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/

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%

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%

Joe (2013)

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Nicolas Cage disappears into his role as the titular Joe in a film that’s thematically rather familiar but also a surprisingly realist piece of cinema.

The film follows the principal characters Joe (Nicolas Cage) and Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary is the only member of his degenerate family who is able to work and earn a living; he has been forced to become a responsible person by his vile, repulsive father Wade (Gary Poulter), a man who has abused his body so much and for so long that he can only speak in slurred, incoherent ramblings. I recently compiled a list of the 10 most hateful characters of cinema; I think Wade could quite easily be placed in it.

Joe is a recidivist who is haunted by his criminal history and continues to struggle with controlling his anger, it seems the only way he can stay out of trouble is by absorbing himself in his small landscaping company.

Joe leads a group of black workers, they clear wooded areas with these rather strange axes that waywardly squirt poison everywhere. Joe and Gary are brought together when the boy implores him to employ both himself and his father. Joe obliges and Gary proves to be a good worker, although the agreement is soon thwarted by his obnoxious father who is too polluted, weak and lazy to contribute to the team.

The cast of Joe’s workers and indeed the whole film is populated with actors who were seemingly taken from the street, their performances are completely natural and their language raw, colloquial and as a result sometimes completely incomprehensible! A few times I felt like an American watching Trainspotting, particularly during a row between the moronic Wade and a black worker, whose ebonics is the strongest I’ve ever heard.

Joe is a tough watch, there are characters that represent the very lowest form of human life, there’s seldom a room in the film that isn’t a filthy, cluttered mess. I didn’t expect it to be such a realist piece of cinema, its depiction of blue collar work and young Gary’s first foray into it is sure to resonate with anyone who’s had similar experiences, myself included.

Nicolas Cage doesn’t stick out at all, he effortlessly blends in with the surrounding cast of largely unknown actors. Like Leaving Las Vegas, Joe is an example of Cage moderating his idiosyncratic acting, which I like incidentally, and showcasing just how good he is.

Clear correlations can be made with Mud, a similarly themed film about a benevolent renegade forming a bond with Tye Sheridan’s conflicted teenage boy. Joe is the superior of the pair, although Mud boasted good performances from its leads, it was melodramatic and overrated. Tye Sheridan’s character Ellis in Mud, who is given far too much screen time, thought about love and human relationships in ways that 14-year-old boys just don’t – I didn’t believe in him. He also had a habit of vehemently punching people in the face that belied his prepubescent little frame. Joe’s Gary is a much better character, a measured boy who simply wants to make a living and prove to the men in his life that he’s no kid.

Mud lacked Joe’s gritty nastiness, it had treacly melodrama instead of stark reality. What they do share is the running theme of redemption, and in the case of Joe, I found its conclusion rather familiar and subsequently bathetic. Despite this, Joe succeeds in absorbing you in its masculine world and Nicolas Cage defies any naysayers by completely disappearing into his role as the titular rogue.

76%

Zero Day (2003)

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A raw, nuanced and disturbing recreation of the Columbine killers.

Zero Day is heavily inspired by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the middle-class Colorado teenagers who committed the Columbine High School massacre, probably the most infamous high school shooting in US history.

The attack was the result of two damaged people becoming friends and progressively normalising each other’s warped world views. Harris was the driving force of the duo, he was confident, self-assured and bereft of a moral compass – the hallmarks of a typical sociopath. Klebold was an introverted misanthrope who suffered from bouts of deep depression and anger. The pair seemed to be a dichotomy, however they were completely drawn to each other; the film shows that the murderers of both Columbine and Zero Day were empowered by their friendship, they fuelled each other’s emerging superiority complexes and nihilism until they felt ready and even obliged to execute their shocking crimes.

I remember reading a lot about Columbine in my mid-teens, Harris and Klebold’s ages of 18 and 17 respectively seemed distant to me at the time, it is only now having long passed those ages that I realise just how young they were to have developed such morbid, poisonous psychology and then do what they did.

Harris and Klebold’s contrasting personality traits can be clearly seen in the lead characters, Andre Kriegman (Andre Keuk) being Harris and Calvin Gabriel (Cal Robertson) being Klebold. The film, which has a mockumentary format, begins with the pair setting up their camcorder and standing outside of their high school, irreverently introducing to the viewer both themselves and their ‘big ass mission’ called ‘Zero Day’. They then chart their lives leading up to this fateful event, which ranges from detailing their supposed motives and making pipe bombs to visiting the dentist and talking with their family at the dinner table. This home movie realism is complimented by Keuk and Robertson’s great performances, they responded very well to director Ben Coccio’s encouragement to improvise – they’re completely natural.

Andre has delusions of grandeur, he envisions Zero Day as some sort of Armageddon. He is also militaristic in his language, referring to it as a ‘campaign’ and stressing the importance of planning and discipline – ‘It’s a military procedure, that’s why we’re the army of two’. This self-importance was apparent too in the Columbine killers, Eric Harris smugly remarked – ‘It’ll be like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke (Nukem) and Doom all mixed together…I want to leave a lasting impression on the world.”  They aimed to not only shoot many people but also kill hundreds with bombs they planted in the school’s cafeteria, thankfully the rudimentary home made devices failed to detonate.

Andre, like Harris, is the clear ringleader of the pair. He is usually the subject of their recordings, keenly articulating his contempt for society and plans for Zero Day as well as running the viewer through their stolen gun collection. Cal is normally in the background, he’s very easy-going for someone endeavouring to murder his classmates, however he reminds the viewer of his wholehearted commitment to Zero Day in an unnerving series of 1 on 1 recordings.

Again, much like Harris and Klebold, Andre and Calvin aren’t abject loners,  they have other friends, although perhaps superficial ones, and they’re invited to a party early in the film, however Calvin finds socialising difficult – ‘I’m just not good at parties.’ It is most likely their inability to integrate with other people in a meaningful way that is their chief source of anger.

Despite this, there are moments that occur outside of their toxic ‘campaign’. Cal is talking jovially with his friend Rachel when the topic of conversation turns to Andre and Cal’s relationship with him. Rachel and Andre don’t like each other, it is revealed that Andre is rude to her, he appears to resent Cal’s attention being diverted away from him and their cause. Although completely unaware of their abhorrent plan, Rachel has the measure of the ‘army of two’, when Cal asks her whom she considers the leader of the two, she quickly says Andre, adding that ‘When you’re with him you’re different, you’re… Andre no. 2.’ 

Unfortunately, the army of two isn’t fractured by outsiders like Rachel, the massacre is realised in the film’s final moments. Their rampage is seen via CCTV footage, it is so brutally authentic that in the past I have seen it mistaken for genuine Columbine footage on YouTube. The viewer is also able to hear the events unfold via a 911 operator on a mobile phone that Andre steals from a victim; although her behaviour is credible, the operator does become irritating as she incessantly asks ‘Can you pick up?’ to Andre. I have seen the film numerous times with other people and its last scene always creates an uneasy silence.

Zero Day’s greatest merit is that it’s never heavy handed, it doesn’t contrive a clear, simple answer to why massacres such as Columbine occur. That is because there isn’t a simple answer; these atrocities are the climax of a toxic, entangled cauldron of hate, alienation, envy, disaffection and mental illness.

79%

About Schmidt (2002)

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A poignant film about the definition of success.

About Schmidt follows Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a veteran actuary of the Woodmen of the World insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. Schmidt is a polite, measured man surrounded by people who are commonly quite the opposite.

There are flashes of his broad, mischievous smile and roguish charm, but Nicholson reels in his iconic charisma, he effortlessly becomes the respectable, disconcerted Middle American and is as magnetic and watchable as usual.

The film begins in a desolate office as Schmidt stares at a clock that adorns a bare, grey wall as the final minute of his interminable career ticks by. He then enters something of a catatonic state, his blank expression displaying ambiguous yet decidedly dissatisfied emotions. He attends his retirement dinner, witnessing overlong, self-indulgent speeches from colleagues both old and new. He also drops by his old office to speak with his replacement who was so very charming at the dinner yet so indifferent afterwards. Throughout these scenes Schmidt retains his composure, reserving any judgement on his rapidly changing life.

As he sits at home unsure what to do with himself, he watches an advert appealing for the viewer to sponsor an African child. He does so, and is soon funding and corresponding with a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu; it is his first letter to Ndugu that provides the first big laugh in the film. As he puts pen to paper, Schmidt boils over and rants about his cocky upstart of a replacement, his daughter’s fiancée, his failure to achieve ‘semi-importance’, his wife’s annoying habits and his somewhat emasculating subservience to her.

Soon after this letter, his wife passes away. Schmidt then begins to reflect on every aspect of his life, even wondering if his wife was the soul mate she was supposed to be.

The film is about the nature of success. Schmidt’s definition of success is leaving an impression during one’s existence, making a difference. He doesn’t aspire to be Henry Ford or Walt Disney, he draws the line far below that level of success, however he wants to be ‘semi-important’ at least.

What exactly does Schmidt mean by ‘semi-important’? By striving for something that he hasn’t precisely defined he has set himself up for disappointment. The only way in which most people make a profound difference is by continuing their lineage, creating new people and a myriad of new experiences – I think that is entirely honourable. The main objective isn’t to shake the system up but to enjoy yourself. 

Personally, I think Schmidt has been a success; his hard graft will provide for generations to come, as long as his self-absorbed, high maintenance daughter isn’t foolish. His life’s greatest flaw was his wife, he had no connection with her, they were on very different wavelengths. He could have divorced her, but that would have most likely had negative effects on his daughter; he arguably did the righteous, selfless thing by sticking with her.

Some feel the ending is bathetic, which is understandable. I thought Schmidt was being too hard on himself, but it seems he filled a very personal void in the film’s final moments, so that has to be a good thing.

I have written about these characters as if I know them, which is testament to the existential resonance of About Schmidt. 

77%

Jesus Camp (2006)

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I objected to so much in Jesus Camp that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Jesus Camp follows a group of children as they’re indoctrinated by fundamentalist Christians at a summer camp;  it is a documentary that leaves one both angry and incredulous.

At the centre of it is Becky Fischer, a fat, obnoxious egotist who serves as the main speaker at the camp. We see Fischer preaching emphatically to these young minds, permeating their innocence with fear and guilt until they cry hysterically. So ridiculous and damn risible is her fanaticism that she even lambasts Harry Potter, spouting that ‘Warlocks are enemies of God! Had it been in the Old Testament Harry Potter would have been put to death! You don’t make heroes out of warlocks!’ – clearly, a religion of peace.

What is happening here is not religion, it’s child abuse. The children aren’t given the opportunity to think for themselves, they are inundated and imbued with bigotry, absurd reactionary values and a completely zealous devotion to God. Fischer and her creepy minions are quite open about what they’re doing, she even refers to it as ‘indoctrination’ in one instance, but they see nothing wrong in it, in fact she even says – ‘I would like to see more children indoctrinated!’ When asked why she targets children, Fischer replies candidly and without shame – ‘The reason that we target kids is that whatever they learn by the time they’re 7, 8, 9 years old is pretty much there for the rest of their lives.’ 

Much of what you see is deplorable, however it truly passes a boundary when the indoctrinators use the language of violence, speaking of things such as ‘God’s army’, ‘fighting’ and ‘war’. After many children have been driven slightly mad by the suffocating mania of Fischer and her misfits, they are encouraged to manifest their religious zeal into violence by smashing mugs that represent all things satanic with a claw-hammer.

It’s this ‘God’s army’ mentality that produces the most disconcerting behaviour amongst the children. One child speaks of how she feels like a ‘warrior’ and that she’s at ‘peace’ with death; children should not be forced to contemplate their mortality like this. Her point is expanded upon by 12-year-old Levi – ‘you know a lot of people die for God and stuff and they’re not even afraid.’ If the political landscape of the United States was to descend somehow into bedlam, I could see this pernicious, extreme devotion to God becoming very violent indeed. They claim that their cause is purely spiritual, but that is nonsense, the real purpose of their dogma is to create a Evangelical overhaul of the government.

All of this incessant madness and irrationality is interrupted sporadically by Mike Papantino, the Christian co-host of radio programme Ring of Fire. The camera captures Papantino in his studio as he articulately despairs of these people, highlighting the alarming scale of the Evangelical movement and how this affects the democracy of the United States. Although I disagree with his religious views, Papantino reminds the viewer that there are normal people of faith out there that believe in the separation of church and state just like the founding fathers of their country.

Despite the input of Papantino, the documentary is, to its credit, largely impartial; directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady just let the cameras roll on their unhinged subjects. To insert their presence into the documentary and make any judgement would be unnecessary. Ewing and Grady’s documentary offers an important insight that effortlessly captures the unnerving and dangerous Evangelical underbelly of the United States.

 79%

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Stunning CGI and compelling allegory makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a solid instalment.

Unlike a lot of summer blockbusters, there isn’t much fun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film opens with a map sequence showing the spread of the Simian virus, it is a worryingly plausible and perhaps even prescient prelude to the film’s nihilistic 130 minutes.

Based in San Francisco, a group of virus resistant humans stumble upon the apes in a forest whilst locating a dam that’s vital for the city’s power supply. Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a trigger happy human, wounds an ape upon the surprise encounter, setting relations off to a uneasy start. Caeser (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes,  eventually allows the humans to work on the dam on the strict condition that they surrender their weapons.

This collaboration makes Koba (Toby Kebbell) rather apprehensive. Koba, a bonobo, has suffered at the hands of humans, developing an intense hatred for them. While Caesar is wary of humans and acts very much in the interest of his fellows apes, he recognises the humans’ capacity for good, something that frustrates and disillusions Koba to the point of rebellion.

Immediately the film impresses with its motion capture, seldom am I compelled by CGI characters like I was by Caeser, Koba and the scores of other primates. The range of chimps, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos are effortlessly brought to life through superlative animation and great physical performances.

The Homo sapiens of the film are, on the other hand, somewhat unremarkable and one dimensional – they’re all disposable save for a few. However, both the humans and apes have members whose existence are purely narrative function, they each serve identical purposes, it’s a rather simple construct. Caeser, the hyper-intelligent Chimpanzee who is stern but fair with his colony and the humans he encounters, has a clear equivalent in Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the human leader who also favours peace and cooperation.

These two leaders are beacons of appeasement and democracy, however both sides are jeopardised by bigoted brutes. The aforementioned Carver and Koba assume these roles, both have a tendency for violence and prediliction for martial law, however Koba has a much more sinister influence in the colony. Gary Oldman’s character Dreyfus, a senior member of the humans, is also a counterpart of Koba’s, however I found Carver to be more zealous in his contempt.

There is a slight narrative sag about half way through the film, however this break in momentum is swiftly fixed when the embittered, war-mongering  Koba orchestrates a full scale conflict with the humans. The film then becomes an interesting allegory for war, racism and genocide. With scenes of humans being herded into cages and brutal punishment for dissent amongst the ranks, clear correlations can be made between Koba’s colony and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s USSR and the slew of other hideous regimes of history.

Generally, the film is to be commended for its anthropomorphic balance. I liked how for the majority of the time the apes communicated using sign language as opposed to just English. Speaking English is biologically impossible for apes, however I’m willing to believe that this isn’t necessarily true in the film’s universe. What I’m not willing to believe is that Chimpanzees can shed tears, they can’t, it is a human function that’s unique among primates. Also, there are instances in which the apes, chiefly Caesar, bear facial expressions or engage in conversations that are just too human. Thankfully, the anthropomorphism is seldom sentimental.

Although character development is familiar and predictable, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately a spectacle packed nihilistic summer blockbuster about instinct, hierarchy, politics, racism and war.

78%

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

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This image may summarise the film’s implausibility.

Although it features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes,  the largely fictional narrative that surrounds them is ultimately rather formulaic and implausible.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ is all about Forrest Whitaker; as soon as he graces the screen, he is Idi Amin. The unison of Whitaker’s physicality and his superb East African accent, which is perhaps the most impressive element of his performance, transforms him into the Ugandan dictator.

Although it is clear that Amin is a manipulator and intent on getting his own way, he is loquacious, magnetic and, surprisingly, quite affable. He charms both the viewer and Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), the impressionable Scottish doctor who initially believes Amin’s rousing yet hollow speeches.

It soon becomes apparent however that this is a charm offensive, a manipulative process that wears very thin once Amin’s deeply ugly, frenetic megalomania is laid bare. Like many of history’s dictators – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot – Amin succumbs to paranoia, and mass violence ensues.

The film begins with the proclamation that ‘This film is inspired by real people and real events.’, however it fails to state that the central character Nicholas Garrigan is actually entirely fictional. I hadn’t looked into the film’s veracity before watching it, however although there appeared to be clear narrative exaggerations at times, I had presumed that Garrigan was at least a real person. It is a typical example of the ‘inspired by real events’ cliché, ‘inspired’ is always the key part of the sentence.

The film follows Garrigan as he inadvertently becomes Amin’s personal physician and at times ‘closest advisor’; it is indeed an extraordinary predicament, but I suppose stranger things have happened. McAvoy is good as Garrigan, his gradually souring relationship with Amin is interesting and intense, they have many great exchanges.

However, with the knowledge that Nicholas Garrigan is an invention of Giles Foden, author of the book on which the film is based, Scotland’s narrative seems rather formulaic and implausible. I found Garrigan’s relationships with medic Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) and Kay Amin (Kerry Washington) to be hackneyed plot mechanisms.

While the film includes real events such as the Israeli hostage crisis at Entebbe International Airport, much of what occurs is either historically unfaithful or sheer fiction. The story was inspired by one of Amin’s many self-bestowed titles – The King of Scotland.

An example of the film’s implausibility is the scene where Garrigan and Amin first meet. Amin’s Citroen DS has been in a collision with a cow (what appears to be an Ankole-Watusi), leaving him with an injured hand that Garrigan tends to. The creature appears to be fatally wounded and wails in a pain until Garrigan, who has repeatedly asked for it to be put out of its misery, takes Amin’s gun from the roof of the car and mercifully shoots it twice in the head.

Although the surrounding guards train their guns on Garrigan, predictably Amin respects his audacity, and, amusingly, is particularly pleased when he finds out he is Scottish. It is a scene that is quite bereft of credibility.

Although the film has elements of character study, my main problem with the film is that it doesn’t give an insight into Amin’s rule and the atrocities committed under it. Although he is clearly a despot, a mentally ill bully, the film’s emphasis on his fictional relationship with Garrigan rather than fact meant that I didn’t find him hateful.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes, however ultimately the largely fictional narrative that surrounds Whitaker is rather formulaic.

 75%

Bad Santa (2003)

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A surprisingly funny alternative Christmas film.

This narratively clichéd yet entertaining alternative Christmas film is one definitely worth seeing if you’re sick of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, a safe-cracking crook who masquerades as Father Christmas every December in shopping malls across the United States. His token elf accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), who is a ‘little person’, exploits his miniature frame to hide in the malls after opening hours, hastily cancelling the security system so Bad Santa can waltz in and get to work on the safe. Their set-up is working smoothly, however things begin to change when Willie befriends and pities a young boy and a security boss begins to hone in on their activities.

I found myself laughing on many occasions thanks to contributions from almost all the cast, especially Bernie Mac. However, the humour was tainted by the language, which soon became gratuitous and puerile. Those two adjectives also describe Willie; his bad boy persona becomes tiresome, especially his regular witless, foul-mouthed tirades.

The development of the relationship between Willie and Thurman, who is a rotund and endearingly oblivious child, is predictable but undeniably nice to watch. The boy is so pathetic, and I mean that in the true sense of the word, that you can’t help but wish him well.

Apart from the sometimes grating dialogue, I’d recommend Bad Santa. It’s an entertaining and politically incorrect film that puts a twist on the Christmas movie genre conventions. I think its irreverence and dark humour will be especially agreeable with those who resent the Christmas period.

73%

Alien vs. Predator

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In my honest, correct opinion, Predator is a better film than Alien.

While both films share one crucial thing in common, that their narratives both concern a homicidal extra-terrestrial, they are constructed completely differently.  From its score, characters and set design – Alien is all about understatement.  On the other hand, Predator is loud, brash and brilliantly macho. Both films have the same central conceit, however Alien, the one that takes itself very seriously, is the one that unfairly claims all the critical praise.

Despite the massive amount of praise Alien has been steeped in over the years, it’s little more than a B-movie. The film follows a seven-member crew aboard Nostromo, a commercial spacecraft that is carrying millions of tonnes of mineral ore. The cast of characters are:  Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Kane (John Hurt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Ash (Ian Holm), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Cotto).

Their routine procedure is complicated when the crew are ordered to investigate an anonymous transmission from a nearby planetoid. During the investigation, they find a nest of eggs, one of which hatches with worrying results. What ensues back on their ship is nothing more than B-movie fare, which usually isn’t a problem, however its aura of restraint and suspense seems to have convinced people that it’s some sort of masterpiece.

Despite my reservations, I do think Alien is a good film. Its first quarter is compelling, suspenseful and in one particular scene, very shocking. H.R. Giger’s set design is also striking and original, below is an image of the famous ‘Space Jockey’. Last summer I visited the H.R. Giger museum in Gruyeres, Switzerland; it was very interesting, the Alien imagery could be seen throughout his body of work.

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Through its use of sound, set design and Jerry Goldsmith’s understated, creepy score, the film creates an effectively eerie aura, but it doesn’t do much more than that. I must note that it’s important to consider the impact Alien had on its release. There’s no doubt that Alien is an epochal film that really worked with audiences, however the elements that made it gripping and original in 1979 have unfortunately been eroded by the dozens of spin-offs. On repeated viewings, the film is restrained to the point of tedium; it hasn’t got the replay value of Predator. Some would say that Predator is one of those spin-offs, but it’s so much more than that.

My main problem with the film is its cast, they’re convincing, but the crew members are devoid of charisma, especially Ripley, the leading lady. Predator is by no means an exercise in character development, but its characters are amusing caricatures; the crew aboard Nostromo just leave you indifferent.

After the chestburster scene, a truly remarkable moment, the film drastically reduces its use of on-screen gore. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is testament to the power of sparse amounts of violence, but in Alien, it just feels neutered and disappointing. Also, there are moments that are laughably dated and unfrightening, most notably in the scene captured below.

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Xenomorph: Suprise!!

Just Like Alien, Predator is a B-movie, however it’s as a B-movie should be, exciting and pulpy. The film concerns Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a tough Major who commands a platoon of comparably hard men, including: Dillon (Carl Weathers), Mac (Bill Duke), Billy (Sonny Landham), Blain (Jesse Ventura), ‘Poncho’ (Richard Chaves) and Hawkins (Shane Black).  The platoon are traversing through the lush, dangerously vast jungles of Central America to infiltrate a camp of guerilla forces who have kidnapped a politician and his aide.

In stark contrast with the believable but boring crew of Alien, the characters in Predator are funny, charismatic and comically masculine, none less than its leading man Schwarzenegger, who delivers his iconic Schwarzerisms with one liners such as ‘Stick around!’ and the now famous ‘GET TO DA CHOPPA!’. Below is a scene I find very unintentionally funny, but female readers be warned, the scene below is pumped with so much testosterone that you may become pregnant.

Dillon! You son of a bitch!

The bloody confrontation at the camp, which serves as the film’s primary action sequence, is brilliantly shot and choreographed, it’s a quality slice of squibby carnage from the superlative action director John McTiernan, who has largely been a wasted talent ever since the superb Die Hard (1988). Unlike Alien, the violence in Predator is strong and grisly, the film hasn’t dated in this respect, and surprisingly its smart use of CGI hasn’t dated either, it remains convincing to this day.

Predator

Its smart, resourceful use of special effects means that ‘Predator’ is convincing 26 years later.

Predator is a film teeming with life and energy, these vibes being very much compounded by Alan Silvestri’s score, which is both excitingly militaristic and intensely suspenseful.  The film takes a B-movie concept and successfully blends the best of the action and science fiction genres, creating a experience which is thrilling, funny and satiatingly violent. Alien on the other hand exercises its talent in typography.

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I concede that Alien’s typography is superior. 

Alien: 78%

Predator: 85%

Thirteen (2003)

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‘Thirteen’ will have you wanting to commit acts of extreme violence.

This film evokes a veritable plethora of negative emotion; I hated almost everything that occurred, but I didn’t hate the film. This film explores the anguish caused by the immaturity of adolescence: the competition, the bullying, the need for conformity. Its characters are like those found in Larry Clark films, however ‘Thirteen’ has none of the sleazy, gratuitous perversion that Clark relishes. This film explores all the vices, it depicts the worst of impressionable adolescence, but the camera never lingers luridly.

The story is familiar, one that everyone can relate to. It’s about Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a painfully impressionable teen who desperately wants to fit in with the ‘cool’ crowd, who ironically are anything but. The ‘cool’ kids are repugnantly crass – truly revolting people.  Tracy unfortunately thinks otherwise, becoming best friends with the utterly amoral prize bitch Evie (Nikki Reed). Her influence upon Tracy is immediate, and their activities together soon escalate; Tracy quickly becomes a scheming, stupid and cruel too. Her descent is exasperating to watch, partly through how powerless Tracy’s suffering mother (Holly Hunter) is.

The performances are remarkably natural, they really are. It will never age in this respect, peak realism is shown here.  Hunter and Wood have scenes of intense emotion, the kind of emotion so desperately strong that it transcends everything. The excitable exchanges between Wood and Reed are also commendable for their credibility.

The film could be a eye-opener for teens that are experiencing similar situations. The film would assure them that Tracy isn’t radical in any way, it would highlight that she’s just in the midst of a predictable, cringe-worthy cycle that has been experienced by millions of all generations.

‘Thirteen’ will have you wanting to commit acts of extreme violence. If you can restrain your temperament throughout the many scenes of vast obnoxiousness, gross injustice and the scores of vulgar, idiotic characters – I salute you. All of this, however, is a testament to the power of the film.  It’s an unpleasant watch, but the provocation it causes is interesting, I’ve certainly written this review faster than usual.

73%