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God’s Own Country

May 20, 2018

God’s Own Country (2017)
Director: Francis Lee
Actors: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart

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Synopsis: A dissolute young man, Johnny (Josh O’Connor), lives on his Yorkshire family farm with his cold, physically impaired father and grandmother. He is initially hostile to the arrival of a Romanian farmhand, but over a series of nights where both men are required to camp on the outer reaches of the farm, physical intimacy develops between them.

Review: God’s Own Country is one of a trio of serendipitous films, all released within a year’s period of each other, and all centred around a specific narrative – namely, British farming culture, and, very loosely, the dereliction of that way of life – especially the obsolescence of a certain form of troubled masculinity.

The three films are all allegories – the farm is one huge, extended metaphor – although the beauty of the comparison is that they’re all so distinctive in terms of style, sensibility and execution. God’s Own Country is just about the best of the three. Yes, it does the carry the conceit of the brutal through a lot of its running time (there are unflinching scenes of cows being fisted for medical purposes, lame calves being shot in the head, and, main character, Johnny, engaging in rough shags with any willing man he can pick up in the local area). It runs the danger of over-imprinting the notion of Johnny’s hyper-tactility as compensation for his buried emotionality (a legacy from his repressive father) – but crucially it lacks the portentousness and soapy bent of easily the inferior of the three farming features, Dark River.

This physical, material sensibility of God’s Own Country also works in setting up Johnny’s ‘confrontation’ with the soulful Romanian farmhand, Gheorghe, who proceeds to have a balm-like effect on Johnny’s volatility and the otherwise ailing farm too. The second half of the film is actually quite uplifting and conventional in the way that it induces conflict and reconciliation, but Francis Lee shapes the story so tenderly and poetically, and actors Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu generate huge pathos with two exceptionally well-judged performances: their gracefulness stands for the overall qualities of this – one of the finest British films of recent years. (May 2018)

Annihilation

May 14, 2018

Annihilation (2018)
Director: Alex Garland
Actors: Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez

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Synopsis: Biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), explains in quarantine, how she embarked on a mission to the ‘Shimmer’ – a classified electromagnetic field that had emerged on the fringes of the US, and which no one had successfully emerged from – save for her catatonic husband…

Review: Hallelujah! My 2018 decent new release drought is over with this absolutely superb, superior sci-fi number from Alex Garland. I’m not going to weigh too deeply into the Paramount release fiasco history, especially as I was beneficiary of the film’s easy access on Netflix, though I do find something depressing and almost quite sinister about the way that a work of this much quality and no mean mainstream appeal (at least in the sense that it could hold up at least one screen in a multiplex over a number of weeks for the more discerning punters) could be pulled from theatrical distribution due to the fact it doesn’t fit a dumbed down, homogenised ideal.

The beauty of Annihilation is that it works both as an action film and something a bit more cerebral. The opening to the film really creates the idea that you’re in the presence of an instant classic: the ethereal flash-forward-cum framing device; Natalie Portman’s mysterious protagonist beginning her confession (the film’s main narrative through-line) on how she wound up in this lab being surrounded by an army of people in protective gear; and the music, palette and mise en scène of the scene are eerily compelling.

The look of the film is undoubtedly one of its main calling cards, and the sci-fi macguffin of the mysterious “Shimmer” that has suddenly appeared on a remote stretch of US coastline is beautifully realised by Garland and co. It affects a type of tropical, kaleidoscopic haze, which proves in keeping with the characters’ growing realisation that this a land where the ecosphere has dramatically mutated and cross-fertilised to sometimes wondrous, sometimes horrendous effect.

Generally speaking, Garland manages his genre/arthouse balancing act smoothly without undervaluing either aesthetic. The action quotient, particularly in the film’s first two acts, is superb – especially the mutant crocodile attack and the later surreal bear assault. The sci-fi thematics are equally well managed, hearkening to the same metaphysical concepts as Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal sci-fi epics Solaris and Stalker. Both use their nominal genre for these philosophical pay-offs – almost as if they’re more parables than actioners. Just as the planet of Solaris and the ‘Room’ in Stalker are metaphorical devices to out the spiritual turmoils of the main protagonists, so the lighthouse – the epicentre of the mysterious ‘Shimmer’ – is the locus for Portman’s character’s own striving to understand the reasons behind the event that decimated her marriage and left her with a catatonic husband.

Equally admirable is the film’s lack of Bridesmaids or Wonder Woman-style fake bombast and pseudo-feminist import. There’s no Hollywood co-opted, male-conceived “girl power” rhetoric here; in fact, the mission into the ‘Shimmer’ being led by women is played without almost any diegetic comment at all – as if it should be a given that four of the most equipped people to enter the ‘Shimmer’ for scientific and military reasons could quite reasonably all be women. (May 2018)

Beast

May 12, 2018

Beast (2018)
Director: Michael Pearce
Actors: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James

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Synopsis: Twentysomething, Moll (Jessie Buckley), lives in an enclosed, repressive middle-class community in Jersey. Moll falls in love with rugged outsider, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), and that – coupled with her own unravelling mental state and a serial killer being on the loose – combines to ostracise her from that community.

Review: There is some merit in Michael Pearce’s Beast. It makes a good feature of its atypical, evocative Channel Island location, and the two leads – Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn – are innately compelling performers: they have faces and an overall presence that the camera gorges on, and they do their best to make redeemable what is otherwise an increasingly preposterous and farcical psychological drama.

Probably the best way to describe Beast‘s aesthetic is as a Channel Islands’ version of EastEnders as directed by Lynne Ramsay – and that’s not intended as a compliment! It’s a really clumsy merging of a wannabe interior, psychological drama (Pearce seems to have nicked images and motifs directly from Ramsay’s infinitely superior female self-determination piece, Morvern Callar) with a genre-inflected stab at a serial killer-cum-horror flick.

It’s certainly one of the most forced and sophomoric dramas I’ve seen in recent memory. The plot is rushed through, almost as if Pearce is trying too pre-determinedly to end-gain all the ideas and thematic intent of his scenario. Continuity in the story is very strange and not particularly believable as Moll goes through her increasingly lurid character arc – scenes don’t segue at all convincingly. In many ways, it reminded me of last year’s similarly gauche and overrated Lady Macbeth where a pastoral, film school aesthetic with its conceit of naturalism is really cover for a prototypical British class narrative whereby a middle-class woman co-opts a rugged male outsider to enact her subversive rebellion. (May 2018)

A Quiet Place

May 6, 2018

A Quiet Place (2018)
Director: John Krasinski
Actors: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds

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Synopsis: In an apocalyptic near-future, humans are terrorised by an alien species that – although blind – is able to stalk its prey through the merest sound due to heightened auditory abilities. A young family navigates the perils of this threat in their isolated country house…

Review: It seems mean not to applaud the intent of this film, and John Krasinski deserves some credit for centring his directorial stratagem around a very cinematic and non-theatrical conceit: the senses, and, namely, sound. Incidentally, it’s usually the other way round with actors turning their hand to direction; their focus is normally on pre-existing source material and literary narratives.

Certainly for the first 30 minutes, Krasinski’s horror conceit – that an invading alien race hunts by sound – is pretty well sustained and there are some effective jump scares. After that though, the holes of the conceit and its general flimsiness becomes increasingly problematic. Although complaining about plot holes appears an act of ungenerous pedantry, as the film is not an ethical one (in which case, the existence of a plot hole is by the by) but a pure genre one (in which case, the mechanics of the narrative are its very essence), it is fair to complain about the nonsensicals of the scenario.

The increasing silliness of A Quiet Place is especially borne out in a ludicrous final act that resolves all its threads incredibly blithely. First, there’s the lamest of Hollywoodised attempts to accord some pathos to an unconvincing father-daughter subplot with the cheesiest of self-sacrifices. And then, the method to tame the aliens through exploiting the obvious by-product of their acute auditory awareness, and their subsequent vulnerability to gunfire, begs the question as to how the whole of mankind hadn’t tested this method out much earlier. It’s not as if there’s a horde of aliens to off as there are only three limited to each sector! Krasinski certainly settles on a suitably American way to off his alien invaders.

Also, Krasinski cheats too much with the sound conceit. Non-diegetic devices (namely a syrupy soundtrack and the unconvincing gimmick of the married couple listening to their favourite song on really loud earphones) are far too ubiquitous in the narrative. How much more chilling if sound had been excluded entirely from the diegesis bar the unfortunate times when the humans unwittingly create a din? That slippage reveals much about Krasinski’s mainstream compromise against his seemingly ingenious sensory credo. (May 2018)

 

Andrei Rublev

April 29, 2018

Andrei Rublev (1966)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Actors: Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Ivan Lapikov

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Synopsis: A portrait of medieval Russia refracted around the proxy of the icon painter, Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn).

Review: In a body of work containing celluloid tomes of such staggering force and poetry, Andrei Rublev might be Andrei Tarkovsky’s most purely sensory film. That’s quite a claim considering it is a three-hour epic centred around an actual historic figure – Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev – but what makes the film so special and enduring is the way that Tarkovsky’s vision transcends the mere people politics of his frame to conjure an idea about Russian history (Rublev intones “Russia will endure” – echoing themes from Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterly Russian Ark), and human history in general.

Focusing on the first 25 years of the 15th century, Rublev is less the film’s main player than its conduit, as the panorama of Russian medieval life appears around him. It is, of course, purely coincidental, but Andrei Rublev – though different in immediate style – reminded me very much of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar of the very same year. Both take a nominal ‘messiah’ figure and place them on an odyssey of cruelty and exaltation, all the while depicting the politics of the society around them, and also of the dark heart of human nature.

The episodic nature of Andrei Rublev is one of its greatest strengths. We go from scenes of great viscerality and consternation (the Tatar raids and the casting of the bell) to great introspection and meditation (Rublev’s time in the workshop of Theophanes the Greek and when Rublev takes a vow of silence after his monastery is ransacked by Tatars).

It’s the sheer sensory excellence of Andrei Rublev that endures the most though. It embellishes the notion of Tarkovsky as a poet with a camera. Some of the most mesmerising sequences are the most distanced and depoliticised: the frequent segues into rainfall (imprinting the permanence of existence versus the ephemerality of human striving), the boy shot with an arrow and falling serenely into a river of peaceful reeds (echoing the opening scenes of Solaris), and, most mesmerisingly, Rublev recapturing his calling when comforting the young, desolate bellmaker after his passion project is over. The near-closing shot of painter (sight) as one with bellmaker (sound) is almost an actualisation of the philosophy of Tarkovsky – a filmmaker dedicated to sanctifying the special, mysterious properties of existing as a transient being in this permanent, tumultuous world. (April 2018)

Black Panther

April 28, 2018

Black Panther (2017)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o

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Synopsis: Wakanda is a seemingly typical, impoverished African country, but it’s actually a secret technological marvel: a hidden, fantastical state blessed with a wondrous metal – vibranium. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has recently succeeded his father as the king of the state and holder of the famous “Black Panther” title, but a skeleton from his father’s closet, in the shape of Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), threatens Wakanda’s delicate equilibrium.

Review: I confess to approaching Black Panther with a degree of scepticism. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a corporate juggernaut financed to the hilt by Disney (the very definition of ‘white money’), and its legions of marketers and executives are no doubt intelligent and cynical enough to co-opt any popular cultural trend (Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave Feminism, #metoo, the Colin Kaepernick knee) to attract the zeitgeist sensibility of its largely millennial audience. The pertinent question is why millennial audiences are relying on million-dollar Coca-Cola-style industrial machines to feed them their cinematic narratives, when, if they actually bothered to get off social media, venture away from the multiplex, and commit to some proper cinematic scholarship, they might find that the African continent and ‘story’ already has a rich history of mature, literate cinema – bolstered in recent years from the likes of Mahamet Saleh-Haroun, Abderrahmane Sissako and Haile Gerima to name but a few. And I’m not even going to bother with people who think Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a feminist paean. I suggest they look again at who’s selling them that narrative, the fetishisation of the body of the main character, and recommend they actually widen the context of their cinephilia to look at the great works celebrating female experience in contemporary cinema.

Anyway, within that limited narrative, Black Panther is comfortably one of the best superhero films of recent years (not a difficult mantle), and builds on the evident storytelling proficiency Ryan Coogler has already essayed in Fruitvale Station and Creed. From an increasingly prototypical template, Coogler handles the origin exposition and sci-fi macguffin competently, and, the action sequences – usually some of the most spurious features of superhero movies – are actually lucid and well-realised: the car chase in Korea is actually one of the best of its kind. It’s also an extremely well acted film – supporting the view that Coogler is an excellent actors’ director. There’s barely a foot put wrong by an excellent ensemble of talent: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman (an excellent foil throughout), Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya and Andy Serkis.

Black Panther plays around with various issues relating to African socio-cultural history and African-American identity literately enough, and the conceit of Wakanda being a wondrous state that only its citizens can see is a wry allegory for the West’s simplified pigeon-holing of African impenetrability/pitiability. It’s perhaps only the conclusion that marginally jars. Michael B. Jordan’s character actually represents the true spirit of the Black Panther movement circa the ’60s and ’70s with his outright opposition to white supremacy and a desire to reverse the legacy of centuries of black oppression. In the end however, although his lesson pushes Wakanda to become more outward and collaborative in sharing its wonders to the world, it does seem like a white message trying to neuter and integrate rightful black indignation. This is betrayed by the coda where T’Challa makes a very PC speech to the United Nations advocating greater unity. This exposes the fallacy of the Wakanda allegory: Africa does indeed have some of the greatest wonders and resources on the planet, but, in the real world, African countries are not utopian agents of their own destiny like in Black Panther. Although the Western powers have long since moved out, the cancer of colonialism by and large remains. (April 2018)

 

Suspicion

April 22, 2018

Suspicion (1941)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Actors: Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, Nigel Bruce

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Synopsis: Lina (Joan Fontaine) is seduced by charismatic playboy, Johnnie (Cary Grant), and marries him – partly as rebellion against her restrictive parents. When married, she becomes aware of Johnnie’s general recklessness, and even begins to suspect he has more nefarious financial intentions…

Review: Suspicion won’t go down in the annals as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films, coming, as it did, while he was executing his crossover from British cinema to Hollywood (his first American studio film, Rebecca, had come a year before).

If anything, Suspicion is hamstrung mainly by its ropy and borderline sexist narrative hook. Hitchcock has always been able to work with deceptively humdrum genre storylines to mine their deeper psychoanalytical lure, but Suspicion‘s ingredients are irredeemable: Joan Fontaine’s spinsterish only child, falling in love with Cary Grant’s reckless cad as rebellion against her repressive parents.

Especially in the narrative’s opening act, the film struggles under the sheer dramatic dead weight of rushing through this unlikely union between Fontaine and Grant’s antithetical characters. Even by the relative terms of early ’40s melodramatic screen acting, this isn’t Fontaine and Grant’s finest hour: Fontaine, in particular, stuck with a condescending arc of having to throw herself at Grant’s obnoxious misogynist, before only tackling his obvious transparency after they’ve got married.

In the film’s more lurid final act, Hitchcock does extract some juice from the material – the chiaroscuro effect of Grant bringing up the potentially poisonous brew to Fontaine is gorgeous image-making. Arguably the film’s most interesting sidenote is the sense that Hitchcock is sneaking in something of a sly satire of provincial English mores and snobbery. Some of the set design playing up on the twee aesthetic of a falsely edenic ‘Little England’ is droll stuff, and the plot does have faint echoes of the far superior and much darker Ealing comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets(April 2018)