Talal Derki's intense documentary dives deep into the dark heart of terrorism to explore how radical belief swallows entire bloodlines whole.
SAUNA (2008) is a horrific slice of history that explores how sin destroys those who've lived their lives at war.
Megan Griffiths delivers a powerful, subtle gut punch to America's blind military worship with SADIE.
TRENCH 11 treats war like a virus— a gruesome, violent virus.
Full Metal Jacket. 1987. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Michael Herr, & Gustav Hasford; based on the novel The Short-Timers by Hasford.
Starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Keyn Major Howard, & Ed O’Ross. Warner Bros/Natant/Stanley Kubrick Productions.
Rated R. 117 minutes.
I forever will love Stanley Kubrick. I don’t care how many hacks come out of the woodwork trying to say he’s not as good as everyone makes him seem, that keeping his genius alive is supposedly trying to be artsy and yadda yadda yadda. Can’t believe the way many supposed film fans talk about film online. Then again, the ones clamouring all over the message boards aren’t the best representation of objectivity.
Full Metal Jacket is simply another instance of the brilliance that was Kubrick. Every bit of his impeccable style is on display – lots of perfectly composed frames, sweeping and gorgeous tracking shots, among much more. Having already taken a look into war, Kubrick opts to turn his attention to the viciousness of the Vietnam War. Of course it’s based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, so one of these days I’ll have to read it. Because among all the humorous moments weaved through the screenplay, the disturbing scenes, the unsettling visions of war and its affects, there’s deep things happening. Maybe some see it as a typical anti-war film. I see it as an in-depth examination of war, its effects and consequences. Mainly, Full Metal Jacket seeks to point out the damage war does to those who fight it, those against whom it’s fought, as well as everything and everyone it touches. There are other great war movies that try and get to the heart of these issues. This is one of the greatest.
Certainly there are disturbing moments. The first one, obviously, is when the other Marines-in-training throw a Blanket Party for Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). His wails alone are enough to sicken you emotionally. Perhaps the deepest cut is the fact Private Joker (Matthew Modine) joins in right at the end, despite his reservations. Creepier still is the vacant look in the eye of Pyle afterwards, as the others chant along with their Gunnery Sergeant. This all extends until that fateful moment in the bathroom where Pyle finally takes action. Albeit dangerous, ill-advised action. All the scenes leading up to this after the Blanket Party are unsettling, constantly catching the disaffected look now on Pyle’s face. Finally realizing he is alone in the struggle, no longer even with the helpful hand and watching eye of Joker. This is the entire emotional crux of the film’s plot, despite all the other elements of Vietnam and the action going on there. Pyle’s actions taint everything in the movie, everything for Joker, after what he does, and you can never forget it. Neither can Joker. For him, and the viewer, the atrocities of war begin long before they ever set foot on the battlefield against the enemy.
Part of why Kubrick makes this movie disturbing is because he shows us how certain people become brainwashed by the military. Not everyone, but many do succumb to it. At least back when Vietnam was raging, anyway. Nowadays there’s a little more disillusionment with the heroic idea of military service; not any part of the soldiers, though, rather the blood is on the hands of the government. And that comes through here in how we see Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) drilling and drilling and drilling the rhetoric in their heads. The reason things are as disturbing as they get is due to the fact Kubrick plays things in both comedic and serious light. For instance, Ermey’s amazing performance as the loud and foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant is definitely funny in that he pulls out a bunch of incredible insults, yet it’s terrible at the same time. There’s a way to train soldiers physically and mentally. Not sure this is how they ought to do it. In this day and age things are apparently much different. Kubrick uses that old school military bravado, the constant emasculating jabs and the constructions of masculinity that go along with the whole lifestyle, and he turns that on its head. Funny in the one moment. Serious a little later when we see how far it drives certain soldiers, like the poor, damaged Private Pyle. Sure, the platoon jogs around Parris Island and chants Hartman’s funny sound-offs. Underneath that is a darker reality. These aren’t rhymes to keep the young soldiers interested. It’s deflection. Hartman lures them in with funny, crude rhymes and jokes when really he’s hypnotizing them and brainwashing each last willing participant. Sadly, the way Pyle chooses to get out is probably better off. In a way, he’s spared all the terror, both real and existential, of the Vietnam War experience.
Joker: “Leonard, if Hartman comes in here and catches us, we‘ll both be in a world a‘ shit.”
Pyle: “I am in a world of shit”
When Hartman asks “What is this Mickey Mouse shit?” there’s not an immediate realization of how much depth that question carries. He doesn’t live to see what it goes on to mean. However, it’s clear to the audience by the time the credits roll. Both this film and Oliver Stone’s Platoon dig deep into the world of the military we’re not often given a look at. Usually we, especially Americans, are inundated with the idea that everything about the military, the soldiers, is patriotic, as if they can do no wrong. Instead of trying to make some hero’s tale, Kubrick – along with Michael Herr and writer of the novel on which the film is based Gustav Hasford – dissects the finer points, wondering exactly how these men coped with the training, which is rough enough, only to find themselves thrown into a war they don’t understand, one they maybe shouldn’t have been fighting.
Aside from simply the military, this is obviously aimed directly at Vietnam as a whole. Even in the smallest moments it’s evident. Joker and Private Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) walk back to base at one point, as the latter remarks: “We‘re supposed to be helping them and they shit all over us every chance they get.” This one single line exemplifies exactly the ignorant bliss in which so many Americans (both citizen and soldier) wallow because of the stories they were fed at the time. Everybody thought they were there to do some good, save people; America, saviours of the world. Yet they did some hideous things to the people there, not just military troops. Part of Kubrick’s commentary is that many of these people become sucked into the whole rhetoric and machismo of war, particularly the young men. So the fact these guys don’t see anything wrong with their role, the American role in Vietnam during the war is part and parcel of the brainwashing. We further see this in Joker’s continual reference/impersonation of John Wayne, as the ultimate representation of the American ideal of the tough guy, the absolute hero, the one and only MAN’s MAN. Hell, a portion of the brainwashing started before they even got to training. In addition, the desensitization comes nastier later when Joker and the others joke about fucking sisters, mothers, so on; this shows how emotionally stunted these guys have become after so long. Worse still, later when the Marines are being interviewed by a camera crew Rafterman acts like a big, tough killer, holding his rifle up with some bravado bullshit and pretending to have whipped his gun out all over the place. Joker doesn’t pretend to have already killed, though makes clear he wants to kill – supposedly. It all began the first time Joker and the rest of those hypnotized soldiers saw an amped up American classic where the men weren’t allowed to show emotion, only the flare and smoke off the muzzle of their gun as they blew it away after blowing some other poor soul away, or only the fire of lust on some young woman cast specifically to look good next to the American cowboy hero.
Kubrick really does the war genre a solid. Full Metal Jacket has an amazingly strong first half. The second half isn’t any less strong, it just diverges from the brainwashing angle of the plot a little more. That doesn’t mean this aspect disappears. As we’re thrown “into the shit” alongside Joker, we slowly come to discover how one man and his principles can change over the course of time. More so if he’s subjected to the horrors of war, both deliberately and purposefully. At the same time, there’s a degree of self-realization. By the finish, Joker hasn’t exactly become totally engrained in the system. At one point he brings up “the duality of man“, all that “Jungian thing” and so on. This is the epitome of Joker. Nearing the end, he gives in and kills a sniper in mercy. This is his way of surviving that world of shit of which he and Pyle spoke. Although, coming full circle to Hartman’s words the men all sing “Mickey Mouse March” and head off in the distance, towards the next atrocity. So in a way, Joker and the others realize it’s all a bunch of Mickey Mouse shit. Yet as Joker, for him, a world of shit it may be, but being alive is better than being dead. After seeing some of what the dead endured, his mind may not have been totally warped. It may, in a mysterious way, be saved.
Man Behind the Sun. 1988. Directed by T.F. Mou. Screenplayby Mei Liu, Wen Yuan Mou, & Dun Jing Teng.
Cast: Jianxin Chen, Hsu Gou, Linjie Hao, Haizhe Jin, Tie Long Jin, Yuanrong Jin, Bolin Li, Pengyu Liu, Xuhui Lui, Zhaohua Mei, Zhe Quan ,Jiefu Tian, Gang Wang, Runsheng Wang, Shennin Wang, Jiang Wen, Dai Yao Wu, Guowen Zhang, Yongdong Zhao, & Rongming Zheng. Sil-Metropole Organisation.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
In a quest to try and watch any/all disturbing films out there, good or bad, I’ve heard about Man Behind the Sun (the correct translation, though titled most places as Men Behind the Sun) for many years. At an early age, I saw a clip on a website – possibly eBaum’s, or something similar – though, I never was able to find a copy. Living on an island at the far East Coast of Canada, the horror especially didn’t always find its way to the video stores; many movies as I did get to see, the real cult stuff was that for which I had to wait. So in lieu of actually being able to see this one I dove into the actual history behind Unit 731 – during World War II this particular unit lead by Major General Shiro Ishii committed heinous war crimes testing tactical biological warfare (resulting in small outbreaks of plague and cholera), which includes attacks via airplane on localized areas, later escalating to injecting plague directly into live subjects, among many other atrocious experiments such as infecting Allied POWs with glanders (a disease that primarily affects horses, donkeys, mules), dissecting POWs and other citizens, they even subjected women to rape and forced pregnancies, among too many other hideous things to list.
So straight away, you know Man Behind the Sun is not to be trifled with, neither should you assume it’s not as bad as people say. It is, absolutely. Now I can still sit and watch it, managing to get through. Regardless, this is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen in my life. It is brutish, ugly. You’ll think twice about going on. There’s no shame in not making it all the way. However, I have to say that there’s an almost important merit to this piece of cinema. While I do not condone the use of real corpses (both human and animal; the film’s most controversial ‘cat scene’ is actually a practical effect, albeit an impressive one that involves a real cat covered in honey being licked by rats), director T.F. Mou argues that we must try confronting the past, no matter how disgusting, no matter how bad it feels or looks. There’s an exploitative aspect to the entire film, no doubt. Foolish to say otherwise. Although I can’t discount the merit which lies beneath.
If you do venture ahead to watch, please know – only the hardcore horror hounds are likely to handle what they’ll see. That’s no joke. If you’ve got the stomach, hang for a ride.
There’s not a whole lot I have to say about the acting. It isn’t much good, at all. Though there are moments. On the whole this film is all about the hypnotically shocking gamut of realistic horror through which it grinds the viewer.
One scene that’s just downright unsettling is the drinking glass. You’ll know what I’m talking about. I won’t spoil it for those who’ve not yet seen the film. Rest assured, as someone who considers himself a hardened horror movie watcher, this even felt nasty to me. Specifically because the actor doing the drinking from said glass plays the moment so well. A creepy, brief scene. There’s not much good acting from here on in, aside from the young boys watching on under command of the General, as well as some of the victims in the experiments.
Later, the scariest element to so much of the horrific imagery we see is the fact these high-ranking men are training a bunch of young boys, they’re having the fact engrained in them that certain people they deem lower are considered not even people, as fodder for experimentation. Despite the graphic, visceral images, the disturbing part is this brainwashing, and if it’s at all possible this actually makes the nasty bits even nastier.
Maybe the most disturbing to me is the frozen arms of the woman, her reaction. It’s of note that those arms are actual corpse arms. Yes, you got that right. Real, dead, human arms. Only person willing to hold them was the director’s own niece. So they really froze them, she held them. It’s insanity. You always hear people rag on Ruggero Deodato for his filming of the natives killing animals, nobody’s over here worried about the dead bodies Mou used for his horror flick. Good lord. There’s one scene Mou claims is actual autopsy footage of a young boy. Not sure if this is true. If so, I’d hope there was some form of consent in order to use that. But then again, I highly doubt it. Turns out that the autopsy is real: the parents signed over consent to let the autopsy be filmed, and Mou dressed the doctors performing up like they were from the WWII era. There are huge questions about morality concerning whether Mou ought to have made the film this way. Apparently the special effects industry in China at that time did not exist, essentially. So partly he had to resort to what was available, which meant using connections of his with local police to inform him of cadavers matching the descriptions he required. Part of me then wonders if this was necessary. At the same time, was that maybe his aim? In confronting actual atrocities committed in the past, does something sickening like real corpse parts in a film about said atrocities somehow make the realism better? Certainly makes it real. Just not sure if it makes anything better. In the end, I’m conflicted.
Respect must be given to the legitimate practical effects in this movie. Forget the rats and all that controversial stuff. The practical special effects accomplished here are terribly impressive. They’re even able to surprise and disgust someone like myself. For instance, as I wrote this the scene where the guy’s intestine pops out made my eyes go wide. I didn’t get sick or anything, but I mean, it gave me pause. That doesn’t happen often. All I could do was stare a moment, horrified at the scene. They put him in a sort of audio chamber, jam on the high frequency until the guy can’t do anything but lay in pain on the ground, and then BAM – intestine, right out his asshole. I know that sounds cheesy, and rightfully atrocious. It is the latter. Unfortunately, it’s too well executed for me to say it has a cheese factor. The effect is ghastly.
Don’t believe it stops there. So much of runtime is spent in an endurance test as the audience. Rarely do we get time to break from the hideousness and settle our stomachs. Only now and then.
It’s hard for me to give this 3 out of 5 stars by saying the film is good. In terms of technical aspects, some of what Mou did as director works in the name of realism. In other ways, Man Behind the Sun is purely an exploitation flick, a torrid bit of hardcore genre filmmaking. Again, I’m completely conflicted when all is said and done. One side of me thinks what Mou did, in terms of using real corpses and animal parts, is downright despicable. The opposite side insists there’s value in Mou’s confrontation of a dark period in Japanese (and Chinese) history. Somewhere in the middle of the road lies an understanding.
If you want to test your ironclad stomach, do so at your own peril. Like I said, this didn’t make me sick. It did actually make me question, for the first time in 4,200 films: why am I watching this? Could be awhile before I figure out the answer to that one.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. 1964. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Peter George, & Terry Southern.
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, & Jack Creley. Columbia Pictures/Hawk Films.
Not Rated. 95 minutes.
Based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is easily what I consider as one of the funniest films of all time. I love me a good Farrelly Brothers flick, In Bruges is another one that kills me, Anders Thomas Jensen’s movie Adam’s Apples is a god damn riot. Then there’s stoner comedies like Cheech and Chong among others that give me a kick, some of the Broken Lizard movies are downright hilarious. Point is, I’m not snobbish about my comedy, nor do I think this film in particular is high brow. But I love comedy from any time, any era, any corner of the world.
Dr. Strangelove is so good because it came along at a particular time. In the midst of the Cold War, in a time where extreme ideology certainly reared its head in the U.S. and had people paranoid of communists infiltrating society, Kubrick – along with Peter George himself and brilliant writer Terry Southern – turned the book Red Alert from something sombre into an absolutely knock ’em down, drag ’em out riot. All the same, there’s nothing slapstick about this, and even in its ridiculousness there’s still always a contained feeling; that clinical process that Kubrick seems to inject into almost every one of his films. It’s capable of being incredibly funny while also taking on the concept of nuclear war, completely inept heads of government and more.
I still remember seeing this for the first time. Each viewing since then feels like the first all over again because every joke is still fresh, especially in this day and age where lunatics are all too near the big red button. I’m always laughing just as hard. And for that, I thank Kubrick. So much of his filmography is quite serious, which I love. However, it’s nice to see the funny side of that great director, in no less than one of the greatest comedies – if not THE GREATEST – in cinematic history.
Sterling Hayden is pitch perfect as General Ripper. There’s no way anybody could’ve given Ripper such a funny turn. When he starts going on about his “essence” there’s no way I can keep a straight face. It is at once frightening and all the same makes you giggle. That’s the overall genius of the film. Certainly when it comes to Hayden’s character. He is just a great actor, whose performances in films like Kubrick’s The Killing and The Godfather are memorable. Although not near as memorable as General Jack D. Ripper. And what a hilariously dark name for his character.
This brings me to the fact of names. Look at a few of them: Buck Turgidson (sounds slightly like turd yet also literally spells out ‘turgid’), President Merkin Muffley (do I need to point out what a merkin is, or what that then means for his last name?), Colonel Bat Guano, Major King Kong (played amazingly by Slim Pickens). Many of the main characters are named with tongue planted firmly in cheek. However, the President himself is most interesting, as his name seems to play into part of the character’s purpose.
One major aspect of the satire in this story is how the President of the United States of America is made out to be the ultimate pawn. Merely a figurehead. The whole fact he’s been overridden when Ripper goes mad and starts the nuclear attack on Russia points to the fact he really has no ultimate power, when it comes down to the wire. The fact the POTUS is named Merkin Muffley suggests a couple things. Mainly, the idea of a merkin – a pubic wig – suggests he is a fake, or a literal wig that hides something, concealing. So Merkin himself, as a figurehead for the government, is just a peon. He’s made to look all powerful when really it’s everyone underneath him, mainly those in the War Room (and obviously General Ripper who overstepped his rank) holding all the real power.
Love when Kong reads out all sorts of materials in the plane, including condoms, nylon stockings, lipstick. Such a farce, yet unless you’re really paying attention you might just pass off this brief moment. That’s another brilliant aspect to the script. There are a number of points where the writing weaves a serious situation through excellent satirical dialogue that you could miss it if you’re not focused. Then in other scenes it’s almost dripping with satire to the point that if you miss it, you’re just not watching the film.
The actors are all in fine form. You cannot ignore the pure genius of Peter Sellers, though. Three different parts. Each more hilarious than the last. It’s hard for me to even decide which one of them I love most. Mandrake is priceless in his juxtaposition with the perpetually crazy General Ripper ranting on about fluoridation and how Commies never drink water, only vodka, and all sorts of further madness. President Muffley’s conversation with the Russian Premier is one of the film’s highlights, as well as perhaps one of the most prevalent instances of the absurdist satire at play. But you’ve also got the eponymous Dr. Strangelove. He is appropriately the big finisher, giving us an awesomely performed finale to both finish off the film, and also the performance of Sellers. He is one of the greatest comedians to have ever graced the silver screen. Even if you recognize him slightly, each character has their own way of talking, on top of an accent, and they even move differently. All a testament to his impeccable acting talents.
In addition, the great George C. Scott brings General Buck Turgidson to life. Right from the get go he has me laughing. As the scenes wear on and the situations become dire, his comedic efforts and timing only serve the plot even better. One of my favourite moments from Scott is after Turgidson answers the phone and it’s his secretary, the one with whom he’s sleeping; he gives her this great little speech that makes me crack up. Everything about Scott’s performance is stellar, right down to the incessant gum chewing of General Buck.
There are so many impressive elements to Dr. Strangelove, but above all else it is funny, it cuts deep while also making things laughable. The satire and its execution, from George C. Scott to Peter Sellers in his three roles, is first and foremost what makes things work. As usual, Kubrick makes good directorial choices. There is an ominous feeling even throughout all the comedy, and that clinical sense of direction further seen in his later work is very much at play. All in all, I’m comfortable calling this my personal favourite comedy of all-time. Enough moments make me tear up from laughter that I can easily say that. Never will I get bored of the political commentary and satire jammed into this movie. In my top three Kubrick, which is saying something. If it’s not your cup of tea, I understand. But damn, are you ever missing out if this doesn’t strike you as funny as it does me.
300. 2006. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by Michael B. Gordon, Kurt Johnstad, & Snyder.
Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Giovani Cimmino, Stephen McHattie, Greg Kramer, Alex Ivanovici, & Kelly Craig. Legendary Pictures/Virtual Studios/Atmosphere Pictures/Hollywood Gang/Warner Bros.
Rated 18A. 116 minutes.
Zack Snyder is a director I’m not particularly sold on. I did love how he remade Dawn of the Dead because he kept enough to retain the wonderful legacy of George A. Romero while also throwing his own spin on things. Later, his adaptation of Watchmen was good enough, though to be fair no film adaptation could/would ever make Alan Moore’s words fit properly into the form. Other than these two films, as well as 300, Snyder to me is a second rate filmmaker. He knows how to capture an image, how to make it pop, and how to give his films an impressive atmosphere. But Snyder seems to consistently lack the essence of a visual storyteller. He’s more of a visual mood painter, as opposed to a painter that evokes poetry in his imagery.
I don’t read too much into any of the so-called political analysis critics have heaped onto this film. Sure, you can try. Ultimately when it concerns the Spartans they are a tiny group, tough, though against all the odds stacked high in the favour of their enemies. So how can you try to say they’re representative of a right-wing element, or a superpower? Don’t think so. Also, there’s the fact this is based on Frank Miller’s comic – before Frank got a little Conservative himself – which is itself a historical fantasy, inspired largely by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. While its basis is in Greek history, the comic and film are meant as part fantasy. Isn’t that obvious? Shame I have to say that. Furthermore, we get solely the Spartan perspective throughout this story. That should speak for itself.
But aside from that 300 is not all it’s been cracked up to be. The look is astounding, even if there’s CGI dripping from most of the frames, the actors do a fine job with their characters. There’s just something missing. Not only that, the look – to me – is not revolutionary as some have claimed, likening it to the groundbreaking work in The Matrix. Honestly the films of Tarsem Singh, particularly The Cell at times, really came to mind. Not everything feels lifted, only a few points where Snyder’s imagery and technique feels similar. Regardless, the constant fixation on an arresting visual style draws us away from the characters, effectively leaving us with CGI and action that never lifts this up past mediocre cinema.
There’s a wonderful atmosphere and look to 300 that compliments its graphic novel roots. While I do find some of it is definitely similar to Singh (The Cell, The Fall), the action sequences are exciting and the visual flair gives them an extra edge. So no, it isn’t as groundbreaking and astonishing as others make it out, but it does look great. I’m not a big lover of CGI. As a huge horror fan, I’m often repelled by the need to use CGI instead of practical makeup effects. Of course there are particular images you just aren’t going to make look proper if you use practical effects – mostly in terms of difficulty and practicality, budgets, et cetera. However, it feels like the intent for 300 was always layer it down in CGI, crunch up the contrast and other visual elements until the look is like a Renaissance painting. Only a Renaissance painting is beautiful not just because of its look, but due to the fact underneath that look there is purpose, reason. Snyder doesn’t achieve any of that extra stuff. Just flash.
For all its beauty, there are times I don’t like certain scenes. Some of the stuff with the sun rising or setting in the background, shots of the sky, it comes off as gaudy and overwrought instead of well put together in its complexity. In addition, Snyder overuses slow-motion to the point of agony. I get it, we want to slow down and let the eye catch on some blood, gore, and the impressive fighting skills of the Spartans against the massive Persian army. Overboard, Zack. Way overboard. It’s as if every minute (or less) we’re getting a shot slowed to a crawl, until finally it becomes all but ineffective.
Tyler Bates has gone on to do some good composing. He almost killed his career here, using unauthorized pieces of other scores including significant bits from the Shakespearean adaptation Titus. And funny enough, the whole score isn’t that impressive anyways. Since this film Bates has done genuinely nice work, including John Wick and Ti West’s The Sacrament. But a lot of this stuff here is generic. Others have said quite the opposite, that is really amps things up. Certain pieces work. Most of it just doesn’t feel up to par with the epic filmmaking attempts by Snyder. There’s a mixed-mashed sense to a lot of the composing here, which doesn’t end up coming together in the right manner. If Bates had stuck to one style instead of crossing from orchestral pieces into quasi-heavy metal riffs and thumping drum kits, the music would’ve probably complimented the action correctly and in turn intensified a lot of already loaded moments.
This is a mediocre action film with historical fantasy weaving through its cracks; a 3-star piece of cinema. Zack Snyder tries best he can to elevate 300 into the realm of innovative action where work like The Matrix still reigns supreme. Not all is bad. The film has its moments. Lena Headey and Gerard Butler sell their characters well, their performances both fierce and emotional at the correct times. Outside of them and a couple of the other cast members (Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes is damn solid and also fairly unnerving), nothing is any better than the sum of its parts.
While some will hail this as a great achievement and an awesome bit of cinema post-2000, I’d take a lot of other movies in the past 16 years over this one. 300 is enough to satisfy a bit of hunger for action, a slice of history, some historical fantasy, too. Otherwise it is a run-of-the-mill movie with Snyder’s brash style laid over top. You can still have fun here, just don’t let anybody confuse you, and don’t get confused yourself – there are better movies out there in the same realm. Snyder isn’t some contemporary action genius, even if he keeps being handed massive amounts of money to make his middle of the road films.
The Third Part of the Night. 1971. Directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Screenplay by Andrzej & Miroslaw Żuławski.
Starring Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska, Michal Grudzinski, & Marek Walczewski. Polski State Film.
Not Rated. 105 minutes.
Andrzej Żuławski first wowed me with Possession, and after being completely, morbidly enthralled by its wonderfully sickening plot I knew he was a director whose work I’d have to seek out further. He’s gone on to do a lot of different things across several respective genres. However, nowhere is Żuławski more powerful than when trafficking in the realm of horror, whether psychological or otherwise. Of course much of his horror comes out of war, periods of turmoil and upheaval in society, even evident in bits of Possession.
Never is the specter of war and destruction so resonant, so obvious and heavy as it is in The Third Part of the Night. With the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Holocaust and the Nazis, all of World War II raging on just outside the door, this is a film about many things. But chiefly, Żuławski’s dramatic, psychological horror set in wartime concerns the existential damage suffered under the horrible strain of war, and the lengths to which a human will allow themselves to go all to escape it.
The Third Part of the Night is a haunting, harrowing illustration of survivor’s guilt. With the looming figure of WWII and the Holocaust, our main character is left with the guilt of having survived his family. Not only does he try helping everyone else in an attempt at atoning for what he considers as the sin of failure (to protect his family), he continues to see his wife after her death. She appears to him as the pregnant woman, even a couple other times in brief little flashes. The survivor guilt he feels doesn’t allow him to forget the face of his wife, superimposing her memory onto the faces of others. The horrors and depravity of war have driven him to mental illness.
Finally there is a lesson here that history repeats itself; if we do not learn from our mistakes, the same events, or those similar in impact, will continue to transpire. Just as Michal sees the doubles of his wife, then later one of himself, the perpetual nature of a horror like that experienced by the Jewish people during WWII is inescapable if we do not learn something from what’s happened. Slowly, Michal finds that he’s slipping into the life of another man only to later see a vision of himself as this very man. The presence of doubles/doppelgangers is a recurring theme in the work of Żuławski, seen again in both Possession and The Public Woman. Here this aspect serves less of a Hitchcockian-type of narrative device, more like an unsettling element to this story’s surrealism.
Then there’s the end.
Revelation 9:6 “and death shall flee from them” – to me, this is a statement about how the horrors of war, specifically the Nazis and their reign of terror culminating in the Holocaust, drove the Jewish people to such extreme lengths of physical and mental torture even without directly playing a part. Indirectly, many Jews would go in for such jobs as working in a factory like the one in which Michal uses his body to produce vaccines, involving lice, all so they could have a work card that said they were basically guinea pigs letting lice infest them, and that would have the Germans saying MOVE ALONG. In a way, this degradation of the self and the body was a way of them fighting back, but in a twisted sense as it was only doing them harm in the end. Such were the lengths many would go to ensure they didn’t die at the hands of Mengele or some other sadistic Nazi bastard. So that end quote from Revelation comes to represent how the Apocalypse has essentially been brought about through WWII and the Nazi Party, as pestilence and famine and death and war all reign down (Four Horsemen) on Europe, in this case Poland specifically. At the same time, “death shall flee from them” is almost a statement about the Jews, as they’ve become so hardened in body and psyche by the terrifying nature of this brutal war that the Nazis – in this case having people infected with lice working in these places – would rather let them be than to possibly infect themselves. In addition, there’s an absurdist element at play. The fact Michal, as well as others, are driven to working in such places all to avoid the Nazis – who, yes, would bring upon them a worse fate – is a Kafkaesque body horror. With an ending such as this, it’s hard to pinpoint any one aspect the director was trying to get at. All the same, these are my best explanations. To my mind it works well with the plot.
Cinematographer Witold Sobociński is fascinating. His work here is one of the only two films I know/have seen of his, which includes Roman Polanski’s 1988 film Frantic. In this film, Żuławski has him going hard on the handheld cinematography. Which is great because Sobociński is steady. Not just that some of the angles and techniques they use works well with his adeptness for handheld camerawork, including unexpected, fresh shots that leap off the screen and grab us. Also, a heavy blue filter casts everything in a doom-and-gloom perspective throughout the film’s entirety. Added to that is the general style of Żuławski, one you can see throughout most his work; notably in another great bit of horrifying cinema he provided us with via Possession. There’s an unbalanced feel to things, but not because of any amateur efforts. Merely Żuławski likes to keep the mental state of his viewer questioning things constantly, trying to see what’s behind the imagery. Above anything else, Żuławski’s style is dizzying and raw in that even the surreal moments are incredibly honest. We’re brought into his film and story through the visceral qualities of its atmosphere and the overall look/tone. There’s this wild feeling whenever blood appears onscreen, as the camera takes us flitting around the scenes, almost how one might if they were squeamish. The camera sees blood and quickly it disorients the audience, reacting much like a human being.
Aside from the look, the sounds of this movie help its atmosphere a great deal. The music is haunting, often giving off the air of ominous things to come. Other times it’s a little grating and heaps itself onto the viewer without hesitation.
Arguably one of the greatest feature film debuts by an director, ever, The Third Part of the Night introduces many of the directorial sensibilities Andrzej Żuławski would go on to make a core part of his personal style, epitomized thoroughly and in even more fully realized form in his films Possession and The Public Woman a decade later. While I’ve given my own personal interpretation of the film, its horror and the surrealism elements, part of Żuławski’s experience here is meant as disorienting. Just like Michal the audience is thrown down the rabbit hole. After that initial event with his family being slaughtered, his mind gradually melts, and the effects of war drive him into a spiral. So though many of us will try and impose our meaning on this piece of cinema it is also inherently undefinable.
And that’s part of this movie’s trouble, as so many try to pinpoint on exact thorough plot with little explanations for every last thing along the way. That’s just not what this work of art is about. It evokes a strong feeling in the viewer, watching an unemotional, unsentimental picture about WWII and the Holocaust that foregoes the telling of heroic/against-all-odds stories in lieu of something absurd, existentially horrific, and at times borderline psychedelic. Żuławski is an important filmmaker whose work ought never to be passed over with a glance. This man and his films deserve close attention.
Predator. 1987. Directed by John McTiernan. Screenplay by Jim Thomas & John Thomas.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, R.G. Armstrong, & Shane Black. Amercent Films/American Entertainment Partners L.P./Davis Entertainment.
Rated R. 107 minutes.
There are 1980s films. Then there are quintessential ’80s films. Such is the case with Predator. It boasts one of those awesome casts that makes things work incredibly well, mostly due to the fact Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura are each enjoyable to see on camera; but they’re just the icing on the cake. The writing has got plenty of that ’80s charm with cheesy one-liners that would never survive outside the decade (“I ain‘t got time to bleed“). There’s a ton of kick ass action that spreads from science fiction to horror in the one breath. And it’s the sci-fi aspect that’s so damn fun.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences a good helping of action in the course of his career. He’s made Die Hard and Die Hard: With a Vengeance, as well as The Hunt for Red October, and also the criminally underrated adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The 13th Warrior. But above it all reigns this 1987 science fiction action-horror masterpiece. Playing on a collective fear of the unknown re: intelligent life out in space, McTiernan’s Predator puts a bunch of military men in the way of the titular intergalactic hunters, pitting the toughest of the tough against an entity far scarier, far more nasty than any of them.
Our first glimpse of the Predator’s thermal vision scanner is actually chilling. It has this starkly contrasted feeling, and the sounds, the thumping of the heartbeats, makes things even more unsettling. Best of all, the men don’t know they’re being watched. So the voyeurism of this Predator as he susses out the group and their possible weaknesses is a scary element. He watches, waits, stalks. They are his prey. Quickly, we’re introduced to the abilities of this space hunter and the advantages his technology give him.
And that leads into part of why I love Predator. If you’re the kind that likes reading deep into a film, even if it’s action, then let’s get going! See, to my mind, the idea of these Predators out there, coming from another planet and meeting head-on with these military men, the mercenary-types, it speaks to the uniquely American fear of being conquered. Being dominated. Being bent to the will of a power stronger than oneself. The idea that these super hunters could go up against our best, the military-trained men with every skill for battle imaginable, this shatters any notion of superiority.
Then again, it’s just a movie about an alien killing a bunch of dudes, right?
Setting this in the jungle was a stroke of genius. The locations look absolutely incredible. Much of the cinematography in general is pretty good, too. Donald McAlpine does a solid job capturing different aspects of the film – from the horror to the action to the more sci-fi elements. He takes us from the action oriented battles to the close-up, fearful conversations of the men as they hide in the bush from the Predator. The suspense is always present. The horror always just around the corner. Together with McAlpine is the talented composed Alan Silvestri, whose music can be heard in everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Forrest Gump to The Avengers. His score really amps up the energy, the suspense, and breaks the tension in all the right places. The orchestral score flares up in wild moments of action. Its strings lay just beneath the conversations of the men as they try and figure out how to proceed against their unseen threat. Adding McAlpine’s cinematography with the downright fucking amazing score out of Silvestri, all the genre elements are aided with a thick atmosphere of dread and uncertainty.
On one hand, Arnold is not a good actor; at all. On the other, he is a great action star. Contradiction? Nah. He’s got the looks, the big hulking frame and muscles, there is a quiet intensity about him almost all the time. He’s got charisma, his charm is undeniable. Plus, he can do the action, he can perform some stunts and give authenticity to the term ‘action star’. So who better to lead Predator? In addition to Ahh-nold, we’re also given some Carl Weathers, whose performance is fairly enjoyable. Then Jesse The Body – he pops off a truly hilarious and unfortunately homophobic line early on, but makes up for it with typical ’80s nonsense dialogue that’s so perfect to keep things fun. The cast was never going to win any Oscars. Although, they work well as an ensemble, they’re all pretty ripped which lends itself to their being military men and hardcore mercenaries, so that’s the best McTiernan needed for the action and the thrills provided.
Excitement. Suspense. Greasy biceps. Blood. Brutal alien killers. Arnold covered in mud, kicking a little alien ass. Predator is a big 4-star action extravaganza. It has the right amount of everything to make this one of the best of the 1980s. The science fiction and horror aspects of the screenplay really helped this become a favourite amongst fans. Because action movies are meant to be Rated R. So why not give fans of the sci-fi and horror genres a dose of action they can enjoy? Turns out, everyone enjoyed it.
For all its flaws and missteps, Predator‘s appeal is undeniable, it is long lasting, and as long as there are action-science fiction hybrids, this will remain a proven classic.
Son of Saul. 2015. Directed by László Nemes. Screenplay by Nemes & Clara Royer.
Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sándor Zsótér, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Amitai Kedar, & Kamil Dobrowolski. Laokoon Filmgroup/Hungarian National Film Fund.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
Stories of the Holocaust and WWII are a dime a dozen. Some of them are exploitative, such as Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. Then there’s the exploitation films using the Nazis and their crimes in an exciting, dare I say fun way, like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Also can’t forget classic Holocaust-centered films Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful. My personal favourite is The Night Porter, which examines leftover emotions and disturbing feelings from the last few years of the Second World War.
But along comes Son of Saul. It takes a close, personal perspective and drags us alongside, witnessing the dark horrors of the concentration camps. This is one film that uses both subtlety and graphic depictions of its subject to wow the viewer. Director László Nemes brings us inside the world of the Sonderkommandos – prisoners in the German death camps made to work, often burning the corpses of their people after extermination, and other such macabre duties. Having read lots about WWII, specifically what happened in the camps, to see a film bring these events to life is emotional, gripping, and thoroughly savage. However, savage with importance. Without exploiting the experiences of those imprisoned under Nazi rule, Son of Saul manages to craft itself into a powerful drama that tows us through a road of horror to get to its conclusion.
During the fall of 1944, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew, is imprisoned in a German Nazi concentration camp – the infamous Auschwitz. He works as a Sonderkommando; his task is burning the dead Jews exterminated in the gas chambers. Except one day he finds the body of a boy who was meant to go for an autopsy, and takes him for his son after discovering him still breathing. He convinces the prison doctor not to do it, then decides to try burying his supposed son, also hoping to find a rabbi so they can perform a proper Jewish burial. Meanwhile, Abraham (Levente Molnár) hopes to get a rebellion going against the SS guards. Another fellow, Biedermann (Urs Rechn), proposes they photograph all the horrors of the camps and smuggle the pictures out.
But the body of the boy keeps calling for Saul’s attention, and to make up for his own past Saul continues on his mission to give the boy the burial he deserves instead of relegating him to the mass graves and the body burnings. At the same time, Saul has to make sure he can manage to survive until the terror is over.
Immediately, one thing that’s incredibly noticeable is the almost first-person perspective we get through Saul. Over his shoulder, the camera allows us to hover around Saul’s head, to gain a look into his world, his emotions. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély – whose excellent work can also be seen in 2011’s Miss Bala and his latest in the recent James White – immerses us into the experience of Saul, always keep us on his periphery, only ever briefly allowing small moments outside of his headspace. And so, for a highly personal, almost private story, the cinematography engages us in Saul’s emotional point of view, rarely ever relenting. This helps us feel as if we’re sitting in the midst of the camps. And though anyone outside of the Jewish people who experienced all those atrocities will never ever be able to fully comprehend the mindset, the resonance of this film’s visual style is capable of drawing out those tough, tender, raw emotions.
Furthermore, everything is very dark, almost completely lit by natural light. So the shadows and the sunset and the darkened corners of rooms, hallways, the concrete chambers of Auschwitz, they’re all rich and beautifully captured. Everything looks honest and real. Coupled with that, the fact there’s no score throughout and the images are punctuated by the sounds of voices, the noise of work and machinery, the breathing of Saul and those around him, it adds something perfectly human to the drama and the horror swirling about the camp. Some say without a score films can feel empty. I agree, only on certain accounts. Son of Saul works with no score because there’s no preying on the emotions here. The film speaks solely to the personal human drama, it doesn’t try to play with your feelings and accentuate emotional moments with strings or piano music, or whatever. Rather, the filmmakers continue to immerse us in the world of Saul because without score we’re forced to stick to the images, to the movement of our central character and his actions. Everything becomes like life, playing out right in front of our eyes as naturally as can be while simultaneously looking rich and vibrant.
The juxtaposition of all the different things the Jewish prisoners went through is stunning. For instance, while there’s no shortage of dead corpses, piles of them at times, some of the most disturbing bits are actually less explicit. In one scene, Saul is in a doctor’s office, but finds himself interrupted by a bunch of SS guards. One of them starts to mock Saul, then breaks into a big routine on Jewish song and dance. What’s most disturbing, apart from everyone enjoying Saul being humiliated, is how the ring leader of the mocking grabs Saul, pushing him around the room, shaking him, treating him like some might treat an animal. So even with all the little graphic moments included throughout, a few of the more chilling scenes come from these subtle, quieter moments where we’re able to see how childish the heart of racism is – paralleled with all the brutality that becomes part of it, too. Similarly, the whole idea that Saul sees some beauty left in life, wanting to bury the boy and get a rabbi for him is parallel against the fact he’s ignoring a chance at escape, he’s risking his life further than he has to in order to both honour a child in death, as well as make up for his own past faults. The whole film is filled with great juxtapositions such as these, part of why there are many lingering emotions after the credits roll.
A flawless 5-star experience. At times you’ll want to look away, but don’t. We can never turn our face from atrocity, no matter how brutal and tough to watch. This is not a film that relishes in torture or delights in any of the horror through which it frames the plot. No, Son of Saul shows us the Holocaust in all its grimness, never allowing for an overly emotional experience. It’s more of a trying one. But rightfully so. No film about such an event should ever be easy to sit through. At the same time, Nemes uses his beautiful approach to filmmaking for a purpose, and draws us through a terrifying time in 20th century history. He allows us to experience the world of Saul, to feel and see and hear its morbidity. Most of all, Son of Saul shows us a character and story not often put on film, which takes us deeper, further into the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. More so it brings up questions of morality, humanity, daring to explore some of the scariest darkness among human kind while pushing forward a semi-redemptive theme underneath all the terror. A truly fascinating, impressive bit of cinema.
Beasts of No Nation. 2015. Directed & Written by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala.
Starring Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor, Andrew Adote, Vera Nyarkoah Antwi, Ama K. Abebrese, Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Kobina Amissah-Sam, and Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye. The Princess Grace Foundation/Red Crown Productions/Participant Media/Come What May Productions/Mammoth Entertainment/New Balloon.
Not Rated. 137 minutes.
Cary Fukunaga is destined to be a classic director of this generation. His first feature, Sin Nombre, embraced a similar danger to the terrifying things Beasts of No Nation explores, and right away that initial debut showed both his skill as a director, as well as his impressive abilities as a writer. From there, he directed an adaptation of Jane Eyre, and later graced HBO (and us) with one of the greatest debuts of any television series in True Detective alongside the acting talents of many including Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Now, Beasts of No Nation comes to us, amazingly as the first full-length feature from Netflix. And it is every bit what I expected.
Fukunaga – perhaps due to his father being born in an American camp where the Japanese were held after the Imperial Japan bombing of Pearl Harbour – has a soft spot, so to speak, for stories concerning children, the young, and generally anyone drawn into the internal conflicts of where they live. Even in True Detective, the less obvious of his work in this respect, there are many instances of people torn apart by the changes in New Orleans. Of course there’s Sin Nombre, which tracks two young people mired in the world of MS-13 and all its death, gang violence, drugs and more. In Beasts of No Nation we watch an even sadder tale, if that’s actually possible. Here we have the story of a young boy indoctrinated into a rebel army while trying to survive in the African wilderness, all after his father and others are unfairly executed by a group of military men. With the adapted screenplay by Fukunaga carrying tons of emotional weight and tons of questions about morality, how we view child soldiers and the nations which produce them, as well as the acting talent of young Abraham Attah and a powerhouse performance from Idris Elba, this is one gripping and ultimately brutal look at the desperate lives which some are forced to live in this world.
The debilitating wars of Africa come to us quickly, as the character of Agu (Abraham Attah) is thrust into it. His father and others are executed in his village, but Agu gets away. He runs into the wilderness and crawls through the forest, feeding off what he can, even getting sick at times because of not knowing which plants to eat or not. Struggling on his own, Agu comes across the NDF – a rising rebel army in the African jungle. Running this faction is a man known only as Commandant (Idris Elba). He takes the young boy under his wing almost immediately. But soon, we discover it is not of the goodness in his heart. He recruits child soldiers, those who must survive and will do anything for their chance to do so.
Not long after Commandant takes Agu in, the man asks the boy to initiate himself into the NDF. His task: kill a man with a machete. After he does, Agu is changed. Completely. To his core now he has become someone else. Though he knows murder is “the worst thing“, Agu is unable to turn and run.
For the time being, the boy must survive the war. By any means necessary.
For the entire film I found myself thinking: how is Abraham Attah this god damn good? Honestly, I love to experience a great performance from a child. There are a ton of amazing young actors out there who put in solid performances, which continually surprises me because especially when they’re very young it’s impressive they can even reach the depth needed to play certain characters. Such is the case with Attah here. There’s an aged quality to his eyes, to the way which he delivers lines: “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.” Scene after scene, revving up in the last hour, Attah shows us the range he can attain. There are subtle moments, many of them, where the character of Agu and his pain comes through. Others, the youthful childishness still inside him is very evident. Yet all the time you’re aware that this young boy is acting circles around some of the adult performances in 2015. Attah truly blew me away with this role and I do hope he’ll continue to take roles as tough and as intense as this one down the road. He deserves to be a star.
Then there is Idris Elba. He has always interested me because of his quiet nature. Even in roles where he’s required to be loud and brash at times, there’s some sly quality about his performances which always stick out. From Stringer Bell to the titular character of the Luther series, I’m more often than not sucked into the world of a film or television series by his acting. As Commandant, in this film Elba brings out a monster of a man. There are several very excitable and near deafening moments where he shows Commandant as a vicious, brutal and inexplicable type of individual. We also find Elba capable of extremely low-key, subtle scenes which express how vile and morally corrupt Commandant is, without having to resort to anything too graphic or explicit; for instance, there is a dark and quiet scene between Commandant and Agu a little past the hour mark where we finally see how despicably sick the man is, and it doesn’t require anything overtly nasty, still getting its point across with force. Part of the impact isn’t only from Fukunaga’s cinematography and the editing from Pete Beaudreau/Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, it comes from the way Elba talks, the way his eyes move under the slight darkness, how he moves slow and steady. He is worthy of every bit of praise that comes his way.
A full-on 5-star experience. Some were supposedly disappointed with the ending, as if it weren’t dramatic or exciting enough. But why must it be either of those things? Beasts of No Nation is about the perpetual cycle of abuse, rape, violence and war which African countries are facing on a daily basis in certain areas. The ending only goes to show that while there are glimmers of hope now and then, the wars rage on, the children are forever thrust into a warring life from day one and it’s only luck which ones end up holding an Ak-47 with a machete, and which ones either die or somehow escape.
Agu and Commandant represent two sides of one situation – the former is the child soldier brought into a way of life by older and more cynical men, the latter a molder of boys who turns them into killing machines in order to further his own cause and line his own pockets. This story is one of devastation and of a viciousness many of us will never ever know. I left the film changed slightly, seeing the conflicting view of child soldiers through the eyes of the character Agu, and I also felt the emotional weight of what these boys go through lie heavy on my chest for days. It isn’t easy to ignore how powerful Beasts of No Nation can get. This boasts excellent cinematography, direction and a tight screenplay from Cary Fukunaga, plus a solid and exciting score by Dan Romer, as well as the foundational performances of Attah and Elba, which comes together to make one of the best feature films out of 2015. Hands down.