Rebecca Ferguson

Doctor Sleep

11/11/19

Stephen King famously disliked Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1980 novel, The Shining – so much so that, in the 90s, he scripted a television series with the same name, one which he felt stuck closer to his original concept. (I haven’t seen it but the general opinion seems to be that it was lacklustre.) So it’s odd to see him executive producing this adaptation of the sequel, Doctor Sleep, considering it has a whole section devoted to Kubrick’s vision, complete with convincing lookalikes of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval. Go figure.

It’s many years after the events of The Shining and little Danny Torrence has, improbably, grown up to be the dead spit of Ewan McGregor. Now called Dan Torrence (see what he did there?), he’s understandably a troubled soul, addicted to alcohol and cocaine and still haunted  by visions of his time at The Overlook Hotel – indeed, he has regular conversations with the late Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly standing in for Scatman Crothers). Driven to desperate measures, Dan decides he has to change, so he takes off to a new town where nobody knows him, and where he has a chance of starting over. As the months pass, he cleans up his act and eventually takes a job as a hospital orderly, where he soon develops a reputation for easing the passing of dying patients and where he acquires the nickname of Doctor Sleep.

But trouble is coming in the shape of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her band of travelling vapour junkies, addicted to murdering anyone with telepathic abilities and inhaling their unique aura in order to keep themselves alive, long past the time when they should be shuffling off to oblivion. When they fix their hungry sights on a talented teenager called Abra (Kyliegh Curran), she reaches out to Dan, who has been a kind of psychic pen-pal of hers for years, asking for his help. He reluctantly answers her call but the desperate struggle to elude these murderous wanderers inevitably leads back to a very familiar location…

Writer/director Mike Flanagan has done something more than the usual cheapie horror adaptation here. He takes his own sweet time to unload the various strands of the story, cross-cutting effortlessly from Dan to Abra to Rose and giving a very real sense of the events unfolding over the years. There are a few eerie moments along the way, but the supposedly scary scenes never connect as solidly as they might. The overall feel is one of unease rather than out-and out terror. Both McGregor and Ferguson submit nuanced performances and Curran has an appealing presence.

The main problem, however, lies in the film’s final act when Dan, Abra and Rose go hotfoot to Colorado for what feels suspiciously like The Overlook’s Greatest Hits.  Flanagan’s team have done an uncanny job of recreating the look of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, but the internal logic feels decidedly off: there’s never any real justification for them going there in the first place and I find myself asking too many awkward questions of the how, when and where variety as events gallop headlong towards a climactic cosmic punch-up.

It would have been braver, I think, to give us an Overlook that doesn’t already feel way too familiar. As it stands, this decision delivers a fatal wound to the proceedings, making the adventure’s final stretches a bit of an ordeal – and with a hefty running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes, sleep feels, at times, too close for comfort.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Kid Who Would Be King

20/02/19

When I was just a nipper and there was such a thing as ‘Saturday Morning Pictures,’ I would often watch features from the Children’s Film Foundation. These were stories about gangs of plucky kids, coming together to solve a crime or save a theatre or take on invading aliens – you name it. I mention this mostly because there’s something about The Kid Who Would Be King that rather reminds me of those films – albeit this time with the advantage of a sixty-million-dollar budget.

Joe Cornish made an impressive directorial debut with Attack the Block seven years ago and, after some messing about in Hollywood, he’s gone back to an idea he first came up with as a teenager, and which has been bubbling around in his head ever since.

This is the story of Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a mild mannered twelve-year-old, who, together with his best mate, Bedders (Dean Chambo), is the subject of bullying at his secondary school, mostly at the hands of Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris). (The bullying, by the way, is the unconvincing sort you only ever see in movies – holding somebody upside down to shake the coins from his pockets, etc.) One night, chased into a building site by his oppressors, Alex finds an old sword embedded in a stone and easily plucks it out. Pretty soon, he’s approached by Merlin (played by Angus Imrie and, occasionally Sir Patrick Stewart), who informs him that he is now ‘the once and future king,’ and that ‘divided Britain’ is at the mercy of evil witch, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and her armies of the undead. Only a hero of epic proportions can save the world from disaster. By the way, those who think they are spotting a Brexit allegory here should be aware that Cornish claims it’s just a coincidence. You decide.

The film has a pleasing, amiable feel about it with plenty of in-jokes mixed in with the admittedly impressive action sequences. For the most part, it works a treat. If there’s an occasional tendency towards mawkishness, well, those bits are mercifully brief and soon enough, we’re flung headlong back into the action.

However, though the legions of flaming skeleton knights are initially pretty impressive, they are perhaps somewhat overused. A final confrontation between a bunch of school kids and the forces of darkness feels unnecessarily protracted and I think TBWWBK could easily had shed thirty minutes in the telling to ensure it keeps a firmer grip on an audience’s attention. I also can’t help feeling a little bit sorry for Rebecca Ferguson, chained to a wall for half the movie and spending the rest of it morphing into a hideous lizard-like monster. Well, that’s show business.

But quibbles aside, this is a film that is squarely aimed at a young audience, who will surely enjoy its deft blend of thrills, chills and chuckles. So it’s somewhat disappointing to note that at the afternoon performance we attend, there are perhaps only two kids in the rather sparse crowd. The film has already had a disappointing showing at the American box office where Arthurian mythology doesn’t mean an awful lot to the average viewer. It would be nice to see this do a whole lot better here.

If you have youngsters in need of entertainment, get them to a screening of this before it turns into an owl and flies away.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

Mission Impossible: Fallout

 

27/07/18

Most film franchises follow a familiar trajectory. They start well and, through the rules of diminishing returns, steadily become ever more feeble until somebody finally has the good grace to pull the plug on them. The Mission Impossible series, however, seems to have gone in the opposite direction. After a couple of so-so efforts, episodes three, four and five really managed to cut some mustard – and this sixth instalment of the TV-inspired show is surely its strongest manifestation yet. Indeed, this audacious thrill-ride, courtesy of returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie is so enthralling I occasionally find myself holding my breath as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) jumps off buildings, races on motorbikes, dangles from helicopters and runs for miles, all in the name of truth and justice. Yes, it’s complete tosh, but when it’s done this well, who cares?

When we first meet up with Hunt, he’s worrying about Julia (Michelle Monaghan), the wife he’s been forced to live apart from in order to keep her out of danger. But of course, for an IMF operative, danger is never very far away. Old adversary Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is being used as a pawn by various secret powers, who aim to utilise his special skills to convert some stolen weapons grade plutonium into deadly nuclear devices. Hunt and his sidekicks, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), are assigned to take care of securing Lane and the plutonium and, for this mission, they are assigned an extra player – August Walker (Henry Cavill), a hard man with a high opinion of himself. But, when things go awry, the team are faced with a even trickier challenge. They must track down two nuclear weapons before they are detonated – an occurrence which will destroy huge areas of the planet. (So no pressure there.) Luckily, Hunt’s old flame Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is on hand to lend her own special talents…

There’s quite a tricky story line here, with plenty of unexpected twists and reveals – and naturally, some of those hi tech masks that the makers are so fond of, but really, it’s all just a linking device for a whole string of spectacular set pieces, which are so triumphantly realised, you’ll barely have time to stop and speculate how far-fetched they are. Cruise, looking far better than anyone his age has any right to be, revels in some of the most hair-raising stunts this side of a Jackie Chan movie – indeed, the scene where he actually breaks his leg is included in all its wince-inducing glory. Cavill, who I’ve never really rated as Superman, is a lot more interesting when given a bit more character to play with and there’s excellent support from the rest of the cast.

Okay, you can argue that this film isn’t really about very much, but you’d be missing the point. It’s all about action and only a very few movies have managed to do it as effortlessly as its done here. My advice? Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. And Mission Impossible Seven? Well, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Greatest Showman

03/01/17

Okay, so we need to get one thing clear: The Greatest Showman is in no way a biopic. It may purport to tell the tale of PT Barnum, but it’s so far removed from the insalubrious truth that it’s more accurately filed under fiction. It borrows Barnum’s name, that’s all, and a few details from his life. Otherwise, it’s pure fantasy: a complete reimagining of the infamous freak show.

That’s not to say it doesn’t work; it’s a highly entertaining and lively piece of cinema, beautifully produced and performed with precision and wit. It’s bright and exhilarating, with catchy tunes. No doubt about it: this is fun.

In this version of events, PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a striver: a poor tailor’s son with huge ambitions, who falls in love with Charity (Michelle Williams), a rich, upper-class girl, and is determined to provide her with the lifestyle he believes she deserves. He’s a risk taker and a charlatan, but he’s charming with a big heart, and disarms everyone he meets. When they fall on hard times, he decides to open a circus, showcasing such ‘freaks’ as a bearded lady, conjoined twins, a dwarf and a fat man. In his fictional incarnation, he’s not exploiting them, exactly, although he is making money from their efforts; he’s celebrating them, offering redemption to those society has rejected, helping them to forge a kind of family. And all progresses swimmingly, until he can’t resist the charms of opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems like a passport into the higher echelons of society. He risks everything to promote her, and it all comes crashing down.

It’s utterly enchanting, even if it isn’t true, and there are some excellent set pieces, such as the freaks’ defiant song of self-determination, This Is Me, led by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), whose voice is just spectacular. Jackman is very good too, and Michelle Williams proves again that she’s a real chameleon, able to convince – it seems – in almost any role.

I was disappointed, though, to learn that Rebecca Ferguson doesn’t sing her own songs  (she is dubbed by Loren Allred); Ferguson is a fine actress with a face just made for the big screen, but was there really no one available who could deliver the whole deal? It seems a shame to give the part to someone who can’t play it, just because she is a ‘name’. There are enough stars in this film to carry it, surely?

Still, quibbles aside, this is eminently watchable, itself fulfilling (ironically perhaps) what it claims were Barnum’s aims: it’s rare indeed to see such a diverse range of performers given such prominent roles in a movie. It has the feelgood factor in bucketloads, and is eminently suitable for a family audience.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Snowman

 

25/10/17

Apart from the occasional exception, the name ‘Michael Fassbender’ attached to a film used to stand for a guarantee of some kind of quality (although, since Assassin’s Creed, he doesn’t seem to have put a foot right). Director Tomas Alfredsen did a fabulous job with Let the Right One In, and his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation received a lot of acclaim (even if it did leave me feeling indifferent). Still, put the two men together on an adaptation of one of Jo Nesbo’s hugely successful scandi-noir thrillers and for good measure, bring in Soren Sveistrup (of The Killing) to co-write the screenplay, and you’ve got at least a chance of a winner, right?

Well, no, I’m afraid not. It’s hard to understand quite how The Snowman can have gone so spectacularly wrong, but wrong it undoubtedly goes, a two hour opus that actually feels more like four, so turgid is the storytelling. It doesn’t help that wonderful character actors like Toby Jones and Adrian Dunbar are reduced to standing around spouting bits of clunky exposition whilst looking vaguely embarrassed, or that the plot is so ridiculously convoluted it beggars belief. Most damning of all in a procedural is that the eventual unveiling of a killer seems designed to surprise absolutely no-one, since it’s evident from about half an hour in who that killer is going to be – simply because we are presented with no other possible suspects.

Harry Hole (Fassbender) is a washed-up detective, reduced to drinking himself insensible in children’s playgrounds, after a messy break-up from his partner, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whom he still carries a torch for, and his teenage stepson, Oleg (Michael Yates). When new recruit Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) joins Harry’s team, the two of them work together to investigate a series of seemingly random killings, which are always marked by the presence of a snowman at the murder scene. This being Norway in the depths of winter, there are presumably an awful lot of snowmen about – and, when a character surmises that it’s probably falling snow that sets the killer off, it’s hard not to smile. The film occasionally flashes back to the events of nine years earlier in which another alcoholic detective, Rafto (Val Kilmer), stumbles around investigating a similar case – but the film is so clumsily edited, we’re not always sure what is past and what is present. Kilmer, by the way, is positively unreal. I get the impression that his efforts have been edited down to the bare minimum.

What else can I tell you? What might have generated suspense on the printed page doesn’t really work on film. The smiling snowmen featured throughout the story are no doubt intended to come across as sinister, but here they just cause unintended sniggers – and how is that Harry, a hopeless chain-smoking alcoholic, still manages to sport a six-pack that would make Charles Atlas suitably envious?

I hate to be so negative, so let me just say that those snowbound Norwegian landscapes do look ravishing – but frankly, that’s really not enough to recommend this farrago of a film. I doubt that it will please fans of the book and I’m sure it will leave most cinema-goers as baffled as I am.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Life

29/03/17

A spaceship visits a distant planet and discovers an alien life form. At first the crew are delighted, and they bring it aboard to study it in more detail. But as the creature begins to grow in size and cunning, they realise that they have invited something deadly into their midst. Pretty soon, they are involved in a desperate struggle for survival as the alien begins to pick them off, one-by-one…

Okay, who thought I was talking about Alien? There are startling similarities here and with Alien Covenant soon to hit big screens across the country, I can’t help feeling that Daniel Espinosa’s film, Life, has chosen a really unfortunate release date. Handsomely mounted though it is and blessed with considerable star power, it nonetheless can’t help but invite comparisons with its more famous cousin.

Here, the space ship in question is the International Space Station and the extraterrestrial life form (dubbed ‘Calvin’ by some well-meaning kids back on earth), has come via a soil sample from Mars. At first, it’s an innocuous scrap of fluff that responds weakly to heat and light. Science officer Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) quickly falls in love with the thing and starts conducting a few casual experiments on it. Before you can mutter ‘bad idea,’ it’s free from its incubation pod and is growing bigger and more vicious by the second. Captain Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is faced with the daunting task of trying to contain it aboard, rather than let it escape to earth where it will wreak untold havoc. She’s aided and abetted by Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sonada and Olga Diovichnaya as the other members of the crew. Clearly no expense has been spared here. The space vistas are  superbly rendered and the constant gravity-free environment is convincingly conveyed – apparently they used wire work rather than the infamous ‘vomit comet.’

I’ll be honest and say that there’s quite a lot to admire here (not least an unexpected switcheroo, that actually has me shouting out loud at the screen), – and Calvin is undoubtedly his own beast, with a particularly revolting method of seeing off his prey – but try as I might, I can’t rid myself of the notion that a salivating xenomorph might lurch out of the shadows at any moment. If the Alien franchise didn’t exist, I’d doubtless be upping the stars on this a couple of notches, but as it stands, this feels like an unfortunate rerun of a good idea. And no matter how polished it is, that’s never quite enough.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Girl on the Train

10/10/16

The Girl on the Train‘s transition from page to screen was inevitable: Paula Hawkins’ novel has been a huge hit, its popularity earning its author over ten million dollars, and pretty much guaranteeing that this film adaptation will attract a large audience.

It’s a thriller, of sorts, unpicking the tangled lives of three women. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a tragic figure, an alcoholic, obsessed with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and the baby she never had. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) is Tom’s new wife, and Megan (Haley Bennett), is a neighbour who works as Tom and Anna’s nanny  (yes, they do have a baby) and seems to have the perfect life – at least, as far as Rachel can tell from what she glimpses from the train. Let’s be honest, the story stretches credulity at times, and it’s kind of irritating that the women are all defined by their motherhood – or lack thereof. It verges on the histrionic in places, and there are moments where it lacks pace or drive. But, where it works, it does work well.

There’s a change of location: we’re in New York instead of London, but this isn’t detrimental to the film. In fact, the cinematography is lovely; the contrasts between the urban mayhem and the glassy smoothness of the lake help add a layer of eeriness and tension to the piece. And the shift is only geographical: the social and sexual mores of affluent white suburbanites seem similar in both locales.

Emily Blunt in particular deserves some accolades: she absolutely convinces as the drunken, broken Rachel, desperately searching for a way back to herself. And there’s a stellar supporting cast, including the ever fabulous Allison Janney and the ‘why-doesn’t-she-do-more?’ Lisa Kudrow.

Overall, then, it’s kind of… okay. There’s a soggy middle section where your mind might wander, but you’ll be pulled back in for the rather racier (if somewhat predictable) ending.

If you liked the book, you’ll probably like this.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield