The Book Of Life (2014)

The Book of LifePromising a secret tour of her museum, Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) takes a small group of school children to a hidden chamber where she recounts a story from Mexican lore. Years ago in the town of San Angel, two childhood friends were vying for the affections of a young girl called María (Zoe Saldana). Monolo (Diego Luna), a musician from a family of bullfighters, attempts to win her over with music, while Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the orphaned son of the town’s late hero, uses his physical prowess to impress her. Unbeknownst to them, however, their efforts are being overseen by two of the country’s ruling deities — La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who reigns in the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who watches over the Land of the Forgotten.

A macabre Mexican animation produced by the one and only Guillermo del Toro? It’s certainly a tantalising prospect, but sadly one that debut director Jorge Gutierrez sadly — if perhaps unsurprisingly — fails to realise. And indeed, given the expectations that accompany any del Toro’s production, who could have expected him to? It’s not entirely Guiterrez fault, to be fair, with a banal script, bizarre casting choices and a bonkers soundtrack doing little to improve his chances of success. The dialogue is drab, the Mexican accents are inconsistent and every time Monolo picks up his guitar the film grinds to a halt while he launches into a completely incongruous rendition of Radiohead’s Creep.

It was, frankly, never going to work. Not only does the audience have three sets of characters to contend with, but they must first come to terms with a foreign belief system with which most will be completely unfamiliar. Throw in the fact that the visual style changes between one layer of storytelling and the next and you reach a level of narrative complexity that will likely have parents struggling to keep up, never mind their children. Seriously, it’s a story within a story about a world within a world that features characters pretending to be other characters in order to…settle a wager. At one point Monolo — dead, but ‘living’ in the Land of the Remembered — has to journey to the Cave of Souls to ask The Candle Maker (?) to transport him to the Land of the Forgotten so that he might then fight a giant bull and return to San Angel to stop a bandit from stealing a magic medal. I mean, what?

Thankfully, while the animation of the school children might at first seem a little crude, the rest of the film boasts some real visual flair. Styled on traditional wooden toys, the residents of San Angel are well crafted and beautifully animated — the residents of the Land of the Remembered even more so. What’s more, the film has a wonderful energy which means that while you’re not always entirely sure what’s going on it hardly matters, because it’s a joy to watch regardless. Sadly though, for all its exotic splendour, and despite the overwrought madness of the various subplots, The Book Of Life is actually a fairly staid story about essentially stock characters. Much is made of María being a different kind of heroine, a modern and independent woman who refuses to be controlled by the men in her life, but rather than round out her character the film simply sidelines her until a damsel in distress is needed for the final act.

Originally in development at DreamWorks Animation where del Toro has long served as a consultant, The Book Of Life was dropped from the studio’s release schedule over creative differences. Produced instead at Reel FX Creative Studios the filmmakers may have had more creative freedom to realise the film that they intended but at the cost of all the resources and seasoned talent that come with such an experienced backer. Guitterez may be better than Free Birds, the smaller studio’s previous effort, but you have to wonder if maybe DreamWorks Animation canned it for a reason.

2-stars

Nightcrawler (2014)

NightcrawlerAn obsessive self-starter who will do just about anything to succeed, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been inadvertently undermining his own career for years thanks to his dogged determination. He sells stolen goods to a variety of business owners, but few are willing to hire such a shameless thief on a more official or permanent basis. When Lou observes a freelance news crew covering a car accident on his way home, however, he may have finally found a business that’s not only open to his underhand tactics but which actively encourages them. Going further than anyone else in order to get the best footage, even if it means breaking the law or betraying his friends, Lou builds a relentless but reliable reputation for himself and his budding company.

Jake Gyllenhaal certainly looks the part. The moment you are introduced to Bloom — a gaunt, greasy-haired and slightly bug-eyed creature — you are repelled by him. It’s not just his manner that is off-putting, his way of talking without listening or his over-familiar demeanor, but something in his very nature. He’s a sociopath, through and through, and his lack of empathy and general apathy clearly go beyond the more acceptable neurodevelopmental abnormalities or compulsive disorders. As with everything else, Bloom learns about journalism through the prism of the internet, but it is an incomplete education that prioritises efficacy over ethics and is immediately twisted to suit his needs.

It’s an admirable performance, intense and intelligent, but not a particularly engaging one. Bloom isn’t conflicted in the slightest, which makes his character seem prosaic and predictable. This wouldn’t be such a problem if there was an external source of conflict, but any resistance to Bloom’s progress is superficial and ultimately shortlived. Once you have Bloom mapped out you inevitably look elsewhere for stimulus, and to begin with Rene Russo (and later Riz Ahmed’s apprentice Rick) seems to offer a glimmer of hope, of humanity, of emotional complexity. Both do good work — Russo in particular is electric in the editing suit — but ultimately they prove helpless in the face of Bloom’s manipulations and machinations. There is no tension in Nightcrawler, nothing at stake and nobody to support, and for a film posing as a thriller that is a real issue.

It’s a far cry from The Bang Bang Club, anyway, Steven Silver’s underestimated account of photojournalists in South Africa during the nation’s Apartheid. That film — based on real events — sought to explore the role of journalist on the battlefield, the impact of their work and the toll that it took on their health and relationships. By contrast, all Nightcrawler really has to say is that news crews and their editors are invariably ruthless, devious and unscrupulous — unrepentently so — and it seems woefully simplistic as a result. There’s some style — particularly in a car chase that takes place in the third act — but no substance whatsoever. Having built no momentum and failed to establish a compelling character arc, director Dan Gilroy doesn’t seem to know how to conclude his movie — so he just chooses to end it arbitrarily after the film’s only real set piece.

Nightcrawler should be shocking, and you get the impression that Gilroy does indeed intend to make a point, but as unsettling and occasionally uncomfortable as Gyllenhaal’s performance may be the fact that nobody onscreen seems the slightest bit concerned with his attitudes or actions somewhat lessens the impact. This isn’t drama; it’s a diatribe. And a long one at that.

3-Stars

Horns (2014)

Horns26-year-old Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is having a hard time convincing the local community that he did not rape and murder his beloved girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), a task made all the more difficult by the pair of demonic horns that have recently grown out of his temples. Worryingly for Ig, nobody seems particularly surprised to see them, and rather than provoking fear they have the unexpected effect of prompting seemingly uncontrollable outbursts of honesty. At first he is taken aback by everyone’s candour, and shies away from encounters with friends and family for fear of finding out what they truly think of him, but eventually he begins to realise the full potential of his newfound abilities and resolves to use them to find the true perpetrator and finally clear his name once and for all.

Adapted by Joe Hill’s cult novel of the same name, Alexandre Aja’s Horns isn’t the easiest sell. Part crime thriller, part supernatural romance and part Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, it doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and runs the risk of being not very much at all. It’s rated 15, and rightfully so, but the film never feel as though Aja is making the most of the higher certificate. Supernaturally, the film seems similarly underdeveloped: it’s never exactly clear what the full extent — or indeed the implication — of Ig’s abilities are, while theologically the film and its themes are almost incoherent. In fact, as with The Woman In Black, it works best as a Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, clearly demonstrating just how far the actor has come since his Hogwarts days — even if he remains a pretty unconvincing crier.

Sadly, the rest of the cast isn’t quite as noteworthy. It’s a strange ensemble, unusually lacking in big names and familiar faces. Heather Graham pops up in a small role, but as unexpected and delightful as her cameo is it doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, support comes from Max Minghella as Ig’s best friend and Joe Anderson as his older brother — both of whom may well have had a hand in Merrin’s untimely death. However, while Hill’s book spent arguably too much time exploring the group’s school days Aja’s film essentially glazes over it, meaning that their inter-relationships aren’t nearly as fleshed out as they need to be. Anyone familiar with Juno Temple’s tendency to be the best thing in otherwise unremarkable movies might reasonably expect Merrin to be the exception here, but unusually for the actress her character makes almost no impression whatsoever. She simply isn’t given enough to do.

Aja disappoints too, with an adaptation that doesn’t quite do Hill’s novel the justice it deserves. It’s a funny book, and yet despite the precedent set with his 2010 Piranha reboot the director sadly fails to capture, let alone develop, its sense of humour. Like Piranha, meanwhile, it struggles with what is clearly an insufficient budget. The horns themselves look fine, as does much of the prosthetic work, but whenever CGI is used the effects are nowhere near as convincing. Even the tree house used by Ig and Merrin looks fake, somewhat undermining the (effects-heavy) finale. In contrast, the location used for the town’s timber chute has been beautifully realised and is really quite stunning. Every scene set in its shadow feels grander and more epic, lending one particular set piece more weight and scale than any other.

Ultimately, Horns is flawed but still reasonably good fun. If you’ve already seen The Babadook, and don’t really want to take a chance on Ouija, then it’s a perfectly respectable choice of Halloween film.

2.5-Stars

Fury (2014)

FuryIt’s 1945, and after years of fighting across Europe and beyond the Allies are preparing for their final push into Nazi Germany. Despite being a typist who has never been inside a tank before, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is ordered to join 66th Armored Regiment, 2nd Armored Division as an assistant driver on Fury, an M4A3E8 Sherman tank under the command of Staff Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt). His new comrades — Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal) and Trini Garcia (Michael Peña) — have served together for years, and are initially reluctant to entrust their lives to an administrator who refuses fight alongside them. When a landmine leaves them stranded and alone at a German crossroads, however, they have no other choice but to put their differences aside and work together.

Few historical events receive quite as much attention as the Second World War; perhaps there is just something about Adolf Hitler and his totalitarian tyranny that’s unusually cinematic, but what’s truly remarkable is how filmmakers are still finding new stories to tell. Writer-director David Ayer has not only chosen a relatively novel setting for his film (there aren’t too many tank-set war films out there) but he has populated it with characters that give an equally unusual perspective on the challenges that they face. There is not a hero among them, nor a single named antagonist, just five lost, scared, overwhelmed souls struggling against unimaginable odds and their own human natures.

The cast is outstanding, and even though Peña and Bernthall may have the least to do they still make an enormous impression in their allotted screentime. Much will be made of LaBeouf’s performance, and rightfully so, as he not only distances himself from his earlier roles but eclipses the controversies that have dogged him offscreen with his take on a moustacheod Christian soldier who is duty-bound not only to kill for his country but to pray for those who have fallen. As everyone else celebrates their own survival Swan kneels over the still suffering German casualties to pray for their salvation. While not quite as transformative, Pitt also impresses as SSgt Collier — there may be parallels to his character in Inglorious Basterds, but there are plenty of differences too — and its a shame he and Swan don’t have more scenes together.

Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Logan Lerman, an actor who has already distinguished himself through roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Noah but who here takes his performance to a whole other level. Nobody has ever looked as afraid, as confused, as utterly lost as Norman Ellison upon his introduction in Fury, when he is almost immediately ordered inside the tank to wash away the remains of his predecessor, and things only get worse for the former typist when his reluctance to fight leads indirectly to the death of his commanding officer (Xavier Samuel). As I said, there are no heroes in Ayer’s film and that includes pacifists — there are only human beings, in all their inglory. While Fury might be horrifying and unrelenting — both on the battlefield and at a dinner party that would likely put the Riot Club off their food — it is far from inhuman, and it’s largely thanks to Lerman that you don’t leave the cinema feeling completely and utterly despondent.

Fury isn’t perfect — though it does go some way to realising the true horror of war it isn’t entirely free of cliche or contrivance, particularly in the final act — but it’s still an admiral effort on Ayer’s behalf and quite possibly his most accomplished film to date. There are ghosts in his machine, and they will haunt you for days after the credits — and the tank — have finished rolling.

4-Stars

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014)

AlexanderSick of his seemingly endless run of bad luck, and frustrated by the rest of his family’s can-do attitude and eternal good fortune, Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) uses his birthday to wish that father Ben (Steve Carell), mother Kelly (Jennifer Garner), brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) and sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) might finally know what it feels like to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Unfortunately for the Coopers, the next day is of particular importance for each of them: Ben has his first interview in months, Kelly is organising a high-profile book launch, Anthony has to pass his driving test in order to drive his girlfriend to prom, and Emily makes her debut as Peter Pan in the school play. Anthony thinks nothing of it when his parents oversleep, but as things continue to go wrong he begins to wonder if his wish just might have come true.

When we meet the Coopers they are returning home in a door-less car, shedding bits of bumper as they pull into their drive; Ben is wearing a pirate’s blouse, Anthony is wearing an outdated tuxedo and baby Trevor is dyed green; and as if that’s not enough there is a crocodile stopping them from crossing the threshold. As a teaser it’s not exactly The Hangover, but as far as PG-level anarchy goes it’s suitably intriguing and perfectly silly. Like the very best of Disney’s live-action projects, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is naughty enough to appeal to older children apparently no longer served by the studio’s animated films while still being wholesome enough for the whole family. It even includes well-rounded adult characters who are neither inept, doomed or evil.

Oxenbould makes for a likeable lead, and you can’t help but feel for him as he tries desperately — but always unsuccessfully — to go about his day without getting grass stains on his trousers or chewing-gum in his hair. He loves Australia, he likes a girl and he’s looking forward to his birthday party — he’s just an ordinary kid, not a singer or a sorcerer, and it’s easy to root for him. The real joy, however, is in watching the rest of his family cope with their changing fortunes, as they continue to espouse positivism even as everything collapses around them. As much fun as Carell is in the Anchorman films his true talent lies in his ability to play the straight man, and Ben’s determination and denial just make the pratfalls funnier and funnier. Garner’s great too, maybe the best she’s ever been in a comic role, and you really feel for her as she stubs her toe, finds her car battery exhausted and forced to cycle across town in high heels to try and stop Dick Van Dyke from doing a public reading. It’s ridiculous, yes, but not unbelievable.

The entire cast is on top form, whether it’s Megan Mullaly as Kelly’s Boss or Jennifer Coolidge as Anthony’s driving instructor — two comedienne’s you perhaps wouldn’t associate with the Mickey Mouse Club. Indeed, many of the biggest laughs come out of the relative left-field. You’d expect Anthony to develop a zit before prom or Emily to wake up with a cold on the morning of her play but the film doesn’t stop there: Anthony becomes awkward with his mother after she walks in on him in the shower, breaks up with his girlfriend after she misinterprets an insult meant for Alexander and fails his driving test after answering his phone, while Emily overdoses on cough syrup and — intoxicated — ruins the school play. Again, it’s nothing particularly shocking but thanks to director Miguel Arteta the escalation is perfectly natural and yet still suitably surprising. He’s just as successful at the sentimental stuff, and though there is inevitably a lesson to be learned in the end it’s actually pretty palatable. Nobody’s telling Alexander to be himself; he’s telling them to just suck it up.

How much of this is inherited from Judith Viorst’s book and how much is innovation on Disney’s behalf is difficult to say, but between them they have come up with a nice twist on the traditional “be careful what you wish for” yarn. More Diary of a Wimpy Kid than The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Title is in fact an entertaining, enjoyable, not bad, very good film.

3.5-Stars

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

This Is Where I Leave YouWhen Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) catches his boss (Dax Shepard) in bed with his wife (Abigail Spencer), quits his job at the radio station at which he works and receives a phone call from his sister (Tina Fey) informing him that his father has passed away, he naturally assumes that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. He would be wrong. Upon returning to his family home ahead of the funeral, Judd discovers that despite being an agnostic his father has wished that they observe the Jewish custom of Shiva. Grounded by mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) for seven days of mourning, Judd and siblings Wendy, Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver) spend the week coming to terms with their loss, their lives and each other as childhood friend-turned-rabbi Charles (Ben Schwartz) oversees the ritual.

The latest film from Shawn Levy, This Is Where I Leave You has been adapted from Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name by the author himself, and is the latest in a long line of familial dramas to cast comedy actors. Unfortunately, the film is more Brothers & Sisters than August: Osage County, with the film doing little to distinguish itself from the most unremarkable melodramas. Whereas last year’s Oscar nominee portrayed a family intent on tearing itself apart, Levy’s is a much more traditional tale of reconnection and coming together in the face of tragedy. There is much talk of fragility and unhappiness, but ultimately nothing that can’t be more or less fixed in the space of one hundred minutes.

Aiming presumably for tragicomic, the film falls woefully short as the characters prove too false to be funny. Bateman has never been the best dramatic actor, and while his character should be the audience’s focal point he is too smug to be suitably sympathetic. As with Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine Bateman appears to have signaled his serious intentions by growing a beard, but it isn’t nearly enough to sell his performance. Fey is clearly struggling too, and seems unsure how to deliver lines in an unconsciously earnest manner. She’s saddled with a romantic subplot, which sees Wendy pine for her brain-damaged childhood sweetheart (as played by Timothy Olyphant), that just doesn’t work at all. Everyone else is simply conforming to type, but even safely within familiar territory Fonda, Driver and Connie Britton as Driver’s girlfriend fail to make their characters interesting.

While many of the film’s developments ultimately fall flat, there is the occasional flourish. The family’s relentless teasing of Schwartz’s character (nicknamed Boner since childhood) never fails to raise an admittedly modest smile, while Rose Byrne is perfectly watchable as Penny Moore, who had a crush on Judd when they were at school and has never really left town. There is even the occasional show of wit in the Altman residence, usually when the family are lined up for Shiva or when Wendy’s son “goes potty” in the middle of an argument. Hillary is a celebrity psychologist, and while her fictional book’s insights into her four children are often more entertaining than the film’s there is some fun to be had with her observations. For the most part, however, This Is Where I Leave You limits itself to poking fun at Fonda’s fake breasts.

Largely devoid of laughs and lacking in any real warmth or bite, This Is Where I Leave You fails as both a comedy and a drama. Worse still, the characters, performances and story absolutely fail to convince. The Altman’s may have spent a week mourning the passing of their father, but you will have likely forgotten all about it minutes after the end of the film.

2-stars

’71 (2014)

71Expecting to be deployed to Germany, Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) of the British Army is instead dispatched to Belfast on an emergency basis. When a riot erupts during a routine search on Falls Road and a soldier is taken down by a projectile, Hook is ordered to pursue a young boy who has acquired the man’s gun. In the ensuing chaos, Lt. Armitage (Sean Reid) calls for his men to retreat, leaving Hook and a comrade stranded and exposed. He manages to escape from the mob shortly after his companion is shot dead, hiding out in a garden privy until nightfall, at which point he sets out alone in search of his barracks. The other soldier’s execution, however, has strained relations between the Official and Provisional IRA, both of whom have now made it their mission to find the survivor before he can reuinite with his regiment.

Backed by Film4 and Screen Yorkshire, penned by a Scottish playwright and directed by French first-timer Yann Demange, ’71 was always going to be an outside look at The Troubles of Northern Ireland. It was a complex, confused and critical period in the nation’s history, and Gregory Burke manages to capture the essence of it without going into too much detail or making his film explicitly about the conflict. A briefing at the film’s outset outlines the situation, effectively setting the scene and establishing the stakes, before shrinking its focus to concentrate almost exclusively on Hook and the unique set of obstacles that stand in his way. Context is completely inconsequential; all that matters is that there is a man behind enemy lines, out of his depth and in mortal danger.

Skins and Starred Up actor Jack O’Connell stars as Private Hook in what might be his most impressive performance to date. Although he has clearly come a long way since his (already acclaimed) debut in Shane Meadows’ This Is England, he has fostered a screen image that has so far produced few significant deviations. ’71, on the other hand, sees the actor leave his days of teenage delinquency and petty thievery behind. He’s a man, a soldier, a guardian, and — for perhaps the first time in his extant filmography — is essentially a good guy. He’s as compelling and charismatic as ever, only this time there’s a vulnerability to his character that makes him sympathetic too. It’s thanks to this newly responsible persona — and not through any melodramatic manipulations on the filmmakers’ behalves — that you desperately want to see Gary Hook survive his ordeal.

Demange doesn’t make things easy for his protagonist, throwing terrorists, bombs and corruption in his way as the situation continues to deteriorate. The action, which kicks off almost immediately upon Hooks arrival and doesn’t let up until things finally come to a head at a tower block caught between competing factions, is both blistering and breathless — particularly at its outset as Hook is chased through side streets and over walls as his pursuers take pot shots behind him. Even in the film’s few moments of relatively calm there is the unshakeable sense that something horrible is about to happen — as Gary is lead to safety by a young loyalist (a scene-stealing Corey McKinley) or nursed back to health by a sympathetic ex-serviceman (Richard Dormer). Acts of brutality are perpetrated by everyone, regardless of age, religion or political affiliation, and Gary receives beatings from them all at various points throughout the narrative.

’71 shoots first and asks questions later, preferring to pursue its wounded protagonist through derelict streets rather than chase elusive answers through the mists of time. Half thriller and half anxiety attack, Demange’s exceptionally visceral debut will leave you vicariously battered and bruised.

4-Stars

Love, Rosie (2014)

Love RosieRosie Dunne (Lily Collins) and Alex Stewart (Sam Claflin) have been best friends since they were kids. As they grow up, however, they each begin to develop deeper feelings for one another; but unsure whether their desires are reciprocal they decide to refrain from telling the other how they truly feel. In his hurry to lose his virginity, and after a drunken kiss at a school party which Rosie doesn’t remember, Alex sleeps with Bethany (Suki Waterhouse) — one of the most popular girls in class — instead. Hurt, Rosie retaliates by sleeping with Greg (Christian Cooke), only to wind up pregnant with his baby. As Alex goes off to Harvard to study medicine Rosie gives birth back in Britain, and over the next ten years they each go through their own romantic troubles as they continue to miss each other’s advances.

A romantic comedy adapted from the novel by Irish author Cecelia Ahern, Love, Rosie follows in the footsteps of fellow adaptation One Day in charting the ever-shifting relationship between one couple over the course of several decades. In this vein, and bar a childhood prologue, the roles are played by the same actors throughout, from their Sixth Form, MSN-messaging school days right through to their late twenties/early thirties. It requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to accept Claflin as a teen (he looks absolutely ridiculous in school uniform) or Collins as a woman approaching middle-age (by film’s end she looks barely ten years older than her supposed daughter), but for the most part they just about convince.

This is largely down to the strength of their performances, and even in its shakiest moments their chemistry is enough to hold the film together. In isolation, it’s Collins who really stands out, as it’s her individual story that ultimately proves the most engaging of the two. Her character has the most going on, as she struggles to raise a child, mourn a parent and work a part-time job in a hotel as a cleaner. (How nice it is to see characters in a comedy working relatively normal jobs.) She clearly has the most at stake, too, and while many of her lighter scenes are commandeered by new best friend Ruby (Jaime Winston) she absolutely sells the more difficult moments pertaining to decisions to have the baby, re-engage with her child’s father and fly out to Boston to be best (wo)man at Alex’s wedding.

Sadly, as is so often the case with rom-coms of this kind, the will they/won’t they plotting wears a little thin after a time. Reticence, missed opportunities and regrets may be part and parcel of life, but they’re not exactly conducive to good drama. The more the screenplay contrives to keep them apart the less easy it is to sympathise with the characters in question, for the longer it is strung out the more they seem to be the architects of their own unhappiness. It’s unfortunate at first, then repetitive, and finally becomes so frustrating that you simply will for them to compromise and the story to conclude. Instead of relating to the characters you begin to query them. How is Rosie, a single-mother with a part-time job, able to afford to live alone and take so many flights out to the States?

It may be messy, and there will undoubtedly be those who take immediately against its cheesiness, but for anyone able to forgive Christian Ditter’s film its flaws Love, Rosie is charming enough to compensate. It’s a Brit-com in both the best and worst sense of the term: occasionally embarrassing but for the most part really rather endearing.

3-Stars

The Raven on the Jetty (AIFF 2014)

The Raven on the JettyThomas (Connor O’Hara) has just turned nine, and his mother (Helen Teasdale) has agreed to split his birthday with the boy’s estranged father (Robert O’Hara). After a trip to Thomas’ grandmother’s (Anne Fraser) house and a brief outing to the beach, she drives him out of the city to an isolated cottage somewhere in the Lake District. With instructions to call her should any problems arise, Thomas is left in the care of a man  who hasn’t seen him in years. Out in the country and away from the city’s digital distractions, Thomas begins to explore the natural world — becoming increasingly fixated on death and decay along the way.

My HeyUGuys review: With writer-director Erik Knudsen also credited as cinematographer and editor, and various other members of the crew assuming dual roles on the movie, you want to be able to say nice things about it. This is clearly a passion project, and a lot of work must have gone into its execution. But as nice as the film might look (courtesy of its Lake District setting) and as competent as the performances might be (the O’Haras do a decent enough job, all things considered) there’s no getting away from the fact that The Raven on the Jetty doesn’t have an awful lot going for it. Even at just 88 minutes in length, it drags. There’s no drama or peril, no substance or style.

It’s not entirely clear what Knudsen is hoping to achieve with his film. Is it an indictment of technology? Are we supposed to assume that it is Thomas’ obsession with video games that predisposes him to chase birds with his remote-controlled car or later aim at them with a homemade slingshot? There’s an animated cut scene early on which implies that he sees the world as a platformer game but that’s swiftly dropped until much later in the film, only to remain unexplained and unresolved. Or is it a meditation on divorce, and the unintended side-effects of leaving a boy to grow up without his father? As for the eponymous raven: what is it supposed to represent, if anything? I guess we’ll never know.

Knudsen’s direction is only slightly more successful than his screenplay. The framing is fine but a largely static camera compounds an already stilted experience in a film severely lacking in fluidity or dynamo. Attaching the camera to Thomas’ mothers car solves the problem for a time, but once he’s in the company of his father things once again grind to a halt. Instead the characters spend their time walking towards or away from the camera, but perspective is no substitute for motion — especially in a motion picture. There’s precious little dialogue either as Thomas is for some reason mute, meaning that there is often nothing to listen to but un-filtered background noise picked up by the boom mic. Whether intentional or not, the soundtrack consists mostly of bird call and wind.

Really, the only remarkable thing about The Raven on the Jetty is the filmmakers’ apparently devil-may-care approach to health and safety. Bored of the unending silence and stillness, the mind is as quick to wander as the eye. The risk assessment must be longer than the script, you can’t help but muse, as O’Hara picks up an axe, leans over a well, spies on a naked woman, pokes a dead bird with his shoe and hops over a barbed wire fence. At first you think it might be leading somewhere (down the well, perhaps), but like everything else in the film it ultimately serves no purpose at all.

2-stars

The Bridge Rising (AIFF 2014)

The Bridge RisingFor centuries the only way for citizens of Skye to cross Loch Alsh was by ferry, until in 1995 a bridge was opened connecting the Isle of Skye to the mainland (via the small island of Eilean Bàn). Although hailed as a technological marvel by many the bridge wasn’t without its detractors, most of whom lived on Skye itself. An organisation, called SKAT, was soon established by islanders who opposed the government’s imposed tolls, which cost drivers using the Skye crossing fourteen times as much as those using other such toll bridges. Though ultimately successful in their campaign to abolish the fee, the endeavour took a toll of its own.

My HeyUGuys review: For people of a certain age in Scotland, myself included, the independence referendum seemed almost unprecedented in scope. Normal people who had never shown an interest in politics before were picking up placards and producing propaganda, the international press was showing an almost absurd interest in the parliament at Holyrood and the key figures involved had been campaigning for well over a year. For the people of Skye, however, indyref 2014 must have seemed like small fry, a flash in the pan, a passing fad. SKAT’s campaign lasted for almost a decade.

At first you may wonder what all of the fuss was about. Skye is the second largest island in Scotland, has a population of roughly 10,000 people and boasts a number of well-stocked towns and villages. It seems reasonably self-sufficient — though now of course it has a whopping great bridge connecting it to the mainland, and the mini-metropolises of Dornie and Plockton. The protests were often so good-natured that you couldn’t imagine there was all that much at stake. The sticking point, however (and it really was a sizeable spanner in the works) were the tolls, which by all accounts were tantamount to extortion. It cost a shocking £5.40 to drive your car across the Skye Crossing in its heyday — each way! — and double that if you dared to trail a caravan along for the ride. It cost the local populace dearly, and threatened to devastate the tourist trade.

There’s no denying that Robbie Fraser has found an interesting subject for his documentary; this relatively little-known episode in recent Scottish history is not only sobering but still relatively nascent — not so much with regards to the recent referendum but certainly in the case of Turnberry and Donald Trump. The villain of the piece is not the Tories or the English (at least, not entirely) but corporate America. According to the film — and, it seems, history — the money raised was not being invested back into the roads or used to benefit the local community but was instead disappearing overseas. Unfortunately, the Bank of America declined to comment and remains conspicuously quiet throughout the film. By contrast, the other interviewees — protesters and politicians — are incredibly candid about the whole thing.

This renders the film utterly one sided, as islanders and mainlanders alike refer abstractly to the alleged real culprits and — with them — the other half of the story. Instead, Fraser zooms in on the minutiae of the situation — the personalities involved and the individual protests they put together. It makes the story more personal, undoubtedly, but at the price of narrative coherence. The mark of a good documentary is the ability to find the universal themes in obscure topics — to appeal to the widest audience possible, no matter how esoteric the subject — but Fraser gets so caught up in the specifics that he risks alienating his audience. It’s nice to meet the people involved, but the film becomes so bogged down in personal rivalries, parish politics and PFIs that it all gets a little confusing and impenetrable. You can’t replicate reality in 94 minutes but you can tell a story.

One of the most effective elements of the film has nothing overtly to do with Skye at all. Scenes from a Scotland-set black and white film are interspersed throughout the documentary — completely irrelevant to the subject at hand and yet strangely apt at the same time. It adds to the film’s light-hearted tone, but is little more than another distraction. The simple pleasure of these isolated skits only emphasises how convoluted the rest of the film has become. You want to feel solidarity for the people of Skye, to cheer them on as they take on the government, the establishment, corporate America, anyone really who stands in their way, but instead you begin to cool to their cause. SKAT has ruined lives, not simply causing rifts between members and inconveniencing the poor men and women whose job it was to collect the toll but contributing to the Procurator Fiscal’s apparent nervous breakdown.

While not as compelling as You’ve Been Trumped, nor as gripping as Fire In The Night or The Great Hip Hop Hoax, The Bridge Rising is a welcome continuation of the recent resurgence in Scottish documentary filmmaking. The setting is beautiful, the subject is scandalous and the characters are engaging (rivals Robbie The Pict and Andy Anderson could have easily sustained their own documentary) but in choosing complexity over clarity the filmmakers have sort of lost the plot.

3-Stars

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