Friday, 29 April 2016

Son of Saul Review

Son of Saul, the best film I saw at Cannes 2015, is out in UK cinemas today. It's relentlessly grim, but an unforgettable watch. If you can find a cinema near you playing it over the next few months, I highly recommend it. It's not going to be as big as Captain America: Civil War, but it deserves your attention!

Here's a snippet from my review:

The gas chambers, the incinerators and the sickening machinery of genocide are all vividly dissected in Son of Saul as viewers are plunged into the midst of Hitler’s Final Solution at work. Audiences are dragged along on the gut wrenching journey of one man, a tiny cog in this machine of mass slaughter. For those who think they’ve seen all the horror that holocaust films can muster, Son of Saul scrapes new depths of despair in its harrowing depiction of the inner workings of Auschwitz in 1944.

We follow title character Saul, a Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando at an Auschwitz crematorium. His job is to herd his fellow Jews to the gas chambers, where he then scrubs away the evidence of their deaths, before removing the bodies and plundering their belongings for the Nazis. But when the seemingly desensitised Saul finds the body of a boy he takes to be his son, he suddenly finds a way to grasp at some small sense of redemption in amongst all the senseless killing. He makes it his mission to save the boy’s corpse from cremation, and to find a rabbi who can recite the Kaddish prayer as he buries his child. Even as those around him plan rebellion in order to stand a chance at survival, Saul sticks rigidly to his plan to find a way to give the boy a proper burial.

You can check out the rest of my review at Tastic Film here.

Here's the trailer:

More from Cannes 2015

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Louder Than Bombs Review

Despite being set up in the opening scene as the main character, Jesse Eisenberg takes a back seat, allowing relatively unknown talent Devin Druid to shine in Joachim Trier's bittersweet drama Louder Than Bombs. Eisenberg is on solid, if not exceptional form as a son who returns to the family home to find his father and younger brother still in a complete mess after the death of his mother. He injects moments of welcome humour into what could have been a stifling exploration of grief in the modern world.

College lecturer Jonah (Eisenberg) has recently become a father himself and is feeling the weight of responsibility when he is called home to sort through some of his mother's belongings. His father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) hasn't managed to sort through the undeveloped photos that his late conflict photographer wife took before she passed, and now a gallery is hoping to put together an exhibition of her final work. Jonah's younger brother Conrad is unaware of the exact circumstances surrounding his mother's untimely death in a car crash. With a revealing article about to expose the truth about her 'accident', Jonah and Gene must decide whether they should tell the disturbed boy about his mother’s depression before it becomes public knowledge.

Dealing with grief and the fallout from a death in the family runs the risk of piling on clichés and treading ground that has already been amply trodden on by many filmmakers in the past. Even with its familiar troubled teen at the centre of the story, Louder Than Bombs manages to be heard above the clamour of similarly themed stories. This is largely due to terrific performances from its trio of male leads and some perceptive exploration of what it means to live in a time where everything is mediated, and it is increasingly difficult to find meaning in life.

Conrad sits in his darkened room, immersed in violent and fantastical videogames where he can become any character he likes, or kill people at will. He is withdrawn and surly, and his father has no idea how to communicate with him. The sadness of this relationship and the catastrophic ways that Gene tries to learn more about his son are tempered by some extremely comical moments. With Jonah helping him to come out of his shell, Conrad blossoms into the film’s raw exposed heart.

Despite bursts of voiceover from a number of different characters, as well as a complex chronology that contains flashbacks within flashbacks, it is really Conrad’s point of view in which we see the world through. His heart on sleeve writings and curious dancing behind not-so-closed doors make him utterly endearing, even if he does spit in a teacher’s face in one scene. Memories and dreams of his mother have a powerful hold on his mind, but it is his fragmented view of the world that resonates most. Like the flashes of his mother’s photos that we occasionally see on screen, or the YouTube videos he consumes daily, Conrad is lost in a disjointed reality, a reality reflected in the inventive structure of the film.

Getting under the skin of a few of its characters is daring, but could easily be accused of a lack of focus. However, Louder Than Bombs has a decent stab at examining not only three generations of men, but also the woman who affected their lives in profound ways. All of the film’s flawed characters deliver moments of heart and humour, but as distressed teen Conrad, it is Devin Druid who deserves the most praise for his exceptional performance.

Watch the trailer:

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Hardcore Henry Review

Hardcore Henry is an action film completely shot from the first-person point of view of its lead character. Apart from found footage films that use the POV of a character's camera, I think this is probably the first total first-person POV film since Lady in the Lake attempted it in 1947. And Hardcore Henry is a hell of a lot more fun than that.

It's from director Ilya Naishuller who made the music videos I have embedded below. Once you've seen these, you'll have a very good idea of exactly what Hardcore Henry is going to be like. Below these is a snippet of my review of the film.

The titular Henry awakes in a flying laboratory after losing two limbs and most of his face in some unseen grisly accident. His scientist wife, Estelle (Bennett), is putting him back together with new robotic parts when suddenly telekinetic villain Akan (Kozlovsky) bursts in, kidnaps Henry’s beloved and sends his henchman to hunt and kill poor Henry. But they’ve underestimated this half-cyborg super-soldier and his determination to get his wife back, even if he’s running low on power and hasn’t got any memories of his former life.

Just because films based on video games never work, it doesn’t mean that cinema can’t have its very own version of a first-person shoot-‘em-up. Hardcore Henry is so much like playing a video game, that it feels strange not to have a controller in your hand. Copley pops up throughout the film as Jimmy to tell Henry/you what the next mission/level is that needs to be completed. You might find yourself tilting your head, straining to see what Henry sees from a clearer angle, or recoiling from the screen as his enemies leap, punch, kick, and shoot at him. There’s even time for a sniper’s eye view as you stand on a balcony picking off enemies below you...

Read the rest of my review of Hardcore Henry at Starburst Magazine here. 

Here's the trailer:

More recent reviews:




The Witch


Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Zootropolis Review

Zootropolis is going up against Metropolis this weekend. Are these bunnies nuts or what? Despite a name change from the American title Zootopia, the film has already racked up huge dollar at the box office elsewhere ($200 million in the US alone), so maybe Batman V Superman V Zootropolis isn't such a bad idea after all. It might be going up against DC's finest, but it's got the Easter holidays on the way to keep kiddies entertained. Here's a snippet of my review:

It's a brave move to make a kids film where there is a montage of the do-gooder main character dishing out 200 parking tickets. Zootropolis could have done without this scene, but impressively it manages to make its leading bunny likeable, no matter how many other Zootropolis-dwelling animals’ days she ruins by slapping them with a fine. 
Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the bunny tasked with parking duty, after she works her fluffy little tail off to get out of her small town, get herself through police academy and finally live her dream of tackling crime in the big city of Zootropolis. Judy is a dreamer, determined to leave her carrot-farming folks behind and be the first ever bunny police officer. But life in the city isn't quite how Judy imagined it would be, and she is forced to team up with streetwise hustler fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), to unravel the mystery of some missing mammals.

Here's the trailer:

Monday, 21 March 2016

Disorder Review

To critics at Cannes that were growing weary of long-winded art films that move at a snail’s pace, Disorder may have felt like a bit of a breath of fresh air. Throbbing with an electronic beat from the start, and not getting too bogged down by exploring it’s hero’s post-traumatic stress disorder, Alice Winocour’s film is a simple thriller that mounts the tension from its opening scenes and keeps audiences gripped throughout. It’s unlikely to win any awards, but it’s a welcome chance to get comfortable on the edge of your seat for just over an hour and a half. 

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Vincent, a soldier who returns from Afghanistan to be medically assessed due to his nosebleeds, hallucinations and other symptoms of acute anxiety. Taking a security job at wealthy Lebanese businessman Whalid’s mansion, Vincent soon finds himself becoming embroiled in the lives of his client’s family. Knowing Vincent won’t be going back to fight again, his friend Denis offers him the seemingly simple task of looking after Whalid’s wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and son Ali, while the businessman takes a potentially dangerous trip. Becoming alerted to some dodgy dealings before Whalid leaves, Vincent’s already burgeoning anxiety turns to full blown paranoia as he strives to protect the family from a potentially dangerous threat.

It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you and so it goes for Vincent as he finds himself putting his temper and flair for violence to good use during Disorder. It’s a slow build up, and Winocour is keen to make viewer’s doubt Vincent’s mind state in the first half of the film. Is he imagining threats around every corner, or is he just highly attuned to sense danger after his time serving in Afghanistan. While this is all explored rather pointedly in the early scenes with Vincent necking an assortment of pills and suffering from a range of noticeable tics, it takes a back seat as the action amps up for a home invasion set piece at the film’s climax. Once it becomes clear that Vincent has every right to be on edge, Disorder strays into formulaic thriller territory but still throbs with energy.

Before this, we have to make do with Vincent and Jessie playing family as Vincent discovers his heart is intact, even if his mind is a little fractured. While taking care of Jessie and Ali, Vincent starts to take the absent father’s role and the hint of a romance starts to develop between the couple. Schoenaerts is cementing his reputation as another heartthrob with real talent behind his chiselled features and impressive physical presence. While the chaste romance is kept just barely simmering, it is the earlier moments where Vincent shows signs of trauma that allow Schoenaerts to really impress. He’s a credible romantic lead, but when he springs into action, he is impossible to take your eyes off.

Meanwhile Kruger gets the most minimal role imaginable, trapped in an extremely tired and typical worrying wife role and given little to do except look pretty. It’s a shame as Vincent comes across as a fairly complex character but Kruger is under served here by the writers. That said, she is certainly eye catching and while strutting around the beautiful mansion she lives in, she does a convincing job of fitting into her lush surroundings as the gorgeous trophy wife. 

While the screenplay is nothing too original, the film looks and sounds excellent. The production design manages to make the mansion where most of the film is set both claustrophobic and wonderfully lavish. More importantly the score from French techno artist Gesaffelstein is inventive, energetic and perfectly captures the overactive and disturbed mind of Vincent. Aided immeasurably by its sound design, Disorder pulsates in order to get the blood pumping.

Those wishing to see Schoenaerts juggle machismo and sensitivity will enjoy the star’s performance here. As far as story, Hollywood has done this kind of thing a thousand times before and often better. However, while the writing may be nothing hugely special, as a director, Alice Winocour will probably be heading to Hollywood soon with a calling card as effectively entertaining as this. 

Watch the trailer:

Friday, 18 March 2016

Drowning Pool - Bodies Music Video Analysis

I'm teaching music video again at the moment, and I thought I'd throw up (literally) a quick music video analysis to give my students an idea of what I'm after from them. They've got to analyse five different videos in terms of the style, conventions and techniques used. Here's my example for them, but before you read it, please give the video a watch!

Drowning Pool’s music video for their song Bodies is a great example of a video that is in a similar style to many other hard rock / metal music videos. It shares many of the conventions and techniques used in other music videos of songs within the same music genre. The video mixes ‘as-live’ elements of Drowning Pool performing in a few different locations (but without an audience) and elements of a narrative style music video. The main ‘as-live’ performance parts of the video feature the band playing in a large dark warehouse and also in what looks like a very small room in a hospital. This latter location ties in with the narrative of the music video which features a male patient in what can be assumed to be a psychiatric hospital being taunted by the lead singer of Drowning Pool who is singing to him. The video ends with the members of Drowning Pool appearing to help the man leave the hospital, but actually they take him back to his room, where the patient is already sitting. Is he mad? Why are there two of the patient? Is this a dream? As with many music video narratives, it’s quite ambiguous.

The song is clearly about having a very disturbed mind state. The repetition of ‘Nothing wrong with me’ and ‘Something’s got to give’ suggest this is a song about feeling angry, particularly if you feel trapped by society, and unable to express how you really feel and who you really are. The lyrics have been interpreted by the music video creators as being about a man who is literally trapped in an institution and is perhaps struggling to come to terms with his demons or his past. Perhaps the repetition of ‘Let the bodies hit the floor’ is a reference to the past of this patient, when he went on some kind of murderous rampage. In this sense, the video consolidates the song’s meaning because both the song and video seem to be about a disturbed man. There are possible vague allusions to a film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which is also set in an asylum, but no clear references. Similarly, there are no direct links to other artists, but the appearance of Drowning Pool in terms of their hair, tattoos, performance style and dress sense reminds of similar bands such as Korn, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit.

In terms of techniques, lip sync is used frequently in the video. It opens with the lead singer whispering ‘let the bodies hit the floor’ into the ear of the patient, combining both performance and narrative in the very first shot. We also see the drummer lip synch some backing vocals and the patient from the narrative lip synch the line ‘nothing wrong with me’ repeatedly. There is also cutting to the beat frequently. From the opening lines of the song, the video cuts between every repetition of ‘Let the bodies hit the floor’. There are many other points in the video where it cuts on the drum beat or the strike of a guitar chord. There are multi-image moments because Drowning Pool often appear to be performing on the TV screen that the patient is watching in the hospital. There is a strobing lighting effect used at some points when the band are performing in the darkened warehouse and a fish-eye lens is used on some shots, particularly when the band are performing in the small hospital room. The strobe makes the editing and performance even more hectic and the fish eye lens emphasises how small and claustrophobic the room is, particularly for a full band to perform in. There are a lot of close-ups, particularly on the lead singer and the patient in the narrative. The video is full of conventional camera movements and angles; tracking around the drummer while playing, low angles of the guitarists, wide shots of the whole band and quick cuts between all of these.  

I think it's a cool, if pretty conventional video, particularly for the editing and use of both performance and narrative elements.