A darkly magical realist retelling that definitely isn't for kids
Written by Steven Knight and directed by Nick Murphy, this latest adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1843 novella very much eschews the sweetness of previous adaptations and deconstructs the thematic foundations of the novella itself. Fans of the original have taken issue with some of the changes (such as the reformulation of Scrooge from misanthrope to villain, the depiction of child sexual abuse, and the joyless nature of the Cratchit family), and certainly, some of these complaints are justified. On the other hand, the attempt to ground the whimsical nature of the original in something more akin to psychological realism is, for the most part, very well-handled.
Good lord though, the last 30 seconds are ill-advised.
The first thing that jumped out at me in this adaptation was the aesthetic, particularly Si Bell's cinematography, which avoids primary colours as much as possible, instead casting the world in blacks, greys, browns, and off-whites. Interiors punctuate these shadows with the teal and orange glow of the fireplaces, and overall the show's palette is extremely muted, as it should be. In this sense, the opening scene, featuring an ominous raven and a child urinating on Marley's grave, tells us just how unique the visual template is.
The most aesthetically impressive sequence comes in the last episode; as Scrooge stands in his office, he looks up and the ceiling has become a layer of ice. Then someone falls through the ice and seems to float in the air – we're actually underneath the ice layer, and the person who has fallen through is drowning. It's a haunting image. There's also a lovely shot in the second episode – as Scrooge relives a moment from his childhood, we see his father (Johnny Harris) threaten to beat him as he cowers on a bed. However, although it is the adult Scrooge we can see, the shadow he casts is that of a child.
Thematically, the show covers some of the same ground as the novella. For example, Scrooge brilliantly deconstructs the concept of gift-giving and then goes on to pick apart the very notion of Christmas cheer, in a speech that represents some of Knight's tightest writing; "How many Merry Christmases are meant and how many are lies? To pretend on one day of the year that the human beast is not the human beast?" In a subsequent scene, he relives the origins of this philosophy, as his father tells him, "every man, every woman; they're all beasts who care only for themselves."
Where this adaptation breaks from the novella is in the depiction of Scrooge himself. Usually, a curmudgeonly old misanthrope, here, he has been refashioned as an outright villain. A manipulative asset stripper, he is complicit in the deaths of numerous factory workers and miners, a man who goes out of his way to be nasty to people, and whose treatment of Cratchit is almost fetishistically perverse. And that isn't even to mention his abuse of the power his wealth affords him, using it to compel people to demean themselves for his curiosity.
Dickens' Scrooge is not an irredeemable character, but the Scrooge of the show is, which necessitates that the joyful catharsis found in Dickens be reformulated. And the absence of such catharsis is precisely the point; this Scrooge understands that redemption won't do anything to erase his past deeds, which is a kind of psychological verisimilitude not usually found in this tale. Depicting Scrooge as worse than usual allows Knight to build organically to a more downbeat, but so too more realistic ending that's far more in tune with our own cultural milieu than the optimism found at the conclusion of Dickens's tale.
On a much more practical level, the pacing of the show is very poor. The Ghost of Christmas Present only appears to Scrooge at the top of the second hour; he then takes that entire hour and about 20 minutes of the last hour. The Ghost of Christmas Present gets about 20 minutes and the Ghost of Christmas Future no more than 10 or so. This has the effect of making the first hour seem unending and the last hour seem rushed. Another issue I have is the design of the Ghost of Christmas Future. See the awesome Death-like figure on the poster? Don't get too attached to him because he never appears in the show, not once. The Ghost of Christmas Future is a guy wearing a long black coat and a black hat, with his mouth sewn shut…and that's about it.
And then there's final 30 seconds. I have no idea what they were going for with this ending, but it makes little contextual sense, it's patronising, incredibly preachy, and…just wrong, both thematically and tonally.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed this adaptation, which is dark both literally and figuratively. It's an altogether more realistic version of the story, one more in tune with our cynical times, and for that, Knight should be commended. But the changes are significant, and a few don't work. In this sense, I'm honestly not surprised it got such a mixed reaction.
An aesthetic showcase that's uninterested in human beings (and what does Christopher Nolan have against decent sound mixing?)
In Tenet, Christopher Nolan is again examining the vagaries of time, a theme that's front and centre in much of his previous work. It's undeniably fascinating to see a tent pole Hollywood production engaging with issues such as entropy, thermodynamics, reversibility and irreversibility, the grandfather paradox, and T-symmetry, but the film's main problems are more fundamental, existing almost entirely at a structural level (although some of the performances don't help, nor does the abysmal sound mixing). It looks incredible and the practical effects in the action scenes are extraordinary, but there's nothing of note under the shiny veneer. It's a film with no interest in human beings.
The plot is straightforward in outline. We follow a CIA operative known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) as he is recruited into an ultra-secret international espionage squad called Tenet. His mission is simple – at some point in the future, someone has figured out how to reverse the entropy of objects, effectively being able to send them back along the timeline without having to reverse time itself. The implications of this are catastrophic and have set humanity on course for World War III, unless The Protagonist can figure out who is doing it and put a stop to their machinations.
Tenet is an event movie in every way; this 150-minute, $200m+ original idea is a massive studio tent pole written and directed by the most popular filmmaker alive. And I will say this, the budget is on the screen. No small amount of that money, of course, went on the practical effects (incredibly, there are only 280 VFX shots) – whether it be bungee-jumping onto the side of a building, a close-quarters fight where one of the combatants moves in reverse, a Boeing 747 jet crashing into a building, a highway chase where some of the cars are going forward in time and others are going backwards, or an all-out battle scene where, again, some of the soldiers travel forward whilst others move in reverse.
Along the same lines, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is stunning, as he mixes 15-perf 70mm IMAX film with traditional 70mm stock and a few 35mm sequences in a manner where the shifts in aspect ratio are barely noticeable. It's the kind of film that could only exist in the medium of cinema – no other artform could even begin to approximate its aesthetic design and splendour. A celluloid purist, Nolan has always made a big stink about the artistic importance of cinema, and Tenet finds him pushing the aesthetic boundaries of what the artform can accomplish.
Unfortunately, no matter how visually unique or aesthetically impressive it may be, no amount of gloss can hide the fact that the screenplay suffers from some fundamental problems – most notably, it's bereft of emotion and populated with cardboard cut-outs that are supposed to be characters. The Protagonist isn't a person with an interiority; he's a cypher, the audience's surrogate so that Nolan can explain the plot to us. He's emotionless, void of relatable motivation, has no psychological through-line, and nothing even resembling a character arc. As for Kenneth Branagh as Russian oligarch Andrei Sator, he might be the most cliched Russian villain ever put on screen. He isn't a person – he's a collection of near-satirical tics, clichés, and elements from other, better films.
As Kat, Sator's trophy wife, Elizabeth Debicki fairs better, but her role is still poorly written. A common criticism of Nolan's filmography is that his female characters tend to be victims. I'm not saying that Nolan is obliged to write more rounded female characters. Much like Michael Mann, Nolan's films are androcentric. And there's nothing wrong with that. However, in Mann, there are strong female characters with considerable agency, whereas in Tenet, Kat is nothing more than a pawn who's defined almost entirely in terms of her role as a self-sacrificing mother.
At one point early in the film, The Protagonist is told "don't try to understand it, just feel it", which is advice that Nolan is also offering to his audience. The problem is that there's nothing to feel. Unlike Memento (which remains Nolan's best by a long way), which packed a seriously emotional gut-punch when we learn what's at the heart of the puzzle, Tenet offers us nothing more than the task of deciphering it for its own sake. There's no payoff, nothing to make us want to penetrate a story uninterested in depicting real people or real emotional stakes. More enamoured by the complexity of its own design than by any of the people contained within, it's an emotional void – all technical virtuosity and surface sheen with nothing at its core.
Never gets past the kind of introductory material you could find online
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 the 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 met a Muslim man in an elevator in Amsterdam and became interested in Islam. Watching YouTube videos of Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip, she began to interact with a user called Black Flag, who invited her to join a jihadi chatroom, soon revealing (in unencrypted conversations) that he was the leader of an al-Qaeda cell 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.
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. It also looks, rather too briefly, at the sensationalism of the American news media. Presenting an absurd scenario wherein white Americans would 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. On this subject, Cassidy paints a picture of abuse, neglect, and a complete absence of any self-worth. 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.
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 the belief that without the "War of Terror", an army of white American al-Qaeda soldiers would storm the White House and establish a jihadi state in Washington, DC. Instead, the film reveals the cell in Waterford to be comically inefficient. However, Cassidy disappointingly glosses over the media's complicity, and although he does show some clip 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. He 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.
Is the truth relevant in myth-making?
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 the lies at the heart of cultural myth-making, about how every myth is a fiction, a subjective interpretation and reframing of real events. Importantly, as with the novel, True History is itself a work of fiction which invents characters and incidents, weaving such elements into what we know of the real Ned Kelly. Rugged, fierce, bleak, and exhausting, if you're looking for casual entertainment along the lines of Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly (2003), you'll be disappointed, but if you want something complex and esoteric, you could do worse than True History.
The film takes the form of a memoir Ned Kelly (George MacKay) is writing for his daughter, so she can know the man behind the myth. Meeting him at age 12 (played by an exceptional Orlando Schwerdt), we're introduced to his mother Ellen (a ferocious Essie Davis), his drunk father John 'Red' Kelly (Gentle Ben Corbett), his two younger siblings, Sgt. O'Neill (Charlie Hunnam proving once again he can't do accents; I think he's supposed to be Welsh), and Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a notorious bushranger. Years later, the now-adult Kelly meets the hedonistic Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (a slimy Nicolas Hoult) and the good-natured Mary Hearn (the exceptional Thomasin McKenzie), with whom he begins a relationship. However, after a disagreement with Fitzpatrick, Kelly finds himself on the run, accompanied by his 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. Another fabrication is the Kelly Gang's tendency to proclaim themselves "The Sons of Sieve", a reference to an Irish secret society which Carey invented. Perhaps the most controversial fictional element concerns Kelly's sexuality. There's a strong Oedipal undertone throughout the first act, and later, Kelly is 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 has a conversation with a naked Fitzpatrick 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.
The film falls somewhere between the two extremes of Kelly scholarship – a hero for the common man or a psychopathic murderer. Although we see his horrible childhood and years of British oppression, so to do we see the callous murder of three policemen in 1878; all unarmed, two already surrendered. The Ned Kelly seen here is a savage – he's nothing like 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. She excels especially during the climactic shootout at Glenrowan - a shot of police in the dark that renders them luminescent; a confusing and claustrophobic POV shot from inside Kelly's helmet; a shot of a raging fire, the flames highlighted against the pitch-black night. It's an exceptionally beautiful scene.
In terms of problems, Hunnam's accent is hilariously bad, and the film is a little slow in places, with the narrative sagging a couple of times. And, as I already said, those expecting something in the vein of Jordan's 2003 film will be sorely disappointed.
A starkly beautiful, psychologically taxing, thematically complex film, True History acknowledges the difficulty of getting to the reality of such a widely known symbol as Ned Kelly - a process during which truth is jettisoned early. However, just how important is the truth anyway? Why not let the legend supersede fact? Does truth really matter all that much when dealing with something as significant as a national mythos?
An impressive eco-thriller that could do with more clearly delineated characters
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 who is 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 Niamh Chinn-Óir. Owned by Freya (Connie Nielsen) and captained by her husband Gerard (Dougray Scott), the boat 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, and 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.
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 is that the creature may not be acting aggressively. In this way, Hardiman refuses to demonise it, and from the moment of its discovery, Siobhán consistently argues that the crew must protect it. On the other hand, Gerard sees it 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 to the handheld and often dimly lit photography.
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 that sets him or her apart from the others. Sea Fever's failure to do this makes it harder to care about these people, which makes them feel expendable. It's a shame, because with just a little more work on the screenplay, the film could really have been elevated into something special. Another small gripe I have is that the conclusion is anticlimactic; it works very well thematically, but it's weak in terms of drama or tension.
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.
Starts brilliantly but ultimately undermines itself with plot contrivances and genre foolishness
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. 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. But fascination only gets you so far, and what could have been an insightful film eventually proves itself 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 (Elisabeth Moss) is putting into motion a plan to leave her domineering and abusive boyfriend, Adrian (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). Although assured that Adrian can't find her, Cecilia is suffers from agoraphobia and paranoia 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.
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. Along the same lines, it looks at issues of how women who accuse powerful men of gaslighting are often ignored or 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. 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.
But, I had a lot of problems with this film. 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. 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. 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. 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.
The Invisible Man left me disappointed and frustrated. Initially positioning itself as an 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.
An exceptional and painful film that reminds us men aren't the only ones capable of sexual abuse
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. 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, el-Toukhy depicts it in such a way that we revel in the erotic freedom, savouring Anne's sexual awakening almost as much as she does herself. It's not until she's faced with the possibility of the affair being revealed that we see who she truly is – a heartless and cruel exploiter, incapable of seeing that she's perpetrating a similar kind of abuse as that suffered by her clients.
An important element here is the gender paradigm. Anne is presented as 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). Once Gustav arrives on the scene, Dyrholm loosens up, carrying herself differently. Later, when she faces the possibility that Peter could learn of the affair, she shuts herself down, becoming void of emotion and interiority as she transitions from protagonist to antagonist. Throughout it all, 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.
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 hers – whereas she's introduced as the protagonist, yet 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. 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 she 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 less than thematically fascinating. It's by no means an easy watch, but it is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.
A savage and hilarious satire
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. 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 Coogan portrays him as not only narcissistic and void of conscience, but as a classless philistine – whereas Nick, for example, can quote Shakespeare and Shelley, McCreadie proudly gets his cultural know-how from BrainyQuote. However, for all his loathsomeness, McCreadie is a symbol for the system that gave rise to and sustains him; he's simply the result of an economy that takes from the poor and gives to the rich. 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.
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 Amanda, McCreadie's overworked PA. Her interactions with Nick provide the emotional core of the story, and their scenes are 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 bombast or even 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.
A fascinating premise and setup, but the execution is tedious
Little Joe is a clinically detached, aesthetically fascinating pseudo-horror with a great 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 stunning visual and aural design, but as a whole, it's like a long sentence spoken in a gratingly monotone voice.
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 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 builds a general tone of unease rather than relying on traditional horror beats, and is kind of like an episode of Black Mirror, but focusing on biology rather than technology.
The most immediately obvious element of the film is the 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 suggests 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 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, the film 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, Little Joe posits a scenario where the abstract is made completely literal.
However, 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, implying that the daily use of pharmaceuticals is akin to people being somehow less than their "real" selves. That this is naïve hardly needs explaining, and to suggest that such people are 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.
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, but misguided. I do hope the film opens doors for Hausner, who's clearly a talented filmmaker. But Little Joe lacks the subtle ambiguity of Hausner's Lourdes (2009), the bombast of a horror, the esoteric coherence of a satire, and the narrative drive of a thriller.
A well-made creature-feature; it may not be original, but it is entertaining
Underwater was shot in early 2017 and then sat on a shelf for over two years. Now that it's finally seeing the light of day in the January release window - 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, Michael Mann's underrated 2015 cyber-terrorism drama. 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, humans are attempting to drill into the ocean floor at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, almost seven miles down. As the film begins, the station is hit by a series of unexplained vibrations, causing a cascading pressure breach. Norah (Kristen Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) manage to escape and seal off the area so as to slow, but not prevent the inevitable implosion of the whole station. Shortly, they encounter other survivors – Cpt. Lucian (Vincent Cassel), Paul (T.J. Miller), Liam (John Gallagher, Jr.), and Emily (Jessica Fenwick). Lucien says their only hope of escape is to use pressurised suits to walk the one-mile distance to the drilling station and use the escape pods located there. And so they descend to the dark ocean floor. However, 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 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). In short, the set-up is your classic "group of isolated people getting picked off one by one".
Kicking into high-gear immediately, the opening scene is the initial implosion, and it's a good five minutes before things calm down. In essence, Underwater is the inverse of Alien in this respect, with all hell breaking loose before we know anything about anyone. Indeed, the only character we even see before the implosion is Norah. I 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 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. This is aided immensely by Bojan Bazelli's cinematography. During scenes outside, he often shoots from within the characters' helmets, and even when the characters are inside, he often shoots in tight close-ups, heightening the sense of enclosure. 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 station are a constant reminder that it's on its last legs. The scenes outside are equally as impressive, with some excellent use of directional sound - it's a film that I would imagine will sound incredible on a 7.1.2 Atmos system.
In terms of problems, well, it isn't really about much of anything. There's a vague ecological theme that's brought up a couple of times, but it never amounts to anything even half-way substantial. 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. There's also a rather unjustified use of voiceover to bookend things, and at times, Eubank seems somewhat confused as to whether he's making a disaster movie or a monster movie.
Underwater never manages to rise anywhere near the heights of films such as Alien and Sunshine, but it still deserved better treatment than it received from the studio. 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.
An uncategorisable masterpiece
What is one to make of the utterly uncategorisable and impossible-to-define Parasite? 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. What is certain is that it's exceptional in just about every way – screenplay (co-written by director Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won), 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 (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) reside in a tiny basement apartment eking out a meagre living folding pizza boxes. However, their fortunes change when Ki-Woo bluffs his way into working as an English tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Father Dong-ik, (Lee Sun-kyun), mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), and son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) welcome Ki-woo into their 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.
As thoroughly entertaining (and funny) as Parasite is, it remains an economic treatise, albeit with a savagely satirical quality. This is far from the first time Bong has dealt with issues of class, but never before has he been this caustic and acerbic, but so too compassionate and witty. One of the most deftly-handled elements of the film is his avoidance of the clichés one so often finds in films dealing with economics – the Kims are by no means a victimised family immediately worthy of sympathy, whilst the Parks are by no means 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.
Bong is uninterested in trucking in heroes and villains 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, whilst the Parks' greatest crime is allowing their wealth to insulate them from the world of families such as the Kims. At the same time, the Kims are depicted as a far more loving family than the Parks. Although all four Kims often occupy the same frame, we never see the four Parks together in the same shot. Important here is the title. A simple reading is that the Kims are the parasites and the Parks are the hosts, with the Kims feeding off the Parks' wealth and status. However, Bong depicts the Parks as parasitic as well, feeding off of the labour of their servants. Just as the Kims feed off the Parks, the Parks feed off the Kims, in what is a symbiotic relationship.
Aesthetically, Hong Kyung-pyo's cinematography 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. Lee Ha-jun's production design is also praise-worthy, with the Kims' cluttered and dilapidated apartment contrasted with the Parks' pristine post-modernist semi-open plan house.
It's also in relation to production design wherein one of the film's best metaphors is to be found. As a story at least partly in the tradition of the "upstairs/downstairs" subgenre, Bong literalises the separation between those above and those below by using stairways as a recurring motif. The Kims' apartment has no stairs, indicating their inability to rise socio-economically. On the other hand, the Parks' home has two stairways – one going up to the bedrooms where the four children spend an increasing amount of time, cut off from their parents, and one going down into the cellar. Bong shoots this stairway like he's suddenly directing a horror film, bestowing upon it an ominousness that, at first, makes little sense, but ultimately reveals itself to be a spectacular bit of foreshadowing.
Parasite is a masterpiece, with Bong 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, avoiding rhetorical cant. 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.
A superbly made film about madness, isolation, alcohol, a cheesed-off one-eyed seagull, and farts
A manic fever dream fusing Greek mythology, Jungian psychology, and German Expressionism with Herman Melville and H.P. Lovecraft, The Lighthouse is the second film from writer/director Robert Eggers, who made The VVitch: A New England Folktale (2015). Co-written by Max Eggers, the film is very loosely based on the "Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy" (1801). A bizarre experience in just about every way, from the glorious visual and aural design to the grandiose acting to the jet black humour to the ambiguity, the film fits into a horror subgenre that focuses on cerebral, difficult-to-define, and always slightly off-camera terror (see films such as The VVitch, The Blair Witch Project, The Babadook, and The Wind). And I loved every crazy minute of it.
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, whilst he himself attends to the lens. Although Winslow has some unnerving dreams, the four weeks pass without incident. However, on the night before their relief is due, the wind suddenly changes, and the island is hit by a violent storm, stranding the duo indefinitely.
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. It's unsettling and disturbing, and it makes it impossible to ever acclimate yourself to this strange milieu. There's only one sequence in which we don't hear it; the pivotal opening scene of the third act, and the silence is oppressive.
The sound design is matched by the stunning monochrome visuals. Working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers shot The Lighthouse in 1.19:1, a transitional format that was only used briefly during the shift from silent cinema to sound. And that's exactly why Eggers and Blaschke chose it. 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, creating the sense that this is a disturbing artefact, an antique vestige from a different era.
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. 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.
Eggers also does something interesting with the narrative itself. Winslow and Wake are focalisers – the world is filtered through their perspective, but they don't narrate. Indeed, although we shift from one character to the other, Eggers never leaves their perspective, nor does he present any kind of omniscient narration. 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. As things begin to fall apart, this sense becomes ever more prevalent, as we begin to question much of what we're seeing. 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, 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 – the lantern room high above is the upper class, the bowels of the lighthouse is the working class. 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. 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. An aesthetic marvel, it's thick with mood and atmosphere, and proves that The VVitch was no fluke.
A powerful socio-political statement disguised as a road-movie
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), 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 he does so only in self-defence. The film works well as a taut duo on the run story - à la They Live By (1950), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), and Thelma and Louise (1991). However, underneath the genre elements, it's really a socio-political commentary that attempts to Speak Truth to Power and 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 (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are returning from an unsuccessful first date when they are pulled over by Officer Reed (Sturgill Simpson). Unnecessarily threatening and belligerent from the start, when Reed orders Slim to the ground, Queen attempts to start recording and 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 and directed by Melina Matsoukas, and looks at issues such as ethnic tension, systemic racism, unchecked police violence, communal anger, and both the importance and danger of protest movements. Importantly, however, it's not 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 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, an allegorical sense which is heightened with references to slave catchers, chain gangs, and the Underground Railroad.
The other major theme is the notion of legacy, which 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 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.
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. 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 by everyone.
There are some problems though. For example, the movie inexplicably uses voiceover on occasion. But not normal voiceover - two characters will start a normal conversation and then some of the dialogue is delivered via VO, only for the normal conversation to resume again. I honestly don't know what the point is, but it sure is distracting. Some scenes are also just too fanciful - such as the one where the duo stop so Slim can ride a horse and a bizarre scene with a gas station clerk, which (I think) is supposed to be comic relief. 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 that breaks the rigidly maintained focalisation up to this point. The film also runs about 15 minutes too long, 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 race-related Civil War will happen within their lifetime. Queen & Slim suggests they might just be correct.
Bleak, but never despondent; confidant and audacious filmmaking
As with 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), Waves is about 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), and a quite audacious shift in focalisation at the half-way point. On the other hand, it's emotionally bruising and takes its sweet time getting anywhere, asking rather a lot from the viewer. But 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 (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular high school senior and skilled wrestler. Deeply in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), he also has a good relationship with his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). However, His relationship with his father Ronald (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. When Tyler is diagnosed with a Level 5 SLAP tear, he's told he'll need surgery or the damage will become permanent. However, he continues to wrestle and starts to self-medicate with Ronald's painkillers. At around the half-way point of the film, the focalisation then shifts to the socially awkward Emily and her burgeoning romance with Tyler's wrestling teammate Luke (Lucas Hedges). Meanwhile, the family must try to come to terms with a horrific act of violence.
The most noticeable thing about Waves is the aesthetic audaciousness, and for all its narrative gymnastics, it's the visuals that really pop. 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 scene inside a car occupied by Tyler and Alexis is shot with the camera spinning in circles, completing multiple 360-degree rotations, immediately inculcating us into their sense of abandonment and exuberance.
In the first half of the narrative, which is focalised by the restless Tyler, the handheld camera rarely stops moving, reflecting his frenetic energy. However, when we shift to the quieter Emily, Shults uses more tripod shots and a slower editing rhythm, reflecting Emily's calmer disposition. Additionally, whereas the first half is awash in garish blues, reds, and greens, the second has a more muted naturalistic look. Another crucial part of the visual design is the 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. It's pure cinema, showing rather than telling.
Looking at the themes, Ronald barely acknowledges Emily, instead pouring 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. However, Ronald is by no means the villain. 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, essentially becoming a pseudo-Job figure, albeit without Job's self-awareness.
In terms of problems, there are a few blatantly expositionary scenes, such as a scene where Ronald outlines how hard it is for a black man to get ahead in the US. It just 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. Additionally, Shults tends to veer close to melodrama on occasion.
Nevertheless, although it's initially bleak, 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.
A well-acted film about the human cost of bullying and sexual harassment
Although it lacks subtlety and factual insight, Bombshell is entertaining, brilliantly acted, and paints a horrifying picture of workplace bullying and sexual harassment. The film tells the story of three women at Fox News - Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who becomes embroiled in controversy when she asks Donald Trump about his history of misogyny; Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) who is fired from the channel, having already complained about sexist treatment in 2013, and who now plans to sue president Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who she claims sexually harassed her for years; and research assistant Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie playing a composite character) who learns what Ailes means when he says he will need evidence of her "loyalty".
Written by Charles Randolph and directed by Jay Roach, Bombshell's depiction of the nature of sexual harassment in a corporate arena that's male-dominated and female-enabled 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. Instead, the film is about self-loathing, fear, and anxiety – it's about workplace bullying and the human cost of sexual harassment, and 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.
Something that works especially well 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 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; 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, Theron is extremely 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 in a deeply impressive performance that transcends mere imitation. The other standout is Lithgow, whose performance is fascinatingly modulated. He initially portrays Ailes as a flawed human being, and it's only later that he lets the monster out of the box, in a horrifying scene in which he asks an increasingly uncomfortable Pospisil to hike her skirt higher and higher, to the point where her underwear is showing, as he becomes increasingly aroused, indicated by nothing but his breathing. It's a 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.
As for problems, the film is probably too silent on some of Kelly's history. I understand that Roach wants to avoid anything resembling victim-blaming. But if you knew nothing about these events, you'd think 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. 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.
Certainly, the opportunity for Kelly 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 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.
A meditation on morality and faith; a film of unparalleled sublimity; an experience beyond the sensory
A Hidden Life, which may be writer/director Terrence Malick's most ostensibly Christian film yet, is quintessentially Malickian, featuring many of his most identifiable stylistic traits. His 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. How good is it? Very, very, very good. Not quite The Thin Red Line/The Tree of Life good, but certainly Badlands/Days of Heaven/The New World good. This is cinema at its most sublimely pious. You don't watch A Hidden Life. You let it enter your soul.
Austria, 1938. In the bucolic village of Sankt Radegund, farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) lives 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. As time goes by, and 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 with 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 (the film was originally called 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, and the village at the end is an infinitely different place from that at the start, a tainted place.
Franz doesn't resist the Nazis because of politics. His reasons are simpler – he believes that God teaches us to resist evil, and as a great evil, he must therefore resist Nazism. In an important exchange with Judge Lueben (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 in his very soul. Indeed, watching him head willingly toward his tragic fate, turning the other cheek to the prison guards who humiliate him, he becomes something of a Christ figure, with his time in prison not unlike the Passion.
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 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.
It's also worth noting that 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).
Watching a guy screw up for two frantic hours may not sound very compelling, but this is a fine piece of work
Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, and Benny Safdie, and directed by the Safdies, Uncut Gems is two hours and fifteen minutes of watching a guy screw up in increasingly spectacular and catastrophic ways. It's a film where you're on edge from the first act. It's a film that never stops moving at the chaotic breakneck speed with which it begins. 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 jeweller who lives his life on the principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. A serious gambling addict, soon after we meet him, it's revealed he's currently in debt to his loan-shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) to the tune of $100,000. Meanwhile, when his store is visited by Boston Celtics' basketballer Kevin Garnett (a surprisingly strong performance by Garnett himself), Howard reveals that he 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 it, 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. And, predictably, things quickly go awry.
Howard is a delusional and doomed figure who genuinely believes that his big score is right around the next corner, 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. In this sense, the film is an astute study of addiction, although this theme is never foregrounded. Howard is hopelessly consumed by his addiction (although never once does he give the impression that he wants to stop gambling). And 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 it becomes.
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 is ingrained into the script – this is a film written by people with one eye on the editing rhythms. The first scenes in New York, for example, immediately establish the chaotic energy – dialogue overlapping almost unintelligibly as multiple characters interact and talk over one another, at least three things always happening. The opening scenes establish the pace as blistering, and that never really changes. The score, by Oneohtrix Point Never, 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 sound 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; the inherent tragedy of the man, his self-delusion, his seemingly unquenchable optimism – Sandler draws these elements out every second he's on-screen. 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 his naive but sweet mistress Julia, debutant Julia Fox imbues what could have been a clichéd bimbo 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. 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 dark, ominous, and exhausting. 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.
Nothing too unexpected here, but it's funny and hugely entertaining
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). And yes, 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 man-whore into S&M, its only female character barely even manages to rise to the level of tokenism, and Ritchie does absolutely nothing new here, 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 works well for the most part. The plot is as derivative as it gets, but Ritchie has injected real verve into it. The Gentlemen 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), an Oxford-educated American ex-pat who controls a huge marijuana empire in London. Several months prior, Fletcher was hired by tabloid editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsen) to dig up dirt on Pearson, and Fletcher has written a screenplay based on his investigation, telling 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.
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; on-screen captions telling us who's who; animated maps; freeze-frames; rewinds; a shot of film running through a projector etc. At one point, Fletcher is discussing the merits of anamorphic 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, and the film duly switches formats. Such playfulness means that it never for a second takes itself too seriously, and it remains 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 the idea that the economic divide between gangsters and aristocrats masks their practical similarities. The smooth running of Pearson's business depends on both classes – the aristocrats who he needs to grow his product 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, 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 Ray and his mn clash with a gang of machete-wielding thugs on a council estate, and 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 (a scene-stealing Colin Farrell) 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.
A solid adaptation, albeit with a bit too much alpaca-based comedy
Written and directed by Richard Stanley (his first film in 25 years), Colour Out of Space is a modernised adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 short story, and takes a good stab at depicting one of Lovecraft's most oblique entities. Mixing humour and body horror (perhaps weighed a little too much towards humour), the film gives Nicolas Cage another opportunity to go full-Cage after he recently cut loose in Mom and Dad (2017) and Mandy (2018). And boy does he lean into it – this is the most ludicrous, histrionic, and borderline farcical performance since Vampire's Kiss (1989).
Just outside the city of Arkham, MA (the fictitious setting of many Lovecraftian stories), Nathan Gardner (Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), and their children Benny (Brendan Meyer), Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and Jack (Julian Hilliard) have moved into Nathan's deceased father's property, with Nathan embracing rural life by raising alpacas. On an otherwise normal night, the sky fills with pulsating light and a meteorite crashes onto the Gardners' land, and as time passes, amidst a series of ever-more bizarre events, the family members soon begin to show signs of unnatural change.
Where Stanley is perhaps most successful in adapting the original is in terms of how he depicts the entity itself, or rather, how he doesn't. In the original story, the entity is described only by analogy, and even then, only in relation to colour. With this in mind, Stanley wisely keeps everything as vague as possible – vibrant, modulating pulses of light that seem to be emanating from somewhere just outside the frame, vaguely-defined spatial distortions, colour manipulations with no obvious source.
Important here is the actual colour itself. Instead of attempting to create an indescribable colour (in the story the colour is beyond the visible spectrum), director of photography Steve Annis avoids depicting any one stable colour – every time we see the effects of the meteorite, the hue is in a state of flux, so although we can say the colours are recognisable, they are never identifiable as a specific colour, which was a smart choice on his part.
As we get into the third act, the film abandons all sense of restraint as the body horror which has threatened to break through from the earliest moments is finally unleashed, foregrounding the exceptional work of special effects supervisor/creature designer Dan Martin. These scenes are heavily indebted to Chris Walas's work on David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) and Rob Bottin's work on John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), including a direct visual quote of one of its most famous dog-related moments. Some of the more grotesque human-related effects also reminded me a little of Screaming Mad George's work on Society (1989).
It's also in the last act where Cage is turned loose, and that's not entirely a good thing. Full-Cage has been seen in films such as Vampire's Kiss, Face/Off, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Mom and Dad, and Mandy, but each performance has felt fairly organic, never becoming self-conscious. In Colour, however, Cage crosses into self-parody, with his performance having as much to do with people's preconceived notions of a Nicolas Cage performance as it does with finding the character; oftentimes, it feels less like he's trying to convey the character's emotions, and more like he's winking at the audience.
Which might be entertaining and all, but which doesn't serve the film especially well. For all its insanity, this is a relatively serious movie, but Cage's performance is so manic, that it affects everything around it. For example, after a meltdown about his alpacas ("don't you know how expensive those alpacas were"), which just about fits in what we know of the character, as Nathan is walking away, he stops, turns, pauses, shouts "ALPACAS", pauses again, and then walks away. Undoubtedly funny. But does self-reflexive humour by the leading man help tell the story or even create the right tone? No, not in the slightest.
The other characters all have a kind of internal logic to their crumbling sanity; the meteorite affects each of them differently, with their minds disintegrating in different, but consistent ways. With Cage, however, Stanley seems unwilling, or unable, to establish the parameters by which Nathan's mind is disintegrating, seemingly going for laughs rather than something more cogent.
This issue notwithstanding, I enjoyed Colour Out of Space a great deal. Stanley's return to the director's chair is to be admired for its restraint and how faithful it remains to the very tricky Lovecraftian original. The body-horror in the film's will appeal to fans of the grotesque, whilst others will take pleasure from Cage's insanity, as narratively unjustified as it is. The film is ridiculous on many levels, but it's extremely well realised and well made.