Joel Fry

In the Earth

24/06/21

The Cameo Cinema

Ben Wheatley is an enigma. Undeniably prolific, he’s also versatile. Unlike most directors, who find an approach they’re happy with and stick pretty closely to it, Wheatley flits happily from genre to genre with no apparent game plan. Indeed, recent rumours that he’s signed on to helm the sequel to Jason Statham’s big budget creature-feature, The Meg, sound implausible enough to be true. But of all his releases, only a couple of them (Sightseers and High-Rise) stand up as true successes. The rest feel like missed opportunities and his much-lauded shoot-’em-up, Free Fire, is one of the few times I’ve been in a cinema and longed for a fast-forward button.

In the Earth sees him returning to the kind of folk-horror elements he mined so effectively in A Field in England, although this time he’s opted for a contemporary setting. The cities of the world are suffering through a crippling pandemic (sound familiar?) and scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a remote research facility in a forest on the outskirts of Bristol. He’s looking for his former colleague, Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), and is informed that she is conducting some ‘crop research’ in deep forest, several days’ walk from there. He’s assigned forest ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia), as his guide and the two of them set off into the woods.

But one night, they are attacked by unknown assailants and robbed of their footwear. Shortly thereafter, Martin gashes his foot badly, something we’ve been kind of expecting because of a pointed pre-credits sequence. Then the two of them bump into mysterious loner, Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who takes them to his encampment and performs a bit of impromptu – and extremely grisly – surgery on the damaged foot. Martin is soon to discover that Zach is not the man to entrust his foot – or indeed, any other part of his anatomy – to. Zach is, to put it mildly, bananas, a man who believes that there are ancient spirits in this part of the forest, ones that are taking advantage of the pandemic to exert their power and influence over humanity… and then things start to get really weird.

In the Earth sets out its stall effectively enough and, though it takes a while to build up a head of steam, it boasts performances – especially Shearsmith’s – that are accomplished enough to make me suspend my disbelief over the various loopy shenanigans unfolding under the ancient oaks. Mind you, Martin is so hapless he may as well have the word VICTIM tattooed on his forehead. And why exactly is he there in the first place? A full day after viewing the film, I’m still not sure. And herein lies the main problem with this film. It’s nebulous to the point of being infuriating.

A local legend about a woodland deity called Parnag Fegg is introduced early on, but is never effectively followed up and, instead, we are offered fleeting glimpses of earlier happenings, often flung at us in the midst of psychedelic sequences, when a bunch of fungi start throwing out hallucinatory spores. The first of these passages is impressive, but I could have done without the second one, which just feels like more of the same and, once again, has me thinking wistfully about a fast-forward function. More damningly, for a horror film, apart from a couple of wince-inducing injury details, this doesn’t feel remotely scary.

In the end, I realise that I don’t really care what happens to any of the characters, mostly because I haven’t learned anything about them. File this one under ‘Y’ for ‘Yet another missed opportunity.’

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Yesterday

20/06/19

Welcome to Richard Curtis Land – a magical place where famous film stars can fall in love with meek bookshop owners; where smitten young men can write their declarations of love for recently married women on a series of cue cards; and where, in this latest iteration, the Beatles never existed. Yes, that’s right. Imagine if you will, a world where the names John, Paul, George and Ringo mean absolutely zilch.

Aspiring singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is scratching a precarious existence playing a series of dead-end bookings by night, and working at a cash and carry by day. His gigs are arranged for him by his ‘manager,’ Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who works days as a secondary school teacher and who quite clearly fancies the pants off Jack, something he appears to be entirely oblivious to. But, after his last disappointing show, Jack is about ready to give up his dreams and ‘go back to teaching…’

He is blissfully unaware that his career is about to take an unexpected leap in an upward direction. Riding home on his bike one evening, he is struck by a bus, at the same moment a sudden loss of electricity hits the entire world for a full twelve seconds. Once recovered from his accident, Jack discovers that there have been some baffling changes to the world he knows – and when he sings Paul McCartney’s Yesterday to a bunch of friends, they react very strangely. ‘When did you write that?’ asks Ellie, incredulously.

A bit of surfing on the internet reveals the incredible truth. In this new alternate reality, the Beatles have never existed – and yet Jack knows most of their songs! So he starts to perform and record them, passing them off as his own work and – perhaps not surprisingly – after a few false starts, his career shoots upwards into the stratosphere. But we know, don’t we, that there’s always a price to pay for such deceit? And what true happiness can ever be achieved through an act of plagiarism?

Yesterday is a typical Curtis vehicle, amiable, and eminently watchable – but the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who displays none of the distinctive, visual flourishes I’ve come to expect from him, leaving me with the conviction that this could have been directed by just about anybody. While the earlier stretches are surely the funniest (there’s some nice interplay between Jack and his parents, played by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar), later developments, where Jack falls under the influence of heartless record executive, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), are not quite as assured.

And… there’s something that this film has in common with Curtis’s earlier effort, About Time: the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. Occasionally, I find myself thinking ‘Really?’ as some new revelation comes lurching out of the woodwork. Am I supposed to believe, for instance, that Jack manages to walk around for months without ever noticing that cigarettes no longer exist?

Still, this isn’t meant to be high art. Curtis is a talented storyteller, and for the most part this affable mix of comedy and music is perfectly entertaining. And, naturally, it has a soundtrack to die for. A shame then that it doesn’t give Danny Boyle more of a chance to show off his skills.

That would have been something to make a song and dance about.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney