The Neon Demon (2016)

the_neon_demon_elle_fanning-HD.jpg

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.

To continue reading, please follow the link to Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/06/supermodels-necrophilia-cannibalism-and-crude-metaphors-the-neon-demon-film-review/

High-Rise (2015)

hiddleston high rise

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 Threadsa 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.

wtf

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.

Blue-JasmineW-1024x682
Blue Jasmine – a real film about class.

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.

58%

 

The Hateful Eight (2015)

hateful-eight-poster-trailer-comic-con.jpg

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 JoeLetts 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 dislike the 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.

73%

Eden Lake (2008)

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 The Guardian‘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.

50%

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%

The Toxic Avenger (1984)

toxie
Toxie having the obligatory post-intercourse cigarette with his blind girlfriend Sara.

 

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.

60%

Maniac Cop (1988)

maniac-cop-9

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)

fury

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)

Into-the-Wild

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%

American History X (1998)

large-american-history-x-blu-ray3

Although it is somewhat heavy handed, American History X has great performances and a shocking brutality that leaves a large impression on you.

The film is carried by Edward Norton, he portrays his character Derek Vinyard with real gusto and vitriol; what a howling, credibility defacing decision it was for Robert Benigni to trump Norton at the Oscars for his vexing role in the saccharine turd that is Life is Beautiful.

Vinyard is an intelligent young man from a middle-class suburban home, but he rapidly develops fervent fascist views after his father is murdered by a black gunman. Vinyard has clear leadership skills and he unfortunately channels them in all the wrong directions. His fierce oration makes him a notable figure in the Californian neo-Nazi movement, bringing him to the attention of veteran racist Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who is well cast as the creepy, manipulative leader. The influence of both Derek and Cameron mean that Derek’s younger brother, the rather more placid Danny (Edward Furlong), also harbours dangerous neo-Nazism, although not with the same zeal as his brother.

To its merit, the film is unrestrained in its depiction of violent racism. With their foolish understanding of Nazism, the swastika adorned skinheads have a palpable hatred of all things un-Aryan. No one’s hatred is greater than Vinyard’s, who commits a brutal act of street, or rather curb, justice that has since become infamous. So abhorrent is the scene that it entered my top 10 most painful scenes in cinema history.

It’s Vinyard’s act of violence that lands him in prison, where, perhaps predictably, he has a change of heart. I felt that the manner in which Vinyard changes is rather too pronounced and straight forward, the transformation of such an extreme psychology should have been more nuanced in its depiction – the shift of a psychological complex is one of subtle shades, not clearly defined, narrative friendly episodes.

However, I think a good argument can be had about Vinyard’s rapid change. Beneath all the extremism is a measured, intelligent man; he isn’t an ignorant, retrograde fool, he’s a subject one can work with.  After all, his realisation isn’t completely instantaneous, he integrates with the white thugs of his wing, which appears to be some variation of the Aryan Brotherhood, but their business practices are at odds with his strict principles. Combine this with his repeated and isolated work detail with the black Lamont (Guy Torry) (which I should think is an unlikely scenario for obvious reasons), and his sudden and considerable change of circumstance could have woken him up.

American-History-X--edward-norton-147640_1024_768

There’s a whiff of stereotypical characterisation at times; the two principal black characters of the film Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) and the aforementioned Lamont are within the realm of the stock character, the latter particularly. They can both be deemed as Magical Negroes, a term that refers to black characters whose sole purpose is to serve the development of a white character. Sweeney is Derek’s former and Danny’s current high school teacher. He is a respected, righteous man with a seemingly infinite wisdom, disarming everyone with sagacious monologues and philosophical questions that are delivered with his deep, portentous voice. His character is heavily influenced by civil rights figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Lamont, the inmate who Vinyard has repeated laundry duty with, is portrayed by comedian Guy Torry. I haven’t seen his stand-up, but his manic, animated performance is certainly reminiscent of a Chris Rock gig. He’s a rather frivolous character that’s little more than narrative function that services Vinyard’s character development.

It’s not a surprise to find that director Tony Kaye’s career began in advertising. With repeated use of slow motion and a black and white palette for flashback scenes, Kaye’s visual flair has very much transferred to the silver screen. Considering History’s subject matter, I felt the film was sometimes stylish to a fault, particularly during a racial territorial dispute on a basketball court that’s constructed in a way through aesthetics and music that inclines the viewer to support the white men.

Other examples of ill-judgement were during its humorous moments concerning the obesely corpulent and repellent Seth (Ethan Suplee), particularly during a brutal assault on immigrant supermarket staff where he steals a large plastic burger, it’s not funny and is inappropriate in its placing.

Although its morality tale is heavy handed and simplistic, I must reiterate that American History X is a highly memorable film driven by an incendiary Edward Norton and an unrestrained, vicious intensity that few contemporary films strive for.

84% 

Three Kings (1999)

three-kings

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)

joe nicolas cage

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%

http://www.hawkensian.com