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Colonel Fakhir Berwari (â~Crazy Fakhirâ(TM) to his American comrades) was a Kurdish military officer, serving in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, who was tasked with defusing thousands of land-mines left by insurgents after the fall of Saddam Hussein at the end of the second Iraqi war. Armed with a pair of wire-cutters and no safety equipment, he nonchalantly sets about the task of making the streets of Mosul safe again for children to play on. After losing a leg to a roadside bomb, he courageously volunteers to return and aid in the dismantling of booby-trapped houses left by ISIS after their occupation in the power vacuum that followed years later. An even more dangerous enterprise that would ultimately cost him his life.
What makes this an interesting documentary, is it is comprised primarily of footage shot by Fakhir himself - he tasked a subordinate to film him each time he defused a mine, to serve as a training device for fellow â~deminersâ(TM). The tapes were only found later on, by his son, and serve as the foundation for this documentary. Presented as home movie footage, there is no narration, just the commentary of his cameraman. This raw presentation really ratchets up the tension as there is no indication as to whether Fakhir will succeed each time he approaches a device. Indeed we witness two incidents that almost end his life on these tapes, and ultimately the device exploding that costs him his leg and his military career.
Later on, a professional documentary crew follow him on his voluntary return to the battlefield. Limping around on a false leg Fakhir is now tasked with making safe family homes in Mosul, that have been booby-trapped by fleeing ISIS fighters. The complexity here makes this endeavour even more perilous, with trip wires, pressure plates and other nefarious methods left for him to deal with, while also having to contend with overwork and his previous injury. His eventual demise is caught by the crew shadowing him. The only criticism I would have, is it is a rather opaque character study, in that the film doesnâ(TM)t make clear whether Fakhir is truly selflessly serving the public by making his city a safer place to live, or whether there is an element of thrill-seeking to it - his hometown residents have drawn their own conclusions though, and hang his picture in homes and businesses, in respect of his undeniably noble actions.
The original film's title is so ubiquitous that this, unnecessary, 2018 remake really needs no plot summation. Paul Kersey, played by a bored-looking Bruce Willis, embarks on a campaign of vigilantism after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked during a home invasion. This reimagined version relocates the action from New York, to present-day Chicago, which is a wise move, considering the increasingly volatile criminality in said city at the current time.
However, that is pretty much the extent of the 'wise moves' made here. The original was an interesting film, as it offered something in the way of social commentary by asking if self-appointed justice could ever be tolerated if the effect is a reduction in crime. Here there is no such nuance - it is nothing more than revenge-porn. That is not necessarily a bad thing, however the film fails to even satisfy fans of that genre, by offering no relationship between the criminals and the 'Grim Reaper' dishing out the justice. We never see the perpetrators of the original crime, so have no idea if Kersey is even targeting the guilty individuals.
You could argue that is a commentary on the impersonal nature of vigilante justice, but this is an Eli Roth film and I don't think he is capable of such subtlety. Another misstep here, is that Kersey is shown as 'enjoying' his work - rushing hime afterwards to relive his exploits through reporting in the media. This is a stark contrast to the original, where Charles Bronson's character vomits after committing his first murder, so appalled is he at his actions. There is also some frivolous humour added that seems at odds with the tone of the film - some of the deaths are almost Final Destination-like, in their execution, for example. There are also no real consequences to any of Kersey's actions - this coupled with his apparent enjoyment of his new hobby, give the film a clumsy moral ambiguity that seems to directly contradict the message of the original movie, and make this ultimately a pointless enterprise and an unsatisfying experience.
The original 'The Strangers' was a bit of an underrated genre classic really. It emerged at a time when 'home invasion' films were more of a niche than they are now. 'Scream', the previous decade, had kick-started similar films, but the novelty to be found in 'The Strangers' was, as the title alludes to, the impersonal relationship between the victims and their pursuers. The killers there were not targeting their victims because of their indulgence in drugs, alcohol or pre-marital sex, or any of the other triggers associated with Craven's post-modern take on early slasher films; they were doing so because, well, why not? It was this randomness that made it an effective chiller.
The sequel, shot ten years later, which is a surprise considering the first film was a commercial success, follows a similar premise, but instead shifts locations from a remote rural farmhouse, to a secluded trailer park. This time it is your typical American family, visiting relatives who find themselves ultimately being stalked by a trio of masked remorseless killers. While events then play out in a pretty predictable manner (although the two lead kids offer excellent performances - Lewis Pullman [Bill's son] in particular), the film manages to elevate itself slightly above the usual genre fodder by virtue of raising it's game when it comes to set-pieces.
The film is genuinely tense throughout, but during the final act there are two sincerely great sequences that stand out. Music plays a big part in this film, with 1980s soft-rock being the oeuvre of choice, whether it be when it is blaring out of the killers pick-up truck, or more particularly around these two key scenes - the first is framed by Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' and takes place in a swimming pool - the way the music drifts in and out, as the action takes place below and above the water, is really well executed. The second is set to Air Supply's 'Making Love Out of Nothing at All', occurring during the film's climatic chase scene, and is again a wonder of sound design and editing. To take two unimposing songs and make them seem threatening is something that I can't remember seeing handled so well since perhaps 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Steeler's Wheel'. Who knew the music of Jim Steinman could be so menacing?
Life's plot doesn't take long to outline. A multi-national 6-strong crew of the International Space Station are tasked with investigating the first recovered evidence of life on Mars. As is often the case, bringing alien DNA on board a space shuttle doesn't end well, chaos abounds and the film plays out in the way you would expect (having seen this exact premise dozens of times over the decades since 'Alien' gave 'birth' to the genre).
The film opens with a stunning 5 minute tracking shot, outlining the characters and the structural layout of the ship, as well as emphasising the 'Zero G' environment in which they are operating. Knowing the cast before I went in, and also the pair behind the script (the Deadpool movie writers), this ambitious start to the film raised my hopes, only to have them come crashing down, when what followed was 95 minutes of trope, cliche, and wasted opportunity.
In fairness the film is beautifully shot throughout, by director Daniel Espinosa, but he and the rest of the talented cast and crew, are let down by the writing - the dialogue is entirely banal, and there is not a hint of wit anywhere to be found. I expected a little more humour going on the scriptwriters' previous work, but what we get is a stuffy, plaid effort, that just feels sterile and lifeless. The actors do their best, but they struggle to draw any emotion from what exists as an emotionless script on paper.
It is also not story-driven at all. The plot is powered by characters bumbling from one dim-witted decision to the next. There is no logic behind anything they do, and there are so many plot-holes in there, and continuity goofs, that they serve to draw you out of the film. For example, they make a massive deal of the lack of gravity, then in the next scene ignore it entirely. If you are going to make the environment almost a character, then you have to maintain consistency throughout for it to work.
On the plus side, there is some legitimately nice effects work in there, to complement the previously praised cinematography. The creature itself is well designed, although the film suffers from revealing a little too much too soon, which serves to drain a little of the impact from it. It's nice though that they have made it both intelligent and sentient which makes it's motivation unusually menacing for a film of this type. Those positives aside, it is largely a failure. Still worth a a watch, but with reservations for sure.
Concluding the Benson-Moorhead marathon we arrive at 'The Endless' which operates in the same shared universe as their superb debut picture, 'The Resolution'. Two brothers receive a video taped message, supposedly sent by the cult they escaped from a decade previously, which ultimately entices the pair back to visit their estranged former acquaintances.
It is clear that the pair have conflicting memories of their time spent at the commune. The elder brother Justin (played by director Justin Benson) is more reluctant to return, having escaped their clutches ten years previously just before he believed a mass-suicide was about to take place, taking younger brother Aaron (again played by co-director Aaron Moorhead) along with him. The pair have since struggled to adjust to life outside the camp, and the arrival of the video piques their curiosity just enough to draw them back.
The film does an excellent job of continuing this disparity between the siblings when they eventually return. Aaron quickly settles back into camp-life, convincing his older brother to stay an extra day; Justin is immediately sceptical and suspicious of the behaviour of the inhabitants there. However events soon conspire to make him question his entire perception of both the cult's purpose and it's members reluctance to leave.
Like their previous work, the film works on many levels. Ultimately it serves as an examination of the existence of cult communities, and what drives members to devote their lives to abandoning the outside world. However Benson and Moorhead spin this by adding a supernatural element to proceedings, attempting to explain in a scientific fashion why they stay, and indeed even why eventually these communities resort to the finality of mass suicides.
The genius here though, is how they tie this film into the mythos of their earlier work. Fortunately I watched Resolution beforehand, without knowing how directly a sequel 'The Endless' is, but I think a lot of what occurs could be lost on newcomers to the pair's output. It would still exist as an excellent science-fiction picture, but it perfectly complements 'Resolution' to such a degree that the impact of it would no doubt be diminished and it is highly recommended that you watch that movie beforehand.
It is interesting that the pair decided to direct and star here. I can't recall any other film that has co-directors who cast themselves in both the lead roles, but it works. Both offer compelling performances and never fail to convince in their brotherly relationship. Like their previous work, the air of tension throughout is almost overpowering, but again it is subtle direction that causes it. Slight changes in film frame-rate, or off-kilter performances give the film an other-worldly feel. Again it is the script that is the star though - the way it manages to tell a new story while incorporating events in a previous movie is a bold move, as it risks alienating newcomers as I mentioned before, but ultimately it balances on that fine line of rewarding their repeat audience as well as enticing new fans to seek out their previous work. It is a masterpiece and one of the best films of the year so far.