Skip to main content

After all these years I was willing to let bygones be bygones.

The Gift
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Joel Edgerton’s feature debut as writer-director (he has several prior screenplay/ story credits, including The Rover) showcases the also-starring actor’s deft touch with the thriller genre and evident facility with his cast, eliciting an outstanding, against-type turn from Jason Bateman. One does wonder, however, if he’s a better ideas man than deliverer of a finished screenplay, as this might have been improved with a few more drafts.


Certainly, Edgerton has studied the suspense masters, or at very least late ‘80s/ early ‘90s domestic psycho thrillers (Fatal Attraction, Sleeping with the Enemy, Single White Female, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle etc.) for his approach to shock tactics, and possibly also the much venerated and recently remade Korean picture Oldboy for cues on how to unspool a revenge tale based on childhood traumas.


Bateman’s Simon returns from Chicago with wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) to begin a new job, and almost straight away bumps into school associate Gordo (Edgerton). Gordo’s a strange fish, hence his “Gordo the Weirdo” class nickname, and he begins inveigling himself in their lives, turning up unannounced, buying them fish and generally making Simon ill-at-ease and Robyn unsettled, the latter mostly over Simon’s responses to his old chum.


So far so psycho, and the best card in Edgerton’s pack is teasing out the unfettered weirdo angle until the halfway mark, before a reveal brings Robyn’s world crashing down about her ears; much loved Simon wasn’t just the “Simon says” class president, he was a resounding bully, responsible for a lie that destroyed Gordo’s life. Confronted, Simon merely confirms what we already know (because it’s been fairly obvious in the way he talks to others, belittles Gordo and generally presents himself) but Robyn has somehow been blithely unaware of; “The world’s full of winners and losers” he explains, and Gordo has only himself to blame for miring himself in a moment of ancient history.


The problem is, while Edgerton offers the mechanics of suspense in a diligent fashion, he can’t help telegraphing or over-stating story and character beats, ones that would have been more impressive if more subdued.  Simon is evidently a sociopath, crying crocodile tears to Robyn on his return from beating on Gordo, but that scene itself is a little too on the nose, presenting the bully as back in the playground. So too, the absurd convenience of Simon, at the same time Gordo is enacting his revenge strategy, indulging a ruse at work in order to get a contract/job, is too much sauce; we don’t need it, and Edgerton likely included it mainly to provide a grounding and justification for Gordo’s behaviour in the present; Simon still does this kind of thing, so he deserves it.


Because there’s no doubting Gordo is off his trolley (a deleted scene on the Blu-ray release provides some insight into the architecture of his strategy), a guy who spies, kidnaps dogs, breaks into clients’ houses, kills fish, drugs Robyn and leaves video suggesting he may have raped and impregnated her, just to deliver a very schematic lesson in how east it is “to poison other people’s minds with ideas” (that coda deleted scene suggests he didn’t, but drawing the line doesn’t make him some kind of good guy). A function of Edgerton’s over-deliberate narrative is that Gordo’s every conceit is telegraphed; we don’t need the coda because we already got the message that he left the client’s residence promptly after Simon and Robyn arrived as guests in order to eavesdrop on them, and that Robyn faints because she’s been drugged.


One of the problems here is that by dint of the structure, Robyn is necessarily made to look an idiot, caught between two men, both of whom are entirely unwholesome, and sympathising with both at various points. There’s also a sense that Gordo’s more bunny-boilerish behaviour pushes the picture too far into the OTT Hollywood thriller realm, where anything goes, when it has been playing with some potent and and resonant themes.


To that extent, where the picture works best is with Bateman’s Simon, even if his unravelling reaches a too-convenient rock bottom thanks to the dovetailing of two separate conspiring elements. Edgerton is solid as Gordo, but nothing more, while Hall gives it her all in a rather thankless part. Even given its excesses, though, I preferred The Gift to Oldboy; sacrilege as it may be to speak adversely of that picture, I was left nonplussed by its wearing of absurd narrative twists as a badge of pride. If Edgerton decides to take up directing full time, though, he’s probably got a solid career ahead of him.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
(SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell, as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick.

Evil Bill: First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted: Then we take over their lives.
My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reeves in the summer of ’91 (inflatio…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…