Sunday, 26 April 2015

Miss Potter - Chris Noonan - 2006

Beatrix Potter is beloved the world over for her adorable hand-illustrated children’s stories about the adventures of various small animals and so it feels very apt that the biopic of her life is just as sweet and eccentric as her creations. Directed by Chris Noonan whose previous film appropriately was Babe, filled with talking animals whose inspirations can be traced to Potter’s work, Miss Potter charts the author’s battle to get her work published under the noses of her disapproving parents and her subsequent journey to independence at a time when a woman’s preoccupation was expected to be marriage. Renee Zellweger, having perfected her English accent playing Bridget Jones, is a perfect choice to play Beatrix: stoutly determined in the face of her mother’s withering disregard and sweetly excitable when her career unexpectedly takes off, Zellweger hits exactly the right balance between pathos and absurdity, selling the character as a complex woman who just happens to be a little eccentric without ever veering into parody. Zellweger is well supported by Ewan McGregor as amiable publisher Norman who spends the entire film twinkling into his moustache and Bill Paterson as Beatrix’s father and proud purveyor of the bushiest sideburns in cinema, but the film belongs to Beatrix and the glorious countryside of the English Lake District where she spends so much of her time. Noonan takes care to keep the tone gentle throughout, supplementing the drama with delightful little pieces of animation that reflect Beatrix’s mood as she talks to her drawings. All this whimsy does reduce the impact of the film as a story and piece of history, leaving it too light to perhaps be taken seriously but there is so much charm and warmth for Beatrix and her creations pouring off the screen that it is hard not to be moved when the story does darken and the tone becomes achingly sad. The film may seem slight compared to the weighty melodramas that the genre often produces, but more important than all the charm is the truth of the subject character; more than anything Miss Potter feels true to the author’s spirit and fans of the writer could not have asked for anything better.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Rite - Mikael Håfstrom - 2011

Based on a memoir by Matt Baglio about his experiences observing real life exorcisms under the guidance of the Catholic Church, The Rite raises interesting questions about faith and belief in a predominantly secular Western world but creaks like the proverbial cupboard door when attempting to meld those themes into a cheap horror movie scenario. Anthony Hopkins is deliciously hammy playing Father Lucas, an eccentric exorcist who may have strayed one too many times towards the dark side, sardonically ripping apart American movie based preconceptions about demons, before unleashing some full-throttle theatrical madness when the demons come calling but neither the direction nor the supporting cast can stand up to him. Newcomer Colin O'Donoghue plays trainee priest Michael Kovak, sent to Rome to study after a crisis of faith and acts as the audience’s eyes as he enters a spiritual world lost to many, but he proves a bland foil for Hopkins, failing to find much depth to stand up to the veteran actor’s experience or invest the audience into Michael’s journey. The dialogue is not bad on the page, extending to several surprisingly long (for a horror film) and weighty debates whether demons are real, a question that is accepted reality of Lucas and uncertain reality for Michael, but while such meaty lines are second nature for Hopkins, O’Donoghue doesn’t have the presence or the delivery to really carry them off and so his sceptical arguments are irritating rather than empathetic. Another problem is that despite the weighty themes at play here director Mikael Håfstrom clearly feels his prime remit is to scare a general public for whom a crisis of faith means next to nothing and so rather than trying harder to challenge their ideas he panders to their expectations with some cheap thrills and scares (a red-eyed horse, cheap monster makeup) that cheapen the whole premise. The end result is that Håfstrom fails to deliver on either aspect: the thematic questions are hinted at rather than challenged or addressed and the horror story is creepy in places but otherwise feels rather perfunctory with no major jump scares. The Rite maybe thought-provoking in places for those of faith or who are interested in spirituality but has little to recommend it to anyone else. Intriguing as it is to consider that the Catholic Church is continuing to fight demons in the modern world, the film fails to make this seem either significant or even worthy of much interest.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - William Shatner - 1989

Having seen co-star Leonard Nimoy successfully helm two popular entries in the Star Trek canon, leading man William Shatner decided it was his turn to play around behind the camera but sadly the end result, the fifth film in the movie series, is far less successful. After Nimoy successfully utilised the cast’s comedy skills to hilarious effect in The Voyage Home, Shatner tries to recreate the bantering tone in unnecessarily lengthy scenes of Kirk, Spock and Bones bonding around a campfire whilst on leave, but whether its down to clunky writing or lumbering direction, the scenes feel dull and awkward rather than funny and only Nimoy as the permanently impassive Spock comes away with any dignity. The main plotline, revolving around Spock’s long lost half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) and his quest to find God is hardly much better; Luckinbill has little of the charisma necessary to make a Star Trek villain sparkle and the writers give him little to do but make repetitious speeches about finding peoples’ pain that rapidly becomes irritating to the extent that even the ‘shock’ revelations about his history with Spock fail to raise much interest. The plot ambles along without any real pace to generate excitement or tension, opting instead to take detours into the crew’s private headspace that Shatner clearly believes will be insightful and moving, crucially failing to realise that personal problems are not what the audience signed up for when they bought tickets. A film setting out on a search for God runs the grave risk of either offending a lot of people or wrapping up your saga to the extent that there is no room for more adventures; happily for the saga but not for his film, Shatner opts for neither, finishing on an underwhelming dramatic climax that does not justify the amount of hyperbole spouted in the first three quarters and meanders to a close without ever really making clear what the point was. Its clear from the concept and the ideas being bandied around that Shatner had grand ideas about what can be accomplished using the Star Trek universe, but sadly without the ability to successfully translate those ideas to the screen, The Final Frontier is left a lesser entry into a popular canon, clumsy where it would like to be funny and ponderous where it should be exciting. 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - Nicholas Meyer - 1991

After the ponderous Final Frontier the Star Trek film franchise was debatably sank, especially given the popularity of a whole new Enterprise crew over on television in The Next Generation, but happily Leonard Nimoy, brainchild of some of the most popular previous adventures had one last trick up his sleeve, recruiting Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer for another adventure that restores some long overdue credibility to the aging crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise. With strong real life parallels to the recent Soviet disaster at Chernobyl, The Undiscovered Country forces Captain Kirk’s long-term enemies the Klingons into acting as reluctant peace negotiators after a devastating industrial explosion, catalysing a rollicking adventure filled with excitement, intrigue and the most entertaining villain since the unexpected resurrection of Khan, in short, everything that originally made the franchise so much fun. Seguing neatly between moments of hilariously awkward comedy – the Klingons coming for dinner aboard the Enterprise must rank as one of the best dinner parties from hell – and suspenseful mystery, Meyer keeps the tone roaring along with a zest that was sorely lacking when William Shatner was behind the camera in the previous film. The regular cast all get moments to shine and David Warner makes a welcome return after an all-too-brief appearance in The Final Frontier to play forward-thinking Klingon Ambassador Gorkan, but best of all is Christopher Plummer as Shakespeare spouting Kingon General Chang. With an apt quotation for every occasion, Plummer has enormous fun snarling his way through Federation Space with scant regard for subtlety or good form and his confrontations with the equally antagonistic Kirk are a highlight of the film. Climaxing with a genuinely exciting space battle (a rarity in Star Trek) and public showdown, Undiscovered Country brings the first era of the Enterprise to a suitably rousing finish, sending off the crew with the ending that they and their loyal audiences deserve. Successfully balancing an entertaining ride with an intelligent story, the film is a sadly rare example of what the original Star Trek franchise could achieve with the right hands behind the wheel.