The Guest

Dan Stevens in the Guest

 

 ★★★☆☆ 

Just what state is the thriller genre in when such a derivative film like The Guest is considered exceptional? Because that seems to be the consensus, and it simply isn’t deserved.

From the trailer it appeared to be a modern twist on Shadow Of A Doubt or a nasty cousin of Drive, either of which would have been more interesting. Certainly it shares the aesthetic of the latter, but none of the consistency, and it has little of the powerful suspense found in Hitchcock’s classic. Rather it wants to be thought of alongside the b-movie inspired oeuvre of John Carpenter. This it could easily have done if it hadn’t been so bloody dishonest and that’s what really annoyed me.

The first half of the film is brilliant. Dan Stevens is superb as David, charming and charismatic one minute, steel-eyed menace the next. He easily ingratiates himself into the grieving family of his old army buddy, although the teenage daughter (Maika Monroe) is suspicious and soon starts digging into David’s past. Her brother, played by Brendan Meyer, however latches onto the stranger, especially when David deals with bullies in spectacular crowd-pleasing fashion; a bar brawl channels the brutal violence of movies like The Hitcher.

So far all good, but once the military get wind of David the narrative turns into a boring and predictable cul-de-sac of nonsense action, fun enough if all you wanted was a brain-dead slasher. Meanwhile the weight shifts to the teenagers and they, like the rest of the supporting cast, are uniformly weak and unable to push it forward. Meanwhile Stevens is lumbered with being the Bogeyman instead of the substantial threat he had been.

A weak cast in general is not to blame though, especially when experienced character actors like Leland Orser and Lance Reddick are in the mix. Nor is director Adam Wingard at fault, who wrings all the potential out of the thing and makes it more than watchable. Rather all the problems are squarely on the shoulders of Simon Barrett’s script which was one decent character in a half-arsed plot he didn’t know how to finish. It’s such a shame because David is a fantastic bastard and gloriously entertaining; his wrapping up of loose ends is particularly funny, in a grimly ironic sort of way when one leads to many others. He’s like Jason Bourne off his meds and both Stevens’ and his role deserved a better film.

It is entertaining and with low expectations you’ll likely enjoy it a heck of a lot. I basically did, it’s just that the first half promised so much more.

Last year this film and Two Faces Of January both garnered superb reviews and both feel short. Blue Ruin and especially the incredible Cold In July were both far better. Look those up long before this one.

State Of Play


 ★★★★☆ 

Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is the rising star of his political party – until his research assistant/mistress is murdered, and buried secrets come tumbling out. Investigative journalist, Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) has the dubious fortune of both an old friendship with Collins and a ruthless editor, Cameron (Helen Mirren), who assigns him to the story. As Cal and his partner Della (Rachel McAdams) step into a cover-up that threatens to shake the nation’s power structures, they discover one truth – when billions of dollars are at stake, no-one’s integrity, love or life is ever safe.

Director Kevin MacDonald follows his well-written, but flawed Last King of Scotland with the well-written, but flawed State Of Play. There’s a detail and intimacy in his direction that gives it an air of authenticity, but despite the witty dialogue and excellent plot, it seems to lose credibility in the final act, which is a real shame.

Still, this is a welcome thriller in more ways than one and provides anti-programming of substance to all the popcorn rubbish. There is the thorny issue of it being a remake of a superb British mini-series, but actually it relocates to Washington very well. It draws comparisons with All The Presidents Men too, with which it pales, but there hasn’t been anything like this for quite some time, apart from Grisham adaptations which have become almost self-parodies.

Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve always enjoyed pot-boilers like this. They always follow a similar track; a seemingly innocuous if vulgar crime soon leads to the political high ranks and much intrigue follows, with very little action but for the obligatory black ops assassin. Really the plots rely on who is doing the plotting and this cast are excellent.

Russell Crowe inhabits all his roles so well and this is a pretty straight-forward one for him (scruffy journalist) so he is the films reliable anchor and is barely off-screen. Rachel McAdams does well in an under-written, but long overdue dramatic part. It’s surprising how well she fits in, given that her character is so utterly pointless, except for a cliché of a sub-plot about bringing Crowes caveman of a journalist up-to-date (she does the on-line gossip column for the paper). It works because ironically, she keeps getting ignored in the story, so that’s mirrored by the plot! I was glad to see Ben Affleck climbing another rung on the comeback ladder. He gets far more flak than he deserves and has several scenes with Crowe in which he more than holds his own so I found him convincing and affecting as the senator getting embroiled in the scandal. Robin Wright-Penn as Affleck’s scorned wife is also very good, though I wasn’t convinced of the relationship between the two. Perhaps that was the point, given his infidelity and her past with Crowe’s character.

If Crowe is the films anchor, then Helen Mirren is its mothership. She never leaves the office and it’s like the film returns to her every time in needs a kick up the arse, which she duly delivers time and time again. She is quietly magnificent.

It’s well worth getting lost in. It avoids the black and white world of Grisham for the most part and you may feel by the end it sells-out, but MacDonald’s solid direction and equally solid cast make for an engrossing story.

A Time to Kill

 ★★★☆☆ 

John Grisham’s best seller A Time to Kill hits the screen with incendiary force, directed by Joel Schumacher (The Client). Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey play the principals in a murder trial that brings a small Mississippi town’s racial tensions to the fiashpoint. Amid activist marches, Klan terror, media clamor and brutal riots, an unseasoned but idealistic attorney mounts a stirring courtroom battle for justice. The superb ensemble also includes Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Charles S. Dutton, Ashley Judd, Patrick McGoohan, Chris Cooper and both Donald and Kiefer Sutherland.

This gets your right-wing juices flowing! I love courtroom thrillers and thought this one of the best Grisham adaptations. Well, it could be, but the more I see it, the clearer it is that the story is shamefully manipulative and unambitious. Everything is painted so very broad and some scenes are almost farcical and childish. There is nothing original in the plot and in fact, some of it, like McConaughey and Judd’s marriage heading for the rocks, is very lazily handled. I don’t think there is even a structure to speak of. You expect certain things to happen, in a certain order, and they do. Just a shame there’s no subtlety.

I expect if they were to film it again today, it would be more powerful, with a well-played irony. Maybe something like Crash or Changeling. One thing you can be sure of, no way would it be so entertaining! These sort of films always pull great casts and this is one of, if not the best. Some like Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock are at their best, despite being fed sub-par characters, others already so good, they wrap their tonsils around the killer lines with ease (Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Patrick McGoohan). There wasn’t a weak point in the cast, except maybe whatever-happened-to-Ashley Judd, but whatever-happened-to-Oliver Platt makes it balance just by turning up. This is back in the days when Samuel L. Jackson would keep his shouty quotable lines to minimum (Lakeview Terrace is a recent return to form). “Yes, they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell!” is a classic to rival Jack Nicholson barking “You can’t handle the truth!” at little Tommy Cruise.

That line sums up exactly how director Joel Schumacher wants you the viewer to feel and you probably will despite yourself because it is such a great cast and the plot is so exaggerated. We don’t just get racists, we get a specially formed brand new charter of the Klan, no less! You’ll boil at the injustice! Punch the air when McConaughey sneakily punches the would be bomber! And cheer when it turns out the dog survived! Well of course he was going to survive, but that’s what I mean. You can’t help yourself. And what’s wrong with a bit of eye-for-an-eye vigilantism anyway?

It’s absolute bollocks, but bollocks of the highest quality and a monument to the outrageous style Schumacher had before he disappeared up his own arse and found Batman and Robin. He finally produced the excellent Tigerland, but this is more memorable for all the very wrong and grimy reasons.

Street Kings

 ★★☆☆☆ 

Gripping performances by Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker and an all-star supporting cast power this action-packed crime thriller, in which a veteran cop finds himself ensnared in a deadly web of conspiracy and betrayal. Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a hard-nosed detective with a talent for delivering brutal street justice. When evidence implicates him in the murder of a fellow officer, the violence around Ludlow explodes as he realizes his own life is in danger and he can trust no one.

This gritty detective thriller bears most resemblance to Training Day, but while that film had serious flaws, not least the awful contrivance that the plot turns on, it is still much superior to this. Not that it isn’t enjoyable in its own way, but it’s numbingly predictable and derivative of several other films, including L.A. Confidential, bizarrely. It’s almost painful to watch as the transparent characters shuffle to their inevitable conclusions via all the usual clichés. Truly great actors like Forrest Whitaker (as the Vice Team captain, referred to as The King) deliver storming performances like they’re trying not to sink, while you have to feel sorry for Chris Evans (ambitious young detective, determined to do things right) who is very good, but perhaps more doomed than anyone. I guarantee you’ll shake your head sadly as soon as he appears! Maybe he is less doomed though than the cartoon characters who make up Keanu Reeve’s untrustworthy team and were probably written in the first draft with crayon as ‘Goon 1’, ‘Goon 2’, etc.

Still, it’s violent, with solid action throughout, so thoroughly entertaining and there’s half a chance it could all be redeemed by the end. Unfortunately that ending is so infuriatingly empty that it loses all credibility. The story just plays out in a cycle of grimy nastiness without a hint of irony or redemption and by doing so squanders the ace in Detective Tom Ludlow, whose claustrophobic story (he’s hardly off-screen, if at all) could have been compared to a circle of hell, similar to Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.

Keanu Reeves as Ludlow is a revelation. This is his best dramatic role and if the cynics amongst you think that’s a back-handed compliment, well I was left unable to consider anyone else in the part. Reeves invests everything in the character; his hollow-eyed, podgy face holds a lifetime of drunken self-loathing, but with an undercurrent of ruthless, violent efficiency that makes all the scenes, be they action or drama, utterly convincing. The flat delivery works and he really holds his own against heavyweights like Whitaker and Laurie; if anything, he’s working harder and more memorably. It’s like we’ve caught up with Johnny Utah and found him broken. That the story doesn’t reward him is unforgivable.

Really the film can be summed up by Hugh Laurie’s role; it’s a brilliant, punchy performance, he chews the dialogue nicely and growls his way through every scene. But he’s the twin of House. So we’ve seen it all before, even though he’s fun to watch. Despite my negative review, give it a shot, if only to see the commendable actor Keanu Reeves has become.

Lakeview Terrace

 ★★★★☆ 

A young couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) have just moved into their California dream home when they become the target of their next-door neighbour, who disapproves of their interracial relationship. A stern, single father, this tightly wound LAPD officer (Samuel L. Jackson) has appointed himself the watchdog of the neighbourhood. His nightly foot patrols and overly watchful eyes bring comfort to some, but he becomes increasingly harassing to the newly-weds.

Samuel L. Jackson shares the lead with at least Patrick Wilson, but his powerful performance anchors the film. When I say this is his best role for years, don’t be concerned if you think this will be full-on Pulp Fiction Jules. Instead he shows how brilliant he truly is by commanding the screen without taking it over. All three are complicated roles and this isn’t the sort of story they can get through with show-boating and shouting.

On paper it seems a new play on the theme used in Pacific Heights (Modine v. Keaton!) or Unlawful Entry (Russell v. Liotta!), but the characters and situations are more exploitive in both of those and descend into predictable action beats. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just that Lakeview Terrace is first and foremost a drama that you may be able to identify with more readily, and it seems reluctant to cut loose until the very last moment.

Up until then, director Neil La Bute creates a simmering tension, possibly undermined by your own assumptions. If you go into it expecting Jackson to be an obvious villain, you do his performance a disservice, because throughout he deserves some sympathy. None of the three characters are perfect and it’s their flaws that drive the story. Jackson’s Turner is a manipulative racist, but he is also a single dad and staring forced retirement in the face. Meanwhile Wilson as Chris is paranoid that everyone is like Turner, judging his interracial relationship. His wife Lisa, played by Washington, doesn’t always give Chris enough respect for that position and she also makes a particularly poor judgement that threatens their marriage.

Still, they are a close couple and Wilson and the lovely Kerry Washington have good chemistry, so you want them to work it out and that means dealing with Turner. It’s a clever plot development that escalates the situation without turning him into a cartoon villain, even for the ending which is otherwise predictable. I also like the backdrop with California wild-fires that are getting closer throughout the film because that increases the immediacy of a plot that could have become tediously contrived, especially the ending. Like Gone Baby Gone, it is a satisfying conclusion, but not one that suggests a happy ever after. Life isn’t like that and to suggest otherwise is insulting.

Occasionally the black versus white sensibilities border on heavy handed, but actually I still found it easier to empathise with than Crash and it bears more similarity with Gran Torino in some ways. It’s a well written, cracking little thriller, that doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer. Highly recommended. La Bute may have done himself a disservice by making the ill-advised remake of The Wicker Man, because here he shows a far more interesting grasp of difficult material.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

 ★★★★★ 

Following the death of their daughter, John and Laura Baxter (Sutherland and Christie) move to Venice in an attempt to forget what has happened. However, they soon meet a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom claim to be psychic and insists that she can see the spirit of their daughter.

Don’t Look Now is a fascinating film, typical of the radical thrillers of the 1970s, with ambition, confidence and skill in equal measure. It would be impossible to make it today and do so effectively. Nicholas Roeg is a director who has some what fallen into obscurity, but this at least will be a timeless and enduring film.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are the heart of a very emotional story, and they are superb. The much talked about sex scene is possibly more effective and justified than any other because we’ve been allowed to understand them so much more than an average screen couple. Roeg also cleverly intercuts with preparations for an evening meal, so despite how explicit it is, it also feels like a real and natural relationship.

The scene is also some way into the story, long after the most devastating opening of any film; the death of Christine, their daughter. Sutherland is especially heartbreaking considering he had an idea something was wrong moments before it happened. Later a psychic will tell Laura (Julie Christie) that her husband has “the gift”.

If it feels like I’m reviewing this film backwards then that’s only fitting! It is a triumph of editing that creates a strange atmosphere, using metaphors rather than strict time to progress. However it is neither inaccessible nor a gimmick as there is definitely a beginning, a middle and then an end, all in the correct order, but a strict sense of time is very hard to pin down. This makes Venice all the more enigmatic, because it is almost like the couple are trapped in some sort of hell (John at least, with his sense of Déjà Vu, haunting visions and relations with religious iconography). The city has probably never been photographed quite like this; a decaying, grimy and dangerous place.

While the film is a powerful and realistic study of grief there is a serial killer on the loose too and here it has more of a horror bent. There isn’t explicit gore or murders, but you can guarantee being seriously creeped-out by whoever is wearing an occasionally glimpsed little red mac. The psychic is convinced that John and Laura’s daughter is trying to warn them to leave, but is this who John keeps seeing? Unfortunately while Laura believes in the gift, John is the one getting the visions and he is confused by them, adding to his, and our, torment.

Even if you already know the ending (and it has been parodied many times) it is still a haunting shock by way of the simplicity of its execution. An odd sense of inevitability and pity hangs long after the end. It is a film that you may find hard to watch, but engrossing nonetheless, so much so that against your better judgement you may find yourself watching again to unlock this enigmatic films intricacies. And that shock ending will never dull.

L.A. Confidential

 ★★★★★ 

It’s easy to have rose-tinted spectacles and assume that modern versions of a long-forgotten staple of cinema simply can’t be as good, but like Unforgiven before it, L.A. Confidential is a defining example of its genre, a gem that you can actually judge classic entries by, such as A Touch of Evil or Double Indemnity. Much of this is thanks to the hard-bitten novel it’s based on by James Ellroy, whose wonderful story is perfect Film Noir, especially in the Femme Fatale of never-better Kim Basinger; she is dangerous to the men around her, but vulnerable as well. With ironic wit, the story is set in deeply corrupt L.A., but at the height of Hollywood glamour and legend (notorious Johnny Stompanato is featured, along with Lana Turner in a very funny scene). This, is a proper film for proper film fans.

Basinger is a high-class escort, who looks like Veronica Lake, and the key for the L.A.P.D. to uncover David Strathairn’s sleazy business and his corrupted political friends. It comes down to three men to go above and beyond, played by Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey, and it’s a joy to watch these three because none were the superstar actors they are now, so the roles are not compromised in the slightest. They’re supported by James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith and Danny DeVito as sleazy Sid Hudgens. The cast is simply note-perfect throughout, chewing wonderful dialogue in Brian Helgeland’s and Curtis Hanson’s screenplay. What is it with Helgeland? He’s either churning out gold like this and Payback, or guff like Sin Eater.

The film is gorgeous to look at, with the production never looking fake, and there are moments that can take the breath away, especially the climax (cinematographer Dante Spinotti coming into his own) or Bud White losing his temper and destroying an office! Like everyone else involved, Jerry Goldsmith finds his best form and produces a score to match the pacing, ever-present, but never over-powering.

L.A. Confidential is very special indeed with Hanson somehow making a film that you think Scorcese could easily have done, yet I’d suggest doing it better, so utterly convincing is his picture of the sleaze and corruption behind the red carpet culture. His Goodfellas style opening doesn’t feel as indulgent as that oft-overrated film and the pacing is sharper where it needs to be. I’m not saying Hanson could pull off something of Taxi Driver standards, but he proves here he can mix it with the best of them. So where is he? Apart from the fantastic Wonder Boys, he’s done little else of note. Apparently this was the film he dreamed of making, so perhaps he is content. And perhaps he should be, because this film is so brilliant, yet everyone involved makes it look easy. It has a style and rhythm other films can only dream of.

For such a tough genre, the final irony of missing out on the Academy Award for Best Picture is strangely poetic, but still, this was far more deserving than Titanic.

Halloween: Resurrection

 ★☆☆☆☆ 

I was lucky enough to catch this on TV tonight. You see, I was trying to think of something really painful and futile to do, and had just decided to stick pins in my eyes and hit myself in the balls with a mallet, when this came on. Within minutes, the masochist in me realised this was far more excruciating! Joy!

It is unbelievably awful. Busta Rhymes? Busta bloody Rhymes versus Michael Myers? The shame! The whole thing is a terrible joke. Like all truly bad films, at the heart there is something intriguing, otherwise it would just be boring. This had this slightly-not-terrible idea of having a bunch of teenagers explore the original house while feeding footage back to the Internet. Cool! Nostalgia and all that. Unfortunately, no-one at any stage from inception to execution had any idea how to actually capitalise on it.

So you have the same scene repeated endlessly. Michael looking really dumb, being really predictable and barely moving, while he half-heartedly sticks his knife into the next squeaky acting class reject. Then they’d get away… by running back into the house. Yeah, that works. Whatever. Where’s my mallet?

Wait Until Dark

 ★★★★☆ 

Audrey Hepburn plays Susy, a blind woman whose husband is passed a doll at an airport. He’s away on business and three criminals come looking for the doll, manipulating Susy into telling them where it is.

This is a cracking thriller that’s going right near the top of my Best Films I Never Heard Of list. It doesn’t deserve to be on such a list, mind. I discovered it by accident while browsing and I encourage everyone else to try and have the same accident, on purpose. Why it isn’t talked about more, I can’t say.

The setup is deliciously simple, as all such thrillers should be. Blind woman, trapped in an apartment while thugs tease her into revealing the location of a doll. Terence Young, director of several early Bond films, must have relished such an idea. It’s one of those wonderful plots that must be like building a domino display; put all the work in early then flick one and watch it all unfold.

Apart from the start and a couple of brief outdoor shots, all the action is based in the apartment. Even the first meeting between the three criminals takes place there while Suzy is out. She returns briefly and they try to hide, but quickly realise of course, she’s blind. It’s a fantastic scene as she moves around the apartment and has no idea the three men are there!

Audrey Hepburn is fantastic as Suzy, who has been blind for about a year and is still struggling to be fully independent. Her husband, Sam, gives her a lot of tough love to help her do so. She has a couple of hysterical moments and she’s great showing how her character realises she’s got to help herself and stay strong. The three thugs (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston and Alan Arkin) are all good too, especially the psychotic Arkin, a master of disguise.

The middle part of the film is concerned with setting up the rather complicated hustle. Crenna pretends to be an old wartime buddy of Suzy’s husband, Sam; Weston is a detective and Arkin a man building a story around the doll that suggests Sam was having an affair with a recent murder victim. This section isn’t particularly tense, though knowing she’s on her own and unaware of the danger she is in is certainly unsettling. It’s very satisfying though to see her prove she’s not as daft as they think and it setups all the little bits and pieces that will come into play, like potential weapons and noisy items that give away locations.

It really works its magic in the final act as Terence Young pushes that first domino! As all the pieces come together and she’s worked out the plot, she tries to fight back. Her trick is to smash every light, therefore making them as blind as she is. At times in this sequence there is no light at all and it is pant-wettingly nerve wracking while you stare at a pitch black screen.

I can’t recommend this enough. It’s a setup that works so well in cinema, something I could imagine Hitchcock using, I’m surprised it hasn’t been remade. The only modern equivalent I can think of is Panic Room (there’s even a kid in this one who helps, but isn’t trapped with her). However, Wait Until Dark is far superior.

The Omen

 ★★★★☆ 

Gregory Peck stars as Robert Thorn, a powerful politician whose wife has just given birth to a stillborn son. He keeps it from her and on the hospitals suggestion, swaps for a newborn orphan baby. But dire warnings and mysterious deaths suggest that the child, Damien, may be nothing less than the Anti-Christ.

I’ve seen this quite a lot over the years, but it’s never lost any of its power. It’s a great story, well grounded by Peck’s solid performance. It must have been particularly shocking at the time, featuring such an actor, best known as Atticus Finch, the most dependable of heroic everyman types.

I’m a sucker for any story that uses religion like this. The best example is still The Exorcist, but this, probably riding that films wake just three years later, is a very close second though far more comic book, genre filmmaking. The Bible comes with weight and reputation, so if it’s used well in albeit a romanticised fashion, a story like this can seem very legitimate. It’s also good that it involves several countries (American family, British home, Italian monks, Middle East history and artefacts) as that emphasises the world conquering prophecy.

And when it’s played out without a shred of hyperbole or exaggeration, that legitimacy can only increase. Richard Donner has always been a dependable, workman like director, who relies on the characters and script to make the impact, even in Superman. I think Lethal Weapon is him at his most ‘flashy’. Here there are no attempts to make the audience jump. The story is strong enough to linger without short-lived jumps. Scenes like Kathy being knocked off the landing by the little bastard are very clever in their simplicity. Sending the poor goldfish ahead gives a very tangible sense of peril without resulting to a single note of music or gratuitous zoom.

I just called Damien “the little bastard”, but that’s a bit misleading. Perhaps not on that very last famous shot. Then it’s justified, but until the landing scene his role is quite ambiguous. As such, he is terrifying, like a teddy bear hiding a grenade! But in the final sequence, he’s still a child after all and that makes this an agonising spectacle. It’s Mrs. Baylock, the apostle, who is the real threat for the viewer though. Her and her dog (who have hilariously expanded roles in a rightly deleted scene on the DVD).

The Omen films are strangely similar to the Alien ones: excellent, old-fashioned first instalment; more visceral, next generation sequel (though Omen II is more silly fun); crap third part that tries to close the trilogy in a commendable way; and a part 4 that ranks amongst the worst films ever made, with utterly ridiculous plot ideas. Of course, this has suffered the final insult and been remade. Do yourself a favour and look the original up instead.