Film review: Dark Horse | The Giants | Nostalgia For The Light | Personal Best | In Your Hands

Taking time out in The Giants
Taking time out in The Giants
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A round-up of the week’s latest cinema releases

Dark Horse (15)

Science, politics and mourning meet in Nostalgia for the Light

Science, politics and mourning meet in Nostalgia for the Light

Directed by: Todd Solondz

Starring: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, Donna Murphy

Rating: ***

BOUNCING back after the wretchedness of his pseudo Happiness sequel Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz delivers a much more engaging portrait of suburban mediocrity in Dark Horse, albeit one that’s still fairly pitiable. It’s the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), an infantalised 35-year-old who blames his parents (played by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) for all his character defects yet refuses to move out of their house or get a job anywhere other than his father’s office. Living partly in a fantasy world fuelled by his debilitating childhood obsessions (frequent trips to a toy store become a metaphor for his own arrested development), he dooms himself by pinning all his hopes for happiness on a hepatitis-B-afflicted depressive (Selma Blair) who agrees to marry him because she has nothing better on the horizon. All of this sounds too painful to endure, but as Solondz demonstrated with Welcome to the Dollhouse, there’s a cruel-to-be-kind streak to his deadpan humour that makes it possible to empathise with his outsider protagonists, even when they don’t fall into the easy-to-like archetypes that popular culture has taught us to find socially acceptable.

The Giants (15)

Directed by: Bouli Lanners

Starring: Paul Bartel, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Martin Nissen

Rating: ***

A MIX of social realism and Huckleberry Finn-style mythmaking infuses this Belgian coming-of-age tale about abandoned youths learning to fend for themselves in a world shorn of responsible adult supervision. Good kids turned mischievous – if resourceful – reprobates, teenage siblings Seth and Zak have been left to their own devices by a mother too busy to take proper care of them.

Dumped for the summer in their late grandfather’s countryside cottage, the boys fill their days going for joyrides in his old car and smoking dope with similarly neglected local lad Danny (Paul Bartel). Running short of cash, however, they make a fateful decision to rent out their cottage to a local drug dealer, something that necessitates them retreating to the surrounding woods as they figure out a plan to recoup the money owed them. Plotwise, that’s about it; in the spirit of its young protagonists, what follows is all rather aimless.

That’s not a criticism, per se, it’s more an acknowledgement of the way the film seems to adopt more open-ended approach to adolescence in an effort to capture that Huck Finn-esque sensation of “lighting out for the territories” at a time in one’s life when the world still seems vast and unfathomable.

Nostalgia For The Light (12A)

Directed by: Patricio GuzmÁn

Rating: ****

THIS extraordinary documentary manages to transform some brain-bending philosophical concepts involving astrophysics and the function of memory into a poignant and heartbreaking examination of the devastating legacy of General Pinochet’s dictatorship on the people of Chile. The Atacam desert is the starting point for director Patricio Guzmán, whose film initially seeks to explain how this particular location’s unique, arid, Martian-like climate was poised to make Chile a hub of scientific discovery in the 1970s after the erection of a giant new observatory designed to capitalise on the transparent quality of the sky.

Instead, while the astronomy flourished internally, the country closed itself off and the desert became a burial ground for the “disappeared”. Guzmán’s film starts fusing these divergent strands by bringing to light the paradoxical nature of a country that has the apparatus and intellectual capacity to study the origins of the universe but not the strength to confront its recent past.

Gradually, though, something astonishing happens: through sensitive, searching questioning of astronomers, archaeologists and the ageing women who continue to search for the calcified remains of their executed husbands and children, the film starts making astonishing cosmic links that might perhaps offer Chile a way not only to remember its past but to survive it.

Personal Best (PG)

Directed by: Sam Blair

Rating: ***

YET another Olympics-themed documentary, Personal Best homes in on the intense and precarious life of a championship sprinter by following a handful of British athletes from their days as promising teens to their current status as 2012 Olympic hopefuls. Keeping personal details to a minimum, director Sam Blair is more interested in exploring the psychological make-up required to develop the kind of belief necessary to transform talent into championship wins.

As such, there’s a lot of attention focused both on the punishing regimes that have to be endured in order to make one’s body perform in the way that’s required and the ever-present threat of injury that can derail a career at a moment’s notice. In this respect, the film’s undoubted star is Jeanette Kwakye. After we first glimpse her struggling to complete the training sessions her coach has set out, we see her go through the highs and lows of becoming the first British woman sprinter to reach the Olympic 100m finals (in Beijing) for 20 years, only to suffer a training injury that rules her out of competitive athletics for close to a year.

In Your Hands (15)

Directed by: Lola Doillon

Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, PIo Marmaï, Jean-Philippe Écoffey

Rating: **

GIVEN the scandalous lack of good roles for women in English language cinema, Kristin Scott Thomas’s fluency in French has allowed her repeatedly to find interesting and challenging parts over the years that make full use of her undeniable talent.

In Your Hands is no exception, although in this case, the material sadly isn’t deserving of her committed performance. Casting her as an emotionally closed-off surgeon who becomes obsessed with a younger man who has done terrible things to her, the film is essentially a theatrically staged two-hander in which the protagonists’ shared history is gradually revealed amid the shifting power dynamics and emotional to-and-fro of a kidnapping situation.

Scott Thomas certainly taps into the psychological complexity of her Stockholm syndrome-afflicted captive and she never lets us forget her character’s humanity even as she’s forced to do undignified things. But the motivations that sophomore writer/director Lola Doillon gives her captor (played by Po Marmaï) are trite and unconvincing and reduces the film to the status of a rather tepid melodrama when Scott Thomas’s performance suggests something more sophisticated is at play.