Tuesday, 24 November 2015

On the Road: Somebody's watching you

Secret in Their Eyes
dir Billy Ray; with Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Chiwetel Ejiofor 15/US ****
This loose remake of the slick 2009 Oscar-winning Argentine thriller takes a somewhat brainier approach to its story of an FBI agent (Ejiofor) who tenaciously works on a 13-years-cold.botched murder case that has a strong personal connection, then reteams with his old colleagues (Roberts and Kidman) to finally get justice. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, and the twisty plot holds the interest, even if the film feels a bit dry and dark. It also helps that all three lead actors give profound performances packed with telling nuances, raising the intrigue both in the case and in their complex inter-relationships. Roberts is especially remarkable, stripped of all glamour as she reveals layers of wrenching inner turmoil. And writer-director Ray fills scenes with subtly clever touches that offer telling insight into the characters, who are far more important than the case itself. Sometimes the leaping back and forth between periods can be difficult to follow (hint: watch the hair), but the story has a robustness that offers constant surprises and emotional resonance. This is a rare thriller that appeals to the mind as much as the gut, taking time to build atmosphere rather than rush from set piece to set piece. It's also distinct enough that fans of the original will find something new.

The Night Before
dir Jonathan Levine; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie 15/US ***
There's no real reason why a stoner bromance can't also be a Christmas movie, although this holiday comedy shows that heartwarming sentiment easily drowns out gross-out antics. This is an unexpectedly warm romp about three best buddies (Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie) who have been each others' family at Christmas but find the demands of life pulling them apart. It's a fairly simple premise, packed with effortless charm, fearless physicality and lots of jokes about drugs and genitalia. But it manages to also weave in some festive magic, including a bit of commentary about the nature of growing up and how friends are our family,even when we forget that. The cast is strong, and there are some hilarious gags peppered all the way through the film, carefully placed amid vulgar jokes that fall flat, some expertly undermined sentimentality and two amusing big-name cameos that deliberately wear out their welcome. Oddly, despite all of the rude humour, the film feels rather gentle and sweet, only rarely revving up to full-speed entertainment. But it's the kind of movie that certain audiences will adopt as their very own Christmas classic.

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I headed back to chilly, damp London from sunny Southern California, but slept through the on-board entertainment (mainly because I'd seen all of the films that were available, well at least those I wanted to see!). I arrived just in time for a press screening of Creed, a terrific boxing movie that carries on the Rocky saga with style. Solid filmmaking and acting lift it far above expectations. This coming week I'll catch up with the all-star financial crash drama The Big Short, the holiday horror Krampus, the British comedy Lost in Karastan and the Cannes winning Rams. And I have several others I need to catch up with as year-end awards voting deadlines loom in various groups I am a member of...

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