The Raven Movie Review 0 31

What do you get if you merge together old-fashioned Gothic mid-19th century aesthetics with a modern day stylised sensibility?

The answer is The Raven, a part intriguing but part frustrating experience in that it has an interesting mystery at its core – a whodunit that actually keeps you guessing who did it – but constantly feels like two types of movies forced together, fighting for screen time.

John Cusack plays Edgar Allan Poe, the world famous and renowned poet (who wrote “The Raven” of the title), and the film presents a fictionalised account of the last 4 days of his life. A serial killer is on the loose, basing his grisly murders on Poe’s stories and naturally the police suspect Poe himself, triggered by the murder of a writer he had a previous feud with. But in discovering it couldn’t possibly be Poe, the police enlist his help to catch the killer who has also kidnapped Poe’s love interest, Emily (Alice Eve).

The film is directed by James McTeigue, who made the initially (somewhat) criticised but now much-loved V For Vendetta and the fun if wafer-thin Ninja Assassin. His directorial style is of a heightened sensibility, everything is grandiose and exaggerated in a lot of ways. And while in this case it makes for a interesting film to look at, and a fun ride, that style clashes with the story being told and the period in which it’s set.

John Cusack is as watchable a screen presence as ever, his wide-eyed manic nature – strangely evoking the king of such acting style, Nicolas Cage – often works very well to engage with this particular representation of Poe. Scattered throughout the rest of the film are an eclectic collection of actors, from the surprisingly good Luke Evans (last seen in the terrible Three Musketeers blockbuster and the lackluster Immortals) as the main detective to the entirely wasted Brendan Gleeson as the suspecting “gun totin'” father of Poe’s love interest.

I don’t know exactly what The Raven is trying to say about Poe that isn’t already well written about, nor do I know quite what audience it’s trying to please. Those who are interested in Poe might think it disrespectful or worse, just stupid. And those who have never read a word of his writing might be miffed at how much it steeps itself in his world. Attempts at mixing what is essentially an olden days version of CSI with the grisly murder scenes – when you evoke the Saw franchise you know you’re in trouble – don’t work like they should and, again, give off that feeling of two types of movies trying to share the space where only one film can go.

As the film goes on things become increasingly ridiculous and that is both part of the fun and an easy way for the audience to lose emotional or intellectual engagement with the story. It’s nonsense, and damagingly takes itself far too seriously without knowing how silly and over-the-top it is. It reminded me quite a bit of Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare blockbuster Anonymous: preposterous and ludicrous but with something intrinsically enjoyable about that.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 420

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 452

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10