square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Best Films of 2016

•December 31, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The end of the year can only mean only thing on square-eyed-geek: Top Ten time. It’s been another great year for films, making it harder than ever to whittle my list down to just ten brilliant ones that stood out amongst everything else. But whittle I did… Same rules as previous years apply – films included in the list had to have a 2016 release date in the UK. So get ready to peruse my countdown of the best this year had to offer…

10. Adult Life Skills

Adult Life Skills (2016)

Rachel Tunnard’s impressive first feature film not only stood out because of its brilliantly realistic cast of female characters, but also because of its beautiful, touching story. Jodie Whittaker excels as the girl struggling to become a fully fledged adult, something made all the more difficult by still living in her Mum’s (Lorraine Ashbourne) garden shed. Writer-director Tunnard handles every moment with care to create a film that is excellently funny and stunningly poignant in equal measure.

9. The Witch

The Witch (2015)

One of the most terrifying horror films of 2016, and barely a jumpscare to be found. A New England family find themselves plagued by disturbing occurrences that may or may not be linked to witchcraft, their paranoia gradually growing as the family begin to fall apart. A quiet yet deeply unnerving film that builds to a chilling conclusion, it also contains more than one nightmarish moment that will stick in your mind for a long, long time.

8. Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

This western doesn’t seem like much at first, it’s unassuming plot simply involving a group of men setting out to free some locals taken captive by nasty, cannibalistic beings. However once the story really gets going it soon becomes an incredibly intense ride, as well as a horror of sorts with some shockingly gory moments. And with an excellent central turn as the Sheriff on the trail, Kurt Russell proved he really was worthy of that comeback crown after his other superb role in The Hateful Eight.

7. Krisha

Krisha (2015)

With semi-improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances (with several members of the cast actually related to each other in real life) and a free-flowing camera that takes in the action rather than dictates it, Trey Edward Shults’ film has a palpable realism throughout – a realism that ensures it packs a punch in the right moments. Set during a family reunion in which the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild – riveting throughout) starts to slowly lose her grip on herself and everything that is happening around her, Shults’ film is hilarious at times, but also impressively dark and moving.

6. The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (2015)

While some bemoaned the slow narrative, use of just one location and lack of his usual stylistic flourishes, this is Quentin Tarantino’s most mature film to date, and one that gets better with each viewing. That slow build only serves to make what follows more gripping and impactful, with the writer-director’s flair for dialogue, plot and pacing filling the time perfectly and taking you on what feels like a sprawling journey when we barely leave the one room. Add to that some superb performances from an amazing ensemble cast, and the result is one of Tarantino’s greatest films…for now anyway.

5. Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

While this sequel started in the usual comic book way, what soon followed was a complex plot that thrillingly twisted and turned, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats. Yet the Russo Brothers didn’t lose sight of the fun aspect of the Marvel universe, giving us yet more amazing set pieces, choreographed fights, and laughs-a-plenty, plus new character additions (the long awaited Black Panther and a brilliant new incarnation of a certain webbed superhero) to ensure we were more than entertained, and to make this one of the best Marvel films we’ve seen so far. The bar for what’s to follow has been set very high indeed.

4. Victoria

Victoria (2015)

This incredible film is genuinely captivating from start to finish, something that is firstly achieved by the astounding fact it was shot in one single take – a technically marvellous method to watch unfold, but also a technique that adds a raw excitement rarely seen in any other films. Yet Victoria isn’t on this list simply for that reason. An intense ride that puts you right alongside the titular Victoria and the other characters as they get mixed up in something they shouldn’t, the story zips by at a breathless pace and barely stops for the whole running time. Filmmaking at its very best.

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

The funniest film of the year, yet surprisingly also the most heart-warming. Writer-director Taika Waititi pulls us into the eccentric world of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), “a real bad egg” who suddenly finds adventure calling when he meets his new foster family. However Waititi grounds the story with a beautiful poignancy, specifically with the great, realistic central relationship between Ricky and his gruff Uncle Hec (Sam Neill – perfect). With a superb conclusion worthy of any Hollywood action sequence, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is unpredictable in the best way, endlessly quotable, and more importantly an absolute joy to watch.

2. Mustang

Mustang (2015)

A stunning, devastating tale about a group of sisters kept indoors because of their gender and a misunderstanding, Mustang was one of the most powerful films of 2016 and absolutely essential viewing because of its subject matter. Director-writer Deniz Gamze Ergüven and writer Alice Winocour explore gender and culture issues in an absorbing, moving way, with the performances from the young central female cast all brilliantly realistic and making what follows all the more distressing. You’ll be fighting back tears in the end.

1. American Honey

American Honey (2016)

With its sumptuous cinematography, naturalistic performances, thumping soundtrack and sweeping story about a girl (Sasha Lane) joining a group of young magazine sellers on a road trip, American Honey wasn’t just a film you watched: it was something you experienced alongside its characters. A coming-of-age film that also features clever commentaries on the myth of the American dream and the rich-poor divide, writer-director Andrea Arnold ensures our attention is gripped with every frame, in a poetic film that is genuinely thrilling to watch. A cinematic gem that will stay with you for a long time.

(Those that just missed out on the top ten: Ethel & Ernest, Room, Train to Busan, Green Room, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, Star Trek Beyond, Julieta, 10 Cloverfield Lane).

So that’s it for another year. 2017 already looks like it’ll be another brilliant time for all things film, with releases such as La La Land, Alien: Covenant, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Silence, Dunkirk, Star Wars: Episode VIII, Manchester by the Sea and Thor: Ragnarok on the horizon, as well as many, many more. Happy New Year lovely readers! And see you over in 2017…

(Agree or disagree with any of my choices in the top ten? Think I’ve missed anything out? Leave a comment below to tell me what you think!).

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X-Men: Apocalypse – Third time certainly isn’t the charm for Singer’s disastrous sequel

•November 7, 2016 • Leave a Comment

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

“At least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst,” says one of the young X-Men after seeing Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) – just one of the many references Bryan Singer scatters throughout X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) to firmly cement his film in its 80s setting. Upon watching this though it becomes clear that never a truer word has been spoken about Singer’s latest sequel as well, and sadly not just because this is the third prequel of the franchise.

A promising story about the all-powerful first mutant in existence, audiences have been eagerly awaiting this sequel ever since it was teased in an intriguing post-credits sequence at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). With a hatred for humanity and the ability to destroy the world, an interesting introduction to the origins of this deadly character seems to set us up for a rollercoaster ride of a film. Instead what we get is a dull trite affair that is a carbon copy of EVERY other comic book and superhero film and yet somehow manages to be more boring than all of these put together.

Storm (Alexandra Shipp) helps Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) recruit other mutants...

After all that waiting, Apocalypse is neither impressive or particularly menacing as a villain, with Oscar Isaac’s performance hidden beneath heavy make-up and a cumbersome costume that actually seems to hinder his movements. The character also doesn’t actually add much to the plot, with most of the running time consisting of him gathering up other mutants to fight for him, while the X-men do their usual thing – train, argue with each other, reconcile, and just generally trudge along until the inevitable final battle.

The one glaring mistake alongside this lack of plot is the absence of backstory for any of the characters, old or new. None of them are really explored, with the most iconic and conflicted characters either given a brief yet underwhelming origins scene (Scott Summers played by Tye Sheridan), reduced to simple and painful comic relief (Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler), or even given no role at all beyond looking good in a skin-tight leotard (Olivia Munn as Psylocke). Even a character like Mystique, who was brought to perfect life by Jennifer Lawrence in both previous prequels, is here not just underused, but barely used at all. The result is that we just don’t care what happens. All of them could be killed in the titled apocalypse and we’d just shrug it off without another thought.

The brilliant Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto...

It is the central relationship between Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier that just about keeps X-Men: Apocalypse watchable, an always perfectly realised source of conflict and one that is backed up yet again by strong performances from both Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. Magneto is also the only character given an actual (and interesting) backstory here, one which is genuinely dark and upsetting. Fassbender deftly delves into this previously unexplored corner of Magneto’s life, once again bringing an unexpected emotional maturity to the role that he uses to expand on this interesting character, as well as the inevitable prejudice faced by him and the other mutants – a metaphorical detail that has always been what made the X-Men franchise stand out from the vast superhero crowd.

And yet Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg seem to have forgotten about this narrative depth in their rush to get through events, eager to pull out all the stops for a grand finale that is anything but. Whereas moments like this in Captain America: Civil War (2016) (an inevitable comparison as these were released at the same time) are choreographed to perfection and full of raw excitement, in Apocalypse set pieces and action sequences fall flat each time, almost as if Singer himself is tired of them or unsure how to keep them interesting. The one moment that does work is when Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steps into the frame again in a brilliant slo-mo sequence that is funny and technically marvellous. However, as is the nature of the character, it is over with far too quickly, leaving us feeling empty once it’s finished.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) meets Quicksilver (Evan Peters)...

One tacked on cameo from a well-known face we knew would appear (not least because they showed up in the spoilerific trailer) doesn’t scream of story surprise, but of contractual obligation. It’s also a moment that sums up the rest of the film – a promising scene that soon descends into boredom and repetitiveness again. Singer soared with Days of Future Past after his absence since the very first two X-Men’s, but this is one of the worst films in the overall franchise. Here’s hoping that there will be another prequel in the works to right the wrongs made here – ending on such a low would certainly be a shame.

The Girl with All the Gifts – Post-apocalyptic chills from a stunning best-seller

•October 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) at the start of yet another school day...

From natural, to man-made, to reasons more fantastical, you’d be forgiven for thinking that films dealing in the post-apocalypse had exhausted every possible variation of potential disasters heading our way. But then a film like The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) comes along – a film that presents an idea that is at once familiar, yet also entirely fresh and original in its execution.

Based on the superb best-selling book by Mike Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts actually begins life as a drama, centring on a young girl called Melanie (Sennia Nanua) whose life solely revolves around her small cell-like bedroom, a corridor, and a classroom in which her and several other children spend the majority of their days. However these schoolchildren are strapped to wheelchairs and guarded by wary soldiers with guns…not that the kids seem to mind.

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) discovers the big wide world...

This introduction to what we soon discover is a post-apocalyptic world, is superbly built up by director Colm McCarthy and Carey in his horror-tinged script (he adapted his own book for the film), the atmosphere inviting yet increasingly sinister as we witness events entirely through Melanie’s point-of-view. Secrets about the children and their existence are gradually and terrifyingly revealed to us (and to Melanie herself) in scenes disturbingly portrayed by McCarthy in all their savage glory. It is this choice to show us the world through Melanie’s eyes that also reveals the true purpose of Carey’s book and script – a fascinating coming-of-age story about growing up and nature vs. nurture that just so happens to be set amongst a nightmarish dystopia.

While this adaptation does reflect this theme throughout, many of the other points thrown up by Carey’s book are sadly all but forgotten amongst frantic pacing. The structure Carey has chosen is chaotic, with quiet moments being used for heavy and clunky exposition rather than to build up characterisation. And these are over all too quickly when they do appear, McCarthy throwing us back into the horror all too eagerly. While this does for a time reflect the situation the characters have suddenly and unexpectedly been thrust into, it seems to actually suggest that he doesn’t have faith in the writing itself – that he doesn’t want to give the audience much-needed time to get to know the characters or to fully understand what is going on, favouring action instead. Indeed the central concept behind the apocalypse – an incredible idea which is startlingly realistic in the book – is barely explained by Carey here, a huge shame when this is actually the thing that makes The Girl with All the Gifts such a fresh take on a familiar and well-explored genre.

Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) fears the worst...

Comparing the film to the book is always a topic of great debate, as there will always be changes in the transition from page to screen, as there are inevitably here. However film adaptations can work – just look at Atonement (2007) whose narrative changes only serve to expand on the beautiful prose. But here it can’t be ignored that McCarthy and Carey leave vital points from the book on the cutting room floor, namely the ethical dilemmas humanity faces in this post-apocalyptic time. This is a question perfectly reflected in the book through the cold and clinical character of Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) – a scientist given a morally ambiguous task which she knows she must take on board for the sake of human kind. Close here adds a more sympathetic edge to Caldwell which does serve to make her more relatable. Yet McCarthy doesn’t stress enough the reasons behind her decisions and why she is at such odds with someone like Melanie (as well as the other people around her) leaving her an unknowable and ultimately underwritten character.

Other characters are more intricately realised, mainly Paddy Considine’s gruff Sergeant Parks and Gemma Arterton’s Miss Justineau – a teacher who Melanie adores. Speaking of Melanie, this is a role bravely taken on by Sennia Nanua, especially as the young actress carries the film for most of the running time. She gets the innocent angle bang on, all smiles and sing-song voice around Miss Justineau like any other precocious yet adorable schoolchild. And Nanua really excels in moments that are clearly adlibbed, such as a joyous moment in which she explores an abandoned neighbourhood and all the secrets and surprises it has to offer. But when sticking to the script it becomes clear that she isn’t perfect for the role, often wooden at times when performing alongside the other actors. McCarthy should have spent more time coaxing out those moments of spontaneity  and child-like curiosity from her in order to portray this mysterious protagonist as Carey has done in his book.

The group take stock of the horrifying situation...

While for the most part The Girl with All the Gifts gets things right, with a pitch-perfect creepy atmosphere of dread, brilliant effects, and an incredible soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer that perfectly reflects the weirdness of the world Carey has created, it can’t be denied that it is flawed. Carey’s script feels like a first draft, racing along too quickly and as if it’s just trying to hit all the plot points of the book (and it doesn’t always manage that). There is certainly no room to breathe in this strangely familiar post-apocalyptic land, which is a shame as it is a place that could and should have been explored in much more depth. Read Carey’s book instead to get the full, devastating effect.

The Guest – Dan Stevens steals the show in this thrilling genre hybrid

•October 3, 2016 • 2 Comments

The Guest (2014)

Inventive shorts in anthologies (The ABCs of Death (2012), V/H/S (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013)), a home invasion thriller with a difference (You’re Next (2011)), and most recently an unexpected sequel (Blair Witch (2016)) have all gained director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett critical acclaim in the world of horror over the years. Yet it was their previous collaboration that firmly marked them as the ones to watch, despite it seemingly being miles away from the land of scares and screams. On closer inspection though, The Guest (2014) is another film in which the writer-director team both tear up and homage the horror rulebook, as well as a few other genres along the way.

However The Guest is a difficult film to define using single genre terms alone. A bizarre hybrid of a film, Wingard and Barrett cleverly subvert a number of genres throughout, in particular action and horror (specifically slasher films). They even include an unexpected nod to sci-fi. This unique mix results in a weird yet completely gripping film that is wholly unpredictable from start to thrilling finish. Yet they hold back on the strangeness of the story at first, Wingard and Barrett throwing us into the narrative with a slow and unassuming start. A ring of the doorbell at the Petersen home turns out to be David (Dan Stevens), a military man who was in Afghanistan with the family’s son, sadly killed in action. Finding himself welcomed into their home by Laura (Sheila Kelley), the whole family are soon enamoured with him, insisting he stay for a while. And that’s when things suddenly start to get crazy. Yes, similar to Wingard and Barrett’s You’re Next, there is more than one unpredictable twist throughout this particular tale.

Maika Monroe as Anna in The Guest...

With an increasingly peculiar story and an eclectic mix of genres, The Guest could have been in danger of collapsing under the weight of its many references, quickly turning into a tedious and unbelievable watch. Yet with the perfect fusion of Simon Barrett’s taut writing and Adam Wingard’s solid choice of direction, they completely sell the idea. Infusing the film with an 80’s horror and action thriller vibe – from the almost neon-soaked visuals to the fabulous, thumping electro synth soundtrack – Wingard creates an absorbing film universe that feels both fantastical and realistic at the same time. Alongside Barrett’s expertly paced script, Wingard gradually builds up the tension as the suspicions against David start to grow, resulting in a gripping, twisted story that becomes a brilliant adrenaline-fuelled piece of cinema in the run-up to its final act (an ingenious prom setting with a difference – evidence of Wingard and Barrett again invoking those 80’s slasher film references).

It is the performances throughout The Guest that also sell the story, in particular the brilliant Maika Monroe as Anna, the daughter of the family. Immediately likeable and a refreshingly resilient female character (much like Erin in You’re Next), she is a clever twist on the usual horror trope of the terrified blonde with no brains. With a similarly solid turn in horror film It Follows (2014) Monroe is certainly proving herself as one to look out for in the future. But as perfect as she is in her role, the performance that particularly impresses is Dan Stevens as the mysterious David. And to say he has undergone a bit of a transformation since his Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015) days would be an understatement… Charming and polite, Stevens completely excels as the mysterious Southern gentleman, ensuring we instantly warm to David. Yet Stevens also adds a terrifying, menacing undertone to him – an unsettling quality that is ever-present in his piercing blue-eyed stare, and that steadily grows as the story expands into something altogether more sinister. His terrifying performance is so brilliantly believable that even a madcap WTF ending makes perfect sense, despite what it may (or may not) reveal about his character – that is something left for us to decide for ourselves.

The mysterious David (Dan Stevens) charms his way into the Petersen family...

Refreshingly inventive, undefinable and unpredictable: these are all the reasons that make The Guest so fascinating to watch. Those expecting to see the usual horror or action film, or even a conventional ending, will only be pleasantly surprised by this. A mind-blowing movie that sticks with you for weeks after you’ve seen it, this is the sort of film that makes you fall in love again with the endless possibilities of cinema. After this and Blair Witch, it’ll be exciting to see where Wingard and Barrett head to next. Hopefully somewhere equally as thrilling.

Captain America: Civil War – It’s time to pick a side in one of Marvel’s best films to date

•September 5, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

With superhero and comic book films gradually becoming a cinematic cornerstone over the years, it can often feel like an increasingly hard game of spot-the-difference as the releases keep piling up. While I’m a big fan, the origin stories, goodies vs. baddies, and endless fights can often (and inevitably) get repetitive in the costume-wearing world. However there are a few films trying to shake things up and break the usual mould: take Iron Man Three (2013) with its inventive spin on the traditional villain, or Ant-Man (2015) which skipped on the original comic book incarnation of the superhero (Hank Pym) to instead tell the story of his successor (Scott Lang). And recently Deadpool (2016) smashed the cycle even more with its gory violence and adult humour, plus cool fourth wall breaking and meta-references galore. While Captain America: Civil War (2016) might not be as self-referential or light-hearted as that, it too offers a wholly different take on the superhero universe – one which spectacularly surpasses what we have to come to expect from an already well-established comic book film franchise. Consider the bar well and truly raised…

Returning director duo The Russo Brothers (aka. Anthony and James Russo) don’t waste a moment of the extended running time they’ve been given (at 2 hours and a half it’s the longest Marvel film yet) spectacularly kicking off the action within the first few opening scenes. Cue yet more of the breathtakingly choreographed fight sequences that worked so well in their previous instalment Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), as well as a brilliant introduction to a new baddie from that same film (and who is played with pleasingly gruff intensity by Frank Grillo). With big action set pieces and the usual MacGuffin that the newly established group of Avengers have to steal back from the other side (here a biohazard of some sort), Civil War begins like every other comic book film we’ve seen before; albeit an impressive one. However it is after this exciting introductory sequence that the real story kicks in, The Russos spinning what could have been another carbon copy superhero film into a mature, fascinating tale about politics, power, and who is really in control.

A tense standoff...

While this sequel is a continuation of the thrillingly darker tone that The Russos chose for The Winter Soldier, a lot of it comes directly from the source graphic novel written by Mark Miller. A gripping tale that explores a world becoming increasingly disenfranchised with superheroes – a world that sees them causing as much damage as the very evils they fight – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay deviates slightly from Miller’s story, yet still focuses on the tensions created when political powers call for the heroes to be controlled. Pretty soon those fractures aren’t just felt across the world…they’re felt between the Avengers themselves.

Civil War pleasingly twists and turns, The Russos keeping us on our toes throughout and throwing in some outstanding action-packed scenes to really make for an intense ride. An incredible sequence towards the end of the film involving an airport runway is the best yet, with superb fights and the odd dose of humour (especially when Ant-Man shows the rest of the team what he can really do). Indeed, although this is the most grounded and emotional of all the Marvel films so far, it is also the most fun. The Russos ensure to keep a vein of comedy running throughout – a touch that has become a staple of Marvel films and which prevents proceedings from getting too murky. Most of the laughs this time come from a brilliant new incarnation of everybody’s favourite webbed superhero (played by a bright-eyed Tom Holland who is clearly in his element here). Overenthusiastic and geekily so, it is the best turn of the character we’ve seen on film so far, one that makes you excited to see his solo outing next year.

Cap (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) meet Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)...

However it is another new addition that really makes Civil War stand out from its predecessors. Black Panther is a character people have been eagerly waiting to see onscreen, and The Russos have truly given him an introduction worthy of his iconic status. Black Panther’s appearance, and in fact the whole of Civil War, is also a prime example of everything that the Marvel films do best, particularly in comparison to recent DC films (Batman v Superman (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016)). While these titles quickly throw together new characters with mildly entertaining results, they inevitably fall flat as they fail to generate any sort of feeling or interest for them. Instead Marvel takes the time to build up their back stories, with perfect performances creating wholly realistic characters we want to see time and time again. Even without a Black Panther solo film (although there is one coming), we already understand the difficult journey he has to go on, Chadwick Boseman’s powerful and emotional performance drawing us in and hinting at a wealth of secrets about the character that will surely be explored down the line.

But let’s face it, while it’s exciting to see these new characters, what Civil War is really about is a continuation of one central relationship that has been seen throughout all the Captain America films: Steve and Bucky. Civil War is without a doubt Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan’s finest hour, the two effortlessly building on their characters from the previous films and once again portraying their complicated friendship with ease. Evans in particular continues to perfectly convey the complex character arc Steve has experienced through each of the films – from perfect superhero, to reluctant fighter, and here to something else again. It is also a joy to see him opposite Robert Downey Jr. again, another actor who gets better with each Marvel film he appears in. Here Downey Jr. shows how Stark has become even more conflicted over whether the Avengers cause more problems than they solve, a fact that leads to some brilliantly taut standoffs between him and Steve. It’s mature moments like this which really give Civil War its edge, and make it worth revisiting time and time again.

Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve try to talk things out...

Captain America: Civil War is an absolute masterclass in getting a comic book film right. Fresh and fun, intense and entertaining, The Russos have spectacularly outdone themselves and created a sequel that is up there with The Avengers (2012) as the greatest entry in the Marvel universe. However with the director duo taking the wheel on the next Avengers film, Infinity War, they might just surpass even this. I for one will be waiting in eager anticipation to see if they manage to do so.

Green Room – Punk rock thrills and backstage spills at the gig from hell

•May 13, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Green Room (2015)

Those who saw Jeremy Saulnier’s breakout last film, Blue Ruin (2013), will have witnessed an exhilarating tale about a character’s vengeful, bloody journey, and a superior drama that has as much quiet tension as it does relentless action. Saulnier’s latest film is equally filled with taut moments and horrifying incidents, but with the action this time primarily taking place in one location. Yet what Green Room (2015) lacks in multiple settings, it more than makes up for with expert pacing, plot twists, and suspense, in an effective thriller that offers a fresh angle on the usual high concept genre film.

Almost feeling as if it is set within the same grimy walls of the club featured at the start of Blue Ruin, this hell hole is at first miles away for young punk rock band ‘The Ain’t Rights’. With a slow, unassuming start, Saulnier gradually eases us into his story, taking the time to introduce us to his characters who are coming to the end of a failed tour. Siphoning gas to get from gig to gig, they are the very definition of the term ‘struggling musicians’, so it’s no surprise that when someone offers them an impromptu show, they gladly take it. Little do they know that what awaits them is a room full of neo-Nazis, a ruthless owner (Patrick Stewart), and a bloody act that leaves them locked in a room and fighting for their lives.

Patrick Stewart and Macon Blair in Green Room...

It is when they witness this act that Green Room suddenly becomes a relentless thrill ride until the end, the air constantly thick with tension as Saulnier barely gives his characters, or us, a moments rest. Saulnier’s script twists and turns, putting interesting new spins on the usual thriller clichés and constantly keeping you on your toes as you watch. Just when you think you’ve figured out where it’s heading or how the group might survive, Saulnier takes a completely unexpected direction, resulting in a genuinely effective drama that packs more than a few gut-punching moments, especially when the characters we’ve grown to know are subjected to unspeakable horrors.

The impact we feel in these terrifying moments is also down to the stunning performances from the young leads, each of them adding genuine sensitivity to their roles which makes their characters, and the story, that much more realistic. Their convincing portrayals also mean that their transgressions from potential survivors, to fierce warriors, is that much more believable, especially for the more passive characters of the band played by Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat, as well as Imogen Poots as a bystander who becomes trapped in the green room with them.

Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin rocking out as The Ain't Rights...

The one location setting could have been in danger of becoming repetitive or trite, but Saulnier constantly throws in fresh ideas in a truly impressive thriller that barely stops to breathe. Brilliant performances, in particular from the young cast members, as well as a slow build-up, mean that the film is that much more powerful, and not least because of a liberal use of gore and other shocking moments. With Blue Ruin and now Green Room under his belt, it certainly will be interesting to see where this writer-director heads next. Hopefully somewhere equally as thrilling.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/78795/green-room.html)

The Hateful Eight – A cabin full of strangers makes for Tarantino’s most intense ride yet

•May 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Finely crafted dialogue, uber-cool soundtrack, references galore, a perfect cast, and OTT violence: a Quentin Tarantino film is always easy to spot, no matter what genre the writer-director is in. Yet at first glance, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) seems to be wildly different – a Western set in one location that is of a much slower pace. Don’t be fooled though…this is one of the most Tarantino-esque films so far, delivering all of his trademarks while also stepping in an exciting, sophisticated direction, resulting in a taut thriller that is one of Tarantino’s greatest works.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Sweeping, snowy vistas accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s spine-tingling score is what greets us during The Hateful Eight’s majestic title sequence – another iconic Tarantino feature (just think of the slo-mo opening walk in Reservoir Dogs (1992), the airport travelator in Jackie Brown (1997), or the rocky terrain of Django Unchained (2012)). Giving the film an immediate sense of grandeur and event, it’s also very much Tarantino’s way of directly telling us that we are in for a real treat: a true Western of epic proportions and an unforgettable viewing experience.

Slowly making its way through that gorgeous snowy landscape is a stagecoach containing the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his latest prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who are heading to Red Rock where she will be brought to justice. But a horrific blizzard soon puts a stop to that plan. Picking up some other unwanted passengers along the way, they stop for shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet a few more strange characters and Tarantino’s intricate tale really begins.

Tarantino takes time in his script to introduce each of these characters, building up their individual stories while also building up an undercurrent of issues around race, gender and politics amongst a backdrop of post-Civil War tensions. Instead of feeling like an essay on each though, he uses these to tease us with underlying hints about who these people really are, pulling us into the narrative as it becomes clear to John Ruth, and us, that one of the eight might be not just be there to try Minnie’s home-cooked stew. As lies are uncovered and tensions rise, The Hateful Eight becomes a thrilling, relentless ride, as well as a killer Western and a terrific whodunnit that always keeps us guessing.

John Ruth (Kurt Russell) meets Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson)...

And yet ‘tense’ is almost too soft a word to use to describe this. Using his familiar dialogue-filled scenes throughout the majority of the film, Tarantino amps up these moments tenfold, creating some of the most gripping cinematic moments you’re likely to see for a long while. His dialogue is as usual like music, words flowing beautifully back and forth between these pitch-perfect characters, each fleshed out by career-best performances from all involved. Particularly impressive is Jennifer Jason Leigh as the feisty, foul-mouthed Daisy and Kurt Russell as the terrifying bounty hunter, both of whom also work terrifically as a pair, handcuffed together for the majority of the film and sniping at each other like an old married couple. However it is Samuel L. Jackson who gives one of the most memorable performances as Major Marquis Warren, delivering speech after iconic speech with a cool yet horrifyingly menacing tone that sends shivers down your spine, especially in one disturbing scene that will stick in your mind for days after seeing this. It is without a doubt Jackson’s most iconic Tarantino character to date next to Jules from Pulp Fiction (1994).

If Tarantino’s words are the lyrics in the music then his direction is him conducting, something else he does perfectly throughout this. Along with his dialogue he knows just how to pace each scene, dragging out moments to breaking point as he builds an underlying sense of dread to keep us squirming in our seats, something that his trademark use of violence also does – an aspect that will have you visibly wincing, but that is often necessary to the plot (to mention why about one point in particular would completely give away part of the story though). That expert pacing also helps with his decision to never leave Minnie’s Haberdashery (apart from establishing scenes and a brief flashback) – a brave choice that he effortlessly pulls off. Similar to the minimal locations of Reservoir Dogs’ (1992) (my all-time favourite film), Tarantino’s flair for dialogue, plot and intensity fill the time perfectly, making you feel as if you’re on an epic, sprawling journey when in fact we barely leave the one room. It also helps that Minnie’s Haberdashery is so exquisitely designed. Light streams through the wooden slots of the cabin walls to create stunningly beautiful moments, with the lowered temperature of the set adding a pleasingly authentic touch to proceedings too. You can practically feel the freezing cold yourself as you watch the actors’ breath hang in the air.

The loquacious Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and potential Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) get to know each other...

Two years ago when the dreaded script leak of this film happened, Tarantino swore he’d never shoot it. Well that was thankfully one promise he didn’t keep. At nearly three hours, The Hateful Eight is one of his longer films, yet it doesn’t feel that way. Every element works together harmoniously to create a gripping, intense thriller and a lyrical masterpiece, and one that is absolutely up there with his best. This is once again another instance of Quentin Tarantino truly conquering a genre by putting his own unique stamp on it – something that is a joy to watch in action and that becomes even more rewarding with repeated viewings. Maybe now that it has made its way onto Blu-ray and DVD, the distributors can sort out whatever dispute they were having so that we can finally have a tour of the 70mm roadshow version across the UK (while this was widely shown in the US, here it only screened in one London cinema). To see the film as Tarantino truly intended – in glorious 70mm (a vintage format that creates a greater scale onscreen), with extra footage and added intermission – is something that would make this an event film on an even grander scale. But until then, the version we have here still makes for a more than incredible experience and absolutely essential viewing.