Joker Review - The clown prince of crime puts on a happy face in this riveting, unsettling and award-worthy origin flick
It says a lot about cinema today that an opening montage featuring a man putting on a face-full of clown makeup before smiling forcefully at himself in a mirror, could very well be the most captivating silver screen moment of the year. There’s nothing flashy about the audience’s introduction to Joker (2019). There’s no explosions or gunfire. No well-timed comedic notes to hit. Just a painful, slow-burn look at humanity. One that’s perfect in its simplicity. Ironic really, given that one of the industry’s top directors, Martin Scorsese, used the same week as the DC origin flick’s release, to come out and trash films within the genre, claiming they aren’t “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences.” Ironic, because that’s exactly what Todd Phillips’ first foray into this world is – a gripping, complex and highly affecting look at how we are all just one bad day away from becoming someone we never thought we could be.
Designed as a standalone piece within the extended Warner Bros. superhero universe, Joker (2019) follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a rent-a-clown performer who spends his days dancing with signs outside rundown businesses or trying to bring laughter to sick children at the local hospital. It’s a dreary world he lives in, stuck in a city that’s crumbling around the lower classes, while the rich get richer on their false promises and giant rats roam the streets as literal incarnations of such hypocrisy. His social life isn’t much better either, seen as little more than a loner that still lives with his mother, and hindered by a condition that sees him burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the most inappropriate of times. Having always been told he was put on this earth to make others smile, Arthur is eager to try his hand at stand-up comedy, but after a series of unfortunate events sees him lose his job, his dignity and even his morality, seemingly small fractures begin to open up into giant chasms, and the devastating effects of society’s inability to care, make him into a symbol he never intended to become.
Captivating and uncomfortable, as it should be, Joker (2019) asks us to question not what it takes to become a madman, but how such characters can so easily slip through the cracks when society lets down its most vulnerable. See, there’s a fine line between making an audience feel sympathetic towards a character and calling them a hero, and you’re never uncertain with Joker (2019). Arthur is not someone to applaud or admire; his violent, bloody actions launch us back to reality just as we begin to feel sorry for him. One can understand and even feel regretful towards his situation, but never at the decisions he makes in response. There’s been a lot of critical opinions on whether a film centred on the actions of, what one could clearly argue is an incel, will insight others. But then again, any piece of art, news, or propaganda could do the same. And what Joker (2019) teaches us, more importantly, is that we must come at things from a personal level, not just an institutional one. Mental illness is prevalent in society and needs to be addressed better, but mental illness alone does not drive people to commit horrible acts. Stopping people from feeling shut-out, abandoned and ignored is just as crucial.
Phoenix’s performance here is perhaps the best of his career, which is no hard feat considering his turns in Walk The Line (2005), The Master (2012) and Her (2013). Nothing feels stale or re-used from other incarnations of the character, and while it would be unfair to compare his version with that of the late, great, Heath Ledger’s, there’s no denying the Aussie would have been proud. His laugh is at once both menacing and maniacal, as well as so very pained. And as Arthur begins to garner acknowledgement from those around him, stepping out from the shadows, there’s a glorious transformation in the energy and charisma Phoenix imbues. In saying that, he certainly has a stellar supporting cast to bring out his best, with Robert De Niro going toe-to-toe with him as smarmy, talk-show host Murray Franklin, and Frances Conroy shining as Penny Fleck in the small moments she shares with her son. At the end of the day though, it’s Phoenix’s movie, and like his namesake he rises from the ashes, from the first haunting scene, to the burning, soft glow of the last. If he doesn’t take home the Oscar, or at least a nomination, then Hollywood needs to have a long, hard look at itself.
Visually, the film is just as strong. With a relatively low budget (less than $55 million, including advertising), Phillips relies heavily on the physical, leaving the CGI to the superheroes. Warm, rich tones roll across the screen, lulling the audience into Arthur’s world. And don’t be fooled – it’s all about his vision of things – the colours popping more vibrantly as he comes to find his, albeit destructive, place in it. The costumes paint a similar picture too; the sharp, angular blue triangles around the anti-hero’s eyes setting the scene more than any clown before. There’s a style and flair to the character from his outfit, something the DC villain has always had. And it flows from the physical to the political aspects of film - this version so strikingly real that it’s easy to forget you’re watching fiction. Not a single decision has been taken lightly here, from tone to lighting, score to nuance, and it really shows. So rare is it that we are gifted a movie that is as beautiful as it is disturbing and gritty.
Leaving the theatre, it’s hard not to have more questions than answers when it comes to Joker (2019). But for once, that seems to be a good thing. Contrary to what we would like to believe, bad people aren’t born that way. Villains are made. And sometimes, that means their creation can also be prevented. I mean, how many times has society heard from people who have said they “haven’t been happy one minute of their entire fucking life”. Or arrogant assholes that claim: “those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t and see nothing but clowns.” So where does the buck stop? When do we decide to listen and act, rather than ignore? Because just like the titular character’s derided joke, by the time the film gets to its punchline, nobody is laughing. Instead, a nervous tickle begins to rise at the back of our collective throats as we begin to realise, sometimes, we are all part of the problem.
Rating: 4.5 Joker Cards out of 5
Glass Review - M. Night Shyamalan shatters his superhero universe by trying to bring out the good in all of us
There’s no arguing that superhero films are practically a dime-a-dozen these days. Whether it be the ever-increasing instalments from the sweeping Marvel Cinematic universe, DC’s attempts to forge-ahead with their own dramatically dark cosmos, or Fox’s sometimes lacklustre yet sometimes hilarious offerings. We certainly aren’t short of flicks that tread the same, familiar ground of awesome action sequences and climactic CGI battles. But every now and then though we get an offering like Glass (2019). A film that delves a little deeper into the genre. Behind the lens of good versus evil and right versus wrong. A movie that questions how the genre itself came to be born. And one that asks us to consider whether we’re all heroes, albeit in our own stories.
The conclusion of a trilogy that began with Unbreakable (2000) and was tenuously held together by Split (2016), M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass (2019) picks up right where its predecessor left off – with Kevin Wendell Crumb and his personalities, including The Beast – on the run. This time four young girls have gone missing, and it’s up to David Dunn, aided by his now grown-up son Joseph, to save the day - the former guard having thrown off the reluctance of his younger years and turned full-blown vigilante. After a showdown in an old factory the pair wind-up in a psychiatric facility, where the mysterious Doctor Ellie Staple tries to convince them, as well as fellow patient Elijah Price, that their ‘powers’ are no more than easily-explained trauma, illness or delusion. But this is Shyamalan, so expect things to get weird and twisty before the credits start rolling.
To a degree the movie is somewhat worthy of the praise enamoured fans have been bestowing upon it. However, it is clearly not without its flaws. For starters it tends to drag. While the first and last quarters of the film gallop along in a wave of adrenaline and tension, popping between personalities in the fun and chaotic way Split (2016) did, the entire middle section seems to pay unnecessary homage to the stylings of Unbreakable (2000). There are never-ending long, pensive looks from Bruce Willis, piles of pointless dialogue telling us things we can clearly already see, and too much time spent keeping the character’s separated instead of using the incredible talents of its A-list ensemble. Honestly, if Shyamalan’s point was to make us, the audience, feel like we too were trapped in the psych ward, then he certainly made it. Because after spending more than two-hours waiting for a goddamn pay-off, by the time it comes around we’re too tired to really care.
Stylistically it’s a knock-out though. We’re back to the straightforward yet stylish colour co-ordination of characters. Green for David Dunn’s Overseer, yellow for The Beast and purple for Mr Glass. Even the homes, workplaces and supporting characters imbue the same tones throughout, emphasising that everything, through to the finest of details, has been carefully considered and planned. Similarly, unlike Marvel and DC’s offerings, when the heroes and villains flex and fight here, it’s impossible to tell which moments are CGI and which are simple practical effects. It’s seamless and points to why, even after so many flops, Shyamalan is still going strong. After all, this is a man who managed to convince two of the biggest competing studios in Hollywood – Disney and Universal – to bring their separate properties of Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2000) together.
The glue that holds the film together though isn’t Shyamalan, but rather the impressive and outstanding work of James McAvoy. Pushing the boundaries even further on his Dissociative Identity Disorder character of Kevin Wendell Crumb, the Scot presents us with 20 different personalities this time round, each with distinct voices, movements, facial expressions and backstories. It would be a lot for any actor, but he pulls it off with aplomb, providing majority of the film’s light-hearted, tension-breaking moments. He is backed by a solid cast too, including veterans Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. While the former is his same surly self, the latter is disappointingly utilised, barely uttering a line or a facial twitch for first half the film. What is nice though, is to see the return of three prominent supporting characters and how their relationships have evolved in respect to the ‘main three’. Spencer Treat Clark’s Joseph has developed an endearing and often times comedic connection with his father, while Charlayne Woodard still brings the same sympathy and strength to Elijah’s mother. Anya Taylor Joy too brings much needed emotion in connecting with The Beast. The only one to truly falter is Sarah Paulson’s doctor, thanks to a limited backstory and mountains of meandering dialogue.
So, is Glass (2019) a great film? No. Not by a long shot. Frankly, it feels somewhat akin to the literal train wreck that opened the trilogy. But, just like that moment, it is also hard to look away. Because we want answers. We want twists. And we want to hope that superhero movies can be thought-provoking pieces as well as CGI smash-ups. And while Glass (2019) probably isn’t the one to provide it, if the closing moments are anything to go by though, it certainly sets to the scene for such future endeavours. Because sometimes the villain is good. Sometimes the monster is a protector. And sometimes the hero is the inspiration for someone to believe in themselves.
Rating: 2.5 Head Tilts out of 5
A Quiet Place Review - Silence is survival in this emotional film about human fragility and the power of sound
It is crazy to think just how many times a day we make sound. When we do the dishes or make our beds. As we walk across hard-wood floors or turn a key in a car. Slurping and crunching as we eat. Even tossing and turning in our sleep. Every time we move. Every breathe we take. Every word spoken. Now imagine those actions, from the tiniest cough to the loudest clang, meant that you could be torn to shreds in a matter of moments. It’s enough to make you catch your breath, right? Sit up a little straighter, eyes wider, more alert? Well, that is the beautifully simplistic premise behind John Krasinski’s new horror/thriller A Quiet Place (2018). The tagline little more than ‘If they hear you, they can hunt you’. And it’s about as disturbing as you might think, with The Office (2005 – 2013) alum masterfully directing, starring-in and even co-writing the script to this unsettling and menacing take on a creature feature.
The film’s premise is easy to follow, throwing us into a world where blind, armoured creatures with super-hearing skills have taken over, leaving humans to survive only by their silence. We follow the Abbott family, including Lee (John Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (the actor/director’s real-life partner Emily Blunt), as well as their three children, who communicate using sign language and are ultra-vigilant of ever making a noise lest they be killed. If it were an easy feat though the film wouldn’t amount to much of a horror piece, so mere minutes in we are left with the tragic consequences of an all-too-easy sound slip-up. But the real-kicker comes as we jump forward in time and find Evelyn not only pregnant, but due in a matter of days. It’s a confronting premise, bringing a baby into such a constrained and unforgiving world, not only because of their innate noisiness and unpredictability, but for the ethics of the bleak future that awaits it. And there-in lies the heart of the film - a family uncompromising in their desire to survive no matter the losses that may await them.
In a film with less than 50 lines of dialogue (give or take), sound obviously plays a key role, drawing us into the Abbott’s world and putting us on edge with every click, chirp or buzz. It’s a colossal undertaking and the editing team use every trick in their book to make the lack of noise and dialogue an intense and involving show. There’s not a moment to be bored or a yawn to be stifled during the slick 90-minute run-time. Never have I heard an audience so silent and still, as if their own sounds or breaths could cause harm. Beyond that, A Quiet Place (2018) is imbued with layer upon layer of depth, the audience at times also granted the chance to experience the desolate world through the ears of child Regan (played with complexity and maturity by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds), whose hearing impairment opens up a whole new terror to think about. Every detail has been carefully crafted to create suspense and foreshadow events to come, from a stationary blue truck to rockets, and even light globes strung across the cornfield. And while it’s fair to say that not everything about this new world is easily explained away (imagine trying to remain quiet with an oncoming sneeze or grumbling stomach), those behind the camera have done their best within the film’s limited scope.
Visually the film also excels, with Krasinski turning to close-ups to deliver the emotional impact of the situation where words can’t. We see the Abbott’s fear as we hear it, and long, long before the pointy teeth of the monsters ever arrive. The actors respond phenomenally too, as they cycle through their various emotions. Blunt provides a powerhouse performance and is in perfect form as the unit’s grieving-but-determined mother, while Krasinski imbues great sadness as the devoted patriarch. But equally important are the performances of the children, including a terrified Noah Jupe as son Marcus and brilliant turn from Simmonds as the young daughter longing for independence. Each shot has a soft glow hanging over it, as if imitating dusk, which strips the scenes back as our characters are. But in this dying world there is also profound elegance to be found - you just need listen to the wind whispering through the golden cornfields or the water whipping over the rocks at a waterfall to see there is beauty, even amongst the bad.
The true hero here though is Krasinski, who shines with just his third stab at directing a feature film. Keen not to play by the rules of classic horror, instead he uses what made his second picture – the dramatic comedy piece The Hollars (2016) - so successful, by making us care innately about the characters and the gravity of the situation befalling them. If your heart doesn’t hurt from the sacrifices made here, then maybe you aren’t watching properly. Too often horror is associated with little more than masks, sharks, slashing and screams. But its fundamentally more frightening to have to contemplate death before experiencing it. And to face an enemy you can’t comprehend and whose weakness is just as mysterious. Krasinski taps into that fear with ease, giving hints to the monsters’ appearance before the big reveal, and leaving no more than a few meagre newspaper clippings as clues to where the beasts came from or why they are there. If he has learnt anything from horror films of the past, it is that the denial of information can sometimes be much more powerful than anything we ever see on screen.
What sets A Quiet Place apart from those genre pieces that have come before, is the shear humanity of our survivors. A girl who believes she neither has nor deserves her father’s love. The heartbreak of a mother who wishes she could take one moment back. The fear of a boy who is forced to contemplate the macabre realities of death daily. And a father, who would do anything to protect those he loves. There is more heart here than most dramas. And more stress than any action piece could provide. You’ll feel like you’ve run a marathon by the time the closing credits start to roll. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel like there’s still a lot to be said in the silence.
Rating: 4.5 Quiet Krasinski's out of 5
Clowns have never scared me. Unnerved, sure. Weirded out, wouldn’t you be. But terrified? Not so much. After all, they’re little more than a person dressed in a suit, designed to entertain and thrill you. Right? But then came the news that Warner Bros had decided to bring their crazed-killer-clown adaptation IT (1990) into the 21st century. And with it came a series of creepy (and allegedly unrelated) sightings of such creatures across the world. And suddenly clowns stopped representing a fun night out at the circus or rodeo and instead became psychotic killers lurking in bushes. Perhaps after Stephen King’s original novel they always had been. What is interesting though, is that the studio’s remake could have so easily played into this melodrama and cliché. That clowns are evil and that’s all there is to them. But these red-nosed, white-faced, devilishly-smiling creatures aren’t the only thing to fear and IT (2017) wisely knows it. Sometimes, what makes us most afraid, is fear itself.
Based on King’s work, and given the seal of approval from the author himself, the movie follows a rag-tag group of teens as they investigate a spate of mysterious disappearances in their sleepy Maine town. A year after Bill’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother Georgie vanishes while out playing, he and his ‘Loser Club’ friends start witnessing haunting visions. From blood-soaked bathrooms to pus-filled lepers, each play on the children’s worst fears. And soon they start culminating in the appearance of Pennywise, a malevolent clown (Bill Skarsgard). Not your average circus performer, this monster is determined to wreak havoc, using a red balloon, well-timed music and a set of nasty teeth to do the job. Scared, yet determined to get to the bottom of it, the team start connecting the dots the adults refuse to see, leading them deep into Derry’s history and sewer systems to find the heart of the beast itself.
Part horror, part coming-of-age tale, the film dances around both for most of its two-hour runtime. But director Andy Muschietti has a steady hand and throws us just enough of both to keep us intrigued. A close-up of Pennywise’s face here, a dramatic build-up there and just enough gore sprinkled between the moments of childhood innocence. His biggest success though is making us care for the seven-strong main cast, each getting almost enough screen-time and bonding moments to make them individuals. Even if Stan is reduced to little more than the Jewish boy preparing for his Bat Mitzvah and Ben is represented as the formulaic new kid who spends his time in the library. The child actors show talent and wisdom beyond their years though, led by an impressive performance from Jaeden Lieberher. But two standouts work hard to upstage him, in Finn Wolfhard’s foul-mouthed, comic-relief character Ritchie, and the dazzlingly-innocent yet terrifically tomboyish performance of Sophia Lillis’ Beverley.
And while killer-clowns sound like the most cliched of all horror tropes, IT’s fiendish villain is a breath of fresh air. Skarsgard delivers a phenomenal and all-encompassing turn, so deeply and richly conceived it’s hard to see any humanity in the character at all. It’s not Tim Curry’s iconic version, I’ll give you that, but it’s a scintillating vision nonetheless. Sadly, it is let down by Muschietti, who spends too much time establishing the character rather than delving into the film’s darker fear – that parents are the true fiends. He hints at it when we see abusive fathers controlling their daughters or pushing their sons to breaking point, but it is never at the forefront. And its such a let down, because fear is a contagion that is made worse when we can’t explain or confront it. And for all the dread, uncertainty and mystical forces Pennywise conjures up, he can be overcome. Trusted adults exploiting their power and pretending the terror isn’t real, is a whole lot harder to beat.
The movie’s strongest element therefore, is its focus on the theme of fear. For starters, each child’s horror is hinted at long before it is used against them. For Beverley, coming into womanhood and having her first period, blood plays a big part in her terror. While Eddie, raised by a mother in constant fear of his health, the thing that frightens him is sickness. Mike, the outcast unable to deal with death, is forced to relive such a demise time and time again, just as Stanley, who has no tangible female figure in his life, is unable to get past a creepy portrait of a woman hanging in his father’s office. And then there is Bill, plagued by his brother’s disappearance and unable to let him go. But the most frightening part of what Pennywise represents is the fear of the unknown. A killer clown that appears from nowhere, doesn’t discriminate and most importantly – is never named. Fear of fear itself is what drives the film forward and keeps us glued to our seats. Because if we can’t understand it, how can we hope to beat it?
With King’s mammoth novel spanning more than 27 years and more than 1,000 pages, the question of splitting the film was, for once, a legitimate no-brainer. Unlike Twilight (2008), The Hunger Games (2012) or The Hobbit films (2012 – 2014), in this case making two films from one book will finally prove not just a box office hit, but also one the critics can’t slam. Provided it has the same level of fun and friendship delivered in act one. Because who doesn’t like watching a group of misfit kids throw rocks at bullies while an eighties soundtrack blares behind them.?Or see them whack the crap out of a clown using metal poles, baseball bats and chains? It just ups the ante when they become adults. The only thing I’m hoping for is that the giant spider from the novel doesn't make its way into the antagonist’s manifestations second time round. Because that would truly be terrifying.
Rating: 4 Red Balloons out of 5
In America’s current political climate, where walls are being built to keep people out and bans are being enforced to stop diversity from getting in, it is important to remember that despite our differences, there is one universal feeling that unites us –love. And it is this theme that is at the centre of Peter Berg’s latest biopic, Patriots Day, a vivid and captivating retelling of the hundred hours that followed the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013. What defined that day, according to the film, was not the fear, hatred and anger that spilled blood onto the streets and plastered despair onto televisions around the world. Instead, it was the reactions of a broken and battered city that refused to let themselves be victims. It was the response of the townspeople that ran towards the bomb sites instead of away. It was the bravery of single, unarmed and untrained Chinese immigrant that had the courage to stand up for his new home. Simply put, it was the idea that we are greater together than we could ever be alone.
The film picks up in the early hours of the morning before the race, as Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a composite character used to represent the Boston police force, sneaks home to grab his uniform before heading out on the beat to work off his suspension. Patrolling the finish line Saunders has a front-row seat to the attacks and from the moment the bomb blasts rip through the unsuspecting crowds he is the audience’s connection to the action. Helping the wounded, re-tracing the bombers footsteps and ready to run in guns blazing, he bears the burden that many officers endured that day. Representing the bureaucracy a tier above him is FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), who is brought in after the explosions to run the show. Quick to point out that ‘the moment we label this terrorism, everything changes,’ it is not long until everyone is readying themselves for a fight, from John Goodman’s Commissioner Ed Davis to J.K. Simmons Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. With Boston on lock-down and the two Chechen bomber-brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev still on the loose, it is a race against time for the taskforce to take them down and prevent more lives lost.
Despite the bombings taking place just three years ago, Patriots Day is no mere rush job; instead layered with extensive research, first-hand accounts and the balls to tell it how it happened. Berg’s emphasis on a structured storyline provides audience members the grounding needed to navigate multiple subplots and scene-changes with ease too. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes of such catastrophic crimes and for once we are allowed backstage, privy to the recreations and analysis necessary to thwart such terror attacks. Making a movie about provocative and atrocious real-life events is something that will always prove challenging and Berg treads the fine line he is given with respect and compassion. With a history of big-budget biographical films and a box office of more than $250 million to live up to, it’s incredible that he managed to stay true to the emotional and human element rather than go for the obvious blockbuster set pieces.
One of the biggest let-downs for Patriots Day though is that it maybe goes too far in trying to prove itself accurate. Real CCTV footage is mixed in with actor recreations and moving from the rich, warm tones of film to the cold, fragmented security footage is jarring. And while emotionally affecting, when the film’s real-life counterparts appear interview-style in the final moments, they are so far removed from their previous depictions that we are again left feeling disjointed. With all the chaos and confusion Berg plays it relatively safe, jumping back and forth between good and bad while refusing to question how the film could provide a voice in the wider geopolitical sphere. He doesn’t want to look at why the brothers became radicalised. He doesn’t want to know whether it could have been prevented. But I wouldn’t say he is downplaying or dismissing it. Instead, it is simply that Patriots Day is the story of two men who did horrible things based on their beliefs but found they couldn’t defeat the strength of a town that refused to be silenced. The words ‘Boston Strong’ are never spoken during the film’s 133-minute runtime, but they are there in every tear, every defiant stare and every drop of blood.
The supporting cast certainly help carry the film from tele-movie territory to a multiplex-worthy drama. From Kevin Bacon’s no-nonsense FBI director to Michelle Monaghan’s worried wife, everyone pulls out their A-game and shares the spotlight. While Wahlberg is clearly pitched as the centre of attention, there is a reason neither he, nor any of the remaining cast, were ever going to be front-runners come awards season. Because no single person is meant to shine alone here, the ensemble instead representing the heart of Boston’s community. As for the terrorists in question, Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff prove resounding new talents, innately aware of both the passion and rage their counterparts must have had to orchestrate such horrible events. While they never go so far as to treat them as innocent, they push it just far enough to remind us they were human too. This is particularly noticeable Wolff’s portrayal of Dzhokhar, juxtaposing the tender moments he played with his niece against the knowledge it was just a room over from where he was researching bomb-making. Or when he asked whether the car he and his brother had just stolen to carry out more attacks happened to have an auxiliary cable for playing music.
For the people of Boston, Patriots Day 2013 was not simply a horrifying ordeal but a violation of everything their community represented. But instead of letting mania, fear and violence take over, they fought back with the one thing that was left to them - love. Patriots Day may not be a perfect film, but it is a worthwhile one, if only because Berg makes sure we see that love in every angle, every scene and every goddamn shot. From a policeman saluting the body of eight-year-old victim Martin Richard as he is taken away, to Saunders sobbing on his wife’s shoulder and apologizing for asking her to come down the finish line. It sounds cliché to say that love is the answer. That’s something poets write about or rock stars’ croon. For most people, love is seldom seen and rarer felt. But Patriots Day challenges us to recognize that love begets love just as hate begets hate. So, despite trying times, like the people of Boston we need to stay strong. Run towards the fear, not away from it.
Rating: 3.5 Shoe Hearts out of 5
There is no denying that Multiple Personality Disorders, or what we layman commonly refer to as split personalities, are about as close to a classic Hollywood horror trope as you can get. From Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining flick Psycho (1960) to David Fincher’s hit film Fight Club (1999), movie-makers have created a major market out of exploiting such mental illness. And while their intentions are usually more profit-based than pure, it must be said that in the process they have also shed light on an issue rarely discussed. So, while it is understandable that the most politically correct among us have been calling for a boycott of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film Split (2017) thanks to its representation of this disease, it is also understandable that others may find the film a guilty pleasure, which is thought-provoking, suspenseful and superbly acted.
Split builds its universe around Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man who was abused as a child and subsequently splintered his psyche into 23 distinct personalities to cope. Among them are fashion designer Barry, diabetes afflicted Jade, evangelical Miss Patricia, obsessive-compulsive Dennis and nine-year-old Kanye West-loving Hedwig. We are introduced to these alters one-by-one through the eyes of the trio of teenage girls they kidnap and imprison in an underground bunker. Knocked out in a parking lot after a birthday party, feisty friends Claire and Marcia are keen to kick down walls and fight for their lives, while our soon-to-be leading lady and heroine Casey, a detention-loving outsider whose back-story bares a rather striking resemblance to Kevin’s, is happy to suss out the situation before she makes her move. The girls soon realise they are up against no normal foe though, when the alters begin to mention a menacing and malevolent final personality known only as ‘The Beast’. With their sacrifice to the monster looming, what follows is a daring and disturbing high stakes game of cat and mouse.
After years of half-hearted twists, poor cinematic choices and frankly squalid scripts, Shyamalan is surprisingly centred here. With controlled camera movements, sleek dialogue and excellent performances littered throughout, it is almost like we could forget his career-destroying misfires The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) ever existed. Sadly, there are some things that even time can’t obliterate. Split is at least a world away from these, swapping a tunnel vision focus on the ultimate twist turn in favour of an electrifying pace and curious link to one of Shyamalan’s forgotten gems. A team-up with It Follows (2015) cinematographer Mike Goulka’s proves fruitful too, the duo cranking up the intimate and claustrophobic camera work to remind us how horror movies are defined by what they don’t show rather than what they do. A camera that hardly dares leave a protagonist invites such dread when it does.
James McAvoy is a tour-de-force as far as the acting goes, dominating every moment he is on screen with impassioned energy and empathy. Never once do we struggle to know which alter he is inhabiting, his mannerisms accurate down to the last eyebrow lift or goofy grin. Elevating the villain is never an easy feat, but here the Scotsman succeeds on charm alone. Relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy triumphs too, holding her own against her more experienced co-stars and building on her phenomenal breakthrough in The Witch (2015). Such ethereal power and persuasion is rarely found in Hollywood stars, especially so young. With this just the start of her career, it will be a pleasure just to see where it goes. The remainder of the cast provide solid support, but are never given enough screen-time or backstory to truly develop. Best of them is familiar face Betty Buckley in the rather redundant role of Dr Fletcher, if only for the fact she is finally given the chance to redeem herself after her involvement in The Happening (2008).
With such incredible performances, it is easy to overlook Split’s faults, but that is not to say they don’t exist. For instance, Kevin’s frustratingly dense therapist Dr Fletcher, who is so caught up in trying to prove that the damaged among us can become the next step in evolution based on their thoughts alone that she fails to see it is happening with Kevin’s latest beastly alter. Similarly, for all the taut suspense and genuine intrigue Shyamalan builds, Split is let down by the most basic of movie problems – the lack of a streamlined narrative. Bouncing back and forth between Kevin’s therapist’s office and the underground lair rips the audience out of the high-tension game. Add in the jarring flashbacks to Casey’s youth that seem strangely out of place and we are left with an untidy mess that would set of Dennis’s OCD for sure.
Despite it’s fractured premise, Split proves to be Shyamalan’s most straightforward film to date. Perhaps that’s the reason it is proving to be one of his most successful too. But in classic Shyamalan style it wouldn’t be complete without somewhat of a twist. And whether you take that as the monster lurking beneath the surface that is not the simple Criminal Minds (2005) type we have been brought up to expect, or as the cameo that proves a shared-universe theory, is up to you. So long as you suspend disbelief, prepare for upturned superhero stereotypes and try not to overthink the thoughtless science, you’ll walk away happy. And hopefully, talking about why people are the way they are.
Rating: 3 Personalities out of 5
If it weren’t for the horrifying reality of the utter devastation the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused, the Hollywood restaging of the event could easily be called a work of art or a rollicking ride. But with 11 men dead, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the open ocean and the tagline of the biggest ecological disaster in American history, it is not a film one can cheer on, without feeling like a horrible person. That being said, it is a moving and resounding film that boasts stunning visuals, top-notch acting and a script that never treats the audience like their idiots. It is, arguably, everything you could want in a movie but there is such a dark sadness in that, it is hard to put into words.
The film follows the real-life story of the infamous and titular Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil-rig in the Gulf of Mexico that suffered a catastrophic tragedy in April 2010. As chief electrical engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), navigational worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriquez) and general operation supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) fly out to the rig to spend 21 days away from family and friends, trouble is already beginning to brew beneath the surface. Ominous underwater shots show us fissures in the giant concrete seal keeping the pipe’s contents in place and as the bubbles rise so do our heart rates. While the crew set about their technical and tedious trades, two visiting BP executives frustrated at the project’s long delays decide to make up for lost time by ordering some skewed system tests. When the pressure builds and the drill overflows, the structural flaws turn tragic and a full-scale blowout ensues. Cue one of the most impressive explosions ever put to film and the subsequent hour of gut-wrenching tension it brings with it, before the film finishes on the sombre note that even those who walked away were never quite the same again.
What makes Deepwater Horizon (2016) a standout, if not quite award-worthy, is the mesmerizing quality of its special effects. When the mud boils over and the fire rages, it feels like the hairs on the backs of your arms will singe with the sheer force and power of such catastrophe. Once the action starts it never grants us a moment to breathe either, as body’s slam into metal and quick cuts are choreographed in a complex dance of disarray. Backing up this frenetic feel is an incredible sound design, which provides the creaks and groans of mutilated metal, as well as the fear of a quiet, still moment. There is elegance amidst the chaos, no motion or music added simply for the sake of it and it’s great to see such control invoked. The acting too is exemplary, a credit to the real-life counterparts they convey. Where John Malkovich’s BP oil executive Donald Vidrine could easily have served as the stereotypical villain of the piece, he is humanised in his inability to understand the carnage around him. Similarly, Wahlberg is not your normal hero either, simply a man going about his business and lend a helping hand. Along with Russell and Rodriguez he proves that the real weight of sacrifice is a calm façade in the face of overwhelming terror.
The movie marks the second collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg after the atmospheric army piece Lone Survivor (2013), the duo bringing the same intelligent and visceral style this time round. This is best exemplified by their choice to bookend the film with video from the real-life deposition of a man who was never able to go to sea again. Working from a smart and slick script by Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the two never let us forgot that beneath the awe-inspiring action there is a tragic realism to such calamities. Interestingly the film manages to hold back, for the most part, in demonizing parent company BP, instead focusing on the intrinsically human element amidst the overwhelming spectacle. There are no ‘heroes’ here, simply the believable behaviour of people who made the right decisions at the right time and shared in the payoff of sheer dumb luck. The script is not without its flaws though and this comes in its limited and fraught ending, which, while poignant, pays little attention to the ongoing aftermath. Having stayed with the characters throughout their ordeal, we are never granted the option to leave their side to look at the long-term problems that day caused and that is a tragedy in itself.
Like most disaster films there is a moral undercurrent that lurks beneath the surface of Deepwater Horizon. Thankfully though, Berg never really takes the cheap shot of throwing it in our face. Unlike The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which chastised us for ruining our planet, Deepwater Horizon uses an extended scene of an oil-covered bird thrashing about to do its talking for it. Its incredible visuals and storytelling provide the sheer force and destruction to humble us in ways you couldn’t imagine too. This was no hurricane, no typhoon, no cyclone, volcano, twister or earthquake. This was a man-made accident that permanently scarred the ecosystem and took lives. We seem to forget that in our constant effort for innovation and advancement we are as much our own destroyers as we are our saviours and Berg plays on this in the arresting image of the American flag surrounded by fire and smoke and death. Everything comes with a price.
Explosive, intelligent and genuinely sobering, Deepwater Horizon may not a perfect film, but it is a profound one. It is almost cathartic in how it traverses the fine line between eliciting emotion and playing on our sentimentalities. Because with tragedy, so too is there human spirit, and that stays with us long after the credits role. It is a touching tribute, in its own way, to those who went to work and never made it home, never striving to label itself as heart-warming and heroic piece, but achieving it nonetheless, and for that Deepwater Horizon is well worth the watch.
Rating: 4 Destroyed Lives out of 5
Okay, someone needs to say it – Lionsgate’s latest picture Nerve (2016) should come with a disclaimer. A big ‘Do not attempt’ this at home style tagline. Because in a day and age where people are walking off cliffs in pursuit of pretend Pokémon, truth or dare has never been more dangerous a premise to turn into an online game. Layered with lush visuals and striking songs, it is easy to be lulled into the film’s hypnotic world, where people can meet and fall in love in one night and not worry about the consequences of their actions. In saying that though, it’s also a hell of a ride, so long as one can separate fact from fiction. It might not be a box office blockbuster, but neither is it a feature that rests on its laurels, reminding us that the danger of the internet is not in its invasiveness, but rather in our own deep-seated desires for such actions.
An adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s young-adult novel of the same name, Nerve tells the story of Vee (Emma Roberts), an uncourageous girl living a world that only accepts those willing to take a risk. Unable to tell her mother she wants to move cross country for college and living in her best friend’s shadow, she takes up a challenge to play a new underground game called Nerve. Divided into watchers or players, participants must complete dares to win cash, filming their antics on mobile phones and streaming them online for the enjoyment of thousands of anonymous spectators. Starting off small, an innocent kiss here, a motor-bike joyride there, the dares soon begin to escalate, as Vee starts to fall for fellow player Ian (Dave Franco) and the two inch closer and closer to the grand prize. Soon, nothing becomes off limits, whether it be stealing, dodging trains, or hanging off cranes high above the city. What was once a bit of fun turns deadly as the lovers become prisoners of the game, manipulated by the competition’s anonymous overlords and forced into the ultimate showdown.
Clocking in at slightly more than 90 minutes, Nerve is a rush of blood to the head, with co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman turning New York into their own visual playground. While the cinematography doesn’t quite blend seamlessly with the technology, the city provides the perfect backdrop for some high stakes movie magic. Fluorescent lights stand stark against a colourfully saturated landscape and even cheap diners are lit in an enchanting and ethereal way. It helps that it is complemented by a superb soundtrack, gushing gems as diverse as the internet itself, from Roy Orbison’s ‘You Got It’, to Wu Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’. The best representation for the film comes from MØ’s ‘Kamikaze’ though, the lyrics revealing the ending before it has time to play out, while washing the film in the effervescent energy it strives so hard to achieve.
Teen thrillers can so often fall into the trap of relying on the technology to do its taunting and for a long while Nerve manages to avoid that. It’s a credit to the screenwriters that the players don’t even start doing dangerous dares until at least halfway in, instead building the suspense and imbuing genuine interplay between the leads. However, all its ingenuity unravels in the third act, stumbling on the last leg with a poorly-planned finale. A contrived crescendo leaves us a little empty and longing for more, turning what could have been a great film, into just a good one. As we head into the somewhat exciting, somewhat dreadful experience that is the fall film festival circuit and the lead-up to Awards season though, it’s inspiring to see that Hollywood is still eager to take risks with fresh, fun and frivolous films. It beats the hell out of a ‘found footage’ style documentary any day.
As for the acting, Franco recycles the same smart, stylish and suave persona he has come to be known by, albeit on a grander scale. No longer the sidekick when he so clearly should be the lead, he is everything his older brother is and more. Roberts too is refreshingly charismatic, starting to shed her doe-eyed roles for more mature fanfare. The supporting characters though are contrived creations, forced into blink and you’ll miss it moments. Even top tier talent like Orange is the New Black’s (2013) Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley can’t help but be washed away underneath the colourful undertow. Miles Heizer’s best-friend Tommy is almost entirely confined to a car, taking the ‘friend-zoned’ formula to a whole new level, while Juliette Lewis’ crazy-clingy mother could have been replaced by a potato and we would have seen more character growth.
In an age of viral sensations like Pokémon Go, Nerve plays out as a frighteningly realistic possibility. Hiding behind screens and anonymous accounts, people are all too willing to speak their mind, so long as they feel they can’t be held accountable. It’s a massive moral lesson to unload, but one that is both important and refreshingly novel. About the biggest gripe you can raise film the film, outside the derisive denouement, is the lingering question of how the hell the watchers and players phones manage to stay charged throughout their escapades. For the record, I never saw one goddamn charger in the whole film even though there was a hell of a lot of product placement for Apple, a brand whose biggest sellers average less than twelve hours of battery life. So while it’s not the smartest or slickest screenplay out there, sometimes we must just admit that with pleasure there comes pain. And life is about finding the nerve to choose it.
Rating: 3.5 Motorcycle Mates out of 5
Australian screen icon Mel Gibson is arguably at his best when embodying a protective and powerful father figure. We’ve seen it in his previous works The Patriot, Ransom and Braveheart and now we get the pleasure of a return to such roots in his latest comeback attempt Blood Father (2016). Having been caught up in a string of personal and public problems, the star’s atmospheric action-drama serves as redemptive piece for both character and actor, questioning just how far a man will go for forgiveness. Despite a number of flaws, including the monotony of treading the same beaten path as many before it, Blood Father is equal parts a hidden gem, full of charismatic central characters and amped up action.
An adaptation of Peter Craig’s novel of the same name, Blood Father is a stunning film stuck in the shell of a B-Grade movie, full of clever characterisation and dynamic dialogue. Its plot is simple enough, following the relationship between ex-con and recovering alcoholic John Link and his estranged daughter Lydia. Used to finding comfort at the bottom of a bottle, Link is struggling to stay sober and maintain a life on the straight and narrow, as a simple tattoo artist living in a beaten down trailer park alongside his sole friend and sponsor, Kirby. Just one year out of jail his world-weary life is upturned once again though, when he receives a call from his missing 17-year-old, who has got herself into a spot of trouble after shooting her drug-dealing boyfriend in the neck. When both cops and cartel come a-calling for her, Link must rely on his old friends and foes to find a way to protect her and prove that blood really is thicker than water.
The relationship between the two leads is clearly the standout of the film, as Gibson and Erin Moriarty share quips back and forth in a genuine and endearing interplay. Where there is blood, so too is there banter and heart-warming humour. A number of great supporting characters help fill-out the film too, from Diego Luna’s sleazy boyfriend Jonah, to Thomas Mann’s quirky motel clerk Jason. Out of the bunch the only gripe comes from the under-use of William H. Macy, whose character Kirby receives about as little growth as the weeds in the scenic desert setting. Gibson meanwhile is perfectly cast, with art imitating life for the man who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for the better part of this century. The film is not just his redemption, but is a look at what happens to the bruised and broken men Hollywood discards. Just as Link is a tortured soul, a man who has misplaced his own purpose as easily as he has lost his daughter, so too is Gibson wandering and waiting for the chance to payback on his penance.
The humour in Blood Father is as off-beat as the film itself, with Link musing over the destruction of his old beat-up Chevy Nova, not minutes after he was berating it for not starting. Even when the characters are in peril, they still hang hard to such heart, laughing over something as simple as the colour of one’s hair. Gibson has always made his money from his ability to shrug off any situation with a sarcastic swipe and there is certainly no shortage of that here. While most of the humour hits home, the film does fall flat on some accounts. At times the stark transition between the style and themes is more jarring than poetic, leaving you wondering just how much of a hand the studio had in post-production editing. This is never more obvious than when dealing with the supporting cast, with both Thomas Mann and William H. Macy’s scenes seemingly slimmed down to better encompass a shorter and more succinct story. While it certainly alleviates the boredom, we never feel like it quite hits the heights it should have.
Marking his first English language film since his 2001 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, director Jean-Francois Richet paints a glorious picture with his choice of cinematography though, from the sprawling sun-splashed deserts through to the stark and sterile lights of the cities. It’s strangely other-worldly, with more than a decent nod to the nostalgia of times past. Sure there may be tumbleweeds blowing down the street, but it’s the sort of place where we would never laugh at such a thing. As the bodies begin to pile up and the adrenaline-fuelled action sequences splatter across the screen, Blood Father leaves us with a sad, sinking feeling, rather than the quiet optimism of mainstream box office blockbusters. And despite the darkness that slowly spreads over the film, there’s nothing more magical than a film brave enough to show that not every story has a happy ending.
Shockingly violent and undeniably brutal, Blood Father catches you off guard when you least suspect, with more than enough double-crosses and dramatic deaths to keep viewers entertained. Despite its obvious flaws, in its simplistic story and been-there-done-that attitude, there is a lot to like and even a little to love in this latest crime caper. For those sitting there on their pedestals, hiding behind their blinkers and ready to let the film fall of their radar thanks to Gibson’s antics, it’s a damn shame. Despite bearing the scars both mentally and physically, he is as willingly as ever to give it his all, for whoever is still patient enough to be watching. It might be a grimy and meandering action-drama that punches above its weight, but just like what Link says about Lydia, Blood Father is every loser’s lucky day.
Rating: 3 Grizzled Gibson's out of 5
One of the scariest statistics about shark attacks is how they most often occur in less than six feet of water. Not only that, but according to the International Shark Attack File from the Florida Museum of Natural History, of last year’s 164 recorded shark attacks 98 of them were unprovoked. The most frightening piece of information about sharks though, is the commonly overlooked statistic that there are at least 28 other animals more likely to bite you than these razor-toothed foes. It’s safe to say that this last tidbit was overlooked for Sony’s latest menacing monster flick The Shallows (2016). Thankfully too, with director Jaume Collet-Serra crafting a tense and taut thriller that plays on society's deepest and darkest fears. Although realism and common sense make way for picturesque landscapes and gut-wrenching glee, Collet-Serra’s strong cinematography and edge of your seat action provide audiences pure popcorn escapism.
The soft sound of the ocean swell lulls us into The Shallows, with the film opening as a young boy discovers a Go Pro in the surf of a seemingly deserted Mexican beach. An innocent and unnerving scene soon turns sour when he replays the footage, catching a glimpse of the man-eating shark who will menace our main protagonist Nancy for the next hour and a half. Reeling from the recent death of her mother, the med-school dropout is restless, lost and seeking to regain her fighting spirit. Visiting a secret beach Nancy soon finds she is not alone after she is tugged beneath the surface. Critically injured and stranded on a rock shelf as the tide begins to turn, Nancy must use her wits to outsmart the great white shark and make it to the nearby buoy. But when it becomes apparent that help may not arrive, survival of the fittest begins to take on a whole new meaning.
As an Australian the most annoying part of the film is the fact Nancy defies three of the most crucial rules about avoiding shark attacks. Number one – never swim at dawn or dusk. Warned about it when she first arrives at the beach, Nancy still tries to catch one last wave before the sun sets and that is arguably why she winds up in the predicament in the first place. Secondly, she swims right up to a whale carcass, which was not only visible, but swamped by birds and bite marks. Lastly, she defies the never swim alone mantra, when her friend bails on her at the last minute and her two surfing compadres decide to call it quits for the day. However, this is not a film making its money off the logical, as other survival thrillers like 127 Hours (2010) did. Instead it takes pleasure in the visual, with a number of stellar action and establishing scenes. Notably there is the first pull-back to Nancy mid-wave, a dark silhouette shrouded in the curl of the water behind her. It’s not the two-note soundtrack tactic that Jaws (1975) took, but it’s an interesting method all the same. Similarly, despite a limited script the acting is as visceral as the visuals, Lively proving to be breath of fresh air in comparison to her Gossip Girl (2007) days. Like her husband Ryan Reynolds in his flick Buried (2010), majority of the film rests on her shoulders alone and she carries herself well whether she be surfing, swimming or screaming.
Filmed in Australia, on the beautiful beaches of the Gold Coast, the movie is sure to hit closer to home for many Australians. Especially after the spate of shark killings that have occurred off our beaches in the last decade. But the cinematography is a visual monster all by itself and one that demands to be seen on the big screen. To say it is beautiful is an understatement, with stunning overhead shots that soar above crystal clear seas and smooth ethereal underwater scenes. There are a few moments where time drags, as the filmmakers set up the scene and amp up the anticipation for the inevitable attack. However creating contrasts are what survival stories are all about. Close ups of surf straps and rubbery wetsuits are all-important to understand just how versatile they can be down the track. Best of all, the camera itself acts like a shark, its leering gaze drifting towards Nancy’s legs to create a deliberate attempt at audience discomfort. There is a trade-off though in paying too much attention to the landscape, with the film sometimes losing the fear and ferocity of its main attraction.
On a serious note, one must acknowledge the potentially dangerous flaws with such a flick, considering its misrepresentation of sharks. Just as Jaws spawned an interest in popularizing the recreational killing of sharks and vilified the creatures of the deep, so too does this movie treat them with little respect. Despite being an endangered species and one that rarely interacts willingly with humans, the shark in The Shallows is represented as a revenge-fuelled predator, more intent on knocking women off whales than feeding on the plentiful bounty its blubber would provide. What the film does point out though is how overfishing can push these creatures closer to human territory. It’s a shame Hollywood can’t sell science instead of fear in their films.
The Shallows might not be in the same league as Jaws, but you can feel it chomping at the bits to honour it. It even has the same slightly corny humour, with the best part of the film a bird aptly called ‘Steven Seagull’. The faithful friend is easily interpretable as a sign of Nancy’s late mother and it’s a heart-warming touch considering the lack of real backstory provided. Although the film adds little to the already established shark genre, it’s a rollicking ride and a throwback to classic edge-of-your-seat thrillers, where you can smell the saltwater, taste the seaspray and feel the searing sun on your face. Just what we all need before summer rolls in and we wonder whether it’s safe to enter the water.
Rating: 3 Teeth out of 5
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