Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Year: 2016
Director: Burr Steers
Starring: Lily James, Matt Smith, Sam Riley, Lena Headey
Written by Patrick Alexander

Back in 2012, a truly legendary film burst onto the scene called ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’. The film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, was darkly vicious and a genuinely cheeky parody of the life of the great American president Abraham Lincoln. It was based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith. A year prior to that book’s release, a similar novel was released by Grahame-Smith called ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’. The parody genre of classic novels had never been done quite like Grahame-Smith did it and the resurgence was refreshing, if only to see someone poke fun at such heralded works. So, when it came time to bring ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ to the silver screen, you just knew we’d be in for entertaining antics as seen in ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer’. However, entertaining antics might have been all we got with ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down), a frequent collaborator with young Zac Efron, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ never quite actualised the dark potential it had to be a great cult classic. Hitting on surface levels far too frequently, this film just wasn’t funny enough, dark enough, or savage enough to truly induce peak enjoyment. Starring Lily James (Downton Abbey) and Sam Riley (On the Road) as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the film had tremendous potential, with a couple of young English actors who had indubitably been forced to read the Austen classic in grade school. Nonetheless ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ simply wasn’t of the same ilk of its Vampiric predecessor.

In the 19th century, a plague comes to life across the English countryside infecting the dead with the ability to come back to life. As the handsome but self-righteous Mr. Darcy courts (and disdains) the lovely, bumptious Elizabeth Bennet, the duo must fight the undead and rid the badlands of the notorious creatures, including killing numerous family friends, much to their own chagrin and the viewer’s enjoyment. Armed with muskets and rapiers, plus having been trained in the far regions of Japan and China in shaolin temples, the Bennet sisters and co. must stand their ground, united beside England’s depleted military, to fell the blood-thirsty monsters’ attempt to take over London.

While its action is tense, with vicious blood-soaked sweeps and stabs of the sword into zombie brains that will keep you interested, the story lacks a real substance to make you appreciate the craft of zombie mutilation. The olde English vernacular certainly adds to the films luster, but is often scant with the meaty depth of Austen’s famous work. Further, after having been coerced to sit through the 300-part BBC ‘Pride & Prejudice’ series by numerous girlfriends over the years, it’s important to note that the courtship feels forced throughout between Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley; the two star-crossed lovers simply lack the authentic emotion of Austen’s ink.

Now, in the interest of not seriously comparing it to its authentic forerunner but to its contemporary, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, is it as good? Shortly, no. Yet, is it as entertaining? Absolutely. Thus, taken with the intentions of enjoying watching zombie brains being scattered across the floor in a new way, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ is not the worst flick you could have in your queue.

Patrick’s rating: 6.1 out of 10
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Trapped [S1]

Year: 2016
Creator(s): Balsatar Kormákur, Sigurjón Kjartansson, Clive Bradley, Ólafur Egilsson, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson, Sonia Moyersoen, Klaus Zimmerman
Starring: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir
Written by Mark Blakeway

Scandinavian drama has been creeping onto our screens with a growing presence over the last few years, and with some calling this the “Golden Age of Television”, it’s not difficult to see why. Leading the way in this market we have ‘The Killing’ and ‘The Bridge’ – bleak urban thrillers that have managed to entice subtitle-phobes to take a chance on the knitted jumper wearing detectives, unearthing grizzly cases with award-winning results. Venture over to the Nordics, specifically Iceland, and we have ‘Trapped’, another foreign-language drama making waves on UK television screens.

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It’s the most expensive TV series ever made in Iceland (costing just over £5.2 million), comprising of 10 episodes, and has since been met with widespread critical acclaim. A series conceived, produced and directed by Baltasar Kormákur (pictured above), the man behind the ‘Everest’ film that hit cinemas last year, who takes us out of the dark and gloomy cities and drops us in the small isolated fishing town of Seyðisfjörður. Emerging post-economic collapse in present day Iceland, regularly covered with blankets of snowfall, the scene is set, and over the course of the series this little town will be shaken to its very core.

‘Trapped’ wastes no time in launching the viewer into a spiral of unpredictability, as an unidentifiable floating torso (just a torso; head, arms, legs all chopped off) is pulled from the sea by a small fishing boat, while a large cruise ship from Denmark docks up bringing with it an additional wealth of potential suspects. Overwhelming, confusing and nerve-wracking, and it’s just getting started.  

Iceland is aesthetically beautiful, and as the opening credits roll over the fjords and glaciers, we are reminded of its intriguing and unforgiving landscape. Yet this beauty is turned on its head, as the opening footage is spliced together with close-ups of the dismembered corpse, horror begins to seep into the tone. This shift in mood is realised further as a large storm looms over the town, trapping everyone present in a cold desolate state. As the events begin to unfold, the claustrophobic nature of being isolated accelerates the dark atmosphere of paranoia, and tensions rise to an impalpable level. 

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It centres on Andri Olafsson, played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (pictured above), as the local chief of police, attempting to join the dots of the case with what little resources he has. Andri is a quiet, contemplative man. He says very little, just stares into the distance, and pierces right to your heart with his bear-like face, transferring the internal anguish from his divorce, the stress of the sudden workload, his mysterious background in Reykjavík and his desire to help everyone and do everything in the face of adversity. You want to give him a hug and buy him a beer, but then he’d probably just stand there in the freezing cold with snow in his beard, and opt for a pint of milk. 

He is flanked by his two loyal police officers; Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir as Hinrika, morally upright and equally quiet, she is shocked by the latest revelations in her small town. She looks up to Andri as he demonstrates his determination to solve this case, a revived enthusiasm for the job, embracing what he describes as “real” police work. Her partner, Ásgeir played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, has been a well-respected police officer in the town for many years. We’re introduced to him just playing chess on his computer, but he too transforms, relishing the opportunity to do anything Andri asks of him, even if upon first seeing the corpse he vomits into the sea.

The less said about the other characters the better; part of this shows appeal is the way the rest of the cast is introduced. The investigation leads our trio of law enforcers down many avenues, there are suspects but nothing is for sure. They are without help, without technology, acting on pure detective instinct and their own knowledge of the locals. As a new character is presented, they too have an equally developed backstory, or a current personal narrative that could be a possible link to the goings-on in this small town. It becomes a patient guessing game, an Agatha Christie styled murder-mystery with clues and red-herrings being carefully placed for all to find. The subtle evolution of most of the characters involved shifts our perceptions on an episodic basis, unsettling the viewer in the best possible way, resulting in compelling viewing from start to finish. 

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Shot over six months in Seyðisfjörður, you have to admire the effort taken to create such a show. Much in the same way ‘The Revenant’ was lauded for the harsh conditions endured by the cast and crew, no doubt all underwent similar experiences at times to succeed in making an impeccably produced drama, with cinematography that was a joy to behold. 

Full marks go to the eclectic cast, with not one misstep from any character, each acting with absolute conviction, but avoiding any descent into melodramatic over-performance. In many scenes only glances are shared, and it’s enough to do the job. All of this is amplified by the score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (Prisoners, Theory of Everything, Sicario), as if viewing Andri’s engrossing performance without welling up wasn’t hard enough, I challenge you to not be moved when accompanied by this outstanding soundtrack. 

For all its twists and turns, each episode ramping up the volatility and excitement, the experience of living within this quaint town as it transforms into a shape-shifting icy version of hell on earth is like no other TV series I’ve watched before. Furthermore, what a rare treat that the series finale has a payoff and resolution that is absolutely worth the wait. The lines of good and evil are blurred; morality is questioned at every corner, and in doing so Kormákur has created something unique in this crime-drama-meets-horror. 

Fundamentally, by establishing and constantly introducing realistic often questionable characters at the core of the drama, our focus remains on people as opposed to the acts committed. We become lured into the emotion as we bond with the characters; we feel the tension of every cliff-hanger, we exist just as they do in this ice-cold suspended state of uncertainty, so that when an event does happen, it shocks you like it shocks everyone else. 

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In the last episode, it is asked by one of the characters, with a look of complete astonishment and fright on their face; “What happened here?!” A great question, one with an answer I am still trying to recover from. I want to go back and watch it again, knowing what I know now. ‘Trapped’ is addictive TV at its finest, and another fine addition to the crime drama genre.

TRAPPED is out now on DVD & Blu-Ray through Arrow Films and Nordic Noir & Beyond.

Mark’s rating: 9.5 out of 10

Lost River

Year: 2015
Director: Ryan Gosling
Starring: Iain De Caestecker, Christina Hendricks, Matt Smith, Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendes
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Wait, Ryan Gosling is a director now? When I read about this film last year and saw the trailer I was pretty excited – I’m a big Gosling fan and the idea of him moving behind the camera intrigued me. And then there’s the cast which includes great performers like Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn and Christina Hendricks. I was even lucky enough to get a tweet from Gosling around the time of the film’s release here in the UK last April, discussing the influence of Nicholas Winding Refn, his director in one of my all time favourite films, ‘Drive’. Sadly, the film got a bit of a beating by critics after its release, which put me off watching it somewhat, but I’m delighted to say that the critics are wrong. Not me though, I’m always right.

Set in a strange, almost apocalyptic city, single mother Billy (Hendricks), is struggling to pay the rent on her family home. Unwilling to leave the home, she takes a job at a bizarre and seedy cabaret bar, where the punters get their kicks from blood and torture. Meanwhile, her oldest son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker) has his own problems, with the neighbourhood psychopath – the aptly named Bully (Matt Smith) -hunting him down for stealing copper on his patch. Is the city beneath the river at the heart of a mysterious curse which threatens to tear the family apart? Sounds spooky right? Damn right! I wouldn’t quite call this a horror movie, but it’s definitely a creepy one and was actually rather unsettling and uncomfortable to watch at times.

The ensemble cast all give stunning performances. Christina Hendricks for a start is incredibly authentic in her role as the desperate mother out of her depth in a fucked-up situation. A man who is fast-becoming one of the best actors around, Ben Mendolsohn, is outstanding as Dave, the bank manager turned club owner, whose sick fantasies put Hendricks’ character in that fucked-up situation. He even does a little dance at one point, which is equally riveting as it is disturbing. Saoirse Ronan too, adds another fantastic performance to her growing collection as Bones’ love interest, whilst Iain de Caesteckers – who I haven’t seen in anything before – is excellent as the film’s protagonist. Even Matt Smith, the man who once played Doctor Who, turns in an impeccable performance as a very convincing villain. Unfortunately his character is a little under-explored, but what we do get to see is pretty damn good.

It’s not just the acting which is fantastic in ‘Lost River’ though, and Ryan Gosling should be commended for putting together such a high quality debut feature. The influences of Nicolas Winding Refn are clear to see, with a plethora of neon lights and synth tracks which pay homage to the iconic ‘Drive’. But Gosling evidently wanted to stamp his own style on this project, and does so with absolutely breathtaking shot composition and locations. This is an atmospheric and stirring film with an experimental feel to it; which I imagine isn’t for everyone, but it is right up my street. The only criticism I might cast on ‘Lost River’, would be with regards to the story, which was written by Gosling. I think it was a good story, but not a great story and I did feel like certain aspects were left to be a little too ambiguous and mysterious. Had Gosling gone for a slightly longer runtime and perhaps explored the underwater city or the cabaret club a little more – two locations which underpin the intrigue factor of the film – we could well have had something really special on our hands.

As it is, ‘Lost River’ is a brooding and intense drama with all the dark and creepy trimmings you could ask for. Aesthetically, this film is a psychedelic work of art, but thematically it is lacking one last sucker-punch. If you like films like ‘Donnie Darko’, you’ll definitely enjoy ‘Lost River’, and if you know me, you’ll know that it’s a big compliment for me to mention any film in the same breath as ‘Donnie Darko’. I’m very excited to see what Gosling comes up with next, and just hope that the criticisms he’s faced with this film don’t put him off making another. You can catch ‘Lost River’ on Netflix currently, and a runtime of just over 90 minutes makes this a great film to dive into. 

Jakob’s rating: 8.0 out of 10

Cargo 200

Year: 2007
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Starring: Agniya Kuznetsova, Aleksey Poluyan, Leonid Gromov
Written by Mark Blakeway

The latest inductee to the JumpCut UK World Cinema Club, ‘Cargo 200’ is not for the faint-hearted. A combination of various sordid acts of degradation and desperation taking place within a Soviet Union nearing the end of its lifespan, results in an ever-present, unparalleled bleakness as we witness the crumbling of society itself and those within it.

Focussing on a group of somewhat connected individuals rather than a select one or two, ‘Cargo 200’ manages to cover significant ground early on to make the landslide of unwanted sadness all the more shocking. Angelika (Agniya Kuznetsova) meets Valera (Leonid Bichevin), the fiancé of Liza, who is the niece of Artem (Leonid Gromov), brother of a communist general, and a professor at the nearby University. Still with us? Okay, a series of unfortunate events leads each of their paths to cross, not simultaneously, but all at the same small isolated house that sells moonshine ran by Alexi (Aleksei Serebryakov) and his wife, Tonya (Natalya Akimova).

It’s clever storytelling, and captures the coincidences of living within a small area, but once the pieces begin to fall into place, the story unravels at an alarming pace with those involved unable to stop it. The catalyst in all of this is the eerie looming presence of Zhurov (Aleksei Poluyan), a man responsible for some, if not all of the most reprehensible actions in this film. These acts are carried out with such distressing conviction that depending on what he’s doing, it’s either a case of nauseating shock, or the darkest comedic moments I’ve witnessed on-screen.

The film received severely mixed reviews, namely due to the honest and stark portrayal of the events on-screen, but this unflinching representation of cruelty seems necessary to convey the message sought by the infamous directorial mind of Aleksei Balabanov. Unlike other more glamourised and gratuitous depictions of metaphorical destruction of various countries (I’m looking at you, ‘A Serbian Film’, you piece of shit), ‘Cargo 200’ conveys this theme while remaining cinematically minimalist, rich in precise dialogue and filled with worthy performances.

Reoccurring themes of loyalty, power and corruption are underpinned by a running ideological conflict of the existence of God, challenged further by the apparent lack of hope and judgement for our characters. In the end (for those who make it), some seek redemption in one form or another. Others are either too broken, or completely oblivious to the prior events, and we are left to bask in the collective unfairness of life.

‘Cargo 200’ defies genre boundaries, and subsequently makes for a vile yet powerful film. It is not a horror film, but it is frustratingly, and overwhelmingly horrifying. It will be as much of a challenge to find as it will to watch, but if you know the right places to look, you can find it, and hopefully it will be worth it. 

Mark’s rating: 8.9 out of 10

Gravity

Year: 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Written by Chris Winterbottom

Prior to its release, ‘Gravity’ was one of my most anticipated films of its year. Groundbreaking visual effects, novel filmmaking techniques and an intense, claustrophobic story; the film looked like a real treat.

The story sees Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone and George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski working on a space station before disaster strikes and sees them fight against the odds to survive in the most unsurvivable environment one could ever find oneself in.

The good news is that this is a hugely enjoyable piece of cinema that starts at a break-neck pace and never lets up. Running at ninety one minutes – a running time that will always lure me in – this is a simple story of survival and redemption. The visual effects are truly spectacular, which seems like damning with faint praise, but many blockbusters offer equally grandiose visuals only for that dreaded cartoonish style to spoil proceedings. The visual effects in ‘Gravity’ really are groundbreaking and all praise the film receives in this regard is merited.

On a technical level, few films have managed to really take the audience into outer-space like this. Kubrick and Scott would be proud of the icy cold, oppressive atmosphere created by the pristine visuals and expert cinematography. The sound design is also immaculately constructed; the silence of space meeting the gripping score prop-up the beautiful visuals to create one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I have had in a long time.

The performances are solid from both Bullock and Clooney and it is refreshing to see a woman helm a film which would traditionally be made with a male lead. Bullock is always a watchable screen presence, going back as far as her turn in the underrated ‘Speed’; she is such a likable figure, it’s difficult not to root for her. As well as the expert casting, kudos should also be given to Alfonso Cuarón for creating such a resplendent symphony of sound and image.

Of all Cuarón’s work that I’ve seen, I still feel that ‘Children Of Men’ is his most accomplished piece; the technical aspects of that film are supported by a story complete with substance and intrigue. The same cannot be said for ‘Gravity’. Despite the accomplishments of its technical brilliance, the film lacks an emotional punch with I was so hoping to feel. I saw the film not long after watching ‘Captain Phillips’, which left me an emotional wreck; after ‘Gravity’, I was left feeling a little dissatisfied. My eyes had gorged on the grandiose visual feast but my brain and heart needed more of a thematic feast.

There are moments which touch on profound thematic exploration; the film is a story of rebirth. Towards the climax, Bullock’s character floats in an enclosed space in a manner which strongly resonates with the image of a baby in the womb. But Cuarón seems to have abandoned the thematic exploration in favour of mastering the technical aspects of the film. Like an itch you can’t quite reach, I felt slightly deflated when I left the cinema and found myself craving more from the film’s attempts to evoke an emotional response.

It was one of the main contenders at the Oscars in 2014, but if winning an Academy Award is the ultimate recognition of a films quality (it’s not, by the way) then I am not entirely sure ‘Gravity’ is deserving to be in the same company as ’12 Years A Slave’. Nonetheless, the film is an entertaining, breathless piece of cinematic splendour; it’s just a shame about the lack of an emotional core.

Chris’ rating: 7.0 out of 10

Triple 9

Year: 2016
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus
Written by Nick Deal

Given that I was one of the few people who wasn’t overly fussed for the release of ‘Deadpool’ (my ignorance was duly rectified), I had my sights firmly set on ‘Triple 9’ as the film to tide me over before the release of ‘Batman v Superman’. The trailer immediately caught my attention last year, and my interest further spiked when I realised what an unbelievable cast John Hillcoat had managed to get on board for his crime/cop thriller. It’s fair to say that the film had instilled a fair amount of excitement in the film community ahead of its release; so much so that I just had to go to the cinema on opening day to see if the film could live up to my expectations. 

Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) is the head of a Russian crime syndicate operating in Atlanta, Georgia alongside her sister Elena (Gal Gadot). Instead of getting her hands dirty herself, she has a group of men under her thumb that do her work for her. After the successful robbery of a bank, the group of five men; Gabe and Russel Welch (Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus), Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jnr) and Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), under the leadership of Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejoifor), are reluctantly forced into one final job for their Russian matriarch. In order to pull off this final job, they need the ultimate distraction and they decide that the murder of “new cop on the block” Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) would be perfect. As their plan begins to unravel under the investigation of Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), we bare witness to the brutality that desperate men will resort to when their lives are at stake. 

I’ll start by addressing the cast, seeing as though that was the main attraction for most. The acting talent on display here meant that the performance levels were good from all of those involved. It would take too long to go through all of them, but Anthony Mackie, Chitwetel Ejiofor and Clifton Collins Jnr (the latter being the best of the bunch) should take a lot of credit here for their respective performances. I was excited to see Kate Winslet in a slightly different role than I am used to, and whilst she performed her role well, I can’t shake the feeling that her character was slightly under-explored; she could have been the star of ‘Triple 9’ but I felt a bit shortchanged by the characterisation. If I were to state any negatives about any of the performances, Aaron Paul’s performance and/or character annoyed me slightly, and as I was watching I began to think, rather controversially, whether ‘Breaking Bad’ had actually done him a disservice. His character finds himself in similar circumstances to that of Jesse Pinkman (yeah, bitch!) and I couldn’t help but feel that Paul had been typecast once again, as he struggles to make the transition from TV to the silver screen and shake that “unstable, drug addict” tag that made him a household name.  Characterisation has been a problem for many critics that I’ve read, but for me (with the exception of Winslet and Paul) the characters were absolutely perfect. People have been saying that all of the main cast are so detestable that it’s hard to want them to succeed, but for me, surely that’s good characterisation if you don’t like anyone amongst a gang of violent criminals and crime lords? Even then, I still found myself rooting for Ejiofor’s character, so contrary to popular opinion, I think the characters were one of the most intriguing parts of the film as we got a really intense, cross-examination of those involved. 

An issue I do concur with the masses on, however, is pacing. The opening scene was fantastic in terms of aesthetics (with the red flare smoke a particular highlight) and it was a superbly tense and adrenaline-pumping opening. After that, the forward momentum was lost somewhat, and whilst it was impossible for the film to keep up that level of intensity throughout, there were times when the narrative felt a little messy. For an action-thriller film, action sequences are actually few and far between, but I think that issue is counter-balanced by the length and intensity of the action sequences we do get, with my personal favourite being an intense ten minute sequence where a group of police officers efficiently storm the house of a criminal. All of the action sequences are intense and violent, so for me, there was more than enough combat to meet my expectations. It was instead the bits in between that needed that little bit extra to maintain some forward momentum. 

All in all, I think “Triple 9’ more or less delivered exactly what I expected, and despite the reservations I’ve voiced, it’s still a hugely enjoyable film to watch and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of crime/police films like ‘The Town’. But this recommendation comes with a warning; it’s clearly not in the same league as the best the genre has to offer. Given the quality of the acting talent available to Hillcoat, it’s impossible to ignore the idea that this is a film that does miss the mark somewhat, as it could have been truly special. Instead, ‘Triple 9’ will probably find itself destined to be remembered as one of Hollywood’s many “what could have been” movies. 

Nick’s rating: 7.2 out of 10 

Son Of Saul

Year: 2016
Director: László Nemes
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont
Written by Wan Tyszkiewicz

‘Son Of Saul’ is the first film to get the JumpCut UK World Cinema Club seal of approval. A frontrunner for the Oscar for Foreign Language Feature Film, ‘Son Of Saul’ premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015, landed in US theatres in December 2015 and is set for release in UK cinemas on 29th April 2016. We highly recommend you catch this film as soon as possible, and here’s why.

I asked a group of young Hungarians to give me some feedback on ‘Son of Saul’, from a first language/I’m-a-Hungarian point of view. They all said it was good – the directing was OK and the acting was fine but it was “just another Holocaust film”. Hmm. On IMDb you can find the “50 Most Moving Holocaust Films”, with ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) in the #1 position. Which is worrying, because ‘Schindler’s List’, apart from a number of historical inaccuracies, was just another Steven Spielberg commercial vehicle designed to get The Academy voting it into the Best Picture category in the 1994 Academy Awards; which it won!

Then there was my personal least favourite and grotesque take on the Holocaust theme – ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997) directed, co-written and starring Roberto Benigni, which mopped up several awards at The Oscars in 1999, and the never-to-be-forgotten image of Benigni clambering over Hollywood greats in a fit of exuberance to get his Oscar. Other notable films are ’Sophie’s Choice’ (1982), ‘The Pianist’ (2002) and so on and so on. And what these films have all done in one way or another is to historicise, and therefore trivialise the Holocaust, like Benigni does in ‘Life is Beautiful’ or Spielberg’s historical editing does in ‘Schindler’s List’. No fear of that with ‘Son of Saul’ though; this is a hard hitting, no holds barred right in yer face film, and definitely not for everyone. It is anything but “just another Holocaust film” and here’s why.

‘Son of Saul’ director László Nemes trained with internationally acclaimed Hungarian director Bela Tarr; it doesn’t get much better than that in the pantheon of serious film makers. Influenced by other greats like Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Kubrick and Bergman, there are definitely moments in ‘Son of Saul’ where fragments of the these masters is evident in Nemes’ treatment. Focused almost entirely on Saul Auslander (Rohrig), the film follows Saul in close-up in his role as a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, where he clinically herds the prisoners into the gas chambers for execution and then cleans up the bodies after their murder. The Sonderkommandos were ordinary prisoners enlisted by the Nazis to work in the camps assisting in the murders and knowing that eventually they would perish as well.

Shot predominantly in shallow focus, we see very little of the concentration camp porn that litters most other Holocaust films. But the horror and the sound of death and destruction is persistent and is juxtaposed with close-ups of Saul’s face, which shows not a flicker of emotion or anything tangible about this character. Until he witnesses the camp doctor checking a young boy’s vital signs and then suffocating him when he realises that he is alive. For reasons that are never made clear, Saul claims that the boy is his son – a claim that might well precipitate his own execution sooner. Saul then searches for a rabbi in order to bury “his son” properly.

Shot on 35mm film instead of digital, this gives the film a grainy effect; combined with the tight, shallow focus on Saul, it appears that most of the peripheral elements surrounding Saul are blurred and thereby less significant. In this way, the audience is spared the distress and horror that many Holocaust films have chosen to include, yet the sound has not been blocked out and it forms a haunting and terrible punctuation, interspersed with long periods of absolute silence cutting to the blank impassive face of our main character. There is no soundtrack throughout this film but there are plenty of gunshots, German commands and at times the muffled sounds of distress through the walls.

Nemes is the descendent of Holocaust victims. In an interview he said about the film: “[that] the aim was to take the Holocaust out of the history books and bring it to the present. Mine is a generation that doesn’t know much about anything now. It is a disconnected generation”. 

I would agree with his claim, and having asked my small group of young Hungarians, with their compassion fatigue and general antipathy towards the subject, it seems that with a film that re-works how we perceive the Holocaust, in a time when systematic religious and ideological persecution is prevalent worldwide and beamed onto our laptops and TVs every day, Nemes has produced a jaw dropping, stop-in-your-tracks kind of film that reminds us all just how diabolical the Holocaust was and that it does not reside strictly in the past but is part of our current everyday life. Are we doing enough to make sure that it never happens again? Well are we?

Wan’s rating: 8.0 out of 10

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi

Year: 2016
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge Dale
Written by Amber Dainty

I have to tell you, I love a good, old-fashioned, violent action film. Guns, explosions, and brutal wounds? Count me in. I’d seen the trailers for ’13 Hours’ and I was intrigued, despite it being the latest offering from Michael Bay who naturally attracts negative attention and derision. Still, with ’13 Hours’ adapted from true events, and Jim from ‘The US Office’ playing a starring role, I thought I’d give it a chance. I didn’t really know what to expect apart from a gratuitous display of war porn, but I was hoping for interesting characters, and an exploration of politically sensitive issues surrounding the film. 

Set in 2012, on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, ’13 Hours’ follows a security team in a not-so-secret CIA annex, as the staff stationed there come under attack. Benghazi is one of the most dangerous places in the world, and the team in the Annex are alone as they wait for help from a Global Response team. Wave after wave of attacks from militants ensue, creating a grandiose display of violence and brutality as the team try to hold out, survive and get home to their families.

Normally this would be the part to talk about the cast, but in ’13 Hours’ I feel as though I never actually got to know the characters. I’d never seen James Badge Dale or John Krasinski in anything other than TV shows before, and I was excited to see how well their acting would go down on the big screen. Krasinski in particular gives a stellar performance, but I feel like he can do more given the chance. The truth is, none of the actors are given much of a chance. I understand the need for scrimping on detailed, emotive backstories: this is supposed to show the insane, guns-blazing night that these six soldiers survived. But, my god, everyone is just so manly and bearded that all of the characters just sort of blur into one testosterone filled guy – they even refer to each other as “brother” throughout the whole film. As you can probably tell, I have a love-hate relationship with Michael Bay. His character development is questionable at best, and although ’13 Hours’ is a sleek, arguably more “grown-up” attempt, he still misses the mark. 

However, if you’re looking for a spectacular show of violence, brutality, and war, this could be the film for you. The first half an hour drags along, but then you’re thrown in at the deep end with explosions and undeniably cool shot; the camera follows the route of a mortar shell at one point, which I loved. It’s classic Michael Bay over-the-top cinematography, but it does allow for highly thrilling action sequences.

The main problem I have with ’13 Hours’ is that although the action is plentiful; the bombs loud; and the violence savage; its emotional core just isn’t right – in fact it barely exists. It’s a highly masculine movie that comes across as more ‘Call Of Duty’ than true story. Similarly, the script is full of awkward, unfunny one-liners that really add nothing to the film. That being said, it’s probably my favourite thing Bay has done in years, which I realise doesn’t make much sense given my pretty scathing review (let that tell you a little something about the quality of his work recently). I’ve been highly critical up to now, but I did actually somewhat enjoy the film. In short, the action is dazzling and the film is certainly intense, but I can’t shake the feeling that I would prefer it if anyone other than Michael Bay had directed it.

Amber’s rating: 5.8 out of 10

The Revenant

Year: 2016
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Written by Nick Deal

In a recent article that I contributed to for HC MovieReviews, we had ‘The Revenant’ placed at number two in a list of our most anticipated films of 2016. Compliment that with the fact that early reviews from across the pond were full of praise for Iñárritu’s latest film, DiCaprio’s Oscar-nomination worthy performance and the awards it picked up at the Golden Globe awards, and it’s fair to say that my expectations could not have been any higher. I was promised a breath-taking and completely immersive cinema experience and ‘The Revenant’ delivered on every single level that I could have possibly hoped. 

Master trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo di Caprio) and his hunting troop, led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), are travelling across remote Northern America acquiring animal pelts on the front line of the 1820’s fur trade. After being ambushed by a group of Native Americans, the hunting party is forced inland, into the unforgiving wilderness, in an attempt to make it home alive with their precious cargo intact. Glass is their only hope of tracking their way back home, but he is viciously mauled in a savage bear attack, leaving him firmly at death’s door, so much so that he becomes a burden for the rest of the group. His son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and fellow trappers John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter) elect to stay behind with Glass to give him the burial that he deserves once he has passed, but honuorable intentions soon turn into the ultimate betrayal as Glass is left for dead to survive on his own in the harshest of environments, spurred on only by his desire for revenge. 

Of course, all of the talk surrounding this film is about whether this will finally be DiCaprio’s time to pick up the elusive Best Actor award at the Oscars. I will go on record now and say that if he doesn’t win it for this emotionally packed, authentic and transformative performance then it will be the biggest injustice ever to have occurred. This is a very different DiCaprio to the one we have become so accustomed to. Here, he is crawling around inside dead horses, self-cauterizing his neck, ripping into rotten flesh and donning an out of control hair and beard combination, but somehow it feels completely real; like this is something Leo gets up to in his spare time between the various parties that he’s more renowned for, such is the level of his performance. We all know he is capable of incredible acting, but this performance is his best to date because it’s so different to anything we’ve seen before. This is far from a one-man show though. Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleesoon in particular are given more screen time than I anticipated and are very convincing for two relative novices. Tom Hardy is also stunning in his portrayal of Fitzgerald, earning him an Oscar nomination. He probably won’t win the award, but personally, I really hope he does. The culminating scene with DiCaprio and Hardy was one of the most intense and heart-stopping things I have witnessed, and both men should be recognised for their respective performances.

As good as the acting performances are though, the star of the show has to be Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (no, it’s not the bear). The director’s decision to shoot the film entirely in natural light proved inspired, as it captured nature at its most beautiful and most terrifying simultaneously. This is a film that encapsulates natural beauty alongside human brutality and you need look no further than the opening ten minutes to see clear evidence for this. The best looking shot of the entire film comes right at the beginning, as the camera pans upwards from the calm and therapeutic ripple of a shallow stream to a mesmerising, dense and brooding forest. Cut quickly to an ambush scene where the hunting troop are attacked by a group of Native Americans, as a panning shot captures first hand the level of brutality that humans are capable of. The panning shot was a recurring technique used and it works absolutely perfectly so that we can appreciate the majestic setting that this story of betrayal is set against. If I were to have any complaints about the film, I would say it was probably a little self-indulgent, but who can blame Iñárritu for wanting to linger over shots of vast mountainous ranges, beautiful skylines and spectacular rivers. One of the longest sequences was the now famous bear attack scene, formed by one continuous shot lasting several minutes, as we witness a truly brutal attack unfold before us. In fact, in my particular screening, a group of women got up and walked out during this scene, never to return, in what I assume was a reaction to the brutality on show. This is a film that is making no apologies whatsoever and there were several instances where the entire cinema erupted into a cacophony of dumbfounded gasps, but that’s what makes this film so good. It truly is a revolutionary piece of cinema, unlike anything I’ve seen before in every aspect. 

I am surprised this film hasn’t been more divisive than it has. I counted a total of seven people leave their seats for good during the course of the film; testament to the fact that this film certainly won’t be for everyone. It is self-indulgent, it is gruesome, it is rather slow in places, but  ‘The Revenant’ is a masterful work of art. I have never experienced an atmosphere quite like it when the credits began to roll. The whole cinema was in complete silence. Nobody was talking, nobody had their phones out, nobody even moved for about 30 seconds. Everybody was sat still in their seats trying to take in what they had just witnessed, utterly numbed and captivated by the stunningly intense experience that they had just been a part of. It’s not a film to enjoy necessarily, it’s a film to appreciate. It’s one of those films that you need to say that you’ve seen, because it will instantly become a classic. ‘The Revenant’ is up for a total of 12 Academy Awards, and quite frankly, it could easily end up with a full house. Yes, it really is that good. 

Nick’s rating: 9.6 out of 10

Psycho

Year: 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh
Written by Sasha Hornby

First, let me say this: I am, or at least was, a Hitchcock virgin. As an avid movie watcher, even I have long considered this a travesty. My limited knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock films is enough to indicate that I would probably love them. Typically thrillers (my favourite genre), with classic “old Hollywood” actors and actresses, often filmed in black and white, they combine some of my favourite things in a film. So I asked around as to which of Hitchcock’s works I should visit first, and the general consensus was urged me to try ‘Psycho’ – a “masterpiece of the macabre”.

Psycho tells the tale of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a troubled man who lives in an old, dark house adjoined to a motel, the now iconic Bates Motel to be precise. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a weary traveller, happens upon the motel, it is clear from the moment she meets Norman that her stay is ill-fated (I will talk more about that famous shower scene shortly). A police officer, a private detective and Marion’s sister all end up at the motel in search of the missing Marion, all the while suspense mounts, leading to the terrifying and entirely satisfying climax where the killer is finally revealed.

Janet Leigh is a vision in this film. Upon starting, the first thing we see is Marion in a non-descript hotel room with a married man, and she truly emotes both a passion and a pained love for him. But she knows it must stop and is firm with him. We then see Marion at work, where her attitude comes across in one simple quote – “headaches are like resolutions. You forget them as soon as they stop hurting”. She is strong and clearly doesn’t believe in medicating simple ailments, and it is that strength which ultimately gives her the confidence to impulsively steal $40,000 from a customer who asks her to put it in the bank for him. As she goes on the run, the viewer really feels her fear and nerves. Though she is ultimately killed, various exchanges with men in the film show just how strong a female character Marion is and Leigh is perfect as Marion. Anthony Perkins is equally as mesmerising, portraying a creepy yet likeable character, to start with at least. You’d be forgiven for finding Norman Bates to be a little odd, though you could attribute this to his isolation and his overbearing mother. His hobbies include taxidermy and watching guests in the first cabin through a hole in the wall though, so yeah, maybe he is odd to say the least. When the depth of his psychosis is revealed, Perkins gets this across even with just a look. And boy, those looks gave me chills.

All of that praise is not dished out lightly. I am stunned by how visually impressive this film is, even in black and white. The shower scene – possibly one of the most famous death scenes in movie history – isn’t actually that graphic or gory. The angles from which the scene is shot leave more to the imagination rather than leaving everything on show. A blurry figure approaching the shower is visible through the curtain; an odd flash of the knife; blood circling the drain – note, no actual slashing. The music throughout really adds to the atmosphere and ups the ante. I found myself holding my breath at times, purely because of a tempo change; the film became a truly immersive experience. Another device I really enjoyed was the use of weather to exaggerate the tone. For instance, when Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, the rain is torrential – a symbolic warning if there ever was one. Hitchcock truly is a master of detail, considering every angle, every sound effect and every background.

To say this film is now 55 years old is astonishing – it certainly doesn’t feel it. Sure, it’s filmed in black and white, and the fashion, cars and general aesthetic is clearly from the 1950s. But the acting is stellar, the direction is clear and I found myself genuinely surprised by the twist at the end. ‘Psycho’ may have been my first, but it definitely won’t be my last Hitchcock film.

Sasha’s rating: 9.2 out of 10

The Others

Year: 2001
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Foinnula Flanagan, Alakina Mann, James Bentley
Written by Nick Deal

‘The Others’ is a film I hadn’t really heard about until my partner picked it out at our local DVD store. She recommended it with the highest praise and said it would be right up my street in terms of genre and style. As a pair, we love our films dark, mysterious and as unnerving as possible, so it looked from the outset that ‘The Others’ would be perfect in that regard. Having said that, I’m not entirely convinced by my partner’s track record when it comes to choosing films, so I was secretly reserving judgment until I got round to watching it. But credit where credit’s due, this was a fantastic, thought-provoking and interesting take on what, on the surface, seemed like a very familiar horror film.

Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) is a struggling single mother, with her husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston), away fighting in World War Two. Her cause is not helped by the fact that her two children, Anne (Alankina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), are both allergic to sunlight. As a result of this very rare illness, their home must be devoid of sunlight, with the only source of light coming from oil lamps dotted around the house. When three strangers, led by Mrs Mills (Foinnula Flanagan), turn up on Grace’s front door and offer to work as servants to Grace and her children, their help could not be more welcome. However, their sudden appearance coincides with a series of inexplicable events occurring around the house and Grace soon begins to fear that their arrival may have aroused some unwanted, supernatural visitors.

As I said previously, this is a plot that sounds all too familiar, predictable and somewhat tedious. That could not be further from the truth however, and I was more than pleasantly surprised when watching the film. Unlike most horror films, it isn’t completely predictable in any respect. I had no idea what would become of our protagonists, I had no idea who the servants were and I certainly did not predict the mind-blowing twist at the end of the film, which explained everything perfectly. Up until the moment of revelation at the end of the film, I truly had no idea how all the events of the film tied together, and that’s why I enjoyed it so much. I was constantly working out potential conclusions and explanations in my head, and whilst I managed to cotton on to some hints, this is a film which will certainly keep you guessing up until the end.

It was different to other horror films I’ve seen in other aspects too. Of course, it had your conventional features like dark rooms and corridors (conveniently justified through the children being allergic to sunlight), gothic sets and costumes, doors opening by themselves, a cemetery visible from the bedroom window and a fair share of jumpy moments. However, none of these overused and stereotypical inclusions felt tacky or unnecessary in any way; it was really cleverly done. I wouldn’t say this film is overly scary either, and whilst that was a positive for me, it may be a negative for others. I say it’s a positive not because I’m easily scared but because it allowed certain other aspects of the film to come to the forefront to be appreciated.

An example of which is the acting displays. Initially, I wasn’t convinced by Nicole Kidman’s performance, or that of her on-screen offspring, but as the film progressed they really seemed to grow into their roles and by the end (helped by knowing the twist), I am happy to say that everyone did a really good job. Grace is a complex character and I thought Kidman performed every aspect nigh on perfectly. She is commanding and dominant, whilst possessing a clear fragile quality and an unstable mind. The children were infuriating to begin with (a trait this film had in common with a lot of horror films). Anne was particularly annoying, but Akalina Mann’s portrayal became more and more convincing and chilling as the film got into the narrative. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you’ve probably seen that scene with Anne in a wedding dress surrounded by mirrors, and that was the standout moment for me in the film, owing a lot to Mann’s performance. Foinnula Flanagan’s performance of Mrs Mills was also brilliant, as was her character. At no point could I pin down whether I trusted her or not, and a complicated character like that demands a strong performance, which Flanagan duly delivered.

A film that I was initially a little hesitant in watching turned out to be one of my favourite films that I’ve seen recently. I was initially sceptical because the plot and the idea seemed so familiar, but this was really enjoyable viewing. Solid acting performances and an immersive and compelling plot, ‘The Others’ is certainly one I will be recommending to those who haven’t seen it. I guess I’ll also have to start trusting my partner’s choice in films more often, but we’ll keep that a secret for now.

Nick’s rating: 8.4 out of 10

Panic Room

Year: 2002
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart. Forest Whittaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakman
Written by Nick Deal

After recently revisiting David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ and reveling in its pure brilliance, I made the decision to investigate some of his other works that I hadn’t already seen. I had enjoyed blockbuster hits like ‘Fight Club’, ‘Gone Girl’ and the slightly less high-profile ‘Zodiac’, but a film I hadn’t seen was the 2002 release, ‘Panic Room’. With a portfolio of such impressive films to his name, I can be forgiven for expecting great things from this movie as well, and I was hopeful that ‘Panic Room’ would cement Fincher’s reputation in my mind as one of the best directors currently working in the industry.

The film has probably one of the more basic plots your could come across. Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) has recently divorced from her husband, Stephen (Patrick Bauchau), and decides to move away to New York with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). When being shown around their potential new house, they are shown a panic room attached to the master bedroom, and this is an inclusion that Meg is somewhat uneasy about. Despite her reservations, she agrees to buy the house and mother and daughter soon find themselves settling in to their new home. However, during the first night at their new abode, a trio of robbers, Burnham (Forest Whittaker), Junior (Jared Leto) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakman), break in. Meg and Sarah must quickly take refuge inside the aforementioned, impenetrable panic room – decked out with CCTV, external phone line and enough food and water to survive. The problem is, what the three men are looking for is also safely locked away inside the panic room.

With such a simple and linear plot, the performances have a pretty large influence as to whether this film is good or not, and thankfully they are a positive aspect, to an extent. Jodie Foster is very convincing in the lead role, albeit slightly frustrating at times. She instills a fear that feels real but her actions infuriated me a bit. Both her and Kristen Stewart, who is decent but not as convincing as her on screen mother, are guilty of ridiculous actions given their situation. At times, I found myself shouting at the screen “WHY ON EARTH WOULD ANYONE EVER DO THAT?!”, utterly exasperated by the reckless decisions of the protagonists. The supporting performances were good on the whole, but again frustrated me in places. Jared Leto’s character was the definition of a “loose cannon” and needed to learn the “engage brain before opening mouth” lesson. Yoakman’s character was a more ruthless individual and of the three he was the most fear-instilling, but he was unfortunately very much third-fiddle, if you like. Forest Whittaker’s character takes a less brutal approach and whilst his was probably the most convincing of the three supporting performances, his character actually embodies a lot of the issues I had with the film.

It simply wasn’t intense enough. At no point in the film was I on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, peering out from behind the sofa or whatever proverbial phrase you want to insert here. I didn’t feel that same terror that Meg and Sarah were obviously experiencing, and I would attribute that to a couple of things. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the characterisation prohibited that fear-inducing factor; the protagonists’ actions verged on moronic at times and the three intruders were rather timid. There are certainly points of tension and drama, but on the whole I just felt like the plot was a bit aimless and lacked direction. A lot of the tension was achieved through the lighting and the set. As a film set completely in one house, be it a horror film or a drama/action like this, there are countless dark and narrow corridors to instill a sense of disorientation, confusion and expectation in the audience.

As a result, I’d probably say that ‘Panic Room’ was underwhelming, but mostly as a result of my expectations of a David Fincher film. A simple premise that had potential, but was unfortunately somewhat foiled by its own characters, which was all the more disappointing given the acting talent on offer. Every one of the main actors and actresses played their role adequately, but their roles were flawed and that’s why, for me anyway, ‘Panic Room’ was a missed opportunity and a slight blot on Fincher’s record. Despite what I’ve said in this review, I don’t want you to be put off watching this film if you haven’t already. It’s certainly nowhere near the realms of being a bad film, but annoyingly it’s not really that good either.

Nick’s rating: 6.4 out of 10