Film reviews: Shell | Welcome to the Punch | Maniac
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Directed by: Scott Graham
Starring: Chloe Pirrie, Michael Smiley, Joseph Mawle, Kate Dickie
Scottish director Scott Graham’s Highland-set tale of loneliness and despair makes for a promising debut, even though its story feels a little rote in terms of the provocative sexual themes it’s attempting to explore. Expanded from a short film, Shell certainly succeeds in creating a foreboding atmosphere, with the desolate cinematography (courtesy of Yoliswa Gärtigand) complementing a powerful and internalised performance from newcomer Chloe Pirrie, cast here as the eponymous going-nowhere 17-year-old whose days spent staffing her epileptic dad’s petrol station mask a more curious relationship between father and daughter.
Graham is good at setting all this up, contrasting the timeless feel of the windswept landscape with unobtrusive period details (Dire Straits on the radio; discussions about Levi’s jeans) that time-stamp its setting to the pre-internet mid-1980s. Awkward interactions between Shell and her regular customers – particularly a brief but emotionally devastating appearance from Michael Smiley, last seen in Kill List – also add to the sense of unease. Alas, some over-cooked symbolism and over-familiar arthouse tropes (austere emotions, joyless sex) mean that it’s not hard to guess where all this is going, ensuring that despite the film’s many technical and performance-led strengths, its story just doesn’t feel strong enough to sustain a feature.
Welcome to the Punch (15)
Directed by: Eran Creevy
Starring: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan
Shifty director Eran Creevy’s ambitious attempt to make a flat-out, London-set genre film in the mould of Asian action thrillers such as Infernal Affairs and A Bittersweet Life kind of works and kind of doesn’t. On the plus side, he’s created a plausibly heightened cityscape in which James McAvoy’s obsessive cop and Mark Strong’s ruthlessly disciplined criminal can indulge in a hyper-violent game of cat-and-mouse with relative impunity. On the downside, this hermetically sealed world eventually seems a little airless, making the convoluted plot – involving political corruption and an effort to fully arm the police – feel stuffier than it should. As a result, supporting players such as Andrea Riseborough (as McAvoy’s partner and love interest) and David Morrissey (as McAvoy’s boss) aren’t given enough for their eventual centrality to the plot to be compelling, although Strong’s domineering presence does a lot to carry the film through. In the end, the film is at its best when Creevy puts a distinctively British spin on proceedings, whether it’s setting a post-heist, high-impact car-and-motorbike chase against the shimmering neon glare of central London, or locating a slow-mo Mexican stand-off in the chintzy suburban living room of a bad guy’s grandmother.
Directed by: Franck Khalfoun
Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, America Olivo
William Lustig’s ultra grim 1980 stalk-and-scalp horror flick Maniac inspired plenty of revulsion in its day, as well as – no joke – the song of the same name that later became a huge hit courtesy of Flashdance. Now it has inspired a remake, one that features a bona fide star in Elijah Wood, as well as a more artful approach to the visuals, if not the actual storytelling, which once again revolves around a cliché-ridden sicko with mummy issues (Wood) who works through his off-the-shelf psychosis by murdering women and using their scalps to dress his vast collection of mannequins. The main difference with the remake is that the film has been shot entirely from the killer’s point-of-view, meaning we only ever see Wood’s face in reflection, presumably to make us more complicit in his character’s crimes. It’s a gimmicky technique, last used to such an extent on the 1947 Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake, but always more effective when deployed sparingly, as in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and John Carpenter’s Halloween. That it ultimately adds little to Maniac, beyond inadvertently making it look like the worst advert for Google Glass imaginable, suggests that scuzzy little exploitation flicks are sometimes best left as just that.
Directed by: Sarah Sugarman
Starring: Phil Daniels, Jamie Blackley, Keith Allen
A bunch of sad, ageing punks attempt to pull off a great rock‘n’roll swindle in this chirpy Brit-com so lacking in anti-authoritarian attitude and verve it could just as easily have been about a group of middle-aged Top Gear lovers whining about the youth of today. It certainly has a blinkered, condescending attitude to anyone under the age of 40 – and it displays a fairly archaic grasp of the way the music industry works too, believing it to be a world still driven by big money record deals. That signing one of said deals happens to be the dream of Johnny Jones (Phil Daniels), the responsibility-dodging singer of punk also-rans Weapons of Happiness, further underscores how out-of-touch the film is with the ethos it’s supposed to be celebrating: wasn’t punk about doing-it-yourself?
Whatever. After a drunken jam session with his old band results in a new single, Johnny is so incensed that record companies and radio stations show no interest on account of his age that he decides to repackage it as the debut single of a made-up, teen-fronted punk band in order to expose how image-obsessed the music industry is. And in other breaking news: water is apparently wet.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (12a)
Directed by: Don Scardino
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim CaRrey, James Gandolfini
Ironically for a comedy built around characters confronting their own obsolescence, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone feels about ten years out of date and features actors who are at least ten years too old for their roles. Steve Carell takes top billing as the titular Burt, a magician whose tired old Las Vegas routine with his childhood friend Anton (Steve Buscemi) is being challenged by a radical new form of endurance-related street magic courtesy of an arrogant, fame-hungry illusionist called Steve Gray. Gray, a thinly veiled parody of David Blaine (who was last worthy of send-up about a decade ago), is played by that noted spring chicken Jim Carrey, here decked out in a tragic Axl Rose wig. Even worse, flashbacks in the film attempt to sell us on the illusion that Carell and Buscemi’s characters first met as ten-year-old boys in 1982, a credibility stretching fact that no amount of movie magic can possibly overcome when the film jumps to the present day – especially when poor Olivia Wilde is moved into position as Carell’s love interest. From this point on, the film works through the usual idiot-on-the-road-to-redemption bag of tricks without pulling anything out of the hat that feels in any way fresh, let alone dazzling.