Arterton's Sultry Gloom Stifled by Ponderous 'Gemma Bovery'

Directed by: Anne Fontaine; Runtime: 99 minutes
Grade: C

Reimagining classic pieces of literature for a modern setting certainly isn't a new concept, but they're rarely as on-the-nose and self-referential as Gemma Bovery, the latest from Coco Before Chaneldirector Anne Fontaine. Based on the comic series from Posy Simmonds -- later published as a full graphic novel -- the story explores a surreal blend of reality and fiction in its depiction of a beautiful young woman whose name marginally differs from the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert's novel "Madame Bovary", touching on the same issues of domestic dissatisfaction and yearning for passion experienced by the book's character. As an aging baker observes and interferes with how she walks in Bovary's footsteps, her downfall into the same turmoil of Flaubert's prose take shape through the film's lukewarm, quasi-dreamlike tone and shady dependence on coincidences. What results is a vague, ponderous affair that's only salvaged by the quietly passionate and melancholy substance of Gemma Arterton's performance.

Gemma Bovery starts out on a downhearted note, depicting the burning of Gemma's possessions by her husband, Charlie (Jason Flemyng), outside their cottage in Normandy, France, affirming their relationship took a negative turn. His neighbor, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a close acquaintance who took over duties at the local bakery over a decade prior, pilfers some of her diaries before Charlie can get around to either reading or torching them. Within, Gemma tells the story of how she came to live in Normandy, transporting the point-of-view to the English couple's move-in date to their new French home and how an enamored Martin came to see the parallels between Gemma Bovery -- a growingly bored and dispassionate woman -- and the antiheroine of Gustave Flaubert's iconic novel, who eventually commits suicide by way of arsenic. From his bakery, through the windows of his home, even tailing her in his car, Martin tracks Gemma's changes and how she develops an affair with a young law student visiting the area to study for exams.

Instead of a curious neighbor with a love of Flaubert, Martin comes across as a rather creepy, obsessive, almost stalker-ish old man who can't stop himself from fawning over expatriate Gemma, which sets a peculiar tone for Gemma Bovery. Disjointed, on-the-nose scripting works around those connections to "Madame Bovary" and the awkwardness of trading info in different languages, while the loin-stirring gorgeousness of Gemma as a transformative distraction for Martin -- whether it's reality or elevated figments of his imagination -- yields a doughy, peculiarly comical approach that doesn't service the sorrowful route taken by the premise. More than that, the story is chock full of happenstance and flimsy contrivance that further muddies the wishy-washy balance between reality and fantasy, from reasons for Gemma to disrobe in front of Matin to visible hickeys, broken statues, and several soap-opera caliber "wrong place at the wrong time" connections throughout.

But, boy, is Gemma Arterton right for the part, to a degree that elevates the dissatisfaction, taboo contentment, and liberation of those blurred lines between Flaubert's character and Gemma Bovery herself. Arterton has projected an effortless blend of sensual allure and beautiful sadness in many of her previous roles, something that works wonders for the Bovary-inspired attitude she encapsulates in Gemma Bovery, almost justifying Martin's disarmed infatuation. Her changing poise against the radiance of the Normandy countryside, especially once she indulges in the affair with her attractive law student (Niels Schneider, a softer and more endearing doppleganger of Robert Pattinson), expresses everything that the film needs to say about the effects of her low-key, secluded life -- even if their mutual chemistry leaves something to be desired. Jason Flemyng also brings the right attitude to her husband Charlie, providing an unexciting yet devoted man who does nothing to provoke his wife's promiscuity beyond being himself, allowing Gemma's complex motivations to stand on their own.

Driven by sneaky rendezvous, legal issues, and the reappearance of old flames, Gemma Bovery furthers the notion that the destiny of this forlorn woman remains inextricably linked to Flaubert's novel to the end, regardless of Martin's meddlesome attempts to prevent the same tragic outcomes. His interferences, however, do ultimately end up having an impact: coupled with a shoddy tragic ending with an overbaked dependence on circumstance, the ways in which reality deviate from the book leave the story's messages in a ruinous, unearned state among the rustic Normandy atmosphere. Director Fontaine allows Gemma Bovery to be underscored as a cautionary tale about meddling in other people's affairs and letting them pursue their own happiness, no matter how self-destructive they seem or how obvious the outcome appears. These are noble enough intentions, sure, but they ring hollow in a story so hinged on equally noble and seemingly charming intentions to the contrary, especially considering the contemporary surroundings within which Flaubert's passed-down ideas are folded into the mix.

Digital Hokum Freezes Fantasy of 'Snow Girl and Dark Crystal'

Directed by: Peter Pau & Zhao Tianyu; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: D-

Peter Pau, the co-director of China's grandiose, CG-heavy blockbuster Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, is no stranger to the realm of the outlandish. While his efforts in the director's chair are few, his eye as a cinematographer has been responsible for capturing the beauty of numerous different martial-arts fantasies, from the carefully elevated realism of his Oscar-winning work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the colorful, energetic zaniness of the cult classic Bride With White Hair. Expectations that Peter Pau and Tianyu Zhao might draw from his prior work for something similar were naturally kept in check after seeing the film's busy trailer, though, which mixes overzealous graphics and odes to ancient folklore in what looks more like a stream of videogame cutscenes than a motion picture. What wasn't expected was how dreadfully weak both the garish visuals and laborious storytelling would appear in the final product, resulting in a befuddling waste of its underlying production value that struggles to justify its existence.

The plot for Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal wedges into an awkward zone between simple archetypal storytelling and elaborate mythological twists and turns, hinged on the struggle between Heaven and Hell over the fate of the human realm in ancient China. As a doomsday moment approaches where the denizens of the underworld will come to claim the souls of humanity, heavenly figure Zhang Daoxian (Winston Chao) ramps up his magical training of a demon slayer, storied Chinese antihero Zhong Kui (Painted Skin's Chen Kun), to counter their offenses with a super-powerful being and safeguard a significant crystal recently retrieved from them, which shall be kept in a large human town that reveres the divine. Hell has its own tricks up its sleeve: Snow Girl (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan's Li Bingbing), a loyal ice spirit and her troop of beautiful shape-shifting demons, someone with connections to Zhong Kui from years ago. When the two meet up again as the war for humanity's souls approaches, allegiances are tested and details are revealed about the nature of their masters, as well as the truth about Zhong Kui's past.

Despite being a committed sentinel to the human realm equipped with a mystical fan that bequeaths him with the size and strength of demons whenever used, the story relies on Zhong Kui actually being a pretty clueless demon slayer and protector of his designated city. His apprehension, booziness, and the ease in which he's snowed-over becomes one of many brainless aspects of Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, coupled with a bunch of haphazard magical artifacts, potions, and spells that either fix or complicate things at the fickle demands of the story. Disjointed flashbacks that reveal aspects of Zhong Kui's past and fleeting romantic history with Snow Girl attempt to fill in the (plot) holes of his integrity as a character; however, the underdeveloped chemistry between them and the crucial details revealed within these backward glimpses further weaken the increasingly clumsy plotting. Most of these martial-arts visual extravaganzas require some hefty suspension of disbelief, but the stumbles here make for an inescapably problematic narrative that detracts from the film's potential sensory delights.

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal overestimates the stability of its storyline's foundation, but it also overestimates the bombast and credibility of its visual opulence, too. Little wisps of blue magical essence and frost effects add a dose of appealing whimsy to the interactions between god-like individuals, which look nice when paired with the attractively-lit shots of actual people -- Chen Kun and Li Bingbing are, predictably, fine eye-candy -- and the film's tangible production design, from flowing garments and hair ornaments to hand-painted art. These moments are so crowded by cumbersome computer-generated footage that they fall to the wayside, though, with mediocre visual renderings giving stilted life to the huge mythical beasts and sprawling landscapes. Towering CG models of molten demons and flying ice spirits struggle with rigid animations, to which the blockbuster nature of the film doesn't even attempt to conceal their uncanny-valley faults, letting these brawny beasts duke it out in unconvincing swaths of digital wizardry.

Perhaps the most considerable issue with Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal lies in its persistent, uncontrollable escalation of stakes and involvedness, especially after the halfway mark. Layering arcane plot revelations atop one another while mythical figures square off in boisterous battles, the overpowered and arbitrary nature of these gods and demons leaves a lot of "They can do that?" and "Why didn't they do this?" and "Why did that happen?" questions hanging in the air, overshadowing the story's hammy flips in ideologies and romantic overtures -- which is no small feat. Everything about this flick hinges on those watching being disarmed by the scope and mystical splendor of it all, even tossing in a pair of overt nods to The Avengers and Superman within about a five-minute span to really slam the point home. Instead, down to its brazenly unearned bittersweet ending, Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal forms into two hours of kaleidoscopic irritation that'd be better spent grabbing a controller and playing one of countless videogames with a clearer perspective than this dud.

Frosty Mood Stiffens People, Mystery in 'Black Coal, Thin Ice'

Directed by: Diao Yinan; Runtime:
Grade: C+

The mystery/thriller genre has an extensive history of elevating recurring plot ideas with the right visual tempo, where the immersion involved in capturing an environment's atmosphere and culture can give the suspense its own unique qualities. In the same vein, imagery can also prove to be a distraction from shallow plotting, and distinguishing between the two often boils down to the individual. Black Coal, Thin Ice (aka Bai Ri Yan Huo, or Daylight Fireworks), the award-winning neo-noir thriller from Diao Yinan, toes that line between immersion and distraction in its depiction of macabre murders in a moderately-sized industrial city, a case that leads to the disgrace -- and, eventually, the desire for redemption -- of the detectives attached. Haunting, organic photography guides a stark point-of-view through a mix of neon lights and a dark wintry haze, yet the visual flair and the grounded substance of the performances contained within aren't enough to disguise the slender, anticlimactic mystery propelling it.

Black Coal, Thin Ice starts out in 1999, with police detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) feeling the emotional after-effects of a divorce shortly before getting involved with a brutal murder case. Like flower petals, several limbs severed from a body are found at coal plants across northern China, paired with enough evidence to pursue leads. Events that occur while the police connect those dots go sour and result in dismissals from the force, sending Zhang Zili into a downward spiral. Several years pass where the disgraced, alcoholic cop struggles with sustaining a security job, something that changes after he reconnects with his old partner, who informs him that several other murders have occurred exactly like the infamous one that led to his removal from the force. An opportunity for personal and professional absolution mixed with reminiscence of his glory days leads Zhang Zili to assist in rekindling the investigation, directing him through the doors of a dry-cleaning business employing a woman, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), with potential ties to the victims.

Strategic framing of industrialized and urban areas, vibrant colors oppressed by the frigidity of winter, and a careful flow of movement across the landscape establish a severe, oddly entrancing atmosphere for Black Coal, Thin Ice. Director Diao Yinan displays a confident eye for stillness and subtle motion in his images, concentrating on posture and gestures during conversations in everyday areas and focusing on the expressive body language of focal characters walking, running, even skating through the setting. He also employs a menacing technique of accentuating the morbidity of situations, nonchalantly and unflinchingly alert to the quickness in which circumstances can change based on the maneuverings of dangerously motivated people. Everything errs towards this mythical, yet grounded attitude about the hunt for the killer, down to the unsettling discovery of those chopped-up body parts scattered about the country, relishing the deliberate pace in which these discoveries and moments of violence emerge in the physically and emotionally frigid surroundings.

Despite believably gritty performances from everyone connected to the murders, the characters caught in the mystery of Black Coal, Thin Ice lack much depth beyond stiff noir-like qualities, limiting the film's breadth as any kind of character study. Liao Fan handles the dual sides of Zhang Zili's personality with soulful clarity, transforming him from a lucid professional with miserable determination to a boozy lout driven by incensed retribution, yet there's little more to the antihero than his melancholy hardness while sleuthing. The enigmatic femme fatale he stalks and probes doesn't possess much beyond her enigmas, either: Gwei Lun-Mei aptly portrays a recoiled women with an impenetrable secret, but something's missing in her cautious body language when interrogated at the dry cleaners and in her ice-skating endeavors. Elements of solitude and sticking to convictions, familiar echoes of the film noir genre, intermittently act like they're about to come to the surface by way of the pair's melancholy chemistry, yet are prevented from breaking out by their perpetual dourness.

Unless the femme fatale is at the forefront with her unreadable, distressed attitude, the murder mystery itself lying underneath Black Coal, Thin Ice musters little curiosity or momentum beyond a periodic inclination towards unexpected death. The grim pacing of its meandering chain of questionable developments seems built for a dramatic character examination or social takedown that never fully materializes, inching its way towards a reveal of the killer and their motives that, as a result, are lacking in suspenseful impact. Director Diao Yinan telegraphs the shifting allegiances and cathartic revelations one might expect of the subgenre from an atmospheric but narratively sparse viewpoint, protracted by lengthy shots -- especially leading up to the end -- that emphasize a distorted blur of realistic conditions in northern China with vague illusory actions of the people contained within. Instead of elevating Black Coal, Thin Ice's familiar components, the artfulness of the director's style instead concocts a moody neo-noir portrayal of discontent individuals that's less than the sum of its moving parts.