Review: A Royal Night Out

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DIR: Julian Jarrold • WRI: Trevor De Silva, Kevin Hood • PRO: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae • DOP: Christophe Beaucarne • ED: Luke Dunkley • DES: Laurence Dorman • MUS: Sarah Gadon, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett

A Royal Night Out is the latest film from Julian Jarrold, and continues his tradition of making some of the most quintessentially British films to hit a cinema. His first huge success was Kinky Boots, a film about British drag queens and shoemakers which dealt with the issue of Britain’s long-standing textile industry losing out to foreign competition, then there was Brideshead revisited, another story about a commoner and a member of the elite upper-classes falling in love, because apparently we can’t get enough of those. Then there was Becoming Jane, another cliché love story, this one about a posh English girl and an Irishman, another cliché among British love stories. And now we have his latest entry, this being the true story of V.E. night, when the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, went for a night out, ditched their chaperones, got lost, and had a series of misadventures involving whorehouses, alcohol, a quest that amounts to running around London looking for princess Margaret, and an ensemble of unique, and often clichéd characters.

This cliché is a problem that pervades a lot of this film. Firstly, there’s the princesses themselves – Elizabeth being the smart, prim, proper one, the “straight man” if you will, whereas Margaret is here to get drunk, have a good time, and is mostly clueless about everything that’s going on around her, i.e. she’s the comic sidekick, the Jack Sparrow to Elizabeth’s Will Turner. Then of course there’s Rupert Everett and Emily Watson as the disapproving parent-figures, and  there’s up-and-coming Irish actor Jack Reynor as Jack, the grumpy, brooding soldier with a secret heart of gold. Finally, there’s Captain Pryce and Lieutenant Burridge, the two drunken, inept chaperones who, to their credit, do manage to provide a few laughs. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a fish-out-of water movie, one of the oldest genres in Hollywood.

On top of that, this film also keeps banging you over the head with the message that the royal family are just like you and I, despite the extravagant wealth, fame etc., and to that end the screenplay, easily the film’s biggest weakness, keeps contriving things for Jack and Elizabeth to have in common in an attempt to have a “star-crossed lovers” element to the story – which brings me to my biggest criticism of this film, the script. The dialogue is mediocre, and despite having watched it a few days ago, I can’t remember a single line, always a sign of poor scripting. As well as this, the characters feel more like archetypes than actual 3-dimensional human beings, and the over-arching plot sinks to one of the laziest forms of story-telling, one I like to refer to as fashionably late syndrome, wherein the characters are given a single objective that never changes or alters, and every time they get to where that objective is, its moved on to a different area. You remember those old Super Mario games wherein you’d storm a palace, beat king Koopa, and then be told “sorry, but our princess is in another castle”? Same deal here.

However, despite some big failings by the script, there are some plus points. Julian Jarrold excels at giving this film a brisk, frantic pace, in fact he does it well enough that you don’t even notice the scripts numerous problems until you reflect upon it later on. Leads Jack Reynor and Sarah Gadon, both up-and coming actors, prove their skill yet again and have quite an appealing chemistry, which also helps to make up for the script’s deficiencies. As well as that, the sound design courtesy of Andy Kennedy is also top-notch, adding extremely well to crowd scenes that rely too much on shaky cam.

If you like your adventure romps, and can keep things like poor scripting and character development from detracting from your enjoyment, you’ll enjoy this. However, if you like better scripts with more cohesive storylines, and if no amount of good direction or acting can make up for a lack of the aforementioned, you should probably avoid this film.

Darren Beattie

12A (See IFCO for details)

96 minutes
A Royal Night Out is released 15th May 2015

 

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Testament of Youth

 

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DIR: James Kent • WRI: Juliette Towhidi • PRO: Rosie Alison, David Heyman • DOP: Rob Hardy • ED: Lucia Zucchetti • DES: Jon Henson • MUS: Max Richter • CAST: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Taron Egerton

 

 

Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth served as a searing and intensely moving account about the emotional scars World War I left on an entire generation. James Kent’s film adaptation of said memoir serves as a visually stunning but at times sludgy representation of its source material. Though not lacking in talent or feeling, the film suffers from an uneven distribution of focus and relies too much on its central romance to wrangle the viewer’s emotions.

We begin on Armistice Day 1918 as our protagonist, Vera, wanders aimlessly through the celebrating crowds before flashing back four years prior to the summer of 1914, when war was just over the horizon. A highly intelligent young woman, Vera dreams, not of marriage, but of studying in Oxford and becoming a professional writer cos’ she’s a strong independent woman who don’t need no man! OK, snarkiness aside, Swedish new-comer Alicia Vikander does make for a compelling and believable (if, yes, slightly typical) heroine. There are few films focused on the women who kept things running behind the scenes during wartime and it undoubtedly makes for a refreshing change. The Brittain’s family home settled in the heart of Derbyshire makes for a lush and dream-like setting. The apple of Vera’s eye is her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton), whose bookish school friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) makes a deep impression on our protagonist. Drawn together by their mutual love of poetry, Vera and Roland’s relationship blossoms from one of affection to true love.

The war, of course, is always at the forefront of the film, yet Kent never bogs down the viewers with too many facts, giving us just enough information so we know where we are at any given moment. It’s a bitter sweet experience watching this idealistic young couple’s relationship evolve as we know the devastation that inevitably awaits them. The young men who frolic and laugh together on screen in the film’s opening moments will soon be marching to their deaths in France. As a result, there’s a lingering poignancy to every frame, an extra layer of meaning behind each scene. Though the film focuses mainly on those these young men left behind, the impact of their deaths is more intimately felt. For every shot of a wounded soldier lying in the mud there is a shot of a father’s tears or nurse’s blood splattered apron. Needless to say, emotion runs high throughout the duration of the film.

That said, some of this emotion, namely Vera and Roland’s romance, feels acutely overwrought. Both Harington and Vikander deliver solid performances but Kent can’t resist injecting unnecessary soppiness into their relationship with highly stylised sequences and clichés- the heroine longing touching places of her face and body were the hero touched her, close-up shots of a specific part of the love interest’s features, etc. Their relationship does at least feel genuine but the director insists on forcing it down the viewer’s throats. The film’s focus is also divided a little awkwardly: the first half is dedicated entirely to one relationship, the other half to the overall horrors of war and it is the latter that is far more impactful as a piece of cinema. Though moving, the relationship of two individuals simply does not match the agonizing suffering of an entire people. Kent pays homage to many of cinema’s greatest war epics in a number of carefully chosen shots, deciding to capture the aftermath of the battles rather than the battles themselves. There’s no ‘us vs. them’ dynamic here; we feel as much for the German soldiers as we do for the British ones, giving the film a more humanistic feel.

There’s an echoey sense of loss about the First World War that still reverberates to this day; a sense of loss for the unrealised potential of the young men who gave their lives and for mothers, fathers, wives, and friends who were left in the aftermath. It’s this undefinable pang of sadness that Testament of Youth manages to encapsulate so well. You just have to sit through forty minutes of romantic slush to get to that.

Ellen Murray

12A (See IFCO for details)
129 minutes.
Testament of Youth
is released 16th January 2015.

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Belle

Belle Movie Stills

DIR: Amma Asante • WRI: Misan Sagay • PRO: Damian Jones • ED: Victoria Boydell, Pia Di Ciaula  • DOP: Ben Smithard • DES: Simon Bowles • MUS: Rachel Portman • CAST: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson

The inspiration for director Amma Asante’s fascinating period costumed drama, Belle, came from quite an unusual place – in Scone Palace at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, there hangs a painting of two young women from the 18th century. One of the women is pale-skinned and blue-eyed, and tenderly rests her arm on the black woman standing next to her, who has her dark black hair wrapped in a turban and sports a mischievous grin. It was this painting’s depiction of the young black woman that ultimately galvanised writer Misan Sagay to delve into the historical records of the time and unearth the story surrounding her. The illegitimate child of a black slave and a Royal Navy captain (Matthew Goode), Dido Belle Lindsay was sent to live with her great-uncle, the Lord of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, in the safe and protected environment of Kenwood House in Hampstead, spared from an underprivileged and poverty-stricken upbringing, and raised as an aristocrat along with the other girl in the painting, her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).

And so, in amongst the lavishly decorated corridors adorned with opulent portraits, stately dining rooms lit by candlelight, wide open living areas, and the lush, aesthetically pleasing gardens is where Dido resides as part of the family, under the watchful eye of Lord and Lady Mansfield. However, even though she is certainly treated as an equal in the estate, Dido lives in a Georgian England where the economy is still very much dependant on the slave trade, where less than a third of the black population is free, and where her mere presence at the after-dinner recitals in her own home can cause looks of shock and bewilderment from the distinguished guests.

Even though Lord and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) treat her as if she were one of their own, they do not allow her to eat with her family when they are hosting; the world outside the estate still looks upon the black population as second-class citizens, or as the bigoted James Ashford (Tom Felton playing a Georgian Draco Malfoy), one of the potential suitors to Elizabeth puts it, “rare and exotic”. Dido duly obliges to the wishes of her guardians and maintains a stiff upper lip. Traditions must be honoured, unwritten rules must be abided, and emotions must be suppressed.

The conventional yet entertaining Jane Austen elements soon come into play, with both Dido and Elizabeth now old enough to court potential suitors who will hopefully be able to provide not only financial stability, but also the desired social status of being married to a man of prestige within the British aristocracy. Neither girl wants to end up like Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton providing comic relief), Lord Mansfield’s unmarried sister. In a surprising turn of events however, it’s revealed that Dido is the heiress to a large fortune and is thus elevated to unprecedented heights in the British aristocracy. Upon learning of her new found fortune, the arrogant Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), the mother of potential suitors to the Mansfield girls, quickly puts her deep-seated racism and antipathy towards the “rare and exotic” to one side and allows her son, Oliver Ashford, to take Dido’s hand in marriage. No matter what the colour of your skin is, or your given class, money is by far the most influential factor when it comes to choosing a life partner.

It’s only when Dido meets the dashing young lawyer, John Davinier (the film’s ‘Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’ relationship), who is under the tutelage of her great-uncle, that she begins to adopt revolutionary inclinations and instils in her a sense of pride towards her heritage. Lord Mansfield is also presiding over a case that could ultimately bring the English slave trade to its knees: the Zong massacre of 1781 in which 142 African slaves were thrown from a ship bound for Jamaica so the crew could claim insurance on their supposed cargo. Dido begins to question the regressive social conventions, the strict formalities, and her place in the aristocracy as a woman of mixed race (“How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low in rank to dine with my family?”).

One of the most rewarding aspects of the film is witnessing Dido’s transformation from a shy, subservient, and downtrodden young woman into a confident and determined activist, which is in part due to actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who deserves universal recognition for her portrayal of the titular heroine. Even though very little is actually known about the historical figure of Dido Belle, Mbatha-Raw successfully brings the character to life, delivering a dignified and enthralling performance of a young woman who is entangled within the politics of race, gender, and class of 18th century England.

As acting Lord Chief Justice and as a man of strict principles, Lord Mansfield (a towering performance by the great Tom Wilkinson) is obligated to uphold the law and to enforce the rules in his courtroom, yet his love for Dido forces him to re-evaluate his position on the significant case. We are treated to passionate and rousing speeches about the legitimacy of the law from Mansfield, and then speeches from Devinier (Sam Reid) and Dido about equality and the abhorrence of slavery, which ultimately builds up to the historical courtroom climax.

The film’s period setting will certainly not appeal to every viewer, and at times, the film suffers from bouts of mediocrity. As well as that, the Austenesque elements feel uninspired and formulaic, and the film unfortunately often veers into territory one would usually associate with the average Hollywood romantic comedy. Asante’s direction and shooting style remains safe: competent yet nothing special. Ultimately, it’s the film’s conventionalities that keep it from greatness. But in spite of that, however, Belle, just like Steve McQueen’s seminal 12 Years a Slave, is an extremely important film in forming our perception of the past and in giving us an insight into the absolute horrors of slavery. In spite of the film’s shortcomings, Asante and Sagay have succeeded in bringing such a fascinating and complex subject from the darker periods of England’s history to light.

Gearoid Gilmore

PG (See IFCO for details)
104 mins

Belle is released on 13th June 2014

Belle  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Book Thief

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DIR: Brian Percival • WRI: Michael Petroni • Ryan Engle PRO: Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt • DOP: Florian Ballhaus • ED: John Wilson • MUS: John Williams • DES: Alec Hammond • CAST: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson

Adaptations run the gauntlet from faithful recreations to loose inspiration, and can get stuck in the quagmire of original fan opinion and input.  While Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief may not have the fanatical following of some novelistic journeys it is nonetheless a beloved book that touched many readers’ hearts on its publication in 2005.  It was also a work that lent itself to a filmic version: narrated by Death, addressing Nazi occupation, stellar protagonists with human foibles…it was a movie waiting to happen.  Now that it has arrived to cinema it suffers somewhat from the childhood-versus-Nazi effect, but successfully brings the book’s playful dalliance with tragedy onscreen.

 

Director Brian Percival takes a step away from comfortable television territory, but doesn’t stray too far from his Downton Abbey roots in the set-up of the story, with candle-lit conversations and sweeping outdoor shots.  Roger Allam’s dulcet Death introduces us to the story as we dip dramatically through clouds to find ourselves on a train with Liesel, a young girl making her way to a new family with her already-absent broken mother.  As the human who fascinates Death, the living soul that distracts him from his dour job of leading others from the world, the casting of Liesel was hugely important – and after a considerable search which gave the role its deserved significance, Sophie Nélisse was found.  A 13-year old French-Canadian actress, Sophie imbues Liesel with all the heart and feeling this staggeringly wise little girl needed to be taken from pages to screen.  And there lies the saving grace of the movie – yes, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are picture-perfect as her foster parents, one sunshine-light and the other ‘cloaked in thunder’, but it is Sophie who hypnotically draws the eye in every scene, imbuing the movie with such depth of feeling it’s impossible to look away.  Her journey through reading, beginning with a gravedigger’s manual and then consuming tales with a voracious appetite, shows the power of words in dealing with horrific reality.

 

Much like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, this is a Nazi-light version of the Second World War, where slight nods are made to concentration camps and Hitler, but the majority is as seen through a child’s eyes – peripheral and mostly ignorable.  This makes The Book Thief a good introduction to German experiences of the War for school-aged children, and certainly the film follows that line through Liesel’s friendship with both young Rudy (Nico Liersch) and older Max (Ben Schnetzer).  Max is a Jewish acquaintance who seeks refuge in their cellar, putting the family in danger but opening Liesel up to the possibilities of peaceful revolt – his influence from the book is underplayed in the film, but the overall effect on Liesel is much the same.  Rudy is another perfect casting choice – though perhaps it is just that children will always be more interesting than adults in situations like these.  His startling Aryan features look almost terrifying when dressed in Nazi colours, but his childishness and light shine through at every moment – giving the scenes where he and Liesel talk and play much beauty and force.

 

While by no means a fantastic film, it is a very enjoyable trip into a pretty basic story.  What hoists it above the parapet is the performances and, of course, John Williams’ didactic score which leads you from giddiness to tears at the flick of an experienced baton.  A family movie overall, it is a nice opening for children to the lives of those their own age throughout Nazi occupation and, while avoiding the more horrible truths of that time, it provides a springboard for further conversation on the eventual fate of so many.  Sometimes hovering too much on cliché, The Book Thief is nonetheless a simple tale told well, a tragic family story brought from ink to screen with excellent performances by its beautiful cast.

 

Sarah Griffin

12A (See IFCO for details)
130  mins

The Book Thief is released on 28th February 2014

The Book Thief – Official Website

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Cinema Review: War Horse

I want to shower you with sugar lumps, and ride you over fences

DIR: Steven Spielberg • WRI: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis • PRO: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg • DOP: Janusz Kaminski • ED: Michael Kahn • DES: Rick Carter • Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson

His first live-action movie since the much-derided Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Spielberg returns with what feels like yet another Best Of Spielberg Compilation, resting on his ability to film schmaltz against an epic background like no other. After dipping his toes in the new waters of 3D, mo-cap and animation with Tintin just a few months ago, it’s disappointing that Spielberg hasn’t brought any of that hunger for experimentation to this project. But still, Spielberg on his worst day is better than what 99% of directors could ever hope to achieve on their best.

Based on the 1982 children’s book, and then the 2007 stage hit, War Horse tells the story of Joey, the horse owned by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and their friendship through the trials of potential poverty and then the tribulations of Joey getting sold to the army and having to survive World War I. The film follows Joey through his list of different owners (an English Staff Sergeant, a French girl, a German foot-soldier, etc.), and cuts back occasionally to Albert on his farm to remind us that Albert still misses Joey. Like, a lot.

The first 20 minutes or so features some of the most mawkish, cheesiest moments in modern cinema, and is quite difficult to endure. But once Joey heads off to war, the film finds it’s firm footing, and the memorable moments come quick and fast, but still interspersed with the odd scene of schmaltz (at one point it seems the entire of World War I comes to a halt just so everyone can help Joey out of a fence he’s stuck in).

A who’s who of great British actors (Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan) all do well with what they’re given, which more often than not isn’t very much, and lead actor Irvine is fine, if a bit too Abercrombie & Fitch looking for the part. But this movie is owned by Joey The Horse. That magnificent animal will steal, and then break, your heart. You have been warned.

Rory Cashin

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
War Horse is released on 13th January 2012

War Horse – Official Website

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Oranges and Sunshine

Oranges and Sunshine

DIR: Jim Loach • WRI: Rona Munro • PRO: Camilla Bray, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman • DOP: Denson Baker • ED: Dany Cooper • DES: Melinda Doring • CAST: Hugo Weaving, Emily Watson, David Wenham

Oranges and Sunshine comes from a very rare breed of movies. Movies that draw you in and hold you in their clutches, whilst educating you about the world you thought you knew, are hard to come by. When we do find them, it’s often hard to survive the two hours. This is where Oranges and Sunshine makes its departure. Like the victims it introduces, this movie is no ‘victim’, and audiences will be pleasantly surprised by their ability to laugh in the face of what is a harrowing story.

The film is based on the true story of Margaret Humphries, an unassuming social worker and family woman who inadvertently stumbles upon the untold story of child migrants, who, having been told their parents had died, were piled into massive ships and brought to Australia where they endured hard work and often abuse. When Humphries comes across one such migrant’s mother, still alive and well, having been told her daughter was safely adopted, the process of single-handedly reuniting these families begins to utterly consume her life.

Emily Watson effortlessly plays Humphries, masterfully navigating her home and working lives and emotionally engaging with a character who willingly takes the weight of two worlds onto her shoulders. Watson breathes humour and panic into her character in equal measure to create the complex author of Empty Cradles, from which the movie takes its lead. Throughout Watson’s performance, it’s easy to see what drew the film’s creators to her story in particular. Hugo Weaving is another incredible addition to a wonderful cast, playing Jack, one of the first child migrants Margaret meets. Jack is one of the most emotionally complex characters we meet, and Weaving gives one of his finest performances as every cell in his character is effortlessly believable.

Oranges and Sunshine is an emotional rollercoaster, bringing its audience through crushing lows, and giggling highs. Visually, it is a feast. Having been filmed between the UK and Australia, one might assume a slight fissure between the two, but each location plays upon the emotions of the characters. Somehow, Australia is visually scorching, whilst Nottingham jumps between gloomy and safely pleasant, no mean feat for a crew hopping on and off long-distance flights.

It is a human tale which interrogates the very nature of identity and asks one question. If our identities are shattered around us for our entire lives, what do we as adults do when we are presented with our lost identities later in life? Director Jim Loach’s television and documentary background is evident throughout as the story never slips through the cracks into cheesy flashbacks, remaining forever in the moment. His true genius is in creating the cinematic aspects of an incredibly internal story. There are few watchable films which give us this kind of interior view of our heroine, and, for me, that was incredibly refreshing.

Go see Oranges and Sunshine because there’s a world of injustices out there that we know nothing about. Go because there are millions of voices wishing to be heard, and this gives voice to just a couple. Go because it is at its core a human story. See it because Hugo Weaving and Emily Watson put on stellar performances, or go simply because you like the popcorn, whatever you do, just don’t miss out on it.

Ciara O’Brien

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Oranges and Sunshine
is released on 1st April 2011

Oranges and Sunshine – Official Website

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUvbnVXqp_8[/youtube]

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Cold Souls

Cold Souls

DIR: Sophie Barthes • WRI: Sophie Barthes • PRO: Daniel Carey, Elizabeth Giamatti, Paul S. Mezey, Andrij Parekh, Jeremy Kipp Walker • DOP: Andrij Parekh • ED: Andrew Mondshein • DES: Beth Mickle • CAST: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, David Strathairn

There is a current trend in Hollywood for ‘Kaufman-esque’ type films, this being screenplays based on strange fictionalized ‘facts’ that deal with metaphysical matters in a quirky manner – Kaufman having provided us with Adaption, Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, all of which blur the lines between physical reality and mental surreality.

Stranger Than Fiction recently found itself being tagged as such, and now along comes the much-lauded Cold Souls – another ‘Kaufman-esque’ film.

Cold Souls posits a world in which it is possible for a person to have their soul extracted and replaced with another one. The company providing this service stores anonymous souls for those wishing to relieve themselves of the burden of their own. One such soul punter is Paul Giamatti, who, in true Kaufmann style, plays himself, an actor currently starring in a theatrical production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Giamatti, struggling with the role and going through a difficult period in his life, decides to give the soul swap a try, which of course goes horribly wrong.

Giamatti’s soul gets mixed up in a soul trafficking enterprise and, as a result, finds its way to Russia, where it has been transplanted into the body of a Russian soap actress. Giamatti sets off in pursuit.

Now, obviously this film has been influenced by Kaufman’s work; but to what extent does influence become crafty inventive plagiarism? Cold Souls makes a magpie of director Barthes as she steals Kaufman’s silver spoon. Unfortunately, with Cold Souls, she makes a wooden spoon of it. Whereas Kaufman’s ontological output plays clever games, wielding the dice of existential angst and absurdist humour, Cold Souls lacks a sense of itself and fails to deal with its initial intriguing premise.

The writer/director Sophie Barthes has re-fashioned a quirky film that sounds more interesting than it actually is. It comes across like the result of a dinner-party conversation fuelled by wine and ‘what if…’ conversations, after philosophy 101 evening classes. The film could have been much better had the resulting plot been abandoned and the original idea fleshed out and exploited more. Metaphysics is ripe for humour! Cue Woody Allen joke…

On the plus side – at least Barthes has made a film that gets a mainstream cinema release which extends beyond the usual dumbed-down, teenage-marketed manure that fills our screens. And of course, it’s always fun to watch Paul Giamatti; and he has a couple of scenes that allow his manic glazed look to get some laughs. But the novelty of the premise that lies behind the film rapidly runs out of steam before the movie even reaches halfway. Not as clever or as funny as it thinks it is, Cold Souls is more damp squib. Still though, better than two-thirds of the repugnant dross showing at the omniplex.

Steven Galvin
(See biog here)

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Cold Souls
is released on 13 Nov 2009

Cold Souls – Official Website

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