The Square (Ruben Ӧstlund, 2017)

The Square opened this year’s Leeds International Film Festival after impressing on the festival circuit and even winning Cannes’ prestigious Palme D’or. The film follows Christian (Claes Bang), an art museum curator in Stockholm, as he makes various mistakes in his professional and personal life.

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The Square is rather unfocussed in terms of its plot, meandering in several different directions after Christian is the victim of a particulatly devious mugging. The film pushes a message of societal inequality throughout, contrasting images of Stockholm’s evident homelessness problem with the careless wealth of Christian’s modern art gallery. This issue is seized upon by the museum’s hipster marketing department as a way of promoting a new exhibit – The Square, inside which everyone is equal. The resulting YouTube advert, which I won’t spoil, is so misjudged that it causes national outrage and the buck eventually stops with Christian.

In the meantime, we are shown Christian trying to recover his stolen items, his feud with a young Turkish boy, his fateful encounter with Anne (Elizabeth Moss), his fractious relationship with his two young daughters and his half-hearted attempts to do his job. These all tick boxes of the hapless, modern fop and Christian is just about tolerable. The Square, however, is less so and could definitely lose at least thirty minutes. The standout scene is the one used for the film’s promotional material – Oleg, a performance artist, acting as a wild gorilla terrorises a dinner party for museum funders who remain apathetic as they all wait in hope for the act to end.

Ruben Ӧstlund’s film attempts to skewer the modern art scene’s self-interest and occasional amorality, which is hidden under a veil of the medium’s “boundary pushing” intent. However the film doesn’t always convince and says very little apart from what we already knew – pretentious people populate the art world who dismiss any criticism as blinding ignorance and hold their audience with a certain contempt. Maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive, but I caught glimpses of that contempt in the film. There was a lot of laugher in The Square but, as I left the screening, I couldn’t help feeling the final smirk was on the audience.

REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

Call Me By Your Name arrived at Leeds International Film Festival as one of its most anticipated films. The film is set across an early 80’s summer in an idyllic corner of northern Italy, where the food is fresh, the wine flows and conversations are loaded. Luca Guadagnino suffuses his film with a languid calm that belies the tensions driving the film. These are namely the romantic feelings felt by Elio (Timothee Chalamet) toward the academic guest of his father, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Their blossoming relationship is the centre of the piece but the film transcends the label of a ‘gay love-story’, with Elio navigating the tough and confusing path from late teenage to early adulthood in an emotionally true coming-of-age.

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A child of academic parents, Elio is presented as an extremely precocious young man – proficient in languages, music, literature, and popular to boot. He and his family spend each summer in Italy and ‘paradise’ doesn’t quite cover it. Into the mix comes PHD student Oliver, whose brash American confidence is at once jarring and charming to Elio. The film, however, is in no rush to throw the two together, and it is a joy to watch the development of their friendship put before any romantic involvement.

The strength of the film is to keep peripheral characters within the orbit of this central relationship. Elio’s parents (beautifully played by Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg) have an engaging dynamic and steal many scenes – Stuhlbarg’s delivery of a speech late in the film is spellbinding. A highlight for me was Elio’s would-be-girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) who finds herself on the raw end of his and Oliver’s romance. Most films would have left the character there, but one of Call Me By Your Name’s masterstrokes is to include a tender reconciliation between Marzia and Elio. This was one of the many moments which convinced me the film was not, as I had worried, intelligentsia porn of the Charlie Kauffman variety.

Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully told story of first love and heartbreak which defies lazy labels and comparisons. A rich and sensual experience.

REVIEW: Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

I came out of the cinema after watching Murder on the Orient Express impressed that Kenneth Branagh had managed to make a very faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s source novel. The problem for me was that I stopped reading the book after 50 pages because it was unspeakably dull. Christie’s cardboard cut-out characters and the conflation of prose with stage direction left me completely cold. Branagh’s film suffers from these same flaws, and I am torn as to whose door I should lay the blame.

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The Murder on the Orient Express begins as it means to go on, with an all too brief and unexplored example of Hercule Poirot’s (Branagh) detective prowess. After this, he delivers a very on-the-nose speech about his strong belief in good and evil with nothing in-between. The rest of the film plays out as a 50+ year old man figuring out that sometimes, in the grown-up world, there is moral ambiguity – riveting!

The action then moves onto the eponymous train, where a raft of incredibly famous film stars all fight for scraps as Christie/Branagh dole out measly amounts of dialogue. Poor Judi Dench. Michelle Pfeiffer is very good but the rest are given so little attention from the camera that I feel my review should respond in kind.

One aspect of the casting I wish to highlight is the strange attitude to Leslie Odom Jr’s presence in the film as a black man. He has been cast as a character in the book who is not mentioned to be of any particular race – so far so good, and Branagh has a track record of diverse casting. However, his race is continually pointed out by other characters and is made an essential part of his backstory. While this treatment of a black character may be accurate to the period, my issue is that these details were clearly added to the script after Odom Jr was cast. What is the point in diverse casting if roles are rewritten and redefined to recognise the actor’s race?

The Murder on the Orient Express is a passable film to see if you don’t expect much from it. But if hard questions are asked the film quickly reveals itself as thinly plotted, over populated with characters, and a bit dull. Much like the book.

CLASSIC: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)

Ask your average person what they know about New Zealand and they will invariably mention the use of its landscapes for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy; the opening shot of Hunt for the Wilderpeople makes it clear that Peter Jackson and co. barely scratched the surface of the country’s natural beauty. Set deep within the untamed bushlands, Taika Waititi writes and directs the story of teen delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) as he is taken in by new foster parents. Unimpressed by the isolation of his new home and the coldness of ‘uncle’ Hector (Sam Neil), Ricky is slowly won over by the warmth of his foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata). However, when circumstances force Hector and Ricky together, they are driven to flee from police, hunters and Child Welfare Services.

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Apart from a brief cameo, Waititi remains behind the camera for Hunt for the Wilderpeople unlike in his cult vampire-comedy What We Do in the Shadows. The film he produces feels like an unlikely marriage between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz; the gently whimsical tone of the former is met with comically overblown action and chase sequences which can at times feel out of place. Dennison is natural as the wannabe gangster, and he shares good chemistry with Neil, although the beats of their awkward ‘father-son’ relationship will feel very familiar to anyone who has seen Pixar’s Up. The starring turn of the film belongs to Rachel House, as the fantastically villainous Child Welfare officer Paula, who shares a funny partnership with slow-witted policeman Andy (Oscar Kightly).

Hunt for the Wilderpeople has lots of genuinely funny moments, and a few stand-out performances. A very enjoyable film which needs to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate the breath-taking setting.

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

Armando Iannucci must be sick of having to chuckle along with the observation that real-life political figures are now far more abhorrent the characters of his brilliant series The Thick of It. Perhaps this has played a part in his decision to retreat form the contemporary settings of The Thick of It and Veep into the murky world of 1950’s Soviet Russia. The resulting film is a star-studded romp which follows the turbulent and murderous week in the Kremlin after the death of communist dictator Stalin.

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The death of Stalin (hey, that’s the name of the flm!) sparks a succession crisis amongst his top ministers, with Georgy Malenkov (played to weasely perfection by Jeffery Tambor) installed as the de facto leader but he is the only Russian unaware that the true struggle for leadership is between Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and spymaster Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). A raft of comedy greats join this trio, ranging from Michael Palin as party devotee Molotov and Paddy Considine as the panicked Head of Radio Moscow trying to restage a concert after Stalin requests a recording. Jason Isaacs turns up in time to steal the show as the only man in Russia seemingly able to laugh at the situation and the idiotic politicians.

The Death of Stalin has its hilarious moments but it is also surprisingly dark and sometimes unpleasant. The comedy is constantly underpinned by the characters’ justifiable fear of being tortured and killed. Great pains are clearly made to remind us of the huge numbers of people who were tortured, killed and imprisoned by Stalin’s regime under direction from the ghoulish Beria. The spymaster brags of his sexual deviance and his rumoured paedophilia is discussed unflinchingly. With this in mind, I can see how some audiences might not get on with the film; the subject matter is tricky but I think the film justifies the comedy by not looking away from the era’s crimes.

The Death of Stalin is a good addition to the Iannucci canon and what it occasionally lacks in laugh out loud moments is made up for with the outstanding cast.

BLOG: Is Blade Runner 2049 guilty of sexism with the character of Joi?

***************DISCUSSED WITH SPOILERS***************

 

I saw and loved Blade Runner 2049 on the night of its release and gave my thoughts on the film in my review, here. I was then dismayed to see a lot of interesting articles pick out many aspects of the film which, it was argued, demonstrated an inherent sexism and misogyny. In the majority of these instances, I had interpreted the same scenes or characters in completely different ways and even came out of the cinema taken with the film’s interrogation of gender roles. I found this especially with the character of Joi, who I felt was the heart of the film in a number of ways. I decided to write this blog not as a challenge to the readings of the whole film as sexist (I have linked a couple of good articles explaining this view below) but to clarify my thoughts on Joi and where they diverge from those which deem the film sexist because of the character.

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The first thing to say is that the original Blade Runner holds some pretty rancid gender politics. There are only three female characters, all of which are either presented as sexualised beings or victims of sexually dominating behaviour from men. 2049 inherits the sexist backdrop of Blade Runner’s LA, including the giant, neon adverts featuring sexualised women. I do not mention this to excuse 2049 of its own failings, but rather to illustrate the film’s jumping-off point in its world building.

Secondly, the most evident rationale for the perceived sexism in 2049’s universe is that it is a dystopian vision of the future which is not intended to appear perfect or desirable. The film intends to amplify the flaws in our own society and reflect them back to us in a way which we recognise as morally wrong. Take the giant statues of naked women in the nuclear wasteland of Las Vegas, some obviously poised to perform oral sex; these have been criticised for their apparent irrelevance to the plot, an example of throwaway sexism adorning a dramatic landscape. I read these statues as a comment against Las Vegas in the present day, where objectification of women is perhaps only slightly subtler than these 60ft nudes. It would be lazy to explain away 2049’s issues of sexism with the ‘dystopian world’ argument but it is a key part of the film’s context, especially in the instances it acts as a reflection our own world.

A consistent criticism has been found in the character of Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificially intelligent hologram who is programmed to act as a virtual girlfriend to whomever purchases her. We see the image of Joi as an advertisement throughout the film – she is clearly a popular worldwide product and brand. Agent K’s (Ryan Gosling) version of Joi, however, appears to become more sentient as the film wears on and makes an astonishing attempt to be real for him. This scene is the most criticised in the film – Joi melds onto the body of Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), a sex worker, so as to be as close to physical as a she can for K and make love to him.

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I found the character of Joi, and especially this scene, incredibly interesting and poignant. Criticisms of Joi’s character have read that it is fundamentally sexist that her existence is solely for the pleasure of K. While that is her programming, the interest for me lies in what this motivates the character to do. She is an artificial intelligence who dreams of being human, something shared by K, a replicant, who wrestles with the notion that he is soulless throughout the film. Both Joi and K are seeking a loving connection which is beyond their programming and, in this context, I found the love-scene poignant and tear-jerkingly tender.

After K’s Joi is destroyed, he is faced with a giant, holographic version of a Joi-advertisement who seems to taunt him with her attempted seduction. She appears completely naked, another moment which has been picked out for its sexism. It’s certainly a sexist advert in a sexist world, but the effect of the scene is far from that. K is instead faced unflinchingly with the emptiness of his ‘relationship’ with Joi. He recognises that he had dreamt of being a lover but was merely a consumer who bought the projection of his desperate fantasies.

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This scene reminds me of the moment in Her (2013) where Samantha, an operating software voiced by Scarlett Johansson, reveals to Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) that she is simultaneously in love with thousands of other men. In these two moments, K and Theodore are forced to recognise the toxic idealisation of women by themselves but also by the consumerist societies which created artificial intelligence to complete the fantasy. Both are left crushed by this realisation, especially for K as he has only just stopped believing that Deckard is his father. This belief had given him a brief taste of a real connection with another real person which shines a harsh light on his ‘relationship’ with Joi, whom he could literally turn on or off at will.

It is this experience which inspires K to save Deckard, who had been captured by the terrifying Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and will likely be killed. The end scene sees Deckard reunited with his daughter, Dr Ana Stelling (Carla Juri), in another touching scene. In this final moment we see the film return to the human emotion and physical connection between parent and child, a significant reunion in this world which K realised was worth giving up his life for. This scene alludes to what I believe to be at the crux of Joi’s purpose as a character – that is the film’s exploration of emotional intimacy in a world where physical intimacy has been replaced by artifice and commodity. The film is preoccupied with this question due to our own uneasy relationship with technology and virtual relationships. Blade Runner 2049 may labour this point and the presentation of female sexuality to illustrate it, but it is not to the extent where Joi can be seen as a symptom of the film’s sexism.

 

‘Is Blade Runner 2049 a sexist film or a fair depiction of a dystopian future’, The Guardian –> http://bit.ly/2yzLrKg

Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning but subtly sexist’, Daily Dot -> http://bit.ly/2yBsmJL

CLASSIC: Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Arrival is the film of intelligence and emotional depth which Independence Day decided to forgo in favour of patriotic flag-waving and Will Smith punching some aliens. Both films begin with a mysterious collection of alien spacecraft appearing in various locations across the globe, however, instead of calling up Mr Smith and his punching prowess, the military of Arrival enlist linguist, Louise (Amy Adams), and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to help with attempted communications with the aliens. What follows is a race to understand the purpose of their presence on earth before the hysteria and tension gripping the planet boils over into warfare.

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Beginning with the saddest first five minutes of a film since Pixar’s Up, Arrival immediately signals to the viewer that it is no typical alien invasion film. The mood of the film is melancholic rather than thrilling, with the coming of the aliens shown in no great detail. Arrival would prefer to portray this event through the loneliness of Adams’ Louise, who falls asleep in front of news coverage of the landings in her large, empty house. Once Louise and Ian (Renner) are brought into contact with the aliens and progress is made in understanding their strange, smoke-like language, her mental health appears to suffer. Louise becomes plagued by unwanted memories of the loss she suffers at the film’s beginning, the sadness of which is always bubbling under the surface of Arrival. Even when the purpose of the aliens’ presence on earth is revealed, and Louise’s visions explained, it is still heart-breaking even in its hopefulness.

Arrival is a thoughtful sci-fi film brimming with intelligence and invention. While it may pale in comparison with Interstellar’s space-travel spectacle, Arrival is able to show a depth of emotion through Louise which Christopher Nolan and his film could not. A unique, melancholy must-see.