Screenplay by: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Based on: Dune by Frank Herbert
Produced by: Denis Villeneuve, Mary Parent, Cale Boyter, Joe Caracciolo Jr.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, etc.
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I truly hope Dune: Part One (2021), an epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s legendary Dune literary series, has a second part, otherwise I would have wasted well over two hours of my life watching the Denis Villeneuve helmed film version. Having said that, there were times where I felt the glacial pace of the narrative caused time to stand still, boring me in the process. But, I get it. It’s part one and setting all the major players up and building a strange world both visually and imaginatively. As such perhaps Herbert’s books may have suited a HBO TV adaptation rather than a cinematic version.
Maybe I’m jaded and cynical though. Have I seen too many films and stories? Is Dune: Part One (2021) even worth the journey and perhaps it’s too old-fashioned a sci-fi story to create resonance for myself and these times? Well, it absolutely looks amazing. The special effects, sandy landscapes, behemoth buildings, underground monsters and space vessels are rendered with such believable authenticity they genuinely looked real on the screen. Frank Herbert’s (I haven’t read the books) vision is astoundingly realised as this futuristic world in a far, far galaxy felt like a moving work of art. But, it was extremely beige and brown and sandy looking on Arrakis, so much so that I was glad of the dark contrast in the scenes involving House of Harkonnen. By the way, I’m not often a fan of the natural cinematography style used here where during big action scenes at night I could hardly see anything. Moan over.
The story of Dune (2021) felt a bit old-fashioned as a classic hero’s journey. It didn’t help that the in-the-sand screenplay and Denis Villeneuve’s meditative, confident direction was too subtle for this story. I mean why do we care about Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides and his family’s inheritance of the spice world’s of Arrakis? Without giving anything away it becomes a poisoned chalice politically in this world and Paul’s, his parents, and the House of Atreides’ lives all become endangered. So, while Frank Herbert’s novel was originally released to powerful acclaim in 1965 and five other novels would follow year’s later, a film version of Dune (2021) now feels outdated in terms of subtext. Villeneuve is a genius filmmaker, but I’m not sure, aside from the beautiful look of the locations, sets and actors there is much of a narrative to get our teeth into. Just another ‘white saviour’ quest, which is so drawn out in terms of the interminable slow pace at times.
Of course, the cast are wonderful to look at, but Chalamet is miscast for me. He is an incredibly talented young actor, but he is not given any character to get his teeth into. Villeneuve does a less-is-more style that I love and he’s obviously playing the long game withDune (2021), yet he really needed a young Ryan Gosling to carry Paul Atreides as Chalamet isn’t given enough to do in terms of acting. Yes, there are massive worms and big explosions and floating fat men, but the story dragged. Thankfully, Jason Momoa injected some movie star charisma in his action sequences, while Rebecca Ferguson and Javier Bardem sprinkled some of their own spice amidst the over-controlled Villeneuve design.
I really wanted to like Dune (2021). I won’t see a more attractive and technically perfect rendition of a sci-fi world in the cinema in years. But, I could not connect with the narrative or drama. I mean, Paul is possibly the chosen one or something or other but why do we care? His mother is connected to some weird cultish sect — with the “Force” — and there are big worms which made me want to watch Tremors (1990); a far superior and shorter version of the hero’s journey. Watch that instead.
INCENDIES (2010) is the probably the best film you haven’t seen. If you have seen it then tell more people to see it. Spread the word on this incredible film. I watched Incendies (2010) for the first time a few years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Given the lack of recent cinema releases, I felt compelled to watch it again and once more was blown away by the power of the characters and their stories. Not quite old enough to review as a classic movie, and as it stands as at No. 111 on the IMDB 250, it doesn’t qualify as an under-rated classic, I have therefore filed this contemporary classic under films that got away.
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies (2010) was developed by Denis Villeneuve, who took five years developing and writing the screenplay. Villeneuve was attracted to the play because it was a modern story with Greek tragedy at its heart. It is set in both Canada and in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, with events in the narrative traversing between the these countries and different time periods. While the country where most of the action takes place is unnamed, given Mouawad is Lebanese, it is safe to say that this complex tale unfolds during the Lebanese Civil War. However, it is a masterstroke not to be specific about setting, as this ensures it is not place and politics one focusses on, but the thought-provoking human drama. And what drama it is!
After starting with a haunting scene from the past showing bedraggled children herded into an orphanage, the story quickly moves to the present. Twins, (Jeanne Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) meet Jean (Remy Girard), a notary handling their deceased mother’s will. Their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), has left two letters – one for the twin’s brother, and another for their father. If they can locate them and give them the letters, Nawal will allow her children to bury her with a casket and headstone. Jeanne, the calmer of the two siblings, agrees to the request. However, Simon is angry that secrets were kept and is against taking it any further.
Incendies (2010) then becomes two powerful narratives intertwined to structural perfection by Villeneuve and Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne’s exceptional screenplay. Firstly, we follow Jeanne as she travels to Daresh, in the Middle East, attempting to follow in Nawal’s footsteps. Here the film becomes a compelling detective story as Jeanne (and later in the film, Simon) slowly discovers her mother’s tragic life history before she moved to Canada. Running parallel to this the narrative flashes back to show Nawal’s life as she escapes village life to go to University, only for religious civil war to tear the fabric of the country apart. Villeneuve, who has subsequently directed many visually stunning big budget films, makes the most of the sun-scorched and battle-scarred landscapes. Moreover, he also delivers a stunning and suspenseful sequence when Nawal finds herself trapped on a bus surrounded by soldiers.
I genuinely do not want to say anymore about the plot of Incendies (2010), for fear of spoiling what is such a complex and well designed story. It drives me mad when I watch films or television shows and they gratuitously use flashbacks or fractured temporal structures to create mystery. Because what many ultimately do is confuse the audience and create emotional distance from the characters. Villeneuve directs in an intelligent way, retaining empathy and emotion for both protagonists and antagonists devoured by war. Nawal Marwan’s story is especially heart-breaking and she is given a moving portrayal by Lubna Azabal. Nawal’s story is one of astounding power as the character experiences the hell of loss, war, torture and death. Her final attempt at redemption from beyond the grave gives us a searing human drama. One which will shake you to the core for days and weeks and maybe even years!
While I haven’t seen it yet, I was slightly intrigued by the release of Will Smith’s action film, Gemini Man (2019).Any film which examines the nature of the double or doppelganger always interests me. As you may be aware the word doppelganger is of German origin. It means “double walker” or “double goer” and I just love it. I love the way it sounds and the mysterious connotations it conjures up. It kind of sounds evil as well; like nothing good can come of it.
There have been many films, books and television programmes featuring doubles. They can occur for various reasons such as: twins, clones, shape-shifters, split personalities, mental breakdown and ghostly or other fantastical elements. We must not forget time-travel or inter-connected timeline plots either. Different versions of the same character existing simultaneously in alternate or exact timelines are very prevalent in fiction also.
In this occasional ‘Six of the Best’ series, I would like to consider six “double” or doppelganger films which are definitely worth watching. To make it interesting I would like to consider the more symbolic, fantastical and unexplained kind of films out there. I cannot avoid the twin or clone plots in certain examples, but the temporal double stories have, sort of, been explored here in an article about time travel films.
***CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS***
THE ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)
Having done some online research of films featuring doubles, Sam Raimi’s riotous Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness (1992), is cruelly missed from many of those lists. In this gory and over-the-top medieval horror romp, Ash (Bruce Campbell), finds himself in battle against hordes of Deadites. This is all because he gets a spell wrong and splits in two. He then comes face-to-face with his vicious double, Evil Ash. I hate it when that happens – don’t you! While not the deepest of the films listed here, it’s worth watching because you get TWO Bruce Campbell’s for the price of one!
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991)
The antithesis of the genre joy that is Army of Darkness, can be found in this profound study of identity, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. It concerns two identical women, Weronika and Veronique (both Irene Jacob), who live in Warsaw and Paris, respectively. Aside from one fleeting moment they never meet, but somehow, telepathically, artistically and emotionally, they are connected to each other. A beautiful, yet obtuse narrative, allied with Kieslowski’s poetic style make this a difficult film to understand. However, it contains fine symbolic power and is open to a myriad of interpretations.
Denis Villeneuve’s directs this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s book called The Double or The Duplicated Man. In it Jake Gyllenhaal plays both a college professor, Adam Bell and his exact lookalike, actor, Anthony Claire. Their two lives become entwined and that’s not the weirdest thing about the film. Part Kafkaesque nightmare and part Freudian examination of the subconscious, this film quietly unhinges the viewer with a slow pace and collection of striking visual motifs. Gyllenhaal is as mesmerizing as ever in this existentially challenging urban horror tale.
THE PRESTIGE (2006)
The doppelganger trope is integral to the story here and uses both twins and clones in its compelling thematic and visual system. Yet, these are not revealed until the very end, as the screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan literally dissect the characters’ souls within the fascinating world of magicians and their mysterious secrets. At the heart of the story we witness the tricks of warring magicians, portrayed by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and the lengths they will go to amaze an audience. By the end, the film becomes a chilling and fantastic warning about the dangers of obsession and rivalry.
The incredibly talented Jordan Peele delivered one of my favourite films of the year. It did not contain just one (or is it two) doppelganger(s), but a whole family of them. Working in the horror genre is an ideal setting for the “double” thematic, as the fantasy elements coalesce perfectly with the psychological ones. Symbolically the film is very strong. It can be interpreted on many levels, including as a critique of the United States (U.S. = US – get it?); and a powerful exploration of split identities. Indeed, in Us (2019), the lead protagonists battle external and inner demons, both political and personal, which can plague all of us during our lives.
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic psychological thriller is very complex and actually reflects the directors’ obsession with the moulding of an individual to look a certain way. On the surface, the story of a burnt out cop, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) attempting to overcome his fear of heights, while tracking a friend’s wife, is initially quite simple. But in Hitchcock’s and his writer’s hands it become a tour-de-force of mistaken, double and theft of identity. A tragic figure, Scottie Ferguson is exploited and left bereft of love and comfort as he attempts, like Hitchcock himself, to find that perfect, yet elusive, blonde.
Philip K. Dick’s dense, dystopic and futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), is an ugly, beautiful, depressing, obtuse, hypnotic wade-through-treacle read full of incredible concepts relating to: Artificial Intelligence; robot technology; android simulacra; animal husbandry; apocalyptic disease; virtual reality/empathy mood tech; extinguished humanity; and ultimately, of course, mortality and death. The fact that Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples were able to fashion a workable screenplay for Ridley Scott to direct is a creative miracle in itself. Moreover, it is testament to the writing and Scott’s incredible production team that Bladerunner (1982) is held in such high esteem among cinema fans now.
The original Bladerunner, despite bombing at the box office and subsequently going through a number of cuts, re-cuts, final cuts and re-re-re-releases, has become a bona fide science fiction cinema classic. I watched the original theatrical version recently and despite the deadpan Harrison Ford voiceover and spurious, tacked on “happy” ending, it actually has a lot going for it. Obviously the ‘Unicorn Dream’ re-edits released under the guidance of Ridley Scott are the purer versions but the film holds up notably because of Ford’s gruff, depressive and world-weary performance as Rick Deckard; the imperious psychopathy of Rutger Hauer as android assassin Roy Batty; Scott’s glorious tech noir rendition of our desecrated future; as well as the evocation of Philip K Dick’s thematic existential power.
Thus, to offer up a near three-hour sequel to a box office bomb of an almost unfilmable novel was something I thought extremely brave from a creative and business perspective. However, as soon as I saw the director Denis Villeneuve was attached, I immediately knew that Bladerunner 2049 was a must-see! This filmmaker has elevated himself to the higher echelons of Hollywood directors with superlative work such as: Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2016) and Arrival (2016). In such films he was able to meld story, style, character and performance to create very accessible genre films which encapsulate the pain and drama of the human condition adroitly.
In Bladerunner 2049, the future’s orange but, like the original novel and film adaptation, it’s definitely not bright! We are in a sick, unforgiving and murderous world where a dying Earth, specifically California, is inhabited by killer replicants, pleasure models, and totalitarian law enforcement and overseen by the venal, profit driven capitalist oligarchic Wallace Corporation. In this vision of Earth, men, women, children, animals and robots are all slaves to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. I have seen some critique that the film is exploitative in its female representations but the films reflects much that is wrong with our world today and the original novel’s dystopic and misanthropic themes.
Both male and females are objectified and deemed commodities and alas that is true too of the sick world we live in today, yet perhaps just not as blatant? Bladerunner 2049, I does not offer solutions but depressingly mirrors society’s desire to sexualise and exploit others. Our “hero” the replicant cop ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is a victim of such exploitation in his touching relationship with A: I hologram Joi (Ana De Armas). Ultimately, he learns that they’re all being faked by the horrific technological nightmare they call existence. I think it extremely interesting that K’s wry smile when he realises he has been exploited by the Wallace Corp. product Joi; and paradoxically this demonstrates his humanity.
Villeneuve, aided with startling artistry by cinematographer Roger Deakins directs from a screenplay written by original writer Hampton Fancher, plus Michael Green. One could argue that the original Bladerunner is style over content, as the story was distilled to that of Deckard basically hunting down a bunch of outlaw robots. However, the style WAS the content along with the dense richness of the themes. Similarly, Bladerunner 2049 does not have a particularly complex plot, save for one fantastic thematic reversal, yet at its heart it explores the powerful question of what it means to be human? I think all intriguing narratives should ask this and explore important notions of existence. I mean, it’s not surprise Gosling’s character is called ‘K’ – because the story echoes Kafka’s The Trial in many ways. Indeed, is his seemingly futile search for meaning or humanity just a pointless pursuit or is it reward enough to delude oneself with the possibility of hope or love? Life and the decision whether to carry on regardless is therefore very much on trial.
I think this is a film which will benefit from further viewings. I felt like I was watching a Tarkovsky or Bergman film on a massive budget. It’s like Denis Villeneuve managed to combine, with the writers and designers, an indie-Hollywood-art film installation. I would say this is a character and theme led narrative rather than purely plot driven. Even Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) weirdness, while not essential for the plot, added to the depth of character and surface emotion. He felt like a Colonel Kurtz figure trapped in his own insane delusion and obsession. Could he have been a replicant too? Likewise, Harrison Ford’s reappearance as Deckard adds great flavour to a wonderful sci-fi broth. Yet, his aging persona is integral to the plot and not simply a meta-textual nod to the original film.
Ultimately, we mere mortals are arguably not worthy to critique this fantastic work of genre art cinema. I understand it was slow but that almost increased the joy for me. It moved glacially but with high confidence and in Ryan Gosling it had a bona fide star to guide us through this sick yet beautiful world. Moreover, the sound design and music from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch was a powerful force which heightened the suspense and paranoia. While the visuals are absolutely breath-taking I was also drawn in by the existential intrigue of the themes. Technically, within the story, the replicants are not living people but we empathise with their plight nonetheless because THEY are US. There lies the paradox and beauty of this film, in that I cared and was fascinated by what happened to actors playing robots on the cinema screen.
Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, as the above quote from Freud suggests watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.
The thriller genre is one of my favourite types of film and in this piece I would like to draw on elements of psychology, genre and culture theories to examine classic, postmodern and neo-thriller tropes. I also want to investigate some recent cinema offerings which defy certain genre conventions and have what could be described as a subtle less-is-more approach to building suspense and thrilling the audience. For this I will examine three scenes from the work of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Joel and Ethan Coen where, while adhering to thriller genre conventions, they also softly kill us in an arguably more unconventional fashion.
But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include: sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. Also that as social mammals we have the power to experience and feel the fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.
These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including: McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs etc. Moreover, it also features characteristics like: unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson one of the thrillers enduring characteristic is openness to expansion into subgenres such as: spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular to audiences and filmmakers alike.
One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was of course Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films such as: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolised death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.
Without a shadow of a doubt Hitchcock had an incredible influence of filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers like: Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and arguably most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in: Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s ouevre there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as the Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).
What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humour in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill and just on moment of impact the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humour in an especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humour or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.
While Hitchcock and DePalma often favoured the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.
The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favouring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean. While, the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however it is implicit within the editing and performance that sadly she does.
Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.
Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from a the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience. Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realises she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realisation for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavours.
What all these scenes and films provide are a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death. Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.
SCREENWASH – NOVEMBER CINEMA SPECIAL – by PAUL LAIGHT
I often have all my reviews for the month in one place but occasionally I split them, as is the case here. I haven’t seen that many films at the cinema this month but the three I did see were all excellent in their own way. Here are my reviews with marks out of eleven.
**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**
The wonderfully serene Amy Adams portrays, Louise Banks, an academic linguist whose standing is such that when Earth is visited by twelve spaceships, she is called in by the military to attempt communication. Governments all over the world try various methods in which to discover whether the aliens are intending to attack. What are their primary intentions or targets? Are they friends or foe?
As it is directed by the supremely talented Denis Villeneuve the film moves at a careful but considered pace. When Adam’s accompanies Jeremy Renner’s physicist, Ian Donnelly we at first see the inside of the alien craft and it’s not long before we are faced with the strange-looking cephalopod-type creatures. The narrative meat becomes a series of attempts by Banks and Donnelly to try and crack the visual alien code. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Russians are becoming impatient and, like the Americans, considering attacking the spaceships in a pre-emptive military measure.
I won’t say any more because it would risk ruining the story but what unfolds is a clever and mind-bending turn of events which upsides genre expectations. The intriguing premise, brilliant script, ambient score, stylish effects, subtle cinematography and purposeful direction make this one of the best films I have seen all year. It is an intelligent and emotional science-fiction drama with a beautifully constructed narrative which constantly surprised and moved me. It also asks big questions on the nature of time, existence and love; informing us that not all extra-terrestrial life in movies has to be monstrous and deadly. (Mark 10 out of 11)
DR STRANGE (2016)
Marvel, like they did with Ant-Man (2015) take a lesser known character in Dr Stephen Strange and turn it into one of the most entertaining and spellbinding blockbusters of the year. To be honest none of this should work, however, it is a testament to the work of a committed director in Scott Derrickson and formidable heavyweight acting cast including: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen and imperious Tilda Swinton, that this mystical soufflé works so well.
Cumberbatch, filtering his Sherlock persona wonderfully, is a gifted, yet arrogant neurosurgeon who following a bone-crunching automobile accident finds his gifted hands are no good to man nor beast. His attempts at physical rehabilitation prove unsuccessful so he goes on a spiritual journey to Nepal in an attempt to fix his damaged body and soul. There he meets Mordo (Ejiofor) and subsequently The Ancient One (Swinton) and that’s where the real fun starts.
I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this. Its pacey plot zips along rapidly with some fine comedic one-liners. Cumberbatch and Swinton stand out amongst a fine cast with both of them imbuing their characters with a depth beyond your usual super-hero film. While the origins story is standard genre stuff the magical gifts and capes Dr Strange uses are wonderful fun, as are the hallucinogenic visuals, eye-popping Inceptionesque fight scenes plus mystical marvels straight out of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lastly, Derrickson deserves praise for several cracking set-pieces notably the out-of-body fight in the hospital and complex temporal-twisting combat with inter-dimensional beast Dormammu. Strange days are indeed upon as Marvel spellbinds us with yet another big comic-book hit. (Mark 9 out of 11)
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)
Filmmaker Tom Ford’s debut film A Single Man (2009) was an eloquent character study of grief, loneliness and existential romance; beautifully photographed, styled and constructed with Colin Firth’s heartfelt performance providing the thudding beats of pathos and pain. It was a film I only saw recently but knew that the director was definitely one to follow, and thus, his second film Nocturnal Animals promised much.
Nocturnal Animals is an altogether colder beast centring on separation of love rather than the meditation on loss like A Single Man. The once again brilliant Amy Adams is a privileged art gallery owner married to Armie Hammer’s rich, yet absent, businessman. She is a hollow woman musing about her failed previous marriage to writer Jake Gyllenhaal and the apparent emptiness of her life, career and the people around her. It is a testament to Ford and Adams that they extricate empathy for such a seemingly spoilt character, but they ably demonstrate that wealth does not defeat loneliness or the guilt of past actions.
Adams’ Susan Morrow is similar to Firth’s George Falconer in that she is lost and flailing in her first world but very human problems. Thrown into the mix is the about-to-be-published book her former husband has written and sent her. So, we end up with two stories for the price of one as the events in the manuscript come to life in Susan’s mind. As she reads it, Jake Gyllenhaal’s (yes, he plays two characters) family are terrorized on a backwater freeway by Aaron Johnson’s violent gang. Michael Shannon also pops up as a busted lung of a cop sick of the scum and his turn is a delight.The sun-bleached, desert and neo-Western style in these episodes provide a fascinating and stylistic juxtaposition to shadowy, cool darkness that is Susan Morrow’s life in Los Angeles.
The two stories collide, compare and contrast each other to fascinating effect as Ford weaves literary and cinematic tropes, brilliantly adapting the original novel on which is it based – Tony and Susan – written by Austin Wright. This, overall, is about storytelling being used as a means not only to haunt and create guilt, but also wreak revenge. It’s a complex watch but beautiful, cold creature to look at. Yet, despite the privilege of Amy Adam’s character I was thoroughly absorbed by her crumbling psyche, while the book within the film is totally gripping too. (Mark 9.5 out of 11)
On top of the Netflix and documentary purge I watched quite a few films this month. Thus, here for your consideration, are some little reviews with marks out of eleven!
A MOST WANTED MAN (2014) – NETFLIX
One of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films and a pretty decent espionage thriller set in Germany. Despite an excellent cast and decent atmosphere I didn’t care much for the characters and it fizzled out for me by the end. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK (2014) – BLU RAY
This is a very moving, filmic scrapbook documentary about an absolute musical legend who alas suffered both from mental and physical pain hence why he took his own life. Not sure if it was deliberate but toward the end his Mother and Wife were lit in a very similar way and resembled each other. While it was kind of objective allowing the sounds, videos, photos, recordings, interviews, cuttings and text to tell the story there a subconscious attempt by the director to link these two individuals. I loved the animated stuff which visualized the monologues Cobain recorded during his short life. I highly recommended this to fans of the troubled rock-poet and of course his amazing music. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
CREEP (2014) – NETFLIX
Not the British horror film directed by Christopher Smith ten or so years ago but a found footage film about a videographer who answers an advert to film a diary of weirdo played by the disarmingly dangerous Mark Duplass. I hated this at the start but it grew on me and the subtle horror was very well done and the ending is great. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
ENEMY (2014) – SKY
Doppelganger thriller Enemy is an enigmatic and weird treat full of fantastical images and brooding fear; featuring the ever brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal playing dual roles. His struggling actor and anxious teacher meet by chance and what follows is a mysterious game of cat and mouse. Both startling and unsettling from formidable genre director Denis Villeneuve. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS (2014) – NETFLIX
This is one of the worst-middle-class-first-world-problems-monstrosities-of-a-film I have ever seen. I like Simon Pegg but I switched this film off forty-five minutes in. Hector isn’t happy? No one’s happy, Hector! Happiness is an illusion, Hector! Do you have your health, Hector? Your girlfriend is Rosamund Pike, Hector? You have a home and food on the table, Hector? Count your blessings, Hector and piss off!! (Mark: 0 out of 11)
HYENA (2014) – NETFLIX
This is a sturdy and compelling British crime drama with a fantastic lead performance from Peter Ferdinando as a bent copper trying, yet failing, to stay ahead of the dangerous games he’s playing. It’s a brutal and nasty film; very reminiscent in style of Nicolas Winding Refn or Alan Clarke and is mostly gripping but slightly overlong. If you like your drama meaty, earthy and realistic then this is a movie for you. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
COCO CHANEL & IGOR STRAVINSKY (2009)
This was a sumptuous and stylish film with one of my favourite actors Mads Mikkelsen portraying composer Igor Stravinsky. I have to admit that I found it pretty boring though in terms of the drama and while it looked great I just did not care about the lives of rich and spoilt artists in 1920s France. (Mark: 5.5 out of 11)
THE MAN FROM UNCLE (2015) – CINEMA
Amidst the spy genre pastiche, muscular bromance and triple crosses there’s some cinematic gold enjoyment to be had in watching The Man From Uncle. Guy Ritchie is a very reliable genre director and during some of the set-pieces I actually sensed there’s a proper auteur trying to get out. While I liked Skyfall (2012) and look forward to Spectre (2015) this was reminiscent of the old Bond films from the 1960s as it makes espionage sexy again. Overall, this is an ultra-stylish spy eye candy with a cracking soundtrack. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1920) – BFI CINEMA
Classic formalist documentary from Dziga Vertov is both an extravagant experiment in montage-making plus an intriguing look back at Soviet life post-Revolution. Dismissed as folly at the time of release it is now considered a masterwork, not only as a documentary, but as a film itself. It is humbling and intriguing viewing and makes you realise that the Soviet life is no different to ours as we witness births, marriages, deaths, work, rest and play. It’s a genuine historical and filmic masterpiece. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
MAZE RUNNER (2014) – SKY
This is a surprisingly entertaining addition to the recent raft of teenage-action-hero-in-dystopic-future-world-peril-films. I enjoyed the existential mystery set up in the premise as our hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is thrown into a Lord of The Flies land inhabited only by young men, trapped by a massive maze. Plot-wise and action it’s very strong, however, the theme of humanity-accepting-one’s-fate-versus-escaping-while-testing-authority gave the story a richness making it very watchable indeed. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (2015) – CINEMA
M: I5 was a blast! Tom Cruise and the IMF team up to their usual breathtaking pyrotechnics! Good to see Sean Harris get a prominent role as he’s a formidable character actor. Phillip Seymour Hoffman – from M:I3 – is easily the best baddie though. I just wish the trailers wouldn’t show virtually ALL the stunts especially HOW Tom did the “hang to the plane” thing. I don’t watch these films for the story – it’s the action. Please leave some for the film next time trailer people! Rebecca Ferguson kicks serious ass and the scene at the Opera is pure Bond and pure cinema of the highest quality. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
NO ONE LIVES (2014) – SKY
A stylish, yet empty exploitation serial-killer flick which would go straight to video if Blockbusters had any stores left. Luke Evans is a handsome actor looking for a decent role since finishing Fast and Furious 6 and The Hobbit trilogy but this isn’t it. The film itself is saved by some extravagant violence and bloodletting but as a story it’s hollow like (Mark: 3 out of 11)
SOUTHPAW (2015) – CINEMA
If you like films about boxing then you’ll love Southpaw: a brutal and quality action-melodrama with another fine performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. The story is very simplistic and structured around a riches-to-rags-to-redemption narrative but I found the soap operatics and bombastic direction a real adrenaline-pumped belt to the senses. Gyllenhaal is ripped, torn and lean like a prime piece of beef as life deals him body blow after blow. Can his on-the-ropes boxer bounce and make a come-back? While somewhat predictable I found Antoine Fuqua’s punchy movie a real knockout! (Mark: 8 out of 11)
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015) – CINEMA
This is a tremendous biopic of seminal hip-hop legends NWA, who came to the fore of world music in the late 1980s. Performances and direction are excellent as Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Wren – AKA NWA – exploded onto the scene like a bomb and delivered anger, power and beats that propelled them straight out of Compton and into the charts! They are a perfect example of sociological, political and cultural forces converging to create a superlative brand and the film perfectly captures the age, the music, the look and the camaraderie of being the group. The film illuminates the spirit of the hip-hop scene and the problems the group had with the law while dramatically portraying the bitter in-fighting over royalties which split the band apart. Goes without saying the soundtrack is brilliant too! (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
THEY CAME TOGETHER (2014) – NETFLIX
This starred two of my favourite comedic actors in Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler and is a broad parody of romantic comedies with a very high joke-rate. He stars as a corporate confectionary executive and tries to take over her small independent sweet-hearted business and at first they hate each other but then… Yes, they have sex! Pitched somewhere between Naked Gun and Anchorman this is very, very silly but also an absolutely hilarious comedy. Short, sweet, ridiculous and as infectious as diabetes. Is diabetes infectious – oh, who cares! Just watch the movie! (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)