Great Films You Need To See – Keane (2004)

Throughout the course of our movie-watching lives most of us probably stumble across at least one film that strikes a particular chord with us but fails to get the attention it deserves.

I have plenty and will be passing comment on them in good time, but the first film I want to champion is the little-known 2004 gem Keane.

Lodge Kerrigan’s superb directorial debut Keane

Back in 1994, Lodge Kerrigan’s directorial debut Clean, Shaven garnered critical plaudits across the board. A masterful treatise on one man’s battle with schizophrenia, it marked Kerrigan out as a genuine talent.

He returned to the subject of mental illness 10 years later with Keane. The film earned as much praise as Clean, Shaven had a decade earlier and, following a successful festival run culminating in a screening at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, it gained a theatrical release. Some movies manage to break out of the festival circuit and make a genuine mark on the world stage; however, Keane was not one of them and soon enough quietly slipped through the cracks, taking Kerrigan’s directorial career with it.

But Keane deserves the dust to be blown off of it and reassessed as a defining film of 21st Century independent cinema.

The film begins with a man showing a picture of a young girl to staff and commuters in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal and asking if they recognise her. The man is William Keane (Damian Lewis) and the girl is his daughter Sophia, who was abducted several months earlier from there.

Clearly desperate and extremely troubled, William wanders the streets muttering to himself and calling out for his daughter. Following a night spent sleeping rough, he returns to the hotel he has been staying at and is told he is behind on the rent. After paying up by cashing a disability cheque, he begins his daily routine once more, wandering around the Port Authority convinced the person who abducted his daughter is there.

When not looking for Sophia, William downs vodka and hoovers up lines of coke – which only seems to fuel his rampant paranoia. Back at the hotel he meets Lynn (Amy Ryan) and her young daughter Kira (Abigail Breslan) and helps out by offering them money. A bond of sorts is formed, and Lynn asks William to look after Kira for a few hours. He agrees, but when they return to the hotel and are told that Lynn won’t be back till the following day, William reassures Kira she is not being abandoned.

Keane

William (Damian Lewis) desperately searches for his missing daughter in Keane

The two spend the day together and, for a little while at least, it seems William’s life has meaning once again. But after Lynn returns and announces they are leaving, he takes Kira from school without Lynn’s permission and they go to the Port Authority, allegedly to meet her mother.

Inside the terminal, William sends Kira off to buy sweets and watches intently from a distance, seemingly convinced the man who abducted Sophia will try to do the same with Kira so he can catch him. However, when this inevitably fails to happen, William weeps for the loss of his daughter, perhaps finally realising that he is never going to see her again.

Born out of Kerrigan’s fear (and any parent’s one would imagine) of his own child’s disappearance, Keane may not be the feel-good-hit-of-the-summer, but as a piece of cinema it is thought-provoking, tragic and unremittingly haunting.

We’ve no doubt all encountered a character like William Keane before, and most likely given them as wide a berth as possible. However, there’s no escape here as from the first shot the handheld camera fixates on Keane’s face and barely leaves his side, lending the film a deep sense of  claustrophobia. Indeed, by the final credits you’ll be forgiven for feeling like you’ve just emerged blinking into the sunlight from a particularly long tunnel.

William (Damian Lewis) tries to hold it together in Keane

William (Damian Lewis) tries to hold it together in Keane

Spending an entire film with a character who is so mentally scarred is a tough ask, so it is to the credit of Lewis’ powerhouse performance that it never once feels like a chore. His breakthrough role after having starred in HBO’s mini-series Band of Brothers, Lewis (currently starring in TV show Homeland) totally inhabits the title role and never once delivers a false note.

Lewis somehow manages to make William neither too sympathetic, nor too off-puttingly crazy, instead delivering a performance of subtle nuances that suck you in.

Critics have questioned whether William’s daughter even exists, rather she is the delusion of a disturbed mind. However, this is to miss the point of the film – to William she is as real as any of us and as such we must ride along this dark, lonely road with him.

In all likelihood, Keane will never be considered a classic – it’s subject matter is too difficult and unconventional for that – but seek it out if you can. Cinema doesn’t come much better than this.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 9

One of the strongest elements at the festival this year has been the wealth of high quality documentaries – none more so than Werner Herzog’s heart-breakingly powerful Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.

Herzog has flitted back and forth between documentary and features his entire career, although in recent years he has concentrated more on bringing real life stories to the screen.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

He’s been on a fantastic run for the past few years, starting with Grizzly Man (2005), his portrait of the sweet-natured but hopelessly naive Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by the grizzly bears he and his girlfriend (who was also eaten) were living alongside in the Alaskan wilds.

Herzog followed this in 2007 with Encounters at the End of the World, his very singular vision of life for both humans and animals in Antarctica, and then last year he brought us Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3D adventure into the Chauvet caves in southern France, where the oldest known pictures drawn by man are located.

Before the screening, a statement by Herzog was read out stating that Into the Abyss, a documentary exploring a brutal crime and its consequences for both the family and culprits, was the most “intense” experience of his long career. Coming from the man who gave us Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, wherein the central character tries to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle, that’s saying something.

Into the Abyss focusses on the murder of Sandra Stoller, her teenage son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson by Jason Burkett and Michael Perry in 2001 in a small Texas town. We learn that the trio were shot to death over a car that Burkett and Perry had their eye on. After a period on the run, they were eventually arrested and later convicted, with Burkett given a life sentence and Perry the death penalty.

Herzog examines the case in forensic detail and manages to interview Perry just eight days before he was given a lethal injection. Perry, who still looks like a boy despite having spent almost a decade in prison and on death row, never once says sorry, claiming it was Burkett who committed the murders (for the record Burkett also claims innocence, blaming Perry).

Away from the stifling atmosphere of death row, Herzog interviews the victim’s families, managing to draw out moments of heart-rending honesty through his unique brand of questioning. Likewise, he also speaks to those related to the case as well as others who have worked on death row.

I’m not sure how many documentary film-makers would think to have asked the prison chaplain a question about a squirrel he almost ran over while playing a round of golf, and manage to draw out a tear-stained reply as the man of God contemplates life and the sudden nature in which it can be extinguished.

At times Into the Abyss can be almost too unbearable to watch – the moment when Mrs Stoller’s brave daughter recounts how she has lost every single member of her family in the space of a few short years to crime, disease, suicide and accident is simply devastating. On the flipside, Herzog knows when to give someone enough rope, most particularly when Burkett’s wife, who ‘met’ and married him after he was sent down but goes on to chastise ‘death row groupies’, says with a straight face that she knew they would be together when she emerged from seeing Burkett one time to find a rainbow shining on the prison gates.

Herzog (who stakes his colours to the mast at the start of the film when he states that he is totally against the death penalty) offers up a hugely powerful and damning treatise against man’s inhumanity to man, fittingly ending with a death row guard-turned anti-execution campaigner who points out that we will all be remembered for what’s on our gravestones, so why not made it something worthwhile?

My final movie at the LFF was the Surprise Film. As the name implies you’re never sure what you’re going to end up with, but I was hoping it would at least have been better than last year’s unpleasant surprise Brighton Rock.

In the end we got Damsels in Distress by cult director Whit Stillman. If I’d known beforehand I probably wouldn’t have bothered to buy a ticket; Stillman’s movies aren’t really my thing and certainly not the choice of the guy sat next to me who made a beeline to the exit as soon as the title card appeared.

Damsels in Distress

Still, you pays your money and you takes your chance and, although at best a mildly diverting couple of hours, Damsels in Distress had a few moments of mirth.

Set in an east coast university, prissy friends Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and their unofficial leader Violet (Greta Gerwig) take under their wing transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton). As well as improving the university itself, they also help its depressed students by running a suicide prevention centre offering coffee, doughnuts and some friendly, if ineffectual advice.

When Violet discovers her dim boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) cheating on her with a girl they had ‘helped’, she goes into a self-proclaimed tailspin before having her faith in humanity restored by a particularly sweet-smelling soap. Violet equates happiness with cleanliness and so takes it upon herself to literally clean up the university and also introduce a brand new dance craze along the way.

It’s as twee as it sounds; in fact the only thing missing is a Belle and Sebastian soundtrack. Damsels in Distress’  heightened dialogue has its moments of humour, but ruins its best jokes by bludgeoning you over the head with them. The way in which the prim Rose desbribes the smooth Charlie (Adam Brody) as a “playboy opera-tooor” is funny the first couple of times, but after the 20th time it become kind of stale.

The film will inevitably get the attention of cult movie fans just because it marks Stillman’s return to directing for the first time since 1998’s fair-to-middling The Last Days of Disco, but if Stillman’s hoping for long-term cult appeal he’s going to have to do better than this.

And so ends my time at this year’s LFF. It’s been a great festival and much cinematic joy is sure to be had in the year ahead.

If you’re just the occasional movie-watcher or a cine-fiend, it’s well worth giving a film festival a go, if for nothing else than to say you saw it first. Until next time this is Three Rows Back signing off.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 8

The end is approaching for this year’s London Film Festival for yours truly, but where there are films to be screened, reviews will be sure to follow.

One of the mostly hotly anticipated films at this year’s LFF was Martha Marcy May Marlene, a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The film centres around Martha (newcomer Elizabeth Olsen) who, when we meet her is running away from a remote commune in the Catskill Mountains. She manages to evade the other members before the intimidating Watts (Brady Corbet) catches up with her, but lets her go after Martha makes a plea for freedom.

With nowhere else to go, Martha calls Lucy (Sarah Paulson), the sister she hasn’t seen in two years. A relieved Lucy brings Martha back to the plush lakeside summer house she shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and, evidently delighted to see her again, welcomes her back into her life.

Gentle questioning by Lucy as to where Martha has been the past two years brings the stonewalled reply that she was living with a man who lied to her. But it seems evident to Lucy that Martha isn’t being entirely forthcoming and has become more insular and unpredictable, fine one moment, withdrawn the next.

As Martha struggles to reacquaint to normal life with Lucy and an increasingly impatient Ted, we see through flashback how she was first introduced to the commune – made up mostly of young women and a handful of men – and to its charismatic, emotionally manipulative leader Patrick (John Hawkes, as quietly scary as he was in Winter’s Bone).

Lonely and vulnerable, Martha is renamed Marcy May by Patrick and after a period of uncertainty, including a deeply troubling moment when she is taken advantage of by Patrick so she can be ‘cleansed’, she slowly buys into the group’s dynamic and becomes indoctrinated.

Although the group espouses self-sufficiency, this doesn’t extend to some of them breaking into houses and helping themselves to whatever they can find. But when one break-in goes horribly wrong Martha is shaken to her core, presumably prompting her to make a run for it, although this is never clarified.

Haunted by her memories, which she can no longer rely on as being real or just delusions, an increasingly paranoid and unpredictable  Martha begins to suspect Patrick and the others have managed to track her down to the summer house, while an exasperated Lucy feels she can no longer help her sister and gradually accepts Ted’s suggestion to get Martha professional help.

An incredibly assured feature debut by writer-director Sean Durkin, Martha is your classic unreliable narrator, giving Martha Marcy May Marlene an uneasy, schizophrenic atmosphere from the start. Durkin isn’t afraid to make his central protagonist unlikable at times, and Olsen gives a break-out performance as someone whose emotional wiring is clearly on the blink.

The film’s conclusion is also likely to produce much debate – who exactly is in that car at the very end? Unless there’s a sequel it’s doubtful we’ll ever find out.

One of the things the festival has endeavoured to do in recent years is to actively promote new British cinema. Although the British film industry is in as healthy a state as it’s been for quite a while, the line-up of Brit flicks this time around didn’t appear that attractive.

One of the stand-outs in the lush festival guide was Junkhearts, the debut feature from Tinge Krishnan. Krishnan has certainly secured a top-totch cast, with Eddie Marsan (always a supporter of British film) and Romola Garai topping the bill, and rising star Tom Sturridge and newcomer Candese Reid filling the ‘exciting new talent’ quota.

Junkhearts

Marsan is Frank, a ramshackle, broken ex-soldier living with a terrible secret from his time serving in Northern Ireland, who can’t see beyond his next bottle of whiskey.

While stocking up on his daily drink fix at his local off-licence he encounters Lynette (Reid), a mouthy teenager  sleeping rough. Frank initially ignores Lynette, preferring not to get involved, but when he comes across her for a second time a connection between the two is made and, taking pity on her, he invites her back to his unkempt tower block flat to get some rest and clean herself up.

Meanwhile, in another part of London, Christine (Garai) is trying and failing to juggle a high-pressure job, drug habit, affair and motherhood. Christine seems to sleepwalk through her life, just like Frank. But Frank is woken from his self-destructive slumber by the paternal affection shown by Lynette and for a moment there is hope.

However, that chance of redemption for both Frank and Lynette quickly evaporates with the arrival of Lynette’s rotten, drug-dealing boyfriend Danny (Sturridge). Soon the flat has been taken over and turned into a drug den, while Frank retreats to the bottle.

But when a second chance to save himself and Lynette materialises, will Frank be able to keep himself together long enough?

For a film that is so unremittingly bleak for large portions, there has to be a hook on which to keep the audience invested and that hook comes in the form of the performances of Reid, Sturridge and Marsan, all of whom are terrific. And to the film’s credit you’re kept guessing as to whether Frank will be able to come good in the end.

Also, hats off to Krishnan for showing a more realistic, grittier side of London – there are no picture postcard shots of the Houses of Parliament or the Gherkin here.

However, the whole plot strand involving Christine simply doesn’t work and Gorai is wasted in a role that’s paper-thin and only there to service a suitable emotional pay-off at the end. You’ll also work out pretty quickly what the connection between the seemingly disparate plot threads are.

Krishnan shows promise though and, with a slightly better script it will be interesting to see where she goes next.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 7

Out of all the days of the festival, this was the one I was most looking to as it had two of the films I was desperate to see – and boy did neither of them let me down.

Mathieu Kassovitz has never quite managed to reach the same heights as his hard-hitting debut feature La Haine (1995). In fact he was fast turning into a hack for hire with such lightweight US genre fare as the terrible Halle Berry ‘shocker’ Gothika (2003) and Vin Diesel-starring sci-fi dud Babylon AD (2008).

Well, Kassovitz is back in France and back to his best with the searing, heavyweight political thriller Rebellion, which chronicles an incident in 1988 in the French colony of New Caledonia when 27 hostages were taken by a group of indigenous guerilla fighters seeking independence, and the bloody military rescue operation that subsequently took place.

Rebellion

Kassovitz films the drama through the eyes and experiences of Philippe Legorjus (played by the director himself), a Captain with the French GIGN counter-terrorist special forces, which were called on to assist the army with tracking down the ‘insurgents’ and freeing the hostages.

Legorjus and his men are primarily trained to deal with hostage-takers through negotiation, but the Captain quickly gets the impression that talking isn’t the number one goal of the military brass and French minister Bernard Pons (played by Daniel Martin), especially when there’s a presidential election taking place in France and incumbent President François Mitterrand and his opponent Jacques Chirac are trying to out-do each other over their tough stances on the unfolding crisis.

Legorjus nevertheless tries to make contact with the group holding the hostages and succeeds after he is himself taken hostage. He wins the hard-earned trust of leader Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) and is set free, promising to do what he can to give the group a platform in which to put their case for independence forward.

With the situation still tense, Legorjus works around the clock trying to convince the powers that be that the hostage-takers are willing to negotiate, but keeps running into brick walls until time runs out and a full military assault is ordered. With no time left, Legorjus realises he must betray Dianou’s trust in an effort to save as many of the hostages as he can.

Counting down over the course of 10 days until the dramatic, bloody assault on the cave where the hostages are being held, there’s a growing sense of inevitability that Legorjus is fighting a losing battle.

There are pointed remarks sprinkled throughout the film as to where this path is headed; when Legorjus tells a lawyer living on the island that the order to attack has been given, he asks the captain incredulously “the government wouldn’t do that would they?”. Another moment comes earlier in the film when Legorjus reminds his men that the population of New Caledonia are officially French citizens and therefore not ‘the enemy’. Needless to say these words ring hollow later in the film.

Thought-provoking and provocative, the anger of the film seeps out of every frame. It’s likely to cause controversy when it is released in France in November, but there should be no mistaking that this is brave, prescient film-making of the highest order.

Michael Shannon has in the space of just a few short years broke out from bit parts to become one of America’s most exciting acting talents.

His piercing stare and intense eyes singled him out for parts as unhinged lunatics in films such as Bug (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008), for which he was Oscar-nominated. It probably wasn’t until he was cast as prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire that he was allowed to properly broaden his horizons and show there was more to him than that.

This has continued in 2011 with Return, the disappointing indie drama also shown at the festival which he nevertheless gave a thoughtful, restrained performance as the husband of a soldier returning from a tour of duty, and now Take Shelter.

Take Shelter

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband to wife Samantha (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). He’s your classic everyman, a guy doing the best he can for his family through his job at a sand-mining company in a small Ohio town.

But all is not well with Curtis. He is being plagued by apocalyptic dreams – massive storm clouds gather overhead; rain resembling motor oil falls from the sky; masses of birds fly ominously above and crazed strangers attack him and his daughter.

The dreams are so real to Curtis that he becomes convinced they are something far more frightening – visions of things to come. With these terrifying thoughts running through his mind Curtis gets to work on beefing up the storm shelter at the back of the house. At the same time he weighs up whether he is succumbing to the same mental illness that has left his mother in a home for the past 25 years.

To this end, he goes to the library to check if he has the symptoms and goes to see a counsellor on his doctor’s advice. At first the sedatives he is given to help him sleep seem to work, but then the dreams return, more frightening than ever and he re-doubles his efforts to get the shelter ready for what he is convinced is the storm to end all storms. However, his actions have serious ramifications on his friends who think he’s lost his mind, on his job and with his wife, who struggles to understand why Curtis seems so hell-bent on bankrupting them.

Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nicholls worked before on Nicholls’ debut feature Shotgun Stories (2007) and there’s clearly an understanding between the two of them on how to get the best out of each other. Shannon turns in a career-best performance as a man holding on by his fingertips in an unsafe world, who is struggling to comprehend the visions he is having and unsure whether he is protecting his family from harm or putting them in harm’s way by his actions.

Chastain is given a more rounded role than the angelic, ethereal one she played in Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life earlier this year and does a fine job, although quite why the scene in which Curtis finally tells her what’s going on doesn’t allow her a response is a bit mystifying.

The dream sequences are especially unsettling, while the ending, which makes you reassess everything you’ve seen before, is sure to be a talking point for those watching it. And watch it you should.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 6

After a solid few days of movie-watching my brain is starting to cloud over pretty quickly unless what I’m watching is keeping me suitably hooked.

Film festivals are always gambles. Sure, you pick the stuff you think you’ll like, but until you pop your toosh down and wait for the projector to kick in you’re never quite certain if it’s going to be worth two hours of your time.

The hit to miss ratio this time around has been pretty solid, with Miss Bala the stand out for me so far. However, Chinese/Hong Kong flick Let the Bullets Fly joined Return and The Loneliest Planet as a disappointment.

Let the Bullets Fly

On paper, Let the Bullets Fly should knock it out of the park. An action comedy starring Chow Yun Fat is, to me at least, pretty appealing and the fact that it’s China’s highest grossing film to date should make it a done deal. That it didn’t says more about the approach of the film than anything else.

Set in China during the 1920s, a time when warlords held sway over swathes of the land, the film begins with notorious bandit ‘Pocky’ Chang (played by director Jiang Wen) leading an ambush on a horse-drawn train. Its occupants include Ma (You Ge), a con man claiming to be the governor of Goose Town, a hotbed of high taxes and corruption.

After the cowardly Ma is exposed as the charlatan he is Chang decides to take his place and, with his trusty gang in tow, rides into Goose Town. As soon as he arrives he catches the attention of Master Huang (Fat), a merciless warlord who has no intention of relinquishing his iron grip on the town.

Huang is a formidable opponent, but Chang is up to the challenge and, as the bullets fly, so begins a non-stop barrage of bluff, double-bluff, deception and deceit as they butt heads and eventually go to war.

It’s an old fashioned story given a 21st Century dose of explosive action that, at times, is great fun. Some of the set-pieces are done extremely well, most notably the opening ambush on the train and a shoot-out in which Chang’s men communicate with each other in great detail via bird whistles. It’s a ridiculous moment that works just for that reason and shows just how much fun it must have been for the cast.

The problem is that these moments are relatively few and far between and what we get inbetween them are a series of exchanges between Chang, Huang and Ma that aim for the classic era of the screwball comedy but instead come across as confusing, arch and too over-the-top.

Added to this are moments of genuine, dark violence that don’t sit well with the rest of the movie. The scene with Chang gang member Two (Bing Shao) proving to one of Huang’s men he has only eaten one bowl of jelly as opposed to two by plunging a knife into his guts to draw out the non-digested food felt like it belonged in another film.

Despite it’s madcap visual style, I was left wishing the bullets had flown a lot sooner to spare me having to sit through any more.

One of the more exhilarating aspects of the LFF is when you stumble across a director’s debut feature and realise you’re watching the work of someone who could go places.

It was an experience I had back in 2005 when I caught Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart. Although hardly a household name, Bahrani has matured into one of America’s most acclaimed and accomplished independent film-makers. If there’s any justice, Robbie Pickering will follow suit if Natural Selection is anything to go by.

Natural Selection

Dutiful, God-fearing Linda (Rachel Harris) is devoted to her husband Abe (John Diehl) but frustrated that he refuses to have sex with her because he feels it is a sin to procreate when she cannot bear children.

But when Abe suffers a stroke, Linda accidentally finds out he has been harbouring a hypocritical secret – he’s been donating sperm to a local clinic for more than 20 years. Believing it’s his dying wish to meet his biological son Raymond, Linda, ever the faithful spouse leaves her sheltered life in Texas behind and hits the road to travel across country to Florida to track him down.

But when Linda finally meets Raymond (Matt O’Leary) she encounters not a fine, upstanding Christian like herself, rather a foul-mouthed, drug abusing escaped convict who at first doesn’t give her the time of day. Only when the local police track him down to the crummy house he’s staying in does he hop into Linda’s car, pretending to have had a change of heart.

His real intention is to make off with Linda’s car the first opportunity he gets, but a series of mishaps, including getting beaten up by two guys lead him to develop an affinity for her, after all she’s the only person to have really cared about him for a long time.

While Linda and Raymond get to know each other better, and reveal each other’s painful secrets Linda’s friend Peter (Jon Gries) – who secretly loves her – takes it upon himself to ‘save’ her from an evil menace to society. But while Peter comes to the rescue, Linda and Raymond’s relationship takes an unexpected turn, one that has major ramifications for everyone.

From the opening scene of Raymond emerging from a prison lawnmower’s grass bag (the nod to The Shawshank Redemption is obvious, but amusing), Natural Selection  marks itself out as something that’s not afraid to wink at the audience while at the same time pulling the rug from under them. Giving the tried and tested road movie genre a fresh spin, the film takes its characters in frequently unexpected directions.

That O’Leary and Harris play off each other so well (a sort of redneck version of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn) is testament to Pickering’s zesty, frequently amusing script, which gives both actors the room to breathe three dimensions into their characters. Harris especially is tremendous, at once naive and trampled on, while at other times feisty and ready to roll with the punches.

It’s no surprise Pickering cleaned up at this year’s SXSW festival. One can only hope his is a talent that’s allowed to bear more fruit.