Sunday, 7 December 2014

Review: Cold in July

Year: 2014
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenplay: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw

Synopsis is here:

After reading a few of Joe R Landsdale short stories, I've found him to be an entertaining writer who manages to capture a reader's imagination quickly with his snappy potboilers. Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back, for instance, is a sharp sci-fi balanced with a somber heartache, which manages a considerable sense of scope, yet can be finished before the end of your train journey. Jim Mickle is a filmmaker whose filmography capture an unusual blend of American gothic and playful genre switching that is warmly welcomed for a film viewer such as myself.

I found it no surprise that Mickle's film version of Landsdale's novel; Cold in July, shows that the writers' material and the director's style of storytelling and thematic focal points provide a good foil for each other.

From the start of the film, I found myself gripped. Our mild mannered protagonist; Richard shoots a young trespassing burglar and find himself struggling with the moral concerns of taking a man's life. We sink further down the rabbit hole as we discover that the thief's father; Ben (an intensely stoic Sam Shepard), is out on parole and is looking for vengeance towards the man who killed his son. We soon find out that the cops haven't been as honest with the situation as they could have been what could have been a clear cut case, becomes a twisted noir, which brings both Richard together in ways they wouldn't have thought of when they found each other.

What looks to be a straight forward film about survival and revenge, soon bends into something different entirely. Mickle's film starts of as a Cape Fear style thriller by way of John Carpenter before morphing into a History of Violence tinged noir, in which the murky sins of the family slowly creeping into the present lives of the characters we follow. Micheal C Hall's awkward and frightened family man, may feel slightly one note at times, it's clear that he's enjoying being able to play a character who is clearly out of his element. Watching his face has the twisted sense of honour is revealed by both Ben and his P.I cohort Jim (a spirited Don Johnson) is quite a picture.

The chilly, stark backwoods of Mickle's Stake Land (2010) and We Are What We Are (2013) are replaced with a highly stylised, sun baked Texas, which, despite its rich, saturated colours feels no less dark than the films that came before it. What first appears as a clean cut man troubled by the moral quandary that comes with murder, descends into something much murkier when he finds his life inhabited by characters who have dealt with death before. We expect clarity from the situation at first, but Mickle is a filmmaker who enjoys clouding the ethics of the people we watch. He wants everyone to feel a little dirty.

The 80's setting and references work well with the story and never distract from it. It never feels like fancy nostalgia. Nor does it feel like it should be altered. Meanwhile Mickle's genre blending here, feels much like Stake Land, which happily moved between gothic and road movie with a quietly observed sense of satisfaction. Mickle once again easily shows how assured he is a director as Cold in July easily slips and shifts in tone, brings in dark humour and a cold sense of dread, and never feels jarring.

It is a shame that Vinessa Shaw's solid (although slightly shrewish) wife is pushed to the side, making sure the film is unable to truly create some complex family and gender dynamics. However, as a pulpy, contorted thriller about masculinity, fatherhood and just how far some are willing to stride into the darkness. Cold in July is one of most fascinating genre pieces of the year.




Saturday, 6 December 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow (A.K.A LIVE DIE REPEAT, A.K.A All You Need is Kill)

Year: 2014
Director: Doug Liman
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

Synopsis is here:


Despite seemingly being marketed by a group of drunks recovering from a 7 day bender (why all the name changes, guys?), and the profit margins being more delicate than a Sony studio password, Edge of Tomorrow is a relatively fun sci-fi actioner. One that reminds you that Tom Cruise (aged 52), is still the engaging A-list movie star he was before we found out about his great battle with thetans. Hell, I'm beginning to think his belief in Scientology is part of the reason he's been able to pick interesting sci-fi projects. I wouldn't be surprised if the presence of Cruise may have switched people off Edge of Tomorrow. Yet Cruise's personal charm is one of the reasons the film works. The other (greater) reason is Emily Blunt.

Blunt, whose Rita character shows the type of urgency which has been greatly missed from female roles in the likes of Godzilla or The Amazing Spiderman 2, once again displays her amazing capability to bounce off her Male counterparts. The reversal of roles here allows Blunt to blossom even more so than she did in similar high concept features such as The Adjustment Bureau (2011), however the nature of Edge of Tomorrow's material seemingly gives a lot of the emotional resonance back to Cruise in his role of cowardly PR man cum action solider.

I do wonder what the late Roger Ebert would have felt about Edge of Tomorrow. As a critic whose interest in video games was in the minus figures, he would have been faced with a film that is heavily drenched in video game aesthetic. The source material (A Japanese novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) is said to have borrowed heavily of the play, die, and continue aspect of video games, as does this film. Here, I found it hard not to think I was not still playing COD: Advanced Warfare as even though neither game, nor film were looking over each other's solider, the similarities in the battle suits I found quite remarkable. The film's play on the concept of "spawning" and repeating until you get it right, isn't that original (see Source Code (2011), Looper (2012), SO many classic sci-fi stories), however Liman's storytelling direction of the material is refreshing. Edge of Tomorrow never feels like the template blockbusters the comic book films are starting to feel like, while it's commentary on how this muscle memory element impacts the protagonist has a certain perceptiveness to it.

Doug Liman is in his element here. Jumper (2008) is a mere faded memory here as the punchy action sequences carry weight while the cast interplay hold a playful blockbuster chemistry that enjoyable to watch. Edge of Tomorrow may not shoehorn itself into the classic hall of Hollywood blockbusters, its good fun but nothing too out of the ordinary. However, as a piece of light sci-fi action fare, I found it a film that deserves to find a good home audience in the future. Here's hoping the replay value goes past the high concept.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Short Read: The Ending of the Graduate

The first time I saw the ending, I was young and na├»ve. My mind was addled by seeing homage’s of it in The Simpsons and Wayne’s World. I first viewed it as a heroic ending. The Boy got the Girl, the antagonists were vanquished, if only for a little while. I never really watched their faces. Nor did I grasp what the shot was trying to say. To me, it was all so very… safe.

It was only during a re-watch with my girlfriend, that my ignorance slapped me in the face. The foolhardiness of the Benjamin’s “plan”. The fact that there is no plan at all. Their faces not only show their youth, but just how lost they are at such a tentative and esoteric point at their life. I saw echoes of Mrs Robinson and her reasoning behind what she was trying to do despite her methods. In their faces I noticed their realisation. There’s beauty fading in that take, and they’re only just finding out. The moment is bittersweet. Their decision may leave them as jaded as those they’ve just left. The film’s title becomes a cruel joke. The Graduate? Of what? Certainly not Life. He has a lot to learn.

When a filmmaker can crystallise all the fear, worry, jaded and misguidedness of youth, his characters feel throughout the narrative, compile it into one moment and make this captured malaise seem so universal and iconic, it is then that we have a real storyteller. R.I.P Mike Nichols.

Review: Interstellar

Year: 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathon Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine

Synopsis is here:

I find it fascinating that Christopher Nolan has gone full Kubrick in order to bring to us what I consider to be his most heartfelt film to date. Nolan; like Kubrick, has often been considered a quite cold film maker, yet in spite of placing his clear 2001 influences on his sleeves for Interstellar, Nolan’s longest movie also holds one of his strongest central relationships. There were quite a few moments in the film, in which I found myself caught up not just in the scenes of Matthew McConaughey's Coop, his family and the intergalactic drama that plays out, but also the implications. 

Once leaving the cinema, however, unlike The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010) of The Dark Knight (2008), I found that my first impressions drifted away as quickly as they appeared. I had enjoyed the film and its playfulness towards relativity and physics. I fell in love with its ambition (a word used ad nauseam by critics/writers and myself when talking about this film) and often felt the tug of emotion when the film pulled the strings.  Yet Interstellar when I finally sat down to ponder it, never felt as complete as Nolan’s previous movies.

Thematically, I found the film enthralling, yet the concerns that many detractors have about Nolan felt more apparent here. The protracted nature of the film's structure and pacing for instance. Or the aspects of plot which felt far more convoluted than previous features did. When piecing the film together, the film often felt like a po-faced Fantastic Voyage (1966). The screenplay often played out more like a B-movie dressed up.

That is slightly unfair to the Nolan’s and B-Movies, but I did find the film's length, exposition and general sour-faced demeanour took away from some Nolan’s most majestic set-pieces, the film’s emotional core and its sense of adventure. I couldn’t care less about the science being exact. This new trend of factual nit-picking fictional films to death for accuracy, is tiresome, particularly for the likes of Nolan, who gets more aggression for his outlandish moments than others. Yet Interstellar is his biggest sci-fi sandbox and this time his need to keep everyone on the same page with exposition heavy dialogue was distracting. Particularly as I had already pieced together pivotal moments of the plot early on and found myself waiting for the characters to catch up.

Despite this, Nolan still manages to provoke interesting topics of thought. This is still a film which forces a viewer to have an opinion. The world of Interstellar is at times a compelling mixture of old school Americana and individualistic philosophy. While I didn’t think it didn’t hit that feeling of transcendence that I felt with Gravity (2013), the strength of Matthew Mcconaughey’s central performance helps realise just how large the stakes are, not just between him and his family, but with the world he has left behind.  

The dying America that has been left, is one that has decided to collectively dull down Earth’s scientific dreamers and explorers as mere delusions, in a reversal of how old school religion is sometimes viewed now.  The earth’s demise is scary for just how banal and accepting the people all are of whatever it is that may be destroying them. The Dustbowl small town America, we see is as authentic as I could imagine, but the behaviour of the people within it, also feels scarily accurate.
So do, the more fantastical set pieces. Nolan litters the film with imagery familiar to his own Inception, but still manages to provide a freshness to the action. One set piece (set sublimely to Hans Zimmer’s celestial score) involving the hard headed determination of Mcconaughey’s Coop, docking a shuttle back onto a rapidly spinning spacecraft, tingles the spine in a way little else has done this year.

With Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) said as a major influence, and its commercial objectives clearly in its sight however, Interstellar’s ambition gives way to an optimism that does appear a little forced. Abrupt character arcs and moments that were awkwardly placed in the movie finally give way to a final position that takes away a part of that ambiguity that a film of such a scope deserves. It brings the likes of a film like Alex Proyas’ Knowing (2009) into sharper focus. While a film I didn’t practically enjoy, its climax, though preposterous at the time hints at an amount of ambiguity that Interstellar takes a quarter step back from. Its closure hedges its bets somewhat.

Still, Interstellar is punctuated by small, remarkable moments of emotion resonance. While at times the film feels more surface level than Nolan’s previous endeavors, as a piece of mainstream spectacle, Nolan still sets a pretty high bar for grand adult orientated cinema. What I’ll really find fascinating is whether the film’s more engaging moments will find a way of burrowing in my psyche and finding some time to germinate. I feel there’s enough in Interstellar to do that.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Review: The Babadook

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
Ben Winspea

Synopsis is here

The horror films I enjoy usually contain what I call an "Exorcist moment". This is a single disquieting scene, sequence or shot that often slips past the major scares, but stains my memories like blood on a carpet. In The Exorcist, the moment in which Father Karras envisions his recently deceased mother on the bed, rarely gets mentioned amongst the pea soup vomit and head spinning, but it is the moment that unsettles me the most. There's something about that moment of disquiet that unnerves me. Something deeply primal.

The Babadook; a debut horror feature by Jennifer Kent, is so in love with primal fears, it's no surprise that it holds its own "Exorcist moment". The film's weary protagonist; Amelia, exhausted from lack of sleep and haunted by the grief of losing her husband, notices a near impossible image during a news report. It's a Lynchian moment played out just around the tipping point of the film. Kent's film had pulled me far enough through the ringer so that when this small moment occurs, I was genuinely spooked. I gained that same sense of unease I felt with Karras' mother. When it comes to scares, for me, it's always the little things.

The Babadook plays little a forgotten gem of yesteryear. Horror now often operates by trying to bamboozle the viewer with successive BOO moments. The Babadook isn't too interested in the cheap thrill. It wants to unsettle, and does so with an impassioned love of older cinema. Its title character is one that harks back to the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and toys with similar psychological themes. Our protagonist Amelia (Davis); is a timid and haunted soul, who is struggling to cope with the loss of her husband, who died in an accident while they were on their way to give birth to their son. This mixture of survivor guilt and grief grows within the character like a festering wound. Amelia works in care, but seems repelled by her son. She longs for intimacy, yet is reluctant to allow herself to let go. Suddenly an intensely troubling pop-up book appears in her son's room and then the trouble occurs.

The Babadook feels much like Ringu (1998) or Paperhouse (1988) in that there's a horrid feeling of dread that is difficult to really shake off. The tautly wound performances from its leads keep the film's anxiety levels high, while its ashy grey cinematography and constant tight close ups, not only give the film a sense of texture but a foreboding sense of claustrophobia. This is combined with a screenplay with a strong emphasis on the banality and sadness that comes with loss and economical set pieces that are far more interested in what you thought you saw than what you going to see. If other films were as invested in its humans than its monsters, I feel I'd be scared at the movies more often.