Scum (1979)

ScumA damning depiction of rehabilitation, hierarchy and corruption.  

Despite being released over 30 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Scum has lost none of its punch. ‘Scum’ is an unforgiving portrait of the British borstal system – 1 hour and 30 minutes of both physical and psychological abuse.

The film examines the hierarchy of the borstal, looking at the behaviour and roles of both the officers and the inmates, questioning who’s worse. This hierarchy is ruptured when Carlin (Ray Winstone) enters the borstal. Carlin claims to be looking for ‘no trouble’, but really he is equally or even more pugnacious and skullduggerous than the rest.

Much like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Scum’ explores the infuriating frustration of injustice in ‘correctional’ institutions. Personally, I find few things worse than the abuse of power, whether it’s within an institution, a family or any other context. I’m sure many would agree, subsequently making ‘Scum’ an engrossing and unpleasant watch for all.

Asides from Carlin, the most significant character is Archer (Mick Ford), an intelligent, disaffected vegan who is a habitual troublemaker. Archer serves as an interesting plot device; he offers intelligent, biting monologues on the flaws of the institution, most notably to an officer’s face, who retaliates by reducing their civil conversation into another officious, hostile procedure.

It’s Carlin’s arrival, growth and ultimately tenure as ‘The Daddy’ that serves as the central narrative of the film, but thematically the film acts as a condemnation of the borstal system and its corrupt, vindictive employees. One may wonder if the film is hyperbolic, but the borstal system was abolished by government in 1982, replacing it instead with ‘Youth Custody Centres’. This corroborates Scum’s credibility.

80%

Vampire’s Kiss (1989)

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I found myself laughing at this unsung gem far more than I would at any conventional ‘comedy’. 

Over the years, Nicolas Cage has developed a reputation for being a ‘paycheque actor’, the National Treasures, the Ghost Riders and the slew of others have, in the eyes of many, demeaned him as an actor. I can understand this, and agree to a certain extent, but Nicolas Cage is capable of many great things on the big screen, and Vampire’s Kiss, a genuinely peculiar piece of work, is a testament to that.

Cage occupies the role of Peter Loew, a womanising literary agent whose empty, high-pressure existence leads to a major mental breakdown. Peter is sent into a downward spiral of increasingly psychotic episodes, believing he is turning into a vampire after apparently being bitten by a rather more sinister one night stand.  As Peter crumbles under the grasp of his psychosis, he begins to antagonise his sweet secretary Alva, obsessively badgering her to fix a painfully daunting and monotonous filing issue.

Cage is at his unhinged best in this film; his rather idiosyncratic lunacy is perhaps an acquired taste, but I found it to be refreshingly hilarious. It’s a truly strange performance, there are many memorable outbursts that leave you rather incredulous, such as a scene of infantile crying that is quickly followed by Cage running down a street shouting ‘I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!’. Aside from the various crazy eruptions, the inflections in Cage’s voice also have this comic air of pomposity – it’s futile to try and describe them, you have to hear them yourself.

With its yuppie-in-trouble story line, Vampire’s Kiss bears a striking resemblance to American Psycho, only it’s much stranger. The film charts the descent into madness, but it does it in such a surreal, eccentric manner that you don’t take it very seriously, it is indeed difficult to empathise with Peter. Some have said that this is a detriment of the film, but I don’t think it is; besides, I think the themes of unhappiness and unfulfillment do have a certain degree of poignancy. It is first and foremost a black comedy with an oddball central performance, not a grim piece of drama.

‘Vampire’s Kiss’ is likely to polarise audiences. I’m sure many viewers would find it plain silly, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m very much part of its cult following. I found myself laughing far more than I would at any conventional ‘comedy’.

86%

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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A vast, multi-faceted, albeit slightly maudlin epic with a beautiful score, striking cinematography and gripping acting intensity.

A sprawling epic of three hours, ‘The Deer Hunter’ is a striking, moving film. It focuses on a group of working class men who live in Clairton, Pennsylvania; which whilst is an industrial town, is a pretty and tranquil part of the world. However, this is strictly the film’s depiction of Clairton; it was actually shot in various locations across Ohio.

These men have firm working class sentiments, they work in the steel factory together and, once their shifts are over, drop by the local bar to shoot pool and have a few drinks; this is the men’s comfortable existences, however their lives are soon to be turned upside down. The men are called to serve their country in Vietnam, where they are to be subjected to an array of abhorrence that will change them forever.

It is a striking film in every sense. John Williams’ score, the acoustic ‘Cavatina’, is blissful; it complements every scene it features in. Its sequences of natural beauty and Clairton life are starkly juxtaposed in the film’s second act: the infamous Russian roulette scene. It is acted with truly remarkable conviction; the actors must have forced themselves into an unpleasant place to produce such harrowing realism. The scene is so visceral and intense that it creates a disturbed silence amongst an audience; even its biggest critics would have to try very hard not to be affected by it.

Normally a critically acclaimed film, ‘The Deer Hunter’ hasn’t been devoid of criticism. It has been labelled melodramatic, and it does indeed have its maudlin moments, I agree, but it has also been accused of being ‘racist’. It may be a one sided account of the war and I appreciate it was released during sensitive times shortly after the conflict, but I do not agree.

Does a film have to cover every aspect of an event? Does it have to cover every perspective? Of course not. ‘The Deer Hunter’ reflects one case: one group of men and their exposure to a small group of sadistic belligerents. Some say the depiction of the Vietcong is racist, but to rational, informed people, I think it’s clear that film the isn’t suggesting that the entire Vietcong was like this. We realise that atrocities similar to those seen in the film are committed by both parties in times of war; to proclaim that the film is trying to tell us otherwise is false and preachy.

I concede that the majority of the Vietnamese are, to understate somewhat, portrayed unscrupulously, but the extent of one’s criticism should be that the characterisation is flat, certainly not racist. Additionally, there are pedants who moan about how there were no cases of Russian roulette documented over the course of the Vietnam War – it’s called artistic licence. If you’re so bothered by ‘The Deer Hunter’, if you yearn for fair portrayal, balance it out by watching Oliver Stone’s vitriolic ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, which is a scathing attack on the United States’ behaviour in Vietnam and their military and political ethos.

Returning to another popular comment; I do concede its melodrama, especially during a scene where the American National Anthem is sung in unison: far too gushing and ‘American’. However, overall, any flaw is completely pushed aside by its ensemble cast, its aural and visual impact and its ability to keep your attention for 180 minutes and leave a lasting impression on you.

87%

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

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‘Inglourious Basterds’ is an entertaining, original war film with high production values

‘Inglourious Basterds’ is not a film to be taken seriously, it’s a farce. Firstly, many of its characters are caricatures, especially Brad Pitt’s role Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who speaks in an exaggerated southern drawl. Secondly, the story completely rewrites history in grand, bloody fashion. Overall, I found the film to be good fun; I found its total disregard for history to be refreshing. It has been called ‘juvenile’, to those people I say “lighten up”.

Its characters, context and plotting seem to have annoyed many people. The majority of the negative reviews I have read on IMDb are unfair and written by people who are cine-illiterate and sometimes downright illiterate. To dislike this film is understandable, but to give it 1/10 is immature and makes their opinion completely invalid.

Many will find it distasteful, and it is, the German soldiers aren’t considered people by the Basterds; some deserve their violent treatment, others do not. However, contrary to popular belief, the film isn’t crammed full of violence. It certainly has graphic outbursts, but it isn’t pervasive. Instead, much of the film consists of dialogue delivered by its strong cast, constructing its rather large, multi- character story. The main acting credit of course goes to Christoph Waltz, whose turn as the intelligent, ruthless and utterly inescapable Col. Hans Landa is a highlight of the film.

There are moments that are removed from the farcical features of the film, notably the tense farm house interrogation and the basement bar scene, both of which are superbly constructed and acted. Think ‘The Lives of Others’ only with characters that face far more brutal consequences.

I quite like the film’s story and plotting, it’s a long film but I didn’t grow tired of it like some people have. I didn’t expect the film to incorporate so many characters, I didn’t expect its scope. It’s interesting to wonder what the film would’ve been like if it had adopted a ‘Reservoir Dogs’ approach, it could have been a stripped down thriller that closely followed the Basterds’ exploits, it may well have been a better film. Instead it’s more related to ‘Pulp Fiction’, a lengthy film with many characters and a marked tone of black humour, however ‘Inglorious Basterds’ isn’t as funny or as interesting.

Tarantino’s methods of film-making are questionable. For example, I’ve heard he refuses to hire composers as he doesn’t want another crew member to have that degree of influence over his work. Some think his total control over his productions is becoming his downfall, and those claims could have credibility. He’s an auteur some may say, I say he sounds like a control freak, however I understand he has a very particular vision.  It would be interesting to see him work on projects that aren’t completely his own. Working that way would see his career become more prolific and hopefully would avoid him making awful genre referential trash like ‘Death Proof’ again.

‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a great addition to his canon that’s original and in possession of all the entertaining earmarks of a true Tarantino film.

87%

The Artist (2011)

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‘The Artist’ is an audacious, jovial albeit predictable homage to the first stars of Hollywood.

It’s straightforward, predictable, and not entirely deserving of its Academy commendation, but ‘The Artist’ is ultimately a delightful piece of escapism. It’s a joy to watch, I became aware that I had a smile on my face throughout the first twenty minutes, which was thanks to a combination of the jovial soundtrack, ‘Uggie’ the talented Jack Russell, and also I think Dujardin’s rather infectious smile.

However, it’s slightly darker than you may have imagined. The film concerns George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent-movie star whose wellbeing is jeopardised upon the advent of the ‘talkies’. So, as you can imagine, the film is as much a drama as it is a romantic comedy, if not more.

It really is remarkable what the cast have achieved with this film. I’m sure many people would have their reservations about this silent film, but I’m certain they’d be engrossed from the start, completely indifferent that it’s missing a fundamental dimension. Of course, silent films aren’t completely silent, they’re scored, and ‘The Artist’ has a delightfully expressive soundtrack. Its energetic, upbeat tracks are my favourite; they have your torso gently swaying and your head bobbing jovially.

It’s ultimately a very nice little film with good performances from everyone, particularly from Dujardin. Though he is great in it, I feel his Oscar wasn’t fairly earned; his job was very different to the other contenders that year. However, if there was an Oscar for ‘Best Smile’, he would’ve won without a doubt.

80%

Lilya 4-Ever (2002)

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A powerful, sympathetic film about poverty. 

‘Lilya 4-Ever’ is hugely bleak. You shake your head as Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is manipulated and abused. I read somewhere that this film is ‘torture porn’, nonsense, despite the sleazy, damning impression it leaves on you, it’s a very tastefully made film. It’s unremittingly depressing, but always tasteful.

It’s somewhat one-track in its storytelling; almost everyone is callous, abusive and indifferent about Lilya’s well-being, none more so than her mother, who deserts her, initiating Lilya’s dive into veritable squalor. I can understand how these people are going to be embittered by their tough, filthy neighbourhood, but some of the characters’ cruelty and selfishness border on evil. Her only friend is Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a young admirer of hers who is always thinking in her best interest. The young pair give terrifically natural performances, which help achieve the film’s aura of hyperrealism.

Much like films such as ‘Import/Export’, the camera captures the arresting, achromatic landscapes of Eastern European housing projects.

The total deprivation in this film makes one appreciative of not only family and friends but basic commodities too. Lilya is thrown into aworld of abject poverty, where the living conditions are so desperate that we see her attempting to sell her few, worthless possessions on a street corner. Lilya and Volodya frequently talk about a better life, but they’re both so tragically far away from their fantasies. Inevitably, she discovers that prostitution is the most lucrative way of assuring she has the resources to be able to live and maybe even achieve her dreams.

Throughout the film, I wanted to reach into the screen and cradle the sweet little Oksana Akinshina, attacking anyone who wanted to exploit her for whatever disgusting purpose. The film puts an innocent, sympathetic face on prostitution, an industry that’s unfairly maligned and condemned by society. In fact, the film puts an innocent, sympathetic face on the underclass; its candid hyperrealism gives you a vivid portrait of total and utter destitution, helping you understand and empathise with their lamentable lives.

83%

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

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A somewhat idealised account of alcoholism, but still a thoroughly downbeat one.

Don’t get me wrong, this film is thoroughly downbeat, however I feel alcoholism is still somewhat sugar coated. The likelihood of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) finding a woman as attractive and utterly devoted as Sera (Elizabeth Shue) is slim. It’s possible of course, their bond is understandable; they’re both people in grave need of care, one being a severe addict and the other being a victim on the fringe of society. Also, the crucial element that makes the relationship and indeed the film work is its platonicism.

Nevertheless, I thought that ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is a somewhat idealised account of dire alcoholism. This really struck me in an erotically charged scene in which the pair kiss and caress each other with the help of a large bottle of liquor – it’s an image that would exist merely in the dreams of most addicts. However, the engaging central romance certainly beats 2 hours of a more ordinary dive into alcoholism, which would be a film of roughly two sets: a pub and a bedroom stained with urine, excrement, blood and vomit.

A film of this nature depends on a good central performance, and it gets one. Cage is depressingly real and effective as Ben. I am a fan of many of Cage’s unhinged roles, however ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is one the films that proves that when he moderates his idiosyncratic lunacy, he can produce genuinely good, measured performances.

The film is scored with smooth, melancholic jazz tracks and the narrative is constructed by a tautly composed prologue which gives a brief insight into Ben’s life before he left for Las Vegas. This includes a brilliant scene of Ben ridding himself of his personal and professional existence to the sound of Michael McDonald’s energetic ‘Lonely Teardrops’. It’s a scene of mixed emotions, although he is condemning himself, it is also an act of liberation. Not much detail is given about his life in the prologue, however it is clear that he was a popular and successful family man. When he is fired, his boss says with a touching sincerity ‘we enjoyed having you around here, but you know how it is’, giving him a cheque which Ben describes as ‘too generous’. This depth given to Cage’s character makes his decline all the more tragic.

‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is dark, seedy and tragic. Recommended.

80%

Frost/Nixon (2008)

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Frost/Nixon is a taut, entertaining dramatisation with strong performances and an accomplished period aura

When watching films based on true events, my propensity for doubting what I see on screen is instantly heightened. The main thing that I found suspect was the extent to which Nixon was constructed as a villain. During the film he is shown to be deceptive, racist, lecherous and a man unashamedly motivated by money. The film does add favourable depth to the character in places, making the viewer pity him in some respects, but generally Nixon doesn’t fare well at all. I don’t know enough about the man to accurately comment on the film’s portrayal of him, however I did find the characterisation somewhat dubious.

Furthermore, upon researching the interviews, I read that David Frost’s experience was different to what’s seen in the film. According to his partner Caroline Cushing, he didn’t fret endlessly over his performances with Nixon, he was quite content with each of the interviews.

So, like many films ‘inspired by true events’, the film takes liberties with the facts. However this doesn’t matter to the viewer, the artistic licence makes for a great piece of dramatisation. The film is quite a gruelling experience; the pressure in and out of the interviews is intense. For a film that concerns conversations, it is quite remarkable how compelling and uncomfortable it is. The wars of words and mind games are more engrossing than any boxing match in ‘Raging Bull’ or ‘The Fighter’.

The film’s chief merit lies in its performances. Martin Sheen sounds and even looks exactly like David Frost, it is quite uncanny. And whilst not meeting the likeliness achieved by Sheen, Frank Langella is equally as captivating as Nixon. Also, Kevin Bacon gives a good, typical Kevin Bacon performance as Jack Brennan, the officious aide to the President.

Frost/Nixon is a taut, entertaining dramatisation with strong performances and an accomplished period aura.

80%

Django Unchained (2012)

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Tarantino delivers another provocative and hugely entertaining film.

I love the sense of occasion a Tarantino film has, he’s in the lucky position of being one of the most popular and controversial directors of the past twenty years. Some may find him self-indulgent, but the merits of his energetic, funny and flamboyant films are undeniable; it’s fantastic that he is able to make such edgy blockbusters.

‘Django’, which is effectively a ‘buddy film’, charts the relationship between German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave Schultz rescues. Together they endeavour to save Django’s wife from the notorious ‘Candie Land’, a vast plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The film has a great ensemble cast. Jamie Foxx makes the most of his character, who for the most part is a ‘man-with-no-name’ figure. He accomplishes Tarantino’s goal of ‘giving Black American males a Western hero’. DiCaprio successfully depicts Candie as a pompous pseudo-intellectual and at times a nasty piece of work, however the extent to which he brushes off barbed comments from Django surprised me, there were moments where I wondered if  he was menacing or authoritative enough.  Based on the great ‘Killer Joe’ (2012), I wondered how Matthew McConaughey would have performed the role, he could have steeped it in menace, but I doubt he could have achieved the risible ignorance of DiCaprio.

Christoph Waltz again showcases his talent here, but his character in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ gave him more scope to perform his ‘charming but deadly’ persona. Samuel L. Jackson completely transforms into the character of Stephen, who is Candie’s geriatric butler and the ultimate uncle tom. Jackson’s performance is my favourite, he’s both a tragic and very nasty figure. Tarantino himself appears in the later stages of the film with an Australian accent that ranges from being incoherent to not very Australian at all – thankfully it’s strictly a cameo.

There are laughs all the way through ‘Django’, a notable example being when slave owner ‘Big Daddy'(Don Johnson) attempts to explain to a slave how she should treat the newly liberated and somewhat respected Django – it completely ridicules the nonsensical, pernicious madness of racism.

I also found myself disregarding any form of moral compass and laughing heartily at the more cartoonish displays of violence. There is one particular scene that is a veritable bloodbath, seldom in the annals of celluloid has there been a moment more deserving of the term!

Some have criticised the film’s length, however I had little trouble with its 165 minute running time. There were indeed sections of the film, chiefly before and during the ‘Candie Land’ period, which could have been trimmed perhaps, however I was perfectly content.

The majority won’t be disappointed, the film has all the earmarks of a Tarantino film – he is the ultimate fan boy auteur. I can’t wait to see it again.

89%