Writer(s): Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Emily Heller, Liz Sarnoff, Sarah Solemani, Ben Smith etc.
Director(s): Alec Berg, Maggie Carey, Bill Hader, Hiro Murai, Liza Johnson, Minkie Spiro etc.
Cast: Sarah Goldberg, Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Glenn Fleshler, Anthony Carrigan, Henry Winkler etc.
Original Network: HBO
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Critically acclaimed and Emmy award-winning dark comedy satire, Barry (2018) stars Bill Hader. He plays the eponymous lead, a hitman, who travels to Los Angeles for “work” and then finds himself joining an acting class by mistake. The comedy and drama of his finely written and directed HBO show derives from the dialectic juxtaposition of crime and war film tropes mixed with narcissistic and delusional Hollywood creative types. But is it any good? Yes and no!
Technically this is first rate and challenging entertainment; obsidian black in its’ humour and at times very compelling as drama. Stylistic influences are clearly the likes of: the Coens, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and Elmore Leonard’s novel/film/TV series Get Shorty. However, I don’t think I liked it as much as those or as much as the panel of Emmy Award judges.
Personally, I don’t like, irrespective of their quality, shows or films titled after a single-name character. It’s just a personal thing. More importantly the show tries so hard to be cool. It has a knowing “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-cultural-melange” vibe. Plus, tonally it is all over the shop. One scene will be a hilarious situation involving bad acting from the class; and the next Barry will be blowing someone away. How am I meant to feel about such a lunge from comedy to drama involving so many unlikeable characters?
As Barry Block/Berman, Bill Hader is absolutely brilliant. He wants out of the murder business and is haunted by events from the military. Because of this I have much sympathy for him. However, this empathy is tested by some of his more heinous actions. Hader nonetheless delivers an iceberg cool performance with a searing internal pain. In the second season especially, his post-traumatic stress is explored intensely; and when he explodes with anger it resonates powerfully. Conversely, I wanted more of this than the parodic Chechen and Bolivian gangsters, who just aren’t funny.
In support, Stephen Root is brilliant as Barry’s exploitative handler and so-called friend. Sarah Goldberg as the neurotic actress, Sally Reed is a revelation. This is especially the case in the second season when her character gets some interesting storylines and great monologues. Likewise, Henry Winkler steals many scenes as the acting coach, Gene Cousineau; forever name-dropping and shilling for a quick buck.
Overall, Barry can be recommended for the excellent cast and mostly complex characters. While I would have preferred the dumb comedy to be reduced, there are indeed some great episodes throughout the two seasons. So, if you are looking for an intense exploration of human existence you get an element of that within the mix of: humour, satire, violence, shoot-outs and plot twists. But maybe, like the lead character, Barry tries to do too much all at once; however, at least it tries.
Stanley Kubrick and I do not have many things in common. But one of them is we both, when he was still with us, hate flying. From some limited research I learnt that Kubrick was in fact a qualified pilot but following an incident in the air it scared him to the extent he refused to fly again. The famous story of recreating the major parts of war-torn Vietnam in London because of this during the making of Full Metal Jacket (1987) has subsequently gone into cinematic folklore.
I hate flying for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am a science ignoramus and therefore cannot get my head around how that big hunk of metal can actually take off. Moreover, the fear of being trapped somewhere that in a crash situation means I am NOT getting out alive is too much to bear. I mean, on a boat or train or driving in your car you’ve got a fighting chance, but on a plane you’re up cloud creek without a paddle. More prosaically, I do NOT enjoy travelling on planes. Aside from being able to get a beer at seven in the morning, flying is just pointless to me. I don’t really even like holidays. You only have to come back and the relaxation you earned is ruined by the stress of having to fly back home.
I realise these are first world problems but for me to get on a plane is a big deal. Yet, my wife loves travelling and visiting new places so as an appeasement exercise I agreed to go to Copenhagen. What sweetened the deal though is we both love the films of Stanley Kubrick and, given it has yet to come to London, decided to go visit said exhibition before it ended in January 2018. I am glad I did. It was brilliant.
As the photos show every one of Kubrick’s completed and non-completed projects were given a wonderfully curated and considered display. There were: props; scripts; clapperboards, letters from fans; video and audio-clips; letters of protests from angry cinemagoers; costumes; set miniatures; and hundreds of production documents identifying the famed meticulousness of Kubrick’s productions. It was an Aladdin’s Cave of Kubrick’s filmic life and well worth getting lost in for several hours. One hopes it comes to London soon so I can go again!
So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s techniques, philosophies and film modus operandi, that rather than offer technical or thematic analysis I’d like to consider the personal impact Kubrick has had on my life. All I can say is that from an emotional level here is a filmmaker who has been with me as far back as I can remember. I recall watching The Killing (1956) on BBC2 in England when I was eleven and marvelling at the incredibly metronomic and overlapping structure. Then, at Christmas later that year, I recall watching Spartacus (1960) on TV with the family and enjoying the blood and guts and heroism of the lead character. I revelled in the Roman baddies being thwarted by a mere slave. When I found out a few years later they were directed by the same person I did not believe it; it blew my mind.
With this knowledge and experience in mind, I consciously or otherwise looked out for other works by Stanley Kubrick. My memory is hazy but in my late teens I found Paths of Glory (1957) showing, no doubt on BBC2 (we still only had four channels then in England), and I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over. Knowing nothing of the filmmaking process I was impacted by the incredible tracking shots putting us in the heart of the action. Timothy Carey, who stole the show as a vicious criminal in The Killing, again really stood out in this classic WWI anti-war film. But like in Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was fierce in his performance and his noble character protests against the injustice of the ruling powers within the poisonous French hierarchy.
One film of Kubrick’s I never quite got into was Lolita (1962). I tried to read the novel many years ago but my young brain found it impenetrable. Similarly, the film is a very dark comedy with a risqué theme of illicit romance and sexual awakening. The film was very controversial on release and Kubrick’s one film I have not watched many times but my feeling is that Kubrick was attracted to the weaknesses of masculinity in this work. Now, perhaps it is a sexist and lascivious film but I would need to re-watch it now to be able to fully commit to a clear critical view. One wonders if it would be made now given its context and complexity of gender and paedophilic representations. The PC, Neo-Millenials and feminist agendas would certainly have something to say about it and they would probably have a point. My feeling is though we should be allowed to make up our own mind on controversial works rather than carrying flaming torches on the internet threatening to burn anything that may be deemed controversial.
Another film which is sexual, but this time more symbolically when compared to Lolita, is the anti-nuclear masterpiece Dr Strangelove: or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Having watched it more recently and gained knowledge from the wonderful Kubrick exhibition, this scary and hilarious satire is filled with stupid, impotent and warring men bickering and squabbling over the future of a possible nuclear attack. It’s incredible to think that at the time of the Cold War a filmmaker could turn the fear of an atomic bomb attack into a comedy. But that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick because as an iconoclast he did just that. Like Paths of Glory, which was banned by the French government, the film garnered the ire of the military as Kubrick showed he wasn’t afraid to criticize those in power once again.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another film which, like Lolita, was one I did not see until years later. It was rarely on the television and only watching subsequent cinematic re-releases have I basked in the glory of this science-fiction classic. Kubrick’s work has sometimes been accused of formalism and technique over emotion and arguably 2001: A Space Odyssey is his most accomplished technical achievement. Yet the emotion is derived from the intellectual and philosophical journey of early man to that of enigmatic ‘Star Child’. One wonders at the combination of music and images to create a startling dialectic of wonderment, awe and enigma. What it all means is open to many interpretations and that too was the genius of Kubrick; there was rarely an easy answer to the themes raised in his films.
While I admire 2001: A Space Odyssey more from afar, his next film A Clockwork Orange (1971), is one which I have close cultural connections to. Of course, it was released when I was a baby but on entering my late teens the controversy caused on its release had still managed to reach the chattering testosterone of the boys’ school I attended. Here was a violent, sexual, sexist, profane, dystopic, misanthropic film with blood and nudity that had been banned (later I would find it had been withdrawn by Kubrick himself) AND WE MUST NOT SEE! Obviously that meant we HAD to see it. Alas, I didn’t see it until one evening, as a surprised 22 year old, at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross when it shown illegally as a ‘secret’ film. Subsequently, this action by the above-underground repertory cinema caused legal action by Warner Bros., eventually forcing the cinema to close.
Even without seeing A Clockwork Orange, before it’s bootleg London screening, I had immersed myself in the music on vinyl, bought posters, watched a theatrical presentation starring Phil Daniels; and of course read Burgess’s incredible novel a number of times. Myself and my brother loved the language and iconography and the danger of the piece. This is why censorship of all kinds can backfire because when you’re told you’re not allowed to see something it makes you want to watch it even more. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange would eventually be released openly and it still stands the test of time as a virulent and scathing attack on Governmental control of the proletariat. Of course, Alex the anti-hero is a psychopathic nightmare and a reflection of the brutal society established within the film and book. Again, Kubrick and Burgess’ original book can offer little in the way of solutions but rather a coruscating critique of humanity via an ultra-stylish and formidable cinematic and literary language.
Kubrick’s next film following the Clockwork Orange controversy was Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick had put his typically meticulous planning into a film about Napoleon Bonaparte only for this to fall down for commercial reasons and the budget was then put towards another period drama. I have to admit I did not see Barry Lyndon in full until it was shown on Film Four a few years ago. I subsequently saw it again last year – restored to a 35mm print – at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square and was thoroughly absorbed by the tragic tale of the eponymous leading character. Kubrick’s insistent to shoot in low or candlelight gave the film a heavenly and picturesque glow; fascinating also was the structure of the film as Barry Lyndon’s life plays out via fate and a series of random misadventures. It reminded me somewhat of Forrest Gump (1994) where war and misfortune happen to and around him, while both films end similarly with familial tragedy. Many of Kubrick’s other films have rightly gained classic status with Barry Lyndon perhaps seen as a lesser film. But for me, the imagery and cinematography alone make it a masterpiece for me.
Like A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was a film released around the time of the 1980s “video-nasty” era and I watched a lot of those films on VHS. This was the time where my love of horror was formed and despite the enigmatic ending being lost on a dopey 12 year-old, I loved this story of a psychotic Jack Nicholson going mad and attacking his family. It was only years later on further re-watches that I fully appreciated the macabre psychological subtlety of the unfolding detachment from reality, which occurs to Jack Torrance. Of course, everyone recalls the “Here’s Johnny!” moment and is scared to death by his twisted actions, but everything before that is brilliant, as it masterfully builds and creates dread amidst iconic images including: the twin girls, red-patterned carpet, the maze and the creepy barman in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King, apparently doesn’t rate Kubrick’s The Shining but I think he is wrong. I know he changed King’s excellent novel to fit his own vision but Kubrick’s The Shining stands the test of time today.
Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) thankfully came out when I was old enough to see them at the cinema. Both are what I consider classic Kubrick mirrored structures. That is they are split into two long acts rather than the traditional three-act structure present in most classical Hollywood films. In Full Metal Jacket we establish the rigours of training Marines involving, from the film’s point-of-view, the dehumanizing stripping of humanity in order to turn men into killing machines. The second-half places such men into the Vietnam War and finds them lost in a black mirror of death and despair, attempting to make sense of the carnage around them. Such themes as the follies of war and damaging arrogance of those in rule are prevalent throughout his work including this film, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory.
Having failed to get projects such as The Aryan Papers and Artificial Intelligence to the screen his next feature, Eyes Wide Shut, alas, was Kubrick’s final film. It benefits from close to career best performances from then married Nicole Kidman and Hollywood star Tom Cruise. I recall seeing it at a cinema in Fulham Road and my first reaction was it seemed unreal and ungrounded. The explicit sex scenes seemed stagey and were exploitational; plus Nicole Kidman’s acting aside the whole thing did not work for me on any level. Of course though the film, like many of Kubrick’s works, need to be viewed more than once for the nuance and subtle psychologies at work to seep through into one’s psyche. On further views of Eyes Wide Shut, the dark comedy and tragedy at work contextualises the sexual depravity on show revealing a dreamlike structure and strong moral compass which leads you to the conclusion hedonism and freedom of physical expression are empty vessels and vacuous pursuits compared to the relative safety of love, family and marriage.
Walking round the Stanley Kubrick exhibition was a fantastic experience. Not only to revel in the artistic bricolage of the genius filmmakers’ oeuvre and history, but also to tread through my own memories of growing older watching Kubrick’s works. This and Copenhagen as a whole made it worth my while getting on a plane and suffering the stress of flight to venture to Denmark; where something totally not rotten was going on.
Watched quite a lot of TV stuff in June including a binge on Hannibal Seasons 1 & 2 plus I have started watching the old school Star Trek series with Shatner and crew so not that many films watched in June. Anyway, here’s my humble little reviews with marks out of ELEVEN! Peace!
**YES – THERE’S SPOILERS!**
THE BABADOOK (2014) – BLU-RAY
Eerie low-budget Aussie chiller which involves a blow-the-spectrum kid and his mother who mentally unravels following the death of her husband. Together they become isolated as outsiders and are left to the mercy of The Babadook; a dark creature from a weird indestructible book. It’s filmed with consummate skill and has a creeping style which gets under the skin. For an hour I was gripped but in the end felt it was somewhat one-paced and lacking a satisfactory gore-frenzied ending I like from my horror. However, the dark symbolism in the piece was highly compelling and the director is one to watch. (7 out of 11)
THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (2005) – BLU RAY
This one’s a rewatch and on second viewing it remains a complex and humanely ambiguous French drama from one of my favourite directors Jacques Audiard. It’s a loose remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978) and concerns Thomas (Romain Duris) as an unsympathetic slum landlord who tries to use a mild talent for the piano to try and escape his nefarious job. However, he is delusional and ultimately finds little peace from this pursuit as he is constantly dragged back to violence. It’s an involving character study of a man with family and anger issues and is typical Audiard; holding a mirror up to complex humans and their relationships.(8 out of 11)
CHEAP THRILLS (2013) – NOW TV
This cracking micro-budgeted horror-thriller may be shot on a shoe-string but it’s sharp and nasty as piano wire. The basic premise is a drunken game of “Would You” which escalates way out of hand as two friends meets a decadent drunken couple including Anchorman’s Champ Kind – David Koechner. Mild dares such as: fighting a club bouncer and crapping in the neighbour’s house are just for starters as this darkly comedic gore-fest illustrates the lengths some people will go to for fun or money. This film killed: in a good way and the final image is still burned on my retina. (9 out of 11)
COLD IN JULY (2014) – NOW TV
I love my Southern neo-noir movies. John Dahl and the Coen Brothers made some cracking films a few years ago like Blood Simple (1984) and The Last Seduction (1994) and Cold in July is in that territory as it tells a dark, twisted story as slippery as an eel smeared in grease. Michael C. Hall of Dexter infamy plays an ordinary Joe whose house is invaded by a burglar and having killed said intruder he is then hunted down by the dead man’s career criminal father. This is just the taster as tables are turned and chairs are burnt in a first act full of suspense. The story then diverts into murkier waters as Don Johnson pops up as a charismatic Farmer/Private Investigator!! Jim Mickle is an unsung director of very good lower budget films like vampire-western Stakeland (2010) but this was an even better thriller with a keen sense of mood, doom and unsettling fear. (8 out of 11)
THE CONNECTION (2014) – CINEMA
This solid French police drama starring the handsome Jean Dujardin takes a looks at the team who brought down the biggest heroin dealers in 70s France. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it brilliantly filmed with a brutal, masculine cast crossing and double-crossing each other all for a bit of money and power. I have to admit I was VERY tired watching this so dozed off at one point as the cinema was bloody hot! However, my cinema fail aside it’s certainly one to catch online or DVD rental. Performances from Dujardin as heroic prosecutor Pierre Michel and Gilles Lellouche as his gangster counterpart are worth the admission alone. (7 out of 11).
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) – NOW TV
I positively reviewed this one last year and on second watch it holds up well but certainly loses power on the smaller screen. Still a very entertaining superhero-time-travel film with the X-Men battling the past to resolve future extinction. Still loving the Quicksilver v Fort Knox slow-mo fight scene. Gets me every time. Good solid home-screen entertainment. (7.5 out of 11)
I also reviewed this one last year and it actually works so much better as a put-your-feet-up-in-front-of-the-telly-after-work-actioner. Here the always-reliable movie star Denzel’s portrays a seemingly meek Homebase worker when in fact he is a deadly former CIA shadow able to take bad guys down in a heartbeat. Like a modern-day Robin Hood he kills the bad and rewards the good all in a calm, professional and explosive fashion. Great, if brutal, fun. (7.5 out of 11)
I rewatched the petrifying original before watching the prequel Chapter 3 at the cinema and while not as good as the first the latter had some cracking scares which had my heart in my mouth throughout. I love a decent horror and also enjoy the more fantastical elements present in the Insidious franchise. I know it’s about Astral Travelling and some such nonsense but Leigh Whannell and James Wan crafted a terrifying original complete with horrific demons and ghosts from the other side. The plots basically involve a family being terrorized by ghosties and troubled medium Elise Ranier and her team go into ‘The Further’ to slam the door shut!
Wan is a wonderful genre director who during Insidious uses a box of cinematic tricks to convey terror including: light and shadows; kinetic camera movement; smash cuts; sudden music cues including screeching violins; characters appearing out of nowhere; ghosts hiding in the corners; and many more. It’s not always subtle but damn it works well to get the heart pumping. Writer Whannell directs Insidious: Chapter 3 and makes a good fist of it as old favourites come back from the beyond along with some newer nasties to give you nightmares. (7.5 out of 11)
JURASSIC WORLD (2015) – CINEMA
Jurassic World is loads of fun. The formula that Michael Crichton began in Westworld and continued with the original Jurassic Park is ratcheted up to eleven! I mean, who doesn’t enjoy watching Dinosaurs wreak havoc on the screen; and the Dinosaurs in this are impressive with the vicious Indominus Rex stealing the thunder. Chris Pratt coasts through all muscles and winks; while Bryce Dallas Howard’s character arc is defined by the reduction of clothing throughout. The joy of cinema is to divert the brain from the real world outside by creating an exciting one on screen. Jurassic World succeeds — despite the paper-thin characters — with impressive chases, scares and one-liners . (7.5 out of 11)
KAJAKI (2014) – BLU RAY
I’m anti-war. But I enjoy war films. For me “blood will have blood” and historically one can blame Kings, Governments and greedy humans for wars. When watching a war film I will look at the humanity on show; the story that is told rather than solely the politics.
Kajaki is a brilliant lower-budget British war film set in the Helmond Province, Afghanistan in 2006 and focuses on the true events which befell a group of soldiers trapped in a historical Russian minefield. The screenplay is impressive as it establishes the characters and longueurs of war before exploding into furious action when the men become locked in a small patch of hellish land. It’s both illuminating and suspenseful as soldiers become prisoners to the past conflict of a land persistently ravaged by conflict.
Indeed, Afghanistan has been invaded more times than a Wild West Saloon whore and STILL there’s no resolution to the fight. Amidst the bloody suspense of Kajaki, however, the bravery, humour and camaraderie on display is something to be in awe of. (9 out of 11)
TWO FACES OF JANUARY (2014) – AMAZON PRIME
With Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and rising star Oscar Isaac in the cast I had very high hopes for this Hitchcockian thriller based on Patricia Highsmith’s book. But it kind of petered out as a story really after a very gripping start. Still, the cast are good and the sunny setting of 1960s Greece and Turkey is beautiful to look but the main issue was I never felt any empathy for the unlikeable characters and rarely felt like there was much at stake. A mirage of a film: promises much but then you realise there is nothing there. (5 out of 11)