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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Bully For You

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday August 6, 05:41 pm
Jason Bateman’s great in this superior thriller

The Gift

Cineplex

4/5

 

In the past, Blum Films has mainly been known for cranking out cheap horror movies that generated plenty of earnings with little risk involved (Insidious, The Purge, Sinister), but they’re moving up the food chain lately. With Best Picture nominee Whiplash, the company became a real player, and the pressure was on to repeat that success.

 

The Gift more than meets those expectations. The love child of Australian actor / first-time director Joel Edgerton (Warrior, The Great Gatsby), this superb thriller is one of those rare beasts that refuses to go where you expect it to. It’s narratively audacious, and the audience’s sympathies constantly shift from one character to another and back again. The Gift also makes great use of Jason Bateman’s underrated talent for portraying cruelty hidden just below his good-guy veneer.

 

Bateman and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) are Simon and Robyn, a well-off couple who’ve moved back to Los Angeles in hopes of a new start. It all looks promising until they run into Gordo (Edgerton), a high school classmate of Simon’s who sheepishly attempts to befriend them.

 

Gordo’s obsequiousness triggers Robyn’s compassion, but Simon is rather standoffish. There’s clearly a back-story in their relationship Robyn isn’t privy to, but it seems Gordo was routinely abused at school and Simon — head of the class, Mr. Popularity — was one of his bullies. Is Gordo looking for retribution, or is Simon misinterpreting his desire for rapprochement? The answer may be something entirely different.

 

The film features an interesting approach to the “bullies will be bullies” adage. Writer/director Joel Edgerton knows that in the real world, perpetrators rarely get their comeuppance — and they also often take those less-than-desirable personality traits to new heights in adulthood.

 

Bateman is pretty much perfect in this role. In fact, this is his first lead dramatic role in which you’re not constantly thinking, “Jason Bateman is trying to be serious, but I’m not buying it.”

 

Edgerton, meanwhile, shows tremendous poise and sharp wit. The cinematography isn’t on par with the film’s other elements (it’s just a US$5 million production, after all), but in a script-heavy movie, it’s not that bothersome. Even better, he also plays Gordo — and makes the character very troubling. As showcases go, it couldn’t get any better than this for him.

 

The weak link here is Rebecca Hall, whose Robyn is supposed to be the easiest character to empathize with, but who becomes a glorified plot device instead. Hall is better playing an icy, unattainable figure than someone to root for.

 

A typical problem in these types of potboilers is the number of loose ends left dangling, but The Gift keeps track of every single one. It may even trigger a moment of introspection or two (remorseful bullies beware).

 

This isn’t a “gotcha” film by nature, but The Gift manages to smuggle in a couple of good “jump-off-your-seat” moments that are even more effective because they’re so unexpected. As someone who’s seen thousands of scary movies, I’m damn impressed with just how well this film played me like a fiddle. 

 

 

Jimmy’s Hall

Roxy (opens Friday 14)

3.5/5

 

Director Ken Loach has dedicated his career to portraying critical moments in Irish history. From the war of independence (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) to The Troubles in Northern Ireland (Hidden Agenda), Loach has never shied away from tackling controversial matters from his well-documented socialist standpoint.

 

But lately, the 79-year-old Loach has demonstrated a lightness of touch that’s come as a surprise to those who’ve followed him over the years. The Angels’ Share (2012), for example, was a fiercely funny depiction of unemployment and desperation among Irish youths.

 

Jimmy’s Hall further finesses the combination of social issues with working-class merriment. The “Jimmy” of the title is an ex-pat who returns to his homeland after a decade in America. His reappearance causes commotion among the locals, particularly those who forced him into exile — namely the resident priest and abusive landowners.

 

Jimmy’s crime? Creating a community centre where farmers and their families could dance, learn a trade or just enjoy each other’s company. Urged on by a new generation of teens, Jimmy takes no time to get the hall going again, only this time he wants to ensure it won’t be shut down. But the forces at play may be too powerful to be kept at bay.

 

Unlike, say, Footloose, the stakes in Jimmy’s Hall are high. Jimmy risks exile again, and everyone else trying to defend the hall (a beacon of hope amongst poverty and religion-fueled repression) are also putting their wellbeing on the line: Trigger-happy zealots see community life as sprouting communism and they plan to nip it in the bud.

 

Goosing up the plot further is the relationship between Jimmy and his former sweetheart — and it’s as touching as tragedies often are. Overall, it’s a terrific story, and one made better by an artist who’s never stopped evolving.

 

 

What We Did on Our Holiday

Roxy

3/5

 

There are few British actors more likeable than the trio headlining What We Did on Our Holiday. Rosamund Pike had us rooting for her despite her cold-blooded, scheming ways in Gone Girl; David Tennant was the most audience-friendly of all the Doctor Whos, and Billy Connolly is, well, Billy Connolly.

 

Yet they all get this movie stolen from under their noses by three rambunctious tykes.

 

Doug (Tennant) and Abi (Pike) are on the verge of divorce. They’ve been living apart for a while and the end of their marriage seems unavoidable. There is, however, a social engagement that forces them to pretend they’re still together: the 75th birthday of Doug’s father. The patriarch (Connolly) has terminal cancer, and by all accounts this will be his final hurrah.

 

The plan has three weak spots — namely, Doug and Abi’s children. Their eldest, Lottie (age nine), is troubled by the idea of lying to her grandpa, and documents every detail of the fabrication in her notebook. Mickey, the middle child, has a borderline unhealthy obsession with Vikings. The wild card is Jess (4), the youngest one, who mixes fantasy and reality and has no qualms with speaking her mind.

 

What We Did on Our Holiday opens as a road-trip laugh-riot, transitions into black comedy and ends up as a farce. The tonal differences are partially the responsibility of the children, as directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (Outnumbered) allowed the kids to improvise (or, more accurately, be kids). The feature benefits greatly from the approach, providing a realistic degree of levity to some rather dramatic developments.

 

If you’re looking for a break from toothless family fare, this is the way to go. Even the ending is a notch more adult than your standard kids’ flick.

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