Locke

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Most thrillers tend to follow a fairly rigorous formula. More often than not, it’s a murder or crime that triggers the thrills. Perhaps a web of conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Most likely a trigger-happy hero at its centre.

Locke is not most thrillers. Its titular star, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), is an ordinary working stiff. He is married with kids. He works in construction and obsesses over cement. He speaks in a gentle Welsh lilt. He wears a fetching bit of Laura Ashley knitwear. And he spends the entire duration of the film in the front seat of a BMW X5, driving the 120-mile journey from Birmingham to London, never once threatening the speed limit.

On paper, Locke sounds dull and pointless. On the screen, it’s unfailingly gripping, an intriguing experiment in minimalism and suspense. Like Buried or Phone Booth, the fixed location means thrills come not from gunfights or combat, but frantic phone calls and methodical plot developments. Yet the experiment seldom trips over itself.

Writer-director Steven Knight’s ingenious script extracts tension and excitement from the unlikeliest of places. Ivan is an orderly, stoical man, who approaches life in a calm businesslike fashion, and a single foolish mistake threatens his hard-won peace. Morsels of the drama reveal themselves slowly and precisely, layer by layer; we watch spellbound as Ivan’s life collapses via his hands-free phone.

Inevitably, given the ambitious format, not every piece fits perfectly. Ivan’s imagined conversations with his late father, directed to an empty passenger seat, are a clumsy device, which breaks the naturalistic spell. But it’s an infrequent stumble. Though some in the Valleys might take issue with the accent, Hardy’s is a commanding, absorbing performance. Most actors would have aimed big and blustery with the part; Hardy goes small and measured, nuance from behind a seatbelt.

Meanwhile, Knight’s direction – aided by Haris Zambarloukos’s slick cinematography – is at once inventive and unpretentious. It’s a delicate tightrope to keep a confined location visually compelling without detracting from the story, but Knight manages it – and at a running time just shy of 85 minutes, doesn’t outstay his welcome. Lean, engrossing, and entirely unique – you’ll never look at junction 5 of the M1 in the same way again.

 

Post Tenebras Lux

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The title of Carlos Reygadas’ fourth feature film, Post Tenebras Lux, means “light after darkness” in Latin – and unwittingly, it perhaps alludes to the polarised reaction it has received since its premiere at last year’s Cannes. Met, at its first screening, with the absurd chorus of boos that spoilt Cannes audiences often like to dole out, it went on to win Best Director Award for Reygadas, and opinions continue to diverge sharply. As with his earlier efforts, Reygadas’ approach – artful, unhurried, often bafflingly aloof – has delighted and infuriated.

There’s much to compare here with Terrence Malick, that other Cannes darling, in the reverence and quiet esteem it gives to the natural world, and our relationship with it. Like Malick, Reygadas presents ideas slowly, thoughtfully and with an impassive precision. Minutes pass without any dialogue or notable action. Yet despite the occasional surreal interlude – seemingly irrelevant vignettes of an English rugby club are particularly perplexing – there is, at its core, a fairly conventional narrative, of a marriage faltering and a father grappling with his own morality.

The opening sequence, it should be noted, has received universal praise. The first shot is of an infant girl, seemingly alone in a field, with a gaggle of dogs, horses and cows nearby. A brilliant pink sky is reflected in puddles. The girl splashes about merrily, calling out to the animals, but then the sky darkens, and a lightning storm erupts overhead. The girl calls out for her mother, but her calls are not met. She starts to cry. There’s something immensely powerful about this dazzling melding of imagery, and it hits you elementally: the raw power of nature, both beautiful and terrifying, set against the vulnerability of childhood. It’s unfortunate that this mesmerising visual overture promises a little more than the rest of the film can deliver.

Reygadas has likened Post Tenebras Lux to an impressionist painting, and this makes sense: generally, this film is ethereal rather than tangible. We glimpse at strange, transient segments of human activity, but our impression is only a feeling, not a rounded understanding. Throughout the film, there’s an odd blurring effect around the edges of the frame, which emphasises the dreamlike concept, as if the whole film is told in a feverish flashback.

But where it is visually vigorous, its content is practically impenetrable. Reygadas respects his audience enough to offer questions rather than answers, but certain sequences (an animated devil figure; an orgy with sweaty unrelated characters; a jaw-dropping moment of self-mutilation; the aforementioned rugby match) are oblique and obfuscating. Conversely, the cinematic tip-offs are sometimes too heavy handed by half (the film ends on young rugby player extolling the virtues of teamwork).  Like a dream, Post Tenebras Lux is a hypnotic whirlwind: confusing and inconsistent, but destined to haunt your mind.

The King of Pigs

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Korean animation has skulked in the shadows for some time: South Korean animation houses have long performed the grunt work for countless popular US cartoons – from The Simpsons onwards – whilst homegrown efforts have always had to compete with the established heritage of the neighbours on the other side of the Sea of Japan. However, a quiet renaissance has occurred over the last few years and the Lord of the Flies-esque The King of Pigs is one such example.

Directed by débutante Sang-ho Yeon, it’s a grim morality tale, mostly told through flashbacks to a violent school classroom. We open on a woman, lying dead on a dining table. This is the wife of Kyung-ming, a depressive CEO, and in the wake of his business collapsing, it is implied that he murdered her. This sudden spark of barbarity compels Kyung-ming to reconnect with his old school friend, the leaden-eyebrowed Jong-Suk, now working as a downtrodden ghostwriter in a publishing company, his personal ambitions fading rapidly. The two men have not spoken in fifteen years, and together they softly recall their troubled years spent in middle school, where the roost is ruled by a triumvirate of bullies, known as the ‘dogs’.

The dogs spend their days delivering savage retribution to the ‘pigs’, the classmates unfortunate enough to be poorer or less intelligent than they. Then along comes Chul, an angry, fearless little boy who dares to challenge this perverse status quo; with Jong-suk and Kyung-ming at his side, he becomes the titular King. Chul, pure raging id, speaks confidently to the boys about accepting the evil that exists in all humans, and for a while it seems that revenge – a favoured theme in South Korean cinema – will rear its head. But this is less a bloody vengeance thriller in the Park Chan-wook mould than it is a bleak social satire on class.

The dogs often whisper of the “school’s atmosphere” being disturbed by the younger boys, and the script delivers biting critiques of the corrupting cancers worming their way through Korean society. The King of Pigs is also depicted in crisp, utilitarian animation, harnessing a neat hybrid of hand-drawn and computer-assisted techniques. You wonder, though, were it not for the brutal child violence, whether the material would be better suited to live-action. Most scenes are dialogue-centred and set in a single classroom. Fared against the ambitious spectacle of its anime cousins, the film is visually unmemorable. As it happens, much of the film struggles to sway your attention.

Yeon’s film builds slowly and surely but hits a midway point of extreme stagnation, and only in its closing minutes attempts a proper climax. Even this dénouement descends into overwrought melodrama for a rather predictable rooftop finale. With its weighty themes of power-plays and aspirational struggles, The King of Pigs has ambitious designs, but it’s ambition that could have furnished a more interesting and consistent story.

The King of Pigs is out on DVD today.

Iron Man 3

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If The Avengers were the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young of superhero supergroups – a mismatched and occasionally volatile bevy of talents whose whole was invariably greater than the sum of its parts – then Iron Man is Neil Young. Like Young, Tony Stark’s charisma threatens to overshadow the group, and so it seems fitting that Iron Man is the first to head out alone – just as Young did in 1970.  (In this scenario, the Black Widow is probably drummer Russ Kunkel and Hawkeye is occasional touring bassist Calvin ‘Fuzzy’ Samuels, but alas I fear the folk-rock analogy is cumbersome enough.)

The Avengers earned fairly staggering $1.5billion at the box office (roughly the GDP of the Republic of San Marino, FYI), so Marvel’s first solo effort out of the gate would always have to be a big, brazen, balls-out, blustering affair, proving they could still steady that wobbly balance betwixt the commercial slaverings of their Disney overlords, the foam-mouthed expectations of the comic book fanbase, and the discerning wider audience, many of whom expect grown-up themes sewn into the childish costumes in this post-Dark Knight world.

Much of this must have been going through the mind of new director Shane Black (who gets a $200million budget for only his second film as director), and many elements from the Jon Favreau era have been appropriately culled. Gone is the moshy AC/DC soundtrack; gone, generally, is the sloppy freewheeling dialogue; and gone is Tony Stark’s sense of invincibility. The gun-ho rock-star hero is here at his most vulnerable, stricken with a surprising spate of panic attacks stemming from his near-death experience during the events of The Avengers.

Garnishing some depth upon a famously shallow character is certainly commendable, but it didn’t really work for me here. Robert Downey Jr (who, it should be said, continues to be on lightning form in the role he was born to play) spends more time out of the suit than in the previous two films, and while this acts as a vaguely interesting exploration of Stark’s motivations and fears, it makes the first hour lag, badly. Let’s not mince around – we all came here to see Iron Man wisecrack and kick substantial amounts of arse; anything less serves as a quiet disappointment.

And Tony Stark’s anxiety issues go largely unresolved. We are granted a brief wrap-up in a cute post-credits sequence with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, but should narrative strands really be limited to saddos like myself willing to sit through fifteen minutes of VFX artist credits? For all his talents as a screenwriter, Black’s script felt oddly bloated, with at least half an hour that could have trimmed, and yet somehow, plot points go unfinished or under-nourished.

The Mandarin, for example, is a character entirely squandered, with a bizarre comic twist that serves only as an anti-climax. Sir Ben Kingsley camps it up with aplomb, but not in the way you might expect, and he’s not as funny as he might think. That leaves villain duties to Guy Pearce, who delivers a straightforwardly reliable performance, but like his iron-suited adversary, the crux of the combative performances is delivered via CGI, and his ‘Extremis’ powers – breathing fire, exploding when angry – are ambiguous and sketchily outlined.

But still. Once things get going and the irreverent charms of a fun-loving millionaire superhero are given room to breathe, it’s as indulgently entertaining as the original film, and the final battle, involving forty-two AI-powered Iron Mans, is a fiery delight. The success of The Avengers as a behemothian multi-pronged franchise continues to be assured. But I’d strongly contend this is not quite the four-star triumph that the critical consensus seems to have settled on.

Olympus Has Fallen

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For the second time in as many months, a film depicts North Korean terrorists attacking US mainland, only to be defeated by a plucky American underdog. Last month’s Red Dawn was indefensibly shitty enough to give Kim Jong-Un a legitimate reason for military escalation; Olympus Has Fallen is similarly jingoistic, and formulaic to a fault, but at least it manages the feat of being rigorously entertaining, rather than painfully stupid.

This is, as plenty have noted, ‘Die Hard In The White House’, possibly the most succinct film synopsis since Hot Tub Time Machine. Gerard Butler is the meatheaded John-McClane-by-any-other-name, right down to the sweary banter with the bad guy over the walkie-talkie, and he is somehow single-handedly the last hope of the largest military in the world. It’s perhaps a testament to the Antoine Fuqua’s gripping action scenes that such a preposterous scenario could almost seem plausible. Perhaps the recurring images of explosions and gunfire gently massaged my brain into obliviousness. No matter – it did the trick. Fuqua has, as Training Day proved, a pretty solid handle on suspense, and a knack for well-timed conflagration-based fun. As an action film, it out-Die Hards the most recent Die Hard.

And it’s frequently hilarious, whether intentional or not. Symbolism in Olympus Has Fallen is, for example, beguilingly transparent. This is a film which doesn’t so much wear its patriotism on its sleeve as it does tattoo the stars-and-stripes to its arm with a rusty compass. Never mind the copious and gratuitous shots of the US flag, bedaubed in bullet holes or falling to the ground in slow-mo: the standout scene for amateur psychoanalysts appears early in the film. A North Korean plane crashes into the Washington Monument, that most conspicuous of phallic symbols, and lops the top clean off. How’s that for potent imagery? America, the dick-swinging alpha male of the geopolitical universe,  just had the biggest circumcision of all time.

Fortunately by the end of the film some hasty scaffolding has been erected around it and the implication is that the country’s genital reconstruction will commence immediately.

Evil Dead

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Few 80s horrors have escaped the unflinching gaze of the ruthless Hollywood remake machine. But some thought The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi’s scrappy, much-loved debut, too sacred a cow to receive such treatment –especially since Raimi effectively remade it himself six years later with Evil Dead II. And yet here we are.

Fede Alvarez’s re-imagining, flat and witless, doffs a deferential cap in all the wrong places. Present and correct is the bloody chainsaw, and that aggressively libidinous tree. But gone is the innovative camerawork and B-movie charm; instead we get slick, dull production values and glossy over-lighting. Gone, too, is the cheeky sense of humour; in its place, a peculiarly po-faced script. And most conspicuously of all, gone is Bruce Campbell.

A bland cast of expendable twenty-somethings are scant substitute for Campbell’s angular jaw, arched eyebrow and groovy one-liners. Like most remakes, Evil Dead makes a miserably weak argument for its own existence – especially when stacked against a superior original.

The Paperboy

Florida, 1969, and in the midst of a summer so hot, “God himself must’ve been sweating”, a small-town sheriff is murdered. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) will go to the chair for the crime, unless local investigative reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) – aided by brother Jack (Zac Efron) and oversexed convict groupie Charlotte (Nicole Kidman) – can prove otherwise. Heat sears through the screen as the muggy murder-mystery converges with a young man’s sexual coming-of-age, a first love forged in the salty fires of piss on a jellyfish sting.

Director Lee Daniels tenaciously fosters the same provocative, naturalistic atmosphere that won Precious so many plaudits, and his cast is faultless. Cusack in particular impresses as sleazy swamp-dwelling Hillary. However, strong turns and sharp-edged characterisation fail to mollify the lingering feeling that this is a fairly by-the-numbers noir procedural dressed up with some charged sexual and racial politics. The Paperboy hints at something great, but squint past the trickles of perspiration and you’re left wanting.

Originally published in The Skinny magazine.

 

Red Dawn

In 1984, the year Orwell prophesied doom, writer-director John Milius took the Cold War to its barely logical conclusion for Red Dawn, imagining a Third World War where parachuting Soviets invaded the US mainland and might have triumphed, were it not for a plucky band of American freedom fighters. In this silly and largely pointless remake, the enemy may have changed, but the same fatuous paranoia, flag-fluttering patriotism, and flimsy grip on international politics remains.

Just as Soviet Russia was a handy baddie in the ’80s – mysterious, aloof, faceless – so North Korea apparently is today. A right-wing fantasy writ large, the premise would be intriguing if it wasn’t so patently absurd. There’s competent action from first-time director Dan Bradley and the cast, led by Chris Hemsworth, are fine. But it remains an entirely ludicrous ninety minutes, jingoistically guileless in depicting an American insurgency fighting back against an invading foreign army – in reality, of course, it tends to be the other way around.

Originally published in The Skinny magazine.

 

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