2014

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is a bold original horror that scares rather than startles – every moment carrying the unease of a dark underlying reality.

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Amelia is struggling to cope with her manic son Sam on the run up to his seventh birthday – a date that also marks the death of his father. Sam’s disruptive behaviour swings wildly out of hand when he discovers a pop-up book that warns of an unstoppable monster in a ‘funny disguise’: Mister Babadook.

The book, a grim (with one ‘m’) fairy-tale, is beautifully crafted and a great centrepiece to the film. It comes to life not only through its eponymous character but in the production design, with hidden faces in the décor of each scene. The saturated blue, black and grey against white create a similar palette to the book and at times embodies The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – but Mister Babdook is no somnambulist, rather an expressionist inversion of the Spirit of Jazz, dressed in a top-hap hat and cloak.

This character is actually not so frightening outside of the book. Once he takes physical form and steps out of the shadows, he is just another bogeyman – drained of his symbolic potency. This is surprising though considering the chilling monster of the short on which this film is based. Even so, it is what Mister Babadook stands for that is so deeply disturbing.

Whilst the big studios remake classic horrors (Don’t Look Now! First Wicker Man now this…), and the new semi-independent horrors insist on reminding us how scary children are, especially when they suddenly appear with an orchestral crash,The Babadook flips the idea on its head. It explores much darker territory. It explores a very real horror but through this phantasmal figure.

The film is far from subtle. It lays out the direction of the story early on through the storybook, unpacking all of the symbolism and explaining away the subtext through exposition and sometimes unnecessary scenes. All of this it does in the first act and yet the idea is so haunting that it keeps you in locked suspense. It remains scary even when you know what’s coming – because you know what’s coming. This feeling doesn’t quite survive a second viewing but it remains impressive as an original.

The Babadook gets under the skin and unsettles – truly a scary film with a great concept.

A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year moves with a steady and deliberate pace, captivating with an intensity that feels like it could turn at any moment – much like the self-made businessman at the centre of the story.

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Abel Morales is an oil man. A Columbian immigrant who has striven to succeed legitimately and carve out a piece of the American Dream for him and his family. The first things we see in the film are Abel (Oscar Isaac) his lawyer (Albert Brooks) and one of his trucks emblazoned with Standard Heating Oil – the same name as Isaac’s character in Drive in which he starred alongside Brooks. Where Drive had the garish stylism of the 80s, A Most Violent Year – set in 1981 – couldn’t be more different: it mutes its colours and completely tones down the style to create a dulled wintry New York more in line with Sidney Lumet.

A more mature and meditative film that carries the measured approach of its cool-headed protagonist. Where Gosling’s Driver was liable to crash the film into sudden chaos, Abel exercises a control that keeps the film levelled, intent on maintaining his companies growth and keeping his hands clean. This is becoming something of struggle however, considering that his growing success is making him the target of multiple hijackings, and subject of criminal investigations simultaneously.

Another film promising blood – delivering oil

The films title, though misleading in terms of genre, references the peak crime rates of New York in 1981, the climate in which Abel’s drivers are hunted down. Abel, a man of morals, knows that he must resist the temptation to retaliate, especially whilst being monitored so closely by the assistant DA (David Oyelowo) and whilst he tries to secure a sizeable loan for a property in which he has invested everything. This doesn’t actually seem to be the prime motivator for Abel though, a first-generation immigrant who is defined more by his principles: a resilient man tested only by his wife, a steely Brooklyn mob-daughter who threatens constantly to take things into her own hands – her emasculating shadow captured perfectly during a roadside incident with an injured deer.

In the pursuit of power there comes the exchange of exposure and vulnerability, which is communicated through the lighting in each scene. Most deals take place inside under heavy-set shadows, or with curtains drawn, or silhouetted against the sun. Only when someone is exposed are they lit from the front – it’s almost jarring the first time this happens as it feels so out of place in the film. It seems the pacing and filming style are intrinsically tied to themes within the film and work subtly enhance the performances, which are impressive in their own right.

A Most Violent Year is a boldly confident film – and it deserves to be.

Two Night Stand (2014)

Written for RAF News Feb 2015

Opening to what is sure to be the trope of contemporary rom-coms, Two Night Stand begins with Megan (Analeigh Tipton) creating an online dating profile – filled with every hesitation, deliberation and embellishment. Two-Night-Stand

Megan, the low-key manic pixie, has just broken off her engagement with her high-school sweetheart, and after graduating finds herself doing nothing – bumming around the apartment to the behest of her roommate. Following another tale of a twentysomething graduate starved of ambition and not knowing what to do with herself, just as Kiera Knightley’s Megan in the recent Say When (serious), this Megan isn’t so much looking for meaning in life as a one night stand to get back on the horse.

The eventual winner of this no-strings agreement is Alec (Miles Teller): a sardonic stoner who manages to offend his lucky catch as soon they wake in his Brooklyn apartment the morning after. But when she tries to make an exit and storm off, it appears that they have been snowed in by a freak blizzard and so must stay put and bask in the awkwardness of this forced situation.

Unfortunately so must we as the audience – with awkwardness that isn’t always intentional. Two Night Stand definitely reaches for comedy over creating chemistry between its characters, and so the intimate scenes feel out of place with a whiplash of tone change – especially when the cheesy clinking music cuts short and leaves you with enough silence to hear Alec breathing. There are some laughs throughout but the match of this big eyed, elfin, beauty with the dry and cooly distant Alec plays out just as you would expect… with utter convenience. There are some laughs throughout and it has a cutesy charm that keeps you entertained, but it is largely inoffensive and forgettable at that.

A couple of notes:

There was something quite jarring about this film that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. It met it’s indie-film-quota before the titles and yet it looked all shiny and clean. It seemed that this polish revealed which parts were just cheap, tacky plastic…

The roommate and her boyfriend were cringe-worthy awkward with no charm or believability. They felt like glossy, unapologetic devices for the story. The sound design clashed with the images as sound levels veered wildly and the awful demo-music samples didn’t even last as long as the scenes. At one point Megan’s nose stud jumps nostrils while in a side profile close-up.. whilst her face fills most of the screen. These little mistakes were amplified by the look and feel of the thing.

Maybe Dan Harmon’s right when he says that romance is a condiment for a story, not the meal itself.

Selma (2014)

Written for RAF News Jan 2015

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s  historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and after the supposed break up of segregation in the States, Selma picks up in the south where things don’t seem to have changed much at all – where four girls have been murdered by white supremacists and where black citizens are still prevented from registering to vote.

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When Dr. King (David Oyelowo) hears this news, he decides to use his platform to bring attention to this continued injustice by arranging a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.

Although Dr. King is introduced accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he is not shown to be an outright hero but a passionate and charismatic preacher who knows how to use a stage and move a crowd. No film had until now focussed on Dr. King and so it comes as a pleasant surprise that director Ava DuVernay avoids the pitfall of deifying this cultural icon and instead shows him as a man – a complex figure complete with all his faults and foibles.

Oyelewo’s King presents the contrast of the man on and off stage: speaking with a measured poetic rhythm that erupts into familiar passionate cries when in front of a crowd, but thoughtful – at times doubtful and doubting even – behind closed doors.

In showing this side to Dr. King, Selma is able to shift focus to the issues at the core of the film and observe the people that marched together on that momentous day, exploring their individual stories and struggles. In a sense Selma looks at the human side of a legend, showing Dr. King to be an ordinary person, and the extraordinary side of regular people as they came together to stand up against oppression.

American Sniper (2014)

Written for RAF News Jan 2015

American Sniper opens to an Iraqi mother and son approaching a group of American Navy SEALs. Something is off about her gait… her arms aren’t moving. She is holding something beneath her clothing – an RKG Russian grenade – which she hands to her child before sending him running toward the platoon. All of this is witnessed through the scope of Chris Kyle’s rifle whilst his finger rests on the trigger.AMERICAN-SNIPER

This gripping open to Clint Eastwood’s latest contains the essence of the film: the intense focus and moral deliberation (or lack thereof) of decorated SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) caught in extreme close-ups, fast-paced editing and confining sound design.

An adaptation of Kyle’s best-selling autobiography, the film carries his values and moral certainty in tone, but also in Cooper’s performance – suitably beefed up and puffed out with a deep Texan drawl. Accumulating 160 confirmed kills (255 unconfirmed) over four tours of Iraq earned him the title of ‘Legend’ among friends and ‘The Devil of Ramadi’ among Iraqi insurgents. Burly, brave but never boastful, Kyle’s dedication to God and his country is unwavering, though it is certainly tested by the many faces of evil that threaten his brothers-in-arms.

The binary division of heroism and pure evil can make the film appear cartoonish at times – more a western than a war film – with Kyle’s patriotism becoming the most aggressive thing about him. Shown to be a gentle and compassionate man, we are shown the struggle he has in returning back to ordinary life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids. Intending to give a more rounded view of the most lethal sniper in the US military, these familiar scenes feel tired and almost obligatory.

It is in the combat scenes that Eastwood flourishes, unsurprisingly. At one point, dizzying direction places you at the heart of a shootout when all figures in the frame are swallowed by a sandstorm. These moments of raw cinematic action deliver concentrated doses of suspense that make the film worth seeing.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Spoilers ahoy.

Edge of Tomorrow is a futuristic action/science-fiction film that takes place during a war with an invading alien race who seem to have some control over time. A high-concept film that cleverly works in a conceit that excuses the film for being very Hollywood.edge-of-tomorrow

Tom Cruise begins as William Cage: an inexperienced, queasy-at-the-sight-of-blood, coward officer. This obviously must change – he is Tom Cruise. Confessing to be more involved in the campaigning side of things and attempting to blackmail his way out of participation, Cage finds himself volunteered to fight on the frontline against these alien invaders.

Very soon he will find himself dropped into combat wearing a future-tech soldier-suit, the type to have plasma guns appear from hidden crevices, unfortunately he hasn’t been trained on how to use it. Instead the action hero in the film takes the shape of Emily Blunt as Rita: ‘the full metal bitch’ as they are sure to remind us. Picking up from her previous sci-fi action film Looper, Blunt holds her own against another 50-year-old action star with the same stony faced stoicism. She dances around the battlefield whilst dear old Cage only manages to pick off one of the so-called Mimics before dying.

And then the day starts again… turns out the creature the Cage killed has locked him into his own private Groundhog Day. Now he must use this infinite repetition to his advantage and use his superseding knowledge of the day to find help and get trained up. He must escape the strict watch of his General for instance, and so whilst on exercise he tries to roll under a moving car in order to break away. Every time he mistimes the move and is chewed up by the tires of the oncoming vehicle, his day is reset. Once this is established with the audience, the film doesn’t need to explain how many times Cage has attempted an act of daring, we can safely assume he has tried it over and again until it has worked – we are merely catching his successful attempt.

In Mission Impossible we have no such excuse for the luck that is granted Ethan Hunt. Action films often preface their death-defying stunts by endowing the hero with a history in the special forces, with a very specific set of skills as it were, but it cannot excuse these moments of sheer luck that are threaded throughout Hollywood films – those purely cinematic moments that defy realism. Edge can do precisely that, thereby explaining away why Cruise can roll under a moving car. A beautiful flourish.

We later find out that Blunt too had this power but lost it.. that’s why she is such a bad-ass. She decides to train Cage so that they can work as a team to find the headhoncho alien and win the war. The reset device is used to create a unique kind of montage in which comedy is derived from the execution of the protagonist: if he slips up, she shoots him. LIVE. DIE. REPEAT (get it?) With fast-paced editing and reused shots, this technique provides well-earned comedic relief. If not simply relieving from the cold, austere seriousness of Blunt. She is training him. An unlikely turn for a Cruise action film – though this is corrected when he overtakes her and reprises his role as action hero, saving her in return (call it even) then saving the day like she never could (not quite even) then she is demoted to a fleeting love interest.

Garth

Rick: He saved my life once. I saved his twice, so I was one up

Problem is that the stakes have been wiped as there is no longer the threat of death. And so comes a flimsy explanation for how this power is lost, turning the film into ordinary Hollywood fair, especially when in the final moments of the film it seems to employ its own rules and revive the hero for a happy ending.

Edge of Tomorrow utilises it’s concept to justify the Hollywoodness that it shines with, and though it can’t sustain this subversion until the very end, it’s impressive while it lasts.

The Grandmaster (2014)

Written for RAF News Dec 2014

The Grandmaster follows revered martial artist Ip Man (Tony Leung) as he sets out to the different provinces of a China divided by Japanese invasion, seeking Grandmasters of different fighting styles so that they can exchange knowledge through hand-to-hand combat.

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Ip Man was a Chinese Grandmaster whose legacy can be seen in the widespread practice of Wing Chun – a martial art that he popularised – and in his best known student Bruce Lee, though now his legacy has been transposed to cinema: The Grandmaster being the fifth film to centre on him in the last decade.

The fight scenes are met with director Wong Kar Wai’s distinctive aesthetic style. From the inward twisting of ankles of the Wing Chun stance, there is a dance like elegance that accompanies the fight scenes. Though this is not a particularly new idea it dovetails perfectly with the romantic stylisation of Wong Kar Wai, showing the fluidity of martial arts in slow-motion, punctuated with the sound of cold hard thuds as fists connect and bodies are thrown.

Giving very little away, the taciturn Ip Man lets his craft speak for him, possessing a coolness that borders on smug through his permanent half-smile. Those interested in seeing a regular martial arts genre film may be caught off-guard by the philosophical turns in-between fights, and may very well feel cheated when there is no big fight finale, instead presented a montage of a young Bruce Lee.

While the films beauty is undeniable it can feel disjointed when changing pace to the deliberately slow and thoughtful exchanges between characters – perhaps due to the cuts forced on the film to bring down its running time. It may be that the visual style isn’t enough to hold together a film that attempts to cover an entire era in Chinese history.