Secret Sharer – Film Review

Secret Sharer

There are times when I watch a film and see it as perfectly reasonable but then take a step back and consider how someone else might see it; how someone else might see themselves being represented. In these cases the film doesn’t always stand up to the extra scrutiny. Secret Sharer is a perfect example of this type of film.

On the surface Secret Sharer is a perfectly respectable romantic drama on the high seas. Polish (and yet somehow completely British) aspiring seaman Konrad (Jack Laskey) is given a major promotion and tasked with captaining, for a time at least, a Chinese cargo ship. The crew do not trust their new leader and suspect him of being tasked with sinking their home so its owner can claim on insurance. Konrad struggles to gain their respect and get the ship back into some kind of order. The crew is lazy, disobedient and potentially dangerous so Konrad has a lot to contend with.

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Adding further complication to his task Konrad discovers a figure in the sea one night and after helping her onto the ship discovers her to be the beautiful, completely naked, and potential murderous Li (Zhu Zhu) on the run swim from her husband. Fearing for her safety Konrad hides Li away in his cabin and donates a spare shirt (eventually) to spare her modesty. From here Konrad must decide whether to hand Li over to the authorities or hide her, whether to carry out his orders or stand by his crew, and generally work out whether it is right to follow the rules or his heart.

Secret Sharer comes across as a perfectly competent romantic drama about a conflicted man doing his best to assert himself of the leader of a brutish crew while falling for a potentially dangerous stowaway. Despite the cinematic setting of a ship at sea Secret Sharer, directed and written by Peter Fudakowski, has what Mark Kermode might call a televisual feel. This aside there is no great flaw and the film meets the requirements of being a three star film; a mild concern and nothing more. That is until I took a step back and looked again.

As a white male I am not always as sensitive to racial stereotyping or a misogynistic way of filming but even I felt a little uneasy about the way characters other than Konrad were portrayed. The crew was a mix of Asian stereotypes; portrayed as either fat and lazy, food-obsessed, or as violent thugs. As for the only women in the entire film, Li was reduced to an exotic woman to be tamed and spend the majority of the film either naked or wearing nothing more than a man’s white shirt. The BBFC have classed the film at 12A and state that, “there are also images of female nudity, but this is not particularly sexualised” but I would disagree. The camera isn’t afraid to examine her every nook and cranny as the cameraman does all the sexualising so Konrad doesn’t have to.

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I will stop lecturing you on the male gaze now but suffice it to say that the character of Li deserved a little more fleshing out and a little less flesh.

Other than that though… it’s OK. I quite enjoyed it before I thought about it too much.

Secret Sharer is on limited release in the UK.

Chinese Puzzle – Film Review

Chinese Puzzle

I’m not always completely up to speed with the films I watch as I try to not see all films having watched every trailer and speculative news article. Because of this I went to see Chinese Puzzle at last years London Film Festival knowing only that it starred Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris, and that I had enjoyed their work in the past both together and apart.

The film started by showing images of the cast when they were younger and slowly it dawned on me; they were all taken from the film I had seen Tautou and Duris in before. Without realising it I was watching a sequel to 2002′s French/Spanish film Pot Luck or The Spanish Apartment. The original film had shown an international group living together in Spain and Chinese Puzzle picks up the trail in New York over a decade later. I was a little confused at first as to how this had slipped me by but settled down to enjoy the film smug in the knowledge that I had at least seen the film that came first.

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Naturally I was wrong about this too. Researching the film later on I discovered that Chinese Puzzle was not really a direct sequel to The Spanish Apartment but actually the third film in a trilogy with Russian Dolls sitting in the middle. I still have yet to see Russian Dolls but at least it explained why I couldn’t quite remember everything the characters were referring to having happened in the past.

With this addled mind of mine and my failure to navigate a simply trilogy correctly perhaps I not the best person to review the film for you. Perhaps you deserve someone who has the wherewithal to watch three films in the order intended. Or perhaps you are like me and haven’t seen both, or either, of The Spanish Apartment or Russian Dolls and need to know whether you can still enjoy this English/French/Spanish/Chinese/Yiddish comedy drama. I sincerely hope the latter is true.

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All confusion aside I did enjoy Chinese Puzzle. Tautou and Duris are infinitely watchable, as are their returning co-stars Cécile De France (Belgian funnily enough) and Kelly Reilly. The film has a strong streak of drama running through while serving up a strong dollop of comedy to boot. Xavier (Duris) and Wendy (Reilly) are now divorced and she has taken their children to live with her new partner in New York. Not wanting to be away from his family Xavier follows them there and a culture clash comedy ensues as he moves not just to New York but to Chinatown. Meanwhile Isabelle (De France) is also in the Big Apple with her girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt) and struggling to stay faithful and Martine (Tautou) comes to visit and causes Xavier to think back on their old romance.

Chinese Puzzle has a lot of threads to follow and relies a little on you being able to grasp what is going on without it being told to you explicitly. I certainly benefited from having seen The Spanish Apartment and probably could do with seeing Russian Dolls to fill in the blanks. If you can cope with this minor inconvenience then what you are left with is a sweet and enjoyable comedy that isn’t afraid to move from emotional drama to comedic farce.

Good fun, if a little confusing for someone who doesn’t even realise they’re watching a sequel. If writer/director Cédric Klapisch continued with this pleasant international comedy franchise I certainly would not complain.

Chinese Puzzle is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

The Knife That Killed Me – Film Review

The Knife That Killed Me

A decade ago the idea of making a film entirely on green screen with computer generated sets was making headlines with the release of the wobbly Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the audience-pleasing Sin City. The green screen technique was being used to create a world that was stylised to such a degree that conventional filming techniques would be too costly and insufficient. And so it is with The Knife That Killed Me, an upcoming film in which a teenager reflects on the tragic events that lead to the end of his life as adapted from the novel of the same name by Anthony McGowan. The fantastical world the green screen was needed to create?

Yorkshire!

Or at least a variation of the Yorkshire we know and love. As I mentioned The Knife That Killed Me is all about one teenager reflecting and what we see in the film is not the events as they happened but rather the events as he remembers them happening. His memories are focussed on the important events so rooms are stripped of extraneous details (and often all features) and instead are littered with handwritten notes, doodles, or images; all scraps of memories, emotions, and thoughts blown up and threaded through the narrative as Paul pieces together the moments that culminate with him lying lifeless and covered in blood.

Paul (Jack McMullen) is a teenager starting at a new school in the town where his dad (Reece Dinsdale) grew up. Following the loss of his mother the pair are looking for a fresh start and Paul struggles to find his place amongst the various social groups at school. Should he hang out with the “Freaks”, as lead by the enigmatic Shane (Oliver Lee) and featuring the enchanting Maddie (Rosie Goddard) or give in to the pull of the school bully, and pointedly named, Roth (Jamie Shelton)? In trying to keep everybody happy Paul’s life rapidly get’s out of control and he finds himself deeply out of his depth.

The visual style is initially jarring but once you acclimatise becomes the perfect canvas to tell this story. A story more commonly found in gritty british dramas and a filming technique suited to a fantasy adventure combine to make a unique visual style offering something unique and new. The lack of a traditional set quickly moves from a burden to a boon and there is only one moment where an actor looks like they are walking on the spot rather than across a room.

For something completely different and to support a pioneering piece of British filmmaking then The Knife That Killed Me is worth checking out. Directors (and co-writers) Kit Monkman and Marcus Romer have made a carefully crafted film with a fresh approach. It might take you as little while to get settled in but your effort will be rewarded.

The Knife That Killed Me is not getting a cinema release but will be available on DVD and VOD later this year. In the meantime the team plan to have a free multi platform premiere but need a little extra money to get it off the ground over on their Kickstarter page. There’s less than a day to go so if you are intrigued give it a look today.

Oculus – Film Review

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Oculus is an American horror film about a brother (Brenton Thwaites) and sister (Karen Gillan) who reunite to destroy the haunted mirror that took the lives of both their parents (Katee Sackhoff & Rory Cochrane) and resulted in the brother spending his childhood in an institute. While the siblings battle to destroy the mirror in their old family home the past and present mirror (PUN!) each other as their childhood counterparts (Annalise Basso & Garrett Ryan) battle the same mirror in the same house 11 years earlier.

The idea of a haunted mirror might sound a little silly but most horror synopses suffer a similar flaw and whether or not this leads to the film’s failure or not is all in the execution. Oculus works best when showing the mirror’s powers in a non-corporeal way. Let me explain… The mirror can alter a person’s perception of reality so when they are eating an apple they actually eat a light bulb or remove their fingernail thinking it is a plaster. Little moments like this are genuinely creepy and aren’t signposted in advance like most scares in a modern horror.

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Scares work less well when we see a physical representation of the mirror’s evil which takes the form of slightly ill-looking people, actually dead, who have shiny eyes. At first they make you jump but the longer the camera lingers on an actor in makeup the more they start to look like an actor in makeup. For the most part though the film does it job of creepiness and scares well enough and I had to hide behind my hand on at least one occasion.

Also managed well are the transitions between the two eras. Actors from the past and present day will pass on the stairs or a scene will cut suddenly and grown-up Karen Gillan will be replaced by the much younger Annalise Basso. The effort put into these moments shows an extra nugget of consideration and helps raise the film a notch in quality and above the noise of low budget horrors coming out each week. The ending too should be praised for showing a real commitment to the premise and integrity of the plot over what an audience might want.

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It has been a week now since I saw the film and this allows for Oculus to be put to a real test for any half decent horror; has it stayed with me? The answer is sadly no. While scary while I was watching the film easily slipped from my mind as soon as I stepped outside the cinema and my sleep hasn’t been troubled by the sight of a mirror from my bed. While enjoyable spooky Oculus is probably not going to be held up as a classic in years to come.

Slick direction and editing really make this film and the fact that the director (Mike Flanagan) resists the temptation to make a found footage film despite the presence of technology is a real saving grace. Oculus is good, not great, and should make for a nice distraction on a wet summer evening.

Or maybe…

But probably just…

Oculus is in UK cinemas this Friday 13th June.

Godzilla – Film Review

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The history of Godzilla goes back to 1954 when a Japanese film was released featuring a fire breathing dinosaur-like colossus rampaging its way through Tokyo. The film was a huge hit and acted as a scathing morality tale about the horrors that the country suffered during Atomic bombings in World War II.

Sadly my personal history of Godzilla only goes back to 1998 when an American film was released featuring a giant T-Rex that somehow manages to hide in downtown Manhattan. The film was negatively received and a potential trilogy was abandoned. This iteration was perfect for the ten-year-old me who saw the film in the cinema but subsequent viewing revealed it for the astonishing Matthew Broderick starring mess it was. This particular Godzilla was just a bit of fun, some light entertainment for a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV but nothing more than that.

The history of 2014′s Godzilla goes back to 2010 when British visual effects whiz Gareth Edwards released his debut feature as writer and director; Monsters. The film was a small story about two people trying to get back to America from Mexico in a time when the American border has been turned into a quarantine zone filled with extraterrestrial creatures. Working on a micro-budget, and creating his own visual effects, Edwards demonstrated a great visual eye and an ability to put characters first ahead of relying on the, admittedly excellent, CGI beasts. The question going into Godzilla is whether Edwards can learn from Roland Emmerich’s mistakes and make a film worthy of the 1954 original utlising the talents he showcased in Monsters.

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On most fronts Edwards’ Godzilla is hugely successful. The sheer scale, bulk, and scope of both the monster and its setting is frankly jaw-dropping. Godzilla is big. I mean BIG. Seriously though, Godzilla is BIG. The press notes alone were over 40 pages long; everything about this film is done on a bigger scale than I have seen in a cinema before. In what is a film with a relatively serious tone the only laughter I allowed myself (aside from a few amusingly convenient plot contrivances) was when I just had to giggle at the spectacle of what I was seeing on screen. It was just plain ridiculous. Ridiculous and sublime. And BIG. As the chaos got more and more chaotic I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself and shake my head in disbelief – a wonderful thing to be able to do at the cinema I’m sure you will agree.

With Godzilla as his second film Edwards is displaying some serious chops when it comes to a striking visual. While initially being coy about showing us the titular creature he is sure to give us our eyeful of monolithic prehistoric riotous beast before the film is done. When we aren’t feasting on creature visuals the film is littered with gorgeous photography filled with gloomy smoke, looming shadows, and this film’s signature red hue. While the 1998 Godzilla was a lumbering mess this is a gorgeous piece of cinema with endless treats for the eyes that need to be seen on the big screen. While I’m not going to be plugging the IMAX or 3D experience I really do think that this is a film that deserves a large cinema screen with loud speakers surrounding you.

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All that Godzilla lacks, something Monsters had in spades, is intimacy. While we follow the action through the experiences of a soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his family (Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, and Juliette Binoche) the characters are rarely seen together so their disparate experiences don’t tie together in a satisfying way. The superb cast list is rounded out by Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe as Godzilla experts but they too feel a little underserved. The fact that I didn’t care who lived and who died is definitely a flaw but at the end of the day this is a story on a global scale with a large monster as its star. If you want a more intimate story about a big beasty might I suggest both Cloverfield and The Host? Both are films that take their stories down a notch to give a real human experience amongst the madness of a monster movie.

Godzilla is a big and beautiful film that knows what it needs to deliver to impress its audience. Special effects can so often leave me numb and disconnected but Edwards has a way of dealing with fantastical scenes to make them seem real and grounded. Both Godzilla and Godzilla have a real heft to them and the idea of a gargantuan creature and its effect on mankind is taken as seriously as is possible.

When the film was over my heart was pounding and I let out a quiet “bloody hell”. For well crafted spectacle you can’t do much better than Godzilla. There is room alongside the smaller, independant fare to enjoy big meaty blockbusters and I only wish they were all as good as this was.

Godzilla is in UK cinemas from today.