Words: J. Wood
The Max Landis scripted American Ultra hits British cinemas on Friday and, despite having received at best lukewarm reviews in the states the presence of the ever interesting Jesse Eisenberg is at least a temptation to go and see it. It has however gotten me thinking, what with the release of this and American Sniper already this year there does always seem to be a prevalence of films titled ‘American’. I decided to look at which ones I liked the most for this week’s top 5 and, despite the higher entries being the easiest choices I have yet had to make, the competition for places lower down the list was as tough as it has been so far.
Check out last week’s Friday High-5 which took a look at the career of actor Zac Efron >>>
5: American Splendor (2003)
Harvey Pekar may not be the first thing anyone thinks of when ideas for biopics come up, and the way American Splendor tells his story is utterly unexpected, but boy is it a joy to watch. For the uninitiated (like myself) Harvey was a lowly file clerk coming off the back of a series of failed marriages when he began to document his mundane existence in an increasingly popular comic book, leading to unlikely love and an even more unlikely brush with fame. The film tells his story while interviewing him, prompting him to voice over the drama. This is a device that works really well and also the integration of the real people from this odd life demonstrates just how spot on all the acting is. The great Paul Giamatti originated his slightly creepy, neurotic everyman routine here and knocks it out of the park, making you fall for this prickly, difficult character. Also look out for Judah Friedlander, whose portrayal of Pekar’s friend Toby is so note perfect it defies belief. The film cleverly flits over Pekar’s comic documented battle with cancer, which could well be a movie in itself, but only with these actors.
4: American History X (1998)
All sorts of things have been said about the controversial making of this film, mostly from director Tony Kaye, and mostly about the influence of star Edward Norton, but whatever went on behind the scenes undeniably created a brutish tour-de-force of a movie. The film stylistically splits itself on two timelines, showing their differences by changing between colour and monochrome, not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Norton’s breath taking performance dominates the film from start to finish as the neo-Nazi skinhead descending to ever greater depths of hatred in one timeline while seeking redemption as the saviour of his brother in the other. The earlier set, monochrome scenes are by far the most engaging, as the film seems to be egging itself on to show its characters being ever more morally repugnant. Some have called out the infamous ‘kerbing’ scene as being a step too far, but for me it defines the message of the film, and takes it above its Aussie equivalent Romper Stomper. The performance of Edward Furlong does not quite have the magnetism of Norton and does not quite draw the viewer as much, but films with as great a conviction and as powerful an ending as this one should make you sit up and take real notice.
3: American Mary (2012)
In an age where underground cult horror cinema seems to be vanishing at an ever more rapid rate The Soska Sisters’ effort here really is a shot in the heart of a dying genre. I caught this on a whim while researching for this article and was totally knocked out by it. Taking its cues from the very best of Cronenbergian body horror the film sees the stunning Katharine Isabelle as a struggling medical student who finds that the body-modification sub-culture offers an easier source of income and an easier way of life. The film is a woozy, trippy experience at times, deliberately skipping scenes to disorientate the viewer in a truly effective way. Without being overly graphic it managed to scare me a lot more than both the cheap slasher knock-offs and the prevalent haunted house movies ever do today, while at the same time paying loving homage to a whole bunch of movies I adore, from the Pink Flamingos like Beatrice, through Cronenberg’s work with a whole lot more in between. This may not have the polished film making so many cinema-goers of today are far too accustomed to, but I would strongly urge anyone even slightly interested in expanding their cinematic horizons beyond the mainstream, and who has a strong stomach, to give this a go.
2: American Psycho (2000)
Bret Easton Ellis’ novel is truly one of my favourites, yet reading it makes only one thing abundantly clear, that it is unfilmable. Mary Harron’s film then is a work of true genius, taking what is a really gruesomely narcissistic horror novel with undertones of timely satire and turning it into a mockery of the ‘Greed Is Good’ banking community in the late 1980s, just with mass murder thrown in for good measure. Could anyone other than Christian Bale have played Patrick Bateman? I think not! From that now iconic opening monologue, introducing the audience to the character via his vainglorious workout and moisturising regime, Bale captures the dead behind the eyes disconnectedness of his character, while at the same time his committing monstrous acts of violence while dissecting naff 1980s pop music makes this truly his finest hour. In one scene his character becomes agitated at the lack of attention his new business card is getting compared to his rivals’, and in that one scene he manages to be comedically petulant yet scarily murderous all at once. The film’s supporting characters are all filled by interesting actors yet none are particularly given a lot to do, but with Bale as great as he is, they simply are not needed.
1: American Beauty (1999)
At number one on this list is a film that has held a very important place in my heart since my interest in films first ignited. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Sam Mendes’ stunning drama takes a look behind the idealised façade of the American Dream to find the unhappiness and horror that really exists. Kevin Spacey has made a career of being the best thing in every movie in which he appears, but this is his finest hour. As Lester Burnham he physically grows from the sad sack advertising worker who is emasculated at home, using his natural wit and charm to bring his character to life, and utilising the uptightness of the rest of the cast to bring a very dark comedy from this. The film explores some very dark subject matter, like adultery, a Lolita-esque obsession, drugs and repressed homosexuality, yet it never feels heavy or dark. From the moment the camera swoops over some non-descript identikit American suburb to the strains of Thomas Newman’s unique score, the film washes over you. The supporting cast give a series of increasingly fine performances but this is Spacey’s film, and he truly deserved his Oscar. Sam Mendes has never quite attained these levels of greatness since, and I am doubtful that he ever will, but anyone who can claim to have constructed those rose petal filled fantasy shots has enough to be proud of from a few brief moments to last an entire career.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Words: J. Senior
It’s safe to say that people don’t tend to get too excited at the announcement of a new film by Guy Ritchie. But what I’ve always wondered is, why not? Apart from the unspeakable movie he made with Madonna, Ritchie has always managed to entertain in spades. Early offerings Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch were British gangland flicks at their very strongest. You’d have to search long and hard to find people that didn’t enjoy Brick Top or Brad Pritt as a bare knuckle gypsy boxer for example. Where these films have transferred into almost cult status buy now, Ritchie has continued to adapt and his film output now, although having taken on a different genesis altogether continues to display what a talented director he is. After 2008’s RocknRolla Ritchie then made the conscious choice to step into the realm of the blockbuster. And thus we come to his latest film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, a remake of a 60’s TV show featuring current Superman (Cavill) as U.S. Agent Napoleon Solo facing off against The Lone Ranger himself (Hammer) as KGB agent Illya Kuryakin… surely these aren’t the ingredients for a good film… but that’s where you’re wrong. It may be yet another US/ Soviet stand off movie, and it may feature two rather uninspiring actors in lead roles, but it’s worth an investment of your time.
Cast your mind back to 2009, in the early days of Robert Downey Jr’s renaissance, hot off of Iron Man, the motor mouthed America actor was cast and starred as the lead in Sherlock Holmes Ritchie’s big budget debut and Hollywood water mark. While it deviated from the source material somewhat and played fast and loose with the traditional Sherlock Holmes formula, there can be no argument that this film, and 2011’s sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, entertained sufficiently. Downey Jr. in the lead role turned out to be a perfect casting choice alongside Jude Law as Dr. John Watson. Ritchie did this by keeping the character’s key elements in place and accentuating them for dramatic and comedic effect. His Sherlock double-feature, whilst not being serious or high on the scale of art, is an impressive set of work considering Ritchie’s meagre film making origins.
The casting choices in The Man From U.N.C.L.E deceive you into thinking there will be precious little to love from the off. Neither Cavill or Hammer have either set the world alight in the acting stakes. Cavill was passable in Man of Steel and aside from the flop that was The Lone Ranger Hammer has only gained slight ounces of recognition from his role in The Social Network where he played a set of identical twins. The two of them here are simply fantastic though. Cavill is slick, suave and every other line he spouts is an innuendo of sorts. He is clearly relishing his part here and putting in his strongest performance to date. Hammer’s tortured Soviet agent has anger issues, and is tormented by the noises of rumbling Red Army tanks and jack boots on the cold concrete floors of The Gulag. An audio-anecdote that reoccurs whenever he is emotionally strained. The two compliment each other perfectly, like champagne and caviar. They drive the film forward and actually make light of a rather simple and cliche script.
The film’s source material, while being well known, is far from as notorious as Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character. However, this really plays into a younger viewer’s hands. Having never seen the TV series I went in with no preconceived ideas about how the film should portray its characters or what tone it should take.
It is in fact, not just a good film, but possibly one of the most enjoyable films of the year so far, simply for the fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously. The reason why James Bond is so beloved the world over is because in the beginning the films that portrayed him were like this, tongue-in-cheek with aspects of high action and intrigue. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is quite simply Guy Ritchie’s love letter to 60’s spy movies, and he is unflinching in his approach throughout. The costumes, vehicles and editing are all executed to perfection. There was a clear cinematic obsession here to make sure all of the tiniest elements synced up correctly. Roger Moore wouldn’t be out of place at one of the Italian bars sipping a Martini with a raised eyebrow whilst Solo and Illya sneek their way into a bank vault.
The film embraces stereotypes but at the same time subverts them in order to embellish aspects that would seem outdated to a 21st Century audience or for comedic value. Alicia Vikander isn’t simply the “Bond Girl” of the piece, in fact she can drink more Vodka than Hammer’s KGB agent, she can fight for herself, fix car engines and isn’t there to simply be an attractive object. In fact Cavill’s Napolean Solo couldn’t be less attracted to her if he tried, he seems completely disinterested in her as an object of sexual desire and treats her more like you would an equal or a colleague. The opening sequence in which they drive at breakneck speed through Cold War Berlin exemplifies this greatly.
The villains are all so ridiculous as well that it’s impossible to take any of them seriously; here you have a mad Nazi scientist with a penchant for torture, a cold and calculated British heiress with dollar signs in here eyes and an Italian race car driver turned mobster. All are played for laughs and only serve the world of the film by being ridiculous and fantastic to watch all at the same time.
Like his Sherlock movies before The Man From U.N.C.L.E. again displays Ritchie’s talent for tackling the genre-movie in a contemporary and engaging way. It’s probably time that people stopped being underwhelmed by the news of his latest films, because if his next project is anything to go by (a reboot of Arthur and the Round Table featuring Sons of Anarchy alumni Charlie Hunnam in the titular role) then we’re in for more of the same. And that really isn’t a bad thing.
Director: David Cronenberg
Words: O. Innocent
Before mutating himself into a director of dark dramas and thrillers, David Cronenberg was quite possibly the ultimate horror auteur. Birthing a subgenre all his own and imbuing every project with his own unmistakable style, Cronenberg preoccupied himself with making confrontational films with controversial subject matters, the likes of which no other director has even come close to topping. Cronenberg’s early films focused on a very particular facet of horror, that of the body and what might happen if one’s own body started to revolt, mutate and become a monster in and of itself. He began to court controversy almost immediately, with his first feature, Shivers (1975), being likened to pornography with its concept of sexually transmitted parasites converting the repressed denizens of a high rise apartment building into liberated sex-crazed zombies. Rabid (1977) did nothing to abate these accusations, Cronenberg seeming to purposefully rile his detractors with his casting of porn star Marilyn Chambers in the role of a woman with a phallic blood-sucking dart grafted onto her armpit. As if to prove that his extreme form of cinema could be taken even further – had no limits even – along came what is arguably his most antagonistic, difficult-to-watch film to date, the rage-fuelled onslaught on the senses, The Brood (1979).
The culmination of Cronenberg’s preoccupations up to this point – obsessions with physical mutations, disgusting imagery, the juxtaposition of the cold Canadian landscape with the warm inner workings of the human body – The Brood also introduces an emotional intensity that only really came to the fore at the conclusion of Rabid. Picking up where Rabid left off, The Brood examines the lengths parents will go to protect their offspring, as well as the morally questionable repercussions of such a ferocious protective instinct and intense emotional bond. The film is essentially a family drama in the guise of a typical Cronenberg body horror, concerning a mother and father going through a divorce and the daughter stuck between them. Of course, this being a Cronenberg film, the divorce ends up being a lot messier than usual as the mother starts spawning mutant dwarf creatures after taking part in psychotherapist Doctor Raglan’s psychoplasmics programme where patients are encouraged to express their repressed emotions through physical changes to their bodies. The mother’s new children, the eponymous brood, proceed to kill those she perceives to be a threat. When she takes back her daughter, it’s up to the father to stop her reign of terror and rescue his daughter from the clutches of evil.
However, it’s not quite as simple as that. By forcing us to identify with the father, the film poses some rather difficult questions. For instance; who is really culpable for the brood – the mother, the father, or Doctor Raglan?; is the father justified in wanting to take his daughter away from a mother who is clearly emotionally distraught after their separation?; and is the father’s final act of killing the mother to prevent the brood from killing their child a heroic rescue or a simple act of hatred? The film offers no easy answers to these questions. What it does offer is an intelligent, visceral thrill ride, combined with a rare emotional ambiguity which ultimately suggests that our conception of good and evil is not so easily applicable in the face of a parent’s love for its child.
Director: Crystal Moselle
Words: R. Topham
A coming of age story like no other, The Wolfpack is a new documentary about the sheltered life of the Angulo family from the lower east side of Manhattan. A group of remarkably sharp and talented “tribe” of six young boys (and one seen but never heard daughter), they were raised and home- schooled in the family’s small and stingy apartment, their controlling father restricting any possible contact with the ‘real’ world.
In a broad sense, The Wolfpack is a film about making films. The Angulo brothers watch films all day every day, and recreate their favourites using impressive homemade props and costumes (Batman’s suit from The Dark Knight made from a yoga mat and cereal boxes was a stroke of genius). In their own words, they do this because it makes them feel like they’re truly living, that they’re not just prisoners with little hope of freedom. This is not, however, a tale of blame and remorse; it’s about the sibling’s realisation of their identities, their passion for watching and making movies, and belief in their lives outside of their father’s control.
At times it is uncomfortable to watch because it’s so easy to forget this isn’t a fictional drama story. They admit the film crew are the first people to ever be invited into their home. Domineering father Oscar believes he is enlightened, and refuses to work “out there” as his way of rebelling. The eldest brother was sent to a psychiatric hospital when he was 15 because he dared to go out alone in public wearing a Michael Myers mask. But the mother, Susanne, is perhaps the toughest of them all. To talk frankly, albeit awkwardly, about her untouched dreams and her marriage to a man that imposes such intense rules takes an admirable amount of courage, and although you have to question her loyalty to Oscar, the overwhelming respect her children have for her is really quite moving given their oppressive circumstances.
Incorporating personal footage into the film anchors its intimacy, and because the family contribute so freely and honestly it doesn’t feel like an intrusion of their privacy. Like all good documentaries the story is compelling, but it’s the little details that really capture you: at the start of the film, the boys’ hair is so long that they can tuck it into the back of their trousers, their outstanding recreation of Pulp Fiction, the film crew joining them on their first trip to the cinema to see The Fighter and the closing scene of them blissfully playing among some apple trees.
A dark past replaced by a bright future, and as equally funny and touching as it is saddening and disturbing, The Wolfpack is one of the must see documentaries of the summer.
1973 – Hong Kong, USA
Directors: Robert Clouse, Bruce Lee
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Shih Kien
Words: Joe H.
An iconic pop culture figure of the 20th century, Bruce Lee’s achievements culturally and cinematically elevated martial arts and the film genre to new heights, leading to an explosion of people learning martial arts with incredible popularity in the 1970’s.
With the first martial arts movie to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Bros. offered Bruce Lee the opportunity to appear in what would come to be his final film – Enter The Dragon.
Enter The Dragon is widely regarded as one of the greatest martial arts movies of all time – in it we follow Lee, a Shaolin martial artist from Hong Kong, who receives an invitation to a martial arts tournament organised on an island by the criminal warlord known as Han.
An agent from British Intelligence approaches Lee and asks for his help in an undercover mission – Han is suspected of being involved in drug-smuggling and prostitution, and Lee is asked to infiltrate the island stronghold and liaise with an undercover operative.
Lee learns that Han was also once a Shaolin student, but had been expelled from their order for dishonouring their code, and that Han’s bodyguard O’Harra had been involved in the death of his sister. Lee agrees to the task, believing that his efforts will restore the Shaolin honour that Han has disgraced, and along with thoughts of his sister, now finds himself on a mission of revenge as well.
Joining Lee on the island are fellow competitors Roper and Williams – Roper (played by John Saxon), an American playboy gambler on the run from the mob, and Williams (Jim Kelly), an African-American on the run after defending himself against two racist white policeman.
What ensues is one of the most enthralling martial arts movies of its time, with the anticipation leading up to every scene where Lee finds himself in a perilous situation being met above and beyond expectation with some astoundingly good bareknuckle action, defeating dozens of henchman with a striking ability on display clearly more than that of the rehearsed action choreography of present day actors simply going through the motions, with fight sequences standing the test of time – especially with ‘that nunchaku scene’.
The film is certainly of its era, with Han being reminiscent of a classic James Bond villain (having a prosthetic hand interchangeable with various weapons), and some of the dialogue is wrapped in the 70’s with an almost spaghetti western feel, but this now just adds a particular charm – all set against a superb score from renowned soundtrack composer Lalo Schifrin.
Going undercover in a martial arts tournament on an island fortress, we see why Bruce Lee became known across the world as one of the most exciting stars on screen, with the film culminating in the climactic and cinematically historic fight scene in a room of mirrors.
Bruce Lee died before Enter The Dragon was released in movie theatres in 1973, he never saw its widespread acclaim.
You may not have ever seen one of Lee’s films before, but you could introduce yourself to one of the biggest martial arts movies of all time and see why the man known as Bruce Lee became a legend.
2014/ USA, Germany, UK
Director: Wes Anderson
Words: R. Topham
“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” – M. Gustave, the voice of pessimists everywhere. Possibly Wes Anderson’s most aesthetically pleasing film to date, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightfully entertaining and slightly surreal cinematic gem that was such a hit with the public and critics that it’s since been immortalised as a video game.
Gustave, played spectacularly by Ralph Fiennes, is a legendary concierge at skiing resort The Grand Budapest Hotel during the 1930’s when he is framed for the murder of a beloved guest. The latter bequeaths Gustave a very valuable painting in her will, Boy with Apple, much to the dismay of her children. Gustave and recently appointed lobby boy Zero embark on a quest to prove Gustave’s innocence, encountering all kinds of surprises along the way, from a prison cell to The Society of the Crossed Keys.
It’s a kind of facetious modern twist on a period drama, but it works because the cheeky humour and the sheer ridiculousness of the quick-fire protagonist perfectly compliment the casually chaotic narrative. Much like previous classics such as Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore, what Wes Anderson did with The Grand Budapest Hotel was interweave wit, style and fun in the most charmingly ostentatious way imaginable. It’s evidently an explosion of Anderson’s psyche, and, with the help of trusty cinematographer Robert Yeoman, it’s an hour and forty minutes of pure brilliance.
And of course a multitude of Anderson’s go-to actors have cameos: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzmen, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe – you get the idea. Plus Tilda Swinton, barely recognisable beneath a heavy costume of wrinkles and grey hair, plays Gustave’s ill-fated 84 year old lover and nails it. A great cast, an impeccably written script, Academy Award winning make-up and costume design, all the ingredients for a thoroughly enjoyable film.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Words: N. Platts
We’ve all been there. It’s three in the morning, you’ve just made yourself a soothing cup of good old English tea and you’re lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Sleep evades you and your alarm is going off in just four hours. What do you do? Now, maybe most of you will clamp your eyes closed and will yourself to at least get a few hours kip so you can be at least partly human the next day? Maybe you’ll make that classic cup of tea a little more Irish and attempt to tackle the situation that way? No? Okay…then maybe, like me, you trawl through Netflix and look for something to watch? Got it? Yes? Good. Bingo. We’re on the same page.
Now, hunting out a good film on Netflix (or the equivalent) is often a tenuous affair full of disappointment with the phrase “Seen it” seemingly drifting from between your lips over and over again. However from time to time you find that rarest of gems. A film you’ve not seen, a film that seems bearable and a film that has been directed by the same bloke that directed for us the return of the Tron universe in Tron: Legacy; a highly underrated film in this man’s humble opinion. So, I settled down, sipped my steaming cup of tea, and braced myself for Oblivion.
With a cast headed by miniature action hero Tom Cruise and Newcastle lass Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion depicts humanity within a situation so far up shit creek that you’d need a whole load of Mr Muscle to even see the edge, as Jack Harper (Cruise) and Victoria (Riseborough) are tasked with monitoring the last remnants of planet Earth prior to a worldwide evacuation; whilst also supervising a fleet of drones in their hunting down of the supposedly evil ‘Scavs’, a bumbling race of laser shooting humanoids that are hiding out on the surface. How bloody dare they!
Jack’s memory has been wiped clear by those above him in order to protect some of Earth’s secrets from falling into the hands of other hostile forces. However, this cleansing of memories seemingly missed one rather important moment in particular, namely a romantic encounter with an absolute corker in pre-war New-York (played by Olga Kurylenko), who eventually shows up in this debauched wasteland and tells poor old confused Jack; that not everything here is as it seems and that the Earthen authorities are telling him big old porkies!
Now, I won’t spoil the film for you by detailing all of the plot to you – not because it’d be spoilers – but because it could barely be called a plot at all. Oblivion discharges information at you at an alarming rate, and given the way in which director Joseph Kosinski dealt with the high-octane story of Tron: Legacy, this is a little bit of a disappointment. Before I even had time to take my first sip of tea, I wasn’t really sure who was who, where we were or what the hell was going on. You very quickly begin to feel with this film as if you are on a treadmill with the speed being gradually turned up, you can only stay on board for so long…and as soon as Morgan Freeman shows up in some bad guy turned good guy scenario, you have even less of a chance of tagging along with an already convoluted storyline.
That being said, the art direction and mise-en-scene of this picture are both genuinely outstanding. The sparse CGI is done at a really high level, the setting – most of which was filmed on location in Iceland (the country not your mother’s favourite frozen food store…) – gives the film a really pleasing and desolate aesthetic, and the cold clinical nature of Jack and Victoria’s surroundings; set the overall tone of a lonesome and thankless life in a way that harks toward a more realistic Mad Max.
Overall however, the film isn’t one that grasps me and pulls me into its arms and shouts “Love me!” The world feels genuine, with characters that exude texture and a sombre authenticity to them, especially that of Andrea Riseborough, who gives a stand out performance of pragmatism despite her character of Victoria being rather onerous and marginalised as the film reaches its climax. However, with a plot that twists and turns so rapidly with abject confusion, Kosinski and co. have created a film that I found at least; a little difficult to enjoy. In some aspects, Oblivion hits highs that many a filmgoer would pray to see, and in others it misses the point entirely, leaving you feeling just as empty and confused as poor Jack Harper with no memories nor personality to speak of.
To coincide with the release of Paper Towns, the Nat Wolff and Cara Delevigne starring adaptation of John Green’s coming of age novel, I take a look at the very best High School set movies. Although in fairness Paper Towns never really lives up to its brief, far too often embracing irritating indie sentiments in favour of allowing the very good coming of age aspects of the film to come to the fore, it did inspire me to think back to all the High School movies I have held dearly for so long. Without further ado here are my top five.
5: Dazed & Confused (1993)
Richard Linklater’s early film is on the surface a sprawling, uncoordinated mess with very little tying it together and just a series of random arcs clumsily strung into a feature film. Look a little closer however and the film is a lot more than the nostalgia factor that initially drew me into the film. In choosing to show such a wide expanse of High School society what Linklater does is create a film that speaks to absolutely everyone in some way or another. This is not just another film in which the dweeby kids get one over on the jocks, although that does obviously occur, but this is a film that does nothing other than revel in the exuberance and relative innocence of youth. Throughout his career Linklater has exhibited a great taste in his soundtracks and this period setting offers him great opportunities he takes with aplomb. There are a number of familiar faces including Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich and most memorably Matthew McConaughey to look out for and marvel at how young they look, but for such a young cast the film is remarkably played. Linklater’s next film, Everybody Wants Some, claims to be a ‘spiritual sequel’ to this, a prospect that is truly exciting.
4: Mean Girls (2004)
It may now seem like a mere footnote in the incredibly troubled story of Lindsay Lohan but it is worth remembering just how snarky and of its time this film was. Over ten years on its depiction of the ‘Queen Bee’ side of High School is likeable while still being sufficiently harsh and judgemental of a particularly nasty aspect of American youth. Tina Fey’s screenplay showcases her comedic talents while cleverly making the audience’s introduction into this world through a newcomer’s eyes, with the jungle metaphor increasingly well chosen. Lohan is very good and one can only wonder quite where her career may have gone had she stayed grounded, and she is more than matched by Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried as her ‘Plastic’ cohorts. Even now the term ‘Burn Book’ is still heavily present in teen lexicon and the scene in which it emerges, and the wonderful sequence that follows really is this film’s high point. If I have one quibble with the film it would be that Fey’s script goes along with the tropes of the genre a little too much, and the Prom finale is all too predictable, but this does not alter one’s enjoyment of the film.
3: Heathers (1988)
Heathers still shocks today at how nihilistically it looks at the American High School, choosing to portray it as a place of untold horrors for the 99% who simply do not fit into the social moulds the 1% have chosen. If the ‘Queen Bee’ roles in Mean Girls are harsh then Heathers takes a nastily savage viewpoint on the terror that they have reigned upon countless unfortunate souls. The film’s blackly comic tone is expertly managed and prevents the film from slipping into a tar pit of deep unpleasantness. At the height of her popularity Winona Ryder is a suitably dangerous presence as Veronica, the insidious presence within the titular group taking them down while still one of them. The film’s heightened sense of reality leaves a sense of a time gone by, with the dress and love of croquet of the Heathers giving a sense of Victorian aristocracy rather than the more everyday American teen life John Hughes had been so effectively tapping into in the previous five years. Christian Slater has never topped his performance as J.D. in this film. Less an allusion to the Rebel Without A Cause actor than a direct homage, Slater’s performance here is so cool it hurts, and makes his later slide into Jack Nicholson aping parody even harder to bear. With an ending both bleak and uplifting, this is a breathtakingly ambitious effort.
2: Election (1999)
Sideways and Nebraska director Alexander Payne made his first masterpiece with this political drama set in the strange confines of a High School Class Presidential Race. Ferris Bueller actor Matthew Broderick subverts his free spirited 1980s icon with stilted, beige yet likeable teacher Mr McAllister, who is all too aware at the dangers of the Tracy Flicks of this world gaining too much power and influence, even in this most minor of arenas. The film’s joy is that it very quickly becomes a farce as McAllister’s efforts lead him more and more into trouble, and he slides further and further into personal and professional oblivion. Reese Witherspoon may be better known for Legally Blonde and Walk The Line but to this writer Tracy Flick is her greatest creation. Despite being such an open and likeable persona the audience immediately dislikes her, even before her actions stray from ambiguous to immoral. This being Alexander Payne there is a darkness to the film, not to the same extent that Heathers displays but all the same this is not an out and out comedy despite being constantly funny. Chris Klein gives quite probably his best performance as the dim-witted jock manoeuvred by McAllister to challenge Tracy as a puppet candidate, yet in between two tower house efforts he barely registers. All the same this is a far cleverer movie than it ever needed to be with an ending still pertinent a decade and a half on.
1: The Breakfast Club (1985)
If the truth be told this entire list could have been made from John Hughes movies but, having limited myself to one, this was the clear choice. A great display of limited filmmaking, utilising the all-day detention concept to bring the five characters together, confine them to one location for the entirety of the film, and build a movie less around actions and more around conversations. The leads were all key players in the ‘Brat Pack’ movement of the 1980s and here all play very much to type as ‘The Princess’ (Ringwald), ‘The Athlete’ (Estevaz), ‘The Brain’ (Hall), ‘The Basket Case’ (Sheedy) and ‘The Criminal’ (Nelson). Why does this work so well, creating what I would term filmmaking perfection? The answer lies in the message and the understanding John Hughes showed for the teenage demographic throughout the 1980s. Here he understands that even if from the outside the jocks and the princesses appear to have it made, the criminals do not care about their perception by others, the nerds are happy to just avoid the cool kids and the weirdos have their own circles to stick to, every teenager has feelings, anxieties and issues that they have to deal with day in day out. The film interweaves these five disparate personalities expertly, doesn’t rush their acceptance and understanding of one another, and doesn’t offer them solutions to their problems at the end, merely coping methods. There have been few speeches as brilliant as ‘The Breakfast Club’ letter, while the closing scene is simply one of cinema’s most iconic shots, and offers a simple reason why I love Don’t You (Forget About Me) quite as much as I do. A true piece of classic cinema.
Director: Josh Trank
Words: J. Senior
It’s hard to besmirch this film from the off without identifying who is truly to blame for the failure of Fantastic Four. However, you’ll have a job on trying to actually pin the blame on one individual alone. The whole affair has been a behind closed doors debacle, the likes of which blockbusters haven’t seen for a good few years. Let’s then look at the facts we know; Josh Trank fresh off of indie hit Chronicle directed the film and his name remains attached to the final project, yet an outburst on Twitter last week all but confirmed that Trank had nothing to do with the final cut, and that he has a director’s cut ocked away in a vault somewhere that he says is actually “pretty good”… so it’s not completely his fault… then who’s is it? Simon Kinberg who wrote and produced the thing too has had a hand in there somewhere, and more rumours have circulated that it was he who locked Trank out of the editing suite and finished the movie off in an attempt to polish off the turd that had floated up after filming was over. The fact that Trank was sacked from Star Wars: Rogue One, a Kinberg project also, points a big finger towards a falling out between these two. Finally we can even consider 20th Century Fox to blame, for just rushing another reboot to hang onto the rights to The Fantastic Four, much like Sony did with The Amazing Spider-man 2, which for the record I loved, but the rest of the world hated, leading to a new deal being struck with Marvel to incorporate the character into the MCU. Phew… that’s a lot of school playground shit going on there… so let’s just say to whoever had the final say on this movie, it absolutely sucked and lets get onto looking at why.
Fantastic Four attempts to reintroduce us to “Marvel’s First Family” Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm. Or as I like to call them Stretch, Ghost, Candle and Pebble. The film essentially sets out to bring the characters more in line with the in-vogue darker comic book tales like The Dark Knight and falls flat on its face in comparison. What we have here is 70 minutes of expositional dialogue, interjected with a brief section where some green lava gives four “teenagers” super powers, that then culminates in a twenty minute long action set piece that couldn’t even entertain a six year old boy. It really is that bad, at no point is it entertaining or mildly captivating, it fails on all levels of human entertainment. Which is bad for a film that is trying to be gritty and more grounded in reality. Trank has said publicly that three of the action sequences he shot were cut from the movie, so that’s one big FU to whoever put this bastard together because it feels like you’re watching a half decent film until you realise there’s probably a whole hour or so of footage and story they just cut out of the middle. The reasoning for this cannot be confirmed but we never get to see that bit where The Thing falls from a plane and then attacks a tank… shame it looked cool in the trailer. The jump forward 12 months somewhere around the mid point of the movie does little to help this.
If you do a bit of digging alarm bells started ringing for Fox around a year ago when brief snippets of information about the director’s intentions for the story began to leak online. Initially Fantastic Four would have seen Reed Richards and Ben Grimm altered by some form of cosmic energy at age Sixteen, giving them their powers, the result being that they were kidnapped by the government and forced to act as super soldiers, this is touched on slightly towards the end of the film, The Thing does this stuff off camera though so we never really confront this notion properly. Had Trank persevered with this story line it doesn’t explain how Sue and Johnny Storm get dragged into the mix and is a tad bit confusing, but it’s something I wouldn’t have minded seeing.
Plus, Tony Kebbell did that interview where he came out and said his character name was Victor Domyshev and he was only called “Doom” online. This is completely altered in the film with some throw away dialogue about how Victor Von Doom is a loose cannon and they briefly allude to the notion that he was a hacker of some sort who dabbled in inter-dimensional travel. It’s actually quite clear how badly reworked this is within the film. The villain is often a films selling point and they use sloppy sentences and cut away shots to warp what could have been an interesting and abstract character. It feels here like Fox missed a big chance to produce a villain that would have been much different than any seen in a comic book movie before, but they instead shoe horn Doctor Doom into the plot right at the end and simultaneously kill him off in one fell swoop. Doom spends a period of exactly twelve months in the alternate dimension and suddenly appears dressed in a cloak? WHERE DID HE GET THE CLOAK FROM??? In his scenes on screen, as Doctor Doom, the villain himself is trapped inside a mask that doesn’t show his lips move at all so it’s obvious Kebbell just recorded some extra dialogue and they got a body double to do all the villainous walking down corridors and stuff. Metal Machiavelli he is, scary he is not.
At points you can actually see the moments where Kinberg or the other editors just simply went “stick that scene there, swap that one for that one, take that out and hey presto”, we meet Richards and Grimm when they are kids then jump ahead to when they are supposed to be Seventeen, if you can suspend belief and convince yourself Miles Teller and Jamie Bell look Seventeen then you may enjoy this film. Richards gets picked to join an elite research facility after he nearly blows up his school’s gym and after teaming up with Victor Von Doom he solves inter-dimensional travel in a few weeks. Ben Grimm is left out of all this because his family live in a scrapyard and Kate Mara’s Sue Storm who is “good at recognising patterns” does things on a big keyboard that seem to help them fix things. The actors on screen are so poorly used that you’ll notice Sue Storm never even comes face to face with Ben Grimm until the end of the film when they have their big stand off with Doctor Doom. Good teamwork.
With even more rage: Don’t even get me started on the scene where Richards, Johnny Storm and Von Doom decide to drunkenly use the teleporter they’ve built so that astronauts don’t get to use it before them… I’m not even kidding, this happens. Oh I wonder what will happen when a bunch of pissed up teenagers travel to another dimension? That’s right they all get fucked up and their bodies turn weird. The sequence where they actually get injured by the aforementioned green lava that gives them their powers, is the most entertaining bit because you think some of them might get killed off, it’s the only section with a slight aura of chaos, but they really hammer it home in a literal sense, Ben Grimm get’s pelted with rocks and then wakes up after as a big orange rock monster… it’s just all a bit wrote. The only reason Ben Grimm is there is because Richards calls him drunk and does the typical “you’re my best friend thing” so he turns up thinking he’s going to maybe clean up some vomit and put his friend to bed but ends up in a different galaxy, and, comes back with rocks stapled all over his balls, and we only know this because his crotch is on full display after that and The Thing it appears doesn’t have a “thing” anymore.
The Fantastic Four are supposed to be a family and a tight knit unit but they never seem like this on screen here. Richards lusts after the aloof Sue Storm, who is cool because she listens to Portishead… Miles Teller spends much of the film pulling a goofy grin whenever she’s near him. Johnny Storm just loves being on fire and racing planes, he’s obsessed with the notion that he can be a hero by going and blowing up terrorists for the government, thus hammering home the typical America-over-all message. But Ben Grimm really get’s the raw end of the deal, to say he’s a family member he spends most of the film away from the core group, when he’s with them he is either being horribly mutilated (much like Jamie Bell’s reputation now will be) or forced to hit things because he is made from rocks or even worse completely ignored.
The arrogance of the final scene nearly had me screaming in my cinema seat, the fact that after all you are forced to sit through in that painfully dull 90 minutes leads to the tease of a sequel is just mind blowing. I see where Trank was coming from, he built a cast of A- List indie up and comers and attempted to deliver a super hero film that was defiantly odd and off beat. I can’t say he is exempt from my tirade because a lot of what’s on screen is what he shot but he doesn’t get all of the burden of this on his shoulders. To whoever banged this monstrosity into shape with the reels of footage Trank had to offer I sincerely hope you someday come across my words. Not only have you made a bad comic book movie, but you have made a comic book movie so bad that it’s only equal is Cat Woman and the villain in that film used make up as a super power.
If they make Fantastic Four Part 2 I think I might explode in anger.
The trailer was good though.
Director: Mike Doxford
Words: C. Abbott
Shot and set in the town of Grimsby, this is a film that, on paper, is truly unique. A film that turns the cinematic spotlight on a part of England that is not only neglected but the target of international mockery (Or it will be). Regardless of any preconceived notions one might have regarding this town, the film itself has to been seen relatively, like any other.
As someone that grew up in the town, this is a film that has been on my radar for quite some time. Shot two years prior to general release, the build-up has been more than intriguing; especially after the reception the final piece has received for early screenings. The results are… better than feared, worse than hoped.
The story follows a soldier returning home after many years on tour, his town has changed and so have the people. He decides to intervene and the consequences soon spiral as both him and his family are faced with increasing danger. Now, obviously the main narrative is nothing new here. This is a tried and tested, by the numbers affair that, on the whole achieves its arch in an entertaining and coherent way. The issues are that nothing really new is to be had. How many times do we expect or even want to see these silent, stoic type characters meander through paper thin narratives and forgettable scripts?
On a personal note, the joy of seeing the familiar streets and locations of the town soon wore off. Geographically speaking it was all over the place but that is neither here nor there. The problems, no matter how crippling all link back to the script. The characters, much like the film as a whole are flawed, flat and one dimensional. This isn’t to say the filmmakers didn’t try and add layers to these characters; the issue is that nothing was explored to a sufficient extent. We see these characters suffering with addiction and negative traits but we don’t feel anything. They are just vehicles to advance a predictable and uninspired plot. In fact, if the script never repeatedly reiterated that the central character was a soldier, than there would be no way of knowing.
Nothing here quite feels fresh or exciting. The acting is serviceable, with performances from Gina Bramhill and Rick Warden being particularly noteworthy. Ian Sharp in the lead did a commendable job with the character that was at odds with a lacklustre script. It is clear that effort was made here by all the cast and crew and it does indeed show. Budgetary limitations may be the reason for the shortcomings but then again, a lot more has been achieved with a lot less.
It is a saddened truth that this is an unfortunate, squandered potential for an area to see more filmmakers unitise its unique landscape. Last year’s Catch me Daddy, which was similarly shot and set locally for Sheffield used the rugged Yorkshire wilderness to create an atmosphere and engaging aesthetic. Pleasure Island feels more television than cinematic and that is one of the worst feelings you can have towards a film. This isn’t to say Pleasure Island is a bad film; it just isn’t a great one.