Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Gift (2015) | Film Review

The Gift, wr/dir. Joel Edgerton, st. Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton

Like most home invaders, Edgerton's "Gordo the Weirdo" needs only exploit the fissures and instabilities that already lie dormant in his victims. And indeed there's much in his directorial debut's antagonist that evokes De Niro's Max Cady from Scorsese's 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear - if not in stature and sheer capacity for brutality, then certainly in an astute knowledge of how and where to apply the requisite pressure. The Gift also arrives on UK shores in an eerily timely manner as a recent newspaper article paints British children as among the unhappiest in the world due to bullying. This film is notable in that rather than depict real-time playground harassment, wherein culpability is tempered by watching inexperienced adolescents doing foolishly adolescent things, we see how the tendrils of bygone actions long forgotten - or not - reach well into adulthood, where grownups feel a genuine right to slate-wiping. History, as we learn, is not so easily re-written.

And so we open with what appears to be a picture-perfect representation of a couple brimming with ambition and purpose. Relocating from Chicago to an LA suburb, Simon (Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Hall) find a beautiful home for themselves, their dog, and possibly the hope of another child after their first was miscarried. Already movie lore tells us from the off that this is a fragility is at its most delicate stage. Out sourcing furnishings one day, they bump into Gordon Mosley, an old school-friend of Simon's. Gordon is shy, inelegant at social graces, possibly on the spectrum, while Simon is functionally courteous in the way we all might uncomfortably recognise in ourselves. But as Gordon insinuates himself into the couple's life over the proceeding days, it's hard to tell if Simon's displeasure at Gordo's continued presence is justified, or if maybe he's anxious at a past that may yet be revealed. 

Edgerton's Gordo is one of those rare and compelling characters of modern cinema, simultaneously victim and aggressor, and performed with tremendous, unfussy creepiness by the writer/director. We get drip-fed breadcrumbs of a past narrative for Gordon, but Edgerton is canny in what information he chooses to give out. Bateman similarly portrays a brilliantly and maddeningly incomplete character in Simon. Motivation in either case is rarely as clear-cut as it seems. The only one who's truly lost in this knot of slippery untruths is Simon's wife Robyn, fighting the urge to suspect her husband may not be the rock she's built her life around, and uncertain at the veracity of Gordo's intentions. The knowledge and acceptance of past misdemeanours can be a gift, Gordo tells the couple, but what's fascinating here is the difference between going down that path of self-discovery yourself, and having such a trial thrust upon you. It's also not entirely dissimilar from the bible-bashing Cady telling Sam Bowden that he's "going to learn about loss". Both Cady and Gordo see themselves as avenging angels, of sorts, meting out punishment to those unworthy of their present-day status and all the benefits such a position affords them. 

But besides divine retribution, The Gift is also about trust - nominally, the trust we place in those who we allow to share our lives with. The recent hack at the affair-promoting Ashley Madison servers is a punctual reminder that we live in times of great duplicity, and that mistrust can grow, cancer-like, threatening to destabilise the things we've spent our lives building. Aside from the occasional and rather redundant jump-scare, Edgerton has fashioned a truly contemporary horror film - one that needs no mythical or supernatural force to work its way under our skin, but merely the existence of a careless action that refuses to remain buried. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation | Film Review

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, dir/wr. Christopher McQuarrie, st. Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Rebecca Ferguson.

Another year, another impossible mission. Only, you know, it isn't. Impossible. Apparently. It does seem, on the basis of this - the franchise's fifth outing - that when you run out of ideas, just EL James that shit and start over. Thus Rogue Nation has abrasions with authority, megalomaniacal villains, duplicitous twists and turns of character, and of course, set-pieces that seek to up the ante of their predecessors. It's not stale per se - Cruise (ever the case of love the art, not the artist) - is far too magnetic a personality for that ever to transpire, but like Harrison Ford said to George Lucas on the set of Jedi, sometimes killing of a character is the only way to breathe fresh life into a dying beast, and in so doing, give it some much-needed narrative clout. Otherwise, what's at stake? Nothing that ever feels terrifyingly real.

Rogue Nation finds the IMF (not to be confused with the IMF) up in front of a senate tribunal that seeks to dissolve the outfit once and for all due to its recklessness and disdain for authority. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) seeks the help of colleagues Benji (Pegg) and Luther (Rhames) to prove the existence of and bring down The Syndicate, a lazily-monikered criminal consortium led by the enigmatic Solomon Lane (Harris), an architect of chaos whose evil is immediately identified by how quietly he talks and dispassionately he kills.

No doubt the fifty-three year-old Cruise is on fine form as the be-ripped and fearless Hunt, whether doing that quivery serious-face thing he does when something important's happening, or, like, just running, or biking, or actually hanging on to the outside of planes. And while the much-advertised bomber-clinging opening is a grand testament to the palpitating immediacy of live-action stuntage over CGI, it doesn't really end up having much to do with anything, and this is where we have got to in the franchise; a series of sequences where Cruise continues to hone his USP for Doing Stuff.

To be fair, much of this lies at the feet of director McQuarrie who went from writing the screenplay for The Usual Suspects to The Tourist via Valkyrie in fifteen years. At least Brian De Palma's original MI movie way back in 1996 felt like it had some authorship. Similarly, the subsequent directors - John Woo, JJ Abrams, and Brad Bird - all managed to lend their distinct vision to the franchise. That is, however, I believe how franchises sustain themselves - by evolving and transmuting into something else. Why not have a black Bond? Why not have a female Doctor? Nothing is irreversible. But in truth, Rogue Nation feels like the first MI film that treads water, and while Cruise and Pegg's chemistry is winningly engaging, Rhames' addition seems like an afterthought, and although newcomer Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust (I wonder whose side she's on?) acquits herself with a seductive, whispery grace, there's little magic between her and Cruise. 

But whatever the content, the numbers say that there's still a healthy appetite for those who love to watch Hunt run, and while it's unlikely the tone of the franchise will change tack, it will be interesting to see whether audiences will be as keen to see the IMF team alive and kicking for another 19 years.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Fastidious And Furious: The Strange And Unwavering Lexicon Of A Franchise | Feature

Soon after Paul Walker's untimely death in 2013 I decided that I could no longer put off watching the Fast And Furious films. As a critic, there are just some films you file under "Will Watch Eventually", and to be honest, I never got tachycardia over the thought of drag races and drifting. But it's ok, I thought, this would give me a chance to watch all the films in succession - concluding with the then recently released sixth instalment. It would, in my mind, give me an experience akin to travelling across the US East-to-West coast, witnessing how the States have developed over time, revealing its own personal narrative. As it turned out, it wasn't until earlier this month when I finally sat down to watch them, and by this time, another episode - Furious 7, Walker's final film - had been added to the line-up. And on completing the marathon (7 films in 7 days), it occurred to me that the Fast And Furious franchise operates under a set of strictly delineated attributes, which bizarrely, while often being diametrically opposed, still tumble, roll, and spin into a coherent, watchable whole. It's not high art, and I'd be lying if I thought that the films appealed to anything other than a pretty slight demographic, but the films - particularly the later additions - pretty much succeed despite, or because of their conflicting ambitions.

On the one hand, we have F&F's unrelenting commitment to bonnets and booty. There's so much chrome, flesh, and hip-hop woven liberally throughout the seven films it's a bit like Xzibit doing Pimp My Ride on Pornhub. You're never sure where to look. But so charismatic are the films' two leads - Vin Diesel and Paul Walker - that you never quite buy their comfort in that kind of world. You get their appetite for the kinetic thrill and gang camaraderie, but it's all a like little sitting outside McDonalds when you were 15. But then on the other hand, for all F&F's superficial, slightly chauvinistic MTV lustre, there are the culturally diverse set of fairly robust female characters that put most films of its ilk to shame; the Spanish Elsa Pataky, the Israeli Gal Gadot, the Cuban Eva Mendes, the Italian Gina Carano, and the Latin American Michelle Rodriguez. And even though globe-spanning locales are now a staple of the kinds of films that feature these kind of impossible missions, the franchise has never been too obsessed in bedding down in US cities. And while I'm at it, given the average Hollywood demographic's disdain for subtitles, isn't it something of a marvel that Fast Five's Big Bad - drug lord Hernan Reyes - as well as two Puerto Rican members of the heist team - Leo and Santos - are subtitled?

But there's no denying what the franchise eventually became; nominally, just another super-hero movie. I'm not quite sure where along in the narrative our team added super-spy abilities to their engineering and driving skills (ok, so Brian O'Conner's always been FBI, and I guess, at a push, Toretto's no stranger to brawling), but suddenly we're once more in territory where the protagonists can experience the most bone-crunching damage and emerge unscathed. Yet for all its artifice and the characters' comic-book resilience to fear and pain, Toretto in particular keeps banging on about the importance and virtue of family and kinship. In Hollywood's messed up misogyny we've become used to seeing female characters espouse the necessity for the loyalty of home, but to see it coming from the oft-sleeveless Vin Diesel is jarring, and not a little bit affecting. All of which emotional familial foundation-laying pays off at Furious 7's ending, where the gang opt to leave Walker's O'Conner to live out his days with Toretto's sister Mia and their kid - an elegant solution to life's cruel inelegance. But Toretto and O'Conner still have one last mountainous road-race to complete, before the pair peel off in different directions. Sure, the weight of real-life tragedy gives the scene its poetry, but it's also entirely consistent with the Fast and Furious mantra. It's an epic, sweeping gesture, cinematic and elaborate, but beyond all that, deep down, harbouring real soul.