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Mute

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In near future Berlin, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute Amish (!) bartender, is set on a twisting trail of mystery and violence when his girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh) abruptly disappears on him. Does her disappearance have anything to do with underground surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux)? And, even if it does, will you care?

Well no, probably not. The fourth film from Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft) is a massive, confused misfire, a noir pastiche inexplicably set in a near future cyberpunk milieu while being neither particularly “cyber” nor “punk”. More than any other film in recent memory, Mute is a pointless genre exercise, in that there is absolutely nothing in it that necessitates it being a genre film at all; its science fiction elements are all window dressing, none of them explicitly necessary to the plot and, more importantly, the themes being explored.

Neither of which – plot or theme – are in any way clearly discernible, at least without a deeper level of contemplation than Mute does anything to earn. What we’re left with then is the characters, who are either unknowable (Skarsgård) or unlikable (absolutely everyone else); the aesthetic, which is more Strange Days in its retrofitted near-future-ness than Blade Runner but still fairly un-engaging; and the action, which is almost non-existent.

Of course, it’s not meant to be an action movie, it’s a noir, a hypothetical defender might say. Mute has been compared to Casablanca by a number of people who have apparently never seen any other film that might be film noir adjacent except bloody Blade Runner, and that apparently includes Jones himself. There’s actually almost nothing in Mute that rhymes, narratively-speaking, with Casablanca, which has an entirely different setting, plot, theme, and set of characters, including its protagonist. You could make a case for our silent hero here being of a type with other Bogart characters, such as The Maltese Falcon‘s Sam Spade and The Big Sleep‘s Philip Marlowe, going down those famously mean streets, except that Bogie was always watchable and poor Leo, despite Skarsgård’s best efforts, is not. While the idea of a technophobic protagonist having to navigate a high tech/low life setting must have appealed to somebody as an elevator pitch, in the end we’re left with a guy we don’t know doing things he doesn’t understand for reasons that remain purposefully obscure for most of the film.

Jones actually knows this, which is why the story bifurcates, spending as much time with Duck and Cactus Bill, two ex-military medics who make money sewing up mob soldiers, as they just kind of hang out doing stuff until the time ploddingly comes for them to intersect with Leo’s plot in a meaningful (sort of) way. A moment of Pavlovian satisfaction may come when you realise that Rudd and Theroux are doing a riff on Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in Robert Altman’s original M*A*S*H*, the pros from Dover re-imagined as two amoral pansexual hedonists on a tear through future noir Berlin instead of Korean War-era Japan. Then again, it may not.

So what’s it all about? About 40 minutes too long. That aside, It’s a sophomoric work whose symbols aren’t actually attached to any internal system of meaning, but whose pretentious contempt for narrative action means it relies heavily on those same undernourished symbols. It’s a scornful film that seems far too pleased with its own anaemic artfulness, standing on the shoulders of older, better works, yet somehow failing to see any further – or, indeed, as far. It’s a cipher that defies easy analysis not because its language is too complex, but because it’s too haphazard and bereft of meaning altogether. It’s a mess is what it is, and one destined to fester in the depths of the Netflix Originals vault, only recalled when the recommendations algorithm occasionally churns it to the surface to a chorus of “Oh yeah, that fucking thing” from users who, if they value their time at all, should click elsewhere.

 
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Everything Sucks!

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They say high school is the best time of your life – except for when you’re living it. As the title of Netflix’s new high school ten-episode series suggests, Everything Sucks!, set in the mid-‘90s in Boring, Oregon, follows freshman student Luke O’Neil (Jahi Di’Allo Winston – Proud Mary, The Upside) and his AV club friends as they join forces with the drama club to make a movie. It’s nostalgic, it’s all that and a bag of chips, and it sets out to answer the question: has high school always sucked this much?

Turns out, it has. Everything Sucks! is full of first-relationship drama, coming-out drama, over-dramatic drama students – basically, all the drama you remember from high school and could want from a teen show. And while much of this makes you cringe, it’s surprisingly not in an overdramatic, Riverdale-esque way; rather, it’s so realistic that it takes you back to the days when you were sitting at the lunch tables, cringing at the drama yourself. Things are kept light, however, by our absolute gem of a main character: Luke O’Neil is serious, yet joyful; funny, but dramatic, and is somehow the only teenage character within our traditional band of misfits and losers with his feet somewhat planted on the ground, even as he tackles first loves and first heartbreaks.

But the others have got nothing but drama on their mind. Quiet principal’s daughter Kate (Peyton Kennedy) is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality; Emaline and Oliver (Sydney Sweeney and Elijah Stevenson) are the Shakespearean leaders of the drama club who have hit puberty way sooner than everyone else, McQuaid (Rio Mangini) is nothing but a pessimist, and Tyler (Quinn Liebling) is the most awkward, Showgirls-loving high school boy you’ve ever seen. Put all of these people in a room and make them work on a highly ambitious student film together, and you’re sure to butt heads and change lives.

With relatable characters and interesting-enough drama, Everything Sucks! is worth the watch – its short episode length is a saving grace, too; any longer would be too much. The only problem may be figuring out who this is for: packed full of Tamagotchis, Hi-C and VHSes, Everything Sucks! is chock full of nostalgia that may not always translate or come across as relatable to a younger, high-school aged audience. Yet the show is neither deep nor adult enough to draw a wide older audience, being written much more like a young adult’s show. Hopefully the show will find its audience along the way – after all, high school is all about figuring out who you’re meant to be.

 
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The Ritual

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Four friends on a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden are haunted by the death of a fifth in a convenience store robbery some six months back. Luke (Rafe Spall) is particularly troubled; he was there at the time, and froze up when he could have interceded and perhaps saved the now late Rob (Paul Reed).

The quartet face more immediate concerns after one of them, Dom (Sam Troughton) manages to injure himself, and they decide to take a shortcut back to civilisation through a nearby woods. This turns out to be a Very Bad Idea, as mysterious runes carved into trees, a gutted deer corpse dangling from a branch, and then a rundown cabin containing a strange and disturbing human effigy made of wicker and wood indicate that they have wandered off the map and into Folk Horror territory. Things only get worse from there – or better, if you’re a fan of well-made horror movies, which The Ritual most certainly is.

You’re better off as a viewer discovering The Ritual‘s gruesome pleasures for yourself, so if it already sounds like your cup of tea, hie thee to Netflix now and read no further. Starting off in Blair Witch country before detouring into The Wicker Man, the film impresses with the way it deftly weaves together different horror tropes to excellent effect. Is it a spooky lo-fi suspense flick? A meditation on the psychological burden of guilt and remorse? An eerie folk horror tale? A gory creature feature? Yes, yes it is – all these.

Director David Bruckner (The Signal, V/H/S) shows some impressive visual flair here. Luke is haunted by the convenience store robbery that led to Rob’s death, and the film interweaves the cold neon-and-tile environment of the shop with the forbidding darkness of the woods, leaving us unsure if we’re seeing a literal visual hallucination or a representation of Luke’s inner emotional turmoil. We also get a really, really great, grotesque monster design once The Ritual stops teasing and commits to going full bore supernatural horror. The film keeps the critter off stage for much of the running time –  generally a good idea – but when it is revealed, it’s an all timer – a genuinely disturbing amalgamation of animal and human physical forms that is worth the price of admission alone.

It’s also refreshing to see a folk horror film that, as is revealed later in the proceedings, mines Norse mythology rather than the rather generic Western European paganism that is usually the default setting for this sort of thing (it’s all Margaret Murray’s fault). This doesn’t have any concrete narrative effects, but lends the film a subtly different flavour from its genre-mates – besides, Norse myth really is rather creepy and bloody-minded, despite what the folks at Marvel would have us believe.

The Ritual isn’t a game-changer – it’s just very good – a solid, mature, well-constructed horror tale with a fair shake of originality and an admirably grim and unsettling mood that carries us through to a tense and terrifying conclusion. What more could you ask for?