You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Thursday, 24 September 2015


Somewhere between the Wild West and Iraq lies Juarez, Mexico. A brightly coloured urban sprawl with a population of just over 1.3 million, in 2008 its murder rate was the highest in the world: 130 per 100,000. According to Sicario, the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a city where mutilated corpses hang from overpasses, a warning from the cartels. It’s in this environment that FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) finds herself, part of a taskforce of murky jurisdiction, a soldier in the war on drugs – emphasis on “war”. Drugs, in fact, barely enter into it.

Along with her partner Reggie (fellow Brit, Daniel Kaluuya1), Kate finds herself seconded to a unit under the control of the smirking, sandal-wearing Matt Garver (Josh Brolin). He’s assisted by Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former prosecutor with a haunted look about him.2 Together they’re out to bring down a mysterious drug lord, Fausto Alarcon, whose death Alejandro claims will inoculate the region against future violence. Kate’s boss (a put-upon Victor Garber) assures her of the operation’s legality, but its clear there’s a hidden agenda at play.

A sort of single-strand Traffic, Taylor Sheridan’s script focuses on Kate’s experiences in the field, from a tense prisoner transport through a gridlocked border crossing – Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan featuring as a geeky, moustachioed special agent3 – to a Zero Dark Thirty-esque4 night-time raid filtered through the green and white lenses of night and heat vision.5 There are periodic check-ins, however, with family man Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) – the assault rifle propped up against a chest of drawers augurs trouble. This is a world where danger can come from any direction.

The type of film that Michael Mann might once have directed, Sicario combines moral and legal murkiness with Roger Deakins’ searingly bright cinematography.6 Blunt’s steely, mistrustful protagonist7 is perfectly complimented by Alejandro’s quiet certainty in their cause. Set in a world where bearded Delta Force veterans rub shoulders with US Marshalls dressed for the rodeo, and corpses are walled up as far north as Phoenix8, Sicario uses the narrow lens of an action thriller to pose the question of where you, in the quest for order, you draw the (border)line.

SUMMARY: Sicario is a smoothly directed, sun-bleached action thriller. Less lurid than The Counsellor, less poetic than No Country for Old Men, its ambiguity is compelling even if never quite coheres into greatness.

Sicario gets an 8.0 out of 10

1 Best known as a TV comic actor, Kaluuya’s humorous balefulness is a perfect fit for the oft-side-lined Reggie.
2 With that sense of weary reluctance, Del Toro can turn a trip to the watercooler into an existential journey. As with Brolin – whose performance has shades of Det. Bigfoot in Inherent Vice – this is very much his metier.
3 Able to switch to a sort of petulant intensity in an instant, Donovan’s casting as a psycho mama’s boy gangster in the upcoming series 2 of Fargo would seem to be inspired.
4 Sicario also has a darkly casual relationship with torture, with Alejandro breaking out a brutal-looking wet willy-type move on a would-be assassin.
5 The film’s use of night vision bring back memories of Clarice Starling venturing into the killer’s lair in Silence of the Lambs, only with Kate’s complicity as arguably a more pressing factor than any of the unseen tunnel-dwellers.
6 The contrast between the crystal lighting and black uniforms provides an almost film noir feel to several scenes.  
7 She’s a refreshingly well-shaded character, even given a healthy dose of sexuality in the form of a hook-up with a hunky Jon Bernthal, though their encounter doesn’t go quite as planned.
8 Their blood-smeared faces, visible through plastic bags, recall Hannibal (the top-tier TV series as opposed to the subpar film).

Saturday, 12 September 2015


Woody Allen has got it made. Despite the allegations against him that have come to light in recent years1, he gets to jet off once a year to wherever takes his fancy and shoot a film there with, it seems, any actor who takes his fancy.2 While his previous travelogues have taken us to the likes of Rome, Paris, Barcelona, and, most recently, the French Riviera3, his latest, Irrational Man, sees the now 89-year-old director staying a little closer to home.

The film follows philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), who arrives to teach at the fictional Braylin College in New England4. A well-regarded burn-out, brooding and articulate, he apparently holds a certain appeal for the opposite sex.5 Among the woman throwing themselves at him is desirous college student Jill (Emma Stone)6, who sees Abe’s suffering as an antidote to her preppy, well-meaning boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). Abe is subsumed in his own existential crisis7; that is until a chance conversation overheard at a diner gives him a new lease on life.

Darker than 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight — and markedly less charming8 Irrational Man feels like a more romantic gloss on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Unlike in Crimes and Misdemeanors, though, or even Cassandra’s Dream, Allen doesn’t invest in the moral ramifications of Abe’s  revelatory decision — it just sort of happens, almost conveniently10. Phoenix tries his best to imbue Abe with some likability but his usual wry deadpan seems glib here9 and the usually effervescent Stone is, if anything, even less sympathetic, saddled with the role of a wheedling remorseless cheat.

An exercise in free thinking right up its Hays Code-sanctioned climax, Irrational Man bubbles along engagingly with Russian Roulette and visits to the funfair11, but this is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, all upbeat jazz soundtrack and reassuringly recognisable title font. Even by the standards of Allen's later output this is slight stuff and lacks his usual likability to buoy it up. Sophisticated comfort food, sure12, but what’s rationality got to do with it?

1 I bring this up only to say that I don't have a stance to take.
2 Allen’s tended to mix it up of late. Few of his old regulars, like Fred Melamed and Dianne Wiest, seem to make appearances anymore.
3 2008 to 2014 could be charitably described as Allen’s European period.
4 All this red brick and polished wood does lack a certain sunlit je ne se quoi.
5 Even compared to other Woody Allen surrogates Abe is something of a lothario, despite his impotency and alcoholism.
6 Since Little Britain is there any everyday surname less desirable than Pollard?
7 The obligatory mentioning of Kierkegaard and Kant makes sense in context but still feels like name dropping when you consider the lack of developed thought.
8 Colin Firth and Emma Stone had great chemistry, even if the age gap was a tad off-putting.
9 It’s understandable Abe might be a bit of a narcissist, what with all the interest from the opposite sex, but he’s self-obsessed almost to the point of sociopathy.
10 Parker Posey’s desperately-seeking Rita could be a great character if only the film had any real interest in her besides as a tool of Abe’s desires.
11 A possible shout out to Strangers on a Train, perhaps.
12 The film’s more artisanal popcorn than pizza, but scarcely filling for it.

Friday, 11 September 2015


There has never been, and will likely never be, another film like Roar. It’s a piece of cinema almost as astonishing on the screen as in the behind-the scenes-detail. Shot on location in Africa, it tells the story of Hank (Noel Marshall), a beardy weird-y conservationist with an open-door policy with regards to wildlife, who just so happens to be away from the lodge when his family turn up; his family who don’t seem to have been apprised of the lion situation. 

For there are lions, and not just lions – panthers, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars – roughly 110 of them in all, and an elephant perhaps best described as a bit of a prima donna.1 One of the key conflicts in fiction is, of course, man versus nature, but you’ve never seen it like this.2 A large portion of the plot involves Madeleine (Marshall’s wife and Hitchcock blonde, Tippi Hedren3), Melanie (Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith), Jerry (Marshall’s son Jerry), and John (Marshall’s son John) being chased around the Swiss Family Robinson-style lodge by big game cats, taking cover beneath upturned furniture – or else furniture that is soon upturned – and being repeatedly thrown from the roof of the lodge into the reservoir that surrounds it.4 You’ve heard of nature documentary but this is nature drama: even as they’re hiding out in barrels, one full of water,5 or making an escape in a boat, you fully expect the actors to be mauled at any moment – and some of them are! 

Roar’s publicity sensationally declares that while no lions were harmed in the making of the film over 70 members of cast and crew were. Tippi Hedren fractured her leg when she was thrown by the elephant and Director of Photography Jan de Bont, who went on to direct Speed, required 220 stitches when a lion tore his scalp off. This sense of peril adds to the mounting hysteria and with it the film’s comedy. When the pride decides to mark the family’s arrival by dragging a freshly killed zebra into the lobby, Madeleine fitfully declares, “Look what the cat dragged in”.6 The whole production plays like a work of comic melodrama, as if The Towering Inferno had really been shot inside a burning skyscraper or The Poseidon Adventure aboard a genuinely sinking ship. 

Roar is nothing if not authentic: the main lions, including the heroic Robbie and villainous bloody-mawed Togar,7 are credited as performers and an opening inter-title informs us that their behaviour largely dictated the plot.8 They even have distinct personalities, like the mopey Gary who refuses to leave the lodge to “go and play”. They’re both playful, capricious,9 and deadly, commanding both love and respect. Hank/Noel is the only one that shows no fear in the face – and claws – of them;10 the fact of which his friend and companion Mativo (Kyalo Mativo) reacts with good-natured disbelief. Roar’s conservationist message, which is hammered home in the final reel11, almost feels like over-egging the (lion) pudding: the film is a testament to these amazing creatures and the commitment of the cast and crew on a shoot that would make even Francis Ford Coppola blanch. 

Roar spent eleven turbulent years in production, cost $17 million to make, saw dozens of people savaged by marauding lions, and ultimately bombed at the box office.12 Was it worth all the bloodshed? Probably not. Am I glad it exists? Hell yes. With scenes that play like the world’s greatest ever cat video13 and Robert Hawk’s cheesily earnest soundtrack14, the film is guaranteed to leave you glowing. As they say, home is where the pride is.

1 He crumples the escaping family’s boat like a tin can. And he’s not the only one to wreak havoc on watercraft.
2 Think Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man documentary if it had been shot as a drama.
3 There’s even a throwaway reference to the film that made/destroyed Hedren’s name and here she is disregarding W.C. Field’s famous edict again (the one about never working with children or animals).
4 There’s certainly  no perception that the cast are in any way “acting”. It’s also probably safe to assume that any injuries we see sustained were real.
5 In a wonderful shot we see the lions’ tongues lapping at the surface from below.
6 It’s like they’re the free-spirited, liberal family who’ve just moved to a new neighbourhood only to find themselves menaced by a street gang. And the street gang are lions.
7 Togar, the film’s Scar, was apparently later taken in by Hedren. She now lives at the Shambala Preserve in Acton, California, which she founded, and has basically devoted her life to the preservation of lions. What a lady.
8 What with the time jumps and that bike that vanishes from a car boot it definitely looks like the continuity guy was lying down on the job. Then again I wouldn’t want to be the guy to ask for another take.
9 The lions also display great comic timing, idly tugging the boat back to shore as the family try desperately to row away.
10 His interventions between the snarling, clawing males is out-and-out suicidal.  
11 There’s a ludicrously evil French hunter and his accomplice who – thanks to Liam Fleming for this comparison – looks a lot like Mr. Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever.
12 Which is inexplicable to me. Did they not see the publicity?!
13 The pile-on that occurs whenever Hank opens the front door is both adorable and ???.
14 The track that plays us out is called "Here We Are in Eden".

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


Jesse Eisenberg, ladies and gentlemen. He wowed us as the coolly exploitative Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and seems likely to do the same as a more intense, somewhat less omnivorous Lex Luthor in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.1 For now, though, there’s American Ultra, the second film from Project X’s Nima Nourizadehstarring Eisenberg as – you may have guessed it – a neurotic schlub. But there’s more to this indie action comedy than just Adventureland with guns.

Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a long-haired, perennially plaid-clothed stoner who lives with his supportive girlfriend Phoebe (fellow Adventureland alum Kristen Stewart) in Liman, small-town Pennsylvania. He works in a convenience store, is working on a comic book2, and suffers panic attacks whenever he tries to leave town. Despite his plan to propose to Phoebe, his life seems to be going nowhere. Then CIA project manager Victoria Lasser (Spin City's Connie Britton) arrives in Liman and with one simple phrase3 everything changes. Well, not *exactly* everything.

Even when unwitting sleeper agent Mike is taking on the coterie of psychopaths whom the smug, preppy Yates (Topher Grace) has sent to kill him, brutalizing them with fist, feet, and the occasional item of cutlery4, he seems perplexed at his new-found skill-set, caught between his long-suppressed government trainingand 420-24/7 lifestyle. Reminding us just how likeable he can be playing an out-of-his-depth sad-sack6, Eisenberg captures the gory/goofy heart and humour of Mike’s predicament7, as does Stewart as the exasperated but loving Phoebe (“If the guy in the cell doesn’t see the gun don’t point at it and say ‘Gun’”!)8

Bullets tear through the cinder-block walls and plate-glass of ugly, urbanised rurality9, meeting flesh in extravagant gouts of blood – one police station shootout makes massacre in The Terminator seem sedate. Ingeniously scripted by Chronicles’ Max Landis, and with John Leguizamo as Mike’s flamboyant, paranoid dealer10, Tony Hale in support as a typically eager-to-please subordinate11, and Walton Goggins as the aptly named Laugher12, it feels like almost everyone could be a reject from some ill-conceived MK Ultra spinoff.

Marco Zavos’ narcotic, electronic-dance score, featuring the likes of The Chemical Brothers, perfectly suits the film’s grungy, indie vibe, as does Michael Bonvillain’s stark yet beautiful cinematography13, and full credit to Nourizadeh himself who, with a quirky eye for detail14, keeps the whole thing moving deliriously forwards. With a budget of only $28 million, American Ultra certainly seems like good value, bringing a more offbeat (if not quite art-house) sensibility to violent action15, while hopefully making a case for the more experimental mid-budget release that's been so wanting in recent years.16

Time will tell if the risk has paid off in the box office, but American Ultra goes to prove that as long as you have a concept and the right tools you don’t need hundreds of millions - or giant exploding robots - to get your audience hooked.

American Ultra gets a 7.5 out of 10

1 Say what you want about Gene Hackman’s toupee-wearing huckster and Kevin Spacey’s archly terrifying sadist, they sure did love the taste of scenery.
2 Which I’d totally read, btw, if you’re planning on releasing it, guys.
3 Well, not quite so simple.
4 Jason Bourne and Alan Rickman can eat their hearts out.
5 Mike’s confused to realise he suddenly knows a lot about tanks.
6 See, most recently: The Double.
7 After brutally eliminating two guys in a parking lot, he pads his feet up and down like a toddler, begging Phoebe to come and help before he starts pissing himself.
8 Stewart’s slightly glazed look is perfect for the seemingly good-natured stoner chick.
9 Twin Peaks this ain’t.
10 Who drives around a psychedelic green-streaked van and has a penchant for dropping acid in strip clubs at half past eight in the morning.
11 See Veep.
12 Think a psychotic version of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber with an extra streak of sad, puppy-like incomprehension.
13 Can you name another film that makes use of black light?
14 Eisenberg opens the film beaten, bruised, and shackled to a chair; looking more Heath Ledger’s Joker than Lex Luthor. The main body takes place in flashback, pieced together from an unlikely series of crime scene photos: a bloody spoon, a shredded teddy bear.
15 The store-bound finale is essentially a more inventive, less vengeful version of the climax from The Equaliser.
16 The likes of which I can’t recall since Looper back in 2012 (which also cost around $30 million).

Saturday, 5 September 2015


On the cinematic scale from Michael Bay to Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan falls somewhere in the middle. Equal parts auteur and hack, his output ranges from the sublime — The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable — to the ridiculous — The Happening, The Last Airbender. His latest film, The Visit, is a bit of both.

The premise is a classic horror set-up: two kids, tightly wound amateur filmmaker Rebecca (Olivia De Jonge) and free-spirited aspiring rapper Tyler (Ed Oxenbould)1, decide to visit their estranged grandparents in order to give their mum, Paula (Kathryn Hahn), a break with her new boyfriend. Staying at their isolated farmhouse in the woods, Rebecca and Tyler play hide and seek in the crawl space2, eat cookies, and try to put together a documentary — hence The Visit’s “found footage” angle. Nan (Tony winner Deana Dunham) and Pop Pop (ubiquitous character actor Peter McRobbie) seem like a nice enough pair of fogeys. Sure, she skitters around at night, vomiting and scratching at doors, and he’s keeping something in the woodshed, but that’s just old people stuff, right?

Despite all the aforementioned creepiness, you may just wish it was as simple as that. Shyamalan has spoken of It Follows and The Babadook as his favorite horrors of recent years3, largely due to their limitations, but this just doesn’t tally with his giddy, more associative type of film-making — there are *lots* of ideas on display here, but they don’t cohere satisfyingly4. The cast are uniformly great, especially Dunham’s wall-staring, creepy-crawly geriatric, but they struggle to bring more than just the requisite scares after Shyamalan’s obligatory twist comes into play — what he might call a “revelation of character”5. The rest just feels like running out the clock (even if it does involve a truly creepy bedroom sequence and an ill-advised bit of grossness with a diaper).

Ultimately, The Visit takes a different path than what you might hope, discarding the rich and relatable vein of old geriatric horror6 for something a bit more by-the-numbers. It’s been well over a decade since Shyamalan has given us anything resembling a classic, and while The Visit by no means changes that it certainly makes for a pleasant surprise.

The Visit gets a 5.5 out of 10

1 Tyler also the sort of kid who substitutes singers' names for swear words. Trust me, it’s not quite as excruciating as it sounds.
2 Nana joins in in one of the film’s highlights, a scene that veers brilliantly from horror to comedy.
3 Or rather did speak, in a Q&A just after the screening.
4 For instance, beyond the ever-present snacks and enormous oven, The Visit never makes use of its fairy-tale vibe.
5 As opposed to, to quote Shyamalan himself, “the t word”. A rose by any other name, etc., etc.
6 And the potential for pathos. Isn’t that one thing most people are afraid of: growing old?