Review: Shimmer Lake, The Farthest, Headshot

Another series of short reviews this week, with the latter two viewed during the Audi Dublin International Film Festival earlier this year.

Shimmer Lake

Trailer

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A really weird The Office spin-off.

On Friday a disgraced former public prosecutor Andy Sikes (Rainn Wilson) is shot dead while on the run. On Thursday, Sherriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) tracks down Andy, his brother, with the help of the FBI. On Wednesday, Judge Brad Dawkins (John Michael Higgins) is blackmailed over his personal life and takes matters into his own hands. On Tuesday, a bank is robbed. In small town America, people are about to learn that every action has a consequence.

Blake Snyder once wrote that there really isn’t any such thing as a “Whodunnit?”, when it comes to mystery stories: instead, its really “Whydunnit?”, that is, determining why the perpetrator/instigator did what they did. Shimmer Lake was the kind of film that seemed uniquely placed to make good on such an idea, showcasing the ending of its story first, before going back bit by bit, so that we could really get inside the inner motivations of the characters in question. And Shimmer Lake does that to an extent, perhaps better seen as the kind of film that offers a very good look at the true essence of cause and effect in human actions.

But while Shimmer Lake has a good cast – mostly comedic in background, which is interesting – and that fascinating premise, it doesn’t make the most of it at all. I think the general mystery would have to be something truly special to go along with the backwards narrative, and if Shimmer Lake was reversed into a more conventional structure, what we would have would be quite pedestrian. The film hinges on the identity of a killer from the first section, revealed in the last, but the revelation is a bit much, a bit too complicated and tidy at the same time: I can’t say more for fear of spoiling.

The comedy cast – people like Rob Cordry pop up in important roles, to say nothing of Wilson – keep things going, and the narrative does craft some interesting portraits: Wilson’s Andy, for example, is initially portrayed on Friday as somewhat sympathetic, before his murder, and then he is gradually depicted as more and more of a villain by the time we get back to Tuesday. But there’s not enough to it, and director Oren Uziel, working on a budget, can offer little to visual stimulate aside from eerie looks at the titular lake. Notable largely because of its reverse-narrative, Shimmer Lake is worth a look but won’t lodge in your brain like a Memento or Donnie Darko. Partially recommended.

The Farthest

Trailer

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And still going and going…

In 1977, NASA decided to go where no one had gone before with space exploration, initiating the Voyager project: two probes, launched several months apart, designed to investigate the outer planets. Over years of travel and scientific discovery, The Farthest explores the intricacies of the Voyager mission, including the involvement of luminaries like Carl Sagan, the “golden record”, and the fact that the probes will, for a very long time, be the most far-flung achievement of the human race.

A very straightforward documentary here, but one well worth seeing. It isn’t exactly a time of disrepute for NASA, but it is fair to say that its glory days are gone, replaced by international efforts like the ISS where NASA is only one part of a larger whole. But as late at the 70’s and 80’s, NASA was still wowing people with its efforts to expand human knowledge of the solar system, hence, the Voyager mission.

The Farthest works largely because it jumps from topic to topic quickly. Focusing just on the mundane details of the probes’ construction, launch and voyage would fast get boring, but director Emer Reynolds peppers interesting asides and titbits throughout, most notably a lengthy section discussing the golden record: its genesis, the selection of greetings to be recorded, and then the selection of music. Devoting so much time to this is important, as it turns the Voyager probes from cold scientific machines to bastions of human creativity and art, that maybe, just maybe, might one day be ambassadors for our entire species. The record is what captivated attentions as much as anything else with Voyager, as The Farthest makes clear with carefully cultivated clips, like SNL’s skits on the soundtrack (proof of alien life: a message from the stars declaring “Send more Chuck Berry”).

But then there is the actual mission itself, and the glorious photography that the probes were able to send back of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. The grainy black and white stills that turn into colourful depictions of spherical behemoths, dotted with tinier, but all too fascinating moons@ it is impossible not to be swept away in the grandeur that the Voyager probes depicted and continue to represent. The Farthest vividly captures both the beauty of the outer planets and their moons, as well as the rapturous reaction from those back home, literally growing old in front of the camera as the length of the mission traverse’s decades. And at the end of it all, a suitable focus on Carl Sagan’s famous “pale blue dot” picture, taken not for science, but merely so we could get a stark illustration of just how small we really are in the great cosmic blackness.

While The Farthest is excessively lengthy and, perhaps, refrains from any kind of criticism of the NASA program to the point that it is largely a love-letter, it is still a very worthy documentation of a very important part of human exploration, an exploration that now marks us as having taken the first minor steps into interstellar travel. Recommended.

Headshot

Trailer

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This picture can sub in for a significant part of the film.

Ishmael (Iko Uwais) wakes up on a beach with a serious headwound, and no memory of how he got it, or of his past life. Nursed back to health by Ailin (Chelsea Islan), Ishmael is ready to embark upon a new life, but soon finds the dangerous parts of his forgotten past, through crime boss Lee (Sunny Pang) catching up with him.

The Raid series have certainly made Uwais more well-known, albeit maybe not at a superstar level just yet, and Headshot is, by and large, more of the same kind of fair. If Uwais wants to be a sort of neo-Jackie Chan, an eastern martial arts star looking to embed himself in the western consciousness, he’s certainly going about it right.

But whether that makes for a good film is something else entirely. Much like The Raid and its sequel, Headshot suffers from problems of story and length: lacking in the former, and incredibly excessive in the latter. Headshot’s tale is as basic and formulaic as they come, as the amnesiac falls in love with his doctor and then has to literally fight the demons in his past, one by one in this case. And it goes on and on and on, as the main point of Headshot rapidly becomes whether directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, with cinematographer Yunus Pasolang, can outdo themselves within five minutes of the last lengthy fight scene.

And if that’s what floats your boat, all well and good. Headshot does showcase a number of diverse and interesting scenarios for its protagonist to go toe-to-toe with an assortment of toughs: a bloody showdown at an ambushed bus; a shotgun duel in a wrecked police station, a seaside clash with a female associate; and a last visceral fracas with his demented father figure, inside a subterranean bunker. The principals screech, the kicks and punches land with a thud, and the blood flows freely. Headshot isn’t one for the faint of heart, with the amount of red on display rapidly desensitising you to the carnage being portrayed, a failure of imagination as much as anything else.

In the end, Headshot would be better viewed as a continuing series of fight scenes with some very shallow bits of plot in-between, that sort of stop by the time we, mercifully, hit the final act, at which point the blood and kicks take over completely. This sort of marathon of violence needs a certain something to get it over – like the visual premise behind Hardcore Henry, a similar film in the ratio of action to story – and even then you’re treading water after a while. Partially recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix, The Irsh Film Board and Vertical Entertainment).

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