The best film of the week is easily Andrew Dominik's fantastic recession-noir KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which I've reviewed over at Den of Geek. I was very close to giving this five stars, but relented in the end only because I feel like I need to see it again. I hate star ratings, anyway - just know that you need to go see it.
Here's an excerpt from my review:
The golden age for American hard-boiled noir fiction came in the period between the 1920s and the 1940s, with the era of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M Cain. Their hard-bitten tales of crime and desperation were borne out of the dismal socio-economic conditions in America that resulted from the Great Depression.
In the 70s, George V Higgins kept the hard-boiled genre alive well after the post-war economic boom, with his acclaimed debut novel The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, which was adapted into a similarly acclaimed film starring Robert Mitchum that stripped away the glamour of the gumshoes and added the nihilistic atmosphere and grim realism prevalent in American studio films of the period.
It’s in this context that the origin of Killing Them Softly begins to make sense – an adaptation of a Higgins novel (Cogan’s Trade) made by Andrew Dominik, a filmmaker who demonstrated in The Assassination Of Jesse James a keen grasp of the pessimistic aesthetic of 70s movies, that’s set against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the one that originally led to the creation of modern hardboiled fiction.
It’s the logical next step for all the things that have combined to create the best crime fiction, and the results are suitably spectacular. However, for those not willing to do a little bit of work, Killing Them Softly might ultimately be an unsatisfying experience, as it’s a film that asks a great deal more of you than your average gangster shoot-‘em-up.
Click here to read the rest of the review.
It’s a shame to announce that Oliver Stone’s SAVAGES is a disappointment, as it’s so very nearly there. It’s close – ever so close – to being one of the great bad movies. As it is, for the majority of its running time it manages to stay a few notches above hilariously awful, meaning it’s just a risible waste of time as opposed to a Wiseau-esque car crash.
It’s not for lack of trying though – things look good for a SHOWGIRLS style disaster early on, when the very first scene sees hateful Orange County trustafarian O (Blake Lively) being furiously rutted by constipated and irritable Iraq veteran Chon (Taylor Swift), while her voiceover breathily intones: “I have orgasms…he has wargasms.” It’s a line so toxically embarrassing that the rest of the film could be THE SEVENTH SEAL and it still would never recover its credibility.
I wasn’t a big fan of James Moran’s previous film COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES, which I thought was lacking in ambition and, crucially, any decent laughs and scares; it’s nice to report then that his next film, the tonally very different TOWER BLOCK, is a taut, highly effective thriller that is well worth checking out while it puts a welcome appearance in UK cinemas.
Not that TOWER BLOCK is any more ambitious than COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES – it’s as straight-up genre piece as you're going to see. But crucially, it also features excellent performances, that bring to life well-drawn, engaging characters; a wealth of funny, quotable dialogue; and is topped off with unfussy, muscular direction from first time directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson. As we see time and time again, making genre films that are actually good can prove just as difficult to filmmakers as the making of so-called ‘serious’ films, and TOWER BLOCK counts as one of the most enjoyable B-movies to come from these shores for a for a while.
Set in a largely abandoned - yes - tower block, the few remaining tenants, including an angry, dissatisfied young woman (Sheridan Smith), a psychotic bully (Jack O’Connell), and a stoical husband and wife (Ralph Brown and Jill Taylor), suddenly find themselves under siege from a murderous sniper. Trapped within the building, this ragtag bunch of misfits attempt to find a way out as the ruthless assassin begins to pick them off one-by-one.
TOWER BLOCK establishes its tense atmosphere early and doesn't let up for a terse, involving 90 minutes. It's cleve enough to nick its cues from good sources – John Carpenter, DIE HARD, CUBE, a bit of SPEED, even PHONE BOOTH – and Nunn and Thompson do a good job of conveying the claustrophobia and oppressiveness of the tower block with some astute visual choices.
What really elevates TOWER BLOCK above the level of what is essentially a nuts-and-bolts thriller – and the story does ultimately run out of steam before its conclusion - are the performances: it’s always great to see Ralph Brown in anything, Smith takes advantage of a properly written female role and provides one of the more effective Ripley-substitutes I’ve seen in a while, and Jack O'Connell is just fantastic as the twitching, insane anti-hero Kurtis, running away with every scene he’s in.
Lean, funny and shocking, this taut action thriller is a lot of fun, and bodes well for the future of low-budget British genre film.
#5 SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS
Why have silent movies recently seen such resurgence in critical popularity? It can’t all be because of THE ARTIST, surely. Perhaps a more pertinent question is: why did their popularity with critics ever recede?
Maybe there’s a clue in David Thompson’s assessment of SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS in his seminal Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction of 1,000 Films: “What SUNRISE needs is a grasp of character as subtle as its mise-en-scene. That would not come for years yet…”
Thompson suggests that while SUNRISE is justifiably lauded for its technical innovation, by modern standards its storytelling and character development falls short – what’s more, he then goes on to accuse silent film-making as a medium of lacking the necessary faculties to convey the deeper intricacies of human interaction that the advent of sound and dialogue finally realized.
I’d agree with to an extent, but silent film-making is so obviously its own medium with its own rhythms and idiosyncrasies that it seems churlish to compare it to modern film-making: these are film-makers painting with different brush strokes. In the same way that expressionism in painting was a reaction to naturalism, the disciplines stand opposed to one another, finding different routes towards inducing emotion or providing ‘meaning’, because of course they do. F.W. Murnau’s film even has explicit ties to German expressionist cinema, an artistic movement that rejected ties ‘realism’ in filmmaking, so criticizing SUNRISE for some crudeness in its characterization I feel is a little disingenuous.
Also, to criticize silent film-making for what it can’t do is to ignore what it can do: the emphasis on action required by a lack of dialogue means performances have a physicality that brings them more in line with traditional theatre than the subtle screen acting we see calibrated for close-ups in today’s movies.
Sure, this can manifest itself in SUNRISE as what Thompson calls Janet Gaynor’s “excessive girlishness”, but this is not a negative in my opinion. The story is a grandiose, sweeping melodrama: a bit of arm-waving isn’t going to go amiss here. Subtlety has its place in cinema, but not in a world as fantastical and awe-inspiring as the one F.W. Murnau presents to us in SUNRISE.
And who can deny the appeal those amazing silent movie faces, that have all but disappeared from the screen or been relegated to the realm of character actors (this isn’t some dainty way of saying silent movie actors are ugly; far from it, but the physiology of movie stars has undoubtedly changed since the twenties, for better or worse).
Let’s be upfront about how good SUNRISE technically: it’s still remarkable, with nary a dull shot to be found in the entire film. The huge, elaborate sets (funded by the international co-production with Fox) are stunning, and Murnau’s directorial inventiveness shows no limits, from his innovative use of dissolves and in-camera special effects trickery (the scene where the lovestruck couple cross a busy main street is a classic), to his pioneering use of the tracking shot (the shot that follows George O’Brien along the riverbank is rightly revered), right down to the way the words melt and change into one another right in the title cards. Nothing is static in the world of SUNRISE – everything feels malleable and alive with possibility.
One of the most interesting things about SUNRISE, and something that feels groundbreaking even now, is its genre-hopping – it flits between moral drama intense psychological thriller, screwball comedy, epic romance and tragedy seemingly every few minutes, but never feels jarring or loses sight of Murnau’s unique vision. It’s moving when it needs to be, and funny when it needs to be, and it’s unwillingness to take itself totally seriously is, far from being a stick to beat it with, one of SUNRISE’s greatest assets: there are no other films on the Sight and Sound Top 10, or top 250 I would wager, that feature a setpiece of a drunk pig smashing up a kitchen.
SUNRISE remains a sumptuous experience, a rallying battle cry for ambition and creativity in an age when both things are seem by Hollywood producers as detrimental to commercial success (and so it proved even back then: SUNRISE, while critically admired in its day, was a box office flop). I watched SUNRISE and Jean Luc-Godard’s LE MEPRIS for the first time each within a few days of each other: both films were made by directors operating at the peak at their artistry, afforded enormous American budgets, and combined both of these assets as wonderfully strange, personal projects that baffled audiences of the time but resulted in pieces of art that are still being admired and enjoyed to this day. Are the days of follies like SUNRISE and LE MEPRIS now over? You suspect that if Murnau and Godard came to Hollywood they’d each be given a X-MEN film to direct.
However, that’s a pessimistic note to end on, and SUNRISE is an unashamedly joyous experience. It’s an achingly beautiful piece of work, with a tangible love for the power and possibility of cinema that is infectious. So what if no-one makes another SUNRISE? We’ll always have this one.