The Girl on the Train (2016)

★★★

The Girl on the Train PosterDirector: Tate Taylor

Release Date: October 5th, 2016 (UK); October 7th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux

Despite author Paula Hawkins’ protestations, The Girl on the Train is in many ways similar to Gone Girl. Structurally, individually, thematically — Tate Taylor’s film adaption feels like it could be set in the same deceitful world and the same deceitful suburban neighbourhood. Those who enter having seen Gone Girl (also adapted from a popular novel) will likely struggle to keep David Fincher’s film wholly out of mind for the duration of this new domestic horror show, just as Taylor’s movie struggles to escape the spectre of its superior predecessor: the main character, a woman hampered by emotional scarring, mellowly narrates her own miserable life, perking up only during self-constructed imagination sequences within which false scenarios play out (a perfect relationship, crucially). There’s a familiar aesthetic slickness too, white, crisp text decorating a black background each time we skip from present to past.

But most significantly, The Girl on the Train revisits Gone Girl’s wistful tale of a woman who yearns for an idealistic life that is never forthcoming. She is Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic devoid of any sort of plan. It’s apt that she spends most of her time aboard a train, going places without ever really getting anywhere. These journeys are less journeys and more pockets of time within which Rachel can ogle at the apparently superior lives of others, notably that of Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), a couple she often sees from the train window in a state of embrace. Until one day that embrace doesn’t include Scott — or perhaps it does; Rachel’s perception isn’t exactly up to scratch — at which point perfect worlds crumble, and Megan goes missing.

“Are you alone?” “Yeah.” This first interaction tells us all we need to know about Rachel. (Or so we think.) Blunt wears her character’s alcoholism with raw fervour: lips cracked from sucking on a straw channelling vodka, shaky hands rendering her unable to properly apply lip balm, eyes watery, bloodshot, terminally lost in a daze. She is obsessed, her obsession with other people forming the basis for the film’s creeping milieu — the sense that something just feels off. Which is to say Rachel isn’t, or hasn’t, been particularly great company over the past few years. Pal and landlord Cathy (Laura Prepon) can attest to that. And still, we want to root for her because as humans our innate humanness calls upon us to empathise with those who are struggling, but also because Blunt affords Rachel a subdued sense of purpose and accountability. A speech at an AA meeting is quite devastating, hauntingly delivered by the actor.

Unfortunately Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson use alcoholism less as a character trait and more as a structural device. Which brings us to coherence, or the lack of it, an aspect which lets the film down. You can understand Taylor’s mindset; to view the world through his protagonist’s untrustworthy eyes, visualising a collection of blurry incidents rather than a natural arc. This is something that would likely work better with fewer key characters — there are at least six here, all interconnected in various ways. Keeping track of who knows whom from when and where is difficult enough, and that difficulty increases as the story hops from scene to scene without any palpable sense of time or space (we know which events are taking place in the past and in the present, but don’t get much of a feeling for timelines within each space).

Set in the midst of a winter of discontent, the outing draws upon classic Hitchcockian themes such as suspicion. The obvious comparison is Strangers on a Train, and indeed this focus on movement funds the suspicious mood. For people are constantly on the move. They might run as a form of exercise, or as way to temporarily exorcise any domestic demons. Others are seen figuratively running from the law, not that you would blame anyone for literally hightailing it from Allison Janney, superb as a police detective fully versed in the art of dressing-down. And there is the train itself, hanging on for dear life as gravity does its best to tear it from the tracks, loud and a bit unstable as all trains are. Echoing, in a sense, Rachel’s own daily existence.

This is the age of paranoia: Édgar Ramírez’s psychiatrist defiantly confirms his American citizenship when engaged in an otherwise innocuous conversation with a client. Given the film is set in New York, it is possible he has just heard Trump threaten to send non-Americans to the moon, thus we should cut him some slack. Rebecca Ferguson, as Anna, also succumbs to the neurotic atmosphere, frantically guessing laptop passwords in a bid to find out more about those around her. She is married to Tom (Justin Theroux) who used to be married to Rachel, and their nanny is Megan. It’s complicated. There does come a time, about halfway through, when you wonder if you care at all for anybody on-screen, at which point the piece loses momentum. Fortunately not for too long as some characters reignite, but you do have to survive a bunch of platonic conversations unable to maintain the paranoid air.

The Girl on the Train wants to be more uncomfortable than it is, and this becomes apparent when it plummets into unnecessarily nasty territory towards the end. Threads of emotional abuse and physical violence are explored only tentatively, perhaps because there are too many characters for the film to juggle and not enough time spent with each one (Rachel aside). But it is intriguing at worst, and there are signs in the minutiae of proceedings that the filmmakers know what they are doing. Look out for Rachel’s discreet reaction to a lipstick stain on a mug, and think about what said moment entails. It’s a terrific blink-and-you’ll-miss-it incident astutely pitched by Emily Blunt, who is worth the price of admission alone.

The Girl on the Train - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

★★★★

The Girl with All the Gifts PosterDirector: Colm McCarthy

Release Date: September 23rd, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close

Kids are taking over the world. Well, the worlds of pop culture and weighty entertainment. If it’s not a bunch of Spielbergian curiousos charming viewers eight times over in Stranger Things, it’s Jacob Tremblay comfortably matching his demonstrably more experienced counterparts with a powerhouse performance in Room. Today Sennia Nanua joins the not-so-Mickey-Mouse-Club, her turn as a next generation zombie-human in The Girl with All the Gifts at once endearing and domineering. And even a little amusing. That’s quite the trifecta.

Colm McCarthy brings M.R. Carey’s (credited as Mike Carey) mid-apocalyptic world to the silver screen, a world severely stunted by some sort of biological doomsday. Carey’s novel of the same name garnered much praise, which, when coupled alongside his extensive comic book writing portfolio, suggests he is doing something right. The penman may yet want to consider a screenwriting career if this is his default standard. He presents Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a child with fleshy cravings and the ability to interact as normal. When we first meet her she is hidden away in some sort of military base with many of her kind — her ‘classmates’ — and a selection of adult soldiers, scientists, and teachers. It’s not initially clear what the purpose of the locale is: a zone of Freudian experimentation usurping social and ethical norms, or a shelter from the horrors outside?

We quickly learn it is a bit of both, though the striking image of children wearing orange jumpsuits and strapped to wheelchairs feeds the former narrative (these sequences are probably not unintentionally dissimilar in a visual sense to familiar scenes in A Clockwork Orange). That it soon becomes clear said treatment is decidedly less harsh than what is going on elsewhere ought to give you an indication of the type of material we are dealing with. I hesitate to reveal more of the initial plot; not because doing so would spoil the film but because piecing together the early moral dilemmas as they play out on-screen is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Needless to say the setting soon changes and The Girl with All the Gifts transforms into a Monsters-esque road trip.

But back to Melanie, the film’s central presence. She is essentially a blank slate, or a dry sponge for lack of a better description, in that she desires knowledge as well as body parts and absorbs information with incredible endurance. Her favourite teacher is Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a sort of Miss Honey figure who brightens up their bleak bunker home inhabited otherwise by those who refer to the children as “abortions” and treat them with contempt bred, perhaps understandably, from wariness. This attitude prevails throughout the film to varying degrees, some characters afraid but sympathetic, others driven solely by the scientific possibilities the zom-kids present. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is one of the latter, a medical professional who sees Melanie not as a human being but as a resource and a pathway to a potential cure. “They present as children, you know my opinion on that,” she insists. Emphasis on “present”.

Close excels as a pseudo-antagonist, stirring intentions born out of necessity rather than anything particularly sinister. Caldwell only dons the antagonist role because Carey’s writing characterises Melanie not as a resource but as an innocent child, his characterisation authenticated by Nanua’s poise. We feel compelled to side with Melanie because we can relate to her kindness and her appearance. Caldwell feels compelled to do her duty as a scientist in an endangered world running out of scientific solutions, which isn’t evil per se. Whenever zombies are involved comparisons with The Walking Dead are inevitable, but whereas that show has adopted a broadly romanticised us-versus-them approach, this feels more arduous, moral implications blurrier. It’s interesting precisely because there is no clear answer.

This world has seen the worst and now exists in a state of post-shock where terror no longer marinates. Now is the time for practicality, a mindset embodied by Caldwell: without hesitation she investigates the contents of a pram being pushed by a ‘hungry’ — an actual zombie, brainless — not put off by danger but rather spurred on by “gathering data, which is part of [her] mission statement”. Justineau, meanwhile, is clearly more concerned about the welfare of Melanie than her own, apparently consigned to whatever fate lies ahead. Arterton has the emotional burden to carry, her frequently exhausted expression not a consequence of physical exertion (she is more than capable in the field) but of her problematic attachment to Melanie.

The piece hits some of the usual genre beats but does so with enough quality to sustain a level of intrigue. We’ve witnessed the basic premise play out in films such as 28 Days Later and World War Z and, just like in those films, military personnel have a hand in proceedings here. What separates The Girl with All the Gifts from the pack, though, is its almost subliminal tone of humour. It’s an understated lightheartedness that feels genuine in a broken society already acclimatised to its brokenness. At one point Melanie, having just fed on some animals, blood tattooed onto her face, jovially reveals she is no longer hungry and the others can only look on in a collective state of horrified discombobulation. Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Eddie Parks benefits most from the humorous touch, able to escape an incoming hard-man caricature and develop into a rounded figure.

For those seeking the usual zombie fare, The Girl with All the Gifts has you covered. It’s as bloody and gory and gnarly as it is thought-provoking. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score spans the mood spectrum, incurring a feeling of discomfort with invasive brass entries. I was reminded of Shutter Island’s brooding soundtrack. With air raid sirens fulfilling the threat-based requirements, the sounds of trees swishing harmoniously and birds gently humming reflect the film’s thoughtful mantra. Nature, too, is character, sparse streets having been attacked by overgrown greenery, turning South East England into Pripyat, Ukraine. McCarthy’s film makes brilliant use of its £4 million production budget, and is well worth the price of admission.

The Girl with All the Gifts - Sennia Nanua

Images credit: IMP AwardsThe Guardian

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Blair Witch (2016)

★★

Blair Witch PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: 15th September, 2016 (UK); 16th September, 2016 (US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry

Netflix, for all of its cultural zeitgeist curating — yes, Stranger Things is wonderful and, yes, we should ramble on about it forever (or at least until the next new series hits in a few weeks) — is at its best when fulfilling the promise of its roots. In other words, when it functions as a library of untapped gems. I watched one of those gems a few weeks ago, a found footage film with a science fiction setting and horror proclivities, and a good one at that. Aside from strong performances and an increasingly eerie atmosphere, Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report champions a found footage style that minimises the head-spinning amateur wobbliness we often have to endure, but which also maintains the unsettling sense of privacy invasion that found footage, at its best, should enact. Europa Report, released in 2013, struggled to find a theatrical audience.

Yet, here we are. Another found footage horror release towing the subgenre line, another mainstream commodity (though surprisingly not another box office victory). Filmmaking team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have cultivated, certainly in my eyes, an admirable reputation for undercutting genre tropes and flavouring their films with semi-satire. You’re Next isn’t perfect but it does throw bombs at horror clichés with amusing success. Even better, The Guest upholds taut thriller tendencies as it encourages us to revel in the villainy of its not-so-cookie-cutter lead. Therefore it is odd that Blair Witch, the duo’s newest offering, often falls so far by the witty, intelligent wayside.

We’ll start with the story: a group of nice-looking adventurers with age on their side travelling somewhere they shouldn’t because they reckon it is a good idea when everyone sat in the screening room and standing in the foyer knows it isn’t. The GallowsAs Above, So Below. Area 51. That sort of thing. Blair Witch sees the brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue head to the forests of Maryland in search of his missing sister whom he reckons is still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is joined by documentarian pal Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).

The film revisits the final moments of The Blair Witch Project at the beginning, instantly alerting us to the grainy aesthetic of the original horror; in fact, one of this instalment’s redeeming features is its occasional use of an old camcorder to document events, a visual reminder of what came before. Elsewhere, the film uses up-to-date high-definition technology including earpieces embedded with mini cameras and a drone to shoot from above (the drone is never used to its full potential, barely fluttering above the forest foliage). Very little happens for half an hour, the characters merely learning how to work their equipment before heading to their destination. Although this isn’t time spent particularly interestingly, these minutes do at least paint those on-screen in a fairly genial light. James and Lisa are particularly amiable, neither pushy nor arrogant, both a far cry from genre caricatures.

It’s not until we the reach the Burkittsville creep-land that things begin to take a turn for the haphazard. The group arrange to meet with a couple wielding knowledge of the area in the hope that they will lead them to their desired location and then depart. But of course Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), indiscreetly hiding their collective kookiness, want to stick around as part of the deal. Because every scary excursion has to accommodate someone (or some people in this instance) willing to spout his/her supernatural inclinations at every opportunity. I should also note that by this point we’ve already heard one member of the party poke fun at the idea Heather is still alive. And shortly thereafter, another member of the party injures her foot. Which effectively means no running from The Bad Stuff.

There are spooky campfire tales, noises in the night, Wicker-Man-esque stick symbols, and folks wandering off alone. The inclusion of so many blatant tropes would be fine if the film then countered with either some brazen self-awareness (like in You’re Next), or at the very least a handful of genuine scares. But it’s not scary, in part because the camera contorts too violently in moments of would-be tension, disorientating us — yes — but never affording us the chance to engage with or understand what is happening on-screen. And I don’t think there is an awful lot of self-aware hilarity going on either. When the proverbial hits the fan, Lisa et al. appear much too freaked out for any of streaks of amusement to stick. I suppose the actors do offer the infrequent helping of light relief (Scott’s reaction to an infected cut), but in truth there is nothing for us to be momentarily relieved from.

The best scene actually involves said cut and, you guessed it, an unhealthy serving of oozetastic body-horror. Kudos to the prop masters and makeup artists for provoking legitimate yelps of disgust (at least that’s how the scene played with most of the audience in my screening). Elsewhere, a tree-climbing sequence places Foley workers in the foreground, branches creaking and murmuring to delightful effect, part of an OTT noise-fest that would make Toby Jones proud.

As the story advances, Blair Witch adopts more of a monster movie mantra, distinguishing itself from the paranormal tensions of its predecessor. We see glimpses of the creature, removing the disconcerting veil of uncertainty that covered the original and boosted its chilling potential. The ingredients fail to click, or maybe they just aren’t strong enough. Any potshotting nods, instances where the filmmakers look to knowingly nudge their well-versed audience, translate poorly. Besides, the film’s overabundant use of familiar genre commands would almost certainly render satirical swipes moot (see Deadpool). Wingard and Barrett will doubtless be back with something devilishly sweeter. This one just irks because it is a sequel to the prototypical found footage horror, the one that reinvented the game for better or worse, and it is timidly generic.

Blair Witch - Valorie Curry

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Finding Dory (2016)

★★★★

Finding Dory PosterDirectors: Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane

Release Date: June 17th, 2016 (US); July 29th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Animation; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill

You know the story by now: if something is successful and breeds enjoyment, chances are that something will have a successor. Gratification, after all, is a part of life. And it’s a significant part of the Hollywood experience too. When Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton initially heard rumblings from Disney bosses about the possibility of a sequel to his 2003 underwater triumph, he balked at the prospect. But, as revealed in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he has since had a change of heart, the director now willing to accept sequels are good for business. They pave a path for financial gratification. It’s up to filmmakers like Stanton, therefore, to ensure franchise entities are built atop the correct foundations. That is, sturdy storytelling and not paper money.

Which brings us to Finding Dory, Stanton’s tentatively conceived follow up to Finding Nemo and a sequel built, for the most part, atop the correct foundations. Whereas the previous outing cast Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) adrift, Finding Dory unsurprisingly sends Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) on a disorienting sprint across the ocean as she attempts to reunite with her long lost parents. Nemo’s father Marlin (Albert Brooks) is again part of the rescue mission, frustrated by Dory’s manic forgetfulness but caring and determined to see her safe return.

That Dory’s short-term memory loss again weaves its way into the humour bulk without negligence is commendable. Stanton and co-writer Victoria Strouse carefully craft amusing sequences that can only exist as a result of Dory’s amnesia — pick out any of her interactions with octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) — but that refrain from using said amnesia as a target. The moments also work because they have us laughing alongside Dory; she recognises that in certain situations there is amusement to be drawn from her misfortune. “Don’t be such a Dory, Dory,” the blue-tang exclaims following a bout of forgetfulness. But being such a Dory is what endears her to us, and what helps make the film an enjoyable watch.

Nor do the writers stop short at humour; we are encouraged throughout to sympathise with Dory’s predicament. The main story unfolds around a handful of flashbacks which, though repetitive in content, familiarise us with Dory’s mother (Diane Keaton) and father (Eugene Levy). We know who to look out for, but for a period you do wonder whether or not Dory will recognise her family. Little happens during these splashes of the past, each snippet designed mainly to generate a sense of familial bond rather than develop our protagonist’s personality. It’s a decent idea that does at least propel this notion of love overriding hardship even if it doesn’t stimulate much drama.

This means much of Dory’s gravitas is derived not from the narrative, but from the recording studio. Ellen, her amiable voice honed over years of daytime talk show hosting, again affords Dory a wonderfully receptive sound. Let’s be honest: it wouldn’t take a whole lot of wayward writing to turn a forgetful, high energy former sidekick into a main character primed to get on our nerves, but Ellen’s easy listening ambience ensures nothing of the sort even threatens to happen.

Now, though, to the pièce(s) de résistance: Idris Elba and Dominic West as a pair of lazy sea lions. The actors nail the grumpiness of their animated companions, immediately punctuating the screen with a Cockney arrogance that brims with devious intent. They defy the fast-talking mantra laid bare elsewhere in the film: whereas Dory, Marlin, and the rest rattle off words as if they are in a Scorsese picture, the sea lions settle for a more chilled manner. They reserve their vocal velocity for Gerald (Torbin Xan Bullock), a fellow flipper who on numerous occasions attempts to climb atop their resting rock: the duo’s subsequent “Off! Off! Off!” war cry is hilarious.

The sea lions, named Fluke and Rudder for those keeping score, turn up during Marlin and Nemo’s search for Dory at a marine institute. The lions are a highlight, clearly, but our time spent with Marlin and Nemo generally isn’t as interesting as our time spent with Dory. (Perhaps this should not come as much of a surprise given the wild goose chase arc is essentially what we saw play out in Finding Nemo.) The marine institute does welcome more engaging action though, especially since this is the point at which the film whips out its Pixar badge, recalling the likes of Toy Story as it depicts the turbulent ingenuity evoked by a bunch of non-humans navigating a human locale.

I should note the animation itself, especially since the marine section of the film is where we really get to witness the visual prowess contained within the Pixar design ranks. Animation by nature provides a platform for unlimited imagination, but when working within a human world it can also pose something of an adaptation challenge. Getting the right balance between recognisable realism and kooky fantasy is key, as is not seeping into uncanny valley territory when promoting those imaginative tendencies — while it is crucial we see an octopus disguised as a baby in a pram, it is also imperative nobody is freaked out by the resultant visual. And while the antics are out there, the landscape itself shimmers with authenticity. The water texture is wonderful, for instance, especially when viewed from above ground.

Finding Dory is not as emotionally gripping as recent Pixar efforts — the comparison is strained, I admit, but this isn’t on the level of an Inside Out. Nor is it as thematically resonant: there is a point when we arrive arrive at the marine institute where you think the writers are about to delve into the whole Sea World saga, but that thought never gets off the ground. Moments of wit are aplenty throughout though, and while there doesn’t seem to be enough story left for another adventure (unless we’re talking sea lion spin-offs), Stanton and co-director Andrew MacLane have commendably rinsed just about all they can from the series. Heck, they even mould the word “carp” into a one-liner with year-best potential. Incredible.

Finding Dory - Dory

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)

★★★★

David Brent Life on the Road PosterDirector: Ricky Gervais

Release Date: August 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Music

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith

Sometimes you simply cannot help but laugh, and those are the times Ricky Gervais preys upon. If you have ever heard him podcast with fellow humour stirrer Stephen Merchant and their patter pawn Karl Pilkington, or if you happened to catch any of the writer-director’s previous television efforts (I’m thinking Life’s Too Short or, to a lesser extent, Derek) you’ll already be aware of Gervais’ innate desire to prod away at that which ought not to be prodded. His brand of toe-curling hilarity gained notoriety via The Office, a post-millennium docudrama that ran for only two series and a Christmas special. In it he played David Brent, manager unextraordinaire, whose lack of social awareness suffocated his clamour for acceptance. People loved The Office, and still do — it won a Golden Globe in 2003, a first for a British production — which makes Gervais’ decision to bring Brent back some 13 years later a risky one. Revisiting royalty can be a dangerous game.

And yet you forget about the potential pitfalls almost instantly as we learn of Brent’s plan to take his cringe on the road (hence the title). He ain’t getting any younger therefore now is as good a time as any to chase those rock star dreams. This is a positive because it gives the story more scope, removing us from the office environment that still entraps Brent: nowadays he works as a sales subordinate having fallen down the corporate pecking order. More importantly, it affords Brent new surroundings within which to thrive, new locales outwith the world of laptops and staplers, and new scenarios ripe for brutal awkwardness.

Brent decides to relaunch his musical ambitions under the guise of his old band moniker, Forgone Conclusion, only this new incarnation does little but emphasise Brent’s middle-aged reality: his new band mates are a bunch of indie instrumentalists and rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), whose career Brent has co-opted and unwittingly held back. None of them display any sort of warmth towards Brent, apart from Dom who sort of sympathises with his desperate interior. The others refuse to have a drink with their lead singer after gigs and even fall silent whenever he enters the room. Brent, of course, makes light of the whole scenario, putting this lack of interaction down to his band members giving him, their star man, his own space.

And you laugh. You laugh because it’s Brent. Because he attracts wince-inducing guffaws like a garden light does moths. He sings about anything and everything, lyrics often just words assembled in a somewhat rhythmic manner. Or, better yet, lyrics about respecting those with a disability that fail to follow through when sewn together. In Brent’s mind his tunes are supposed to empower their subjects — following a live rendition of “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”, the singer appreciatively nods towards a man in a wheelchair — though to the naked ear they are offensive. But only to the naked ear, to those uninitiated in Brent lore. Because those of us familiar with his antics know there is a lack of malice. We are never laughing at the subjects of Brent’s songs because he isn’t harvesting them for humour. They are never the target. Whether he genuinely cares about the those he sings about or whether it’s just a case of adhering to the social justice mantra of the day is irrelevant.

We know how good Gervais is at playing Brent because we’ve seen him do it before. It helps that the character is entirely his own creation, essentially Gervais turned up to 11, but the actor still has to act. The most important factor is timing and Gervais dictates the pace, both in front of and behind the camera. Early on we hear Brent brag about his love for all kinds of females before hesitating and subsequently neglecting black women (presumably because he is so out of touch and fears any utterance of the word “black” will incur racism accusations). The hesitation is pinpoint; we sort of see it coming and yet Gervais still surprises us. There is also his patented Sigh-Laugh, the perfect vocal representation of a man flapping around in comic quicksand and sinking further after each gag. In some instances you can pick out the streams of improv, those moments where Gervais is clearly rambling on, digging Brent an increasingly deeper hole. His co-stars — especially Jo Hartley and Mandeep Dhillon, playing amiable co-workers — do well to keep straight faces (I suspect the outtakes will be worth seeing).

The cringe isn’t always humorous. Life on the Road taps into serious issues, such as the effect adverse mental health can have on one’s self-worth. Brent, we learn, has struggled in the time between The Office and now, and that struggle still lingers in the form of fame addiction. He pays for everything, literally buying into a false pretence: numerous pensions are cashed in order to fund the tour and socialising with the band comes at a cost, yet Brent persists, aimlessly wasting money in pursuit of adulation.

It makes you wonder why fame appeals to him so much. Part of it, presumably, is to make up for his own flaws. But Brent also wants out, away from an office environment that he no longer recognises. The business world has changed since Wernham Hogg and is now populated by brash, arrogant macho types (you know the sort). Jokes have become fossilised, unless they are genuinely offensive, and self-interest is the new corporate currency. You quickly realise that it is Brent who has given colour to this dingy landscape, albeit wonkily, and his cohorts realise it to. Dom maintains a sense of frustration over his counterpart’s uselessness but is appreciative of Brent’s drive. Ben Bailey Smith, incidentally, pitches the mediator role with great effect.

Procuring this authentic sympathy for the man is a fine balancing act, and the film doesn’t always uphold that balance. Notably, a radio interview goes pear-shaped for Brent both within and outwith the walls of the narrative: he is supposed to be there to plug his tour and sell tickets but is instead constantly put down by the station’s nasty host. While in real life it may be true that some radio hosts couldn’t care less about the exploits of their guests (Gervais would know given he worked in the field), they at least play the game and feign interest. No such thing happens here, and the anchor’s contemptuous attacks on Brent feel contrived.

But one misstep across 90 minutes is pretty good going. Gervais shows us the difference between using humour as a somewhat misguided path towards acceptance, and using it without underlying compassion — it isn’t funny, for instance, when a band member calls a woman fat, nor is it supposed to be. Fans of The Office will enjoy the awkwardness (I didn’t miss the likes of Martin Freeman and Mackenzie Crook, though others might). There is also a heartfelt message bubbling below the comedic furore, one that encourages us to try as Brent does, but to value ourselves in spite of any subsequent successes or failures. “I like making people laugh. I like making people feel,” says the eponymous giggler. Sometimes you simply cannot help but laugh. And sometimes you simply cannot help but feel, even for David Brent.

David Brent Life on the Road - Gervais

Images credit: IMP AwardsEvening Standard

Images copyright (©): Entertainment One

Suicide Squad (2016)

★★

Suicide Squad PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: August 5th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman

One of Batman v Superman’s biggest downfalls, as cited by the majority, was Zack Snyder’s reluctance to at least intermittently swerve away from a brooding tone. You cannot have a superhero movie without fun, right? And Batman v Superman was no fun, right? Perhaps I’m in the minority but I enjoyed the serious streak throughout Snyder’s film. Particularly the creator’s move to inject his superhero outing with a bout of harsh reality (co-writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer also deserve credit on that front). The end result never came close to threatening Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not in genre terms nor thematically, but it did offer an alternative to the mantra of wit championed by Marvel.

Which is to say, essentially, that I was disappointed when I heard about the high profile Suicide Squad reshoots a few months prior to the film’s release. Especially since the rumour mill at the time pinned said reshoots on studio suits requesting more humour, they having seen an early cut of the film. Given this information was made public in early April, just weeks after the release of Batman v Superman, it doesn’t take a Commissioner-Gordon-esque detective to work out why DC higher-ups were worried about Suicide Squad’s tone. It’s a clawing bugbear of mine, changing one’s initial vision to suit the conjectural needs of moviegoers and/or studio execs.

And sure enough, the version of Suicide Squad that has made it through the cutting room and onto our cinema screens is a shell of what it could have — and very well may have — been. Jai Courtney revealed the reshoots were intended to bulk up the film’s action content, which strikes me as odd at best: I can’t say I’ve ever come across an action movie that wrapped filming without enough action. Regardless, if what Courtney claims is true, his words still paint the decision to reshoot sections as a worthless venture. The action in Suicide Squad is, after all, utterly generic. The fantasy elements are weightless. This is less Guardians of the Galaxy and more Thor: The Dark World — no Hiddleston or Hemsworth, only bland enemies and a lot of urban decimation.

Instead we have Will Smith as Deadshot, marksman extraordinaire and de facto leader of a criminal gang assembled by government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to deal with any catastrophic threat, such as a villainous metahuman. “In a world of flying men and monsters, this is the only way to protect our country,” apparently. Other baddies-on-a-mission include: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a psychopath, Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, flame-conjurer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a talking crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the guy keeping them all right in the field, though his mission takes on a more personal pretence when the impending catastrophic threat turns out to be his girlfriend. Well, sort of — it’s Cara Delevingne as archaeologist June Moone corrupted by a bland ancient spirit.

Having decided the successful introduction of so many new faces wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, Ayer also summons Jared Leto to play the iconic Joker character. And since the Joker is a classic Batman villain, Ben Affleck is afforded the opportunity to earn a fleeting Batcheck too. This volume is a problem, the film’s most glaring misstep. Suicide Squad is, by definition, an ensemble piece that should be about connecting the arcs of characters already familiar to us. The idea that anybody could reel off so many personalities and effectively colour each of them with specialised quirks and emotive ticks is absurd. It took four years and five films for Marvel to acclimatise viewers to its universe, and only then could The Avengers work as well as it did. (I don’t mean to invoke Marvel at every opportunity when discussing DC outings, but when the former has perfected a storytelling model it would be remiss of me not to point out the latter’s mistake in ignoring it.)

We have Leto, for instance, whose Joker is set up for big things that never arrive. The actor tries, his interpretation of the infamous bad guy more sex pest than chaos-breeder, but Leto’s lack of screen time means the character never gets the opportunity to develop nuance or follow through on threats. He merely exists as a symbolic construction for Quinn to maniacally lust over. There are others with similar troubles, notably Croc, who infrequently mutters, and Boomerang, who does more drinking than developing. The film even seems to acknowledge this persona overload in a defeatist manner when it unveils another squad member halfway through proceedings only to have him killed off within minutes.

A few have better luck. Robbie sizzles as Quinn. A total tease; bright, breezy, and bonkers. Roman Vasyanov’s camera does leer uncomfortably whenever she is on-screen though, apparently revelling in Quinn’s sex appeal and suggestive demeanour (there are numerous shots of Robbie bending over, the camera positioned conveniently behind her). Granted, Quinn is supposed to purvey an overload of toxic allure before uncovering more empathetic tendencies. If only the filmmakers had more faith in the process of emotion and not appearance. Smith and Davis are solid in their roles, especially the latter, brazen and cold as Waller. Kinnaman’s Rick Flag draws the most sympathy and is the one actually worth rooting for. Kinnaman, star of The Killing, should be in far higher demand.

The film begins with a rush of comic book style, neon text splashing across the screen as it describes the various attributes of our new cinematic inmates. We get short vignettes establishing the main players, these clips incorporated in such a way that they reflect the panel format utilised by their source material. It does feel like the writers are stuck in an introductory loop for around 45 minutes; we see and hear about Deadshot’s impressive skills, and then see and hear about them again as the story remains static. When the action does get going it’s unspectacular, falling foul of the genre’s MacGuffin obsession (something about removing an evil heart). Having said that, these sequences are at least grounded in that gritty, wet aesthetic Ayer seems fond of — see Fury. It feels like events are happening on the street and not in a computer game.

The idea, then, is we’re supposed to root for bad people and then wonder why we’re rooting for bad people. In reversing the moral polarities, Suicide Squad is supposed to encourage a more complex interpretation and consumption of the supervillain (and superhero) identity. That there are varying degrees of villainy, for example, and that perhaps some criminal activity has value in the form of defending us from even greater peril. The truth is you don’t really come away from the film debating the intricacies of that mindset. You leave wondering why you haven’t just watched a Batman solo outing starring Harley Quinn and the Joker.

Suicide Squad - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Jason Bourne (2016)

★★★★

Jason Bourne PosterDirector: Paul Greengrass

Release Date: July 27th, 2016 (UK); July 29th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Thriller

Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander

The prospect of another Bourne movie with Paul Greengrass at the helm and Matt Damon in the mix brought out the hopeful side in my otherwise sequel-averse instinct. While The Bourne Legacy done its best to redistribute the focus of a successful, smart franchise onto a new character, it never really looked like hurdling the post-Damon problem. Jeremy Renner has proven to be quite the asset since 2011, each new turn as Hawkeye in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe more successful than the last. But Aaron Cross was no Jason Bourne and director Tony Gilroy couldn’t muster the same level of thrill as Greengrass had during his time in charge (it is worth pointing out that as screenwriter Gilroy has had as much to do with the Bourne franchise’s success as anyone).

Therefore in late 2014 when it was announced Greengrass and Damon would, in fact, be returning for a third outing together — and a fifth overall — I welcomed the news. A lot has happened in world of geopolitics since The Bourne Ultimatum, notably the rise of social media and the undercutting of questionable surveillance techniques by the likes of Edward Snowden. WikiLeaks has become a force, for better or worse disseminating otherwise secretive information around the world, affording us the opportunity to learn about foreign policy tactics and moral mistakes. And just recently, the Pokémon Go app launched to the delight of almost everybody with a smartphone, users a simple ‘yes you can use my location data’ away from catching Pikachu.

Miraculously, Jason Bourne covers all of those bases with a familiar garnish of Greengrass grit. We reconnect with Bourne (Damon) as he steps out of the bare-knuckle frying pan and back into the fugitive fire. The former sleeper agent, now practically free of his debilitating memory loss, learns from former Treadstone contact Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) about some new information regarding said program and his father (Gregg Henry). The CIA pick up on Bourne’s re-emergence and, under the guidance of Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and rising star Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), seek to bring him in — or worse.

Stylistically, Greengrass remains a champion of the 24-influenced techno-sheen: operatives hunch over computers showing complex maps and databases; Barry Ackroyd’s camera harangues characters, zooming in on their stressed faces and back out again; edits are snappy, driving momentum. A tip of the hat, too, to the practical effects used throughout and especially those on display during the final act. All of these visual footprints coalesce to invoke a sense of urgency, as you would expect. Perhaps more importantly they help to paint the on-screen world as our world, as an arena built for the era of borderless technology and ethically dubious decision-making.

The film manoeuvres around three typical set pieces: the first, a multiperson jaunt through an anti-government protest in Athens; the second, a London-based double-cross; and the third, a lengthy game of cat and mouse around the convention centres and streets of Las Vegas. These aren’t exactly new action frontiers for the series — the scene in Athens borrows heavily from the Waterloo Station sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum — but they are all expertly crafted and thoroughly involving. Primarily because they place us right there with Bourne as he searches for answers while attempting to avoid the CIA’s traps. It can get quite tense.

Unsurprisingly, then, the outing is a winner both structurally and technically. What about themes, character, and narrative? The latter two are certainly weaker, though that’s not to say they are weak. Bourne himself has always got by on Damon’s brutish charisma which is again the case here (for a marquee attraction, the actor has but a few pages of dialogue). We see an ageing protagonist at the onset, a lost soul battered by a gruelling life: “All that matters is staying alive,” he says, yet he earns his way as an underground fighter. Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff Dewey is as world weary as the man he wants to capture, but has amassed experienced and is a master player of the game. There is no villain per se — Vincent Cassel comes closest as a hitman employed by the CIA — meaning the piece evolves into a grey area battle between Bourne, courting a lighter shade, and Dewey’s darker prerogative.

Alicia Vikander was always going to be a winning get for the franchise, though the shuffle does dizzy her character at times. She unveils a great glare, her serious face on point throughout as Lee, however the actor is asked to use it a little too often. It’s as if the filmmakers want to her to be the next Bond so badly they’ve created a character so brisk in personality that the casting suits over at MGM simply have to take notice. I suppose everyone on-screen is wrapped up in the seriousness of their various predicaments, and rightly so. Lee does get more involved as the piece progresses and her final destination is an intriguing one, it’s just that Vikander’s talent, for my liking, should have commanded that bit extra. Julia Stiles likewise. Parsons serves a purpose here but as one of the few characters already ingrained in the Bourne community, a grander presence would have been welcomed.

Given this is the fifth instalment of the series, and a picture not based on any sort of primary source material, it is right to consider the film’s aim. What does Jason Bourne have to offer that the previous pictures did not? The answer almost wholly is of thematic content, in that the film expands upon its already established surveillance lexicon and roots itself in updated issues of the present day. That Athens protest I referenced earlier could be happening right now, for instance. Bourne’s unravelling of the Treadstone program brought to light a seedy government process, true, but it also revealed the location of active field agents and subsequently put them at risk. Similar, in conclusion but not effect, to the WikiLeaks reveals which, in some cases, have inconvenienced innocent civilians.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse also incorporate the rise of social media and particularly its knife-edge promise to protect user information. The duo mean well and have the correct issue at heart; we are challenged to consider the probability that our personal data isn’t really that safe when in the hands of mega corporations, which is almost certainly true. It is a clumsily handled narrative thread though. When upstart CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) exclaims “no-one will be watching you” before an audience of technologically savvy people during a lecture on what users should expect when they sign up to his new social media platform, those in attendance all vigorously applaud like mindless cattle. Surely we’re too sceptical for that sort of behaviour these days.

The filmmakers try to squeeze in as much compelling and relevant detail as possible, though are clearly mindful not to overdo it. (A discussion between Dewey and Kalloor even hints at the recent Apple-FBI iPhone encryption saga.) The series has always been admirably faithful to process, much more so than its genre counterparts. This approach doesn’t always work: the need to establish mission procedure and tick every box can occasionally halt character development, and I think it does here. But Jason Bourne is an intelligent action-thriller, a rare breed of tentpole movie that we should demand more frequently. Its message, apt: moral clarity has no place in muddy waters and our geopolitical world is utterly caked.

Jason Bourne - Tommy Lee Jones & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures