Morgan

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Though it mostly skirts around more interesting core themes to build its narrative with constituent parts closer in relation to generic thrillers, there are still striking elements in Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016). This is a film that concerns itself with that obsessive contemplated theme of Philip K. Dick’s about what it really means to be human. It begins on a remote compound where a group of scientists have been conducting an elaborate, highly evolved experiment with a new life form. But now an ‘incident’ has occurred in which their biologically engineered star pupil Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lashed out at the woman seen as her ‘mother’ figure, Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

In the wake of this anomalous event, ‘Corporate’ has dispatched a handpicked representative, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to review the group’s processes and make a determination about the future of Morgan. Seemingly chosen for her cool composure and hard-nosed objectivity, Weathers immediately rubs the site’s leaders, including Dr. Simon Zeigler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), the wrong way, with suspicions arising that the project that they’ve devoted so much time and dedication to, may now be in jeopardy.

This is an excellent debut for Scott, son of Ridley, though it seems strange considering his lineage that it’s taken until the age of 48 for him to get his first feature into production. Written by Seth Owen, Morgan develops intrigue before gaining decent momentum, if somewhat artificially generated. The twists that follow evolve from what is perhaps the film’s standout scene in which Morgan is interviewed for pysch-evaluation purposes by a late-arriving analyst, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.

As it develops, Morgan becomes another cautionary tale about how humanity’s obsession with scientific progress, though it can initiate stunning, rapid change and advances for the species, may also bring about its ultimate downfall. Messing with the gene pool is fraught with danger, as is a desire to explore far scientific horizons whilst simultaneously exposing the depths of man’s monumental hubris. Screenwriters have become adept at showing us how horribly pear-shaped these scenarios eventually turn out with Alex Garland’s superb recent effort Ex-Machina (2015) perhaps the finest example to date.

The two female leads are the standouts, with Mara playing the steely Weathers with great conviction and a strong sense of the ambiguity attached to her motivations and ultimate agenda. Taylor-Joy is even more impressive; this fine young actress, who was easily the best thing about Robert Eggers’s otherwise messy, mediocre and overrated The Witch (2015), brings a mesmerising stillness to her performance; it’s a convincing reflection of Morgan’s superabundant, radically advancing intelligence. Yet her reactions are also suffused by a streak of emotional abstraction. She may be engineered out of a test-tube but she possesses a well-honed conception of what constitutes a human’s emotional range. But can she rationalise and express these emotions with authenticity or only imitate them for the purpose of pulling the wool over her creators’ eyes?

Morgan ultimately feels a need to bring tropes – like a car chase and hand-to-hand combat – into play instead of conjecturing, theorising and seeking a generally deeper probing of the central themes though this, of course, may have denied the narrative its pace, energy, visceral gut-punching and commercial prospects. Despite this conscious dumbing down to accommodate broader appeal, Morgan is nevertheless a very solid piece of speculative fiction and a strong debut from a director with a rich cinematic heritage attached to his name.

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.

 

Ouija: Origin of Evil

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A prequel to a profitable but – in these parts – little seen film from two years ago directed by Stiles White, Ouija: Origin of Evil is the work of director and co-writer Mike Flanagan, an up-and-coming genre filmmaker having a prolific year and possibly best known for his minor hit Oculus in 2013. Set in 1967, Origin of Evil proves to be, against all expectations, one of the finest and creepiest horror films of recent times. A struggling single mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) uses her persuasive skills and a few tricks of the trade to earn a living on the side as a spiritualist. She views her job not as a means of ripping off paying customers but providing them with comfort in the knowledge of deceased relatives finding solace in the next life. Her oldest daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) contributes to the special effects but views her mother’s work with increasing cynicism.

The soon after introduction of a Ouija board brings all sorts of wearying associations with it besides the whiff of surely B-grade fright-filled theatrics to come. But that’s far from being the case here as the film has a tone and feel that feels unique even if the narrative promises anything but originality. Neither does it work overtime to bombard us with shock moments that don’t feel earned or warranted until the stakes are truly raised in the predictably heated end showdown. Flanagan’s pacing is superb, as is his handling of the young actors, particularly the cast’s youngest member Lulu Wilson as Doris, the person able to channel forces from the next world with a dexterity and unnerving calm that surprises even her mother, especially in the painful wake of the recent loss of the girls’ father Roger (Michael Weaver).

A couple of scenes cleverly pay homage to genre classics, especially The Exorcist (1973), but despite the obvious influences, there’s something surprisingly fresh about Origin of Evil and it only gets better as intrigue grows and the tension is ramped up by Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard. There’s no over-reliance of CGI effects, whilst some of the creepiest little moments are subtly crafted and often kept at edges of the frame for maximum impact. The acting is credibly grounded, even authentically awkward at times. Screen debutant Wilson is a remarkable screen presence, able to transition from cuteness to creepiness as she becomes a manifestation of the evil summoned through the portal of the Ouija board. Even Henry Thomas, former E.T (1982) child star, gives a fine performance as the local school’s priest and principal, dragged into the drama at his own behest.

This is another work from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, known for generating ridiculous profits from very low-budget genre films in recent years with franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge, and excellent one-off efforts like Unfriended (2014) and M.Night Shyamalan’s only decent film of recent memory, The Visit (2015). Many of these films are clichéd but highly competent examples of modern horror. Ouija: Origin of Evil is now definitely a personal favourite, for me, and a great leap forward in the career of Flanagan whose next film, likely a Stephen King adaptation, is highly anticipated.

The Wailing

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From its scenes of villagers inflicted with a madness compelling them to commit unspeakable crimes to its chilling sequences of a shaman attempting to flush an evil presence from inhabiting the body of a young girl, Hong-jin Na’s long-awaited third film extracts genre thrills from the complex narrative of a humble policeman racked by visions as a series of murders poisons his town. The Wailing, like Na’s previous two films, serial-killer drama The Chaser (2008) and border-crossing thriller The Yellow Sea (2010), has wonderfully executed set-pieces that evolve organically from his long-winded but never less than compelling storytelling.

And like those earlier films, The Wailing (2016) is a bloated beast, clocking in at over two and a half hours. It appears, if you were to read the synopsis, a slowly evolving mystery thriller, but make no bones about it – The Wailing is a full-blooded horror film marked by scenes of demonic possession, blood-soaked savagery and a holy man attempting an elaborate exorcism of sorts.

Jong-Doo (Do-Won Kwak) is the officer whose troubling dreams coincide with a series of inexplicable crimes and the appearance of a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) whose presence is seen as a harbinger of doom. Jong-Doo is hilariously portrayed as a philanderer and a wimp whose first inclination is to whimper and scream like a girl in the face of mortal danger. Simultaneously he represents yet another uncomfortable reinforcement of the idea of general police incompetence in South Korea as first posed by Na in The Chaser.

When Jong-Doo’s daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes inflicted and seemingly possessed, he’s advised to bring in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to consult with and provide direction. The ritualistic rites performed by the shaman are magnificently staged by Na with a riveting, relentless fervour. With the overwhelming sound of overheated gongs and drums beating like a trillion racing hearts, the shaman attempts to flush out the spirits plagued Hyo-jin, though by the end of this thrilling, elongated sequence, little progress seems to have been made.

Na’s deliberately paced screenplay allows for a fascinating and highly credible transformation in Jong-Doo. His earlier docility and emasculating instincts slowly dissolve as the affliction takes a very personal turn. He’s galvanised into action and the changes in him coincide with Na’s ratcheting up of the film’s intensity. Requisite twists and revelations are used cannily whilst a genuinely unsettling, eerie tone of impending doom begins to settle like a pall over proceedings, leading to a classic good versus evil confrontation that doesn’t play out exactly as you might imagine.

The film pulls no punches as the final scenes draw near. The bleakness remains resolute until the very end, and the admirable conviction of Na’s final twists will be troubling to some, but heartily embraced for their lack of compromise by others. With The Wailing, Na has completed a trifecta of distinct, energetically fashioned films; all three might be said to be excessively long – a criticism not without merit, however the level of this fine director’s craft is undeniable and hopefully the wait for his fourth feature will be a much shorter one.

 

Green Room

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An end-of-its-rope, down-on-its-luck metal band, struggling to feed itself, is willing to go almost anywhere to fill an open slot. When a connection lines up what just might be a final gig for this apathetic crew, they’re not even particularly fazed that it’s in a remote location and for an audience of Neo-Nazi skinheads. After initially riling up the locals with their song selection, the band – comprised of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Tiger (Callum Turner), Reece (Joe Cole) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) – make it through their set alive.

Then Sam, returning for a charged-up mobile phone, sees something she shouldn’t in the shape of a corpse with a knife embedded in its head and a witness, Amber (Imogen Poots), close at hand. A flurry of activity follows. In the skirmish, the band locks themselves in the room of the title and attempt to negotiate out of what seems like a very snug cul-de-sac without being slaughtered. Emerging from the night to take charge of proceedings is skinhead leader and owner of the facility, Darcy, played with relish and against type by Patrick Stewart.

Things then slow down for a period, with the band heavily outnumbered and limited escape options available to them. Frantic debate about whether to adopt an advance or retreat philosophy follows, with only the leverage of a gun that fell into their hands in the initial blur of activity at their disposal. Can they find another exit? Will the Nazi’s listen to reason and allow them safe passage away from the club?

There’s little in the way of deep characterisation to be found in Green Room. This represents a deliberate choice for writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s whose intentions are very different here to those in his last film, the utterly riveting Blue Ruin (2013). Yet all the band members register enough so that we don’t completely detach ourselves from any sort of empathetic response when the stakes are raised to extremes by the bloodthirsty locals.

The motivations of the Nazi majority do seem overly complicated; at times they become their own worst enemies in adhering to Darcy’s method of extraction without necessarily taking lives. Consequently, aspects of the narrative feel dragged out, but Saulnier is able to increasingly amplify quiet moments with heart-pounding anticipation as the dingy, shadow-layered confines of the club and surrounding corridors close in like a claustrophobic vice on the survivors.

Many of Green Room’s best moments come in the form of expertly staged visceral outbursts that punctuate the tension derived from what is a limited but cleverly conceived Assault on Precinct 13-like B-grade horror scenario. Saulnier’s craft far exceeds low genre craftsmanship however, working within his means to produce a very fine film of its type. It never devolves into a senseless bloodbath though you may still feel like a cleansing shower at the end of it all. It’s also never clear who’ll survive exactly, if anyone – always a good thing.

Stewart is seemingly having a ball in his embodiment of the emotionless husk that is Darcy, whilst Macon Blair, star of Blue Ruin, provides an understated dignity as the quietly assertive Gabe. In essence, he represents the lone flickering flame of humanity amongst the skinheads. For Saulnier, this is not a creative great leap forward but neither is it a step back; indeed, cult status is possible for this sinister, darkly hued drama that offers no apologies in delivering a series of very neatly placed gut-punches.

Pay the Ghost

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The curious creative devolution of Nicolas Cage continues unabated, it seems, with this supernatural tale of other dimensional forces abducting the young son, Charlie (Jack Fulton), of a literature professor Mike Lawford (Cage) from a street parade on Halloween night. The opening scene, a 45 second piece set in a distant century, is supposed to act as a framing device and clue to uncovering the eventual ‘solution’ – if that’s the right word for a showdown that sees the aggrieved father entering a portal in hopes of retrieving his boy.

A few prosperous years back Cage must have been barely able to suppress his mirth at the thought of actors, well and truly,on the slippery slide to straight-to-video obscurity, signing up for C-grade stuff like this. Now here he is putting his own signature upon the dotted line sometimes 4 or 5 times in a year for films that – let’s be frank – haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of ever making it to the big screen. There are the aberrations, of course – and welcome ones at that, such as Cage’s brilliant Adam West-like contribution as the insanely devoted Big Daddy to Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s magnificent Kick-Ass (2010). Even just a couple of years ago, David Gordon Green gave him a juicy role in Joe (2013) as an intense, compelling loner set on a path to inevitable self-destruction.

The mainstream will clearly never forget Cage, but for the most part, his stocks have fallen alarmingly and combined with a relentless desire to continually get on the merry-go-round, thus spreading himself thinly across a swath of incoming projects, means that a swan dive into future bargain bins will likely uncover an ocean of washed-up cinematic corpses as his career further devolves. But then there’s the fact that Cage will soon be seen in the next films of Oliver Stone and Paul Schrader as well as Larry Charles’s new comedy, Army of One, as “an American civilian” who “sets out on his own to find Osama Bin Laden.” A man who has been living in a bunker for a while without internet access or a copy of Zero Dark Thirty?

It’s fascinating to see how various careers converge in these too-easy-to-castigate productions. To say that the trajectory of director Uli Edel has taken some dramatic upward and downward turns, not unlike Cage, would be an understatement. Christiane F. (1981), his early Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and his recent triumphant return to Germany for The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) have all placed him in a positive light. At the other end of the scale, notorious Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence (1993) and lame family ‘comedy’ Little Vampire (2000) are credits that any director might want to erase from their back catalogue. And yet, like Cage, here he is, roped into Pay the Ghost, which admittedly holds dearest, at its core, the concept of desperate, eternal parental love for a missing child – the kind of familiar theme that strikes a chord in the lives of all. And who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

From that angle too, there’s a certain level of enjoyment to be had from this film which isn’t expressly awful. In fact a relatively eerie tone is established early on and there are a couple of genuine chills achieved as Mike strives, in the wake of his break-up from wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) to trudge through life whilst continuing forlornly to find clues to his son’s disappearance. The Halloween connection is crucial and as, a year later, the date closes in again, Mike enlists the help of an attractive colleague (Veronica Ferres) with a skill for computer research to inch closer to a resolution which he naturally believes will see him somehow reunited with Charlie.

Cage is undoubtedly giving it a fair shake here. He goes with the flow, contorting his face with grief, with anger, with despair, exactly when it’s called for. He’s not terrible, you see. Nor is Callies, an actress whose TV work on Prison Break and The Walking Dead has given her much broader appeal. But it’s just that Cage’s craft – as well as his ability to judiciously choose projects – has mostly abandoned him. We may ridicule them for being unable to reach past heights, but we forgive actors a lot too – especially one whose been in so many great to very good, often iconic, films. Cage’s CV is stacked with many that I’d consider absolute personal favourites.

How to forget Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Andrew Bergman’s Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Red Rock West (1993), his Oscar winner Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Brain De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998), Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). All staggering films in their own ways. And do I dare mention Joel Schumacher’s 8MM (1999) or Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) as weird kinds of guilty pleasures? No, no I don’t. Then there’s that extraordinary action triumvirate of Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), Simon West’s Con-Air (1997) and John Woo’s operatic Face/Off (1997). And do you really think you can live through Drive Angry (2007) and not be scarred for the rest of your life?

And so Cage, more than most, deserves to be cut a little slack. Would I realistically recommend Pay the Ghost? Not to the serious minded, certainly, but there’s no denying that we’ve all plugged, semi-enjoyably, through legions of films of this ilk without actively hating them for existing and even secretly – very secretly – imagining that they weren’t, by a long shot, the worst thing we’ve ever seen. This is just another film, one of hundreds each year laboured and sweated over as if, through the intervention of a benign divinity, they may be end up being a significant contribution to the art form; before finally, depressingly, dissolving like butter on a summer sidewalk, forgotten and abandoned by you and I to a world screaming past, a blur impossible to decipher to a stationary dot on a map. So before we part, let’s take a moment, here and now, while there’s still time, while there’s still a modicum of motivation and a tiny morsel of generosity still nestled in our hearts, to record its near-silent passing. Pay the Ghost is yours to own, revisit or ignore on a shelf forever, on DVD. Right now.

 

It Follows

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With only his second feature, It Follows (2014), writer-director David Robert Mitchell has exhibited an enviable grasp of the qualities needed to elevate genre cinema. When Jay (Maika Monroe) allows her latest date with Hugh (Jake Weary) to progress to the next level, she has no idea how terrifying a turn her life will take. After a post-coital gagging she wakes bound and disoriented in a remote location. Hugh tells her that he’s passed a terrifying curse onto her through sex, one that will see her pursued by a relentless, unstoppable entity that can take the seemingly human form of a stranger or even a loved one. Her only hope of survival is to pass the curse onto somebody else via the same means.

A wonderful, often daring, aspect of Mitchell’s direction is how unafraid he is of using silence or pregnant pauses in the most unlikely moments. His forms of manipulation are used to unsettling affect, turning perception into a terrifying game that leaves you unprepared for some of the best jolts. Then there’s his subtly sly dialogue – smart, funny and yet used with a rare economy that ensures you’ll need to see the film all over again to appreciate the best lines.

Clearly the film’s budget was low – the few effects shots aren’t wholly convincing – but this fact never hampers the overall effectiveness or puts a dent in the sense of dread that continues to grow throughout. A standout sequence, which sees a single take through the lens of a continually revolving camera as Jay and friends enter a school building, is a masterclass in physical distortion and suspense building.

Other than Monroe and Keir Gilchrist as Paul, Jay’s slightly geeky, former childhood flirtation who still harbours an almost embarrassing crush, the acting isn’t first grade. But it’s rock solid across the board and proves no hindrance to Mitchell’s end goal with this, his very assured follow-up to 2010’s The Myth of the American Sleepover. Clearly he understands the grammar of horror and a subtle infectious-disease-as-metaphor undertone offers an additional layer of appreciation.

Another canny aesthetic choice is his decision to beef up the entire production up with a retro vibe in terms of the feel of a decaying Detroit and sound of the film. The electronic score by Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland) means that a very real John Carpenter/Halloween vibe is evoked, though a couple of cues do cut gratingly against the tone of the scenes in which they’re used. This employment of Vreeland however sees the director following in the footsteps of other recent films like Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac (2012) remake, with a score by Robin Coudert, and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July (2014) in which composer Jeff Grace also dug into a suddenly attractive bag of retro musical tricks to pervasive effect.