Empire Live 2016: a rundown of the weekend

Empire

In light of proximity to both Raindance and the LFF, late September (23rd-25th to be precise) seems like a weird time to hold a new London-based film event.

That being said, when the event in question is run by Empire Magazine, one of the last bastions of mainstream film journalism in print and an institution in its own right you’ve got to sit up and take notice – even if they did give inexplicably award Suicide Squad four stars.

Striking a balance between prestige pics (Mel Gibson’s WW2 drama Hacksaw Ridge got its UK premiere) and indie cred (The Greasy Strangler is about as indie as you get), with the odd smattering of movie-related celebrities, Empire Live seems to be staking a claim as, simply put, the most accessible and high-profile “fan festival”.

The O2 – specifically the stretch between Cineworld and the Brooklyn Bowl AKA Empire Hub – makes for a grand yet self-contained venue; even if we did find ourselves sharing it with a mass of costumed fans presumably in attendance for Marvel Universe Live! in the arena. Still, it’s not as if the sight of hundreds of kids wandering around dressed up as the Avengers was exactly tonally out of whack.

Having missed out on the Opening Gala the night before – Swiss Army Man and Imperium feat. Daniel Radcliffe – first up for me was Hacksaw Ridge at 10:30AM on Saturday morning.

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Based on the real-life heroics of Pvt. Desmond Doss (played here by an aw-shucks Andrew Garfield, practically radiating human goodness), a Seventh-Day Adventist who makes it to the Battle of Okinawa. This despite his refusal to kill or even carry a gun and every effort of the US government to either wash him out as a crazy person or send him to prison for disobedience.

After an opening act that’s pure Virginia corn – think Walk The Line with added PTSD – and heartfelt courtroom sequence about ones man’s right to serve, if not necessarily fight for his country – think A Few Good Men with added religiosity – the film finds itself up on the eponymous ridge. There Doss and his unit come under fire so brutal and sudden it disassembles several men still on their feet; blowing chunks off them, whittling them down to first muscle then bone, till finally they’re allowed to fall. Even for someone accustomed to cinematic violence, this sequence is so astonishingly visceral it takes a while to recover from.

It also sets the bleak and blasted stage for Doss’ extraordinary courage. Even after being given the order to fall back, he scarpers around the edge, through the mist, the mud, the rats, and maggoty corpses, to help survivors as a medic. His initial desperate gambit during the fighting – “If we can’t see them, they can’t see us” – was enough to make me tear up, and his repeated mantra here – “God, please help me get one more” – will certainly appeal to the more religiously inclined.

Guy Pearce is suitably tear-eyed and bucolic as Doss’ traumatized veteran dad who spends his days getting drunk in front of the graves of his fallen comrades. Vince Vaughn, meanwhile, unassumingly borrows, if not quite steals, his scenes as a hard-ass drill sergeant whose penchant for belittling nicknames is slightly softer-edged than his predecessors. One in which he holds off berating the most obvious offender at the expense of the rest of the unit is a masterclass in delayed gratification.

Afterwards in the Brooklyn Bowl, I caught the final fifteen minutes of a Warner Bros panel about music in film. A surprisingly candid exec went as far as to describe Suicide Squad as the “worst example” of scoring for a big-budget release. My as-ye-unreleased review of it would have to wholeheartedly concur with that sentiment.

After a brief foray into Building 6, presumed holding room for “some celebrity”, though I delved no further – I’ve seen Green Room – it was time for War On Everyone. Described by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, the man behind The Guard and Calvary, as “French Connection by the Marx Brothers”, the film plays like a cop comedy in abstract.

2 Stars (2 / 5)

Detectives Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) are a pair of New Mexico cops who are about as corrupt as they come. Bolaño is a deadpan, trivia-spouting family man; Monroe is an Glenn Campbell-loving, alcoholic one-punch artist. The film opens with them coolly running down a mime in their classic Chevy – more or less for the hell of it. They treat their badges as a license to cause plant drugs, do drugs, beat, steal, and generally cause mayhem; though, as their long-suffering lieutenant (Paul Reiser) reminds them, it only goes so far.

Brave enough to paddle in the pool of police abuse, and play it for laughs, at a time went it couldn’t be more topical, War On Everyone lives up to its title; as far as that goes. The urban environment that Bob and Terry inhabit in an orange-tinted, nihilistic wonderland, where jellyfish materialize in the desert, burqa-clad women play tennis, and very bad man Lord James Mangan (James Mangan – public schoolboy accent; impossible cheekbones; louche, icy fury; and tweed) – seeks to set up a criminal empire.

In its own way, War On Everyone‘s themes distantly mirror those of Hacksaw Ridge. Where Gibson’s war drama is all about the power of believing in something, McDonagh’s ultimately comes down to choosing to take a stand against something worse than yourself.

Having missed out on Empire Live‘s recast Trainspotting Live script read – Jack Lowden’s Renton was reportedly the highlight – I next, and finally, plunged into The Greasy Strangler.

1 Stars (1 / 5)

A deliberately bizarre and transgressive horror-comedy conceived of purely as more or less a “Fuck you” to Hollywood, the film takes a cast of unknowns and puts them through the wringer (or is that the car wash) in a tallow-smothered, buttock-bearing odyssey of malicious, eye-popping murder and strained father-son cohabitation.

With its laughs stemming from deadpan oddness and gross-out outrageousness, The Greasy Strangler is a film that, based on just the trailer image above, you will either instantly adore or immediately have no time for.

If the thought of an Indian tourist’s persistent failure to pronounce the word “potato” and a Senegalese tourist’s insistence that he keep repeating it, or of a full-figured femme fatale waggling her buttocks, sounds like nirvana, well, now you know just where to look. Myself, I found its unvarnished aspirations towards cultdom simply wearing.

And that would have been that for Day 1. With it past eleven, and with all due respect, I decided to duck out before the Q&A with writer-director Jim Hosking; only to be blocked from leaving the cinema by someone who seemed to be a member of staff and told I couldn’t leave for at least another five minutes. Assuming it was a security or capacity issue, I took my seat once more and, as it was, ended up sitting through a decent enough Q&A. Finally allowed to leave, I then discovered the person who had previously barred my path was, in fact, PR for The Greasy Strangler. Bit of a public relations faux pas imho; in other words, not cool.

Day 2 was given over to retrospectives – Easy Rider, Labyrinth – and, perhaps most tantalizingly, the Empire Movie Quiz. Chris Hewitt’s hyper-ambitious, hyper-challenging sheaf of questions was quickly cut down to a more manageable one-hour format. Spot prizes included Prosecco and a copy of The BFG, both of which I picked up for knowing it was Penelope Wilson wot played The Queen in Steven Spielberg’s recent adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel (which I otherwise found disappointing).

While the five-man Team Ginger (Film) Nuts made a respectable showing, the victors were part of a ten-strong horde who swept through the rankings like a bunch of cineliterate Mongols. Quiz done, the Empire staff quickly vanished – no time to mingle or chat – and, more or less like that, the event was done. Off into the night I went; work the next day.

Overall thoughts? All in all, Empire Live was a lot of fun, entertaining and informative; if not yet an essential addition to the London cinematic calendar. Still, not bad for a first year. 2017, anyone?

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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