And now for some recent releases on VOD, iTunes, Netflix, Blu-Ray and the like.
A London hitman named Jamie (Danny Dyer) works for a pair of shady gangster brothers (Martin and Gary Kemp, Spandau Ballet founders who were terrific as another pair of gangster brothers years back in The Krays). On his off hours Jamie picks up a dancer (Holly Weston) at a local peeler bar, not knowing his next target is her father, a guy who cheated the gangsters in a business deal. D’you think there’s any chance he’s gonna get sweet on the dancer and feel a conflict between his professional obligations and his growing feelings for his ladyfriend?
I have a soft spot for British crime drama, and I can forgive a filmmaker cleaving to a few genre cliches if the story beats work. Writer-director JK Amalou gets right a moody sense of nighttime London, and shoots with some verve—like strapping the camera onto the front of Jamie’s motorcycle—ideas that help when the movie’s clearly been made on a micro-budget.
But Assassin is shot in its scrappy heart by a painfully one-dimensional performance in its lead. Dyer may be a veteran of one of Britain’s long-running popular soaps, Eastenders, but all he manages to do here is glower through a concise 82 minutes.
I know this much is true: If there’s a reason at all for seeing Assassin, it’s the Kemp boys’ onscreen reunion.
It’s a hell of a balancing act, serving up a central character as selfish as William (Gethin Anthony, who was once Renly Baratheon in Game of Thrones). The guy occupies practically every frame of Copenhagen, and is particularly unpleasant in the early running. That we still somehow find a way to understand, if not entirely sympathize with him, is partly a credit to the performance, but more credit to writer-director Mark Raso. His is a confident and very appealing first feature.
It helps that Raso frames his 20-something Ugly American against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the Danish capital gorgeously shot though a mid-summer glow in cafes, clubs, across sun-lit cobblestoned streets, and naturally, in the amusement park, Tivoli.
William is travelling through Europe with his best friend, Jeremy (Sebastian Armesto) and Jeremy’s girlfriend, Jennifer (Olivia Grant). They arrive in Denmark ostensibly so William can deliver a letter from his absent father to a long lost grandfather—an identity quest of sorts—but William quickly alienates everyone around him.
William meets cute Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), who serves as a kind of tour guide and translator in his search for his grandfather. Before long they’re sparking, but Effy’s husky voice and ageless confidence mask the biological reality that she’s way too young for him.
This kind of a connection is a rare thing to be handled so deftly. It provides repeated opportunity for skin-crawling discomfort, but Raso still finds a sweetness. William grows more bearable as an understanding dawns of his own lack of maturity reflected in his affection for someone in their teens.
Aside from an exact control of tone, Raso’s efforts are aided immeasurably by Dahl Hansen, who’s a real discovery—I’m reminded of a teenaged Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls, though the picture has as much in common with Before Sunrise or even Lost In Translation. All told, a real gem.
Night Train To Lisbon
I saw that one of Christopher Lee’s final roles was in this 2013 project, joining a sterling European cast including Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Melanie Laurent, Martina Gedeck, Bruno Ganz, and Lena Olin. Figured it was worth a look.
I found it a painfully literary film—directed by Danish director Bille August, screenplay by Ulrich Herrmann and Greg Latter from the Pascal Mercier novel—and a wildly unfashionable one. That’s not a slam, just something to keep in mind going in.
Raimund (Irons), a lonely professor of history in Bern, Switzerland, comes across a young woman in a red coat about the fling herself off a bridge. Rescuing her, a book of poetry by a Portuguese writer, doctor, and activist (Jack Huston) she was reading falls into Raimund’s hands, along with train tickets to Lisbon. Impulsively, he hops on the train, and becomes obsessed with the book and its author. In Lisbon he begins to investigate the now-deceased writer’s life and his history resisting the fascist regime in the early 70s.
This prompts a flashback structure, one that’s a little tedious—the thriller elements feel dry and dusty, with everyone naturally speaking accented English like this was some kind of wartime melodrama. Half a dozen characters have young and old versions, some of whom have very different acting styles—August Diehl and Bruno Ganz, for example—which makes for weirdly haphazard storytelling. Forward progress is gradual.
But the present day exchanges, Raimund’s curiosity about this man he never could have known, in a culture not his own, is compelling. Through the window of language, he’s possessed by all he reads and hears, and can’t leave Lisbon until he’s solved the mystery of the past, whatever cost to his personal and professional life back in Bern.
I really enjoyed parts of the film, largely the baked in romance of words and stories, the idea that we can be so compelled by poetry and history we must discover the truth of it for ourselves. And the incidental travelogue—the winding streets of Lisbon alone are worth the price of admission.
Son Of A Gun
An explosive noirish crime drama from Australian first timer Julius Avery does a couple of things very well: It allows Ewan McGregor a chance to be dangerous, something some may have forgotten he’s good at, and it provides a sense of grit we don’t see often enough of in these kinds of genre pictures.
Brenton Thwaites is JR, a kid not even out of his teens who does a stint in prison. There he meets legendary heist king Brendan Lynch (McGregor) and his hard men. JR impresses Lynch with his smarts while he recruits JR for a jailbreak.
So far, so conventional. The stuff behind bars feels a bit rote, but hang in there.
On the outside, JR gets a few swank comforts that come with membership in a successful criminal gang, but also the obligations and the aggressive assholes who make up that breed. He’s soon part of the plan for a score at an outback gold mine. JR also gets friendly with Tasha (Ex Machina‘s Alicia Vikander), an eastern European woman drawn into the same criminal web and unable to extricate herself.
Avery handles well the action and the character moments, pushing hard the father/son dynamics as Brendan protects and directs JR, but isn’t above getting violent with him, making frequent and unreasonable demands. The romance between Tasha and JR isn’t quite as convincing, but it’s enough in this kind of a milieu. This is also the kind of movie that gets better as it goes along, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.
A perfectly pitched final act and a deft half twist sticks the landing for the whole dirty tale. I’ll be keeping a lookout for what this talented writer-director does next.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her
I had the good fortune of seeing The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them back at last year’s Atlantic Film Festival. One of the fest’s highlights, the film vanished pretty much as completely as its titular protagonist, never getting much of a theatrical release. If you’re reading this in the US or certain European countries, it’s on Netflix as the dual version, while its available in Canada only as the amalgam, I believe.
This film was originally set to show up in cinemas in the two versions: Him and Her, the story of the dissolution of a New York couple’s relationship after a personal tragedy as told from the perspective of the man and woman. I gather that the Weinsteins insisted it be edited into one, single movie, called Them. That’s what I saw at the AFF—my detailed thoughts on that screening you’ll find here.
But this is a project that’ll be especially valuable to film students, and I’d wager it’ll be shown in classes for years—it’s as ambitious as Showtime’s The Affair, a drama also told from opposing viewpoints, and I’d argue Eleanor Rigby is more successful.
TDOER: Them is nearly as fascinating as either individual movie. The edits to the structure really make for different experiences, telling the same story from different perspectives, with different scenes, even different takes within scenes. I would say all are worth seeing.
TDOER: Him is the most matter-of-fact. Jessica Chastain’s Elle haunts the story, but is very much a supporting character. James McAvoy’s Connor is front and centre, a restaurateur with some anger issues managing a failing eatery and trying to make sense of his life, which is shattered with the sudden departure of his wife. When she does appear, she comes off as a bit opaque, perhaps a victim of her depression, and he founders in her wake.
The key relationships in TDOER: Him are between Connor and his father, the forever cool Ciarán Hinds, and with his best friend, the chef in his eatery, played by Bill Hader. And there’s quite a bit of ironic, dry humour, which nicely lifts what might otherwise be pretty grim material. This is also a wonderful New York movie, with plenty of scenes shot on summery Manhattan sidewalks.
In TDOER: Her, Chastain’s Elle is entirely separate from McAvoy’s Connor—he doesn’t even show up until the end of the first act, and before that only mentioned once. The beats of the piece are more indie, more European, more of a solemn character study than Him. Elle’s family is prominent; William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert as her parents, and Jess Weixler as her sister, trying to help her figure out what’s going on in her shattered life. Also, there’s the always solid Viola Davis as a professor she befriends when she takes some classes.
There’s the question of screening order: I watched Them, then Him and Her. I think any way is OK. I asked Chastain on Twitter if she could advise on the order, and she just favourited my tweet. Coy! If I had to go back and choose, I’d say start with Her, then try Him, and if you’re still interested, Them.
The lack of buzz around these movies and their absence from the multiplex makes no sense to me. The first feature(s) of writer-director Ned Benson should have been hailed and celebrated at the last awards season as the arrival of a dynamic new talent in American filmmaking.
Do yourself a favour and see these films, in whatever version is available to you.