Tag Archives: thriller

Wild Tales

Wild Tales film posterSynopsis

A collection of stories – Pasternak, Rats, Road to Hell, Dynamite, The Bill, Till Death Do Us Part – about revenge.  Set in Argentina.


These stories are like a mixture of The Twilight Zone, and Bunuel with The Three Stooges.  The first story is appallingly topical after the Alpine plane crash, so its release is unfortunate.  Another story concerns the casual murder of a loathsome man.  Another is like Spielberg’s Duel, only this time the protagonists are snarling face to face.  The next starts with the buying of a birthday cake and ends up as a black comedy aimed at obstructive bureaucracy working a scam.  Then there is a story about a road death and how the rich and powerful can avoid the consequences of their misdeeds.  Another is about hilarious grounds for divorce, even before the couple dishes out the wedding cake.  There is a very jaded look at contemporary Argentina when corruption and violence are fixtures in the lives of the rich and powerful.  The stories cleverly dangle the plot twist which never really comes.  Each tale simply ends in cold vengeance, sometimes just malicious and sometimes just nobody is likeable, everyone has good reasons for bad behaviour.  The opening pictures of the film show animals and what we get is a menagerie of injured vanity, cowardice, greed, self loathing, jealousy, class hatred, and shame. The bars of the cage don’t so much rattle as clang from indignation at the sorry state of failed humanity.  It’s like torture porn scripted by Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus with a lot of Jacobean darkness.


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The Babadook

The Babadook film posterSynopsis

Starring Essie Davis who is a mental health nurse living with her son.  Her husband was killed in a car crash on the way to hospital where she gave birth.  Her sister tries to get her to be more sociable.  She reads the story of the Babadook to her son and it seems this storybook bogeyman takes on a life of its own and it scares them.


All good ghost stories explore the ambiguous shadows between the real and the illusory.  Spooks should be just as scary from the imagination as from an external agency.  The Babadook seems to be about the psychological disintegration of a grieving and stressed woman.  So we’re meant to think that the Babadook is only an illusion.  When she sees the bed shake and her son thrown about, is it just imagination?  The film wants the best of both worlds, the inner drama of encroaching madness and an old fashioned bogeyman doing his Halloween routine.  It’s quite promising at first.  The acting is well paced and the build up of menace is well heralded.  Mother and son live in a house that’s all black and grey, as if they’re trying to win an Adams Family contest.  It’s all bare wood, creaking doors, and creepy shadows, which shrewdly exploits retro 70’s horror.  It depicts the claustrophobia of psychic breakdown quite well, but then the script disintegrates alongside Essie’s mind .  We get the familiar cliches of horror films since The Exorcist:  The jittery furniture, bass growls, the screaming fit, cracking ceilings.  What a cop out!  It’s lost the same opportunity for imaginative originality as a lot of films that succumb to the inanities of special effects.  It could have had a subtler build up like in Stephen King’s Misery at the terror of helplessness.  The boy is a screeching irritant straight out of The Omen.  Mention of Stephen King prompts the thought that Babadook does for black and grey what The Shining does for red, except that it fails.

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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game film posterSynopsis

About the Bletchley Park code breakers of the German Enigma machine.  Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the master code breaker.  He is gay and had a relationship with a school mate Christopher after whom he calls his machine.  It’s about his fraught relationship with his superiors Denniston (Charles Dance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) of MI6, and with his colleagues Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode).  At one point Turing’s suspected of being a Soviet spy.  We jump in time from schooldays (1928) to Manchester (1951) when the police inspector (Rory Kinnear) visits Turing’s home after suspected gay relationships (then a criminal offence).  The inspector also hints at the Soviet spy angle. Turing has to accept medication in order to avoid prison, with tragic consequences.


We’ve had a few films about this subject.  I haven’t seen the others but this film tells us that Turing and his team, if they didn’t win the war against Nazism, they certainly shortened it and saved 14 million lives (how do we know this?).  The efforts of the code breaker Tommy Flowers go unacknowledged, as does the contribution of the Russian army and American resources in bring Nazism down.  Naturally we get fancy accents and everyone being very British and easily embarrassed, except for the licensed tantrums of Alan Turing. This film has its toenail curling Attenborough moments: the understated epiphanies where characters say “Gosh, we’ve defeated Hitler”, the set piece emotional outbursts before the big breakthrough, the awestruck reverence before genius at work.  This ties in with the ‘curse of Richard Curtis’, twee Britishness juxtaposed with momentous events, the loving attention given to an Arthur Mee conservative Britain, the clues of future greatness, the suppressed emotions in khaki and tweeds, and the ‘Ovaltine’ and ‘Hovis’ uniforms all the extras wear.  Like all these sorts of bio-pics about clever people, we have to work out the impact of their genius on their psychology (usually simplified to frustration and cathartic workouts). Ranges of emotion are compressed to lovable foibles. Like with Amadeus, genius opposed by resentful authority in the person of Denniston (Charles Dance) who tries to undermine the brainy upstart all the way.  Mark Strong is superb as Stewart Menzies of MI6 who is all suave sophistication against Turing’s unworldly autism.  Strong can hold a scene on his own, exuding authority with minimal effort.  Keira Knightly plays Joan Clarke battling the sexism that preceded our own supposedly sexist free era.  It’s no challenge for Cumberbatch to play the stroppy genius, but he is moving as a hunted and tortured Turing at the end. 

The code breaking machine itself looks like an oversized Gothic coffee machine  designed by H.G. Welles.  I thought of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk in a spoof scene, as he wondered why the yellow lights didn’t flash in time with the green lights and why can’t Scottie use his spanner?  We have the usual substitutes for showing us brain work: portentousness mixed with hokey sentiment as the camera moves in on the breakthrough moment.  The tragedy of Turing’s chemical castration is skirted round with a ‘Cluedo’ detective story in 1950’s Manchester.  Imitation Game does not break any moulds.



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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Night Moves

Night Moves film posterSynopsis

Joe (Jesse Eisenberg), Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are planning to blow up a dam as an act of eco-rebellion to save nature. *** SPOILER ALERT!: they do this deed but someone is killed further down the lake as a result.  They drift apart, conscience bothers them and there is a murder. ***


This is a terrifying film which shows the effect of conscience on the doers of a well meaning but lethally botched deed.  For me, this could be an excellent pilot film for a series showing how the effects of conscience corrode Joe’s mind.  It could be more gripping than The Fugitive in that the running, in this case, is from the ordeals of a bad conscience and the denouement could be the paranoid disintegration of a mind in an ordeal of signs of threat, or possible threat.  It explores the degeneration of misguided idealism into simple terrorism.  The recriminations amongst the perpetrators kill any initial moral certainty.  Reichardt made Meek’s Cut Off, another film about failed trust, and here Joe slowly and convincingly descends into murderous self protection.  The entire film seems to be shot in a gloomy dusk or dawn, as if daylight is almost unbearable for the conscience.  Harmon is self possessed and competent, and keeps his cool even when before the deed he is recognized by a waiter who is an ex-con.  Dena keeps her cool under the suspicious interrogations of the seller of fertilizer, knowing that this crucial circumstantial evidence of a purchase of the stuff used for explosives could damn them all.  As with any such tightly knit conspiracy, all outsiders are considered as innocent fools or potential enemies and this conspiratoralism already corrupts their relationships, as if trust gives way to the vigilante logic of group survival.  Dena’s feelings for Josh are mixed with her remorse and there are terrible consequences.  The conscience-stricken slow panic accentuates the suspicion about their motives in the first place.

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Posted by on November 15, 2014 in Film Reviews, Independent films


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Gone Girl

Gone Girl film posterSynopsis

Starring Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, a magazine writer married to Nick (Ben Affleck).  They’ve lost their New York jobs and have returned to Missouri.  Nick runs a bar with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon).  Amy is missing, Nick gives televised appeals for information about Amy.  There is growing suspicion that Nick murdered his wife.  We get flashbacks from Amy’s diary and it all starts to look like Nick might be guilty of her murder.  Has Amy framed Nick or is he guilty?  The rest would be a spoiler…


Based on Gillian Flynn’s best seller Gone Girl, this depicts a supposedly enviable marriage that could have been hell.  There is the usual list of reliables: the corny police officer (Kim Dickens as Rhonda Boney) who always seems in step with the suspect offering envy-deflecting nostrums, the strong family member offering loyalty, the neighbours swayed by witlessly opportunistic hysteria, the hard eyed police officer convinced of the suspect’s guilt, and then there’s the pained confusion of the parents. Amy was the star in her mother’s fantasy book.  Amy and her husband are writers, so are no strangers to image manipulation.  We wait for some irrevocable control loss to wipe away the icy patina of smug perfectionism (“so cute I could punch us in the face”), and it’s chic delusions of unearned liberal attitudes.  It’s a domestic scene waiting for comeuppance and unfortunately it’s quite misogynistic as well but to spell it out would be a spoiler.  Its middle class couple fail where the lovable “redneck” couple of Labor Day succeed.  Labor Day‘s couple are artlessly sentimental but Nick and Amy are all cold artiface, a bit like Revolutionary Road meets Rosemary’s Baby (without the pram and the devil).  Rosamund Pike is by turns a magnetic centre of attention and is then gaze-victimized.  The public’s prurience is a swivel-eyed vicariousness of sadistic cultivation.  Nick’s emotional performance before the cameras, fascinates as you try to look at him through through the neighbours’ eyes, trying to discern the fire boundary as the artiface of dissimulation is skilfully poised in a balancing act of  sincerity. The later plot plays out cleverly but there are implausible holes in it which its elegance cannot cover up.  Very watchable, but some critics think it’s misogynistic.


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Posted by on November 3, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man film posterSynopsis

Anton Corbijn’s film from a John Le Carre novel.   Sadly this is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final role.  Set in present day Hamburg, Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann pursuing jihadis.  He and his fellow operatives target a Chechen, Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who must contact a banker Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe) in order to deal with his account.  Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) wants to arrest Karpov but Bachmann urges patience because such can lead to bigger catches and he uses lawyer Rachel McAdams to infiltrate through her relationship with Karpov.  Karpov wants to give his account away to good causes but will he fund terrorism…?


Le Carre’s previous novels have dealt with the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and it felt as if Le Carre is happier with the familiar devil of Soviet Communism.  He seems less sure about Islamist terrorism and seems to reduce Islam itself to cloak and dagger intrigue.  When Rachel McAdams confronts Karpov with news of another car bomb massacre in Baghdad he merely replies that it’s the will of Allah, at least the Communist agents were given more sophisticated arguments.  The movie presents the familiarities of cold war drama: the spymaster looking shabby and worn out, the resort to whisky and cigarettes, the gloomy (sometimes brutalist) architecture (it’s set in Hamburg), the cynical banter, the theatrical target looking conveniently dishevelled and shifty, the recriminatory dialogue foregrounding affluent entitlement, the sudden violence.  Bachmann is the George Smiley figure from Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy but is given more energy than Smiley.  He appraises the worst in human behaviour through the deliberative calm sensuality of tobacco and whisky.  Willem Dafoe’s banker looks like any villainously overpaid banker we like to despise.  Karpov wants to deal with an Islamic businessman and this man’s son is asked to betray him.  Naturally, deceit and treachery run through this film.  Can Bachmann trust the American Martha Sullivan who got Bachmann to pay for US mistakes in Lebanon?  The enemy changes but moral complexity is just as entangling as ever and the film conveys that very well.  Bachmann and his team work among the concrete and glass warrens of Hamburg, the prevailing mood is suffused with the gloomy silence of a city which recently experienced the worst of humanity.

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Posted by on October 12, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Last Days on Mars

The Last Days on Mars film posterSynopsis

Based on a short story The Animators by Sydney J Bounds, Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, and Olivia Williams are scientists ready to finish six months working on the planet Mars.  The are taken over by a virus that turns them into unkillable zombies.  Will any of them get away and escape the virus?


The desert landscape in this film was shot in Jordan.  Its toffee and gold coloured mesas and endless desert is all truly dramatic.  I hoped for a decent film but it didn’t turn up.  Ok, so the story came out before the film Alien (1979), but surly cynical scientists ever ready to bitch at one another over bragging rights of rank and mission objective vision has become the de rigeur dramatic furniture of this kind of movie.  The two big nineties movies about Mars focussed on the humanity of the scientists and were more fun.  Olivia Williams’ character was so truculent as to be a parody.  Liev Schreiber predictably is the strong guy trying to hold things together amongst the carping prima donnas.  At the beginning the enemy is one’s own mind but then they have to combat the real foe, a virus turning them into zombies.  Do me a favour, Zombies??!!  Is that the best we can come up with in a story about pioneering on another world?  Surely it’s a cop out, as a film simply repeats Alien and John Carpenter’s The Think (1981) set in Antarctica.  Come to think of it, the rides in the desert Transa reminds me of Hilary and Fuch’s Transantartic expedition of 1958 in their snow-cat crafts and I wish the film had trusted the audience’s capacity for imaginative patience in following the desolate isolation of it all.  The acting became surprisingly good considering the dross in the script, and I did eventually care a little about Liev Schreiber and Romola Garai.  The final scene, where there is an escape into space, simply reprises Alien.  A missed opportunity.

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Posted by on June 27, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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