Tuesday 21 August 2018

Slender Man

"People don't just disappear without a trace."

Hollywood does have a trend of being late to the party when it comes to figures/properties like Slender Man. If you are around my age you may remember seeing it crop up on the internet as one of the more popular creepypastas. You may have played the games once or twice and quickly got bored of their simplistic gameplay and derivative layout. Then you basically moved on and mostly forgot about it. So of course now is the ideal time for a film adaptation to be released, years after anyone bestowed any relevance to the property at all. Smart move Hollywood.

Small-town best friends Hallie, Chloe, Wren and Katie go online to try and conjure up the Slender Man a tall, thin, horrifying figure whose face has no discernible features. Two weeks later, Katie mysteriously disappears during a class trip to a historic graveyard. Determined to find her, the girls soon suspect that the legend of the Slender Man may be all too real.

The great irony in choosing to make a ‘Slender Man’ movie, especially one that is little more than a tired and derivative horror film you have likely seen dozens of times before, is that there is already a great movie based on the property. It’s a 2016 documentary called ‘Beware the Slender Man’ that discusses an incident in which two girls attempted to murder one of their friends, citing Slender Man as a means of inspiration. It examines the place an internet phenomenon can hold within the manifested paranoia of a damaged individual. It makes for an extremely disturbing portrait of viral influence and the ability of certain people to rationalise a connection between fallacy and reality.

All of that could have made for an interesting narrative feature, underpinned with themes and ideas like that. Obviously not directly recreating said incident due to not wanting to monetise a very real and recent trauma, but tackling a subject like this in a more subversive approach would allow a film like ‘Slender Man’ to distinguish itself. Unfortunately the product we have here is far from interesting on any discernible level. In all honesty I suspect even those seeking nothing more than one last cheap thrill to satisfy their obsession with this figure of viral horror will leave dissatisfied as there are infinitely more interesting approaches to the myth available from a Google search.

I feel somewhat guilty for holding ‘Slender Man’ in comparison to the material relating to it, because I always aim to judge a film for what it is, not my idealised version of what it “should” be. But it really is baffling how frequently the film indicates that to might take a more interesting approach to its subject, only to then give way to the most predictable outcome. It’s not just on a narrative front that the film displays this pattern. Visually each set piece starts with a slight flourish that suggests a moment could be elevated by some dynamism on the director’s part. But too many of these scenes resort to an over reliance on quick edits and jump scares which rob the scene of any potential suspense it might have held.

On top of that there are scenes that simply do not look as if they have been lit properly. Whether it’s as a means to mask the low production quality or create an empty sense of fear, I homestly found myself straining to make out what was happening in various key scenes. ‘Slender Man’ also lacks any compelling framing or compositions. The film seems to have three variations when it comes to how to present a scene, and almost all of them fall equally flat. Conversations are delivered monstrously and without variety in the camerawork, scary scenes are in service of an underwhelming jump scare, and that’s about as far as it goes.

As a result of each and every intended scare being defused, ‘Slender Man’ rapidly loses momentum to a point where I defy any viewer to unequivocally say they felt engaged throughout. There are so many scenes of bland exposition and empty character moments in a narrative that is not permeated with nearly enough frights to succeed as a horror spectacle. Despite their simplistic layout, the games were at their core a decent exercise in suspense at least. But none of that can be found within this film adaptation. It’s barely good enough for a cheap thrill due to how flatly each intended scare is presented.

‘Slender Man’ also succumbs to the kind of logic that can only be found within truly bad movies. It may seem pedantic to criticise the rules regarding a supernatural entity but when the film specifically lays an outline for how the threat will behave only to then disregard it whenever it is convenient for the script to progress is beyond disingenuous. What’s even worse than the inconsistencies within the movie’s established logic is the ever changing motivations of the characters. Priorities are altered from scene to scene, characteristics shift wildly and certain characters just seem outright forgotten by the script at various points throughout the plot.    

‘Slender Man’ is simply another forgettable horror movie, and no amount of brand recognition will change that.

Result: 2/10

The Meg

"What you discovered is bigger than anyone could possibly have imagined."

Shark movies begin and end with ‘Jaws’ as far as genuinely worthwhile pieces of filmmaking go. There really isn’t anything else that has remotely capitalised on the appeal or even seemed to understand the functionality of Spielberg’s classic thriller. Namely, they try to let the pure appeal of its concept carry the film in its entirety rather than actually developing it any further. So if you went into ‘The Meg’ enthralled by the concept of Jason Statham vs a giant shark then I can’t say you’ll be disappointed. But I also can’t say you’ll be surprised. 

A massive creature attacks a deep-sea submersible, leaving it disabled and trapping the crew at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. With time running out, rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) must save the crew and the ocean itself from an unimaginable threat a 75-foot-long prehistoric shark known as the Megalodon.

You may also notice that a film like ‘The Meg’ seems weirdly out of place in today’s cinematic landscape. The days of non-ironic, high concept shark movies seemed to die somewhere in the mid 2000s and was then relegated mainly to direct to DVD release with the ‘Sharknado’ franchise. Though there are a few outliers, for the most part it seemed audiences and studios had grown tired of their potential as a serious commodity, whilst alto not being committed enough to indulge in the extended joke that gave the more self-aware titles in the genre seemed to revel in.

If it sounds like I’m stalling for time rather than discussing the actual quality of ‘The Meg’ then that would simply be that beyond the mere fact that it exists at all in this day and age, the film is not overly interesting. At the end of the day, even when giving ‘The Meg’ every benefit of doubt one can give to a cheap B-picture, the film simply doesn’t allow for much rewarding viewing. That is not to say there is no appeal to it, but at the same time I personally just found the indulgent methods that B-movies use as a veil to excuse their flaws to be one that wears thin very quickly.

It’s something that film critic Amy Nicholson (she’s great, read everything she does if for some reason you are not already) referred to as “deliberate cultifacation”. The movie has the kitsch value and budgetary restrictions of many films that have gone on to be embraced as cult films, as well as the ridiculously high concept premise. But ultimately it seems to lack any sense of vision or artistic merit to it. Movies like ‘The Meg’ feel as if they are an extended in-joke which is fine up until the point when you feel like asking for more than empty cynicism. The comedic elements of the movie feel less like deliberate additions and more like a means to wave off any criticism and defend itself by limiting itself to just a cheap b-movie. But then you need only look at films such as ‘Evil Dead 2’, ‘Death Proof’ or any of John Carpenter’s early work to know that there can be great levels of artistry within this style of cinema.

But as I said, it’s far easier for me to talk about the broader place a film like ‘The Meg’ has within the cinematic landscape because there is not much within the actual film to discuss. There’s a lot of disappointment in how the film restricts itself to a PG-13 rating and therefore skips on the gory catharsis its tone seems to suggest. This isn’t my own blood lust as much as it seems the movie making tonal promises that it then fails to deliver. Even with huge quantities of gore I don’t think the action of ‘The Meg’ could be saved due to how the film’s editing fails to convey any consistent sense of motion. It seems like the main goal of each edit was to mask the film’s inadequacies which are plentiful to say the least.

Ultimately I think ‘The Meg’ fails to make any discernible splash due to its own tonal dissonance. It refuses to commit to any one train of thought. On the one hand it demands the audience takes the film seriously enough to be invested in the action and plot on some deep level. But at the same time it also wants to keep the audience at an arm’s length so it can excuse its various errors and inherent ridiculousness. Though it’s not impossible for a film to achieve both, it’s not achieved by switching back and forth between these two goals from scene to scene. There is no specific vision for what the film wants to elicit from its audience, and instead just seems to hope that either one method or the other will land.

Refusing to commit to either of its conflicting tones, ‘The Meg’ is neither competent enough to be goof and not inept enough to be fun.

Result: 3/10

Wednesday 8 August 2018

First Reformed

"My hands shake as I write these words."

Paul Schrader certainly has themes that he likes to revisit. One does not have to look far to see elements of his latest movie ‘First Reformed’ that feel reminiscent of his past masterworks. “God’s lonely man” was a tagline used to describe ‘Taxi Driver’ and also seems applicable here, as is the protagonist wrestling with his inner demons seen in ‘Raging Bull’ as well as the crisis of faith seen in ‘Last Temptation of Christ.’ But while the broad themes are similar, the execution pushes beyond anything the veteran filmmaker has done so far.

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a First Reformed, a small church in upstate New York with a prestigious history but dwindling attendance. Leading what appears to be from a glance a stable and faith filled life, Toller rapidly spirals out of control after a soul-shaking encounter with an unstable environmental activist and his pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried).

As well as themes of faith, inner demons and self-destructive tendencies, another noteworthy aspect of Schrader’s filmography is his love of transcendental filmmaking. Before he became a writer/director Schrader wrote a book on the method of making movies under a transcendental lens and theorised that empty space within a movie’s plot can immerse the viewer rather than serve as a disconnect. By leaving the viewer room to ponder the deeper implications of what the film is trying to say, thereby drawing them in deeper to the artist’s intent.   

You can find a lot of transcendental method within ‘First Reformed’ and it is necessary to the film’s overall impression on the viewer as Schrader is presenting several hefty themes. The film unfolds almost as a stream of consciousness but framed around a deeply layered character study that paints its portrait slowly and assuredly. It’s only by the end of the movie that you are granted the full picture of who Ernst Toller is and how deep his inner demons run. It plays to the strengths of what Schrader has exhibited in so many other masterful screenplays. He presents an unreliable narrator rocked by his own crisis of faith, and uses each of those elements to evoke such constant intrigue.

Just as Schader uses transcendental techniques within the narrative, he also uses them within the framing and composition of the film. The film is shot in academy ratio which not only creates an enclosed space around the width of the frame, but also expands the top. There’s a lot of negative space within numerous shots in ‘First Reformed’ which reflect the emptiness Toller seems to feel as his faith becomes more fragile. Or perhaps the space is meant to evoke the sense that there is a presence within his life, just one that remains elusive and ominously hangs over him.

Though this measured approach means the pacing of ‘First Reformed’ can drag at times, the spiritual atmosphere of the film is incredibly effective. As Toller grapples with his own crisis of faith we feel each empty second passing by. We can empathise with his own aguish as he searches for meaning and hope in a world that seems increasingly cynical the longer we inhabit it. The film also retains an impeccable sense of focus, never losing sight of its own themes and constantly developing each one as the plot continues to unfold.

Perhaps the most involving aspect of the film is watching Ethan Hawke’s performance because it is truly mesmerising. Hawke plays the role with such reserved intensity that he instantly invites the viewer to uncover his inner workings. Hawke is pleasant and empathetic enough to paint a portrait of a kindly preist, but also elusive enough to indicate that something more sinister is lurking beneath the surface. When we do get glimpses of those darker inclinations within Toller Hawke once again nails the role. He effortlessly conveys a palpable sense of menace, as if this man’s unravelling could easily lead to an unstable and dangerous individual. It’s part of what makes the viewer invested in Toller retaining his faith. For no other reason than out of fear of what might happen to others if such a man were to lose it.  

There is a lot of ambiguity to Schrader’s film that some viewers may find overly obtuse. No aspect of the movie provides a clear cut answer and sometimes you have to search for meaning within the events in the same way the characters themselves continuously search for meaning. There are also moments of heavy symbolism that break the realist of this once grounded drama and become completely expressionistic. Certain sequences can be thought of as being entirely symbolic or only partially, and it’s that unclear distinction between the two that drives so much of the film.

But even when you look past the allegorical moments, ‘First Reformed’ still functions as a deeply compelling drama. The emotions that the script conjures are earned and raw, creating a picture that depicts a deeply damaged individual who is slowly being destroyed from the inside. Anyone who has undergone a disconnect with the world around them can relate to Toller, and subsequently fear for what he may become.  

Dramatically powerful and thematically resonant, ‘First Reformed’ stands alongside some of Schrader’s best work as a filmmaker.

Result: 9/10

Friday 3 August 2018

Hot Summer Nights

"So you're sending me away for the summer? That's very cliché."

You would struggle to find anyone who had a better year than Timothee Chalamet did in 2017. Despite each role being somewhat minor he still left quite an impression through his performances in Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ and Scott Cooper’s ‘Hostiles’. But of course his biggest success came with his phenomenal turn in ‘Call Me By Your Name’ which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It’s the kind of year that makes you instantly excited for anything the actors is attached to next. Which brings us to ‘Hot Summer Nights’.

During one scorching summer in Cape Cod, Daniel Middleton (Timothee Chalamet) is an awkward teenager who quickly gets in over his head when what starts as a simple money making scheme rapidly becomes a miniature drug empire. As well as the stresses of running his own illegal business, he also finds himself falling for his business partner's enigmatic sister during.

It’s hard not to be enticed by the trailer for Elijah Bynum’s debut feature because it looks like madcap collection of incredible moments and incidents. There’s no denying that there are not some truly impressive and well-staged scenes across the movie, but they are rare in their appearance and hardly enough to sustain the film as a whole. Ultimately the movie is a cheap and uninspired tour through a series of clichés that you might find in any coming of age or crime drama.

I can certainly agree that there is some intrigue in trying to merge those two genres since they each consistently deal with themes of parental relationships and identity. But ‘Hot Summer Nights’ never consolidates this clash of genres and instead just bounces awkwardly in between. The movie feels both strangely melodramatic but also underplayed. On the one hand it struck me being somewhat ludicrous that Danial would amass his own drug empire over the course of the summer but at the same time I never felt any sense of weight or severity to that story device. It wants to be playful and dramatic but can never draw a clear line between the two.

A24 isn’t exactly a studio you could accuse of throwing out a cheap cash grab, but in purchasing and pushing a film like ‘Hot Summer Nights’ in its rostra I wonder if that move was purely in the name of monetary gain. After all they have made a concerted effort to capitalise on the stardom of Chalamet, emphasising his name and role in the advertising of this movie. There’s no distinct voice or unique vision to find within the film because ultimately there isn’t much of anything. The dialogue does not possess any rhythm or wit, mostly just being functional at best. There’s no intrigue or innovation to how the story is presented and unfolds. This is all putting aside how uniformly bland the story is as a whole, being littered with tropes and clichés.

But as I said at the start of this review there are some moments of flair to be found within the movie. Some of the character introductions in particular are wonderful to behold, evoking a sense of intrigue with each introduction and creating a distinct mood that fits their subsequent characterisation very well. It’s a moment of interest that if anything only makes the subsequent descent into tired tropes more disappointing. The way we are introduced to each character inspires a sense that their journey might be unique and they could develop in unforeseen ways, as opposed to what actually happens which is about as predictable as they come.

Given that this was filmed before his start turning year during which he worked with some of the best filmmakers working today, I was a little apprehensive that in retrospect Chalamet’ s performance would not hold up to the quality of his current work. But I’m pleased to say that his performance is not only excellent but boosts the film as a whole. There’s a sense of energy and underlying charisma to his portrayal of Daniel that makes his subsequent power play somewhat believable from a character standpoint, even if the film’s script can’t do the same. But at the same time Chalamet adds a layer of naivety to his performance that works well to increase the tension in his ensuing decisions. As an audience we are well aware that he is capable of making mistakes, and not invulnerable to the consequences of any possible mistakes he might make.

The cinematography by Javier Julia is also fantastic. It works wonders to evoke a mood and associative location, matching the tone of the film’s title perfectly. You look at any exterior shot of this film with the chosen colour palette and framing choices, and you instantly buy into the atmosphere of these hot summer nights. Despite his shortcomings from a broader story perspective Brynum even injects some evocative compositions into the film which allow some of its images to leave a lasting impression, even if the story around them falls flat.

Boasting some impressive style but lacking any discernible substance, ‘Hot Summer Nights’ is a disappointingly empty movie.

Result: 5/10  

Thursday 2 August 2018


"It'll be like a Lifetime movie with the nanny who kills the family and the mom survives and she has to walk with a cane at the end." 

Jason Reitman has always been deeply fascinated with people in their own habitat. His best films certainly reflect the method of studying a character within the domain in which they are most comfortable and gradually peeling back the layers of their own persona. How layered and nuanced he is in this approach acts as a measurement of how each particular project weighs up. Regardless of the final product though, there’s always a level of intrigue going into a film by Reitman.  

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is a New York suburbanite who's about to give birth to her third child. Her second son has a rare developmental disorder. Meanwhile her husband, despite being a loving and supportive figure, remains clueless about the demands that motherhood puts on his wife. When the baby is born, Marlo's wealthy brother hires a night time nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to help his sister handle the workload.

The premise of ‘Tully’ certainly fits in with Reitman’s usual forte as a filmmaker, with the film observing just a sparse handful of characters and rarely moving location over the course of its runtime. But in doing so Reitman once again showcases his skill of observing and dissecting people for their inner qualities. I imagine it is one of the aspects that actors must relish when working with him. It gives them a chance to put aside distractions regarding a convoluted plot and instead focus completely on developing a fully realised character.

Charlize Theron has proven herself as one of the best actors of this era on multiple occasions, so it would take a lot for a performance of hers so surprise me. Yet ‘Tully’ does just that as Theron portrays a character with such intimacy and warmth that I feel I’ve never quite seen from her before. It’s such a departure from her tour de force performances in ‘Monster’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ in which she plays damaged people hardened to the world around them. ‘Tully’ gives her a chance to a vulnerability that is deeply moving to behold. But what makes it even more impactful is how Theron bestows such a sense of inner strength to the character. Both Theron’s performance and the movie as a whole act as a touching tribute to motherhood.

It would be easy to focus purely on Theron, but the small supporting cast around her are also terrific in their respective roles. Davis adds enough ambiguity to Tully as a character that as a viewer you empathise with Marlo’s own doubts at first and subsequently experience each surprise and revelation about her personality as Marlo does. Ron Livingstone also makes for a reassuring presence as Marlo’s husband Drew. He plays the character with a level of sympathy that’s refreshing when the character could so easily have descended into a one note neglectful type.

This is where Diablo Cody’s screenplay works wonders because it consistently renders the characters of the story as complex individuals. There’s no cinematic shorthand or lazy generalisations. Instead Cody takes the time to endear his audience to each character on some level, and then slowly opens them up for the audience to observe. It’s gradual and perfectly paced to the film’s runtime, never coming across as contrived or melodramatic. This approach is perfectly matched by Reitman’s direction which possesses a deep affection for observing these characters, to a point where the camera itself seems hurt by their pain and struggles.

Another aspect that is treated with a refreshing amount of nuance and variety is the tone of the film itself. There are so many moments at which ‘Tully’ could risk coming across as depressingly sombre but Cody’s dialogue and Reitman’s direction keep the proceedings entertaining when they need to be. The moments of comedy that are spread across the struggles of these people only work to endear the audience to them even more, whilst making the movie more impressive as it reaches a wider spectrum of human emotion. But adding comedy brings another risk, wherein a film can easily undercut its own drama with not enough weight. But once again ‘Tully’ treads the tonal tightrope excellently.

Though the story is sparse, being driven more by characters and emotion than outside occurrences ‘Tully’ flies by at a welcome pace. It never overstays its welcome and hardly feels empty either. My only gripe would be that the third act does descend into some contrived melodrama to further the plot. It’s not that these plot points are not justified, but they do clash with the low key tone at which the rest of the movie unfolds, since it suddenly plunges into a faster form of storytelling. But aside from that, ‘Tully’ is consistently effective in the area it most wants to be, emotional resonance.

Emotionally endearing and punctuated with fully realised characters that contain a plethora of nuance, ‘Tully’ sees Jason Reitman delivering his usual brand of comedic drama.

Result: 8/10

The First Purge

"Tonight, we'll see the good and evil in everyone."

I always feel like ‘The Purge’ movies represent a severe waste of potential. In an age where several genre movies have proven themselves as intriguing social allegories ‘The Purge’ continues to boast the most surface level, thinly conceived philosophical underpinnings of any popular movie of late. It’s concept is played too seriously with too little substance to be treated as anything that could be called enjoyable, but at the same time the movies insist upon their own significance so much that they ruin any dramatic impact they could potentially hold. Anyway, here’s another one.

To push the crime rate below one percent for the rest of the year, the New Founding Fathers of America test a sociological theory that vents aggression for one night in one isolated community. But when the violence of oppressors meets the rage of the others, the contagion will explode from the trial-city borders and spread across the nation.

“So, you know when the purge started did people get into it right away or were they more like ‘Wait, what? This is gonna stop crime how exactly?’” – Morty Smith.

If I do possess any level of intrigue over ‘The Purge’ as a franchise, it would be to try and answer that question posed in ‘Rick and Morty’. It’s not that the premise and concept that drives ‘The Purge’ is ludicrous, it’s that the franchises are always caught in this awkward middle ground of wanting to explain their own mythology and treating their central concept as a genuine ideology, whilst also aiming for the lowest common denominator of action cinema. They want to convey the illusion of containing socially relevant themes without putting any actual effort into developing those themes which as it turns out don’t exist in the first place.

There’s also a real sense of cognitive dissonance in how these movies discuss and present violence. On the one hand everything about the narrative and characters seems built to convey the idea that the concept of the purge is fundamentally flawed and need to end. But then at the same time they revel in the bloodshed and violence to a degree that feels like they are indulging the very characteristic they want to preach against. The desire for violence is an eternal paradox that three separate movies, now four, have yet to escape from.

You can find the same confused morals in ‘The First Purge’, with even the basic premise being a confused and pointless foundation. So the film attempts to rationalise this first purge as being an experiment, something that was only introduced in one area and then presumably spread as a nationally accepted concept. So this limits the scope of ‘The First Purge’ to a single island. The contradiction however, comes when you realise that no other ‘Purge’ film has reached beyond a single group of characters or environment. None of these films have explored any wider context for the Purge as a concept so there’s still no point in trying to rationalise it as having a cohesive origin. Once again, either lean into the over the top insanity or make more of an effort to work as a compelling film, don’t fall awkwardly in between.

If it sounds like I’m talking at length about the concepts around ‘The First Purge’ rather than the actual film, that would be due to how the premise itself is still the most interesting thing within this movie by a wide margin. As a movie ‘The First Purge’ is another cheap, slightly exploitative, thinly drawn and hardly cohesive action/thriller. The action itself has little weight or meaning to it, once again creating an approach to action that is at odds with its own narrative. Much like the citizens who inhabit this world I almost found myself numbed to the carnage as it unfolded, with what should be a gripping and exhilarating third act instead being dreary and uninspired.

This movie even follows the pattern of having its protagonist be portrayed by an actor that feels so much better than the film he finds himself in. With ‘The Purge’ we had Ethan Hawke evoking some level of empathy and its two sequels had Frnk Grillo providing a manic intensity that seemed to realise what tone would be best suited to these films. Once again the lead role, in this case Y’lan Noel is surprisingly compelling as a protagonist. The character he portrays is confusingly written both in terms of characteristics and moral motive. But Noel’s portrayal sells each conflicting aspect of the character, and makes it all the more disappointing that the screenplay couldn’t make its mind up regarding what the character should actually be.

In fact I don’t think screenplay knows what it wants to be in general. I’ve already referenced the movie’s moral confusion at length but even on a momentary basis ‘The First Purge’ undermines it’s own established tone at every opportunity. Horrifically violent scenes can be playing out and a character will randomly spout a painfully obvious one liner. Some action sequences are grotesquely intense and others are laughably over the top. There isn’t a single aspect of the movie where the script doesn’t feel at odds with itself.

Shallow, uninteresting and tonally confused, its business as usual for ‘The Purge’ franchise.

Result: 3/10