Calvary

Written and directed by John Michael Mc Donagh, this is the second of a loosely based trilogy. The subject matter is not connected, rather locations associated with McDonagh’s background. The first installment was “The Guard” (2011). Described as a black comedy, it might be better described Dark thriller with a touch of dark humour thrown in.

Although described as “dark” this is a very entertaining movie, which from the start drags in the viewer and keeps us alongside to the very end. Brendan Gleeson’s character is that of Father James, the local parish priest in a small rural parish in Sligo. Boarding the coast, there are some fantastic backdrops (having spent two years living in the area, I can say the scenery is every bit as photographed for the film. Fr. James we learn came to the Priesthood later in life, after his wife died. As with any normal person, he has his daemons, he is open about his hard drinking ways in the past, now he controls his life and habits. As “normal” as he is, the villagers, his parish, are what can best be described as an “odd bunch”.

The film opens in confession, here we learn that one of his parishioners was abuse as a child by a priest. In the parishioner’s quest for vengeance, he has decided to kill a priest, not just any priest, but a good priest, someone people will notice. He is told he has just over a week to live, they even make an appointment for the following Sunday on the beach. We are not clear if he actually knows who his killer is. Following a discussion with his less than helpful Bishop (David McSavage), the Bishop feels that the confession was not valid, as absolution was not present and so he should report the issue.

Instead Fr. James uses the week to put his house in order and try find a way to stop what is going to happen. In to the mix comes his adult daughter (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Homes, 2009), recovering from a suicide attempt. We see through her that his relationship with her has been strained over time and in deed still shows some stress marks but they know they have something to work out and so do. They treat each other as adults.

Over the coming days, we see Fr. James deal with his parishioners, the wife beaten by her lover, the lover who has no remorse and even the cuckolded husband, who is quite happy for his wife to have an affair, as it takes the pressure off him and basically they can get on with life. As part of his ministering to his flock he visits an old American writer who is living in a remote area accessible only by boat. While bringing the old writer his messages, he makes a request for a gun (Walter PPK). After some banter Fr. James says he will try and see what he can do. In the course of the next day he pays a visit to the local Police Inspector, to borrow a gun. The inspector is at home, with a male prostitute. Fr. James is not fazed by this or the prostitute’s behaviour. The prostitute is played by Owen Sharpe, I mention this because of his recent role in “’71” playing the young IRA killer, a completely different role, both done well.

As the week goes on, he has to deal with his curate, Fr. Leary (David Wilmot, Vikings 2013) who is not exactly the caring type, more concerned with image rather than substance. Fr. James is rather blunt in his opinion of him as a priest. Indeed one of the defining characteristics of Fr. James is his bluntness. When we see him with the financier on the edge of arrest (Dylan Moran, Black Books, 2000) who is trying to put things right (in his own way). Fr. Leary fawns to Moran’s character, while Fr. James just basically sees through the acts and gets down to business naming a figure and looking for the check.

As the week goes on, we start to see things taking a chilling turn, with his local church being burnt down and even his pet dog killed, we are not told who is responsible for these acts. We see the tensions mount to breaking point, while we also see moments of clam and belief, no more so that the French couple of holiday who were involved in a car crash, the husband is killed, while the wife escapes unhurt, we see in her a person of Faith and in so doing also see his Faith, it is real to him.

He has no airs and graces, when one of the village odd-balls, Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott, Love/Hate 2010-2014) sees Fr. James in church to ask for his advice regarding women; the conversation turns surreal. He basically has urges, possibly to violence , to control these urges he has decided to join the army, which he is convinced is full of psychopaths anyway and so should be a natural home for himself, Fr. James attempts to bring him back to reality by suggesting he read certain magazines, only to have milo say he has already tried them. What we see is a man casting no judgements and genuinely trying to help. His chats with the atheist (and cynical ) doctor, (Aidan Gillen, Love/Hate 2010-2013) also give us an insight to his view on life and his outlook on things in general, while at the same time not forcing a believe or rationalisation on the other person.

In dealing with his parishioners and even his daughter (and by extension himself) we do see a “good Priest”. Fr. James’s character is no Saint, he has his flaws and weaknesses like any person. He is essentially a person who is trying to help is parishioners without overstepping. However the various scenarios thrown up by the locals work at both levels, firstly allowing for a local and immediate (personal response) but also causing us to see the reaction of a kind and compassionate man, even if one who does not suffer fools to gladly.

Among all of the local community there is one who stands out, the altar boy, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane, the Guard, 2011) he stands out for one reason, essentially he has reprised his role in The Guard, as a comic foil for Gleeson. This time it is a little more subtle but equally as good.

This movie shifts to an climax which can only end one of two ways, Fr. James alive or dead. A good man alive or dead. What we saw was a week in the life of a small parish, all seemingly tranquil and calm while below the surface there is violence, loneliness, suffering and pain and only one man has an idea as to what extent the people of the village are suffering in their various ways, just as he is dealing with his own daemons. This is dark in its subject matter but the cinematography and sharp lines place this movie in the first league.

It is felt Gleeson might get an Oscar nomination for this role, he deserves it

9/10

Project Almanac

Director Dean Israelite’s first feature length movie works well for him. Opening with High-school kid, David Raskin (Jonny Weston, Insurgent 2015) making a video presentation to MIT for acceptance on one of their college programmes with the help of his two friends Quinn (Sam Lerner, Nobody Walks, 2014) and Adam (Allen Evangelista, Belas, 2013). The film is largely shot in POV (Point of view) format, that is always through a camcorder or such like always used by one of the kids. David’s sister Christina (Virginia Gardner, The Goldbergs. 2013) is the primary recorder. The POV format largely works, even if there are one or two sequences where it is not as successful.

Routing through some old belongings in the attic he comes across a video-camera once owned by his father who was killed in a car accident about 10 years ago. While looking at footage, David notices something, just a frame or two, but he notices it. Reviewing the home-movie in question it is clear David in in the movie as his 17year old self, with his 10yo self also there. Noticing that the David in the film was heading for the basement, they decide to check down there.

Now here is a significant weakness in the film, centred around a young technically gifted student, whose father was an engineer, he (David) only now goes down to the basement and “discovers” his father’s workshop and very quickly its secrets.

Pretty quickly they find the time machine, or at least the workings of it and all of the necessary blue-prints, and as any kids do, they decide to finish building it. With much chaos and experimenting they manage to move something back through time. Of course all of this has the added benefit of entangling one of David’s school mates; Jessie Pierce (Sofia Black D’elia, Born of War 2013), David has a crush on her and as with most young lads of his age, he is totally unable to act on it. A good section of the movie deals with the youngsters building and improving the time machine, often with mixed results.

First the five youngsters experiment with sending inanimate objects back and forth through time, but David is eager to move things on and after much tinkering and adaption, they have a time travel device which they can bring with them, which can transport them to when they want to go (within a limited window of a couple of weeks, but growing as they tinker)

As the movie progresses it starts to take on a slightly darker more sinister hue. After firstly starting off with small things, they decide to “surgically” (my words) interfere with the past, but very quickly learn that one event might have a knock-on effect on another even though the two may not seem linked. After making changes to the time line. On their first trip back they see how the lawas of nature actually kick-in to prevent them from meeting themselves in the past, if they do, bith are removed from nature, no longer existing.

These trips back in time start of light enough, with Quinn using the trips back to ace a pop-quiz in chemistry and then get more intense as they try to undo changes to the timelines brought about by their travel. These changes which seem like nothing much have implications which spread far and wide, the ripple effect being nicely expounded here.

This film is a lot more watchable than I thought it would be and indeed deals with some of the more fundamental aspects of time travel, concentrating on the effects (as thought) rather than on the pure science of the physics. Indeed this is where the film lets itself down slightly, but only slightly.

Without going into the physics of time travel the movie looks to the impacts and how the people involved try to deal with and correct what they have done. One could argue that there is not a whole lot original in the first half of the movie, when even the movie itself draws parallels with some of those time-travelling presentations which came before (even down to video shots of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989).

The second half is where the movie really kicks in and ups the tempo. This is an interesting look at the whole area of time travel and its consequences and might be compared to About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013). Much of the tension surround the undoing of the consequences of even the supposedly smallest actions when they went back in time. One of the issues with Time travel movies is the potential for the heroes to go anywhere, any when in time. Almanac carefully circumvents these issues by building in practical limitations to their device and so keeping the movie on a relatively (sorry for the pun) tight perspective and prevents it from tackling too many physics questions.

Over all it works, with perhaps just a little bit too much time spent on the concert in the baseball stadium, but then again there are implications for the event. It also manages to convey some of the science of time-travel without breaking into applied physics. The movie does have some convenient plot holes but nothing that takes away from the picture overall.

Chappie

Directed and co-written by Neill BlomKamp (District 9, 2009) Chappie is set in The Republic of South Africa in the near future, more specifically in Johannesburg. Faced with ever growing rates of lawlessness and violence the South African police purchase a series of android robots from a local company headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, aliens 1986), these robots are fully mobile AI’s with human interfaces to help control them. Initial trials and usage are going well. Crime rates in the city fall and criminals are genuinely fearful of them.

The opening sequences tell you straight away that you are in a BlomKamp movie with the by-now familiar camera styles. With his opening shots we see how law and order is being restored. In the middle of this we meet drone 22 (who will become known as Chappie), who is severely damaged in deployment and sent to the scrap heap. As this is going on Deon Wilson (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) the engineer behind the androids has been working on a full AI program for the androids and has finally cracked it. He is prevented from trying his latest work on any of the robots. As this happens he is facing competition from inside the company in the guise of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who has developed a remote controlled ground drone which is basically a walking tank, full to the gunnels with high grade armoury, however his program is cancelled because of the success of the drones.

If life was not hard enough, some of the local criminals, suffering from the effects of the drones decide to Kidnap Deon to force him to shut down the drones. As luck would have it they kidnap Deon when he has a van load of spare parts in the back of his van, while he is getting out of the Lab so he can build his own full AI unit with his new software installed. Once captured, it becomes clear he cannot help them, but it is discovered that he has the making of an android in his van. He agrees to help them build it so he can fit his own AI software in to the brain.

They agree reluctantly, the leader of the gang, Ninja (also called Ninja today) wants the android for a big hoist. His friend Yolandi ( Yo Landi Visser, Focus 2015) develops a soft spot for Chappie as he grows. After some struggles Chappie (played by Sharlto Copley, District 9, 2009) has his AI brain and begins to learn how to behave in the human world. Ninja feels no emotion for him and treats him like a weapon basically, trying to train him to be an effective killing machine, Yolandi on the other hand develops a maternal bond with the ‘droid.

All this happens against the gang trying to plan their biggest Hoist, Deon not trying to get caught, and Vincent Moore discovering what is really happening and then planning to kidnap/destroy Chappie. As the movie develops is grows into three strands; the relationship with Chappie as he develops essentially following the characteristics of a truculent teenager; the training of Chappie by the gang despite attempts by Yolandi and Deon to “humanise” him and keep him away from violence. The third strand is the rivalry within the company and the attempts by Moore to discredit the androids and have his system used.

This of course culminates is a disaster for the city of epic proportions which ends up with Moore and his robot battling Chappie and his gang. While this is going on Deon’s work on AI have sparked Chappie’s interest and he himself manages to progress it. Ultimately they develop the ability to transfer a human conscience in to an artificial brain, this might be able to help them in their fight to survive.

I am trying hard not to ruin the plot line. I watched this shortly after watching Ex Machina (see below) it is interesting to see the take on artificial intelligence and how we as a society are prepared to live with it. Whereas Ex Machina had science and suspense, Chappie has action and a reflection, despite all that is going on we begin to see Chappie in an almost “human” light.

On the negative side, there are one or two small issues with the film, despite being in South Africa, the majority of the cast is white, Dev Patel (English of Indian extraction), something which considering the film is shot in South Africa was noticeable. One other aspect is what I would consider a hole in the story “Security” aspect. The facility where the robots are made seems to be totally incapable of any type of security (which facilitates the storyline) but this causes a certain weakness in the film. I should also point out the film does nothing to advance Johannesburg’s reputation internationally, rather cementing it as the violent city it is often known for.

That said, the movie manages to capture the discussion on what constitutes “humanity” and the nature of being, having a soul and the next life. Are we humane just because we are human, is the soul the preserve of humans?

6/10 An entertaining movie with some excellent special effects, but still somehow managed to give the feel of a small budget production. Overall quite watchable with some rough edges round the corners, perhaps deliberately.

John Wick

This seems to be getting great reviews , personally I have to say I was not inspired by it, in anyway. This is an old-fashioned “shoot-em-up” directed by Chad Stahelski (300, 2006) and written by Derek Kolstad (The Package, 2012). The film opens with the scene being set: John Wick (Keanu Reeves, 47 Ronin) is a man grieving for his recently departed wife. Helping him get over this grief is his puppy which was a gift from his wife. For anybody else this would be possibly enough to get back on track with life, but Wick is retired and just getting on with life.   It is in getting on with life that everything goes south. His luxury home is invaded by some Russian thugs who want to clear it out, of Wick has different ideas and defends his home, in the course of which his dog is killed. It turns out these protagonists are Russian mafia, indeed one of them is the son (Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones, 2011) of the mafia head (Michael Nyqvist. The Girl with The Dragon Tatoo, 2009). Now this is where things go East (or South) very quickly. Having defended his home with more than a little noise, the local police call over after getting a report of a disturbance at the house. The Police officer at the door see inside to bodies lying on the ground, and just confirms with Wick that it is work and leaves him alone. Wick is out for vengeance now so he digs up the tools of his trade – from the floor of the basement. Kolstad tries to give us something different. Wick was no ordinary mob- enforcer he was one of the best hit-men in the business and the thug who attacked his house is the son of one of Wick’s former employers. Wick announces his intention to get revenge against his former employer, who although respecting Wick is forced to put a price on his head to defend his son. As Wick gets back in to the groove we see that there is a certain guild of assassins with Wick quickly making contact with old fellow assassins to determine the game ahead. He bases himself in a down-town hotel which is actually a “neutral ground” for people in his business. All expenses by the way are paid for by gold coins – everything from clean-up crews to hotel bills. Viggo knows what’s coming for his son and explains that Wick is not the Bogeyman, he’s the guy you call to kill the bogeyman. The supporting cast is good, with people like John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge, 2001) as the garage owner who recognises Wick’s stolen car and refuses to have it in his Chop-shop and Ian Mc Shane (The Pillars of The Earth, 2010) who plays the hotel owner, keeping the peace among the underworld figures assembled. This movie involves a body count, with the usual vengeance plotline, however it is done in a fairly original manner and is not as hammed as many others of this genre. It is a night-in modern day western for the boys. The plot is wafer thin, but manages to work. It could be a lot worse. 6/10

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.

Taken 3

Yeah, some of the editing is a bit rough and yeah our action hero does not seem to like running much and let’s face it the plot is rubbish, seeming to grow as the movie went along. One almost gets the feeling that the words “Let’s try this here” were used a lot in the scripting. Now that’s the negative out of the way, let’s look at the facts.

This is a EuropaCorp movie, Luc Besson (Lucy 2014) is one of the co-writers so we know what to expect. The movie itself is directed by Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3, 2008) and opens on familiar territory. Once again based around ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson, A Walk among The Tombstones, 2014) and family. Almost in the opening shot we learn daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, Lockout, 2012) is pregnant and not long after we see how Bryan and Lenore are on the best of terms. Indeed we soon see how she is having difficulties in her marriage to her current husband, Stuart, (Dougray Scott, Hitman, 2007) and pretty soon after that Lenore is found dead in Bryan’s apartment. What does this have to do with Russian mafia? No sooner than our hero gets home to the site of his ex-wife’s dead body do the police show up. He quickly escapes from them and so the hunt begins.

Our Hero is helped by the fact that the Detective in charge( Forest Whitaker, The Butler, 2013) is actually “smart”. I say helped, you’ll see why as the movie progresses. So now the fun begins. Whereas in the previous offerings the chase was a private affair almost, here we almost have a mix of two movies – The Fugitive (1963, 1993) and Taken (1 or 2). It helps that being ex-CIA and still having friends in the business means he is not alone. On the run, being chased by would-be killers and trying to find answers (sound familiar?), Mr Mills begins his traditional search and destroy. Of course no Taken would be the same without a variation of “I will find you” which I’m glad to say we have here.

This is a typical EuropaCorp vehicle, light on the brain, set piece moves and just enough of a plot and general action to keep the watcher happy. If I have to make one negative comment it is that I felt the plot was being developed as the team went along with the filming, but that said it still worked. Sam Spruell, (Good People, 2014) works well as the Russian ex-special forces bad-guy.

Without ruining the plot, the movie ends with the by-now traditional scene of family bonding on the pier. Watch it, enjoy it and remember it is only meant to be fun.

*** It does what it says on the label.