Belle; Devil’s Knot; Oculus
Release date: 13 June 2014
Featuring a steady cast with some recognisable faces (Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson), Belle is a romanticised period drama with a message. Set in the late eighteenth century, it is based on a true story, that of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mixed race child taken in by the wealthy relatives of her father, despite her colour. Much is made of her struggles – treated like a lady but never quite accepted, she cannot dine with her family, nor is she expected to marry (for who would take on a wife with such a shameful past?) – but the film also makes it clear that everyone is bound by circumstance and hindered by their ancestry, whether trying to move up in social rank, or trying to maintain the ranking already achieved.
Belle‘s sincerity is clear from the outset, and it becomes rather overwrought. Visually, despite the splendour on show, it never rises above a well-crafted television period drama. Although it attempts to speak volumes about the slave trade and the inherent, endemic racism of the upper classes, it never really says anything particularly profound, while the characters lack depth. Indeed, the most interesting of the bunch is not Dido herself, nor the idealist son of a vicar proclaiming that all men should be equal, but Dido’s half-sister, a beautiful young lady who becomes even less desirable than Dido simply because she has no dowry. The biggest issue is that Belle attempts to be completely uncontroversial – it seems unlikely that Dido’s family would not have slaves of their own, given their social ranking, for example. Perfunctory, inoffensive but bland, the true story at the core of the film is undoubtedly fascinating, but its presentation here is far from compelling.
Release date: 13 June 2014
The case of the West Memphis Three is a hugely complex scandal sprawling over two decades; it’s a shameful case of sloppy police work and a terrible miscarriage of justice that has spawned several films (there’s another due later this year). This version is a docu-drama, by far the least authentic and least believable presentation of a true story. The story, for those who are unfamiliar, begins in 1993 in West Memphis. Three young boys go missing and, when they are found dead, naked and hog-tied, the police quickly move towards a satanic ritual killing. Three teenagers are convicted, despite it becoming increasingly obvious that they had nothing to do with it, and for the next eighteen years campaigners (including Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, and Johnny Depp) fought for their release. This film, based on a book of the same name, ignores all the post-trial controversy, choosing instead to focus on the trials themselves.
Oddly, there are loads of famous faces dotted throughout Devil’s Knot: Colin Firth is an American investigator, first shown buying a $20 000 antique table for no reason whatsoever except possibly to demonstrate that he is rich; he is entirely irrelevant to the story, but we keep returning to him for some unknown reason. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines) appears for a few scenes. Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, Kevin Durand – they’re all there, being obtrusively recognisable, all serving little or no purpose. Reese Witherspoon is Pam Hobbs, the mother of murdered Stevie, and she does an adequate job. In fact, they all do – the biggest problem is the screenplay, which says absolutely nothing about anything.
For those aware of the case, Devil’s Knot offers nothing new. For newcomers, it barely makes any sense. No one is obviously implicated, no new information is provided, no new theories are given, and the whole film is rendered even more pointless by the fact that it has been done before, as recently as two years ago, when West of Memphis was released. That film, a documentary produced by Peter Jackson, is fascinating and informative; this film touches on many, if not all of the details, but fails to find any nuance. Crucial facts are glossed over, others seem to be red herrings, others not mentioned at all. The fictional aspects make the whole thing suspiciously inauthentic, and the most interesting and important facts are only touched upon in the end credits, when it is too late to actually consider any of them. Devil’s Knot is dull, being mostly a courtroom drama, poorly executed, drags on interminably and is an entirely unrewarding, frustrating experience – if you’re interested in the case at all, just watch West of Memphis.
Release date: 13 June 2014
It may seem like a particularly high rating, but after the infuriating disappointment in the previous film, and in horror movies in general, Oculus came as a pleasant surprise. Jumping between past and present traumas, it follows a brother and sister attempting to finally destroy the object that caused them so much misery in their childhood – a grand, ostentatious antique mirror with a chequered past. Tim (Brendon Thwaites) has just been released from a mental institution, having finally being declared healthy. He is met by his sister Kaylie (current British sweetheart Karen Gillan) who, as it transpires, has been carefully planning on how to finally defeat this supernatural foe. Despite some hesitation, Tim is caught up in her schemes, which, on the surface, seem to be well-thought-out: she has video cameras set up, alarms that remind them to stay hydrated and fed, people phoning on the hour to check on them, a fail safe as a backup. But, this being a horror movie, it inevitably all starts falling apart.
While the film flits between the events that caused Tim to end up in the facility and the present day, it gradually reveals the whole story. That being said, much remains unsaid – the mirror’s origins, its source of evil, remains hidden, for example. Yet this is the siblings’ story, and in that respect it works well. There are some good jumps too, with a satisfyingly creepy atmosphere. It’s got a good, old-fashioned haunted house vibe, with little in the way of special effects and, crucially, it avoids the current trend in horror films and gets progressively more scary, rather than offering all its jumps at the beginning and then limping on to the end. Its conclusion is inevitable and, indeed, the film itself is not particularly original, but it’s effective nonetheless, leaving some unpleasant visuals (fingernails being ripped off and teeth being pulled out – two of my least favourite things) and a general sense of dread and unease to linger after you’ve left the cinema.