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DVD Review: Sensation


The opening minutes of Sensation are not a stimulating thrill ride or a feast for the senses. In fact, they could be described as bleak. I’m going to be careful not to mislead you here; I don’t want the word bleak to imply that the early scenes are moving, or interestingly dark. Instead, I mean bleak as in “without hope or expectation of success or improvement”. The world of central character Donal is defined by its dullness and the fact that it is never likely to change. His uneventful life has left him numb, and so emotionless that when he discovers his father dead on the stair lift, he uses the remote to bring the cold corpse slowly down, rather than rushing up.

You may find that, as I did, the start of Sensation will induce that “where have I seen him before?” feeling. This was the most pressing thing about the film for its first quarter of an hour, that nagging frustration that is impossible to shake.  So I paused the film, utilised a well known internet search engine and discovered that lead actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Donal, also played Bill Weasley in the last few Harry Potter films. Cue the knowing nod that accompanies the phrase “I knew I recognised him!”. Curiosity quenched, I could now begin to concentrate on the film itself.

Following the funeral of Donal’s father we watch a young man shuffle through a very lonely existence. The really disheartening thing about Donal’s grief is that it is so minimal. He had clearly been expecting his father’s death and we do not really witness any sadness relating to it. It’s also clear that Donal’s loneliness goes back far, far further than the eventual demise of his sick dad. His best friend Karl, who lives in a caravan on Donal’s farm land, suggests that the funds freed up by his father’s death might be the making of Donal. But Donal has no idea how to use the cash wisely in the nothingness of the Irish countryside. His only half plan is to move to Dublin.

This complicated, but essentially sympathetic portrayal of Donal, is offset by hints towards a darker side of his character. That initial moment where he waits for the stair lift’s grim and personal cargo to descend is both shocking and repulsive. It’s symbolic of Donal’s laziness, lack of drive and dangerous naivety.  Whilst Donal’s problems are real and capable of inspiring sympathy, his only solace is sordid and shameful. Ignorant of girls and relationships, Donal is fascinated by sex. However, his perception of sex is skewed by the internet. His only experience of it comes from the online world, where he sports the nickname of “Sweetdick” in a chat room. He masturbates furiously, in a way that seems to be a brutal release. He seems to have little awareness of intimacy, although a dim desire for it grows once he has satisfied his raw lust.

Suddenly not lacking in cash after receiving a sizeable inheritance, Donal’s first port of call is a website advertising escorts. One of them, called Courtney, has been recommended to him by an online chat room buddy. At first, he tentatively asks for an hour with her, only to be persuaded over the phone that the “full girlfriend experience” will be worth his while (and hers, financially). They meet in a restaurant, where she is surprised that he actually wants to eat. She reassures him that seduction is not necessary, but Donal orders a chicken kiev anyway. That’s where the civilized behaviour stops though. Back at his farm, Donal rapidly enjoys what he’s paid for. As Courtney says later, this is not Pretty Woman.

But the parallels are certainly there. Donal has money, albeit not on the scale of Richard Gere’s millionaire, but enough to make him of use to Courtney, whose real name is Kim. When events ensure that Kim and Donal get to know each other personally, they begin to form an ambiguous bond. Their feelings are tested and disguised because of the shadowy, theatrical business of the sex trade. Donal starts out wanting to help Kim rescue herself. He then falls for her, before ending up seeing her as a commodity.

Boiled down to its basics, Sensation is a simple story about two very different, lonely people crossing paths. It stands above this classic blueprint because of the strength of its characterisation and acting. Donal is volatile and unpredictable because of his troubled youth, and Kim is determined and twisted because of her profession. You’re never quite sure where their true loyalties lie. In this way Sensation is realistic, with its incorporation of modern themes and the lack of trust between a group of people who have recently joined forces in a backstabbing industry. However, Sensation also has many weak points. Its fringe characters are less well acted and unconvincingly drawn. The ending is rushed and more than a little predictable, and sections of the film drag. In my view, this is an excellent effort from writer/director Tom Hall. It is occasionally funny, although not to the point of laughter, and ultimately touching, despite a difficult subject matter.

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BlogalongaBond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service


“FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE!” reads the poster. As a youngster I would have scoffed at this. I would act superior to my friends whenever a Bond film happened to be on TV. I would dazzle them with my knowledge of the films. And if I was ever asked what the worst film in the entire series was I would always reply – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, obviously”.

Why was this? There was only really one reason; George Lazenby. It was his only Bond film, he did less than everyone else and therefore it was the worst. OHMSS (as I shall refer to it from now on) was an unwelcome aberration before the jolly rebirth provided by Roger Moore. As I grew up I was taught to love and treasure Roger’s cheeky eyebrows. But now, just as You Only Live Twice has slipped since childhood from one of my favourites towards the bottom of the pile, OHMSS is one of the very best in my personal Bond canon.

This is because the dated but charming slogan on the poster was spot on for a change; you really do get far more from OHMSS than any other Bond film. Not in every department of course; the range of locations is European and perhaps ordinary by modern standards, the gadgetry is minimum and the action less frequent than some would like. But for Bond fanatics, particularly those familiar with the Bond of Fleming’s books, this is the most faithful adaptation. A film with a storyline that really lets us get to know a little of the man behind the agent, the icon and the image.

As the excellent review from Kinnemaniac (which says everything I’m going to say more amusingly and precisely) points out, it is perhaps inevitable that diehard fans pounced on the instalment least popular with the general public. OHMSS is rarely picked for Bank Holiday TV schedules like other outings from Connery and Moore. Again as Kinnemaniac points out though, OHMSS attempts a tone not seen in the franchise again until the Dalton films and then properly in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Eva Green love interest. Indeed perhaps Lazenby has Craig to thank for a new generation falling with renewed vigour for his solitary outing as 007.

Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no doubt fretted over replacing Sean Connery. For cinemagoers of the sixties he was THE embodiment of James Bond. Unlike audiences of today they were unaccustomed to the regular replacement of the actor playing Britain’s top secret agent now and again. The way in which they chose to tackle the casting and the whole creative process of the sixth Bond outing was bold and experimental.

Lazenby was nothing more than an Australian model, director Peter Hunt had been an editor for the early films. Or perhaps OHMSS was a safer bet than it appears. Saltzman and Broccoli might have gone back to the books through caution rather than ambition, and the whole project delayed the business of thinking about Bond’s future properly until Connery could be lured back for Diamonds are Forever. In any case the special features of my Ultimate Edition DVD reveal the bitchy arguments and distrust on set that never looked likely to form harmonious or long lasting foundations, despite frequent praise for Lazenby’s surprising ability.

Lazenby of course unavoidably remains the film’s defining feature. Nowadays I am more than happy to overlook his occasionally dodgy acting. The reason many fans of the books take to him is that he simply looks like James Bond. Rather than acting out aspects of his character, he is simply being Bond and our selective imaginations can iron out the creases in his portrayal. Re-watching OHMSS this time I noticed just how good Lazenby’s acting is on occasion though. He pulls off subtle little looks as well as the more obvious love scenes.

You hope to discover something new each time you watch a film and I found out that I like OHMSS best when Diana Rigg is on screen as Tracy with this viewing. I knew I loved the opening scene with Peter Hunt’s teasing direction of a mysterious driver, John Barry’s sublime soundtrack to the seaside action and Lazenby’s fourth wall breaching line; “this never happened to the other fellow”. And indeed I rank the scenes until Bond heads off to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps (surely the only base of villainy to match YOLT’s volcano?) as some of my favourites in the whole franchise. But then things simmer down with Bond undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. There’s occasional hilarity, an interestingly un-mysterious Blofeld and lots of girls, but not that same look at Bond as a man in love. When Rigg turned up again my interest was ignited again and turned up a couple notches.

Lazenby and Rigg’s chemistry is important, indeed vital for Bond’s first true love story, but the main reason I enjoy her presence on screen is because of what it does to the story. And the creative execution of the storytellers must be praised when talking about OHMSS. It’s evident for Bondians familiar with the whole series that the reins are looser here. They are telling a story rather than following a formula.

The two key architects are John Barry and Peter Hunt. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for the scene that introduces us to Tracy and reveals Lazenby as Bond. It just might be my personal favourite out of all the films. But aside from my preferences it’s the perfect illustration of Barry’s musical talent and Hunt’s ahead of his time direction.

The OHMSS soundtrack was one of the first that I bought. Its got a brilliant title theme, along with a gorgeous mix of thrilling synthesised ski chase accompaniments and romantic themes inspired by the sublime We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong. And then there’s Hunt’s evident ambition as both an editor and director.

Supposedly Lazenby got the role as Bond after he demonstrated his aptitude for fight scenes. The punch ups in OHMSS swing between the comical and the innovatively magnificent. Long before the creators of the Bourne films would claim that Craig’s Bond copies their style, Hunt and Lazenby filmed frantically paced and edited brawls in hotel rooms and the froth and spray of Portuguese waves. There may be the odd inadvertently funny grunt or strange bit of camerawork but Lazenby’s exciting physical Bond foreshadows Craig’s by almost forty years.  If Hunt were working today his action scenes would be hailed as visceral and hard hitting. But back then change wasn’t embraced.

Even this fresh, frenzied approach to fisticuffs came back to underlining OHMSS’s USP; Bond is a man! He may still be a dapper chap with a trio of ladies actually making appointments to pull his trigger but now and then he’ll need to smother a man into submission rather than K.O. him with a single swipe. And his heart is as prone to silly somersaults as the rest of us male apes. Haters of Lazenby’s emotional depths though will not have long to wait for Bond to haul his armour back on. Within two years he’ll be protected by a 70s haircut, pink tie and drawling Scottish accent.

Battle of the Bonds: Michael Fassbender vs. Daniel Craig


Ok so I know technically Michael Fassbender isn’t a Bond but there was no way I was calling this anything else. If you’ve seen the new X-Men film you’ll know Fassbender essentially gives a super powered performance of our favourite suave secret agent. My review points out as much here.

Critics up and down this green and pleasant land are saying they’d like to see Fassbender play Bond in future. Some are even calling for the head of Daniel Craig now, just two films after Craig successfully rebooted cinema’s longest running franchise to acclaim from commentators and audiences alike. But the problem is Casino Royale was almost six years ago. Since then we’ve had the action packed disappointment of Quantum of Solace, in which Craig was still good but hampered and limited by a mostly naff script. We’ve also had the crisis of MGM delaying the release of Bond 23. All the while Craig has been ageing, the poor thing.

I am a huge fan of Craig’s interpretation of Bond but even I have to admit that he’ll be under pressure if Bond 23 doesn’t vastly improve on Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace. Sam Mendes is at the helm and the signs are good but then most of us Bond fans were saying that on the web about the last one. Forster was supposedly a director who could tell a story but we were left with some decent action at the start, which felt like it was still part of Casino Royale, followed by a disappointing story with flashes of average action that was an unsatisfying epilogue to the reboot at best.

Because of the delays then, as well as the unstoppable onslaught of human decay, Fassbender has the edge on youth. His career is also shifting into a top gear; at a time when Craig’s is also attracting big enough projects that could tempt him away from Bond should the 23rd instalment prove be a sinking ship.

 Enough build up. Let’s compare a few necessary requirements for an actor playing a 00 agent. Bonds do battle.

FILMOGRAPHIES

Fassbender:
                                                                                                       
300 (2006)
Eden Lake (2008)
Hunger (2008)
Town Creek (2009)
Fish Tank (2009)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Centurion (2010)
Jonah Hex (2010)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Jane Eyre (2011)

Craig:

Casino Royale (2006)
The Invasion (2007)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Flashbacks of a Fool (2008)
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Defiance (2008)
Cowboys and Aliens (2011)
Dream House (2011)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Round 1 – Acting Chops

Going from both men’s biggest hits and breakthroughs to the mainstream in 2006 (300 and Casino Royale) to the present day, it’s probably Fassbender with the more impressive list. There were meaty roles for him in Hunger, Fish Tank and the upcoming Jane Eyre. Hunger in particular alerted directors everywhere to his talent. The film carries a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is “anchored” by Fassbender’s performance, according to Empire Magazine. Working with Quentin Tarantino is no bad thing for a CV either.

Craig on the other hand followed up his cold and commanding debut as Bond with the critically panned The Invasion with Nicole Kidman and average kids film The Golden Compass, which was supposed to launch an all conquering series to rival Harry Potter. Flashbacks of a Fool was a favour to directing friend Baillie Walsh, in which he gave a performances as a washed up actor fallen from grace. It was good but not the main role in the film, as the rest was told in flashbacks to childhood and in any case it wasn’t a big hit. He pulled off an impressive accent in Edward Zwick’s Defiance and generally convinced as a leader. Only recently has Craig got some really appetising projects on the go though, working with the likes of Spielberg for Tintin, David Fincher for Dragon Tattoo and Harrison Ford and Jon Favreau for Cowboys and Aliens.

Verdict: Even with that lull for Craig, it’s difficult to separate the abilities of these two.

Round 2 – Sex Appeal

I am definitely the wrong person to ask about this. But there’s no doubt that Bond has to be able to inspire a certain longing in the ladies, with a mere gesture or flirtatious glance. Both actors have charisma and cool credentials. Fassbender dresses up smart in the latest X-Men, as well as donning casual hard man leather jackets and camp superhero costume, cape and all. In Fish Tank his character’s raw masculinity was irresistible to mother and daughter alike. Inglorious Basterds saw him with slick and precise hair and a uniform. After starring as Mr Rochester as Jane Eyre later this year, further legions of women will join the ranks of his swooning admirers, with the earliest recruits hooked by the sight of his muscular and barely clothed physique in 300.

From what I’m told Craig is not a bad catch either. Certainly upon news of his casting as Bond and following the first viewings of those notorious blue Speedos, the females in my social circles could talk of nothing else in fits of giggles for days. Perhaps they’ll like the sight of him in a Cowboy hat.

Verdict: I really don’t know, they both seem to be handsome chaps and I imagine it comes down to personal preference. However if I had to make a decision, I’d say that Fassbender’s mixed Irish/German heritage makes him more exotic. Plus he seems taller. I hear that’s good.

Round 3 – Who would win in a fight?

Fassbender fought like a lion on speed in 300. And as I’ve said he had very little on. That’s impressive and a Spartan warrior takes some beating. However Bond doesn’t fight with swords, well not very often. He’s got to be able to beat a man to death with his fists, win shootouts and take out bad guys in witty ways. Fassbender did a lot of grunting and killing in 300 but where were the one liners? And in Inglorious Basterds he got shot almost immediately after some lengthy chit chat. Bullets are meant to swerve to avoid 007.

Or in Craig’s case, merely puncture his huge pecs. Craig has proven himself already as Bond, especially physically. His stunts and fight scenes have brought the series up to date. Some have criticised the mimicking of Bourne-esque action, which is valid for Quantum of Solace but off the mark for Casino Royale. In the past Craig has blown up enemies of Israel in Munich and taken on the Nazis in Defiance. Judging by the trailers he’s going to kick some Cowboy/Alien ass this summer too.

Verdict: Fassbender needs more time to learn the ropes but unless he’s got his metal moving powers still, looks like Craig will knock him out.

Round 4 – Staying true to Ian Fleming’s original

In X-Men: First Class Fassbender proves he can speak menacingly in Spanish, French and German. He is ruthless and suave and all action. He has a taste for the ladies and strong principles which he stands by. He is loyal. All of these qualities and more that Fassbender displays as the young Magneto, travelling the globe conducting his own private espionage, are those of Ian Fleming’s original spy. If Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson were ever bold enough to take Bond back in time, Fassbender would be perfect for another reboot. His British officer look in Inglorious Basterds, combined with his Magneto, creates a pretty cool version of James Bond licence to kill.

It’s unlikely the producers will ever take Bond into the past and a Cold War world again because they feel that would tarnish the earlier films which covered that ground already. Bond needs to find a way to carry on in the modern world whilst retaining the best elements of the original. And Daniel Craig’s version of the character found that path with Casino Royale. His more human and more brutal portrayal took Bond back to his literary roots with tremendous results.

Verdict: Impossible to split. Fassbender has the potential to be a classic Bond as Fleming imagined him but Craig has already proven himself as a Bond inspired by the books as well as the films.

So at the end of that battle we know nothing new. It’s a draw on points. Basically Fassbender might be a good Bond when Craig steps aside but for now he’s doing a good job. What happens next all rests on Bond 23.

What do you think? Would Fassbender make a better Bond than Craig?

Film Review: X-Men: First Class


Flickering Myth ran a poll earlier in the year about which summer superhero movie people were most looking forward to. The contenders were surprise hit Thor, The Green Lantern, Captain America and this X-Men prequel, steered by director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughan. For me X-Men: First Class was the most anticipated of the selection by a mile.

The trailers promised a truly epic reinvention of a stagnating franchise. Vaughan went for a completely new look cast of mutants, with the exception of one comic cameo. Amongst this cast the partnership of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender takes centre stage, with the enormous task of matching and exploring the rivalry portrayed by thespian heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the previous Bryan Singer films. For the most part, their youthful interpretations bring something different that really works.

The film starts off brilliantly with Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr and McAvoy’s Charles Xavier on separate paths. Xavier is a brilliant Oxford academic with a fondness for pubs and science heavy chat up lines, which seem rather redundant when he can read minds. Lehnsherr however is driven by revenge into stalking the globe in search of his enemy and his mother’s murderer, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.

We see both of our key protagonists as children. The film starts with the young Erik, played rather limply by Bill Milner, being threatened in a Nazi concentration camp, by a toying doctor who turns out to be Shaw, into manipulating metal by moving a coin. We see the young Charles, far more convincingly played by Laurence Belcher (who was also excellent in the Doctor Who Christmas special), finding a fellow mutant, shape shifter Raven, in his kitchen and taking her in as a sister.

Things really get interesting when Xavier has graduated as a Professor in genetics and the CIA come to call on him. He then demonstrates his mind reading telepath tricks in a variety of ways, until he is believed enough to get free rein to create a team of mutants to take on Shaw, who is engineering a nuclear war via the Cuban Missile crisis, which he hopes will leave only mutants as Earth’s dominant species. The best bit of First Class however, is Fassbender’s pursuit of his Nazi nemesis.

What really excited me, more than anything else, was the historical setting of this film. Fassbender has been championed as a future 007 in the past and there hasn’t been a review of X-Men: First Class that doesn’t praise the mini James Bond adventure within it. Adult Erik travels in stylish, suave period suits to banks in Switzerland to interrogate the keepers of Nazi gold for info, by painfully plucking out fillings with his powers, and to bars in Argentina in cool summer gear to kill hiding Nazis with flying knives and magnetically manipulated pistols. In all these locations Fassbender speaks the native tongue and oozes the steely determination of a complex and damaged killer. His quest is a snapshot of what a modern Bond set in the past, bilingual and faithful to Fleming’s creation, could be like.

Aside from the dreams of a reinvented Bond though, the Cold War setting is exciting and thought provoking for other reasons.  The mutant situation mirrors the struggles at the time for civil rights for black Americans and other minorities, such as homosexuals (hinted at by the line “Mutant and Proud”). The whole film can make the most of the visual benefits of period costume, with fabulous suits and dresses, as well as period locations and set designs. The rooms on Shaw’s secret submarine resemble a villainous Ken Adam Bond set. And the ideological conflict between the US and Russia, echoes the differences in outlook between Xavier and Lehnsherr.

Despite rave reviews at first, respected critics have given X-Men: First Class an average rating. I think this is mostly because the film doesn’t live up to the enormous possibilities of its setting and doesn’t explore as well as it could the beginnings of the relationships in the X-Men. It is still a good film. For a blockbuster this is a slow burning watch, which I liked, but I admit that the action scenes could have been more frequent; even though a couple are terrific the film never really ignites. All in all Vaughan’s prequel is good but not as good as it could have been.

One of the reasons cited for disappointment is a lack of focus on the rest of the X-Men. It was a difficult balance to strike, with Xavier and Lehnsherr’s relationship proving so fascinating and McAvoy and Fassbender having so much chemistry, both comic and serious. I actually thought that characters like Beast and Raven were fleshed out more than I was expecting. A much criticised code name scene, in which the younger X-Men members sit around joking about what they’d like to be called, has been pummelled with criticism. I thought this scene was funny, as much of the film is, for not taking itself too seriously and entertaining for introducing the powers of the characters.

X-Men: First Class will divide audiences. Some will think it’s boring, others will love its action punctuated with character development and solid acting. Fans of X-Men will differ with some salivating over the explanations to Professor X’s wheelchair and Magneto’s helmet and others feeling letdown by the promise of so much more. Perhaps the most reliable fan base for this film is James Bond fans waiting for next year’s Bond 23. Fassbender’s literally magnetic and chilling performance is Bondian, as are the locations, the villains and babes on show like January Jones and Rose Byrne.

DVD Review: The Halfway House (1944) from Ealing Studios


If you are yet to enter the competition at Flickering Myth to win a copy of Ealing Studios production The Halfway House on Digital Versatile Disc, I do suggest that you hurry up and get a move on. This is a film worth seeing for three very good reasons. Pay attention ladies and gentlemen and I shall outline them for you.

Firstly The Halfway House is a fragment of history, a slice of our country’s past, and an especially engaging and vivid one too. For those of you enjoying the developments in three dimensional cinematic viewing or perhaps partial to the high definition of your colour television sets, it might be rather off putting that this is a film presented in mere black and white. I readily admit that I am not an avid viewer of black and white pictures myself.

I can assure you though that the lack of variation in colour is more than made up for by numerous other qualities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it added to the charm of the film. In any case, this is top notch black and white, because The Halfway House has been digitally restored to a wonderful standard, so that it is, to all intents and purposes, as good as a modern day release.

This film was originally released in 1944 and judging by references to the date during the plot, filmed in 1943. It is therefore significantly influenced by the context of the ongoing Second World War in Europe. A number of the characters have lost friends, colleagues and relatives during the conflict. Others are affected in other ways.

The Halfway House is somewhat inaccurately and crudely labelled as a horror but in reality it is an interesting infusion of ghost story, fable and propaganda. The propaganda element is particularly fascinating and marks the film out as a genuine historical artefact. It is not overdone to affect the level of satisfaction for a modern audience, but certainly during the conclusion an Irishman’s change of allegiance from neutrality to supporting the Allies is noticeably underlined.

The second principal reason you should see The Halfway House is the impressive and rounded characterisation, forming part of a touching and timeless narrative. Whilst the historical background to the plot is crucial to setting it apart from modern releases, the quality and nature of the storytelling is also no longer replicated by studios today.

The first half of the film introduces a wide range of characters across Britain (showcasing unusual scope and variety of outdoor locations for Ealing Studios), each with their own problems, from terminal illness to divorce and criminality. The second half then brings all of these characters together at The Halfway House, a Welsh inn that may or may not have been destroyed by fire. The kindly and wise owners of the inn, who speak almost poetically at points, help the guests to help each other. Gradually they all gain perspective on their issues and worries by taking time out from the everyday grind. Such an intricately woven moral is still just as relevant today.

The Halfway House is superbly acted, even by modern day standards. It has a marvellous script that seems to transfer something from the original play by Denis Ogden. Primarily that something is dialogue which allows characters to breathe and grow convincingly, as they would on stage. Somehow The Halfway House is full of excellently fleshed out characters, despite the ensemble cast.

The third key reason for seeing The Halfway House is that it is tremendously amusing. Part of that humour arises inadvertently from the old fashioned and outdated formal register of the dialogue, which I have tried unsuccessfully to mirror regularly throughout this review. In certain situations the tone and accent of 1940s British speech, along with that persistent formality, is unavoidably hilarious.

However most of the comedic moments are intentional, with a mixture of fabulous and average one liners on show, alongside character humour enabled by their believability. One moment in the opening segment, in which we meet a dodgy dealing crook, is amusing due to role reversal; our criminal dismisses an employee for NOT having a criminal record and lying about it. This is also an example of one of many moments where the war has turned things upside down.

As if those three major reasons alone weren’t enough to at least have a go at the competition, there are also too many minor points of interest to mention. Director Basil Dearden has been underrated for years, only to be steadily recognised more and more recently as a groundbreaking filmmaker, with films like Victim starring Dirk Bogarde challenging taboos long before that was easy to get away with and just an arty saying. His direction here is simple for the most part, with the exception of one smartly edited action sequence which could fit into a modern film, but effective and professional. It’s remarkable enough they were making films as entertaining as this with the war raging on.  

Good luck in the competition! But basically make sure you see The Halfway House when it’s released on the 20th of June. It’s an unseen and unappreciated classic of British cinema.

Outcast


When you’re an established director in British television it must be important to time your leap into films. It could be a matter of waiting for the right opportunity to come along. You might have a brainchild of your own to nurture into life. However you go about it, mistakes could be fatal for your aspirations. Do you stick to what you know or strike out boldly to get yourself noticed?

Colm McCarthy adopted the practical approach of a bit of both. Born in Edinburgh, his debut feature is set in the city and packed full of bleak, grey vistas. They’re similar to the gritty tone of one of McCarthy’s previous credits, Murphy’s Law. And McCarthy relies on the star of that show, James Nesbitt, to head up a strong line-up of British acting talent in Outcast. The director also co-wrote the film, which is a shocking and dramatic departure from glossy programmes like Hustle, The Tudors and Spooks which also adorn his CV.

Outcast is the tale of Mary (Kate Dickie) and Fergal (Niall Bruton), a mother and son pair that find themselves settling into a dingy, dirty flat on a rough estate on Edinburgh’s outskirts. As the film progresses it’s clear that Mary is fiercely protective of her son and that she and him are running and hiding from something dark in their past. Connections which link them to Cathal (Nesbitt) gradually surface, who arrives in the city on a primal hunt to kill. It doesn’t take long before members of the recognisable British cast start dropping like flies, but the culprit remains ambiguous right up until the climax of the story.

From the start Outcast tries too hard to establish its weird, horrific credentials. Rather than subtly revealing the occult aspects to the story, the clunky script hammers them home. We watch as Nesbitt’s character endures the application of painful ritualistic carvings to his back and immediately afterwards, Dickie’s mysterious mother drawing blood from her own naked chest and daubing ancient symbols over the walls. Later when Fergal’s teen love interest Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge) barges into the flat and discovers these odd images, Fergal simply explains his mother has different beliefs, rather than panicking or struggling more realistically (and interestingly) to keep the secret burden from his friends. Equally bizarrely Petronella isn’t fazed.

With so much blood and gore on show, Outcast needs strong, engaging and believable characters to be watchable. Unfortunately a weak script again lets down the cast. Most of the characters are nothing more than stereotyped caricatures. The highly sexed yobs on the estate are entirely predictable, as is Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan’s small role as an estate slut. Petronella’s simple brother is also a cardboard cut-out of a character. Her relationship and eventual love for Fergal, a key pillar of the plot, is not at all convincing. Another faulty key ingredient is Nesbitt’s miscasting as the menacing pursuer. Most of the time he appears baffled and far from frightening. Christine Tremarco gives a good performance as a rather pointless housing inspector and Dickie’s genuinely mysterious mother is just about the only character with the capacity to deliver proper scares. She does so a number of times, springing out from nowhere on her wandering son, issuing warnings and cursing Tremarco’s character so that she loses her mind.

For a horror film Outcast is far too predictable and its execution is heavy handed. All the pieces of a really gripping, frightening story are there but they simply don’t fit together in the right order. The crucially important occult influences are both overused and not ever satisfactorily explained. Grand themes like repressed sexual desire, forbidden fruit and ancestor’s sins returning to haunt the next generation, never quite come off. Brutal sacrifices and attacks, potentially original elements of the story, are uncomfortable to watch but never truly shocking. When more traditional scares arrive in monster form, the special effects look amateurish and almost laughably like a parody of a classic.

Most of the praise heaped upon McCarthy’s debut feature seems severely misguided in my view, although one review is right to hail the project an “ambitious” one. Sadly for the British film industry, Outcast lacked both the polished script and the resources to pull off what it was attempting. Throughout the whole thing you’re never quite sure what’s going on, but you’re never shocked or scared either. Outcast’s two dimensional plotting and characterisation means that a handful of sexy scenes, the charms of rising star Hanna Stanbridge and continuous gore are all that’s left to endear it to the (I suspect male) teenagers keen to get hold of it on its release, despite the 18 certificate.

Fish Tank


Fish Tank is a gritty and real film, driven by its rough setting and well realised characters. It’s a critically acclaimed piece crafted by writer/director Andrea Arnold and centred on a knock-out debut performance from Katie Jarvis as foul mouthed fifteen year old Mia. She lives with her fierce and distant mother and her prematurely aged younger sister on a downtrodden, ragged estate. She drinks and wanders her days away, stomping with rage around the local area whilst she waits for others in an unknown system to decide her fate. She loiters near those her own age, only to end up violently and angrily confronting them most of the time. Spewing obscenities, wearing a permanent scowl and seeking vulgar distraction, Jarvis’ magnificent debut achievement is to subtly showcase Mia’s softer side.

Until the arrival of Hunger and Inglorious Basterd’s Michael Fassbender, Mia’s life consists purely of booze, slagging matches and dance. Dance appears to be her one true interest and she tentatively practices in a nearby abandoned flat, reluctant to display her slowly and shyly honed skills to others. The only other distraction from the confines of her miserable life is an almost mythical looking white horse, tethered by the dangerous boys at the local gypsy camp, with a revolving wind turbine dominating the roadside background. Mia tries, without success, to free the creature on several occasions. One time she lingers with the animal long enough to comfort it gently, patting its rising and falling frame, quietly seeking the warmth so lacking in her own life. It’s this scene that convinces you to root for Mia; she’s not really the mindless swearing teen on show most of the time. Beneath the beast conditioned by her environment lurks something better. Perhaps the essence of a childhood never lived.

So when Fassbender’s character Connor crashes onto the scene as her mum’s new man Mia understandably, after initial feisty reluctance, latches onto his fatherly encouragement. During a beautifully shot, moving trip to the countryside, she helps him catch a fish with his bare hands in the river. He compliments her dancing ability, urges her to go for a local audition. Despite his rough and readiness, his working man confidence, Connor appears to belong to a different, more caring world than Mia’s. A world where fifteen year old daughters have loving, concerned fathers. And yet a father figure is not all Mia wants. Connor excites her and their chemistry goes beyond caring. She pretends to be asleep one night so he carries her to her room. Does she want a lover or the dad she never had?

The film’s title, Fish Tank, is a symbol for Mia’s life. Watching this on DVD the picture was narrowed throughout, presumably a technique again designed to highlight the confinement of Mia’s existence. She is as helpless and ignorant as a fish in many ways, but through no fault of her own. Even her preferred route out, that of dancing, she has simply snatched at because she spends her time watching the same music videos and programmes on TV, selling a certain vision of womanhood and success. A lot of the film’s component parts appear to be cliché at first glance, but the quality of composition and relevance of the themes lifts the story above anything attempted before. Fassbender and Jarvis give mesmerising performances, sparking wonderfully off each other and being at once realistic and impossible to truly fathom. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan must be praised for making the bleak backdrop of the estate look simultaneously grim and stimulating and contrasting this with vivid countryside vistas, splendid British suburbia and striking establishers of trees sensually swaying in gusty winds.

The film builds to a dramatic and gripping climax, with Mia confronting her demons and her future. Whilst British cinema may be ridiculed now and then for being too dependent on this sort of film, if they are continually churned out they should all be as fresh and well made as Fish Tank, and the film is deserving of its Bafta for Outstanding British Film. As shoppers flock to HMV for Christmas DVD bargains, Fish Tank may be a little heavy for a festive present, but it is ultimately life affirming and should satisfy those who like their cinema edgy and critically adored. But it’s not for the faint hearted.