After Alice (1999)

vt Eye of the Killer

Germany, UK / 100 minutes / color with some bw / Promark, Videal, CPTC Dir: Paul Marcus Pr: Tina Stern, André Paquette, Tom Kinninmont Scr: Jeff Miller Cine: Brian Pearson Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Henry Czerny, Polly Walker, Gary Hudson, Ronn Sarosiak, Stephen Ouimette, Eve Crawford, Denis Akiyama, Lorén Petersen, Alexander Chapman, Colin Glazer.

Cop Mickey Hayden (Sutherland) has been boozing ever since his wife deserted him to take up with his boss, Lt. John Hatter (Hudson). One night he’s in a convenience store picking up his next bottle when a punk seizes it and runs. Mickey chases the thief into a deserted building and sustains a cracked head in a fall. He very soon discovers the trauma has endowed him with the power of psychometry: when touching an object (even a corpse) he can often have visions of relevant events in that object’s past. The first time he experiences this is when called to investigate the seemingly random murder of the punk he’d earlier chased.

After Alice - The punk's murder revisited in a vision.

The punk’s murder revisited in a vision.

He’s approached in a bar by Harvey (Czerny), who has this same ability and can identify it in Mickey. At first Mickey violently rejects Harvey and Harvey’s claims, but slowly Continue reading

East, The (2013)

US, UK / 116 minutes / color with some bw / Scott Free, Dune, Fox Searchlight Dir: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling Pr: Michael Costigan, Jocelyn Hayes, Brit Marling, Ridley Scott Scr: Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij Cine: Roman Vasyanov Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur T. Fitzgerald, Jamey Sheridan.

Ex-FBI agent Jane Owen (Marling), now working for the security operation Hiller–Brood, which contracts to various corporations, goes undercover as Sarah Moss to penetrate an ecoterrorism group called The East, whose mission is, one corporation at a time, to bring home to CEOs and other powers that be the meaning of their crimes by inflicting upon them a measure of the same suffering that they’ve happily meted out to others. She finds The East to be a small group spearheaded by Benji (Skarsgård), Izzy (Page)—the nickname’s short for Isabella Duncan, although Izzy’s real name is Katie Cannon—and Doc (Kebbell), a physician who’s dying because of a contaminated antibiotic.

The East has promised that it will commit three “jams”—acts of retribution—over the next six months. Sarah/Jane is roped in for the first of these, and begins slowly to be won over to The East’s cause. That first jam involves infiltrating the party being thrown by pharmaceuticals company McCabe–Gray to celebrate the contract the firm has just received to supply the US military with its “miracle drug” Dinoxin. Attending as wait-staff or guests, The East’s members lace the champagne with Dinoxin and, sure enough, over the next few days and weeks the company’s bigwigs fall ill from ingesting the drug.

East, The - Richard Cannon (Sheridan) discovers the hard way about the water his company's polluting

Richard Cannon (Jamey Sheridan) discovers the hard way about the water his company has been polluting.

The second jam involves Izzy’s father Richard Cannon (Sheridan), an industrialist whose company, Hawkstone, has been insouciantly polluting water supplies, with nary a care for the consequent death toll. After The East has hurled him and a colleague into one of their own polluted ponds to discover how they like it, the group is Continue reading

I Thank a Fool (1962)

UK / 100 minutes / color / Eaton, MGM Dir: Robert Stevens Pr: Anatole de Grunwald Scr: Karl Tunberg Story: I Thank a Fool (1958) by Audrey Erskine Lindop Cine: Harry Waxman Cast: Susan Hayward, Peter Finch, Diane Cilento, Cyril Cusack, Kieron Moore, Athene Seyler, J.G. Devlin, Brenda de Banzie.

In Liverpool, largely thanks to the efforts of obnoxious prosecutor Stephen Dane (Finch), Canadian Dr. Christine Allison (Hayward) is found guilty of manslaughter for the mercy killing, by drug overdose, of her patient and adulterous lover, Benson (uncredited). Two years later she’s released from prison and, stripped of her medical credentials, does her best to find a job—any job. Even under her phony new name, Christine Garden, she can find no takers.

She’s in despair when suddenly she receives a mysterious phonecall offering her a job as a nurse. Obediently, she goes to the designated rendezvous where she’s met by dotty Miss Chandler (Seyler)—Aunt Heather—who erratically drives her out of town to meet her new employer . . . who proves to be Stephen Dane, the man who got her sent down.

Christine’s patient is Stephen’s wife Liane (Cilento), who’s been suffering mental difficulties—schizophrenia, Christine eventually concludes—ever since she was involved in a terrible car crash, in which her father died, near her Irish hometown of Caragh. Liane seems to be getting iller and iller, whatever Christine tries to do, and it’s evident that most of the people involved—Christine herself excepted but including the Danes’s studly Irish stableboy Roscoe (Moore), who’s possibly Liane’s lover—are often lying through their teeth about what’s going on.

I Thank a Fool - Liane hypnotized by a spinning sawbladeLiane (Diane Cilento) is hypnotized at sight of a spinning saw-blade.

For most of the movie we’re convinced that Continue reading

Trance (2013)

UK / 101 minutes / color with brief bw / Pathé, Fox Searchlight Dir: Danny Boyle Pr: Christian Colson Scr: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge Story: Joe Ahearne Cine: Anthony Dod Mantle Cast: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, Wahab Sheikh, Mark Poltimore, Tuppence Middleton.

“There is a painting. It’s by Rembrandt. Storm on the Sea of Galilee, it’s called, and he’s in it. Old Rembrandt—he’s in the painting. He’s in there, right in the middle of the storm, looking straight out at you. But you can’t see him. And the reason you can’t see him is because the painting has been stolen. Lots of paintings have been stolen . . .”

These words, done in voiceover by Simon Newton (McAvoy), a staffer at the upscale London auction house Delancy’s, introduce what looks at first glance as if it’ll be a standard art-heist movie; in fact, it’s anything but.

Yes, it starts with an armed robbery from Delancy’s. As he has been drilled to do, Simon takes the most valuable piece in sight, the Goya painting Witches in the Air, puts it in a case, and heads with it and two colleagues toward the dropslot for the time-release safe. As they reach it, though, they’re intercepted by the robber gang’s ringleader, Franck (Cassel). There’s an altercation involving a grossly incompetent attempt to use a taser, and Franck knocks Simon unconscious.

Trance - Franck

Franck, confronting Simon as the latter heads for the dropslot.

The next we see of Simon he’s in hospital being treated for partial amnesia. On his eventual release he finds his flat trashed, and almost immediately he’s picked up by Franck and henchmen Nate (Sapani), Riz (Sheikh) and Dominic (Cross). It proves Simon was the inside man for the heist but managed to appropriate and hide the painting somewhere between the auction room and the dropslot. Franck and company torture him grievously to tell them where the painting is before becoming convinced he has genuinely forgotten.

The answer to that problem seems to be hypnosis. Franck, who may be ruthless when need be but is no monster, tells Simon to pick whichever hypnotherapist he’d like from the directory, and so Simon selects Harley Street practitioner Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson)—for no real reason except that he likes the name. (The photo accompanying the listing might have helped too.) At his first consultation he claims to be David Maxwell, amnesic after a mugging and trying to find his car keys. Elizabeth seems startled by him, but the session goes well and, once home, he does indeed locate . . . a set of car keys. Not the outcome—i.e., the painting—that the gang was hoping for.

At the next consultation it becomes obvious that Elizabeth recognizes Simon—supposedly from newspaper photos after the heist—and she spots the microphone through which the rest of the gang are listening in on the conversation. Soon she cuts herself into the gang’s enterprise and, working as a team—Simon included—they try various hyponetherapeutic techniques to extract Simon’s memories of what he’s done with the painting. For the audience things are—deliberately—made confusing, as quite often we’re not sure if we’re witnessing reality or Simon’s fantasies/dreams. We discover for sure, though, that, a compulsive gambler, he approached Franck with the idea for the heist in consideration of Franck paying off all his gambling debts. We also learn that Simon in fact recovered from being knocked out, stumbled into the street and, while receiving a text message, was bowled over by a red Alfa Romeo whose driver (Middleton) picked him up and offered to drive him to the hospital.

And we discover, too, something we hadn’t known about Elizabeth—that, however much she might seem today to be in complete control of events around her, she has not long rid herself of an abusive boyfriend. What she did, apparently, was hypnotize the abusive lover into forgetting all about her . . .

Simon tries to rid himself of Franck.

There’s more, much more, to the plot. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a long monologue/infodump from Elizabeth explaining—not necessarily reliably—the true meaning of the events we’ve seen (unsurprisingly, there’s been a godgame in progress, but it’ll take us a while longer to be certain of who’s godgaming whom); this is probably the weakest moment in the movie because the effect of delivering so much revelation to us in a single blurt is merely to convince us that the plot is ludicrously more elaborate than a movie plot ought to be. Yet, later, the final resolution comes as a perfect satisfaction, as if we shouldn’t be caviling about the earlier stumbles.

Another example of this dichotomy in the movie between excellence and amateurishness: while Trance overall is visually very striking, the cinematography and shot selection quite superb, there’s one odd little clumsy sequence where the camera coyly teases us by not quite showing us a fully naked Franck, as if we were schoolgirls peeping agog between our fingers in hopes of seeing his willy. Yet there’s also one of the very few examples in neonoir of a scene of full-frontal female nudity being entirely justified by the plot, rather than just a cheap thrill.

Trance - Elizabeth offers Franck the Trance app

There’s a way out: Elizabeth offers Franck the Trance app.

There are strong performances from all three principals, with Dawson — as a very likeable (and unusually intelligent) femme fatale — being especially magnetic. (She and director Boyle briefly became a couple after shooting the piece.) The movie is an elaborated remake of Trance (2001 TVM) dir and scr Joe Ahearne, with John Light, Neil Pearson and Susannah Harker.

On Trance (Dvd.2013)

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

UK, US / 112 minutes / color / BBC, Film Council, Oscilloscope, Code Red Dir: Lynne Ramsay Pr: Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox, Bob Salerno Scr: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear Story: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver Cine: Seamus McGarvey Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rocky Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Like a painting: Tilda Swinton as Eva, desolated

In one sense a meditation on the roles of nature and nurture in the emergence of sociopathic individuals; in another an extraordinarily chilling depiction of the noir nightmare told with all the twisty nonlinearity expected of a neonoir.

All we know at first is that something dreadful has happened in the fairly recent past of solitary suburb-dweller Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton), something that causes neighbors to abuse her and even daub her house in red paint, something for which she feels such guilt that she suffers their torments in silence rather than retaliating in any way.

Slowly we piece together her earlier life with good-natured but insensitive husband Franklin (Reilly), their son Kevin (played successively by Duer, Newell and Miller) and their much younger daughter Celia (Gerasimovich). As a baby Kevin screams incessantly, so much so that Eva sometimes pauses beside roadworks so that the jackhammers, drowning the noise of her infant, give her some moments of precious respite. A slow developer, Kevin grows up with one seeming mission in life: to make his mother’s existence a misery. Periodically she snaps under his relentless pressure, on one occasion pushing him with such force that he breaks his arm—an offense which he covers up from others, ever thereafter using it as a means to blackmail her.

Around people other than his mother, notably his father, he’s a charming, affable, ordinary kid; whenever Eve tries to tell Franklin of her concerns he assumes she’s merely voicing her neuroses. Eva is the only one who knows what really happened to Celia’s gerbil, stuffed by the teenaged Kevin into the sink disposal unit, and to Celia’s eye, destroyed when Kevin poured sink-unblocker into it. The sole activity that seems to bring Kevin out of himself is archery; it is this activity that he will use to commit the hideous crime that lies at the heart of Eva’s nightmare.

The movie requires patience for the first half-hour or so, as curious events occur with seemingly no rationale; the fact that the staging and cinematography are so superb throughout makes this perseverance easier than it might have been. Once we begin to cotton on to the remorseless inevitability of the past tragedy, however, and our imagination is given rein to speculate as to just how horrific and irremediable it may have been, the narrative, fragmented as it is, becomes riveting—even more so because, while we see Kevin’s psychological sadism face-on, the physical consequences are always kept off-screen.

Further major contributors to the movie’s grip are the astonishing performances by Swinton as the punchbag mother, herself become alienated from ordinary human relationships because of the enduring effects of Kevin’s malice, and by Miller as the teenaged Kevin himself, a monster whose evil is all the more effective because, outwardly, he could be anyone’s kid, yours or mine. The casting’s exceptional, too; it’s hard to believe the three actors playing Kevin aren’t brothers of different ages, and that Kevin isn’t related to Swinton.

The movie, which had a somewhat rocky production history due to funding difficulties, won a plethora of accolades around the world and was nominated for the Palme d’Or; oddly, it was ignored entirely by the Academy. The score was by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The movie’s critical reception was in general enthusiastic, and sometimes more than that. Roger Ebert concluded his rave review in the Chicago Sun–Times (January 25 2012) thus:

Swinton told me of a line in the script that wasn’t used, wisely, I believe. After you see the film, think about it. She asks Kevin why he didn’t kill her. His reply: “You don’t want to kill your audience.”

Whether the omission was wise or not (I think I disagree with Ebert on this), the line would have served beautifully to underscore the premise that Eva has been throughout the sole focus of Kevin’s malevolence, no matter who have been his actual victims, and that in a sense Eva, his obsessed audience, has created him thus because she needed him to be vile.

On We Need to Talk About Kevin and We Need to Talk About Kevin [Blu-ray]. Shriver’s novel is also available: We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

UK / 110 minutes / color / Blueprint, Film 4, BFI, Momentum Dir & Scr: Martin McDonagh Pr: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Martin McDonagh Cine: Ben Davis Cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Željko Ivanek, Linda Bright Clay, Long Nguyen, Harry Dean Stanton, Amanda Warren, Richard Wharton.

An intermittently amusing noirish black comedy, this is McDonagh’s follow-up to IN BRUGES (2008), which also starred Farrell. It’s at its best in its parodies of the Tarantino school of neonoir.

Wannabe Hollywood scriptwriter Marty Faranan (Farrell) has an idea for a screenplay title—The Seven Psychopaths—but not for the screenplay to go with it, except that it should abjure violence and promote peace and love. His best friend, actor Billy Bickle (Rockwell), moonlights for elderly Hans Kieslowski (Walken), who’s running a dognapping racket to help pay for the cancer treatments of his hospitalized wife Myra (Clay). Billy’s latest capture, Barney, is a shihtzu belonging to psycho hoodlum Charlie Costello (Harrelson), who’s prepared to commit major mayhem in order to get his pet back.

Billy feeds Marty stories about deranged killers, notably one about a Quaker (Stanton) who dogs the psychopathic murderer of his daughter until the latter, reckoning the father won’t follow him to Hell, slits his own throat . . . only to see the vengeful Quaker do likewise. Another psycho, Zachariah (Waits), responds to a newspaper ad Billy places and tells his own story, of how he and his girlfriend Maggie (Warren) in their youth were serial killers of uncaught serial killers; she left him when he balked at their savage murder of the Zodiac Killer (Wharton). A further psycho introduced tangentially is Vietnamese pseudo-priest Dinh (Nguyen), who has come to the US seeking revenge for the slaughter of his family in My Lai.

Unknown to the rest of the cast, Billy is having an affair with Angela Pavlovich (Kurylenko), Costello’s mistress; when she finds out Billy has stolen Costello’s dog, she tries to inform the gangster. To stop her, Billy murders her; it’s then that we discover what we’ve suspected all along, that he’s the infamous masked Jack o’ Diamonds Killer, who has been terrorizing Hollywood . . .

There’s much more—perhaps a bit too much more, because in the latter half of the movie the narrative seems to lose its way a tad.

Walken, playing a fairly subdued part for once, is wonderful as the sentimental old man deeply in love with his sick wife; the passages between him and Clay are genuinely touching. Rockwell is good too as the glib controller of the tale, and Waits impresses as the sincere, slightly dotty old geezer, bearing his pet rabbit everywhere, who just wants to make sure Marty gets his story straight in the script and gives him proper screen credit. Harrelson, second choice for the role of Costello after Mickey Rourke dropped out over “creative differences” with helmer McDonagh, manages brilliantly to swing between vicious brute and figure of fun—even as we’re laughing at him he instils fear in us, because we’re constantly anticipating a sadistic act from him.

On Seven Psychopaths / Les Psychopathes (Bilingual) and Seven Psychopaths (+UltraViolet Digital Copy)

Red Road (2006)

UK, Denmark / 113 minutes / color / BBC, Sigma, Zentropa, Verve Dir & Scr: Andrea Arnold Pr: Carrie Comerford Story: characters created by Lone Scherfig, Anders Thomas Jensen Cine: Robbie Ryan Cast: Kate Dickie, Tony Curran, Martin Compston, Natalie Press, Paul Higgins.

Jackie Morrison (Dickie) has the job of watching CCTV images in a downtrodden area of Glasgow, Scotland. One day she catches sight of a face that’s familiar, that of ex-con Clyde Henderson (Curran), and obsessively she begins to follow him both with the cameras and in real life, working herself close to and eventually seducing him. What is her purpose? Although clearly she recognizes him, he has at best a vague feeling he might have seen her somewhere before. The buildup to the final, devastating denouement—which is climactic in more senses than one—is long, slow and, many might say, tedious, the narrative flow being barely a trickle for perhaps the first two-thirds of the tale, and adorned by minimal soundtrack and dialogue.

This is one of projected trilogy of movies—overall title Advance Party—based on nine characters created by Scherfig and Jensen, each movie with a different director; the second in the trilogy is Donkeys (2010), while the fate of the third is currently uncertain. The movies are made roughly, if not necessarily precisely, according to the rules of the so-called Dogme 95 Manifesto, created in 1995 by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, whereby the use of hi-tech—as in special effects—is to be eschewed.

Although this was Arnold’s first feature, she had won an Oscar for the short Wasp (2003). At Cannes Red Road was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the Jury Prize; movie, cast and crew have won or been nominated for a stack of other awards.

On Red Road

Lonely Place to Die, A (2011)

UK / 99 minutes / color / Carnaby, Eigerwand, Molinare, IFC, Kaleidoscope Dir: Julian Gilbey Pr: Michael Loveday Scr: Julian Gilbey, Will Gilbey Cine: Ali Asad Cast: Melissa George, Ed Speleers, Sean Harris, Kate Magowan, Alec Newman, Stephen McCole, Garry Sweeney, Paul Anderson, Holly Boyd, Eamonn Walker, Karel Roden.

An adventure movie with a noirishly convoluted plot, so that we’re constantly being surprised by turns of events, this was misleadingly marketed in some countries as a horror outing. It’s perhaps not quite neonoir, but it’s certainly somewhere close.

A group of climbers in the Scottish Highlands comes across a place where kidnappers have cached a child, Anna (Boyd), in an underground coffin with just a ventilatory drainpipe to the surface to keep her alive. The climbers—Alison (George), Ed (Speleers), Rob (Newman), Jenny (Magowan) and Jenny’s husband Alex (Sweeney)—rescue the child and, rightly concerned the criminals may still be nearby, head for civilization as fast as they can go.

Alison and Rob, the two most experienced climbers, take the direct but most dangerous route toward the nearest village, a route that involves climbing down the sheer, 500ft (150m) Devil’s Drop; Alison’s halfway down when the bad guys—kidnappers Kidd (Harris) and Mcrae (sic) (McCole)—cut Rob’s line so that he plunges to his death.

From there on the climbers are at the mercy of the astonishingly callous criminals who, armed with hi-tech rifles, are free to pick them off one by one; what we don’t at first realize is that the kidnappers are themselves being targeted by a squad sent by Anna’s Croatian war-criminal father . . .

The opening sequence alone, set upon a treacherous cliff face, is worth the price of admission, but the movie as a whole sets out to be—and overwhelmingly succeeds in being—a white-knuckle ride. In this it’s helped in no small part by the score, done by Michael Richard Plowman; great symphonic music this ain’t, but it’s remarkably effective at ratcheting up the tension. Another aspect in which the movie triumphs is characterization: whereas in many movies with a similarly high body count the vast majority of the casualties are simply ciphers, secondary figures introduced into the screenplay solely in order to be bumped off, here the strong and sympathetic characters are just as likely as the rest to meet sudden ends. In a beautiful piece of volte face we’re led in one scene to believe that Alex is craven, that he’s proposing to sell out Anna to the bad guys, only to discover moments later that what he was really suggesting was that, since Jenny, the love of his life, has been murdered, he’s happy to sacrifice himself so Anna might live.

The movie’s major implausibility is its portrayal of a Beltane festival in a remote Scottish village, complete with fireworks and topless babes. The sequence works well, but the Gilbeys should have checked their sources: the Kirk and the climate together nix that piece of imagery.

As far as I can establish, this didn’t receive a US theatrical release, despite great success at movie festivals on both sides of the Atlantic.

On A Lonely Place to Die and A Lonely Place to Die [Blu-ray]