Monthly Archives: June 2014

Devil’s Knot (2013)

Devil's Knot

Perhaps the only way to enjoy Devil’s Knot is to go in to it not knowing anything about the real-life murder case it’s based on. The general consensus among those who already know the story, and who have already seen the documentary films examining the West Memphis Three, seems to be that Atom Egoyan’s dramatization is not only a waste of time, but also an insult to those who have worked tirelessly to uncover the truth.

As a straightforward crime-drama, the film suitably grips its audience, with lingering night shots and sounds being used to good effect. Reese Witherspoon handles the material well, doing her up-most to flesh out a slightly two dimensional depiction of Pamela Hobbs, mother of one of the young boys killed in the West Memphis murders of 1993. Her grief is undoubtedly the heart of the story, and this means that the turmoil of the teenagers haphazardly accused of the crime is arguably not handled with the intensity it deserves. Colin Firth is a bizarre choice for Ron Pax, the private detective hired by the defense to find holes in the case against Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., and yet he too is watchable.

It seems the main criticisms of the film stem from what little it does to differentiate itself from what has already been achieved in terms of exposing the contradictory facts and injustices surrounding the now infamous murders. It is true that the film’s narrative profundity leaves something to be desired, but in this way the story plays out as a kind of respectable re-enactment. It’s just a shame that every base that the Devil’s Knot most certainly hits, is one that has already been covered long before now.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Oculus (2013)

Oculus 2

Oculus gets top marks for tension. A claustrophic supernatural horror from writer and director Mike Flanagan, the film is a lesson in the importance of tight storytelling. Karen Gillan, of Dr Who fame, stars as Kaylie, a troubled but driven woman obsessed with proving that the mirror that hung in her childhood home was responsible for the psychosis of her father, Alan, and her mother, Marie.

Two timelines seamlessly interlink to form the story, as we follow Kaylie and her brother Tim as both children and adults. We witness the twisted events in the past that led up to Alan’s murder of his own wife, alongside Kaylie and Tim’s vain attempts in the present day to destroy the mirror that caused them so much pain. That two equally haunting stories are told together with such confidence, is what secures the success of Oculus. The acting is a little off at times, with Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan (the young Kaylie and Tim) definitely the stars of the show, and there is a little bit of frustration to be felt in the recklessness of adult Kaylie’s plan, which involves locking herself and her emotionally unstable brother in a house with the same piece of ghostly furniture that clearly drove her parents to furious insanity.

And yet, by the final act, the films proves itself worthy of praise, as it brings everything to a perfectly timed, blood-stained close, ending on a shocking note which ultimately strengthens the story’s power.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow should not work as well as it does. It stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, two actors who on paper promise the on-screen chemistry of a couple of potted plants. But, despite all the odds, these two make a powerfully entertaining duo. Matching oh-so-serious attitudes with a playfulness that lifts proceedings, the heroes of the film are consistently captivating.

I’d heard a couple of people liken this film to Source Code, a comparison which I can only put down to the fact that both play on the looping of short periods of time. In all other respects the films are quite different, and Edge of Tomorrow has, in my opinion, the far more compelling narrative. Set in the near future after an alien race named Mimics has taken over parts of Europe, the story follows cowardly Major William Cage (Cruise) who, by a twist of fate on the battlefield involving the consumption of Mimic blood, is doomed to repeat the same day of combat over and over. Desperate for answers, he seeks the help of Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Blunt), a war hero who knows more than she lets on, and the two begin a mission to track down the ‘Omega’, the hive mind of the alien force threatening humanity.

The script handles its themes of recurrence with effortless style and buoyancy, never once deflating or deviating too far from its central concerns. Surprisingly in tune with each other, Cruise and Blunt display a refreshingly confident handling of their characters’ relationship, and happily steer clear of the trappings of banal Hollywood romance. Focused and comical, Edge of Tomorrow is the perfect blockbuster: one which matches its superb action scenes with spirited acting, and wraps it all up in a run-time which doesn’t overstay its welcome.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A Million Ways to Die in the West

The humor of A Million Ways to Die in the West would be more suited to animation, where its persistently sarcastic and two-dimensional tone would be more at home. The film brandishes one lone joke of note, where lonely sheep farmer Albert Stark takes out a set of photos of himself and his ex-girlfriend to show his friends. In each one, taken at a different event such as the fair or a barn dance, the two of them stand in exactly the same position, with their heads pointed towards the camera, their arms rigidly at their sides, and austere expressions on their faces. This is funny, up until the point (seconds later to be exact) where the characters begin discussing how weird it would be to smile in a photo. “Imagine smiling in a photo”, “oh yeah, you’d look like a crazy person”. Thanks Seth, it’s good of you to make a point of an already obvious joke, just in case it had only been half-funny the first time.

And yet, even worse, is the way in which this one joke is then dragged through the Arizona dirt for the rest of the film’s duration. This kind of relentless circling and repetition may work in Family Guy, where awkwardness reigns supreme, but when used as a tool in live action, the effect is tiresome. Not sure of whether it wants to be an endless reel of postmodern gags, or an actual comedy-drama with genuine moments of tension and romance, A Million Ways to Die in the West slogs through its story with an inexorable amount strain, until the audience is left with a million examples of how not to tell a joke.

FINAL VERDICT: ★

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky

I don’t have a great long term memory. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. I get easily distracted, I phase out, and I don’t always hear people (or is it listen to them?) when they talk to me. It’s for this reason, I suppose, that my memories from childhood of all of the Studio Ghibli films are so skewed. It’s been both strange and amusing to piece together what little I sometimes remember of each animation before I rewatch it in adulthood. For example, with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (I know, not officially a Studio Ghibli film, but bear with me), all I recalled of it before I revisited it about a year ago was the steadfast and terrifying stare of the Ohmu, as herds of them trampled all in their path, charging in some unknown direction. For some reason, as a child watching these magnificent (but kind of gross) beasts, what had brought about their anger was of little importance to me. It was the anger – the blind rage – itself, condensed into the bright red of their eyes, which hypnotized me, and which remained with me as a potent image for years to come.

When it came to rewatching Laputa: Castle in the Sky last week, I found myself scrambling again for any memories I may have retained of the story from when I had last watched it, which I worked out must have been years ago. As I sat thinking about it, mulling over images of mossy robots, I was sure that most of the film’s action took place on the island of Laputa itself. As a child I had been completely transfixed by the magic of the greenery, the flowers, the rays of sunlight, and the birds. In my mind it was a film filled with moments of tranquility, of stillness. To those who know the film, you can imagine my surprise when I realised whilst sat watching, that the majority of the film (an hour and a half of the two hour run time) takes place away from the island. The story follows youngsters Pazu and Sheeta as they run from pirates, soldiers and secret agents, whilst simultaneously searching for a mysterious, floating utopia in the sky. Due to the greed and unflinching ambition of man, the two find themselves repeatedly chased and kidnapped. Unbeknownst to Pazu, Sheeta is the descendant of the people who once inhabited Laputa, and there are those who would stop at nothing in order to manipulate her ties to the island’s magic and gold.

What struck me most about the film on a rewatch was its many scenes of destructive violence. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that my memory of the story was contradictory to what actually happens. I had recalled some darkness, a feeling of uneasiness that swelled beneath the surface of remembered images, such as Pazu and Sheeta taking leisurely strolls through the grass of Laputa. But I had not recollected any particular moments of brutality. This meant that scenes such as those at the fortress of Tedis, where a captured Laputan robot bursts free from its cell and sets fire to the surrounding buildings in an attempt to save Sheeta, only to be gunned down and set ablaze itself by a monstrous airship, were truly distressing. This may sound pathetic to some, but even the sequence early on where the pirates chase Pazu and Sheeta along a railway which towers over the valley below, causing the entire structure to collapse into smithereens, was saddening to watch. Everything was familiar, of course, as is usually the case when you rewatch a film that you thought you’d mostly forgotten. But the images shocked all the same.

And yet, there is something to be said for the shock of violence, especially when it is animated. Too much of film violence nowadays reaches its viewer with a dose of apathy, cloaked in a kind of coolness which numbs its effect. I’m not about to go on a rant about the high levels of violence in film, far from it. But I do think it’s important to remember what horror, what utter dismay and dread, should be provoked by the sight of aimless destruction. What Hayao Miyazaki does, and does so well, in this and many of his other films, is show violence and destruction as very much the product of humanity’s manipulation of technology and mistreatment of nature. For example, it’s no accident, I believe, that Muska’s airship Goliath resembles the Ohmu from Nausicaa, especially in night scenes, with its staring lights and bug-like body. Both Goliath and the Ohmu are not inherently evil (Goliath is a ship after all), but both have the potential to wreak absolute havoc on those around them if controlled by the wrong person. Choices and actions are vital in Castle in the Sky; choosing when to use violence, and when not to. Consequently, the line between nature and technology is blurred (see: Laputa’s robots caring for plants and animals when left to their own devices), and what remains as most horrifying is man’s inability to take responsibility and choose a nonviolent path.

By the end of the film, Pazu and Sheeta must make the ultimate choice. They call upon destruction in order to prevent further violence. And in a twist of fate, after all of the intricate mechanics and weaponry of the island have fallen to the bottom of the ocean, the stone that magically kept everything in the clouds rises up into the roots of the trees on top, and lifts nature even higher and further away from humanity. Less of a shedding of technology (the robots remain), and more of a shedding of man’s selfish influence, the island loses its bottom half, and in the credits we see it floating in space. I like to think of this as an odd reflection of my own memory of the movie from childhood: conveniently shedding all thoughts of violence, and instead deciding to focus on the image of two youngsters befriending a robot, walking through endless greenery, and basking in the beauty of their environment.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

I’m Back!

Just a quick post to say that I’m sorry for being absent from Screenmuse for so long! A combination of high work load and some personal issues meant that I found it hard to focus on reviewing.

I will definitely be carrying on with my zombie project soon (a rewatch of Night of the Living Dead is in order), but in the meantime I’ll be posting two or three reviews that I’ve written recently. I got a Cineworld Unlimited card at the start of June, and so I’m hoping to start reviewing a lot more current films than I used to. Watch this space!

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