CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the big movies of the moment
A GREAT INDEPENDENT FILM is a diamond in the rough alongside a spiritual dog tale and a lacklustre thriller.
The Levelling – ★★★★☆
2017’s been a standout year for films about grief, from the fantastical A Monster Calls to the Oscar-nominated Manchester by the Sea. Continuing this fine run, The Levelling is even more human and realistic than Manchester. In its quietness and its intimate setting, it not only shows the grieving process, but how familial foundations and networks are shaken and require readjustment.
Ellie Kendrick’s Clover is informed of her brother’s death, having left home, a farm, for her studies. She returns to find her dad (though she doesn’t call him dad, instead addressing him as Aubrey) living in a caravan instead of their house since it flooded several months ago.
Like Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth, Kendrick is in almost every scene of The Levelling, putting in a star-turning performance for her first leading role. She straddles the line between calmly assuming the role of responsibility and a desperate, guilt-laden breakdown. Forming plans of action happens behind glistening eyes still trying to understand what happened. Everyone says her brother’s death was an accident, but everything Kendrick’s body language is saying suggests she’s not buying it.
It’s a sad film, but what’s sadder is how it invites you to imagine yourself in this scenario, and how it’s all true.
Her fractured relationship with Aubrey goes back years, and neither side saw fit to resolve it before she left. This theme of inaction permeates The Levelling’s grief – what if Clover never left home? What if Aubrey had asked her for help at the farm? Everyone is looking to avoid something that’s already happened – could her brother still be alive if just one thing had been done differently?
With her modest family, maybe Clover owed it to them to stay, or maybe she owed it to herself to pursue her education. It’s a sad film, but what’s sadder is how it invites you to imagine yourself in this scenario, and how it’s all true. If you leave home you’re going to miss things that those left behind now claim as their own – even tragedy. In this case, Clover may as well be an intruder.
Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature is a real gem. As summer blockbuster season approaches, The Levelling is one of the most human and naked portrayals of life cinema will see for months – seek it out.
A Dog’s Purpose – ★☆☆☆☆
Relying on the cuteness of dogs to draw attention (effective, but manipulative), A Dog’s Purpose is one hot spiritual mess. Bailey, the dog whose purpose we follow, reincarnates across the years, keeping his conscience as he inhabits different breeds of dog through time. As a canine Ghost in the Shell, Bailey’s ghost is born into the shells of man’s best friend, man’s neglected friend, a police dog, and so on.
It’s his time with Ethan that means the most to him. As a young boy, Ethan’s father is neglectful, but he finds solace in his dog, quite literally taking him everywhere. Bailey’s there when he meets Hannah, working out what’s happening (adolescent love) because he smells their nervous sweating.
Josh Gad is endlessly irritating as the dog’s internal monologue. Dogs are expressive animals without Olaf from Frozen interpreting for them. It’s a misfire – it’d be a better film if we never knew what Bailey is thinking. We would have to do the human thing and work it out for ourselves.
It’s a Hallmark movie that forcibly pulls tears from the eyes of dog lovers.
The gaps in his knowledge are inconsistent. He understands what a boy is, but not a pony. A Dog’s Purpose was never going to touch on Chomsky-esque theories of language acquisition in animals, but it treats its audience as if they have the memory of a goldfish.
It’s a Hallmark movie that forcibly pulls tears from the eyes of dog lovers. Its underlying message is like a sermon about being the best person you can be, but with such a safe and diluted tone that it ends up insincere and unwelcome.
A good advert for dogs, but this is more of a pig’s ear than the dog's bollocks.
Sleepless – ★☆☆☆☆
A single night in a casino makes up the bulk of Sleepless. It’s a cool concept. If an action film knows it can’t commit to a globetrotting megabucks adventure (James Bond, Fast and Furious), then avoiding it entirely by going down the bottle-episode approach is smart. Within this casino, Jamie Foxx’s Vincent Downs has to rescue his son from a multitude of mobster baddies who he’s stolen coke from, while avoiding his fellow officers who suspect he’s switched sides.
It’s a squandered sandbox of potential. The benefit of a single location means a familiarisation with its layout if presented clearly. Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire nails this – you absolutely know where everyone is at any one moment, like a ballistic game of chess.
Sleepless treats the winding corridors, attached nightclub, superfluous spa, and a multitude of hotel rooms as if none of them belong in the same building. The garage could be the next town over for all the editing cares.
That’s the same editing that implies Downs could be at any part of the film at the start of a new scene. He starts afresh for his next fight with a mere opening of a door, despite being chucked around, stabbed, and shot with each encounter.
If it all feels familiar, it’s any cop show from the last 15 years.
If it wanted to take on a Taken tone, the thrill there was in seeing this unstoppable symbol of vengeance who has nothing to lose; a successful formula that worked for John Wick, too. Downs spends most of Sleepless on his backside, followed by miraculous freshening up, only to be knocked about silly again. Why should we root for this guy?
If it all feels familiar, it’s any cop show from the last 15 years. The twists and turns are the same, the plot beats happen on cue, and these are characters we’ve seen a hundred times before.
When Fences came out there was a healthy discussion on the merits of cinema vs theatre. Sleepless ought to be questioned on the merits of cinema vs TV. It’s the length of a Sherlock episode, and ends with a similar “tune in next time” shot that’s not so much a cliffhanger as it is a whole other part to the story.
Only a few film franchises have earned the right to do this (most obviously Marvel), but Sleepless barely earns the cost of admission. Formulaic, thrill-less, and by all accounts a waste of a neat setting and likable cast.
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