Calvary (2014)

★★★★

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Release Date: April 11th, 2014 (UK); August 1st, 2014 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen

John Michael McDonagh’s second venture into the directorial settee is a significant improvement on his fun but ultimately forgettable 2011 debut The Guard. In Calvary, many previously utilised elements are retained — namely Brendan Gleeson, dark comedic undertones and Ireland — but an additional steadfast formula heralding both intrigue and earnestness offers robust support to these familiarities. This time around we’re essentially presented with the makings of a whodunit mystery, only nothing has been ‘done’ yet. It’s a ploy that keeps you guessing, one that forges with bleak humour and traces of hearty emotion (just about) resultantly presenting a film worthy of the talent displayed on-screen and the guile emitted from those off-screen.

As one of the more considerate residents of Sligo, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) often finds himself at the quarrelsome mercy of those whose problems determine their lives. His priesthood is undoubtedly a factor in this invariable trust too, only said profession is one James mightn’t be too fond of presently given his life has just been threatened by a troubled voice emanating from the other side of a confession booth. “Sunday week” is seemingly his final calling, because that way he’ll have a few days to get his affairs in order. How thoughtful.

Perhaps Calvary’s greatest strength is that it manages to successfully fluctuate between a variety of modes without losing its primary sense of direction. Most obvious is the blackly comedic tone that hollowly reverberates throughout proceedings. It should come as no surprise to those well-versed in the work of the McDonagh siblings — brother Martin wrote and directed the wonderfully downbeat In Bruges — that laughs are placed on a pedestal above the occasional murmurings of insensitivity here, but each quip is genuine in nature and far from callous. The film is akin to a live-action version of Guess Who? as numerous distinct personifications manifest on screen. At one point James is informed, “Playing you though now, that might be interesting,” enforcing this odd feeling of different characters role-playing. Many of the actors are funny in their caricature mannerisms, but there are a few who especially stand out by way of effortlessly humorous portrayals. Killian Scott is particularly amusing as the naive Milo, his stoic facial expressions accentuating a comical deadpan delivery (“The war on terror has no borders”). The ignorant doctor of Sligo, Frank Harte is gauged efficiently by Aidan Gillen; funny, intimating and overtly suspicious all in equal measure.

Brendan Gleeson carries the weight of the film upon his shoulders for its entirety (the camera hardly wanders from his bearded jawline) and evokes a sense of attachment in tandem with the viewer from the get-go. It’s not necessarily sympathy that we feel — James peculiarly appears in control of his own destiny despite the threat on his life — but rather it is the priest’s accommodating presence to those around him that warmly rubs off on us with an amiable sheen. Aside from the comedy then, is a story about a man attempting to come to terms with his profession, his faith and effectively his own life. James is unable to assemble the frantic thoughts racing through his own head never mind those of others, yet he still tries: “Everything’s fine”, he says almost systematically before realising his own desperate predicament, “I mean no, everything’s not fine”.

As the film progresses director John Michael McDonagh raises the currently prominent issue of priesthood stigma, motioning towards prejudgement and the idea of tarring all with the sins of a few — we become more aware of James as a human being, somebody dealing with more problems than any it seems. A notably poignant scene towards the fraught conclusion embodies the sentiment of forgiveness and wholly captures a sincerely heartfelt air that McDonagh absolutely appears to have intentionally sought out. Calvary exhibits a serious tone that never becomes overbearing thanks largely to a number of chuckle-worthy happenings, but a serious tone that demands consideration nonetheless.

The third side of Calvary’s narrative triangle is the aforementioned murder mystery element, and it too meshes well with the other components. From the exceedingly off-kilter opening, the film garners intrigue as a tension builds. There are constant references to sinning, to death and wrong-doing, remarks almost always aimed indirectly at James (“Evil thoughts floating around”). These serve as frequent reminders amongst the raft of humour and seriousness that there is a conundrum demanding solution. Though some characters occupy characteristics too obvious to be genuinely threatening, McDonagh’s dialogue-driven plot ensures that just about anybody could be the instigator of violence. Maybe the knife-wielder is Dylan Moran’s upper-class hedonist Fitzgerald, or perhaps it is Kelly Reilly’s distressed Fiona Lavelle who has her hand on the trigger — there are more than enough candidates offered up to consistently make us doubt ourselves as we attempt to play detective alongside Father James. One thing is for sure: as wide-shots of vast drumlins are shown leering over the town of Sligo, a progressively uneasy mentality begins to unfairly haunt our lead.

After an exceedingly well-executed hour and a half that sufficiently garners enough pent-up curiosity, Calvary does sadly struggle to keep a lid on proceedings during the final act. Events come across as slightly rushed without meaningful conviction, and one or two questions remain unanswered — though not in a self-inquisitive way, but rather completely unnecessarily.

With the exception of a far from catastrophic concluding blot, Calvary admirably manages to juggle humour, intrigue and seriousness without compromising any element. Presently, after the completion of two native outings, John Michael McDonagh isn’t all that far from replicating his brother’s In Bruges-esque achievement, a pretty darn good feat in itself.

Flight (2012)

★★★★

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Release Date: November 2nd, 2012 (US); February 1st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller

Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood

It does not take long for Robert Zemeckis’ Flight to race into full throttle and deliver the intense plane crash scene from which much of the buzz surrounding the film has emanated. However, the film quickly switches gears and ends up spending most of its time delving into a more subtly intense story about a man’s plight against addiction — a ruthless concoction of lies, alcohol and drugs succinctly summed up by the lead character’s quip, “Don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking”. It becomes a dramatic character study rather than an event-driven thriller, and with each extra lie that Denzel Washington’s Whip tells, or additional drink he swigs, you just want to give him a shake and remind the heroic pilot that he can be a decent human being.

Whip Whitaker is a seemingly disenfranchised airline pilot who spends his evenings with co-workers (more specifically, air hostesses) in hotel rooms partaking in substantial alcohol consumption and drug use — and that is only on pre-flight nights. He awakens from his extravagantly unprofessional routine one morning both sleep-deprived and lumbersome, before heading out to captain a flight to Atlanta. After successfully, and somewhat surprisingly, manoeuvring his plane through a bout of rough turbulence, an alcohol-influenced Whip is forced to execute an emergency landing in a field. A plane crash is a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes event that, for the vast majority of us, is something only experienced through the likes of news reports or documentaries. Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess do a nail-bitingly horrifying job of emulating the chaos, destruction and terror of such an event, far eclipsing the director’s tumultuous Cast Away aviation incident. Washington’s poise is both unsettling and admirable as a captain who is just as dependent on booze and drugs as his passengers are on his flying skills.

Whip awakens in hospital a hero to the public but quietly uncertain and continuously seeking reassurance over his role in the crash. “My [condition] had nothing to do with the plane falling apart,” is often closely followed by, “Nobody could’ve landed that plane like I did”. The film does not shy away from making clear that the doomed aircraft was a result of mechanical failure, but a combination of Whip’s pre-flight misdemeanours and post-crash internal conflict raises doubt. Is there the possibility that Whip’s demons lead to the accident? Zemeckis’ direction plays a role in casting this ambiguity over proceedings, however Washington’s depiction of a man unravelling creates doubt not where there should be none, but where there is none.

The Academy Award winner has the stench of alcohol protruding from him throughout the film and stands out, in particular, in two scenes of mental jousting. The first, soon after cleansing himself and his life of all toxic substances by way of sink or toilet, sees a fidgety Whip down his first drink in the knowledge that he is facing potential criminal prosecution. The second comes towards the end of the film where Whip is surrounded by people, but more alone than ever as he juggles morals in his head. It is testament to Denzel Washington’s acting abilities that he ensures Whip commands sympathy in spite of all of his negative traits. Perhaps this is partially down to those traits tearing away at nobody but Whip himself — “What life?” is how highly he regards his existence. It is eerily fitting that said traits, which without aid are leading to the downfall of the man himself, are also responsible for saving the lives of many others.

Flight is not without faults. The film does an excellent job of creating the Kelly Reilly character, Nicole, who sets off in the same place as Whip but ends up moving in the opposite direction. Reilly is convincing as a manipulable heroin addict trying to turn her life around, and she shares an intriguing if not entirely believable relationship with Whip (although this lack of believability is probably the point). However her character fails to really go anywhere. There is also a very noticeable comedy element which rears its jokey head every so often, and every so often it fails to fit in with dark nature of events. Or at least is should fail. Bizarrely, the humour provides some welcome light relief, with John Goodman often the vehicle of funny. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood succeed in their semi-conflicting roles (both are there to help Whip, but only one shows affection towards him). James Badge Dale also makes a scene-stealing cameo as a dying man in the hospital and delivers film’s best one-liner after receiving a carton of cigarettes from Whip.

Ultimately, Flight sets out to tell the story of a man struggling through addiction while encased in special circumstances, and it does this very well. Denzel Washington’s engrossing performance at times teeters on the incredible, and just like the Coke can that follows Whip around his hotel room reminding him of what he cannot have, Washington’s prominence on screen provides another reminder of just how great a performer he is. Not that anybody needed reminding.

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Horror

Horror is a vast genre that encompasses a wide variety of sub-topics and thus it is difficult to whittle down such a large volume of films to a few personal favourites. Therefore, rather than pick five horror films of similar ilk, I have decided to select five different styles of horror film. Of the five, some will have similar characteristics, whilst others will not — that is just the nature of horror — but this way I have at least attempted to vary each pick.

I would also like to mention that I’m fairly new to the horror craze having not really been attracted to the genre before 2010. But everything is well now, I have seen the light. Or dark, I guess.

Eden Lake (2008)

Eden Lake is a British horror film released in 2008 starring Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender as a couple seeking a peaceful, idyllic retreat. After settling in Eden Lake in the English countryside, their hopes for a relaxing break are quickly dashed when a group of unruly, violent youths decide to interfere.

This was filmed and released before Fassbender had really hit the big time and both his performance alongside Kelly Reilly’s (who recently starred in Flight with Denzel Washington) are one of the two reasons behind the success of this film. Not only are their performances convincing — which is often lost in horror — they are also harrowing, and this correlates nicely with the second proponent of this film’s success: it really is a horrifying watch. Rather than relying on scares, director James Watkins focuses on realism — even though the events of this film are somewhat rare, their depiction is realistic and they unfortunately do occur. The horror is delivered through the authentic nature of the film and, as a result, it is often an agonising and disturbing watch. Although it is gory at times, the gore is not over the top and did not take my focus away from the film, which again can be a detriment to some horror outings.

This is the kind of horror that gets to me most, when the events happening throughout the film are not illogical or far-fetched, but instead plausible, and that is what Eden Lake is all about.

Saw (2004)

“I’m so hungry — I just want to order a pizza!”

From the realistic to the highly unrealistic, 2004 delivered the beginnings of the gruesome, and eventually repetitive, Saw franchise. Although the Saw films did in the end amount to gore and nothing else, the original Saw — filmed independently before being swept up by Lionsgate — was not only intriguing and encapsulating, it was also smart. That is correct, a smart horror film — they do actually exist.

I do not think I need to outline the plot of Saw as I imagine most people who are reading this are already aware of the premise (two men stuck in a room: how did they get there, who put them there, what have they got in common? and so on). All I will say is that this is a prime example of a horror film that can appeal to both fans of blood and guts and also to those who want more of a challenge when watching a film. It is without doubt a shame that the later additions to the franchise were so disappointing, but at the end of the day those films all stemmed from the success of the first — so I cannot complain really.

Not as gory as the later films, but far more intelligent and gripping, director James Wan has created a genius piece of cinema in regards to Saw.

Triangle (2009)

Another British horror film, Triangle, directed by Christopher Smith and starring Melissa George and Liam Hemsworth, is of psychological descent. Released in 2009, the film follows Melissa George and a group of friends who get caught up in an electrical storm while on a boat trip. Fearing for their lives, they spot an oncoming cruise ship and climb on board… but all is not what it seems.

I had never heard of Triangle before I was recommended it by a friend — it was not commercially successful at all, grossing around a measly £260,000 on its opening weekend. I can only attribute this to a lack of publicity for the film or not enough people knowing about Triangle, because critically it was lauded. Melissa George is tremendous as the lead and the likes of Liam Hemsworth solidly support her. The twist completely caught me off-guard and film as a whole is scary and haunting. Smith manages the psychological aspect of the horror exceptionally well, ensuring the pace of film is upheld and there is no lull in the proceedings.

Daring, thought-provoking and creepy — Triangle exemplifies great psychological horror.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

“I’m here to apply for the vacant lumberjack position.”

Billed as one of the most shocking films ever made when it opened in cinemas in 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still as scary and intense in the present day. The film follows a group of friends who find themselves being hunted by a family of maniacal cannibals out in rural Texas. Directed by Tobe Hooper and starring a relatively unknown cast at the time, the film was banned in many countries across the world as it was claimed the film was too difficult for audiences to watch.

Everything about this film is terrifying: the antagonists, the setting, the atmosphere, and the music all adds up to an extremely chilling and unnerving experience. Perhaps the films’ greatest achievement is hardly using any violence whatsoever to create the horror, but rather forcing the audience into an uncomfortable viewing environment as a result of its consistently edgy plot created by a sense of helplessness the characters feel and the predicament we see them in. Then there is also that scene in the minivan with the hitchhiker — what is going on there? This film has a huge upside in that it is timeless. There have been many remakes, sequels and prequels (Texas Chainsaw splattered cinemas back in January of this year) but the original remains the cornerstone of horror in my opinion.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has gone on to be revered as one of the greatest horror films ever made and rightly so, it is an excruciating horror classic.

Scream (1996)

For me, the best all-round slasher film ever made is the first Scream film. Directed by horror king Wes Craven and starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, the film is set in the fictional town of Woodbury where a series of violent murders have been committed by an unknown assailant dressed all in black with a “Ghostface” mask on.

Scream has it all: scares, laughs, intrigue and cleverness. Released in 1996, it is often credited as the film that revitalised the slasher genre after a massive loss of interest in them throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend were born out of this re-emergence of slasher horror due to the success of Scream.  The script is witty and jumpy, harping back to old slasher classics like Friday the 13th and Halloween, and even incorporating the ‘rules of horror’ and ‘horror clichés’ in a satirical form. The classic whodunit format plays out both in an engrossing and comedic manner, whilst the cast perform their individual roles very well. One of the greatest upsides of not just Scream, but the franchise as a whole, is the consistency throughout the films. Unlike Saw before where the repetition of plot points became too much as the films progressed, the Scream franchise just about manages to overcome that repetition problem. Although I admit the third instalment gets a little jaded towards the end, the return to Woodbury ten years on in Scream 4 felt fresh — and creepy — once again.

The collective Scream franchise is tremendous in my view, but the first Scream film was a resounding success critically, commercially and in every other way. What else can I say: Scream might just top the horror genre for me.

 

Just before I end I’d like to relay a few honourable mentions:

The Birds (1963) — How can I write a horror blog post without including the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in some way? The Birds is just that: full of suspense.

The Shining (1980) — Perhaps one of the most iconic images in cinematic history is Jack Nicholson sticking his head through a bathroom door he has just axed apart and exclaiming, “Heeere’s Johnny!”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) — The ultra-creepy portrayal of Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins is one of the scariest performances of all time, not to mention Jodie Foster’s exceptional take on a young FBI agent tasked to take advice from Lecter in order to catch another serial killer.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) — Though not considered to be anywhere close to one of the best horror films of all time, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this. A group of teens stuck in the middle of nowhere being stalked by a crazy guy — what more do you want?

Funny Games (2007) — I have not seen Haneke’s original Austrian version, only the 2007 US remake. If what I am hearing about the original being better is true, I cannot wait to see it because this is harrowing — but in an impressive way.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) — This was the closest of the lot to making into my top five, and maybe it should be there. It divides opinion like Marmite, but The Cabin in the Woods is a highly entertaining horror film with an unbelievable twist. I will say no more. Just watch it.

Please feel free to list your top five in the comments section if you wish!