Tuesday 16 January 2018

Movies review: The Good Life, Stonehearst Asylum, and The Falling

The Good Lie
The Good Lie
Stoneyhearst Asylum
The Falling

At the Movies, with Tanya Sweeney

The Good Lie

Drama: Starring Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Corey Stoll, Kuoth Wiel, Sarah Baker. Director: Philippe Falardeau. Cert: 12A

Hollywood actresses of repute are starting to find themselves in an increasingly difficult position.

The rom-com as we know it is pretty much dead on its feet, all but consigned to the great Manhattan cocktail bar in the sky. Adding insult to injury, a new wave of actress-writers like Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham, Jenny Slate and Amy Schumer are snapping on the A-list's heels, offering up incisive indie comedies.

And so, the rom-com queens, who made their careers on sugary, Barbie-pink confections have been left with a couple of options. There are the roles as Spandex-clad totty in tentpole franchises… or there is the possibility of migration towards something more thoughtful and, well, meaty. Attempted by many, but carried off with any élan by few.

Last year's Wild saw Witherspoon clear the chick-flick pen, and The Good Lie widens up that distance considerably. Here, she plays Carrie, a Kansas-based employment agency worker, tasked with placing a group of Sudanese refugees in work as they arrive straight from a Kenyan refugee camp.

Initially indifferent and a little befuddled as they attempt to settle in to their new lives in the US, Carrie finds herself getting pulled in inexorably to their struggle.

Abital (Kuoth Wiel) the 'sister' of Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Mamere (Arnold Oceng) has been sent to Boston, and Carrie makes it her mission, amid a quagmire of red tape and bureaucratic apathy, to reunite them all.

On first impression, it all calls to mind 2009's The Blind Side, in which fellow rom-com alumnus Sandra Bullock shines as an everywoman-turned-warrior. Yet The Good Lie is much, much more than merely a vehicle for Witherspoon to flex her chops and demonstrate range.

In fact, Witherspoon doesn't show up until a good 40 minutes into the movie. And given that director Phillippe Falardeau is at the helm (he directed 2011's striking French-Canadian masterpiece Monsieur Lazhar), this is not your common-or-garden, feel-good blockbuster.

The action starts amid scenes of brutality and chaos in South Sudan, where it comes clear that The Good Lie is really about the journey - geographical, psychological, cultural and emotional - of Paul, Mamere, Jeremiah and Abital in the face of real adversity. Oscar-winner Witherspoon is merely the gateway bait. And their struggle doesn't so much tug on the heartstrings as swing out of them like a demented circus acrobat.

Telephones, restaurants, bunk-beds… the western world, though served to the characters as a glittering place of dreams, is clearly a confusing and scary place if you've grown up in the wilds of Africa. There's an over-reliance on the gulf between Sudanese and American ways ("May God see fit to send you a husband," calling Carrie a "great white cow" and so on) to provide the light relief.

But watching Paul, Moses and Jeremiah get to grips with their new life, and the weapons-grade clout of culture shock, turns out to be surprisingly emotional.

God help me, I welled up as Jeremiah suffered from carsickness, then attempted to chow down a McDonald's (it pales in comparison to the ending, mind, which is the most Kleenex-at-the-ready movie moment of the year so far).

Witherspoon takes to the role with predictable gusto, but a special mention is definitely due to Duany, Jal and Oceng, who manage to emote and evoke with the smallest of physical gestures and the most subtly baleful of looks. Kate Winslet and other luvvies, take note.

Ultimately, The Good Lie is a bit of a cinematic wolf in sheep's clothing. Most audience members will be drawn in by the Witherspoon-heavy trailer and nicey-nicey posters, but they're due a bit of a land. And I mean that in the very best possible way.

You'll come for the feel-good vibes… but really, you'll stay for a movie that's brimful of enlightening and affecting turns.

Stonehearst Asylum

Thriller, starring Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Sinead Cusack. Director: Brad Anderson. Cert: 12A. Review: 2/5

There are stellar casts… and then there's this. Director Brad Anderson has clearly called in the heavyweights for this psychological thriller romp, but not even the best Thespians in the world, acting their little hearts out, can make a masterpiece if the rest of the raw materials remain at large.

The great irony is that the film has the greatest material at its disposal, namely an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Anderson himself is no greenhorn, with credits like The Machinist and even The Wire to his name. So where did it all go wrong this time?

The action, if you can call it that, opens with a doctor at Oxford University in the 18th century called The Alienist (Brendan Gleeson) lecturing his exclusively male medical students about a woman - a 'common hysteric', who has just been injected with four grains of heroin.

The woman, Eliza (Kate Beckinsale) is reasonable, articulate and beautiful, 'and herein lies the great paradox of insanity', warns The Alienist.When it comes to mental illness, the trainees are warned to 'believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see'.

With this ringing in his ears, trainee doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) makes his way to Stonehearst Asylum. But this is no regular facility, and is populated largely with the moneyed and the upper class.

Edward soon falls for the comely Eliza while he assists the resident doctor Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley). He finds himself caught between wanting to escape and wanting to help.

Anderson's visuals are impressive and rich, but for a thriller, a great deal of Stonehearst Asylum falls strangely flat; it's stuffy, even.

There is plenty of opportunity to make parallels with today's impressions of mental illness and that of yester-century. But it's an opportunity missed by a country mile.

To say that Stonehearst Asylum is a 'dial-it-in' job would be grossly unkind, but we're talking a real lack of heart and soul here. I'm sure there's a small irony in there somewhere.

The Falling

Drama, starring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi, Rose caton, Monica Dolan, Katie Ann Knight. Director: Caol Morley. Cert: 16. Review: 4/5

Speaking of visuals, there always seems to be a commonality between those private schoolgirl films: the starchy uniforms, the high ponytails, and the cold, high-ceilinged rooms. But The Falling does have a unique visual language.

Maisie Williams' cherubic face is perfect for the role of feisty Lydia, a pupil at a school where a mass fainting breaks out. Abbie (Florence Pugh) is her best friend, though their kinship suffers a slight fracture when Abbie reveals that she has had sex.

Both variables - the weirdness of the fainting epidemic and the complexities and elevated drama of teenage friendship - make for a compelling and eerie cinematic experience.

Besides, I could watch Maxine Peake act in a Cillit Bang advert and love every single frame of it.

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