Movie reviews: Cardboard Gangsters, Churchill, Whitney: Can I Be Me

Here are the top three films you don’t want to miss this week, writes Declan Burke.

Movie reviews: Cardboard Gangsters, Churchill, Whitney: Can I Be Me

Cardboard Gangsters 5/5

Churchill 4/5

Whitney: Can I Be Me 4/5

The Irish crime flick comes of age with Cardboard Gangsters (18s), in which Jason Connolly (John Connors), ‘sick of waiting on line for a hand-out’, decides to muscle in on the drug trade on Dublin’s Darndale estates.

Aided (but largely abetted) by his buddies Whacker (Alan Clinch), Dano (Fionn Walton) and Glenner (Paul Alwright), Jason goes toe-to-toe with local gangland kingpin, Derra Murphy (Jimmy Smallhorne), a bravura act compounded by Jason’s inability to resist the temptation of leaping into bed with Derra’s wife Kim (Kierston Wareing) …

The comparisons with Love/Hate are unavoidable, but it’s by no means a stretch to suggest that Cardboard Gangsters is an Irish Little Caesar, charting as it does the mercurial rise of a feral criminal who recognises no law but his own.

Directed by Mark O’Connor, who co-writes with John Connors, the story fairly thrums with menace, as the hemmed-in Jason simmers at his lack of opportunity and threatens to explode at any moment.

More of a strategist than his impulsive friends, Jason understands the extent to which the system is rigged against him; for all his innate intelligence, however, Jason also understands that in ‘the jungle’ (aka Darndale), only the strongest, the cruellest and the most ruthless thrive.

Caustically funny, the doom-laden plot doesn’t throw up too many surprises, mainly because Mark O’Connor and John Connors adhere to the classic noir story arc, but the film powers along on the strength of Connors’ phenomenal performance as he creates an anti-hero who is by turns charismatic, repellent, sympathetic and ultimately tragic.

Opening in June 1944, Churchill (PG) stars Brian Cox as the British prime minister who finds himself at odds with the generals — and particularly Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham) — who have planned the do-or-die D-Day landings in Normandy.

Haunted by his own experience of slaughter during WWI, and particularly his personal failings when he sent thousands of men to their deaths at Gallipoli, Churchill resists the proposed ‘deadly gamble’ of the head-on beachhead assaults, only to find himself outmanoeuvred and side-lined as a man out of time.

Written by Alex von Tunzelmann and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, Churchill is a fascinating character study of grace under pressure, as Churchill comes to realise, belatedly, that he is no longer regarded as the force of nature who rallied Britain during the Blitz.

Brian Cox is in superb form as the cigar-chomping old curmudgeon who rambles about growling like a wounded bear, although it’s in the second half of the film, when we get behind the legend to see the vulnerability and emotional frailty of a man who has outlived his political usefulness, that Cox truly shines.

It’s by no means a one-man show, however, with Miranda Richardson stealing every scene she’s in as the long-suffering Clementine Churchill, and Richard Durden, as Churchill’s old sparring partner Jan Smuts, deliciously understated as the voice of reason whispering caution in the firebrand’s ear.

Documentary maker Nick Broomfield has previously explored the world of popular music in Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002).

In Whitney: Can I Be Me (15A), he (with co-director Rudi Dolezal) turns his attention to Whitney Houston, whose astonishingly rapid ascent to the top of the pop charts in the mid-1980s was mirrored by a harrowing crash-and-burn that ended with her premature death in 2012.

Composed in the main of documentary footage of a European tour in 1999, when Whitney was already visibly struggling to cope with a myriad of pressures, and straight-to-camera interviews with former members of her backing band, the film pieces together a mosaic in which we discover a woman far more complex and tortured than the airbrushing of the PR machine ever allowed.

Her tempestuous relationships with Bobby Brown and her soulmate Robyn Crawford played their part, but her complicated personal life also spilled over into Houston’s frustration at being manufactured as a pop princess when her musical inspirations and instincts lay elsewhere, an artistic dissatisfaction that manifested itself in prolonged drug abuse that eventually ate into her capacity to perform to the dizzyingly high standards she set herself.

It’s a sobering, absorbing glimpse behind the scenes into the ruins of a life that promised so much, although Whitney’s fans may be disappointed at how little time Broomfield and Dolezal devote to exploring not only Whitney’s professional career, but also the extent to which she was a ground-breaking talent who paved the way for so many artists who followed.

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