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Friday, June 10, 2011

'The Disappearance of Alice Creed' / 'The Tempest'

Screen women grapple with varying degrees of control

It couldn't have been more than five minutes into "The Disappearance of Alice Creed" when my girlfriend leaned over and asked: "What kind of a movie did you say this is?" It was just at the point where Gemma Arterton was tied spread-eagled to a bed with a ball-gag in her mouth, and her burly kidnappers were proceeding to cut off all her clothes.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed Rating: (4 out of 5)
★ ★ ★ ★
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
"The Disappearance of Alice Creed"© CINEMANX FILMS TWO LIMITED 2009

Director: J. Blakeson
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 11, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"Mmmmm, I'm pretty sure it's not torture porn," I said, not entirely confidently. Fortunately I was right.

After gesturing in a seriously seedy grindhouse direction at the outset — the sort of nasty exploitation flick where you feel like downing a double shot of disinfectant afterward — "The Disappearance of Alice Creed" moves straight into claustrophobic head-games and morphs into a delightfully delirious suspense flick. It's one of those "stick a couple of people in a small room and watch them lose it" movies, in the tradition of Richard Linklater's "Tape" or the original "Sleuth."

Director J. Blakeson sure doesn't waste any time: After a few minutes of setup, the victim has been snatched, and a threatening ransom note sent. We meet the kidnappers, hard man Vic (Eddie Marsan) and his more skittish partner Danny (Martin Compston); their hostage is named Alice (Arterton), daughter of a wealthy businessman from whom the thugs are demanding millions. They have a sure-fire plan, but as usual with the movies, sh-t goes down.

Vic goes off to make a call, leaving Danny alone with that attractive young woman tied to the bed. The viewer will imagine many ways this situation can go south, but Blakeson — who also penned the script — will still blindside you with what happens next. And then he does it again, and again. It doesn't hold up to too much inspection, but the film's taut pacing will suck you in, and can keep you hanging breathless on the fate of a single stray bullet casing. This is an absolutely assured debut from Blakeson -who previously scripted "The Descent: Part 2" — and we can surely hope for better to come.

Heading in the other direction is Julie Taymor, a director whose films have often been praised in this column ("Frida," "Across The Universe"). After being forced off the nearly disastrous Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" (due to massive budget overruns and "creative differences"), her latest cinematic offering, "The Tempest," proves to be more ammunition for her detractors.

Taymor has adapted Shakespeare before, with 1999's "Titus," a bold, brutal reimagination of the play that lay somewhere between Benito Mussolini's Italian Social Republic and Imperial Rome, which featured a chilling performance by Anthony Hopkins as the vengeance-seeking general. Shakespeare had rarely felt so depraved.

The Tempest Rating: (2 out of 5)
★ ★
The Tempest
"The Tempest" © 2010 Touchstone Pictures

Director: Julie Taymor
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 11, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"The Tempest" has been reworked for the big screen many times — everything from the very loose adaptation of "Forbidden Planet" to Peter Greenaway's Hieronymus Bosch-inspired "Prospero's Books." The story is one that involves equal parts fantasy, treachery, and romance: Prospera (Helen Mirren, playing a role that it traditionally male) is an exiled ruler who lives on a remote island with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) and her slave, Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). She seeks revenge when the men who usurped her — her perfidious brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) and Alonso, the King of Naples (David Strathairn) — sail nearby; enlisting the aid of elemental spirit Ariel (an androgynous Ben Whishaw), she conjures up a storm and crashes their ship on her shores. Comic relief is theoretically provided by Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as the drunkards Trinculo and Stephano.

"No tongue, all eyes — be silent," says Prospera as she takes her companions on a Pink Floyd-like psychedelic journey into the cosmos, and when the film follows this advice, it works. As an attempt to wed the Bard to the sort of CGI you might find in a "Harry Potter" film, it's mostly successful, with shape-shifting images such as Ariel being encased in the bark of a tree by a spell, or turning into a howling harpy swirling in the wind.

All this is for naught, however, due to a muddy soundtrack mix that renders much of the dialogue incomprehensible. The entire opening act is drowned out by the music and the roar of the storm (Michael Bay would approve), while Hounsou's heavily accented performance takes some time to acclimatize to. Even Mirren's crisp delivery is rushed, and passes by in a blur.

This may be why fully half of the viewers at the screening I attended had nodded off by mid-film, this Taymor fan included. We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep — just under two hours long in this case.

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