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.