Friday 21 February 2014

Review: Big Bad Wolves

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2014)
Director: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Screenplay: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Tzahi Grad, Doval'e Glickman, Rotem Keinan

Synopsis is here

If you give it a moments thought, then it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Quentin Tarantino considered Big Bad Wolves one of 2013’s best movies. The words violent revenge film has become almost synonymous with the directors later works. While the description of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s tense thriller can happily lend itself to that particular sub-genre, Big Bad Wolves like the Israeli duo’s first feature Rabies is far more interested in stretching the limits, shifting the tones and skewing the view of what we westerners are comfortably used to.

The catalyst of the narrative (the disappearance and murder of a schoolgirl) plays on the primal fears that haunt many adults, yet Big Bad Wolves approaches the subject with a caustic wit that may stun an unaware viewer. This seems to be a trademark of the writing/directing duo; who were only too happy to punctuate Rabies with similar coroner like humour. Like its predecessor, Big Bad Wolves is also willing to mine sympathy from uncomfortable areas, creating an environment of uncertainty that leaves the viewer unbalanced. More than once, we’re so sure of the intentions of characters, only for things to flip on their head and make us double take what we saw and how we felt before. Such oddball shifts not only remind us of the constant tonal shifting of Korean cinema, but also give the film a strong layer of texture. While violent, the film is not as explicit it may suggest. But the horror lies in the uncertainly of what appears to be such a cut and dry case. The fear comes from the idea that we may be siding with the wrong people for terrible reasons.

What interests me about Kashales and Papushado’s filmmaking is how willing they to allow their characters to bring, not only their own baggage, but weighty subjects of the Israeli culture to the table. Rabies flirted with bringing personal relationships, gender politics and religious elements, intelligently to the forefront. Big Bad Wolves, the trend, asking one simple question: Where are the women? This is not only a question in the literal sense, a little girl has been taken away (the wordless slow motion opening is sets the tone superbly), but the film queries the film in a more obscure way as we see all three of the main characters conduct all their relationships with women through strained phone calls. These men are amusingly always too occupied with asserting their masculinity and doing other (vicious) things that they let their relationships fracture. It’s important to note just how bad things get for each character as they take less notice from those they love.

While not as generous with the bloodletting as the likes of “Torture Porn” exploitation fare such as Hostel, Wolf Creek, et all, Big Bad Wolves,  brings the aggression and tensions that stem from the country’s history. The film also; unlike the modern films that have before it, smartly questions the nature of torture in a way that’s upfront and witty while maintaining a troubling brutality. While The film’s climax may not completely satisfy, Big Bad Wolves, provides the type of energetic ambition that horror viewers need to see more of.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Review: Bastards

Yeah: 2013 (UK release 2014)
Director: Claire Denis
Screenplay: Jean-Pol Fargeau Claire Denis
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni

Synopsis is here:

I found myself to be quite bowled over with Bastards. This was a feature that I had no expectations for, yet discovered it to be the type of revenge film that I lust for. Its fractured structure and slow burn philosophy to the nature of its straightforward narrative threw me for a loop. It allows its characters to breathe yet the film wallows in such desolate, nocturnal tones it becomes suffocating.

It starts simply enough, a death, a sexual assault, a dysfunctional family and a hinted plot for revenge but slowly (very slowly mind) becomes something twisted and unnerving. Pieces of the puzzle are given to us but Denis’ film is all about its foreboding mood. It wants us in the squalor with the characters we’re watching. We need to be drenched in the same filth as them. When we slot the pieces into place the film wants us to know that the entire picture is ugly.

While the sums of the film’s parts are pretty standard, it’s Denis’ focus on character that sways things. The film plays with the same type of sleazy cynicism that littered Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. The people we watch may hold wealth, but slip into the backside of Paris so well they become near camouflaged. Protagonist Marco Silvestri’s (a brooding and craggy Vincent Lindon) outer shell of affluence betrays a corroded core brought on by his secretive and destructive family. It’s no surprise that we find their once successful shoe company now plumbing the depths of bankruptcy. As the film ploughs on, the liner plot has us guessing how it all slots in, yet the themes point to ideas of business lives being invaded by the personal.

But what really hits you is the tension; a creeping feeling of foreboding and desperation that sits awkwardly with a viewer throughout. Haunting images are glimpsed and loiter in the brain like unshakeable blemishes; an assaulted teen wondering waif-like through the night, a discarded bike we remember in the hands of another character. Denis uses these moments not only to disconcert us but to keep us locked in the films distilled bitterness. By the end of the film I wasn’t just left with the how and why, but a profound sorrow at the film’s dismissal of innocence and it’s perversion of loyalty. Never has a title been so apt.  

Monday 17 February 2014

Review: Her

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2014)

Director: Spike Jonez

Screenplay: Spike Jonez

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson

Synopsis is here 

Don't call it a backlash. It's not that I didn't like Her. The ideas it brings up are provoking in the same way they are in RoboCop (1987) or Blade Runner (1982). However in watching The Lego Movie (which also plays with the ideal of free will) afterwards, I found myself more entertained by the latter’s more subversive elements. After Her, I kept asking: does this world have to be so miserable?

That's not the best way to describe Her: a film which lands us in a pastel and placid LA in which people are more obsessed with their handhelds than we see now (even in this screening I had some ignorant ass on giving off their light pollution). But Her sits us next to Theodore, a un-engaging sad sack who writes heartfelt letters to long distanced love ones, a man who provides the right emotions for other but none for himself.

As the film delves deeper into its sci-fi premise, we realise that this is computer as confessional; a personal live journal who embraces you and grows with you. You shout into the void and it responds back to you in a deeply profound way. No doubt we can see the obstacles over the horizon. Think of children.

As Samantha; the love interest and programmed operating system; Scarlett Johansson has possibly the most difficult performances she’s possibly faced (I have not seen Under the Skin yet). Even animated characters have facial tics. One of the films strongest factors is witnessing the screenplay and Johanson’s performance (in which we only see as her voice) expands as the film moves along. Samantha grows from an advanced yet empty program to a spirited personality with an inquisitiveness entirely of it’s own accord. Johansson’s husky, sensual tone not only accentuates the playful, flirty aspects of the character, but she also brings out the empathy of a being that is slowly learning of the world around itself.

This is Jones' prettiest film, the crisp, clean aesthetic sparkles and the small details that display a futuristic America has a plausible texture to proceedings. Jones' use of space is powerful but it's also quite isolating while his lead is frustratingly distancing. Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street is a sexist man a misogynistic world, but his charm has a sleazy allure to it and his antics are quick to remind a viewer of how you should feel about such a douche. While WOWS is a film which has us laugh at Belfort, Her wishes us to believe that Theodore is someone to sympathise with entirely despite his anti social world view which is much of his own creation. I don’t have to like a character to love a film, yet Theodore  lacks the engagement that would help me respond in the way that Jonez would like me to.

The creepy, slightly insidious way he wants to control the women (who are smarter than himself) in his life is placed to the side. Its absorbing to see how Samantha grows and appreciates the world, it's awkward to see how limited Theodore wishes to keep both his and her view. But it's fine because he doesn't have the snarky OK Cupid profile to show his darker side. The films latter half also considers the idea that not only Theodore, but we as people are sadly limiting, stunted and slightly disabled of our own view. To put it another way, Dave wouldn't be able to disable Hal.

I have similar reservations to Her as I did with Being John Malkovich. The concept is provoking but the character is selfish and self absorbed in a way that the beautiful score and future quirks cannot hide and that places me far too at odds with a character who wishes to appear pleasant. I think that's my tragedy with Her. It does well to remind us how human we can be. Then we realise the problem with her is him.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Review: RoboCop

Year: 2014
Director: Jose Padilha
Screenplay: Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Samual L Jackson, Michael K Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel

Synopsis is here

I’ve never had a truly strong affinity to RoboCop, although I do enjoy watching the original movie a lot. It’s not really a fault of the film; however, the 90’s kid in me often kicks in when viewing the movie. The 80’s consumerism and Jesus imagery feels commonplace now despite being so outrageous in 1987. Personal preference has me warming to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers as I get older as it still feels radical. The original RoboCop, while still a smart sci-fi, almost feels like it lost the war it was raging at the time. I remember watching the film again while at university and seeing a class of kids glaring uninterested at the film. I’d dread to think how millennials would see the film.

It’s talk like that which probably helped make a reboot of the property so appealing.  It’s hard not to think of executives probably spying the Boba Fett merchandise fetish that spurred on the sequels, TV and cartoon series. While not an uberfan of the 80’s feature, I do remember feeling a slight discomfort at the remakes’ first press leakings. From the drab trailer to the new suit, I couldn’t find anyone too impressed with the shiny new direction the filmmakers looked to be going.  

It’s been stated that Brazilian director Jose Padilha (Elite Squad) had a lot of trouble on the production (one that was already halted due to “creative difficulties), yet he and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer struggle on to craft a broad sci-fi procedural that display enough hints of ambition. Robo 2.0 toys with the idea of PR led, globalised crime fighting in entertaining ways, from its impressive Middle Eastern opening and Samuel L Jackson’s winking media “news” presenter, to the sudden realisation Murphy gets when he discovers where his new parts come from. The film’s humour may not be as strong as Verhoeven’s, but Robo 2.0 displays the type of smarts that some remakes simply don’t bother with.

The film does struggle over certain hurdles due to the pressure of what it now needs to become. The original films feminist and urban readings take a strong hit, while the amount of violence use for a 12a is beyond problematic. It never thinks why Verhoeven’s use of gore was considered. Yet despite this, the philosophical element of man and his tools, the marketability of safety and talk of free will, still engage. One shouldn’t regard the clean Apple design of Omicorp or the chilling use of surveillance that RoboCop once uses to try and track his killers. There’s enough with the film to remind us just how close we are to certain possibilities. It helps that Padilha brings his Elite Squad energy to the action, although the sequences become less interesting towards the end.

With all this said, Robo 2.0 is a serviceable entry to a franchise that was completely fine as a one shot. Take that last sentence as you will, but if producers are to be incessant with ramming these types of reboots in our faces, at least, they saw sense in hiring a socially conscious director with something to say and a screenplay with an amount of texture under the surface. Total Recall Remake this is not.