Friday, 30 December 2016

My 16 best films of 2016

16. 10 Cloverfield Lane

A sort-of sequel to 2008's Cloverfield, this Dan Trachtenberg-directed potboiler came as something of a surprise when its true title was suddenly announced in February. Sharing DNA, rather than clear narrative continuity, with its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane makes much of its deliberately obscure plot and restrictive location, the story of a young woman held captive by John Goodman's hearty survivalist switching direction with maximum impact.  

In spite of his small cast, Trachtenberg manages to craft a film that comes off as less claustrophobic than first signs suggest. Its mix of genre hallmarks purrs as Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr riff on the palpable paranoia that lurks menacingly at the edges. With a finale that belongs somewhere else, yet satisfies nonetheless, this finds its identity in unexpected places.

15. Anthropoid

This depiction of the events surrounding the assassination of SS bigwig Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during the height of World War Two initially registers as a routine period actioner, but there is, in fact, much more beneath the surface. Driven on by an atmosphere of foreboding that sees its leads (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) never more than a single misstep away from their own destruction, Anthropoid is occasionally beautiful, slickly drawn and tightly executed.

The brilliant concluding stanza, a firefight that tears through the sanctified confines of a grand cathedral, sees both actors come into their own. Themes of courage and mortality are weighty, no doubt, yet director Sean Ellis handles these deftly, imbuing the finale with an emotional heft that feels truly profound.

14. Everybody Wants Some!!

Sprouting from the same ground as his woozy calling card, Dazed and ConfusedEverybody Wants Some!! is Richard Linklater's return to the campus genre, a spiritual sequel to the former work and his more recent masterpiece, Boyhood. As Dazed and Confused played out over the final day of high school, so does Everybody Wants Some!! capture the halcyon days of the last weekend before college begins.

Set in a fictional Texan university, testosterone-filled members of a college baseball team traverse the student ecosystem, each as brash, insecure and arrogant as the next. Crucially, though, none is particularly unlikable and to witness their ambling progress is nothing short of a joy. That Linklater manages to stage something so incredibly watchable, in spite of an almost non-existent plot, is a testament to our unchecked fondness for cool music, period nostalgia and the sweetness of summer. 

13. Eye in the Sky

The ambivalent complexities of the War on Terror abound in this taut drama directed by South African helmer Gavin Hood and boasting Helen Mirren on mesmerising, iron-willed form. Its plot spans the globe, but the details are etched in vivid human colours, torturous decisions of life and death punctuating a hodgepodge of action tropes, political scheming, human conflict and even sly comedy. Eye in the Sky should be a mess. It is quite the opposite.

Given the provocative subject matter, Hood could be suspected of seeking to editorialise on the efficacy of the West's crusade against militant Islam. He never goes quite that far, however, weaving instead a morality play that observes rather than comments. Along with Mirren, the late, great Alan Rickman gives his final onscreen performance. His cerebral and upstanding army officer attempts to hold it all together as bureaucrats and politicians squirm under the weight of their terrible responsibilities. 

12. The Jungle Book

Somewhat different from the mature update presented by its pre-release materials (Scarlett Johansson's sinister, molten-toned Kaa barely features), Jon Favreau's take on the Disney opus is, nevertheless, an assured spin on a classic, every inch the spectacular it intends to be. Given the turgid state of 2016's tent-pole blockbusters, it seems pleasantly fitting that the House of Mouse, faithful and reliable as it is, should exceed in reviving something so familiar to so many.

The film's strengths are undeniable. Cutting-edge and photorealistic CGI combines with a stellar cast, generating a vision both joyful to behold and worthy of digestion. From Neel Sethi's uninhibited offering as "man cub" Mowgli to Idris Elba charging Shere Khan with a level of cunning and darkness not obviously aimed at pre-teens, this peddles undistilled wonder like few others.

11. Kubo and the Two Strings

The outstanding animation of 2016 came not from Disney or Dreamworks, but from stop-motion house Laika, the brains behind Boxtrolls and Coraline. Tackling ancient Japanese folklore, director Travis Knight infuses this wondrous adventure with a sense of scale and profound emotional resonance. Few stories of childhood abandonment will have been pulled off with such elan. 

Putting a talented voice cast (Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes and Game of Thrones alum Art Parkinson) to work, Kubo and the Two Strings builds itself around cutting-edge stop motion that few can rival. A sophisticated plot elevates this above childish diversion, flowing freely and confidently towards a graceful conclusion.

10. Green Room

The sudden death of Anton Yelchin threw a tragic focus upon summer blockbuster Star Trek Beyond, but it would be another project that played out as a fitting tribute to his gifts. While Green Room's unusual premise undermined its mass appeal, this bleak effort turned out to be one of the year's nastiest surprises.

Catapulting Yelchin's punk bassist and his youthful bandmates into the middle of a murderous Nazi drinking den in rural Oregon, director Jeremy Saulnier ratchets up the tension with a potent brew of killer dogs, Trump voters and Patrick Stewart as the establishment's bespectacled owner, Darcy. A film that veers off in grisly and unwanted directions, Yelchin's unexpectedly heroic performance is especially impressive. 

9. Disorder

Moving past his noble turn as Gabriel Oak in last year's Far From the Madding Crowd, Matthias Schoenaerts returns to the kind of shifty blue-collar hero that made him so watchable in Bullhead and Rust and Bone. Here he is Vincent, a traumatised soldier hired to guard the wife (Diane Kruger) of a wealthy businessman in the French Riviera. Unsurprisingly, things do not go to plan and with the vague, if very real, threat of violence hanging over them, Vincent must act.

Schoenaerts is, as ever, magnetic – that haunted visage, obscuring a core of decency, has never been more pronounced. Director Alice Winocour locates fearful intensity within the lonely luxury of the seaside location, exposing her leading man's already frayed nerves and fragile temperament to the rigours of this sumptuous, slow-burning thriller. Fascinating.

8. Creed

Just when the Rocky franchise looked dead – 2006's enjoyable, though entirely needless, Rocky Balboa could easily have served as a pleasant final round – brilliant young filmmaker Ryan Coogler arrived to come at the series from a new angle and reinvigorate a tale that had become the very essence of fond cliché. Taking on the legend may seem quite a step up from Coogler's scorching debut, Fruitvale Station, but he and that film's star, Michael B. Jordan, miss not a step in the transition from racial polemic to mainstream hit. 

Aided, of course, by Sylvester Stallone as Balboa, Coogler and Jordan soar, the latter perfectly inhabiting the character of Adonis Johnson, aspiring pugilist and illegitimate son of Rocky's late friend, Apollo Creed. Creed eschews melodrama, opting instead for a picture of genuine style and poignantly observed humanity. Taken together with Stallone's often heartbreaking portrayal, there can be no doubt that this represents something new and very special. 

7. Room

Brie Larson rightly grabbed the plaudits and the awards but the spirit of Lenny Abrahamson's delicate movie is Jacob Tremblay as the innocent at the core of this thoughtful look at life beyond a nightmare. Portraying Jack, the offspring of his captive mother and her rapist, Old Nick (the owner of Room, the four walls constituting their whole world), the precocious Tremblay conveys joy, fear, confusion and a child's determination for knowledge. His achievements are every bit the equal of Larson's.

Based on Emma Donoghue's novel of the same name, Room's effectiveness comes not just from having its central players endure and rise above their experiences, but in peeking at how life and one's future is moulded by the most terrible of circumstances. In spite of the tightness of its setting, this is film with mighty things to say.

6. The Witch

Blair Witch was the hag-centric horror movie that grabbed headlines in 2016 but for those who saw the feature debut of rising talent Robert Eggers, there can be no comparison between his film and the frenetic scares of its more famous contemporary. Never completely terrifying, The Witch instead aims at something much more subtle, a communion of stressed, angular drama and unremitting dread.

In concert, these things are equally unnerving and unsettling, the evil straining the boundaries of the Puritan homestead (overseen by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) forming a silent, watchful character in its own right. Eggers does not eschew every horror conceit and a late encounter with Satan himself borders on hypnotic, yet it is his conjuring of mood that cannot be ignored. Chilling and shot through with darkness, The Witch animates our deepest fears.

5. Spotlight 

Let not the Oscar-winning worthiness of Tom McCarthy's film blind you to its deep-seated excellence. As a chronicle of systemic institutional corruption, there can be few to challenge it, but Spotlight mines a good deal more from its source material, namely the investigation into the cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese, carried out by The Boston Globe's eponymous unit. 

Gripping, beautifully spun, wielding grace and restraint, this puts its sizzling lineup to work as serious people battling determined foes. Springing from the same well of journalists-as-crusaders that made the likes of All the Presidents Men so 

electrifying, Spotlight's triumph is to locate its heroism in truth and integrity as they appear in the real world, rather than any cloying Holywood interpretation of those qualities. 

4. Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer Tom Ford's sophomore feature appears, at first, cold and watchful, but dig down deeper and the truth of the matter is entirely different. Adapting the 1993 novel Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, Ford sports an unsurprising visual flair, one every bit as elegant and arresting as his sartorial leanings. Traversing styles and storytelling devices, Nocturnal Animals is a moody and searing psychological concoction unbound by convention. 

In Amy Adams, Ford possesses a trump card, her impressive range and place as an unwitting antagonist helping to paint every frame in murky uncertainty. The director deploys his stellar cast with aplomb, but it is the multiplicity of form – unfolding flashbacks rest effortlessly alongside a realer-than-real tale within a tale – that fuels this intoxicating, astonishing fable.

3. Hell or High Water

This magnificent heist thriller enjoyed a low-key theatrical run that belied its startling brilliance. Directed by Scottish auteur David Mackenzie and penned by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is that rarest of beasts: a spectacle that connects on many levels. With a plot that feels real, dangerous and genuinely original, it is far from the meandering arias that otherwise define the western brand. 

Jeff Bridges dominates as the grizzled Texas Ranger pursuing one last job before retirement, his homely turn of phrase never quite hiding the gimlet-eyed resolve beneath the stetson. If anything, however, the bank-robbing siblings (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who form his quarry bring a deeper, almost elegiac element to Mackenzie's film. Blasted by debt and by dust, the plains of West Texas are the arena in which they stage a reprisal against the forces that have ensnared generations of their kin, sparking chaos and justice in equal measures. 

2. Arrival

A quieter, more contemplative sci-fi epic than Christopher Nolan's towering and transcendent Interstellar, the latest picture from Dennis Villeneuve approaches its fantastical subject matter in a similarly sober manner. If Nolan sought to meditate on the nature of our species's survival, then Villeneuve has something more transformative in mind. Grand, gracious and poetic, his is a film replete with a yearning to understand.

Anchored, crucially, by Amy Adams in the metronomic central role (her arc, and not that of the mysterious visitors, dictates the narrative thrust), Arrival locates its heart firmly in mankind's potential, rather than its base instinct to exist. The fundamental tension between embracing joy and fearing unimaginable pain might seem out of place, yet as all concerned struggle to divine the outsiders' intentions, they ultimately know us better than we do ourselves.

1. The Revenant

However the Oscar race finally worked out, there should be no doubt about the identity of 2016’s finest film. The Revenant, a survival saga brought to the screen by Alejandro González Iñárritu, may have been harsh in style and apparently torrid in its behind-the-scenes travails, but the results would prove to be undeniable. An adaptation of Michael Punke’s based-on-real-life historical novel about legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), Iñárritu’s creation is extraordinary, a labour of rare power, as brutal as it is inspiring, boasting a level of originality to which we should all bear witness.

Carried on the back of DiCaprio’s awards-gobbling display, this is a striking feat of creative endeavour, intense enough to snatch the breath from your lungs. The director’s ultimate triumph in exploring the awesome scope of his ambition is to provide a bravura cinematic spectacle unlike anything witnessed before.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Assassin's Creed

Rating: 2/5

The maxim that video games make for poor filmic adaptations does not entirely hold true with the release of Assassin's Creed, a glossy and occasionally impressive new entrant in the larger canon that entertainment giant Ubisoft first unleashed nine years ago. 

Given the landscape in which it exists, the fact that Justin Kurzel's picture is not a complete disaster seems miraculous. From Super Mario Bros. to Tomb Raider (with much in between) the scale of translating console content into something which inspires more than scorn has long proved puzzlingly difficult. Looking at this latest effort, of course, it should not be forgotten that Assassin's Creed requires the acclaimed director of Macbeth and Snowtown, and a cast featuring the former's lead duo of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, to avoid outright failure. 

Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a convicted murderer who is snatched away to a shadowy post-modern facility by the equally murky Abstergo organisation and plugged into a somewhat invasive machine, named the Animus, for the purpose of mining the recollections of his Assassin ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender). 

Aguilar was a member of the eponymous order, which in 1492 hid the Apple of Eden – a powerful relic capable of reshaping human behaviour – from the dastardly Templars. Both groups continue to exist, with the latter, unsurprisingly, being the power behind Abstergo and its urbane head honcho, Dr Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons playing Jeremy Irons). 

Under the watchful eye of Rikkin's scientist daughter, Sophia (Cotillard), Lynch is cast back to the Spain of his forebear, the projections of his genetically coded memories forming the basis of the villains' search for their prize. 

The plot itself is not completely without smarts, though as with a lot of these things, its high-concept sheen could do with another polish. Yet, it is in the visuals and execution that Kurzel most obviously succeeds. His Inquisition-era Castile comes replete with choking smoke and a lazy sunlight that bathes proceedings in a warm amber hue. As a backdrop to the violence in the foreground (significantly toned down thanks to a money-hungry 12A rating), it is all rather beautiful. 

Playing off the games' obvious cinematic stylings (watch out for nods here and there to playable experiences), Kurzel sends his camera swooping and soaring with the golden eagle that serves as a talisman in each series entry. A selection of action scenes, inspired by the franchise's central penchant for parkour, dazzle in spurts, though there is nothing here to rival the genre leaders. That said, as abstract as they are supposed to be, these diversions feel more real than the modern setting, imbued with intrigue and spirit. The characters even converse in Spanish. 

It is unfortunate, then, that they should be so underserved. The adventures of Aguilar are treated as a science project, meant only to be observed, rather than understood; they are afforded little room to breath or expand. 

The contemporary arc, itself so irritating and intrusive an element of the games, is infinitely less interesting, yet the period strands are all geared towards tying this together. Callum's journey from clueless outcast to committed member of the Creed comes and goes in the blink of eye, reeking of cliché. Where the depths of his tale would be better explored, bombast is deployed instead. A loud finale rushes to a conclusion, eschewing the grace of its Medieval subject to establish an artificial sequel-tease of good versus evil, light and dark. If this isn't crushingly disappointing, it isn't especially engaging either. 

Fassbender embraces his duties with brio, but he can do nothing to render this essential viewing. 

Monday, 28 November 2016

Bleed for This

Rating: 4/5

Talented everyman Miles Teller produces a stellar performance in Boiler Room director Ben Younger’s Bleed for This, a gritty and occasionally thoughtful boxing paean, as plucky as it is ultimately inspiring. Anchored by its leading man’s star turn, this a 'based on a true story' picture that maturely embraces its subject matter, filtering its conventional pugilism-is-life narrative through a blue-collar lens that feels emotionally rewarding and even somewhat original.

Teller is no stranger to pushing himself beyond that likeable frat-boy persona into the realms of respectable method acting. Whiplash, an astounding psychological drama and the best film of 2015, was built as much around Teller’s fraught physical travails as it was the bone-chilling sneer of eventual Oscar winner J.K. Simmons. Here, the younger man succeeds once again in conveying genuine human suffering.

He portrays fighter Vinny Pazienza, both working-class crusader and genuine contender for the top. Nicknamed (of course) the Pazmanian Devil, Pazienza, a totem for his home community of Providence, Rhode Island, seems destined for superstardom until a car crash – captured with vicious clarity – robs him of his mobility, as well as his chance at greatness. 

Teller avoids the rote conventions of the genre by playing Pazienza as a serious professional. He is no underdog, rather an established presence on the boxing circuit with genuine designs on the summit of his craft. As such, his temporary disability is faced with a refreshing lack of melodrama. Teller's stoic facade cracks only briefly, before being packed away behind his resolve. 

His relationship with both his parents (Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal) and his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart, offering layers to a character otherwise beset by inconsistencies), is especially well observed. If anything, the iron-clad determination to recover imbues those around him with a measure of strength they might otherwise struggle to locate.  

When redemption does arrive there is little to surprise anyone, yet it is impossible to deny Younger's style, nor the decision to place his fate on Teller's hulking shoulders. 

Friday, 9 September 2016


Rating: 4/5

Anthropoid (2016)

Starring: Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy, Toby Jones, Harry Lloyd

Director: Sean Ellis

Available on: Amazon Prime

Of all history’s monsters, there are few who wrought more destruction than Reinhard Heydrich. Outranked in the SS by Heinrich Himmler alone, Heydrich was the urbane and calculating architect of that most horrifying of national policies: the Final Solution. His chairing of the Wannsee Conference in 1942 sealed the fate of Europe’s Jews and elevated him to a level where Adolf Hitler’s admiration was as tangible as any medal pinned on a grey uniform.

It was Kenneth Branagh, of course, who played Heydrich with such grace in 2001’s Conspiracy, a chronicle of the chillingly unfussy manner in which he and other high-ranking Nazis convened around a polished tabled and decided upon the most expeditious method for solving their particular Jewish question.  

His assassination, then, in Prague, dealt a significant blow to the upper echelons of the Third Reich and signalled that few Nazis were safe from the citizens they sought to dominate. For English filmmaker Sean Ellis, that event represents a solid base upon which to construct his latest picture, Anthropoid.

Taking its title from the code name of the operation intended by the exiled Czech government to kill Heydrich — acting as the region’s governor at the time — and thus decapitate Germany’s local structures in the process, Ellis’s work is a tense and compelling account of one of World War II’s less heralded moments.  

In the starring roles, Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy offer up glowering commitment as the agents sent home from London for the purpose of executing a man commonly known as ‘the Butcher of Prague.’ It is no small undertaking.

A film boasting occasionally beautiful visuals, Anthropoid opens with assassins Jozef Gabčík (Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Dornan) parachuting into the snow-crusted forests beyond the Czech capital, in December 1941. From the beginning, Ellis wields a sense of tension that continues throughout, his heroes never more than a slip away from discovery and death. Capturing events in the handheld style that has served compatriot Paul Greengrass so well, the director mines multiple thrills from a period drama as convincing as it is important.

In an era of movies failing to connect due to poor pacing, this succeeds in never lessening the level of foreboding that lurks around each corner. Within minutes Gabčík and Kubiš dispatch a traitor, meet resistance handlers, reconnect with their mission team and settle into new lodgings, events that avoid coming off as overly hasty, in spite of the truncation of history’s timeline, thanks to a long, dark shadow cast by the Reich, one that demands speed of movement and thought.

Indeed, before long the central duo have established the details of their scheme, though in truth they are merely tools of distant superiors, a fact giving rise to more than a little friction with the local partisans, whose diminished but determined efforts are headed up by Toby Jones’s genial "Uncle" Hajský. This dash of political dissonance pushes the proceedings beyond a mere tale of wartime derring-do, illustrating, instead, how divisions can emerge when they are least useful.

It is fraternity, however, that drives a small band of crusaders (including Game of Thrones alum Harry Lloyd) towards the ultimate goal. In the latter stages such common cause is needed more than ever, enemies and fate closing in on the conspirators. The attempt on Heydrich’s life is swift and violent, a slickly produced set piece that descends into chaos; confusion and the need to survive supplant Hollywood-style grandstanding.   

As far as performances go, the leads excel with portrayals that provide just enough layers to seem real. Murphy — no stranger to thick accents — is awarded the best lines, never shirking from the opportunity to ratchet up the intensity of his gaze. He might be the brains of the partnership, and Dornan’s softly spoken sidekick its sweeter conscience, but there exists tangible chemistry between them, an almost unspoken bond that peeps out on more than one occasion.

If both men are underwhelmed by poorly conceived romantic entanglements that develop, then depart, too quickly, they triumph before the end. The brilliant conclusion, a firefight that tears through the sanctified confines of an elegant Prague church, sees both actors come into their own. Themes of courage and mortality are weighty, no doubt, yet Ellis handles these deftly, imbuing the finale with an emotional heft that feels truly profound.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Suicide Squad

Rating: 1/5

It is easy to get lost these days in the seemingly endless maze of comic book adaptations flying and exploding across multiplex screens on an almost monthly basis. The Marvel stable, via various studios, has brought us the X-Men, Spider-Man and the cacophonous onslaught of the Avengers, with all those intersecting strands of expensive CGI and Robert Downey Jr. 

Competitor DC, meanwhile, has taken a while to match that level of output, though the fact that this current generation of cinematic superheroes was ushered in thanks to Christopher Nolan’s peerless Dark Knight trilogy surely means that DC, rather than Marvel, has set the bar. 

What the former is only now starting to attempt to emulate, however, is the kind of overarching genre that the latter now wields as a matter of course across multiple platforms (film, television, Netflix). Zack Snyder’s crushingly underwhelming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was meant to be the first step in such an approach (the upcoming Justice League is the next stage). It brought together a grizzled Batman — Ben Affleck instead of Nolan muse Christian Bale — and Henry Cavill’s Superman, fresh off his impressive turn in Snyder’s Man of Steel, an accomplished, if somewhat glowering spin on the tale. Regardless of its reception, the stage was set for something larger to take shape. 

Curiously, the next instalment in DC’s grand project comes hurtling out of left field. The crux of Suicide Squad is that it deploys a coterie of the publishing house’s worst villains as a rapid response team aimed at tackling terrible situations with the most terrible human beings alive, a make-believe equivalent of tasking Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Donald Trump with the job of fixing climate change, or Brexit. 

Given its delicious premise, cool cast and obvious pedigree, the anticipation for a filmic portrayal of one of the more niche strands of the DC universe has reached boiling point. Director David Ayer’s record in churning out muscular, hard-edged crime thrillers (End of Watch, Street Kings, Harsh Times; he also wrote Training Day) tipped Suicide Squad over the top as a promising and gloriously nasty blockbuster, worthy of the public’s attention. 

It should come as a disappointment, then, that hope and reality diverge in so dramatic a fashion. Ayer’s film is, to put it politely, a mess, plagued by tonal inconsistencies and a plot that seems (amazingly) barely comprehensible. There also runs through it a whiff of smugness, one born of all involved believing their work to be far cleverer and much more subversive than it actually is. 

This was a production that underwent significant reshoots and while this in itself is hardly an indictment, Suicide Squad appears thrown together. From the intense period of exposition that opens proceedings — characters’ backgrounds and aliases fly from the lips of shadowy, string-pulling bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) — to the bouts of action and characterisation that sit so unevenly in concert, this is not a picture displaying a great deal of fluidity. 

There exists an episodic nature here that serves only to erode any connection one might have with the material, for there is only so often that specific sarcastic moments can be juxtaposed with specific emotional moments before one’s patience wears thin. Early scenes involving Affleck’s taciturn vigilante may contribute to the crucial wider context but they smack of tokenism at best and feel ill conceived at worst — Batman’s encounter with Deadshot (Will Smith) must surely represent the least exciting thing Bruce Wayne has ever done.

As for the overarching peril against which the team must do battle, its lurch towards the supernatural is as preposterous as it is senseless. While the onset of this threat signifies karmic retribution for Waller’s own machinations, the whole episode is handled so clumsily (how, exactly, is Jai Courtney’s lager-swilling Australian stereotype, Captain Boomerang, one of the few people alive suitable for tackling an ancient inter-dimensional despot?) that any spectacle is soon lost beneath the weight of rampant silliness. 

What positives there are stem from a line-up that is otherwise wasted. Smith, as ever, marries swagger, arrogance and heroism while mostly retaining his dignity, Deadshot’s status as an amoral killer rather than outright lunatic acting as a counterbalance in a milieu where almost everyone is utterly bonkers. 

Margot Robbie, too, emerges with reputation intact. Her Harley Quinn is complex enough to be curious; Robbie, so often cast as gorgeous prop, conveys both Quinn's vulnerability and fondness for savagery. 

Unfortunately, Jared Leto fares less well in playing the Joker, Quinn’s paramour and the yin to her yang. Leto has proved himself an exceptional performer in recent years, yet his presence here, as anarchic and unsettling as it is, fulfils no discernible role, neither antihero nor antagonist. One of popular culture’s great miscreants, he is instead relegated to secondary status, the pursuit of Quinn, his muse, standing as his sole raison d’etre. Never has so arch a villain been so underused. 

Elsewhere, Joel Kinnaman — an actor capable of a great deal — looks vaguely embarrassed by the naffness of Rick Flag, a dour crusader plagued by personal travails and a fraying code of conduct. Neither is interesting.

Ultimately, as with those Marvel counterparts, Suicide Squad descends into a miasma of overblown effects. Its deliberately bleak attitude is quickly forgotten in the din as characters once described as the “worst of the worst” embrace their inner angels. A message about the innate goodness of humanity underlays it all, perhaps, though the result is so inept as to render any moralising irrelevant. 

A sly finale may attempt to claw back the ground but the damage, by that point, is long sustained. Boring and without even a sliver of inspiration, this is one issue undeserving of a plastic cover. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Conjuring 2

Rating: 3/5

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night, it seems more than likely that the Enfield Haunting was a load of cobblers. 

A hoax, not a poltergeist, probably set the pulses of the Hodgson family racing, in a suburban council house, between 1977 and 1979  media attention and teenage angst served to scare up a series of unexplained events that were as unsettling as they were false. Children 'levitating', alien voices, moving objects; many hallmarks of a spectral entity were on display. But for some deeper digging and a healthy dollop of skepticism, the whole thing might have been believed. 

Regardless of the Haunting's veracity, however, the tale, taken at face value, is an undoubtedly sinister one, ripe for cinematic exploitation. Thus, filmmaker James Wan's The Conjuring 2 builds, liberally, on reality's foundation, introducing an expensive franchise sequel to 2013's outstanding The Conjuring.

As with the latter film (which spawned a ropey spin-off, Annabelle), Wan centres his focus on the happenings in the enclosed intimacy of a strikingly normal household. General subject aside, the two pictures are connected by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), the married couple whose careers as paranormal investigators provide the necessary context for events occurring on either side of the Atlantic. 

Their involvement, in 1976, with the infamous Amityville case serves as a bridge, Wan's latest opening with a seance in the horribly iconic surroundings of the erstwhile Lutz homestead (introduced before the end of The Conjuring). The fallout from this prologue follows the Warrens throughout the remainder of the movie, its influence occasionally puzzling, though never less than disturbing. 

Tasked by Rome to discern the truth of the Enfield incidents — allowing the Church to intervene — the Warrens wade into the Hodgsons' disquiet, armed with only with their own bravery and Lorraine's clairvoyant abilities. 

There is a great deal here to admire, especially when it comes to crafting the requisite atmosphere. The Hodgson property is a dull and slightly ramshackle semi-d that exudes genuine menace precisely because it looks so unremarkable. Within its dreary walls, Frances O'Connor's Peggy and her brood, including possibly possessed daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), are driven mad by shadows and murk. 

Their tormentor takes the form of the home's former occupant, Bill Wilkins, whose lonely death has stoked the malevolence of his spirit. That spirit manifests itself in a number of ways and though few are especially original, dark corners, heavy footsteps and a sense of foreboding remain trusted tools in the horror genre. There are surprises, too. On more than one occasion, a child's tent made from blankets is transformed into something hideous, its black, cramped interior a dwelling for the film's simmering wickedness. 

Later, as the Warrens conduct their own examination, Wan produces The Conjuring 2's standout scene: Janet, captured in blurred focus and sitting on cinema's creepiest rocking chair, appears to morph into Wilkins while Ed trades barbs over his shoulder with the bitter old codger. It is a bravura sequence, completed in a single take, perfectly lit and underplayed by both Wilson and the increasingly haggard Wolfe, whose dabbling with a ouija board may or may not have summoned evil.

In the lead roles, Wilson and Farmiga continue their sterling performances from last time round. The Warrens were real and, apparently, honest professionals, a fact that both actors aim to emphasise by plumping for stoicism over posturing. Wilson is invariably superb — calm, heroic, serious — yet Farmiga stands out. Lorraine is no crank. She is a flinty individual capable of staving off the demons she regularly encounters, as well as a loving wife and mother. Her presence, along with Ed's uncomplicated masculinity, returns a tangible sliver of joy to beneath the Hodgson roof.

These are not the only layered portrayals. O'Connor excels as a woman, driven to despair by penury, who is unequipped to counter whatever it is that plagues her family. Simon McBurney, meanwhile, peeks out from beneath thick brows and bushy whiskers to inhabit paranormal true believer Maurice Grosse, a potentially comic character who ultimately feels as real the rest.

If there are missteps then they present themselves during a terribly overblown finale. As with the previous instalment, Wan chooses to eschew the chill running through the meridians of his own work. Instead, proceedings screech towards the finish line. The action ticks upwards as a rain, lightening and grotesqueries pour in against a narrative backdrop that never really makes sense. The director has terror in mind but delivers only bombast. When something quieter is required, the threat of silence is undermined by noise. 

Regardless of that din, there exists an emotional power to save the whole thing from itself, an element shaped around the genuinely affecting relationship between Ed and Lorraine. Its sincerity colours the larger canvas, filling the gaps between the myriad frights.