LFF 2014: ’71

Jack O'Connell in 71

A riveting portrayal of a young British soldier on the run in early 70s Belfast provides the backdrop for this stunning feature debut from director Yann Demange.

When a young English soldier (Jack O’Connell) is sent to the streets of Belfast in 1971, he is quickly plunged into a nightmarish fight for survival in a city that has erupted along sectarian lines.

Left wounded and stranded by his regiment, he encounters various characters: a young streetwise boy (Corey McKinley); a Catholic (Richard Dormer) and his daughter (Charlie Murphy); two contrasting IRA members (David Wilmot and Killian Scott); and some shady British army agents (Sean Harris and Paul Anderson).

After some preliminary scenes which sketch out the protagonist in his home town, we are soon introduced to the bitter and dangerous streets of the time.

Straightaway the film does something clever, with DP Tat Radcliffe employing a grainy 16mm newsreel look for the daytime sequences and gradually shifting towards a digital palette for the night, which allows us to see more of the unfolding horror.

It is also blessed with some terrific widescreen framing, reminiscent of John Carpenter at his best, which elevate the film far above the usual bland visuals that often plague British films like a virus.

Gregory Burke’s screenplay intelligently weaves a story of survival within a powerful, almost one act structure, with some dark underlying issues which still resonate today.

The cast who help bring this to life are equally impressive: O’Connell in the demanding lead role will inevitably take the lions-share of the plaudits, but supporting cast also shine in what could easily be cliched roles.

Demange, French-born but British-based, this is an audacious leap from TV into feature films and comparisons will inevitably be made with Paul Greengrass, who was also propelled into the mainstream after his TV movie Bloody Sunday (2002).

You could also make career comparisons with director Steve McQueen, whose feature career launchpad was with Hunger (2008), a searing drama set around the Maze prison in the early 80s.

It is interesting that such difficult and controversial events have provided fertile ground for more recent film-makers, when it had previously proved such a minefield, with disastrous films like A Prayer for the Dying (1987) and The Devil’s Own (1997) being prime examples. But over time, things changed.

Gone were the tone deaf, ham-fisted efforts and in their place were works of greater style and substance: Greengrass used a documentary style to depict the seismic events of January 30th, 1972; McQueen realised the horrors of the 1981 hunger strike with a chilling simplicity.

Now Demange has added to this modern tradition, with a film that functions as a gripping thriller but also is an unsentimental reminder of the senseless brutality of warfare.

’71 played at the London Film Festival on October 9th and 10th

> LFF official site
> Facebook page for ’71
> Read more about The Troubles at Wikipedia

LFF 2014: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

The story of World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing is brought to the big screen with class, compassion and a standout performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based largely on Andrew Hodge’s biography, it employs a well-worn but effective flashback device which sees the maths genius (Cumberbatch) relate his story to a police officer in the early 1950s.

As the story unfolds we see how a seemingly odd bachelor in Manchester, with a fondness for electronics projects, was in the previous decades a maths prodigy who would become crucial in defeating the Nazis, and in the process help lay the blueprint for modern computing.

The real life events that inspired this version are both extraordinary and complex, but screenwriter Graham Moore has wisely woven them in to his nicely honed screenplay, with only a handful of overwritten moments (most of them involving his childhood).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to proceedings, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work with how it affected those around him.

Production designer Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three time periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which results in a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

In key supporting roles, it is Mark Strong who stands out as a shadowy MI6 agent, bringing an enigmatic gravitas to his role. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, as fellow codebreakers, also do solid work in fairly underwritten parts.

This is a far superior film to Enigma (2001), the Michael Apted film which covered the same story with a somewhat hackneyed thriller premise, which seemed to turn away from the goldmine of the central protagonist.

Perhaps the shrewdest thing this film does is to embrace the puzzle of Turing himself: war hero; rebel; math genius; autistic savant; and finally a victim of the British society he had helped to save.

That the final film works as well as it does, is in large part down to Cumberbatch’s performance.

Although at times it borders on being a little too mannered, it nonetheless feels like we’ve been in the presence of Turing for the duration of the film.

Convincing whether he is answering back to his superiors or colleagues, fragile when worrying about his emotions, and belligerent that his vision will work no matter what, it is the range of emotions on display that make this his best screen performance to date.

Ultimately, the wider story is a bittersweet one, with a war hero unable to see what profound impacts his ideas had on World War II and the development of the computer and the field of artificial intelligence.

The Imitation Game does not seek to sugarcoat Turing’s legacy, nor is it an ‘issue film’ about Britain of the time.

Instead, it acknowledges the complexities of both the man and the times, whilst wrapping it up in a accessible narrative that acknowledges the profound impact he had on the world.

The Imitation Game opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday 8th October

> Official website
> Find out more about Alan Turing on Wikipedia

DVD & Blu-ray Picks: October 2014

DVD and Blu-ray OCTOBER 2014

DVD & BLU-RAY PICKS

  • Fruitvale Station (Altitude) Blu-ray / Normal
  • The Jim Jarmusch Collection (Soda Pictures) Blu-ray / Box Set
  • Gone With the Wind (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / with UltraViolet Copy (75th Anniversary Edition)
  • The Green Mile (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / with UltraViolet Copy (15th Anniversary Edition)
  • Joe (Curzon Film World) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Natural Born Killers (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Shivers (Arrow Video) Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play
  • Edge of Tomorrow (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / with UltraViolet Copy – Double Play
  • Steven Spielberg: Director’s Collection (Universal Pictures) Blu-ray / with Book
  • Welcome to New York (Altitude) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Cold in July (Icon Home Entertainment) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / with UltraViolet Copy – Double Play
  • Daybreak (StudioCanal) Blu-ray / 75th Anniversary Edition
  • Westworld (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / with UltraViolet Copy – Double Play
  • Mystery Road (Axiom Films) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Castles in the Sky (Dazzler) Blu-ray / Normal

> DVD & Blu-ray Picks for September 2014
> The Best DVD and Blu-rays of 2013

Gone Girl

Ben Affleck in Gone Girl

Director David Fincher has been a long-time devotee of Alfred Hitchcock and his latest work seems to be the ultimate love letter to the ‘master of suspense’.

Although no stranger to dark crime dramas – such as Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) – Fincher has never really explored the mind of a killer, instead opting to craft impeccable procedurals, filled with dread.

His latest, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, explores what happens when a marriage turns particularly sour: Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) have relocated to recession-hit Missouri and when the latter goes missing things really kick off.

To say much more about the plot is tricky because the narrative is filled with startling developments and many hidden pleasures. Even those who have read the book will savour the many twists, turns and dark humour that Fincher puts on screen.

It is some achievement that the director and novelist, adapting her own book, manage to juggle so many plot strands and characters, who include Nick’s loyal sister (Carrie Coon), a local detective (Kim Dickens), Amy’s rich ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris) and a superstar attorney (Tyler Perry).

That they do so with such precision and skill, will delight fans of the director and the book, but it also marks new ground for one of finest directors working in Hollywood. Previously his films have mainly explored male points of view, but here he delves into the dynamics of men and women.

The institution of marriage, especially the notion of a ‘perfect couple’, is by the end of the movie so prodded and pulled apart that by the end it feels like one of John Doe’s victims in Seven.

Modern, tabloid news coverage is also dissected with a knowing, penetrating wit. Often, the media circus surrounding the case of Nick and the missing ‘Amazing Amy’ resembles the climax of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), another example of a master auteur and satirist.

However, all roads seem to lead back to Hitchcock. There are so many of his tropes on display here: a ‘wrong man’ setup; an icy blonde; carefully controlled dolly shots and pans; an important shower scene; even sections that resemble the wilder elements of Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964).

Unlike some of Brian De Palma’s work, this is more than an elaborate homage: the flashbacks and shifts in perspective provide a solid foundation for the cast to do some of the best work of their careers.

Affleck is perfectly cast and pulls off a role that is trickier than it might appear at first; Pike reveals hidden depths after a recent run of supporting turns; Tyler Perry is a deeply unexpected delight, whilst the rest of the cast all fit neatly into the world Fincher has sculpted.

Trent Reznor’s haunting electronic score adds a rich aural flavour to proceedings, whilst DP Jeff Cronenweth helps provide the customary dark palette that Fincher is so fond of.

Gone Girl is the kind of film that needs to seen again and perhaps demands another review with spoilers, for a full discussion of its many qualities. But for the moment, it is a film you should definitely see, one of the best of the year so far.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic

Frank Darabont on The Shawshank Redemption

Frank Darabont on The Shawshank Redemption

* A previously unpublished interview from the FILMdetail archives *

Back in 2004, I spoke with writer-director Frank Darabont about the 10th anniversary of The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Whilst not an initial success, it gradually became one of the most beloved films of all time, consistently ranking at No. 1 on the Internet Movie Database.

Listen to the interview below, which was recorded in September 2014:

> Buy the film on Blu-ray or DVD at Amazon UK
> Find out more about The Shawshank Redemption at Wikipedia
> Frank Darabont at the IMDb
> WSJ article on how The Shawshank Redemption keeps making money