The Neon Demon is the new film from Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur best known for his blood-spattered fetishisation of Ryan Gosling. The film’s not released until 8 July, but I was fortunate enough to attend a preview screening and Q&A with Refn, or NWF as he’s now calling himself, at Manchester’s HOME cinema.
Let’s begin by saying that it is a marked improvement on his last work Only God Forgives, the Bangkok-set misfire which strew terrible characters, terrible dialogue and dull Oedipal metaphors over 90 tedious minutes.
For The Neon Demon, Refn has left Thailand and taken us back to Los Angeles, the sprawling city that Newton Thomas Sigel photographed so beautifully inDrive. Sigel hasn’t returned but Natasha Braier, his Argentine replacement known for her work on The Road, provides similarly dazzling visuals, from sweeping shots of the dusky Los Angeles basin to surreal and sparkling strobe-lit sequences.
Stuart Cooper’s Overlord is a seldom-seen docudrama that deftly blends fictional narrative with archival footage from the Imperial War Museum’s vast collection. It premiered in 1975 at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Jury Grand Prix. However, it did not win an audience or even a theatrical release, sending the film into obscurity for over 30 years. It received a DVD release and limited theatrical run in 2006, and has been featured on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but Overlord remains on the fringes of cinema with just 1700 user ratings on IMDb.
Despite this, a quick read of responses from critics and viewers alike suggest that it is a compelling and affecting piece of work. It’s this small yet enthusiastic support that is seeing the Criterion Collection upgrade Overlord to Blu-ray on 6 June, which will be the 72nd anniversary of D-Day.
The film begins in May 1940 with footage of victorious German troops marching through a recently evacuated Dunkirk. We are then presented with an unfocused shot of a British soldier who charges toward us only to fall under a hail of gunfire. This blurred sequence – which was inspired by Robert Capa’s famous photograph Falling Soldier – is the premonition of Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirmer), the subject of Overlord’s fictional narrative.
Green Room is light on story but excruciatingly heavy on blood spattered, genre-leading survival thrills.
Director Jeremy Saulnier knows a thing or two about set pieces. Head shots, too. The harrowing events of Green Room occur in just several rooms, yet Saulnier’s stripped-down script and direction creates a veritable white-knuckle ride of desperate reversals of fortune and shocking explosions of violence.
The victims of all this nastiness are The Ain’t Rights, a struggling Punk band comprising Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner). After stealing some petrol for their battered old camper van, they head to Seaside, Oregon, where a local DJ arranges a gig for them at a ‘right-wing’ venue, an offer which the destitute band cannot afford to decline.
When they arrive at the club – which is in an ominously remote corner of the Pacific North West – the shaven heads, tattoos and sketchy, leering glances make it clear that the crowd is not merely right wing but positively fascist. It is at this moment that a feeling of palpable danger and isolation starts to germinate, a feeling that comes to brutal fruition when Pat is witness to a murder in the club’s green room.
In a hail of panic and confusion, the band and Amber (Imogen Poots) are locked in the room under the guard of Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) and his fully loaded Smith & Wesson .500, which he explains has cartridges so large that only five can fit into the cylinder. What ensues is a savagely intense siege that affords both its protagonists and the viewer very few luxuries.
After the first few instances of jarring violence, I feared that the film was going to be ninety minutes of audience punishment in the style of The Loved Ones or Wolf Creek. Thankfully, the fortunes of our besieged protagonists do improve, albeit in a wayward and unpredictable manner. It is all the better for it too – the twists and turns of the band’s seemingly insurmountable predicament had me in a choke hold until the very end.
What makes Green Room so engaging is its relatability; it is much like Deliverance in this respect. Both films thrust normal people with little experience of violence into a lethal situation, causing the viewer to wonder ‘what would I do?’, ‘where would I be in this group’s dynamic?’.
Similarly, the protagonists of both films have no one to turn to, no outsider that they can fully trust. With his smooth diction and measured disposition, Darcy (a very interestingly cast Patrick Stewart) initially appears to be a mature voice of reason amongst a pack of rabidly aggressive young men. Alas, such hopes do not last as the contrary becomes quickly evident. It is only Gabe, played by Saulnier’s childhood friend Macon Blair, who appears to be someone the band can work with. Blair channels much of his performance through an anguished gaze that reveals shades of anxiety, doubt and shame. It seems that Gabe has fallen prey to Darcy’s steely manipulation.
This is about as dynamic as the characterisation gets, because although Green Room features fine performances across the board, it is a film is driven by genre-leading survival thrills rather than plot and characters. If you choose to go and see it – prepare yourself!
Ben Wheatley is one of the most exciting British directors working today. His two best films are Kill List, a deeply disturbing horror/thriller about a tormented contract killer, and Sightseers, a black comedy about a troubled couple on their parochial, psychopathic honeymoon.
Key to these films’ success are strong characters with interesting dynamics. Kill List begins almost like a domestic kitchen-sink drama centred on the failing relationship between Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Burning), but it subsequently evolves, or rather devolves, into something dark, dank and horrible in a most unpredictable manner. Sightseers may be most commonly remembered for its scenes of outlandish violence, such as when Chris (Steve Oram) deliberately runs over a litterer in a fit of righteous anger. However, underneath the comic outbursts of gore is the poignant relationship between Chris and Tina (Alice Lowe), an oddball pair with a past of loneliness and insecurity.
Having proved himself as a director of visceral horror and emotional substance, Ben Wheatley is the natural choice to direct J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, a Goldingesque tale of violent class war exploding within a brutalist tower block. The fragility of civilisation, and the primitive savagery that lurks beneath it, is a darkly fascinating subject that has made for excellent films and books, such as Threads, a devastating vision of post-apocalyptic Britain, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which needs no introduction.
High-Rise does not brush shoulders with such works, for its allegory of class divide gets lost in a dull montage of blood, sweat and blue paint. Oh, and dancing air hostesses, for reasons that are, to put it politely, enigmatic.
The focal characters – Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a measured, middle class doctor; Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a sultry woman who serves as Laing’s gateway in to the upper floors’ high culture; Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a pugnaciously aspirational documentary maker; and Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the patrician architect who designed the building – are introduced well enough, but ultimately do not receive sufficient development.
As the lead and perhaps most relatable character, we are in the body of Laing when he traverses the tower’s social scene, which he admits to ‘not being very good at’. Some may find him steely, but Laing has an affable reserve and high emotional intelligence. He isn’t particularly interested in the petty one-upmanship that comes with climbing the social ladder, but he manages to deftly negotiate it anyway through his insouciant reserve that maintains peoples’ interest and disarms any potential enemies. Hiddleston, one of Britain’s hottest exports, is well cast here, he delivers the best performance of the film.
However, after a competent introduction to society in the high rise, Laing and the others get lost in an incoherent narrative that favours aesthetics and absurdity over credible character interplay. It begins three months ahead of the main events, showing a blood spattered Laing roasting a dog’s leg over a fire surrounded by dirt and detritus. After the aforementioned introductory period of around thirty minutes, the film then charts what led to this repellent spectacle with a disjointed series of set pieces that give little sense of progression.
Electrical problems are plaguing the building and resentment is brewing between the upper and lower floors, but the descent into nihilism just… happens. Dogs are being drowned, Laing’s painting his apartment (and himself) like a total madman and the whole building becomes a rubbish-strewn nightmare – but there’s no tension, no crescendo, no credibility and, curiously, no one who considers leaving! The worsening relations should have been more gradual and given much greater depth and meaning by the characters, their dialogue and their relationships. Instead, the main character covers himself in paint to communicate his increasingly aberrant state of mind, which appears to be an obvious metaphor for tribal decorations.
High-Rise fails as a film about primal savagery and particularly as a film about class. In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, I cringed as Jasmine and her husband Hal, arrogant members of New York high society, barely contained their raging superiority complexes as they awkwardly condescended to Ginger (Jasmine’s sister) and Augie, a decidedly blue collar couple who wonder at Hal and Jasmine’s luxurious home. No such realist interplay is to be found in High-Rise, because its characters are thinly drawn and it isn’t rooted in reality, which is very much to its detriment.
Towards the film’s end, there are moments in which Royal and his minions discuss the politics and future of the tower, with Royal remarking that the lower floors should be ‘Balkanised’, meaning that they should be fragmented and pitted against each other in a manner reminiscent of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. I liked the use of that phrase, there should have been a lot more of this in the script, more overt political manoeuvring rather than surrealist claptrap and brutalist 70s chic.
Alas, Wheatley’s High-Rise is more concerned with aesthetics and the 1970s, which means there’s more in the way of shag-pile carpets, dodgy hair and the colour brown than developed characters, coherent narrative structure and sociopolitical substance.
The Sound Barrier, one of David Lean’s lesser-known entries into his proud catalogue, is coming to Blu-ray on 11 April thanks to a joint effort from the BFI National Archive, STUDIOCANAL and the David Lean Foundation.
The transfer looks great, old fans of the film will be very pleased with its high-definition sheen. However, those who enter this film after seeing Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia will probably be disappointed because of its poor characterisation and reliance on aerial spectacle, which has inevitably aged after 64 years.
Set in mid-to-late 1940s, the film follows John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a wealthy pioneer of aviation who believes the sound barrier can and should be broken. His pursuit is egotistical and uncompassionate, for he considers the project’s fatal danger to be par for the course and justifies the endeavour by comparing himself to Prometheus, the Titan of Greek mythology who ‘came to a sticky end… but gave the world fire.’ The problem with that it won’t be John who comes to a sticky end, but the brave pilots who are willing to become his guinea pigs.
Caught up in the grand experiment is Tony (Nigel Patrick), John’s son-in-law who eventually serves as his chief test pilot; Susan (Ann Todd), Tony’s concerned wife and John’s somewhat estranged daughter; and Christopher (Denholm Elliot), John’s son, apprehensive heir and doomed first test pilot.
Bomber Offensive: Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris is the memoir of Sir Arthur Harris, who served as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command from 22 February 1942 to the war’s end in 1945. It is a personal account of his life and career that offers an insight into the formative years of the RAF but lacks – as one would expect from its notoriously obstinate and self-assured author – a balanced discussion of Bomber Command, which was perhaps the most controversial force in the Allies’ ‘good war’.
The Hateful Eight suffers from an overly long running time, comparably forgettable characters and the weight of expectation, but it eventually comes to life as the twists and turns occur in rapid succession.
It’s easy to determine the worst film of Tarantino’s career, it’s Death Proof. That one’s firmly at the bottom of the totem pole. Some way up to around the middle of the pole are both volumes of Kill Bill, which had fun action but were utterly lightweight. Deciding which film occupies the top of the monument is quite difficult, as I like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained for a variety of different reasons. These four films are a showcase of the wit, cine-literacy, explosive conflict and idiosyncrasies that have made Tarantino perhaps the most popular director of the past twenty years.
On the surface, The Hateful Eight has the earmarks of a Tarantino film. It has dialogue in abundance, squibby gunfights, incessant use of the word nigger and a hollering Samuel L. Jackson, but Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film is a decidedly mediocre entry into his much loved oeuvres.
The immediate problem is pacing. Unlike some, I seldom found the pacing of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained to be a problem, but The Hateful Eight, which has been politely labelled a slow burner by some critics, burns too slowly. It takes a whole half hour of gruff, uneventful drawl before we reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, in which the remainder of the film’s 187 minutes takes place.
Once we’re in the cabin, the aggressively cautious John Ruth (Kurt Russell) demands the identity of everyone. There’s Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), a bounty hunter who is watchable but not a departure from familiar Sam Jackson territory; Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the goofy, ebullient Sheriff of nearby Redrock; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Ruth’s foul-mouthed bounty who’s on the receiving end of multiple elbows and fists; Oswaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth), a stereotypical Victorian gentleman and hangman; Bob (Demian Bichir), a mumbling Mexican; General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous bastard who fought in the Civil War; and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a completely disposable stock character.
It is unlikely that any of these characters will leave much of an impression on the viewer, for they are Tarantino’s most unremarkable and thinly drawn in quite some time. You won’t find another Vincent Vega, Jules Winnfield or Colonel Hans Landa here. One would think that a film with this title would have eight very unpleasant characters, and I suppose it does, but I didn’t hate them because I didn’t care. There is a flashback scene in which they are genuinely hateful, but its placement towards the end of the three hour running time blunted its power.
Like he did in Kill Bill vol. 1, Tarantino could’ve made up for the flat characters with some great set pieces. His career has been punctuated with long scenes of iconic humour and dialogue as well as biting tension, suspense and unpredictability. These elements are sometimes present within the cramped four walls of Minnie’s Haberdashery, especially when the mystery begins to unravel. Compare this to Inglourious Basterds, however, and you’ll be swiftly reminded that The Hateful Eight lacks the energy, excitement and intrigue that we expect. There’s nothing that matches the opening interrogation between Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and the French farmer or Michael Fassbender’s excruciating altercation in the basement bar.
Perhaps most damaging of all is that the dialogue and humour also suffers by comparison. There’s no golden watch sequence, no ‘I just shot Marvin in the face’ moment. There’s nothing that approaches the loquacious flair of Reservoir Dogs and particularly Pulp Fiction. The Hateful Eight‘s most memorable set piece is an ill-judged exchange between Samuel Jackson and Bruce Dern, in which there is a cutaway scene featuring fellatio. It’s crude, unimaginative and below the standard of a two-time Oscar winner for best original screenplay.
All of this would have been avoided if Tarantino had just given the screenplay to Tracy Letts, who wrote the wonderfully twisted Killer Joe. Letts is a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright who knows how to ignite all manner of drama within a cramped domestic setting; he also knows how to write an outrageous scene of fellatio. Letts would have stripped it down and added a bit of spice, or probably a whole ghost chili, knowing him.
The tone of this review has been largely negative, but I didn’t hate or even dislikethe film. The Hateful Eight is just something of a misfire, a weak ending to Quentin’s so-called historical trilogy. It suffers from a slow start, but the crescendo that builds following the interval reaches a climax that lifts the film up, albeit not to the height of his previous efforts.