The Guest

Directed by Adam Wingard (V/H/S/, 2012) and written by Simon Barrett (also V/H/S), the production stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, 2012) as a soldier returned from “The war”, this one in Iraq. The film opens with a young man, David, jogging in to town with a full pack. We then see him calling to a house, it is the home of the Paterson family. He is met by the mother, Laura, (Sheila Kelly, Matchstick Men, 2003) who while initially sceptical of the stranger at her door, she allows him in and begins to relax, especially when he shows himself in a photograph the family have, he is posing for a group picture next to their dead son.

Over the course of the afternoon the mother invites David to stay with them for a few days. This of course is not greatly received by the rest of the family, most so with the father, Spencer, (Leland Orser, Taken, 2008), however once they start talking they get on well. Over the course of their talking David learns that Spencer has been passed over for a regional manager’s job. In the end they all get on and are glad to have somebody there who knew their dead son/brother. The Petersons have two other children, Anna (Maika Monroe, Labor Day, 2013) and Luke (Brendam Meyer, Mr Young, 2012). Anna is the self-assured 20 year old still living under her parents’ rule at home, balancing a waitressing job with a boyfriend, who as far as her parents know is history. Luke on the other hand is being bullied at school.

Pretty quickly, David begins to “help” the family. He sets up a situation with the boys who bullied Luke where he quickly inflicts sharp violent pain on them and subsequently advises Luke not to hold back when dealing with bullies. As the film goes on we also learn that the person who took Spencer’s job mysteriously commits suicide. Against this background Anna is suspicious and makes some phone calls only to learn that officially David was killed in a fire at a military hospital he was in. In the course of doing this David is red-flagged and a dark shadowy official is notified, he quickly pulls a team together and heads to Texas to find David.

Various bodies die in mysterious ways up to when the official, (Lance Reddick, Fringe 2008), who we learn is military police, raids the home. Once this happens the body count multiplies.

It turns out David was the subject of failed medical experiments, in short David will do anything to protect the family from danger or difficulty, this is his mission. At once both charming and polite while also a cold killer when his mission mode “kicks-in”

I’m not sure if this is one of the worst movies I ever saw or one of the smartest, I’m tending to the latter. The film overall has the feel of an eighties thriller even down to camera styles and soundtrack. Not only is the soundtrack a very eighties style the recording is also of the time with the soundrack abruptly breaking as a scene changes. As we prepare for the denouement we even get, wait for it; smoke.   In a number of places the movie tends to play to stereo-type but always manages to rescue itself from becoming a train-wreck. One of the reasons for this is Dan Stevens himself – his face is pure rubber. He has a stare which could burn through brick and a facial range which many actors would envy.

It is a subtly stylised movie which could have easily have failed but for some very tight direction and of course for Stevens’ own acting ability.

Get the DVD or stream it, you should enjoy it – 3.5/5, 7/10

Whiplash

This must be one of the most intense movies I’ve seen in a long time. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, 2009), it tells the story of a first year music (drums) student, Andrew (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, 2013) who wants to be the best out there, he’s driven and not afraid of practice and effort. One day while practicing he is interrupted by Mr Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, Men, Women and Children, 2014); Fletcher is one of the College’s foremost lecturers, he’s a renowned Jazz musician and leader of the college’s Studio Band.

The college is one of the US’s top music conservatories, so those there are already a cut above the rest. Fletcher’s Studio Band is the cream of those students already ahead of the curve. Fletcher is a gruff un-mannered individual who pushes his students hard. From the very start we see the relationship between teacher and student is going to be a tough one. After being picked to attend the band practice, we see straight away how unorthodox the relationship is going to be. Told to be at practice for 6.00am, Andrew arrived only to wait until 9.00am before people arrived. His first impression is of military discipline among the students, down to and including them snapping-too when their Leader arrives in.

The relationship between students and master is not a particularly happy one. He is pushing them to perfection. At one stage another band member is out of tune, he notices and tracks down the culprit, however the culprit remains and another student who was convinced he was out of tune by Fletcher is thrown out, on the basis that he did not know whether he was out of tune.; this is in Fletcher’s eyes is worse than being out of tune.

As the training progresses we see how Fletcher pushes Andrew and the other students to and beyond their limits. It is vicious; there is no room for mistakes. In one particularly hard scene Fletcher drives Andrew to breaking while trying to get him to play to Fletcher’s Tempo. The manipulations and stress continue right up to a pre-competition breaking point when Andrew and Fletcher come to blows.

Out of the college, Andrew, now beginning to live a normal life, is persuaded by his father (Paul Reiser, (Life After Beth, 2014) to join an action against Fletcher, supposedly secretly. A while later Fletcher and Andrew meet in a jazz bar where Fletcher is playing and it would seem that the meeting was friendly, Fletcher even invites Andrew to play I a jazz band he is fronting at an up-coming jazz festival. Andrew agrees and turns up to perform.

What happens next is a mixture of pettiness, cruelty and public humiliation, betters by a fighting spirit and genuine talent. Fletcher excuses his actions by telling us how he is driving great artists to be even better, to be all that they can potentially be.

What does it take to be a world class musician, talent, strength, determination and   much more. This is a very intense movie and although centered around a college Jazz band it is a very engaging movie, which even had me sitting quite literally at the edge of my seat waiting for a wrong note or a breakdown.

This is an excellent movie which at time seems almost claustrophobic for the band members. I have absolutely no musical talent, and looking at this, if I had, I would keep it at a purely amateur level. J.K. Simmons who plays Fletcher give a master-class in how to be the bad guy, manipulating and bullying the students under his control, but all seemingly for the greater good. **** probably best described as an excellent, intense 4* production.

A Most Wanted Man

Based on a John le Carré novel this movie director by Anton Corbijn (Control, 2007) is a good old fashioned spy movie, indeed it sits well along-side another Le Carré work – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Staring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Günther Bachmann in one of his last starring roles where he play the head of a specialist counter terrorism unit currently based in Hamburg. Bachmann has a history and many think his posting to Hamburg is a punishment for a mission which went wrong in Beirut, however there is the suggestion that the power-that-be are okay with this rumour as it gives him and his team cover to track down the subject of their efforts.

While Corbijn plays with the various inter-interdepartmental rivalries ( as well as political manoeuvres both within Germany and internationally with the Americans) within which Buchmann must operate he at least has the loyalty of his own team. This helps because a lessor director might have tried to add a level of intrigue, and that would have been bad. Buchmann’s second in command is Irna Lenz (Nina Hoss, Barbara 2012) and works the part well. She is calm and professional against Buchmann’s self-neglect, but the two are different sides of the same coin. It is never clear just how deep the relationship between them goes. One cannot but suspect that there is a deep friendship but their combined professionalism means nothing will happen. Other team members include Maximilian (Daniel Brühl, Rush 2012) who despite almost no script to himself, still manages to make his presence knows.

During his investigations Buchmann and team track an illegal immigrant from Chechnya (Grigoriy Dobrygin, How I Ended This Summer, 2010)who may or may not be a risk. Other departments want to arrest him, but Buchmann uses his connections to keep him free and followed. While this is happening his team are getting close to the money man (Homayoun Ershadi, The Kite Runner, 2007) they are following. On the surface everything looks squeaky clean, but something does not ring true with him.

Then a stroke of luck, it turns out that the Chechen has an interesting past, indeed so does his (now dead) father which brings him into contact with a private banker in Hamburg (Willem Defoe, The Fault In Our Stars, 2014). All of this is arranged through a human rights lawyer, Martha (Robin Wright, The Princess Bride, 1987) working with immigrants The excellence of Hofmann’s Buchmann is exemplified through his polite but yet condescending attitude to the banker, always calling him “Tommy” rather than “Herr Brue”.

As with any spy story there are twists and I don’t want to destroy any of them. Suffice it to say that the story brings you along fully and the acting, not least by Hoffman, Dobrygin, Defoe and Wright carries you along in an understated manner. This movie has a very European feel to it, not just because of cast and location but the lack of gun-play. The tension is psychological rather than purely violent. This works to the extent that when violence comes, it is short and sharp.

**** an excellent piece which will keep anybody over the age of 21 (mature enough not to need all of the cast murdered by half way through) happily engaged and entertained.

Short Term 12

At first glance one might be tempted to write off the movie as potentially just another case of teen hardship and angst as they are confined to a place the y do not want to be in and watched over by social workers who are little more than prison guards, but if you did you would be wrong. Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, this is only his second directorial feature (the first being I Am Not a Hipster, 2012), but it certainly benefits from being previously a short story which he filmed in 2008.

What we have are a number of carers or social workers including one new to the short-term facility, who to be brutally honest are not much older that the teens in their care. The stars of the show are Grace (Brie Larson, Don Jon, 2013) and her fellow carer/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr. Jonah Hex, 2010). Her introduction to the kids comes in the shape of Sammy on one of his many attempts to run away (Alex Calloway, 50 Kisses, 2014). This is an example of the stress children and adults are under, however there is one kid, Marcus (Keith Stanfield, Selma, 2014) who is now coming to an age where he will need to leave the system he has been in for so long, he has anger issues and you can’t really blame him. There are also a number of other kids with their various issues which challenge the staff physically and emotionally. The relationship is supportive and caring from the adults, it is a refuge not a prison.

Even with this we see how the work influences the counsellors, the older members of the team have come to terms with many of the pressures of the job, while the newer, younger counsellors come to terms with their charges and how to deal with them. This is not a TV movie where the kids’ lives are transformed in to a world of happiness. No, there are issues, some cannot mix, some won’t; some are leaving but are not ready, others might be. This story is told through the kids in the facility but it is as much about the carers and how they grow into the role; how it shapes them. Although the centre is essentially the centre of all their lives, we do get glimpses of the Grace’s and Mason’s lives at home, they live together. We learn their own histories and see the motivators that brought them to where they are today and which will drive them to make the decisions they need to make, especially after Grace’s unplanned pregnancy

The ground covered by Short Term 12 is well travelled and could have been a lot less effective except for the sharp script, snappy edits and Cretton’s ability no know just…well actually his ability to do his job well. He gives us characters we can engage with, who we want good things for. This is an engaging and entertaining offering well worth the time. Each of the stories, whether of the carers, the kids under care or even all of them, has some sort of a climax, maybe not a clean ending but a climax.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I had to stop and think about this one; not so much as to the quality of the film; it is excellent, but rather its nature. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a movie for its own sake. BSW (for obvious reasons) is the story of life in the Bathtub as told through the experiences of a six your old girl called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, Annie 2014). Drawing its inspiration from her play “Juicy and Delicious”, Lucy Alibar co-wrote the movie with director Benh Zeitlin. This is Benh’s first feature length movie, and it does not show.

On one level BSW allows us to experience life through Hushpuppy’s eyes but on another level it also show the complex relationship between her and her hard drinking, independent father. By extension we also get to witness the lives, interactions and even society of those who live in the Bathtub. The Bathtub is an area of forgotten and neglected swampy, bayou, or at least it was. The locals are under orders to remove themselves. There are no big houses or estates here, this is the land of the dispossessed, what homes are here are those cobbled together by their inhabitants.

The people are proudly independent of the city. Indeed the sense of independence and social isolation is reflected in the child’s own living arrangements. She lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, 12 Years A Slave) however they live in two separate “buildings” she in the shack on stilts and he in the wreck of a bus. The whole community is somewhat similar, even down to her education. The community here are essentially Cajun hippies, but that does not do them justice.

The background and cinematography is excellent and indeed just as the characters endear us to them, so too does the camerawork to the place and time, we get to experience some of what it is like to live there and experience some of the hardships. Life is not perfect for them. Pressure is on to remove them from the area and this looms large in the background. There is drama in the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink and the others living there.

When we see the storm strike there is a very tangible sense of dread and foreboding, this continues to dread and nervousness during the storm to be followed by a certain sense of relief. The people of the bathtub are still alive. Wink in his makeshift boat/raft visits round his neighbours as he does they slowly come round or meet him. There is no “woe am I” from the community, this is life. This is what these people signed-up for.

One cannot help but wonder if the real message of the film is that we can be happy with nothing except our friends and neighbours around us and the most basic of shelter and food. Indeed the feeding regime differs little between human and alligator, chicken carcass or fresh fish.

Not overly burdened by script but beautifully shaped and presented. This is certainly worth a couple of hours of your time, time you will not miss. The plot is simply life and how we deal with what we have in life.

Monsieur Lazhar

This unassuming piece of work by director Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie, 2014) is one of those that just pulls you in as you watch it. Set in a Montréal high-school coming to terms with the suicide of a popular teacher. There is a sense of intimacy to this work that allows the watcher to get involved in the emotion of the movie. The film is adapted from the play by Évelyne de la Chenelière with what seem like only minor changes to the plot. The film opens with a pupil, Simon (Émilien Néron) discovering one of his teacher’s having hung herself in the classroom as he delivers the day’s milk, the mundaneness of his act clashing with the horror of what he witnesses. The school quickly responds with all of the correct moves, shepherding the children elsewhere; all but one of the students manage to escape the scene, only Simon’s friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse) also witnessing the scene.

Working by the book the school quickly begins to manage the grief and shock of all involved. All evidence of the terrible event is stripped away with a grief counselor being brought in and the classroom repainted. In the middle of all of this is the head teacher (Danielle Proulx), herself under pressure who is suddenly presented with an option which might help things. A man comes to her looking for a job as a teacher, he just turns up with his CV. The man is an Algerian immigrant who finds himself in Montréal after fleeing very real personal tragedy and suffering. His name is Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag, What the Day owes the Night, 2012) Falardeau tells us this man’s story through moments of reflection and memory as well as how his past is influencing the present and the children around him.

Against this background of chaos and disorder, the head teacher hires this stranger. As he starts we see that Bachir is certainly a contrast to the events around him. Bachir is literally what might be described as “old school” these days. His style far more conservative and traditional that what the pupils had been used to. This period of unease and adjustment could have been the film in and ofg itself, but the subject matter needed to be explored further, One of the challenges facing him is overcoming the grief of the pupils, or at least their overcoming of the grief. Bachir has been instructed not to interfere with the grieving and healing process, despite how he sees it not working as effectively as it should. What we see is a man who cares about those around him, adults and children; a man who despite his own loss and suffering can still recognise the value and worth in everybody.

The film is also full of detail. The story is told not so much through narrative but through the detail of the picture the trinkets from home, his food and so on. The fact that he may not be fully qualified to teach also adds a dimension to the piece. This movie is not about answering some of life’s big questions, rather it seems to be more about how we deal with those questions; how do we deal with loss, with trauma, with pressure, and not just how do we deal with such things but how also do we deal with the effects of them on us and others.

I recommend this production as one which will stay with you for a long time after you have seen it.

They Came Back (Les Revenants, The Returned) 2004

Directed and co-written by Robin Campillo (The Class, 2008) and Brigitte Tijou (Riviera, 2005), this quite original piece deals with the returning dead in a way not often seen. The film concentrates on event s through the eyes of the local s of a small town in central France. The opening scenes are of events surrounding the returning as they are being outlined by the Mayor (Victor Garrivier, French Kiss, 1995) of the town as he briefs officials.

It turns out that the returned all came back in roughly a 2 hour window one day. Looking to the dead in detail society quickly sets about learning how to deal with the returned. It seems that those who returned were all dead less than 10 years and present no outwardly physical signs of having been dead. It quickly becomes apparent that the returned are lacking a certain “fire”. One of the officials states that they will never be able to use initiative and should not be given positions of authority, regardless of their previous functions in life.

What we see as the movie progresses is how society copes with these Returned. There are both the larger macro issues of how to house and rehabilitate them. the movie smartly deals with many of the issues we often glance over in such productions, what happens to the dead in the world of the living, can they get their property or old jobs back? How are they fitting in socially and are they being welcomed back by everybody? The central or unifying part of the movie is the city council and how they are dealing with the situation. This is a clever device as it allows us to be told the story exactly as Camillo wants us to hear it, it also allows us an introduction to key characters and how they interact between themselves and the returned.

With this device we see the Mayor coming to terms with the return of his elderly wife. Where the return is generally trouble free there is the issue of here wondering at night. This brings us on to “Mathieu” an architect working in a firm who previously had some significant responsibilities. It is now seen that his abilities are seriously restricted. This is discovered when the psychologist assigned to the returned has a discussion with one of the guards. The returned do not sleep. It seems that they also have no ability to make memories and essentially their communications skills are based on what they had when alive and situational memories which allows them to appear as if they are having on-going conversations.

Things may not be as they seem. The doctors and scientists observing the returned notice certain physical characteristics which allow the returned to be tracked. This tracking leads to some interesting discoveries. What do they do at night? What are the returned planning? Do they feel welcome? Where does all of this lead?

This is not a zombie movie in the traditional sense and there are probably some who would say that the returned are not zombies, whatever! They are re-animated corpses, they are zombies. Not having the movie focused on the usual plot-line of zombies trying to kill the human population is a refreshing change as it allows the many other aspects which are normally over-looked.

This movie is not perfect. It moves at a steady “European” pace which some might feel is slow (which I think, works)  rather than the fast disaster movie action which we are used to with zombie films. This movie concentrates more on the rational and even emotional implications of the return rather than the traditional emergency response approach. The subsequent TV series which was released about 10 years after the movie is significantly different to the film while staying loyal to the original concept of the returned. I liked this movie, possibly because I had read about it and seen the TV series previously so I had an idea of what to expect. I quite liked it. It is a very interesting variation on an well-tried concept.   It is interesting that in the 10 years since its release subsequent zombie movies have not overly tried to repeat this format, rather sticking with the traditional blood-fest approach.

If you claim to be a Sci-fi or Horror fan you need to watch this, if however you are a fan of mindless violence and body party being ripped off/digested then you need to go back to Master Romero’s works.