What I Watched Last Week: 09/06/14 – Nine Film Reviews

What a week it’s (not) been. I didn’t get to watch any films until Thursday, but managed nine new viewings all the same.  That’s all she wrote folks, but luckily for you I wrote some other stuff and it is about films and it is below.

 

Maniac (2012) – 2/5

Director: Frank Khalfoun

Cast: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Megan Duffy

Maniac

Starring in a film that’s (Middle) worlds away from what he’s most famous for, ex-hobbit Elijah Wood plays a migraine suffering serial killer with serious psychosexual problems that manifest themselves in mannequin abuse. Maniac is a hallucinatory concoction of Peeping Tom and Psycho, with the same pulpy cinematography used by Nicolas Winding Refn in Drive to give Los Angeles that cold, fuzzy ambience – the gore even tops that film’s skull crushing scene, as well as the dismemberment bit from Refn’s Pusher 3. ‘Tops’ is the wrong word actually, it totally smothers it ; this film is disgusting, the vicious murders playing out like a more graphic version of American Psycho (Breat Easton Ellis’s book, not the film) – it leaves nothing to the imagination. Shot almost entirely from the killer’s POV, Maniac only really departs this perspective for the ‘money shots’, usually with the aid of careful mirror placement, showing the expression on Wood’s mask-like face as he finishes the job and scalps his victims. By the last half hour you’ll not only be  nauseous from the sadistic overload – which really looks real – but you’ll also be sick to death  of the character of Frank, who won’t stop repeating the same lines over and over or breathing out of his mouth like his lungs have collapsed. Avoid.

 

Everything Must Go (2010) – 3/5

Director: Dan Rush

Cast: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Michael Pena, Laura Dern

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Following yet another relapse – this time ending in a one night stand – salesman Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) loses his wife and his job in a single afternoon. As everyone knows, when something bad happens to a functioning alcoholic they lash out in an act of violence and/or property damage that’s totally out of line with their precocious nature before buying as much alcohol as they can carry. This is just what Ferrell’s hopeless drunk does, but upon returning home he doesn’t even have the luxury of downing the booze in his own home; his wife has changed the locks and left his stuff in the front yard. With the support of his AA mentor (Michael Pena), an understanding new neighbour (Rebecca Hall) and a lonely fat kid he turns his situation around by standing his ground and hocking his wares in a week-long yard sale. The suburban setting and themes concerning relationships and ‘what is normal’ make Everything Must Go feel like an American Beauty in which the central character is slightly boring and an alcoholic. It’s all well acted, but the writer/director Dan Rush can’t make up his mind as to the complexity of his world; on one hand he tries to avoid clichés in characters (he succeeds, apart from the business man next door that likes to dress in leather and be diddled by his wife) but, if he’s going for complexity and realism, then the ease and trust between the wide range of races and classes is pure nonsensical idealism. Ferrell fits the role like an old sweater, and man can he drink a Pabst! Hang on, shouldn’t it be Ol’ Mil?

 

The Thing From Another World (1951) – 4/5

Directors: Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks

Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer, Margaret Sheridan, James Arness

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The original adaptation of John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’, The Thing From Another World has some impressive effects for its time but is distinguishably of another world itself: the 1950s. WWII veteran Captain Henry (Kenneth Tobey) and his band of merry airmen are assigned to an isolated outpost in the North Pole when some scientists radio in that an unusual craft of unprecedented size has crash landed nearby. Ignoramuses that they are, the military on hand manage to blow up the craft with ‘thermite’ before they can study it, so Cap Henry and the resident head botanist chip around the remains of the life form inside and haul it back to camp. Going back to that 50s thing, the ensemble cast’s ceaseless talking over one another and cracking wise while the ‘biggest news story since the parting of the red sea’ is unfolding in their midst makes no logical sense, and glamorous women  inexplicably poke around offering hot coffee at any given opportunity – there’s even time for a romantic fling or two. Suffice to say the tense atmosphere is somewhat frozen over by this lollygagging, but old-school practicalities do come in handy when anything the besieged soldiers need to fend off ‘the thing’ happens to be right at hand (‘oh, here’s a full can of kerosene right here’, ‘Hey I know how to do that!’, ‘Luckily, we have some special radioscopic cameras’, etc.).

James Arness is The Thing from Our World Dressed As a Thing From Another World; as Shane of St Mary Magdalene’s leavers 06’ was prone to say, it’s just a man in a costume! Aliens have never looked so human, except for at the end of Alien. Arness simply looks like Frankenstein’s  Monster MKII, and this comparison is even more apparent during a ‘reveal’ moment in which it towers in a doorway to cast a far-reaching shadow across the room and onto its cowering prey. The shot copied, from Bride of Frankenstein, is probably the most iconic image of all the gothic classics. To recap, it’s good for its era but The Thing From Another World goes to show that the original isn’t necessarily always the best – John Carpenter’s second generation take on this chilling Arctic sci-fi tale is without doubt a better film.

 

The Killer Inside Me (2010) – 4/5

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Cast: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty

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Lou Ford, the Texan sheriff portrayed by Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me, is certainly of no relation to Robert Ford (Affleck’s biggest role) of the assassinating Jesse James fame; Lou’s no coward, he’s a cold-blooded killer. Michael Winterbottom, the emotive master that brought us 24 Hour Party People and The Trip, directs this 50s-set  romantic suspense thriller with a devilish eye for detail and a slow-burn tension that grows and grows until it deafens like a horde of Southern crickets on a sweltering August night (apologies for analogous twoddle). At first, Casey Affleck’s sheriff is your average, well liked man about town; as he says, ‘the trouble with living in a small town is that everyone thinks they know who you are’. If they really did know what he got up to, they wouldn’t be so friendly all of a sudden. Ford has a hidden history of child molestation and incest – some forced, some of it his own doing – and he wastes no opportunity to hurt a human being if he knows he’ll get away with it. When he’s sent to the shack of a lady of the night and day called Joyce (Jessica Alba), he falls in love (read: they have a shared love of SnM and do it A LOT), ignoring his orders to run her out of the county.  Ford hides his passionate affair from his superiors and his fiancé (Kate Hudson) and hatches a deadly plot to get rich and do over the town’s big businessman, played by an irascible Ned Beatty.

Casey Affleck plays psycho to perfection, crooning in that soft sweet-hearted croak he developed to stand out from his big brother as he rationalises the brutal murders he conducts. He never loses his cool, unless of course when he has to pretend he’s lost it to convince his colleagues that the rising death toll shocks him as much as it does them. As for Jessica Alba, she should get more films; the camera adores her and more is never enough. As mentioned previously, Winterbottom’s control is commendable, and he straddles the boundary between blood soaked Coen-country and sophisticated Double Indemnity noir with ease.

 

The Body Snatcher (1945) – 3/5

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Rita Corday

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The Body Snatcher isn’t quite the ‘masterful horror classic’ that the absurdly named ‘Movies4Men’ channel would have you believe, but it’s a solid 80 minutes of black and white fun. Inspired by one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories, The Body Snatcher riffs on the notorious and somewhat mythologized deeds of Burke and Hare, the 19th century Edinburgian grave diggers turned murderers. Henry Daniell plays the harsh medical lecturer who pays a looming corpse retriever (Boris Karloff aka Frankenstein) for a fresh supply of specimens for study. There is plenty of sinister humour to be found in The Body Snatcher, but unlike John Landis’ dismemberment of the macabre tale in 2010, the darker parts of the film are handled with artful elegance. Again in contrast to Landis’ Burke and Hare, the believable characters seem to actually be affected by what they are doing, with their guilt rising to an almost supernatural fever – this is aided by creepy, premonitory Scottish highlanders wailing about their ‘second sight’. Cadaver crazed paranoia reaches a satisfying crescendo when the dirty doctor must perpetuate a spree of murders to keep his neck free of the ‘rope cravat’.  Karloff steals the film from the rest of the cast, who seem to be suffering from rigor mortis when in his terrifying presence. The Body Snatcher was a very early film in Robert Wise’s multi-decade spanning run as a director, and he went on to make world renowned favourites The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Sound of Music  (1965) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), among  40 or so others. He died at 91. More like Robert Wizened!

 

Dead Man Down (2013) – 2/5

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Cast: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrence Howard, F. Murray Abraham, Dominic Cooper

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A Hungarian engineer living in New York with an Irish brogue and all the skills required to service the plot, Victor (Colin Farrell) is the dead man who’s not quite down. Victor’s family were killed by Albanians and Hispanics for reasons that are even less clear that his Zodiac-style revenge plot, but since they failed to finish him off he manages to infiltrate a central gang led by the truculent Alphonse (Terence Howard; he’s bad, like Cuba Gooding Jr with glaucoma). Everything is in position for his payback massacre… until, heaven forbid, he meets a girl. Sporting a face full of scars instead of dragon ink, Noomi Rapace plays Beatrice, Victor’s damaged neighbour from across the way who shyly waves to him from time to time. Kids playing outside her apartment blocks call her ‘the monster’ and whip rocks at her head even though, scars and all, she’s probably the most attractive woman they’ve ever seen.

One shootout aside, Dead Man Down takes forever to get into gear. Some teetering rear window style suspense unfurls as people run around apartment blocks while others look at them from across the road with sniper scopes, and there are a couple of ‘close calls’ as Victor is almost rumbled by his  gangland affiliates, but you ultimately know it’s going to end in the massive warehouse showdown he keeps yapping about so there’s no worries. Many things don’t add up in the bland looking New York the characters inhabit, but the final straw is the failure of anyone to call the police – or even look mildly scared – as dozens of gangsters stroll around in full view of the public with guns in hand for minutes at a time. Noomi Rapace is the film’s sole redeemer; she doesn’t push too heavy on the accent, her acting is on point and her character believable. Farrell is fine, coming into his own when he eats noodles and chicken and seems like he almost enjoys it. Dead Man Down was custom-built for Jason Statham and Ving Rhames – lord knows why Dominic Cooper and F. Murray Abarham signed on – and you’re better off going with something like Taken or Taken Again.

 

The Last Gladiators (2011) – 3/5

Director: Alex Gibney

Cast: Chris Nilan, Tony Twist, Donald Brahsear

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If you’ve seen Goon or Slapshot (revered in The Last Gladiators as ‘the Casablanca of hockey violence cinema’) you may have wondered just how true to life their depictions of ice hockey enforcement are. According to this blunt documentary on the sport, they weren’t far off. The Last Gladiators recounts the career of Chris ‘Knuckles’ Nilan, a retired Bostonian hockey player renowned for his fighting ability and committal to the NHL across a thirteen year career that saw him serve thousands of minutes in the penalty box and suffer just about every injury conceivable. The unavoidable talking heads are interspersed with fighting montages and a pictorial narrative to emphasise the hardships of an athletic career in which your only role is to beat up the guys on the other team that are trying to hurt your power players. As Nilan says, if you can’t quite cut it as a star, then your only other choice is to be a goon; you have to ‘be willing to do what no one else is willing to do’. Going from Montreal amateur to first team player to Boston Bruins All-Star, Nilan’s life was tough but fulfilling until his career came to an end. After 26 surgeries and not much of a pension, Nilan spiralled into alcoholism and painkiller addiction until before he knew it was shooting heroin and shoplifting. At first The Last Gladiators seemed like a poncified ‘Hockey Hits’ anthology; ‘stick’ with it though, and you’ll find that director Alex Gibney really has found something interesting to explore in the reluctant barbarian lifestyle led by these hockey star hopefuls, and its stark examination of life after the puck is touching. At the same time, its format is predictably linear and it’s hardly as though these gladiators are the last of their kind: what about boxers, MMA fighters or soldiers?

 

Insomnia (2002) – 3/5

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank

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Opening with a majestic travel lapse across the great expanses of America from the seat of a plane, Insomnia’s isolated setting and confused detective protagonist are extremely reminiscent of Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wickerman. Sadly comparisons end there, as it walks the same slippery-sleuth path trodden by Along Came a Spider/Kiss the Girls/ The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/ other films that are like that.  Following a spate of internal investigations, Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino, reprising his grizzled, no BS attitude from Heat) and his partner are dispatched from L.A. to oversee a murder investigation in a small Alaskan fishing village. Since the story is set not far from the Arctic circle, it’s bright as day 24/7 – something Pacino’s veteran finds out in the most dumbfounding way imaginable –and sleep proves difficult. When Dormer’s partner is killed during a chase for the mysterious killer his feverish guilt exacerbates his lack of R.E.M time, leading to all sorts of behaviour that most definitely contravenes protocol. As you watch him go blearily through the motions, it’s hard to forget that Al Pacino was just a year away from career enders The Recruit and Gigli.

Insomnia is entirely competent in every regard, especially Hilary Swank’s performance as an overzealous force rookie,  yet it’s still Chris Nolan’s weakest film; it’s a clear attempt to recapture the alchemical magic of 2000’s Memento (itself a highly overrated film) by employing edgy editing techniques and having characters screw up their faces before mumbling, ‘I just don’t know anymore’. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, which had a distinctly Nolanised tone (including lead man choice), did a much better job in weaving a web of sleep deprived madness than Christopher Nolan does here with his shadowy corners and flash cuts.

 

Bicycle Thieves (1948) – 5/5

Director: Vittoria De Sica

Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola

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Post WWII, Italian cinema underwent a brief but booming resurgence known as the Neorealism period. Of the many films to come out of this productive, politically charged era, Bicycle Thieves seems to be the only one that has carried over to the mainstream, and it retains a respectable placing in Top ‘Insert Random Number’ film lists across the globe. A desperate working class man, Anotonio, (a gaunt and pain stricken Lamberto Maggiorani) loses the bicycle he needs to carry out his work . Across the course of two days, he and his son, Bruno, (played by the sharp-eyed Enzo Staiola, a marvellous talent at just nine years old) wander around the cobbled streets of post-war Rome in search of the thief responsible for depriving Antonio of his livelihood. Vittoria De Sica does a brilliant job dressing up the city for his camera, and every swift camera turn and complex frame has a level of intelligence and complexity that the likes of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch no doubt look to emulate in their period pieces. The purloined velocipede in question, and the actions of various background characters towards it, serves as a political subtext of oppression against the poor and socio-economic separatism, aspects of the 1940s-1950s Italian political mindset that Neorealists like De Sica so maligned. Bicycle Thieves’ music is suitably cerebral or sombre when the story calls for it, and is put to moving effect for the memorably downbeat closing scene.

 

 

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