Film Inquiry: Maps to the Stars (2014)

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Maps To The Stars is about the aspects of Hollywood that, as a film fan, I‘d rather not think about. Written by the acerbic Bruce Wagner, it is about the cynicism of the industry, about the actors who are motivated by vanity and the money-minded executives who exploit them.

These people’s heads have been long removed from their shoulders, their molly-coddled lives are run by other people as they incessantly try and top up their serotonin through drink, drugs, sex and bastardised spiritualism with increasingly less success. It has been called ‘narratively unwieldy’ by the ‘tomato-meter’, and the events in the latter stages of the film are certainly dramatic and in quick succession, however Maps To The Stars is a great, grotesque satire from David Cronenberg, who could also be described in such terms!

To continue reading, please follow the link to Film Inquiry: http://filminquiry.com/maps-to-the-stars-2014-review/

Movie Marker: A Serbian Film (2010)

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Some say that A Serbian Film is transgressive, but I think such claims are rather tenuous.

The tempestuous cycle of critical thought that surrounds a genuine transgressive piece of art begins with an initial reflex action of disgust and anger that gradually matures into re-evaluation and appreciation. It’s been seen many times before, whether it’s Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which effectively ended Powell’s career only to be championed years later rather undeservedly by powerful figures such as Martin Scorsese, or Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), an almost unprecedentedly violent book that was reviled by readers, critics and feminists alike only to be considered a postmodern classic some years later.

To continue reading, please follow the link to Movie Marker: www.moviemarker.co.uk/?p=27449

Movie Marker: The Riot Club (2014)

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The Riot Club is a genuinely uncomfortable, shocking film about yobbos in waistcoats that met and surpassed my expectations.

After an amusing introductory scene that informs you of the club’s centuries old origin, the film turns to contemporary Oxford and presents us with the latest generation of students and Riot Club members. It follows first-year students Miles Richards (Max Irons) and Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin), both are of ‘good stock’ however the former is normal and down-to-earth and the latter is a malicious, fascistic sociopath.

To read the rest of my review of The Riot Club, please follow the link: www.moviemarker.co.uk/?p=27431

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/

Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl is a dark, suspenseful and brilliantly twisty thriller with a sharp satirical edge.

I saw Gone Girl back during its theatrical release and I had so many good things to say about it that it became a hard article to write – it’s easier to severely criticise something than to steep it in praise. The film really felt like an event, the widespread advertising had roused the interest of many people I knew. The trailer had certainly roused mine, it was an 18 certificate domestic thriller that really compelled me to wonder ‘Did Nick Dunne kill his wife?’ – I was sure that David Fincher would answer the mystery with his trademark style and vigour.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ haunting What Have We Done To Each Other? filled the huge and completely empty auditorium as I walked into it, immediately creating the film’s rivetingly dark, aberrant tone. The instrumental continued during the film’s opening, which I expected to be another of Fincher’s elaborate introduction sequences, but was actually far more understated. Dunne’s suburban Missouri neighbourhood is captured in a slick, foreboding manner by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who has collaborated with Fincher on Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The film’s first hour is riddled with a very ominous ambiguity. With his insouciant, equable manner, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) appears to be a likeable protagonist who is taking his shocking situation perhaps too much in his stride. As new details emerge from the case, however, we begin to wonder whether Nick’s nonchalance is a manifestation of a callous, sociopathic mind.

There’s not much more I can really say about either character or narrative development, as the film has a great twist. It is perhaps a spoiler to even say that, so I will stop. I was pleased to find that the film is just as good second time round, especially if you’re watching it with someone who hasn’t seen it, you can experience the film’s twists and turns vicariously.

In addition to its excellent plotting is a sharp satirical edge; Gone Girl’s satire on the media is far more cutting and resonant than anything in the dull, self-satisfied and heavy-handed Network (1976). Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) – the brassy, brash presenter of a Fox News inspired current affairs programme – doesn’t wonder about Nick’s curiously relaxed behaviour, she declares with absolute certainty that Dunne is a sociopath who has murdered his wife. Abbott obnoxiously raises her voice as she shamelessly peddles bias and hatred to masses of people, inviting ‘experts’ to falsely corroborate her toxic claims. As the film progresses we see the extent of Abbott and her programme’s fickleness and yellow journalism.

As the media circus that literally surrounds Nick gets increasingly hysterical and dangerous, the threat of mob violence seems only moments away until Nick recruits Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), an affable and brilliant lawyer. Bolt’s relish for challenging situations and unwavering confidence is very comforting for both Nick’s and the audience’s nerves – Perry gives a great performance as the amusing, quick-witted executive.

To support Cronenweth’s attractive photography and the wide, cinematic 2.35:1 format is the aforementioned excellent score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The score is a collection of electronic ambient music that ranges from the peaceful with Sugarstorm and Like Home to the dark and disturbing with What Have We Done To Each Other? and Consummation, which is a sound straight from hell.

Reznor and Ross are very adroit at creating music that perfectly fits and enhances each scene. Reznor gave an interesting insight into the collaborative methods between Ross, Fincher and himself in an interview with Hit Fix –

We made the decision to make music we felt belonged in that world, not for scenes, not for characters. We absorbed the script, we thought about the space it was in, the feelings involved, then spent a few weeks composing music from an impressionistic point of view, subconsciously almost, to run by David to ask ‘Hey, does it feel like it’s in the right world?’’

This approach was ‘right on the money’, inspiring Fincher which in turn further inspired Ross and Reznor.

The Academy is routinely criticised for omitting quality films from their nominations and commending works that don’t deserve it. I think this year’s greatest insult is a Best Picture nod for the comparatively insipid American Sniper over this delightfully warped psychological thriller. They nominated Rosamund Pike for Best Actress at least, but I can’t discuss her show-stealing performance!

93%

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%

Fury (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

71%

The Silent World (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jc22The little Dachshund is used to such sights.

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

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

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

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

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

78%

Silent Running (1972)

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A soporific film whose message seems to be – eco-terrorism, it’s noble. (Spoilers, sort of.)

Read a brief synopsis and Silent Running looks interesting, it imagines the dreadful prospect of a dystopian world that’s bereft of wildlife and personality. It’s well intentioned and quite prescient; it chimes with contemporary environmental issues. This should all be interesting, but it’s very dull indeed.

Silent Running takes place aboard a spaceship which has several domes containing an array of plants and wildlife. These are maintained by Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a man whose strong views on ecology make him a pariah among the other crewmen. When Lowell’s forestry is arranged to be destroyed by the powers that be, he reacts in a way that is, to understate, morally dubious.

One of the main reasons why this is all such a drag is because we’re given no depth, it isn’t explained why Earth is a barren dystopia or why they’re going to Saturn. You expect the crew members to imbue the film with substance however the character development is cut fatally short when Lowell blows them up early in the film. This plot development doesn’t do many favours for the sole remaining character either, because as much as Lowell’s indifferent and stupid colleagues annoyed me, did they really deserve to die? The film seems to justify their hurried dispatching, we’re supposed to care for this drab murderer and his forest.

One-man shows like Cast Away require a good leading man in an extraordinary situation. The last one I saw was All Is Lost with Robert Redford. It was the most extreme example of the genre I’d seen and was grossly overrated on the ‘tomato-meter’ at 94%, but the ambitious film just about worked for me.

Silent Running gets neither an interesting lead character nor a compelling situation. Outside of an impassioned diatribe against his colleagues’ indifference about the environment and the human condition, Lowell is a long faced, shaggy haired non-entity. Once he is the sole remaining homo-sapien, Lowell’s only companions are three charisma bereft robots called Huey, Dewey and Louie (this is cute apparently), whose organs of communication are metal flaps that emit a quiet, meaningless sort of whistle.

The supposed spectacle of Silent Running is also underwhelming. Director Douglas Trumbull worked on the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re very much of their time in parts but nonetheless sensory and epic in scope. However, in Silent Running, Trumbull’s directorial debut, the exterior shots of the spacecraft often look decidedly fake and miniature and the explosions are lamentably dated and intangible.

I watched this film on Mark Kermode’s recommendation. He loves this film, he considers it superior to 2001 and shockingly names it one of the greatest films ever made. He says that it’s a human tale, that Dern’s relationship with the robots is deeply affecting, I couldn’t disagree more. The reason why Kermode likes it so much is because it’s nostalgic for him, he saw at just 11-years-old and subsequently grew up loving the film – I’ve had similar attachment to films like Jaws, which is of course infinitely better.

After a while I was willing for the film to end, I became entirely indifferent towards the narrative’s dreary developments and the politics beneath them. I love nature and beautiful landscapes, I empathised with Lowell to a certain degree, however his actions make the film’s message all rather muddled. Silent Running may appeal to Green extremists, however I think even they’ll grow tired once they realise how little there is beyond its eco-friendly sentiment.

50%

Into The Wild (2007)

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McCandless was a self-serving fool, and the narrative suffers because of this.

This film was recommended to me by a couple of friends, I was looking forward to it, it had an interesting premise on face value, but by not even half-way through, the film had lost its appeal for me purely because of the ostensibly ‘inspirational’ material it was based on.

The film, directed by Sean Penn, follows Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young, idealistic university graduate who yearns to leave modern civilisation and live off the land like some sort of noble savage.

I have backpacked around Europe and South East Asia, I wholeheartedly understand the appeal of travelling for extended periods of time and living out of a rucksack. I also, like many others I’m sure, can empathise with McCandless’s contempt for the expectations, uncertainty and pressure of young adulthood. But, quite frankly, McCandless was a selfish fool who lost all sense of rationality whilst making a grand statement about civilised society. He left his only sister with their emotionally distant, shallow and contentious parents to pursue his ill-fated adventure totally unprepared. So unfortunately, I couldn’t see past the lead character’s naivety and self importance.

But despite this, I did find myself compelled to watch McCandless’s interaction with the film’s supporting cast; the hippies, old man Ron Hanz (Hal Holbrook) and dare I say it even Kristen Stewart’s role were infinitely more interesting than McCandless’s ‘inspiring’ mission. To think some viewers find his story ‘inspirational’ shows entertainingly poor judgement, they can’t have seen the whole film! Again, I stress that this film isn’t bad film making, it features good performances from the whole cast and some good emotive interplay between them, but it is all set within the context of the lead character’s idiotic escapade, a fundamental aspect which I cannot bypass.

It’s a shame that McCandless has been immortalised for being so reckless.

63%

Three Kings (1999)

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Three Kings is a war film that’s decent yet formulaic and easy to forget.

The film follows Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) as they look for a stash of gold after finding a secret map lodged in a prisoner of war’s anus – the premise is removed from reality to an extent where it loses credibility as both a war film and a piece of drama. The synopsis on the Blu-Ray case says that Three Kings is ‘a surreal comedy and a powerful drama of human compassion’. That is the problem with the film, it strives to be two things at once and ultimately fails in succeeding at either.

The foundations of its trite, formulaic narrative are laid in the film’s early moments. Gates stresses that once they get their gold from the bunker they’re getting straight out of there, but naturally their swift plan goes awry when the men’s conscience throw them into a union with the noble Iraqi rebels and a bloody conflict with Saddam Hussein’s army. This is second-rate Rambo territory, yet it gets over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

There are moments of style and surrealism, for example there are several scenes that show what happens to one’s innards when a bullet passes through them, the effects are terrifically grisly and macabre. The first gunfight is also in a strange, choppy slow motion that’s silent apart from loud, single gunshots. However, when the tension, of which there is some I admit, is broken by the sound of American and Iraqi rifles, there is a palpable sense of safety amongst the Americans; despite the overwhelming numbers of Hussein’s troops, I never felt that the Three Kings were truly in any danger. Even when Troy is captured and subjected to moments of nasty torture, I wasn’t particularly bothered because I knew he’d be rescued. It is Troy’s capture that, with a few exceptions, signals the steady decline of the film.

Jean Baudrillard said that ‘the Gulf War did not take place’, referring to how the United States-led coalition engaged in a war of safe distances with vastly superior technology. Baudrillard also believed that the media coverage was mere simulacrum, a sanitised recreation of events that ignored Iraqi suffering and championed US objectives. Seasoned journalist Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) is a personification of this, she’s depicted as being self-centred and interested only in her career rather than her subject. There’s a scene where she cries at the sight of oil slathered animals, however it’s quite apparent that she’s really mourning the absence of a good story.

Baudrillard’s notions are corroborated in exchanges between Troy and Iraqi Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui) that serve as the film’s main moments of war moralising. With Troy bound to a chair and wired with electric cables, Said tells him that his son died in the bombing of Baghdad, asking Troy how he’d feel if his daughter was killed in similar circumstances, a thought that he acknowledges as sheer hypothesis ‘Very nice for you bro, she’s safe in Arizona without the bombs and concrete’. The impact of this scene is intensified by cutaway clips that visualise their dialogue of war and death; despite Said’s torture of Troy, the scene highlights fundamental similarities between the two men, giving Said humanity. Indeed, the film succeeds in giving many of the Iraqi characters a sense of identity. Despite of all this, I felt the film was following the well trodden path of Hollywood war moralising in a rather hackneyed manner.

After what feels longer than 110 minutes, the film confirms just how formulaic it is when its farcical story is wrapped up so very neatly, it sucks out any modicum of credibility that may have remained. What’s left is a film that is by no means terrible but a rather mediocre affair with the odd flash of political commentary and explosive spectacle that has been done better elsewhere. I shouldn’t be too surprised by its mediocrity, after all who talks about Three Kings anymore? It certainly hasn’t entered the pantheon of great war films, it didn’t make the impact that The Hurt Locker did. Many would forget that the director of Silver Linings Playbook (okay) and American Hustle (hideously overrated) once made a war film, and I may do too.

64%

 

Joe (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

76%

Zero Day (2003)

zero dayAndre Kriegman (left) and Calvin Gabriel (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

79%

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning

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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