Lion (2017)

★★★

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Lion - Sunny Pawar

To unfurl my best impression of a sports commentator, Lion is, broadly speaking, a film of two halves. But unlike the insinuation invoked by said metaphor, these are two halves of consistent quality. There is no playing badly and then coming on to a game, or any downward spiral in fortune as the final minutes approach: It’s good and bad, and then it’s good and bad. Rather, the deviating halves come via a drastic change of scenery, of personnel and, in some ways, of mood. The first introduces us to young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), their days spent scavenging adroitly in an effort to return home with milk and, presumably, other rations. They live in small, poor Indian village with their mother and sister, the former feeding her family by carrying rocks.

This might paint a picture of struggle, and there is struggle, but for around 20 minutes the screen is awash with sibling camaraderie, Saroo’s adorable willingness to put a shift in for the cause only matched in merit by Guddu’s unassailable duty of care. Plucked from obscurity — in Pawar’s case, an audition at school — the pair of young actors beam with authenticity in both their relationship on-screen and their presence in a sustenance-centric world. Like Room’s Jacob Tremblay, Sunny Pawar defies his inexperience and excels, possibly because said inexperience hasn’t yet afforded him the capacity to knowingly perform, and thus perform poorly. Instead we see the real kid, a bundle of energy and charisma, arms pumping like Usain Bolt on an Olympic track whenever he sprints to the next scavenging destination.

This sweetness sours when Guddu fails to return from a work shift, leaving Saroo stranded on a train bound for some faraway metropolis. Garth Davis’ film loses a bit of momentum as Saroo stumbles from locale to locale — the narrative gets stuck on a repetitive loop, compounding Saroo’s lost predicament beyond necessity. There is refuge in a tunnel with other lost children, a sleepover with a seemingly conscientious woman, and more, each encounter conveying the same message of volatility. You actually get enough of a sense of just how much trouble Saroo is in via Greig Fraser’s cinematography, which captures the vastness of an unknown landscape: car lights, train lights, street lights enmeshed in tightly packed, busy urban spheres and swamped externally by a sea of barren nature.

The film refocuses upon reaching Australia, Saroo’s new home, the youngster having been adopted by locals Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). We only spend a moment more in little Pawar’s company before Dev Patel takes over, playing an older Saroo on the cusp of hotel management study. This is also the point at which we meet Lucy (Rooney Mara), a fellow student and Saroo’s impending girlfriend. The actors have a chemistry that helps them work around their rapid-fire romance, and Mara in particular does well with insufficient screen time. She projects tender authority, determined to support Saroo but not defined by his quest to locate his family via Google Earth.

The Australia half, though for the most part engaging, stumbles with well-meaning intent. It tries to pitch itself as a multicultural reprieve, but somewhat loses sight of that in its postcolonial attempt to redress the prevailing Hollywood imbalance. Rather than spending time with birth mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), Luke Davies’ screenplay privileges Sue’s emotional journey. She has a hard time dealing with Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whom she and John adopted shortly after Saroo and who has failed to adapt to life following a turbulent childhood. Her appearances are bitty, not all-encompassing, but the notion that the Australian mother should command most of our sympathy doesn’t sit right with the film’s otherwise progressive platform. Indeed, the issue is captured in a scene where an emotionally wrought Sue laments the state of her family, speaking about a vision she had in her younger years that convinced her to adopt.

After its opening act the piece affords Kamla little screen time, and us little time to develop sufficient compassion for her following Saroo’s disappearance. This also speaks to a larger issue about the level of attention minority actors are afforded in Western cinema, and the consequences a lack of satisfactory attention can incur: Kidman has been nominated for an Oscar, whereas the likely equally talented Bose has not. I should note though that, to both Davis and Davies’ credit, life in Australia is far from glorified. Family tensions are at the fore, tensions in part generated by Saroo’s unwillingness to confide in Sue and John about his mission to find his birth mother. Patel particularly excels during these sequences of inner turmoil and we feel the weight of his character’s struggle.

Matching the fervour of a late winning goal (this sports metaphor should never have made it past the opening line; I can only apologise) Lion evokes a plume of bittersweet emotion as it reaches its conclusion. The moment makes the journey worthwhile, even if we, like Saroo, have had to navigate rugged terrain in order to get there.

Lion - Dev Patel

Director: Garth Davis

Rating: PG

Runtime: 1h 58mins

Genre: Drama

Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman

Images ©: The Weinstein Company

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

★★★★

The Girl with All the Gifts PosterDirector: Colm McCarthy

Release Date: September 23rd, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close

Kids are taking over the world. Well, the worlds of pop culture and weighty entertainment. If it’s not a bunch of Spielbergian curiousos charming viewers eight times over in Stranger Things, it’s Jacob Tremblay comfortably matching his demonstrably more experienced counterparts with a powerhouse performance in Room. Today Sennia Nanua joins the not-so-Mickey-Mouse-Club, her turn as a next generation zombie-human in The Girl with All the Gifts at once endearing and domineering. And even a little amusing. That’s quite the trifecta.

Colm McCarthy brings M.R. Carey’s (credited as Mike Carey) mid-apocalyptic world to the silver screen, a world severely stunted by some sort of biological doomsday. Carey’s novel of the same name garnered much praise, which, when coupled alongside his extensive comic book writing portfolio, suggests he is doing something right. The penman may yet want to consider a screenwriting career if this is his default standard. He presents Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a child with fleshy cravings and the ability to interact as normal. When we first meet her she is hidden away in some sort of military base with many of her kind — her ‘classmates’ — and a selection of adult soldiers, scientists, and teachers. It’s not initially clear what the purpose of the locale is: a zone of Freudian experimentation usurping social and ethical norms, or a shelter from the horrors outside?

We quickly learn it is a bit of both, though the striking image of children wearing orange jumpsuits and strapped to wheelchairs feeds the former narrative (these sequences are probably not unintentionally dissimilar in a visual sense to familiar scenes in A Clockwork Orange). That it soon becomes clear said treatment is decidedly less harsh than what is going on elsewhere ought to give you an indication of the type of material we are dealing with. I hesitate to reveal more of the initial plot; not because doing so would spoil the film but because piecing together the early moral dilemmas as they play out on-screen is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Needless to say the setting soon changes and The Girl with All the Gifts transforms into a Monsters-esque road trip.

But back to Melanie, the film’s central presence. She is essentially a blank slate, or a dry sponge for lack of a better description, in that she desires knowledge as well as body parts and absorbs information with incredible endurance. Her favourite teacher is Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a sort of Miss Honey figure who brightens up their bleak bunker home inhabited otherwise by those who refer to the children as “abortions” and treat them with contempt bred, perhaps understandably, from wariness. This attitude prevails throughout the film to varying degrees, some characters afraid but sympathetic, others driven solely by the scientific possibilities the zom-kids present. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is one of the latter, a medical professional who sees Melanie not as a human being but as a resource and a pathway to a potential cure. “They present as children, you know my opinion on that,” she insists. Emphasis on “present”.

Close excels as a pseudo-antagonist, stirring intentions born out of necessity rather than anything particularly sinister. Caldwell only dons the antagonist role because Carey’s writing characterises Melanie not as a resource but as an innocent child, his characterisation authenticated by Nanua’s poise. We feel compelled to side with Melanie because we can relate to her kindness and her appearance. Caldwell feels compelled to do her duty as a scientist in an endangered world running out of scientific solutions, which isn’t evil per se. Whenever zombies are involved comparisons with The Walking Dead are inevitable, but whereas that show has adopted a broadly romanticised us-versus-them approach, this feels more arduous, moral implications blurrier. It’s interesting precisely because there is no clear answer.

This world has seen the worst and now exists in a state of post-shock where terror no longer marinates. Now is the time for practicality, a mindset embodied by Caldwell: without hesitation she investigates the contents of a pram being pushed by a ‘hungry’ — an actual zombie, brainless — not put off by danger but rather spurred on by “gathering data, which is part of [her] mission statement”. Justineau, meanwhile, is clearly more concerned about the welfare of Melanie than her own, apparently consigned to whatever fate lies ahead. Arterton has the emotional burden to carry, her frequently exhausted expression not a consequence of physical exertion (she is more than capable in the field) but of her problematic attachment to Melanie.

The piece hits some of the usual genre beats but does so with enough quality to sustain a level of intrigue. We’ve witnessed the basic premise play out in films such as 28 Days Later and World War Z and, just like in those films, military personnel have a hand in proceedings here. What separates The Girl with All the Gifts from the pack, though, is its almost subliminal tone of humour. It’s an understated lightheartedness that feels genuine in a broken society already acclimatised to its brokenness. At one point Melanie, having just fed on some animals, blood tattooed onto her face, jovially reveals she is no longer hungry and the others can only look on in a collective state of horrified discombobulation. Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Eddie Parks benefits most from the humorous touch, able to escape an incoming hard-man caricature and develop into a rounded figure.

For those seeking the usual zombie fare, The Girl with All the Gifts has you covered. It’s as bloody and gory and gnarly as it is thought-provoking. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score spans the mood spectrum, incurring a feeling of discomfort with invasive brass entries. I was reminded of Shutter Island’s brooding soundtrack. With air raid sirens fulfilling the threat-based requirements, the sounds of trees swishing harmoniously and birds gently humming reflect the film’s thoughtful mantra. Nature, too, is character, sparse streets having been attacked by overgrown greenery, turning South East England into Pripyat, Ukraine. McCarthy’s film makes brilliant use of its £4 million production budget, and is well worth the price of admission.

The Girl with All the Gifts - Sennia Nanua

Images credit: IMP AwardsThe Guardian

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Eye in the Sky (2016)

★★★★

Eye in the Sky PosterDirector: Gavin Hood

Release Date: April 1st, 2016 (US); April 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller; War

Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman

I often find that the most engaging films are those which, in one way or another, encourage viewers to invest more than just the alertness of their eyeballs. Films that oil the brain, that challenge you to weigh up testy themes or unfurl complicated arguments both in the cinema and later at home. Some of the best movies reflect the prevailing zeitgeist (Boyhood), while others re-evaluate histories (Bridge of Spies). There are also those which, having aged over time, can be examined under the guise of new perspectives (2001: A Space Odyssey). Eye in the Sky is one of the former, its content exclusively in tune with the woes of modern drone warfare and, unsurprisingly, it’s a heart-thumper.

A low key opening sequence outlines the active operation, the personnel involved, and the everyday atmosphere at play. There’s Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a senior intelligence official who has tracked down a group of terrorists residing in Nairobi, Kenya. She wishes to eliminate the group, one of whom is a former British national, and has the support of Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). Evidently, the duo are used to navigating tough situations from afar — they are working from separate UK bases — though the situation Powell and Benson are about to encounter is probably as tough as it gets. That is, juggling the life of young girl selling bread in the vicinity of their prospective drone strike.

Gavin Hood’s film is formatted almost to match that of a 24 episode, which is to say it ticks along more or less in real time as people in suits number-crunch death percentages and debris projections. Foreshadowing is a factor too: Rickman, superbly authoritative yet typically human, drolly sweats over dolls and toys as the Lieutenant General, unaware his job will shortly have him deciding the fate of a child. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert colours his characters with titbits of everyday information in an attempt to humanise them, quite successfully given the amount on-screen. We learn, for instance, that American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is only monitoring the controls of such a weapon in a bid to counter his college debt.

These people are secure, detached from a teetering war zone in Nairobi, their most immediate danger apparently food poisoning — Iain Glen’s queasy British Foreign Secretary struggles with an upset stomach, a first world problem if there ever was one. You wonder if they actually care about the civilians caught in their crosshairs or whether it is all just a political game of Pass the Buck (there was a laugh of incredulity in my screening following one such buck-passing incident). Some do care, primarily those ordered to get their hands dirty: Watts and new recruit Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) wear the emotional baggage of their piloting well, while Barkhad Abdi’s undercover ground agent evokes conscientiousness despite having to navigate the tumultuous streets.

Others struggle with the dilemma too — as time goes on, it increasingly looks as though the terrorists are about to commandeer an enormous suicide attack, however their assassination in present circumstances would almost certainly kill the aforementioned young girl. We see timid bureaucracy in action; the chain of command gains branches by the second as nobody seems willing to make the final call, apart from Powell. This is militancy versus diplomacy and she is firmly aligned with the former, calculated and desperate, unwavering in her kill-or-be-killed motto. Mirren compels throughout and rules those around her with a cracked iron fist. At times you feel her judgement has been clouded by her innate desire to end what must be a years-long operation.

It’s possible too that she has been desensitised by process: surveillance technologies used by the conglomerate of global forces (borders are irrelevant in this inter-connected world) include spy cameras disguised as airborne birds and bugs (brick walls are irrelevant too). These trinkets embody the disconnect between tangible ground activities and those making the crucial decisions from afar, and such technologies likely lighten the load for senior decision-makers such as Powell. Interactions between UK and US agencies hint at the statistical and mechanical nature of modern warfare, a notion embodied by the varying systems of collateral damage interpretation between the two nations. It’s not a matter of saving every life, but rather reducing the total number of deaths.

Hibbert’s screenplay ties in real-world strands by referencing the ongoing migrant crisis (“Well let’s hope she’s not coming back,” bemoans Powell regarding the homegrown British terrorist) but really Eye in the Sky is all about the immorality of war in 2016. The best result the military’s facial recognition software can hope for is a “highly probable” match, which would be great in a university science lab but not ideal when lives are at stake. Any margin of error is amplified in battle and the debates between officials take on that extra weight, a weight that we also incur as we sympathise with various characters. Megan Gill edits Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography to full effect, highlighting the stark anomalies in Nairobi: Gill cuts from the young girl setting up her bread stall to the extremists preparing their suicide vests, mere metres separating the two.

The film avoids problematic whirlpools and discriminatory icebergs by riding a wave maturity — it would be very easy to take a side, but as the piece nears conclusion it shines a blatantly more rounded light on a number of brutes earlier seen authoritatively commanding vehicle checkpoints. Unlike London Has Fallen, which clumsily waded its way into the drone debate, Eye in the Sky sets out to discuss and not to distract. Clearly they are different films in a tonal sense, aimed arguably at different audiences, but both speak the same thematic language and only the latter does so with any credibility.

There is one issue that the film only manages to partially iron out. You’ll almost certainly enter this having already formulated an opinion one way or the other, especially given the relevance and significance of drone warfare in today’s political climate. And although it is possible you’ll be made to reconsider that opinion — it helps that Hood’s gripping direction increasingly positions you alongside the toiling decision-makers — chances are the events depicted will not shift anyone’s viewpoint. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the movie itself, but rather the divisiveness of its real-world content.

People band around the phrase “spoils of war” in relation to any profits gained through military victory. But it is war that spoils, and here we see that spoiling in action: it spoils ethical frameworks established by the civilised strand of humanity; it spoils urban locales that have hosted and continue to host generations of livelihoods; and, crucially, it spoils the daily existence of normal people living their normal lives. Eye in the Sky suggests war spoils some people more than others, and while that mightn’t be a new conclusion, the method of warfare on display is as morally challenging as it gets.

Eye in the Sky - Aaron Paul

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Entertainment One, Bleecker Street

Midnight Special (2016)

★★★★

Midnight Special PosterDirector: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (US); April 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst

The opening shot of Midnight Special shows a motel door peephole. The peephole offers those inside the motel room the ability to spy on any external goings-on, and is in fact the only means to such an end: each of the room’s windows have been dressed in cardboard by occupants wary, perhaps, of the instability of conventional curtains. One of the room’s occupants, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has even donned enormous orange headphones and a pair of goggles, ears and eyes shielded from something, or maybe someone. It is a brilliant introduction to this patient, mysterious world created by Jeff Nichols, without doubt one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today.

A number of forces are after Alton for a number of reasons: the FBI, for fear of his invasive abilities, that the child can undercut complicated governmental systems albeit without malice, and a Texas cult corrupted by the promise of an upcoming day of reckoning. Adam Driver represents the former as Paul Sevier, a compassionate analyst of sorts, and ranch leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the latter. See, Alton possesses a variety of characteristics not written into the laws of physics. His eyes shoot blinding beams of light and his mind works prophetically, both of which make him valuable. But nobody values him more than his father Roy (Michael Shannon) who, with the assistance of friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), sets out to shield Alton from harm.

Moral complexities are at large early on. Roy and Lucas’ motives aren’t initially clear therefore Shannon and Edgerton must convey a sense of righteousness or otherwise. As they leave their motel room with Alton, we cut to a suspicious receptionist. Shortly thereafter, the pair endure a nasty collision on the road and have a run-in with a state trooper which ends when the latter is shot. It’s not exactly a heroic introduction, but subtle nuances get us onside: Shannon’s paternal vibe towards his son and Alton’s reciprocal nature; Edgerton’s considered demeanour and his character’s need to protect any innocent bystanders (shooting not to kill the trooper, for instance).

The film is also Spielbergian in many ways, from its science fiction touch to how it places youth on a pedestal. You first notice the similarities in a dusk horizon shot, where the various silhouettes of imposing military trucks can be seen advancing along a shadowy road, the background an orange-tinted sky. A general nighttime vibe exists throughout the piece, partially because the screenplay requires it, but also because darkness funds an overarching sense of uncertainty and mystique. Visual flair is mostly restrained, though the film does let loose on two occasions with incredible results — especially incredible given the comparatively meagre $18 million budget.

Its celebration of youthful imagination is another trope from Spielberg’s wheelhouse, enacted generally across the piece but also more intimately when we see Alton reading a Human Torch comic. “Reading’s reading,” Lucas claims, to which Roy glumly replies, “He needs to know what’s real”. Lucas has been won over not just by Alton’s abilities but also his humanness. Roy, while evidently full of love for his son, is more strict when it comes to completing the task; that is, getting Alton to where he needs to be. Perhaps this early in proceedings Roy is unwilling to fully accept the consequences of doing so, which only adds further heft to his journey.

But he does have faith. Religion, the inevitability of one’s beliefs, the cultish haranguing instigated by an isolated community — these are all explored in Midnight Special. Calvin’s ranch carries significant pull, even to those who have left. “Do you miss it?” Roy asks former member Elden (David Jensen), and you can bet he does. We don’t really know anything about those on the ranch, nor those who have escaped, which includes Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their backstories might have benefited from some filling in, though you have to commend Nichols for his consistency in letting the audience make up their own minds. And there certainly isn’t a total information blackout. Rather, this feels like a well-crafted piece, where each event and scene and conversation carries meaning.

It is always easy to compare a filmmaker’s current work to his/her previous efforts, though such a comparison makes sense here. In many ways, Nichols has taken the most appetising ingredients from both Take Shelter and Mud and moulded them into a sci-fi base: the former’s apocalyptic vision and air of encroaching trouble tags with the latter’s unflashy, youngster-imbued agenda. Alton is the physical manifestation of both elements, a dangerous otherworldly presence to some, yet to others simply a child searching for answers. Television news reels spew out stories on crippling addiction while honchos in suits decry the possibility of nuclear decimation, paranoid and afraid of change even if it is for the better.

Despite being set in contemporary times, the film has an undeniable retro quality similar to that purveyed in Super 8 (though clearly J.J. Abrams’ movie is set in a period that matches its retro-scape). David Wingo’s oscillating, spacey score somewhat soothes our ears as it recalls Alton’s futuristic attributes. It tends to play over scenes involving Alton and never jars, instead shining a positive light on what the boy could represent — that aforementioned change for the better — as well as his family’s motives. At times the music also reminded me of Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s work in Coherence, a small sci-fi thriller bred from a similar pool of cagey mystery.

For those of you who thought Tomorrowland: A World Beyond lacked concrete storytelling or a consistent strain of intrigue, there’s every chance Midnight Special is film you have been looking for. While Nichols’ outing doesn’t flourish through splendour, it does keep the viewer engrossed for the duration. You have to be; various ideas are floated around — including concepts I haven’t touched upon here, such as undemocratic government surveillance — and it is often up to us to make our own moral judgement. Midnight Special is as much an on-the-road drama as it is any other genre, but it’s also very effective sci-fi. The special stuff, almost.

Midnight Special - Jaeden Lieberher & Michael Shannon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

★★★★

10 Cloverfield Lane PosterDirector: Dan Trachtenberg

Release Date: March 11th, 2016 (US); March 18th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Mystery

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

There’s a great deal to admire about a film that chooses a path and sticks to it in spite of executive-level switcherooing. 10 Cloverfield Lane only discovered its Cloverfield bloodline midway through development, a potentially hazardous move that would have rendered many other outings spineless, but sweeping conviction shines through here. The path Dan Trachtenberg confidently guides his movie down is laden with rich slabs of character identity. So rich, in fact, that it’s probable you’ll forget about the Cloverfield connection after 15 minutes (I did) and instead enjoy a simple thriller with tantalising — and, crucially, natural — twists and turns, its three pro-cum-antagonists each carrying the weight of intrigue.

We have Howard (John Goodman), the overseer, aka the one who owns the bunker within which the film takes place and who calls the shots accordingly. Then there is the convert, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), already booked into Howard’s hotel by the time we arrive. And finally, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s the sceptic. You can tell because her red nail polish wears away with stress. Michelle doesn’t call ahead as much as awaken in Howard’s bunker having felt the brunt of a pummelling car accident, one that catches both her and us off guard, a proper assault on the solar plexus.

Escape hangs over proceedings. The film opens with Michelle, who has the appearance of someone desperately trying to escape something — a relationship, perhaps, and probably life in general (odd titbit: Bradley Cooper voices her pleading boyfriend, relegated to a phone call). Bear McCreary’s ominous score plays as Michelle frantically scrambles around her flat looking for road booze and as she departs, keys shunned on the table, that drone grows in intensity. It aids a tone that suggests trouble; via car radio, we hear of widespread power outages. Shortly thereafter, Trachtenberg unveils imagery that reflects an air of claustrophobia: the rusty chain clamping Michelle to the wall in Howard’s bunker, for instance, or the large iron door reinforcing her isolation.

Winstead plays the terrified, suspicious type so well, her eyes often wide and bulging. She is vulnerable, clearly, and yet full of defiant craft — there’s more than a touch of stellar horror heroine going on here. Goodman, meanwhile, juggles sanity and insanity with incredible credibility. He breathes heavily, panting almost, as if he’s about to explode in a fit of rage or is recuperating from a previous outburst. The less said about his character’s motives the better, though Goodman’s soon-to-be iconic introduction ought to be noted: the camera tentatively navigates around Howard’s hulking figure before unveiling his menacing face from a low angle, further feeding our anxieties.

Who is this man and what does he want? Those questions fuel the film’s allure as it cagily probes away at answers. Early on, Howard bemoans humanity’s lack of preparation, that we talk a good game from afar and then panic when true disaster hits. “Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come.” The flood on this occasion is a nuclear attack, according to Howard (frequent power surges bolster his end-of-days argument). Turns out this is a man who has proactively prepared for disaster by building a sturdy bunker. Maybe he’s not the freak, but we are. His musings start to make sense.

On the flip side, “Surviving Doomsday” books line the shelves of his shelter and you begin to wonder if the whole scenario is a deluded madman’s ruse. There is a false home-sweet-home aesthetic, plants that are surely fake, and a fictional kitchen window. Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter concoct a terrifically creepy malaise through framing — more than once, Howard appears to creep up on Michelle and Emmett while the pair are mid-conversation. There is nowhere to hide. Feelings of paranoia and mistrust battle with hints of Stockholm syndrome. These themes recall an episode of Lost starring Henry Ian Cusick and Clancy Brown where the former struggles to unravel the latter’s bunker-based theories.

But deep-seated worry does not have a stranglehold on the piece. Penned by a trio of writers — Whiplash director Damien Chazelle apparently revamped much of Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken’s initial plot and character work — the screenplay includes moments of wry comedy that don’t try to detract from the disconcerting situation, but instead lighten the mood just enough to afford the film a more digestible front. Often it’s Gallagher Jr. who is tasked with making quips and he obliges with assured charm, as opposed to the purposefully awkward charm the actor evoked in The Newsroom. Even McCreary’s brooding score takes a break: “I Think We’re Alone Now” plays over a montage of momentary serenity. It’s splendid song-weaving.

The title “10 Cloverfield Lane” may suggest otherwise but this is a character drama first and foremost, tinged with high-concept thrills that complement splashings of sci-fi and horror. The people on-screen share a complex dynamic, an alluring one built around secrecy and regret and revelation. You think you know where it’s all going and then Howard whips out a Pretty in Pink VHS (he seems like a VHS kinda guy). You get so drawn in by the chess game that any Cloverfield associations become somewhat irrelevant, which, I suppose, is a real credit to both the idea and its execution. For the first time in a long time, I left the screening wanting more. Wanting a sequel. Imagine that!

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Bone Tomahawk (2016)

★★★★★

Bone Tomahawk PosterDirector: S. Craig Zahler

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); February 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Horror

Starring: Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins

Bone Tomahawk is an audible treat. Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has a movie sounded so raw and striking (Sicario might warrant a shout, in fairness). During the opening segment here, in which a pair of drifters execute a travelling party before stumbling upon an eerie burial ground, we learn about the 16 major veins that exist inside the human neck. “And you have to cut through ’em all,” claims scavenger Buddy (Sid Haig). David Arquette’s Purvis obliges and we hear every squeak, twist, and snap as he does so. It is cringe-inducing for all the right reasons and the perfect introduction to S. Craig Zahler’s unforgiving picture, a western thoroughly bludgeoned by despair and horror.

Sometime thereafter, Purvis turns up looking a bit worse for wear in Bright Hope, a small town with a population of 268 according to its welcome signpost. He runs into sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and earns a bullet in the leg, the first of many indications that Hunt favours blunt practicality over weak-mindedness. And so begins the sequence of events which send the sheriff, his well-meaning deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the egotistical John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) on a mission to rescue the latter’s kidnapped wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).

Foreshadowing and foreboding are wilfully employed by Zahler — replacing what could have been a more natural music-driven score, the howls of wolves (or worse) ominously serenade events early on and then manifest in threatening form later. It’s the ambiance of the west, or at least this incarnation of the west. “Oh boy, that smells good now that I know it’s not supposed to be tea,” Chicory muses, referring to corn chowder but also reflecting the film’s underbelly. See, though there are plenty of traditional western strands at play — the gruff sheriff who commands authority, the isolated community tormented by threat, plenty of horses — Bone Tomahawk sets its stall out with a difference.

Slowly paced scenes reflect the slower time period, when face-to-face interactions dominated and long distance journeys relied on animal willpower. Russell taps into this considered approach, employing words with authority; patience really is a virtue and in Hunt’s presence you get the sense patience will be rewarded. Comparisons with The Hateful Eight’s John Ruth are inevitable, though the pair have less in common than you might think. Composure, for one: Hunt’s detective-esque apprehension of Purvis is the product of gradual interrogation, whereas Ruth’s treatment of Daisy Domergue is often abrasive and erratic. It is a testament to the actor that he has managed to create such varied yet equally compelling characters from two very similar seeds.

The version of the 1890s we see on-screen is one characterised by manual labour. O’Dwyer is a worker, though his involvement in the job has been tempered by a nasty leg injury that continues to plague him during the group’s arduous trek. Wilson does his utmost to sell his character’s ongoing pain in a performance that values physicality over emotional depth, though that is not to say O’Dwyer is a bland protagonist. Quite the opposite, in fact: the persistence of his injury only serves to bolster his heroic tendencies, to the point that we believe in him as a viable saviour and not just a tag-along husband.

Such ponderous momentum affords these characters natural breathing space, and Fox’s Brooder benefits too. Brooder is perhaps the most intriguing of the main quartet, certainly the most mysterious — the camera often shows him isolated from his fellow pack. One moment he inspires anti-heroic Han Solo connotations, the next plain ignorance, and then there’s his penchant for wry humour: “I’ll probably beat you to the draw,” Brooder boasts before amusingly justifying said boast. This is the best Matthew Fox has been in years. It is also one of Richard Jenkins’ most endearing showings, a real triumph given the overarching strand of impersonal cruelty.

Zahler’s film takes up a somewhat conventional western face for much of its running time, though said face is masked by an uneasy mist. It would be best to avoid specific details, but I will note that proceedings take a turn for the sickeningly gory and genuinely unsettling. This genre mishmash works because terror and anxiety have always been woven into the genre. The mishmash refrains from stopping at abject fear too. This is also a film about how men are impacted by separation (O’Dwyer’s wife is missing, Hunt’s is worried at home, and Chicory’s deceased). As the group traverse further from civilisation and closer to potential doom, the score unveils a pained melancholy, manifesting almost as a sort of death soliloquy.

On a technical front, Bone Tomahawk is infallible. I’ve already lauded the sound quality and the production team maintain a similar level of excellence in their set creation and landscape scouting. It feels like the end of the 19th century; that retro gunslinging allure in full effect. We ride across mossy vistas and tiptoe through ghost valleys that bear some resemblance to those in The Return of the King. Presumably working with a low budget, those behind the lens have smartly utilised nature’s virtues and rustled up quite the canvass for exploration, fusing the harsh brutalities of No Country For Old Men with the pilgrimage proclivities of Slow West.

All of the elements are furnished to oaky perfection but you could remove the lot — the charcoal landscapes, the wooden interiors, the deceptive humour — to leave just the four central characters, and you would still have something well worth two hours of your time. These marauders are wacky and layered. Zahler sticks to his guns even after the craziness takes off, winningly heralding the richness of his protagonists over shock value. A late, brief exchange between sheriff and deputy recalls the film’s intimate, considered mantra. In one moment, Bone Tomahawk cements its status as a future classic.

Bone Tomahawk - Russell, Fox, Jenkins, Wilson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): RLJ Entertainment

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

★★★★

Straight Outta Compton PosterDirector: F. Gary Gray

Release Date: August 14th, 2015 (US); August 28th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell

Full disclosure: I’m not a big late-80s/early-90s hip hop fan. Before F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, I likely would have associated the letters “N.W.A.” with a professional wrestling promotion as opposed to anything of the rap variety. But cinema is a great enlightenment tool and here I am, enlightened, and all the better for it. The film takes us all the way back to 1986, to Compton, California and to the inception of one of the most influential groups in music history. Not that I know anything, but to me Straight Outta Compton plays like a film worthy of the N.W.A.’s hefty legacy.

It is primarily centred around the three most pivotal members: Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (Jackson O’Shea Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). We meet the former surrounded by guns and drugs, and the latter hopes and dreams. Despite its obvious pitfalls — impending violence and police sirens — the Compton hip hop culture proudly wears an aspirational quality that bellows from the screen; this is especially true during musical interludes, though these aren’t interludes as much as natural story progressions. And it is this underbelly of aspiration that resonates universally, beyond hip hop. What we have is a piece that serves its real life protagonists honourably by dismissing glorification and highlighting the relatable traits they foster.

This feels like the rise of the N.W.A., not an imitation. Every performance is authentic, from Jackson O’Shea Jr. who is more than just his father’s uncanny lookalike, authoritative and assured, to Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the rebel of rebels turned sympathetic figure. Mitchell sieves through the aggravating side of his character in order to trap something really genuine. It helps that the focus is not always on Eazy-E; we spend significant time with Dr. Dre, played with a terrific sense of roundedness by Corey Hawkins, and with Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, a businessman with dollar signs in his eyes. This is a cast rich in talent, both raw and honed, backed up by strong supporting players (R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight; Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. as MC Renn and DJ Yella, respectively).

As is always the case when a biopic hits the stands, much has been said about historical fudgings. Most notably, the non-reference to Dr. Dre’s violent outbursts against women. That’s a fair quarrel, though I can only judge what I see. The guys on-screen are absolutely not angels, nor do they hold themselves to such a moral standard. They partake in overblown confrontations — the camera makes a point to zoom in on a tightly-grasped glass bottle during one conflict. Women are not treated well, often as little more than instruments to use (this does change upon the arrival of maturity). And bouts of in-fighting gain frequency as the group gains success. You believe in the bond between the members, but you also recognise the potential for bloated egos to overrule harmony. So when bloated egos overrule harmony, it’s not a shock.

The most charged relationship Gray’s outing explores, though, is not one between individual artists, but a collective one between all artists and the police. Our real world news media has been awash with the pitiful treatment, and worse, of black men in particular by US police officers, and this exceptionally tense relationship is reflected from the word go. For instance, we see Dr. Dre on the receiving end of a brutish arrest for no apparent reason: “I was literally just standing there… that’s it.” Police brutality is obviously an issue with complex ties to the rise of the N.W.A., therefore the extent to which it is featured here does seem justified and in many ways inevitable, but that inevitability does not diminish its impact at all.

Cop cars stalk the group constantly; they appear from nowhere almost to the point of parody, their lights flashing and alarms blaring. Conversations between officer and victim cement the shoddy use of power structures — one side inflicting orders with no real basis, the other side angrily demanding an explanation. This amounts to a handful of on-the-nose interactions (“You can’t come down here and harass my clients because they’re black”) but then these interactions are probably wrapped up in absolute truth, which makes the whole saga all the more infuriating for us folks on the side of those being unlawfully discriminated against.

On a lighter note, at two and a half hours long the film advances with unrivalled exuberance. This is all Gray’s direction; you can feel it. Be it in establishing compelling dialogues or encouraging us to head-bop along, the director never lets up: we zip through recording sessions and into electric live performances, and the spotlight evolves from a lone studio glow into an array of kinetic beams. The best example of this vitality is in an unrelenting diss sequence during which the picture cuts between the disser dissing and the dissees listening. It is a track that stems from a dispute based on artistic and financial integrity, another industry strand the piece explores in some detail.

It’s not as earnest as something like Crazy Heart or as indebted to soul-searching as a Walk the Line, but Straight Outta Compton thrives on the strength of its key figures and the scintillating, abrasive music they make. For someone like me, a representative of those uninitiated in the musical culture on display, this character-centric approach affords the film a grounding from which to flourish. Good characterisation, good storytelling — these are two of the tenets of good cinema, and Straight Outta Compton revels in both. That makes it good cinema.

Straight Outta Compton - Corey Hawkins

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures