Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Review: The Babadook

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
Ben Winspea


Synopsis is here


The horror films I enjoy usually contain what I call an "Exorcist moment". This is a single disquieting scene, sequence or shot that often slips past the major scares, but stains my memories like blood on a carpet. In The Exorcist, the moment in which Father Karras envisions his recently deceased mother on the bed, rarely gets mentioned amongst the pea soup vomit and head spinning, but it is the moment that unsettles me the most. There's something about that moment of disquiet that unnerves me. Something deeply primal.

The Babadook; a debut horror feature by Jennifer Kent, is so in love with primal fears, it's no surprise that it holds its own "Exorcist moment". The film's weary protagonist; Amelia, exhausted from lack of sleep and haunted by the grief of losing her husband, notices a near impossible image during a news report. It's a Lynchian moment played out just around the tipping point of the film. Kent's film had pulled me far enough through the ringer so that when this small moment occurs, I was genuinely spooked. I gained that same sense of unease I felt with Karras' mother. When it comes to scares, for me, it's always the little things.

The Babadook plays little a forgotten gem of yesteryear. Horror now often operates by trying to bamboozle the viewer with successive BOO moments. The Babadook isn't too interested in the cheap thrill. It wants to unsettle, and does so with an impassioned love of older cinema. Its title character is one that harks back to the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and toys with similar psychological themes. Our protagonist Amelia (Davis); is a timid and haunted soul, who is struggling to cope with the loss of her husband, who died in an accident while they were on their way to give birth to their son. This mixture of survivor guilt and grief grows within the character like a festering wound. Amelia works in care, but seems repelled by her son. She longs for intimacy, yet is reluctant to allow herself to let go. Suddenly an intensely troubling pop-up book appears in her son's room and then the trouble occurs.

The Babadook feels much like Ringu (1998) or Paperhouse (1988) in that there's a horrid feeling of dread that is difficult to really shake off. The tautly wound performances from its leads keep the film's anxiety levels high, while its ashy grey cinematography and constant tight close ups, not only give the film a sense of texture but a foreboding sense of claustrophobia. This is combined with a screenplay with a strong emphasis on the banality and sadness that comes with loss and economical set pieces that are far more interested in what you thought you saw than what you going to see. If other films were as invested in its humans than its monsters, I feel I'd be scared at the movies more often.





Review: Gone Girl

Year: 2014
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens

Synopsis is here

Normally when I'm sitting in my hometown's mall cinema, I'm gritting my teeth at the level of inane chatter that stems from people with their "unlimited cards". For me there's nothing more frustrating at a cinema than an audience who spend more time talking to each than the watching the movie. My screening of Gone Girl on its theatrical opening was different. Yes, there were audible mutterings, but for once this was because everyone watching was absorbed with what was on the screen. Not only was I enthralled by David Fincher's spiralling thriller, but liberated at just how tuned in everyone was for the movie and its many twists. This wasn't the annoying, idle chit chat that grates, irritatingly on the ears. No, this was the rumblings of the post credit debate which had started before the film had finished. The audience were all part of the page turner. There's not many recent films that can do that.

There's a lot of Fincher's 10th feature to spoil, so I'll do my best to tread lightly on the narrative (however, note my warning of Spoilers) Films like this is one of the reasons I usually link the synopsis as opposed to writing it into the review. Any of the film's plot points could be a spoiler filled booby trap. So let's just say that Nick Dunne's (Affleck) wife, Amy (Pike) is missing, but all is not what it seems when it comes to her disappearance.

This is Fincher is pure pulp mode. Collaborating with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth for the fourth time, Gone Girl is a film inflected with dark, noir-like imagery to match the films expose of a modern marriage which is decaying from the inside. The film's narrative is outrageous in the same way as OTT 90's thrillers such as Basic Instinct, but the films detached central couple, tap into that similar social crawl space of 'Jack' and Tyler Durden of Fincher's own Fight Club (1999), there's something eerily familiar about The Dunne's alienation. A creepy invasive feeling that connects with us in a way that we wish it didn't. The same way we wanted Tyler do blow everything sky high.

As the characters peel back each of their layers, trust suddenly becomes fluid. Each scene makes you question the last. Kirk Baxter's exquisitely timed editing gives lasts a split second less than you would have hoped. Time that would give away an awkward glance or to probe a clue for longer. Fincher's film primes us for this with its slightly too quick opening credits. We don't gain a clear image. We don't see everything, even when shown.

Working together with the novel's writer, Gillian Flynn, Fincher merrily toys with aspects of the book's structure to allow twists to occur parallel with other events. The issues of family become streamlined (ultimately lessening motives of certain characters), but the implications and scrutiny of the media is played up, made Meta and made even more tangible. Gone Girl beautifully allows Affleck to comment on his own relationship with the media as well as subconsciously taking pot shots at Robin Thicke, just because. The bolstering of the media slant is notable because it allows Fincher and the film's characters to play in a world in which image is indeed everything.

This is certainly true when we consider the so called failings of the film's gender politics. Gone Girl has been considered misogynist in certain circles and indeed for a film that explores an ugly marriage, it does seem to lean on the side of men. Yet as we move into a world in which ideas of femininity are becoming more intense, it does frustrate that so many of the think pieces that appeared after the film's release seemed to jump on the idea that the film clearly promotes rape culture as opposed to seeing a film which illustrates (many) complex women of the agency. It's understandable that we don't want to keep casting a negative eye over women in the film, but I'm also troubled by the idea that we are not allowed to have troubling women. The thriller is interesting because of its complications and dynamics between the film's women, with the film's most telling scenes displaying two women as the smartest people in the room while the males cluck around them and hold their balls.

Affleck and Pike head up a specifically cast, which highlights the best features of each member. Affleck has always been a decent self-affecting straight man (see: Changing Lanes) while Pike's mix of cool girl and ice queen has been something noted since her appearance as a Bond Girl. Without saying too much, she is dangerously effective in this role. Even the smaller roles are smartly picked. Carrie Coon is quietly tragic. Tyler Perry has a funky charm about himself while Kim Dickens has not garnered enough plaudits for her tough cookie cop role of Detective Rhonda Boney. There's also a knowing nod to How I met your Mother's Barney in the casting of Neil Patrick Harris as the wonderfully Naïve ex-boyfriend Desi.

Gone girl is not Fincher's best film, but it certainly is one of its most winking, with the film summing up the crumbling of a modern relationship in the most OTT way possible, but also doing a decent job of portraying a decimated Middle America which reanimates to an inhuman form by the pervading of the media. The Ace in the Hole style observations feel even more cutting than we give credit for as we observe a broken society that is easily forgotten while it glares mesmerised by flashing bulbs and gossipy chatter of a missing person who has the image of having it all. The film isn't perfect, with its resolution feeling slightly more obtuse than it should be. The novel also understands the headspace of these people more, while the film has a feel of punches being pulled. But there's clearly a reason why I saw Gone Girl twice. It's a delectably dark piece of entertainment.




Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Review: Nightcrawler

Year: 2014
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenyall, Rene Russo, Riz Amhed, Bill Paxton.

Synopsis is here:

There's still a belief that the American dream exists. The ideal that no matter who you are, you can work your way up to success, regardless of your creed or culture. Even if you're a psychopath. Dan Gilroy takes this concept to a cynical extreme in Nightcrawler; a blackly comic crime thriller which packages familiar themes of a morally bankrupt T.V news world for the YouTube generation.
The last words of the previous paragraph, may sound a little hackneyed, but Gilroy's tale of the unemployed yet unscrupulous Lou Bloom, who takes a fancy to freelance video crime journalism (read: trawling L.A at night and recklessly filming crime scenes) has a touch of the TMZ to it, despite the film's focus on local T.V news. Halfway through the film, Rene Russo's Nina; an aging, headstrong T.V director, asks how he seems to know so much about her. His answer is simple: "Everything about you is online." The sentence seems throwaway because these days, it's an obvious remark. Yet hidden beneath the surface is the reason why the film's characters seem to hold a whiff of desperation. I might be possibly reading far too much into what may be just a small piece of conversation, but its utterance has us fill in the gaps. The falling numbers of a local T.V news station, the unknown reasoning behind Bloom's unemployment, his quirky, self-help style knowledge. There may not be an ounce of fat on the film's narrative, but there's still more than enough in the screenplay to provoke thought.

One should not expect going into Nightcrawler to meet anybody nice. This is the point and the subversive notions that the film put forward are neatly observed. Morals and ethics are questioned, but are now well worn items in a playing field which is all about the getting the most eyes on screens. Standards in morality? They no longer apply. Just get the shot, no matter what the consequences are. Everyone here has an angle, from Russo's Nina, who channels her inner Diana Christensen, to the slick buccaneering of Bill Paxton; a fellow nightcrawler whose massive cheese eating grin rears its head in nearly each scene he's in. These are creatures that only seem to appear at night. Sucking up the tragedy and spewing it into digestible segments for the morning news.

Nightcrawler is headed up and carried by Jake Gyllenyall's unhinged Bloom; a Rupert Pupkin type whose ghastly lack of scruples and faux charm is only matched by his entrepreneurial spirit. Gyllenyall's gaunt, wide eyed visage and wordy, self-help mannerisms only hide the fact that Bloom is a soulless shark whose finally found out where all the best meat has been hiding. Emotional outbursts from others only gain vague acknowledgements. He's never interested in their aims, but they are part of his goal as the film works towards a bitterly droll climax.

Dan Gilroy's first feature is sleekly presented by Robert Elswit's cinematography (Capturing an alien L.A with a mixture of both digital and film for night and day, respectively) with a lean, neatly contained story from his own screenplay. Nightcrawler is almost too neat, with the film's final third wrapping up in a way that feels a little too well-kept for its own good. Refrigerator questions pop up a tad too early, and by the end of the film, the narrative only needs you to pull one or two threads to see it unravel. Yet, as a piece of grubby sleaze, Nightcrawler is certainly an enjoyable flick to muddy yourself with. From the first dubious act, the film is quick to draw you further down the rabbit hole. The thing that will get you going is just how hard it is to get the dirt to rub off afterwards.




Monday, 22 September 2014

Review: Calvary

Year: 2014
Director: John Michael McDonagh.
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé.

Synopsis is here

I enjoy films about faith. I feel much of this stems from my upbringing and my grandmother; a woman whose faith in the almighty seemed to never waver. When she was told about the ailment which caused her demise, as opposed to facing hours of operations and hospital treatment, she decided upon staying at home and going peacefully with her family as it was the “will of god”. I admire such a choice as much as I feared it. Possibly because I’m still young. I’m currently not sure I could make the choice so readily. Even if I was at the age she was.

For me, I find this to be an often neglected cornerstone of faith, often glossed over by the more arrogant members of the new atheist movement, who are very quick to inform us of the corruption and wars that religion plays a part in, or how scared people are to find solace in faith. We often never hear of these folk telling us about what moral good that they themselves perform. All wrapped up in the sins of the church, some seem to be far too interested in maintaining the view that the world is an insidious and ugly place. One of my favorite qualities of my grandmother is how she interpreted faith as a source for good, no matter what denomination. I love seeing that in films like Calvary, a film that beautifully illustrates the idea that the goodness in faith must stand defiant in front of those who only wish to mirror the ugliness that resides within the world.

Calvary’s focus on its weighty subjects start with what sounds like a dark absurdist joke. Opening with a beautifully composed shot of Father James (Glesson) sits solemnly in the confession booth as a voice whisper to him that they first tasted semen at age 7. The more depraved may crack a grin (sorry), but this moment is a telling one. The Irish voice, the line of abuse, the troubled grimace of the face as the ears register what is said. One of the films subtexts, the abuse carried out by the Catholic Church is richly brought to our attention within minutes. The conversation only seems to get worse. The exchange digs deep into each participant psyche till we reach the inciting moment: the person we don’t see on the other side of the confessional wishes to kill the priest. To kill this priest, a good one, will say more things about us than if a bad one was murdered.

Father James seems to know his killer and after being introduced to the town’s oddballs and eccentrics, most viewers will know too. Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh almost displays the identity as an open secret. However, Calvary is more interested in the mysteries of our morals and guidance than it is about a maybe murder. Calvary holds some the darker humor of McDonagh’s previous effort, The Guard, but is much more meditative and pensive thematically. Calvery is a film, much like the slightly more pious Of God’s and Men (2010), which helps question the place of faith in a messy modern world.  With his fate considered sealed, James continues to provide penance and advice to those around, while they do their best to condemn him and the church and frolic in their impurity. Why does Father James continue his work with such a cloud looming over him? Why does he seemingly do little to try and alter the course?

The eccentric village folk do very little to help matters. At one point a resentful publican belligerently questions James on why the church hasn’t done anything to attack the banks, and their part in the economic crash and yet amusingly such thoughts fit snugly into more questions of who why and how we observe faith. To snub one’s noses at religion and what it may bring to some is of course the easiest thing. It’s also clear that Father James feels his doubts prick at him like acupuncture needles that are slightly too large. Then again, when it comes to faith, doubt can hit anyone.

Calvary may set up the idea that its lead is Jesus-like, but the film also does well to ground him as a man who lived a life before the cloth a man who pushed past the wrong to allow faith into his life. This is not a man born into the burden and there are times that we see and know that it must be hard to keep the halo from slipping. For a man of Gleeson’s size, he manages to carry such vulnerability with great balance. The boorish behaviour from The Guard (2011) is not shown here, but the sensitivity certainly is. “There’s too much talk about sins. Not enough about virtue.” James utters at one point. This line, like many in the film's screenplay manages to get under one’s skin for the better.

The film is visually based on sparse paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and cinematographer Larry Smith’s bold compositions illuminate the darkness that lies between each scene, but Calvary is anchored by the weighty performance of Gleeson, who carries himself like every inch of his soul is troubled by the unsaid burden placed around him. Yet James plays on despite the prickliness of the village oddballs.

Whether or not our protagonist of the story embraces or fears death is one thing, but the fact that he acknowledges fate as he wanders through what may be his last week becomes suddenly profound. In the slightly distanting landscape of modern mainstream cinema, which is often invested in near immortals keeping all of us safe, James’ heroism isn't about saving the whole world, but doing his best to affect the close ones within his, despite their naysaying. The fact James decides to do this through faith brings poignancy as those around him feel that they know better but do a little better for themselves. Calvary, like my grandmother, gives insight into how the small steps of faith can bring clarity and courage. Not only to those who believe, but those who may not believe. I enjoy films about faith and Calvary is a welcome and inspiring one.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Year: 2014
Director: Rowan Joffee
Screenplay: Rowan Joffee
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth

Synopsis is here

Before I go to sleep is the type of pot boiler that you saw often in the 90’s. Usually late at night on terrestrial television. The film gets top marks for being thematically relevant, but its execution, is nothing to write home about.

Based on a popular bestselling 2011 novel, Before I Go to Sleep is another entry into “amnesia films”. Like Memento (2000), the film has a central character, whose ailment is so acute, it allows those around them to insidiously manipulate their fragile situation. When done well, you get Memento; an acidic thriller that is hard to shake off to this day. Before I go to sleep is a more neutered and neutral thriller. It’s as long as they come, but it’s so trim, there’s little to give it character. The film is smooth enough in its craft, but it's sanded down in such a way that there's no rough edges to make it stand out. Joffee makes a simple, moderate movie that does little to offend, however, after predicting the film's outcome in the first ten minutes, there wasn't much else to make me want to hang around. I stayed, however, because I’m not Rex Reed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Before I Go to Sleep. Nicole Kidman does the cracked porcelain doll thing well. Mark Strong and Colin Firth are cast for clear, obvious reasons and both play to their strengths. The film's most interesting element is how the texts could be considered within the feminist argument. Here we have a fractured and damaged woman whose world is controlled and manipulated by the men she knows. The incident which brought about her amnesia, as well as the amnesia itself, creates an interesting commentary on how abused women are viewed, and how the trauma affects the victim’s psyche. Kidman’s line of “I wish I wasn't scared all the time” is an all too knowing remark.

This said, the film's overall execution makes little waves. Before I go to sleep, may perhaps be a more interesting book, with the film's streamlined execution, doing little to make us grasp hold of its characters. While the storytelling allows the viewer to stay one step ahead of the film. Not the place you need to be with a feature like this.

The film trundles along, with Kidman trembling nervously through the film's intentionally drab blue/ gray cinematography and Hitchcockian conceits. Yet when comparing this to films of last year, which gave us ludicrous, stylised, yet highly entertaining thrillers such as Trance, Side Effects and Stoker, this slightly dour, workman-like effort may find itself as fodder for bleary eyed insomniacs more than anything else.