Ah, it's the holidays, and with this happy time comes the perennial problem of how to keep the little ones occupied (hey, for all I know, the Easter break isn't actually over Easter any more, but I need some kind of peg to hang this review on, no matter how spurious). And so, bearing in mind the commitment to public service reviewing which years of BBC suzerainty has left me afflicted with, I thought I would look at a bunch of films currently showing in cinemas and consider which would be the best one for you to enjoy with the younger members of your family.
A couple of years ago I gave a very positive review to Gareth Huw Evans’ The Raid, declaring that it made a tremendous contribution to 'the cause of astounding, relentless, brutal, insane violence', prompting someone close to the Post to suggest 'this movie sounds truly horrifying'. Now Evans and the other key personnel have returned with the snappily-titled The Raid 2, which is indisputably even better/worse.
Young Jakartan cop Rama (Iko Uwais) resolves to bring down the corrupt officials responsible for his travails in the first film, which involves his going undercover in prison and eventually joining the dominant local crime family as an enforcer. Once in place he is caught up in a dynastic struggle between the head of the family and his ambitious young son, involving aggressive up-and-coming gangsters and the local branch of the Yakuza. As a gangster drama this is genuinely impressive, well played and written, and superbly directed.
However, as before it's the frankly astonishing action sequences which make the film such an intense and unforgettable experience. The fights are crunchingly visceral and authentic, for all they are stylised: while watching it, The Raid 2 certainly felt like the most violent film I had ever seen. Yayan Ruhian, whom you may recall as Mad Dog from the first film, makes a cameo appearance as a machete-wielding sociopath, but Rama's chief opposition this time around are a charming trio known as Baseball Bat Man, Hammer Girl, and the Assassin, and his climactic confrontation with them is terrifying and desperately exciting at the same time.
As ever, it's Gareth Evans' mastery of sound, composition, and movement which really makes the film as special as it is. Probably not the best gangster movie ever made; possibly not the best martial arts film - but as a fusion of the two, The Raid 2 is unsurpassed. Easily one of the two or three films of the year so far, but for our purposes not really ideal for family outing purposes: anyone even contemplating taking a child to see it should be arrested on the spot.
A well-loved name from British movie history makes an appearance with John Pogue's The Quiet Ones. That the name in question is Hammer Films may lead you to the reasonable conclusion that this, too, is probably not one for the kiddiwinks.
Supposedly 'inspired by true events', though the film-makers have been actively vague about exactly which ones, this is another story of arrogant scientists fiddling about with things of which man was not meant to know. Jared Harris plays louche academic Coupland, who's intent on using a troubled young woman to come up with a scientific explanation for poltergeist activity. This involves actively attempting to provoke things into going bump in the night (or any other time of day). Tensions in the experimental group and dodgy methodology complicate matters a bit, but not nearly as much as the realisation that everyone is full of ideas for how to summon the spook, but has very little clue about how to get rid of it again...
This movie does a pretty good job of striking a balance between looking like something from Hammer's golden age (distinguished actor in central role, period setting) and being a modern horror movie. I don't watch a lot of new horror films, I must say, but even so I am getting a bit tired of sub-Blair Witch found footage escapades and the currently dominant quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD formula for generating easy jump scares. But still, the performances are jolly and it is fairly scary, building up to a climax which I found agreeably overwrought. Not really near the top of the pile of Hammer's 21st century output, but that just shows how good the company's recent output has been. The Quiet Ones is by no means a bad film, and should hopefully do okay for itself – but it’s not really near the top of the pile of Hammer's 21st century output. On the other hand, that just shows how good most of the company's recent output has been. Once again, I feel obliged to recommend that you don't let the young 'uns anywhere near it.
One day, someone may write a review of Richard Ayoade’s The Double which neither compares it to Brazil nor uses the word kafkaesque – but that day is still a long way off. Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a downtrodden office drone in a grim, stylised, retro dystopia. He is overlooked by his boss, unfulfilled in his work, and really getting nowhere with the attractive girl from across the way (Mia Wasikowska). However, events take a bizarre turn when Simon finds his place in the world (wretched though it is) under threat from a very strange usurper – James Simon, seemingly his exact physical duplicate, but his exact opposite morally and in terms of personality...
I liked Ayoade’s 2011 movie Submarine very much indeed, and all of the key performers from it return here (most notably Yasmin Paige and Noah Taylor). However, where Submarine was a strikingly original and genuinely engaging take on the coming-of-age drama, The Double’s stylistic debt elsewhere is almost painfully obvious. It is very, very, very similar to Brazil, especially in its first act, but unfortunately Ayoade in not quite in the same stylistic league as Terry Gilliam.
On the other hand, it does resemble a lot of low-budget non-naturalistic British movies from the 1980s – almost to the degree where this becomes distracting. Eisenberg and Wasikowska are both very good – Eisenberg’s dual performance particularly so – but alongside these mainstream stars are a lot of people I instinctively think of as TV or indie faces – none moreso than Christopher Morris, who gets a brief cameo.
A great deal of thought has clearly gone into the visual aspect of The Double, and the performances are strong, but the story is a bit too surreal to really engage (it’s neither funny nor scary enough), and (again) the plot seems to be coming adrift in the closing stages. For a while I was all set to observe that, with The Double, Ayoade has managed to create an uncanny duplicate of a really bad film from about thirty years ago, but I’m not sure I’d go that far. There is a lot to admire about this film, but not a great deal to genuinely like, and some of the subject matter makes it a bit iffy for kids as well.
Thoroughly appropriate for Easter Week, on all sorts of levels, is John Michael McDonough’s Calvary. Again, I loved McDonough’s 2011 movie The Guard, and many of the key performers return in this case too. Chief amongst them is Brendan Gleeson, who delivers another monumental performance as James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in rural Ireland. Lavelle is a fundamentally good man who does his best to meet the demands of his vocation, despite the mockery, contempt, and outright abuse he meets on a daily basis. All this is thrown into sharp relief when a man who was abused as a child by another priest announces his intention to kill Lavelle, reasoning that no-one would pay any attention to the death of a guilty man. The film follows Lavelle through the week between his would-be murderer informing him of his plan and their final confrontation.
As the title and premise make clear, on one level this is an allegory for the story of Jesus, but the film goes beyond this to consider wider issues – chiefly, what the role of religion actually is in the modern world. Lavelle is hardly respected, and constantly finds his moral authority undermined and challenged by his parishioners – ‘your time is over,’ he is explicitly told at one point. And so on another level it is a character study of the priest, one of considerable subtlety and humanity – is he going to his possible death in an attempt to justify his own vocation, and prove the church is still relevant? The film is confident enough not to proffer any easy answers.
While this isn’t as heavy or bleak as it probably sounds, neither is it as comic or jaunty as The Guard – a friend who accompanied me to see it agreed it was an excellent film, but not the one he had been expecting. Another was moved to tears by it. (I should probably point out that two other people along for the trip fell asleep.) But as a serious drama dealing with important themes, it is superb, mainly due to the strength of the writing and the performances. Gleeson was brilliant in The Guard and he is even better here, and he is well-supported by Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran, amongst others.
The Guard was my favourite film of 2011, and while I doubt Calvary will scoop the same not-very-coveted title for 2014, it’s hard to dispute that this is a more substantial and impressive film on virtually every level. Unfortunately, yet again the subject matter makes it totally unsuitable for a young audience.
And so, I am forced to the following conclusion: there are indeed many fine films out there this Easter. If you do have young children and are looking to go to the cinema, my advice to you is to go and see The Raid 2 (if you enjoy crazed, berserk violence) or Calvary (if you enjoy thoughtful, grown-up drama). You will just need to avail yourself of a babysitter first.