The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018)

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(Hey, Liam Neeson: if you want to have a career based around films in which you rescue women, maybe don’t go around calling #MeToo a “witch hunt.”)

A veritable symphony of failures, The Commuter is so bad, even the end credits are a mess, unable to tell whether “stand-by” should be one word or two hyphenated, or to have any consistency at all between whether direction should be spelled with letters (“Second Assistant Director”) or numbers (“3rd Assistant Director”). Sure, I’m being pedantic, but I think it’s important to acknowledge just how widespread the problems are.

Though the problems are widespread, the film is too shallow for them to demand any in-depth analysis; it simply fails at anything and everything it tries to do. The thrills aren’t thrilling, the jokes aren’t funny, the mystery has no suspense, the special effects aren’t remotely believable, the acting is wooden, the secret baddie is glaringly obvious. The overabundance of CGI in the fight scenes make the whole thing look like a bad video game, whose disorienting speed is made all the more jarring by its contrast with the otherwise exceptionally slow pace.

Certainly the saddest element of The Commuter has to be the pitiful way in which it believes itself to be the action counterpart to I, Daniel Blake. Or at the very least, Money Monster. But how anyone expected the audience to maintain a straight face or feel in any way uplifted by watching Liam Neeson give the finger to an investment banker and deliver the immortal line, “Hey, Goldman Sachs, on behalf of the American middle class: fuck you!” I shall honestly never know.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it attempted an element of nuance by providing Liam Neeson (I’ve already forgotten everyone’s name but, honestly, who cares? It’s Liam Neeson playing Liam Neeson) with an opportunity to do what he does out of a sense of financial desperation – that maybe he’s willing to be a less-than-good-guy, because he was just fired, five years before retirement, with no safety net. However, the film can’t stand the thought of “The American Middle Class” being anything other than spotlessly clean so, within no time at all, the story reverts to the classic “they’ve (probably?) kidnapped Liam Neeson’s wife and child” and then proceeds to have his $25k incentive literally blow away, so he needn’t be saddled with anything other than his classic, unquestionable, Husband-and-Father motivation.

As the film progresses, it becomes ever more clear how little anyone knows what they’re doing, as we are provided with even more long and boring expositions we didn’t need, thickly laid reveals we already knew, and an ending that demeans us all.

Hopefully Neeson’s stupid and ugly comments will have him blacklisted from making films in Hollywood again, but I wouldn’t count on it.

 

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Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin, 2017)

Make no mistake about it: Molly’s Game ascribes to a highly recognisable formula. It operates as a spiritual sequel to Miss Sloane, with the real-life footage application of The Big Short, dialogue technique mirroring that of The Social Network, with Spotlight-esque verbal displays of high-octane moral grandstanding. And I only partially mean this as a criticism.

There’s been an increasing renewed trend in the past few years of the “smart movie” genre, a film that allows an audience to feel intelligent for understanding the plot, largely through having characters explain the plot to one another, employing sarcasm as a veil for the genuinely didactic intention of a significant portion of the dialogue. Perhaps I’m going soft in my old age, but the cynicism with which I would have once met this phenomenon just isn’t there – this may at least partially be thanks to the power of Jessica Chastain’s performance, which alternates the machine gun extrapolation and ambiguously sardonic laconism for which we know her oh so well, but it remains, as ever, oh so good. Idris Elba’s principled former prosecutor defence attorney is as charming as only Idris Elba can be, even though we can see the lead-uo to his Mark Ruffalo-esque for-your-consideration table-thumbing speech from his introductory scene.

What becomes most intriguing to me, as I try and reflect on whether this is a weakness of the film, or its greatest strength, is the extent to which Molly Bloom’s connections are stressed in passing, but the film itself only ever seeks to investigate her and her non-disclosure of them. By actually seeing so little outside of Molly herself, the stakes of her predicament are somewhat too anchored in affect than effect, which cannot help but induce a certain weightlessness to the overall proceedings, however gripping individual scenes most assuredly are. Thus, there is very little sense of time passing, over the twelve year period of the main narrative, and thus any character building – or, indeed, unraveling – is effectively represented on a scene-to-scene basis. I do believe that, if the film’s exploration of Molly’s struggle with addiction had been more thorough, the uncertainty of time could have been a great asset to it’s phenomenological representation. However, this film was always going to operate in accordance with its stars’ performances and, on that level alone, it’s a powerhouse, no matter its predictability.

Accordingly, Molly’s Game seems to confirm what any reader has probably already surmised: a three-and-a-half star rating is for an at-most three star film this critic enjoyed to an at-least four star degree.

⭐⭐⭐1/2

Murder On the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

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It is perhaps only to be expected, considering the remarkable extent to which Murder On the Orient Express feels driven by product placement of one confectionery brand in particular, that its visual aesthetic at the level of mise-en-scène is 100% chocolate box. The entire film is The Polar Express, multiplied by the final shot in All That Heaven Allows. Accordingly, one expects the film to operate wholly on that level of the pleasure principle: a safe, comforting locked-room mystery, the culprit or culprits already known to the audience, who can thus sit back, relax and reminiscence with one another over which actor they saw previously and in what.

Accordingly, Murder On the Godiva Express‘ fascinating implementation of alternative camera techniques throws a spanner into the works of appeal-via-familiarity, in equal parts welcomely novel and unwelcomely jarring. The whole affair operates similarly in kind: I was grateful for several of the subtractions made to Christie’s original story, not least of all several of the unbelievable flubs made by suspects (one would hope that a princess, pretending to be a maid would indeed take more manipulation than “I hear you are a very good cook” before she lets slip “all my maids tell me so”), but sadly the film’s additions are less inspired. The insistence on adding aspects of action where absolutely none are required or truly justified soon become a chore, as, unfortunately, do many of the performances. Naturally, Judi Dench and Olivia Colman are effortless in evoking intense pathos, coming from a school that acknowledges the deepest human emotions will only respond to the most understated human performances; a memo missed by several other actors, including Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin, whose thankfully brief time onscreen is still absolute torture. It’s no secret that actors acting acting is no mean feat, but Godiva On the Godiva Express is defined by suspects pretending to be people they are not; indeed, this is true for most detective fiction.

Thankfully, all pretence eventually comes to an end, all masks slip off and Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer et al are allowed in the final 15-20 minutes or so to come into their own. However, these are good actors with long careers who should have been able to impress me – a fan of almost all of them – long before the end. For this, I suppose I must blame both the direction and the editing, which – for a film which implies the Swiss watch precision of a Wes Anderson feature, it often has stilted pauses, not unlike a sitcom with the canned laughter removed.

Ultimately, Godiva On the Godiva Godiva has shifted from Agatha Christie’s meditation on the compromising of moral imperatives in search of higher justice in lower places, into an enjoyable enough mixture of inviting familiarity and uncomfortable blunders which resolves itself to a better extent than I would have expected, but too late to salvage the film into a higher rating.

⭐⭐1/2

The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

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Now I truly know what Freud meant by the unheimlich. I sat there, watching Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Chlöe Sevigny and other people I know I’ve seen before, and yet the only reasonable explanation for The Snowman is that it was made by an entire cast and crew who not only have never made a film before, but have never encountered the very hypothetical concept of film before.

There is something bold, daring and courageous in the way that The Snowman genuinely never puts a foot right in its two glacial hours of disappointment. The acting is stilted and disjointed. The editing is ugly as sin. The characters are underdeveloped, their motivations at no point satisfactorily justified – least of all the killer’s – with a horrendous “nine years earlier” subplot, starring Val Kilmer impersonating Mark Kermode impersonating The Godfather, whose character was murdered by the killer for “getting too close to the truth,” not that the subplot is characterised or detailed in any way whatsoever for us to see that. Honestly, why don’t we just have the opening titles, followed by a note that says “some murders happened, but Michael Fassbender put a stop to the eventually,” if the film believes so strongly in telling, rather than showing?

Speaking of showing, the one thing a spectator might be able to hope for, considering the trailers which gleefully advertise a severed head, is some gratuitous violence, leading one to see the film in the hope of some tasteless fun – sadly, no such luck there, either. The murders are few and far between, and mostly all but completely obscured.

The Snowman, by employing an almost entirely British cast, decided that it would present an entirely British-accented Norway which, combined with the truly dreadful sound editing, gives the impression of a film awkwardly dubbed à la an unintentionally self-parodic 70s martial arts flick, but that tragically results in J.K Simmons, forcing himself into a British bourgeois accent, about as comfortably as he would force himself into Maggie Cheung’s outfit in Irma Vep. I want to blame the director or the producer, but a film this horribly put together should have encouraged riotous levels of resistance from every actor, every grip, every caterer and intern onset. Everyone involved should be held collectively responsible. feel somehow responsible. I could have, should have done more to stop this train wreck and, for that, I am truly sorry.

 

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American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

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All in all, it’s pretty difficult to watch American Psycho as anything other than an adaptation of the novel. Beyond some good performances – naturally, Bale’s above all else – the film doesn’t add anything to the narrative whatsoever. It does, however, subtract an awful lot. The book worked primarily as a document of obsession – particularly, obsessive attention to detail. Nobody walks into a room without Patrick Bateman describing in full and minute detail what each character is wearing, where they bought it, and how much they paid. At the drop of a hat, he can provide a virtual PhD thesis on why one should only ever drink mineral water out of glass bottles. With this same level of inhuman meticulousness does Bateman describe unthinkable levels of rape, torture, murder, cannibalism and necrophilia at levels rivalling and quite possibly besting Bataille and Sade. Degrees of repugnant atrocity that defy understanding and thus flatten the relief of phenomenological perception, and are merely delegated to emotionless description.

And in the film? A couple of out-of frame and/or dimly lit stabbings and a couple of shootings, breaking the monotony of Bateman out and out telling us how crazy he is, and that he does terrible things. In essence, this is the problem – although the film is narrated by Bateman, and there is hardly a single scene without him, American Psycho betrays film’s status as a visual medium, by consistently telling us what it should be showing us, and maintaining too great a distance from the protagonist’s mental state. Having an unreliable narrator, as American Psycho assuredly does only works when the spectator has first undergone a required process of alignment with the protagonist’s subjective position, first.

American Psycho thus remains, to my mind, an unfilmable novel, its film adaptation doing nothing to sway this opinion: in order to work, the film would need to show levels of violence stretching beyond that of August Underground’s Mordum or Melancholie Der Engel and yet, in doing so, it would have no budget required for the plethora of conspicuous consumption that dominates the characters’ lifestyles. It’s not simply a question of violence, of course: the amount of time that would need to be devoted to the dogmatic description of food, drink, men’s fashion, social etiquette etc would render a legitimate adaptation more 24 Hour Psycho than American Psycho. Goodness knows, I’m the first person usually to argue with anyone who believes the success of an adaptation should be measured by its fidelity to the source text, but the heart and soul of this story is devotion to minutiae which, in the film, are passed off as diversions and vagueries. Beyond there being no blood in American Psycho, there’s considerably little meat – it’s a largely glossy, rather funny, and certainly very well-executed advert for the book, complete with fine acting and a wonderful John Cale score. It’s an enjoyable watch, but far too bland to offer anything incisive in the way of social satire or, at least, a good horror.

At the end of the day, American Psycho‘s essential if enjoyable failure – much like The Neon Demon‘s – reveals what may at first seem like paradox, but later seems like common sense: if you want to investigate shallowness, you have to have your film go deep.

⭐⭐⭐

Mr. Brooks (Bruce A. Evans, 2007)

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“Oh, poor Mr Costner; he tries so hard” – Lisa Simpson
Honestly, I think people are being really quite mean about Kevin Costner in this. I only believe he’s a serial killer slightly less than I believe Michael C. Hall is one and I watched, like, seven and a bit series of Dexter before finally giving up! Mr. Brooks is a strangely ambitious, if ultimately unsuccessful, film about the eponymous, admired philanthropic businessman (Costner), undergoing a relapse into his serial killing addiction, the voice and face of whom is portrayed by William Hurt. Blackmailed into allowing a tag-along, he begins to worry his daughter who may also be a killer… and then Demi Moore’s a millionaire cop, getting chased by an escaped serial killer… whilst getting divorced… honestly, there’s a lot of threads, none of them are all that satisfying.

The strange, unsuccessful, ambition mentioned above largely rests on the way Mr. (not going to lie, that unnecessary period is killing me) Brooks flip-flops stylistically between genres in a way that feels, rather than impressively postmodern, even more distracting than the way The Dark Knight Rises constantly flip-flopped between letterbox and IMAX. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of Mr. Brooks is a fairly standard David Fincher rip-off, with phlegmatic dolly shots, roaming stately homes of minimalist design, à la Panic Room and Gone Girl, but then someone will all of a sudden discover a dead body, presented as an almost carbon-copy of Se7en. Moore’s Detective Atwood at points encounters her escaped serial killer, at which point the entire film shifts uncomfortably from “psychological thriller” to pure, and frankly stupid, action film territory, not unlike one of the newer, regrettable, Die Hard sequels for a maximum of 2 minutes, before quietening down again. Her divorce, naturally, looks like what would happen if Joel Schumacher tried to direct The Squid and the Whale.

The film is not without merits – Costner and Hurt really are very good, and I do think that, much like Christine, Mr. Brooks makes a genuinely good go at using a horror/thriller format to represent the psychological and personal realities of addiction very well. What’s most interesting, though, it Mr. Brooks‘ ability somehow to be at once not very exciting at all, but still just engrossing enough to make you wonder what’s going to happen next. All in all, the film is an utter mess, but still, a slightly fun one.

 

**

We are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)

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Okay, now this is something very special. Tenemos la carne / We are the Flesh is one of those feature films for which the concept of the 5-star rating was invented: it is a film I feel, on some level, truly grateful for. I hesitate to give any real synopsis as part of this review as it is a delirious enough experience to make it unclear what would be a spoiler and what would not. Suffice to say, my assumption of the premise on the basis of the (still very good) trailer with regard to narrative events and character dynamics was pretty much erroneous, though for all the better, as my anxieties about this simply being a Mexican answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were quickly allayed.

Instead, We are the Flesh appears to be the brainchild of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not to mention Jean-Luc Godard, the late playwright Sarah Kane and a whole host of video artists, devised theatre groups and installationists. In fact, what The Revenant may positively be described as being to European Art Cinema (a not-inappropriate link to make, considering Iñarritu’s backing of this film, alongside Carlos Reygadas and Alfonso Cuarón), I feel We are the Flesh may be said to be to a contemporary Artist’s Film & Video. The premise meanwhile combines what appears to be Catholicism, folklore and fairy tales, with a central figure whose name may be Mariano who appears and acts all at once akin to Charles Manson, Rumpelstiltskin and the Devil incarnate (no pun intended). The first act, amongst other things, details the transformation of an abandoned floor on an abandoned office building in an unexplained post-apocalyptic landscape into a womb-cave that may act as venue to each character’s Id to fully express itself. The film’s themes of sexuality, violence and cannibalism all have direct connections to psychoanalysis, as much as they do to the concepts of sin, and both are exploited to full symbolic effect in the film. Meanwhile, We are the Flesh rallies between states of modernism and post-modernism as the “film itself” struggles and seemingly fails to contain the jouissance within – visuals break to singe photographic frames as someone foams at the mouth; a sex scene turns into a music video shot in heat-cam and, later, another sex scene reaches a level of volatile intensity that the film distorts and colour-shifts into oldschool anaglyphic stereoscopic vision.

At pivotal moments (though I may not intend the pun, I’m not so sure the filmmakers don’t) throughout the film, the camera appears to spin 360⁰ in a style highly reminiscent of other recent Satanic Mexican art film Lucifer (interestingly enough, I believe the titular character’s actor, Gabino Rodriguez, may make a cameo in We are the Flesh though I’ll have to check when IMDb is more accommodating)’s use of “tondovision.” At others, it exploits a fantastic score, masterful editing, and psychedelic post-production values to elicit anything from empathetic lustmord to kolpophobia (at these points, one may detect faint echoes of William S. Burroughs’ writings in Central and South America, above my personal favourite, all Cities of the Red Night).

If We are the Flesh may be understood as a response to anything, I feel inclined to view it as a response to Ben Wheatley’s infinitely disappointing adaptation of High-Rise, whose ironic detachment from the narratologiccal grisliness was far too distant in the former and far too “stylish” in the latter – certainly a word of which all film-goers should be wary, due to its typical indication of little more than plenty of shiny things in the mise-en-scène. In the papier-mâché catacombs of We are the Flesh, nothing shines, though the entire film glows with an intoxicating, evil beauty of which I cannot wait for my next fix.

 

*****

Before I Go to Sleep (Rowan Joffé, 2014)

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A film I feel like I’ve seen a million times at this stage due to my usually reliably lesbian best friend’s obsession with both Colin Firth and Mark Strong, Before I Go to Sleep combines the Memento premise of reoccurring short-term-memory loss, the “is my partner secretly a psychopath?” trope of Suspicion, and the “spooky hotel corridor” visions of The Shining, but with a dispassionate Britishness of sensibility that produces the psychological thriller equivalent of a soggy, grey-skied afternoon.

Goodness knows, the London-based melodramatic kitchen sink thriller (surely there must be a potential abbreviation in there somewhere?) needn’t be nothingy – I mean, I’m hardly in love withNotes On a Scandal, but it was at least pretty meaty in terms of character development and interaction, cause and effect. The problem in Before I Go to Sleep may lie in its presentation of Christine (Nicole Kidman)’s anterograde amnesia: by having her memory reset to a time long before the incident that caused her brain damage, every time she goes to bed, her personality itself becomes essentially a blank slate each day. Now, that’s actually a pretty good set up, but only when either the writer is skilled enough to establish and re-establish interpersonal relations between characters both efficiently and meaningfully, or at the very least the actor gives a strong enough performance to tease out said emotional veracity which, unsurprisingly, Nicole Kidman as ever fails to do. Thus, most conversations in Before I Go to Sleepessentially translate to:

“Agh! Who are you?”
“I’m X, you can trust me, honest…”
“Oh… ‘kay.”

The absence of personality in Christine, not to mention the absence of charisma in Kidman, leaves Colin Firth’s suspicious husband character as the character most worthy of our interest though, even then, the dialogue never really takes off: “Christine, you’re 40,” he tells her as the film starts, in a tone of voice that implies she just walked into the room in fishnets and a miniskirt. Mark Strong’s dashing doctor character is yet another phone-in who never manages to raise tension – of dread or sexuality – high enough to have any particular impact on the plot. Thus, when The Revelation finally occurs, the audience can essentially rest easy that the mystery is over, but sigh deeply for the film isn’t yet.

**

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

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Retrospectively, it’s pretty much impossible not to look at The Ides of March and not see it as existing almost purely as the personification of the gestative period between two crucial political thrillers: Michael Clayton and House of Cards. However, whilst both Clayton and Cards stand as testament to the fact that thrillers made of 90% conversation and a maximum of 10% murder can, through artful use of cynicism, irony, misdirection and deception, still turn the dial up to 11, Ides of March never really goes far above a middling 5 or 6.

Clooney’s direction is competent if uncharismatic, and the editing’s looseness does little to dissuade the typical parodic critiques of Gosling’s dispassionate performance. However, the capital-A Acting is without a doubt as consistently impressive as you would expect from a line-up of Clooney, Gosling, Seymour Hoffman, Tomei and Giamatti, with Rachel Wood very much holding her own. Still, the characters all feel too archetypal for the cast to find anything particularly new or interesting to, other than be good on the back of their talent alone. Combine this with a story that never really has anyone acting comparatively that badly, nor the repercussions (save for one character, whose fate is written on their forehead from the get-go) that punishing, and you soon see that the stakes just plain aren’t high enough to demand any serious attention be paid to it. No matter how well acted it may be, a House of Cards with its teeth removed is, at the end of the day, just a lot of grey.

 

**

 

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

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Still pretty hot on the tails of his previous, similarly named revenge subversion, Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a triumph of his increasingly signature style of adding mumblecore sensibilities to genre-flick settings and, in so doing, establishing a surprising synthesis that eschews the navel-gazing of one and the repetition of the other. I’m reminded of the myriad youtube parodies of West Anderson’s instantly recognisable style, applying it to the tropes of pornography and horror – there’s a brilliant fake trailer for, I believe You’re Next as directed by Anderson – were Saulnier not already rapidly establishing himself as an auteur in his own right, one could easily describe Green Room in terms of premise, execution and success, as “Straw Dogs, as directed by Richard Linklater.”

Hardcore band The Ain’t Rights’s tour of the Pacific Northwest comes disastrously a-cropper and they find themselves the hapless opening act for a neo-Nazi skinhead club. (Sidenote: the person who books the gig describes them as “far right, well, technically far left,” which might actually imply the members adhere to a violent wing of the perpetually embarrassing and 99.9% of the time just as racist National-Anarchism movement. However, there are Swastikas abound, so it clearly has, at the very least devolved into full-blown neo-Nazism, whatever the original intentions allegedly were. It’s in no way relevant to the plot, but it did get me thinking, nonetheless.) Following a set that starts off defiantly bumpy due to a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ anthemic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” the band stumble upon a grisly murder scene in the eponymous green room and quickly find themselves barricaded, fending off attacks from the nastiest members of the movement, not to mention their bloodthirsty attack dogs, all led by the silver-tongued and scheming Darcy (Patrick Stewart).

True dialectical materialism demands both thesis and antithesis to be at a climactic stage of development for the synthesis, andGreen Room is absolutely no exception – the film is a masterful balancing act of bloodiness and gore which extracted a fair few gasps from my fellow audience members, and a genuinely humanist attitude, spending time and energy on establishing inner conflicts and contradictions in even the most minor of characters, allowing for motives to “justify” everyone’s actions to a point of sense, but never having it be so clear-cut to a point of 2-dimensionality. Thus, this world of brutal violence is immediate and inherent, purely for the reasons that the writing, direction, editing, acting, even the mise-en-scène (“performance” not in fact being a simple synonym for acting, but the cumulative effect of all formal elements onto acting) contribute to a holistic reality that all individuals congregate towards a singular ideology for largely personal reasons. Whilst in most slashers, the actual motivations of the killer/s are irrelevant if they known at all, these motivations become the driving force, in some cases bringing enemies together and splitting allies apart. Such character complexity within a horror on the most primary level allows the increase of pathos to make every death be felt by the spectator and count all the more. On the secondary level, it defines trope expectation and allows even the most abhorrent of bad guy ideology (and Nazism is nothing if not that) to remain at the very least a sign of a consistent integrity which, if and when broken by some of the antagonists for individualist ulterior motives, deepens certainly the narrative evil and, arguably, the moral evil itself.

Add to this all an amazing punk soundtrack – my personal favourite being Bad Brains’ “Right Brigade” over the end credits – not to mention a wonderful original score, and stellar acting across the board, and Green Room truly becomes yet another vital milestone in the apparent international horror golden age the 2010s are swiftly becoming.