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.

REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Thirty-three years is a long time to wait for a sequel. But since the true Blade Runner (the Final Cut) only surfaced in 2007 perhaps it is more accurate to say Blade Runner 2049 is only a decade later than the original. Denis Villeneuve, who impressed with the last great sci-fi film Arrival (2016), is at the helm for this grandiose epic. His vision is a 160 minute spectacle which is both dizzying in its various cityscapes but painfully intimate in the confined spaces of characterless flats. It develops the world-building of Blade Runner and deepens its potent questioning of what it means to be human.

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Blade Runner 2049 places itself 30 years after the events of the first film, during which there has been a ‘blackout’ in Los Angeles where all digital records were wiped, including the identities of rogue replicants. Agent K (Ryan Gosling), himself a replicant, is tasked with hunting down the remaining Nexus 8 model replicants. We first meet him as he ‘retires’ Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), who goads K by telling him he can only do his soulless work as he has “never seen a miracle”. A discovery on Morton’s farm provides the thrust of the plot which drives K through the dystopic US and straight into the path of Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Of all Harrison Ford’s recent career re-treads, Blade Runner 2049 has been anticipated with the most apprehension. How could a film enigma which took 23 years to reach a final product possibly spawn a successful sequel? The answer is in the alignment of awesome visuals with intensely personal sequences. For every grand, post-nuclear vista there is a scene between K and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). Their relationship is much indebted to Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and the moments where K grapples with his need for her love and impossible intimacy are heart-breaking.

Blade Runner 2049 is a completely worthy sequel to the sci-fi classic and has a claim to be the best film of the year. The audience is left questioning the nature of humanity, each character and the idea of self – when Deckard says in a cracked voice, as a tear runs down his face, “I know what’s real” we share the burning uncertainty which threatens to engulf him. But the film ends with K serenely letting the snowflakes fall around him, accepting his insignificant place in the universe as one of so many different, created beings.

REVIEW: Mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017)

Part biblical allegory, part nightmare vision of a marriage breakdown, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is a film which ties itself closely to biblical imagery in its tale of the domestic space invaded and corrupted by fanatic followers of a God-like creator.

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Javier Bardem plays Him, a frustrated artist who lives with his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) in an isolated and dilapidated house. Lawrence’s character, Mother, is determined to make the house a “paradise” and works tirelessly toward its renovation. When interlopers ruin their isolated idyll, firstly Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the relationship between Him and Mother becomes strained as he indulges their guests and distances himself from his wife. From here, the narrative spirals rapidly out of control with an ending 30 minutes of unadulterated cinematic madness.

As is clear from the names of its characters, Mother! is a film which is inhibited by its fixation on archetype. Mother! also frequently references Bible stories and Horror cinema. For example, Lawrence’s character intentionally evokes Mia Farrow’s bewildered titular tragic heroine of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) who, too, is besotted with her husband and unable to notice that he is overly enamoured with the attention from his devoted ‘fans’. The overt similarities drawn between Bardem’s creator and the biblical God can be unnecessary at times during the film, especially in the final act where he is reduced to being one-dimensional. Indeed, the film’s final section undermines itself significantly with an overly neat and unsatisfying conclusion.

The film boasts a striking cast with, as well as the aforementioned, Domhall Gleeson and Kristen Wiig turning in committed performances. The two central turns are mesmeric thanks to both the actors and the director’s filming style. When Javier Bardem first became sentient he must have looked at his face in the mirror, observing all its handsome yet demented structure, and thought to himself, “Well I suppose I’ll have to be an actor”. His astonishingly emotive face conveys all the desires and insecurities of the omnipotent Him. The filming of Lawrence’s Mother is mainly through close-up or over-the-shoulder shots in a similar way to last year’s Son of Saul. The result is that the audience sees the horrors through the danger they pose to her, making the final act almost unbearably tense.

Darren Arfonsky’s Mother! has proved divisive with critics and appalled the majority of punters. Despite its shortcomings, the film is a disturbing and occasionally thrilling look at the relationship between a creator and his dependents.

 

IT (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

After I first saw the trailer for IT the film became my most anticipated trip to the cinema this year. I read Stephen King’s source novel over a summer as idyllic as the one portrayed in the story and IT’s 1400 pages seemed to fly. The book laid the foundations for my love of Horror cinema which would develop over the next few years. I was, then, naturally excited to see King’s seminal novel on the big screen.

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IT tells the story of a group of children who are plagued by a shape-shifting creature who primarily identifies as Pennywise, the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). One of the young boys, Ben (Jeremy Taylor), discovers that the same entity has been haunting their home town Derry every 27 years since its founding in the 19th century. This new period of Pennywise’s tormenting of the town begins when little Georgie Denborough is lured into It’s clutches after losing his toy boat in a storm drain. The violence of this first attack is shocking and sets the tone for the subsequent encounters with It’s different incarnations.

The film succeeds and comes short in the same ways that Stephen King’s novel does. The characters are well drawn and the child-actors perform very well. Among the losers club, it is Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as Richie and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie who stand out thanks to their quick-fire arguments. The revelation is Jackson Scott who is extremely precocious as seven-year-old Georgie. The film improves on the book by never losing sight of the death of Georgie as the story’s impetus and the desperate sadness of his older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), is the film’s heart.

Bill Skarsgard is at times terrifying as Pennywise but the film and the book suffer from the character’s lack of backstory. IT visually references A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and it would improve the former if Pennywise could have the sordid origins of Freddy Krueger to help interpret the entity and it’s fixation on these particular children. Without that, the climax in the sewers is rendered as an answer to the question: How many children does it take to beat up a clown?

Perhaps this will be resolved in IT: Chapter Two, which is teased in the end credits. I certainly enjoyed IT enough to be as excited for the second film as I was for the first.

REVIEW: Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a blockbuster of a different breed to the endless list of Marvel Universe offerings that have dominated the past decade. With its minimal dialogue and ambitious plotting, Dunkirk offers an uncompromising viewing experience. Rather than being impenetrable, however, Nolan’s film grips from the start and drives relentlessly toward that historic day beside/on/over the English Channel.

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The challenge of encapsulating the events of the Dunkirk evacuation in a very tight 106 minutes would have been tricky for any screenwriter. Christopher Nolan’s solution is to follow three separate story lines – one concerning soldiers on the beach, one following a civilian vessel across the channel, and the last flying with the Spitfires above the carnage. The real skill of the plotting lies in the three distinct time frames that these storylines are told over (one week, one hour and one day). While all these plotlines are eventually linked, the fact that Nolan can tell all three stories concurrently without unbalancing the narrative is extremely impressive.

The cast is a real treat, with Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead and Tom Hardy all putting in understatedly compelling performances. Sir Kenny Branagh also makes an appearance, although it’s a little disappointing that the officer he plays might as well be called Captain Exposition. But that is a minor and pedantic criticism. The fact is the lack of dialogue in the film makes it necessary for him to orientate us with the logistics of the evacuation. The lack of dialogue is what makes Dunkirk a purely cinematic experience – the storytelling is all visual and the audience is required to interpret as well as watch. In this way, I was consistently reminded of Under the Skin (2013) which similarly left the audience alone to make sense of the plot.

Dunkirk is essential viewing on a number of counts. A master director, a raft of British stars, mesmeric storytelling and a seismic historical event encapsulated. When it comes to cinema, what else is there?