The Light Between Oceans

Director: Derek Cianfrance (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Wade into a sea of grief, madness and death with this mournful melodrama. Solid performances and breathtaking locations bring the best selling book by M. L. Stedman to windswept life.

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander star as Tom and Isabel Sherbourne. He is a black clad and brooding veteran of the First World War’s western front, she is a vivacious local girl in angelic white.

The happiness of Australia’s most photogenic lighthouse keepers hits the rocks due to a repeated failure to have a child.  Demented by grief, Isabel persuades Tom to abandon the ship of common sense when a baby girl is washed ashore. They pass the child off as their own, with the only clue to her identity an expensive silver rattle.

As a period romance this is more gothic tragedy than uplifting celebration of love. Imagine Emily Bronte’s Cathy and Heathcliff escaping Wuthering Heights to spend a day out at the seaside.

There are tales of suicide, ghostly images, wild walks on stormy nights, wailing widows and mourning mothers. There are letters from beyond the grave. In flashback we see the dead, living. Beneath breathy voice overs, the script shovels on unlikely occurrences and coincidences.

The lighthouse island is named after Janus, two headed god who looks to the future and the past. Tom looks one way, Isabel the other. When Isabel shaves off Tom’s moustache, she is defenestrating his stiff upper lip and removing his emotional barrier to the world. Not only does this indicate he prepared to reveal his emotions, but it places him in her power. It is redolent of Samson having his locks shorn and is the harbinger of their doom.

As the drama sinks under the weight of this heavy handed symbolism, eventually the over-wrought storytelling cops out and dissolves into sentimentality. A lack of social smoking undermines the carefully constructed period detail.

Filmed in Tasmania and off the New Zealand coast, the coastline is a character and the crashing waves are a soundtrack. Rachel Weisz offers strong support as Hannah, the daughter of local businessman. It’s always great to see Bryan Brown on screen, even when playing Septimus Potts, as unpleasant a man as his name suggests.

Fassbender and Vikander became a couple while on set and the early scenes have an earthy crackle of electricity. I hope they achieve more happiness than their characters do.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jason Bourne

Director: Paul Greengrass (2016) BBFC cert 12A

Matt Damon returns to the action treadmill for a fourth outing as the amnesiac assassin in this flat fifth episode of the franchise.

He was already an Oscar winning star when he powered 2002’s The Bourne Identity to usher in a new wave of inventively violent thrillers grounded in the real world.

Here references to whistleblower Edward Snowden and wikileaks sit beside a social media entrepreneur and European democratic protests.

The impact on cinema was to invigorate the competition and in 2006 Daniel Craig duly wowed the world as a gritty James Bond in Casino Royale.

So it’s curious at a time when Craig is supposedly stepping out of 007’s tux, the 45 year old Damon is jumping back into the fray.

He’s in tremendous physical shape and grimly charismatic but there is a sense of what was once the future is now past its best.

The plot reheats the familiar routine of global games of violent cat and mouse. Tommy Lee Jones is the grizzled new CIA director wanting Bourne dead and Alicia Vikander is his ambitious analyst who has murky motives for helping our hero. There’s even a new black ops programme named Ironhand in the works.

Fundamentally the story is of the CIA engaging a huge amount of time and resources to pursue a vendetta against its own former operatives in order to protect what we must laughably call its good name.

This leaves the audience as bemused bystanders to a purely internal affair with no investment in the outcome.

There is no sex, romance, drugs, booze or even coffee in the life of the humourless and puritan patriot, making Bourne difficult to root for.

Previously uncovered secrets of Bourne’s personal history are uncovered to jumpstart the plot. It’s a desperate move reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Deathwish (1974-1994) series which went to increasingly ludicrous lengths to find new family and friends to sacrifice in order the vigilante could once more shoot bad guys with impunity.

Greengrass gives the action some impact and the stunt crew earn their bonus. Athens stages a brilliant riot but by the time Bourne is gambling his life on the streets of Las Vegas, I’d forgotten why I ever cared.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper (2016)

Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne aims for more Academy gold as a transgender artist in this period drama.

As in The Theory Of Everything (2015) where he played scientist Stephen Hawking, the British actor gives a committed performance as Einar Wegener.

However he is outshone by Swedish co-star Alicia Vikander as his on-screen wife Gerda who offers strong marital support.

She acts with her eyes and he with his mouth. Some of his alarming lip quivering reminds us of his space camp turn in the terrible Jupiter Ascending (2015).

Gorgeous costumes, polished interiors and fresh exterior locations give Copenhagen of 1926 a living, picturesque appeal.

But it’s suffocatingly sincere and suffers from banal dialogue and a lack of conflict.

Plus director Tom Hooper inflicts on us the same close ups and curious framing which marred his films The King’s Speech (2011) and Les Miserable (2013).

Gerda producers portraits and wears the trousers while Einar paints landscapes and discovers he enjoys wearing frocks.

As he discovers himself more comfortable in women’s clothes than men’s, Einar adopts the alter ego of ‘Lili’.

Gradually she becomes his dominant personality and seeks to make a permanent transformation to womanhood.

Redmayne is a pretty boy in real life but no great beauty as a woman, especially when stood between to his gorgeous on-screen wife and her ballerina best mate Oola, played by Amber Heard.

Lili’s selfish behaviour fails to garner much sympathy and nor does she meet much resistant to her life choices. Society is indifferent to Lili’s plight. So was I.

 

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Director: Guy Ritchie (2015)

This big budget update of a much loved 1960’s spy series is sumptuous, smooth and stylish.

Although the loose vibe and fabulous locations are seductive, sadly the script and the chemistry aren’t.

4 series of the U.N.C.L.E. TV series ran from 1964 to 1968, plus there was the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1983).

Robert Vaughn starred as the American Napoleon Solo and British actor David McCallum as the Russian Illya Kuryakin.

Beyond the concept, period setting and character names not much remains of the show.

There’s not a radio pen in sight, no opening of Channel D, nor a hint of T.H.R.U.S.H. The U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) organisation of the title receives a very belated introduction.

Director Guy Ritchie suffered a career slump with the inglorious mis-steps of Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005).

He painstakingly rebuilt his reputation as a safe pair of blockbuster hands with the excellent Sherlock Holmes franchise: Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011).

Here he’s content to reject his customary zip and go against the grain of contemporary action movies. He is wilfully dismissive, almost contemptuous of his own plot.

Instead of constant wham bam action scenes he focuses on character and builds a mood of glamorous, languid indulgence which is rich in period detail.

It’s an admirable if potentially career-harming move by the writer/director/producer.

Having given Ritchie a name cast and a $75million budget, one can only imagine the horror of the studio’s executives on their first screening.

Certainly Ritchie can argue he included all the elements they wanted; cars, guns, girls, stunts, jokes – but the way he has editor James Herbert put it all together must have them tearing their hair out.

Even the sexually available and semi-naked hotel receptionist seems a studio imposition.

Elsewhere however there is a worrying confluence of violence and foreplay and a fair amount of dull macho posturing for which Ritchie can’t escape responsibility.

In 1963 the US and the USSR are threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.

Rogue nazi sympathiser Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) has stolen a computer disc. She’s a deliciously tall and cool glass of cyanide.

The disc contains data on how to super-enrich uranium to make nuclear bombs far more powerful than in existence, threatening the uneasy balance of the super-hot cold war. Whomever has the disc controls the world.

Top man at the CIA and art expert Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is unwillingly teamed up with ferocious KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

Both receive orders to recover the disc at any cost.

But the two leads are hamstrung by dull, innuendo-laden banter and a desire to project a faultless accent.

While the British Cavill plays an American, the American Hammer plays a Russian.

Hammer has less dialogue and is more able to cope but Cavill’s lumbered with laborious exposition. His careful enunciation slows scenes to a crawl.

Doing his best work when not required to speak, Cavill’s – and the film’s – best moment comes when Solo takes time to appreciate the finer aspects of life as the action goes on behind him.

It’s possible he would have been a brilliant silent movie star back in the day.

With his chiselled features and broad frame he’s the most classically movie star-looking movie star since James Garner. He steps through the film with the stately and exquisitely tailored grace of the ageing Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief (1955).

The two spies recruit an East German motor mechanic Gaby Teller (Swedish Alicia Vikander). Her rocket scientist father is held by Victoria and the boys intend to use Gabby’s connections to infiltrate Victoria’s outfit.

Sporting a chic collection of outfits but metaphorically trouser-wearing, Gabby refuses to yield superiority to the boys in any department.

A grey-haired Hugh Grant shuffles on for a couple of scenes to deliver a masterclass in light comedy.

With a storming pop operatic soundtrack throughout, Ritchie saves his visual dynamism for the finale when the screen erupts into a frenzy of split screens, fast cuts and twisted camerawork.

With beautiful production design by Oliver Scholl captured with glossy delight by cinematographer John Mathieson, it makes for a very easy on the eye experience. Berlin in 1963 is expertly rendered.

Ritchie should be applauded for making a film with a strong identity and has the courage to stand or fall on it’s own terms.

But for all it’s speedboats, helicopters and a terrifically synchronised car chase, it’s a pity it’s not more full throttle.

Seventh Son

Director: Sergei Bodrov (2015)

A young pig farmer is taught to battle supernatural forces in this ploddingly derivative fantasy adventure.

A bombastic score can’t drown out laughable dialogue while eccentric and uneven performances wrestle with a dull script.

In an unspecified medieval country, seventh son of a seventh son Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) lives a humble life on a remote lakeside farm.

He suffers premonitions which give a glimpse of what the film holds for us but don’t benefit him in any way.

One day a Spook (witch-hunter) called John Gregory (Jeff Bridges) arrives to buy Tom from his family to serve as an apprentice. Before Tom leaves, his Mam (Olivia Williams) gives him a medallion.

In Gregory’s hideaway full of weapons and potions – like a medieval Bat-cave – Tom learns the names of a lot of useful sounding potions and how to throw a knife.

He also nicks a joke from James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven – which turns out to be the best joke in this film.

Tom discovers Gregory is the last in a line of an order of Knights called the Falcons – which makes them sound like a witch-hunting Rugby Club.

Meanwhile the evil shape-changing queen witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) has escaped the pit Gregory had nailed her inside. She wants revenge and to rule the world.

In seven days there’s a one-in-a-hundred-years blood moon whose mystic powers will make Malkin unstoppable. I’m still not sure why.

Tom and Gregory are assisted by the indestructible and much maligned manservant Tusk (John DeSantis). This loyal and hard-working creature is the butt of a cruel running gag about his looks.

The only other humour comes from Bridges habitually boozing. There are only so many jokes you can steal from a classic Western after all.

En route to thwart Malkin they meet the comely Alice (Alicia Vikander) who is accused of being a witch. She looks fetching in leather trousers and makes a pretty pair with Barnes, even if they struggle to establish a rapport.

With a young apprentice called to adventure by a magi to rescue a princess, this is a sorry trudge through the familiar tropes of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The bones of the perfunctory plot are fleshed out with impressive CGI and weighty production design. ‘Legends and nightmares are real’ claims Gregory.

But due to the lack of rounded characters or careful crafting of a convincing universe, we never engage with the story.

It can’t be bothered to invent it’s own encompassing mythology. A ghast is called a level six creature as if this was a game of Dungeons and Dragons – but who knows what the other levels are.

There’s no attempt to fill in cultural details such as history, geography or language. Plus a lack of place names and no relationship between locations.

The major conurbation is ‘The Walled City’. It’s two days travel from somewhere but we’re never told where. There’s no coherent sense of distance or time. Everyone simply moves and arrives.

Bridges delivers a wildly eccentric performance, pitching his accent somewhere between Tom Hardy as Bane in the The Dark Knight Rises and Sean Connery in anything – though most likely The Name of the Rose.

Julianne Moore is distracted or possibly bored. When she and Bridges square off I giggled at the memory of their appearance in 1998’s The Big Lebowski – particularly the Gutterballs scene. It’s more fun and inspired than anything here.

Kit Harington wanders through as Gregory’s former apprentice Billy Bradley. He appears in a tavern scene which may or may not be inspired by Val Kilmer in Tombstone.

Assassins and inquisitors rub shoulders in the shabbily thought out mythology. There’s lots of sword fights and incinerations and people shapeshift into bears, leopards and dragons.

At different times Tom is attacked by a giant mole and a possessed suit of armour, but only because current Hollywood lore demands an action scene every ten minutes. Neither episode contribute to plot or character development in any meaningful way.

One four-armed swordsman recalls the work of the great Ray Harryhausen but this shambolic load of warlocks lacks the charm and narrative clarity of his brilliant work.

Ex Machina

Director. Alex Garland (2015)

Sexy, sharp and stylish, this brilliant British sci-fi thriller explores man’s relationship to machines with verve, wit and polish.

Precision-tooled to perfection with sumptuously seductive design, it combines the brains of Blade Runner, the gloss of James Bond, and the sly satire of cult comic 2000AD.

This makes it an astonishingly assured directorial debut by Alex Garland, the novelist turned scriptwriter of Dredd, and 28 Days Later.

Domhnall Gleeson’s expert computer programmer, Caleb, wins an in-house company competition to spend a week with his boss, Oscar Isaac’s reclusive genius.

Nathan lives in an isolated underground home and research facility reached only by helicopter, where the only other occupant is Sonoya Mizuno’s beautiful but mute Japanese servant, Kyoko.

The engagingly geeky Gleeson is cunningly cast while the bearded Isaac is solicitous, funny and quietly menacing as the heavy-drinking megalomaniac Nathan.

Caleb is introduced to Alicia Vikander’s AVA, a semi-transparent chrome and plastic robot with the face and figure of a beautiful woman, designed for the movie by awesome concept artist Jock.

Under surveillance Caleb has to test Ava to establish whether she has achieved a state of artificial intelligence and therefore not a machine.

This would represent a scientific breakthrough of huge significance to Nathan and of great consequence to the world.

Though interrupted by mysterious power cuts, a rapport develops and Ava warns Caleb that Nathan can’t be trusted leading to tension between the men.

Garland provides cracking dialogue but crucially understands when to shut his characters up and let the images tell the story.

Unerringly paced and with an inventive soundscape and bold use of colour it’s very much in the mould of mentor Danny Boyle, at his best.

If Garland is the future of sci-fi then it’s in very safe hands. Unlike Caleb.

★★★★★