Film reviews round-up: The Snowman, Loving Vincent, The Party, The Lego Ninjago Movie, The Ritual

Geoffrey Macnab finds some entertaining performances in a Jo Nesbo blockbuster, but is Scandi noir losing its edge?

Out in the cold: Tomas Alfredson’s ‘The Snowman’ is incredibly slick, but it lacks character development in places
Out in the cold: Tomas Alfredson’s ‘The Snowman’ is incredibly slick, but it lacks character development in places

The Snowman

★★★☆☆

Dir: Tomas Alfredson, 119 mins, starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chloe Sevigny, Val Kilmer,

The Snowman (adapted from one of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels) is a very slick slice of Scandinavian noir but one whose plot slaloms become increasingly preposterous. It boasts all the craftsmanship and painstaking attention to detail that you expect from any feature overseen by Working Title, Britain’s most successful production company, and executive produced by Martin Scorsese. The film is enjoyable viewing in its own macabre fashion. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has made a movie set in Norway in which all the characters speak in English but, for once, the accents don’t rankle at all. What causes our faith in the storytelling to melt at times is the undue reliance on coincidence. The ice has a knack of cracking at the most opportune moment. It strains credibility, too, that every character in the film seems either to be an orphan or to have lost at least one of his or her parents. There are also other false leads here to provoke a Norwegian red-herring war.

Early on, the Oslo police boss apologises only half in jest to detective Harry Hole (Fassbender) about the low rate of homicide in Norway. The film presents an idealised image of the country that ought to appeal to tourists. We get shots of fjords and snow-capped mountains. Everything in Oslo is tidy and well-designed. The apartments, office blocks and even the bus shelters in which the drunkards sleep off their hangovers could feature in some Saturday magazine spread on ideal living. The police make great play of their latest gizmo, a suitcase shaped object which is both camera and digital database and with which they can log crimes, film them and cross-reference them with every other misdemeanour ever recorded. Of course, the image of order and calm is illusory.

The film opens brilliantly and mysteriously. A boy in a remote farmhouse is bullied by an older man who asks him questions he can’t answer about post-war Norwegian history and politics. Violence follows and coffee beans are spilled. The filmmakers are deliberately withholding information but we know that important clues about the identity of the serial killer are contained within this prelude. In particular, they’re urging us not to forget the coffee beans.

Harry Hole as first encountered here fits into a very long line of crumpled, hard-drinking, self-pitying but charismatic detectives. He’s off work and has split up from Rakel Fauke (Charlotte Gainsbourg in a series of mini-skirts in spite of the Oslo cold), the girlfriend he still loves and whose teenage son he dotes on. Harry has a friendly if very guarded relationship with Rakel’s new partner, Matthias (Jonas Karlsson), a mild-mannered but enigmatic plastic surgeon. Already a legend on the force, Harry gives the impression of being jaded and even bored. He needs a good serial killer case to get his juices flowing again. That is what a younger colleague on the crime squad, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), provides. Fassbender plays Harry as a sardonic idealist. It’s an appealing performance even if he does look a little too buff and athletic given his prodigious alcohol consumption.

One of the strangest elements here is the way the detectives’ private lives become wrapped up with the case they are investigating. The killer targets married mothers. He strikes when the snow is falling and always leaves a grotesque snowman behind him as a sign of his handiwork. He also somehow knows that both Harry and Katrine are prey to remorse and guilt about their own family relationships.

In flashbacks set in Bergen many years before, we see Val Kilmer as Gert Rafto, yet another crumpled, hard-drinking, self-pitying detective who was investigating the Snowman killer. The outlandishly cast Kilmer looks like an older, pickled version of his Jim Morrison in The Doors. He has the demeanour of an ageing rock star more than that of a provincial police officer. It’s a colourful, if eccentric, performance which shows that Kilmer still knows how to steal scenes.

This is one of those movies in which everybody seems vaguely suspicious. There are colourful and sinister performances from JK Simmons as a ruthless, self-made industrialist who behaves in very predatory, Weinstein-like fashion with women and from David Dencik as the unctuous doctor, Idar Vetlesen, who paints his toenails and is therefore absolutely not to be trusted.

The Snowman serves up plenty of jolting and terrifying moments. Heads are cut off or blasted away. Fingers are severed. Characters drown beneath the ice. One of the problems, though, is that Alfredson never seems entirely sure whether he is making a fairground ride of a movie, full of shock effects, or a probing psychological drama. One moment he is confronting the demons in characters’ backgrounds and the next he is serving up a grisly coup de cinema seemingly for the sake of it. The pacing is uncertain. This Snowman might have worked better in TV series format than as a one-off feature film. A problem here is that some characters are introduced and then quickly forgotten about because there isn’t enough time to explore their backstory. For all the sophistication of the filmmaking, the film eventually turns into a traditional whodunit with just as contrived a framework as the average Agatha Christie potboiler.

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It’s now a decade since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first published in the UK and longer than that since Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels became an international sensation. We’ve had so many Scandinavian crime films and TV dramas in the intervening years that plotlines and storytelling devices begin to seem numbingly familiar. The Snowman is perfectly decent entertainment but it is also generic in the extreme, with nothing beyond those coffee beans to offer that we haven’t tasted before.

Loving Vincent

★★★★☆

Dir: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, 93 mins, starring: Robert Gulaczyk, Aidan Turner, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Chris O’Dowd

Loving Vincent is surely the most idiosyncratic and original animated feature of the year – a film about the death of Vincent van Gogh that is structured like an investigative crime drama. It uses oil painting in the style of its subject’s own work combined with live action material and computer-generated imagery.

Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of postmaster Roulin, one of Van Gogh’s closest friends, is the amateur detective. He has an unopened letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo shortly before his death. His father wants him to deliver it in person. Armand is a cocky youngster with no particular interest in Van Gogh but the more he immerses himself in the artist’s world, the more obsessed he becomes about discovering how and why Van Gogh died.

At its crudest, Loving Vincent stands as a keynotes-style primer on the artist and his work. There are references to his unhappy childhood and an account of why his mother was so aloof with him. (She remained grief-stricken over the stillbirth of Vincent’s older brother.) We learn how he failed in several other careers before beginning painting in earnest in his late twenties. We see him being taunted by Toulouse-Lautrec in his time in Paris. We are introduced to Père Tanguy, (a bluff and cheery John Sessions), who provided him with his paints. The filmmakers don’t balk at showing him cutting off his ear (which he presents as a gift to a prostitute). Some of the imagery is in black and white. All the characters speak in English, in a mix of rough, vernacular accents. Their lines occasionally grate. “Things only got strange when that friend of his, Gauguin, came,” one witness from Arles remembers. The use of Don McLean’s syrupy balled “Starry Starry Night” (re-arranged by composer Clint Mansell and performed by Lianne La Havas) over the end credits risks tipping the film into maudlin kitsch.

Loving Vincent, though, is very effective in conveying Armand’s awe and bafflement about this “rough, awkward man who had only been painting a couple of years” and yet so quickly began to display his genius. The way the oil paintings are animated is also startling. Van Gogh’s swirling brush strokes come to life and the colours move as if they have their own violent pulse. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have clearly researched their subject exhaustively. Drawing heavily on his letters to Theo, they provide an account of Van Gogh that goes beyond the received story of the tortured genius who shot himself.

Van Gogh’s life in Arles wasn’t comfortable. Kids threw stones at him and the police harassed him. There was a sense the whole town was tormenting him. In his investigations, Armand uncovers guilt and conspiracy theories. One doctor is convinced that the artist was shot. Armand learns about the young men who befriended him but also took a malicious pleasure in playing practical jokes on him.

The character who seems best placed to unlock the mystery surrounding his death is the rough-spoken Dr Gachet (Jerome Flynn), subject of one of his most famous paintings. He is very elusive. Armand struggles to reach him or to convince him to talk. Former military surgeon Gachet was an artist himself and seemingly jealous that Van Gogh’s ability so transcended his own. His daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) was briefly very close to Van Gogh and possibly even loved him but was warned by her father not to distract from his art. As portrayed by Robert Gulaczyk, Van Gogh is every bit as mercurial, intense and contradictory as you might expect but is also doggedly loyal and devoted to his brother Theo, who fought so hard to protect him.

Van Gogh’s story has been told on screen several times before, Kirk Douglas gave a very flamboyant performance in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life while Tim Roth portrayed the artist in more introspective fashion in Robert Altman’s 1990 biopic Vincent & Theo. These films may have been more successful in dramatising Van Gogh’s life than Loving Vincent but they weren’t able to immerse us in the art in the way that Kobiela and Welchman do.

The real measure of Loving Vincent is that it should appeal to anyone with a passing interest in its subject but is authoritative enough to intrigue the experts too. As a piece of handcrafted animation, it provides a welcome contrast to all those movies full of cutesy talking animals turned out by the Hollywood studios. Reportedly over 65,000 individual paintings were created by more than 100 artists in the process of shooting the feature. You can’t help but admire the sheer scope of the filmmakers’ vision and the painstaking way they went about crafting their tribute to Van Gogh.

The Lego Ninjago Movie

★★★☆☆

Dir: Paul Fisher, Charlie Bean, Bob Logan, 101 mins, voiced by: Jackie Chan, Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Pena

The Lego Ninjago Movie has its moments, especially when the wrecking ball of a real-life cat is on screen, but risks drifting off into inanity in a way that the earlier films in the franchise didn’t. The writing isn’t as sharp as in the first Lego Movie or The Lego Batman Movie and much of the humour is very whimsical. Attempts at combining Eastern mysticism with a traditional Western rite of passage story are clumsy. This is one story in which the pieces don’t always fit comfortably together.

Jackie Chan plays the elderly toy shop owner Mr Liu in the live-action sequences at the beginning and end of the movie. He also voices the mystic warrior guru, Master Wu. A shy boy comes into Mr Liu’s shop with a damaged lego piece and Liu begins to tell him a story. That’s the point at which the animation kicks in. We think we are going to be whisked back into ancient times but the main part of the film unfolds in Ninjago, a town that seems like an Americanised version of Hong Kong.

Lloyd Garmadon (voiced by Dave Franco) is an unhappy teenager, living with his mother and ignored by his father, Lord Garmadon, who is the Darth Vader-like villain of the story. Garmadon is forever invading Ninjago and forever being repelled by the young Ninja squad. Lloyd is a “Green” Ninja and helps keep him at bay but his real desire is for Lord Garmadon to acknowledge him as a son and perhaps to remember his birthday.

Garmadon is a warlord who lives in a volcano and gets very angry with his generals when they don’t do exactly as he tells them.

There is a very random and haphazard quality to the storytelling here. The film has three directors, half a dozen screenwriters and very little sense of a unified vision. The ninjas end up going on a long and arduous mission to find the “ultimate, ultimate weapon” and thereby to undo the damage done with the “ultimate” weapon, which has drawn the cat to Ninjago. In the course of the epic journey, Lloyd learns the true story of his childhood and discovers just why he has been chosen as the Green Ninja.

In the previous films, the voice work and writing made up for the inexpressiveness of the Lego faces and the naive quality of the computer animation. That isn’t really the case here although there is a very spirited kung fu fight between Master Wu and Garmadon on a drawbridge high above a gushing torrent. The Jonah and The Whale-like conclusion in which the cat swallows one of the main characters is also engaging, especially once the cat begins purring and burping. Justin Theroux enjoys himself voicing the dastardly Garmadon, a character who half wants to be a decent, loving dad but who is always led astray by his own war-like instincts and habitual treachery.

In the first Lego movie, audiences were able quickly to forget that the film’s main reason for existence was to sell toys. With Ninjago, we are always aware that this is not so much a movie as a feature-length marketing and branding exercise.

The Party

★★★★☆

Dir: Sally Potter, 71 mins, starring: Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall

Sally Potter’s comedy-drama The Party is an enjoyably misanthropic affair boosted by some very fine performances and a screenplay almost as caustic as that of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Over its brisk 71 minute running time, all its characters reveal their darker sides. They’re affluent and privileged types who appear to have the world at their fingertips but we quickly discover their capacity for backbiting as well as some of some of their most intimate and incriminating secrets.

The hostess, first seen in slow motion, close up and brandishing a gun, is politician Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas). She has just been made a government minister and is celebrating with some of her oldest, closest friends. Thatcher-like, she wants to show off her ability to hold high office but still attend to the catering. Her husband (a very gaunt looking Timothy Spall) sits listening to blues and jazz while she busies herself in her apron in the kitchen. The first guests to arrive are Janet’s old friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and her infuriating partner, lifestyle guru Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who speaks only in New Age clichés. The other guests are lesbian academic Martha (Cherry Jones) and her dungaree-wearing lover Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who has just discovered she is pregnant with triplets. Also present is city slicker Tom (Cillian Murphy). He brings a gun and cocaine into the house but arrives without his wife Marianne (who works for Janet and who, even in her absence, plays a pivotal role in the plot).

Aleksei Rodionov’s black and white cinematography gives the characters a sheen of elegance but their behaviour grows ever more barbaric. Potter’s screenplay slowly reveals their bad faith and duplicity. They’ve been having affairs with each other. Illness, addiction and betrayal are clouding their lives. The fates are against them.

This is a chamber piece, clearly shot quickly and on a relatively modest budget. There is pathos as well as humour in the way what should be a celebratory evening so quickly unravels. Potter includes slapstick elements (a champagne cork shattering a pane of glass, Tom’s attempts to hide his gun in the dustbin) but these sit aside moments of real bleakness. Amid the mounting mayhem, the writer-director finds the opportunity to throw in references to the creaking National Health Service, to feminism, class and workplace politics.

Potter strikes a very swift tempo. At times, the film grows as manic as Cillian Murphy’s increasingly strung out Tom who needs a line of coke to help him cope with every social challenge the party poses him. One moment Kristin Scott Thomas’s Janet is worrying about her hair and texting her lover. The next she is in a state of extreme angst and is declaring her undying love for her husband. In its mixture of jauntiness and despair, her performance here recalls the one she gave in Anthony Minghella’s film version of Samuel Beckett’s Play. Spall is morose in the extreme while Ganz’s equanimity in the face of every new misfortune becomes ever more irritating.

At times, The Party becomes a little glib. The hidden connections between the characters are easy to spot and we can predict precisely who’s at the door at the film’s delirious endpoint. This, though, is lively and invigorating filmmaking with an energy that belies its own pessimism.

The Ritual

★★☆☆☆

Dir: David Bruckner, 94 mins, starring: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali

The Ritual is as much a film about the perils of middle age as it is a conventional horror picture. The scenes of its main characters being scared out of their wits deep in a Swedish forest are less disturbing than the opening sequence when they meet in a pub in London. They’re a group of university friends who are slowly realising, to their dismay, that they don’t have very much in common any more. They want to go away on a lads’ holiday but, for all their upbeat talk, they can’t decide on a destination.

There is something desperate about the way that Luke (Rafe Spall) tries to enjoy himself and to encourage his friends to continue drinking after hours. Luke is caught in the middle of a very violent situation but chooses to stay out of trouble rather than help a friend. His guilt, and the remorse of the rest of the group, is what leads the ageing friends to go on an arduous hiking tour in Scandinavia rather than heading off to Ibiza to indulge themselves.

One of the paradoxes about The Ritual is that it’s a horror movie that works far better before the supernatural elements kick in. The early scenes, when Luke betrays his friend or when the group members are taking their first, fateful steps into the woods, are the most effective. Joe Barton’s screenplay (adapted from Adam Nevill’s novel) has a nice line in ironic British humour. “This is clearly the house we get murdered in,” one hiker jokes grimly when they’re forced to spend the night in a squalid and spooky cabin deep in the forest. “It’s definitely better than our uni accommodation,” his friend replies.

The friends all have nightmares. They grow increasingly paranoid and suspicious of one another. Early on, the emphasis is on psychological terror. That’s before the bloodletting begins and they encounter the very strange inhabitants in the woods as well as the strange creature they worship. The latter part of The Ritual is very generic indeed. Director David Bruckner knows how to jolt us out of our seats one moment and to repel us the next but there’s nothing here we haven’t encountered before in countless other shockers about innocents and not-so-innocents lost in the woods.

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