FILM REVIEW: Bone Tomahawk

There’s a scene in Bone Tomahawk that’s so gruesome that it had me physically recoiling from the screen,  averting my eyes in the process. It’s imagery like this that I’ve struggled to shift from my mind ever since, such is its graphic and brutal nature.
Now either Im getting more squeamish with age, or director S. Craig Zahler has successfully managed to get right inside my head there. I suspect it’s a little of both.
Welcome to Bone Tomahawk folks, a particularly twisted take on the classic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ theme.
When shady and mistrustful drifter, Purvis (David Arquette), rolls into the sleepy back water town of Bright Hope, Sheriff Hunt (the very well cast, Kurt Russell) confronts shoots and wounds the man leaving him in need of urgent medical attention. Doctor Samantha (Lili Simmons) duly obliges.
With night fallen, Samantha elects to remain with her by now incarcerated patient to monitor his post-surgery condition, rather than return to her husband Arthur – himself convalescing following a leg fracture. Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) will stand guard over proceedings. In time he will wish he hadn’t.
With the arrival of morning comes the unwelcome realisation that doctor, patient and deputy sheriff have all vanished. A distinctive-headed arrow embedded in the sheriff’s office wall is identified as being a tell-tale sign that this abduction is the work of a troglodyte tribe of cannibalistic Indians.
You see, Purvis (and a now deceased – at the hands of the Indians – accomplice), had unwittingly desecrated the Indians’ sacred burial site and with ‘bone tomahawks’ in hand, they are hell-bent on revenge.
It’s time for Sheriff Hunt to rustle up a rescue party, saddle-up and set about imposing some justice.
Joining Hunt on this mission improbable are Arthur (Samantha’s husband), no nonsense, Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a stubborn old timer, defying his age, refusing to be left out.
Like many a ‘Western’ before it, Bone Tomahawk is a slow-burning affair. Indeed, a five day trek on horseback unavoidably becomes all the more drawn-out and gruelling when the Sheriff and his three cohorts have their horses stolen from right under their noses, forcing them to complete the remainder of their mission on foot. Not the end of the world you’d think, but  Arthur’s fractured and increasingly infected leg isn’t helping progress.
On having his hand hacked off, the immaculately groomed, and superbly vain, Brooder, decides that he will strap on dynamite and inflict a suicide mission upon the Indians. “I’m far too vain to go on living looking like this” he declares.
Yes, it’s devilishly dark and humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and as all such elements combine with the film’s increasingly brutal narrative, it left this viewer unsure of whether to shriek in horror and hide behind the sofa, or laugh-out-loud.
Perhaps Monty Python’s ‘Black Knight’ is as good a way as any to summarise the predicament, for no matter how many ‘mere flesh wounds’ are inflicted upon our courageous – bordering on idiotic – rescue party, they refuse to be perturbed, pressing onward, unwavering from their end goal.
It may have a classic B movie air about it, be littered with faults and inconsistencies and somehow achieve simultaneously both the humorous and repulsive, but there’s absolutely no doubting that Bone Tomahawk is at once very real, gritty and highly memorable, but  most crucially of all… enormously entertaining.
A splendid piece of cult movie-making nonsense if ever I’ve seen one.
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FILM REVIEW: The Finest Hours

There’s nothing like a great, epic sea-faring yarn. And, that’s right, this is nothing like a great, epic sea-faring yarn.

Based upon a true story; one that is still heralded to this day as the greatest sea-faring rescue mission by the U.S coastal guard to ever have happened, The Finest Hours chronicles the daring exploits of ‘unlikely’ hero, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), and his rag-tag assortment of inexperienced seamen on their mission to save a number of stricken crew members aboard half of an oil tanker – that’s right, half of an oil tanker – the other half having been shorn away by 70 foot waves in uncommonly rough seas during one of the worst storms ever to have hit the U.S east coast.

You certainly can’t argue that The Finest Hours has all of the ingredients to make an engaging, albeit straight forward piece of cinema, so quite how director Craig Gillespie and Disney have come up which such a damp squib of a film, is a bit of a head scratcher.

Right from the off, a limp set of sequences introduces us to a set of characters so beige, poorly drawn and uninspired, that you’d swear you were watching a made-for-TV matiné movie on the Hallmark channel. Add to this a ‘by-the-numbers’ script of massively contrived dialogue and a lead character, Bernie, whose soft voice, bowed head and bashful mannerisms, make him perhaps the least convincing ‘heroic’ boat captain since Laurel and Hardy stepped aboard in Saps at Sea.

Unlike the impressive, rolling waves of this 1952 storm, The Finest Hours, with maybe a handful of notable CGi-infused exceptions, is, in stark contrast, largely flat and lifeless, failing to hit the mark spectacularly on occasions. Indeed, even the effects are at times suspect. Not quite, ‘the studio’s summer temp, on set, flinging buckets of water at the boat’s crew from stage left’ suspect, but suspect none the less.

Rarely has such a relatively stella cast, (including the likes of Casey Affleck, John Ortiz and Eric Bana), ever been rendered quite so uninspiring  and disengaging, barely lifting this drab, salty saga into the realms of even the mundane.

I’d imagine I’m not the target audience for this two hours of sanitised marine driftwood, and it’s only fair to admit that it’s not bad in that Roland Emmerich, 2012 – angry at the mere thought of it – sense of the word, but let’s just say this; in marine terms, The Finest Hours is a piece of seaweed, bobbing limply on a still ocean; and not even one of those vaguely interesting pieces with the poppable air pockets in it.

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Rams

Brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) are sheep farmers working adjacent plots in a remote valley in northern Iceland.

Neither brother says a word to the other due to a bitter feud – relating to their father’s farm inheritance terms – stretching back over forty years.

Gummi and Kiddi may well want nothing to do with one another, but they do both have one thing in common, their huge passion for their flock, and its impressive ancestral lineage, something each of them is keen to demonstrate by upstaging not just one another, but the entire regional farming community, by landing the annual ‘Ram of the year’ competition.

If one can push strains of the Father Ted theme out of one’s mind for just a moment, this is the backdrop to director Grímur Hákonarson’s wonderfully gentle, subtle and darkly comic, Rams.

Gummi, on suspecting an outbreak of the contagious, potentially lethal disease, scrapie, in Kiddi’s sheep, informs the authorities, much to Kiddi’s disgust, suspecting his brother of foul play and sabotaging his flock and livelihood out of spite.

Gummi’s suspicions are unfortunately confirmed and with the authorities’ decision to cull all of the region’s sheep, every farmer, Gummi included, is faced with the very real prospect of financial ruin.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Whilst the region’s farmers seem resigned to their fate, Gummi is not going down so easily, hatching a secretive plan to foil the authorities.

Director Hákonarson’s slow, methodical takes allow substantial observation of the simple existences of the collection of rather aloof characters that inhabit the valley, whose lives, remote as they may be, seem largely content and somehow well-suited to the exposed, wind-swept Icelandic tundra.

Everything from the brothers’ established form of communication (employing the boundless enthusiasm and energy of the resident border collie to scurry between farm plots, scribbled messaged rolled-up and clenched between willing jaws, rather than actually speaking to one another), to the slightly awkward, stilted conversations and interactions between the valley’s residents, infuse Rams with a sprinkling of genuine charm and humour.

Amidst the metaphorical gathering dark clouds of fate and the rapidly encroaching harsh Icelandic winter weather, Rams is in some way a story of stubborn pride and regret, but it’s refreshing that it’s equally a tale of the ingrained, deep-seated love we have for our own flesh and blood – of both the family and woolly varieties in this case – no matter what transpires, and ultimately the cathartic power of reconciliation.

A bitter-sweet, slow-burning gem.

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Spotlight

“The church wants us to believe that it was just a few bad apples, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s actually a recognisable, psychological phenomenon…”

The Catholic priest scandal, much like the whole Jimmy Savile affair, in an internet-less age, was the stuff of gossip and rumour. Barring a mainstream media outlet both brave and crucially independent enough to run a major story such as this, it was always destined to remain that way. Presumably an assortment of well-connected people within their fields,  influential enough to dissuade any such follow-up to these kinds of accusations, would have had them discredited and brushed under the carpet in no time.

Like Mr Savile, the Catholic church, whilst being perceived as a bit bizarre in that ‘marmite’ sense, was also seen as essentially well-intentioned. Both the church and Savile  after all did / do a lot of great work for charidee.

Of course, Catholicism is often the subject of much debate. Whether one buys into its core message and instructions, is appalled by its historical global track record, or is bewildered by the concept of living one’s life in a state of servile, fearful reverence, the Catholic church does however offer a great many people a source of much comfort, providing a sense of community and meaning to a large number of folk. For all of the negative aspects of the religion, it does encourage people to be generous of heart, caring and charitable. Though not traits exclusive to those of a religious persuasion by any means, it’s nonetheless important and only fair that this is always acknowledged.

It cannot be ignored however that some very fundamental aspects of the structure and mechanics of Catholicism were key ingredients in the revealed mass abuse of young children the world over, and it’s this revelation that forms the crux of Tom McCarthy’s at times hard-hitting, Spotlight.

The backdrop is Boston, a city with a traditionally large Irish-American population and hence a strong historical representation by the Catholic church. The city’s Boston Globe newspaper has run a one-off ‘comment’ column regarding the abuse of young children at the hands of Catholic priests. Its reception is lukewarm at best and the piece would have been confined to the historical archives but for the coincidental and timely appointment of a new chief editor at The Globe – a man with new ideas and priorities – and it is decided therefore that they should look into this further, entrusting the task to the paper’s special investigative arm, Spotlight.

Understandably, this is met with an air of disapproval by the team considering that over half of The Globe’s readership are statistically practicing Catholics.

Through conversations with abuse ‘survivors’ groups like S.N.A.P and with assorted insiders, the true nature and scale of the problem is quickly pieced together and revealed:

A priest’s vow of celibacy, whilst adhered to by many, we are informed is essentially a smokescreen and that over 50% of priests are in fact anything but.

Those priests that have been outed as child abusers are mysteriously removed from their dioceses by the church and marked down officially as ‘on sick leave.’ No further explanations necessary.

A staggering 90 (6%) of all 1,500 priests active in just the Boston area are discovered to be involved in the scandal. A vast increase on the suspected total of 15.

Just how far does this thing go and why has it taken until now for it to properly come to light?

In Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, to mention but three, Spotlight boasts a strong cast that do a decent job in delivering Tom McCarthy’s interpretation of events. It’s subject matter that would be typically the domain of a full-on Hollywood treatment, which is why, in some ways, it’s a pleasant surprise that it doesn’t really take that approach.

If anything it’s a film in danger of being a little underplayed. As has been suggested elsewhere, Spotlight thankfully succeeds in avoiding the temptation for over-exaggerated scenes of desk-thumping and pained soul-searching, and whereas I’m all in favour of the more subtle approach to film creation, I worry in this instance that the necessary impact – considering the film’s rather antagonistic content –  is perhaps a little lost in McCarthy’s direction; as detailed and carefully considered as it undoubtedly is.

Much like 2015’s Steve Jobs, Spotlight is a film heavy on dialogue, albeit in a less voluminous, hence more palatable way. It’s also a film that will certainly stand up to repeat viewings, if for no other reason than to fully ingest and indeed digest the copious details that it discloses.

Spotlight falls a bit short of being considered a defining film within its genre, but nevertheless it’s a welcome and necessary piece whose strong message addresses admirably an issue that was for far too long ignored.

One would hope that mainstream film-making of contentious, religion-fueled issues will not stop here?

The oft-ridiculed Catholic church has become a bit of an easy target over the years, that much is true, and the fallout from criticising and exposing its failings is perceived to be low-risk enough to make any such actions worthwhile, yet religion-caused atrocities, equally deserving of mainstream artistic criticism, yet never so confidently publicly reviled, remain the stuff of unsubstantiated rumour and insinuation, and most importantly, prevalent, the world over.

I await their exposé, though I shan’t be holding my breath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Trumbo

I encountered a review of Jay Roach’s Trumbo the other day. It was critical both for being inaccurate and for presenting an overly favourable depiction of a man who was by all accounts notoriously hard to get on with and a bit of a pain in the arse.

I couldn’t possibly comment on this being relatively ignorant of the man and his life’s work, but turning this wholly negative, ‘thumbs-down’ review on its head for a moment, I would argue that Trumbo is in fact an excellent piecefor those very same reasons.

Jay Roach’s biopic, in spite of the relatively heavy nature of the subject matter, takes a fairly light-hearted, almost whimsical approach to the remarkable life of Dalton Trumbo; but lacking in substance and weight, it is not.

Strangely comic and almost cartoonish in his portrayal, Bryan Cranston nails his depiction of the infamous Hollywood screenwriter and political activist. Perhaps it’s Trumbo’s relentless chain-smoking or the flippant nature of his retorts, but there are shades of Groucho Marx about Cranston’s Trumbo, whilst Roach’s direction borrows slightly from latter-day Woody Allen in many respects, adding considerable charm and levity to the story.

That’s not to say that Trumbo by definition is a comedy. It isn’t.

Mid 20th century America was a tough place to hold ‘radical’ political beliefs. With the Cold War hanging over the nation like a bad smell and the trepidation of ‘what may be,’ American minds were rightly or wrongly preoccupied within a climate of fear and anti-Russian, anti-Communist sentiment.

For those like Dalton Trumbo, a man who held the civil rights and welfare of all American citizens as paramount to a well balanced and fair society above anything else, there was a very real sense that the net was widening and indeed closing in on them.

Trumbo, buoyed from signing a lucrative writing contract with Metro Goldwyn Meyer, a deal that would well and truly set him up for life, would soon find his life and career taking a serious downturn. Not just the American authorities was it, hell-bent on pulling the rug from beneath him, but the herd mentality of a media-fed public, lapping up the propoganda of the times, would also adopt the position of ‘defenders of the flag,’ unwittingly undermining their own freedoms by policing both the ‘commies’ and themselves in the process.

Trumbo and his circle of politically like-minded friends and confidants are predictably put through the wringer by the U.S authorities and shunned by those they had assumed were either friends or trustworthy acquaintances, with law after law passed deliberately to demonise them and their kind, ever further.

For the outed Communist Trumbo, a potential spell of incarceration is a very real possibility, but worse still, a blacklisting at the hands of the powers that be in Hollywood, spells potential career disaster.

Dalton Trumbo is however a canny customer, made of sterner stuff. Indeed, time will truly reveal the brilliance of the man and his ingenious methods of biting back at those who see fit to ruin him…

There’s a hell of a lot to like about Trumbo.

Bryan Cranston is terrific in the lead role, and his job is made that much easier being backed up most ably by a tremendous support cast:

Diane Lane is stoic, motherly and wonderfully feminine, portraying Trumbo’s long-suffering wife, Cleo. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the conflicted actor Edward G. Robinson, Louis C.K is Alen Hird, Trumbo’s close friend and fellow screenwriter of similar mind, whilst John Goodman weighs in, quite literally, with his take on the larger-than-life character, Frank King, the owner of a film company specialising in turning around God-awful films in record time, without any bullshit.

A special mention to Helen Mirren too. She portrays Hedda Hopper, a ‘Time’ journalist and critic as loathsome as she is influential, and a woman whose poisonous pen can and does make or break the best of them.

Trumbo, in spite of the at times sobering content and heavily political sub-text, positively jollies along. There’s a good pace to the film and a reassuring sense of quality about both script and direction, akin to a well-directed Spielberg yarn, and above all, the comforting realisation that everything’s in exceptionally good hands here.

There’s always a danger that biopics end up being dry, box-ticking exercises, but in Trumbo, director Jay Roach has got it spot on. He’s succeeded in revealing the life and times of one of America’s finest and most prolific screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo, not just as an interesting historical account, but as a properly engaging cinematic event, and that’s no mean feat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Zoolander 2

In 2001, Zoolander was unleashed in all of its goofball idiocy upon the cinema-going public. It was nonsense, but good fun and critically – pretty funny.

Zoolander 2 isn’t.

As much fun as I’m sure it was to be in, for Zoolander 2’s impressive star-studded cast, the question simply has to be asked:

Penelope Cruz, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Billy Zane, Macauly Culkin, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Willy Nelson, Sting, Kanye West, Lenny Kravitz, Lewis Hamilton, Susan Boyle, to name but a few…. what WERE you all thinking?

Mildly amusing moments are scarce, but they do exist if you really concentrate, and it’s only therefore fair to admit that Zoolander 2 is not entirely awful, but it comes as close as it’s physically possibly to get to that without actually touching.

Avoid.

Thank me later.