29 October 2014

Review: The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Aus, 2014)



The Babadook
2014, 93mins, 15
Director: Jennifer Kent 
Writer: Jennifer Kent 
Cast includes: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Ben Winspear, Daniel Henshall 
UK Release Date: 24th October (England), 27th October (Northern Ireland) 2014

“The Babadook” has one helluva title. In fact, it might be my favourite thing about an otherwise effective horror film. I mean, seriously. Babadook? It just rolls off the tongue. It sounds like the sort of creation stripped from the pages of a storybook, with dark seeds of threat sewn just beneath its ostensibly hummable veneer. Director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut owes a debt to the works of Roman Polanski and to a lesser degree Sam Raimi, the film utilising psychological torment and macabre boo moments to keep its audience on red alert. It begins with raging intent, signified by its wild, ethereal compositions and deliberately overwrought sound design, and builds steadily until its slightly clapped out ending. The thematic underpinnings of the feature are explored with a thorough eye, but maybe work to dispel some of the picture’s ultimate power. All the best horror flicks leave viewers shaken for hours, threatening to taunt them during moments of loneliness or even lurch uncomfortably into their slumber. “The Babadook” probably won’t manage that. In acutely essaying the notion of horrors past, the film sacrifices the hope of impressing lasting fear. Maybe, just maybe, Babadooks (I honestly don’t know what the plural for a Babadook is.) aren’t so frightening after all.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is haunted by the memory of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), who lost his life the day of their son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) birth. Struggling to pay the bills and control Samuel’s increasingly volatile behaviour, Amelia reaches breaking point when the child becomes obsessed with The Babadook, a nefarious being plucked from the pages of an ominous text. Despite Amelia’s insistence, Samuel refuses to relent, maintaining that the creature is hunting them. Amelia turns to medication, Samuel’s nightly ritual preventing her from ascertaining rest, leaving her unable to function at work or in the domestic realm. As her discomfort mounts, Amelia’s dreams become stranger and her waking hours plagued by visions. Is Oskar’s demise finally prevailing, or might Samuel’s ravings be more fact than fiction?

I’m not sure how Kent’s own familial background is coloured, nor would I dare speculate, but she fashions a fascinating portrait of guilt, shame and resentment in “The Babadook”. The monster grows from Amelia’s uneasy relationship with Samuel, permanently pitching the value of his life against that of the deceased Oskar. Ellie Davis grapples with the complex arc remarkably well, communicating Amelia’s inconsistent thought process in aggressive but authentic ways. She’s desperate to protect her tempestuous son, but the actress is equally able to sell scattered moments of shameful hatred. Davis is protected by good writing and Kent’s clever film-making style, prioritising unsettling edits and trippy lensing to capture the essence of the character’s fractured psyche. Amelia is a victim, with the filmic and thespian contribution ensuring she’s familiar enough to glean empathy, whilst complex enough to cater for the picture’s thesis on monsters born from memory. Noah Wiseman’s concerted and natural turn comes with sufficient energy, it’s tiring to watch him, but such are Samuel’s levels of conviction, it becomes understandable why Amelia never fully ignores his babbling. Kent deserves plaudits for extracting such a finely tuned performance from a child, one that serves her overall vision slickly.

Mister Babadook is an inspired creation, defined by queasy Illustrations, Ripper-esque costuming and posture modelled after the assorted fiends of German Expressionism.  The monster is evil, harking back to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and a time when that alone was enough to justify fear. “The Babadook”doesn’t touch on myth or legend, and thankfully lacks a sequence in which Amelia seeks a weary, occult expert to help tackle the beast. The character’s struggle and the monster are bonded, one defined entirely by the other. Kent establishes this early, and ensures that it’s going to be a domestic showdown, a child’s life hanging in the balance. The stakes are simple, but the implications are huge, “The Babadook” mapping its crucial conflict within a ravaged mind, where only the afflicted can earn peace or liberation. Davis’ convincing fragility lends each bumpy jolt all the more weight. There are no extraneous or superfluous sequences here. Each beat could be the one that costs Amelia her sanity and Samuel his life, affording every creak and scream the ability to affect the story’s outcome.

Kent’s fixations are incredibly mature, and her focus is stellar. “The Babadook” never sells out, safeguarding its human interests, even when the shit hits the fan. Many genre film-makers might let the chicanery get the better of them, obsessing over the antagonist’s power, with Amelia and Samuel wilting in the background. Right up to the final frames, the feature is their story, a tale devoted to the universal truths of waking nightmares reborn. That said, “The Babadook”climaxes on an impossibly tidy note, shuffling the dangers of the past into the proverbial basement. I suppose given the film’s stance on evading or escaping grief, “The Babadook" could only end one way, but it’s unsatisfying. After the furious orgy or upset that precedes the finish, it’s curious to watch “The Babadook”tame grief and a potentially nuclear mother/son dynamic so confidently. Fearsome, achingly human pains become a grumpy, yet domesticated house-cat. I’m not sure that’s quite the climax this creation and the brave examination of maternal strife warranted. The conviction of the drama gets washed away, leaving something more generic in its wake.

That title though, eh?

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014 

25 October 2014

Review: Fury (David Ayer, USA, 2014)


2014, 136mins, 15
Director: David Ayer 
Writer: David Ayer 
Cast includes: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal 
UK Release Date: 23rd October 2014 

War is hell. A dingy, merciless exercise in depravity, a haunting example of how viciously people struggle to persevere. The casualties can't simply be distilled to bodies either. The tortured minds and hearts of those involved in conflict scar entire generations, and often darken national heritage for decades. David Ayer's “Fury” does a superb job of envisioning the savage realities of war, refreshingly filtering guilt and inhumanity through the prism of WW2. Pictures like “Saving Private Ryan” do a remarkable job of depicting horror in fits and bursts, but often, Hollywood adopts a decisive perspective, served a comfortable antagonist in the form of Adolf Hitler. After all, nobody likes a Nazi, lending WW2 a breakdown of hero and villain that potentially robs recreation of truth. “Fury”doesn't adopt such falsity, falling tonally in line with the great, troubling Vietnam pictures of the 70s and 80s. War only serves to ruin lives, Ayer's story showing how even the winners end up losing.

Germany in 1945. The war is closing, with the Allies surging into Hitler's domain, destroying the last fragments of resistance. The German's are pouring everything forward, lumping women and children into their ranks, complicating the rules of engagement even further. Hank Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) has been part of the fracas for years, moving across Africa and into Europe, keen to finish the bloody work at hand. Wardaddy commands a tank known as “Fury”, operated by a ragtag team of young men, all obviously impacted by the slaughter. Into their midst comes Norman (Logan Lerman), an inexperienced clerk tasked with replacing a late crew member, a fresh-faced innocent unaccustomed to the perils of combat. As the Germans become more desperate, the demands of war intensify, meaning Wardaddy must indoctrinate his new recruit with ruthless urgency.

Ayer is most notable for having written 2001's “Training Day”, but has been working steadily as a director for almost a decade now. His output has been erratic, ranging from the successful “End of Watch” to this year's deplorable “Sabotage”, the spine of his filmography defined by macho types landed in the shit. “Fury” doesn't break the pattern, and ultimately falls between the best and worst of the film-maker's oeuvre, but it's visually his most accomplished piece to date. The production design is impeccable, “Fury” built around an assortment of broken German communities and hopeless military camps, all captured with greying cinematography that encapsulates the hopelessness at hand. It's established early that the war is virtually over, but the world “Fury” posits doesn't feel like one with victory etched on the horizon. No matter the stage of conflict, the film seeks to underscore the depressing nature of men killing men, and the fragile standard of human life. Ayer has never been a director to shy from brutality, and whether it be the despondent colour palette or the visceral sight of children hanging, he constantly seeks to extol the terrors of military action. As a sobering spectacle the feature is faultless.

“Fury” wants to operate in the band of brothers tradition, trailing its protagonists along a grisly road before landing them in a finale modelled after Thermopylae. Individually each of these characters has an interesting soul, the highlight probably being LaBeouf's deeply religious gunman. There's a beautiful moment in the opening act, during which he descends from the tank to pray with a dying German, as his colleagues ransack the corpses of other men. It's a an arresting and memorable sequence, a distinctive oasis of compassion, and one that renders the character memorable, but unfortunately the same thought and balance never translates to the team as a whole. We're explicitly told these men have spent years together, but their bond never runs deep enough, and Ayer juggles the animosity within the group clumsily. It becomes impossible to predict how any one character is going to react alongside another. It's probable the film-maker is trying to mirror the schizophrenic fortunes of battle through the crew, but the results are frustrating. Even the journey of Lerman's newbie – a simple coming of age through consternation arc – doesn't evolve organically. One moment he's a frightened mouse, questioning the ethical implications of executions, the next he mows Nazis down with rampant enthusiasm. Ayer provides a catalyst for the change, but it's not articulated with enough maturity or given enough time to brew, rendering the transformation rushed. Ayer has excelled with character before, so to see him struggle is jarring.

 The middle portion sags, spreading itself thinly and plying too little focus to plot or relations. A few moments of intimacy register, but often Ayer fails to arrange satisfactory pay-offs. The action appears stagnant until the finish, tanks simply don't pack the visual allure of other sorts of vehicle. The dank claustrophobia of the war machine's interior is suitably articulated, but watching two of these behemoths slowly taking pot-shots at each other in a field isn't overly thrilling. Ayer edits these sequences with admirable energy, but the problem lies in concept rather than execution. The movie's last stand is typically oppressive, but does a better job of accessing the squad's vulnerability. They know it's a doomed mission, and only here does true brotherly love begin to simmer, and believable growth and realisation occur. Had the writing maintained this standard throughout, the catharsis of “Fury” may have translated as masterful. In its current form it's executed with visual panache and dark beauty (it's all set against smoke bombs and a gorgeously situated farmhouse in flames). It lacks nuance.

History buffs and genre aficionados should find the aesthetic captivating, and Ayer's unrelenting dedication to the “war ain't for pussies” mantra rewarding. Soaking up the mood and detailed set design is where the majority of pleasure lies, and the ending attains a sort of rousing, mythic quality, even if the characters never animate to their fullest potential. Dramatically the movie achieves only confusion, its haunted populace achingly unrefined and guided with insufficient clarity. “Fury” lets us know what a bitch war can be; but sadly misfires in painting a compelling portrait of its victims.

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

24 October 2014

Capsule Reviews: Life After Beth, The Riot Club, Stretch

After several months of relatively regular activity, the autumn has brought with it not just dying leaves and encroaching nights, but a much fuller schedule. As a result, expect activity to maintain the current, frustratingly limited pattern. Hopefully the festive season will bring some rest-bite, but for now, these smaller, bite-size updates are a fair approximation of the blog’s immediate future. 

Stretch (Joe Carnahan, USA, 2014)

It’s disappointing to watch any artist regress, but particularly despairing in the case of “Stretch”. It’s not that the picture is stunningly terrible (indeed it has numerous merits), but after 2012’s phenomenally poised and fairly profitable “The Grey”, it’s inexplicable that director Joe Carnahan should slither back to the cartoonish violence of his earlier career. “Stretch” is visually excitable and occasionally smart, but every frame tries too hard to shock. It’s obvious that Carnahan wanted the movie to become an underground favourite, the sort that cineastes guiltily produce from their shelves in a haze of beer and marijuana, turning to their friends and uttering “you gotta see this”. This is precisely his mistake. Directors don’t make cult movies. Audiences do.

Stretch (Patrick Wilson) is an unfulfilled chauffeur, up to his eyes in gambling debt and romantic woe.  In order to try and square his books with some nasty bookies, Stretch agrees to ferry around an eccentric billionaire for the evening (Chris Pine), but things inevitably go wrong.

Carnahan has a history with flashy violence, and whilst it’s perfectly suited to the comic-book aesthetic here, there’s a stale odour to the contemptible amount of bloodshed and depravity on show. To label it as indicative of a post-Tarantino Hollywood seems the fairest approximation, meaning the picture is seeing release maybe 15 years too late. It’s a pity, because Carnahan has a dashing visual eye, and the casting of Wilson is superb, the handsome but human performer making for a delightfully approachable deadbeat. Pine has chops, and is initially rather fun, but his one-dimensional loony quickly wears out his welcome, amid a cavalcade of weird facial hair, butt-plug gags and “Eyes Wide Shut” referencing demands. Jessica Alba is more natural than expected as Wilson’s eyes and ears off the street, but the movie is never quite sure what to do with her, and the writing leading up to her denouement is a coincidence too far. “Stretch” wants to be that weird, gung-ho actioner you share with your bros, 2014’s entry into the annals of fandom (the movie has been dumped unceremoniously onto VOD by Universal).  Unfortunately it’s trying too hard, telegraphing its intentions immediately, and ultimately forfeiting the option of quirky surprise. Gives good cameos, mind. 

Grade- C

The Riot Club (Lone Scherfig, UK, 2014)

Based on Laura Wade’s acclaimed stage-play “Posh”, “The Riot Club” seems like a most distasteful cinematic proposition, a theatrically originated, piece of liberal propaganda, forcing us to spend time with a bunch of vile, over-privileged nincompoops. It’s probably this outer, but falsely assumed agenda, which left the film maligned upon the festival circuit and whimpering at the UK box-office.

Shame on the marketing then, because “The Riot Club” is actually a skilfully written episode rooted rather perfectly within the realms of exploitation cinema. Its politics are obvious, but Wade never lets soggy monologues or traffic light characterisation invade the piece, instead reveling in the vile idiocy of upper class adolescents. The middle act is a confidently mounted bit of genre film-making, escalating from the utterly farcical to the furthest reaches of black macabre. Some of the acting’s a little spotty, and virtually every subplot detached from the “riot clubbing” rings hollow, but there’s pummelling veracity in the University carnage, and bite to the dialogue, which each prove winningly striking. Also, credit must go to Wade and Scherfig for unloading an ending, no matter how predictable, that has the strength of its convictions. 

Grade - B-

Life After Beth (Jeff Baena, USA, 2014)

“Life After Beth” does enough right to makes its many failings all the more jarring. Following in the footsteps of Edgar Wright's “Shaun of the Dead”, Jeff Baena’s picture takes the “rom-zom-com” (urghh) full-circle, by situating its familiar machinations within the sun-drenched, suburban world of teenage heartbreak. Zach (Dane DeHaan, not a naturally warm or comedic presence) is distraught when squeeze Beth (Aubrey Plaza) fails to return alive from a hike, the victim of snakebite. Zach finds solace in the form of Beth’s understanding parents (played wonderfully by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), but is perplexed when they suddenly begin to shut him out. The reason? Beth’s returned, unaware of her own death, and with other deceased sorts following.

One can’t fault Baena for ambition; his film defiantly attempts to explore love, regret, parental blindness and the amusing potential of Armageddon in under 90 minutes and on an obviously minimal budget. The director deserves credit for trying to really understand his characters, allowing the talented cast a multitude of truthful and honestly dramatized incarnations of sadness to play with. However, there’s the overarching feeling the writer has spread himself a little too thinly, each separate indication of excellence rarely building or fortifying what precedes it. It becomes tough to discern what’s at the core of Baena’s work, the feature oscillating too aggressively between the second chance offered by Beth’s resurrection and the budding, increasingly wasted chance to see a boyfriend and father bond over shared loss. I’d rather have watched either of these individual films, than sit through a half-hearted cocktail which tickles both. The uncertainty is compounded by a conceptually amusing but stingingly desperate finale, rifling through a parade of mirthful zombie tropes, and abandoning the chance to comment more substantially. Reilly’s character arc essentially boils down to a surprising but inherently cheap knob gag. That’s not the end he deserves, but it is indicative of Baena’s lack of controlled vision.  Special mention must go to Aubrey Plaza, who after years of unimpressive, distasteful onscreen bitchery, shows a majestic knack for slapstick. If she makes a habit of substituting callous one-liners for game tomfoolery, well then, I finally might be willing to call myself a fan.

Grade - C

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2014

18 October 2014

Review: The Maze Runner (Wes Ball, USA, 2014)


The Maze Runner 
2014, 114mins, 12
Director: Wes Ball
Writer (s): James Dashner (novel), Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S Nowlin, 
Cast includes: Dylan O'Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Will Poulter, Aml Ameen
UK Release Date: 10th October 2014

The YA fiction boom must now be reaching crisis point, a meltdown is seemingly imminent. In 2014 one cannot take a bus without being reminded of cancer addled heroines, who in their hopeless dystopic futures represent humanity's sole salvation. Such texts are probably regarded as 2014's most prominent handbag accessory. John Green is the new John Grisham. Cinema has been deeply afflicted by the trend, and whilst there have been a handful of oases amid the dreck (last year's “Hunger Games” sequel was a cosy achievement), by and large the going's been tough. “The Maze Runner” is the latest example of this ignoble canon, dragged kicking and screaming to the screen from a 2009 best-seller by author James Dashner. I am tempted to suggest this is much to the chagrin of all, but in truth, Dashner's saga has proven popular and the box-office reception of the picture strong enough to convey a hungry audience. I haven't read the book (it might in fact be very good), but my infuriating need to constantly expose myself to this underwhelming sub-genre has left me bitter, tired and impartial. I no longer fear disappointment, but actively embrace it as inevitable. Perhaps this is why “The Maze Runner” left me moderately satisfied, or maybe it's just that the feature is a capable little thriller on its own terms. Either way, “The Maze Runner” benefits from a handful of well directed action asides and pays some attention to tested literary traditions.

Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, America's #1 Logan Lerman lookalike!) awakens in the Glade, a small community of teenage boys sandwiched within an almighty maze. None of the boys know why they're there, only that the Maze is a lethal and ever-changing death-trap, filled with beasties known as Grievers. A small, athletic number of residents are permitted to explore the Maze, searching for a way out, but have thus far been luckless. The rest maintain the agricultural requirements of life in the Glade, only half-invested in discovering what lies beyond their vast prison. After a mishap sees Thomas trapped in the Glade with “Runner” Minho (Ki Hong Lee), the pair dodge death and begin to uncover clues, leaving Gally (Will Poulter) and numerous others unsettled by the potential of escape. The unrest is exacerbated by the arrival of Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), a girl in possession of an ominous message and shared history with Thomas.

Nearly all of what tickles about Wes Ball's film can be found in its intermittent, but assuredly implemented genre slant. “The Maze Runner” is a different sort of PG-13 than say “Divergent”. The stakes higher, the deaths are felt and the circumstance is fundamentally scary. It recalls William Golding's “Lord of the Flies, which is a difficult literary parallel to sustain in a genre that takes its vampires sparkling. Golding's novel is infinitely more savage and brutal than what's on show here, the inherent cruelty of man is barely touched upon, but “The Maze Runner” doesn't fail to highlight the incendiary struggles that tend to erupt amongst groups of young males. The attempts to wrestle with these ideas are welcome, and lead to a host of agreeable performances. Nearly everybody plays scared and confused well (obvious maybe, but important), and a few excel. Will Pouter (the goofy kid from “We're the Millers”) does good work playing the conflicted Gally, a character frightened to chance change, determined to protect himself and others through routine. “The Maze Runner” takes him on an intriguing journey, and even if lead O'Brien is saddled with broad moments of revelation, at least lived-in supporting figures like Gally keep the group dynamic on a knife-edge.

Ball does a solid job with the action, and mixes digital and practical effects slickly. Nothing on show is radical, and one might even argue the maze interiors are less varied and interesting than desirable, but the insect inspired Grievers feel like worthy adversaries, the sort of laboratory born nightmares that could keep a group of secluded youths from sleeping easily at night. As the monsters rear their heads more regularly, they lose some of their punch, but in the early sections ooze menace, syncing nicely with the moodily-lit maze they dominate.

The screenplay is initially saturated with expository exchanges, the screenplay extolling the rules and logic of the world with zero creativity. “The Maze Runner” tells before it shows, which does the pacing no favours, and causes the property to emanate a stale scent early on. Before we get to know anybody, or explore the world of the Glade, the viewer must be prepared to suffer through a quarter hour of dryly recited back-story. Thankfully the movie recovers and adopts a sprightly, entertaining approach to its story, but the early portions promise a significantly duller experience than is actually delivered. The learning process is so much more rewarding when seen through the eyes of a “Runner”, Ball able to imbue his labyrinth with necessary scale and the action with the momentum required to honour the picture's titular pastime. Best to suck up the “explain it to me like a Labrador” dialogue that diffuses like a sour fart across the feature's opening crescendo, and hold tight for the excitable aftermath.

One would think the inclusion of an attractive woman into a community of teenage boys might throw a few curveballs, but beyond inciting further plot-oriented paranoia, Scodelario's character performs no function. I suppose that too marks something of an annoyance, teen sexuality can be a powerful time-bomb, but the perimeters of the quest at hand have perhaps too rigidly been established by the time Theresa arrives. Ball and his writers certainly show no real passion for the character, although maybe sequels will open up the hormonal cookie-jar. For now, it's monsters, labyrinths and rough boyish behaviour, “Lord of the Flies” for dummies. Still, it harbours a grittier faculty than expected, and for that alone, “The Maze Runner” deserves more credit than pathetic snobs cum cynics like me are liable to admit.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

7 October 2014

Review: Dracula Untold (Gary Shore, US/UK, 2014)


Dracula Untold
2014, 92mins, 15
Director: Gary Shore 
Writer (s): Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Cast includes: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Dominic Cooper 
UK Release Date: 3rd October 2014 

I’m doubtful Bram Stoker would have found much to love in “Dracula Untold”, a flashy, pedestrian and sporadically bonkers attempt to decode the Count’s early legend. Helmed by debutant Gary Shore (hailing unsurprisingly from the world of commercials) “Untold” plays like the lovechild of Peter Jackson and Zach Snyder, the latter’s influence immediately evident from a slow-mo monologue recounting the battlefield prowess of Vlad the Impaler (who’ll later “vant to suck your blood!”). The film takes itself pretty seriously, but in the spirit of other recent swashbucklers (I’m looking at you “Hercules” and “47 Ronin”), “Dracula Untold” almost satiates with its brand of over-directed, underwritten hokum. It’s pure junk food, but at least what’s on offer resembles one of those primly arranged, succulent big macs that exist only in advertising, rather than the hastily compiled, mayo-laden slop which inevitably rocks up on a tray after you’ve guiltily lodged an order. Simply put, it’s a bit shit, but looks gorgeous and delivers some Hammer-esque amusement.  

Prince Vlad (Luke Evans, treating proceedings with the severity of a “Schindler’s List” sequel) was a venerated warrior, but is now intent only on protecting his people, including wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). When the Turks, led by Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) threaten peace, Vlad must find a way to compensate for his lack of military heft. Choosing to believe an old superstition, Vlad ascends a local mountain, finding a bloodletting creature (Charles Dance) willing to endow the Prince with certain powers, all at a dark and potentially lethal cost.

Dracula has been on and off screens since 1922’s “Nosferatu”; at this point he’s as much a son of cinema as literature. His legacy as a formidable soldier was lightly traced in Stoker’s text, then resuscitated more pointedly with Francis Ford Coppola’s flawed 1992 adaptation, but for the most part “Untold” is the first major work to treat this side of the Count’s legacy with conscientious interest. And when I say “this side” I mean big battles and moments where he snarls a lot, before barrelling into the predetermined thralls of evil. For those seeking a reflective or illuminating passage into darkness, “Untold” isn’t your jam. It’s a silly feature with a sharp visual sense, some solidly constructed set-pieces and just enough unintentional camp to entertain, but a character study it is not. The script sets Vlad up as a hero seeking to protect his family, a man with a murderous past, now driven to save the people he loves. It’s acceptable motivation for the perfunctory plotting, but not really enough to render him a character of substantive depth. Evans trots out his t and a commendable grimace with aplomb, but the George Lucas styled dialogue and regular adherences to formula mean he’s stranded at basecamp. Plaudits for executing the overwrought transformation with a straight face are warranted, but it’s not enough to make the character three dimensional. Co-star Sarah Gadon is both equally beautiful and vacant, placating Evans’ Vlad at every available turn. Their marriage is a potential source of human tension, but according to “Untold” the Draculas’ enjoyed a steady domestic rapport. They never even smash a plate. If only it weren’t for those pesky Turks…

We know things aren't going to end well, so from the offset “Dracula Untold” presents itself as a tragedy. The screenwriting may harbour Shakespearean aspirations, as Vlad damns himself for the good of his peers, but the dialogue is a cut below the Bard’s best work. Still, I can’t recall any Elizabethan theatre that combines CGI bats, a scene where the titular anti-hero dump tackles 1000 enemy soldiers and Charles Dance queening around in make-up reminiscent of German expressionism into one easily digestible package. That’s a Friday night, right there. It’s disappointing to see Gary Shore debut with such little enthusiasm for character or dramatic innovation, but his command of imagery is definite. “Untold” looks resplendent, the cinematography textured and thoughtfully arranged, with fast-paced montages that root the picture pleasurably in genre tradition. You may never much care for Drac or his brood, but the luxuriant designs and fast-pace (“Untold” clocks in at 92 minutes) mean it rarely drags.

The final scene represents a major WTF, and promises a sequel nuttier than a sack of almonds. Whether it happens is questionable (I’m not sure Stoker’s creation still has box-office legs), but if it does, I’m in. “Dracula Untold” is objectively a load of old tosh, unsophisticated with an onus on appearance over imagination. Yet, there’s a charm in its badness, warmth in its irony-free desire to batter villains and wobble atop clich├ęd melodrama. There’s something decidedly old school about this one. It’s not good, but the monster-movie fan and schlock apologist within can’t quite condemn Shore’s bombastic bow to hell.

 A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

1 October 2014

Review: Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA, 2014)


Gone Girl 
2014, 149mins, 18
Director: David Fincher 
Writer: Gillian Flynn (novel & screenplay)
Cast includes: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon 
UK Release Date: 2nd October 2014 

Some may choose to disagree, but for me, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestseller “Gone Girl” isn’t a cinematic text. Filled with interior voices, unreliable narration and characters incessantly explaining themselves, the book is a craftily woven examination of marital disharmony, society’s relationship to gender and the sensationalist depravity of modern media. Flynn’s prose are indebted to high-quality airline fodder, but her articulation of character and theme ascend the norm. “Gone Girl” is a riveting and cleverly assembled work, but again, not one I’d immediately have pegged for film. Nobody is going to argue that David Fincher isn’t a cinematic director. Even his Netflix series “House of Cards” feels too big for laptop monitors or TV sets, bustling with the same rich visual storytelling motifs that govern his more reputable work. With 1995’s “Se7en” Fincher turned a procedural into a morality tale of nightmarish beauty and to an even grander extent, with 2010’s “The Social Network” (clearly his best film) he wove the tabloid-worthy narrative of Facebook’s mischievous inception into a powerful odyssey of brotherhood undone by pride, greed and pitiful insecurity. In “The Social Network” modern Trojan wars erupt through a relationship status, and Helen isn’t a physical beauty, but a small, squared digital image tucked beside the tempting option of requesting her friendship. On paper the story of Mark Zuckerberg isn’t that ripe for movie treatment, but with a skilled visualist and master storyteller at the helm, it became one of 2010’s most satisfactorily epic pictures. This brings us back to “Gone Girl”.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home one morning to find evidence of a struggle, and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. The authorities are alerted, Nick is questioned and the community rallies around Amy’s image, an intelligent, beautiful totem of perfection. As the search widens and evidence begins to present itself, Nick becomes a key suspect, his smug, unconvincing demeanour incurring predictable suspicion. Working with his sympathetic sister Go (Carrie Coon) and slick attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), Nick doggedly protests his innocence, but the public have become obsessed with accusations of his proposed monstrousness.  

Flynn’s book is dominated by journal entries and stream of consciousness, cutting between Nick’s growing distress and the history he and Amy have shared. Its use of character to critique our own superficial judgments is inspired, and at times very brave. How refreshing it is to have a young, female author challenge our perception of female as victim, tossing aside much of the desperate slop that dominates new feminism, overturning the barbaric untruth of suburban man’s innate incompetence and evil. I’m a staunch advocate of feminist practice, and see much good work being done, but there is an overarching tendency for the movement to politicise everything, fighting menial, needless battles with materials unworthy of their time. To paint themselves as the martyrs of mankind, forced to suffer the selfish, uncaring whims of patriarchy, especially within the realms of pop culture. Somewhere along the line this all became the done thing. “Gone Girl” toys slyly with our newfound assertion that women are warm and maternal, perpetually raped by the debilitating stupidity of man. Flynn indulges the falsity, before dispelling it through tight character designs and a good, old-fashioned switcheroo. Her screenplay preserves the novel’s unapologetic precision, with Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter moulding it into a cohesive and flowing whole. As somebody familiar with the source, the pleasure of the film’s reveal was non-existent, but the skill with which it’s enacted deserves plaudits. Fincher exposes us to the dark, unsympathetic glare of the media, in which the murderous husband must always be responsible for his virtuous wife’s demise, building the commentary alongside a female cop desperate to see sense, but presumably blinded by the expectations of close-minded gender rules. Then he pulls back the curtain like a pro, pointing the finger at us fools determined to demonise Affleck’s slob.

The great film-maker George Roy Hill believed a director had two key jobs. The first was to collaborate with writers and producers in ironing out the screenplay to suit their vision. The second was to cast it as perfectly as possible. With “Gone Girl” Fincher accomplishes both. Pike and Affleck are as actors obviously limited, but both fit the requirements here. Affleck has a natural screen presence and handsome veneer, but there’s always been that aura of coasting, a sense of doing an adequate job in exchange for exceptional riches. It’s become clear over the years that he’s a creative of substantial talent, alongside a considerate and charming man, but as a performer, well, likability’s never been the strong suit. He’s an exact mirror of Nick Dunne, seductive by sight and sound, but unmotivated and douchey by nature. Nobody wants to like Ben Affleck, and thusly, we never really do. We believe the dramatized media accusations, and imagine Affleck’s smug gaze stooping over Amy’s bloodied remains with each whispered suggestion of guilt. Complimenting his acting (which is pleasantly astute) almost seems redundant. His being fills the role with unease more completely than Daniel Day Lewis dialled up to 11 ever could. The same goes for Pike. She’s a smart woman and a classical beauty, but mainstream success has always seemed illusive, a base coldness and superiority rising from each clearly enunciated line of dialogue rendering her an isolating figure. Ideal then, for Amy. She fills the aesthetic requirements, and when the drama requires it, uses her normally alienating tendencies to devastatingly believable effect. Fincher’s camera seduces us with her innate allure, before opening the film up to a shower of corrosive interior. Pike’s asked to do heavier lifting by default, and she handles the shifting perceptions of her role adeptly. She’s angel and devil tucked succinctly into one. Maybe the greatest joy comes from Neil Patrick Harris, never onscreen for long, but so symbolic of Flynn’s agenda. Harris is of course famed for playing the 21st century’s most celebrated chauvinists, “How I Met Your Mother”’s Barney Stintson, a character who comes over as lovably flawed in sitcom territory, but emits toxic sociopathic alarm bells in any universe approaching reality. In “Gone Girl” he meets a sticky end. In a sequence that demonstrates the levels of synchronicity and mood Fincher demands from music, cinematography and the edit, we see Pike’s Amy manipulate and viciously execute the Bro king mid ejaculation. It’s a cathartic feminist image, but also a potent critique. Harris’ character (a rich, entitled former suitor) is fairly ghastly, but there’s no way he deserves a butchering, especially given the lusty power Amy exercises over his judgement and manhood. We cheer Amy as she dispatches the bogeyman, but recoil seconds later when the context hits home. This woman has used him, and forced upon him both pain and an unflattering legacy. Why do the audience feel any affection for Amy? We know she’s controlling and merciless, and the levels of Harris’ crime are cloudy. Yet, in the moment, with the sensory bombast of Fincher’s touch behind her, we cheer. We align ourselves with notions of female victimisation before essaying surrounding circumstance. In a way, that’s the entire property reduced to one lavishly designed chapter.

Fincher is able to elicit splendour from the mundane, he’s always had a knack for doing so, and it pays dividends with “Gone Girl”. Police interrogations and expository conversations are lit so sublimely, that they feel like major action set-pieces, and the cuts are implemented just regularly enough to promote momentum without inciting distraction. At 149 minutes the film’s final act plods ever so slightly (especially after the aforementioned Harris bows out), even Fincher struggling to find big moments in Flynn’s quiet and knowingly black denouement. This might prove less problematic for the uninitiated, who can digest every stinging twist with fresh enthusiasm, but for me, the finish feels obligatory rather than exciting. Refocusing on issues of crass journalism and public blindness, “Gone Girl” wraps up its macabre voyage obviously, underlining certain blunt messages with underserved meticulousness. It must also be argued that in the book, Flynn’s characters cease to evolve near the end, and any suggestion they do feels hollow. The film can’t sidestep this issue. The media perception of Nick and the unmasking of “cool girl” are so superbly rendered, that the late patter of revelations and monologues don’t stack up. By about the 120 minute mark, the movie’s been squeezed of juice, but Fincher perhaps unwisely keeps wringing the skin.

It’s nice to observe “Gone Girl” played with blackly satirical undertones, soliciting chortles amid the mire of disgust. People never really think of Fincher as a humourist, but he his movies rarely unfold without intelligent laughs, be it the fearsome observations of “Fight Club” or the absurdist eccentricities of the villains in “Panic Room”. “Gone Girl” explores its ideas with the gorgeous detail one expects from the film-maker, merges genre satisfactorily and is a miracle of intuitive casting. The feature loses virtually none of what made Flynn’s work so beguiling to begin with, and expands upon it with virtuoso feats of technical craftsmanship. Not bad for an uncinematic book.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014