The Coming War on China (2016)

Castaways of the Marshall Islands

John Pilger’s The Coming War on China is an ominous examination of the war games between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Pilger is a venerable Australian journalist who has made 60 documentaries about an impressive range of sociopolitical subjects such as the Vietnam War, the Cambodian genocide, Indigenous Australians and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is often critical of Western foreign policy, but The Coming War on China is a largely even-handed documentary that will enlighten and perhaps challenge your position on Sino-American relations.

It opens with footage of a devastated Hiroshima and war-torn Vietnam while the pomp and circumstance of the Star Spangled Banner plays in stark contrast. This clear contradiction is a harbinger of what’s to come; both countries are criticised, but the United States’ transgressions are given particular emphasis (well, I’d argue that Hiroshima was not a transgression).

After the brief, foreboding title sequence, we are shown a montage of news clips reporting China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, which is punctuated by some Fox News foghorn saying “we, the US, have to be much more aggressive in dealing with the Chinese government!” One suspects that this pundit is ignorant of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” policy, which is drastically increasing US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

To continue reading, please follow the link to Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/12/compelling-enlightening-damning-stuff-the-coming-war-on-china-documentary-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%

Maniac Cop (1988)

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There’s far too much plot development and far too little action in Maniac Cop. 

It is Maniac Cop’s amusing title that attracted me to the film, its tagline ‘You have the right to remain silent… forever’ also made me laugh, however William Lustig’s Maniac Cop is a classic example of all concept and no substance. A sixty-second trailer may draw you in, but the feature length production is pitifully executed.

The film opens with three murder sequences, all of which are amateurish and underwhelming. I wasn’t concerned, the film had only just begun, I was confident that it would soon shift a gear into gore hound territory; after all, the Blu-ray copy I watched was an Arrow Films release. This gear change unfortunately never happens, the filmmakers instead develop a dull, nonsensical thriller-mystery narrative rather than prove their ingenuity with corn syrup and gore. A Cormanesque producer should have economically stripped the script of generic narrative filler, emphasised its core high concept and employed Tom Savini, the highly talented and twisted SFX man responsible for the gore in films such as Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Friday the 13th (1980) and William Lustig’s earlier film Maniac (1980).

I can’t really be bothered to name characters or summarise plot, but I’ll try. The film opens with a young woman being chased by two hoodlums, she escapes the pair and approaches an ominous looking police officer, who, rather than serving and protecting her, strangles her to death. The film then follows Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins), who believes the hoodlums’ claims that a police officer committed the crime, his evidence-bereft belief turning very quickly into adamancy based solely on his venerable cop’s instinct – this is of course all completely stupid. Bruce Campbell then turns up as Jack Forrest, a cop who is framed for the murders of the tabloid press dubbed ‘Maniac Cop’. The best performance of the film is delivered by Robert Z’Dar’s enormous jaw, it lends a palpable strength and menace to his character Matt Cordell. I am now too bored to continue writing this.

Believe it or not, William Lustig and Larry Cohen should have taken a leaf out of Troma’s book. I recently watched The Toxic Avenger, a film that, like the rest of Troma’s catalogue, tried its utmost to be completely camp and awful. Unlike the majority of Troma’s catalogue however, there are enough laughs and torrents of gore in The Toxic Avenger to make it something of a success. Maniac Cop on the other hand has no sense of humour, no excessive violence and no lashings of crass sexuality; it’s an utterly stillborn slasher film that leads its viewers through a grindingly banal narrative to a denouement that’s seriously amateurish. When the credits roll, you’ll be left wondering ‘…is that it?’

38%

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%

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%

Baraka (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

86%

Glory (1989)

Glory_Head_ExplodeAfter this appropriately nasty image, ‘Glory’ becomes awfully choreographed.

Ultimately rather average.

‘Glory’ charts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s (Matthew Broderick) appointment to the head of a coloured regiment through to his battles with institutional racism during the American Civil War.

As a result of familiarity and the majority of the characters being quite bland, I found Glory’s central theme of racism somewhat unremarkable. The flattest characters in the film were the troops of the coloured regiment, who should be central to the film. The problem is they’re not, which is an issue. ‘Glory’ is adapted from Robert Shaw’s letters to his mother, meaning the film is naturally focused on him. Consequently, the core subjects of the story are quite underdeveloped.

Morgan Freeman gives a very Morgan Freeman performance as John Rawlins, the measured, sensible and wise Sergeant Major, characteristics so typical of Freeman’s oeuvre. Denzel Washington is more interesting as Private Trip, an angry runaway slave who’s understandably embittered with the world and everyone in it. This anger manifests itself as bullying, he’s always provoking people who threaten that chip on his shoulder. His wrath is felt particularly by Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated, well dressed man whom Trip considers an uncle tom.

Trip is a decent character and convincingly played by Washington, he conveys that pain and anger well; his Oscar winning turn is probably the best performance of the film. However Trip is, like the rest of the film, still somewhat unremarkable and overly familiar. There is one scene where Trip remarks how the regiment is ‘the only family he’s ever had’, which is so clichéd and predictable you could see it coming a mile off.

What perhaps is worst about the film are the battle scenes. While there’s a grisly headshot at the beginning and it succeeds in depicting the disgraceful death of the suicidal battle charges, it ultimately does not convince or affect. There’s far too much choreography going on, whether its soldiers exuberantly throwing themselves about under cannon fire or the almost laughable scenes of contrived mêlée where the soldiers run about rifle butting each other like in some second-rate action film.

Mark Kermode spoke of how ‘Glory’ had ‘visceral war scenes’ that were ‘long before Saving Private Ryan’. Indeed, ‘Glory’ was before ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but the latter heralded a new level of brutal realism, after its awesome 169 minutes you feel completely battered and depressed. I am very surprised that Kermode would compare this tame piece of work with Spielberg’s stark WWII epic.

Despite my reservations, I wouldn’t say ‘Glory’ is a bad film, it goes along just fine. Although I thought there should’ve been more focus on the black characters, it is Shaw’s struggle to control and maintain his new regiment that’s probably the most interesting part of the film. Although a compassionate man, he realises that he is now an authority figure, he must nurture a veneer of unwavering stoicism and power so the men respect and obey him. This means he must adhere to the rules of the time, including the ugly, violent ones. I was most engaged when watching Shaw wrestle with the officialism and racism of his regiment, however the men he commanded were trite and boring.

While it may have been more profound in 1989, I felt that the film, although competent, was rather neutered and covered well-trodden ground.

 69%