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Cheap Thrills (2013)
Blummin' expensive thrills!
Cheap Thrills has the type of concept which could easily live up to its title. Two rich sickos torturing a couple of poor strangers by daring them to do progressively twisted tasks could result in an exploitative B-movie designed to shock the audience for the sake of it. Thankfully, Cheap Thrills manages to offer much more than a few cheap thrills. It's actually an intelligent, engaging and darkly humorous little film with a few hints of postmodernism not too dissimilar to Funny Games.
Pat Healy and Sara Paxton made a terrifically witty duo in Ti West's limp, The Innkeepers and deserved to appear in a much better film. Cheap Thrills is that better film, and whilst Sara doesn't have particularly much to do, Pat puts on a similarly likable performance as the down on his luck protagonist, who we can all relate to. In fact, all of the characters manage to be engaging and interesting. I love how realistically the film progressed from a friendly encounter on a night out to a sick set of dares.
For a film largely set in one location with just four characters, it's never boring. Quite the opposite, in fact I was left wanting more and I think it could've pushed the boundaries more, but that's probably just my twisted horror nut coming out! Where the film actually succeeds is that it doesn't make the dares the focus of the entire film. Instead it's much more concerned with the characters and how they develop, thus making for a much better quality and more involving piece of filmmaking.
The comment it makes on society is quite heavy-handed but nevertheless an intelligent and relevant one. It's best to view the two rich psychos as symbols, rather than characters. They're obviously representative of the bourgeoisie and how they exploit the poor minority. However, the film also makes a subtle comment on the psychotic nature of audiences too. I thought that the ending kind of made out like the psychos were doing it all for us, the viewing public, thus adding another intelligent and postmodern layer to the film.
Overall the film is a striking debut and this E.L Katz bloke looks like he has a promising future in the horror movie industry. His directing was consistently intense and he managed to build some massive amounts of tension. Cheap Thrills may falter on repeated viewings (due to the lack of a surprise factor) but for a first time viewing there's very little to complain about. Perhaps it could've been a little more twisted, but really I was surprised by how intelligent the screenplay actually was. Cheap Thrills offers a lot more than its title suggests. It's probably one of the best horror-comedies we've had in a while.
The trials and tribulations of an old posh man
I've never read the novel of Lolita so I can't comment on how much of the film is censored or toned down. I have of course heard of the various cuts Stanley Kubrick had to make in order to keep the censors happy, so perhaps it has slightly lost its power? Nevertheless, what we're left with is a consistently entertaining little film about a man falling in love with a girl who's barely a teenager. I was very impressed with how the film managed to portray the relationship without even showing the couple kissing. In fact, the cosiest the pair come is when Lolita grabs James Mason's hand whilst watching Frankenstein in a drive-through.
Whilst the film is a hefty 150 minutes it never manages to bore. It is far longer than it needs to be and has some repetitive scenes which add very little to the overall experience, however I found myself always engrossed in what I was watching. I particularly enjoyed the first half which deals with James Mason hopelessly trying to start a relationship with our young nymphet. There are some darkly amusing encounters including some funny slapstick with a cot and a plot to murder the landlady.
The film is of course marvellously directed. It has the look of an early 60's film, but the feel of something much bigger than that. Stanley has some lovely, inventive camera moves and the framing is always brilliant. Sue Lyons was also very magnetic in the role of Lolita. She kind of reminded me of Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks, there's an innocent side and another side of a smouldering temptress. I was less impressed with James Mason as the one-dimensional bumbling, boring Englishman.
Lolita is a fantastic film and shows a steady progression from Paths of Glory. However, I still wouldn't think at this stage that Stanley would have it in him to direct something as sensationally enigmatic as 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film certainly shows that Stanley loved a challenge and was willing to push Hollywood's conservative boundaries. With Lolita he pushes them with style and entertainment. It may be a little wordy and long, but most films were like this in the 60's.
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Black Swan for drummers
The types of films I love the most are the ones with a real raw intensity. Black Swan is definitely the most intense film experience I've had with Darren Aronofsky's chaotic direction becoming almost suffocating at times. It's a film which I endlessly admire, as is his second feature, Requiem for a Dream which features a similar intensity with an added emotional punch to the ribs. Whiplash is a film with that same kind of intensity. It's rare to find a film which grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go until the credits, but Whiplash manages to do more than that. It actually tightens the grip as the film goes on until you're just about choking by the end of it all!
Whilst I don't think that Whiplash is quite the perfect masterpiece many people have made it out to be, there's no denying that it's an absolutely stellar and riveting film. It does for drumming, what Black Swan did for ballet. Imagine if Natalie Portman wanted to be the most perfect drummer in the world and Vincent Cassel was a shouty and overbearing bully pushing her way beyond the limits of human capacity and you have Whiplash.
The film relies a lot on Damien Chazelle's exhilarating direction. He manages to bring scene after scene of gripping intensity which seems to build and build until the electrifying finale. He directs the drumming performances with lots of close-ups and quick cuts which end up leaving you feeling completely exhausted. On top of that you've got JK Simmons shouting at the top of his lungs at the students and wearing them out until they physically bleed. There's a scene early on where he picks on someone who's out of tune and it almost made me want to cry like the poor kid he was picking on.
JK totally earned his Oscar here. It's a frightening and wildly intimidating performance full of passion and force. His presence fills every scene he's in and dares you not to take your eyes off of him. Miles Teller, who plays the protagonist drummer boy, is also very good in the role. He manages to be very convincing and you can't help but root for him to do well. He has an infectious passion for the drums and an admirable ambition. Although, if I was in his shoes I'd kick the drums into touch and take that girl and run!
The idea of watching a film about an ambitious drummer trying to make it in a jazz band isn't an appealing one. It's down to Damien's superb directing and writing skills which make it utterly compelling. It's also incredibly unpredictable. There are so many twists and turns in the final 20 minutes that you have no idea how it's going to end. I also quite liked how it ended fairly ambiguously. The final scene is truly extraordinary to watch and extremely similar to Black Swan's final scene. It's so intense that it has your fingernails digging into the person you're sitting next to and your heart thumping like a steam train.
There are a couple of problems which stop it from being perfect. I thought that the plot lacked more focus which could've added to the intensity of it all. In Black Swan we're made very aware of the days passing to the final performance and so when it arrives we feel almost as nervous as Nina! With Whiplash, it wasn't made clear as to what the jazz band were working towards half the time. At one point I didn't even realise that they were performing in front of an audience! There also felt like a lack of character development. However, ultimately these problems don't detract from the overwhelming experience the film offers.
Whiplash is a masterful little film. Made for only one million dollars and shot in less than 30 days, Damien Chazelle has showed the world that he possesses an undeniable talent for filmmaking. It's a sensational debut and I defy anyone not to come out by the end of it feeling exhausted. It may not be everyone's idea of entertainment, but for those who are into dark, psychological and intense films then Whiplash is the film to see. I really look forward to going through it all again.
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Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley's first moment of glory
Paths of Glory is a World War 1 film with a difference. It's less concerned with the actual trench warfare and more concerned with the sadism found in higher ranking officers. It's clear that Stanley isn't a fan of war, so it may be a little biased, but it is based on a true story and Stanley handles it absolutely beautifully!
After the limp Killer's Kiss and entertaining, The Killing, Paths of Glory is Stanley's first truly great film. You can see his directing style really shine here with the fantastic tracking shots and wide angles. If you look at most films from the 50's you'll find that the camera barely moves. Here, the camera is always on the move which is partly why the film still holds up so well today.
It's the type of film which makes your blood boil. There is no conventional happy ending, the entire film is on the road to tragedy. There are several brilliant scenes which stand the test of time including the storming of the Ant Hill, which adds a kind of surreal grace to a scene full of ugliness and intensity. Another great scene is the infuriating kangaroo court where Kirk Douglas hopelessly tries to defend the 'cowardly' soldiers.
The most memorable moments are probably the final two scenes though. The first one features a long and melodramatic walk to the firing line. There's obvious religious imagery here and it's handled magnificently. The last scene is the famous moment in the bar where Stanley's beautiful wife takes the stage and gets a bunch of rowdy soldiers to hum in unison. It's a weirdly moving moment to end on.
I'm not a particular fan of war films, but Paths of Glory has to be one of the best out there. It has a terrific story to tell and it's one which will anger and sadden you. It's superbly acted and directed too. Some say that it's Stanley Kubrick's best film. I'd disagree with that statement, but I can see where these people are coming from. It definitely has to be his most emotional and moving film.
Chilling drama which soars like an eagle!
Foxcatcher has the absorbing coldness of a film by Michael Haneke. I had zero interest when I read that it was about Olympic wrestling, however my interest was lighted when I saw the sinister trailer for the film and found out that it was in fact a psychological drama and not some sort of rites-of-passage sports movie. Unfortunately, I did read about the ending and started kicking myself when many critics recommended reading nothing on the true story. So although the ending was no surprise to me, it was still pretty shocking.
However, there's much more to admire about the film than its tragic finale. A lot of people have called the film too slow and boring, and whilst it is very slow paced, I never found it boring for a moment. People who find this film boring would probably end up committing suicide if they put themselves through something like Uzak! I did think that it was longer than it needed to be, but it wasn't much of a detraction. Apparently, the original rough cut was almost 4 hours long so the editors have done well to whittle it down to a trim 130 minutes.
The beginning of the film perfectly illustrates the lonely existence of wrestler, Mark Schultz. The shots are long, uninterrupted and the lighting is dim. Mark existence is based purely around wrestling as he lacks any sort of social life. His brother is his only friend and even he isn't that friendly towards him. Things change when similarly socially inept, John Du Pont invites him over to his mansion and asks to join his wrestling team and train for the Olympics.
There's a thick foreboding atmosphere which penetrates throughout the film. A lot of the sinister edge comes from Steve Carell's outstanding portrayal of wrestling and bird enthusiast, John Du Pont. He's almost unrecognisable with his gigantic prosthetic nose which could outdo Katie Hopkins! He doesn't look, sound or act all that human. There's an otherworldly quality to him and you can't help but become completely absorbed whenever he's on screen. He's an unpredictable character who always remains compelling. The maniacal end scene urged me to find out more about the true life case.
I was also impressed with Channing Tatum, who is normally cast as the pretty boy in rom-coms. His performance is pretty intense and a large amount of method acting was involved too. Apparently when he smashed his head on the mirror it was completely improvised! Mark Ruffalo didn't impress me quite as much but he still held his own. Really it's Steve's show and you'll go away from the film with his haunting performance in your mind.
Foxcatcher is a supremely creepy and atmospheric film. It's a character and relationship study. Watching John and Mark become friends is quietly gripping. Their fallout is all the more interesting. It's beautifully directed and its quiet surrealism adds to the film's sinister atmosphere. Perhaps it's a little too slow for mass audiences, but fans of Michael Haneke and Paul Thomas Anderson will undoubtedly find a lot to like. I know that I did!
The Killing (1956)
Not to be confused with Sarah Lund's jumper saga
The Killing is a welcome improvement upon the disappointingly flat, Killer's Kiss. Some have gone as far to say that The Killing is the best film out of Stanley's entire filmography! Whilst, I'm inclined to strongly disagree with that statement, I still enjoyed The Killing (what's with Stanners and all this killing and killers?) for what it was. A stylish little crime thriller with a narrative which goes back and forth in time, which is reminiscent of Quentin's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
A lot of noirs from the 50's can be extremely slow and, to be frank, boring! The Killing however didn't bore me for a second of its tight running time. In Stanley's later films, he tends to pad out the narrative, but here he keeps it economical and to the point. We begin at the beginning of the heist and then flip back to the group of men planning the robbery. It's a fairly unconventional storytelling method for the 50's, although Citizen Kane did attempt it first a decade or so earlier.
Unlike Citizen Kane though, The Killing isn't boring. I enjoyed it's nice array of characters, particularly George and his acid-tongued wife. A large amount of the film was dedicated to this odd couple and the dialogue between them is especially witty and entertaining. It's a shame that some of the other guys didn't get as much screen-time, so I cared slightly less for them. It doesn't matter too much though, because The Killing is all about building up to the grand racetrack heist and it does a cracking job.
Once we reach the heist we see it multiple times from everyone's different point of view. It's very engaging and clever to see how it all pans out and you're almost rooting for them to complete it cleanly. Some of it was also very well directed. I enjoyed the fight at the bar which was done in a realistic way and only in a few shots. I also liked the tense robbery itself where a character sports a clown mask not too dissimilar to the ones in the opening of The Dark Knight.
In a fairly, yet satisfyingly contrived way, the film obviously pushes its moral that robbing is bad! Suffice to say that the characters meet a sticky way one way or another. I did find the ending a little too sudden and rushed, but overall The Killing is a pretty fine film. I loved its use of narrative and some of the characters were quite memorable too. It's far from Stanley Kubrick's best film, but it's a welcome leap forward from Killer's Kiss. I shall look forward to Paths of Glory.
[Rec]³: Génesis (2012)
Not as bad as people make out, I RECkon
I'd been putting off seeing REC3 for a long time due to the sheer amount of negative reviews. It was such a shame to read because I absolutely love the first two films. The first REC isn't just my favourite ever found footage horror film, but one of my favourite horror films ever! It's one of the few films to actually make me feel scared and always has me filled with tension no matter how many times I see it. REC2 is also a damn fine sequel. It's not scary like the first, but it's entertaining and intelligent.
REC3 came along and I was excited for the whole new setting, however I was extremely sceptical about it not being entirely found footage. What's the point of having a film with REC in the title if it's not recorded? Of course, then the poor reviews came flooding in so I just avoided it until it popped up on Film4. I sat down to watch it last night, not expecting much at all, but to my surprise I actually enjoyed it quite a bit! The first 20 minutes were quite brilliant. I loved how it began like you were watching an actual wedding DVD. It was setting itself up for something with the potential to be spectacular. We had lots of different video cameras, helping us to gain lots of different point of views. We got to know all the characters well, very much like the interviews in the first view. It was also very humorous, and the idea of having it all at a wedding seemed so fresh and original! Once the carnage spread it looked like it we were onto a winner.
Unfortunately, the film made the big mistake of scrapping the found footage angle shortly after the chaos ensued. After this, the film just became your bog-standard zombie movie and the intensity was completely lost. The quick-cutting and clichéd horror music also made sure that the film was completely stripped of its sense of realism. Unfrotunately, for the second bulk of the film it just didn't work.
All of the events which occurred could've quite easily worked through the eyes of a video camera and it would've made the film a whole lot better. I quite liked the central idea of the bride and groom trying to reunite, and they were actually pretty decent characters. The film had a nice range of characters altogether actually, it's a shame that some of them were randomly forgotten about, for example the granny and the little kid were just abandoned.
I have to say that the humour did work for me. I didn't find it as in-your-face as others did and some of it actually made me laugh out loud. It may be me being childish, but I found every scene with SpongeJohn Sqaurepants hilarious. I also enjoyed the gratuitous violence and was quite surprised by how gory it was. There are some brilliant kills in this which should satisfy most horror fans.
I felt like it began picking up a nice momentum during the final half hour and I got really into it. Suddenly I felt like it didn't need to be found footage because I cared more about the characters and their situations. It became a really fun little zombie film, and the directing became much more solid. I won't spoil it, but I really did like the ending too. I thought that the last shot was pretty much perfect.
So I maybe in the minority here, but I think if you go in with the mindset that REC3 isn't going to be a patch on the first two, then you'll find that there's a lot to enjoy. It does have a fairly large wobble in the middle (perhaps it should've stayed found footage up until the third act) but even then it's still entertaining and has plenty of funny moments to keep you interested. I love the idea of it all happening at a wedding and the first and final acts use this idea very well. I was also rooting for the heroes, which is a nice rarity in modern zombie movies! If REC3 was stripped of its title and called Wedding of the Dead, then I think it would be getting a lot more love than it has done.
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Killer's Kiss (1955)
More of a peck on the cheek
Just like Killer's Kiss, I'm going to keep my review brief and pointless. Before Stanley went on making 150-180 minute epics, he started out with this little noir thriller about a boxer protecting the girl next door. At just over one hour this is his shortest ever film and only his only film to have an entirely original screenplay written by him. It's easy to see why Stanley later looked to adapt stories by others, as Killer's Kiss unfortunately isn't up to much at all.
Considering that the film was made on a teeny weeny budget of $40,000 raised by friends and relatives (kind of like Darren Aronofsky's Pi) it's actually not too bad. It was also made during the pre-Spartacus era where the studios didn't give Stanley final cut on his films and so his original ending was changed to a happier one. I think a solemn ending would've helped the film be slightly more memorable though.
The film is brilliantly shot and I couldn't help but marvel at the use of lighting. Towards the end of the film, the lighting almost becomes another character and adds to the film's incredibly stylish mood. It has the look of a classic noir however, it doesn't have a story to match.
It all feels rather too conventional and fairly dull. There's a boxing sequence which the back of the DVD compared to Raging Bull, but it's nothing like and adds little to the story. There's a good fight scene at the end, but by the time it's all over I was left wondering what the point of it was.
It's a brief film which features bland characters and a boring story. It is very stylish and lovely to look at but it doesn't have much depth to it. You can tell that it's directed by a man who knows his wizardry, however he clearly hadn't fully learnt his craft yet. Let's hope that the more lauded, The Killing has more to offer in the way of plot and thrills!
The Sacrament (2013)
Stick to atheism
I think the less you know about the Jonestown incident before seeing The Sacrament, the more effective the film is. I actually knew about the real-life incident before viewing the film, however it still came across in the film as something shocking and disturbing. After seeing Ti West's flat effort at a ghost story in, The Innkeepers, I was keeping my expectations low for his feature length follow-up, however I was actually very pleasantly surprised. The Sacrament is one of the best found footage films we've seen from America in quite a while.
The Sacrament isn't about zombies, ghosts or trolls. Instead, it's the intriguing story of an isolated cult which manages to avoid a lot of the cheap thrills and clichés which found footage films have associated with them. I actually really liked the found footage angle it had as it heightened the feeling of isolation. It makes the audience feel like intruders, thus adding to the sense of mystery. Of course there are a few occasions where the victims pick up the camera before running for their lives, but it's a contrivance which is difficult to avoid and luckily it isn't actually too distracting.
Ti West is known for his slow-burning horror films, however I don't think The Innkeepers worked well as a slow-burner at all so I was preparing myself for boredom. Conversely, I didn't find one minute of The Sacrament boring at all. The first half does a fantastic job of building intrigue and atmosphere. From the moment we arrive on Eden Parish we know that something is menacing is lurking. We chat to the cult members who all seem jolly about the life they've created for themselves and it is interesting to watch. At times, The Sacrament does feel like a genuine documentary which adds to the disturbing reality underneath it.
Things take proper turn for the sinister when we meet the mysterious leader played by the coin toss man in No Country for Old Men! Gene Jones plays him splendidly creepily and comes across a genuine religious nutter. The dialogue Ti West creates for him also feels very authentic which makes for chilling viewing. It's the final half hour which is the most disturbing to view though, as the film goes down a route you wouldn't really expect and breaks typical horror movie conventions.
I can't say that the idea is original because it's quite clearly based on true events, but it is original to use it in the way it's done here. There are some very unsettling scenes which managed to get right underneath my skin. I found the music very effective too in creating a depressive atmosphere that is difficult to shake off. When the film was over I felt genuinely unsettled which is something I don't feel with most modern horror films from America. It also manages to be disturbing without feeling gratuitous.
The Sacrament is a truly horrifying experience, although it doesn't pan out in the way you think it might. It manages to build up a sense of intrigue and realism which makes the third act all the more effective and powerful. I would've liked some better character development and fewer contrivances, but overall The Sacrament is an effective horror film which has the power to unsettle and disturb.
Death Proof (2007)
Top Gear with murderers and sexy people
Death Proof was the only Quentin film I had left to see. I suppose I was putting it off because of all the awful reviews I had read, with Quentin himself even calling it the worst film he's ever done. However, I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised with what I received and I have to disagree with the majority of the negative remarks. In fact, I would put both Jackie Brown and Reservoir Dogs behind Death Proof, although I appreciate that I am definitely in the minority who rates Reservoir Dogs averagely.
I think half the problem is that people are trying to Death Proof as a serious film. If you look at the frequently asked questions on IMDb, you'll find questions such as, "Why was Stuntman Mike so inconsistent at the end?" and "What does the character Stuntman Mike symbolise?" I think the people asking these questions are missing the point. Quentin is pretty much the king of pastiche and here he's pretty much creating a parody of sleazy 70's Grindhouse films. It isn't supposed to be taken seriously, it's meant to be a fun love letter to a lost genre, and for me it works.
It's a lovingly crafted film right from the authentic opening credits. If you were an alien who had no idea who Quentin Tarantino was, then you could easily mistake the first half for being a genuine 70's Grindhouse film! The look of the film is brilliant with dirty marks popping up on every frame and strange continuity errors. It adds a unique atmosphere to the film which matches the film's sleazy antagonist, Stuntman Mike. He's your run-of-the-mill nutter who enjoys mutilating sexy girls with his car. Luckily Quentin manages to take away the film's uncomfortable themes of misogyny by creating a fun 'girl power' second-half.
The film actually took me by surprise as it takes a massive detour in the middle which I didn't see coming, so I won't spoil it for people who haven't seen it yet. I'm not sure if it entirely worked, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I loved the long, hypnotic first-half which kind of reminded me of something David Lynch would do. It has long takes in a Twin Peaks-style bar with dreamy music playing in the background and dancing. It feels long, but it's never boring and always engaging. There's a lot of great dialogue in this half too.
Unfortunately the dialogue didn't work so well for me in the second-half. Some of it felt like a parody of a Quentin Tarantino film and conversations dragged on for far too long. Thankfully, Quentin manages to snatch back our attention with a thrilling finale which features a seemingly never-ending car duel. It's a lot of fun to watch and is almost up there with other great Quentin action scenes such as the Bride vs. the Crazy 88 and the shootout at Candy Land.
Most of all though, Death Proof is just plain fun. It may be overlong but it's full of brilliant dialogue and memorable characters. It also has a fantastic soundtrack which is almost like another character. The action scenes are also sensational. I enjoyed it a lot.