Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

Horrible Bosses 2Having sent his last boss to prison for a murder he himself planned,  Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has decided to become his own boss. Along with best friends Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) Dale Arbus (Charlie Day), Nick seeks the investment necessary in order to finance his premiere product: the Shower Buddy. When Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) bankrupts their business, before buying up their idea for next to nothing, however, they once again find themselves looking outside of the law for retribution. With the help of their criminal-on-call, Dean “Motherfucker” Jones (Jamie Foxx), Nick, Kurt and Dale plot to kidnap Burt’s son Rex (Chris Pine) and ransom him for the money necessary to buy back the Shower Buddy.

Green-lit on the back of the original film’s strong performance stateside, Horrible Bosses 2 reunites the surviving cast of Seth Gordon’s original for another go at the box office. The first film was — as Hollywood brom-coms go — something of a pleasant surprise, but by any other standard it was still a contrived, convoluted mess that had little going for it save for the odd gross-out gag or well-cast cameo. Certainly, it failed to deliver on its promise of dark comedy, settling instead for the sort of dim-wittedness that is unlikely to unsettle the masses. Although new to the franchise himself, replacement director Sean Anders keeps things on a remarkably even keel — bringing back screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein for more of the same.

As a result, Horrible Bosses 2 is every bit as passable as its predecessor. Ex-bosses Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston are back, at least — the former behind bars after killing Colin Farrell in the first film and the latter busy bedding the various members of her sex addiction clinic — and though in considerably diminished roles they just about manage to carry the film between them. Foxx, meanwhile, gets slightly more to do than before, and in addition to instigating a genuinely entertaining car chase during the third act he is seemingly the only character willing to consider the ethical implications of Nick, Kurt and Dale’s actions. Unlike last time, the supposed heroes of the piece are actually culpable of murder, but the filmmakers once again fail to address the issues of responsibility or justice, instead settling for a re-establishment of the status quo that feels neither earned or wanted.

It wouldn’t be such an issue if the protagonists were engaging enough to warrant a free pass — after all, beloved characters have got away with worse. While Bateman, Sudeikis and Day may have some semblance of chemistry it is not enough to compensate for their wholly unpleasant, utterly uninteresting characters. The uncomfortably unsavoury undercurrents remain, and many of the ‘jokes’ seem to be at the expense of some subgroup or other — never overt enough to cause actual controversy, but dubious nonetheless. It’s difficult to root for characters who are lauded for their ignorance, and unable to simply laugh off flippant displays of homophobia or misogyny you quickly lose any and all interest in their plight. By film’s end you’re ready to flag Jonathan Banks’ Detective Hatcher over and give evidence against all three of them. Having now exhausted murder and kidnapping you daren’t begin to imagine what hilarious hi-jinx might await them in part three.

But the chances are you will laugh, on occasion (I’m ashamed to admit that I did, anyway); but hopefully it will be completely against your better judgement. The actors are competent enough comedians to get their timing and delivery right, regardless of the quality of the gags themselves. That said, the qualifier in the title might just as easily stand alone. This one is Horrible, too.

2-stars

Get On Up (2014)

Get On UpShortly after his mother (Viola Davis) leaves his father (Lenny James), James Joseph Brown Jnr (Jamarion and Jordan Scott; Chadwick Boseman) is left in the care of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Later imprisoned for stealing another man’s suit, James impresses visiting musicians The Famous Flames who pay his debts and sponsor his release from prison. Living now with band-member Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), James helps to raise the band’s profile until they are eventually signed by King Records. When James’ manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) anoints him the true voice of the group, and the label demands that their name be changed to James Brown and The Famous Flames, however, everyone but Byrd quits on the spot. It’s an issue that will recur throughout his career.

And there you have it: you now know more about the life of James Brown than I did going into Tate Taylor’s biographical drama, Get On Up. Of course, ignorance shouldn’t really be a problem on the big screen — films should be able to stand on their own — but in Taylor’s you immediately feel at a disadvantage. As the script, or perhaps simply the editor, ricochets around Brown’s time-stream, seemingly unconcerned by chronology or narrative coherence, you are left to piece together your protagonist from fragments as apparently random as a blindfolded wrestling match in the 1940s and an armed raid of his own business in 1993. It’s all a little disorientating — a fact compounded by Boseman’s occasional and unexplained addresses to camera.

At well over two hours in length there is admittedly ample room for such detours, but Get On Up lacks an identifiable throughline to deviate from. It’s woefully unfocused, ticking off iconic events in James Brown’s career without ever attempting to get to know the singer himself. Considering just how much time you spend in his company it’s telling that by film’s end you are no closer to understanding the man behind the songs. This might not be such a problem if Brown was a manufacured pop act unworthy of exploration, but Get On Up goes out of its way to show that this simply wasn’t the case. An incident at the Boston Garden in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and Brown’s handling of it deserves more analysis than it actually receives — Aykroyd’s manager instead telling his charge to do what he does best.

Thankfully, Boseman’s performance is charismatic enough to compensate — perhaps the main reason that Get On Up ultimately comes out on top of John Ridley’s dour ode to Jimi Hendrix, All Is By My Side. The film is about as structurally and narrative cliched as they come (featuring the rise and fall of some miserable musician, bookended by scenes from an historic performance — honestly, it might as well be Walk The Line or even Inside Llewyn Davis) but Boseman manages to buoy it whenever he’s onscreen. It’s an incredibly physical performance, and some dubious lip-syncing aside he convinces completely. He has strong support, too, none more so than in the case of Ellis, who must justify to himself as well has his bandmates why he puts up with his position as a supporting artist. Taylor — and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth — could perhaps have done more to develop his character, but in the end it is Byrd (and wife Velma) who delivers the biggest emotional punch regardless.

You’ve seen this story before, and even fans of James Brown (or the musical drama genre as a whole) are unlikely to take much away from Get On Up. That said, the performances are impressive enough, and the music suitably rousing, to keep you reasonably engaged throughout — while also leaving you guessing just how Boseman might approach the character of Black Panther in a few years time. If only it were half an hour shorter it might actually have been enjoyable, too. After two hours you won’t need to be told twice to get on up.

3-Stars

The Homesman (2014)

H_20130419_8652.tifIn Nebraska, some time in the 1850s, New Yorker Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport a trio of troubled women across country to Iowa. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) are taken from their families, loaded into a horse-drawn wagon and lead out of town on a perilous journey through the American Midwest — where they face myriad dangers including but not limited to bandits and natives. Mary Bee is understandably reluctant to undertake the venture alone, and when she spies a con-man trussed up to a tree she negotiates guidance in exchange for mercy. Together with George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), she sets off into the wilderness.

It’s easy to see why The Homesman is being identified as a Western, albeit one with feminist and/or other subversive qualities; the film is about ten percent dirt, thirty percent sky and sixty percent misery. It’s bleak and hard and unforgiving, and you’d likely have an easier time mining for water than entertainment value. This is another story featuring a mysterious wanderer (there is a twinkle in Jones’ eye that suggests he is not giving his real name), at first in it for the money, who ultimately discovers that there may be more to life than opportunistic crime and senseless violence — that there might in fact be good people out there; people worth helping, if not necessarily saving.

Where The Homesman differs to most, however, is in its focus. Tommy Lee Jones may write, direct and indeed star, but he is not the protagonist of his own story. That would be Hilary Swank, making her long-overdue return to the big screen following a three-year hiatus that left something of an awkward silence after Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve. She gives an outstanding performance as Mary Bee Cuddy — her best in ages — and though haggard and harrowing there is an honesty to it that hooks you and won’t let go. She’s lonely, homesick and desperate to be close to someone — even if only contractually. She mundanely propositions men with marriage, treating the act more as a business transaction than an emotional union, then wonders why they label her plain and bossy.

This depth of character is only possible due to the thematic complexity which similarly sets it apart from others entries in the Western genre. The Homesman is a treatise on mental illness, and uses its female protagonist as a prism through which to explore a subject that is rarely considered the domain of the period drama. Mary Bee is struggling herself, and though far from catatonic it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to diagnose some sort of mood disorder — she’s compulsive, despondent, and, in playing a felt keyboard while mimicking the keys, quite possibly delusional. But the same could be said for George Briggs, who shuns society, ignores its norms and drinks too much. Jones may largely ignore the three women locked inside the wagon but his script’s treatment of those outside it illustrates the differing pressures on men and women.

Of course, that’s all well and good in hindsight, but if a film fails to hold its viewers’ attention in the moment then it doesn’t count for much in the end — however handsome it might look or how well it might be acted. There may be slightly more to The Homesman than the average Western, but the odd point of interest aside its two-hour running time is still largely a featureless landscape — one that even Meryl Streep can’t hope to disrupt. This is a story of deprivation, in more ways than one.

2.5-Stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I (2014)

Mockingjay Part IHaving been rescued from the 75th Hunger Games by insurgents from District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now exiled underground with her family (Willow Shields; Paula Malcolmson), friends (Liam Hemsworth; Woody Harrelson) and assorted refugees from the other districts (Sam Claflin; Jeffrey Wright). As President Snow (Donald Sutherland) tries to quash the nascent rebellion, President Coin (Julianne Moore) seeks to fan the flames. Capitol interlopers Plurarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymore Hoffman) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) agree to help by turning Katniss into the Mockingjay, a figurehead for the resistance, and with the help of director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) they leave the safety of the bunker to put together a series of propaganda films on the surface. Before she can help them, however, Katniss must come to terms with the loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — something made all the harder by the revelation that he is now working for Snow.

Although largely seen as the refrain of the fanboy, “it’s not as good as the book” is a criticism that might accurately be leveled at Lionsgate’s extant Hunger Games franchise. The first film was held in relatively high regard upon its release in 2012, and following the subsequent deluge of imitators it has become the yardstick against which all other Young Adult adaptations are measured, but next to Suzanne Collins’ source novel it isn’t quite as impressive. In a drive to recreate the book’s urgency and momentum original director Gary Ross left an awful lot out, as did successor Francis Lawrence when he took on Catching Fire the following year. District 12 lost most of its screentime to the titular Games, and unconvincing special effects, bizarre casting choices and incomprehensible action sequences have dogged the series ever since. Ultimately, however, the story of Katniss Everdeen — Girl on Fire — has been just about compelling enough to compensate.

Mockingjay, however, was always the weakest episode in the trilogy, and it followed that the film (or films, as it was inevitably split in two, Deathly Hallows style) would likely follow suit. Buried underground and removed from the action, Katniss spent most of the novel on hold as control was ceded instead to Coin. This is the part of the narrative that occupies Mockingjay – Part I, and it was hard to imagine returning director Lawrence being able to make it work, especially seeing as key characters from the book — often present throughout Collins’ trilogy — had yet to be introduced and relationships satisfactorily established onscreen. In the event, this is particularly evident in the opening act, as Katniss — distrustful of Coin — is sent back to District 12 to see the damage wrought by Snow for herself. Whereas the destruction of Hogwarts — after eight films spent within its walls — verged on iconoclastic, seeing the Victor’s Village in ruin just doesn’t have the same impact; the mythology doesn’t mean quite as much. The previous films haven’t done enough to make audiences care about anyone or anything other than Katniss.

Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong (best known for playing Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) do their best to bring you up to speed — but it’s too little, too late. It’s a silly example, but both Katniss and sister Prim go out of their way to save the family pet despite the fact that it has never been mentioned before, robbing their efforts of the emotional resonance that they perhaps deserve. That they each call the cat by different names only confuses matters more. Similarly, it is mentioned that — like Peeta and fellow victor Johanna Mason — Annie Cresta is a prisoner of the Capitol, yet you’d have to really rack your brains to recall her fleeting cameo in Catching Fire. It’s only now that the supporting cast is finally getting some attention that you realise how small and superficial the ensemble actually is, with extras once again being called upon to provide the stakes and scale whenever the film rejoins the battle taking place beyond Coin’s bunker. The Hunger Games must have some of the hardest working extras in the industry.

It’s all the more amazing, then, that the film kind of works regardless. Jennifer Lawrence continues to carry the series, and from the moment the camera opens on Katniss Everdeen you can’t help but invest in her struggle. She no longer has to do so single-handedly, however, and both Moore and the late Hoffman help to shoulder the weight. Hemsworth gets more to do as well, and if anything he makes Gale more sympathetic than he was even in the books — he’s lost Katniss to Peeta, and he knows it, yet he stands by her side regardless. Mainly, however, it’s thanks to the subtext — now essentially text — that Mockingjay – Part I manages to hold your interest. There has always been a sense of satire to the series, and ever since The Hunger Games first hit our screens it’s been impossible to look at reality television in quite the same way; but here the socio-political commentary takes the fore. Mockingjay has a lot to say about propaganda and the media, about democracy and dictatorships, and about rebellion and terrorism. Given that the series is allegedly set in a future dystopian America its message could be very pertinent indeed.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I, being half an adaptation of a disappointing book, is about as good as it could ever possibly be. Excellent performances, a strong satirical edge and a killer ending (Katniss’ torments are worth one hundred anonymous tragedies) help to compensate for an uneventful story, slight supporting cast and lack of emotional weight. Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from here.

3.5-Stars

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

What We Do In The ShadowsIn the months leading up to The Unholy Masquerade, Wellington’s premier ball for the undead, a documentary crew follows vampire flatmates Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) as they prepare for the big night. In addition to the usual tensions that flare within flatshare situations — Deacon hasn’t done the dishes in years — the foursome also have less familiar issues to contend with: Viago has unrequited feelings for a woman a fifth of his age; Vladislav is locked in an war of words with his nemesis, The Beast (Elena Stejko); Deacon is struggling with a rebellious retainer, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), his frustrated human familiar; and Petyr has sired a university student (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who won’t leave them alone. To top it all off, they can’t seem to leave the flat without running into a pack of local werewolves.

Written and directed by stars Waititi and Clement, both alumni of multi-media comedy troupe Flight of the Concords, What We Do In The Shadows is a feature-length adaptation of the pair’s 2006 short film of the same name. A mocumentary in the vein of André Øvredal’s TrollHunter, the film seeks to expose the truth behind the myth — that vampires are just as concerned with common courtesies as they are with slaughtering virgins — and in so doing embrace the underlying absurdities of the horror genre. By treating their subject with the utmost seriousness and sincerity, Waititi and Clement ask what it would really by like to be a centuries-old vampire living in modern-day New Zealand. How, for instance, do vampires get ready for a party without the assistance of a mirror? How do familiars choose their master’s victims? And how does one protect one’s furniture from arterial spray?

Vampires are certainly ripe for the picking. Bloodsuckers have never been more popular, but while this renewal of interest hasn’t gone unnoticed by satirists they have tended to lampoon individual films — namely, Twilight — rather than the folklore underpinning them. The best gags are the most intuitive, and in many ways the most obvious, with special attention being drawn to the characters’ hypnotic abilities, their great age and their need to be invited in. There’s some great character humour too, and when you’re not smirking at Vladislav’s inability to transform into a convincing animal you’re smiling at myriad other affectations that have nothing to do with his vampiric abilities. And then there’s Petyr, by far the oldest of the four and the one who most closely resembles a creature of the night (Nosferatu, specifically); even in a room full of demons he looks conspicuous, and any scene is improved simply by his silent inclusion.

Unfortunately, while always amusing What We Do In The Shadows is rarely outright hilarious. In some scenes it seems that the cast assume that they have to do little more that turn up to have the audience in stitches; but while Flight of the Concords fans might disagree these scenes instead come across as either complacent and indulgent. It feels ramshackle and rushed, and the provisional air isn’t helped by the inconsistent accents and low-fi production values. Waititi and Clement don’t seem to care whether their audience believes in their conceit, and while the roughshod nature of their film has its charms it can also be incredibly frustrating. There’s no doubt that any amateurishness is completely intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more welcome. Discipline is as important to comedy as anarchy, and yet in this area at least What We Do In The Shadows is distinctly lacking.

Witty and well-observed, What We Do In The Shadows certainly has its moments, but sadly it lacks the commitment and conviction needed to pursue larger laughs. In the end, it’s just a little bit B-.

3-Stars

Interstellar (2014)

InterstellarIn the future, after the entitled excesses of the 21st Century, the Earth is struggling to support the human race. With little demand for engineers and explorers most people now work as farmers — including ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his makeshift family: father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, named after Murphy’s Law). When a downed military drone leads him to NASA, now underground and incognito, he is recruited for a last-ditch attempt to save the species, if not the planet. Crops are failing, and in order to prevent his children from either starving or suffocating he must find them a new home — a new world. Together with Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and robot TARS (Bill Irwin), Cooper charts a course for Saturn, and a recently-formed wormhole to another galaxy.

Having ended his trilogy of Batman-inflected treatises on fear, chaos and pain with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s latest think-piece looks to the stars. Interstellar, which began life as a Steven Spielberg project before being rewritten by Nolan and longtime brother/collaborator Jonathan, asks whether love might be a force akin to gravity — capable not only of transcending life and death but dimensions too. At first it seems like something of a change of tact for Nolan, a director better known for debunking spells than casting them, but when the film introduces a ghost, a wormhole and a race of inter-dimensional beings known as ‘Them’ or ‘They’ you can’t help but take the bait and join Cooper in “wondering at our place in the stars”. Sadly, any mystery is short-lived.

However, for the first act at least, there is real promise. Nolan’s vision of a planet blighted by pestilence and choking in dust is an effective one, and small scenes showing life in such an environment — plates and glasses being placed upside down on the table to keep them clean; a school curriculum deriding NASA’s space programme as a hoax in order to discourage students from pointless distractions — are intriguing and well-observed. Perhaps inevitably, it’s this section of the movie that feels most Spielbergian in tone: the family dynamic is interesting, their adventures exciting and their interactions entertaining. When the family’s Land Rover leaps into a cornfield in pursuit of low-flying drone it’s more likely to evoke ET or Jurassic Park: The Lost World than anything from Nolan’s own filmography.

That all changes when Cooper arrives at NASA. He is quickly stripped of his children and his humanity; lectured on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Michael Caine; and launched into the vacuum of space with the physicist’s daughter, two personality-free scientist and a Stanley Kubrick homage. The film’s humour setting is dialed down while its honesty setting is ratcheted up; with Nolan once again valuing realism at all costs, even when he’s being decidedly unrealistic. The ship — Endurance — may be about to fly into a wormhole but it must do so in absolute silence, darkness and inactivity, as its passengers enter stasis for months, if not years at a time. The film loses all momentum immediately, and for the next hour Nolan stops and starts his narrative as the characters travel to a series of gimmicky planets earmarked as potential homes (or, at least, “rocks for humanity to cling to”) by previous missions for additional exposition.

It’s not just a sense of limbo that Interstellar shares with Inception, either, with Nolan returning once more to the subject of time. As in different levels of dreaming, and as per Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time operates differently across space. Their first destination is Miller, a planet upon which time slows to a crawl, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of deja-vu as the characters discuss temporal differences between locations at length. The stakes, in this case, are reversed: Cooper doesn’t risk losing years of his life but missing decades of his childrens’, but they are familiar nonetheless. As it stands, Miller is a bit of a waste of time, and as impressive as its mountainous waves may be they add exactly nothing to either character, theme or plot — save to necessitate the recasting of Cooper’s children as adults, so that Tom is now played by Casey Affleck and Murphy by Jessica Chastain.

According to Nolan, interstellar travel is as mundane as Gotham in The Dark Knight trilogy or Ariadne’s dreamscapes in Inception — same men, different suits. The problem is, however, that when the film finally plays its hand and Nolan is forced to ask for a suspension of disbelief from his audience it is much too late. After two films spent establishing Batman as a pragmatic character it is no wonder audiences balked when in The Dark Knight Rises he was finally called upon to do something genuinely superheroic, and so it is with the third act of Interstellar. We may not in fact be dealing with ghosts, wormholes or inter-dimensional beings but the reality is no less ridiculous — perhaps even more so. In Spielberg’s hands it might just have worked — after all, it wouldn’t be the first of his films to hang on the precept “life will find a way” — but in Nolan’s it doesn’t; it seems sentimental and simplistic. It’s a gear-change that jolts you awake, and when the core concept crumbles you realise that it’s all he ever really had in the first place. Nolan loves ideas so much he’s now naming his characters after them.

That said, Intersteller is still a thought-provoking and ambitious movie. It has often been said that the director is as gifted at writing women as he is at telling jokes — yet Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand is a surprisingly engaging character. There is a lot about Nolan’s latest that feels contrived and convoluted — not least a lesson on love given by Amelia herself — but Hathaway’s performance resonates regardless, and her motivations and sacrifices have all the more impact for her emotional honesty. The best scenes are felt rather than explained — the indignity of a parent-teacher meeting; awe as a space ship clips a frozen cloud; desperation during a rescue mission — but you lose hours in stasis in between. It hardly matters that it’s scientifically accurate, until it isn’t.

3-Stars

The Babadook (2014)

The BabadookIt’s been six years since her husband died on the way to the hospital for the birth of their son, but single-mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is still struggling with the loss. Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is too, acting out and manifesting his fears in a succession of bogeymen. One night, when she lets him chose a bedtime story, he returns from the shelf with an unfamiliar and apparently unfinished picture book called The Babadook. It tells of a costumed creature that imposes itself on anyone unlucky enough to let it in. Sensing her son’s discomfort and in denial of her own she tears the book to pieces and throws it into the bin, only for it to be returned to her days later. Not only has someone fixed it, they’ve finished it.

The horror genre has been in a bit of a sorry state of late. Remakes, spin-offs and meta-analyses have proliferated to the point that Ouija — an adaptation of the Hasbro game of the same name — is among the more original horror releases of 2014. In recent years vampires have been romanticised, zombies have been humanised and poltergeists have been homogenised. Where once horror was used to explore diverse, deep-seated human fears and frustrations it is now used largely to titilate and surprise. Not so with The Babadook, a film which is much less concerned with entertaining its viewers than it is making them think, engage and feel. Refreshingly, director Jennifer Kent is at least as focused on her characters as she is on her audience.

The Babadook is not about blood and guts but is rather a study of fear. Like The Ring or Triangle, two other horror movies starring Australian actresses, it’s about the often strained relationship between a single mother and her child. Amelia is both suspicious and resentful of Samuel — he’s difficult, delusional and quite possibly dangerous — but she’s also in many ways responsible. Samuel has picked up on his mother’s anxieties, and unable to understand them he has projected them onto imagined threats, long after better adjusted children have left ghouls and goblins behind. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of distrust and perplexing to everyone outside of the loop, resulting in the pair becoming increasingly alienated from the support group they so desperately need. Not that you blame Amelia for having concerns — Samuel is a terrifying creation, but he is her creation.

What’s less certain is whether Mister Babadook is too, or whether he’s entirely outside her control. It’s mentioned in passing that Amelia used to be a children’s writer, and there’s every possibility that she produced the book herself, whether on purpose or not. The Babadook might not be a personification, but simply a person. The other option is that she is somehow facilitating it; that the creature senses her fear and is now feeding on it. (Is Samuel worried that his mother might let the creature into their house, or into her soul?) It’s not a question of whether she is responsible for what is happening, but of the level of her accountability, and it is testament to Davis’ poignant performance that you sympathise with her regardless. Ultimately, however, Mister Babadook’s true nature is as irrelevant as his chosen form: whether realised as an illustration in a picture book, a shapeless shadow haunting the family home or a cloaked figure stalking Amelia when she leaves her house he remains an oppressive presence throughout and a palpable threat to the characters we have grown to care about.

The Babadook is quite simply one of the most frightening films of recent memory — the characters are scary, the creature is scary, even the subject matter is scary. But — and this is what really sets it apart — it is much more than that. Intricately crafted and exquisitely played, Kent’s film won’t simply scare you; it will haunt you.

4-Stars

Say When (2014)

Say WhenMegan, 28 (Keira Knightley), is almost indistinguishable from Megan, 17 (Larissa Schmitz). She’s still living with her high-school boyfriend (Mark Webber), still working as a sign-spinner for her father, and still making childish jokes to friends who are now much more concerned with furthering their careers and raising a family than having a laugh. When Anthony proposes at her best friend’s wedding, Megan panics, leaving the party early and going for a late-night drive to clear her head. Outside a local grocery store she meets Annika (Chloe Moretz), an underage girl looking to source alcohol for her close circle of friends. Megan obliges, later calling in the favour and moving into Annika’s father’s house for a week of soul-searching. Craig (Sam Rockwell), curious as to why there is now an adult woman bunking up with his teenage daughter, agrees to let her stay, on the proviso that she stays in the spare bedroom.

Say When — or Laggies, as it seems to be known everywhere else — is the new film from Lynn Shelton, director of Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. Written by novelist-turned-screenwriter Andrea Seigel, it tells the story of a woman who regresses to childhood when adult life becomes too much. The idea of adults posing as children is nothing new — just look at Never Been Kissed, 21 Jump Street or even Orphan — but Say When is one of the first to play it completely straight. This isn’t a police sting or a murder plot but simply a whim, a vacation, a coping mechanism. Megan does her best to explain herself when Craig pushes for answers but if you’re not willing to accept the premise on face value her attempts to rationalise her behaviors are unlikely to convince you.

Helpfully, Megan’s normal life isn’t particularly interesting, so that once she’s moved in with Annika and Craig you’re so relieved to see the status quo disrupted that you’re quite happy to go along with just about anything. The kids are well-played — Moretz in particular impresses as perhaps the most mature member of her household, while Kaitlyn Dever steals just about every scene she’s in as best friend Misty — but it is Megan and Craig who prove the most compelling. Both Knightley and Rockwell are naturally very likeable actors, and its by virtue of their easy chemistry that the relationship works as well as it does. They counterbalance one another, and Shelton has some fun with this fluidity of maturity — most effectively when Megan and Craig sneak out of the house during one of Annika’s sleepovers for an illicit drink at a nearby bar.

But for the most part it’s the actors themselves that are the biggest draw here and not the characters they’re supposed to be playing. Outside of the central trio very few cast-members are able to overcome the relatively uninspiring material they have been lumbered with, particularly Ellie Kemper who looks completely lost without something witty to say. The film is occasionally amusing — most notably a running gag about spirit guide animals — but nothing that’s going to trouble, let alone tickle your funny bone. You expect Megan to be aimless and confused, but while she eventually tires of her listlessness the narrative remains decidedly inert. Seigel drags Megan to the police station, to the airport and later to prom, but these scenes feel more like pointless detours than necessary developments and Shelton’s direction often feels no more decisive.

As with Begin Again, Say When is further evidence not just of Keira Knightley’s acting abilities but her indie credentials. While she may be able to carry the film, however, she can’t quite rescue it.

2-stars

 

Ouija (2014)

OuijaChildhood friends Laine (Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig) haven’t played with a Ouija board since they were kids, or at least that’s what Laine has been lead to believe. When Debbie suddenly commits suicide, however, Laine begins to suspect that she might have recently played the game alone — going against the rules. Desperate for a chance to say goodbye, Laine brings together friends Pete (Douglas Smith), Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), Isabelle (Bianca A. Santos) and sister Sarah (Ana Coto) for one final game of Ouija. Though they assume they are speaking to Debbie, however, research into the history of the house reveals that she might not be the only soul still residing there.

In production since 2008, when in the wake of Michael Bay’s Transformers film a number of other Hasbro properties were optioned for big screen adaptations, Ouija has taken slightly longer to produce than G.I. Joe or Battleship. And it shows, as while the finished film might not win any awards for originality it is by far the best of the lot. Co-writer and director Stiles White keeps things incredibly simple, telling a relatively straightforward story of poltergeists and possession, but while his film might include few twists or turns his obvious filmmaking abilities come as a very pleasant surprise. Ouija is well-staged, handsomely shot and nicely paced. This isn’t just a corporate cash-grab; it’s a half-decent horror film.

Opening with an apparent suicide, and dealing however indirectly with themes of child abuse and survivor’s guilt, Ouija is more than just a focus-grouped ninety minute advert for a global brand. As one of the characters says, Ouija is essentially a children’s game, but Ouija isn’t a children’s film. While far from terrifying, White has nevertheless orchestrated a number of successful jump scares. Having toyed with the board the group go their separate ways only to be accosted individually be the spirit they have invoked. One finds “Hi Friend” scratched into his desk, another finds the words etched on an underpass wall in chalk while Isabelle finds it smudged on her car windshield, only for a phantom hand to reach out from her empty vehicle to wipe it away.

The best scene takes place when the friends — scared by what they have seen — return to Debbie’s house to find out more. Sat once more around the board at the family’s dinner table they press the spirit for more information. The performances are unusually strong for a film of this kind, or perhaps it’s just that the characters are unusually likeable, so that when an empty chair is drawn from the table you jump not because you’re frightened but because they are. Sadly, however, the ensemble lacks a compelling or even coherent threat to rally around. The decision to have the ghosts possess people into killing themselves robs the hauntings of any suspense or urgency, as instead of giving the audience the opportunity to root for their characters writers White and Juliet Snowdon seal their fates instantly with clouded-over eyes from which there is apparently no escape. They genuinely deserve better.

Now that Hallowe’en’s over you may have very little reason to watch Ouija — unlike The Babadook, it plays almost exclusively to the holiday crowd — but that’s not to say that there isn’t still fun to be had. Aficionados might balk, but for everyone else it’s perfectly good fun.

3-Stars

Beyond Clueless (Discovery Film Festival, 2014)

Beyond CluelessAs the Young Adult phenomenon continues apace, it becomes harder and harder to imagine a time when teenagers were teenagers and not high school musicians, ageless supernatural romantics or predestined dystopic Messiahs. For the previous generation, however, things were a lot different. Cast your mind back to the late nineties, early noughties; to curtain haircuts, flannel shirts and acid-wash jeans; to Melissa Joan Hart, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prince Jr.; and to films such as The Faculty, She’s All That and The Girl Next Door. It was a strange, bygone, misunderstood time — after the 80s, but before the 80s were remade for the new millennium — and it has yet to be properly reviewed. Beyond Clueless — which recently had its Scottish premiere at Dundee Contemporary Arts’ Discovery Film Festival — does its best, and for that director Charlie Lyne deserves praise. Or perhaps more fittingly: a slow clap.

Look at any list of the greatest teen movies ever made and you’d likely think that the genre peaked in the 80s with the films of John Hughes, the slasher subgenre and cult classics like Carrie, Heathers and even Back to the Future. These choices, however, often say more about the teenage years of the film critics and film makers curating them than the quality of the films themselves. In Pitch Perfect, for example, it’s not a film from Skylar Austin’s character’s own teenage years that he feels best reflects that period in his life, but one from director Jason Moore’s 80s adolescence instead. A number of films from the nineties have inevitably breached the generational divide, be it Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You or (even more recently) Mean Girls, but for the most part teen films from subsequent generations haven’t received anywhere near the attention they deserve.

In critic-turned-director Charlie Lyne’s debut documentary, Beyond Clueless, almost none of these films warrant a mention. The Breakfast Club is referenced, indirectly, but the usual titles are for the most part beyond his remit. As the title suggests, Lyne is taking his audience beyond Clueless, instead aiming to introduce — or re-introduce — them to the little seen or unfairly forgotten films of his own formative years. Divided into five sections, the film begins with a prologue which analyses one of the genre’s foremost cliches: the newbie — a part usually played by the inexperienced transfer student. It sets out Lyne’s intentions perfectly, compiling footage from a variety of teen movies to illustrate his point, but also reflects his own position as something of an outsider. Lyne is, after all, an Englishman commenting on the American high school experience, as seen in American high school films.

Nevertheless, he has a lot of interesting things to say that speak to a much wider audience. His analysis of relatively well-known, if critically overlooked films such as The Craft, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Jeepers Creepers are both insightful and intelligent, as are his readings of Spider-man, Final Destination and EuroTrip. Equally impressive is his catalogue of rather more obscure examples, including The Rage: Carrie 2, Bubble Boy and Idle Hands. He even manages to mine Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads for relevant material. As interesting as these specific examples are, however, Beyond Clueless‘ real potential — and indeed power — is in finding parallels between movies. He achieves this on a number of occasions, roughly once per section, but never better than in the chapter dealing with sexual awakening. Against a montage of swimming pool encounters, featuring everything from Wild Things to Swimfan, Fairuza Balk’s hypnotic narration and Summer Camp’s stirring score conspire to strip away character and context to reveal the truth behind the trope.

While far from exhaustive (or, for that matter, exhausting), Beyond Clueless is still an impressive survey of an underrepresented subset of teen movies. For Lyne’s own generation, however, it is much more than that. It is a reminder, recognition, and hopefully the beginning of something new and long overdue in cinema: nineties nostalgia.

4-Stars

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