Cyprus Mail

Film review: What If ***  and The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart****

By Preston Wilder

Something is stirring in Cyprus cinemas – or perhaps I should say ‘cinema’, since the four K-Cineplexes and the Rio in Limassol all show exactly the same titles. Five films are opening this weekend, the most I’ve ever seen; three more opened last weekend. It’s not just about quantity: this kind of bounty only happens when there isn’t a big tentpole film, a Hunger Games or superhero franchise, paving the way for small, more unlikely films. That’s why we’re suddenly getting a based-on-a-play British drama with no well-known stars [see opposite page], or a Franco-Belgian animation, or a Canadian rom-com. None of these are going to make Hobbit numbers – but release them all together and, in the absence of a Hobbit, their accumulated audience may be enough to break even.

Most of these films work in familiar genres, they’re just a bit different. What If, for instance, is the aforementioned Canadian rom-com. It’s a total rom-com, hitting every beat: its heroes, Wallace and Chantry, meet, become friends, think about being more (the film’s original title was The F Word, that unspeakable word being ‘friend’), run into obstacles, become estranged, end on the inevitable happy ending. Yet it’s also – whether through being Canadian, or just being small – not quite identical to Hollywood rom-coms. The humour is slightly more offbeat. The tone is slightly less obviously manufactured. There’s a bit more emotion.

To be honest, every time What If threatens to become a good film it’s derailed by painfully laboured banter (She: “Are you alone?”; He: “You mean, in the universe?”) or painfully unfunny scatological humour (did some weird market research reveal that the audience for rom-coms is also the audience for jokes about eating your own poo?). It also has the most mismatched lead pairing in recent memory, though I guess that’s a matter of opinion. I thought Daniel Radcliffe was bland as Harry Potter and he’s proving disastrous in more complex roles, coming off as a smirky, shallow presence without much inner life; called on to flirt, he just looks frantic. Zoe Kazan, on the other hand, I find to be the most expressive, sensual American actress of her generation (watch her in The Exploding Girl from about five years ago). It’s amazing how much she brings to scenes like Chantry saying goodbye to her boyfriend, or recalling the death of her mother – especially when placed next to Radcliffe, scrunching up his face unconvincingly as he tries to keep up.

Then again, every time What If threatens to become terminally annoying, it’s brought back to life by some fresh or enjoyable element. For me, it’s Ms Kazan, meeting-cute over a fridge magnet or opining that pickles are a lot like embalming. For others, it might even be Radcliffe (there’s a thrill to seeing Harry Potter talk about sex: look, our little boy’s all grown up!). Some may appreciate Adam Driver as the inevitable best friend, whose reading of the line “I’ve just had sex and I’m about to eat NACHOS!” is the stuff of instant legend. Mostly, however, it’s that What If is slightly, ineffably surprising, in a way that’s hard to pinpoint. The same, yet different.

01The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (also known as Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, which is actually the title on the print I watched) is also familiar, at least in outline. Tim Burton’s nicely morbid ’toons – Corpse Bride, say – come to mind in this tale of a young man with a cuckoo-clock for a heart, pursuing his beloved in late-19th-century Europe with featured roles for Georges Melies (a.k.a. the guy from Hugo) and Jack the Ripper. There’s no reason why this film couldn’t be remade in Hollywood – but the remake wouldn’t have a character smoking a cigarette, as this one does, nor would it have an anti-school Message, nor would it have a pair of hookers (or an old man with a xylophone for a spinal cord) in Jack’s childhood home.

All that (and more) can be found in this film, which is often erratic, slightly mad and altogether charming. Jack has crazy hair, like a teardrop turned on its side. His girl, Miss Acacia, is short-sighted so he brings her a bouquet of spectacles (already twisted and broken, so she doesn’t have to worry about breaking them). A fairy emerges from an egg, and explores the cogs inside his heart. A ring of kids in the playground morphs into a ring of birthday candles, each child’s head bursting into flames as one image shades into the other. Melies hangs out with a pair of Siamese twins, or possibly a girl with two heads. A full moon swallows a flying train while our heroes yell “Andalusia!”. Later, another train heads back to Edinburgh while the buildings and cities of Europe unfold around it, like the pages of a pop-up book.

There’s music too, somewhat Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish but still enjoyable (co-director Mathias Malzieu is the frontman of a band called Dionysus). One of the songs – originally in French – talks of Jack’s desire to “rip your clothes with my teeth and turn them into confetti”, which is another thing you wouldn’t get in a Hollywood cartoon, nor would you get the darkly poetic ending. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart soars freely – and a little haphazardly – while most animation treads in familiar footsteps. Something stirring, indeed.



DIRECTED BY Michael Dowse

STARRING Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver

Canada 2014                           98 mins



DIRECTED BY Stephane Berla & Mathias Malzieu

WITH THE VOICES OF Orlando Seale, Samantha Barks, Michelle Fairley

France/Belgium 2013      In English.      94 mins

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