Category: 70 – 79% Good

The Coming War on China (2016)

Castaways of the Marshall Islands

John Pilger’s The Coming War on China is an ominous examination of the war games between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Pilger is a venerable Australian journalist who has made 60 documentaries about an impressive range of sociopolitical subjects such as the Vietnam War, the Cambodian genocide, Indigenous Australians and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is often critical of Western foreign policy, but The Coming War on China is a largely even-handed documentary that will enlighten and perhaps challenge your position on Sino-American relations.

It opens with footage of a devastated Hiroshima and war-torn Vietnam while the pomp and circumstance of the Star Spangled Banner plays in stark contrast. This clear contradiction is a harbinger of what’s to come; both countries are criticised, but the United States’ transgressions are given particular emphasis (well, I’d argue that Hiroshima was not a transgression).

After the brief, foreboding title sequence, we are shown a montage of news clips reporting China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, which is punctuated by some Fox News foghorn saying “we, the US, have to be much more aggressive in dealing with the Chinese government!” One suspects that this pundit is ignorant of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” policy, which is drastically increasing US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

To continue reading, please follow the link to Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/12/compelling-enlightening-damning-stuff-the-coming-war-on-china-documentary-review/

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The Alan Clarke Collection: Disruption

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The BFI has released a mammoth 13-disc box set chronicling the life and work of Alan Clarke, the hell-raiser director/writer/producer of Scum, The Firm, Made in Britain and many TV films for the BBC.

The collection comprises two sections: Dissent, which covers 1969 – 1977, andDisruption, which covers 1978 – 1989. They can be bought as a single Blu-ray collection, which will set one back about £110, or in separate DVD box sets for £49.99 each. It’s a pity that the separate collections are only available on DVD, but the transfer of Disruption – which is the focus of this review – still looked good on my Blu-ray player.

Besides, high definition would not do much to improve the 4:3 framed grittiness of Alan Clarke’s realism. The real selling point of this collection is the remarkable scope of the material; indeed, the BFI says it is the most comprehensive package they’ve ever produced for a single filmmaker. There are 11 BBC films: Nina, Danton’s Death, Beloved Enemy, Psy-Warriors, Baal, Stars of the Roller State Disco, Contact, Christine, Road, two versions of The Firm and Elephant.

Supporting these films is a veritable wealth of introductions, commentaries, Open Air discussions and documentaries that are too numerous to be fully listed here. The special feature most worth mentioning is Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light, a brand-new 12-part documentary that’s spread out across the six discs, providing contexts and insights that are bound to illuminate even the most venerable of Clarke’s fans.

As something of a newcomer (I’d seen only Scum and The Firm), it was the diversity of Clarke’s canon that surprised me. Like many others, I had associated him with bleak kitchen-sink fare and little else. However, Clarke has dealt with corporate drama in Beloved Enemy, revolutionary France in Danton’s Death, the Troubles in Contact and Elephant, communist defection in Nina, and governmental torture in Psy-Warriors, to name just a few.

This body of work represents a largely bygone era of creativity over commercialism among BBC commissioners, who now believe that the British public wants the likes of ‘will.i.am’ and his monstrous sartorial inelegance headlining yet another loud, flashy talent show.

To continue reading, please visit Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/06/an-exhaustively-definitive-tribute-the-alan-clarke-collection-disruption-dvd-boxset-review/

 

Green Room (2016)

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Green Room is light on story but excruciatingly heavy on blood spattered, genre-leading survival thrills.

Director Jeremy Saulnier knows a thing or two about set pieces. Head shots, too. The harrowing events of Green Room occur in just several rooms, yet Saulnier’s stripped-down script and direction creates a veritable white-knuckle ride of desperate reversals of fortune and shocking explosions of violence.

The victims of all this nastiness are The Ain’t Rights, a struggling Punk band comprising Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner). After stealing some petrol for their battered old camper van, they head to Seaside, Oregon, where a local DJ arranges a gig for them at a ‘right-wing’ venue, an offer which the destitute band cannot afford to decline.

When they arrive at the club – which is in an ominously remote corner of the Pacific North West – the shaven heads, tattoos and sketchy, leering glances make it clear that the crowd is not merely right wing but positively fascist. It is at this moment that a feeling of palpable danger and isolation starts to germinate, a feeling that comes to brutal fruition when Pat is witness to a murder in the club’s green room.

In a hail of panic and confusion, the band and Amber (Imogen Poots) are locked in the room under the guard of Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) and his fully loaded Smith & Wesson .500, which he explains has cartridges so large that only five can fit into the cylinder. What ensues is a savagely intense siege that affords both its protagonists and the viewer very few luxuries.

After the first few instances of jarring violence, I feared that the film was going to be ninety minutes of audience punishment in the style of The Loved Ones or Wolf Creek. Thankfully, the fortunes of our besieged protagonists do improve, albeit in a wayward and unpredictable manner. It is all the better for it too – the twists and turns of the band’s seemingly insurmountable predicament had me in a choke hold until the very end.

What makes Green Room so engaging is its relatability; it is much like Deliverance in this respect. Both films thrust normal people with little experience of violence into a lethal situation, causing the viewer to wonder ‘what would I do?’, ‘where would I be in this group’s dynamic?’.

Similarly, the protagonists of both films have no one to turn to, no outsider that they can fully trust. With his smooth diction and measured disposition, Darcy (a very interestingly cast Patrick Stewart) initially appears to be a mature voice of reason amongst a pack of rabidly aggressive young men. Alas, such hopes do not last as the contrary becomes quickly evident. It is only Gabe, played by Saulnier’s childhood friend Macon Blair, who appears to be someone the band can work with. Blair channels much of his performance through an anguished gaze that reveals shades of anxiety, doubt and shame. It seems that Gabe has fallen prey to Darcy’s steely manipulation.

This is about as dynamic as the characterisation gets, because although Green Room features fine performances across the board, it is a film is driven by genre-leading survival thrills rather than plot and characters. If you choose to go and see it – prepare yourself!

75%

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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The Hateful Eight suffers from an overly long running time, comparably forgettable characters and the weight of expectation, but it eventually comes to life as the twists and turns occur in rapid succession.

It’s easy to determine the worst film of Tarantino’s career, it’s Death Proof. That one’s firmly at the bottom of the totem pole. Some way up to around the middle of the pole are both volumes of Kill Bill, which had fun action but were utterly lightweight. Deciding which film occupies the top of the monument is quite difficult, as I like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained for a variety of different reasons. These four films are a showcase of the wit, cine-literacy, explosive conflict and idiosyncrasies that have made Tarantino perhaps the most popular director of the past twenty years.

On the surface, The Hateful Eight has the earmarks of a Tarantino film. It has dialogue in abundance, squibby gunfights, incessant use of the word nigger and a hollering Samuel L. Jackson, but Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film is a decidedly mediocre entry into his much loved oeuvres.

The immediate problem is pacing. Unlike some, I seldom found the pacing of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained to be a problem, but The Hateful Eight, which has been politely labelled a slow burner by some critics, burns too slowly. It takes a whole half hour of gruff, uneventful drawl before we reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, in which the remainder of the film’s 187 minutes takes place.

Once we’re in the cabin, the aggressively cautious John Ruth (Kurt Russell) demands the identity of everyone. There’s Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), a bounty hunter who is watchable but not a departure from familiar Sam Jackson territory; Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the goofy, ebullient Sheriff of nearby Redrock; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Ruth’s foul-mouthed bounty who’s on the receiving end of multiple elbows and fists; Oswaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth), a stereotypical Victorian gentleman and hangman; Bob (Demian Bichir), a mumbling Mexican; General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous bastard who fought in the Civil War; and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a completely disposable stock character.

It is unlikely that any of these characters will leave much of an impression on the viewer, for they are Tarantino’s most unremarkable and thinly drawn in quite some time. You won’t find another Vincent Vega, Jules Winnfield or Colonel Hans Landa here. One would think that a film with this title would have eight very unpleasant characters, and I suppose it does, but I didn’t hate them because I didn’t care. There is a flashback scene in which they are genuinely hateful, but its placement towards the end of the three hour running time blunted its power.

Like he did in Kill Bill vol. 1, Tarantino could’ve made up for the flat characters with some great set pieces. His career has been punctuated with long scenes of iconic humour and dialogue as well as biting tension, suspense and unpredictability. These elements are sometimes present within the cramped four walls of Minnie’s Haberdashery, especially when the mystery begins to unravel. Compare this to Inglourious Basterds, however, and you’ll be swiftly reminded that The Hateful Eight lacks the energy, excitement and intrigue that we expect. There’s nothing that matches the opening interrogation between Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and the French farmer or Michael Fassbender’s excruciating altercation in the basement bar.

Perhaps most damaging of all is that the dialogue and humour also suffers by comparison. There’s no golden watch sequence, no ‘I just shot Marvin in the face’ moment. There’s nothing that approaches the loquacious flair of Reservoir Dogs and particularly Pulp Fiction. The Hateful Eight‘s most memorable set piece is an ill-judged exchange between Samuel Jackson and Bruce Dern, in which there is a cutaway scene featuring fellatio. It’s crude, unimaginative and below the standard of a two-time Oscar winner for best original screenplay.

All of this would have been avoided if Tarantino had just given the screenplay to Tracy Letts, who wrote the wonderfully twisted Killer JoeLetts is a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright who knows how to ignite all manner of drama within a cramped domestic setting; he also knows how to write an outrageous scene of fellatio. Letts would have stripped it down and added a bit of spice, or probably a whole ghost chili, knowing him.

The tone of this review has been largely negative, but I didn’t hate or even dislike the film. The Hateful Eight is just something of a misfire, a weak ending to Quentin’s so-called historical trilogy. It suffers from a slow start, but the crescendo that builds following the interval reaches a climax that lifts the film up, albeit not to the height of his previous efforts.

73%

American Sniper (2014)

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Bradley Cooper succeeds admirably in becoming the humble, everyday patriot in a film that is more a slightly jingoistic tribute than balanced biopic.

To call Chris Kyle ‘everyday’ is unfair, his experiences in the Middle East and his talents with a rifle are anything but ‘everyday’, but Kyle had the simple, one-dimensional outlook of many everyday, conservative American patriots. It’s not easy for a prominent actor with a celebrity profile to become the common man, but Bradley Cooper achieves it with much credibility – he makes the most of American Sniper’s simple script and simple direction.

I – like many others it seems based on the very lucrative opening weekend – was completely drawn in by the excellent trailer that so skilfully builds a crescendo of pressure and ambiguity. The war scenes in the full-length feature are fine, some of them are wrought with tension and appropriately grisly images, but few of the military excursions we see are particularly memorable. I also had a problem with the moment when a bullet leaves Kyle’s rifle in slow motion much like the video game Sniper Elite; it’s an inappropriately stylised depiction of warfare that doesn’t belong in a film like American Sniper.

The film’s chief problems lie in its narrative and the jingoistic, somewhat untruthful characterisation. Despite it being a competently crafted film, I have wondered if Chris Kyle’s story was entirely worth telling. Take away his unusual, tragic death and you’re left with a story that’s about a simple man who was a good shot. In an effort to substantiate some sort of narrative, the screenwriter Jason Hall gives Kyle an Iraqi nemesis sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) to stalk in the ruins of Iraq. This reeked of fabrication, and after a brief search on Google I learned that it was indeed a considerable dramatization. It seems Mustafa was a real individual but he certainly wasn’t Kyle’s arch-enemy, he is mentioned in only one paragraph of Kyle’s memoir and his death is speculated rather off-handedly – ‘I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.’ 

Kyle is characterised as a good American patriot whose actions both stateside and in battle are always noble. When questioned about the ethics of his profession, Kyle – like previous noted snipers such as Carlos Hathcock of the Vietnam War – responds with a ‘it’s him or me/kill or be killed’ attitude that’s often faith inflected – I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill our soldiers and I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.’ Kyle’s actions and justifications for them are reasonable in the film, but I started to think that perhaps the embarrassingly right-wing Clint Eastwood was too reverential and somewhat biased in his depiction, a suspicion that was confirmed after reading excerpts from Kyle’s memoir, which included musings on how he ‘loved’ killing and that it was ‘fun’. With a similar lack of foresight to the government he was fighting for, Kyle also exclaimed that he ‘couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.’ Perhaps the most alarming of Kyle’s boasts was about his supposed shooting of 30 armed civilians during the bedlam of Hurricane Katrina, a claim that has never been corroborated by authorities.

Despite my reservations about the man it was based on and the sanitised manner in which he was depicted, I still empathised with the character (I stress the word character) and his family struggles as I liked his measure and humility. This investment in the character and the foreknowledge of his sudden, tragic end meant I felt very uncomfortable during the final scene as Kyle insouciantly says farewell to his family for what would be the last time. It is a testament to mostly Bradley Cooper’s performance that I was dreading what was going to happen next.

The story’s shocking ending is dealt with tactfully, perhaps too tactfully. We see nothing of the murder and almost nothing of the murderer Eddy Ray Routh, who is briefly seen standing against Kyle’s car as he blankly stares at Chris’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who spends most of her screen time pregnant or making hackneyed pleas for her husband to ‘come home’ metaphorically. The film could have given a greater insight into Routh and the events of February 2nd, 2013, this could have been interesting, but I understand and appreciate the way in which it was handled. Indeed, the denouement’s understatement has proven very powerful; I had read with pointed interest accounts of the palpable silence amongst audiences once the credits rolled, and the effect was exactly the same in the auditorium I was in – it’s a rare occurrence.

Despite being laced with predictabilities, moral ambiguities and disappointing alterations of the truth, American Sniper offers an adequate if rather simple and familiar insight into the life of a committed career soldier.

70%

Fury (2014)

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Its climactic scene descends into Rambo territory, however outside of this David Ayer’s Fury contains some impressively loud and brutal scenes of warfare. 

I had been eagerly anticipating Fury, I had faith in it as director David Ayer proved his skill in creating searingly intense action sequences in End of Watch (2012), a film that had a palpable sense of danger. Despite Fury following a tank crew during WW2, I don’t think it matched End of Watch’s pervasive sense of looming peril, as the latter had a hyperrealism and an urban environment more familiar to me than a battleground, thank goodness.

The film opens with several lines of text explaining the situation, it’s simple but rather chilling, informing the viewers that it’s April 1945 and that the German defence is the most ‘fanatical’ the Allies have encountered in the European theatre.

Fury follows a tank crew comprising Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt), a battle hardened veteran of North Africa and Europe; Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) a timid rookie with only 8 weeks’ training as a typist; Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the cliched zealously religious southerner; Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal), a genuinely hateful, obnoxious, rancid Neanderthal who regularly boiled my blood.

Fury’s chief merit is its war scenes. The film features some excellent sound engineering, which was delivered to me by Vue’s thunderingly loud sound system. Be prepared for the frenzied chatter of MG42s, the sudden, reverberating boom of artillery fire and the piercing shriek of tank shells ricocheting. The instantaneous, ceaseless death is executed well, men’s lives end forever left, right and centre in the most brutal fashion, whether it’s death by headshot, fire, explosives or tank tracks – it’s anonymous slaughter on a massive scale. Like any combat-intensive war film should do, Fury leaves you feeling battered, however its power is unfortunately hindered by its stupid concluding battle.

With publicity photos of Brad Pitt posturing meanly with his cool hair, I had worried that Fury would be a Brad Pitt vehicle, a film in which Pitt is a gunslinging B-movie war hero instead of a real soldier. I felt my fears were being confirmed when in the first minute or so Pitt jumps off a tank and launches himself at a man on horseback, knocking him down and vehemently stabbing him in the eyes; however his Rambo emulation was generally kept at bay until the film’s final battle, where his character and indeed the whole film goes awry.

War films and the moralising that comes with some can so easily become hackneyed, and there are times where the dialogue veered very closely to the trite ‘war is hell’ territory with lines such as ‘You’ll soon know… what a man can do to another man.’ delivered portentously and too early in the film by Gordo.

Characterisation also suffered from tired conventions at times; although LaBeouf went method actor for his character (he cut his face and pulled one of his teeth out), he rather wasted his commitment, as Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan is the tiringly familiar southern drawling preacher that, according to cinema, was present in every platoon. Saving Private Ryan was also guilty of this with Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), the stylishly ultra-accurate, cross-kissing sniper. Indeed, the areas that these characters hail from constitute the most religious region of the United States, their presence I suppose is entirely plausible, however I think they stink of stock character.

The worst instance of engagement breaking clichéd tosh happens at the beginning of the film’s final scene, in which the heroic Wardaddy decides to fight a much, much larger SS division that possess both vehicles and a comprehensive arsenal of weapons. Initially, the men protest it, but of course one by one they declare that ‘I’m stayin’!’ I did much head shaking during this moment. Despite these brushes with cliché however, I felt that Fury didn’t become a serious offender.

There’s a protracted scene in which Wardaddy and Norman seek refuge in the apartment of a German mother and daughter. To begin with, the scene is wrought with tension as you don’t know the battle-hardened Wardaddy’s intentions; rape of German women was commonplace, particularly by Soviet troops during and after the Battle of Berlin. However the scene eventually becomes overlong and rather misguided, the ambiguous tension being lost long before the expected payoff or denouement, a variety of which never arriving.

And now to the aforementioned final battle scene. I have read numerous arguments defending the scene’s credibility, however the reasoning is invariably flimsy – demonstrably, the scene is very flawed indeed. I have heard some remarkable stories of bravery from WW2, the most recent one being Robert Cain (Jeremy Clarkson’s father-in-law). Major Cain had been driven to a frenzy during Operation Market Garden, resigning himself to death and managing to disable or destroy six tanks using his deft skill with a 6-pounder anti-tank gun and, believe it or not, a two-inch mortar fired from his hip. Cain somehow survived the ordeal, winning a Victoria Cross for his gallantry. Despite such stories, there are just too many holes in Fury’s last standoff; it’s a lazily written stain on the film that breaks the momentum of the electrifying collection of war scenes that preceded it.

71%

The Silent World (1956)

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For better or worse, there’s a tremendous sense of fun in Jacques Cousteau & Louis Malle’s seminal The Silent World.

I have long known of Jacques Cousteau and his pioneering technology through my father, he transferred his childhood interest of diving and the oceans onto me. Despite this, I was not aware that Cousteau and his team were the subject of several feature-length documentaries with two Academy Awards and a Palme D’or to boast of. When I stumbled upon The Silent World in a CEX shop, I was immediately attracted to the idea of seeing the ocean through the wonderful vibrancy of Technicolor – it was one of the first films to create such an experience.

The documentary follows Cousteau, his crew and a lucky little Dachshund aboard the Calypso. They may grow tired in the oppressive sunlight and absence of activity when they’re travelling across the vast, lonely stretches of ocean, but it is all proved worthwhile when they get into the water.

Using Cousteau’s Aqualung, the men swim around with relish, in one instance encircling a sponge diver heaving along in a metal helmeted diving suit that today we see only in tacky gold fish bowls. The man hiding in his relic of a suit doesn’t mind the aqualung upstarts, the men shake hands and scour the seabed for sponges together.

The greatest liberation however is afforded by their rotary propelled underwater vehicles. They glide among an array of wildlife with ease, including a sea turtle, with one diver seizing the opportunity and hitching a ride on the majestic animal’s back until it’s exhausted – it all looks thoroughly enjoyable until he overstays his welcome.

mir-tishinyiYou never see David Attenborough having this much fun.

Indeed, the documentary regularly reminds you of the age it comes from – they provoke most of the animals they encounter! When they happen across the group of whales, the skipper decides to try and harpoon one with little success, Cousteau narrates: ‘Under our skipper’s nose is a whale sixty feet long and he can’t resist having a crack at it’.  Soon after this, the Calypso’s propellers mortally injure a small whale and the crew mercifully kill the profusely bleeding animal.

This inevitably attracts scores of sharks, and the crew’s reaction to them surprised me more than anything in the film. Cousteau narrates: ‘For us divers, the sharks are our mortal enemies.’ As the sharks tear through the whale carcass of the men’s making, he continues: ‘Every seaman hates the sharks, after what we have seen, the divers can’t be held back, they grab anything they can to avenge the whale.’

The men proceed to brutally catch the sharks, tearing their mouths open as they yank them on board, battering some of them with the blunt end of an axe. Marine biologists would abhor such attitudes and behaviour today, however like with the lobsters and flying fish earlier in the film, the Frenchman probably made good use of them in the kitchen.

jc22The little Dachshund is used to such sights.

No animal is left unpestered, even land animals aren’t safe. When the men arrive at a desert island, they meet a group of giant tortoises and sit and stand on them as they casually eat their lunch. The men’s irreverence seems to leave an impression on the Dachshund, as he is seen nipping at the legs of a poor tortoise trying to mind his own business.

Their cavalier style also sees them blowing up part of a coral reef and collecting the detritus in the name of science – it’s an awfully destructive approach to taxonomy.

The crew restore your faith in them somewhat when they befriend ‘Ulysses’, a gregarious eighty-pound Grouper fish who, along with scores of other fish, becomes surprisingly tame when the men present them with a bag of delicious gristle.

There are moments where the men contrive conversations to show the viewer the procedures that happen aboard the ship. I use the word contrive because of how awfully stilted the men are, but this is mainly because of the useless dubbing on my Blu-ray, so I’ll give the crew’s acting abilities the benefit of the doubt. I liked Cousteau’s French-inflected English narration, but I would have preferred subtitles when the men spoke to each other.

The Silent World is a charismatic documentary that provides a compelling insight into the history of both diving and underwater photography.

78%