April 22, 2009 10:27 pm

Paranoia in the great tradition

State of Play ★★★★☆ (Kevin MacDonald)
The Grocer’s Son ★★★★☆ (Eric Guirardo)
Encounters at the End of the World ★★★★☆ (Werner Herzog)
Shifty ★★★☆☆ (Eran Creevy)
Outlander ★★★☆☆ (Howard McCain)

Kevin MacDonald established his reputation as one of the finest modern British filmmakers with a couple of outstanding documentaries, One Day in September and Touching the Void, both of which displayed his command of narrative and suspense. He made a seamless move into feature films with The Last King of Scotland and now State of Play provides further confirmation of his talent.

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State of Play

Ben Affleck in ‘State of Play’

As a remake of a widely praised BBC television mini-series the project risked disapproval, and the journey to the screen was by all accounts not an easy one: the original stars – Brad Pitt and Edward Norton – withdrew just weeks before filming was due to start and after expensive sets had been built. But none of that matters now and the replacements, Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, are terrific. Crowe is particularly fine as Cal McCaffrey, an experienced, somewhat jaded and slobbish investigative journalist working for the Washington Globe.

His latest assignment is to investigate a double shooting, of a teenage low-life and an unfortunate scooter-riding witness in a backstreet, the opening sequence being a near-replica of the equivalent scene in the original series. Indeed, the adaptation is successful throughout, smartly sticking to the essence of the original’s plot while updating and compressing as necessary. Some of the original nuances are missing, but this is every bit as exciting and relevant to its time, with US military operations at home and overseas standing in for the television version’s theme of the oil trade.

McCaffrey is quick to spot a connection between the two killings and the apparent suicide of a congressional aide, the plot thickening when it emerges that the aide was romantically involved with her boss, congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), who happens to be an old friend of McCaffrey. But just how are the deaths connected? How many conspiracies are involved? This is a smart, knowing addition to the great tradition of 1970s paranoid political thrillers, and as such includes several references to Watergate as well as featuring, as it had to, a tense sequence in an underground car-park.

Eric Guirardo is another accomplished documentary maker who has successfully moved into drama, his second feature being the wonderful The Grocer’s Son. The film seems set to be a gloomy, claustrophobic affair as we are introduced to Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé, who looks a little like a young Brando), a 30-year-old suffering from a serious bout of ennui. With his father confined to hospital after a heart attack, Antoine reluctantly agrees to look after the family business, a small grocery shop in the rural south of France. This summer idyll – of a sort – is illuminated by the presence of the winsome Claire (Clotilde Hesme), a beautiful twenty-something divorcee for whom Antoine carries a torch. Once there, the couple take responsibility for the van that delivers goods to the area’s more remote corners, and, thanks to the people he befriends on these daily jaunts and to Claire’s upbeat attitude, Antoine learns a life lesson or two. In its slow-moving, at times uncomfortable way, this is a heartwarming film.

Werner Herzog has, over the past four decades, moved back and forth between features and documentaries, often exploring stories involving the collision between the eccentric or mad and the unyielding power of the natural world. His latest documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, fits comfortably into this pattern. Inspired by some hauntingly beautiful images taken beneath the sea ice off Antarctica, Herzog interviewed a couple of dozen of those who live and work in and around the McMurdo Station community on the edge of the Ross Sea. They are, to a man and woman, classic Herzog subjects, all outsiders by choice and nature, most of them verbose, although one of them, a penguin expert, is almost comically taciturn. The result is a compelling film that is by turns thought-provoking and very funny.

 

Daniel Mays and Riz Ahmed in ‘Shifty’

Shifty, by writer-director Eran Creevy, sounds like the stuff of cliché, with its plot involving a hectic 24 hours spent by two friends, the drug-dealing Shifty (Riz Ahmed) and his old friend Chris (Daniel Mays), who, after four years away, is returning to the grim suburban housing estate on which he grew up. The story progresses in strictly linear style through a succession of encounters with various shady characters before coming to a not wholly unpredictable climax. But it is all done with conviction, is well acted, particularly by the two leads, and is a brisk, promising debut for Creevy.

 
outlander

Jim Caviezel in ‘Outlander’

Outlander is a peculiar, rather enjoyable hybrid, an alien-invasion story given a twist by being set in Viking times. In an opening sequence that sets the tone for much that follows – it borrows from Predator and Planet of the Apes – a spacecraft crash-lands in 8th-century Norway. The pilot Kainan (Jim Caviezel) has come from a distant planet and, as is explained not wholly convincingly, has shared his craft with a ferocious beast that proceeds to terrorise the local tribes. Howard McCain’s film comes perilously close to being risible at times, but it is never dull.

Re-released 46 years after its first appearance, From Russia with Love (★★★☆☆, Terence Young), often cited as the best Bond of all, is something of a disappointment. The narrative is plodding, time has not been kind to set-pieces that were once so thrilling and now seem oddly perfunctory, and 007’s misogyny and casual slapping of several women is more than faintly repellent.

The Uninvited (★★☆☆☆, The Guard Brothers) has a half-dozen scary moments but is a pretty dim US remake of a Korean thriller. Its most intriguing quality is that its final five minutes are so much more interesting than anything that goes before.

Finally come two British films. The sci-fi comedy FAQ about Time Travel (★★☆☆☆, Gareth Carrivick) continually threatens to morph into something interesting but, unforgivably, emerges as a long tease, a tiresome shaggy-dog story involving anomalies in the space-time continuum in a London pub. The film resembles nothing so much as an indifferent and wildly over-stretched episode of space sitcom Red Dwarf. Worse still is City Rats (★☆☆☆☆, Steve M. Kelly), an inane urban drama with a strong cast – Susan Lynch and James Lance among them – and big themes – death, art, love, sex – but no discernible point.

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