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

October 2014 – Ba, Ba-Ba-Dook, Dook, Dook

FuryFor me October began in Aberdeen, at the city’s first ever international film festival. Though undoubtedly something of a steep learning curve, as told by a patchy programme, technical difficulties and poor audience turn out, it does seem that valuable lessons have been learned and that steps will be taken to ensure that next year’s event is bigger, better and — hopefully — busier. Over two weekends I saw Candlestick, The Bridge Rising, The Backseat, The Raven On The Jetty and The Way He Looks.

I also used that week to catch up on recent releases, including Dracula Untold, Gone Girl, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Rewrite and The Maze Runner.

This month I was also able to attend my first press day in ages, since June in fact, travelling through to Glasgow to see Love, Rosie, Say When (to be reviewed this week ahead of its Friday release), This Is Where I Leave You, Jimi: All By My Side and Horns. Unsurprisingly, I was one of the only critics in attendance to enjoy Love, Rosie, which I found very charming indeed. It seems that even after four months the world still isn’t ready to admit that I’m right and it is wrong.

It being the month of Hallowe’en, cinemas were naturally awash with horror, and not always in the form of traditional scary movies. Both ’71 and Fury shocked and appalled, each doing its very best to show the true brutality of war. Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and The Book Of Life, meanwhile, told child-friendly tales of birthday curses and life after death. Those in search of a more conventional fright night needn’t have looked any further than Ouija and The Babadook, the later of which at least is likely to go down as a supernatural suspense for the ages.

There was also Nightcrawler, as you might have heard, but if you want a glowing recommendation of that one you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Film of the month: Fury

 

 

 

 

The Book Of Life (2014)

The Book of LifePromising a secret tour of her museum, Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) takes a small group of school children to a hidden chamber where she recounts a story from Mexican lore. Years ago in the town of San Angel, two childhood friends were vying for the affections of a young girl called María (Zoe Saldana). Monolo (Diego Luna), a musician from a family of bullfighters, attempts to win her over with music, while Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the orphaned son of the town’s late hero, uses his physical prowess to impress her. Unbeknownst to them, however, their efforts are being overseen by two of the country’s ruling deities – La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who reigns in the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who watches over the Land of the Forgotten.

A macabre Mexican animation produced by the one and only Guillermo del Toro? It’s certainly a tantalising prospect, but sadly one that debut director Jorge Gutierrez sadly — if perhaps unsurprisingly – fails to realise. And indeed, given the expectations that accompany any del Toro’s production, who could have expected him to? It’s not entirely Guiterrez fault, to be fair, with a banal script, bizarre casting choices and a bonkers soundtrack doing little to improve his chances of success. The dialogue is drab, the Mexican accents are inconsistent and every time Monolo picks up his guitar the film grinds to a halt while he launches into a completely incongruous rendition of Radiohead’s Creep.

It was, frankly, never going to work. Not only does the audience have three sets of characters to contend with, but they must first come to terms with a foreign belief system with which most will be completely unfamiliar. Throw in the fact that the visual style changes between one layer of storytelling and the next and you reach a level of narrative complexity that will likely have parents struggling to keep up, never mind their children. Seriously, it’s a story within a story about a world within a world that features characters pretending to be other characters in order to…settle a wager. At one point Monolo — dead, but ‘living’ in the Land of the Remembered — has to journey to the Cave of Souls to ask The Candle Maker (?) to transport him to the Land of the Forgotten so that he might then fight a giant bull and return to San Angel to stop a bandit from stealing a magic medal. I mean, what?

Thankfully, while the animation of the school children might at first seem a little crude, the rest of the film boasts some real visual flair. Styled on traditional wooden toys, the residents of San Angel are well crafted and beautifully animated – the residents of the Land of the Remembered even more so. What’s more, the film has a wonderful energy which means that while you’re not always entirely sure what’s going on it hardly matters, because it’s a joy to watch regardless. Sadly though, for all its exotic splendour, and despite the overwrought madness of the various subplots, The Book Of Life is actually a fairly staid story about essentially stock characters. Much is made of María being a different kind of heroine, a modern and independent woman who refuses to be controlled by the men in her life, but rather than round out her character the film simply sidelines her until a damsel in distress is needed for the final act.

Originally in development at DreamWorks Animation where del Toro has long served as a consultant, The Book Of Life was dropped from the studio’s release schedule over creative differences. Produced instead at Reel FX Creative Studios the filmmakers may have had more creative freedom to realise the film that they intended but at the cost of all the resources and seasoned talent that come with such an experienced backer. Guitterez may be better than Free Birds, the smaller studio’s previous effort, but you have to wonder if maybe DreamWorks Animation canned it for a reason.

2-stars

Nightcrawler (2014)

NightcrawlerAn obsessive self-starter who will do just about anything to succeed, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been inadvertently undermining his own career for years thanks to his dogged determination. He sells stolen goods to a variety of business owners, but few are willing to hire such a shameless thief on a more official or permanent basis. When Lou observes a freelance news crew covering a car accident on his way home, however, he may have finally found a business that’s not only open to his underhand tactics but which actively encourages them. Going further than anyone else in order to get the best footage, even if it means breaking the law or betraying his friends, Lou builds a relentless but reliable reputation for himself and his budding company.

Jake Gyllenhaal certainly looks the part. The moment you are introduced to Bloom — a gaunt, greasy-haired and slightly bug-eyed creature – you are repelled by him. It’s not just his manner that is off-putting, his way of talking without listening or his over-familiar demeanor, but something in his very nature. He’s a sociopath, through and through, and his lack of empathy and general apathy clearly go beyond the more acceptable neurodevelopmental abnormalities or compulsive disorders. As with everything else, Bloom learns about journalism through the prism of the internet, but it is an incomplete education that prioritises efficacy over ethics and is immediately twisted to suit his needs.

It’s an admirable performance, intense and intelligent, but not a particularly engaging one. Bloom isn’t conflicted in the slightest, which makes his character seem prosaic and predictable. This wouldn’t be such a problem if there was an external source of conflict, but any resistance to Bloom’s progress is superficial and ultimately shortlived. Once you have Bloom mapped out you inevitably look elsewhere for stimulus, and to begin with Rene Russo (and later Riz Ahmed’s apprentice Rick) seems to offer a glimmer of hope, of humanity, of emotional complexity. Both do good work — Russo in particular is electric in the editing suit — but ultimately they prove helpless in the face of Bloom’s manipulations and machinations. There is no tension in Nightcrawler, nothing at stake and nobody to support, and for a film posing as a thriller that is a real issue.

It’s a far cry from The Bang Bang Club, anyway, Steven Silver’s underestimated account of photojournalists in South Africa during the nation’s Apartheid. That film — based on real events — sought to explore the role of journalist on the battlefield, the impact of their work and the toll that it took on their health and relationships. By contrast, all Nightcrawler really has to say is that news crews and their editors are invariably ruthless, devious and unscrupulous — unrepentently so — and it seems woefully simplistic as a result. There’s some style — particularly in a car chase that takes place in the third act — but no substance whatsoever. Having built no momentum and failed to establish a compelling character arc, director Dan Gilroy doesn’t seem to know how to conclude his movie — so he just chooses to end it arbitrarily after the film’s only real set piece.

Nightcrawler should be shocking, and you get the impression that Gilroy does indeed intend to make a point, but as unsettling and occasionally uncomfortable as Gyllenhaal’s performance may be the fact that nobody onscreen seems the slightest bit concerned with his attitudes or actions somewhat lessens the impact. This isn’t drama; it’s a diatribe. And a long one at that.

3-Stars

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