Category Archives: Film

Shelf Bite: Ex Machina

ex_machinaThere is nothing more human than the will to survive

‘Did you program her to flirt with me?’

Man’s fascination with playing God is a central concept to all those science fiction tales that force us to question our own place in the universe and the legacy we may leave behind. As with the seminal masterpiece, Blade Runner, where Ridley Scott built upon the visual details laid out by Fritz Lang and Moebius; Director, Alex Garland strips back the oppressed gloom yet still infuses the film’s narrative with a strong sense of philosophy, psychology and religious themes. The result is a near future with a similar, cynical undertone to Charlie Brooker’s series, Black Mirror – a pristine, product placed future that seems to be set next year rather than a far flung, dystopic conceit. Garland’s flawless script is about the trio of characters and their central conflict rather than a brash, Hollywood fair and closer in tone to a piece of theatre. The central drama is compelling and the special effects, as refined as they are, become almost invisible. Domhnall Gleeson’s naïve programmer contrasts Oscar Isaac’s nihilistic billionaire as he studies the interaction between his employee and A.I., Ava played by the beguiling, Alicia Vkander. With enough red herrings to keep any sci-phile on their toes, Ex Machina delivers a supreme vision of a future we are closer to than we realise.

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Shelf Bite: It Follows

movie-posters-twofive-04It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up

‘It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.’

Another step into Carpenterville that explores the common tropes of 1980s slasher films in a unique and artful manner. Director, David Robert Mitchell infuses the camera with voyeuristic undertones that allows ‘it’ to perform; linger, creep and zoom in on our central character as she is ‘followed’ by an entity passed on through sex. With some genuinely disturbing visuals and, at times, misjudged acts of sexual (Freudian) violence the film builds enough tension to hold it’s audience until the final act looses it momentum. Maika Monroe, already beginning to build up a retro reputation from The Guest, delivers a sullen, paranoid performance that helps to highlight the separation and independency that teenagers begin to experience as they move away from their adolescence and the mistakes they make. The synth soundtrack and production design is both subtle and ‘in your face’ at times; much like the central theme. As with most films that involve teenagers; the characters remain oddly unsympathetic surrounded by distanced adults and yet, in highlighting those common moments of ‘don’t go there’, still manages to deliver a more than effective horror film.

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American Sniper

 American-Sniper-Movie-PosterSharp Shooting?

‘There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.’

There has been much controversy surrounding Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper based on both its depiction of the central character, Chris Kyle and the innocents caught in the cross fire of bullets and politics. Many arguments have been forged around the film based on its apparent nationalist leanings, all of which are embedded in many US war films leading to propagandist views. Is American Sniper a patriotic, often one-sided view? Absolutely – the clue is in the title. Is American Sniper ground breaking cinema? No – nor does it try to be anything else. What it does do is attempt to deliver how one man becomes a killer and in his own warped perception, a ‘sheep dog’ who protects the flock only to leave what is most important behind as he sheds all humanity in order to pull the trigger.

It is interesting to note that Steven Spielberg was originally set to direct and had plans to expand on the Iraqi sniper and in equal measure show a point of view that would help humanise the other side. Aside from this being a less marketable offering, it is Eastwood’s fearless trademark approach of stripped down efficiency to his direction that also makes it such a different film. It is more than clear that, although it is briefly touched upon in a scene that lasts no more than a minute with the opposing sniper’s wife and child watching him pick up his rifle; Eastwood’s story was to focus primarily on Kyle and the impact of his killer instinct on not just himself but also his own wife and children. It is here that both Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, considering the sensitive nature of the story, deliver more than earnest performances – Miller in particular who is beginning to show a deft in her acting that is marking somewhat of a recent revival of her career.

Unfortunately it is the nature of film to manipulate and sacrifice most truth for cinematic effect yet, after the shit storm has settled; there needs to be a degree of responsibility in the messages it conveys. Most see this film as what it is and find it difficult to see past how one of the most respected and revered filmmakers has the only balls in Hollywood to deliver a film that doesn’t just provoke but aims for the kill. Only Clint could do this and for that alone there is a degree of respect in the film’s execution rather than that of Kyle’s own actions. Yet, in order to do that, there is the difficult decision of removing oneself from the original material and, in the wake of recent incidences at home and abroad that involves the potent image of the gun it begs another debate whether anyone should be watching such films at all.

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Shelf Bite: The Guest

The_Guest_Main_One_Sheet.jpg_cmykBe careful who you let in

‘I’m afraid I haven’t been fully honest with you…’

If you’re an appreciator of the current trend in retro thrillers kick started by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive then The Guest is another welcome addition to the sub genre. Much like Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, the Director’s latest effort is a film that mixes sinister undertones, blistering action, thrill of the hunt and a dose of horror akin to the best of John Carpenter. There is even the menace of James Cameron’s original Terminator programmed with enough charm and finesse to give Jason Bourne a run for his money. With a solid soundtrack that sets the perfect tone Wingard keeps the delirium flying while he throws one or two red herrings into the mix. The Guest doesn’t set any new precedence’s but delivers a lethal punch and old school affair that elevates Dan Stevens’ central performance well beyond Downton Abbey’s tweed stereotypes.

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Jaws 40th

-font-b-Jaws-b-font-font-b-JAWS-b-font-Movie-Cloth-SIlk-font-bIt’s not about the Shark

‘Here’s to swimmin‘ with bow legged women!’

In a proverbial sense of the word, Jaws is very much about a shark. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece in Hitchcockian suspense is a piece of celluloid that, not only kicked off the summer blockbuster but also continued to terrify, traumatise and help to signify an entire generation. The bold four letters and iconic image of the poster alone conjures an immediate, almost primordial reaction and has enabled the iconography of such a film to transcend age, language and cultural background to build on its lauded, legendary universal appeal. And, let’s not forget John Williams’ iconic soundtrack; the shark’s signature akin to Prokofiev’s wolf – a deep, instinctive sound that plods and thumps along until it reaches its frenzy; conditioning the audience all the more.

Yet, Jaws isn’t really about a shark at all and the basis of this can be seen in Peter Benchley’s original novel. In his attempt to paint more soap operatic elements, Benchley peppered his plot with a rather cheap attempt to emulate a slice of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as Mayor Larry Vaughn’s mafia connections are exposed amongst shady political undertones and conflict of class. The result tends to deliver some uncomfortable racial tension and misogynistic undertones – the later of which culminates in an unforgettable moment where Lorraine Brody’s affair with Hooper resembles something closer to J.G. Ballard’s Crash. For all it’s pulpy foibles, Benchley made every effort to craft his work into a piece of literature that had much more going on ‘beneath the surface’ as many of the characters were, seemingly, caught in the jaws of their own flaws; eaten away from inside rather than devoured so figuratively by a lone predator. The shark is therefore background noise and in stripping away these elements, screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb helped to refine a story that was built around three very distinct male characters and, most importantly; witnessing what happens when a Great White shark terrorizes a small community.

With the shark centre stage to the story, Spielberg very much set out to make a film about a shark by dropping the broader sweeps and literary vices that could have sunk the whole film. Yet, it wasn’t his original intention to be so sparing with the shark’s screen time and, due to the unreliable nature of the animatronics and brutal nature of the sea, Spielberg was forced to be creative with the camera. Saving the film through a more submersed and therefore psychological experience of treading water, the final result took on the uncomfortable feeling of being placed within the belly of the beast as the camera becomes more than our eyes and aids in the horrific moments during the first act where the shark attacks.

As Chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) tackles his fear of the water. We all pretty much experience what he is going through; a man who has brought his family to a small island, trapped and left to flounder somewhat as he attempts to persuade the local Mayor to close the beaches. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the smart, Oceanographer highlights further how dangerous it is through his knowledge of the Great White; while shark fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) scratches his nails down the chalkboard and introduces himself in legendary fashion. As the second act of the film unfolds the story becomes more of an adventure tale of three men on a boat, boasting scars while Shaw, in all his method, delivers the unforgettable Indianapolis speech that grips you as much as the shark takes hold of its victims.

Spielberg always intended Jaws to be about a shark and would never argue otherwise. But as any classic film gains weight and veritable credence it is only by dissecting the very nature of the animal within to understand fully what else it may represent. It is through analysis that separates the average cinema goer to the cineliterate – those who wish to be merely entertained other than those those who seek more of a reward. Of course, Jaws is hardly Eisenstein, but without a doubt just as important in what it achieved – a film that was set up to fail at each hurdle; over schedule, over budget – an ambitious effort that forced a revolutionary young film maker to bend the rules and think very much on his feet whenever he was able to reach dry land.

When I was a kid, it was always about the shark. I can recall the first time it was on television – one of three traumatising incidences in film at a young age; this one up there with my hero, Lee Majors being eaten alive by Piranha in Killer Fish. This was another aquatic incident involving creatures of the deep that not only cemented my life-long obsession in film but also an interest in sharks, so much so I was labelled ‘Shark boy’ at school. My thirst for writing resulted in a highly pretentious rip-off at the age of eleven in my attempt to write a novel called, (wince) There’s Blood in the Water – ironically not that far off what the original novel, Jaws was going to be called. There lies the genius, you see – where writing is, more than often, about the distillation of the material where the story holds the depth; the title has to summarise what the story is about. The title ‘Jaws’ is suggestive (jaws of what?) it doesn’t tell you anything unless you understand its context, which is often one of the golden rules you learn within the craft to elevate your work beyond naivety and emulating your favourite stories. Because this story is so universal and embedded within popular culture it can be very difficult to separate one’s self from the concept, which proves its power all the more.

Jaws is many things – a thriller, a horror an adventure tale, a masterclass in screenwriting, direction, editing, set design, production, acting and marketing that helped Hollywood keep its head well above the waterline. Jaws was a phenomenon that paved the way to a galaxy far, far away…showing that even a fake looking shark has more legs than any CGI effect.

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Spring

Spring_poster_goldposter_com_2-400x592Love is a Monster

‘I don’t think you’re ready for where this is going.’

Often, amongst the subpar horror fair of late, there are the hidden artefacts you stumble across that dare to deliver something different. As part of the current renaissance in intelligent, independent horror films that have the unhinged freedom to explore more metaphysical concepts there are the hidden gems built on the germ of an idea – the less tangible…the less obvious. Often deemed to have smaller audiences, the likes of Honeymoon and The Babadook have, at their core, something deeply personal shrouded in expressionistic brushstrokes that help to convey more thought provoking ideas. Although The Babadook descended into more of a cliché, Honeymoon managed to retain its serious, speculative approach and it is the same conviction that makes Spring one of the strongest horror films of 2015. It’s a sad state of affairs that such a masterpiece has zero marketing and is only released in the UK on DVD at the bargain bin price of £4.99.

With its more obvious tropes nested in the masterful tales of H.P. Lovecraft, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s second feature reminds us how a heady mix of romance can work wonders. Traditionally, these genres are not as removed from one another as we may think and have more than been taken advantage of in these Twihard years. Yet Spring manages to deliver a fresh and often beguiling approach with its meandering nature and stunning scenery swaying close to Richard Linklater’s conversational piece, Before Sunrise and therefore attempts to avoid the imagery we are all too familiar with.

After his mother passes away, a young bartender by the name of Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is left alone and angry with regret. When he prevents his friend from a potential glassing, a bar brawl ensues which results in the loss of his job. Before long his life is threatened by the hapless thug and the authorities begin their search. With nothing left to keep him rooted, Evan sets off for a random destination and ends up in Italy where he briefly meets up with a couple of cockney backpackers, secures a part time job and, amongst the wine and sunshine, meets the beautiful and alluring Louise (Nadia Hilker). As they begin to spend time with one another, it is soon clear that she hides a dark and terrifying secret that literally evolves throughout the course of the film.

Comparisons to Upstream Colour can also be noted; yet where Shane Carruth’s film deals with many ambiguous themes in a more speculative light, the visual language is just as arresting. Throughout the labyrinthine streets and swell of the sea, Benson and Moorhead take their time to explore character, which enables the viewer to accept the grotesque transformations Louise undertakes. In the moments the creature is seen it is disquieting, unsettling, shocking and disturbing – each transformation exploring the familiar while still retaining a fresh direction that helps to elevate its more primordial nature.

While Evan’s character deals with his estrangement from his homeland, it is during a key scene that reminds us of his unbridled love – in that no matter what happens to those closest to you, love knows no bounds; both emotionally and physically. In the opening moments of the film we understand Evan’s grief and relationship with his mother before he is cast adrift. As much as Louise is a myth, Evan is the truth behind how simple one man’s love can be.

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Rust and Bone

Rust-and-Bone-PosterBrutal Romanticism

‘If we continue, we have to do it right.’

Jacques Audiard’s unflinching melodrama is an exploration of how physical nature can render emotion – how they collide…and how often one cannot survive without the other. Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) plays Alain, a single parent who attempts to look after his young boy after setting up a new life with his sister and her husband. This is a man who is more brawn than brains and his physicality lands him a number of roles that lead to a series of actions as the story unfolds. After he takes on his first job as a bouncer he meets Stéphanie, played by Marion Cotillard; who, once again, reminds us of her depth and versatility as she takes us through the pain and gradual rehabilitation of an amputee.

Their chance encounter reveals her distractions that lead to a horrific accident during her day job as an Orca trainer. At first we think she is dependent on him but as her will power increases and the relationship develops, it is clear that they are dependent on each other. Where there is strength there is weakness. Where there is tenderness there is brute force. Where there is tranquility…there is rage. This is the story of how an emotionally handicapped man relates to a physically handicapped woman – one who insults and destroys everything and anyone around him, while the she rebuilds her life. Using Alain’s lack of sympathy to her advantage, his disconnection helps her deal with the situation in a positive way – a subtle, yet complex approach to any modern love story. As Audiard builds each scene with broad strokes, as much as he focuses on the details, he is constantly aware of the juxtaposed nature of the story that builds towards a heart-stopping conclusion. Rust and Bone may be gritty and unconventional for most, but there is no doubt that it delivers unrivalled passion at every level.

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The Conflict of Captain America – Part IV

After Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting laying the groundwork in The Winter Soldier, Marvel's Civil War event would signal The Death of Captain America and follow Bucky's conflicted version of the Sentinel of Liberty.

After Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting laying the groundwork in The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s Civil War event would signal The Death of Captain America and follow Bucky’s conflicted version of the Sentinel of Liberty.

Paranoia

‘They’re right. We’re not fighting for the people anymore, Falcon… Look at us. We’re just fighting.’ Civil War, Mark Millar

Inline with the new millennium, the adjustment from sixty years in suspended animation would now bear more weight and relevance for Captain America. Through the eyes of a born leader, we would begin to witness how one man catches up with the rest of the world and acknowledge the truth that some wars can never be fought – post 9/11having given birth to more complex and socially relevant stories.

Despite their acute mythology and fantastical origins, writers now sought an angle that would expose weakness and conflict in these characters in an effort to make them more human. With the introduction of the Superhuman Registration Act in Mark Millar’s Civil War crossover event signalling a major turning point for Captain America, his refusal to sign sets a major tide in motion. Branded a traitor, Rogers becomes a fugitive and with those few who follow him he comes in to direct conflict with Tony Stark.

In the aftermath of the conflict he hands himself over to the authorities when his battle with Iron Man destroys both his faith in society and himself. It is here, in Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s run on Captain America that the seeds are planted in their first arc, The Winter Soldier; leading towards one of the most finely crafted series of the past decade.

‘What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be standing out on and giving speeches on the street corner against the George W. Bush administration, and all the really right-wing fans all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam Hussein’ Ed Brubaker

Pitched as an espionage thriller, Brubaker delivers what is primarily James ‘Bucky’ Barnes story in the wake of Steve Rogers’ assassination. What follows is the complex nature of how a man who has been used as a weapon against the United States, by the Soviet Union, is able to carry the Shield and become the patriotic symbol that Rogers’ unrivalled, untainted soul originally represented. Bucky’s Captain America is the antithesis of the United States at conflict with themselves; an individual who fits the ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ tag – a brainwashed individual who serves a faceless enemy. The difference here in Brubaker’s reinvention of Captain America’s sidekick is the exploration of the antihero in true, western fashion. After all, isn’t this also part of American mythology?

CAPA011_covcol

Having lost his arm during WWII, Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky Barnes, is presumed dead. Recovering his body the Russians craft a bionic arm and brainwash him in to becoming the Winter Soldier.

Inevitably, Rogers return in issue #600 signalled his own miniseries with Steve Rogers: Super Soldier before wielding his Shield, while Bucky’s alter ego, The Winter Soldier is recruited to hunt down other brainwashed assassins he trained during his days during the Cold War.

In 2014’s entry in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo’s sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers a finely crafted espionage thriller based on Brubaker and Epting’s original reinvention of the characters. Already considered, by many, the strongest Marvel film to date, Chris Evan’s stoic portrayal of Steve Rogers explores, in full detail, the problems he faces when the organisation he works for stop at nothing to protect their nation.

‘He is one of us, and he represents the best in all of us. Because he represents an ideal, his popularity has never faded out entirely, even when comic books have struggled to survive. With the world today — more dangerous even than it was back in World War II – people need that ideal more than ever. That’s why it’s the perfect time for him to be more popular than ever. We need him.’ Joe Simon

For me, as with the real heroes of WWII, Captain America represents the very best of his generation – a man who lives by a strict moral code who fought a common evil in order for us all to live in a better world. People are easy to dismiss such ‘boy scouts’ as dull and predictable, but for all his original propaganda and patriotic nature; for most, Steve Rogers is a fictional Grandfather and perhaps the only reminder of our greatest generation. Captain America is an honest hero – a man who knows right from wrong even if it questions his own identity and has been reborn at the right time to deliver a more universal message. Whether life has improved since WWII is debatable, but one thing is for sure – if any superhero can be the platform to explore the conflict and ramifications of a modern world, it’s Captain America.

The Conflict of Captain America – Part III

The Conflict of Captain America – Part II

The Conflict of Captain America – Part I

The Conflict of Captain America – Introduction

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Dredd Sequel

1493277_428402610629542_1525079928_nJudgement Call

‘Ma-Ma’s not the law, I Am The Law!’

There were a number of mistakes made in marketing Judge Dredd’s second transition to the big screen, namely the decision to focus so much on the 3D aspect and distribution of any 2D version of the film. Dredd was a high quality, balls to the wall homage to 1980s action movies as much as it was to its original source; water tight in its execution and focus of character it deserved far better treatment in its delivery to its target audience and the respect of its film makers. Karl Urban has recently delivered the message below – please sign the petition and keep your fingers crossed.

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Bats and Ravens: Analogy of a Dark Knight

plate14On October 3rd, 1849, one of the great literary figures of the 19th century was found in a state of delirium on the streets of Baltimore. Four days later, Edgar Allan Poe passed away, not only leaving behind speculation and conspiracy surrounding his death but a legacy that defined both modern horror, science fiction and the birth of the Detective novel.

To say that Poe was an influential writer would be an understatement. References to his fiction, whether subliminal or not – have embedded themselves in most of the art forms that embraced such revolutionary times. Poe died at the height of the Industrial Revolution – heralding dramatic change in political, economical and social status where commentaries were circulated at an alarming rate through the rapid growth of newspapers and periodicals. These writers who followed Poe; such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with their proto sci-fi tales; Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Detective, Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft’s distinctive horror were all a direct product of their time. It was during the late 19th and early 20th century that these writers’ own contributions to literature became hugely influential in their own right.

Poe’s influence was imbedded in modern literature. His stories had begun to forge part of the modern American myth, yet it would need less personal accounts to take his themes of loss and despair to a whole new level. It would take not just the death of a writer to spark this change and give birth to modern heroes, but the collapse and depression of a nation.

Where Superman was heralded as the beacon of light during the Great Depression – one that would give hope and strength – Bob Kane’s Batman was the antithesis that lurked in the shadows. One was a God raised by humble farmers whereas the other was born in to wealth and luxury only to witness his parents’ murder. The result is a man of deep torment who channels his loss to hone newfound skills to fight organized crime. Although there are traces of Poe through the character’s brooding, gothic nature, Bruce Wayne does not wallow away in self-pity as witnessed in Poe’s stories. Instead he channels his negativity in to a zen-like instrument of self-control that is unleashed and executed with necessary force. His choice of symbol is one to strike fear in to the heart of organized crime and the mask he wears allows him to hide behind that symbol. All the while the boundaries between the symbol and how much of the mask is truly Bruce Wayne, are blurred.

batmanyearone_06To view more parallels to Edgar Allan Poe, let us look at the iconic scenes of a man in mourning, the most famous of which, The Raven presents the writer alone in his study, where the infamous bird reminds him of the loss of his dear Lenore. Bruce Wayne, contemplating his future alone, witnesses a Bat, not so much a tapping or gentle rapping; but more of a dramatic crash through his window. The incident inspires a potent symbol of fear, a scene so similar to the works of Poe it seems somewhat awkward in its intent. But the story of Batman is one that has been reinterpreted through zeitgeist by many talented writers and artists, which is where such a character becomes an interesting analysis. This dissection of the character is a dissection of both a state of mind and the society it inhabits. Understanding this unlocks the layers and delivers the classic tales that are important and influential; whether it is the sadistic nature of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke; Frank Miller’s origin of Year One and bookend, The Dark Knight Returns; Tim Burton’s gothic pantomime, Batman; Warner Brothers’ definitive Batman the Animated Series or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy; each tale has it’s own, distinctive style and message.

What sets Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy apart from previous incarnations is the sheer scope and believability of the world – an earnest rendition that could be criticised for taking itself too seriously. Here we have a series of films that have embraced the mythology. Not only is Nolan conscious of the characters’ roots but also the commentary they have on today’s society. In Nolan’s universe, Bruce Wayne has never been closer to Poe as he mourns the loss of his loved one and hides away in his mansion burying himself in further remorse. In the final entry, The Dark Knight Rises, our hero is broken in mind, body and soul and is unlikely to ever recover until he is thrust back in to the pain and turmoil of his city. It is here that he must, once again, confront his enemies who are only a reminder of what he could become if he crosses the line.

Is it a coincidence that the Dark Knight returns during a time of turbulent, economic crisis throughout the world? There are many who would say otherwise. However, for an icon to become such a potent symbol it must survive particular social commentary, political views, ideals, age groups and universal language. All of these areas carry an interpretation and help build the mythology and the legend of any story worthy of standing the test of time.

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