When Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) breaks up with Suzy (Michelle Ryan) he develops a sort of superpower: He can freeze time. He also develops chronic insomnia. Nevertheless Ben takes a job at a supermarket and meets an attractive checker Sharon (Emilia Fox) as well as other clerks who play games to keep themselves amused. Ben’s trick for passing the time is freezing time and stripping women to admire their bodies but not in a sleazy way. He gives those who deserve their comeuppances a healthy kick as well. Cashback follows boy-meets-girl patterns but rather than rely on a high concept it turns out that even this super power isn’t enough to resolve even a simple misunderstanding. The story explores these possibilities with a fascinating and simple device as we learn about Ben’s character through his exploration of frozen time. Biggerstaff (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) is a perfect leading man. He’s not the adorable bumbling Brit or the lifeless stuffy type; he’s just a modest kid with a deep appreciation and love for women. He may be better at expressing this in his own time than in real time but Biggerstaff imbues Ben with enough intelligence and strength that we completely understand him. We absolutely never think he’s evil for undressing women. Meanwhile Fox (Keeping Mum) is a dream girl. Never dolled up or oh-so-cute her Sharon is just an exasperated working girl who wants to find her dream man. She’s a real person working her way through life and when she faces the slightest disappointments you want to give her a great big hug. Ryan (TV’s new Bionic Woman) is the ultimate manipulative bitch. She is so angry at the world you know it’s better for Ben to be alone. When she tries to come back into his life however she’s not the overt villain. She’s more about how a person can try to weasel their way back into their exes’ lives. The other characters play more caricatures but still relatable. The goofy stock boys the stodgy boss and others fill in the cast like a Kevin Smith movie. Cashback is an example of how unique an independent film can be. In a studio’s hands this would be Clockstoppers with a bad-guy caper. Instead we get a brilliant masterpiece from first-time director Sean Ellis fully fleshed out from his acclaimed short. The director lets the story tell itself rather than using tricks and stunts and finds clever ways to play with the time freezing for laughs. Still the film never takes itself too seriously. For their part the frozen-time sequences are just magical with little to no CGI. The actors are mostly standing completely still on their own accord. You might catch someone waver but you totally suspend disbelief because there are no frills. There are also wonderful transitions between time as Ben’s past and present bleed seamlessly and artistically into one another. Most importantly the voyeuristic moments with the unclothed women are some of the classiest and sexiest on screen. Ellis films women in the most flattering light always admiringly never exploiting. Cashback is expert filmmaking pure and simple.
Poor poor Harry Potter. Orphaned as an infant he's been raised by his beastly aunt and uncle who keep him locked in the room under the stairs and make him serve breakfast. But 11-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has always known he was different a fact confirmed in a big way when he's invited to enroll at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Despite his horrid family's protests Harry's whisked off by a giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) to the magic school where it seems he's something of a celebrity. Turns out his parents were killed by a wicked "fallen wizard " who despite his mighty powers was somehow unable to kill the baby Harry. It will eventually fall to Harry to stop the malevolent sorcerer who still roams the countryside plotting to get hold of a magic stone secreted inside Hogwarts that will give him absolute power. Meanwhile Harry makes some new friends in bossy Hermione (Emma Watson) and affable Ron (Rupert Grint) becomes a star player of Quidditch (like hockey on broomsticks) and defeats a troll rampaging through the girls' bathroom.
Unfortunately Radcliffe brings nothing spectacular to a role that requires it. You don't like him or dislike him; he's a bland Harry who simply reacts (without the sheer amazement you expect from an 11-year-old boy) to the wild and crazy situations he's suddenly immersed in. By contrast Watson carries off her officious Hermione with aplomb and personality as does Grint (who looks startlingly like a young Hayley Mills) as Harry's bumbling loyal buddy. The rest of the enormous cast throw themselves into their we've-seen-these-characters-before roles with gusto: Richard Harris as wise old headmaster Dumbledore Maggie Smith as a prim and proper schoolteacher Tom Felton as Harry's smarmy arrogant rival Draco. Best in show goes to Coltrane as the amiable giant who gets the most screen time of all the adults as he helps Harry along on his journey of discovery. A pageboy'd goth Alan Rickman as sly Professor Snape is good too but underused.
Chris Columbus certainly had his work cut out--remain true to the fanatically revered book or attempt to interpret its magic? As one might expect from the director of Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom he took the high road and gives us the book almost word for word (you practically expect Rowling herself to pop on-screen to narrate). It makes for a safely predictable movie but lacks the enchantment of discovery. John Williams' slick grandiose and too-loud score doesn't help either. As it turns out the best special effects are in the not-so-obvious details--pumpkins and candles suspended in the dining hall moving pictures on the walls--rather than the cheesy Cerberus guarding the stone and ghosts like Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese's cameo) which move about like Disneyland holograms. Even the overlong Quidditch game looks fake-y; the players zoom through a blue sky that might as well be the blue screen. Lots of unanswered questions will remain after you leave the theater: why is Snape such a jerk and how come Harry didn't once use the precious wand he's given except to stab the troll in the nose?