Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

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Directed by: David Lowery

A couple of years ago I saw the trailer for ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’. I remember thinking at the time “That looks good, I’m going to see that”. I never did. This often happens. As an avid trailer watcher I tend to make a mental watch list, but due to my forgetfulness I often can’t recall what is on that list. Movies are missed. Good movies.

The trailer looked gorgeous. A bit Malick like. It looked like a film destined for awards. Aside from a couple of Sundance back slaps ‘Aint Them Bodies Saints’ went under the radar. People seemed to forget about it come Oscar season.

‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is held together by a trio of talented young(ish) actors. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster. Affleck plays small time criminal Bob Muldoon, Mara the Bonnie to Affleck’s Clyde, she plays Ruth Guthrie and Foster is police officer Patrick Wheeler. The three do nothing more than remind us that they can act. They perform solidly, but was this a movie that needed power and panache?

At the beginning of the film we see a young couple in love. Bob and Ruth are separated when Bob is imprisoned, but the possibility of a reunion occurs four or five years later when Bob escapes from prison. As Bob gets closer to returning to his home town, Patrick begins to move in on Ruth. He becomes a confidant of sorts. Bob slowly moves homeward, with the help of old friends but begins to find that the path to Ruth is blocked. He’s also unknowingly being tracked by bounty hunters.

‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is a mournful drama, it is a film about loss. Bob loses his wife, and his daughter when he is incarcerated, Ruth loses her husband, Skerrit (played by Keith Carradine) loses his son, who dies in the shootout which sees Bob go to prison. Then there is even more loss at the end of the movie. Even the bounty hunters in the film lose their target. There are few smiles in the movie, and the only light comes from the majestic sun kissed scenery.

Director David Lowery shows great care and restraint in his direction. The film looks glorious, but the pacing struggles to capture the scenic magnificence and fully utilize the supremely talented cast. Essentially ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is a sad ballad of a movie, the kind of folk tale befitting of a bohemian singer songwriter with a Southern drawl.

– RJW

7/10

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints on IMDB

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Locke (2013)

Tom Hardy in Locke

Directed by: Steven Knight

If you’ve ever driven along the motorway for a few hours at night then you’ll probably have experienced that strange tipping point between alert euphoria and the beginning of disorientation which leads to the fall of tired eyelids.

‘Locke’ is a drama of domestic despair, as during the course of a two hour drive Ivan Locke’s whole life falls apart. During the course of the film he loses his job and his family. ‘Locke’ is also a film that is deceptively and simply executed by director and lead actor, and could be summed up in this Twitter friendly summary – Tom Hardy, speaking in a Welsh accent, uses hands free technology in a car.

There will be some debate about Hardy’s accent; it is reminiscent of Sir Anthony Hopkins, or perhaps Rob Brydon doing an impression of Anthony Hopkins. I suppose at least Hardy has a go at sounding like he was born in the valleys, but perhaps accents, upon reflection of his career to date, aren’t really his strong point. I mean we all still do Bane impressions precisely because his voice is so damn ridiculous. Hardy’s Welsh effort is certainly not the worst accent in cinema history (Hello Russell Crowe in ‘Robin Hood’) but it takes a little bit of time for the chuckle to subside after first hearing it.

I suppose the premise for ‘Locke’ is a hard sell if you take away the one man show element. Building constructor has one night stand; he is informed seven months later that the lady is going to give birth. He must decide between attending an important concrete pour or the birth of his new son. Gosh, that sounds like a gripping drama.

Somehow Hardy is able to turn the story into a thrilling race against time, where everything is at stake. He acts alone sat in the front seat of a car, taking calls from a variety of characters who we never even see – His wife, his sons, his panicked pregnant mistress, his angry boss, he Irish co-worker, a few Doctors and Nurses from a hospital in London.

Ivan Locke is a complex character; he tries to remain ice cool and in control throughout the drive. There are times when he appears almost sociopathic, at other times mad, as he talks to himself, looking deeply into the interior mirror addressing his own absent Father. There’s a naïve side to Locke, he seems almost oblivious to the damage that he has done, especially after he reveals the affair and news of his imminent son to his wife. Locke just sees the situation as another problem that can be fixed.

‘Locke’ is a lesson to aspiring filmmakers and actors about capturing minimalism. You don’t need a big budget, or star packed ensemble cast. The film is a reminder of acting as an art form. How a sparse setting and strong performance is enough to captivate an audience.

– RJW
8/10

Locke on IMDB

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

place

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

In ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ Derek Cianfrance goes for epic, harking back to the seventies golden era of one hundred and twenty minute plus masterpieces. Nowadays it seems the today’s movies can’t quite capture the share scope, complex characterisation and imagination of yesteryear, when the likes of Scorsese, Coppola and Lumet made great movies in the kind of grand scale which is more befitting of a gold standard twelve episode HBO series. ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is a three act film. The first act concentrates on Ryan Gosling as the bad boy dirt biker who goes from circus stuntman to bank robber. This first act then crosses over into Bradley Cooper’s cop with a conscience story arc and then in the final act we see the next generation of sons who look likely to veer off into self-destruction and deviancy.

Critics have been harsh about the final two acts, compared to the crash and burn opening from the moment when Bradley Cooper is recuperating in hospital things slow down considerably. Cooper doesn’t quite seem right for his role, more in age than anything else. When the film fast forwards about fifteen years Cooper look doesn’t change all that much. I suppose a wiser, older head could’ve been cast, but given Cooper’s talent he makes the role work despite the age authenticity question marks.

Cianfrance has a great premise with the idea of a daredevil stunt biker who turns into daring criminal, but I don’t necessarily think that the baton change, which holds the movie together, works all that well. Certainly the trailer for the movie misleads us into the significance of Gosling’s role. In terms of time spent in the film, and I’m being deliberately careful not to spoil this movie, Cooper it could be argued is very much the lead. The film follows him from rookie cop to becoming District Attorney. But the interest, the captivating performance, comes from Gosling in his brief role as Handsome Luke.

I don’t know, maybe it could be argued that Cianfrance could’ve stretched out Gosling’s story over the entire movie, but he wanted to create a bigger story, one that spans generations, Fathers and sons and their fractured relationships. There’s Gosling, the wayward rebellious biker who finds out he has a son and then tries to become a provider, forgetting that Fatherhood is more than just being a breadwinner. There’s Cooper’s Avery Cross, who in his hour need finally turns to his Father when he’s staring down the barrel of a gun. And then finally we have AJ and Jason, who need the stable presence of a supportive Father to keep them on the straight and narrow.

I think the strongest performance in the movie comes from Ben Mendelsohn as Robin, a roughneck mechanic, and semi-retired bankrobber who becomes a surrogate Father figure for Gosling’s Luke. Mendelsohn encourages Luke, gives him a home and a job, helps him to rob banks, but quickly finds himself cast aside when Luke wants to do a double bank job, a plan so outrageous and ambitious that it scares Robin away.

Certainly Derek Cianfrance has a wonderful style, and is able to get performances from his actors. What hampers him is that his good ideas and concepts lack the killer big ending that ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ deserves.

– RJW
7/10

The Place Beyond the Pines on IMDB

Six Stages of Hell – ‘The Stars Collection’ Part 5: Let Him Have It (1991)

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Directed by: Peter Medak

I sit here stunned. This shouldn’t be possible, not on ‘The Stars Collection’, but finally we have a bloody good film, the penultimate part of this epic run. I’m not going to score this film at the end of the review because doing so would seem trivial in the context of the gross injustice that occurred in the case that this film is based upon. Simply put, you must see this film.

When I’m not wasting time writing about film, or music, I also waste time writing about serious matters for a website that seeks the truth in a culture riddled with horror, sleaze and trash. Scribbling down cack-handed missives to the ether about homelessness, drug rehabilitation programmes, free speech, and generally getting riled up about the ills of society meant that ‘Let Him Have It’ therefore appealed to my sensibilities as it sought to present the truth in a case where an “innocent” man was sentenced to death.

Derek Bentley was afflicted by epilepsy from childhood; he also had learning difficulties, after a few misdemeanours he was sent to a school for disruptive children. After leaving education he lived a reclusive life in his family home. His parents and sister attempted to get him out of his shell, and encouraged him to spend more time outside. Eventually he did, and he fell in with the wrong crowd, a group of wannabe gangsters, who perhaps took advantage of Bentley and lead him astray.

Christopher Eccleston is superb as Bentley, and this performance demonstrated his acting talent, which it could be said has thus far not been fulfilled in any career defining leading movie role, but then maybe this was it, a film that many people will never get round to watching. C’est la vie. Eccleston’s most memorable performances it could be argued have been on television, and though that shouldn’t diminish his achievements, it is a shame he hasn’t hit the big time.

The Derek Bentley case left an indelible black mark. Bentley and his friend Christopher Craig botched a confectionary company robbery. They found themselves stranded on a rooftop. The police were called, and there was a tense stand-off. Craig pulled out a handgun and allegedly Bentley said “Let him have it”. Shots were fired. During the trial the defence argued that when Bentley said “Let him have it” he was instructing Craig to hand over the gun to the police. The prosecution argued that what Bentley actually meant was for Craig to shoot at the police. Craig when interviewed in 1991 denied that those words were ever spoken. Craig shot dead a policeman in the ensuring shoot out. Both Bentley and Craig were arrested and went to court, both were found guilty of murder. Since Craig was only sixteen years old at the time he was sentenced to ten years. Bentley was nineteen years old and sentenced to death, though the jury made a plea for mercy. There are those of the opinion that Bentley was not fit to stand trial, due to his extremely low IQ and learning difficulties, yet at the time the concept of diminished responsibility did not exist, and wasn’t introduced until 1951.

Bentley’s fate has been held up as an example of why capital punishment should not exist in the United Kingdom, the last executions took place in 1964, eleven years after Bentley was hanged. When Bentley’s lawyers initially appealed against the guilty verdict, the Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyge and The Home Office didn’t bat an eyelid. The verdict stood, despite public and political objection. It seems likely that someone needed to pay the price after the murder of a policeman. A message needed to be sent to the rest of society. Christopher Craig, the murderer, the sixteen year old who shot the policeman, escaped punishment, and was able to rehabilitate himself, putting the case behind him, yet Bentley at 9am on the 28th January 1953 was another mark on the tally of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most famous executioner.

In 1998 the Court of Appeal pardoned Bentley posthumously, Bentley’s parents and sister, who thought so hard against Derek’s conviction were not alive to witness this moment.

Ah, the movie. I almost forgot. The key to the films brilliance is the screenplay. The writing partnership of Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, who have since gone on to revive the flagging Bond franchise, produced an amazingly accurate version of events, which simply sticks to the facts of the case. This isn’t a preachy protest tale, more an intelligent display of anger at the injustice of the Bentley case.

Accurately painting the 1950s youth as a bunch of post-war survivors searching for a rebellious identity in light of a life of ration books and peaceful conservatism, director Peter Medak helps us to understand why kids owned firearms. Rock n’ Roll was beginning to shape a generation, every boy looked to the States for edgy role models, in the case of many lads, sharply dressed gangsters who drove fast cars and carried guns. This led to gangs of teenage males going around committing petty crimes. Derek Bentley looked for somewhere to belong; he was sucked in to an adventurous life beyond his hum drum reclusive existence, and Christopher Craig, played by Paul Reynolds (of ‘Press Gang’ fame) gave him the opportunity to encounter the kind of danger he was never prepared for.

– RJW

Let Him Have it on IMDB
Buy Let Him Have It [DVD] [1991]

Six Stages of Hell – ‘The Stars Collection’ Part 4: Where Eskimos Live (2002)

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Directed by: Tomasz Wiszniewski

In this post-Savile media world, nowadays, when a film involves a well-known male celebrity of a certain generation looking for a small boy, specifically a nine year old, questions begin to get asked. Thankfully this film was set in 1995, a more innocent time when we were blissfully ignorant.

‘Where Eskimos Live’ starts off like a Rough Guide to the Balkans travel show as Bob Hoskins endures riding in various uncomfortable modes of transport. Set in the mid-nineties when ethnic cleansing was all the rage, Hoskins wanders through war torn Bosnia, getting stopped at various military checkpoints by bucktoothed, AK toting, morally duplicitous soldiers. Since there were no rules back in Bosnia circa ’95, you don’t need much paperwork to get you across the country. We find out that Hoskins, who plays a character called Sharkey, is looking to get hold of a child, but we’re not completely sure why. He poses as a UNICEF worker, wearing the kind of pin badge you’d get in a welcome pack after promising to donate five pound a month to the organisation in monthly direct debits. Hoskins also carries a fetching UNICEF holdall, the kind you’d like get if you donated ten pounds a month.

Hoskins eventually runs into a pack of feral scallywags who have just used a landmine to blow up a military jeep. After they look through the wreckage and pick the pockets of the charred corpses, Hoskins negotiates with the eldest member of the group, and ends up getting what he wants – a nine year old orphan boy named Vlado who is keen to visit Norway, because that’s where he believes the Eskimos live. Although Hoskins tells the boy he isn’t from UNICEF, Vlado still chooses to stay by his side.

There are several sad aspects to this tale, most notably the fact that Bob Hoskins is out performed by a child actor. Sergiusz Zymelka plays Vlado perfectly, but as far as Hoskins character Sharkey. We’re not sure who he is, because there is no backstory, we don’t fully understand his motivations for over three quarters of the film, and it is almost impossible to tell where he is from, given that Hoskins accent veers all over the place. It could be argued that this is the worst film set during the Bosnian conflict since Owen Wilson’s vain attempt to be an action hero in ‘Behind Enemy Lines’.

When Sharkey and Vlado make it to Poland we are able to figure out that there is some kind of human-trafficking taking place, where young boys are of value in the adoption market. Yet because of the ham-fisted build-up we don’t understand why Hoskins would risk life and limb to steal away a boy from a war torn country when he could quite easily have taken advantage of any impoverished Eastern European country. It really does make no sense.

The atrocity of war is evident when Sharkey and Vlado encounter a number of dead bodies strewn all over the place, and impoverished children are either taken advantage off or left to fend for themselves. However something doesn’t click; this should in theory be a real tear jerker. It should shock and amaze us. The direction instead could almost be considered emotionally withdrawn, and because of this, we are kept at a distance. We skirt through the horror and don’t stop and analyze what is happening and why. I suppose there is a lack of context and given that the Bosnian conflict was incredibly complex, and that the scale of events such as the Srebrenica massacre were unimaginable in Europe post-WW2, perhaps it is understandable why the film chooses to focus on the adventures of a man of dubious character and an orphaned child and leave the conflict starkly in the background.

– RJW
2/10

Where Eskimos Live on IMDB
Buy Where Eskimos Live [2002] [DVD]

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

An unspecified time after a terrible tragedy hits a small-town American community, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) begins her new job in a menial travel agency, a poor facsimile of her previous career as a globe-trotting journalist. Ostracised from her community and enduring regular humiliation in various guises, Eva attempts to gradually rebuild her life, reflecting upon the events leading up to the tragedy: Her marriage to the affable, easy-going Franklin (John C. Reilly) and, most crucially, the troubled development of their son Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller). Kevin is a supremely difficult child, increasingly cold and adversarial towards Eva, testing both her patience and affinity with motherhood. It becomes increasingly apparent that Kevin is in some way complicit in the tragedy, but how much responsibility should Eva share?

It’s of course naive to consider director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Schriver’s best selling book as in any way prescient of the recent shootings in Aurora, Illinois. However, the pending case of James Eagan Holmes does help highlight a recurring problem in attempting this subject matter. Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003) is a found-footage video diary of two teenagers preparing to execute a Columbine-like attack. Despite the optimised effort at portraying reality, very little of the run-time is spent with any real rumination of their motives. In a similar manner to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, another high school massacre movie released in the same year, it’s more an exercise in ruthless banality. The point is presumably that such terrible crimes are either beyond the pat conclusions of three-act narrative, or that as an audience we’ve yet to earn the cathartis of a psychological buffer between ourselves and the perpetrators. On the surface, and at the risk of trivialising atrocity, the real-life background of Holmes would attest to this point. Beyond his social ineptitude, accumulation of weaponry, and of course his alleged mass killing, there doesn’t appear to be much to single him out as nefarious. In the context of a drama, it leaves the production in a bit of vacuous state.  If we don’t glean any real lesson or insight into our characters and situation, what’s the point?

There is no point..” opines Kevin, rather helpfully, partway through the film, “that’s the point“. However, despite this nihilistic corroboration, We Need to Talk About Kevin deviates from its thematic predecessors in three main ways. Primarily, it eschews a linear approach for something more lurid and stylised, albeit ruthlessly grounded in events. In fact, it’s a production tour-de-force that should, if accounting for a modicum of innate justice, bring Lynne Ramsay to the forefront of respected contemporary directors. This is particularly in light of the endless precession of washed-out gangster films and derivative zombies that comprise the majority of the British film industry’s output. Secondly, the film never in all honesty portrays Kevin as a ‘normal’ kid compromised by social influence. For one thing, he lacks the ‘jocks picked on me’ defence and is the product of an ostensibly affluent environment. Almost from his birth onwards, Kevin is nakedly malevolent and sociopathic. Thirdly, the film is told entirely through the perspective of Kevin’s mother, Eva, whose flashbacks to his upbringing are potentially unreliable. It’s possible within the logic of the story that Kevin’s unpleasantness is magnified through the prism of Eva’s masochistic hindsight.

In the supplemental material, cast and crew attempt to paint a film with no good and evil people. That’s certainly a more noble aim, rather than the reductive notion that ‘evil’ is a tangible or innate affliction. Unfortunately, it’s not the prevailing assumption of the film that one is left with. On the upside, Kevin is a truly memorable creation, particularly when coming of age as a cold, bullying, yet unerringly perceptive youth. He singles out his mother for victimisation at an implausibly early age; it’s simply never convincing enough that his personality stems organically from Eva’s maternal antipathy. The knock-on effect is that we never interpret her as truly culpable in her own struggles, not even subsequently. As a psychological insight into those who commit such atrocity – presuming that as an intention – it fails. Its successes, however, neatly eclipse these admitted disappointments.

From the opening shot of billowing curtain leading out to a twilight patio, it’s evident we’re in different territory than a standard genre affair. The composition is frequently stunning, every other shot providing a desktop-worthy snap. The film drenches itself in symbolism, much of which rewards with subsequent viewings. Every transition seems carefully built for healthy musing, as aural and visual callbacks are elegantly intimated. Editor Joe Bini should be singled out somewhat for this; seamlessly bringing us back and forth through time without a loss of coherence is no mean feat.

As has been noted among Ramsey’s previous work, there’s a frequently vivid use of colour. Chiefly red, most explicitly in the paint attack suffered by Eva’s new house, her resulting clean-up punctuating the movie. The colour is there in children’s toys, police lights, food thrown petulantly against a fridge etc. The scenes of Eva literally cleaning off red paint from her body and environment may smack of thuddingly literal imagery – a problem the film periodically suffers from – but the cumulative effect is potent and satisfying. For a film containing so much repression and denial among the central characters, the colour serves almost to throw it all into sharp relief. It’s this sense of hyper-reality that helps buoy the film during its broader psychological moments.

Tilda Swinton is fantastic throughout, serving a tremendous dynamic of character as we track one woman’s emotional and existential descent. John C. Reilly gives a fine performance, though is a slightly bemusing presence; despite being a fine dramatic actor, his role seems to echo the kinds of endearing man-children that gave his career a deserved second wind. Franklin is a magnanimous sort, to the point of frustration, so it remains a logical fit. The chemistry between he and Eva is deliberately questionable, adding to the malapropros climate of the film. Ezra Miller luxuriates in the role of Kevin, the child actors (Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell) having already set the stage by playing the character at his more conflicted. Here, he’s given full license to exude pure, sweating ego and unaccountable contempt, yet somehow without nudging too much into cartoon.

We Need To Talk About Kevin sidesteps many real-world concerns surrounding these tragedies, such as gun control, religion or cultural identity. This isn’t quite a point against it, as hitting broader notes can strengthen the symbolic drive. It does however prohibit the film from making any kind of proactive stance, leaving it vulnerable to numerous self-defeating interpretations. It would be unfair to derive political assumptions when events on-screen are to an extent knowingly in excess of reality. Despite employing a sophistication that exceeds the majority of ‘evil kid’ genre movies, the film gives a more satisfying reading as liberal horror, or perhaps a feminist allegory about the sacrifices of motherhood. Eva is slapped, taunted and dehumanised throughout the run-time, yet appears to endure it voluntarily as a form of penance. Depending on your political leanings, the central folly of the Khatchadourian household is either an absence of communication, or an absence of discipline. It’s a tale of an ostensibly nice, wealthy family fatally disarmed by the apparent product of their own values. Beyond the peadophobic fantasy aspects, the fear at the heart of this story is ultimately primal and very palpable; its the fear that we’re vulnerable in our own home, by those closest to us. It’s also the fear – and knowledge – that problems we ignore don’t remotely go away.

We Need to Talk About Kevin on IMDB
Buy We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) [DVD]
Read We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent’s Tail Classics)

Evil (2003)

Directed by Mikael Håfström

When I was a wee lad, growing up in a working class household, I dreamed that one day I would attend a boarding school. I imagined Victorian hallways garnished by fine antiques and acres of lush green sporting pastures where I might play rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer.

Mikael Håfström’s Evil takes place in the 1950s, following Erik Ponti, a teenage tearaway who is in the last chance saloon after a vicious schoolyard fight; he is referred to as “evil” by his headmaster, expelled, and subsquently sent to a stuffy Swedish boarding school by his Mother in the hope he might yet become an upstanding young man. The school is very old fashioned, and the newest pupils are ruled by the Student Council, who are quite similar to prefects in the British boarding school system. The worst of whom is Silverhielm, a tall strapping blue chipper who rules the roost. His henchman Dahlen, is a vile little twerp who revels in his role as number two.

After refusing to obey Silverhielm and Dahlen’s orders Erik finds himself as the hero of his fellow outcasts, and enemy of the Student Council. Erik bonds with his bespectacled roommate Pierre and together they decide that the best resistance is a defiant pacifist stance, inspired by Gandhi. Throughout the film this resistance is tested as they are physically beaten, endure weeks of solitary weekend detention and are frequently humiliated by the Council.

There is a heartwarming little romance in the film as Erik falls for a Finnish cafeteria worker called Marja. The cafeteria staff are forbidden from fraternizing with students, but this does not stop Erik. Marja is particularly taken by Erik standing up for what is ‘right’. The relationship fits in with what ultimately is a coming of age tale as Erik gets his dick wet for the first time.

I think anyone who’s enjoyed films such as ‘Dead Poets Society’ or ‘If…’ would find Evil a satisfying two hour viewing. Håfström’s direction is terrific, and his artistic use of blood during the fight scenes paints a harrowing sense of realism. This is used particularly well during the opening schoolyard beatdown and when Erik receives a battering from Silverheilm in the cafeteria. Violence and physical abuse features throughout the film, as Erik receives several belt lashings from his horrid stepfather. It is interesting how Håfström makes such a blunt point as to how violence usually continues indefinitely until someone steps in. This is represented by Erik’s Mum playing the piano to block out the sound of leather on flesh, and the members of the school baying for blood rather than intervening when someone crosses the line.

There are some outstanding acting performances in the film, particularly from Gustaf Skarsgård (yes, he is part of the Skarsgård acting dynasty) as Silverhielm, and some stellar supporting turns from Mats Bergman, Magnus Roosmann and Ulf Friberg as teachers in the boarding school.

If I’m to make one criticism, it is rather disappointing as the film builds quite nicely for a dramatic finale, only to then tie together all the loose ends in an anti-climatic happily-ever-after fashion. This may well closely follow the novel’s ending, which the film is adapted from, but nonetheless it still irked me somewhat.

– RJW
7/10

Evil on IMDB
Buy Evil [2003] [DVD]