Monday, July 31, 2017

Movie Review: Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth ****/*****
Directed by: William Oldroyd.
Written by: Alice Birch based on the book by Nikolai Leskov.    
Starring: Florence Pugh (Katherine), Cosmo Jarvis (Sebastian), Paul Hilton (Alexander), Naomi Ackie (Anna), Christopher Fairbank (Boris), Golda Rosheuvel (Agnes), Anton Palmer (Teddy), Rebecca Manley (Mary), Fleur Houdijk (Tessa), Cliff Burnett (Father Peter), David Kirkbride (Edward), Bill Fellows (Dr. Burdon), Nicholas Lumley (Mr. Robertson), Raymond Finn (Mr. Kirkbride), Ian Conningham (Detective Logan).
Set in the 1860s in England, Lady Macbeth has nothing to do with Shakespeare, but is instead a gripping, psychological thriller disguised as a costume drama. It stars Florence Pugh in what should be a star making performance as a woman who we first see as a feminist hero (for her time) but gradually reveals herself to be something much darker than that. You sympathize with her, until you get to a point where you cannot believe you ever sympathized with her. It is a brilliant performance in a movie that is also wonderfully directed by first time feature director William Oldroyd, with beautiful, but cold, cinematography, and sparse, but memorable sound design.
Lady Macbeth wastes no time on setting things up (the film has little use for the type of explanatory sequences most movies feel they need) – as we meet Katherine (Pugh) on her wedding day – after the ceremony is over – when she’s in her new bedroom with her new husbands – Alexander (Paul Hilton) – a middle aged man, and not the sort of guy you imagine a teenager like Katherine would choose for herself. It turns out she was sold to Alexander’s wealthy father – along with some land – and her purpose is clear – give Alexander a legitimate heir. He’d have to do something that he seems incapable of for that to happen however.
Katherine is miserable, and makes little effort to hide that misery from her husband, or his wealthy father Boris (Christopher Fairbank). When Alexander has to leave on business for a while though, Katherine starts “taking the air” – and it’s here that she meets Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) – who works on the land for Boris and Alexander, and is mixed race. They start a passionate affair – although if they share anything other than lust, we don’t see it. This, of course, sets in motion what happens next.
Lady Macbeth is a film about oppressive, and various kinds of privilege – and how they can be wielded as weapons. As a woman, Katherine has no choice but to do what she’s told – she is her father’s to be sold into marriage if he chooses, and then she belongs to her husband, who can likewise tell her what to do. The fact that she revels is natural – and we immediately feel for her. But then, she starts doing one thing after another of increasing violence, and increasingly hard to justify. No one in the film mentions – out loud – that Sebastian is black – or for that matter that the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie, delivering a performance almost as brilliant as Pugh’s, and does so nearly silently) is also black – but they don’t need to, they know. The film may well have been inspired by Andrea Arnold’s wonderful version of Wuthering Heights (2011), which cast Heathcliff as a black man, and didn’t so much comment on it either. Lady Macbeth really is about how Katherine goes from oppressed to oppressor.
The trailer features a pull quote by a critic who says “Imagine Wuthering Heights directed by Alfred Hitchcock” – and that’s as good of a descriptor as I could come up with. The film moves like a merciless thriller – perhaps too much so. A little hint of what Katherine’s life before was like could have deepened her journey a little, and Sebastian needed more depth as well – he has none here, so much of what he does feels like he’s only doing it because the plot requires him to. But overall, Lady Macbeth is one of the best acted, best directed thrillers you will see this year – a cold, hearted, merciless thriller that moves with ruthless efficiency.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Devils (1971)

The Devils (1971)
Directed by: Ken Russell.
Written by: Ken Russell based on the play by John Whiting and novel by Aldous Huxley.
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave (Sister Jeanne), Oliver Reed (Urbain Grandier), Dudley Sutton (Baron De Laubardemont), Max Adrian (Ibert), Gemma Jones (Madeleine), Murray Melvin (Mignon), Michael Gothard (Father Barre), Georgina Hale (Philippe), Brian Murphy (Adam), Christopher Logue (Cardinal Richelieu), Graham Armitage (Louis XIII).
After watching Ken Russell’s The Devils – basically twice in a row actually – I’m still not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take the film. It is an historical drama, and in the opening scrawl, it lets us know that what we’re going to see actually happened in Louden, France in 1634. That these were real people, who really suffered. What Russell’s point in showing us everything he does in The Devils is never quite clear – at least not to me. I’ve heard people describe the film as a depiction of human cruelty and religious hypocrisy, which I guess is true, but is there no more to it than that? And shouldn’t it take things slightly more seriously than he does? The film works as an over-the-top horror film – mostly in terms of camp value – but I had a tough time taking any of it as a serious examination of, well, anything. Yet in its strange way, the film still works.
Its 1634, in France. The town of Louden has high walls, and self-governance – and is basically run by the lusty priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) – who sleeps with a lot of women for someone has apparently taken an oath of chastity. And yet, oddly, Grandier is not the religious hypocrite bad guy in the story – but the moral good guy. The bad guy is the Baron De Laubeardemont (Dudley Sutton) – who has been order by Cardinal Richeleau to tear down Louden’s defenses, and get them back in line. Vanessa Redgrave is the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne – the Mother Superior of a convent of nuns living in Louden, all of which apparently lust after Grandier – no one more so than Sister Jeanne herself, but she is a hunchback, and the rest of the nuns are apparently hot 22 year old with large breasts, so of course she doesn’t get any action. She accuses Grandier of witchcraft and demonic possession – which gives Laubardemont all the excuse he needs to try and take down Grandier. He will call in Father Barre (Michael Gothard) – a crazy witch hunter, to try and extract a confession out of the newly married Grandier, who after a lifetime of affairs, has apparently decided to settle down.
What follows has now become infamous. The movie has been banned or unavailable for most of its existence – censored and cut when it is (for the sake of clarity, I viewed the movie on Shudder – which I believe has the slightly altered version, which eliminates a few things). The hot nuns are riled into an orgy of sex and violence. Sister Jeanne is alternately ashamed and turned on by what she has done. Grandier is forced to try and defend himself – but no one much cares what he has to say, so he will be shaved, tortured and eventually burned alive. Russell’s camera doesn’t miss a beat.
Honestly, I’m not really sure how seriously I’m supposed to take this film. It doesn’t really work as an attack on religion – nor, do I think is it trying to be. Grandier is a true believer, and his faith provides him comfort in the end. Yes, Barre maybe insane, but he is also a true believer – and the one person who actually believes Grandier in the end. Everyone else is a hypocrite to be sure – but they‘re using religion as an excuse to do what they want – so, is that the message I’m supposed to take away from the film – that politicians will rely on people’s faith in order to exploit them? Again, I think the answer is unclear.
In all honesty, I cannot help but think that Russell just wanted to make this film, because making it would be deliriously fun. This is a movie that starts as an 11 on a 1-10 scale of craziness, and just keeps on going. It’s impossible to take it all that seriously, since Russell goes so far over the top so often. In all honestly, the film it reminded me most of is Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) – an over-the-top mess of a film, that works best as a snapshot of its creator’s mind, not as a coherent story of its own. That description works for The Devils as well. I didn’t much care for Satyricon – I found its excess boring. The excess of The Devils thought is far from it. I watched it twice in a row, trying to figure out if I was supposed to take the damn thing seriously. I still don’t know – but I do know if I was supposed to take it seriously, than the film is a dismal failure – but if I’m supposed to take it as campy excess, than I enjoyed it immensely. I know which camp I’d rather be in.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Movie Review: City of Tiny Lights

City of Tiny Lights ***/*****
Directed by: Pete Travis   
Written by: Patrick Neate based on ho novel.   
Starring: Riz Ahmed (Tommy Akhtar), Billie Piper (Shelley), James Floyd (Lovely), Cush Jumbo (Melody), Roshan Seth (Farzad Akhtar), Hannah Rae (Emma). 
I’m a sucker for a good film noir – a genre we don’t see nearly enough of anymore. Pete Travis’ City of Tiny Lights will due until a better noir comes along – it has all the hallmarks of the genre, with a few modern twists thrown in. The twists and turns the story takes may be somewhat predictable, but it’s anchored by a strong central performance by Riz Ahmed, and an interesting visual look. I’d like the film even more if it didn’t have the sappy, happy ending it does – which films tacked on, and isn’t the least bit noir. It may not be a great film, but it will scratch that noir itch lovers of the genre have.
The film stars Ahmed as Tommy Akhtar – a P.I. working the rainy streets of London (which I don’t think have ever been rainier in a film – and that’s saying something). He narrates the film in the kind of hard boiled voice over made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum – Tommy is a man of regrets and guilt, and it doesn’t take a detective to see that those will eventually get resolved in the film. The case he is investigating at first seems like an ordinary missing person – Melody (Cush Jumbo), a prostitute comes into his office to hire him to find her roommate – a Russian prostitute named Natasha. Tommy’s investigation doesn’t immediately find the woman – but does find a dead body with a connection to someone out of Tommy’s past. At the same time, Tommy runs into Shelley (Billie Piper) – a girl he knew in high school, and hasn’t seen since – their interactions is loaded with sexual tension, and regret – as they meet at the grave of her former boyfriend, who was one of Tommy’s best friend – with Shelley’s teenage daughter in tow. Since we’re in noir territory, all of these things will eventually come together.
Directed by Pete Travis, City of Tiny Lights is dripping with style – but only occasionally does Travis overdo that style. Mainly, it’s in the moments between scenes, where Travis wants to set up the ambience, and he overdoes shots of Tommy walking in slow motion through the rainy streets of London, cigarette dangling from his lips, the lights of the city reflecting in all the water on the streets. Mostly though, Travis uses those rain slicked streets effectively – and immediately establishes atmosphere (and brings to mind the line spoken by William H. Macy in the comic noir A Slight Case of Murder, who as a film professor asks his class two questions about noir 1. What do these people do during the day and 2. Why is it always raining?).
The film twists and turns, and flashes back in time to when Tommy, Shelley and others in the film were teenagers – and the tragic events that have kept them apart all these years. Everything is perhaps a little pat and predictable – and the screenplay seems to want to ensure that none of the characters we like have ever done anything that bad so that we will continue to like them. The movie becomes a little bit of a mess by the end – with a shootout we see coming from the beginning of the film (you don’t mention a character has a gun in a noir, unless that character is going to use said gun) and then a phony Christmas scene that it nearly straight out of it’s a Wonderful Life. Luckily, even when the film seems to be taking the path of least resistance, it still has the great Ahmed performance to anchor the film. Noir, like most film genres, has largely been the playground for white actors – City of Tiny Lights is a multicultural noir, with characters from different backgrounds interacting much like they do in life. Yes, there are Middle Eastern characters, and terrorism comes up – but it’s hardly the major concern for the movie – it’s much more concerned with old noir standards like greed and jealously.
City of Tiny Lights is hardly a great film – but it is a decent, modern noir – and those are in short enough supply these days, that if you like the genre, you’ll like City of Tiny Lights – it will at least whet your appetite for a better noir, which we can only hope is coming soon.

Note: I saw City of Tiny Lights at TIFF 2016 - and just noticed it was on Netflix Canada - I assume it's the same version I saw.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movie Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk  **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Jack Lowden (Collins), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Harry Styles (Alex), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter), Tom Nolan (Lieutenant), James D'Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Matthew Marsh (Rear Admiral).
It can be hard to do anything truly new when it comes to War movies – one of the oldest genres in cinema, and in many ways one that hasn’t changed all that much over the years – except in the techniques that directors use to capture the life and death struggle of men at war. Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Dunkirk comes as close as anything in the last couple of decades (perhaps as far back as 1998 – when Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan – a film that many have tried to outdo in terms of pure carnage, and Terrence Malick made The Thin Red Line, a less influential, but greater, more meditative film). The evacuation of Dunkirk has become the stuff of legend in England – where, with the help of civilian vessels, the British armed forced evacuated hundreds of thousands of their soldiers, feared doomed, from the beaches in France before they could be captured or slaughtered by the rapidly advancing Germans. Nolan undeniably concentrates almost solely on the Brits – the French, also on the beach, are almost a nuisance, the Germans, a mostly invisible threat. The film thrillingly, and daringly, combines three different stories, over three different time periods, into one visceral and exciting package. Nolan, whose films in the past could be accused of being bloated, doesn’t leave an ounce of fat on Dunkirk – which runs under two hours, and uses every minute perfectly.
Nolan quickly establishes the three timelines - a week on the beach with the soldiers waiting to be rescued, a day on a private yacht, driven by a good Samaritan, his son and his son’s friend, who are sailing across the channel to pick up as many soldiers as possible – just one of countless others who did the same – and one hour in the plane of a RAF fighter pilot, trying his best to shoot down as many German planes as possible, before they can slaughter his countrymen. Nolan ratchets up the tension in all three timelines, until they come together in thrilling fashion in the closing minutes of the film.
If you are looking for a wide overview of the evacuation of Dunkirk, this really isn’t that film. This is a film that lives in that minute by minute, on-the-ground terror of the various people spends time with. The beach scenes center on Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), although if his name is actually spoken in the film, I missed it. He is just one thousands of men – and Nolan deliberately blends many of these young men together (seriously, they all look the same) because theirs isn’t a story so much of individuals, but all of them. If that sounds to you like it could result in a cold, less emotionally connected film – you’d be wrong. While it’s true that Tommy – and the many young men who accompany him – aren’t particularly well developed, they don’t need to be – and you do feel that overwhelming anxiety in them. The other two stories are more intimate – with Mark Rylance once again showing why he’s one of the best actors around, as an older man with his son, and a teenage friend, willing to risk it all to help with the effort. They come across a lone sailor (Cillian Murphy) – a survivor of a lifeboat where everyone else died in a U-Boat attack, suffering from “shell shock” – desperate to do anything BUT return to Dunkirk. All four of these men are sketched quickly, but you know everything you need to know of them. The same is true for Tom Hardy as the RAF pilot – once again, showing he is the actor you want to cast if you need someone to cover up three-quarters of their face for the majority of his scenes, and still find ways to emote effectively. I’m sure the people who couldn’t understand Hardy’s Bane, will have trouble here as well (but then again, I never did have trouble, so, what do I know?).
Nolan’s filmmaking here is impeccable. Dunkirk is a loud movie, with the constant explosions, and Hans Zimmer’s, brilliant, pounding score going throughout. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is the best work of his career, immersive in the best way possible. The structure requires the editing to be airtight – and Lee Smith’s work is remarkable.
In short, Dunkirk is a triumph for Nolan, and all involved. It only seems like he’s working on a smaller, less ambitious scale than some of his recent epics. Dunkirk is tight, intense, exciting and nerve jangling. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Luc Besson.
Written by: Luc Besson based on the comic by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières.
Starring: Cara Delevingne (Laureline), Dane DeHaan (Valerian), Elizabeth Debicki (Haban Limaï), Ethan Hawke (Jolly the Pimp), John Goodman (Merchant), Clive Owen (Commander Arün Filitt), Rihanna (Bubble).
Can I tell you that Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a good movie? No, I cannot. Can I tell you that it is the kind of absolutely visually bonkers film that also has a real sense of fun that kept a smile plastered on my face from beginning to end, even as I knew that the film was particularly good? Yes, I can. This is the type of film that only someone like Besson could make – and only someone like Besson would want to make. From a storytelling point of view, the film is an absolute mess – I’m not sure I could tell you what anyone was doing at any particularly point of time in the movie, or why they were doing it. I also didn’t much care, because I was having so much fun anyway. And that’s before Rihanna shows up and does a shape shifting dance routine, that I won’t say is the most fun I’ve had in a theater this year, but I won’t not say that either.
The story, such as it is, centers of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Lauerline (Cara Delevingne) – who work for some sort of intergalactic police force (I think), who is tasked with recovering a strange, small animal – the last of its kind – who can replicate anything you give it (again, I think – don’t quote me on any of this). First they have to get it from a crooked merchant, located in some sort of market, only accessible while wearing strange googles, where you have to carry a large box in order to smuggle in weapons. Then they have to bring it to Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) for reasons that I am currently unclear of. It doesn’t much matter though, because Filitt is abducted shortly after Valerian and Laureline arrive. In the aftermath, Laureline has to go and try and rescue Valerian, and then later, he’ll have to rescue her – and somehow this all ties in with the peaceful alien creatures and their pearls that look like they got lost on their way to Pandora, who then watch as their planet is destroyed.
Let’s be honest though, the plot doesn’t really matter here – and nor does the dialogue (thank god) which at times feels like it was written in another language and then put through Google translate into English. Valerian and Laureline’s first scene is particularly awkward, as he tries to confess his love for her, and she shoots him done. It’s a problem that unfortunately I don’t think Dane DeHaan ever quite manages to overcome – he’s not goofy or funny or charming enough to really pull off this role. Delevingne however is just about perfect as Laureline – delivering a fine comedic performance, that reminded me a little of Emma Stone (and made me feel better about liking her so much in her first film – The Face of an Angel – and the rethinking after she was perhaps the worst one in Suicide Squad – not that it was really her fault, you try hula dancing in front of a CGI portal and not come across terribly).
The reason to see the film though is because Besson overstuffs every frame of this film with something to look at – and not just something, something different. I think one of the biggest problems with many CGI driven blockbusters today is that they all look the same – either because directors lack the ability or will to push special effects to deliver them something unique or because the tight timelines many of these movies run on don’t give them time. There is as much CGI in Valerian is there is in any movie you’ll see this year – but it is wholly on its own thing, its own style – and that style is all Luc Besson.
No, the film doesn’t hit the heights of something like Besson’s The Fifth Element – the best moments, especially Rihanna’s dance sequence – come very close, but the film doesn’t quite go that far into over-the-top brilliant madness. But it’s not for lack of trying – and I for one am all for someone like Besson, taking $200 million, and just going nuts with it. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is a good movie or not. What I do know, is that I had a hell of lot fun with it, and I’m pretty sure that was the point of this movie in the first place.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Event (2015)

The Event (2015)
Directed by: Sergey Loznitsa.
Written by: Sergey Loznitsa.
If you’re planning on seeing Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event, you may want to bone up on your Soviet history a little bit before doing so. Loznitsa is making a follow-up film to his acclaimed Maidan (2014), a documentary where Loznitsa followed the protests in Kiev in 2013 and 2014 against the Russian aggression into their country. Again, Loznitsa is working with footage shot by others, and crafting into a whole – but this time he looks further back in history – to a few days in August 1991, in the town of Leningrad. This was when a group of high ranking Soviet officials tried to conduct a coup d’tat and oust President Mikhail Gorbachev – and people took to the streets to protest. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse – inside 6 months it would do just that. But that didn’t mean the people wanted a coup – and wanted a group of self-proclaimed elites to come in and take over. In Moscow, the protests were very volatile – but in Leningrad, they were mainly subdued and peaceful. The people who showed up in the town square, shouting slogan, listening for the latest news, and standing in solidarity with each other didn’t want things to get violent. They just wanted to make their voices heard.
Because Loznitsa is working entirely with archival footage – and he doesn’t provide a voice over, he really does not place too much of what we see in The Event into context. We get snippets of speeches and radio broadcasts so we can tell the broad outlines of what is happening – but that’s about it. This movie isn’t about the specifics of what happened and why it all ended up collapsing. Instead, it is a story of the protesters and their sense of optimism and camaraderie – something that at the time seemed incredibly hopeful for Russia’s future, and looking back at it now is just sad, given how everything has gone in the more than two decades since. It started out so optimistic – and ended up in very much the same place.
One of the main reasons for that can be glimpsed in The Event – as we clearly see Vladimir Putin, then a young KGB Agent, in the footage at several times, coming and going, always silently. His presence is a reminder that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the people in power remained there – so Russia never got the housecleaning it needed for it to make a fresh start. Instead, it’s just more of the same.
The film is short – just 74 minutes – and that’s about the right length for a movie like this. The film isn’t overly exciting, and can in fact be a little dull. But it is important – and at times quite striking as well. There is no doubt the film will move those in Russia – and the Ukraine – more than those of us who may not be as familiar with the events on display. Still, the movie is an important document of a time when the Russian people had a reason to be optimistic – before it slipped away from them.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2015, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review: The Untamed

The Untamed ****/*****
Directed by: Amat Escalante 
Written by: Amat Escalante & Gibrán Portela 
Starring: Ruth Ramos (Alejandra), Simone Bucio (Veronica), Jesus Meza (Angel), Eden Villavicencio (Fabian).
The opening shot of Amat Escalnate’s The Untamed shows an asteroid floating out in space, and then he cuts immediately to an interior of a small cabin, where a woman, Vero (Simone Bucio) is just finishing a sexual encounter with some sort of animal that has a tentacle. We don’t quite get a good view of the creature right then – but eventually, we will, but this opening effectively prepares us for what is to follow – a strange mix of sci-fi, horror, domestic drama and allegory, The Untamed is certainly inspired by films like Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) – among others – but it is also very clearly its own thing. It is not a perfect film, but in its messiness, it finds interesting directions and observations a cleaner film wouldn’t.
The film centers on Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and her husband Angel (Jesus Meza). Theirs is not a happy marriage – and certainly not sexually fulfilling for either one, as Escalante establishes early with a quick sex scene between the two, where Alejandra seems bored (and then retreats to the shower to masturbate), meanwhile Angel is having an affair with Alejandra’s brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio). Angel works in construction – in the already macho Mexican society, and outwardly he is extremely homophobic – using gay slurs with his friends, and insulting his brother in law to his wife, and even calling Fabian names to his face. Fabian hates himself for this affair (one weak spot in the film is that it never really becomes clear why Fabian started the affair with Angel in the first place – from Angel’s point-of-view, it makes sense – he is gay but hates gay people, so Fabian may be the only one he really knows – but why is Fabian drawn to Angel, especially since it seems like he has a good relationship with Alejandra?). It is Fabian, a nurse, who meets Vero when she comes into the hospital following that sexual encounter with the tenacled creature – which is capable of giving immense pleasure, but also causing immense pain. The creature is stored in a cabin in the middle of nowhere by an elderly couple – the field around it in lush and green, and the animals around them seem constantly horny. The elderly couple don’t think Vero should come around anymore – the creature seems upset when she is, and, as we know, is starting to hurt her. It is through Vero that the other major characters in the film will eventually all visit that cabin – with mixed results depending on who goes there – those with secrets, lies or violence in them have a worse time than those who don’t.
The Untamed is a clearly a critique of the macho culture in much of Mexico – and frankly, around the world. Alejandra is the most clearly sympathetic character – a woman dealing with two kids, a husband who doesn’t satisfy her sexually (does even try really), and is cheating on her with brother, and prone to violent outbursts. She is many ways stuck however – she isn’t rich, and works for her husband’s parents, who also act as her babysitter. Vero enters her life in a strange way, and will bring her the creature eventually. Everyone else in the movie has sins weighing on them – the lies both Angel and Fabien tell Alejandra, and even Vero, who cannot quit seeing the creature, and leads people there, perhaps knowing the consequences – and eventually even her jealously of Alejandra.
The film isn’t always an easy mixture of its various genre elements. I really don’t think we needed a scene where the elderly “caretaker” of the creature explains its nature to Alejandra – and by extension the audience – as it seems fairly clear what it all means. The film stretches credibility at points – and no, not just because it has a mainly tenactled creature capable of giving orgasms, but in terms of character motivation. But the film is a unique film the whole way through – a fascinating view of macho culture, homophobia and unmet female sexual needs, all of which end up coming together with horrible results. The Untamed is a messy film to be sure – but that’s the way it should be. It is ambitious and audacious, and if it doesn’t quite pull of everything it wants to do, well, that’s to be expected. But it is a film that demands to be seen and talked about.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF in 2016, and wrote the review shortly after. As always, as far as I know, the version I saw at TIFF, is the being released into theaters.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Movie Review: Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jeff Orlowski.
Written by: Davis Coombe & Vickie Curtis & Jeff Orlowski.
There have no shortage of global warming/environmental documentaries in recent years – they have become a staple ever since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – and arguably even before then. The films, which are all well-meaning, have a tendency to be rather dull and preachy, as scientists and other experts explain the problems, and what we do to correct them – most often, the films end with their rousing scores swelling beneath an inspirational speech, and then a website to go to “learn more”. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral doesn’t entirely escape those traps – it certainly has the swelling score and the website during the end credits. Yet, it works better than most because there is more of a reason why you should see the movie, and not just read an article or listen to a speech – and that is the films visuals, which are beautiful, mesmerizing and ultimately sad.
The film is about coral – which are massive living things under the sea, made up of many smaller organisms. Coral is necessary in order to have healthy underwater ecosystems – where fish can gather, and feed. Coral disappear, smaller fish disappear, and then larger fish disappear, and all the way up the food chain. As one scientist says “Do we need coral? Well, do we need trees?”
The problem of disappearing coral has been documented before – in articles, etc. – but what makes Chasing Coral fascinating is that the filmmakers decided to try and document a massive coral bleaching event – essentially, over the course of a summer, when the temperature goes up as little as 2 degrees, coral tries to protect themselves, as if they cannot, they end up going white (bleaching), and eventually dying. The final part of the movie is essentially looking at the footage the filmmakers got – and how, over that span, thriving coral dying in a matter of months. The footage takes things out of the “theoretical” – and becomes impossible to deny that something is happening. The images speak for themselves.
Before then though, there are a lot of people talking about coral – and while it’s all rather interesting, it isn’t always that enthralling. The first part of Chasing Coral is almost a making up Chasing Coral documentary – starting with Richard Vevers, a former ad executive, who got tired of that life, and decided to dedicate it to something more useful. Vevers is key to the film as he understands the very basic principle of the film – that if all you have is scientists talking about coral, no one is going to sit up and listen. He watched director Jeff Orlowski’s other documentary – Chasing Ice – and thought that the film was essentially the same thing he wanted to do with coral. In order to do what they want though, they need to create cameras capable of taking time lapse photos, under salt water, for months on end. Enter Zack Rago – who along with others try and do just that. Rago becomes a focus of the film, because he’s not just a camera guy, but a self-professed “coral nerd” – who ends up becoming much more emotionally involved than he thought.
Chasing Coral is available on Netflix right now – and I do think you should see it, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is an important topic – related to global warming, which for some reason is still controversial for some, who want to deny that it is happening. For another, it is interesting to see how they get the footage they do. And finally, because the footage they do get is mesmerizing and beautiful when the coral is healthy – and then, downright sad later. It’s not the most scintillating documentary of the year, but it’s one of the most important – and it’s more entertaining than most docs of its sort.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Movie Review: War of the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Matt Reeves.
Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves based on characters created by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver.
Starring: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Amiah Miller (Nova), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Devyn Dalton (Cornelius), Aleks Paunovic (Winter), Alessandro Juliani (Spear), Max Lloyd-Jones (Blue Eyes).
I’m hard pressed to think of another blockbuster series of recent years that is better than the new Planet of the Apes films have been. Each film is distinct from each other – not just recycling what has come before, but expanding it, and continually building upon it, taking the fall of humanity and rise of ape as seriously as you can in a blockbuster trilogy like this without taking it too seriously. I still that the second film – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – is probably the best of trilogy – it certainly is the most action packed and viscerally exciting, and has the best mixture of human and ape characters – but the first film – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – was perhaps the most emotional (it certainly was the most heartbreaking) – and both lead brilliantly into War of the Planet of the Apes, which caps off the trilogy in a brilliantly. All three films represent blockbuster filmmaking at its current best.
The infighting between Apes that made up the plot of the second film has pretty much been resolved. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are trying to live in peace in the forest – but humans just don’t seem to want to allow that. The opening sequence involves an army searching for Caesar’s hiding spot – and coming very close to it. The apes fight them off – and take a few prisoner. Caesar, trying to show that the apes are not savages, allows them to go free. That ends up being a mistake, and soon more soldiers – this time led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) return – and kill some of Caesar’s family. As the apes ready their next move – hopefully to a safer place – Caesar plots his vengeance on the Colonel. If only a few trusted allies, he sets out to find his enemy.
War of the Planet of the Apes wears its influences on its sleeve – it’s clearly a war movie in many ways, and it takes its lead mainly from Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam war movies (strangely enough, Kong: Skull Island did the same thing – this one does it better). Harrelson’s The Colonel is clearly based on Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz – the gleaming bald head, the way he shaves it, the insane ramblings (this Colonel’s ramblings form a more coherent thought pattern than Kurtz’s – I think, anyway) – and Harrelson clearly relishes playing the bad guy here. As Caesar, Serkis is once again at his best (for better or worse, you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential performer in modern blockbusters than Serkis – who has already plays Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson in motion capture, but does career best work in this series). The special effects that allow the apes their expressiveness is quite honestly astonishing – and allows Caesar to become a more complex character here than he was before (in Rise he was more of a victim who fought back, in Dawn he was the principled leader – here, he is a leader, who makes mistakes and puts his own feelings above all else selfishly – and yet, he maintains the hero of the film in part because of how aware he is of his own shortcomings).
In many ways, director Matt Reeves has stepped up his filmmaking game here – the cinematography by veteran Michael Seresin is great, integrating the special effects in with the surroundings – the lush green forest that is made to feel like the jungles of Vietnam in those old movies, the cold blinding snow, the horrible prison camp of the last half. So many modern blockbusters who rely heavily on CGI (like, undeniably this one does) end up looking almost like a candy colored cartoon – this series has been an exception from the start, as it’s blended everything together well. The film goes long stretches with little to no dialogue – it almost exclusively stays with Caesar throughout, and many of the apes cannot talk – but communicate in sign language. Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score, does some of the emotional heavy lifting in those sequences, without laying anything on too thick.
Each film in this series work on its own terms – it doesn’t repeat what came before, but instead deepens it. As a trilogy, the whole is even better than the sum of its parts. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t have room for ideas – let alone, allow themselves to address the darkest parts of our humanity (from the first film on, we’re clearly on the side of the apes, not the humans) – but this series went there, and did it with style and intelligence. They’re also three amazingly entertaining films. Modern day blockbusters don’t get much better than this series.

Movie Review: To the Bone

To the Bone ** / *****
Directed by: Marti Noxon.
Written by: Marti Noxon.
Starring: Lily Collins (Ellen), Keanu Reeves (Dr. William Beckham), Kathryn Prescott (Anna), Liana Liberato (Kelly), Carrie Preston (Susan), Alanna Ubach (Karen), Lili Taylor (Judy), Brooke Smith (Olive), Ciara Bravo (Tracy), Retta (Lobo), Hana Hayes (Chloe), Alex Sharp (Luke), Rebekah Kennedy (Penny), Maya Eshet (Pearl), Joanna Sanchez (Rosa), Lindsey McDowell (Kendra).
I have a feeling that when writer/director Marti Noxon decided to make a film about anorexia – based, in part, on her own experiences dealing with the disease, that she had a long list of things she didn’t want her film to do, in order to avoid the pitfalls of a TV-Movie-of-the-Week or a “very special” episode of a well-meaning family sitcom. This is admirable to be sure – but watching the film, it felt like the moving was trying so hard not to be the clichéd version of this story, that it never really figured out what it really did want to be. The movie throws a lot of terminology about anorexia around, and seems to stress over and over again that there is no one root cause, and no one way to deal with it, etc. But then it doesn’t really show us anything. The brilliant doctor who treats the houseful of patients dealing with the disease (played by Keanu Reeves) doesn’t really seem to have a plan in place at all in terms of treatment. Again, he’s very confident about what won’t work, but doesn’t really know what will.
The story centers on Ellen (Lily Collins) – a 20 year old woman, who has been suffering from anorexia for a while, and been in and out of treatment for years, but isn’t getting any better. Her father is at work all the time (literally, it seems, as he never appears in the movie), her mother (Lily Taylor) came out as a lesbian when Ellen was 13, and has recently moved to Phoenix after yet another breakdown. Her stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston), talks non-stop, and can be annoying – but she really does care, and she really does her best to try and help (at least it seemed like it to me – the movie, I’m not so sure sees her the same way). Ellen, reluctantly, agrees to go into another in-patient facility for treatment – this one in a large house, staffed by nurses, with a total of 7 patients, and run by Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) who treatment seems to be a mixture of touch love and praise, and not a whole lot else.
It’s at the treatment facility that things start to go a little sideways for the movie. Ellen meets Luke (Alex Sharp), an anorexic ballet dancer, who is well on the way to recovery – and he becomes a kind of annoying cheerleader, prodder and romantic interest. His romantic gestures are creepier than anything else, and his constant insistence on Ellen doing what he asks is annoying. The rest of the patients are ill-defined, and just kind of there – which doesn’t help when the film tries to milk one them for a big emotional payoff in the third act.
The writing tries to mix in some humor along with the all more serious stuff about anorexia, and it’s probably the best part of the movie. Lily Collins is best here when she gets to be sarcastic and downright bitchy – she has got a killer look in her eyes able to cut you down to nothing with a glance. But Ellen never really comes into focus as a character. The screenplay throws out a lot of stuff about just how dysfunctional her family is – and then pretty much has the doctor dismiss it all as irrelevant. Ellen is said to be feeling guilty about her artwork – that may have contributed to another girl killing herself – but that never really comes into focus, much like everything else in the film.
I don’t doubt the intentions of the people behind this movie – who wanted to address a serious issue in a way that wasn’t maudlin or preachy, but was actually entertaining. But the gap between their intentions and the results is just too wide to make To the Bone all that successful.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Review: The Little Hours

The Little Hours ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jeff Baena.
Written by: Jeff Baena.
Starring: Alison Brie (Alessandra), Dave Franco (Massetto), Kate Micucci (Ginerva), Aubrey Plaza (Fernanda), John C. Reilly (Father Tommasso), Molly Shannon (Sister Marea), Fred Armisen (Bishop Bartolomeo), Jemima Kirke (Marta), Nick Offerman (Lord Bruno), Lauren Weedman (Francesca), Paul Reiser (Ilario), Adam Pally (Guard Paolo), Paul Weitz (Lurco), Jon Gabrus (Guard Gregorio).
The Little Hours is a bawdy sex farce set in 14th Century shot on location in Italy, with period accurate costumes and sets, but with actors who make absolutely no effort to disguise their modern way of speaking. It tells the tale of sexy nuns, and drunken priests, rich nobles, and their lowly servants and in it, everyone is fucking everyone else at all times. Written and directed by Jeff Baena, The Little Hours doesn’t go for eroticism at all – it shows the silly, funny, goofy side of sex – but it does contain at least an undercurrent of the feeling that something is deeply wrong with this whole setup. It’s a film that I like in concept much more than I like in execution – which kind of peters out about half way through, and despite some inspired lunacy in the final minutes courtesy of Kate Micucci, doesn’t really add up to much. At half the length, this could be inspired – but at 90 minutes, the laughs are too few with too much in between.
At the center of the film are three nuns, all at the nunnery, even if they don’t much want to me – Alessandra (Alison Brie) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant (Paul Reiser, doing nothing to disguise his Jewishness – in fact, he may well be playing it up), fallen on hard times and cannot afford a dowry right now. Don’t worry, he says, some people’s calling is the warmth and love of family, but Alessandra will always have her embroidery. Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is, well, the same wonderful comic persona Plaza plays in everything this side of Legion – who hates everyone and everything, and some secrets she’s hiding. Only Ginerva (Micucci) even seems like she has any faith at all – but that could just be her people pleasing personality, that makes her tell the Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) everything everyone else is doing. The Priest who oversees the convent is Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), and he’s drunk on Communion wine most of the time – he blessed it himself, though, so it’s cool. At a nearby castle, servant Massetto (Dave Franco) has had to go on the run when his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) discovers that he is sleeping with his wife – Francesca (Lauren Weedman – who I would have loved to see more of here). He ends up running into a drunken Tommasso in the forest, and agrees to become the convent handyman – and pretend to be deaf and mute, for reasons the film explains, but really, it’s because it would be funnier. He promptly starts sleeping with both Alessandra – who believes this is a real relationship – and Fernanda – and her buxom friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) – who have ulterior motives.
For a while, all of this works. For the most part, everyone is playing the film with a straight face, which makes long conversations about where Massetto spills his seed, even funnier than they otherwise would be. There isn’t much of a plot, but it doesn’t need one – the comic performers are rather inspired, and the whole thing is pleasing goofy. Micucci is, in particular, a highlight stealing the movie from her more well-known co-stars, especially in the last act, where she pretty much goes nuts. There are strange visual gags – a turtle with a candle on his back for instance makes an extended experience – and the appearance of Fred Armisen later in the movie serves to underline just how absurd it is for all these nuns – and their priest – to be behaving this way. (The Catholic Church in America has seen fit to come out against the movie – they’d have been smarted just to not mention it).
I know some are going to think that The Little Hours is one of the best – and funniest – comedies of the year, and good for them. But I just didn’t laugh all that much, and although the comedy runs only 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that. When you have a film like The Little Hours, laughter is pretty much all the film offers, so if you don’t find it all that funny, you’re not left with much else to hold onto. I admire what the film was trying to do, it just didn’t get there for me.

Movie Review: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joseph Cedar.
Written by: Joseph Cedar.
Starring: Richard Gere (Norman Oppenheimer), Lior Ashkenazi (Micha Eshel), Michael Sheen (Philip Cohen), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Alex Green), Dan Stevens (Bill Kavish), Steve Buscemi (Rabbi Blumenthal), Jonathan Avigdori (Lior Keshet), Yehuda Almagor (Duby), Caitlin O'Connell (Sister Agnes), Hank Azaria (Srul Katz), Harris Yulin (Jo Wilf). 
If they’re smart and talented, movie stars often age into fine character actors when they get to a point when they are no longer headlining big Hollywood movies. During the 1980s and 1990s, that was Richard Gere – and while he had some interesting earlier roles (Malick’s Days of Heaven, Schrader’s American Gigolo) there’s a lot in that period that is pretty generic, middle of the road studio fare – the type of mid-level film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Yet, as he’s aged, Gere has done well for himself in taking on roles in smaller, indie movies – and has delivered some of his best performances – as the homeless man with mental issues in Time Out of Mind (2014) or as the Wall Street millionaire under pressure in Arbitrage (2012). To that list, you can add Joseph Cedar’s Norman – a film that is perhaps too complicated for its own good, and does feel rather anticlimactic in the end – but in which Gere – who initially feels all wrong for the role, ends up delivering another fine performance.
In the film, Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish guy in New York who runs a “consulting firm” – which is really just him and his iPhone, putting together “deals”. It’s never really clear what exactly he does, how exactly he makes money (he doesn’t seem to make much) – and yet somehow, he finds himself knowing and meeting everyone. One of the people he meets is Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) – an Israeli politician, who is visiting New York at a difficult time in his political life. He befriends Norman over one long day – as Norman follows him into an expensive tailor shop, and the two talk in a way that feels like it could go South at any minute, but somehow doesn’t. Three years later, Micha has risen in the ranks – he’s now the Prime Minister of Israel – but unlike what we expect, he has not forgotten his “good friend” Norman. His staff wants to put some distance between the two of them – but Micha himself likes Norman – and people know it. Norman uses this as his bargaining chip, as he tries to put together one large deal after another. Norman isn’t doing this for money per se – the deals, even if they were to work, wouldn’t be a windfall for him – but for the prestige of being the guy who can deliver. Norman has to tap-dance to keep all of his lies in the air, it’s never quite clear if he believes he can pull it all off, or if he just wants to be “that guy” for as long as he can.
The film was written and directed by Israeli director Joseph Cedar (who made the 2011 film Footnote, about father and son rival Talmudic scholars, which is way more entertaining than that sounds) – and he has a good sense of pacing, setting and tone. The film moves quickly through the various inner circles that Norman finds himself involved in – with the Israeli government, with high finance, with the synagogue board – led by Steve Buscemi – that Norman says he can help save. The tone of the film is strange – comic, tense, dramatic, and in some time, bordering on the surreal (especially when the magnificent Charlotte Gainsbourgh shows up for a few scenes as a government worker – the first time friendly, the second time, not so much). Through it all, the only consistent thing is Gere’s Norman, as he tries to keep everything going.
It’s an excellent performance by Gere, all the more so because I don’t think he, or the movie, ever really let us know what Norman is really thinking, or who he really is. By the end of the film, you still don’t really know if Norman is a selfish con artist, or just a guy who really is trying, but got in WAY over his head. The film itself isn’t as good as Gere – the politics of it all is too complicated, and not properly explained – the ending feels like a letdown – and yet Gere himself is never less than great – and makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Movie Review: Despicable Me 3

Despicable Me 3 ** / *****
Directed by: Kyle Balda & Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon.
Written by: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio.
Starring: Steve Carell (Gru / Dru), Kristen Wiig (Lucy), Trey Parker (Balthazar Bratt), Miranda Cosgrove (Margo), Dana Gaier (Edith), Nev Scharrel (Agnes), Pierre Coffin (Minions / Museum Director / Additional Voice), Steve Coogan (Fritz / Silas Ramsbottom), Julie Andrews (Gru's Mom), Jenny Slate (Valerie Da Vinci).
The original Despicable Me was a pure animated delight. Yes, it wasn’t exactly original to see a movie villain whose heart is melted when he becomes the adopted father of three adorable girls he only got as part of an evil scheme – but it worked. Steve Carrell was great as Gru, the little yellow Minions were hilarious, the girls appropriately adorable (especially the little one, who loved her fluffy unicorn), and the whole thing was wrapped up in an amusing animated package. As far as big budget mainstream American animation not made by Pixar (man, that’s a lot of qualifiers) goes, they don’t get a whole lot better than that. It’s been diminishing returns ever since for this franchise though, that really should end – but of course, won’t. The second film – which found Gru now on the side of good, and of course falling in love (because when you have no other ideas, you give the main character a love interest) was lightweight, and fun – and completely forgettable. The spinoff Minions was loud, annoying and headache inducing – even if I have to admit it was kind of daring to do an entire film aimed at children with characters who don’t speak English. Now comes Despicable Me 3, which finds Gru reunited with his long lost twin brother (because when you really don’t have any other ideas, you give the main character a long lost twin brother).
The film isn’t necessarily bad – but it sure the heck is lazy. Everyone involved seems to be going through the motions here. Part of the problem is that as the series progresses, you have to keep finding things for all the new characters you have introduced to do. So here, the plot doesn’t require the minions at all – and so, they are given an entire subplot of a minion revolt, where they walk out on Gru – but have really no idea where to go, or what to do. The main plot doesn’t really involved Gru’s new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) – or the girls either – so they have to invent two subplots for them – one involving Lucy being insecure about her new role as the girl’s mother, and one involving the little girls obsession with finding a real life unicorn in the forest. Because the movie has to keep cutting away to those plots, the main thrust of the plot – Gru connecting with his brother Dru, who wants to learn how to be a supervillain like Gru used to be (and their late father, unknown to Gru) was – and at the same time Gru trying to capture supervillain Balthazar Bratt, a former child star on a 1980s sitcom, turned into a villain still obsessed with that decade (voiced by Trey Parker, one assumes, because Seth Macfarlane was too busy) feels even thinner than it otherwise would. Much worse though, is those subplots just aren’t very good.
To be fair, the film will likely please its intended audience. My six year old daughter told her mother when we came home that the movie was “so funny” – and my three year old sat through the whole thing with nary a complaint. It was their father who looked at his watch and couldn’t believe only 45 minutes had gone by when he thought it was about time for the thing to end. I don’t know what it is about animated franchises not made by Pixar where the creators get lazy. While it’s true that something like the Cars franchise hardly represents Pixar at their finest – the truth is that Pixar did actually reinvent the series each time out, and find no avenues to explore – to bad effect in Cars 2, but fine effect in Cars 3. Despicable Me on the other hand, just keeps churning out the same thing over and over again – and this time, the result was both boring and forgettable.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Fires on the Plain (2014)

Fires on the Plain (2014)
Directed by: Shin'ya Tsukamoto.
Written by: Shin'ya Tsukamoto based on the novel by Shohei Ooka.
Starring: Rirî Furankî, Tatsuya Nakamura, Yûko Nakamura, Dean Newcombe, Shin'ya Tsukamoto.
In 1959, Kon Ichikawa adapted the novel by Shohei Ooka and ended up making one of the great WWII movies from Japan’s perspective ever. It is a film about dehumanization, as the Japanese army has already been roundly defeated in the Philippines, but the army refuses to surrender. The few survivors have to make their way across the island they’re on to get to the one stronghold the Japanese still have – that is, if they still even have that. The film follows Tamura, a solider whose unit doesn’t want him – he has TB and they keep sending him to the field hospital, who keeps sending him back until his C.O. tells him to either stay at the hospital or kill himself with a grenade. Somehow Tamura survives, even when his unit and the hospital are decimated, and he’s stuck with various other members, who become increasingly desperate to survive, and do increasingly depraved things – as Tamura attempts to not only survive but also to maintain his humanity.
I’m not sure what current Japanese director could be considered a descendant of Ichikawa – but Shinya Tsukamoto is not him. He is mainly known for his ultraviolent splatter films like Tetsuo (1989) – and that is pretty much what he did in his version of Fires on the Plain. Ichikawa’s film is about the gradual dehumanization of men at war – Tsukamoto takes that dehumanization as a given, and makes his film a vision of hell. He draws out the almost comedy of the opening scenes of Tamura heading back and forth from his unit and the hospital, as he is caught in a Cacth-22 – damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Once the attack on the hospital hits – with explosion and violence – he introduces the two other major characters – a sadistic older man who uses a weak willed younger man as his slave – but then has Tamura by himself for a while. This is an almost surreal, nearly wordless sequence that goes on for quite some time, as Tamura wanders through the land he doesn’t know or understand and the locals who both fear and despise him. The film adds more violence to this segment when Tamura kills a young woman who will not stop screaming – an act that haunts him so much he abandons his gun. Soon though, he has found others to join, and starts his trek across the island.
This leads to one of the most violent war sequences you will ever see in a movie. The Japanese have to make their way across a wide open field that is covered by the Americans. They wait until the cover to darkness, yet as the dozens of men try to make their way across, the Americans flood the field with light, and slaughter them like fish in a barrel. It is one of the most horrifically violent sequences I have ever seen in a movie – with limbs and heads flying, bodies being blown apart, heads being ripped open by bullets, and the chaos on the ground – where two men fight over an arm that has been blown off, since they’ve both lost one and they don’t know whose this one is. This sequence is long and intense – but at some point it does go a little too far, tries for a little too much splatter makeup that ends up looking a little false. Until then, it was a great sequence however.
The rest of the movie is a further descent into hell. The survivors wander through the island, past countless rotting corpses, many with a sickening look and full of maggots. The original movie is famed for its portrait of cannibalism – and this one will be as well. And like everything else in the movie, Tsukamoto takes it farther than Ichikawa did – at least visually – the better for stomach churning visuals.
The movie is an effective portrait of war as hell. It doesn’t move you like Ichikawa’s film does – mainly because that isn’t what Tsukamoto is going for. He wants to make the most violent, gory, disturbing and violent war film that he can – and he does that. Whether you want to see it or not, is up to you, but I found the combination of art house and splatter films fascinating. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s an experience to witness.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2014, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.