The Infinite Man (EIFF 2014)

The Infinite ManOne year on from an apparently perfect anniversary, Dean (Josh McConville) and Lana (Hannah Marshall) return to the same hotel only to find it abandoned and in ruin. Lana shrugs it off, more than happy to go to the beach instead, but Dean — who had planned on recreating their itinerary down to the finest detail — insists that they stay and make it work. It’s a disastrous decision that leaves Lana in the arms of ex-boyfriend Terry (Alex Dimitriades) and Dean desperate to win her back. So desperate, in fact, that he builds a time machine, and one year later invites Lana back to unveil his creation. Over the course of multiple visits to the past, however, the hotel becomes crowded with Deans, Lanas and even Terrys as they compete for control of the past.

Unlike About Time, Richard Curtis’ 2013 timey-wimey rom-com in which Domnhall Gleeson accidentally retconned his relationship with Rachel McAdams (and proceeded to groom her anew), writer-director Hugh Sullivan does not expect us to root for McConville’s overly possessive Dean. He’s a tragic hero, of sorts, but while you may occasionally sympathise with his nostalgic pangs you never for a moment will for him to succeed. The fact that you feel anything but uncomfortable about his attempts to avoid change and stunt the development of his own relationship is testament to the comedic talents of McConville, who deftly tackles the often nuanced differences between temporally distinct but visually indistinguishable Deans.

The rest of the cast are great too, and even though there are really only three actors the film never feels like it is lacking in characters. The contrast is clearest in the two iterations of Dimitriades’ Terry, who is introduced as a disgraced, down-on-his-luck Olympic athlete but is later revamped as a suave businessman who is very much in control of his future. It’s Marshall who impresses most, however, despite having the straightest role of the three; her arc may not be as pronounced as those of her male co-stars, but she is by some margin the easiest to empathise with. Never just the subject of Dean’s affections (and manipulations), she soon takes on a larger role in the time-travelling shenanigans to push for a say in her own future.

Sullivan has clearly put a lot of effort into working out the temporal mechanics of his movie, and right up to the last ten minutes or so manages to convince you that it all just about hangs together. His film is smart without being ineffable, funny without being ridiculous and emotional without being sentimental. It might not be quite as thrilling as Triangle, that other Australia-set paradox, but neither is it as frustrating. Unfortunately, however, Sullivan arguably pushes his story a twist too far, as by the end you have little option but to take it on trust that it all makes sense. That said, the cast are so compelling, the themes so strong and the setting so striking that you don’t mind having to take just that little bit extra on faith.

The Infinite Man is a meticulously planned, confidently performed and imaginatively staged that strikes an impressive balance not only between romance and comedy, but science fiction too. At a film festival otherwise lacking in Antipodean entries, Sullivan’s film does the country proud.

3.5-Stars

 

 

Chef (2014)

_DSC9034.NEFCarl Casper (Jon Favreau) is head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant, where he works alongside sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale), line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) and hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson). When owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) vetoes a planned menu change and condemns him to a negative review by influential food blogger Ramsey (Oliver Platt), Carl storms out in a fit of rage that is filmed by a number of the diners. Now jobless and a laughing stock online, Carl swallows his pride, takes his ex-wife’s advice and travels down to Miami to buy a food truck — christened Le Jeffe — from an ex of her own called Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.). He also agrees to take his son along for the ride, finally getting the opportunity to spend some time with him.

Having somewhat struck out with Cowboys vs. Aliens, Jon Favreau is only now — three years later, after serving as executive producer on the most recent Iron Man film and taking a couple of small screen directing gigs — bouncing back. Not without his own critics, there are distinct parallels running between Casper and Favreau, and it doesn’t exactly take too much of a leap to imagine his comments on the blogosphere applying to film as well as food criticism. Fortunately, Favreau (as director, that is) doesn’t dwell on the subject — in fact, he arguably comes down on the critic’s side — but instead gets on with the business of putting together a pretty decent road movie, easily his best film since the first Iron Man.

There is a fair amount of prep to get through before the director seems ready to dig in, however, as Favreau throws just about everything and everyone he can get his hands on into the mix. Hoffman, Johansson and Downey Jr crowd the first act, threatening to unbalance the film as they jostle for attention. Of the supporting cast it is probably Sofia Vergara who impresses most as Carl’s ex-wife, which may come as something of a surprise if you only know her as the Colombian actress from The Smurfs, New Years Eve and The Three Stooges. Eventually, however, Favreau remembers to pour off the fat.

The film finds its focus almost as soon as Carl, Percy and Martin leave Miami. This new, more relaxed Favreau is much easier to sympathise with, and his efforts to share his interests with his young son are incredibly touching. It’s Percy who is ultimately responsible for the endeavour’s success, by recognising the potential of social media and embracing his father’s infamy to raise El Jefe’s profile around the country. This particular gimmick is handled very well, with Tweets represented by little blue birds fluttering noisily into the Twittersphere. Even when Percy compiles a Vine of their experiences — comprising footage from every day of the trip — the film never comes across as manipulative or try-hard, but instead invokes a genuine emotional reaction.

Favreau ultimately proves his critics wrong, both in front and behind the scenes, not only showing incredible technical proficiency (he chops vegetables like a natural), but also a love and appreciation for the art of cooking himself (he’s clearly done his research). It’s too long and a little overcrowded, but for the most part rather than making a meal out of it Favreau has let his ingredients speak for themselves.

3.5-Stars

Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014)

Age of ExtinctionYears after the Battle of Chicago, the Autobots have been forced into hiding by CIA officer Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), while sister organisation the KSI are using Megatron’s decapitated head to create their own robot army, to be lead by prototype Galvatron (Frank Welker). Attinger has enlisted the help of alien bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan), and together they trace Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to Texas, where he is being rebuilt by inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). The three escape thanks to Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), and soon reunite with Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (John DiMaggio). They are each called upon by Prime to help storm the government facility and put an end to scientist Joshua Joyce’s (Stanley Tucci) work.

Of course, running in at a truly astonishing 165 minutes this only begins to scratch the surface of Transformers: Age Of Extinction‘s plot. The film opens during the Cretaceous Period, where The Creators put a premature end to dinosaur life with the aid of Seeds, devices which “cyberform” planets by exposing them to “Transformium”. One botched jump cut later and all that remains of this extinction event is a metal T-Rex skeleton, unearthed by a character who we will not meet again for hours. You see, Attinger is helping Lockdown track down Prime in exchange for one such Seed, for unknown reasons. Everything in this film happens for unknown reasons.

Instead, we meet Cade Yeager, a character who is even more preposterous than his name might have you believe. He’s an inventor who specialises in crap, and who seems to think that a world populated by futuristic alien robots will be interested in a beer-retrieval machine that only occasionally works. After all, it’s not like advanced synthetic life has literally only just been shown to have predated humankind by 65 million years. He is father to Tessa, who is only notable for wearing a skirt that is so short you can see the lining of her pockets against her naked legs — often that is all you can see. It’s a relationship that fails to convince on just about every level possible, particularly with the introduction of Shane, an Irish racer who is hilariously dubbed Lucky Charms by Wade.

If the human characters are insufferable then the Transformers are just plain inexplicable. Despite having now directed four feature films on the subject (four very, very long feature films), Michael Bay still doesn’t seem to understand his titular aliens. We’ve already had girl robots, urban robots and even robot testicles, but Age Of Extinction only confuses things further by introducing robot cigarettes, techno-organic space wolves and prehistoric robots that transform into dinosaurs — you know, just in case they had to blend in with those animals their forebears had already eradicated. Most baffling of all is Drift, a Japanese alien robot who refers to Optimus Prime as sensei and wears a robot cloak into robot battle. Despite being aliens who spend most of their time as automobiles, their exchanges make regular references to chess, ballet and fortune cookies. For unknown reasons.

There really are an astonishing number of characters vying — unsuccessfully — for the audience’s attention. The first film involved a handful or Autobots fighting a handful of Decepticons, while a handful of humans avoided being squashed underfoot. It too was awful, but while the visual effects were completely incomprehensible the story at least made some sort of sense. This latest film boasts Autobots, Decepticons, a new handful of human characters (including a second Hong Kong-set ensemble during the last act), human-made Transformers, The Creators, inter-galactic bounty hunters, a car which seems to exist for the sole purpose of giving the Transformers paint jobs and Dinobots, which may star in the promotional material but in reality only play a pitiful role in proceedings. Even with nearly three hours at his disposal, Bay can’t even begin to make sense of his own story. That said, given how terrible Ehren Kruger’s script is (“I know you have a conscience because you’re an inventor like me”) you can’t help but wonder if he ever even tried.

Nobody makes a film as bad as Transformers: Age Of Extinction by accident; Bay has spent the last seven years honing his craft, methodically weeding out every redeeming feature the first few films may have had until he is left exclusively with the worst aspects of contemporary feature filmmaking. Transformers: Age Of Extinction, with its interminable action scenes, cynical product placement and overwhelming contempt for its audience, doesn’t refer to the end of prehistoric or modern life, but the death of cinema as we know it.

0.5-Stars

 

The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

The Fault In Our StarsIn Indianapolis, sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is struggling to cope with a terminal thyroid cancer that has metastasized to her lungs. Despite having long given up on her cancer support group, she surprises herself by hitting it off with Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an amputee who has been in remission for osteosarcoma for a number of months. They agree to trade books — Hazel’s cancer-inflected An Imperial Affliction for Augustus’ violent video game novelisation — and after having corresponded with the author (Willem Dafoe) of the former set off for Amsterdam, courtesy of a sympathetic make-a-wish organisation.

It has been a good few years now since maudlin Jodi Picoult adaptation My Sister’s Keeper gave cancer movies a bad name. In the intervening years films like Now Is Good and 50/50 have approached the subject with rather more sensitivity and even-handedness. Josh Boone’s The Fault In Their Stars — based on John Green’s astonishingly successful novel — falls somewhere in between, getting the teenage angst just right while also exploring the subject for comedy, often by highlighting certain well-observed absurdities that come hand-in-hand with a diagnosis.

The cast is exceptional, with Woodley and Elgort in particular — having earlier this year played siblings in Divergent — proving considerably more convincing as lovers. Both are incredibly sympathetic, and their initially cautious courtship is played beautifully. Their fears transcend their particular set of circumstances, and anyone can relate to having worries about being forgotten and leaving people behind. The supporting cast are arguably even more impressive, with Dafoe stealing every scene he’s in as the book-within-a-book’s aggressive author and Laura Dern playing something of a symphony on your heart strings as Hazel’s mother.

Set over a series of months, their romance is nevertheless a refreshingly slow burn. While nowhere near as phlegmatic as the love story in Twilight, there is a reluctance to hurt the other that sets it apart from most whirlwind romances. Hazel states at the outset that this is no traditional relationship drama, and rather than showboating displays of affection it is the smaller moments of intimacy that really hit their mark — a romantic dinner; a morning stroll. It’s not without the occasional misstep, however, and an otherwise promising scene set in Anne Frank’s apartment is sadly spoiled by a saccarine show of spontaneous public support that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Spider-man movie. That said, the atypical Amsterdam setting remains one of the film’s biggest assets.

Moving without being manipulative, The Fault In Our Stars is a more than your average Young Adult adaptation. Funny in places, devastating in others, it is a successful examination of young love in exceptional circumstances.

4-Stars

 

June 2014 – I’m your best night…I’m your worst nightmare

HTTYD IMAXYou might not know it from my relatively sparse updates, but June was a pretty busy month, all things considered.

Putting aside real life demands on my time like ending one job and starting another, much of this last month has been spent commuting from one cinema to the next. I’ve never spent so much time on a train in my life.

I began June in Glasgow with press screenings of Grace Of Monaco, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet and Belle, before returning to Dundee in order to mop up at the multiplex with 22 Jump Street and a second viewing of X-Men: Days Of Future Past.

That, however, was just the calm before the storm. On the 17th I made the first of six trips through to the Capital for the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival. Having picked up my press pass on arrival, I kicked things off with Manakamana, a Nepalese fly-on-the-wall documentary that followed worshipers as they pilgrimaged to a remote temple…by cable car.

Overall I saw sixteen films at EIFF 2014, only some of which I found the time to review, either for this blog or for HeyUGuys. These included Greyhawk, Palo Alto, X/Y, Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang, We Are Monster, Snowpiercer, A Most Wanted Man, Something, Anything, Night Flight, I Believe In Unicorns, Parents, A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide, The Nut Job, The Infinite Man and The Green Inferno, for which I interviewed director Eli Roth and star Lorenza Izzo.

The best film I saw in Edinburgh was not a festival film at all, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 (in IMAX 3D). The original is one of my favourite films — if not my favourite film — of all time, and having initially been slightly underwhelmed by the sequel I was relieved to find myself warming to it on second viewing. I have since downloaded the soundtrack, and plan on seeing the film again at the nearest opportunity.

With July approaching I have a lot to catch up on. It looks like I’ve missed Oculus and The Devil’s Knot, but there’s hopefully still time to see Jersey Boys, Walking On Sunshine and The Fault In Our Stars before they disappear from cinemas. Otherwise I’ll have no option but to swallow my pride and go see Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie, or whatever it’s called. Feckin’ right.

Film of the month: How To Train Your Dragon 2

The Green Inferno (EIFF 2014)

The Green InfernoJustine (Lorenza Izzo) is a young idealist studying in New York City when she becomes involved with student activists campaigning for conservation in the Amazon. Together with Alejandro (Ariel Levy), Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) and Daniel (Nicolás Martinez), she departs for Peru, where they stage a successful demonstration against contractors cutting down acres of trees. On their way back, however, the plane they are travelling in malfunctions, crashing in territory belonging to the tribe they were trying to save. Unbeknownst to them, the tribe practices cannibalistic rituals.

Having attended last year’s Glasgow Film Festival on behalf of Nicolás López’ Aftershock, in which he starred, Eli Roth is back on the Scottish festival circuit with The Green Inferno, his first directorial effort since Hostel: Part II in 2007. Shot on location in the Peruvian rain forest, and featuring genuine tribes people from the local area (though their cannibalistic tendencies are purely fictitious), the film is rather different from his other efforts. It’s beautiful, for one thing, and unexpectedly funny, for another.

It is not fear that Roth evokes with his panning shots of the jungle, but wanderlust. Bulldozers are tearing down trees long before cannibals get to tear into human flesh, and when the activists set out to protest deforestation you are right behind them. Even when things go awry, the arrival of multicoloured tribesmen is just as likely to bring to mind vivid Xperia adverts than your deepest, darkest nightmares. It adds to the heightened sense of absurdity, and while it may undermine the atmosphere of suspense it does little to diminish the inevitable gruesomeness.

As for the humour, that follows from the absurdity. Roth pokes fun at student activism, questioning the effectiveness of hunger strikes and ridiculing many of their chosen causes. Once Justine and co. arrive in the Amazon things only get more surreal, with the activists boarding rickshaws named after celebrities such as Madonna and Brad Pitt and fine dining while they wait for their plane into the jungle. The strongest juxtaposition is between the horrific nature of the cannibals’ actions and the mundane manner with which the treat them. Unexpectedly, the film isn’t judging their customs, but the students for not doing their research.

There are scenes in The Green Inferno that are just as squirm-inducing as the shaving sequence from Cabin Fever and the bit with the Achilles tendon in Hostel, but there is much more to this one that simple schlock. A clever film with a dedicated turn from up-and-coming scream-queen Izzo, The Green Inferno is quite possibly Roth’s best film yet.

3-Stars

22 Jump Street (2014)

22 Jump StreetWhen their undercover sting operation is foiled by an octopus, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are swiftly reassigned to Jump Street by Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman), where they are once again answerable to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). This time, however, they are sent to college, though the specifics of their assignment are much and such the same: they must identify the individual supplying WHYPHY to the student body, a drug which has already claimed one life on campus.

A meta-sequel to their meta-reboot, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 22 Jump Street continues in the vein of its predecessor, subverting the traditional buddy cop movie format while also taking swipes at everything from sequels in general to the film’s own plot holes. Nothing is safe, with veiled references to Ice Cube’s rapper persona, Tatum’s extant filmography and even The Benny Hill Show making sure that there is at least one decent gag in the film for just about everyone.

21 Jump Street was the film that first made audiences re-evaluate Channing Tatum, with later 2012 releases Magic Mike and Haywire helping to recast the actor as a serious dramatic talent with excellent comic timing. He’s arguably even funnier in the sequel, particularly in scenes where he’s required to improvise (something that his character at least is absolutely terrible at) or show any intellectual capabilities whatsoever. His constant confusion of words and phrases (WHYPHY/WiFi; homophobe/homophone) are a constant delight.

Hill and Ice Cube are great too, particularly when Schmidt starts dating Dickson’s daughter, Maya (Amber Stevens), leading to a stand-out showdown in the Captain’s cube of ice. It’s relative newcomer Jillian Bell as Maya’s roommate, Mercedes, however, who ultimately steals the show. While it would be a spoiler to reveal the character’s true role within the narrative, her early antagonism with Schmidt is a real treat, as she immediately calls him out on account of his apparent old age. One particular skirmish may well go down as the funniest of the year, though Dickson vs. the buffet cart gives it some pretty tough competition.

That said, it’s not quite as funny as the first film, and a number of refrains fall particularly flat. The partners once again find themselves dosing on the drug they are supposed to be removing from circulation, and though the effects are explored in a different way it just doesn’t have the same impact. While perhaps less likely to make you laugh out loud than the first film, the satire this time around is often much cleverer than you might expect. A running gag involving the project’s out-of-control budget will at least have you smiling, while a novel use of the end credits ups the laughs quotient considerably.

It’s not entirely clear whether this franchise has anywhere left to go, but thanks to the talents of its directors and stars this sequel is a worthy follow-up to 2012’s original. It’s certainly far better than anyone could reasonable expect for what is after all the sequel to a rebooted TV show.

3.5-Stars

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

HTTYD2It’s been five years since the denizens of Berk finally welcomed dragons into their midsts, ending a war that had raged for generations. Since then, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless have continued to explore the viking world, discovering new species and acting as ambassadors for human-dragon relations. After an encounter with a trapper named Eret (Kit Harrington), however, Hiccup is ordered by Stoic The Vast (Gerard Butler) to cease his activities and assist in safeguarding Berk against possible invaders — namely Eret’s master, Drago (Djimon Hounsou), with whom the chieftain has history. Confident of his outreach programme, Hiccup flees from Stoic only to end up in the company of his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchet), who he had long presumed dead. While Hiccup reconnects with his estranged parent, old classmates Astrid (America Ferrera), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T. J. Miller) set out in search of their missing friend.

When How To Train Your Dragon was released in 2010 it took the box office by storm and audiences by surprise. DreamWorks had long been overshadowed by Pixar, and yet here was a film with as much heart, wit and spectacle as anything its rival had to offer. It promised a new dawn for DreamWorks Animation, with directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders enlisting the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Roger Deakin and John Powell to produce the studio’s first undisputed masterpiece. While it’s true that How To Train Your Dragon 2 doesn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, it’s still ambitious enough to impress in its own right.

A more serious film than the first, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has aged its characters by half a decade and introduced an external threat that was much less pronounced the last time around. Older, wiser and rather more confident than before, Hiccup has begun to shed his awkward, adolescent angst to become something of a hero-figure. His relationship with Stoic has inevitably changed, and with the return of his mother it soon changes again. He may have lost a leg at the end of the first movie, but it didn’t seem to dampen his spirits or weaken his resolve. This time, however, his decisions may continue to have a cost but it’s the people around him that suffer the consequences, upping the stakes and giving the character a real sense of weight and responsibility.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t funny, just that the jokes don’t come quite as thick and fast as before. Hiccup and Toothless’ interactions continue to be a source of wit and warmth, as they work – often simultaneously — on both their synchronicity and independence. Gobber (Craig Ferguson), meanwhile, continues to entertain with his assortment of replacement limbs, while Ruffnut earns arguably the biggest laughs of all with her feelings for Eret — much to the chagrin of both Snotlout and Fishlegs, who have by now given up on finding favour with Astrid and refocused their attention at Tuffnut’s twin. As before, the dragons are almost as engaging as their riders, and there is often so much going on in the background that you suspect repeated viewings may be once again necessary to enjoy every gag.

It’s the film’s villain that lets it down. While Hiccup’s mother is a welcome addition to the cast (though Blanchet’s Scottish accent could do with a bit of work), the other newcomers are nowhere near as memorable. Whereas every character in the first film felt fleshed out and integral to the plot, Harrington’s rogue never really coheres (even despite Ruffnut’s affections for him) while the big bad never feels like that much of a threat. Previously the conflict came from Hiccup’s strained relationship with his father, and next to that the antagonism he shares with Drago feels tenuous and beside the point. How To Train Your Dragon 2 just doesn’t feel as sharp or as streamlined as the first; Hiccup’s narration feels clunky and unnecessary as he introduces every viking and his dragon; the dragon races feel like a hangover from the spin-off TV series; and the happy ending doesn’t feel deserved after what is otherwise a pointedly traumatic third act.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is still incredibly entertaining. The animation is even more astonishing than before, the flight scenes are just as stirring and though not quite as uplifting John Powell’s score is still a delight. It’s just a shame that in pushing for something bigger and broader DeBlois has lost track of the finer details that made the original such an unmitigated and unexpected success.

4-Stars

Snowpiercer (EIFF 2014)

SnowpiercerIt’s been seventeen years since the world froze over, the disastrous results of humanity’s vain attempts to reverse global warming, and the last surviving humans are confined to a self-sufficient, self-sustaining bullet train that circles the planet once every twelve months. The intervening years have seen a class system emerge aboard the train, with Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow refugees — nominally lead by Gilliam (John Hurt) — relegated to the rear compartments and Wilford (Ed Harris) entombed in the re-enforced engine. It’s Mason’s (Tilda Swinton) job to liaise between the two, but her unwelcome visits have only served to stoke the flames of rebellion.

For Bong Joon-Ho’s latest — an English-language adaptation of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige – the road to release has been a turbulent one. Having successfully fought the Weinstein Company for final cut, it’s the director’s vision that finally arrived in the UK this month via the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s hard to imagine what a shorter version might look like, for Snowpiercer packs so much into its 126-minute running time that to remove anything at all would be to change the film considerably.

The first section of the movie is — bar a brief prologue establishing the premise — set entirely within the confines of the lattermost section of the train. It’s a dark and unforgiving place, where the inhabitants live in poverty, dine exclusively on gelatinous protein bars and line up under duress for regular inspections, where their numbers are counted, their children abducted and any signs of dissent quashed without mercy. For Curtis, the only reasons to hope are Gilliam, cryptic messages ostensibly sent from the front and the unbreakable promise of revolt.

The plan is for a mob of men to force their way to the brig, where they will find and free the man responsible for designing the train’s security systems. In theory, with his help they can proceed unimpeded all the way to the engine. Their target, Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), however, has his own ideas, and takes the opportunity to free his daughter (Go Ah-Sung) and demand payment in drugs for his help opening the doors. Together with Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Curtins pushes on, meeting resistance of his own as Mason mirco-manages line after line of defense.

As horrific as the earlier scenes are, with characters being beaten and tortured for the trivialest of slights, it’s only once the rebels leave the tail section and their plight is shown in the harsh light of day that the true extent of their suffering becomes apparent. Snowpiercer is a dystopian sci-fi in the vein of The Matrix Reloaded, but it is also a darkly comic satire with a lot to say about the human condition. The absurd juxtaposition of Tilda Swinton’s distinctly Aardman-esque spokesperson, Alison Pill’s psychotic primary school teacher and Ed Harris’ fine-dining ruler is incredibly unsettling, and watching Evans move incredulously from carriage to carriage is as harrowing as it is heartbreaking.

Evans gives quite possibly the performance of his career, impressing throughout but really coming into his own for the final act, where a series of increasingly gut-wrenching revelations bring into question everything he thinks he knows about the train, and everything we think we know about him. Swinton is also on top form as Mason, instilling surprising complexity into a character that could quite easily have become caricatured. Few other actors get as much to do, but they each have their moments; Octavia Spencer when she learns that cigarettes aren’t as extinct as she’d been lead to believe, Bell when the revolution is jeopradised by an ill-timed inspection and Go when she first shows signs of prescience.

There are problems, however, and you do suspect that even this director’s cut is not the complete incarnation of the story. Luke Pasqualino’s character just appears out of nowhere, others are written out surprisingly early on and there are occasional gaps in the narrative that seem too glaring to have been overlooked by accident. Also problematic is the scenario itself, which doesn’t stand up to the simplest of scrutinies. Admittedly, there are numerous carriages that we don’t see, but for a supposedly strained civilisations life aboard the train is not as streamlined or austere as you would expect. The distribution of the carriages is strange and counter-intuitive, while there don’t seem to be anywhere near enough residential rooms for the on board population. Oh, and the less said about the ending the better.

For the most part, however, Snowpiercer is as great as they say. It’s a full-bodied sci-fi that’s as laughably absurd as it is hauntingly familiar. Still no word of a nationwide release, but Snowpiercer is not to be missed when it finally arrives in the UK.

4-Stars

 

Belle (2014)

BelleWell aware that the Royal Navy is no place for a young girl, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) leaves his daughter in the care of his uncle, one William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice. Unlike her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who also resides at the Murray’s Kenwood House estate, Dido Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is of mixed-race. While behind closed doors she may be a fully-fledged member of the family, in public she faces many of the same prejudices as any other non-white individual. Particularly affronted by her presence are the Ashfords, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) and eldest son James (Tom Felton) especially, who practically balk every time they set eyes on her. However, when it is revealed that Belle in fact boasts a substantially larger dowry than Elizabeth, younger brother Oliver Ashford (James Norton) puts his prejudices aside long enough to ask for her hand in marriage. Belle’s own affections lie with John Davinier (Sam Reid), however, an aspiring and unusually liberal lawyer with a vested interest in the Gregson v. Gilbert case, over which Lord Mansfield is presiding.

Inspired by a portrait which today hangs at Scone Palace in Perthshire, Belle tells the extraordinary true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who, in a unique example of 18th Century equality, is featured as predominantly as Lady Elizabeth Murray. What makes the story even more remarkable, however, is the role that Belle appears to have played in her great uncle’s career and in the politics of her time. Mansfield presided over two landmark cases, the latter of which is dramatised here. The Zong massacre, as it’s become known, concerned the killing of over a hundred African slaves, for which the owners had the gall to file an insurance claim, seeking compensation for the perceived loss of property. While the owners insisted that their actions were unavoidable, Dido and Davinier had evidence that the tragedy could have been averted.

Slavery is still very much a hot topic, not just in cinema thanks to 12 Years A Slave but in the real world too — where despite being illegal the world over there are still millions of slaves working today. While the film might pay lip-service to abolitionism and racial equality, however, it never really tackles the subject head-on. After all, protestation would be far too unbecoming of this pretty but ultimately quite petty little period picture, which spends much of its running time flittling between mama and papa, dealing with the same class wars that pervade almost all historical fiction, particularly when the focus is British gentry. The slave trade seems a long way off when you’re frolicking in the grounds with young socialites, and even when Dido is inevitably subject to racism as well as sexism it is hard to relate her individual struggle with that of those lost at sea. Everything is so polite, poised and proper that injustice seems rude rather than wrong.

Newcomer Mbatha-Raw impresses on a pantomime level, alternating didactically between confusion and concern, for she is rarely required to do more than purse her lips and furrow her brow. Misan Sagay’s script sounds authentic enough but seems to hinder the performances of anyone left to grapple with it. As is typical of most costume dramas there is a distinct discrepancy between language and expression in general; dialogue is stripped of nuance while actors are left rambling on long after the moment has passed and their convictions waned. Every character emotes, but very few manage to engage emotionally, which has disastrous consequences for poor Matthew Goode, who almost immediately sets the bar for stilted delivery, and for Tom Felton, who keeps vaulting it. Given how triumphant or devastating the climax should be (depending on which way Lord Mansfield rules and whether he gives Belle his blessing) it really is unforgivable just how anticlimactic it actually feels.

Dido Belle Lindsay is a historical curiosity, and if nothing else the film should be enough to convince you to seek out the portrait and learn more about a truly remarkable woman.  As a drama, however, Belle isn’t particularly special at all. It’s cold, tedious and impenetrable; it’s a strangely exclusive film that somewhat ironically preaches understanding and acceptance.

2-stars (1)

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