The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

★★★★

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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.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

★★★★

Director: Edgar Wright

Release Date: April 9th, 2004 (UK); September 24th, 2004 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Horror

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

It has been almost 10 years since we first met the instantly relatable yet spatially anarchic Pegg, Frost and Wright trio. Since 2004, their fumes of hilarity have glazed earlobes the world over, excellence exhaled from the likes of Hot Fuzz. But before Pegg and Frost had an unruly, conspiring cultist town to deal with, the duo wielded shovels and cricket bats in a war against zombies. The epitome of wholesome comedy-horror, Shaun of the Dead wittingly embraces society’s increasing individuality and detachment — a hapless trait infused even more in today’s world — before sending it spiralling in a zombie rage. The zombie adage it apt too, a smart comparison that evokes humour because the notion cuts so close to the bone. Perhaps a few characters are too incidental to warrant their on screen presence, but part one of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is damn tasty regardless.

Working in an electronics shop where he commands disrespect, and still living with his overweight, uninspired room-mate Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun (Simon Pegg) is pitifully meandering through life, unwilling to commit and unable to justify. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) bemoans Shaun’s discrepancies, in particular a monotonous infatuation with the local pub, the Winchester. As Shaun spends many a day lethargic amongst the comatose masses, juggling fractious relations between Ed and another house guest, and failing to win over the love of his life, he must be pretty certain that it cannot get any worse. Only, it can. Zombie worse.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost front this raucous outing, and their gag-full chemistry is one of the prevailing positives. As down-on-his-luck lead man Shaun, Pegg exudes the everyday. His demeanour is casual, occasionally showing the slightest hint of enthusiasm, only to be shot down by an ungrateful colleague or a disappointed friend. Even Shaun’s motivational methods leave a lot to be desired (“There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in meat pie”). You can see part of yourself in Shaun; well-meaning but gobbled up by a generically infectious culture, and Pegg’s bedraggled showing is suitably so. Though when the going gets heroic, Pegg is just as believable. His camaraderie with Nick Frost acts as the driving force behind the film’s intelligent wit. Frost portrays Ed, who’s a bit of a git. Ed is sort of like Shaun, only a lot further along the waster-scale. Rude and lazy, he seemingly exists only as the semi-loveable pain in Shaun’s backside, though he does emit a semblance of smarts every so often. The duo bounce comedic mouthfuls off each other for the duration, and they never get stuck in a rut. If the key to comedy is timing, these two have the art of early arrival down to a T.

At the forefront of Shaun of the Dead — which often harks knowingly back to zombie classics such as George A. Romero’s Dead series and Sam Raimi’s maniacal Evil Dead — is this concept of reviewing society as a failed collective unit. Although the zombie undead are the primary antagonists throughout, the narrative is really about the zombie alive — us humans. Director Edgar Wright, who also co-wrote the clever script with Pegg, smartly highlights numerous zombie-esque characteristics of the modern being: from waking up still tired after a late night, to ambling around streets unaware of anything other than oneself, to sitting slumped and mouth-gaping in tune with the other morsels on public transport. And each of these distastes are depicted before any actual zombie shows up. Wright’s almost satirical outlook on our isolated existence is smart, and is actually the most horrifying realisation that comes to fruition during the film, as opposed to the limb-deprived monsters. “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation,” proclaims Shaun, an admission boasting more truth than realistic application.

Unlike the slow zombies afoot, Shaun of the Dead advances at a brisk pace and never threatens to dwell on a gag for longer than necessary. In fact, many of the funniest lines are quipped as humorous sound bites, again playing off the excellent chemistry between the front pair. Moreover, lengthy jokes interspersed throughout the zom-com tend to work (for example, a certain rifle in a pub) meaning each pay-off feels validated. There aren’t many things more frustrating than a film-long gag that loses steam before reaching the station, or worse, breaks down on arrival. The meaningful pace adopted by the filmmakers ensures proceedings are camp, as the people involved don’t take the goings-on super seriously, generating a healthy spirit throughout. Of course, there’s a genuine societal pondering going on as aforementioned, but encasing this sincerity is a plethora of over-the-top gut removals and blood splattering. Perhaps the most outrageous scene of the lot involves three humans, as many pool cues, a zombie and an oddly beat-by-beat consistent rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Why outrageous? Because we’re having such a good time.

The tremendous Bill Nighy appears inconsistently as Shaun’s apparently disapproving step-dad, but should have a bigger role. Nighy’s lack of connection with Shaun acts as an embodiment of the film’s appraisal of civilisation, whilst at the same time provides the funniest moments external to those involving Pegg and Frost. His lack of sufficient screen time rankles even more so in the presence of peripheral characters Diane and David, played by Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran respectively. Both Davis and Moran are fine in their roles, but Moran’s spiteful, bitter David is unlikeable and therefore not worth investing in. His constant appearance coincides with hardly any character development, and therefore acts as a regular surplus to requirements reminder. Generic isn’t necessarily bad, especially considering the film’s self-awareness. However irrelevance is bad, and both David and Diane are just that. Kate Ashfield remains appealing as Liz even when denying Shaun, which is a testament to her solid performance. Peter Serafinowicz partakes in a small role as the grumpy room-mate, relinquishing more than one hilarious and angry diatribe.

Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead delivers on two levels: as an accessible cautionary tale denouncing a cultural phenomenon of zombie-like monotony in society, and as a camp, witty and downright amusing banterfest with a splurge of chopping, ripping and cutting. Imperfections are not absent, but nor are they wholly adverse, and the excellent script maintains a rollicking pace throughout. Anyone for a Cornetto?

World War Z (2013)

★★★

Director: Marc Forster

Release Date: June 21st, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Horror

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos

As Brad Pitt’s UN investigator Gerry Lane swoops over the city of Jerusalem encased in an enormous fortified wall, you are reminded of all that is wrong with World War Z. There’s a lingering generic-ism abound, one that stockily lumbers around without promise nor priority. When Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, Matthew Michael Carnahan and whoever else’s script this is attempts to overcome these commonalities, the film struggles to successfully juggle its grandiose ideas and instead is blighted by one or two gaping plot holes. Yet, before Gerry’s helicopter settles on the dusty plains below, you’re also privy to World War Z’s great elements. The magnificent visual landscapes on show. A sense of urgency that not only ensures problems are swiftly left hanging far behind, but also relents in tandem with the film’s menacing creatures. And also Brad Pitt himself, whose screen presence is a welcome, wholly capable one supported robustly by Mireille Enos. Occasionally frustrating, often energetic; World War Z ain’t all that bad actually.

Having allayed his United Nations requisites in order to spend quality time with his family, a commute-turned-zombie attack must be the last thing on Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt) mind as he drives his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters through a busy Philadelphia street. You get the sense he misses his old investigative job though, therefore it’s unsurprising that Gerry is speedily roped back into a life of danger and heroism, recruited by UN Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) to find the origins of the harrowing virus. Where did it come from? How can it be harnessed? These are apt, important questions demanding rapid answers in the narrative context, but questions that don’t quite elevate the film to any significant height.

World War Z, then, suffers two-fold. One on hand its familiar formula reeks of a sterility, whilst characters and plot advancements are constrained by the formalities of the pandemic sub-genre. Instantly, the screen reels off a variety of intertwined media, life, death, disease images in a montage designed to propel the likelihood of ecological threat in a shrinking world. It’s quite clichéd, but just about works as a warning (or confirmation) detailing the film you’re about to watch. Then a hair-strewn Brad Pitt appears, assuring his daughter that he’s done with the ‘leaving home’ business and is now employed solely in the confines of his own four walls — of course those busy, reminiscing eyes say something a little different. And after five minutes, you know exactly what you’re going to get: a rampant, solid action flick. This isn’t necessarily a negative, a ‘rampant, solid action flick’ will often conveniently fill up a few hours. What works, works, right? At times though, there’s an inherent over-predictability that, shuffled in lesser hands, could be construed as laziness (a taped arm will probably get bitten; a family left behind will more than likely come off worse for wear; a semi-retired family man will leave loved ones in the time of need).

These oh-so-common nuances do not affirm laziness though, because it’s evident that the conglomerate of director Marc Forster, actors and writers do care about the film they’re unstably constructing. Here’s the second problem then. In caring, and in striving to cast aside generic formulae, the film unwittingly jumps around, up, down and all over. Big surface ideas fall foul of gaping discrepancies, and there isn’t really a specific overarching tone, rather a number of intermittent murmurings. As a tormented, abrasive group of zombie-humans trample through the streets of Jerusalem, you’re watching (and probably enjoying) that ‘rampant, solid action flick’. But later, when Doctor Who appears and, stopping short at TARDIS-ing back in time, signals an atmospheric switch to one attempting Danny Boyle-esque tension. That’s not forgetting the splatterings of humour (the “Mother Nature is a serial killer” diatribe is oddly built on comic undertones) and misplaced masculine camaraderie throughout. Individually these tonal constructs are more hit than miss, but collectively the mishmash is a tad sloppy.

There’s also a significant plot-contrivance that perhaps stems from this rewrite plague that the film suffers from. The whole of Jerusalem is surrounded and protected by a gigantic wall, the idea being that Israeli officials were aware of the forthcoming viral attack and therefore planned ahead. The reason we are given explaining their premature knowledge is that these officials worked on the basis of a ’10th Man’ theory — where the assumption is that this 10th man (of a consistent group of 10, obviously) would always disagree with every unanimous decision agreed upon by the other nine, and then work to prevent the seemingly unpredictable. Essentially, this time the 10th man came across the virus, and that’s how Israel was alerted early. The issue then is, firstly, are we to believe that this earth-shattering discovery was successfully kept secret from the rest of the world? Secondly, if the 10th man always goes against the grain harvested by the other nine, wouldn’t his subsequent research always uncover (and thus prevent) past tragedies, therefore no global, human-based, disaster would ever have happened? Come on.

I digress. This is not a bad film, it’s only because the plot could’ve been tighter and the tone could’ve been structured and therefore the film could’ve been far better, that its weaknesses divulge frustration. For it looks incredible. Each visual is well-developed and astutely executed. In particular, there’s a tidal wave attack scene that’s ominous, turbulent and exceedingly well done. There’s also a sizeable amount of looking down at burnt, destroyed cities going on, although the terrific special effects anoint this a positive rather than a negative trait. And all of the fast-paced, energetic actions sequences deliver. In fact, Forster makes a point to move away from the early stereotypical set-up by quickly flashing the aforementioned disaster-threatening montage and then driving head-first into a bellowing helping of action.

These popcorn scenes do provide the majority of the film’s strengths, however on a few occasions there is a sense that Forster et al are striving to do more with the morality of said pandemic. A dancing moral stance that could’ve gone further, but one that flickers intelligently ever so often. This virus has spread worldwide, but what happens to civilizations in areas without sufficient protection, areas not ready and alert in their security measures? At one point we’re told “[it’s] pretty obvious nobody back home read it” in response to questioning over an email that circulated eleven days prior with the word “zombie” embedded. Is this a thinly veiled reference towards prior real-life mistreatment of threatening politically-bound documents? And are these creatures really zombies, or affected, compromised humans? They still wear human features, only now are assisted by growling eyes.

In an interview, Brad Pitt recalled his reasoning for seeking out the source material (of which his production company Plan B Entertainment secured the screen rights to). Effectively, something for his younger sons to watch and enjoy — apparently they like zombies. World War Z suffers from a number of faults, but it also boasts a few excellent aspects too and, at the end of the day, has been made with good intentions.

Hey, I’ll have whatever Brad Pitt’s children are having.

Pontypool (2008)

★★★★

Director: Bruce McDonald

Release Date: March 6th, 2009 (Canada); October 16th, 2009 (UK)

Genre: Horror; hriller

Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

Set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) drives through blizzard-like conditions to work and on the way has an odd encounter with a woman who repeats muffled sounds over and over. When he reaches his radio broadcasting station, he is joined by the station manager, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and the technical assistant, Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) before going about his day-to-day activities. After an average, less-than-noteworthy few hours of news, Grant receives information from the station’s helicopter reporter, Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) that an apparently violent mob has infiltrated the office of one of the town’s doctors. From then on, it becomes apparent to Grant and the others that something is not quite right with the ‘mob’ in question, and the radio employees’ situation quickly becomes one of doubt, fear and worry.

Originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, Pontypool is a completely different take on the zombie/post-apocalyptic genre. Whereas the focus of such films tend to be on gore and exhilarating action, Pontypool certainly is exhilarating, but far more in the psychological sense than in anything to do with flying body parts. The first thing to say about this film is that it is set, for the most part, in one location — the radio station — which benefits the film hugely. Director Bruce McDonald could very well have taken his cameras to various locations and opted for visual scares, but instead he centres the slow building and uneasy atmosphere on dialogue alone. Having the film play out in one location, and through the eyes of the three characters in the radio station, also places the viewer in the station with the characters — as opposed to he/she being repeatedly removed from film due to it jumping all over the place.

“Kevin, I told you not to watch ‘The Red Wedding’.”

Having shot the film in a single location, McDonald is able to fully develop his main characters and show off their every emotion while they receive word about various horrible events taking place elsewhere in the town. Stephen McHattie pulls out an over-the-top, yet thoroughly entertaining performance as a tiring radio presenter who seems to irritate more than anything else. The over-the-top element of McHattie’s performance ensures that the film does not slip completely into a downbeat, hopeless realm and even gives Pontypool a slightly humorous tone at times. His somewhat distant nature at the beginning quickly unravels as the situation dawns on McHattie and his colleagues. Lisa Houle is decent in her portrayal of a considerably controlling station manager. Her character grows as the plot develops, and for her first film role (she is married to McHattie, I wonder how she got this gig?) she puts in a solid effort which is sometimes let down by her less-than-believable attempts at displaying grief. Each of the supporting actors step up to the plate when called to do so meaning there really is no weak link in the cast.

“Let me guess, she watched it too?”

I am not entirely sure what McDonald had in mind when he was making Pontypool, in terms of what he wanted audiences to take from it, but I would love to know. For me, it is clearly a film about how we, as society and as individuals, are so wound up and led on by dialogue — regardless of who or what the source is. The film evokes connotations about how governments rule us and how the influence, and existence, of a global media order thrives on our reaction and acceptance of what they tell us. Throughout the film, our lead characters are relentlessly relayed news and it is their reaction to each snippet of news (one of acceptance over ignorance) that the film is built on — their lack of dismissal means the viewer goes on a journey of weariness, anxiety and fright alongside the radio trio. For all the viewer and characters know, the information they are receiving could be a hoax — again, the ploy by McDonald to keep the focus of the film in one location is essential here — but without seeing what is going on externally, they (and we) end up putting faith in unfounded knowledge. Sounds vaguely familiar, right?

“You all watched it? Brilliant.”

In terms of logistics: visually, at a budget of around one and half million dollars, Pontypool looks great and includes some neat gory, non-CG effects. I noted a few paragraphs prior that the film chooses atmosphere over gore for scares, but what is a zombie film without a few zombies and some blood and guts? Pontypool is far from loaded with the aforementioned though, which is a good thing because it certainly would have been easy for McDonald to set the film off in a clichéd zombie-fest direction during the last thirty minutes or so, but his avoidance to do so benefits the overall product greatly. The script is well written and smooth, particularly in the first half of the film where words are the primary purveyor of scares. The lack of drag (not that kind) during the film is a testament to the writers’ ability to keep their writing slick and interesting.

Just like in my Star Trek Into Darkness review, I am going to avoid giving away too much here (I reckon I should just get rid of the whole spoiler thing anyway, it is slightly disrespectful to the film industry I think), however I will say that the ending worked for me. I have no idea what was going on during the post-credits scene though, somebody will need to fill me in on that one.

Pontypool is a unique film in that it successfully combines the zombie genre with psychological horror, offering up a thought-provoking and generally gripping thriller in the process.