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Posts Tagged ‘Chris O’Dowd’

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.

calvary

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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Now, I’ve nothing against low-budget genre movies, especially British ones, and I’m always prepared to give one a chance. But the sad fact remains that sitting down to watch one is on some level the equivalent of loading a single bullet into your revolver, spinning the chamber and putting the barrel to your forehead. If it’s meant to be a comedy, you may as well stick a few more bullets in there from the start.

Possibly I am exaggerating – watching a bad movie is not quite the same thing as suicide, although particularly grim ones might lead one to momentarily contemplate it. Nevertheless this is the kind of unpromising terrain which we enter when we consider Gareth Carrivick’s 2009 low-budget British SF comedy Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. Many of the films of this type seem to have been made with one eye on Shaun of the Dead, but the shadow of Wright and Pegg’s classic hangs over this film more than most.

Chris O’Dowd plays Ray, Dean Lennox Kelly plays Greg, and Marc Wootton plays Toby, three friends who work at a theme park. Ray and Toby are geeks, Greg is a lad. One night they go down the pub where they bicker as usual – but when Ray goes to the bar he meets Cassie (Anna Faris), a woman claiming to be a time traveller from the future, who expresses delight at meeting someone as destined to be famous as Ray one day will be.

He is cynical, to say nothing of his friends’ reaction when he returns to them and reports what has happened. However, things take a decidedly peculiar turn when Greg discovers a hole in the space-time continuum located in the pub toilets: every time they go into the gents, they emerge at a different point in history. Can they get back to their point of origin before a significant juncture in the web of destiny known as Last Orders?

If Shaun of the Dead is a George Romero movie set in the London suburbs, Attack the Block is an alien invasion horror film set on a sink estate, and Storage 24 is Alien in a self-storage warehouse, then Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is… well, one thing you have to say for this film is that it is original in cinematic terms. The time-travel plot is impressively convoluted and recursive and, up to a point, holds together pretty well, and if I was going to indulge in a lazy comparison – oh, go on, indulge me – I’d say it was an attempt at a comedy version of Primeval set in a pub toilet.

This is obviously a very low-budget movie and this appears to have constrained the production accordingly – the vast majority of it occurs on the same handful of sets and your actual proper visual effects are used very sparingly indeed (probably just as well, as the CGI used in a couple of places is frankly dodgy). This does seem to have spurred the creativity of the film-makers, although they do seem to have fallen into the trap of trying to make three films at the same time – this doesn’t just want to be a SF romp, there are moments aspiring to be proper drama and a somewhat putrid rom-com element too.

Nevertheless, once the time travel stuff got going the story was inventive and pacy enough to keep me interested – this was quite an achievement given the depths of appalled horror the opening sequence instilled in me, for it genuinely led me to anticipate another disaster on the scale of Lesbian Vampire Killers or Sex Lives of the Potato Men. It opens with a main character acting like a moronic tool for no reason other than to facilitate a deeply unfunny gag, then goes on to introduce us to three mates who – based on their personalities and interests – appear to have no reason to be actual friends.

We see them coming out of a cinema, whereupon one of them cries ‘That was a shit movie!’ – at which point I thought the whole undertaking was displaying a dangerous lack of self-awareness. There follows a section where the film appears to attempt to establish its SF credentials – or, to put it another way, suck up to the fanboy audience. There are pat references to Doctor Who, Firefly, role-playing games and so on, but it all feels a bit crowbarred in rather than genuinely felt – and the presence of Greg, who cheerfully mocks all of these things, just suggests the film is trying to cover its bets by appealing to the geek and mundane audiences simultaneously.

I’m not sure either of them will have really enjoyed this film; I thought it was okay but certainly no better than that. There are a handful of reasonable jokes and the performances of the leads are decent (bussed-in American and expat Canadian stars Faris and Meredith MacNeill are a bit more variable), but the internal logic of the story is never quite as rigorous as it really needs to be. The originality and resourcefulness of the time travel plotline makes this film worth watching if you like that sort of thing, but there’s not much else here for a more mainstream audience.

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