Reviews

175 Reviews
Sort by:
Filter by Rating:
7/10
A solid, if somewhat pedestrian, overview of a case involving psychological abuse, sexual obsession, and murder
8 April 2020
Sometime between 5:00pm on December 6, 2009 and 8:00am on December 7, 28-year-old mother of two Susan Powell disappeared from the home she shared with her husband Josh and their children in West Valley City, Utah. She remains missing to this day, no one has ever been charged in connection with the crime, and although the case is still officially open, West Valley Police Department (WVPD) declared it cold in May 2013. It's generally assumed that Susan was murdered and disposed of by Josh (by 2009, their marriage was falling apart), but her exact fate is unknown. He was declared a person of interest within hours of her being reported missing and was the only suspect the police ever had, although he doggedly maintained his innocence despite a wealth of circumstantial evidence. However, as anybody who knows anything about this case will tell you, this brief overview of the main facts doesn't even begin to hint at the dark underbelly - which includes porn, stalking, sexual obsession, the secret filming of minors, domestic abuse, financial control, religious hatred, and some of the worst music you've ever heard in your life.

Created, executive produced, and directed by James Buddy Day and hosted by Stephanie Bauer, The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, which aired on Oxygen in North America and Sky Crime in the UK and Ireland, is a fine introduction to the subject, although it had the somewhat unfortunate luck of airing right in the middle of Cold: Susan Powell Case Files - The Untold Story, an exhaustively researched and staggeringly comprehensive podcast by Dave Cawley, an investigative reporter for KSL NewsRadio in Salt Lake City, Utah. And although I think unilateral comparisons between the show and the podcast are a little unfair (the two-part show is under four hours, whereas the podcast is over 20, and that's not counting the various Facebook Live Q&As, the live show, and various other releases), certainly, if you've already listened to Cold, you'll find very little of interest in Disappearance (except for the presence of one, admittedly important, interviewee). Going in the other direction though, if you know little about the case, Disappearance is a very decent overview and introduction. It's got some noticeable aesthetic problems and makes a few rather ridiculous claims, but it's comprehensive, clear, and inclusive.

The person who appears here who isn't in Cold is Alina Powell, Josh's sister. Unlike his estranged sister Jennifer Graves, Alina is convinced of her brother's innocence and maintains that the police painted her father Steve's actions in an overly negative light (Steve was obsessed with Susan to the point of filming her without her knowledge and literally going through her trash, keeping such things as toenail clippings and panties. In 2011, he was imprisoned on unrelated charges of voyeurism, and in 2014 of being in possession of child porn). Her involvement is the one thing the show has over Cold, if for no other reason than it shows the lengths of self-deception to which people are willing to go to defend loved ones. Alina believes that Susan led Steve on, referring to "the version of Susan that the cops don't want the world to see" (a "version" which not a single other person corroborates). She also refers to the police investigations into Susan's disappearance as a "harassment campaign to damage our family that we'll never recover from". She has the second part right.

On that subject, the show does a good job of establishing just how screwed up the Powell family was. One of the first things we hear Steve say is, "she's the most beautiful thing that ever walked the earth", and later he states, "God, I worship her. She just turns me on. I'm in a perpetual state of turned on when she's around". Remember, this is a 58-year-old man talking about his then 26-year-old daughter-in-law as he secretly films her - a man so delusional that he convinces himself that Susan knows he's filming, and when she reaches down to scratch her leg as she gets into her car, she's actually 'performing' for his camera. And the creepiness of the songs he recorded (under the name Steve Chantrey) is matched only by how laughably bad they are.

It's not just Steve that the show paints in a negative light, however. Josh is portrayed as a control freak unable to see any opinion but his own. Judy Cox, Susan's mother recalls a particular conversation with Susan prior to her marrying Josh; "I said, "go out and date like crazy for a couple of years and have fun." And she goes, "well, what about Josh?" I looked at her, and I said, "I'm sorry Susan, I look at Josh and I see darkness." Later in the first episode, we hear that Susan told her friend Tara Allred, "this is not the man I married", and that Josh had told her, "over my dead body will you leave me."

The show also looks at the perceived failure of the police. Not only was Josh never charged for Susan's disappearance, he was never even arrested, and Steve's later arrest stemmed from unrelated charges. The show explains that WVPD's decision not to arrest Josh was partly tactical (they wanted to leave him on the street in the hopes he might lead them to solid evidence), and partly because the DA recognised how easily their litany of circumstantial evidence could have been dismantled by a defence lawyer (not only was there no body, but the police were unable to say where, how, or even if Susan had been murdered). Reading about the case online can be infuriating in terms of what seems like police ineptitude, and although I think the show lets him off too lightly, lead detective Ellis Maxwell explaining some of the decisions helps to put the whole thing in a better context.

We also examine the emotional fallout from Susan's disappearance, especially in relation to Allred, who is an emotional wreck, clearly missing her best friend, but also clearly blaming herself for not attempting to save her. In a story in which the Powells are almost pantomime villains, it's easy to forget these are real people, but the interviews with Allred pack a real emotional wallop and are probably the show's strongest moments.

In terms of problems, the show makes several inaccurate claims. For one, it claims that Alina's interview is the first time she has spoken publically about the case. It isn't - she's given numerous interviews over the years. The show also claims to have unearthed previously unknown evidence (an audio recording of Steve confessing his love to Susan). However, it wasn't unknown. In actual fact, it was discovered by Cawley during the making of Cold, who made it public seven months before Disappearance aired.

Elsewhere, there are some rather ill-advised aesthetic choices. For example, the show has the habit of repeating the same bit of information multiple times; we hear the original 911 call reporting Susan missing on the morning of December 7, for instance, and then, not two minutes later, we hear the same call again for no apparent reason. Every time the show comes back from an ad break, it recaps what was said before the break, which is not only unnecessary, it's distracting and irritating. There is also an omnipresent generic soundtrack running throughout the entire show - as far as I can remember, the music never stops once. And, of course, when compared to Cold, the show is very simplistic and rudimentary. However, as mentioned above, I don't really feel it's an entirely fair comparison - Cold was designed to be exhaustive, Disappearance was designed to be introductory. And that's exactly what it is.

Problems notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell. It provides an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the case, and although, despite its claims, there's nothing revelatory here, it introduces the main characters and gives a solid overview of events.
5 out of 5 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
8/10
Is the truth relevant in myth-making?
25 March 2020
Based on Peter Carey's 2000 novel, written for the screen by Shaun Grant, and directed by Justin Kurzel, True History of the Kelly Gang is a film about lies. More specifically, it looks at the pivotal role lies play in cultural myth-making, how every myth is a fiction, a subjective interpretation and reframing of real events. Importantly, as with the novel on which it's based, True History is a work of historical fiction which invents characters and incidents, weaving such elements into what we know of the real Ned Kelly. It's rugged, fierce, bleak, sexually ambiguous, and psychologically exhausting, with universally exceptional acting and some quite stunning cinematography. It takes itself very seriously, which will probably put off those looking for the more casual entertainment of Gregor Jordan's rather bland Ned Kelly (2003), but if you're in the mood for something complex, challenging, and esoteric, you could certainly do worse.

Divided into three sections ("Boy", "Man", and "Monitor"), the film is structured by way of a voiceover wherein Kelly (George MacKay) is writing a memoir for his daughter, so she can know the man behind the myth. We begin when he is 12 (played by an exceptional Orlando Schwerdt), meeting his fierce mother Ellen (a ferocious Essie Davis), his perpetually drunk father John 'Red' Kelly (Ben Corbett), his two younger siblings, the lecherous Sgt. O'Neill (Charlie Hunnam proving once again he can't do accents; I think he's supposed to be Welsh), and Harry Power (a Falstaffian Russell Crowe), a notorious bushranger who Kelly spends time with. Years later, the now-adult Kelly meets the hedonistic Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (a slimy Nicholas Hoult) and the good-natured Mary Hearn (the always exceptional Thomasin McKenzie), with whom he begins a relationship. However, after a disagreement with Fitzpatrick, Kelly finds himself on the run, accompanied by his close friend and possible lover Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), his brother Dan (Earl Cave), and Dan's friend Steve Hart (Louis Hewison). Recruiting young men fed up with British colonialism, Kelly forms the Kelly Gang, and as their reputation grows, the authorities determine to hunt them down at all costs.

Much of the detail in True History is fabricated, as it was in the novel. For example, Mary is a fictitious character, and as far as we know, Kelly had no children. The depiction of Ellen is also fictitious - in the film, she's a fiercely proud pillar of the community, but in reality, she was disliked and most people shunned her. Another fabrication is the Kelly Gang's tendency to proclaim themselves "The Sons of Sieve", a reference to a fictitious Irish secret society. Perhaps the most controversial fictional element concerns Kelly's sexuality. There's a very strong Oedipal undertone throughout the first act, and later, he's presented in a manner that suggests bisexuality. The scene where we first meet Joe, for example, sees him and Kelly playfully wrestling for a book, and later he and a naked Fitzpatrick have a conversation with unmistakable homoerotic chemistry.

The issue of lies, myth-making, and fabrication is introduced immediately, with the opening caption telling us, "nothing you are about to see is true". Subsequently, one of the first lines of dialogue is Kelly warning his daughter about people who will "confuse fiction for fact", saying that the only account she can accept as true is his own, because "every man should be the author of his own history". The irony in all of this is that in real life, Kelly never wrote such a manuscript for his daughter because he never had a daughter, thus creating more layers atop the dichotomy of calling the film "True History" and immediately asserting none of it is true.

One of the points of Carey's novel, and something very much reproduced in the film, is the malleability of history, the notion that history isn't a fixed monolithic thing, but that it changes with each act of interpretation. The prime example of this is Kelly's status as a symbol, the importance of which grows in a manner relatively divorced from actual events. In this sense, the film shows that in the process of a true story becoming a myth, truth is rarely a priority; as newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend". True History is partly about how the legend of Ned Kelly became 'fact'.

What's especially interesting in all of this is that the film sits somewhere between the two extremes of Kelly scholarship - a hero for the common man or a psychopathic murderer. Although Kurzel explains Kelly's violent tendencies by tracing them back to a bad childhood and years of British oppression, he doesn't shy away from depicting the Stringybark Creek incident, when Kelly killed three policemen, all of them unarmed, two of them after they'd already surrendered. The Ned Kelly seen here is a savage - he's nothing like the mythical pseudo-Robin Hood of folktale nor the anti-establishment punk played by Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly (1970) nor the charming rogue played by Heath Ledger in Jordan's film - he's a violent blood-thirsty sociopath who kills because he enjoys it.

The film's greatest strength, however, is the mesmeric cinematography by Ari Wegner, which is some of the best I've seen in years. Having already done incredible work on Lady Macbeth (2016) and In Fabric (2018), she's operating in another realm here. Her real pièce de résistance is the climactic shootout at Glenrowan. Look at the shot of the police carrying torches in the pitch dark, which she impressionistically renders as turning the men luminescent. Or the POV shot from inside Kelly's helmet, with only a tiny slit to see through; it's chaotic, confusing, disorientating, and claustrophobic, as it's supposed to be. Or the shot of a raging fire, the flames highlighted against the pitch-black night. If you appreciate good cinematography, you should definitely watch this scene. It's absolutely Oscar-worthy. Which means it has zero chance of winning her an Oscar.

In terms of problems, Hunnam's accent is hilariously bad, and the film is a little slow in places, and could perhaps do with losing 10-15 minutes, as the narrative does sag a couple of times. And, as I already said, those expecting something in the vein of Jordan's film will be sorely disappointed (although that's not the film's fault - it's not trying to be akin to previous Kelly movies).

Starkly beautiful, psychologically taxing, thematically complex, this is very much a return to form for Kurzel. Acknowledging the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of getting to the reality of such a widely known symbol as Ned Kelly, the film suggests that in the formation of such myths, truth is jettisoned early. However, if even history itself is open to reformulation, then why not so with myths? Why not let the legend supersede the fact? Does truth really matter all that much when dealing with something as significant as a national mythos?
5 out of 7 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Sea Fever (2019)
7/10
An impressive eco-thriller that could do with more clearly delineated characters
20 March 2020
The debut feature from writer/director Neasa Hardiman, Sea Fever examines such issues as humanity's disregard for the size of our ecological footprint, the knee-jerk argument that if something hitherto unknown can't be exploited for profit then it should be destroyed, and Mankind's utter insignificance in the face of the wonders of nature. Heavily influenced by Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), and David Cronenberg's body horror films, it could do with some refinement, especially in terms of characterisation, and the dénouement is a little anticlimactic, but Hardiman gets the atmosphere spot on, and overall, this is an impressive debut.

Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) is an all-work-and-no-play doctoral student studying marine biology. A socially awkward introvert, she's not at all happy with she's told that she needs to get practical experience outside the lab and so her professor has organised for her to join a fishing boat. The boat in question, the Niamh Chinn-Óir, is owned by Freya (Connie Nielsen) and captained by her husband Gerard (Dougray Scott), but it hasn't been doing too well recently and money is tight. However, Gerard has been tracking a huge shoal of fish and believes their luck is about to change. Upon sailing, Gerard sees that the shoal has moved into an exclusion zone, but without telling anyone, he too enters the zone. No sooner has he done so when the Niamh hits something and becomes entangled. Investigating the collision, Siobhán is stunned to see huge bioluminescent tentacles arising from the deep and attached to the hull. Back on board, she's thrilled to announce they may have encountered a creature unknown to science, but when it becomes apparent that the tentacles are secreting dangerous microscopic parasites onto the Niamh, the crew find themselves in a fight for survival, where their greatest enemy is one another.

In a post-screening Q&A with Hardiman at the film's Irish première, she said that one of the main ideas behind the story was to offer a corrective for films which demonise or are critical of the scientific method. In this sense, there's a lot more hard real-world science than you might expect, including some fairly detailed discussions of the possible biochemistry of the creature and hypotheses as to why it behaves the way it does. In the latter half of the film, a lot of time is given over to discussions of whether the Niamh should head back to Ireland, with Siobhán trying to make the others understand the devastating ramifications that could result from introducing the parasites into a population centre. All of this doesn't quite position the film in the realm of science-fact, but it certainly helps to lend the narrative a stronger sense of real-world verisimilitude.

Science is also important thematically insofar as one of the main issues explored is that the creature may not be acting aggressively in attaching to the Niamh; it's simply trying to survive, and even the parasites aren't a form of attack. In this way, Hardiman refuses to demonise the creature, and from the moment of its discovery, Siobhán consistently argues that the crew must protect it, which is not what you expect from this type of film. On the other hand, Gerard sees it in more black and white terms; initially as something to be used for profit, and later as something to be destroyed.

Aesthetically, there's a merciful absence of jump scares and, apart from one scene, there's very little gore. Instead, the film's horror elements are based more in the intricate sound design, Ray Ball's production design, and Ruairí O'Brien's cinematography. The three work in tandem to make it impossible for the viewer to ever forget that we're on a ship isolated at sea - from the constant creaking and sound of lapping water to the claustrophobic quarters (the Niamh is so small, it only has four beds) to the handheld and often dimly lit photography that imbues every shadow with a sense of the unknown.

In terms of problems, the most significant is that even given the small cast, there isn't a huge amount of character differentiation, with the Niamh's crew largely interchangeable. One of the reasons films like Alien and The Thing are considered classics is because of how good the character individualisation is - every person in both of those films is a distinct individual with a clearly defined set of character traits. Their traits aren't painted in minutiae, but they are painted in strokes clearly differentiated from the others. The absence of this in Sea Fever isn't as bad as in, say, the laughably bad Prometheus (2012), but it's still very light on individualisation, which makes it harder to care about these people, which makes them feel expendable, a potential death sentence for a film of this nature. Thankfully, it doesn't come to that here, but with just a little more work on the screenplay, the whole film could really have been elevated into something truly special. Another small gripe I have is that the conclusion is pretty anticlimactic; it works very well thematically, but it's a bit weak in terms of drama or tension, and it feels somewhat rushed.

Mixing body-horror with elements of a creature-feature garnished with some eco-friendly themes, Sea Fever is a very enjoyable film and an impressive debut feature. Although its broader genre beats offer nothing we haven't seen before, it still manages to feel like its own thing with its own things to say. It could do with a better balance in terms of the plot/characterisation ratio, but the unexpected focus on science and ecological themes mean it rises above the monster movie clichés you might expect, which should help it to stand out in a crowded field.
7 out of 13 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Supernova (II) (2019)
7/10
A fascinating study of how a life-altering catastrophe for one person is nothing more than a traffic jam for another
16 March 2020
The debut feature from writer/director Bartosz Kruhlik, Supernova is an excellently made and thematically fascinating film that manages to pack a lot into its 78 minutes; multiple well-rounded characters, several well-developed plot strands, socio-political commentary, existential musing, and a dénouement that throws everything we've seen into relief.

The film opens on a Sunday morning in an unspecified area in rural Poland. On a quiet country road, we're introduced to Iwona Matys (Agnieszka Skibicka) and her two young children, Pawelek (Borys Bartlomiejczyk) and Piotrus (Iwo Rajski), who emerge from their home, pursued by her husband, Michal (Marcin Zarzeczny). Even at this early hour, Michal is already drunk, and it quickly becomes apparent that Iwona is in the process of leaving him, taking the children with her. As he loses pace with them, he hails down a passing car driven by Adam Nowak (Marcin Hycnar), an arrogant politician. As Michal leans into the car, he throws up, causing Adam to speed away. However, in his disgust Adam takes his eyes off the road, resulting in a horrifying crash from which he immediately flees. Completely unaware of the collision, however, Michal passes out in a ditch. Meanwhile, two policemen - Slawek (Marek Braun) a veteran known for his calm demeanour, and his young, enthusiastic-to-a-fault partner Mlody (Michal Pawlik) - receive the call to attend the crash. Arriving at the location, they find an ambulance and fire-brigade already in attendance, but when he surveys the scene, the usually unflappable Slawek reacts in utter horror. Soon thereafter Zygmunt (Dariusz Dluzewski), the acerbic but efficient Komendant of the force, arrives with explicit orders to minimise the fall-out for Adam, who has by now returned to the scene. However, as word spreads through the local community, a crowd gathers, and as Adam's role in the crash becomes apparent, the locals' thoughts turn to vengeance. As the police attempt to contain the situation, Michal, Adam, and Slawek find themselves in a situation from which none of them will emerge unscathed.

Kruhlik uses the site of the crash as a kind of representative microcosm, an allegorical melting pot wherein he examines issues such as group mentality, political arrogance, the abuse of law, alcoholism, the difficulties of police work, and the ghoulish curiosity which leads people to take out their phones to record a tragedy before they think to offer assistance. The two main themes, however, are the dissemination of communal anger (the "Supernova" of the title refers to the build-up of emotion that seems like it can only result in a devastating explosion) and the idea that a life-altering event for one person is nothing more than a traffic jam for another. Whilst Michal, Adam, and Slawek are having their entire existence ripped out from under them, others find the situation a mild inconvenience that necessities a slight change in travel plans. Meanwhile, the crowd of onlookers, at first morbidly curious, soon turn aggressive as word of Adam's actions percolate through their number and they realise that he may use his position to worm his way out of culpability. And so the feeling of anger rapidly spreads like a kind of emotional Chinese whisper, with each member of the group influencing the thinking of those around them. It's all very interesting and maturely handled by Kruhlik as we find ourselves getting drawn into this increasingly dangerous and unpredictable situation.

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is how much character development Kruhlik packs in. We learn a lot more about the three main characters than you might expect in such a short film, but others are fleshed out too; Mlody and Zygmunt, for example, both receive some backstory, as does Magda (Anna Mrozowska), a nervous young policewoman unsure how to react to three youths aggressively hitting on her. The screenplay is structurally very simple (it was purposely written to be shot on a shoestring budget), but this simplicity does not preclude thematic complexity or character interiority. The film is also aesthetically impressive, with cinematographer Michal Dymek employing long takes that make use of the geography of the single location. The opening shot, for example, begins on the Matys home, follows Iwona and Michal some way down the road, pauses to show Michal trying to get into Adam's car, and then finally comes to rest on Michal as he falls asleep in a ditch. With the film also taking place in something close to real-time, this creates a strong sense of almost documentarian immediacy.

All things considered, I thought Supernova was an impressive debut. It's fairly slight, but it's very competently made, and it has some interesting things to say about fate and how we are all, naturally enough, each at the centre of our own conception of reality.
7 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
4/10
Starts brilliantly but ultimately undermines itself with plot contrivances and genre foolishness
14 March 2020
H.G. Wells's original The Invisible Man (1897) suggests that rather than something as powerful as invisibility being used for the betterment of mankind, it would instead be used to fulfil private desires, ultimately leading to the moral corruption of otherwise good men. In probably the best cinematic adaptation, Hollow Man (2000), this is taken much further, with the suggestion that the results of invisibility would be nothing less than sexual violence, evil, and madness. However, despite the centrality of this theme in the core story, reframing the template as a tale of domestic abuse and PTSD, as happens in this latest adaptation, which focuses not on the male scientist but on a female victim of his, is a fascinating idea, creating the potential for some timely #MeToo social commentary, particularly as it relates to issues of not believing women who accuse powerful men of gaslighting. But potential only gets you so far, and what could have been a really insightful film eventually proves itself relatively incapable of using issues of domestic abuse as anything other than plot points to get from one predictable scare to the next.

The film begins as Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is putting into motion a plan to leave her domineering and abusive boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy pioneer in optics. Having drugged him, she leaves their high-tech home in the middle of the night and is picked up nearby by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), who takes her to stay with their childhood friend, James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), a policeman living with his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Although assured that Adrian can't find her, Cecilia is clearly suffering from agoraphobia and paranoia. That is until Adrian commits suicide. Contacted by his brother Tom (Michael Dorman) who's handling his estate, Cecilia learns that Adrian has left her $5 million. However, despite her best efforts to move on, she just can't shake the feeling that Adrian is still around, watching her, sometimes even in the same room as her. And the surer she becomes that he's not dead, the more everyone else becomes worried about her mental well-being.

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, this latest adaptation of Wells's original is not actually about the invisible man. Indeed, short of a background shot of him lying in bed, a shot showing only his torso as he runs through a forest, and a close-up of his hand, actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen doesn't even appear on screen prior to his apparent suicide. Adrian is not only the invisible man of the plot, so too is his character ideologically invisible. Which makes its own statement, and it's a statement worth making - men like him don't need to be present to continue to cause harm. In this sense, at least initially, the film is more concerned with the fear Adrian has instilled in Cecilia; in the early stages, Cecilia's main enemy isn't Adrian so much her inability to move on from him. Along the same lines, the film looks at issues of how women who accuse powerful men of gaslighting are often ignored or openly disbelieved.

Aesthetically, the film looks terrific, particularly Stefan Duscio's cinematography, into which is built Cecilia's paranoia. For example, countless scenes involve the camera panning away from her, moving across the room, showing us nothing at all, and then panning back. Ordinarily, this would be textbook unmotivated camera movement, but here it conveys how Cecelia fears there may be something in the corner to which we panned. And now, thanks to that camera pan, so do we. There are also many shots which in another film would be awful framing; isolating Cecilia in the frame and filling up so much of the screen's real-estate with empty negative space. Except, again, in this film, such negative space has an ominousness not applicable to regular thrillers. In this way, Whannell can instil fear and dread simply by pointing the camera at an empty room without the need for any FX, VFX, makeup, elaborate props etc (which no doubt played a significant role in keeping the budget down to a minuscule $7 million). And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Moss's performance, which is excellent, especially given that so much of it is her on her own reacting to nothing whatsoever, having to communicate confusion, fear, anger etc through little more than her expression.

Before talking about why I didn't like the film, however, I want to reiterate that I honestly can't say how much I admire the idea to reconstitute the genre template as a story about domestic violence. And it's an especially timely reconstitution, coming as it does in the era of #MeToo, when so many powerful men, once considered invisible in everything but name, able to perpetrate their crimes with impunity, have been revealed as the monsters they are. So I have no problem with the ideological paradigm shift. My problem is with the execution.

For one thing, we know from the get-go that Cecilia isn't imagining things, that Adrian faked his suicide and is now stalking her whilst invisible. This isn't a twist, and the film makes no attempt to hide it. Granted, this is kind of unavoidable given how well-known the property is, but had the film allowed for even a little bit of ambiguity, it could have done wonders for emotional complexity, turning a story about invisibility into a story possibly about mental collapse. This would have effectively placed the audience in the same position as the other characters, doubting Cecilia's state of mind, which would, in turn, have enhanced the potency of the socio-political allegory. Another thing that bothered me is that in a film so focused on surveillance and privacy, there are several scenes where if there is even one functioning CCTV camera, the movie ends. A pivotal scene in a restaurant is an especially egregious example of this - one grainy image from a camera, and Cecilia can prove she's not going nuts and the whole plot unravels.

However, my biggest problem is that what starts as a fascinating study of the lasting ramifications of domestic violence ultimately descends into genre stupidity, with a ridiculously over-the-top final act that says nothing of interest about anything. True, Hollow Man has a pretty over-the-top final act too, but Hollow Man never saw itself as anything other than a schlocky genre affair, whereas The Invisible Man clearly does. The fact that Whannell ultimately undermines himself in this way, deploying such important themes merely to get him to the gory dénouement, is especially frustrating insofar as he genuinely did originally seem to have some interesting things to say. Tied to this is that Adrian is introduced as such an abhorrent character from the start, void of nuance or subtlety. Domestic abusers aren't monotone evil-doers, oftentimes, they're very charming on the surface, and any film claiming to be a serious examination of this topic would make room to address this.

Although The Invisible Man was very well reviewed and a huge box-office hit, it left me disappointed and frustrated. Initially positioning itself as an insightful allegory for the difficulty victims of domestic abuse have in moving on with their lives even after the abuser is gone, it eventually privileges genre beats and cheap thrills over emotional complexity. Which is a huge shame and a massively missed opportunity.
195 out of 342 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Saint Maud (2019)
9/10
Emotionally ambiguous, thematically complex, aesthetically daring - an exceptionally accomplished directorial debut
12 March 2020
Is religious fanaticism a form of mental illness? Certainly people such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett would argue it is. However, from the perspective of the fanatic, such fanaticism is often not only logical and justified, but unavoidable; they don't choose to be fanatical, they are compelled to be fanatical. The disparity between what a fanatic believes and what other people believe is the main issue examined in Saint Maud, the stunning debut feature from writer/director Rose Glass. Part-horror, part-psychological thriller, part-character drama, part-ecclesiastical treatise, Saint Maud can be read in a variety of ways - an analysis of the interaction between faith and self; a threnody for the life of a young woman suffering a mental breakdown; a drama about loneliness; a tale of possession; a tragedy about the frailty of the human body. Told mainly (although not entirely) from the perspective of a fanatical Christian, the story makes room for the possibility that, however unlikely, such fanaticism isn't mental illness at all and that God really is communicating with this person. And this magnificently handled ambiguity is the film's trump card. Disturbing, horrifying, challenging, unpredictable, emotional, and occasionally very funny, this is a film that forges a path entirely its own, and is as impressive and daring a directorial debut as you're ever likely to find.

In a thoroughly depressing English seaside town, Maud (an incredibly physical performance from Morfydd Clark) is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism. Exceptionally devout, she believes that mankind is amoral, lustful, and wicked, and that only by way of a true saviour can we be saved. Is she that saviour? It's possible, because God has explicitly told her that He has very special plans for her in the near future. Meanwhile, Maud is working as a private palliative care nurse, and the story begins as she arrives for her first day with Amanda Köhl (the always brilliant Jennifer Ehle); a formerly world-famous American dancer and choreographer suffering from end-stage spinal lymphoma. She and Maud get on well - Maud admires her strength of character and zest for life, whilst she wants to help Maud let her hair down a little. However, there are certain elements of Amanda's life of which Maud does not approve; most significantly, the frequent visits from Carol (Lily Frazer), Amanda's lover. When catastrophe strikes and a dark secret from Maud's past threatens to resurface, Maud decides to prove to Amanda, God, and everyone else just how far mankind has fallen and just how sanctified she really is.

Although Maud is a hard-line fundamentalist, Glass refuses to dismiss her, arguing instead that such individuals genuinely believe they really are communicating with the Divine - Maud may be mentally ill, but even if that is the case (and the film is in no rush to confirm that it is), then surely she deserves compassion and kindness, so completely has her mind bent reality to support her delusion. Glass tells much of the story from Maud's subjective perspective, and in this sense, it's almost understandable when she sees signs of God's presence in everyday things (an inexplicable whirlpool in a glass of beer, for example) - this may be delusion, but if it is, it's a total delusion that she is powerless against. In a very real sense, she cannot be held accountable for her actions.

Even irrespective of mental health issues, however, Maud is all-in on the whole Catholic thing. She tells God, for example, about how important her work is, as it allows her to "save souls" and she credits her recent conversion to Catholicism as reversing the downward spiral of her life. She's also a firm adherent of the Job school of faith-by-suffering, cheerfully telling a beggar, "never waste your pain" and later engaging in some truly gnarly DIY shoemaking.

Along the same lines, she tolerates Amanda's little digs about her life and how lonely she seems, but when Amanda turns her caustic wit to Catholicism, Maud is unable to let that stand without offering rebuke. Her relationship with Amanda forms much of the film's narrative backbone, with neither woman allowed to occupy the moral high-ground. Amanda is profoundly bored with her illness, and her isolation and inability to leave the house mean she seizes on this strange, ultra-serious young woman who has come to look after her. Amanda is not a villain any more than Maud, but she does regard Maud as a plaything, not with the intention of hurting Maud, but with the intention of amusing herself.

As strong as Saint Maud is thematically, however, where it really excels is in its aesthetic design. Glass directs the hell out of it, and there's not a weak link amongst her crew - from Ben Fordesman's murky cinematography to Paulina Rzeszowska's detailed production design to Paul Davies's oppressive sound design to Adam Janota Bzowski's creepy score to Mark Towns's ambiguous editing (including a shocking slam cut right at the end that's as brilliantly jarring and thematically crucial as anything in the work of Nicolas Roeg).

Crucial to the overall aesthetic is how Glass handles perspective; most (although, crucially, not all) of the film is told from Maud's perspective, so we encounter her visions not as an objective third-party would, but as she does. So, when she sees a small whirlpool spontaneously appear in a glass of beer, we see the same thing, and there's no cutaway to show us Maud staring at a normal glass; when a towel placed near a crucifix falls to the ground for no obvious reason, we see it as she does, and there's nothing to objectively suggest why it may have fallen; when God talks to her (in Welsh, no less), we hear His voice as she does, and there's no portion of the scene where we see Maud answering a voice we cannot hear.

Along the same lines, what are we to make of the many (many) shots of Maud with windows or lights in the background that create a halo effect? Or of the shot of her walking on the beach, with a thin layer of water covering the sand, which is framed in such a way that it looks like she's walking on water? One particular scene near the end of the film, which I won't go into as it would be a spoiler, is especially important in the construction of a subjective point of view - what we're seeing couldn't possibly be anything other than psychosis, and yet the film has given us very little to confirm such a reading. Could it be that what Maud is experiencing is real? Is this scene confirmation that her mind has irreparably snapped, or is it confirmation that she was completely sane all along? Constructing a scene based on two literally inverse interpretations can't be easy, yet Glass does it so smoothly, you won't even realise the sharp dichotomy until it's all over.

Running only 84 minutes, it's extraordinary how much Glass squeezes into her debut feature; from the arresting performances by Clark and Ehle to the thematic complexity to the extraordinarily well-handled perspectival ambiguity to the haunting aesthetic design. Looking at issues such as trauma, faith, fundamentalism, sexuality, and human impermanence, the film has much more going on than the generic horror elements one might expect. Either a depiction of the mental collapse of a young woman or a study of the supernatural, the film is built on ambiguity. One of the best directorial debuts I've seen in a long time, I was only half-way through and I was already looking forward to whatever Glass does next. Saint Maud probably won't break any box-office records, but we are going to be hearing a lot from Rose Glass in the future.
9 out of 11 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Proxima (2019)
7/10
An emotive family drama that will disappoint those hoping for sci-fi bombast
9 March 2020
Written by Alice Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron, and directed by Winocour, Proxima is the story of a mother and daughter trying to cope with impending separation. The fact that the mother is an astronaut and that the separation will result from a year-long mission to Mars is very much secondary. Instead, we're presented with something more universal and relatable - the often contradictory responsibilities one has to one's profession and one's family. At the same time, this (unapologetically feminist) film looks at the demands placed on a woman in a male-dominated field where machoism counts for something. More akin to "science fact" films such as The Right Stuff (1983) and First Man (2018) than recent science-fiction work such as Aniara (2018) or Ad Astra (2019), Proxima is a quiet story that maps in great detail the sheer force of will it takes to get into the condition necessary to go space. And although the narrative does sag in a couple of places, and Winocour frustratingly abandons realism in a crucial scene towards the end, Proxima is brilliantly acted throughout. It certainly won't appeal to those looking for the grandiosity or existentialism of classic sci-fi, but it remains a moving examination of motherhood.

In the near future, Sarah Loreau (a superb Eva Green) is a French astronaut based at the European Astronaut Centre (ESC) in Cologne. The only woman in the program, she lives with Stella (a stunning Zélie Boulant), her seven-year-old daughter. Unexpectedly, Sarah is chosen as a replacement for a crew member on the Proxima mission - a year-long three-person final exploratory mission to Mars before colonisation begins. Sarah begins her training at ESC, before travelling to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia, and finally to the launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Alongside her are mission commander Mike Shannon (an excellent Matt Dillon), an experienced, but smug loudmouth who publically welcomes Sarah to the team by noting that as she's a French woman, she's probably a good cook, and Anton Ocheivsky (Aleksey Fateev), a soft-spoken Ukrainian cosmonaut. At the same time, Sarah is attempting to transition Stella into getting used to living with her father, Thomas (Lars Eidinger), a German astrophysicist from whom Sarah is amicably separated. However, the demands of the job and the concomitant separation put a huge strain on the bond between Sarah and Stella, to the extent that Sarah starts to consider dropping out of the mission altogether.

Proxima is Winocour's third film after Augustine (2012) and the criminally underrated Maryland (2015), both of which deal with intense, highly skilled men who are torn between their professional and private lives, in a similar manner to so many Michael Mann protagonists (and antagonists). With Proxima, however, Winocour moves into uncharted territory - although the protagonist here faces a similar struggle, for the first time, that protagonist is female.

One way Winocour examines the theme of private vs. professional is her use of a recurring motif involving an ESC employee trying to get Sarah to sign papers stating whether or not she wants to be informed should anything happen to Stella. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is that she should sign them immediately - what kind of person wouldn't want to know if their child was ill or even dead? However, as Winocour presents it, it's more complicated than that; think of Sarah's helplessness - she'd be stuck in space knowing that Stella is dead, but having to complete her assignment anyway. And so Sarah finds her attachment to Stella in conflict with her commitment to the longevity of the mission.

This motif also speaks to the feminist restructuring of a traditionally male narrative. By suggesting that a mother might choose her job over her daughter, even if only for a year, Winocour highlights that whilst it's socially acceptable for men to leave children behind (Mike speaks proudly of his young sons), it's something of a social taboo that women could do so. Another element of the film's feminine (if not necessarily feminist) quality relates to practical biological differences. For example, Sarah is told that tampons count towards her personal weight limit, whilst she has to be moulded for a smaller chair than Mike and Anton.

Aesthetically, the film adopts a realist approach which is almost documentarian in places. Clearly, Winocour and Bron did huge amounts of research, and it helps the sense of authenticity immensely that it was shot on location at the real ESC, Yuri Gagarin Centre, and Baikonur Cosmodrome; in the case of the Yuri Gagarin Centre, Proxima was the first feature film granted access to shoot in the real prophylactorium, with the crew granted the same accreditation as the on-site scientists.

In terms of problems, certainly, if you go into this expecting sci-fi, you're going to be bitterly disappointed. However, the itself makes no bones about the fact that it's the story of a mother and daughter, not a piece of science fiction, and one can only engage with it on its own terms. Another issue is that the narrative does drag in places, and ten minutes or so could have been shaved off the run time. Perhaps the biggest issue I had is that Winocour abandons her rigid adherence to realism for a sequence towards the end of the film which not only strains credibility but is tonally different from everything around it.

Proxima is a small story of a mother and her daughter set against a vast background - the macro is simply the context for the micro. Examining the pain of separation and the clash between the professional and the private from a uniquely feminist point of view, it carries a universal message that will surely speak to any mother who has wrestled with the conflict between pursuing her own dreams and the demands placed on her by having children. However, make no mistake, this is a celebration of the feminine rather than a woke attack on the masculine - men aren't the of the joke or the target of anger, they're simply not very important to the story. A space movie about a woman that takes place entirely on Earth, Proxima is another strong piece of work from a very talented director.
9 out of 21 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
8/10
An exceptional and painful film that reminds us men aren't the only ones capable of sexual abuse
5 March 2020
Examining the destructive power of forbidden desire and how sexual abuse can masquerade as consensual seduction, Dronningen (Queen of Hearts) is a film wherein our protagonist becomes our antagonist, where our emotional centre shifts multiple times, where our own morality is examined, where our sympathies are used against us. A psychologically fascinating and morally complex film, in the age of MeToo, Dronningen dares to remind us that women can be the perpetrators of abuse just as men can be its victims.

Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and her husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) are an affluent middle-class couple living with their two young daughters on the edge of a forest just outside Copenhagen. She's a partner at a law firm specialising in defending victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, whilst he's a top surgeon. Their life is uneventful but happy. Things change, however, when Gustav (Gustav Lindh), Peter's recalcitrant teenage son from his first marriage, arrives to stay with them, having been expelled from his Swedish school. Although initially, Anne is far from enthused about his sullen presence, over time, he awakens something in her, and she seduces him, with the duo subsequently embarking on a dangerous affair.

Written by May el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehne and directed by el-Toukhy, much of Dronningen's strength lies in how the audience is initially encouraged to empathise with Anne before having the rug pulled out from under us and our own morality called into question - how could we ever have identified with this woman? It's easy enough when you consider that she's the emotional centre of the film for the first two acts and she's introduced as brave, driven, and confident, someone who's appalled not only at the abuse her clients have suffered, but so too at a system which could potentially find them to be in the wrong. Once the affair begins, although the audience is shocked at what Anne is doing, el-Toukhy depicts things in such a way that we revel in the sense of erotic freedom, savouring Anne's sexual awakening almost as much as she does herself (the first time we see her smile is during a scene where Gustav coaxes her to join him and her daughters in a lake). It's not until she's faced with the possibility of the affair being revealed that we see who Anne truly is - a heartless and cruel exploiter, incapable of seeing that she is perpetrating a similar kind of abuse as that suffered by her clients.

Another important element is the gender paradigm. As mentioned, we're initially encouraged to empathise with Anne and approve of what she's doing. After all, she's a hardworking, decent woman whose marriage has lost its spark, so who could deny her a little bit of illicit fun? But would we think the same were the genders reversed - how would we react to the story of a fortysomething man seducing a 19-year-old girl? With this in mind, el-Toukhy interrogates our morality, by 'tricking' us into condoning Anne's actions and later asking how we could ever have done so - gender, she suggests, is irrelevant in cases of abuse, and the fact that we give a woman a pass to behave in this manner when we would crucify a man for doing the same thing is part of the film's complex thematic texture.

In terms of acting, this is some of Dyrholm's best work (which is saying a lot considering her extraordinary CV). Initially playing Anne as strong-willed and inherently decent, once Gustav arrives on the scene, Dyrholm loosens up, carrying herself differently, and displaying a different kind of confidence than we've seen thus far - a more personalised confidence, one that has to do with her sense of self rather than her professionalism. Later, when she faces the possibility that Peter could learn of the affair and that her comfortable middle-class life could be jeopardised, she shuts herself down, becoming void of emotion and interiority, as she transitions from protagonist to antagonist. Throughout all this, Dyrholm never lets us forget that Anne is very much a flawed human, but so too does she wholly commit to playing Anne's darker qualities; when the wheel turns, Dyrholm makes sure that we come to despise Anne.

Working opposite such a powerhouse performer can't have been easy for the 25-year-old Lindh, who's only been acting professionally since 2015, but he holds his own admirably. And much as Dyrholm creates a fascinating arc for Anne, so too with Lindh, who plays Gustav with an exceptional visceral quality, his emotions always on the surface. His arc is essentially the inverse of Anne's - whereas she's introduced as the protagonist, someone with whom we're encouraged to identify, yet she later becomes a monster, he's introduced as an unlikable, petulant, and moody brat, yet he evolves to the point where he becomes the emotional fulcrum of the final act. As Peter, Krepper has a lot less to do than his co-stars, but he does it well, never putting a foot wrong. He plays Peter as decent and loving, but not especially warm or attentive. Sex between him and Anne is a rarity, and even when they do have sex, it's vanilla and rote. However, these are his most significant crimes; if Anne and Gustav represent the emotional centre of the film at different points, Peter is the moral centre throughout.

Looking at issues of gender inequality in relation to sexual trauma and abuse, Dronningen is a story of how a woman can be a predator just as easily as a man. Indeed, the film reminds us that gender is irrelevant when considering the pain caused by such predation. Ultimately, Gustav is no different from the clients who Anne represents, but whereas she is shown to be remarkably protective of them, when Anne finds herself in the role of the perpetrator, her treatment of Gustav is as reprehensible as anything done to her female clients by their male abusers. This is tricky and emotionally complex territory, and Dronningen is never anything less than thematically fascinating. It's by no means an easy watch, but it is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.
7 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Greed (I) (2019)
8/10
A savage and hilarious satire
3 March 2020
We live in an era where wealth is distributed upwards and the gap between the haves and have-nots has become wider than ever. According to inequality org, the richest 1% of the world's population controls 45% of global wealth, whilst the poorest 64% of the population control less than 1% of the wealth. In 2018, Oxfam reported that the wealth of the 26 richest people in the world was equal to the combined wealth of the 3.5 billion poorest people. This is the milieu of Greed, a hilarious satire from prolific genre-hopping writer/director Michael Winterbottom. Examining how the rich get richer, the film focuses on a successful British clothing entrepreneur, and its bread and butter is the concomitant grotesquery that results when an individual has the same wealth as a small country. Mixing send-up and satire with more serious socio-economic points, Greed doesn't really do or say a huge amount that hasn't been done or said before, but it's entertaining, amusing, and undeniably relevant.

Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan) is one of Britain's richest men. The perma-tanned "self-made" billionaire is the owner of several clothing chains and is known as "the King of the High Street", although a less complimentary nickname is "Greedy" McCreadie. The non-linear narrative depicts 1) his rise to power, when, as a young man (played by a wonderfully loathsome Jamie Blackley), he opens multiple businesses (all of which fail) as he learns the ins and outs of asset-stripping and the importance of using foreign sweatshops; 2) in the modern-day, we see him hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee convened to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains; and, 3) in the film's present, on the Greek island of Mykonos, the final (chaotic) touches are being put to McCreadie's Roman-themed 60th birthday bash - complete with mandatory togas, a fake coliseum, and a real, albeit somnolent, lion. Much of the story is told through the lens of McCreadie's "official biographer" Nick (David Mitchell), a classically-trained literature buff who drops quotes from Shakespeare and Shelley into everyday conversation, and who hates himself for agreeing to write a fawning celebration of McCreadie.

The idea that a billionaire could be so cut off from workaday reality as to stage a Roman-themed birthday party on a Greek island may sound far too on the nose, too ridiculously hubristic to say anything of any worth, too over-the-top to even function as satire. However, McCreadie is based on Sir Philip Green, chairman of the Arcadia Group, avoider of taxes, exploiter of the working-class, asset-stripper, and enemy of the #MeToo movement. Similarly, many of the details of McCreadie's ludicrous birthday are lifted verbatim from Green's very real 50th birthday celebrations in 2002 - when he flew 219 guests to Cyprus for a three-day toga party.

McCreadie, of course, is a hilariously despicable slimeball, a man who unironically feels hard done by when Syrian refugees show up on the (public) beach he's using for his birthday, and both Coogan and Blackley portray him as not only narcissistic and void of conscience, but as a completely classless philistine - whereas Nick, for example, can quote Shakespeare and recite Shelley, lofty symbols of Englishness both, McCreadie proudly gets his cultural know-how from BrainyQuote. However, the important point is that for all his loathsomeness, McCreadie is a symbol for the system that gave rise to and sustains him. For all his crass hubristic excess, McCreadie is neither an aberrant individual nor is he a criminal - he's an especially vulgar product of the system. And, with the crushing defeat of Labour in the 2019 English general election, it seems he's the product of a system which the vast majority of people appear to support.

The film gets pretty serious towards the end, and before the closing credits, a series of title cards detail some of the facts and figures of global economic disparity, particularly concerning the vast gulf between those who make the clothes we wear and those who sell them to us. Originally, these cards named specific brands as especially guilty of exploiting sweatshop employees, pointing out, for example, that workers in Myanmar earn $3.60 a day making clothes for H&M, whilst owner Stefan Persson is worth $18 billion, and workers in Bangladesh earn $2.84 a day making clothes for Zara, whilst owner Amancio Ortega is worth $68 billion. However, Sony Pictures International, which financed the film with Film4, refused to allow Winterbottom to use these cards, with company head Laine Kline telling him, "we're worried about the potential damage to Sony's corporate relations with these brands". And so replacement cards were used, which feature much of the same information but without reference to any specific companies or people. So how do we know what the original cards said? Because Winterbottom, very much in the viciously sardonic spirit of the film, read them out on-stage after the world première in Toronto! Kline, who was in the audience, was far from impressed, which may account for the shoddy advertising campaign, with the film being released into theatres with virtually no market awareness. Whatever the case, Kline seems unaware of the irony of his actions - in relation to a film which accuses the rich of all manner of shenanigans to insulate and protect themselves and their fortunes, a massive corporate entity has exerted its authority to protect other massive corporate entities. It's like something McCreadie himself would do.

Aesthetically, the film employs a plethora of techniques, including non-linear editing, direct-to-camera addresses, YouTube videos to provide exposition, split-screen, fake news footage, and title cards. However, it's at its most effective when at its simplest, particularly in scenes involving the wonderful Dinita Gohil as McCreadie's overworked, under-appreciated PA. Amanda's interactions with Nick provide the emotional core of the story, and there's nothing bombastic or ostentatious about their construction - it's all simple shot/counter-shot editing and blocking. And by far the film's best sequence, which comes towards the end, is another simple setup involving Amanda and McCreadie, wherein the scene tells its story not through aesthetic construction or even through dialogue, but through the expression on Gohil's face. It's the moment during which Winterbottom drops all pretence of comedy and focuses on the more serious issues that have hovered at the fringes since the opening seconds.

If I were to focus on any one problem, it would be two underdeveloped subplots. A (staged) reality TV show subplot involving McCreadie's daughter Lily (Sophie Cookson) provides for some very funny individual moments, but it contributes nothing whatsoever to the main plot. Additionally, the fact that McCreadie and his ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher) are still in love with one another is a theme which never really goes anywhere, which is a shame, as it could have provided some much-needed character development for her and some shades of grey for him.

For better or worse, we live in an age where there are more billionaires than ever before, and Greed is a comedy about the excess and disconnect of such people. However, so too is it a cautionary tale, a reminder that just because we're removed from exploitation doesn't mean such exploitation isn't happening.
9 out of 12 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Little Joe (2019)
5/10
A fascinating premise and setup, but the execution is tedious
1 March 2020
Little Joe is a clinically detached, aesthetically fascinating pseudo-horror with a killer premise, but questionable execution. I thoroughly enjoyed the first hour or so, relishing the slow pace and methodical build. However, at around the 75-minute mark, I realised that this wasn't a slow build to something; this slow build was the something. And with that realisation, it didn't take long for tedium to settle in. I certainly admire the thematic complexity and stunning visual and aural design, but, in its totality, the film is completely lifeless, the tone rigidly detached and dispassionate, like a long sentence spoken in a gratingly monotone voice. I wish I had enjoyed it a lot more than I did, but the fact is, I found the last act (which is not especially dissimilar to the previous acts) a real struggle to get through.

Alice (Emily Beecham) is a plant breeder at Planthouse Biotechnologies, a bioengineering lab that designs new types of flora. As the film begins, she and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) are unveiling their latest creation - a flower she's named Little Joe, which omits a scent that makes people happy on a biochemical level. Shortly thereafter, Alice smuggles a Little Joe out of the lab and gifts it to her young son Joe (Kit Connor), after whom she named the flower. Meanwhile, Planthouse employee Bella (Kerry Fox), who has had mental health problems in the past, becomes concerned for her dog, Bello, who has started to show unexplainable signs of aggression. Bella soon becomes concerned that this change has been brought about by exposure to Little Joe's pollen, but Alice is dismissive of her fears, until she starts to notice subtle changes in Joe's behaviour as well.

Written by Jessica Hausner and Géraldine Bajard, and directed by Hausner, Little Joe is kind of like an episode of Black Mirror (2011), but focusing on biology rather than technology. Building a general tone of unease rather than relying on traditional horror beats, if you've seen any of Hausner's previous films, you'll recognise some of the techniques used here; the stilted, declamatory performances that are a step or two divorced from reality (similar to, although not as idiosyncratic as, the staccato performances in Yorgos Lanthimos's early work); the vaguely defined character motivations; a prominent use of passivity; ambiguity regarding the central storyline - in the excellent Lourdes (2009), this was manifested in the possibility that Christine (Sylvie Testud) may or may not have been miraculously healed, whereas here, it's whether or not people are really changing, or is Alice suffering from Capgras Delusion?

The most immediately obvious element of the film is the extraordinary sound design by Erik Mischijew and Matz Müller. Before we see any images, we hear a high-pitched drone, which later becomes a motif that's used multiple times to suggest unease and danger. Important to the sound design is the score, or rather the lack of score. Hausner elected not to have original music composed for the film, but instead to use existing music written by Teiji Ito, which itself is deeply discordant, abrasive, and unsettling and which blends into the sound design. On top of this, Mischijew and Müller frequently use the sounds of screeching metal, rustling, screams, and dogs barking. It's all wonderfully chaotic, defamiliarising, and unnerving.

The other aesthetic element that really pops is the cinematography, specifically how the camera moves. Director of photography Martin Gschlacht often shots scenes as if he's capturing images for a diorama - long, slow pans that often start and finish with the characters not in the frame. Equally as interesting is that on two occasions, he shoots a conversation by very slowly tracking in between the participants to the point where neither one is on-screen.

Thematically, concerns pertaining to genetic engineering are front and centre, and in one respect, it's a cautionary pseudo-Frankenstein tale, a story of how playing God can go wrong. Another theme is the work/home divide. Alice is more focused on her job than her home - one of the first things we hear Joe say to her is, "all you can see are your flowers" - and her decision to bring a Little Joe home is a rather ridiculous attempt to redress the balance; her attempt to (re)integrate the two areas of her life.

The film also looks at what could be called "cognitive zombification" and suggests that if happiness could be made tangible and commodified, rather than such knowledge being used for the betterment of mankind, it would instead be a tool for control. If you created something that could make people fundamentally happy, think of the power you'd wield if you took that thing away, and only you could restore it; "sure, I'll let you experience that bliss again, all you have to do is everything I say". In an age when happiness as an abstract concept is being distilled into the evermore tangible (think of people whose happiness rests almost entirely on getting likes on social media), Little Joe posits a scenario where the abstract is made completely literal.

However, it's also in relation to the issue of people's happiness that we can see one of the film's biggest problems. Whilst the idea that most people would be willing to take fake happiness over real discontent is a compelling one, on more than one occasion, Hausner equates such happiness with the use of anti-depressants. There are multiple references to Bella not being the same since she started taking medication, and the film seems to say that the daily use of pharmaceuticals is akin to people being somehow less than their "real" selves. That this is a naïve view hardly needs explaining; one need only mention people who suffer from depression or those with chronic pain - such people need their medication as much as someone with diabetes needs insulin or someone with a heart condition needs nitro-glycerine. So to suggest that they are somehow being zombified is not only inaccurate, it's dangerous, the kind of rubbish that Scientologists yammer on about.

On a slightly different point, I'm not sure that the depiction of Alice's difficulty in finding a balance between home and work, and the suggestion that she has only achieved professional success by neglecting her child, will go down very well with the tens of thousands of professional women who are also single mothers, and who have managed to climb the ladder of success and be there for their children. And, as I've already outlined, the film's pacing becomes a real issue in the last act, when you realise Hausner has little interest in building to anything even mildly resembling a traditional dénouement.

Little Joe has a lot going for it - an intriguing premise, a great cast, a gorgeous visual design, a superb aural design - but it all matters little when the narrative is so tediously plodding, with a message about pharmaceuticals that's well-intentioned and partially accurate, but also misguided. I do hope the film opens doors for Hausner, who's clearly a talented filmmaker. But as an individual exercise, it just didn't work for me. Lacking the subtle ambiguity of Lourdes, the bombast of a horror, the esoteric coherence of a satire, and the narrative drive of a thriller, Little Joe kind of ends up somewhere awkwardly in between.
7 out of 9 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Jihad Jane (2019)
5/10
Never gets past the kind of introductory material you could find online
25 February 2020
Written and directed by Ciaran Cassidy, Jihad Jane tells the stories of Colleen LaRose (the eponymous Jihad Jane) and Jamie Paulin Ramirez (Jihad Jamie), two forty-something white American women who were separately radicalised by Islamic extremists online and brought into an al-Qaeda plot to kill artist Lars Vilks. Dubbed the "new face of terrorism" by an almost comically ill-informed and sensationalist American news media, LaRose and Ramirez were ultimately revealed as two fragile and damaged women, each of whom had a history of abuse and were more interested in finding a sense of belonging than in politics. The film is a decent enough overview of the subject, but there's very little here that you can't find on Wikipedia, with Cassidy failing to engage with the more interesting sociological themes behind LaRose and Ramirez's stories.

In 2012, LaRose and her boyfriend Kurt took a trip to Amsterdam, where she met a Muslim man in an elevator, subsequently having a brief sexual relationship with him. Returning home to Colorado, where she and Kurt lived with her mother and his father, she started to spend more and more time watching YouTube videos of Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip. In the comments, she would often converse with a user known as Black Flag, who invited her to join a jihadi chatroom. An Algerian whose real name was Ali Charaf Damache, Black Flag soon revealed (in unencrypted conversations) that he was the leader of an al-Qaeda cell based in County Waterford in the Republic of Ireland, convincing both LaRose and Ramirez to join him, and tasking them with killing Lars Vilk, a Swedish artist who had published a series of drawings depicting Muhammad as a roundabout dog.

Although this overview suggests a heavily political film, Jihad Jane isn't really about Islamic extremism, al-Qaeda, or even terrorism in general. Rather, it's about how radicals target damaged individuals and how easily such people can become radicalised, turning their backs on everything and everyone they've ever known. In this respect, perhaps the film's most insightful line comes from LaRose's mother, who says, "they came into my home through the computer and stole my daughter" - it was nothing less than a kidnapping, albeit ideological rather than literal.

The film also looks, rather too briefly, at the sensationalism of the American news media, with clips of anchors on both sides of the political divide speculating that LaRose and Ramirez represent the "new face of terrorism". Presenting an absurd scenario wherein white Americans would suddenly start to join al-Qaeda en masse, no one, it seems, ever stopped to ask why LaRose and Ramirez were specifically targeted - what was it in their lives that left them vulnerable to radicalisation. Rather than suggesting that maybe that's where the real story is, the media instead just went with the worst-case scenario, that these two women were merely the first in an oncoming tsunami that would change the face of global terrorism forever (spoiler alert: the tsunami turned out to be a very minor splash).

On the subject of LaRose and Ramirez's vulnerability, Cassidy paints a picture of abuse, neglect, and a complete absence of any self-worth - both women are depicted as yearning for an identity, a place where they could learn who they are and maybe even start to feel good about themselves. That it was Islamic extremists that got to them is almost arbitrary; they could just as easily have been indoctrinated into a book club - they were vulnerable to any group that offered them a sense of belonging. Indeed, one gets the impression that neither woman fully understood what they were getting themselves into, focusing only on the validation that Black Flag's cell seemed to offer - a validation of which they had been stripped by the abuse each had suffered. LaRose, in particular, endured horrifying abuse at the hands of her father, who began raping her when she was seven, leading to her running away at age 13, working as a prostitute at age 15, marrying one of her clients, who then proved physically abusive, and attempting suicide in 2005. Ramirez, for her part, had three failed marriages in her past, the first of which had been physically abusive.

However, despite the incredible story and fascinating main players, Jihad Jane didn't really work for me. Apart from looking at LaRose and Ramirez's vulnerability, perhaps the most interesting theme in their story is the culpability of the media in fanning the fires of paranoia and promulgating a mistaken belief that the "War of Terror" is an absolute necessity, because without it, an army of white American al-Qaeda soldiers would storm the White House and establish a jihadi state in Washington, DC (spoiler alert: this never happened). Instead, the film reveals the cell in Waterford to be comically inefficient. Nevertheless, the media would have people believe that this disorganised group of individuals who met online were, in fact, a highly-trained and lethal assassination squad (spoiler alert: they weren't). However, Cassidy disappointingly glosses over all of this, and although he does show some clips of news anchors prophesying doom, he doesn't go anywhere with it, which is a real shame, as the LaRose and Ramirez stories are tailor-made to expose the illogical grip that Islamophobia has in the US.

There are other problems as well. For example, Cassidy fails to draw much of a distinction between ordinary Muslims and Islamic fundamentalists, which is unforgivable in a documentary of this nature. Instead, the film suggests, by way of omission, that if you convert to Islam, you immediately become a terrorist. Which is obviously not the case. Cassidy also lets Vilks off the hook during his interview. Vilks is a narcissist, an empty provocateur who seems to enjoy aggravating Muslims, but Cassidy never pushes him on why. Finally, and this is a small aesthetic thing - Cassidy leaves almost every interview hanging for a good 1-3 seconds too long; after the interviewee is finished speaking, Cassidy waits to cut away, leaving an awkward 'dead air' that really started to get on my nerves as the film progressed.

All in all, Jihad Jane will tell you little you can't find on Wikipedia or in the four-part Reuters article about LaRose. It's one of those documentaries that has no business being shown in the cinema, as it's visually bland and relies far too heavily on talking heads. I didn't hate it, and I suppose it is a decent starting point if you're interested in looking into the case in more detail, but it offers nothing beyond cursory introductory material.
5 out of 6 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Underwater (2020)
7/10
A well-made creature-feature; it may not be original, but it is entertaining
23 February 2020
The last film distributed by 20th Century Fox before they were rebranded as 20th Century Studios by Disney, Underwater was shot in early 2017 for $50 million and then sat on a shelf for over two years. Now that it's finally seeing the light of day, there's a real sense of Disney just wanting to be rid of Fox's clutter, and they either didn't know how to promote it or didn't want to promote it, as the marketing campaign has been next to invisible (and the bland title certainly doesn't help), with the film grossing a paltry $7 million in its opening weekend. From Disney's perspective, of course, releasing it in the January release window makes sense, as it's a period traditionally dominated by duds and cast-offs - films the studios don't care about for one reason or another. A recent high-profile example is Blackhat (2015), Michael Mann's underrated cyber-terrorism drama, which was released with little to no advertising, grossing only $20 million at the North American box office against a $70 million budget. However, much like Blackhat, Underwater is considerably better than most January releases. Sure, it's clichéd and predictable, and it shamelessly borrows from a litany of superior genre films, but it's also a very entertaining and enjoyable aquatic creature-feature.

At an unspecified point in the future, Tian Industries, the largest drilling company in the world, are attempting to drill into the ocean floor at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, almost seven miles down, with atmospheric pressure over 1,000 times that at sea-level, strong enough to crush a human body so completely that there aren't even any remains. As the film begins, Kepler Station, the crew quarters of Tian's massive drilling rig, is hit by a series of unexplained vibrations, causing a cascading pressure breach. Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) and Rodrigo Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie) are the only ones to escape, sealing off the area so as to slow, but not prevent the inevitable implosion of the whole rig. Heading first to the escape pod dock, they find no pods left, and in the control base, they're unable to contact the surface. Meanwhile, they encounter some other survivors - Cpt. Lucian (Vincent Cassel), Paul Abel (T.J. Miller), Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), and Emily Havisham (Jessica Henwick). With their situation grim, Lucien says the only hope they have is to use pressurised suits to walk the one-mile distance to the Roebuck Drilling Station and use the escape pods located there. And so they descend to the dark ocean floor. However, as if their task wasn't daunting enough, they soon discover that they aren't alone.

Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, and directed by William Eubank, Underwater walks a very fine line between rip-off and homage. The most obvious touchstones, both narratively and aesthetically, are Alien (1979) and The Abyss (1989), but one can also see the influence of films such as Leviathan (1989), Event Horizon (1997), Sphere (1998), and Sunshine (2007). I even detected a slight nod to The Descent (2005). In short, the set-up is your classic "group of isolated people getting picked off one by one". When someone as talented as Danny Boyle turns his hand to this template, the result is a near-masterpiece. And although Eubank is most certainly no Boyle, Underwater is a lot better than its lack of advertising, clichéd premise, bland title, and generic trailer suggest.

Sure, it isn't really about much of anything. There's a vague ecological theme that's brought up a couple of times, with Emily talking about how humans have drilled "too deep" and are now suffering the consequences, but really, it never amounts to anything even half-way substantial. In all fairness though, who would be expecting thematic complexity anyway? You know what you're getting with a film like this, and the best you can hope for is that it looks good and is entertaining. And Underwater is both.

Kicking into high-gear immediately, the film wastes no time whatsoever in getting to the action. The opening scene is the Kepler implosion, and it's a good five minutes before things calm down. Alien takes its time getting anywhere, introducing us to the aesthetic of the Nostromo, then the characters and their relationships and milieu before it all kicks off. In essence, Underwater is the inverse of that, with all hell breaking loose before we know much of anything about anyone. Indeed, the only character we even see, let alone get to know, before the implosion is Norah. I certainly wouldn't want every film to open this way, but it has an undeniable kineticism and appealing volatility, which Eubank does a decent job of maintaining throughout the next 95 minutes.

Aesthetically, there's a lot to like here. Production design is absolutely paramount in films like this (think of how important design elements are in building tension and establishing tone in Alien or Event Horizon), and designer Naaman Marshall does a fine job, with the world feeling lived-in and authentic. Making especially good use of tunnels and low ceilings, there's a real sense of claustrophobia, which only lets up, ironically enough, when the characters are outside the safety of the rig and exposed to multiple dangers. This claustrophobia is aided immensely by Bojan Bazelli's cinematography. During scenes outside, Bazelli often shoots from within the characters' helmets, and even when the characters are inside, he often shoots in tight close-ups, simultaneously anchoring us to their perspectives and heightening the sense of enclosure and pressure (both literal and figurative). When outside, the film uses the limited visibility to its advantage in establishing a tone of ominous danger. Some will probably find these scenes too dark, but I'd argue that that is precisely the point; the characters can't see much of anything, and neither can we.

Elsewhere, obviously inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, particularly Cthulhu, Abner Marín's creature design is suitably creepy and grotesque. The aesthetic element that really stood out for me, however, was Wayne Lemmer's sound design. The implosion scenes are accompanied with some bone-rattling LFE, whilst the ominous ambient sounds of the Kepler are a constant reminder that the station is on its last legs. The scenes outside are equally as impressive, with some excellent use of directional sound as the action shifts location on screen - it's a film that I would imagine will sound incredible on a 7.1.2 Atmos system.

In terms of problems, there's a rather unjustified use of voiceover to bookend things, explaining the moral of the story; it's wholly unnecessary and has the effect of making the film feel like an episode of The Outer Limits (1995). There's also next to no characterisation. We learn bits and pieces about Norah and Lucien's backstories, but apart from that, the film is peopled by perfunctory cardboard cut-outs with no sense of interiority. Eubank also seems somewhat confused as to whether he's making a disaster movie or a monster movie, with certain scenes and elements suggesting one or the other. However, he never really finds a middle-ground, giving the film a slightly schizophrenic tone.

Although Underwater never manages to rise anywhere near the heights of films such as Alien and Sunshine, it deserved better treatment than it received from Fox and Disney. Given the January release, the clichéd setup, the two-year limbo, and the bland title, I wasn't expecting much from this, but I was pleasantly surprised. It won't change your life, but it's an entertaining and well-made creature-feature.
35 out of 68 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Parasite (2019)
9/10
An uncategorizable masterpiece
21 February 2020
What is one to make of the utterly uncategorisable and impossible-to-define Parasite? Only the third film to win both the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, Parasite is one of the best-reviewed films of the century thus far and caused huge waves when it became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. Co-writer and director Bong Joon Ho also tied with Walt Disney for the most Oscars awarded to one person in one night - four. On top of that, he became the first person in history to win more than three Oscars for a single film. In short, Parasite has had a significant, and relatively unexpected, impact.

But what exactly is Parasite? Described on its official website as a "pitch-black modern fairy-tale", even a comprehensive plot summary wouldn't adequately delineate its real nature - part comedy of manners, part social satire, part heist film, part thriller, part horror, part family drama, part farce, part economic treatise, part social realism, part tragedy, part allegory. And that's just the opening scene! It's the Ulysses of cinema, adopting and shedding genres so often and so seamlessly that it effectively becomes its own genre. And, like Ulysses, it's exceptional in just about every way - screenplay (co-written by Bong and Jin Won Han), directing, cinematography, mise en scène, editing, production design, sound design, score, acting. There's not a weak link here, in a film that achieves that rarest of things - it lives up to the hype.

The Kim family are down on their luck. Father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), daughter Ki-jeong (So-dam Park), and son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) reside in a tiny basement apartment, with their only window looking out onto a popular urination spot in a back alley. With all four unemployed, they eke out a meagre living folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant. However, their fortunes change when Ki-Woo meets Min-hyuk (Seo-joon Park), a childhood friend who is now at university. Min-hyuk works as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family, but he's soon to leave Korea, and so suggests that Ki-Woo take over. Armed with a fake diploma created by Ki-jeong on Photoshop, Ki-Woo successfully applies for the job. The Park family, father Dong-ik, (Sun-kyun Lee), mother Yeon-gyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung), welcomes Ki-woo into their lavish home, and upon discovering just how wealthy the Parks are, the Kims hatch an elaborate scheme to oust the Park's current domestic staff and take their places. However, it doesn't take long before things start to go very, very awry for both families, in ways none of them (or the audience) could ever have imagined.

Obviously enough, Bong's main themes are class division and class conflict, the artificiality of societal hierarchy, and the concomitant social inequality and differentiation in status that makes such a hierarchy possible in the first place. As thoroughly entertaining (and funny) as the film is, it remains, in essence, an economic treatise, albeit with a savagely satirical quality. However, make no mistake, this is a satire with teeth - the hilarity and playfulness of the long first act give way to a darker political vibe in the second, before Bong violently deconstructs his own allegory in the emotionally draining and completely bonkers third act, ultimately driving the knife home in an epilogue that's about as different from the film's early scenes as you could imagine. Of course, this is far from the first time Bong has dealt with issues of class, but never before has he been this caustic, this acerbic, but so too this compassionate, this witty. Indeed, Parasite feels like a culmination, the film to which he's been building for his entire career.

One of the most deftly-handled elements of the film is Bong's avoidance of the clichés one so often finds in films dealing with economics - the Kims are by no means the default protagonists, a victimised family immediately worthy of sympathy, whilst the Parks are by no means the default antagonists, a callous family immediately worthy of scorn. Rather, the Parks are depicted as perfectly friendly and pleasant whilst the Kims are shown to be liars and scoundrels. Indeed, it's the Kims who are the more crassly materialistic of the two families - as they ingratiate themselves with the Parks and acquire more and more access to a wealthy lifestyle, all four Kims start to carry themselves differently, as if being in such proximity to wealth has had a physiological effect.

There are no heroes and villains here - Bong is uninterested in trucking in black and white oppositions because such rigid diametrics aren't the norm in the real world. For all their scheming and lying, the Kims merely con their way into menial jobs, trying to earn enough to make survival a little easier. As for the Parks, their wealth has insulated them from the world of families such as the Kims, but their greatest crimes are disconnection and ignorance, nothing more. At the same time, the Kims are depicted as a far more unified and loving family than the Parks. Although all four Kims regularly occupy the same frame, to the best of my recollection, we never see the four Parks together in the same shot. It's a wonderful bit of cinematic shorthand to convey a thematic point, with Bong utilising the visual component of the medium to maximum effect.

It's in relation to the two family's status as heroes or villains that the film's title is so important. A parasitic organism lives in or on a host and takes its nourishment from that host. A simple reading of this is that the Kims are the parasites and the Parks are the hosts, with the Kims feeding off the Parks' wealth and status. However, in a film where nothing is as it seems, things aren't that simple. Bong depicts the Parks as parasites as well - they've been rendered relatively helpless by their wealth, unable to complete basic tasks such as driving or cleaning without the assistant of working-class employees; i.e. they sustain themselves based off of the labour of their servants. And so, just as the Kims feed off the Parks, the Parks feed off the Kims, in what quickly becomes a symbiotic relationship.

However, as strong as the film is narratively and thematically, it also has an aesthetic design to die for. Kyung-pyo Hong's cinematography, for example, is magnificent. Hong also shot the superb Beoning (2018), and the camerawork here has a similar smoothness and restlessness, gliding through the Parks house like it's a fifth member of the Kim family. Ha-jun Lee's production design is also praise-worthy, with the Kims' and Parks' living conditions contrasted in every way; the Parks live in a pristine post-modernist semi-open plan house, accessible only by an electronically controlled gate, and hidden from the street by tall trees and dense shrubs; the Kims, on the other hand, live in a cluttered and dilapidated apartment with barely any room, their toilet situated beside the aforementioned window looking into an alley.

It's also in relation to production design wherein one of the film's best metaphors is to be found, which is also a great example of just how completely Bong is in control of his craft. As a film at least partly in the tradition of the "upstairs/downstairs" subgenre, Bong literalises the separation between those above and those below insofar as stairways are a recurring motif. The Kims live in a basement apartment without stairs, mirroring their inability to rise in a socio-economic sense. On the other hand, the Parks' lavish home has two main stairways - one going up, the other going down into the cellar. As Ki-jeong and Ki-woo gain more access to Da-song and Da-hye, they start to spend most of their time upstairs. Ki-taek and Chung-sook, however, along with Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo, spend most of their time downstairs, indicating a fissure between the adults and their children. The stairway to the cellar is its own unique animal, with Bong shooting it like he's suddenly directing a horror film (there's a thematic reason for this that I can't go into without spoilers). In this way, he bestows upon it an ominousness that, at first, makes little sense, but ultimately reveals itself to be a spectacular bit of foreshadowing. There's also a third stairway in the Park home, one not revealed until late in the second act, but one which will have huge narrative and thematic importance.

Parasite is a masterpiece, with Bong, operating at the peak of his abilities, never putting a foot wrong. It could have been a self-serving and didactic message-movie - a homily to the honour of the poor or a deconstruction of the unhappiness of the rich - but Bong is far too talented for that, allowing the film to find its own space. Quite unlike anything I've ever seen, it works as allegory just as well as it works as social realism just as well as it works as comedy just as well as it works as tragedy, and so on. This is cinema as art, a film which has proven itself very much a game-changer and completely deserving of every bit of praise it's received.
5 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
The Lighthouse (I) (2019)
8/10
A superbly made film about madness, isolation, alcohol, a cheesed-off one-eyed seagull, and farts
17 February 2020
A manic fever dream fusing Greek mythology, Jungian psychology, and German Expressionism with Herman Melville and H.P. Lovecraft, The Lighthouse is about isolation, insanity, competitive masculinity, alcoholism, and farting. The second film from writer/director Robert Eggers, who exploded onto the scene with the masterful The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015), The Lighthouse was co-written with his brother, Max Eggers, and is very loosely based on the "Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy" (1801). A bizarre film in just about every way, from its glorious visual and aural design to its grandiose acting to its jet black humour to its wonderful ambiguity to its avenging angels/seagulls, if you thought The VVitch was somewhat inaccessible, then you'll most likely despise every second of The Lighthouse. However, if you favour the cerebral, difficult-to-define, and always slightly off-camera terror that was the foundational principle of The VVitch and films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Babadook (2014), and The Wind (2018), or the oppressive dread of classic German Expressionist films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), Der müde Tod (1921), and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), then you'll find much here to appreciate.

In the late 1890s, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) arrive on an outcropping off the coast of New England to begin their four-week rotation manning the lighthouse. The more experienced Wake assigns Winslow menial tasks such as cleaning the floors, emptying the chamber pots, oiling the gears in the basement etc., whilst he himself attends to the Fresnel lens, telling Winslow that he is never, ever to approach it. Although Winslow has some unnerving dreams, and is being pestered by a one-eyed seagull, the four weeks pass without too much incident. However, on the night before their relief is due, the wind suddenly changes, and the island is hit by a violent storm. The following morning, their ferry doesn't arrive, and with no way of contacting the mainland, the duo find themselves trapped.

The first thing that jumps out at you in The Lighthouse is the aesthetic. The importance of Damian Volpe's incredible sound design is indicated immediately, as before we see anything, we hear the wind blowing and a foghorn rumbling in the distance. That horn is omnipresent throughout the film, and to say it gets under your skin is an understatement. You know the siren from the Silent Hill games that sounds right before the town transitions from the Real World to the Otherworld? Well, imagine that sound bellowing out every minute or so for an entire film. It's unsettling, it's disturbing, and it makes it impossible to ever really acclimate yourself to this strange milieu. There's only one sequence in which we don't hear the foghorn, the pivotal opening scene of the third act, and the silence is oppressive - it's one of those instances where you don't realise how loud something was until it suddenly goes quiet and you're left with a ringing in your ears.

The sound design is matched by the stunning monochrome visuals. Working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who also photographed The VVitch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm black & white celluloid in the relatively unheard format of 1.19:1. This ratio was a transitional format that was only used briefly during the shift from silent cinema to sound (1926-1932). And that's exactly why Eggers and Blaschke chose it. Yes, they do match form to content insofar as the nearly square format traps the characters within the frame. Beyond that, however, this is a folktale, a fable from a by-gone age, so what better way to present that fable than by replicating the way the film would have looked had it been made during the early years of sound filmmaking? At the same time, although shot with modern cameras, Blaschke used period-specific Baltar lenses and an off-cyan filter to more accurately emulate the look of late 19th-century photography. Taken together, the black & white images, the square frame, the lens design, the patina, and the haunting sound design all work in glorious tandem to create the sense that the film is a disturbing artefact, an antique vestige from a different era, into whose very DNA dread has burrowed.

One also has to praise Craig Lathrop's production design. The lighthouse used in the film wasn't an existing structure, but was custom-built to scale on Cape Forchu, an outcropping off the coast of Nova Scotia. However, you'd never know it. Most of the interiors were shot on soundstages, but all exteriors were shot on Forchu. And Lathrop has imbued every inch of the building, both inside and out, with an existentialist dread - from the industrial hell of the gears in the basement to the almost Eden like peace of the lantern room high above, from the cramped and crude bedroom to the squalid kitchen. Malevolence stalks every nook and cranny.

Eggers also does something interesting with the narrative itself. I've seen some critics refer to Winslow and Wake as "unreliable narrators", and whilst such critics are on the right track, to call the characters narrators is, in strict narratological terms, inaccurate. Both characters are, in fact, focalisers - the world is filtered through their perspective, but they don't narrate. Indeed, although we shift from one character to the other, meaning there is a narrative presence at the extradigetic level, Eggers never leaves their perspective, nor does he present any kind of omniscient or overt heterodiegetic narration; we're imprisoned within their perspective for the duration of the film. Also important here is the use of "fallible focalisation". The story is one of madness, and it's abundantly clear that neither man is a reliable witness, so everything filtered through their perspective (i.e. the whole film) could be tainted or unreliable (which is why critics erroneously refer to them as unreliable narrators). As things begin to fall apart, this sense becomes ever more prevalent - for example, in an important scene near the end, we see Wake do something, and in the next scene, when Winslow confronts him about it, a confused Wake points out it was actually Winslow who did it. Is Wake lying? Is Winslow projecting his own actions onto his companion? Who exactly is misleading who here? It's a wonderful use of a defamiliarising technique which works to keep the audience constantly on edge and constantly second-guessing everything they see insofar as we know that some, none, or all of it could be the figment of a failing mind.

The film's storyline is slight enough as to suggest several themes without really going too heavily into any of them. For example, one could certainly read Winslow and Wake's relationship as homoerotic, maybe a study of the suppression of desire, whilst the societal construct of masculinity, particularly as manifested in competitiveness, is never far from the surface. Another reading would be that the film is an allegory for class struggle á la J.G. Ballard's High Rise (1975) - the lantern room high above is the upper class, with Wake doggedly protecting the room; meanwhile, the bowels of the lighthouse is the working class, with Winslow performing menial tasks assigned him by Wake. Alcoholism is also omnipresent, with the duo progressively drinking more and more each night, until they run out of rum, and so try to mix turpentine and honey, so dependent have they become on the numbing effects of drink.

The Lighthouse definitely isn't for everyone, and is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Personally, I loved every crazy minute of it. There's a lot that has gone into making this film what it is, both in terms of crafting the folkloric story and in the more mechanical sense of putting the finished film together - it's an aesthetic marvel in pretty much every way. Thick with mood and atmosphere, The Lighthouse proves that The VVitch was no fluke.
89 out of 104 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Queen & Slim (2019)
7/10
A powerful socio-political statement disguised as a road-movie
12 February 2020
White police officers killing black men is something we've seen much of in recent years, and it's been represented in films such as Fruitvale Station (2013); The Hate U Give (2018), Monsters and Men (2018); and Widows (2018). And to that list you can now add Queen & Slim, albeit with an asterisk, because here, it's a black man killing a white police officer. But, and this is a key point, he does so only in self-defence. Embracing the notion that Black Lives very much Matter, the film is something of a stealth social commentary insofar as it wears the disguise of the classic genre template of a duo on the run à la films such as They Live by Night (1948), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), and Thelma & Louise (1991). And it works perfectly well as a taut road-movie. However, underneath the genre elements, you'll find a condemnation of a criminal justice system that seemingly targets minorities, a celebration of black unity and cultural vibrancy, and an examination of Trump's divided America. It's not an angry diatribe per se, certainly not in the sense that some of Spike Lee's films are, but it does attempt to Speak Truth to Power and it is fundamentally of the moment. It also happens to be a very fine film, albeit a little too long and with some tonal inconsistencies.

Queen (a superb debut performance by model Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (a brilliant Daniel Kaluuya) are on a date, having met on Tinder. However, things are not going especially well, as they quickly discover they have virtually nothing in common. He works at Costco, is a devout Christian, and wants a family; she's an atheistic defence attorney with no filter for her often acerbic comments, and has no interest in raising a family. As he drives her home, they're pulled over by Officer Reed (Sturgill Simpson), who is unnecessarily threatening and belligerent from the start. When draws his weapon and orders Slim to the ground, Queen attempts to record what's happening, but Reed shoots her in the leg. Slim then tackles Reed, gets his gun, and kills him. Slim wants to remain at the scene, but Queen points out that a black man has just shot a white cop with his own gun, and if they stay, the best they can hope for is prison. And so the duo find themselves on the lam, with Slim concocting a vague plan to head south from Ohio to Miami, and ultimately on to Cuba. Meanwhile, mostly without their knowledge, they become the symbol for and inspiration behind a nationwide protest movement against racially-motivated police violence.

Queen & Slim is written by Lena Waithe, from a story by Waithe and James Frey (yep, that James Frey), and is directed by Melina Matsoukas in her feature directorial debut. Although at a structural level, Queen & Slim is a classic duo on the run film, at a thematic level it focuses on socio-political issues such as ethnic tension, systemic racism, unchecked police violence, communal anger, and both the importance and danger of protest movements (it's telling that the film doesn't paint every protestor as a paragon of virtue). Concerning this, a key point is that the film doesn't try to be a piece of social realism. On their journey from Ohio to Miami, Queen and Slim encounter a litany of black characters, all of whom know exactly who they are, all of whom approve of what they did and treat them like folk heroes (except a mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks) who's unimpressed with their actions). This isn't done to suggest that black identity in the US is monolithic, rather it's to make an allegorical point; it's a reference to a "them and us" mentality. This allegorical sense is heightened further with references to slave catchers, chain gangs, and the Underground Railroad.

Aside from this, the other major theme is the notion of legacy. This is tied into the fact that Queen and Slim are symbols for a nationwide movement. The fact that they don't see themselves as symbols, doesn't matter to the people who mythologise them. When Slim kills Reed, he and Queen flee because they assume they won't get a fair trial in a country that sees race before all else (and remember, she's a lawyer). And this assumption is what forms the basis of the movement built in their name, with black people shown as exasperated by such treatment. In such a dangerously volatile milieu, Queen and Slim provide the spark that sets the tinderbox aflame.

Looking at the aesthetic side of things, Waithe's screenplay does a good job of telling us who Queen and Slim are from the get-go, taking only a few moments during the opening scene to set up many of the characteristics that will prove important later (his faith, for example, or her acerbity). And because the scene is a first date, the dialogue can introduce such getting-to-know-you material without it seeming expositionary or inorganic. The acting is also terrific. Turner-Smith, in her first feature film role, plays Queen as the realist to Slim's idealist, someone who has sacrificed much to achieve success and who, although she hides it, is deeply lonely. Kaluuya plays Slim as an eternal optimist, someone who trusts others, but is also borderline naïve, in a performance that's the complete inverse of the intimidating enforcer he played in Widows.

There are some problems though. For example, on a few occasions, the movie inexplicably starts using voiceover. But not normal voiceover. Two characters will be shown having a normal conversation and then some of the dialogue is delivered as VO, only for the normal conversation to resume again. If it was confined to Queen and Slim, I might think it was a poorly-conceived attempt to draw us into their psyche, but it isn't. So, I honestly don't know what the point is, but it sure is distracting and seems to come from a different film entirely. Some scenes are also just too fanciful; such as a scene where the duo stop so Slim can ride a horse or a bizarre scene with a gas station clerk, which (I think) is supposed to be comic relief, but which is just too tonally divorced from everything else. Another poorly conceived scene, sees Matsoukas cut to Slim's father (Thom Gossom Jr.) to show us that the police are monitoring his phone. It's an entirely unnecessary scene, and it breaks the rigidly maintained focalisation, which up to this point has been entirely confined to Queen and Slim. The film also runs about 15 minutes too long, with several fake-out endings, and in its final moments, it veers very close to melodrama.

These issues notwithstanding, however, this is a strong film that works on several levels. On the one hand, it's a decent duo-on-the-run story; on the other, it's a film tuned into the socio-political frequency of the times. A snapshot of a house divided against itself, it paints a bleak picture of a group that has been pushed and prodded to the point where combustion may be unavoidable. 31% of Americans believe that a second Civil War will happen within their lifetime, and it will almost certainly be race-related. Queen & Slim suggests they might just be correct.
9 out of 23 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Waves (I) (2019)
8/10
Bleak, but never despondent; audacious and confidant filmmaking
7 February 2020
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults's previous films, the unconventional Thanksgiving drama Krisha (2015) and the brilliant but poorly marketed post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night (2017) would seem to have little in common with the more social realist concerns of Waves. However, all three share the same thematic DNA, focusing as they do on a family under intense pressure. And as with those films, if you're into formalism, you'll find plenty here to keep you happy; elaborate camera moves, varying aspect ratios, unusual colour correction, striking shot composition, a sound design which bleeds into the soundtrack/score (and vice versa), a quite audacious shift in focalisation at the half-way point, and a stunningly concise closing shot. On the other hand, it's emotionally bruising and takes its sweet time getting anywhere. It also asks much more of the viewer than your average Marvel movie, and some simply won't want to put in the legwork. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but if you consider cinema as entertainment only, I'd imagine Waves will leave you bored and frustrated. However, if you have the patience and are willing to take the journey on which the film wants to bring you, the cathartic rewards are many.

In a middle-class suburb in Florida, Tyler Williams (a brilliant Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular high school senior and skilled wrestler, who is deeply in love with his girlfriend Alexis Lopez (Alexa Demie). At home, he has a good relationship with his sister Emily (a heartbreakingly sweet Taylor Russell) and stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). However, his relationship with his domineering father Ronald (a sternly intimidating Sterling K. Brown in full-on stare mode) is somewhat strained due to Ronald, himself a former athlete who was forced to retire due to a knee injury, constantly pushing him to succeed. As the film begins, Tyler's shoulder is causing him problems, and although he keeps it a secret, he soon learns he has a Level 5 SLAP tear, with his doctor telling him he'll need surgery and a few months off from wrestling, or the damage will become permanent. However, he ignores the doctor's advice, continuing to wrestle and starting to self-medicate with Ronald's painkillers. Meanwhile, he becomes increasingly acerbic and starts drinking heavily. At around the half-way point of the film, the focalisation then shifts to the shy and socially awkward Emily, looking at her burgeoning romance with Tyler's wrestling teammate Luke (a passive and pensive Lucas Hedges). Meanwhile, the Williams family must try to come to terms with a horrific act of violence that could change all of their lives.

The most noticeable thing about Waves is the aesthetic audaciousness. What's especially interesting about the narrative bifurcation is that Emily barely appears in the first half and Tyler barely appears in the second, forcing the audience to completely recalibrate themselves vis-à-vis the film's milieu. However, for all its narrative gymnastics, it's Waves's visuals that really pop. Working with his regular cinematographer Drew Daniels, no matter how elaborate Shults's use of form becomes, it's always in service of the story, with the camera being used thematically rather than as a passive tool of observation. For example, the opening shot is inside a car occupied by Tyler and Alexis, but rather than shoot the scene in a shot/counter-shot format, Shults positions the camera between the duo, spinning in circles, and completing multiple 360-degree rotations. This immediately inculcates us into their sense of abandonment and exuberance. Before a single line of dialogue has been spoken, Shults has already started telling us who these people are. It's pure visual storytelling, showing rather telling.

This kind of form/content correlation occurs throughout the film. For example, in the first half, which is focalised by the restless and propulsive Tyler, the handheld camera rarely stops moving, reflecting his frenetic energy. However, when we shift to the quieter and more withdrawn Emily, Shults uses more static tripod shots and a much slower editing rhythm, which reflects Emily's calmer disposition. He also has the palette reflect this shift - whereas the first half is awash in garish blues, reds, and greens, the second has a more naturalistic look. A crucial part of the film's visual identity is the very unusual use of aspect ratio(s). Beginning in 1.85:1, the frame gradually reduces in width until it gets to 1.33:1, which is how Tyler's section ends. Then, at the start of Emily's section, it starts to widen again, eventually reaching 2.35:1. The narrowing ratio of the first half reflects how Tyler feels he's being progressively trapped as things continue to go wrong, whilst the widening ratio of the second half reflects Emily's determination to recover from tragedy and reconcile her family. In short, the first half symbolises an ever-increasing restriction, the second half a gradually discovered freedom.

And all of this is to say nothing of the diegetic lighting, the shot compositions and camera blocking, or the blending of Johnnie Burn's immersive sound design, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's discordant score, and the exceptional 32-song soundtrack.

Thematically, the film looks at the pressure to succeed, particularly in men. Ronald equates masculinity with strength, mocks Catherine's job, and barely acknowledges Emily. Instead, he pours all his effort into Tyler, through whom he's trying to live vicariously, pushing him to be the successful athlete that he himself could have been before injury ended his career. He's also acutely aware that as an African-American man, things won't come easy to his son, telling Tyler, "we are not afforded the luxury of being average." However, Ronald is by no means the villain of the piece. He seems to genuinely feel that raising Tyler in this manner is the best thing, telling him, "I don't push you because I want to, I push you because I have to". The problem with all of this is that neither Tyler nor Ronald have a backup plan, so when things start to go wrong, Tyler immediately falls apart. And as things get worse and worse, he becomes a pseudo-Job figure, with the big difference being that Job was self-aware and understood his suffering.

In terms of problems, there are a few blatantly expositionary scenes. An especially egregious example is the scene where Ronald outlines how hard it is for a black man to get ahead in the US, using that as justification for why he pushes Tyler so hard. Whilst the sentiments are fine, it doesn't ring true that this is the first time Ronald has said this to Tyler. Surely he would have given him this talk in his youth? It's a well-acted scene in isolation, but in the context of the overall script, it's too literal and seems out of place. Additionally, Shults tends to use the stuff of daytime soap to propel the plot - the end of a sports career, the prospect of having a child at such a young age, a family tragedy. The performers make the material work, but the film does come close to melodrama on occasion.

Nevertheless, although it's initially bleak, looking at loss and disintegration, Waves ultimately reveals itself to be about the ability of love to conquer despair, about how life can persist no matter the circumstances, about the importance and restorative power of family. Shults uses this framework to build a quite audacious monument that celebrates the ordinary without ever overshadowing it.
14 out of 18 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Bombshell (2019)
8/10
A well-acted film about the human cost of bullying and sexual harassment
4 February 2020
Although it lacks subtlety and factual insight, Bombshell is entertaining, brilliantly acted, and paints a horrifying picture of workplace bullying and sexual harassment. Sure, it'll be yet more evidence for the right that leftist Hollywood is incapable of partiality, but really, if you're the type of person prone to believing the propaganda machine that is Fox News, what are you even doing watching this film in the first place?

The story begins in August 2015 during the first Republican presidential debate when Fox New host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) asks candidate Donald Trump about his history of misogynistic comments. In a CNN interview the following day, Trump claims "you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever". And so, much to her chagrin, Kelly finds herself the focus of the headlines. Initially, Fox News president Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), supports her, but as time goes on, he begins to grow concerned about her attitude. Meanwhile, in June 2016, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired from the channel, having already complained about sexist treatment in 2013. Hiring a legal team, she intends to sue not Fox, but Ailes personally, who she claims sexually harassed her for years. However, the suit can only be successful if others are willing to corroborate her claims. Elsewhere, "millennial evangelical" Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie playing a composite character) is hired as a research assistant, and is horrified when she discovers exactly what Ailes means when he says he will need evidence of her "loyalty".

Written by Charles Randolph and directed by Jay Roach, Bombshell is the third major retelling of the Ailes saga in the last couple of years, following Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (2018) and The Loudest Voice (2019). The events of the film preceded the first accusations against Harvey Weinstein (October 2017) and the birth of the #MeToo movement by over a year, and the depiction of the nature of sexual harassment in a corporate arena that's male-dominated and female-enabled (many of the female employees of Fox proudly wear "I stand with Roger" t-shirts) is chillingly effective, with the film depicting an environment in which women are victims whether they resist or submit to sexual advances - resist, and they risk their job; submit, and they lose their self-respect.

At the same time, Roach is not trying to examine the monolithic political ideology of Fox News itself. Sure, it features lines such as Ailes claiming, "news is like a ship, you take your hands off the wheel and it pulls hard to the left", whilst Pospisil is told the main goal of the channel is to "frighten and titillate", but these are the exceptions. Roach knows that 99% of his audience will already agree that Fox News is a hate-filled, xenophobic, propaganda machine, so he makes little effort to depict the network's political leanings. Instead, the film is about self-loathing, fear, and anxiety - it's about workplace bullying and the human cost of sexual harassment.

This is a crucial point, because the three women at the film's centre (Kelly, Carlson, and Pospisil) are not a rebellious group of bra-burning feminists, they not even friends (the trio share only a single scene, and it's without dialogue). They're right-wing conservatives who helped create the system under which they now find themselves oppressed. However, part of the film's point is that politics are irrelevant - sexual harassment is sexual harassment, and your politics, religious beliefs, race, and gender are all beside the point. This is not an anti-Republican diatribe. It's the exposé of a man who was a Republican.

Aesthetically, Bombshell is a strange creature. The rapidly edited, stylistically hyperactive first half-hour or so is more akin to Adam McKay's dramas or 90s Oliver Stone. For example, one of the earliest scenes sees Theron break the fourth wall and address the audience as she gives us a tour of Fox News. Another moment sees Pospisil being told that some people watch the channel so much, the logo has burnt onto their TV screens, at which point the Fox logo appears in the corner of the screen. However, once the groundwork has been laid, Roach shifts tones completely and moves into fairly standard factual drama territory, which has the effect of making the first act feel somewhat isolated and incongruous.

Something that works well, however, is the triptych narrative structure. It's not an even divide (this is Kelly's film before it is Carlson's or Pospisil's), but it does allow Roach to dramatise just how much Ailes looks on his female staff as commodities. Carlson is the washed-up former beauty queen who no longer holds his interest; Kelly is the current flavour of the month, still beautiful, still popular; Pospisil is the future, young, vital, keen, and in awe of the man himself, as all women should be - for every Carlson, there's a Kelly to replace her, and for every Kelly, there's a Pospisil ready for grooming.

From an acting perspective, there's not a weak link, with Theron especially impressive. Normally, she looks nothing like Kelly, but through posture, mannerisms, wardrobe, voice, and the subtle prosthetic genius of Kazu Hiro, the actress disappears into the character, who she plays as steely and often remote, but fiercely passionate and intelligent. It's still a deeply impressive performance that transcends mere imitation.

The other standout is Lithgow, whose performance is fascinatingly modulated. Introduced in a scene designed to show his fatherly protective side, he initially portrays Ailes as a flawed human being, and it's only later that he lets the monster out of the box. One particular scene, which is the dark heart of the film, sees him asking an increasingly uncomfortable Pospisil to hike her skirt higher and higher, to the point where her underwear becomes visible, as he becomes increasingly aroused, indicated by nothing but his breathing. It's an exceptionally nauseating scene which gets to the film's core - Ailes knows that if women like Pospisil value their job, they'll submit, just as they have done for men like him throughout history. As he sees it, ambitious women will always need powerful men, and he behaves as he deems appropriate within such a paradigm.

As for problems, the film is probably too silent on some of Kelly's history. I understand where Roach is coming from on this; to feature scenes which seem designed to depict her in a less than favourable light could run perilously close to victim-blaming. But whilst I agree in principle, I think that in practice, Roach errs in the other direction. If you knew nothing about these events, you'd be forgiven for thinking the only controversy Kelly ever encountered at Fox was asking Trump about misogyny. There's no mention, for example, of her infamous "Jesus was a white man" comment from 2013. Granted, it doesn't have much to do with the story at hand, but my point is a general one. The film's Kelly is almost virginal, without blemish. Making her character more rounded, more flawed, would have served both the character and the story, and actually helped rather than hindered Roach's argument that politics don't matter in relation to sexual harassment. Interestingly, the film does address that Kelly knew about Ailes for years before Carlson was fired, and it takes her to task for not doing anything with that knowledge. However, after she watched the film, the real Kelly cited this scene as an example of victim-blaming - make of that what you will.

Ultimately, Bombshell argues that just because people like Kelly and Carlson elected not to rock the boat earlier in their careers doesn't mean they don't deserve sympathy. Certainly, in the case of Kelly, the opportunity for her to explain why she stayed silent for so long is available, but is never availed of. But is that a fault of the filmmakers or a reflection on the actual person's reluctance to take that particular journey inward? Sure, the film is at pains to avoid showing either Carlson or Kelly as in any way complicit in creating the hideously outdated patriarchy at Fox. But this is by design. Were Bombshell a story about Fox News, such things ought to be examined. But it isn't. It's a story about humiliation and bullying, a story that says people do not deserve such treatment, no matter their race, religion, or politics.
6 out of 17 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
A Hidden Life (2019)
9/10
A meditation on morality and faith; a film of unparalleled sublimity; an experience beyond the sensory
31 January 2020
Always an explicitly Christian filmmaker, writer/director Terrence Malick has never been didactic, dogmatic, or puritanical. No matter how lofty his vision, his films remain always rooted in the human soul, in the tradition of Heidegger's existential phenomenology, which focuses on the ontology of the earthly Dasein ("being-there") rather than the epistemology of the Lebenswelt ("lifeworld") - even the most overtly metaphysical scenes in Malick remain focused on the physical. And A Hidden Life, which may be his most ostensibly Christian work yet, is quintessentially Malickian, featuring many of his most identifiable stylistic traits (whispered voice-overs, sweeping cameras spinning around non-stationary characters, the beauty of nature contrasted with the ugliness of humanity). Malick's films are about the search for transcendence in a compromised and often evil world, and, telling the true story of the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, A Hidden Life is no different. And how good is it? Very, very, very good. Not quite The Thin Red Line (1998)/The Tree of Life (2011) good, but certainly Badlands (1973)/Days of Heaven (1978)/The New World (2005) good. This is cinema at its most sublimely pious, a supremely talented master-auteur operating at the height of his not inconsiderable powers. You don't watch A Hidden Life. You let it enter your soul.

Austria, 1938. In the bucolic village of Sankt Radegund, peasant farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) lives a simple but blissful life with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their family. A devout Christian, he's unenthusiastic about the looming war, despite its widespread popularity in the village. Called up to basic training, he's away for several months, but when France surrenders in June 1940, it's thought that the war will soon end, and he's sent home without having been deployed. However, as time goes by, and as the war shows no signs of ending, his opposition grows ever more ingrained, to the point where his family are being harassed. Eventually, he's conscripted, but refuses to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, and so is arrested and imprisoned.

Needless to say, Malick fashions this material into a thematically rich mosaic. To a certain extent, all his films deal, to one degree or another, with the notion of the corruption of Eden, and Hidden Life is as literal as Thin Red Line and New World in this respect. Sankt Radegund is an earthly paradise, hidden in the embrace of the nearby mountains, fed by the River En (the film was originally called simply Radegund, before adopting the George Eliot quote as its title). However, as the war takes hold, the village comes under attack, not by bombs, but by ideological complicity. The harmony and idealism have been corrupted, not by Franz's refusal to comply, by everyone else's insistence on compliance. The village at the end of the film is an infinitely different place from that at the start, a tainted place. Eden has fallen.

Franz doesn't resist the Nazis because he wants to spearhead a movement or because of political high-mindedness. His reasons are simpler - he believes that God teaches us to resist evil, and as a great evil, he must therefore resist Nazism. There's nothing egotistical and precious little that's political in this stance. It's not even a question of personal morality. In an important exchange with Judge Lueben (the late, great Bruno Ganz), Franz is asked, "Do you have a right to do this?", to which he responds, "Do I have a right not to?" His resistance is ingrained in his very soul. Indeed, watching him head willingly toward his tragic fate, turning the other cheek to the prison guards who humiliate and torture him, he becomes something of a Christ figure, with his time in prison not unlike the Passion. An important conversation concerning this is when he is speaking to Ohlendorf (Johan Leysen), a cynical artisan who is restoring the local church's artwork. Ohlendorf laments that he must work not on images of Christ's suffering as it was, but on the sanitised version desired by the clergy, and he lacks the courage to do otherwise; "I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. Some day I might have the courage to venture. Not yet. Some day. I'll paint the true Christ." It's a subtle summation of Franz's situation, of course, but so too of the film, which shows Franz's suffering as it was even as it celebrates the power of faith to transcend such suffering.

In this sense, much like Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) in Thin Red Line, Franz is a Heideggerian sein-zum-tode ("being-towards-death"). This describes not the hastening towards the end of Dasein in a biological sense but is rather about the process of growing in the Lebenswelt to a point where one gains an authentic perspective, as one comes to completely accept the temporality of this existence, and hence no longer fear death. The application to both Witt and Franz is obvious - both men accept that this world is transitory and that life is simply part of the soul's eternal journey, so neither man fears death, and by not fearing it, they triumph over it.

Aesthetically, as one expects from Malick, A Hidden Life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful, particularly in its depiction of nature. Shooting digitally, Malick and his first-time cinematographer Jörg Widmer shot most of the exteriors (and some of the interiors) in a wide-lens anamorphic format that distorts everything outside the dead-centre of the frame. The effect is subtle (we're not talking fisheye lens distortion), but important - pushing the mountains further around the village, bringing the sky closer, elongating the already vast fields. This is a land beyond time, a modern Utopia that kisses the very sky.

The film opens with the sounds of birds chirping and a river flowing, followed by a voice-over in which Fani invokes the natural grandeur of Sankt Radegund ("I thought that we could build our nest high-up. In the trees. Fly away like birds to the mountains"). All of this before we see a single image. The film then begins (and closes) on breath-taking shots of the mountains around the village. However, a lot of the VO is epistolary, with large portions taken from the letters Franz and Fani write to one another when he was in prison. For Malick, this is a very conventional style to employ, especially insofar as his VOs have been getting more and more abstract as his films have gone on.

As for problems, as a Malick fanatic, I found very few. You know what you're getting with a Malick film, so complaining about the length (it's just shy of three hours) or the pace is kind of pointless. You know if you like how Malick paces his films, and if you found, for example, New World boring beyond belief, so too will you find Hidden Life. One thing I will say, though, there are a few scenes in the last act that are a little repetitive, giving us information we already have or hitting emotional beats we've already hit. It could also be argued that the film abstracts or flat-out ignores the real horrors of World War II, but that's by design. It isn't about those horrors, and Thin Red Line proves Malick has no problem showing man's inhumanity to man. The same is true for politics; much like 1917 (2019), Hidden Life is not about politics, so to accuse it of failing to address politics is to imply it's obliged to address politics. Which it most certainly is not.

In the end, A Hidden Life left me profoundly moved, on a level that very, very few films have (Thin Red Line and Tree of Life amongst them). Less a film than a spiritual odyssey, if you're a Malick fan, you should be enraptured. I don't know if I'd necessarily call it a masterpiece, but it's certainly close and is easily the best film of 2019 that I've seen thus far (the fact that it missed out on a single Academy Award nomination is a commentary unto itself).
18 out of 27 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Uncut Gems (2019)
8/10
Watching a guy screw up for two frantic hours may not sound very compelling, but this is a fine piece of work
25 January 2020
Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, and Benny Safdie, and directed by the Safdies, Uncut Gems is essentially two hours and fifteen minutes of watching a guy screw up in increasingly spectacular and catastrophic ways. It's a film where you know from the first ten minutes that sooner or later, he won't be able to worm his way out of one of his mistakes, and at that point, his seemingly unshakable optimism and belief in his own delusions will prove ill-equipped to deal with the reckoning. So from the first act, you're on edge, and you remain there for the duration. It's a film that never stops moving at the chaotic breakneck speed with which it begins, a film possessed of energy nearly queasy in nature. It has also been made with such craft, the mise en scène is so good, the dialogue so sharp, and the acting so intense, that you may as well be watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It's a film made of pure sweat and anxiety, and I'd highly recommend it.

New York, 2012. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a charismatic jeweller who lives his life on the principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. A serious gambling addict, he always has at least one hustle going, and he always owes somebody something. Soon after we meet him, it's revealed that he's currently in debt to his loan-shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) to the tune of $100,000. Meanwhile, his jewellery business is doing well, not the least reason for which is his colleague Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), who helps bring in high-profile clients. The latest example of such is Boston Celtics' basketballer Kevin Garnett (a surprisingly strong performance by Garnett himself). As Garnett is browsing the store, it's revealed that Howard has smuggled an ultra-rare black opal of extraordinary translucence into the country for an auction the following day, where he expects it will sell for up to $1 million. However, when Garnett sees the stone, he insists he is allowed to have it as a lucky charm, just for the match he's playing that night. Howard is reluctant but agrees to part with it when Garnett offers to leave his All-Star ring as collateral (which Howard immediately pawns for money to place a bet on Garnett's game). And, predictably, things quickly go awry.

Howard is a delusional and doomed figure who's very much the product of late capitalism; a man who genuinely believes, despite past experience to the contrary, that his big score is right around the next corner. In this respect, the film is a deconstruction of the concomitant globalised alienation; a system capable of drawing into a single self-delusional orbit such varied parties as exploited Ethiopian manual labourers, small business owners in New York, under-pressure athletes, loan-sharks, and bookies - all operating with the unshakable belief that a huge win is just within their grasp. Howard, of course, is the worst example, and is essentially a fantasist who's utterly divorced from reality, a man who believes completely that if people would get out of his way and let him turn that fabled corner, all of his worries will disappear. It's the gambling addict's fallacy - no matter how much or how often you lose, the next bet will be the big winner. The problem Howard faces is that he has made promises based on that fallacy - he owes money which he can only pay if his latest scheme works out exactly as intended; such is the precarious house of cards that is his life.

In this sense, the film is an especially astute study of addiction, although this theme is never foregrounded - no one accuses Howard of being a gambling addict, and he certainly doesn't seem to think of himself as one. This is not a cautionary tale. However, if you're paying even the slightest bit of attention, you can't help but see just how hopelessly consumed Howard is by his addiction (never once does he give the impression that he wants to stop gambling). It has wormed its way into every facet of his life, to the point where it has become his life, or certainly a hugely important part of that life. This is why delusion is such a major component in his psychological make-up - addiction and delusion form an ever-tightening feedback loop that becomes more difficult from which to escape, the more self-sustaining they become.

In terms of aesthetics, it's worth noting that two of the three writers (Bronstein and Benny Safdie) are also credited as the editors, and this is crucial insofar as the frenetic pace of the narrative isn't achieved only by the cutting, but by the script as well - this is a film written by people with at least one eye on the editing rhythms. The first scenes in New York, for example, immediately establish the chaotic energy - Howard speaking rapidly into his mobile, dialogue overlapping almost unintelligibly as multiple characters interact and talk over one another, at least three things always happening, each one of which would occupy our complete attention in a more conventional film. Here, it's almost like everything is a background to everything else, with nothing ever given a sustained sole focus. The opening scenes establish the pace as blistering, and that never really changes. It's the kind of film where there's perpetual propulsive momentum - because the characters never stop moving, neither does the story, even if the characters never actually manage to get anywhere. The score, by Daniel Lopatin, is also excellent. Obviously inspired by Tangerine Dream's electronic scores for Michael Mann's early films, most notably Thief (1981), it's a crucial element of the film, adding to the overlapping cacophony of sounds and enhancing the general sense of twitchy chaos.

As for the acting, everything you've heard about Sandler is true; he's incredible. Sure, he's playing the same kind of volatile delusional loser that he's played in a million-and-one subpar comedies. But it's the tone of the performance, the key in which he plays Howard that makes it stand out. You could make the argument that Howard is simply Sandler dialled up to 11, and you wouldn't be wrong, but the inherent tragedy of the man, his self-delusion, his seemingly unquenchable optimism and belief in himself - Sandler draws these elements out every second he's on-screen, finding pathos in virtually everything he does. Elsewhere, Bogosian is his usual stoically intimidating self; as Howard's wife Dinah, who has grown to loathe her husband, Idina Menzel manages some of the most withering looks ever captured on film; and as Howard's naive but sweet mistress Julia, debutant Julia Fox imbues what could have been a clichéd bimbo-type role with real emotional nuance.

As for problems, the pace of the film will certainly put some people off. There are no down-moments here, no scenes designed to let the audience breath. This is as anxiety-inducing a film as you're likely to see, and that simply won't be to everyone's taste. Partly because of this, the tone never really varies. There are some comic beats (Howard getting dumped naked into a car trunk during his daughter's school play is particularly funny), but by and large, the tone is perpetually dark, ominous, and exhausting. Which, again, won't be for everyone. And there will, of course, be people who just can't get past the presence of Adam Sandler, which I can understand. Personally though, I loved Uncut Gems. It's certainly not the subtlest of films, nor the most thematically complex, but as character studies go, this is exceptionally good work from everyone involved and a genuinely unique piece of cinema.
21 out of 42 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
1917 (2019)
8/10
Although partly a technical showcase rather than a story, it's still a terrific Great War movie
23 January 2020
Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and directed by Mendes, unless you've been living under a rock, you'll know that 1917 has been done in such a way as to give the impression that it all takes place in two single shots (the marketing material says one shot, but it's two - there's a cut-to-black/time-jump about midway through where no attempt is made to hide the transition). In reality, of course, there are a lot more than two shots (the longest single shot was just over 8 minutes), but the edits have been digitally 'hidden', much like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) or Utøya 22. juli (2018). Working with cinematographer Roger Deakins (who'll win his second Oscar for the film), Mendes wanted it to be the most immersive war movie ever put on screen. And although I have some issues with it, I think he's made an exceptional film, one in which form and content are unusually tightly matched, with the style extremely effective at delivering the story in a thematically justified manner.

April 6, 1917; the Western Front. Two British Lance Corporals, Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are summoned to a meeting with General Erinmore (Colin Firth). Recently, German forces have fallen back, and Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment believes that if he attacks now, he can turn the tide of the war. However, he's unaware that the retreat is tactical - the Germans have fallen back to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line and are lying in wait. With communication lines cut, Schofield and Blake are assigned to physically carry an order from Erinmore to Mackenzie calling off the following morning's attack. If they fail, 1,600 soldiers will be slaughtered.

So, the film's big selling point is its aesthetic design. The use of the single-shot format is such a noticeable type of form that whenever it's used, it automatically places pressure on the content, which must justify why the film is shot this way. If the content can't do that, the form becomes gimmicky. Think of, for example, Rope (1948), which was edited to look like one shot, or Victoria (2015), which was legitimately one shot. Very little in either film justifies the stylistic design. Compare this with genuine one-shot films such as Timecode (2000) or Russkiy kovcheg (2002), and edited one-shot films such as La casa muda (2010) or the aforementioned Utøya 22. Juli, all of which tie form to content in such a way that they become indistinguishable. And I think Mendes achieves like synergy.

Is the one-shot effect distracting? At first, yes, it is a little, especially if you're playing the game of trying to spot where editor Lee Smith has hidden the transitions. But after sussing two edits in the first twenty minutes, I stopped looking, because I realised I was just pulling myself out of the film unnecessarily. In essence, once you go with the aesthetic on its own terms, you forget about trying to spot the edits, instead letting the cinematography do exactly what it's supposed to do - immerse you.

Generally speaking, the majority of the film is shot in one of two ways - either the camera is behind Schofield and Blake, following their path, or it's in front of them, facing back towards them as they 'follow' its path. There are some minor deviations from this, but the film never leaves their presence. And because the two men are almost perpetually in motion, it means that the camera is almost perpetually in motion - if they're walking along a trench, we're walking along a trench; if they're moving slowly through a bombed-out town, we're moving slowly through a bombed-out town. Almost everything the camera does is because one or both of the protagonists are doing the same thing, further emphasising the correlation between form and content.

The opening scene serves as a superb introduction to the technique. The film starts with a shot of a daffodil field, before pulling back and revealing Schofield and Blake taking a break. They rouse themselves and begin walking, first past more resting soldiers, then the mess, then down a ramp into the trenches. Geographically, it's a short walk, but thematically, it covers considerable ground, and perfectly encapsulates one of the main thematic reasons behind the single-shot - to accurately convey the importance of geospatial relations. We see the tactile transition from Edenic to hellish because we're moving in real-time through the milieu; we see the boundary between peace and war because the characters walk along that boundary. You shoot this sequence conventionally, and you undercut that.

Along slightly more conventional lines, one also has to commend the work of production designer Dennis Gassner. Every location is visually unique - from a German bunker to an abandoned farmhouse to the bombed-out remnants of Écoust-Saint-Mein. His design of No Man's Land is especially laudable. When the men first crawl venture out, they immediately encounter a rotting fly-covered horse carcass. Gradually, however, the battlefield becomes more mechanised, until they eventually pass through a German artillery position, with their journey charting the progression of the conflict itself, which started on horses and ended up in tanks.

Also in a slightly more conventional sense, one has to mention Deakins's work during the nighttime scenes in Écoust-Saint-Mein. The entire village has been reduced to nothing but the shells of buildings, and as we pass through the town, the only source of light is from the flares arching through the sky, which create very hard shadows in constant motion. The whole thing is almost otherworldly, and as the garish light traverses the sky, it's as if the ground itself is in motion, almost liquid-like. It might be a little too aesthetically beautiful for a film aiming for such gritty realism, but for aspiring cinematographers, you won't find a better study in how to compose a sequence using light and shadow.

Thematically, by its very nature, 1917 is far more focused on the micro than the macro - you might learn something about life on the front, but you'll learn nothing about the politics behind the conflict. Partly because of this, it avoids, for the most part, the overwrought patriotism and cartoonish jingoism that make films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) so obnoxious. Indeed, the protagonists' nationality is largely anonymous, which is not something you can usually say of a war film. On the other hand, you shouldn't expect too much psychological insight. The Thin Red Line (1998) (for my money, the greatest war film ever made) it most definitely isn't. Having said that, however, I would value its simple individualised insights above something like the empty temporal trickery of Dunkirk (2017).

In terms of other problems, the story is unquestionably paper-thin, but that's pretty much by design. One criticism I did have, however, is how well-groomed Scholfield and Blake constantly are, each with a perfect set of teeth. One only need watch They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) to see how unrealistic this is. Indeed, the duo look like they've just stepped out of the makeup trailer most of the time, and it's glaring enough on a couple of occasions to pull you out of things.

All things considered though, I thoroughly enjoyed 1917. I thought the single-shot strategy worked exceptionally well, and even if the film is weak from a character/storyline/theme perspective, it didn't really matter when the form and content are this well matched. This could have become an empty technical exercise predicated on nothing, but Mendes hasn't allowed that to happen. The Great War was hell on Earth. 1917 doesn't make us feel what that hell was like. Because no film, no art form, can do that. But it's a very fine approximation.
15 out of 26 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Amanda (2018)
6/10
A gentle, albeit very pedestrian drama about the importance of family during times of tragedy
19 January 2020
Written by Mikhaël Hers and Maud Ameline and directed by Hers, Amanda is a tender and gentle study of the importance of family in the wake of tragedy. Heartfelt and sincere, it shuns traditional filmic methods of eliciting emotion, instead presenting its story in a cinéma vérité style as a series of semi-connected moments taking place over several months, rather than a tightly focused narrative with forward momentum and rising pathos. The pacing certainly won't be for everyone, nor will the absence of much in the way of psychological nuance, and the manner of the presentation does occasionally cross the line from passive observation into inconsequentiality. However, one certainly can't deny Hers's candidness and compassion.

David (Vincent Lacoste) is a young Parisian who works part-time overseeing a letting arrangement for a local landlord and part-time trimming trees for the parks department. Not exactly the most ambitious person on the planet, his life is simple and uneventful, and he's quite happy with that. Estranged from his father, and having only sporadic contact with his English mother, Alison (a cameo by Greta Scacchi), his only real family are his aunt Maud (Marianne Basler), sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), and her seven-year-old daughter Amanda (an exceptional Isaure Multrier). David occasionally babysits for Amanda, and that's about as complicated and exciting as his life gets. Then, on a day like any other, Paris is rocked by a devastating terrorist attack, and David's world is turned upside down.

The attack in the film is a fictional composite of the real November 2015 attacks, and although it's very much the film's defining moment (in a narrative sense), it takes place off-camera; we only ever see the aftermath, and even then we're kept at a distance - no close-ups of victims, no scenes in barely-functioning hospitals, no grieving relatives anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones. Indeed, we never learn anything whatsoever about who's responsible beyond the fact that they're Muslim, nor are we made privy to why they did it, or the impact the attacks have on the city at large. The reason for such omissions is simple - Amanda is in no way, shape, or form a political film. It's an intimate character study dealing with issues such as survivor guilt and the importance of family. But its focus is always on the micro (David and his family) rather than the macro (Paris at large).

In this vein, rather than showing us scenes such as the terrorists preparing, the resultant devastation, the police and/or governmental response, or even the cultural effect of the attack, the film focuses on quiet moments of intimate domesticity - Sandrine explaining to Amanda what the phrase "Elvis has left the building" means, or David and Sandrine discussing Alison. Films built around events such as this are often dishonestly marketed as focusing on the "human stories" behind the headlines, but Amanda feels like one of the very few that could legitimately make that claim - the family story at the centre of the film is very much intended as representational.

Aesthetically, the film is pretty straightforward. Although Hers shoots Paris in a cinéma vérité style, so too does he play up the city's romantic connotations. He doesn't go so far as to recreate the syrupy magical-realist mise en scène from Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001), but there's definitely a whimsicality on display. So, for example, Sébastien Buchmann's cinematography is bright and wide-open, Caroline Spieth's wardrobe is airy and light, the sun always seems to be shining, people seem to have plenty of time to sit in cafés drinking red wine, everyone appears to commute via bicycle, the roads never seem snared up with traffic, the streets are clean, the parks are vibrant etc. I'm not saying such tropes are in any way inaccurate or divorced from reality, but Hers overdoes it with the 'Frenchness' of the whole thing - all we're missing is someone selling cheese whilst playing the accordion and wearing a garlic necklace. We get it, Paris is a beautiful city. We don't need obvious reminders every eight seconds.

There is one particular scene, however, that's brilliantly staged. Unfortunately, it's the last scene of the film, so I can't say much about why it's so good. What I will say is that it connects back to an earlier scene beautifully, and Hers's shoots not what would seem like the logical focus, but rather keeps the camera locked fairly tightly on Amanda's face - thus the scene is about her reaction to a thing, rather than the thing itself. Multrier, who is exceptional throughout the film, is spellbinding in this moment, moving through a gamut of emotions, which she communicates despite having only five words to speak throughout the entire thing. Never once is it unclear what she's thinking or why she's reacting the way she is; her performance draws us in and we take the emotional journey she takes. It's easily the strongest scene in the film, and without it, Amanda would have been a wholly forgettable experience.

As that might suggest, I have some significant problems with the film even aside from the clichéd visual design. To a certain extent, I admire Hers's refusal to deal with politics when looking at such a hot-button topic, but this refusal throws up a significant problem. The fact that the tragedy at the centre of the film is a terrorist attack is rendered irrelevant by how Hers handles the aftermath - replace the attack with a bad traffic accident, or a plane crash, or a gas explosion, or any other kind of incident that could cost so many lives, and you have pretty much the same movie. The film says nothing about terrorism, so why choose terrorism in the first place? If you want to tell a human story about dealing with tragedy, why do so in relation to such a politically sensitive issue with which you have no intention of engaging? It just seems counterintuitive to me, drawing attention to itself and away from the experiences of the characters.

Tied to this is that Hers doesn't completely ignore politics - there is one scene in which he touches on socio-political reactions to the attack, but it's a strangely written scene that not only feels out of place in the context of the apolitical material elsewhere but which is strangely handled even in and of itself. Walking through a park a few weeks after the attack, David and Amanda see a Muslim couple being harassed by some white people, who are demanding the woman remove her hijab. Amanda asks David to explain what's happening, and he starts talking about why religion is stupid. And then the scene ends. However, this woman isn't being harassed because she's religious - we're not shown scenes of people haranguing wimple-bedecked Catholic nuns - she's being harassed because she's a Muslim. So how does David's esoteric nonsense about why he thinks hell doesn't exist explain to Amanda what she has just seen? Are we supposed to infer that he's simply evading the question? If so, the film gives us no indication of such, and as this is the only moment where religion is explicitly addressed, we're not given any hints from anywhere else. Honestly, it would have been better not to include this scene at all and stick rigidly to the avoidance of politics and religion, as by including it, there's a feeling of evasiveness, of issues raised, only to be immediately and unsatisfactorily dismissed.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to admire in this delicate, tender, and compassionate depiction of grief and trauma. The most memorable moments are the quietest ones - the impact of removing the toothbrush of a deceased loved one, for example, carries an emotional fallout that plays out over several scenes, which is not only relatable and understandable but, for anyone who has had to do something like that, it's wholly accurate. And although the film is, perhaps, too focused on understatement, which some will read as blandness, it remains a heartfelt depiction of the importance of family during times of tragedy.
5 out of 5 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
9/10
A hilarious piece of political satire that isn't afraid to be serious
18 January 2020
We live in dangerous times. In this era of political regression, racists, xenophobes, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white separatists, and fascists, once confined to the periphery of civilised society, have wormed their way back into the cultural mainstream, preaching hate and intolerance under the guise of terms such as "nationalism" and "patriotism". Meanwhile, politicians validate such groups by doing precisely nothing to curtail them and refusing to condemn them ("very fine people on both sides" and so forth). Scholars and sociocultural anthropologists have posited that hateful right-wing ideologies are more validated now than at any time since the rise of fascism, the best known example of which is, of course, the Third Reich.

And so, it's entirely fitting that a film set in this very milieu, which argues that love, tolerance, and kindness can defeat hateful indoctrination, has come along at this precise moment. Based loosely on the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit is a political satire written and directed by Taika Waititi. Positing that the first casualty of indoctrination is objective truth, Waititi follows in the footsteps of filmmakers such as Charles Chaplin (The Great Dictator (1940)), Mel Brooks (The Producers (1967)), Roberto Benigni (La vita è bella (1997)), and even Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds (2009)) in attempting to defang Nazi ideology by rendering it utterly absurd. Marketed as an "anti-hate satire", the film has no easy task - to use Nazism as the (mostly) humorous background to what is essentially a bildungsroman, without it seeming exploitative or dismissive. And Waititi manages this tricky balancing act exceptionally well. The satire and slapstick elements are as funny as anything in his filmography, and the film's more serious moments (of which there are several) arrive like an absolute gut-punch. Jojo Rabbit is, in fact, that rarest of films - a comedy where the serious moments feel completely earned and a drama where the comedy enhances the seriousness.

Großdeutsches Reich, 1945. In the fictional town of Falkenhem, ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (an astonishing debut by Roman Griffin Davis) lives with his whimsical mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson doing probably the best work of her career) and his imaginary best friend - none other than Hitler himself (a ludicrously over the top Waititi). Believing absolutely in his duty to the state, Jojo and his actual flesh-and-blood friend Yorki (a hilarious Archie Yates) attend a Hitlerjugend camp run by the cynical Cpt. Klenzendorf (a powerful performance by Sam Rockwell that was outrageously ignored by the Academy), who was forced to leave the front line upon losing an eye. However, after an accident with a grenade, Joho is sent home. As he recovers, Rosie persuades Klenzendorf, who was demoted after the incident, to give him some work, and so he's employed to distribute propaganda around town. Life is dull but straightforward. That is until he learns his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (a nuanced performance from Thomasin McKenzie), in a crawlspace in their house.

Perhaps Jojo Rabbit's most laudable component is how well Waititi balances the disparate tones, which is a hell of a lot better than Benigni did. The film mixes slapstick humour, caricature, satire, dramatic irony, and hope, but never does it seem like its ignoring or trivialising real suffering. When the comedy is dropped and Waititi gets serious, the tonal shifts pack a shocking punch, and it's because they're so well integrated into the overarching comic structure - if you take away the humour and the satirical edge, the film's darker elements simply don't work as well - it's the contrast that makes each element all the more powerful. Waititi's tonal intentions are indicated right from the beginning, as stock footage of German children performing 'Heil Hitlers' is scored (unashamedly anachronistically) by the German version of The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (1963). Also crucially important to the film's tonal qualities are the bright, colourful palette employed by director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. and the whimsical Oscar-nominated production design by Waititi's regular designer, Ra Vincent. Together, they speak to the fact that this is Jojo's worldview rather than objective reality, with the look of the film reminding me a great deal of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). It sure doesn't look like any World War II movie you're ever likely to have seen.

Thematically, the film examines multiple issues; the devotion of motherhood, the importance of kindness in defeating indoctrination, the disconnect between an unchallenged ideology and a complex reality, the predetermined attitudinal stance towards the Other, the clash between doing what one knows to be right and what one is expected to do, the fact that good people can be found even in the worst of circumstances. Klenzendorf's arc is especially telling in this respect. Introduced as a hyperbolic caricature, the source of some of the film's biggest early laughs, as things progress, we realise there's considerably more to his character than initially thought, and he commands what's easily the most moving scene in the whole film. This is Jojo's story, however, with much of the runtime concerned with his attempts to rationalise the cognitive dissonance between what he's been taught and what he can see with his own eyes.

Of course, although set in 1945, Jojo Rabbit is really about the here and now. Essentially, it mocks extremism, people who hate based on ethnicity or religion, with Jojo's belief that Jews are demonic figures capable of powerful magic standing in for people who believe all Muslims are terrorists or all Mexicans are rapists. In this sense, the film isn't about Nazis at all; their role is allegorical. Rather it's partly about the role adults play in inculcating children into hate and partly about exposing the power of propaganda to subvert truth. But so too is it about rising above such ideology, no matter how ingrained it might be, finding the individualistic humanity in the Other, behind the political cliché. And although all of this is presented humorously, it never becomes didactic or monolithically preachy - Waititi balances his tones too well.

If I were to criticise any element of the film, it would be that Waititi undeniably glosses over some of the more horrific atrocities carried out during the War. The Nazis in the film are, by design, cartoonish, which s done so as to render them as easily dismissed figures to be scorned. The reality, of course, was far darker, and it certainly wouldn't have hurt to have at least one Nazi who isn't a figure of fun. In this sense, the film doesn't represent the awful truth, but it never claims to; this isn't a reality-based examination of Nazism, nor does it try to be.

Jojo Rabbit is beautiful, emotional, heartfelt, and devastating, but mostly hilarious and always hopeful. It's an extraordinarily sweet film without ever becoming saccharine, as Waititi strikes a perfect balance between comedy, tragedy, and drama. It's a very funny World War II film which imparts a vital message for our confused and divided world of today - if we let them, love will always trump hate, hope will always light a way through the darkness. But only if we let them.
9 out of 21 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
The Gentlemen (2019)
8/10
Nothing too unexpected here, but it's funny and hugely entertaining
14 January 2020
The Gentlemen is a return to the London gangster milieu where writer/director Guy Ritchie first made his name with films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). His first foray into this territory since the disappointing RocknRolla (2008), The Gentlemen comes at the end of over a decade making big-budget studio-backed crimes against cinema. Granted, the film seems stuck in the last decade in more ways than one, it's highly questionable that the only gay character is a slimy S&M proponent who'll sleep with pretty much anyone, its token female character barely even manages to rise to the level of tokenism, and Ritchie does absolutely nothing new here - if you've seen Lock, Stock or snatch., you'll know pretty much exactly what to expect - but The Gentlemen is still hugely entertaining. Most of the jokes land, the dialogue is as sharp and expletive-laden as ever, the cast are having a ball, and the self-reflexivity, although a little forced in places, works well for the most part. And yes, the plot is as derivative as it gets, but there's no denying Ritchie has injected real verve into what looks on paper like an inconsequential C-movie. The Gentlemen definitely won't change your life, but it will make you laugh.

The film begins as sleazy private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant) arrives unannounced at the home of Ray (Charlie Hunnam), right-hand man to Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), a suave Oxford-educated American ex-pat who controls a huge marijuana empire in London, valued at around £400 million. Several months prior, Fletcher was hired by tabloid editor Big Dave (the great Eddie Marsan) to dig up dirt on Pearson with the aim to ruin him - Dave's revenge for Pearson blanking him at a gala. Fletcher has written a screenplay based on his investigation (titled Bush) and tells Ray that unless Pearson pays him £20 million, he will hand over everything he has to Dave. Meanwhile, Pearson has decided to sell his whole operation, but when word gets out, all hell breaks loose, as the various interested parties vie for advantage. Most of the subsequent film takes the form of Fletcher narrating his exploits to Ray, explaining how he learned so much about Pearson and what he does. Along the way, we meet characters such as Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), Pearson's ruthless and unflappable "cockney Cleopatra" wife, who runs a garage with an all-female staff; Berger (Jeremy Strong), Pearson's preferred buyer; Dry Eye (Henry Golding), the ambitious but brutal scion of a Chinese syndicate, who hopes to undermine Berger; Coach (a scene-stealing Colin Farrell), who runs a boxing gym for troubled youths and who inadvertently finds himself in the middle of everything; a plethora of property-rich-but-cash-poor landed gentry who are essential to Pearson's empire; a Russian oligarch; and a street gang called The Toddlers.

Aesthetically, The Gentlemen is very much in the mould of Ritchie's previous gangster movies. Because Fletcher frames his narration as a screenplay, it allows Ritchie to employ a multitude of self-reflexive devices - a smash cut coinciding with Fletcher asking Ray to visualise a smash cut; voiceover transitioning into spoken dialogue; on-screen captions telling us who's who; animated maps; YouTube fight porn (don't ask); freeze-frames; rewinds; a shot of film running through a projector etc. At one point, Fletcher is discussing the merits of anamorphic (2.39:1) over 1.78:1, and the film's aspect ratio changes accordingly. At another, he's arguing for the merits of 35mm celluloid over digital, saying he likes the grain of celluloid photography, and the film duly switches formats. Such playfulness means that it never for a second takes itself too seriously, with probably the most self-reflexive moment coming towards the end, when we visit Miramax's offices in London (Miramax produced the movie), and we see a poster for Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015). All of this is immensely fun, with the more you know about the mechanics of assembling a film, the more humorously self-reflexive the film becomes - Fletcher even acknowledges his own role as an unreliable narrator.

In terms of themes, the most obvious is something Ritchie has examined before - the idea that the economic divide between gangsters and aristocrats masks their practical similarities. Pearson straddles this divide; he's a gangster, but so too is he an aristocrat (in all but name), and the smooth running of his business depends on both classes - the aristocrats who he needs to grow his product (for reasons that constitute a bit of a spoiler, so I'm not going to get into it) and the gangsters who distribute that product. The clash between the pompous insularity of the English upper class and the perceived uncouthness of the lower class has been done to death in both literature (Wuthering Heights (1847) springs to mind) and film (Performance (1970), for example), and although Ritchie doesn't say anything even remotely new about it, it still forms an interesting textural background - gentrification is ever-present; there are ironic references to the posh areas of Croydon; Ray, a working-class Newcastle native, is a cleanliness freak who eats wagyu steak and lives in a mansion, and when he's dispatched on a mission to an uncivilised working-class area, he explains he "just hates them junkies," seeing them as very much his social inferiors.

One of the most central scenes sees a group of obnoxious privileged teens holed up in a council flat, whilst on the street below, a gang of machete-wielding delinquents terrorise the neighbourhood. As Ray and his men clash with the gang, there's a real sense of old vs. new - traditional gangsters fighting it out with internet-savvy hoodlums who don't give a damn about tradition or respect. There are a lot of laughs to be had with these issues, such as Ray and Coach having problems pronouncing the name Phuc. And again, none of this is presented as even remotely serious.

The biggest problems with the film are probably its lack of depth, and the familiarity of the presentation, characters, and milieu - there's nothing here you haven't seen in previous Ritchie films. And as you would expect, there isn't much in the way of emotional maturity or narrative complexity. It's all very surface-level, and it makes no apologies for such.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Gentlemen. It's a funny as hell caper and the actors are clearly having terrific fun. It might be formulaic and overly familiar, but it's also immensely enjoyable.
35 out of 61 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
7/10
A luminous esoteric puzzle
12 January 2020
Long Day's Journey Into Night is the love child of Andrei Tarkovsky and Kar-Wai Wong, garnished with a truly insane salad-dressing made up of an unholy mixture of filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, and Leos Carax, playwrights Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, poet Paul Celan, painters Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, and Jackson Pollack, and novelists Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Patrick Modiano; not exactly a compendium of the most accessible artists of all time. As unconcerned with formal conventionality as it is with narrative resolution, this is an art-house movie through and through, an esoteric puzzle made up of two distinct parts. Whilst the 2D first half is a measured, but reasonably conventional albeit non-linear noir, the second is composed of an unbroken 50-minute 3D shot that's as aesthetically audacious as it is narratively elliptical. The second feature from 30-year-old self-educated writer/director Bi Gan, Long Day's Journey is aggressively enigmatic, and the absence of character arcs, the formal daring, the languorous pacing, and the resistance to anything approaching definitive conclusions, will undoubtedly see many react with equal parts bafflement and infuriation. However, if you can get past such issues and go with the film on its own terms, you'll find a fascinatingly esoteric examination of the protean nature of memory, a film that in both form and content seems to belie its writer/director's youth and relative inexperience.

Long Day's Journey tells the story of moody loner Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang), a man haunted by his past. In 2000, he met and had a brief but memorable relationship with the mysterious Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang), whom he has never been able to forget. When he returns to his home city of Kaili to bury his father, he sets about trying to track down Qiwen, as the story of their relationship is told via flashbacks. However, it soon becomes apparent that just because Lou remembers a thing doesn't necessarily mean that that thing happened. When his search leads him to a dingy movie theatre, he puts on a pair of 3D glasses and finds himself in an abandoned mine from which his only hope of escape is to win a game of ping pong. The rest of the film takes place in his dream world. Or in the 3D movie playing in the theatre. Or in an amalgamation of both. Or in something else entirely.

Long Day's Journey's biggest selling point is unquestionably the aesthetically audacious second hour. The film starts as a garden variety noir - the world-weary voiceover, the femme fatale revealed through flashbacks, smoke-filled rooms, the back alley meetings, the dangerous gangster, the troubled friend, the darkly fatalistic tone. There's even a clue written on the back of a photo. However, all of these genre markers are jettisoned when Luo enters the cinema, putting on his 3D glasses, just as the audience is prompted to do likewise. The film's title card then appears onscreen for the first time (a full 70 minutes in), and the movie adopts a far more elliptical and esoteric stance than the investigative noir structure of the first half.

Unlike 'single-take' films such as Climax (2018), Utøya 22. juli (2018), and 1917 (2019), which use long-takes and 'hidden' edits to give the effect of a single-shot, the second half of Long Day's Journey follows films such as Russkiy kovcheg (2002) and Victoria (2015) insofar as it was legitimately shot via one single take. And not only that, but it's a complex and visually layered shot too, featuring drones, Steadicams, intricate blocking, elaborate external locations with multitudes of people, practical effects, complex interior locations, even a lengthy sequence set on a zip line. Considering the scope, it would be an impressive enough technological accomplishment in 2D, but that it was filmed with bulky 3D cameras is almost unbelievable, and that three cinematographers worked on the project is unsurprising - Hung-i Yao shot half of the 2D material, Jingsong Dong shot the rest of the 2D material and planned the 3D sequence, whilst David Chizallet actually shot the sequence.

What's especially laudable about the sequence, however, is how it never becomes gimmicky. Most movies released in 3D have no real thematic justification for being in 3D, nothing in their content to justify their form, whilst films such as Victoria have no real thematic justification for being single-shots. Long Day's Journey, however, justifies both decisions - the single-shot works in tandem with the 3D to create a vibrant and complex world of depth and vitality, but one that never seems completely real; there's always the sense of an artifice, something highly 'subjective' getting between the audience and the on-screen images, as if we're not seeing things objectively but instead seeing an individual's interpretation of things - it's reality, but it's mediated reality, with all the subjective distortions that such a thing implies.

This is a film about memory, specifically the idea that memory can be deceptive, and may have as much to do with dreams as with objective reality. In this sequence, as memory, reality, and dream seem to blend into one another, with even identity itself dissolving (several of the main actors re-appear in completely different parts), Gan shows us something that approximates a dream as well as anything you're ever likely to experience, outside actually dreaming. Any film can throw something surreal onscreen and call it a dream scene, but Long Day's Journey manages to convey not just the content of a dream, but the illogical texture of a dream. You replace the 3D images with 2D images, or you replace the single-shot with edited content, and you fundamentally lose that texture; the 3D/single-shot form is as important as James Joyce's removal of punctuation is in creating the impression of a mind on the brink of falling asleep in the last episode of Ulysses (1922) - restore the punctuation, and the interrelatedness of form and content is lost.

Speaking of literature, although the film may seem unrelated to Eugene O'Neill's 1941 play (the Chinese title similarly references a short story collection by Roberto Bolaño), a common theme is memory and the all-consuming power of time. The conventional first half of the film concerns itself not just with memory, but with the imperfect nature of memory, essentially suggesting that obsession is nothing more than a trick of the mind, an attempt to reattain something that may never have existed in the first place (also an important theme in the play). Indeed, it's worth noting that the most recurrent visual motif in the film is that of reflection - not just in mirrors, but so too in puddles, which act as slightly more distorted (subjective?) versions of the relatively perfect reflection one gets from a mirror. So even here, one can see that Gan is examining the distortions of memory and the fault line between objectivity and subjectivity.

All of which will probably go some way to telling you whether or not you're likely to enjoy Long Day's Journey. Make no mistake, this is an esoteric film that isn't especially interested in plot or character, and which uses form to explore complex issues such as memory, subjectivity, and obsession. It's rarely emotionally engaging in a conventional sense and the minimalist plot can result in some rather glib moments. The storyline is elliptical, the characters archetypal, the themes subtle, and, all things considered, the very aspects which one person will find transformative, will completely alienate another. You either embrace the emphasis on mood and tone, or you fight it, trying to find a linear narrative through-line. Personally, I loved its formal daring and admired Gan's confidence and the singularity of his vision, but at the same time, I found each section outstayed it's welcome a little, and felt the first half could lose a good 15 minutes, and the second around 10 or so. Gan also walks a very fine line between emotional detachment and emotional alienation, and it's a line he crosses a couple of times. Nevertheless, this is an awe-inspiring technical achievement, an ultra-rare example of a film which perfectly matches form to content, and a fascinating puzzle that trades in the undefinable nuances of memory. If you have the patience to work with it, the rewards are many.
22 out of 25 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
7/10
I enjoyed it, but with a sizeable asterisk
8 January 2020
Rian Johnson's Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017) was a film which divided critics and audiences to an unusual degree - on Metacritic it has a critical score of 85/100 (the second-highest in the franchise), but its audience score is only 4.4/10 (the lowest in the franchise). In their (predominantly negative) reviews of Rise of Skywalker, many critics who championed Last Jedi posit that the film was a great work of art, unfairly maligned by a toxic fanbase. And certainly, there was an element of that - the racist and sexist abuse that Kelly Marie Tran took from such fans was shameful. However, these critics essentially argue that if you didn't like Last Jedi, the only possible explanation is that you're a misogynistic Neanderthal. They don't mention the horrid screenplay that spends 40 minutes on a side-quest that has nothing to do with the rest of the film; they don't mention how Holdo (Laura Dern) withholding her plan from Poe (Oscar Isaac) makes not a lick of sense; they don't mention Luke (Mark Hamill) throwing away his lightsaber (to hell with that scene); they don't mention how Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) was turned into comic relief; and they certainly don't mention resurrected flying space Jedi (to hell with that scene too). The fact is, the film is an absolute mess at both a structural and thematic level.

And so we have Rise of Skywalker, which is a course correction if not a flat-out apology - Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is once more wearing his mask and the Knights of Ren are back; the Jedi child seen at the end of Last Jedi is never mentioned; Rey's (Daisy Ridley) parentage, so casually dismissed in Last Jedi, is once again crucial; and Rose (Tran) is barely seen. Indeed, Rise is more of a sequel to Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015) than it is to Last Jedi, one or two major plot points notwithstanding. And although I certainly enjoyed it as a spectacle (it looked and sounded exceptional in 3D IMAX), there's no doubt it's a deeply flawed piece of work. It's the kind of film that feels like it was created by a computer algorithm or a corporate committee trying to tick as many boxes as possible, concerned primarily with trying to please everyone without offending anyone. And this is only one of two impossible tasks it assigns itself.

Picking up the story a few months after the events of Last Jedi, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned, revealing that he's been manipulating events from behind-the-scenes for years. As the film begins, Kylo Ren is making his way to Palpatine's base on the 'hidden' planet Exegol, which can only be reached with the use of a powerful Sith Wayfinder, of which there are only two in existence. Seeing Palpatine as a threat to his leadership of the First Order, Ren is planning to kill him. However, rather than doing so, he watches in awe as Palpatine reveals a massive armada of hundreds of fearsomely powerful Xyston-class Star Destroyers. And so, the Resistance set out in a mission to confront and defeat him.

Directed by Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, with a script by Abrams and Chris Terrio, the biggest problem with both this film and this new trilogy as a whole is lack of narrative through-lines. At no point during Rise did it ever feel like the culmination of a nine-film arc. It barely felt like the culmination of a three-film arc. Not only is there a disconnect between the three films in the trilogy, but there's a sizeable disconnect between this trilogy and the previous two. Love them or hate them, the prequels not only form a coherent and logical trilogy, but (Midi-chlorian foolishness aside), they also form a coherent and logical six-film arc with the original trilogy. George Lucas has spoken about when you watch the originals, it's Luke's story, but when you watch the six films, it's Anakin's story. When you factor in this third trilogy, however, despite Disney dubbing the nine films the "Skywalker Saga", the overarching story essentially becomes Palpatine's. But, whilst his presence is woven intricately into the fabric of the first two trilogies, his appearance here is...less so. This has the effect of making the nine-film sequence feel unbalanced, with the last three never really feeling like a valid continuation of the previous six. At best, they feel like a spin-off, with thematic connections and recurring characters occasionally shoehorned in to try to establish narrative continuity.

All of which leaves Rise with not one, but two impossible tasks - 1) to somehow conclude this trilogy in such a way that it also works as the satisfying closing chapter to the nine-film Skywalker Saga, and 2) to somehow conclude this trilogy despite having to abandon and retcon much of what the second film did.

Of course, a big question here is whether or not Disney had a specific narrative plan going into this thing, with many arguing that the lack of coherence between the three films proves that they did not. But that seems somewhat unbelievable to me. Rather, it's more likely that Abrams laid the groundwork for a coherent three-film arc, but Johnson ignored (if not necessarily undermined) much of that preparatory work. This also feeds into the criticism that the first hour of Rise is too plot-heavy and expositionary; which could be explained if Abrams was essentially in a position of having to cram two films' worth of plot into one film.

The big thing here is the return of Palpatine, which has been accused of being completely arbitrary, a desperate bit of fan service from a filmmaker trying to win back fans, and which doesn't make a whole lot of narrative sense. I can certainly sympathise with those sentiments, and I agree that his return negates Vader's sacrifice at the end of Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983). However, there were hints in Force Awakens that there was a hidden big bad, and that that big bad was Palpatine. To explain any more would constitute spoilers for Rise, but there are videos on YouTube posted shortly after the release of Force Awakens which speculate that Palpatine might be involved.

There are some smaller issues with the film, however. For example, it treats death less than reverentially, with multiple characters dying, only to return in some form or another, which cheapens and undermines any inherent risk in the story. The quartet of main characters also remain as insipid as they were in the previous two films - Rey is still a reluctant Jedi trying to wrap her head around everything; Finn (John Boyega) is still a token good guy who used to be bad; Poe is still Han Solo-lite; and Ren is still a moody emo who hates his parents. The biggest problem is that the film is built around the Resistance trying to get to Exegol. To do so they need a Wayfinder, but to get that they need this other thing, but to find that they need to go here, but to do that they need a doohickey, but to get that they have to...you get the picture.

For all that, however, I have to admit, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker for the most part. There certainly are a lot of callbacks but I thought most were fairly well-handled, logical enough and reasonably organic. Aesthetically, as one would expect, everything looks and sounds great, particularly Palpatine's base on Exegol. Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel shoot these scenes like it's a horror movie - deep chiaroscuro shadows, ominous caverns disappearing in the background, unnaturally powerful lightening flashing from above. This tone is helped immeasurably by Rick Carter's production design, which really sells the vast otherworldliness of the place. Equally important here is David Acord's sound design, which features a constant chatter of unearthly and disembodied voices, like a thousand ghosts all whispering at once.

The whole thing has a dark vibe the likes of which we've never really seen in Star Wars, and the scenes here are probably the best in the film. The scenes showing Rey and Ren speaking to one another via Force Dyad are also excellent. These scenes were easily the best part of Last Jedi, and they're just as good here, as we see the background of one character's location appearing behind the other character, with the backgrounds shifting from one to the other as the scenes play out. A lightsaber fight makes particularly good use of the Dyad, with events in one location having an unexpected effect on events in the other.

So, all things considered, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker and found it a vast improvement over Last Jedi. However, having said that, it never touches greatness, with everything feeling workshopped and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life. It looks great, and it's both exciting and entertaining, but it's also safe and predictable. And sure, you might say that fans rejected Last Jedi because it took too many risks, and now they reject Rise because it doesn't take enough, and there's probably some truth to that. But the fact is that it just never feels like a closing chapter. I enjoyed it whilst I was watching it and it's a decent enough Star Wars movie, with some terrific individual scenes. But as the final entry of a 42-year-old franchise (the most popular franchise in any medium in human history), it is, perhaps inevitably, a little disappointing.
10 out of 18 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
An error has occured. Please try again.

Recently Viewed