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Old | Dumb Fun in the Sun

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M Night Shyamalan’s creative career was cursed from the moment he was hailed ‘the next Spielberg’. Such a title was only going to be met with disappointment. His early films, The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) were a trio of enticing, original supernatural thrillers that offered enough intrigue to match such a lofty title. Since then, the ride’s been a little rockier. In the late 2000s, a string of weaker offerings left a lot to be desired. Notably, Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) were horrific for all the wrong reasons – and the less said about his ‘airbending’ effort the better.

Yet, a recent renaissance in his ability to tell original stories has sparked fresh excitement. And, next to maintain the thrills is Old. Although lacking the spine tingling bite of his earliest attempts it’s another example of why we should welcome his contribution to modern cinema.

Part horror, part thriller, part goofy comedy – the film depicts a rough day on a secluded beach for a group of characters who begin to age rapidly as the day progresses. Oh, and it goes without saying – they can’t escape. Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, it is an adaptation in the sense that director and writer Shyamalan found a concept and went in his own twisted direction with it.

For all parents with young children a day on the beach can often be plagued by horror and heat, as screaming children, sticky sand and warm drinks provide more stress than serenity. After watching Old, I’m sure parents will be dreaming of crowded shores, as a family’s idyllic stop in paradise descends into disaster.

Anchoring the story is a family of four, the warring parents played by Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps). Both Bernal and Krieps have already carved a magnificent dramatic career and their acting chops offer the majority of the emotion and dramatic pull that the screenplay sorely lacks. A selection of actors take the role of their rapidly ageing children, Trent and Maddox. Perhaps the standout sequences are carried by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie – who harness their rapid growth and sudden hormones of teenagerhood with confidence and believability.

‘Ah, relaxing time in the shade’, Thomasin McKenzie (Left) Alex Wolff (Right), still courtesy of IMDB

With much to owe to the zany execution of the The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), much of the unique concept is delightful to watch on screen. A strong sequence in the middle of the film see’s the ageing effects of the beach in full effect, and this was a genuine treat. It felt like an early morning pitch meeting fuelled by caffeine, in which all plot possibilities were stuck to the storyboard and from that day, never left.

The physical and mental breakdown of the characters is exceptionally entertaining. Suspiria style, limb bending gore and Cronenbergian body horror take full advantage of the physical possibilities of this rocky trip to the shores. There is very little coherence, but this is where the film is at the height of it’s powers, as the often whiplash inducing shakey-cam captures the thrilling chaos and the silly set-pieces in equal measure. Darkly comedic and outrageously stupid, at times the concept clicked into place and captured the magic that Shyamalan is capable of.

It is this push for conceptual creativity that holds the film back just as much as it propels it, as plot direction takes precedence over depth and substance. Patchy doesn’t quite cover the expositional superficiality of the script. In an opening scene which mentioned ‘living in the moment’ and ‘enjoying youth’ a lot more than necessary – I could actually hear Mr Shyamalan screaming through the screen “have you got it yet? They are about to get Old!”

Particularly in the film’s final 15 minutes, where the screenplay crashes back to land with a bump – a studio driven, expositional ending of nightmares, which is probably the most horrific part of the whole thing. Old would’ve benefited endlessly if it tapped into the psyche of the experience – as the obsessive fixation on concept and plot see’s the weak dialogue get washed away in the sand.

 

Where the screenplay truly shines is on the surface. Go deeper into the waters of the writing and you’ll find there’s very little but coral and sand. Pushing the concept as far as the runtime will allow – it seems that Shyamalan is beginning to make his name as the fast-food Christopher Nolan. He takes the idea, extracts all the silliness and story he can find, ditching the style and substance in the process.

It simply succeeds as mindless fun. With more plot holes than grains of sand on the beach and moments that tiptoe into pastiche – we are welcomed into a world that is as paradoxical as it is parody. But, for the most part it stays on the right side of the shore, as many moments on the heat-soaked beach truly shine.

Forget McConaissance, it’s time for the Shyamasurgence – a true rejuvenation of original, silly big-screen entertainment. Perhaps the most typically Shyamalan film of all – the good, the bad and the cameo.

As Shyamalan as it gets – for better and for worse. Whose up for some dumb fun in the sun?

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Film Festivals

Cha Cha Real Smooth | Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review

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After his first feature film Shithouse won the Grand Jury Prize for Best narrative Feature at SXSW in 2020, writer/director/actor Cooper Raiff is back with his second film, Cha Cha Real Smooth, and it’s sure to be the crowd-pleasing film of Sundance 2022.

After having recently graduated from college, 22-year-old Andrew (played by writer/director Cooper Raiff) is stuck back at home living with his family in New Jersey unsure of his career path going forward. After taking his younger brother David to a bar mitzvah, Andrew discovers one thing that he is very good at- partying. This makes him the perfect candidate for a job starting parties at all the local bar and bat mitzvahs.

It’s at one of these bar mitzvahs that Andrew meets single mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (played by Vanessa Burghardt, an autistic actor) and he finally discovers a future that he wants after striking up a strong bond with both Domino and Lola.

Much like with his first film Shithouse, Raiff fills Cha Cha Real Smooth completely full to the brim with emotion and with characters that feel so real and honest. Raiff proves himself as an absolute gem both behind the camera and in front of it as it’s a film that has so much heart to it. The cast are all fantastic which only fuels these characters and makes them stand out even more so that they really feel like real people.

Once again Raiff has created such complex characters with so much beneath the surface to the extent that if anyone of these characters were the protagonist it would still be an interesting film. If the film focused on Andrew’s brother, or his mum, or Domino or Lola instead of making Andrew the protagonist it would still be just as interesting a film. And so to have Andrew as well as all of these other characters makes for a really compelling film.

As the title of the film hints at, we do get to experience the Cha Cha Slide at one of the bar mitzvahs in the film and it’s a wild one. But as well as being very funny, Cha Cha Real Smooth is incredibly emotional. There’s a conversation around the midpoint of the film about depression and about what it feels like and the writing hits so hard, along with Raiff and Johnson’s fantastic delivery that you can’t help but start welling up.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is charming in every single aspect and it’s the best film of Sundance 2022 so far. Raiff is certainly one to watch going forward.

Cha Cha Real Smooth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundown Review | Staring At The Sun

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Tim Roth is one of those actors that is impossible to take your eyes off of when he graces the screen. Even in a very gentle role like his in Bergman Island, there is something so fascinating about the British actor that is captivating. Above all else, Roth has always shown a complete understanding of the assignment; see The Incredible Hulk or The Hateful Eight. Sundown is one of the most subtle roles Roth has played, his character is so detached from the world around him. Unfortunately for him, Roth is the most memorable thing about Sundown. As nice as an 82-minute sprint is like Sundown, it feels like half of a movie and is missing a good portion of backstory that would have made the film resonate more. Even after two viewings, the first coming at the Philadelphia Film Festival in October, some elements are still unclear, which just makes Sundown a frustrating watch. 

Sundown is about a man, Neil (Tim Roth), who takes sojourning too far when he attempts to break away from his family during a vacation that is cut short due to a loss in the family. When Neil’s sister, Alice (Charolette Gainsbourg), and her two kids, Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) all arrive at the airport, Neil claims to have left his passport at the resort. As Neil stands alone in the airport, with an unsure look on his face, he decides to head back to a hotel and just sojourn there for an indefinite period, drinking bottomless beers on the shore and meeting a woman, Bernice (Iazua Larios).

Photo: Bleecker Street

The Sundown train truly starts and stops with Roth, who is simply unable to disappoint at this stage of his career. Neil lies through his teeth while countering every one of Alice’s solutions for his “lost passport.” If (for some crazy reason) you need to be sold on Roth, the scene where he talks to the family lawyer, Richard (Henry Goodman), in prison towards the end of the film, should do it. Roth acts completely with his eyes in this scene, a sad, depressed and altogether lost look in his eye that can’t help but make you pity him. 

Upon first seeing Sundown last October, it didn’t feel like much of the film made sense. When the credits rolled and people began exiting the auditorium, people pondered what the pig metaphor was supposed to represent. Another confusing aspect of Sundown is the usage of the sun and its meaning. Director Michel Franco has talked a little bit about the metaphor of the sun, which is shown frequently during transitional shots. When the sun is shown as many times as it is, it is clear that it has some meaning, but it just fell flat.

Simply put, Sundown feels like half, or maybe two-thirds of a story, with its small-scale simultaneously being its best friend and enemy. Why does Neil even decide to stay back in Mexico? The opening ten minutes of Sundown show Neil seemingly disconnected from his family, constantly sitting out of board games and keeping to himself while staring off into the distance during family dinners. But why? This question is never confronted, though Richard does bring up a “condition” that Neil has, which is later revealed to be a form of cancer. When Alice returns to confront Neil, we learn a little bit more about the sister-brother relationship that likely plays some part in Neil’s actions. The duo owns and runs a successful business that Neil seems to be willing to give Alice full ownership of after their confrontation. Another 10-15 minutes that explained not only explained the relationship of Neil and Alice, but the relationship between them and their parents as well could have gone a long way in making Sundown make any sort of sense. If we learned that Neil had a troubled past with his mother, it’d make a lot more sense why he decides to stay back and avoid her funeral. Or maybe Neil and Alice have a hot-and-cold relationship. But as it stands, none of this is ever tackled, leaving most of Sundown (frustratingly) up for interpretation.

To its credit, Sundown is only 82 minutes, and the second viewing flew by even faster as each part of the progression of Neil’s arc is far shorter than the first go-around. Sundown is a very stoic film more than it’s not; occasionally going from zero to 100 within seconds such as when a quiet day on the beach is suddenly interrupted by gunshots or when someone is suddenly hit over the head with a bottle.

The beauty of Sundown is aforementioned small scale. It takes place almost exclusively in Acapulco whether it’s the streets, beaches, or prisons. Sundown does a great job of giving viewers an intimate tour of Acapulco, and the story is so self-contained.

Sundown won’t get the same level of praise as other films in Roth’s filmography. It’s a beautifully-shot film ranging from its oceanic scenery and dark rooms illuminated with neon signs. Roth is incapable of giving a bad performance, but the gaps missing from the story feel as big as the ones in The Tender Bar and the symbolism of the car. In both cases, those gaps weigh down the film from being something special, and despite the beauty of a film with such a small scale, this is an example of a film that needed more time to fully set up the characters and their arcs for it to make sense.  

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Living | Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review

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Remakes seem like such a frequent occurrence these days that there’s often very little reason to make them beyond people liking the original so the filmmakers hope the remake will be just as successful. And with Living being a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru it was always going to have big shoes to fill. Whilst Living never fully justifies its own existence, nor does it get anywhere close to the heights of Kurosawa’s classic, it’s still a powerful watch nonetheless.

Living switches up the setting and takes place in 1950s post-World War II Britain where we meet Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) a veteran civil servant and bureaucrat working in a government office. Much like in the original film, upon discovering he has a terminal illness his outlook on life completely changes and he looks for the meaning of life. He realizes that he’s spent his whole life passively going about his day and he hasn’t truly lived. And it’s only now that his days are numbered that he wants to experience life to the fullest.

He keeps the news of his condition from his son and daughter in law and uncharacteristically starts avoiding the office in search of meaning in his remaining days. He’s determined to get a children’s playground built that the local mothers have been campaigning for despite the fact that him and his colleagues have failed to do so yet.

Oliver Hermanus directs this reimagining with poignancy and to some level he captures the essence of Kurosawa’s film. The film’s London setting works well for the story and 1950s London is lovingly recreated with such great detail and the film displays an incredible look to it that right from the opening really makes you feel like you’re there in post-war Britain. Nighy excels as Mr. Williams with a graceful performance that in tandem with the film’s charming score and elegant writing makes for a stunning film about what it means to live.

However Living never fully hits anywhere nearly as hard as Ikiru does. After finishing Ikiru the film leaves you completely floored and contemplating your entire existence as a human being on planet Earth. After watching Living you don’t come out with that same feeling. Granted, it is a very difficult feeling to capture and to reproduce and Living does get some part of the way there, it’s representation of life’s purpose never quite feels as strong as it does in Kurosawa’s film. And as a result, Living’s own purpose as a film is never fully expressed. It’s an excellent film that does really touch you at times, it’s just a very pale shadow of Ikiru.

Living is one of those films that on its own merits is a very good film, anchored by a remarkably moving performance from Nighy, it’s just that Ikiru in all its glory looms over the film and it just can’t escape that and it never reaches anywhere close to the greatness of Kurosawa. It was always going to be a difficult task and Living does take a pretty good stab at it, but it still didn’t really need to be made.

Living premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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