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1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
3. Sin City (2005)
4. The General (1927)
5. Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981)
6. The Great Dictator (1940)
7. Casablanca (1942)
8. City Lights (1931)
9. Star Wars IV-VI (1970's)
10. Schindler's List (1993)
11. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
12. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
13. V for Vendetta (2005)
14. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
15. Patton (1970)
16. The Sting (1973)
17. Se7en (1995)
18. Memento (2000)
19. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
20. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
21. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
22. The Matrix (1999)
23. Search for the Holy Grail (1975)
24. The Lion King (1994)
25. The Incredibles (2004)
26. Die Hard (1988)
27. Toy Story (1995)
28. American Beauty (1999)
29. Aladdin (1992)
30. Back to the Future (1985)
31. The Princess Bride (1987)
32. The Iron Giant (1999)
33. The Dark Knight (2008)
34. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2000's)
35. The Gold Rush (1925)
36. Jaws (1975)
37. Gladiator (2000)
38. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
39. City of God (2002)
40. The Professional (1994)
41. The Guns of Navarone (1961)
42. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
43. High Noon (1952)
44. Modern Times (1936)
45. Aliens (1987)
46. Intolerance (1916)
47. The Godfather (1972)
48. The Untouchables (1987)
49. The Last Crusade (1989)
50. Minority Report (2002)
51. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
52. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
53. Finding Nemo (2003)
54. Jurassic Park (1993)
55. The Fugitive (1993)
56. Collateral (2004)
57. Batman Begins (2005)
58. The Prestige (2006)
59. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
60. Clerks (1994)
61. The Grand Illusion (1937)
62. Lord of War (2005)
63. American History X (1998)
64. The Life of Brian (1979)
65. Stand By Me (1986)
66. Road to Perdition (2002)
67. WALL-E (2008)
68. Children of Men (2006)
69. The Pink Panther (1963)
70. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
71. The 400 Blows (1959)
72. Superbad (2007)
73. Blood Diamond (2006)
74. American Gangster (2007)
75. Goldfinger (1964)
76. Apocalypto (2006)
77. The Truman Show (1998)
78. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
79. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
80. King Kong (2005)
81. Braveheart (1995)
82. Hot Fuzz (2007)
83. Equilibrium (2002)
84. Apocalypse Now (1979)
85. Alien (1979)
86. Unforgiven (1992)
87. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
88. Ratatouille (2007)
89. Dark City (1998)
90. Rashomon (1950)
91. The Seventh Seal (1957)
92. The Pianist (2002)
93. The Bicycle Thief (1948)
94. Kill Bill Volumes I and II (2000's)
95. Taxi Driver (1976)
96. The 6th Sense (1999)
97. Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
98. In Bruges (2008)
99. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
100. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
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It pains me not to give just dues to some older examples of these sequences (Rope, Touch of Evil, The Player, to name a very few), but if I were to mention them all I would surely lose your attention upon clip 87. Thusly, let's run down 10 of the best modern tracking shots, in no particular order.
What will deviate from the oh-so-familiar formula is that “Cabin” will offer a skewering of the now-clichéd fright flick convention, all while hopefully providing the thrills that made this setting so popular for so long. Although offering a distinctive introspection of the genre, this duo is far from the first to toy with the framework. To celebrate a hopefully entertaining parody, here are 10 of the most unique visions of “the cabin in the woods” trope.
Thought Provoking and Profound – A Near Masterpiece
So abundant and seamlessly integrated into the narrative of Spike Jonze's Her is the exploration of love, and everything associated with that indescribable, crippling feeling, that immediately as the credits role it's clear a repeat viewing is essential. So rare is it that a filmmaker has asked so many of the right questions about the nature of relationships and answered just enough of them in just the right ways. And so soul inflating is it to have a film, so outlandish and odd in basic premise, to organically connect with elements of life that we've all worked through in one way or another. The very fact that Jonze still finds the time to effortlessly combine science fiction elements and biting, often hilarious social satire is a testament to the brilliance of this tale and immediately stands not only a love story for our time but one that will only become more resonant as time passes.
Her examines love at levels that are simultaneously, and fundamentally, beyond us as human beings and as intimate and natural as we've ourselves experienced. The film doesn't attempt to sell it as merely an illusion – a made-up fairytale for the deluded – nor does it spin it into something artificially fluffy and over romanticized. What is at play is as far from the emotions explored in most rom-coms as can be.
The way Jonze is able to explore these aspects comes from a multitude of directions, from having our central character of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) struggling through the all too familiar grind of heartbreak, to his very vocation and on to his friendship with a woman down the hall (Amy Adams). But the way Her really goes beyond the average constraints of a film tackling this subject is with its futuristic setting which blends the technological revolution and everything (good and bad) that journeys along with "progress."
In the process of finalizing a divorce, Theodore purchases a new, highly advanced operating system which has the capacity to learn and evolve as it experiences the wonders of the world. Samantha, as she names herself and voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is what springs forth from the software and he immediately becomes smitten not only because of her gentle, inquisitive nature but because they legitimately seem understand one another. From this launching point, and as we see their bond deepen, we are forced to ask ourselves if this love is real or some sort of sick delusion being perpetuated by a heartbroken individual and a piece of gadgetry just doing what it was programmed to do.
Yet the questions flood far beyond that as we then contemplate how to truly determine what "real" love is and if it has to be between two breathing humans to be true. I could quite literally expand on this very query for another 1000 words but instead I implore you to simply view the film and see for yourself what mindset emerges. On the flip side, Samantha, in all her advancement, struggles with having no physical body finds a divide that cannot be filled growing between them. Also intelligently explored is precisely how an AI such as this may ultimately evolve given the circumstances. As much as this all works as it plays out on screen, so much of this has uncomfortably authentic parallels to real relationships it achieves a whole new level of truthfulness.
Then of course there is the whole exploration of society's descent into self imposed isolation, seeking out either artificial or easy emotional connections over the real thing. Her fascinatingly poses the question that this is both a deeply unsettling phenomenon but also a weirdly natural progression. In this futuristic world, flush with odd, vibrant fashion sense (and what appears to be the return of the moustache) the prevalence of technology, be it a sassy holographic video game or what is 24/7 connectivity is not overtly painted as mankind's demise, and while that could turn out to be the case, Jonze doesn't wish to look at it as merely black or white.
The performances of what are essentially three main leads are all tremendous, with Phoenix anchoring the film as our flesh and blood protagonist. Married with Jonze's script, we meet with a gentle, sensitive, often introverted man, who within minutes feels like a real flesh and blood person and one we can sympathize with on this odyssey. There is both a naïveté and aura of frustration to this character and despite acting opposite nobody for a great deal of the film, he sells every second.
Much of why this on screen relationship works so well is due to Johansson's transcendent voice, as with every word she makes us feel as if Samantha is standing before her eyes. Between this and her brilliant turn in Don Jon, this leading lady has unequivocally shown she is more than just a pretty face. Finally, in a memorable and crucial supporting role Adams as Theodore's long-time friend is the foil to his digital connection and is a character through which some of the film's most important revelations, and further questions, flow.
I fear that some may find Her to be too odd, and by looking to the fluorescent colours, focussing on the weirdness or simply psyching themselves out because of the very premise, they will miss what the film is really saying. I know that despite holding my attention throughout I still missed some of what this film was trying to get across. Despite the boldness and high concept at play, Jonze has no pretensions about what he is exploring and as such has crafted one of the most complex and unforgettable love stories ever put to film.
Lone Survivor (2013)
A Harrowing and Taut Experience
Whether talking about a cinematic experience or hearing details of the real thing, the gallantry and heroism of our men and women at arms can never be overstated, be it in service to the defenseless, protecting the nation or for reasons with which everyone may not agree. Though ironically just that – overstated – at a number of junctures, Peter Berg's Lone Survivor is nevertheless an often breathless and riveting tale of a small band of brother's desire to survive, and how a greater objective can become a moot point at a moments notice.
Lone Survivor once again makes the case that focusing on a smaller portion of a greater conflict is the proper way to go when attempting to make the events of a war film hit close to home. While sweeping, melodramatic conflict driven dramas have their place (and there are some great ones) there is little substitute to spending an intense two hours with a few select individuals as you follow them through a life or death ordeal. When the film's very title overtly hints that there will certainly be more death than life on screen, the experience becomes that much more uncomfortable and traumatic as we watch in unfold, unable to do anything but act as helpless spectator.
The biggest compliment that I can pay to Lone Survivor is that it uses the already established nature of its outcome to its advantage rather than allow it to become a constraint that would dampen the impact. Despite the fact that only Mark Wahlberg's Marcus Luttrell escapes from the mountainous Kunar province of Afghanistan after the botched Red Wings assassination mission, equal time is spent with his three fellow Navy SEALs, never using them merely as canon fodder as our indestructible hero defeats the odds. The film treats them as humans, with loved ones, fears and souls and in doing so, as they are overcome by their ordeal, the losses hit closer to the heart.
The simple fact we are aware of the outcome means the very journey organically notches up the suspense and all encompassing sense of dread. The stench of death is oppressive and in caring for these individuals and knowing and witnessing their fate it evokes a sort of anger reminiscent of the unfairness present in real conflict. Good, honest men may die, and it may be the furthest thing from fair or just, but that's simply the ugly nature of the beast, and Lone Survivor mirrors that frustration through its execution alone.
The four principle cast members are all extremely solid, utilizing their shared screen time to great effect be it alone or with the group. Wahlberg, perpetually the everyman, anchors the picture and brings both the physicality and necessary weakness as the film evolves from firefight to survival situation. Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch have just the right look and overall level of public exposure to recede into their doomed characters, as they too sell their respective journeys towards the end. By far the most surprising member in terms of performance was that of Taylor Kitsch (reteaming with Berg after the dreadful Battleship) who in addition to acting believably as the squad leader employs a delicate blend of grace, heroism and humanity to a role that could have been anything but. This performance proves this young man has a future far beyond doomed blockbusters.
The film's biggest folly comes when it paints these soldiers as nearly indestructible machines of war. Amidst what is some of the best shot and choreographed fighting in recent memory we get so many noble, eyes to the sky, slump to the knees, death scenes it both seeks to undermine the credibility of the situation and the otherwise brutal and realistic injuries these men endure. It's at those points that Lone Survivor makes itself clear it's no Saving Private Ryan. In films of that echelon when someone is on the receiving end of a bullet, in that moment at least, it is anything but heroic and patriotic. It's a person, alone in a pool of blood, gasping on a last few futile breaths, and its all the more searing because of it.
All that being said, Lone Survivor puts us and its protagonists through the ringer and while presenting them as the supposed elite, never releases its grasp on the situation at hand in favour of pro American pandering. It's as intense and grisly as an experience you're likely to witness this year and though it stops short of greatness, its strides are mighty enough to take us places we don't want to be, and that we can't leave behind.
Year of the Living Dead (2013)
Fun, Nostalgic and Informative
It's not often that one can trace back the origins of an entire genre to one body of work, let alone have that seminal entity still directly influence all its successors in one way or another. We can from time to time point out overt homages to a keystone effort or see themes and imagery blatantly stolen, but in the case of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, we've simply seen a genre organically (and sometimes brilliantly) evolve within the confines of the trendsetter's mould.
Efficiently and entertainingly, Birth of the Living Dead takes us back to the late 1960's where times were tough, social divides were widening and where one nearly novice auteur dared to craft a horror film unlike anything audiences had seen before, and arguably, haven't seen since.
In viewing the first entry in Romero's "Dead" series decades after its first release, not analyzing what it must have meant at the time is an easy feat. For most watching it now, they'll be struck by how well it holds up, rather than that it featured stark parallels to the climate at that time, both intentionally and otherwise. Race wars at home raged, and so too did the Vietnam War overseas – the symbolism of unstoppable, remorseless monsters laying siege to one's home rung far too true in some cases. Birth of the Living Dead strips away these layers and provides us with a capsule of time when a movie became more than just a movie.
The film also intriguingly touches on the casting of African American lead Duane Jones, an addition to the crew that was purely based on skill, and who was not accompanied by changes to the script to address his ethnicity. This resulted in (at the time) a black man serving as the leader of a group of white folk who did not engage in slurs or anything of the like and instead played things out as it would between those of the same race, or if those prejudices did not exist at all. It was man versus the undead and man versus man at the same time, but not because of racism.
All of this insight would of course be for nought if Mr. Romero himself were not to wryly chime in on his experiences, thoughts on the actors, the filmmaking process and everything around and in between. At age 73 he's still as chipper and sarcastic as ever, and frankly is just a blast to watch on screen. Furthermore, his commentary of things he would have changed today and things he wished could have been accomplished then, help to flesh out a man who has spent his life in the industry.
If there was one major complaint I would have against Birth of the Living Dead it would be its slim runtime. While digestible in the best of ways, it could have dug a little deeper into the mythos of the film and the actual filmmaking process. It's a shame that many of the cast and crew have passed on since filming as their lack of insight into how the process went for them softens the bite of the documentary a tad, but of course I can't lay blame on something that cannot be altered, and as it stands it still paints a very vivid picture.
While slight in areas, I would certainly label Birth of the Living Dead as essential viewing for fans of zombie films, Night of the Living Dead or of the man behind the magic. It's overall an immensely enjoyable watch that should leave most fans, save the die-hard, with something new to mull over about one of the greatest horror films of all time. If at the very least it makes you want to partake in another viewing of the iconic flick, then that's good enough in my book.
Zombie Hunter (2013)
Plenty of Camp Just Not Much Fun
One of the biggest divides that seems to exist between concept and approach in filmmaking is that of the B-movie – a lark simply meant to amplify camp, kitsch and fun to delirious levels. But what seems to be more often the case is the arrival of flicks which approach the genre superficially, revelling in lazy dialogue, dull slaughter and gore and boring characters rather than applying a grindhouse feel to well though out material. While there are some attempts to spoof the well worn tropes of this type of endeavour, too often does Zombie Hunter cheat the audience, revel in its laziness and fail even to live up to the gimmicky promises plastered on the DVD case.
Let me get the bluffs out of the way first, because these are not so much spoilers as they are an accurate description of events. In quick succession: Danny Trejo appears in little more than a cameo, the souped up muscle car exits the picture early on and the "clown with a chainsaw" represents little more than a blip. And in case you have no idea what this movie is about and why the heck I would bring this up, yes those were major selling points present in the advertising. What remain are inane and groan-worthy dialogue and timing and delivery that rival pre- school plays and repetition at all levels.
I hate to be too harsh on Zombie Hunter because when it's all said and done it's a rather innocent endeavour, never vying for much, featuring thesps who in some cases are experiencing their debut roles and, despite its many pitfalls, is never insulting. It's all just rather wrongheaded and draining. The weird highlight for me was in lead Martin "Hunter" Copping who's growling, monotonous delivery seemed to craft a character that was just as nonchalant concerning the apocalypse then about the junk in which he was starring. Don't get me wrong, it's all very bad and very one note but his attitude made the viewing more tolerable.
The rest of the cast is made of folks – truly no offense as I'm sure I would join their ranks if I attempted to act – who have little hope of securing steady jobs in Hollywood. The dialogue may be horrid but they make no effort to bring it to life. Even a hammy, hackneyed script can be given a weird sense of charm with the right performer delivering the lines. It's immensely clear across all fronts they are waiting on prompts and very likely gazing at cue cards. Their infuriating actions and their interactions displayed amongst one another do very little to right any wrongs.
But as I iterated early on, there are clear – and surprisingly successful – attempts to spoof the style of film in which Zombie Hunter eventually revels. Hunter has some amusing early scenes with the undead as does the prologue (which explains the outbreak) have some charm in its own way. Coupled later on with zoom-in shots of a girl's butt, substituted for her, you know, face when running away from a threat, or a puke-off that spoofs the "grizzly discover" cliché, there are scenes that show promise. But collectively their relative occupation of the running time leaves much to be desired.
In the end, Zombie Hunter is only something that could be recommend with the disclaimer it be played in the background while you and your friends shoot the *bleep* and sip some beers. The thorough distain for creativity and decision to wallow in camp rather than embrace or satirize it means this B-movie simply doesn't even get a similar grade to rival its intended stamp.
Curse of Chucky (2013)
A Shockingly Efficient Franchise Revival
Often pushed to a second tier among other iconic horror franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, the murderous misadventures of Charles Lee "Chucky" Ray have been just as persistent and influential as those other game changing series. But Chucky, so too like Jason, Freddy and Michael, these characters have had their fare share of missteps in terms of quality, and in many cases saw their franchises descend into unintentional self parody.
The Child's Play saga has seen a similar trajectory, with the 1988 original still standing as a horror classic, it's immediate predecessor coming off as passable but more or less a carbon copy and the third as a junky, bland mess. After a seven year hiatus, the surprisingly satirical Bride of Chucky arrived along with a perfect Jennifer Tilly as Chucky's partner in slaughter. Things again took a turn for the worse in Seed of Chucky which aimed to amp up the camp of Bride but it came off as a grating and, ironically, childish.
Almost 25 years on we now get Curse of Chucky, a direct to home video instalment – a rather unceremonious release which certainly did not instil confidence in this horror fan. Well, you can consider my mouth shut as this is not only a strong, well crafted fright flick, it's easily among the franchise's best entries. Curse of Chucky takes the more gruesome elements that worked so well early on, some of the parodic flare of Bride and then even goes on to subvert horror norms and cliché. This is a film that knows firmly where it stands and the expectations of its audience and uses those preconceived notions to surprise in a number of ways.
The biggest and most pleasant realization I made from the onset is how well crafted Curse of Chucky is, from the art direction that brings life to your typical isolated home (at which our bloody events can transpire) the composition of shots which expertly use every angle in the book to bring complexity to the carnage and its generally polished look. It certainly doesn't bare any resemblance to most home video fare that looks as if it were shot in somebody's basement. But the accomplished aesthetics only serve as the launching point for some clever prods at the genre, some fun kills and a thorough grasp on its own franchise roots.
One of the things Curse of Chucky is finally able to figure out is how to present an adult protagonist that would believably be in peril when facing off with a pint sized doll. Our heroine comes in the form of Fiona Dourif, daughter of Chucky's voice, the iconic Brad Dourif (whose cackling laugh still brings a weird smile to my face after all these years). Daughter Dourif's Nica you see is confined to a wheelchair, putting her quite literally on even ground when the climax rolls around. There is a young girl about, who serves as the vessel through which Chucky's evil rumblings are heard, but this is more about Nica, and it all works rather well. In the end, it really comes as no surprise that this entry is penned and directed by Don Mancini who has written every entry in the Child's Play franchise. Even though he is so close to the series and its central character, he has clearly taken the time to step back and re-approach his baby in new ways. It's not something you see too often from someone who has been involved with something for so long.
Then we get the funny, subversive elements to the story which plays against our expectations, such as the role of a promiscuous nanny, who gets the knife and when and fake-out scares and potential deaths. Constructed in the way it is, Curse of Chucky should easily please fans of the franchise but also win over general fans of horror who are tired of seeing cookie cutter productions. There are certainly conventional elements at play, but it's all pulled off with a great deal of flare.
As for Dourif's Chucky, he's as vulgar, funny and creepy as ever, and even when delivering more simplistic lines reminds us why the character has persisted. There will certainly be some who will overlook the more clever elements of Curse of Chucky and hone in on what remains ordinary, but for me it was time well spent and easily introduces a new spark to the franchise and shows there is life yet in everyone's favourite killer doll.
Blue Caprice (2013)
A Portrait of a Doomed Bond and Disillusionment Gone Awry
Those who demand easy answers in movies and clear cut motives from its characters will likely find Blue Caprice an unfulfilling and distant character study, one which centers on the Beltway Sniper attacks that left Washington paralyzed for three weeks in 2002. The brilliance of director Alexandre Moors feature debut, in addition to quietly powerful performances from its two main leads, is that it offers no definite answers as to why this massacre transpired. True to life, speculation as to motive ranges from plans to divert attention from the planned murder of one of the assailant's ex wife, revenge against the U.S. government, terrorist ties and general anarchy. Discovering what ultimately drives these monsters is unimportant in the context of this film, but rather it's the troubling and empty journey these men take down the path of evil that is so compelling.
Taking on the notorious gunmen John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo are Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond and both deliver nuanced and disturbing performances but with varying approaches. We witness a differing speed at which these two finally become the savages which made global headlines – these are individuals with which we both see deeply into but at the same time know nothing about. The way these actors and director are able to make enigmas out of its antagonists without resorting to painting them as faceless monsters is an extraordinary feat.
Channelling Idris Elba in the best ways, Washington does Oscar level work as a broken man whose anger and disillusionment manifests in the worst possible way. Between his work on Grey's Anatomy and supporting work in some higher profile fare, he has never really been given the chance to stretch his dramatic legs and he shows how capable he can be when given the spotlight. He plays off young Tequan Richmond with aplomb, with the promising North Carolina native truly coming into his character in the final act after long sequences of shyness and inwardly directed sadness. Among the most disquieting scenes comes when John teaches Lee how to drive, an act between father and son that is considered to be one of the most important bonding experiences of growing up. In knowing what is to come, it takes on a whole new (and ultimately very disturbing) meaning.
Aside from inherently being a taut and troubling scenario the way the tension and narrative drive is brought to the forefront is also noteworthy especially when the outcome is so widely known. When we first meet with Malvo (and to a lesser extent Muhammad) we see them as damaged but salvageable individuals – those given an unfair stab at life but who could display redemptive qualities if given the chance. As we see Malvo fall further and further under the manipulative spell of his surrogate father, and who in turn finds fuel in his adoptive son, it's hard to watch not simply because of their actions but where we know this is all headed. In wanting so much for these lost souls to find an honest meaning in life and see them both missing and avoiding them, the dread and tension ratchets up organically and with an impact you won't soon shake.
Moors also makes the sound decision never to distort or falsely heighten the actual acts of the shootings. Seeing a man in the throws of death in a pool of blood at the base of a gas pump is powerful enough without seeing these two perpetrate every single act. So to does the choice to not magnify the scope of the crimes with fictionalized getaways or close calls in their titular vehicle. The barrel of a gun sticking out of a trunk and an off screen shot does more than enough in the ugly world we're introduced to in Blue Caprice. There are certainly moments of graphic violence interspersed throughout but they're handled in a brief and ugly manner that serves to showcase the emptiness of it all.
Based on the subject matter and the recent horrific gun based acts that have rocked America as of late, Blue Caprice will no doubt bring up the hot button topic of gun control, with some likely looking at the film as a call for help and others as pro liberal pandering meant to take a past tragedy and use it as propaganda. In both instances they would be not only wrong but missing the point of this drama, or rather the pointlessness of these men's actions. Could this act have been avoided with tighter gun laws? Likely. But Blue Caprice has no such pretensions and simply paints a disturbing portrait of men on the edge of reality.
Both as a showcase for the skill of the filmmakers and actors and an examination of the flourishing emotional void this duo carries with them every day, Blue Caprice succeeds and does so in manner that will leave you exhausted and troubled. In having so much to hate on screen there is so much to love about this confident inaugural feature, one which worrisomely shows that the loss of one's humanity can begin with a single act.
A Single Shot (2013)
Equal Parts Satisfying and Devastating.
David M. Rosenthal's A Single Shot joins the ranks of some superior 2013 thrillers, the uniting factor being their complete grasp of a sense of place and time and their ability to unconditionally exploit their setting for the benefit of the story and characters. Mud, The Frozen Ground, Scenic Route and now this poetic backwoods chiller all place a compelling central character in a potentially life threatening ordeal and surrounds them with superior supporting players and executes their motives and actions with fluidity and respect. This year has so far seen a resurgence in this type of yarn – a stripped down, character based story that extracts its involving tenseness through simple actions, not bombast and explosions.
For A Single Shot, Matthew F. Jones adapts his own novel which can often be the kiss of death for any film in such a situation and though I have not personally read his book, it's clear he's handled his material with grace and dignity. The dialogue is natural and not overstuffed and most importantly doesn't play out like a work of literary fiction but a thoroughly cinematic effort.
Also an interesting choice is when some of these characters deliver their lines; the employ of a deep southern drawl (often accompanied by drunken slurring) can render certain words incomprehensible. While this certainly adds a layer of realism to the proceedings it does take the risk of making the effort as whole indecipherable and confusing. How A Single Shot avoids this pitfall is with its grasp on these scenes and the sequences that precede and follow them. We are at least somewhat aware of their motivations and how they fit into place so the fact we miss a word here and their holds little bearing on the greater arcs at play.
Of these threads, at the center is always Sam Rockwell's John Moon, a poacher living off the land while trying desperately to get enough of his life together to reconcile with his estranged wife and their young son. It's on a typical hunt on an equally typical day that his fortunes both plummet and inflate with, yes, a single shot. Set in motion is a series of poor choices and collisions with dangerous, scheming men who have no love lost for whoever is responsible for their reversal of fortunes.
Lost in a hillbilly beard, mangy hair and backwater drawl Rockwell delivers what is absolutely one of his best performances and considering his already auspicious resume, it isn't a claim I lay lightly. This is a living, breathing individual, not an A-lister traipsing around in facial hair and one whose choices or lack thereof have dire consequences. This is an inherently flawed and broken man, but one we want to see rise above the hell he has created for himself.
The remainder of the thesps who round out the cast also never miss a beat and all serve to elevate Rockwell who in turn bolsters them. On the side of the wicked we get two outstanding turns by the mostly overlooked Jason Isaacs and up and comer Joe Anderson. They play two former cell mates who are out to find the man responsible for the theft of their drug money and whether alone or together they emanate an innate aura of malice.
Anderson (who some may have seen on the unfortunately short lived found footage television series The River) shares and early scene with Rockwell after he makes an ill advised venture to his ex's home only to find him making friendly with the babysitter. The tense scenes that follow don't have anything surface level that would indicate bad things to come, but the subversive interplay between them is worth the price of admission alone.
Jason Isaacs on the other hand has been delivering deliciously evil villains over the course of his career, the most exposed of which would certainly be his perfectly realized interpretation of slimy Harry Potter antagonist Luscious Malfoy. Though often cast in roles such as that, here he crafts a different vein of monster, lost in a mane of hair and a weathered face. He isn't on screen for long as it turns out but he makes us remember ever scene and his service to the absolutely gripping climax is as invaluable as they come. The final sequences' stakes, the pacing and the performances culminate into some of the most white knuckle filmmaking of the year.
Inhabiting the grey area in terms of scrupulous morals (in addition to John Moon of course) is Jeffrey Wright as a perpetually drunk old friend of Moon's, William H. Macy as a "simple small town lawyer." Then we are treated to great female leads in the form of Kelly Reilly (who is proving to be a name to watch after the fantastic turn in last year's Flight) and Ophelia Lovibond as the daughter of a family friend. I found Wright in particular to be dynamite, certainly adhering to the aforementioned slurring hillbilly style of line delivery. His fate may be a tad predictable and overblown but everything preceding it reminds us why he still has a career.
If A Single Shot stumbles anywhere it would be in its final scenes which are so on the nose it could be considered out of focus. There is nothing subtle about its imagery and metaphors but with such immensely strong work from everyone in front of and behind the camera, it's easy to forgive, though tough to overlook entirely. Embraced by the bleak mountain terrain, perforated my instances of brutal violence and anchored unequivocally by Rockwell, A Single Shot is well worth a look if for nothing than the fact it serves its story and characters with a rare level of reverence and takes them on a journey that is equal parts satisfying and devastating.
Scenic Route (2013)
Will Provide A Different Experience For Each and Every Viewer
Entombed by a nightmarish quality, Scenic Route finds two old friends stranded in Death Valley after their vehicle succumbs to the surroundings (and a misguided ploy by one of the duo). The strengths of this thriller, which embraces both psychological and more straightforward approaches to the genre, comes from many facets. Be it the potent performances from Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, strong writing from scribe Kyle Killen and a well realized vision of the setting and situation, Scenic Route offers no clear answers but what it does better than most is provide multiple outcomes that are equally compelling across the board. Even what I suppose could be considered the less probable conclusions explore themes even more complex that those of the "reasonable" variety.
Scenic Route is penned by scribe Kyle Killen who gave us the prematurely cancelled television series Awake and the hugely underrated The Beaver with Mel Gibson in 2011. Though wildly different films, this effort caries a very similar feel – an off kilter, dreamlike vibe that services the ending to great effect. He is certainly no stranger to twisting narratives, a strength when coupled with his poignant, natural script culminates in a film that is both close to home and as far from day to day reality as one could fathom.
Some of the chief themes explored include those to do with the expectations and reality of the "American dream," how people change over time but also how at others they are unable, or unwilling to. Killen delves into the jealous underpinnings of a lost friendship and also how people react either to things actually going well in your life or failing to live up to what we dreamed as kids. Fogler's Carter poignantly states that if everyone followed the path of what we drew in elementary school as our future we would live in a world full of pro athletes and astronauts and that we need someone to clean the toilets. It's a rather harsh reality but so is the life or death situation these two face.
Unravelling as a two man show, Scenic Route certainly asks a lot of its leads and in the cases of both Duhamel and Fogler they deliver. Known mostly for playing the slovenly best friend or goofy sidekick to a more straight laced lead, Fogler owns his character who while still a screw- up (at least in the eyes of most) and a bit of a man child is played completely straight. He is as well developed as Duhamel's corporate "stooge" and individual not nearly as unhappy as he expresses. They share highs and lows and banter and fight with an honesty missing from most dramas. Some of what these characters have to say may hit closer to home than you would like to hear. Perhaps most importantly, despite not always being on the best of terms, these are not bad people and we certainly root for them to make it out OK.
Where Scenic Route stumbles from time to time is in the execution of the scuffles and arguments between these two friends as the situation escalates. Their eventual reconciliations certainly ring true given the stage that has been set but the rather volcanic nature of these feuds can be a tad over the top. Who am I to say how I would react if I was dealt the same hand but given the other interactions they ring more false. Additionally, how their missed opportunities for rescue are handled in a rather derivative manner and serve to be more infuriating in how they unravel, more than a soul crushing defeat – just another bump on the road to death. It's unfortunate given how well everything else works.
This brings us to the ending. Always being a positively thinking person, I have a fairly clear comprehension of my version of Scenic Route but more so than usual I actual found it to be more interesting and complex than the flip side. This again stems from ideas surrounding being able to except good things in your life and not always question the little things or that if something exceptional befalls you it must come with a catch. Whatever way someone ultimately view Scenic Route it's difficult to imagine them not leaving with at least something to mull over.
Those who require a clear cut wrap-up will find Scenic Route maddening but those who like their brain to keep firing after the end credits will find what this film has to offer quite compelling. How you view the conclusion will rely entirely on your outlook on life. Optimists, pessimists and everyone in between will have their own view on what transpired and because of it change how they perceive the preceding acts. Different symbolism and foreshadowing will make itself seen depending on what side you land upon and I'm sure repeat viewings will uncover even more subversive dynamics and themes.
The Battery (2012)
A Singular Zombie Movie Experience
As those enticed by the sport of baseball will know well, a "battery" is the two person team of the pitcher and catcher, also known as batterymen or batterymates and so to is the source of the relationship between Ben and Mickey, two wandering souls in a world consumed by the zombie apocalypse. But the title of this immensely intriguing low budget project shares a duel meaning as Mickey's collection of batteries he keeps in his travel pack holds the power of denial, allowing his Discman and a bundle of CD's to shut out the world. All his companion keeps a checklist of the number of undead he offs with his bat or revolver. This is but one of the intriguing dynamics present in The Battery, a very deliberately paced but ultimately very satisfying approach to the genre.
In all honesty calling The Battery a zombie film at all would be a misnomer as this time around the stumbling monsters are relegated to bloody window dressing with the film instead focussing on the relationship (and unlikely bond) these two very different people share. Ben is brash, aggressive, unnecessarily assertive and very frank, whereas Mickey is a meek romantic, the type who upon hearing a woman's voice over a walkie talkie immediately dreams of the potential for some sort of a far fetched relationship. Despite appearances, these two need one another – Ben relying on Mickey to keep him sane and Mickey on his caveman like partner to protect him and ultimately keep him in the moment.
I know for a fact however that there will be people who despise The Battery, and not because of the genre to which it belongs. This is a very slowly paced film and also one that fills a good portion of its running time with no dialogue scenes of the two traversing the sun soaked New England countryside. Other extended sequences simply fixate on Mickey listening to his music, often playing entire songs without anything else but a static shot of the actor's face. "Maddening" (and certainly "boring") will be used by some but for me, despite some similar issues, The Battery had a transfixing quality and a strong, emotionally satisfying payoff.
The pitfalls of any micro budget ($6,000) flick remain, from having to skimp on makeup effects (which is still quite respectable actually) gore, the best props, ability to shoot scenes multiple times, etc all remain and with first time director-writer-star Jeremy Gardner at the helm, hiccups were to be expected. He and co-star Adam Cronheim's acting chops dip from time to time though they do better than most considering the circumstances. What I enjoyed most about Gardner's script was its blunt depiction of the way two twenty-something dudes would talk, swinging between simply silence and to-the-point sarcastic banter. This is a shoot the **** writing style and it works more often than not.
As the finale rolls around we find our leads trapped in their car, without keys and a horde of the undead surrounding them and rocking the vehicle without fatigue. It starts out very comedically but slowly loses that quality and becomes quite maddening, a feeling or protagonists certainly share. The very final (unbroken) shot was reportedly 17 minutes long originally but was then cut to 11. It's a fantastic and effective ploy but one I think would have been even more searing if it hadn't been preceded by so many other long takes. The third act as a whole is melancholy in its construction but also rousing and triumphant in a way and also offers a neat spin on the oft seen refuge camp, a la The Governor's Woodbury in The Walking Dead.
In fact in spite of its budget The Battery employs a number of interesting approaches to the genre (if not every completely fleshed out) such as how to baptize the uninitiated into the art of zombie killing, how one might satisfy their "needs" in the situation and simply how two guys might actually react to the situation and where they (or at least one of them) might feel safe to sleep at night. Blended with the indie soundtrack (one that never goes into quirky hipster territory) strong editing and its unwavering approach and style, The Battery is a singularly unique take on the zombie phenomenon and one that is nothing close to something I would recommend to everyone.
I Give It a Year (2013)
A Great Prod at Rom-Com Cliché (and Funny in its Own Right)
With so many modern romantic comedies reaching the point of unintentional self parody, we have (thankfully) seen a niche segment emerge that aims to subvert the conventions that have plagued this once frothy and enjoyable genre. Fare like (500) Days of Summer, Celeste and Jesse Forever and Friends with Kids have seen the sins of the father and have come up with ways to please mainstream audiences but without insulting their intelligence. I Give It a Year joins these rare ranks and delivers a sometimes gut busting, always frank and enjoyably clever look at the trails and tribulations of marriage.
There are certainly times when this British-American hybrid goes too far with its crude dialogue or goofy awkward rants but writer-director Dan Mazer still clearly knows what is funny, and his time writing for Da Ali G Show has served him well in his directorial debut. Certainly the heart and soul of I Give It a Year comes with the well matched talents of its two main leads Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall as a newlywed couple who tied the knot after just seven months together. We often cut back to a session with a brash marriage counsellor who probably does more harm than good and also with Natasha and Josh's interactions with a former flame (Anna Farris) and a business connection (Simon Baker) who may play a larger role as things unwind. Either playing off one another or interacting with the supporting cast these two bring the laughs and a believable depiction of a union in distress.
As can often be the case with a peak into the lives of others, especially into one not on the best of terms, awkwardness follows and so is the case with this film. Like being present as a third wheel while a couple have a spat, some scenes in I Give It a Year ring uncomfortably true. Thankfully what this film avoids is painting either Nat or Josh as the reason for the troubles – never opting to paint the wife as merely the shrill, bitchy ninny or the husband as a slovenly tool. Each have their faults, each have their positive attributes and each have the chance to be at the receiving end of an unnecessarily cruel insult or judgement. So while not likable insofar as we're viewing them in tough times, we are able to rationalize with these people and view them as real humans, not just as the brunt of jokes or mere players in a game of marital politics.
The laughs in Mazer's film come from multiple facets, may it be the interplay between characters, situational humour such as a trip to a lingerie shop, or its (often vulgar) wit. The funniest scene (and of the best of the year) involves a visit from the in-laws and a digital picture screen and needless to say the way that Spall plays the situation is absolutely perfect and had be reduced to a cackling idiot. If one buys into the often sarcastic and overly clever dialogue will come down to the viewer, but for the most part it won me over, in large due to how the cast deliver the lines and react in turn.
I Give It a Year also concludes in a perfect way and one that stays true to the same awkward, sardonic tone the rest of the film adopts. To say it slaps in the face every film that wraps up with someone literally running to the airport last minute to proclaim their eternal love would be an understatement. A closer approximation would be that it puts those offerings in a sleeper hold and squeezes out every ounce of maddening cliché. It's satisfying, funny and refreshingly direct. This act is preceded by what is also one of the best "reunion" speeches I've ever heard. I won't spoil anything as to how it unfurls but it too is cooling in its candidness.
While unfortunately not quite parody and maybe never quite as clever as it intends, I Give It a Year is still rife with mirth and deftly understands elements of marriage, relationships and most importantly the irritating formula of the rom-com. Earning its R-rating and showing unequivocally that Byrne, Spall, Farris and Baker are the things of leading men and women, this often uncomfortable but ultimately earnest feature is fun from beginning to end – something, as this film reminds us, is nothing at all like marriage.
Great Surf Sequences But a Missed Opportunity
As far as the sports genre is concerned, those featuring surfing are about as niche as you go. Only 12 films have ever grossed more than $1 million at the domestic box office let alone found any measure of breakout success. Those that did find some semblance of an audience, like Soul Surfer and Point Break, had the added aid of family appeal and incorporating a heist element respectively, but for the most part they land with a whisper – not anything like the thundering, mammoth waves these daredevils tackle.
But in spite of this subgenre's lack of mainstream appeal there is one thing they – and Australian import Drift – prove, and that is surfing looks damn cool, especially when presented so slickly and in such a high energy fashion. So it's a shame in the case of this period drama (which transports us back to the early years of the sport in the land down under) that the wet and wild sequences trump anything transpiring on dry land and that most of the human drama relies on unnecessary plot turns and the usual formula that accompanies almost all sport based fare.
Drift follows two brothers Jimmy (Xavier Samuel) and Andy Kelly (Myles Pollard) and their mother who reside in a small seaside town following a late night escape from their abusive father/husband. Already carrying a passion for surfing, the two grow with the hobby and view their actual jobs as mostly inconveniences. It's one day when their mother's seamstress occupation produces a homemade wetsuit that gives Andy the idea of marrying passion with profession and they endeavour to open their own surf shop with customized gear and boards. But of course, nothing is as easy as it seems as money, gangsters, the allures of the hippy age and rivalries all act as roadblocks to a newfound dream.
Things are kicked off even further by the arrival of a duo of righteous surfers played by a tubular Sam Worthington and his plutonic companion Lani, played by Spartacus: Blood and Sand's Lesley-Ann Brandt. So with this rag tag gang assembled they seek to revolutionize how surfers view the gear they use: surf attire made by surfers, not made by "the man" and promoted by models who have never hit the waves a day in their life. The premise, retro feel and fine performers make Drift seem like the right idea of how to approach this sport – using it as a backdrop to a family drama and a struggle for the little guy (with some awesome surf sequences tossed in for good measure).
While this is the case some of the time, Drift invests in too many unnecessary plot threads, including one about some thugs who for some reason have an issue with the Kellys, which eventually involves into an all out war as one of their own gets mixed up in the drug trade. With the Kellys already struggling with a mortgage, their start-up business and the trials of growing together, this added kink proves to be nothing more than a distraction (and is furthermore concluded in a laughably stunted fashion). There is also a bizarre storyline involving a completely underdeveloped, inexplicably evil banker trying to steal the Kellys farm, er, house which adds nothing but a cartoonish villain that makes Mr. Potter look chipper.
Worthington's character JB is also a bit of a perplexing entity, though the Aussie native's performance is certainly among the most natural he's ever given. His tippy motif is fine enough, never becoming to philosophic and grating, but his ideals seem completely jumbled. One moment he's stating (regarding the Kelly's plan to make their own surf line) that you can't beat the man by becoming the man and at another instance saying that you can't always fight and should sometimes just resign to what is. Additionally scenes of him using his passion for photography and filmmaking to help make these brothers distinct in the industry go nowhere until the very end, deviating from the main story for what become perfunctory attempts to add substance.
Then we arrive at the climax, which of course involves a local surf competition, the winnings from which could save the family farm, er, house and get those gangsters off their back. Again, while impressively staged (and not concluded in the most ridiculous way possible) it collectively doesn't get much more clichéd than that, and when you lump in the montages and other corny moments it truly softens the experience.
Not content on just examining an interesting moment in history, Drift piles on dramatic excess and contrived turns which are muted to some effect only by universally strong work from the cast and, again, those gripping surf sequences. So while certainly not boring and far from offensively bad, Drift isn't compelling enough to warrant anything other than a rental, and definitely not enough to spur any sort of revolution for the surf drama.
The Conjuring (2013)
A Gripping, Tense and Overall Masterful Genre Revival
Like comedy, the horror genre can be a very subjective beast, finding or missing its mark as much do to its craft and execution as it does the particular individual who plops themselves into a theater seat. If something isn't scary to someone – someone who earnestly believes that of course – then a fright flick has failed at its core intent. Then we have something like James Wan's The Conjuring, an artful, confident throwback that succeeds in maintaining a high tensile level of pressure on our senses, crafting vital jump scares, a potent human element and all encompassing technical prowess. This is the type of brave, but stripped down horror filmmaking that forces you to analyze other elements besides just the full effectiveness of its frightening intent. Plus it's scary as hell.
The Conjuring completes a modern supernatural horror film trifecta started with Wan's own Insidious in 2010 and bridged by last year's unsettling Sinister. With these films the genre has proved that this is far from a dead, now inherently clichéd area of cinema and this effort is perhaps the best of all three. After breaking onto the scene in a big way with the trend setting Saw, the director took a bit of creative detour in the eyes of most with revenge thriller Death Sentence and supernatural doll flick Dead Silence (which is vastly underrated by the way) before rebounding with the aforementioned Insidious. For The Conjuring it seems Wan has taken everything he's learned – congealing everything he's found to be effective – and assembled them exquisitely and with ample new flare to boot.
The Conjuring pulls its inspiration from a case file of famed demonologists and paranormal investigators the Warrens, the husband and wife team who's other journeys inspired films such as The Amityville Horror. Here they are played respectively by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga who are now both genre regulars with roles in Insidious and the upcoming Chapter 2 due this year for the gentleman and Orphan and television's Psycho prequel Bates Motel for Farmiga. We've all seen the painful trope of priests, exorcists, psychics and every nut-job in between showing up at the eleventh hour to save a haunted family but the way they're approached in The Conjuring stands as one of the film's greatest strengths.
Though it's something that should be completely obvious out of the gate (but still something those inspired by the Warren's stories forget) this is just as much their story as those experiencing the phenomena. In giving nearly as much screen time to this duo as it does the Perron's (a seven family troop lead by actors Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor and their five daughters) we grow and involve with these nine individuals so when things get terrifying we not only feel just as much for everyone on screen but everyone gets a satisfying arc. It's something so rare in most horror films. Though this dynamic is certainly not presented through these two separate camps – the fearful and the experts – but the men bond over their love of cars and their wives and the women over the unfathomable: harm befalling their children. It's a satisfying an utterly untapped approach for the genre.
But "wait, wait" you proclaim "this is a horror movie after all, stop talking about the little girls and get to the scares!" Graciously, somewhat rude reader. The Conjuring is creepy, intermittently nightmarish, tense, gross, unsettling, and in its purest form, scary. This is the type of film that dares you not to hug yourself or laugh nervously in the hopes you deflect some iota of the sensation of primal fear. But these emotions are never extracted in a manipulative fashion and the jump scares are orchestrated effectively through physical objects falling, bumping, banging and generally causing off-putting noises, not blaring, out of context musical chords.
The camera work is also fantastic employing every angle imaginable and even some very impressive point of view and upside-down-spin shots. It's easily Wan's best directed effort to date but never one that lets its style eclipse the mood. Similarly his use of sound both in the score (which utilizes your average brooding options as well as sharp, grating notes that call back to horror of days gone by) and practical noises such as a strained rope swinging or a door slamming shut. Again, it all adds to the experience and in eventually pulling of the major frights.
Like most fare of this nature, the restrained tension does take a bit of a hit heading into the finale, as subtlety is sacrificed for more overt horror to resolve the story. Thankfully this change in approach is handled with just as much aplomb and also manages to deliver one of the most effective exorcism sequences in recent memory – a victory made all the more notable thanks to the generally overexposed and silly nature of that staple. It's not the perfect ending that the previous acts demanded but one that by no means insults the audience and still remains scary (if in a more upfront manner).
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay The Conjuring is that it actually deserves a sequel. There are tales of the Warrens left to tell and the acting is uniformly strong enough that revisiting these characters would be more a treat then a chore. It takes a skillful filmmaker to take well worn themes and approaches (while avoiding gore and a high body count to boot) and make them seem as original as ever. Coming from a huge horror buff and one that experiences more disappointments then the average soul can handle, I can earnestly say The Conjuring is one of the best ever and what can serve as a fantastic induction into the genre for the uninitiated.
A Rarity: A Horror Sequel That Outdoes Its Predecessor in Every Way
We've got a rarity, folks. More than 2012's solid horror short amalgamation V/H/S which was primarily an assault on our primal fears (and descended into emotional bleakness at times because of it) this follow-up, while still hitting the right nerves, is also funnier, more self aware, more emotionally potent, and unafraid to venture into the far reaches of the genre. Instead of just ghostly tales presented in the found footage format we get infinitely clever approaches to zombies, aliens, demons and, for good measure, spirits as well.
It is such a rarity because everything about V/H/S/2 is superior to the original even if I would have loved to see the veritable Ti West (who directed a segment as well as feature fare House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) return for another go I can't raise any other grudges. This sequel is leaner by a good 30 minutes, as I mentioned the segments are more varied in their sub genre, the framing story (i.e. the context as to why we're watching these vignettes) is scarier and lastly the film is more effective and as a whole because, simply put, the segments are aggregately stronger.
Also for round two, behind each story are better known directors, though of course notoriety isn't always an indication of talent, their experience behind the camera and in the genre is certainly on display. Returning for another go are Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard who contribute the wrap-around entry and Phase I Clinical Trials respectively, and are joined by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (The Blair Witch Project) with A Ride in the Park, Gareth Evans (The Raid) with Safe Haven and lastly Jason Eisner (Hobo With a Shotgun) with the wonderfully titled Alien Abduction Slumber Party.
By far the two strongest stories are A Ride in the Park and Safe Haven. Though I may be biased, my personal favourite is the former. Why you ask? One word: zombies. With my affinity for the flesh chompers through the roof, any unique take on the genre wins my affection to an extent and when it is as fun, gory and bittersweet as A Ride in the Park my heart belongs to it indefinitely. This segment follows a mountain biker with a helmet cam running into a hoard of the undead, is subsequently bitten, and then gives birth to zombie vision (by far the best type of vision). The camera work, dark humour and understanding of the tragic, damned nature of these creatures gels to truly wonderful effect.
Safe Haven on the other hand is just balls-out insane, taking the kinetic blood letting of Evans' The Raid and blending it with the sensibilities of Rosemary's Baby and Martha Marcy May Marlene. When Evans isn't directing the hell out of his short, he's presenting us with some truly unsettling imagery before going all Cabin in the Woods and setting us down in a completely different place then when we started. One scene in particular that showcases his filmmaking prowess comes during a sequence involving a car crash. How anyone could pull off such a shot is beyond me but to do so with no budget is another achievement entirely.
The other two main segments aren't quite as strong but what they lack in sustained ingenuity they make up for in straight up efficiency. Phase I Clinical Trials is essentially a mechanized blend of The Eye though the scares are certainly present. There is a sense of déjà vu in how a number of the sequences unfurl but if they can still make you grip your own fingers, then something is going right. Alien Invasion Slumber Party is a fantastic exercise in the use of sound as a force of Greys terrorizes a group of teens at a lakehouse. Anybody versed in horror will be no stranger to how important sound and musical chords are (and how often they're abused) and their significance is literally amplified here. Eisner's contribution may not be as scary as some of the others, but its urgency and sense of dread make up for it.
I already iterated the upgrade that was the connecting material (featuring a pair of private investigators looking for a missing college student) though it suffers from the same inherent fault of that from the first film, that in having to break it up, tension is lost along the way. But far less then the original does it feel like a slog or burden – a watch-watcher while we wait for the next installment to begin.
Horror fans should ultimately love what V/H/S/2 is dishing out, if not for its startling competency for the fact it has something for everyone. Not only that it uses its found footage format not to pander to fans of the popular gimmick but to both enhance the experience and approach it as a barrier – one that needs to be overcome using creative means. This anthology is a blast from beginning to end and the rare sequel of any genre to recognize the shortcomings of the first and not only fix them but freshen everything else up as well.
Hammer of the Gods (2013)
An Utterly Misguided Mess
It's no secret that originality is dead in film, in fact across all creative mediums the very nature of innovation is an illusion – how our minds are shaped is a reflection of everyone we've known and everything to which we've been exposed over our life. Every book, song, television show, conversation and meditation congeals in our mind and sometimes an idea springs forth. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison said that there are no original ideas only original people and that rings very true. Everything has been done before but it's how we approach these things – these visions – and how we each adhere to a unique doctrine that can result in something wonderful.
Then there are unoriginal people, individuals who seem to revel in familiarity and cliché or are either completely, blissfully oblivious to all that has come before. If the former is the case then Hammer of the Gods a rip-off orgy and the filmmakers' seed is splattered all across the screen and if it's the latter instance then writer Mathew Read should lock himself in a padded room because he is one of the unluckiest people of all time.
In all fairness, Hammer of the Gods isn't entirely inept; it's simply useless at being distinctive in any way. The British Highlands look as intimidating and coldly beautiful as ever and there are shots set up that relieve director Farren Blackburn of some of the blame. Likewise lead Charlie Bewley as a young Norse prince does the very best he can with the material, bringing a primal physicality to the role and line delivery heads above nearly everyone else. But that's approximately where the compliments dead end and where we must delve into how insultingly pilfering this gritty actionier really is.
The year is 871 AD and the Viking hold on Britain is beginning to waver as the Saxon counter offensive is starting to take its toll. Landing on foreign shores (with the eventual task of finding his long lost brother) is the young prince Steinar and his companions Hagen (Clive Standen), Grim (Michael Jibson) and Jokul (Guy Flanagan) who encounter a band of native defenders (after each being given a shiny, block-letter title card accompanied by a loud chord) and which they promptly slaughter. Aside from Steinar, each of these characters is straight out of King Arthur, right down to the specialty weapon they each carry. Hagan is Lancelot, the best friend of the hero who at times questions his motives and decisions and Grim is Ray Winstone's Bors, the brash, loud mouthed brute. Then there is the spiritualist Jokul, who is the brother to the hawk carrying Tristan (played in King Arthur by Mads Mikkelsen). Oh and don't forget the slave-turned-warrior princess Astrid (cough, Keira Knightly's Guinevere) who they meet up with along the way.
Even the aesthetics mimic that 2004 blockbuster, as does Hammer of the Gods copy The Eagle, Centurion and every other film set in the period. As nice as it sometimes looks, there is nothing to distinguish it from all that has come before. Then we even have some elite Saxon forces that somehow managed to nab the garb from 300's Persian Immortals. Furthermore (but to save me smashing my keyboard out of frustration) I won't even delve into the similarities between this effort and History's strong period series Vikings.
But wait you ask, what if you're normally easily to forgive thievery, cliché and well treaded territory? Well, I'm sorry to say I've just re- dampened my blanket. Amidst all the familiar clutter there is the inherent issue with having Vikings as a film's protagonist, let alone warriors portrayed as they are in Hammer of the Gods. It is very difficult in my mind to stand behind a pillaging, raping, invading force who gleefully slaughters farmers who simply want to protect their land. Even the aforementioned Vikings suffers to an extent from this conundrum but it has by far come the closest to striking the correct balance.
If being the villains in the eyes of a country isn't difficult enough to overcome thematically, they make a number of this small pack utterly detestable. Grim makes gay slurs, disobeys orders and at one instance (which is also the film's most completely useless sequence – one which embodies the write off Hammer of the Gods truly is) beats and then murders a captive woman who was originally targeted to be saved from some abusive individuals. Then there is another character they meet in their travels by the name of Ivar (Ivan Kaye) who is perplexed as to why he was exiled for raping young boys and then expects us to laugh along as he and the other crack jokes about it.
But as if to think mimickery was behind us as the climax rolls along, Hammer of the Gods goes full out Valhalla Rising, resulting in one of the most bizarre, stylistically awkward and dramatically inert endings I can recall. As a final slap in the face, after this trek across Britain to fulfill his father's order, Steinar has been transformed into a brutal warrior, stripped of any and all empathy. And here I was thinking the more complex, morally torn soldier was more compelling – what was I thinking. Evolving from grunt to general or inexperienced to battle hardened is one thing but to go from conflicted prince to blood thirsty king is just as misguided as everything else this film offers.
Bad films can be forgiven from time to time, especially those which have a reach that exceed its grasp but those which cannot be overlooked are those that insult the audience. With a multitude of stolen ideas, only two well choreographed fight scenes and one developed character, Hammer of the Gods falls on its sword from the opening scene.
Crazy Kind of Love (2013)
A Total Misfire
The unholy bastard child of a low budget after school drama and the limpest, most derivative romantic comedy imaginable, Crazy Kind of Love attempts to exist as both a frothy coming of age story and a more sombre drama, and it completely fails at both. So little feels genuine that it begs the question if those involved are in actuality idiot savants and have crafted one of the most subtle parodies of all time.
If the on-the-nose musical cues and the atrociously contrived meet-cute between our young leads aren't enough to drive you stir crazy early on, Crazy Kind of Love will soon use its umpteenth strike as it continues to show absolutely no grasp as to how normal people react in the simplest situations. If anyone can earnestly tell me they've been to a party depicted in the film's first act or been privy to a divorce unfurl as the one did here please contact me immediately as I do in fact wish to journey to Narnia.
And those transgressions are among the most overt, as Crazy Kind of Love also takes every possible opportunity to be precious and instead just makes things awkward, even in the smaller, more intimate moments – instances that should have been reined back and left to unfurl with emotional honesty, not in the vein of a bad sitcom. The entire effort is made all the more insulting in approaching themes like growing up in the shadow of hardships and divorce with the care of a tween writing in her licensed One Direction diary.
While director Sarah Siegel-Magness has to take ample responsibility for not moderating her actors, nobody has to look very far to find the culprit behind the emotional suicide of Crazy Kind of Love. Yes, the one supplying the noose is writer Karen McCullah Lutz whose recent credits include The Ugly Truth, The House Bunny and She's the Man – wow. To be fair, she did lend her pen to some minor classics in the late 90's-early aughties with 10 Things I Hate About You and Legally Bonde but it's clear that she milked the high school dramedy-spunky heroine cow dry years ago and is now just blinding yanking, hoping something of worth will drip out.
The central plot, as I'm sure one could guess is very simple: Henry's (Revolution's Graham Rogers) parents are headed for divorce, something his mother (Virginia Madsen) takes rather hard considering the unfaithful antics of her spouse. Thankfully, and in the nick of time, Henry meets the free spirit Bette (Amanda Crew), the type of girl who literally skips through the rain and jumps in puddles. Will this outgoing bundle of kindling help get this family through their ordeal? Will she help to break Henry's virginal, egg-head brother out of his funk? Will Henry's charming, handsome boss win the affections of the heartbroken damsel? And by the end will anyone give a single solitary *bleep*?
It's the Bette character, supposed to be the dynamic lifeblood of Crazy Kind of Love, that utterly guts what remaining zeal the film may have possessed, presenting us with one of the most phony, inorganically promiscuous and straight-up grating characters in recent memory. After (wait for it) moving in with Henry and his brother and mom (don't ask) she continues to be a big ol' firecracker, spouting cheerfully inappropriate cliché at junctures, which while uneasy to watch as a viewer, ring utterly false in the context of the scenes. Not only that, the way characters react to her untethered zip is simply moronic.
This character is being presented as the outlier (and I'm not talking about the type of film which has uppity people turning their nose up at this free spirit, or something of the like) – no. This girl is mentally deranged. She puts the crazy in Crazy Kind of Love (hint: that kind of love usually involves a restraining order). If Juno raised her daughter as a slutty hipster, we'd get Bette and the rate at which this bond develops is faster than a redundant montage (a cliché incidentally missing). The only relationships that mature so quickly are ones that end in the alleyway behind a bar, and judging by how this girl acts, she's familiar with the terrain.
The dynamic kink is an important one in films like this but we need the organic twist to what is supposed to be preordained formula. The fantastic indie City Island did it wonderfully with an inmate returning to live with the man he doesn't know is his father. Even in more limited instances, such as in the important relationship between Matt King and his daughter's boyfriend in The Descendants, it works so well. And speaking of fathers, we never get to know Henry's in Crazy Kind of Love, only that he cheated and he's a jerk. What caused this to happen? Are all men simply scum? The feminist leanings and women behind the camera seem to think so. I don't intend to say all females in the business fall victim to this mantra, as men are equally guilty of crafting broad, often insulting caricatures but that certainly doesn't excuse what happens here.
During one scene regarding Augusta's state, Bette remarks that being sad doesn't make you crazy, being crazy makes you crazy. In that instance, true words were spoken. It's simply ironic she didn't know she was speaking autobiographically. The type of film that can be summed up with the poster, Crazy Kind of Love is the type of cinematic dreck that dares you not to guess every upcoming contrivance and then forces you to feel somewhat guilty as you laugh at it fulfilling its destiny.
The Numbers Station (2013)
Competent Elements and a Familiar Story
Sometimes when venturing into in a film, either big or small, hedging your expectations, or even avoiding details in their entirety can be a hidden channel to satisfaction. More than ever in today's overexposed world (not to mention the industry of which I am a part) maintaining an iota of naïveté when if comes to movies is a burden all its own to carry.
The great Gene Siskel famously avoided all movie trailers and ventured into screenings blind, and what he saw he saw with virgin eyes. With thriller The Numbers Station such was the situation and while an air of mystery can only go so far to elevate the material at hand, this modest production still has enough going for to warrant a recommendation. The irony is not lost on me that I'm about to, with this review, do away with the very blindness that served my particular viewing experience but as they say the show must go on.
The elements warranting a peak in The Numbers Station generally stem from three areas: the performance of John Cusack as a world-weary hit-man, that of the lovely Malin Akerman as a chipper civilian analyst and the gloomy aesthetics of the number station where the film takes place (and where it draws its name). These highly secure facilities, remnants of conflicts long past, serve to transmit coded messages to men and women in the field. With no visual manifestation of orders and only those with the ciphers able to decipher the command, it's a one way dictation which almost always ends in bloodshed.
The Numbers Station is reminiscent of last year's Safe House in a number of ways, particularly the bleak, monotonous way the facility is presented and that it is nowhere near as secure as initially thought. However that's where the similarities end as Cusack's Emerson and Akerman's Katherine are trapped within the building with enemy insurgents at large. From the initial setup, the film descends into your "one location" thriller with these two trying not only to stay alive but uncover why this particular installation was targeted for siege. It's standard order stuff but is presented capably enough to be rather enjoyable.
What is far less boilerplate, especially in fare many (myself included) would consider being of the direct-to-DVD variety is how The Numbers Station wraps things up and how un-clichéd it winds up being – not unique mind you, just not moronic and conventional. From simple things like avoiding an affection-driven dynamic between the two protagonists to sidestepping things that, well, I don't really want to say were bypassed. It's not that the film hinted at banal, hackneyed things to come but rather that it's just how these types of movies play out. The fact it didn't go in those directions was a pleasant surprise to say the least.
Back to the visuals which I inferred were a significant asset, those employed by The Numbers Station are welcomingly dour and dreary even when the maze of dimly lit corridors does get a tad repetitive. What I enjoyed most was that instead of emitting a sense of claustrophobia it instead oozes dread – not that the walls are closing in but rather this is the place these characters will die. Even the exterior of the station looks like a graveyard.
Likewise, the performances from these two leads is deserving of some level of praise even when the writing that shapes these characters is superficial to say the least (and I won't even go into the further mounting conventions associated with an assassin questioning his morals). Especially when a good portion of the running time is dedicated to the interaction between these two refugees, we should get something meatier than Emerson breaking out your standard-order, dossier-brand psychoanalysis.
But I digress, as Cusack in particular surprised me simply because he wasn't on autopilot and at some turns even emoted more than the material demanded him too. He sells the conventional character and how he plays off of the naïve, sprightly Katherine generally works well. While she in particular may exude a tad too much zest and isn't given much to do in the way of ass-kicking, her glowing presence is welcome nevertheless.
It's somewhat unfortunate that the welcome elements swirl amongst mediocre writing and pacing issues more times than can be overlooked, but some slick kills and the aforementioned avoidance of over-the-top genre tropes still makes The Numbers Station better than your average bargain bin thriller.
My Brother the Devil (2012)
Emotionally Complex and Powerfully Acted
Delivering an alternately striking and ominous vision of gangland London, My Brother the Devil, the directorial debut from British- Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini, is an excellent film. Abstaining from all-encompassing grimness and moroseness in favour of character- driven showcases of potency, it's rewarding, gripping and the best film of this young year.
The story is made up of familiar parts – ones we've seen in other gang- centric entities from HBO's The Wire to City of God – but El Hosaini's vision is one of complexity, nuance and moreover is a film that approaches those tropes with distinction. For most audiences My Brother the Devil will provide a unique fusion of cultures. The intermittently bleak aesthetic of London meets the violent, drug-peddling gangs of the projects and more specifically the Arab ethnicities caught in the mix.
At the center of these struggles are two brothers, Rashid (James Floyd) who goes simply by Rash and Mo (first time actor Fady Elsayed). 19-year- old Rash runs with the gang known as DMG (drugs-money-guns) using it chiefly as a means to support his poor family, but for the shy Mo his brother's involvement and standing makes him an idol and ultimately a beacon towards a more prosperous future. Rash, however, wants his brother as far away from the life as possible and when a violent incident occurs for which be blames himself, he looks to re-examine his life in more ways than one – a decision that seeks to drive a wedge between the siblings.
There is a further level of complexity to My Brother the Devil that I won't reveal here but it serves both to expertly deepen the character of Rash and examine the nature of his gang affiliates in a fascinating way. These characters swirl in a sea of split-second decisions, racism and unfounded hate and when a secret is uncovered it makes perfect sense the verdicts that are quickly reached. I don't mean that in a way that the outcome is obvious but rather it's something that is consummately organic and, ultimately, harrowing for the characters involved.
There are many stars in My Brother the Devil and leading them all is El Hosaini, whose grasp on riveting filmmaking, despite her relative amateur status, is nothing short of astounding. The crisp, clean camera-work gives the world of this film an identity of its own and likewise when she opts to employ hand-held shots and angled perspectives the result is equally arresting. The violence on display is restrained in its scale and frequency but when presented is some of the more disturbing bloodshed you're ever likely to see. In fact, the scenes where brutality is avoided prove to be just as intense as their gruesome counterparts.
Also nothing short of remarkable are the two leads, particularly the more experienced James Floyd who, while powerfully written by El Hosaini, brings to life the character of Rash and the struggles he faces with the world around him and internally as well. It's truthfully award- worthy stuff. Newcomer Fady Elsayed is also wonderful playing the weaker of the brothers with vulnerability and reserve but never allowing his character to descend into the realm of snivelling coward. His decisions, while angering at times, feel natural given the situation and his character's age and lead the way for a satisfying, if racking, catharsis for those concerned.
The faults to be found in My Brother the Devil are scattered and infrequent and thankfully do little to undermine the greater vision on display. The pace hits a bit of an awkward stride leading up to the climax but the conclusion is too perfect to dwell on it. There is also an underdeveloped subplot between Mo and a new girl who moves into his complex. Lastly, there could have been more screen time delegated to further shaping the character of Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui) and his past ties to gang life and his growing connection and impact on Rash.
But as a greater entity the film is a triumph of independent filmmaking and pegs El Hosaini as a talent to watch with avid anticipation. A coming-of-age journey with bold, memorable characters and vision and style to spare, My Brother the Devil is periodically slick, always captivating and authentic in ways uncommon to most explorations of violence and loyalty.
Schmaltzy and Slight but Still a Feel-Good Movie to be Rivaled
The feel-good movie is somewhat of an enigma when it comes to the end result. Collectively, so many share the same exact elements: ample schmaltz, the odd contrivance and an ending born straight out of a Disney cartoon. Yet while some work remarkably well, others simply come off as manipulative, pandering tripe. Thankfully in the case of Starbuck, its earnest nature, winning performances and wry humour assemble in a hugely palatable way, which helps it to become one of the more charming films I've seen in recent memory.
The title Starbuck comes from a pseudonym used by 40-something slacker David Wozniak (Patrick Huard). However, it just so happens that this particular alias was constructed for purposes of the professional self- pleasuring variety. That is to say it's the name he put down on the paperwork at the sperm donor clinic. Years after his sordid activities, broke and expecting a child, he learns that he may in fact already have some offspring. In fact, he may have 533 spawn, 142 of whom have just filed a class action lawsuit against him to find their father's true identity. Though he sprints to his friend and lawyer Avocat (Antoine Bertrand) in an attempt to quash the suit, he foolishly peaks inside the folder containing the identity of his children and a redemptive journey begins.
Starbuck successfully encompasses a number of tropes found in films of this nature, though thanks to its unique (if silly) premise, it makes them feel new again. For instance, the "guardian angel" device where a recently deceased character rights wrongs from beyond the grave becomes David stealthily interacting with a number of his kids when they need a helping hand. Likewise, the film as a whole could be considered a romantic comedy with the brood replacing the male or female love interest that is commonly found. However, the kinks that are ultimately thrown between David revealing himself to his extended family are both more potentially life-altering and grounded in some semblance of reality.
Much of Starbuck's success can be attributed to the lead performance from Huard who strikes the perfect balance between good-natured loser, sarcastic rouge and eventually a troubled man trying to do the right thing. His delivery and mannerisms fit the somewhat sardonic material immensely well and simply put he's just damn charming. Even more cynical and ironic is the Avocat character who is the film's purest form of comic relief (not that it really needed it). Every scene with him and David works wonderfully and a final climactic scene which finds him in a moment of (short lived) triumph will have you in stitches.
Unfortunately as is the case with most schmaltzy material, Starbuck indulges in clichés, occasional bloat and contrivance. A subplot involving David owing $80,000 to some unscrupulous folks is utterly unnecessary and is resolved with very little bearing on the overarching story. The film also hammers home our protagonist's slacker status a tad too heavily early on and it's thanks mainly to Huard's talents that we believe his ultimate transformation.
Then there are his children who are comparative (and thinly written) angels when put up against their father and even those who fall into bad habits are set on the right path by their guardian by the next scene. Or perhaps I'm mistaken and a heroin addiction actually can be kicked overnight.
It's the earnest nature and winning humour that ultimately make Starbuck work though, as even when it descends into sentimentality the film keeps its wits and maintains its credibility. Take for instance a late scene where David's many offshoots show up for the birth of his baby – that is to say their sister – and indulge in a group hug. Cheesy to the hilt, yes, but writer-director Ken Scott has the good sense to toss in the line "that was weird" immediately following.
Those generally uninterested in a subtitled, French Canadian lark won't have long to wait as an American remake called Delivery Man has already been completed with Vince Vaughan taking on the David role and Chris Pratt that of Avocat. I actually cringe at the thought of this venture. Starbuck itself walked a thin line between charm and mauldlinism and with the removal of Huard and the French style of humour I can't see it being duplicated with much success. The only ray of hope is that Scott will return as scribe and director so perhaps he sees the potential. But I digress, and will simply say check out this original before the remake lands.
All of the sincerity on display in this comedy is certainly infectious and while not groundbreaking by any means, it's constructed with enough of an identity to stand apart. With appealing leads and some scenes that will tug at the heartstrings and poke at the tear ducts (often in a surprisingly non-manipulative manner) it's hard to imagine most audiences leaving Starbuck without a grin.
Room 237 (2012)
An Ode to Cinema and Peak Inside the Mind of a Cinephile
Room 237 is quite unlike any documentary I've seen before, and while that is absolutely an earnest compliment, it's also to a degree a good thing that this film's personality is a singularly unique one. To have its narrative style and aesthetic common place among non-fiction works would frankly be maddening, but if I suppose if you're as die hard a fan of Stanley Kubrick's seminal horror masterwork The Shining as those interviewed, such a feeling is quite fitting.
That said, I was, ironically, possessed – forced to mull (obsessively so) – over how to critique this film; how to approach each ideal, the linkage between themes, the overarching nuances explored and most importantly how to fairly approach the passionate ramblings of some serious cinephiles. To judge each contributor on the validity of their personal perspectives is a pointless endeavour, not only because these obsessive fans are unwavering when it comes to their angle, but because the film approaches them in a way that if debunking were considered, it would quash the entire soul of the film.
But I immediately digress, what is Room 237 even about, you may ask. I've already mentioned Kubrick's The Shining and at its heart, this film is really about only that. Director Rodney Ascher collects five or so rabid admirers of the famed Stephen King adaptation and simply lets them loose to explain their various theories of the hidden themes behind the original film. The Holocaust, the massacre of the American Indians, the moon landing, repressed sexuality – it's all there naked for you to interpret as you will.
The moon landing theory in particular – that Kubrick directed the famed footage and used hidden themes in The Shining to orchestrate his confession –is utterly ludicrous in more ways than one, the smallest of which isn't that originally that whole theory stemmed from a 2002 mockumentary. And the fact that this individual repeatedly claims to have "proved" his ideal is grating to say the least. However in a way it's all a fascinating examination into the mind of a conspiracy nut, so in that way the film succeeds, but as to something greater hidden behind the façade of The Shining it's, well, still engrossingly asinine.
For me, it was the broader, uniting themes that proved the most provocative such as a segment which focuses on how to approach the past and that, in fact, the past doesn't exist, only the present. Similarly when more than one of these interviewees latch on to something of importance (even though they believe the hidden meaning to be different, such as the number 237) it certainly makes you think. Kubrick was absolutely the type of director to include certain thematic elements towards a greater end. So when we hear one person who believes baking powder with the face of a Native American holds bearing and one who believes it's the Tang containers, it all comes off as deliciously absurd.
In spite of the utter uniqueness of Room 237 and its tweaking of the documentary format, the shortcomings are numerous and unavoidable. The most egregious of these stems from the mere stylistic choices by director Ascher. In addition to what become monotonous repeats of scenes from The Shining, the various hypotheses are visually represented with a genuinely odd collection of footage from other cinematic works. The editing is all very impressive but the choices made do the film very little service.
Ascher also makes the perplexing decision to never show his subject's faces. Now, this may have been a subversive way of complimenting the supposed enigma that is The Shining but simply presenting these folks would have gone a long way to further establishing their unique identites. Not to mention that until they relapse into specifics of their individual doctrine, and not just gushing over the film, it was very difficult to distinguish between who was presenting which point at any given time. The favouring of specific arguments from a screen time perspective also seemed at odds with what Room 237 is trying to achieve.
The purest geek-out moment for any fan of The Shining has to be near the climax where it's revealed an exclusive screening of the film was held which played both the regular version and one in reverse. Both of these versions where then superimposed and the resulting coincidences are just damn cool. From a "Hitler moustache" fade (bear with me) to mouths lining up with a television screen, it's a very pure example of finding further entertainment in a film that has already provided so much. For fans as avid as those featured in this documentary (or even for those with a strong admiration or general interest in cinema) Room 237 is required viewing and best viewed for that matter bookended by the masterpiece itself.
The Sapphires (2012)
Melodramatic, Clichéd - Utterly Charming
In the vein of 2006's Dreamgirls, import The Sapphires briskly chronicles the rise of a fictitious all-black female singing troupe, this time comprised of Australian natives and a roguish Irishman who instructs them to the spotlight. While completely unimposing and heaped with clumsy clichés, it's all more than a little bit charming and benefits from strongly executed covers of some famous soul hits.
Fashioned from rather obvious genre tropes, The Sapphires nevertheless provides a genuinely unique setup and subsequent execution of how these women – three sisters and their cousin – find a measure of recognition. It certainly makes more than a modicum of sense to have this journey set in the land down under seeing as this is from where the film heralds, though having these ladies be of aboriginal descent is fresher. There is no Motown, Harlem or sleazy record labels here.
Furthermore, the venue where this group find their fame is none other than the Vietnam War, performing their newly acquired affection for soul to the homesick American troops. For Western audiences particularly, it's a unique mash-up of cultures and one that ultimately serves as a character of its own.
The principle cast (and filmmakers for that matter) are mostly comprised of first-time actors and unknowns, and for the spread of talent, it's all rather impressive. Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell are as green as performers can get and Jessica Mauboy, though used to being in the spotlight thanks to her music career, is equally unfamiliar to acting. Of this family, it's only Deborah Mailman as the eldest sister who has any kind of a resume, though she does not detrimentally outshine the others, nor is she slumming it by any means.
Bringing most of the infectious energy and charisma however is Chris O'Dowd, who has been gaining some serious recognition with roles in Bridesmaids, Friends with Kids and This is 40. A whisky-swilling Irishman who stumbles across The Sapphires (though not their name at the time – a source of much frustration) at a talent show, he becomes their adoptive manager. O'Dowd scores almost all of the film's laughs and again adds in another cultural dynamic that is much appreciated.
Less appreciated is the smattering of clichés and familiar story arcs that allow The Sapphires to indulge in all the contrivances attributed to an afterschool special. Will all these ladies find love on this foreign journey? Will one be able to speak fluent Vietnamese at a life- or-death situation? Considering the setting, will there be a shoehorned- in action sequence? Is the Irishman the only heavy drinker? Will these sisters struggle with inner rifts and power struggles? Of friggin' course.
It's the latter overused trope that is both the most obnoxious, though oddly is it also the one most unlike I've seen before (but don't think it's any less obvious or limp). Instead of some sort of self-destructive descent into the world of show business being the driving factor that drives a wedge between the group, it just seems to be petty bitchiness. There is an underlying history between two characters that hopes to heighten the clashes, but for Mailman's Gail in particular she just comes off as a massive rhymes-with-witch. Of course she gets her redemption, but the writing doesn't do her any favours.
Additionally, considering the time period, it's reasonable to expect heavy does of racism, even when we're dealing with countries often less associated with it. Unfortunately The Sapphires massively overplays its race card, inserting bigotry at the most awkward junctures and introduces it even amongst the family. In doing so it utterly dulls the much-needed message and dose a disservice to the film as a whole.
But, of course, first and foremost a lot of people will be interested in this film because of the music, and it doesn't disappoint, despite not being a full-fledged musical. Though the numbers are strung together without much of an underlying structure, the covers ranging from I Can't Help Myself and I Heard it Through the Grapevine always impress, as do the actors delivering them. Even O'Dowd proves he has some decent pipes on him.
For what it ultimately is, and for what it ultimately seems to be vying, The Sapphires is more than a bit appealing. The rifts are well delivered, the acting strong and the execution has enough of an identity to distinguish it from other musical dramas. It may not possess enough heft to always deserve its interesting setup but it's more organically amiable than most of the movies you've seen this year.
Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Over-sized, if Flawed, Family Fun
Over the past decade, Hollywood has unveiled literally dozens of high profile fantasy adventures, be they for more mature audiences, for pre- teens and families, or adapted from novels or from original work, it's proved to be a lucrative segment of the market (if an uneven one in terms of consistent quality).
I don't need to tell you the latest popular niche of this broader genre is the tweaking of fairy tales, fables, classic children's books and pre- existing fantasy property to appear sleek and modern for today's audiences. Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer fits squarely into this realm of adventure and though rough in terms of appeal across all ages, should find its place as memorable fare for the correct one.
With the first (of many) incarnations of Jack and the Beanstalk now reaching the ripe age of 206, I think it ridiculous to go into the basic plot of this modern update – adventurous boy, poor livestock-selling skills, bean trading, stalk-growing, etc – so I shall instead speak to the noteworthy tweaks Singer and the film's writers have made.
The most interesting comes with the character of Lord Roderick, played with greenery-chewing fervor by the great Stanley Tucci (sporting a rather unfortunate hair piece and what appear to be false teeth of some kind). Instead of having Jack venture up the beanstalk willingly to pilfer the giant's riches, an unfortunate event traps the kingdom's princess high above the clouds, requiring a brave rescue party (including Jack and Roderick) to find her. Roderick's intentions, however, are less than noble and using some ancient magic has a plan to rule the giants and use them to conquer Earth.
Likewise, smaller touches such as having some of the giant's names stem from Joseph Jacobs' 1890 iconic version of the folk tale – meet Fye, Fi, Fo and Fumm – is a clever touch, as is how the multiple ancient beans play key roles further down the line. Even further tweaking of the story's conventions would have been much appreciated, though the attempts made, and the epic retelling of it all, deserves recognition.
Unfortunately, not everything in Jack the Giant Slayer is quite as clever, with many of the issues stemming from the uneasy bridging between a light family tone, and darker, violent scenes. Essentially, mucus, flatulence, annoying sidekicks and "bean" and "giant" puns meet revolting behemoths skewering pigs with toothpicks and biting the heads off unfortunate soldiers. Like I iterated earlier, there is a certain sliver of viewing audience who will love the shifting tones – able to both laugh immaturely and relish in the slick action. Less fortunate viewers however are bound to be rather scarred by what's on screen. This is not for the young ones, folks.
Something young and old can certainly agree upon is the tired nature of including yet another daydreaming, strong-willed princess, confined to the castle by her overprotective father, only to fall in love with the ratty farm boy she can never marry. The perpetual resurfacing of this cliché in nearly every modern fairytale enrages me. It managed to help sink Brave last year and has plagued this type of fare for far too long.
What can be agreed on unequivocally is the amount of special effects on display, and for the most part they work rather well. The beanstalk growing and felling sequences are particularly impressive (as are the effects on the leaves of the giant plant – a small thing I know, but noteworthy nevertheless) as are the giants themselves, if less consistently. Effective rendering of these creatures seems to come down to exactly what activities in which they are involved. Close-ups and mid- distance action: bravo. Long-take, dialogue-driven scenes and certain, more tricky combat: less mind-blowing.
Thankfully behind the main antagonists we have strong voice actors, chiefly Bill Nigh as the two-headed General Fallon who his capable of spewing sufficient malice in his sleep. Complimenting the CGI characters of this tale are, of course, the flesh and blood additions including Ian McShane as King Brahmwell who strikes the right balance between tender and brave, Ewan McGregor as the infinitely charming Sir Elmont and Nicolas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson as the star-crossed lovers Jack and Isabelle.
These two, who anchor much of the journey, prove to be strong, likable leads. Tomlinson is affable, charming and beautiful (what's not to admire with those qualities) and Hoult, who after showing surprising chops in Warm Bodies proves he has leading man potential, even if his charisma isn't exactly of the intoxicating variety.
With an intense final battle (featuring history's strongest drawbridge) notable work from Singer (even when the film falters on a technical or storytelling level you can never claim it to be poorly directed) and numerous instances where fun trumps cliché, Jack the Giant the Giant Slayer is decent as 2013's first blockbuster, even if its vision never reaches the height of the creatures at its center.
Thrilling, Lavishly Mounted and Hugely Accessible
A nominee for Best Foreign Language Picture at this year's Oscars, Norwegian import Kon-Tiki chronicles the journey of adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his incredible journey some 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft. Though comparisons will inevitably be drawn between this film and Ang Lee's Life of Pi, a fellow Oscar nominee, they are very different beasts and are both films deserving of attention.
If nothing else, Kon-Tiki (the name of the aforementioned vessel) adds to the impressive list of superb films from Scandinavia this past year. From Headhunters (one of my favourites of 2012) to the overlooked Snabba cash (Easy Money), fare from this region has never been more accessible or memorable.
So now comes Kon-Tiki, the first Norwegian film to score both a nomination at the Golden Globe and Academy Award ceremonies, and it's rather easy to see why. This sweeping journey appeals squarely to Hollywood sensibilities, twisting up an epic, historical adventure about overcoming the odds, with human drama. Though this intentional slanting may take some of the complexity and grit out of the film in the end, praise is abundantly deserved for all those involved.
Chief on that list is filmmaking duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, best known previously for the Luc Besson-produced Bandidas with Penelope Cruz and Selma Hayek, who craft something lavish and visually sumptuous out of this trek, despite the hurdle of being endowed with a budget of just $16 million.
By recreating Heyerdahl's raft, shooting out over the deep and using special effects only as infrequent enhancements rather than a crutch, these two lay the authenticity on thick and in doing so generate tension and wonder (sometimes simultaneously) like you wouldn't imagine. Kon- Tiki, though never overtly stealing, mirrors the most effective aspects of films like Cast Away, Jaws and Mutiny on the Bounty.
When Rønning and Sandberg aren't capturing sweeping, stunning shots of the Pacific (and the tiny boat at its mercy) they are letting the camera rest on the diminutive aspects of the voyage, at least so when compared to the grandness of what's around them. The ropes lashing together the massive balsa wood beams strain and groan in the water, summoning us back to an earlier scene where two sailors warn Heyerdahl that a raft of that nature will inevitably break apart with the movement of the logs. Sharks silently circle and the boat slowly crumbles as the wood absorbs seawater. These quiet moments are as unnerving as anything you'll see on the big screen.
Likewise, there are grander, more elaborate moments that drip with tension all the same, as when storms hit, men are cast overboard, and once again sharks, though proving to be one of the lesser threats in the scheme of things, use their mythos alone to chill to the bone. If not as complex as it could have been, Kon-Tiki is certainly never dull.
The cast of unknown actors are also strong, even if by the time the credits role their sporting of Grizzly Adams-like beards makes identifying between some of these brave men difficult. Leading the way as the driven Heyerdahl is – wait for this one – Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, anchoring (no pun intended) the film as a man intent on proving his settlement theory to sceptical scholars. Joining him is engineer (and refrigerator salesman) Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) navigator Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson) ethnographer Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård) and two soldiers acting as radio men Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby (Tobias Santelmann and Jakob Oftebro respectively).
Together, crammed together like sardines, they make the 101-day journey, each bringing not only their respective skill-sets but demons as well. Those versed in Heyerdahl's novel or the documentary of the voyage (the winner of the 1950 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature) may cry afoul at some of the changes that have been made in service to crafting a more dramatic effort, particularly tweaks to the Watzinger character, but they will in no way impact how most will respond to Kon-Tiki.
Though not as weighty or viscerally lasting as some fare that pops up in the Best Foreign Language Film category, it is, however, infinitely accessible to anyone who usually turns their nose up at that particular segment of the ceremony. Kon-Tiki is a strong import, fascinating and thrilling in equal measure and a film that is just as much about the perils of nature as it is about the gratification that comes with conquering it.
Rise of the Guardians (2012)
DreamWorks Steps Outside Its Comfort Zone
Carrying on the recent ensemble novelty in films, one that saw classic action stars team up for The Expendables and its sequel and superheroes assemble for the mega-smash The Avengers, DreamWorks' Rise of the Guardians tosses together a slew of childhood memories drenched in mythos and lore and twists them into a gang off ass-kicking protectors of children – uhh, I mean butt-kicking, sorry kids.
Creativity is certainly abound in this animated effort and even though it doesn't always delve deeply enough into this fantasy world to be a classic worthy of wide-eyed worship, the strong voice work, punchy animation and that aforementioned creative spark combine into a intelligent diversion.
Going one step further than simply amassing notable beings of legend, director Peter Ramsey and writer David Lindsay-Abaire (based on the William Joyce book) transform our preconceived notions of the characters that inhabit this tale. Santa Claus is a sword-wielding Russian known as North, the Easter Bunny is laden with boomerangs and heralds from "The Land Down Under" and the Sandman stands as a very real entity known as Hush. Also, a member of the guardians is "Tooth" (of the fairy variety) and the newcomer to the troupe is the film's hero: the bratty but fun- loving Jack Frost.
Chosen for duty by The Man in the Moon, each guardian is picked not only to carry on his or her presumed duties (deliver presents, hide eggs, etc), but also have a role in preserving a certain facet of childhood. North, for instance, has a role "at his core" (as the man in red puts it) to keep wonder alive in the eyes of children. With Jack Frost called to arms against the sinister Pitch (as in "Pitch Black," as in The Boogeyman), who is regaining his strength following a fall from power after the dark ages ended, he must stop the evil from spreading and find what his true role is in life.
Of these legendary individuals, the most fascinating is actually Tooth, a member upon first glance who seems a bit out of place when talking about a clique of war-ready mythological beings. Plus, you know, touching a bunch of teeth for a living is kind of gross. You see Tooth's role has had far more wide-reaching repercussions for the youth of the world: each tooth she collects represents a memory – a pure thought or moment that can be used later in that individual's life when they need an epiphany, grounding, humbling or, perhaps a smile — most.
Both hero and antagonist are also gifted with more background than you'll see in your average film (of any medium) and both are actually quite tragic in their own right, though for decidedly different reasons. The circumstances that first made Jack into the harbinger of winter is deeply sad but later compels him to become the guardian he needs to be, and for Pitch his centuries of pseudo exile for doing only what his core drives him to do. Pitch is the type of villain where it is easy to understand his motivations, even if you thoroughly disagree with them.
Rise of the Guardians is certainly one of the least funny DreamWorks products in recent memory, perhaps of all time. When Pitch isn't infiltrating the dreams of kids with insidious-looking spirits, characters are being killed and intense action sequences are put on display. This is certainly not a film for young, young children.
This slant of maturity as it turns out is the film's biggest fault, in that its reliance on action to drive home the immensity of the threat and the continued strife in general takes us out of this fascinating universe. In the end, it offers only a little bit more than a skin-deep peak into the world of the guardians.
However, Rise of the Guardians is a film destined to age wonderfully, especially for those who first experience it at the proper age. Adults should find this offering more to their taste over most in the genre and the tidbits of humor and the gorgeous rendering of it all will stand only as a bonus.
On a final (and refreshing note), though there is absolutely sequel potential now that this team has been assembled, Rise of the Guardians is a solely isolated tale with a clear-cut beginning and end, thankfully sidestepping the curse of the (always blatant and embarrassing) open ending. Whether or not the guardians will return, DreamWorks has in a way stepped outside its comfort zone and delivered a fun and cultured Holiday-themed animated fable.
Primed To Rob You of Sleep
It's a rarity when it comes to the marketing of horror films that the tidbits they toss to the masses can be both potent in their ability to allure crowds all while not spoiling the film's biggest scares. Sinister unleashed a truly terrifying promotional campaign that highlighted some of its more impactful frights, but kept enough under wraps to deliver 110 minutes of continuous tension and terror.
In a number of ways, Sinister could be viewed as a companion piece to 2011's Insidious and not just in name. Both take an uncommonly smart and restrained approach to horror, derive their thrills from the presence of a chilling demonic presence and feature a father fighting for the protection of his children. However, in spite of the parallels that can be drawn, Sinister is its own beast and is easily stands as one of the best fright flicks of the year.
What Sinister does best is maintain tension for extended sequences. Even when it's building its characters or unravelling the mystery, we're biting our nails because we know the tenseness is bound to return soon. The pagan deity known as Bagul, who serve's as this film's boogeyman, is only shown in fleeting instances, usually from afar on a blurry Super-8 film reel zoomed in upon, and rarely shown in crisp entirety. This makes the quiet moments – the before the storm scenes – all the more potent.
To quickly shed a bit of light on the story, Sinister follows a true crime novelist with the unfortunate name of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) who a decade prior had a massive hit on his hands, but has hit some bad luck since with his foray into fiction. Looking for his next big story, he moves his wife (Juliet Rylance) and his daughter and son to a home that happens to be the scene of a grisly murder of four and the disappearance of a fifth. Finding a box of film reels and a projector in the attic, Ellison sifts through the footage and begins to uncover a shocking history of gruesome violence.
Ellison is an interesting character due to his flawed nature and instances of unlikeability, which then ultimately blend well with the scenes depicting him as a good man at heart and a caring father. Ellison becomes so obsessed with regaining his mantle, "creating a legacy" as he puts it, that he often forgets his legacy is his children. It's a somewhat chancy decision in a horror film when you already have to deal with obstacles such as characters behaving idiotically. Ellison's dual nature also gives the typical "nagging wife" archetype a justifiable reason to bitch and Rylance's Tracey does so in a way that makes us root for her, for him, both or them and them as a collective family.
When it comes to idiocy in horror films, Sinister as does an admirable job of avoiding, if not masking, the tendency. As more and more is revealed about Bagul and his motives (and as troubling as it all may be), there is no apparent threat. Simply the odd bump in the night and the conclusions of a drunken author submersing himself so thoroughly into his disturbing work that he begins to doubt the conclusions he's drawing. It is in this area, Sinister sidesteps the "door paradox." There is really no overpowering reason they should immediately leave.
One thing that did stick in my craw, however, was Ellison's propensity to wander around the home without thinking to switch on a light (and he stalks around the house far too much – it becomes a tad repetitive despite the tense execution). In one such instance there was a power outage but in the other cases it's rather maddening and an obvious attempt to retain the gloomy aesthetic of the scene.
Additionally, I would strongly suggest to Tracey that she visit a sleep doctor because her patterns are wild at best. At one instance she awakes at the sound of her husband opening the door to investigate a noise and at another he tumbles from the attic hatch and we don't see a glimpse of her. It wouldn't have taken much to have her appear at the other occasions, especially considering her arrival wouldn't have impacted any scares or tension.
That being said, Sinister is uniformly: a) well directed by Scott Derrickson b) acted (by Hawke in particular though the child actors are underused) and c) deeply unsettling as a whole. Upon leaving the theater there was a decidedly large lump in my stomach. The creature design of Bagul is outstanding and when we linger on the demon's face (such as a scene where Ellison walks up to the projector screen and inquisitively strokes the image) it's terrifying even when all real world logic says it shouldn't be.
Capping everything off is the score by Christopher Young, which has become my favorite of the year. Young, who unsurprisingly upon further investigation also worked on Drag Me to Hell, offers up a collection of cacophonous clangs, crashes and off-key instrumental strokes that compliments the material perfectly.
Concluding everything with a perfect ending that doesn't betray the fictional logic and lore the film creates and utilizing found footage as, well, actual found footage, Sinister is primed to rob you of sleep and stands to this day the only horror film to make me involuntarily shut my eyes. That is worth kudos in of itself.
Solomon Kane (2009)
A Solid B-movie That excels Then Sticking to Its Pulpy, Action-Fantasy Roots
After being kept from North American theater screens for years now (for reasons unbeknownst even to director Michael J. Bassett) Solomon Kane, the adaptation of Robert E. Howard's pulp-Puritan magazine stories from the early 1900's has finally been awarded a release. For the most part, this grungy period epic both subverts and embraces its roots admirably, failing mainly when it begins to ponder and attempt the philosophical.
Starring James Purefoy who is best known for his stellar work as Mark Anthony on HBO's Rome, Solomon Kane takes us on a bittersweet journey of redemption across mid-level Britain as a dark force led by the sorcerer Malachi is recruiting the strong, enslaving the weak and slaughtering anyone in between.
As is the case in both the source material and this adaptation, Howard tells a tale of Earth in the 1600's where black magic is very real and even more so is the existence of god and the devil, the latter of which quite literally appeared to collect the soul of Captain Kane. His life of senseless murder, plundering, cruelty and greed had left his soul marked for hell and after a narrow escape he instead pledges his life to god, swearing off violence for the hope he can remain a free man as long as possible.
Those hoping for something more akin to Van Helsing (I don't know why you would be, but let's play the devil's advocate) may leave disappointed due to the more ponderous and cerebral approach Solomon Kane employs (a quality that I must admit at a number of turns sinks the fascinating bleakness that makes this film of note). Bassett's vision could easily be held as a companion piece to 2010's absorbing Black Death with Sean Bean, a similarly set, godly-themed movie that asks infinitely more intriguing questions (and without the clutter evident in Solomon Kane).
Though the sides of good and evil play a pivotal role in the redemption and motivation of Kane, the mythological elements actually take a back seat to a more straightforward tale of the crusades and the brutal hardships of the era. The bursts of the overtly fantastical can actually come across as jarring after being grounded in pseudo-authenticity for such extended sequences. It would have been supremely interesting if Bassett had chosen to plant his Solomon Kane even more firmly in reality, making god, the devil and their respective minions the beliefs of deluded individuals who blindly believed in who they were serving and not to visualize their forms so concretely. But I digress.
On an aesthetic and technical level, Solomon Kane is universally stunning. Bassett and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen bring this world to vivid life through on-location shooting and confident camera work while also employing special effects impressive for the modest budget. Similarly, the score by Klaus Badelt is boisterous and rhythmic very much calling to mind Hans Zimmer's score from The Dark Knight Trilogy. Finally, the costume and set design is equally gorgeous matching the quality of any annual Oscar nominee. In spite of its shortcomings, Solomon Kane never looks cheap.
The film's biggest failing, even above its tonal and self-reflective faults, comes with the limp finale that is frankly insulting. After a number of impressive skirmishes in which Kane dispatches hoards of enemies with ruthless and grisly precision, we get a tame spat between Malachi and his second-in-command (which also involves a CGI demon a la the Balrog variety). This duel is not only stunted but poorly choreographed and pits Solomon against villains (Malachi in particular) we have barely seen in person up to that point. The fight between Kane and some thugs who assault him earlier in the film is far more compelling.
As for Solomon Kane himself, Purefoy brings him to life admirably, neither chomping at the bit nor playing him as some sort of soft-spoken, growling killing machine. There is visible passion behind his eyes and despite the frequent silliness, Purefoy never blinks. Max Von Sydow and the late Pete Postlewaite also provide strong work in supporting roles but this movie is laid upon the shoulders of Purefoy and he holds it up in commendable fashion.
Certainly worthy of a big screen release especially on a visual level, Solomon Kane is solid entertainment of the B-movie variety. Uneven but only sporadically dull, this is a confident adaptation that should undoubtedly please fans of the source material.
For the uninitiated like myself, Solomon Kane is strong enough to convince me there are more compelling stories that could be told through this character. Though that will likely not be the case, what we still have is a dark, moody and bleakly stunning parable that should gratify, if not provoke weighty questions about the nature of faith.