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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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.

 

0

Lights Out (David F. Sandberg, 2016)

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Like an awful lot of its ilk, Lights Out is a horror film made by people who believe that being quiet for a long time, then being loud briefly is the same as being scary. Thus, I’m exceptionally happy for the filmmakers that Lights Out is at least very scary by their own valuation, even if by virtually nobody else’s on God’s green Earth.

I walked in, knowing nothing about this film but figured within seconds of it beginning that this was basically an 80-minute version of one of those completely samey “3-minute horrors” on YouTube. I realised, as the end credits rolled, that, no, that’s exactly what this film was. Thus, the entire point of this feature-length adaptation appears to be the search for a narrative justification for the micro-narrative of the original short. Needless to say, I found the search distinctly frustrated.

Here’s the thing: some horror films work brilliantly with no explanations whatsoever. It’s good that nobody can say 100% for sure why, for instance, Jack is in the photo at the end of The Shining. Alternatively, there are many horrors that successfully balance heavy extrapolation – take, for instance, Martin or The Wicker Man – with a still greatly cinematic aesthetic. What doesn’t work at all is when you explain loads about half of something, then just drop it, and that’s exactly what happens here. All this does is confirm that you as a filmmaker had a premise, but no real insight whatsoever into the plot of your own film. It means your film is severely lacking in justifications and motivations but not because you’re representing a world of chaos; rather that you just aren’t a good writer.

What we gather in this film is that “Diana” the supernatural antagonist, who exists only in the dark, definitely did exist as a human girl once but is now, like, a ghost? But she’s grown older? And she’s intrinsically connected to the mother’s mental state? But she still functions when the mother’s been knocked unconscious? Seriously, in terms of logic, this film is driving on empty.

I remember when I walked back home in a quietened daze from the first time I saw The Babadook, I said without a hint of irony or reservation that the family-based abuse-metaphor psychological horror filmmakers may as well just pack up shop: whatever hadn’t been covered to perfection the first time round by The Shining had absolutely just been covered to perfection by The Babadook. Because I understand The Witch in somewhat broader gender-oriented and theological terms, nothing has successfully shaken my opinion since – Lights Out is not merely no exception; it is in fact re-confirmation.

In The Shining, the monster is not merely the abusive father, rather the great old evil behind all such events – it is a force patriarchal, racist, misogynistic, addiction-enabling and murder-encouraging. This is why there’s little to no contradiction when all the symbolism points to the ghosts being part of Jack’s own mind (for instance, the fact that, every time he speaks to one, he’s stood before a mirror/reflective surface) and yet they reveal themselves to have power and presence separate from him (Grady’s ability to open the pantry door, Wendy’s visions etc). In The Babadook, the monster 100% reflects Amelia’s grief, pain and despair in the face of what she perceives as the intrinsic connection between her husband’s brutal if accidental death and the birth – in fact very existence of her “problem child,” Samuel. Its existence as an entity separate from her is as nuanced as the distinct between anyone’s personality and their mental illness. Thus, the answer to the question “is the monster real, or is it just a representation of a mother’s anguish?” is, of course, a resounding and simultaneous “yes” to both. No such nuance in Lights Out. The remarkable imbalance in this film leaves the meaning behind Diana’s presence entirely nonexistent, and yet mother Sophie still appears, in everyone’s esteem, entirely to blame.

The Shining and The Witch might both most simply be described as horror films about a family desperately tearing itself apart, whilst The Babadook may most simply be described as a horror film about a family trying desperately to piece itself back together; Lights Out seems to have the type of philosophy of family Robin Wood described in “The Lucas/Spielberg Syndrome,” charming, yet entirely motivated by a brutal neoliberal ethic. If a member of the family is too mentally unwell to fulfil their role satisfactorily, it’s best they just kill themself, so the rest of the family can carry on without them. Thus, what is most insidious (no pun intended) about Lights Out is not the horror at all, but the attitude it takes towards mental illness – one as mercenary as it is antediluvian. Even within the grand scheme of cookie-cutter jump-scare horrors, this film stands out as one worthy of particular reproach.

 

(Additional note: so what? The stepfather was a neuroscientist who worked at a mannequin factory? Why do they never explain what all the mannequins are doing everywhere?)

 

Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

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Let’s not split hairs: Suicide Squad is a veritable How-To manual in making an absolute incoherent catastrophe of shambolic narration, cynical pandering and intensely problematic racial and sexual politics. And yet, somehow, I didn’t hate it.

It’s actually interesting how paradoxical this film’s existence really is. What feels like a good 20 minutes of the film’s beginning is literally someone eating steak, going through a file, and talking about some – not even all – of the characters who are to be rounded up and become the originally named “Task Force X,” aka the “Suicide Squad” in question. Sure, there are flashbacks contained within the description, but only really as visual aids to the narration – after all, if the introductory scenes to these characters were considered strong enough, they wouldn’t need some suits explaining to us who these people were, or what their motivations are. So, although this is essentially an action whose intended audience is clearly the exact age of the rating (15), the film-makers somehow figured that talking talking talking would be a preferable introduction to a motley band of super villains… and Captain Boomerang… who’s little more than a fake Tom Hardy, armed with a children’s toy. Ironically for a film that relies so heavily on exposition, nobody ever really stops to answer “why?” Why did you set this up on essentially a whim with virtually no provocation?Why do you think you actually need an ANYTHING Squad, when you believed yourself to be in control of a witch/goddess (which is it, by the way?)-possessed woman who can literally dash off to Tehran in half a second, steal nuclear documents, then dash back? Why do we spend so much time building up some sort of energy with the prison guard, for absolutely no pay-off? Why did you only introduce some of the villains in the file, then tack on a couple more halfway through? Why, when you’ve literally implanted bombs in the necks of each member of the Squad, does Rick Flag need Katana to help him control the team, at all? Also, why are we supposed to care about Rick Flag at all? Why are we supposed to care about anything?

Perhaps this is the conceit of the 21st century comic book film: they assume everyone walking into the cinema is a hardened fan, who’s seen everything, and blow anyone who isn’t. Certainly, when I saw The Avengers, with its bad guy from Thor using the weapon from Captain America, when all I’d seen was the first two Iron Man films, I felt genuinely punished for my complete absence of loyalty to this insidiously ubiquitous franchise. Suicide Squad proudly displaying what I can only imagine is a major spoiler from the end of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I have not yet seen, suggests exactly the same thing. Indeed, Suicide Squad shows such an aggressive bravado in its wholly unwarranted self-confidence, I almost feel as though it were daring me to question its, or its characters motives and motivations, beyond the most intuitively asinine.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to the characters: Deadshot, by virtue of Will Smith, is an enjoyable enough and watchable enough boilerplate Will Smith experience. His character’s been given a cute daughter and, my god, please Hollywood stop giving criminals cute daughters! just for a change, I’d like to see them be givenany other kind of motivation. (Mental note: watch John Wick, apparently his motivation’s the death of his dog. That works.) Diablo (Jay Hernandez) at least has an element of complexity, due to his sympathetic repentance for a truly terrible crime. However, he is for the most part reduced to a walking, talking racial stereotype, even if not too ugly a one. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a disgustingly underused character, not only because Croc is invariably awesome, but also because he is being portrayed by an absolutely fantastic actor in Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who was without a doubt one of the best elements of the TV series Lost. He is also reduced to a disappointing racial stereotype – his “demands” at the end of the film apparently being a widescreen TV showing non-stop generic sexist rap videos, and a shelfful of Hennessy. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) is a bland racial stereotype (anyone see a pattern emerging?), with nothing but a samurai sword and a “you killed my father; prepare to die” storyline. Slipknot (Adam Beach)… well, we don’t know a single thing about him, other than the fact he is played by a First Nations Canadian, wasn’t even considered worthy of a backstory, and is killed before he’s said 10 lines. Seriously, this film is racially abysmal.

And then, of course, we have Joker (Jared Leto) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). The portrayal of their relationship is utterly gross. It is depicted unambiguously as being one of an extremely controlling, coercive and abusive nature, and also depicted unambiguously as being one worthy of romanticisation. There are already multiple essays and articles on this topic, so I shan’t waste much time dwelling on this, here, but what’s really frustrating is that, if we are to see Harley as a character almost entirely defined by her devotion to an abusive, largely absent, psychopath, her response to thinking her puddin’ has just died in a helicopter crash is not going to be snuffling for two seconds and then sucking it up, buttercup, and putting a brave face on things. That’s just not how these things work. This film is so utterly lazy in its narrative threads, it will happily have 180º levels of inconsistency in its protagonists. Honestly, I think Jared Leto’s performance as Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka and The Mad Hatter’s performance as the Joker is reasonably passable. I mean, it without a doubt is the weakest performance I’ve seen committed to screen, from Cesar Romero to Mark Hamill, but that’s not saying all that much, considering the powerhouses all those performances have been. Arguably, the strength of his own, such as it is, lies almost entirely in its sporadic brevity. Contrary to what everyone’s favourite overrated emo, Ayn Rand-reading, marginalised community-appropriating asshole of an undeserving Oscar winner seems to think, a film named Suicide Squad – a squad of which Joker is not a member – was always going to be an ensemble piece in which Joker should not be a protagonist. Thus, he exists more as an idea – specifically an idea of pleasure for Harley and trepidation for everyone else – than he does as an actual game player. Harley’s existence in this film as a character removed from him is… debatable. However, she’s funny and well acted, even if she does keep spouting lines off of mass-produced Camden Market t-shirts from over ten years ago: “‘normal’ is a setting on the dryer,” yeesh.

Cara Delevigne as Dr June Moon / Enchantress, the possessed child archaeologist, is interestingly terrible. She does a reasonably steady job, when the two identities are separate, Enchantress being portrayed not at all badly by CGI but, by the time she takes over, the film-makers clearly decided it would be wrong to hide the beauty of a skinny white woman (though clearly not the beauty of an exceptionally attractive Black man), and thus strip her of all her dignity by sticking her in one of the most pathetically appropriative garbs I’ve seen since the sound era. I say “since the sound era,” given that June Moon / Enchantress’ headdress and ridiculous twitchy shoulder-based dance moves are clearly based upon the Evil Maria clone from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. Only difference is, whilst Brigitte Helm was clearly having the time of her life, throwing shapes in a ridiculous get-up, there’s absolutely no joy in the absurdity of Delevigne’s villain. Thus, we can only squirm in embarrassment and humiliation on her behalf.

Between the under-arm serves by way of humour, the trick-or-treat costuming, the inanely quotable lines, Suicide Squad painfully appears to be the filmic equivalent of Reading Festival. And then in comes the music, to confirm it all: “Paranoid,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Seven Nation Army” – these are all quite literally the songs you expect to be playing on the PA system before a bank holiday music festival headliner comes on, and they are all played, seemingly at total random, for no reason other than to have a blandly cool soundtrack. At least Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” seems vaguely appropriate, playing whilst Deadshot – a bald, Black man – is on the screen. Seriously, this bloody film…

For some reason, though, there were just enough jokes to make me actually laugh, there was just enough action to keep me excited, and there was just enough charm in a couple of the performances – not least Smith and Robbie’s – to make sitting through all 130 minutes of this disasterpiece not quite the teeth-grinding, migraine-inducing nightmare I worried it might be. By no stretch of the imagination can I recommend this film to anyone. Is it that bad? Absolutely, but it’s not THAT that bad.

**

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015)

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A real kick in the mouth, considering every film of Ben Wheatley’s up to this, High-Rise, alongside such examples as The Cell, Stoker and Lost River stands as testament to the unforgiving reality that it really doesn’t matter how much style you throw at something, if you don’t have the substance to back it up. Though I haven’t seen them, the glossy sci-fi setting and reliance on stars suggests High-Rise may in fact share considerably more in common with the Doctor Who episodes Wheatley directed than any of his prior films, which would partially explain my utter dislike of this film, in contrast both to my feelings about his oeuvre as a whole, and the grand majority of audiences.

In interviews for previous films such as Kill List and Sightseers, Wheatley has always made clear that he likes all his characters, despite the horrible things they may do, and speaks with a paternal generosity that feels entirely fitting – none of his previous films have been without pathos, without a vested interest in seeing his protagonists develop, even from bad to worse; High-Rise, to put it simply, doesn’t. It’s ironic that the one film of his that is a veritable social satire displays the least interest in breaking through any character’s archetypal shell. Thus, there isn’t nearly enough groundwork laid in the first act to leave much room for shock, or even surprise, when everyone starts going berserk – the loss of humanity to primal rage and survivalism can only make an impression when there was a minimum amount of humanity to lose.

Sure, High-Rise is “nasty,” but only really on a surface level – any film that involves murder, violent rape, enslavement of a pregnant woman, and the eating of a dog is going to make you shift in your seat – but the film’s alignment with protagonist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston)’s constant state of ironic self-detachment at it all doesn’t reinforce the cruelty of the events so much as combine with the tiresomely “stylish” presentation to permeate the film with an atmosphere of smugness.

I so, so hope that Wheatley is essentially never given this amount of money or the desire to adapt a book again – it’s clearly bad for him, and really disappointing to me.

 

**

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

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Fair warning: this review contains information related to the third act. I’d say “plot spoilers,” but there’s no plot and, honey, this film was spoiled a long time before I got to it, so it really doesn’t matter.

Seriously, I hate the fact that I walked into the theatre, expecting some guffaws of hilarity at a film’s apocalyptic awfulness, and instead spent 95% of the running length, stoney-faced with a slight elevation in one eyebrow at the entire situation in which we found ourselves.

Mistress America follows the no-lesbo friend crush held by Tracy, who I’m expected to believe is seven years younger than me for Brooke (because of course she’s called fucking Brooke), who I’m expected to believe is five years older than me, as they kinda do nothing and Tracy writes a slightly hurtful short story about it, entitled “Mistress America, or: the Unbearably Obvious Chekhov’s Gun That You Just Know is Going to be Discovered and Read by Brooke Somewhere Near the End and it’s Going to Cause Friction, Like in Every Other Film Ever.” Brooke discovers and reads the story somewhere near the end and it causes friction, like in every other film ever. There’s even a lawyer who threatens to draw up a lawsuit to ban Tracy from publishing the thing. So the fact that, in the very next scene, we see that the story got published in her university’s literary journal, so we wasted a an entire reveal as it resulted in approximately zero repercussions, acts as a perfect analogy for how this film, under a thin veil of hipster abstraction, is actually blithely marching us all straight to the deepest darkest pit of nihilistic oblivion. It’s like some sort of twisted existential Pied Piper / Mephistopheles composite in a beret, clutching a pumpkin spice latte.

Remember Tumblr before it became political? When it was pretty much just a website in which there were all these blogs that seemed to be run by an infinite number of girls who somehow made a comfortable living, wandering around Williamsburg in obscenely expensive clothes and oversized sunglasses, with a Nikon F series round their necks? Not only is this entire film a creepy love letter to them all, but LITERALLY describes them as a “beacon of hope.”

So, ideologically, Mistress America is pretty much the Birth of a Nation for neoliberal cupcake fascism. Fair enough. But is it any good? here’s where it gets annoying: the secondary characters and even the protagonists every now and again drop a joke that is actually funny. That one about “autodidact” being a word Brooke taught herself? That was kind of ok for a second. The fact that there are a couple of those brief funnies, in conjunction with how the entire film is edited to look like an overly baggy montage that shows the development from point A to point A again, left me feeling like I had just watched an 84-minute-long trailer for a slightly better film. One that might have made a bit more sense, one that might have had character development, or at least addressed Tracy’s small scale kleptomania that comes up twice and is then promptly forgotten about. Maybe a film where a person of colour was allowed to speak in more multi-syllables. Maybe a film where a white person was allowed to speak in fewer. But probably not.

Pros: “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide is on the soundtrack.

*1/2

Beckett On Film: Breath (Damien Hirst, 2000)

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Rewatched June 14, 2015

 

Though I almost always agree with the sentiment that the success of a film adaptation should not be predicated – especially not solely – on its fidelity to the original source, adaptations of Beckett tend to be an exception to the rule, on the basis of the nature of the auteuristic qualities of Beckett’s work being so singular that any attempt I’ve seen to distance the text from the source has always ended up feeling distinctly ersatz. (I am, however, very interested to see how the auteuristic giant of expressionist theatre Robert Wilson manages to tango on stage as actor and director of Krapp’s Last Tape in a matter of weeks! UPDATE: It was godawful. Never mind, then.) Unfortunately, Damien Hirst clearly didn’t get the memo.

Hirst’s take on Breath, in removing the opening birth-cry, in replacing the “miscellaneous rubbish” from the script with hospital detritus, complete with upended trollies breaking the “no verticals” rule, by filming the scene with OTT swooping crane shots and – most ridiculously of all – adding ashtrays with cigarettes placed deliberately in swastika patterns, takes what was Beckett’s attempt at a living, breathing vanitas painting (I strongly recommend Claire Lozier’s wonderful essay “Breath as Vanitas: Beckett’s Debt to a Baroque Genre” for more information on the subject) and turns it into a sophomoric and facile cartoon of an anti-smoking ad (which seems the most likely explanation for what is going on here), starkly reminiscent of the Vivienne Westwood parody’s clothing range in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge.

Damien Hirst manages to remove so much of Beckett’s vision, it is almost unrecognisable from the source text, whilst those god damn swastika cigarettes are so offensively paltry, I doubt one could find a single GCSE art student who would be so void of self-awareness as to use them as a motif. The ridiculous use of the camera seems to be an attempt to emphasise the scale of this piece – trying to blow up Beckett’s fleeting yet haunting memento mori to some apocalyptic, 28 Days Later scale (Keith Allen’s trick or treat voice work does not improve matters) – only manages to remove the theatrical, whilst failing completely to add the cinematic.

The end result of Damien Hirst adapting Samuel Beckett looks like a wannabe David Firth trying and pitifully failing to adapt Sarah Kane.

By far and away, the worst part of the Beckett On Film series.
If I ever become an actor, following the Stanislavski system, and need to drawn on my experiences of murderous rage for a role, I’ll just remember what Damien Hirst did to Samuel Beckett’s Breath.

I would, personally, desperately like to see Peter Greenaway doing Breath: this play needs someone who understands how to film a Dutch painting; not this. Good God, not this.

0 stars.

While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

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It’s just not fair. A combination of the stupendous Expressionist auteur Fritz Lang and a cast list this star-studded should not produce such a bland, baggy and boring press procedural as this!

Sure, the idea of taking a serial killer film noir premise and turning it on its head to devote the majority of the story line to the office politics of the members of the press trying to hunt down the killer is interesting… it’s just that this story isn’t at all interesting.

The killer’s sub-plot doesn’t fare much better as he has essentially no screen-time at all; we find out considerably less about him than the protagonist do, even though we have third-person omniscient on our side.

Most frustrating of all is that, if you macheted away all the bunk and searched the cutting room floor for some more time devoted to the Lipstick Killer, there may well be a reasonably enjoyable 72 minute b-movie hiding within all this twaddle, but I still doubt it would turn out to be worth the effort.

*1/2