Monday 19 March 2018

Hitchcockian suspense in haunting tale of suspicion


Aine O'Connor and Padraic McKiernan

Dear John

Cert 12A

Nicholas Sparks writes romantic novels that movie makers seem to think will make great films. Dear John is the fifth of his books to be translated into a film (The Notebook is probably the most famous) and it very much follows the pattern of passionate but thwarted love. The men are usually stalwart types, the women invariably the cause of the trouble and there's lots of opportunity to cry. Usually in South Carolina.

Dear John's variation on the theme is that John (Channing Tatum) is a soldier on leave, staying in his father's house in South Carolina when he meets Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) a well-meaning rich girl on holiday. They have two charged vacation weeks of basically sexless passion, during which they're involved in worthy activities like building homes for the poor. Savannah attempts to bond with John's unbondable-with dad (Richard Jenkins), whom she half diagnoses with autism, before circumstances take them back to their lives. They write lots of letters -- it's 2001, email anyone? -- and then in comes the deus ex machina who makes the woman treacherous, albeit for understandable reasons.

To contextualise, I cry at pretty much anything, and I didn't cry at The Notebook. Or this. There is some kind of shameless emotional manipulation in Nicholas Sparks' things that gives me the creeps. In Dear John, with the autism and 9/11 that feeling is heightened. Tatum has adopted the early Brad Pitt school of acting where most emotions are expressed through a series of lip flexes. Everything else he postures to the point of male model. Seyfried is fine but the material is so weak as to do neither of them any favours. Director Lasse Hallstrom usually paces things well but there is a turgidity in the middle section here that unmasks the weaknesses in the rest.

Fans of The Notebook or Message in a Bottle may completely disagree.


Dear John opens on April 14

The Ghost

Cert 15A

As authors, one of the few similarities between Robert Harris and Nicholas Sparks is their success. Where Sparks seeks to provoke tears, Harris seeks to provide thrills and to ensure smooth transition from page to screen, he co-wrote the screenplay of his novel The Ghost with director Roman Polanski.

With obvious parallels to real events and continuing Harris' interest in the mechanics of power, the story revolves around a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) who is engaged to do a quick, well paid, no questions asked tidy up on the first draft autobiography of former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The original author has died in circumstances which swiftly become suspicious, while Lang's alleged collusion in the torture of terror suspects becomes harder to shake.

McGregor's take on the reluctant hero has proved creepy on occasion but here a certain shabby creepiness is required and works well. Brosnan does a good job portraying Lang's smooth creepiness, Kim Cattrall acquits herself well as the ice maiden assistant while Olivia Williams as Lang's long-suffering puppetmaster wife does well in the most difficult role.

It's over two hours long and the middle part gets a little slow but overall the pace holds up and the suspense is maintained with a slightly Hitchcockian feel to the unravelling. Fans of the book shouldn't be disappointed.


The Ghost opens April 16

Cemetery Junction

Cert 15A

There are two teaser/trailers for Cemetery Junction. There's the standard scene-grab one, a higgled-piggedly selection of scenes edited together in a way intended to synopsise the film and entice viewers, and there's one where Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant take the mickey out of Ralph Fiennes. The latter is funnier, but neither really give a flavour of the film. For while it is a product of Gervais and Merchant (they wrote and directed) and it is a coming of age in Reading story, it's neither as sappy nor smart ass as either trailer suggests.

Back in 1973 three mates, Freddie (Christian Cooke), Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Snork (Jack Doolan) are in their early 20s and starting to wonder if perhaps there mightn't be more to life than boozing, birds and their suburban town, Cemetery Junction. Freddie doesn't want the life his parents (Ricky Gervais and Julia Taylor) have and gets a suit job in insurance with a view to becoming like flash git Mike (Matthew Goode) and their boss Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes). Instead he finds his kindred soul in already taken Julie Kendrick (Felicity Jones).

While it is funny in places and falls into the feel-good category Cemetery Junction is a surprisingly pensive and emotionally layered film.

The cast is great, Gervais' role is very small so it is by no means a vehicle for him, it's not, nor intends to be, hilarious but it is the kind of film that stays with you afterwards.


Cemetery Junction opens on April 14

Whip It

Cert 12A

It's fair to say that with her directorial debut Whip It, Hollywood heavyweight Drew Barrymore has delivered a "girly movie" with a difference. Focusing on the rough and tumble of women's roller-derby, this coming-of-age feature stars Juno's Ellen Page as Bliss Cavandar, a Texas teen who discovers she was born to roll.

It may be a case of Bliss by name, but when we first encounter this angsty adolescent it's certainly not a case of bliss by nature. Teenage kicks are thin on the ground living in the one-horse town that is Bodeen while part-time work in local food emporium, the Oink Joint, "home of the Squealer", isn't doing anything to lift her mood. Neither does her home environment, affable doormat Dad (Daniel Stern), controlling Mom (Marcia Gay Harden) provide much of an antidote to her alienation.

Everything changes for Bliss when a covert trip to a roller derby in the nearby town of Austin opens up the potential for contact with her inner-rebel. Bliss is hooked and soon taken on by the Hurl Scouts, a team of gal-pals who play in the Austin roller derby league. Not only does she discover she has feet-of-flames speed-wise but talents as a smackdown sister are also revealed. Cue scenes of extreme girl power involving characters with names like Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis).

Roller derby doesn't really work as a spectacle, but what raises Whip It above the ordinary is a terrific performance from Page and the touching family dynamic that underpins proceedings.

They may be based in Texas but Barrymore doesn't make the familiar Hollywood mistake of portraying her characters as hicks. The result is an enjoyable teen flick that's guaranteed to score a hit with its targeted audience. It's also difficult to dislike a movie that dreams up a moniker like Babe Ruthless for its central character.


Whip It is showing in cinemas now

I Am Love

Cert 16

Talk about mixing the sumptuous with the scrumptious. Gastroporn is brought to the next level courtesy of Italian director Luca Guadagnino's exquisitely shot feature, I Am Love. Freud may have believed it's all about sex but this Milan-based feature starring Tilda Swinton adds substance to the suspicion that food is also a factor. Mix these two passions, add a sliver of seduction and you're left with the primal cocktail that gives this visually stunning melodrama its primary focus.

Swinton stars as Emma, a Russian immigrant who married above herself into the family of a super-wealthy textile tycoons. Marriage to Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono) has brought her security, a lavish lifestyle and grown-up children she cherishes but the resulting trophy-wife status has left her unfulfilled.

The sense of a cougar waiting to happen is confirmed when an encounter with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a gifted young chef her son has befriended, leads to a connection that threatens her emotional status-quo.

Swinton is never less than compelling as the unhappy materfamilias. The opulent backdrop is also beautifully drawn. However, spectacle wins out over substance due to the director's persistent use of inane visual and aural gimmickry to convey the various character's inner turmoil. A dove is trapped in the roof of church here, the decibel level is raised to a deafening crescendo there. I came to this very watchable but overwrought drama not knowing the Italian word for nuance. I left wondering whether one exists.


I Am Love is now showing in cinemas

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