THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

“I still remember when ‘horror’ films were not so much the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, ‘knowing’ tips of the hat to the genre that they’ve become…”

Wayward Wolf.

The Belko Experiment has been described as “Office Space meets Battle Royale“, which on balance is probably about right. Absurdly comical, yet horrific and unnerving at times.

In truth, I’m a little torn on this one. I still remember when ‘horror’ films were not so much the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, ‘knowing’ tips of the hat to the genre that they’ve become, but genuinely disturbing experiences in their own right, in which the director would set out to frighten the living beJeezus out of those that might dare to watch them, with scant chance of any light relief along the way.

Of course, as with any genre, only a small percentage of attempts ever truly succeeded in achieving this – think Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, The Blair Witch Project and so on – but they were all created with one sole purpose in mind, to be properly frightening, for frightening’s sake.

Greg McLean – no stranger to ‘straight’ horror – best known as he is for a piece of horror very much cut from that particular cloth, Wolf Creek – is the director responsible for The Belko Experiment, which is essentially a darkly humorous, ironic horror, centered around the rather awkward theme of kill or be killed.

It would be unfair however to suggest that The Belko Experiment doesn’t contain genuinely unsettling moments that are designed to strike fear into your very core. It very definitely does. There is perhaps after all no better vehicle for unnerving an audience than converting something that would be considered a perfectly safe, albeit dull haven – such as people’s banal, every day working environments – into the scene of untold terror. Better still, why not make it a setting from which there really is genuinely no escape, no matter how hard you try.

The events take place in a lone-standing, non-descript concrete office block on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia – the home of Belko Industries – in which an English speaking staff from a whole variety of backgrounds assemble for work as they would on any other day. With their morning coffees barely touched, they are suddenly informed via an unrecognised voice over the building’s intercom, that they cannot now leave the premises. The thought of being marooned at work would be bad enough for some, but when that’s followed up with an insistence that the staff must murder two of their number within half an hour “or there will be repercussions,” then you’ve got all the ingredients right there for a properly bad day at the office.

And so, to the jarring sound of impenetrable external shutters slamming shut over each and every window and feasible means of escape, the Belko experiment begins…

With more than a whiff of a Big Brother surveillance society pervading, it becomes increasingly clear to one and all entombed within the building that there is no escaping this growing, potentially gruesome crisis, and it’s not long before critical divisions begin to appear among the employees, and fractious behaviour abounds.

There are those insistent upon calm and reason, whilst there is a splinter group believing that in light of rapidly unfolding events, the only route forward is to consider the good of the many, and to make some extremely tough decisions. These are decisions that are not going to bode well for some. One thing is very clear though; ultimately everyone is bound to play by the same rules; the rules being set by this mysterious, elusive voice, and there appears to be not a damned thing that anyone can do about it.

It is this sense of desperation and helplessness that is the chief triumph of The Belko Experiment and Maclean conveys this effectively throughout the piece. It is particularly interesting to watch the gradual decay of inter-employee relations, as petty work rivalries soon escalate out of all control. An increasing sense of despair envelops and disables many, yet it drives others to decisive, brutal action.

Even forgiving the film’s rather clumsy, somewhat unnecessary conclusion, and the unavoidably tension-sapping effect of employing an overly familiar cast – something of a who’s who of minor roles in American film and TV – there is, however, no doubting that The Belko Experiment is a highly effective horror whose approach lies somewhere between old school frightener and post-Scream era dark humour.

My only minor ambivalence to The Belko Experiment stems from a personal preference of what a horror by definition should be, and thus probably shouldn’t be considered to be any sort of noteworthy criticism, as such.

Take it for what it is.

There’s nothing particularly innovative here if truth be told, and it’s far from an original concept in the first place, but what it does have to offer is handled well. It’s refreshingly punchy with good momentum and mercifully doesn’t dwell heavily upon any distracting personal back stories that would offer little or nothing to the film as a whole.

The Belko Experiment is a well executed (excuse the pun if you’d be so kind) modern horror that should inject a suitably unsettling 90 minutes into your day.

 

 

 

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LADY MACBETH

Lady Macbeth is a simple, powerful and above all hugely memorable film.”

Wayward Wolf.

My own relative theatrical ignorance paid off handsomely with this preview screening of Director William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Based in some small part on William Shakespeare’s character, Macbeth, it tells the story of a young lady, Katherine (Florence Pugh), sold into marriage, along with a worthless piece of land. It’s a close call as to which of the deal’s two assets is of less value to the purchaser and needless to say, the marriage is entirely inadequate and loveless, thanks in the main to the husband whose inability to consummate the relationship appears to have driven him to become a bitter and hurtful piece of work, if he wasn’t just that already, that is.

Together with his sour-faced father, they barely give Katherine the time of day, yet are insistent that she adheres to the son’s every whim, wish and demand.

The calling away of both husband and father on a matter of some urgency begins a chain of events in Katherine’s life that will completely re-shape it forever. The catalyst for such a dramatic turnabout is the appearance of a newly-hired stable hand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), whose mischievous, rugged and earthy charms ignite deep, lustful passions within Katherine; urges that she simply can’t help but act upon.

But having tasted this particular forbidden fruit, there really is no going back considering the stunted, soulless alternative on offer to her. Indeed, Katherine really might just do about anything to ensure that this new found freedom to both be herself again and to begin to impose some authority about the place, is never denied her again.

Lady Macbeth, whilst being by definition a period drama, feels far more contemporary in its approach and outlook than that. Sparse and minimal in its direction, it’s a piece refreshingly devoid of unnecessary clutter and it never attempts to overcomplicate what is essentially a very simple, straightforward plot. Instead, director William Oldroyd concentrates on both strong characterisation and ensuring that the narrative is delivered with unconfused precision and impact.

Florence Pugh plays her part with assured aplomb, gradually morphing from patient obedience, into reckless, scheming abandon. She is very much a young woman who recognises that her time has come, and is unafraid to use and manipulate those around her, partly out of desperation, yet ultimately for her own selfish gain.

Lady Macbeth is a simple, powerful and above all hugely memorable film, delivered expertly by all involved.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

ELLE

“…this is a woman whose experiences earlier in life have resulted in something of a twisted psyche…”

Wayward Wolf.

When the central theme of your film is that of brutal rape, yet the gravity of such an incident is then somewhat downplayed, and almost brushed off by the victim herself, it tells you that this is not a conventional Director’s take on the well worn theme of unwarranted assault and retribution.

No stranger to sexual or violent content in his films, Director Paul Verhoeven takes hold of the reins in this his slightly warped thriller, Elle.

Michèle Leblanc (the reassuringly superb, Isabelle Huppert), is the boss of a successful video games company. She is gradually revealed to be head-strong in character, yet slightly unbalanced in both her demeanour and actions. This can almost certainly be attributed to the fact that she is the product of a highly disturbed childhood – her father having been an appalling and reviled convicted mass murderer – which has rendered Michèle a somewhat erratic personality, and rather emotionally detached from the events that occur in her day to day life.

Michèle falls prey to a masked intruder on her own doorstep, and a forceful sexual assault takes place. Far from exhibiting the behavioural patterns of hysteria and self-loathing that we might have expected, she doesn’t so much as even notify the police, instead choosing to remain calm and carry on.

It’s curious behaviour to say the least, but one senses that this is a woman whose experiences earlier in life have resulted in something of a twisted psyche, enabling her to just accept things that others would consider far too taboo or utterly repellent.

It becomes apparent that Michèle’s rape was not in fact an isolated incident when a personalised pornographic animation is emailed to her at work, this time portraying her, once again, as the victim of a rape. True to character, Michèle calmly sets about trying to track down the perpetrator believing, understandably, that it must be someone from the workplace, and that these two recent events must therefore be linked.

But, we must consider that she works in an industry accepting of what would otherwise be considered extreme or sexually inappropriate, yet one that justifies such content by compartmentalising it into something rather more fantastical and crucially, unreal. It should also be considered that Michèle’s rather quirky ‘anything goes’ personality is something of a magnet of attraction for a rather unstable friend-base. The chief protagonist of a workplace stunt such as this therefore may be much harder to get to the bottom of than it could have been in anyone else’s walk of life.

With all of this and an exhibitionist elderly mother who enjoys living disgracefully with men less than half her age, it’s probably of some personal relief to Michèle that the kindly new neighbours that have moved in next door seem to be upstanding characters, and offer her, crucially, a stable influence in her life. They are very much the antithesis of the often self-inflicted car crash that Michèle’s life can have a tendency to degenerate into, with only the tiniest amount of effort.

The neighbours – Patrick in particular ( Laurent Lafitte), will play an increasingly influential part in her life, but if there’s one thing that Michèle has learnt, it’s that appearances can sometimes be deceptive, leaving her to ponder exactly which people she can really trust, and what their real motives may be?

Elle is a brilliantly spun web of intrigue and dysfunction, and Michèle is very much the common denominator at its very centre.

Paul Verhoeven paints this middle aged woman as something of a dichotomy. On the one hand she’s a stylish lady in control of her affairs and actions, yet on the other, a woman with self-destructive tendencies, only too willing to surrender all control, along with any self-respect that she possesses.

Verhoeven’s Elle is a psychologically intense piece, in which he positively delights in challenging his audience, pushing the boundaries with risqué, confrontational content, and in the process, blurs all lines of division between the concept of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’.

Whilst it may not possess the sort of twist or reveal that you might have anticipated, Elle is far more than just a simple whodunit or thriller. A twisted, stylish, tense and intriguing piece that will leave you dissecting its unsettling characters, ideas and concepts for quite some time to come.

IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD

“…Dolan has come up with yet another film of quite devastating impact.”

Wayward Wolf.

Director Xavier Dolan is no stranger to confrontational, explosive content, and his latest piece, It’s Only the End of the World – based loosely on Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play – continues in a familiar vein.

Employing the incredibly effective, yet highly claustrophobic technique of using tight close up shots pretty much throughout, Dolan’s film conjures up a suffocating, unsettling, and deeply awkward air, right from the start.

Louis (the softly-spoken Noah Wyle-alike, Gaspard Ulliel), is returning home after an absence of some twelve years. A cursory glance at the film’s synopsis in advance of any viewing will make sense of much of the film’s content, however, going into it blind as I did left much room for ambiguity. There are certainly many ways of interpreting the array of dysfunctional and erratic behaviour on display without necessarily coming to any sort of concrete conclusions, let alone the correct one.

For those that wish to know: Louis is returning home to announce that he is terminally ill and that he is not long for this world. Exactly what is wrong with him is never established owing to the absolute barrage of issues and the undercurrents of family bitterness and self-interest that completely swamp Louis and any attempts he may make to announce his news during the visit.

Chief protagonist in conjuring up the absolute tsunami of ill-feeling that seems to completely envelop the family is older brother, Antoine (an absolutely sensational bordering on unhinged performance from Vincent Cassel), whose anger-fuelled sarcasm and acerbic ripostes do little to encourage a free-flowing dialogue of compassion amongst the family members.

Younger sister, Suzanne (the ever impressive Léa Seydoux), so keen to catch up with and indeed get to know the brother that’s been absent for most of her formative years, is given scant opportunity to do so thanks in part to her own selfish interests, but chiefly due to the ever-present dark cloud of misery that Antoine insists on hanging heavy over the party.

A strong -willed mother (Nathalie Baye), and Catherine (Marion Cotillard), complete this particular gathering of doom, in amongst whom, Louis waits patiently and nervously for the opportune moment to announce his grave news.

It is a moment that never comes, although there are insinuations during the film that some family members may be marginally less clueless of Louis’ intentions than others.

The whole thing remains fairly ambiguous, though Dolan does superbly well to ramp up the atmosphere and tension throughout to the point at which something surely has to give.

Or perhaps not? You’ll need to see for yourselves.

It’s Only the End of the World is a dialogue-heavy piece, yet Dolan finds ways of administering his own brand of agitated energy and dynamism to proceedings, made so much easier thanks to an absolutely stella cast performing at the very top of their games.

With the highly effective use of montages and a score that successfully swells the already palpable levels of negative tension to at times unbearably bloated levels, Dolan has come up with yet another film of quite devastating impact. A highly challenging piece that frequently threatens to boil over, yet, is just about reined in sufficiently to keep us guessing right through to the film’s ambiguous conclusion.

THEIR FINEST

“…perhaps the show-stealing role is taken by Bill Nighy with his comical portrayal of the puffed-up thespian figure, Ambrose Hiliard.” 

Wayward Wolf.

Lone Scherfig’s WWII drama, Their Finest, strikes well the tricky balance between romantic comedy and serious content. Barring a sudden entrance from Rowan Atkinson, War, after all, is probably not much of a laughing matter.

Catrin Cole (a delightful performance from Gemma Arterton), is the demure, softly spoken Welsh girl from Ebbw Vale. She has moved from the valleys to London along with her partner, Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), who feverishly attempts to establish himself as a fine artist of worth, having been promised opportunities within the field relating to the on-going war effort.

Life’s a struggle though. Financially-speaking, Catrin and Ellis can barely afford the rent, until that is she unexpectedly lands a job writing scripts for the British film industry. But the struggles are of a very different kind when it becomes apparent to Catrin that her writing talents are somewhat undervalued in her new role owing to her gender, and she is consigned to writing throwaway ‘female slop’ as opposed to anything that may be considered at all worth while.

Somehow though, through sheer hard work and a canny knack for saying the right thing, she lands herself an opportunity to co-write the script for a military propaganda piece, intended to lift the spirits of the allied forces. For this, Catrin joins a small team of writers, namely, Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), and Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Buckley is a character that is hard to warm to. Tom’s initial negativity gives rise to friction between himself and Catrin, yet ultimately a fairly complex and involved relationship develops between the pair. The three of them are tasked with pulling together the script for a piece based vaguely upon true events. It is in many ways as ridiculous as it is inspirational, not helped by the constant meddling from those in lofty positions of military power, insistent upon shoe-horning in edits on a whim to suit each and every war ‘fad’ of the moment. Nonetheless, Catrin flourishes in her role and becomes an indispensable part of the set up.

All the while, bombs are falling around about her, over the City of London. The blitz, in full effect, makes for a surreal, hurdle-ridden backdrop to this rather charming tale.

Considering the setting and subject matter, it’ll come as no shock to suggest that there is something overwhelmingly British about Scherfig’s film in that Richard-Curtis-esque Four Weddings / Notting Hill fashion. Such an achievement is brought about chiefly through a collection of lightly-stereotyped, yet intriguing characters. As already mentioned, Arteton is excellent, whilst Huston and Claflin are well cast in their respective parts, but perhaps the show-stealing role is taken by Bill Nighy with his comical portrayal of the puffed-up thespian figure, Ambrose Hiliard.

Hanging on for grim death to the remnants of his acting career, Hilliard is deeply bitter of the fact that war has rather savaged what he’d anticipated would be his golden twilight years in film. His eccentric agent, Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan) – complete with a dishevelled sheep’s head ensconced in his bag (a treat for his constant bull terrier companion) – is at best professionally adequate, but generally below par for the frustrated Hilliard’s career-needs. Living, as he does, in his own rose-tinted bubble of self-importance, yet more than aware of the slow, painful death of his career, the last thing that Hilliard needs is a pandering agent with relatively little clout in the industry.

Whilst it may well lack a little depth and consequently fall some way short of being considered a classic of British cinema, as far as bitter-sweet, and frequently poignant feel-good stories go, Lone Scherfig’s gentle tale of one girl’s single-minded determination to overcome the considerable odds stacked against her, is hugely enjoyable, and very possibly Gemma Arteton’s finest hour, to boot.

 

POWER RANGERS

“A group of ever so slightly wayward kids… A sort of watered down Breakfast Club for this generation…”

Wayward Wolf.

The relentless drive to rediscover every ‘lost’ super hero franchise of yesteryear continues unabated with this very 2017 take on the old ’90s kids TV series, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

A group of ever so slightly wayward kids thrown together through various improbable circumstances – A sort of watered down Breakfast Club for this generation – unwittingly find themselves to be the ‘chosen ones’ in the fight against the dastardly deeds of Rita Repulsa, a fallen Ranger-turned evil entity, whose reign of wrong-doing had actually commenced many millions of years previously.

Indeed, her initial plans to weave a web of wickedness had unfortunately (for her) been thwarted by the minor inconvenience of a meteor wiping out all life on planet earth.

Fast forward then to the present day, and a group of fishermen catch the preserved remains of Rita on their boat, in amongst their fishy loot. Apparently this is the cue that Rita’s grisly remains has been waiting for, all these millions of years, and she doesn’t waste any time jumping back to life, and wreaking havoc upon the local community.

Meanwhile, our angst-ridden teen heroes-to-be unearth some lost power crystals which are by all accounts of great importance to Rita and her pernicious plans for world domination. It’s not long – again through sets of circumstances too silly, convoluted and improbable to go into – before our new Power Rangers are fully embroiled in a bid to oversee Rita’s downfall, whilst she, in turn, plans to disarm them of their shiny crystalline bounty, and make good on her manifesto of mayhem.

Or something.

Naturally it’s all nonsense, and it’s fair to say that by the time we reach the film’s cacophonous conclusion, any semblance of subtlety the film may have professed to entertain, has been well and truly trodden underfoot both metaphorically and literally, by some ham-fisted direction and an array of huge CGi creations, intent on beating seven bells of shite out of each other.

Nevertheless, and rather unexpectedly, there actually is a certain element of charm (of sorts) about Power Rangers. The five teens-turned-Rangers succeed in being fairly quirky, almost likeable characters, albeit ones playing up to clichéd stereotypes: The Jock (Dacre Montgomery), the cheerleader (Naomi Scott), the autistic nerd (RJ Cyler), the ‘don’t label me / I’m far too alternative’ character (Becky G), and, errr, the other one (Ludi Lin).

Each has a story to tell comprised of their own particular flavour of angsty issues, and it’s only by sharing and overcoming these and thereby successfully bonding together as one, that they can achieve their collective goal, and morph into fully-armoured Power Rangers – and other such Sesame Street-inspired life lessons.

It’s certainly true that Director Dean Israelite’s personal vision of Power Rangers frequently teeters on the brink of plunging over the precipice into a hellish mixing pot of sickly unrealistic, ever-so-clever dialogue in combination with that oh-so-tiresome emo-esque, furrow-browed  inward reflection so typical of modern teen film and television. But somehow, Power Rangers escapes the dreaded drop of misfortune, and muscles on through to become what on balance is actually a reasonably watchable piece of family entertainment, and that in itself is probably some cause for celebration.

It’s certainly nothing special though, even within its own limited genre, but it’s not nearly as forgettable as had been both feared and predicted.

Just exactly what I was doing, watching something like this on the big screen, however, we’ll leave for another day…

GHOST IN THE SHELL

“HONDA appear to be doing rather well for themselves in the future, in case you were concerned…”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

Place a human brain atop the perfect body and what do you get? When the answer is ‘Scarlett Johansson’ there probably won’t be many in disagreement. But this is not necessarily a flippant, lustful homage to she from the rather aesthetically-pleasing Scandinavian gene pool. Instead, what we have here is the brain ‘rescued’ from a woman unfortunate to have been embroiled in a terrorist attack. This particular cerebral mass has been salvaged and implanted into a cyber-enhanced artificial body in order to create the ultimate fighting machine. An experimental yet soon to be key weapon and deterrent in a city’s fight against terrorism.

This 2017 re-working of the Ghost in the Shell is the latest take on a concept that originated as a Manga back in 1989 and has since been used to create films, TV series’ and video games, by all accounts. You could say it’s something of a Japanese institution.

Unable as I am personally to compare and contrast Hollywood’s new take on things with any of the franchise’s former incarnations, inquisitiveness nevertheless has led me to cast a cursory glance around the internet which has revealed something of a scathing air of disappointment surrounding Rupert Sanders’ film. It appears to have garnered very little of the reverential acclaim afforded its 1995 animated predecessor of the same name.

Set amidst the futuristic backdrop of a fictional Japanese city in the mid twenty-first century, the threat of terrorism is no longer just that of imminent physical destruction. There is now additionally the increasing issue of mind-hacking, and so it is clear that a special type of counter-threat will be required in order to keep that in check.

Step forward Major Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson). Cast loose from the Hanka Robotics base in which she has been assembled, she sets about tracking down a particularly sinister hooded character, only, all is not as it seems. Given time it becomes apparent that not only is this supposed terrorism threat anything but, but that she herself is not quite the ground-breaking, unique creation that she’d been led to believe.

Visually, Ghost in the Shell ticks an awful lot of boxes and should be commended generously on this level. Fantastical sky-scraping backdrops of glowing neon are further adorned with assorted holographic advertising imagery – certainly HONDA appear to be doing rather well for themselves in the future, in case you were concerned – whilst a degree of industrial grime is retained at ground level; an uninviting world in which the financially-challenged ne’er-do-wells go about their dubious business. Massive amounts of impressively incorporated CGi is omni-present from start to finish, yet rarely if ever does it feel like overkill; somehow always relevant and integral to proceedings.

It’s a shame therefore that the irrefutably excellent visuals of Ghost in the Shell are not matched by the film’s general narrative and direction.

There’s something awfully flimsy and superficial about this particular movie-going experience, though the performances themselves can’t really be criticised. Johansson – ably supported by Juliette Binoche and Pilou Asbæk amongst others – portrays her part human / part cyborg character suitably well. Medium close up shots of her occasional dead-eyed pauses for thought and reflection, as she struggles to make sense of the frequent glitches that plague her confused mind – brought about by her old concealed reality poking through the firewall of her freshly installed, ‘new’ reality – are a particularly nice touch.

However, if the opinions of the wise sages of internet land are anything to go by, Ghost in the Shell has been stripped bare of its more complex and involving story arches in favour of a more straight forward action movie formula. No surprise there I suppose. Another unfortunate sacrifice at the Hollywood table of banal mediocrity.

Perhaps that’s a little harsh, although admittedly I did find my attention waning from time to time. The film is after all somewhat lacking in depth, tension and suspense, and struggles therefore to really sustain one’s interest. There’s also definitely a sense that the entire thing could have benefited from a slightly more risqué certification. Some scenes of combat – thwarted by the safety of the 12A rating as they are – possess neither energy nor impact. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need mad levels of gratuitous violence to be convinced, but I do need things to be a little more visceral, heart-felt and generally believable.

Perhaps it’s just a Manga thing? We should of course remind ourselves that this is, after all, comic book stuff, albeit comprised from slightly more adult themes.

Let’s end on a positive note though, namely, Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell’s electronic score. With its healthy influence of Vangelis shining through from time to time – it bleeps, squeaks, swoops and arpeggiates along nicely, perfectly encapsulating what the world of movies has insisted to us over the years that ‘the future’ actually sounds like. It’s a score that contributes heavily to the rather seductive, yet to all intents and purposes, deceptive aura that surrounds this Scarlett Johansson-centric blockbuster.

Ghost in the Shell, more than anything, offers yet another all too common opportunity to suspend our disbelief for a relatively inoffensive couple of hours of slightly entertaining, mildly perturbing activity, and I guess if that’s your bag, then more power to you.