Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

★★★

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Heading into Pacific Rim: Uprising, I struggled to recall much of Pacific Rim. That didn’t really matter. Like its protagonist Jaegers, Uprising cranks along like a fairly well-oiled if uninspired machine, only filling in knowledge gaps when absolutely necessary (and often via bouts of exposition). It is swamped with techno-scientific jargon, the majority of which barely enters the cinema-sphere before shooting way over the heads of viewers. But none of it really matters. All that matters is the presence of good giant robots, the counter-presence of bad giant robots, and the absolute certainty that they’re going to fight. And that, I guess, sums up Steven S. DeKnight’s sequel in a nutshell: Uninterested in character development — a few half-hearted attempts aside — and thoroughly compelled by carnage. And provided you leave your brain at the door upon entering, it’s actually sort of okay.

This is primarily because it has John Boyega front and centre. The Star Wars sophomore has bags of charisma and a playful wit that helps him overcome the often cliched dialogue. At one point he is charged with giving a rallying speech before a group of junior Jaeger users, a speech we’ve seen a million times before and in situations where the drama has been significantly better earned, yet he delivers it with enough panache to get you at least a little fired up. Boyega plays Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s now deceased war hero, who has swapped his father’s honour (or something) for a freeing scavenger lifestyle spent on the decimated coast of LA (or somewhere). Upon being captured by the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps, he suddenly rediscovers his honourable streak, rejoining the ranks of civilisation protection alongside his old Jaeger partner Nate (Scott Eastwood), who sort of holds a grudge but not really. Good thing too, because soon after Jake adopts the heroic tag, the world comes under threat from a Jaeger drone system gone wrong and a bunch of giant Kaiju creatures.

That story summary sounded quite snarky, but to its credit the film wears a snarky, self-reflective attitude. There’s a great moment where you think eccentric PPDC scientist Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, played (obviously) by Burn Gorman, is about to unleash Elba’s signature “Cancel the Apocalypse” cry from the previous film, but instead the screenwriters lump him with a significantly flimsier and entirely forgettable punchline. Gorman, like many others, finds himself embodying a walking stereotype and, like many others, makes the best of it. Cailee Spaeny, for instance, plays the newbie cadet whose rebellious existence has landed her in Jaeger school. Spaeny projects a charming aura despite the well-worn character type, and she has solid comic chemistry with Boyega.

Scott Eastwood, looking more and more like Captain America Chris Evans by the reel, has less room to manoeuvre, his only real character quirk coming via a weird non-love triangle between himself, Jake, and Adria Arjona’s otherwise sidelined Jules Reyes. Elsewhere, Charlie Day is charged with doing his Charlie Day shtick, while Rinko Kikuchi returns as Mako Mori, Jake’s adopted sister and PPDC executive. You probably shouldn’t feel short-changed by a giant monster flick that lacks standout characters, but a better film would have at least a few (see Jurassic Park or Alien).

That being said, Uprising does fulfil its visual duties. The Jaegers have a commendably imposing aura, particularly prevalent in a scene that shows three of them gliding down from the sky to challenge a rogue robot. Cinematographer Dan Mindel frames the shot well, depicting the destructive menace of the aforementioned rouge before patiently bringing the trio into focus, their collective authority increasing by the frame. And the enemy creatures are quite creepy too: A swarm of bug-like Kaiju unleashed towards the end won’t please anyone averse to creepy crawlies, but it does make for a neat mid-battle game-changer.

This is better than anything the Transformers franchise has offered, not only because it has one or two performers worth rooting for, but also because its battle sequences are easy to follow. Unlike Transformers’ Hieronymus Bosch-esque action sequences, Uprising clearly defines the good guys and bad guys, and takes care to depict the consequences of each robotic right hook or metallic missile strike, affording viewers a chance to digest events. This is in part because natural breaks in the action take us inside the heads of the giant mechanical beasts, showing us the humans in control and thus giving the Jaegers a degree of humanity. But it is also simply down to decent action direction: DeKnight acted as showrunner on the excellent first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, and while the fights here lack the bone-crunching inventiveness of those interspersed throughout said series, they do at least adhere to Daredevil’s visual clarity.

It may be an easy conclusion to arrive at, but it’s also the right one: If warring monsters is your type of thing, Uprising should tick enough boxes to offer an enjoyable experience. It will also do the job if you just want to spend a few hours at the cinema without having to rev any brainpower. Like me, you might even chuckle a few times — kudos Boyega. What’s certain is you will have the chance to see plenty of other, better blockbusters in the coming months (Ready Player One is already out). Hey, by the end of the summer there is every chance you’ll have forgotten you even went to see Pacific Rim: Uprising on a cold night at the end of March. But at least it knows its place. It’s fine, and that’s fine.

Director: Steven S. DeKnight

Rating: 12A

Runtime: 1hr 51mins

Genre: Action, Adventure, Science fiction

Starring: John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny, Scott Eastwood, Rinko Kikuchi

Images ©: Universal Pictures

Annihilation (2018)

★★★★★

Science fiction, at its best, is about bending the rules just enough to expand the mind. Refreshing the realm of possibility through intellectual pursuit. Often, drawn against the backdrop of humanity, be it human suffering, exploration, or endurance. In Annihilation, it’s a bit of all three. The first, painted across the expression of just about every character we meet, from Benedict Wong’s frustrated interrogator to Natalie Portman’s uncertain solider-biologist-spouse. The second, on both a physical and metaphysical level, as we watch a group of female scientists explore an ever-changing realm while debating its ever-changing properties. And the third, endurance, a necessary attribute displayed by the quintet throughout their navigation of this new world, as well as the one left behind.

Portman plays Lena, a biologist specialising in the behaviour of cells, who is surprised by the sudden reappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). An army specialist, Kane was presumed dead by Lena who lived with the weight of his vanishing, and more, for at least a year. Circumstance lands her in Area X where she learns about her partner’s exploits in The Shimmer, a creeping electromagnetic fortress with rainbow walls and a penchant for harming those who enter. Enchanted by the unknown, Lena joins four other scientists, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), on a fact-finding mission inside.

The film blends dread with intrigue, often evoking that feeling of dangerous wonder, where you know you’re watching something uneasy unfold but can’t take your eyes off the screen. This is Alex Garland’s second feature as director, following Ex Machina, and his grasp of tone is already excellent. Annihilation is less clinical than Ex Machina, more subservient to the fluidity of nature, but it exudes that same sense of simmering tension. We feel it from the beginning, the tension increasing as the five women enter The Shimmer embodying that sense of dangerous wonder, fully aware their survival chances are slim. (They enter anyway.) Self-destruction drives the film and there are many moments of violence and anguish, but there are also discreet moments of hope. Maybe ‘beauty’ is the wrong word (though the film does look stunning, another reason to be angry at Paramount for not giving it a theatrical run here in the UK), but characters find relief amongst all the despair and regret, and we do too.

Thus, The Shimmer is a bi-functional venue: A faux refuge, a place where our scientific group go to escape the woes of reality or to chase answers, both with varied results, and also a Rubik’s Cube that seeks to change the face of physics and natural order. The narrative itself is fluid, morphing from present to past through flashbacks with no clear time-stamp, designed to further flesh out the emotional states of those on-screen. In and of itself, these flashbacks don’t defy cinematic convention, but by interspersing them at various points along the group’s excursion, Garland brings The Shimmer’s bending of natural order beyond the fourth wall.

The film owes a little to the horror genre, certain visual moments capturing that hair-raising creepiness common in the genre greats — I’m thinking of the way the camera foregrounds and backgrounds people and space in a certain sequence towards the end (reminiscent of Mike Gioulakis and David Robert Mitchell’s efforts in It Follows). Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow contribute to similar effect via a metallic, invasive score that climaxes with a now infamous four-note sound that unsettles and compels in almost equal measure. You really do have to hear it.

I alluded to Annihilation’s Netflix-only release here in the UK, which was a consequence of a dispute between Garland, supported by producer Scott Rudin, and Paramount bosses who felt the film was both too complex for audiences and that Lena lacked sufficient moral clarity. Conversely, it is to the film’s credit that we have a female protagonist who isn’t vilified for poor decision-making, and whose greyness is an enriching attribute. Garland’s screenplay, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is challenging, but not any more than Eric Heisserer’s work on Arrival, which more than quadrupled its production budget at the box office. Portman, by the way, is brilliant in the role, never overplaying her character’s internal heartache. She isn’t lovable but we’re with her every step of the way, which is a credit to both actor and filmmaker. Her partners in expedition are also great, particularly Gina Rodriguez as Anya.

It all leads to a unique conclusion, a final half hour that draws a line in the sand, challenging another filmmaker to conjure up something as enthralling, as spooky, as wonderfully disconcerting. I hesitate to deify a film I’ve only just seen and haven’t had the chance to fully digest, but Kubrick’s 2001 springs to mind as far as third act feats go. Garland downright refuses to answer your questions — there must at least three “don’t knows” uttered in the final 10 minutes — and whether or not this delights you or makes you tear your hair out will depend on what type of moviegoer you are: Someone who loves mystery, or someone who needs definitive truth. (Psst! Either is fine.) That may be the greatest thing about Annihilation, that it implores you to think about it, and then watch it again, and then think about it some more, and then watch it again. Timeless? A sci-fi classic? Maybe.

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: 15

Runtime: 1hr 55mins

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Science fiction

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson

Images ©: Paramount Pictures, Netflix

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

★★★★

James Gunn is Marvel Studios’ most effective filmmaker. Sure, other writer-directors have delivered exciting, interesting, energetic films, action and/or character-driven in purpose. Joss Whedon gave us the former in The Avengers, just about finding enough room to squeeze so many overblown personalities in amongst the blast-and-ruin spectacle. Anthony and Joe Russo’s work on the Captain America arc has been a triumph as far as affording the seemingly ungroundable genre some grounding. But you get the feeling Gunn, more than anybody else, has an affinity for his characters. And in a cinematic bullpen dominated by flash and awe and all that jazz, these films need to provide adequate space for genuine character moments.

It helps that Gunn has a bunch of game, off-piste actors at his disposal. A bonafide A-lister in voice only. Another not just in voice only, but limited to three words. A former comedy sitcom goof. An underused performer whose mainstream exploits have placed her second or third fiddle to her male co-stars. A wrestler rarely heralded for his acting abilities (until he became a thoroughly entertaining bad guy). And Michael Rooker. It helps, too, that these are people who clearly get along in real life. They look cool in group promo shots, are funny in group promo interviews, and combine the two in group promo selfies. Whereas The Avengers are big-time charming, this lot are ragtag charming, and their performances reflect that — aloofness and competence in bundles.

There are three show-stealers, each of whom assume varying levels of prominence throughout the film. Dave Bautista is the comedic heartbeat of a generally funny picture, a primary player as Drax the Destroyer, whose battle to overcome tone-deafness invites instances of hilarity. Bautista, by the way, is one heck of a catch for Hollywood. Next to him, as Yondu, the aforementioned Rooker recounts the surprising emotional verve he once deployed as Merle in The Walking Dead. Both Merle and Yondu are unlikeable antagonists, but antagonists who discreetly command a sense of attachment from viewers. Perhaps the real heartbeat of the piece is Sean Gunn as Kraglin, second-in-command to Yondu, a miscreant with a conscience. Gunn, who also stop-motioned as Rocket during filming, makes the most of the screen time he receives, packing as much punch as those hogging the minutes.

The plot itself is straightforward. The Guardians — Drax, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) — hightail it across the Galaxy in an effort to hide from the Sovereign, a robotic alien race led by Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha. The story, though, is one that incorporates fatherhood and sisterhood, told without narrative complexity but still thoroughly engaging. As a director should, Gunn relies on his cast and crew to bring his vision together, and his vision is colourful. Henry Braham’s gloomy work on The Legend of Tarzan is nowhere to be seen: Given its infinite parameters, it makes sense that space would breed so many vibrant and distinctive civilisations and peoples. The wild accessorisation of The Hunger Games springs to mind, as does The Fifth Element’s aesthetic mania. And I have to point out a landscape shot fraught with tangerine beauty and instantaneous threat, the latter via a spacecraft that advances so rapidly you hardly have time to admire the Braham’s photography.

Of course, a significant chuck of the opening Volume’s charm was its vintage soundtrack. I don’t imagine screenwriting class 101 instructs students to concoct a screenplay partly built around which songs one wishes to include in their final project, but this format has now worked twice for Gunn. From the opening dance-battle number (“Mr. Blue Sky”), to Sam Cooke’s romantic serenading, to a beautifully judged Cat Stevens finale, the music hits each tonal beat. The soundtrack is as much a means to inject sensory pleasure into proceedings as it is a wink towards the audience. And this is a film that likes to wink, taking shots at excessively corny villain names such as Taserface (“It’s metaphorical!”), and freely admitting Baby Groot’s cuteness makes him indispensable: “Too adorable to kill.”

This willingness to just accept the absurdity is alluring. Gunn is not trying to sell us something false, therefore the oddities are easy to buy — a Kingsman-esque murder slalom made jovial via euphoric music — and subsequently digest. We even get some stoner comedy in the midst of too many inter-dimensional space warps, a throwback to the filmmaker’s work on the Scooby-Doo live-action series. And, though infrequent, the piece knows when to harden the mood, often at the behest of Quill’s father-finding arc opposite Kurt Russell, who seems to be having a great time hamming it up as a god. Karen Gillan also does solid work as Gamora’s intensely pained sibling Nebula, though her story could do with some more fleshing out.

Some of the conventional superhero traits do find their way into the piece: The general lack of true jeopardy; the special effects-fest towards the end. Although it isn’t a huge distance, this is as far from the Marvel formula as we are likely to get, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok pending. Put it this way: Whereas the iconic Avengers gladiatorial pose (that bit where they all assemble mid-battle and the camera gives us a 360° shot of their scarred triumphs) is a pristine effort, akin to a collection of futuristic Atlas sculptures, the same pose here ends with an amusing splat. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t after glamour. It is after fun, funny and feeling, and it nails all three.

Director: James Gunn

Rating: 12A

Runtime: 2hrs 16mins

Genre: Action, Adventure, Science fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker

Images ©: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Lion (2017)

★★★

Lion - Sunny Pawar

To unfurl my best impression of a sports commentator, Lion is, broadly speaking, a film of two halves. But unlike the insinuation invoked by said metaphor, these are two halves of consistent quality. There is no playing badly and then coming on to a game, or any downward spiral in fortune as the final minutes approach: It’s good and bad, and then it’s good and bad. Rather, the deviating halves come via a drastic change of scenery, of personnel and, in some ways, of mood. The first introduces us to young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), their days spent scavenging adroitly in an effort to return home with milk and, presumably, other rations. They live in small, poor Indian village with their mother and sister, the former feeding her family by carrying rocks.

This might paint a picture of struggle, and there is struggle, but for around 20 minutes the screen is awash with sibling camaraderie, Saroo’s adorable willingness to put a shift in for the cause only matched in merit by Guddu’s unassailable duty of care. Plucked from obscurity — in Pawar’s case, an audition at school — the pair of young actors beam with authenticity in both their relationship on-screen and their presence in a sustenance-centric world. Like Room’s Jacob Tremblay, Sunny Pawar defies his inexperience and excels, possibly because said inexperience hasn’t yet afforded him the capacity to knowingly perform, and thus perform poorly. Instead we see the real kid, a bundle of energy and charisma, arms pumping like Usain Bolt on an Olympic track whenever he sprints to the next scavenging destination.

This sweetness sours when Guddu fails to return from a work shift, leaving Saroo stranded on a train bound for some faraway metropolis. Garth Davis’ film loses a bit of momentum as Saroo stumbles from locale to locale — the narrative gets stuck on a repetitive loop, compounding Saroo’s lost predicament beyond necessity. There is refuge in a tunnel with other lost children, a sleepover with a seemingly conscientious woman, and more, each encounter conveying the same message of volatility. You actually get enough of a sense of just how much trouble Saroo is in via Greig Fraser’s cinematography, which captures the vastness of an unknown landscape: car lights, train lights, street lights enmeshed in tightly packed, busy urban spheres and swamped externally by a sea of barren nature.

The film refocuses upon reaching Australia, Saroo’s new home, the youngster having been adopted by locals Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). We only spend a moment more in little Pawar’s company before Dev Patel takes over, playing an older Saroo on the cusp of hotel management study. This is also the point at which we meet Lucy (Rooney Mara), a fellow student and Saroo’s impending girlfriend. The actors have a chemistry that helps them work around their rapid-fire romance, and Mara in particular does well with insufficient screen time. She projects tender authority, determined to support Saroo but not defined by his quest to locate his family via Google Earth.

The Australia half, though for the most part engaging, stumbles with well-meaning intent. It tries to pitch itself as a multicultural reprieve, but somewhat loses sight of that in its postcolonial attempt to redress the prevailing Hollywood imbalance. Rather than spending time with birth mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), Luke Davies’ screenplay privileges Sue’s emotional journey. She has a hard time dealing with Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whom she and John adopted shortly after Saroo and who has failed to adapt to life following a turbulent childhood. Her appearances are bitty, not all-encompassing, but the notion that the Australian mother should command most of our sympathy doesn’t sit right with the film’s otherwise progressive platform. Indeed, the issue is captured in a scene where an emotionally wrought Sue laments the state of her family, speaking about a vision she had in her younger years that convinced her to adopt.

After its opening act the piece affords Kamla little screen time, and us little time to develop sufficient compassion for her following Saroo’s disappearance. This also speaks to a larger issue about the level of attention minority actors are afforded in Western cinema, and the consequences a lack of satisfactory attention can incur: Kidman has been nominated for an Oscar, whereas the likely equally talented Bose has not. I should note though that, to both Davis and Davies’ credit, life in Australia is far from glorified. Family tensions are at the fore, tensions in part generated by Saroo’s unwillingness to confide in Sue and John about his mission to find his birth mother. Patel particularly excels during these sequences of inner turmoil and we feel the weight of his character’s struggle.

Matching the fervour of a late winning goal (this sports metaphor should never have made it past the opening line; I can only apologise) Lion evokes a plume of bittersweet emotion as it reaches its conclusion. The moment makes the journey worthwhile, even if we, like Saroo, have had to navigate rugged terrain in order to get there.

Lion - Dev Patel

Director: Garth Davis

Rating: PG

Runtime: 1h 58mins

Genre: Drama

Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman

Images ©: The Weinstein Company

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