Dragonslayer (2011)

Dragonslayer1Directed by Tristan Patterson, Dragonslayer is a wonderfully tragic film, yet one that is filled with youthful joy and carelessness. Dragonslayer follows twenty-something skateboard bum Josh ‘Skreech’ Sandoval, as he follows his dream skating in competitions and backyard bowls of Southern California.

Along with his girlfriend, Skreech and the rest of his mates have a pretty good life on the surface; hanging out all day skating, entering competitions and getting wasted. The tragedy, however, comes when Skreech’s dream gets lost within the harsh reality of his life. With a young son, and a developing drug addiction, Skreech finds it hard to break free from his skater lifestyle, he also doesn’t see doing anything else as an option. Skating is his life.

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Skreech doing what he does best.

Skreech flies out to Malmö, Sweden for a competition, and things begin to look up. He begins to take on the underdog ‘anti-hero’ persona who would eventually prove everyone wrong. This glory is short lived however, when we realise the full extent of his family problems and life, things begin to look like a vicious circle with no end in sight.

This film is shot PERFECTLY.

Hats off to director Tristan Patterson for the pure stylistic elements of this production. Each scene has it’s own ‘intro’ clip, which features brash, hardcore punk music teamed with big, white, bold lettering telling the name of the scene. All this against the backdrop of sunny Californian skater life. At times the film can be difficult, with the intense emotional disturbances in Skreech’s life, and sometimes, as a viewer, we want him to succeed more than anything. Patterson’s visual stylings really ease out the subject matter in a kind of DIY punk kind of way, it’s shot so casually and carefree, yet it looks the part.

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Tristan Patterson.

‘Slacker’ culture.

This is not to point fingers, but to merely admire the simplicity of the amateur skateboarder’s life – skateboarding was my life from the age of about 11 to 18 – Dragonslayer is an insight to the day-to-day lifestyle of skaters, and while every subculture gets its ‘hangers on’, there is something very Zen about practising your discipline day in, day out.

From quiet meditations over beer and weed, to tearing up backyard bowls in the heat of the day. You could say Dragonslayer is a snapshot of perfection. You could also say it is an outgrown, teenage mess that needs cleaning up. Either way, you’d have to experience it first.

Lincoln: A realist work of art or a concept gone to waste?

By Tom Hodgson.

As I sat down to watch ‘Lincoln’ this weekend, I had a number of expectations running through my mind. The main one being from the hype surrounding Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in his role as the president, and then there was my excitement at an American Civil War film. Studying American Literature as one of my modules back at university, I have since been heavily interested in all events surrounding and after the war. Despite this interest, there are very few films I have actually seen on the Civil War, so I was excited for Lincoln. This was a fresh genre for me film-wise, and I gathered I knew enough about the general era to get the most out of it. But what I didn’t know about it, is that they spent so much damn time talking!

Deep Focus – Flashback to the French.

Yes 98% of this film was made up of conversations between Lincoln and his various fellow politicians and hangers-on. If I’m brutally honest, it kind of disappointed me as I was continuously looking for some action scenes. I don’t mean ‘A-Team’ style, no I have taste, I just mean any action other than talking. I was hoping for more ‘Gangs of New York’ type scenery and insights into the era.

One peculiar technique in the style of shooting I noticed, however, left me with a little bit of hope for the remaining 2 hours of the film. I realised that, in most of the conversation scenes that took place in small interiors or even hallways and busy rooms, were shot with an interesting deep-focus technique. Now I recognised this from my Film Theory undergrad days, looking back to a viewing of Jean Renoir’s ‘La Règle du Jeu’ (1939).

The famous French realist film notoriously uses deep-focus to create a sense of everything in the shot being in focus. The effect of this is that when you’re viewing a film, you can kind of get a sense that you’re actually inside the very interior setting in the shot, with the deep-focus giving you free will to look almost anywhere. I think this is down to the fact that when you’re in a room full of people, your eyes won’t necessarily stay fixation on one focal point, you’ll probably have a good look around, meaning that you’ll be looking at all four corners of the room. Spielberg’s use of this technique – purposefully or not – means that you, as an audience, are free to ‘have a good look around’. This gives quite an intimate feeling to the film, but can also feel quite claustrophobic at times. This voyeuristic approach to the camerawork may be why so many people are getting the feeling that ‘it’s a real insight to the president’s life’.

'Can we please just talk about it?'
‘Can we please just talk about it?’

The Performance.

Dismissing all of the criticism I have just dished out, Daniel Day-Lewis did in fact put in a phenomenal performance as Abraham Lincoln, and I can’t imagine how any other actor could’ve stepped up to the plate. But does it take it away from being a very ‘flat’ film? Unfortunately not. Lincoln seems to me like a film made for the masses, made for Oscars. I found myself almost cringing at some points because I just thought, ‘c’mon Steve, is this really what you wanted to make?’. I think risk-taking and artistic expression goes a long way in film-making, and I don’t think Spielberg’s heart was in this. This is my point of view as an Englishman though, I’d like to know what American film buffs thought of it.

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So honestly, I wouldn’t recommend this film. The only 2 reasons I can think of that might make someone want to watch it are Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance – which wasn’t groundbreaking, but subtly nicely done – and an example of a film shot using deep-focus. I don’t really think those are good enough reasons to pay £8 for a cinema ticket or whatever it costs around the world.

I’d love to know what other thought of this film, as people I’ve talked to have said similar things to me.

Django Unchained – Tarrantino’s Ode To The Timeless Black Hero.

By now, most of you will have seen Quentin Tarratino’s latest masterpiece, ‘Django Unchained’, you may have even seen it multiple times. I’m not going to talk about how much of a brave, daring film this was to make, or how awesome it was that Tarrantino managed to pull it off in a tasteful, correct way, so let’s just presume that you’ve read the reviews, praised the actors and admired the spaghetti western take on slavery. I’m going to try to shed some new light – hopefully – on this modern classic, in true Dharma Junk style.

The Historical Black Hero through the ages.

The first thing that struck me was Tarrantino’s ‘Black hero’ angle. I honestly wondered how he was going to do this, and was it going to work? At first it was all going a bit ‘Roots’, and although Christopher Waltz was putting in another exceptional performance, I was a bit worried about how the slaves were about to be portrayed. This was Tarrantino though, and so I just sat back in the cinema, and trusted that it would all unfold in the right way; and oh how it did.

It soon became clear that Django was a slave from 1858, who had just been freed, but also, beneath that, he was also the iconic Black hero from every other decade after that point in time. We can’t fault Tarrantino for doing this, in fact, breaking the barriers of reality to bring us a timeless, post-modern hero was one of the most defining points of the film.

From the minute he claimed the hat and jacket of his former slave owner, he had the demeanour of Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party.

Complete with his goatee, and later his bright blue outfit, he became a rudimentary version of ‘Shaft’. The way Jamie Foxx carries himself as Django, with his likeable yet arrogant strut and his I’ll-take-what-I-want-because-I-think-I-damn-well-deserve it stare, effectively builds up this idea of an invincible protagonist out to set the record straight.  The brash costumes worn by Django and carefree attitude only strengthens this comparison to the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s. Also, who could forget the revenge aspect of the film? We know that Django is about to embark on a violent rampage, and this illuminates his character and highlights him as a superhero, not far from Shaft. In fact, in researching this film in relation to the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s, I did find a quote from Tarrantino in which he said that:

”Broomhilda von Shaft and Django from his movieDjango Unchained are intended as the great-great-great-great grandparents of John Shaft, from the Shaft movie series.”

– Quentin Tarrantino, Comic-con 2012.

The soundtrack to Django Unchained is unrivalled power-music. The silhouette of our protagonist Django is often matched with a gradually building, revolutionary score, which carries our man to his chosen destination of revenge. When the track, ‘Freedom’ plays, we see a montage of Django and Broomhilda sprinting across the fields, escaping imprisonment of the plantation.  Cut back to present with a crack of John Briddle’s whip, and in an echo of  a ‘Kill Bill’ battle scene warm up, we have our hero set up for action.

I sometimes feel that, on a tangent, you could replace these songs and building moments of tension and revenge, with tracks like Isaac Hayes’ ‘Walk on by’, or Grover Washington Jr’s ‘Inner City Blues’. In fact, this shot of Washington could be a future relation of Django:

A Hero Unchained.

So what does this mean? Well what I think makes Django such a great, believable and effectively ruthless protagonist, is that, as you can see from the examples above, he is based upon so many real Black heroes and icons of modern times. This could’ve been a film about a guy in the 60’s fighting in riots and protesting for equality, set to the sound of Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. It could be set in present day even, remember Rick Ross’s ‘100 Black Coffins’ in the scene where Django cockily struts around on horseback? Or the shootout scene in Candyland at the very end?

The truth is that there are many reasons why this film works and why it is yet again, another one of Tarrantino’s masterpieces – The Mandingo fights could’ve come straight out of the blindfolded boxing scene of Ralph Ellison’s classic American novel ‘The Invisible Man’, and the plantations and Black community from Zora Neal Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ – but at the backbone of this really strong production, is the timeless Black hero that is Django. From the cowboy boots to the tilted hat, the goatee to the outrageously bright clothes, Django is an underdog hero that is universally recognised and enjoyed in both culture and cinema alike.

 

ARGO see it.

Ben Affleck’s latest offering sees him take the director’s role along with the protagonist’s; just like previous hit 2010’s ‘The Town’. Far from East coast bank robbery and everyday characters,  ‘Argo’ tackles a much bigger issue, on a much bigger scale.

Argo is based on the true story of CIA officer Tony Mendez’s plan to rescue 6 US diplomats stuck in Iran, by way of ‘faking’ a Hollywood Sci-Fi film. Affleck, along with rising star Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly) and a host of other, moustache sporting agents, set off to take their plan and their prisoners.

First of all, I must warn you: it IS 1979. Argo isn’t just set periodically; but it is from another time. Moustaches, beards and dull tweed suits make this a very drab, dingy looking film. 70’s architecture is shown in all it’s concrete, post-nuclear glory. The detail in the CIA offices will remind you of scenes from old cop films, with stereotypically work-obsessed agents and officers barking at each other; which is a nice touch. Where this may seem like a parody or mock-up, it’s actually a very believable and direct look for Argo, and tends to feel as though we are in the 70’s and looking forward; rather than back.

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‘Action! Wait, where’s this Ben Affleck guy? Oh yeah…’

There are points in Argo where the street violence in Iran switches from TV report snippets to ‘real-life’ action, this gives it an edge of realism as we are thrown back to remember the media rush of the time, but to also be kept in the present and root for our heroes.

For those of you who know the story of Argo, or even the story of the rescue mission; all is not lost for surprises. Argo packs twists and tension throughout, as I’m sure Affleck has put a massive spin on the story to make it more entertaining. This only makes it better.

Past the massive storyline, action and 70’s realism, is a little hint of What I like to call ‘Spielberg/Lucas’ magic.  We get that feeling of ‘the birth of the blockbuster’. Argo just feels as if someone has rolled up Star Wars/ET/The Goonies and made a great big magical, blockbuster pie. Whilst this may be a personal reflection, and you may think I’m bonkers; I really do get that sense of ‘Film’ from Argo, and how Hollywood was about to be reborn in the form of the Blockbuster movie. When the Americans get rescued, it’s like the ending of The Goonies, and a good happy ending is hard to achieve these days without being too cheesy.

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You really can’t argue with the set design/costumes.

All in all, Argo isn’t just another brick in the wall, it’s a brilliant piece of film making and you should definitely check it out!

Killing Them Softly

‘America I have given you all and now I’m nothing’ – Allen Ginsberg, ‘America’

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg caught on pretty early, to the fact that America was a place that had fast become a superpower, but it’s people weren’t playing along. Andrew Dominik’s new film, ‘Killing Them Softly’, is a gritty, guts ‘n’ all, modern take on the underworld of American crime and the fall of a nation.

Set in an unnamed East coast town – probably Boston due to the strong accent from protagonist Frankie (Scoot McNairy) – the story kicks off with a couple of small-time crooks Frankie and Russell, the latter a sweaty, disgusting junkie that we are immediately supposed to detach ourselves from. They are being set up on a job to stick up a poker game by their contractor, ‘Squirrel’. These games are hosted by Markie Trattman, (Ray Liotta) and one recently got held-up. Unknowingly to the big-time players in attendance, this was Trattman’s doing, he pocketed the money and never got busted. These games are quite a regular occurrence, and a few months down the line, Trattman’s secret is revealed. With Trattman now the immediate suspect, the idea of busting his poker games now becomes wide open for all manner of small-time crooks.

Our two cowardly ‘protagonists’.

KTS is set sometime around the presidential election of 2008, with interlaced billboard shots, tv shows and radio broadcast snippets decorating the film. Yet stylistically this film looks like the 1970’s. Cadillacs, Capris and old beat up bars. The characters sport slimy faces and greased back hair, dirty parkas and leather jackets. Even Brad Pitt’s character ‘Jackie Cogan’ is a gentle, but obviously evil modern-day cowboy. Jackie’s unbuttoned shirt, gold rings, tinted sunglasses and goatee are straight from a time where disco, rock ‘n’ roll and sleaziness would fit right in. This touch may be a nod to the 70’s novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’, upon which this film was based, it might also be a another sentiment of the careless America that does what it wants. Either way, it paints a bleak picture of the greasy, dirty underground life of small-town crooks.

You’ll find yourself getting angry that scenes like this could actually take place. Brilliant manipulative film making.

Dominik mastered diegetic sound perfectly in KTS. In a scene where two cars are meeting each other, one car is parked up, with the radio sounding out an election debate about the economy. As we see and hear this, a second car slowly creeps into the frame, also with the same radio station on. For a few seconds, the sounds play simultaneously, only slightly out of sync, then the first car turns the radio off and the second car continues the broadcast. This has to be seen – and heard – to be appreciated! This unique use of sound is continued throughout the production, including mumbling background conversations being slightly louder than they should be to create a sense of ultimate realism.

Use of unconventional, extended shots makes Killing Them Softly a unique experience.

A hidden gem in this film is James Gandolfini’s role as ‘New York Mickey’, an alcoholic, delusional sex addict who seems intensely afraid and jealous of a vaguely mentioned wife or girlfriend figure. Mickey is another character we love to hate, and just as he embodies the classic male afraid of a woman’s success and empowerment; he equally displays a reflection of America’s downfall due to man’s weakness of greed and power.

Any sympathy for emotionally damaged ‘New York Mickey’ is kept well at bay by his selfish, over-indulgent lifestyle.

This ultra-realist, gritty crime film is a fresh take on the over-cooked gangster genre; just make sure you get the chance to see this one while it’s still in cinemas.

The Lowdown on Lawless.

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There are two questions one must ask themselves when watching the summer Blockbuster ‘Lawless’, and they are ‘How many times can Shia Labeouf get punched in the face?’ and ‘How many times can Tom Hardy die and come back to life?’ The answer to both is: a lot.

This Prohibition-era, hill-billy hoe down is a tale of two brothers, (Forrest – Hardy, and Jack – LaBeouf) They are both moonshiners, who sell and export their drink to nearby villages, parties and small-time crooks. What basically happens is that they have a few run ins with criminals and the law, before stuff starts to get serious.

At this point, LaBeouf is being pounded like a ragamuffin, smacked in the face here, throw down some stairs there, all the while being rescued by his big brother Forrest, who proceeds to knock people’s faces off with his trusty knuckleduster.

The attention to detail on clothing, sets and the general realism of the characters is actually pretty damn good. If the story is lacking, the acting will allow you to not dwell too deep into that fact.

As Forrest and Jack plan to expand their business and production of the moonshine, the opposition (a combination unofficial, bent cops and gangsters), begins to get more serious on the pursuit. Charlie Rakes, (Guy Pearce puts in a great performance here), is a perfume wearing, hair slicked-back slime ball, obsessed with the idea of shutting down the brothers’ distillery. He proceeds to beat up Jack (LaBeouf) some more (naturally), and generally creeps his way into the brothers’ village every other day, making threats. He reminds me of when Christoph Waltz played Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, just not as good. That’s a compliment to Waltz not a knock to Pearce, the role was played brilliantly.

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Charlie: Time to get Even-Stevens on that boy. Again.

Now what I should mention here is the Tom Hardy death phenomenon. Hardy, as Forrest, gets his throat cut open from ear to ear and is left for dead by the crooks, he proceeds to hold together his throat and lay on the floor for about twenty minutes before he is rescued by Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and taken to the hospital. He sports a pretty massive scar with stitches for about 4 scenes and then it just disappears. He later gets shot about eight times in the body, which he obviously survives, and gets stabbed. On a flash forward to the forties, we see a drunken Forrest fall into an ice-cold lake through a sheet of ice. About time, we think, but no, Forrest survives this as well and shows that his invincibility lasts way into his old age.

It’s definitely worth a watch, just for the shock factor of the gory bits – some I’ve left out – and the realism. What I didn’t mention is that Jason Clarke puts in a good performance as the brother’s friend Howard, a sort of underdog character, who becomes likeable in the end.

For fans of: Boardwalk Empire, Inglorious Basterds, (and at times) The Village

Rise of The Planet of The Apes (2011)

In this installment of the now excessive saga of ‘Apes’ films, there seems to be some confusion over the title of the production. One would approach this film expecting the planet in question to be overruled and run by apes. This is not the case; in fact a few more suitable titles for this film would be ‘Ape Escape’, ‘Monkey Mayhem’ or even ‘Forty chimps cause a slight disturbance on one bridge in San Fransisco.’ To say the least, the geographical scale of the ‘Rise’ was slightly disappointing.

The narrative centres around biologist Will (James Franco), and his obsession with curing his father’s Alzheimer’s disease. He takes home a newborn chimp one day to bond and work with the animal, after an incident killed it’s mother. The chimp, ‘Ceaser’, has the medicine ‘112’  in his bloodstream which was passed onto him from his pregnant mother. Will bonds with the monkey and generally treats him like a son for about five years, until he attacks a pedestrian whom he sees as a threat to Will’s father.

What happens next is basically the ‘Rise’. The monkey gets put in an institution, where he is treated badly by the ‘tough guy’ supervisor – who annoyingly is played by Tom Felton, better known for portraying that wuss wizard ‘Draco Malfoy’ in the Harry Potter series – the monkeys then break out, head to the zoo, round-up some more chimps, attack police on the Golden Gate bridge for about twenty minutes and then it all simmers down to an emotional meeting of Will and Ceaser. As we realise that Ceaser now wants to live in the wild, and as we see that there is no hard feelings between him and Will; the anti-climax unfolds.

Almost worth it to see these two bond throughout the film. Almost.

This films only saving grace is James Franco’s performance as a scientist who cares about animals, his relationship with Ceaser is realistic and well portrayed. The film’s most annoying part is undoubtedly when that idiot from Harry Potter uses the original Ape’s film’s famous line, ‘Take your stinkin’ paws of me you damned dirty ape’ , to which a hundred people simultaneously wished the ape would reply, ‘stop ruining good films you damned dirty wizard’.

Tom Felton – Minor annoyance

This film was disappointing, and only worth going to see if you are a big James Franco fan, as he delivered a good performance and played a very likeable character. To make a small improvement here; go see the original.