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Saturday 21 October 2017

Explosive thriller takes us into the dark heart of the Troubles

'71 Thriller. Starring Jack O'Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy, Martin McCann, Killian Scott, David Wilmot, Harry Verity. Directed by Yann Demange. Cert 15A

Earlier this year Jack O'Connell delivered a star-making turn in Starred Up, a gritty prison drama which showed that he had the acting chops to go with an undeniable screen charisma. Well, with his second lead role in 12 months he's required to anchor this equally hard-hitting thriller and, in the process, confirms his status as the most promising young British actor of his generation.

Set in Belfast just as the Troubles were moving into the deadly stand-off which would last for two decades, '71 gives us just enough background detail and hints about the complexities of the conflict while still keeping an eye on what is essentially a 'behind enemy lines' story.

Young squaddie Gary Hook (O'Connell) joins the British Army as, we presume, a means of putting some order on his life, given that all we really know about him is that he's been in care in the same facility where his younger brother remains.

Immediately after training, however, his regiment is deployed to deal with the escalating situation in Northern Ireland and we get some perspective about how alien and confusing this must have been to working-class kids from the North of England - "It looks just like Leeds," proclaims one.

The brutality of how the police deal with the citizens shocks the soldiers but when a minor riot breaks out Hook and a colleague are separated from the main body of troops, and his comrade is murdered in broad daylight.

Hunted in a city that he doesn't know and not knowing who to trust since everybody looks the same, Hook nonetheless provides the film's focus as murkier moral dilemmas swirl around him. We have the conflict between old and new Republicans (headed by David Wilmot and Martin McCann respectively), the black ops military intelligence unit (with Sean Harris in a key role) playing both sides against each other while maintaining links with the UVF and a father/daughter couple (Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy) conflicted as to whether they should help the wounded Hook.

Debut director Yann Demange has quite a bit to juggle with there but the script by Gregory Burke (who wrote the acclaimed play Black Watch) is as tight as a Lambeg drum and we have the outstanding presence of O'Connell to hold everything together. The locations look suitably grim (Liverpool, Blackburn and Sheffield standing in for Belfast), the colour schemes reek of the 1970s and there's a cracking, tense score from David Holmes.

HHHHI

ANNABELLE

Horror. Starring Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodward, Tony Amendola, Eric Ladin. Directed by John R. Leonetti. Cert 16

With Halloween almost upon us, this is traditionally a time when low-budget horror movies loom ever larger in the cinemas. One of the biggest hits of last year, in terms of return for budget, was The Conjuring and Annabelle acts as effectively a prequel to and spin-off from that movie.

Again based on the case files of real-life 'supernatural detectives' Ed and Lorraine Warren, Annabelle is in essence an 'evil doll' movie which explains how said titular doll wound up in a sealed cabinet in the Warrens' museum where, the credits inform us, it's blessed twice a month by a priest just to be on the safe side. Right so.

Anyway, we're back in 1969 and the Manson family are on the prowl, as are various Satanic cults, one of which, Disciples of the Ram, murders John and Mia Gordon's (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) neighbours and attacks them. Just as the police arrive, one of the cult kills herself and her blood drains into the eye of the doll which, it has to be said, is one of the scariest yokes you'll ever see. Subsequently the heavily pregnant Mia begins to have visions that some presence or other is after her baby and seeks the help of a local priest (Tony Amendola) and a woman who runs an occult bookshop (Alfre Woodward).

Annabelle works reasonably well in the first half, building up a nice sense of impending dread. It borrows heavily from Rosemary's Baby before turning to a by-the-numbers litany of standard shock tactics.

HHHII

THE CALLING

Thriller. Starring Susan Sarandon, Gil Bellows, Ellen Burstyn, Christopher Heyordahl, Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Jason Stone. Cert 15A

The Catholic Church also features heavily in this decent enough serial killer yarn - the Anglicans are obviously too busy organising whist drives and making cucumber sandwiches to be dealing with demons and religious nutjobs - in which a link is made between a sequence of gruesome murders taking place across small towns in Southern Ontario.

Detective Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) is coming towards the end of her career, suffering from terrible back pain, living with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and dealing with her addictions to booze and painkillers when her sleepy town is the scene of three bizarre deaths in the space of a week.

What follows is a police procedural in which a bright young detective (Topher Grace) makes a connection which leads the police to enlist the help of Father Price (Donald Sutherland), an expert in ancient Latin and all manner or arcane rituals, in order to stop the killings. In fairness, The Calling does turn the standard norms on its head about halfway through by effectively showing us the killer - but to reveal more would have the plot spoiler police knocking on my door and who'd want that? All in all, a solid if rather daft film.

HHHII

GOLD

Drama/comedy. Starring James Nesbitt, David Wilmot, Kerry Condon, Maisie Williams, Steven Mackintosh, Patrick Gibson, David McSavage. Directed by Niall Heery. Cert 15A

Director Niall Heery's previous outing was the low-key but entertaining Small Engine Repair and here, working off what I presume is a similarly modest budget, he's fashioned a worthy if ultimately disappointing Irish film.

Certainly he's assembled a good cast but the problem is the sheer implausibility and lack of any logic, internal or otherwise, in the script.

We have the distinctly odd Ray (David Wilmot), driving around with a sofa on the roof of his car and coming back into the lives of his ex-lover Alice (Kerry Condon) and daughter Abbie (Maisie Williams) after an absence of 10 years and some time in mental institutions. However, they're now with Frank (James Nesbitt), an athletics trainer determined to turn Maisie into a champion and sell his radical new coaching methods for a fortune. Naturally, Ray is invited to stay in the house whereupon increasingly deranged plot turns ensue.

Would a chap with a history of mental illness be allowed coach a teenage girls' running team pretty much on the spot? How do you square your partner's ex-boyfriend living under your roof, particularly when he always thought you were an idiot? Oh there's more, much more.

The whole tone of Gold just doesn't hang together, being neither funny at all nor serious enough to be taken seriously.

HHIII

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