El Topo (1970), a Retrospective Review

El Topo.jpg

Director – Alejandro Jodorowsky

Writer – Alejandro Jodorowsky

Starring – Alejandro Jordowsky

Surrealist cinema is a strange and abstract breed of movie-making. Reminding us, first and foremost, that cinema was originally intended as a strictly visual medium, and that the traditional Hollywood formula was a surprisingly late development along the earlier timeline. Some of the greatest surrealists have gone down in folklore, cementing their place in the mind of more hardened cinephiles as true titans of the cinematic cosmos. I was familiar with the works of the more well-known surrealists, such as Terrence Malick, and, perhaps the most iconic of them all, David Lynch, but Jordowsky was an enigma to me that I was yet to attempt to crack. It was, then, with a great curiosity that I sat down to watch the infamous El Topo. Fortunately, my curiosity was elevated by the bizarre brilliance of the movie, which has to go down as the most insane and atmospheric Western of all time.

Traditionally, at this point in my reviews, I tend to give a plot synopsis. As this is a very nontraditional film, I warrant it justifies an nontraditional review, so I’ll be leaving the synopsis out this time. This is also because the film’s narrative is a key element of engagement with the work, as you the audience are forced to not be mere passive observers, but to actively think continuously as you try to figure out what exactly you are watching. I will say, perhaps arrogantly, that I completely comprehended it the first time around. Ergo, it’s not a mind-bending puzzle of a motion picture, like Lynch’s Eraserhead or Mallick’s Tree of Life; but still it isn’t exactly a classic by-the-numbers story-line, though all the tropes of the Western genre are still here.

El Topo himself is your classic Gunslinger, wandering through the desert wasteland, laying his vengeance upon all thee who oppose him. There are bandits, gunfights, and all the usual Western motifs. However, the film is not, unlike the classic Western, about vengeance. Rather, this is very much a spiritual journey. One man’s quest to find enlightenment and salvation.

What I will say about the narrative, is that it’s split into four major chapters, and two differing story lines. The first half follows El Topo, as he chases down four legendary gunmasters, in order to become the greatest that ever lived. The second half follows an older El Topo, using his spiritual enlightenment to try and save a community of handicapped people.

Both narratives, while deploying Western tropes, actually resemble a classic East-Asian Samurai movie more than anything else. There has always been a very close link between the Samurai and Western genres, as arguably the greatest Spaghetti Western of them all, A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Jorodowsky clearly notices these parallels more than most, and creates a mesmeric visceral experience than borrows Mis-en-scene from one, and themes from the other. Each of the four masters El Topo reaches teaches him a valuable lesson, each representing a differing East-Asian religion and belief system. It is only by combining all four, and balancing the lessons from each, that El Topo can become the greatest of them all.

Whilst telling you this means my ‘no synopsis’ claim from earlier was somewhat of a cop-out, my reasoning is that a simple description of events would not do the story justice, as this is much more a thematic thinkers piece than it is an entertaining tale. I also thought I’d give those of you less adjusted to arthouse cinema a fighting chance of following the madness.

And mad it certainly is. Everything has a certain macabre beauty to it, as the shots are poetic, effective, yet never technically unnecessary. Jorodowsky doesn’t deploy flashy editing and shot composition as a constant, often deploying oddly by-the-numbers cinematography. Occasionally he does do something particularly innovative with the camera itself, and when he does, it stands out more so because it’s used sparingly. It’s still relatively odd though, as traditionally experimental cinema means unique shots and editing. Here, it’s all deceptively simple, merely framing the madness, as opposed to contributing.

Highlights in the of insanity include; a church passing a gun around in a game of faith-based Russian roulette, designed to test their faith, a naked child riding a horse with El Topo, a dwarf woman riding a horse with El Topo’s son, and the most spiritual and innovative duels ever committed to a Western. The duels are, in fact, unarguably the highlight of the film, mental battles of wills as much as they are actual gunfights.

Jordowsky’s apparent total control over the production, including writing, directing and starring in the piece, would also suggest he is as close as we may get to a true auteur in film. For those unfamiliar with the auteur discussion, it is the idea that no film can have one sole or true ‘author’, or auteur, as there are so many people involved in the production of a motion picture that it would be a discredit to hand one man all the credit. However, whilst Jordowsky is not credited for cinematography or editing, the film is so unbelievably unique that, without being familiar with the rest of his work, I can’t see it coming from any mind but his own.

What we have with El Topo, is the thinking person’s Western. And by ‘thinking person’, I mean the kind of guy/girl who would sit on top of a mountain somewhere, reading a book of Buddhist philosophy. I mean that in no negative way, either, as El Topo is one of the most unique and bizarre experiences anybody could ever hope to lay their eyes upon. A treat, both visually and audibly, for all cinephiles out there,;an experience that transcends the medium of film itself, becoming something much bigger in the process, something that burrows into your subconscious and expands your mind before you know what’s even happened.

 

Final Rating – 4.6

 

Joshua Moulinie

The Witch:A New England Folktale (2016), a Review

The Witch

Director – Robert Eggers

Writer – Robert Eggers

Starring – Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie

I’ve used the word resurgence a lot in recent times when discussing contemporary horror, as it would appear to be making somewhat of a recovery after the dark period of the 90’s/2000’s. It seems each of the last three years has at least one stand-out work of the genre that resurrects our enthusiasm; 2014 had The Babadook, 2015 brought us It Follows, and 2016 has handed us The Witch: A New England Folktale. Not only does 2016’s offering to the Gods (or demons) of Horror-Cinema continue this upward trend, it is easily the best of the bunch thus far, and arguably the greatest horror film of the 21st century. As well as that, it is potentially the greatest debut movie of all time for first-time writer/director Robert Eggers.

In the 17th century, a man named William is banished from a Puritan plantation in New England alongside his family — pregnant wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas — due to the crime of “prideful conceit.” The family builds a farm by a large forest where later Katherine gives birth to her fifth child, Samuel. One day, while Thomasin plays with Samuel, the baby vanishes. Soon, paranoia  begins to tear the family apart, as they are plunged into a spiritual crisis, and  cerebral nightmare.

Whilst the film’s written in a very linear manner, it is sprinkled with enough abstract ideals and beautifully surreal imagery to be considered very much an art-house film. There is clear causality, but a lot is left ambiguous towards the end. The writing is glorious, as the film is perfectly plotted and paced, an enigma that leaves us entirely transfixed throughout without ever boring us or sagging at all.

There is a term critics once coined to describe a film that transcends the medium of a motion picture, in turn becoming a work of art as opposed to entertainment. This term is ‘Pure Cinema’. 2001:A Space Odyssey was ‘Pure Cinema’, as was Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Films that could stand alongside the great works of art in human history. The Witch, for all intents and purposes, could certainly be considered a work of Pure CinemaThis isn’t a major motion picture, rather, this is a work of audio-visual poetry, flowing like a finely crafted river of unrelenting tension.

The dialogue is heavy at times, but never over-written, and the prose feels authentic. Often, period dramas of this sort fall apart under the flowery language, as we lose track of what the characters are truly stating due to a combination of actors not fully comprehending what they are actually trying to say, and a writer over-doing it in an attempt to showboat. Here, it’s poignant, and not a word is lost in translation, even to a contemporary ear. The true genius is that I cannot honestly claim to truly get what it is that makes this click. Whatever rabbit Eggers had up his sleeve, it wholeheartedly works. This is a triumph in writing, both of the period and of the genre.

The script also triumphs thanks to it’s complex, for the genre, storytelling. On the surface, this would appear to be a classic supernatural horror film, but quickly, we realise the true story here is one family’s battle with faith. The juxtapositions between their love for eachother, and the signs exhibited that fall in line with the scripture, thus painting the daughter as the prime suspect for witchcraft, is wonderfully executed and never descends into silly melodrama. It is gripping, powerful, poignant and has something meaningful to say. In short; this is perfect writing.

Visually, this also would have to be considered somewhat of a modern masterpiece; as it features incredible cinematography; each shot dripping with poise, power and exquisite composition. It’s clearly inspired heavily by more European directors, featuring a dark and muted colour scheme that instantaneously fills the viewer with a feeling of dread and despair, as the very world itself appears devoid of colour or happiness. In this respect, it heavily resembles the works of the legendary Igmar Bergman, or perhaps Roman Polanski, who just happens to be among the greatest horror directors of all time. No short praise, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The ambiguity of the piece is also a genuine triumph, as we are left in doubt as to what exactly the force is behind this, and how real the titular Witch happens to be. In that respect, the film is bears a striking resemblance of Kubrick’s iconic The Shining, as it leaves us guessing towards right up until the end. As well as having the two-pronged attack of being one-part supernatural horror, and equal parts a psychological thriller.

The horror, it must be added, works on every possible level. There is a chance that some contemporary audiences could be put off by the lack of set-pieces and jump-scares, as they are almost non-existent. Instead, the film builds an incredible sense of pure atmospheric terror, to the point where the woods themselves become as much a threat as what may or may not inhabit them. When a film manages to be both an incredible work of visual art and have you clenching the side of your chair in horror at the mere thought of a young boy walking through a foreboding forest, you’re on your way to a winner.

The acting levels are simply incredible, also, which in turn elevates the film. With a script so tight, and the directing so incredible, a poor performance could ruin what had the potential to be a masterpiece. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. Ineson in particular is a true force of thespian nature. He well and truly becomes his character, giving a believable and grounded portrayal, that never descends into atypical period-drama over-acting. His gruff and ruff demeanour perfectly encapsulates what it meant to ‘be a man’ at this time, but it’s given true gravity by his ability to depict an emotional undercurrent, often entirely through his eyes.

Taylor-Joy is very good as well, if a bit more over the top. She gives a good enough account of herself though to suggest she has a bright future with more experience under her belt, and the performance is nowhere near bad. It just falls slightly short of Ineson’s. Dicke is particularly impressive as the cold yet loving emotionally conflicted mother-figure, also. She gives a strong account for herself, as the wonderfully complex figure who has to deal with her own grief and paranoia, eventually allowing it to tear her sanity to shreds.

This is, possibly, the film to end all others this year. By that I mean that I find it hard to even envisage that any horror movie could even attempt to come close to this in terms of quality and power. This is a film that transcends the medium of cinema, and becomes a fully-fledged work of art; audio-visual poetry, a fine slice of that oh-so-rare ‘Pure Cinema’; the likes of which remind me why I fell so madly in love with the medium itself. Eggers is a unquestionably a talent with an extemely bright future, as his debut feature already demands a position in the upper pantheon of greats of the genre. Horror’s Mount-Rushmore, if you will. I implore you to watch this movie, you owe it yourself.

 

Final Rating – 5/5

 

Joshua Moulinie

High Rise (2016), a Review

High-Rise.jpg

Director – Ben Wheatley

Writer – Amy Jump

Starring – Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans

The British cinematic landscape has, sadly, become somewhat of a barren wasteland in recent years. Sure, we produce gritty crime-dramas and kitchen sink dramas to rival the best of them, but in terms of true quality filmmaking, we’ve been sadly lacking. We saw the loft peaks of the nineties, featuring such classics as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Trainspotting. We also saw Shane Meadows spring out with the fantastic This is England and Dead Man’s Shoes, in the early noughties. Finally, we produced Christopher Nolan, who unfortunately took his multi-billionaire dollar ball and buggered off to Hollywood.

Now, we have one bright light that shines more radiant than any other, and that’s the romantic duo of Mr.Ben Wheatley and his partner in both film and life, Miss. Amy Jump. Together, the two spawned a string of absolute barnstormers; Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England are unquestionably the finest British exports not named Tyrannosaur in recent years. There was a permeating fear that the leap to a more high-concept film, featuring larger stars and ergo a larger budget, would see some of Wheatley’s independent genius stripped away, with him left a corporate shell of a director. Fortunately, High Rise is a strong contender for best film of 2016, and a social/political work of some magnitude.

Based on the novel of the same name by the highly-respected author J.G Ballard, High Rise opens with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) living in a ravaged apartment tower. He captures a white Alsation Dog and spit roasts it over a makeshift fire while sitting on his apartment balcony. The film proceeds to recount the events of the previous three months.

After the death of his sister, Laing moves into a 25th floor apartment within a new high-rise tower, a luxurious apartment complex built by esteemed architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). The high-rise provides its tenants all of the conveniences and commodities that modern life has to offer: swimming pools, schools, a supermarket, a restaurant, and high-speed elevators. By the same token, there is little reason to leave the building, and its occupants (generally upper- and middle-class professionals, business people, and media figures) become increasingly isolated from the outside world, retreating instead into the tower’s secure environments and parties. Eventually a class division breaks out and things descend into anarchy.

There is, clearly, an obvious underlying metaphor that permeates the movie. The Tower Block itself is symbolic of contemporary society, and the ease with which we can now consume without fear of recourse. The Architecht himself is clearly an Avatar for a God-like figure, which of course could also represent all political leaders. He’s your emperor/king/president/prime minister all wrapped into one, and in simpler terms, he’s the leader that builds and designs the world. The tenants higher up the tower represent the upper class, who bizarrely dress like 18th century caricatures, perhaps as a rich satire of the perceived image of the rich and famous.  The lower class are, naturally, lower down the block tower, and all seem to dress like 1970’s Liverpudlians.

Hiddleston’s character Liang is, effectively, the entire Middle-Class population, and serves as our avatar into the film. Beautifully, he ends up befriending both the Architect, not-so-subtley-named Royal, as well as Royal’s primary antagonist, Richard Willer, from the lower class. Because of Liang’s ties to both parties, neither fully trust him; the poor consider him a ‘social climber’ and no longer one of them, whilst Royal’s rich friends consider him part of the rift-raft. This means we get to see both sides of the coin via the eyes of Liang, and as such, we remain impartial throughout, and are never forced to take a side.

There in lies the biggest achievement High Rise manages. It would be the easy route for Wheatley to merely condemn the rich and praise the poor, as often tends to happen in this scenario. Rather, Wheatley, who came from a very working-class background, points out the hypocrisy of both sides. The rich, effectively, hate the poor for the crime of being ‘lesser humans’. Consequently, the poor carpet-hate the rich for merely the crime of being rich. Wheatley and Jump ruthlessly expose this (with help of course from the source text).

This is managed, primarily, via Jump’s as-per-usually fantastic ear for authentic dialogue. This is what sets Wheatley apart from his contemporaries, in particular in regards to the hilarious A Field In England, and it’s present here as well. Jump may well be one of the most underrated writers in cinema today, and this is yet another sterling piece to add to the C.V.

Wheatley also brings his A-Game, blending beautiful shots with magnificent composition. Make no mistake about it, despite the A-List cast, this is firmly an arthouse piece. It drips with cinematic beauty, and the mixture of more linear story and abstract surrealism blend wonderfully. For those unfamiliar with the arthouse format, they may very well find this rather hard to follow, as it tends to jump from scene to scene, often without obvious cause of effect. It’s a visual marvel though, reminding us of why we all love this primarily visual medium.

What is also wonderful is that, despite being the lead actor and primary protagonist, this doesn’t entirely seem to be Hiddleston/Liang’s story. Rather, he serves as a mediator between the more central Willer Vs Royal storyline, as he does his utmost to prevent them tearing each other apart.

Funnily enough, that entire rivarly, once the class bravado is stripped away, comes down to a woman. Proving, once and for all, that regardless of class and wealth, we all suffer from the same primal desires and flaws. It’s absolutely fascinating to see our central character take a more passive role in the narrative, comparable mainly to Mad Max:Fury Road, and the way Max seemed to have no interest in proceedings, merely wanting to survive the chaos. Oddly enough, Liang seems more interested in boning his way through the tower than he does anything else. There is a lot of sex in this film, easily the most of any Wheatley picture.

Hiddlestone, for his part, puts in an unspectacular performance, that arguably serves the purposes perfectly. Liang, as a character, is charming yet reserved, quiet yet temperamental, so Hiddlestone was forced to dial down his trademark charisma. It works though.

Irons, as always, is spectacular, playing a very sympathetic borderline villainous role. Reserved, calm in the face of madness, and with a terrible God-complex, Royal is a wonderfully interesting character. Willer is also well-portrayed by Luke Evans. So well, in fact, that I had absolutely no idea it was him until I saw the credits. Safe to say, he’s far removed from his more cartoony performances in The Hobbit Trilogy and Dracula:Untold, proving he has a range I sincerely doubted he possessed.

High Rise is, for all intents and purposes, a high-concept arthouse movie, the same way The Revenant was. Proving that Wheatley can handle bigger-budget films with the same dynamic and chaotic genius he does his smaller features, and that Amy Jump can write the hell out of a screenplay, whilst perhaps having the best ear for dialogue of anybody not named Quentin Tarantino. This is quintessentially British, and, at a time where the Tory party is pretty much solely causing another class divide, it could also prove to be a very important film. Primarily because it forces us to look into ourselves, and realise that money doesn’t define us, rather, our animalistic and chaotic nature does. It’s also the only film this year where a rich woman rides in from a rooftop on a horse, asking loudly ‘Who wants to fuck me in the arse?’. That’s got to count for something, right?

 

Final Rating – 4.7

 

Joshua Moulinie

 

 

 

Special Correspondents (2016), a Review

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Director – Ricky Gervais

Writer – Ricky Gervais

Starring – Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana

For a short period in the mid-noughties, Ricky Gervais was arguably the king of British comedy. With not just one all-time classic series, but two, under his belt, in The Office and Extras, with the pretty good if not quite so great Derek rounding out a successful trilogy of comedic gold, it seemed inevitable that the man would crack Hollywood. Naturally, he did, but thus far the results have been a mixed bag. Sadly, Special Correspondents is more of the same.

News radio journalist Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) enters a murder scene posing as a cop. After getting the details of the crime, he is removed from the premises and, immediately after, reports the story live on the radio anyway. That night, Frank’s sound technician Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) takes his wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) to the station’s annual ball, but has to leave for a stake-out with co-worker Claire Maddox (Kelly MacDonald). Eleanor then meets Frank, who sleeps with her, unaware she is married to Finch. The following day, Mallard puts Frank on a story about an uprising in Ecuador, and assigns Finch to accompany him. However, Finch tells Frank he can’t go as Eleanor has left him. Finch later changes his mind about Ecuador, and he and Frank pack for their trip. At the airport, the two realize Finch has accidentally thrown their passports and plane tickets in a garbage truck, instead of the letter to his wife. They then decide to stay behind and fake the story, which eventually leads to them proclaiming to have been kidnapping, plunging the whole country into a nationwide panic.

The biggest problem I had with this film, personally, was that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint whether or not it’s actually any good. Now, that may seem like an odd sentence, but let me explain. The film is, for all intents and purposes, marketed as a laugh-out-loud comedy. The issue is that it’s not all that funny. It has wonderful moments, certainly, but it’s never the laugh-a-minute riot that Extras or The Office were.

Rather, it’s clearly a very clever film where the laughs and entertainment comes from one source; that being the scathing satire. The way Gervais lampoons the News, the Media, and even the supposedly mourning relatives of a crisis who use the backdrop of sympathy to launch their own entertainment career, and become a fifteen minutes of fame style celebrity, is very well executed,and utterly brilliant. It ruthlessly exposes the seedy underbelly of humanity and Media in a way very few writers would have the balls and ability to pull off.

Oddly though, the one-liners and gags nearly always fall flat. This leads to a strange scenario, where we admire the film’s intelligent satire but unfortunately cringe at the supposedly comedic moments. This is utterly confusing, and leads to my previous statement that I’m not entirely sure how good this film really is.

Another clear strength, for the most part, is the narrative itself. It’s interesting, engaging and entertaining enough, and again, has a lot of interesting and valid points to make about the media circus as a whole. The plot-thread where his wife cashes in on the situation and becomes a celebrity for doing precisely nothing is particularly brilliant. There’s also a nice, if slightly predictable, twist at the end. In terms of the narrative and story structure, it’s all very solid.

Gervais puts in a decent if not magnificent performances, playing the comic relief to Eric Bana’s straight guy. Some of his character elements are, sadly, potentially dated. For example, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe being the biggest franchise in the history of blockbuster cinema, it’s surely no longer ‘uncool’ to collect Marvel figures, considering everybody turns up for these films. In fact, the comic-book loser trope itself has surely run it’s course by now. Although, I’m a guy who has few friends and crippling social anxiety, and I enjoy comic-books, so perhaps it’s not entirely dead. He plays the part well enough though, without ever being at his magical best.

Bana is the definite star of the show, absolutely dripping with arrogance and disdain for all those around him as the local radio show host with delusions of grandeur. For a large part of the run-time you will want to punch the guy in the face, but that’s partly down to how well Bana portrays the bastard. Special mention to Vera Farmiga, who portrays Gervais’ estranged wife brilliantly, and is a wonderfully hate-able pantomime villain.

The cinematography and sound-use are sadly nothing special, which is particularly surprising when you consider how wonderfully it was deployed in all three of Gervais’ Television series. It’s the use of sound in particular that is grating, as these shows are all instantly recognisable for their soundtracks, whether it be Handbags and Gladrags becoming synonymous with the opening credits of The Office, or Tea With The Tillerman with Extras. It’s a shame, because the deployment of eclectic soundtracks has always been a key strength of Gervais’, so seeing it lacking here is bizarre.

Special Correspondents is a strange enigma of a motion picture. Well-written and absolutely vicious with its biting satire, it nevertheless fails to really achieve its most basic role, that being to be funny. It’s perhaps unfair to blame Gervais entirely though, of course, as he’s proven in the past he is definitely a funny guy, and a talented writer. Problem is, that was almost entirely under British production companies. Perhaps this is simply a case of a man lost in translation, trying to appeal to a broader audiences, and in turn forgetting about the fans who made him a star in the first place. Still, the film has a lot of interesting things to say, and is certainly worth a watch.

 

Final Rating – 3.7

 

Joshua Moulinie

 

 

Troll Hunter (2010), a Retrospective Review

TrollHun

Director – André Øvredal

Writer –  André Øvredal

Starring – Otto Jespersen, Hans Morten-Hansen,  

I must confess straight out the traps that I am, for the most part, completely unfamiliar with Norwegian cinema. I adore the Danish scene, in particular the incredible triumvirate of Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Nicolas Winding Refn, and am also more than slightly familiar with the Swedish scene. The Norwegian scene, however, was a complete mystery, so I had no idea what to expect, particularly in regards to the seemingly insane decision to combine the realism of found-footage with the fantastical deployment of CGI. Fortunately, Troll Hunter works fantastically, and André Øvredal has created a magical and fun piece of genre cinema.

A group of students, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and their cameraman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), set out to make a documentary about a suspected bear poacher, Hans (Otto Jespersen). At the site of an illegally slain bear they interview local hunters, who comment that the bear tracks look odd, as well as Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen), head of the Norwegian Wildlife Board. Finn dismisses the idea that the bear tracks could have been faked. The students follow Hans in an attempt to secure an interview but he continually rebuffs them. After following him into a forest at night time, they see mysterious flashing lights and hear roars. After a large animal attacks, they escape in Hans’ LandRover, and he announces he is a hunter of the mythical troll. Though sceptical, the students ask if they can join Hans and film his hunt, to which he consents on the condition that they do as he instructs.

What follows is a deceptively clever film that not only understands what does and doesn’t work within this genre, but also understands how to elevate a movie beyond mere consumable entertainment by giving us, the audience, political ideologies to ponder, without ever hitting us over the head with it. The way the Norwegian government tries everything within its power to conceal the existence of the trolls cleverly taps into the real-life issues that surround potential government cover ups and conspiracies, whilst never necessarily becoming a film about them. This means it serves to enhance the central narrative by creating side-themes that run concurrently, without ever being distracting or a nuisance.

It also means there’s none of that deep groaning that one can’t help but utter when a film that should be fun gets lost in the murky depths of political dealings and eventually feels less like art and more like a propaganda piece. This is a film about a man hunting Trolls, after all. Whilst the politics help give it a deeper meaning and more artistic merit, it should never distract from what is such a bizarre and enjoyable scenario. Also, the way Øvredal manages to thread genuine Norwegian issues into the tapestry of the story is rather clever indeed. A quick example is the fact that, recently at least, a lot of Norwegian activists have been protesting the building of huge power grids which they claim create an ugly blot on the naturally beautiful countryside. In the film, the grids are used as huge paddocks to keep the Trolls within territories. Simple, yet effective.

The script also manages to balance tension and comedy expertly, one minute leaving you leaning on the edge of your chair, wondering how on Earth they’re going to survive this…followed by Jespersen’s Hans leaving you reeling with laughter with a calm and perfectly placed one-liner. It’s incredibly rare now that a film either makes me laugh often or leaves me feeling tense and invested in the horror set-pieces, but Troll Hunter manages to do both simultaneously; and it does it with an almost gleeful ease.

It manages the comedy, as previously alluded to, primarily via Hans, and Jespersen’s magnificently human portrayal. Whilst the rest of the students play arguably typical students,  never bad but never particularly interesting, their shock and awe at what is happening to them manages to feel all too real. Ergo, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition to Hans’ deadpan coolness, as he has clearly done this for a long time and as such any awe has long since departed. What we’re left with is a deadpan humour and a cruel cynicism, as though all magic from life departed the man years ago. He is however, surprisingly human, and shows empathy for the monsters he exterminates on several occasions. In fact, he’s one of the more interesting characters I’ve seen in modern cinema.

The tension comes again from the solid performances, to a large extent, but mostly from the clever use of the found-footage format. Instead of the usual bumbling teenagers or tech-enthusiastic father, we get a trained camera-man behind the camera, meaning he actually cares about things such as composition and visual direction. In turn, this means the film, while found-footage still, isn’t vomit-inducingly awful to look at. It’s a clever work-around of a tired trope, and means the limitations of the format don’t hinder the film in the slightest.

It doesn’t hurt that Norway is one beautiful old country, full of sprawling mountain ranges, deep snows and mesmeric woodlands. At times, actually, it was almost distracting, as my attention deviated from the movie as I began to plan a fantasy holiday to Scandinavia.

The Troll design is also pretty fantastic, and for such a low-budget feature the CGI holds up better than most Hollywood productions. While it is clearly still ‘not real’ and has that video-game feel that even great CGI still hasn’t quite gotten past, it never offends or looks horrible. Primarily because we’re given mostly fleeting glimpses of the monsters, with them never staying on-screen for more than a few seconds. This less-is-more approach works wonderfully, as the audience are always as enthusiastic about the encounters as the on-screen characters, meaning we never tire of seeing the beasts, and remain invested in the feature throughout.

Troll Hunter is a forgotten-gem that belongs firmly on any self-respecting mega-fans list of greatest horror-comedy movies, particularly within the found-footage format. Tense, hilarious, aesthetically-pleasing with some fun political debates thrown in for good measure; the film goes beyond expectations and delivers a wonderful experience without getting the primary purpose of a movie, that being to be a fun experience. André Øvredal is a talent to keep an eye on.

 

Final Rating – 4

 

Joshua Moulinie

Robot and Frank (2012), a Retrospective Review

Robot aand frank

Director – Jake Schreier

Writer – Christopher D. Ford

Starring – Frank Langella, James Marsden, Peter Sarsgaard

If there’s one thing I admire more than any other about the miraculous streaming device known as Netflix, it’s those moments where you find a film you’d never heard of before, and that film manages to move you beyond your expectations. This is the experience I had recently with Robot and Frank, a character-study-come-Sci-Fi movie that manages to be emotionally warming and leaves you with plenty to ponder.

Set in the near future, an aging ex-convict and thief named Frank Weld (Frank Langella) lives alone and is experiencing increasingly serious mental deterioration and dementia. Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden), an attorney with a family of his own, grows tired of making weekly visits to his father’s home, but is reluctant to put his father into full-time care, so he purchases a robot companion (Sarsgaard), which is programmed to provide Frank with therapeutic care, including a fixed daily routine and cognitive enhancing activities like gardening.Initially wary of the robot’s presence in his life, Frank warms up to his new companion when he realizes the robot is not programmed to distinguish between legal recreational activities and criminal ones, leading Frank back into his old ways.

Ford’s script is frankly wonderful, as it manages that most difficult of tasks, a task many motion pictures find near impossible. That being to be both heartfelt and moving, whilst remaining amusing and comedic. To create such an equilibrium, against the backdrop of such a bizarre set-up, portraying something as personal to many people as dementia with such class and respect, deserves high acclaim.

This is, underneath all the wrappings of Sci-Fi and crime elements, a beautifully crafted character study of a man who once relied so much on his razor sharp wits, now forced to watch that mind blunt before his eyes, unable to do anything about it, completely powerless. It’s tragic, it’s moving, and it’s also very authentic, and at no point veers into the offensive. This sounds easy, but when dealing with such a weighty matter, it’s bloody difficult.

The dialogue sparkles, and the reluctant friendship that forms between Frank and his Robot is more believable and authentic than most strictly human relationships we are shown on screen. The robot, built on honesty and helpfulness is the perfect contrast to the cheeky and deceptive Frank, and watching him grow to reluctantly accept his new helper, and by the end of the moving seeming to truly love him, is a delightful journey that could melt even the sternest and coldest of hearts.

Also, the fact that Ford manages to make us sympathise with Frank despite all the morally corrupt acts he has performed, is again a difficult task managed with aplomb. Frank is clearly presented as less a cold-hearted criminal mastermind, and more a cheeky thief. Then, when the penny drops that this is the only activity that could keep his mind active and in a state of usefulness against the backdrop of its degeneration, it becomes almost impossible to root against him. Again, this is masterful writing, and I think Ford may well prove to be a very special talent, well worth keeping an eye on.

A good script, of course, is utterly useless if both the direction and the performances are not on-point; fortunately, everybody brings their A-Game. Langella is magnificent as Frank, putting in a very subtle and believable performance. It’s his movie, essentially, and he knows it. His depiction is layered, complex and utterly charming. He also handles the dementia led scenes impeccably, and the man has a really talent for putting out a vacant stare without descending into overacting. The key word here is believable, and he truly is.

Marsden puts in an exasperated turn as his bewildered son, but it’s Sarsgaard’s monotonous, yet somehow clearly expressive tone that arguably steals the show in terms of supporting cast. He’s magnetic, up there with the great vocal A.I performances, primarily for it’s simplicity.

The directing is deceptively subtle, but immaculate throughout. The visual elements are great, every shot wonderfully framed and well composed. The score also underpins the movie well, as it is particularly memorable for an Independent feature.

Robot and Frank is a film that was sadly overlooked upon release, but demands a far larger audience than it has been privy too. Walking that fine line between charming, emotional and comedic, with non ever compromising the other, this is a wonderful achievement in independent filmmaking, by a stellar director, and a fantastic writer.

 

Final Rating – 4.6

 

Joshua Moulinie

 

 

Hell And Back (2015), a Review

Hell and Back

Director(s) – Tom Gianas, Ross Shuman

Writer(s) – Tom Gianas, Hugh Sterbakov, Zeb Wells

Starring  – Nick Swardson, Mila Kunis, T.J Miller

 

After spending several minutes wondering through the vast labyrinth library of Netflix, unsure as to what to watch, I settled on this mostly unknown straight-to-video-on-demand claymation comedy. What I got was a sadly inconsistent experience, that begins as a hilarious comedy, before it becomes sadly clear that this is a one-trick pony, and that trick is referencing sex and genitals incessantly, which quickly sucks all the balls.

At a rundown pier carnival, idealistic promoter Remy (Nick Swardson) is desperate to bring in business. He is friends with the overweight and odd carnival repairman Augie (T.J. Miller) and the insolent assistant manager Curt Myers (Rob Riggle). After Curt discovers that the bank has foreclosed the carnival, a frustrated Remy heads down to the boat of a fortune-teller named Madame Zonar (Kerri Kenney-Silver), who is in possession of a crying Devil book. When a blood oath is broken between the two, involving a mint, they find themselves all sucked into hell. Down there, they meet a hoard of colourful characters, including Satan (Bob Odenkirk), a beautiful half-demon named Deem (Kulis), and the Greek legend Orpheus (Danny McBride).

The script actually begins extremely well, and the first few sexual related puns and putdowns are sincerely hilarious. I have never been too far above crude humour, and must admit that often it works for me. Problem is, I prefer a balance in my scripts between intelligence and crudeness, often deployed in great shows such as The Simpsons and South Park, whereas here all we get is the crudeness, sadly without the intelligence. Like watching a one-legged man try to run a triathlon, it begins in a very amusing way, before quickly becoming somewhat sad and pathetic.

The biggest issue is that, like Family Guy, some of the jokes in here are very good, but this is often a singular magical fish swimming in a school of shit. One particular favourite of mine was the running joke that focused on those small annoyances in life. Like when the lost souls are forced to wait in line to reach a dual Pizza Hut/Tacco Bell, only to be told they only have Taccos, and no Pizza. The Demon then encourages the man to ask for another Pizza, to which he replies ‘I think I know where this is going’. He’s then persuaded to do so anyway, before being told they don’t have that flavour pizza.

The idea that hell consists of deliberately annoying customer service reps is a stroke of genius, frankly, as I can think of few things more genuinely horrifying. This joke works, big time, and is a fantastic running gag. In fact, most the smaller running gags work well, including the one where a character tells the Fortune Teller some absolutely insane story, to which she replies ‘That is not the first time I have been told that by a man’. It’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it is bloody funny.

Unfortunately, as previously alluded to, the writing is inconsistent, and quickly you realise that dick, fanny and sex jokes are basically all they have. This gets very tiresome, very fast. Though there is a good running gag about tree rape that’s a clear nod to Evil Dead. I love Evil Dead, so that was always going to work for me.

The performances are decent, considering the material, and everybody’s voice matches the part, while never being particularly stellar. In fact, it’s the clear use of black voices to represent the hell demons that was the most interesting. On one hand, it really works, because they all sound pretty funny. On the other hand, it’s worrying that this could be interpreted as racist. I mean, it probably isn’t, but it’s not a stretch for somebody to claim it is. That’s problematic within itself.

Visually speaking, the film is absolutely magnificent. Looking somewhat like Crooked Rot, the David Firth claymation piece, with more than a bit of A Nightmare Before Christmas for good measure, it’s seeped in a macabre beauty and is genuinely something to behold. In fact, the visuals may well be the film’s premier strength.

Hell And Back is far from a terrible movie, and in many places is actually extremely funny. Unfortunately, the dick jokes eventually run dryer than a prostitute in the desert, and the film goes from tenderly massaging our testicles to dry-fucking us in the anus, because it never knows when to quit. Still, some moments of brilliance and some wonderful visuals make it more than worth a viewing.

Final Rating – 3.5

Joshua Mouline