Monday, 3 November 2014

Frank (2014)

In this weird, strange and charming dark comedy drama Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson take a journey through music mental illness and acceptance.

Inspired and drawing on the Frank Sidebottom character, Frank presents the story of of a group of avant-garde musicians and their newest, tagalong bandmate (Domhnall Gleeson) as they set out to produce a new album and eventually chase fame in their own messed up way. Lead by the enigmatic Frank who never appears, to anyone, without his giant full-face mask, the band are enraptured by his optimism and innate musical talent, but trying to create something beautiful out of something broken is never an easy ride.

Frank is a difficult film to write about in that it's such a mixture. There's comedy, a lot of it. It's very dark, while still being funny. And most importantly it deals with mental illness in a very real way. In the same way that films like 50/50 can still be funny when dealing with something as horrific as cancer, Frank acknowledges that, yes being broken in some way is terrible, but it doesn't mean that funny things can't happen along the way.

It's this issue with insanity and creativity being inherently linked to performance that hits home the most in Frank. Can great art be made without a hint of crazy? Of course it can. Does it help? Who knows. But it an issue that Frank explores with a touching underlying current of fragility and sincerity that tackles the matter with a refreshing sense of maturity.

Fassbender gives an unusually vulnerable performance, compared to all his bombastic success of recent years. Behind that giant fibreglass head is an actor who's able to deliver sheer brilliance with only body language to go on. A performance that can only hype me up more for his upcoming role as Macbeth.

Frank is a charming, strange and compelling film. The closing act takes a much darker turn after a lighter beginning, but gives the film an ultimately more compelling conclusion. Anyone even vaguely interested in the creative process of either music or film would do themselves a disservice by missing this film.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Troll Hunter (2010)

The found-footage gimmick is somewhat of a hurdle to overcome these days. It's cheap, easy and often nausea inducing. Its similarity to a one night hook-up from the bar down the street continues in that it's difficult to make something that lasts out of it and get something that's more than one night's worth of fun.

It's a shame really, that something that can lend authenticity and an immersive feel to a film has been so overused.

Troll Hunter, however, jumps the hurdle and runs with the concept. For once, there's a reason to be filming for one. Øvredal's film features a trio of plucky Norwegian students are trying to make their mark on journalism by tracking down an illegal bear hunter in Volda. They soon discover that bears aren't his real prey and that  far from the most fearsome creature lurking in the beautiful vistas of fjord country.

The bleak, mountainous and often dark surroundings that envelope the film are whole-heartedly reflected in the comedy of the writing. The typically dry humour of Scandinavia is weaved throughout the entire production. On one hand you have these terrifying, eldritch monsters towering up hundreds of feet up into the sky, ready to smash, tear and eat their way through anything that moves, and on the other you have incompetent civil servants, bureaucracy and a silly attitude to the dispensable cast. It's all delivered in a dry deadpan style and just works so smoothly that it works as a mockumentary on a level that many miss. It takes the "mock" bit as important for one. Poking fun at conspiracy theorists that believe that modern governments are capable of hiding a troll-sized elephant in the room, the film lambasts both the nutjobs and political landscapes with equal measure. One throwaway line about new Muslims immigration in particular is genius and biting.

Technically speaking, there are some weak points. With a CGI budget that is, understandably, much lower than those of Hollywood some of the effects can look a bit shonky. A very shaky and worrying start when the monsters are first encounter doesn't bode well, but it very quickly improves and some of the final scenes are genuinely impressive. The run time also feels a little padded out. As breathtaking as Norway's countryside is, you do see a lot of it shot from the inside of a moving Land Rover. But with a short runtime of around 100 minutes it's not something I think the editor's will be losing much sleep over.

Troll Hunter is a fresh take on the mockumentary genre and manages to spin the many plates of suspense, comedy, satire and horror with varying degrees of finesse, but all done to some level of high quality.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Enemy (2013)

I saw Enemy about a week ago, and ever since I've been mulling it over and replaying it in my head. I've been wondering around lost in thought just pondering exactly how to put down in words how I feel about it. I couldn't really put into words what I appreciated about it and why I enjoyed it because I couldn't land on a specific message or idea it was trying to tell me.

Then today I stumbled upon a quote from Stanley Kubrick that helped me out:

 Enemy's strange opening is matched only by its strange ending scene, with good competition coming from several seemingly irrelevant and isolated shots inserted throughout. Not a lot is explained, but the opening title card, reading "Chaos is order yet undeciphered", lays out why it's left unexplained. We are viewing a message that's encoded somehow without the cypher.

In essence, the film shows us the journey of university lecturer Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lives an unfulfilling, repetitive life. He discovers through chance the existence of Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who looks exactly like him. Exactly like him. In an effort to track him down and figure out what's going on things get weird and existential.

It's Gyllenhaal's second film with director Denis Villeneuve, hot on the heels of Prisoners. It has very little in common with their previous film except for the high quality and understated, fantastic acting of Gyllenhaal.

I'm struggling to put into words exactly why I enjoyed Enemy so much. I think it's quite uncharacteristic for me. I don't understand it but I love it. That Kubrick quote is something that will stick with me for a while.

If the test is to love something without needing to understand it, Enemy steals my heart and hits my brain with a truck. So it passes, I guess.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

So, apparently I blinked and now Scarlett Johansson is now the queen of sci-fi?

She's been in soft sci-fi with The Avengers and other assorted Marvel products, she's been the voice of a (for once, not evil) super intelligent AI in Her and  she's set to unlock 100% of her brain in Luc Besson's Lucy but that's all pretty standard stuff. Under the Skin is not standard. Not at all.

Touted largely as a "sci-fi art" film and given very limited releases, Under the Skin was never meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The freedom of not having to target the masses obviously gave film-maker Jonathon Glazer to create the trippy, Kubrickean art piece that he wanted.

I say this a lot, but this is really a film you're better off going into when you know nothing. I saw the first trailer for it and it didn't give away too much, but the description below the video contained one key word that pops up everywhere if you search for this film. Personally I think you're better not knowing from the start, but even then it works either way because you'll figure it out on your own thanks to the fantastic direction by Glazer.

In many ways, considering large amounts of it are so bizarre and surreal, much of the film feels incredibly grounded and real. Part of the film involves Johansson's character driving around Scotland picking up hitch-hikers in an old white van and flirting with them. And according to Glazer, the way you make that authentic is put some hidden cameras in a van and have Scarlett Johansson pick up hitch-hikers and flirt with them.

It's odd then that these scenes provide some of the most tense and horrifying parts of the film. The way Johansson switches back and forth between a cold, robotic manner into a charming and flirty personable woman is scary in and of itself. Throw into the mix that she's some form of sexual predator in a quite literal sense and you get a sense of unease not often seen in horror films: men being groomed and targeted as victims by a sexual villain. A man driving round in a van trying to lure women in, no matter how good looking, would set off the creep alarm for just about anyone, but a beautiful woman trying to lure men into a van is subtler and makes the victims even more vulnerable because of the lack of suspicion.

A pivotal encounter with one victim triggers an exploration into two areas: what it means to be seen as something that is "less than"- whether it's one sex being "less than" the other, or someone being "less than" human because of how they look and it takes a look at the idea of how different the dangers of sexual assault is for the genders. By pointing a lens at the idea that a lone man cannot be safe walking down the street at night without being put at a very real risk of being abducted and raped, it shines a light on just how bad, and actually real, the danger can be for women. It comes full circle final scenes of the film when Scarlett's character's fate is determined not because of what she really is, but because of how she looks to those in the world around her.

All in all, Under the Skin is a truly artistic and cinematic film in the truest senses of the words. A lack of true dialogue leaves you to figure out a lot of the film for yourself and take away what you want from it. With a really sharp eye for special effects and how to frame the distinctive landscapes of Scotland, Jonathon Glazer captures a sense of beautiful horror the likes of which haven't really been seen since Stanley Kubrick's reign.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō) (1957)

***A fair warning: This post will contain spoilers for both Throne of Blood and Macbeth. It's based on Macbeth. The story's been around for about 400 years. Spoilers aren't really an issue for something like that***

There's always been somewhat of a cultural gulf between the anglosphere and Japan. From language to social attitudes to food to media, everything is different whether it's by a little or by a lot. SOme of the best modern films trade on this fact to make an impact. Two of my favourite films of the last decade are set in Tokyo and use the almost alien locale to paint massively different pictures for a Western audience: Lost in Translation uses it simply as a slightly offbeat and eccentric backdrop while Enter the Void embraces the neon and sleaze of the Japanese underworld to create an outright trippy experience.

So in a way Throne of Blood comes as a bit of a surprise. This is a film created completely by a Japanese crew, actors and director. This is the country that gave us the crazy and fantasical Studio Ghibli films and Miyazaki's anime creations. Then, of course, there is Throne of Blood's director Akira Kurosawa who brings a grounded and powerful adaptation of one of the West's classics.

Set in feudal Japan, this version of the Scottish play follows Washizu, a general and leader of the First Fortress, who upon meeting with a spirit in the forest is told he will one day became the Great Lord of Spider's Web Castle. From this moment on a huge doom-laden shadow covers the events of Wushizu's life as, at the behest of his wife, he goes on to satisfy what may have always been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Adaptations of Shakespeare are a dime a dozen.  As much as I scoff at Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, plonking the star-crossed lovers in 1990s LA complete with original script was a ballsy, brilliant, brilliant idea. Unique spins on the classic tales like that can either make or break an adaptation. But using feudal Japan as the tapestry hits the balance right and is makes Kurosawa's film still feel fresh while not straying too far from the source. "A land ruled by lords and violent power" could refer to both 1600s Scotland and Japan easily.

This film is a powerhouse of classic cinema. The theme of a never-ending circle of violence (one major difference to the source material being the King Duncan analogue seized the throne by killing his predecessor himself) along with Kurosawa's beautiful direction to create a landscape as haunting and desolate as the highlands brings this darkest of Shakespeare's plays to a beautifully tragic adaptation.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

A largely unnecessary prequel/parallequel/sequel (which actually happens before, during and after the events of the first film) that departs in quite a few ways from the first.

300: Rise of an Empire follow the campaigns of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general as he wages war against the seemingly unstoppable might of the Persian war machine's navy as King Leonidas' Spartans hold the Hot Gates against the land forces. Themistocles finds his match in Xerxes' unhinged naval commander, a traitorous Greek named Artemisia (Eva Green), as he tries to unite Greece to fight as one force against the Persian empire.

All the hallmarks of what made the first film great are present, but are either somewhat lacking or undermined by some other aspect of the film.

To give Rise of an Empire its credit though, it does look good. The stylish and slick action sequences that comprise most of the film, ducking in and out of super-slo-mo as they go, do look excellent and the same crazy excess that made the first look so good carries over. The only issue I would take with the look and visual of this installment is the colour. Where the red and gold filters of the first sat well with the visuals of the blood and glory themes, Rise of an Empire is very cold and blue. In an attempt to match the seas on which they fight for most of the film and it loses something with that. CGI blood just doesn't look as engaging when it's closer to black that red.

The biggest problem is the spot on the testosterone-fuelled blood and guts meter that the first hit so sweetly. In 300, the central characters are the Spartans: a warrior people to whom death in battle is the ultimate goal and the glory of the fight is all that matters. Led by the charismatic and ultra-masculine leader Leonidas, the ultra violence and super-glamorisation of the combat and the money shots of heads taking leave of their necks, it all makes sense then because that's what the Spartans are all about. But with Themistocles and the Athenians, everything is a little bit more political. They fight for freedom and ideals rather than just for the glory of themselves and the fight, so the gratuitousness and pleasure taken by the film makers in the violence just feels a little out of place.

So it would be fair to say that the problem is the lack of a King Leonidas. The lack of someone charismatic and crazy enough to make sense and function in the world that Zack Snyder created is the downfall. Except it's not. Because 300: Rise of an Empire has this crazy bastard at its heart:

Eva Green nails the character of Artemisia so hard you could pin a Greek skull to a ship's mast with her performance. She has that crazy, obscene and just plain terrifying quality that's just brilliantly ridiculous and could only exist in such a comic-book influenced world. She has this swaggering walk and talk that had me convinced I wanted the Persians to just steamroll the Greeks and all their moping about freedom and democracy along with them. When you put  Artemisia's absurdity next to Themistocles' maudlin moaning, all of his scenes just feel like distractions from the scenes with the more fun character.

If you seek out Rise of an Empire, don't expect much. It's still stylish and fun, but not as much as the first. Eva Green stands out as a shining light of craziness in a cast that's taking itself a bit too seriously considering there's a perfectly waxed 8 foot tall guy wandering around in his pants declaring himself a god king.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Blue Ruin (2013)

A broken man, clumsy and visceral violence and a overall atmosphere of bleak tragedy are the main ingredients for Blue Ruin; a revenge film that takes the genre in a melancholic direction and paints revenge as the dishonourable act it can be.

The with a dialogue-free sequence following the life of a drifter on the Delaware coast. He eeks out an existence metres from the joy and happiness of the fun fair on the pier. Eating out of bins, scavenging bottles to recycle for cash on the beach and breaking into homes in order to feed and clean himself make up his day-to-day existence. This broken man without purpose, Dwight, was driven to this life after a tragedy tore his family and his life apart, and now he finally has an opportunity to exact his revenge on those who robbed him.

Macon Blair plays this listless, fragmented man. His Dwight isn't the typical revenge thriller hero or anti-hero. Dwight is a man doing the only thing he thinks will make him whole again and how he deals with the fallout. He's a pitiable shell of a man who doesn't talk much and can't handle a gun. He's not a badass and this isn't Taken.

It's his ineptness that really sells the bleakness of Blue Ruin. The clumsy, and realistic, take on the violence paints the walls of the rural homes a visceral and raw shade of red. There are no drawn out fight sequences, no massive gunfights. Just scared people struggling to find a way to make themselves feel better.

Blue Ruin, with its conservative use of dialogue and uncompromising look at violent revenge, makes a beautifully tragic watch. It presents a damning indictment of America's infatuation with the right to bear arms against one another. When the truth is being decided by the person standing at the right end of the barrel, nobody really goes home a winner.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) (2007)

There isn't too much that can be said about Timecrimes without spoiling what exactly transpires in it. To put it shortly and sweetly: Timecrimes is a smart and suspenseful thriller that has an interesting take on time travel movies. It's pretty small in scale (no going back in time to save the planet) and doesn't get too convoluted to follow, a trap that many films like this fall into.

I'll go into more detail and still try to avoid spoilers below, but it really is best to go into Timecrimes completely blind.


Timecrimes is a clever film in that it plays with your expectations well and takes what you think will be a standard time travel plot and puts more than one interesting spin on it. Know-it-alls like myself will probably notice a number of things throughout and think "Well that doesn't make any sense because of [some timetravel techno-babble]" only to later be proven wrong as it all gets meticulously explained away with later developments.

That said, it is straightforward enough and not a headache to follow. It is not like Primer. Primer gets lauded constantly as the thinking man's timetravel movie, but that's just because the logic in it makes sense (i.e. you can't travel back to before the time machine was switched on) and because it's really, really complicated. I'll gladly admit to not having a clue to what exactly goes down in the last twenty minutes of that film, but thankfully I do in Timecrimes. In this case, someone literally draws a concise little diagram for it. If you can figure out a curved line and two x's then congratulations, you can follow Timecrimes.

A slippery, dark slope forms the meat of the film, as Hector tries to fix the problem's he has caused by accidentally going back in time. There are some pretty grim implications in trying to resolve things by messing with what's already happened, what has to happen and what's going to happen. But you also have the question of whether anybody is responsible for these things because didn't they have to happen to make time work? Timecrimes manages to raise some interesting questions about the notion of travelling in time, but uses a deft touch to avoid falling into the ones that can easily unravel the whole piece.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Grabbers (2012)

It's like Attack the Block, except there's a remote island instead of a city tower block and a bunch of drunks instead of chavvy kids. But there are aliens. Aliens and  comedy!

An functioning alcoholic cop and his new, over-functioning workaholic partner must work together to overcome their differences and survive the night as their isolated community comes under attack from be-tentacled aliens. Aliens that are allergic to the one thing half of the pair knows all too well.

Grabbers is a film from the comedy-horror genre and owes a lot of its existence to classics like Tremors and Eight Legged Freaks. Putting a uniquely British/Irish twist on the concept, Grabbers strikes a careful balance between tension and comedy, so much so that at some points you'll actually forget that the premise itself is completely ridiculous. The up-and-down nature of the tone lets Grabbers stand out from a lot of British/Irish comedies that usually find their humour in darkness, where here there's a good share of slapstick and just general drunken mirth.

Grabbers is simple, really simple. It's just a hell of a lot of fun. The booziest horror this side of the atlantic is probably best watched after one or two yourself, but well worth it without. It provides us with an answer that we all knew deep down: when the shit hits the fan, head to the local and wait for it all to blow over.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Restrepo (2010)

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington follow the 503rd's Second Battalion B Company into hell and showcase the horrors and realities of war for America in the 21st century.

The two film-makers were embedded with B Company on their fifteen month deployment in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, at the time dubbed "the deadliest place on Earth". Within minutes of opening, the soldiers make their first contact: an IED and gunfire rain down upon them in the first instalment of what would become, literally, a daily occurrence. US soldiers in the area were coming under fire every single day of their deployment and it was the goal of this deployment to push further into the valley and establish new outposts in lieu of a new highway being built in the future. The major outpost that they built was named in honour of one of first men they lost Private First Class Juan Restrepo.

Restrepo is cinéma vérité in its truest form. There is no narration and only a handful of notes appear on screen, and usually only to give location and time information. A few post-deployment interviews with the soldiers themselves are all that break up the in-the-field action coming straight from the battlefield. It's just the soldiers, their job and the camera.

The observational approach lends itself to the a-political nature of the job. "The War in Afghanistan" is just a something that appears on the news once or twice a week to most of us. It's something that happens over there, off screen and something we never truly see. It's all politics and words and seemingly never ending fighting. It's a world away from what actually happens. In Restrepo you just have what's in front of you and that's what's in front of the soldiers fighting this war.

What's in front of these soldiers is an arid and unforgiving valley filled with an enemy that can't be seen until he's already attacked and locals who are just doing whatever they can to not to be killed by either side. The job of this deployment is one part of a seemingly unwinnable war and these men get to work anyway. The admiration for the men featured grows as the film goes on. The hardships they endure are incredible: constant fear of attack, the uncertainty of every single day and the nagging thought that even the most capable soldier can and will risk death every day. Death is unavoidable here but B Company gets to work regardless.

The futility of some of their efforts becomes apparent at a few points throughout the film. Locals lie to them. Men are lost. Nothing new gets built. Innocent people get caught in the crossfire. They all talk of the hard work they do being necessary, and then it all being undone once the film is over and we're still waiting on the Korengal to be safe four years after the deployment rapped up.

Restrepo is an uncompromising and authentic look at what it means to be in a modern war. The politics aside, it allows an insight into what those men who stand willing to do violence in the night to protect those of us who won't. Soldiers don't join the military to protect political interests, or to dismantle governments that theirs doesn't agree with or win oilfields or whatever reasons these wars start. They join to protect the people they love and those who need protecting. You can hate the military all you like, but films like Restrepo remind us that all soldiers deserve love for their service.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Vampire movies take on a lot of forms. Nosferatu set the standard in the 20s as an expressionist film. Buffy made it all into a bit of a laugh. The Blade films are better forgotten than remembered. And the Twilight series took the classly, immortal damned folk and made them into sparkly whiners.

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive takes a subtler and slower approach than most. Vampires are few and far between in OLLA, with the titular lovers Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) (yes, they really are called Adam and Eve... I know) spending years apart from each other at a time. When you're already centuries, maybe more, old and you've got a good chance of living forever you can take a bit of time for yourself away from everyone.

Adam and Eve tend to form two sides of the same coin. Adam secludes himself and becomes world weary. He creates and inspires for centuries but grows tired of humanity's self sabotage and destruction. Eve sees the beauty in the world and friendship, choosing instead to see the world's cycles that even the immortal can't escape.

Hiddleston and Swinton are the emotional core of this film where plot is sparse. The two take on their roles as the proto-hipsters of culture and long term partners wonderfully. Hiddleston is brooding and listless as if his immortality stopped him aging during his nihilistic 16-year-old phase and Swinton brings a marvellous agelessness quality to Eve. She has this strange ability to look both extremely young and old at the same time. A truly youthful expression on a slightly aged face is exactly what's needed and it's exactly what she brings.

A moody and sulking soundtrack compliments the visual design amazingly well. I'll usually say a great soundtrack is just one part of the atmosphere and you shouldn't be drawn out by it, but the music by Jozef van Wissem and Sqürl is nearly a characters in itself. Alongside the visuals (which peaks in the costuming of the central characters), the music and philosophical conversations between the lovers Only Lovers Left Alive feels like one of the most artistic vampire films for a long, long time.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

In Fear (2013)

Ever since the American classic Deliverance appeared way back in 1972, being lost in the woods with unseen local pursuers has been a staple of suspenseful thrillers. In Fear is a very British/Irish take on the set up.

Directed by Jeremy Lovering, In Fear takes new couple Tom (Iain De Castecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert) deep into the Irish countryside on their first weekend away together when they soon find themselves not only lost but being purposely led in circles by some mysterious tormentor. As the sun sets fears reach a head and the stakes rise as the couple tear into each other as well as those who would scare them.

The concept of getting lost in the countryside and having someone mess with you isn't exactly the newest idea under the sun, but in this debut picture from Lovering he manages to keep it pretty fresh. Bleak open moorlands giving way to the densely forested, claustrophobic back lanes reinforces the sense of isolation and the descent into a dark hell that only the locals can win in.

A mixture of unsettlingly close shots and repeated scenery (90% of the set is identical roads and the couple's car) breeds an atmosphere of distrust between both each of the character and the audience with them. These people barely know each other, and it's obvious. Tom and Lucy only met two weeks ago, and the fact that they don't quite click becomes apparent rather quickly. For once, it's actually commendable to the actors to be able to say there's no chemistry, because there isn't meant to be.

It might just be two duelling banjos away from a cliche, but In Fear delivers on its promise to put the anxiety of being lost in the woods back into your heart.

Diddleing ding ding ding ding ding diiing...

Monday, 10 March 2014

You're Next (2013)


Home invasion films are a dime a dozen. It's one of the quintessential fears of middle-class America it seems, and that fills seats and sells DVDs. With so much competition it's an effort to stand out. You want to aim less for The Purge which was universally panned, The Strangers which got mixed reviews (some of it was brilliant, personally speaking) and go more for something of the same quality as Funny Games.

 Horror as a genre tries to tap into something primal in your brain, and I'm convinced fear of a home invasion is somewhere in there. Even the toughest person's been home alone at night and heard something thud or creak somewhere in the house and felt that small gut punch of anxiety. Nearly every time it's nothing. It was probably just a pipe creaking or the damn cat, but no matter how many times you rationalise that, you still have to have a careful look around each room before you go off to bed and "forget" to turn the lamp off.

You're Next pulls off what I think The Strangers did so well. Building a sense of fear and dread is something that's common to every horror picture. It's the promise that a film-maker makes for the rest of the film. Sometimes they make a big promise and can't deliver. Director Adam Wingard makes a few we've heard before in the setup: a girl goes to a gathering of her new boyfriends family in a big house in the middle of an area where you have to drive to your next-door neighbour's house. It has a couple of false scares towards the start ("Oh it's just you!"), but once things start to get heated the sense of fear goes full throttle. These people are scared, they don't know what's happening to them or why, and neither do you. Some brilliantly voyeuristic cinematography breeds an atmosphere of paranoia and impending doom.

Some quick and clever editing leaves you guessing a lot of the film. It's a struggle to keep track of how many attackers there are, with their uniform of black tactical clothing and those standard issue horror movie animal masks. If you're paying attention you'll be able to figure it out quickly, but good luck with that when the shit is truly hitting the fan in from all directions.

At a key point we're given an inkling or partial clue as to why it's all happening, and that's when the promise ends and the delivery has to step up. Where The Strangers failed to deliver, You're Next makes a smart move and shifts the tone of the film, if only slightly. Many will disagree, but it takes on an air of dark humour towards the second and third act and it's like an unexpected Christmas gift: you didn't get what you were expecting exactly but you're still smiling.

It's no Cabin in the Woods or Shaun of the Dead in terms of comedy. If you're a fan of horror you'll be clued in enough to get some laughs out of it, and if not you can just sit back, grip the arm of the sofa and strap in, 'cos you're in for one hell of a blood soaked ride.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

I remember seeing the trailer for this years ago, just before it came out, and the person sat next to me just burst out laughing with "That's the title of an awful porn film if I've ever heard one" when the title screen appeared. And it stuck with me. I've never been able to consider that this was an actual horror film that wasn't a joke.

That was, until today. There's nothing special about why, I just saw on a list of horror movies that it had a pre-superstar Bradley "Hasn't set a foot wrong since starting Silver Linings Playbook" Cooper in it.

If you're able to get past the innuendo, Midnight Meat Train is a very literal title. There's a train. It runs in the middle of the night. And there's a certain kind of meat involved on said train. If you've ever seen a horror film, chances are you can figure out that it's not beef.

To be fair to the film, it's pretty solid on the most part. It's very standard, but it's solid. Bradley Cooper's performance as a photographer involving missing people carries it mostly, alongside an otherwise mediocre cast in an urban legend come to life. Vinnie Jones co-stars, if you can call an all-psyical and zero-verbal performance a "starring" role.

Fans of the genre won't be disappointed in the explicitness of some of the horror. One scene depicts a butchering that most will watch through their fingers; extended, locked-off shots focus on some body horror that'd make Saw franchise directors gag a little. Nothing really gets held back in that department, and the film really kicks it up into the highest gear right at the end with some crazy changes of pace as the film veers into ridiculousness.

Midnight Meat Train is a fast and firm encounter with some incredibly explicit acts that really earn it its 18/Adult rating. Its lack of inhibitions and pounding pace that ramps up in intensity before delivering an ultimately disappointing ending will leave viewers feeling a little disappointed in themselves for enjoying it.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Rush (2013)

If I can claim that knowing nothing about Formula 1 got me anything, it's that I didn't go in to Rush knowing the ending. That's something I'm incredibly thankful for.

Rush is the (apparently very true to life) real story of the rivalry between the British and Austrian racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, respectively, through the 1976 season. Two very different approaches to racing and living life collide as the two diametrically opposed personalities clash throughout the years, and those preceding it.

There isn't all that much to say about Rush other than it is tuned as finely as the cars it depicts. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl lead the piece both playing their parts perfectly. Hemsworth shines as the real world equivalent of his Thor character: social, brash, suave and constantly teetering on the precipice. Bruhl mirrors it perfectly as the calm, slightly removed and overly logical Lauda. The two of them combine to form a dynamic yin-yang symbol with eventually each of them being dependent on the other's presence in the race for either of them to truly shine.

Many people will take many different things from Rush, but racing fans and bystanders alike will all enjoy the beautiful cinematography. The races pump with adrenaline, sweat, oil and rain throughout leaving you on the end of your seat not just worrying about who will win but who will make it out alive.

You can always be the James Hunt, sometimes you have to be the Niki Lauda.

Friday, 7 February 2014

12 Years A Slave

Gruelling, unrelenting and difficult to watch all the way through to the final cut to black, 12 Years A Slave is one of those films that you don't get all too often. Tone wise, subject wise and quality wise, films that are easily comparable to The Shawshank Redemption aren't exactly ten a penny.

12 Years A Slave tells the real story of Solomon Northup (Chitwetel Ejiofor), an educated and free man in 1840s New York who is kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery where he was stripped of everything for a dozen years.

The film very quickly gets into the territory of hopelessness. Solomon is quickly stripped of his name, his identity and his entire self as he struggles to hide his true nature for fear of being treated differently by both his co-captives and his masters. A good slave is only good at one thing: working. Solomon's talents should betray his nature as a free man, but instead they only make him a tall poppy to be trimmed. He can think like an engineer, play the fiddle and read and write, all of which are his undoing at some point, showing how slavery would eventually deprive all its victims of anything that defines individuality.

The pain in experiencing 12 Years A Slave is twofold. The first is obviously the brutality of man's inhumanity to man. Michael Fassbender plays a truly awful slaveowner who sees his slaves as not only his property but as the playthings of his wife and himself. The cruelties which he, and most of the non-slave cast (bar two examples), visit on their victims are horrific and make for a harrowing watch. The second wave comes from the slaves themselves. Man's inhumanity to man only serves to breed yet more inhumanity. In a world where stepping out of line in any way is met with a lashing or worse, standing up for your fellow man becomes impossible. Eventually you have people sharing a common enemy turning on each other or, even more hurtfully, being indifferent to their co-captives' suffering. You end up with slave children playing tag only feet away from where a man hangs in a noose frantically trying to prop himself up and prolong his life.

The only problem with the rightful criticism of slavery in the tone of the film is the Chitewel's Solomon isn't supposed to be a slave. The main injustice of the film, as it is presented, is that a legally free man is stolen away from his family and illegally thrown into slavery. Not that the injustice is that anyone could be put in that position. The idea of the large scale inhumanity is only addressed in the closing scenes of the film, and quite hamhandedly done with one white man standing up to another to tell him off.  Solomon is presented as "better" and "different" than the rest of the slaves, and as such he's undeserving of his fate, where in reality none of them are. It works brilliantly as the singular story of the struggle one man goes through, but feels a little hollow in the bigger picture.

Technically though, it's pretty impeccable. The cinematography is beautiful, juxtaposing the ever sunkissed American South with cruel, visceral violence  creates an even more unsettling image than many slavery films can boast. Hans Zimmer's score manages to be almsot as emotionally effective as Ejiofor's powerful performance of a broken man surviving as best he can, and Steve McQueen's direction has created a number of emotionally affecting scenes that will be burned into the minds of many viewer's for a long time to come.

I'd prefer other films to win Best Picture at this year's Oscars, simply because this isn't my type of film, but 12 Years A Slave is a film that everybody should see. It's by no means a "enjoyable" watch, but it is a necessary one.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell's American Hustle (starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, among others) is only the second film since 1981 to be nominated for all four of the big acting Oscars. The other one was David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook in 2012, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, among others. So it has a lot to live up to.

It's billed as a "crime comedy drama" film with five of the biggest names in starring roles (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence). That's a hell of a lot to have going on in one film. Three genres. Five stars. Two hours.

I'm all for ensemble casts where everything comes together to paint a wide landscape instead of a detailed portrait. It works especially well in crime films, just look at Ocean's Eleven and Inception (which is a heist film, I don't care what anyone says). The sprawling web-like nature of heists and long cons just works when you've got a lot of big personalities bouncing off each other in every scene, but you can take it too far. If Ocean's Eleven is like looking at a nice colourful Picasso, American Hustle's like staring down a harshly lit kaleidoscope while on acid. You know what you're looking at is pretty damn cool, but it's a bit too much and doesn't make all that much sense.

You get the impression that director, writers and producers weren't too proud of the central plot and just heaped more on top to obfuscate this problem. It's solid though: a pair of con artists (Bale and Adams) slip up and get caught by an FBI agent (Cooper) who uses them in an attempt to advance his career by giving them the opportunity to work with him in return for immunity. Of course, Cooper's ambition get them all in over their heads with some really dangerous players and there you go you've got a movie. But then you've got all their family lives, people falling in and out of love with people, except some of them are just pretending to fall in love, and oh yeah that person isn't even who they're pretending to be for about 80% of the movie and you completely forgot that and and and... it's just too much going on and not enough of it's engaging.

There's also an issue with the characters, fundamentally. They aren't likable, not a one of them. Films don't have to have stand up guys centre screen, in fact it's usually boring, but they do have to have something about them. Another Oscar nominated film you could tag as "comedy crime drama" does it perfectly. The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort is a colossal asshole, I'm talking unrivalled levels of scumbaggery, but he's charismatic and fun to watch and it works. Pretty much everyone in American Hustle is just looking out for themselves and does so unremarkably. The only ones who don't look out of place; Louis CK, playing Cooper's FBI handler, is a deer caught in the headlights because he doesn't want to do something incredibly risky while surrounded by people who might as well play russian roulette over their cornflakes.

Where David O. Russell's last project succeeded so where American Hustle flops. In his fantastic Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper's Pat and Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany can be downright vicious to each other, often saying things with enough venom to knock out a horse. But they can be so cruel to each other because it's justified. The tight focus in SLP gives you a glimpse into the downtrodden and broken heads of the pair and it all becomes completely understandable and even sympathetic. American Hustle just has a cast of dicks for no real reason.

Shifting away from the tight focus that made Silver Linings Playbook  so fantastic to watch was the fatal mistake for Russell in making American Hustle. The acting is all top notch and the basic bones of the plot are solid, but with all the extras piled on, the film becomes less than the sum of its parts. It's a literal five star film (just look at the poster) that comes out with a three star rating at best.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Oscar season is well and truly upon us and with this year it's brought the renaissance of Matthew McConaughey with it in full force. McConaughey spent years and years just pumping out forgettable, popcorn rom-coms. I mean "Ghost of Girlfriends Past"? Really? But he recently took a stand. He said no to the shitty cash cows and said yes to films like The Lincoln Lawyer and Mud. He said yes to films like Dallas Buyers Club.

Set in the 1980s, Dallas Buyers Club gives us a hard view of the world. The men are men: they ride bulls in rodeos, get in fistfights, work hard out in the oilfields, they drink hard and they play hard. They most certainly don't get one of those "faggot" diseases like HIV. Unless, you know, they have continuous unprotected sex with multiple partners (of the opposite sex, of course), do a lot of intravenous drugs or do any of the other things that can lead to higher risks of contracting HIV other than homosexual activity. One such man in Ron Woodruff (McConaughey). His lifestyle takes its toll on him and he finds himself being given only thirty days to live because of the virus. His friends and everyone around him turn on him, casting him out of their lives completely because of their homophobia, intolerance and ignorance. Woodruff only isolates himself more by repeating these views on the only people he finds who might actually support him. Eventually he is driven to crossing the border to Mexico to find medical help for his condition and begins the start of this "buyers club" where he smuggles unapproved medicines into the US for himself and to sell to other sufferers.

But you can't sell to people you won't deal with. And the biggest group of HIV positive people in 1980s Dallas happen to be the gay community that Woodruff hates so much... which brings us to the other shining star here.

Jared Leto, world renowned rock star, actor and generally just amazing guy plays Rayon, Woodruff's gatekeeper to the community he despised so much at the start of the film. Leto's role as a transgender woman has been called bold, but it's not really. The film is set thirty years ago and people like Rayon have existed publicly much longer than that, and it's not as if Jared Leto is known for his conservative values. A straight man playing a transgender woman with a boyfriend isn't bold. It's acting. That's his job. What is bold is the performance. Rayon isn't defined by the gender identity issues, but by the compassion she has for fellow sufferers and especially the person helping them, even if he is initially quite confrontational.

The pair do something transformational together through the second and third acts of the film. Ron Woodruff starts as someone truly detestable, at least by our contemporary standards, he is just a product of his environment after all. But through seeing who his real friends are and what actual support and love really are. It's hard to pinpoint it exactly because it's a smooth transition, but it's easy to see that capitalism makes Ron accept people, but it's only kindness that can foster compassion.

Politically there's another string to Dallas Buyers Club's bow. It's a damning indictment of the US' healthcare system. Despite being set thirty years ago, the system is still largely the same, with the FDA being in the pocket of big pharmaceutical companies and using cartel-like bullying tactics to force people into using only the most profitable courses of treatment, not the most effective.

Dallas Buyers Club is a film about freedom in a number of ways. People are fighting for freedom and acceptance to be who they are, and people are fighting for the freedom to determine how they treat their own bodies. They're more successful in some aspects than others, but it all combines to be a compelling watch that packs a true emotional punch throughout. McConaughey pulls a truly great turn as Woodruff and comes full circle from a hateful, self-centred asshole  to a generous and giving man who accepts people for what they are and gives help that they need. Leto's supporting role might just be career defining. They're both fully deserving of their Oscar nominations for this film. It would be no surprise to see either awarded.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Frozen (2013)

Two things that aren't aimed at me, a 21-year-old man: musicals and Disney stories about princesses.

One thing that shocked me with how good it was: Frozen, a Disney musical about two princesses.

Frozen is the latest in the Walt Disney studios line of animated movies, coming in the wake of 2012's Wreck It Ralph (which was great, by the way). It's been getting rave reviews pretty much unanimously, scooping up two Academy Award nominations along the way (Animated Feature Film and Music - Original Song). So after thoroughly enjoying Wreck It Ralph I thought I'd give it a shot.

Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee manage a magical blend of that classic Disney feel while keeping everything actually in the film right up to date. It's brilliant self-aware in the sense that it's aware of all the films that went before it and the messages that have been sent out by previous films. It can draw attention to changes in attitudes without criticising the old films, they were after all products of their time. There's one great line in particular that just cuts down a classic Disney trope in seconds that I won't spoil.

At it's heart though, Frozen continues the trend of centring around that most powerful of emotions: love. There's a couple of angles about true love thrown around in the film, but at it's heart this re-telling of the Ice Queen story is a story about the love shared between two sisters and what their love means for each other. The importance of family, honesty and being true to who you are are the valuable lessons that this proper, out and out family film sells.

Musicals aren't my bag at all. I'll usually groan if someone in a  film spontaneously bursts into song without me being prepared. But I knew Frozen was a musical going in so I was prepared. What I wasn't prepared for was how strong the musical numbers were. Obviously having an established Broadway star (Idina Menzel) as the icy sister gives you some solid ground to work on, but I had no idea Kristen Bell (who I'd previously only known as that girl from Veronica Mars who has a... strange relationship with sloths) could sing so well. The stand-out sequence is, obviously,  the Oscar-nominated Let It Go, but I'd urge you not to look it up and see it in its full context because it is so much better.

Frozen is just simply a great family film. It hits all the right notes with comedy and poignancy at all the right times. It's Disney on absolute top form once again.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Her (2013)

In a world where our technology is constantly advancing and our reliance on it for everything keeps in stride with that, Spike Jonze delivers a kind of post-modern love story. Her is about the relationship that develops between a lonely and lost Theodore (Joaquin Pheonix) and a wide-eyed, fascinated by the world Samantha. Only, in this just-around-the-corner future, Sam doesn't physically exist. She's an artificially intelligent operating system. Essentially Siri on steroids, especially seeing as Theodore as well as many people around him just pick up the operating systems from a store.

Her blends together two of the top things on my cinematic favourites list: the soft sci-fi romance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Scarlett Johansson at the top of her game (but she'll still never top Lost in Translation). Spike Jonze, through incredibly considered writing and directing, touches on all the things about those films that speak to me.

It deals with a couple of themes at once, and manages to juggle them pretty well even if it does come out at the end not really saying anything definitive at all. But I think that's kind of the point, there aren't any clear answers to the questions it asks. For instance, there's obviously a message about how invasive technology becomes in our social lives. Theodore is often surrounded by people but completely oblivious to all of them because his mind is buried in his phone. It's a common criticism of social networking, we're all so busy speaking but not actually talking to each other. Is it a real connection if it's just facebook comments? Is it a real connection if you'll never actually meet the "person" you're talking to? Does it even matter if it's "real", and who decides what's real?

Technology and its implications are only the sci-fi elements on stage though. The more personal things Her  deals with are about relationships. Loneliness and overcoming and accepting our past mistakes are big issues for everyone involved in the cast. The only really clear message that Spike Jonze puts out with the film is that it's all about the journey: all the ups and downs matter and shouldn't be forgotten, it's not just about aiming for happiness and getting depressed when you miss.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster rich."

It might not be Goodfellas with stockbrokers, but it does feel a lot like it.

Martin Scorsese makes fucking brilliant films. There's no two ways about it. And the best thing he's done so far was The Departed, with a Mr Leonardo DiCaprio.  It's a travesty that DiCaprio hasn't yet won an Oscar and The Wolf of Wall Street is going to be another opportunity for outrage because the Academy eats up slavery and 12 Years a Slave is in cinemas.

DiCaprio runs the show almost single handedly here. The eponymous Wolf, he is Jordan Belfort: a stockbroker who turns up on takes Wall Street by storm from the outside and makes an obscene amount of money along the way. Nowadays, everybody hates people in finance like bankers and stockbrokers and people like Jordan Belfort are why. He is a scumbag, and he turns everyone around him into a scumbag, but he's a charismatic scumbag. 

The story of Belfort is an obscene and surreal one, which I guess is what unlimited amount of money can do to the world around you. Like I said, Belfort is a terrible person and you definitely aren't rooting for him but you kind of never want him to get caught. You keep watching because of the potential for just how crazy he can get. Eventually he'll give in, cash out and move away... surely? But no, just when you think it'll happen, more money and more drugs bring the dreamlike state back. 

The film is a long haul. It comes in at one minute shy of three hours. I had to take a snack break half way through, but that's not a slight against it. There's a hell of a lot to take in here because every minute is filled with comedy, debauchery or just sheer brilliance on DiCaprio's aprt. 

I'm so sorry you won't win an Oscar again this year Leo, you deserve it.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Don Jon (2013)

I've apparently made quite the social faux pas before when I've said "Every single man has..." so I'm a bit wary to say this but here it goes: All men, at least in this generation, watch porn to some degree.

This is an issue that Don Jon deals with, and uses to hold a mirror up to ourselves  (hopefully not during the course of... well). Jon "The Don" Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a proper New Jersey lad in every sense. He cars about few things: his family, the gym, getting girls and his porn. Every week he goes out and pulls a girl, every time, but it never quite lives up to when he loses himself in his porn. That is, until he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and she asks him to give up one thing for her.

At first glance, and especially from the trailers, Don Jon seems like a bit of a standard comedy that's trying to push it with the subject material. I expected the basic premise to be "Oops, caught out watching porn again Jon!", but it's a bit more thought provoking than that. It even manages to deal with the immersion breaking question of why anyone needs porn with Scarlett Johansson available whenever she's up for it.

Again, it's not just about porn. Everyone in the film is a bit fucked up with issues they need to deal with. It's largely about what we expect life to be like and what we actually get. We criticise people who invest so much time and faith in things that are completely fake and ridiculous without realising that we do exactly the same with something else.

Don Jon is a triumph for first-time director JGL. The path it takes towards the end might seema little conceited and trite considering how realistic the rest is, but it manages to be thought provoking and funny throughout. And it's not just "oh aren't we funny talking about porn?" type funny but a more mature, ironic humour where if characters would just look at themselves they'd see how crazy they were.