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Posts Tagged ‘Brendan Gleeson’

Does this count as a genuine coincidence or not? About six months ago I was visiting relatives when my cousin (NB to family: I am aware this is a bit of a simplification, stand down), a man of great energy and rigorous thoughtfulness, descended on me and raved about the book he was reading at the time, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. I’d never heard of the novel or the writer, but obviously this was not a recommendation to take lightly. Now here we are with a movie adaptation of the same (until relatively recently) slightly obscure novel enjoying what I will politely describe as a limited release.

The movie is directed by Vincent Perez, and is also called Alone in Berlin – the book has previously been adapted for German audiences under the title Everyone Dies Alone, and if that gives you the sense that there may not be a lot of laughs in this one, you are entirely with the programme.

We are currently in the midst of one of those occasional outbreaks of movies about the Second World War, with new ones appearing on a very nearly weekly basis (or so it feels, anyway). Alone in Berlin opens towards the end of the initial Nazi conquest of France, with the death in battle of a young German soldier. In most movies this would not be cause for concern, but this is not your typical film taking place in this particular setting. German soldiers have parents, too, and the next thing we see is the dead boy’s parents receiving the telegram notifying them of his death.

They are Anna and Otto Quangel (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson); she is a housewife, he a factory foreman, and they live together in a slightly pokey flat in the centre of Berlin. Previously it seems they have been apolitical when it comes to their government, but the death of their son ignites something, first in Otto, then in Anna, and they decide to do something, anything, to resist what they see as the lies of the ruling regime.

This takes the form of writing seditious postcards criticising Hitler and his ideology, which they then leave in public places for others to find and (hopefully) pass on. You might think this sounds pretty small beans when it comes to insurrectionism, and I might be inclined to agree with you, but even this small act of defiance cannot be tolerated by the ruling Nazis, and a police detective is assigned to hunt down the writer of the treasonous missives. The cop on the job is Inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl), who nicknames his quarry ‘the Hobgoblin’ – but while not an educated man, Quangel is no fool, and the cat and mouse game between him and the authorities stretches on for years, with tensions rising on both sides…

In case you are wondering, Fallada’s novel was based on a true story, and was initially published quite shortly after the end of the war. It has been called ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. This is not, in my admittedly very limited experience, an especially large field, but it is certainly a memorable book, although I remember it more for its tone and atmosphere than for any details of plot or writing.

Certainly this is a somewhat free adaptation of the book. Quite apart from the facts that Gleeson is far from the bird-like figure of the novel’s Quangel, and Bruhl is considerably younger than the book’s Escherich, many of the book’s profusion of subplots, dealing with a wide range of characters and situations, have either been heavily cut down or completely excised – the younger Quangel’s fiancee and her involvement with another, more active resistance cell is completely gone, for instance. This may allow the film more focus and make it easier to follow, but it means the film depicts much less of a cross-section of German society and how different people made their accommodations with living under the Nazi regime.

Instead, it is much more about the Quangels. Obviously they are well-played (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, for crying out loud), and the script goes to the trouble of introducing new material in order to give Thompson a bit more to work with. The moral righteousness of Otto Quangel is perfect for an actor of Gleeson’s power and gravitas, of course, and he does produce some memorable moments – but the problem is that the Quangels, apart from at the very beginning of the story, are so wholly, stoically good, that they’re not especially interesting characters. The really interesting character in this version of the story is Escherich, who begins by treating the postcards as just another case, only to realise – rather too late – that the Nazi authorities don’t respect niceties like the rule of law or the independence of the police. The inspector’s own moral journey from somewhat wry, apolitical observer, to a conflicted, guilt-ridden man is where the real dramatic meat of the film lies (and Bruhl is good in the role).

The book obviously has an axe to grind, given the context in which it was written, and I have to say I found it to be somewhat unsubtle and – in its closing stages – awkwardly sentimental. The film avoids this to some extent, but there are no particular insights here, and it skips over, to some extent, the fact that the Quangels’ quarrel with Hitler is not motivated by any particular moral concern but simply because they feel him responsible for getting their son killed. At the heart of the story there is always one very basic question – is there any real value in an act of resistance as, to be blunt, petty and ineffectual as the one carried out by the Quangels? I suppose there is something to be said for standing up to be counted, which qualifies as a moral victory of a sort, but even so. Naturally, Fallada, and also to some extent the film, is in no doubt that the Quangels (and the couple they were based on) are heroes, but I found myself wondering. They are clearly good, decent people, but their goodness takes a curiously muted form. Bereft of the epilogue of the novel, which implies their actions may have had other, wholly unintended positive consequences, you are left to wonder if the whole affair has achieved anything of real merit at all – has it just been an exercise in self-sacrificial futility?

The movie has been impressively assembled and is well-acted and competently directed, but it’s still a little unsatisfying. It doesn’t expose moral truths, it just raises questions which it never quite answers, and it comes perilously close to presenting the fact that the Nazi regime was bad as if this is some kind of important new revelation. Alone in Berlin s a watchable movie, but quite heavy-going, and less profound and moving than it seems to think it is.

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Where there is a big loud blockbuster, occupying the sides of every bus for miles around, intent on owning the nation’s cinemas for a weekend, there’s always the chance for counter-programming, too, and one could surely expect the new Transformers (described by Bradshaw in The Guardian the other day as ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’) to be countered by something a little more mellow, thoughtful, and humane. What has actually emerged to hoover up the money of cinemagoers not keen to spend two hours recreating the experience of sitting in a tumble drier being pushed down a hill by an angry mob is Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead, a golden-years romantic-comedy-drama starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. I get the impression expectations for this film are quite high, for it has won the coveted main screen at Oxford city centre’s nicer cinema, which I don’t feel I get to sit in nearly often enough.

In this movie, which (needless to say, I hope) is set in the London borough of Hampstead, Diane Keaton plays Emily, a woman whose husband has died fairly recently, leaving her with some financial concerns. (She still lives in an enormous apartment block with its own concierge, of course, like most people in London.) Her friends and family are all urging her to move on with her life, and her accountant keeps macking on her in a way which I’m guessing is meant to be pathetic-funny but actually just comes across as rather repulsive. Anyway, Emily’s life changes when she bumps into Donald (Gleason), a sort of human womble living rough in a secluded part of Hampstead Heath, in a shack he built himself many years earlier. The area is due to be redeveloped and Donald is about to be evicted, and as Emily finds herself increasingly drawn to him, she resolves to help him fight to keep his home. But can people from two such different worlds truly find happiness together? Especially when it turns out that Emily’s closest friends are deeply involved in the redevelopment project which looks set to evict Donald from the home he loves…

Look, Diane Keaton was in Annie Hall and Sleeper and The Godfather, there’s no excuse for not liking her as an actress. Brendan Gleeson was in In Bruges and Calvary and The Guard, in addition to all those supporting parts in blockbusters, so the same applies to him. I think I would give any film starring Brendan Gleeson a chance, in fact. Or so I kept reminding myself while I was watching Hampstead and trying to stop myself jumping from the cinema balcony in an attempt to escape from the movie.

What is it about this film which makes it quite so exceptionable? Is it the soft-focus depiction of homelessness in modern London? The disparity between the living standards and housing of the wealthy and the poor in the city’s more prosperous parts has become a bit of an issue in the last couple of weeks, as you may have noticed on the news. Perhaps it is partly to blame. Is it the crushing obviousness of pretty much every line of the script and the direction-of-travel of the movie? I think we are getting a bit closer, there, to be honest. Emily needs to learn the life lesson that She Has Potential As A Human Being (and also that all her so-called friends are grotesque shallow comic harpies). Donald has to learn the life lesson that Being A Reclusive Curmudgeonly Hermit is not good and you must Connect With People And Find Love. The manner in which these two character arcs unfold and interact contains fewer surprises than a dot-to-dot book assembled by someone unable to count above three. Overall, such is the sense of dramatic tension and potential for excitement in this movie that you can cut the atmosphere with a rolling pin.

You can see what the makers of this film had in mind when they were putting it together – one of those romcoms set in an absurdly photogenic London with an imported American star and a local leading man, with the formula modulated somewhat to appeal to older audiences in the same way that (for example) Man Up was tweaked to seem slightly more edgy. However, what they’ve ended up with in this case feels rather like a lobotomised mash-up of The Lady in the Van and an early draft of Notting Hill before Richard Curtis had put any of the jokes in. It is of course physically impossible for performers of the stature of Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson to be completely bad for 104 minutes, and each of them manages to bring moments of power and life to the very thin characters they are obliged to play here. Employing Brendan Gleeson, in particular, in a film quite as lightweight and disposable as this one is a bit like buying an armoured car to do the school run in. But there are some talented people in the supporting cast as well, and they make virtually no impression (at least, not in a good way).

Is it even worth mentioning that this movie is supposedly based on a true story? ‘Inspired by the life of Harry Hallowes,’ squeak the closing credits – useful words, ‘inspired by’, for they give you so much latitude to invent new characters, change the ending, insert whatever Moral Premise you believe will play best with your target demographic – the film really does feel exactly that calculated, and as a result whatever emotions it manages to generate feel cold and glutinous – it’s a bit like being swamped by a wave of chilled treacle.

In the end I suspect the main problem with Hampstead is that it’s a smug film that still manages to feel hollow and manipulative, as well as being a drama without any surprises, a comedy with barely any decent jokes, and a romance with no sense of passion or even much emotion to it. I am sorely tempted to recommend you go to see Transformers 5 instead. This film will eat your soul.

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One of the big casualties of the unstoppable Disney stellar conflict juggernaut appears to have been Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a lavish epic aspiring to have all the traditional narrative virtues, yet a film which has clearly struggled to find an audience (and, more importantly, make its money back). One can speculate as to whether this is down solely to all the cinemas as far as the eye can see desperately putting on as many lucrative showings of The Force Wakes Up as they possibly can, thus depriving other films of opportunities to connect with an audience, or whether Howard’s latest is a genuinely weak movie.

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Everyone seems to have given up on it already, it would appear: less than two weeks after its UK debut, it has already vanished from the cinemas of central Oxford. One wonders whether the big studios will take note of this and simply not bother releasing any big films in the fortnight after Disney’s future stellar conflict brand extensions come out (I note that Columbia are still planning to release Passengers, another SF movie, late next December – it’ll be interesting to see whether they stick to their guns or just change the date).

With the film already having said farewell to the interior of most moviehouses, I suppose it seems a bit pointless to write about it now (greetings, visitors from the future), but I think the film deserves better than to be simply forgotten about out-of-hand. Plus, I can’t bring myself to pass up the opportunity to trot out some tired witticisms on the topic of angry sperm. So here we go.

In the Heart of the Sea is, as I said, a fairly old-fashioned movie, with the meat of the narrative occurring within a frame story set many years later: young writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) turns up at the house of old sea dog Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last living survivor of the sunken whaling ship Essex. Eventually Melville persuades Nickerson to tell the tale of the ship’s final, doomed voyage.

The young Nickerson (played by Marvel’s new Spider-Man, Tom Holland) is but a lad on off on his first ocean trip, so most of the story revolves around two men. One of them is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced whaler from a humble background – tough, charismatic, a leader of men. (He also has a pregnant wife, which is of course movie code indicating he’s about to have many horrible experiences.) Much to his chagrin, Chase is passed over for the captaincy of the Essex, in favour of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man who owes his position solely to his family connections, with little real aptitude for command. Sparks inevitably fly.

Both men are thus determined to load up on whale oil and get back to Nantucket, where they are based, as quickly as possible – but the great beasts prove elusive, forcing the Essex deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean. Reports from the crippled ex-captain of a Spanish whaler lead them to offshore grounds where the whales have taken sanctuary from the hunters – but they ignore his warnings of a huge, ferocious white whale, given to attacking whaling ships, something they will live to regret…

So, as you can see, this is a big, stirring, briney tale, of men pitting themselves against nature at its most savage, very much in the tradition of macho nautical shenanigans like The Bounty and Master and Commander – but with Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe both being a shade long in the tooth for this sort of thing, the services of another Antipodean alpha-male have been retained, in the form of Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth is one of those actors who has an extremely impressive career box office take, but who’s yet to prove his ability to open a movie under his own name – does he have a career beyond just playing Thor, in other words? Well, he gives a very solid performance here – you can’t dispute Hemsworth’s presence or charisma, but I just wonder if he quite has the ability to suggest emotional depth to really make it as a star in his own right.

Then again, this movie is strong on the rollicking adventure front, but the characters are a little bit thin – you quickly get a handle on the fact that Pollard is a martinet, and Chase isn’t going to take any nonsense, and then not very much else happens. Cillian Murphy is also on board as the second mate, and while he is customarily good, he doesn’t get a huge amount to do.

Still, the movie remains solidly entertaining throughout the opening voyage and the set-piece whale attack which is, if you’ll permit me, at the heart of the film. The producers made the slightly odd decision to show this key sequence in isolation as an extended trailer for the film (I saw it before Bridge of Spies), which seems to have become a common tactic to advertise films about which a studio is getting nervous. Impressive though the scene is, I’m not sure seeing it out of context really does the film justice, and having already seen it, it inevitably loses some of its impact here.

However, once all the whaling and gnashing of teeth is over and done with, the film still has the best part of an hour left to run, and so it settles into a sort of stoical-metaphysical-existential mode which is slightly heavy going. The survivors of the Essex drift about in some open boats, occasionally stopping off at a desert island or engaging in a little light cannibalism to survive, and it’s all curiously unengaging. The slightly surprising decision to have the white whale occasionally show up to harass them really strains credulity as well: this happens very occasionally over a period of nearly three months (or so we are assured), and if nothing else the avenging sperm summons up the spectre of Jaws: The Revenge.

The film does its best to provide a strong climax, and Gleeson and Whishaw are strong in the frame story, but it’s hard to escape the impression that this is a film which starts strongly but then falls off a bit. It is a bit similar to other films in the all-at-sea genre, too, which can’t have helped it, and the fact it is so unreconstructedly blokey may have been a bit of an issue as well. (Charlotte Riley and Michelle Fairley have very subordinate roles as wives.) It’s not so old-fashioned that it doesn’t find time for a few moments of implied criticism of the whole enterprise of whaling, which almost feel all the more jarring for being the only concessions to a modern perspective.

This is by no means a bad film, but I doubt it was ever going to be a critical or popular smash, and releasing it when they did was almost certainly a gamble by Warner Brothers. Whatever else, it’s still a worthy, good-looking film with some impressive individual moments and sequences – it’s just not quite as epic or stirring or exciting as it really needs to be to completely succeed as a movie.

 

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And now, a franchise movie with a difference. I have an unfortunate tendency to be cynical and were I to give this part of myself free rein, I would probably end up saying things like ‘the first whiff of awards season is in the air, for they have started to release classy and serious films about how horrible everything was in the past’. There’s nothing like misery in painstakingly researched frocks to grab the attention of the average gong panel.

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Occasioning this sort of disreputable thinking is Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, which concerns itself with the various travails of the members of the women’s suffrage movement in the Edwardian era. While various historical figures make an appearance in the course of the film, the audience’s point of identification is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wife, mother, and factory worker who finds herself drawn into the orbit of the suffragettes almost by accident. When the government is perceived to have reneged on a promise to extend voting rights to women, the struggle turns both vicious and violent, and – inevitably – Maud has to decide whether she’s serious about her commitment to the cause. Needless to say, this comes at no small cost to her, but it seems that sacrifice is part of the process…

Now, as a regular UK cinemagoer it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when people start applauding at the end of a film – it’s usually a sign that we’ve just watched something fairly exceptional. Suffragette got a round of applause at the (very busy) screening I attended, and I have to say I was slightly surprised. It may just be that this particular cinema is very popular with politically-engaged types and they were just showing support for the film’s theme and message, which is unexceptionable, rather than its execution, which is not, if we’re honest, particularly distinctive.

Make no mistake, this is a movie which has all the usual British costume drama virtues in spades – Edwardian London is beautifully staged, and there is a fine cast, mostly made up of the usual suspects for this kind of film – Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Romola Garai, and so on. It kind of goes against the grain of the film to say this, but I thought the most impressive performance was from Brendan Gleeson, playing the tough cop assigned to shutting down the suffragettes. Gleeson manages to take this character and make him, if not actually sympathetic, then at least a recognisable human being, unlike every other male character (even Ben Whishaw – at the start of a busy month for him – comes across as rather contemptible by the time the film ends). But then I am always partial to a bit of Brendan Gleeson.

Prominent though she is in the publicity material (presumably to assist with marketing this movie in the States), Meryl Streep is not actually in the movie that much, contributing little more than a cameo as Mrs Pankhurst herself. It’s by no means a bad performance, but Streep doesn’t get a lot to work with, and it is a little disconcerting that the magic of cinema means that Emmeline Pankhurst looks uncannily like Margaret Thatcher.

So, fans of a certain flavour of British cinema will find themselves more or less in their comfort zone, although personally I found Gavron’s fondness for shaky-cam distracting rather than involving (the nausea-inducing effect of this may have been exacerbated by the fact I was watching the film on a huge screen from practically the front row of the cinema, of course). There are signs of the film-makers attempting to make something a bit more edgy and committed, however, of which the wobbly camerawork is just one sign. Certainly the BBFC advisory warning ‘contains scenes of force feeding’ is not one usually found on your typical Jane Austen adaptation.

This is just one example of the unremittingly horrible time that Mulligan’s character has in the course of the movie – she is patronised, belittled, clobbered, arrested, imprisoned, forcibly stripped (calm down gents, there’s nothing to see), thrown out by her husband, blackmailed, has her son taken from her, arrested again, force fed… the list goes ever on and on. I suppose it is just about possible that all this stuff happened to one person, but in the context of the film it all seems a bit manipulative and contrived, as though the struggle for the vote wasn’t a worthy enough cause in and of itself, and this has to be the story of someone who really and properly goes through the mill.

It’s not even as if the film concludes with everyone happily trooping off to the ballot box – the film climaxes shortly after Derby Day 1913 (you will either know the historical significance of this or you won’t), with the actual vote not going to women until 1918 (but hey, it was still over half a century before Switzerland). What’s missing is recognition of the important impact that the First World War had on British society and culture, part of which was the empowerment of women. But that would perhaps have made for too big and complex a story. (I suppose the same reasoning explains why the film is arguably conflating the suffragette cause with the socialist movement, as someone I saw the film with suggested was the case: the core of the suffragette movement was made up of women much more middle-class than Mulligan’s character.)

This is by no means a bad film and it does shed light on an important moment in our modern history, doing so with sincerity and no small degree of skill. But it’s almost as though the film-makers don’t trust the audience to be interested in the story on its own merits, which is why this film is arguably more simplistic and manipulative than it really needed to be. Still very watchable if you like this sort of thing, though.

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I am not entirely surprised to learn that all is not well in the state of Tom Cruise: the gleamingly betoothed one is not busting blocks in the way he was wont to do in years gone by – Stateside, at least. Why exactly should this be? Is it a case of audience fatigue? Is it due to the films themselves not being quite up to scratch? Or is it simply that the great American public have, rightly or wrongly, come to the conclusion that, off-screen, Tom Cruise is just a tiny bit weird?

Certainly it seems to me that Cruise is increasingly resembling the great Charlton Heston in his final years, in that the quality of the star’s creative output has been overshadowed by his real-life beliefs and antics. His willingness to lend his name and star power to decent studio SF movies adds to this, admittedly: Cruise hasn’t made a truly game-changing genre movie like Planet of the Apes yet, but he keeps on trying.

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His latest offering is Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, which instantly scored points with me by establishing its scenario without recourse to either expository captions or voice-over. Basically, Europe has been invaded by squiggly space aliens, but their advance has ground to a halt at the English Channel, and a vast high-tech invasion force is massing at Heathrow to drive the gribbly hordes back (insert your own joke about UKIP here, if you must).

Cruise plays Cage, a US Army media relations officer in Britain to document the invasion. A dedicated staff officer, he is therefore not best pleased when commanding officer Brendan Gleeson orders him in with the first wave of the assault (it’s basically the scene with Melchett and Darling from the last episode of Blackadder, but with shinier teeth), and his attempts to dodge this backfire and see him busted to private and packed off to the staging area.

The invasion proceeds and is a disaster, with the squiggly aliens slaughtering everyone in sight, including Cruise. Up until now the film has had a general sort of war-movie vibe, cheerily mixing up bits of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Starship Troopers, and Aliens – the movie acknowledges some of these influences, not least by casting the great Bill Paxton as Cage’s topkick. Not surprisingly, given that the film is only about fifteen minutes in and everyone has already died, things take a left turn as Cruise finds himself back in the previous day, reliving the events leading up to the doomed assault. Again it happens, again he dies, again he snaps back to the day before. Can he find a way to survive the battle, and perhaps even help win the war? Perhaps the fact this is even happening might offer some kind of a clue…

Well, here’s the funny thing about Edge of Tomorrow: one of the reasons I was slightly lukewarm about Cruise’s last SF offering, Oblivion, was that it felt rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones’ first film as a director, Moon. And something rather inescapable about Edge of Tomorrow (for all that it’s based on an original novella by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) is the fact that it feels rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones’ second film as a director, Source Code. Tom, if you want to work with Duncan that badly, there are more straightforward ways of letting him know.

The chief similarity between Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow is the time-resetting gimmick, which of course dates back over twenty years (to Jonathan Heap’s 12:01PM). I’ve always said that just being derivative isn’t in itself enough to make a film bad, so let’s not get too hung up on this. The film does handle the gimmick with a certain dark wit, with quite a few of Cruise’s various demises played for laughs – it doesn’t have Source Code‘s oppressive sense of an endlessly recurring nightmare, and it doesn’t quite explain how Cruise isn’t driven totally nuts by an insanely large number of traumatic demises, but then this is more of a generic action movie anyway. It is very much a movie for the games console generation, and anyone who has found themselves repeatedly slaughtered while trying to get to the next save point on an FPS will probably have some sympathy for Cruise’s predicament.

On the other hand, the film is solidly written, with a due appreciation of how difficult it is to seriously challenge someone who is effectively immortal and able to teach himself any required skill instantly, and so the final act becomes a rather more conventional SF-action movie set piece. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anybody – Edge of Tomorrow may touch on a bunch of different movie genres, and be predicated upon a fairly outrageous bafflegab premise, but it inevitably boils down to being Tom Cruise gritting his extraordinary teeth and shooting at stuff in front of green-screen.

That it succeeds in coming across as something more than that is partly a result of the inventiveness of the script and direction, but also due to the talent of the actors involved. This being a Cruise vehicle, the script has been tinkered with to give the star a chance to do his stuff – there’s an arc about him changing from an unreliable, barely-competent coward to a committed, dedicated warrior which I suspect has been beefed up – but he remains one of those actors with enough presence to prevent watching essentially the same scene four or five times over from becoming a drag. Brendan Gleeson isn’t in it enough, obviously, and the same really goes for Bill Paxton. I expect Noah Taylor fans will say the same (he appears, briefly, as a boffin). This is a Cruise vehicle, and that’s never really in any doubt, but his chief foil on this occasion is Emily Blunt as a ferocious female soldier with whom he establishes a relationship (over and over again). Blunt is a versatile actor and does well in a role which could easily have become a cypher.

Edge of Tomorrow isn’t going to set the world on fire or mark the beginning of a New Golden Age of Intelligent SF Film-making, but on the other hand if this is the worst, dumbest genre movie we see all summer then 2014 should turn out to be a pretty good year. This movie never really succeeds in becoming more than the sum of its parts – so it’s just as well that those were pretty good parts to begin with.

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For a while I was slightly aware that this year was looking a bit lightweight, both in terms of the number of films I’d been to see, and their overall quality – I was a good half-dozen behind where I’d been at the same point in 2013. However, having seen five films in the last fortnight, with at least two more coming in the next week, these concerns feel less pressing. It has also helped that most of these movies have been pretty good in one way or another: certainly, none of them has been a total disaster.

Particularly outstanding, in many respects, was John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. The McDonagh brothers (John Michael’s sibling is Martin, writer-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) are rapidly establishing themselves as film-makers of real stature, and Calvary may be the best film one of them has yet produced.

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Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in the Republic of Ireland. While hearing confessions one day, an unidentified parishioner reveals that he was abused as a child by another priest, now dead. As an act of retribution, the man now intends to kill Lavelle, reasoning that no-one will bat an eyelid at the death of a guilty priest, but the murder of a good and innocent man as punishment for the sins of another will attract everybody’s attention. The would-be killer thoughtfully gives Lavelle a week to set his affairs in order.

That Lavelle does not immediately consider if he is justified in calling in the police, or contemplate skipping town entirely, tells you something of the tone of Calvary, which is measured and thoughtful throughout. The film follows the priest through the week and observes his interactions with various members of his flock, who are a colourful bunch, as well as his troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly) – she is the product of a marriage which ended prior to Lavelle’s taking the cloth. All the time the viewer is aware that a clock is ticking, but Lavelle concerns himself with a troubled marriage, or a prison visit, or giving solace to a recently-widowed woman: simply with being a priest, in other words.

And it seems to me that this is what Calvary is actually about: the question of the place of religion in the modern world. The setting of the film is clearly contemporary – this is an Ireland ravaged by the wake of the financial crisis, where the church is under siege from accusations of corruption and much worse. As a source of moral authority, Lavelle finds himself constantly challenged and mocked, both by nominal Catholics and atheists, while even his decision to follow his vocation and join the priesthood is criticised by his daughter. ‘Your time has gone,’ he is explicitly told at one point.

This of course feeds into the idea of the film as an allegory for the story of Christ, which it is obviously intended to be (the title and the premise make this clear) – but it’s also a character study of Lavelle, and the question of exactly what motivates him. By potentially risking death, is the priest simply trying to justify his own existence? Does some part of him actively seek martyrdom? The film is intelligent enough not to offer easy answers (nor, indeed, does it entirely resolve its own plot, which some people may grumble about).

The last film from Gleeson and McDonagh was The Guard, to which Calvary bears something of a resemblance – community figure in rural Ireland with troubled female relative, literate script, various oddball supporting characters, somewhat offbeat conclusion – but this is a much more serious and thoughtful film that isn’t afraid to deal with some difficult subject matter. It’s by no means totally gloomy, but it’s certainly not a comedy either.

This is despite the presence of a few actors best-known for comic work: Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd both appear, along with Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, and various people who were also in The Guard (Gleeson Junior is issued with an unflattering brown wig to reduce his resemblance to his dad). All the performances are good, but dominating the film with a monumental portrayal of simple humanity and decency is Brendan Gleeson. In Lavelle, he and McDonagh have created another richly three-dimensional human being: I fear that the decision to release Calvary at Easter may mean the film is forgotten about when it comes to next year’s awards season, for once again Gleeson is deserving of some sort of recognition for his work here.

But, on the other hand, many people may just regard this as a child-abuse drama about the Catholic church in Ireland, and stay away on principle. This would be a great shame, for Calvary is much more than that. It’s as complete and as satisfying a film as any I’ve seen this year, and managed to be thought-provoking, moving, funny, and occasionally upsetting to watch. Well worth seeking out.

 

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Maybe it’s the time of year, but here at NCJG it feels like a very long time since there’s been a real belter of a new movie to write about. Not that everything recently has been wholly worthless – far from it – but there hasn’t been the kind of film from which you emerge exhilarated, with your belief in the possibilities of cinema rewarded.

Thankfully this has been rectified with the arrival in Oxford (finally) of John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, which is following up a smash-hit release in Ireland with a shamefully limited British run. This is a crime movie centred on a tremendous performance by Brendan Gleeson, an actor perhaps best known for playing supporting parts in much bigger movies like Troy and Gangs of New York.

Gleeson seizes with enormous relish on the role of Gerry Boyle, a sergeant in the Garda of west Ireland. Boyle initially appears to be not much more than a simple country copper, unreconstructed, often crass, bigoted (‘I’m Irish, being racist is part of my culture,’ he explains, when someone objects to this), and laid-back to the point of actual moral degeneracy.

However, when a murdered corpse turns up on his patch, Boyle finds himself involved in the hunt for a group of drug traffickers (led by Liam Cunningham and the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Strong). As a result he is somewhat reluctantly partnered with slick and etiquette-conscious FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). As it becomes increasingly apparent that other Garda members take their corruption rather more seriously than Gerry, the two find themselves increasingly isolated as they close in on their quarry.

It sounds like a fairly routine odd-couple crime thriller, and on one level The Guard delivers this in a very efficient and taut way, albeit with some novelty value due to the Galway setting. However, what turns it into something very special is its tone, which is totally at odds with this: despite being a film about drug smuggling which hinges around a considerable number of deaths, most of them violent, The Guard is more consistently and genuinely funny than most comedies.

Normally I have no time for the lazy reviewer habit of amalgam algebra – you know, describing a film as ‘It’s Groundhog Day meets Murder on the Oriental Express!’ or something ludicrous like that. However, the best description of The Guard I’ve read is something just like this – it’s Father Ted meets Bad Lieutenant. Tight and effective though the story is, the dialogue keeps meandering off in odd directions as characters discuss Russian literature or existential philosophy. Both Boyle himself and the movie ruthlessly undercut and mock any sign of Hollywood posturing from the story or characters. Galway is depicted as a rusticated hinterland populated entirely by oddballs and much of the humour comes from the reactions of unsuspecting outsiders who’ve wandered into this realm and can’t quite believe what they’re seeing and hearing.

Mark Strong is customarily good as a bad-tempered drug baron who resents the poor class of person he meets in the course of his career, but the main foil is Don Cheadle’s character. Cheadle finds an impressive number of different ways of looking gobsmacked at the various pearls of wisdom Gleeson passes on to him, and there’s more than a hint of In the Heat of the Night in the relationship between the two characters. In the end though, he’s very much the straight man and second banana to Brendan Gleeson.

Gleeson turns Boyle into one of the great movie characters of recent years, a fully rounded and believeable – not to mention hugely likeable – figure, despite his various outrageous excesses. The script shows us all sides of the man: his usual cynicism and world-weariness, the integrity buried somewhere deep within, his intelligence (usually masked behind a boorish facade), and his emotions. This latter element is mainly explored through a subplot involving his relationship with his ailing mother, which still manages to be deeply funny as well as moving. (His mother is played by Fionnula Flanagan, who seems to specialise in playing a) mothers and b) people who are either dying or actually dead.) That said, this isn’t a movie which treats human behaviour in a simplistic or mechanical way – we’re left to draw our own conclusions as to why Boyle makes some of the choices he does as the film goes on.

McDonagh’s script effortlessly juggles characters, plot, dialogue, and even genre: at times this film plays like a western, an impression which is helped by Calexico’s twangy score. In the end, though, the sheer quality of the piece transcends this sort of consideration: no matter how you approach it, The Guard is a terrific, hugely impressive movie, stuffed with good performances and pricelessly funny lines and moments, all in the cause of a very solid story. One of the very best films of the year so far.

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