Category Archives: Tragedy

LFF: Breathe

A new addition to the ‘tragic romance where a man is inflicted with a terminal illness and through his wife’s undying love is able to live much longer than expected’ genre is Breathe, taking after 2014’s similarly saccharine The Theory of Everything. It’s a competently-made drama about polio and its effect on the life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife, Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) that’s more removing than moving, belittling its central characters to soapy archetypes, and its supporting cast to samey beacons of hope.

Breathe opens up promisingly, at least, with a swooning 50s pastiche rendered assuredly with stylised fonts and an achingly beautiful melody. Cavendish and Blacker immediately fall in love, and soon they’re dancing as silhouettes in the African sunset; their romance isn’t grounded, nor does it need to be: these are the lofty, idealised heights before the inevitable fall.

When the fall (literally, in Cavendish’s case) does emerge, the glamorous 50s backdrop makes way for a more procedural, and altogether unexciting affair. Cavendish is paralysed, and Garfield sells his affliction magnificently with pained gurgles and gurns, but the narrative is just as stationary. One gets the feeling that director Andy Serkis – who is good friends with Cavendish’s real-life son, Tom – was reluctant to spruce up the script with unsympathetic  embellishments that would have fictionalised the story – but would have also given us a reason to keep us invested.

It’s a sympathetic take on Cavendish’s character, but also one free of any intense difficulties to overcome. Everything is just so easy, (despite the best efforts of a ridiculous segment involving a dog), making for a pleasant tea-time watch but a frustratingly stale cinematic experience. With convincing on-screen chemistry, this may have been difficult to notice, but Garfield and Foy can’t act their way out of clumsy characterisation. In truth, they are one-note figures, reduced to tired symbols of steely determination. In turn, the audience are reduced to senseless observers, unaffected by Breathe’s insistence on stirring up emotion. Its supporting characters, played by an odd array of British comedians (including Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Mangan and Tom Hollander) simply exacerbate the film’s problem of struggling to amass any sense of conflict. Their comedy, however, is a high-point of the film, bolstered by a sharp script that refrains from melodrama.

As the film nears its close, it becomes what its opening parodied, succumbing to cheesy methods of affectation. It’s a sign of laziness from a director who has clearly worked hard in not just evoking, but reproducing the life of Cavendish. These travails are apparent, but also vary in degrees of success – in straying too close to Cavendish’s son’s account, he has created a film without the dramatic urgency required to entertain – but with enough careful treatment of its subject matter to inspire.

-Gus Edgar

BFI.org.uk

LFF: Sicilian Ghost Story

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Sicilian Ghost Story is a strange take on a real-life mafia kidnapping story involving young lovebirds, weaving the supernatural with a distinct gritty realism that makes you wonder if the supernatural elements are even necessary.

It’s a delicate subject matter, and approaching it with surreal flourishes may lean towards a dangerously blasé slant in the face of child torture. Yet the method’s sparse use manages to carefully sidestep any talk of insensitivity. In doing so, it also sacrifices any room for the film to transcend the stale trappings of its slow-burn narrative.

The film’s initial imagery is bafflingly fixating, promising a much greater film than the one we end up receiving. The camera winds itself around dripping rocks, leaving us to infer the ethereal from the real. Luca Bigazzi, known for his brilliant work with Sorrentino, compliments the film’s overbearing fairy-tale quality with unnatural framing and contemplative long takes, mustering up most of the film’s magic.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough disparity between the surreal and its harsh truth to produce the catharsis the film so desperately strives for. In blending the two, much of the juxtapositional effectiveness is lost, and its sporadic implementation doesn’t do enough to justify the presence of the supernatural.

Though perhaps Sicilian Ghost Story’s greatest problem lies in the fact that this is a tragic love story between two kids where the lead child actors aren’t actually very good. Much may be down to directors Grassadonia and Piazza, who have seemingly told his young cast to sport plastic smiles whenever in frame. With chemistry this fabricated and unconvincing, it’s difficult to latch onto the difficulties that obstruct their plight thereafter. Sadly, they’re left stranded in a dreamlike film that’s too afraid to commit to its own premise and afraid even further to support its own existence.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Jackie

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Pablo Larrain’s first of two biopics released this year (The second being Neruda) is a tamely unorthodox character study of Jacqueline Kennedy, following her husband’s assassination. Using an interview as a rather unnecessary framing device, Jackie details her anguish and subsequent resilience to lovingly memorialise him, visualised through a series of flashbacks that agitatedly shift between settings. She’s holding her dead husband in her lap, ingraining a grotesque, lingering image. She’s confiding her insecurities to a priest, played by John Hurt, in sequences too brief to impact. And she’s arguing with several members of the White House regarding her husband’s funeral.

This argument forms the crux of Jackie’s narrative, an axis on which to apply themes of legacy, grief, and letting go. Natalie Portman stays true to the character, and her despair is certainly believable. Yet the performance is inherently flawed: Portman, in attempting to resurrect Jacqueline Kennedy with a desperately faithful performance, draws attention to the unnaturalness of the character’s mannerisms, and, most noticeably, her accent. It’s a loyal depiction, sure, but it’s hard to pry the celebrity away from the figure when the accent disengages the viewer from the drama.

Shot on 16mm, Jackie is framed and textured to recreate its era, archaically draining the image of its colour and sensibly placing Portman in bold, sanguine shades. The intent is clear: it’s Jackie in isolation, disembodied from normality, left to grasp at what’s left of reason in the face of her husband’s death. This idea is furthered via Mica Levi’s score, a deliciously foreboding melody that phonetically encapsulates Jackie’s friable state of mind. Crescendoing to a forceful and resonant finale, Jackie ends strongly, but you can’t help but feel that Larrain’s artistry is too subdued to memorialise the film with the same vigor that Jackie memorialised her husband.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: A Monster Calls

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Here’s something refreshing: a story involving a cancer patient that doesn’t baselessly lie to its audience (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, though I do love that film in spite of it), nor dumb down the tragedy into palatable mush (nearly every other filmic incarnation involving a patient with a terminal illness). J.A. Bayona is certainly accustomed to tearjerkers, having directed the deceptive horror-drama The Orphanage and the tsunami-weepie, The Impossible. A Monster Calls is no different, building on his penchant for sob stories with a thrillingly original perspective.

Based on Patrick Ness’ book of the same name, A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) as he summons a beautifully-rendered Monster (Liam Neeson) in order to come to terms with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) imminent death. It’s Pan’s Labyrinth-esque escapism, though less gothic and more colourful than the 2006 fantasy. Through the animated sequences in the film, their brash, painterly styles contrasting superbly with the sedate real world, O’Malley unearths parables on morality and blame that ease him towards accepting what the Monster refers to as ‘the truth behind his nightmare’. Whether these stories firmly relate to O’Malley’s sufferings when held up to scrutiny is questionable, but if you disregard their lack of focus, these segments serve as delightful interludes to the morbidity Bayona musters up in his primary narrative.

When the ‘truth behind his nightmare’ does finally reveal itself, however, these fantastical elements suddenly seem so distant. The film doesn’t need a wobbly subplot concerning bullies to conjure up the raw emotion Bayona is seeking; the film delivers on its smartly-paced buildup with its powerful, unexpected reveal, and Lewis MacDougall’s astonishingly convincing emotional release, rising above its genre’s ilk by managing to be emotionally devastating without being visibly manipulative.

-Gus Edgar

Arrival

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There seems to have been something of a sci-fi Renaissance recently, with each year supplying a groundbreaking hallmark of the genre. 2013 was Gravity, a film with unrivalled effects, visually astounding and constantly breathtaking. 2014 was Interstellar, offering intense cinematic and emotional spectacle. And 2015 was The Martian, giving us an inspiring appraisal of the good of humanity. 2016, then, can only belong to Arrival, a film that serves as a cry for intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi, not needing to rely on bucketloads of CGI or showy futuristic lingo.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with the weight of the world thrust upon her when twelve egg-shaped UFOs carrying aliens appear, dotted seemingly at random across the planet: she must translate their dialect in order to discover the purpose of their arrival before the threat of military retaliation is fulfilled. Assisting her is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who’s devoted to Banks as much as he is to his job. Her unorthodox approach to the task at hand is garnering results, but growing distrust and paranoia spread across the research camp and various governing bodies altogether threaten to derail the mission entirely.

The film functions as both a metaphor for the growing separation and antagonism between the world as a whole, and a philosophical insight towards many ideas that if I were to reveal them to you, would spoil the movie’s emotional impact. It is not necessarily, however, an alien flick. The aliens in Arrival serve as a vehicle for the film’s integral themes. That’s not to say that their presence isn’t worthwhile, but that venturing into this film in want of a gun-ho alien quasi-horror wouldn’t fulfill expectations.

Denis Villeneuve’s take is much more intellectual – but this is to be expected from a director with such a mature filmography. His influence on Arrival isn’t as tangible as usual – he instead allows the film’s superb script, written by Eric Heisserer, and based on Ted Chiang’s short story, The Story of Your Life, to prosper. It’s a wonderful script, made poignant and dramatic through the overbearing tension and uncertainty it creates, emphasised by the twisting narrative. Villeneuve’s role is to maintain these emotions, and he handles this incredibly effectively. Memories of Bank’s daughter, whom she lost to cancer, are intertwined in the story seamlessly, and he sustains the uncertainty behind both the unknown purpose of the aliens’ arrival, and their odd, potentially threatening behaviour.

Despite the less significant (though still just as important) role Villeneuve has to Arrival’s success, there’s still room for his directorial flourishes: he employs a visual trick, that was also used in one of his previous films, Enemy, to establish how entrenched Banks is in the alien language she’s trying to decipher. His record of creating visually interesting films doesn’t go amiss either; Roger Deakins may not be at the helm this time, but Bradford Young displays a keen eye for stunning visuals – a long take of clouds scrolling past the alien vessel during our first proper look at it is as beautiful as it is calculated. Slow pans of the ship’s surface during Banks’ introduction to its interior are particularly effective in conveying the alienness of the whole ordeal, and its power to overwhelm – which it indeed does, as we hear the diegetic sound of Banks’ heavy, stumbling breathing, amid Jóhann Jóhannsson’s droning, otherworldly score. The film as a whole manages to overwhelm, and astound, not necessarily with spectacle as in Gravity and Interstellar, but simply with a sharp, powerful script.

Amy Adams herself is remarkable as Banks, conveying her utter confusion and determination beautifully; although each other actor delivers serviceable performances, this is a film that belongs to her, her character saturated with complex philosophical ideas about humanity and its intent. The film often hinges on Banks’ reaction to revelations, and Adams certainly delivers.

Jeremy Renner’s character’s bum-note of a final line aside, Arrival is a cerebral, imaginative, emotionally satisfying sci-fi that bears potent metaphysical concepts and a tour-de-force performance from Amy Adams. It’s a brilliant, brilliant addition to an ever-evolving genre. I can’t wait for 2017’s sci-fi showpiece, whatever it is…

Nocturnal Animals

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Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) thoughts towards Nocturnal Animals hits it right on the nose: “It’s violent and it’s sad”. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ in this context is a typescript of Morrow’s ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first effort at a novel, and bears more than a few similarities to the way in which the couple broke up to be merely coincidental…

Morrow herself is an art gallery owner, specialising in an oddball raunch that dominates the screen during the film’s opening credits. She’s stranded in a loveless marriage to a hunky husband (Armie Hammer) who’s more occupied with work (and other women) than anything regarding his wife. Cue the ex-husband’s typescript, sent to Morrow at a time when she’s in desperate want of connection. A way to contact her ex again – just what she needs, right? Not quite.

The novel within a film plunges headfirst into a highway scene with a ferocious intensity that rivals Sicario’s border crossing scene last year. It’s a jagged, welcome tonal shift, tinged with uncertainty over what’s going to happen. In fact, the whole narrative of Nocturnal Animals – both the film itself and its titular typescript – is unpredictable, and we can’t help but sympathise with the main character’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) hapless plight in this thrilling revenge story.

Back in the real world – shot with fusty gusto – Morrow is mulling over the story and recollecting haunted memories of her prior life with her ex-husband. There’s a sense of disconnect, of lack of relevance, but suddenly parallels between their romance and the typescript’s narrative become apparent, building to a devastating final scene that’s as electrifying as it is inevitable. The film is endlessly evolving, bludgeoning past brutal plot points and descending into irresistible, dirty delirium, heightened by Abel Korzeniowski’s sublimely tempestuous score. Yet director Tom Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey give control to the chaos, with an assuredness applied to the kinetic camerawork, the brooding pans of musty citylife and desolate deserts. The danger and immorality on display really is tangible.

One source of danger comes in the form of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s terrifying and unhinged Ray Marcus, who torments Gyllenhaal and his fictional family. This is Johnson’ best performance of his career, committing to his character’s sleaziness and repugnancy, and preventing Ray from becoming caricaturish. Another brilliantly absurd character is the cop looking for him, played by Michael Shannon with straight-faced hilarity. He’s a character inflicted with lung cancer, who continues to smoke (“Well, yep, that’s how it works”), and nearly steals the show with his deadpan delivery and questionable morals. Other recognisable, or renowned actors, are relegated to the sidelines, however: Michael Sheen and Jena Malone each feature in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, but at least their fleeting moments are highlights.

I’ve seen this film twice now, which I suppose is testament to how the film grips – and then sinks its claws into you. It’s menacing, and bold, and each scene is displayed with enough unwavering confidence and dedication by Ford (save for one Gyllenhaal outburst) that it all holds together. That this is only his sophomoric effort, after his acclaimed ‘A Single Man’, is truly astonishing. He may not just be a fashion designer, but he uses his considerable expertise in that field to capture beautiful imagery and symbolic costume design, and boy, it works.

Ford has birthed a film that’s dripping with grime but presented with gloss, creating an almost ugly beauty that’s visually fascinating. It’s a savage study of an intricate relationship, furnished with the bravado of a director that knows how to handle a script that’s jet-black in both themes and humour, and bolstered by a blistering score and vivid camerawork.

Grave of the Fireflies

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For all the praise I’ve seen Studio Ghibli receive, I’ve never been all too interested in watching their animations. Aside from Spirited Away, which I saw, enjoyed and forgot about a fair few years back, my investment in any of the studio’s films has waned. So then, I realise I’ve made a horrible mistake. Recommended to me with the confidence that it’ll be a ‘cry-fest’ (Just look at the title!), Grave of the Fireflies has assuredly reinvigorated my interest in the studio’s peculiar, heartfelt animations that have a certain type of charm to them – a charm not found in any 3D animation that Disney Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks churn out.

The film takes place in Japan during the final few months of WWII, where American air raids tore through the Japanese towns and villages. It follows Seita, a 14 year-old boy, and Setsuko, Seita’s (very) little sister, through their travails to survive bombings, poverty and malnutrition. It begins by revealing that the two protagonists die during the course of the film – portrayed as spirits shrouded by a red hue, the opening is both harrowing and visually stunning in equal measure. Which really does sum up the film – devastating, though the emotional punch not as powerful as I expected, yet exceedingly beautiful and a perfect portrayal of both the horrors and the idyllic nature of the Japanese countryside.

The score used for Grave of the Fireflies is equally powerful, tragedy conveyed by simple melodies. It’s use brings many moments of genuine joy – Setsuko running around with a group of fireflies is an exceptionally heartwarming moment – but also accentuates incredibly touching sequences – Setsuko’s tear-jerking instances of happiness particularly moving.

That’s not to say that Grave of the Fireflies is a perfect movie. While the animation is fantastic in places, it’s similarly rough and shaky in others. The voice acting feels forced (well, at least the English version) as do many of the characters’ actions (Seita’s aunt’s resentment towards the two protagonists is too drastic a shift in her feelings towards them). And while Setsuko’s death is moving, the fact that the audience expects it negates some of its intended effect.

Yet these few negatives don’t burden this sweet Japanese animation drastically – it remains a touching story with a mesmerising animation style; one that has reintroduced me into the quirky world of Studio Ghibli.

– Gus Edgar