Review: Imperium

Going under cover

Going under cover

 

Directed by Daniel Ragussius

Certificate 15

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Chris Sullivan

Release 23rd September 2016

 

It takes a brave director to pick a subject like white supremacy for a debut feature.  So respect to Daniel Ragussius, the director and writer of Imperium.  And he may have had some extra luck with the film’s release dates, given some of the controversies surrounding the US presidential race and the much-discussed shift in attitudes in this country post-Brexit.  The film looks like it has its finger on the pulse.  Which makes it all the more disappointing that the end result is so routine.

Disappointed when a previous mission goes wrong, idealistic FBI operative Nate Thomas (Daniel Radcliffe) is easily persuaded by senior agent Zamporo (Toni Collette) to infiltrate a group of white supremacists.  They’re suspected of building a dirty bomb and Nate’s target is their vocal leader, Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts), who is hard to get close to. But that’s not his only challenge: preserving his own personality and beliefs proves increasingly difficult as he gets deeper inside the neo-Nazi underworld.  And there’s the ever-present threat of being discovered …….

We’ve been here before, of course – Green Room, American History X.  And going under cover in such company is a big ask for any agent.  For somebody who’s ever so slightly damp behind the ears, completely aware that he’s no experience in the field and isn’t built for it, it’s terrifying.  Which gives the Ragussius more to play with than usual, putting the most unlikely of infiltrators right into the middle of the hornet’s nest.  Much has been made of Radcliffe’s appearance for the film, a radical departure from his usual image, and we see him shaving his head in readiness.  It’s another instance of him choosing roles that both stretch him as an actor and move him further away from the part he’s still most associated with.

Nate’s lack of physical presence is continually emphasised by the hulks around him, especially Blackwell (Chris Sullivan), all braces, boots, bald head and bushy beard.  One of the others observes that he’s “pretty mature for a skinhead” and, indeed, he is.  But somehow he manages to convince them he’s for real.  Not that he isn’t tested, but an invaluable knack for quick thinking means he can talk himself out of sticky situations and make the supremacists look stupid into the bargain.  But family man Gerry (Sam Trammell) is a completely different proposition, a quietly spoken professional with the mandatory wife and two children.  Not at all the usual image of a white supremacist.

There are chinks in Nate’s armour, of course.  His name, for one.  Only Blackwell ever addresses him by his full name of Nathan and, given the groups’ Nazi tendencies, it doesn’t dawn on anybody that it’s Jewish.  Strange when you think that he’s taken to task for wearing Levi jeans.  There are times when it looks like he’s going to be unmasked – Blackwell’s cat and mouse questioning gets uncomfortably close – so we’re being prepared for something sweatily tense.  But it doesn’t deliver.  Somewhere along the line, the script participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, because the suspense simply isn’t there.  It’s not the fault of Radcliffe or, indeed, any of the cast, who do what they can with what they’re given.  It’s all to do with the direction and the script, which gives us something that should be taut and ends up being flabby.  You feel uncomfortable at the attitudes and language on display, but that’s all.

Radcliffe, although not on top form, is credible in the role, but Toni Collette, who is a terrific actress, isn’t given much of a chance to be other than hard-arsed and gum chewing.  There’s richer pickings among the supporting characters: Chris Sullivan as the intimidating Blackwell and Tracy Letts as the man with all the plausible sounding words but whose face betrays nothing but hate.  Most impressive of all is Trammell as Gerry, the personification of the banality of evil.  Given that he’s the most educated of all the supremacists, the question as to how and why he swallowed their doctrine is a mystery – and stays that way.

Imperium promises much in terms of suspense, but delivers very little on that front.  The overall feeling you get at the end is decidedly flat.

 

Verdict:         2.5

 

 Imperium is released in cinemas today and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22 September.

 

Review: The Lovers And The Despot

Kidnapped by a fan .....

Kidnapped by a fan …..

 

Directed by Ross Adam, Robert Cannan

Certificate PG

Starring Choi Eun-hee, Shin Sang-ok

Release 23rd September 2016

 

I know it’s a cliché, but you seriously couldn’t make up a story like this one – how the de facto ruler of North Korea kidnapped the South’s top director and number one actress so they could make films for him instead.

And that’s what The Lovers And The Despot boils down to. In more detail, film director Shin Sang-ok and popular actress Choi Eun-hee became South Korea’s golden couple when they married in the 50s, but it all fell apart when she discovered his affair with another actress.  Divorced and now in Hong Kong in the mid 70s, Choi was abducted by North Korean agents and taken to meet Kim Jong-Il, son of the dictator at the time but in reality running the country.  Some months later, Shin was also kidnapped, taken to North Korea and spent five years in prison.  Eventually re-united by their movie-mad benefactor, the couple managed to gain his trust and made 17 films together over two years, before they managed to escape.  Their extraordinary story was first revealed to the world in 1986.

It’s so bizarre that if a fictionalised version was made into a film, it would be panned for being too far-fetched.  But directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan have done their homework and, most fascinating of all, use Shin’s own series of cassette tapes as a whispered narrative to the film.  Even more remarkably, they include some of his conversations with Kim Jong-Il himself, a man who never spoke to his own people so nobody knew what he sounded like.  Not even the CIA.

While it uses many documentary conventions – talking heads, including Choi herself (Shin died some years ago), photographs and newsreel footage, it doesn’t set out to be a conventional documentary.  Instead, it creates more of a political thriller, with a touch of film noir, and conjures up an atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion that wouldn’t be out of place in a Le Carre novel.

Not that the secretive North Korea would relish being in the spotlight in this way, but the film certainly gives us an insight into the country itself and its de facto leader at the time, ending with an even more sinister shot of current ruler, Kim Jong-Un.  You can’t help but wonder what he would think of this film – and whether its makers will go through the same experience as Sony when they released The Invitation.  OK, that was about the present dictator, this is about his dad.  Same difference.

Kim Jong-Il was fixated on movies, with screening rooms in every single one of his homes.  He eventually financed the making of a film called Seoul’s Protest, made in 2000, long after he’d lost the two shining stars he’d wanted to use for propaganda purposes.  The film was his response to the success of Titanic and, inevitably, involved a massive exploding ship which sinks – and lots of people going down with it in dramatic style.  It was never released outside of North Korea and, from what little we see of it in the documentary, it looks pretty basic stuff.

Choi Eun-hee, who celebrates her 90th birthday this year, is still remarkably glamorous and makes a beguiling, emotional narrator.  She also delivers the most telling line of all.  “There’s acting for films.  Then there’s acting for life.”  She saw a great deal of the latter while in North Korea and we see some of it as well.  The irony is that the dictator kidnapped the pair to improve his country’s image, especially in the movie business.  The film shines a spotlight on both that and his effect on his country as a whole.  And in that cold, hard light, neither make flattering viewing.

 

Rating:          3

 

The Lovers And The Despot is released today and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22 September.

 

Review: The Girl With All The Gifts

Pandora

Pandora

 

Directed by Colm McCarthy

Certificate 15

Starring Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Sennia Nanua

Released on 23rd September 2016

 

The Hunger Games are over, Divergent will probably move to TV and The Maze Runner series is on hold.  The end of the recent glut of YA movies is nigh.  Where does that leave their many fans?  Especially the ones who are now a few years older.  Step forward The Girl With All The Gifts.

It’s in that all-too-familiar post dystopian setting, this time the remains of London after a virus has turned just about everybody into zombies.  In a military facility, a group of children are held under strict supervision, strapped into wheelchairs for their lessons and confined to cells at all other times.  They have the virus as well, but don’t display all the outward symptoms.  So scientist Caldwell (Glenn Close) is using them to develop a vaccine.  When hoards of zombies attack the unit, she manages to escape along with the children’s teacher, a couple of soldiers and one of the children.  They all set off to find safety, but the zombies are in pursuit and start picking them off, one by one.

I’ll admit I’m a bit of a novice when it comes to zombie movies – but then I’m not into horror either and the two go hand in hand.  So here I am, broadening my knowledge again.  And the opening sequences of the film really grab your attention, with the regimented lines of children in their wheelchairs and terracotta suits: not quite orange, but you get the analogy.  You, on the other hand, are trying to figure out what’s going on because the youngsters appear completely normal: Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is especially likeable and clearly very intelligent. So why the cells, the armed guards and the confinement?

Once that mystery is solved and the endless swarms of zombies have made their first appearance, it loses that intrigue and turns into more of a chase movie.  And not an especially scary one.  There’s plenty of blood and gore, either when the zombies – or hungries, as they’re called – satisfy their appetites or when they’re shot through the head.  But there are times when it’s hard to stifle a giggle at their guttural noises.  Zombies aren’t really meant to be taken seriously, are they? While there’s not much in the way of sustained suspense, there are some jump-out-of-your-seat moments, as well moments of tension, especially when Melanie leads her humans through crowds of sleeping hungries.  The slightest sound or sniff of living flesh could wake them up … It really is like watching Divergent with zombies.

The abandoned London setting will jangle a loud bell.  It’s done convincingly, with the city taken over by nature, full of empty buildings and ransacked branches of Next, Waterstones and Lidl, as well an overgrown BT Tower.  And the catastrophe must have happened a few years ago, as there’s no sign of The Cheese Grater obscuring The Gherkin.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, made 14 years ago, explored a similar landscape and now it’s the turn of Peaky Blinders director, Colm McCarthy, to bring the idea back to the big screen.

What makes The Girl With All The Gifts stand apart from all the other post-dystopian movies is that it has some intelligence behind it, as well as a strong emotional core in Melanie.  You engage with her from the outset, and she sustains your sympathy throughout her journey and her fight for survival – and, yes, even when she gets hungry.  She also has a fascination for Greek myths and legends, hence the title which refers to Pandora and her famous box.  And Melanie is a proper Pandora, with her intelligence and resourcefulness, as well as her condition.  It’s an impressive debut from Sennia Nanua and she more than holds her own against the more famliar names of Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine.

If there can be such a thing, this is more of a thinking person’s zombie movie.  Although you probably don’t have to think as hard as the film clearly believes.

 

Verdict:         3.5

 

The Girl With All The Gifts is released today and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22 September.

 

Talking Pictures: Gemma Arterton Brings All The Gifts

gemmaartertongirlwithgiftsinterview

 

The latest edition of Talking Pictures, your essential guide to the movies, is packed with goodies.  Zombie adventure The Girl With All The Gifts is in the spotlight and one of its stars, Gemma Arterton, takes up the Big Interview hot seat to talk about the movie.

Other new releases include the much-praised family drama, Little Men, as well as Daniel Radcliffe going undercover in Imperium and documentary, The Lovers And The Despot.  On DVD, there’s the 25th anniversary release of The Commitments, as well as Tom Hanks in Saudi Arabia in A Hologram For The King and the latest from director Jeremy Saulnier, horror/thriller Green Room.

Plus there’s the new top five at the British box office and the latest movie news headlines.  Squeezed into exactly 20 minutes, it’s on iTunes, TuneIn and right here:

 

 

Review: Little Men

Moving on?

Moving on?

 

Directed by Ira Sachs

Certificate PG

Starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Barbieri, Theo Taplitz

Released on 23rd September 2016

 

When you’re a child, you don’t always get to choose your own friends.  Adults have a  nasty habit of getting in the way, especially if they happen to fall out.  All of a sudden, you’re not allowed to play at your friend’s house, or even speak to them.  It hardly seems fair, but it’s usually means the friendship’s over.

The one at the centre of Ira Sach’s Little Men is a new one.  Teenagers Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) are pushed together when Jake’s grandfather dies and the boy’s dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear), inherits a large apartment and the shop underneath, which is rented by Tony’s Mum, Leonore (Pauline Garcia).  The two boys get on like a house on fire, but when Brian starts putting his late father’s affairs in order, he realises that the rent for the shop is far too low, especially for what is an up-and-coming area.  Leonore can’t afford to pay more and, despite the boys fighting against it, their friendship starts to unravel.

If you saw Sach’s previous film, Love Is Strange, you’ll know he’s back on familiar territory. Geographically, in New York, mainly The Bronx which is being gentrified, but also emotionally. His previous film was about a gay couple in a long term relationship who married and then had to sell their flat when one of them lost his job.  Here, it’s a new friendship but, once again, one of them stands to lose his home and the two are separated.  What brought them together has forced them apart.

An undercurrent about gentrification runs through the story, with Jake’s parents representing the change coming to the area.  They would never see themselves in that way, but Leonore certainly does and it’s a change that she’s powerless to stop.  The forlorn little shop she struggles to keep going pales into insignificance against the sparkling new stores on the main street. Her resentment, and the income gap between the two families, means they have different values.  More precisely, the parents do.  The boys have similar aspirations, wanting to go to a school of performing arts, and they don’t see the barriers that are all too obvious to the adults.

Primarily, Little Men is about sticking together in the face of adversity, even if that adversity isn’t immediately apparent.  In Love Is Strange, the enemy was social attitudes.  And it’s the same here, except this time they’re more to do with wealth and status.  It’s also about pain, exemplified by Kinnear’s Brian exemplifies, who looks totally drained by his grief at the death of his father.  The last thing he needs is an argument with Leonore, who was also a close friend of his father’s: he’d happily let her stay at the same rent, but he and his family need the money and so does his sister, who is the more business minded of the two.  He’s cornered and looks like he just wants to curl up into a ball and let it all happen around him.

Neither of the boys have brothers or sisters, but it’s Jake who’s the more typical only child.  He’s quiet, happy in his own company reading and drawing and doesn’t have many friends, so his father is pleased when he buddies up with the more extrovert Tony. He’s more comfortable in his own skin, starting to get interested in girls and generally more gregarious.  And both Taplitz and Barbieri are tremendous, which is saying something in a year where we’ve seen a lot of promising young talent on the screen.  How many of them will actually develop into big names is impossible to tell, but these two have to be in with a more than reasonable chance.

A small and delicately drawn film, Little Men is full of acute observations and subtlety.  Neither the script nor the cast ever over-cook things, leaving you to absorb and digest the film afterwards.  And it’s something of a slow burner, lingering in your mind afterwards with moments coming to the fore as you start to piece it all together.  The story itself may be small, but it’s anything but for the people involved.  Also released on VOD this week, it works equally well on the small screen or in the cinema.  Its sensitivity and compassion for all the characters mean it’s a small film that makes a big impact.

 

Verdict:         4

 

Little Men is released in cinemas on Friday, 23 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22 September.

 

 

DVD Review: The Commitments

Jimmy "The Lips"

Jimmy “The Lips”

 

Directed by Alan Parker

Certificate 15

Starring Robert Arkins, Andrew Strong, Johnny Murphy, Colm Meaney

Released on 19th September 2016

 

It’s an anniversary worth celebrating.  When it arrived back in 1991, The Commitments brought something new to music films. An edginess, something that pushed the proverbial boundaries, and with an irresistible exuberance and raw energy.

And Alan Parker’s story of “the world’s hardest working band” – aka a rag tag soul group from Dublin’s less affluent North Side – didn’t only go down well with cinema-goers.  The critics loved it as well, especially in this country, so much so that it won four BAFTAs, including Best Film.

For those who’ve not seen it, or need their memories refreshing, it’s based on Roddy Doyle’s book of the same name, about how would-be manager Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) pulls together a motley crew of a band.  It’s made up mainly of his friends, apart from bus conductor Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong) who he hears singing at a wedding reception and trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy) who arrives on his moped, full of religious quotations and tales of working with the soul greats.  On the thinnest of shoestrings, they play several gigs, and they’re on the up, but Jimmy’s being chased for money and cracks between the members of the band are starting to show.

Doyle worked on the script as well, alongside the legendary double act of Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais.  They were legends even in the 90s.  The result is rammed with great one verbal and visual one-liners.  The North Side of Dublin is chaotic, with kids vandalising derelict buildings and generally running riot.  Painted in large letters on a wall is the phrase “Caution.  Children At Play.”  Take it how you will.  The dialogue is just as sharp, overflowing with retorts and curses.  And there are times when 20/20 hindsight makes you feel you’re watching a forerunner of Father Ted.  A distant relative of Mrs Doyle is there, scraping away the melted candle wax in the church.  An elderly man, nodding off at the wedding reception is abruptly woken up by a child – and his reaction could come straight out of the mouth of Father Jack.  And when it looks like the band are going to get proper management, the record label involved is Eejit Records.  With Parker, no less, in a cameo as a sound engineer.

It doesn’t completely throw convention out of the window.  There’s all those unsuitable applicants knocking on Jimmy’s door, an idea repeated this year in Sing Street.  But what you remember most is that raw energy, not just when the band are singing but also in the performances of the young and, at the time, totally unknown cast.  Andrew Strong’s voice stands the test of time: in truth, his singing is better than his acting and his character is another convention, the beautiful voice belonging to somebody ugly.  There’s familiar faces as well.  Colm Meaney as Jimmy’s Dad, a devoted Elvis fan.  And Johnny Murphy’s memorable Joey “The Lips” who simultaneously galvanises the band and sows the seeds of its destruction.  Are all his stories true?  We and Jimmy doubt it.  Then it seems they might be.  As he rides his moped into the rainy night, we never really know for sure.

While viewing it in hindsight exposes the film’s reliance on conventions, it also demonstrates that time hasn’t dulled its energy.  The reputation of The Commitments lives on, both as a film and now also as a stage show.  If you’ve never seen it before, then you should.  You’ll be swept along by the gags and music.  And if you remember it from the 90s, then just get all nostalgic and enjoy it all over again.

 

Verdict:         4

 

The 25th anniversary edition of The Commitments DVD is out now and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22nd September.

 

Talking Pictures: Bridget Jones’s Baby Arrives!

bridgetjonesbabyinterviewzellweger

 

Prepare for plenty of laughs on the new edition of Talking Pictures, courtesy of the latest new releases.  Bridget Jones’s Baby arrives right on time and two of its stars, Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth, share The Big Interview hot seat to talk about the film.  And all the way from New Zealand comes deadpan comedy Hunt For The Wilderpeople, which is a little gem.

On DVD, Embrace Of The Serpent comes from South America and takes two explorers on fascinating trips down the Amazon basin, while Summertime is a French love story set in the 1970s.  Plus there’s the new top five at the British box office and the latest movie news headlines from the Venice and Toronto film festivals.

Your essential guide to the movies is squeezed into under 20 minutes and is on iTunes, TuneIn and right here: