Happy Death Day

Directed By: Christopher B. Landon
Written By: Scott Lobdell
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Rachel Matthews, Ruby Modine

One could hardly imagine a more hdd-teaseronesheet-5940d0221309f-1benevolent slasher film than Happy Death Day. There’s very little slashing for one, hardly a skerrick of blood to be found on its canvas. In fact, our protagonist and sole victim can’t even be killed, not for good anyway. And the story is more concerned with edgy teen humour, coming of age epiphanies and fluffy college romance than it is with body counts or butcherings.

This approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. In fact, it’s one of the principle allures of Happy Death Day, a film whose mere title serves as a confession of absurdity and whose mechanics are assuredly light, up-tempo, and free of cynicism. It’s more a teen comedy with a whodunit inflection and a few horror tropes sprinkled Continue reading “Happy Death Day”

Advertisements

Song to Song

Directed By: Terrence Malick
Written By: Terrence Malick
Starring: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett

Terrence Malick’s latest feature e8be62e095687ae524e8a56dae199c7c--song-to-song-ryan-gosling-michael-fassbenderSong to Song poses a stifling conundrum: play as a more conventional melodrama and better serve the story, albeit at the forfeiture of that marvelled Malickian aesthetic. Or, preserve that unique aesthetic, stand apart from the crowd, but alienate your audience. Malick, as a point of interest, opts for the latter, and his film suffers for it.

Seldom is it stated that a movie should be more conventional, especially of someone like Terrence Malick, whose artistry, boldness and singularity behind the camera will be cherished and studied for centuries to come. But Song to Song is an indulgence, its director apparently too concerned with flexing his avant garde muscle to craft an accessible, or feeling, narrative.

That narrative ostensibly regards the Austin music scene, the film often returning to the knolls and backstage settings of festivals littered with stars playing themselves—Iggy Pop, Patti Smtih, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, even a bizarrely unhinged Val Kilmer, who takes to amplifiers with chainsaws and hacks at his hair with scissors onstage. But there is very little musical performance in this film, or even talk of it. The industry, rather, serves as a backdrop through which our three principles meet—stars-in-her-eyes Faye (Rooney Mara), up-and-comer BV (Ryan Gosling), and an all-powerful record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender).

These three form a love triangle. Faye sleeps with both men, Cook in the hope of jump starting her music career, BV out of something more genuine. Meanwhile, those same two men establish a successful working partnership together, before BV begins to suspect that Cook might be taking advantage of him.

Much happens between these characters: many tears, many fights, much laughter, significant tragedy, great heartache. Malick might have told an engaging story with them if he had played it straighter and allowed these performers the room to breathe and texture their characters. The performances are strong, but so obtrusive is Malick’s style, so relentlessly impressionistic is his approach, that we never seem to catch more than the emotional residue of each scene. It’s like watching someone attempt to recreate a dream they had experienced months prior. Malick, we’re led to believe, must see the world as one never-ending montage, so vague and disjointed his vision is.

DSC_2102.NEF

It has fast become a cliché to remark that Malick’s films play like extended fragrance commercials, but it’s difficult to offer a more tonally truthful summation of Song to Song: a glowing, alluring surface; big name stars on show; glamorous; wallowing in its own cryptic, artsy-ness; ultimately visual gobbledygook. Perhaps a two-hour music video would be a fitting comparison?

There are emotional outlines that we can pick-up on. We know that there is genuine affection between Faye and BV, occasionally even feel it. We know that Cook is animalistic in both his sexual hunger and his hedonism, occasionally even sense it. There is a certain visceral energy permeating the film. But all we see and directly experience is a series of decontextualized images: seemingly random laughter, seemingly random pirouetting, seemingly random piggy backing, seemingly random sexual encounters, and excessive naval gazing— Malick as ever content to fawn over his reliably stunning vistas, lavish settings and attractive stars, Emmanuel Lubezski deftly capturing that dreaminess and trademark Malickian golden sunlight that for so long has defined the director’s pallet. For a time Malick’s visual style might even distract us from the hollowness of the exercise.

la-et-mn-song-to-song-review-20170316

Every movement and gesture is treated as though it’s defining, something to be relished, the director ducking and weaving between his characters with dexterous camera work, attempting to immerse his viewer in their frenzied lifestyle. Cook experiences a devastating loss, a mother’s heart is broken, Faye falls out with her father at a gas station, BV sobs (in the only scene that conjures true affect) as he picks crumbs off his father’s limp, bed-ridden body which awaits death. These things happen, each under the guise of being tantamount to each concerned party. And they ought to be, that would certainly be the case in a more conventional drama, but with hardly a trace of the necessary connective tissue between these scenes to situate them within a larger story, to give them larger purpose, we are merely left with a collection dramatic sketches.

There is something to be said for marching to your own rhythms, to be instantly identifiable by your approach, to subvert the customs of cinema in this age of patterned storytelling. There’s more to be said for telling a story that reaches its audience. We should care, because we want to, given the pieces that are in play, but we can’t.

As if to illustrate the point, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman are also in this film. They turn up, look pretty, get briefly involved with BV and Cook respectively, and then they cease being in the film. Two of the most decorated actresses working, three Oscars between them. They come. They go. We forget them. They didn’t matter.

Rating:

1.5/4

Blade Runner 2049

Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Written By: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (based on characters from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright

Consider the dangers inherent in BR2049_Key_Art_(US)_-_8.24_1200_1851_81_sreviving a property such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for purposes of a sequel. Scott’s 1982 science-fiction noir is now seminal, a touchstone not only of its genre, but of its medium—to make only a great film using its name wouldn’t be enough. Think of the corporate traps a Blade Runner sequel must navigate—whilst critically one is playing with fire, financially one can’t help but worry that the name is being revived in the mere hope of it serving as a blank cheque, such are the plaudits Scott’s sci-fi talisman has amassed in the decades since its initial release; it’d be tempting to merely ride that reputation’s laurels.

Blade Runner 2049 isn’t that kind of sequel though. From it’s opening frames, 2049 moves with Continue reading “Blade Runner 2049”

Battle of the Sexes

Directed By: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written By: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Billie Jean King, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough

Before Mayweather and Battle-of-the-Sexes-Australian-PosterMcGregor, there was another inter-promotional, glorified sideshow sporting bout, one that had a lot more riding on it than sheer prize money. It was a tennis match, contested in 1973, to a live crowd of thirty thousand plus and a viewing audience of 90 million, to this day the most viewed clash in the history of the sport. It was played between 55-year-old hall of famer Bobby Riggs, and then reigning women’s world number one, 29 year old Billie Jean King. Ostensibly the prize was $100,000, winner takes all. In reality, King was fighting for women’s equity in the sport, carrying the torch for women across the world entire who had been pegged back for their alleged biological inferiority.

Like all great sports dramas, Battle of the Sexes’ drama lays not in its sport. The eventual match between King and Riggs delivers all the tension and intrigue and fairy-tale goodness one could hope for in a light-and-easy historical drama, but there are more pressing matters afoot than aces and overhead winners. On one tier, the film, naturally, occupies itself with notions of the upmost currency: the female crusade for an even share, as pressing in the social spheres of 2017 as it was in the sports politics of 1973. On this front, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris overstate the already implicit significance of their subject matter, opting for a didactic tone fostered by a slew of character archetypes. There’s no two sides of the coin, no ambiguity in rights and wrongs. On one side of the net are the excessively smarmy villains, the Jack Kramer’s (Bill Pullman) of the world, the head of the Tennis Association who incurs the wrath of Billie Jean when he straddles women with only an eighth of the male prize money due to their not being as “exciting”. Accompanying Jack are Bobby’s high-roller buddies, who sip scotch and suck cigars as they muse over the temerity of someone like Billie Jean who dares to know her own worth.

On the other side is Billie Jean herself, the gallant underdog with a moral cause, flanked by her consigliere of sorts in the chain smoking Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and the bulk of the best women’s players in the world. Together, the group not only form a renegade tour (the WTA) in protest to Jack, but unite to quash the tireless cycle of chauvinism which encompasses their day to day lives; the film is rife with men linking women to laundries and kitchens, commenting freely on their appearance—“if she got a haircut and took off those glasses, you’d have someone vying for a Hollywood screen test” one commentator remarks of King as she takes the court. The sexism is laid on a little obtrusively, and whilst the validity of the gender equality stance is beyond question, the directors opt for the clinical chill of a lecture in their communication of it. That clinical chill is only exasperated by the film’s peculiar absence of style and panache. For a narrative so concerned with indominable bravery and over-the-top showmanship, Battle of the Sexes doesn’t swagger with the chutzpah the story begs for, nailing the physical details of the period without capturing the more defining free-wheeling energy. There are a lot of sideburns on show, but not so much cheek.

Battle-Of-The-Sexes-Emma-Stone

It’s when the story brings us close to Billie Jean the person as opposed to the crusading feminist that Battle of the Sexes escapes its banalities. The eventual bedrock of the piece is one we mightn’t have expected, Billie Jean’s grappling with sexuality, her homosexual urges breaking from their repression at precisely the wrong moment.

Encircled by the media’s sharks, and with a loving husband on the sidelines, it’s King’s fledgling relationship with her hairdresser-cum-confidante that poses the tennis stars’ greatest challenge. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett, something of a question mark, arriving into Billie Jean’s world like a spy in from the cold, swiftly, innocuously infiltrating the champion’s desires. The two interact in soft, gentle tones and grazes, Linus Sandgren’s intimate photography hanging on every moment of contact. Marilyn exposes the meek Billie Jean, the human Billie Jean, as the tennis champion battles furiously to keep her sexual longings in check, less they distract her from the task at hand.

Emma Stone stars in the central role, providing the film’s pulse with her performance, laconic yet expressive, deftly binding panic and insecurity with a steely exterior, permitting Billie Jean to be at once the gutsy hero all good underdog sporting fables demand, as well as the vulnerable human veracity requires.

Dayton and Valeri, unlike the men who occupy their film, do themselves pay equal due to men and women alike, taking time to locate the human in Bobby Riggs too, a middle aged serial hustler tethered to the dull realities of office work post tennis. Trailers for Battle of the Sexes seem to frame Riggs as some caricature portrait of misogyny, a mere antagonistic obstacle to be conquered en route to equality for Billie Jean and her all female co-council. But Riggs too is a man of complexity and inner-wrestlings. He’s fun-loving, exuberant, sharp tongued, clown-like, and desperately lonely.

image_072a0d71_cff1_4ec3_a6a9_bb61f9d7f156

Billie Jean’s crusade against male-centricity in the world of tennis spells publicity opportunity for Riggs, who presents himself as a beacon of perceived male superiority, begging to be toppled by a hungry woman; “eureka Billie Jean! male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist!” Riggs proposes to the world’s number one. Just how truly chauvinist Riggs is is up in the air. Perhaps the film too readily forgives Bobby for his sexist mind games and cheap mockery, but his not being dismissed as a cartoon, invite that image though he might, it is one of Battle of the Sexes great surprises, and successes.

Riggs’ chauvinism after all, might just be an act, an attempt to garner fame and attention to distract the aged star from the monotony of non-celebrity, a necessary evil if he is to back himself out of the corner in which his gambling addiction has boxed him. Steve Carell plays Riggs, with that same goofy charm and sense of understated tragedy that made him such a shining light in his last collaboration with Dayton and Valeri, the tremendously off-beat and entertaining Little Miss Sunshine.

It’s the performances which elevate Battle of the Sexes, boosting it above mere historical recreation and bringing its tall tale of epic humanitarian crusades to ground level; Via Stone and Carell, Billie Jean and Bobby are never awash in the broader significance of what their joust represents. This is ultimately a much more intimate story, one that occupies large moralities through a tighter lens. The end result is an often effective if occasionally dry saga of undeniably great relevance. It’s rather like King herself when all is said and done, steely and mission driven to a fault, but enlivened and humanised by a slew of greater complexities which dwell beneath the skin.

Rating:

2.75/4

 

 

 

Mother!

Directed By: Darren Aranofsky
Written By: Darren Aranofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier mother-posterBardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

The first thing we see in Darren Aronoksky’s Mother! is those titular letters being scrawled onscreen in cursive, the arrival of the exclamation mark punctuated by the playful ping of a typewriter’s bell. Next, in extreme closeup, we see a face, one we aren’t familiar with, enveloped in flames, the skin in the process of blackening and melting. Then, a man places a crystal on a pedestal as the decrepit, debris laden structure in which he stands regenerates into a beautiful house.

The man is to be known only as Him (played by Javier Bardem), and he lives alone with his significantly younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence, she is known as Mother) in an isolated, overly spacious Continue reading “Mother!”

Victoria and Abdul

Directed By: Stephen Frears
Written By: Lee Hall (based on the book Victoria and Abdul by Shrabani Basu)
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon

On an innocuous day in 1887, a victoria-and-abdul-posterseemingly random Indian clerk was suddenly whisked away to London to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. His name was Abdul Kareem, and he was to merely present her majesty with a commemorative coin before seamlessly retreating into some far corner of the palace. “Don’t make eye contact with her!” Adbul is belligerently instructed by the Queen’s chief courtier. But when the moment comes, eyes do meet, a slight smile is made, and Abdul Kareem lands at the centre of the Queen’s platonic affections, where he’s to remain for the next 13 years.

It’s a cute and pleasant tale of unlikely companionship at the heart of Victoria and Abdul Continue reading “Victoria and Abdul”

American Assassin

Directed By: Michael Cuesta
Written By: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (based on the novel American Assassin by Vince Flynn)
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitschamericanassposter

American Assassin opens on the beautiful Ibiza beachside where all manner of tourists have collected. Mitch Rapp is one (Dylan O’Brien), his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega), to whom he has just proposed, another. We know from the trailer that immediately out of this moment of peace comes a moment of horror. Terrorists suddenly open fire on the beach, calmly trudging along the sand and picking off whoever happens to be nearby with a chilling calculatedness— Katrina one of the victims. It’s a moment which taps into a very palpable fear, something which seems to mar real-world television screens all too often.

There are a string of sequences just like this in the film Continue reading “American Assassin”

It

Directed By: Andy Muschietti
Written By: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman (based on the novel It by Stephen King)
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Bill Skarsgard

Peculiarly, 2017’s rendition of It—a 059ede3d16084937ad6efe52572b6d49narrative hardwired as a macabre odyssey of demonic spirits, hideous bullying, parental abuse, child murders and psychological torment, is a film chiefly characterised by affection. The film is steeped in it, affection for its source material (a 1986 eleven-hundred page epic by Stephen King of the same name, as well as a 1990 T.V miniseries); affection for cinema’s history in horror— indulging a slew of clichés and boasting a villain who appears to have Norman Bates for a decorator and Freddie Kruger for a coach (at one stage we see a cinema’s banner advertising screenings of Elm Street 5); but above all a director’s affection for his characters, allowing a septet of utterly endearing, Continue reading “It”

47 Metres Down

Directed By: Johannes Roberts
Written By: Johannes Roberts and Ernest Riera
Starring: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine

47 Metres Down is a better film in 47-Meters-Down-New-International-Posterpitch form than it is in practice. One could hardly conjure a more perfect premise for a ‘B movie’ horror: two sisters are marooned on the ocean floor, confined to a cage that’s encircled by a parade of 20-foot Great Whites, their oxygen supply rapidly vanishing.

The sisters are Kate and Lisa, played by Claire Holt and Mandy Moore respectively, and they find themselves in said predicament when they are talked into shark diving whilst on vacation in Mexico. There are some clear warning signs when the two first board the boat that will host their adventure—it’s rickety, rusty, tended by a creepy second-in-command who illegally chums the water (although captained nicely Continue reading “47 Metres Down”

American Made

Directed By: Doug Liman
Written By: Gary Spinelli
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemonstimthumb.php

Succinctly, American Made is a superficial yet serviceable entertainment. It tells us the true story (true in the Hollywood blockbuster sense of the word) of pilot, turned CIA reconnaissance man, turned drug smuggler Barry Seal, whose tale might have been a terrifying one if the man didn’t have such a whale of a time being a crook.

In terms of style the film is familiar, queuing in a long line of recent picaresque-biographies-come-cautionary-tales in which up-tempo rock standards drive a hustling energy, the protagonist gleefully justifies their misdemeanours via narration, freeze-frames aplenty, and many retro details are indulged. Gold, War Dogs and Wolf of Wall Street all share in part with this approach, offering a snapshot of the fleeting highs and inevitable lows of the dishonestly attained American dream, pointing to Scorsese’s Goodfellas before ultimately consigning to its shadow.

American Made is no exception, hitting many of Goodfellas’ stylistic cues without ever bracing the depth or evocativeness of that particular crime saga. The film bears pretensions of depth, gesturing toward some unrealised political statement. It attempts to parlay the highly profitable misadventures of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) into an underlining of the U.S government’s delusions of morality and innocence, treading a familiar line in the process—those on top stay on top, shielded by their desks and never having to bear the costs of their own depravity, while those beneath are left to burn (a la The Big Short, Quiz Show). The film juxtaposes footage of Ronald and Nancy Regan waging war on drugs and various political threats to the American ideal, with the chief storyline, in which Regan’s administration enables those very threats by empowering someone like Barry Seal.

It wouldn’t be right to linger any longer on this aspect of the story however, for that would be to make the same mistake as the film itself, attributing greater heft to it than is earned. American Made is most effectively viewed through the lens of a high-energy underworld romp. Barry Seal liked to have fun, and the film is at its best when it follows his lead.

It was directed by Doug Liman and written by Gary Spinelli, but this is Tom Cruise’s movie, it hinges on his magnetism. Here, Cruise does his greatest hits, fusing that devil-may-care cockiness of his early features (The Colour of Money, Days of Thunder), with the more physical, high-octane edge of his latest work (the Jack Reachers and Mission Impossibles—Cruise of course performs his own stunts), all whilst calling to mind Tony Scott’s Top Gun as we see Cruise once again don a pair of aviators and slide in behind the controls of an aircraft. It’s enough to make one wonder if the whole exercise isn’t just a means of mocking Mr. Cruise, lovingly so.

americanmade-tomcruise-pilot

He plays Seal, a prodigious TWA pilot (the youngest in airline history) who by the time we meet him in the late ‘70s has grown bored with his monotonous routine. To spice things up he starts using his international commutes to smuggle Cuban cigars into America, catching the eye of Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA agent Schafer along the way. When confronted by Schafer on his side project, Barry (as you or I might) doesn’t gulp and panic, but rather ignites at the prospect of excitement—“Holy shit! You’re CIA!” he exclaims in the tone of a child on Christmas.

Barry is right to be unalarmed. Schafer doesn’t reprimand Barry, but instead enlists him to fly over communist insurgents in South America and take reconnaissance photos. Barry’s good at it too, even if he is shaky on the legitimacy of it all; “all this legal?” he asks. “If you’re doing it for the good guys” Schafer shoots back, wry grin creeping across his face. By film’s end, “good guys” is just another way of saying “me”. Barry, though, is not the type to protest when there’s a thrill on the table and a buck to be made— “I do tend to leap before I look” he remarks in one of many VHS diary entries which form the film’s narration device.

During one such mission, Barry finds himself in the company of the Medellin cartel, and things explode from there. Soon he’s smuggling cocaine into Florida for Pablo Escobar, and running guns to alleged freedom fighters warring against the communists. He’s gifted his own private, CIA funded airline, he finds himself at the heart of the Iran-Contra Scandal, and along the way he accumulates literally too much money. It gets to the point where Barry can’t bury a duffle bag of cash in his backyard without unearthing another such bag, or open a closet door without drowning in bank notes. He even gets his own private vault at the bank which is twice the size of the vault reserved for the rest of the clientele.

 

american-made-movie-tom-cruise-domnhall-gleeson-1-

Liman insists on demonstrating Barry’s routine to the point of superfluity (Barry journeys to South America, commits his deeds, counts his money, wash-rinse-repeat), but the director remains adept in burrowing into the frenzy of it all, scribbling expositional text onscreen as if the film itself is in a rush, conjuring a sweltering atmosphere (Cruise is glamorously haggard—perpetually dowsed in sweat, looking as though he’s been to hell and back fifteen times in the day and loving every bit of it), and maintaining a breathless pace. It adds up to an intoxicating portrait. What Liman accomplishes is a visceral tap into Seal’s spiral down the fiery rabbit hole of corruption, keeping the real-life narrative grounded even as its wheels threaten to leave the runway.

Cruise is the glue though. He is the auteur of the film, more so than Liman or Spinelli—at once repulsive and alluring, never skimming on the sleaziness of Seal but retaining that trademark Cruise charm. It’s the central performance that allows the actions of Seal to be in equal part appalling and exciting, that allows us to enjoy the company of Barry even as we snarl at him. There is still something boyish about Cruise, 55 going on 30, where with little more than an innocuous smile he can cut through all the grease and filth and pinpoint something irresistible. It’s his film, and so it should be.

To reitterate the point, it’s never enough to instil substance in this skin-deep biography— American Made as a piece won’t persist in the memory. But glibness be damned, the sight of Tom Cruise fleeing a plane crash slathered in cocaine on a kids bike with a duffle bag of cash over his shoulder is, much like Barry would say of his own life, fun while it lasts, and in the absence of any registering statements, that’s at least something.

Rating:

2.75/4