If only Ed Sheeran could produce an album that split opinion. Despite commercial success being a given for the Suffolk-raised singer’s third LP, the erroneously-titled Divide is about as edgy as a sausage roll.
The pandering doesn’t even end with a base-covering single campaign that made a smart play for Radio 1 (catchy “Cheap Thrills” knock-off “Shape of You”) and 2 (“Castle On The Hill”). Divide isn’t afraid to exploit cultural generalisations in order to connect.
Opener “Eraser” is a self-pitying take on drinking like a twenty-something. Here and elsewhere, Ed romanticises his humility. He’s a Grammy-winning everyman “without a nine-to-five job or a uni degree”, singing to millions in “the same old jeans”. It’s pure department store fodder, so perhaps a fan will pick him up a pair.
Even worse is “Galway Girl”, combining flavourless Irish trad and noughties boyband melodies to soundtrack a one night stand with a fiery Celtic waif. Any pop chorus beginning with “She played the fiddle in an Irish band” should by right lead to a filthy couplet about handjobs, but Ed shows no ambition beyond reaping marketing royalties from Ireland’s tourism board.
Banality is occasionally swapped for bitterness, as on the unlikely highlight “New Man”. Underneath the slick acoustic-pop is a mean-spirited sketch of an ex’s metrosexual lover, right down to his plucked eyebrows and bleached arsehole. Ed’s observations border on bigotry, but hey, at least it’s interesting, right?
A wet mass of listless balladry and boundless opportunism, Divide shirks any duty to say something new, and will no doubt achieve homeric sales throughout the year. When Britain’s biggest popstar sings “Love can change the world, but what do I know?”, the modesty is hard to stomach. Ed Sheeran knows exactly what he’s doing.
Director & Screenwriter: Jennifer Kent // Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Barbara West, Tim Purcell.
Review: In a horror-drama crammed with unsettling moments, The Babadook’s most nimbly wielded weapon is the fleeting but resonant savageness with which it depicts a mother struggling to love their child. It’s a concept that director Jennifer Kent arguably employs to emulsify the two genres her feature film debut works within; part kitchen sink character study, part haunted house freak show. The film’s first half is understandably earnest and dialogue-driven as Kent takes care to convey the everyday exasperation of single mother Amelia (played by the extraordinary Essie Davis), who lives an anxious life in the Australian suburbs and while in mourning for her husband seven years after a bid to rush her and their unborn child to the maternity ward resulted in a fatal car crash.
A superstitious eccentric with a skill for crafting Home Alone-style artillery, her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a sweet but stubbornly errant loner who can rarely go a night without crawling into his mother’s bed. Deprived of sleep – with Kent fast-forwarding through the few hours she does indulge in to exacerbate the interminable nature of her day-to-day – Amelia insists on not only looking after her son’s needs, but also those of her elderly neighbour (Barbara West) and the geriatrics she tends to at a nursing home each day. Both her and Samuel look forward to reading a children’s story at the end of a long day, that is until the sudden appearance of a grisly but beautifully crafted pop-up book entitled Mister Babadook captures the darkest recesses of Samuel’s imagination.
Sketched in charcoal, the book’s eponymous character is a behatted sycophant with sharp, spindly fingers and a manic expression; his murderous behaviour relayed in playground-friendly couplets: “Take heed of what you’ve read… / Once you see what’s underneath / You’re going to wish you were dead”). As Samuel’s palpably felt obsession with the monster grows, Amelia’s professional and personal relationships begin to crumble, and it is the ensuing mental and physical self-isolation that becomes the cue for Kent to flex her flair for evoking moods of near-suffocating dread. There is an admittedly awkward shift from dramatic realism to conventional horror tropes as the impact of illogical reactions take effect, but this is small price to pay for the thought-provoking thrills stashed away in the film’s latter half.
Refusing to settle for cheap jump scares in order to rile up its audience, The Babadook is at its best when suggesting the monster’s existence in surprisingly rational ways. Think you’re safe at a police station in the day time? Kent implores you to think again. The exquisitely dull colours of Amelia’s home, bristling sound design (the scrape of the book’s pop-up appendages against paper, the creaky-floorboard growl of the Babadook itself), and a singular but magnificently unexpected burst of gore will have your skin practically ushering the film underneath it.
With the tumultuous relationship between Amelia and Samuel realised in affecting detail, The Babadook is a uniquely cerebral horror and a promising calling-card for Kent. Even if her obvious talents remain just a tad raw, as her film’s ending suggests, there is truly nothing a little nurturing cannot fix.
Director: John Michael McDonagh // Screenplay by: John Michael McDonagh // Distributor: Entertainment One // Release Date: April 11th (UK) // Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly, Pat Shortt, Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson.
Review: It’s rather galling just how inevitable the subject of child abuse has become when discussing priests, with accounts of unspeakable brutality echoing through the minds of a generation at the mere mention of the catholic church. In a move indicative of his film’s often stifling self-awareness, director John Michael McDonagh practically herds the expected elephant into the room with a parade in Calvary’s opening scene, when community cornerstone Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) hears out one man’s childhood trauma during an anonymous confession. With the perverted priest responsible for these acts now dead, his unseen victim vows to kill Father James in a week. Bemused, and with this rendezvous on the periphery of his mind, Father James keeps himself busy aiding the roster of eccentrics that populate his rural Irish town.
The plot holds promise, but Calvary craves a crackling energy in place of the dead air that haunts too many of its scenes. Some of these just about coast by on the charisma of established Irish actors turning in reductive variations of their established schtick, from Pat Shortt’s salty everyman routine to Aiden Gillen’s inky misanthropy. Other supporting players either lack conviction (such as a curiously flat Chris O’Dowd) or are ill-served by portentous characterisation (Dylan Moran’s oily banker seems tailor-made to give viewers left embittered by the recession an excuse to hurl their drinks at the screen.) McDonagh’s script holds some cute observations – most of which pertain to Father James’s interactions with either his dog, or M. Emmet Walsh’s crusty writer – but is largely comprised of turgid pseudo-philosophical babble that goes nowhere. Father James’s visiting daughter (Kelly Reilly), meanwhile, exists only so he can contradict her cynicism with cloying wisdom.
Just as his character is a guiding light to a town full of misfits, Gleeson remains the film’s one true saving grace. Earthy and affable, he navigates the film’s episodic structure and tonal inconsistencies with a strong screen presence. The universal praise he’s been receiving for his performance will ensure vehicles more proportional to his talent are a distinct possibility, but for the almost thankless task of carrying Calvary, he will forever be in our prayers.
Director: David Lynch // Screenplay by: David Lynch // Distributor: Libra Films International // Release Date: March 19th, 1977 // Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, and Jeanne Bates.
Review: Early in Eraserhead, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) holds a mirror to the audience’s inevitable bemusement. As he tells his boorish father-in-law, Henry, rather like the viewer, “doesn’t know much of anything” – but that’s OK. Knowledge rarely equals power in the world of David Lynch.
His first feature-length picture comes with a fresh-out-film-school verve that is at once immersive and uncomfortable, with its black and white aesthetic serving as a perversely cosy frame for some nightmarish images of DIY body-horror. The imagery is so blatantly sexual that a Freudian analysis would almost be as redundant as an elaboration of the plot. Henry’s arc revolves around his mounting obsession with a swollen-cheeked chanteuse credited as the Lady in the Radiator, who offers him reprieve from his malformed child; a sperm-shaped humanoid with snake-like qualities that may very well have been a prototype of the chestburster from Alien.
Much of the film’s horror is derived from its hideously bleak set design, with the gloomy cinematography and paranoid soundscapes colliding for a sombre viewing experience. But Eraserhead is more than just a mood piece. The intermittent presence of Henry’s darkly seductive neighbour lends the film a noirish feel, while Henry’s shocking response to the duties he’s been burdened with is a highly unnerving set-piece.
Lynch found mainstream success with slightly more conventional works since, but the taciturn Eraserhead is still essential viewing. If the plot seems underfed on paper, then open your mind, press play and let it devour you.
Director: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash // Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures // Release Date: August 28th // Starring: Liam Jones, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Alison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet and Maya Rudolph // Plot: Depressed at the thought of staying with his mother and her arrogant boyfriend at the latter’s summer beach house, taciturn teen Duncan (Jones) finds reprieve in his bond with Owen , the sarcastic but nurturing manager of the Water Wizz water park.
Review: Why Nat Faxon and Jim Rash leave it to sixteen-year old Liam Jones to find substance in their directorial debut is a mystery, especially with the likes of Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and Allison Janney on the payroll.
To say that The Killing star comes up short is not to denounce his ability. His turn as despondent teen Duncan occasionally hits the right notes, particularly in a stilted ‘heart to heart’ with his mother’s snide boyfriend Trent (Carrell), who asks his potential stepson to rate himself out of ten. When met with a hopeful answer, Trent cruelly negates it. Jones matches Carrell’s almost overwhelmingly smug air with a squirming delivery that brilliantly conveys the awkwardness of adolescence. In a car with only Trent, his prickly daughter Steph, and Duncan’s sleeping mother Pam (Collette) for company, his performance appears stark and understated. With the arrival of Janney’s vivacious Betty – a one-woman Neighbourhood Watch who ambushes this makeshift clan the second they arrive at their summer beach house – Jones seems borderline catatonic.
Director: Leslye Headland // Distributor: Creative Arts Agency // Release Date: August 16th // Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fischer, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Kyle Bornheimer and Rebel Wilson.
Review: The sooner you accept that some people are just plain nasty, the better. Such an epiphany is key to enjoying Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette, a comedy fronted by Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fischer at their most caustic. Somewhere within Headland’s script is a tale of friends left scarred by their rocky formative years. The primary concern, however, is to spin a lean, cocaine-fuelled yarn, with plenty of snide quips and romantic revelations along the way.
Dunst is Regan, a tightly-wound viper in designer gear who must look on as her pleasantly plump chum Becky (Rebel Wilson) is the first of her high school clique to get married. Punctual and pedantic, she has been entrusted with pulling together every facet of Becky’s wedding to the handsome Dale (Hayes MacArthur), while the remaining B-Faces – coarse cynic Gena (Caplan) and dizzy, free-wheeling nymph Katie (Fischer) – tread on some serious eggshells the night before the big day. With the bachelorette party coming to an abrupt end, Regan, Gena and Katie decide to drink some champagne, take some coke and tear Becky’s dress in half while trying to prove that two people can fit in it. And so begins their late night dash around New York city, their trek running parallel with the groom’s bachelor party, led by the obnoxious but sexy Trevor (James Marsden).
Director: Richard Linklater // Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing // Release Date: June 21st // Starring: Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply.
It’s been nine years since we last checked in one of modern cinema’s most intoxicating love stories. This third installment initially paints a picture of domestic bliss for cerebral soul mates Jesse and Celine. Hank, the former’s teenage son from a previous marriage, has just spent what he calls the “best summer of my life” with his father’s family (including his twin girls, conceived in the wake of Before Sunset’s romantic trysts) on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, and the film begins with a quietly panicked Jesse seeing him off at the airport. It’s a winning opening, with Hawke’s affectingly strained performance suggesting that priorities have changed since Jesse first boarded that train to Vienna almost twenty years ago.
Personalities run the risk of being diluted when children are thrown into the mix, but in a ballsy move, Before Midnight positions its characters as people, not parents. Lazy scriptwriting and mortifying perceptions of gender norms mean female characters are most likely to fall prey to the insipid trappings of domesticity. Thankfully, Celine is as unmovable as ever. Her inclination for tart honesty and playful emasculation has only strengthened over the years, and it’s the latter trait that allows tension to mount over otherwise jovial group dinners.