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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Cheap Thrills (Katz, 2013)

April 23rd 2014 04:15

A guy walks into a bar………………………and a thousand generic jokes take shape in parties the world over. But few come with a series of punchlines to match those supplied by Cheap Thrills, a blackly humourous tale of escalating stakes as desperate men lose control of their senses in pursuit of the carrots being dangled before their eyes. Craig (Pat Healy) is having one of those days: an eviction notice pinned to his front door is followed by the loss of gainful employment. He seeks the consoling taste of alcohol but in a down-and-outers bars he runs into an old school buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry). Vince is a debt collector of sorts, using his fists to beat small change out of those with little else to their name.

When a garrulous customer Colin (David Koechner) coaxes the pair into celebratory drinks for his wife and birthday girl Violet (Sara Paxton), cash starts getting recklessly thrown around. Colin wants entertainment for his young betrothed and with Craig and Vince as his designated monkeys, he writes all the rules, watching the pair perform tricks that increasingly place their welfare and dignity at risk. Reconvening back at the couple's opulent abode, Colin will also be testing any notions they have a moral or ethical line that might ever be crossed - and if so, in pursuit of what exactly?

Director E.L. Katz’s deliciously dark debut film, written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, will not be to all tastes. But this resonant dark parable, with its corrosive streak of nihilism, pushes the irrationality of an ordinary family man into a realm of believability. It’s all masterfully acted by a game cast, especially Healy and Embry as the chief combatants, beginning as old friends with buried grudges who are warped – some might say cartoonishly deployed - into nemeses for the mounting schlock carnage they can generate when dollar signs impede brain functioning. Paxton is slyly cast against type as the femme fatale here; she and Healy previously made a great pairing in Ti West’s superb supernatural drama The Innkeepers (2011). The closing moments of Cheap Thrills (2013) – it’s title both brutally and ironically representative of the film’s subject matter - cement its intoxicating allure, Craig striking a classic, bloodied final pose. A twisted minor classic to savour more than once.

Cheap Thrills is now out on DVD through Madman.


How I Live Now (Macdonald, 2013)

April 14th 2014 06:42

Though it bears strong similarities to recent Australian film Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010), Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now segregates a small group of young characters in a tranquil setting on the verge of disruption. A sullen, recently arrived young American, Daisy (Saiorse Ronan), sent to live with her cousins by her single-parent father, becomes the main focus as she reluctantly forges connections with her younger relations, including reticent eldest son Eddie (George Mackay) and middle son Isaac (Tom Holland). However, indicators of a looming threat becomes real with a nuclear blast destroying London and leaving the group to their own devices in the deep English countryside. Bereft of the adult figureheads who might devise a strategy for survival, they must instinctively figure out how to push onwards.

Macdonald is a fine filmmaker and though his latest film is curiously underwhelming it does have two fine assets. Ronan, the chameleonic young Irish actress able to adopt a variety of accents with equal conviction, is the first and most important. Even with a chip on her shoulder, Daisy retains our interest, a fleetingly used voices-in-the-head device employed to great effect in illuminating her troubled mind and the guilt associated with the death of her mother upon giving birth to her. The second is a strong visual perception of the world. Unlike other doomsday scenarios, such as John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) for example – perhaps the bleakest ever committed to film – How I Live Now uses the lush beauty and resplendent manifold colourations of the countryside to negate the implications of a nuclear attack and the shadow it casts over the narrative. A strong scene – though it’s the most obvious metaphor for a sensuous freedom about to curtailed – sees Eddie releasing the pet hawk he trains in the woods to the mercy of the gales; the pair watch on in amazement as it soars majestically, appropriately synching their initially frosty relationship at the same time.

In general terms, the plot is an undernourished one, boiling down to a placid love story between the initially cold, gradually defrosting Daisy and the less substantial Eddie who turns out to be a bit of a drip. They’re separated midway through the film as martial law is enacted, the girls sent to live in a communal home, whilst the young males are sequestered off-screen, horrible fates assumed for them all. Explicitness is withheld for the sake of propriety; don’t expect to see any gut-wrenching after effects or hideous examples of humanity reduced to its atavistic core here, as in Fernando Merelles’s Blindness (2008). This might have been a far more refreshing quality if the screenplay’s characterisations were strong enough to transcend the subject matter, elucidating their plight with some measure of profundity. Ronan’s strong work aside however, the drama feels meek and half-hearted, though not entirely uninteresting. Macdonald’s past work, both fiction – the best of which remains 2006’s The Last King of Scotland - and non-fiction, like 2003’s Touching the Void, has offered far more complexity however, and even if this aesthetically pleasing vision of post-nuclear separation based on Meg Rosoff’s novel is a mildly entertaining one, it’s not enough to save How I Live Now (2013) from holding its form in an anonymous middle ground.

How I Live Now is out on DVD and BluRay from Madman.


Julien Temple’s compelling documentary about a great modern city sifts back through more than a century of memories, opinions and impressions to construct a kinetic, kaleidoscopic reconstructive collage. From the earliest footage available of life in the once startlingly sparse metropolis, Temple begins to layer his film like a painting, but one approached systematically even as it dips freeform between countless cinema clips that illustrate parallel social ills or artfully emphasise points made by contributors. Very few of these are of the ‘talking head’ variety – a welcome approach that allows for an impressionistic flow to relay the overlapping of eras. Others are poetic narrations of poems and other sources as read by a multitude of well-known actors such as Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis. Each one evokes a poetic reverie that conveys the presence of haunted voices of yesteryear, lingering like ghosts of so many silently passing generations.

The phases of life and winds of change are vividly captured as London dealt with the brutal reality of war and its devastating aftermath. In later decades, beginning in the 40’s, an influx of ‘outsiders’ saw a revelatory shift in attitudes as a majority Anglo population faced co-habitation with people of differing creeds. Through snippets layered into the general mix of passing years, Temple’s film brilliantly elucidates the open hostility, suspicion and resentment of locals as West Indians, Indian and Irish immigrants began to grow in number, making life especially tough for those in the poorest sectors of the city. This integration however would ultimately help in solidifying the diverse foundation on which modern day London thrives in terms of its international reputation. But of course attendant racial tensions, still flaring with equal fervour today, are as deeply seated as anything else innately human, proving that, in some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Though looser in its definition of the documentary form - and all the better for it - London: The Modern Babylon (2012) offers captivating insights, and not just into the flowering of a single, sprawling entity. This is also about the transformation of life in general as man’s endeavours commit himself to rapid rates of progress and change whilst remaining resolutely indebted and encumbered by the deeds, sins and transgressions of a not always attractive past.

London: The Modern Babylon is now out on DVD through Madman.


Ginger and Rosa (Potter, 2012)

April 3rd 2014 01:51

20 Feet from Stardom (Neville, 2013)

March 26th 2014 03:43


Concussion (Sesson, 2013)

March 12th 2014 03:18

The Weight of Elephants (Borgman, 2013)

February 10th 2014 04:07

The Best Offer (Tornatore, 2013)

January 22nd 2014 02:33

47 Ronin (Rinsch, 2013)

January 20th 2014 04:56

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