Denial

Director: Mick Jackson (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Book yourself a grandstand seat at the Old Bailey for this courtroom drama of international importance. Smartly crafted from a real case, it provides plenty of evidence that great writing, performance and direction make for gripping cinema.

Brit actress Rachel Weisz sports red hair and a US accent as forthright Jewish university lecturer, Deborah Lipstadt. It’s an impassioned performance fuelled by an unbending sense of moral certainty, full of  sharp intelligence, wit and determination.

There’s a very American feel to proceedings, with an emphasis on the sanctity of free speech and the virtues of jogging. Lawyers of course, are celebrated.

Deborah is forced to to come to London to defend herself when she is sued for libel by British historian and holocaust denier, David Irving.

Timothy Spall is magnificent as the self-taught and social climbing bigot on the make. Endowing him with charm, dignity and sincerity, Spall makes Irving’s reprehensible  arguments appear dangerously and falsely reasonable and seductive.

The case hinges on Irving’s denial of  the true purpose of Auschwitz. He claims the death camp in Nazi occupied Poland during the Second World War wasn’t geared for industrial genocide. The cost of Deborah losing will be Holocaust denial being legitimised by a court of law, potentially allowing for a legally backed downgrading of Nazi atrocities.

Various Characters are denied their voice in court, not least the vociferous Deborah who is frustrated at having to allow her barrister, Richard, to speak on her behalf. Tom Wilkinson is wry, irrascible and fond of red wine as her much experienced advocate.

There’s a strong supporting cast throughout, even if the presence of Andrew Scott and Mark Gatiss from TV’s Sherlock occasionally lend the air of superior Sunday evening TV fare.

However a winter visit to Auschwitz offers some welcome visual gravitas and underlines the utter importance of the case. And when the verdict comes in, there’s no denying the audience is the winner.

Swallows And Amazons (2016)

Director: Philippa Lowthorpe (2016) BBFC cert: PG

There’s a steady hand on the tiller of this handsomely crafted old fashioned family adventure.

It’s a sincere adaption of Arthur Ransome’s classic childrens book, though the liberties it takes with the plot don’t hold much water.

Setting out a steady pace, the sailing sequences are impressively staged. It paints a picture of privileged England at play in a gorgeous rural setting.

It’s 1935 and in the looming shadow of the Second World War, Mrs. Walker takes her baby and four children to the Lake District farmhouse for the summer.

Kelly McDonald plays mother to young actors Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch. They are are an enthusiastic, fresh faced, well scrubbed bunch who seem to be sporting a vintage nautical range from the Boden catalogue.

The four children embark in their small boat, the Swallow, and head off to Undiscovered Island to camp for a few days.

Once there they feud with the children of another boat, the Amazon. Sporting home-made masks and pirate costumes, the bickering sisters also have a claim to the island. But they join forces when the Amazon’s mysterious uncle is kidnapped.

Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen as the younger sister Tatty is the stand out performer. Her name was changed from the novel’s Titty, to prevent titters.

Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott are unfairly given top billing above the kids. In a silly espionage plot not in the novel, they play a pair of spies engaging in a game of cat and mouse about the lake.

Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield gently spar as Mr and Mrs Jackson, the bucolic owners of the Walker’s holiday farmhouse.

The orchestral soundtrack enforces a bracing tone of jolly derring do, soaring with as many peaks as offered by the glorious countryside.

There’s a refreshing absence of CGI and an empahsis on outdoor activity as the kids learn how to make fire and pitch a tent. They also swim, fish and star gaze.

Swallows And Amazons is a pleasant enough time spent messing about on the water. And if it encourages kids to aspire to technology free activities, then it’s all the more welcome for that.

@ChrisHunneysett

Alice Through The Looking Glass

Director: James Bobin (2016)

It’s six long years since the staggeringly successful but forgettable Alice In Wonderland (2010) from director Tim Burton.

And time drags in this muddled sequel which has even less connection to the fantastical novels of Lewis Carroll.

There’s no lyrical sense of wonder just hack handed sentiment, blunt slapstick and plodding special effects.

It jettisons familiar characters into two distinct and parallel plots of its own invention, respectively involving time travel and female empowerment. The resolution of family conflict joins the two strands loosely together.

Never forget Hollywood’s golden rule of scriptwriting; a film is always about family, regardless of how appropriate it is to the material.

Burton butchered Carroll’s whimsical masterpiece, replacing its playful intelligence, charm and wit with flamboyant gothic design and an excruciating mannered performance by Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Against the odds, Burton’s replacement James Bobin has made an even more unwieldy and incoherent film.

Previously Bobin directed The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014). He began in TV with The 11 O’Clock Show (1998) where he collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen. The comic actor features heavily if sadly not hilariously in Looking Glass.

Despite Alice being reinvented as an action heroine, the pale Mia Wasikowska gives a pallid performance as Alice. Perhaps she’s miffed she’s billed a humble third after Depp and Anne Hathaway.

Alice steps through a mirror and falls into Wonderland, immediately signalling to us nothing in this world can hurt her. Which destroys any potential sense of danger in one dull thud.

She is told her friend the Mad Hatter has gone more mad but in a bad way, and is dying.

In white face paint, orange wig and tweeds, Depp’s Hatter resembles Ronald McDonald’s eccentric great uncle after confinement to a suitable attic.

To cure him Alice must do the impossible task of stealing a device called the chronosphere and go back in time to rescue his long lost family.

Removing the time travelling machine risks destroying Wonderland and everyone in it. But this threat is quickly forgotten about as the film is more interested in whizzing Alice about. There’s a surprise incursion to an insane asylum.

Alice is chased by Time who wants his contraption back. The film can’t decide if the black clad and German accented Sacha Baron Cohen is the baddie.

Also vying to be the baddie but failing in villainy are Helena Bonham Carter and Hathaway. They make a squabbling return as respectively the large headed and rude Red Queen and the elegant and duplicitous White Queen.

The presence of Bonham Carter, his now ex-wife, may explain Burton’s exclusion from the director’s chair.

The sepulchral tones of the late Alan Rickman offers a fleeting moment of gravity. While in her brief appearances as Alice’s mother, theatrical Scots stalwart Lindsay Duncan makes more of an impression than Wasikowska achieves.

Lending their voices to the advertising poster in some un-necessarily expensive casting choices are Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, John Sessions, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse and Toby Jones.

Usually my heart despairs whenever Matt Lucas appears so it says a great deal about the film I found his presence curiously bearable.

Alice won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, as well as being nominated for Best Visual Effects.

No doubt Looking Glass will follow the first film in being in the running for similar awards. It’s rich and detailed production design gives us plenty to look at while everyone busily runs around.

The chronosphere is a golden mechanical marvel Alice sits in to blast back in time, a design nod to George Pal’s teen culture embracing adaption of HG Well’s The Time Machine (1960).

Alice visits vast gothic halls and traverses a tumultuous ocean of time. The world is populated by  mechanical assistants, vegetable guardsmen, giant chess pieces, a fire breathing Jabberwocky, walking frogs, talking dogs and of course the disappearing Cheshire Cat.

Bookending the film is a framing device featuring Alice’s adventures at sea pursued by pirates. Because the world needs another big budget CGI fest involving Johnny Depp and pirates.

The story stresses the importance of not wasting ones time. Which is strange as I wasted two hours of my life watching this joyless merry go round of a movie.

Mind you, it felt much longer.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

 

 

Victor Frankenstein

Director: Paul McGuigan (2015)

There’s magnetism a foot as the electric talent of James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe jolt Mary Shelley‘s gothic horror back into life.

This romping reinvention relocates the story to London and is told in flashback by Radcliffe’s hunchback Igor.

Lurching from action set piece to another, it has someone’s tongue stitched firmly in it’s cheek.

McAvoy gives a gleefully twitching turn as the mad scientist who wants to prove death is temporary by recycling dead bodies and applying shock treatment.

Recreated as a Victorian gentleman adventurer, he’s a monster mash-up of Robert Downey Jnr’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing (2004).

Recognised as talented pair of hands, Igor is rescued from life as a brutalised circus clown by McAvoy’s mad medical student Frankenstein.

He’s the brains of the partnership with the choice cuts of dialogue, while Igor is the heart, feeding off the rump scraps of the script.

Soon the pair are in the laboratory and up to the elbows in blood and gore.

While Victor is working the graveyard shift cutting up cadavers to complete a creature, Igor and a trapeze artist called Lorelei practise making life the old fashioned way.

Better known as Lady Sybil from TV’s Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown Findlay role is only really required to add a pretty face to the bones of the action.

Unsurprisingly the finale involves a castle, a reconstructed cadaver and a lightning storm.

If it’s not quite the exquisite show of depraved lunacy a bystander claims he hopes to see, Victor Frankenstein does manage to be energetic and knowingly silly.

Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes (2015)

From the breathtaking beginning to the doom laden finale, the 24th James Bond adventure is an extraordinary explosive and epic episode of the franchise.

The spy filled cinematic year has included reasonably received riffs on the genre including Kingsman, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man From UNCLE.

Now the daddy of espionage returns to slap down the young pretenders.

Returning in his fourth and possibly final film of an extraordinarily successful tenure, the 47 year old Daniel Craig offers an interpretation of Ian Fleming’s alter-ego at least equal to the very best.

Spectre is fresh and ambitious despite the weight of history and expectation.

So spectacular, sexy and superb in all departments, it sometimes feels less than the sum of its magnificent parts.

Yet British director Sam Mendes is playing a bigger game than merely creating a standalone action thriller.

He’s also made a fabulous final chapter in a four film reinvention of an overly familiar character.

Prior to Craig each Bond movie was a self-contained story connected not by story but by character.

It’s now clear we’ve been watching a long form story which began way back with the Englishman’s debut in the role in Casino Royale (2006).

It’s a bold strategic 9 year move inspired perhaps by the 10 year long Harry Potter series and a forerunner of Marvel‘s creation of a cinematic universe.

This approach won’t harm the home entertainment box-set sales.

The famous gun barrel opening sequence is re-installed and few themes create a shiver of expectation as effectively as Bond’s does.

Following on from Skyfall (2012), a message from beyond the grave sends 007 off-piste and outside the law.

As he follows a trail of clues from Rome, to Austria and Morocco, he once more encounters the deadly Quantum organisation.

It’s a procession vodka martini’s, dangerous women, gorgeous locations, terrific stunts, powerful henchmen and a completely cuckoo villain. Bond’s car is quite beautiful even by his standards.

There’s paranoia, conspiracy, betrayal, torture, sex and death.

And as a riposte to those who suggest Craig’s interpretation lacks humour, it’s also very funny.

A trio of European stars add indispensable talent and glamour.

As the oldest actress to be cast opposite Bond, Monica Bellucci’s widow riffs on a character on in The Italian Job (1969).

Lea Seydoux is an excellent foil and Christoph Waltz mercifully keeps a firm hand on his inclination to camp.

An intelligent script works hard to give ample screen time to Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw who return as MI6 stalwarts Moneypenny, M and Q.

They also contribute to the two and a half hour running time and if anything was to be trimmed, it would be this extra muscle.

As cinema owners will be forced to have fewer screenings per day to accommodate Bond’s length, it will be interesting to see if this affects the box office.

This potential shortfall may be compensated for by more expensive IMAX tickets. The opening Mexico sequence certainly warrants the extra cost to the cinema-goer.

It’s dynamically photographed by Dutch-Swedish Hoyte van Hoytema. His work on Interstellar (2014) was one of the few high points of Chris Nolan’s pompous ego trip.

But here the rich wreaths of shadows he wraps around the players are more reminiscent of his glorious work which contributed so much to the success of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Sam Smith’s theme song sounds thin on the radio but works well in situ over the sensual opening titles.

Mendes encourages his actors to play every scene as if it’s their last. Which for Daniel Craig, may well be the case.