Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Stars: Alan Alda, Britt Robertson, Jack Huston, Kate Forbes, Lolita Davidovich,Melissa Benoist, Oona Chaplin, Scott Eastwood, Tiago Riana, Tracey Bonner
Released: 19th June 2015 (UK)
I don’t know that I’ve ever reviewed a Nicholas Sparks film on this site before. There often seems no point due to the fact that if you’re seeing these movies you know exactly what you want and what you’re getting and while that is probably the case here as well, there was something unquestionably intriguing about the tone set by the trailers for The Longest Ride. The musical choices that included Banks “Waiting Game,” signaled something of a forbidden, almost haunting love story that might be worth tuning into due to the team behind translating the Sparks story to the screen felt uncommon. It’s not out of the question given love stories depend more on the way they’re told and the chemistry of the actors involved to be successful than that of the actual story and with director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious, Faster) there certainly seemed potential for something interesting. Love is such an intangible thing it’s always difficult to capture the essence of what makes it so special without resorting to cliches and typically that is what Sparks ends up doing. The Longest Ride fortunately doesn’t fall prey to the trap of some of the more recent Sparks adaptations in that it doesn’t go completely bonkers in the end and makes all kinds of convoluted twists with the only significance being to shock the audience. I haven’t seen Safe Haven, but heard it was quite a doozy while I actually caught The Best of Me a few weeks ago and despite the set-up hinting at nothing down the road it became fairly evident where things were heading the moment a couple instances took place one after another. With that in mind, what there is to appreciate about Ride is that it is little more than a basic human story about figuring out priorities and becoming satisfied with a routine that only has a few contrivances forced on it in order to create conflict, but none so outlandish it makes the viewer realize the ridiculousness of it all. It at least feels like an earnest attempt to portray love whereas the majority of the recent Sparks films feel more like cash-grabs capitalizing on manufactured emotions.
We are first introduced to Sophia (Britt Robertson), a senior at Wake Forest who is really into the arts and even has an internship lined up for the summer in New York that will have her working in galleries alongside top industry folks that will inevitably lead to a prosperous career, but before all goes too well for the pretty young upstart she will be forced to go to a rodeo with her sorority sisters. Appearing to be nothing more than a carefree night on the town, Sophia looks at it as something of a reward for not letting herself have any fun the first three years of her college experience. Of course, the night she does decide to go out she meets handsome professional bull rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood) and things will never be the same. The two have something of an instant connection (of course, in Sparks world introductions graduate to full blown affection over the course of a first date), but they soon realize they are on two very different paths and with only a month left before Sophia leaves for New York it would be best to go no further with their relationship. As Luke drives Sophia home from their first date though they see a car on fire on the side of the road. Inside is an elderly Ira Levinson (Alan Alda who is especially strong in most of his scenes) whom Luke rescues while Sophia grabs a wicker basket full of letters from his front seat. After dropping Ira off at the emergency room Luke leaves, but Sophia decides to hang back for a little while. In doing this she begins snooping through Ira’s letters which then opens up the film for a two for the price of one scenario as we see the parallel stories of Sophia and Luke and Ira and Ruth (Oona Chaplin) unfold while teaching us all a lesson or two about what it takes to truly make love work. Spanning generations these two intertwining love stories help The Longest Ride deliver all you could want from a film like this if you’re paying today’s ticket prices to see it, but maybe even a little more since the film runs at an unnecessary two hour and ten minutes.
There are, of course, many issues one could take with the film given the whole plot device of the letters that Sophia discovers and ends up reading to Ira as he can no longer read them for himself (even with his glasses) are all simply descriptions of events that both a young Ira and Ruth experienced together despite the letters supposedly being for Ruth. I mean, I’m sure it’s sweet to Ruth (who also happens to love the arts) that her husband makes an attempt to capture their love by recounting it through his writing, but it would have been easier had Sparks made this a diary or even if screenwriter Craig Bolotin would have changed this detail from the book. No matter the source of the flashbacks another problem the film runs into is that hearing Ira and Ruth’s story requires Sophia visit the elder Ira every time they want to return to the past and while it is somewhat necessary to establish a relationship between Ira and Sophia that is critical to the third act, it also draws out earlier portions of the film that could be tightened. Making the film feel all the more generic is the look of it. While the music and editing of the trailer made this out to be somewhat enchanting in a way most melodramatic love stories of the Sparks variety are not, the film still ends up with the same aesthetic as every other movie in the genre that makes it feel as broad as possible with no distinctive touch to separate it from the pack. I hoped with Tillman behind the camera and cinematographer David Tattersall (The Green Mile, the Star Wars prequel trilogy and a large collection of others, but no prior Sparks adaptations) that we might get something a little more in tune with the emotions at stake. Instead, it all feels more small scale while the multi-generational story covering decades of emotions should be met with something more intimate while being able to encapsulate the gravity of the cause and effect themes the story is playing with. There is a single war scene meant to signify the determination of young Ira (Jack Huston) to get back to Ruth, but it is shot in such a way it feels like the cheapest thing in the film and is unable to conjure up the necessary tension because the scale is so obvious.
On the plus side is the fact the performances are charming enough. While it will always be argued they are pulled down by the sappy, hokey and generally manipulative stories that Sparks spews at this point (he’s seventeen books in and still working with the same archetypes) all the main players here are at least trying and come off more credible than I thought possible. I knew Robertson was rather good as her stand-out performance in Dan in Real Life at the age of seventeen is the thing I will always relate to her, but whether or not Eastwood junior could carry a leading role was yet to be seen. In short, he does what is required of him here which is largely to be the southern gentleman and take his shirt off numerous times so as to justify that aforementioned ticket money the ladies seeing this spent on good faith this is what they’d be receiving. While Robertson and Eastwood are fine enough together their love story hardly merits a film as their “conflict” could easily be resolved were they two level-headed human beings (which Sophia is, for the most part). The more interesting story is so obviously that of Ira and Ruth it hurts that this is seen by the filmmakers as the secondary tale. Rather than just questioning whether or not they will end up together (which is the sole dramatic leg Sophia and Luke’s story stands on) we get some genuinely moving moments between Ira and Ruth as we clearly see how much they love one another despite the compromises they must make to be with one another. It is more the tests that life throws at them that make us question if their relationship will be able to remain strong. The chemistry between Huston and Chaplin is also all the more palpable as Oona is especially charming and exudes a charisma that is effortless and helps us understand why Ira found so much to adore about her. Had the film just been the story of Ira and Ruth it might have proved more honest, but in tying in a present story so as to display that most love requires sacrifice for the greater good makes it feel just the right amount of hackneyed so that Sparks can pack some kind of third act revelation into the narrative rather than delivering a simple yet relatable human tale.
The Little Stranger ★★★★
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.
Released: 21st September 2018
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.
Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.
From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.
The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.
The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain. This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.
Released: 19th October 2018
Directed By: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Marcello Fonte
Reviewed By: Rhys Handley
Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.
But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.
When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.
Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.
To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.
In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.
Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.
Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.
An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.
Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.
No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.
Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience
Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.
Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.
Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.
There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.
Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.
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