Don’t Judge It By the Cover

The Bookshop

by Rachel Willis

The Bookshop is not what you might imagine. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, one might expect a sentimental, feel-good film about the power of books to open up closed minds. That’s not what we get in writer/director Isabel Coixet’s latest film.

At the heart of the story is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). Having recently purchased a building known colloquially as “the Old House”, she decides to open a bookshop in the space. It’s a way for her to find a level of independence, as well as rekindle a connection with her late, much beloved, husband. However, she is unprepared for the level of opposition she faces in the small seaside town of Hardborough.

The opposition is spearheaded by Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who is used to getting what she wants, and what she wants is to turn the Old House into an arts center. On her side are several Hardborough residents who seem to oppose the bookshop only because she does.

The film starts strong. We watch as Florence overcomes the stall tactics of her solicitor, squashes rumors that she plans to buy another property for her bookshop, and successfully launches the shop of her dreams. However, before the first act concludes, the film begins to meander.

As Florence contends with obstacles she didn’t foresee, she becomes friendly with her first customer, the local eccentric, Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), and their relationship blossoms with an exchange of letters. In a scene reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, Brundish reads his first letter into the camera. It’s an unusual technique, but it helps to humanize the reclusive man. Unfortunately, not enough time or importance is given to this correspondence.

Florence’s only other ally in this world is her young assistant, Christine (Honor Kneafsey). It’s touching to watch Florence try to instill a love of books into Christine, but the connection between the two is never earned. There is little chemistry between the actors; their interactions are awkward when they should be affectionate.

For a movie with only a few characters, it still ends up feeling like too many. Minor characters are given more importance than they deserve. Major characters aren’t given time to develop meaningful relationships. Most of the characters are one-dimensional.

The lovely cinematography captures the theme of the film better than any other aspect. Hardborough appears both enchanting and foreboding. If this had been better explored through character dynamics, The Bookshop may have made a lasting impression. As it is, it’s a beautiful, but empty film.

Get the Guests

The Party

by Matt Weiner

Sally Potter’s jet-black comedy The Party mostly succeeds as social satire examining the savagery churning just below the surface of the polite and prosperous. Where it definitely succeeds, in ways that must seem truly unfair to every single other actor alive today, is crowning Patricia Clarkson as a national treasure.

Not that the rest of the tight ensemble is full of slouches. Clarkson plays April, one of five guests attending a party for Janet (the almost equally superb Kristin Scott Thomas), who is celebrating a political promotion.

Janet’s guests fall into broadly recognizable personalities who are practically begging to have their worlds turned inside out: from the New Age life coach Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) to the supercilious professor Martha (Cherry Jones, also—and you might be sensing a theme here—outstanding).

Timothy Spall plays Bill, Janet’s husband and a literal odd man out: he is nearly catatonic when the guests arrive. When he finally reveals why, it sets off a series of violent delights, both verbal and physical.

The cast might actually be too good for the material (written by Potter). That’s an envious problem for a movie to have, but it’s still a real one. The repartee is shocking and funny in turn. Just about every single line delivery from Clarkson, Scott Thomas and Spall is perfectly measured—so much so that the barbs feel like they’re cutting a lot deeper than they really are.

And Emily Mortimer provides a welcome degree of grounding as Jinny, Martha’s partner and the only party guest who seems recognizably human rather than an outsized target ripe for mockery.

But for all the wicked pleasures to be had from watching this masterclass in verbal sparring, there’s a nagging superficiality to it all. The rapid-fire pace distracts from the reality that nobody besides maybe Jinny ends up discovering some deeper personal meaning about themselves other than rank hypocrisy. And a gimmicky twist at the end doesn’t help.

And yet. It’s easy to forgive The Party’s shortcomings after you’ve heard Clarkson tell someone “You are surpassing yourself” or “You could consider murder” in tones so deadpan that we really ought to invent a new adjective.

It’s a strange, perfectly flawed bunch Potter has thrown together. And I could have stayed with them for hours more.

 

 

The Running Dead

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

by George Wolf

As if the YA heroes in The Maze Runner films haven’t been through enough, here come the zombies!

OK, they’re really zombie-like, after catching the “Flare Virus” that is quickly sweeping the dystopian future world of the trilogy’s finale, The Death CureBut some young adults seem immune, and when Minho (Ki Hong Lee) is among those rounded up for research purposes, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the rest of his maze-running friends hatch a rescue plan.

Director Wes Ball is back to finish what he started with the first two MR films, and he flashes a well-developed eye for the composition of an effective action sequence. From the train-robbing prologue through the exploding finale in the “Last City,” the set pieces from Ball (a former visual effects supervisor) hold up. It’s what fills the time between the action, and how long it takes to reach that finale, that makes The Death Cure such a slog.

The themes are familiar and borrowed from any number of similar films, but it feels like there is a taut and tense action thriller buried somewhere beneath the two hour and twenty minute bloat.

While Will Pouter’s return gives the YA ensemble an impressive talent boost, Patricia Clarkson, playing little more than Standing Around Kate Winslet from the Insurgent series, is unnecessarily wasted. The connective drama here lacks the substance for all the mining it’s given, and the emotional depth the film is trying so hard to reach never materializes.

What’s in a Name?

Carrie

by Hope Madden

Back in ’76, Brian De Palma brought Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, to the screen and a terrifying vision of persecution and comeuppance emerged. But that was almost twenty five years before Columbine, and the image of the bullied and confused wreaking bloody revenge at a high school has taken on a different tenor.

That’s no doubt why King’s tale made its way to television in 2002 with a fresh take on the horror. But things in high school have changed again, and the story of Carrie White takes on particular tragedy in a wired time where another innocent high school girl takes her life almost weekly due to bullying. Perhaps that’s what drew filmmaker Kimberly Pierce, whose Boys Don’t Cry also outlines the tragedy that befalls a young woman violently unaccepted for who she is.

In Pierce’s hands, Carrie offers more stripped down drama – none of the scenery chewing of the De Palma original. There’s no humor to be found in the reboot, but realistic performances and updated context give the film enough bite to keep you watching.

Chloe Grace Moretz takes on lead duties as the youngster whose first monthly flow triggers all manner of havoc, from the most unconscionable bullying to telekentic powers. Oh, and her mom tries to kill her. So, not the blessing those Health Ed books try to tell us it is.

Moretz has a big prom dress to fill, and though she has always been a reliable talent, her turn here is unconvincing. Sissy Spacek truly was that innocent, a girl so repressed by her religious mother that she had no conscious knowledge of appropriate social behavior. Moretz is a cute, shy girl the mean kids dislike. It’s not the same.

The always exquisite Julianne Moore actually has an even larger task cut out for her. The role of Margaret White is a juicy one. Even the TV version drew the great Patricia Clarkson to the project. And Moore is characteristically strong, clearly defining the role in a terrifying yet almost sympathetic way. But she’s no Piper Laurie.

Laurie brought such vitality and insanity to the role that the prom became almost secondary, and her chemistry with Spacek was eerily perfect.

The updated context casts a truly saddening shadow over the film, making a major thematic adjustment without even trying. Stephen King wrote a story about hysteria over the dawning of womanhood. But today, the story carries an even darker message. Carrie is a cautionary tale about sending your kids to high school.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Marling Heads in Interesting Directions

The East

by Hope Madden

If we’re honest, I think we are all either secretly impressed by and quietly frightened of Anonymous, or we’re openly impressed by and quietly frightened of them. I personally haven’t done much to draw their ire – I haven’t rigged an election, abused a teen, or even misused Wikipedia for my own malicious gain. Yes, I broke into my neighbor’s house when I was 8 and stole a bunch of Barbie clothes. It’s true – they might come for me for that! But you don’t have to be a potential target to worry over unchecked power, no matter how much genuine good a group does.

That conflict is the heartbeat of Brit Marling’s new film The East.

Marling is a filmmaker to watch. She’s co-scripted three films in which she’s starred, each offering an intimate, thoughtful, refreshingly off-kilter perspective.

In this work, Marling plays Sarah, an undercover agent working for a corporate counter terrorism firm. She combats terrorists combating big business. In her first assignment, she infiltrates the anarchist collective The East, a group using an “eye for an eye” approach to retaliate against eco-destructive corporate greed.

Early on, the film feels sometimes lazily scripted, as happenstance and coincidence play too large a role in Sarah’s investigation. But the film mostly overcomes these faults. Co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij builds tension well, and – as is often the case with Marling’s work – the film is not taking you exactly where you think it is.

Marling’s finest performance has been as the guru at the center of Sound of My Voice – also co-scripted and directed by Batmanglij – but she hasn’t yet disappointed. Here she possesses a veneer of calm that makes the inner conflict that much more provocative.

It helps that she’s joined by such a strong cast. Playing Sarah’s mentor, Patricia Clarkson is exquisite, as always. Ellen Page plays against type and succeeds, and Alexander Skarsgard shines, as well, in a tough role that requires him to be at once admirable and despicable.

The East is a finely tuned thriller with a thoughtful story to tell. What looks at first like heavy-handed liberalism morphs into  moral ambiguity by the second act, but Marling’s not done yet. She makes some interesting choices, and as this film points out, the choice is always there to make.

Verdict-3-5-Stars