Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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Hacksaw Ridge spins a crowd-pleasing yarn about a simple man who possessed extraordinary mettle and bravery. Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious cooperator’ from Lynchburg, Virginia, saved approximately 75 wounded men during the Battle of Okinawa.

It was a dreadful battle – the bloodiest of the Pacific Theatre. Some 12,520 US troops died while an estimated 110,000 Japanese perished. Mel Gibson, whose last film Apocalypto displayed his talent for breakneck action sequences, channels that same ferocity into Hacksaw Ridge’s superlative depiction of the landmark battle.

The combat scenes are loud, frenetic and protractedly visceral. Gore explodes from the screen while the excellent sound engineering surrounds you with whizzing bullets and thunderous explosions.

To continue reading, please follow the link: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/reviews/mel-gibsons-epic-hacksaw-ridge-reviewed.html

Film Inquiry: Life Itself

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The thumbnail image of a suspiciously lithe-looking Ebert that I was first drawn to on Rotten Tomatoes. Photo: Everett Collection

Life Itself is a superlatively crafted documentary that gives a compelling, poignant insight into Roger Ebert, while also delving into the subject of film criticism and its relationships with the film industry.

When I want to see a film’s critical reception, I head for Rotten Tomatoes rather than IMDB, because the latter is saturated with fan-boys and uninformed opinion. Rotten Tomatoes introduced me to many different critics who wrote for reputable sources such as The Guardian, The New York Times and The Telegraph, but time and again I was drawn to the small thumbnail image of a white haired, bespectacled man who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. I had no knowledge of Roger Ebert’s fame at this point, I was just naturally drawn to his image when I selected the ‘Top Critics’ section.

To read the entire article, please follow the link: http://filminquiry.com/life-itself-2014-review/

Nightcrawler (2014)

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Jake Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance as Lou Bloom, one of the most compelling on-screen manipulators I’ve seen in a long time.

Nightcrawler is a Schraderesque character study of a man far more dangerous than Travis Bickle. Like Bickle, Lou Bloom doesn’t like people, however Taxi Driver saw Bickle feel compassion for at least one person – Lou seems to have contempt for absolutely everyone. Lou’s interactions with other people have only one purpose – control. He is very opportunistic and has an unshakable confidence that isn’t hindered by the human inconveniences of nervousness and guilt.

Jake Gyllenhaal commands the long monologues of Dan Gilroy’s script, stealing every scene he’s in as the unnervingly brazen and enthusiastic Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds for the role and it really worked, his gaunt face and glaring eyes do quite a lot of the acting for him. The performance carries the film and this will no doubt be recognised by the Academy next February.

In the film’s opening moments, Lou is a vagrant who is shown committing crimes both petty and, it’s suggested, not very petty at all. He’s in the desperate pursuit of a job, and when he meets someone who could be of benefit, Lou initiates his charm offensive and inundates them with a relentless barrage of articulate yet platitudinous language as if he’s reciting the effusive CV of a quixotic student.

Although his self-promotion is overbearing in the first few instances, Lou soon proves his skill in accruing large amounts of information and repeating it with the utmost conviction and credibility. Gyllenhaal must have relished delivering director Gilroy’s excellent script, his manner of speech reminded me of Patrick Bateman’s highly detailed monologues on everything from his morning routine to Huey Lewis and the News in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Despite both men’s articulacy, their diction feels recycled, and this is because it is – their sociopathy means they cannot form true, sincere relationships, but they can counterfeit them through their adroit ability of learning and imitating the necessary behaviour.

Quick wits and amorality are key skills for any successful paparazzo, so it is unsurprising that Lou Bloom thrives in the field. His first forays into professional prying are very funny. Inspired by a chance encounter with venerable camera man Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Lou buys a rudimentary camcorder and scours the myriad streets of Los Angeles, abruptly stopping next to the scene of a car accident and poking his camera right in people’s faces; when he’s challenged he proclaims with an uncommon doubtfulness –‘I’m fairly certain I’m allowed to do this!’ You soon see Bloom gain confidence as he pushes the boundaries further and further, making for tense, unpredictable viewing.

His audacity proves successful, snatching footage that’s nice and gory, impressing Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the blonde, brassy director of a local news channel. Despite an appearance and demeanour that suggests seasoned business acumen, Nina spends much of the film under the thumb of Lou.

After proving his worth, enjoying his growing control over Nina and soon realising how vital he is for the news agency’s spiking ratings, Lou proves that his manipulation can work, albeit it very unattractively, in courtship. Gilroy’s best monologue occurs when, over dinner with a reluctant Nina, Lou blackmails her into establishing a longstanding sexual agreement, using a business-like vernacular bereft of anything remotely romantic, erotic or sexual.

Like Gone Girl, Night Crawler is a satire of the yellow journalism peddled by television news, content that’s perhaps interesting for the public but not in the public interest, a distinction that is gleefully ignored in favour of lucrative scare-mongering and countless other immoralities. As the majority of the characters are under this satirical gaze, I found it hard to care when they fell victim to Lou’s vicious conniving, my apathy extending to even his long, suffering accomplice Rick (Riz Ahmed), who is too darn wet and insipid to get that emotionally invested in. None of this, I hasten to add, is a major detriment.

The film is attractively shot by Robert Elswit, much of whose striking work can be found in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson including There Will Be Blood (2007), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Boogie Nights (1997), the latter’s sun-kissed, neon-lit aesthetic being most similar to Nightcrawler’s. Elswit’s work here is also likely to immediately draw comparisons with Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography in the beautifully slick Drive (2011). 

With a tense, unpredictable narrative that’s laced with strong satire and anchored by a great character and great performance, Nightcrawler is one the best films of 2014.

88%

American History X (1998)

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Although it is somewhat heavy handed, American History X has great performances and a shocking brutality that leaves a large impression on you.

The film is carried by Edward Norton, he portrays his character Derek Vinyard with real gusto and vitriol; what a howling, credibility defacing decision it was for Robert Benigni to trump Norton at the Oscars for his vexing role in the saccharine turd that is Life is Beautiful.

Vinyard is an intelligent young man from a middle-class suburban home, but he rapidly develops fervent fascist views after his father is murdered by a black gunman. Vinyard has clear leadership skills and he unfortunately channels them in all the wrong directions. His fierce oration makes him a notable figure in the Californian neo-Nazi movement, bringing him to the attention of veteran racist Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who is well cast as the creepy, manipulative leader. The influence of both Derek and Cameron mean that Derek’s younger brother, the rather more placid Danny (Edward Furlong), also harbours dangerous neo-Nazism, although not with the same zeal as his brother.

To its merit, the film is unrestrained in its depiction of violent racism. With their foolish understanding of Nazism, the swastika adorned skinheads have a palpable hatred of all things un-Aryan. No one’s hatred is greater than Vinyard’s, who commits a brutal act of street, or rather curb, justice that has since become infamous. So abhorrent is the scene that it entered my top 10 most painful scenes in cinema history.

It’s Vinyard’s act of violence that lands him in prison, where, perhaps predictably, he has a change of heart. I felt that the manner in which Vinyard changes is rather too pronounced and straight forward, the transformation of such an extreme psychology should have been more nuanced in its depiction – the shift of a psychological complex is one of subtle shades, not clearly defined, narrative friendly episodes.

However, I think a good argument can be had about Vinyard’s rapid change. Beneath all the extremism is a measured, intelligent man; he isn’t an ignorant, retrograde fool, he’s a subject one can work with.  After all, his realisation isn’t completely instantaneous, he integrates with the white thugs of his wing, which appears to be some variation of the Aryan Brotherhood, but their business practices are at odds with his strict principles. Combine this with his repeated and isolated work detail with the black Lamont (Guy Torry) (which I should think is an unlikely scenario for obvious reasons), and his sudden and considerable change of circumstance could have woken him up.

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There’s a whiff of stereotypical characterisation at times; the two principal black characters of the film Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) and the aforementioned Lamont are within the realm of the stock character, the latter particularly. They can both be deemed as Magical Negroes, a term that refers to black characters whose sole purpose is to serve the development of a white character. Sweeney is Derek’s former and Danny’s current high school teacher. He is a respected, righteous man with a seemingly infinite wisdom, disarming everyone with sagacious monologues and philosophical questions that are delivered with his deep, portentous voice. His character is heavily influenced by civil rights figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Lamont, the inmate who Vinyard has repeated laundry duty with, is portrayed by comedian Guy Torry. I haven’t seen his stand-up, but his manic, animated performance is certainly reminiscent of a Chris Rock gig. He’s a rather frivolous character that’s little more than narrative function that services Vinyard’s character development.

It’s not a surprise to find that director Tony Kaye’s career began in advertising. With repeated use of slow motion and a black and white palette for flashback scenes, Kaye’s visual flair has very much transferred to the silver screen. Considering History’s subject matter, I felt the film was sometimes stylish to a fault, particularly during a racial territorial dispute on a basketball court that’s constructed in a way through aesthetics and music that inclines the viewer to support the white men.

Other examples of ill-judgement were during its humorous moments concerning the obesely corpulent and repellent Seth (Ethan Suplee), particularly during a brutal assault on immigrant supermarket staff where he steals a large plastic burger, it’s not funny and is inappropriate in its placing.

Although its morality tale is heavy handed and simplistic, I must reiterate that American History X is a highly memorable film driven by an incendiary Edward Norton and an unrestrained, vicious intensity that few contemporary films strive for.

84% 

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

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A timeless film about young adulthood.

Albert Finney drives this film with his brilliant performance as Arthur Seaton, an angry young factory worker from Nottingham who lives for the weekend.

His infectious appetite for trouble has developed a reputation for being a rogue in the terraces and ginnels of his neighbourhood. He likes the ladies, and although there are plenty of single women out there for him, he chooses to sleep with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of his workmate Jack (Bryan Pringle). A scene early in the film shows Arthur gleefully finishing breakfast at Brenda’s house when Jack is moments away from walking through the door. Arthur deliberately takes his time in escaping, relishing the close shave.

Opinionated and disaffected, Arthur enjoys regular rants with his close friend Bert (Norman Rossington) about the banality of the quiet life and how he has ‘fight’ in him. Although he dislikes authority figures and the local old bag who pokes her nose in everyone’s business, the enemy that he’s fighting isn’t a human, his enemy is conformity; the prospect of settling down and facing the daily grind makes him very anxious and fiery indeed.

This leads to an awful lot of troublemaking, which can be very funny. In one moment he loads his rudimentary pellet gun, quietly opens a window and shoots Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris), the aforementioned nosey cow, in her fat backside while she gossips. I laughed excitedly like a naughty adolescent as if I was really with Arthur, frightened of what the petty old hag was going to do. Inevitably, Arthur treads on some toes and he doesn’t always get away scot free, the gravest example of this being a fight scene that, unsurprisingly, is very dated. However, Arthur isn’t bothered by a tough fight, ‘It’s not the first time I’ve been in a losing fight, won’t be the last either I don’t spose… I’m a fighting pit prop who wants a pint of bitter, that’s me.’ During a fishing trip, his friend Bert asks the ranting Arthur ‘Where does all this fighting get you?’ It’s an important question and I don’t think Arthur is sure of the answer.

Arthur knows that he’s following the same well-trodden path as all the old farts around him and it seems he has an existential crisis every time he considers it, but he’ll probably soon mellow and learn to, in the words of Bert, ‘go on working and hope something good’ll turn up.’ Either that or move away and do something completely different, something that breaks away from his area’s cyclical nature that he detests so much.

Unlike so many romantic dramas and especially comedies, the film has a romance that you genuinely care about. Arthur meets the lovely Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a beautiful, measured and reserved woman who keeps Arthur’s charm at bay, which entices him even further. You hope that the angsty, impetuous Arthur won’t squander his chances of a good relationship with a good woman.

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a epochal piece of realist British cinema that remains resonant and largely undated.

85%

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Baraka (1992)

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I can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film.

A bold statement certainly, however Baraka has an immense beauty that is surely universal in appeal. It is a documentary that’s without  narrative or narration, it captures a veritable plethora of imagery that reminds us that Earth is indeed a baraka, which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘blessing’.

Any attempt to derive meaning or identify connection becomes merely incidental as you’re presented with the hypnotic scenery that Ron Fricke and his team have captured; it must have been difficult for them to cut their glorious footage down to 97 minutes. The film traverses verdant jungles, epic mountain ranges, sweeping temple complexes, arid deserts,  imposing cityscapes and haunting landmarks of evil such as Auschwitz and the Cambodian S-21 prison. Its human subjects are of all colours and creeds, with much of the film focusing on those who are less fortunate and sometimes utterly destitute. It is a sensational and occasionally disturbing cross-section of the planet’s landscapes, cultures and history.

The stunning wide shots and time lapses are scored with heady ambient music by Michael Stearns. His music is a cacophony of tribal chants, chimes and drums that’s vital in creating Baraka’s truly sensory immersion. My favourite piece is Baraka Theme, its broad, sonorous notes create a vast scope that perfectly accompanies the boundless panoramas.

There are so many moments I could talk about, I could throw effusive adjectives at almost every frame, however I feel mere words can’t do it justice. Baraka is a purely cinematic experience that’s somewhat futile to describe.

However, one memorable sequence I will mention is the factory processing of chicks that’s interspersed with the frenetic pace of Tokyo railway commuters; it is fascinating and ultimately quite unpleasant as the birds’ destiny in battery cages is revealed after having their beaks burnt. The camera offers insights into an array of factories, showcasing their subjects’ perfectly rehearsed skills in computer hardware assembly, textiles and poultry.

It is a film that demands to be shown on good equipment, a film that serves as a benchmark for one’s TV or projector. Apparently, it was the first film to receive an 8K transfer, what an awesome experience that must be, most likely better than real life!

When Baraka sadly finishes, you eventually move your eyes away from the screen for the first time in 97 minutes and realise that you’ve been dead still the whole time as you check your watch, surprised to see that many hours haven’t passed. It is a triumph that the moving image alone can achieve such engrossment.

86%

Tyson (2008)

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Whatever you think of Mike Tyson, you’ll leave this film admiring his brutal honesty.

Tyson is a well-rounded insight into a very complicated man. It captures the excitement of Mike’s 20 year career, stylishly and energetically showcasing many of Tyson’s devastating fights while also sensitively exploring Mike’s life before, during and after his career. The film charts both his successes and failures, including his dominance of 1985 – 1990, his disastrous marriage to Robin Givens, his rape charge (which he vehemently denies), and his controversial losses to Evander Holyfield.

The majority of the film’s 86 minutes comprise a series of interviews with Tyson. He speaks of how his rough childhood affected him, most notably his discovery that violence was the only form of defence for a scared young boy in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Tyson elaborates on his ghetto adolescence of theft and drugs before his placement in a borstal, where he was eventually taken under the wing of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato.

Tyson had been conditioned by the poverty, drugs and general brutality of New York, this pugnacious young man wasn’t going to allow anyone to tame him. This changed when he met D’Amato, he was the first person in his life who believed in him, the first person to inspire him and invest in his future. Mike is still brought to tears when speaking of his beloved mentor.

After years of discipline and intense training, the genetically gifted Tyson had been moulded into an 218lb monster, a superb heavyweight contender at just 18 years of age. Sadly, Cus died before he won his first title in 1986.

I can imagine some will criticise the film’s depiction of its leading man. Indeed, the film portrays Mike sympathetically, his story is told from only his perspective; however this bias is balanced, or perhaps even tipped in the opposite direction, by Tyson’s remarkable honesty. Despite his past behaviour, Mike being the first to acknowledge it, there’s part of you that can’t help but pity him. He has led a life of confusion and anger, with interference from his numerous demons, one of which being Don King.

It is his honesty that makes me, like many others, doubtful of his rape conviction in 1992. Considering how Tyson talks so freely and candidly about his chequered past of hedonism and violence, I doubt that he would repeatedly lie about Washington (who had several years prior allegedly made a false accusation of rape against fellow student Wayne Walker.) He has no interest in concealing his past or improving his reputation, he seems to only want to tell the truth, which I suppose could be a method of reputation management. In reference to the Washington case, the wise Frank Bruno once said: ‘You don’t go to someone’s hotel room at 1am to play chess.’   

Tyson’s narration is at times embarrassing, particularly when he talks about sex, detailing how he likes to ‘dominate’ his women as if they’re prey (corroboration for Washington’s defence, perhaps.) He also tells an anecdote of how he ‘performed fellatio’ on a woman, I’m sure he has since realised he meant ‘cunnilingus’. This malapropism is largely an isolated incident however, as Mike is a great lover of words, he’s far more articulate than many would think. Tyson brilliantly combines high-register English with African-American vernacular, on multiple occasions he describes things in the most emphatic of ways, such as his verdict on the infamous boxing promoter Don King – ‘He’s just a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker… he’s ruthless, he’s deplorable… he doesn’t know how to love anybody.’ 

No matter what one thinks of him, there is no denying that Mike Tyson is truly unique and not what one expects; he’s much more insightful than people give him credit for. This is why I advise anyone, particularly those who disregard Tyson, to watch this eye-opener, it won’t necessarily change your opinion of the man, but I think you will appreciate his origins and admire his honesty.

80%

Nil By Mouth (1997)

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Nil By Mouth is a non-linear insight into a miserable cycle of violence, abuse and addiction.

Don’t be mistaken, this is not another piece of British scuzzploitation, far from it. Although it appears comparable on face value, it certainly isn’t within the lowly sphere of Rise of the Footsoldier or The Football Factory.

The film concentrates on Ray (Ray Winstone), his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke), mother-in-law Janet (Laila Morse), brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and best friend Mark (Jamie Foreman). Winstone and Burke are both tremendous, they share scenes – one in particular – of harrowing intensity. Ray is a man consumed with rage and jealousy, emotions that have most likely followed him throughout his sorry existence. To summarise the film’s premise/narrative, it is essentially a depiction of the causes and consequences of his latest brutal outburst. Winstone’s  performance is a piece of realist brilliance; some may say he’s one-dimensional, but he really is a rather good actor. Nil By Mouth’s portrait of a deeply violent, self-destructive man is one of the most frightening and brutal I’ve ever seen, more so than even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980).

In a film of hapless victims, Ray’s wife Valerie suffers to the greatest extent. Burke portrays a woman completely servile to her husband, she unfortunately enables his tyranny by interminably tolerating his wayward, selfish behaviour.  It is Kathy Burke’s moments that are the most moving, chiefly a scene where she desperately tells a white-lie – it’s genuinely upsetting.

Another interesting character is Mark. Foreman’s character is a vapid parasite, a little abettor of a man who’s codependent on Ray and his tempestuous emotions.

The dialogue of Gary Oldman’s script has ample profanity, and I really mean ample, with a combination of around 80 c*nts and 428 f*cks, it’s the most profane film ever made. Amongst all the cockney bellowing however are monologues of real poignancy, most notably one delivered by Winstone in which he speaks of his awful, putrid father, reminding the viewer that the misery they’ve witnessed is a toxic generational cycle that’s largely inescapable.

One criticism of Oldman’s script/narrative is that it is a trifle convoluted at 128 minutes, there are a few scenes that contribute little or nothing to the film, including an annoying Apocalypse Now re-enactment and an annoying shouty scene in a dry cleaners (both scenes feature this repellent little tattooed man with a grating hoarse voice.)

The film is rightfully spared of romanticism, it’s completely devoid of poetic licence and elaborate narrative arcs, what you see is pure, candid realism. Ironically, the film isn’t pure at all, it’s gritty and unrestrained in its depiction of violence and vulgarity; one moment being particularly horrifying. To criticise the film for being ‘unfocused’ is missing the point. To me, it was an almost non-linear insight into the human condition, a film woven from the personal experiences of Gary Oldman and delivered with the utmost conviction from Burke, Winstone and indeed the whole cast.

85%

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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This film is not a glorification, it’s an observer rather than a judge.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a rather straight forward rise and fall story, it’s Scarface with even more excess but without the M16 with an underslung M303 grenade launcher.

Some have said that this film is a glorification rather than a satire, a three hour parade celebrating Jordan Belfort’s excess instead of a stern condemnation. Despite all the drugs, decadence and vulvas in the film, I don’t think the film glorifies him, and I don’t think it’s a biting satire either.

The film is an observer rather than a judge; it displays Belfort and his minions’ debauchery in a grand three-hour narrative with the energy and gusto of GoodFellas, letting the audience decide what they think of it all. If one leaves the theatre impressed or inspired by Belfort, that’s very much a reflection of them rather than the film.

There is a lot of bad behaviour going on in The Wolf of Wall Street, understandably too much for some people, but over the course of three hours I didn’t find it exasperating like some have. In fact, I think one would possess a certain amount of sanctimony to deny that there isn’t a degree of allure to Belfort’s lifestyle; an element of excess should be everyone’s life, whether it’s occasionally ordering the most expensive thing on the menu or at some point in your life owning a car that does 20 miles to the gallon, just because it makes you feel good.

Of course, that wouldn’t begin to be enough for Jordan Belfort. His ideas on money, relationships and life in general were quite awful during his years at the helm of Stratton Oakmont, his company that employed the ‘pump and dump’ scheme to rob scores of investors of their money. It is Belfort’s obsession with wealth, material goods and just winning that makes him quite a one-dimensionally unpleasant character. The nature of the character made me question the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio.

This is not to say DiCaprio is in bad form here, his performance is teeming with conviction. Leo is in his element during Belfort’s rousing, maniacal speeches to his employees; his frenetic energy reminded me of Evangelical preachers found in the southern states. Of course, there’s nothing remotely Christian to be found in Belfort’s fervent rhetoric, only sentences of remarkable crassness, immaturity and myopia – ‘Does your girlfriend think you’re a fucking worthless loser, good! Pick up the phone and start dialling! I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!’ – ‘If anyone here thinks I’m superficial or materialistic, go get a job in fucking McDonald’s because that’s where you fucking belong.’

Despite DiCaprio’s committed performance, I’m not part of the indignant crowd who demand that he finally win the Oscar for best leading man, particularly with this year’s nominations. He’s had a great career so far, he’s worked with Hollywood’s most revered artists and has had a consistent stream good roles.  Although his performances regularly display his great dramatic range, the problem is his huge Hollywood profile means that I feel like I’m watching Leonardo DiCaprio rather than the character he is portraying. It’s the same with The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo is just too cute and popular to play someone like Jordan Belfort – the casting gives a certain amount of sheen to him. Also, DiCaprio didn’t adopt Belfort’s New York accent, which is a pity because Leo’s South African accent in Blood Diamond was impressive.

While there are flashes of gross vulgarity in DiCaprio’s performance, the real Jordan Belfort is worse. To his credit, he is a naturally adroit salesman, he ran a successful meat business in his early twenties, he could’ve probably made a substantial legitimate living with his innate entrepreneurialism. However he didn’t, and now he remarks in interviews and speeches that ‘making money is easy’, what he forgot to add is ‘…when you broke the law like I did’. I’m not preaching here, I’m just reminding the crowds he draws to his motivational speeches that this man’s immense wealth hinged completely and utterly on criminality.

The other reason why Scorsese’s Belfort isn’t hateful enough is because the repercussions and victims of Stratton Oakmont are never shown, and to give a properly three-dimensional depiction of Belfort’s story, they should have been. Scorsese and writer Terence Winter have followed Belfort’s memoir so closely that it’s quite a one-track narrative, perhaps they could have stepped back from the book and explored the extent of Stratton Oakmont’s damage.

So, it is clear that there isn’t a particularly complex figure at the centre of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s a misfire. This is more ‘Casino’/’The Departed’ Scorsese rather than ‘Taxi Driver’/’Goodfellas’/’Raging Bull’ Scorsese.

For me, the film’s terrific energy and vibrant aesthetics manage to carry its three-hour running time. Among this spirited, flashy spectacle are also some very amusing moments, particularly Matthew McConaughey’s great performance as Mark Hanna, a veteran stock broker who teaches an up-and-coming Belfort about his new profession, from ethics to the necessity of masturbation. What’s become one of the larger talking points of the film is the sequence where Belfort, overdosing on Quaaludes and in a state he calls the ‘cerebral palsy phase’, tries desperately to drive his Lamborghini Countach back to his enormous house.

Although the one-dimensional central character and its limited perspective means it is not Scorsese’s best film, The Wolf of Wall Street is an engrossing, sweeping rise and fall tale that is vibrant, funny and very striking.

80%

Threads (1984)

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Devastating film.

Even to those who know of Threads‘ reputation, the film still packs a punch that leaves you winded and miserable. It is a comprehensive and compelling insight into nuclear warfare that brutally highlighting the abject foolishness of MAD – the apt acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction.

The film focuses on young couple Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher) and their respective families. Ruth’s pregnant, so they’ve decided to do the proper thing by marrying and moving in together. Of course, their plans are never realised. The cast consists of unknown actors, which is a smart move because any household names may have detracted from the reality of it.

Although it is a drama, much of the film adopts a documentary format. Informative captions are typed across the screen by what sounds like a teletyper, producing that loud, mechanical sound as it ominously details the strategic and economic importance of Sheffield and the rapidly worsening international relations. It is this documentary realism that gives Threads a disturbing authenticity that further adds to the tension preceding the inevitable attack.

When the bomb finally strikes, the preamble that has led to it ensures that it remains powerful even if the special effects aren’t spectacular. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the special effects, the image of the mushroom cloud rising above the screams and hysteria of Sheffield is haunting, albeit lacking in scope compared to that infamous sequence in Terminator 2. It certainly blows ‘The Day After’, a similar American production, out of the water.

‘In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable.’

‘Threads’ opens with this profound piece of narration from Paul Vaughan, explaining its title and foreshadowing the abject horror that’s to come. It is after the bomb strikes that the viewer really begins to understand what it looks like when this vulnerable fabric of society is absolutely shattered. Once humanity has their veneer of civilisation destroyed, they become desperate and animalistic. Money becomes worthless, the new currency is food, food such as stale bread and raw meat, and people work frantically for it. Crops are scarce and the diminishing fuel reserves lead to the use of hoes rather than combine harvesters. Within a few years of the attack, the British population reaches medieval numbers of 4 – 11 million.

These damning facts and figures either appear in the aforementioned captions or are narrated by Vaughan, whose diction is comparable to Laurence Olivier’s in the brilliant Thames Television series The World at War.

Threads is a trenchant argument for nuclear disarmament. What an obnoxiously reckless species we’d be if we allowed nuclear warfare to destroy our planet. Imagine if some extra-terrestrial tourist with knowledge of Earth’s abundance of natural beauty, culture and technology landed on our planet only to find themselves amidst a nuclear winter, what a shameful task explaining ourselves to them would be.

We’ve all seen depressing, harrowing films, but the utter nihilism that is explored in such grinding detail here will make the idea of merely existing in a functioning, productive society seem positively Utopian.

82%

Drive (2011)

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Gosling stomps his ‘Notebook’ past in the face.

Seldom has my opinion on a film changed so drastically.

I first saw the film in Romford on the way back from picking up my new car in Enfield, North London. Getting there had been hell. I was on the M25 and running late, but I decided to commit to seeing it, so I left the motorway and began to penetrate the Essex town. To my intense frustration, the roads were full of road works and were subsequently jammed, but by then it was too late to turn back, I had to see it through. Once the road works finally ended, the sat-nav kindly took me straight through the middle of the Romford shopping area, which was a cobbled street full of people, a place where I’m pretty sure cars weren’t allowed – I must have looked a right berk.

After much embarrassment and stress, I finally found the cinema and arrived at the screening just seconds before it began. The timing was great; however I was now in no mood to be watching a film.

‘Drive’ has a very simple premise. Ryan Gosling is ‘The Driver’, a quiet, enigmatic mechanic and stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for the underworld. His lonely existence changes when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a sweet young mother who lives down the corridor from him. There is a clear connection between them, however her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison before their not-so-platonic friendship comes to fruition. Standard is being stalked and threatened by criminals, to whom he owes a mounting debt, a debt which can only be paid through a pawn shop heist. For the sake of Irene and Benicio’s safety, The Driver conscientiously lends his getaway skills to the job, which of course goes horribly awry.

Gosling’s performance is good, he has a steely aura about him that is cold and convincing. However, I don’t think one should get carried away when steeping him in praise, I felt it wasn’t a particularly demanding role. While it is clear that he fits the mould of the laconic anti-hero, I was slightly bothered by the extent of his utter lack of conversational skills, particularly when he’s speaking to Irene. There are moments that are so painfully awkward that it could test the plausibility of their relationship. Gosling is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s iconic ‘Man with no name’ roles, but I also made a connection with Dustin Hoffman’s performance in ‘Rain Main’.

I was very ambivalent about the film. I liked the exciting car chase in the introduction, I liked Cliff Martinez’s stylish, haunting soundtrack; I also liked the visuals and the film’s unforgiving, visceral nature. The film is spattered with torrents of claret, stark shankings and devastating gunshot wounds – there’s also a spot of stomping. The film’s violence is ugly and nasty, it adds a brutal energy to the film. However, I had reservations with the lead character and particularly with its thin plot and meagre ending; I left the cinema feeling hollow and thinking it was all rather vapid.

Despite all of this, the film had definitely got under my skin, I was thinking about it regularly. Eventually, I had to give it a second viewing.

Being at home without the aforementioned stresses and knowing the framework of the film, I was able to enjoy it a whole lot more. I was engrossed from the start, relishing the style and edginess of it all. My past reservations took a back seat; it had gone up in my estimations two-fold. It was on my second viewing that I was able to appreciate the innate coolness of its leading actor. How on earth did he possibly make a white padded jacket with a yellow scorpion on the back cool? Oh and the driving gloves, they just reek of cool, and that black roaring Ford Mustang – I am so impressionable. It really got my heart pumping; I couldn’t believe how the film had grown on me.

Ultimately, though, like so many films, especially those that fall into the revenge/retribution format (think Death Wish/Taxi Driver), they’re good until the last stanza, they’re hard to wrap up. However, I even preferred the ending on second viewing – out of the ways they could’ve ended it, this was probably the most appropriate choice. While it is indeed a trifle shallow, if you watch ‘Drive’ on a massive television with an equally massive sound system, it is guaranteed to be a visual and aural treat.

84%

Bad Taste (1987)

Bad Taste

Until Jackson’s follow-up Braindead, this may have been the goriest film ever made.

I love Bad Taste. I love that the film was clearly made for about $20 and that the cast consists of Peter Jackson’s mates. It’s also so enjoyable because the film demonstrates how talented a filmmaker Jackson is. For example, there is a scene early in the film where Derek (Peter Jackson) has a blood spattered fight with some alien invaders on a cliff side. Through raw talent and a massive amount of bravery, Jackson and his team achieves a tangible sense of acrophobia.

The story is that Earthlings are under threat from alien invaders who are endeavouring to fill a culinary gap in their intergalactic fast-food market – that of human flesh. The malicious extra-terrestrials don’t arouse suspicion as they assume human appearances.

Such a grave situation calls for the toughest team available – the Astro Investigation and Defence Service. This elite team comprises Derek (Peter Jackson), a perverse Kiwi with an insatiable bloodlust, Barry (Pete O’Hearn), a man who will use his .44 Magnum only when necessary and Frank (Mike Minett), Giles (Craig Smith) and Ozzy (Terry Potter), a trio of muscle car driving tough guys.

Jackson’s early films have a real talent for choreographing gore: there are heads being blown off, brains being eaten, arms being torn off, severed heads being drop kicked, seagulls being head butted, entire bodies being chain sawed and even sheep being detonated. The film is utterly drenched in an outrageous amount of viscera, but it is all of the slapstick variety with a strong Commonwealth lacing of black humour.

Though the film is by no means performance driven, there is a certain charm about the cast’s inexperience. Also, Peter Jackson is hilarious as the absurd, demented Derek, whose horrible shrill laugh and personal motto ‘I’m a Derek, Dereks don’t run!’ are particularly memorable.

The filming locations, such as the aforementioned cliff side, are all of outstanding natural beauty; Bad Taste is as much an advertisement for the country as Jackson’s later work would be.

As we all know, Jackson has since gone downhill, directing the poxy Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies – what a shame. However, he has recently expressed interest in making another horror film; I just hope he sticks to his roots with a shoestring budget and an immeasurable amount of corn syrup and gore.

81%

To those interested, below is a fascinating documentary on the making of ‘Bad Taste’. It’s remarkable what a talented, enthusiastic director with a shoestring budget can achieve.

This is part one of the documentary, parts 2 & 3 should be easy to find on the related video section at the end of the clip.

Alien vs. Predator

alien vs predator

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.

space jockey

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.

surprise!

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.

Alien_opening

I concede that Alien’s typography is superior. 

Alien: 78%

Predator: 85%

Monster (2003)

charlize theron aileen wuornos

A torturous, depressing biography with an uncannily accurate lead performance.

What a tortured life this woman led; a life of inferiority, confusion, violence, victimisation, prostitution, anger and ultimately, murder. Charlize Theron’s utter transformation is what drives this film, her performance and physical emulation perfectly conveying the desperate pain and impetuous anger of her character. I think the Oscars are not much more than a smug festival of self-celebration, but this performance deserved commendation.

‘Monster’ is the story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute from Florida who murdered seven men between 1989 and 1990. One might think that the film’s title would suggest otherwise, but  the film gives a very human representation of Wuornos. She was indeed a ‘monster’ in her final years, but the film’s emphasis on the brutal, relentless path that led to her first killing shows the architecture of such a creation. But not for a second, I hasten to add, does the film condone her violence, she isn’t glorified and she isn’t vilified either, the film is so very downbeat and visceral that it would be impossible for anyone to be allured by it. ‘Monster’ is by no means the tale of one woman standing up against chauvinist pigs; her tale of nature, nurture and the consequences of violence is impartially told.

The film reflects on Wurnos’ childhood, a time of sexual favours, inadequacy, rape and beatings. A narrative gap, which misses a dubious failed marriage and numerous arrests, presents the viewer with a sorry picture, a woman who washes in petrol station toilets, a woman who is desperately trying to survive. She then meets a companion, the vulnerable Selby Moore. It’s at this point that the film strays from the facts; ‘Selby Moore’ is a fictional character, very loosely based, especially in appearance, to Tyria Moore, Wuornos’ lover until her execution.

The pair, who have moved in together, live off Wuornos’ prostitution wage until their relationship is complicated by Moore’s discovery of Wuornos’ taste for violence. The film depicts the first murder as Wuornos described it -self defence. Unlike her later stories, I think this claim has credibility; it’s quite possible that Mallory thought Wuornos was expendable social underclass, an easy thrill without consequence. I respect that the scene was orchestrated in this manner.

Monster is a stark and balanced insight into the frankly miserable life of Aileen Wuornos. You may not like her and all the violence will most likely strain your empathy, but I think you’ll leave the film having a greater understanding of the woman.

80%

Sexy Beast (2000)

sexy-beast-original

A paced, gripping British thriller with visual flair.

At face value, ‘Sexy Beast’ may appear to be yet another pustulent addition to the bloated, adolescent British gangster genre, however it’s far from that, it’s up there with ‘The Long Good Friday’. ‘Sexy Beast’ is one of the most accomplished films I’ve seen in a while, it has no noticeable flaws. It’s a taut, paced and stylish thriller that exhibits tight narrative control, making the most of its simple yet wholly engaging premise in an effortlessly flowing non-linear fashion.

Ray Winstone was deservedly introduced to the world stage with his role as Gal, a humble Londoner who’s living the dream and has everything to lose. The plot is a simple, familiar one. Gal has found happiness in his paradisiacal Spanish villa, but his perfect life is ruptured when Don Logan, a figure from his old life, returns to make a job offer. Even before Don appears at the villa, it’s clear that it’s not an ‘offer’; it’s an obligatory matter, a grand heist that’s been tailored for Gal by the shadiest of the London underworld, he dare not turn it down. Despite Gal being a former criminal, he is a sympathetic character, the viewer can empathise with him, with his desire to leave the filth of London and be on the ‘straight and narrow’. This film was also important for Ben Kingsley, his performance as Don Logan showing that he can be both Ghandi and a foul-mouthed psychopath.

Contrary to the norm, Kingsley is the villain here, not Ray Winstone; the vicious, unpredictable Don Logan subjects Gal to mind games that quickly turn violent. Kingsley is entirely convincing in this role of aggression and violence, he is the most versatile of actors. 

The course of events is tense, sinister and unforeseeable. Not a minute of its running time is wasted; it’s a top notch crime thriller that ought to be regarded as a great of British cinema.

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