The Lucky Ones (2008)


The Lucky Ones PosterDirector: Neil Burger

Release Date: September 26th, 2008 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; War

Starring: Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Peña

In the upcoming season of True Detective, Rachel McAdams will play a prickly, stoical police sheriff (or if you’re reading this after August she already has, and rather brilliantly too, right?!). That sounds like quite the departure from her character in The Lucky Ones — a soldier, tough without doubt, but whose veins pulse with good-natured naivety. Her volcanic charm is the type that could turn a long road trip into a really, really long road trip. Not here though. Not on McAdams’ watch.

She is Private first class Colee Dunn, joined on a cross country excursion by Sergeant first class Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins) and Staff sergeant T.K. Poole (Michael Peña). The trio meet at JFK airport having just finished their respective tours of duty, and opt to collectively hire a car since flights home are in short supply. What follows is a familiar voyage down the road movie genre, with periodic stops at comedic junctions and soul searching stations.

What this is not, is a war movie. The film has been criticised for not sufficiently addressing the complex issues of battle — but it simply isn’t a war movie. Certainly, the three main characters with whom we spent time are soldiers on leave, but that doesn’t mean the film has to ruminate about the war they’re presently separated from. Colee and company discuss it, sure. They feel the weight of its heavy baggage at times. But hey, maybe they’re just people. Two normal guys and one normal girl, each trying to reacclimatise to the real world. Struggling, often comically, sometimes painfully.

T.K. is the brash macho-type who subdues authenticity. We first see him inside a tank spouting tasteless jibes about women, before debris from an explosion renders him impotent. His lack of functionality becomes a recurring joke that eventually finds resolution in the film’s worst scene — a poorly executed tornado forces Colee and T.K. into a claustrophobic drain pipe, and it’s really cringe-worthy. Peña undercuts most of the unlikeable traits often attributed to those “macho-types” by delivering a fairly nuanced performance. At one point his character awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, clearly still troubled by the blast, and can only mutter a, “You know… sorry,” when questioned by Colee.

She is the most engaging of the three. McAdams has real presence, lighting up the screen every time she appears. Colee is the buffer between humour and emotion, her wide-eyed lack of cynicism both refreshingly authentic and solemnly disheartening. “That girl’s living in a dream world,” T.K. asserts, and it’s true. She lugs around the guitar of her close friend Randy who died on duty, aiming to return the instrument to his family in Las Vegas. Though Colee has never met them, she is driven by the hope that they’ll let her stay. She exudes so much positivity that we start to buy into her crazy plan. It’s the potential prize at the end of the rainbow, a treasure that differs from the materialistic hoards prevalent in other road trip movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Rat Race.

Quite the opposite is Tim Robbins’ Fred, or Cheaver, since he is the elder statesman of the group. A modest guy looking to get away from active combat, Cheaver rolls into family despair near the beginning of the journey. He is definitely the unluckiest — though the other two aren’t exactly wearing rabbit’s feet — and Robbins succinctly captures this turmoil. There are similarities to be drawn with Sam Jaeger’s Take Me Home as far as character relationships go, where petty squabbles inevitably evolve into admiration and understanding.

That film’s aimless quality is also apparent — the men constantly say they “don’t have time” to indulge Colee’s sight-seeing desires, but they’re not actually going anywhere. In a way they have all the time in the world, but the guys are too obsessed with achieving an end goal that probably doesn’t actually exist. Though their plot construction could be questioned, director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn’s character creation is effective. Just like in the army, the trio grow to rely upon each other — monetarily, emotionally, and intellectually — a conclusion arrived at with sincerity.

To the film’s credit it doesn’t spend two hours achingly debating the woes war. However, it opts not to ignore the pitfalls either. America becomes part of a clinical world that the army-goers aren’t used to (“You’re at a disadvantage if you don’t master your computer skills”). Bystanders and acquaintances constantly thank them for their efforts abroad, but it’s all platitudinal. Yet it doesn’t feel like The Lucky Ones is trying to emulate the rich verve of something like a Sideways. When the movie threatens too much seriousness it quickly scrambles back under its light-hearted comfort blanket, embodied in a scene where life reflections are interrupted by a penis balloon joke.

Nibbles of narrative stupidity are glibly accepted as a given by the screenwriters. A customer service employee grants the group a car due to their army credentials, even though the only vehicle remaining belongs to the employee’s airport boss. Problems that arise often bear very simple solutions, these problems too easily erected in the first place (Cheaver’s son gets accepted into Stanford University but needs to cough up $20,000 in tuition fees). The film chooses to manoeuvre its way around simple answers through comedy: Randy’s guitar would solve Cheaver’s monetary problems, but Colee amusingly decides to cry rather than oblige.

Though the actual trip part of The Lucky Ones does run into a few roadblocks — it’s not as funny as it should be, nor as emotionally-involving — the characters behind the wheel are wholly accommodating. Besides, who doesn’t want to watch a movie where Rachel McAdams plays an impulsive Southerner with more charm in one glance than a machine gun has bullets?

The Lucky Ones - McAdams & Pena

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

21 (2008)


21 PosterDirector: Robert Luketic

Release Date: March 28th, 2008 (US); April 11th, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth

When it comes to playing cards there are two ways a trick can go wrong. A plethora of impressive skills, perhaps including some nifty sleight of hand, culminating in unexpected disaster. That’s the first. The finale is disappointing, but at least you get the temporary thrill of expectation. The second revolves around a bland illusion. When a trick hits all of the correct spots yet fails to sparkle. 21 is a bland card trick. Its deceptively pacey opening hints at promise however, when the hands have been laid and the chips counted, Robert Luketic’s film amounts to nothing more than a serviceable few hours.

Inspired by true events, 21 tells the tale of six MIT students and their advantageous teacher who coalesce together in order to pull off card counting blackjack victories. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is the team’s newest recruit, having joined in a desperate attempt to fund his Harvard dream. Though the Las Vegas voyagers get off to a successful start, rising tensions begin to chisel away at the group’s policy that denounces in-game emotion, and their cover is threatened.

If you struggled to follow any of the poker lingo in the opening paragraph, 21 will probably have you pulling your hair out after half an hour. (I’m almost bald now). The first few frames are snappy and strategy-led, though quite unnecessary given the content is repeated later on. In short, infrequent bursts, detailing the logistics of what our characters are doing is fine. The nature of the narrative needs some exposition to keep the film bubbling along. But we hear about rules and game play so often, and without vindication too. The film isn’t about blackjack — it isn’t about anything really — blackjack is simply a means to an end. That is how the characters see things (“It’s just business”) and it should be how we see them too. Unfortunately, writers Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb get too caught up in the explanation part that they forget about storytelling. It’s all a blur, really: stat crunching, pluses, minuses, attributing animals to numbers. Who cares?

This need to accurately relay the ins and outs of the gambling world leaves little room for narrative clarity, ushering forth an enormous helping of laziness. Coincidence is rampant from the get-go; “The Robinson is going to someone who dazzles,” a Harvard representative informs Ben, giving him his only motivation to cheat. If that wasn’t cheap enough, the interviewer goes on to tell Ben he needs more life experience. Money and life experience, huh? If only there was a quick-fix solution to both. Good thing our lead is intelligent as well, otherwise we’d be spending almost two hours — a ridiculously long run time — watching him pay his way to Harvard in a suit store. We never really believe in Kevin Spacey’s teacher by day, Vegas kingpin by night either. You’d think a flustered student would have ratted him out by now. Navigating the outing’s incredulity becomes increasingly arduous as the events dive deeper.

Kevin Spacey is pretty good though. Perhaps there is an element of phoning it in going on, but the actor’s charisma works wonders for his character even if it does accentuate the mundanity of those around him. His delivery strikes as quite perceptive on occasion. Presumably he is aware of the invariably groan-inducing dialogue. (“Ben, let the car drive by itself,” says Micky after hearing about his student’s attempt to create a self-driving car). The other performers tough it out, but they can’t overcome the bland material. Jim Sturgess is okay as the main player, never threatening to erupt from his character’s generic chains. It is worth pointing out Josh Gad, who is quite amusing as Ben’s obnoxious best mate.

The characters join the plot in the doldrums of commonality. We’ve seen it all before: the group member who succumbs to jealousy; the friend left hanging in the lurch; the suave leader with ulterior motives; the hard-to-get girl whose beauty matches her romantic indecision. Sure, 21 looks alright when the gang reach Las Vegas but even then there are so many aerial shots that we begin to wonder if the director simply has no idea what to do next. Since there is inability to conjure up any emotional connection, the filmmakers recruit surface elements to grab our attention. The bright lights and quick edits fail to yield pizazz, and even a fairly sparky soundtrack feels diluted amongst the mechanical air.

Laurence Fishburne shows up every now and again and effectively sums up the film’s failures. He plays casino security chief Cole Williams, and his moral stance is never really unfurled. Cole hates the incoming modernisation — he’s an old school guy, preferring film to digital — and the soon to be implemented facial recognition software is sure to leave him out of a job. The guy is a dick though, more or less working the antagonist role opposite our card counting clan. It is conceivable that Cole’s ambiguity is a reflection of dubious actions elsewhere, and gambling in general, but that is probably awarding too much credit to an otherwise uninspired production. So we don’t care about him.

21 is eternally insipid. Everything from plot to character diversity reeks of carefulness, even the group’s motto is tedious. (“Don’t get caught counting”). Kevin Spacey provides the occasional spark that the piece seeks dearly. It wishes to dazzle, some might say, but eventually peters out. I’m still trying to figure out why an underground gambling hub exists in a Chinese restaurant.

21 - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Vulture

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

The Mist (2007)


The Mist PosterDirector: Frank Darabont

Release Date: November 21st, 2007 (US); July 4th, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Thomas Jane, Laurie Holden, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones

The Mist trundles along quite tediously throughout its opening 10 minutes. The acting is overplayed and stodgy, relationships are too obvious and the dialogue is half way towards egregious. Then we head into town, to the supermarket, where Toby Jones appears and everything subsequently kicks off. Mr. Jones probably isn’t the reason for the immediate turn around in quality, though I’d be willing to bet he is part of it. Rather, it’s Frank Darabont’s screenplay that ushers forth this change. Those first few scenes were likely crummy on purpose, as a means to lure us into a false sense of security. Because otherwise there’s no security here. Things get worse before getting worse still. The Mist fails to attain horror perfection but what it does do is generate a very authentic sense of social familiarity surrounded by science-fiction monstrosities. And that is impressive.

After a freak storm runs rampant in a small town, various residents decide to visit the local supermarket and stock up on supplies. Among them are David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble), however their grocery trip soon devolves into chaos as danger-infested mist sweeps across the area. The group now trapped and anxious, it soon becomes clear that the mist isn’t the only simmering menace.

Before the crisis has grown legs, we dip in and out of numerous brief conversations that take place around the supermarket. It’s akin to a smattering of personality tastings, writer and director Frank Darabont teasing us with the potential for clashes that may or may not arise. Shortly thereafter, a warning klaxon moans out with a distressing echo and a bloody-faced man runs maniacally into the store. (“Something in the mist!”) This sequence is an excellent preparatory slice that establishes the tone going forward: brooding and culturally influenced. See, though this is an outstanding horror candidate, it’s not necessarily scary because of the fog or the monsters that roam inside. The Mist is frightening due to its stark portrayal of humanity come undone. Just how far will humankind plunge in its most testing moment?

The populace picture that follows isn’t exactly pristine; what threatens to simply be a scare-fest swiftly matures into a community drama driven by the unravelling of social status feuds. The supermarket houses a wide range of contrasting citizens, some characters amped up to 11 but all recognisable nonetheless. Debates slowly simmer before raging on with a high intensity and it is the product of these disagreements that horrifies us. Darabont’s screenplay adeptly includes religion, politics and class — they’re all in here. Whilst the religious element frequently takes a front seat, the director skilfully navigates any possible obstacles of audience alienation by placing utmost focus on the people. Though religion is the vehicle for hate, it’s not the agent. Humanity is, and this is an attack on folk being bad within the context of desperation. Collective counterculture in its most horrendous form.

What we have then is a patient and precise narrative, one that knows when to reveal and when to refrain. Fairly early on, we worry that the monster in the mist has been unveiled too soon, a worry that quickly proves to be unjustified. The aliens aren’t necessarily the issue. In some ways the mist is a metaphor for the cloudiness of humanity; enter the swelling smog and things can only get worse, or avoid it — in other words, promote honesty amongst your peers — and life will be alright. Toby Jones’ Ollie says it best: “As a species we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”

Jones is really good. His character is the most normal, a typical assistant manager who’s a tad overweight and generous with his time. He strikes up an alliance with Thomas Jane’s painter David and a number of other hopeful victims. Jane is a solid lead on the journey, so much so that his dependability factor is eventually usurped by a genuinely powerful emotional outburst. Laurie Holden plays primary school teacher Amanda, her relationship with David one that hints at romance without ever acting upon anything. It is worth pointing out the lack of romance throughout the film: aside from a speedily adjourned kiss there’s none to be had, perhaps another indication of the overarching negative vibe. The most effective performance emanates from Marcia Gay Harden as local religious nut Mrs. Carmody. Harden throws herself full pelt into the role, as someone who degenerates from harmlessly deranged to eerily psychotic to absurdly vile. Although there are a large number of peripheral characters, the potency of a few outweighs the flimsiness of many.

On a technical level, The Mist is efficiently purveyed. Rohn Schmidt’s cinematography shows traces of his work on The Walking Dead (ironically, he’s only one of many here who would eventually swap mist for zombies) and reflects the terror of events succinctly. It’s sufficiently gory without being too upfront, and the alien creatures look rather impressive. The camera makes an effort too, its aggressive movements creating a very chaotic atmosphere. On the other hand music hardly conjures a bar, Darabont instead finding solace in silence and substantial dialogue.

Having said that, the implementation of Dead Can Dance’s “The Host of Seraphim” to hauntingly serenade the film’s final scene is an inspired decision. Much has been made about The Mist’s conclusion. In brief, the ending works. It’s real life, if real life involved aliens and hopelessness. Admirably — and somewhat horrendously — there is no shirking away. But the less said about it the better.

The Mist currently stands as Frank Darabont’s last directorial effort and it’s a worthy swan song. This should come as no surprise given the filmmaker’s track record — The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, to name but a few. The Mist is a methodological piece, one that unfolds with great purpose and honesty. It might encase humanity in an exceedingly gloomy shell, but in the dire circumstances presented who’s to say that this forecast is unfounded?

The Mist - Laurie Holden

Images credit: IMP Awards, Horrorphile

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Dimension Films

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: June 19th, 2009 (UK); June 24th, 2009 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox

When it comes to giant robots hitting each other, this is more horrific and dim than Pacific Rim. After being punched illegally below the belt last time, we’ve carelessly staggered back for round two where everything is bigger, louder and even more insulting. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then, hones in on a once universal toy that has moved on from mild swearing to juvenile leg humping. Michael Bay’s second instalment looks neat for a while but once the materialistic disguise wears away we’re left with an outing that makes up for in immaturity what it loses in efficiency.

There is no structure here. No beginning, middle and end. It’s just a mass of special effects that progressively squanders specialness and a bunch of indecipherable machines who relentlessly fritter away parts. At two and a half hours long and over $200 million spent, Revenge of the Fallen simply isn’t good enough.

A few years have passed since the events in Transformers. Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is heading off to college, Mikaela (Megan Fox) is fixing vehicles and the Decepticons are looking for another reason to attack. Fortunately, a piece of the cube from the last film innocuously falls from an old T-shirt in Sam’s closet (imagine that!), setting in motion a series of events involving odd symbolic visions, the Pyramids of Giza, Optimus Prime and stealing the Sun. Or something.

Humans and Autobots now work together as part of a military NEST branch that targets Decepticons. Straight away, we see Autobots project the form of attractive females. A few scenes and countless soaring fireballs later (Bay can only withstand five minutes without including an explosion this time) the focus shifts to Megan Fox suggestively bending over a motorcycle, because that’s how mechanics roll in her neck of the woods. At least we know where we stand. The Transformers trademark has transformed from a children’s plaything to an adrenaline-fuelled macho void, and for absolutely no justifiable reason. Bay even uses college sex as an excuse to unleash his beloved brand of action-packed booms. His woman characters — because, let’s be honest, nobody else would dehumanise the female gender like this — are sold as nothing more than window dressing to pull in adolescents who know no better. Rachael Taylor’s smart scientist is out, services no longer required. Too intelligent obviously. Her substitute is Isabel Lucas, who exists solely to have a thing for Shia LaBeouf. Do the Oscars give out an award for misogyny?

The film is even more of a mess than its predecessor. From start to finish proceedings play out as a constant battle where the only people who care about civilian fatalities less than us are the filmmakers. “Worldwide casualties are in the neighbourhood of 7000,” we hear before the outing hastily returns to what’s important (loud bangs). The conclusion of this continuous war is a human versus robot encounter that is outrageously implausible even within the context of maximum implausibility. Though, it is rather poetic that the main monster here takes the form of an enormous hoover, particularly given Revenge of the Fallen is a total moral-vacuum. A National Security Advisor shows up at one point to explain the details of what happened previously. The moment actually works on two pathetic levels: both as a quick fix for those who avoided the first film and as a driving force for this film’s narrative. Essentially, Bay relies on simplifying that which is already simple because he feels it’s the only way his audience can understand the plot.

The piece even begins to suffer in the only area where it normally impresses. Sure, the visuals are pristinely executed and rather impressive for a while, but the mystique soon dissolves in favour of splurging cinematic yuck. A spread of music videoitis is rife; the camera simply cannot sit still and instead consistently circles characters in tandem with puppet string musical interludes. There’s never a hair out of place as good looking people appear even better looking and the average Joe doesn’t exist. We’re even rewarded with moments of slow motion, bestowing a longer life span upon the explosions. Ben Seresin’s cinematography is so obviously trying to impress that it manifests as desperate. And still, sequences unfurl with ugliness — watch out for the Decepticons landing sloppily on Earth.

Revenge of the Fallen is actually at its best when the Transformers aren’t around, when what’s playing out on screen is an awkward family comedy. Driven by stupid humour, the sequences involving Sam and his parents are the most entertaining. Kevin Dunn and Julie White offer brief junctures of light relief as Mr and Mrs Witwicky. (In truth, these sparsely spread few seconds go down like a glass of ice cold water in the desert). Shia LaBeouf annoys a tad more than in the first film, but it’s unfair to chastise him for the all-encompassing faults strangling a severely lacking script. Megan Fox has even less to do than in the first flick, if that’s possible.

It might not be a total money-making scheme yet — that’s the next one — but Revenge of the Fallen is undoubtedly the grandest black hole in a star-destroying franchise. Nothing’s salvageable from the wreckage. This is cinematic homicide and Michael Bay is guilty as charged.

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen - Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Transformers (2007)


Transformers PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: July 3rd, 2007 (US); July 27th, 2007 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel

It’s Transformers week everybody! Indeed, unlike you lucky people across the Atlantic who’ve had a whole seven days to digest Michael Bay’s latest installment of metal mayhem, for us cinema folk here in the UK Transformers: Age of Extinction is hot off the press. I’ve not seen it yet. (Admittedly, the robustness of the word “yet” in that sentence is questionable.) To tell you the truth, I’m not a great admirer of Bay’s adopted franchise. It all started in 2007.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is a stereotypical boy teenager. He’s into cars, girls and late-19th century exploration. Perhaps that last attribute isn’t the most applicable to a male adolescent, but it’s part of an eccentric mosaic that sets Sam apart from the rest. It could simply be a feeble plot point, but who am I to judge. Certainly, Sam has a crush on his classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) but the only way he’s going to get her attention is with an engine.

Turns out his new car is a Transformer. There’s a multitude of other stuff going on — political struggles, technological misfire, a band of surviving soldiers in Qatar (that’s in the Middle East, by the way), the arrival of evil Decepticons, the arrival of friendly Autobots — but at its most basic, and this film is rather basic, Transformers is about giant robots punching and kicking and wheeling each other.

Director Michael Bay cannot contain himself. His immaturity spills out across the screen from the get-go: a gravelly, deep voice kicks off proceedings ushering in the overly macho tone; an array of snazzy camera angles each act as a sales pitch for the next military helicopter; it only takes six and half minutes for the first (and second, third, fourth) explosion to shake the screen. Bay absolutely has a way with visuality. He’s able to create carnage that looks impressive and that sounds impressive. But it’s all very movie trailer-esque, as if we’re watching a feature length advert for the next blockbuster only it’s stuck on a loud, grating loop.

Substance would take a back seat if the back seat still existed — Megatron probably crushed it. He, or it, is the villain. Adversary of the human-appreciating Optimus Prime who arrives promptly with his band of misfit car pretenders to save the day. They’re robots though, and they’re not blanketed in enough development to make us care. Nor are the human characters and, although the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox (she’s far from the worst thing in this film) amass their very best collective effort to generate some sort of viewer connection, one doesn’t exist.

It could be that goings-on shimmer with an unhealthy sheen of artifice. The CGI looks good but ultimately acts as a momentary veil over the real problem: shallowness. There are four female characters dotted throughout the almost two and a half hour runtime. That’s about one for every six male. (At least, males with lines.) We’ve got two mothers who seldom appear, a smart analyst played efficiently by Rachael Taylor who’s treated as though she’s dumb despite being the smartest of the pack, and Megan Fox whose role is almost entirely based on her cosmetic allure. The US President doesn’t make a full-body appearance but we do hear him mutter some chauvinist line to a flight attendant — oops, there’s a fifth female.

There’s arguably an even larger issue at hand here and it’s to do with us, the audience. But what audience? It’s eternally tough to care about giant car shape-shifters because they do little else but fight, so in that sense Transformers might not be for me. I’m not into meaningless vehicular smackdown, that’s fine. It’s a film for kids then, one for the younger boys and girls who do get a genuine kick out of that sort of thing. Only there’s Megan Fox bending over car bonnets. And hold on a minute, those child-friendly robots have started swearing now. It’s only mild here, but the defamation of what once was a children’s 80s cartoon flick and toy line is catapulted into the next stratosphere in Transformers 2 and 3. There obviously is an audience for the franchise, it’s already made over two billion dollars worldwide, but the respect between filmmaker and his viewership is seemingly only half-mutual. (Come on Michael, we know Qatar is in the Middle East).

The aforementioned runtime is also unnecessary, particularly when scenes involving irrelevant clothes removal and lamppost handcuffing take up five minutes of screen time. This is the director at optimum indulgence. It’s more boring than annoying. In Michael Bay’s material world where only good-looking people exist and big booming fireballs carry more weight than sturdy narrative, Transformers is probably a masterpiece. In the real world, it’s a film that alienates the young audience it should be targeting in favour of a guaranteed cash prize.

Early on Mikaela’s jock boyfriend says, “Oh no, this is not a toy”. He’s talking about a car and he’s completely right. Transformers ain’t a toy anymore. The innocence is gone.

Note: This was originally posted over at Movie Pilot, where you’ll find more articles and reviews from myself, plus the occasional poll. We all love polls, right?

Transformers - Michael Bay

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures

Bowling for Columbine (2002)


Bowling for Columbine PosterDirector: Michael Moore

Release Date: October 11th, 2002 (US limited); November 15th, 2002 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; History

Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary, somewhat pithily christened Bowling for Columbine, is undoubtedly a seminal piece. For Moore personally, it gained the director an Academy Award and the chance to extend some sentiments splashed throughout his film to a plush Hollywood crowd in LA’s Kodak Theatre. (Some booed, some cheered, Tommy Lee Jones probably sat stone-faced.) It also smashed international box office records in places such as the United Kingdom upon release, becoming the financial brass ring to which other documentaries aspired — ironically, Moore would go on to eclipse himself with Fahrenheit 9/11.

Though, carrying more importance than these aforementioned amenities, Bowling for Columbine debates unavoidable issues that are still firmly rooted in the bricks and mortar of society. And Moore frequently wins. His film is a bit of ego-trip, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the chief’s unwavering histrionics often inject a tragically informative piece with a comedic edge. That being said, his manifesto is never relinquished in favour of entertainment. Notwithstanding the occasional needless tactic, Bowling for Columbine successfully eradicates the clouds that surround its thought-provoking themes. What’s presented, in turn, rains with disquieting reality.

Moore targets gun crime and, in doing so, uses the 1999 Columbine High School massacre as the seed from which each of his arguments grow. The film is a generally political, sporadically cultural and universally societal look at trigger-happy violence in America and its central question is: Why? Why did thirteen innocent people die at school? And why is America’s gun crime resoundingly higher than the rest of the world’s?

Each argument is an extension of the last, and his agents of remonstration spread fairly far. We begin down a bowling alley and conclude in the company of Charlton Heston. Moore strives to maintain a potent arc along his two hour discussion and more or less accomplishes this. He links each chapter well — the revolver road-trip stops off at a variety of places, from a rifle-offering bank to the house of a man whose participation in the Oklahoma City bombing was once in question — and, in doing so, implements a solid narrative structure. There are a few rocky detours that see some less-effective moments; an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesperson is a bit flimsy. Moore disguises any unsatisfactory points though. He shrewdly converses with the right people as a means to substantiate his own agenda. Which is fine, it doesn’t negatively affect the arguments presented because an authentic base is already in place.

That base is Columbine. Although the film isn’t about the actual shooting — Moore’s decision not to stray down what would have been an easily rewarding path, in terms of emotional gravitas, is admirable — the tragedy is always lingering in the background. In fact, the director actually references the location of Columbine High School at one point, indicating that its direct centrality amongst discussion involving guns, bombs and violence isn’t simply metaphorical. Given the very real presence of the atrocity, notions of disgust and negativity towards gun culture are already firmly embedded in our minds. Moore’s numerous assertions against said culture, therefore, are instantly credible.

A particular sequence intended to give an overview of Columbine is inherently powerful, but not exploitative. There’s no argument-shilling at this point, only a picture of humankind at its most despicable. It’s so disgruntling that the subsequent scene might implore the viewer to detest one of cinema’s most iconic figures in a swift rifle-raising action and four contextually chilling words (“Over my dead body”) — just one example of Kurt Engfehr’s wholly astute editing that motions proceedings along at an engaging pace.

Music is also effectively enforced. The now infamous “What a Wonderful World” montage would be quite amusing if it weren’t steeped in such fraught subject matter. Indeed, Bowling for Columbine thrives on destitute comedy. One of the earliest examples sets the darkly humorous prerogative; Moore enters a bank and opens an account in order to obtain a free gun. After a few minutes where the staff aren’t paraded in a particularly flattering light, Moore exits, rifle aloft. The scene is too outrageous to fully comprehend — its authenticity has been disputed in one of many controversies since release — but the filmmaker doesn’t pass up an opportunity for funny. (“D’you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”)

The climate of fear is a prominent thread throughout. Does Moore blame guns? Not entirely. It’s the gun culture. The media scaremongering. Even the US government’s foreign policy hailing a bomb as a solution, according to Moore. These collectively add up to the main source of gun-related disaster in America. Today, over a decade later, Moore still flaunts this strongly asserted claim: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” One of the film’s most compelling parts is an interview with Marilyn Manson, whose well-formed explanation in regards to media exploitation is practical and persuasive. (We hear that crime is down by 20%, but television coverage is up by 600%.)

It’s all going swimmingly until a K-Mart segment towards the film’s conclusion. Shadowed by two victims of Columbine, Moore leads his verbal assault against the store. It almost comes around in the end, but by then Moore’s ego is edging towards the spotlight. Only, rather than positively affecting proceedings, this time his overly aggressive personality is distracting. However it should be noted that the stunt’s positive outcome absolutely justifies the slightly crass piece of filmmaking from which it spawns.

Overall, Moore completes a stellar job of informing and convincing. Despite sporadically venturing down peripheral avenues, the film holds together tightly and is even genuinely funny at times. Ultimately though, this is a damning indictment on not just America but society as a whole, exposing us at our very worst. If Bowling for Columbine was evidence in humanity’s trial, we’d be guilty as charged.

Bowling for Columbine - Moore

Images credit: IMP Awards, WhatCulture

Images (©): United Artists

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)


Dear Zachary PosterDirector: Kurt Kuenne

Release Date: January, 2008 (Slamdance Film Festival); February 22nd, 2010 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Crime; Drama

How does one review a terribly sad personal visual tribute? It’s somewhat ironic that Kurt Kuenne’s diary of tragedy is such a labour of love, the filmmaker having traversed across the United States, Canada and even the United Kingdom to create his piece. But perhaps the irony is misplaced. Undoubtedly, Dear Zachary is profusely powerful and heart-wrenching, but it’s also a story about living. About loving.

Kuenne’s efforts are splashed across every frame (and every videotape stashed inside a box in the back of his vehicle) and it’s apt that by injecting so much passion Kuenne receives even more in return. The man at the centre of events is Andrew Bagby, the director’s dear friend and a victim of inhumanity, but someone who seemingly revelled in quite the opposite.

In early November 2001, Andrew Bagby was murdered. A medical student from California, the reach of his inherent popularity is made evident through the filmmaker’s interviews with a whole host of friends, family and colleagues. We’re informed that the collection of life recollections are for Zachary, Andrew’s unborn son at the time of his death.

There’s no real urgency to critique this film. Nor, truthfully, is there a need. But in a pithily vain attempt, here goes anyway. Technically, it serves a purpose: to clearly and concisely recount a story. We’re plunged into a moment in time, information about the person and subsequent criminal investigation gallivanting left and right. It’s difficult to chew on all of the data first time around which is why Kuenne navigates a narrative roundabout once or twice. The thing is, what we’re learning about is not simply narrative. It’s real life, and that’s why critically assessing events feels a tad unwarranted.

We’re taken completely aback because the story is shocking. We’re overcome by emotion because the account is upsetting. We’re rendered unequivocally resentful because the tragedy is unjust. Kuenne’s direction (in fact his everything: he’s also editor, cinematographer, writer and more) is deft; though we’ve a lot to consume, the presentation is done in such a way that we’re willing to engage and become attached to those on screen. We enter familial homes either side of the Atlantic and feel totally welcome, as if individually invited into them for a brief period of time. While the content is personal, the way in which it’s displayed is personable and therefore, at just over an hour and a half, proceedings seem to fly by.

Rumbling like a pitch black storm cloud alongside both the hearty family memoirs and some joyous and often amusing archive footage that shows Andrew’s attempts at acting for his best friend’s home-made short films, is the harrowing topic of Andrew’s untimely death. Though it feels rather flippant to discuss such a tragedy using obsolete language, this part of the documentary plays out like a fictitious crime-drama. It’s unbelievable. As the minutes tick away each discomforting revelation trumps the one preceding until the film reaches breaking point. If you watch the outing armed with prior knowledge of events, hearing them being discussed by Andrew’s loved ones will undoubtedly be disconcerting. Viewing Dear Zachary without any previous awareness of the subject though, is truly distressing. There’s no hiding that. This is a tough ninety minutes.

Criticising Kurt Kuenne’s intimate gift is not something on the agenda, nor should it be. Having said that, it’d be disingenuous not to point out a specific section that might sit uneasily with some. (As it does with me.) There is one moment that doesn’t altogether mesh well with what surrounds it, given how lovingly the remainder of the film is relayed. A particularly brash montage showing certain images and bolstered by grunge-like music is quite confrontational. Though, perhaps it should be. And there’s no arguing against the fact that its inclusion is absolutely with the filmmaker’s best intentions. Indeed, on the contrary, it represents the contextual horrors aptly.

As the film proceeds, it becomes drastically obvious just how wide Andrew’s web of affection had — and still does — stretch. From his parents, to a former fiancée, to English cousins, to criminal lawyers, a great number of people offer their own universally earnest and affectionate experiences shared with the medical student. The interviews, naturally, have a two-fold effect. In one of the film’s most chilling moments, Andrew’s justifiably distraught father explodes in a fit of sheer loathing and it is in this action, more than any, that we get a stark sense of just how much the tragedy and all resultant enquiries have affected those close to him.

You can’t put a price on a family heirloom and, in essence, Dear Zachary is a preemptive visual legacy. Thus assigning stars almost seems unnecessary. The film is rate-less. It’s Andrew Bagby’s story told by one of his closest friends, and it’s a troublesome watch. Hopefully, rightfully, the positive aspects prevail.

Dear Zachary - Kurt and Andrew

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Oscilloscope Laboratories

Sunshine (2007)


Sunshine PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

Release Date: April 5th, 2007 (UK); July 20th, 2007 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Bryne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh

Quite appropriately, Sunshine spends a significant amount of time focusing on the eyes of its pawns. Sometimes a pair will fill the entire screen, strained with sentiment either good or bad, though often the latter. On occasion, they will fight menacingly through an iffy transmission from another spacecraft and act as a warning. The Sun allures them with its fiery aesthetic and unwavering appeal. Without hesitation, characters ask, “What do you see?” in moments of impending demise as if nothing else matters in the universe. Look, even, at the poster. Yielding a blazing visual palette and dreamt up by the mind’s eye of screenwriter Alex Garland, the film is a sci-fi celebration, though you won’t see much celebrating. Riddled with mystery and psychological incoherence, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine floats very close to the sublime.

It is 2057 and an ominous solar winter has a stranglehold on Earth. Aboard Icarus II, a team of eight personnel are voyaging to the dying Sun with one aim: to reignite it. Carrying a nuclear payload, the crew only have one chance to hit their target and, given the operation’s purely theoretical prerogative, those odds aren’t as robust as the situation warrants. Upon discovering the location of Icarus I — a prior failed mission — physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) recommends taking a detour in order to attain another bomb, and another attempt.

Though his portfolio doesn’t suggest much science-fiction enthusiasm, Danny Boyle’s admiration for the genre fireballs from the screen here. There are elements of seminal space cinema splashed all over Sunshine. From the vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the fraught psychology depicted in Solaris, to Event Horizon’s incessantly doomed outlook, Boyle’s take on sci-fi pays homage to a plethora of greats. But it does more than that. This isn’t simply a historical Pick ‘n’ Mix of stars and planets, rather it incorporates the genre’s best components with subtlety and proceeds to tell a new story. We do not witness Capa and company enter a separate desolate spacecraft and subsequently become overwhelmed by thoughts of Event Horizon because Boyle does not allow it. The Brit always has control and his film always has us transfixed, not by inter-genre nods, but by an ever-enveloping tension and disconcerting mystique — in truth, the film refrains from sparing us any time to consider references until long after the credits have rolled (I’m recounting citations right now).

The director employs traits familiar to him, such as gritty realism and terminal dejection, and combines them with far more expansive notions that pit science against religion. In between philosophical conversations (“A new star born out of a dying one, I think it will be beautiful — no, I’m not scared”) crew members discuss the practicalities of their predicament: oxygen supply levels, or the Sun’s angle. Astronauts aside, we cannot relate to the quandary in which those aboard Icarus II find themselves, but we can ascribe to the pragmatic mindset that they often reverberate. The characters are normal people. Yes, they are each excessively intelligent and well-versed in specialist areas. But despite floating many miles above in space, they remain grounded — we have to take each individual at face value as none of their past lives are explained. You can forget surnames too: Cassie, Harvey and Mace will do just fine. These are ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance, decision-making dictated by scenario and each individual just as vulnerable as any of us would be.

The characters’ incomplete personal logs contribute to another of the film’s successful narrative strands: a growing sense of tension. This is not a horror film yet it bears a variety of horrifying aspects, one of which is personnel ambiguity. Since we only know that which is in front of our eyes and nothing more, it is plausible to us that any member of the team could snap at any given moment. Boyle explores isolation and the subsequent psychological trauma faced by those disconnected from civilisation, a concept captured magnanimously by one character’s reaction to the decimation of a homely, naturalistic oxygen garden. As Icarus II advances closer to its destination (“Entering the dead zone”) a haunting strain is emitted, one that is eerie and difficult to pinpoint. Searle, the vessel’s doctor, becomes increasingly transfixed by the Sun which appears to be hauling the spacecraft ever-nearer to imminent death.

A slight tonal shift occurs in tandem alongside the crew’s interactions with the ill-fated Icarus I. From a tantalising slow-burner, proceedings deviate towards disorientating terror. The final act is probably the film’s weakest, but it is by no means a weak offering. If anything, the conclusion ushers in greater mythological tendencies spearheaded by religious impetus (in Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the Sun). Perhaps it is only fitting that a narrative adjacent to the heavens should juggle Godly morals. Nevertheless Boyle, a man with religious associations himself, ensures that Sunshine does not become overburdened by spirituality and instead strikes a wholesome balance between the film’s various thematic veins.

A scorching visual gloss is as all-encompassing as it is magnificent. The dark and inherently inanimate interior of Icarus II seems to not only seep from the crew’s mellow demeanour, but also abets an air of warped uncertainty. Battling to infect the spacecraft’s overcast insides is the Sun; rays burning with unlimited effervescence, so much so that you will be rolling up those sleeves in a desperate plea for cool air. Accompanying the wonderful cinematography is John Murphy’s tender-yet-lofty score that shines brightest towards the Sunshine’s concluding chapter.

Cillian Murphy leads the way as Capa, whose contemplative nature suggests that only he is truly aware of the task’s magnitude. The skill here is in generating a sense of normality and the best plaudit that can be awarded to Murphy — a generally charming presence — is that he emphatically portrays a professional physicist. Capa may partake in a few scuffles with Chris Evans’ Mace, but other than that he is plainly a physicist driven by nuclear properties and measurements. The aforementioned Chris Evans does well in a slightly different role as the morally strict engineer whose sole focus is the success of the mission. The other noteworthy performance comes from Rose Byrne as vessel pilot Cassie. Bryne develops a solid equilibrium between strong-willed and sensitive, and also strikes up a believable dynamic with Murphy, one that would undoubtedly be romantic in another environment.

Capa’s opening monologue outlines one purpose: “To create a star within a star.” Boasting admirable scope, a tense and engaging atmosphere, and a variety of well-oiled thematic roots relevant to the genre, Sunshine is undoubtedly a star turn from Danny Boyle.

Sunshine - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Rotten Tomatoes

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures

The House of the Devil (2009)


Director: Ti West

Release Date: October 30th, 2009 (US limited)

Genre: Horror

Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig

Ti West must have endured the most haunted of houses during his childhood, because only through first-hand experience can somebody gain, preserve and later paint such an enticing scary picture. Both a thematic precursor to his 2011 spook-gala The Innkeepers and a nostalgic nod to horror in general, The House of the Devil serves up a cauldron full of tension and idiosyncratic peculiarities. Framed within a B movie context where babysitters are in danger, wooden houses creak with undesirable exaggeration and a grainy glaze smoulders from the screen, the film embodies the work of a director smart enough to create a piece that stands out in its maturity whilst also retaining key horror tropes. West admirably holds back in an area where many others have succumbed to generic jump-scares and gore, instead teasing and withholding clarification before building to a timely, creepy crescendo. Paying homage to the haunted house flicks of the 70s and 80s, The House of the Devil concludes the greatest fear is that which cannot be explained, and sometimes the unexplainable thrives inside four walls.

Struggling for cash and trying to fend off a landlady breathing down her neck, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) throws her name in the babysitting hat. After an odd conversation or two over the phone, she accepts a job offer at short notice given the monetary incentive. Upon reaching her office for the night — a secluded manor hidden amongst the arching trees and a wispy fog — Samantha meets the voice on the other end of her phone calls, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), whose edgy nature reflects the pair’s recent kooky interactions. In fact, Mr. Ulman’s demeanour ain’t the only bizarre manifestation, and it looks like Samantha is in for a long night. Pizza, anybody?

Undoubtedly, The House of the Devil’s greatest strength is its restraint; both from divulging all of the answers immediately, and from rashly conceding to the genericism that has hampered the land of fright — or not — in recent years. Here, mystery shrouds all. Noises echo without a source. Light switches don’t exist in their usual spot on the wall. From the get-go, and even more so when goings-on reach the ill-fated haunted house, there extrinsically exists an offbeat ambiance. Ti West generates a tone that always promises an explosion of manic torment — we’re fully aware that things could kick-off at any moment — but one that relentlessly goads the viewer as tension creeps higher and higher. An inspired tactic, really.

Jeff Grace’s score drones one moment, as if signalling an inert-yet-eerie mundanity, before tingling the ears with sharp bursts that are of the genre but difficult to pinpoint. The cinematography too, relayed by Eliot Rockett, adds to an underlying sense of confusion as the camera stalks Samantha around the house, watching her, waiting for something to frighten; for a head to grace a mirror, or a silhouette to find the shadows, or a figure to appear from behind a door. Samantha often peers from windows and, as the camera pans backwards, we see her for the stranded victim that she is, unbeknown, trapped inside a house that evoked warnings signs way before the front door rattled its hinges to greet our protagonist.

West successfully bolsters this unwavering feeling of mystery and disorientation by suggesting a splatter-fest early on, and subsequently reshuffling the narrative towards the aforementioned suspense-fuelled happenings. Certainly, The House of the Devil avoids any universal horror trap holes, yet the film still reverberates B movie vibes that are welcomed rather than denounced. The premise hardly emits intuition, whereas the execution does entirely and therein lies the success. Characters find a place on the caricature spectrum and remain there throughout; the tall Mr. Ulman’s exasperated oddness contrasts his wife’s sheik, Gothic appearance — it’s not lost on the viewer that she ascends from the basement — and Samantha’s goofy friend Megan is seemingly only able to speak hokily (“How d’ya like them apples?”). Upon conclusion we are greeted by grimy yellow credits, though not before a series of exceedingly haunting flashing imagery. Off-putting in the hands of another, these familiar tropes work effectively here because they coincide with West’s unusually, expertly, tentative approach.

Though not as concise as the narrative, and also slightly constrained by common characters, the performances are solid. Leading the way as Samantha, Jocelin Donahue displays the type of defiant resolve towards the beginning that ends up getting you in trouble, before steadily warping into a paranoid employee. If only she’d listened to her mate Megan, played by Greta Gerwig, whose “it’s too good to be true” caution warrants observation. Gerwig doesn’t have an awful lot to do here, though going by her recent work there’s no questing the Californian’s acting prowess. The most enjoyable performance is evasive and intriguing, delivered by Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman. Noonan’s unassured motions are the source from which mystery and unusualness sprinkle, aided by his knack for not directly answering questions (“No, not exactly…”). Mary Woronov has little to do as Mrs. Ulman, and A. J. Bowen also makes a fruitless appearance, consolidating the problem that sees one character too many materialise. Listen out for the voice of Girls favourite Lena Dunham.

Ti West is purposeful in direction, creating an atmosphere of ascending dread and hopeless lunacy. His meticulous input sees fear spawn from peculiarity, so much so that even nuances such as the tallness of a stranger promotes creep, and this execution thrives alongside a grin-inducing B movie panache. The House of the Devil is an appreciative mishmash of horror; from haunted house to satanic ritual to psychological thriller, with a gloss of gore. Wait until the end too, for when that inevitable crescendo hits, there may yet be a surprise in store.