Film reviews: Irrational Man | Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man

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CLEVER casting brings a vital spark to Woody Allen’s latest inquiry into the dark side of the human soul. Alistair Harkness also reviews the rest of this week’s film releases, including Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and Containment

Irrational Man (15)

Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley

Rating: ***

As a filmmaker, Woody Allen has exercised his misanthropic muscles a lot in recent years, most notably in his barely watchable London-set moral thrillers You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, the last of which has been the absolute nadir of his 21st century work. His latest inquiry into the dark side of the human soul – revolving around a dishevelled philosophy professor contemplating the ethics of murder – sees him back on American soil and while the results don’t scale the heights of Crimes and Misdemeanors (by far his best take on the way people try to justify their more heinous actions), its pseudo-intellectual musings are at least compellingly executed by a talented cast able to rise above the more rote machinations of Allen’s late-period work.

Allen has, of course, always had his pick of movie stars eager to work with him in the naïve but understandable hope that his prolific work rate will once again yield some of the brilliance of his illustrious back-catalogue. But a decent Allen movie these days – particularly when not going for the flat-out comedy of something like Midnight in Paris – requires a transformative actor like Sean Penn or Cate Blanchett to cover up Allen’s own deficiencies. In this respect he’s come up trumps by casting Joaquin Phoenix as Irrational Man’s irrational man.

Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a burned-out philosophy professor with the aura of a just-past-his-prime rock star who hasn’t quite gone to seed but is definitely on his way. Newly arrived at a Rhode Island college campus, his reputation as an academic superstar with a troubled personal life has already sent a frisson of excitement through the staff and student body alike and it’s not long before a fellow teacher, played by Parker Posey, and one of his students, played by Emma Stone, are competing for his attention.

Not that he’s too interested in either – at least not initially. His attempts to apply his academic work in the real world by engaging in humanitarian aid work have led him to a point of existential crisis: he’s seen how little he’s able to effect real change so no longer has much appetite for life. He’s impotent, impatient and so despondent about the verbal posturing that constitutes much of academia he’ll spontaneously play Russian roulette in front of his students to make a philosophical point – an action that would surely result in his employment being swiftly terminated if Irrational Man was at all concerned with depicting the realities of life on campus. But it’s not, and the fact that Allen also feels the need to have a student explain what Russian roulette actually is illustrates how little faith he has in his audience, which seems a little rich given that his own intellectual posturing amounts to cannibalising Philosophy for Dummies to provide Abe with some clever-sounding context for his intellectual and spiritual crises.

But this is where Allen has been smart in casting Phoenix. The actor fights against the rigidity of both the script and the Allen archetype to imbue his line-readings with the same laconic naturalness he brings to his work for Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s easy, for instance, to see why Stone’s otherwise sensible Jill would be attracted to Abe. Even as Abe tries to dissuade her by pointing out the cliché of falling for your professor, and even though she understands intellectually that his appeal is predicated on an overly romanticised and somewhat naïve appreciation for this kind of tortured intellectual (we’re privy to both characters’ private thoughts via the dual voiceover Allen deploys), he’s charismatic in a way that can’t entirely be explained.

Phoenix also makes Abe’s transition from passive anti-hero to proactive sociopath more intriguing than Allen’s rather blunt plot machinations might have otherwise have rendered him. This transition starts to happen when Abe overhears a desperate woman in a diner discussing a bitter custody dispute involving her ex-husband and a corrupt judge (a questionable nod by Allen, perhaps, to his own personal travails). Abe suddenly 
gets it in his head that he could make a small but important difference to this stranger’s life by killing the judge and so he sets about plotting the perfect murder, which energises him in a way he hasn’t felt for years.

As much as he’s riffing on some of his own back catalogue here, Allen’s also clearly in thrall to the work of Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol, something that’s evident too in the way the film wilfully disregards advances in forensic science when Abe is considering what he needs to do to get away with the crime. But again this isn’t all that interested in real-world plausibility – Allen is using the murder plot to expound on themes he’s returned to a lot over his career; Phoenix just makes them feel more vital than usual.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12A)

Directed by: Wes Ball

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Alexander Flores, Kaya Scodelario

Rating: **

Whether or not you saw the first instalment of this latest Young Adult dystopian fantasy trilogy, it’s unlikely your understanding of what’s going on in this second offering will be enhanced or impeded. Based on the book of the same name by James Dashner, the film seems just as bafflingly plotted either way. Its makers are certainly in no hurry to elaborate on what’s really going on. Nor do they seem all that interested in providing any continuity between the action of the first film and that of the second one. Indeed, despite the new film picking up moments after the first film’s cliff-hanger climax, all that titular maze-running is quickly forgotten about as the surviving cast – once again led by River Phoenix-wannabe Dylan O’Brien – are hurled into ever more chaotically constructed action sequences, most of which requires characters screaming dialogue of the “Go! Now!” variety to spur things along.

That this proves somewhat less tedious than its predecessor – though at 130 minutes it is still punishingly long – is perhaps more down to the fact that its pick ’n’ mix approach to plotting makes it less of a self-serious Lord of the Flies knock-off this time than a teen riff on The Walking Dead.

Zombie-like action is certainly the order of the day as our gang of teen heroes (which also include Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Kaya Scodelario) bust out of what they thought was a safe haven and into a disease-ravaged world where infected humans roam rubble-strewn city streets. They’re also being pursued by a sinister organisation that they all call “Wicked”, but is actually supposed to be the acronym W.C.K.D. Apparently this stands for World Catastrophe Killzone Department, and while this is never mentioned in the film, that’s not really important right now. Or maybe it will be at some later date. Who knows?

The important thing is that W.C.K.D. – despite operating with a name that might as well spell out B.A.D.G.U.Y.S. – expect people to believe they’re trying to find a cure for whatever zombie infection has decimated the population of Earth. This mostly involves W.C.K.D. trying to get their hands on uninfected kids so they can harvest their immunity enzymes. Patricia Clarkson and Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen are in charge of this sinister operation, and in their few brief scenes they manage to ham things up enough to inject some life into the film. But as generic, brain-off entertainment goes, this is, in the end, passable at best. It’s better than the abysmal Divergent films, but leagues behind The Hunger Games. Any teens interested in this type of movie are advised to get their hands on Mad Max: Fury Road as soon as they can, if only to see how a post-apocalyptic saga should be done.

Containment (15)

Directed by: Neil Mcenery-West

Starring: Lee Ross, Louise Brealey, Andrew Leung, Pippa Nixon

Rating: ***

If British genre films frequently fall short of their American counterparts when it comes to delivering inventively realised thrills on an indie budget, debut director Neil Mcenery-West shows plenty of promise with Containment. It’s a niftily executed viral-outbreak thriller that, true to its title, makes good use of confined space to ratchet up the drama of the situation, while working hard to bypass the more obvious narrative traps it creates for itself. Lee Ross leads a low-key cast of tower-block dwellers who awake to find themselves sealed in their flimsily constructed flats while hazmat-suited officials scurry around outside, releasing only the bare minimum of information about what’s going on. The film exploits all the usual group fears that arise when strangers are forced to rely on each other for survival, but it does this subtly and the cast – particularly Ross, playing a downwardly mobile artist recently separated from his wife and son – turn their economically sketched parts into plausibly real characters.

La Famille Belier (15)

Directed by: Eric Lartigau

Starring: Louane Emera, François Damien, Karin Viard, Eric Elmosnino

Rating: ***

There’s nothing new about teenagers being embarrassed by their parents, but this French comedy about a young singing sensation from a deaf family puts an entertaining twist on it by taking a potentially sentimental set-up (her family rely on her to sign but can’t hear her sing) and mining it for ribald laughs whenever it can. This gives the film a certain cheeky charm, so it’s a shame when it chooses to ditch the more entertaining plot line in which the titular brood collectively decide to run for political office in favour of a more straightforward narrative about eldest daughter Paula (Louane Emera) pursuing her dream of becoming a singer via a big talent audition. Uneven as it is, though, the film is likeable enough and Emera (a semi-finalist on the French version of The Voice) proves an appealingly grounded screen presence.

Pasolini (18)

Directed by: Abel Ferrara

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Adriana Asti, Ninetto Davoli

Rating: ***

The violent death of Pier Paolo Pasolini 40 years ago this November has inspired countless conspiracy theories related to the controversy-courting content of work and his outspoken opinions on culture and politics. Director Abel Ferrara, whose own uncompromising attitude towards his chosen profession certainly chimes with Pasolini’s proclamations about the timidity of art in confronting the corruption of modern life, doesn’t give much credence to the wilder theories (which range from a mafia revenge killing to an extortion attempt gone wrong). Instead he structures the film around Pasolini’s final day and manages to telescope the essence of the man into a tight running time – it’s under 90 minutes – by mixing banal details of what he did that day with dramatised passages from both the epic novel he was working on at the time of his death and the screenplay that was to be his next film. This allows Ferrara to provide a more compelling insight into his subject without falling back on the leering excesses that made his last film, Welcome to New York, such a bore (though when Pasolini proclaims, “To scandalise is a right. To be scandalised is a pleasure. Those who reject the right to be scandalised are moralists”, it’s hard not imagine Ferrara using that line to answer his own many critics). He’s aided in this by a subtle performance from Willem Dafoe (left) as Pasolini, who looks perfect in his thick-rimmed glasses and manages to projects a fearsome intelligence that avoids slipping into pretension or parody.

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