September 2014 — Curds Way? Milk turns into it!

Pride PosterSo that was summer then. It’s amazing how quickly the seasons can and do change — one minute you’re queuing up for the latest 3D blockbuster and the next leaves are falling from the trees, it’s dark by eight and The Equalizer is the biggest film being released that week.

What September’s films lacked in self-importance, however, they more than made up for in quality. The worst film I saw this month was The Giver, but even it had its moments. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, Into The Storm and What We Did On Our Holiday were similarly flawed, but they too had their own redeeming qualities. But then I never saw Sex Tape.

For the most part September was a roaring success. The Rover, The Boxtrolls, Pride and The Riot Club rank alongside some of the very best films I’ve seen this year, while Before I Go To Sleep and The Guest were perfectly good fun. I ended the month with A Walk Among The Tombstones, probably the best Liam Neeson vehicle yet. Scratch that, easily the best Liam Neeson vehicle yet.

It’s hard to choose an overall favourite, but as much as I want to say The Boxtrolls (it is LAIKA, after all) I feel I would be doing Pride an enormous disservice. Matthew Warchus’ film was truly special — British cinema at its very best. In a month plagued by doubt and dissolution, in which the Scottish independence debate dominated every waking moment, it was a privelege and a pleasure to spend time with people — old fashioned though they may be — who believed in working together.

Film of the month: Pride

What We Did On Our Holiday (2014)

What We Did On Our HolidayIt’s Grandad Gordie’s (Billy Connolly) 75th birthday, and the McLeod brood are travelling up to Scotland to celebrate. For parents Doug (David Tennant) and Abi (Rosamund Pike) this doesn’t just mean packing the car but preparing their three children for the task at hand. Gordie doesn’t know that Doug and Abi are separated, and given that the former is dying Doug is reluctant to cause him any more upset. Their eldest daughter Lottie (Emilia Jones) records this in her diary, along with all of the other lies she has been burdened with, while Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) and Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) immediately forget everything they have been told. In Scotland, Doug and Abi help to prepare the estate for a party, organised by Doug’s brother Gavin (Ben Miller), while Gordie takes the children to the beach to play.

Rarely has a film looked more televisual than What We Did On Our Holiday. The first feature film from Outnumbered writer-directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins, What We Did On Our Holiday — in its London-set sections, at least — could almost have been shot on the same set. The actors may be different but the formula remains the same: two exasperated parents forever underestimating their comparatively savvy kids. Go to the cinema and you expect to be transported to unusual worlds, shown impossible things and introduced to improbable people — not to pay over the odds for a front-row view of what could very well be your own living-room. Even when the action moves to Scotland, the somewhat stilted staging, cinematography and editing prevent you from being swept up in scenery — dramatic through it may be.

Disconcerting though this familiarity might be, however, it is far from deleterious. There are worse things than a bumper episode of Outnumbered, and once you have put any cinematic aspirations behind you What We Did On Our Holiday becomes instantly more enjoyable. They often say that film is a director’s medium, while television belongs to the writers, and the simple joy of Hamilton and Jenkin’s latest is undoubtedly the script. Rather than pursuing action the directors delight in distraction, and as a result find themselves focusing on scenes that other directors would have most likely cut, had they bothered to conceive them at all. It’s a well-known fact that movie characters never need to pee, and you’d be similarly hard-pressed to remember the last time you saw someone pack a car or search for their keys on the big screen, but here they do — often at length — and it’s as novel as it is amusing to watch.

Like Outnumbered, the children are the stars of the show (particularly in the second act when the adults are sidelined almost completely), leaving the professionals with little more to do than react. Some are better at this than others, and scenes succeed or fail depending on who they are acting against. Billy Connolly in particular seems to struggle to keep up with the youngsters, while Annette Crosbie being mistaken for someone from “Lesbia” is far funnier than the awkwardly whimsical conversation she enters into regarding Emu eggs. Luckily, you’re often laughing at the situation as opposed to the characters themselves, so this isn’t as problematic as it might have been. Even the sentiment works rather well, with everything and everyone settling into place in time for a really quite touching finale. What We Did On Our Holiday doesn’t just concern itself with the daily hassles of raising a family, but towards the end it dares to deal with the big stuff too — divorce, depression and death.

While on television they may have been Outnumbered, on the silver screen Hamilton and Jenkins are simply out of their depth. Luckily for them, theatrical runs are relatively short-lived, and before long audiences will be able to enjoy What We Did On Our Holiday at home, where it belongs — for there really is quite a bit to enjoy.

3-Stars

 

 

 

 

The Riot Club (2014)

The Riot ClubThe hedonistic antics of Oxford student Lord Ryot have since become the stuff of lore, and the ‘Riot Club’ established in his honour continues to this day. Down two members at the start of the new academic year, the traditionally ten-strong club initiate Project Grasshopper in an attempt to fill out their ranks. Two freshers seem to fit the bill: Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) is the younger brother of a former club leader and Miles Richards (Max Irons) is a graduate of Harrow who has caught the eye of existing member Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Sam Reid). The two share a tutorial group, where they quickly discover a difference of opinion. Their disagreement on the welfare state comes to a head at one of the club’s already notorious dinner parties, which they attend alongside fellow members Hugo, Harry (Douglas Booth), James (Freddie Fox), Demitri (Ben Schnetzer) Toby (Olly Alexander) and Guy (Matthew Beard), and when talk turns to Miles’ romance with Lauren (Holliday Graniger) — a mere regional — things start to get out of hand.

Based on Laura Wade’s play Posh, itself a dramatisation of the real-life Bullington Club which has at one time or another counted among its members David Cameron and Boris Johnson, The Riot Club is easily politicised. Plagued by walkouts, Posh — which premiered in 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre — was uncompromising in its piggish portrayal of the Oxbridge elite, concerning an essentially real-time display of depravity over dinner. Some will criticise director Lone Scherfig’s apparent compromise, not only changing the film’s title but toning down the commentary and satire in favour of characterisation and drama. She doesn’t just want the this time international audience to see it through to the end, after all, but to perhaps even one day buy the film on DVD and watch it again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as it is ultimately fiction, and should therefore be able to stand on its own as well.

And stand on its own it does, for whether you know of its basis in reality or not the film manages to provoke a response. Scherfig isn’t interested in making her characters endearing, but does at least manage to make them engaging — if not necessarily believable. A prologue, serving as an introduction to the club’s raison d’être through its founding fathers, is almost pantomime in tone, and pays homage to the story’s theatrical origins. The movie proper begins with our introduction to Miles and Alistair, who agree to switch rooms when the latter’s parents kick up a fuss. Miles is our way in, not a protagonist per se so much as the lesser of ten evils. Alistair, meanwhile, enjoys the juiciest arc, though it quickly becomes clear that he is destined for something other than a hero’s journey. The audience’s only real representation comes via a supporting cast of bewildered bystanders.

The first act is despicable but delicious, as the various club members are made figures of fun, either showing themselves up in front of their publicly educated peers or engaging in almost cartoonishly bourgeois banter. Highlights include Alistair attempting to educate his own muggers on the misnomer that is “PIN number” (that they’re essentially saying Personal Identification Number number) and Demitri posting his car keys through the letterbox of a charity shop because a friend has thrown up over the bonnet. Things take an altogether darker turn as the club members arrive at an out of town gastro pub for their annual dinner party, having first hired an escort to entertain them and then — when she refuses to oblige their every sexual need — lured Laura out under false pretenses. It’s not just women they abuse (which includes their waitress, played by Downton Abbey‘s Jessica Findlay-Brown), or the pub’s Scottish proprietor (Gordon Brown), but one another. It’s a showstopping set piece, but makes for incredibly uncomfortable viewing.

For while Schrefig might conceivably be accused of dialing things down the cast continue to ramp things up. The performances are as committed as they come, with a generation of pretty boy actors best known for romantic leads in Young Adult adaptations clearly relishing the opportunity to be as ugly as possible. Schnetzer (in marked contrast to his characters in The Book Thief and Pride) is here petulant and spoilt, while Douglas Booth (who recently impressed in Noah after a series of non-starters) is genuinely grotesque. The film ultimately belongs to Max Irons, however, who is almost sympathetic as Miles — he’s spineless, sure, but not entirely squalid. Meanwhile, the weakest link is perhaps Claflin, who impresses in individual scenes but fails to convince overall. Considering just how demonstratively evil he is later revealed to be, his early scenes are strangely benign. While never sympathetic, his early trajectory seems at odds with his pending transformation, and when he of all people finally snaps it comes as slightly too much of a surprise.

The Riot Club could have perhaps been viler, more unsavoury, but then nobody would have hung around long enough to experience the full force of the final act. By ridiculing the characters before ultimately condemning them, it manages to both humour and horrify, to be both appealing and appalling. It’s not trying to be accurate after all, or exclusive. To misquote Joanna Lumley, you don’t have to be posh to have this privilege.

4-Stars

The Giver (2014)

The GiverFollowing a catastrophic conflict, The Community has tried to eradicate discord by eliminating difference. Citizens are genetically engineered, allocated to carers and designated careers determined by disposition and ability. To ensure there is no discontent, citizens have no knowledge of life before or beyond The Community — that is, except for one: the Receiver of Memory. During his graduation ceremony, as his classmates are alphebatised to be assigned their adult positions, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is unexpectedly skipped and left until last. Rather than be employed as a Groundskeeper or a Nurturer, he is to become the new Receiver of Memory. Mentored by The Giver (Jeff Bridges, who also produced), he is exposed to archive memories of the past in order to advise the council — as ignorant of past events as its people — should any unprecedented issues arise. As he learns about colour and beauty and love Jonas becomes increasingly disillusioned with the status quo, finally resolving to rebel against the current system.

The Giver was always going to be a difficult sell. Lois Lowry’s film, though widely regarded as the basis for the Young Adult phenomenon currently dominating fiction, is a book that lacks supporting characters, a dramatic conflict and — despite its emphasis on the importance of emotion — a satisfying conclusion. Like Andrew Stanton’s recent flop John Carter, director Phillip Noyce risked producing a film that felt derivative and cliched despite the source novel actually predating the genre in question. The Giver is ideas-driven, a children’s story that nevertheless deals with very adult themes of totalitarianism and dystopia, something which back in 1993 might have seemed novel but which in 2014 seems utterly unremarkable. A lot has changed in the last twenty years and next to other adaptations such as The Hunger Games and (to an admittedly lesser extent) Divergent, The Giver seems crude, simplistic and unrefined.

Inevitably, Noyce has attempted to update Lowry’s story, to better appeal to a contemporary audience. He has aged the main character from twelve to eighteen, given supporting characters more important roles and manufactured drama where there perhaps wasn’t any before. The problem is that The Giver has a very silly premise, one that might have worked for tired children being read bedtime stories but doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny leveled at it by teenage (let alone adult) moviegoers. Even if more mature audiences can refrain from smirking at the endless discussion of Givers and Receivers, they’ll still likely balk at the idea of memories being passed from one individual to another — by hand. It doesn’t help that the dialogue remains largely unchanged, leaving adult actors to work with childish words. As Jonas, Thwaites does his best, but struggles to create a character of sufficient complexity, particularly in the early stages of the narrative where the character is supposed to be innocent but simply comes across as witless. Meanwhile, everyone else — Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift in particular — struggles with characters that were never intended for significant roles.

Strangely, despite Noyce’s attempts to appeal to a savvier audience, the film is considerably less provocative than the book. By dint of the main character being younger, Lowry’s discussion of adolescent stirrings, genetic engineering, euthanasia and infanticide were substantially more shocking — originally banned in her native America. It takes most of the first half of the book for Lowry to establish her setting — fantastical as it is — and yet even then there are glaring holes in her ideology. With Noyce attempting to cram his set-up into a minutes-long montage the audience isn’t given enough time to suspend their disbelief, and are left to spend the rest of the movie picking apart the plot when they should be chewing over the issues it raises. Why, for instance, is the first act presented in black and white? The question of why memories of the past might inhibit colour perception is never answered in the book, but it is raised so late in the game that it is easily overlooked, whereas in the film it is such a prominent feature that you simply cannot ignore it.

And yet, though supremely silly and often unintelligible, The Giver has its moments, and even if they aren’t as clear in the film as they were in the book its themes are as interesting as ever. What should be considered a reasonable price for peace and prosperity? Is kinship more important than family? Are sex, religion and politics justifiable when they so often result in distraction, dissatisfaction and disagreement? The story’s central theme is whether ignorance is indeed bliss, and while it might be difficult to connect with the characters it’s worth considering the questions they ask. Life is complicated, difficult and unpredictable, but it is also beautiful, and occasionally Noyce’s film is too. It features footage of births, deaths, love, hate, peace and war, using the memories being transferred between Giver and Receiver to show humanity at its best and worst, and it’s easy to get caught up in the experiences. If only the film had done the same — the human race is capable of great and terrible things, yet The Giver exposes Jonas and his audience to little more than sledge rides and bee stings.

Hardly a year goes by without Hollywood attempting to adapt at least one supposedly unfilmable book, and with results which include The Lord of the Rings, Life of Pie and Cloud Atlas hardly a year goes by without Hollywood proving the maxim to be baseless. With Lois Lowry’s The Giver, however, the film industry has finally met its match. As a thought exercise it is a noble failure, but as a film it is an terrible mess.

2-stars

The Guest (2014)

The GuestAs the Peterson family grieves for the loss of their oldest son, Caleb, a stranger approaches on foot. He claims to have run from the nearest bus stop, miles away; to have come as soon as he was discharged in order to pass on the late soldier’s — a friend’s — message of love to the family he left behind. Mother Laura (Sheila Kelly) welcomes him into their home, insisting that he stays for a while, in Caleb’s old room, at least until he finds his feet and plans his next move. He obliges, soon winning the trust of father Spencer (Leland Orser) and youngest son Luke (Brendan Meyer), by sharing a beer with the former and teaching self-defence to the latter. Daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) isn’t so easily won over, however, and unconvinced by his flirtations and offers of friendship she soon grows suspicious of David Collins’ (Dan Stevens) increasingly insidious attempts to integrate himself into the family.

The question you will find yourself asking throughout The Guest has nothing to do with identity of the eponymous stranger, but rather the nature of the film itself. Is The Guest an action movie? Is it a comedy? Or is it supposed to be a horror? The trailer suggested it would be an awkward mix of action and comic beats, with many gun-fights and much gurning. Furthermore, Dan Stevens seemed to have little more to say than “David”,  drawing uneasy comparisons with Matt Damon in Team America and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. The film itself, meanwhile, positions itself as a horror, an old-fashioned slasher movie complete with Hammer title cards and Halloween setting, even if the underlying goofiness remains.

Unfortunately, The Guest is neither thrilling, hilarious or scary. Having given away its big twist in the marketing campaign — that Collins is not what he seems — there is no tension, no suspense, no surprises. Even one Lance Reddick enters the fray, much later on than the trailer suggested, the film fails to build the necessary momentum. The two main set-pieces — a short-lived shoot-out at the Peterson family home and a prolonged chase sequence at a Halloween party — barely belong in the same movie, but it’s the inconsistencies in tone and pace that jar most. That’s not to say that the film isn’t entertaining, however, and despite these fluctuations it is generally enjoyable enough.

Whatever the film’s problems, its central performances are not among them. Stevens copes incredibly well, often hitting his marks regardless of how wildly inappropriate they might be. While low on menace his guest is high on mystique, and though you know roughly what is to come there is a volatility and unpredictability to the character that remains as perhaps the film’s only true constant. The kids are great too, with both Monroe and Meyer convincing in their roles. Their scenes with Stevens are among the film’s best, particularly early on as they both begin the surrender to his charms. It’s just a shame that writer Simon Barrett doesn’t give them more to work with.

Not quite as discordant as the trailer might have you believe, there is nevertheless an incongruity at the heart of The Guest that makes it a slightly ungainly watch. If nothing else, however, it should highlight the talents of Stevens and Meyer, who are undoubtedly destined for greater things. As for director Adam Wingard, who also directed You’re Next, it’s still difficult to say.

3-Stars

Pride (2014)

PrideIt’s 1984, and Mark (Ben Schnetzer), Mike (Joseph Gilgun), Steph (Faye Marsay), Jeff (Freddie Fox) and Joe (George Mckay) have descended on London for Gay Pride. From their base of operations at Gethin (Andrew Scott) and Jonathan’s (Dominic West) LGBT book shop, they decide to this year campaign not for themselves but for the striking miners in Wales. Naming themselves Lesbians and Gays Support Miners, they set out in search of a community willing to accept their support. Having made arrangements with Dai (Paddy Considine), they head west to Onllwyn to meet some of the people worst hit by Thatcher’s Tory government. While the town council — including Hefina (Imelda Staunton), Cliff (Bill Nighy) and Sian (Jessica Gunning) — are happy to see them, however, they have a harder time convincing the miners to accept their offer of not just assistance but friendship.

There have been many unlikely political pairings in British history — the current coalition government for one, and the Green Party’s recent alliance with the Scottish Yes campaign for another — but easily the most unexpected has to be the real-life alliance of gay activists with the Welsh mining unions. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the story of Mark Ashton and his 80s cause — Lesbians and Gays Support Minors — is not that it happened but that we’re only hearing about it now. Now largely forgotten, the relationship nevertheless had wide-reaching consequences for both sides, changing the lives of not only the individuals involved but contributing to a larger change as well. This is a film about solidarity, about collaboration and putting others before yourself. And it couldn’t be more timely.

Of course, being a British film with home-grown “issues” at its heart, there was every chance that Matthew Warchus’ film could have been unbearable. It might easily have been patronising, preachy, or sentimental, and ran the very real risk of alienating people on both sides — not just homosexuals and blue-collar workers, but the Welsh and the English too. As it happens, however, Pride does no such thing. It’s fun and funny, but not at the expense of the drama, while the film manages to address HIV and media-lead hate campaigns without letting them unbalance the narrative or compromise the tone. After a surprisingly successful evening at the local working men’s club, a man is asked by his wife if he was really expecting there to be a scene: “sometimes”, he admits, “people surprise you”. As does British cinema.

The cast are flawless throughout — thesps and newcomers alike are clearly determined to do the incredible story justice. Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy (the latter reviving his accent from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) bring incredible warmth and dignity to the town council, while Jessica Gunning almost runs away with the movie as their newest no-nonsense member, Sian. Each has their own comic moments, but you are never invited to laugh at them because they are Welsh, though their language’s lack of vowels isn’t above comment. Even then, however, the Welsh language is behind one of the film’s most emotional scenes, as exiled Welsh expat Gethin is wished Merry Christmas in his native tongue for the first time in years. Andrew Scott, like everyone else, is excellent.

The characters with the most pronounced arcs, however, hail from London — or, in the case of leader Mark, from Ireland. Dominic West’s Jonathan has become disillusioned with activism, Faye Marsay’s Steph is caught between causes and George McKay’s Joe is in the closet and lying to his parents. It’s another impressive performance from McKay, who has already made something of a name for himself as a daring actor with diverse turns in last year’s hat-trick of How I Live Now, For Those In Peril and Sunshine on Leith. There are some great supporting performances too, from Harry Potter‘s Jessie Cave and The Three Musketeers‘ Freddie Fox. The film ultimately belongs to Ben Schnetzer, however, last seen as Max Vandenburg in The Book Thief, though you’ll never recognise him as the same actor. He’s effervescent, and when he disappears somewhat abruptly in the third act the film is poorer for it.

Pride isn’t perfect; it’s a little long, there are maybe too many characters and does lack a consistent pace but the story is so compelling that you forgive it the occasional lull. Released within days of the Scottish referendum, the film should give everyone an opportunity to celebrate the United Kingdom and its remarkable shared history while they still can.

4-Stars

 

Before I Go To Sleep (2014)

Before I Go To SleepChristine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) has anterograde amnesia, meaning that she is unable to form new memories. She can remember everything that happened up until her early twenties, but beyond that nothing more than fragments. Every morning she wakes up in a strange bed, next to a strange man (Colin Firth), only to be told that she is now a married woman of 47, and that he is in actual fact her husband. Once he leaves for work, she is contacted by Nash (Mark Strong), a neuroscientist claiming to be her doctor, who directs her towards a shoe box containing a camera on which she has recorded messages for herself. Using this as a makeshift memory bank, she tries to put together the mystery of her condition, brought on, she is told, by an attempt on her life that has never been solved. The moment she goes to sleep, however, these memories are lost, and she must start over again the next morning.

Storytelling and memory go way back. After all, what is memory if not the most important story of all? The story of you, of your life and achievements, a record of everything you have ever thought, felt or sensed. And what use are stories if you cannot remember them? Amnesia has long troubled philosophers and psychologists alike, but its prominence in popular culture speaks to a much wider fascination than among intellectuals alone. The latest film to explore the subject is Before I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffé’s adaptation of S. J. Watson’s 2011 novel of the same name. Like many, it does so through the prism of a murder mystery, albeit one where only half of the victim’s life has been lost.

While it is easy enough to sit through a lecture on the self concept or read a scientific paper on Alzheimer’s disease, watching a film on the subject of memory loss is rather more problematic. Like memory, cinema is ultimately an illusion, and if you break that illusion you risk alienating your audience. Viewers expect certain things from their protagonist, important things like progression, development and growth; things that someone with amnesia is simply unable to offer. Over the years cinema has found ways to compensate — Joffé doesn’t show full daily cycles, but hints at them with repetitions of certain incidence and encounters, while Christine employs a video diary to help steer her in the right direction — but few have to keep it up, as unlike real amnesiacs most of those featured in movies have made a near-full recovery within ninety minutes of losing their memory.

Christine isn’t a particularly interesting character, which is a shame because on paper at least she’s fascinating. A 47-year-old woman who wakes up daily in the body of a twenty-something? Just imagine it: the confusion as you awake in the arms of a stranger, in alien environs and a body you only half recognise. You’d want to speak to your mum, your dad, your best friends. You’d want to see a doctor, or call the police. You’d want to weep. The premise does not just lend itself to horror, or tragedy, but to comedy too; the juxtaposition of a young mind in an old body, unable to find clothes you recognise as you pick through items more appropriate for someone twice your age. Rather than begin each day in such a way, however, Christine simply stands in the kitchen — emotionless — allowing a stranger to pull her into a hug and convince her that everything’s going to be alright. It’s unbelievable, and the first act is almost impossible to engage with.

While Joffé may inherit Watson’s irritatingly passive protagonist, however, he also gets the author’s ending — and what an ending it is. After playing something of a long game, with only the occasional double-bluff, the writer-director finally plays his full hand. Your heart sinks, your stomach lurches and your fingers sink into the padding on the armrest. Some may predict the plot twist, others will already know it from the book, but for those who haven’t guessed correctly — and, it must be said, those who have long stopped trying — it will turn your blood cold. Before I Go To Sleep is a better thriller than it is a mystery, and after an hour of relative inactivity the film finally starts to build momentum. There’s never any question of whether Christine will get her memories back before the end of the film, but there is uncertainty with regards to whether she will live long enough to remember them. Given how muted, detached and expressionless the first act was, it’s genuinely amazing that the finale is as emotional and satisfying as it is.

It’s difficult to create a watertight mystery about something as permeable as human memory, and there are very few examples of movies that manage to pull it off successfully. Before I Go To Sleep gets a lot wrong, but Joffé — with the help of Colin Firth, it must be said — manages to turn it around just in time for a truly stunning climax.

3-Stars

The Boxtrolls (2014)

The Boxtrolls 3DIn the years since the mysterious disappearance of the Trubshaw child, the subterranean boxtrolls of Cheesebridge have been held responsible for his death and Archibald Snatcher tasked with their immediate extermination. Little do the townspeople know that the boy is alive and well, now renamed Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and living happily beneath their feet in what he believes to be his rightful place. Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), along with henchmen Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickels (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), is making progress, however, and before long Eggs is watching his makeshift family dwindle into single digits. Determined to help them defend themselves, he dresses as a human and sets out for the surface where he encounters Winnie (Elle Fanning), daughter of the town’s mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the leader of the White Hats tasting rooms of which Snatcher aspires to become a member.

Timeless isn’t a word you get to use very often in the world of animation. Even the so-called classics — Disney’s Golden Age or Pixar’s early years — are rooted in the moment, doomed to antiquity as audiences move on from one technique to the next, be it hand-drawn, computer-generated or motion-capture animation. Yet the term applies to Coraline, to ParaNorman, and now to The Boxtrolls. LAIKA is different to other animation studios; as Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar pursue pixel perfection, designing and then redesigning their technologies to produce ever-more realistic snowflakes, raindrops and blades of grass, LAIKA has side-stepped obsolescence completely by taking itself out of the race. Even Aardman and Ghibli look harried and try-hard next to LAIKA.

The studio’s films have always been more thoughtful, patient and subversive that its competitors’. There are no musical numbers, pop-culture references or flights of surrealist fantasy designed to pander to or placate the more impatient members of the audience, but rather a shared understanding that the filmmakers will share something special with those willing or able to wait. The Boxtrolls is perhaps LAIKA’s funniest film to date, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less scary, thought-provoking or emotionally intelligent. In fact, you are often invited to question the comedy; after all, should you really be laughing at a little girl’s blood-lust, a father’s negligence, or a henchman’s crisis of identity? Talking dogs and racing snails this ain’t.

Just as ParaNorman wasn’t really a film about zombies, The Boxtrolls has precious little to do with its titular tricksters. This is a film about ignorance, impotence and demonising the lower classes; the boxtrolls might not be human, but it is the townsfolk who are truly inhuman. Lord Portley-Rind can’t see passed his tasting room, to the detriment of his family and the town itself; Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles spend so much time contemplating their culpability that they overlook their own redemption; and Archibald Snatcher is so obsessed with breaking into high society that he refuses to accept his own allergy to cheese. Below ground things are no different; Eggs is trapped by his own identity while his adopted family have mistaken cowardice for survival instinct. Evil isn’t the issue; weakness is.

There is as ever much to admire on the surface too. The animation is as exquisite as ever, with LAIKA’s trademark characterisation again proving that characters don’t always have to be cute to be beautiful. There is perhaps too much prologue, spent in the company of speechless boxtrolls and a babbling baby, but there is never a shortage of things to marvel at. Eggs is a delight, just as Coraline and Norman were before him, but in many ways Winnie is the more interesting character. She is the perfect juxtaposition of outer prettiness and inner perversion, and many of the biggest laughs come from her inappropriate obsession with the macabre. This time, however, the most memorable characters rank among the villains: Ben Kingsley channels Robert Helpmann to make Snatcher the 21st Century’s Child Catcher (now prone to cross-dressing and lactose intolerance), while Frost and Ayoade are an utter joy as Trout and Pickles (“I’m agreeing so as not to upset you”; “I’m still seventy percent sure that we’re the good guys”). And don’t even get me started on Tracy Morgan (“Leeches!”).

Up there with the year’s best 3D animated movies (on a par with How To Train Your Dragon 2, if not quite as crowd-pleasing as The LEGO Movie), The Boxtrolls is another towering achievement for LAIKA. It may not dominate the box office, or change the way that animated movies are made forever (or at least the next few months), but as long as it finds an audience and facilitates a fourth movie then directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have done their job beautifully. After all, everyone knows that slow and steady wins the race.

4-Stars

 

The Rover (2014)

The RoverTen years have passed since The Collapse, an apparent global economic catastrophe that has rendered the Australian dollar worthless and the country’s citizens dependent on US currency, and Eric (Guy Pearce) is having a drink when his car is stolen by foreigners looking to meet a payday half-way across the desert. He gives chase, tailing them in a damaged 4×4 that the thieves had prematurely written off, until a roadside confrontation leaves him on the ground and unconscious. His borrowed vehicle is recognised at a nearby opium den by the brother of one of the thieves, who had been left for dead in their haste to move on. He’s badly injured, however, and if Eric is to use Rey (Robert Pattinson) to find his stolen car then he is first going to have to patch him up.

On the surface, The Rover doesn’t sound like the most appealing prospect. Another Australian western, dystopian nightmare? The Road-trip with Robert Pattinson? There’s more than enough Man With No Name nonsense coming out of the States, thank you very much, without the land down under getting in on the act. (Eric is named on IMDb, but as far as I can remember not in the film.) The trailer certainly didn’t promise much in the way of narrative, teasing a stoic drive through featureless desert with a silent type and a stuttering simpleton, and by and large it sums the film’s story up rather well. This is ultimately a mood piece, an existential yarn that is more to do with atmosphere than action. Unexpectedly, it’s also excellent — dark, but without being quite as depressing as director David Michôd’s last film, Animal Kingdom.

Equally surprising is the fact that a large part of the film’s success is down to Pattinson himself, who, through his jittery movements and broken sentences, gives the illusion of activity even when nothing is happening, or even threatening to happen. Even from the moment of his introduction, lying bloodied next to a doomed soldier gulping for oxygen like a fish out of water, he brings a precarious unpredictability to proceedings that prior to his arrival had stretched out into distance with no sign of diversion between here and the horizon. It’s an electric performance, and one that’s a million miles away from the polished calm of his Edward Cullen. He doesn’t just make you fear Rey, or even pity him, but genuinely warm to the character.

That’s not to take anything at all away from Pearce. Eric may be less eye-catchingly erratic but he’s still a complex and compelling character, particularly as the film progresses and his backstory is revealed. It’s just that he’s vying for attention in a film full of substantially more memorable characters. There’s Gillian Jones as Grandma, purveyor of opium and pimp to her grandchildren; Susan Prior as Dot, the outback’s chief dog-sitter and gun-totting surgeon; and Scoot McNairy as Rey’s disloyal older brother. Even unnamed characters make an impression disproportionate to their screentime, with Nash Edgerton bringing some much needed morality to proceedings as Town Soldier, Scott Perry breaking your heart in his thirty second role as the aforementioned Dying Soldier, and Richard Green winning you over in his equally shortlived turn as Shopkeeper.

It’s a slight film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful in its own way. Necessarily visceral, brutal and uncompromising, The Rover also manages to be intelligent, thought-provoking and even occasionally profound. You may not always sympathise with its characters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t understand them. They’re human, often terrifyingly so.

4-Stars

 

Into The Storm (2014)

Into The StormIn North Oklahoma, a group of teenagers are killed when a freak tornado engulfs their vehicle. The incident has drawn an assortment of thrill-seekers and meteorologists to the area, including a team of celebrity storm chasers lead by Pete Moore (Matt Walsh). They aren’t having the best of luck, with resident scientist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies) leading them on a fruitless goose chase around the state. On her final warning, she directs the team to Silverton, and is promptly fired when the storm passes without making contact with the ground. Their actions are premature, however, and moments later hail stones the size of golf balls start raining down around them. At the local high school Donnie Fuller (Max Deacon) is preparing to help his father (Richard Armitage) record the year’s graduation ceremony, but after a falling out decides instead to help a girl he likes (Alycia Debnam-Carey) shoot a short film on the other side of town. When the tornado finally strikes, Donnie’s father, and his brother Trey (Nathan Kress), set out to find him.

It seems like an awfully long time since Mother Nature had any real effect on the box office. Sure there has been the occasional atmospheric anomaly (Hereafter; The Impossible; The Day After Tomorrow) but for the most part audiences have been more likely to experience an alien invasion or maniacal supervillain than a natural disaster. Things were different in the 90s; catastrophes came in twos, whether volcanic or astrological. The film that started it — and in many ways the exception to the trend — was Twister, a movie that not only set the template for the disaster movie but became synonymous with tornadoes themselves. Tornadoes were no longer the gateway to Oz, but a destructive force capable of leveling buildings, killing livestock and upsetting Helen Hunt.

Into The Storm may have a lot in common with Twister, but a lot has changed in the intervening years. A single tornado is no longer worth the price of admission — heck, just last year a film called Sharknado went straight to DVD — so the filmmakers have had to dial things up considerably. Cue firenados, supernados and superdupernados capable of lifting jumbo-jets as though they were cows. Believability — always the first victim in these films — here doesn’t even make it to the title card. This is the sort of film where the experts get most of their information from the weather channel; where a tornado can lift an armoured truck but not its detached forward bumper; where it is possible to be whisked into orbit by the largest funnel in recorded history and live to tell the tale.

Inaccuracy and inconsistency are the least of Into The Storm‘s problems, however. Audiences are accustomed to making giant leaps of logic, of suspending their disbelief, but only when the film in question is worth the effort. It’s not just that the science doesn’t add up; the film itself doesn’t make any sense. Like many films released recently, Into The Storm uses a found footage format, or at least it does on occasion. The filmmakers have even cast a cameraman — nominally named Reevis — to be responsible for second unit, yet even once he is accounted for (about half-way through the film when you realise there are more people in the truck than there should be) there are still images and whole sequences that cannot be explained.

And yet, despite its best efforts, Into The Storm is still perfectly passable. The cast is terrible (one can only assume that in the Hobbit films Richard Armitage’s beard does all of the acting), the effects are unconvincing (I’m pretty sure “watching Twister” constituted 99% of director Steven Quale’s research) and some characters are forgotten for entire acts (the continuity person was clearly off that day) but it’s still an entertaining watch. What’s more, it’s almost emotional. There’s a scene set in a ruined paper mill, between Deacon and Debnam-Carey, that’s surprisingly moving. It doesn’t last, obviously, but it’s remarkable nevertheless. Perhaps relatedly, it is also the shortest round in an 89-minute game of “identify the cameraman”.

Notable for slightly more than being the big screen return of Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter’s IMDb page lists other movie projects since 2003, but none that I’ve ever heard of), Into The Storm is probably the best worst movie that you will see this year. Well, expect for maybe A New York Winter’s Tale, anyway. It’s terrible; tremendously so.

2-stars

 

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