Film

Gifted

18/06/17

In this enjoyable tearjerker, Chris Evans hangs up his Captain America outfit in order to play something a little more down to earth – an ordinary joe. He’s Frank Adler, a freelance ‘boat-builder’ who has appointed himself guardian of his young niece, Mary (an extraordinarily accomplished performance from McKenna Grace) after her mother’s suicide. The two of them live together in a Florida trailer park with one-eyed ginger cat, Fred. Next-door neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) pitches in to help out with babysitting duties when Frank needs to hit the local bar. But problems occur when he decides he needs to enroll Mary in elementary school – up to now he’s been tutoring her at home. There’s a reason why Frank has been holding off on this. Mary’s mother, Diane, was a mathematical genius who devoted her life to trying to solve one of the infamous Millennium Prize Equations – and it soon becomes apparent that her daughter has inherited her skills, when Mary finds her school maths lessons laughably easy and treats them with contempt.

Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) recognises her new student’s potential and informs the school’s principal. Before anyone has time to think about the implications of this, Mary’s Grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, playing a solid gold, pole-up-the-ass Brit) appears on the scene with plans to whisk Mary off to a special school where she can devote her life to  completing Diane’s unfinished project. Frank’s view is that Mary deserves to have an ordinary childhood and wants to keep her suitably grounded. Inevitably, he and Evelyn end up in court, fighting for custody of Mary.

This is undeniably emotionally manipulative stuff – and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t have me in tears at a couple of key points. But there’s plenty here to admire, not least Tom Flynn’s witty and acerbic script, which knows just when to lift the tension with a well-placed zinger. Director, Marc Webb (best known for the 2012 Spiderman reboot) handles the subject with skill, managing to stay just the right side of mawkishness and always ensuring that his characters are believable – even Evelyn (herself a gifted mathematician who sacrificed her own career to have a family) has reasons for acting the way she does.

But ultimately it’s McKenna Grace who makes this fly. I’ve no doubt that she has a huge future ahead of her. Meanwhile, this is well worth catching if only for the novelty of seeing Evans wearing blue jeans instead of spandex.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Churchill

11/06/17

Biopics are notoriously hard to bring off successfully. Jonathan Teblitzsky, better known perhaps for his work on Broadchurch, should therefore be heartily congratulated for what he has achieved here, creating a film that not only shows us aspects of an iconic man that we’ve never really witnessed before, but also one that includes several scenes that are genuinely affecting. (Trust me, take some hankies.)

Set in the three days leading up to Operation Overlord, we are shown a Churchill who is being completely marginalised by Eisenhower (John Slattery) and by Montgomery (Julian Wadham), both of whom feel he is hopelessly out of touch and well past his sell-by date. Moreover, we are shown a Churchill who is bitterly opposed to the invasion of France, fearing a repetition of the disastrous events of Gallipoli, which he sanctioned during the First World War.

Brian Cox’s performance in the lead role is extraordinary; more than just an uncanny impersonation, it goes to the heart of the man behind the public image, showing not just the irascible old tyrant we’ve all seen before, but also a man haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of young troops he sent to their deaths. As the long-suffering Clementine, Miranda Richardson provides just the right degree of steely determination, as she manages her difficult husband from the wings, smoothing over his many outbursts, and helping those who have to deal with him get their messages home. One of those maligned is his young secretary, Helen (a touching performance by Ella Purnell), who suffers from his harsh words more than most – and who has more reason than most to be fearful of the outcome of Operation Overlord.

I fully expect to see Cox’s efforts awarded prizes next time these things are handed out – but the film is more than just that remarkable performance.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Mummy

10/05/17

When I heard this was looming on the cinematic horizon, my first thought was, ‘What, again?’

But then I realised it was actually as far back as 1999 and 2001 respectively that Steven Sommers enjoyed box-office hits with his two instalments of sarcophagus-bothering and, as it transpires, this is something rather different: the opening salvo in a series of ‘Dark Universe’ films. Inspired, no doubt, by what Marvel and DC are currently doing with their back catalogue, the bigwigs at Universal have clearly decided to raid their vaults and resurrect some of their most celebrated monster-themed hits. This initial offering has Tom Cruise attached, which is probably as close as you can get, in these troubled times, to a guarantee of bums-on-seats.

Here, Cruise plays Nick Morton, a not altogether honourable guy, who spends his time in war zones, ‘liberating’ antiquities (i.e. nicking them and flogging them on the black market). In war torn Iraq, with his sidekick, Chris (Jake Johnson), he stumbles upon a tomb – an Egyptian tomb, which is around a thousand miles away from where it ought to be. The audience has already been tipped off in a pre-credits sequence as to the provenance of said tomb (there’s a lengthy preamble about crusaders and murdered pharaohs), but what Nick doesn’t know is that this place is actually a repository for the undead soul of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutell), who has been waiting five thousand years to be reborn. What’s more, one glance at Nick and she’s smitten by him – probably because, just like her, Cruise is somewhat older than he looks and incredibly well-preserved.

At any rate, Nick quickly finds himself possessed by Ahmanet and suffering from confusing visions of shifting sands and a mysterious jewel-handled dagger. Antiquities expert (and convenient love interest) Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) promptly whisks him over to London for a meeting with Dr Jekyll – yes, that Dr Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and many supernatural shenanigans ensue, replete with all the usual suspects – rats, spiders and scarab beetles.

This is actually a bit of a romp and, though there are some fairly grisly sequences, scattered throughout the proceedings, the accent is mostly on humour. Director Alex Kurtzman keeps the pot bubbling and never lets things get too bogged down in detail. The film occasionally borrows quite shamelessly from other hit movies– a repeated trope with Nick talking to an undead companion could have been lifted directly from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London – but there is at least a decent script that actually displays a modicum of knowledge about Egyptian mythology. The more eagle-eyed viewers may spot items on display in Dr Jekyll’s laboratory that hint at other Universal products waiting in the wings for their chance to step back into the spotlight. Is that a vampire’s skull in a glass jar? I wonder, who can that belong to? And that scaly hand… The Creature From the Black Lagoon? At any rate, next for this treatment is The Bride of Frankenstein, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Horror movie purists will undoubtedly find themselves disappointed by The Mummy – it never really conjures up enough menace to totally creep you out – but those who, like me, go along with very low expectations, could actually wind up pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Give it a chance. It might be just your cup of mercury.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

My Cousin Rachel

10/06/17

I’ll admit to a soft spot for Daphne du Maurier, despite the melodrama and the bodice-ripping. Okay, so her books are essentially pot-boilers, all over-hyped emotion and bald sensationalism. However, I read them first as a teenager, and just couldn’t put them down. They’re exciting, engaging stories, whatever literary merit they lack. But, though I devoured all those my local library stocked, My Cousin Rachel didn’t grace their shelves. So I approach this film in the unusual position of a fan who doesn’t really know the source material.

It’s typical du Maurier though; this doesn’t challenge my expectations. And director Roger Michell embraces her style, filling in the expository details with remarkable economy, and focusing on the growing fears of Philip Ashley (Sam Clafin), as the eponymous Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his uncle’s widow, beguiles him with her charms.

It’s the ambiguity that makes this film: is Rachel a femme fatale, a ruthless gold-digger who wants to destroy Philip? Or is she, instead, held to account for her beauty, made to carry the blame for men’s desires, accused of destroying them if she does not reciprocate?  This duality is what creates the tension here, and it’s meticulously rendered throughout. I tend towards the latter theory, but it’s really not clear cut.

A fascinating movie then: slow-paced but exhilarating; schlocky but sophisticated. The Cornish locations are beautifully evoked, Rachel Weisz is glorious in the lead role (of course she is), and the supporting cast is decent too. Well worth a watch – and now I’m off to buy the book. It’s about time I read it, after all.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Wonder Woman

05/06/17

The character of Wonder Woman first appeared, in comic form, in 1942. In 1976, portrayed by Linda Carter, she was the star of a TV series, which ran for a perfectly respectable three seasons. The inevitable question is, why has it taken so long for her to star in a big screen adaptation of her story? (I’m going to discount the brief appearance she made in last year’s Batman vs Superman.) Is it simply that the superhero genre has always been associated with ‘films for the lads?’ Did the powers-that-be actually believe that a woman wasn’t capable of carrying an entire movie? The last time it was tried was in 2004, with Catwoman – which, it has to be admitted, wasn’t exactly a success.

Whatever the reason, the wait has been worthwhile – because unlike most of DC’s other recent output, this film benefits from a great big shot of fun. The plot may occasionally raise your eyebrows but it’s hard to deny just how enjoyable a ride this is – at least until the final twenty minutes or so.

We first encounter our eponymous heroine in the modern day, as she receives a communication from Wayne Enterprises. This is DC trying to open out their shared universe, taking their lead, no doubt, from Marvel’s more confident approach. Then we are quickly whisked back in time to the mysterious island of Themiscyra, where the Amazons dwell. Young Diana is the only child on an island inhabited entirely by women – and before you ask the obvious question, she was fashioned from clay by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), with a little help from Zeus.  Hippolyta wants to protect her daughter from the evils of the outside world, and tries to steer her away from anything too physical, but Diana’s auntie, (Robin Wright) secretly coaches Diana in the ways of warfare so she will be able to fulfil her destiny and, pretty soon, she has grown up to be former physical training instructor Gal Gadot, a woman of such stunning physical beauty and strength, she might have descended from thoroughbred race horses.

Then one fateful day, a plane crashes on the island and Diana rescues the pilot, who turns out to be doe-eyed hunk, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Steve is a spy and, it turns out,  one who is carrying a very important notebook – something that he believes will help to end the First World War – for out in the real world it is 1916, and evil German officer, Ludendorff (Danny Huston, who, if not exactly chewing the scenery, is definitely giving it a pretty thorough nibble) is working alongside disfigured scientist, Dr Maru (Elena Anaya) to create a deadly nerve gas, one that Ludendorff thinks will turn the tide of the war and make his country victorious.

Pretty soon, Diana and Steve are on their way to London, with a tall order to fulfil – to end the war, once and for all. Okay, so this isn’t going to win any prizes for being the most convincing story ever written (indeed there are plot holes here you could comfortably drive an Amazon chariot through) but there’s real chemistry between Gadot and Pine and it does feel refreshingly empowering to see a woman handling the kind of kick-ass moves usually commandeered by the boys in spandex. There’s nicely judged comedy relief from Lucy Davis as Steve’s secretary, Etta, and some genuinely funny scenes where Diana’s gung ho attitude crashes headlong into the patriarchal conventions of the age. Despite what the naysayers are muttering, neither Diana nor Steve call the shots in this enterprise. They work together as a team.

My only beef with the film are those final twenty minutes, when inevitably, the limitations of the genre kick in and we’re plunged headlong into yet another over-pixilated punch up. As Diana and her nemesis, Ares, start picking up tanks and throwing them at each other, it simply serves to emphasise the point that what’s so good about this film is the way in which a superhero interacts with real people. But that quibble aside, there’s much to enjoy here and the news that director Patty Jenkins has already scored a record opening weekend for a female director is simply the icing on an already tasty cinematic confection.

If, like me, you’re a little tired of seeing moody blokes in capes thumping seven bells out of each other, this may be just the film for you.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

My Life as a Courgette

02/06/17

This animated feature by Claude Barras was considered classy enough to earn itself an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film earlier this year, alongside the likes of The Red Turtle – and it’s won a whole clutch of awards across Europe. For a variety of reasons, I don’t feel it’s in quite the same league as its Oscar stablemate, though few would deny the attractions of the quirky stop-frame animation, and even fewer would argue that its heart isn’t in the right place.

Icare (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) is an eight-year-old boy who has been neglected by his alcoholic mother and (in a beautifully understated scene) is also partially responsible for her death. Since nobody knows what happened to his father, he is taken to an orphanage, where, because of his preference for being called ‘Courgette’ (the nick-name his mother gave him), he quickly comes to the attention of Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), the school’s resident bully. But pretty soon, the arrival of Camille (Sixtine Murat) gives Icare something more positive to focus his attentions on; meanwhile, Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), the policeman who assigned Icare to the orphanage in the first place, is starting to bond with him…

The film certainly deals with an interesting subject, but it never really pushes the envelope far enough to hammer home its points, with the result that, ultimately, it’s no more hard-hitting than your average Jacqueline Wilson novel. Though the script occasionally flirts with controversy – the children discussing sex; Camille’s hard-hearted aunt trying to take custody of her niece so she can make money on the deal – the problems are too easily resolved to totally convince and, with a running time of just over sixty minutes, there really isn’t enough room to fully explore the dramatic possibilities, which makes the film feel rather like an over-extended ‘short.’

In the end, it’s undeniably charming and the stop-motion work is exquisite (a sequence where Icare, Camille and Raymond visit a funfair is a particular stand out), but you can’t help feeling that it could have been so much more than that.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

The Red Turtle

29/05/17

I have to confess to having a bit of a blind spot for animation.  I sometimes have to cajole myself into going along to see one, even though I invariably enjoy myself when I make the effort. I loved Inside Out, for instance – heck, I really liked Frozen, before it became so… over-exposed.

The Red Turtle is more than just another cartoon – it’s a game changer, quite unlike any animated film I’ve seen before. This canny co-production between Japan’s Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit seems to exemplify the best traditions of east and west. The Japanese influences are there in the sumptuous forests and the watercolour-like depictions of the landscape – yet the graphic characters could have stepped straight out of the pages of a Herge cartoon. Almost completely wordless but blessed with a sumptuous soundtrack to make up for it, this is fabulous stuff – a powerful and affecting meditation on life, love and adversity.

A man finds himself a castaway on a remote desert island. He spends a lot of time looking for signs of life and when he fails to find another human there, he starts building rafts in an attempt to escape – but his encounters with a mysterious red turtle ensure that he repeatedly ends up right back where he started. As the story unfolds, the man begins to realise that the turtle isn’t what he first thought it was…

It would be criminal to give away more of the plot. Suffice to say that this beautiful allegory, which clocks in at a pacy 80 minutes, will thrill you, amaze you and, unless you’re the most stoic person on the planet, have you in tears at its heartfelt conclusion. For this is a parable about life and there will be elements here that every viewer will identify with. Just in case I’m making this sound a bit too po-faced, let me tell you that there are a family of crabs living on the island, whose playful antics deliver regular doses of comic relief.

The Red Turtle may well be the perfect antidote for people who don’t much care for animation. But those who love the format will have a field day too, because this is an absolute delight that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney