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.
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 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.
Eden Lake is 90 minutes of cruelty with genre tropes that obscure any intelligent commentary.
With an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and claims that it is ‘thought provoking’, one would expect Eden Lake to be cut above Hostel, Saw and other torture films that appear comparable. While it may be superior to a certain degree, it remains a decidedly shallow film that is too constrained by the tropes of its horror genre framework to be taken seriously.
The film follows Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender), a young couple who retreat to the Midlands countryside for a romantic break. As the couple drive north of London, there is an ominous radio discussion about the state of education and the perceived animosity brewing between the young and the old, assembling its themes of ‘Broken Britain’ in a manner that is perhaps slightly obvious.
After several disconcerting encounters with some obnoxious locals, the pair set up camp on the sandy banks of a flooded quarry. Their tranquility is soon interrupted by a chavvy young horde of Daily Mail proportions, led by the psychopathically aggressive Brett (Jack O’Connell). The conflict begins with general boorish behaviour and a wayward Rottweiler, and feeling the weight of his masculine responsibilities, Steve approaches the group and politely asks them to behave themselves. His reasonability is spurned and the couple are soon fighting for their lives in what is effectively their attackers’ back yard.
Many barbarous things have happened when the aggressive and the controlling have attracted the meek and the impressionable. The first example that springs to mind is the 1993 abduction and murder of toddler James Bulger by two ten-year-olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The pair’s twisted crescendo of rebellion began with truancy and shoplifting, which led to the idea of abducting a child and pushing it into the path of an oncoming car, which finally led to James’s abduction from the Bootle Strand shopping centre and his brutally protracted murder on train tracks by Anfield Park. The two boys enabled and normalised each other’s behaviour, and the roles of ringleader and minion became quite clear in police interviews.
Once arrested and interrogated by officers, Jon Venables was wrought with intense fear and remorse. He confessed to the killing, but was unable to tell the part of the story that he ominously called ‘the worst bit’. Conversely, Robert Thompson, described as ‘street wise way above the age of ten’, was hostile, dishonest and unrepentant. Thompson and Venables had a typical dynamic that became horribly toxic over a day’s truancy; it could inspire darkly compelling material for either print or cinema, providing it was created with intelligence and sensitivity.
Eden Lake could have been this film. It could have been a mature and intelligent insight into senseless violence and the nihilistic, ignorant, vulnerable people who commonly commit it; a film in a similar vein to A Short Film About Killing or Boy A. Instead, the viewer gets a tropey horror film that focuses on neither the group nor the couple in a meaningful way. The film’s main concern is brutality, such as showing us what it looks like when a Stanley knife is forcibly entered into someone’s mouth.
Despite Eden Lake‘s themes of class and age divide being highly superficial, political commentators have made the film fit their agendas. Owen Jones, one of TheGuardian‘s most prominent PC enthusiasts, wrote the following in his book Chavs: ‘Here was a film arguing that the middle classes could no longer live alongside the quasi-bestial lower orders.’ Like many who are preoccupied with ideology and prone to knee jerk reactions, Jones mistakenly believes that the portrayal of one group of teenagers is supposed to be representative of an entire social group comprising millions of people.
With good performances and uncompromising brutality, Eden Lake grips and shakes its audience quite effectively. However, it is mere viscera rather than political commentary, sharing more in common with The Last House on the Left than A Clockwork Orange.
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’ssatire 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!
Bradley Cooper succeeds admirably in becoming the humble, everyday patriot in a film that is more a slightly jingoistic tribute than balanced biopic.
To call Chris Kyle ‘everyday’ is unfair, his experiences in the Middle East and his talents with a rifle are anything but ‘everyday’, but Kyle had the simple, one-dimensional outlook of many everyday, conservative American patriots. It’s not easy for a prominent actor with a celebrity profile to become the common man, but Bradley Cooper achieves it with much credibility – he makes the most of American Sniper’s simple script and simple direction.
I – like many others it seems based on the very lucrative opening weekend – was completely drawn in by the excellent trailer that so skilfully builds a crescendo of pressure and ambiguity. The war scenes in the full-length feature are fine, some of them are wrought with tension and appropriately grisly images, but few of the military excursions we see are particularly memorable. I also had a problem with the moment when a bullet leaves Kyle’s rifle in slow motion much like the video game Sniper Elite; it’s an inappropriately stylised depiction of warfare that doesn’t belong in a film like American Sniper.
The film’s chief problems lie in its narrative and the jingoistic, somewhat untruthful characterisation. Despite it being a competently crafted film, I have wondered if Chris Kyle’s story was entirely worth telling. Take away his unusual, tragic death and you’re left with a story that’s about a simple man who was a good shot. In an effort to substantiate some sort of narrative, the screenwriter Jason Hall gives Kyle an Iraqi nemesis sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) to stalk in the ruins of Iraq. This reeked of fabrication, and after a brief search on Google I learned that it was indeed a considerable dramatization. It seems Mustafa was a real individual but he certainly wasn’t Kyle’s arch-enemy, he is mentioned in only one paragraph of Kyle’s memoir and his death is speculated rather off-handedly – ‘I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.’
Kyle is characterised as a good American patriot whose actions both stateside and in battle are always noble. When questioned about the ethics of his profession, Kyle – like previous noted snipers such as Carlos Hathcock of the Vietnam War – responds with a ‘it’s him or me/kill or be killed’ attitude that’s often faith inflected – ‘I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill our soldiers and I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.’ Kyle’s actions and justifications for them are reasonable in the film, but I started to think that perhaps the embarrassingly right-wing Clint Eastwood was too reverential and somewhat biased in his depiction, a suspicion that was confirmed after reading excerpts from Kyle’s memoir, which included musings on how he ‘loved’ killing and that it was ‘fun’. With a similar lack of foresight to the government he was fighting for, Kyle also exclaimed that he ‘couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.’ Perhaps the most alarming of Kyle’s boasts was about his supposed shooting of 30 armed civilians during the bedlam of Hurricane Katrina, a claim that has never been corroborated by authorities.
Despite my reservations about the man it was based on and the sanitised manner in which he was depicted, I still empathised with the character (I stress the word character) and his family struggles as I liked his measure and humility. This investment in the character and the foreknowledge of his sudden, tragic end meant I felt very uncomfortable during the final scene as Kyle insouciantly says farewell to his family for what would be the last time. It is a testament to mostly Bradley Cooper’s performance that I was dreading what was going to happen next.
The story’s shocking ending is dealt with tactfully, perhaps too tactfully. We see nothing of the murder and almost nothing of the murderer Eddy Ray Routh, who is briefly seen standing against Kyle’s car as he blankly stares at Chris’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who spends most of her screen time pregnant or making hackneyed pleas for her husband to ‘come home’ metaphorically. The film could have given a greater insight into Routh and the events of February 2nd, 2013, this could have been interesting, but I understand and appreciate the way in which it was handled. Indeed, the denouement’s understatement has proven very powerful; I had read with pointed interest accounts of the palpable silence amongst audiences once the credits rolled, and the effect was exactly the same in the auditorium I was in – it’s a rare occurrence.
Despite being laced with predictabilities, moral ambiguities and disappointing alterations of the truth, American Sniper offers an adequate if rather simple and familiar insight into the life of a committed career soldier.
The Toxic Avenger is an absurd piece of filmmaking with just enough laughs and quirks to make it bearable.
I have been informed that The Toxic Avenger is one of Troma’s better films, so it was perhaps not the most appropriate introduction to their notorious catalogue that contains titles such as Nazi Surfers Must Die and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
I was expecting gratuitous nudity and violence, and I was presented with it, but one thing I didn’t expect was the pantomime acting. There’s an array of absurd caricatures, including Bozo (Gary Schneider) a psychotic, gym frequenting idiot who enjoys running children over with his friends Slug (Robert Prichard) and Julie (Cindy Manion). Whilst at the gym, they antagonise the janitor Melvin (Mark Torgl), a ridiculously dorky moron who spends much of his screen presence squirming and baring his comedy-looking teeth. I thought there would be a good old fashioned revenge film to be found in The Toxic Avenger, and there is to a certain extent, but the relentlessly silly acting broke any modicum of investment I may have had in the characters to the point where it became almost unwatchable.
Other characters include Mayor Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr), the corpulent, corrupt mayor of ‘Tromaville’; the German police chief (David Weiss), who accidentally exposes his closeted Nazism by compulsively performing the Nazi salute and blurting out Fuhrer!, and Sara (Andree Maranda), the Toxic Avenger’s attractive, blind girlfriend whose condition is often the subject of juvenile jokes, the most frequent one being her stick inadvertently making contact with Toxie’s crotch.
I’m sure most are familiar with the premise – during a particularly humiliating session of bullying, Melvin the janitor falls out of a window and into a barrel of toxic waste, transforming him into a super strong and super righteous mutant – The Toxic Avenger.
Performed by Mitchell Cohen, the Toxic Avenger’s, or Toxie’s, screen presence is the film’s chief merit. The prosthetics and makeup applied to Cohen’s body are very good considering the budget and Troma’s reputation. The scene in which Melvin transforms into Toxie is also appropriately painful looking and gruesome, reminding me of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London released three years prior.
What I found particularly funny was the Toxic Avenger’s voice. He initially only grunts and roars, I assumed he could no longer speak, however the toxic waste somehow provided him with a silky smooth mid-Atlantic accent (the voice acting provided by Kenneth Kessler). Kessler’s diction is made for radio, it never gets old hearing it emanate from such a grotesque mouth. Amusingly, whenever Toxie speaks in this accent, his back is always facing the camera; this I thought was a reflection of the budget, so I was surprised when in the latter stages of the film you see Toxie speaking directly into the camera with no technical hitches at all – a sudden influx of money, perhaps?
Like everything else in the film, the violence is amateurish. At times it reminded me of my friend and I’s home movies. Using the ‘DigitalBlue’ camera, we created whole horror film franchises including the terrifying ‘Oven Glove Man’ series and homages to the infamous Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th. Inevitably, the two characters eventually clashed in a Freddy vs. Jason fashion, my friend was the ‘Oven Glove Man’ and I, wearing a fancy dress hockey mask, was Jason Voorhees.
If my memory is correct, the majority of the films followed the same format of a murder scene followed by a still shot of the victim covered in terrible blood and gore effects that I had applied with relish using the software’s paintbrush function. Now and again the film felt like this, there would be lengthy fight scenes with little in the way of tangible choreography and violence. The viewers’ bloodlust is only given slight satiation when Toxie deals a finishing blow and the incapacitated victim’s wounds are shown in often motionless close-up shots, some of which being very gory, particularly the scene in which Bozo runs over a teenager’s head.
With gore, scantily clad women and ridiculous campy humour, The Toxic Avenger has many earmarks of a Troma film. However, unlike most comparable films, there are enough laughs to make its 87 minutes bearable and at times somewhat entertaining.