Thursday, 7 October 2021

Natural Born Killers review

 Surprisingly this film isn't on the top 1000 films of all time although considering how controversial it is, perhaps this isn't so surprising. However, it is one of my girlfriend's favourite films so I thought I would give it a watch.


Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are a couple deeply in love. Both having abusive childhoods, they become mass murderers who go on a lethal rampage killing anybody who stands in their way. All the while their actions are glorified by the media, most notably by journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey JR) Their rampage culminates in them being arrested and sent to a prison controlled by the maniacal warden Dwight Mckluskey ( Tommy Lee Jones)

Penned by Quentin Tarantino, although he has since disowned the film, and directed by Oliver Stone, NBK is what I lovingly refer to as 'True Romance' on acid.  It is a surreal, abstract and bizarre two-hour rollercoaster with more cuts than you can shake a fist at. And enough filters and visual effects to keep film majors analysing for years. But the film's unique visual style is its greatest strength with every colour scheme and visual composition peeling away another layer of Mickey and Mallory's psychotic mindset. For example, my girlfriend argues that the use of black and white at the beginning signifies how Mickey and Mallory see the world and everybody in it. Some people are good. Some are bad. There is no in-between.

Later, Mickey and Mallory become lost on in the desert while tripping on mushrooms. They encounter a Navajo chief Red Cloud who feeds and shelters them.  As their trip takes a bad turn and Mickey's dark past surfaces, he shoots Red Cloud. Upon fleeing, the couple find themselves surrounded in a field of rattlesnakes, unsure of which are real, and which are hallucinations. An apt metaphor for the paranoia they're feeling.

As I've said earlier, this film is highly controversial due to how its portrayal of ultra-violence has been blamed for numerous copycat killings, most notably, the Columbine High School Massacre which Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris code-named as NBK. But Oliver Stone has argued that those who say this have completely misunderstood the point of the film. Rather he argues the film is a satire of how the mass media glorify serial killers and mass murderers. And this is a theme that Stone absolutely nails.

NBK regularly references cult leader Charles Manson and serial killer Richard Ramirez who both received huge followings upon their incarcerations, even going so far as to marry their fans. Over the decades, Hollywood has displayed a perverse fascination with serial killers, making many films about Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac killer just to name a few. The TV series Criminal Minds draws inspiration from many real-life crime stories. More recently, Tarantino himself depicted Charles Manson and his murderous cult in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Netflix also produced a series about Ted Bundy starring Zach Effron. And let's not forget my favourite film, The Godfather which utterly and totally romanticises and glorifies the Mafia.

But as a society, we have always had this twisted interest in serial killers and mass murderers - seeing how they ick and how they become the way they are.  Nowhere is this more present than in the film's arguably greatest scene which explores Mallory's backstory and how she and Mickey meet. Framed as a campy, 70s sitcom complete with laugh track, we bear witness to Mallory's horrific homelife. Her father (Rodney Dangerfield) who wrote most of his own dialogue, sexually abuses her and is also physically abusive to his wife who allows him to abuse their daughter. Mickey delivers meat to Mallory's family and helps her to kill them. But the sit-com's laugh track is quite obviously a proxy for the audience-cum-armchair therapists who obsess over analysing every single detail of a serial killer's/mass murderer's childhood.

Robert Downey JR also shines as brash, vulgar and sleazy journalist Wayne Gale. This despicable man will do anything to get an interview with Mickey and Mallory as he knows the ratings will go through the roof - even if that means helping them escape from prison during a riot. The violence even excites him as he starts to gain a vicarious thrill through the violence he witnesses. Not to mention, the violence also fuels his massive ego. He starts getting off on all the monstrosities that he sees and even begins participating in it. He is very much a proxy of how the media can manipulate the actions of these depraved killers to turn them into some type of twisted symbol or god. 

I must admit, I'm a little puzzled as to why this film was omitted from the top 1000 films of all-time list as it is well-deserving of a place. Its memorable visual style and nuanced exploration of complicated themes makes it very compelling and entertaining to watch. But then again, equally controversial films such as a Clockwork Orange have made the list, so who knows why one film is okay and the other one isn't. Perhaps it's not the ultra-violence that bothered audiences but more how Stone argues that through our own glorification and fascination of real-life ultra-violence, we are indirectly responsible for its creation and continuation.

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Into the Wild review

 Number 144 on the top 1000 films of all time is Sean Penn's 2007 biopic Into the Wild.

Into the Wild tells the real-life story of Christopher Mccandless (Emile Hirsch), a recent college graduate. Disillusioned with city and capitalist life, he donates his life savings, cuts up his credits cards, adopts the moniker 'Alexander Supertramp' and backpacks around the US before finally going to Alaska to live off the land. Along the way, he meets a number of people who change how he thinks about life.

One reason why I think Into the Wild made this list was because of the universability of its themes. Christopher is one of many confused and jaded young people who go backpacking in attempts to 'find themselves. In 2019, I volunteered on a French farm and my host told me that he had deliberately moved to the countryside because he was sick of the cut-throat nature of the city.

While backpacking, Christopher finds himself in LA and staying at a homeless shelter. Already fearing he's becoming corrupted by city life, he hits the road without even staying the night. But these are themes and ideas I've seen in my everyday life. I've heard many people say they would like to pull a Henry David Thoreau and live in a hand-built log cabin in the woods.

And while Christopher idolises Thoreau and is regularly quoting him, he is far cry from being an ace survivalist/woodsman or a relatable protagonist ... at least for me anyway. I have head some people criticise him as being arrogant or naive for believing he could live off the land especially in a land as unforgiving as Alaska. And it was his arrogance that did make him a little unlikable. Sure it's all well and good having books on Alaska's flora and fauna and receiving crash courses on how to hunt and prepare game, but book knowledge can only take you so far. At some point, you need practice and experience before throwing yourself into the deep end. Although I definitely wouldn't fare much better.

But this arrogance also obscures Chris' motivations for leaving his home in the first place. It is revealed that he and sister were the product of an illegitimate relationship making them bastard children and the object of resentment for his father who is also abusive. However, I don't think this was portrayed clearly enough and I think more could have been done to demonstrate their fractious relationship. Not to mention, Chris comes from quite a privileged background and arguably he has little to be unhappy about. Having said that, just because some people have it worse doesn't therefore then invalidate Chris' experience.

This was a tragic film, but because of Chris' cloudy motivations, I was feeling less sad sympathy for him and more for the people he met and left behind along his way. There's the ageing hippie couple Rainey (Brian H. Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) who has a fractious relationship with her estranged son from another marriage. This turmoil has ate away with her relationship with Rainey. But Chris helps to rekindle their love for each other and learns about family along the way.

Next you have teenage singer Tracy (Kristen Stewart) who forms an unrequited attraction for Chris. Finally, we come to the always wonderful Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz. He is an ageing veteran who lost his wife and son to a drunk driver. Now he spends his days pottering in his leather workshop as he is too afraid to face the real world. In perhaps the most heart-breaking film of the film, fearing his family name will die with him, he asks whether he can adopt Christ as his grandson. Christ replies that they'll discuss this upon his return.

While this was a powerful film with relatable themes, which sometimes broke my heart, I think this was more down to Sean Penn's writing of the suppoting characters, rather than of Christopher Mccandless himself.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Kill Bill Volume 2 Review

 Number 324 on the top 1000 films of all time is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 2.

This is another film I'm watching out of order as it happens to be one of my girlfriend's favourite films. Beside I watched the first part out of order, so it only made sense that I do the same here.

The Bride (Uma Thurman) is still seeking revenge on her former boss Bill (David Carradine) and the last surviving member of her elite unit Elle ( Daryl Hannah)

As some of you may remember, I wasn't a fan of the Kill volume 1. I declared it was more of a homage to martial arts films as opposed to a film in its own right. I understand that was the point, but I do think That Tarantino took it too far. Thankfully Volume Two was far more straight forward. Brilliantly choregraphed, but arguably extraneous fight scenes gave way to more conventional storytelling. And a hell of a lot dialogue. As far as Tarantino films go, there was an an awful lot of talking which slowed the pace down to a crawl.

   I understand that this is another hallmark of Tarantino and while it was entertaining to see Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield talk about what they call cheese burgers in France or why Mr Pink doesn't tip, but the dialogue in kill Bill felt stilted and very on the nose. This was especially the case near the film's climax which should have been but most dramatic part, but I was struggling to stay awake. I fell asleep and my girlfriend had to tell me how it ended.

   That being said there were some great, albeit ridiculous sequences of the Bride being trained by martial art master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) This was a wonderfully choregraphed sequence that was very entertaining to watch. The fight brutal fight scene between the Bride and Elle was also thrilling to watch.

And I would be remiss not to compliment Uma Thurman as the Bridge. She gave the role a depth and humanity that otherwise might have been lost. Even when she was squishing Elle's plucked-out eye underneath her foot. Seriously, Tarantino, did we really need a close-up of that?

True Romance review

 Number 344 on the top 1000 films of all time is Tony Scott's romantic crime drama True Romance.

I am watching this film out of order as I recently saw it in the roof-top cinema in Peckham, South London.

Penned by Quentin Tarantino, True Romance tells the romance of Clarence and Alabama. Clarence (Christian Slater,) a comic book store worker is unknowingly set up with call girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette.) A whirlwind romance and shotgun marriage later. Clarence confronts Alabama's pimp, Drexel (Gary Oldman) and unwittingly steals 500k of Drexel's coke. However, the coke actually belong to the mob. And they want it back. Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson and James Gandolfini round out the supporting cast.

    Released in 1993, this was one of Tarantino's earliest ventures and, arguably, one of his most original. I've been critical of Tarantino's latest film - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for being more of a homage than an actual movie - a similar criticism I also reserved for Kill Bill Volume 1. Yet that wasn't the case here. A quick pace and plenty of plot twists keep this film hurtling toward its thrilling conclusion.

    One such plot twist is Samuel L' Jackson's quick demise. Upon meeting Drexel, he mocks him relentlessly before Drexel blows him away. Plus a pre-Soprano James Gandolfini was utterly menacing as mobster Virgil. Sure you could argue that the fight scene with Alabama burdened on the ridiculous, but it was also great to see such a brilliant performance from Gandolfini.

Tarantino and Tony Scott also paced this film well. There aren't any too many dialogue scenes and there are plenty of comedic scenes the keep the content light. most of these were due to Brad Pitt's character of stoner Floyd. Reportedly, he improvised most of his dialogue which worked to great effect. Especially when he is interrogated by the ominous Gandolfini.

   This film climaxes in classic Tarantino fashion. Clarence meets a hot-shot movie exec to offload the coke in the hopes of fleeing the country with Alabama. However, the dead broker has flipped and is wearing a wire. On top of that, the mobsters have tracked down Clarence. Cue a massive shootout between the cops, the mobsters and the exec's security guards. Cue blood, bullets and everybody dying except for our heroes Clarence and Alabama. Although Clarence does dance with death for a second.

Reportedly Tarantino originally wanted to kill Clarence but Tony Scott convinced him otherwise. I think that's the better decision. The film is called True Romance and in a very twisted way it is a romance - the two loves Clarence and Alabama will do anything for each other - even kill. Seeing them walk into the sunset was more effective than seeing Alabama cry over Clarence's gravestone.

Again you can argue that the violent conclusion is gratuitous which is is. But by the same admission, it's also classic Tarantino. if you're not into that then you shouldn't be watching a Tarantino film. Especially this one. But if you want to watch Tarantino at his best, True Romance is the film for you.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Touch of Evil review

 Number 163 on the top 1000 films of all time is Orson Welles' 1958 noir classic Touch of Evil.

Miguel Vargas, of the Pan-American Narcotics commission, (Charlton Heston) is honeymooning in a Mexican town with his wife Susan (Janet Leigh.) When a carbomb kills a construction magnate and his wife, Vargas takes it upon himself to investigate.  However, this sends him hurtling to a collison with the Los Roblos detective assigned to the case: the obtuse Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles.) Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff and Marlene Dietrich star in supporting roles.

If Double Indemnity kicked off the noir genre, it was Touch of Evil that solidified the genre in American cinema.  Strong lighting mixed with quirky camera angles and morally-grey characters made for a compelling watch.  This was in no short part to Orson Welles' performance as Quinlan.  Although he was the villain of the piece, he was a villain with a tragic backstory.  

Granted he was grumpy, ruthless and racist, notably with how he wanted to falsely arrest the young Sanchez, without a shred of evidence, he also had a great deal of depth.  I wouldn't necessarily say he was sympathetic, but he was empathetic.

This isn't to disparage Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas.  He was great as well, but he was more of your cut-and-dry hero who lacked the same depth that Quinlan had.  Although at times, Touch of Evil was a little dialogue/exposition heavy, out of the three Orson Welles films I've seen, including this one: Citizen KaneThe Third Man, this one was definitely my favourite.

My Sassy Girl review

 Number 162 on the top 1000 films of all time is the Korean romantic-comedy My Sassy Girl.

Gyeon-Woo (Cha Tae-Hyun) is a college student who is very unlucky in love.  When he has a chance encounter with an unnamed woman, (Jun Ji-hyun) he soon becomes deeply enamoured with her.  But will she prove to be his break in love?

My Sassy Girl has pedigree.  Upon its release it became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in Korea and one of the highest-grossing films of all time especially within Far East Asia as a whole.  However, I do freely admit that it wasn't for me.  Personally, I didn't think the humour was very funny.  It seemed too lean heavily into gross-out humour.  When Gyeon-Woo first meets the unnamed woman, it's when she is drunk on the train.  Shortly after she throws up.  I didn't find this funny, but more disgusting.  Maybe that's just me.

I think the film works better as a romance rather than a comedy.  I was far more invested in the romantic elements than I was the comedic ones.  I was far more interested in seeing Gyeon-Woo falling deeper in love with the unnamed woman who initially treats him very cruelly.  This is soon revealed to be the girl's way of expressing her affection for him.  Although the two part ways, they reunite in what was a very sweet ending.  

So ultimately, I wasn't the keenest on this film.  It worked far better as a romance than a comedy, although the ending was quite delightful to watch.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Fanny and Alexander review

Number 161 on the top 1000 films of all time is the 1982 Swedish historical drama: Fanny and Alexander.

Directed by the legendary Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander is a partially auto-biographical film focussing on siblings Fanny and Alexander.  When their father dies, their mother marries the local bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo,) who proves to be a strict husband and abusive stepfather to the two children.

Having watched The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, I am very familiar with Bergman's style and Fanny and Alexander is no exception.  It is introspective, reflective and very long.  At over 3 hours long, it is too bloody long.  And it isn't interesting enough to justify its long running time.  I was falling asleep within the first half hour of the film.

Beyond that the film was just paced badly.  I found myself becoming bored and restless.  Like the Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, I think that Fanny and Alexander is a film you can only enjoy if you're a hardcore cinephile.  As you may have gathered from some of my scornful reviews of supposed classic films, I don't qualify as a cinephile.  There were many sequences where Bergman leant too much into the surreal and abstract.  For example, the dream sequence near the end of the film became very tedious to watch.  Maybe I'm just a philistine, but I don't have the patience to watch things like that.

And I found it a bit odd that the film was called Fanny and Alexander considering the two children don't really feature that much.  If anything, the film focusses more on Edvard Vergerus.  Having said this, Malmsjo was a formidable force on-screen.  He did make for a genuinely scary villain - a villain who believed he was justified in every single action he took.

Overall, this is a film you'll only enjoy if you're a diehard cinema lover.  Alas, I am not one of those, so this film was definitely not for me.