Sunday, 15 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Denis Villeneuve’s spellbinding sequel more than a match for Ridley Scott’s original.

US, 2017/ 163 mins/ Cert. 15

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Dave Bautista, Carla Juri, Sean Young.

With the original Blade Runner (1982) now acknowledged as a groundbreaking masterpiece that created an aesthetic touchstone for a certain trope of dystopian sci-fi, it is easy to forget that it received mixed reviews on its release and flopped at the US box office. Hampered by a crass voiceover (deliberately performed by Harrison Ford in such a poor manner in the hope it would be rejected by the producers) and an incongruous happy ending, added after Ridley Scott lost the final editing rights, Blade Runner’s entry into the pantheon was only assured after the release of two different cuts of the film. With both The Director’s Cut (1992) and Final Cut (2007), Scott maintained Blade Runner’s central ambiguity, ensuring countless narrative interpretations from enthusiasts to flourish most of which focused on the central question whether Ford’s bounty hunter Deckard is a replicant? (Spoiler alert: He is… Probably). Denis Villeneuve’s sequel retains the enigmatic qualities of the original, remaining loyal to both Scott’s vision and Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? upon which the first film was based. As Villeneuve has asserted that he would not be responsible for any alternative versions of the film once it was released, it is equally gratifying to know that Blade Runner 2049 is the finished article. Fans of Scott’s Blade Runner can breathe a sigh of relief as Villeneuve’s update is as near-perfect an example of the genre as anyone could have hoped to expect. It is a spellbinding work of visual poetry and is more than an equal to the original.

In 2049, a climate ravaged world is redeveloping replicants to ensure humanities survival. K (Ryan Gosling) is a new model replicant made by the Wallace Corporation which, unlike those earlier models made for the now defunct Tyrell Corporation, are programmed for total subservience to their human masters. Like Deckard in the original, K works for the LAPD as a blade runner, whose job it is to hunt down and execute older model replicants. After “retiring” a farmer, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K finds a box buried beneath a tree on the farm. The box contains human remains and forensic tests expose a miraculous revelation that if disclosed could threaten the existence of society. He is ordered by his boss, the uncompromising Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), to destroy all evidence pertaining to the discovery. In his investigation, K begins to question his own origins with the film, like its predecessor, interrogating the role of memory in constructing identity. K is pursued by the Wallace corporation whose owner- Jared Leto’s blind and ruthless Niander Wallace, a combination of Nietzschean Ubermensch and Mephistophelean malevolence- orders his replicant assistant, the equally formidable Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track down the bounty hunter. When the Hunter becomes hunted, K’s search for the truth leads him to the ruins of Las Vegas and to Deckard.

Although Ford’s Deckard does not appear until the final act, his brooding presence looms almost Kurtz-like over the entire film, forging a persuasive narrative link between Scott’s and Villeneuve’s separate takes on Dick’s novel. Despite Villeneuve’s adoption of the directorial role, Blade Runner 2049’s smooth transition from the original to the sequel is aided by Scott’s involvement in the project as producer and the fact that the story was written by Hampton Fancher who wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner. Here Fancher is joined by Michael Green on the script. What makes Blade Runner 2049 such a success is that, despite its unquestionable fidelity to the original, it is brave enough to expand upon the themes of Scott’s classic. This is no mere replicant but a thinking, feeling, living entity of its own. There are several remarkable echoes to sequences in Blade Runner, including a poignant and beautifully conveyed ‘tears in rain’ sequence when K’s virtual girlfriend, the hologram Joi (Ana de Armas), feels rain upon her skin for the first time. The deeply philosophical questions of what is it to be human? What role does memory play in an individual’s consciousness? And what does it mean to possess free will? are reprised in Blade Runner 2049. As in the first film, the existential theory of the state of the human condition which Martin Heidegger termed “thrownness” comes to mind, as the replicants are literally thrown into existence; their memories are predetermined and their function shaped by external forces. In addition to the questions of individual consciousness, social issues of environmental and nuclear catastrophe, the reactionary powers of unfettered corporations and the increasingly topical debate of increased automation are all are raised by the film.

What is so admirable about Blade Runner 2049 is that it is confident enough to trust the audience’s capacity to sit in a theatre for almost three hours and maintain their interest. The film is perfectly paced, asking you to completely immerse yourself in the experience to allow its narrative and themes room to breathe. When the action scenes arrive, they have the effect of jolting you from your reverie and subsequently their impact are much more powerful. This is an intelligent, artistic and hypnotic blockbuster; a spectacle that holds the attention through its quite breath-taking visuals. With stunning cinematography from Roger Deakin and equally impressive Production Design by Dennis Gassner, the film will need to be revisited for its hallucinatory imagery alone. The look of the film is complemented by a soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch- a synthesised discordant industrial cacophony which suddenly soars orchestrally to riff electronically against Vangelis’ original score.

Blade Runner 2049 maintains the hard-boiled, Chandleresque noir of the novel like a futuristic dystopian Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) with flying cars and added ontological complexities. Although the Los Angeles cityscape borrows from the original- it’s still heaving with rain and those impressive giant billboards are still advertising Atari, Pan Am and Coke- Blade Runner 2049 expands the world of the original, moving away from the city to include astonishing imagery of devastated industrial wastelands, one of several scenes which recall Andrei Tarkovsy’s existentialist sci fi Stalker (1979) Emotionally, the film also parallels Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). Equally, the ravaged Vegas is wonderfully captured, its poisoned skyline glowing vivid orange with radiation. The film’s palette is jaw droppingly brilliant throughout and the desolate casino which K traces Deckard to, featuring a buffering hologram of Elvis performing ‘Suspicious Minds’, is an imaginative update of the derelict Bradbury Building, J.F Sebastian (William Sanderson) residence and the scene of the final confrontation between Deckard and Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in the first film.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 will come to be regarded as a canonical sci-fi film, watched repeatedly for its spellbinding beauty, rich philosophical textuality and narrative ambiguity. Having followed up last year’s terrific Arrival with a Blade Runner sequel that exceeds all expectations, Villeneuve is proving himself to be a master of the genre, perhaps the greatest sci-fi director currently working in Hollywood. Don’t miss the opportunity of seeing it on the big screen- where it truly belongs. An awe inspiring cinematic triumph. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!: An outrageous and audacious shock -horror of biblical dimension.

US, 2017/ 121 mins/ Cert. 18
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris

Like Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars von Trier, Darren Aronofsky is a cinema provocateur whose work is deliberately confrontational and seemingly intent on dividing both critical opinion and the cinema-going public alike. Aronofsky’s second feature, Requiem for a Dream (2000), caused a rumpus with the film classification board in the US with its frank sex and drug content and his last film, Noah (2014), was banned in some Muslim countries for transgressing the teachings of Islam and condemned by some Christians for what they saw as Aronofsky’s manipulation of the biblical story to promote his own environmentalist agenda. Not content with the film grossing over $362 million worldwide, an unrepentant Aronofsky appeared to want to stir things up even more, with the self-professed atheist director claiming that he intended to make a secular film and that Noah was ‘the least biblical biblical film ever made’. With Mother! it appears that the enfant-terrible has some unfinished business with the Bible narrative as the film revisits some of the themes in Noah, subsequently provoking another backlash from some Christians and critics.

After its brief opening close-up of a hideously charred woman’s face and before it goes hyper-apocalyptic, Mother! begins conventionally enough. A married couple, referred to simply in the credits as ‘Mother’ (Jennifer Lawrence) and ‘Him’ (Javier Bardem), live in a ramshackle wooden mansion in the heart of an idyllic rural setting. He is a successful poet suffering from writer’s block and she is an attentive wife, content in looking after her husband whilst renovating the house. Apparent tensions within the relationship seem to emerge and these are exacerbated by the arrival of Ed Harris’ ‘Man’, who is asked to stay at the house by ‘Him’ to the obvious chagrin of his wife who resents the stranger’s intrusion into this serene Eden. When Harris’ wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, turns up later, the couple disrupt the peace of the house and the stability of the marriage. It is revealed that Harris’ character is dying and he visited the home because he wanted to meet the great poet. His wife is a loquacious busy-body and as the pair threaten to take over the household, Pfeiffer insensitively probes the minutia of their marriage, asking deeply personal questions and suggesting ways in which ‘Mother’ might spice up the couple’s sex life. When Pfeiffer askes Lawrence why she is doing the house up by herself, Lawrence replies that she ‘wants to build a paradise’ for them to share, the first oblique reference to the story of the Fall and the biblical references in the film develop as the story progresses.

Even before we are hurled violently into the deranged final act of the film, Mother! confounds the audience’s expectations. What starts out as a combination of marital drama and psychological study- Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf as filtered through the febrile imagination of von Trier- becomes infused with the dread of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. As she decorates the home, Lawrence becomes aware of a strange foetal-like organism with a pulsing heart that seems to dwell within its walls, echoing Repulsion or even David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Throw in a Pinteresque character power struggle with the arrival of Harris and Pfeiffer and add the ingredients of a home invasion horror film before the generic terrain seismically shifts beneath your feet once more with the arrival of the warring sons of Harris and Pfeiffer (Domnhall and Brian Gleeson)

The brothers, in an obvious reference to the story of Cain and Abel, are in conflict over the terms of their father’s will and their disagreement erupts into violence as Mother! lurches from the psychological aspects of its opening and is transformed into a freakishly visceral, violent and increasingly excessive horror film. Eventually more strangers arrive at the house, trashing the place and disrespecting their hosts as Lawrence’s state of mind becomes progressively more disturbed. During a brief respite from the chaos imposed upon the house by Harris, Pfeiffer and their friends, Lawrence jokes to her husband that she is going to ‘clean up the apocalypse’ as the script gives us a heads-up to the mayhem that is to come.

The apocalypse duly arrives once ‘Him’ has successfully overcome his writers block and created a poetic masterpiece. Gangs of press and fans arrive to interview and meet the writer with these admirers become increasingly sycophantic and deranged. When the poet’s magnum-opus becomes a quasi-theological text, the source of a New Age religious cult, Bardem is elevated to the role of prophet, welcoming hordes of acolytes into the house and allowing them to share his possessions. These scenes in the film strangely reminded me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and at one point I had to resist the urge to shut out that Javier Bardem’s ‘not the messiah he’s just a very naughty boy’. Despite its outlandish horror, there is a darkly comic subtext operating beneath the chaotic narrative surface of the film, as if Aronofsky is inviting you to laugh at the sheer audacity of it all.

The final act of the film unfolds with a dream- like illogicality. As events spiral surreally out of control, the house becomes a metaphor for the destructive impulse of humanity with scenes of crime, murder, riot and war all played out within its walls. At the centre of this maelstrom, Lawrence comes to symbolise Mother Earth, a voice of reason and sanity amidst the chaos as the political, ecological and religious allegory comes to the fore. Although the apocalyptic final third of the film is a breath-taking experience, it does spill over into silliness at times. You may have to suspend your disbelief on occasions.

Whenever its berserk narrative threatens to overwhelm, it is Lawrence’s extraordinary, physical and emotionally demanding performance that holds the piece together. The entire film hinges on her transformation from doting wife at the beginning to full-on scream-queen during the final third. As it has been revealed that Aronofsky and Lawrence began a relationship whilst shooting the picture, the fact that Lawrence is the constant source of the film’s focus, repeatedly captured in lingering close-ups and tracked adoringly by the camera in relatively long-takes, makes Mother! seem like a cinematic love letter from the director to his partner. Considering the torture Aronofsky puts her through during the movie, it may not be entirely unreasonable to wonder whether there is a sadomasochistic element to the relationship. Indeed, Lawrence has admitted that making the film was the toughest moment of her career so far.

Mother! could be read in a variety of ways: part allegory, part psychological thriller, part exploitational torture horror. It could also be a comment on the director’s creative process itself, a discourse on the god-like imaginative impulse of the auteur. It is not a flawless film but considering its scope and its grandiose ambition it is a fine achievement and hardly deserving of the opprobrium it has met from some quarters. The film’s flaws are the result of its sheer scale of ambition rather than any inherent problems in the film itself. Cinema, threatened with being rebooted to death and oversaturated with superhero franchises, needs directors like Aronofsky and Paramount should be credited for making Mother! and defending it amidst the flak.

Aronofsky’s bellicose scream of rage at the state of the world and the destruction of the environment is a full-on ravishment of the senses which comes across like an infernal meeting of an amphetamine-addled Luis Buñuel and Hieronymus Bosch. Go and see it. It is a two-hour, white knuckled, rollercoaster ride and if you forgive it its faults you should enjoy the pure shot of adrenaline it provides. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Tenfootcity: Classic Gangster Films

My latest piece on classic gangster films is in the new summer issue of Tenfootcity, Hull's independent street magazine. I will be posting an extended version on The Screen Assassin blog shortly.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Great Films of the 1960s

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (UK: Karel Reisz, 1960)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has a young Albert Finney as the boozing, brawling and shagging Arthur Seaton. Dissatisfied with his mundane factory job and guided by the motto ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’, Arthur is ‘out for a good time’, living for the weekend and embarking upon a string of affairs which eventually come to threaten his hedonistic lifestyle. He may be a rogue but Arthur is determined to play by his own rules, rejecting the boring conformity of his parents and the limited opportunities that society offers him.
Alongside films such as Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains one of the outstanding examples of the British New Wave. The New Wave shook up the nation’s cinema, revealing the working class in a brave new light and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning depicts its rebellious anti-hero with a brutal honesty rarely seen in the cinema until the 1960s.

This Sporting Life (UK: Lindsay Anderson, 1963)

Like Reisz, Lindsay Anderson emerged as one of the founders of the Free Cinema movement which attempted to merge documentary realist aesthetics with a more experimental, avante-garde and innovative style of filmmaking. This Sporting Life stars Richard Harris as an up-and-coming Rugby League star, Frank Machin, who, despite his physical prowess on the field, is prone to introspection and self-doubt and is tortured by his inner demons.

Filmed on location in the North of England and at Wakefield Trinity’s Belle Vue stadium - the Rugby League action is particularly impressive - This Sporting Life is arguably the greatest sport film ever made. For me, it is certainly the best film of the New Wave with a brooding, poetic and psychological intensity which hints at expressionism considerably more than most of the social realist films of the period.

A  Raging Bull for the industrial north of England.

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (UK/US: Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Kubrick’s apocalyptic comedy features Peter Sellers in multiple roles as British RAF Group Captain Mandrake, US President Merkin Muffley and the sinister Dr Strangelove himself. Despite Sellers being in great comic form, the outstanding performance in the film arguably belongs to Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Ripper. Driven by the fear of Communist infiltration (he believes the fluoridisation of water to be a “commie plot”), Ripper evades the US military’s security systems to single-handedly instigate a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In addition to Sellers and Hayden, George C. Scott is also superb as the brash patriot, General Buck Turgidson.

Released just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Strangelove magnificently satirises the paranoia of the Cold War. When the US top brass gather to discuss the impending crisis, they invite the Soviet ambassador to the meeting. As the ambassador and Turgidson come to blows, they are ordered to stop by President Muffley: ‘Gentlemen. You can’t fight here. This is the war room’, barks the President, highlighting the reckless stupidity of US/Soviet relations during the 1960s.

Four years after Strangelove, Kubrick would make 2001: A Space Odyssey. Almost half a century 

later, 2001 still remains the touchstone for a particular trope of cerebral sci-fi.

Carry on Cleo (UK: Gerald Thomas, 1964)

I had to include something from the Carry On team and Cleo- with the possible exception of Carry On Screaming- is their best. The Carry On films, in addition to those produced by Hammer studios, provided a refreshing antidote to British cinema’s earnest realism. Whereas Hammer offered blood and sex to counter middle-class decorum, Carry On delighted audiences with its saucy seaside postcard humour, as salty- and as British- as fish and chips.

You know what you are getting with the Carry On team and Cleo brings together the usual cheeky ensemble: Sid James, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey, Jim Dale and the two Kenneth’s- Williams and Connor. Collectively these actors are legends of British comedy and here they are joined by a young Amanda Barrie who plays Cleopatra. Barrie would later become a regular in ITV’s Coronation Street. The film also has Kenneth Williams, as Julius Caesar, delivering one of the finest moments in British cinema. When Caesar realises there is a plot to assassinate him, he flees his would-be assassin, shouting the immortal line: ‘Infamy. Infamy. They’ve all got it in for me.’ Pure comic genius.

Whereas Carry On Screaming parodied the Hammer horror films, Cleo is a spoof of 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra, released a year before Cleo. When Fox shifted its shooting location from Britain to Italy, the props, costumes and sets were left at Pinewood studios to be raided by Carry On’s production company for use on the film.

Performance (UK: Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg, 1970)

Performance’s frank portrayal of sex, drugs and rock and roll and its explicit violence caused Warner Brothers to delay its release until 1970. Like a comedown from a particularly bad acid trip, the film depicts the swinging 60s counterculture's freakish descent into madness and despair.

James Fox is Chas, a brutal and narcissistic gangster hiding out from the mob with a fading and reclusive rock star, Turner, played by Mick Jagger as a warped fictional version of his own rock and roll persona. Under the influence of a cocktail of chemicals, including mind-bending hallucinogenic mushrooms, a weird merging of Chas and Turner’s characters begins.

Performance has exerted a huge influence on pop culture with bands such as The Happy Mondays and Big Audio Dynamite sampling the film. BAD’s ‘E=mc²’ is a celebration of the work of the director Nic Roeg and Happy Mondays’ second LP Bummed is littered with references to this cult classic. The film also features an early example of a music promo, ‘Memo from Turner’, performed by Jagger.

Roeg would go on to become one of the finest British filmmakers of all time and this, his co-directed debut, is one of the coolest and hippest British films of the 1960s. Performance is as trippy as a bucketful of LSD, totally unique and utterly brilliant.

Also recommended:

Breathless/A bout de souffle (France: Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

Peeping Tom (UK: Michael Powell, 1960)

Psycho (US: Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

The Great Race (US: Blake Edwards, 1965)

The Battle of Algiers/ La battaglia di Algeri (Italy/Algeria: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

Bonnie and Clyde (US: Arthur Penn, 1967)

Planet of the Apes (US: Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (UK/US: Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Easy Rider (US: Dennis Hopper, 1969)

Midnight Cowboy (US: John Schlesinger, 1969)

*This piece has been adapted from an article published in Hull's independent magazine Tenfootcity (Issue 45 Spring 2017)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Dvd/Blu-ray Review

Arrival: Denis Villeneuve’s emotional and strikingly original first-contact sci-fi drama. (DVD and Blu-ray review)

US, 2016/116 mins/Cert. 12A
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Out later this month on DVD and Blu-ray is the contemplative and emotional science fiction drama from director Denis Villeneuve. Adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer from a Ted Chiang short story: “Story of Your Life”, Arrival received an Academy award earlier this year for sound editing and was nominated in a further seven categories, including Best Picture and Director. The film stars Amy Adams, criminally overlooked for a best actress nomination at this year’s Oscars for her tremendous performance in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Adams is equally impressive here as linguist Dr Louise Banks.

When twelve alien spacecraft suddenly appear at various locations across the globe, Banks is lecturing at college and grieving the loss of her young daughter to cancer. She is subsequently enlisted by Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) to assist the US military in their attempt to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors and discover their motive in visiting the Earth. Working alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a team of experts, Banks slowly pieces together the alien language. During her dialogue with the aliens she becomes increasingly haunted by dreams of her daughter, learning a devastating truth about her own life in the process.

Pitched somewhere between mainstream science fiction and arthouse cinema, Arrival manages to both entertain whilst simultaneously probing social and geopolitical issues. Banks learns that the alien mission is to impart knowledge, described by the aliens as a ‘gift’ to humanity, and this knowledge concerns the human concept of the linearity of time as the film asks the question that if we were to become capable of seeing into the future, should we change it?

Banks’ journey towards a higher state of human consciousness leaves us to ponder the limitations of language and how human beings communicate and interact with each other on a personal and public level. When the spacecraft arrive, mass panic and rioting ensue around the world with the visitors initially deemed as a threat to humanities existence. Initially puzzled as to why the alien visitors chose their locations across the globe, one of the experts jokes that it could be that Sheena Easton had a number one hit in those countries in the 1980s. Later it becomes apparent that the extraterrestrials have deliberately spread their spacecraft across the globe to facilitate global cooperation. To understand the purpose of the alien visit, the US military must work closely with other teams like those led by Banks at the other sites across the world and share information. With this cooperation between governments comes the hope of a new age of international peace and stability but this optimism soon falters as the national governments revert to mutual mistrust and aggression. Soon a group of dissident American soldiers acting on their own volition plant explosives on the alien spacecraft and divisions within the international operation emerge, leading to political conflict as the Chinese prepare to attack the spacecraft.

I saw Arrival just after the US Presidential election and considering that the film went into production in the summer of 2015 was struck by how prescient it is in its engagement with Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric of isolationism and xenophobia. Similarly, the film also engages with current debates around the issue of immigration as the equation between the irrational threat of the alien “other” and the perceived threat that immigration poses is one of the film’s subtexts, subtly working beneath its narrative surface.

Arrival is a remarkably restrained science fiction piece which relies on narrative and atmosphere rather than spectacular wham-bam special effects to capture the imagination. That said, the shots of the huge, black, oval spacecraft hovering above the surface of the earth like giant otherworldly modernist sculptures are strikingly created and will linger in the memory. The initial approach to the spacecraft is also breathtakingly shot and the cinematography throughout the film is beautifully done. The first time the scientists enter the base of the UFO, they are informed that once inside the spacecraft there is no gravity which means they must courageously jump from their winch with the ground hundreds of feet below- a physical leap which symbolically foreshadows Banks’ personal metaphysical leap of faith later in the film. Once inside, the interior of the spacecraft is also superbly designed as the film eschews the usual technological look of much science fiction cinema opting instead for a much simpler, but brilliantly effective, cavern-like structure. Similarly, the space where Banks and her coterie of experts interview the aliens is also minimalist in its construction, with dazzling white drape-like surfaces which create a stunningly futuristic chiaroscuro effect. The two, seven-limbed, squid-like ‘heptapod’ aliens, viewed from behind a large glass screen and nicknamed Abbott and Costello by Donnelly, communicate semiotically via a system of visual symbols that they squirt into the air like extraterrestrial squid ink. The creatures are a magnificent achievement and the effects and design team on the film have done a tremendous job in creating an entirely original, stylish and ground-breaking new aesthetic for the genre.

Arrival is an intelligent, thought-provoking and gripping drama that will undoubtedly come to be considered as a canonical example of the first-contact trope of science fiction. The film is concerned primarily with human social and personal relationships in our shared present- rather than the technological future- and consequently is much warmer, emotionally engaging and philosophically introspective than many other examples of the genre. Although I found the ending of the film upping the sentimentality quota a touch too much for my personal taste and some viewers may anticipate the plot twist about twenty minutes before its revelation, Arrival’s narrative arc is skilfully presented and hugely satisfying nevertheless. It is a hugely enjoyable film and Villeneuve’s adroit handling here bodes well for his eagerly anticipated Bladerunner 2049 released later this year.

Arrival is available to buy in the UK from 20 March 2017.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Nocturnal Animals (Review)

Nocturnal Animals’ intelligent story-within-a-story is brutal, engrossing and deeply philosophical.


US, 2016/ 116 mins/ Cert. 15

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher. 

Fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s second film, the neo-noir Nocturnal Animals, is an ingenious, gripping and thought-provoking piece of cinema. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival, the film’s device of having a fictional story within its ‘real’ story, plays with your generic expectations. Seamlessly unifying its divergent generic components - part crime thriller, part emotional drama, part philosophical discourse - Nocturnal Animals asks profound questions about the moral choices we make and their consequences. It works on a narrative level and is pleasing to look at but beyond its surface sheen and intricate plot construction, the film’s richness ultimately derives from the deeply affecting existential questions it poses.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a successful L.A. art gallery owner, worried about her troubled second marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) and frustrated at his apparent disinterest in attempting to make their relationship work. When a parcel containing the manuscript of a novel from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), unexpectedly arrives at her office, Susan’s disillusionment with her marriage and career forces a re-evaluation of her life. As she reads the novel, which is dedicated to her and titled Nocturnal Animals - a nickname which Edward gave Susan because of her insomnia - Susan begins to see alarming parallels with the fictional story and their past relationship. Describing the soon-to-be-published novel to a female colleague at the gallery as ‘violent and sad’ and admitting that she ‘did something horrible’ to Edward, Susan rushes off an email to her ex-husband, agreeing to meet him for dinner. As the film flits between the present, with flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s relationship and the story contained within the novel, we discover Susan’s guilty secret, as the boundaries between the “real” and the “imagined” are blurred, both within Susan’s conscience and the cinema audience. We are left to ponder Edward’s motives. Is the devastating story contained within the manuscript a form of revenge against his ex-wife? And how much of the fiction is influenced by the actuality of their unfortunate marriage?

The novel’s story begins with a middle-class husband and wife as they embark upon a road trip to Texas with their teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). As the husband, Tony Hastings, is also played by Gyllenhaal and the wife is played by Isla Fisher who is remarkably similar in appearance to Adams, the visual connection between the two narratives is vividly portrayed. The family are forced off the road at night by local troublemakers and a terrible crime is committed, forcing Hastings, with the help of a Stetson wearing, chain-smoking, Texan detective, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down the perpetrators. Andes is a typically tough, noir anti-hero, who has his own personal reasons for wanting to solve the crime as we discover he has cancer and has been told he only has months to live and is threatened with being thrown off the case. These factors serve to increase his determination in seeing that justice is done and he asks Hastings how far he is prepared to go to punish the perpetrators. As the methods of the pair to apprehend the criminals increasingly fall outside the remit of the law, Hastings attempts an uneasy transformation from the educated metropolitan with liberal values at the beginning of the story into a much more ruthless and amoral character; his urbane temperament clashing with the harsh reality of the Texan badlands.

Hastings’ desire to bring the criminals to justice appears to be partially motivated by guilt. During the harrowing and incredibly difficult to watch crime scene, Hastings comes across as a weak character who could have been braver and done more to protect his family. He later admits his weakness to Andes and this parallels neatly with the backstory of Edward’s courtship and marriage to Susan. When the couple fall in love they are both studying at college in New York and Edward is struggling to become a writer. It is his sensitivity and intelligence which initially attracts Susan, however, her attitude changes and her student idealism diminishes as she becomes increasingly ambitious. She embarks upon an affair with the younger, more successful, Hutton whose character seems the direct opposite of Edward’s. Hutton is strong, reliable and seemingly able to provide the security that Edward cannot. When Susan informs Edward that the marriage is over, she says she still admires his imagination and sensitivity which Edward interprets as meaning he is weak. Throughout the film contrasting depictions of masculinity are on display. Edward represents the sensitive, intelligent side of masculinity which is equated with weakness, contrasted with the go-getting, dependable strength of Hutton. Outside of these two facets, a more toxic masculinity is represented by the boozing, brawling criminality of the rednecks which the Hastings encounter in Texas. The question of whether Edward’s decision to dedicate the novel to Susan and send her the manuscript is motivated by a desire for vengeance, thus representing another form of intelligent, yet equally toxic, masculinity is never fully resolved but much of the film’s tension lies in this aspect of the narrative. Watching the film, I found that these themes resonate strongly with the current political climate as Nocturnal Animals mirrors recent debates about male attitudes to women which dominated Donald Trump’s recent Presidential campaign, giving the film a degree of topicality which the filmmakers could not have anticipated whilst the film was in production.

The question of Edward’s perceived weakness is emphasised in a notable scene in a restaurant when Susan informs her mother, Anne (Laura Linney) that she and Edward are to be married. Anne is the antithesis of the cultured, idealist and tolerant Susan; an obstinate and over-ambitious reactionary who, we discover, has disowned her son for his homosexuality. She disapproves of Edward, warning her daughter that Susan is like her and that she will regret the marriage, because ‘he is too weak for you… The things that you love about him now are the things you’ll hate’. This short scene is pivotal to our understanding of Susan’s character, as the ostentatious and unlikable Anne nevertheless proves to be intuitive, correctly pointing out that Susan is suppressing her true nature which is more ambitious and egotistical than she realises. The suppression of latent desires and motivations is one of the key themes in the film and it is Susan’s failure to understand her true character which leads to her eventual despair. Edward, on the other hand, seems to be in touch with his authentic self and this emerges through his writing. At one point Susan, unimpressed with one of Edward’s stories, offers him the unwelcome advice that ‘maybe you should write less about yourself.’ Her rejection of Edward’s endeavour is as much a reflection of herself than her finding fault in Edward’s work. She is wary of introspection as she is coming around to Anne’s way of thinking, unable to admit that she possesses her mother’s faults. The irony is that Edward succeeds in getting his novel published by ignoring Susan’s advice and that his story is a fictional reworking of his own defects and an admission of his weakness. Therefore, Nocturnal Animals uses its meta-narrative device to suggest that the impulse towards creativity comes from locating and interrogating our authentic identity. Susan’s mental disintegration is the direct consequence of her bad faith and the film punishes her for this.

Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography in Nocturnal Animals complements the narrative, brilliantly reflecting Susan’s inner turmoil. She is often seen alone, staring out from her modern, luxurious L.A. mansion late at night and the lingering, deep-focus, wide-angled shots of her, mostly filmed from outside, perfectly capture her character’s isolation and sense of alienation. These images are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s city paintings which depict the melancholy and loneliness of modern America. Although Susan’s spacious state-of-the art home reflects her character’s lavish lifestyle, in these parts of the film it resembles a prison. The similar use of the camera is also used to great effect in the establishing shots of the L.A. cityscape and for the Texan landscape as throughout the film the utilisation of cinematic space is brilliantly deployed. These relatively lengthy and static takes are contrasted with the more rapid editing employed during the scenes of violence in Texas.

The neo-noir aspects of Nocturnal Animals recall moments from a number of Coen Brothers’ films - minus their dark comedy. The Texan setting of the fictional segment of the film reminded me of Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men and Nocturnal Animals is just as brutal as anything in the Coens’ canon. Moreover, its focus upon a central, lonely protagonist trapped by circumstance contains the same psychological intensity of The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo. Although Nocturnal Animals far less eccentric than the Coens’ dramas, it poses similar existential questions within its binary plot construction.

Nocturnal Animals is a stylish and original thriller-cum-melodrama which remains an enigma right until it’s unresolved, emotionally bleak conclusion. All of the central performances are magnificent which help the film to perform the trick of presenting its nuanced double narrative. Amy Adams is terrific as the beautiful - but damaged - Susan, perfectly capturing her character’s vulnerability, as is Jake Gyllenhaal in his dual role. Both Michael Shannon as the uncompromising Texan detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the snarling alpha-male of the Texan gang provide tremendous support. The pulp noir strand of the story is brutal, though it complements rather than overpowers the more sophisticated and meditative main drama. The film’s major themes of love, regret and revenge are skilfully woven into the film’s texture and Nocturnal Animals will benefit from repeated viewings in order to fully appreciate its philosophical and structural complexities.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Iran/Iraq conflict forms the backdrop for an exceptional chiller in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow
UK, Jordan, Qatar, 2016/ Cert. 15/ 84 mins
Director: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin, Manshadi, Bobby Najeri, Ray Haratian, Aram Ghasemy

From the British independent film company Wigwam Films comes the UK, Qatar and Jordan co-production Under the Shadow, written and directed by Babak Anvari. Set in Tehran in 1988 during the Iran/Iraq war, Anvari’s debut feature was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been deservedly well received by critics. The film succeeds on a generic level, providing genuine jump-in-your seats moments demanded from a horror audience. It also succeeds in utilising the horror genre to comment upon the nature of war and the status of women in post-revolution Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power.

The film’s plot centres upon Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) who are living in a Tehran tenement building struggling to cope with the chaos of the conflict. Her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is a doctor who has been enlisted to join the military and has been assigned to the front and Shideh has opted to remain in the city rather than stay with his parents in the country. At the beginning of the film we discover that Shideh wishes to continue with her medical studies but she is bluntly informed by the Director of the University (Bijan Daneshmand) that as she was active in a left-wing organisation during the revolution her application has been denied. Shideh becomes depressed by the decision and the curtailment of her ambition to become a doctor and this leads to tension in the marriage which is further exacerbated by her decision to remain in Tehran. With her husband away, the shelling of the city intensifies and the tenants of the block are forced to gather in the basement for safety until an unexploded missile crashes into the building’s roof. Gradually the rest of the occupants leave the tenement block until only Shideh and her daughter remain, with Dorsa increasingly disturbed by visions and convinced that as the missile burst through the roof it has let in a malevolent spirit- a Djinn in Islamic folklore-into the building.

Under the Shadow’s Iranian setting immediately brings to mind Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night although the two films are considerably different in tone and form as Amirpour’s horror is heavily stylised and far more idiosyncratic than Anvari’s more conventional chiller. A more valid comparison can be found with Jennifer Kent’s psychological horror The Babadook (2014) as both films deal with the isolation of a mother and child and deal with horrors- either real or imagined- suggestive of mental anguish or breakdown. Much of the film’s impact owes a great deal to its domestic setting and how it manages- to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock- to bring terror back into the home. Its suspense is derived from the fact that we really care about the characters and the reality of their situation as Under the Shadow, like The Babadook, has a mother left alone to cope with a young, highly imaginative and fearful child, concerned for her own sanity and child’s safety. When she is informed that there is an evil presence in the tenement block by Mrs Ebrahimi, an elderly and devout Muslim, who states that the djinni ‘travel on the wind, they always know how to find you’, Shideh’s rationality leads her to dismiss her neighbour’s warning. But when Dorsa’s favourite doll inexplicably disappears and Shideh is told that the spirits steal a favourite item in order to take possession of its owner, she can no longer ignore the possibility of the paranormal. Shideh eventually comes around to believing her daughter’s assertion that an evil spirit lurks in the building and, increasingly plagued by her own nightmares and visions, agrees to leave for her husband’s parents as soon as the doll is found.

In a similar manner to Kent’s film, the spirit attempts to drive a wedge between mother and child. Both The Babadook and Under the Shadow locate their psychological dread in the real and there is a theological struggle in both films between rationality and a belief in the supernatural. The Babadook’s threat emerges from the grief of the mother at the loss of her husband and the repressed resentment this causes her to feel towards her son. Under the Shadow’s terror originates in Shideh’s thwarted ambition to practise medicine, the devastation of the war and the increasing repression imposed upon women living under the revolutionary regime- the “shadow”- implied by the title.

Shideh has a modern feminist outlook on life which contradicts the edicts of the Islamic regime. We see her exercising in the living room to a Jane Fonda Workout video and as video players are frowned upon as anti-Islamic she has to warn her daughter not to mention the fact that they own a VCR to their neighbours. At one point in the film Shideh and her daughter flee the tenement in terror and they are picked up by the military police. In the haste to escape the entity that dwells in their apartment, Shideh has forgotten to wear her veil in public- a punishable offence for women under Sharia law- and they are forced to spend the night in a police cell until Shideh is cautioned by an official the next morning.

With Under the Shadow, Anvari emerges as new directorial talent and his debut promises much for the future. Rather than pound the audience with special effects, the film shows admirable restraint with Chris Barnwell’s editing and Kit Fraser’s cinematography complementing, rather than intruding upon, the narrative which avoids explicit violence and gore for a more cerebral, psychologically disquieting atmosphere. The point-of-view cuts during Shideh’s terrifying hallucinations are effective, as are the rotated camera angles of her lying upon her bed which demonstrate her apprehensive state of mind and skilfully signpost the beginning of her waking nightmares. Similarly, Under the Shadow promotes the edict that a little is enough in its portrayal of the djinn which is, for the most part, fleetingly glimpsed and is much more sinister for being so. Both intelligent and genuinely scary, Under the Shadow adroitly manages to unsettle, sending several satisfactory chills down your spine whilst successfully weaving a socio-political comment on Iran during the period into its horror narrative You will still be shaking from its psychological terror and engaging with its nuanced subtexts long after the credits roll.