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Rating History

Don't Breathe
Don't Breathe (2016)
9 days ago via Movies on iPhone

After a series of horror shorts, director Fede Alvarez was finally given his big break into feature length filmmaking by being tasked with reworking the cult classic horror Evil Dead. This also brought the backing of the original film's director and star, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell who took producer duties. It was a huge task for Alvarez to undertake and although it worked for some, it happened to be one of the worst films I had the misfortune to see in 2013. With Don't Breathe, however, Alvarez has managed to claw back some respect.

Plot: A trio of teens, who make money breaking into people's homes, target the residence of an old blind man (Stephen Lang). The blind man isn't as helpless as he seems, though, and what should have been an easy job turns out to be fight for survival.

The premise of Don't Breathe is a simple one. And sometimes simple is best. Alvarez seems to be aware that all he has to do is set the scene and then let the thrills flow. And for the first half of the film, he does just that. This really is edge of your seat stuff and provides several moments where you take the title of the film quite literally. He doesn't waste any time in getting down to the nitty gritty and employs an effective fast pace that keeps the tension flowing with ease. This, in turn, lends the film a genuine unpredictability and makes for hugely enjoyable and claustrophobic entertainment.

However, it stretches credulity past the halfway mark and veers off into territory that almost undoes the great build-up work. What was a solid cat-and-mouse thriller, soon descends into macabre and garish horror. Needless to say, it also abandons its tight and simplistic narrative at this point and chooses, instead, to focus on ridiculous and overly convenient plot points. There's a distinct feeling that the well ran dry and Alvarez had no idea how to bring it to a satisfactory end. That said, it's well shot and Alvarez certainly handles the set-pieces very well.

Although it's been marketed as a horror - and it does have elements of this - it's more of a suspenseful thriller that's brushed past some horror tropes. If you can forgive the latter half's incongruous absurdity, then there's much to recommend it.

Mark Walker

The Infiltrator
15 days ago via Movies on iPhone
½

After their collaboration on The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, Director Brad Furman reunites with Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo once again. Most of the positivity surrounding that film was slightly overshadowed by Matthew McConaughey's renewed invigoration for dramatic acting (or the start of the McConaussance as it came to be known) while the likes of Cranston and Leguizamo filled in as support. The film itself was a decent enough legal thriller and now with The Infiltrator, Furman explores the other side of the law. Only this time, his fringe players take the central roles.

Plot: Alongside partners Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Federal agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranton) goes deep undercover to infiltrate a drug trafficking organisation that reaches all the way to Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The deeper Bob goes, though, the more danger he puts himself and his family in until he's so deep he's left with no choice but see it through to the end.

There's really nothing going on in The Infiltrator that we haven't seen before. It's old but, admittedly, not yet tired ground we're covering here; undercover agent and devoted family man putting his neck on the line to infiltrate some serious criminal players. Needless to say, it affects him personally and any comparisons with Donnie Brasco would be well founded. With Bryan Cranston you'd also be forgiven for having flashbacks to his sublime, star-making work on TV's Breaking Bad. Like I say, we've been here before.

That said, there's still much to recommend The Infiltrator. Based on the real-life story of Robert Mazur and working from a script by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, Brad Furman has an impressive handle on events. He displays some stylish direction and has a keen eye for period detail. Ultimately, though, he keeps an even pace and manages to hold your interest while delivering several thrilling set-pieces.

There's also an impressive cast of familiar faces in supporting roles with Leguizamo, in particular, lending fine support. The lesser known but steadily rising Joseph Gilgun (This Is England, Preacher) makes a welcome appearance and it always pleases me to a see very talented low-key actor make some headway in bigger films. He's a chameleon like performer that's thoroughly deserving of more work and one that I've been watching with much anticipation.

But, ultimately, there's one thing that shoulders this film and that's the leading man himself. Cranston delivers very strong work and, as always, shows a versatility and a complete command of his character. As touched upon, there are hints of his Walter White and/or Heisenberg from Breaking Bad. It may be a little too close to the bone for some but I welcomed seeing Cranston do it all again.

Robert Mazur's real life story is just as tense and exciting as anything that was depicted in Joe Pistone's story as Donnie Brasco but because The Infiltrator has been filmed afterwards, it puts it at a real disadvantage before it's even had a chance. This is a shame really as Furman and his cast rarely put a foot wrong. Unfortunately, comparisons will be made and this happens to arrive a little too late for it to achieve any freshness or originality.

It's not genre defining by any means but it's also not a complete right-off either. Despite it succumbing to formula, it still has many stand out scenes and maintains its momentum admirably. Cranston is most impressive and the film is worth it just for him.

Mark Walker

Eastern Promises
28 days ago via Movies on iPhone

With A History of Violence in 2005, David Cronenberg seemed to take his career in a more mainstream direction. It wasn't the horror or dark science fiction that many had come to know him by, but an arresting thriller that was actually based on a graphic novel. It was a big success and, two years later, led to Cronenberg sticking with his leading man Viggo Mortensen and attempting something similar with Eastern Promises. You could say that their second collaboration delivers something even more satisfying.

Plot: Deeply affected by the death of a Russian teenager in childbirth, nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) takes it upon herself to find her family and save the baby from foster care. With access to the girl's diary, Anna is led to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of a Trans-Siberian restaurant. Semyon isn't the endearing character that he makes out, however, and the closer Anna gets to the girls story, the closer she gets to the enigmatic 'driver' Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and the bloody underworld of the Russian Mafia.

When you think of a mob movie, your memory will most likely be jogged to the glamorously brutal Italian American variety. The obvious ones being the exemplary work of Scorsese's Goodfellas or Coppola's The Godfather. You may even consider the violent Cuban's of DePalma's Scarface and the Puerto Rican's of Carlito's Way or perhaps the Irish goons from The Coen brothers Miller's Crossing. With Eastern Promises, though, Cronenberg decides to focus on the Russian mafia operating from a restaurant in the drab, Hackney borough of London. Although it mines the same well as some of the aforementioned films, it feels like a fresh take on the mob movie, primarily because it's an ethnic group of mobsters that don't often get attention.

Steven Knight's screenplay focuses on the murky world of people trafficking while exploring the tradition and initiation of Russian criminal codes. The gangsters of this story have to earn their positions and their stripes which are represented in tattoo form and by doing so, brings forth an genuine air of mystery and intrigue to the characters. This is the master stoke of the film. And Cronenberg knows it. He's not overly concerned with the plot itself. Sure, it plays out with a good degree of tension and more than holds your interest but the real draw here is what we don't see. It's the machinations of this criminal underworld and their untold code of ethics that intrigues the most. This is exemplified with some great performances; Naomi Watts delivers the perfect bewilderment of a women out of her depth and while I'm a huge fan of Vincent Cassel - and his loose-cannon, Kirill, gets a substantial amount to do here - even he isn't the standout. It's the unnerving work of Armin Mueller-Stahl who brings real gravitas as Semyon, the patriarchal head of the family and the quietly affecting, yet very intimidating, Viggo Mortensen who own this film. When we speak of mystery and intrigue, Mortensen's loyal driver Nikolai is the epitome of it. It's an absolutely captivating performance which rightly gained him his first (and long overdue) Oscar nomination with his involvement in a steam-room brawl worth the nomination alone.

Where the film is slightly let down is in its rushed denouement. For the most part, it revels in a particular pace, but when it's drawing to a close it feels muddled and determined to finish within a particular running time. Up until then, however, it's a brutal and punishing crime yarn that hits many a strong note and breathes new life into the mob film.

A viceral, stylish and compelling story that benefits greatly from masterful acting. It's arguably both Cronenberg and Mortensen's finest work. This Eastern themed film keeps good on its Promises.

Mark Walker

Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
47 days ago via Movies on iPhone
½

It's hard to believe that Apocalypto in 2006 was the last time Mel Gibson was behind the camera. I suppose 10 years in movie-making exile is where antisemitic rants gets you in Hollywood. That aside, it's a pleasure to see Gibson directing again as he often delivers big, entertaining spectacles and his latest certainly falls into line with that.

Plot: The true story of private Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who joins the army during WWII but refuses to bear arms due to being a conscientious objector. At the battle of Okinawa, Doss serves as a medic, saving numerous lives and becomes the first man in history to win a Medal of Honor without ever firing a gun.

If you consider the material of Hacksaw Ridge, you might notice that's it ripe material for Mel Gibson and his personal beliefs. As a man who has
been very outspoken (a bit too much) on his Christian values, this film seems like the perfect vehicle for him to channel these beliefs. Faith and religion course throughout this and, as much as you can may want to overlook it, it just won't let you. This is a film about a saviour and it can't help but bombard you with religious rhetoric and imagery. In the end, you could ask where God is in all this bloodshed and mayhem but that might be a tad too philosophical for what Gibson is going for here.

Sadly, that's what's missing from Hacksaw Ridge; Its jingoism feels out of touch and I couldn't help but wonder what, say, Terrence Malick might have done with the material. If you consider Malick's The Thin Red Line, for example, you'll find a philosophical depth that's lacking from Gibson's film yet it would have benefited greatly from.

There's also a contradictory nature; Despite feeling like an old-fashioned, Hollywood style picture it has many riffs and rip-off's of contemporary war movies. There are several unashamed nods to Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan and Gibson's own Braveheart and Hacksaw's major problem is that it doesn't come close to bettering any of them.

I'm also not sold on the choice of leading man; Andrew Garfield is not a bad actor by any means but he doesn't deliver a performance that's worthy of the Oscar nomination he's received for this. I don't know, maybe it's just his appearance that throws me off. He's too boyish or maybe it's just that I can't help but focus on how disproportionate his hair is to his face. It's not the first time in a film that I've noticed his monumentally large hair. It's very distracting.

That said, despite its cliches and sometimes woefully written dialogue, this still has much to offer in terms of entertainment and it's a pleasure to see Gibson calling the shots with his usual visceral approach. He still has a ferocious ability to stage a good action set-piece and Hacksaw provides a good number of them.

Although old sugar tits just can't help but put his Christian values and themes of religious devotion into this, it's hard not to be swept up in the combat and the man behind the astounding true story. It's not subtle storytelling from Gibson but it's simple and effective nonetheless.

Mark Walker

Manchester by the Sea
2 months ago via Movies on iPhone
½

As Oscar season arrives, you can always expect a film to appear where it wants to throw its weight around and get its hands dirty by delivering a downbeat drama where the writing is empathetic and the actors can really show off their chops. Manchester By the Sea is that sombre type of Oscar bait film but to think of it as solely that, is to miss it's true depth and beauty.

Plot: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston janitor who lives his life as a loner. One morning, he receives a phone call that his brother has died from a sudden heart attack. As a result, he returns to his hometown where he finds out that he's been trusted with the guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew. Lee rejects the responsibility while being back home begins to unearth a dark and tragic secret that caused him to leave in the first place.

Kenneth Lonergan is a well respected playwright and screenwriter in the Hollywood circle but he's actually directed less than a handful of films - three to be exact. His debut You Can Count on Me in 2000 was critically acclaimed and even managed a couple of Oscar nominations - including one for Lonergan's screenplay. However, it took him years before he could get his next film completed. This film in question was the underrated and overlooked Margaret. It was finished in 2007 but didn't get a release until 2011 due to lawsuits surrounding the final cut of the film. Such nonsense could have forced Lonergan to give up entirely and that's exactly what his friend Matt Damon was thinking. As result, Damon approached him with an idea that he and John Krasinski had come up with. The result was Manchester By the Sea. Sadly, Damon had to drop the lead due to prior commitments and the part went to Casey Affleck instead. Who, in hindsight, turns out to be perfect for the role.

Much of Affleck's character is shrouded in mystery and that's the driving force behind Lonergan's screenplay. It's the ambiguity and air of secrecy that holds your attention but throughout the earlier part of the film we are given snippets of information. When the revelation is actually made and it becomes clear why Lee is so reclusive and withdrawn, it's absolutely devastating and changes the narrative and motivation of his character considerably.

For the most part, it's a quietly affecting drama. It doesn't play its hand too forcefully, instead relying on its moments of emotive power to develop naturally. It focuses on bringing dignity to the lives of everyday people and fully relates the heartache in looking grief and sorrow in the face and finding love and responsibility in their place.

Although it's sounds depressing, Lonergan fills it with a lot of dry humour and the entire cast are excellent; Kyle Chandler only features in flashbacks but he brings a really strong paternal presence and, despite appearing high in the film credits, Michelle Williams actually features very little. Although you wouldn't think so, such is the power of her performance in a few short scenes. Ultimately, though, this is Affleck's film. I'd heard a lot of positivity surrounding his award winning work here and I have to admit that the praise is justified. The thing is, on the surface it doesn't look like he's doing very much at all but there are many subtle layers to his performance and to his understanding of this afflicted and tortured character. It's a masterclass in understatement. He allows Lee to reveal himself naturally (and quietly). Much like his performance in Jesse James, Affleck does very little yet says so much. It's hard not to see him win an Oscar for this.

Manchester By the Sea is a slice of life where the characters are meticulously drawn and the small town itself plays a major role. It possesses real emotional depth and with a leisurely pace and a lengthy running time, it's a big ask from Lonergan for you to invest in these people. But if you do, you'll be paid dividends and he keeps good on that promise.

Mark Walker