Thursday, 13 November 2014

Third Person

When Paul Haggis struck Oscar gold in 2006 with Crash, he did so thanks to a charged, multi-faceted LA fable, impressively constructed and wonderfully acted. It controversially nudged out Ang Lee’s beautiful Brokeback Mountain for best picture that year, yet with its themes of racism, poverty and the faded American dream, Haggis’s crackling passion piece was a predictable, if safe, bet to take home the big prize on the big night. 

Primarily a screenwriter, the Canadian’s directorial output, despite his latter success, has been sporadic in the eight years since he transitioned from being the guy behind Mountie comedy-drama Due South to an in-demand double Oscar winner (he also secured 2005’s screenplay award for Million Dollar Baby). Both In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days were perfectly accomplished for what they were — classy adult thrillers — but they were largely forgettable entries in the Haggis cinematic canon, probably just as safe in the hands of his more serviceable peers. 

A desire to regenerate those award-gaudy heights could represent one reason then for Haggis’s decision to make Third Person, an ostensibly high-functioning drama playing to his natural strengths. The regrettable reality, however, is much less fulfilling, for his is a film of imperfectly conceived pretensions, where multiple strands possess few fragments of a soul. Overlong, undercooked, wrapped up as a turbulent chronicle of love and loss, this rests upon its fleetingly interesting laurels to the detriment of a halfway sensible plot. Haggis’s glory days, sadly, seem a long time ago. 

At the centre of this muddle, grizzled author Michael (Liam Neeson) taps away at a laptop, reworking a weighty novel that his editor — with a possible sense of unintended irony — is secretly embarrassed to read. Around him swirls a disparate collection of competing and vaguely connected arcs, each one jostling for a measure of ultimately unobtainable relevance. 

In Rome, Adrien Brody’s Scott, a faintly obnoxious American wheeler dealer, flirts with the no doubt thrilling world of fashion industry espionage before beginning a very different flirtation with crisis-stricken gypsy Monika (Moran Atias). Across the Atlantic, New Yorkers Rick (James Franco) and Julia (Mila Kunis) duel in a toxic custody battle over the son that she may or may not have tried to kill. 

Meanwhile, Anna (Olivia Wilde) shows up at Michael’s Parisian hideaway seeking a mentor’s guidance, providing a lover’s solace. A scowling Kim Basinger appears intermittently as Elaine, his dreary wife, phone glued to her ear throughout.

That it is a mixed bag should be obvious from the beginning. The approach admittedly has its virtues but there exists no obvious common thread until the latter stages. Given Third Person’s ponderous length, the decision to wait so long before unspooling the central conceit is questionable in the extreme.

Haggis’s failure here is two-fold. None of the component storylines are especially engaging, peopled with barely likeable characters and cursed by a hazy delivery. Beyond that, in contrast to the shrewd, often elegant intersection of moments and faces in Crash — hardly the first film to employ the technique, of course — the mostly self-contained morality plays display only rare traces of shared DNA. Granted, elements occasionally brush lightly against each other, one bleeding into the next, but they serve as a distraction, faded signposts on the way to a mildly compelling destination. 

In truth, the consistent failure is one of interest. None of the meandering scenarios does enough to hold an audience’s sympathy; there is simply little to care about. The shifty Brody’s Roman holiday helps, initially, to distract from the drudgery around it, yet this soon becomes weighed down by its own uncertainties and a somewhat preposterous scam-cum-redemption tale. 

Haggis keeps his intentions shrouded on all fronts until the very end and, while the Manhattan-based familial strife between Kunis and Franco offers up nothing of note, Michael’s central, overarching narrative undergoes the most searching elucidation. In one respect his relationship with the other characters just about holds its shape, a pretty design on the wider canvas. On the other hand, however, the source of Wilde’s cruel volatility flies in, uncomfortably, from left field. The already straining melodrama is suddenly replaced by a grimier edge; it feels cheap and gratuitously shocking

Haggis might have overstretched himself in mounting an ambitious though flawed contemporary soap opera, but his latest feature is not devoid of redeeming traits.Third Person is a sumptuously captured effort, bursting with a rich visual style that paints each segment in its own distinct colours. The Italian vistas are postcard depictions of warm Mediterranean shades and sepia hues; Paris a more luscious affair replete with five-star luxury, its cool Euro exteriors forming the backdrop to Neeson’s glowering process. Framed by wintery tones to match its overall mood, the The New York setting bristles with apt misery. 

Visual flourishes, too, courtesy of cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, add some degree of class to the proceedings. From a hotel suite filled with a garden’s worth of delicate white roses to the azure swimming pool that fills the screen early on, a lone figure later fading beneath its surface, there are mournful hints of the film that Haggis perhaps intended to make, fine cast and clever concept in hand.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Friday, 7 November 2014


If there is a common thread in Christopher Nolan's varied filmic résumé — aside from the overarching quality — then realism is its name. Nolan has turned his hand to any number of genres and on every occasion has infused the final product with a scrubbed, earthy tone. His artistic leanings are evident, of course, and as his budgets have increased so, too, has the elegance of his framing, but, regardless of the content, this most unassuming of large-budget, high-functioning blockbuster architects is no stranger to dragging fiction back to ground level. 

Tellingly, DNA traces of Nolan’s newest project, Interstellar, are discernible throughout his back catalogue. It is rife with the restrained, yet thunderous, sense of scale that rendered his Batman trilogy so acutely brilliant; Bruce Wayne’s rebooted arc developed in a prism of relatively pared-down naturalism. Inception, a sci-fi tale of mind-bending proportions, appeared to possess some kernel of truth hidden, perhaps, between the strands of Dom Cobb’s tortured subconscious. Even The Prestige, a sumptuous period drama, ultimately plumped for (somewhat questionable) science over magic. With Memento Nolan tested intellects, in reverse narrative, to convey a fruitless battle against the crippling blight of encroaching amnesia. 

Now, by splicing together these disparate elements, the director comes close to eschewing his realistic bent. Nolan has reached out to touch the stars and, in so doing, delivers a film of quite startling magnificence, a benchmark that, for all his gifts, he may struggle to overcome. A story of love and legacies, apocalypse and genesis, dressed in the garb of soaring space opera, Interstellar bristles with a sense of pioneering wonder. There are hiccups, obviously, but, by the time of its conclusion, they seem little more than faint stars in the dark grandeur of space. No, what is created here plays out as a latter-day existential fable on the continuation of a species, our species, and the lengths to which we will go to endure in the face of a self-induced destruction. 

It is not without significance that Matthew McConaughey sits proudly at the heart of this Odyssean epic. A man now on the crest of his own rebirth — a ‘McConaissance’ if you will — the Texan is fresh off his Oscar-winning star turn in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club and a critically acclaimed role in HBO’s terrific True Detective series. 

Keeping his famously louche persona firmly in check, he portrays Cooper a former test pilot now scraping through life as a farmer somewhere in the American west. The time period is never specified, nor dated by props and styles (John Lithgow’s grizzled grandfather makes reference to an era during his youth that sounds remarkably like our present) but this is a near future few will ever wish to see. It is a time of dystopian dust bowls, failing crops, stalled technological advancement and the eerily realistic steady decline of Mother Earth.  

Discerning a series of ghostly communications in her bedroom, Cooper’s preternaturally intelligent daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, putting Twilight behind her) convinces him that the spectral movements signify important geographical coordinates. His sense of adventure awakened, Cooper soon stumbles upon the secret location of what was once NASA and a small scientific unit led by his former mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

He is swiftly recruited — a narrative expedience just about escaping ridicule — to pilot an inter-dimensional expedition tasked with searching for a sustainable homeworld beyond this one. A decade earlier, twelve astronauts secretly did the same, traversing a spherical wormhole in the shadow of Saturn to explore the galaxy beyond. Essentially lost in their mission, that original team’s probing has signalled three possible destinations and it is the task of Cooper, Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and their twin robots, TARS and CASE — a pair of beautifully conceived, silver-plated sentinels who walk and spin like Ikea-designed disciples of minimalism — to investigate the leads. In the meantime, Brand will stay behind to solve the quandary of effecting a large-scale escape from this planet’s gravitational pull.

It is dense material which Nolan and his brother, co-screenwriter Jonathan, manage to distill for ease of understanding. In truth, however, his triumph stems more from the emotion driving the picture, something which represents a remarkably heartfelt departure from an auteur best known for his cool delivery. 

Mankind must escape lest it be swallowed up by the dying Earth, a reality which will ultimately strain the ties of love, and loyalty, that define us. Cooper embarks on his quest for the sake of his children, though it is not a decision taken lightly. The stress of his departure, the horrible unpicking of a profound father-daughter bond, carries as much weight as any visual treat conjured by Nolan’s imagination. 

The dissipating currency of days, months and years, so natural a pillar of our existence, quickly becomes the expedition’s enemy. It nips at their heels, constricting the window available to complete the mission, threatening a reunification with all they hold dear. In a single quiet but devastating scene, the value of time is reinforced with cold certainty, true and tangible; it is no longer a mere mathematical abstract.

Indeed, this unending march towards oblivion also eats away at those left behind. 
Adult Murph — played with steely sensitivity by Jessica Chastain — and her brother Tom deal with the effects of childhood abandonment. Casey Affleck's taciturn sibling finds solace in guarding his father’s legacy: farming and family. Meanwhile, Chastain’s heartbroken boffin directs her anger into the task of assisting Brand with his unending equation. 

At this stage, Interstellar is not so much a voyage of discovery as it is a desperate scramble to escape a burning skyscraper and the sudden emergence of a bleaker, less hopeful tone constitutes a sobering reminder that every part of humankind, including its frailties, its myriad deceptions, will continue if Cooper and the rest succeed in their search. 

The path travelled in the latter stages will surprise and bemuse in equal measures. Drifting into those incomprehensible complexities of the astral plane, Nolan’s plot charts previously unimagined territory. This embrace of something approaching high fantasy will irk those invested in grittier themes but should thrill anyone seeking a departure from the rote conventions of the genre. 

There is a point to this almost crazed exploration of, well, everything and Nolan has not opted to delve outside the edge of our understanding merely for the sake of it. It returns him, before the end, to that which started all of this: bloody-minded, indefatigable survival.

As one might expect, Interstellar is a colossal film awash with the richly striking imagery that its creator seems to prefer, whatever the context. Instead of the luscious, HD-ready palette usually employed by long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister, Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera captures, in tandem, the overpowering vastness of the cosmos and the fading cornfields of the world’s breadbasket. The former setting, however, provides the truest showcase for the breadth of Nolan’s vision. 

A tiny shuttle skirting the edge of Saturn; hundred-foot waves crashing across the surface of a water-bound planet; frozen clouds overhanging ice sheets that stretch to the horizon and beyond; only the most cynical will be unmoved by the appearance of these awe-inspiring starscapes and distant, unknowable worlds. They populate an otherwise spartan void on the far side of Gargantua, the increasingly crucial black hole, a roiling and terrible leviathan into which Cooper leads his crew, seeking answers as well as simple refuge. 

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” says Caine in voiceover, tying Dylan Thomas’s beautiful words to the hardiness of the human spirit. “Old age should burn and rage at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

To resist fate, to defy the certainty of our own demise, Nolan suggests, humanity must push onwards, furiously, as far as it may carry itself. Powerful, insistent, difficult to ignore, Interstellar reminds us that we might just do it when the time comes. 

Friday, 24 October 2014


When it takes a director 18 months to finish a film, whispers of reshoots and tortured editing will inevitably begin to surface. In the case of Serena, Danish director Susanne Bier's Depression-era drama which wrapped in 2012, those fears proved to be unfounded. Bier, it seems, was simply being precise. 

An adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 novel, Serena feels less mainstream than its stellar names might otherwise indicate, its high-passioned frontier tumult at once coldly savage and, ultimately, wildly hot tempered. In her English language debut, Bier's construction is a tense, beautifully realised meditation on power and ambition. 

Bradley Cooper plays George Pemberton, a charismatic Bostonian and the head of a budding timber empire. From his lumber yard in North Carolina, he works the land alongside his men, sleeps with his cook and espouses solid free-market beliefs that clash with the environmentalist proselytising of Toby Jones’s bumptious sheriff. 

As ever, Cooper is a terrific actor to behold, his matinee idol features almost adding to the shiftiness that he brings to each role. His budding magnate is not an especially likeable man but, in this capable A-list grip, Pemberton is layered rather than clichéd, neither especially villainous nor particularly noble. He has a conscience, no doubt, but his time in the wild breeds a sharp, and pivotal, sense of survival.

Occurring in the immediate wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the subsequent crisis is all but invisible in a landscape already scarred by poverty. Pemberton heads off to extend his bank loan in the privileged north: his poor credit, badly affected by the downturn, forces him to offer up cherished virgin land in Brazil as collateral. This Yankee sojourn takes an upturn when he encounters the exquisite Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), the flinty offspring of hard-edged Colorado logging barons whose demons are all to obvious, even as the bewitched Pemberton makes her his wife.

The subsequent domesticated middle section of Bier’s story is occasionally fascinating. Shaw, steely and glamorous in equal measures, strides into position, an equal player in Pemberton’s enterprise capable of issuing instructions on chopping technique and taming a snake-killing eagle (while her husband continues to obsess over the elusive mountain lion he wishes to kill). Lawrence is every inch the omnipotent title character, bent on consolidating her own position in surroundings with which she is more than familiar. ‘I didn’t come to Carolina to do needlepoint, Mr Buchanan,’ she says, ominously, to her husband’s jealous business partner.

There is much to gorge on in this meaty middle: love, lust, betrayal, death. Cooper and Lawrence — dazzling in Silver Linings Playbook, confident in American Hustle — loom over the narrative like mighty twin oaks. Bier finds much to work with in their mutually destructive chemistry, where besotted affection slowly gives way to suspicion.

In the foreground, unfortunately, that central alliance wields a frame-consuming dominance, leaving little room for much else, plot or cast. Conleth Hill’s rumpled Dixie doctor (likely fleeing the reach of a professional conduct investigation based on his clinical abilities) and Sean Harris, as a whispery, though unusually upstanding, foreman, are forced to feed on scraps. Jones, too, must make do, veering from preachy irritant to keen investigator under the yoke of an lukewarm subplot concerning the Pembertons’ involvement in corruption and murder.

In truth, such difficulties are to be expected when this is so clearly Lawrence’s show. A fixture in two big budget franchises (X-Men and The Hunger Games), the actress’s reputation now matches her obvious talent. However, in her seminal breakthrough, Winter’s Bone, she was marooned in a hopeless Ozarkian wilderness and, fittingly, she excels once more in this distant back country, convincing as the hardy survivalist who happens to look like Jennifer Lawrence on a really good day. 

Beyond that, her descent into jealousy-induced psychosis, the certainty of a fate once avoided, is sadly inevitable, though effectively accomplished. As she nurses her broken womb in a blanched hospital ward, there are few words to describe the silent torment fired directly into the camera. Later on, she watches Cooper charge off in the wake of an argument, shivering in her night clothes on a dirty street. The frantic wave of farewell that she directs at his back — hopeful, childlike — sits on the crazed end of a terribly fevered spectrum. 

That standard fails to sustain and it is a pity then that the dark kinship developed with taciturn woodsman Galloway (an incredibly sinister Rhys Ifans) should support the picture’s weakest element. Dominating the final third, and choppy in its conception, her sudden fixation on the fate of Pemberton’s illegitimate son feels forced, horribly out of step with the otherwise smouldering atmosphere.

At her grim conclusion, Bier’s true success, perhaps, is in conjuring an ambience as palpable as the leads’ steamy dynamic. The gritty action is mostly hemmed in by the isolation of its rural valley base, with only torrid passions for company, and in the Czech Republic’s stunning landscapes (doubling for North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains) the director appears intoxicated. 

This mist-shrouded hinterland holds the subtle whiff of felled trees and wet mud, while cinematographer Morten Søborg soaks up the colours of Camp Pemberton: deep, damp greens and drab browns. Johan Söderqvist’s score, too, touches a nerve, its desolate Southern soundscapes dripping with menace, ripe with heartache. It peppers Bier’s sometimes flawed vision, evoking few hopes that everything will be alright in the end. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 23 October 2014


There have been more films than one might expect about the Troubles. Most have been terrible. The Devil’s Own saw Brad Pitt hiding his tortured Northern Ireland brogue behind a pout and a whisper; Five Minutes of Heaven (a film not without local flavour given the presence in its cast of Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt) offered a fairly preposterous portrayal of the foulness tearing through the country during the 1970s. Even those Belfast scenes in the ostensibly superb Patriot Games — slums, ‘IRA’ graffiti and football-playing urchins — were cringe-inducing in their simplicity. 

Only Steve McQueen’s visceral Hunger and Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday have, arguably, captured the complicated essence of a landscape multiple filmmakers fail to traverse with success. 

For director Yann Demange, the decision to tackle Belfast’s former self in ’71 might have proved a disastrous one. Yet, like McQueen before him, he brings an original touch to a subject often plagued by cliché and free of nuance. Demange was born in Paris and raised in London. He made his bones in the latter, directing gritty television drama Top Boy and thus he is no stranger to the milieu at the core of this brilliant, coiled, pulsating thriller. Nevertheless, in bottling the spirit of something so concentrated, so specific, Demange — making his feature debut — has marked himself out, remarkably, as a cinematic talent of near boundless horizons. 

As the title suggests the year is 1971. Somewhere in England, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) and his fellow squaddies are put through their exercises in anticipation of a deployment to Germany: eager and clear-eyed, ready for army life, well-suited to their coldly regimented existence. Awoken in the middle of the night they are informed, however, that the plans have changed. The security situation in Belfast is deteriorating, that is where they are headed now. ‘Do any of you know where Belfast is?’ barks the gruff sergeant. ‘Northern Ireland? The United Kingdom? Here?’ 

In truth, none of them can begin to imagine the hornet’s nest into which they are casually dropped. Almost immediately, Demange conveys the blind confusion which defined countless soldiers’ searing baptisms in the ways of Northern Ireland’s turmoil. That crucial tipping point occurs early on as Hook and his squad are set upon during a riot. In an instant he becomes isolated, cut off from the unit, scrambling to outwit the band of murderous paramilitaries (including Belfast’s own Martin McCann) intent on claiming his scalp. 

From that point on, Demange is keen to push hard on the throttle. This is a film hurtling toward its own breathless conclusion, easing the pace at times, though rarely releasing any building pressure and that sense of urgent paranoia nipping at Hook’s heels.

Such an approach proves successful. Sticky politics are avoided; there is no agenda to push, nor time to bother with tiresome sectarian issues. It is a merciful sleight of hand for which screenwriter Gregory Burke — the playwright behind warts-and-all military drama Black Watch — must receive substantial credit. 

Survival is the priority here, not education and if Demange occasionally opts for a dollop of 'Northern Ireland 101', the authenticity stays intact thanks to Hook, the chronicler of this harrowing ground-level warfare. A resourceful warrior he may be but Hook is not a man steeped in the complexities of modern Irish history. While a knowledgeable audience might not require spoon-fed information, he certainly does. 

In the lead role, a towering O’Connell oozes believability, imbuing his character with a desperate will to endure and no little humanity — one early scene sees him returning to his hardscrabble Derby neighbourhood to bond with the kid brother condemned to state care. Later, as the fires rage, O’Connell understandably wears the expression of a stunned animal, unsure in these surroundings, ignorant of why his notional safety depends on him stumbling into the right street.

One of the finest young British actors working today, he has tried his hand at more than one genre (300: Rise of an Empire, Angelina Jolie’s upcoming directorial epic Unbroken), excelling when asked to personify wiry symbols of working-class youth disaffection in grimier domestic fare, from Eden Lake to Starred Up.

Quieter moments involving Richard Dormer’s good Samaritan are elegantly done — he tentatively bonds with Dormer’s teenage daughter over contemporary pop music and the Derby-Nottingham divide — yet remain laced with a sense of foreboding that Hook, for all his innocence, is right to discern. 

This atmosphere is ably captured by cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s visual palette. His surprisingly rich, earthy tones and frigid nightscapes are painted onto the canvas provided by Blackburn, Liverpool and Sheffield, each standing in for a scarred version of Belfast that peace money has now scrubbed away. 

Indeed, the steel city’s iconic Park Hill estate, a brutalist urban edifice currently undergoing its own regeneration, does a nice turn passing for the long disappeared Divis flats, that iconic hinterland of normality and chaos. David Holmes’s coolly disengaged score, too, colours the action, providing the soundtrack to a depiction of his home town that will seem alien to many.

Considering the speed at which the action moves, bumps are inevitable. The always sinister, multi-accented Sean Harris leads a cartoonishly villainous covert military unit which colludes with loyalists, recruits republicans and plots mayhem as a matter of daily routine. The strand is not entirely out of place in this context, of course, but it is underwritten, an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise gripping period tale. 

This is, however, an arc with ominous implications for the spartan finale. The late David Ervine regularly lamented that ‘dirty stinking war’, a conflict fuelled as much by corruption and injustice as by politico-religious fervour. It is not a view with which Gary Hook is likely to disagree. 

A version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Dracula Untold

The recent cinematic adventures of Dracula have been a rather mixed bag. Decades have passed since the big-collared glory days, when both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, under the Universal and Hammer banners respectively, inhabited his arch villainy to an iconic degree. 

More recently, in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola churned out an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, a bloated erotica, as unashamedly indulgent as it was good fun. Keanu Reeves was cast as a blank-faced Jonathan Harker, unfortunately, and Coppola’s once masterful touch abandoned him in when faced with the camply rendered material. Similarly, Universal’s 2004 monster-revival effort Van Helsing included a preposterous Richard Roxborough as the cartoonish count in a film otherwise hobbled by the presence of Stephen Sommers in the director’s chair and the (not unconnected) fact that it was utterly dreadful.  

Not to be put off, however, Universal has persisted. With a new generation of moviegoers unversed in the vintage franchise that few were clamouring to see recharged, Dracula Untold is the latest iteration of an age-old vampire yarn. It is a challenge that the studio meets with decidedly ambiguous results. 

Dublin native Gary Shore helms this $100 million behemoth, overseeing an often visually dazzling piece of blockbuster popcorn cinema that falters, in spite of an enthusiastic cast’s nobly straight-faced efforts, due to risible dialogue, predictable plotting and a conclusion which will, of course, offer few surprises. 

Humanising origin tales remain a well-trodden path at present, Dracula’s roots existing in a strand of Romanian folklore centred on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. It is from this source that Shore draws his inspiration, blending high fantasy with historical record. A late nod to Stoker’s take on the legend acknowledges its broader impact but for Shore the genesis of this mythology holds the most allure.

In the lead role, a smouldering Luke Evans is Prince Vlad, the beneficent ruler of his Transylvanian heartland, whose love for a wilful spouse, Mirena (Sarah Gadon: exquisite, doomed) and spritely son, Ingeras (Game of Thrones alumnus Art Parkinson, working in a familiar genre) is bound for a tragic climax from the moment they are witnessed cavorting around their grand homestead in familial bliss. 

Trying to purge from his mind a past spent impaling innocents for the Ottoman army, Vlad is a devout Christian, a peaceful man whose plans to avoid conflict with the imperial overlords are inevitably undermined by a demand from Dominic Cooper’s preening sultan — gilding his scumbag bona fides with eyeliner and a bad eastern accent — for 1000 child soldiers and a royal hostage in the form of Ingeras. 

Predictably enough, Vlad, having little regard for the scheme, resists these Turkish advances. He instantly seeks salvation from arts more dark than martial and, from this point on, a finely balanced opening gives way to bombastic CGI and a contrived, poorly paced, surprisingly bloodless, 12A depiction of one man’s descent into the blackness.

Many of Dracula Untold’s weaknesses stem from a truncated running time which squeezes major events into a series of narrative pit stops. From the moment that Vlad resolves to sell his soul to a cave-dwelling demon (Charles Dance) he knows next to nothing about — save for the conveniently accurate exposition provided by Paul Kaye’s watchful monk — one cannot shake the notion that Shore is scrambling to cram a crowded tableau into a very tight space. 

As he surrenders himself to three days of demonic prowess, a curse with which he will be laboured for eternity if he drinks human blood, Vlad’s embrace of these new powers, at once interesting and chilling, is jettisoned to make way for a series of shiny, hollow battle scenes. 

Acutely aware of studio pressure to feed the masses with Universal’s expensive fare, Shore occasionally steps outside bland multiplex drudgery — the relationship between Gadon, so affecting in this year’s Belle, and the serviceable Evans is never less than touching — but such moves are clearly ancillary to the spectacle. 

Inconvenient tensions are overcome as swiftly as they arise. In one scene, Vlad chides the small band of superstitious compatriots he has chosen to protect (all of whom seem to reside in his castle) for attempting to burn him alive. He dismisses their concerns about his alarming new ability to transform into a cloud of bats; they forgive him his possession.

If there is a genuinely redeeming quality, it rests in the aesthetic. Tellingly, Shore finds more success within the frame than he does beneath it and, given his background in commercials, it should come as no surprise that he brings significant style to his debut featured. Northern Ireland granted Universal a bespoke production base and the region’s rugged beauty forms an especially stunning backdrop. This is a Transylvania of verdant glens and towering mountains, its vastness accentuated and lingered upon by Shore’s admiring lens. 

Indeed, his considerable technical skills intermittently light up the mostly dull drama: a stunning opening 3D montage, all swooping cameras and brooding shadows, tells of Vlad’s early years in service to the Ottomans; later, as Evans lays waste to a field of foes, his omnipotence plays out in the reflection of a dying soldier’s falling sword. Taken as individual components, these achievements impress on a deeper level than one might expect from a film of largely rote ambitions. 

Whatever their superficial effect, however, such flourishes are, in truth, little more than a mere shimmer, garnishes to a story requiring a truly gothic treatment.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Given the enormous budgets and associated stratospheric expectations, it appears more than likely that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, parts 1 and 2, will serve as the more bombastic episodes in the staggered swan song of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those concluding chapters of the ridiculously good Hunger Games series will undoubtedly reap huge rewards at the box office, assuring the actor of an appropriately large canvas on which to be memorialised. 

Whatever the scale of those adventures, it is unlikely that such blockbuster fare will provide for as fascinating a display of Hoffman’s onscreen omnipotence as the rumpled, cigarette-caressing Teutonic spymaster Günther Bachmann. A secondary presence in John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, Bachmann’s importance is enhanced and brought to life here by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn along with Hoffman. The latter's death in February robbed cinema of, arguably, its greatest contemporary talent. 

As befits the famous writer’s back catalogue, A Most Wanted Man, is a masterfully constructed Euro thriller, dripping with the cold paranoia of a post-9/11 reality. That seminal event is the prism through which all actions are judged and in Hamburg — its oily waters provide the backdrop to an ominous opening title card — these considerations are especially relevant. For it was in Germany’s great port city that the landscape-altering attacks of 2001 were conceived, then planned; their genesis was hidden, goes the implication, by a proud tradition of multiculturalism. 

German intelligence is determined to cripple the ‘offcuts of a nation called Islam’ in any way that it can. Its point man in this endeavour is Hoffman’s rotund Bachmann, the hard-drinking patriarch of a small unit operating on the peripheries of its nation’s laws by sniffing out extremist cells, recruiting assets and generally engaging in the kind of high-stakes espionage with which Le Carré is so familiar. 

A wonderfully complex character, Bachmann is every inch the jaded spook. His modus operandi relies on intuition and an innate understanding of his foes, yet regardless of his ethereal tendencies he is a true believer, the tip of the spear in a war against horrifying, demonstrably destructive ideologies. 

Hoffman is simply fascinating then, deftly imbuing Bachmann’s shuffling frame with a wheezing, open-collared inelegance and a cutting turn of phrase. Early on, a petty securicrat pompously advises him that terrorists ‘hide among us.’ ‘Do they?’ say Bachmann, wryly, disgust long ago replaced by wearied acceptance of the minimal appreciation for his craft. Stalking from scene to scene, like sage warrior, Bachmann mistrusts the American partners and his own government’s hulking bureaucracy, wary of its inability to get out of his way, to let him do his job.

His intricate plans revolve around a callow Chechen immigrant, Issa Karpov (a superb Grigoriy Dobrygin), and the fortune Karpov’s father laundered through the bank of Willem Dafoe’s quietly amoral financier, Tommy Brue, whose obsession with lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) forms the thrust of the literary source material. Employing all of the means at his disposal, Bachmann intends to use the money to hook, and turn, ostensibly moderate Muslim academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). 

That is the basic thrust of Corbijn’s picture but, in truth, the complexities of international diplomacy and simple human nature jostle to spoil Bachmann’s design. Even the subject of the title is unclear. Is he the man in question, with his deceptively sharp mind and the information others desire? Perhaps our focus should be on the devout Issa, haunted by a monstrous past and unaware of his place in the tangled web. Abdullah seems the most obvious candidate: urbane, safe, undeniably suspicious. 

Whoever sits at the centre of its myriad strands, A Most Wanted Man is a surprisingly straightforward thriller, lacking the coolly vacillating narrative conjured by Le Carré in the excellent, restrained Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Corbijn’s confident direction allows a dense story to breath and as the extent of Bachmann’s closely guarded scheme shifts into view, he keeps a tight reign on the action. The tension is not especially palpable by the conclusion but there is sincerity beneath that icy tone, its refined vibe never compromised by anything approaching hysteria.

This is a step up for Corbijn whose last cinematic offering, The American, was little more than a vacuous star vehicle for a game George Clooney. It ably captured the subtle beauty of an Italian winter, of course, and, as expected, the visual work here is outstanding. His Hamburg is a blue-collar cosmopolis, at once brutal and exquisite, the default location for a gritty tale of such unashamedly European stylings. The sturdiness of the storytelling, however, is a pleasant surprise considering the director — a telling waypoint in Corbijn’s progression from artist to auteur. 

Indeed, as the crucial final piece slots into place, that which could have been played for the pleasures of the multiplex stays rooted in a world forged not by Bachmann’s thoughtful precision but by the political pragmatism of unyielding CIA officer Martha Sullivan (an incredibly menacing Robin Wright). Her ever-smiling exterior is clearly an act, a tool in a game only she fully comprehends.

If this is her game, then Hoffman is surely the star player and there exists an element of genuine tragedy in the fact that we will never again see him in a film so suited to his singular brilliance. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

No Liam Neeson film appears to be complete these days without its solo-billed crusader growling down a phone line to the overconfident criminal who has made the mistake of crossing him. Taken (entertaining) Taken 2 (dreadful) and Non-Stop (silly) have all featured Neeson’s gravelly telephone manner and the upcoming Taken 3 will surely plough a similar furrow, for old time’s sake if nothing else.

In that respect, at least, his latest grim-faced escapade, A Walk Amongst the Tombstones, is no different. As this terrific mystery-cum-thriller hurtles towards it blood-soaked conclusion, Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, a weathered gumshoe of the old school, reaches for the handset once again. Fortunately, given the quality surrounding it, this familiar trope feels like nothing more than a simple plot device in The Lookout director Scott Frank’s muscular screenplay.

Mercifully, Tombstones is a different beast to the gratuitous action feasts so beloved by Neeson’s accountant. Intense rather than overbearing, spartan without feeling abstract, Frank directs a stylish, lean adaptation of crime writer Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel, the tenth entry in a series which goes back as far as 1976. 

Block’s protagonist is Scudder, an ex-NYPD detective who quits the force after accidentally killing a child in a wantonly carefree street battle with a gang of thugs. Working around the date of Block’s book, the prologue here takes place in 1991, with Scudder snuffing out the scumbags who shoot up the bar in which he is consuming his morning fix. Eight years later he is an unlicensed private detective, and recovering alcoholic, who prefers to keep his head down and the gun in a closet.

His lonely existence is interrupted by the overtures of strangely monikered drug trafficker Kenny Kristo — a haunted Dan Stevens, jettisoning that awfully nice Downton Abbey persona for something much darker — who requires a discreet operator to find those behind the kidnap, ransom and murder of his wife.

Scudder obliges, trawling a dank world of snuff movies and narcotics in the process. From the beginning he is a step behind a series of horrifying deaths, the connecting tissue of a case with implications beyond pure psychopathy, though Neeson excels as the dogged sleuth, leaning his broad frame into the cold New York wind as winter and the Y2K scare approach. 

Considering the nature of the leading man’s recent output, it almost seems strange to witness him eschewing gung-ho activism for more sedate qualities. Indeed, the opening scene aside, Scudder is no adrenaline junkie. He prefers brains to brawn and preaches a roughly conciliatory attitude. In one scene, faced with a dagger-wielding suspect, a mix of Neeson’s imposing height and Scudder’s quiet physicality is enough to avert what would have been a gruesome confrontation in a less considered film. 

Frank is clearly aiming for a creepier tale and employs sporadic, startling violence to build tension, to support his bleak narrative. There is hard-boiled narration also, unobtrusive and effective, which helps to keep the audience abreast of the reluctant hero’s relentless snooping. 

Unfortunately the motivations of the murderous duo (Adam David Thompson and the always superb David Harbour) remain a mystery. Their place within a web of DEA scheming should be compelling but is poorly drawn out, leaving Scudder confused along with everyone else. That said, they are an undeniably menacing force. Thompson, in particular, displays an unsettling degree of passive aggression as the taciturn partner in a vile enterprise. 

Whatever the source of their urges, these are worthy adversaries for Scudder who is, in turn, unlike the tortured souls which tend to populate these occasionally clichéd genre pieces. The Ballymena native is a perfect fit for a practical man with neither the time, nor the inclination, to entertain demons and while his past deeds may constitute a particularly unpleasant learning experience, instead of a soul-consuming shadow, Scudder is no hardened automaton. His burgeoning mentorship of a precocious street kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) offers some glimmer of normality and Neeson can, of course, do this kind of smart ruggedness in his sleep. His American accent is still a work in progress, mind.

In truth, such minor criticisms mean little once the rainy finale arrives: Scudder descends into the foulness that characterises so many modern noirs, his 12-step program punctuating the designed chaos of the concluding reel. With its slo-mo gunplay, sombre sense of prescience and a twist that never comes, Frank’s ultimate message is not entirely clear. Neeson’s journey to that point, however, is terribly interesting. 

An edited version of this article was was first published here