Review: ‘The Pacific’ (Episodes 1 & 2)

So here it is, finally, after three long years in the making and a reported $230million budget, the latest extraordinary HBO mini-series, the most expensive drama ever, has at last landed.  The Pacific, if you haven’t been made aware of the enormous hype, is an epic ten-part war drama focussing on US Marines in the Pacific theatre of operations in World War II.

A companion piece, rather than a sequel, to 2001’s outstanding Band of Brothers which followed a company of soldiers fighting in Europe, The Pacific has been brought about from the same creative team – Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are executive producing – and both series had their impetus from the success of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  That film, in particular its hugely acclaimed and brutally realistic opening act depicting the Normandy landings, set the gold standard for war movies and remains one of the most influential cinematic depictions of war ever made.  That’s a pretty hefty track record to have as a precedent.

As if that was not enough pressure on the producers, The Pacific’s subject matter is somewhat more complex.  With neither the historical account of Stephen Ambrose’s book that Band of Brothers was based on, nor the straightforward, loosely-based-on-real-events original script of Saving Private Ryan, here we instead find three very different Marines’ memoirs carefully etched together as the basis for a cohesive narrative.  It’s nothing if not problematic for the writers who have adapted these real life accounts to have three quite separate central characters interweaving in a ten hour story. 

The setting is also perhaps not immediately auspicious as most war films or series.  Aside from Michael Bay’s fairly awful Pearl Harbor, and Clint Eastwood’s superb Flags of Our Fathers double release in 2006, it’s difficult to think of many memorable films set in the Pacific war.  As a setting it’s been given short shrift by Hollywood which tends to favour the European war – after all, Hitler is the ultimate bad guy.  Consequently, the war against the Empire of Japan is not as conspicuous in most people’s minds when they think of the Second World War, sometimes being called the ‘forgotten theatre’ of the war. With all this in mind, could messrs Spielberg and Hanks create something that audiences would take to with the acclaim and admiration they gave its predecessors?

If there was ever any doubt of this nature, there needn’t have been.  The Pacific is seriously good. After being lucky enough to attend a preview screening of the first two episodes I feel that ‘mini-series’ is something of a misnomer. This is as epic a series as there ever was, in every conceivable sense – in scale, in vision, in ambitious narratives, in uncompromisingly realistic portrayals of battle and in attempting to once again dissect and understand and horror of war.

As has been noted, this is not Band of Brothers 2, so those expecting a carbon copy might be disappointed at first.  The first episode is not devoted to training camp, as Brothers did so memorably with David Schwimmer playing the reviled Capt. Sobel.  Instead, we dive right into the action, opening in December 1941, shortly after the fateful Pearl Harbor bombings and America’s subsequent entry into the war.  This does have the initial effect of being tricky to relate to the principal characters – we don’t quite join them from the moment their journey begins. The characters here are somewhat disparate; we lose the team element that Easy Company had in Band of Brothers. Coupled with the occasional problem viewers have of distinguishing soldiers on screen when they are helmeted in uniform and covered in dirt, a potential risk arises of losing the affinity between character and audience.  

But these are minor concerns.  By the end of the second episode I already found myself emotionally attached to three leads.  The standout character so far seems to be Robert Leckie (played with thought and attention by James Badge Dale) on whose memoir the series is partly based.  Nicknamed the Professor for his unusual eloquence and penchant for poetry, he makes for a robust and fascinating principle. 

Jon Seda as the heroic John Basilone is also a first-rate lead character and an inspired choice.  In episode two, he essentially defends successfully and single-handedly against an entire Japanese division, willingly receives third-degree burns on a red-hot machine gun in order to lift it to a better position, and mid-battle, clears the enormous pile of bodies deep in enemy territory in order to get a better view for the gunners.  His role is all the more powerful as it is very deliberately based on the real life Basilone, who earned a Medal of Honor for his actions (the highest medal given in the US military).

There’s some fine acting on show, from a cast of relative unknowns, who all went through two weeks of ‘full immersion field training’ from Vietnam veteran Capt. Dale Dye (who played the legendary General Sink in Band of Brothers).  It shows on screen, too – the camaraderie, the military banter, adds to the sheer believability of it all.  At the end of episode one, the soldiers sing ‘Happy Birthday To You’ to you to a marine, followed by the additional verse ‘How Fucked Are You Now’.

The gallows humour never last long, though. One scene sees Private Conley being mocked good-naturedly by his friends as he desperately attempts to fight dysentry and relieve himself behind a tree; his efforts are cut short by a devastating aerial attack from the Japanese.  Later, Conley reflects soberly that if a woman in a Japanese factory put just thirty grams more explosive in one of the bombs, “that would be us”.

When we do see battle onscreen, it is full-on shock and awe.  The first two episodes are set in the Solomon Islands, on the tiny island of Guadacanal, which is mostly jungle; this naturally evokes the horrors of Vietnam, the dangers of the unknown.  The sense of impending doom when a Colonel is told “the entire fucking Japanese army is heading your way sir” is chilling.  We’ve had plenty of directors tell us ‘war is hell’ before, but this feels like anything but a retread.  It’s both visceral and awful, exciting and terrifying.

And the attention to detail and devotion to accuracy is extraordinary.  The sight of thousands of Allied soldiers landing on the beaches of Guadalcanal, or the distant fighting between the battleships is breathtaking and heart-stopping, helped presumably in no small part by some pretty flawless CGI.  It’s astonishingly well-shot, entirely in HD, not for a minute lapsing, arguably more impressive and more harrowing than Saving Private Ryan.  Realism is the watchword here, and everything looks so real as to be utterly immersive.  The anticipation, excitement, claustrophobia and ultimate anti-climax and tragedy of war portrayed is totally absorbing.  It left me speechless.

At the close of episode two, when Leckie and his friends are finally relieved of combat after a year and drink coffee for the first time in months, the ship’s young cook informs them: “you guys are heroes back home”.  In any other movie or series such a line would seem cheesy, sentimental, crass even.  In The Pacific it is not only excusable, it is entirely appropriate, and by the same token incredibly moving.  In just two short hours I already felt a strong bond with these characters and at this moment found myself welling up.  This is powerful, overwhelming, defiantly cinematic television.

And yet, after just two episodes, it’s clear that the best is yet to come.  The series is spanning a long period, nearly four years, so there is a huge amount to cover, and a wealth of character exploration to come.  The first two episodes only lightly touched on Eugene Sledge, a young man with a heart murmur whose father refused him permission to go to war.  The end of the second hour showed Sledge defying his parents and enlisting; since it is his memoir that the series is also based, we can expect to see a lot more from him.

The Pacific is a series, like Band of Brothers, that people will watch and cherish for years to come.  I look forward to buying the boxset and having a weekend episode marathon with friends.  It is surely a classic in the making.  It has begun airing in the US on HBO already, and in the UK begins on Sky Movies HD on Monday 5th April.  I urge you to watch it and, like me, find your petty modern problems pale in significance to the unique experiences of the soldiers portrayed.  You will not regret it.


This review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com.

Interview: Jocelin Donahue, ‘The House of the Devil’

The House of the Devil, released on DVD here in the UK on March 29th, is cracking horror film from writer/director/editor Ti West, a wonderfully realised tribute the the glory days of late seventies and early eighties horror, and, as Roger Ebert puts it, a lesson in “Hitchcockian suspense”. As I said in my review:

“This is a love letter to the genre from West, a celebration of what makes it good and a valiant effort to bring successful storytelling techniques of days gone by back into the modern fold. Avoiding the overtly ironic kitsch of Tarantino’s weaker moments, The House… is a straightforward, no-nonsense homage from a clearly dedicated fan…. This is a film for connoisseurs. Horror fans rejoice – there’s life in the old dog yet.”

At its core is Jocelin Donahue, following in a long tradition of scream queens as innocent babysitter Sam who unwittingly finds herself caught up in house of satanists. Donahue gives an impressive lead performance, no mean feat when she is pretty much alone on screen for the vast majority of the film. Still a newcomer, she does a terrific job carrying the film and keeps the audience entranced in such a carefully paced and slow burning horror.
I had the opportunity to speak to her on the experience, and despite being 8am on her side of the pond, she was bright, friendly, and forthcoming in her answers. I was surprised to learn that for a horror star, she is not a fan of violence or blood…
Hi Jocelin, thanks for talking to us today. Can I start by saying I loved the film, and I was genuinely spooked by it, which is not something I can say about all horror films these days.
Thank you.
Are you much of a horror fan? Have you seen much of the golden era of horror?
Well, in preparing for this role I did. I have to admit that before that, I kind of avoided horror films, or what I thought of as horror films – these movies from the nineties and noughties, where horror got kind of self-referential and even the characters knew who was going to die first, I wasn’t really interested in. But then Ti [West, director] really put me through the wringer – this is one of the perks of the job, to research all these classic films. I watched all of Polanski’s early stuff, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Changeling, all these European-style classic horror movies. So that was really great, and it really changed my idea of what the genre is.
So what was Ti West like to work with as a director? He’s something of a horror geek isn’t he?
(laughs) Well, I think film nerds probably make the best writer-directors, and he definitely is. He’s so, so detail orientated and so specific. He had the script for a while so he really knew what he wanted from it and even in our first meetings we were talking about the atmosphere and the mood, and those were as important as the character and the plot in this film. He’s very sincere, a really great filmmaker.
How was the shoot then? Was the house an actual house or a set?
Yeah, it was a real house, probably built around 1900 or something, in the woods in the northwest corner of Connecticut, which is pretty wild because I actually grew up in Connecticut, so it has some familiar feeling for me. And it was cool – the atmosphere was great, Ti really put together a good crew of young, creative, really hardworking people. For me, as well, being my first lead role, it was a really supportive environment.
Well, that leads me onto my next question – you’re in more or less every scene. Did you feel any pressure, were you nervous at all at the prospect of essentially carrying the film?
You know, before I got the film, I was. It took a while for Ti…we really spent a lot of time getting to know each other first and of course he really had to trust me because the whole film is essentially just one character. So leading up to it and preparing for it, I felt that. But then once I was on set, it was great and I really eased into it and didn’t have the crazy nerves or pressure that I thought I was going to get because I really related to the character, and everyone was really supportive, so it was cool.
How was it working alongside Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, who play the satanists Mr and Mrs Ulman? They’re kind of legends in the cult movie world.
Yeah, exactly! It was interesting. I probably met Tom the day that we started shooting together, which made the onscreen relationship even more awkward and creepy. I think he knows his reputation, so he likes to play with people a little bit. But they’re both just super sweet and really interesting people. Off-screen it was fun just chatting with them and stuff. When were in scenes, they were definitely on… They definitely made me feel I was in a creepy house with weird satanists.
Did it get claustrophobic? Were you ever actually scared at any point?
You know, the night of the satanic rituals was pretty freaky. Up until then it was really just quiet naturalism where you’re just a fly-on-the-wall, and all of a sudden it turns really psychedelic and weird. That’s what makes it all the more effective – spend time with the character first and then when all the violent horrific stuff happens, it’s all the more scary. So that night was pretty freaky. I had a hard time spending time with people on set afterwards…I kind of had to be by myself! (laughs)
I can quite understand that! What was it like for you to actually watch the film? I imagine it’s quite a different experience on set to the final product with the editing and music added in to the mix.
Yeah, for sure. And since I’m on screen so much while we were shooting I really didn’t see anything. I didn’t see what it would look like. So that was the biggest pleasure for me, to finally see the cinematography…the score was just so amazing, and the sound design – it’s just so atmospheric. That really just adds all these brilliant layers onto this little performance that I tried to give, because, you know, I was trying to underplay it, she’s such a normal character. So I have to tell you, the first time I saw it was at Tribeca Film Festival with an entire audience, including my family and friends, that was nerve-wracking! But it turned out to be a really cool experience.
Have you had a good reaction from the fans? It seems to have been pretty well received from the horror community.
Definitely, and I know how lucky that is, when you do an independent horror movie, you don’t really know if the critics will like it, or if the community will like it. We had a perfect storm, where it was something that the fans were looking for, because it was this throwback to the classic paradigms of horror storytelling. And as for the critics, it seems like something that people liked to write about because it’s also about the trajectory of horror film – something that makes you look at what’s made today and what was different about it back then. It’s been really interesting to watch the reaction, and of course now I have my Google Alerts set up and I can watch in real time what people are saying.
You touched on this earlier, but how do you feel about the current slate of horror films? The “Saw” franchise, for example, is really worlds apart from “The House of the Devil”.
Well…I just…don’t watch them. I can’t watch them. I’m actually squeamish about violence and blood and gore, so those aren’t the films that I particularly like. That’s why I was drawn to this movie, because it’s about the characters and the story first, and the violence and the satanism second. It was a relief to work on this movie.
The ending seemed to suggest the possibility of a sequel. Do you know anything about that? Would you be on board for it?
I don’t know anything about it… I have never heard Ti talk about it; he kind of laughed that question off at a Q&A. I don’t know if it’s on the horizon but if it was with Ti, I would definitely do it again.
Would you consider doing more horror films?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, as an actor you just look for a good story and a good character, and I’ve been lucky with this film, and “The Burrowers” before it, to work on these really languid, artistic horror movies, and I love that. It really gives you some range as an actor too because you’re a normal character in one scene and you’re terrified for your life in the next. It’s an interesting genre and you can do a lot with it. So we’ll see what happens. I’m not sure what my next horror movie will be, but I’m not opposed to the idea.
What have you got lined up for the future, what are you working on next?
Right now, I’m shooting this film, it’s a mafia comedy with Harvey Keitel in it, which is really exciting.
Sounds very different from The House of the Devil
(laughs) Yeah, exactly!
Well, good luck with that, and thanks for taking the time to speak to us today Jocelin.
Thanks so much.

A version of this interview originally appeared on ObssesedWithFilm.com.

Review: ‘Perrier’s Bounty’

Few film categorisations come as contentious as ‘gangster comedy’, a genre most famously espoused by a certain former Mr Madonna.  It’s hard to think of a more more love-him-or-hate-him director.  But Perrier’s Bounty is not a Guy Ritchie film, it’s not British and it’s not a Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels clone.  There’s evidently a smattering of Ritchie influence, but for the greater part this is a uniquely Irish black comedy.  It’s not perfect, but it has enough decent gags to maintain a level of interest.

Perrier’s Bounty is directed by Ian Fitzgibbon, who has previously directed only one film (the similarly darkly comic A Film With Me In It), but is a veteran of the Irish film and TV industry, primarily as an actor – he once guest starred in an episode of classic Irish sitcom Father Ted.  He and writer Mark O’Rowe demonstrably know the Irish disposition well and sprinkle some wonderfully deadpan humour over the more serious and less successful narrative. 

Cillian Murphy, in a typically impressive lead performance, plays Michael, a young Dublin rogue who for unexplained reasons owes €1000 to the titular gangster boss Darrien Perrier, played by the outstanding Brendan Gleeson.  When a member of Perrier’s gang is accidentally killed, he puts a bounty on Michael’s life.  Accompanied by his estranged father Jim (Jim Broadbent) and neighbour and inevitable love-interest Brenda (Jodie Whitaker), Michael consequently spends a night and a day maneuvering round the seedier parts of Dublin, via a series of increasingly lucky escapes, to avoid the wrath of Perrier.

Perhaps the plot’s weakest element, the constant close calls always seem somewhat contrived.  Michael is seconds from death on at least three occasions before being rather implausibly rescued from his fate. The intention, presumably, is to generate some tension and action but by overusing a plot device, on the protagonist no less, it is a little predictable.  By the second or third near-death experience you know what’s coming.  In spite of the assurance from Gabriel Bryne’s narration that “anything could happen”, everything that you expect to happen more or less does. Fool me once, as they say…

The subplots between Michael and both his father and Brenda are also a little lacking.  Jim, played with a decent Dublin accent and a genuine humanity by Broadbent, claims he has been visited by the Reaper and will die next time he falls asleep.  He subsequently seeks to resolve his differences with his son, a distant-father-who-makes-good tale we’ve seen a thousand times before.  Broadbent and Murphy show great chemistry but have little to work from.

The crushing inevitability of the romantic subplot, meanwhile, is even acknowledged by the narration (“Wouldn’t it be nice if Michael and Brenda got together?”), possibly an attempt at making dialogue like “I think I’m falling in love with you” a little more tenable by framing it ironically, or something.  If that was the intention, which seems unlikely, it doesn’t work.  Michael and Brenda’s relationship is not entirely unconvincing, but in such an overwhelmingly male-dominated film, it’s hard not to get the impression that Brenda was a character thrown in simply to redress the balance a little.

But Perrier’s Bounty gets along by generally being very funny.  Where Guy Ritchie faltered by hamming up the farce, Fitzgibbon plays it far more impassively, and O’Rowe’s script does feature some cracking lines.  Liam Cunningham, as villainous loan shark the Mutt, has some of the best; he admires one woman in a bar on the basis she would “go like a bag of carrots”.

It is Brendan Gleeson, however, who elicits the biggest laughs throughout.  Whilst some of the other actors attempt more obviously comic turns, Gleeson plays it completely straight.  His delivery and facial expressions are pitch perfect.  By far the standout moment of the film is our introduction to Perrier, when it is revealed that the deceased member of his gang was the gay lover of another.  Gleeson does a superb job playing a tough mobster doing his best to show some 21st-century sensitivity to his homosexual underling, and induced by far the loudest howls in the screening I attended.

The film plays best in its funnier moments, and does a good job of subverting some of its more conspicuous conventions.  It’s possible you need to be a little bit in touch with the Gallic sense of humour to fully appreciate it –  Gleeson responds to the line “we’re bringing an end to your regime!” with the sublime “…me what?” – and there will always be some put off by the Emerald Isle’s notorious penchant for swearing, but you don’t need Irish blood to grasp the bleakly comic contrast of having a couple’s first kiss at the funeral of a dog.

Perrier’s Bounty is worth a watch. Good, though not great, the sometimes hit-and-miss script is kept buoyant by a strong cast and a well-balanced blend of drama and humour.  It’s not earth-shatteringly original or clever, and the fanciful plot twists can be a little grating, but Gleeson’s finely tuned comic timing is probably worth the ticket price alone. 

☆☆

A version of this review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com.

Review: ‘The House of the Devil’

Remember when horror truly meant horror?  Director Ti West does, and in The House of the Devil he has taken considerable pleasure in reminding us what this over-saturated genre can achieve when executed properly.  West, not yet 30, has directed five features, and after misfiring into Alan Smithee territory with a sequel to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, the young filmmaker has found his groove.  The House… is a squeamish delight, a celebration of everything great about a genre that was at its unequivocal peak in the eighties, and it excels in utilising the best aspects of that golden era to full effect.  It doesn’t amount to more than a solid slasher flick, but then it doesn’t try to.  It just ticks all the boxes – and how.

West, who also serves on writing and editing duties, is keen to emulate the glory days of horror, and all is present and correct: from the dubious claim that story is based on true events, to the archaic opening titles (with the date in roman numerals) with heavy synth accompaniment, to the archetypal creepy old house and quintessential ‘scream queen’ in the form of a strong lead performance from newcomer Jocelin Donahue. 

Everything has been tuned to create an authentic 80s horror experience.  It’s been shot on 16mm to give it a more legitimate grainy feel, the lighting and camera angles you might find in a John Carpenter movie, and there are plenty of nods to pop culture of the time.  Donahue’s Walkman, skimpy jeans and big, fluffy hair are ever-present throughout.  If you didn’t know otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking it really was made twenty years ago.  But the retro feel is never overplayed. Eighties nostalgia has been popular almost since the decade ended, but The House of the Devil steers clear of pastel colours or legwarmers.  The most significant influence is the plotting, pacing and themes that typified the best of the movies from that era.

This is a film built on suspense.  Modern horrors, like the increasingly absurd Saw franchise, rely on frenetic, caffeine-fuelled editing and extreme gore-porn from the get-go, assuming their young audience has an attention span that can be measured in seconds.  The House of the Devil builds the anticipation so that save for one scene, we don’t see any blood or screaming until the third act.  This equates to an hour’s worth of tension building, an underlying current of expectation so heavy laden that when the inevitable payoff arrives, it is full-blown, explosive and – to borrow a horror cliché – spine tingling.  The pacing will be offputting for those more attuned to instant gratification, but director West displays extraordinary patience in deriving half the entertainment from waiting for the climax.

This being a genre pic, it’s unabashedly unoriginal.  Sam (Donahue) is a broke college student who accepts a baby sitting job from a sinister old couple who live in a creaky old house in the middle of nowhere, on the night of a total lunar eclipse (a neat plot device to enable pitch-black darkness).  Sam discovers that she is actually baby-sitting an elderly mother, and the couple are actually satanists who intend to sacrifice her to the dark Lord, tapping into a common theme from the late seventies and eighties.  Indeed, plotwise it’s all very familiar.  There is a formula being followed here, undoubtedly – but what a formula!  It’s horror in its purest, most straightforward, unapologetic guise.

And it’s genuinely terrifying.  The long build-up is so acute, and the cacophony of Psycho-esque music so intense, that you’re left with a gripping, breathtaking, disturbing conclusion, a fine example of truly visceral filmmaking.  If, like I did, you watch this film in a cinema (and I implore that, if you get the chance, do), by the end you will find yourself stumbling blindly back into the daylight, somewhat shaken and battered, needing a few moments to readjust to reality.  That’s what a decent horror flick is all about: that visceral, gut-wrenching experience.

There will be some who argue that The House of the Devil is a pointless exercise. Why watch a movie pretending to be a movie from the eighties when you could, y’know, just watch a movie from the eighties?  Some might find the references to its roots a little too knowing, particularly in the rather more corny dialogue from Tom Noonan as the evil Mr Ulman, assuring Sam at the start of the night that she will have a “painless evening”.

But this is a love letter to the genre from West, a celebration of what makes it good and an valiant effort to bring successful storytelling techniques of days gone by back into the modern fold.  Avoiding the overtly ironic kitsch of Tarantino’s weaker moments, The House… is a straightforward, no-nonsense homage from a clearly dedicated fan.  It may have limited appeal; younger viewers who don’t know or remember the original slew of slasher movies will lose interest quickly, and it could never reach universal acclaim – but this was never going to be the kind of film you take your mother to see.  This is a film for connoisseurs.  Horror fans rejoice – there’s life in the old dog yet.

★★

A version of this review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com.

Review: Chloe

It’s fair to say that Chloe follows in the the tradition of movies like Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Poison Ivy, any Paul Verhoeven film you care to remember… You know the type of movie I mean. The pitch writes itself: rich, successful couple have their lives turned upside down by a sexy femme fatale – with a deadly obsession. Chloe follows this formula pretty faithfully, and though it’s not identical to the films listed above, it definitely inherits one of their defining characteristics: it’s really not very good.

Perhaps the main problem is that it’s really not very original. Aside from heavy borrowing of trashy eighties clichés, Chloe is that most unoriginal of beasts, the remake. And there isn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest that the original, a little-seen Gerard Depardieu film called Nathalie, warranted an English language remake. Put it this way – there won’t be an army of die-hard Nathalie fans baying for the blood of those who desecrated the sacred source.

The shaky plot goes as follows: wealthy Toronto couple Catherine (Julianne Moore) and David (Liam Neeson) live a happy normal life. But Catherine suspects her husband of infidelity, and so makes the unusual move of hiring a prostitute, the eponymous Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to attempt to seduce David and see if he reacts unfaithfully. Naturally things go further than they expected and Chloe proves to be more dangerous than anyone imagined, etc…

This is a wearily predictable film, making for often excruciatingly dull watching. Chloe purports to be a psychological thriller but in reality it is neither very thrilling nor particularly psychological at any time. In between Julianne Moore’s incessant weeping, surprisingly little happens. It ambles along at the pace of an centenarian tortoise. Slow pacing is sometimes a movie’s greatest asset; Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation has virtually no dramatic action, focusing entirely on solid characterisation and well written dialogue. Here, the characters are one-dimensional and unlikely to evoke any empathy from the audience. Atom Egoyan’s direction appears to be aiming for suspenseful Vertigo-era Hitchcock but veers far closer to Meet Joe Black-era Martin Brest. And that’s not a good thing.

So with nothing much happening on screen I found my attention constantly waning. Composer Mychael Danna dips into stock thriller music in a valiant effort to make everything seem exciting, but it’s at direct odds with the definitively unexciting action. It’s an odd contrast to be watching a fairly run-of-the-mill scene where two people are chatting in a cafe and you have the crescendo of a sweeping orchestra accompanying the action as if a Cthulhu itself has risen from the seas, destroying everything in its path. Suspense works better with subtlety, but perhaps Egoyan realised his audience needed help staying awake.

And when something does happen, it feels forced and contrived. This being a thriller, there are more than a few twists, but they are either predictable from a distance of several miles, or as implausible as a TV soap storyline. The comparison is apt, as characters display extraordinary levels of inconsistency; Julianne Moore’s character makes some strange and unconvincing choices throughout, and the absence of decent character exposition makes her motives questionable at best. The inevitable tragic conclusion is pointless and horribly strained.

There’s some very capable acting on show from the leads – Moore and Neeson are always excellent value for money, even if Neeson’s much-mocked American accent provokes some unintended cheap laughs. And Seyfried, fresh from bouncing around like a schoolgirl in Mamma Mia, proves her ability to hold screen presence with an often captivating and grown up performance, helped along by her golden-age Hollywood good looks. The movie generally looks pretty, actually, sumptuously shot and rich in colours. Altogether it feels somewhat like an unfunny episode of Desperate Housewives – make of that what you will.

But on the whole it is very difficult to write anything positive about this film. Lost in a whirlpool of its own clichéd undoing, it aspires to the sophisticated film noirs of the fifties, yet never amounts to more than the trashy, sexy nonsense of the eighties. The prevalence of nude scenes will certainly titillate teenage boys, and Neeson’s accent is always good for a chuckle. Otherwise, Chloe can’t be recommended. And on this basis, you probably shouldn’t go out of your way to see Nathalie, either.

A version of this review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com.

Review: ‘Double Take’

A curious and unconventional art film, Double Take is for the most part an engrossing and intriguing oddity. It’s comprised almost entirely of archival footage, blending documentary with an imagined Hitchcock suspense thriller, only with the unusual twist that the great director himself takes the lead role. The premise runs thus: it’s 1962, and on the set of The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock is surprised to find his exact double, albeit twenty years older, confronting him with a decidedly Hitchcockian doppelganger dilemma. “If you meet your double,” claims the double, “you should kill him. Or he will kill you. Two of you is one two many.”

With a smart combination of original footage from Hitchcock’s television shows, a team of body double actors – most notably regular Hitch lookalike Ron Burrage – and a brooding voiceover from Dead Ringers impressionist Mark Perry, the deftly executed ‘post-modern Hitchcock’ story strand generally succeeds in drawing you in. But director Johan Grimonprez is an artist first and director second; his earlier effort, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, was a video installation at Tate Britain. This ain’t accessible popcorn fare, and the press pack’s synopsis seems slightly misleading – the doppelganger encounter is a small story thinly stretched out throughout the entire film, with more weight, and certainly more screentime, given to examining and documenting the political situation of the era.

Double Take is as much, if not more, a Cold War documentary as it is a noir thriller, and in this aspect it’s extremely effective. Grimonprez juxtaposes and directly compares the Hitchcock plot with the major events of the US/Soviet space race, beginning with Nixon and Kruschev’s infamous ‘Kitchen debate’ in 1959, through to the Bay of Pigs crisis, and the Kennedy assassination. There’s no talking heads or vox pops, and voiceover is devoted to the fictional side of things, so this is stripped down montage documentary, using only newsreels and television footage from the time, relying entirely on ominous title cards and thoughtful editing choices.

In addition to all this, we are constantly reminded that the fiction we’re watching is exactly that, and so there are constant and very postmodern references to the making of the film itself. One of the first things we see is Perry listening to a tape of Hitchcock speak and copying his speech patterns, and there are frequent appearances of lookalike Burrage, recounting tales of being mistaken for his double, making public appearances as his double, and years previously working at the Savoy – Hitchcock’s favourite London hotel.

All this amounts to a curious mix of fiction and nonfiction which won’t be to everyone’s taste. It clocks in at a thrifty 80 minutes, referencing the Hitchcock quote that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, a quote that appears on a title card towards the end. But for some it might seem too long. It’s certainly engrossing, and Christian Halten’s foreboding soundtrack works wonders evoking Bernard Hermann’s tense, brooding strings, maintaining the mood throughout. Yet the various themes and motifs, intelligently executed though they are, might serve only to alienate all but the arthouse-iest of audiences.

Fascinating, if not exactly entertaining, Double Take is a brave and unusual experiment in film that generally works. It’s gripping and clever, and there are very smart ideas being put forward. Just don’t expect an average Hitchock thriller.

version of this review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com.

Review: ‘Cemetery Junction’

There’s high expectations for Cemetery Junction, the first collaborative foray into film from the writing and directing partnership of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and the prospect that faced them must have been nothing if not daunting.  How on earth do you follow up something as explosively popular as The Office, the most successful British sitcom of all time, not to mention the similarly multi-award-winning Extras?  The answer, it seems, it to go entirely against type and defy expectations.  “People may be expecting a straightforward comedy from us,” Merchant has acknowledged. It isn’t.

It’s hard not to feel, as the opening credits roll, a degree of trepidation over exactly which direction the film is taking.  With the distinctly mournful and melancholic strings of Vaughan Williams in the background, Cemetery Junction opens like a Ken Loach film, with a montage of factory workers and working class life in the suburbs of Reading in the 1970s, leading the viewer to wonder what the ratio of drama to humour will be.  Those familiar with Gervais and Merchant’s previous work will have to divorce themselves from their initial expectations, or preconceived notions of ‘The Office: The Movie’.

But once you come to terms with your surprise at the initial low density of jokes from two comedians, you’ll come to appreciate that Cemetery Junction is a great film, a genuinely enjoyable ‘dramedy’ and a worthy cinematic debut from the duo.

Tonally, it’s anything but mournful, and truth be told the use of Vaughan Williams is something of a red herring (there is actually a fantastic selection of classic seventies rock songs on the soundtrack).  File this film under ‘feelgood’, a genre that evokes the horrors of Mamma Mia!  but here takes a refreshingly breezy and upbeat look at English working class life in the seventies –  a move away from the grittier, gloomier portrayals of poverty typically found in British film, clearly a conscious shift from Gervais and Merchant.

It’s consistently funny throughout, peppered with witty, knowing dialogue.  The balance of comedy and drama is tilted carefully enough to squeeze a good few laughs out of you and also move you, if not quite to tears, then at least to the hot sting of an emotional reaction.  The big turning point two thirds of the way through is powerful and resonant.

Gervais, usually the acting lead in his work, has bumped himself down to a supporting role and defaulted most of the attention to young lead characters, played mostly by unknowns actors.  We focus on three young friends in their early 20s:  Freddie (Christian Cooke), an aspiring insurance salesman and the hero of the piece; Bruce (Tom Hughes), a rebellious factory worker; and Snork (Jack Doolan), a dopey assistant train station manager who acquired his moniker “because I’ve got a nose for muff.”

Also thrown into the mix is love interest Julie (Felicity Jones), and a lively array of supporting characters from a superb assembled cast of British acting veterans.  Props in particular must go to Ralph Fiennes, who gives a toweringly understated performance as the cold-hearted insurance head honcho Mr Kendrick.  Special mention also to the sublime portraits of casual seventies racism, sexism, homophobia and general bigotry found in Freddie’s household, with Gervais as his string vest-donned father, the fantastic and under-used Julia Davis as his mother, and the legendary Anne Reid as the somewhat senile old Granny.  The exchanges around this kitchen table are among the most memorable in the film.

It is Freddie who is the heart and soul of the film, and as a protagonist he is very engaging.  Played with an easy, likeable charm by newcomer Cooke, Freddie is straightforward and unpretentious. His initial aspirations are to follow in the footsteps of his idol Mr Kendrick: get to a good position in his insurance job, get a good house, a good car, a good wife. As the story progresses he realises that his hero is an icy, unfeeling misogynist with desire only for material gain.  He sees his dream job will amount to nothing when he witnesses a devastating farewell speech to a newly-retired colleague (as a thank you for forty three years of service, he receives only a cheap cut-glass fruit bowl).  And he is shown from childhood friend and romantic prospect Julie that there is more to life than Reading.  Freddie’s journey is satisfying and well-rounded, if a little predictable, and the familiar theme of small town claustrophobia will speak volumes to a near-universal audience.

Freddie’s early desire to settle down is counterpointed by best friend Bruce.  Gervais has openly cited Saturday Night Fever as a major influence, and in Tom Hughes, they have their very own John Travolta, Berkshire edition.  Bruce flirts, swaggers and fights his way around town, attired in leather jacket and ‘girly hair’ as one policeman calls it, and filled with post-adolescent fire, a true loose cannon.  He is every bit the Tony Manero of Reading, so much so that it almost comes across rather derivative, in spite of a decent effort from Hughes to make the character his own.

In fact there’s quite a bit which feels rather familiar.  Gervais and Merchant have been clear of their intention to make a genre movie, so they’re on fairly conventional territory throughout, with the effect that it’s occasionally not as fresh or exciting as we might hope from these two.  The subplot detailing the burgeoning romance of Snork and a timid cafe worker is so self-consciously sweet and sentimental that it’s in danger of veering towards Richard Curtis-land.  Many would argue, of course, that this is no terrible thing, and perhaps not, but we’ve come to expect more from a duo known for their consistent innovation.

There are other elements which don’t work so well.  Julie’s engagement to slimy insurance salesman Mike is unconvincing, a lazy rehash of the much overused nice-girl-inexplicably-going-for-the-asshole-guy-before-ending-up-with-the-hero movie cliché, an infuriating contrivance used in everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Titanic, or indeed The Office  Freddie and Julie’s simmering passion is handled with similarly less subtlety; as their love becomes apparent, they develop photos in a dark room in a scene cringingly resembling the pottery wheel sequence in Ghost.

Minor complaints, however, and though generally the plotting or staging is not wildly original, it’s executed with such warmth, charm and – surprisingly for a film about young people – maturity, that the occasional predictable or clichéd aspects are forgivable in the grand scheme of things.  More importantly, they are sensible choices for the direction the co-directors have chosen to take.  This is Gervais and Merchant’s most broad, accessible work to date, and it’s bound to work entirely in their favour.  Audiences will flock to this film – and so they should.

A version of this review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com

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