Just been watching…(100)

The Girl On The Train (2016)

***No spoilers***

I haven’t read the best-selling novel that this film is based on, so cannot comment on whether or not it is a good adaptation. Despite being nominated for a BAFTA film award, the film received mixed reviews on release, most of which I avoided reading, so I would not see any spoilers. I waited until it was shown on TV to watch it, as is it not one of those films you need to see on a big screen.

The story is set in America, in an affluent area close to New York City. Regular train commuter Rachel, (Emily Blunt) watches the world go by from her train window, focusing on the lives of a few families in one particular street she can see from the tracks. We learn that one of those houses is where she used to live, and is now occupied by her ex-husband Tom, and his new wife and baby. His wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) employs a nanny, Megan, who is also the wife of a near-neighbour. There is some physical similarity between these two women, something which becomes integral to the plot.

Back-stories and flashbacks abound, telling us that Rachel is a bitter alcoholic who is stalking her ex, and experiencing blackouts. Megan’s husband is violent and controlling, and Anna is a lazy mother. The film makes frequent use of captions, such as ‘A week ago’, or ‘Four months earlier’, to do this, so you have to be sure to keep your eyes on the screen at all times, or risk confusion.

Rachel’s constant bothering of Tom’s new family attracts the attentions of the police, and she is warned off by female detective Riley. (Alison Janney) With her drinking getting completely out of control, Rachel begins to alienate everyone around her, including the friend she shares a house with. And the viewer is supposedly left wondering if any of her fears are real, or just drunken fantasies.

Meanwhile, Megan is undergoing therapy, and becoming attracted to her psychiatrist, Dr Abdic. She is hoping to escape her controlling husband by beginning an affair with the doctor, and also resigns as the nanny for Anna’s baby.

Are you with me so far?

So we have a sort-of psychological thriller involving three women who are all connected by the same location, and the relationships they once had, or have now.

Then Megan goes missing, and is feared dead. Rachel becomes a suspect, and Megan’s husband becomes a suspect too.

Then it all gets rather silly, to be honest. Clumsy twists, unbelievable coincidences, clueless cops accepting the obvious, and a drunk woman who seems to be the only one who knows what is actually happening. Secrets are revealed in flashback, and the eventual denouement becomes an ‘Oh really?’ moment.

This film is nowhere near as good as it thinks it is. Usually reliable actors choose hysteria over nuance, and the criss-cross timeline is neither arty, nor well-handled. We have seen many similar films before, and all of them are better than this one.

I can only hope that the book was better.

Just been watching…(98)

Snowden (2016)

***Real events, so spoilers do not apply***

This film had slipped past my radar, so I was happy to find it showing on our free film channel, Film 4.

Many of us remember the case of Edward Snowden, perhaps the most significant whistle-blower in history. His story filled the news for a while, as he tried to escape arrest and extradition to the USA for trial on charges of treason. This film from distinguished director Oliver Stone examines Snowden’s background, his various jobs in the CIA and NSA, and his personal reasons for leaking the huge amount of secret information to the world’s media.

I appreciate that for many people, especially Americans, his actions are unforgivable, and he is still regarded as a wanted criminal, currently living in exile in Moscow. However, Stone’s long and detailed look at his life presents us with a different view of Snowden, and his slow journey to disillusionment after a career in the clandestine agencies of the American government.

Snowden was always a conservative, and a patriot; he joined the army to train for Special Forces, completely believing in the duty of America to maintain world order, and protect the freedoms it claims to stand for. Self-taught, with no college degree, he became an expert in computers too, with a genius level on a par with the best. After a serious accident during his army training, he is told he will be discharged as medically unfit. Still desperate to serve his country, he applies for a job as an analyst with the CIA, and is successful. He is immediately noticed for his talent, and completes training as the top student.

Whilst in Washington DC, he meets Lindsey, a free-spirited liberal woman who becomes his girlfriend. That on-off relationship and the difficulties his job places on it become a large part of the film too. But we are mainly shown some fascinating behind the scenes details of just how the ‘system’ works. In collusion with the British spymasters at GCHQ, the CIA begins to monitor email, webcam, and cellphone communication around the world, in any country they choose. Using the justification of the 9/11 attacks, laws and constitutional issues are overturned in favour of the dream of complete surveillance of everyone on the planet. Nothing is beyond their reach, and I mean NOTHING.

This is where the film scored highly for me, with its detailed look at just how vast that network became, with the technical aspects clearly explained for the viewer, though breathtaking in their scale. Despite the convoluted machinations of the agencies concerned, I never felt overwhelmed by tech-speak, or failed to understand exactly what Snowden was a part of. Use of flashbacks dealt with numerous back-stories in a clear and concise way, with on-screen graphics quickly grounding the viewer in time and place. With his work for the CIA beginning to trouble him, he resigns, but eventually starts work at the NSA, as a contractor. Once there, he finds that the scale of the interference in people’s lives is increasing exponentially, and he resolves to do something about it.

Breaking all the rules, and his oath of secrecy, he copies an enormous amount of top secret information onto an SD card, and flees to Hong Kong, where he contacts a film-maker, a TV journalist, and The Guardian newspaper. The secrets are eventually revealed, as we all remember, and every country in the world carries the story in great detail. Snowden tries to escape to political asylum in Ecuador, but when his passport is revoked by John Kerry, he is stranded in Moscow, where he still resides to this day. It was hoped that the arrival of Barack Obama as president would overturn much of the shady dealings of the intelligence agencies. But when he decided to let them continue ‘In the interests of security’, all of Snowden’s efforts came to nothing.

The film has an excellent cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as Snowden, and totally believable. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans impresses as one of the top CIA trainers, and Nicholas Cage plays against type as a world-weary code-breaker. Filmed mostly in Europe and Hong Kong, for obvious reasons, locations feel convincing, and despite a long running time, it had my attention from start to finish. This is an important film about a serious subject, and something we should all try to inform ourselves about.

And you won’t leave your laptop open after watching this, I assure you.

Just been watching…(94)

Anthropoid (2016)

In 1942, the Nazi SS ruler of Czechoslovakia, Reynard Heydrich, was killed in Prague, after an assassination by Czech soldiers who had been trained in Britain, and dropped back into the country by parachute. The outcome is a matter of historical record, so no spoilers apply here.

This is not the first film made about that event, (there have already been seven made) and I doubt it will be the last.

Heydrich had been in charge of the occupied country for some time, and his ruthless actions had earned him the name ‘The Butcher of Prague’. He had all but wiped out any resistance to German occupation by 1941, and the government in Britain was concerned that this potential ally would be removed from the equation. They came up with the plan to have him assassinated, hoping that the event, and the expected reprisals that followed, would turn the Czechs against Germany once and for all. They named the plan ‘Operation Anthropoid’, and dropped teams of soldiers close to Prague, with orders to contact the Resistance, and work out a plan to kill Heydrich.

This film is not only written and produced by Sean Ellis, but also filmed and directed by him too. So his mark is over the complete film, in every way. Added to that, the locations are completely authentic, not only shot in Prague, but also in the actual streets and corners where every incident actually took place. This gives the film an undeniably convincing feel, with period details complementing this too. That extends to the cast members, costume, and all the vehicles and street furniture.

The story plays out in real time on screen, with no need for flashbacks. (Or flash-forwards) Starting from the time the men parachute out of the plane, we follow them through tense encounters with collaborators, and fraught meetings with reluctant members of the Czech Resistance. They are aided and sheltered by sympathisers, two of whom provide some love interest for the leading male stars. Everyone looks and feels right, from the main protagonists, to the numerous German soldiers encountered throughout the film. The build up to the assassination is covered in satisfying detail, and the day of the event is incredibly tense, and handled with total realism.

Cast members include the ever reliable Cillian Murphy, and the solid Jamie Dornan. Toby Jones is as good as ever, as a weary resistance leader, and many of the other roles are wisely cast to be played by Czech actors. The German soldiers and Gestapo officers are suitably ruthless and brutal, and even crowd scenes and those in bars and cafes are well done, without the need to ‘over-stuff’ the screen. My one gripe might be that the Irish and British actors playing Czechs adopt a strange accent, but that was presumably necessary to fit in with the actors who had real ones. The Germans speak German, and where necessary, use a translator. That was a nice touch.

The film builds to the well-known climax as the team of agents are trapped inside a large church. And although I already knew what happened, it managed to keep the tension wound until those final moments. A good-looking, WW2-set film, that is much better than most of the other seven versions.

Just been watching…(91)

Don’t Breathe (2016)

***No spoilers***

This modern American crime thriller relies on some very old ideas for its story. But it brings them bang up to date, supplying some decent twists on the way.

Three young people are living unenviable lives, in the seedier side of Detroit. They dream of getting away from the grimy city, and making new lives in California. To fund the trip, they commit high-end burglaries, selling the things they steal to a local fence. They have a good edge over other burglars, as the father of one of the trio is a security company employee, with access to alarm codes and spare keys for the many properties managed by his organisation. So Alex takes the keys and codes, returning them to the office of his unsuspecting father after the robberies.

One day, the fence gives some information to Money, the tough member of the gang. He tells him about a war veteran, living in a house in a deserted district. It seems that he received a huge financial payout when his daughter was killed in a car accident, and has since lived a reclusive life. The three get together, and decide that this might just be the big job they need, to raise enough money to get to the west coast. Alex is reluctant at first, but he is in love with the female gang member, Rocky, so wants to impress her.

They go and scout out the house, discovering that the owner, Norman, is not only old, but also blind. Thinking he won’t give them too much trouble, they decide to come back in the middle of the night, and break in to find the cash he is supposed to be hoarding. He has a fierce Rottweiler guard dog, but they drug it with meat containing sleeping tablets. However, the house is like a fortress, and they have great difficulty getting in. Once inside, they have to search all over to try to find his hiding place for the cash, and we soon discover that although he may be blind, the rest of his senses are acute indeed.

They definitely chose the wrong house.

With no spoilers, it is a difficult film to review in detail. But it is enough to say that this war veteran is not about to give up his fortune easily, and the three friends find that they have seriously underestimated what they thought might be an easy burglary. What follows is an often nail-biting high tension film, with enough twists to keep me happy, and some genuine surprises, mixed in with familiar plot themes. Although much of the action is in darkness, it is never ‘too dark’ to enjoy what’s happening, something other film makers should take note of. The three burglars have very different personalities, and the young actors get that across very well throughout the film.

But the star is undeniably Norman, played to perfection by Stephen Lang, an actor who has made a good career mostly in villainous roles. Now in his 60s, he is ideally cast as the strong and determined veteran, who knows his own house so well, he can move around in total darkness with ease. He has very few lines, other than a lot of grunting and growling, but his screen presence is never less than imposing, and you can feel the fear of the young people as they try to escape his vengeance.

This is where the film scores, by changing the loyalties of the viewer seamlessly. We should be rooting for Norman. After all, he lost his daughter, and his home has been invaded by three burglars intent on stealing every penny he owns. But his relentless, almost robotic pursuit of the three inside his house makes him seem more like a blind Terminator. Like it or not, we start to fear for the safety of the burglars, instead of having sympathy for the victim of their crime. Then it switches back, then back again.

That’s clever, and I enjoyed the film more because of it.

DVD Wednesday: Hounds Of Love (2016)

I read a lot of rave reviews for this at the time, and asked for the DVD on my Christmas list. I had to take Ollie out early today, as the cooker repair man was coming after 12. So when he had inspected the oven, I settled down to watch this selection from the films that I received.

This is an Australian film, ‘based on real events’ in the city of Perth, in 1987.

The scene is set early on, when a teenage girl is offered a lift by a couple in their car. They seem innocent, and normal enough; just a housewife, Evie, and her husband, John. But we soon discover that their motives are anything but innocent, when we see the man burying the girl’s body in the forest, as his wife cleans up the evidence of what happened in a locked room in the house. And that all comes before the opening credits. Later, we focus on a girl, Vicky, who is unhappy at home. Her parents have split up, and her independent mother has gone off to live alone, leaving Vicky with her wealthy surgeon father. We see her with her boyfriend helping her cheat on her homework, then at the two nights a week she is supposed to stay with her mother.

But her mother refuses to let her leave the house to go to a party, so the girl slips out through the bedroom window, determined to walk to the party, or catch a cab from the main road some way off. Meanwhile, Evie and John are out searching for their next victim, and by coincidence, they happen to live very close to where Vicky’s mother has rented her house…
The couple stop and offer to sell drugs to the girl, and say they will give her a lift. The supposed drugs are at their house, and they just pop inside for a drink while John is getting the stash. But Vicky’s drink is drugged, and that evening becomes a nightmare for her. One that will last a few days.

There is a back story about Evie’s relationship with the weak and controlling John. She has lost the custody of her children by another man, and John provides for her, though he controls every aspect of her life at the same time. This involves her joining him in the abduction and sexual abuse of teenage girls. Girls who are eventually killed when the pair tire of them. From scenes between the couple, we are left in no doubt that they have done this many times before, in the same area.

Vicky’s mother goes to the police to report her missing child, but they are not really interested. They try to convince her that her daughter has just run away because she is unhappy, or perhaps left the area with a new boyfriend. Back at John’s house, Vicky is becoming aware just how strange the relationship is between the couple, and tries to get Evie on her side, to no avail. I cannot really say more without spoiling the plot, but the latter half of the film focuses on what happens to Vicky, and her attempts to get away from the serial killers.

This is a disturbing story, and the film doesn’t pull any punches. Although it stops short (just) of showing any actions that are too unsettling, it is emotionally draining to watch, and an incredibly tense experience, especially the second half. Superb performances from Emma Booth as Evie, and young Ashleigh Cummings as Vicky, leave the acting laurels firmly with the female actors. Add a nicely-balanced turn from Susie Porter as Vicky’s mum, and we have some great acting from female leads on offer.

First time film-maker Ben Young shows a few nice touches. A muted colour suits the mood of the film, and ultra-slow slow motion sequences are used to portray normal life going on in the neighbourhood surrounding the house where terrible things are happening. Period feel is convincing, and the soundtrack is used to good effect too.

So, not a feel-good film, by any means. But one that rewards the viewer with its serious treatment of a harrowing subject.

Just Been Watching…(89)

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

This critically-acclaimed film was one of the ‘must-sees’ of 2016. I got to it almost three years later, attracted by the presence of Casey Affleck in the lead role. I admired his work in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’, and ‘The Killer Inside Me’, so I was interested to watch him in this slow-burning family drama. He got the Best Actor Oscar for his role too, so I guessed he must have been doing something right.

New England, a working-class fishing community, and a loner who works as a janitor in Boston. Lee (Affleck) is an angry man, living a solitary life spent cleaning up and repairing things in the apartments he supervises for the landlord. He argues with the tenants, gets drunk in local bars, and his fuse is incredibly short. We quickly get the idea that this man cares little about other people, or his own behaviour. In flashback, we see his memories of life in the small fishing community. His wife and children, his brother and nephew, and his elderly parents. He was a loving father, but also a party person, showing his immaturity frequently.

As we follow Lee around his daily routine, and live out his recent past through the many flashbacks, there is an undeniable sense that something bad has happened, or is about to.
And it did, and there is.

One day at work, Lee gets a phone call to tell him that his brother is seriously ill, following a heart attack. He drops everything to rush to the hospital, but discovers his beloved brother has died before he got there. He drives to the local school, to break the news to his nephew, Patrick. Lee takes on the duties of arranging the undertaker, and looking after Patrick. Overnight, his life and circumstances change completely. But his grief is overwhelming, and he finds it difficult to relate to the teenager. We discover why he is so conflicted,during a dramatic flashback to events in his own recent past. I won’t disclose those, avoiding spoilers.

It is very much Affleck’s film. Despite excellent performances by the rest of the cast, even in the smallest role, Casey is rarely off screen, and his experiences, past and present, bind the whole story together. Although the film focuses on dealing with grief piled upon grief, it is never depressing. Some lighter moments lift the mood, and the flashbacks allow memories of happier times. Location filming and lots of natural lighting add authenticity, with nothing feeling glossy, or melodramatic. Affleck’s talent here is to put us into his place, to make us imagine how we would possibly ever cope with the tragedies that he has experienced. So, an intelligent film, one that makes you think.

And he deserved that Oscar.

Just been watching…(86)

Allied (2016)

***No spoilers***

Tucked up and keeping warm on the sofa today, I thought I might as well watch something I had recorded from a TV film channel. Starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, directed by Robert Zemeckis, I thought it might be worth watching. After all, it was set during WW2, and was about secret agents operating on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. When you are feeling poorly, you don’t really need an intellectual challenge, let’s face it.

Pitt plays Canadian pilot, Max. Being Canadian is important, as it means he can speak French. He is tasked by Special Operations to be parachuted into Casablanca, where he is to connect with the esteemed French female agent, Marianne. Together, they will pose as man and wife, whilst planning and executing a dangerous assassination. Don’t even bother to ask yourself for one second if they will have sex, and fall in love. You know they will. And the same applies to the all but impossible mission. Will they succeed? Of course they will. But none of that was a spoiler, as it all happens almost as soon as the film starts.

Max begs Marianne to follow him to London, and be his wife. True love indeed. And they manage to escape of course, despite those impossible odds, and being in a Vichy French country, occupied by lots of very caricature Nazis.

The film then starts doing something it does quite a lot. To cover up the huge holes in the plot, it uses captions. ‘Three Weeks Later’. Then ‘One Year Later’, and so on. Things like that are guaranteed to get my critical goat, and that goat was well and truly got.

Married, and with a darling baby daughter, they settle into an idyllic life in the desirable London suburb of Hampstead. Cue picnics on the Heath, drinks in the pub with friends, and the appearance of Max’s lesbian sister and her girlfriend. The latter inclusion is particularly pointless, as it only serves to be able to show us two women kissing affectionately for no reason whatsoever. Max has a desk job with the Air Force, and Marianne is the dutiful, and occasionally sexy, wife and mother.

Then one day, Max is summoned into headquarters, where he is interviewed by a very nasty man.

Oh, there’s a twist. Exactly halfway through the film, the theme changes into an ‘Is it or isn’t it?’ twisty-double-twist scenario. That could have been really good, if the twist hadn’t been quite so obvious. The next half of the film finds Max at odds with his superiors, and the dreamy life in Hampstead turned upside down. This was a great chance for the film to suddenly become interesting. There could have been some real tension, building to a ‘Wow!’ climax.

Sadly, they decided not to bother.

In a nutshell, Brad plays Brad. Marion’s talents are totally wasted, and everyone else plays like they are in an Amateur Dramatics Society in some remote English village. WW2 looks and feels like a ‘set’, and stereotypes abound. From strutting Germans, to cowardly or drunk Frenchmen, all the way through to the rebellious colonial Canadian, and the stiff-upper-lip pompous British officers he clashes with.

Oh dear. And it cost $113,000,000 to make too.
They could have treated one million people to a decent meal instead.

Think you might like it? here’s a trailer.