Review: Shadow Dancer (2012)

Director: James Marsh

****

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

Andrea Riseborough’s attempts to earn leading lady status have fallen short thus far, but it certainly hasn’t been her fault. In both the unnecessary remake of Brighton Rock and Madonna’s stylishly hollow W.E., Riseborough proved to be capable of commanding the screen despite the shoddiness around her. Her characters are often fragile but possessed of strength beyond what her slender frame seems capable of. And with Shadow Dancer, she finally has a capable director and crew to back her up.

After Wallis Simpson in W.E., Riseborough plays another character on the cusp of attacking the British establishment, albeit with plastic explosives rather than extra-marital affairs. London, 1993. IRA operative Colette McVeigh is caught attempting to plant a bomb in a Tube station in London. After being picked up and left to stew in her own guilt, MI5 handler Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a choice: snitch on her terrorist brothers or go to jail and have her young son be put into care. Her decision to go behind her brothers’ backs reflects the humanity at the heart of Shadow Dancer.

Adapted from Tom Bradby’s novel (by the author himself), Shadow Dancer eschews the political for the personal. Whilst Colette’s brothers Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Brendan (Domhnall Gleeson) rally against the newly-signed Downing Street Declaration, and her mother (Bríd Brennan) looks away in wilful ignorance, Colette reports to Mac to preserve what little life she has. Riseborough is never less than terrific as Colette, as she effortlessly shifts from barely-kept composure to panic and back again. Despite her fragility, she convinces as a woman driven to horrible deeds by a tragic past. She also gets bonus points for managing to get the accent right.

Director James Marsh switches from his exploits as documentarian (Project Nim, Man On Wire) to make a fine thriller. This is a personal story primarily, though this doesn’t stop Shadow Dancer from offering plenty of thrills. As Colette struggles to keep her new sideline a secret, local organiser hothead Mulville (Daniel Wilmot) threatens violence from just beyond the screen. The angst is written all over Riseborough’s cracked-porcelain face, and she strikes sparks with an effectively gruff Owen in scenes with just the right amount of Stockholm Syndrome injected into them. Marsh keeps the pace zippy, and Shadow Dancer often threatens to send you to the edge of your seat.

However, Marsh’s visual choices are more than a little obvious (Colette’s red coat is the only colour in a Belfast comprised of beiges, mauves and greys). There’s also little evidence to convince that we are ever really in Belfast (the film was shot mostly in Dublin), and the likes of Gillen and Gillian Anderson (as an MI5 ice queen) are effective but underused. Still, these niggles can’t detract from an effective thriller with a marvellous leading lady at its heart. Rest assured, after this Andrea Riseborough won’t be ignored so easily again.

Review: The Imposter (2012)

Director: Bart Layton

****

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

The dark tale at the heart of The Imposter is a documentary director’s dream. Indeed, Bart Layton must be thanking his lucky stars, because he found a treasure trove of deceit, desperation and twists upon twists, all of it real. The story was adapted previously as limp Ellen Barkin flick Chameleon, but in a case like this there’s nothing to compare to the unvarnished truth.

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, without any trace. His family (mother Beverly, sister Carey, brother-in-law Bryan) detail their anguish and their efforts to find him, as home video footage reveals a bright blonde young man, a typical teen. Grief turns to joy 40 months later as a blond teenager is found in Spain, and says his name is Nicholas Barclay. He’s the right age, the right height; he even bears the same tattoos. Upon questioning, the young man tells of his kidnapping, torture and assault at the hands of American military and his forced imprisonment in Spain before he managed to escape. It all sounds too far-fetched to be real, yet the authorities and consular staff are sufficiently convinced to allow the newly-found ‘Nicholas’ to return home, where his family give him a rapturous welcome. So far, so good but, while all this is happening, the audience will be scratching their heads over the details, such as how Nicholas now speaks with a distinctly French accent. An FBI agent and local PI express their suspicions, and only then do events really take a turn for the bizarre. If this were written by a jobbing Hollywood writer, it’d be laughed off the screen.

The Imposter catches you off-guard, not least because it features plenty of face time with Frederic Bourdin, the Frenchman of Algerian descent who claimed to be a 13-year-old Texan due to an apparent addiction to attention. Bourdin, who had posed as a lost teen all over Europe prior to his American escapade, is both expectedly charming and repugnantly confident. He fleshes out the details in this unbelievable story, but that only serves to make it more incredible. His testimony is intercut with that of Nicholas’ family, and the hurt and pain is written all over their faces. Arguably, their duplicity and anger potentially makes them unsympathetic, but it does enrich the story all the more. It’s all too cruel and odd to be real, yet it is real, and it is utterly riveting.

Behind the camera Layton, a TV documentarian by trade, makes the most of this remarkable tale. His reconstructions of certain events have enough cinematic veneer to suggest he could progress into features, whilst the interviews and home footage are used sensitively; it’s a very even-handed account of a story where the line between fraudster and victim is threatened frequently. It also has flourishes of humour (Charlie Parker, the aforementioned PI, is more Smokey and the Bandit than Sherlock Holmes) and a genuine sense of mystery.Ultimately, The Imposter raises as many questions as it answers, but then we’re not dealing with studio fare here. No easy answers or happy endings are guaranteed, and the truth hurts.

The Imposter is a chronicle of people who have hurt and have been hurt. Like its subject Monsieur Bourdin, you’ll wonder where The Imposter will lead you, but that won’t stop you from being caught in its spell. As it so perfectly proves, truth is often stranger than any fiction.

Review: ParaNorman (2012)

Directors: Chris Butler, Sam Fell

****

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

It’s a truism that kids love to be scared. It’s surprising, however, that filmmakers don’t take advantage of this fact more often. Tapping into children’s fears gave us the terrific likes of Coraline, Monster House and now ParaNorman. If parents are usually reluctant to bring their kids to animated movies, they’ll at least get a sadistic laugh as the little’uns squirm; ParaNormanis surprisingly creepy for a younger audience. However, it’s also disarmingly good-natured and reverent to its inspirations.

We’ve had family films based around vampires, witches and the like, but ParaNorman may well be the first one based around zombies (by way of witches). If anything, ParaNorman has a few too many sources of inspiration. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a horror geek, and is also blessed/cursed by the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead. It turns out this ability makes him the only one able to stop some witch-cursed zombie from destroying his hometown. On paper, mashing The Sixth Sense, George A. Romero and stop-motion animation could be an almighty mess, but writer/co-director Chris Butler knows too much about animation and horror to allow him to fall into the traps.

Having worked on both Coraline and Corpse Bride, Butler’s clearly keen to give ParaNorman a definitive look, and to keep it away from stripey Tim Burton-esque faux goth. Under Butler and Sam Fell’s direction, ParaNorman gets a warm and bright look, reminiscent of mid-90’s Nickelodeon output. This extends to some funny yet distinctive character design. Norman and his friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) are fun little fellas, and Norman’s bitchy sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are frequently hilarious foils for our young heroes. The zombies themselves are kid-pleasingly gross, but reveal a backstory much creepier than first appearances allow. Their memorability is secured with some good voice work (Casey Affleck as Neil’s jock brother is a neat piece of counter-intuitive casting) and some great gags and one-liners. Norman’s encounter with a dead man’s tongue rates about a 9.0 on the gross-o-meter.

ParaNorman name-checks its numerous influences frequently and in many ways. This includes scenes of violence that bump it perilously close to the 12A rating (bonus points to anyone who spots the reference to video nasty favourite Cannibal Apocalypse). Kids may wonder why their parents are laughing at Norman’s mobile ringtone, but then another character will say something silly or a zombie will go ‘BOO’ and the balance will be restored. Even if it’s a little too busy making its reference-driven plot work, ParaNorman will keep all ages engaged with colourful animation and engaging characters. It’s made by horror fans with horror fans in mind, both young and old.

Review: Samsara (2012)

Director: Ron Fricke

***

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

Samsara is the best promotional video a travel agent never made. Through the eyes of director Ron Fricke, the world bursts with colour. Samsara enraptures before attempting to send a message, albeit a vague one.

Fricke made his name with his work as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s revolutionary Koyaanisqatsi, and it is from Reggio’s work that Fricke takes his cue. Like Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, the decent Powaqqatsi and the intermittently dreadful Naqoyqatsi), Samsara is a chronicle of the world, without either dialogue or narrative. This approach may alienate some, but newcomers are urged to take the plunge. Filmed entirely on 70mm film, Fricke, as both director and cinematographer, hypnotizes with images of absolute wonder. The moon travels across a sapphire sky over an arid desert. Traditional Thai dancers dance one behind the other in perfect synchronicity. Buddhist monks create art from coloured powders with incredible precision. Practically every frame of Samsara could be blown up and mounted on a wall, such is their beauty.

Filmed across twenty-five countries and five years, Samsara offers the most breathtaking cross-section of Earth conceivable. In its scope and colour, Samsara is a match for (and sometimes eclipses) its predecessor, Baraka. The majestic shifting sands of the Sahara segue into human geography, as Fricke’s camera admires feats of human engineering and technology with equal amounts of admiration. A baptism is captured with the same reverence and awe as a mummified corpse. Samsara means ‘cyclic existence’ in Sanskrit, and miraculous images of both birth and death bleed from the screen in saturated hues.

Unfortunately, Samsara does feel preachy. Fricke plunges into the seedier side of human activity, as he visits strip clubs, abattoirs and huge jails. One can’t help but feel he’s pointing a judgmental finger at someone, although it’s never clear who. When this happens, Samsara lapses from wonder into smugness. It remembers to revert back to the profound and the pretty for the finale, but the sight of dozens of suspended pig carcasses amongst the temples and oceans does leave an odd aftertaste. The makers of Samsara have described it as a ‘guided meditation’, but it guides us into some unnecessarily unsavoury places.

Fans of Fricke and Reggio will lap Samsara up, and no-one would question its beauty. See Samsara on the biggest screen possible. For best results, however, try not to think about its message too much. For all its majesty, Samsara is also capable of condescension.

Review: Hope Springs (2012)

Director: David Frankel

**

(This review was originally published on Ramp.ie)

Is it ageist to say we don’t want to hear Tommy Lee Jones talking about sex? No disrespect to the man; he’s happily married and has a certain gruff and husky charm. However, there’s something about hearing this renowned grouch discussing threesomes and sexual fantasies that sends a chilly shiver down the spine. Hope Springsis akin to the first time your parents tried to explain the birds and the bees – you don’t want to think of these people as sexual beings, but as the talk continues you’re left with little choice.

David Frankel directed the fluffily enjoyable The Devil Wears Prada, aided by a wonderfully bitchy turn from Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway’s doe eyes. With Hope Springs, Frankel doesn’t really seem sure if he’s got a comedy or a drama on his hands. When Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) go to an exclusive marriage counsellor to jump start their thirty-year marriage, we’re given a scenario that could go either way, but can’t decide on a tone. Jones being grumpy and stubborn about going to the counsellor is funny, but then Streep pouts and weeps and suddenly we’re in a drama. The counsellor is played by Steve Carell? Then surely it’s a comedy! Unfortunately, he plays it straight and raises precisely zero laughs. Frankel and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor must think the idea that old people could be sexually active should raise titters on its own. The therapy scenes are as uncomfortable as you’d imagine, but the filmmakers’ willingness to play the characters’ problems for laughs makes any potential tenderness ring false. A charming date segues into the bedroom, but any attempts at romanticising what follows are po-faced. This is a common pitfall in rom-coms: if the ‘com’ comes from mocking the ‘rom’, you’ll be lucky if either ‘rom’ or ‘com’ actually works.

The great pity about Hope Springs is that it could have worked well as a drama, at least based on the chemistry between Streep and Jones. His grumpiness and her mousiness combine to make a very pleasant pair. Indeed, their spark is the only energy going in Hope Springs. It’s talky, not very funny and wastes plenty of valuable assets on the way, including Carell and Elisabeth Shue, who’s put behind a bar and given about two lines of dialogue. Despite all the sex talk, Hope Springs is a tame and safe affair, lacking anything approaching spice. Given the protagonists’ sexual problems, it’s perhaps appropriate that Hope Springs is one big anticlimax.