Film reviews: Blancanieves | Breathe In

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The title is Spanish for Snow White and the Grimm fairytale proves the chief inspiration for director Pablo Berger’s 1920s set black-and-white homage to silent cinema.

Blancanieves (12A)

Directed by: Pablo Berger

Starring: Macarena Garcia, Maribel Verdu, Sofia Oria, Daniel Giminez Cacho

* * * *

Re-imagining the titular heroine as a young amnesiac with a tragic past, the film sees her falling in with a band of bullfighting dwarves who encourage her to develop the skills her own estranged matador father (Daniel Giminez Cacho) had begun to teach her before her jealous step-mother (Maribel Verdu) cast her out into the forest to die.

Berger – who made the 1970s adult film satire Torremolinos 73 – uses the fairytale set-up as a freakish allegory for a period in Spanish history romanticised during the subsequent Franco era. As with other recent paeans to silent cinema, however, he’s also built into it a tribute to the magic of the movies, one that’s as swooning and delightful as The Artist, but not quite so tied to the conventions of the day. Indeed, there’s a hint of Pedro Almodovar in the film’s playfulness and sense of humour. Verdu is also deliciously nasty as the poison apple-brandishing wicked step-mother.

Breathe In (15)

Directed by: Drake Doremus

Starring: Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, Amy Ryan

* *

Inspiring more of a weary sigh than a sharp intake of breath, this seen-it-all-before tale of infidelity does nothing to subvert expectations beyond inadvertently draining any drama out of the situation with its dialed-down approach. From the moment Felicity Jones shows up as an English foreign exchange student in the home of Guy Pearce’s frustrated music teacher, it’s only a matter of time before 18-year-old ingénue and forty-something family man get down to business – so quite why director Drake Doremus spends so much of the movie pretending it’s not going to happen is anyone’s guess.

Saddled with a depressingly shrewish wife (played by the distinctly unshrewish Amy Ryan), and given to nostalgically poring over photos of his days as an aspiring rock star, Pearce’s character might as well have “seduce me” tattooed on his oddly coiffed head, so readily does he conform to the frustrated middle-aged male stereotype. Jones’s character isn’t much more rounded; her free-spirited ways having been calibrated to flatter Pearce’s ego rather than give us any sense of who she is as a person. Like Doremus’s previous feature Like Crazy, this is banal in the extreme.

The Frozen Ground (15)

Directed by: Scott Walker

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, John Cusack, Dean Norris

* * *

A competent if unremarkable serial killer thriller, The Frozen Ground takes the real life case of Robert Hansen’s early 1980s Alaskan kill spree (during which his female victims numbered 17) and refracts it through the gaze of Cindy Paul- son (Vanessa Hudgens), a teen prostitute who managed to elude his grasp.

That’s an initially intriguing approach, particularly as first time writer/director Scott Walker homes in on the relationship that forms between Cindy and Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), the state trooper who takes on the mantle of her protector when the detectives investigating the murders proves initially sceptical of her claim that Hansen raped and attempted to kill her. But as the film wears on and the net tightens on Hansen (John Cusack), the film becomes a little enamoured with over-wrought symbolism and its victim’s continued descent into a world of hurt from which there seems little escape. Still, Hudgens digs deep to imbue Cindy with a degree of humanity not always forthcoming from the script, and Cage and Cusack are effectively downbeat as each other‘s nemeses.

Wadjda (PG)

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah

* * * *

Wadjda is the sort of low key foreign language film custom-designed to delight arthouse audiences, but the circumstances of its production give it a quietly revolutionary dimension: not only is it the first film to be directed by a woman in Saudi Arabia, it’s the first film to be made there period. As such, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s tale of a rebellious ten-year-old tomboy attempting to buy a bike can’t help but feel like it’s providing a welcome feminist insight into the narrowly prescriptive roles women in Saudi Arabia face.

This emerges in gentle but forceful fashion as the heroine (Waad Mohammed) demonstrates her entrepreneurial spirit by attempting to raise funds to buy herself the bike she imagines will confer upon her a degree of independence in a patriarchal world full of injustices. The nature of the plot can’t help but evoke De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (not to mention the Dardennes’ magnificent The Kid with a Bike), but Al-Mansour also takes care not to descend into cliché, providing a message of hope couched in a story of small but hard-won triumphs.

Easy Money (15)

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Matias Padin Varela, Dragomir Mrsic

* * *

Having last year made his Hollywood debut with the so-so Denzel Washington thriller Safe House, Swedish director Daniel Espinosa’s 2010 Nordic crime film Easy Money finally makes it into British cinemas, released under an audience-courting “Martin Scorsese presents” imprimatur. It’s certainly easy to see why Scorsese would give it his endorsement; this convoluted story of a social climbing student (Joel Kinnaman) who becomes embroiled in a the high-risk world of drug running, money laundering and gangsterism certainly ticks all the uber-macho themes associated with Scorsese’s work.

Before it descends into “one last job” clichés, it also provides a pervasive air of palm-sweating desperation as it tracks its protagonist’s determination to capitalise on the (then) recent financial collapse to inveigle his way into the monied world of the jet-set class still running on the fumes of the debt-ridden boom years. Where the film starts to get fuzzy is in the self-conscious way it strives for epic status with its overly schematic plotting and its sequel-ready ending. Nevertheless, for the most part, this is a hard-working thriller that spotlights the changing nature of criminality in modern-day Europe.