Tag Archives: Film

Assassination Nation

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

In the aptly named town of Salem, Lily and her three teenage friends feel the brunt of a witch trial as the town’s online secrets are exposed. Assassination Nation is a pleasant surprise which should not be judged by its surface. Suggested by trailers to be an exploitation flick excused by light social commentary, Assassination Nation is actually a damning warning against our internet age.

For all of us, the internet has become our true reality just like the characters of Assassination Nation. The internet is used by Salem’s townsfolk as a facade and the bearer of their dirty secrets. Yet by imprinting both their good and bad aspects online, Salem’s inhabitants risk the wrath of others if their whole selves are ever revealed.

Once the accounts of Salem’s inhabitants are hacked and displayed to the world, the internet ceases to be a haven and becomes a cannibalistic monster as each leak is eaten up by others online. What follows is a vicious cycle of scandal, victimisation and vigilantism as Salem descends into mob rule. Salem’s spiral, both online and in the real world, invokes the perfidiousness of social media. Akin to the events of Assassination Nation, users of YouTube, Twitch and Instagram have risen to fame only to fall and become fodder for the very same platforms.

Mimicking the hyper sexuality displayed across the internet, Lily and her friends reflect the new male gaze. They are openly praised both in person and online for their clothing and being sexually free until it stops suiting men. Once the hacks are released and Salem turns sour, there are uncomfortable scenes as the male dominated mob shame the leading girls. Although difficult to watch, these moments push viewers to honestly consider how men treat women online.

Despite plenty of humour, the highly affected teenage dialogue of Assassination Nation’s young cast, alongside their near constant revelry, is a complete caricature. Looking back as I watched the film, my teenage years were deathly bland by contrast. Maybe I lacked the confidence, money or freedom for teenage misadventure, but even the ‘cooler’ kids at my school were tame compared to Assassination Nation. The glaringly unrealistic behaviour and conversations of Assassination Nation’s youngsters can plunge the viewer back into disbelief.

Weaknesses in director Sam Levinson’s script is compensated by the visual aspects of his story telling. Simple effects, alongside perfectly timed scores and selected songs, add a resonance to events and Lily’s narrative monologues. The screen ribbons into separate columns as teenagers broadcast their personas online during a party. Once the hacks destabilise the town the camera inverts during a long take of a cheerleader rehearsal. The huge American flag in the rehearsal’s background then appears upside down. The flag’s re-positioning is a military signal symbolising that Salem and perhaps the country itself are in distress.

Viewers expecting extensive performances from Bill Skarsgård and Bella Thorne will be disappointed with their brief appearances compared to Assassination Nation’s trailers. Odessa Young is compellingly candid as lead character Lilly but my personal favourite was Hari Nef as transgender student Bex. Bex’s story arc was the most human in Assassination Nation’s manic world.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

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Peterloo

Rating: 1 out of 5 (poor)

Synopsis: Following the burgeoning democratic movement in England after the Napoleonic Wars, Peterloo squanders all its potential to become a dry historical documentary.

Bad films can be, without sounding masochistic, a good thing to experience. They can be a rude pallet cleanser, a jolting contrast which makes the viewer appreciate the excellent films in existence. Peterloo is not a pallet cleanser, or an unintentional hit following from The Room. Once its exhausts the viewer’s patience, Peterloo is an aching slog through each minute until either the film ends or the viewer leaves.

The potential for greatness was there in Peterloo. The events of Peterloo, which sparked the fires of English democracy, are overlooked in British history. In the current age where London and its satellites are the country’s centre and the Northern provinces where I grew up decay into post-industrial collapse; it was warming to see a film focus on the North and attend a cinema screen filled to the highest row. Opening at the Battle of Waterloo, the contrasting fates of a working-class soldier and the absent Duke of Wellington speak of the excesses and sufferings when the powerful dominate the impoverished.  The initial narrative between the haves and the have-nots, displayed in discomforting detail, renders Peterloo’s first twenty minutes a prescient warning to our yawning wealth gap.

Past thirty minutes and director Mike Leigh fastidiously adapts my A-Level course on Victorian Britain’s political reforms. Leigh casts aside all promise of a great film to create something as vapid and dull as the class I endured at sixteen. What ensues is a litany of speeches and conversations, all delivered in the achingly verbose style of Victorian forefathers or lathered with the heavily affected provincial twang of Northerners from that time. The cast, while all commendable, do at first imbue the many conversations and speeches with power and allure. By the twentieth conversation it all melds into a babbling wave of tongues bickering about revolution and rights while the décor has more interest to the viewer than any words uttered. Humour, sparsely sprinkled throughout, rarely hits the mark and often fosters the Northern caricatures Peterloo ought to dispel.

The period’s schism between rich and poor, captured vividly by Charles Dickens is forgotten as actors state line after interminable line. When the end comes, any pay-off is swallowed by the purgatory of stifling scenes and tedious dialogue Mike Leigh subjects the viewer to. Even after the bloodshed at Peterloo, a few more lines are inserted as a parting shot at the audience’s nerves. The highest praise I can give Peterloo is that it should be wheeled in front of future A-level students so that they can have a snooze in class.

When the film ended, I could not decide whether I had been more foolish to sit through Peterloo or to have waited an hour and a half in a crowded art house cinema to see it on a Friday night.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

A Prayer Before Dawn

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Synopsis: Cast off into Thai prison for dealing heroin, the strange yet true life of British boxer Billy Moore is a ballad of visceral rawness which sometimes falters against its source material.

Due to the nature of the medium, books can host multiple sub-plots, nuances and themes while films have a limited window to tell a complete arc. The problem films face when transitioning a novel to the screen is either conciseness or fidelity. In trying to faithfully render Billy Moore’s memoirs, A Prayer Before Dawn’s ambitiousness entangles the film in a bramble of plot threads. Suffering from a drifting focus, A Prayer Before Dawn veers from the strangeness and savagery of Thai prison, to Billy’s fight to survive and curb his addiction while also being a boxing film. Even a sprinkle of romance is tossed into the the mix. These elements would meld together in the paper print of a good long book, but in a film they result in a plot which leaps and then spends scenes orientating itself. A Prayer Before Drawn plunges the viewer into a shocking and gruesome reality, but its many stops prevent it being an engrossing journey through Thailand’s underbelly.  

Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire makes some admirably bold decisions in A Prayer Before Dawn. Absent of any subtitles throughout, the viewer shares Billy’s fear and confusion as he is lost in the Thai commands of guard and prisoner alike. The prisoners themselves are all former Thai convicts. Their grounding in the film’s setting explains how the prisoners unflinchingly depict acts of rape, extortion and violence with a disturbing level of calm. The final and best gamble Sauvaire pulls is his choice of Joe Cole as Billy Moore. Cole brings to Billy Moore the same intensity as his character John Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Yet Cole channels this intensity into someone bearing the brunt of the world, buckling from inner turmoil while reeling at external dangers. Cole captivates as Billy Moore, rendering A Prayer Before Dawn into an intimate look at another rebuilding his life, a man both dangerous and vulnerable. This duality draws away from A Prayer Before Dawn’s problems and proves Joe Cole’s promise to become a venerable star of our time.

Visually, Sauvaire’s use of space and framing invokes the claustrophobia and oppressiveness of prison both environmentally and socially. Certain shots of Billy, his pale skin amid a sea of tattooed prisoners marks out his isolation and seeming incompatibility with this lifestyle.  

Throughout A Prayer Before Dawn I saw the passion and potential of this unique story beyond the rosy tourist images of Thailand. However I struggled to be truly enveloped by the film. Hopefully a second viewing will improve my opinion but I would still recommend A Prayer Before Dawn to anyone looking for something different.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Rating: 1 out of 5 (poor)

Synopsis: 3 years after Jurassic World the dinosaurs remaining at the abandoned resort face extinction once more as the island’s volcano is poised to erupt.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’s mistake is to choose seriousness over levity in a world where dinosaurs live and exist as tourist attractions. It is a decision which immediately falls hollow as the plot gives way to a lazy rehashing of box office tropes and predictable twists and even throws in much of Jurassic World’s story. Fallen Kingdom’s attempt at maturity is to ask whether dinosaurs, the creatures which have heartily chomped on humans in Jurassic films past, should be preserved for the benefit of future human generations. It is a dilemma quickly answered by Jeff Goldblum’s response of ‘No’. Yet the film ignores the idiocy of its proposed dilemma and struggles on with no purpose for what feels like a very long run-time.

The film is an old fossil, a rather dull affair to behold that has been seen countless times before. The story is a Frankenstein’s monster of 3 arcs hewn together consisting of animal preservation, romance between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard and Jurassic World’s threat of weaponised dinosaurs. The animal preservation narrative dissolves quickly, and the film’s depiction of this movement as an anti-corporate millennial upsurge is very twee. Pratt and Howard were decent in Jurassic World but without the children of Jurassic World, the pair lack the chemistry to carry the minutes between dinosaurs. Nor do Pratt or Howard seem enthused to return for Fallen Kingdomwith boredom and fatigue lining their faces as they pretend to see another  dinosaur upon the green screen.

The new characters introduced to Fallen Kingdom are evident character types who exist as stepping stones for the story. At least Fallen Kingdom’s return to the threat of military grade dinosaurs spawns a decent turn by Toby Jones as a miniature Trump replete with fake tan, bleached teeth and dubious hair. Jones alone is not enough to save a film which feels remarkably redundant despite being the immediate sequel to a promising soft reboot. Fallen Kingdom’s twists sport the worst of Hollywood’s absent logic, concluding with a ludicrous ending created only to propagate further sequels. All this could be largely forgiven, but in Fallen Kingdom’s fixatation on more ‘human’ and serious themes, it strangles the fun out of the dinosaurs which are the series’ fulcrum.

Following this dismal sequel, Jurassic World should shuffle off into extinction.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

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:

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.

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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

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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

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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 

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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 

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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: