Tag Archives: crime

The Girl on the Train

“When I saw her, with him, I felt nothing but rage.”

I’ve said it before. Super-twisty crime-thrillers are a real favourite of mine. To immerse myself in a film for a couple of hours wondering whether or not I’ve figured out the inevitable twist is one of my favourite things to do. Second only really to watching a good horror film.

I’d been looking forward to The Girl on the Train for quite some time. Not least of all because Emily Blunt is nothing short of amazing and the trailers made it look like this year’s Gone Girl – more on that later – but also because a good thriller can be quite hard to come by sometimes. This one looked to scratch the itch well.

Blunt plays Rachel Watson, a woman who spends her commute to the city in the same seat every day, staring out of the same window of her train. Most days, the train slows down at the exact same point on the tracks allowing Rachel a glimpse into the same few houses and the same few inhabitants, just for a couple of minutes. She concocts stories for the families she sees, connecting with these total strangers better than anyone she knows in real life. Watching married couple Scott and Megan Hipwell (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett) live what she thinks is the perfect life, she purposely fills herself with jealousy staring at the life she wants.

When Rachel sees Megan apparently cheating on her other half, this fires up a rage in her that she hasn’t experienced before. The near psychotic alcoholic makes the decision to get off the train a few stops early and confront the woman that’s ruined her fantasy for her. Chasing Megan under a railway bridge, drunk and hurling abuse, Watson sets in motion a series of events that (whilst she doesn’t remember it) ends in the disappearance of the unfaithful Megan and a police investigation that may, or may not, have The Girl on the Train as their main suspect. Rachel fights to prove her innocence and rescue her sanity as her world starts to crumble around her.

The Girl on the Train screams of a film rushed into production because a certain other film based on a book was received so very well. But the sad fact is, this flick is nowhere near as good as it’s advertised to be.

The film’s story is almost incomprehensible as its flashbacks try to set the scene while simultaneously telling her story in the present day. But with nothing discernibly separating the flashbacks from the current scenes, you’re left wondering for longer than you should be about what part of the timeline you are watching. It seems that The Help director Tate Taylor had a few ideas that he wanted in his film, but either didn’t take, or ignored, advice on whether or not these things should be in his movie. Smash cutting blurry flashbacks might be trying to convey the feeling of trying to remember what you done when you were drunk, for example, but all it did was leave me feeling like I need to go have a word with the projectionist for fuzzing up my film. It’s so grossly over directed that nothing really got to shine in the two hours I was watching it for. The same can be said for its editing; shredded to within an inch of its life, The Girl on the Train is just a mess of a film to watch.

Blunt is trying very hard, and she’s always good to watch, but even she can’t rescue the film. Her performance is easily the best thing about the flick, but to say that I’m damning her with faint praise would be understating it quite a bit. Her perfect couple are decent to watch: Luke Evans and Haley Bennett are passable as a happy-on-the-surface couple, but Evans doesn’t really convince me when things start to go tits up. Similarly, Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson as Rachel’s ex-husband and new wife, caught up in the middle of our main character’s psychotic break, feel like an afterthought for a large portion rather than the quiet subplot that they are. It’s a shame to watch a few well-known actors, who all have a decent role or two on their IMDB page, do such a clunky job of telling this story.

For a film relentlessly marketed like the next Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train doesn’t even have the chops to sit on the same shelf as Fincher’s superb thriller. Every ad made us believe we were off so see another beautifully twisted thriller that would leave you pondering the-girl-on-the-trainafter it was done. Sadly, once you got through the dodgy direction and erratic editing, what we were left with was something so bland and formulaic that to call its twist a “twist” would be close to false advertising.

Suburra

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“Leave. Now. We mourn alone.”

Google Translate reliably tells me that the title for this almost unheard of Italian crime thriller, Suburra, means “slum”. I can tell you, that this grimy little tale of crime and corruption certainly fits its name.

Ostia, a waterfront area on the outskirts of Rome, is prime real estate in a country on the brink of financial turmoil. Desperate to make it the next Las Vegas or Atlantic City; a respected old school middle man has brokered deals across the city with everyone to make it happen. Using tried and tested methods – murder, extortion, all the favourites from The Sopranos‘ handbook – a man known as “Samurai” has done everything from guarantee a law needed for the work is passed to securing deals to buy the land he wants to convert.

Everyone involved finds themselves on a downward trajectory though, when paid-off politician Filippo Malgradi (Marco Polo’s Pierfrancesco Favino) finds himself with a dead hooker on his hands after an evening of debauchery. After cleaning up his mess with a little help from a local rent-a-thug, Malgradi sets himself on a path that will have him cross paths with not just the mafia(s), but a family of terrifying gypsies – who’s head, Manfredi, looks like the bastard lovechild of Tom Sizemore and Vincent D’Onofrio – and almost everyone else with more than a passing acquaintance with the darker corners of Rome’s underworld.

As everyone’s selfish interests soon start to unravel Samurai’s wheeling and dealing, he can only watch as the criminal underworld implodes on itself.

Remember a few months ago when the posters promised you that Triple 9 was “the crime film of the year”? Yeah, forget all that. I’ve found your crime film of the year ladies and gentlemen; its brought to you by Stefano Sollima – the man behind Gomorrah – and it’s simply outstanding.

Spaced across a week, Suburra‘s story is one that has been told time and time again, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best told stories I’ve seen in a while. From the opening frames the film seems to be a quiet, subtle affair with as much focus on the uncertain political landscape of Italy as we have on the criminal element of what’s to come.

But with the first gruesome murder – a man hit at a ridiculously high speed and bounced across the road – you’re quickly shown the true tone of the film you’ve sat down to watch. Then, somewhere around an hour into this twisting and turning flick, the pieces fall into place and the stories that were on the brink of intertwining are suddenly mashed together and all hell breaks loose, letting the film wrap itself up in a tense, thrilling finale.

If it was in English, you could easily mistake Suburra for a Martin Scorsese film, such is its stellar direction and story telling. It’s an absolute travesty that this film has got such a limited theatrical release. Luckily, sensible heads have prevailed and allowed the film to go to your VOD method of choice. So, if like me you’d have a long and expensive journey to see it at the flicks, you can rent a copy and watch it at home. Hopefully, with a Netflix exclusive follow-up TV series due next year, this spectacular little film will get a little more attention.

Point Break

Point Break

“This is my path. Let me follow it.”

We’ve all said these words haven’t we?

“Why does Hollywood keep remaking stuff. Just come up with something original.”

Back in 1991, when Kathryn Bigelow made the original Point Break is was just that, original. A young, newly transferred FBI agent reluctantly goes undercover on the beaches of Los Angeles when a hair-brained theory emerges that a string of unsolvable bank robberies are being perpetrated by surfers. Pretty unique, if you ask me.

So, in the latest move from Hollywood’s remake machine – the churn-em-out-o-matic 3000 – we get a dulled down, 12 rated cop “thriller” based around the world of extreme sport. Ladies and gentlemen, Point Break.

After tragedy hits extreme sports star and Monster energy drink peddler Johnny Utah, while working on his most insane YouTube video, the motocross star hangs up his helmet and works to join the FBI. In his last days at the academy, Utah and his class are introduced to a daredevil band of thieves who defeat impossible odds to make their score and make their getaway. With a willingness to go further than the police are to chase them, the bandits seem unstoppable as they dare to ride motorbikes out of a 100 storey window and parachute to safety.

But Utah knows this world. Quickly figuring out that these thieves are trying to complete the “Ozaki Eight”; a series of trials and ordeals that a person must go through to become one with the Earth. The robberies they commit are the groups way of taking from the rich and the corrupt and returning it to those that need it – like Robin Hood, but on surfboards, and bikes, and snowboards, and without the pansy green tights – Utah convinces his superiors he can bring these guys to justice and is sent to the location of the next trial to meet up with his new partner, Pappas, and sets about infiltrating the group. Insanity ensues as the extreme sportsman proves himself to the daring robbers and attempts to put an end to their crimes, and their journey of enlightenment.

I refuse to be completely negative about this flick, so I’ll start with the one good bit Point Break has; its sports action scenes look great. They are filmed well and look absolutely gorgeous. Sadly, that’s the only good thing I can say about this two hour farce of a movie.

Right, let’s get down to this. Point Break fails miserably as a remake of what is a great cop thriller. The entire, err, point, of the original is that Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah spends the movie gaining enlightenment where the men he’s chasing have already achieved what they we’re searching for. Here, Utah (a nickname in the remake, he mentioned his real name once but I forgot/couldn’t be bothered to remember it) is trying to stop these guys seeking nirvana. He makes no personal growth, no feeling that he might not be doing the right thing, there’s no struggle for this former peddler of energy drinks outside of having to live with the bloody awful hairstyle the FBI have apparently let him keep.

Moving on, for those that haven’t seen the original; Bodie and his crew of “Ex-Presidents” – another detail missing from this abomination – are bank robbers. Not murderers. It’s not their way, it’s not what they’re about and it damn sure isn’t the best way to keep yourself out of prison; with the first death at one of their robberies being where things start to go horribly wrong. New Bodie – or Bro-die, as I will now be calling him – however, seems to be perfectly content leaving bodies everywhere he goes. It doesn’t just miss the point of the original, it’s in direct contradiction to the idea of “giving back to the earth” and “finding nirvana and enlightenment” that this waste of film tries to convince us is the point to the groups existence.

This abomination of a film, with almost no redeeming value as entertainment, is a completely lifeless waste of your time. To call it macho is to give it far too much credit and its actors far too much praise. Point Break only really serves to show us what imbeciles these guys look like as they potter around, using stupid made-up words like poly-athlete and pretending to be doing good and giving back as they take sponsorship from a rich Arab dude who lives vicariously through these idiots. Bodie and Utah, the charismatic pair with genuine love and admiration for each other in the original have been turned into a couple of brofisting cocks with all the personality and charisma of an old condom found on the beach. The not-very-dynamic duo spend the almost two hour runtime throwing cups full of old hangover piss over the memory of arguably one of the best cop films of the early nineties.

I can’t imagine this film, which is nothing more than a twat filled douche canoe, populated with very bad tattoos and topknots on cardboard cutouts of unlikeable bellends, having anything for audiences that have never seen the classic Point Break outside of some very nice snowboarding footage – which, to be honest, comes part of a much more enjoyable film if you can sit through xXx – but for fans of the original, this will have you rummaging through your pockets for anything you can push through your eyes, just to make the pain of what you’re watching end. To call this remake pointless and unnecessary is more than stating the obvious at this point, it’s an awful experience that serves no purpose other than to take up screen space where a decent film could have been shown.

Black Mass

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“And just fucking like that, I was one of them. And I was a big fucking deal.”

So yeah, I’ve been falling out of love with Johnny Depp pretty hard this last few years. Outside of a couple of… let’s say interesting turns in films like Rango and The Rum Diaries, his appearances on the big screen have been lacklustre at best and just plain awful at worst. I mean, what in the name of Jesus beaten left testicle was going on in Tusk? It’s all good that you’ve got more money than God and you can take your pick of projects, but why the hell would you pick The Lone Ranger?

But… But, but, but! I do love me a good crime drama, the closer to true life the better and with 2009’s Public Enemies and 1997’s Donnie Brasco, Depp stars in two of my favourites. Stupid recent roles aside, I had high expectations for Mr Depp’s turn as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass.

Directed by Scott Cooper – of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace fame – and based on the biographical book of the same name, Black Mass is the true story of James Bulger, a small time crook that became the most powerful gangster in South Boston with the help of his gang, his politician brother and – to coin the subtitle of the book and the tagline on the film poster – his unholy alliance with the FBI.

Kicking off in 1975, we are told Whitey’s story from a police interview room as they question henchman Kevin Weeks, a doorman who impressed Bulger by standing his ground and taking a beating doing his job. Quickly becoming Bulger’s driver and playing the part of his muscle makes him the perfect guy to tell the story of the next twenty years to us, and the police. As Weeks spills the beans on Whitey’s past endeavours, we meet the man while he’s just a small time hoodlum working he way up to full blown gangster status; not far removed from a prison stint that included three years in Alcatraz, Bulger spends his days working his way through South Boston making sure everyone knows that he is the guys to be scared of. At the same time, James’ politician brother William is keeping himself busy protecting his sibling, keeping him safe from prying eyes and organising meetings with John Connelly, an FBI agent that really wants to be a dirty cop and sees the Bulger brothers as the best way to do that.

The twisting stories between gangster Whitey, politician brother Jimmy and terrible bad cop Connelly span nearly two decades. From the rise of his Winter Hill mob into organised crime and his rivalry with the Angiulo brothers of North Boston that eventually led to his conspiring with the FBI; to Bulger’s eventual fleeing Boston, the law, and his rivalries to stay alive and out of prison.

Black Mass is all about the performances. While the tale it’s weaving is great and Cooper’s direction and story telling style are amazing, it’s the stellar cast and superb acting from almost all of them that make this film stand out. First and foremost is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of local gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, his time on screen is almost flawless. Sure, his makeup is a little dodgy and he looks a bit like a 50 year old Draco Malfoy, but Depp is suitably evil in every scene he is in and has mastered the craft of the psycho eyes that make him just terrifying – one scene where he threatens a copper with “the last thing I’d do if I was planning to harm you, is fucking warn you about it” may be the scariest thing I see in a weekend that includes a Crimson Peak screening. It’s the role that has restored a little love and faith in Johnny Depp and may he pull performances like this one from here on in.

Depp’s support is almost perfect too. Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent John Connelly, the agent that comes dangerously close to being a bungling fool in the grand scheme of things but is just dying to be hot shit is great. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for Edgerton, but he does the simple role very, very well. Jesse Plemons – a guy I only know from the excellent Friday Night Lights – essentially plays two parts; Kevin Weeks the big time gangster’s muscle and Kevin Weeks the informant driving the narration forward for us and in both roles he shines. Quickly erasing the teenage football player image I had for him and making him a bit of a bad ass. Maybe the biggest mis-step in casting comes in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch. Now I have a lot of time for the Sherlock actor, but his casting as Whitey’s politician brother Billy seems like stunt casting at its worst. Not because he’s bad or because he’s used to sell the film, but just to say “we got Cumberbatch in our flick” and it really wasn’t necessary; he just doesn’t seem to fit the role that he’s been given. With appearances from Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson and Rory Cochrane all running in support, Black Mass has more than enough acting chops on screen to keep almost anyone entertained.

Overall, Black Mass is excellent. It’s an interesting slice of time from the crime stories of Boston and while it comes across a little like a true story version of The Departed mixed with a slightly unhealthy dose of wanting to be Goodfellas, it is an amazing way to spend a couple of hours. It pains me to say it, in a year that had Tom Hardy starring in a Kray twins film, but Black Mass may be the best crime film you can see this year.

Sicario

“You’re asking how a clock works. For now, concentrate on the time.”

Every now and then, a director comes along that outshines most of the competition. Amongst a slew of films that all kind of meld into one giant movie when you watch as many as I do, it’s great when you find someone you can latch on to that guarantees quality, or fun, or whatever measure you use to find the ones you love. In recent years, names like Antoine Fuqua and David Ayer have risen up and given me a yardstick to measure my entertainment against. Now, following up his 2013 Jake Gyllenhaal double bill of Prisoners and Enemy, Denis Villeneuve has guaranteed himself a spot on that list for me with his latest film; drug war crime drama Sicario.

After a speedy rise through the FBI’s ranks, Emily Blunt’s bad ass door-kicker Kate Macer has made a bit of a name for herself. A tough agent who spends her days raiding drug dens and chasing the tail end of cartel bad guys trying to make even a slight dent in the war on drugs. After a particularly important raid that turns several shades of nasty, Macer and her partner are dragged in front of the director of the FBI; but instead of raking her across the coals for letting the shit hit the fan, she’s handed the opportunity to spend some time on the other side of the border with a joint task force chasing down an all but invisible drug lord buried in the war zone that is Juarez, Mexico.

Handed over to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a veteran of the war on stuff you can snort and the guy in charge of this little jolly across the border; Macer joins a colourful cast of soldiers, spooks and spies as they head into Mexico to get their hands on a man that can point them in the direction of the local Pablo Escobar wannabe and get the group closer to making a big play or two in the war on the cartels. Tagging along for the ride is Graver’s adviser Alejandro Gillick; a mysteriously quiet man in a suit, quite obviously haunted by his baggage and much more dangerous than he looks. Together, the group are going to do whatever it takes to get their job done and, all things being well, get everyone home in one piece having removed a major part of the Mexican-American drug trade.

Tension is the order of the day with Sicario, Villeneuve has honed his craft over the last couple of years and this film is the culmination of all his work. I mean, if you thought Prisoners was tense and edge-of-your-seat, this flick will have you slipping off of that edge in almost every scene as this tale of bad guys being hunted down by not quite so bad guys plays out along the badlands of the Mexican border. Emily Blunt’s tough chick proving herself in a men’s world has to tow the fine lines between legitimate and illegal, between doing good and doing the right thing, all while searching within herself for the conviction still be an agent on the right side of the law.

The story unfolds at an excellent pace. No sooner are we getting over the imagery of the horrific opening scenes that we’ve been subjected to are we heading into Mexico to start the shady agency’s assault on the drug traffickers. And shady is definitely the word; between Matt Graver’s antics on each side of the fence that doesn’t so much dance along that legal line as it does conveniently forget it’s there from time to time, and Alejandro Gillick’s reserved “consultant” who talks in riddles but, when things go south, shows glimpses of just how lethal he can be; we get to ride along as these men put their lives at risk to do the right thing, whether you or Kate Macer agree with their tactics or not.

To say much more would risk spoilers for a film that should be watched with as little exposure to the story as possible. Not that this films breaks much new ground with its story, but for me to reveal the key points of what isn’t available from watching the trailer would do a real disservice to the film. I would say though, that it’s difficult to pick a stand out part of the movie. Denis Villeneuve’s direction is amazing; the imagery he puts on the screen is as awe-inspiring as it is disturbing, his pacing has the film’s two hour run-time feeling good and brisk and his choices for casting are perfect. The film’s stars do a brilliant job of bringing some of the best performances I’ve seen this year. Ok, so I think Emily Blunt should be handed every role, for every film. I think while everyone is talking about a black Bond, we should actually be talking about a woman; and I think it should be Emily Blunt. Sicario does nothing to change my mind as she pulls out a great performance as the excellent but slightly naive agent trying to understand what’s going on while beautifully side-stepping the feminist/strong woman/we don’t need men argument that so many roles like this one bring up but simply don’t need to happen (just enjoy your films for shit’s sake, not everything needs to make a statement). In perfect contrast to Blunt’s Kate Macer is Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick; in my favourite role for Del Toro since The Usual Suspects, this man with a past is equal parts terrifying and awesome! By the end of the film I was ready to get up and cheer for this man that’d been carved out by his past and set loose on the cartels.

The bottom line, is that Sicario is a masterclass in how to build a great thriller. Every scene is oozing with tension, every performance is screaming for awards nods and every shot is beautifully directed. I went in hoping for a half decent flick to try and erase Traffic from my memory, I came out two hours later with a sure-fire top five film of 2015 for my list. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Sicario is a close to perfect, unmissable film.

The 35th Cambridge Film Festival: Cruel

cambridge film festival logoThe Cambridge Film Festival, the UK’s third longest-running film festival returns 3rd – 13th September 2015 for its 35th edition, at the Arts Picturehouse, the Light Cinema and other venues across Cambridge. One of the UK’s most prestigious and well-respected film festivals, 2015 also celebrates Festival Director Tony Jones’s 30th anniversary with the festival, which has been shaped by Tony’s passion and exceptional knowledge of cinema.

This year’s festival features specially selected screenings for everyone, from parents with babies to retirees, the programme offers a diverse mix of films of short and feature length spanning different genres including 7 World Premieres, 55 UK Premieres, with films from more than 30 countries, plus special guests and complementary events and workshops, all scheduled at convenient times and locations. The Cambridge Film Festival is operated by the charitable Cambridge Film Trust and funded by BFI Film Forever. You can find out more about the festival at their website: http://www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk/

In today’s article, Andrew Brooker takes a look at the French dark crime drama, Cruel.


by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

“There’s no one left in his head. He’s gone”

Imagine being so bored in your life, so depressed with your situation or just so annoyed at the world that the only way to vent your frustrations is murder. Now imagine being so evil that you don’t simply kill your victims, but you toy with them for days beforehand. To spend your time meticulously planning a kidnapping so no one would know it was you keeping these people in your basement for your own twisted pleasures. Now imagine realising after years of no one knowing you were doing this, that you want to be noticed for what your doing! You nasty, attention seeking psychopath!

Unfortunately for Pierre, this is exactly the life he’s living. Spending his days in meaningless, menial jobs that make little or no difference to the world; coming home to look after his father who is suffering from sever Alzheimer’s disease and needs constant round-the-clock care that is ruining his finances and not having any way to vent his frustrations on the world that’s been so cruel to him. His solution? To be cruel right back. Pierre spends his free time either in the company of people he has kidnapped and locked in his basement, or out stalking and meticulously planning the abduction of his next victim.

Pierre torments his victims, spending his time getting to know them and their lives and always leaving them with a glimmer of hope that they may get out of their horrific situation alive; right up until he chooses his desired instrument and snuffs out the light in their eyes. Taking great delight in writing all his experiences down in his diary and confessing his crimes to the one and only person he can trust to forget everything he has said, his already suffering father. This method of coping seems to work for Pierre until, almost simultaneously, two very different things happen to him. First, he finds his need for attention suddenly growing. Wanting recognition for his work, the usually very careful serial killer finds himself taking risks in order to get the thrill of being noticed. At the same time, he meets Laure; a woman he takes an instant liking to in a way he’s never experienced before. As he finds his feeling for the young woman growing, he feels the need to kill may be disappearing, leaving him to these new feelings that are far more pleasant to deal with.

Probably the most interesting part of Cruel is how cruel it isn’t. The film takes the parts that, more often than not in these films, are gratuitous and over the top and hides them in shadow, or obscures them behind walls and leaves what we would usually have as the “gory bits” to our imagination. Instead, this debut feature from a celebrated French crime writer chooses subtlety and narration by giving us a peek behind the curtain and letting us watch Pierre unravel from the inside. We get to watch his conflicts play out and to watch the good and bad sides of this quiet killer fight it out out at the same time, vying for control of the man that desperately wants his demons to leave him be and let him spend his time in the company of a woman that is bringing out the best of him.

As serial killer films go, Cruel is far closer to the quieter, more low-key parts of films like American Psycho and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than it is the violent, sadistic sides of them and their ilk. It’s a thoroughly interesting look at the internal conflict of our main character and has been beautifully filmed and brought to the screen with care and attention, even if it does use a little too much of that French accordion in the score.

Cruel is showing tomorrow night (Monday 7th September) at 19:00 over at The Light. You can find out more about Cruel and book tickets at the Cambridge Film Festival website.

Child 44

Bleak and depressing, but not for the reasons it should be.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

child 44 1“The film is never as good as the book”. I’ve spent so many hours arguing the point when people say that to me. Of course the book is better, it’s a book. It can make me spend 40 minutes reading about a few not-so-important details that a film, if it’s lucky, gets a minute or two to show me. “Just read the book, it’s much better”. Usually, the people that tell me that don’t, or can’t, appreciate what a filmmaker and his writers have to do to get those hundreds of detailed pages onto the screen and keep it interesting. Of course, that doesn’t excuse films like Eragon or The DaVinci Code in any way, shape or form from being the disgraceful waste of celluloid that they are, but as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t be comparing the two.

Now I try, I really do, to read the books before I see the film, it’s just a habit I got into years ago. If I can’t, I try very hard to get it read later. So when more than a couple of friends, and my wife, insisted “don’t see the film until you’ve read the book” I made it a goal to get Child 44 read before the film came out this week. Sadly, I let them all down. As I write this, my Kindle is teasing me, essentially calling me a failure as it tells me I only got 54% of Tom Rob Smith’s Soviet set crime thriller read before I headed to my local multiscreen to take the lazy option and watch the rest of the book while I stuff my face with popcorn. So as much as I was hoping I could write this review as a comparison to the book and, good or bad, show just how fruitless some of these statements can be, it’s just a regular old review from me today I’m afraid.

Critically acclaimed book aside, and forgetting that the cynic in me knows that Child 44 is the first book in a trilogy and we all know how that’s going to play out, have you seen that cast list? It’s a veritable who’s who of modern greats that should all, someday, have a list of awards they’ve won long enough to fill one of those books we should be reading. Between them, the acting talents of the names on that one-sheet and their collective filmographies should pique the interest of almost anyone with even half an interest in movies. For the fourth time that I can recall, the amazingly talented (and personal favourite) Tom Hardy is sharing the screen with the sublime Gary Oldman, and whether or not you go into this film knowing or caring about the story, you know that with those two in the cast list, it’s going to be a spectacle worth spending your £12 on this weekend. It’s got to be. Right? Well….

Set in early 1950’s Stalinist Russia, Child 44 sees Tom Hardy take on the role of Leo Demidov, a survivor of Stalin’s famine based war on Ukraine of the 1930’s, a hero of the Second World War and a high ranking member of the MBG, the Russian Ministry of State Security, or as we, post-cold war would possibly call them, the Russian Secret Police. A man who loves the republic that he serves and follows orders blindly in an age where innocence doesn’t exist. An age where a person can be arrested, tortured and executed for almost anything that could be construed as “not in the best interests of the state”. Corruption is rife and to be on the wrong side of it more often than not means not being around very long to fight against it.

Leo finds himself on the worse side of the State’s law when he refuses to name is wife, Raisa, as a capitalist spy. Believing her name to have been planted on a list by envious, vindictive junior agent Vasili Nikitin, played by the surprisingly decent Joel Kinnaman, who’s out to teach Leo a lesson after he embarrassed him while on assignment. His refusal to denounce his wife leaves Leo exiled to a little industrial town and left under the command of Gary Oldman’s General Nesterov, the head of the militia and a man as proud and loyal to his country as he is suspicious of Leo and Raisa’s presence in his town. Together, Demidov and Nesteroy stumble upon a serial child killer case that has been brushed under the carpet by the Republic they both love so much and set out to right that wrong and bring a killer that no one in power seems interested in, to justice.

In a world where justice does not necessarily mean “justice”, Leo finds himself relying on his wits and his wife to solve these heinous crimes when he can’t call for help from a system he’s lived his life in complete obedience to. Instead, he must work outside of the law, skulking in the shadows, hoping and praying that he can keep one step ahead of those that seek his downfall while he tries to catch a killer that no one believes exists and he knows less than nothing about.

Now, everything about Child 44, on paper, sounds like the makings of an excellent thriller. It’s set in an interesting time, one we don’t see put to film very often and we rarely get to see the Russians depicted in such a bad light these days (maybe that statement explains why the film has been banned in Russia). A story focusing on something as horrible as a series of murdered children should have some real emotional pull and make every parent watching sit and hold their stomach in fear. And with all that talent on the poster, all that ability on the screen, it’s something I would have been comfortable guaranteeing to you without having seen the film.

Sadly, I have seen the film. And my only advice, is to not waste the near two and a half hours that I did hoping for the film we should have got to finally appear on the screen. There’s no way to drag it out, to be clever about saying it or to soften it so maybe you think it might be a film worth watching. Child 44, is a bad film. But it’s not just bad, it’s slow, it’s boring and being a fan of almost everyone on that cast list, it’s soul crushingly disappointing.

Forgetting the part where I’ve read up to around the halfway point of the book and there are glaring omissions from the story that’ll severely impact it if the film does well enough to get the next book, “The Secret Speech”, made. I promised I’d write this as a review of the film, not the adaptation. The film is a masterclass in poor direction, bad screenwriting and complete misuse of the acting talents of some of the best actors around today. Tom Hardy’s Leo Demidov is a great character. A tortured man who struggles with the situation he’s found himself in and is desperately trying to do the right thing while making things right for him and his wife. Raisa is similarly tortured, and played equally well by the always impressive Noomi Rapace. Her fight to stay strong doing nothing to help her as she struggles through life with a husband in such a powerful position. Thrown into turmoil with her exile, her role in Leo’s quest for redemption is much bigger than the writing gives her credit for.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, while absolutely superb aren’t given much of a chance to shine. A bad mix of painful screenwriting and something very close to stunt casting ruins what semblance of quality there may have been. Opting instead for wasting the talents of world class actors like Gary Oldman and Vincent Cassell with minimal screen time in poorly shot scenes that always appear to teeter on the edge of tense but fall flat and emotionless instead. Great actors like Jason Clarke and Charles Dance are barely given enough time to register with the audience, with the filmmakers instead choosing to gloss over what are clearly supposed to be important scenes of character development.

Now, say what you want about Daniel Espinosa as a director, and I said a lot of things when I came out of Child 44, I always thought he knew how to make a decent thriller. I know films like Safe House aren’t for everyone, but the pacing in it is superb. Hit after unrelenting hit comes at you from the first shot to the end of the film and it just doesn’t let up. The problem, is that Child 44 isn’t an action thriller. It’s a crime thriller. One that should be slow burning at that. Something more akin to Nordic film and TV than action films and Espinosa can’t quite seem to grasp that idea which, considering his background, is pretty ironic. The film has some glaring issues with its pace, never quite picking up to tell the story at a good speed but never dropping well enough to build tension. There are points where the pace slows, the acting is ramped up and the tension really should be building, but the scene just doesn’t live up to its promise. Falling flat on its face is the default position for the film’s direction and not even the skills that Hardy, Oldman and everyone else bring with them can rescue it.

Child 44 is set in one of the most interesting, but equally one of the most horrific times in living memory. It’s a bleak, hopeless time and perfectly suited for a thriller about the cold and calculating murder of 44 children. But the film never seems to pick up on the natural melancholy of a grey and gloomy Soviet Russia that’s handed to it. There should be freezing, unforgiving snow. There should be the air of cold, empty suffering and the film can’t even get that right. Call it a trope, a stereotype, whatever you want. Stalinist Russia was a sad, mournful place to live and die and Child 44 couldn’t even get to grips with the atmosphere handed to it. Choosing instead to bath unhappy scenes that should have an air death in sunshine. A dead child, in a country known to be cold and snowy, is a gift to a film maker. It doesn’t take a genius to know how that particular scene should look and if you can’t even get that right, what hope did the film really have?

I loved the performances in Child 44, everyone does a great job in selling me on their Russian accents and there’s enough Hardy to keep me happy until Mad Max comes out. The entire cast do a spectacular job but they all need…. No, they all deserve, a much better film than this. Child 44 has a spectacular premise, but it’s clearly too much for one film and far too much for this director. Better suited perhaps to one of those 8-10 episode HBO mini-series like Generation Kill or True Detective. Save your pennies and do what I’m going to do. I’m going to quench the sudden urge I have to watch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy instead.

Child 44 is out in cinemas right now should you decide to ignore Brooker’s warning and try it for yourself.

Nightcrawler

Twisted, dark, intense and full of brilliant performances. Is Nightcrawler the best thriller released this year? Maybe.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

nightcrawler 2October seems to be the time of year when all the big-hitter films come out to play. They’ve had most of their international film festival runs by now, gearing up for Oscar season, and the summer blockbusters have all had their fun and dispersed for another 6 months. Fury and Gone Girl have started off this pre-Academy Award season, both of which were very promising beginnings for this period, but Nightcrawler quite possibly tops them both. The comparison may be unfair given the relatively modest budget of an estimated $8m, and the dark, sinister tone is probably more in keeping with the Failed Critics’ favourite suspense-thriller The Guest, but it is no less hard hitting than any of them.

It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a bit of a ne’er do well who is looking for his calling in life. Eventually, through a rather fortunate encounter, he finds his purpose – his defining moment, an epiphany – as a crime scene videographer. After being rejected from yet another job opportunity, Louis chances upon an encounter that will change his life. Pulling his car over at the scene of a very recent motor-accident whilst on an aimless drive through the street-light brightened roads of late-night L.A., a van suddenly pulls up behind him. Rushing out, film camera and assistant in tow, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) videos everything going on around him; from the police pulling a bloodied woman from the wreckage, to the rising flames of the vehicles engine. Fascinated by this, and being something of a self-confessed fast learner, Louis watches, observes and questions what Joe is doing. Revealing that he sells the footage to news channels, Louis becomes obsessed with this idea and in his best top-knotted entrepreneurial spirit decides to pursue a line of work in the same field. The only thing is, he gets so caught up in it that he begins to get more and more involved in the crimes themselves as his drive for success, his ambition to be the absolute best, requires the generation of bigger and better news stories.

I’m sure to some people, rather understandably, that sounds like a rather ridiculous story. Think of it like the TV show Dexter; a forensics cop who is also a serial killer? Give me a break. Wait, actually, you know what, Dexter turned out pretty damn good (well, up to and including season four in any case). And just like Dexter, Nightcrawler takes a silly premise and turns it into something golden. It may very well be one of my favourite films of the year.

For a start, it’s a bizarrely funny film. In places, it induced full-on belly-laughs. However, those laughs are not entirely guilt free. A more dark and twisted story this year, that is actually better, you’re unlikely to see. Without the film explicitly stating as such, Louis appears to be basically a high-functioning autistic; he doesn’t really understand the way people interact with each other and ambiguity seems to confuse him. He also appears to have a touch of OCD too. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know his motto is “you can’t win the lottery unless you make the money to buy a ticket”. This gives you a very clear indicator of his self-driven personality and narrow vision of success.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely superb, by the way. He’s beginning to realise some of that early promise that suggested he could potentially become one of the finest and most versatile actors working in Hollywood. Think about it, just within this crime-thriller genre alone, the roles he plays are all so varied. Whether it’s the nerdy intelligent guy in Zodiac, or the rough somewhat renegade detective in Prisoners, or even just the hard as nails skinhead police officer in End of Watch; they’re very different characters but also consistently very good performances.

He’s supported by some quality performances as well in Nightcrawler. Paxton I’ve already mentioned as Louis’ inspiration and main professional rival, and he puts in another fine shift (as if you’d expect anything less). But Rene Russo as the TV news producer plays off Gyllenhaal very well. There’s some genuine chemistry between them. In fact, I’d say the same about his relationship with his intern, Rick; a man so desperate for a job he’ll do anything for a wage and is also played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed. Some of the interactions between Rick and Louis are darkly amusing. I assumed intentionally? I don’t want to say too much about their development over the course of the film, suffice to say it’s done in a not necessarily believable way, because it really does feel like a movie, if that makes sense, but it’s developed in a way that you genuinely are interested in them.

Away from the actual characters, Dan Gilroy (writer and director) apparently has a lot to say about the media. Particularly TV news. Not all of it complimentary! A phrase that’s used at one point by Bill Paxton’s character is “if it bleeds, it leads”. A message that is hammered home throughout the entire movie. Just why is ethical journalism given such short shrift, pushed to one side in favour of viewer ratings? Is it really because that’s what people what to see? Exploitation, gore, blood and guts on breakfast news whilst they munch down on their cornflakes? It appears to be a damning indictment of the pressures that are placed on them. Although, here in Britain, we don’t have quite as severe a problem as they have in the US. Just look at their coverage of the Ebola crisis for example to see how ridiculously overblown and scaremongering it can be. It’s also where similarities with David Fincher’s Gone Girl can be drawn as they both lay into television media reporting. Yet it’s still relevant to UK viewers because it talks about the constant need to have to have something, anything, to report on and compete with other news channels 24 hours a day to get higher ratings. Obviously not exactly the same as our news channels, but still has some commentary on that drive for big news stories at any expense that can be related to wherever you are in the world.

The most notorious scene from this film, and one that will probably help establish it as something of a classic for years to come, is the “horror house” section. For fear of giving anything away, I will not be discussing it in detail. However, later this week you can expect an article on this one particular scene from Callum. Yep, a whole article about one scene. That’s how good it is.

As much as I enjoyed the whole film, as intelligent as it can be at times and as biting as the satire is, there are a few negatives worth mentioning. It takes a teeny tiny dip in quality around a third of the way in. Virtually from the moment Gyllenhaal steps into the newsroom for the first time with Russo and gives a little speech. It’s not so much the dialogue that’s a problem; as it happens, I thought the dialogue and script throughout the film was one of its stronger aspects. What lets it down, and indeed many other scenes, is the choice of soundtrack. There are some completely weird and out of key choices here. Just when this ambitious but deceptively violent man is explaining what exactly drives him, in the background is a very distracting and cheesy 80’s-esque backing track. It’s honestly like something out of Big or The Mighty Ducks. A very odd sentimental choice that didn’t fit at all. It happened a few times with various other scenes. The only assumption to be made is the music is an artistic choice. What’s playing is how Louis would imagine it, and not what the actual tone of the film demands.

Also, I’m sorry to have to point it out as it shouldn’t matter at all, but some of the CGI used (which was sparse anyway) was very cheap looking. Think the aeroplane crash in Knowing. Yes, that bad. It’s not a huge problem as there weren’t really many scenes that called for the use of CGI. Most of the action scenes that we do see are actually incredibly sophisticated, complex and most of all, exciting. One fantastic car chase as the police hurtle through L.A. traffic lights is unreal. Best of all, it doesn’t have (as much as I could make out) any CGI! It’s just that, I can’t escape it, the CGI that is used on occasion is utter bollocks.

Despite all of this, as mentioned at the top of the review, Nightcrawler is incredibly enjoyable. The first half of the film that introduces Louis and his quirks was excellent, setting itself up well for the remaining 60 minutes. A slight dip in quality 45 minutes in is nothing to quibble about as it picks up again rapidly. By the end, I flat out loved it. If you’ve any interest in seeing a tense thriller that tells an intelligent story, that’s as darkly-comic as often as it is sickeningly disturbing, then I’m sure you will enjoy Nightcrawler as much as I did.

Nightcrawler hits UK cinemas this Friday, 31 October 2014.