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.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

A largely unnecessary prequel/parallequel/sequel (which actually happens before, during and after the events of the first film) that departs in quite a few ways from the first.

300: Rise of an Empire follow the campaigns of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general as he wages war against the seemingly unstoppable might of the Persian war machine's navy as King Leonidas' Spartans hold the Hot Gates against the land forces. Themistocles finds his match in Xerxes' unhinged naval commander, a traitorous Greek named Artemisia (Eva Green), as he tries to unite Greece to fight as one force against the Persian empire.

All the hallmarks of what made the first film great are present, but are either somewhat lacking or undermined by some other aspect of the film.

To give Rise of an Empire its credit though, it does look good. The stylish and slick action sequences that comprise most of the film, ducking in and out of super-slo-mo as they go, do look excellent and the same crazy excess that made the first look so good carries over. The only issue I would take with the look and visual of this installment is the colour. Where the red and gold filters of the first sat well with the visuals of the blood and glory themes, Rise of an Empire is very cold and blue. In an attempt to match the seas on which they fight for most of the film and it loses something with that. CGI blood just doesn't look as engaging when it's closer to black that red.

The biggest problem is the spot on the testosterone-fuelled blood and guts meter that the first hit so sweetly. In 300, the central characters are the Spartans: a warrior people to whom death in battle is the ultimate goal and the glory of the fight is all that matters. Led by the charismatic and ultra-masculine leader Leonidas, the ultra violence and super-glamorisation of the combat and the money shots of heads taking leave of their necks, it all makes sense then because that's what the Spartans are all about. But with Themistocles and the Athenians, everything is a little bit more political. They fight for freedom and ideals rather than just for the glory of themselves and the fight, so the gratuitousness and pleasure taken by the film makers in the violence just feels a little out of place.

So it would be fair to say that the problem is the lack of a King Leonidas. The lack of someone charismatic and crazy enough to make sense and function in the world that Zack Snyder created is the downfall. Except it's not. Because 300: Rise of an Empire has this crazy bastard at its heart:

Eva Green nails the character of Artemisia so hard you could pin a Greek skull to a ship's mast with her performance. She has that crazy, obscene and just plain terrifying quality that's just brilliantly ridiculous and could only exist in such a comic-book influenced world. She has this swaggering walk and talk that had me convinced I wanted the Persians to just steamroll the Greeks and all their moping about freedom and democracy along with them. When you put  Artemisia's absurdity next to Themistocles' maudlin moaning, all of his scenes just feel like distractions from the scenes with the more fun character.

If you seek out Rise of an Empire, don't expect much. It's still stylish and fun, but not as much as the first. Eva Green stands out as a shining light of craziness in a cast that's taking itself a bit too seriously considering there's a perfectly waxed 8 foot tall guy wandering around in his pants declaring himself a god king.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Blue Ruin (2013)

A broken man, clumsy and visceral violence and a overall atmosphere of bleak tragedy are the main ingredients for Blue Ruin; a revenge film that takes the genre in a melancholic direction and paints revenge as the dishonourable act it can be.

The with a dialogue-free sequence following the life of a drifter on the Delaware coast. He eeks out an existence metres from the joy and happiness of the fun fair on the pier. Eating out of bins, scavenging bottles to recycle for cash on the beach and breaking into homes in order to feed and clean himself make up his day-to-day existence. This broken man without purpose, Dwight, was driven to this life after a tragedy tore his family and his life apart, and now he finally has an opportunity to exact his revenge on those who robbed him.

Macon Blair plays this listless, fragmented man. His Dwight isn't the typical revenge thriller hero or anti-hero. Dwight is a man doing the only thing he thinks will make him whole again and how he deals with the fallout. He's a pitiable shell of a man who doesn't talk much and can't handle a gun. He's not a badass and this isn't Taken.

It's his ineptness that really sells the bleakness of Blue Ruin. The clumsy, and realistic, take on the violence paints the walls of the rural homes a visceral and raw shade of red. There are no drawn out fight sequences, no massive gunfights. Just scared people struggling to find a way to make themselves feel better.

Blue Ruin, with its conservative use of dialogue and uncompromising look at violent revenge, makes a beautifully tragic watch. It presents a damning indictment of America's infatuation with the right to bear arms against one another. When the truth is being decided by the person standing at the right end of the barrel, nobody really goes home a winner.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) (2007)

There isn't too much that can be said about Timecrimes without spoiling what exactly transpires in it. To put it shortly and sweetly: Timecrimes is a smart and suspenseful thriller that has an interesting take on time travel movies. It's pretty small in scale (no going back in time to save the planet) and doesn't get too convoluted to follow, a trap that many films like this fall into.

I'll go into more detail and still try to avoid spoilers below, but it really is best to go into Timecrimes completely blind.


Timecrimes is a clever film in that it plays with your expectations well and takes what you think will be a standard time travel plot and puts more than one interesting spin on it. Know-it-alls like myself will probably notice a number of things throughout and think "Well that doesn't make any sense because of [some timetravel techno-babble]" only to later be proven wrong as it all gets meticulously explained away with later developments.

That said, it is straightforward enough and not a headache to follow. It is not like Primer. Primer gets lauded constantly as the thinking man's timetravel movie, but that's just because the logic in it makes sense (i.e. you can't travel back to before the time machine was switched on) and because it's really, really complicated. I'll gladly admit to not having a clue to what exactly goes down in the last twenty minutes of that film, but thankfully I do in Timecrimes. In this case, someone literally draws a concise little diagram for it. If you can figure out a curved line and two x's then congratulations, you can follow Timecrimes.

A slippery, dark slope forms the meat of the film, as Hector tries to fix the problem's he has caused by accidentally going back in time. There are some pretty grim implications in trying to resolve things by messing with what's already happened, what has to happen and what's going to happen. But you also have the question of whether anybody is responsible for these things because didn't they have to happen to make time work? Timecrimes manages to raise some interesting questions about the notion of travelling in time, but uses a deft touch to avoid falling into the ones that can easily unravel the whole piece.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Grabbers (2012)

It's like Attack the Block, except there's a remote island instead of a city tower block and a bunch of drunks instead of chavvy kids. But there are aliens. Aliens and  comedy!

An functioning alcoholic cop and his new, over-functioning workaholic partner must work together to overcome their differences and survive the night as their isolated community comes under attack from be-tentacled aliens. Aliens that are allergic to the one thing half of the pair knows all too well.

Grabbers is a film from the comedy-horror genre and owes a lot of its existence to classics like Tremors and Eight Legged Freaks. Putting a uniquely British/Irish twist on the concept, Grabbers strikes a careful balance between tension and comedy, so much so that at some points you'll actually forget that the premise itself is completely ridiculous. The up-and-down nature of the tone lets Grabbers stand out from a lot of British/Irish comedies that usually find their humour in darkness, where here there's a good share of slapstick and just general drunken mirth.

Grabbers is simple, really simple. It's just a hell of a lot of fun. The booziest horror this side of the atlantic is probably best watched after one or two yourself, but well worth it without. It provides us with an answer that we all knew deep down: when the shit hits the fan, head to the local and wait for it all to blow over.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Restrepo (2010)

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington follow the 503rd's Second Battalion B Company into hell and showcase the horrors and realities of war for America in the 21st century.

The two film-makers were embedded with B Company on their fifteen month deployment in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, at the time dubbed "the deadliest place on Earth". Within minutes of opening, the soldiers make their first contact: an IED and gunfire rain down upon them in the first instalment of what would become, literally, a daily occurrence. US soldiers in the area were coming under fire every single day of their deployment and it was the goal of this deployment to push further into the valley and establish new outposts in lieu of a new highway being built in the future. The major outpost that they built was named in honour of one of first men they lost Private First Class Juan Restrepo.

Restrepo is cinéma vérité in its truest form. There is no narration and only a handful of notes appear on screen, and usually only to give location and time information. A few post-deployment interviews with the soldiers themselves are all that break up the in-the-field action coming straight from the battlefield. It's just the soldiers, their job and the camera.

The observational approach lends itself to the a-political nature of the job. "The War in Afghanistan" is just a something that appears on the news once or twice a week to most of us. It's something that happens over there, off screen and something we never truly see. It's all politics and words and seemingly never ending fighting. It's a world away from what actually happens. In Restrepo you just have what's in front of you and that's what's in front of the soldiers fighting this war.

What's in front of these soldiers is an arid and unforgiving valley filled with an enemy that can't be seen until he's already attacked and locals who are just doing whatever they can to not to be killed by either side. The job of this deployment is one part of a seemingly unwinnable war and these men get to work anyway. The admiration for the men featured grows as the film goes on. The hardships they endure are incredible: constant fear of attack, the uncertainty of every single day and the nagging thought that even the most capable soldier can and will risk death every day. Death is unavoidable here but B Company gets to work regardless.

The futility of some of their efforts becomes apparent at a few points throughout the film. Locals lie to them. Men are lost. Nothing new gets built. Innocent people get caught in the crossfire. They all talk of the hard work they do being necessary, and then it all being undone once the film is over and we're still waiting on the Korengal to be safe four years after the deployment rapped up.

Restrepo is an uncompromising and authentic look at what it means to be in a modern war. The politics aside, it allows an insight into what those men who stand willing to do violence in the night to protect those of us who won't. Soldiers don't join the military to protect political interests, or to dismantle governments that theirs doesn't agree with or win oilfields or whatever reasons these wars start. They join to protect the people they love and those who need protecting. You can hate the military all you like, but films like Restrepo remind us that all soldiers deserve love for their service.