War on Everyone (2016)

2017 #52
John Michael McDonagh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

War on Everyone

The third feature from John Michael “older brother of the guy who made In Bruges” McDonagh, War on Everyone is a comedy crime thriller about two dodgy New Mexico cops (Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård) who are tricked while trying to prevent a heist and so set about tracking down the stolen money — to pocket for themselves.

I’ve read that War on Everyone is massively offensive. Well, I mean, if you want to be precious about it, I guess some of it is. Maybe reading that left me expecting something incredibly outrageous, but sadly the film doesn’t hit those highs. I say “highs” — offensiveness for the sake of it is pointless, but some of the best material in the previous movies of the McDonagh brothers has come from a willingness to say and do un-PC things. War on Everyone doesn’t feel neutered in that regard, but nor is anything it does so striking.

Worse, it has a rambling narrative, wandering pace, and inconsistent tone. It’s not funny enough, frankly, but nor is the crime plot interesting enough to sustain the humour drought. Peña’s comedic gifts carry some of the flat material, though barely, while Skarsgård seems a little lost in an underwritten role. He and Tessa Thompson attempt to salvage something from a romantic subplot that springs from almost nowhere and then occupies a bunch of screen time to no one’s benefit. Caleb Landry Jones fares best as a foppish strip club owner, one of the henchman to Theo James’ big bad, whose entire character is basically, “he’s English — they make good villains, right?”

Not-so-nice guys

There are broad similarities to another irreverent comedy thriller from 2006 about a pair of not-so-nice fellas investigating a somewhat-complicated crime plot, but War on Everyone just serves to demonstrate how hard it is to do what Shane Black makes look effortless in The Nice Guys. I thought War on Everyone trailed well and looked like it would hit that same level, or at least something close to it, but sadly the final result feels fumbled.

2 out of 5

John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature, The Guard, is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:05am. I’ve got the Blu-ray knocking around somewhere; really ought to get round to watching it…

Don’t Breathe (2016)

2017 #21
Fede Alvarez | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Don't Breathe

One of the most talked-about thriller-cum-horror movies of last year, Don’t Breathe (which is available on Sky Cinema as of last Friday) concerns a gang of young house burglars — Rocky (Jane Levy), who’s doing it to help get her little sister away from their good-for-nothing parents; her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), who’s a bit of a dick; and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who’s secretly in love with Rocky, and whose dad runs a security company from which they ‘borrow’ the necessary information to access homes without setting off the alarms. After a big final score, they set their sights on the remote home of a chap (Stephen Lang) whose daughter was killed in a car accident, from which he netted a hefty settlement. Plus he’s blind, so it’ll be easy money. Right? As is no doubt obvious, the blind bloke turns out to have a few secrets up his sleeve… and down his basement…

Despite how it was advertised (doesn’t that poster scream “horror movie”?), really speaking Don’t Breathe is a thriller — it’s about a trio of crooks trying to rob a home and its owner fighting back. Though I suppose it depends what you use to define “a horror movie”, really. I tend to think of them as featuring an enemy who is either supernatural or possibly supernatural, but I suppose the only real prerequisite is that they be scary. Don’t Breathe doesn’t have a supernatural villain (though the blind man’s abilities do stretch credibility), but it’s so gosh-darn suspenseful that the viewing experience is similarly tense to a horror movie, even if outright scares are few. And one memorable scene in particular is certainly classifiable as horrific, most especially for female viewers. So, as a sub-90-minute exercise in mood and thrills it’s a very effective viewing experience; but it’s best not to stop to think about the practicalities if it were real because a lot of the film doesn’t withstand scrutiny. I won’t rehash all of the plot’s logic gaps (there are plenty of articles online that already do that, if you’re interested), but I think it’s best enjoyed as a go-along-with-it experience.

Bad guys gone good?

One point of contention for many seems to be the likeability or otherwise of the characters. The ostensible heroes are a gang of crooks who we first meet robbing the home of an undeserving victim, and being needlessly destructive about it too. You might think this sets the blind man up as some kind of avenging hero, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that he’s an even bigger bad guy… so are we meant to side with the crooks after all? For me, this raises a question I’ve come up against before: does a movie actually need to have any likeable characters? Some people need that, for sure, but I don’t think a film does per se. I’m not sure Don’t Breathe has really thought through its position on this issue, which makes reading online commentary about this point a funny thing. For instance, I saw someone argue that the writers make no effort to make us like the burglars — so, what’s the whole thing with Rocky trying to get her sister out of their shitty life for, then? And then another person stated that they actually found themselves liking two of the “bad guys” — so, if the burglars are the bad guys that makes the blind guy the hero? I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know why holding that opinion is either, a) ridiculous, or b) deeply troubling…

As I said, it’s best not to think about it too much. I think Don’t Breathe is perhaps the movie equivalent of a theme park attraction: designed to thrill you and scare you during its brief duration, not withstand plot and character scrutiny when dissected afterwards. That’s why my rating errs on the lower side, though if you want nothing more than a gripping hour-and-a-half it maybe merits another star.

3 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe (2014)

2016 #149
Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

Tokyo Tribe

Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

4 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Cold in July (2014)

2016 #118
Jim Mickle | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Cold in July

After a family man (Michael C. Hall) shoots dead an intruder in his home, the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) threatens his family.

People often call for more originality in their stories, then criticise a film like this for jumping around in genre and tone. Personally, I didn’t think it changed much in either. The plot is far from straightforward — twists take the story in unexpected directions with each act (if not even more often) — but as a whole it remains a neo-noir crime thriller.

Filling out the film beyond its story, there are some great performances — Shepard, in particular, says very little but conveys his whole character and attitude. It’s very nicely shot by Ryan Samul, and there’s an amazing score by Jeff Grace.

At first blush Cold in July may look like just another crime thriller, but, with an unguessable narrative supported by strong filmmaking, it stands out from the crowd.

5 out of 5

Cold in July placed 9th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Nice Guys (2016)

2016 #156
Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Nice Guys

I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

It placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

iBoy (2017)

2017 #11
Adam Randall | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

iBoy

When it comes to TV, Netflix are dominating the cultural landscape with much-discussed original series like Stranger Things, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black, the Gilmore Girls revival, their cadre of Marvel shows… I could go on. But when it comes to their original movies — the eponymous “flix” — well, it’s a bit different. Their Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel went down like a lead balloon; Beasts of No Nation was well reviewed but couldn’t translate that into the awards buzz that was clearly hoped for; and their Adam Sandler movies… well, those are apparently very popular with viewers, at least.

Their latest effort, iBoy, is based on a young adult novel about a teenager who fights against bad people — so that’s pretty zeitgeisty at least. It’s not set in a dystopian future, though, but why bother when our own days are so bleak? So iBoy sets its stall in present-day London, where Tom (Bill “the sweet one from Son of Rambow” Milner, looking completely different) is just a normal teen — going to school by day, blocking out the sounds of violence around his tower block by night. When the girl he fancies (Maisie Williams) invites him round to study one evening, he turns up at her flat to find her being, to not put too fine a point on it, gang raped. He runs, trying to phone the police, but the gang give chase and shoot him in the head. When he wakes up, parts of his phone have been inoperably embedded in his brain, which he soon comes to realise has given him the ability to interact with technology using his mind.

Look, it's London!

So, yeah — scientifically, it’s a thoroughly dubious premise. But is it any worse than having abilities bestowed by a radioactive spider-bite or spilled toxic goo? In respect to Tom’s newfound powers and how he chooses to use them — as a vigilante seeking revenge on the gang that have been terrorising his estate — iBoy is more in line with superhero narratives than other young adult adaptations. Where it comes unstuck is the tone. How many superhero films are going to feature gang rape? Well, somewhat appropriately, I guess the Netflix ones might. But the disjunct between iBoy’s daft premise and the grim world of inner city gangs (there are more acts of shocking violence) is a difficult one to negotiate.

To its credit, iBoy doesn’t use the assault as a starting incident and then discard its aftereffects — the presence of Maisie Williams, who’s been quite outspoken about the treatment of female characters in media, should give an indication that it’s not so thoughtless. But nor does a 90-minute movie that’s fundamentally about a superpowered vigilante have much time to dig into it properly. Nonetheless, Williams essays the role with some subtlety, aided by a screenplay that keeps things appropriately unverbalised. Perhaps the most effective part is when, home alone, she has to venture outside for some milk.

Nasty gangs

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the hows-and-whys of its hero and his abilities. Apparently hacking someone else’s phone involves watching a progress bar; he can learn how to fight while watching a couple of YouTube videos during the ten seconds he’s walking towards an assailant; and so on. A little more effort would’ve sold the premise more and could’ve removed these niggles (at least have him download a phone-hacking app or something; maybe the YouTube videos could be downloaded into his brain, but his unpracticed muscles struggle to perform the moves). Problem is, the notion of phone fragments getting stuck in your brain and giving you superpowers is pretty silly, so even if you provide better internal consistency, it’s still a struggle to parse that implausibility being mashed up against the ultra-real-world stylings of the rest of the story. Films like Super and Kick-Ass do the “real-life superhero” thing by making their hero a bit inept. Maybe iBoy isn’t shooting for “real-life superhero”, but then why are the threats he faces so serious?

Talking of the threats, Rory Kinnear turns up near the end as the Big Bad, and lifts the film considerably. I suppose there’s not a whole lot of originality in a politely-spoken but actually horrendous villain, but Kinnear sells the part effortlessly. You kind of want to see that character (or at least that performance) turn up in something bigger and better. Elsewhere, Miranda Richardson brings some much-needed lightness as Tom’s grandma, who serves as an Aunt May figure. If nothing else, you can rely on British productions to have quality acting, eh?

British baddies are best

For all this criticism, on the whole I didn’t dislike iBoy while it played out, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Netflix’s first genuine original movie from the UK, it’s a shame it can’t demonstrate to the rest of the Netflix-viewing world what British film could be capable of if encouraged, but maybe that would be too big a weight to put on its little shoulders anyhow.

3 out of 5

iBoy is available on Netflix everywhere (I presume).

Raising Arizona (1987)

2016 #164
Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Raising Arizona

Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

3 out of 5

* For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

2016 #157
Billy Wilder | 112 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

Witness for the ProsecutionCharles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich shine in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play (in turn based on her short story), about a man accused of murder but who proclaims his innocence (Tyrone Power), the barrister who decides to take the case (Laughton), and the man’s wife who agrees to alibi him but seems somehow suspicious (Dietrich).

Despite expanding the action from the play, it’s still dialogue-heavy and a little stagey in places — but between the engrossingly labyrinthine plot, those captivating performances, and some humour added by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, such potential criticisms are irrelevant.

Helluva twist, too.

5 out of 5

A new adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution begins on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

Young Adam (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #100

Everyone has a past.
Everyone has a secret.

Country: UK & France
Language: English
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: NC-17 (uncut) | R (cut)

Original Release: 4th September 2003 (Netherlands)
UK Release: 26th September 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Big Fish)
Tilda Swinton (Orlando, We Need to Talk About Kevin)
Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Tyrannosaur)
Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point)

Director
David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Hell or High Water)

Screenwriter
David Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe)

Based on
Young Adam, a novel by Alexander Trocchi.

The Story
Joe is earning his keep helping transport coal on a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, spending his free time lusting after his employer’s wife, when he spots a woman’s dead body floating in the canal — something Joe knows more about than he lets on…

Our Hero
Joe is a young drifter, who’s wound up working on a barge with Les and Ella Gault and their son. He’s a horny bugger, sex obsessed to the point of distraction, which will have an effect on everyone’s lives.

Our Villain
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the film is a murder mystery — especially as it’s not clear if the woman was indeed murdered. But how did she die? How was Joe involved? He’s the main character, which makes him the hero, but is he actually a bad’un?

Best Supporting Character
Harried barge wife Ella is not anyone’s typical image of desirability, but nonetheless becomes the object of Joe’s own brand of affections, which brings her some happiness… for a while. Mainly, it’s a brilliant, layered performance by Tilda Swinton.

Memorable Quote
Joe: “Are you sorry?”
Ella: “Fat lot of good that would do me.”

Memorable Scene
Cathie, another of Joe’s lovers, comes home soaking wet. As she undresses, she berates him for doing nothing useful with his time. He informs he has made custard, which he throws over her, followed by various other condiments. Then there is, shall we say, an act with (at best) debatable consent. I believe this is a version of something called “sploshing” (thanks, internet).

Memorable Music
David Byrne’s ambient score haunts the soundtrack, as essential to the film’s grey mood as the drizzly Scottish locations and overcast photography. My favourite part is the plaintive closing song, The Great Western Road.

Awards
4 BAFTA Scotland Awards (Film, Actor in a Scottish Film (Ewan McGregor), Actress in a Scottish Film (Tilda Swinton), Director)
4 British Independent Film Award nominations (British Independent Film, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Tilda Swinton), Director)
3 Empire Awards nominations (British Film, British Actor (Ewan McGregor), British Actress (Emily Mortimer))

What the Critics Said
“Joe is a hard case. Opaque. Not tender, not good with the small talk. Around women, he has a certain intensity that informs them he plans to have sex with them, and it is up to them to agree or go away. He is not a rapist, but he has only one purpose in his mind, and some women find that intensity of focus to be exciting. It’s as if, at the same time, he cares nothing for them and can think only of them. […] He is not a murderer but a man unwilling to intervene, a man so detached, so cold, so willing to sacrifice others to his own convenience, that perhaps in his mind it occurs that he would feel better about the young woman’s death if he had actually, actively, killed her. Then at least he would know what he had done and would not find such emptiness when he looks inside himself. This is an almost Dostoyevskian study of a man brooding upon evil until it paralyzes him. […] The death of the girl and the plot surrounding it are handled not as a crime or a mystery but as an event that jars characters out of their fixed orbits. When you have a policy of behavior, a pose toward the world, that has hardened like concrete into who you are, it takes more than guilt to break you loose.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 62%

What the Public Say
“McGregor, putting his meat and two veg on show once again, is really good as the conflicted and sex addict, Swinton does almost steal the show as the sex-craving barge woman, who also gets naked, and Mortimer in the flashbacks is very good, with her clothes off too. The film is just stuffed with sexual scenes, and with the dead body premise it combines film noir and melodrama, all adding up to a well crafted and most watchable period drama.” — Jackson Booth-Millard @ IMDb

Verdict

Part murder mystery, part beat character study, part erotic drama, Young Adam is an enigmatic, moody, conflicted film — in a good way. It presents a grimily realistic view of life and sex, around which writhes a murder mystery that, as it turns out, doesn’t contain a murder and, relatively quickly, isn’t much of a mystery. Instead it’s something of an ethical dilemma, presented to a character who’s not exactly unethical but isn’t necessarily concerned about doing what’s right either, especially if it’s against his own interests. Not a cheery one, then, but a film of grey morals, grey imagery, and grey mood — in a good way.

Next time… looking back over my 100 favourites.