Machine Gun Preacher (Lionsgate) is based on the true story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler, 300, Law Abiding Citizen) a drug-addicted Minnesota biker who becomes a machine gun-wielding missionary in Southern Sudan.
After getting out of prison for an unspecified crime, Childers quickly reverts to type, and embarks on a drug-fuelled crime spree with best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon, Boardwalk Empire, Take Shelter), which culminates with them robbing a stash-house with shotguns and viciously assaulting a vagrant. Burned-out by his degenerate lifestyle, Sam gives in to his born-again Christian ex-stripper wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan, Gone Baby Gone) and joins her church, allowing Jesus into his ravaged existence.
With his life back on track he ventures to war-torn Sudan as a building contractor, only to find his eyes opened by the sheer scale of the atrocities that are unfolding in the country, with whole villages burned to the ground and women and children slaughtered at will. Frustrated at the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s (SPLA) inability to fend off the brutal attacks of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), he arms himself to the teeth and takes up the good fight himself.
Inspired by Childers’ memoir Another Man’s War, Machine Gun Preacher is one of the more unlikely biopics to grace the big screen in recent years, but it makes for genuinely riveting viewing, and Gerard Butler has rarely been more impressive. With a well-judged supporting cast including Monaghan, Shannon and Souleymane Sy Savane (star of acclaimed indie movie Goodbye Solo), director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, the upcoming World War Z) has plenty to work with, but his storytelling approach is slightly scattershot, never satisfactorily explaining Childers’ motivations.
While the film isn’t as clumsy as Forster’s woefully misjudged Quantum of Solace, the flaws do sometimes succeed in stretching credibility somewhat. Despite its gleefully exploitative title, Machine Gun Preacher an enlightening, occasionally inspiring film, with much to recommend it. Intriguing stuff.
Take Shelter (Universal) tells the story of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon, Machine Gun Preacher, see above) who lives in a small Ohio town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, The Debt, The Help) and deaf six-year-old daughter, Hannah. Despite Hannah’s deafness, the family unit is a happy one, until Curtis starts experiencing a series of disturbing dreams about an encroaching storm of apocalyptic proportions. Rather than confess his anxieties to his wife, Curtis takes out a home improvement loan from the bank and sets about constructing a storm shelter in the back yard. With sleeping pills unable to contain his increasingly feverish night-time horrors, Curtis’s erratic behaviour places an enormous strain on his marriage, and he grows fearful that he may be afflicted by some kind of mental illness – like his mother before him.
Director Jeff Nichols first announced his presence with the menacing (but flawed) Southern-fried thriller Shotgun Stories back in 2007, and Take Shelter expands on his early promise in emphatic style. The in-demand Shannon (who also starred in the director’s earlier movie) is utterly convincing here, and seems to benefit from the tie-up with his collaborator. Indeed, the tormented role of Curtis makes his prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire seem positively laid-back in comparison.
Not only is Take Shelter a notable step-up from Shotgun Stories, it is arguably one of the most self-assured visual achievements of the year. By blending terrifying visions with the achingly slow pace of Southern life Nichols painstakingly builds up a mood of all-encompassing dread – a stomach-churning vibe that threatens to swallow the movie whole as it edges malevolently towards its unexpected conclusion. Haunting, evocative stuff.
Tower Heist (Universal) tells the story of a group of workers at a luxury New York apartment complex who decide to take revenge against their unscrupulous penthouse-dwelling boss, who has swindled them out of their hard-earned pension money.
After confessing his culpability – he was the one who recommended the services of Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, M*A*S*H) in the first place – apartment manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) assembles an unlikely crew of disillusioned co-workers to stage a daring raid on Arthur’s apartment and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. However, concerned at their lack of criminal prowess, Kovacs also enlists local career criminal Slide (Eddie Murphy, Beverley Hills Cop), much to the chagrin of the rest of his mild-mannered posse.
In truth, although Tower Heist is an effortlessly likeable film, it rarely stretches itself, or indeed confounds viewer’s expectations. The self-consciously current plot – think Ocean’s Eleven for the credit crunch generation – provides plenty of scope for hijinks, but in truth there are not enough gags to situate it alongside Stiller’s best-known comedy work, and not enough thrills to ensure that ranks as edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Nevertheless, it’s genuinely heartening to see Eddie Murphy not gurning inside a fat-suit for once, and he is arguably responsible for many of the film’s best moments. Elsewhere, an entertainingly glum middle-aged Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is another sight for sore eyes.
Tower Heist is never less than watchable, but considering it took five years to write – it was originally pitched to Ratner by Murphy himself in 2005 as a vehicle for an all-star cast of black comedians, including Chris Tucker, Dave Chapelle, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence – the results are distinctly underwhelming. As is often the case with Ratner’s work, Tower Heist is slick but insubstantial.