LIAM Neeson brings something solid and serious to noir movies. He’s practically his own genre: a purposeful, soft-eyed, hard-shouldered star who looks invincible even in corduroy. No wonder middle-class men swoon a bit when he’s on screen.
A Walk Among The Tombstones (15)
* * * *
Detective drama A Walk Among The Tombstones makes nice use of the actor’s sincerity and strength when Neeson’s unarmed private eye Matt Scudder is confronted by a tooled-up assailant. Neeson suggests the younger man drop his hunting knife, or he will take it off him and park the weapon in his neck. The knife hits the floor.
Scudder is new to me, though well-known to readers of Lawrence Block’s series of books. He’s also familiar in other ways; a wry ex-cop and recovering alcoholic, estranged from his family and carrying the weight of a guilty past. Yet there’s plenty that feels fresh here, not least that the film takes its violence seriously, with Scudder avoiding gunplay and fisticuffs unless necessary.
It’s also set in New York against the backdrop of Y2K, handily depriving everyone of the chance to Google plot turns on iPhones and laptops. 1999 was also before terrorism hit New York, allowing director Scott Frank to underscore a point about misdirected fear, as Scudder tries to track down the men who kidnapped the wife of a drug trafficker (Dan Stevens, determined to shuck off any remnants of Downton Abbey). A gripping story of bent cops and straight thugs, there are worse ways of cuffing your attention to an old-school star.
On general release
What We Did On Our Holiday (12A)
Directors: Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin
Running time: 95 minutes
* * *
IN THE aftermath of the independence referendum, it might seem weirdly appropriate to release a comedy about a divorcing English and Scottish couple who scamper up to Scotland and mull over the forces that drive them apart and draw them together.
Then again, we probably shouldn’t try to stretch the political analogy too far. After all, this film also features a child earnestly asking the owner of an ostrich farm whether the eggs can be forced back up a bird’s bottom.
What We Did On Our Holiday follows Doug (David Tennant) and Abi (Rosamund Pike) who take their family to Scotland to celebrate the 75th birthday of Doug’s father Gordy (Billy Connolly). The plan is to plaster over the marital cracks for the weekend, then admit they have split up at a later date. The only hitch is that they have three garrulous children with a gift for airing uncomfortable truths.
If that sounds a little familiar to fans of the sitcom Outnumbered, that’s because both the BBC1 series and the BBC film are written and directed by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, who pioneered a technique that encourages child actors into surreal, semi-improvised dialogues.
The difference is that while Out-numbered is about a family that is loosely united, the McLeods are falling apart. Doug and Abi are struggling to sustain their truce as the car winds past Gretna Green, and at the family pile in the Highlands Doug’s older, richer, smugger brother Gavin (Ben Miller) contrives to irritate everyone, while his wife Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) clearly has a nervous breakdown in the post.
In comparison, the children are more serene – or at least more organised. Nine-year-old Lottie (Emilia Jones, daughter of Aled) has a book so she can keep track of the fibs the family are spinning. Four-year-old Jess lavishes affection on a brick called Norman, while middle child Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) is obsessed by Vikings, or assembling Little Chef fries into towers, described as “chip Jengas”.
Comedies set in Scotland have been accursed, punishing things in recent years, with choppy narratives, discordant editing and a blind man’s buff approach to locating funny bones. Decoy Bride (which also starred Tennant), Not Another Happy Ending and Fast Romance all luxuriated in showcasing beautiful Scottish backdrops, but failed to fill the foregrounds with engaging characters.
This is more disciplined; many of Jenkin and Hamilton’s jokes are TV-friendly rather than big screen-fillers, but the main characters have depth – even though you might feel that Gordy’s birthday party reveals a pretty eclectic range of friends and acquaintances for a man in his mid-seventies. Puzzling over the seat planner, Margaret frets over the best position for a trio of bulimics – next to the buffet, or as far away as possible.
Connolly is well-cast as the vaguely hippyish grandpa, dispensing some rather obvious life lessons in a genial manner. He’s the most magnetic element of the movie, and whenever he’s offscreen, he’s much missed. The rest of the movie is like a holiday: not very long, not very taxing, and rather pleasant.
* * * *
Set in 1960s Poland, Pawel Pawlikowski’s haunting drama stars an excellent Agata Trzebuchowska as a teenage orphan raised by nuns who discovers her parents were Jews, murdered during the Second World War. Shot in black and white, this excavation of Europe’s past, infused with shades of grey, is simple, swift and surprising.
Edinburgh Filmhouse, Friday to 2 October
* * *
Young newlyweds Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie) take their first holiday as man and wife in a remote mountain cabin. Strange noises, unexplained beams of light and mysterious bitemarks break the romantic mood in this mildly creepy fable about marital relations.
On general release from Friday
A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (15)
Experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell join forces on a three-part film offering a lively hippy existence in Estonia, a contemplative daunder through the wilderness and a stint on stage with a Norwegian death metal band. The effect is like going through the home movies of your talented but weird next-door neighbour.
Glasgow Film Theatre, Friday and Saturday
Maps To The Stars (18)
Divas (Julianne Moore), child stars (Evan Bird) and venal bigwigs are the subject of David Cronenberg’s underwhelming, and eventually exasperating Hollywood satire. Also stars Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, John Cusack and Robert Pattinson.
On general release from Friday
Wilde Salomé (15)
* * *
Al Pacino’s staging of Oscar Wilde’s provocative play finally gets a release. Back in 2006, an unknown Jessica Chastain starred opposite Pacino’s Herod. Wild Salomé offers insights into rehearsals and thoughts on Wilde, plays and performance from a garrulous Pacino.
On release at selected cinemas including Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh Film House