Son of Saul (2015)

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You know a film hits hard when, as the credits come up the audience is left quiet and no-one wants to be that one to leave first. ‘Son of Saul’ is that film that deals with one of the most atrocious events in history and delivers a story in such a rewarding and powerful way.

1944 and we’re located in Auschwitz for a day and a half as we follow Saul (Geza Rohrig). He is a Hungarian man of Jewish faith and unfortunately he’s a victim as he is a Sonderkommando; who are people prisoners made to work for the German camps for fear of their own deaths. We follow Saul as he sees a dying boy and takes this body as his own son.

It’s so clear to see why this Hungarian drama won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s gripping, unsettling and it doesn’t let you go. The horrors of concentration camps are truly felt in this movie, the noises, the dirt, the bodies all come into the fold to get under your skin and make you understand in some very small way what atrocities happened then.

Laszlo Nemes is incredible because as a director this is his debut film. It’s unflinching and different because it doesn’t gloss over anything. In fact Nemes gives this story a uniquely personal touch as we mostly stay with Saul for the entire duration. There are a lot of extreme close ups and the frame ratio both create a gnawing claustrophobia that gives the camp a nasty enclosed sense through the screen.

In similarity to ‘Birdman’ and The Revenant’, the style of this film is calm and unbroken. A lot of scenes are left uncut and the camera moves around the space letting the moments play out. Having people dying in the background or a character just staring silently for a long while really burrows into and makes what we see relentless, there is no escape like the victims of the German officers. We can of course never get close to feeling what they felt but this story does an unforgettable thing, as it throws us amongst the mud and fire of it all.

Nemes and Clara Royer both write this feature’s screenplay and it is heavy from start to finish. Just the beginning sees the mass and madness of people being queued into a building which you know can only end gravely. The script itself is less about the dialogue which means we never lose focus from the horrendous visuals. Any words spoken play an important part in the desperate rush for Saul to try and peacefully bury a boy or other characters sparking off an uprising to hopefully break free from their captors. A lot of the time we hear dialogue off screen whilst sitting on a close up, this whirls in your mind as you picture what is going on in the background.

Geza Rohrig is a quiet force for this film, not speaking much but staring or walking with a reserved and also tortured impression that is so human but also robotic. It’s a clever performance mixing the two as he comes across like a caring father figure but then he’s switched off, silent and programmed by evil men to carry out even more evil deeds. The cast of prisoners are all brilliant too in adding to the sprawl of visceral horrors.

This is a thoroughly deserving movie of its praise and award glory, a feat of war torn crime from supposed human beings that doesn’t let up and unnervingly almost never cuts/breaks away. It’s a difficult watch and extremely raw but it’s a serious topic and handled seriously by an impressive director to keep an eye on.

8/10

Special Correspondents (2016)

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This Netflix special outing from creator Ricky Gervais is pretty darn cringey and not because in the usual way of his TV writing perfectly setting up those awkward yet hilarious moments, no this comedy film is just hitting the cringe factor because it doesn’t strike satire, comic brilliance or sharp writing.

Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) is a smooth talking radio show presenter, but his boss doesn’t think he’s man enough to deal with the harder topics. Frank is tasked with reporting from Ecuador about a new war and the plight of the people, he ends up encouraging sound technician Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) to go with him but a mishap means they can’t get out of America and so they fake their reports from an upstairs spare room that happens to be opposite the news station building.

The premise sounds enticing enough and in fact I made sure to watch it on the day of its release to see if Gervais had pulled off a cool comedy bundle but the premise is all that’s enticing let me tell you. For the first thirty minutes the plot trickles along ticking all the expected screenwriting boxes that it feels as far removed from any of Gervais’ smart observations about the world and people. There is no true attempt at satire, the whole Ecuador issue and war, the faking of news is totally missed as we hear lame lines about Finch crapping himself.

It’s written and directed by the Reading born comedian/actor and I can safely say that it’s his stinkiest work yet. It just doesn’t look or sound smart or different which is a shame because as mentioned it has a great premise to work from. Based from a 2009 French film Gervais manages to include his usual buffoon nature and laugh and throws in a skewed romantic plot that is so obvious from the get go.

What I will say is that I did sit forward and like the movie a little more when the two journalists finally record a visual tape. They’re holed up and utilise on some cafe owners to play pretend kidnappers which leads to a funny back and forth between the four people in the room. Also, Gervais and his love for music and writing songs comes into an admittedly positive scene as Finch’s wife sings a song instead of caring that her husband is missing. These and the cafe owners generally funny confusions are the only great parts of the British/Canadian/American production that Netflix may wish to see further down the scrolling list of endless titles sooner rather than later.

Ricky Gervais is his usual self, no accents, no strong emotions. Just bumbling and pathetic as he usually plays so at least he’s typecast himself and plays that spineless man well. Eric Bana is the hunky guy but plays that arrogant sort of loner well, trying to smooze like a celebrity but really Bana doesn’t have much to play with as it’s a flatter than flat character. Vera Farmiga plays Gervais’ mean wife with a shrewd detail, she’s distant and rude and steals the film along with America Ferrera. Poor Kelly Macdonald is meek and two-dimensional as the clearly set up love interest for Ian and that’s all she’s there for.

There’s two or three good moments but any hope of satire or grand ideas are quickly kicked to the wayside to leave us with a disappointing and lukewarm movie.

4.5/10

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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A more grown up touch, insanely fun sequences and the grand ideas of fractions in the camp; this American superhero movie is certainly one of Marvel Studio’s best yet. There’s plenty to keep you entertained over the 147 minute run-time, so even though it does feel long occasionally, it still stands solidly as an action packed yet thoughtful comic book feature.

After Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his team try and stop Crossbones in Wakanda, some collateral damage causes world leaders to unite in trying to have the Avengers as a public ideal, called into action on their terms and not when the heroes decide to; causing mayhem in the midst of their actions. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) believes signing these Accords is the best decision and as others join his side, Steve finds himself questioning his motivation but carries on joined by a team as they come head to head in an internal battle that could see the hero squad disassembled.

Beautifully, this movie has courage in tackling the more adult idea of friends and foes. Seeing the Avengers fall apart because of their own egos and processes is darker and much more satisfying then an outside villain of robotic or space origins doing the damage. After the brilliantly political thriller vibes of Winter Soldier, the Captain America movies are doing a grand job of cementing their own tone. This outing has a brooding quality ticking away with a neat constant crisis of identity and failing comradery ensuring that theme isn’t overshadowed by action and special effects.

Captained or directed by Joe and Anthony Russo with a keen eye for giving characters, at least 14 main ones, a story arc and engaging factor is no mean feat and they do it so well. I had fears before seeing this movie that the amount of characters would bloat the plot and suffer the whole movie but even with the amount of people flying or running back and forth, it never feels messy which is a relief. The Russo Brothers manage to direct a fun yet intelligent film that keeps us hooked and expands on the motives of already well set up figures like Captain America and Iron Man whilst introducing new characters with their own narratives, goals and conflicts.

Dealing with a huge script like this, knowing audiences have expectations and want to see the moment a frozen soldier from WW2 fight a rich man in a suit as a cinematic moment of awesomeness must have been daunting but writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have successfully created a screenplay that includes all those gleeful battles but importantly they have tackled the big moral dilemma of what these heroes do, focusing a lot of the story on the worldwide destruction they leave behind, the people they hurt and all of this is written and shot in a way that feels grounded in reality which truly helps the movie feel relatable even if you know it could never happen.

Even if you know little or nothing of the comic book origins, this film has such an engrossing narrative idea that you end up mulling over the stance you’d take in this situation. This is a great use of interpolation as you question their actions and ultimately decide whose side you’d be on. There is a gut-punching aspect in this movie as we see the cracks appear and these once cartoonish characters become disillusioned, broken and hateful.

Flicking briefly over to the less than positive side, the movie did feel slightly long, not boring just a tad stretched in places. Also I know if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it but this whole Marvel formula is still evident, with the set up, opening fight, middle dilemma and grand ending battle. So even though it does stand upright with its own tone and juggles a lot of characters splendidly, it doesn’t break the mould which I hope it would. There’s also the niggling idea that I want them to be braver in their execution, literally. They should be confident that we’ll still keep coming back even if they kill off characters but you never going in expecting anyone big to die, so all threat of that feels void of feeling.

Great muscle man Chris Evans is still on form as Captain America, his shield technique and fighting growing more impressive as he goes on. Evans plays Rogers in a more developed way too, showing the confused yet patriotic nature as he believes they must continue fighting even if the world doesn’t want them too. Robert Downey Jr. gets to showcase more emotion as a haunting moment of his past plays a heavy weight on the plot. He’s still got charm and witty lines to deliver in his usual way which I’m not complaining about and he also appears as a creepy smooth young version of himself. Scarlett Johansson kicks ass with more head-smacking hand to hand combat and showcases her agent background as Black Widow more. You never know where she is in terms of what camp she’ll settle with, her performance grows as if pleading with Rogers to help stop the inevitable fallout. Elizabeth Olsen is back, and not held back as she waves her fingers creating masses of magical damage. Olsen acts as the figure people are scared of well, because she’s just like a lost girl afraid herself of what she can do and what might happen before realising her strengths. The two new main cast members are great; Chadwick Boseman is stealthy and cool as Black Panther and entices us to what else we’ll see down the line. Tom Holland is a perfectly set up Spider-Man, fast and agile in his new suit and irritatingly dweeby yet fun as Peter Parker. The film is filled with a superb ensemble from Daniel Bruhl to Paul Rudd. Also can it become canon that every CA film has someone from Community in it!

Heroes fall in this genuinely fun action movie, it may not be as good as Winter Soldier but it’s got plenty of thematic interest, a talented cast and a great sign of things to come. What a smashing way to kick off Phase Three.

7.5/10

Miles Ahead (2016)

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I’m going to plead ignorance here, but I went into this film not knowing anything about the musician Miles Davis. Upon exiting this American biopic I feel I know more about his lifestyle but if anything it didn’t really explain much for the common place audience member. It’s as if it didn’t really capture all essences of who this man was and how he got there.

Apparent Rolling Stones writer Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) is interviewing famous jazz icon Miles Davis (Don Cheadle). This leads us back to how they first met and what Dave discovers is that Davis has a mix-tape (reel) of new material after a long absence. Everyone wants it but Davis doesn’t want to hand it in to Columbia Records, he starts thinking back on his music and his relationship with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as everything racks up.

Now, I honestly don’t know what of this movie was real, based on real events or typically altered hugely by the big Hollywood machine. Maybe this sounds stupid but I think this could have dealt with including more pandering to help push along people like myself who don’t know anything about Miles Davis. Because for all I know, what I saw in the heated action and gun fighting of trying to get a mix-tape (reel) is 100% accurate. Also the ending in an obviously now I realise poetic way for his legacy states Miles’ name, then 1926 -, as if he’s still alive, which after checking I can verify he isn’t. So it makes me wonder how much of this admittedly stylish and interesting movie was over exaggerated. Not a good point for a biographical movie.

Don Cheadle is a sturdy War Machine as director, actor, writer, additional composer and producer for this 2015 New York Film Festival closer. He does a great job in all fields and so much so as the director. The way scenes meld into each other or cut sharply into a later/earlier version of Miles or Dave is seamless and cool. It helps the story move along nicely and keep this gangster-esque vibe at sleek levels. It’s mostly a flashback and we flash further back in places, each time arriving with a piece of audio or image that effortlessly transports us to the next moment, which in a way stands for a brilliant statement of Miles Davis’ timeless persona.

It’s not like other biopics I’ve seen before which both is a good and bad thing. It’s good because it’s engaging and not boring, unlike the more conventional ‘Jersey Boys’. It has a musicality at all times, I swear there was a jazz or brassy beat behind all scenes which gave it a coffee shop lift. Then on the flip side, having it flick back and forth and meld possible untrue sequences makes it difficult to buy into and I still feel like I know zilch about the trumpet player, heck even one moment near the end made me think he couldn’t even play the instrument.

Cheadle is a powerhouse as the man behind the golden trumpet, he brings a swagger and electric edge to the role, his physicality dominating the screen and making Miles feel like a force of nature as well as music. The times when he’s more subdued and reminiscing are played nicely, showing the more broken side of Davis. Ewan McGregor is a fun part of the cast, playing a Scots fraud with a buzz kill side in the hope to scoop some story on Miles, but he plays the likable factor well as their odd friendship grows. Emayatzy Corinealdi is beautiful and human as the least cartoonish figure. She provides the drama and shattered dreams of life to great heights that help show the damage Miles can create. Michael Stuhlbarg is once again a fascinating watch, his moustached Harper Hamilton being shady and like a 1920’s honcho with a tricksy manner in his voice and look.

The plot may be hard to jump on board with and it skids off into a weird bio-pic wasteland of trying something new but it’s got style and Don Cheadle rocking the house with an expressive and enjoyable performance.

6/10

Friend Request (2016)

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First released in Germany, this techno fright horror tries desperately to burrow under the audience’s skin but becomes ridiculous and as it goes on and on it stretches to attaining near yawn fest status, like ones in your social media past that you regret posting.

Highly popular college student Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is liked by everyone on and off social media. One day she receives a Facebook friend request from outcast Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers), who Laura hardly knows but Marina believes their connection to be real and lasting, so when she’s unfriended, she takes her own life and starts possessing Laura’s internet and stalking her friends with an evil thirst to kill.

Coming to screens like a poor ‘Unfriended’ which was distributed almost a year ago, this supernatural horror feels like a cheap knock off even if some of the gory effects are decent. It’s most of what you’ve seen before when concerning movies of this genre, the jump-scares and the insane levels of loud noise that blasts with it are back, false scares and creepy stalkers, basements, burning houses and insects all play the part in the big ol’ cliché hit list.

I know ‘Unfriended’ was of a similar plot and I rated it a 7 out of 10, but what that had going for it was a neat rising tension and the fun yet worrying aspect of everything being seen through Facebook pages or Skype as if the entire movie was a computer and we were voyeurs to the dying and terror. This film sadly has no pulling visual and is in fact a sort of spin off to last year’s film because it did so well. The fact then, that it is trying to be in the same world makes it feel even more repetitive and trying.

Many times I just felt like I was watching the same plot and that’s not a good feeling. The set-up is done well enough I guess in making Marina creepy as hell but once we’re seeing the true nature of her ghostly/witching ways it bleeds into over the top laugh-ability and not scary like it so should be. First time watchers of horror may enjoy this but seeing many before and especially ‘Unfriended’ this feels like a slow and tame watch.

It never goes beyond the idea of computer hacking and demonic power, it’s a pretty dull affair that seems to meander into deaths and awful changes in character instead of focusing on making the story stronger and racking up tension. I must admit I liked the initial idea of the ending making a character suffer but then a hilarious name change and contact lenses to the camera made me walk out of the film feeling like it had been a pointless and unpleasant viewing.

Debnam-Carey plays the lead like a pretty white girl in horror films does best, screaming, crying and trying to survive. She’s attractive and looks broken but isn’t anything much more than that. Connor Paolo is darkly mysterious as Kobe, tattoos, staring eyes and a hunger for Laura make him someone vaguely interesting to watch. Liesl Ahlers is a superbly creepy vision as the hooded, black haired trichotillomaniac. Marina possesses a truly twisted Facebook page and goes on to possess most other characters with her pale skin and black eyes doing the work in making her a figure to avoid.

This film is more laughable than it ever should be, the whole Facebook angle is dumb and for me an unwanted copy of a much more interesting movie. If this movie comes into your friend inbox then delete that invitation pronto.

4.5/10

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

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This 62 minute animation from the weirdly artistic and absurd Don Hertzfeldt is funny, philosophical and unsettling. The notions of life and the crippling fear of losing it is dealt with in a comedic yet dark way that worms into you as you watch.

There are 3 chapters to this movie as Hertzfeldt created three separate shorts before combining them all. The first segment titled ‘Everything Will Be OK’ focuses on stick-man Bill and his medical condition. The second chapter, ‘I Am So Proud of You’ sees more of Bill’s past and his Grandma too. Then ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’ wraps up things with Bill in hospital and coming to realise death could be taking him soon.

It’s a great hour-ish feature that involves us with a stick character, more amazingly it manages to get inside our heads about Bill losing his. Bill’s mind is getting frayed and he’s clearly losing it but he’s still engaging and as we see him do things, the film speaks out in a personal way. The grand scare of forgetting everything and moving on is dealt with a blackly comic manner but has droppings of revelations and visionary splendour.

It isn’t just stick creations and black and white, there are real life backgrounds that enhance the story. Trees or skies or cities fill the screen adding a quirky edge to the wobbly drawn lines of Bill and his world. Flashes of colour also speak volumes in actually being alarming and akin to the mental state of Bill. This narrative and the squawks of reds and oranges burst out like the disturbing nature of the ‘Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared’ videos. Bill’s life is animated at such an absurdist level that shows off the affecting thoughts life can throw up.

Hertzfeldt writes and directs and well pretty much does everything for this film. The story is great for the most part. There’s brilliantly tossed in lines about persecuting Jews, train deaths or inconvenient caskets and general quick fire comments that are random but poignant. The dark humour tag couldn’t be more right for this film, it steps into the same shady landscape of ‘Salad Fingers’ and his unsettling tone. From ex-girlfriends, literal fish heads and a tennis shoe filled with leaves, this movie paints a uniquely twisted look on heartbreak, family, life and death.

Musically this film is backed by many classical composers that do magic in making everything seem grander and more profound. The droll humour of the nonchalant narration adds another grit of sound to the collection of used car noises or screeches in the more nightmarish moments. It’s as if the voice leading the story forward is unbothered but charismatic enough to make the words stick.

If you’ve always been interested in films with a difference than this animated spin on memory, melancholia, loss and life in between should be right up your hand-drawn street. If not then check out the weirdest Simpsons couch gag by Hertzfeldt called ‘Clown in the Dumps’ to see what kind of absurd visuals I’m on about.

6.5/10

 

 

The Final Girls (2015)

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Not in any way schlocky or dumb as you might expect, this is actually a smart ripping on the slasher genre with modern and 80’s horror melding together in a fun yet affectionate yarn about working together to survive the unstoppable horror movie killer.

On the anniversary of a tragic car accident, Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga) doesn’t feel like attending a back-to-back screening of the Camp Bloodbath movies, but she’s convinced by nerdy Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), so along with her friend she goes to the cinema. A fire breaks out within the theatre and Max, Duncan, friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat), crush Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and Chris’ ex Vicki (Nina Dobrev) end up within the Camp Bloodbath movie and must evade the masked murderer.

The look of this film is spot on, striding with a palette of purples and blues that scream 1980’s. The cabin and counsellors idea is a trope of teen slashers most know of and they spoof it well as the present day characters are immersed into the 80’s world. It’s handled both comically in the way the film within the film figures don’t get modern technology but also sweetly in its clear love for horror and the way they use the know-how of the plot to try and help the characters.

Todd Strauss-Schulson makes this film an enjoyable and totally immersive ride as we too know enough about the outcome of Camp Bloodbath that we think about what we’d do if stuck in a movie like that. It’s perfectly shot as a shaky B movie turned cult classic, the acting is deliciously over the top, the killer is Michael Myers enough, the dialogue is cheesy and the music is synth gold. He directs with an obvious eye for horror moments and plays on these very well so we don’t always know what may come round the corner.

Flashbacks and slow-motion are two fascinating cinematic tools used in this movie for great effect. The past bleeds into life and we see the 50’s, or characters try blurting out words but are stuck in a sequence of slow-motion which becomes a dramatic and yet hilarious run from Billy the machete wielding maniac. The idea of final girls, sluts dying and a killer always getting up are all used here but they twist it enough to keep the material exciting and generally the idea of having characters ending up within a horror movie is smart and meta magnificence.

Gregory James Jenkins’ score is a grin inducing electronic one that rides over the film in an enhancing way to sell the 80’s vibe, songs like ‘Mickey’ and ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ are also used in cool ways to show the loop of the film or the sad punch of a character’s fate. This film is cheesy and that but it surprised me with a solid emotional lining. You end up caring for the characters and when you know their time is up it hits you more than you’d expect for a slasher feature.

Taissa Farmiga is often silent and assured and portrays this thinking virgin with a convincing innocence though she manages to be the bad ass to help try and kill Billy with ease. Malin Akerman plays the caring blonde Nancy as the final girl you’d expect but she has more to this film and you feel for her as she makes her decisions and pairs up with Max. Middleditch is a fun horror geek addition needed for this type of structure, his mouthing of the script or fanatical reactions to seeing Billy are brilliant. Nina Dobrev and Alia Shawkat are two great female parts, working in the set up and still showing of their characteristics, Dobrev wanting to be the final girl and save the day but scared of being the bitch and Shawkat falling for one of the film characters and trying to help Max. I must also give kudos to Adam DeVine, who plays a jock but such a buffoon and moronic character that he acts splendidly that you wish him to die.

Jumping between comedy, meta, horror and drama of letting go, this movie is surprisingly clever and so amusing. It also boasts a gleeful ending to follow a gag filled satire and adoring look at the slasher genre.

7.5/10