Charlotte Gainsbourg

The Pale Blue Eye



It’s the year 1830 and, at West Point military academy, a student has been found hanged. More puzzlingly, his heart has been removed post mortem. Veteran detective August Landor (Christian Bale) is recruited by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to investigate. He is somewhat surprised to discover that he has an ally amongst the cadets in the gangling form of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), who – as well as exhibiting a flair for writing dark poetry – is also an amateur sleuth. Soon, another murder occurs…

Director Scott Cooper has worked with Bale before (most memorably on the hard hitting western, Hostiles), but The Pale Blue Eye, based on a source novel by Louis Bayard, is a much more laid back affair, handsomely filmed and starring a clutch of accomplished character actors in minor roles. However, the women in particular have a thin time of it. Any film that offers the likes of Gillian Anderson and Charlotte Gainsbourg such thankless, underwritten roles should hang its head in shame.

Ultimately, The Pale Blue Eye is a two-hander between Bale and Melling (the latter having a field day as the wide-eyed, melodramatic young author). The result is an atmospheric story, with a distinctly Gothic flavour and some genuine surprises hidden within its twisty-turny plot – so it’s a pity that the eventual solution to the mystery is so risible – and that the reasons for the murders should prove to be so clumsily reductive about both disability and violence against women.

Poe aficionados will doubtless have fun spotting the various references to the great author’s work, but ultimately this feels like a missed opportunity.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Independence Day: Resurgence



Welcome back to the world of Roland Emmerich. Hard to believe that its been 20 years since Independence Day elevated him to the position of head go-to guy for apocalyptic devastation. Since then, he’s presided over a slate of similarly themed destructathons – The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, 2012, with a couple of disasters of a different persuasion thrown in for good measure – The Patriot, which played fast and loose with American history  and Anonymous, a film which seriously posited the notion that William Shakespeare was an illiterate actor who got somebody else to write all his plays for him. Now, Emmerich finally revisits his biggest hit with mixed results. Could it have been a coincidence that it was released on the day the UK decided to vote for Brexit? I doubt it. Disasters have a tendency to cling together.

It’s been twenty years since those pesky aliens took on Planet Earth and there has been unprecedented peace and prosperity for the world ever since. (And if you’ll swallow that, you’ll swallow anything.) But of course, it was only a matter of time before the space lizards came back for another go, an event presaged by former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) experiencing some strange visions. All the stars of the original resurface here, with the notable exception of Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) who we are informed has ‘perished on a test flight.’ Luckily, his son, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), a chip off the old block if ever there was one, is on hand to carry on his late father’s work, despite having rivalry issues with reckless young pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is in Africa, where he hooks up with Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is trying to decipher some strange alien writing that seems to hint at unfinished business…

To be honest, it’s pretty pointless to say any more about the plot which is frankly, bonkers. (It’s saying something when the alien invasion elements are the most credible part of the story). Of course, what Emmerich has always excelled at are the wide screen scenes of carnage, which at times resemble the visionary paintings of John Martin. A set-piece where one major city is unceremoniously dumped on top of another is, it has to be said, pretty spectacular. Goldblum also earns his money as comic relief, wandering around in the background making flip remarks as yet another landmark is blown to smithereens.

And yet, it’s really not enough to salvage this from it’s failings – lamentable dialogue, plot holes you could fly a jumbo-sized spacecraft through and some cheesy statements about mankind’s ability to survive against all the odds. What’s more, the premise of a giant Queen alien presiding over a ‘hive’ of extra terrestrials is too close to James Cameron’s Aliens for comfort. A final chase across the salt flats in pursuit of a busload of kids (and a cute dog) is the point where everything falls to pieces. At this point, even Goldblum looks embarrassed.

So, worth seeing? Yes, provided you can overlook the ridiculous plot and the truly awful dialogue. And a worthy successor to the original film? Nah, not really. It’s as if Emmerich has decided to crank everything up to maximum – as though his motto is ‘bigger is better.’ Why have a dozen spaceships when you can have three hundred of them?  Why blow up one monument when you can destroy a dozen? Ironically, I still remember the impact of watching the White House blown to smithereens in the first film, but for all the bombast on display here, I doubt that I’ll remember this for more than a day or so.

The film ends with a clumsy attempt to set up a Part Three, which I have to say, I won’t be holding my breath for. Enough, already. Try something new.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney


Nymphomaniac Parts1 & 2



He’s a bit of an enigma, Lars Von Trier. In the past, he’s delivered some truly remarkable work – The Idiots and Dancer In The Dark are both impressive films and there’s also his slightly unhinged TV series The Kingdom to consider. But since the hideously misogynistic mess that was Antichrist, he seems intent on embarking on a journey further and further up his own rectum and sadly, Nymphomaniac Parts 1 and 2 only compounds the situation. Which is not to say that it’s totally without merit.

Leaving aside the tabloid-baiting title, this is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), discovered lying unconscious in an alley one evening by the reclusive Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and taken back to his grubby flat to recover. Once there, she begins to relate the story of her life and the various events that turned her into the unfortunate sex-obsessed creature that she is. The tale is presented as a series of titled chapters and the fact that Von Trier saw it necessary to spin the story over the course of two full-length films only adds to the inherent pretension at work here. The ‘chapters’ range from the interesting, to the unlikely to the downright risible. (A sequence where an aggrieved mother brings her three children to witness her husband’s infidelity with Joe, frankly beggars belief). There’s also a sado-mashochistic storyline, where Joe voluntarily puts herself  under the brutal ministrations of ‘K’ (Jamie Bell) that is frankly very hard to watch and simply enforces the notion that, despite protestations to the contrary, Von Trier really doesn’t like women very much.

Skarsgaard is terrific in his role and Gainsbourg, when called upon to actually act, isn’t that bad either. But there are  inconsistencies that serve to bring the overall rating down. Joe’s younger self is played by a succession of actresses who look nothing like Gainsbourg; Shia Le Boeuf sports an English accent that makes Dick Van Dyke sound authentic; and Willem Dafoe wanders in towards the end to personify the least convincing moneylender you’ve ever seen. Von Trier’s attempts to build in some deeper meaning to it all really don’t come off. Meditations on the Fionabacci sequence and Bach’s approach to composing music, when applied to the rather more mundane subject of sexual intercourse, simply don’t wash and there remains the overriding conviction that Von Trier could have made one decent movie rather than two really patchy ones.

It’s a shame, because aside from his recent efforts (and his appallingly ill-judged joke about being a Nazi, a stunt that got him banned from a major film festival) there remains the conviction that there really is a talent in this man and one can only hope that he gets his mojo back soon. Meanwhile, this just isn’t good enough.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney