Tag Archives: Film Review

Beast

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

Director: Michael Pearce

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle

Synopsis: Summertime in Jersey, a killer stalks the land, and Beast’s protagonist Moll (Jessie Buckley) flees from her sham birthday and a family which is suffocating her. A chance encounter in her flight causes a budding relationship between Moll and fellow outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Moll’s connection with Pascal is more bad than good, exposing her to the cannibalism of a community frenzied by fear.

Twisting between fairytale and thriller, Beast is a nebulous story laced with layers of meaning. Glancing at the surface, Beast’s setting and tale of loving the monster conjures up Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher. Yet beyond the veneer Beast is about our latent evil and how forgiveness is a far better weapon of control than guilt. Encapsulated in one visceral act of self-harming, it becomes clear that something is deeply wrong with Moll. Moll’s problem is buried in the past, a sin wielded over Moll by her family to reduce her to the role of valet, nanny and carer. Sin, guilt and regret are nothing new in stories, but what marks Beast is how Moll’s sin has been weaponised through forgiveness. Instead of being reminded of what she has done, Moll is controlled by her mother’s guise of love, friendship and progress.

The name Beast alludes to the animalistic nature of man as family members and authority figures turn against Moll. The  theme is more pronounced among certain characters who symbolise different animals. Moll’s manipulative mother (Gerladine James) is akin to a spider while detective Cliff (Trystan Gravelle) is a bloodhound. The picturesque Jersey setting is also deceptive. The quaint connotations around the tourist spot come tax haven crumbles as Moll and Pascal are pilloried. The rich acquaintances of Moll’s family treat Moll with snickering disdain while the rest of the island condemn her and Pascal as murderers. In his choice of landscapes, the land of Jersey takes on a duality through director Michael Pearce’s vision. Verdant meadows and orchards shining at dawn give way to desolate and eerie fields and swamps. From characters to setting, Beast ensures that nothing is ever clear until the end. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s eye for the land captures the distinctiveness of Britain, contrasting the synthesised depiction of how viewers abroad see the country. Despite all the suffering and trauma that Beast depicts, I could not help seeing the film as one beautifully twisted postcard of Jersey.

Replete with twists and dream sequences, Beast ensnares you in a maze of suspicion from which none are safe. The film is only undermined by a plot straining under its own complexity. Last minutes revelations and surprise twists create an impact laced with an aftertaste of dissatisfaction by upending the plot’s overall narrative of exclusion.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Advertisements

Thoroughbreds

Rating: 2 out of 5 (Poor)

Director: Cory Finley

Cast: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks

Synopsis: Thoroughbreds is a tale of teenage angst set in the towering echelons of America’s wealthy, nestled in the upper-class affluence of Connecticut suburbs. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), reunited with childhood friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) conspires to kill Lily’s stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks).

Thoroughbreds is a cautionary warning that pedigree only goes so far. The film’s respectable cast and advertising campaign have the trappings of potential but both are deceptive. Projected as a major presence in trailers, Anton Yelchin is a secondary character in Thoroughbreds. Having been drawn to Thoroughbreds by Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance in Split and Anton Yelchin, I was disappointed to find that the film ditched a major part of its proclaimed appearance. The film’s plot, like the exquisite mansion in which Lily resides, is barren beneath its deluxe decor. Billed as a psychological thriller, Thoroughbreds is a litany of conversations between Lily and Amanda whose dialogue can be as boring as overhearing strangers forced to talk to one another. At times Thoroughbreds feels like an emaciated independent film, with all the money being spent on the expensive clothes and settings in which nothing happens.

The fulcrum of Thoroughbreds is the friendship between Lily and Amanda. Their relationship is palpably feigned, hastily propped up by past references while in the present, Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke have no chemistry between each other. Both actresses give performances that are stilted, projecting a sense that both are uncomfortable playing spoilt teenagers. Cooke is so devout as the sociopath Amanda that her unemotional demeanour creates a character which is just lifeless, while Anya Taylor-Joy feels equally cold as Lily.

Neither actress are helped by the writing and camerawork. Director and writer Cory Finley attempts to turn Amanda into the comic relief, but the reoccurring Steve Jobs gag wears thin and other jokes mainly fall flat. The plot’s major flaw is that neither the camera nor the writing convey the stepfather Mark as a man deserving of murder. Mark is certainly arrogant as Finley’s direction shows, but he is by no means evil. Later on in the plot the acts fatherly towards Lily, telling her to get rid of the cigarettes so her mother does not find out. Consequently it is difficult to understand Lily’s and Amanda’s mission and see them as anything more than adolescent upstarts. A few twists emerge at the film’s conclusion, arriving with little forewarning as though they were a rushed attempt to make Thoroughbreds appear clever. Nor does Thoroughbreds make any commentary upon the American elite that populate the film.

Paul Sparks and Anton Yelchin are the best parts of the film, but sadly neither are present enough to improve a film that never quite fits. Finley does show promise in what is his directorial debut, but he does have a long way to go.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Ghost Stories

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

Director: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman

Cast: Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther

Synopsis: Contacted by a childhood hero long thought dead, parapsychologist Professor Phillip Goodman is tasked with investigating three cases which upend Goodman’s life work of debunking the supernatural.

Horror films cleave into two types. The majority are a sequence of bumps and scares whose power recede when the lights return and credits roll. The rarer breed are the tales which unsettle, where the barrier between film and reality melts and the viewer is gnawed by the feeling that the monster is hunting them too. Ghost Stories is a potent hybrid of the two types. Despite watching the original play eight years ago, my past experience with Ghost Stories provided little protection. The stories unfolded to the same pattern but I again became the frightened teenager who realised, as the monster edged ever closer, that his stomach for ghost stories began and ended with M.R.James. A week after Ghost Stories I froze upon a darkened landing transfixed, just like Professor Goodman, that something was waiting for me in the pitch black.

From setting to scares, Ghost Stories is a loving homage to the adaptations of M.R.James’ tales from the 1960’s and the 1970’s. Filmed entirely in Yorkshire, Ghost Stories’  rugged moors and vacantly bleak coastline share the same English landscape which exude M.R.James’ tales. Professor Goodman’s journey through the empty countryside in his antiquated convertible mirrors the insipid other-worldliness of A Ghost Story for Christmas. Stronger nods to M.R.James pepper the plot; bed sheets form into a monster matching Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, and just like A Warning To The Curious, not even the observer is safe. Atop the streak of M.R.James pervading Ghost Stories are the ideas of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. The pair have taken the classic ghost story and infused it with modernity, creating something far more personal and psychological. The three stories in Ghost Stories are interlaced by the guilt of inaction, and the monsters themselves become a negative imprint of their unfortunate victims. Once Ghost Stories arrives at its hidden destination, Dyson’s and Nyman’s twist becomes a revolution, churning all that was grounded and true into a subjective jumble of questions that warrant watching the film again.

The best testament I can give to Dyson’s and Nyman’s debut as film directors is that the camera never feels present. Once Professor Goodman stops talking to the fourth wall the viewer could easily be his assistant, equally plunged into the strangeness and terror of the film. Unlike the stage version which used the whole set, the camera in Ghost Stories can be restrictive, pressing viewer to confront both witness and monster alike. The only visual drawback for Ghost Stories are the monsters themselves, who lose their effect once placed into plain sight.

Dyson and Nyman are matched by the excellence of Ghost Stories’ cast. Talking at a Q&A session for the film at Home Manchester, Dyson discussed the eight year journey from the play to the film. Dyson said that they needed an international star to receive financing and luckily Martin Freeman joined the film. Besides Freeman are Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther as the trio recollecting their stories to Professor Goodman, and they all excel in their roles. Whitehouse steals the limelight for playing a character radically different to his usual comedic personas. All three lend much needed comedy at times while Nyman is as good as ever as Professor Goodman. Goodman has transitioned from observer in the play to a far more human character. Goodman’s arc leads to a looping narrative which hopefully a second viewing will explain.

Thank you to Jeremy Dyson for attending the Q&A at Home Manchester and answering my question about what parts of him were in the film.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Annihilation 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Natalie Portman, Benedict Wong,  Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson

Synopsis: U.S. army biologist Lena uncovers a deadly menace, her husband returns from the dead, and an expanding alien zone dubbed ‘the shimmer’ offers the only salvation for Lena’s returned but ailing husband. 

Visually striking, Annihilation has style but lacks originality. Adapted from the self-titled novel, Annihiliation’s bones originate in The Strugatsky Brothers’ ‘Roadside Picnic’. Both stories share an unknown alien zone and mysterious epicentre attracting the flawed and the outcast. Annihilation is an enjoyable but predictable two hour stint that retreads The Strutgatsky Brothers’ seminal novel. Annihilation has trappings of potential; the shimmer is an eloquently bleak depiction of a world devoid of man and the all-female expedition Lena joins hints at a deeper mystery. Yet Annihilation concedes uniqueness for comfort in its final act, peaked by an ambiguous ending that tramples over Lena’s arc. Worse still is that the shimmer is a strange plane, but its vibrancy denies Annihiliation of the insipid eerieness marking Roadside Picnic

Annihilation begins well: a slow-burn pace gradually introduces Lena, the shimmer and Lena’s crew, teasing out the audience’s intrigue. The all-female expedition accompanying Lena consists of brilliant actresses who match Natalie Portman. Tessa Thompson is the polar opposite of the brash Valkeryie she played in Thor: Ragnarok as introverted physicist Josie. Jennifer Jason Leigh is equally impressive as psychiatrist and mission administrator Dr. Ventress. Perceiving everything with detached indifference, Ventress is akin to an automaton, at times acting with bravery while her reactions can exude a menace matching ‘the shimmer’. Ventress’ ambivalent nature and Leigh’s performance steal the focus away from Natalie Portman’s Lena. Initially Lena is a decent protagonist, but the audience’s sympathy for her character is damaged by dream sequences that reveal her nastier side. Annihilation is indirectly narrated by Lena, who is shown in the future, having survived entering the shimmer. Lena’s confirmed existence before Annihilation even unfolds denies tangible investment into her character because no matter the bad things that befall her, the audience already knows that Lena’s fate is secure. The dreams negate Lena’s motivation for entering ‘the shimmer’, thereby flattening Lena’s character into something two-dimensional.  

Annihilation’s efforts to create complexity muddy aspects of the film which would have suited greater simplicity, such as Lena just being an easily relatable woman attempting to save her husband. The result is that Annihilation can feel too clever, with tid-bits sprinkled into the film with no explanation. Unlike Blade Runner whose twists and clues weave into the plot and hint at a deeper meaning, Annihilation is riddled with details left unanswered that feel like forgotten additions. Annihilation can be engrossing when it’s visual clues are developed but Alex Garland’s approach to them is scatter-brained. Annihilation’s plot is exacerbated by intermittently lazy writing. Key points are delivered by a supporting character just stating them in dialogue, with nothing appearing on screen to either convey or develop these ideas. The worst is when one of Lena’s crew simply states that every team member is flawed and then lists their problems. In the next hour nothing proves these flaws, none of the crew crack under the shimmer and turn to their demons for solace. 

There was an opportunity once the team entered the shimmer where Annihilation could have transcended into a great sci-fi film. Awaking in her tent Lena goes outside to find that everyone is unaware of  the past two weeks which have passed since crossing into the shimmer. In this scene, the shimmer was alive, a force that was toying with the team just like everyone else who had entered. Sadly this idea is never developed upon, with Annihilation relying on a few monsters and found footage instead of building up the shimmerThe film does scare but it never creates the haunting otherworldliness of Roadside Picnic.

Annihilation is still an enjoyable sci-fi flick, but in highsight it does not have the complexity that would make it eminently rewatchable like the genre’s greats. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

The Night of the Hunter

Rating: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Director: Charles Laughton

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce.

Synopsis: Directed by venerable actor Charles Laughton, murderous preacher Harry Powell comes calling to a small West Virginian town, seeking the stolen money a bank robber hid with his children.

Fullscreen capture 25032018 133916.bmp

Robert Mitchum as preacher Harry Powell

I first watched The Night of the Hunter when I was ten years old after my dad, persuaded by the film’s degrading from an X to a 12A rating, bought a DVD copy.  Ninety minutes later one October evening and I was absolutely terrified. I remember being unable to go to bed after watching the film, afraid to venture into the darkened upstairs and find the maniacal preacher waiting there. Re-watching The Night of the Hunter fourteen years later on the big screen, the film may not scare but still resonates with an unnerving portent.

Malevolence and innocence

Fullscreen capture 25032018 161519.bmp

A child stumbles across a victim of Harry Powell

The Night of the Hunter is about innocence caught in the snares of malevolence. Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and stalwart youngster John Harper (Billy Chapin) are these opposing forces, beginning in the film’s title screen as the preacher’s blaring score roars and fades into children singing. Even before promising to hide his father’s stolen bank money, the camera places John and sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) into a dark adult world. The Night of the Hunter debuts with the camera descending from the sky onto a quiet neighbourhood. Approaching down towards the ground, a group of adults turn into a group of boys who in their play find another widow killed by Harry Powell. The body’s discovery is an omen that only children, specifically John, see Harry Powell for what he is. To the adults of the small West Virginian town he encounters, Powell is a saviour. All the adults John and Pearl know are in someways flawed, even Uncle Birdie who is wary of the preacher has a drinking problem. Besides old Uncle Birdie, Powell becomes an answer to the adults’ flaws, be it the Spoons’ desire for normalcy or Willa Harper’s yearning for absolution after her husband’s crimes.

Sex and death

Fullscreen capture 25032018 231955.bmp

The burlesque show Harry Powell attends

The Night of the Hunter was simply perturbing as a child, but watching it again with an adult’s eyes is to appreciate a different, far more complex film. It would be deemed mild if released today, but by the chaffing standards of the 1950’s, The Night of the Hunter is overtly sexual. The switchblade Harry Powell wields with his ‘hate’ inscribed left hand is a phallic symbol of his sexual impotence towards women, erupting from his pocket as he grimly attends a burlesque show. Powell is compelled towards murder by women but strangely women fall into Powell’s mesmerising orbit. Half of the town where the Harpers live are equally obsessed with sex, talking about it with a winking subtlety like Mrs. Spoon’s recollection of ‘laying on my back and thinking about my canning’. Willa Harper’s desire for Powell warps into a hysterical zealotry when they marry and her advances are scorned, while one of Rachel Cooper’s (Lillian Gish) adopted children has been doing more than courting on a Thursday night. The only adult who sees Powell clearly is the least sexual woman in the film, the kind Rachel Cooper.

The devil is in town 

Fullscreen capture 26032018 001950.bmp

Harry Powell arrives to town

The audience is privy to the depth of Harry Powell’s evil as he candidly talks to God about murdering widows during his introduction. There is no further depravity Powell can fall to; he just becomes more powerful, morphing from a serial killer into a demonic malevolence. Powell’s arrival is ominously heralded by a benighted steam train screaming across West Virginia and then like a vampire, Powell lingers outside the Harper house, his shadow casting over John. Powell’s power only abounds as he charms his way into the town, hiding his hideous self behind his right hand of ‘Love’. By the conclusion of The Night of the Hunter Powell loses the mask of humanity, becoming an inexorable evil hell-bent on taking John and Pearl.

The supernatural strength of Harry Powell partly stems from actor Robert Mitchum’s performance. He lends to Powell his natural charm, but like Joseph Cotton in Shadow of A Doubt Mitchum channels a darkness that only Michael Shannon seems to grasp among today’s actors. Charles Laughton’s use of light and dark, accentuated by the black and white film, propels Powell’s otherworldly stature. At key parts of the film, Powell’s figure is projected as a shadow doggedly following the children or Powell himself is illuminated in contrast to the dark surroundings, giving him a ghoulish air.

A web of intricacies 

Fullscreen capture 25032018 133527.bmp

A failure upon release in 1955, Charles Laughton swore to never direct again after The Night of the Hunter. Yet what Laughton created was a story of economic design that has preserved The Night of the Hunter through the decades. Loaded with symbolism, every part of The Night of the Hunter connects both forwards and backwards. The film’s design and imagery imbues a circular logic, with Rachel Cooper’s warning of false prophets becoming realised in her standoff against Powell, as the hymn Powell habitually sings fails to match Cooper’s version. Compared to the grand scale of other post war films which have stood to the present, The Night of the Hunter is distinguished by the minute details. From Powell’s tattooed knuckles acting both as his facade and his tell, to the frame of Willa Harper’s bedroom evoking a church roof, every frame contains a meaning. What this creates is a film that can be reinterpreted repeatedly, keeping The Night of Hunter fresh to this day.

Thanks to Home Manchester for screening The Night of the Hunter. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Unsane

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Claire Foy, Juno Temple, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

Synopsis:  Shot on an iphone 7, Unsane is a low budget psychological thriller starring Claire Foy. Sawyer (Claire Foy) is rebuilding her life after being the victim of a stalker. Isolated in a new city,  Sawyer’s attempt to seek support results in her committal to a dubious psychiatric hospital where an old threat manifests itself.

Unsane’s occasional lapse into tediousness is far outweighed by a spectral shadow of tension and confinement. Soderbergh inverts Unsane’s low budget and the iphone’s limits into solid foundations for a taut thriller that Hitchcock fans will appreciate. Unsane is claustrophobic, trapping you in an 4:3 aspect ratio whose borders restrict as Sawyer is observed and confronted by others both real and imagined. At times watching Unsane is to see the world through a warped pinhole as Sawyer continues unaware of your presence. Although Unsane was shot on an iphone, the footage has been helped by aggressive editing and some decent extra equipment. Some of the simpler editing effects mingle well with the choice of camera. Sodium hues and cobalt tints swirl with the noise and grain picked up by the iphone, as though Sawyer is slipping in and out of reality. Possessing the weapon of the selfie generation, Soderbergh is not afraid of getting up close with the iphone, creating an uncomfortable proximity of detailed observation like the stalker Sawyer fears has returned.

For those who have not watched Netflix original The Crown, Unsane is a seminal introduction to Claire Foy. Affecting a flawless American accent for a British actress, Foy exudes a gnawing undertone of anxiety throughout the film. Even during Unsane’s lulls Sawyer grapples with an internal hysteria half hidden behind her shifting facade. Sawyer is unpredictable and clearly damaged, drawing out the mystery of whether she is lucid or insane. This tension exudes from Foy’s choice of small tells, perfectly picked up by Unsane’s 4:3 aspect ratio and close-up portrait shots. Foy’s performance is mirrored by Joshua Leonard as the hospital attendant who Sawyer claims to be her stalker ‘David Strine’.  Sawyer and ‘Strine’ are both similar yet opposing forces, characters who are clearly hiding something, and only in the second act does Soderbergh startlingly reveal who is right.  Alongside Leonard and Foy are Juno Temple and Jay Pharoah as fellow psychiatric patients. Known for his work on Saturday Night Live, Pharoah provides a nuanced comic relief but sadly Temple’s character, Violet, lingers in the background. Temple still captivates when present, seamlessly fitting into the eerie decrepitude of the  psychiatric hospital. Following Thor: Ragnorak, Matt Damon adds another surprise but welcome cameo later on.

Unsane sports a few plot holes and stalls while transitioning into the final act, but both faults are made up by Soderbergh’s direction and Foy’s delivery. Unsane released this Friday and is definitely for those looking for something different at the box office.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

You Were Never Really Here

Rating: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman

Synopsis: Adapted from the Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, traumatised combat veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) trawls New York’s underbelly looking for young girls snatched into paedophile sex rings. Tasked with finding a senator’s daughter, Joe comes unstuck as a routine rescue spirals into something far worse.

 

This film is an unexpected gut punch, a visceral sting of sudden and stunningly powerful twists and events which leave you dazed and breathless. Knowing the context before watching You Were Never Really Here will provide little respite for the following 90 minutes. The film’s dark setting is a quagmire of quicksand as the plot plunges deeper into the darkness of mankind.

The thrall of You Were Never Really Here is due to what does and does not happen. From Man on Fire to the upcoming Sicario sequel, the Hollywood conveyor belt has issued reiterations of the urban western. Even if you have not spotted the overlaps, so many ‘hard-boiled’ thrillers centre around a grizzled cowboy in a dark world who finds redemption in a young daughter figure. Joe may be quiet and grizzled, but he is not the Gary Cooper type Tony Soprano used to lament over.  Joe’s demeanour belies a broken man whose life has been a march of pain through trauma which haunts him in jarring bursts like a looping record. Violence is prevalent but there are no slick action sequences or any ghoulish obsession with gore that marks Tarantino’s recent films. When it comes, violence is served in the Hitchcockian style, absently indirect. It happens beyond our vision while the worst acts are stumbled upon by Joe. Ramsay’s suggestive approach to these scenes are made more powerful by a tenderness that Joe sometimes exhibits, which I do not think a male director would ever consider. It was Joe’s empathy that I found the most disconcerting, especially when he lays down next to a dying man. Watching this film never feels comfortable, because nothing can be predicted and that is its power. When You Were Never Really Here ends there is no happiness, no catharsis in the manner we have come so expectant of.

Exiled from the real world and even himself, Joe is the ‘you’ in You Were Never Really Here, and it it Lynne Ramsay’s camera that tells this tale. The camera picks between bouts of seeing the world from Joe’s perspective to distanced shots of him amid New York. Joe’s flashbacks are incomplete frames and close cuts, while in the present the camera is either obscured or observing from afar as he brutally attacks anyone who crosses him. Close-ups, point of view shots, and wide frames are simple tools for the filmmaker, but Lynne Ramsay uses them masterfully to imprint her voice onto You Were Never Really Here. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood’s original score is in complete unison with Ramsay’s vision. Amid the madness and violence of You Were Never Really Here,  Greenwood’s songs can bring tears even at the darkest points.

For a film anchored around his performance, Joaquin Phoenix does not disappoint. In both his wardrobe and appearance he is Joe. Contrasting the chiselled mid-riffs we see litter the action genre, Phoenix has transformed himself into Joe but not as an attempt to help Men’s Health magazine sales. Phoenix looks strong, but like a man who once served in the army, carrying the extra weight of a someone who was once more active. Phoenix says little throughout the film, but his face exudes an unaware vulnerability that can’t be hidden by his straggled hair or limping gait. It is this visible pain that makes Joe such an interesting and sympathetic character, no matter what he does.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Loveless

Rating: 4 out of 5 rating (excellent)

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Cast: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov

Nestled so tightly next to Hollywood, the Anglophone world has an aversion towards foreign language films. A genre deemed in the U.K. as excessively intellectual and incredibly boring, attracting older middle class viewers looking for a visual sudoku puzzle. This sadly British point of view was best captured in sitcom Father Ted’s passion of St. Tibulus scene below:

My fellow audience offered little optimism for Loveless. The only company at the screening was an older woman whose reading of an Alan Bennett novel was interrupted by my arrival. Her inconvenience was palpable as she glared at me like a stern headmistress. Any apprehension that I had about Loveless was unfounded. Cinema at its best, pushes you as the viewers. The best films question your perception of the world beyond the credits, and Loveless does just that. Loveless’ director Andrey Zvyagintsev speaks with a Russian voice, but the story he has spun alongside co-writer Oleg Negin extends beyond Russia.

I departed Loveless with an inkling that a deeper meaning lay beneath the plot, obscured enough to shirk censorship but visible for those who were really looking. Over a week has passed since I saw Loveless, and while I understand the immediate plot, the enigmatic meaning behind the tale still evades me. My interpretation of Loveless is that beyond the triumphant image of resurgent Russia under Putin, a rot has spread over the country.  Through the young boy Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) we see that his life is loveless. Neither of Alyosha’s parents love each other, or their son. Both parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) maintain the outward charade of marriage while conducting affairs with a different partner. Alyosha is treated by his parents as an inconvenience, a reminder of their failed marriage blocking their better lives with new partners. Once Aloysha runs away from home, his absence spreads into an absence within Russia itself. In contrast to the earlier scenes of Aloysha’s parents making house with their lovers, the parent’s search for Aloysha is filled with desolate segments of volunteers rifling through abandoned Soviet buildings. There are other signs, both direct and indirect, that things are wrong in Russia. In Zhenya’s world everyone is obsessed with social media, herself included, while in Boris’ life, white collar bosses act like feudal lords, dictating their employee’s lifestyles. News reports unfolding in the background bookend the story, with the first questioning whether 2012 will be the end of world and the last reporting Russia’s war with Ukraine. The two reports subtly link, in my opinion, into a statement that Russians are oblivious to what their country has become.

Besides Loveless’ possible statement about Russia today, the film looks at our shared obsession between the facade we project and the grim reality. Social media pervades Loveless as an unhealthy obsession blinding Zhenya and others, especially in a restaurant scene which is my favourite moment of the film. Throughout Loveless Zhenya and Boris are constantly trying to maintain an image of themselves, be it the happy life Zhenya presents on Facebook or Boris not revealing to his work that he is divorcing. In a way, its this obsession with image throughout Loveless which is distracting people from what is occurring in Russia.

Loveless’ visual style and acting are excellent but what has to be noted is Maryana Spivak’s performance as Zhenya. Spivak transforms Zhenya into the most detestable mother since Tony Soprano’s mother Livia. Spivak’s performance is so strong that it creates Loveless’ only weakness, that Zhenya becomes unsympathetic and attempts to flesh out her character make her seem even crueller.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer see below:

The Shape of Water

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Cast: Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, & Michael Stuhlberg

Synopsis: While working at a government laboratory, a mute cleaning girl, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), encounters a mysterious fish-man (Doug Jones) which changes her life forever.

An adult fairy tale set in early 1960’s, The Shape of Water slots the fantastical into an America still asleep in the 1950’s. A country still dreaming of communist spy rings and manifest destiny, unaware of the encroaching tide of free love, civil rights and feminism. Director Guillermo del Toro draws upon the setting and bundles together fantasy and romance with espionage and social commentary. The result however is an uneven concoction of sub-plots and narratives with a wanting second half.  The Shape of Water is a good film but undeserving of the praise and nominations it has received in a year where other films, such as Good Time and Blade Runner 2049were frankly better.

Swimming with the Fishes

Beginning with a scene of intense ‘washing’ in Elisa’s bathtub, Del Toro fiercely imprints onto viewers that The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for adults. It is a statement that Del Toro unsurprisingly delivers on through costume and set-design. Following Hellboy and Blade II, Del Toro has proven his ability to transplant the unbelievable into the real. Yet Del Toro fixates upon The Shape of Water being for adults. His efforts shear the film into two halves after a certain event in the film. The second part becomes engrossed in the romance between Elisa and the fish-man as Del Toro departs from auteurism into outright self-indulgence. It is a romance which Del Toro does not restrain to the platonic given Elisa’s bath-time sessions. During the alluded love scenes I had the unease of glimpsing something that had emerged deep from the internet search results for ‘swimming with the fishes’.  The focus on the pair’s romance becomes a Disney story run amok, unbalancing The Shape of Water’s other plot threads and halting the film’s pace. Elisa’s close friends warmly accept her burgeoning affair with the fish-man . No matter how well Elisa’s cleaning partner, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), plays off the revelation with expert comic relief, disbelief crashes down as no one reacts with shock at what is diet bestiality.

Outside the American Dream

Every fairy tale has its monster, and in The Shape of Water it is the society of the early 1960’s. An America with a hierarchy crafted for the white man alone; fiercely restrictive, rabidly patriotic and diffuse with racism and misogyny. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the immediate villain who embodies this WASP society. At the bottom are Elisa (Sally Hawkins), her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her colleague, Zelda, being disabled, gay and black, respectively. Despite unfolding fifty years ago, The Shape of Water is talking about Trump’s America today. Elisa, Giles, and Zelda represent people still struggling for recognition in America. The mindset of Colonel Strickland is sadly seeping back into prominence, if it ever did leave. The most rewarding subplot in The Shape of Water was Giles’ struggle as an ageing gay man to find companionship while having to hide his true self. Sadly, this element wilts away after certain events. Although the desires and troubles of Elisa and Giles are focused upon, Zelda is not given much attention. Zelda’s character remains both Elisa’s ward and comic relief where there was scope for something more.

Foreigner filmmakers working in the United States observe America with an intensity that native directors often lack. Del Toro, much alike Hitchcock before him, threads into The Shape of Water differences between America’s self-perception and reality. Giles is a gay man who creates adverts depicting wholesome American families while Elisa, perceived as a simple cleaner is able to outsmart Colonel Strickland and the whole government facility.

The Monster

Belonging to an age that is already closing, Colonel Strickland is a doomed man. Hot-blooded and steeped in patriotism, Strickland is oblivious to the social change that the 1960s will herald, believing himself to be ‘the man of the future’. Strickland’s fervent beliefs are matched by his prejudices which are his ultimate undoing. Early on in The Shape of Water, Stickland is maimed. Del Toro creatively turns the wound into a symbol mimicking the portrait of Dorian Gray. The wound worsens as Strickland’s morals decay and his vision of America ebbs into a sham.  Strickland’s arc was the redeeming part of The Shape of Water’s second half. Del Toro’s focus on the character adds a tragic sympathy to Strickland, complemented by yet another great performance by Michael Shannon. From the solitary sheriff in Nocturnal Animals to Colonel Strickland, Shannon adds a puritanical wrath to his roles whether hero or villain. There is not a flat performance from any cast member and Sally Hawkins has been rightly praised for her depiction of Elisa. Personally, it is the supporting actors who are best in The Shape of Water. Their presence adds both realism and humour to a story already laced with Del Toro’s witticisms.

Beyond transporting you into the times, the set design was a powerful facet of The Shape of Water. Atop an old-fashioned cinema, the neighbouring apartments of Elisa and Giles merge together into a theatre set as the pair escape into dance and music. The shared semi-circle window which conjoins their apartments links the pair as outsider looking in. The government laboratory where Elisa works  was a believable fantasy of futurism mixed with Diego Rivera’s art style. Visually The Shape of Water is a pretty trip back into the 1960’s, but Del Toro does nothing original with the camera. At times, however, the visual style is lazy with background television clips seemingly belong to the Vietnam War which started two years after the film. These details, possibly included to create mystery became haphazard errors. This sloppiness spreads into The Shape of Water’s story of four different character arcs and an espionage sub-plot. Two of the arcs are never completed, the espionage sub-plot painfully slides into padding and a central mystery is developed and then quietly discarded.  The Shape of Water is an enjoyable film, but not a great film and this year I have seen better.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Menashe

Film Score: 3 out 5 (Good)

Director: Joshua Z Weinstein

Cast: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Weisshaus, Ariel Vaysman

Synopsis: Following the loss of his wife, Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a man bearing the brunt of the world. Loathed by his family and belittled by his peers and his boss, Menahse struggles to find his place in New York’s Hasidic Jewish community. Menahse’s attempts to be with his son, who is kept at arm’s length by Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), finds resistance in a community where being single is frowned upon.

How many different worlds walk alongside ours, invisibly existing until suddenly they materialise. Opening with a pan of everyday New York foot traffic, Menashe blends into the ordinary crowd until noticing his formal clothes belong to the 19th century. Menashe’s theme is hermetically contained in this opening shot. It is the flickering clash between Menashe and the crowd, a thread of ordinary problems amid a life starkly different from our own. Widowed and struggling to cope, Menashe suffers a dead end job beneath a vexing manager. Compared to the rigidity and stoicism of his peers and family, Menasche’s warmth is mistaken for foolishness, and only appreciated by his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski).

Entering into the Hasidic community both rivets and detracts. Having grown up orbiting around a nuclear family, I saw in Menashe the strengths of an actual community. Menashe is connected to something greater, a group bonded together by religion. Yet under those same strings I would certainly choke. Religion in Menasche’s community is a 24 hour procedure encroaching every facet of life and smothering any choice. Concepts within the Hasidic community were complete anathema to me, disconnecting me from it and Menasche. It is to the credit of the director and his two fellow writers, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, that they depicted the society so openly.

Despite my criticisms , the disparity between my world and Menashe jolts the film with an undercurrent of tension. From conversations at the local synagogue, Menashe’s world is cleaved by a thin divide between piety and apostasy, and Menashe subtly teeters between the two. Atop of this tension are glimmers where Menashe seems poised to break from his community. To see another human soul pitted against such odds and try to change their situation is Menashe’s power, connecting me to a man so unlike myself. Another powerful pull is the very real relationship between Menashe and  his son Rieven. Both share love and loss together. Rieven like all sons do, begins to challenge his father, changing their dynamic and increasing Menashe’s woes.

Menashe’s small budget and the director’s past work in documentaries leads to a film which is visually solid but reflects its lack of funds. Bearing a mainly documentary style of wide outdoor shots and an intense focus on individuals when indoors. There are symbolic devices of brilliance in Menashe’s ponderous moments of silence. I felt a particular poignancy when Menashe, alone in the local baths, places his head below the water and sinks back into his community. It is the solid writing and excellent performances which hold Menashe together. Yoel Weisshaus as Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizek really plays up to his role as Menashe’s antagonist, beating him down no matter the circumstances. Menashe Lustig as Menashe has a gregarious warmth which pairs well with his son’s playfulness.

Menashe’s slow pace mixed with its entrancing religious score reflects the central character’s inner turmoil, but the film drags in its final act. It is an unfortunate flaw which made me wish for Menashe to end in the last 15 minutes, undercutting the story’s resonance.

What Menashe attests to is the power of story, to find those universal emotions transcending background and race. It is a maxim that A24, as a film company, clearly understands. Over the past year A24 has released films from A Ghost Story to The Florida Project which are different, which have pushed my tastes and ultimately changed what I expect from cinema.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below: