’71 (2014)

★★★★

'71 PosterDirector: Yann Demange

Release Date: 10th October, 2014 (UK); February 27th, 2015 (US limited)

Genre: Action; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy

Yann Demange’s ’71 centres on the exploits of a British Army regiment deployed in Belfast shortly after the onset of The Troubles. More precisely, it tails separated officer Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as he roams the city’s broken pavements during one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland’s history. “Catholics and Protestants living side by side at each other’s throats,” is the takeaway from a brief history lesson. What follows is an all too resonant practical class.

The lesson also informs us of the Falls Road, Belfast’s very own Berlin Wall, and the flats that occupy said road — turns out these have been rented with force by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Catholic side of the conflict. Hook’s regiment is allied with the Protestant side, though working relationships do exist between less extreme members of each division. The British Army are in Belfast to alleviate homegrown conflict, apparently, but when an arms raid goes wrong Hook finds himself alone and in dire straits.

The streets look suitably war-scarred: plumes of black smoke emanating from bombed artefacts constantly pollute the air and the pavements are stained with charred rubble. At the beginning of the film, we see the squad’s intense training regime via a collection of vignettes kinetically sewn together by editor Chris Wyatt (his efforts emphasise just how gruelling the occupation is). These vignettes also promote teamwork, endurance, and the need to fulfil objectives no matter the cost. When the action kicks off, the implementation of such a tough training schedule is quickly justified — a Children of Men-esque chase sequence through decrepit buildings missing internal walls and any sense of homeliness attests to that.

Both factions are shown to be as bad as each other. Soldiers treat women and children (and men) unethically while IRA crowds attack them with bricks, and worse. An atmosphere of hatred fills the screen and the film bloodily obliges, depicting barbarous acts with gruesome consequences. Even apparent teammates struggle to get along: danger is literally around every corner, funded mostly by Provisional IRA youths who refuse to take direction from David Wilmot’s senior IRA member. There isn’t enough time to sufficiently define secondary characters, though Wilmot is effective. So too is Sean Harris, who facially muscles his way through the piece as British Army Captain Sandy Browning.

I was reminded of Lexi Alexander’s football hooligan drama Green Street throughout: pubs recalibrated as bases; untameable urban infection; youngsters shadily mentored; unruly masses bombarding boulevards. The difference is ’71 works on a more striking level because the stakes are far higher. Despite this, good also prevails on both sides. “You’re just a piece of meat to them,” says one kind-hearted stranger to Hook, referring to the latter’s army superiors. Said stranger is Eamon (Richard Dormer), a passer-by who treats Hook in his home with the help of his daughter (Charlie Murphy) despite their ideological differences. He’s right too; faceless pawns dominate both sides in a personal war fought through impersonal battles.

Corey McKinley has a short and feisty stint as a young Loyalist child, adding a dash of humour to proceedings. Jack O’Connell conveys enough humanity through his actions and speech for us to root for him, though his goodness is primarily bolstered by the evil prerogative of those around him. In focusing its efforts almost exclusively on its cat-and-mouse narrative, the film’s straightforward approach doesn’t leave much room for deep thought, though a few thematic layers are in there for those after something more extensive to chew on (shades of grey, violence breeding violence etc).

David Holmes’ pulsating score ratchets up the existing tension to an even greater level — this tension, coupled with the film’s revenge-thriller element, reflects Jeremy Saulnier’s taut indie darling Blue Ruin. And much like Blue Ruin, ’71 benefits from some assured directorial guidance. Demange flirts with psychological horror (a chilliness assisted in large part by the eerie nighttime setting), but the film is a thriller at heart and a damn good one.

It can be difficult to keep track of the various warring factions’ motives and the conclusion doesn’t offer much in the way of a relieving resolution (given the film is set at the beginning of The Troubles, this can’t really be helped). “It was a confused situation,” rings out towards the end and ’71 attests to exactly that in its presentation of an unstable Northern Ireland. The film itself is far from confused though, playing with a confident directness and winning as a result.

'71 - Jack O'Connell

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): StudioCanal

Jaws (1975)

★★★★★

Jaws PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: June 20th, 1975 (US); December 26th, 1975 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

It is probably fair to say Jaws cemented Steven Spielberg’s status as a prominent athlete in the movie-making race. Released in 1975, the film ushered in a fresh era of monster flicks. Those hallmarks that we deem familiar in the genre today made their mainstream debut in Spielberg’s classic: the inaugural attack and subsequent denial; the saviour who is the only one bearing initial clarity; the prevention plan executed atop a wave of mayhem.

It is a blueprint that studios and filmmakers have followed since — the pitch for Alien famously included the tagline “Jaws in space” — primarily because the structure indiscriminately appeals to audiences. You only have to glance back at the last two summers to see the formula play out in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World. Speaking of summer, Jaws is often also touted as the first seasonal blockbuster (it broke box office records upon release in the US). The catch? This blockbuster is one of those intelligently composed things.

Following the watery demise of a teenage girl via shark attack, the residents of Amity Island find themselves on high alert. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with developing a solution, but when the problem takes the form of a person-guzzling creature solutions are hard to come by. Bill Butler’s camera focuses directly on the words “shark attack” as Brody punches them into the death certificate of the aforementioned teen, the surrounding silence signifying both the solemnity at hand and the imminent danger. Everybody is a potential target because, on Amity Island, everybody is water-bound.

The locale is a “summer town [that] needs summer dollars,” according to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). Speaking to an agitated Brody, he continues, “You yell shark and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July.” Though his use of the word panic is probably a reference to any incoming tourists, chances are he is more concerned about panic on the business front. It’s commercialism versus well-being, a duel unethically buffeted by a mayor who slinks around in a bright suit looking like a candy floss vendor selling treats that appear appetising but are ultimately bad for your health. And it’s Brody who takes the brunt of his poor decision-making: after a grieving mother vents her fury to Brody’s face, the film evolves into a tale of redemption and vengeance.

A smart and often snarky screenplay accommodates various themes and elevates Jaws well beyond popcorn entertainment (though it can be just that if you want it to). Originally written by Peter Benchley, the screenplay was reshaped by Carl Gottlieb, adapting his own novel, as filming got under way. And to his credit Spielberg values the duo’s writing just as much as he does tension building and aquatic action. This means there is wit in abundance, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” being the obvious calling card. It is more than just a throwaway line though — the iconic scene quite brilliantly combines comedy, timing, and terror.

The shark seems to strike out of the blue. Though precautions are in place (shutting down beaches etc.) everything seems a bit rushed, a bit chaotic, as if the appearance of the creature is a wholly uncommon event. A rubbery meteor thrashing into an otherwise idyllic seaside lifestyle. Then there are the constant distractions — while Brody tries to keep an eye on swimmers, a plethora of unwary residents inundate him with random musings. And when the islanders catch a bogus shark, the local photographer is too busy taking photos for anyone to notice it’s the wrong fish.

Like an old Wild West villain, the shark has a $3,000 bounty placed on its fin. We don’t see it for a long time, but we do catch a glimpse of the consequences left in the monster’s wake: a crab-strewn arm; a volcanic bloodbath; various images of unevenly dissected limbs. You can do nothing but watch as its grey silhouette stalks the dangling legs of helpless victims whose idea of a beach vacation involves more relaxation and less chomping. Simmering in the background is this domestic strand about a father trying to introduce his sons to a dangerous world, juggling the virtues of the sea with the violence of its inhabitants.

There is a masculine theme at play too, and it particularly rears when boatman Quint (Robert Shaw) shows up, gruff and tough, parading a confidence and idly disrespecting those around him. But there is more to Quint, a clouded morality that swims beneath the surface. Robert Shaw delivers a revelatory monologue with a look on his face that denotes unsubtly disguised horror in one of the film’s more serene, excellent scenes. He joins Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on a voyage to oust the shark and as the three guys get grimier and drunker, you constantly wonder just how exactly they’re going to conquer the aqua beast.

Jaws’ score is often heralded for its tense beat that builds to a crescendo, but it also bears a swooping grandiosity that marks the film’s action-adventure element. Sharp high notes chirp along pleasantly, notes that composer John Williams would go on to recycle for the first few Harry Potter outings. The film isn’t an out-and-out horror flick but it does dabble in gruesome visuals and a playfully heart pounding atmosphere.

There is a bit of dip in stress levels just before the final act plays out, but you let it slide as Spielberg has spent so long admirably refraining from bluster, favouring human drama instead. Led by the quintessential everyman Chief Brody, his regular qualities superbly highlighted by Roy Scheider, Jaws manifests as a clever genre-chewer that still boasts significant bite 40 years on.

Jaws - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, The Guardian

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Spectre (2015)

★★★★

Spectre PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Release Date: October 26th, 2015 (UK); November 6th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography was all the rage at the Oscars earlier this year, and Hoyte van Hoytema has tapped into the technical furore. Spectre begins with a Birdman-esque gallivant through a musty Mexican city, hollow drum beats slowly drowned out by the fluid orchestral waves of Monty Norman’s classic Bond theme as proceedings manoeuvre away from Day of the Dead festivities and towards 007’s (Daniel Craig) ensuing mission. Bond shoots at his target, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), causing an enormous explosion that ought to terminate the wrongdoer. But just when you think it’s mission complete, Sciarra escapes. We momentarily meander back into the slow-moving parade before barrelling skywards aboard an out-of-control helicopter.

Director Sam Mendes is clearly having fun playing with our expectations, teasing tonally and pacing-wise. It is a super sequence in mechanical terms, but also a celebration of Bond: throughout the five-minute long take we see spying, shooting, surviving, and seducing. And, deviously, the film eliminates a would-be model Bond villain in record time — at one point the camera catches Sciarra looking like a cross between Jaws and Raoul Silva.

The main title montage then springs into life, this particular incarnation both encapsulating and artistically rich, affording meaning to Sam Smith’s otherwise uncertain lyrics. Perennial opening credits creator Daniel Kleinman delivers a montage that is all about retracing familiar steps, and Spectre does a lot of backwards walking. Bond, no longer in favour at a spatially revamped MI6, finds himself working outwith the espionage structure of government moderniser Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), aided covertly by Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw).

The film is an entirely different prospect to Skyfall; this, in many ways, is Bond back to basics. Somewhat shunned by the morose undercurrent of its predecessor, Spectre revisits the franchise’s sly vein of humour. Ben Wishaw continues to grow into the role of Q, his pinpoint comedy timing affording the character greater charm. We dash all over the globe, though admirably the outing never succumbs to the artificial sheen of a travel brochure. Snowscapes make a comeback — there’s something to be said for beautiful blanket-white mountain locales and Bond often speaks fluently in this regard.

Just when you think the film won’t eclipse its previous action set piece, an even bigger and better one explodes on screen. Heck, we even get a hulking villain in Hinx, the bruiser given personality by Dave Bautista whose terminally arrogant-cum-ominous grin suggests total control. He brawls with Bond aboard a train in a punch-up that looks and sounds brutal — words such as vigour and pulp spring to mind as you begin to think Hinx might actually be a Terminator.

Some shots could have easily been borrowed from a Sergio Leone western, prompting quite the departure from what is otherwise a modern espionage jaunt. These pit Bond as the ageing gunslinger, a field agent feeling the brunt of a very real existential crisis provoked by Denbigh’s mechanical tactics, but also an operative who is still able to get the job done. Taunted by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who, like Denbigh, is also plugged into the new world, Bond must confront the ghosts of his past in order to remain operationally relevant.

See, while reviving the franchise’s historical spirit, Spectre also roots itself in present day amenities. Denbigh is the corporate stooge infecting our treasured institutions, the guy who wants to take MI6 “out of the Dark Ages”. He heads up the Centre for National Security, or “George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” as M (Ralph Fiennes) puts it, a base designed to undemocratically scrutinise the globe. His vision is all-encompassing, a desk-based surveillance system that identifies and eliminates potential targets. Keyword: potential.

As Bond battles enemies in the field, seeing Fiennes and Scott engage in a dual over career politics is a warranted change of pace and one that never ceases to intrigue. A paranoid air arises based on the premise that any misstep might be critical, and this trope no longer only applies to Bond. The argument relayed by the old guard, essentially, is that espionage is too cloudy to be conducted in an impersonal manner.

This clash between old and new also incorporates Waltz’s Oberhauser, though the less said about him the better. He struts on screen encased in a cloud of shadow, Hoytema’s cinematography imbuing the character with immense mystique. We know exactly what Christoph Waltz looks like and yet we can’t help but wonder what sits beneath the darkness. Interactions between Oberhauser and Bond are few and far between and you do find yourself yearning for more, but perhaps the restraint employed by Mendes and his team of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth all contribute) is what funds the tantalising energy surrounding both men.

Romantic (or unromantic) strands are still odd and awkward to sit through, especially in 2015. Bond’s infallibility when it comes to courting women remains a key characteristic that is tough to get along with, though his relationship with Lea Séydoux’s Madeleine Swan is at least sort of understandable — Madeleine is, after all, the daughter of spy. His fleeting flirtation with Monica Bellucci, playing a grieving widow, isn’t quite as logical.

A word finally on Daniel Craig, who looks like he is once again enjoying himself after the stunning solemnity of Skyfall. Spectre may or may not be his last tux session. Either way there is no denying the actor’s quite remarkable achievement since donning the attire in Casino Royale: imperfectly humanising a foolproof iron man. I’m not so convinced viewers these days aspire to live the life of Bond, and that is a good thing.

Spectre - Daniel Craig

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Columbia Pictures

Horns (2014)

★★

Horns PosterDirector: Alexandre Aja

Release Date: October 29th, 2014 (UK); October 31st, 2014 (US)

Genre: Drama; Fantasy; Thriller

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella

Based on author Joe Hill’s novel of the same, Horns represents another opportunity for Daniel Radcliffe to shed his boy-wizard skin. The actor ought to be commended for selecting varied post-Potter roles that, at least from the out looking in, continue to pose different challenges: in recent years, he has played an Edwardian-era lawyer, a Beat Generation poet, and now a horn-growing murder suspect. This might be his most interesting role on paper, but not even Radcliffe’s admirable effort can save Alexandre Aja’s inconsistent adaptation.

Labelled a killer by many in his community, Ig Perish (Radcliffe) wakes up one morning to discover a pair of bulging discs protruding from his forehead. The swollen abnormalities eventually evolve into manic-looking devil horns which, despite Ig’s best efforts, cannot be remove. Bereft of answers, he tries to get on with his life in as normal a manner as possible, and this mainly involves conferring with childhood mate and legal counsel Lee (Max Minghella). Only, those around Ig don’t quite follow suit.

The tone at the beginning is almost wholly comedic. Animal horns fully realised, whenever a mournful Ig finds himself in the company of others, people start acting horrendously: a mother vehemently denounces her young daughter’s fairly innocent behaviour; a receptionist spits vulgarities in the presence of a child; and a doctor yearns for drugs, only not the healthy kind. Yet it all feels forced. The aloof ambience doesn’t really have a foundation, spawning with no support. Why are people acting abominably? Why does Ig have horns? And if we must: who killed girlfriend Merrin (played by a seriously short-changed Juno Temple)?

The latter question is the one that instigates the film’s goings-on, but it isn’t necessarily the one that drives the piece. Horns doesn’t really have a central pivot point as far as the narrative goes. Instead, there a few floating plot strands, none of which are amply examined. Most time is spent disputing the reality of Ig’s jagged head attire; there is an ongoing debate surrounding whether the horns actually exist, or if they are simply a figurative manifestation of guilt. See, not everyone is privy to the mini antlers, and the presumption therefore is that they can only cast a spell on immoral folk: “Maybe the horns just don’t work on good people?”

It’s a premise that has potential, as evidenced by the book’s success, but director Aja struggles to maintain a settled tone, nonchalantly jumping around from dark comedy to revenge-thriller to grotesque horror. This hampers events on-screen and distracts us. You get the sense a straightforward crime-mystery would have been more palatable — the oddness, the tonal inconsistency, is too isolating. It also hurts Ig; he gets caught up in the film’s vacillating tonal underbelly, cracking jokes one minute and weighed down by despair the next. Radcliffe affords his character a degree of watchability, but it is tough to sympathise with a wimpy and agitated protagonist.

Aja is aiming, it seems, for a 21st century hipster-ish Twin Peaks. Heather Graham appears as a waitress wearing bubblegum-red lipstick and cream -pink overalls. If that is not enough, at one point the camera pulls away from a band playing in a club, the background aquarium-blue in colour and the atmosphere red-tinted. Though, by then you’ve probably already loaded up disc one of the Twin Peaks box set. Whereas David Lynch’s mesmeric concoction — both TV series and film — bore elements of genuine horror and hazy addiction (not to mention its band of universally compelling characters), this succumbs to a disorientating factor that it never shakes. Horns needs a Horne.

We get a Scream citation in the form of a doting detective, short hairdo and moustache combo invoked, but sadly it ain’t circa-1996 David Arquette. Even though there is always room for peer admiration, the film gets too caught up in saluting other, frankly better, horror instalments and inevitably misses its own creative train as a result. When Horns does try to chisel out original content it makes a host of unsubtle references to faith and Hell. A parade of snakes stalk Ig at one point, but on this occasion Parseltongue bites the dust.

In another underfed narrative thread, an explosive childhood flashback recalls The Butterfly Effect. Its intention, I guess, is to subsidise the edgy themes at large and suggest that violence once brought Ig and his cohorts together and now violence is in the process of tearing them apart. Had screenwriter Keith Bunin spent more time exploring how we, as a public, engage in tragedy-induced media frenzies, there might have been more for viewers to chew on. Gone Girl is a recent film that bitingly critiques how people reveal their true selves in dire moments, and it is overflowing with fascinating relevance. Admittedly, Gone Girl is also simply an all-round better film.

Horns is quite well-played in parts. A battle sequence performed to “Personal Jesus” makes very little sense yet garners a chuckle. The outing also has a laudable non-distinctive aesthetic; it could be set at any time in the last thirty years. The piece deposits its comedic purpose for something scarier later on, though it’s nothing truly frightening. It’s all just a bit grim really.

Horns - Daniel Radcliffe

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Dimension Films, RADiUS-TWC

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

★★★

Maze Runner The Scorch Trials PosterDirector: Wes Ball

Release Date: September 10th, 2015 (UK); September 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Science fiction; Thriller

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, Aiden Gillen

As a direct follow up to The Maze Runner, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials grants director Wes Ball an opportunity to throw us straight out of the frying pan and into the fire. There is no time to catch up, no dialogue wasted on refresher exposition. You could stitch the final reel of the former onto the first reel of the latter and the flow would be seamless. It’s an approach that respects up-to-date viewers but also risks alienating franchise newbies; unlike the Divergent series, the lingo in this mid-franchise outing is harder to grasp — we suddenly learn of a virus called the Flare, a mountain-based faction who go by The Right Arm, and more about the horribly named corporate wrongdoers WCKD.

Aiden Gillen’s Janson, a facility head with an iffy demeanour, sets the scene: “The world out there’s in a precarious situation”. Perhaps the only thing less stable than civilisation is Gillen’s vacillating accent, though in fairness he does fund the film’s early uneasy air. Having escaped the maze, the Gladers — including Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Minho (Ki Hong Lee) — find themselves holed up in a bunker eerily similar to the one run by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) in the last film. Free from seclusion, freshly cooked food, their own bunk beds. It’s as if everything is too good to be true.

Only, in reality, nothing’s good anymore. The world outside, aptly rechristened the Scorch, has been ravaged by heat and disease. Zombie-like creatures called Cranks roam freely in search of flesh to chew on. A step up from the maze beasts, these clambering speedsters evoke a 28 Weeks Later vibe, especially as they are positioned within a climate of militant command and clinical action. Thomas, in spite of all this misery, manages to muster up some rebellious positivity. He is the eternal optimist in a pessimistic world.

Maybe they see a ray of hope radiating from Thomas in the wake of his stubborn idealism, but people do trust him too easily and this undermines the credibility of the story. Aris (Jacob Lofland), a loner who spent time in another maze before the bunker round-up, opts to collude with Thomas despite not knowing him. It is a theme throughout: our hero is heralded as a morally, physically, and mentally infallible being. When the group come across a refuge disguised as a dumping ground for old garments and rusty equipment, they all take the opportunity to dawn suitable Scorch clothing. Apart from Thomas, who discovers a suave jacket among the dross, something that could have graced Ryan Gosling in better times.

It’s as if all the others know he is the film’s central star. Fortunately none of this canonisation really matters because Dylan O’Brien is such a charismatic and inviting screen presence (a less capable frontman might’ve been insufferable given the circumstances). The film is arguably at its most compelling during those rare moments when Thomas does have to confront vulnerability. There’s an animosity at the fore, driven particularly by Teresa who begins to question her counterpart’s role in bringing about rebellion. Are they doing the correct thing by evading WCKD? Was the Glade as good as it was ever going to get?

Regardless, we know WCKD boasts an immoral underbelly. Towards the beginning, Thomas and Aris find out that Janson’s apparently safe retreat is actually a giant-shrimp-breeding-cum-human-blood-harvesting factory controlled by the aforementioned organisation. It may be a source material problem, or an issue with mainstream popcorn fiction in general, but the narrative occasionally lacks plausibility. Aside from the Thomas trust issue, even more blatantly obvious coincidences rear with jarring nonchalance: a revealing crisis conversation between Janson and Ava just so happens to occur in the company of Thomas and Aris on the night they break into the secret facility.

The message is clearly anti-corporation and anti-oppression, and T.S. Nowlin’s screenplay not-so-subtly channels that message via Thomas’ middle finger. These mature themes are matched by a horror-inspired underbelly that teeters right on the edge of a 12A UK rating. Fans of the Fallout video game series might mistake certain set pieces for similar looking locations in said game’s nuclear-torn Washington D.C. (an abandoned subway station springs to mind). Cinematographer Gyula Pados has more to play with here and the wider scope benefits Ball’s film greatly. Broken cities incite awe and wariness as they resemble the urban desolation shown at the end of Inception, while seemingly endless storm-strewn deserts echo Peter Weir’s The Way Back.

Giancarlo Esposito is one of a plethora of effective secondary characters — casting director Denise Chamain deserves credit for employing so many actors willing to maximise the potential of their bit part statuses. As leader of a ragtag stowaway group, Esposito purveys a mystery that keeps you on your toes (like Rick from The Walking Dead, he also always greets newcomers with three inquisitive questions). There’s an exquisitely queasy turn from Firefly favourite Alan Tudyk — who could do with a wash — though he is part of an unnecessary sideshow plot. Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel turns up as a Scorch survivor alongside Rosa Salazar’s strong-willed Brenda.

Having run the maze in sufficient time, they’ve now passed the trials with a splash of merit. It has been an entertaining if unspectacular effort so far. Let’s hope when part three — The Death Cure — rolls into the Scorch, SuperTom and co. finish with aplomb.

Maze Runner The Scorch Trials - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Everest (2015)

★★★★

Everest PosterDirector: Baltasar Kormákur

Release Date: September 18th, 2015 (UK); September 25th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson

“One in four died.” That’s the first thing we see on screen, a solitary line in a block of informative dialogue detailing the worrisome history of Everest expeditions. It is our dramatic lever, pulled at the inception just in case we’re not already aware of Mount Everest’s indiscriminate harshness. Throughout, numerous avalanches interrupt our viewing but unlike the false threat exhumed from similar-looking shots in the alpine-set Force Majeure, the danger here is very real.

William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (which may or may not be based on John Krakauer’s Into Thin Airdraw your own conclusions) sheds light and dark on the late-90s mountaineering disaster involving rival trekking companies. Going in bereft of any knowledge probably isn’t much of an advantage; there is a moment at around the forty minute mark that essentially earmarks the film’s ending. It is one of those disaster movie clichés — Titanic’s “You jump, I jump”; any conversation between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon — that acts as a sentimental forewarning.

Admirably, it is the only instance of pure sentimentality in a film more concerned with truth. Everest is cold, at times freezing, but authentic and gripping and no less emotionally involving as a result. Realising the dangers of a crowded field, opposing expedition leaders Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) — the former is excellent, relaying an exhausting and exhaustive performance — opt to team up during a simple scene bound by numerous layers: it shows two experienced climbers anxiously bowing at the mercy of the mountain, but does so in a manner that provides one of the film’s only junctures of light relief.

Fischer asks who will lead when they near the summit, and both men laugh. There is clarity in his words, an assertion that the need to achieve will always usurp the right to survive. Or, if you like, it’s just a rare chance to giggle. Baltasar Kormákur hones in on the competition between colleagues, a smart move that affords these men and women who are otherwise embroiled in an unrelatable escapade a degree of accessibility.

Invoked from the get-go, this competitive edge mirrors a layer of unsettled snow poised to subside at any moment. At the beginning the banter is weightless — it’s there, but the sly digs between Josh Brolin’s Texas-bred Beck Weathers and the aforementioned journalist John Krakauer carry an ominous undercurrent. The film’s atmosphere is driven by poorly disguised trepidation, and you just know something has to give. “There is competition between every person on this mountain,” says the hippie-esque Fischer, and it is palpable. But any interplay between the climbers is superfluous and Fischer acknowledges this shortly thereafter, declaring the mountain will inevitably have the last word.

In a sense Everest is about the pull of an unavoidable thrill. “Why?” asks Krakauer as he documents the climbers’ journey. “Because it’s there,” is the comically-inclined universal reply, but it is also the best reply the mountaineers can muster. Nobody really has a solid answer — postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) talks about his desire to be the everyman who conquered the monster and achieved the impossible. We’re left to ponder whether the reward eclipses the risk, a contemplation that becomes increasingly one-sided the more Hall’s pregnant wife (a game Keira Knightley) appears. Various other members of the group give their reasons: Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) references her need to complete the Seven Summits, having already commandeered the other six.

But each response to Krakauer is admonished with persiflage. It is as if the alpinists know the risk is too great, and they’ve simply given in to the thrill. An unfortunate offshoot of the film’s competition element is a spot about the completion of a celebratory magazine article. Emily Watson, who graciously adds oomph to her fairly thankless role as a glorified receptionist (the actors are very good en masse in generally underfed roles), is stressed about her company receiving a bad review in the midst of the encumbering drama, a whim that feels tonally fake.

Death is an inevitability and when it occurs it is visceral in a non-violent way. Shades of grey don’t exist; the landscape yields either white tundras or black crevasses, and as such when people pass they do so bluntly. Analysing the effectiveness of a death scene in this instance feels egregious and unnecessary, particularly given the victims are real people, but Kormákur does handle said moments with candour and, crucially, without mawkishness. Mass amounts of clothing and equipment make it difficult to differentiate between those on screen, reinforcing the notion that on Everest individuals are merely pawns, merely statistics.

Kormákur’s direction is adroit initially, and it gets better as things get worse. We often see the misty, black peak looming over base camp like a plague. Oxygen masks quickly resemble gas masks. Each second the climbers spend plodding up slopes represents an ounce of life extracted from their bodies. This dangerous aura is complemented by Salvatore Totino’s visual flair — the snow-covered ridges could easily pass for one of The Two Towers’ awe-inspiring New Zealand shots.

Enhanced by booming screening room speakers (Everest is definitely a cinema movie), the sound design frequently jabs at your solar plexus. You instinctively breathe a little more vociferously when things start to go wrong and the outing’s audio power does nothing to ease the tension. There is one tranquil shot that is particularly wonderful; at twilight, camped in the eye of the storm, the camera pans calmly around Hall and co. as they gaze longingly at their lofty goal.

Everest stays true to its subjects in a way that is both compelling and respectful, even if some individuals don’t receive the attention they likely should due to the constraints posed by an excessively large cast. By the end, as the credits paid tribute to many of those involved, I found myself in a morose state of sadness, agitation and admiration. For a ‘big disaster movie’, that’s pretty good going.

Everest

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

★★★

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation PosterDirector: Christopher McQuarrie

Release Date: 30th July, 2015 (UK); 31st July, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner

The Mission: Impossible films, in general, are good because the franchise knows exactly what it wants to be, and subsequently what it is. Rogue Nation, which once again pairs Tom Cruise with his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, understands its place in the action-thriller lexicon just as well as its four predecessors. The film opens with an exhilarating sequence familiar to those who have seen the trailer: IMF agent Ethan Hunt attempting to clamber inside a gigantic cargo plane as it takes off.

When he eventually boards, the spy-cum-trapeze artist aims a sly shrug at the camera and a shocked bad guy, before parachuting out of the plane with tonnes of nerve gas in tow. The moment reaffirms Cruise’s insanity whilst also ushering in an infectious tongue-in-cheek vibe that thrives indefinitely. “I’ve heard stories, they can’t all be true,” says an Impossible Missions Force operative to Hunt in the calmer scene that follows. They’re definitely all true.

This story centres on the IMF’s unauthorised motion to take down a terrorist organisation reeking global havoc, known as the Syndicate. It’s righteousness versus evil. Mission: Impossible knows it isn’t as gritty as Bourne or as intelligent as Bond, and Rogue Nation’s high-concept plot somewhat reflects that. McQuarrie’s movie is not in any way mindless though — quite the opposite. It purveys a frothy exuberance that relentlessly breathes life into the screenplay and a coyness reflected in said screenplay’s playful genre jabs.

The film constantly pokes fun at itself, reaching out and nudging viewers amid all of the high intensity nonsense and popcorn silliness. “Nessun Dorma” chimes out as Hunt and a big baddie perform combat acrobatics on a lighting rig above an opera performance. The higher the note, the more absurd it gets. But it’s entertaining, one of a few tremendous action set pieces. An underwater spectacle conveys the same technical merit as Gravity and is probably the best of the bunch, highlighting some really intuitive camera work from Robert Elswit — his shots manoeuvre with the stunts and become part of the slick show. We shouldn’t be surprised given his portfolio (There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler), and here Elswit introduces a cheery energy that those films didn’t have.

At one point Hunt ponders the location of a MacGuffin. Morocco apparently. Cue Lalo Schifrin’s mischievous theme and an ironic Cruise smile (not another sunny location!). He and Simon Pegg are fun to watch as odd buddies whose friendship you genuinely buy into. They meet up with Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust who, in an earlier scene, promptly turns Hunt’s condescending, “You should go before it gets ugly,” into something more appreciative (she rescues him by beating up a ragtag band of tough guys as he struggles to unlock his handcuffs). The character is a super addition and Ferguson nails it. She is tough like Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, but a great deal more emotionally receptive than Rita Vrataski.

Back to Morocco, where Faust outlines a seemingly impossible mission. Wink, wink. Her five minute spiel detailing the most difficult heist in history is delivered with such credible nonchalance that we actually believe the group can pull it off. They do. The conclusion of said heist signals a lengthy stretch during which the film loses steam. Like many overexuberant blockbusters, at almost two and a half hours Rogue Nation is too long, which means we get unnecessary gap-filling acts where characters speed around in fast vehicles with very little at stake.

McQuarrie tries to inject ambiguity into an otherwise conventional narrative by contemplating the trust-related pitfalls faced by agents (“There are no allies in statecraft, only common interests”). A fleeting Cold War-esque paranoia infects the air and sort of muddies various characters’ credibility. The aforementioned opera scene includes a three way shootout embodying this uncertainty. Is Faust a double, or triple, agent? Is Jeremy Renner’s — whose brilliantly snarky performance warrants much more screen time — William Brandt secretly liaising with Alec Baldwin’s CIA director? The suspicion mantle is overworked, demeaning characters’ decision-making and suggesting their motives lack focus.

On the other hand, the film’s modern day socio-economic terrorism angle isn’t explored enough. Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane is an underwhelming villain. He relentlessly places misguided trust in Faust, which only serves to undermine his intellect. Lane is not a hulking enemy — a guy called the ‘Bone Doctor’ fulfils our hard-hitting desires — which is fine, but because we don’t comprehend his savvy as much as we should he never feels like much of a threat.

This sticks its tongue out until the very end and earns the right to be whimsical. There aren’t any attempts to sit at tables already reserved by other action staples. The film resultantly doesn’t have a sharp bite, which might be for the best given the flippant nature of its only moderately engaging thematic endeavours. Rogue Nation is still probably the IMF’s best outing to date though.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - Cruise & Ferguson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collier

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

★★★★

Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me PosterDirector: David Lynch

Release Date: August 28th, 1992 (US); November 20th, 1992 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Kyle MacLachlan

Before getting into the nitty-gritty — and this really is nitty and gritty — Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me opens with a 25 minute minisode. We watch as FBI Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) investigate a murder in Deer Meadow that reeks with familiarity. While discussing cryptic messages Sam asks, “What exactly did that mean?” to which his partner replies, “I’ll explain it to you”. Fans of the television show have asking the same question and hoping for the same answer since the second season of Twin Peaks concluded, but answers are in short supply here.

David Lynch’s movie acts as a prequel to his cult TV hit, and is film that pitches its tent firmly in the past. Lynch only lightly touches upon the show’s cliffhanger ending — if you haven’t seen Twin Peaks and have plans to see it, stop reading now — instead opting to focus on the events leading up to the murder of Laura Palmer. Risky? Certainly. Frustrating? Probably, though the news that another season is on the way has likely rendered much frustration obsolete. Fire Walk with Me brings the almost mythical figure of Laura Palmer to life, and does so brilliantly.

Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is a high school student plagued by an evil spirit known as BOB (Frank Silva), who appears in her uncanny visions and demented dreams. In Twin Peaks, she has already been killed by BOB and Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to find the then unknown culprit. Here, the events leading up to Palmer’s death are explored in detail, including her drug addled experiences and her father Leland’s (Ray Wise) own demonic possession.

The Chester-Sam preamble exudes a classic Lynchian essence, lulling us into a false sense of security from the get-go. Life in Deer Meadow looks, sounds and feels worse than life in Twin Peaks: the coffee at the local sheriff’s station is outdated; the owner of the diner is old, abrasive and foul-toothed, far removed from Norma Jennings; and there are no food specials either. Not even a sliver of cherry pie. You begin to miss spending time in Twin Peaks, its oddness and peculiarity and vitality in short supply. And we never truly revisit that kooky town.

Coop appears under false pretences — despite captaining the television show, he’s only a bit part player here (primarily due to MacLachlan’s return worries). Angelo Badalamenti’s twangy score reverberates as Ron Garcia’s cinematography hones in on that recognisable welcome sign, but it soon becomes obvious that Fire Walk with Me is a different animal to Lynch’s small screen work. It is Laura’s story, which is by and large miserable and horrifying. “Do you think that if you were falling in space you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?” best friend Donna muses. Laura assuredly hits back, “Faster and faster”. That’s her predicament. Spiralling without a harness.

Sheryl Lee’s range is impressive. Her demeanour effortlessly switches from dreamy, to seductive, to ponderous, to deranged, to hysterical, depending on BOB’s stranglehold at any given moment. Despite knowing the finality of her arc, a dramatic heft still remains and that is largely due to Lee’s sympathetic portrayal. We want her to survive for moral reasons, but also because we know her interactions with Coop et al would be compelling and fun (granted, her survival would render Twin Peaks pointless in the first place). Enya-esque music adds to Laura’s angelic qualities, the dulcet and delicate inflections indicating an impending loss of innocence.

Performances are over the top at times, a by-product of Lynch’s soap opera brand. The director tones down any potential melodrama though, instead seeking out scares. And there are some properly terrifying moments; at one point BOB hides awkwardly in Laura’s room, poised in a corner behind a chest of drawers. The scene is actually a jump scare, but one done well — it chills for longer because BOB’s uncouth posture and uncontrollable lunacy can do little else but leave a lasting impression. Frank Silva has always infused the Twin Peaks landscape with an edge-of-your-seat mania, and he steps it up another notch here.

The persiflage-like comedic oddities that richly emboldened the television show aren’t around. They certainly wouldn’t fit with Fire Walk with Me’s dark themes, but you do miss them. In their place is a mountain of debauchery, nudity and swearing. A seemingly everlasting Pink Room (a strip club of sorts) scene reflects this grimness. The floor resembles a destitute beach, with fag ash for sand and beer bottles for seaweed. Loud music means we need subtitles to understand what various characters are saying — sound is used efficiently throughout the film to amp up tension. It drags on a bit too long, but the room’s red, flashing textures do imitate hell and effectively mirror Laura’s harrowing plunge.

To the filmmaker’s credit, an air of horror lingers over every second of the movie. It helps that a pre-existing television show has already laid the groundwork as far as worldbuilding goes, and therefore all that remains is to plug holes with the correct tonal density. Lynch opts for a dark, thick substance that stinks of constant dread. He is essentially unpacking the mindset of a psychopath. As Leland Palmer succumbs to the nefarious tendencies of BOB, his fatherliness drains. He increasingly exudes a crazed Jack Torrance vibe; one dinner scene in particular communicates unbridled domestic terror.

This is also Leland’s story, but viewed from Laura’s external perspective. Lynch takes us through his psychopathic functionality, the primal loss of control, where what was once unlawful becomes lawful. In a way, this type of destabilised humanity can only be explained by inexplicable mysticism, an aspect explored with greater verve in Twin Peaks. Laura, able to fend off BOB’s corruptness but not his presence, faces a different type of corruption: she becomes a drug and sex addict, someone haunted by immorality.

If you are well-versed in the television show you’ll know where the film is headed, yet Lynch manages to frame the ending in a somewhat positive manner without jeopardising the preceding terror. Relief is the overarching emotion, perhaps a fitting tonal precursor to Twin Peaks. These moments of respite are uncommon in Fire Walk with Me, a genuinely underrated horror gem. That’s a lot of garmonbozia.

Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me - Laura & Leland

Images credit: IMP Awards, Welcome to Twin Peaks

Images copyright (©): New Line Cinema

Chappie (2015)

★★

Chappie PosterDirector: Neill Blomkamp

Release Date: March 6th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Shartlo Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman

As Chappie gets under way atop a wave of rolling news clips and documentary-style snippets, there’s a vague familiarity in the air. We soon meet Dean (Dev Patel), a quirky and smart employee, and shortly thereafter encounter the film’s titular robot (Sharlto Copley). The two become entrenched in a rebellion against corporate injustice, where agendas are warped by power and economics. There is a CEO overlord (Sigourney Weaver) with iffy morals and a brash militant understudy (Hugh Jackman) with iffier intentions, and it doesn’t take long for our artificially intelligent robot to intertwine with humanity’s complexities.

If you can hear any bells ringing in your mind at this point, it is because Chappie is another Neill Blomkamp film wrapped up in the woes of society and class and science. It’s District 9. It’s even sort of Elysium. The thematic content isn’t bad at all — the director has proven in the past that exploring societal issues can be a rewarding experience. Rather, Blomkamp’s third film struggles because it doesn’t differentiate itself from his previous two.

Nor does Chappie click tonally. We’re in a constant kinetic flux, the tone jumbled and jumping around too much, a problem embodied by our central machine who manifests as a bubbly toddler one minute and a gun-wielding lunatic the next. The robot doesn’t garner enough empathy to start with because he (it’s male, apparently) has never been a human. But the disconnect is ultimately established due to Chappie’s lack of identity. A human character can get away with this lack of identification because we can relate to a person more than a robot. It is possible for an AI character to do the same — Alicia Vikander manages without personality in Ex Machina — but not in this instance. Chappie, voiced fairly well by Sharlto Copley, is at his most engaging when he’s acting up; a car-jacking scene is one of the film’s few brilliant moments, almost as culturally reflective as it is hilarious.

Generally though, the bits and pieces that make up the film are all a bit weird. As former soldier Vincent, Hugh Jackman (despite being an entertaining watch) looks like he is about to film a Steve Irwin biopic. The South African duo, a musical group known as Die Antwoord, don’t fit into the gritty urbanised world. They belong in a Tim Burton fantasy adventure, though on the basis of their performances here, that won’t be happening any time soon. For some reason, Sigourney Weaver — who will be teaming up with Blomkamp again for his upcoming Alien revival — is underused as a plain company figurehead.

On the more reality-mirroring side of things, we see capitalist manipulation: “It’s expensive, it’s big and it’s ugly,” is the reply Vincent receives as he tries to sell army-ready machines to the army (we’re subsequently left to wonder why money isn’t being thrown at him). A thematic favourite of Blomkamp, machine intelligence versus human ideology, fuels an underbelly that is certainly justified given the postmodern technological surroundings, yet never really amounts to much. Had they not been made in such close proximity to one another, you would be forgiven for thinking the folks behind Chappie were privy to Wally Pfister’s Transcendence in relation to ideas on concluding. Despite that movie’s many shortcomings, it is actually better and more accomplished than Chappie.

On an aesthetic front, the post-industrial setting is a good one, however instead of being a vehicle for entrapment, the relentlessly murky and dank atmosphere quickly becomes a trend-setter for the bland story unfolding (pathetic fallacy gone wrong). There are some impressive slow motion shots employed during the action sequences that reverberate well with the film’s technological arc. In fact, Trent Opaloch’s cinematography is a success — in purely visual terms the film does its job. Opaloch worked on Blomkamp’s previous two outings as well as The Winter Soldier, and his notable efforts have earned him a spot on the next Captain America film too.

Unfortunately, the visual aspect can’t quite rescue Chappie from a messy final third. The film slowly saunters along towards a fairly energetic conclusion but by then we’re sitting wondering why we should care. There are so many different parties involved in the action at the end that it feels like the battle of the five armies all over again. In screenplay terms, this wholly contrived finale is just about the final nail in a coffin of banality and nonsensicalness.

Chappie isn’t a bad film, but at some point Blomkamp needs to change things up or else risk artistic homogenisation. He is obviously a talented filmmaker; the simple fact that his films have something pertinent to say about how we live, have lived and might live is testament to his skill level. But after two solid outings, Chappie feels like a step backwards. It’s almost as if the director who once challenged the norm has conformed to it.

Chappie - Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures