Synchronic

Paramedics Mackie and Dornan

 

Synchronic is Christopher Nolan knock-off fronted by a pair of decent actors – Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan – and directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who gave us the intelligent indie psycho-thriller The Endless.

Mackie and Dornan play a pair of paramedics who start noticing that weird cases are coming their way. One badly injured man appears to be suffering from a drug overdose but also has a massive sword wound from front to back through his chest. The sword appears to be the sort of thing a conquistador might carry. Another man is lying at the bottom of a lift shaft, dismembered but with a big smile on his face.

Behind these cases, a pre-credits sequence has told us, is a drug called Synchronic – “fake ayahuasca” says one character – which has the effect of making you so high that you travel in time to a different era. Or maybe you actually do travel there.

Mackie plays Steve, a bed-hopping singleton who’s just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, Dornan is his buddy, Dennis, the married man with a marriage on the skids and a daughter about to leave home. Do we need to know more about these guys than that they’re paramedics? Not really, though it helps when Dennis’s daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing – latest Synchronic victim – and Steve decides it’s his last task before he dies to track her down and bring her back from wherever she’s gone.

 

Steve enters the MRI scanner
Steve enters the MRI scanner

 

Do Steve and Dennis even need to be two characters? Not really, in fact they feel like one decent character divided up into bite-size chunks, but then bite-size chunks is the big (ie little) idea here.

Or do I mean pre-digested gobbets? Synchronic leans extremely heavily on Christopher Nolan – that Nolan-esque slow reveal of the portentous single-word title in the opening credits has established that. And later we get the very Nolan-esque scene when Steve meets the chemist who designed Synchronic, and the chemist tells him the mindbending truth about several time realities all co-existing and how the drug allows the taker to jump between them and we all nod as if we understand and have no idea what’s just been said, just like we did in Tenet when all that “backwards time” stuff was explained.

Can you do Nolan on a budget that’s not in the squillions? Nolan can: see Memento. But if you’re regurgitating old Nolan ideas you’d better bring something new to the party. Writer Justin Benson does that with early scenes between the paramedics and the cops at the site of the latest medical emergency, scenes that bristle with a bantering “fuck you” tension between the cops, who want to control every crime scene, and the paramedics, who actually do, until the needs of the sick and dying are taken care of at least.

Benson also makes Steve a reasonably interesting dude – as well as a hard-partying paramedic who’s painfully reluctant to tell anyone about his condition, he’s a keen student of physics, quoting Einstein at one point (“The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”) He also has a a dog called Hawking, after the author of A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking, presumably.

The fact that Steve is black adds a frisson when he jumps back in time on one of his exploratory “experiments” to find out just how precisely the Synchronic pills do their thing and winds up being menaced by the Ku Klux Klan. Later, a drunk white Confederate soldier will mistake Steve for his slave.

Benson and Moorhead (plus Michael Felker) handle the cinematography and editing, both of which are excellent. Budget constraints can’t hide the sparseness of some of those jaunts back into the past, though the special effects work as present and past bleed into each other is also excellent.

To what extent have the talented Benson and Moorhead taken the shilling and subdued their own instincts to make a movie someone else thought would be a good idea? I don’t know, but making an obviously Nolan-esque film means comparisons are going to be made every step of the way. All in all, Synchronic would seem a much better film if it wasn’t standing in someone else’s shadow.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Wild Mountain Thyme

Anthony and Rosemary at the gate

 

From the very first shot of Wild Mountain Thyme I was thinking “Good god, surely people aren’t still making films like this!” The opening shot being an overhead of the lush slopes of rural Ireland while the soundtrack twiddled away in madly shamrocky fashion.

It got worse. A beejaysus-Irish voiceover announces “I’m dead”, by way of an introduction. The whimsy-ometer starts climbing into the red zone. And then I realised it’s Christopher Walken doing the bad Irish accent. The letters W, T and F start to appear in the air.

What the actual, it actually gets even worse, as we’re introduced to one Oirish character after another. Enter Walken as old farmer Tony Reilly, who’s wondering who to leave his farm to. His neighbour, Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy) is having similar thoughts but she’s got a sensible, if whimsically pipe-smoking daughter, Rosemary (Emily Blunt) as an obvious heir. No such luck for Tony, whose son, Anthony (Jamie Dornan) is a big useless lump. So useless that Tony decides to ask an American cousin (Jon Hamm) if he’d rather have the farm instead.

There’s also the matter of a small bit of disputed land connecting the two farms, but we can ignore that since it makes no difference to anything, though writer/director John Patrick Shanley keeps returning to it as if it did.

What we can’t ignore, because it’s what the film is really about (apart from Irish-American Shanley’s affection for the old country), is the thing between Anthony and Rosemary. They love each other. Well, she loves him, even though he’s a big useless lump, but he seems indifferent to her, which is odd because it’s Emily Blunt, if you know what I mean.

Enter Jon Hamm from that America, driving a Rolls Royce up muddy, narrow country roads, to illustrate what a massive tool he is, and to indicate that massive disruption threatens. What if he got the farm… and the girl?

Are you still reading? If so, you’ve probably got a soft spot for this sort of thing, begorrah and to be sure. And, to be fair, there are things in the film’s favour. Imagine a faintly comedic retread of those French adaptations of Maurice Pagnol’s novels like Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (or Daniel Auteuil’s under-appreciated The Well Digger’s Daughter). It’s cosy, big-hearted and engaging. Everyone in it is on the comedy spectrum (even Dornan, whose performance brings to mind Ardal O’Hanlon’s dim-bulb priest Father Dougal in the Irish comedy series Father Ted). At one point Dornan falls into a lake off a boat, in classic “I just threw myself into the lake” style.

 

Jon Hamm, Jamie Dornan and Christopher Walken
Face off: cousin Adam (Jon Hamm), Anthony (Jamie Dornan) and Tony (Christopher Walken)

 

Wild Mountain Thyme is also a relentlessly charming film. There are a some lovely Irish songs. Most of all there’s the thing between Anthony and Rosemary. Anthony is such a dork you have to root for him, and Dornan plays him straight, no winking to camera. The only concession he makes is to bend his Irish accent slightly towards Walken’s, which is eccentric to say the least. But then pointing out eccentric speech patterns in Walken isn’t going to shake the planet to its foundations.

And Blunt and Dornan just fit so well together that each improves the other’s performance. It’s chemistry, invisible magic, but there’s a pragmatic reason too. They know that if they don’t get this relationship right, the film will sink.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley is best known as a playwright for the theatre, though he notably won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck, another romance about mismatches. You can laugh at his desperate padding of this film’s plot to get the running time up to length. In fact you can be amused by all sorts of things in this film – that Hamm is in it at all! Or Walken! – and it is a bit of a mad custard, but in the end it is also simply rather lovely. Got to be a space for a bit of that in everyone’s life. To be sure.

 

Wild Mountain Thyme – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021