Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston etc.
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
There are very few things as warming and pleasant as taking a trip down memory lane, recalling the fuzzy thoughts of a bygone childhood time when everything was laughter and escape. Escape in this instance came in the form of a black and white television box; while laughter came from watching arguably the greatest comedy double act in movie history on TV every early evening after school on BBC2. To be sure, my youth would have been a lot more depressing without Laurel and Hardy’s comedies to divert my mind away from family strife, school bullies and grey council estate existence.
Watching Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s comedies was a formative part of my early years and I have continued to be a fan of there work to this day. It’s incredible that, when I was a kid, films made nearly forty years before had me in uncontrollable fits of laughter. Even now classics such as: Laughing Gravy (1931), Way Out West (1937), The Music Box (1932), Sons of the Desert (1933), County Hospital (1932), Busy Bodies (1933), Our Relations (1933), The Flying Deuces (1939) etc. to name just a few of their incredible output, retain the power to have me in stitches. Laurel’s skinny dumb man-child perfectly contrasted Hardy’s larger more confident, yet deluded leader of the two. Their comedy derived from their hapless misadventures, usually involving some new business venture or fish-out-of-water situation which resulted in anarchic chaos and silliness all round. But the comedy was not simple pratfalls but carefully constructed sight-gags, complex slap-stick set-pieces and constant battles with wives, girlfriends or authority figures.
After briefly establishing the characters of Stan and Ollie in Hollywood during 1937, the Jeff Pope scripted film moves to the United Kingdom in 1953. Here Laurel and Hardy’s star is on the wane and they have taken a music hall tour to try and make a few quid, while potentially getting a Robin Hood movie off the ground. With their health suffering, especially Hardy’s, due to excessive alcohol and food intake, the two begrudgingly go on tour while bitter acrimony simmers underneath. On top of that the tour is struggling due to a lack of promotion by Bernard Delfont and the whole thing looks like it could be a disaster. I must admit the film is not really that dramatic and stands more as a nostalgic tribute to the power of Stan and Ollie’s friendship and comedic relationship. Laurel is the workaholic always cracking wise and looking for the next gag, while Hardy is the more sociable and relaxed with an eye for the ladies and horses.
Jon S. Baird directs with a deft hand, yet he has two incredible actors in the lead roles. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are absolutely perfect as Stan and Ollie. Their mannerisms and comic timing in capturing the comedy duo are a joy to watch. Moreover, there’s a wistful pathos in the fact a great life journey is about to come to an end. Here, Coogan and Reilly bring a real warmth to the roles and as they resolve their tensions the over-riding emotion ultimately is love. As the tour continues they are joined by their wives, portrayed by Shirley Henderson and the scene-stealing, Nina Arianda. Their relationships at times reflects the hen-pecking women Stan and Ollie would find themselves chained to in their movies, but there’s clearly a lot of love on screen too. Lastly, despite their health issues Stan and Ollie are born entertainers, fully committed to the ethos that the show must go on.
Overall, Stan and Ollie is a wonderful paean to two of the greatest comedic actors that ever lived. It’s gentle in pace and drama but anchored by two mesmerising performances by Coogan and Reilly. Despite the low budget, the period locations and costumes are brilliantly designed, and I especially enjoyed seeing many recognizable London locations. The biggest highlight though throughout is the hilarious re-enactments of many of Laurel and Hardy’s famous sketches, songs and movie moments. These took me back to my youth and days of watching Stan and Ollie on that small black and white box at home, laughing my silly head off without a care in the world.
It goes without saying that I watch a lot of films and have over the last few years reviewed quite a few too. The last three I saw at the cinema were a bit hit and miss yet overall serviceable examples of, despite their flaws, the Hollywood genre film. The genre film is the staple of the Hollywood production model and the word genre can be used to describe and organize films according to: type, style, form, characteristics and marketing possibilities. Moreover, certain movie stars and actors would become synonymous with movie types such as: John Wayne and the Western; Humphrey Bogart and the crime or noir drama; Arnold Schwarzenegger and the action film; plus directors such as Martin Scorsese making a cinematic mark with the gangster film. In the 1950s genre film theory was debated by academics such as Andre Bazin. From then on many a film degree essay was delivered and arguments ensued between auteur and genre theories. More importantly the Hollywood movie-making monster which rose from the 1920s onwards used genre conventions and tropes, along with the star system, to promote a formula of mass production within their cinematic releases.
Such genre production is still very much in place today. But, as audiences get seemingly both attention-deficient and more cinema-knowing the melding of genres is very much a postmodern trend for the now. While a perennial spy classic like James Bond still holds onto the genre conventions like: gadgets, action and over-the-top villains, films such as American Werewolf in London (1981), Evil Dead II (1987), Shaun of the Dead (2004) successfully combined horror and comedy. Furthermore, of late Marvel instilled many of their superhero films with properties from the heist, thriller, comedy and horror genres in order differentiate and market their stories. Indeed, filmmaking has become so sophisticated some filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers cross a multitude of genres within their works. As so happens I watched three proper genre films at the cinema recently so would like to review them from both a critical and genre perspective. As usual I will give them marks out of eleven.
THE NUN (2018)
As marketing departments attempt to find new ways to promote their products we have now entered the arena of the film “Universe”. This finds events, characters, places and in this case, demons, all linked within the same historical timeline and world. The Nun is part of The Conjuring “Universe”. The demonic monster Valak first appeared in the James Wan sequel The Conjuring 2 (2016); thus, within the horror genre The Nun is both a prequel and origins film. Set in 1950s Romania is concerns a haunted Catholic nunnery which is under threat from an unholy evil. Taissa Farmiga’s novice Nun and Demian Bechir’s grizzled Father Burke are dispatched to have a look about and of course are thrown into a face-off with something from the pits of hell.
The main genre requirement of a horror film is to create fear and excitement in the audience and while The Conjuring films, directed by the brilliant James Wan did just that, this film is, aside from a couple of moments, not scary enough. It has lots of shadows, darkness, blood, screams and a gruesome supernatural monster but, despite Farmiga’s committed performance, makes little narrative sense and suffers from poor characterisation. Having said that, while watching The Nun, I at times felt it was on the cusp of being a surrealist horror classic with much hallucinatory trickery of a “what’s real and what isn’t real” variety. However, by the end I decided that while the director is clearly a talented filmmaker the screenplay did not really serve the horror genre or story well as it was illogical at best and had no defining “rules of the world” substance. Ultimately, though the main draw for studios is that horror films are one of the cheapest genre films to make yet reap rewards from the cinema-paying public. Indeed, The Nun has so far grossed $330 million dollars from a $20 million outlay. Now, that is scary!!
(Mark: 5 out of 11)
THE PREDATOR (2018)
Talking of genre-crossing directors, the writer and director of The Predator (2018), Shane Black has had an interesting career trajectory. He was a supporting actor in the original classic Predator (1987) and would subsequently become a more successful screenwriter and wrote scripts for: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Last Action Hero (1993) and most memorably Lethal Weapon (1987). Such movies put Black firmly in the Hollywood blockbuster territory so it was no surprise when Marvel employed him to write and direct Iron Man 3 (2013). Arguably his best films though were the buddy-buddy comedy-thrillers Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys (2016) which benefited from great chemistry from their male leads. Coming full circle then to write and direct The Predator (2018), Black has delivered the best elements of his genre work but also the worst. He’s often a writer of excess, with a succession of ideas, gags, set-ups and punchlines which, if allied to a decent story, create a barrage of fine entertainment.
From a genre perspective The Predator is a mash-up of: science fiction, action, war, spy, and TV-movie-of-the-week tropes. It moves at such an alarming pace you barely have a chance to breathe. In a nutshell Boyd Holbrook’s crack soldier must save his son and the world from both nefarious Government agents and not just one Predator, but another incredibly kick-ass uber-Predator. Chuck in a dirty-half-dozen motley crew of “insane” soldiers, plus an autistic kid (Jacob Tremblay) who may or may not have the power to defeat the Predators, and you get an explosive film which, while moving rapidly, does not make much logical sense in places. For example, characters, vehicles and animals pop up in the narrative out of nowhere then disappear, which created a hell of a lot of confusion for me. Still, Black is a great writer of concepts and punchy dialogue so you’re never far away from something cool-looking, something blowing up or a funny gag or three. It’s just a shame the story was so confusing and plot delivered in such an illogical fashion.
(Mark: 7 out of 11)
A SIMPLE FAVOUR (2018)
Once again here is a filmmaker who, while predominantly working from a genre perspective has taken their comedic skills and light touch and infused it within other genres. Indeed, the very talented Paul Feig has marshalled some extremely funny films and TV shows in recent times including: The Office (U.S.), Arrested Development (2004), Nurse Jackie (2009), Bridesmaids (2011) and Spy (2015). His Ghostbusters (2016) update starring Melissa McCarthy was arguably not very successful from both a genre or reboot perspective, however, his latest film A Simple Favour (2018) is much, much better. It stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as polar-opposite mums, whose paths criss-cross one fateful day when the latter asks the other to look after her son. Blake Lively absolutely nails her role as the stylish, beautiful and brutally honest PR executive. Her spiteful Emily Nelson is a career best performance and when her character vanishes, the effervescent Kendrick’s go-getting, busy-body-single-mom, Stephanie Smothers, decides to hunt for her “friend”.
What follows is more comedic but still suspenseful as the plot twists from one exciting turn to another. As the unlikely detective Kendrick hilariously enlists the help of her “Mums-Net” video-log subscribers in trying to track down Emily. As the story moves forward Emily’s husband (Henry Golding) and Stephanie herself become suspects until the final revelations dig up something totally unexpected. A Simple Favour is the most successful of the genre films I watched. Feig is able to blend the comedy, noir and thriller very well and while I would have preferred the tone to be darker, I accept that Feig is what I call a “day” director; in that all his scenes seem to happen during the day. Thus, in the hands of say, David Fincher, the original novel this is based on would have been a totally different beast. Having said that we may not have got Blake Lively’s stunning comedic turn as the bitchy femme fatale and that is worth the admission fee alone.
Executive producer(s): Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Robert B. Weide, Larry Charles, Erin O’Malley, Alec Berg etc.
Production company(s): HBO Entertainment, Warner Bros.
Starring: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove etc.
There’s absolutely no reason why a situation comedy about an aging, wealthy, neurotic and narcissistic Hollywood writer should be one of the most consistently funny comedy shows of the last twenty years. There’s no real substance or depth in Curb Your Enthusiasm; in fact not much really happens of great value as it occurs in a “Larry David / Hollywood” bubble. Moreover, in anti-hero Larry David you more often than not find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, and strangers on a daily basis. However, due to the writing, cast and situations the humour is always pretty, pretty good!
After a six-year hiatus Larry David is back and nothing really has changed. The formula remains the same inasmuch as he gets himself in ridiculous situations upsetting everyone around him, resulting in the most farcical of comedic pay-offs. However, while many of the narrative reveals can be seen a long way off it doesn’t make them any less enjoyable. Special highlights during Season 9 are JB Smoove’s scene-stealing turns as Larry’s “house-guest” Leon Black; who over the course of the last few seasons has inveigled his way into Larry’s life. The two have become an unlikely double act as uncool Jewish bald guy buddies up with his cooler, streetwise and “player” pal. With Leon and Larry you get a relationship which both reflects and satirizes racial stereotypes to funny effect.
While most of the Season 9 episodes work as stand-alone stories the integral over-riding arc involves Larry David writing a new Broadway show. Inspired by events which occurred to novelist Salman Rushdie, Larry has written a musical called, incredibly, Fatwa! At first everyone loves the idea and rushes to invest. However, when Larry mocks the Ayatollah on the Jimmy Kimmel show he himself is, you’ve guessed it, hit with a Fatwa!! The running gags throughout created by this comedic narrative are very broad, un-PC, stereotypically offensive; but also bloody hilarious. I wondered why there wasn’t more controversy; however, Larry David himself is the butt of many of these jokes as he fails to lift the Fatwa.
The season is crammed with celebrity appearances and particular standouts are: Salman Rushdie, Elizabeth Banks, F. Murray Abraham; and Hamilton creator Lin Manuel-Miranda. The latter hilariously clashes with Larry during the production of the Fatwa: The Musical. There are also some great gags relating to everyday observations including: Uber ratings; pickle jars; tipping; disturbances in kitchens; Asperger’s; plus many more. The episode, Running with the Bulls, with Bryan Cranston portraying Larry’s harangued therapist, was probably my favourite. It was also great to see The Mighty Boosh comedy nut-case Rich Fulcher make an appearance as an evasive Restaurant Manager. Overall, the season was pretty scatter-gun in it’s target humour but it certainly hit the mark throughout. I’m just amazed, in these liberal-PC-social-media-offence-driven times there wasn’t more controversy. Having said that Larry David probably wouldn’t care as in his own words, “I have reservations about everything I do.”
“Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen.”
DIRECTOR(S): James Franco / Tommy Wiseau
WRITERS: Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (Based on: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
CAST: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Jackie Weaver, Alison Brie, Hannibal Buress etc.
**CONTAINS MINIMAL SPOILERS**
I’d never seen the cult “bad” movie, The Room (2003). I’d seen clips on YouTube of actor, producer and director, Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus drama, and not only found it excruciatingly painful to watch but, like a car crash I couldn’t take my eyes of it, transfixed at the creative carnage on show. From the initial limited release in 2003, The Room has subsequently become celebrated as a paean to bad filmmaking as armies of hipsters and millennials laugh and quote-along to agonising performances and dialogue on the silver screen. Even during the showing of The Disaster Artist (2017) I was at, a couple of audience members quoted along to some of fantastically simulated scenes from The Room.
Films within films and the movie-making process have provided, down the years, a rich vein of comedic and dramatic output from: Singing in the Rain (1952), Living in Oblivion (1995), The Player (1992), State and Main (2000); plus, the film The Disaster Artist most reminds me of, Tim Burton’s glorious tribute to the hopeless, yet determined, director called Ed Wood (1994). Structured around two struggling actors in Tommy Wiseau and Gregg Sestero this hilariously skewed yet somehow likeable buddy movie is propelled by the Franco brothers’ brilliant performances as European eccentric Wiseau and the younger, naïve, and ever-smiling Sestero.
Wiseau’s character is an actors’ gift as he exists in some delusional yet over-confident Neverland. We do not know Wiseau’s age, background and how he managed to become so wealthy, yet Sestero is drawn to his outrageously up-to-eleven acting performance during a class, and the two soon become inseparable. Moving to Hollywood they valiantly try to make it as actors and the film lurches from one desperately funny scene to another. Despite their apparent lack of ability they won’t be deterred and decide if Hollywood won’t come to them then they will come to Hollywood. They will make their own movie!
Here The Disaster Artist really becomes a wonderful comedy of filmmaking flaws as we get scene after scene where all manner of rookie errors are committed by Wiseau. James Franco really excels as Wiseau; as the production is clearly beyond him his deluded power and determination will not yield, despite run-ins with the script supervisor (Seth Rogen) and various cast members who have no idea what the hell The Room is about. Here the story becomes compelling as Wiseau’s mania and lack of discipline flies in the face of established filmmaking conventions. During the making of the The Room, Wiseau is genuinely funny, monstrous, and yet somehow sympathetic. He is a true outsider’s outsider; he is a bona fide Hollywood version of Frankenstein’s monster.
James Franco has an odd career trajectory and has kind of stamped himself as a scattergun jack-of-all-trades, giving impressive performances in such films as: Spiderman (2002), 127 Hours (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011); but also starring in some haphazard comedies of which the hilarious This is the End (2013) was the best. Amidst his prodigious work ethic he has also produced some turkeys (i.e. Your Highness (2011); as well as pretentious adaptations of literary classics by William Faulkner. If pushed I would say that his faithful recreation of the cult of Wiseau is his greatest performance to date. The fact he directed the film too is also remarkable as he got the pitch of parody and drama just perfectly.
Meta-textually, comedically and entertainment-wise this film is a highly satisfying cinematic experience. As the credits roll the sequence which compares scenes from The Room and Franco’s faithful simulacrum is a joy to behold. I can certainly recommend The Disaster Artist to anyone who enjoys seeing massive fails in the creative process of filmmaking. Having said that though this is a film which also pays tribute to the deluded fools trying to make it in Hollywood. I mean, however impossible it may seem Wiseau and Sestero, refuse to buckle in light of insurmountable odds. Their reward is one of the worst films ever made in The Room; but paradoxically it is a success as it has given so much joy to people at the same time. It’s this joie de vivre that the Franco’s bring forth and the underlying message is that without friendship, dreams and hopes you are nothing in Hollywood or life.
8 EPISODES WHY CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM IS “PRETTY GOOD!”
There’s absolutely no reason why a situation comedy about an aging, wealthy, neurotic and narcissistic Hollywood writer should be one of the most consistently funny comedy shows of the last twenty years. There’s no real substance or depth in Curb Your Enthusiasm; in fact not much really happens of great value as it occurs very much in a bubble. Moreover, in anti-hero Larry David you more often than not find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, colleagues and strangers on a daily basis.
David, who plays an extreme version of himself (one hopes), revels in pedantry, un-PC behaviour, poor decisions, risky statements and strict adherence to the social etiquette and unwritten rules of life that make him a right royal pain in the backside. Yet, incredibly, because the writing, situations and storylines are so clever the whole show works a treat. To celebrate the recent release of the 9th season of HBO’s classic comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, I have chosen one episode from each season to praise. It’s a difficult choice to pick my favourites but I think you’d agree these episodes are pretty, pretty good!
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
SEASON 1 – EPISODE 4 – THE BRACELET (2000)
I was going to choose Beloved Aunt because of the monumentally unfortunate typo which involved Larry upsetting Cheryl and his in-laws. In an obituary for a recent departure the words “Beloved Aunt” became “Beloved C*nt” and Larry gets the blame. However, The Bracelet is a classic for me as it involves Larry going head-to-head with comedian Richard Lewis for the said jewellery item. The slapstick and race-against-the-clock narrative are hilarious as is their meeting with an ungrateful blind person they help. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions!
SEASON 2 – EPISODE 7 – THE DOLL (2002)
One of the delights of the show is when Larry, having made some terrible social faux pas is ripped apart by one of the supporting cast. Arguably, his most fierce nemesis is his agent’s wife Susie; portrayed with vicious, black-eyed venom by Susie Essman. The narrative thrust of Season 2 involved Larry trying to get another Network show commissioned, but when he erroneously trims the hair (god knows why) of a child’s doll he become embroiled in a head-swapping comedy of nightmarish errors. When Susie catches him and Jeff using her daughter’s doll’s head, all hell breaks loose and Larry gets a volley of joyously ripe abuse!
SEASON 3 – EPISODE 8 – KRAZEY-EYEZ KILLA (2002)
Larry’s experiences with members of the black community range from: embarrassing misunderstandings, accidental racism, satirizing lazy stereotypes and finally some very offensive situations. Some of it is hilariously funny while more often than not it can be very painful to watch. However, Larry David is a brave writer as he doesn’t shy away from subjects which could be deemed politically incorrect. More often than not though he himself is the butt of the joke! Season 3 had a wonderful arc of Larry getting involved with a Restaurant and the final episode had some glorious profanity. However, his run in with Wanda Sykes’ cheating rapper boyfriend Krazey-Eyez and Larry telling Martin Scorsese he “does too many takes” on set is just comedy gold!
SEASON 4 – EPISODE 6 – THE CAR POOL LANE (2004)
Season 4 benefits from one of the strongest narrative arcs of the whole series. Larry has been chosen by Mel Brooks to star in the Broadway show The Producers and includes the brilliant Ben Stiller and David Schwimmer. The Car Pool Lane finds Larry attempting to get into an upper-class-W.A.S.P-y country club and cajole Marty Funkhouser into giving up his dead father’s seat at a Dodger’s game. The comedy sparks really fly when in an attempt to get to the game he hires a prostitute to allow him to use said car-pool lane and beat the traffic. The dovetailing call-backs of his Dad’s glaucoma, trying to get off Jury service, Funkhouser’s dead Dad and country club narrative strands makes this one of the funniest episodes ever and features an effervescent performance from Kym Whitley as Monena the hooker!
SEASON 5 – EPISODE 7 – THE SEDER (2005)
What I love about Larry David’s writing – or retro-scripting to coin a phrase – is he is unafraid to ask intriguing moral or immoral questions within the comedy subtext. In the episode The Seder, he poses the idea that a sex offender, while having served his sentence, could possibly actually be a “nice” guy. Thus, Larry literally befriends a bald, Jewish sex offender (a brilliant Rob Corddry) much to the horror of his family, neighbours and friends. As thanks for an awesome golfing tip he even goes so far as to invite him to a Passover meal where all kinds of social embarrassment ensues.
SEASON 6 – EP. 3 – THE IDA FUNKHOUSER ROADSIDE MEMORIAL (2007)
After the steady mixed-bag comedic narratives of Season 5 – Larry’s potential adoption and Richard Lewis’ dying kidney – Season 6 introduced a new set of hilarious characters and situations. When Larry’s wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) “adopts” a homeless family, whose lives were wrecked by a hurricane, the comedy bar is raised to a whole new level. The season has some classic episodes but my favourite is The Ida Funkhouser Roadside Memorial. Despite Larry’s nebbish irritations quite often I am on his side when it comes to petty grievances. In this episode he deals with: unnecessary condolences and sample abusers, but stealing flowers off a roadside memorial is a totally out of order, So, Larry definitely deserves the stream of ire that comes his way when he commits this gob-smacking social “crime.”
SEASON 7 – EPISODE 7 – THE BLACK SWAN (2009)
Season 7 is most notable because Larry, having split up with Cheryl, is now dating Loretta Black (Vivica Fox). In order to get Cheryl back he orchestrates a Seinfeld reunion with all the gang (Jerry, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards), as a means to offer Cheryl a part. Firstly, though he has to dump Loretta, who sadly is now suffering from cancer. I mean Curb Your Enthusiasm must be admired for the lengths it goes to get laughs and how he “dumps” Loretta is something else. One of the funniest episodes is the Black Swan which occurs on the golf course. Suspected (he did it!) of killing the course owner’s treasured swan, there’s a scene where Larry’s customary “staring” motif is used against HIM!! The ending of this episode involving his Mother’s gravestone is also one of the great payoffs too!
SEASON 8 – EPISODE 3 – PALESTINIAN CHICKEN (2011)
I am not easily shocked by anything but I must say that this is one of the most controversial episodes of comedy I have seen. I was sat agog through many of the scenes in this one. I mean I’m not an expert when it comes to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict but I am aware of the geographical and religious issues which have occurred throughout the years. What Larry David does with his comedy is to skewer the significance of the conflict and satirize it within a consumer food war. Having began eating the chicken at a Palestinian restaurant Larry becomes attracted and begins a sexual relationship with one of the Arab customers. She is a sexual dynamo to him and her dirty talk is pure filth and anti-Semitic! As Larry puts his penis first and at the end is caught between rampant sex and his loyalty to his “people”! Again, another classic ending to a brilliant episode.
SCREENWASH CINEMA ROUND-UP – AUGUST 2017 – REVIEWS
A Ghost Story (2017) – review here – was the most impactful and original film I saw in August from a cinematic perspective, however, the other films I saw were very well rendered too. All three were “based on a true story” and had many elements that made them highly watchable. So, here’s my cinema round-up of reviews for August.
**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**
AMERICAN MADE (2017) – DIRECTOR: DOUG LIMAN
Tom Cruise leaves the formulaic action blockbusters aside for a while to portray a well-defined anti-hero called Barry Seal. Seal, according to this insane narrative, was a former TWA pilot who, bored with his steady job, grabs the opportunity to fly reconnaissance operations over South America for the C.I.A. That’s when the irreverent fun really gets into gear and before you can say “triple-agent-drug-running-for-the-Colombian-Cartel” you have a very watchable fast-paced, political and at times, farcical thriller.
Doug Liman is an excellent genre director and here pitches the film somewhere between a Martin Scorsese gangster biopic and screwball comedy. I would have preferred a bit more dramatic meat to be honest as seen in the Bryan Cranston Cartel-cop-thriller The Infiltrator (2016), or the subtle terror of Sicario (2015). However, Tom Cruise once again proves he can act and this entertaining movie does make some relevant political barbs against the allegedly corrupt Reagan and Bush administrations during their futile wars against drugs and communism.
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE BIG SICK (2017) – DIRECTOR: MICHAEL SHOWALTER
Uber-driving-stand-up-comedian Kumail Nanjiani portrays himself in movie form for the duration of this likable character and culture driven romantic comedy. Eager to forge his own path where love is concern Kumail battles the constant “threat” of his overbearing mother’s attempts to pair him up with an acceptable Pakistani bride. Having met Zoe Kazan’s sparkling Emily he falls for her despite their initial reticence in committing fully to each other.
Of course the path of love is never straight, in fact it’s downright wonky as Emily succumbs to a rare illness and is hospitalized. Kumail, estranged from his own and rejected by Emily’s family, finds his world falling apart as his work and comedy suffers. Overall, this is a very enjoyable and gentle comedy and Kumail and Emily are characters you really root for. The supporting cast including the brilliant Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham and Holly Hunter are very funny indeed. I enjoyed the sub-plots involving the Chicago comedy scene and my only criticism would be that like other Judd Apatow-produced films it was probably ten minutes too long. Having said that it’s a finely observed, well-acted and richly funny character film.
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
DETROIT (2017) – DIRECTOR: KATHRYN BIGELOW
This is a very complex film and probably requires a second view to really get to the heart of the whole situation. Set in 1967, amidst the desperate and violent racial tensions of the age (has there actually been anything else in the United States?) Detroit focuses on a single night and horrific incident involving monstrous cops and their behaviour toward the guests in the Algiers Hotel. Kathryn Bigelow again proves herself an expert director of spine-tingling tension and heart-racing drama as a violent assault is carried out on mostly innocent characters.
Detroit is microcosmic of the issues of race throughout American history and is an impossible pill to swallow as represented by these events. It’s not meant to be easy but a layered, narrative which reflects the different perspectives of those involved without actually getting to the actual truth. John Boyega, Will Poulter and Algee Smith’s performances are the stand-out as a nightmarish event in American history unfolds in almost real time. The only light comes by way of the Motown and Gospel music featured which shines brief hope and light on otherwise grim proceedings. The final act and court case compound the injustice of the crimes committed and only in song and prayer can Smith’s character escape the horrific tragedy of these grim events.
Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, as the above quote from Freud suggests watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.
The thriller genre is one of my favourite types of film and in this piece I would like to draw on elements of psychology, genre and culture theories to examine classic, postmodern and neo-thriller tropes. I also want to investigate some recent cinema offerings which defy certain genre conventions and have what could be described as a subtle less-is-more approach to building suspense and thrilling the audience. For this I will examine three scenes from the work of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Joel and Ethan Coen where, while adhering to thriller genre conventions, they also softly kill us in an arguably more unconventional fashion.
But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include: sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. Also that as social mammals we have the power to experience and feel the fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.
These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including: McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs etc. Moreover, it also features characteristics like: unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson one of the thrillers enduring characteristic is openness to expansion into subgenres such as: spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular to audiences and filmmakers alike.
One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was of course Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films such as: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolised death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.
Without a shadow of a doubt Hitchcock had an incredible influence of filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers like: Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and arguably most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in: Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s ouevre there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as the Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).
What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humour in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill and just on moment of impact the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humour in an especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humour or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.
While Hitchcock and DePalma often favoured the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.
The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favouring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean. While, the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however it is implicit within the editing and performance that sadly she does.
Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.
Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from a the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience. Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realises she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realisation for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavours.
What all these scenes and films provide are a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death. Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.