HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
Based on Barry Crump’s novel 'Wild Pork And Watercress', Taika Waititi’s new film follows Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), “a really bad egg” who social services have sent to live on a remote farm with his welcoming foster aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cantankerous foster uncle Hec (Sam Neil). The chubby scamp is a haiku-spouting wannabe gangster who counts Tupac as “a friend” and has no plans to stay put, until he succumbs to his aunt’s genuine kindness. However, fate has it that Ricky ends up lost in the New Zealand Bush with Hec, and through a series of misunderstandings, they’ll start an adventure that’ll turn into a national manhunt, complete with dim-witted TV coverage, SWAT teams and Blues Brothers-style chases.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is an odd film, in the best possible way. The Kiwi director has injected his offbeat comedy sensibilities and dry wit to make his fifth feature stand out as so much more than your average coming-of-age drama. Instead of faithfully making a straight-laced adaptation of Crump’s work, the filmmaker cherishes the absurd and weaved it into everyday situations, progressively ramping it up as events continue to escalate, but never letting nonsense derail the core narrative. It’s a very thin line to tread, but Waititi is also a skilled writer, achieving a very nimble tonal balancing act which sees his screenplay juggle sweetness, quirkiness and genuine pathos with dexterity. He’s never afraid to delve into some dark places, but whimsy is never sacrificed and crucially, characters are never dismissed in favour of wearingly arch or smugly self-serving humour. Nowhere is this tonal mastery more evident than during a brilliantly unpredictable scene in which an interactive funeral sermon (performed by the cameoing director) finally brings Jesus and confectionary together. You’ll guffaw with misty eyes.
There are a few indulgences here and there - namely Rhys Darby, who briefly threatens to steal the show with OTT silliness - but the cast and their superb comic timing more than make up for any minor wobbles.
The to-and-fro between Dennison - a revelation - and Sam Neil - giving his strongest performance in years - is key throughout. Both actors make the familiar odd-couple tough love dynamic feel freshly endearing, so much so that when other characters are introduced, you’ll start wishing the supporting players’ screen time away. The only exception is Rachel House, who stands out as the cartoonish villain of the piece, Paula. She is an inappropriately gung-ho social worker who repeats her “No child left behind” mantra with crazed conviction and is at the heart of one of the film’s most hysterically deadpan exchanges, comparing herself to the Terminator during a dramatic confrontation, casting Ricky as Sarah Connor: “...But Sarah Connor from the first film... before she could do chin-ups”.
Frequently coming off as Pixar’s Up meets Into The Wild, with hints of Roald Dahl, Moonrise Kingdom and The Fugitive, Hunt For The Wilderpeople impressively transcends the sum of its comparatives to stand on its own two feet; it is resolutely Waititi’s film, and no one could have brought so many disparate strands together in such a warm and off-kilter way. Akin to 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows, the director’s absurdist and deadpan humour might be a turn-off for some, as might the ending, which doesn’t reach the same heights as what preceded it. However, it’s hard not to embrace Hunt For The Wilderpeople for what it is: not only Waititi’s best and most consistently funny film to date, but also this year’s most preposterously charming offering.
As Hec would say: majestical.
- D - 21/09/16
THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK
THE TOURING YEARS
Here Comes The Doc
Rarely has there been anything as awesome and terrifying as the pop cultural tidal wave that was Beatlemania. This was a time when social media couldn’t catapult an unknown to overnight stardom and when frenzied fandom was a nascent behaviour, inextricably linked with the emergence of 60s teen culture. Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years recounts the phenomenon by focusing on the Fab Four’s years on the road, from the band’s beginning with the arrival of Ringo Starr in 1962, their breakthrough in the US in 1964, all the way to the final official concert in 1966.
The director has compiled archive and fan-recorded footage, rare snippets of their travels in the US, and new interview segments with the two remaining Beatles, creating a comprehensive breakdown of the band’s early years. Howard’s chosen approach, chronologically mapping out their rise to global superstardom over a bookended period, is a wise one, avoiding what could have been a scattershot list of the band’s oft-recited achievements. Here, we bypass the later-year dramas and instead get to observe the gradual shift from mainstream heartthrobs to more avant-garde musicians who wished to experiment as a result of endless touring where they couldn’t hear themselves play.
Some of the previously unseen press conferences are fantastic to watch, showing the natural camaraderie that existed between the cheeky scamps, four friends who never resisted the urge to goof around and toy with some of the journalists who asked embarrassing - and at times bafflingly aggressive - questions. However, the undeniable highlight of this documentary is a digitally remastered extract of an early concert in Manchester. This gorgeous restored footage of the band is highly immersive, chiefly due to deftly handled changes in aspect ratio, the lushness of the colours and an immaculate sound. By comparison, the rest of the footage seems less vibrant, especially considering the 137-minute runtime; the chronological template here does the documentary a disservice, since the film seems to peak early. There also lacks some deeper insight into the nature of fame, the toll taken by the unprecedented euphoria the band created and a peek inside their creative process; instead, Howard tends to rehash some of the familiar stories and anecdotes, milking the padded runtime for nostalgia’s sake. As for the star-studded talking heads (Richard Curtis, Eddie Izzard, Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver...), their input is largely perfunctory and one could have hoped for less mainstream interviewees and a more incisive approach to a well-worn story. Only Elvis Costello’s intervention seems relevant, as he praises his fellow musicians’ know-how when it came to playing deaf because the crowds completely drowned out the music.
That being said, the documentary remains impressive due to the sheer amount of footage collected and because it offers a fascinating slice of US history, using The Beatles’ US appearances as a springboard to touch upon the socio-political backdrop of a tumultuous era. We witness footage of the civil rights riots, the first non-segregated gigs and even the reactionary backlash prompted by John Lennon’s infamous “more popular than Jesus” comments.
The slogan on the poster for The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years reads: “The Band You Know. The Story You Don’t.” The overall familiarity and lack of untold story means that Ron Howard’s film means that we’re mostly stuck with the first statement. Granted, offering something new and fresh about the most famous band there ever was is a tough ask, but his curated labour of love still won’t go down as a vital rockumentary, nor a trenchant exploration of how fame and global stardom has evolved over the years. However, there remains plenty for music lovers, casual Beatles fans and those who seek the vindication of Ringo’s drumming abilities to enjoy. #justiceforringo
- D - 19/09/16
THE SEA OF TREES
Into The Woods
The unexplored cinematic possibilities of Japan’s infamous Aokigahara forest, one of the world’s most notorious suicide spots, are staggering. The horror genre has given it a good go and for the horror aficionados amongst you, the haunted setting should ring a bell chiefly because of titles like Forest of the Living Dead, Grave Halloween or even this year’s Natalie Dormer-starring The Forest. All failed to truly capitalize on the inherent spookiness (and spiritually poetical nature) of the “Suicide Forest”.
Enter Gus Van Sant, who helms a drama about a suicidal American professor (Matthew McConaughey) who travels to Aokigahara to die. When he is interrupted, he decides to help a bleeding man (Ken Watanabe) who has lost his way and seeks to get out of the forest. Meanwhile, a series of extended flashbacks bring us up to speed on how the prof’s marital issues with his wife Joan (Naomi Watts) led him to a one-way ticket to Japan.
The almost wordless opening act of The Sea of Trees promises much but the second that Mason Bates’ spectacularly jarring woodwind-heavy score kicks in, you’ll know you’re barking up the wrong tree in search of quality. From then on, the director squanders the story’s potential by swapping thoughtfulness for shallowness and poignantly weighty themes about guilt and suicide for faux-spiritual balderdash. The acting isn’t the problem: McConaughey is strong, Watts delivers an auto-piloted best-of performance and the short-changed Watanabe is reduced to panting. The issue is that the flashbacks progressively lead up to territory that can only be described as bread-and-butter Nicholas Sparks; that sentimental dross in turn incorporates an undeserved Shyamalan-esque twist complete with voice-over snippets, making the misjudged P.S. I Love You finale both cloying and very insulting.
The Palme D’Or-winning director behind Elephant and Milk should have known better. Even more damning are the startling similarities between The Sea of Trees and Van Sant’s very own Gerry, his other drama about two men struggling to escape the wilderness. That minimalist 2002 release explored the metaphysical and the mysterious with beguiling dexterity; this mawkish, sometimes laughable fairytale will only get eyes rolling as opposed to genuinely misty. A baffling misfire that isn’t the return to form we - or the woods - so badly needed.
- D - 07/09/16
Harry Potter and the Racist Hallows
Based on the undercover missions of former FBI agent Michael German, Imperium should have been both an exciting and uncomfortable watch. The inherent drama interwoven within the subject matter of white supremacist groups usually assures a minimum amount of narrative thrills. Instead, Daniel Ragussis’ first time in the director’s chair only allows Daniel Radcliffe to further shed his boy wizard image and not a whole lot else.
Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent who agrees to go undercover with neo-Nazis. His handler Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette, chewing gum as if her character development depended on it) is convinced they will uncover a domestic terrorism plot and encourages her mole to go deeper into the racist underworld. Foster soon finds out that his infiltration includes getting inked and radically changing his wardrobe and hairstyle...
To be fair to Ragussis, Imperium allows us to witness several aspects of the neo-Nazi movement, the director clearly wishing to paint a complete picture. There are the wound-up and dim-witted skinheads, the altogether more organised brownshirts, the ego-fuelled public figures in the shape of Rush Limbaugh-esque radio presenters and even the well-off and educated family men who delude themselves into thinking they are ensuring the prosperous future of their children. However, in touching upon these various factions, we never get deeper into their motivations: we scratch the surface and frustratingly remain there, stagnant observers as opposed to tension-rattled accomplices.
Radcliffe does well as the introverted and bookish rookie: his American accent is convincing, and he manages to bring some layers to a very thinly-sketched character. However, his solid turn can’t save the lack of subtlety on show. Most glaring is Ragussis’ use - ad nauseam - of flashing stock footage, including swastikas, the KKK, Hitler and burning crosses. The shaky screenplay name-checks Obama and true case files in order to court topicality, and it sometimes works. However, the oddly flat execution never raises any pulses or provides any insights. It also misses a few tricks about the psychological mind-set one has to embrace in order to commit to undercover work, and decides to borderline bypass how Foster gets in with the racist underworld in the first place. His infiltration seems too convenient, with most characters frustratingly lacking context and the rushed climax devoid of any stakes.
Ultimately, Imperium’s biggest problem is that it pales in comparison with its thematic contemporaries: it lacks the ferocious energy of Romper Stomper, the stomach-churning insight of American History X or indeed the anarchic intricacies of this year’s far, far superior Green Room. What it ends up being is a serviceable potboiler that would not have gotten theatrical distribution had Daniel Radcliffe not signed on the dotted line. It’s a fine vehicle for the actor to show his range but remains above all an unmemorable thriller that needed what the first season of True Detective did for gang infiltration: more urgency, more danger, and significantly more edge.
- D - 06/09/16
Who let the dogs out?
Hotdog Frank (Rogen) and his supermarket colleagues believe, much like those green aliens in Toy Story who worship “the claaaaaaw”, that once they get picked up by the “gods” (human customers), they are on their way to paradise.
All store products live in this blissful ignorance until a returned mustard pot warns the others that “The Great Beyond” isn’t what they thought. Preferring death over the reality of the cruel world, the messenger kills himself, leading Frank and his edible mates to investigate and find out what truly happens to products when they leave the supermarket.
Sausage Party has the honour of being the first widely distributed R-rated animated film and while the promise of unapologetic crudeness should make for an egg-citing watch, the supremely silly concept is undermined by the creators’ juvenile certainty of what makes a comedy funny. Granted, some gags are strong (the Saving Private Ryan-reminiscent scene in the grocery aisle stands out amidst the many cinematic winks) but after the first 20 minutes, the joke starts to wear thin. Even the interesting theological commentary and jokes featuring a bickering Jewish bagel (Edward Norton, mimicking Woody Allen) and a Middle Eastern lavash (David Krumholtz) are weakened by stoner storytellers Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Evan Goldberg’s belief that a throw-as-many-food-puns-and-sexual-innuendos-and-see-what-sticks approach is best.
Not even a Sapphic taco (Salma Hayek) fitting on a pious hotdog bun (Kristen Wiig) can redeem proceedings.
Even more damning is the total misapprehension that the use of every declination of the word ‘fuck’ directly correlates with the amount of laughs you get. One or two f-bombs are funny when well timed, but once you realise the screenwriters are trying to outdo Scorsese in the profanity department, you’ll get exasperated real quick.
As for the closing five minutes, it cements the fact that directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon didn’t know when to stop or how to muzzle Rogen & Co.’s incessant jokes. The ending confirms the previously niggling suspicion that those behind Sausage Party just got blazed one evening and reverse engineered a film just because they wanted to see foul-mouthed food have an orgy.
Ultimately, Sausage Party will appeal to its target demographic but could have been so much more had the creative team not succumbed to their insistent brand of crass fratboy-humour and understood that comedy requires discipline. Reined-in by superior directors / screenwriters (think The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller), it could have been special; as it stands, it’s a drawn-out joke that is not as subversive or wee-yourself funny as it thinks it is.
That being said, if you smoke the devil’s cabbage before watching it, and you might consistently giggle; however, go in sober, and you’ll want to tell Rogen that it’s time to grow the fudge up.
- D - 27/08/16
The Injustice League
Suicide Squad didn’t need to be brilliant. It just needed to be the naughty yin to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice’s drab yang, a fun romp that redeemed DC’s recent streak of bad decisions. The marketing was promising, suggesting it could be DC’s answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: a relatively unknown property about a ragtag bunch of misfits that are called upon to save the day when ordinary heroes just won’t do. However, what makes it to the screen is an inferior mishmash of The Dirty Dozen and Escape From New York, proving that a strong cast, a good director, and an intriguing premise do not always a good film make.
There is so much wrong with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad that you could legitimately wonder whether DC are taking the piss or purposefully daring you to pick holes in their films. It’s hard to know where to start the cataloguing of bilge. It’s an unfocused collection of half-developed ideas jumbled together to make up a narratively weak, tonally jarring film that tries far too hard to convince you it’s something it’s not. It thinks it’s an unhinged and irreverent wildcard, when in fact it’s actually a corporate-mandated superhero film that’s edgy as a marble.
Despite some decent performances (Will Smith shines as Deadshot, while the seedily over-sexualized Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn does her best with poorly written wisecracks and a bafflingly stupid beat that mutes her character’s anarchic aura) and some not-so-decent ones (Cara Delevingne is a textbook example of poor stunt casting and Joel Kinnaman is a tiny-headed charisma vacuum), the overarching issue is once again that DC have failed to learn from their past mistakes. They have sacrificed a coherent narrative in favour of stuffing in too many protagonists, rushing ahead with their extended universe-building, scripting a weak antagonist and finally using the same old CGI-heavy third act which is just as dangerously dull as 2015’s Fantastic 4 and this year’s X Men: Apocalypse’s finales. As for whoever came up with the genius idea to film the climactic third act battle in pea-soup fog so that no one could actually decipher what the Batman V Superman is going on, they should be fired and never allowed to work again. Same goes for the editor who chopped this flick within an inch of its life, leaving plotholes so big the Batmobile could fit through them.
As if that weren’t enough, the excessive and painfully obvious use of music in this film is one of the major film’s most annoying elements. The Rolling Stones, Queen, Eminem, The White Stripes, Kanye West, Twenty One Pilots: all song choices are so on-the-nose and so in-your-face that it reeks of a desperately cynical attempt to get the ‘cool kids’ on side and ramp up soundtrack sales.
What about the Joker, you ask? Surely if anyone can redeem this film, it must be the Clown Prince of Crime... Despite what the marketing and top billing suggests, he’s relegated to a glorified cameo. However, it’s plain to see that even during his 10 minutes of screen time, Jared Leto’s tame performance is weak. Not just because it fails to live up to the endless hype around his much-publicised “method acting” (staying in character between takes, sending his co-stars dead animals and used condoms...), but because this Joker is portrayed as a preening Mafioso who never once feels threatening. Granted, any attempt to bring something new to the table should be applauded; sadly, Leto’s Joker leaves no real lasting impression.
Whether this scattershot cut currently in cinemas is a case of pesky studio interference, poor storytelling due to a script that had to be finished in a mere 6 weeks so that the release date wouldn’t be altered, sheer incompetence or a combination of all three, Suicide Squad remains a unexciting and unimaginative mess. To add insult to injury, the current creative party line when responding to poor reviews is: “Screw the critics, we did this film for the fans.” That old chestnut, which fails to take into account that critics love films, that a lot of them nowadays ARE fans and that it is possible to orchestrate a film that has mass appeal. It’s a weak deflection only dished out to hide the fact that DC desperately need quality control because they can’t manage to tell an exciting, fully-rounded - let alone coherent - story.
When all’s said and done, 2016 will go down as DC’s annus horribilis and while the joke is on them, it’s also on cinemagoers who are subjected to this sub-par helicopter carcass porn.
- D - 15/08/16
Women on the Verge of a Drunken Breakdown
I know what you’re thinking: “Sweet Joseph and all his carpenter friends, not one of those movies with ‘BAD’ in the title again...”. From that alone, Bad Moms promises to be a generic, lowest common denominator chick flick with supposedly ‘risqué’ aspirations, a film that sounds so blah, Sarah Jessica Parker and Katherine Heigl were probably angling for top billing.
I know that you’ve suffered this summer, dear cinemagoer, and that following a long line of blockbuster disappointments and the sucrose monstrosity that was Mother’s Day, you don’t want to go anywhere near a film that could hurt you again... Much less one relating to mothers or directed by the scribes of The Hangover...
I also know that if you speak the Queen’s English, you’re cringing so hard at the spelling of ‘mum’ that your spleen might rupture into a million little fleshy pieces. Yes, the American way technically makes more sense: ‘mom’ is short for ‘mother’, not ‘muther’... even if the Germanic root ‘mutter’ explains the ‘u’... But I digress... It’s still butchered English!
Follow my lead: clear your mind, take a deep breath, whisper a sweet nothing to that trusty spleen of yours and prepare to be surprised: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s film actually holds its own.
The wafer-thin plot focuses on the overworked Amy (Mila Kunis). Her marriage has seen better days, her kids are entitled brats and her boss takes the piss. She joins forces with two other mums: the underappreciated Kiki (Kristen Bell), who daydreams of car accidents just so she could get some me-time in the hospital, and the foul-mouthed divorcee Carla (Kathryn Hahn). Together, the fed-up trifecta will try to reclaim some freedom and shake off being a mum (“Pinterest! Tupperware!”). This leads them to ultimately oppose Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate)’s reign of terror as the head of the PTA, a woman who wants everyone to be “perfect little Nazi mums, with kids that are hyper-stressed and overscheduled” and who goes into DEFCON 1 mode when it comes to bake sales.
Damning with faint praise though it may be, Bad Moms is not the pot-pourri of lazy humour its title implies and ends up being an enjoyable romp. At a lean 90 minutes, it delivers the gags thick and fast, with the jokes mostly hitting their mark, especially a sequence in which the central trio discuss circumcised penises with the use of the hoodie-wearing Kiki as a human prop. The central trio are strong, especially Hahn who - with Applegate to a lesser extent - upstages everyone; they prove once again that misogynists who believe that women aren’t as funny as men are morons and that while everyone this year was too busy getting their panties in a twist about a woman-centric Ghostbusters, this female-lead comedy should have been on trolls’ anti-feminist radar.
For all its qualities, Bad Moms hasn’t raised the bar by any stretch of the imagination; it does lose its nerve in the rushed and telegraphed third act, which is safely lifted straight from your garden-variety sitcom. However, for every familiar speech and plot beat, there’s a quotable zinger right around the corner to reassure you that it’s not too full of itself. It is not the best or funniest thing you’ll see this year, but it contains enough laughs and digs aimed at today’s judgemental culture of #lifegoals to briefly make you forget how weak this summer’s offerings have been.
That’s got to be worth some consideration, right?
- D - 12/08/16
“Why would he come back now?”, asks one suited character during this new Bourne instalment.
A valid query, considering this blandly-titled new episode comes after a much maligned ‘sidequel’ and nearly a decade since the closing chapter of the original trilogy. And what a perfect trilogy it is: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum represent a clear beginning, middle and end, a looped loop that began and ended in water. A shame to tamper with it... Still, if director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon decided to come back to the game-changing spy franchise, there must be a decent reason, right?
Turns out, mostly no. While Jason Bourne is a welcome return of the formally amnesiac assassin, it does ruin a hugely satisfying symmetry and is predominantly an unnecessary origin story.
Since 2007, our favourite government weapon has been off the grid. We find him bare-knuckle fighting near the Greek-Albanian border before he is coaxed back into action by series-regular Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). She has pulled a Snowden and discovered a secret from Bourne’s past during her hacking antics. She meets him in Athens, setting off a series of events that gets agency director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, whose mesmeric face has never looked so much like a collision of sullen meteorites) and ice queen newbie Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) on Bourne’s back. Cue some country-hopping from Athens to Berlin, London to Las Vegas in search of answers...
Sound familiar? Granted, the question of where Jason Bourne (or should that be David Webb?) fits into the post-Wikileaks world is an alluring one; however, the finished product gives the impression that we’ve seen it all before. There are tech rooms full of people shouting at monitors, weathered villains in suits, and nameless assets being called up, this time in the formidable shape of Vincent Cassel. It’s all reliably entertaining but hardly anything new.
Nor is it on par with the past chapters. Certain weak subplots concerning a social media company and family ties linked to the mysterious asset only tend to make matters worse. That being said, these B-plots don’t eclipse the main issue: in digging deeper into Bourne’s past (but without sinking into wince-inducing SPECTRE retcons), Greengrass and co-scriptwriter Christopher Rouse have needlessly asked questions to which no one really wants the answers to. Their script sticks closely to the Bourne formula and delivers something both predictable and not compelling enough. Rant all you want about The Bourne Legacy (that “chem”-heavy fourth instalment starring Jeremy Renner that everyone likes to pretend isn’t canon), but at least it took a few narrative risks.
For all its faults, there is still plenty to enjoy about this business-as-usual fifth chapter, chiefly Damon (who hasn’t skipped the burpees), as well as the high-octane action. Greengrass has always raised the bar for action sequences with his handheld camerawork and complex-yet-comprehensible staging, and Jason Bourne is no exception: the Athens riot chase in particular is as thrilling as they come. The director shows once more that not many could make such frenetic action so viscerally chaotic and yet so clear... even if that Vegas car-pile finale reeks too much of Luc Besson.
So, although Jason Bourne is hardly essential, this serviceable revival still tops 2016’s summer blockbuster list. Hardly the biggest compliment, since it has been one of the weakest seasons in recent memory, but a win’s a win. Let’s just hope that both Greengrass and Damon have the good sense to hop off the Bourne train now that they’ve released what is essentially the Best Of compilation. If they don’t - and that ending could be interpreted as an open-door invitation for a new trilogy - let’s hope they at least come up with a better title.
Bourne In The USA, anyone?
- D - 05/08/16
Ah, the miracle of life...
A common staple within the horror genre is the theme of motherhood. This year has seen a Teutonic effort (the excellent Ich Seh Ich Seh, otherwise known as Goodnight Mommy) and a British attempt (David Farr’s much less impressive The Ones Below); now comes Danish / Swedish co-production Shelley, which unlike its Brit predecessor, confidently riffs on past cinematic touchstones and still manages to mould its own identity.
Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christofferson) are a Danish couple who live in almost total isolation in the middle of woods, near a misty lake. They hide from the modern world: no electricity, no technology... and no meat. She dreams of becoming a mother but keeps miscarrying. The arrival of a Romanian maid, Elena (Cosmina Stratan), could be the answer to their desperate prayers. Cash-strapped and thinking about her own child who is back in Romania with her parents, Elena agrees to become their surrogate. However, as the painful pregnancy progresses, so does her feeling that something is not quite right about the baby...
All sound very familiar? From its gothic opening to Elena’s arrival, Shelley does seem to tick off an awful lot of genre tropes and the last thing you’d expect is for your expectations to be subverted. How wrong you’d be. Scripted by Ali Abbasi and Maren Louise Käehne (a name many Borgen and The Bridge fans will be familiar with), Shelley tips its cap to Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, but sidesteps assumptions with a thematically rich story which deals with parenting as well as privileged Europeans’ attitudes towards immigrants.
Abbasi directs with the flair of a seasoned pro and is clearly well-versed in how to throw a curveball or two. He also clearly understands that it is always more terrifying not to reveal too much, to remain thrifty when it comes to flashy effects and to favour the inflation of tension at all times. His craft is matched by that of Nadim Carlsen and Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (of Victoria fame): their cinematography captures the coldly claustrophobic feel of the stunning landscape, making Shelley nothing less than an atmospheric gem.
When it comes to the cast, all are on top form but the show belongs to Stratan. Best known for her award winning turn in Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, she manages to credibly convey her fears to the point of being unrecognizable as the pregnancy takes its toll. You feel for her every step of the way and the palpable paranoia relies heavily on her performance.
Shelley may not get the widespread theatrical release it deserves, so do seek it out on VOD. While it may not trump the recent likes of The Babadook or the aforementioned Goodnight Mommy, it is a strong addition to horror films that dare to explore and play with the terrors of motherhood.
- D - 03/08/16
SNL answer the call
When it was announced that Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film Ghostbusters was getting a female-led reboot, the internet had a ridiculously embarrassing brainfart, yet another necessary reminder that not everything online makes much sense. Indeed, Paul Feig’s reboot was met with a barrage of misogynist and racist vitriol masquerading as fanboy protectionism, leading to the first trailer becoming the most disliked trailer on YouTube.
A by-product of this moronic attitude was that it made well-adjusted moviegoers want to love this revamp purely just to stick it to the trolls. The snag is that 2016’s Ghostbusters is a hard film to love. You want it to be as terrific a reboot as 21 Jump Street but it only manages to be fine.
No more, no less. Just fine.
It starts off very well, opening - much like the original - with a very enjoyable haunting. From then on we follow university professor Erin (Kristen Wiig) as she teams up with old scientist pal Abby (Melissa McCarthy), her quirky lab partner Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and freshly recruited Patty (Leslie Jones) to chase down some ghosts. Everything seems up to scratch at this point: the CGI contributes to creating a decent scare or two, the sly digs at the internet trolls land and some zingers hit their mark (“It’s like those sad and lonely women read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and ran with it.”). The undeniable highlight is the comradery between the leads; particularly noteworthy is Kate McKinnon, whose performance as the gang's Q-figure makes her the film’s MVP. Whether she is dancing with blowtorches or simply reacting to her co-stars, it’s hard to take your eyes off her and her brand of spontaneous comic timing. Also excellent is Andy Garcia and his Jaws joke, as well as Chris Hemsworth stretching his usually under-utilised comedy chops by playing the dim-witted hunk in distress.
However, things progressively go downhill, with some very dodgy editing choices and the rushed scriptwriting. These elements bog down the proceedings and syphon any wow factor, revealing that this new Ghostbusters plays it a tad too safe. It pays homage to the original film with far too many reverential callbacks and fails to bring anything exciting to the table. Once the lights go up, you wish that Feig and co-scriptwriter Katie Dippold had taken more risks and delivered a sharper, less familiar script.
One problematic aspect, aside from the completely unnecessary inclusion of Slimer, is another less impressive throwback to the original: Feig has made Leslie Jones this generation’s Ernie Hudson. The script relegates her character to the token minority and thereby limits Patty to a series of sassy quips and not much else. It’s a puzzling element that short-changes an excellent comedian and makes her the less intelligent foil to her three scientific amigas.
As for the embarrassing new theme song by Fall Out Boy featuring Missy Elliott, what in the Carpathian of Moldavia were they thinking?
Fall Out Boy? Missy Elliott? What is this, 2005???
Sizeable niggles aside, Ghostbusters isn’t the complete disaster many blindly foretold. It’s a mixed bag that feels like a stretched out Saturday Night Live sketch with better effects. Hardly surprising, considering the SNL alumni present in the cast, but its ramshackle blend of sporadically funny one-liners and rushed structure makes it too scattershot to sustain the momentum of an entire film. This rejuvenation deserved to be more memorable; however, it in no way tarnishes the good Ghostbuster name.
Here’s hoping they might take a few risks and maybe cross the streams in an all-things-considered deserved sequel.
- D - 01/08/16
THE NEON DEMON
Refn’s Next Top Model
Catwalks, plastic surgery, bloodlust, necrophilia and cannibalism... All in a day’s work for Danish enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn, who returns with another helping of cinematic Marmite that is assured to divide audiences. For some, it’ll be the very definition of style over substance; others will find plenty more to enjoy in this nightmarish fairytale.
The Neon Demon focuses on 16-year old orphan Jesse (Elle Fanning), fresh off the bus in LA. The newbie on the fashion scene quickly gets noticed and starts to ruffle the feathers of her skeletal competition, namely models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who fear that this fresh-faced ingénue could eclipse their time under the spotlights.
During her first few weeks in the City of Angels, she is faced with a blunt agent (a criminally underused Christina Hendricks), a preening designer (Alessandro Nivola), an enamoured photographer (Karl Glusman) and a seedy motel owner (Keanu Reeves), as well as spending some time with her only friend, Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who moonlights as a morgue mortician.
To say any more would be to do future audience members a disservice... and that is a critic’s blessing. Beyond the familiar setup of innocence thrown into a world of corruption, where “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, The Neon Demon is not an easy film to compartmentalise: part dark fable, part Dario Argento-riffing cautionary tale, it’s quite the distinctive wild card. What is certain is that this atmospheric and stylish freefall into hell is hard to enjoy, but even harder to dismiss outright. Refn deliberately and provocatively mirrors the hollowness of the modelling industry but never quite allows his film to veer into vapid emptiness; he imbues the stunning visuals with symbolically rich elements that prove this exploitation film of sorts can allow audiences to go beyond its nightmarishly stylish surface.
His audacious work is matched not only by cinematographer Natasha Braier’s stunning shots and regular contributor Cliff Martinez’s eerie score, but by two performances: Elle Fanning’s and Jena Malone’s. Fanning is perfectly cast as Jesse, “a diamond in a sea of glass”, expertly keeping the audience guessing as to what could be hiding behind her virginal exterior. Thankfully, certain expectations are subverted there, leading to Malone’s performance. The actress portrays this character as a seemingly kind soul who verges on being an emotional parasite, and the results are quite transfixing. Both these turns make The Neon Demon so much more than an exercise in style.
As for the titular demon, literally represented by the occult-like triangular symbol, there will be plenty of discussions to be had about its nature. Is it the city itself which lures, intoxicates into self-love, uses and spits out? Could it be Ruby, Gigi and Sarah, who vampirically crave the virgin’s power and youth? Or is it simply the cult of beauty, reflecting back at us our complex relationship with the concept of beauty and how it is intertwined with rampant narcissism? Or all three...
Many will prefer to roll their eyes at this and call out The Neon Demon’s director for being so far up his own arse, he lost track of the question ages ago, let alone the answers. The Neon Demon will polarize, but even if you choose to believe it doesn’t mean diddly-squat, the picture painted is so devilishly and abrasively mesmeric that you’d be mad to ignore it.
- D - 11/07/16
“We came so fucking close to disaster and we’re still on the edge.”
Words that resonate and will stay with you after watching Zero Days.
Following last year’s brilliant Scientology exposé Going Clear, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has decided to tackle a “hideously over-classified” subject: Stuxnet, the computer virus developed by the US and Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. His investigative journey comprehensively takes us through how a joint-intelligence operation turned on its creators, who not only unleashed a digital monster but also flirted with all out cyberwarfare.
Granted, the majority of filmgoers willingly zone out at the mere mention of “data payloads”, “malware” and “digital viruses” but Gibney makes it disturbingly engaging, to the extent a lot of Zero Days plays out like a spy thriller, in part thanks to Will Bates’ threatening score. The revelatory material features talking heads, ranging from senior Mossad operatives to a mysterious (and foul-mouthed) NSA source; they reveal the sheer amount of access the filmmaker obtained and impress because of some handsomely crafted (and slightly Lawnmower Man-cum-Hackers reminiscent) visuals.
Beyond Stuxnet, this disquieting documentary is also an exploration of the evolution of warfare: how humanity has proudly taken itself from the trenches to chemical weaponry, from nuclear threats to cyber-espionage / cyberwar. It’s enough to erode even the most fervent faith in systems: if Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour had people hurrying home to put some masking tape on their laptop cameras, Zero Days will make you develop a potent mistrust for governments and the policies of secrecy they are so fond of.
Mulder and Scully did warn us... But did we listen? Noooooo...
Zero Days is as troubling as it is fascinating and once again shows Gibney at the height of his powers. Seek it out and pray it’s not too late to take a few steps back from the edge.
- D - 09/07/16