Calvary (2014)

2016 #91
John Michael McDonagh | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Ireland & UK / English | 15 / R

From the director of In Bruges’ older brother (who, in fairness, made a name for himself with 2011 comedy The Guard, which I’ve still not got round to) comes this dark (very dark) comedy drama — with emphasis on the latter, I suppose, but it is very funny along the way.

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard) stars as Father James, a priest in a small Irish town. One day at confession he’s told he is going to be murdered. Not for anything he did wrong, but precisely the opposite — because he is a good priest. The mysterious threatener gives him a week to get his affairs in order. Over the next seven days, we follow James as he interacts with his characterful parishioners, and are led to ponder which of them might be the would-be assassin, especially as so many seem cynical and nasty. All the while, James struggles internally with what is the right thing to do.

That’s the story of Calvary, at any rate, but it’s fairly clear that it’s about something more. What exactly that is, however, is a matter of debate. Could it be an apologia for the church and the wrongs it has inflicted in living memory? It certainly leans into those issues: without spoiling anything, the inciting incident is related to historic abuse, but the film is showing that priests aren’t all like that — that some people in the church are actually good, or at least as good as any of the rest of us — which I should imagine is true. That doesn’t make the film an apology, nor an excuse, but does raise a point: should the innocent be blamed for the wrongdoings of the guilty just because they share a belief? I think most rational people would agree they should not. Nonetheless, I’ve read at least one commenter, who I’m presuming was a hardened atheist, castigate the film for daring to feature a good priest, as if the very concept of one existing was a heinous and offensive suggestion. Conversely, in the special features Chris O’Dowd speaks of his initial wariness that this was going to be another “bad priest” movie, and how that doesn’t align with his personal experience of the clergy.

So could it, instead, merely be a snapshot of Irish society, in particular its current relationship with the church? Surely that’s part of what’s in play, with the cynical, dismissive, teasing, sometimes hateful attitudes of the parishioners surely no coincidence. Some viewers have certainly taken this as the film’s primary talking point, and some have been less than impressed that it doesn’t align with their view of modern Ireland. (I’m in no position to comment.) Neither of these feel like they’re getting at the totality of what it’s saying, though.

Nonetheless, the way the film presents itself is not at fault. The acting is strong across the board, none more so than Gleeson. He brings all kinds of facets to a man who could’ve been a blank page on which to project the other colourful characters, and he truthfully conveys major character moments and changes of direction without the need for dialogue. O’Dowd surprises in a rare non-comedic role, while further able support comes from recognisable faces like Kelly Reilly (as James’ troubled daughter), Dylan Moran (as a nouveau riche dick) , Marie-Josée Croze (as a bereaved holidaymaker), M. Emmet Walsh (as an ageing author), and — for just one scene, but a good one — Domhnall Gleeson (you can discover what he is when you watch it). And no offence to Aidan Gillen, but his smarmy atheist doctor feels like the kind of part he always plays.

That’s not to exclude the less familiar names, some of whom deliver many of the biggest laughs, like Killian Scott (as a slightly worrying simpleton), David Wilmot (as James’ naïve fellow clergyman), and Owen Sharpe (as a Brooklyn-accented promiscuous gay) — though if you watch Ripper Street, you may have seen a couple of them in quite different guises. And though it may be a cliché, McDonagh has successfully made the location a character, too: the towering mountain, an accidental discovery once on location, adds the looming presence the director hoped it would.

Calvary may in fact be a great film, if only I could put my finger on what I think it’s really trying to get at, which remains frustratingly out of my reach, at least for now. However, I will say it’s a very good one, and anyone who likes a character-driven drama scattered with dark but hilarious humour would do well to seek it out.

4 out of 5

Calvary is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK as of yesterday.

Song of the Sea (2014)

2015 #94
Tomm Moore | 94 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg & France / English | PG / PG

Song of the SeaThe second feature from director Tomm Moore and his pan-European team of animators (after the excellent, Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells) sees ten-year-old Ben (voiced by Moone Boy’s David Rawle) growing up in a lighthouse off the coast of Ireland, with just his dad (Brendan Gleeson), his dog and best friend Cú, and his mute little sister Saoirse, after their mother disappeared on the night Saoirse was born. When Saoirse discovers a coat that turns her into a seal (as you do — this doesn’t come as out-of-the-blue in the film as I’ve made it here) and she washes up on the beach, their visiting grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) insists she takes the kids to Dublin for a better life. Less than impressed at having to desert his father, his home, and most especially his dog, Ben escapes and, with Saoirse in tow, sets off to find his way home. However, it soon becomes apparent that Saoirse’s new-found transformative skills are of greater importance, and the survival of the entirety of Irish folkloric creatures depends on her getting home in time. Unfortunately, the witch Macha and her owl minions have other ideas…

There are quite a few different elements in the mix with Song of the Sea, as you can probably tell from that overlong plot description. On the surface, it’s an adventure story, as Ben and Saoirse — soon joined by Cú, too — trek across Ireland encountering various creatures and obstacles. It’s also a fantasy, thanks to said creatures, reconfiguring folk legends into a modern context where they exist on the periphery of the world, visible if only people would look. That’s one subtext. Other prominent ones include issues of grief and family: Ben has a realistically fractious sibling relationship with his sister, Happy families?but the motivator for that is clearly resentment towards her for appearing the night his beloved mother left. Their father, too, is hamstrung by his grief, struggling to move on from his wife’s disappearance and fully engage with the world. His kids are his only connection, Saoirse in particular, but his mother makes him realise that clinging to them is damaging their lives too… or is it?

This depth of emotion and, if you like, thematic consideration probably marks Song of the Sea out over The Secret of Kells in some respects. Certainly, there seems to be a broad understanding that this is the better film, if only by a half-step; a more mature, complex work. I’ll be the dissenting voice, though, because while I did like Song of the Sea, I didn’t think it was as strong an overall experience as Kells. The problem perhaps lies in its episodic structure, which pings us from encounter to encounter. They’re connected but also self-contained, and at times it feels like there’s another one before we can get to the climax. For me, a bit of added speed would have helped things: kicking into gear faster (the first act goes on a little too long), trimming back each episode; overall, managing to speed the film up by maybe ten minutes would be to its benefit.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. There’s nothing specific that needs to be lost, no one scene that drags, just a sense that things could get a wriggle on. Perhaps in this respect the film would better reward repeated viewings? The realistic, thoughtful depiction of the main characters; the well-imagined, history-dense world; the weighty themes that are handled with a gentle touch — Raised by owlsall are factors that can, and do, elevate the film. Don’t get me wrong: this is a cut above your average animated adventure. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as The Secret of Kells.

Talking of thematic depth, however, this interview with Moore from The Telegraph is a must-read. To pull a particular highlight:

Moore wanted to stay true to the melancholic selkie myths. In the end, a series of test-screenings with his primary schoolteacher wife’s class helped him find the sweet spot.

“Those kids are way more intelligent than adult audiences,” he explains. The notes that older viewers gave him, he says, all tried to pinpoint flaws in the film’s dream logic: “They thought they could outwit the story, rather than go along with it.”

Moore’s young test audience, on the other hand, was more concerned with the relationships, and as a result of their feedback – they thought an exchange in which Ben tells his sister he hates her overstepped the mark, for instance – he dialled certain scenes down a bit. That’s a preteen audience asking for more subtlety.

Lesson: we train viewers to be less-intelligent film-viewing adults with dumbed-down kids’ movies. Anyway:

Storybook styleFor more positives, Song of the Sea’s animation and design is at least as strong as it was in Moore’s previous film. There’s the ‘house style’ flattened, animated storybook look; a description which could sound like criticism but absolutely is not. Some very beautiful scenes are evoked, meaning that at the very least there’s always imagery to tide you over. I’d list some favourites, but we’d be talking about most of the film. That said, the depiction of a run-down, smoggy Dublin stands out as something different from the countryside idylls of Kells and the rest of the locales in Song of the Sea, but it’s not exactly “beautiful”. Rather, look to the island home of our heroes, a tall rock surrounded by the blue sea; the home of the glowing-eyed long-haired Seanachai (the moment when it suddenly turns around in the montage after Saoirse uses her coat for the first time is my favourite shot in the film, a little sliver of fantasy imagery that magnificently teases what’s to come); or the small sanctuary surrounded by a field of stinging nettles — again, a kind of gentle, on-the-edge-of-the-real-world fantasy that quite appeals to me. The fact the countryside is littered with half-hidden stone figures, which we know to be frozen magical begins, is another nice touch; especially as they’re often surrounded by human litter, the analogy (as I see it) being both that people exist around them but don’t even see them, and also that, presumably through our modern disbelief, we’ve thrown these legends out with our trash.

Selkie Saoirse in the SeaEven as I write, I’m talking myself round to liking Song of the Sea even more than I did on first viewing — and that was quite a lot, albeit coloured by my perception that I didn’t like it as much as The Secret of Kells. If you enjoyed Moore’s earlier film, this unquestionably merits seeking out (if you haven’t already, of course; I mean, I did). If you haven’t seen Kells, well, you’ve so far missed a treat; and now you’re missing two.

4 out of 5

Song of the Sea is in UK cinemas from today.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

2015 #9
Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

4 out of 5

A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…

* For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

aka Live. Die. Repeat.

2014 #102
Doug Liman | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Edge of TomorrowOf late there seems to have been a glut of sci-fi films with highly generic, near-meaningless titles — Oblivion, Elysium, Source Code, even Gravity, and so on. The latest of these is Edge of Tomorrow, based on the novel All You Need is Kill (you can see why they wanted a change), which the distributor had so little confidence in that even during its theatrical ad campaign they tried to sell it as simply Edge, and for the home ent release have mounted a semi-successful campaign to rebrand it as Live. Die. Repeat. — ironically, the most memorable and appropriate title of the lot.

Tom Cruise’s second sci-fi action film about alien invasion and a form of repetition in as many years (after 2013’s Oblivion, which I watched earlier this year), this one sees him cast as a coward in a multi-national defence force set up to combat an alien menace that has conquered mainland Europe. Following a hard-won victory against the aliens at Verdun, the force are planning a D-Day-style mass attack, and Cruise gets co-opted into fighting on the frontline against his will. During the assault, something happens that causes the day to ‘reboot’, and Cruise finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Groundhog Day with shoot-the-aliens bits.

It’s easy to be cynical about Edge of Tomorrow — it’s a mega-budgeted Tom Cruise actioner that sounds like a semi-rip-off of several other movies and was perceived as a flop (it wasn’t, at all) that no one knew how to sell. In fact, it’s a very entertaining movie — Cowardly Cruisesuitably exciting, surprisingly funny, and actually quite clever. It’s also boldly standalone. OK, so it’s an adaptation, but the book is hardly a Hunger Games-style huge literary hit. Producing the film surely isn’t an attempt to turn a print success into a cinematic one, nor is it trying to launch a new franchise — indeed, it’d have to really jump through hoops to even attempt a sequel. No, this is that quite-rare thing now: an original, one-off, blockbuster.

That key ‘original’ element, the repetition (‘original’ in quotes because, yes, it’s from Groundhog Day), is used to good effect, playing variations on things we know but also keeping others secret so as to afford surprises later on. Then, just when you’re beginning to think, “oh God, here we go again”, it moves the story along — after all, just because a day’s repeating doesn’t mean you have to keep going to the same places during it. This leads to the filmmakers sort of playing a clever game with the viewers: just because we’re seeing something happen for the first time doesn’t mean the characters are. Neat.

Are there logic holes? Undoubtedly — it’s a time travel movie. How fundamental are they? Depending on your level of sensitivity, you’ll be bothered by somewhere between “hardly any” and “none” during the film itself. It’s made as blockbuster entertainment, and it works as such. Hello.Reflect too heavily and some bits may begin to crumble more but, for me, not too severely.

The weakest part, sadly, is the climax. It’s alright in itself, but (as Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes cover so eloquently), it doesn’t feel quite right. (Vague spoilers follow.) Abandoning your movie’s defining high concept in order to up the stakes for the finale is a cop-out. Instead, it needs a new twist on the concept that also ups the stakes. That’s harder to come up with, which is probably why they haven’t bothered, but what we do get reduces a clever and borderline-innovative movie to a rote race-against-time overwhelming-odds shoot-out.

As for the post-climax ending, which some have complained isn’t dark or gritty enough… Were those people watching the same movie as me? “Dark and gritty” has its place, and there’s certainly a few ‘nasty’ bits earlier in the film, but the overall level of action and humour is more mass-market. That’s not a criticism, just an observation — this is not actually a dark-and-gritty movie that demands a dark-and-gritty ending. The final scenes fit tonally with the rest of the film. I liked that.

Edge of... a fieldEdge of Tomorrow isn’t an unqualified success, but more than enough of it works to make for a well-above-average modern blockbuster. Excellent action sequences, plenty of amusing asides, and a couple of solid sci-fi concepts to chew on combine to render it quality entertainment. Bonus points for being a true original in a sea of remakes, sequels and spin-offs.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

The Secret of Kells (2009)

2014 #47
Tomm Moore | 79 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | France, Belgium & Ireland / English | PG

The Secret of KellsYou can lament the quality of Oscar voters’ choices all you want, but if it wasn’t for their 2010 Best Animated Feature nominations I’m not sure many would have heard of this Celtic gem.

Based on the true story of the creation of the Book of Kells, albeit with a fantastical spin involving forest spirits, the film’s most striking element is its animation style: clean and modern, but inspired by the famed illustrations in the original illuminated manuscript. The result is endlessly beautiful.

In storytelling terms, the tone has more in common with the lyricism of Studio Ghibli-like anime than Disney’s Broadway musicals or most other Pixar-wannabe Western animation. Anyone worried about it being too gentle will enjoy the Sturm und Drang of some marauding vikings.

With a magical story and gorgeous animation, we should all thank Oscar for bringing this to our attention.

5 out of 5