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.
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.
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.
The Woodsman and The Paedophile Next Door blow a breath of fresh air on a highly contentious matter that’s turgid with relentless ignorance and violent mob justice.
I have long detested moral panic and knee-jerk reactions, and with Operation Yewtree uncovering a seemingly endless history of showbiz child abuse, paedophilia is the moral panic of the moment. There are many torrents of bile on Twitter and various comment boards that call for the torture and murder of paedophiles; Channel 4’s recent documentary The Paedophile Next Door inundated the Internet with the opinions of angry, perennially unthinking people. This prompted me to write both a review of The Woodsman and an article on the matter.
When I saw an advert for the documentary, I was immediately intrigued and impressed by the premise, it appeared to have an approach and insight that I thought would be deemed far too transgressive by the television executives who arrogantly believe they know what the entire public wants to see. Then again, this is Channel 4 we’re talking about, a broadcaster whose past programming includes the brilliantly daring Brass Eye paedophile special.
The documentary has a very compelling subject in Eddie, a self-confessed paedophile who is as haunted as he is titillated by his attraction to children as young as five. He deserves enormous kudos for endangering himself for the furtherance of public thinking and discourse. Although the programme inevitably provoked a stream of aggressive nonsense on Twitter, there was also a marked and promising presence of empathy and understanding – ‘The demonisation of paedos has driven them underground & left them with no therapeutic access. Prevention is the cure’ – @TheWhackyPaki.
Many of those who are attracted to children must be riddled with guilt and torment; they know that articulation of their urges would be greeted with almost unparalleled hatred and disgust. They would be branded as evil, sub-human monsters that must be killed by the outraged local community like a witch in the 16th century.
The demonstrable fact is that paedophilia, like heterosexuality and homosexuality, is a sexual preference. We may consider it reprehensible, but the reaction to paedophilia shouldn’t be a violent one. We must recognise it, understand it and ultimately control it instead of reacting with crude demonization.
Much denigration was prompted amongst the indignant, enlightened people of the Internet when interviewee Professor Corine De Ruiter compared paedophilia with diabetes. One must listen carefully to the comparison Ruiter was right in making – ‘I compare it to having diabetes, it doesn’t go away and it must be treated.’ Yes, one is a psychological problem and the other pancreatic, but Ruiter’s statement does not concern this, it concerns rather that both diabetes and paedophilia are conditions, chronic conditions that require urgent treatment.
Indeed, not all paedophiles possess Eddie’s moral compass. Take Geoffrey Leonard for example, people may laugh at the outrageous man, however he has campaigned for the legalization of sex with children in a similar manner to the Paedophile Information Exchange mentioned in the programme. My sympathies do not extend to these people, but I do not wish dangerous vigilante justice on them either.
The subject of vigilante justice brings me onto another Channel 4 programme named The Paedophile Hunter, which almost makes ‘The Pedo-Files’ a reality. It makes for toe-curling and undeniably compulsive viewing; however, it is merely reality TV that revels in crass sensationalism. The Paedophile Hunter follows the scuzzy ‘Stinson Hunter’ and his friends as they pose as underage girls on Internet chat rooms, easily tricking desperate groomers. Gleefully riding his high-horse, ‘Stinson’ harks on about how important his work is; indeed, his passing of information onto the police is helpful, but posting humiliating recordings of his victims onto the Internet most certainly isn’t. Unfortunately, it appears that ‘Stinson’s’ myopic, antagonistic vigilantism is more palatable for many viewers than The Paedophile Next Door, which instead focuses on understanding and long term solutions.
Despite my objections, the practice of deceiving predators in online chat rooms is, it seems, one of the only ways to tackle the difficult and considerable problem of Internet paedophilia. However, this task should be reserved for police officers like DC Jonathon Taylor interviewed in The Paedophile Next Door, not some self-righteous, utterly vindictive yobbo like ‘Stinson Hunter’, whose primary motives for his vigilantism is keeping out of trouble and, I can imagine, off the dole.
The Woodsman follows Walter (Kevin Bacon), a character who is unlikely to feature in Bacon’s EE adverts. Performed with great nuance and sensitivity, Walter is a paedophile who’s just been released after a twelve-year prison stint.
Walter secures work at a local lumber mill, surrounding himself with people who’d feel very much justified in exacting their own nasty retribution if they discovered his secret. Shots of whirring buzz saws and towering piles of wood and metal reinforce the palpable danger he faces.
Walter keeps a low profile, endeavouring to work hard and sustain a communication with his colleagues that’s merely phatic. However, Walter’s humble reserve attracts the attention of Vicki, played by Kevin Bacon’s wife Kyra Sedgwick. Vicki’s tough, seasoned demeanour means she easily survives in her masculine workplace – it appears she’s experienced many hardships.
Despite Walter’s detachment, he eventually buckles under Vicki’s persistent advances, letting her into his life. It is comforting to see Walter drop his oppressive, steely façade and embrace a kind, understanding person: you invest far more into the pair’s real, raw relationship than you would the decidedly unreal ‘romance’ of many releases. As their relationship grows, however, you are acutely aware of Walter’s secret and wait anxiously for him to reveal it, fearing the worst.
Society’s vindictive, unhelpful attitude towards paedophiles is represented in Seargent Lucas (Mos Def), Walter’s parole officer. Lucas is a consummate unprofessional, aggressively flouting his authority in an attempt to rile the civil, tortured Walter. He has no interest in rehabilitation and makes clear the intentions of his regular visits to Walter’s home – ‘I don’t know why they keep letting freaks like you out on the street, it just means we have to catch you all over again’. The resentment Lucas has for Walter can be understood, Lucas speaks of a highly unpleasant paedophilic crime he was once witness to, but he is nevertheless awfully unsuited to the job and generally an obnoxious screen presence.
The viewer’s sympathy for Walter comes so very close to being crushed when he befriends Robin, a lonely, precocious young girl with an interest in wildfowl; their final scene together makes for highly uncomfortable and unpredictable viewing. What is revealed during their interactions is both tragic and enlightening – it’s a very well executed piece of filmmaking.
It is pitiful that The Woodsman reached a peak of 84 cinemas during its release in the United States, its UK theatre run was also shamefully limited. Unfortunately, I think a film with more ‘gunishment’ would have had greater commercial viability. On the other hand, The Paedophile Next Door had and continues to have, through Channel 4’s online service, an audience that numbers in the tens of millions. Even if only a minority watched it with close attention, the documentary’s infiltration of the mainstream has hopefully planted thoughts of measure and understanding in the minds of many.
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.
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.
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.
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.