Old cauldron. New blood.
Outgrown being creeped out by fairy tales? The thought of haunted woods and evil witches only conjure up cartoonish old ladies living in rickety cabins with warts on their noses? Not frightened of goats yet? Lost faith in modern horror?
You haven’t; think again; you will be; crack a grimoire and prepare to stare into the dark abyss.
Set in 17th century New England, The Witch (stylized as The VVitch) follows a puritan family who is excommunicated from their community. William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) move with their five children to a remote plot of land and begin their new life. However, tragedy soon strikes when their unbaptized baby boy, Samuel, disappears while eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is looking after him. Their crops fail to thrive, their all-engulfing faith is tested and paranoia seeps in. The family start to turn on each other: they’re convinced that woods surrounding their new home is haunted and that the devil may be amongst them.
Subtitled ‘A New England Folktale’, this highly atmospheric debut by writer / director Robert Eggers is quite astounding. It is at once a psychological thriller about a family tearing itself apart from the inside, a supernatural chiller serving as a cautionary tale regarding devotedness and an unnerving period piece about faith. The director has created a disturbing campfire tale that thrives in part due to its historic realism and detailed iconography: his unflagging pursuit of authenticity extends to seventeenth century dialogue, sets and period costume, but is also directly inspired by written accounts of witchcraft. As a closing title card informs us, some of the dialogue is taken “directly from period journals, diaries and court records”: at no point does the film give you cause to question the veracity of this statement. It all leads to a cross between Arthur Miller’s 'The Crucible' and Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, with a hint of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon... and the result is nightmarishly enthralling.
Eggers steadily builds the tension and toys with the audience in the most subtle of ways: certain sequences could easily be interpreted as the sin-fearing fantasies of troubled souls, making the audience question were reality ends and when feverish anxieties begin. These anxieties are heightened by the lean landscape, the long camera shots of the woods, as well as the prolonged periods of silence and the brooding calmness of the execution. The camera work is frequently reminiscent of that of Kubrick’s in The Shining, a reference the director has himself flagged up as a major influence: there is the sense that every shot is meticulously thought out and each frame serves to induce a growing sense of malevolence. Even the slightest details are permeated with a sense of abnormal unease: rarely has a shot of a rabbit passively sitting or goat rhythmically panting seemed so ominous.
The craft serves the atmosphere beautifully, highlighting the importance of Mark Korven’s nerve-shredding score, which is complete with dissonant noises and eerie flourishes. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke is also to be commended for his clear, precise shots, which add to the dread, and his natural light compositions are terrific. These chiaroscuro tableaus are highly entrancing and seem painted by old Flemish masters, a detail which complements the seventeenth century authenticity. The candlelit shots not only darken the edges of the frame but add a flickering effect that makes certain figures subtly tremor, creating a foreboding effect that once again ties in seamlessly to the narrative: a pulsating trick of the light or the sign of a malefic presence?
As awe-inspiring as the mood is, substance and character development are never sacrificed in favour of atmosphere, making the The Witch a fully-rounded triumph. With this in mind, special mention must also go to the cast. Ralph Ineson (better known as Finchy in The Office) is excellent as the dogmatic yet loving father who desperately attempts to salvage his family and faith; however, the true standouts are the children. Harvey Scrimshaw shines as the young and virtuous Caleb, and his commitment to the role will leave jaws wide open in the second half. As for newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, she quietly commands the screen and makes Thomasin a richly conflicted character who may or may not be the titular entity but, like the director, manages to keeps you guessing throughout. Lest we forget Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger, who are both frighteningly good as the younger twins Jonas and Mercy: they are convinced their sister has signed a deal with the Devil but do have the tendency to converse with the family’s black goat, Black Philip...
The less said about him, the better.
Ultimately, The Witch is a tricky film to do justice to within the confines of a review; for all the Kubrick comparisons or the Miller references, you’ll find yourself not wanting to quantify its strengths with words. It needs to be experienced and its interpretation depends entirely (more so than in most horror films) on what you as an individual are willing to bring into the theatre.
What can be said is that in a rich but saturated genre brimming with rehashes, an overreliance on gore and cheap frights, Eggers has delivered something truly special. His film purposefully won’t get you jumping out of your seat - and therefore might not satisfy those hankering for jump scares... even if the terrifying climax will silence the dissenters - but it will get under your skin. And stay there for quite some time. His debut feature showcases meticulous storytelling skills and a sophisticated understanding of the genre, allowing him to fully transport the audience, as well as make familiar beats seem unpredictable. The Witch stands alongside Stephen Fingleton‘s The Survivalist (see below) as one of 2016's best debuts and is on par with Kill List (the second Ben Wheatley film mentioned in this review) as one of the most profoundly disquieting features in recent years.
Cursed be those who miss out.
- D - 25/03/16
Cabin in the Woods
Stephen Fingleton’s debut feature starts with a simple animated graph that represents rampant population growth paralleled with the production of oil. It elegantly highlights humanity’s rapid rise and catastrophic fall but also serves as all the exposition you’ll need. What follows is a lean, stripped-down sci-fi thriller about the consequences of the disintegration of organised society, one that defies a great number of genre tropes and manages to be both thoughtful and nail-bitingly tense.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, The Survivalist takes place is in the north of Ireland. There, in an undisclosed location, a lone nameless man (Martin McCann) survives in his isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. His life is organised and punctuated by routine: he grows crops, makes sure he has enough water and keeps a constant eye out for scavengers and attackers.
Naturally, his routine is broken by the arrival of two women: a mother, Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and her daughter, Milja (Mia Goth). They beg him for food and shelter; he reluctantly allows them in. Thus begins an unsteady relationship between the three, one where alliances are implicitly formed and allegiances silently shift, while the constant threat of pillage remains.
The first time director has not only adroitly constructed some potent suspense via the changing power balance and the prevailing doubt at the heart of the central trio, but has created a post-apocalyptic wasteland that is loaded with palpable paranoia and fear. He has taken a sober and minimalist approach to the future and the crumbling of civilisation, and the film is more striking for it. Colour-wise, think the opposite of Mad Max: Fury Road’s desert wasteland, with a distinct pastoral palette: reminiscent of what Terrence Malick achieved aesthetically as well as thematically with The Thin Red Line, nature has reclaimed its place as the dominant force in the world once mankind has done its worst and has been largely dissipated.
The director also does not shy away from the grimness of the wilderness and realistic future he depicts. This is shown not only in the practical attitudes of the characters and their unsentimental motivations but also in certain specifics... and the devil is in the details: sex is bargained for, bodies are buried for compost, rotting flesh is shown, sanitary towels are rinsed and stanley knife surgery is undertaken. The camera does not linger in an exploitative manner but the toughness required in an unforgiving world is candidly shown on the screen, to great - at times wince-inducing - effect. Additionally, there’s something inherently fascinating about watching the practicalities of planting crops and the ingenious skills one requires to survive in the wild.
Above all though, The Survivalist’s greatest asset is Fingleton’s masterclass use of sound and silence: all unnecessary dialogue is brushed aside, entire sections go by featuring only natural sounds and any expositional strands the audience is given are, for the most part, subtly interwoven within a flowing narrative. At no point are there jarring sequences or ham-fisted voiceovers included so that we may begin to get backstory. The opening graph sufficed and the lack of information and prevalence of silence adds to the visceral, tense atmosphere.
The cast are all game and create an uneasy dynamic. Nymphomaniac Vol. 2’s Goth more than holds her own against the formidable Fouéré, who is better known for her theatre work; the latter quietly commands every scene, while the titular survivalist, brilliantly played by McCann, delivers the goods. He allows flickers of humanity to shine every now and then, reminding the audience that hope could still exist beneath hardened layers.
The Survivalist proves that you don’t need big budget or lavish CGI to create believable, intense and thoughtful dystopian sci-fi. As it stands, Fingleton’s austere debut is one of the strongest releases this year and serves as an original and much needed respite from the hunger gamers, the maze runners and divergents and all their tiresome, thesaurus-raiding lingo.
One hell of a debut and a talented director to keep a close eye on.
- D - 20/03/16
THE ONES BELOW
The Hand That Rocks Rosemary’s Baby
British playwright David Farr helms his first feature length film and for a man whose screenwriting credits include some of the TV series Spooks’ most ambitious seasons, you’d think that some potent thrills will be coming your way. Sadly, the story about how “in London, you never know your neighbours” comes off as an uninspired psychological thriller that is essentially a cheap rehash of Rosemary’s Baby...minus the devil spawn.
The Ones Below focuses on how expectant mother Teresa (Laura Birn) loses her child; she and her husband Jon (David Morrissey) initially blame the tragedy on her expectant neighbour Kate (Clémence Poésy) and her husband Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore). As time goes on and her baby is born, the tormented Kate becomes more and more paranoid: are the downstairs lodgers really out to get her and her child or is this a hefty case of postpartum depression?
The always reliable Poésy and Morrissey both do their level best with one-note characters, but nothing can stop The Ones Below from its Hitchcock-wannabe script. The film is syphoned of any real tension from the get-go, as every narrative beat is telegraphed; the execution is so schlocky that if you weren’t sure how to feel, Farr has added a supposedly ominous children’s chorus chanting “la-la-la” when in doubt.
The predictable moments continue to pile on, so much so that you’ll start getting distracted by other incidental aspects of the script, such as: How do these people afford such homes? Sure, they’re a professional couple, but this is London we’re talking about... What kind of name is Billy for a child? Do only aggressively middle-class people put saffron in risotto or have I been doing it wrong all these years?
The promise of an unsuspected final flourish that could redeem yet another thriller about the darker sides of parenthood centring on a pregnant protagonist never materializes; what you’re left with is a by-the-numbers and thoroughly average B-movie that is so indebted to past masters it forgets to stand on its own two feet. It is brimming with genre clichés and it comes to the point that ticking off the cinematic references becomes more entertaining than watching the film itself.
Entire chunks pilfered from The Hand That Rocks The Cradle? Check.
A twist heavily inspired by an infamous detail from Hitchcock’s Suspicion? Check.
A last shot that reeks of Polanski? Check.
The lesson here: confidently riffing on cinematic touchstones is fine but not at the expense of creating something new. The Ones Below clumsily induces an overwhelming sense of déjà-vu and pales compared to far stronger films such as The Babadook or even the recently released Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh Ich Seh); both deal with the notion of motherhood in far more precise, stylish and unsettling ways.
Fans of the genre should seek out those two instead... And incidentally, if anyone has any insights into the use of saffron in risotto, do please get in touch.
- D - 07/03/16
** UPDATE: Following the review above, I was very kindly sent the following link regarding the saffron-in-risotto conundrum: CLICK HERE FOR RECIPE. Thank you to the wonderful Tamara and be sure to check out her website here: ETTAMARASEMARRA. **
HAIL, CAESAR !
Lights. Camera. T’were.
The Coen Brothers’ latest screwball comedy sees the directing duo going retro; they revisit some of Barton Fink’s Tinsel Town setting, include some convoluted narrative strands of The Big Lebowski and ultimately offer a farcical homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Featuring one of their most (if not their most) eye-wateringly impressive casts, Hail, Caesar! is essentially a day in the life of legendary studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Set in 1951, we follow the studio exec trying to manage “this year’s ration of dreams for all the humble people of the world”. This includes making sure that the press don’t get to see the out-of-wedlock-bump starting in show on Hollywood sweetheart DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), facilitating the transition from westerns to the drawing room drama genre of a young - and somewhat dim-witted - actor Herbie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), much to the chagrin of his unconvinced new director (Ralph Fiennes), and keeping the gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) sweet. As if there weren’t enough stars and journos to keep in line, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead of prestige epic picture ‘Hail, Caesar! A Tale Of The Christ’, gets himself kidnapped by a group calling themselves “The Future”...
As this description suggests, this typically elaborate screwball comedy could only come from the warped minds of the Coens. The writer / directors playfully weave multiple narrative strands while taking the time to delight in the magic of a bygone era: the quirky period details and lavishly vibrant studio sets are all brilliantly photographed by DP extraordinaire Roger Deakins, making this a true love letter to the filmmaking industry. The filmmakers don’t forget to include some slyly satirical beats, showing the mass produced nature of the industry, the studio system’s infatuation on commercialism and the illusion of public image; above all, the Coens wittily make the Red Scare and Hollywood’s black list (which was recently under the spotlight in Jay Roach‘s Trumbo) the film’s MacGuffin.
Communism isn’t a red herring this time...
There is never a dull moment, especially thanks to the ensemble cast. Specifically, Channing Tatum gets to show off his twinkle toes once more during a wickedly choreographed Gene Kelly-tribute and Clooney clearly relishes every minute of playing yet another numbskull for the Coens. The film’s true standout however is newcomer Alden Ehrenreich: his finely tuned comic timing as well as his cowboy drawl are hilarious, making him the film’s MVP. As for his “Would that it t’were so simple” scene, alongside a note-perfect Ralph Fiennes, it is destined to go down as not only one of the Coens’ cult moments but one of 2016’s funniest.*
While the film’s episodic structure allows the audience to move from one Coenesque beat to another, drifting like Mannix from crisis to crisis, the plot construction does make Hail, Caesar! a fragmented film. All the moments are brilliantly written (especially a board meeting between Mannix and four representatives from different faiths, discussing accuracy in the Ben Hur-like epic) but ultimately don’t quite coalesce into a tightly packed and satisfying whole. The majority of the cast are essentially here to cameo, leaving you hankering for more; this may be the point, but it can prove frustrating, as you wish the narrative would dwell longer on some of the actor-centric vignettes.
While Hail, Caesar! certainly isn’t one of the Coens’ “lesser” films (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty would fall in this category), you can’t help but feel that within the pantheon of their comedies, it ends up comparable with Burn After Reading as opposed to The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink. It’s buoyant but ultimately lightweight and at times unfocused. It doesn’t fully live up to the promise the trailers sold, i.e. a fast paced, laugh-out-loud romp through the Hollywood backlots. Still, any Coen picture is worth the price of admission and nothing stops their latest from being, as Mannix says, “a swell story, told with distinction and panache”.
Sometimes swell is enough.
- D - 02/03/16
* : Click here for this year’s Before The Bombs Fall Awards, in which the “Would that it t’were so simple” scene won a prize (and can be seen in a short clip).
Additionally, click here for more coverage of the latest Berlin Film Festival, Hail, Caesar! having premiered there on opening night.
WARNING: CONTAINS PUPPET CUNNILINGUS
Seven long years since his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman returns with a co-directed cinematic oddity that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa sees celebrated writer and inspirational speaker Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) travel to a conference and check into his room at the Hotel Fregoli.
‘Fregoli’, as in the psychiatric syndrome that causes people to believe that everyone else is actually a single person in multiple disguises.
No wonder, since everyone in Michael’s life has the same monotonous voice (courtesy of Tom Noonan): his wife, his son, the hotel staff... Everyone is seemingly a part of the mundane chorus in his existential crisis. Everyone except Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Her voice is different. Could this stranger be the one, the anomaly that saves him from his dull malaise?
Filmed in stop-motion animation, Anomalisa is ambitious in both concept and execution. The filmmakers have blended the real with the surreal to disorientating effect, managing to capture the essence of loneliness and melancholia. They also address the question at the heart of their protagonist’s angst: “What is it to ache?”...with puppets.
Imagine Lost In Translation meets Thunderbirds, with David Lodge as a script adviser.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the full-frontal puppet nudity gives Team America: World Police a run for its money, in a more meaningful and bizarrely moving way. Make no mistake: live-action could not have delivered such a richly layered film, nor held up a mirror to human nature in the same way.
Anomalisa is not only a technical accomplishment but also an unexpectedly touching and often funny exploration of what it is to be human and connect with others. The themes and the concepts it deals with are often reminiscent of the Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind script, down to some of the hyperrealist idiosyncrasies which are so precise and so... well, human, it will leave you slack-jawed. It does nothing less than cement Charlie Kaufman’s position as a (puppet) master of modern cinema.
Essential viewing, to say the least.
- D - 09/02/16
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT
Prepare to cherry-pick...
The title of Michael Moore’s first documentary in six years could lead you to believe the filmmaker is sinking his critical fangs into US foreign policy.
Where To Invade Next shows him getting optimistic in his old age and offering a travelogue which sees the filmmaker ‘invading’ other countries and ‘stealing’ their ideas in order to put his own to shame. Through his cherry-picked pit stops through Europe, he is conveniently confronted with Italy’s happy workers, France’s gourmet school lunches and even Germany’s candid stance on the Holocaust.
Moore’s grass-is-greener approach is initially refreshing but with a 110 minute runtime, it becomes cloyingly toothless. From his own admission, he “picks flowers, not the weeds”, an aspect that will lead many to miss his engaging takedowns, even to bemoan the cartoonish idealism on show. His lack of focus is also problematic: the broad scope makes Where To Invade Next a messy affair that not only panders to national stereotypes but is also severely lacking in nuance.
Though often compelling and at times funny, Moore’s globe-trotting jolly is far too naïve to convince. It’s entertaining, but we’re a far cry from the potent Roger And Me or the damning Bowling From Columbine.
- D - 08/02/16
All The Church’s Men
Wildly considered as one of the frontrunners in the Best Picture race at the upcoming Oscars, Spotlight is currently challenging bookies’ favourites The Revenant and The Big Short. But is it a worthy contender?
Director and co-writer Thomas McCarthy (alongside scriptwriter Josh Singer) chronicles the actions of the titular investigative team at the Boston Globe newspaper as they dig into claims of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the early 00s. The catalyst for the investigation is the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who ropes in Spotlight head honcho Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his reporters (Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James and Rachel McAdams). As the investigation gains momentum, the scandals gradually unfold, as well as the horrendous scope of the conspiracy of silence.
The ‘based on true events’ story Spotlight tells is of great importance and long-lead investigative journalism often makes for engrossing cinema. It’s refreshing when the process of investigation is depicted as unglamorous leg-work that doesn’t make the journalists themselves the story. Spotlight is not only intellectually satisfying in this regard but also avoids Oscar-bait sequences that are only penned with the awards presentation clips in mind... Apart from one cringey moment when Ruffalo’s character throws a tantrum, but it’s forgivable because of the restless energy the actor brings to the screen.
So what’s not to love?
Well, despite the tantalizing premise and a more-than-competent ensemble cast, Spotlight remains overvalued and ultimately something of a let-down.
McCarthy’s craft is not under scrutiny: Spotlight is a tightly-helmed affair that is a masterclass in unflashy storytelling. Unfortunately, there’s often a glaring lack of tension and a proclivity for finger-pointing. Granted, the well-researched script never forgets to hold up a mirror and address the complicity of the cover up at all levels, including the media and the Boston community. As one character neatly sums up: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them”.
Nevertheless, the film fails to convince completely and stands as the least cinematographic film among this year’s Oscar nominees. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing: it just doesn’t make a fully rounded cinema-going experience.
And the less said about the bland and bafflingly Oscar-nominated Rachel McAdams, the better.
The film has its heart in the right place and is made with the noblest of intentions. The fact remains that it is indebted to many journalism films of the past and can’t live up to any of them: it lacks the stylish energy of Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men, the thrills of the often derided State of Play (also starring McAdams) and even if has the same slow-building procedural feel as David Fincher’s Zodiac (also starring Ruffalo), it doesn’t have its engulfing appeal.
Hopefully, The Revenant or the much more deserving Room (see below) will come home with the golden baldie this year... Still, don’t bet against Hollywood’s love of a good crusade...
- D - 06/02/16
Not the Tommy Wiseau kind...
Based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue, Room could have been a disaster.
The story of a 5 year-old boy and his kidnapped mother held captive inside a small room owes a lot to harrowing real-life stories such as the Josef Fritzl case and could have been tastelessly overdone. A lesser director would have taken the devastating premise and stampeded towards either manipulative, one-note sentimentality or favoured exploitative bleakness.
Not Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank), who has created a surprising two-act drama that unsettles as much as it empowers.
Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has only known “room”. He lives there with “Ma” (Brie Larson), who has managed to shield her son from the horrors of the situation by creating an elaborate fantasy world. For her, the room is a prison she has been confined to for seven years, having been abducted and repeatedly abused by their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). For him, the room is all he knows: it is his entire universe, a place which “goes in every direction, all the way to the end”.
Things change when Jack’s fifth birthday comes. “Ma” decides to tell him the truth. “He stole me”, she explains, telling her son about his grandparents, the house she misses and the outside world, one they have to escape to.
To say any more about the plot would undermine the emotional wallop it creates. What can be said is that the director manages a wonderful balancing act, one which never allows his vision and Donoghue‘s story, which she has adapted for the screen, to slip from his nuanced grasp.
We view the story not through Jack’s eyes but through his understanding of the situation, meaning the grimy captivity film it could have been is instead a profoundly human story about a mother and her son not only surviving a terrifying ordeal but having to fight to find light in the aftermath of darkness. At no point does the story or the acting veer towards the melodramatic, with the utterly convincing Brie Larson managing to richly delve into the character’s emotional state of mind with breathtaking accuracy. Her moments of desperation and shellshock are truly moving, with the actress never once reducing her character’s maternal impulses to one-note platitudes. Quite a feat, considering she is also denied scenes of emotional distress of the first years of captivity, which are bypassed since the spectator arrives in medias res; this makes the task doubly hard and her performance all the more masterful. You believe that she’s been through the extremes for all those years and never once overplays the part. The film rests upon this believability and the pivotal dynamic between “Ma” and her son, and Larson makes it work wonders.
As for Jacob Tremblay, his performance is staggeringly truthful and one of the greatest turns by a young actor in recent memory. Why the relative newcomer has not been nominated for major awards is an oversight of criminal proportions both for him and Abrahamson, who has managed to shepherd the young actor to achieving something some seasoned pros can only pine for.
At times disturbing and overwhelmingly heartbreaking, Room is also smartly unconventional to the point of being life-affirming. The dramatic shift of the second half, in which “Ma” realises that physical escape doesn’t mean that she is no longer imprisoned, subverts all expectations. It is surprising in both content and form, as Abrahamson masterfully moves from the tight and close shots towards more audacious camera angles to mimic Jack’s adjustment to a world he has never known. It is a wonderfully crafted film which explores unfamiliar territory by speaking volumes about perception, the transcendent capacities of the human spirit and how the fallout of trauma can challenge the deepest of connections.
Don’t miss out on this subtle, heartrending film that you won’t soon forget.
- D - 28/01/16
Instead of resting on his Oscar-adorned laurels, Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has taken a page out of Werner Herzog’s notebook and delivered one of the most visceral and intense survivalist dramas in recent years.
Based on Michael Punke’s novel of the same name, The Revenant tells the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has been hired by fur trappers to guide them through the wild and unforgiving wilderness of early 1800s America. Local natives are out for their scalps and succeed in decimating over half of the group. The noble Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson), the inexperienced Jim Bridger (Will Pouter) and the half-scalped John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) are amongst the survivors and strive to get what is left of their fur-trading party to safety, under Glass’ supervision.
However, a brutal bear attack leaves Glass mutilated and on the brink of death. Both Bridger and the self-interested Fitzgerald are assigned to stay with Glass and his half-native son to give him a proper burial when death surely comes for him. To say any more would be to spoil it but what follows is a cat and mouse tale of revenge that will have many a critic using phrases like “relentlessly bleak”, “gripping beauty” and “unrelenting brutality”... and rightly so.
First of all, let’s address the pachyderm in the room: The Revenant will ensure that DiCaprio breaks his Oscar curse. His portrayal of Glass is a transformative one that sees the actor communicate his physical pain and emotional rage with little dialogue and with the camera closely lingering on every excruciating detail of his ordeal. It might not be his finest performance but his commitment and method approach will have Daniel Day Lewis cheering, Bear Grylls swooning and the Academy utterly smitten.
Equally strong is Tom Hardy, who deploys an impenetrable Texan drawl for the racist mercenary Fitzgerald. His intense stare infects the screen with his bigoted loathing of Glass’ “savage” son and his self-serving motivations parading as pragmatisms make him mesmerizingly loathsome. While DiCaprio seems to have gone through the motions for the sake of his art, Hardy has been tasked with a less showy mission, one he succeeds in: making an amoral beast of man believable as a cowardly human being. Many will say he is mumbling his way through another role but he proves once again that sometimes a film is only as good as its villain.
However, as wonderful as the acting may be, the performances - nor the direction for that matter - are The Revenant’s greatest asset. Emmanuel Lubezki is.
Indeed, Inarritu’s frequent DP and lenser extraordinaire looks set to win his third consecutive Oscar after Gravity and last year’s Birdman for his gasp-inducing and utterly engulfing cinematography. From the film’s continuous opening which thrusts the audience into the violent camp attack to the panoramic shots of vast snowy landscapes, the film not only looks beautiful but will leave you agog as to how it’s all executed. Add some jaw-dropping special effects that will make you genuinely wonder how on Attenborough’s blue planet they managed to make that bear attack so real and a haunting musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and The National’s Bryce Dessner and you end up with a sensory experience unlike any other.
The clumsy spiritual sequences and the false final note of having DiCaprio break the fourth wall for the parting shot prove that The Revenant is not the flawless epic many are championing. Inarritu does tend to overindulge in self-conscious existential musings and never quite manages to out-Malick Terrence. As for the previous Herzog comparison, Inarritu privileges his style over the former’s substance.
But what style...
Will The Revenant earn the director a second consecutive Oscar? Quite possibly. Will the Academy crown it best film? Don’t bet against it. Flawed as it may be, it remains a breathtaking moviegoing experience that fully satisfies as a visceral Western but also as a mediation on “civilized” America’s bloody relationship with its indigenous people. What is certain is that while DiCaprio has the golden statue on lockdown this year, Tom Hardy continues to prove he is one of the most talented actors out there. Furthermore, you can place your bets on how Lubezki’s awe-inspiring craft will once again thwart Roger Deakins’ plans for the best cinematographer gong. His immersive visuals alone make The Revenant the one to beat this year when it comes to harrowing visual virtuosity.
Prepare to feel the cold...
- D - 24/01/16
THE BIG SHORT
The Nightmare Of Wall Street
Based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, The Big Short sees Anchorman director Adam McKay tackle the complex true story of those who predicted and profited from the 2008 financial meltdown.
The director of Anchorman? The man who also directed Talladega Nights and Step Brothers? You must be having a laugh...
No, you read that correctly... and it’s an inspired choice. McKay has crafted a postmodern black comedy that not only understands the headache-inducing complexity of the issues at hand, but boils it down to make an engrossing, if overlong film about how America got rogered.
The director fully embraces the fact that the situation is so ridiculous and the stakes so mind-bogglingly high that nervous laughter seems like the sane way to go. Fat cats are blamed, fourth walls are broken and Steve Carrell shines brightest in the terrific ensemble cast, which includes Christian Bale as a one-eyed hedge fund manager, smugness personified in the form of Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt as a bearded stock guru and Marisa Tomei as Carrell’s long-suffering wife. All are game and treated to a whip-smart screenplay from McKay and his co-scribe Charles Randolph, one which deserves plaudits aplenty for the way in which it balances the blackly comedic elements with the layered complexities of a deadly serious modern tragedy. Their adaptation of Lewis' book into a crisscrossing narrative makes a crash course in finance capitalism feel quite enticing. Granted, it often panders to those who don’t know diddly squat about financial jargon but the consequences of fraudulent and unchecked industry practices are crucially never underplayed.
While at times too didactic for its own good and not as dramatically satisfying as JC Chandor’s star-studded Margin Call, The Big Short succeeds in being a surprisingly potent and witty takedown of the predatory nightmare that is Wall Street. It is not short on surreal laughs, satirical bite or valuable insight and comfortably stands alongside Margin Call and Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job as one of the most compelling financial films since the crisis hit.
Who’s laughing now?
- D - 17/01/16
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Magnificent + 1?
Following 2013’s Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino stated in an interview that a good director should shoot at least three Westerns in his or her career. True to his word, here’s his second incursion into the genre, with a huis-clos that manages to delight as well as infuriate.
Set several years after the American Civil War, The Hateful Eight is about eight strangers stuck together in Minnie’s Haberdashery while the blizzard outside prevents them from going their own ways. All are taking shelter from the snowstorm, including Bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is bringing Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearest town of Red Rock to hang. However, a peaceful respite in a cosy wood cabin this ain’t: Ruth suspects one of the others is purposefully present and in cahoots with Domergue.
Could it be fellow bounty hunter and ex-Union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson)? Is the obnoxious, soon-to-be new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) all he says he is? Is shop-keeper Bob (Demian Bichir) hiding something or should suspicion drift towards English hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), quiet mama’s cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern)?
Backstories will cross, loyalties will be revealed and not everyone will survive the lock-in...
The tantalising premise is essentially a Western riff on Reservoir Dogs, with a touch of Agatha Christie... if Agatha Christie enjoyed a good dose of testicle-shooting, projectile blood coughing and wanton gun-toting violence.
Which I’m sure she did. The cheeky scamp.
However, the potential of the initial premise - which also echoes that tavern scene in Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds - is progressively squandered. What should have been a claustrophobic whodunit meanderingly turns into a patience-testing theatre piece, complete with repetitive soliloquizing, a damp squib of a payoff and a superfluous voiceover segment from Tarantino himself.
Careful now: The Hateful Eight isn’t Tarantino’s best but it certainly isn’t his worst. That dubious honour still goes to the unwatchable Death Proof. Performance-wise and stylistically, unlike the film’s title suggests, there isn’t anything to hate. The ensemble cast are terrific (Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Roth steal the show, while Jennifer Jason Leigh is on scenery-chewing form as the foul-mouthed narrative lynchpin), the legendary Ennio Morricone’s score is top-notch and the visuals are luscious. DP Robert Richardson makes the 70mm cinematography work wonders, from the opening mountain vistas to the confined interiors of Minnie’s Haberdashery. Add to his craft Mary Ramos’ impeccable production design and every frame looks superb.
However, The Hateful Eight does share one crucial similarity with the director’s dire 2007 Grindhouse experiment... and that’s where the hatred comes. Both films, aside from starring Kurt Russell, are highly self-indulgent, to the point audience members can legitimately sit back in their chairs and wonder whether QT is making films with an audience in mind or if he’s on a self-serving masturbatory jolly, thinking only about what gets him off without much thought as to what constitutes a tight and thrilling film. While the director's dialogue remains whip-smart and gives Jackson one of the greatest movie monologues he’s likely to get, there’s simply too much of it; there’s only so much heavy-handed speech-making a narrative can take before it becomes a hollow vessel for scriptwriting showboating.
The punishing running time (187 minutes) seems to confirm this theory, as entire swathes of the film could have been mercifully relegated to the floor of the editing suite or to the DVD extras section. Perhaps most damningly of all, if Tarantino had shown some uncharacteristic restraint with regard to the length of his film and script, the tension could have been built up to unbearable levels and his politically-tinged themes could have had more punch. As it stands, the overlong runtime waters down the suspense and effaces the depressingly relevant commentary Tarantino makes on guns and race.
During one of the numerous exchanges in the film, a character (that shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers) says that “the name of the game is patience”. While visually stunning, sonically satisfying and often hilarious, nothing resumes The Hateful Eight better than this line of dialogue. Even if Tarantino deserves praise for sticking with a genre he admires for the second time (and allowing an exceptional ensemble to share the screen), his “8th film” (*) is a step down from the heights of his recent Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. It is a mixed bag that works as a stylish theatre piece but inspires the titular hate when it comes to Tarantino’s licentious self-referencing and narratively-unfulfilling antics.
Third time’s a charm, Quentin?
(*): Mr Tarantino, I’m a fan of your films and respect your craft immensely. However, if you could stop including the self-indulgent title cards stating the chronology of your filmography, that’d be great. In this instance, The Hateful Eight includes the title card: ‘The 8th Film By Quentin Tarantino’. Now, if you’re wedded to the idea of including this somewhat pompous insert, who am I to stop you? However, just make sure YOU GET IT RIGHT AND STOP CONSIDERING KILL BILL VOL.1 AND KILL BILL VOL.2 AS ONE FILM! You decided to split them up (rightfully so considering narrative, tone and structure) and paying audience members went to the cinema twice, enjoying two separate cinematic experiences. Granted, they form a whole, but remain two separate films. Therefore, The Hateful Eight is your 9th film. No buts, no maybes: it’s your ninth. Trying to dodge this fact by doctoring the numerical facts because you have publicly stated that you’d quit filmmaking after 10 films is just petulant.
(I’m also calling it right now: if Tarantino decides to make Kill Bill Vol. 3, as he has suggested he might, he is likely to consider it a continuation of the first two, thereby a part of that same film... The day this happens, blood will start dripping from my ears.)
- D - 10/01/15
(I’m also calling it right now: if Tarantino decides to make Kill Bill Vol. 3, as he has suggested he might, he is likely to consider it a continuation of the first two, thereby a part of that same film... The day this happens, blood will start dripping from my ears.)
- D - 10/01/15