Monday, 12 January 2015

The Guest (2014)

Jesus, new surprise favourite right here.

If I'd known who Adam Wingard was before today I'd have seen this a lot sooner. Hot on the heels of You're Next, and V/H/S and V/H/S 2 Wingard produces this and adds to the list of fantastic horror-comedy films I never realised he was in charge of. It's the sort of black comedy that you'll probably only appreciate if you've watched a lot of horror movies, producing laughter at times that'll makes family members worry about you.

The Guest is a darkly violent thriller in which a soldier, just discharged from the US army, meets the family of a fellow soldier whose dying wish was that his family was taken care of. David Collins arrives in small town New Mexico and is exceedingly polite, warm and helpful. Things take a dramatic turn as David's particular brand of "help" escalate everything around the family to dreadful ends.

Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame, brings a psychotic energy to the main character. He's very polite, charming and a smooth talker, but at the drop of a hat is prone to extreme threats and even more extreme violence. In a bizarre sort of way, David isn't a bad guy despite all the atrocities he commits. He genuinely thinks he's helping because of everything he has been through. An unerring sense of loyalty to his dead friend and the family he swore to protect just makes the exciting conclusion of The Guest an even more messed up finale.

This is a brutal film. Like You're Next, there is a lot of on-screen, bloody violence. Wingard takes a different approach to combat than some of the films that obviously influenced the action scenes in other ways. It manages to achieve the same raw and harsh feel that the Bourne films have, but does so in the opposite way. Where Bourne has a shaky camera jumping all over in a frenetic craze, The Guest locks off with steady shots so you see every punch, stab and shot in visceral detail.

The Guest draws inspiration from a lot of places, action films like Bourne actually being one of the smallest contributors. There are countless pastiches and allusions to other horrors movies and directors throughout, all done fleetingly enough to not overstay their welcome or be too obvious about it. Importantly, none of these are jokes. The Guest plays it straight throughout.

 The real influences are from films like the director's previous works and some other really style-heavy films. Drive and Only God Forgives are two that the film is very reminiscent of, in soundtrack and visuals respectively. The Guest features this eerie synth-heavy soundtrack from start to finish that hits the beats perfectly. Oddly enough, most of it is played in the film itself, from the car stereo or the DJ decks or the soundtrack to a party. Seriously, the soundtrack and sound design elevate this from "pretty good" to "holy shit", and I'm not even that into synthy stuff. It takes the creepiness that Dan Stevens seems so natural at and builds a wonderful sense of dread.

Visually, the film riffs on similar levels to the soundtrack. It's so incredibly eighties in so many ways. Lots of flashing visuals, neon and bright lights punctuate the film's major setting in the desert via parties and other scenes to create this cocaine-haze of an atmosphere culminating in the mind bogglingly hectic, bright, visually delightful finale.

The Guest is a great thriller. With creepiness and dread seeping out of every pore for the first half, the payoff in the last act as everything comes to a head is totally worth it. With it's brooding synthy score and hallucinogenic visuals it's a feast for the sense. And with the correct, specifically fucked up sense of humour it'll have you laughing from start to finish.

What. The. Fuck.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Nightcrawler (2014)

For months I've been excitedly yammering from my soapbox about how fantastic Jake Gyllenhaal is and how much of a roll he is on. If anybody now questions my stance on the matter, I shall simply point them towards this film and await their grovelling apology.

This is a guy who has been making the right moves from the start and has a back catalogue to back up such a claim. Gyllenhaal's had a strong starring career spanning over a decade filled with films like Donnie Darko, Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac. His last three films were Enemy, Prisoners and End of Watch. All three of these are fantastic. It's not often that you get someone these days who is consistently in such high quality productions without selling out to either Hollywood blockbusters or easy cash cows like rom-coms. You can't get away from the fact that Prince of Persia exists, but Gyllenhaal has a filmography that will lead to many people, much like myself, looking over it and slowly coming to the realisation that he's one of the most talented actors working today.

And so, combining such a talent with a film like Nightcrawler is a guaranteed recipe for success. Nightcrawler sees Gyllenhaal as the creepy, psychopathic Lou Bloom who jumps head first into the dark underbelly of LA "nightcrawling"; the act of turning up at crime scenes, filming them and selling the footage to local news. Carjackings, home invasions, robberies, traffic accidents. All fair game. Lou takes the motto "if it bleeds, it leads" to heart and sets out on a terrifyingly escalating quest to become the best at this parasitic, leeching profession.

Lou Bloom is quite reminiscent of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) in many ways. Both are high-functioning psychopaths without any real regard for the people around them. Neither are the heroes of their stories. Both of them are likely to be held up as rolemodels for success. Neither of them should be. Both of them eschew real dialogue for verbose monologuing. Neither of them see relationships as anything other than transactions of power.

The film itself has many similarities with American Psycho as well. Where AP was a satire of 80s yuppie culture and excess, Nightcrawler is a biting attack on both the media with its voyeuristic take on tragedy and by extension the people that consume it. Where news in an idealistic world would be all factual, informative and focussed on the important issues, that's not how it works in the real world. What people want to see is something provocative and graphic. One news editor's description of her programme to Bloom hits modern TV news right on the nose: "Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the road with her throat cut".

Nightcrawler makes you very uncomfortable with a person like Lou Bloom, but he's the kind of necessary evil to produce the media society loves to consume. Any normal person would say they want to see important issues on the news: political reform, humanitarian works, corruption etc. But look around facebook and twitter and the things getting most shared are much closer to things like vigilante justice, isolated horrific incidents and the occasional heroic act of a single person. It doesn't take a genius to figure out though, that to have the footage of the cop pulling the kid out of the burning car, you had to have someone stop, not help and then get their camera out. Lou Bloom is that person. Lou Bloom makes a living out of the being that person.

Dan Gilroy made Nightcrawler as his directorial debut, and what a feature it is to debut with. The film is slick and twisted throughout. It delves deep into the nocturnal darkside of LA and its morality-free world of ambulance and cop chasers and only briefly comes up for air. Much like its main character Nightcrawler doesn't let up and doesn't let go for its entire run. It's a brutal and critical attack on the unbridled voyeuristic, spectacle obsessed media. A 21st century twist on the American Psycho taking aim at the producer and consumer of a culture rather than just the members of it. It's a completely twisted take on the quintessential American Success Story.

Nightcrawler is simply fantastic from start to finish. It was everything I expected it to be from the first time I saw the first teaser all those months ago. It's incredibly rare that I let myself get hyped up so much for something and then it actually delivers up to my expectations.

Just go see Nightcrawler. Just seriously go see it.

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.