Jigsaw

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The umpteenth instalment of any franchise will inevitably be bled of anything approximating cinematic invention and for Saw, like its never-say-die brethren such as the Amityville and Paranormal Activity film cycles, the well has mostly run dry. Jigsaw (2017) arrives, then, after a seven-year hiatus in the series initially conceived by those two talented Melbourne film students James Wan and Leigh Whannell, acting again as executive producers. The local flavour is maintained however with Michael and Peter Spierig taking over directorial duties. The brothers have been genre favourites for a while and their body of work has improved with each film. Their low-budget debut Undead (2003) was somewhat of a dud but stylish vampire flick Daybreakers (2009) was a vast improvement, tackling a familiar sub-genre from a fresh angle. Then came their best work to date, sublime time-travel drama Predestination (2014), which featured a thrilling, mind-bending plot and great work from Ethan Hawke and, especially, the astonishing Sarah Snook in dual roles.

Roped into helming Jigsaw before their much anticipated upcoming period ghost flick Winchester (2018) the brothers have made a competent if utterly extraneous sequel that straddles the borderline between B-grade and B-plus. It’s reasonably compelling, no doubt, jumping back and forth as it does between two interlinked narrative strands. In the first – a scenario harking back to the original – a sinister ‘game’ plays out as a hand-picked few wake tethered to chains in a dark room and with steel bucket helmets attached to their heads. It’s not just a routine ‘night after’ for this specious crew as they soon discover. In the first of a series of ghoulish rounds they’re implored to make a sacrificial blood offering to their captor in order to progress. Inevitably their number dwindles as they lose their helmets, limbs and minds.

As these set-pieces in miniature reach breathless points of suspenseful anticipation, we regularly switch to the ongoing investigation of a lead detective, Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) as he and his mostly clueless cohorts in the department and morgue attempt to uncover the true nature of the ’game’, its location and of course its mastermind. Physical and other clues suggest the return of John Kramer (Tobin Bell) but he died years ago, didn’t he? The screenplay is credited to Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg whose CV’s are littered with ignominious examples of genre hackdom from the last decade. It’s a measure of how desensitised we’ve become to sustained cinematic violence by now that something like Jigsaw seems almost tame by today’s standards, severed limbs, acid-drenched faces and cut-in-half human brains notwithstanding.

The performances are suitably frenzied from the victims-to-be, all unpleasant, thinly sketched puppets with skeletons in their closet, and the Spierig brothers’ direction is very decent if undistinguished with their pacing especially tight. The ‘death-trap’ scenes are naturally pitched at a manic level of petrified confusion with the stock-standard detective bumbling acting as a neat counterpoint. If nothing else, Jigsaw entertains on a crass, primal level by adhering to well-worn genre precepts and expectations of its intended target audience: intense close-ups, creepy-doll menace, feverish but moronic verbal exchanges provoked by each character’s fear of death, the ever-present threat of bloody deliverance and an assaultive use of sound, with Charlie Clouser’s ramped up score (which he must be phoning in by now) working overtime to drag our nerve endings over the coals as we progress deeper and deeper into Jigsaw’s lair. There’s nothing especially brilliant about the final twist but Jigsaw fulfils its brief. No complaints there. Now, is it too much to ask for no more?

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Wind River

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Given another shot at the director’s chair after the critical acclaim lavished upon his first two produced screenplays, Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), former actor Taylor Sheridan confirms his success has been no fluke. His second turn behind the camera, after obscure 2011 horror film Vile, shows him to be no slouch in terms of handling the demands of his narrative and actors. Wind River (2017) proves to be another impressive screenplay. Set in the blighted snowy expanses of Wyoming, it is, superficially, a murder mystery but as it unravels the strength of characterisation comes to the fore, especially in the form of lead character Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Wildlife and Fisheries officer and local tracker who knows the dimensions and layout of the surrounding landscape like the back of his hand. Cory is a haunted man however, having being visited by tragedy of the worst sort in the not too distant past. The daughter he shared with estranged Indian partner Wilma (Julia Jones) was taken from him in terrible circumstances.

The discovery of a young Indian girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), on the outskirts of the ‘Wind River’ reservation in the film’s opening sends shockwaves through him though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading external indicators. Cory’s a classic figure of a mythologised West, the impenetrable, strong silent type who observes constantly but speaks only out of necessity. He’s a model of constraint, a man who internalises and compartmentalises his pain and angst to save face and allow him a reluctant reconciliation with the wider world. He is, then, not a naturally compatible partner for the young FBI agent, Jane Bremmer (Elizabeth Olsen), drafted in to oversee the case and make a determination about murder. Together they dig into possible leads, with Jane utilising Cory’s intimate, detailed knowledge of both the environment and the wild assortment of people who call it home at every turn to uncover clues from beneath every overturned rock. What she finds is a world apart from her own big city life, one immersed in a doom-laden fog from which an unpredictable enemy might emerge at any time.

Sheridan’s screenplay includes a couple of fine set-pieces, including an explosive early confrontation with one group of suspects and another suspenseful sequence which involves a trawl through the snow with local enforcement officers and a band of men who they naturally distrust. It’s this latter scene which trips the film into an electrifying and brutal flashback sequence through which all the film’s lingering mysteries are filtered. Despite the mystery taking precedence, Sheridan is able to poignantly and effectively address other issues. On a broader level Wind River provides sobering insights into the poisonous malaise laying over this place like a fresh coating of snow in the form of a senses-dulling inertia and dead-end hard-scrabble lives – mostly Native American – robbed of direction, motivation or even a flicker of comprehension.

It’s this saturating helplessness and the wavering moral boundaries it generates that sit in stark contrast to the intrinsic strength of Cory’s character. Though enigmatic, he’s highly empathetic, a fact which doesn’t discount his flaws. If anything it accentuates his humanity, his integrity, and the depth of his losses, including his daughter and his marriage. But despite everything it’s the innate ability he retains to feel and console the pain of others like his friend, Natalie’s grieving father Martin (the wonderful Gil Birmingham) that we admire.

With Cory, Renner has been given his finest role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) the film that hurtled him into the spotlight and has led, mostly, to high-profile but empty roles in big-budget fare. He’s magnificently understated, bringing an impressive level of stillness and thoughtful consideration to nearly every scene. that might otherwise have seen overblown emotional reactions and chaos as a more appropriate response to the turbulence. Equal credit must be given to Sheridan too, of course, for the exceptional quality of performances he’s extracted from all his cast members, including Olsen as the fish-out-of-water agent who proves she can handle herself despite needing local intelligence to shine an investigative light down some very murky rabbit roles within the reservation.

Though the minimal, eerie textures of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score tips over into questionably eccentric deployment on a couple of occasions, there is little else to fault in Wind River. The resolution may deny us a truly visceral sense of vengeance enacted but, on reflection, it’s perfectly weighted and consistent with all that we know of Cory. And then there’s a final scene between Cory and Martin; this too is memorable and a moving encapsulation of the film’s deeper concerns which are as much about the nature of hope and perseverance as about the eternal grip of grief and despair.

Hacksaw Ridge

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Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.

On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.

We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.

But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.

 

 

 

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.

Inferno

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The general preposterousness of nearly every scene – every twist, escape, rendezvous and revelation of duplicitousness – doesn’t necessarily render Ron Howard’s third flirtation with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestsellers unentertaining. Inferno (2016), taken with a grain of salt, has a wonderfully disorienting opening quarter of an hour. Here, Howard and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino, working from an adaptation by the experienced David Koepp, get to indulge a perhaps latent fascination with surrealist horror as the notion of Dante’s circles of hell, with appropriately grotesque, abstract imagery included, is heavily layered into the narrative.

There are other merits beyond the opening stanza to speak of, however, like a semi-manageable plot pitched along with decent forward momentum. And…………..what else? A barely cognisant – for a while at least, and that could be a good or bad thing – Tom Hanks as the much-travelled, much hunted symbologist Robert Langdon, awaking in hospital only to be saved from a hail of bullets and intellectually seduced by a bland medico, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), with a suspiciously broad grasp of the literary subject matter at hand.

The supporting players are a mixed bag. The always watchable Ben Foster is sadly underutilised as Betrand Zobrist, a billionaire with a God complex and the creator of a virus that threatens human existence. His personal fate is exposed early on but he continues to make fleeting flashback appearances. Of course it’s hard to openly root for such a morally destitute villain, but there’s no denying he’s a slightly magnificent bastard. What’s more, he exhibits ‘marginally’ more charisma than a hellfire-seared roundtable of his co-participants combined, particularly the horribly cast French actor Omar Sy, still somehow getting work after 2010 Gallic mega-hit The Intouchables, and here seen impersonating the impersonation of a dodgy World Health Organisation worker. We mostly view Sy in pursuit of both Zobrist and Langdon though his motivations are as murky as his co-workers, many of whom have slinked off to form another faction being led by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s stock-standard Elizabeth Sinskey.

From an even more culturally diverse pack of players – including Irrfan Khan as head of a security firm and Ana Ularu as a Terminator-like member of the Carabinieri – Langdon is again forced to ponder, during infinitesimally brief moments of reverie, just who is chasing him and why. And more tantalisingly, are the chasers allies or are they foes? Who gets the girl? Did Steve Austin teach you, Robert, to visually scan a very detailed painting like that? And just how much red dye is in that endless body of water or is it all goddamn CGI?

Vacillating between mortal terror, rapid-fire puzzling solving and passports-not-required globe-trotting, Inferno, to damn it with faint praise (something, perhaps, any Ron Howard film deserves), proves to be better than both its predecessors. It’s but an incremental advancement in quality, however, barely noticeable and twice as easily forgettable. If or when a fourth installment comes along, we’ll deny everything of course. Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? Inferno? Nope, never saw ’em. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

The Girl on the Train

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Though it ultimately unravels in a predictable ways, resorting to standard thriller tropes to sustain its narrative, The Girl on the Train remains compelling throughout. Though it oscillates in time and between various strands, the main focus is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a single woman who travels by rail to New York every day for work. It just so happens that her train line passes by her old street where she’s afforded expansive views of her former home and her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) who now lives with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).

Just a couple of doors along, there’s the couple’s babysitter Megan (Haley Bennett) whose seemingly idyllic existence is the rabid focus of Rachel’s daydreams of a return to happier days. Then one day she notices Megan on the balcony of her house in the embrace a man other than her husband Scott (Luke Evans) just before she goes missing.

Rachel, battling alcoholism amongst other internal demons is sucked into a whirlpool of confusion as she attempts to insert herself into the drama. Simultaneously, she can’t be sure of anyone’s reality, especially her own, not with fractured memories rising to the surface to haunt her. But are these memories genuine or just a concoction of her troubled, slowly disintegrating mind? Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and events are presented in such a way as to make them as ambiguous as possible, deepening the mystery of Megan’s vanishing and who exactly has played a role in proceedings.

Certainly, you can pick the film to pieces for its diminishing credibility, fall back on clichéd thriller elements and hackneyed plot deviations, however two things greatly distinguish it. Firstly, there’s Emily Blunt’s simply astonishing performance. We witness her channeling an array of bleak emotional colours in her riveting portrayal of Rachel; the woman’s psychological disarray is captured with genuinely unnerving intensity at times. Tate Taylor’s direction is excellent too; he’s acutely aware this isn’t a dazzlingly original or profound screenplay but he take interesting chances visually, directing the film with an impressive assuredness and invention. Wisely, he makes the most of Blunt’s gifts by very frequently allowing us distressingly close-up coverage of her expressive face and Rachel’s damaged psyche.

Based on Paula Hawkins’s stupendously best-selling novel, The Girl on the Train obviously has a guaranteed built-in audience curious to see if this latest breakout crime thriller has been as successfully adapted for the big screen as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which landed in the hands of director David Fincher in 2014. It has resonant themes placed in palatable contexts, like those dangerous perversions that flourish behind the curtains in middle-class suburbia. And even if none of the other performers can come close to matching Blunt’s formidable range, this is definitely a commute worth undertaking.