TENET (spoiler-free review)


2020

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel

Words – Daniel McMonagle

2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…

Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.

Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.

Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.

Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.

On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.

 

 

 


 

 

Cinema Paradiso


1988

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Starring: Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Enzo Cannavale, Isa Danieli, Leo Gullotta, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste

Words – Christian Abbott

“The old movie business is just a memory”, a line which summates so much feeling through nostalgia, perfectly capturing the essence of this film. The old movie business may indeed just be a memory now, but it is here that its power lives on, and its legacy and impact will never be forgotten.

Released over three decades ago, cinema has changed profoundly since this time, but the power of the cinematic remains true.
A story following the life of a now renowned filmmaker, Toto, as a message to return to his hometown sparks the memories of his upbringing both in and around his beloved Cinema Paradiso. It’s a timeless tale of childish naivete and young love, between him and cinema. It’s a perfect foundation to explore cinema’s glittering lure.

There is something uniquely wonderful about films that capture this unique love of cinema. Perhaps, this is because it is a rare display of genuine appreciation for the art form of the cinema itself, or, more likely, it is because those that appreciate film with the same youthful infatuation that Toto has for the projection room, sometimes need nothing more than two hours of cinematic self-indulgence.

From writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore, it is clear this was crafted by a loving hand; there is scene after scene of people gathering, laughing, cheering, and celebrating the sheer potential of the big screen. People brought together into a dark room to share in its emotions, cinema is a truly unique experience and this champions it like no other.

There are consistent low-angle shots of Toto, as he is transfixed by the screen; the projectors beam of light above him, Tornatore creates a mythic feeling. In conjunction, Ennio Morricone provided an angelic score, a soundtrack to cinema itself, and one of his absolute finest pieces in a career of consistent greats.

There is a lesson Toto learns in his young life, that sometimes you need to step away from something to truly appreciate it, as hard as that may be. We may all take the cinema for granted, after all, it has always been there and through works like this, it always will be. But like Toto, when you take a step back things become clear, and through his eyes, through the lens of Tornatore, we see that cinema should never be taken for granted, because its effects both on the personal and on the public can never be fully understood, though Cinema Paradiso is the best understanding of why we will always go to the cinema.

★★★★★

See details of a forthcoming 4K restoration and cinema re-release here:

https://arrowfilms.com/news/cinema-paradiso-returns-to-uk-cinemas-this-month/


Seven Samurai

1954

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Katô, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba

Words – Christian Abbott

All great films can be traced back to other works of art from decades past. The cynical would say that nothing is original anymore, but what it truly shows is that art, and especially cinema, is a never ending cycle of inspiration and reinterpretation. Often, this comes at the detriment to the previous work, as it slowly becomes overshadowed by the piece that exists because of it.
Arguably, one of the most obvious examples of this is when it comes to The Magnificent Seven (1960). Almost everybody knows of this film and understands its cultural impact, but some may not realise what inspired it. To take nothing away from John Sturges’ classic re-imagining, one shouldn’t forget the original, as its impact reaches far beyond its Hollywood remake – it defined and helped create genre-fiction as we know it today.

Released in 1954 by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai was the result of years of research and heavyweight talent coming together. The result was one of cinema’s most impressive and enduring ensemble casts, and a cinematic eye that is still sharper than most.

An old samurai in need of work is hired by a town to protect them against a series of bandits. To do this, he enlists 6 more samurai’s to protect and supply the town with aid. The sequence of events is a familiar one to modern audiences, but it is told so expertly, with genuine ingenuity and cinematic innovation that it still can hold its own against any modern action blockbuster.
From the initial hire, through building a team, holding the bandits back piece by piece and ultimately leading to a massive battle still excites now. Sometimes you need nothing more than a classic tale of redemption and honour; and this is that film.

Kurosawa’s editing and Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography have been written about at length and their impact can be felt across cinema. But understanding it is one thing, to see it yourself is another. The sweeping shots, silhouetted framing and persistent, gilding changes from wide and close-up captivate in a way only cinema achieves.

Seven Samurai has good company in Kurosawa’s canon for reinterpretation. The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) were both famously re-worked into Star Wars (1977) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), respectively. Great work inspires future great artists, which in turn inspire more.
Today, the words remake and reboot feel tainted by consistent failure – the mere mention of a remake can turn audiences away and actively annoy others for perceived disrespect to the original work.
Yet, the legacy and history of Seven Samurai stands as a testament to its merits. Without it, so much of cinema we enjoy and define ourselves by wouldn’t exist. So many great filmmakers wouldn’t have seen 7 samurai warriors protect a small village, inspiring them to create stories that will inspire us.

This is truly a milestone in cinema and should never be side-lined or forgotten. Kurosawa’s filmography is a catalogue of greats, but Seven Samurai stands alone. For a reminder of why cinema is great – watch Seven Samurai.

 

 

 


 

 

Parasite

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Park So-dam, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Ji-so Jung

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Rarely does a film defy all cinematic conventions and pull it off flawlessly. Even more rare is for a film to please so many different genres, yet seem almost completely genre-less.
There is so much to say about Parasite, none of which should be discussed openly in a one-way format such as this: it is highly recommended going into this film without any prior knowledge of what it is or where it will go. So how to go about describing this artistic feat, aside from the obvious statements that it is undeniably Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, and easily one of the best films in decades?

Let’s start with painting as simple a picture as possible. Whereas Bong’s previous films, the irreverent Okja and dystopian future incision Snowpiercer, focussed on alternative realities, the social skewering in Parasite is distinctly tangible.
The Kim family live in a small semi-basement and all struggle to hold down employment. They rush around their squalid home trying to connect to free WiFi and leave their windows open when the fumigators spray the streets to try and clear the stink-bugs moving in.

One day, the Kims are visited by son Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk, who gifts them a mysterious rock which is said to bring wealth to those who possess it. When Min-hyuk suggests Kim-woo pretend to be a university student and take over his job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, what follows is an opportunistic snowballing plot devised by the Kims which is equal parts genius and dangerous, rational and absurd.
By exploiting the credulous Park matriarch, using a creative variety of props from underpants to peaches, the Kims find a way for each of them to secure work within the concrete walls of the Park’s modernist mansion, a risky endeavour which involves usurping the family’s loyal housekeeper.

After all of the Kim clan have secured their posts in the Park home, the latter depart for a camping trip to celebrate their son’s birthday. While they’re away, the Kim’s spend the night in the luxury of their employers’ home, enjoying the kind of food and beverages they would seldom have access to back in their semi-basement. This marks the transition into the film’s second act; the Kim’s gestation period has been successful, remarkably so, and the rug is about to get violently pulled from under them.

Bong’s commitment to the nuances of social reality allows Parasite to not only traverse the audience’s constantly changing expectations (are the rich going to use their wealth and resources to outsmart the poor? Are the Kims going to overthrow the house?) but also shift gears from jaunty comedy to a white-knuckle thriller as faultlessly as Ki-taek turning corners on a busy road, smooth and confident as the ignorant but judgemental Mr Park looks on haughtily from the backseat.

As the story unravels and your jaw gradually makes its way to the floor, you quickly come to realise that it’s hard to distinguish who the ‘bad guys’ are here—an intentional move which speaks to the title of the film. There are the haves, basking in their fortune in the comfort of their sun-lit houses in the hills, and the have nots, confined to chthonic basements and subservience to the thankless demands of their employers.
Everything here is ‘metaphorical’, to steal a frequently recurring term from the film, but it is also everything you could ever want from a film: suspenseful, beautiful, at times hilarious, and always compelling.

 

 

 


 

 

Godzilla (1954)

1954

Director: Ishiro Honda

Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai

Words – Rebecca Kirby.

It took fifty years for the original, uncut version of Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” (or Gojira) to receive an official release for western audiences. In that time the films powerful message has not diminished.

Godzilla” may be the first Kaiju (literally translated as strange creature) movie and it might feature a man in a rubber suit crushing a miniature version of Tokyo, but this is so much more than the standard B movie creature feature western audiences were accustomed to. Made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA, Godzilla explores a very complex set of emotions.

With an air of dread and a bleak theme, “Godzilla” embodies the destructive atomic realisations of the Japanese nation, the worlds first post apocalyptic society. It’s a window into the soul of a nation that had its psyche crushed in unimaginable horror, rebuilding under US occupation and trying to come to terms with its past and future.
Director Ishiro Honda, who had been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during wartime, not only witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 but also saw first hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s clear to see how this influenced Godzilla‘s scenes of devastation in Tokyo, full of haunting visions of a city on fire.
The film was considered so bleak, particularly for American audiences, that the version released to western audiences in 1956, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” was re-edited to remove around forty minutes of footage, including some key plot points and to incorporate twenty minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. This version was dubbed into English and featured a more uplifting final statement from Burr.

Originally conceived under the working title of “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea“, the initial creature designs were very different from the Godzilla we now know and love. The original outline featured a giant octopus, while later a gorilla or whale inspired creature was considered, with the monster to be christened Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) before settling on the now iconic dinosaur inspired design.
The Godzilla suit was constructed from latex and molten rubber over a frame built from bamboo, wire and metal mesh. Weighing over 200 pounds, the suit was so heavy that performer Haruo Nakajima would pass out after only three minutes inside and lost 20 pounds during filming. Godzilla’s distinctive cry was created by composer Akira Ifukube by running a leather glove along a stringed instrument after recordings of various animals were dismissed.

Opening with the destruction of a small fishing boat by a unknown force off Odo Island, itself a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, where a Japanese trawler was caught in the radioactive fallout from a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, “Godzilla” spells out it’s intentions from the start.
When a further incident causes destruction on Odo Island, killing nine people and dozens of farm animals in the process, the Government sends paleontologist Dr Yamane to investigate. Dr Yamane discovers giant radioactive footprints along with a long extinct trilobite, before he has the opportunity to glimpse the terrifying Godzilla himself. He concludes that Godzilla is an ancient sea creature whose habitat has been disrupted by the hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the area.
After a plan to destroy Godzilla by using depth charges fails, the government seeks advice from Dr Yamane on how to kill the monster. Dr Yamane insists that having survived the H-bombs, Godzilla cannot be killed and the only course of action is to study him to understand how he has survived the nuclear blasts and even grown stronger as a result.
Emiko, Dr Yamane’s daughter seeks to break off her engagement to Dr Serizawa, a colleague of her father, in order to marry Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain that she is in love with. When Emiko visits Dr Serizawa he reveals to her the secret project that he has been working on. This demonstration causes Emiko to flee in horror without breaking off her engagement.

After Godzilla emerges in Tokyo Bay and devastates Shinagawa Ward, a further plan to kill him is put into action involving electrified fences and military force but this too fails. Tokyo suffers further destruction and hospitals are filled with casualties.

A distraught Emiko reveals the existence of Dr Serizawa’s research, a superweapon named the Oxygen Destroyer, to Ogata. Together they approach Serizawa to persuade him to use this against Godzilla. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer as he fears it falling into the wrong hands but after seeing the aftermath of the devastation of Tokyo he finally agrees to it’s use.

Before boarding a Navy vessel to plant the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, Serizawa burns his notes so the weapon cannot be replicated. Once the ship has reached it’s destination, Serizawa insists on deploying his creation alone, deliberately cutting off his own oxygen supply in the process.
The Oxygen Destroyer succeeds in killing Godzilla and the film ends with a sober and grim warning from Dr Yamane that the continuation of nuclear testing would risk the emergence of more Godzilla’s.

It’s perhaps worth noting here the contrast between Dr Serizawa, who would rather sacrifice himself than allow his invention to be used for war, with the initial celebration in the US of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, who would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Ironically, Oppenheimer would appear on the cover of Time once again in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, when he was stripped of his security clearances after suggesting that controls should be placed on the development of nuclear power.

Ultimately, the death of Godzilla is not seen as something to celebrate, the film never shying away from the fact that man is responsible for creating this monster. While his path of destruction must be stopped, Dr Yamane serves to remind us that Godzilla is also a victim of mankind’s nuclear ambitions, an unintended but inevitable consequence of the human disregard for the natural world.
Considering the current state of the planet’s climate and the continued stock piling of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers, it seems that in the 66 years since Godzilla was first unleashed we have still yet to learn those lessons.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Director: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Describing a film as a ‘historical drama’ conjures particularly priggish dress, dialogue and narrative, none of which is typically original or disruptive to the staid all ways of the genre.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, is not one of those historical dramas. There is still a plentiful of corsets and petticoats, and there’s at least one character who’s a countess, but there is also something else: a genuine, recognisable sense of human desire, embroiled with obsession, fear, and of course, lots of sexual tension.

Set in Brittany in 1760, Portrait recounts a tale of forbidden love. When we first meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter now posing for her class of female students, it would almost be befitting for her to turn, look down the lens of the camera, and do a Fleabag: “This is a love story.”
We then go back in time to unravel the slow burning and passionate romance that flourished during Marianne’s brief stay on the northern coast of France. It was here where she was drafted by an Italian noblewoman to paint a portrait of her elusive and reclusive daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will then be shipped off for approval from her betrothed, an unknown but wealthy man based in Milan.

Marianne’s stay is under the guise of companionship to Héloïse, who has just returned from a convent following the death of her sister. Not only is she mourning the loss of her sibling, but she also vehemently opposes this engagement and has sabotaged the attempts of previous portraitists by refusing to sit for them. Marianne is to accompany Héloïse on her walks to the seafront by day, and then privately paint her from memory by night.
Sciamma establishes the essence of forbidness from the outset, keeping Héloïse’s face hidden from both Marianne and the viewer until a pivotal moment when suddenly her physiognomy is brought to the fore for all to see, like the rediscovery of a masterpiece thought lost or destroyed.

Initially there seems to be a relative froideur between the two women, who are, beneath the pretence of amity, basically strangers. Marianne is both perplexed and transfixed by Héloïse’s mysteriousness, and on the surface one could mistake the latter’s distance as mere pretentiousness or formality. But the truth is all in the sly, yet often obvious, stolen glances; the slow-burning infatuation of discovering something new about someone every time you look at them, and the sheer pleasure and confusion of savouring those moments to yourself and then, in this case, eventually having to share those memories with an unknown other elsewhere on the continent.

There have been plenty of obvious comparisons between Portrait and Blue is the Warmest Colour. What’s distinct and profound about this story is that there’s no immediate attraction or lust; an easy narrative device that male directors so readily employ in retelling relationships between women. Rather, this is about seeing and being seen, the corporeal as much as the spiritual and emotional, and this goes beyond the romance.
This notion speaks directly to the central theme of repressed womanhood: Héloïse is to be married to someone she has never met, and is to sit for a portrait which successfully sells her as a suitable wife; her doting maid, Sophie, is forced to make a historically significant choice about an unwanted pregnancy, a momentous decision which Marianne later depicts on canvas; and Marianne’s very profession is a display of defiance, during a time when women were either heavily restricted in their access to creativity and art or were shut out completely.

Reversing the male gaze has never been done with quite the grace and poignancy as shown in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and every element works in harmony to create something so subjectively accessible and objectively beguiling, from the chemistry between the all-female cast to the masterful direction and prophetic script, and the opening scene in Marianne’s studio to the climactic grand finale in the opera house.

★★★★★

 

 


 

 

Babyteeth

Director: Shannon Murphy

Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Our first flame is usually a clumsy affair, defined more by how awkward everything is than any real or lasting affection. The majority of these ‘relationships’ end swiftly with the heartbreaking realisation that things seldom last forever; but for Babyteeth’s 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), this has particular poignancy as she knows that her first love is probably going to be her last.

Milla has an unnamed form of terminal cancer, for which her doting parents, the gifted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), bestow a great deal of anguish that Milla does not share. When 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) charges into Milla on a train platform, nearly tossing her onto the tracks, a tempestuous and often dangerous romance ensues. In addition to the age gap, and rather predictably, these two darlings are completely different in almost every possible way; Moses is a drug taker and dealer who has been exiled from the family home, whereas Milla lives in a leafy middle class suburb, attends a girls only school and plays the violin.

Scanlen strikes a subtle balance in negotiating Milla’s amorphous emotions, moving from fury to acceptance to vulnerability and back again. Mendelsohn and Davis are also on fine form, each bringing a different quality of helplessness to their parenting responsibilities as well as nuances in how they distract themselves from the reality that their baby will probably never get better and the kindest thing to do would be to let her savour what life she has left, no matter how questionable those choices may be.

Despite Milla’s displays of defiance, the good days are woven in with the bad and we are reminded of her frailty at several key stages of the film, marked out by chapter titles such as “It didn’t feel like a love story that day” and “What the dead said to Milla”, an especially delicate scene of introspection where Milla is allowed some space to breath outside of Moses’ raucous nature and the deafening clamour of her parents walking on eggshells.

As a debut, Babyteeth is a compelling tragicomedy of family, love and acceptance. It is by no means the first teenage cancer indie film, yet this consummate cast keep this one from crossing into cliche on the well-trodden ground of coming of age romcoms, interjected by overtly concerned and covertly struggling parents.

★★★★

 

 

 


 

 

Saint Maud


Director: Rose Glass

Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle

Words – Rhiannon Topham

It takes a very rare beast of a directorial debut to make you wince, laugh and question the capacity of the human mind in less than 90 minutes.
Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, a sinuous saga of madness and torment respects the many religion-inspired films in the horror genre, but suggests a surprising range of stylistic and narrative inspirations, from Lynn Ramsay’s grit to Edward Hopper’s loners in diners.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative nurse in a dilapidated seaside town who we first see crouched in a corner covered in blood. As far as first impressions go, it’s about as menacing as it can get. When she’s drafted to care for Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer now rendered housebound by illness and disability, the initial apprehension between the two eases into admiration and intrigue before regressing to outright repulsion; Maud for Amanda’s decadent lifestyle and coterie of hedonistic creatives, Amanda for Maud’s myopic opinion of how life should be lived.

Maud is a character of extremes; self-destructive in one ‘life’ and ascetic in another. Her obsequious quest to strive in her newfound piousness is juxtaposed with Amanda’s lucid, albeit anaesthetized, compos mentis. Maud’s religious conversion has granted her a moxie seemingly absent in her past, when, it transpires, she wasn’t a Maud at all. The fresh Maud persona is one she has crafted to support her search for the ‘greater purpose’ God has planned for her, an unassailable transcendental goal which swallows her whole and greedily possesses her in mind, body and spirit.

Maud’s nascent life of righteousness comes to an abrupt end when she is removed from her post as Amanda’s carer. Where to go when you are stripped of your purpose in life? All of her feelings of jealousy, confusion, virulence and an almost psychedelic bodily experience of spirituality reach fever pitch as she succumbs to the darker forces chipping away at her sanity and she becomes mimetic of the hellish creatures depicted by William Blake in a book gifted to her by Amanda.

As an addition to the horror-Renaissance of recent years, Saint Maud is an alarmingly accomplished debut by a talented and — dare I say it — innovative director to get excited about. Glass has clearly wasted no time on narrative trumpery with this, and at a tidy 84 minutes, all the key proponents harmonise perfectly to create an unnerving atmosphere in which neither Maud nor the audience are sure what our Saint will do next.
This is no average God-fearing horror; it is the fragility of the human mind that is the most frightening.

★★★★★

 

 

 


 

 

MEN

2022

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear

Words: Carly Stevenson.

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Alex Garland’s third film, following Ex Machina (2015) and Annihilation (2018), makes effective use of the trappings of folk horror to explore the reproduction of misogyny.

Jessie Buckley plays Harper, an abuse survivor who retreats to the countryside to heal after witnessing her husband fall or jump to his death from an upstairs window. Her staycation takes a sinister turn when she encounters a series of unsavoury characters in the local area: first, she meets Geoffrey, the host of the Airbnb in which she is staying, who jokingly chides her for eating “forbidden fruit” (an apple from a tree in the garden), reminds her not to flush tampons down the toilet, addresses her as ‘Mrs Marlowe’ and tactlessly asks “where’s hubby?”.
Harper shrugs off these microaggressions and heads for the woods, where she happens upon an abandoned railway tunnel – a glaring yonic symbol if ever there was one. In what is perhaps the most well-orchestrated scene in the film, Harper stands in the entrance of the tunnel and listens to the sound of her voice echoing. Her solitude is soon invaded by the appearance of a figure at the other end of the tunnel who seems to run towards her. Spooked, Harper flees to higher ground, only to encounter a naked man loitering in the verdure. Anyone familiar with fairy tales will know that women are not safe in the woods and there’s more than a hint of Red Riding Hood here.
Indeed, the film is replete with fairy tale imagery. Pay attention to the axe by the fireplace early on – it becomes significant. These run-ins serve as a reminder of what women and people of marginalised genders know instinctively: nature offers no shelter from the threat of male violence.
Arguably one of the most interesting issues Garland explores in Men is the reality that women’s interactions with the natural world are routinely interrupted by this familiar terror. Garland’s reimagining of the Green Man as a symbol of primordial masculinity speaks to this.

The film’s central device – every man Harper meets is a different incarnation of Rory Kinnear – drives home the message that patriarchy is pervasive and self-replicating.
Some reviewers have criticised this method as unsubtle, but I’m not convinced it needs to be. The rendering of an exaggerated type of maleness as theatrical seems entirely appropriate in this context.
The forms Kinnear takes embody the all-too-recognisable guises of misogyny: an aggressive adolescent boy who feels entitled to Harper’s attention, a policeman who dismisses her concerns about a naked stalker, and a predatory vicar who blames her for her husband’s death while groping her knee (he later quotes from W.B. Yeats’s sonnet ‘Leda and the Swan’ – a small detail that hints at the bigger picture). The scenes with the vicar are particularly unnerving in that they highlight the role Christianity plays in perpetuating myths about women.
Garland merges Christian and pagan symbols to show how patriarchy is sustained by multiple power structures and belief systems. It is no coincidence that the leering face of the Green Man lurks in the most patriarchal of spaces – a church. Significantly, the opposite side of the altar features a carving of the sheela na gig – a hotly contested grotesque of female carnality. Make of that what you will.

The final part of this review contains spoilers.

Men culminates with a Cronenbergian body horror sequence in which Harper bears witness to the violent, mutated rebirth of all the men who have terrorised her, including her abusive late husband. Even in death, he demands unconditional, self-sacrificing love. A surreal exploration of the cycle of male violence, Men bears some resemblance to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017). Both films lean heavily on religious symbolism to make a point about gender and power. The key difference is that Harper emerges from her ordeal with a sense of agency. Unlike Mother!, Harper breaks free of the cycle.



The Innocents

Director: Eskil Vogt

Cast: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Morten Svartveit

Words: Rhiannon Topham.

The Innocents, from Eskil Vogt (frequent writing collaborator of Joachim Trier, and director of 2014 drama Blind), begins with a small act of cruel curiosity. Our protagonist Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is roused from her slumber in the back of her family’s car by the sounds of her older sister, the severely autistic Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). After making sure that their parents aren’t looking, Ida leans over to her sister and pinches Anna’s leg to see if she will react. She does not, so Ida retreats, somewhat disappointed.

This idea of seemingly childish and outwardly harmless experimentation is tested again and again throughout the film. Ida’s family have moved to a new, featureless residential estate of high-rise apartment buildings and a central communal space. It is summer break when they arrive, so there aren’t many other kids around for Ida to meet and play with. On this first day, Ida goes for a wander, stopping to squish a worm under her foot in the mud by a lake. As she looks up, she sees a young boy staring at her from across the way. This is Ben (Sam Ashraf), who Ida will quickly strike up a friendship with, the two bonding over their shared loneliness and mutual interest in attacking insects and other small animals.

As the days drag on, Ida spends more time playing outside and is trusted to watch over Anna. She’s clearly bored and restless. There is one silver lining: the neighbouring woodland supplies all kinds of wonders for Ida and Ben to explore. One day, Ben demonstrates a special trick he’s been working on—he can make a bottle cap veer off in a different direction when Ida drops it from a height. This telekinetic ability escalates as Ben starts to realise the full extent of his ‘talents’—and it has extremely sinister consequences.

While Ida starts to clock on to Ben’s increasingly sadistic forms of supernatural entertainment, Anna meets a fellow young inhabitant of the housing development, a sweet girl called Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim). Unlike Ida, Aisha can communicate with Anna—because she’s telepathic. Through Aisha’s gentle encouragement and support, Anna gradually regains her ability to speak.

There’s a push and pull throughout the narrative, as we see the struggles of social exclusion through Ida’s nascent morality. She is initially drawn to Ben because he reflects the desperate craving for attention and sense of rudderlessness that she also quietly feels. But Ida recognises right from wrong, and she, Anna and Aisha realise they have to do something to stop Ben’s ballooning psychopathy from reaching catastrophic levels. Ida’s eventual role in this is hinted at from the start, nipping the bare skin of her sister’s leg in the back of the family car—she knew it was wrong, that’s why she did it only after confirming that her parents were looking the other way. There are moments when Ida’s own blithe naivety sways daringly close to fiendishness. But she is ultimately brought back to a place of empathy when she learns (through Aisha’s telepathic translations) that Anna can in fact feel pain and has untapped talents of her own.

The Innocents puts a new spin on our idea of kids “play fighting”. Their true selves are hidden from the adults around them (themselves complex and multi-layered characters), but it is when they are together that they learn their most valuable lessons. Friendship, boundaries, whether to use your powers for good or evil, one’s own capacity and tolerance for cruelty and malice.
Part of the intensity and brilliance of this is that the origin of the children’s abilities is never explained. To do so would detract from the force of Ben’s fury, and how these “innocent” characters can or should cope with their eventual loss of innocence as the story develops. It’s challenging and inventive cinema—with some of the best child acting you’ll see this year.


Blade Runner & The Thing; one day in 1982.

1982

Directors: Ridley Scott, John Carpenter

Words: Oliver Innocent.

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1982 was a milestone year for American popular cinema, with a slew of future classics dominating the box office.

Steven Spielberg was the undisputed king with his family-friendly E.T. the Extra Terrestrial achieving the highest grossing film of the year. He also had big success with Poltergeist, the haunted house horror hit he produced also earning a place within the top ten grossing US films.
Established franchises Star Trek and Rocky also took the box office by storm with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Rocky III proving exceedingly popular with audiences.

Two of the standout films of the year, both released on the same day – June 25th, 1982 – were initially commercial and critical failures. On paper, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir Blade Runner, and John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror The Thing should have both been huge successes.

Scott’s 1979 science-fiction film, Alien was a massive hit, and an instant classic of the genre. Likewise, Carpenter’s 1978 horror Halloween was one of the most successful independent films ever, birthing the slasher subgenre and spawning countless imitators.
Unlike Alien and Halloween, Blade Runner and The Thing are both adaptations. Blade Runner is based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Thing on the 1938 John W Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There? with the first film adaptation of the story being the 1951 cold war B-Movie The Thing from Another World. But despite links to established properties, neither film gelled with the cinema-going audiences of the summer of 1982.

Appearing amidst the popcorn-friendly likes of E.T. and Rocky III, it’s easy to see why Blade Runner didn’t initially connect with audiences. Ambiguous, slow-moving, and melancholic, it sits in stark contrast to the mainstream feel-good thrills audiences had been made accustomed to.
Predominantly visual rather than story-driven, it’s a film that wholly envelops you in its world without explaining its world to you. Scott simply drops you off in 2019 Los Angeles with Harrison Ford’s Deckard on the hunt for bio-engineered killer replicants, and lets the story unfold from there with staggering visuals and amazing production design.
Indeed, the world of Blade Runner is expertly crafted, melding the melodramatic, stylistic trappings of film noir (perpetual darkness and rain) with the futuristic visuals of science-fiction (flying cars, holograms). This is all simultaneously kept grounded and believable with an overarching lived-in, grungy aesthetic (crumbling dilapidated buildings, nothing looking new and shiny despite being set in the future), courtesy of vfx master Douglas Trumbull (who previously worked on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind) alongside designer and concept artist Syd Mead. Perfectly accompanying this visual aesthetic is Greek musician, Vangelis’s ground-breaking electronic score, at once ambient and aloof, and emotional and driving.
It is not, however, just a case of style over substance. Blade Runner deals with such lofty themes as life and death, moral ambiguity, existentialism, and what it really means to be human. These themes are best exemplified by the aptly named Roy Batty, a replicant with such a desire for more life (replicants are only designed to have short lifespans) that he will do anything, including murder, to attain it. Batty is a show-stealing turn from cult Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, delivering a manic, almost Shakespearean performance with one of the most iconic, emotionally impactful monologues in cinema (tears in rain).

BR TT scene

Arguably more accessible and narrative driven, The Thing instead proved a difficult sell due to its gory special effects, doom-laden atmosphere, and nerve-shredding, paranoic horror. Ironically, all the elements that initially turned audiences off are what make the film such an effectively disturbing viewing experience.
Remaking one of his own favourite films, it would have been easy for Carpenter to make a rehashed, modernised love letter to The Thing from Another World. Instead, Carpenter looked to the source novella for inspiration. A more faithful adaptation of the original story, Carpenter’s The Thing centres on a research team in Antarctica trapped with a shape-shifting alien able to perfectly imitate other organisms. This shifts the focus from the monster-on-the-loose format of the original film to a paranoia-fuelled, psychological horror where the monster could be anyone.
Bolstered by twitchy, unpredictable performances from the excellent ensemble cast, including Kurt Russell in one of his best roles, the audience, like the characters themselves, never knows who to trust.

Adding another level of audience discomfort are special makeup effects artist, Rob Bottin’s truly grotesque practical effects. Still more than holding up 40 years later, Bottin’s expertly crafted effects are the real star of the show. The slimy, twisted, surrealistic, monstrous creatures repel and fascinate in equal measure, at once otherworldly and entirely convincing.

Since their initial underwhelming critical and commercial performances, both Blade Runner and The Thing have gone on to become cult favourites, finding a new lease of life on home video. Testament to their ever-increasing popularity is the sheer number of releases both films have garnered. Multiple incarnations on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and now Ultra HD Blu-ray have been rabidly collected by new and old fans alike. They have also both proved highly influential with some of today’s biggest filmmakers; Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino citing them as personal favourites.
While The Thing led the way for effects-heavy body horror like David Cronenberg’s The Fly (itself a remake of a 1950s sci-fi horror B-movie), Blade Runner influenced the cyberpunk aesthetic (blending of low and high tech) of Japanese animes such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
Their influence has also spread to music. The 1980s-obsessed electronic music subgenre, Synthwave takes heavy inspiration from Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundscapes, not to mention the film’s visuals. John Carpenter’s scores are also cited as direct inspirations by many of the scene’s artists.

Both films also scored belated second entries. While The Thing got a mostly forgettable prequel, Blade Runner was gifted a more worthy successor, the excellent Blade Runner 2049, itself a new standard for stunning sci-fi visuals.

The 25th of June 1982 was then, in retrospect, an important day in the history of cinema, even if most critics and audiences didn’t realise it. Two science-fiction films released on the same day to a frosty reception proved this wasn’t necessarily a death knell in the long run, having over time become recognised as two of the most ground-breaking and influential films in the history of the genre.

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The Thing 1982 lobby card

Blade Runner 1982 lobby card


Hive

Director: Blerta Basholli

Cast: Yllka Gashi, Çun Lajçi, Kumrije Hoxha, Aurita Agushi, Adriana Matoshi, Molikë Maxhuni, Blerta Ismaili

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

At the heart of writer and director Blerta Basholli’s triple-Sundance-winning drama Hive is a message of hope in a time of tragedy and terror. Hope that resilience and strength against the odds will pay off. Hope for justice for past traumas, both individual and collective. Hope for a better future.

Based on the true story of Fahrije Hoti (played by Yllka Gashi), Hive is set in a patriarchal Kosovan village where many women (Fahrije included) are grieving for husbands who are still missing after the end of the war. Fahrije maintains her husband’s beehives but struggles to keep her household afloat on the modest income from selling honey at the local market.

She and other widows in the village band together for support, but there is frequent resistance to suggestions for advancing their positions and prospects. One idea is to obtain driving licences so they can access better employment opportunities, to which one woman says: “There is no way I will allow myself to become the gossip of other people.”
Within this is the crux of the issue the women face – a deeply entrenched misogyny that is frustratingly unforgiving, exposing the women to vitriolic condemnation and being labelled as ‘whores’ for something so harmless as learning to drive. Such social pressures and taboos are reproduced in the home as much as outside it, as Fahrije knows all too well when her own daughter brandishes her a ‘whore’ for simply trying to gain some sense of financial security.

Fahrije and her peers start a small business selling homemade ajvar, a red pepper condiment that is a staple of Balkan cuisine. The women painstakingly make every jar, which Fahrije loads into her car and takes to the supermarket where they have their own shelves. It’s a small glimmer of hope for people who have endured so many years of tension and grief. That is, until, someone – who, it doesn’t matter – breaks into their workshop and smashes most of the jars that were full and ready to sell. The ajvar paste, thick and red, is strewn across the floor like a sea of blood. It’s a shocking and bold sight, bravely evocative of the bloodshed at the centre of Hive’s domestic drama.

Basholli treats the subject matter with great empathy and care, allowing the immense sorrow that surrounds Fahrije and her friends the time and space it needs. But there are also moments of staunch humanity, especially in the strength the women find together and the solace they find from their friendship and new business venture. Knowing the real Fahrije Hoti is thriving makes the characters’ jubilant celebration of their success at the end of the film even more enjoyable.


The Worst Person in the World

Director: Joachim Trier

Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Joachim Trier’s latest feature, The Worst Person in the World, offers a relatable and (dare I say it) refreshing take on drama, romance, comedy and elements of tragedy in the context of modern society.
The film’s protagonist, Julie (played by a spellbinding Renate Reinsve) feels a sense of restlessness in her life that is heightened as she progresses through the youthful liberty of her twenties. Her thirties are approaching, but she doesn’t feel like she’s found her place in the world yet. She finds inspiration in multiple places and industries, but never enough to pursue anything beyond the thrill of nascent interest.

Divided into 12 chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue), The Worst Person in the World is segmented as a montage of Julie’s life as she grapples with several internal conflicts: who to settle down with; what career to pursue; whether to keep giving her estranged father another chance; how to find a purpose in life without sacrificing pleasure or excitement for the new and undiscovered. “I feel like a spectator in my own life,” she says to her older lover Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), as she realises she needs to prioritise self-love before she can commit to romantic love.

Both of Julie’s main love interests throughout the film present her with different experiences of how love can be received and felt. Askel, a celebrated cartoonist, wants to start a family with Julie and makes this explicitly clear. Julie isn’t sure she wants children at all, and it’s during this period of ambiguity that she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) at a wedding she gatecrashes. Like Julie, Eivind hasn’t quite figured out his long-term prospects, and their desire for one another is palpable.
Trier is as interested in the intensity of these relationships in their early stages as the mundanity and monotony of a reality that, just like her confused career aspirations, was never going to match up to that first rush of electricity.

Julie, of course, is not literally ‘the worst person in the world’. But this title and her character speak to the audience in myriad ways. How can we retain our agency and autonomy, without coming across as selfish and self-possessed? Indeed, is it wrong to be those things if it ultimately results in self-discovery? Julie may prioritise her own desires and pleasures, but she is also strikingly compassionate and willing to shed her defensive armour if it means reaching a place of acceptance and mutual understanding, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Feeling like a terrible person because pursuing our personal interests may come at the emotional expense of the people we care about is a prospect that many of us, particularly women, are often too scared to face. But we know that what may seem harsh on the surface is rarely so straightforward. Life and love are beautiful and ugly, tragic and comedic, exciting and frightening; all manner of contradictions simultaneously. The Worst Person in the World captures this complexity in a way so few feature films have before.


Titane

2021

Director: Julia Ducournau

Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Bertrand Bonello, Myriem Akheddiou, Lais Salameh

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning body horror film, is not for everyone. It is certainly not recommended for anyone prone to squeamishness, or for those interested only in films which show you everything at face value without any subtext at all. Like Ducournau’s feature debut Raw, Titane is not concerned with social pleasantries, but rather subverting these conventions in the context of a female body and experience seldom, if ever, shown on screen.

The film follows Alexia (an extraordinary leading debut performance from Agathe Rousselle), a woman who had titanium plates fitted into her skull following a car crash during her childhood. As an adult, her sexual attraction to cars culiminates in her work as an exotic dancer at auto shows, writhing and grinding on the vehicles that most excite her. She emits a menacing and cold persona, made all the more apparent when she murders a particularly aggressive and persistent fan who follows her after a show.

Besides strapping herself into the rear seats of a car and bouncing around in a simulated sexual experience, the only thing that seems to get Alexia off is, well, offing humans. Though she does engage with men and women, ultimately these encounters meet fatal ends. When she learns she is pregnant, literally leaking oil, Alexia’s already unhinged demeanour becomes even more untethered. After one catastrophic night, Alexia goes on the run and disguises herself as the grown form of Adrien Legrand, a boy who went missing 10 years ago.

Alexia’s metamorphosis into Adrien (strapping her swelling body with a binder, cutting her blond mullet and smashing her nose against the sink in a public bathroom) signals the film’s transition from gruesome and absurd horror-comedy to melodrama. Adrien is reunited with his bereaved fire chief father Vincent (Vincent Lindon, in a perfect casting), who believes unrelentingly that the mute and dishevelled figure before him is his long-lost son.

Hidden behind Adrien’s muteness is Alexia’s restrained rage, which could unravel at any moment. But a symmetry and something akin to kinship develops between Adrien/Alexia and Vincent. While Alexia binds her breasts and stomach, an increasingly excruciating process, Vincent self-administers injections, presumably steroids, to slow the ravages of time. Both are grappling with their somatic agency by trying to control the uncontrollable and repress the changes that are occurring in their bodies against their will. Their subliminal needs don’t measure with what their bodies are capable of, and their lack of exposure to familial affection makes any attempt at tenderness a painful and uncomfortable experience. This relationship between Alexia/Adrien and Vincent is forged by the characters’ intense emotions and corporeal contrasts, anchored by Vincent’s unconditional love for his son regardless of whether Adrien reciprocates those feelings.

What makes Titane so different—and no doubt shocking to many—is Ducournau’s refusal to frame Alexia as a victim, or to justify her violence as some sort of revenge for her past. Alexia is unrelatable to the extreme, downright detestable for most of the film, and her unorthodox sexual proclivities make her even more difficult to pigeonhole. She’s a character with very few redeeming characteristics, one who uses violence for no other reason than her deep-seated motivations. Alexia isn’t what she seems, but neither are Adrien and Vincent. They are frail characters in myriad kinds of pain, but don’t want you to know it.

The world of Titane is one of confusion and camouflaged vulnerability, where sumptuous visuals and body language often do the talking instead of dialogue. It’s cinema at its most fearless and striking, and I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like it.


C’mon C’mon

2021

Director: Mike Mills

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gabby Hoffman

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

The films of Mike Mills are almost the complete antithesis of the big blockbuster; gentle and paced, genuinely humane with an abundance of emotional complexity, but with one or two big Hollywood actors to carry the narrative. His latest, C’mon C’mon is no exception.

It follows the growing bond between Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist living in New York, and his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), an imaginative nine-year-old living in California. Johnny offers to look after Jesse for a while so that his sister, Viv (Gabby Hoffman), can take care of Jesse’s father who is struggling with mental illness. The relationship between Johnny and Viv has been strained since the death of their mother, and by accepting their individual and familial shortcomings, this connection is rebuilt over the course of the film.

Shot in a sumptuous black and white, the film is a stylistic triumph. The beaches and palm tree-lined avenues of California are treated with the same muted melancholy as the loud, intense cityscape of New York, showing how untethered emotions can be unaffected by time and place. By levelling these contrasts and stripping away the distractions of colour, the focus of the film is shifted to the importance of sound, and specifically the power of listening. This gives it an almost documentary feel, as every frame serves to tell you something on a personal, societal or global level.

As a radio journalist, Johnny is currently working on a project that involves interviewing young people across the country and asking what the future looks like to them. The answers he receives are profound and reflective of the state of the world today, the inherent difficulties of being socialised among so much animosity, and the hurdles involved in forging your own identity in modern society. Despite his eccentric personality and nascent wisdom, Jesse refuses to be interviewed, and instead uses Johnny’s equipment to immerse himself in the sounds of the natural and man-made environments in the cities they visit together.

There is a real warmth and appreciation of difference in C’mon C’mon, anchored by the vulnerable performances of the three main actors. Phoenix particularly shows his incredible diversity as a performer and his capacity for capturing a specific kind of inner wound. Norman is a revelation as Jesse, tapping into every feeling with his whole body and soul. Ultimately, this is a film about being tolerant and accepting of our flaws and differences, no matter how frustrating the process may be. It is a poignant and heartfelt reflection on parenting and human relationships, and is a recommended tonic to the often overwhelming barrage of ‘content’ available today.


Petite Maman

2021

Director: Céline Sciamma

Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to the masterful modern classic Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the beautiful, simple 72-minute drama Petite Maman. It opens with the protagonist, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), going from room to room saying goodbye to the inhabitants of the care home where her beloved grandmother has just died. We have only just met her, but already Nelly’s compassion is a sign that she will try to make sense of this loss by supporting her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) in any way she can.

Nelly and her parents drive back to her grandmother’s home so that they can organise her belongings and move everything out. She is excited to locate the hut in the adjoining woods that her mother used to play in as a child, and eventually finds it while she explores as her parents put the contents of a whole life into cardboard boxes. But when Nelly wakes up in the morning, Marion has suddenly vanished, leaving the young child alone with her father (Stéphane Varupenne) who seems to not quite know what to say or do to assuage the grief.

Later that day while out playing in the woods again to pass the time, Nelly encounters a young girl (Gabrielle Sanz, actor Joséphine’s twin sister) who looks just like her, pulling a large branch over to the hut. She waves Nelly over to help and reveals that her name is, Marion.
Sciamma allows this blossoming friendship the space to flourish, and never overtly indicates whether it is a ghost story, an act of science fiction or purely a figment of Nelly’s imagination. Equally, she doesn’t specify if young Marion will always be found in an identical but fresher-looking house on the other side of the woods, or if her existence will cease once Nelly’s father puts the last box in the back of a moving van. It doesn’t really matter, because Petite Maman uses a familiar, youthful playfulness spliced with calmness and reflection in order to unpack the complexities of human life and emotion.

It shows that love, loss, family and friendship can be interconnected in myriad ways. The tension between physical absence but emotional presence is stretched across the equidistance between the past and the future. Petite Maman is a beautiful tale of a young girl simply trying to understand her mother so that she can be there for her during a difficult time, mixing surrealism with realism, child-like appeal with very adult contemplations on morality. It has something for every viewer, not least the reminder that our parents were once children with nascent curiosities and innocent worldviews.


Dune

2021

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling

Words – C.J. Abbott

When it was first announced Denis Villeneuve would tackle Dune, expectations were immediately at cosmic levels. Following his breath-taking science fiction debut with Arrival, and staggering continuation with Blade Runner 2049, it seemed certain Dune was in safe hands. The story of Dune in cinema stretches back decades, before Alien, before Star Wars, before 2001: A Space Odyssey, there was only Dune.

Originally written by Frank Herbert in 1965, the book has become legend, cementing itself as the foundation of modern science-fiction. Considered a bible for the genre, a big-screen adaptation was quickly deemed impossible. Many filmmakers did try, and indeed fail, to capture the essence of the piece. From Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade psychedelic epic to David Lynch’s inspired but misguided 1984 release, Dune has always been an untameable beast for filmmakers. Villeneuve had an unfathomable mountain to climb, but if anyone could reach the summit, it was him.

Thankfully, after five years of waiting, after delays, questions regarding sequels, and enduring a global pandemic, Dune has arrived. From the moment the first frame hit the screen, all tensions, expectations, and concerns were buried beneath the sands of Arrakis. Not only has Villeneuve captured the essence of the novel, but he has crafted one of the most ambitious and truly awe-inspiring epics in years.

It is that – epic, in the true sense of the word. The scope of the film blows the mind, everything is on a galactic scale, from the planet-sized Spacing Guild ships, to the monolithic Arrakeen architecture, to the lumbering Harrkonnen soldiers, cinema hasn’t felt this grandiose in quite some time.

Taking place thousands of years into a distant future, humanity has returned to the days of imperial rule, governing houses, and aristocratic decadence. In a universe of plenty, only one world produces spice – Arrakis. This is the substance that allows for interstellar travel, making it the most valuable resource in the galaxy. For 80 years House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis, their Dune, but by imperial decree, they must relinquish control. House Atreides has been gifted the world, to ensure the production of spice continues. Young Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalamet, is the son of Duke Leto, Oscar Isaac, the head of House Atreides, and soon finds himself thrust into a world of deception, betrayal, and, of course, giant sandworms.

Greig Fraser oversaw the cinematography of the film, known for his work on Rogue One, Vice, and Zero Dark Thirty. He has managed to capture the scope of the Dune universe expertly, through the use of biblically scaled wide-shots. Angling the characters, ships, building the vastness of Arrakis and beyond. One of the more esoteric elements of the book was Paul Atreides’ visions, a seemingly nightmarish undertaking on a visual level. Yet, Fraser stripped back the complexity of the description to reveal something beautiful and unknowable. Villeneuve and Fraser gave Dune a crisp visual style that made the world seem alien and familiar, an instantly understandable vision of the future.

This was aided by some incredible sound design, from the booming bass of the Harkonnen warships to the whispered breeze of the sand, every aspect was given meticulous detail and love. Best of all, the portrayal of The Voice, the ability to command others through word, was expertly realised. The sound of the chilling words had an almost horrific tone, terrifying in their strangeness.

All this was held on the shoulders of Chalamet, who goes from a quietly fierce boy to the beginnings of a warrior god over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. In the role of Paul, Chalamet is in almost every scene, bearing the brunt of the project. Once again, he proves himself to be one of the most capable and versatile actors working today, giving Paul the nobility and leadership the character demands. He wasn’t alone though, as the entire cast brings everything into their parts. Rebecca Ferguson stars as Lady Jessica, the mother of Paul and Bene Gesserit. She is both cold and warm, struggling to reconcile her teaching Bene Gesserit with her mother’s love for Paul. By far, Ferguson gives the most heartbreaking performance in the film, as she slowly watches her boy change before her eyes.

Oscar Isaac is equally impressive as Duke Leto, Paul’s father. He is both wise and loving, a symbol of the very best this harsh world has to offer. In many ways, Leto is the voice of reason, a man betrayed for his kind heart, manipulated due to admiration. On the other hand, completely opposed to him is Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the brutish and beastly head of Arrakis’s former masters. He is enormous, literally. Each scene with his presence is uncomfortable as his grotesque mass floats through the film. He is a villain that simply just needs to be in a room for the viewer to feel the intimidation.

All this comes together to create a piece that is not only impressive but genuinely important. A film that Hollywood desperately needs to succeed. The combination of intelligent filmmaking with a franchise mentality. Dune leaves the audience wanting more, actually needing more, finishing well before the original book comes to a close. This is a story that is half-finished but still feels narratively satisfying. If and when Part Two ever releases to wrap up the story, if it is at the same level of quality Part One is, this will go down as one of the best franchises in decades.


The Power of the Dog

2021

Director: Jane Campion

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Jane Campion is a master of atmospheric melodrama. Her latest, The Power of the Dog, is an incredibly textural wild west based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name. It follows prosperous cattle ranch owners Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) in 1925 Montana, a hyper-masculine environment where anything remotely effeminate is performatively derided by Phil while George looks the other way.

The equipoise between the brothers, who at first sleep in single beds beside each other in the same room, is disrupted when they meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed restaurant/hotel owner who George marries after a short courtship. The brothers are polar opposites in almost every way; Phil is the quintessentially ornery and reticent cowboy, striding across the plains in his stirrups, bathing only in a nearby creek when nobody’s looking, whereas George is clinically clean, well-presented and timid in nature. Theirs is a combative kind of harmony, ripe for sociological analysis. So, when Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who represents just about everything Phil despises, move into the Burbank family home, the paradigm shift is colossal for all involved. Phil took pleasure in upbraiding George’s anti-rancher disposition but appreciated the status quo of their collaboration; Peter’s unabashed interest in the intricacies of flora and fauna seems to physically unsettle him.

Unless you’re familiar with the source material, it’s extremely difficult to predict how the simmering tension and capriciousness will culminate. Campion doesn’t give anything away about the origins of Phil’s hostility, the Burbank family secrets bubbling just beneath the surface or when, how and to whom the manipulation coming from all directions is going to aim its final deadly shot. We’re always expecting a situation to erupt into a hideous brawl, or for something or someone to make an ominous entrance over the mountains Phil spends so much time looking longingly towards. The performances are subtle and finely-tuned, grounded by moments which temporarily displace you from the escalating agitation on the Burbank ranch.

Campion suspends us between apprehension, expectation and an almost celestial sense of some invisible force pushing, pulling and wringing the nascent unhappy family. There are elegant reflections on chosen and given family, the roles we play in our everyday lives and the intricate face-saving involved in seemingly meaningless interactions–all among a harsh but beautiful frontier with a main character energy of its own. We hear a lot about ‘slow-burners’, but don’t let the pace of The Power of the Dog put you off. Everything suddenly clicks in the final scene, and it is so worth the wait.