Into the Storm – Film Review

Into the Storm

In a small US town the world’s biggest storm, like ever, is brewing. Death and destruction are everywhere but luckily it is all caught on camera in this found footage drama hoping to distract you from its shortcoming with special effects and shaky camerawork.

Found footage films live and die by how convincingly they integrate the fact that the format requires a character to be filming the action at all times. Into the Storm has a good try by installing a storm-chasing documentary crew at the centre of the story but falls apart when focussing on regular civilians. A major plot thread involves a father and two sons; one of whom is helping a classmate film a video and the other is shooting their school’s graduation day for a video time capsule. It’s difficult to accept that when lives are at risk and your sibling is drowning that they don’t abandon the cameras in favour of actually doing something useful. I assume the initial impetus behind making this a found footage film, aside from creating some distinction between it and Twister, is to immerse the audience in the action and make the film more believable but the contrivance of the cameras only serves to highlight the artifice of the film and increase the ridiculousness of the whole endeavor.

Camera-holding nonsense aside Into the Storm really is below par. The characters are a collection of either unconvincing, unlikeable, or forgettable tropes who deliver dialogue that doesn’t quite come across as human. Richard Armitage stars as the unreasonable father of two bland teens who over the course of the film learns to respect his wayward son and generally like the second. Meanwhile the usually flawless Matt Walsh plays the lead storm-chaser and token asshole who acts as proxy antagonist for the storm. Sarah Wayne Callies takes up the thankless task of being the sole female character with any character, a storm data expert that seemingly relies on the weather forecast for tips. Callies repeatedly says that she shouldn’t have abandoned her daughter to take this job and fails to provide a decent reason why she did. One character in particular got such a short shrift in the story (say that quickly three times) then when he popped up in the end I genuinely did not recognise him. Presumably this was a token-camera-holding-individual rather than someone I was supposed to care about.

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Visually and tonally the film reminded me a lot of the entertaining Final Destination 5 which makes sense as they share a director in Steven Quale. Sadly while the Final Destination franchise is famed for its spectacular deaths and wry sense of humour neither can be found in Into the Storm. Everyone is taking the situation too seriously, including the director, aside from two “comedic” aspiring YouTube stars whose contributions to the film I would rather forget.

The other experience Into the Storm brought to mind is the cheesy scene-setting films you might be shown while waiting for a themed ride at Thorpe Park. You stand for an hour queuing while various screens show you out of work actors pretending to be in the midst of a natural disaster before you board a rollercoaster vaguely simulating what they were describing. Sadly Into the Storm does not end in a thrill ride, although the large screen and shaky camera did bring about nausea, instead ending with saccharin moments of reflection and reconciliation.

After ninety minutes of admittedly impressive visual effects and disappointingly poor human beings I was tired and had a sick feeling in my stomach. If you are to take a gamble and see Into the Storm then the big screen is definitely the place to do so as on TV it will only be less engaging. On the whole I advise avoiding this one unless you find watching people driving towards, pointing at, and then running away from tornadoes irresistible.

Into the Storm is in UK cinemas now.

Lucy – Film Review

Lucy

Science Fiction has a bad reputation. When the term is used it is often associated with variously coloured humanoids flying through space in the pursuit of an inconsequential MacGuffin. When Science Fiction is at its best it is not simply about the setting of the story but rather about what the story must contain and what it must do with it. A truly great Science Fiction story will take an idea and extrapolate it to its natural, or unnatural, conclusion. While you might criticise Lucy for being silly it takes the idea at its core and runs with it. It does this at breakneck speed and without hesitation.

The idea we are asked to consider with Lucy is a familiar one. If human beings were only using 10% of their brain capacity what would happen if a drug gave them access to the full 100%? The concept of us using only 10% of our brains is not remotely true but this is cinema so we must all suspend our disbelief and move on. Anyone with a memory lasting at least three years will remember that this subject was dealt with in the thoroughly mediocre Limitless in which Bradley Cooper uses his increased brain capacity to get a nice haircut and amass a large personal fortune. In Lucy the titular character, as played by Scarlett Johansson, is in the midst of smuggling a mind-expanding drug when the packet leaks and her body is infected. With her brain capacity ratcheting up to its maximum she must evade those who implanted her with the drug and decide what to do with the immense amount of knowledge she is rapidly digesting.

For Lucy the increased real estate in her cerebral cortex is not something that should be used for financial gain. Instead infinite knowledge leaves her numbed as her emotions dull and she seeks out a way to utilise her powers for the good of mankind. While Limitless was about personal gain Lucy knows that with knowledge comes enlightenment and the need to share. With such a similar premise it is impossible not to compare Lucy with Limitless but the former certainly comes out on top. There is a huge void between the two films and it is filled with a lot of excellent set pieces and a wide scope that spans not only the globe but the history of the universe.

When we first meet Lucy she is a spunky young woman hanging out with her new boyfriend (Pilou Asbæk – Borgen/lots of Danish films you probably haven’t heard of). He tricks her into delivering a mysterious package which leads to her taking on the unpleasant role of international drug smuggler with her innards as the cargo hold. When the ruthless Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi – Oldboy) and his suave British spokesman (Julian Rhind-Tutt – Green Wing) explain that they are willing to kill every member of her family, no matter how remote, Lucy has no choice but to comply with their plans.

Lucy

Thanks to misogynistic henchmen Lucy finds herself groped and beaten up. It is this act of violence that causes the drug to leak into Lucy’s system and gradually crank up her brain capacity. As the film progresses Lucy gains more and more abilities; learning to take full control of her body, then objects around her, and finally… Maybe you should see for yourself. In trying to abuse Lucy and treat her as an object rather than a human the men instead raise her to a level where no man can compete. Indeed an endless supply of both mobsters and police struggle to so much as slow her down.

Johansson puts in another fantastic performance to add to her recent array of intriguing acting choices. No longer is she the eye-candy in the Marvel line-up or taking the dubious position of muse to Woody Allen. Scarlett Johansson is frequently in the most talked about films and putting in high level work. Here we get to see her take on two roles; that of the chirpy young women and then the highly logical and emotionally blank (almost) superhuman she becomes. By the end of the film Lucy lacks the flaws that make us human. Her every action is graceful and considered and her face no longer shows happiness, fear, or any sign of effort. Johansson’s talent is showcased as she portrays the contrast between these distinct versions of her character and does so with nuance.

While Johansson is working hard to prove herself as this year’s hardest working actor Morgan Freeman simply plays Morgan Freeman. This version of Morgan Freeman is a scientist whose early lecture helps explain the concept to us in plain English and provides Lucy with some hope and a sense of purpose towards the end. His slow speech pattern is literally (literally) the only time you have to rest in the film as everything else is turned up to 11. If you need to take a toilet break wait for Freeman to open his mouth and hurry.

The film has a ridiculous premise but has a lot to say and it does so with confidence. It takes itself very seriously and feels no need for wry asides or comic relief. In fact it feels the need for no relief at all; the film is a tight 89 minutes and doesn’t hesitate for a moment. Writer and director Luc Besson has described the film as taking the form of Besson’s own Léon: The Professional then Inception and finally 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wears the influences of each on its sleeve along with dozens of other genre classics.

More than anything Lucy is supremely entertaining. I found myself with a racing pulse and decimated nails come the final curtain as my body physically responded to the experience. You might want to dismiss Lucy as being idiotic but you’ll be missing out on one hell of a fun film.

Whether it will stand up to closer scrutiny I cannot yet say but coming out of the screening Lucy was most definitely a five-star film.

Lucy is on wide release in the UK from 22nd August 2014.

Hide Your Smiling Faces – Film Review

Hide Your Smiling Faces

I like to think we can trust each other, me and you, so I must confess that I am considering lying to you right now. I want to tell you how much I loved watching Hide Your Smiling Faces. I feel as though loving the film is the right thing to do. I think that because it was made with heart and integrity I should have liked it more than I did. I couldn’t do that to you though; I need you to believe me when I say a film is worth seeing. I have to admit that I did not like Hide Your Smiling Faces. I did not dislike it either but that road leads to mediocrity which is simply not good enough.

Enough about me, let’s talk about the film.

Daniel Patrick Carbone has made his writing and directing début with a low budget tale of a neighbourhood tragedy. One hot summer a young boy in a rural American community is found dead at the bottom of a bridge. This event may be insignificant on a global level but in the close-knit town small ripples are felt by everyone. The focus of the film is on two brothers, one of whom knew the dead boy well, as they come to terms with his death, try to fill the endless summer days, and indulge in more than a little navel gazing. Once the initial death is out of the way there is little to be found in terms of plot with the remaining events taking place inside character’s heads rather than out in the open.

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There is plenty to admire about Hide Your Smiling Faces and from the glowing reviews included in its press notes it appears that other critics have not struggled so hard to love the film. The cinematography is gorgeous in that digital indie fashion we have come to know and love with beautiful colours and a pleasantly narrow depth of field. The film is presented as if a distant memory with scenes drifting into one another and tight plotting nowhere to be found. The acting and dialogue are naturalistic to a fault and Carbone has clearly made a very personal film as authentically as he could.

Sadly as much as I might admire the craftsmanship and skill that has gone into making Hide Your Smiling Faces the film’s success relies on it making a personal connection with the viewer. The film spends so much time with just two characters who don’t always say what they truly feel that you need to relate to them in order to care about what they are doing or even understand what little is actually happening. Despite my, and the film’s, best efforts no bond could be forged between myself and what was being projected onscreen.

Ultimately Hide Your Smiling Faces was too low-key to register with me and I found myself a little restless and disconnected. There’s no telling whether this gentle narrative will win you over but I can’t honestly tell you that it succeeded with me.

Hide Your Smiling Faces is on limited release in UK cinemas from 1st August 2014.

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.