Film Review: Journey’s End (2017)

Journey’s End is a stage play written by R.C. Sherrif, and first performed in 1928, ten years after the period in which it was set. An anti-war play, it focuses on a few days around the German offensive in the Spring of 1918, during WW1.

It was first filmed in 1930, starring Colin Clive, but I have never seen that version. However, it was also filmed for television by the BBC in 1988, starring Jeremy Northam in the lead as Captain Stanhope. That remained the definitive version for me, with a superb cast sticking to the spirit of the original play. In this version, some of the action sequences were shown on film, something the play avoided due to theatrical constraints.

Most of what makes the play effective is the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in dugouts and trenches, viewed from the perspective of the officers, and their cooks and servants. The 1988 version deviated from this slightly, but remained powerful and compelling to watch.

So now we have the new version, with Samuel Clafin as Stanhope, Asa Butterfield as the young and impressionable Raleigh, and Paul Bettany excellent as the older experienced lieutenant known to all as ‘Uncle’. Add Toby Jones as the cook, and Stephen Graham as Lieutenant Trotter, and the casting is about as good as it gets these days.

The stresses and strains of trench warfare are all there. Men reaching breaking point, officers living on whisky to get through each day, and senior commanders issuing seemingly pointless orders from comfortable accommodation behind the lines. Social class is maintained in the mud and deprivation, and we have the added complication that Stanhope is the boyfriend of Raleigh’s sister back home, so idolised by the new arrival.

Tension builds as the expected German attack comes ever closer, exacerbated by last-minute orders to attack a German trench to capture a prisoner. We have a cowardly officer unwilling to play his part, and other stiff-upper lip officers pretending all is well, in order to maintain the morale of the men.

As a film, it is beautifully photographed in widescreen; with muted colours suiting the mood, and dingy scenes in the candlelit dugouts nicely done too. It never feels less than completely authentic, not for one moment. If you had never heard of the play, or seen the earlier BBC film, you would no doubt have thought it was a wonderfully moving production. Paul Bettany is quietly outstanding as ‘Uncle’, and young Butterfield looks as if he is actually living in 1918, with his wide-eyed enthusiasm concealing inner fears.

But I have seen the BBC film, and Jeremey Northam is magnificent as Stanhope in that. Tim Spall wipes the floor with Stephen Graham in the role of Trotter, and Edward Petherbridge is even better than Bettany as ‘Uncle’. So my advice is to try to watch the 1988 version. If you can access it, here it is on You Tube. It is not a great print, unfortunately.

But if for some reason you can’t watch this, the new film is still very good indeed.
Here’s a trailer.

A Film For Halloween: Pyewacket (2017)

***No spoilers***

With TV channels full of Halloween horror films, I have been recording some of those I have never seen before.

This Canadian film didn’t reach my radar three years ago, so I sat down to watch it yesterday afternoon. One benefit was that I didn’t recognise anyone in the relatively small cast, and had few expectations of it. A Pyewacket is a familiar spirit, mentioned as long ago as the 17th century. It was also the name of Kim Novak’s cat in the enjoyable film ‘Bell, Book, and Candle’ (1958).

Leah is a grungy teenager who hangs around with three friends at her high school. She has a crush on one of the boys, and they all have a great interest in the occult. Her father has died, and her mother is unable to cope following his death. She is still managing to go to work, but drinking heavily, and finding it hard to deal with the usual teenage issues of her daughter. She makes the decision to move away into the countryside, to a lonely house hidden away in some woods.

Leah is furious, angry that she will not be seeing her friends any longer, and having to adjust to a new life in a strange place. As a compromise, her mother agrees to drive her to school and back for the rest of that term, but says she has to change schools after the holidays. Following a heated argument, Leah wishes her mother was dead, and uses one of her occult books to find a spell to conjure up the Pyewacket.

As you might expect, things go badly wrong once she has been in the woods performing the ritual.

This film feels more like a coming-of-age teenage drama, than a horror film. It takes a very long time to build any suspense or scares, but when they come, they are handled deftly, though not that scary at all. The meat of the film is about the fluctuating relationship between mother and daughter following the unexpected death of the husband and father. But the atmosphere following the casting of the spell is very well handled, with the threat of an unseen menace always apparent.

The ending is unexpected, and very well done, though it failed to scare me sufficiently for me to class this as a real horror film. I still think it is worth watching, for the sound performances, and the very good cinematography.

Film Review: Disobedience (2017)

I am usually attracted to any film starring Rachel Weisz. Not only is she very nice to look at, she can act too. The second thing that appealed to me about this film is its North London setting, in the Jewish Orthodox area that I know quite well from my life in London.

Weisz plays Ronit, the daughter of a much-loved Rabbi. She has left England, and is working as a successful photographer in New York, when she recieves the message that her father has died suddenly. A return to the rather drab semi-surburban streets of her youth soon reveals the reason why she left.

She had a lesbian relationship with one of her best friends, Etsi. (Rachel McAdams) Caught ‘in flagrante’ by her deeply religious father, she left suddenly, and under a cloud of suspicion. She has not been back since, but felt drawn to attend her father’s funeral celebrations. She goes to visit another old friend, Dovid, (Alessandro Nivola) and he insists that she stay there with him and his wife. Shocked to discover that he is married to her old lover, Etsi, tensions begin between the three of them, and the strict religious community that surrounds them.

I am not religious, but know something of the Orthodox Jewish faith, and its restrictions on women. There is almost no association with others outside that faith, and traditions are upheld with little allowance for the free spirit of the returned Ronit.

As Etsi and Ronit rediscover their past relationship whilst Davod is preparing to take over as the new rabbi, things build to a satisfying climax that doesn’t settle for the ending you might expect.

Weisz is as excellent as always, and ably served by the two co-stars, as well as a teriffic supporting cast. Locations are completely authentic, as are the sets, and the feel of the script. Despite sex scenes between husband and wife, and the two female lovers, it never feels salacious or gratuitious. The sense of claustrophobia in an almost closed community is ever-apparent, and the spark of rebellion that Ronit brings back from America feels set to ignite a powder keg inside it.

A serious adult drama, and highly recommended.

Just Been Watching…(125)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (2017)

***No Spoilers***

I didn’t rush to see this film, despite the widespread critical acclaim, and the fact that it won a bucketful of awards, including Oscars. The reason was simple enough. I don’t really like Frances McDormand. Her long-time association with the films of the Coen Brothers (she is married to one of them) has left her with a lot of fans, but also an attitude about herself that I find uncomfortable. That said, when she is not over-acting, she can be excellent.

The film finally came to the television, so I thought I would watch it for free. It wasn’t directed by the Coens, so I hoped that fact would rein her in a bit.

For anyone who doesn’t know the story, Mildred’s (McDormand) daughter was raped and killed in the small town of Ebbing, and she thinks that the local police department is not doing enough to try to find the killer. In her frustration, she pays to hire three large billboards on the nearby country road, with a sign on each criticising the police and asking why nobody had been arrested for the crime. Repercussions follow immediately, as one of the local deputies, Dixon, becomes enraged at her and the owner of the billboards. Her son Robbie feels uncomfortable at High School when his mum is thought by everyone to just be a bitter crazy woman, and even Mildred’s ex-husband becomes involved, trying to make her give up on the billboards.

With no spoilers, I cannot really say much more about the story.

The casting is perfect, with an exceptional turn from Sam Rockwell as the deranged Dixon, and a nuanced performance from Woody Harrelson as the Chief of Police. McDormand still feels ‘familiar’ as the determined Mildred, but has enough vulnerability at times that we see the conflict and guilt inside her. Locations and sets feel completely authentic, and it has been a while since ‘small town’ America was shown so convincingly in a mainstream film.

My conclusion is that the film deserved all its praise, and more.
It is excellent.

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Beast (2017)

This British psychological thriller was received to much critical acclaim three years ago. I got the DVD for Christmas, and just got around to watching it yesterday.

Starring the wonderful Jessie Buckley, one of the brightest new stars of acting talent in this country, it is set and filmed on location in Jersey, in the Channel Isalnds. Unlike many films set in touristic areas, it avoids the cliches, and looks at the real life and everyday existence of the people who live there.

Buckley plays Moll, a twenty-something living at home with well-off parents and a mother who treats her like a servant. She has to help look after her father, who has dementia, and also works part time as a tour guide on the coach trips around the island. Very soon, we discover she has issues, including something that happened while she was at school. Then at the celebration of her birthday, her special day is stolen away by her sister’s announcement that she is expecting twins. So Moll leaves her own party, and heads out to a nightclub to get drunk.

Meanwhile, the community is in shock, after a series of rapes and murders of young women. One of the detectives investigating the crimes is very fond of Moll, but she doesn’t return his feelings. She spends the night in the club with a young man she meets there, and when they stroll on the beach early next mornng, he tries to have sex with her. As she is struggling, she is rescued by a wild-looking stranger with a rifle, who takes her home to her family. He tells her his name is Pascal

She soon starts a relationship with Pascal, much to the annoyance of her family, who look down on the scruffy man who earns his living from odd jobs, and poaching. She is also warned off by the police detective, who confides in her that he is a suspect in the recent crimes. But Moll is madly in love with the unusual Pacal, and becomes obsessed with him, eventually moving into his house.

However, he doesn’t want the same things in life that she aspires to, and despite the mutual attraction, Moll is unsure what to do. As well as that, she is beginning to wonder whether or not he could have been involved in the crimes, and wants to know the truth. In the process, she reveals her own dark secret, and stops lying to protect Pascal’s alibi.

With Buckley on her best form, a convincing portrayal of Pascal from Johhny Flynn, and a solid turn from the reliable Geraldine James as Moll’s mother, this delivers all it promises, building to a satisfying climax on a deserted country road.

Here’s a trailer.

Just Been Watching… (118)

The Beguiled (2017)

***No Spoliers***

Just got around to watching this, which I had saved on my PVR. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is a remake of the original 1971 film by Don Siegel, that starred Clint Eastwood.

Adapted from a novel of the same name, it is set during the US Civil War, in 1864. In war-torn Virginia, only a few girls remain at an academy for young ladies. Still being taught, and working the land to survive, they hope to see out the war safely, by staying in seclusion. Then one day, the youngest girl is searching for mushrooms in the woods, and comes across a wounded Union soldier. Despite him being an enemy, she takes pity on him, and helps him back to the school.

His arrival among the girls and two older women teachers causes a stir. At first they think to hand him over to Confederate patrols, but the novelty of having a man in the old plantation house makes the owner change her mind. She tends his wounds instead, and allows him to stay locked in a room until he has recovered enough to become a prisoner of war. The mixed ages of the women and girls means we see a range of emotions toward the man. From the repressed sexuality of the older lonely women, the curiousity of the pubescent younger girls, and the youngest one who looks upon him as an older brother.

The scene is set for a dangerous mix of passions to explode in the closed atmosphere of the school.

Director Sophia Coppola offers us a muted colour palette, a real sense of the summer heat in Virginia, and glances and nuances that betray the desire of the females, and their Union prisoner too. The casting is first-rate, with Colin Farrell as the Irishman who no longer wants to fight, seeing an easy life is possible by staying shut away with the women and girls. The owner of the school is played by Nicole Kidman with her usual flair, and the excellent Kirsten Dunst shines as the sexually-repressed woman who lusts after contact with the handsome man. The other girls in the cast capture the mood of the 19th century very well, and as each one encounters the man during his stay, they manage to perfectly convey their change in attitude to him.

As he grows stronger, and is able to mix with them, the soldier begins to take advantage of his unusual situation, and things build to a satisfying climax. All of this is packed into a suitably short running time that never stretches to boredom, or uses ‘fillers’. It sounds good, doesn’t it? And it is.

But, there’s a big BUT.

The whole thing is pretty much a scene by scene remake of the original 1971 film. In that one, Eastwood plays the soldier as a more sleazy and opportunistic character, and we always know his intentions. The women in that first film are less attractive too, explaining to some extent why they so easily succumb to his charms. Siegel gives us a more lurid film, as suits the story, and the sense of overwhelming repressed desire is better handled too.

In short, the remake was completely unnecessary. (They usually are) And the original, in my opinion, is a more satisfying film.

Many others don’t agree with me, I know. That’s up to them.

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Wind River (2017)

***No spoilers***

This is a modern American murder mystery with a difference. That difference is that it is set in and around a Native American Reservation, and also stars some Native American actors alongside the two white leads. Better than nothing, as far as I am concerned. More importantly, it highlights the appalling fact that so many Native American women and girls get killed or go missing every year, yet that does not even feature in national statistics provided by the government. Okay, political bit over, on to the film.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory, a hunter and tracker employed by the US Wildlife Service. His regular job is to find and kill the predators like wolves and mountain lions that take livestock from the local farmers. He is divorced from his Native American wife, after an event in their past that shattered their relationship. But he has visits with their young son, and likes to show him how to get on with horses, and learn the ways of the outdoors.

On one of his hunting trips, he comes across the body of a young Native American girl, and he knows her, and her family. He brings in the Tribal Police, but they have limited resources, so contact the FBI. Along comes just one agent, (Elizabeth Olsen) out of her depth in the rural setting, and different culture. She doesn’t even have a coat to wear, in freezing temperatures, and heavy snow. But she is a tough cookie despite all that, as we should have guessed. Discovering that Cory knows the area like the back of his hand, she enlists his help to investigate the murder.

The Wyoming scenery is as much the star of this film as any of the actors. It is breathtaking and majestic, even though that makes life hard for those who live there. There is not much work, little by way of entertainment, and the young men of the tribe are disaffected and drifting into crime. Oil companies have been granted leases on the Federal Land, and protect their investment using armed security guards.

The rest of the film is a straightforward quest to find the killer of the girl. Along the way we get to meet the local chief of the Tribal Police, (the familiar face of Graham Greene) the devastated parents of the dead girl, and some criminal elements living in squalor. There are a couple of exciting shoot-outs, and more wonderful scenery, accessed by the ubiquitous snowmobiles that offer the only practical solution to travel off-road. Central performances are solid and reliable, and the film-maker avoids some of the usual tropes in films of this genre.

The Native American characters are shown in a fair and sympathetic light, and the issues surrounding their past and present treatment by the US government are addressed with a nice light touch that works well. All in all, a good-looking murder drama that I found myself liking a lot more that I thought I would.

Here’s a trailer.

Just Been Watching… (116)

Ghost In the Shell (2017)

Many years ago, (1995) I watched the Japanese animated film of the same title.
To be completely honest, I don’t recall much about it.

Fast forward to 2017, and they made a live action version, which I have just got around to watching.

I should mention from the start that this film stars Scarlett Johansson, which is enough in itself. (For me)
It also stars Takeshi Kitano, speaking in Japanese. That is also sufficient to make me watch it.
Hang on, here’s the wonderful French actress, Juliet Binoche and she’s playing it straight.

What more can I possibly need?

Hold your horses! Here’s Scarlett in a CGI body suit which is basically her, but naked. Phew!

This is a great film, and it’s only 10 minutes in!

The setting is a futuristic version of Japan. It might be about 2090, and definitely at a time when I am dead. Think the visuals of ‘Blade Runner’, plus ‘Metropolis’, and you get the idea. Companies are producing robotic androids, and other companies are making better versions by implanting human brains into synthetic ‘shells’. Hence the title. Some of those are assassins, others are trying to stop the assassinations.

I’m not sure why, and I could care even less. Scarlett looks so amazing, I could watch her read the phone book. Especially when she is CGI-naked! Takeshi Kitano is such a legend, he only has to turn up. As for Binoche, I forgot about her after twenty minutes. Sorry, Juliet! There are some other people in it that I couldn’t care less about, and I confess I occasionally fast-forwarded the PVR until Scarlett was back on screen.

Is it a crap film? No idea. Is it a good film? I don’t have a clue, but I doubt it. Was it a good story? Who cares? Did I like the ending? I don’t remember.

Is Scarlett in it? Oh yes, and that’s more than enough for me.

Sorry, film fans, I let you down this time. Blame Scarlett, for looking so delectable.

Here’s a trailer. (Scarlett’s in it)

Just Been Watching…(115)

Alien Covenant (2017)

***No spoilers***

I loved the original ‘Alien’ (1979). Then along came ‘Aliens’, seven years later. Still good, more action, but in my opinion it wasn’t as breathtakingly original at the first film. Well it couldn’t be, I know that. We had already seen the ‘monster’.

‘Alien 3’ (1992), and ‘Alien Resurrection’ (1997) looked to be in danger of milking the franchise, proving that you can have too much of a good thing.
(They even mixed things up, with ‘Alien versus Predator’, in 2004)

Then along came ‘Prometheus’, in 2012. This had more story, less terror, and some interesting ideas. The critics panned it, and the fans didn’t much like it either.

But I LOVED it.

When they made a sequel to ‘Prometheus five years later, I was sniffy about it.
I didn’t go to see it, and thought they had started that ‘milking’ all over again.

This week it was on TV, and I thought ‘Why not? It won’t cost me anything’.

In the film, the huge spaceship ‘Covenant’ is on a mission to take settlers to a distant planet that will support human life. There are thousands of them in ‘hyper-sleep’ for the seven year journey, and the ship is being controlled by ‘Mother’, an artificial intelligence. Helped by ‘Walter, an android life form that stays awake to undertake routine duties. They are on a one-way trip to establish a new colony, far from Earth.

A radio signal disrupts the ship’s systems, and the crew have to wake up, and deal with it. They discover it is emanating from an unknown planet, much closer than their destination. A planet that can support human life. The inexperienced Captain decides to investigate, and thing begin to go very wrong once the landing team arrives.

This is very much a sequel to ‘Prometheus’, featuring answers to things that happened at the end of the previous film. Yet it also stands alone, if you haven’t seen that film. It’s an ‘Alien’ film, so you can expect to see the familiar acid-blooded monsters that always turn up. You also get to see a lot more about those very large ‘humanoids’ from ‘Prometheus’ too.

With no spoilers, that’s about it. Some people die, some live, and there are lots of ‘WTF?’ moments involving the terrifying Alien monsters. If you have seen any of the films, you more or less know what to expect, with not that much of a twist this time. And no Sigourney Weaver, either. Michael Fassbender does well, playing identical androids. One is evil, the other kind. He acts with enough nuance that we always know which one we are watching.

If you liked ‘Prometheus’, (or was that just me?) you might want to know what happened next.

I did, and I really enjoyed this sequel too.

Here’s a trailer.

Just Been Watching…(105)

Gerald’s Game (2017)
***No spoilers***

This is a Netflix Original film. I believe it is only available on Netflix.

After reading some good reviews, I decided to watch this supposedly ‘psychological thriller’. After all, it is based on a Stephen King novel, and I did recognise the male star, Bruce Greenwood, though I have never read the book.

Unusually, I am almost unable to review this film, without adding spoilers. Because of the deliberately twisted subject matter, and convoluted plot, any discussion of what goes on would ruin the film for anyone wishing to see it. So instead I will give an overview, and you can decide if this might be your kind of film.

With their marriage in trouble, affluent couple Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Greenwood) go away for a weekend in an isolated country house, hoping to get close again, and to spice up their failing relationship. Gerald has a plan to play some sex games, and the first involves handcuffing his wife to the bed. (The ‘Game’ of the title)

Needless to say, this all goes badly wrong, leaving the hapless Jessie trapped on the bed. The rest of the film involves watching her try to escape, whilst she is dealing with past fears and memories, actual manifestations of a scary man, as well as the presence of her thoughts taking physical form. It sounds more confusing than it is, and the action is easy to follow.

This film has some rather uncomfortable moments involving child abuse, and could well trigger viewers who have their own issues about similar things. There is also some moderate ‘body-horror’, but any potential confusion is nicely handled by a series of understandable flashbacks.

But it is not a nice film to watch. The subject matter is hardly entertainment, and I didn’t feel any sympathy or empathy for either of the main characters, in a very small cast. The script is unnecessarily ‘smart’ but not as smart as it thinks it is. A large section of the action is filmed in almost total darkness, and was almost impossible to see on my flat-screen TV. And more importantly, it wasn’t remotely scary. If you are going to call a film a ‘Psychological thriller’, or a ‘Chilling horror’, then at least it should deliver some shocks or scares.

All I got was a growing feeling of distaste, as it tried to make out it had something to say about child abuse and recovery. Maybe the book was better?

The ending is a complete cop-out too, with the tired use of a narration, a letter being written and read out, and a contrived finale.
Oh, and there’s a dog. But it doesn’t get hurt, so don’t worry about that.

My verdict? Don’t bother. Those reviewers who loved this must have been watching something else, I reckon.