Lost River (2014)

2016 #79
Ryan Gosling | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Lost RiverThe directorial debut of uber-hearththrob movie star Ryan Gosling is not what you might expect someone of that particular adulation to produce. It’s not just that it has a dark heart, but that it’s slow, opaque, perverted, and not easily summarisable.

To try nonetheless: Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives in a possibly-near-future rundown Detroit, where his mother (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to repay the loan so they can keep their house. A meeting with the bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) leads to him offering her a job at a mysterious nightclub. Meanwhile, Bones salvages copper for cash, which brings him into the orbit of vicious criminal Bully (Matt Smith). Escaping Bully’s clutches, Bones discovers an old road that leads under a lake. He learns from his neighbour, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), that there’s a town under there, which may hold the key to breaking the curse hanging over their town…

If it’s not obvious, there’s definitely some magical realism going on in Lost River. Adult fairytale would be another term for it; there are slices of some form of Gothic, too. To put it another way, it’s definitely Lynchian. Other directors may have been an influence on Gosling as well, but it specifically brought Blue Velvet to mind for me, without in any palpable way being a clone of that movie. Nonetheless, it also engages with some very real present-day issues, like the recession, albeit in an elliptical fashion (despite the plot being about someone under threat of losing their house). Perhaps this is just a convenient way to touch of themes of family, home, and what home means (i.e. more than just a house), as well as the importance or otherwise of escaping that home, or somehow reconstituting it.

Lake lightsIt comes to a very cathartic ending, on multiple levels. I almost didn’t realise I needed that catharsis at the end — I knew I wanted certain characters to get their comeuppance, but the load that seems to lift at the end, with all the different climaxes combined, including parts that might not seem ‘good’… well, it’s almost like Rat is right about Bones’ actions lifting a bad spell.

On a technical level the film is superb, combining fantastic cinematography with evocative costumes, expressive sets, and an effective score. Some of the imagery is the visual equivalent of ambient mood music, as is some of the score (er, literally). That occasionally comes across as self-consciously Arty, therefore, but in the right mood or mindset it works. There are several strong performances as well: Christina Hendricks does understated desperation; Matt Smith is a credible schoolyard bully writ large; Ben Mendelsohn exudes menace as a nightclub-owner-cum-devil-incarnate; and Saoirse Ronan is marvellous in everything.

By giving it a 4, I’m maybe being a tad generous; certainly it’s poor consumer advice, because this is a “not for everyone” film. But if I gave it a 3, I’d be underselling how much I eventually liked it. It’s certainly flawed — slow, slight, maybe pretentious, and Arty. But it also takes us to an intriguing world, toys with some interesting ideas, conveys a few memorable moments, and stuns with consistently arresting visuals. I’ll take that mix over “blandly fine” any day.

4 out of 5

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Terminator Genisys (2015)

2015 #185
Alan Taylor | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Terminator GenisysI liked Terminator Salvation. There, I said it. (I also said it in my review, so, y’know, not news.) Not many other people agreed, however, meaning plans for a new wave of Terminator films in its wake were abandoned. Fast-forward a few years, past a load of complex and dull rights wranglings, and we reach this: one of the biggest critical flops of 2015. It also flopped with audiences in the US, taking under $90 million, but fared better internationally, to the tune of $350 million — making it the franchise’s second highest grossing film, in fact. Nonetheless, perception has hewed closer to the critics’ take. Is that vitriol deserved?

The story begins in the future war against the machines, where an army of humans led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) storm a Skynet facility and find a time machine that has recently sent a Terminator back to 1984 to assassinate Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), before she’s given birth to John. Reese volunteers to go back and save her. Now, this is where the film leans on being the series’ fifth — we’re expecting him to land in the first film. And at first he does… until a T-1000 (the one that turns into metal from T2) turns up, and Sarah rocks up to save Reese — accompanied by an aged T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who arrived decades ago and has been protecting and training Sarah ever since.

At this point, some people will already be predisposed to hate the film. Why mess with a classic, etc. I can see where they’re coming from; at the same time, it’s an interesting idea. Time travel is a key part of the Terminator series, and John grows up with the knowledge that one day he will send Reese back to 1984 to save his mother — but what if Skynet knew that too? That would change what both John and the computer did, surely? What are the ramifications of that? (And even if you’re not interested, the original Terminator is still there — they’re not re-editing it or removing it from circulation or something — so if you don’t want it affected, that’s fine.)

Come with me if you want to meet some dragonsNow, a good idea doesn’t guarantee a good execution, and here is where we begin to encounter Genisys’ problems. Time travel is a tricksy thing to engage with in fiction, and is highly prone to creating plot holes — something blockbusters regularly struggle with anyway. Genisys has at least one glaring one. Then there’s the general level of quality — the screenplay, acting, effects, and so on. In this regard, I suspect the reason so many people reacted so badly to it is that it follows, and riffs off of, two of the greatest sci-fi/action movies ever made. In and of itself, Genisys is no worse than any of the other half-dozen-or-so middle-of-the-road $150-million-plus-budgeted blockbusters we’re routinely served every year now. If you instead compare it to its iconic forebears, however, it comes up much shorter.

I think one of the major problems is the direction. Marvel hired Alan Taylor for Thor 2 because of the perception that he knew how to handle fantasy thanks to Game of Thrones. That and because, as a TV director, he would’ve been cheap, and Marvel like their directors cheap (and consequently controllable). Clearly the success of Thor 2, such as it was, was parlayed into this big directing gig. I’m just not sure Taylor has the chops for it. The fight scenes are muddled, riddled with close-ups and too many cuts. Not a unique problem these days, of course, but after, what, a decade of that style being criticised, you’d think they’d’ve finally wised up. Nowadays it looks cheap. Most of the direction looks cheap. This is an expensive movie, with lots of practical stunt work, but it never looks it; and those stunts were mostly done on green screens or with the aid of wires here and there, so they’ve ended up CGI’d too. And the CGI looks surprisingly cheap. The Terminator films used to be right at the cutting edge of effects; now it’s just any old blockbuster.

Ex-TerminatorAnd yet the man who was responsible for those remarkable pictures, James Cameron, was impressed by it. He’s interviewed among the film’s special features, where he explains, “can I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it? No. I just know that I enjoyed the film, you know. But I strongly suspect that… you’re gonna love this movie.” Well, he was way wrong there! You almost feel a bit sorry for everyone in those special features, actually. They’re all so confident that Genisys is a great, well-made movie that everyone’s going to love, and they have big plans for a trilogy which they keep talking up. I would love to see their reactions after the reviews and box office figures came in…

So, Terminator Genisys is not a good movie… but I don’t really think it’s a bad one, either. It just sort of is. The action palaver is passable, the plot at times interesting, the developments and twists on the series’ history… well, your mileage will vary. It didn’t help anyone that they were in the trailer, but I’m not sure people would’ve reacted any better if it hadn’t been spoiled. Still, it shouldn’t’ve been spoiled. Stupid marketing people.

Could Terminator Genisys be a lot better? Definitely. Could it be worse? Definitely. I didn’t mind it.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.