Suspense and action is on our mind this October. Continue reading to discover a number of lesser known features as well as two fine comedic offerings from James Bridges and Joe Swanberg.
Play Dirty (1969)
Andre de Toth‘s Play Dirty is not guilty of false advertising. Everybody in the film very literally plays dirty. In an era where men-on-a-mission movies were all the rage and most of those missions were noble ones with the fate of the war or of soldiers at stake, challenging journeys, and clear ends, Play Dirty stands in contrast to all of those films. There is a classic gathering of the men and a noble mission for the Allies involved, but this is not a typical men-on-a-mission film. Brigadier Blore (Harry Andrews) oversees a mission to blow up Rommel’s oil supply in North Africa, which is proposed by Colonel Masters (Nigel Green), and immediately sets up his doomed Colonel to fail. Essentially, Blore not only wants the glory for himself, but he figures Masters’ plan will fail due to Nazi presence in the area. So, he sends a second group behind Masters’ to slip in after using the initial legion as cannon fodder. To compound this, Blore requires Masters to bring Captain Douglas (Michael Caine) along – who is on loan from British Petroleum and more accustomed to playing chess alone on the docks than fighting – and pair him with Masters’ irritable and cruel Captain Cyril Leech (Nigel Davenport). Play Dirty emphasizes the brutal and harsh journey over the desert with a distinct feeling of endlessness throughout the film. Booby traps, enemy soldiers, soaring temperatures, and bureaucratic interference are found every step of the way. The men themselves arguably have no moral bone in their bodies, solidifying the overall cynical and fatalistic world-view. Akin to the more comedic Kelly’s Heroes, Play Dirty shows that when in service of oneself, the common soldier is capable of incredible things, as long as they can evade the glory hunters in charge. – Kevin Jones
The Paper Chase (1973)
There is something about films set in academia or on college campuses that I find so comforting. James Bridges‘ The Paper Chase is a perfect example, complete with its idyllic New England setting, knitted sweaters, ice-covered waterways, changing seasons, warm romance, and wood-laden interiors. It is like a warm fire of a film – also thanks to cinematographer Gordon Willis – watching as James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) goes through his first year at Harvard Law School. Dealing with difficult professors like Kingsfield (John Houseman), dating Susan Fields (Lindsay Wagner), his other challenging courses, and his quickly deteriorating study group, it is a tumultuous year for Hart. Yet, even as the stress grows and drama heightens with finals rapidly approaching, The Paper Chase remains oddly inviting and warm. It is hard to call any of the students “likable”, but they are captivating. Between Willis’ great cinematography – the warm browns, the low-angle close-ups on Houseman and the high-angle long shots of Bottoms in the classroom, and the overall use of the mise en scène are all terrific – and the towering performance of Houseman, The Paper Chase is terrific. From the outset, it truly feels alive with a warm nostalgic feeling to it that made it impossible for me to resist its charm. – Kevin Jones
Kill List (2011)
Modern horror’s over-reliance on showy metaphors for trauma, grief or bigotry, has won praise time and time again for the supposed novelty of having a boogeyman represent some societal ill or emotional/psychological state. What a lot of those films, and most mainstream critics, fail to account for, however, is the genre’s inherent, and well-established, ability to articulate abstract fears, so the overt didacticism prevalent in so many works, really doesn’t reveal anything new or interesting, even as it foregrounds themes previously rendered as subtext. Ben Wheatley‘s Kill List is a different beast, however, (mostly) eschewing metaphor and subtext in favor of a savage, sledgehammer approach to traumacore cinema.
Coming off the heels of the 2000’s “torture porn” craze, defined by films like Hostel and Wolf Creek, the film camouflages itself as a domestic drama early on, before slowly devolving into a hyperviolent fever dream as its bizarre conspiracy unfolds. It follows Jay (Neil Maskell), a mercenary-turned-hitman who wrestles with depression and PTSD after a botched job in Kiev a few months earlier. His inability to find steady employment and the ensuing financial struggles cause tension with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), so when his best friend and fellow hitman Gal (Michael Smiley) offers him a job, he reluctantly accepts. They receive a list of three targets from their shadowy client, and prepare for what Gal claims will be an easy paycheck. Things start out relatively simple, but when their first target, “The Priest” (Gareth Tunley), seems to recognize Jay, and cryptically thanks him before being murdered, things begin to take a turn for the nightmarish.
Released during a transitional period for horror, where the gore-soaked nastiness of the post-9/11 years gradually gave way to the “elevated” horror trend of the later 2010’s, the film existed in a sort of no man’s land, mostly dominated by dull remakes. But unlike the chi-chi horror fare that would become ubiquitous just a few years later, Wheatley’s psychological horror shocker portrays trauma as an ugly, visceral force, wreaking real, tangible havoc on the lives of the people affected by it. The film also draws fairly explicit connections between Jay’s activities as a soldier and as a hitman and comes to a grim, fatalistic conclusion: whether people kill for their country or kill for a client, the men in suits remain in charge. While a majority of popular media at the time offered little outside of backward-looking escapism, Kill List captured the zeitgeist of the War on Terror era in all of its unflinching brutality. And more than a decade later, it retains every bit of its haunting, anguished power. – Fred Barrett
Slow West (2015)
John Maclean first collaborated with Michael Fassbender for two short films, the first being Man on a Motorcycle and the second being the wonderfully written Pitch Black Heist. Thus, a third collaboration at the time was definitely welcome, especially one such as Slow West which did not limit itself to under twenty minutes.
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee alongside Michael Fassbender, Slow West follows the story of a young Scottish guy in America in pursuit of his love while falling in and out with outlaws. Barely under ninety minutes, I think it is safe to say that the film does what it sets out to do, with a well-supporting soundtrack and fairly interesting cinematography to accompany its story. It is unfortunate that John Maclean did not direct anything else since Slow West, but nevertheless, it is a great debut to admire the director’s talent. – Alper Kavak
Win It All (2017)
This was a surprising find for me, as I was not really acquainted with Joe Swanberg‘s films (except for Drinking Buddies, which was just an ‘okay’ experience overall in my opinion). Win It All revolves around a gambling addict (Jake Johnson) who is supposed to stash a money bag that belongs to a ‘friend’, but ends up slowly spending it on his addiction.
Being a dark comedy, the film does great in implementing its core elements such as gambling. Though the hero of this work is definitely Jake Johnson – his acting is simply genius and occasionally, hilarious. His talent is most clear in the way he knows how to portray a life-wrecking issue in a comedy correctly without mocking it, while also not straying from the comedic aspects which is essential to the film. Overall, if nothing else, Win It All is a very entertaining experience that respects the audience’s time with its straight-to-the-point storytelling. – Alper Kavak
The Empty Man (2020)
When a teenage girl mysteriously disappears, James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), a retired cop, begins investigating. Some of the locals in the small Missouri town believe that an entity known as the Empty Man is connected to the disappearance, which Lasombra dismisses as an urban legend. But as he struggles to put the pieces together, and more teens go missing, he comes across a cult, whose leader, Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root), makes reference to the Empty Man, describing him as figure that provides his followers with whatever they want in return for their blind devotion and obedience. Lasombra begins researching the cult and its rituals but unbeknownst to him, his connection to the mysterious Empty Man goes deeper than he is aware of.
David Prior‘s supernatural mystery, The Empty Man, plays like an internet-era riff on cult classics like Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s Cure and Gakuryu Ishii‘s lesser-known Angel Dust. The film was an unfortunate victim of a botched marketing campaign – not to mention its unintentional proximity to creepypasta dreck like Slender Man – and it went on to be a critical and commercial failure. Like its influences, The Empty Man contains shades of cosmic horror, as well as an intense cult paranoia reminiscent of Koji Shiraishi‘s lo-fi found footage chiller Occult. In spite of its glossy veneer, the film is truly subversive, its length alone setting it apart from most studio horror fare, and even its sight gags – naming the high school after Jacques Derrida rivals John Carpenter‘s B-movie pranksterism – have a purposeful playfulness about them that has been largely absent from contemporary American cinema.
It’s a film obsessed with the void of absence – working off of Derrida’s metaphysics of presence – and this obsession is telegraphed early on, when a character lays out the cult’s core beliefs: “Nothing can hurt you because nothing is real.” Hidden behind a Wicker Man-esque cult horror plot, the film laments the loss of genuine meaning, experience and humanity. The cult, its true ambitions obscured by the air of respectability that surrounds a name like the Pontifex Institute, claims to offer an end to suffering through vague relativist philosophy, but the truth is, of course, far more sinister – the endgame is apocalypse, not utopia.
The icy reception it initially received, probably damned The Empty Man to obscurity, since it’s unlikely to receive a proper home release after it leaves streaming on September 30th. But perhaps getting an unwieldy, idiosyncratic and thorny horror film like this at all is enough to be grateful for in our parched cinematic landscape. – Fred Barrett
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