Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Scott Cooper
Stars: Adam Beach, Ben Foster, Christian Bale, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, Q’orianka Kilcher, Rory Cochrane, Rosamund Pike, Stafford Douglas, Tanaya Beatty, Timothée Chalamet, Wes Studi, Xavier Horsechief
Released: January 5th, 2018
There are opening scenes and then there is the opening scene to Hostiles. Why do people treat one another the way we have for all of history? This is the question the opening sequence within director Scott Cooper’s (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) latest brutally forces us to ponder. The United States, since its inception in 1776, has only not been in conflict with itself or another country for a total of eighteen years. Why are we like this? What is it in our human nature that allows us to always be at odds with others and their inclinations? It’s a fascinating and broad mentality to deconstruct, but dammit if Cooper doesn’t try his darndest in what is itself a seeming deconstruction of the classic American Western. Maybe it’s the fact I haven’t seen as many classic Westerns as I should in order to be able to understand where Hostiles goes wrong in its breaking down of the mythos of the old west, but for what it’s worth, Cooper’s film feels pure in its intent to accurately portray this time period and the dynamics that existed in as honest a fashion as possible-no matter how gruesome and no matter who comes out looking worse. This opening sequence then, which I won’t go into detail about here, is an immediate and gut-wrenching reminder of the fact hate is often one in the same no matter where it comes from, but is often not seen as hate from the perspective from which it comes. In Hostiles, Cooper examines all the complexities of war and the purpose of the meanings behind words like honor and courage while stripping them down to not so much the definitions we’ve come to immediately relate to such words, but more the intent behind them. It’s a rather simple suggestion, a simple consensus to come to even, but as history has shown us there is typically a lot of bloodshed and a lot of lives lost in the process of trying to come to such a consensus. And so, Cooper communicates these simple, but resounding themes through a straightforward story that is executed with the scope of that grand American Western. Channeling this idea that somewhere along the lines of history we found war to be the most effective tool of persuasion into a narrative that is able to say much more with the implications of the events it documents rather than serving as an excuse for an adrenaline rush via the shootouts or misplaced pride in whatever side you might genetically fall, but more in being an understanding of the value of life and how much of it has been lost over what comes down to little more than inconsequential details.
Beginning with a D.H. Lawrence quote that states, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” One might guess what direction this is heading, but one also has to wonder with what perspective this statement is coming from as well as Lawrence only lived in the United States from 1922 to 1925 or so and went on many extended vacations during that time. Lawrence was in fact only a young boy, seven-years-old to be exact, when the events in Hostiles are said to be taking place and so, while Lawrence wasn’t specifically talking about the men that we see in this film it is evident he saw something in the nature and in the spirit of those he came in contact with during his time establishing the Kiowa Ranch in Taos, New Mexico that inspired him to write such words about the nation. That said, Lawrence also seemed to despise the lower classes and felt the need to rid society of them, so take all of this with a grain of salt if you’d like. The point being, Lawrence’s quote is meant to enlist a state of mind about the embodiment of these characters we’re about to go on a journey with. It is meant to create an aura around other characters so that, upon being introduced to them, we already have a good sense of what occupies their head space. Set in New Mexico in 1892, thirty years post-Civil War, Cooper picks up with Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), regarded for “taking more scalps than Sitting Bull himself,” who is enlisted as a kind of “last act to ensure retirement” to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief and his family who have been prisoners of the U.S. for over seven years back to their tribal lands. Telling is the fact that immediately following the aforementioned opening sequence Cooper cuts to Blocker and his men torturing an Apache as his wife and young child stand idle by, unable to do anything but scream in terror. It’s not nearly as devastating as what unfolds in the first five minutes of the film, but as this Native American is pulled along the ground by a horse over rough terrain for no reason other than to treat this fellow man with disregard, it is clear the position the film is taking and the lack of juxtaposition between what are meant to be soldiers who uphold the law and basic civility and that of Comanche renegades is intentionally striking. The fact Bale’s Blocker is at the head of this wrangling also tells us the initial disposition of his character which, when paired with the image conjured by the Lawrence quote, doesn’t exactly paint a picture of an individual who would find no qualms in protecting what he has clearly come to despise. Of course, if Blocker wasn’t initially prejudice against the Native Americans there would be no arc for his character and no satisfaction in the narrative and thus we are on this journey not only to ensure that Blocker completes his task successfully, but that he naturally learns something in the process as well.
Blocker puts together his detail in Rory Cochrane’s Master Sgt. Thomas Metz, a soldier who is at the end of his line; exhausted and conflicted. Having seen so much and no doubt done much worse, the violence has taken an untold toll on the Master Sgt. as he can’t help but to be unable to reconcile all he’s been commanded to do in his life. Jonathan Majors is Corp. Henry Woodsen, the only African-American in Blocker’s detail though this fact isn’t highlighted or exploited for any cheap shots. Rather, Woodsen maintains the respect he deserves by exemplifying his skill throughout. It is one of the best scenes in the film when Bale and Woodsen, in a moment of vulnerability, allow each of their facades to fall and their sincere gratitude to come through. Jesse Plemons is West Point graduate Lt. Rudy Kidder who is in charge of provisions and, given they don’t get too many “West Point types” out this far, is also out to prove his worth. Finally, there is Timothée Chalamet’s Pvt. Philippe DeJardin who is a new arrival with less than ideal experience that wasn’t chosen by Blocker specifically, but rather Stephen Lang’s Col. Abraham Biggs who has tasked Blocked with this undesirable duty. This was obviously shot in the midst of Chalamet working on his two other breakout films this year as Hostiles takes very little advantage of the young actor’s charisma, though the remainder of the supporting cast being so steeped in talent lend this dark yet sturdy picture a resonance it can’t help but to generate. Bale is particularly affecting despite it being made clear early that his character is something of an asshole. Shortly after leaving the site in New Mexico to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher who played Pocahontas alongside Bale’s John Rolfe in 2005’s The New World), and their son Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), as well as the Chief’s daughter, Moon Deer (Tanaya Beatty), to sacred Cheyenne territory in Montana known as “The Valley of the Bears” the company comes across a residence that has been burned to the ground with only Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) remaining. It is in the moments shortly after the first encounter between Blocker and Quaid that Bale demonstrates his character’s unexpected sympathy and ability to deftly handle the delicate situation in which he has encountered. Bale conveying much of what was on the page in mannerisms and glances that speak volumes to this hardened Captain’s softer interiors. Pike is equal in her performance throughout as she commands we stay with her in every moment no matter how hard we might want to look away. No matter the context or surrounding circumstances, what we witness Pike’s character and no doubt countless Native American wives and mothers, who had to deal with the same type of heartbreak, go through is unacceptable only reinforcing the larger theme imbued by Cooper and purposefully begging the question, over and over, of why must we treat others the way we do and have for so long?
In framing these events the way Cooper does we are understanding to the way in which Bale and his company of men react to even the sight of Native Americans, no matter the tribe. With the key understanding that not all tribes were “rattlesnake people” such as the Comanche’s are portrayed to be, we also understand how large a role provocation played in the way in which many of these Native American tribes were forced to react to the white settlers. Hostiles is a constant back and forth of differing views that seeks to find the smallest patch of common ground even if it doesn’t realize that’s what it’s longing for. Hostiles is a violent movie, one draped in the blood of all that dare venture onto its wide plane, but as Cooper attempts to slyly suggest a plea for change among an onslaught of actions that only seem detrimental to the human race a more well-rounded picture of why this plea feels so authentic comes into view. Cooper loves the soul of this time period, these never ending frontier’s, the grit in each man’s teeth, each particle of dust on each man’s hat and he is sure to capture this scale and soulfulness in the open locations as rendered by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey). The serenity of such wide landscapes and stark color differences directly conflicting with the rage inside so many of the characters. Further, Cooper then uses these familiar images and the well-worn traditions of the genre to steep the audience in what we believe we’re getting ourselves into while dealing with the truth of these times in a way the pictures of the fifties and sixties weren’t willing to admit. It is Cochrane’s character and that of a smaller supporting turn by Ben Foster (always the reliable scumbag) that emphasizes the line each man walks between being the best version of himself and his own worst enemy. “We’re all guilty of something,” Foster’s character says at one point, “I’m just asking for mercy.” This comes just prior to Foster’s prisoner asking Bale’s Blocker who he’s become. It’s a moment that makes one sit up, makes one contemplate all sides of the argument, and forces one to evaluate the ideas of change, of absolutes, and of what can be done in an effort to correct moving forward rather than stay stagnate in this hell-like cycle that pushes men to the point they are unable to feel anything, much less the capability to come to terms with they’ve done and, in the end, moreover why they’ve done it. Blocker coming to the understanding his job has essentially become that of taking the life of another man. All of this would seem to indeed embody those words written by Lawrence so long ago, yet just as he is doing with the Western genre, Cooper deconstructs the myth of the American soul-not necessarily disagreeing with what has been said, but adding layers to it. This unabashed truth might make Hostiles hard to swallow for some, and it drags intermittently as it seems it was always destined to do, but with as strong an ensemble as on display and Cooper’s sensibilities applying themselves intrinsically to this world Hostilesis ultimately as strong and gut-wrenching a film as that opening scene would indicate it to be.
The Little Stranger ★★★★
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.
Released: 21st September 2018
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.
Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.
From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.
The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.
The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain. This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.
Released: 19th October 2018
Directed By: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Marcello Fonte
Reviewed By: Rhys Handley
Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.
But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.
When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.
Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.
To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.
In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.
Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.
Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.
An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.
Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.
No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.
Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience
Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.
Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.
Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.
There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.
Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.
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