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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Harper’

Here’s a genuinely weird piece of promotion for a new movie: people going to see Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts at my local multiplex receive a free chocolate bar (it’s an Aero, in case you were wondering). The logic behind this seems tenuous at best, if you ask me, although it did get me thinking about what other films could potentially benefit from a similar strategy. Maybe the makers of Lion missed a trick (are Lion bars still made?). I’m not sure even a lifetime’s supply of free Twix would tempt me to see any more Twilight films, but I suppose the option is still there if they ever decide to remake Galaxy Quest, Red Planet Mars, or Marathon Man (they’d probably have to rename it Snickers Man, though). I can imagine a hook-up between a new version of Cabaret and the makers of Kit Kats, too.

The weird promotion is perhaps a sign that the makers of Aeronauts are worried about their film finding an audience, something only compounded by the fact they opted to release it into cinemas on a Monday, thus effectively giving it a seven-day opening weekend (conventional wisdom is that the more money you make on that weekend, the more people will go to see the film subsequently). Are they right to be so worried about its prospects? Well, constant reader, occasionally a film comes along which isn’t actually bad, and has points of real quality about it, but is still obviously going to struggle to find an audience. And The Aeronauts is very likely one of these.

The bulk of the film is set in and above London in 1862. Tweedy boffin James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne, ensconced securely in his comfort zone) is widely mocked by his fellow scientists and other parties for his belief that the English weather can be predicted (hmmm), and in order to prove this he needs to go up into the sky in a big balloon. To help him with this (ad)venture, he retains the help of experienced balloonist Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). However, she has been in a bit of a slump since her husband (Vincent Perez) passed away at the end of their last balloon trip (let us just say that the marriage experienced an abrupt vertical termination) and isn’t sure she wants to have anything more to do with that sort of thing.

Needless to say, Amelia is talked round, investors are found, and on a fairly bright day the two of them (and a dog) clamber into their basket and set off into the wide blue yonder. (Slightly worryingly, only the dog has a parachute.) Glaisher is dry as an old biscuit and seems only to be concerned about his meteorological readings; he regards Amelia as being excessively frivolous and perhaps a bit foolhardy. Is there going to be a mighty falling-out at 30,000 feet? (Hopefully not a literal one.)

Well, the film has perhaps achieved something of a coup by getting Redmayne and Jones back together again, but I’m not sure this is quite a charismatic enough pairing to get people to turn out to see the movie. It has to be said, though, that much of the movie is just the two of them in and around the basket of a balloon at various altitudes, occasionally with a spot of jeopardy in the mix, though no more than you would expect from a PG-rated movie.

The movie works hard at tricking you into thinking this is a dramatisation of true events, and indeed James Glaisher was a pioneering meteorologist who went on a very important flight in 1862. However, the Amelia Rennes character is, not to put too fine a point on it, entirely made-up: the actual pilot who accompanied Glaisher and saved his life, a chap by the name of Henry Coxwell, has been written out of the film’s version of history, presumably for being just too male and heavily bearded and not facilitating the kind of empowering feminist subtext which apparently is the most important element of the film. The Progressive Agenda Committee really are very, very busy these days; I’m guessing it was also one of their ideas to make Glaisher’s friend and fellow scientist John Trew Asian. Obviously this is well-intentioned, but I’m not sure what it achieves or how well thought-through it is; it mainly just succeeds in feeling like an exercise in box-ticking and kicking me out of the story as a result.

I’m not entirely sure how long the actual flight (sort of) depicted in the film lasted for, but I get a sense it may have been less than the 100 minutes The Aeronauts lasts for. Certainly this is a film of two halves: much of the film concerns the two of them in the balloon together, as noted, but to fill in the less-eventful stretches of the journey, the film has laid in a good supply of filler (perhaps ballast would be a more appropriate term), in the form of lengthy flashbacks to how they ended up in the basket together.

To be honest, this is quite average bonnet-opera stuff, and any interest that might be stirred by Glaisher’s struggles to be taken seriously, his relationship with his parents, and so on, is sabotaged by the suspicion that, as the entirety of Wren’s back-story is completely made up, so might Glaisher’s be as well. As a dramatisation of true events, this would just about pass muster; as pure fiction, it is just a bit underpowered.

Nevertheless, the film is visually striking, with some lovely vistas as the balloon rises higher and higher – there’s a fine score, too. There are likewise some stomach-churning moments as the characters find themselves falling in and out of the basket and having to clamber around on the balloon envelope itself – the film is an unqualified success when it come to generating these kinds of queasy thrills (my companion got a bit alarmed until I told her that Felicity Jones never, ever dies in movies). But even so, they’re only one quite small element of a strange mixture of costume drama and special-effects movie. Redmayne and Jones are perfectly acceptable, but given this is not really based on a true story, and not really an action adventure, and not really especially surprising or dramatic as a drama, all The Aeronauts really has to commend it is the fact that it and its stars are generally pleasing to look upon. And you get a free chocolate bar, of course.

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There’s a sort of running gag in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose where the lead character gets increasingly hacked off with people confusing country music with country-and-western music. I have to say that I wasn’t even aware they were substantively different things, but there you go, this isn’t usually my kind of culture. I suspect this is one of those things that you either get or you don’t – I remember Billy Connolly’s joke that, as country songs are usually concerned with family, religion, tragedy, crime, disability and death, the perfect title for one would be ‘My Granny Drowned in the Grotto at Lourdes (Because a Hunchback Pushed Her In)’; also a moment in Every Which Way But Loose where a snotty student tells Clint Eastwood that the country-and-western mentality runs the gamut from ‘dull normal to borderline moron’ (needless to say, Clint doesn’t stand for much of this kind of talk) – but I also know many people love this genre, not just for the songs but for its supposed rawness and honesty. Maybe there is a sense of wallowing in weltschmerz in some aspects of country, what the writer and singer Rich Hall has described as the ‘whiskey on the cornflakes’ element of it.

Harper’s film certainly tries hard to feel gritty and authentic. It opens with main character Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) getting over a case of the HM Prison blues, as she concludes a stint in the big house for what we eventually learn is a drug-related offence. The country roads take her home to Glasgow, where in her absence her two young children have been standing by their gran (Julie Walters) – obviously, I could keep this up all day if I wanted to, but let’s press on with the synopsis. Rose-Lynn just wants to get back to singing on the Glasgow country music scene; she dreams of going to Nashville one day, but small details like her lack of money and the fact she’s obliged to wear an electronic tag as part of the terms of her parole cannot help but get in the way of this. Eventually she lands a job as a cleaning lady for an affluent older woman (Sophie Okonedo), who learns of her ambition and, in her own way, tries to help her. But there are hard truths to be faced and choices to be made: just how much is she prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her dream?

This is a bit of a change of pace for Tom Harper, certainly after his last film, the slightly underwhelming Nu-Hammer sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. That was a perhaps-too-glossy modern spin on Gothic horror, this is a decidedly more gritty and down-to-earth undertaking. Everyone’s critical yardstick for Wild Rose seems to be last year’s update of A Star is Born, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from – they’re both musical dramas about aspiration and the demands it makes of a person, both films feature eye-catching central performances, and they both feature big musical numbers amongst their most memorable moments, although they’re really more like dramas with music than actual proper musicals.

This is certainly the case with Wild Rose, which features Buckley extensively on the soundtrack but only includes a handful of scenes where she sings on-camera. There’s a slightly disingenuous moment where Buckley is given a line where she dismisses Saturday night TV talent shows as being no good as launchpad for a career – disingenuous, because this is exactly how Buckley herself first rose to fame. Needless to say, she can really do the business vocally, while the fact that she can also really act was established last year in Beast. The lead role of this film demands someone who can do both, and Buckley carries it off with aplomb.

However, it takes more than one great performance to make a great movie and I was initially not completely impressed by some aspects of Wild Rose, as it seemed to me to be doing the Breakfast at Tiffany’s thing of assuming I was going to be hopelessly charmed by the lead character despite the fact they have major personality and behavioural issues. The film is carefully coy to begin with about just exactly why Rose-Lynn has been in prison, but still makes very clear that – initially at least – she is irresponsible, a neglectful parent, with anger management issues and one finger never far from her self-destruct button. It’s relatively easy for me to feel sorry for someone like that, but I’m not going to root for them unless you give me a better reason than that they’re a bit of a character and can carry a tune.

The surprising thing about Wild Rose, and the one that elevates the film, is that it works tremendously hard to make you genuinely care for Rose-Lynn, despite all the reasons why you possibly shouldn’t. I know some people have criticised this film for lacking comedy or romantic elements, but I think this misses the point: this is a more serious drama than some of the advertising suggests, dealing with moments of genuine emotional pain. It doesn’t feature anyone losing control of their bladder on stage or making very bad decisions in a garage, but it is about failing as a person in very serious ways, taking responsibility for that failure, and then trying to make amends. Every uplifting moment of musical beauty or success is earned through heartbreak and disillusionment, generally depicted in a refreshingly unsentimental way. The film also seems to be challenging that usual glib dictum that to succeed, you have to follow your dreams, no matter what the cost – Wild Rose isn’t afraid to suggest that doing so may or may not lead to success, but it has a very good chance of turning you into a horrible person to be around.

The film also impresses in its refusal, for the most part, to indulge in fairy tale contrivances and easy answers. There’s a curious plot tangent where Rose-Lynn gets a free trip down to London to visit Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC (Whispering Bob’s performance is not entirely convincing, which is weird considering he’s playing himself), but it doesn’t really advance the story, while the film isn’t afraid to defy expectations elsewhere, either. There are unexpected touches of subtlety, too, especially in the relationship between Rose-Lynn and her employer/sponsor – just who exactly is exploiting who, here? Only at the very end does the film cheat a bit, concluding with a moment of unqualified joy that we’re left to imagine our own context for (a trick which at least borders on sentimentality, if you ask me).

Nevertheless, Wild Rose is a highly engaging, solidly made film, built around three extremely good performances – we’re at the point now where you kind of assume Julie Walters is always going to be excellent (needless to say, she is), and it’s always nice to be reminded of Sophie Okonedo’s ability as an actress – she has the least flashy role of the leads, but finds a lot to do with it. But this is Jessie Buckley’s film from beginning to end: she takes you on a journey from chaos into a kind of peace, from thoughtless selfishness to new-found responsibility, and makes you believe every step of the way. The supporting performances, direction, script and songs are all worth seeing (one of them was written by Mary Steenbergen, who has apparently reinvented herself as a country music singer-songwriter), but Buckley is the thing you will remember.

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Once again I find my deep affection for the Hammer Horror brand luring me into seeing a movie I might not have entertained the idea of seeing were it made by anyone else. On this occasion the film in question is The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, directed by Tom Harper. 2012’s The Woman in Black was a massive popular success, easily becoming Hammer Films’ biggest ever hit (although I suspect adjusting for inflation might give the crown back to a Cushing and/or Lee movie), something most likely due to the presence in the lead role of Daniel Radcliffe. Taking on the formidable task of fronting this Radcliffe-free follow-up is Phoebe Fox.

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The film opens in 1941, at the height of the blitz, with Londoners nightly subjected to terrifying air-raids. As a result, the children of the city are being evacuated to safer locations. One small group of them is in the custody of Eve Parkins (Fox) and her fierce superior Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory), and together they make the journey to a remote coastal village and the derelict mansion which will be their new home. However, what nobody is aware of is the fact that the house has long held another occupant, someone who has her own particular interest in the wellbeing of young children…

Soon enough the Woman in Black is walking again, her attention firmly fixed on Eve’s young charges. But is this her usual mindless rage, or is there another factor at work? And can Eve solve the mystery before all of them are beyond help?

I think it’s technically more accurate to describe Angel of Death as a follow-up to The Woman in Black rather than an actual sequel: none of the same performers are involved (even the title character has been recast), the period and plot are entirely different, and while there are various visual references to the first film, you don’t need to have seen it to follow what’s going on here. This is hardly surprising, as the conclusion of the first one was hardly sequel-friendly.

In fact, with hindsight it’s easy to see that coming up with a properly satisfying story for this film must have been a bit of a challenge, as the Woman in Black is not the most promising character to develop a series of films around. Once you know her back-story and understand she’s an indestructible, infanticidal monomaniac, there aren’t many places left to go with her beyond simple atmospherics and mechanical jump-scares. Angel of Death‘s main problem is that this is the level on which it is obliged to operate.

Original author Susan Hill has been drafted in to provide a story for this sequel, and even she has been obliged to tinker with her creation’s modus operandi in order to make the story work: rather than simply being fixated on murdering the evacuees, the Woman in Black on this occasion opts to go in for a little moral chastisement with regard to Eve Parkins’ own character (going into detail would necessitate spoilers). It’s a peculiar twist, to my mind reminiscent of the presentation of Dracula as an avenging force of darkness in Taste the Blood of Dracula, and to my mind it’s not necessarily an improvement – but, as I say, they didn’t really have much option if they wanted to avoid a simple retread of the first one.

This is not to say that I think The Woman in Black: Angel of Death deserves the generally unfriendly reviews it has received. Despite having its certification bumped to a 15 rather than the first film’s 12 (I suspect the absence of the juvenile-friendly Radcliffe may be responsible for this), this seemed to me to be rather less frightening than the first film – long sequences of female protagonists wandering around deserted houses in their nighties and waving lanterns about have become a bit of a genre cliche, and you’re always pretty sure of when a scary bit is on the way, which inevitably reduces the impact of those jump scares. To be fair, Harper contrives the odd impressive moment – doors slam, toys quiver and shadows swirl as the Woman in Black manifests properly for the first time – and this is clearly a film which has had some money thrown at it, but the script doesn’t quite have it where it counts.

This is a shame, as the film is at least well-played: Phoebe Fox is an engaging, soulful presence, and there’s a decent turn by Jeremy Irvine as an airman who takes a shine to her. Helen McCrory is predictably reliable in the only other major role, while supporting them all is Adrian Rawlins (who had his own very memorable encounter with a different incarnation of the Woman, once upon a time).

There really isn’t anything much particularly wrong with The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, beyond perhaps a certain tropeyness, except for the problem that it simply isn’t that scary. Unfortunately, for a horror movie – and especially a ghost story – that’s a serious issue. You can sense Hammer angling to keep their options open for future appearances, but even the closing twist of this film feels predictable and rather perfunctory. This is a very long way from being the worst follow-up or sequel in Hammer’s considerable back catalogue (I wrote about The Vengeance of She just the other day, as it happens), but I really think this particular spectre has come to the end of the road.

 

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