Nov 7, 2011

Mini-Reviews Out on Friday

The Awakening  [15]
Dir: Nick Murphy
Assuming you've seen a few of the ghost stories that have, at times, seemed to clog cinemas over the last decade or so there's nothing tremendously new or different about this variant set in the early 20th century. That said, The Awakening is a pretty decent piece of work, and has several things to recommend it.

The first outstanding aspect of the film is the photography, which comes courtesy of 30 year old wunderkind DP Eduard Grau, who shot Buried, A Single Man and the sadly underseen Kicks. Grau's photography uses source lighting and shadow, smoke and mist, to generate an effectively chilly and foreboding atmosphere throughout the film. Nick Murphy's direction is perhaps a little standard (bar a couple of sequences which get some terrific shocks out of a dolls house), but Grau makes every frame something worth taking the time to look at.

Rebecca Hall is, for my money, one of Britain's most interesting, versatile and talented actors of the moment, and while her role as sceptical ghost investigator Florence Cathcart isn't her most challenging she still invests it with a great deal of humanity, which helps to make the film's sometimes slightly hackneyed scares play. She's well cast too; with that classical beauty that fits a period setting, and an evident intelligence which she brings to this (for the time unusually) well educated character.

The plot is a bit familiar, involving ghostly goings on at a boys school, and Florence's increasingly desperate attempts to debunk them, but, to my surprise, it did manage to hook me in. When the final twist came around I was positively kicking myself for not having guessed it an hour previously, but the fact remains that I didn't guess it, and that The Awakening is pretty well constructed.

It's not a great movie, but Rebecca Hall is always worth watching, Eduard Grau is one of the best DPs around, and overall the film is a decent 100 minutes of spooky entertainment.

Dir: Errol Morris
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. That's a fact, that much is clear from watching Tabloid.

The film unpicks the story and, perhaps more importantly, the coverage of 'The Case of the Manacled Mormon'. In 1977, Joyce McKinney followed a former boyfriend to England, where he had gone with the Mormon church. Insisting that they had kidnapped him, and were holding him against his will, she kidnapped Kirk Anderson, drove him from London to Devon, and chained him to a bed for several days, where she, believing the religion had robbed her of her soulmate, tried to break him away from it, by having sex with him.

Joyce McKinney is not stable, that seems to have been true in 1977, and shortly after, when her trial, the nature of her crime and her former beauty queen looks made her a tabloid favourite and a celebrity in Britain, and it still appears to be true, as Morris demonstrates by building most of Tabloid around an interview with McKinney. She's clearly quite nuts - and still in love with Kirk Anderson and unable to see that she did anything wrong - but you do end up feeling a bit sorry for her as her story goes on. Morris never tells you what he thinks of McKinney; whether she acted out of self interest and, to some degree, malice, or whether, as she contends, she really believed she was trying to save Anderson, but she comes across as sincere, at least in the terms of her own somewhat broken reality.

With McKinney as the key interview and reporters and a few other interested parties chipping in, Tabloid is often a very funny film. McKinney's very particular turn of phrase is often hilarious (observing that it's impossible for her to have raped Anderson she says "It’s like trying to put a marshmallow into a parking meter"), as is the way the Mirror journalist who wrote most of the stories STILL seems to talk about it in headlines. The only real problem with the film's survey of the case is that Morris was unable to speak to Kirk Anderson (still a devout Mormon, apparently), and that does rob us of the chance to give McKinney's account real context.

Tabloid's events are so outlandish you wouldn't believe them in fiction, and perhaps that's why Morris shuns his usual reconstructions here, because it's more outrageous to hear Joyce McKinney, with a tinkling laugh, come out with the details. This is not one of Morris' more important films, but it's a return to form following the lacklustre Standard Operating Procedure, and a highly entertaining, frequently jaw dropping, account of a great story.

Wuthering Heights  [15]
Dir: Andrea Arnold
I can't tell you how disappointed I am to say this, but Andrea Arnold, who made a magnificent start to her feature directing career with Red Road and Fish Tank, has come horribly unstuck with this version of the much filmed Emily Brontë novel.

It is, thanks to DP Robbie Ryan, excruciatingly, achingly, jaw droppingly beautiful. The mist shrouded Yorkshire moors are forebodingly atmospheric, Ryan captures every tiny detail, every individual hair of the characters as they are buffeted by wind and rain, every grainy detail as they find themselves caked in mud or blood. It is extraordinary looking, indeed it could almost be said to belong more to a gallery than to a cinema, and that is where Andrea Arnold has fundamentally got it wrong.

I'll be honest and say that my entire experience of Wuthering Heights before this film comes from the Kate Bush record, but I'm not sure that Arnold tells the essential story much better or much more faithfully in 2 hours than Bush did in 3 minutes, or that she invests it with as much feeling. It's my understanding that Wuthering Heights (or at least the first half, which is what Arnold has adapted here) is about the destructive force of Heathcliff's truly obsessive love for Cathy, and while that happens in the film, I really never felt it, and that is a gaping hole at the centre of the film.

The problem is twofold. First of all, Arnold is obsessed with detail. Almost every shot, especially in the first half of the film, is a juddering handheld close up of some tiny detail of a scene; a detail of a character's face, clothes or body; a detail of the landscape, a detail of an animal. She seldom, apart from some times when we are out on the moors, pulls back for the bigger picture, and thanks to a lack of dialogue and thus a lack of context (particularly if you haven't read the book), this patchwork of detail never comes together into a cohesive whole. The other problem, sadly, is the acting, to this point always a strength of Arnold's work. Here, sadly, she has largely cast non-actors as Heathcliff and Cathy (the roles are split, with Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer as the younger pair and James Howson and Skins actress Kaya Scodelario as the adult Heathcliff and Cathy), the gamble falls spectacularly flat on its face, with Glave contributing an especially wooden turn (perhaps the reason he has only about 10 lines).

Problems abound; the acting is largely terrible, the screenplay is awkwardly and inappropriately contemporary (I'm reasonably sure the book's Heathcliff never called anyone a c**t, or got called a ni**er), but the main and hobbling issue is the total lack of feeling. The romance holds no weight, no import, and therefore the film, stunningly beautiful as it is, is boring and meaningless.

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