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James Toback's slightly suspect documentary-cum-extended interview-cum-psychotherapy session with disgraced boxing legend Mike Tyson is, for all of its flaws, a fairly compelling piece of work. Pontificating breathlessly, sometimes with more than one voice and often with the image subject to split-screen duplication, marginalisation, stretching and so on and so forth, Mike Tyson tells us about his upbringing, his teenage years as a hoodlum, his extraordinary rise to boxing - and then general - acclaim and celebrity, and his bleak, black fall from grace. Tyson talks like he used to fight - that is, once he gets in there, he's relentless (fond of chewing an ear whether within or without the ring, you might say...). It's not that his monologue is especially aggressive, just... exhausting. And occasionally, if the narrative demands it, gruelling. Punctuating these lengthy exchanges are archive materials depicting some of those legendary fights, some skirmishes at press conferences, and various television interviews. There are also various home movie interludes which may appear fairly routine (Tyson has dinner, for example), but which serve to further humanise this nigh-on mythological figure. When it comes to matters of women, of sex, or of that infamous rape conviction, though, Tyson is a hideous, obnoxious, chauvinistic boor, and no amount of tender aw shucks home footage will do anything to counter that. Certain of his statements on the case itself are beneath contempt, and the perpetual self-aggrandising when it comes to his bedroom prowess and general mastery over women becomes very tiresome very quickly. Ultimately, though, it appears as a further facet of the same complex which sent him first to the gangs, then to the boxing ring - the need to reassert his manliness (a particularly Neanderthal conception of manliness though it may be) at every opportunity. In Tyson's world, every advance is a threat, every embrace just as likely to be an attack. That's all understandable - if not necessarily justifiable. What is somewhat more difficult to fathom is why Torback seems content to let Tyson run with such hateful threads without challenging him - that is not to say he need butt in and call the man a goon, for who amongst us would blame him for remaining sheepish? Rather, there are many ways the film could have confirmed its opposition to this element of Tyson's character, and of those many ways, painting him as some kind of ocean-wandering sage or philosopher falls fairly far short of the most appropriate. That said, it is an arresting piece of work, and anyone at all interested in the man either as individual or as icon would do well to give it a look.
The story is this - some time ago a man well on his way to obliteration was smoking 100 cigarettes a day (a 30-odd year habit), was besieged by incredible headaches and chest-pains as a result, and was altogether fairly sure that his brain was set for exploding back his eyes sometime in the not too distant future. One day, for whatever reason, the man realised how incredibly, unutterably easy it would be to stop smoking and be done with all of these torments. So he did. Next thing anyone knows, Allen Carr, for it is he, is organising clinics up and down the country to help other smokers kick the habit - although, rightly, he won't call it that - and charging a fair old sum for the privilege. But it seems to work. Everyone: your uncle, this woman from work, Anthony Hopkins and David Frost - who could stare down Nixon but God forbid he should ever have glanced askew at a Benson and Hedges - are being weaned, or better yet yanked, off the fags on account of this man Allen Carr and these clinics. Or books. Or DVD's. Or audio programs. Like Paul McKenna, Carr insists that if his course doesn't help you quit, it's because you're scared to listen to him. Listen to him, and he'll fix you. It's that easy, and sure enough this "easiness" is the primary selling point, it's what's propelled his books to the top of countless bestseller charts year after year, and, ultimately, it's what ensured he died in comfort (environmental if not physical: Carr sadly died of lung cancer not so long ago, but only after enjoying an age of smoke-free, healthy, wealthy living). As a writer, Carr is compelling. He's no-nonsense, and if he repeats himself quite a bit - the old "smoking is like banging your head off a wall all day so as to feel better when you momentarily stop" chestnut is wheeled out a good half-dozen times - it's perhaps because, as he says, smokers, indeed addicts of any sort, are not altogether given to listening. That said, what Carr does not peddle are scare stories, "idiot!!!" hollers, promises of wealth, or anything else. What he tells you is, simply, you're killing yourself to keep returning to a state where you would be anyway, if the addiction to nicotine were removed. That's it. Yet it's very very convincing, and although I'm too chicken to go totally cold turkey - I have a patch on, which Carr advises against, and with convincing cause - I've been quit for a week or thereabouts and Carr's book has proven a vital aid in that time. I don't know if it's the miracle cure he claims. It's a bit like when Derren Brown announces he's gonna stick you to the sofa. If you deliberately look the other way to spite him, well, you won't be stuck. But if you're looking the right way, and if you're open to what Carr's throwing at you, it might just do the trick. And really, what the hell have you to lose?
Much-loved by horror audiences of a certain age and with a certain predilection for kitsch, Creepshow has been jealousy guarded (check out the savage reaction to the recent, more or less unconnected Creepshow 3 to gauge just HOW jealously) by genre fans pretty much since its 1982 release. A collaboration between Stephen King and George A Romero (and one which proved a damn sight more fruitful than that which resulted in the latter's botched Dark Half adaptation a decade later) designed to pay homage to the famously grisly EC comics of their youth, Creepshow is a thoroughly charming, endearing and enduring piece of work well-served by the Region 2 double-disc special edition available for less than a tenner on Amazon and various other outlets right now. An anthology film of the sort Amicus made their own throughout the 1970s, Creepshow offers five tales, each written by King, harking back to the kinds of grisly, blackly comic morality stories one would have found between the covers of Tales from the Crypt back in the day. A cuckolded husband (played by Leslie Neilson in - relatively - straight mode) is tormented by the zombified corpses of his wife and her lover, both of whom he killed during a particularly nasty trip to the beach; a curmudgeonly old racist who is terrified of bugs ends up hosting a belly- (and head, and limb, and room) full of cockroaches; a bumpkin (played by King himself) turns into some manner of plant following the arrival of a bizarre extraterrestrial rock; and so on. The last-named tale is actually my favourite, even if it is the one most routinely savaged by critics. Advised by Romero to play it like a Tex Avery cartoon, King gives a demented, proto-Jim Carrey turn wholly in keeping with the meticulously designed, gorgeously-lit comic-book world crafted around him. Indeed, Romero's film is one of a select few pictures - the others including Ang Lee's magisterial, and absurdly underrated, Hulk, and Takashi Miike's delirious Ichi The Killer - which can be said to truly channel the spirit of the comic book as an art-form. Shots are framed with hand-drawn borders, speed lines and wavering, neon-lit manifestations of fear hover wild and free about characters, animated sequences are matched (seamlessly) to live-action... The 2-disc DVD is curiously lacking in any input from King, but this is made up for by the inclusion of an excellent 90-minute documentary, in which all of the other principles (Romero, Tom Savini, certain members of the stellar cast - Ed Harris, for example) reminisce and elaborate upon the minutiae of the production, devoting plenty of time to each individual instalment. The deleted scenes and outtakes are fun also, if hardly revelatory, and the Romero/Savini commentary is a joy. Attempting then to evoke a bygone age of American popular horror, Creepshow now serves also as a wholly heartwarming evocation of another - the DIY, hands-on, cheap and cheerful get-togethers of the early 1980s, where films were made by geeks totally independent - until the point of completion - of the Hollywood system, where big names (King was a huge draw, Romero had attained considerable clout as a noted, much-admired and commercially successful genre filmmaker) could work together because they both shared a passion for a particular tenet of the genre, not because they figured it'd make a mint for all involved, and where it was, first and foremost, about having fun. That is to say, there's an earthiness, a sense of camaraderie evident in Creepshow, one which flickers only occasionally in contemporary mainstream horror - this was, after all, a #1 box office smash. It may be a case of nostalgia colouring the reality of the thing, but I'm still gonna go ahead and name Creepshow as one of the finest genre pictures of the 1980s. I can't say for sure how it'll play to anyone coming to it fresh, who hasn't seen it a million times before on crummy, battered VHS tapes rented from the man on the bread-van who happened to have a few horror and action pictures for hire stashed away behind the liquorice, but what I can say is that, unlike many pictures adored in childhood and now considered sore embarrassments, it hasn't dimmed for me one bit. It's as good as it always was, as the man says.
A low-key entry in the ordeal-horror cycle, Zev Berman's Borderland is a witty, accusatory piece of work detailing the terrors endured by three young American lads on a gap-year trek across the border into Mexico. Blatantly riffing on the war on terror, complete with allusions to Nick Berg, John Walker Lindh, Abu Ghraib and so on and so forth, Berman's film, like many of its ilk, is concerned first and foremost with punishment - principal amongst which being the punishment of its protagonists for the crimes of the country they represent. Frequently, parallels are drawn between these Americans and those others out there in the world, parading about Baghdad, for example, far from the watch of "parents or teachers or less enlightened peers." The crimes of these fools, it is suggested, are nothing compared to those others, and reprisal can only ever be a wrong-turn away. Here, it arrives in the form of an army of pagan gangsters who have infiltrated every level of authority in the border town where events unfold. One of the young leads is kidnapped by members of such shortly after arrival, hauled off to a remote location then to await execution whilst the others are each in turn tormented, harassed, attacked and, in one case, murdered. Like Eli Roth's Hostel, Borderland owes as much to film noir as to the conventions of contemporary American horror cinema. Most obviously, it evokes of occasion the ominous, foreboding atmosphere of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, but the general miasmic funk of any number of lost-at-the-mercy-of-state-corruption-and-criminal-brutality pictures is manifest throughout. Part of the hit-and-miss Frightfest series, Borderland deserves a far wider audience than it has thus far received. Given the mammoth campaigns enjoyed by humourless, witless, similarly-themed drek like Turistas (Paradise Lost) or the execrable Roland Joffe affront Captivity, it's a damn shame that genuinely insightful, sharp, impassioned films like this are shunted to the direct-to-DVD netherworld - a borderland every bit as dangerous and unmappable as the one wandered by the doomed protagonists herein.
The worst thing one can say about the weakest David Fincher film is that it's "a touch underwhelming given it's a Fincher." The Game, by most standards, is a cracking thriller - just a touch underwhelming given it's a Fincher. Panic Room has an astonishing first hour and a disappointing and over-long third act - on the whole, though, great stuff, just a touch underwhelming given it's a Fincher. (I'm not counting Alien 3 here since no-one was expecting anything from Fincher at that stage - from the franchise maybe, but no-one was debating on the Ain't It Cools or where have you about what twists and turns the bloke who did Vogue by Madonna might throw at us next) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on a charming F. Scott Fitzgerald short (and I mean short) story about a man who is born an old fella and over time grows young, is nowhere near as disappointing as those pictures were - pictures which were only disappointing given the director. That is to say, it's not disappointing at all. If it falls a touch short of Seven or Fight Club or Zodiac, well - that's Seven and Fight Club and Zodiac we're talking about! What DOESN'T fall short of them? So hush and sod off to those cries of "sentimentality!" (God almighty! Sentimentality!!!! What next???), "Forrest Gump 2!", "over-long mawkish bilge" or whatever - Benjamin Button is an utterly bewitching piece of work. It's nuanced, it's characters are intriguing, fascinating and often very funny (I got struck by lightening seven times...)it's got a gorgeous near-Jeunet aesthetic going on at times, and for a film so "sentimental" and "mawkish", by GOD it's got the fierce morbid mind on it. This is about death - death of individuals, death of communities, of ideals, of states (geographical and mental) -about America, or a particular idea of America. There's a reason why this story unfolds in New Orleans, and why Katrina hangs over proceedings as a mist. This is about myth and history and the manner by which one bleeds into the other. It's about handed-down tales and the truths those tales force us to confront. The performances are uniformly excellent - although most of Brad Pitt's work as the titular wanderer is, perhaps inevitably, upstaged by the colossal digital imaging feat which renders him simultaneously old and young - it's a staggering achievement. And yes, there are similarities to Forrest Gump - the films share a screenwriter - but those similarities are superficial, and it says a lot about our perception of the mentally disabled that we might equate Forrest Gump with the kind of mythical, near-supernatural character presented herein. Forrest Gump was reactionary and right-wing (or maybe not if some critics, Mark Kermode for instance, are to be heeded) whilst The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is beguiling and enchanting and provocative and I can't sing its praises loud enough. * *That said, there are certain matters regarding race - New Orleans embodied as a rich white woman? - which prove a touch hard to stomach.
Conjurer of some of the most bewitching, haunting, not to say disturbing images in post-war French cinema, Georges Franju tasked himself with a systematic renovation of the national - indeed international - subconscious, rummaging around in the furthest corners, scaring the ghosts out from therein - Guilt! Culpability! - and planting a host of new ones in their stead. The towering achievements regarding both this particular project and, arguably, his cinematic work in general are represented by Blood of the Beasts - his notorious 1949 documentary short detailing the grisly goings on in Parisian slaughter-houses - and Eyes Without A Face, his 1960 horror/thriller/psychodrama. Known to certain U.S audiences in its dubbed formation, re-titled The Horror Chamber of Dr Faustus, Eyes Without A Face tells of a surgeon attempting to "reconstruct" the face of his daughter - herself horrifically disfigured in an automobile accident - by transplanting onto her skull the flesh of young girls kidnapped in and around Paris. Oscillating between a detached, clinical "realism" and an ethereal, gothic fairy-tale aesthetic to hypnotic effect (the bridge between the two perhaps provided by the then-controversial surgery sequence), Franju's film is at once reflection and warning. Past horror will not be easily veiled. Cosmetic cover-ups are only that. The Region 2 DVD, whilst boasting a fine transfer and an interesting segment of archive footage in which Franju discusses two particular shots in the film, is disappointing when compared with the excellent Region 1 Criterion edition, which featured, amongst other marvels, the abovementioned Blood of the Beasts. That said, it's available from most stockists for around a fiver.
In what is apparently to be his last film as actor, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino confirms that, as writer/director, he still has everything it takes to craft compelling, engaging, thought-provoking cinema. A sort-of companion piece to his masterpiece, Unforgiven, Gran Torino is to the Dirty Harry crime thrillers Eastwood starred in throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s what the earlier picture was to his spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, and to the hard boiled horse operas in which he directed himself. A reinvention that is at the same time an obliteration. A culmination and a wiping-clean. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a curmudgeonly, racist, mumbling Korean war veteran who, following the death of his wife, develops an unlikely friendship with Thao (Bee Vang), a Hmong teenager living next door. Having been bullied by a local gang into the attempted theft of Kowalski's beloved Gran Torino, and having been subjected to a series of humiliations and beatings, the youngster is taken under Kowalski's tutelage, the latter eventually deciding to take revenge for an attack on Thao and his sister. The film flows with a gentle pace throughout, taking its time to establish Kowalski as a man tormented by demons - not the least of which being the memories of crimes committed in the war - and besieged by an increasingly-disturbing, and likely fatal, illness. Indeed, he shares much with John Creasy, the embattled hero of Tony Scott's revenge picture Man on Fire. Unlike Scott, however, Eastwood is out to make amends, not to seek justification. His film tells of sacrifice and of dues repaid, not of vindication. This is not to suggest that Gran Torino is by any means a morose, morbid or - God forbid - preachy affair by any stretch. Indeed, it is shot through with a distrust of preachers of any stripe, and a sense that, if man, or nation, or both, have sinned, it's up to them to recognise themselves as sinners, and to make their own salvation. It is a sad, yet incredibly funny picture (at times, Eastwood appears to be conjuring both Larry David and Walter Matthau) which bids farewell not only to a particular character-type, or to a particular strand of American action cinema, but to a particular conception of America as inherently right, just, welcoming, and beyond reproach. Lofty concerns communicated with a complete lack of pretension or artifice. There is nothing show-offy about Eastwood's film, which, lost in the wake of his highly-acclaimed (and only slightly overrated) The Changeling, will, I feel fairly confident in announcing, slowly emerge as by-far the more profound, significant and important of the two.
Last House on the Left, Wes Craven's 1972 exploitation classic, represents one of those rare occasions when inexperience, fearlessness, anger and despair conspire to produce something which strikes the viewer as truly unique and important even as it obliterates all acknowledged indicators of "worth" within moments of its opening credits. It is a film which is, by any standards, shockingly lo-fi, grotty and chaotic. Yet it stands, alongside Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Craven's own The Hills Have Eyes, as one of the most astonishing, most intelligent and most damning American films of the decade. Dennis Iliadis' 2009 remake is an infinitely slicker, much more conventionally "artful" affair which, like Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes, shirks none when it comes to the harrowing, graphic depiction of rape, mutilation and murder. Unlike Aja's film, however, it robs the source material of much of its political punch, and what it retains it reconfigures, turning a pitch-black, bleak condemnation of violence into a gung-ho, punch-the-air revenge fantasy. Arriving with her mother and father at the family's vacation home, the young Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) heads off, alongside best friend Paige (Martha MacIssac), to score some dope from a local teenaged dealer, the quiet, shy Justin (Spencer Treat Clark). Justin invites them back to his motel apartment, where the three are soon joined by his father, the psychotic, escaped-convict Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his two sadistic accomplices. From here, the film spirals into a truly punishing, brutal play of violence, violation, and vengeance. The two girls are raped and, it is assumed, murdered. Their car playing up, the villains call at a nearby house for assistance - a house coincidentally occupied by Emma and John Collingwood. Soon, the events of the day are brought to light, and the parents embark upon a series of devastating retaliatory murders. Iliadis' film is absolutely one of the most powerful American horror films of the past decade. Every blow, be it the dull thud of a head off a bathroom wash-hand-basin or the crunch of finger-bones thrust into the blades of a garbage-disposal unit, registers with a sickening, disorientating wallop. The rape scene is almost unbearably protracted and the whole thing is suffused with an air of utmost despair - at least until the final half-hour, when certain derivations from the source come into play, and the dubious politics of the enterprise are made apparent. Hitherto this shift, the heart of the film, perhaps surprisingly, has lain with Treat Clark's Justin. Utterly appalled at what is happening, he nonetheless exudes an air of utter resignation. What can he do? What can anyone do? Nothing. Sit by the tree and wait for it to end, knowing he'll most likely suffer a similar fate before long. The cinematography is absolutely stunning throughout, shots framed at curious angles, events playing out with an almost slow-motion, languid air wholly at odds (but somehow fittingly so) with the terrors on display. Characters are positioned in stark relief to an unfocused, hazy world of ghosts and half-glimpsed demons. The environment has an ambiguity which is not mirrored in the narrative itself. There is much to say about Last House that cannot be said here for the simple reason that to do so would be to spoil many of its surprises. Suffice it to note that it is a deeply uncomfortable experience for reasons both intentional and otherwise, yet for all that it is problematic, it is at least compelled to present rape as the unutterably evil act that it is, something which we would hope we're all aware of by now, and yet, in the wake of, for example, Zack Snyder's repulsive, imbecilic Watchmen, one can't help but wonder...
Whatever one may have reason to doubt by the close of John Patrick Stanley's cinematic adaptation of his own (highly-regarded) stage play, what remains utterly beyond question is the following: rarely can an author or dramatist be trusted with the task of translating his or her own material to the screen. Folks tend to get anxious, over-protective. Oh but that line means a lot to me, oh but the essence of the whole THING is there, in that, in those half-dozen lines of superfluous repetitive blather you're asking me to prune, or to excise or, dear God, to rewrite. The fact is, adaptation is a complex procedure. Pointing a camera at a play does not necessarily make for anything remotely resembling worthwhile cinema. Rather, what tends to occur is that the things that made the original so striking in its natural environment fall by the wayside, whilst all of the flaws hitherto hidden just below the surface are brought squealing into the light. So it is with Doubt. In the early 1960s, a principle at a New York Catholic school (Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius Beauvier) comes to suspect that a priest (Fr. Brendan Flynn, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) might be forging an "inappropriate relationship" with a young black student. Following a report from a young teacher (Sister James, played by Amy Adams) that, indeed, the youngster has been acting very strangely of late and Fr. Flynn has been giving him an awful lot of special attention (and possibly alcohol), the matter is debated and dissected throughout a series of extended dialogue-exchanges. The performances from all involved are absolutely beyond reproach, and when it comes to life, Stanley's dialogue is electric. For too much of its running time, however, Doubt is a pretentious, lazy undertaking far-too-assured of its own importance. Much has been written about the stage-play's engagement with the ins and outs of the post-9/11 War on Terror, particularly the invasion of Iraq. The spectres of those ever-elusive WMD's hang heavy over proceedings - we're never sure whether Fr. Flynn has done anything wrong, only that he has done SOMETHING, and that Sister Beauvier is thoroughly convinced of his deviancy. Is that enough to justify his expulsion from the school? Is that expulsion likely only to make matters worse even if he DID indeed take advantage of the child? Doubt asks us to take hold of the evidence presented and to draw our own conclusions. For this, it is commendable. Furthermore, the sequence in which Beauvier confronts the child's mother is a truly challenging, thought-provoking exchange. The boy is "different", the mother says. His father hates him for it. She just wants him to get an education and get the hell out of this rut. It's only for a few more months - if he and the priest are up to anything, well... he's "different." This scene, I dare say, fell like fire upon theatre audiences. Here, alas, the dialogue (clearly lifted directly from the play) feels over-written and the performances are over-mannered and distracting. There's nothing inherently wrong with unnatural performances, there's nothing inherently wrong with stagey-dialogue, but here, for whatever reason, it doesn't work, and the direction is far too pedestrian overall to do anything to alleviate the sense that, really, this is all just an advert for the play.
A grim account of one man's personal and professional failures, losses and regrets, The Wrestler marks the welcome return of two cinematic forces hitherto M.I.A for one reason or another: Mickey Rourke and Darren Aronofsky. For the former, it marks the (presumably) final movement in a prolonged comeback attempt drawn-out over the past half-decade - an opportunity to capitalise at last upon the gains made by a (justly) acclaimed performance in Rodriguez and Miller's Sin City. For the latter, it affords a belated return to the kind of critical acclaim that met his rightly-lauded debut, Pi, only to taper off in the wake of the shrill, faintly-ridiculous Requiem for a Dream and the commendable but flawed and nowhere-near-as-profound-as-it-thought-it-was The Fountain. One detects something of both players in the character of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, once a star of the professional wrestling circuit, now a destitute, bankrupt has-been scraping together a meagre living from local amateur matches and the occasional (poorly attended) meet-and-greet public appearance. Offered a lucrative rematch-deal which will see him face off against the similarly-positioned Ayatollah, Robinson looks set to make some sort of return, only for a series of long-brewing health issues to catch up with him, resulting in his forced retirement. From here, Robsinon attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter (played by a three-quarters good to one-quarter awful Evan Rachel Wood) and to woo Marisa Tomei's Cassidy, a stripper at a nearby club. On paper the kind of rise/fall/rise narrative beloved of the Academy voters, The Wrestler is much more of a kin with the canonical American independent films of the last three decades - particularly the 1970s - than, say, Stallone's similarly-themed Rocky Balboa, or even Scorsese's Raging Bull. It is a film about mood, about down-time, about anticipation-over-action. The wrestling sequences are brief and convincing, but it's the palpable sense of a life ebbing away one mutter at a time that sticks in the memory. In the best scene, Robinson sits in his trailer-home playing a vintage NES wrestling game with a young kid from the nearby houses, commandeering a crudely-animated version of himself whilst the youngster pontificates regarding the wonders of Counter Strike. The scene is funny, touching and incredibly sad whilst never once playing the big old Touching or Funny or Sad cards. There's no mournful music, nor EMOTING from Rourke. There is a stillness, a poignancy. This is a quiet film about a sadness so loud as to be near deafening. It's contemplative, graceful, low-key and defiantly ambiguous. It requires, and rewards, patience, and it's a world away from the hyperbolic bombast of Aronofsky's last two features. Welcome back, the man says.
Comparable in many respects to Pascal Laugier's truly astonishing Martyrs, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist is a film similarly concerned with the place of the female Victim Soul in so much contemporary cultural product, and with the medieval Catholic roots of those ideas. Unlike Martyrs, however, Antichrist is a film made by someone absolutely convinced of the legitimacy of those notions, and whose work, indeed, would be nothing without them. Their infant son having toppled to his death whilst they engaged in a spot of ridiculous, pretentious, slow-motion intercourse (complete with by-now obligatory hardcore-inserts), a husband and wife (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) head off to a woodland idyll - "Eden" - that he, a psychoanalyst, might help her, a woman working towards the completion of a doctoral thesis on - wait for it - gynocide, to overcome her grief. Once there, she begins to suspect that not only is she responsible for her child's death, but also, that these accounts she's been reading of old witch trials and what have you not perhaps have something of an element of truth about them. Maybe women ARE inherently evil? Soon enough she's masturbating her husband's mutilated penis till the blood spurts up about her shoulders and setting at her own genitals with a pair of scissors. "Chaos Reigns" a decomposing fox announces. Chaos it is from there on out. First things first - Von Trier is a despicable character all round. His films - Breaking The Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville amongst them - are hideous, moronic, misogynistic affronts, and Antichrist is no different. It delights in tormenting "The Woman" and leaves us in little doubt that she's right - women ARE evil. They may not be communing with Satan, but they're too self-obsessed to be trusted with anything like, let's say, shoeing a child's feet, too hung-up on sex and too easily distracted, in fact, to be trusted with anything of any consequence whatsoever. Gainsbourg's character is shrill, hysterical, violent and deranged. She is all that is dangerous in the world - all that the composed, rational "Man" must fight to restrain. That said, I'm reluctant to write Antichrist off entirely, for reasons of the following: it KNOWS it's disgusting, and delights in goading the viewer towards condemnation. "Come on, this is VILE, isn't it? I bet you're RIGHT miffed by now." Von Trier is well aware of how he is perceived, and Antichrist is concerned above all with feeding that fire. It's a wee bit pathetic, and in some ways it renders the film even MORE repulsive than the above-mentioned, which were at least honest. But what is undeniable is that Antichrist is charged with an absolutely gorgeous, otherworldly air, and is home to some of the most beautifully evocative, powerfully compelling sequences of any picture Von Trier - and a great many others - has ever put his name to. The cinematography (ridiculous prologue and epilogue sequences aside) is truly stunning, and the sense of all-encompassing despair saturating every composition has an unarguable power. The much-discussed violence is every bit as graphic and as repellent as you've heard, but the emotional violence of the first act, the depictions of Gainsbourg's grief, are just as punishing. Antichrist forces us to confront it and to debate it, even if that debate ends with Von Trier sticking his fingers in his ears and blowing raspberries till he falls unconscious at our feet. It is reminiscent of Evil Dead, Possessed, The Company of Wolves and certain other classics of the genre (or of any genre) and is, of occasion (albeit brief occasions) almost the equal of anything they had to offer. So, like Dancer in the Dark, there are things about it that are undeniably astonishing, and there are things about it that are putrid and childish and indefensible. It's worth seeing - if the idea of seriously daft porn-star inserts and really REALLY upsetting violent imagery doesn't put you off - just don't expect it to challenge any view you already held regarding the writer-director.
Anyone expecting the unbridled, unhinged ultraviolent delirium of Alexandre Aja's 2006 The Hills Have Eyes remake will be disappointed by this nuts-and-bolts sequel, directed by Martin Weisz and scripted by Wes Craven (the twisted wonder behind the original 1977 The Hills Have Eyes, alongside such genre-defining works as Last House On The Left, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream) and son, Jonathan Craven. Aping the original's sort-of-radical posturing with far less subversive results, Hills 2 follows a team of National Guard soldiers on a mission in Kandahar - revealled early on as a training exercise taking place in Yuma Flats, New Mexico, the site of all those nuclear tests in the fifties, and what's this we hear now about the families forced to flee their homes and the strange mutants living now in the mines and... You know where it's going. The problem is it goes there with all of the wit and verve of a hobbled donkey dragging itself across a semi-demolished car-park by the jawbone. It tries very very hard to match Aja for thrills, but comes nowhere close, ending up clumsy and laughable (and in one disgusting instance involving rape, truly repugnant in a way Aja never was), even if there are one or two moments of middling ickiness - a wallet lodged in a skull, a leg snapping, this sort of thing. The performances are all abysmal, the script absolutely diabolical. The film has nowhere near the smarts of its original (I'm not counting Craven's 1977 picture here, for Weisz film, despite the title and despite Craven's co-writing credit, has really got nothing to do with it), conforms far more readily to traditional character arcs and has much less time for anything approaching "commentary", despite the superficial War On Terror parallels. Perhaps worst of all, it's often shockingly dull. The final half-hour, which involves a lot of running around in the dark in a sub-Aliens (sub-Blade 2 even) kind of way, is nigh-on insufferable. And it's highly derivative - I know, it's a sequel to a remake, but it's also stolen all its best ideas from Predator and Southern Comfort. But there are one or three "Ewwww" or "Argh" moments, brief though they be, and for about forty minutes (although not necessarily forty consecutive minutes), it's watchable enough. Just very disappointing.
A little-known fact hitherto hidden away in the footnotes of high-school history textbooks has finally, via Valkyrie, the latest picture by Usual Suspects / X-Men / Superman Returns director Bryan Singer, been elevated to its rightful place at the forefront of the pan-global cultural consciousness: namely, the fact that Tom Cruise and Bill Nighy almost killed Hitler one time. How or why Tom Cruise and Bill Nighy ended up in Nazi-controlled Germany is of little importance. Suffice to say that it happened, and that it didn't end terribly well. Forgive me. Valkyrie is not about Tom Cruise trying to kill Hitler. It's about a attempted coup staged by certain Nazi military officials in the latter days of WW2 - an unsuccessful coup, it's hardly a spoiler to reveal. If it's approached as a Boy's Own Sunday Afternoon wartime thriller, Valkyrie works fine. Approached as most anything else - as a film by the director of The Usual Suspects, Public Access, X-Men or Superman Returns, for example - it's pretty disappointing. The fact that we know the coup was unsuccessful doesn't really threaten its chances as a thriller - the thrills, if there are any to be had, come from the tensions and the paranoia festering within the group itself - a group peopled by such heavyweights as Terence Stamp and Kenneth Brannagh, in addition to the abovementioned Nighy and Cruise (and Eddie Izzard). What does threaten its chances as a thriller are the interminably dull, cliché-riddled patches of exposition and the fact that none of the key "thrilling" moments are staged in any particularly thrilling way. It could be argued that a film about Nazi Germany shouldn't BE thrilling. Singer, however, is not aiming for solemn. Whilst there is a ponderous weight to certain sequences, particularly towards the end, for the most part, it is clear he is aiming for rip-roaring action thriller yarn, and it as such that Valyrie must be judged. So judged, it is revealed as "alright", albeit "alright" with several elements suggestive of near-wonder, suggestions which serve to accentuate how frustrating the project is as a whole. Amongst these near-wondrous elements - the performances, all of which are excellent; the combat sequence at the beginning wherein Cruise's character comes under attack (although it owes plenty to Saving Private Ryan, as does almost every combat sequence post-1998); the set-design (often this is a back-handed compliment, but here, the architecture is truly as much a character, and as sinister at that, as any of the Nazi officials); the cinematography. What those elements prove is that Bryan Singer has it in him to craft a truly spectacular wartime thriller. Valkyrie, alas, is not that film. But it IS, for at least two-thirds of its running time, entertaining. Given the pedigree, however, that's not really good enough.
A gruelling, hypnotic, uncompromising account of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes - or at least, of the chunk of such directly related to the death of republican prisoner Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) - Hunger, the debut feature by Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, is an absolutely flawless, peerless piece of work - the second best film of 2008, for my money (nestled between Wall-E and There Will Be Blood, as it happens - two films with which, surprisingly enough, it shares quite a bit in common, insofar as tone and form are concerned). Regardless of what one might feel about Sands as an individual, or, more importantly, as an Icon, McQueen's incredible, meditative study of his final days is almost impossibly wrenching - and horrifically beautiful. Divided fairly neatly into three distinct acts, Hunger runs something like this - A handful of prisoners and guards flitter about the Maze Prison during the dirty / no-wash protest that pre-empted the hunger strike. Bobby Sands has an 18 minute, static-camera, no-cuts debate with a priest (Liam Cunningham), in which he lays out the IRA's decision re: the hunger strike, outlines his motives and discusses the idea of, and the ethics of, political martyrdom, or suicide. Bobby Sands starves to death. Of these acts, the first and third are, for the most partly, largely dialogue free. We join characters mid-joke, we hear the odd mumble and response, we catch snippets of radio banter relating to the protest, but McQueen is much more interested in the saying than the said, in the eyes, in the tremble of a finger. It's slowly paced, but absolutely riveting, mostly on account of McQueen's exceptional eye for beauty amidst the rankest horror - the much-discussed circles of shit on the prison walls, the streams of piss trickling along the corridors - all captured in long, patient takes as weighty as any of the issues under discussion. Beautiful, yes - but brutal. Seriously, harrowingly brutal. There are sequences in this film that play in the dark back the eyes here still, shot for shot, pan for pan. The "haircut" - it was a third viewing before I realised that the recipient of such was Bobby Sands, so pummelling was the experience - the riot officer crying as his peers set upon the prisoners, the nursing home... And those final twenty, twenty-five minutes, when the film swoops into Sands' body, dragging our own bodies with it... Each time I've seen it, my reaction has been different. Once, the lights came up and my first reaction was nervous laughter. Another time, I sat silent for fifteen minutes, a cigarette long-burned-out and clutched still in my hand. Always, it's been shock and awe. Hunger... The best British film of the decade. There you go.
Who watches the Watchmen? Nobody anywhere near the township of "Enough", it turns out, if a grovelling Please Go See This Again letter written last week by screenwriter David Hayter is any indication. Hayter's letter, posted on various fan sites and blogs, implores fans - and detractors, even - to see the film again during its second weekend, that the suits might see that these things - these sorts of "intelligent", "challenging", "ballsy", dark" comic book adaptations - ARE worth investing in, ARE worth championing and ARE likely to make all the money in the world for all involved. The fear is that it was the comic geek fraternity alone which sent the film to the top of the charts opening weekend, but that the love-to-hate nature of that same fraternity, coupled with increasingly hostile or, worse, indifferent word of mouth, will result in a serious dip once the fanboys and fangirls have had their fix. Well, he was right enough there. The U.S attendance figures for Watchmen's second weekend show a fairly stark 60+ % drop. This, if Hayer's prediction is accurate, will "prove" to the studios that no-one wants to watch a "dark", "ballsy", "intelligent", "challenging" R-Rated comic book adaptation, and so any and all attempts to produce such -on such a large scale - will, from here on out, be doomed. The problem is, the "suits" already know that people WILL go see a "dark", "ballsy", "intelligent", "challenging" comic book picture. A little film you may have heard of by the name of The Dark Knight went ahead and proved that point fairly conclusively less than a year ago. The question is not Will They Go See Such A Thing - the REAL question is - Is Watchmen From The Visionary Director Of 300 Such A Thing To Begin With? Watchmen, the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is an incredible piece of work. Ostensibly the tale of a bunch of ex "Masked adventurers" being set upon, one-by-one, by an mysterious assassin in an alternative 1985 where Nixon is in the White House and the world is but five minutes from nuclear holocaust, it is a sprawling, multi-layered work concerned with the inherently fascist nature of the comic book hero, with time, with relativity, with what it means to be "good", at all?, and if that's even possible, with global politics, and with any amount of similarly Grand Themes. It is regularly cited as one of the finest novels - graphic or otherwise - of the last half-decade. Zack Snyder, quite clearly, agrees. Large stretches of the film are virtually panel-for-panel, line-for-line lifts from Moore (who is un-credited, owing to his much publicised loathing of film adaptations of his work) and Gibbons. In terms of visuals, of dialogue, the thing is doggedly faithful. The problem is, "doggedly faithful" is not enough. Pointing a camera at some folks giving seriously under-rehearsed-feeling deliveries of comic-book banter does not make for an especially compelling watch, and Snyder appears to have understood not one iota of his beloved source material beyond the superficialities of The Look. There is nothing here that feels anyway ominous or portentous or insightful - the ominous, portentous and insightful dialogue and images are mostly all in attendance, but weightless, drifting by in a colourless, textureless mist, the sound of boxes being ticked the most compelling sound of all. Did we get that line? Did we match that panel? Did we remember that scene? Fair enough, move on. For large chunks of its two-and-three-quarter-hour running time, it feels hollow, soulless, coming to life only sporadically, mostly in those brief moments of hardcore 18-certificate violence - for if he understands nothing else, Snyder at least knows how to make someone wince. He knows how to break an arm or a leg, he knows how to sink a meat cleaver in a skull, he knows how to smash a head through a toilet bowl. It is one moment of such violence, however, a disgusting, vile, sexualised near-rape, and the almost unfathomable decisions made by all involved (INCLUDING Moore) with regards how best to resolve the issue, that tips it, for me, from Commendable, If Flawed, Endeavour to nigh-on abhorrent. It also highlights another problem (the biggest, as it happens) with Snyder's approach. The problems with the comic - namely its occasionally extremely juvenile - and borderline misogynist - approach to sexual politics, its thick streak of embarrassing adolescent angst, the air of self-importance hanging over every other panel - are much more ambiguous or, at least, much easier to overlook than they are on screen, particularly when they appear on said screen by way of the Visionary Director Of 300. The attempted rape was never going to be anywhere near subtle. That we are supposed to be alternately titillated and amused by the sequence is... well. It's a bit of a shame. In general, these issues are all A Bit Of A Shame, for there are times when Watchmen approaches something not all that far removed from Brilliant. The sequences involving Dr Manhattan - the great blue atomic superhero - on Mars - by far my favourite moments in the comic - are sublime. These sequences, as shallow perhaps as all else, are at least infused with a truly unique, otherworldly (fittingly enough) quality at odds with the more confused and confusing moments round about. It is a strange film, is what it is, perhaps the strangest mainstream picture I've seen in the last five years. There is an uncanny eeriness to it, a sense of something not being quite right - not always in a negative sense - and when it comes alive, it REALLY comes alive. But as often as it's brilliant, it's rancid, misogynist trash, which makes it nigh-on impossible to champion. Which is, yes, A Bit Of A Pity. Sorry Mr Hayter.