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Silence (2016/I)
5 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
A tremendous gift for a new year, 2 January 2017
8/10

Having been in some kind of development for the past quarter of a century, Martin Scorsese's Silence finally opens. And after a grim 2016 it emerges as the perfect gift for the new year: a deeply probing and contemplative epic exploring themes of persecution, integrity, truth and faith, which seems not only apt for our times, but necessary.

We open with the chaotic sounds of nature – a cacophony of insect chatter and animal wailing – and then we cut to "Silence".

The year is 1633 and the place is Japan. Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) provides the context. He's a Jesuit priest, captured and tortured by the Japanese for his faith. Jump to 1640. Two of Ferreira's students, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), are informed that Ferreira has gone AWOL in Japan. The crackdown on Christianity has turned that country into a dangerous place for Christians. Rumours abound that Ferreira has denounced his faith. But Rodrigues and Garrpe believe this is slander, and they set off for Japan to bring Ferreira home.

The wandering priests enter a coastal village and are welcomed by the native Japanese, who exist in crushing poverty, struggling under the ruthless, ever-watchful eye of Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). Suspected Christians are regularly dragged from their homes and forced to publicly denounce their God by stepping foot on the image of Jesus.

This "trampling" becomes a key weapon and point of conflict in the story. As the Japanese rulers repeatedly state, it is "just a formality". But for the flock it means the relinquishing of faith; a surrendering of who they are. It's called "korobu", literally meaning "to fall down".

When Rodrigues advises the villagers to go ahead and "trample", he is applying real-world advice to a punishment that threatens their very existence. Yet what about Rodrigues himself – why should he not heed his own advice? The Japanese believe it's a matter of ego; that Rodrigues is arrogant. But is it not his job to be held to a higher religious standard?

The story is seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Rodrigues: his horror at the cruelty of the ruling class; his ambivalent but ultimately loving relationship with Garrpe; his guilt and doubt about his faith and his mission; and finally the extent of his service under a repressive system. After all, what relief can he provide dead? Even if it makes him a hypocrite in life.

In the basic plot there are parallels with Heart of Darkness, and by extension Apocalypse Now, although don't expect a crazy Colonel Kurtz showdown. The inevitable confrontation with Ferreira is a philosophical fight. What is found is scary and threatening to Rodrigues, but not for the reasons one might imagine. Indeed, this third act shifts our view of the priests, who were once unquestionably saviours, to something less morally clear.

But the greatest parallels are with Scorsese's own film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Like Willem Dafoe's Christ, Garfield's Rodrigues is humanised. He's temperamental, doubtful, even hopeless at times. Always burdened by this divine responsibility, although perhaps less resentful than Nikos Kazantzakis's Son of God. Garfield brings great warmth to the role, and an agonising, largely internalised passion.

Special mention must go to the sound design. It's a quiet film but one which is conspicuously bereft of silence. At one point Rodrigues hands a token – a tiny wooden cross – to a poor villager, and it seems to chirrup like a living thing. Scorsese is reminding us that nature is never silent, and rarely is the human mind.

By the end, we are left with more questions than answers – which is fine, because they are questions we can all ask of ourselves. Narratively harking back after the lifetime of Rodrigues, we ask: If a person's faith is not permitted to be shown – not fetishised – does that mean it is vanquished? Belief, one might argue, is actually given strength by repressive rules, driven deeper, into the soul of the individual. (Or, for the atheists among us, into the unvoiced subconscious.)

All of which makes us look at the broader struggles portrayed throughout the film in general. The Inquisitor frequently refers to Japan as a swamp in whose soil Christianity can never take root. Indeed, as a structured organisation, Christianity may not be able to overthrow the Buddhist order. But on an individual level, leaving aside rituals or tokens, there will always be those who need relief from the burden of their guilt, or who struggle with their personal integrity.

In the wake of last year's events, it is sometimes mentioned that we are living in a "post-truth" world. That truth is the objective kind, whereas the "truth" to which Silence refers is something different: the truth that beneath the artefacts of our belief systems – the crosses and the books and the veils – lies a shared belief in humanity; a desire for order and community. In portraying the captors and captives in a nuanced way, without madness or outright evil, Scorsese isn't obfuscating this greater truth but illuminating it.

At 160 minutes, Silence looks on paper like a slog, but it's briefer than your average Middle-earth movie and it is never dull. This isn't Bela Tarr, where boredom is a currency; there is purpose and drama in every scene, and if you surrender to its perfectly paced lull then you will emerge self-reflective, and quite possibly into the most interesting post-cinema pub conversation ever.

Moana (2016/I)
3 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
A link between worlds, 28 November 2016
8/10

I confess to being predisposed toward Disney's latest animated feature thanks to my adoration for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Like that classic video game adventure, Moana is all about the epic wonder of the rolling ocean, and the primal and mystical forces that flow between its precious islands. There are also hints of Hayao Miyazaki – especially Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke – in its strong heroine and its concerns with humanity's impact on the environment.

Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is being groomed to become chief of her Polynesian paradise of Motunui. Yet Moana is drawn to the sea and what lies beyond the horizon. In an elegant prologue, we see an infant Moana protecting a turtle as it waddles toward the ocean. Suddenly the water itself comes alive like Aladdin's carpet (this film is also directed by Ron Clements and John Musker). So we know straight away that Moana has a special understanding with the ocean, as well as an innate empathy with nature.

Less so, Maui (Dwayne Johnson). He's a demigod who stole the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess who created all life. Now a corruption is creeping through the islands. Moana's dad believes that she has a duty to stay and protect her people. But Moana's grandmother feels for her wanderlust, and encourages her to follow her instinct – an instinct which tells her to set sail and find Maui, bring him to Te Fiti, and return the goddess's heart. Obviously this is the choice Moana makes, and her adventure takes her far beyond the safe coral of her homeland.

Moana begins as a leader (not a princess, she insists), with her parents pulling her away from her calling. It's the classic duty versus individuality conflict, mostly rendered without black and white moralising. "Find happiness where you are" is the repeated mantra of the islanders – but the story's ultimate message is that such domestic happiness can only be maintained by respectfully communicating with foreign lands. (If only, humanity, if only.)

Technically speaking, Moana gives us a new level of detail in CG animation. Not just in the texture rendering but in the nuance of the animation itself. The living sea – snaking like the probe in James Cameron's The Abyss – is full of wordless charisma. The general art style is nicely aligned with classic Disney 2D, except the extra dimension feels necessary to embellish the breadth of the setting.

The pacing is near-perfect. By now, Disney Animation Studios probably have an algorithm for the ideal narrative structure. But heck – if they do, it's working. From the myth-building first act and the character interplay of the second; from the moment of self-doubt to the final (very touching) showdown: it's pleasingly predictable and entirely satisfying.

That structural predictability allows for some fantastically bizarre setpieces along the way. Personal favourites are the attack of the Kakamora, where the movie suddenly turns into Fury Road for kids; and the Realm of Monsters, which movingly updates the weird 80s fantasy environments of films like The Legend of Sirius, and then throws in a giant glam-shelled Jermaine Clement to do a David Bowie impression.

The interplay between Moana and Maui, which constitutes the drama and humour of the middle section, is smartly written and full of sparks. Being a demigod, Maui is a raging narcissist, so Moana quickly realises that persuading him to do the right thing requires an appeal to his ego – an ego which bellows godliness while whispering a fundamental vulnerability.

Moana herself has the goofy appeal of the modern Disney heroine. Going deeper, her internal conflict isn't original but nor does it feel forced. Johnson and newcomer Cravalho deliver excellent voice work, some of which requires belting out lung-busting songs. Moana's theme may not be Disney's catchiest number but it sure is stirring.

Joining the adventurers is a doolally rooster named Heihei. He's the slapstick cartoon element, narratively pointless but occasionally amusing. Perhaps he was inserted for younger children, because the rest of the humour is more subtle. I particularly enjoyed Maui's bromance with his living tattoo, acting as a kind of pectoral-based conscience beside his heart.

Moana is up there with the best of this Golden Age of American Animation, which shows no sign of dwindling. It is extraordinarily well made and efficient, big-hearted, and achingly beautiful. Familiar elements abound, but they're remixed into an original setting with a rich mythology. Combined with thoughtful characterisation and a highly laudable (and, depressingly, an endlessly relevant) message, Moana will be seen and savoured for years to come.

Allied (2016)
5 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
An uneasy alliance of squandered talent, 23 November 2016
5/10

1942. Intelligence agent Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachutes into the Moroccan desert, where he's picked up by a wordless driver and taken to Casablanca. There he connects with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a French agent. Together they pose as a married couple – the precursor to a daring assassination attempt on a German ambassador.

Max and Marianne fall for each other, of course, and after the job Max invites her to return with him to London as his wife. Following the Blitz-born birth of their child, the Vatans enjoy an apparently idyllic partnership. But then Vatan's superiors call him in. Questions are raised about Marianne. Is she who she says she is? Could it be that she's telling "a lie"? (Ally, get it?)

Allied isn't a particularly good film. Chief concern is that it is scuppered by a crushing lack of chemistry between its stars. (Goes to show, all the sordid celebrity speculation in the world can't make the magic happen on screen.) I've a feeling the blame rests on the shoulders of Pitt, whose performance here is unusually dull. A flirty Cotillard tries her best to raise him from the dead, to no avail.

But also there is director Robert Zemeckis – such an inventive student of film – who appears to be honing a TV aesthetic here. It worked for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies because that was essentially a chamber piece. But Zemeckis is reaching for grandeur – a feat which should be possible with an $80m-plus budget – without succeeding. Allied has the same hyper-real sheen we saw in his last film, The Walk, whereby everything somehow looks CG even when it isn't.

Structurally, the film has problems. The first half is an outright clunker, with any dramatic tension undermined by the inevitability – the yawning predictability – of the plot shift to come. It's only when the 'twist' (if we can call it that) is finally traversed that the film enters any kind of stride.

Following the move to Blighty, things fare better. Zemeckis's depiction of period Britain has the generic Little England postcard quality that comes from the outsider's eye, and the co-stars can't quite de-glam sufficiently to make their marriage believable, but writer Steven Knight's plot beats keep the narrative chugging in a workmanlike way.

In the last half hour, the film finally sputters into life like an old RAF propeller, but it's too little too late. The climactic scene – a brilliantly tense exercise in visual storytelling of which Hitchcock would be proud – almost feels like it's been cut in from a different movie.

Handsome and competent and quite boring, Allied doesn't even have the good grace to be enjoyably bad. It wears its okayness with pride: big production values, big names, big talent – but little to remember of it a week after watching.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Not-so-Easy Rider, 20 November 2016
6/10

The definition of the "elegiac western", The Hired Hand was the directorial debut of the ubiquitous Peter Fonda. Fonda also stars, as Harry, a world-weary wanderer finally planning to move back to his ranch and make good on his marriage to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and their daughter. Tagging along is his BFF Arch (Warren Oates) – although at some point he too will move on, and Harry will have to up his game as a family man.

Meanwhile, the ghosts of the past are stirring. It seems like there's some bad blood in Harry's home town, and – to mix in yet another metaphor – the chickens are coming home to roost.

If it sounds like I'm being vague, that's because the plot of The Hired Hand is looser than a half-tied lasso. Remember, this came hot on the heels of another Fonda vehicle, Easy Rider, and as such you'll regard its laid-back tempo and mannered editing either as richly layered or a load of hippie nonsense. Personally, I found the mix of Bruce Langhorne's eerie music and the mournful rhythm quite hypnotic.

This is a slow and moody western where the dramatic beats come from the exchanges between characters rather than exchanges of gunfire. Bloom is exceptional in the role of Hannah, a woman who is at once rebuked for sharing her bed with other men in Harry's absence, but then who in one withering speech entirely justifies her behaviour. Her presence, as a fully-fleshed out female character in a male- swamped genre, is most welcome.

Thematically it's tempting – as with all American New Wave cinema of the decade – to position The Hired Hand in the context of the Vietnam War. It's a link that can be overstated, but there are undoubtedly parallels: the gunman yearning to return home from a long journey; his struggle to adapt to civilian existence in a place where life has continued without him; the breaking of brotherhood in favour of fatherhood; and the violence of his past returning to haunt him.

So, a deep sorrow hangs over the film. Fonda was only 31 when he made this, and it's questionable whether, with his slight frame and young eyes, he can beard himself up to achieve sufficient world- weariness. Oates, however, nails it, that permanent grimace of his both warm and worn in equal measure. Capturing them exquisitely is the peerless Vilmos Zsigmond (the first casualty of this year's terrible roster of obituaries), who virtually takes us back in time with the preciseness and depth of his framing. The desperately sad final shot is worth the (relatively brief) running time alone.

One reason The Hired Hand isn't better-remembered is because it is by its nature low-key; quiet and sombre. Consider as well that at the time the western genre was in decline – the real classic, McCabe and Mrs Miller, also came out in 1971, and Robert Altman's film (also shot by Zsigmond) is the superior of the two. Still, there is much to admire about The Hired Hand – and I use that verb carefully because it's as much a film to sink into for its mood as it is to conventionally enjoy.

Prepare to DIY, 13 November 2016
6/10

"This film should be played LOUD," insists the pre-credits card at the beginning. And not simply to feel the full force of The Roosters, or the squeal of the titular murder weapon, but also because Abel Ferrara's zero-budget slasher is all about anger in need of expression.

Ferrara himself plays Reno, a struggling artist desperate to complete a painting that will earn him enough to pay the rent. He lives with a couple of girls, one of whom is kind of his girlfriend but neither of whom particularly likes him, and he's being driven mad by those damn Roosters downstairs. All his repressed rage and his inability to empathise with fellow humans is taking its toll. Then he sees his release: take it out on the New York homeless using a power drill and a Porto-Pak(TM).

Reno's disgust of transient men betrays a profound male anxiety: the inability to provide. Furthermore, his "masterpiece" is a painting of a bison – both a icon of masculine power as well as a symbol of hunter-gatherer sustenance. He barks impotently at his indifferent girlfriend, who later turns to their female flatmate for her physical satisfaction.

Moreover, Reno is unable to communicate with his artist peers. Even the members of the band who aren't musicians are full of extrovert self-expression. Reno, meanwhile, is a wholly internalised recluse, harbouring a growing loathing of other people.

Then there's Dalton Briggs (Harry Schlutz II), a gallery owner who, like a Roman emperor, holds the power to give a thumbs-up or down to Reno's future. In the deliberately theatrical Dalton scenes (a realist style is employed elsewhere) Ferrara scores with Clockwork Orange- style electronic classical music; and indeed there is a hint of Kubrickian absurdity in the juxtaposition between Briggs' high art pretensions and Reno's degenerate world.

That world, shot on location around Ferrara's own haunt, is at times as potent a snapshot of post-Vietnam New York's underbelly as Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The depiction of madness and desperation amongst the homeless is pretty broad, although it doesn't stray into the sort of farcical territory we would later see in J. Michael Muro's Street Trash.

The Driller Killer is one of the original "video nasties" – a select group of films banned from UK home video in the 1980s for fear of corrupting malleable minds. Apparently, the complaints were based solely on the poster, depicting the famous head drill victim. To be fair, the actual content here more than lives up to that marketing promise. This is a grotty and gory film, the cheapness of whose effects is offset by being shot mostly at night.

Smart directorial choices, neat editing, dark humour, and a unique setting elevate The Driller Killer above many of the slashers of the late-70s/early-80s period. It may not be the most fun – think of the intense grimness of Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – but it's surely one of the more memorable.

Arrival (2016/II)
2 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Interdependence Day, 9 November 2016
6/10

As Amy Adams' opening voice-over speaks in sad lyrical strokes, and director Denis Villenueve's lens slides slowly through her empty home, and Johann Johannson's mournful music breathes in the background, we know we're not watching Independence Day.

Adams plays Louise, a linguist seemingly grieving for her daughter. Louise is last to know that twelve colossal spacecraft have entered the Earth's atmosphere and are now hovering in various locations around the globe. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who has a bit of previous with Louise, invites her to join a team who will enter one of the alien crafts and try to communicate with them.

The rest of the movie is set largely in a military base in the shadow of the alien craft. The camera meekly moves beneath the huge hovering object, as if anxiously averting its eyes. The sense of awe is palpable and appropriate, filling the audience with a thrilling dread as the crew creep – and float – inside. The sparse design of the alien ship interior is fantastically foreboding, and the form of its pilots is convincing in its otherworldliness. I won't describe them; I'll just say they're named "heptapods".

The humans attempt to communicate. While Louise uses words and gestures, the heptapods rely on a kind of hieroglyphic language made from ejected ink. It's pleasingly weird and graceful. These first encounters are the most engaging, successfully giving the sense of an impenetrable barrier between species.

Fans of modern epic sci-fi won't be bowled over by the core message, but I won't name names for fear of giving away the mildest of surprises.

The sombre colour-drained style may be standard these days, but Villenueve contrasts it effectively with Louise's memories of her daughter. The editing throughout the film is textured and nuanced, even if it does collapse into a malaise of generalised Big Feelings in the end. Still, the quality of craftsmanship and the doomy style bode well for the director's upcoming Blade Runner sequel.

For all the heavyweight actors, the supporting characters – from the gruff, pragmatic military leader to the slimy CIA suit – are stock for the genre. Adams is typically soulful and skillful, while Renner, to his credit, tries his best in a role written to be playful, except he's under the thrall of a director who doesn't really do play.

Arrival isn't completely cohesive. There's some of the hard sci-fi slog of The Andromeda Strain, but also the socially conscious grandstanding of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Both are great movies (and both by Robert Wise) – but are they great bedfellows?

Tonally I was reminded of Another Earth, a similarly mournful, cerebral sci-fi movie with a metaphysical twist. But that movie wore its melon-twisting conceit on its sleeve, as opposed to the Nolan- esque puzzle box narrative gradually unveiled in Arrival. As twists go, this one is ambitious: a clever cop-out or a mind-expanding revelation depending on taste. Your capacity for feeling moved may depend on your feelings about the bow-wrapped ending of Interstellar.

Along with Interstellar, a major touchstone is Robert Zemeckis's Contact, which also focused on a passionate female protagonist driven by grief. Contact's depiction of an invaded world swallowing itself whole through reactionary insanity was more fun and more convincing, although I guess the overblown public reaction in Arrival may speak more to the current feverish state of US politics.

Arrival suffers from many familiar elements, and a script that can't match the sumptuous visual style, the committed performances, or the unique production design. Perhaps a little more lightness of touch may have alleviated the slippery slope of the film's neat-yet- divisive second half. But there's no denying that this is impressive, technically astounding filmmaking with an unapologetic intention to awe. Worth seeing – and worth seeing BIG.

0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Rain (of death) Man, 6 November 2016
5/10

It's as if someone read the Wikipedia page on autism and figured, 'That sounds like the perfect assassin!' A direct plea in the epilogue to regard autistic people as merely "different" is laudable on paper – but after 90 minutes of watching a liquid-cool super-soldier wade through an army of henchmen to lift the lid on massive corporate corruption, it's hard to swallow.

Ben Affleck plays the titular accountant, Christian Wolff, who works for dodgy high-end clients, fixing their books. The film doesn't bother with the morality of Christian's work, but it does come to the attention of Treasury Officer Ray King, who blackmails his underling, Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), and sends her to investigate. Meanwhile, Christian is hired to investigate a robotics firm run by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), after one of its eagle-eyed junior employees, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), spots something awry with the finances.

Suffice to say, not everything at Living Robotics is squeaky clean, and Christian and Dana find themselves on the hit list for a security firm run by a verbose brute named Braxton (Jon Bernthal). Christian and Dana share a close friendship, and Christian works his perfectly aligned socks off to protect her, whilst taking out those who are trying to kill them.

As with Gavin O'Connor's previous film, Warrior, behind the veneer of style – distinguished by colour-drained, Fincher-mimicking formalist framing – is something quite conventional. For a while The Accountant has the air of 1970s political intrigue dramas but ultimately it owes more to the cold killer thrillers of that period – stuff like Dirty Harry or The Driver – with the quiet antihero comfortably amoral because the real bad guys are even badder. As the film wears on it slides inexorably toward cheesy action movie cliché, and the final sequence has the look and feel of any number of '90s action thrillers and their DVD- bound legacy.

So, the interesting stuff happens in the first half-hour, as we are introduced to Christian's everyday habits and OCD foibles: his exquisitely arranged breakfast, where egg can't touch bacon; or a wardrobe full of the same suit. A scene in which Christian examines 15 years of tax returns in a single night is more dramatically satisfying than a fistfight with a nameless henchman, yet we end up with a whole lot more of the latter. You'd have thought long-form TV might have taught movie producers that we aren't that impatient. The action scenes have the super-efficient style of John Wick, except they're edited to death in a Greengrassian frenzy.

Meanwhile, the Treasury investigation just isn't interesting, full stop. It's basically scene after scene of people trawling through databases and Googling stuff. True to life, maybe, but hardly dynamic. There's a Big Twist toward the end, which lands with so little impact that I found myself questioning if it even is a twist, or if I'd simply not picked up someone's name earlier. Do not expect your mind to be blown, here.

Kendrick is basically plonked into the film to leverage her inherent niceness and distract us from the dourness around her. Seriously, some of the monologues in this movie rival Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor for sheer rambling self-seriousness, and I can't help thinking Kendrick was added simply to provide a squeak of levity. John Lithgow is wasted in a one-dimensional supporting role. Simmons is his usual commanding self, even if he must deliver some of the clunkiest exposition.

If only the film were simpler and more streamlined, and more in touch with its silliness. Sadly it's a bit of slog, punctuated by tone-deaf black humour. By the end we're expected to laugh at people being shot in the head like this is a Martin McDonagh film. Except it isn't. The film's last act attempts to draw us into an emotionally warm conclusion feel inappropriate and glib. Empathy is necessary; but it's a tall order to expect us to sympathise with these ruthless killers.

Despite offering a welcome twist on an overstuffed genre, it's hard to recommend The Accountant. Its attempts at depicting autism are of the reluctant superpower variety, which in itself wouldn't be a problem if it went ahead and embraced its absurdity, and if its genre underpinnings weren't so disappointingly rote.

Predator and prey stalk 80s L.A., 6 November 2016
6/10

"I'm getting too old for this s**t," one character utters early on in this stylish 1985 thriller from the formidable William Friedkin. The veteran director doesn't bring much of his recent black humour to this hard-boiled cop thriller, but the brutal cynicism is present and correct. After the questionable Cruising and the forgotten comedy Deal of the Century, this was Friedkin back on Sorcerer form.

William Peterson, who would smoulder even more intensely the following year in Michael Mann's Manhunter, plays Secret Service agent Richard Chance. And boy does he take chances. A thrill-seeker who spends his spare time bungee-jumping off bridges, when his soon- to-retire partner is gunned down he goes after the culprit with reckless abandon. His prey is Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), a completely amoral counterfeiter who slaughters with a smile.

Chance is paired with a by-the-book agent named Vukovich (John Pankow), who's dragged deeper into this violent mess thanks to a ruthless code of honour. What ensues is an action thriller somewhere between the rawness of Friedkin's own The French Connection and the glossy buddy thrillers that were soon to become a Hollywood staple. There are shoot outs, intricate car chases, fist fights, and a conspicuous amount of ball-kicking.

You can forgive some of the film's flaws for their pay-off. Sure, Chance might blunder into situations with face-palming recklessness, but that's consistent with his character. Similarly, even when the storytelling is stripped down to the point of being nonsensical (characters leap about locations in the space of a jump cut), you accept it for the thrilling briskness and the efficiency of storytelling.

You won't be surprised that Peterson excels at glowering and Dafoe revels in his menace. Chance isn't a complex character but he does take us on a journey, from sympathy to something like repulsion. He exploits others and ignores the rule of law to get the job done – so, is he so different from the villain he's preying upon?

Par for the genre, women are sidelined as strippers or victims, although in Friedkin's defence the ample nudity is generous to both genders. Plus, in a thematic sense, one could see the film as one big critique of the single-minded alpha male. If there are winners in the end, it's not who you'd expect.

On the whole, however, expectations are satisfied more than they are defied. Cliché follows cliché, but it's all done with great energy and style. L.A. is perennially clad in orange sunset, and the saucy 80s rock soundtrack (from British new-wavers Wang Chung) locks the film in time. Mann would remake his own 80s effort with Heat in 1995, providing the final word on the L.A. neo-noir genre. But in To Live and Die we see its overture: a relocated Miami Vice writ large. It's nasty, dated, and fun.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Skippable slasher also-ran, 22 October 2016
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As Gabriel Black's and Lance Ong's atmospheric synth pads growl over the opening credits, expectations are pretty high. Unfortunately this 1984 slasher is bungled in conception and execution.

Kelly (Daphne Zuniga) is haunted by a vision – possibly a memory – of her father attacking his wife's lover and setting him on fire. Or is it the other way around? Along with her sorority sisters, Kelly is in the midst of an initiation, and now it's "Hell Week". The big plan is to break into a shopping mall and steal the uniform of the security guard – the "Fright Night" toward which the story progresses. Along the way we are introduced, via the standard POV shot, to a fork-wielding killer, who's working his way through the kids, apparently to get to Kelly. Could it be the burnt man from her vision? (Spoiler: Yes, yes it could.)

Kelly goes to Peter (James Read), a psychology graduate with a penchant for blandly name-dropping Freud and Jung, and who's the kind of bore who goes to a college party and grumbles, "I, too, arrested my development for four years." She falls for him and he helps to unlock her madness. It is psychology as detective work, and this whole subplot drags an already quite ordinary film down in the most clunky and unconvincing way.

As Kelly, it's an early role for Zuniga (she was Princess Vespa in Spaceballs, remember?), and her wit and charisma carries the film while its other elements fail her. The Initiation simply isn't very well made. It's not the budget, or the workmanlike makeup effects, or the clearly moving corpses. It's not the typically leering camera-work, or the bland and sometimes unfocused framing. It's the lack of interesting ideas. And any deviations from the slasher formula – i.e. the aforementioned pseudo psychology – feel like dull digressions rather than adding depth.

Tonally it's all over the shop, with the tension too frequently punctuated by sub-Animal House frat pratting (all the boys are mindless jesters, by the way). At one point a dramatic crescendo is completely undone when one of the characters looks at the camera for a winking reaction. Sound like fun? Not when the film had shown zero signs of wilfully breaking the fourth wall up to that point.

The story culminates in an extended setpiece inside a deserted shopping mall, where there are at least some flashes of inspiration. There's some okay tension here – I like the scene where one character enters a lighting shop, and the lamps begin illuminating around her – but almost always the pay-off doesn't warrant the build-up. And that goes for the film in general, as it careens toward its lame twist: a revelation requiring so much exposition that it's more tiring than clever.

The Initiation doesn't excite as a slasher; doesn't titillate as an exploitation flick; and it definitely doesn't convince as a psychological horror. As a midnight movie, sadly, the only thing to fear is falling asleep.

Jamaica? No, she did it of her own accord., 22 October 2016
6/10

Alfred Hitchcock's last film of the 1930s, and his last film made in Britain before setting sail across the Atlantic, is this blustery Daphne Du Maurier adaptation about a very dangerous corner of Cornwall in the 19th century.

Somewhere in Bodmin Moor is Jamaica Inn, a rural pub which houses a gang of vagabonds, who regularly head down to the coast to raid ships that wreck on the rocks. Crew killed, the spoils are stolen. The gang is fed information from above – namely, a very corrupt Justice of the Peace named Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Charles Laughton).

One stormy day (they're all stormy around here), Mary Yellen (a very youthful Maureen O'Hara) arrives in search of her aunt, Patience (Marie Ney). Patience is married to Joss (Leslie Banks), who happens to be the leader of the Jamaica Inn gang. Mary, in the right place at the wrong time, ends up saving the life of a gangster named Traherne (Robert Newton).

So, Mary and Traherne are on the run, while they try to uncover the identity of the big boss running the wrecker operation. In classic Hitchcock style, they are oblivious to Pengallon's secret, while we the audience are aware – and here Laughton excels, charming and disarming with his avuncular cheerfulness. Can they pull back the curtain before Pengallon and his crew are able to draw another ship to the rocks?

The central problem with the plot is that it hinges upon the ignorance of possibly the dumbest and most naive law officer in the entire Cornish peninsula. How he cannot see the guilt of Pengallon, despite him being the only man with the connections and opportunity to pull off such an enterprise, is the film's greatest mystery. And that's before he's stumbling into a room full of fearless pirates, who've already tried to kill him once, armed only with a single-shot pistol.

But still, these facepalm moments come later. What's apparent from the start is the beauty of the production design. Whether it's the intricate modelwork or the bold, crooked sets, the sense of location (without actual location shooting) is atmospheric and immersive; and the very unreal nature of those elements is typically Hitchcockian, creating a claustrophobic sense of dreamlike theatre.

The performances are quite variable. O'Hara is fine, essentially an entity whose sole function is to propel the plot – although she does get one moment of bona fide bravery later on. The gang members are fun as an ensemble. I couldn't help thinking of Mad Max in their self-pantomiming posturing and the alpha disputes constantly threatening to tear their chaotic brotherhood apart.

Of course, the real deal is Pengallon. He's the mythic crazy capitalist: the top dog who takes none of the risks but all of the spoils, driven by a scary belief in the hierarchy of men. Laughton's consummate skill means Pengallon's gentlemanly malevolence is revealed gradually, until we realise once and for all that he'll never find humanity because the world is all objects to him, not people. Even in his demise he gets the last hurrah.

Jamaica Inn isn't top drawer Hitchcock, but even middling Hitchcock is better than most filmmaking. It's fun and fast-moving – an action movie, at bottom – and features a massive performance at its heart from one of cinema's great actors. Brace for its sillier elements and it is ideal for a wet and windy Sunday afternoon.


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