REVIEW: My Cousin Rachel

10 06 2017

Roger Michell’s “My Cousin Rachel” opens with voice-over from Sam Claflin’s Philip spelling out the questions the audience should ask by the end of the film. It only gets less subtle from there.

Michell’s film is not a suspense film or a thriller film, although it looks like a well-studied imitation of one. Plenty of frames taken individually look like they could end up on One Perfect Shot. Once there’s any movement in them, however, we realize Michell’s ham-handed direction more closely resembles a Super Bowl commercial set in Victorian England. It hits the marks but lacks the soul.

The film’s drama plays out over the estate of a dead man as both his surrogate son Philip and his widow Rachel (Rachel Weisz) vie for his riches. The will gives everything to Philip, yet after meeting Rachel for the first time, the heir has some second thoughts about taking it all for himself. His relationship with her begins with fear and suspicion, becomes tinged with some guilt … and then somehow turns into full-on attraction for her?! It’s as if a switch goes off in Philip’s junk that suddenly lights a spark for the woman he might have called “mom” under more fortuitous circumstances.

Beyond the film’s inexcusable refusal to consider the Freudian implications, there’s not the slightest connection between Weisz and Claflin that would make this plot point believable. Beyond the infatuation coming out of nowhere, their performances have little in common besides them sharing the same scenes. Claflin plays Philip as an impetuous 25-year-old with no understanding of his own psychology, while Weisz phones in remoteness.

Equally as implausible is the con thriller playing out within “My Cousin Rachel.” No spoiler tags are necessary to say what’s obvious from looking at this plot from a mile away: Rachel is clearly trying to play mind games to get what she views as hers. Even without a lifetime’s worth of similar stories from the genre, it’s hard to believe Philip lacks any self-awareness that he could be the mark in a robbery scheme. When it finally hits him – too late, of course – he simply states, “I’ve been a fool,” and hangs his head in silence. The auditorium in which I saw the film supplied the dead air with chortles, groans and eye rolls aplenty. C-

REVIEW: Their Finest

14 04 2017

“Authenticity informed by optimism” – that was the motto of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information when it comes to creating films, according to Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest.” Around the time that “keep calm and carry on” came into common parlance through Tube posters, the government was also hard at work shaping the national consciousness through the medium of cinema. In 1940, filmmakers came together to convey the seriousness of the war effort while also inspiring confidence and patriotism.

“Their Finest” specifically follows the course of one picture shoot about the sacrifices made at Dunkirk (luckily Scherfig got this out before Christopher Nolan’s epic). Welsh screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) approaches the evacuation with a creative, novel approach to a story whose validity and heroism do not immediately signal the traditional Hollywood ending. Her job gets even harder when the government hijacks the film to subtly goad the United States into helping the war effort – primarily through the addition of American actor Carl Lundbeck, a  blonde bombshell of machismo played with spunk by Jake Lacy. Before WikiLeaks, this was how covert influence worked. (I like this way a lot more.)

Gabby Chiape’s screenplay balances more than just a straightforward tale of film production in wartime. “Their Finest” also includes a significant feminist slant concerning women’s contribution to the war effort and their mounting preemptive fears about men relegating them back to the home as soon as combat ceases. That tension plays out in the dimly lit government buildings where Catrin toils over a typewriter with the charming curmudgeon Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) as well as at home with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled veteran whose “brutal and dispiriting” paintings don’t exactly jive with the national mood. This central tenet of the film bobs back and forth between serving as subject and subtext, and after nearly two hours, Chiape and Scherfig never quite figure out where it belongs. Between that and an enjoyable B-plot featuring Billy Nighy’s washed-up character actor Ambrose Hilliard, “Their Finest” simply fights on one too many fronts to come out on top. B-

REVIEW: Me Before You

3 10 2016

me-before-you-posterIt has been a long time since a movie infuriated me to the extent that “Me Before You” did. Strap in, folks, this review is chock full of opinions and passion. (Also, here be spoilers, but if you’ve followed any of the online discussion surrounding the book/film, you probably know what happens anyways.)

Let’s just lay down some ground rules before we begin: suicide is not a release. It is not an escape. It is not a relief. But for those who feel compelled to commit the act, it is almost never cowardice or selfishness.

Unless, of course, we are talking about Sam Claflin’s Will Traynor, the wheelchair-bound character at the center of “Me Before You.” After being struck by a motorcycle in the film’s opening scene, he resigns himself to moping about the house when the accident dashes any hopes of returning to his adventurous lifestyle. But Jojo Moyes, author of the source novel and screenplay, is content to explain away his surliness as largely stemming from being ensconced in wealth and privilege as well as the betrayal of his girlfriend. Any actual depression or pain never surfaces.

And how convenient that is – because the film needs Emilia Clarke’s Lou Clark (playfully referred to by her surname) to swoop in and make him happy. Clarke plays her character with the clumsy verve of a “Saturday Night Live” skit mocking Zooey Deschanel, begging both Will and the audience to wonder how someone can contemplate suicide in the presence of someone who squeals upon receiving a pair of striped tights. While it might avoid the “Silver Linings Playbook” cliché of love curing mental illness, something more insidious is happening.

Will moves forward with his decision to end his life while the film only shows us the forward-facing aspects of his growing fondness for Clark. What it omits is any sign of actual pain or real depression. “Me Before You” treats suicide flippantly, doing a disservice for quadriplegics and the mentally afflicted in the process. It really adds insult to injury when this euthanasia spurs Clark to make the bold life choices she is hesitant to make on her own volition.

Suicide is not a cute plot device. Someone who takes their own life does so because they see no other option. Presenting it as a tool to expand someone else’s options is shallow and misrepresentative. One person’s anguish does not translate to another person’s triumph. Presenting suicide as inspirational or aspirational is dangerous. Look up “suicide contagion” if you don’t believe me. C-1halfstars

REVIEW: The Riot Club

3 01 2016

The Riot Club“I am sick to [expletive] death of poor people,” exclaims Sam Claflin’s Alistair Ryle as he tops off a liquor-powered rant during a madcap evening of debauchery. It’s perhaps the most obvious moment in Lone Scherfig’s”The Riot Club” where pointed satire and heightened drama become so blurred that they are practically indistinguishable. But the film is chock full of such instances where the unbelievable and the believable intersect, making its vanguard of posh college-aged British males both entertaining and odious.

The sharpness of its social commentary is no doubt related to the story’s origins on the stage; Laura Wade adapts her own play for the screen. At times, the roots show as easily half the film transpires in one protracted scene at a single location. While this might count as a liability for many movies, it actually comes out as a net positive for “The Riot Club.” Once this long dinner gets set up, the focus can remain solely on the words and how they express simmering tensions as well as larger themes.

The film proves plenty interesting leading up to this climactic reckoning, too. “The Riot Club” begins as a tale of two aristocratic young men, in many ways foils for each other. Claflin’s Alistair enters Oxford as entitled as they come, though without the protection of his older brother on campus, he begins somewhat sheepishly. Max Irons’ Miles Richards, however, seems to draw out the smugness in Alistair with his laissez-faire attitude towards the nobility he can expect to claim with his social status.

Read the rest of this entry »

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

20 11 2014

Unlike the “Harry Potter” finale, which ran over 800 pages in length, the last installment of “The Hunger Games” probably did not necessitate a two-part cinematic conclusion.  But alas, the filmmaking team thought they could find enough action in the story, and the Lionsgate executives had confidence that they could market two films.  So now, audiences are stuck with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.”

Though the film runs a full 30 minutes shorter than both its predecessors, it feels significantly longer.  Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his penultimate role) do bring an aura of prestige to the relatively calm proceedings, yet that is not enough to boost the low energy that plagues the first half of “Mockingjay.”  While there is a thrilling final rescue scene and one quasi-action sequence in the middle, the inside baseball of Panem politics occupies the majority of the two hours.

Perhaps “Mockingjay” could inspire the next generation of political publicists, a prospect simultaneously encouraging and frightening.  The film offers an introductory course to how semantics, misinformation, and outright propagandizing can be used by governments as well as social movements to recruit followers and repel criticisms.  The overarching lesson of “Mockingjay” may very well be that the camera is mightier than the sword.

Read the rest of this entry »

REVIEW: The Quiet Ones

6 08 2014

The Quiet OnesI don’t quite know what I was expecting when I followed a group of friends to see “The Quiet Ones.”  When I looked it up on IMDb, all I really saw was Jared Harris from “Mad Men” and assumed it must be a prestige drama.  But as we walked in, I heard someone mention it was a horror film … and at that point, it was too late to turn back.

The films in that genre I like are few and far between, and most of those I can actually get behind are ironic or self-aware.  If I want to be scared, normally I go to more artfully crafted films like “Requiem for a Dream.”  A more atmospheric horror can get underneath my skin and chill me to the bone, leaving me terrified long after the movie ends.

“The Quiet Ones” is quite the opposite, resorting time and again to the oldest trick in the genre’s book: the jump scene.  You know the drill, where everything grows eerily quiet or tranquil, some strings begin to play, and then WHAM!  Out of nowhere, something jumps out and scares you.  It’s effective for an immediate jolt, though the scare dissipates the moment the surprise is revealed.

Was I scared?  Sure.  I’m not ashamed to admit that “The Quiet Ones” got the better of me on multiple occasions, and I quickly fell into a routine of plugging my ears and averting my eyes from the screen.  So in some small sense, the film is effective.

But “The Quiet Ones” fails to do anything else interesting and will likely be of little use to anyone other than adrenaline junkies who thrive off the jump scenes.   The plot of the film is really only filler to string together these jolts of terror.  And even though the story follows Harris’ Oxford psychology professor and a group of students (including one played by Finnick from “Catching Fire,” Sam Claflin) as they perform an experiment on a disturbed woman, the proceedings are void of any mental stimulation.

It’s just the same old schtick, destined for $5 DVD bins at the CVS checkout registers and BuzzFeed lists about other movie projects of “Hunger Games” cast members.  But if you’re only in it for the cheap scares, chances are the blandness of “The Quiet Ones” was never something that concerned you anyways.  C+2stars

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

1 12 2013

Hunger GamesWhen I wrote my review of the first film in “The Hunger Games” series over a year and a half ago, I couldn’t stop gushing about Gary Ross’ gritty, unsparing aesthetic.  The shaky camera and rough editing made the movie’s form brilliantly match the dark content of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult novels.  But Ross is gone for the second installment, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and his unique stylization went with him.

The absence of artistry is likely to only bother people like me who study film, however.  And while I was sad to see it go, “Catching Fire” more than compensates with a tighter focus on storytelling and fidelity to its source.  Under the steady direction of Francis Lawrence and the pen of Oscar-winning scribes Michael Arndt (‘Toy Story 3“) and Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours“), this sequel is among the rare class that manages to outdo than its predecessor.

“Catching Fire” manages to pack a remarkable amount of events into its nearly two and a half hour runtime; in fact, I had read the book a few months before seeing the movie and could hardly think of anything excised from the plot.  Yet even in spite of how much it bites off, the film never feels its length at all.  Lawrence keeps the action unfolding at a steady clip, never hurried enough to make us feel frenzied but never so drawn out that we can get bored.  (And unlike the first “Hunger Games,” I was actually excited for the next film when “Catching Fire” ended.)

Read the rest of this entry »