being visited by a couple of wing nuts. What makes this especially heinous is that they had the perfect opportunity to make some sort of insight into the religious obsession of Americans but instead boiled it down to caricatures and recycled stereotypes. Absolutely there is plenty of target space on the religious right but I would have expected at least a little bit of a different perspective, particularly from someone whose most famous work examines the difference between Christianity and paganism. Although it might well be said that his view of paganism was a lot more violent and spooky than it actually is. Then again, that would have made for a more boring film.

Self-arguments aside, this is a disappointing work that never comes close to achieving what the original Wicker Man did. What Hardy intended remains unclear, whether to remake his most famous work or update it or merely reference it here but at the end of the day this comes off as a wicker mess.

WHY RENT THIS: Weeks is appropriately sexy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A hot mess. Incoherent script. Lacks atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and nudity, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee was originally supposed to play the pivotal role of Sir Lachlan Morrison but was injured while filming The Resident. McTavish, who was originally supposed to play Beame, was then switched to the role of Sir Lachlan and Joan Collins, who was originally playing Lady Morrison was replaced by Leonard whose age was closer to the much younger McTavish than Collins.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Baby Mama

The Decoy Bride


The runaway decoy bride.

The runaway decoy bride.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Kelly Macdonald, Alice Eve, David Tennant, Hamish Clark, James Fleet, Dylan Moran, Sally Phillips, Michael Urie, Federico Castelluccio, Danny Bage, Hannah Bourne, Maurice Beattie, Muriel Barker, Jeannie Fisher, Sally Howitt, Rony Bridges, Matthew Chalmers, Victoria Grove, Alisha Bailey. Directed by Sheree Folkson

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-2

Our celebrity-obsessed society sometimes forces people into unusual situations. People who crave fame go out of their way to get it while those who seek privacy often have to go to extreme efforts to achieve it.

Hollywood megastar Laura Tyler (Eve) just wants to get married but like most divas she has the perfect wedding in mind. A wedding that doesn’t involve the paparazzi and helicopters buzzing overhead. Her husband-to-be, noted author James Neil Arber (Tennant) had recently written a novel set in the lovely Scottish island of Hegg and Laura thinks it might be lovely to get married there.

The press gets wind of it though and Laura is at her wits end. Ready to walk, the star is mollified by her press team who come up with the brilliant idea of getting a local girl to dress and look like Laura so that the press can chase her, leaving Laura and her groom to tie the knot in peace.

The girl chosen, Katie Nic Aoidh (Macdonald) is getting over a broken heart of her own, but could sure use the money the publicists are paying for the gig. In order to fool the press, Katie will have to spend a lot of time with the groom and she and James get along pretty much like the Israeli Secret Service and Hezbollah. Of course, you know what’s going to happen to them.

This is one of those movies that you can point to later in the careers of the two leads and say “I was a fan of them back when.” Tennant and Macdonald are both up and coming stars, Tennant already with Doctor Who under his belt and Macdonald voicing Merida in Brave and impressing on Boardwalk Empire.

Mostly the press has been complaining about the lack of chemistry between the two of them but I disagree. What their onscreen relationship suffers from more to the point is lack of characterization. Neither one of their characters has been given a good deal of depth to work with and some of that is due to the writing, but both actors – who have been marvelous when given something to work with – fail to imbue their characters with any soul. The problem becomes that the audience isn’t as invested in seeing the couple work out. Now, I’m not saying that the two are awkward together – there is SOME spark here – but just not as much as I would have liked.

As romantic comedies go, the movie tends to rely more on charm than on out and out jokes although there are a few bridal gown pratfalls and some lowbrow humor here and again. A few more jokes would have been welcome here.

I like that there aren’t any sharp edges to the movie; while it ostensibly is lampooning Hollywood’s celebrity entitlement culture and our own obsession with it, the satire is gentle and likable. It doesn’t slap you in the face so much as tickle you on the underside of your arm. This is a good thing when you’re going for a romantic mood with your sweetie.

Sometimes you want to cuddle up with something that’s easy to watch but at the same time isn’t something you’ve seen a hundred times and I’m certain this will fit the bill for that mindset. It will feel familiar – a lot of the jokes and situations are regurgitated from other films and television sources – but at the same time you’ll also get an attractive couple and, along with the absolutely jaw-dropping beauty Eve you get to see them at the beginning of their careers. Nothing is certain, especially in the notoriously fickle film industry but these three young stars have a bright future ahead of them.

WHY RENT THIS: Gentle and easy to digest. McDonald, Eve and Tennant are all solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As a comedy, could use a bit more humor.

FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly rude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers received a 300,000 pound grant from Scottish Screen (the national board for film and television in Scotland), the largest amount possible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not much but there are some cast interviews and a fairly interesting special effects featurette.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $859 domestic on a $4.1M production budget; please note that its European box office isn’t included.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaway Bride

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

Monty Python and the Holy Grail


It's only a flesh wound.

It’s only a flesh wound.

(1975) Comedy (Rainbow Releasing) Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Connie Booth, Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes, Bee Duffell, John Young, Rita Davies, Avril Stewart, Sally Kinghorn, Mark Zycon, Elspeth Cameron, Mitsuko Forstater, Sandy Johnson, Sandy Rose, Romily Squire, Joni Flynn. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

As a film critic, one of the questions I’m most often asked is what is my all-time favorite movie. Although the answer can vary according to my mood, the film that I find myself giving as that answer is this one.

In the dark ages, King Arthur (Chapman) has been given a quest by God to find the Holy Grail. He gathers around him worthy knights, such as the valiant Sir Lancelot (Cleese), the chaste Sir Galahad (Palin), the bookish Sir Bedevere (Jones) and the not very valiant Sir Robin (Idle).

On their quest to find the Grail, they will face fearsome foes like the Knights Who Until RECENTLY said Ni (Big points if you can remember AND pronounce what they say now), the temptresses of Castle Anthrax, the Black Beast of Castle Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh and most fearsome of all, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog (vanquished only with the aid of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch). With his faithful servant Patsy (Gilliam) at his side, King Arthur will yield to no valiant knight to reach his goal. No foe too deadly, no quest too dangerous, no shrubbery so lush that he won’t find that darn Grail.

Later fashioned into the successful Broadway musical Spamalot, the movie remains one of the most influential when it comes to modern comedy movies. Repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and sending most comedy conventions sailing out into the air (only to land on a hapless page), the madmen of Monty Python appear to stumble through the movie but as we watch it unfold we realize that we are watching either the most cleverly plotted and mapped out movies or pure improvisational genius. It scarcely matters which one.

The late Graham Chapman as King Arthur provides the film’s straight man (although he has his share of zingers) and grounds the movie for the most part until at the end of the movie it goes whizzing over the cliff and shatters on the rocks below. The movie doesn’t so much conclude as end, which does frustrate a few non-fans but considering all the anarchy that preceded, is kind of fitting.

Listing all the amazing sketches and bits in the movie is nearly impossible but there is nary a false step in any of them. Terry Gilliam’s animations enhancing the movie and acting as bridges between sometimes wildly varying parts. Neil Innes contributes music and songs including the hilarious Ballad of Sir Robin with such memorable lines as “When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled” which might well sum up certain political figures I will not name here.

I will say that Monty Python doesn’t appeal to every comedy taste. They are far too manic for some, too anarchic for others and too dry for others still. I am proud to say that I’m a Python addict and have been since an early age, thanks largely to this film and their TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus which in my boyhood aired on our local PBS station in Los Angeles long after the series had been canceled by the BBC; I urge you to catch some of those episodes which are readily available if you can.

We are not likely to see the like of Monty Python again. They were a group of men whose sum was greater than their parts and each member fit perfectly into the role he was given. With Chapman’s untimely passing in 1989, Monty Python is no more – not really. Although the Pythons have gathered again (often with an urn supposedly containing his remains), they aren’t quite the same. Still they continue individual and as a group to shock, push the envelope of comedy and poke and prod the staid and stodgy cultural monoliths of Britain with a sharply pointed stick, and that is a good thing because frankly I’m too lazy to do it myself.

Not all of you will agree with my assessment of the movie but I don’t care. It is the only film I’ve seen in a theater more than twice, the movie I’ve watched more often than any other and yet it still never fails to make me laugh. I will admit that nostalgia plays a part in that but still, comedies for the most part have a limited shelf life – you can only laugh at the same jokes so much. This movie has kept me laughing for almost 40 years (not non-stop) which is an accomplishment. If you haven’t seen it, see it and form your own opinion. If you have seen it, see it again because the Pythons can use the cash. If your local art house screens a revival showing of it, by all means see it on the big screen – there’s nothing quite so awe-inspiring as seeing the Big Head of Light Entertainment in all its divine glory on as big a screen as possible. The IMAX people should take note. Either way, you may love it, you may hate it but you WILL form an opinion of it and it might just change your life. It certainly changed mine. Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.

WHY RENT THIS: The funniest movie ever made. Period.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t get their humor, you won’t like the film. If you do, you’ll watch it again and again and again. Some find the ending too abrupt.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a surfeit of foul language, crude humor, violence, sexuality, nudity and taunting.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was partially financed by sales from Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. The band was huge fans of the troupe and would frequently halt recording of the album to watch their television show.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition has a sing-a-long track for the film’s songs, the screenplay in text, two scenes dubbed in Japanese with the fractured English subtitles below, a performance of the film with Lego, a bit on which Palin as a representative of the Ministry of Foods explains the many uses of coconuts – including how to make clip-cloppy horse sound and a “Follow the Killer Rabbit” feature in which when the rabbit graphic appears on-screen you can select it to take you to corresponding documents and drawings.. Finally, there’s a pretty nifty featurette in which Palin and Jones take us on a tour of the various locations used for the film. The Extraordinarily Deluxe edition contains all of this, a CD of the film’s soundtrack (which contains a lot of audio excerpts from the film as well as some album-specific stuff), a quiz, and subtitles for people who don’t like the movie (taken from Henry IV, Part II). The Blu-Ray contains most of this, but also has a nifty iPad app that syncs up with the film and includes interviews with the surviving Pythons about the specific day of shooting for that scene. The app is $5 and only works on the iPad however.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $365,274 production budget; even given adjustments for inflation this was a major blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 44/10

NEXT: 2 Guns

A Lonely Place to Die


 

There's nowhere to go but up.

There’s nowhere to go but up.

(2011) Thriller (IFC) Alec Newman, Ed Speelers, Melissa George, Kate Magowan, Gary Sweeney, Holly Boyd, Douglas Russell, Alan Steele, Sean Harris, Stephen McCole, Karel Roden, Eamonn Walker, Paul Anderson, Eric Barlow, Jamie Edgell, Matthew Zajac, Gillian MacGregor, Tania Chant, Robert J. Goodwin, Alan Wyn Hughes. Directed by Julian Gilbey

Sometimes when you least expect it you find hidden gems where you ought not to. It might have to do with low expectations – you think that the movie is going to be just one of many that when it turns out that it is not you are so pleased that you perhaps give it an inordinate amount of credit. That’s as may be but the truth is those kinds of movies are the sort you appreciate simply because they leave you pleasantly surprised.

Rob (Newman), Ed (Speelers) and Alison (George) are mountain climbing in the Scottish highlands and having a kick-ass time of it. Sure there are a few hairy moments but nothing these young enthusiasts can’t handle. Afterwards, they meet up with married friends (McGowan, Sweeney) in a remote cabin and….well, do things that young active people do.

High winds the next day preclude their plans for climbing so a hike in the woods is called for instead. It is there that Alison and Ed hear a plaintive voice, crying out in a language they don’t understand. After digging, they find Anna (Boyd), a Serbian girl who can’t speak a word of English, buried in a box underground. They pull her out and determine to send their best climbers – Alison and Rob – on ahead to fetch help.

What they don’t understand is that some Really Bad Men put Anna in that hole and they’re not particularly happy that someone has dug her out. They mean to put her back in that hole and to put anyone who gets in between them – or even knows that she exists – in the ground in a more permanent fashion. Really Bad Men are like that.

This is one of those thrillers that doesn’t rely on artifice – or at least a lot of it – to keep its audience on the edge of their seats. This is a smart, beautifully photographed suspense movie that utilizes some beautiful Scottish scenery. There is a real sense of jeopardy that you can’t manufacture without at least a working understanding of the nuances of the situation. Another thing you can’t manufacture is the scenery; there are some breathtaking images here.

Melissa George has developed into a fine actress who is most commonly found in European thrillers and horror flicks. She’s been compared with Jamie Lee Curtis and I think that is pretty apt; she plays smart, strong women who can be a physical presence without losing their feminine side or their sex appeal. Curtis made a career that way and Gina Carano looks to do the same; George already is.

When the movie changes location to a Scottish village it loses a lot of its momentum, as if the filmmakers were more comfortable filming in the wilderness than they were in a more urban environment. That aside, there are some really nice twists and turns, particularly one having to do with the identity of the Really Bad Men that fans of the genre will surely appreciate.

I’m deliberately keeping things fairly vague because the movie works so much better if you don’t see what’s coming. I was fortunate enough to go into seeing this without knowing anything about it and was simply blown away by how sophisticated the movie making was here. You might think from reading the plot summary that this is a very basic “wilderness stalking” movie, but it’s far from that. It’s elevated by some strong performance (particularly from Speelers and George), some gorgeous cinematography and writing that gives its audience credit for having some sophistication and intelligence. While the ending might knock it down a peg or two, this is still a really good gem in the thriller genre.

WHY RENT THIS: A couple of well-put together scenes. Speelers and George are compelling leads. Gorgeous scenery.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Final third of the movie doesn’t hold up to first two thirds.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly strong violence and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Gilbey and his brother Will (who co-wrote the script with Julian) became avid mountain climbers while researching and making the film. The footage over the end credits that was taken with helmet cans was actually shot by the brothers themselves while scouting locations for the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.3M on a $4M production budget; that’s a pretty sizable hit for a movie that’s been pretty much ignored over here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving the Game

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meskada

Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

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