The Way He Looks (AIFF 2014)

The Way He LooksLeonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) may be blind, but he’s not about to let that stop him from living a full and normal life. His parents, however, are unconvinced, and insist on knowing his whereabouts even when he’s with longstanding best friend Giovanna (Tess Amorim). Desperate for independence, he looks into the school’s exchange programme, discovering an American agency which specialises in blind students. This surprises Giovanna, who has long suspected that their friendship might be on the verge of becoming something more. Their relationship is further strained by the arrival of Gabriel (Fabio Audi), a new student for whom Leo soon develops feelings of his own. Her friend’s plans to leave may be on hold, but Giovanna’s relief is short-lived.

Brazil’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, The Way He Looks debuted in Scotland at the Aberdeen Film Festival shortly after its UK premiere at London Film Festival. Adapted from director Daniel Ribeiro’s own short film, I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone, it also sees actors Ghilherme Lobo, Fabio Audi and Tess Amorim reprise their roles. Far from feeling like a 17-minute short stretched to feature length, however, The Way He Looks has been given a new focus, a full compliment of supporting characters and a more developed story.  It also has a great soundtrack.

Lobo is terrific in the leading role, doing little to draw attention to himself and yet proving quietly captivating nonetheless. Leo longs not just for independence but for intimacy, and it’s his own conflict of interests that produces much of the drama. Mostly, however, the film is pleasantly understated. The film is full of firsts for the character — first drink, first dance, first kiss — and each is handled as sensitively as the next. There is such gentleness to it, both in Lobo’s performance and Ribeiro’s direction, that even the simplest scenes leave a lasting impression — be it Leo smelling his friend’s forgotten jumper or idly pressing his lips against the screen while showering. It’s so tender; so tactile.

Both Leo’s blindness and sexuality are well handled, receiving ample attention without ever being allowed to dominate the narrative. The school bully, Fabio, naturally has an axe to grind, but their antagonism is never central to the story — instead it feels as incidental as the traits he seeks to mock. When Leo and Giovanna fall out at a house party hosted by fellow student Karina, it has nothing to do with the fact that Fabio tried to trick him into kissing a dog and everything to do with their own frustrations and jealousies. As far as Leo knows his best friend has just “saved” him from kissing the prettiest girl in school. Giovanna and Gabriel, meanwhile, are great characters in their own right, and their scenes together in Karina’s toilet are some of the film’s best.

Minor quibbles aside (the exchange programme is left dangling while Giovanna’s story is perhaps too neatly resolved) The Way He Looks is an endearing, insightful and even strangely innovative look at adolescence — seen for once not through fresh eyes but a different sense entirely: touch.

4-Stars

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesWhen a fire broke out at her father’s mutagenics lab, April O’Neil (Megan Fox) secretly rescued the endangered test subjects and released them into the nearest sewer. Years later, while working as a reporter for Channel 6 News, she encounters them once more, now mutated into a team of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — consisting of Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) — and their rodent sensei, Splinter (Tony Shalhoub). She shares her discovery with Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), her cameraman, and Eric Sachs (William Fitcher), an old friend of her father’s. Unbeknownst to her, however, the latter is actually in cahoots with Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), an evil martial arts master who — acting through his Foot Clan — has been terrorising New York for years. In fact, it was her father who had started the fire, all those years ago, in an attempt to keep Project Renaissance out of Sachs’ hands.

Even as superhero origin stories go, the formation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is particularly elaborate, convoluted and preposterous. Director Jonathan Liebesman tries to get everything in there — the catchphrases, the supporting characters, the pizza — but in the process of doing so makes everything even more contrived. In this latest incarnation of the story April once owned the turtles as pets, Splinter learned ninjitsu from a pamphlet blown in from the gutter and Sachs’ need the turtles’ blood in order to produce an antidote for a toxin his master is preparing to unleash on New York City — for monetary gains. It doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief so much as a complete dismissal of it.

Thankfully, Liebesman is aware of how ludicrous it all sounds, and rather than aping the self-serious schtick of producer Michael Bay’s own Transformers franchise he seems perfectly happy to embrace the concept’s inherent silliness. As a result Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is far more entertaining than anyone could reasonably have expected, and this is in large part down to how self-depricatingly funny it is. Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty’s screenplay references everything from Nolan’s Batman and the mysteries of Lost to its own cinematic and television heritage — as well as addressing an earlier iteration of the script featuring a controversial extra terrestrial origin for the characters. “Aliens?” April asks, “No, that’s stupid”. You can’t help but smile.

Amazingly for four motion-capture characters often performed and voiced by two different sets of actors, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelango have real chemistry. Their redesigns may not be particularly handsome but they are incredibly expressive, and their scenes together are a joy to watch  — whether they’re facing off against the foot or goofing off with each other. Liebesman perhaps more than any previous franchise director has really pushed the immaturity of his teenage heroes, and this comes to the fore in two of the film’s most entertaining set pieces — first during a car chase down a snowy mountainside in which Michelangelo tries to save April and “that old guy” (Arnett) from certain death and later in an elevator on their way to battle Shredder when the foursome burst into song. Even Fox is quite good fun as April, an aspiring journalist who is tired of doing puff-pieces and wants to break her own story.

Though far from great, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t bad either. In fact, it’s the best film that Michael Bay has put his name to in years, producing more memorable moments than his four Transformers movies combined.

3-Stars

The Rewrite (2014)

The RewriteSince winning Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards in 1998, Keith Michaels (Hugh Grant) has been struggling to replicate the success of his debut — the seemingly universally adored Paradise Misplaced. His latest pitch — a Jack Nicholson vehicle about a man who attends his own funeral — is proving impossible to sell in a landscape of kick-ass heroines and Young Adult fantasy, leaving him with no option but to accept the teaching residency offered up by his agent, Ellen (Caroline Aaron). Within hours of arriving on campus at Binghampton University, Michaels has slept with a student, Karen (Bella Heathcote), offended a tenured lecturer (Allison Janney) by insulting her beloved Jane Austen and dismissed his class for a full month having concluded that writing is something that simply cannot be taught. With the help of mature student Holly Carpenter (Marisa Tomei), however, Professor Michaels begins to come around to his new profession.

It’s nice to have Hugh Grant back. Since Did Your Hear About The Morgans bombed in 2009 the actor has almost disappeared from our screens. A shame, really, not simply because he used to be such a familiar screen presence but because the films he has done since have been some of the most interesting of his career so far. He was the voice of Pirate Captain in Aardman’s Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, maintaining his trademark wit and charm while still exploring new territory, while in Cloud Atlas he broke character completely, appearing alternately as a racist reverend, a Korean rapist and a tattoo-covered cannibal. The Rewrite isn’t quite as drastic a departure, but it’s still a slight deviation from the norm.

Out of touch with the movie business, estranged from his 18-year-old son and “just a little bit tired of women’s lib”, Michaels doesn’t have many friends when we meet him. That doesn’t immediately change when he moves to Binghampton, a small college town in Upstate New York that’s almost as miserable as he is; but according to the long distant weather forecast things are looking up. The endgame might be largely predictable, but the route taken is full of surprises. Writer-director Marc Lawrence asks some interesting questions about how much a screenplay can reveal about the writer, and Michaels’ conversations with Carpenter on the subject of the stories they tell are often well-observed and interesting to watch. The same is true of his relationship with Karen — her screenplay is about an innocent girl’s troubled relationship with her father, and she’s taken aback when Michaels’ reveals that the father character is actually the more compelling of the two.

Sadly, the film falls largely flat elsewhere. It would be unimaginative to suggest that The Rewrite could itself do with a rewrite, but Michaels’ lectures on the subject of narrative often serve to highlight its own deficiencies. The lecturer asserts that in cinema character is key, and yet the supporting characters in The Rewrite are about as unremarkable as they come: a Star Wars geek who can’t write anything else, a deadpan girl who secretly cries at Annie Hall and a tote-loving Jane Austen lecturer who has never heard of Clueless. The biggest waste is J.K. Simmons’ Dr Lerner, who can’t talk about his family for more than fifteen seconds without weeping with joy. And that’s about it. If even Simmons struggles to make a character work you know that something somewhere has gone horribly wrong. The only real exception is Emily Morden as Andrea Stein-Rosen, a gullible fangirl who takes the bait every time Michaels’ drops a name, but all of her best bits are in the trailer.

Ultimately, The Rewrite isn’t funny or scathing enough to make the necessary impression. In fact, it might have helped if Lawrence had taken his own screenwriting class before setting out.

2-stars

The Maze Runner (2014)

The Maze RunnerThomas (Dylan O’Brien) enters The Glade through a dark hatch, in a service elevator shared with a small herd of goats. He can’t remember anything, though his fellow Gladers assure him that his name at least will return in time. In the meantime, leader Alby (Aml Ameen) takes him on a tour of the immediate area, explaining that The Glade sits at the centre of an elaborate and so far impenetrable maze which is explored by runners during the day and closed to the community at night — at which time it is patrolled by arachnoid killing machines. Thomas isn’t like the others, however: he’s inquisitive, he dreams of life beyond the perimeter walls and — after entering the maze after hours — becomes the first person to survive a night outside of the The Glade. When a girl (Kaya Scodelario) — the first ever — follows Thomas through the hatch, it becomes clear that things are changing. If they are to embrace that change, however, Thomas and Teresa will first have to convince the more conservative among their ranks.

With Young Adult adaptations continuing to dominate the box office, The Maze Runner is the latest attempt to duplicate the success of The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire. While the box office results will not be known for some time, there’s no denying that Thomas is the most likely contender to Katniss Everdeen’s crown yet, succeeding where the likes of Divergent and The Giver have so far failed in establishing a different and equally dynamic dystopian setting. The characters might not be as well drawn as Katniss and company (though Thomas certainly isn’t without his flaws), but the relatively small scale and uncomplicated premise actually serve in the film’s favour. There is undoubtedly more to the story than we see here, but with four books in James Dashner’s series still to adapt director Wes Ball has wisely left much of it unexplored, ready for the sequels.

Opening with Thomas already in the elevator, Ball forgoes any formal introduction and instead leaves his audience to work things out at the same pace as their protagonist. Information isn’t exactly forthcoming, but what The Maze Runner may lack in psychological complexity or socio-political satire it more than makes up for in visceral action. If you thought the Cornucopia scene from the first Hunger Games film was tough for a 12A you’ll be running to the censors after five minutes in the maze. The opening act isn’t exactly uneventful — Thomas has a number of disagreements with his fellow Gladers, before being set upon by a rabid runner — but once he enters the maze to save Alby and another boy called Minho (Ki Hong Lee) Ball ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. It’s an astonishing set piece, and subsequent forays into the maze are often as nail-biting as they are breathtaking.

The film has a fantastic aesthetic, and builds an atmosphere which is as fraught as it is fantastical. Despite the film’s relatively modest budget it is utterly convincing — this can be attributed at least in part to the impressive talents of its young cast (particularly O’Brien and Will Poulter as the aggressive Gally) but plaudits must be paid to the sterling efforts of an undoybtedly resourceful special effects team. The maze is quite simply spectacular — epic, imposing, beautiful — and is populated by creatures that genuinely unsettle. At points it feels more like an episode of Lost than your typical Young Adult adaptation, and if anything it’s a shame that more time couldn’t be spent exploring its various sections and uncovering their secrets. The maze is so effective and evocative that you don’t want to leave it behind, particularly as what we see of the outside world through Thomas’ feverish dreams and fractured memories points towards a far more familiar future for the franchise.

Although not without its derivative qualities, The Maze Runner still feels remarkably fresh and exciting. Whether it can sustain a series or not is beside the point — for now it is simply one of the best science fiction movies of the year.

4-Stars

Gone Girl (2014)

Gone GirlWhen — on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary — Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns to his marital Missourian home to find the front door open and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing, he doesn’t think too much of it. He calls the police, of course, and co-operates fully with their subsequent investigation, but shows very little sign that anything is out of the ordinary. From the sofa at his sister Margo’s (Carrie Coon) house he watches as the media latch on to the story and refuse to let go. Soon, everyone in town seems to think that he’s responsible for his wife’s disappearance, including Detective Rhonda Boney’s (Kim Dickens) partner Jim (Patrick Fugit), and before long the entire country seems to be demanding his arrest and — this being Missouri — execution. When traces of Amy’s blood are found at the crime scene, and incriminating evidence is found in her poorly hidden diary, Nick has no option but to hire a defence attorney — none other than celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Needless to say, things are not quite as simple as they initially seem. This is David Fincher, after all, director of Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, and it’s safe to assume that his involvement guarantees a certain level of not only narrative but subtextual complexity. A return to form following his uncharacteristically unremarkable remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the film dispenses with the gimmicky title sequence and other franchise-building concessions to focus on the thing that Fincher does best: stand-alone stories with a sting in the tail. This isn’t your traditional murder mystery, not least because of the uncertainty surrounding whether anyone was actually murdered, nor is it a simple subversion of the trope. Gone Girl isn’t about Amy’s disappearance, at least not initially, but about the way that the world reacts to it. Are murders inherently mysterious? Or is that mystery inferred by society?

Nick — beautifully played by a perfectly cast Affleck — doesn’t seem particularly piqued by the possibility. (This is Affleck, after all.) His lack of concern incenses the media, but compared to his new set of circumstances his response doesn’t seem unusual at all. Not only has Nick seemingly lost his wife, but he’s become a news story, a local celebrity and a murder suspect at the same time — subject to absurd and almost obscene levels of scrutiny as he’s simultaneously put on trial by the police, the public and the press. Fincher isn’t just interested in justice, however, and spends as much time exploring Nick’s marriage as he does Amy’s alleged murder. Was he a good husband? What is a good husband? Is there really such a thing? Ultimately, Nick is just a normal human being trying to live a normal life, but it soon becomes clear that the narcissistic, news-guzzling, narrative-obsessed society in which he lives isn’t about to let something as mundane as that happen.

What they really want is a victim, and when Nick fails to conform to their requirements they villainise him instead. Amy, meanwhile, introduced in flashback through passages from her journal, doesn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations (though Pike, it must be said, wastes no time in exceeding them anyway). Whether her husband killed her or not doesn’t seem to matter; society has the heroine it wants and will go to great lengths to keep her innocent and unimpeachable. That’s what makes the last act so interesting, not simply because it finally pits both legal justice and social order against one another, creating one of the most absurd scenarios presented on screen this year, but because it challenges these very gender stereotypes. The introduction of Tanner Bolt is the catalyst for the former, and when on his advice Nick prioritises public image over perceived innocence the film changes tone completely, but Amy is not to be underestimated. Gone Girl is, perhaps unexpectedly, the funniest film of Fincher’s career, and if the first half sets itself up as a taut thriller the second half delivers a darkly comic satire. Each as accomplished at the other, but both running out of steam towards the end.

The problem, however, is that having primed his audience for one thing he can’t help but disappoint them when he instead delivers another. As much sick, subversive, scathing fun as Gone Girl undoubtedly is, it’s also incredibly unsatisfying, particularly as Fincher — directing a screenplay written by the author — tinkers with Gillian Flynn’s original ending. Like so many of Fincher’s films, it’s more concerned with making its point than bringing the story to its natural conclusion. Justice may be on the menu, but though the demand is there he seems reluctant to actually serve any.

4-Stars

Dracula Untold (2014)

Dracula UntoldWhen Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands 1,000 Transylvanian boys for his army, and insists that the prince’s own son (Art Parkinson) join him at his place of residence, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) declines and in his act of disobedience all but declares war on the Ottoman Empire. In order to better defend his people, Vlad journeys to Broken Tooth Mountain and barters with a vampire (Charles Dance) — the strength necessary to overpower his foes for an unquenchable thirst for human blood, and potentially — should he succumb to his cravings — the creature’s freedom. Re-Christened Dracula, and given three days to play with his new powers unconditionally before they take a more permanent hold, Vlad engages Mehmed’s army.

It’s been a while since we last saw Dracula on the big screen — I think, since 2004 saw him take on both Blade and Van Helsing — and Universal seems to think that that’s really long enough. Not only has the studio decided to reboot the character, however, but to re-imagine its Universal Monsters series in a vein similar to Marvel’s mega-franchise. As such Dracula Untold has a fair amount riding on it, not just for the sake of any future sequels but for the stability of the Shared Universe it aims to cross-pollinate. We may not be able to draw conclusions on either matter until the Box Office receipts have been counted, but what can be assessed is the quality of the film itself — and, sadly, the prognosis is not good.

At no point does Dracula Untold feel like a fresh take on the character, let alone a definitive one, but rather a stop-gap to future adventures. It’s ninety minutes of preamble, of backstory, that will likely have no importance further down the line. The script is purely functional, the supporting characters largely interchangeable and the narrative entirely lacking in momentum or originality. Gary Shore’s film is more video game movie than traditional Hammer (or indeed Universal) Horror — complete with unconvincing CGI and incomprehensible editing — and seems completely unconcerned with provoking its audience, let alone scaring them. What’s more, the film’s two or three plot points are so predictable that even at little over an hour and a half in length it still feels plodding and over-long. It’s a far cry from The Mummy, anyway — the next film in line for a reboot.

It’s not all bad, however. Luke Evans is perfectly passable as Vlad the Impaler, and while it’s hardly an original idea to cast the Prince of Wallachia as Bram Stoker’s famous Count (he is after all widely believed to be the inspiration for the character) it is a nice touch to have him ‘impale’ other vampires, Slayer-style, in the final act. And then there’s the simple joy of seeing a vampire drink blood and shy away from sunlight, which of course applies to every vampire movie that’s not Twilight. The main highlight, however, is the epilogue — Universal’s attempt at the Marvel credits sequence. It sets up a rather more promising sequel, keeping the stronger elements (Evans, Dance…Evans and Dance) and leaving almost everything else behind; though whether this is enough to justify the £7 you’ve just spent on your cinema ticket, or encourage you to spend another £7 in two years’ time, is another matter.

Better than I, Frankenstein, at the very least, Universal Picture’s Dracula Untold is still an uninspiring and quite probably unnecessary resurrection of one of cinema’s greatest icons. On balance, an argument could certainly be made that this particular iteration of Dracula should have stayed that way…untold.

2-stars

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 privilege and a pleasure to spend time with people — old fashioned though they may be — who believed in working together.

Perhaps the biggest discovery of the month wasn’t even cinematic. Having recently submitted a few articles to the upcoming inaugural edition of SixteenbyNine magazine, I have for the last few months been widening my critical faculties to incorporate television too. In September I began watching American Horror Story when I was randomly lent the second series, Asylum, and quickly fell in love with it. A sort of Cabin in the Woods mash-up of every horror sub-genre going (incorporating into its narrative everything from alien abductions to demonic possession), only pushing for terror where Joss Whedon’s film mined for comedy, Asylum is like all of your favourite scary movies rolled into one.

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

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