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Friday, 30 March 2012

THIS WEEK: The Awakening / Smokin' Aces / The Tree Of Life


Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart in a movie I don't feel got the attention it deserved.  We are post-WW1, "a time for ghosts", as the film has it; Cathcart is busying herself investigating and writing about claims of spirits, hauntings, and the charlatans who take full advantage of the vulnerable people in this tragic time.  With each debunking an ambiguous, crushing memory is brought to the surface; is this a woman searching hopefully for the case she cannot disprove?  The answer to this, and other questions, remains smartly unaddressed, with reveals punctuating the film perfectly, as we follow Cathcart on a journey to a boys' boarding school.  Dominic West's Head Master Robert Mallory explains the boys are "frightened to death" of a ghost in the grounds.  Upon her arrival the stage is quickly set for an elegantly told tale, which carries in its fabric some special qualities that so many ghost stories don't: empathy, sadness, and great sense of melancholy.

The movie looks gorgeous, with stunning set and cinematography.  Director Nick Murphy's framing, timing of chilling moments, and pacing is close to perfect right the way through.  He maintains a sense that you are missing a piece of a puzzle, though you cannot put your finger on what it is; he holds the tension just right, never revealing more of his hand that he needs to, but never being so aloof as to lose your interest.  Yes there a couple of bits and pieces I think are a tad clumsy, but nothing that took me out of the story.

To suggest other stories which it owes a debt to would spoil certain elements, but if you like the really classic tales akin to The Turn Of The Screw, this is definitely a movie you should make time for.  For my money it out-classes the recent The Woman In Black on a few points.  I reference this movie in particular because it shares common ground in terms of premise, setting and tone   What is interesting is I do not think it is necessarily as scary as that film, but it is the better movie overall.  Firstly there is a very strong central performance!  I'm not getting at Radcliffe, don't worry, I think he did perfectly fine, but when you see Rebecca Hall (The Prestige may be the last time most people will have seen her in a big role), you will know what I mean.  Another area in which it is near perfect is its use of the jump-scare; there are not many here and those which are work nicely.  Finally, it doesn't cop-out on the final act as so many other films have the tendency to do.  As always with such a film as this, there is some debate over whether the final act works as well as he thinks it does.  I understand this; not everybody will feel totally satisfied, but the film is strong enough in so many other areas, it is hard to walk away feeling you haven't just seen a very well-told ghost story.  Watch out for the great setpiece involving the doll-house; sounds cheesy to describe, but it really works!

This is a film that nearly gets everything right; it manages to balance haunting storytelling, interesting characters you have to care about, and the creepy elements.  The result is an extremely enjoyable film, with a turn in the story that feels familiar when it occurs, and yet you almost certainly will not see coming beforehand!  4/5

Catch it if you like:  Any really good, classic ghostly tales, because this is pretty on the money!


Okay, what to say?  A Las Vegas entertainer, Buddy 'Aces' Israel, has turned snitch on the mob and he is staying in a penthouse suite, under full guard, until it is time to give his evidence and be whisked safely into protection.  Lots of other people want him dead, hence the clever title of the movie...get it?  It's about everybody wanting to smoke Aces?  Nevermind...

Joe Carnahan has a good idea in here somewhere, but instead of paying a tribute to Tarantino, he should have handed the job over to him.  In Tarantino's hands this movie would be dynamite!  Smokin' Aces lacks the characters and dialogue of Tarantino; Carnahan opts for over-the-top, unrealistic, and actually rather silly archetypes, and at points ugly stereotypes, who have no heart or soul, nothing to relate to or understand.  In some cases it is an attempt to be hip and cool, but it comes off as juvenile in what should have been a rather snazzy, smart, exciting thriller......yeh that's right, like True Romance!  Think I'm exaggerating?  This movie features a gang of "funny", foreign, half-naked, chainsaw-welding goons.  Yeh......

Its last-ditch attempt at having an intellectual edge will only fool the most simple-minded, really.  Am I saying it's not a clever idea?  No!  In fact I quite admired the last five minutes of the movie; it is well shot, well-written, well-scored (Clint Mansell is the star of this film!) and Ryan Reynolds gets to act...something nobody else has the chance to do throughout.  I just found myself wishing the director had made the movie that deserves the smart, well-executed ending, because then it wouldn't feel so disappointingly out-of-place, and people like Reynolds and Garcia wouldn't seem so wasted!

For a restrictive setting, some credit must be given for being able to stage some tasty action set-pieces pretty well, and there are some humorous moments throughout, but this is nowhere near as good as its full-to-the-brim cast and reputation as a contemporary minor classic had me believe.  It it not without merit, but I found myself pretty unimpressed.  2/5

Catch it if you like:  True Romance, The Usual Suspect....Both films you will get more from.


Terrence Mallick directs Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain (if direct is the right word) in this meditation on very lofty notions about the meaning of life, our origins, existence of God, nature, etc, etc.  I'm being flippant only because, aside from it looking absolutely stunning and owing a great deal to Kubrick's mind-boggling masterpiece 2001..., this really falls rather flat.  I give Mallick a round of applause for being brave and bearing his heart in such a way; this is clearly a work of love, from a man doing some immense soul-searching, but by a certain point I found myself thinking he should really not involve us in that search.  Taking us from a death of child in the 1950's, back to the BEGINNING OF TIME......WITH DINOSAURS....was an error.  How did Kubrick get away with it?  I don't know....I can't answer that, I only know that this movie struggles in the end under the weight of its own.....ponderings.  Nobody really gets the chance to perform, as this is more of a moving photo book.  There are some enjoyable sequences in here, but not enough to hang such a long film on.  It ultimately left me rather cold; there is not much more I can say.  2/5

Catch it if you like:  The Fountain, 2001; A Space Odyssey.....In fact, just watch those.  They are just as meandering and lacking in narrative rigour, but at least they are technically astonishing, boundary breaking, and you can find yourself beautifully lost in and moved by them.

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