Cinema: Maze Runner, ‘71, Annabelle, Gold, The Calling
There is an alternate universe where one emerges from watching The Maze Runner with the calloused thumbs and square eyes associated with chronic video gaming. Many films - from the ghastly Resident Evil franchise to the rather good The Raid - are peddling it these days; arcade-like frolics woven deep into the celluloid drama, complete with levels, bosses and 1-ups.
The Maze Runner Cert: 12A
In the case of Wes Ball's competent feature debut, the object of the game is to get from a verdant glade enclosed by high walls through a labyrinth of semi-mechanised monsters. All the while, power struggles erupt within the community of young men, each having been mysteriously dumped into the paddock at monthly intervals accompanied by supplies by their captors. Some want out, others don't want to test their overseers. You're probably thinking something along the lines of Lord Of The Flies meets Cube and you wouldn't be far off it. Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) awakes in an elevator en route to this opening level. Through his fresh eyes, we try to decipher who is holding him captive and why, and how he can free himself. What ensues is largely good fun as assorted young adults sprint through dank towering walls of concrete while spaces close in. It shifts up a gear when a girl (Kaya Scodelario) appears and recognises Thomas.
Two things just raise The Maze Runner above mediocrity. The cast - see O'Brien, a bullish Will Poulter and Game Of Thrones' Thomas Sangster - all give a good account of themselves. Ball also develops the characters within James Dashner's source sci-fi novel. What stymies it, however, is the ludicrous ending which just waves a huge banner saying "see you in 18 months' time for Level 2".
'71 Cert: 15A
Paris-born director Yann Demange brings a refreshing, outsider's perspective to his Northern Ireland Troubles thriller, '71. The backdrop to this pulsating affair may be Belfast but such is the agenda-free approach adopted, it could just as easily be Beirut.
The story is told from the perspective of a British squaddie deployed to Belfast just as the Troubles were kicking off. British soldiers may have been initially greeted as liberators by the nationalist community but private Jack O'Connell (an excellent Gary Hook) arrives in Belfast just as that honeymoon period is ending. A routine operation to uncover a secret arms dump turns extremely ugly and in the ensuing riot, O'Connell is left behind by his patrol as they beat a hasty retreat. Cue a caught- behind-enemy-lines scenario as a bewildered O'Connell is coursed through the streets of Belfast by IRA thugs intent on summary execution. Faster than you can say my enemy's enemy is my friend, O'Connell is rescued by a Protestant child who escorts him to a supposed safe haven. Only it isn't. Just as you thought O'Connell's bad hair day couldn't get any more er... hairy, he stumbles on a plot between Protestant paramilitaries and MI5 agents that makes him the mother of all marked men. Breathtaking suspense and a terrific turn by Hook in the central role ensure that those in the market for top-notch thriller fare will not be disappointed. Plausibility levels are stretched to breaking point at times but a quality script coupled with Demange's artful direction combine to create an accomplished confection that is easy to recommend.
Annabelle Cert: 16
Talk about reasons to be fearful. It's going to take more than a scary movie to restore the fortunes of Catholicism but it's fair to say there are a couple of stand-out scenes in superior fright-fest Annabelle that might prompt a turnaround.
I'm joking, of course, but it's still difficult to believe I'm destined to be the only audience member left wishing they had emergency access to a crucifix or a sprinkle of holy water when, as here, they are confronted with the spectacle of a demon-propelled priest flying through the night air.
Set in the US during the early 1970s, the narrative centres on John and Mia (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) a devoted young couple living in a picture-perfect suburban estate. John is on the cusp of a high-flying medical career while the imminent birth of their first child accentuates the sense of an idyllic existence. It doesn't last. John's purchase of an antique doll for the baby's nursery acts as a catalyst for a litany of supernatural occurrences. We're told during the opening that dolls have traditionally been used in rituals as conduits of good and evil and it doesn't take long to figure out to which side of that divide this doll belongs. Imagine Chucky in a pinafore and you've pretty much put yourself in the picture. Let's just say I've seen prettier gargoyles.
The grisly murder of their next-door neighbours by Charles Manson style-Satanic cultists is but a precursor to a chain of events that suggests dark forces are gathering. Mia believes the house might be haunted as things start to go bump in the night but a relocation does little to alleviate her hysteria. They decide to turn to the church for deliverance. Enter Father Perez (Tony Amedola) as the padre destined to go toe to toe with evil.
Directed by John R. Leonetti, Annabelle was the subject of mixed reviews in the US but it's understating the situation to say it kept my spine suitably chilled for the duration. Performances are top-notch and Leonetti's impressive direction ensures a consistent abundance of fear factor prevails. I wish I could recall more about the conclusion but that's what happens when you're reduced to watching through your fingers. A case of be afraid, be kind of afraid.
Gold Cert: 15
Imagine Oscar from Intermission grown into middle age and back in town. And having changed his name to Ray. David Wilmot plays the ne'er do well, returned to Dublin on foot of a letter from his ex girlfriend Alice (Kerry Condon), mother of his now teenage daughter Abbie (Maisie Williams). But the letter is twelve years old so Ray's sudden appearance upsets the balance of Alice's life. She's now married to her (and Ray's) old PE teacher, Frank (James Nesbitt) who is training Abbie for athletic greatness. There are some awkward attempts to get along, one of which leads to Frank's temporary absence and a change in dynamic between Ray and the women in his former life and Frank's friends, including fellow coach Gerry (Steven McIntosh).
Director Niall Heery (who co-wrote with his brother Brendan) made the well-received Small Engine Repair in 2006. Gold is based around a good idea but, billed as an offbeat comedy, the tone is quite odd a lot of the time, some of the purported sources of that comedy are strange and it's hard not to wonder if Ray is a sociopath. The plot uses stepping stones as opposed to following a path and whilst that can work in something side-splitting, this is not, and I don't think aims to be, that kind of comedy. It has enjoyable moments but unfortunately, despite a good cast and some great ideas, it doesn't work as it could.
The Calling CERT: 15A
Why anyone becomes a cop has to be one of the great mysteries if we are to judge by their fictional portrayal. Oh sure, there are some nice pullovers and car chases when they're young, but over forty and beyond, there is no more jaded human. Susan Sarandon joins the ranks of the beaten down by life older cop this week as Detective Hazel Miccalef, acting chief of police in tinytown Ontario.
She is already coping with a higher than average toll of jaded cop ailments (relationship woes, miscarriage, failed suicide attempt, constant pain, addictions to pills and JD, career issues, etc) when the town's first murder in three years happens.
Hazel and her team, Ray (Gil Bellows - time saver: from Ally McBeal) and new-to-town Ben (Topher Grace) start to notice similarities between this murder and others within the region.
Hazel lives with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and gets help from a retired priest (Donald Sutherland) so there is no shortage of star power in director Jason Stone's debut.
There are plot and situation elements that make The Calling like a cross between Fargo and 7even, it is nowhere near as good as either film but, although the reviews have been very mixed, I found it very watchable.
It's none of the stars' greatest moment but they are all good and whilst the plot relies too heavily on coincidence and the baddie (Christopher Heyerdahl) is somewhat generic holy nutter, broadly, it works. It's not edge of your seat stuff and although occasionally gruesome it is not violent or nasty. An easy thriller.