Film

The Mountain Between Us

08/10/17

This handsomely mounted movie, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is a story of survival against all the odds in remote mountain locations. Nicely acted and decently filmed, it’s hampered somewhat by an all-pervading sense of predictability and by the conviction that it could have been a whole lot better if it had been willing to take a few more risks, particularly in the gender-stereotyping department. 

Photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) is desperate to get to Denver, where she’s scheduled to marry her partner, Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But impending bad weather leads to the cancellation of her flight. At the airport, she overhears surgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) telling a flight attendant that he too is desperate to get to Denver in order to carry out an urgent operation on a young patient. Alex talks him into sharing the cost of chartering a small private plane, flown by aging pilot, Walter (Beau Bridges), a man who clearly hasn’t spent an awful lot of time reading up on his health and safety procedures. Almost before you can say ‘bad idea,’ Walter has suffered a fatal stroke and the couple find themselves involved in a messy crash-landing on a snow-covered mountain peak. Worse still, Walter hasn’t bothered to inform anybody about the flight so nobody knows where they are – oh, and one more thing: Alex has only gone and fractured her leg…

All the usual tropes of a survival movie are present and correct – the couple overcome the problems of staying warm (mostly it would seem, by burning credit card bills) of finding food (a couple of packets of almonds) and of healing their wounds. Ben somehow finds the necessary tools to fix Alex’s broken leg and generally patch her up. If there’s a real criticism here, it’s that Ben is pretty much the ingenious hero throughout this scenario, solving nearly all of the couple’s problems single-handedly – even, at one stage, dragging Alex along behind him like an encumbrance. A hungry cougar adds a bit of much-needed menace (and eventually ends up supplementing the food supply) but eventually, the hapless couple realise that, if they are going to make it out alive, they will have to descend the mountain on foot – and, as they travel, it becomes increasingly apparent that the two of them are falling for each other, big time. Which is awkward, to say the very least.

This would be all well and good, but the film then overstays its welcome by looking at what happens after the events on the mountain, dragging out proceedings and holding off on an ending that we all know is waiting in the wings. Winslet and Elba make an agreeable couple and manage to strike plenty of sparks off each other, but she should have been given a bit more to do on that mountain.

All in all, this is watchable stuff – but not exactly ground-breaking.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Sixteen Candles

08/10/17

In general, The Cameo’s John Hughes season is a Very Good Thing. I jumped at the chance to see The Breakfast Club on the big screen last Sunday, and already have my ticket for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off next month. But today is a little different: I’ve never seen Sixteen Candles before, so I’m not wallowing in nostalgia. I’m here to see what I have missed.

And, it turns out, what I’ve missed is something rather different. Sixteen Candles is very uncomfortable to watch. To put it bluntly, this is a racist, sexist embarrassment, which seems to endorse rape. Oh dear.

It stars Molly Ringwald as Sam, a sparky teenager whose parents are so caught up in her sister’s wedding plans that they forget her sixteenth birthday. To make matters worse, the boy Sam has a crush on, Jake (Michael Schoeffling), doesn’t seem to know she exists and anyway, he’s dating Caroline (Haviland Morris), the hottest girl in school. Meanwhile, she has to fend off the unwanted attentions of uber-geek Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), and sleep on the sofa because her grandparents have comandeered her room. So far, so what I’d expect: some excellently observed insights into the teenage mind, and that trademark understanding of the all-consuming emotions that are part of growing up. Okay, so there are way too many characters, a sprawling cast of family members and schoolkids clogging up the plot and confusing things without really adding much (two sets of grandparents, in-laws, two younger siblings, the geek’s friends, Sam’s best friend, a girl in a neck-brace, a Chinese exchange student – more about him later) but that’s okay; it’s the work of a young film-maker after all, and Hughes certainly learns to pare things back for his next movie, The Breakfast Club.

But it’s impossible to ignore the racism and misogyny that pervade this piece. I wonder if it seemed so blatant on its release in 1984? I like to think I would have been affronted even then (I was thirteen, and quite politically aware); certainly, in 2017, it’s awkward in the extreme. The Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), for example: what’s his purpose here? Every time his name is mentioned, there’s a wince-inducing gong; I think he’s supposed to be funny just because he’s foreign and has a suggestive name. Urgh. Then there’s Jake, who’s supposedly a ‘good guy’ because he’d like a real relationship with a girl like Sam, instead of the regular sex he’s currently having with prom queen Caroline, who, he complains, likes to party too much. Poor Jake. Still, in the aftermath of a drunken house-party, Jake says that, if Farmer Ted agrees to give him Sam’s knickers (don’t ask), he will repay  him by allowing Ted to drive the unconscious Caroline home, and ‘have some fun’ with her. What a hero. Less sinister but perhaps more baffling is what happens to Sam’s sister, Ginny (Blanche Baker), who – shock horror! – gets her period on her wedding day. Ginny seems to be in her twenties, so she’s likely to have experienced this phenomena every month for a good few years. And about a quarter of brides are probably menstruating as they say their vows – because… biology. So, it really shouldn’t be that big a deal. And yet, somehow, it derails Ginny’s whole day, sending her into a frenzy, and causing her to take ‘muscle relaxants’ that have the effect of a bottle of vodka, rendering her completely helpless. It’s not funny, it’s just odd.

So, yeah. Not such a resounding success, this one, despite Ringwald’s charm and Hall’s delicious awkwardness. It really hasn’t stood the test of time.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Blade Runner 2049

 

 

05/10/17

The original Blade Runner (1982) is widely regarded as a classic of the sci fi genre. People forget that on its release, it didn’t receive much acclaim. The critics were distinctly sniffy about it and, for that matter, it didn’t exactly pack out the multiplexes. But, over the intervening years, its stature has grown, especially as original director Ridley Scott couldn’t seem to stop tinkering with it. This must surely be the only film where the Director’s Cut is actually shorter than the theatrical release?

When the news broke that there would be a sequel – and furthermore, that Scott would only be producing, rather than directing, expectations plummeted. But the appointment of Denis Villeneauve to the director’s seat definitely helped to bolster confidence; (his Arrival was one of the most acclaimed films of last year) and besides, Scott’s recent return to another of his franchises, with Alien Covenant, hadn’t exactly been the massive success everybody had predicted. Maybe it was the right thing to go forward with a new hand on the helm. Then the advance reviews for Blade Runner 2049 broke and it was, apparently, a masterpiece, a jaw-dropping work of staggering genius. The truth of course, is that it isn’t quite that, but it is an assured and credible sequel to the original film, which is pretty much all we could have hoped for.

It’s thirty years since the events of Blade Runner and a new generation of replicants – ones that are supposedly incapable of insurrection, are now taking on the work that humans disdain, including hunting down and ‘retiring’ the last remaining Nexus 6 models, who are still insisting on going about their business. ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is one of the new breed of ‘skin job’, working as a Blade Runner for the LAPD, under the direction of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). While hunting down renegade replicant Sapper Morten (Dave Bautista), K makes an unexpected discovery. Buried in a box beneath one of the world’s last surviving trees, are the remains of a woman. The pathology department soon establishes that she died in childbirth. The problem is, a serial number hidden in her bones identifies her as a replicant. And replicants are supposedly incapable of procreation. This is news that threatens to have world-changing repercussions and one, when you think about it, that is the basis for most religions.

If Villeneauve’s brief was to mirror the look and feel of the original movie, then this has to be regarded as a success. The squalid grandeur of the cityscapes are breathtakingly realised, the recreation of a smog laden, overcrowded dystopian Los Angeles is perfectly achieved – even Hans Zimmer’s eerie score manages to echo the feel of the Vangelis original while still somehow managing to be its own beast. The references to the first story are all cleverly integrated. Nothing ever feels tacked on.

But this is more than just an accomplished rehash. I particularly liked the concept of Joi (Ama de Armas), K’s virtual reality companion, which gives you an idea of where the likes of Siri and Alexa are eventually going to wind up. A VR creation capable of feeling love for its owner? This element is the film’s strongest card, (and a scene where Joi ‘borrows’ the body of another woman in order to make love to K is a standout); but there are plenty of other thought-provoking ideas in here, much more than the usual cartoonish ones we’ve become used to in this genre. They will have you discussing their implications long after the credits have rolled.

What exactly does it mean to be human? How important are memories to our evolution and to what degree can we trust them? And perhaps, most baffling of all… why does Harrison Ford never seem to get any older?

Okay, so the film isn’t quite perfect. Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace  – the man who has inherited and improved upon the Tyrell Corporation’s achievements – is a bit wearisome, to tell you the truth, given to intoning his lines like an Old Testament prophet; and while I appreciate that there must be fight scenes in a film like this, the climactic punch up between K and a supercharged female adversary seems to go on for just about forever. But the ending is cool. I really didn’t see that coming…

Inevitably, arguments will rage about this one. Some people are going to hate it. Some are going to insist that it’s way better than the original. But for me that will always be a solid gold five star picture, while this one? Close, but no cigar. Maybe just a slim panetella.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Pecking Order

 

04/10/17

I’ll be perfectly honest, I really didn’t expect to enjoy this film. A documentary about a bunch of obsessive Kiwi chicken-breeders? it doesn’t really tick any of my boxes, but it is, quite literally, the only film on offer that we haven’t already seen. Which only goes to show how wrong you can be. This quirky, amusing little movie really is good fun and a perfectly pleasant way to spend one hour and twenty eight minutes.

It’s 2015 and the members of the Christchurch Poultry Club, founded one hundred and forty eight years ago, are fast approaching their own ‘night of the long knives.’ The elderly chairman of the society is being challenged by younger members who have plenty of ideas about how the club can be changed for the better, but he’s stubbornly staying in his seat – and meanwhile, the National Poultry Show is fast approaching. Can everything be sorted out in time for that all-important event? Well, yes, but it’s going to take some considerable wheeling and dealing.

The film introduces us to an eclectic bunch of characters, young and old (but, it has to be said, mostly old) all of whom are totally obsessed with the idea of breeding prize winning poultry and are ready and willing to share their secrets with the audience. They are a mostly likeable, if somewhat eccentric collection. We watch them shampooing and blow-drying their roosters, manicuring them and inspecting them for feather damage in the dead of night. We also find out exactly what the judges are looking for in a prize winning bird. Purple feathers? That’s a no-no (apparently).

I’ll be honest, this is nobody’s idea of a cinematic masterpiece. But it’s an enjoyably hokey slice of entertainment, wittily directed by Slavko Martinov and at the end of the day, that’s surely no bad thing. Does it inspire me to think about taking this up as a hobby? Well, no, but I do find myself looking at poultry with a fresh eye and thinking to myself, ‘Lovely plumage on that one.’

Which is worrying…

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Breakfast Club

01/10/17

John Hughes’ 1985 coming-of-age movie is fondly remembered by many, exemplifying the writer/director’s instinctive understanding of the teenage mindset. And I’m delighted to report that its heart hasn’t died, despite the fact that it’s grown old.

Actually, it’s not all that long since I’ve watched it; it’s one of those films I return to periodically: an easy fix of feelgood catharsis, guaranteed to make me laugh and cry as I wallow in nostalgia, mouthing the words that I know by heart. But I’ve never seen it on the big screen before, so The Cameo’s John Hughes season is very welcome indeed. I seize my chance.

The plot, such as it is, is very simple: five kids, each representing a different high school social group, spend a Saturday together in detention for various misdeeds. During the course of their enforced proximity, they get to know one another. And they learn, famously, that each one of them is, in fact, “a brain, an athlete, a basket-case, a princess and a criminal” – i.e. that they’re more similar and more complex than their stereotypes suggest.

But this isn’t really about plot at all; it’s character-driven drama in its purest form. Nothing happens and everything happens. It’s a journey of self-discovery, and of developing empathy; an expose of the tragedies – both large and small – that drive young people into reckless acts. From the undeniable awfulness of Bender (Judd Nelson)’s homelife –  where he’s burned with a cigar for spilling paint on the garage floor – to the peer-pressure heaped on spoilt-little-rich-girl Claire (Molly Ringwald), Hughes’s script recognises the reality of their misery, compounded as it is by the lack of autonomy that comes with the territory.

My favourite moment is when Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) explains the reason he’s in detention: he tried to kill himself because he got an F in ‘shop’ (design technology). It’s painful to watch, and always makes me weep, but then it’s so beautifully undercut by the revelation that he messed the suicide up too, attempting to use a flare gun which went off in his locker, which makes the others laugh despite the gravity of what he’s telling them. It’s glorious.

Emilio Estevez (the athlete) and Ally Sheedy (the basket-case) give excellent performances too (although I still think Allison has more style before the make-over scene than after), as does Paul Gleason as the egocentric teacher, Mr Vernon.

If you haven’t seen The Breakfast Club before, it’s honestly a must. And if you’ve not indulged in it for a while, maybe now’s the time to watch it again. It’s a perfect little film: funny as anything and guaranteed to wring tears from all but the stoniest of viewers.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Brimstone

28/09/17

Westerns are a pretty rare species in this day and age, but even rarer is the Dutch Western – indeed, I can’t think of any others before Martin Koolhaven’s Brimstone, a long and rather visceral story that seems to be mostly a mediation on the awful treatment meted out to women in the Old West. With a variety of locations in Europe standing in (pretty convincingly) for America, the film plays audacious tricks with chronology, jumping backwards from time to time to reveal what happened earlier. It finally zooms back to its starting point for a violent conclusion.

When we first meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), she is a married woman with a stepson and a young daughter to care for. She is also mute and we learn, fairly quickly, this is because she has no tongue. When not working alongside her husband raising sheep, she is the local midwife, helping to deliver her neighbour’s children. But the arrival of The Reverend (Guy Pearce) sends her into an evident state of terror. It’s clear from the first sight of him that the two of them have history and that he is there to exact some kind of vengeance. As the film progresses, we learn more about their past… and it’s not an appealing story. This is a relationship forged in hell.

While I take Koolhaven’s point that women were treated abysmally at that time, I think there’s a fine line between the depiction of such brutality and inviting viewers to relish in those depictions. As I watch, women have their tongues cut out. They are whipped, punched, sexually violated and generally abused. Mind you, the violence is not confined to the female characters. One man has his innards cut out and wrapped around his neck. Another is hanged whilst trying to take a crap. This is clearly not The Little House on the Prairie. Pearce’s character must be one of the most irredeemably malevolent creatures ever committed to film; indeed, the film hints at the fact that he might not even be human, but some kind of supernatural being that simply cannot be killed. It also seems to be putting forward the suggestion that religion is at the heart of all evil

If you can get past all the violence, it has to be said that Brimstone is superbly filmed and acted – it’s great to see Dakota Fanning back on screen and brilliantly handling what must be a very demanding role. I also particularly like the evocative score by Junkie XL (who wrote the music for Mad Max: Fury Road). But to be honest, this is a hard film to enjoy – too heavy-handed in its sadistic depictions of brutality for my taste, even if it does feature some powerful scenes. Game of Thrones fans may like to know that it also features Kit Harrington in a minor role as a gunslinger.

Those of you with sensitive stomachs may want to give this one a miss – and if you’re already upset by the sheer volume of violence against women in film, it’s definitely not for you.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Flatliners

29/09/17

If there was a prize for the least anticipated remake ever, Flatliners would probably be pretty high on the list. On its release, Joel Schumacher’s 1990 original was roundly drubbed by most critics as ‘pretty but vacuous’ and this new version seems to have reached the big screen with very little trumpeting from its makers. On the face of it, not much has changed from the original story.

A bunch of medical students based in an American hospital, all of whom are haunted by incidents in their past, decide to run a series of experiments where they deliberately stop each other’s hearts in order to try and discover the answer to an age old question: is there life after death? Ring leader Courtney (Ellen Page) is tormented by the fact that, nine years ago, she inadvertently caused the death of her younger sister in a car accident. Rich-kid Jamie (James Norton) ran out on his pregnant girlfriend. Sophia (Kiersy Clemons) was the ringleader of a bullying campaign on a vulnerable girl at her high school, and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) accidentally caused the death of a patient at the hospital and then falsified the records. Only Ray (Diego Luna) appears to have no skeletons rattling in his closet but, luckily, he’s the one who always knows what to do in any given emergency – and, inevitably, things go wrong fairly often.

From the word go, viewers are asked to swallow a rather unlikely premise – that there’s a fully equipped and functioning operating theatre down in the hospital’s basement, one that isn’t guarded and is only ever to be used ‘in an emergency.’ (Yes, I know.) However, if you can accept that, what follows is entertaining enough in a kind of breathless, galumphing sort of way. Each character undergoes a freaky near-death experience – and afterwards, is haunted by ghostly visions and inexplicable events. The jump scares are expertly handled by director Niels Arden Oplev and the first two thirds of the film whizz by quite entertainingly. It’s only as it thunders into the final furlong that things begin to run out of steam and I find myself with the conviction that the writers haven’t really thought the story through properly. To be haunted by a dead person is one thing. To be haunted by somebody who is still demonstrably alive and existing happily in the world, is quite another. And to me, that’s a problem. Because, if the ‘spirits’ are only a manifestation of an already guilty conscience, why do the young doctors need to flatline in order to awaken them?

The acting from the ensemble cast is consistent throughout and it’s interesting to see Happy Valley’s James Norton making what looks like a pretty assured transition to Hollywood. Just for the sake of tradition, Kiefer Sutherland (who had a lead role in the original) throws in a cameo performance as a rather grumpy teacher, prone to snarling at his pupils and banging his walking stick on their desks whenever they fail to answer his questions correctly. The film’s somewhat cheesy conclusion – that people need to be ready to ‘forgive themselves’ – kind of blows what’s left of the credibility.

Ultimately, I think, this is one to watch when there isn’t much else on offer – and, come to think of it, that’s exactly why we’re seeing it. It’s decent enough entertainment but, in the end, forgettable and a bit… dare I say it? Flat.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney