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Whistler Film Festival: ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson’

The Case of the Sympathetic Barber

About thirty minutes before his Red Carpet appearance, Robert Carlyle gave his frank opinion about the titular character from The Legend of Barney Thomson. “He’s not a very nice person, this Barney,” the Once Upon a Time star admitted at the Whistler Film Festival, where his directorial debut was welcomed for its North American premiere. “It’s one of the most difficult things about the script: How do I play this guy and make him somehow sympathetic? Because he’s a tit, he really is!”

Robert Carlyle

Robert Carlyle in his directorial debut, ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson.’ Photo courtesy of the Whistler Film Festival.

It helps immensely that Carlyle dwarfs Barney’s unpleasant “outbursts” towards customers by bringing on the full force of an outrageous personality like Cemolina. Emma Thompson, a two-time Academy-Award-winning actress, is both delightful and horrifying as Barney’s mother. Only two years older than Carlyle, Thompson benefited from the expertise of Mark Coulier (Spectre, Iron Lady) for the prosthetic make-up design needed to transform her into the feisty Scottish woman. It’s Emma Thompson as you’ve never seen her.

Despite being in her seventies, Cemolina stays active with her betting at the dog races, her lively Bingo nights, and old lady dance parties. But by no means would we ever expect her to garner the accolade of “Mother of the Year” for the scathing verbal abuse she unleashes on Barney, the hapless and lonely barber. “I never saw the f***ing point of you,” she tells her long-suffering son. Ouch.

A View from the Barber’s Chair

The Legend of Barney Thomson follows the misadventures of Barney, who has been relegated to the last chair at rear of Henderson’s Barbershop. About to be fired, he accidentally kills his boss (Stephen McCole) and attracts the fierce scrutiny of Detective Inspector Holdall (Ray Winstone) and Detective Sergeant MacPherson (Kevin Guthrie). The citizenry of Glasgow are on edge about a strange wave of murders carried out by a killer who mails body parts to the loved ones. An overwhelmed Barney turns to his mother for help, which leads him to uncover some startling revelations. He’s also at a loss about what to do with his so-called friend, Charlie (Brian Pettifer), who connects the dots about the unfortunate accidents at the barbershop.

Robert Carlyle and Emma Thompson

Barney (Robert Carlyle) and Cemolina (Emma Thompson) at the dog track in ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson.’ Photo courtesy of the Whistler Film Festival.

The script was written by Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren, as an adaptation of Douglas Lindsay’s The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson. Understandably, there’s a bit of humor that you can’t pull over to the screen from chapter titles on paper like “Forgive Me, Mother, For I Have Sinned.” But the weakest point of the film for me is how Barney and Charlie are pitted against each other. It feels a bit too contrived, compared to the more natural comparisons between Barney and Holdall. Cowan and Carlyle said at the general Q&A that a lot of creative liberties were taken with Charlie. There’s a connection with Carlyle’s past (a local from “the cinema queue” in Glasgow) that feels far too distant for viewers to readily grasp. At the same time, there are still jokes and a richness to be gleaned from their scenes. The fair or carnival setting is a perfect backdrop for two of their conversations and not solely because they are on the teacup ride.

Dissecting the Barber’s Cut

That point leads me into a far more interesting and pleasant discussion topic: where Robert Carlyle succeeds with his directorial debut. Strong casting, already mentioned with Emma Thompson, is of great importance when the shooting schedule is very tight. Barney Thomson benefits from the talents of Ray Winstone, Tom Courtenay, Ashley Jensen, and others. Another positive aspect is the gallows humor. Adding the Glaswegian accent into the mix makes it possible for Barney’s panicked line of “His freezer is too wee!” to reduce a crowd to full-bellied laughter.

Ray Winstone and Robert Carlyle

Robert Carlyle and Ray Winstone on the set of ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson.’ Photo courtesy of the Whistler Film Festival.

The film has a sophisticated level of cinematography, due to the fantastic artistry of Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones, Sherlock) in scenes like the Bingo night and Barney’s daymare. The active camera, especially with a complex arc in the latter, pulls the viewer completely into the barber’s state of mind. Closely tied to the cinematography is how the sets were conceived by Carlyle and designer Ross Dempster.

It seems that some critics have found it to be “lacking” or spare, questioning the atmosphere of the Glasgow portrayed. However, Carlyle does have a very specific agenda in keeping things simple and outfitted in a sort of retro style. The jaunty tunes in the soundtrack highlight the irony in Barney’s misadventures, but they also cement a sense of timelessness in hearkening back to decades long gone. After all, legends are timeless, supposedly outliving the hazy eras and rubble in which they take shape. Barney Thomson is a neo-noir film, too, taking some inspiration from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet near the end.

Robert Carlyle

Robert Carlyle. Photo courtesy of the Whistler Film Festival.

There’s one last series of backdrops and background elements that I want to analyze in a way that might stretch credulity. Kasabian posters bearing Serge Pizzorno’s face pop up regularly, an obvious reference to one of Robert Carlyle’s favorite alternative rock bands. The office of Chief Superintendent McManaman (Tom Courtenay) features a taxidermy bear with its arms outstretched over Holdall as he bickers with DI Robertson (Ashley Jensen). Earlier I mentioned the fair, where Charlie and Barney circle round in the teacup.

Whether it’s entirely intentional on Carlyle’s part, (I suspect it is that) each instance of playfulness carries the underlying motif whereby violence or chaos is ready to burst into the frame. The connection is subtly drawn by the band posters, but plenty of Kasabian’s tracks (“Switchblade Smiles,” “Underdog”) are explicitly about fights. That bear looks just as menacing as it appears comically innocuous with its claws and massive size. Fairs and carnivals have a dark and maddening side (if a bit cliché) as well. Thus it’s surprising when other critics express doubt about the build-up to the inevitable, hilarious, and explosive outcome at Loch Lubnaig. There is a very convincing and well-laid trail.

Final Cuts

The Legend of Barney Thomson is a carefully constructed film under the direction of Robert Carlyle. It’s full of surprises and great fun at every turn. You don’t want to miss the blooper reel at the end credits.

This opening feature for the Edinburgh International Film Festival is worthy of the BAFTA Scotland Awards and nominations it garnered recently. It also came out as the runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival. The Legend of Barney Thomson comes out on VOD on February 2, 2016, followed by a theatrical release in North American theaters on March 11.


This article was originally posted on Blogcritics.org with the same title. I added photos and made size adjustments.

 

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Whistler Film Festival: ‘Born to Be Blue’

Born to be Blue is a passion project that was years in the making for actor Ethan Hawke and director-writer Robert Budreau. Hawke plays the role of jazz trumpeter and crooner Chet Baker, who seems to be on the cusp of a comeback when the film opens in the mid-1960s. After his release from an Italian prison, there’s a black and white sequence that pulls the viewer back 1950s. The big moment is an evening in New York at the Birdland jazz club, where legend Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) is in attendance.

Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo

Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo in ‘Born to Be Blue.’ Photo courtesy of the Whistler Film Festival.

Co-star Callum Keith Rennie emerged for a Q&A after the screening at the Whistler Film Festival earlier this month. He called attention to the tensions that he felt Budreau and Hawke wanted to capture. “It was the new white guy on a scene that was predominately understood to be Black. It was ‘the new kid in town.’ I think there was a bit of a distance between the groups coming together,” Rennie explained to the crowd at the Village 8 Cinema.

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Virginia Film Festival: ‘Last Days in the Desert’

Ewan McGregor in 'Last Days in the Desert'

Ewan McGregor in ‘Last Days in the Desert.’ Photo Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

It seems difficult to create a fresh perspective on Jesus, given all of the films and television specials that have been released over the years. However, director and writer Rodrigo García was able to do just that in his latest film, Last Days in the Desert. He focuses on a few days at the very end of the forty-day period that Jesus (Ewan McGregor) spent in the desert, fasting and praying before starting his active ministry.

García and producer Julie Lynn were both interviewed recently at the Virginia Film Festival by Harry Chotiner, a professor at New York University. The director, appearing on a large screen through video chat, summed up his film as a story about men “finding destiny under powerful fathers.”

One startling aspect of the film is a significant casting decision: Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Lucifer. “Lucifer uses human ways to destabilize Jesus,” García said. “He’s the least politically correct character.” Save for a couple additions of jewelry and his evil smirks, Lucifer looks the same as Jesus. His abilities in shape-shifting and mimicry are both entertaining and creepy at once.

There are accounts in the Bible about Lucifer’s efforts to tempt Jesus – asking him to turn stones to bread, jump from a pinnacle, and turn from God. These parts of Scripture are ignored in favor of a different plot. Coming upon a family in the middle of the desert, Jesus is challenged by Lucifer to resolve their problems. The family, which remains unnamed, has a father (Ciarán Hinds), a son (Tye Sheridan), and a dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). The son dreams of going to Jerusalem, but the father wants build him a house and remain in the desert. The major issue is communication, which places Jesus somewhat in the role of intermediary. Second to Lucifer, Ciarán Hinds as the father gets some of the best lines. “It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk,” the father says about himself and his son. “We’re not women.”

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner.

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner. Photo: Pat Cuadros

When other films depict Jesus at work, he’s not usually undertaking dusty and potentially backbreaking tasks like lifting huge stones, as he does here. That level of strain tends to be saved for the carrying of the cross. Additionally, survival itself in the desert is an arduous endeavor, as he copes with fasting, isolation, and the weather. The desolate sands and rocky outcroppings seem to dwarf McGregor as he walks along, his dark brown garb standing out amidst lighter coloring of the terrain.

It’s also interesting to note that the script, totaling to a mere 60 pages, is rather sparse in dialogue. “More than a couple of agents called asking, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’” García remarked. Thus the frames, artfully rendered by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity), convey the moods in the silent moments beautifully and enable the film to be more of a psychological study of Jesus’s fears and doubts. It’s not a fool proof presentation though, leaving some moments hanging.

It’s not much of a spoiler to mention that the ending of Last Days in the Desert includes the Crucifixion. “I didn’t want people going out of the theater wondering, ‘Who was that?’” Garcia explained. There are, in essence, three possible endings running together that encompass the weakest part of the film. The overall conclusion feels disjointed, detached, and unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, Last Days in the Desert is a unique exploration of Jesus’s human side in way that is contemplative, creative, and respectful. It’s a version capable of stimulating discourse among religious and non-religious individuals alike.

This article was first published on Blogcritics.org, under the same title.

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Middleburg Film Festival Review: ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’

'Hitchcock/Truffaut' Screenshot

Photo by Philippe Halsman. Courtesy of Cohen Media Group and the Middleburg Film Festival

Set for release next month, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a delightful, 80-minute documentary directed by Kent Jones. It draws on insights from celebrated filmmakers looking back at a series of meetings that occurred between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in 1962. Truffaut, a founder of New Wave cinema, requested the interview so that he might “free Hitchcock from his reputation as a light entertainer.” In 1966, he published those conversations in a book.

The running commentary by Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and others is illuminating about their reverence for these two great cinematic giants. However, the center stage remains with Hitchcock and Truffaut in the old photographs and their film footage. The book itself, as one sees in the close-up shots, includes frame-by-frame analysis from many of Hitchcock’s films. But their dialogue has its full impact now by being layered directly over the clips, the way you might expect a film lecture to go. Read the rest of this entry »

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Review: ‘Blunt Talk’ – “I Seem to Be Running Out of Dreams for Myself”

Starz Network released the first two episodes of Blunt Talk ahead of the show’s premiere date of Saturday, August 22nd. The comedy stars Patrick Stewart as Walter Blunt, a hapless and utterly self-centered host of a right-wing news program. Critics may laud this show as new ground for Stewart, but it’s by no means his debut into raunchy and borderline over-the-top scenarios.

Walter Blunt (Patrick Stewart) and his Therapist (Richard Lewis)

Dr. Weiss (Richard Lewis) Treats Walter Blunt (Patrick Stewart)

At the helm of Blunt Talk are creator/director Jonathan Ames and executive producer Seth MacFarlane. MacFarlane enlisted Stewart on several occasions for Family Guy, Ted, and Ted 2, showcasing the veteran actor’s flair for perfect comedic delivery. Blunt Talk thus is more than just an extension of these moments, resulting in smart and playful episodes littered with references to Stewart’s prolific career. Be on the lookout for gems such as Brent Spiner’s brief appearance at the jazz bar as Phil the pianist.

The jazzy vibes in the background, the décor, and even Walter’s formal British speech do much to present the man as an anachronism during the opening scene of “I Seem to Be Running Out of Dreams for Myself.” Following celebrity stereotypes, Walter indulges in alcohol and he has a penchant for marijuana laced chocolate. His valet Harry (Adrian Scarborough) cautions him to take such “time release vitamins” only in moderation.

It’s a delightful recipe for disaster when he shyly picks up a transsexual prostitute, from whom he requests not too much more than a cuddle. Still on a high, he fights with police while quoting “Hamlet” as TMZ-like reporters record the arrest. The almost bromance between Walter and Harry is somewhat heartwarming, nearly making the former an endearing sort of fellow despite his vanity.

In the aftermath, Walter despairs that UBS Network may cancel his already faltering show. He resorts to bribery, trading his precious Jaguar for one more broadcast. He must also participate in sessions with Dr. Weiss (Richard Lewis), a Freudian therapist that prescribes crack. So far, the standout on Walter’s production team is longtime producer Rosalie (Jacki Weaver), who comforts him with a “spoon” or a lie down in the office as he voices his insecurities.

He unwisely takes proffered prescription medication from Jim (Timm Sharp) and suffers Ambien blackouts as he prerecords questions and exaggerated facial expressions for his interview about the arrest. Yes, that’s Walter Blunt in an exclusive with Walter Blunt himself: hilariously following up each pitiful answer with an unrelenting “why” in the intense exchange. Ultimately, the stress and the drugs lead him to collapse on live television during his ensuing soliloquy, bringing the opening chapter to a startling if not completely surprising conclusion.

Blunt Talk has the potential to be a great series for Starz and Patrick Stewart, doing a pretty decent job at establishing Walter’s plight and injecting scenes with a lot of humor. Lines like “I’m no lion in the winter” and “I’m a bald eagle” are handled with such a practiced ease by Stewart. One hopes he can continue in this mode as circumstances further unravel for his tragic character, who tries so hard to be relevant against giants like Anderson Cooper and Bill O’Reilly. Stewart’s performance lends itself well to both the gravitas of a Shakespearean tragedy and the absurdity of Don Quixote’s misadventures, adding another fantastic project to his long resume.

This post was originally published on Blogcritics.org as “TV Review: ‘Blunt Talk’ – ‘I Seem to Be Running Out of Dreams for Myself.”

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TV Review: Madness Reigns on ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ in “The Black Tower”

Marc Warren and Bertie Carvel

The Gentleman (Marc Warren) watches Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) at work. Photo: JSMN Ltd, Matt Squire / BBC America.

Following “The Black Tower,” there’s only one more episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a BBC series that depicts a Napoleonic Europe beset by magic. The penultimate installment is a jarring descent into madness. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), the older magician, is frustrated that he can’t locate Strange (Bertie Carvel), his former apprentice. He reluctantly pulls Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) out of jail to handle the search.

Strange is hiding in Venice, trying to “catch” madness, a mental state that enables one to see fairies. He meets the lovely Flora (Lucinda Dryzek), from whom he learns about an old lady that lives with cats and eats dead rodents. Yes, she’s mad. I would have preferred a less stomach-turning method for demonstrating his obsession with getting Arabella (Charlotte Riley) back. Strange succeeds and meets the Gentleman, a fairy king (Marc Warren) with a penchant for deals. His happiness fades upon realizing that Belle is alive, turning quickly to rage when he discovers the Gentleman’s involvement with Lady Pole’s (Alice Englert) resurrection.

Both Bertie Carvel and Marc Warren deserve praise for the way they play the long overdue confrontation in Strange’s rooms and the fairy kingdom of Lost-Hope. When they cast aside their measured politeness, the visible tension in their stances and faces almost makes you believe that invisible waves of magic are radiating from them. The Gentleman’s antagonism drips through his conversation with the Pole family’s butler, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare). It’s beautifully shot with strong light and shadow as the fairy king stands behind Stephen, who tries to dine with the oblivious Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer).

“The Black Tower” is certainly the most entertaining and exhilarating chapter thus far. Developing plot threads are starting to converge, tied to the prophecy of the Raven King, another longtime adversary of the Gentleman. That story, as told by the street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), has hinted at disaster for Norrell and Strange.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell also addresses with maximum damage the question of John Segundus, an aspiring (but not practicing) magician: “Why is there no more magic done in England?” Strange and Norrell predict correctly that a revival of magic would bring about factions. It threatens to leave devastation in its wake, as shown by the Gentleman’s conjuring of a pillar of darkness around Strange.

Norrell is convinced that Strange’s “mad magic” can only lead to “catastrophe.” He’s equally at fault for employing the very dark magic that he regarded as disreputable in the first place. In addition, he succeeded at stirring the ire of Strange, culminating in a threat that the younger magician sends through the mirrors as a horde of ravens. Fluttering and pecking sounds create an eerie atmosphere before the ravens break Norrell’s mirrors, heightened by Eddie Marsan’s looks of perplexity and horror. Will the rift between Norrell and Strange continue or will they put aside their differences to take down the Gentleman together? Catch the finale on BBC America July 25 at 10 p.m. ET.

Article first published as ‘TV Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ – “The Black Tower”‘ on Blogcritics.org.

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Review: ‘Minions’ Top the Box Office Despite Flaws

“Minions” successfully raked in $115 million in its opening weekend domestically, taking the number one spot in the box office. Combined with other grosses, the prequel to the “Despicable Me” films has now made a whopping $395.7 million worldwide and will continue to climb. We’ve been clamoring for a minions-centered movie for a while, so how does it measure up?

I wanted to like “Minions” with all my heart, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated by its end. I’m usually wary when the theatrical trailer is very long and divulges the entire plot. Sadly, most of the funny material from “Minions” was already in the trailer. Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (three of the beloved yellow creatures) embark on a search for the best evil master, in hopes of revitalizing the entire minion group (all voiced by Pierre Coffin). When I saw the initial trailers for this film, I assumed that it meant we would get to meet young Gru (Steve Carell) “soon” after the disastrous events with Dracula and Napoleon.

It’s set in the 1960s, but unfortunately, there’s no Gru in sight. Instead, Kevin and his mates hitchhike from New York to Florida for Villain-Con in hopes of being recruited by the hottest villain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). Be forewarned: if you weren’t able to get tickets to San Diego Comic-Con, then seeing Villain-Con on the big screen just might stoke the flames of despair. Bob, the smallest minion, succeeds in taking Scarlet’s jewel, making the three minions her newest henchmen. They are charged with stealing the Queen of England’s crown, which amusingly ends with Bob as the winner again!

Photo of "Minions" poster

Poster for the “Minions” film Photo: Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures

Aside from those points, there’s not much in the way of plot or character development, which suggests that shorts or television specials would have been a better route to take. The confusion and humor by the minions continues along the same patterns or at least produces the same reactions. There aren’t any humans here that stand out as much as Gru and the girls from “Despicable Me.” Curiously enough, there’s an equivalent to Russell Brand’s Dr. Nefario in the form of the blind Tower Guard (Steve Coogan). Rather than being comical, the torture room scene with Scarlet’s masked husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), comes off as rather disturbing: depicting a noose and other devices as fun? Poor taste there. The adventures seem rushed and tired by the time Kevin grows to the size of Godzilla.

It’s quite astonishing that Gru comes into the film so late. His scenes with the minions then and during the ending credits are among the best ones. Perhaps Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment will seek to profit by elaborating on those segments via a television show with Gru and the minions.

Overall, “Minions” is merely okay, with a few areas for laughs. One could forgo the 3D glasses and resort to the standard viewing option, as with many of the 3D films that have come out in recent months. Better still, you could wait until the film is released on Redbox. And parents, you might want to exercise caution about some of the potentially objectionable content.

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