Having scratched his Europhilic itch with To Rome With Love, Midnight In Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona et al, Woody Allen is back on home turf. He's dipped the temperature on the thermostat in Blue Jasmine, where the frivolities of some "very Allen" characters come with a tinge of tragedy about them.
Cate Blanchett's lofty powers of transformation are the engine room of the director's 45th film. She plays Jasmine, former wife of crooked investor Hal (Alec Baldwin) who has hanged himself in jail. Gone is her lavish lifestyle of private yachts, polo and parties in their Park Avenue penthouse.
Facing penury, she travels to San Francisco seeking lodgings with blue-collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
The pair never had much in common bar being both adopted by the same parents, and despite Hal once losing $200k of Ginger's money in a scam, she takes Jasmine in. Jasmine's frazzled nerves and ingrained snobbery clash with Ginger's more down-at-heel life, her noisy kids and boorish mechanic fiancé Chilli (Boardwalk Empire's Bobby Cannavale).
Necking pills and Stoli, she relives flashbacks of her previous life where Hal dupes her into signing dodgy documents while having a string of affairs behind her back. Naturally, it makes getting back on her feet difficult despite Ginger's kindness and the affections of dreamboat Peter Sarsgaard.
Blue Jasmine is frustrating. Blanchett is exceptional as the anti-heroine but Allen's script gives up on her character arc and spends too much time mortifying her for kicks. The tone is confused – the chirpy jazz score and funny accents clash with the scarcity of gags and the seriousness of both Jasmine's situation and mental state. A strange one, even by Allen's hit-and-miss standards.
Released, September 27
She may be a less frequent presence on screens than formerly but Halle Berry is back with a powerhouse performance in Brad Anderson's gripping new thriller, The Call. The freeways and hills of Los Angeles provide the theatre of terror in this accomplished fearfest as her character goes toe-to-toe with a deranged psychopath (Michael Eklund).
Not that it starts out toe-to-toe. Initially, it's much more a case of ear-to-ear as Berry's character, Jordan Turner, is a veteran 911 phone despatcher in 'The Hive', Los Angeles' emergency call centre. Nerves of steel are required for a job that can involve daily exposure to calamities of every description and when a bad...er, call by Turner is instrumental in getting a young caller kidnapped and murdered, she decides it's time to hang up her head- set and take a less stressful role.
The hoped-for hiatus doesn't really materialise, however, as there's a child-killer on the loose and a convoluted chain of events results in Turner getting a shot at redemption.
When a terrified teen, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) phones in a 911 from the boot of a car currently being driven by the aforementioned deranged psychopath, Turner is obliged to take over the telephone.
Cue a fasten-your-seatbelts-type scenario that is almost guaranteed to thrill.
As you might expect, there are a number of implausible detours along the way and The Call is patently not for you if you place a premium on credibility but if the measure of a good thriller is its ability to propel you towards a pulse-quickening finale then it can be said to succeed brilliantly.
Berry and Breslin excel, while Eklund also hits all the right notes as a Silence of the Lambs-style psychopath. A highly improbable third act threatens to derail the spectacle irredeemably but the director's high-risk strategy comes off, courtesy of a comic flourish at the conclusion that bookends proceedings with aplomb.
Cold Comes the Night
Great powers of deduction are not required to discern from the opening shot of Tze Chun's gritty thriller that proceedings are destined to end badly for at least one of the central protagonists. If the shattered glass and bloodstained dollar bills floating in the breeze aren't enough to suggest that death is stalking the bleak landscape depicted, the sight of a seemingly disembodied human hand is the clincher.
Not that too much is revealed. One of the positives to relate about this diverting if ultimately disposable piece starring Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston and Star Trek's Alice Eve is that, amidst all the gore and the carnage contained in the opening sneak preview, the ending still comes as a surprise.
Eve stars as Chloe, a downwardly mobile manager of a run-down motel which is a front for a prostitution racket run by a small-town corrupt cop.
Cash-strapped and threatened with having her beloved daughter taken from her by social services, it's fair to say that options for socio-economic advancement seem limited.
A bad situation becomes much worse, however, when a duo of ruthless gangsters pitch up at her motel. Led by Cranston, their plan is to rest up for a few hours before breaking for the nearby Canadian border, but it won't come as a surprise to read that things don't go according to plan.
To cut a long and blood-splattered story short, Chloe and her daughter are taken hostage by Cranston's character and brought on a pulsating thrill-ride involving a veritable hailstorm of bullets, bad-guys and dollar bills.
The ever-impressive Eve sparkles in a performance that hints at greater roles ahead, though the accomplished Cranston is less successful as an eastern European gangster with an accent that flirts with farce. Respectable engagement levels are maintained for the duration but any hopes for a more lasting impression are torpedoed towards the conclusion when a forgotten character makes a misfiring (both literally and metaphorically) reappearance that tilts the overall spectacle into the realm of unintended parody.
Kelly + Victor
John Cleese's "What's wrong with a kiss, boy?" line in The Meaning Of Life somehow springs to mind by the end of this dark and unsettling Welsh/Irish production about dangerous attraction.
In adapting Niall Griffiths' novel, director Kieran Evans kind of asks a similar question of a love affair that is all-consuming of its charges. If you prefer chocolates and poetry, look elsewhere.
Kelly (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and Victor (Julian Morris) lock eyes across a throbbing dance floor in Liverpool.
They gravitate towards each other and make a beeline straight for the bedroom and the venting of their equally throbbing lusts.
A spectacular but intense time is had by all, leading the young Scousers to believe that true love has entered into their dank northern England lives.
What becomes apparent however is that a type of narcotic zeal has taken hold of the love-making and before long, engaging in sexual congress becomes risky business for their health. Around them, they try to avoid being morally compromised by their drug-dealing and trick-turning peers. Their dark sides, however, are taking flight in the hay and it's only a matter of time before someone loses an eye. There is also a pervading sense that nice lad Victor is being preyed upon by Kelly, who seems to carry some emotional scarring from a nasty ex-boyfriend.
Wallowing in pathos and prone to bouts of moping around in the cold, don't expect Kelly + Victor to put a smile on your face.
The central performances are sturdy, with the ghoulish Campbell-Hughes evoking a strong whiff of soft-shelled hazard.
Piers McGrail's woozy cinematography and an ethereal soundtrack make the journey into darkness a sensual one at least.
A particularly Irish mistrust of border regions is exploited in this petrol-headed drama that aired earlier in the year at both the Jameson Dublin Film Festival and Galway Film Fleadh. On lawless backroads, speed limits are snubbed, gardai shake fists and criminal elements run empires after sundown. A perfect backdrop, then, for a tale of love and escape.
Black Ice asks whether there is room for such things in this environment and uses the border counties' love of road-racing as its narrative vehicle. Tomboy Alice Watters (Jane McGrath) returns to her small Donegal village for her brother's funeral. In the wake of his death, memories are dredged up of her relationship with Jimmy Devlin (Love/Hate's Killian Scott), a local boy racer and alpha male who is drawn to Alice's feisty and speed-loving demeanour.
The two try to map out an escape route from the dangerous illegal racing scene, their scant prospects and Jimmy's dalliances with a local crime boss. In their pursuit of this, Alice encourages him to ditch bothering the law and use his talent behind the wheel to advance into professional rally driving. Ultimately, though, it will come down to whether love can make the leopard change his spots.
In those spaces between scenes of cars doughnutting in quarries or people in hoodies break-dancing to dubstep, Black Ice has a slow-burning energy that could have been amplified to greater effect. Scott's scarred frown suits his character's hard-to-read persona and McGrath is a newcomer to watch.
Production-wise, the coffers were clearly modest, meaning that the film's pale, rain-flecked veneer and mono-syllabic dialogue are not its strong points.
In Real Life
Film-maker Beeban Kidron was struck one day that all teenagers were attached to devices that were in turn attached to the internet and decided to make a documentary. From the outset Kidron uses extreme examples, the 16-year-old so addicted to her online life that she prostituted herself to buy one device and submitted to a gang sexual assault to get it back from boys who stole it.
There was the 15-year-old boy so addicted to porn he bases his real-life sexual appetites upon it and says his concept of love has been destroyed because girls who would were slags, girls who wouldn't, well, wouldn't. There was the 18-year-old boy who so preferred online gaming that he hadn't studied enough to get into Oxford, and the 15-year-old who came out on Twitter and had a long relationship with a boy he only met for the first time on camera.
The use of such extremes to illustrate a point is effective and valid as long as it's clear that these are extremes. Nowhere was it suggested that this was normal behaviour and there was mention of what remains essentially true, that, given the choice, kids' preference is for real time together. What was less clear, however, was that although the media are different the extremes of behaviour documented by Kidron are not new. In modern society every generation's sexual mores have horrified the one before, sexual trade has always happened, girls have always been branded sluts for doing what boys do, there have always been kids who didn't study enough or who had unusual social interactions.
Those kids made good stories, but in telling them Kidron touched on what is the most serious issue around the internet, the fact that all our online activities are processed and archived by relatively few private companies. Her opening image of a generation attached to a Matrix is the most pertinent, and it's generations, not just teenagers. In Real Life is a great piece of collated research, the emphasis is slightly skewed, but the terrifying facts are there.
Light House, now showing
Ever wonder why they say a mother's love is a blessing? Spend some time in the company of the central protagonist in South Korean director Ki-duk Kim's dark and disturbing revenge movie, Pieta, and it's a case of wonder no more.
Played impressively by Lee Jung-jin, the Kang-do we encounter during the viscerally violent opening scenes is a menacing loan shark who doesn't stand on ceremony when it comes to calling in the debts owed to him by the dirt-poor workers who've taken out extortionate loans.
Methods of settlement include mutilating limbs and throwing poor unfortunates out of high-rise buildings in the hope that they'll be crippled and thus able to cash in on insurance settlements. That they may also be unable to work or walk properly again is not the sort of collateral damage that seems destined to impact on Kang-do's sleep patterns.
His sociopathic tendencies betray a man completely devoid of humanity, but we soon discover he has his reasons. The arrival of a mysterious woman (Cho Min-su) on his doorstep claiming to be the mother who abandoned him at birth prompts a psychological transformation. Gone, gradually, is the monument to malevolence to be replaced by the mother of all ... er, mammy's boys.
But are this woman's maternal instincts to be trusted? And having left such a trail of blood-soaked carnage and human misery, can he look forward to a future free of consequences?
Credible performances and a couple of dramatic twists help maintain decent engagement levels for the duration, but they don't allay a gradual sense that this psychological thriller is delivering less than it promised. It could be the ambitious tone established by the title, but by the time the credits roll it's clear we've been in the company of a director who, despite initial appearances to the contrary, is not in the business of attempting to transcend the limitations imposed by the revenge movie genre. Artful and accomplished, however, Pieta is not without its rewards. They are just too intermittent to make it easy to recommend.