She’ll Spit On Your Grave
Elle opens with a sexual assault. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her dining room by a masked assailant. We don’t immediately see the rape but rather the expressionless face of Michèle’s cat, a passive witness to the crime. Once the attacker flees, Michèle calmly sweeps the broken crockery from the floor, cleans herself and goes back to work the next day. A few days later, at dinner in a classy Parisian restaurant, she casually mentions the incident. “I supposed I was raped”, she nonchalantly states. Her friends are shell-shocked, can’t fathom why she hasn’t called the police and why she’s being so matter-of-fact about the horrendous ordeal. Unbeknownst to them, she gradually begins to investigate and is soon faced with the possibility that the rapist could very well be among the men in her life but could strike again...
For his first film in a decade, Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven returns with a French language hybrid that is fated to be misunderstood. It is a brazenly controversial revenge/rape thriller that doubles up as a suspenseful whodunit and a satirical black comedy. David Birke’s impressively layered screenplay, based on a 2012 novel ‘Oh...’ by Philippe Djian, celebrates the three-act structure of the filmic subgenre but joins Verhoeven in taking perverse pleasure in deconstructing its tropes. Consequently, Elle adds itself to other recent films like Irreversible, American Mary and Teeth as an effective riff on the revenge/rape exploitation film but also qualifies as one of the strongest dark comedies since Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers. Many will quickly attempt to label it as a ‘rape comedy’ in order to get ink spilled and fan some contentious embers. The fact is that despite all attempts - including earlier ones in this very paragraph - Elle is a lot more complex than that and cannot be reduced to identifiable labelling. It doesn’t just walk a tightrope between genres but instead ingeniously - and never erratically - skips off and on the rope. It is also a rare example of a film that features no truly sympathetic or fully comprehensible protagonists... and yet you find yourself drawn to and invested in their predicaments.
All this is made possible by Isabelle Huppert, who delivers an awards-worthy performance as the heroine who reacts in the opposite way you’d expect a victim to. The film relies on red herrings, twists but above all complex character motivations and Huppert once again proves that there’s not much she can’t do. She explores the minutiae of Michèle’s complicated past and her psychological intricacies with towering skill, never letting the audience get too close. No other actress (certainly not American) would have dared to sign up for such a daring project and attempt to embrace a character who is a (sociopathic?) combination of victim and accessory, a casualty of a misogynistic world that she contributes to via her job.
Elle is an audacious, frequently unsettling film and possibly Verhoeven’s most daring one to date. The director has managed to take sensitive subject matter and handle it in a devilishly unpredictable manner. As for one of the last minute curveballs he throws at the audience, it is a truly memorable beat that encapsulates the film’s capacity to effectively surprise and leave no one indifferent. However, Elle will leave you wondering how you feel about any of it for quite some time afterwards and will probably stand as this year’s most perplexing release.
Don’t miss out.
- D - 07/07/16
An insult to mothers everywhere
I shall not waste your time or mine, therefore limiting this review - which is more an act of public service serving as a cautionary tale - to one sentence:
Garry Marshall continues his crimes against celluloid with Mother’s Day, a smug ode to a greeting card holiday which almost dares you to hate it, playing out like a nauseating catalogue of unfunny and often bafflingly offensive tripe in the same vein as his already soulless Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve.
And we hung Saddam...
Shit. Two sentences.
- D - 11/06/16
THE NICE GUYS
Forget it Ryan, it's Hahatown
From the opening bars of the funky 70s soundtrack and the stylised font appearing over the dilapidated Hollywood sign, Shane Black has you hooked. The Nice Guys sees the writer / director returning to the crime caper genre he loves, inspired by the works of Brett Halliday.
Russell Crowe plays an LA “enforcer” whose path crosses Ryan Gosling’s dishevelled private investigator. The latter has no sense of smell, mistakes ‘eunuch’ for ‘Munich’ and drunkenly relies on his 13-year old daughter to be a moral compass. He also has a proclivity for falling off and through everything.
Both team up on a wild goose chase which plays out as if Roman Polanski had made Chinatown a screwball comedy. While the script - an intentionally Chandler-reminiscent mystery featuring porn actresses, a mismatched duo relishing layered punchlines and no shortage of quotable zingers - is Black-by-numbers, all familiar beats are kept fresh by the 70s setting, Gosling’s impeccable slapstick antics and the central duo’s franchise-making chemistry.
Especially noteworthy is Angourie Rice, as the young voice of reason that frequently outshines her father’s investigative abilities. Black knows how to write feisty female characters and this career-making turn won’t go unnoticed... and rightly so.
All in all, this consistently funny and farcically violent crime caper works as a love letter to the pulp detective genre. It stands as a worthy spiritual successor to Black’s brilliant and frequently undervalued directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Don’t miss out.
- D - 02/06/16
No Money, Mo Semtex...
Jodie Foster’s previous directorial effort, The Beaver, was unfairly overshadowed by its leading man Mel Gibson, whose career-derailing meltdown uncannily seemed to mirror his character’s alcoholic woes. Now back in the director’s chair for the first time since 2011, Foster has cast more wisely, with not one but two heavyweight A-listers: racist-slur adverse George Clooney reteams with America’s dependable darling Julia Roberts to star in a satirical thriller hungry for fat cat blood.
The ubiquitous silver fox plays Lee Gates, a cocky financial pundit who hosts a tacky cable show, dishing out stock tips to the masses. Directed by Patty Fern (Roberts), the show takes an unexpected Dog Day Afternoon turn when an intruder (‘71’s Jack O’Connell) bursts onto the set, threatening Gates with a gun and taping some Semtex to his chest on live TV. He’s lost his inheritance following an algorithmic “glitch” and he wants accountability from people, starting with Gates who championed the company stock on air.
Not as underwhelming as the title may suggest and ludicrous though parts of the narrative may be, Money Monster is actually rather good. The performances are strong, especially from O’Connell, who manages to energetically and believably convey varying degrees of desperation. The interplay between the rising star and Clooney works and the ramped up tension, combined with well-timed moments of levity, make the first half a competently handled affair. Screenwriters Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf even manage to get their point across about infotainment (“We don’t do gotcha journalism here... We don’t do journalism period”) and how the media can enable the abuses of a corrupt system in a commendably non-preachy fashion.
Disappointingly, the tension is slowly but surely diffused when the film loosens its grip on the hostage situation by including some rushed subplots featuring South African conspiracies and shady dealings from a generically smarmy Wall Street player (a predictably typecast Dominic West). This loss of focus, culminating in a bland closing scene, means that Foster’s latest never reaches the same heights as satirical media dramas such as Network or the forgotten 90s guilty pleasure that is Costa-Gavras’ Mad City (also about the complicit role some media outlets have in morphing tragedy into entertainment).
Money Monster won’t top any end-of-year lists; however, if you’re looking for 98 crowd-pleasing minutes of solid entertainment, this failed satire still boasts Jodie Foster’s knack for crafting a lean, sturdy thriller. And sometimes, that’s absolutely fine.
- D - 01/06/16
X MEN: APOCALYPSE
It’s often fun to hear a piece of dialogue only to realise, once the lights go up, that the quote in question prophetically serves as the film’s review.
When it comes to X Men: Apocalypse, this quote is a cheeky dig at the third film in the original trilogy, Brett Ratner’s X Men: The Last Stand: “At least we can agree, the third one’s always the worst”, says Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) after a screening of Return Of The Jedi in this 80s-set new instalment.
Cheeky though it may be, this meta assertion ironically backfires, saying more about the bully than the bullied.
The story goes along these lines: an ancient evil in the form of the world’s oldest mutant (a criminally short-changed Oscar Isaac) has awakened from his slumber. Having quickly understood that the 80s are shite, Papa Smurf on steroids starts to recruit four mutant followers he’ll imbue with greater powers. His army includes a winged perm, a burlesque cosplay enthusiast, the token minority and Michael Fassbender, and once he’s finished playing collect all four, he instigates a mass genocide of Earth’s weakest. Time for the soon-to-be follicularly challenged Professor X (James McAvoy) and his team - a bored looking Jennifer Lawrence, a freshly cast Cyclops (sponsored by RayBan) and poor Nicholas Hoult doing his level best - to suit up...
Having returned to the helm of the franchise he kicked off in 2000, Bryan Singer delivered the goods with the excellent X Men: Days Of Future Past; on the evidence of this, his newest directorial effort within the X Men saga promised much. However, it’s with a heavy heart that facts must be faced. The X Men franchise has reverted back to its old ways, with the new trilogy mimicking the first’s footsteps: Chapter 1 (X Men / X Men: First Class) = Masterful; Chapter 2 (X2 / X Men: Days Of Future Past) = Marvellous; Chapter 3 (X Men: The Last Stand / X Men: Apocalypse) = Meh.
That being said, this year's chapter is not the utter catastrophe that many are decrying. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver briefly steals the show, while Michael Fassbender manages to keep the boat from sinking. The thesp shows that even with a script that feels like it’s been half-assedly written down on the back of a coaster during a screenwriters strike, he can deliver the goods, injecting some potent pathos in Magneto’s clumsily written arc.
Still, the film is an undeniably a sloppy affair, wherein the director favours stylish posturing and an orgy of CGI as opposed to any subtext. Most damning of all is the final third, which puts all other blockbusters to shame (Marvel and DC combined) with regards to wanton civilian casualties. This is the kind of destruction porn that would make Roland Emmerich’s shorts shrink and it effectively destroys all the good will built up by past X Men films.
The less said about that utterly gratuitous cameo and the preposterous ‘let’s forget that millions died and rebuild the Victorian upholsteries’ happy ending, the better.
X Men: Apocalypse is a predictable blockbuster that lacks the verve and audacity that made First Class and Days Of Future Past such a bold rejuvenations. In its efforts to trump its predecessor, it has brought the saga to the brink of collapse and one can only hope that Singer, who had previously taught us to expect more from these films, will stick around to redeem himself. Because as it stands, X Men: Apocalypse shows that he’s in no position to dish out any sly comments about past franchise slip-ups.
- D - 25/05/16
Miller’s Millennial Misadventures
Maggie’s Plan centres on Maggie (no surprises so far), played by Greta Gerwig. She plans to have a baby via artificial insemination with her old classmate, who is now a “pickle entrepreneur”; however, a not-at-all predictable complication comes when she falls for John (Ethan Hawke). He is a professor of ficto-critical anthropology (yes, seriously) and his affair with Maggie leads to him divorcing his intellectually-brilliant-but-impossible-to-live-with wife, played by the show-stealing Julianne Moore.
A happy ending for Maggie? Not if her flip-flopping and desire to “manipulate us all into some sort of happy ending” have anything to do with it.
Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, who returns to the director’s chair after 2009’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, this indie New York comedy starts off well, promising a well-crafted send-up of the overeducated urbanites. Alas, it slowly but surely descends into shrug-worthy territory.
It’s not all bad: a certain narrative ellipsis is daring and a standout moment includes a Regan MacNeil spider walk to the front door. However, were it not for these aspects, Julianne Moore’s Danish lilt or Bill Hader’s underused dry wit, the nicest thing you could say about it is that it’s sweet.
Its attempts to deviate from the rom-com formula end up falling flat and as for Gerwig, she tones down the hipster vibe here but remains stuck playing these knowingly self-absorbed millennial characters who are variations on her Frances Ha days. In fact, some moments of dialogue are so arch and self-aware, you’ll wonder if Miller didn’t rope in Noah Baumbach to give the screenplay a once over. The director wants to reveal something profound about relationships in a comedic way but unless the thought of privileged urbane couples making their babies wear “I imagine there’s no fracking” badges has you in stitches and dolls with removable organs tickle your funny bone, you’ll just end up sighing at its blatant attempts to be an updated Husbands And Wives.
Lesson here: don’t try to out-Allen Woody.
- D - 18/05/16
Punks V Neo Nazis: Siege Of Justice
From the brilliant mind that brought you 2014’s critically acclaimed Blue Ruin comes a taut thriller that pits punks against white supremacists.
White supremacists with angry Rottweilers.
The kind of white supremacists your mum told you to avoid.
Green Room follows a struggling punk band quartet, The Ain’t Rights, who are on the brink of calling it quits. A last minute change of programme leads them to reluctantly perform in a secluded venue populated by the “boots and braces crowd”. The gig gets heated - especially when one band member decides to antagonise the crowd by playing a cover of The Dead Kennedy’s ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ - but their set ends without major incident. Things start to spiral out of control when the band retire to the titular green room and are unwitting witnesses to a crime scene. They find themselves in a tense standoff until the club proprietor, skinhead-honcho Darcy (Patrick Stewart), comes to smooth things out. Naturally, the wrong time-wrong place circumstances go way south and the band have to fight.. for their right... to suuuuuuurrrrrvive.
Writer / director Jeremy Saulnier has helmed a tight siege film that serves not only as a claustrophobic exploitation film but also as a thrilling nightmare. He applies the same stripped down approach used in Blue Ruin and delivers a nerve-shredding thriller that owes a lot to survival genre gems like Assault on Precinct 13 and, to a lesser extent, Straw Dogs. Crucially though, Green Room thrives as a stylish new spin on a familiar premise. The director takes a basic idea, fully commits to it via brilliant attention to detail and authentic lingo that can be reminiscent of what Rian Johnson achieved with 2006’s Brick, and moulds it into something that will have audience members sweating a full transfusion of blood.
Speaking of exsanguination, what a joy it is to be jolted out of comfort zones when it comes to violence! Audiences have become numb to cartoony Tarantino blood splatter and expect OTT gore fests within your average horror-tinged thrillers. Here, Saulnier’s use of visceral violence is unpredictable, never gratuitous and always harshly realistic. Watch out for a sudden boxcutter beat that had the rarefied effect of making an entire cinema audience audibly wince.
The cast is uniformly strong, with the band ensemble (Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner, Alia Shawkat and Joe Cole) delivering the goods: we buy into their reactions and the script is so skilfully tuned that you end up wondering how you might react if you were in their unenviable shoes. Patrick Stewart proves to be a great, if somewhat distracting piece of stunt casting as the quietly sinister Darcy and Imogen Poots shines as a kick-ass bar regular caught up in the murderous blitzkrieg. One of the most interesting roles is the one played by Blue Ruin star Macon Blair: as one of Darcy’s underlings, he adds some much needed humanity to the proceedings and proves once again to be an undervalued, hugely watchable screen presence.
Like a great punk song, Green Room is remarkably raw, doesn’t outstay its welcome and leaves you on a high. Oh, and good luck finding a better closing line this year. It is a lean, mean indie thriller that will even have viewers cathartically responding to its macabre humour to defuse the unbearable suspense.
We’ve had Blue, don’t miss Green and start praying that a colour-themed trilogy is planned... Whatever colour is next, it’s bound to further solidify Saulnier as one of the most exciting genre filmmakers that side of the Atlantic.
- D - 16/05/16
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
** WARNING: MILD SPOILERS **
** WARNING: MILD SPOILERS **
Another superhero ‘beat-em-up that features some alarming parallels to DC’s Batman V Superman: Yawn of Justice?
Yes, superhero fatigue is a thing and many would rather drink bees than watch more spandex-clad celebs throw fisticuffs; however, don’t put your cape away just yet... Once more, Marvel have shown that when it comes to superhero films, they can deliver on the hype.
Captain America: Civil War sees Steve ‘Cap’ Rogers (Chris Evans) and his mates reprimanded after a slip up on a recent mission. Indeed, the recent loss of innocent lives adds itself to the causalities linked to the events of Avengers and the gravity-defying finale of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Consequently, the United Nations have decided to present Earth’s Mightiest Heroes with the Sokovia Accords, a treaty that would make them UN-sanctioned. This causes a mighty rift: still reeling from SHIELD’s duplicitous betrayal, Cap thinks “the safest hands are still our own”; Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is haunted by Age of Ultron’s civilian death toll and decides to put to bed his anti-establishment antics in order to uncharacteristically side with the Man.
The polite discussions within the group go tits up when Bucky ‘The Winter Soldier’ Barnes (Sebastian Stan) remerges, seemingly having reverted to his murderous ways. Of course, things are never that simple and it would appear that a certain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) could be pulling some nefarious strings... Regardless, Cap’s old BFF is the tipping point, one that will see ideological lines drawn, sides taken and a war declared.
Granted, the plot of Marvel’s first entry in their ‘Phase 3’ plans screams “here we go again”, considering Civil War comes hot on the heels of the corrosively dull Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. However, the odd glaring similarity aside, this is everything DC’s entry wasn't. While the billionaire Chiroptera and the Kryptonian émigré’s adventure was an incoherent, clumsy build-up and not much else, Captain America: Civil War feels like a well-earned culmination. More than that, it’s good entertainment.
By Thor’s absent hammer, this is good entertainment.
The action sequences are not only very tightly choreographed, but are some of the most ambitious to appear in a Marvel film. The sequence set at Leipzig airport is a showstopping setpiece and feat of creative action. At no point is it confusing and it's emblematic of the film as a whole: it all comes together in a fun, coherent and confidently bombastic manner that never short-changes the audience of viable character motivations.
The cast are all uniformly strong, all interacting with each other in ways that go from playful to at times surprisingly dark. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man briefly steals some of Downey Jr’s comedy thunder and the plucky Tom Holland stands out as the newly introduced Spider-Man.
Part third chapter in the Captain America canon, part Avengers 2.5, the most impressive aspect of Civil War is how confidently it delivers on its central premise. You’ve got to hand it to the returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo, as well as the focused screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely: they have collectively orchestrated an intricate juggling act that sees a thrilling dosage of action combined with the right amount of serious drama and some knowing-yet-not-insufferably-smug levity.
And yes, his name is McFeely. Hands up those who are considering a trip to the registry office for a cheeky name change.
Themes like state control, accountability and sanctioning of superheroics are dealt with, as well as a more intimate three-way conflict between Captain America, Iron Man and The Winter Soldier; crucially, the film never gets too bogged down with complexity. Unlike DC, who failed to score an open goal this year, all signs pointed to Civil War crumbling under the weight of its multiple character arcs, but instead, this thirteenth instalment never feels clunky or overcrowded like Avengers: Age of Ultron did. It does suffer from its overlong runtime and while some beats might go over the heads of viewers who aren’t completely caught up with the series, these moments never hinder the overall enjoyment.
The only true gripe one might have with Civil War is that Marvel have missed a trick by failing to break their recurring reluctance to deliver a necessary demise. No one bites the dust here - despite ample opportunity - and it can’t be denied that at no point do you really feel a genuine sense of jeopardy for the protagonists, whatever side they may be on. A minor niggle which will be doubtlessly addressed when it comes to the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
Captain America: Civil War is not THE perfect superhero movie many will have you believe. It doesn’t quite surpass MCU flagbearers Captain America: The Winter Solider or Guardians of the Galaxy, but does see Marvel learning from the mistakes of the overstuffed Age of Ultron and fully redeeming themselves. Overall, it’s hard to argue with their consistent panache and such precisely balanced, crowd-pleasing blockbuster fare.
DC must be on suicide squad... I mean, suicide watch... right now.
- D - 08/05/16
A BIGGER SPLASH
Following 2009’s terrific I Am Love, filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has decided to remake Jacques Deray’s sexually-charged thriller La Piscine. This time, the action is set on the Italian island of Pantelleria, where Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her beau Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are enjoying a quiet retreat in an isolated villa... with a swimming pool. She is a rock star recovering from vocal cord surgery and therefore forced to stay silent; he is also in recovery, keeping away from the sauce in the wake of an accident.
Their idyllic bliss is soon interrupted when Marianne’s old flame and ex-record manager Harry (Ralph Fiennes) shows up uninvited on the Sicilian island. With him is his supposedly newly-discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), a Lolita-like nymphet who unwarrantedly asserts that she’s “22, you know”.
Thus begins several days of forced proximity that triggers nostalgia, sexual tension and the digging up of old scores. Why exactly is Harry gate-crashing and does this friendly visit hide an agenda?
Essentially a Sartrian four-hander about unlikely bedfellows tearing themselves apart, this sophisticated retelling of La Piscine retools certain plot strands but is essentially cut from the same cloth as the 1969 original. It explores themes of jealousy and resentment, as well as delving into the dark underbelly of relationships.
The film is beautifully shot - the gorgeous Italian setting adding much - with the framing and bright colours at times recalling the works of David Hockney. Hardly surprising, since the film’s title comes from Hockney’s painting of the same name. It also never forgets to be playful, not only thanks to David Kajganich’s screenplay and the bold music choices, but with some excellent camera movements: some POV shots emphasize the claustrophobia brought on by Harry’s presence and sudden close-ups effectively escalate the narrative towards the film’s emotional climax.
Above all, what truly impresses are the performances. Johnson shows there’s much more to her than her bland 50 Shades of Grey efforts, especially in the film’s final act; Schoenaerts is solid but eclipsed by his male co-lead, and Swinton is, as expected, wonderful. Her silence contrasts wonderfully with her loud, blabbermouth of an ex-partner and even without the ability to speak, she conveys volumes. She is also wonderful in the flashbacks, which nicely fill in a few blanks regarding her past relationship with Harry; in these, she comes off as the brash bastard child of David Bowie and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, making her current whispering seem even more impressive.
As for Fiennes, the show is his. The actor milks the role for all it’s worth, squeezes every last drop of manic energy from it and makes Harry one of his greatest on-screen achievements. He allows some of the character’s insecurities to briefly resurface from the many layers of brash exuberance and preening narcissism, but never in a jarring way and never at the risk of making Harry sympathetic. Indeed, the audience is always being invited to side with the exasperated Paul... but you can’t take your eyes off this insufferable livewire, especially not in an extended sequence in which he dances to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Emotional Rescue’. Of course, the point is to be reticently charmed by this larger-than-life character, to witness how the “cacasentenze” drains the energy from everyone else in order to intensely grandstand; even so, rare are performers that can do justice to a role that could have easily descended into cartoonish parody, much less those who can make the character believable.
A Bigger Splash is far from perfect and suffers in its last act, ending up near the shallow end of the pool. Clunky allusions to the refugee crisis aside, the final 30 minutes sees the psychosexual drama take a turn for the Ripley-esque and while the Patricia Highsmith inflections should inject some suspense, the proceedings become oddly lifeless. The darker denouement was always hinted at but the dramatic finale that was so beautifully built up feels rushed: it’s one of those cases when the journey ends up being more worthwhile than the destination.
Despite this slightly slightly unsatisfying final act and even if you’re not convinced by the idea of a La Piscine remake, A Bigger Splash is worth seeing. It looks stunning and the performances alone are worth the price of admission. And if the thought of 007’s boss doing an impression of Mick Jagger flailing about like an overzealous dad on a wedding dancefloor doesn’t start you up, then nothing will.
- D - 09/04/16
Close Encounters of the Goggled Kind
For his fourth feature, writer / director Jeff Nichols has offered up a sci-fi chase film shrouded in mystery, grounded in Americana landscapes and unapologetically enigmatic.
Midnight Special centres around a mysterious 8-year old boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). He appears to have been abducted by two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton), who have kidnapped him from a gated Texas community. This turns out to be an extreme religious cult who believe the child to be some sort of deity. They want him back and aren’t the only ones tracking him down: an NSA agent (Adam Driver) has been sent to locate and interrogate the young Alton, who seems to have picked up some insider knowledge on some of the government’s most sensitive secrets...
Who is this mysterious wunderkind? A fallen angel? An alien? A weapon? Two things are for sure: wearing tinted swimming goggles suppresses his piercing blue gaze and avoiding direct sunlight is a must...
Nichols craftily drops the spectator in medias res and his films thrives on calculated ambiguity. He understands that backstory often neuters characters and intrigue: the decision to allow the explanations to trickle through gradually is carefully executed and adds to the film’s mesmerizing appeal. Not only is there a pervasive cryptic feel to this quite linear road movie, which at its strongest can recall some of LOST’s best episodes, there is also a refreshing lack of spoon-feeding exposition. We discover the boy’s abilities bit by bit and begin to understand the scope of the stakes as the drama unfurls.
Midnight Special openly tips its hat to past masters, most obviously to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter: the Beard’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET are noticeable touchstones, as well as the latter’s Starman. As much as Nichols manages to capture a Spielbergian sense of wonderment, Midnight Special doesn’t limit itself to these comparisons but confidently delivers something that feels original. The director’s regular cinematographer Adam Stone adds to the unique atmospherics while composer David Wingo’s pulsating electronic score amplifies the sense of growing tension. Themes of faith, parenthood (which the director previously tackled in 2011’s Take Shelter and, in a more surrogate iteration, in 2012’s Mud) and how the love for children can be explained because we fear for their wellbeing are injected into the mix, making the film a feast for the mind as well as for the senses.
The cast are all excellent, with Shannon yet again proving to be a powerful screen presence. He manages to convey, sometimes only with the use of his eyes, that his character is burdened with knowledge and understands that his mission overrides any sentimental instincts he may have. As for Lieberher, he cleverly makes Alton an unnervingly calm and at times authoritarian presence, without cancelling out any child-like reactions; he is both otherworldly and emotionally relatable.
As if all of these accomplishments weren’t enough, Nichols has also joined the rarefied elite of directors who can make Kirsten Dunst act. Put your hands together, people.
For all its merits, Midnight Special will prove to be divisive.
Some promising narrative strands are frustratingly side-lined - especially the religious cult lead by the underused Sam Shephard - and the plodding pace will destabilize some viewers. The climax might also polarize, as the restrained build-up suddenly culminates in some lavish, Tomorrowland-reminiscent visuals that will leave many baffled. Still, it’s a risk that comes with all high-concept and enigmatic premises: the answers won’t satisfy everyone and the payoff can prove to be underwhelming.
However, there much to admire in Nichols’ quietly audacious genre film: it’ll keep you hooked for its entire duration and you’ll find it hard to shake off the image of a unstably gifted child apologising to his father at a petrol station as the incandescent shards of a crashing satellite gradually burn up the night sky behind them. It is one of this year’s most striking images thus far, one which would illicit approving nods from Spielberg and make JJ Abrams’ shorts shrink with envy.
Sceptical though you may be, it is worth peeking beneath the goggles.
- D - 30/03/16
BATMAN V SUPERMAN
DAWN OF JUSTICE
Dawn of Just Stop
In the action-packed final act of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman asks his faithful butler / quartermaster Alfred what’s happening.
“How best to describe it?”, he answers.
A potent question, one which seems appropriate to reiterate when thinking about Zack Snyder’s newest offering. Attempting to resume the plot feels like an exercise in futility, as it’s hard to recall a major blockbuster film so narratively incoherent and so burdened with unnecessary subplots. There are prologues, flashbacks, dream sequences, flashbacks within dream sequences and even a training montage in what has to be one of the most overstuffed and clumsily assembled duds in recent years.
You can’t blame the central duo, as the caped celebs do their level best: Ben Affleck is fine as an older, more world-weary Bruce Wayne / Batman and Henry Cavill is passably adequate as the Kryptonian émigré who can’t seem to find the right balance between the saving of human lives and the wanton destruction of America's infrastructure. Neither shine by any means but neither are given a fighting chance to do so.
As tempting as it is to partly blame Jesse Eisenberg’s exhausting performance as an ADHD-riddled Lex Luthor, the guilt lies elsewhere: namely, the script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, the editing courtesy of David Brenner and the direction, a term loosely associated with Zack Snyder.
The first is brimming with platitudes, a baffling number of plot strands and is a prime example of ineptly laboured storytelling; the second made this reviewer actually wonder whether reels went missing or if the overenthusiastic editor mistakenly cut some sections, thereby explaining haphazard narrative jumps; the third shows that Snyder is a half-arsed stone throw from Michael Bay. Not only is he all surface, preferring style over substance at every turn, but here juggles far too many balls... and a dexterous juggler, he ain’t. Why DC continues to entrust the future of their biggest names to a man who mistakes darkness for seriousness and who can’t make a coherent or engaging film ends up being Batman V Superman’s biggest mystery.
In all fairness, the fruit of their labours is not entirely disastrous: seeing the events of Man Of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s perspective is a strong move, Jeremy Irons fleetingly gets to steal the show and chin-stroking musings on the accountability of heroes do pique interest. Sadly, all promising elements are discarded in favour of explosions and numbing CGI that we’ve been bludgeoned with countless times, reinforcing the suspicion that Snyder may have cashed DC’s cheque and handed the directorial reins to a hyperactive 14-year old brat. Even the culminating showdown between the two protagonists feels underwhelming... and considering the film’s title, this is no small misstep. What was supposed to be operatic confrontation of Wagnerian proportions ends up being tedious fisticuffs lasting a grand total of ten minutes before both spandex-clad beefcakes realise that their mothers share a name and that petty homoerotic spats should be rapidly dismissed so that they can defeat a gargoyle deus ex machina.
You’re left shattered and with the overwhelming certainty that this film was simply a platform to launch the next step in DC’s bid to rival Marvel’s Avengers. Not only that, Batman V Superman flagrantly pales in comparison to most superhero blockbusters and simply can’t compete with the X Men and Captain Americas of this world.
How best to describe it, Alfred? An oversold and disjointed mess of a cape-r that is as needlessly draining as it is dull.
- D - 28/03/16