Critic’s Choice: Films On TV This Week

December 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

A History of Violence – 10pm, Monday, Channel 4 Alert me

Viggo Mortensen is perhaps the only member of the Lord Of The Rings cast to have truly put the lingering smell of hobbits and orcs behind him, thanks in no small part to his collaborations with director David Cronenberg. Here, he plays Tom, a small town cafe owner, with a wife, two kids (one little Aryan posterchild girl, one typical problem teenage boy) and a rock solid reputation. Even the most zealous spoiler police shouldn’t prevent me from telling you that Tom, amazingly, has… a history of violence! What a twist!

So, despite a superbly brutal and spare opening scene, the first half of the film has a sort of grinding inevitability to it. Only the chracters aren’t really sure what’s going on, so the principle interest lies in seeing Tom’s relationship with his family, his town. When two goons enter his cafe and start doing some serious gun-waving with intent, his instincts kick in, and he transforms the situation – by killing them both. This is America, and naturally, acting the cowboy and killing two men has him proclaimed as a hero, shown on TV and showered with praise. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of some stereotypical mobsters, and Tom’s (wait for it) history of violence begins to unfold before our very eyes.

The scenes of suburbia do have a tendency to drag – especially when you know that some more brutal, bloody excitement may be lurking just around the next corner – but even these quieter moments are never left feeling like filler, never just floating inertly, which owes much to a strong screenplay and an excellent performance by the aforementioned Viggo. The treatment of the split-personality is very strong – after all, this is coming from the director who bought us The Fly. This is a film where characters are often morphing imperceptibly, taking a real turn for the bloodthirsty – their slightly flimsy, pacifist son viciously attacks a schoolmate, and Tom and Edie’s rather unthreateningly conventional cheerleader roleplay in the bedroom is later replaced by a memorably rough scene of staircase-set copulation that must have left Maria Bello with back problems for weeks.

As Viggo returns to Philadelphia to face his felonious past, the film transforms (a bit of a pattern emerging, eh?) into a well-executed, if rather standard, action thriller. Nothing will really surprise you here, but everyone involved gets their teeth well stuck in to the material, and you’ll be left watching an immensely well crafted, violent film.


Grave of the Fireflies – 2:05am, Monday, Channel 4 Alert me

They should distribute free hankies at every showing of this film. It’s unflinching, depressing, beautiful, tender, and yet another masterpiece from Studio Ghibli, Japan’s answer to Disney. And, it must be said, in the sad-and-depressing-cartoon stakes, Bambi’s mum and Simba’s dad have absolutely nothing on this. It’s almost unremittingly bleak, but a beautifully tender poem of the relationship between a brother and sister that endures, even as their country wages war, and they are gradually torn away from everyone and everything that they knew and loved. Heavy.

By ignoring the grander affairs of WW2 and concentrating on such a tiny story – just two children, trying to survive – the film is lent a grounded and humanistic feel that many films would kill for. The style is bolstered by a particularly Japanese quietness and simplicity, and a refusal to hide the grizzly aspects of the story from a young audience. Despite the fact that, yes, this is a cartoon, and yes, it has been made for children, a fair comparison would be Schindler’s List: You know that you’re not in for 90 minutes of high frivolity, but you would have to be a heart as hard as a lifetime member of the Millwall FC supporters club not to be moved by this sombre little tale. You’ll come away feeling that human life is so delicate, precious – that said, whoever decided to put this great film on at the ungodly hour of 2am needs stabbing repeatedly.


Terminator 2 – Judgement Day – Wednesday, 9pm, ITV2 Alert me

Awesome killing machine from the future battles slightly better awesome killing machine from the future in this riveting action spectacular. Guzzle down the explosions, delight in the killings, be creeped out by the new-fangled molten-metal terminator, and  be emotionally moved as the slightly-less-scary Governor of California attempts to actually do a bit of acting, and creates another catchphrase in the process: Hasta La Vista, baby. So many classic action scenes that describing them all may well cause my fingers to drop off. Know this: blockbusters don’t get much better than Terminator 2.