Review: My Cousin Rachel

DIR/WRI: Roger Michell • PRO: Kevin Loader • DOP: Mike Eley • ED: Kristina Hetherington • DES: Alice Normington • MUS: Rael Jones • CAST: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Holliday Grainger

The second big-screen outing for Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel, My Cousin Rachel is a solid, faithful adaptation that would have played well on a Sunday afternoon at any point over the past six decades. In some ways, the mere existence of a film like this is cause for celebration – a resolutely old-fashioned entertainment somehow emerging in a Summer crowded with franchise landfill. That being said, there’s something rather square about Roger Michell’s adaptation that left this correspondent’s bodice largely unripped. Are descents into infatuation and jealousy supposed to feel so… cosy?

The story is more or less unchanged from Henry Koster’s underrated 1952 adaptation, which starred Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton. Here, the leads are taken by Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin as, respectively, the mysterious Rachel and the hot-headed Philip, cousin of Rachel’s ill-fated husband. Philip’s suspicions are naturally aroused when his beloved cousin ends up six feet under with undue swiftness following his marriage to the suspiciously continental Rachel – although his plans for revenge are complicated when Rachel takes up residence at the family estate in Cornwall, inadvertently stirring his (rather adolescent) passions. But just how inadvertent is Rachel’s seduction of her ‘cousin’? And is she, as she says, a woman ‘trying to make her own way in the world’, or, as Philip initially believes, a cold-hearted murderess. Like Du Maurier’s novel, the film draws out this ambiguity for its duration before arriving at a conclusion that has becomes justifiably famous for… Well, you’ll have to see.

Visually, it’s put over with just enough flair to separate it from high quality television – and this isn’t necessarily a handicap. As Romantic costume pieces go, Michell’s film is never as immersive as Jane Campion’s Bright Star (although it does quote visually from that film in a handsome shot involving a field of bluebells); at the same time, it’s never as distractingly plasticky as Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (with which it shares certain Gothic trappings, if not its outright supernatural slant). The middle-ground is very much the watchword here, the better to foreground the actors – an approach very typical of Michell, who can usually be relied upon to deliver a sympathetic showcase for his performers.

In that respect, the main attraction is clearly Weisz. Always a versatile actress, she doesn’t carry the assumption of transparency that made De Havilland an inspired choice for the part, but she plays ambiguity well, and Rachel falls neatly between the twin poles of her recent work. Weisz can conjure a sense of natural inscrutability, as she did in Joshua Marston’s little-seen Complete Unknown last year; but she also has a fine-tuned, and sadly under-exploited, facility for camp, heretofore relegated to Sam Raimi’s bloated Oz: The Great and Powerful. As Rachel, she plays both angles – unknowable reserve, and swishy black-veiled villainess. What’s more, she seems to be enjoying herself, and the feeling translates.

Of course, the real villain of My Cousin Rachel might not be Rachel at all, but the tortured suspicions of her wooer/nemesis Philip. In that sense, Du Maurier’s novel might be read as a treatise on the poisonous anger of masculine entitlement thwarted by feminine self-possession: the man expects that the woman reveal herself completely to him, for no reason other than that is it his prerogative to know, and hers to be known. Sam Claflin is clearly never going to rival Richard Burton for curdled virility, but he’s serviceable in the part. He’s a rather blunt actor, which can be a liability in its own right, but which actually plays well off Weisz’s hints and withholding.

As is usual for this kind of film, the supporting cast keeps some fine British character actors busy between meatier television commitments. Holliday Grainger is appealing as Philip’s own lovelorn admirer, Louise, while Simon Russell Beale and Tim Barlow make characteristic hay with smaller parts as family lawyer and faithful retainer, respectively.

 

David Turpin

105 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

My Cousin Rachel is released 9th June 2017

My Cousin Rachel – Official Website

 

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Review: Fifty Shades Darker

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DIR: James Foley • WRI: Niall Leonard • PRO: Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, E.L. James, Marcus Viscidi • DOP: John Schwartzman • ED: Richard Francis-Bruce • DES: Nelson Coates • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Tyler Hoechlin

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) was both a pleasant surprise and a let-down.  Kelly Marcel’s script managed to smooth the passage of novelist E. L. James’ trite plotting and tin-eared dialogue, while Taylor-Johnson gave the thing a certain elegance of tone.  Dakota Johnson’s witty turn elevated the material to such a degree that it would have made her a bona fide star if she’d had anything better to work with.  The downside was a bizarrely incurious approach to James’ toxic conflation of economic privilege with sexual mastery, although it would have been forgivable if the whole affair hadn’t been torpedoed by a stolid turn from Jamie Dornan, a last minute replacement for Charlie Hunnam, whose every move reeked of not wanting to be there.  Taylor-Johnson also showed a saddening disinterest in camp, despite opening her film with Annie Lennox singing “I Put a Spell on You”, and casting Marcia Gay Harden as a high society matriarch.

Fifty Shades Darker is a different kind of surprise, and a different kind of let-down.  It follows through on its promise of being trashier than Taylor-Johnson’s effort – but in all the wrong ways.  That James has fully wrested control of the property after her much-publicised clashes with Taylor-Johnson is evident in that the script for this instalment is the work of Niall Leonard, an occasional writer for British television who also happens to be her husband.  Those who felt short-changed by Marcel’s gutting of James’ flatulent prose style will be relieved to learn that Leonard has lovingly preserved its persistent air of blithe inanity.  Directorial duties, meanwhile, have now been assumed by journeyman hack James Foley, whose coruscating Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) seems a very long time ago.

The film has no plot, in any meaningful sense of the word.  It’s a story only in so far as it begins, various things happen, and then it ends.  These things involve a couple of spats between quickly reunited lovers Anastasia (Johnson) and Christian (Dornan), a wedding proposal that is inexplicably accepted no less than three times, a remarkably desultory episode involving a jilted stalker named Leila (Bella Heathcote), and a helicopter accident so blissfully unconnected to everything else that it feels like it’s been spliced in from a different film.  To call it soap opera would be an insult to the form.  There’s no drama, let alone melodrama.

Obviously, a nonsensical plot would be forgivable if the film worked as erotica, but there’s a rather low quotient of sex, and what’s on screen isn’t going to steam up anybody’s spectacles.  Curiously, the oft-touted “female perspective” of the franchise is little in evidence here, as Foley offers so many lingering close-ups of Johnson’s breasts being fondled, lathered, or oiled – and films Dornan so unflatteringly throughout – that one wonders whether he knows his audience at all.  The promise of sexual novelty also goes laughably unfulfilled.  A scene of Christian producing a nipple clamp only to demonstrate it on a fingertip and put it back in a drawer fairly sums up the proceedings, although the apotheosis of sexual cluelessness is actually reached early on, when cunnilingus is described as “kinky f***age”, as if it’s something practiced only by advanced disciples of the Marquis De Sade, as opposed to, you know, most people concerned with female pleasure.

That the film’s sexual politics are laughable needn’t necessarily be a problem.  The problem is that they’re laughable and depressing.  This correspondent wondered at the original’s inadvertent similarity to Pasolini’s Salo in its interweaving of economic and sexual power (albeit one presented without critique).  That noxious trope is repeated here, ad nauseam, with a side-serving of good old fashioned sexism to boot.  At one point, Anastasia is harassed by her sleazy boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) – mainly so that she can realise the error of her ways after Christian balks at the idea of her having a job.  Later, when Christian “subdues” the deranged Leila by dehumanising and humiliating her, Anastasia suffers a pang of conscience not because Christian persistently treats women abhorrently, but because she is afraid that she will not be able to satisfy a man who is accustomed to getting “so much” from his lovers/slaves/purchases.

After valiantly wrestling with the material in the first instalment, Johnson seems to have all but thrown in the towel here.  She looks bored because she’s too good for this nonsense – and she is.  Dornan, by contrast, looks bored because he thinks he’s too good for it – and he isn’t.  That he is deeply uncomfortable in this role has been apparent since the beginning, but given how much of his part here involves basic functions like walking and standing, it’s mystifying how he manages to be a damp squib in every single frame in which he appears.  His taciturn press junket appearances may have become the stuff of legend, but given that people will be paying to see this film (although likely in smaller numbers than had initially been projected), it seems downright churlish to be all but somnambulant on screen.

All this grey does have a silver lining, though, and her name is Kim Basinger.  The veteran star makes hay with the role of Elena Lincoln, jealous deflowerer of the adolescent Christian – no mean feat when one considers that an endless montage of Anastasia walking the streets to a Sia power ballad takes up more screen-time than her entire performance.  There is one, and only one, moment of genuine excitement in Fifty Shades Darker, and it has nothing to do with Anastasia or Christian.  When Basinger and Harden get down to a face-slapping, napkin-flicking stand-off, Fifty Shades Darker delivers a moment of pleasure that no nipple clamp could ever eclipse.  These two broads know where it’s at.  If we absolutely must have more of this Fifty Shades guff every Valentine’s Day, is it too much to ask that they be given a fair crack of the whip next time around?

 

David Turpin

117 minutes

18 See IFCO for details

Fifty Shades Darker is released 10th February 2017

Fifty Shades Darker – Official Website

 

 

 

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Another Look at ‘The Witch’

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David Turpin casts a spell over Robert Eggers’ The Witch.

Erstwhile production and costume designer Robert Eggers’ feature debut, The Witch has been steadily accumulating superlatives since its premiere at last year’s Sundance Festival.  Sub-titled “A New England Folk-Tale”, the film is potently imagined and beautifully wrought – although its hold loosens considerably when it strays from its eerie highpoints and into more conventional horror territory.

The film opens in a 17th-century Puritan plantation, from which a particularly devout family, headed by severe patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) and his tightly-drawn wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), have been exiled for ‘prideful conceit’.  Relocating to the edge of an isolated forest with their five children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and infant baby Samuel, they begin to carve out a new, ascetic existence.  However, the forest is already home to a witch who makes a meal of Samuel, and whose malign influence permeates the family, leading to recriminations and an inevitable explosion of violence.

The Witch is anchored by an extraordinarily persuasive atmosphere, and by a set of performances far stronger than what one might expect in a conventional horror film.  Ineson and Dickie more than look the part of a careworn Puritan couple, and they play with terrific conviction.  The most startling turns, though, come from the young cast – particularly the luminous Taylor-Joy, and Scrimshaw, both of whom play a number of difficult scenes with nuance and subtlety.

The witch herself is a tremendous creation – albeit briefly glimpsed.  Played in different guises by Bathsheba Garnett and Sarah Stephens, she is somehow entirely of the forest, while being unnervingly otherworldly.  The forest itself is a governing presence in the film – as are the family’s animals, who take on increasing significance as the film progresses.

In fact, The Witch builds such a complete world – and out of relatively limited resources, at that – that it is almost a shame when its various parts begin to coalesce into quite a conventional horror film, complete with jump scares and writhing possession scenes.  Although there’s no faulting the conviction with which these elements are staged, they defuse the haunting stillness of much of the film – dissipating the tension rather than bringing it to a punctuating climax.  The Witch is too good of a film to use these devices – they merely point up the difference between the parlour trick of a stage magician, and the deep, unknowable magic with which the heart of the film concerns itself.

The ultimate direction of the film reveals itself at a very deliberate pace, and will not be revealed here (although it is given away by the film’s main poster, so prospective viewers may want to avert their eyes).  If the journey to this point is never particularly frightening, it does at times feel authentically transgressive, particularly in how the film plays upon the nascent sexuality of its younger characters – a source of energy denied by Puritanism, and therefore ripe to be mined by the supernatural or diabolical.  Hence, the film appears to be linking the emergence of sexuality – particularly female sexuality – to the return of the suppressed energy of a nature that can be held off, but never actually tamed, by colonial influence.  As such, it falls into a fairly venerable tradition of American storytelling, the prime example of which is probably Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835), while also touching on the kind of linkage of feminine and natural ‘unknowability’ seen everywhere from the inscrutable forests of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991) to the haunting moon-bathing sequence of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).

The Witch saves its hokiest touch for last, as a title card solemnly informs us that much of what we have seen is based on actual 17th-century accounts.  Glossing a pseudo-feminist supernatural story by invoking the authority of a culture that persecuted and murdered women for false accusations of supernatural activity seems a little cavalier, but there’s no denying the power of the period’s language.  People who find themselves reeled in by the knotty cadences of the language would do well to seek out Katherine Howe’s The Penguin Book of Witches, which collects many accounts of the New England witch trials, and testifies, at least, to the authenticity of the film’s surface.

 

 

 

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Review: A Bigger Splash

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DIR: Luca Guadagnino • WRI: David Kajganich • PRO: Michael Costigan, Luca Guadagnino • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Walter Fasano • DES: Maria Djurkovic • CAST: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaert

 

After their ravishing 2009 collaboration I am Love, director Luca Guadagnino and leading lady Tilda Switon have reconvened for an equally glamorous, but looser and loopier melodrama with A Bigger Splash. Less an adaptation of than a series of riffs upon Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, A Bigger Splash gifts Swinton with an otherworldly queen bee part that seems tailored to her strengths, and finds outlandish new things to do with Ralph Fiennes. If the film’s collection of frissons is ultimately less satisfying than the knockout punch of I am Love, it’s still as enjoyable, refreshing, and ever-so-slightly discombobulating as a good holiday.

Swinton plays fictitious rock icon Marianne Lane (equal parts David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Chrissie Hynde), who is recovering from vocal chord surgery, and consequently cannot raise her voice above a throaty whisper.  To recuperate, she has retreated to the Italian island of Pantelleria with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) – only for their impeccably stylish idyll to be rudely interrupted by Marianne’s former manager/lover/enabler Harry (Fiennes), who arrives uninvited, and with his sullenly provocative newfound daughter Penelope (Johnson) in tow.

The scene is thus set for all manner of smouldering permutations and recriminations, as the quartet circle each other in various predator/prey configurations until somebody ends up face down in the swimming pool around which they habitually congregate.  Guadagnino, however, is plainly less concerned with the ‘suspense film’ dynamics of his story than with conjuring a particular sinister insouciance within which his very game cast can romp about.

Of the leads, Swinton and Fiennes give object lessons in the benefits of playing to and against type, respectively.  Simply watching Swinton occupy space on screen has always been a fascinating proposition, since her remarkable extended wordless take in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem (1989).  Guadagnino is plainly too fascinated by her singular way of moving – and by her just-so Raf Simons wardrobe – to ask anything as austerely demanding of her here, but there’s a limber grace to her near-silent performances that contrasts intriguingly with her constricted voice.  Fiennes, on the other hand, is thrillingly obnoxious – always voluble and frequently stark naked, he is the very definition of the unwanted house guest.  It’s as fascinating to watch him foisted on others as it is horrifying to imagine him in one’s own home.

Johnson – who was ill-represented by the unbearably naff Fifty Shades of Grey – makes the most of every opportunity to smoulder and sulk.  Crucially, however, she also brings shading and nuance to a character (played by a kittenish Jane Birkin in Deray’s film) who could easily have had none.  Schoenaerts draws the short straw.  While he and Swinton have a screen-fogging physical chemistry, he seems reluctant to enter into the swing of Guadagnino’s tangy melodramatics.  While some of the reticence is undoubtedly his character’s, at other points the odd discomfort looks more like his own.

The ever-lovely Aurore Clément has a sly small role, and Corrado Guzzanti enjoys himself as the local Carabinieri, but the key supporting player here is Pantelleria itself – volcanically beautiful, and regally indifferent to the petty squabbles of the mere mortals who inhabit it.  On the subject of regal indifference, Guadagnino’s gestures toward the hardships of illegal migrants entering Europe through the island never quite slot into the rest of the film.  This strand dangles underdeveloped, which may be an intriguing statement on the issue in its own right – but which also has the unfortunate side effect of swelling the running time of a film that could probably have benefitted from leaving 15 minutes on the cutting-room floor.

These are minor complaints, though, when A Bigger Splash as a whole is such a sly treat.  Like the David Hockey painting from which it – otherwise inexplicably – takes its title, the film mesmerises through its own glassy superficiality.  The pristine surface exudes good taste and – somehow, almost subliminally – hints at a sinister layer just beyond our reach.

 

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)

124 minutes

A Bigger Splash is released 12th February 2016

 

 

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Review: Buttercup Bill

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DIR/WRI: Remy Bennett, Émilie Richard-Froozan • PRO: Emma Comley, Sadie Frost • DOP: Ryan Foregger • ED: Vanessa Roworth • DES: Akin McKenzie • MUS: Will Bates • CAST: Remy Bennett, Evan Louison, Pauly Lingerfelt.

 

Billed as a “psycho-sexual romance”, Remy Bennett and Émilie Richard-Froozen’s debut feature, Buttercup Bill never quite delivers on that promise – unless one counts a lengthy close-up of a phallic tree branch as the summit of symbolic sophistication. The film’s loose narrative involves Pernilla (Bennett) and Patrick (Evan Louison), lifelong friends who reunite in the wake of the suicide of a childhood playmate. Fairly swiftly, Pernilla and Patrick are engaged in some rather familiar erotic gamesmanship – often involving third parties. The question of why Pernilla and Patrick relate to each other in this fashion is intended as the film’s lure – although the mystery will hold the attention of few, and its solution will surprise absolutely nobody.

The film Buttercup Bill most closely resembles is Lost River (2014), Ryan Gosling’s garbled but not uninteresting directorial debut. Mercifully, Buttercup Bill’s low budget precludes the sheer self-indulgence of Lost River, but like Gosling’s film, Bennett and Richard-Froozen’s is less a fully formed feature than it is a curation of reference points – among which Terence Malick and David Lynch loom largest. Like Malick’s films, Buttercup Bill counterpoints the assumed interior life of its characters with a richly textured conjuring of their physical environment – beautifully captured here by cinematographer Ryan Foregger. Vanessa Roworth’s fine editing also feels intuitive more than linear, another echo of Malick – particularly in the later stages of his career. Lynch, the most compelling surface stylist of recent American cinema, is plundered for repeated – and incongruous – images of vampish chanteuses, and for the formal presentation of disquieting objects. A telephone booth in an overgrown expanse, for instance, takes on the character of Blue Velevet’s severed ear. Much of the borrowing is fairly blunt, and to no particular end – an early scene of a bleary-eyed Bennett answering a telephone cribs directly from Sheryl Lee’s performance in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). While Malick and Lynch are both fine directors, their influence on American independent film culture is now so pervasive that the homages of younger filmmakers seem dispiritingly unimaginative.

Furthermore, while Gosling’s posturing was almost mitigated by an affecting turn from Christina Hendricks, Buttercup Bill stumbles with its leads. The controlled mise-en-scene suggests Bennett may have a compelling directorial career ahead of her, but her central performance is enervating – not least because of a vocal affectation that makes about half her lines unintelligible. As Patrick, Louison certainly captures his preening character’s juvenile narcissism, but leaves viewers none the wiser as to why he exerts such a magnetic pull for the film’s female characters. Of the supporting cast, the elaborately tattooed Pauly Lingerfelt is certainly a striking physical presence, while the exotically named Reverend Goat gives the film a momentary shot of energy with his wild-eyed (and very Lynchian) cameo as a preacher. A rich collection of soundtrack songs goes some way to giving interest to the film’s many longueurs – although the final selection is rather on-the-nose.

David Turpin

96 minutes

Buttercup Bill is released 4th September 2015

Buttercup Bill  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Review: Hard to be a God

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DIR: Aleksei German  • WRI: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita  • PRO: Viktor Izvekov, Leonid Yarmolnik  • Music: Viktor Lebedev  • DOP: Vladimir Ilin, Yuriy Klimenko  • Ed: Irina Gorokhovskaya  • Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Laura Lauri

 

The final film by Russian auteur Aleskei German, Hard to be a God had been in gestation since the late 1960s, when German first encountered the Strugatsky brothers novel upon which it is based. German, who made only five other features in his near half-century career, died in February 2013, shortly after completing photography for the film, the editing of which was largely overseen by his wife and son. It is difficult to imagine a more striking, or uncompromising, final statement from any filmmaker.

Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which was also drawn from material by the Strugatsky brothers, Hard to be a God is nominally a science-fiction piece, although such a description might also be hopelessly misleading. The film takes place on Arkanar, a planet that is superficially identical to Earth – albeit a 13th-century Earth by way of Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. Scientists who travelled to this strange planet in the hope of civilising it have failed miserably in their goal, with the film’s notional hero, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), now occupying the position of a strange kind of demi-god, alternately beloved and feared by the beleaguered masses.

Plot is of less consequence to German than the creation of an immersive world, and in this regard Hard to be a God is extraordinarily powerful. Shot in severe black and white, the film presents a seemingly unending sequence of indelible images – with grotesque ugliness coexisting with a strange, austere beauty. Its creation of a medieval environment is the most persuasive since Frantisek Vlácil’s Marketa Lazarova (1969) and the most imaginative since Vincent Ward’s The Navigator (1988), although neither of those films was realised on Hard to be a God’s towering scale. The effect is utterly, and often uncomfortably, transporting – never more so than when the ragged inhabitants of Arkanar abruptly stare directly into the camera, their simultaneously accusatory and uncomprehending expressions suggesting the unwitting subjects of a medieval Diane Arbus.

In the bleakness of its vision, and its preference for long takes, German’s film perhaps most recalls Béla Tarr – and it is every bit as challenging as that comparison suggests. There are even shades of Bruno Dumont in its strange combination of beauty and unflinching ugliness, although unlike Dumont’s recent P’tit Quinquin (2014), Hard to be a God makes every minute of its three-hour running time acutely felt. Most disconcertingly, while the film has the texture of an allegory, any definitive meaning proves elusive. Though it alludes, on a subterranean level, to the horrors of the twentieth century, and the perpetuation of these horrors into the twenty-first, the film refuses to allow the futility and derangement of its world to resolve into an easily digestible lesson for its audience. Arkanar is, in some ways, the ultimate embodiment of “history repeating”, but Don Rumata – like the audience – remains powerless to give meaning to its miseries. Depending on one’s perspective, this is either the film’s greatest strength or its most foreboding challenge. However one feels about it, though, Hard to be a God will prove impossible to shake.

David Turpin

12A (See IFCO for details)
97 minutes

Hard to be a God is released 7th August 2015

 

 

 

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Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

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DIR/WRI: Olivier Assayas • PRO: Karl Baumgartner, Charles Gillibert, Thanassis Karathanos, Jean-Louis Porchet, Gérard Ruey • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Marion Monnier • CAST: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz

 

In Olivier Assayas’s latest interrogation of the nature of performance and identity, Juliette Binoche fearlessly tackles the role of Maria Enders, a celebrated actress who comes face-to-face with several uncomfortable mirrors of her own personality. When Enders makes the fateful decision to accept the role of the older woman in a re-staging of the play that made her famous, with her own original part now taken by a Hollywood starlet, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), it would seem that the stage is set for a backstage showdown between maturity and youth. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that the greatest challenge to Enders’ sense of self may come, not from Jo-Ann, but from her own personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

 

Although the set-up is complex, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas at his most formally accessible. The running time is manageable, the narrative is linear, and the ragged jump-cuts that brought electricity to Irma Vep (1996) have been replaced with perfectly-judged fades to and from black. With the exception of one hallucinatory sequence on a foggy mountain road, the film has a calm surface, calibrated to showcase the uniformly strong performances.

 

As the veteran star facing an uncertain future, Binoche is completely arresting, minutely charting each ripple of doubt that disturbs Enders’ apparent self-confidence. The degree to which Binoche is (or is not) playing a version of herself is presumably intended to tantalise the audience, although it’s notable that Enders, who is splendidly dismissive of populist science-fiction, takes a harder line than Binoche, whose previous English-speaking role was in Godzilla (2014).

 

The film’s true revelation is Kristen Stewart, whose mumbled interiority proves remarkably complementary to Binoche’s regal bearing. More than earning her status as the first American to scoop a French Cesar award for Best Actress, Stewart makes something very real, and often quite poignant, of Valentine’s struggle with Enders, the friend/employer/idol, who both awes and stifles her. While Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska made a delightfully grotesque pantomime of the star/assistant relationship in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014), Assayas, Binoche and Stewart approach the same topic with greater analytical perception as well as greater sympathy.

 

Moretz has what is necessarily the smallest and most cartoonish of the lead roles, but she attacks it with gusto. Brief “found footage” glimpses of Jo-Ann’s near feral volatility are totally convincing, as is her honeyed poise at other moments. She and Binoche have a great scene late in the film when the gulf between Jo-Ann’s personae threatens, briefly, to close – although Assayas is, of course, too cool-headed to permit a full showbiz tantrum to appear in unmediated.

 

As much as Clouds of Sils Maria is about its central characters’ negotiation of “roles”, it’s also about the way in which Assayas tackles generic convention, inhabiting it while observing it from without. Clouds of Sils Maria is as much a backstage melodrama as Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007) were “erotic thrillers” – that is to say, theoretically only. The result is that Clouds of Sils Maria can occasionally feel rather dry, with what would remain subtext in a film like All About Eve (1950) or The Star (1952) openly discussed between Assayas’s characters.

 

Although Clouds of Sils Maria is an unapologetically talky film, the good news is that the talk is consistently stimulating, especially when delivered by the unexpected but terrific pairing of Binoche and Stewart. Beyond that, by creating characters with self-awareness enough to elevate subtext to text, Assayas opens up the possibility for deeper, perhaps mythic, dimensions to exist in the unspoken realms of the film. Grander, intangible themes are persistently evoked by Assayas’s landscape shots of the Swiss Alps, a location as crisply bracing and coolly mysterious as the film itself.

 

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)

123 minutes
Clouds of Sils Maria is released 15th May 2015

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Review: The Falling

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DIR/WRI: Carol Morley • PRO: Luc Roeg, Cario Cannon • DOP: Agnès Godard • ED: Chris Wyatt • CAST: Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Maxine Peake, Monica Dolan, Greta Scacchi

 

In The Falling, Carol Morley follows up her memorable documentary feature, Dreams of a Life (2011), with an equally mysterious piece of fiction. Set in a pitch-perfect evocation of 1960s England, The Falling involves an inexplicable epidemic of fainting spells that sweeps a girls’ school in the aftermath of a tragic event.

 

The narrative centres on a pair of girls, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh), whose contrasting personalities and symbiotic relationship stirs faint memories of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). Williams is highly credible as the sullen and acerbic half of the pair, although newcomer Pugh arguably steals the film in the less showy part of the otherworldly Abbie. Of the adults, Greta Scacchi and Monica Dolan contribute sharply-etched turns as a prim teacher and a dismissive headmistress, respectively, while Morfydd Clark makes an impression in a small part as the only “adult” to be affected by the fainting spells that spread like wildfire through the student body.

 

The ever-fine Maxine Peake has a tricky role as Lydia’s agoraphobic mother, remaining aloof for the bulk of the film before delivering a series of last-minute revelations that have the unintended effect of sapping some of the film’s alluring ambiguity. Morley’s decision to provide a partial solution to one of The Falling‘s central mysteries sets it apart from its most obvious antecedent, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). While some may be disappointed that The Falling is rather more literal-minded than it initially appears, Morley’s decision to privilege the lived experiences of her adolescent protagonists over their symbolic qualities sets her film apart from the fascinated, but remote, gaze of Weir’s classic. Like Lucille Hadzihaliovic’s ravishing Innocence (2004) and Jordan Scott’s unfairly overlooked Cracks (2009), The Falling has empathy and rigour that cuts against the potentially objectifying qualities of the long-standing “mysterious schoolgirls” subgenre.

 

Claire Denis’ regular cinematographer Agnès Godard provides beautifully burnished images throughout, proving equally adept with the uncomfortable intimacy of Lydia’s suburban home and the eerie beauty of the exteriors. Chris Wyatt’s editing is also striking, tempering the dreamlike pacing of the film with flash-cut imagery that lends a genuinely disorienting edge to the fainting sequences. These sequences, like the film in general, are immeasurably enhanced by a marvellously evocative score by the great Tracey Thorn. Equally sensual and naïve, childlike and world-weary, Thorn’s unmistakable voice perfectly catches the tone of the film, and goes a long way to maintaining Morley’s intoxicating mood through the occasional bumpy patch.

 

 

David Turpin

16 (See IFCO for details)
102 minutes

The Falling is released 24th April 2015

 

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Suite Française

Suite Française

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Dir: Saul Dibb; Wri: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman; Pro: Romain Bremond, Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn, Xavier Marchand; DOP: Edouard Grau; Ed: Chris Dickens; Mus: Rael Jones. Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie

 

A soapy wartime yarn elevated by a handsome production and some strong performances, Suite Française cannot, by definition, capture what makes Irène Némirovsky’s source novel such an intriguing proposition. Written during the Nazi occupation of France but left incomplete at the time of Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942, Suite Française was completed posthumously and published in 2004. The novel’s unique provenance has little bearing on its plot, though, which has been streamlined here into a familiar, but mildly engrossing, story of forbidden love.

 

Michelle Williams takes the central role of Lucile, a young woman who lives with her frosty mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) in a small French village, at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. When the women are forced to accommodate a German soldier, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) in their home, an unlikely secret romance blossoms, leading to assorted melodramatic ramifications. Williams has a natural subtlety that was genuinely affecting in her breakthrough role in Brokeback Mountain (2004), and has served her well in her two collaborations with Kelly Reichardt. Here, her reserved, watchful quality brings some much needed shading to the thinly written character of Lucile. There is, however, a distinct lack of spark between Williams and Schoenarts, leaving the plot’s engine sputtering. Schoenarts certainly looks the part of a paperback romantic hero, but the script’s insistence on presenting Bruno simply as a good man in a bad situation are bland at best and disingenuous at worst, and leave the character less neutral than neutered.

 

The tone is generally old-fashioned, with the crisp British accents in which the French villagers communicate evoking – with a certain charm – the Warner Bros. pot-boilers of the 1940s. Director Saul Dibb, who made his debut with the inner-city gang drama Bullet Boy (2004), deploys a more contemporary sensibility only fleetingly, and usually in scenes of action and violence. An early air-raid sequence is terrifically handled, cleverly presenting the open air and sunshine of the French countryside as a source of terror, while brief glimpses of executions and interrogations stand out starkly against the curiously cosy tone of the film. These moments aside, one feels that Suite Française may play better on television, its mild intrigues and lovingly rendered period trappings seeming a perfect fit for a Sunday evening BBC drama.

 

Of the supporting cast, Scott Thomas is on autopilot mode, but still walks off with most of her scenes. Others, such as Eileen Atkins and Ruth Wilson, are given less to do, while rising star Margot Robbie is prominently billed, but has just a handful of lines as a rustic wench. That the part registers at all is more down to Robbie’s own peculiar blend of carnality and innocence than to anything in the script. Although the overall pacing is fairly smooth, the underused cast and truncated sub-plots suggest that the film has either been cut down from a much longer running time, or has been substantially reshaped in editing. Further evidence of tinkering comes in the form of a needless voice-over that is presumably intended to underscore Lucile’s emotional awakening, but has the unintended effect of making Williams’ understated central performance seem less expressive than it is.

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)
107 minutes

Run All Night is released 13th March 2015

 

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The Duke of Burgundy

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DIR/WRI: Peter Strickland • PRO: Andy Starke • DOP: Nic Knowland • ED: Mátáyas Fekete • DES: Pater Sparrow • MUS: Cat’s Eye • CAST: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Monica Swinn

 

Peter Strickland’s third narrative feature, and first unqualified masterpiece, The Duke of Burgundy seems certain to be one of the most exotic and rewarding features to grace cinema screens this year. Following his haunting parable Katalin Varga (2009) and his fascinatingly skewed Giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Strickland’s latest film once again sees him take a connoisseur’s eye to European cinema, creating something entirely new from a foundation of meticulous reconstruction.

 

Because this is a film that relies – initially at least – on a highly specific tone, no synopsis can do it justice. In the most straightforward terms it involves a couple of entomologists, named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), whose relationship is structured around sadomasochistic rituals. Day after day they enact scenarios that lead to Evelyn’s eventual punishment by Cynthia, in ways that are best left for the viewer to discover. However, over the course of the film, the power structure behind this obsessive, cyclical relationship is revealed as very different to what it might first appear to be.

 

Throughout, Strickland has painstakingly recreated the aesthetic of 1970s European erotica – particularly that of Jean Rollin (The Nude Vampire, 1970) and Jess Franco (A Virgin Among the Living Dead, 1973). The opening titles alone are a master-class in creative re-appropriation, with freeze-frames, colour filters, and pitch-perfect typography evoking a highly specific look and feel with immense precision. Of immeasurable help in this regard is the beautiful score by the band Cat’s Eye, made up of Faris Badwan (best known as lead vocalist of The Horrors) and Italian-Canadian soprano and composer Rachel Zeffira.

 

The reference points for Strickland’s eerie, hermetic world are myriad. Strickland’s fascination with props recalls that of the Polish animator and director Walerian Borowczyk, whose films Blanche (1972) and Immoral Tales (1974) share a similar sense of the sexuality of inanimate objects. Strickland himself has cited the Czech auteur Juraj Herz’s gothic melodrama Morgiana (1972) as an influence, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). The exclusive concern with the feminine evokes Frank Wedekind’s novella Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (1903), as well as its film adaptation, Lucille Hadžihalilović’s Innocence (2004). While Wedekind’s novel and Hadžihalilović’s film pushed men to the shadowy periphery of the action, Strickland’s film does away with them altogether. Not a single male appears onscreen in The Duke of Burgundy, and no explanation is offered for their absence.

 

Similarly, Strickland offers no reason why entomology and sadomasochism seem to be the foundations not just of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship, but of the entire society in which they reside. The film’s commitment to its fantasy is complete, its every detail mapped out according to a programme that is as specific as it is mysterious. The effect is a film that complicates the idea of what constitutes “sexual” material. In one sense, onscreen sexual content is kept to a relative minimum (no nudity is shown, for instance). In another sense, every word, action and gesture in the film is sexual, since it takes place in an environment determined entirely by highly specific desires and fantasies. The film’s form is as fetishistic as its mise-en-scene, with looped footage and recurring sections invoking the way in which repetition becomes the animating force of sexual fetishism.

 

The Duke of Burgundy is by some distance the most rarefied film about sexual fetishism since Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), and it would be essential viewing for its surface alone, but what lingers most in the memory is its depth. Beginning as a thrillingly offbeat piece of erotica it eventually reveals itself to be one of the wisest and most humane examinations of love and its limitations yet put on film. A late scene in which a familiar encounter between the two women takes an unforeseen turn is extraordinarily moving, because at this point we realise that the exotic world inhabited by these characters is, at heart, a mirror of our own. An extraordinarily realised work of fantasy that is also a profoundly truthful exploration of the human heart, The Duke of Burgundy seems certain to be one of the films of the year.

 

David Turpin

18 (See IFCO for details)
104 minutes

The Duke of Burgundy is released 20th February 2015

 

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Shaun the Sheep

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DIR/WRI: Mark Burton, Richard Starzack • PRO: Paul Kewley, Julie Lockhart, Peter Lord, David Sproxton • DOP: Charles Copping, Dave Alex Riddett • ED: Sheila Dunn, Christopher Hink • CAST: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes

Shaun the Sheep, the latest feature from Aardman Animations, sees the eponymous character – who first appeared in the 1996 short Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave, before becoming the subject of his own ongoing television series in 2007 – make a bid for big-screen stardom. Deftly expanding upon a creation that has heretofore been aimed primarily at pre-school children, the film is charming and consistently inventive, though notably scaled back from Aardman’s previous big screen outing, the antic but curiously inert The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2011).

The story of Shaun the Sheep is a simple one, with Shaun and his flock contriving to disrupt the monotony of their routine on Mossybottom Fram by shaking off the unnamed farmer for a day. However, the plan backfires, and the sheep – together with Blitzer the Sheepdog – find themselves making a trip to the Big City to rescue the farmer and return life to normal. There, they encounter a variety of japes and scrapes, including a delusional animal control officer bent on taking them into custody.

While the set-up is unavoidably similar to that of Babe: Pig in the City (1998), parents of small children will be relieved to learn that the tone is markedly different, with writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzack steering well clear of the Jeunet and Caro-indebted grotesquerie that mystified audiences for that earlier film.

Geniality is the watchword here, and it seems certain that young viewers will be captivated by the film’s steady stream of gentle slapstick humour (although adults may find it occasionally overstretched at a surprisingly hefty 85 minutes). While Aardman has diversified into computer animation with results ranging from the bewilderingly ugly (Flushed Away, 2006) to the merely generic (Arthur Christmas, 2011), Shaun the Sheep is a resolutely handmade affair, and is all the better for it. For all their technical ingenuity, Aardman’s best films have always offered tactility as their most special effect, and Shaun the Sheep delivers in this regard.

Furthermore, while the action is necessarily expanded for the big screen, Shaun the Sheep takes a different path to earlier Aardman features Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), which mined humour from the ironic juxtaposition of stop-frame animation and self-consciously “big” genre set-pieces. Shaun the Sheep arguably marks the first time an Aardman feature has been truly comfortable with the modesty of scale that can make stop-frame animation so affecting, especially on the big screen.

While viewers old enough to remember Aardman’s celebrated Creature Comforts (2003) may miss that production’s incisive look at the experience of animals in a human world, Shaun the Sheep remains commendable for its refusal to anthropomorphise its protagonists by giving them dialogue. By not putting words into the mouths of its animals, the film permits them dignity as non-verbal creatures, while at the same time invoking the tradition of wordless comedy from Keaton to Tati. In its own way, it shares with last year’s charming Paddington adaptation an unforced lesson on the value of difference that never gets in the way of its infectious sense of fun.

 

David Turpin

G (See IFCO for details)
85 minutes
Shaun the Sheep
is released 6th February 2015

Shaun the Sheep  – Official Website

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Taken 3

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DIR: Olivier Megaton  WRI: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen  PRO: Luc Besson  DOP: Eric Kress  Ed: Audrey Simonaud, Nicolas Trembasiewicz  Cast: Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Leland Orser

 

The third and allegedly final instalment of the Luc Besson-masterminded Taken series eschews the European settings of its predecessors for Californian locations, but in all other respects feels painfully rote. Sharing with prior instalments an inexplicable fascination for the family dynamics of rugged hero Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and his kin, Taken 3 tarries with sub-TV soap opera for close to half an hour before finally wheezing into action.

 

In narrative terms, the film replaces the straightforward seek-and-destroy storylines of its predecessors with a convoluted “wrong man” plot lifted straight from The Fugitive (1993). On this occasion, the Tommy Lee Jones part is taken by Forest Whitaker, turning in another dreadful performance that must surely put him neck-and-neck with Renée Zellwegger for the bleakest post-Oscar career. Meanwhile, the “surprise” villain will surprise nobody, although his identity will not be revealed here.

 

It’s not a spoiler, however, to confirm that this mystery villain is a man, because as per usual, the only women on screen are Neeson’s daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), and ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). Janssen, typecast as a frosty shrew in the first Taken film, seems ill-at-ease with her now-mellowed character, and one can’t help but search her frozen features for a flicker of relief when she exits the action feet-first early on. The Taken films have always had an Oedipal streak a mile wide, and in that respect the latest instalment does not disappoint – giving Neeson and Grace a handful of excruciating father-daughter scenes, including one in a toilet cubicle that concludes with Kim creating a diversion for her escaping father by pretending to urinate. Grace is a likable genre performer, but at 31 she seems uncomfortable playing a college student who uses her mother’s garments as security blankets.

 

Age, of course, is but a number in a Taken film, and those wondering how Neeson’s action hero is holding up at 62 will be pleased to know that he still does youthful things like jumping over police cars and listening to The XX. Neeson has always walked a fine line between the stoic and the stolid, and part of the limited appeal of the Taken series has been the oddness of seeing him in the kind of role Arnold Schwarzenegger might have passed on in 1988. Alas, oddness – as well as action – is in short supply here. A fight scene in which an antagonist brandishes a machine gun while wearing only a bathrobe and his underpants calls to mind the lunatic quality of Besson’s own films, but it’s an all-too-brief flash of conscious absurdity. Elsewhere, the film feels perilously low on ideas – climaxing with an airport set-piece that seems laughably puny compared to a similar scene in Casino Royale (2006). Neeson, and most of the rest of the cast, look like they’d rather be punching the clock.

David Turpin

12A (See IFCO for details)
108 minutes.
Taken 3
is released 9th January 2015.

Taken 3   – Official Website

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Men, Women & Children

Still from Men, Women & Children

DIR: Jason Reitman • WRI: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilso • PRO: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook, Jason Blumenfeld, Michael Beugg, Mason Novick • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • CAST: Adam Sander, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Crocicchia, Emma Thompson

 

Men, Women & Children sees former wunderkind Jason Reitman return to a contemporary subject, after a baffling diversion into romantic melodrama with last year’s Labour Day. Unfortunately, Men, Women & Children is a far cry from Reitman’s masterpiece, 2011’s thrillingly tart Charlize Theron vehicle, Young Adult. Like Reitman’s other more successful features, Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009), Young Adult was a character study with a fairly narrow focus. Men, Women & Children, by contrast, is a multi-stranded portmanteau piece, in the vein of Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) or Alejandro Gonzáles Inárritu’s Babel (2006). Although ostensibly lighter in tone than either of those films, Men, Women & Children dutifully replicates their central oxymoron – attempting to vindicate the diversity of human interaction by reducing it to a schematic.

 

Orbiting around the idea of how technology facilitates the increasing isolation of the very people it claims to connect, Men, Women & Children hones in on a selection of suburbanites in present day Texas, including a jaded married couple played by Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt, a pair of disaffected teenagers played by Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, and two contrasting mothers, one of whom (Jennifer Garner) tirelessly monitors and restricts her daughter’s internet and phone use, while the other (Judy Greer) prostitutes her nubile daughter’s image on a subscription website. A trite framing device, in which the travails of these people are cross-cut with the progress of the Voyager satellite through space, seems to suggest that their interactions are emblematic of present day human society in general. In so doing, the film sets out to debunk the myth of the “global village”, while unselfconsciously perpetuating the false notion that new-technology communications are a genuinely global phenomenon. Emma Thompson’s narration, which sets descriptions of space exploration alongside observations of the masturbatory habits of middle-aged Texan fathers, underscores the point, although the self-satisfied smirk with which it is delivered doesn’t make the medicine go down any easier.

 

The film suffers from the curious problem of feeling didactic about nothing in particular. Many critics have read it as alarmist or hectoring, although that doesn’t seem to be quite accurate. Instead, Men, Women & Children attempts to cultivate a kind of studied neutrality, presenting its “findings” without explicit comment – at least until the very end, which wraps things up in a sentimental bow. The problem with this approach is that not one of the film’s observations is new, and its technique – in which artificial suspense is created by cross-cutting multiple story arcs in an attempt to disguise that each one is predictable as a metronome – undermines the quality of its performances. Sandler and DeWitt, particularly, are very good, given how little they have to work with; Judy Greer, likewise, makes something uncomfortably credible of a part that could easily have slid into caricature.

 

It’s a shame, however, that Reitman is more concerned with a banal thesis based on flattening the differences between people, than with the kind of drama that emerges from their complexity. Substituting characters for specimens, Men, Women & Children is as reductive as the new media it examines. There’s a certain grim irony, then, in the inevitable social media marketing campaign, which invited people to distil their inner thoughts to 135 characters and tag them with “#mwc”. Judging by the film’s disastrous performance at the U.S. box office, it seems not many people were interested. Perhaps they pre-emptively took Reitman’s message to heart, put down their smart-phones, and talked to each other instead – presumably about a film that had something more interesting to say.

 

David Turpin

16 See IFCO for details)
119 minutes.
Men, Women & Children is released 5th December.

Men, Women & Children – Official Website

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The Pyramid

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DIR: Grégory Levasseur  WRI: Daniel Meersand, Nick Simon  PRO: Alexandre Aja, Mark Canton, Chady Eli Mattar, Scott C. Silver  ED: Scott C. Silver  MUSIC: Nima Fakhrara  CAST: Denis O’Hare, Ashley Hinshaw, Christa Nicola, James Buckley

Directed by Grégory Levasseur, a longtime script-writing accomplice of French splatter merchant Alexandre Aja, The Pyramid is a drearily uninspired trudge through modern horror’s least interesting tropes, lent precious little character by its Egyptian setting. Like this summer’s similarly rote As Above, So Below – which posited the Parisian catacombs as a gateway to hell – The Pyramid largely unfolds in an underlit subterranean labyrinth, although establishing shots of the real pyramids can’t help but lend the opening scenes a second-hand grandeur.

Denis O’Hare chews the scenery as Dr. Holden, an American archaeologist who has discovered a mysterious three-sided pyramid with the aid of his daughter (Ashley Hinshaw). Accompanied by the now obligatory documentary crew (Christa Nicola and The Inbetweeners’ James Buckley), the Holdens descend into the pyramid and, to nobody’s surprise but their own, find themselves in ill-defined mortal peril.

O’Hare appears to be enjoying himself, and Nicola gives her cardboard character her all, but the rest of the cast are as lost as their characters. It’s never clear whether Buckley’s shrill turn is intended as comic relief, and Hinshaw is perfectly dreadful as the heroine – although charitable viewers may choose to interpret her stilted line readings as a form of protest against a script that introduces one of its establishing devices (a mobile transmitting camera) through an extended close-up of her bosom.

That transmitting camera is the source of some of the footage, while cameras held by characters also contribute to the mise-en-scene. However, this “found footage” is awkwardly spliced with conventional omniscient perspective, much of it confusingly shot on near-identical stock. “Found footage” is a pretty tired conceit in contemporary horror cinema, but at least it’s part of a venerable tradition, stretching back to the use of forged documentation in 18th– and 19th-century Gothic novels. The Pyramid repeatedly picks the device up and puts it back down again, as if Levasseur isn’t quite sure how to make it work from scene-to-scene, and eventually can’t be bothered. The effect is distancing – there’s really no excuse for such a linear film to feel so disorganised.

The inconsistency of perspective is matched by an uneven tone, the film’s vague gestures toward realism undercut by digitally rendered creatures so substandard one keeps expecting a plot twist in which the pyramid is revealed to be a portal into a mid-1990s video game. When the principal beastie makes his belated appearance, viewers may find themselves counting his pixels to stay awake. In addition, its joylessly slapdash monsters, The Pyramid dabbles in a number of other recent horror clichés – including fiendish traps (Saw, The Collector, Captivity, etc.), puss-oozing contagion (Cabin Fever, The Bay, Carriers), and a hint of the extraterrestrial (take your pick) – without integrating them into a coherent whole.

For those concerned with such matters, The Pyramid is also lamentably short on gore. The film’s two moments of outright body horror are roundly uninspired – and both hinge on in-your-face protuberances that suggest the film may once have been intended for 3D post-conversion (the fact that it is in 2D robs it of the opportunity for still more visual and conceptual confusion). This timidity with the entrails is bound to disappoint the intended audience for a film that is being sold on Alexandre Aja’s nebulous involvement as one of ten credited producers. Even Aja’s own fatuous teen-romance-horror thingamabob Horns, released in October, offered more inventive gross-out moments than this dusty relic.

David Turpin

16 (See IFCO for details)

88 minutes

The Pyramid is released 5th December 2014

 

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The Imitation Game

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DIR: Morten Tyldum WRI: Graham Moore PRO: Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman DOP: Óscar Faura ED: William Goldenberg DES: Maria Djurkovic MUS: Alexandre Desplat CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Charles Dance

 

A handsomely mounted, solidly entertaining biopic, The Imitation Game, gives a partially fictionalised account of the life of English mathematician and logician Alan Turing, who helped crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II, and later died by his own hand after being forced to undergo chemical castration to “cure” his homosexuality.

 

While Michael Apted’s Enigma (2001) attempted the awkward task of making action heroes and romantic leads of Bletchley boffins, The Imitation Game takes a more level-headed approach to the subject.  Morten Tyldum’s assured direction offers a carefully calibrated mixture of suspense and cosiness (echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s tense but oddly quaint score), sculpting the film around Benedict Cumberbatch’s central performance as Turing.  Unlike his turn as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate (2013), which never rose above meticulous impersonation, Cumberbatch makes Turing a rounded creation, balancing intellectual assurance and social discomfort, even when saddled with some rather on-the-nose dialogue.  Mark Strong makes an impression as a shady MI6 agent, but Cumberbatch’s real foil here is Keira Knightley, playing Turing’s fellow cryptanalyst, and one-time fiancée, Joan Clarke.  Knightley has a tremendously appealing presence, and she gives Clarke an effervescence that tempers the script’s tendency to reduce her to a mere emblem of the condition of being a woman in a “man’s world”.

 

The film was written by an American, Graham Moore, and it shows.  Moore has a firm grasp of scriptwriting formulae, but is on less sure footing conjuring a sense of place and time.  The characters’ eagerness to disclose their emotions to one another, usually through aphorism, feels neither particularly British nor particularly of the period, and a handful of nagging anachronisms and Americanisms (in particular, the persistent use of the word “smart” to mean intelligent, as distinct from quick-witted) would surely have snagged on the finely tuned sensitivities of Bletchley Park’s Oxbridge-schooled code-breakers.  More disconcerting than these minor quibbles is the script’s suggestion that Turing’s code-breaking machine was developed to fill the void left by a deceased childhood beloved.  It’s not only commendable, but essential, that Turing’s sexuality be part of this narrative, but that doesn’t imply that it should be made to “account” for his particular genius – a move that risks trivialising his achievement and romanticising his persecution.  Reducing the invention of the digital computer to a compensation for love lost makes for an affecting back-story, but rather undercuts the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to our age.

 

Still, while one doesn’t have to be Alan Turing to find the script’s plays on pattern and code a little obvious, The Imitation Game remains engrossing for its full two-hour running time.  Sturdy craftsmanship, strong performances, and a perennially fascinating subject make it one of the more appealing pieces of awards-bait to emerge thus far this season.

 

David Turpin

 

12A (See IFCO for details)

114 minutes

The Imitation Game is released 14th November 2014

The Imitation Game – Official Website

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5CjKEFb-sM

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Ouija

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DIR: Stiles White   WRI: Stiles White, Juliet Snowden   PRO: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Brian Goldner, Bennett Schneir   DOP: David Emmerichs   ED: Ken Blackwell CAST: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Bianca A. Santos, Douglas Smith, Vivis, Lin Shaye

 

Manifesting in cinemas just in time for Hallowe’en, Ouija is a slickly produced but by-the-numbers teen horror opus based on the eponymous novelty item. The plot follows high school student Laine (British actress Olivia Cooke), whose childhood friend Debbie (Shelley Hennig) apparently hangs herself after playing with a “spirit board”. Naturally, a guilt-stricken Laine decides to check in with Debbie’s ghost using the very same board, and she ropes in a group of friends for a séance that puts them in touch with a supernatural force eager to divulge the ghastly history of the house in which Debbie died. If you’re anticipating that this will come to involve the ghost of a spooky little girl, you’re quite right – and you’re way ahead of the protagonists.

 

Ouija’s most obvious antecedent is The Ring (2002), which also involved a curse spread virally by an object associated with the unavenged murder of a child. However, The Ring enthralled largely on the strength of its exotic imagery and memorable (and relatively mature) heroine, played by Naomi Watts. Ouija’s scares, by contrast, are as standard issue as its cast of interchangeable young victims. Cooke does what she can with the lead role, and has an appealing presence, but she’s hamstrung by a script that requires her character to do nonsensical things like blithely go to a sporting event after her clearly distressed best friend confesses to communing with the dead. None of the victims-in-waiting, including Laine’s mildly rebellious younger sister (Ana Coto) and square-jawed high school sweetheart (Daren Kagasoff, looking every one of his 27 years), makes much of an impression. Vivis (as the Laine’s grandmother) and Lin Shaye (as an asylum patient) are veterans of this kind of thing, having appeared in assorted Paranormal Activity and Insidious instalments, and they deliver their dire warnings and cryptic messages with some degree of relish.

 

Ouija is handsomely photographed by David Emmerichs, and is overall more attractively mounted than its chief box office rival, the startlingly cheap-looking Annabelle. However, it shares with Annabelle – and with last spring’s overrated haunted mirror opus Oculus – a blocky and inert focal point that singularly fails to exude the necessary menace. Perhaps this is why the Ouija board itself eventually takes a back seat to some boilerplate spectral manifestations, professionally if unsurprisingly rendered by veteran make-up artist Mike Smithson.

 

Co-produced by Michael Bay, Ouija is a more modest offshoot of the same alliance with toy manufacturer Hasbro that has given the world the deafening and profitable Transformers series. As such, it has the unusual distinction of being an extended toy commercial premised on the suggestion that the toy in question may kill its owners. In that respect alone, the film is unique, and oddly charming. Teenage audiences seeking a few modest jolts around Hallowe’en could probably do worse, but everyone else may find the rote nature of the exercise harder to forgive, despite the efficient packaging. The flesh is willing, but the spirit is bored.

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)

89 minutes

Ouija is released 31st October 2014
Ouija– Official Website

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Serena

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DIR: Susanne Bier • WRI: Christopher Kyle • PRO: Ben Cosgrave, Mark Cuban, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Todd Wagner, Nick Wechsler • DOP: Morten Søborg • ED: Pernille Bech Christensen, Matthew Newman, Simon Webb • DES: Richard Bridgland •  MUS: Johan Soderovist  • CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Tobey Jones, Rhys Ifans, David Dencik, Ana Ularu

 

Adapted from a 2008 novel by Ron Rash, Serena is essentially another rewrite of Macbeth, this time relocated to the harsh but picturesque Smokey Mountains of North Carolina in 1929.  The story revolves around timber magnate George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) and his formidable but unhinged wife Serena (Jennifer Lawrence).  As Pemberton’s empire begins to unravel, Serena goads him into violent action, drawing the attention of the rumpled local sheriff (Toby Jones).  Meanwhile, Serena allies herself with a sinister employee (Rhys Ifans) as her jealousy of her husband’s illegitimate child leads to further tragedy.

 

This brew is heated to nowhere near boiling point by the prolific Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (best known for the Oscar-winning In a Better World).  Tellingly, despite Bier’s pedigree and the box-office appeal of her two leads, Serena has spent over two years in search of a distributor since shooting wrapped in 2012.  This kind of long wait is often a sign that something’s amiss, and Serena bears tell-tale marks of a troubled production.  No less than three editors are credited, and yet the pacing is still choppy.  In the opening stages particularly, the film seems both rushed and repetitive, as George and Serena’s courtship is dispensed with in a montage that makes perplexingly disorganised use of fades to and from black.  Several crucial players, including Ana Ularu, as the mother of George’s baby, languish on the edge of the action until they are pressed into service by the plot, while a key development involves the murder of a character so peripheral she never actually appears on screen.  Rhys Ifans’ role as Serena’s henchman is particularly perplexing, especially when his apparently quasi-supernatural character is foregrounded towards the end.

 

Jut-jawed and cobalt-stared, Cooper never gets to grips with the inner weakness of his deeply unsympathetic character, and the narrative’s late attempt to give Pemberton the dimensions of a tragic hero – complete with a little half-baked animal symbolism – falls entirely flat.  The eponymous Serena might have been a fine addition to a banner year for sympathetic villainesses – from Angelina Jolie in Maleficent to Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl – but Jennifer Lawrence feels miscast, not least because she seems rather young for a part originally intended for Jolie.  The strikingly naturalistic star of Winter’s Bone has never felt further away than she does here, as we’re treated to a succession of vampy poses and regal glares that might have picked up a cult following were the surroundings not so staid.  Fans of Lawrence’s over-ripe turn in American Hustle (2013) will be pleased to know that she remains among contemporary cinema’s least subtle performers of drunkenness, even resorting to a comical hiccup this time out.  More pressingly, neither she nor Cooper seems particularly at home in the period setting, and their wandering accents – like those of Jones and Ifans – do little to dispel the piecemeal feel of the enterprise.

 

Production designer Richard Bridgland and cinematographer Morten Søborg do sterling work, conjuring an authentic Smokey Mountains feel on sets and locations in Denmark and the Czech Republic.  The landscape shots that bookend the film are particularly striking, evoking an elemental, folkloric quality that the rest of Serena gestures toward, but never effectively captures.

 

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)
110 minutes

Serena is released 24th October 2014

Serena – Official Website

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Palo Alto

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DIR/WRI: Gia Coppola   PRO: Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Sebastian Pardo, Adriana Rotaru   DOP: Autumn Durald  ED: Leo Scott   DES: Sarah Beckum Jamieson   MUS:  Robert Schwartzman, Devonté Hynes   CAST:  Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Chris Messina

 

Directed by Gia Coppola, the latest scion of the Coppola filmmaking dynasty, Palo Alto adapts a handful of short stories by James Franco (who also appears and co-produces) into a loosely-structured narrative about disaffected teenagers in the eponymous Californian region.  Jack Kilmer (son of Val) and Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) play Teddy and April, two teenagers whose nascent attraction is complicated by Teddy’s friendship with the volatile Fred (Nat Wolff) and by April’s affair with her smarmy soccer coach (Franco).  While Coppola’s focus on troubled teenagers carries some echoes of her grandfather Francis’s Rumble Fish (1983), the film most openly quotes her aunt Sofia, with one character’s wall emblazoned with a poster for her 1997 film The Virgin Suicides.

 

This terrain is well trodden, and not only by Coppolas.  While Palo Alto’s dreamy suburban ambience is at times distinguished from that of The Virgin Suicides only by the present day setting, its sexual frankness invokes two collaborations between Larry Clarke and Harmony Korine, 1995’s notorious Kids and 2002’s little-seen Ken Park.  These are certainly interesting poles between which to be suspended, but Palo Alto struggles to rise above the sum of its influences.  Even the easy-on-the-ear score by Robert Schwartzman and Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange) is most notable for the way in which it juggles reference points, almost all of which originate in the ’80s.

 

Coppola scores highest with her two central performances.  As the confused but essentially decent Teddy, Kilmer has a tender, introverted quality reminiscent of a young River Phoenix, most obviously in a hushed fireside confession of love that echoes a similar scene in My Own Private Idaho (1991).  The film belongs, though, to Roberts, who is a revelation as April.  Coppola’s sympathetic exploration of April’s confusion as she edges toward adult life is reminiscent of her aunt’s work with Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst, but Palo Alto works despite this familiarity because Roberts, like Johansson and Dunst, has the kind of mysterious quality that can make somebody else’s boredom and frustration compelling to watch.

 

The same can’t be said for Nat Wolff, saddled with the grating part of Fred, an obnoxious budding sociopath who doesn’t develop much shading, beyond an occasional sulk, as the film unfolds.  Phoned in from the pages of early Bret Easton Ellis, the juvenile Fred exists solely to provide dramatic counterpoint to April and Teddy’s cautious steps towards adulthood.  Nobody even passingly familiar with Franco’s half-baked career as an occasional visual and performance artist will be surprised, either, that Fred’s escalating fury eventually boils over into a stilted monologue about homosexuality.  As heat-seeking gay tourism goes, it’s not quite on the level of Franco’s own Interior. Leather Bar (2013), but if we’re supposed to infer that Fred’s borderline psychosis stems from suppressed desires, there might have been a more nuanced way to get this across than through an artificial speech, delivered apropos of nothing in particular, in a parking lot.

 

Curiously, given its title, Palo Alto does not convey much sense of a particular place or time.  This lack of specificity is both weakness and strength.  While the familiarity of the film’s style and content edges it perilously close to the generic, Coppola’s affinity for the eternal struggles of teenagers gives it a universal quality.  Empathic without being indulgent, and anchored by Roberts’ performance, Palo Alto hints at an intriguing future for Coppola, especially now that her debt of influence is comprehensively paid off.

 

David Turpin

100 minutes

Palo Alto is released 17th October 2014

 

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Northern Soul

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DIR/WRI: Elaine Constantine PRO: Debbie Gray   DOP: Simon Tindall   ED: Stephen Haren DES: Robin Brown CAST: Elliot James Langridge, Josh Whitehouse, Antonia Thomas, Steve Coogan, Christian McKay, Ricky Tomlinson, Lisa Stansfield

Elaine Constantine, a celebrated photographer of British youth culture who first came to prominence with her work for The Face, makes the leap into narrative filmmaking with the functionally titled Northern Soul, a drama set against the backdrop of the soul music craze that swept Northern England in the early 1970s. The leads are relative newcomers Elliot James Langridge and John Whitehouse, who play young friends John and Matt.  Bonded by their dedication to the Northern Soul scene, the duo track down rare soul records, aspire to become DJs, and plot an escape to America.  Most importantly, they go out dancing, first at the local youth club and later at Wigan Casino, a nerve-centre of the Northern Soul subculture.

 

Constantine’s affinity for this moment in British youth culture is apparent throughout the film, and she conjures a persuasive sense of time and place. The dreary Lancashire town from which John and Matt hail is captured to a fault, and the nightclub scenes are as potent as anything in Saturday Night Fever (1977), a clear influence on this film. One particular scene in Wigan Casino achieves a near hypnotic force, as the leads disappear into an amorphous mass of dancers, spellbound by the music. The music choices are excellent throughout, with an early scene putting Edwin Starr’s “Time” to effective use, while Frankie Valli’s taut gem “The Night” is a welcome addition to any soundtrack.

 

Problems arise, though, when Constantine turns her eye away from the Northern Soul scene in general and onto her specific narrative. Bluntly speaking, there’s nothing to it.  Each story beat in the forging of John and Matt’s friendship and its eventual disintegration feels heavily telegraphed and predictable as a metronome. This narrative flatness isn’t a problem in the opening scenes, when the potency of the atmosphere is enough to draw us in, but the film unravels when it takes a turn into melodrama that requires us to invest in the thinly drawn characters as more than mere tour-guides to a particular milieu. A final dive into the saccharine feels particularly contrived, as the film’s observational style gives way to an awkward magical realism.

 

Langridge and Whitehouse acquit themselves reasonably, and are equal to the physical demands of their roles. As Angela, the object of John’s unrequited affections, the talented Antonia Thomas is left short-changed, with Constantine apparently even less sure of what to do with her than her tongue-tied hero is. The film’s reluctance to explore how Angela’s individual perspective on Northern Soul might be distinguished by her bi-racial identity and dual nationality represents a missed opportunity to add complexity to an exceedingly linear script. Elsewhere, a slew of well-known faces appear in cameo roles that provide colour but disrupt the verisimilitude, most notably when Steve Coogan pops up in full “Alan Partridge” mode as a repulsive schoolteacher. As John’s mother, singer Lisa Stansfield is given a little more to work with and puts in a creditable showing.

 

David Turpin

16 (See IFCO for details)

101 minutes

Northern Soul is released 17th October 2014

Northern Soul – Official Website

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The Maze Runner

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DIR:  Wes Ball •  WRI:  Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers • PRO:  Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Lee Stollman, Lindsay Williams • DOP:  Enrique Chediak •  ED: Dan Zimmerman •  DES: Marc Fisichella •  MUS:  John Paesano  CAST:  Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Patricia Clarkson

 

Based on a popular novel by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible stream of “young adult” dystopian narratives.  This time, the action takes place in a mysterious “Glade” at the centre of an ever-changing maze, and our cast play a group of boys (plus one girl) who find themselves mysteriously deposited there with no memory of their pasts.  The arrival of one particular boy, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), sparks unrest in the Glade, and eventually leads to a posse making a break for freedom, while trying to evade the creepy part-mechanical monsters that police the maze.  Like many of its precursors – from the well-regarded Hunger Games to last spring’s crushingly dull DivergentThe Maze Runner deals with young people rebelling against systems over which they are denied control, and it’s perhaps this eminently relatable theme that has attracted viewers to dystopian narratives, while other attempts at post-Twilight “young adult” franchises, such as Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (both 2013), have floundered.

 

The Maze Runner is more straightforwardly action-oriented than most of its predecessors, and director Wes Ball (making his feature debut after beginning his career in visual effects) handles the set-pieces with economy and poise.  A number of scenes involving characters negotiating the shifting maze are genuinely tense, although as the maze’s geography has been mapped before we enter the story, the thrills come mainly from the brute force of its transformations rather than the more cerebral excitement of solving its mysteries.  On the topic of brute force, The Maze Runner is also surprisingly violent for a film aimed principally at a young audience, particularly when it enters the final stretch, as infighting and monster attacks whittle down the cast.

 

As Thomas, Dylan O’Brien gives a committed performance, carrying the bulk of the narrative.  Save for some rather ham-fisted exposition delivered by a wasted Patricia Clarkson, the film hews closely to Thomas’s perspective, and he makes for an appealing hero.  Of the other boys, Will Poulter makes the strongest impression as the antagonistic Gally, his brow permanently furrowed in indignation.  Kaya Scodelario, after an interesting if truncated turn in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011), feels a little bit beyond the tag-along role she plays here.  As Teresa, the only girl to be deposited in the Glade, she arrives half-way through the action and is given little to do.  Presumably, her character has a more significant role to play in subsequent instalments.

 

Those subsequent instalments are the name of the game here, because The Maze Runner, like so many other teen-oriented science-fiction opuses, eventually devolves into a trailer for prospective sequels.  It’s a shame that the film signs off with a craven bit of franchise speculation because, while the late twists leave plenty of questions hanging, they also cancel out many of the distinguishing features of the narrative up to this point.  Still, for what it is, the film mostly works.  The cast are game, the action sequences are effective, and the monsters are scary.   Viewers could do a lot worse in this subgenre, and they may find themselves hoping The Maze Runner proves to be more of a Hunger Games than a Mortal Instruments at the box office.

 

David Turpin

12A (See IFCO for details)

113 minutes

The Maze Runner is released 10th October 2014

The Maze Runner  – Official Website

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Dolphin Tale 2

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DIR/WRI: Charles Martin Smith • PRO: Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Steven P. Wegner • DOP: Daryn Okada • ED: Harvey Rosenstock • DES: David J. Bomba •  MUS: Rachel Portman • CAST: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff

Gentle, sincere, and well-intentioned to a fault, Dolphin Tale was a modest box-office hit in 2011, capturing family audiences with the (mostly) true story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin rehabilitated at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium after losing her tail in a crab trap. Dolphin Tale 2 now offers more of the same, with the added comfort of familiarity, continuing the story as Winter’s keepers attempt to find her a suitable companion and enable her to remain at Clearwater. If this sounds exceedingly mild, that’s because it is. In fact, one of the problems of Dolphin Tale 2 is that its narrative is simply not as gripping as its predecessor’s, which had the development of Winter’s prosthetic tale as a genuinely suspenseful through-line. By contrast, Dolphin Tale 2 is more diffuse, and somewhat lacking in urgency, with Winter’s prospective companion, the juvenile Hope, not appearing until the film’s second half.

In addition to writer/director Charles Martin Smith, almost all the cast of the first instalment return, although the adult performers are given little to do, with Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman and especially Kris Kristofferson given just a handful of scenes apiece. As the teenagers who care for Winter, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff acquit themselves earnestly, although as “human interest” they are necessarily secondary to the film’s main attraction. The dry land action, of which there is too much, also presumes a familiarity with the first film that may leave some younger viewers confused.

The film’s shortcomings as drama are compensated for by the animal footage. Winter (playing herself) is an affecting presence both with and without her prosthesis, while Hope – who is not visibly handicapped but will spend her life in captivity as a result of early separation from her mother – is equally appealing. Also featured are a boisterous pelican sure to charm children, and a remarkably beautiful sea turtle, named “Mavis”, whose eventual release into the wild provides the film’s sole instance of animal action within a natural habitat. Elsewhere, as the film is concerned exclusively with animals in captivity, the most arresting footage is that showing close-quarters interaction between dolphins and humans. Winter and Hope’s early encounters are fascinating to behold, despite being staged, while an early scene between Winter and Bethany Hamilton (a surfing champion who lost an arm to a shark, and here appears playing herself) intriguingly blurs the boundary between documentary and fiction feature, without labouring the parallels between the performers. In fact, the greatest appeal of Dolphin Tale 2 lies in its refusal to anthropomorphise the dolphins. We are repeatedly reminded that they are wild animals, and the limitations of their lives in captivity are not shied away from.

Refreshingly even-paced, Dolphin Tale 2 credits its young audience with a degree of intelligence not always catered to by contemporary children’s entertainment. Its educational content is smoothly integrated, and is certain to spark the interest of budding marine biologists, while the moral lessons about responsibility and perseverance are not heavy-handed and feel genuinely earned. A final montage of documentary footage showing Clearwater’s real-life work with disabled children and war veterans makes for an affecting close, though it is somewhat marred by a blaring soundtrack accompaniment that tries rather too hard to force us into the air to clap our flippers.

David Turpin

G (See IFCO for details)

86 minutes

Dolphin Tale 2 is released 3rd October 2014

Dolphin’s Tale 2 – Official Website

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztM-ajPfcfs

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