Film review – Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

Supernatural horror ‘Thelma’ begins with an unforgettable opening scene. A girl called Thelma, no more than 7 years old, is hunting with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). The man allows her to walk ahead of him, entranced by the sight of a deer and the prospect of its impending doom. Trond instead points the gun at his daughter’s head, with a expressive face that reads as both fear and temptation.

It’s an arresting opening shot that is hard feel anything but intrigue for. Why was a man willing to kill his own daughter? What sort of emotional termoil are they both experiencing? It’s brilliant filmmaking.

It is followed up with a long shot of a pedestrianised square. The viewer is essentially challenged to a game of ‘Guess Who The Main Character Is’. Eventually, the slow pan begins, finally focusing on Eili Harboe, who portrays the titular Thelma, some ten years after the opening scene.

Director Joachim Trier, in these opening shots, is warning us what he is about to do with his film – drawing us in slowly and leaving us guessing until he, by design, reveals what we need to know, with maximum impact.

The square, we learn, is at the University of Oslo, where Thelma has just begun her studies. A deeply-religious girl who refrains from drinking, she struggles to settle in and make friends. However, when she has a seizure in the middle of the study area of a library, she is helped by a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins).

Becoming increasingly friendly with Anja, Thelma begins to express herself more, eventually becoming physically attracted to her. However, her journey of self exploration doesn’t stop at her growing lustful emotions for Anja and she begins to worry about the causes of her seizures and the dark secrets that lie behind them.

What Trier has achieved with this story is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a visual wonder, full of memorable set-pieces that jump out of the screen and leave a lasting memory. A scene at the opera oozes with tension as Anja and Thelma search for each other’s hands in the safety of a dark public space. With the accompanying concerto raising the pace and increasing filling the auditorium with volumous classical music, Thelma begins to feel another seizure engulfing her mind. It’s a stressful thing to watch, and captures the threat she feels perfectly.

Harboe is the perfect casting for the title role. She has a naturally distant expression on her face that gives nothing away. It borders on cold, making her eventual emotional expressions feel genuinely surprising. When she finally kisses Anja, you can feel her blushing. She knows it goes against everything she has learned as a child and is scared and excited about her new discovery.

The flashbacks serve as a means to reveal to truth behind her story, what the seizures mean and the shocking reason her father was willing to murder her as a child. The make-up department has done a fantastic job of making these flashbacks believable, without trying too hard to make them look like the parents are caked in make-up – too often a failing of bigger-budget releases.

The culmination of the film hits like a crescendo, and Trier plays the audience perfectly with a balanced build up to the final pay-off.

This genuinely is an excellent film and one that should do well outside its home country. It has also been submitted as Norway’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, 11 years after Trier’s first feature film achieved the same accolade. Here’s hoping it goes one step further and makes the shortlist – it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and this will help ensure this happens.

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Film review – ការពារឧក្រិដ្ឋជន / Jailbreak (Jimmy Henderson, 2017)

Shot on a budget of just $260,000, Jimmy Henderson’s latest release ‘Jailbreak’ is an impressive and resourceful film that is far beyond the sum of its parts.

The film is set almost entirely in the Phak Kai Prison complex, where a small team of police officers are sent to deliver the notorious criminal Playboy (Savin Phillip) to his cells under the belief he is the leader of the notorious Butterfly Gang. Aware that he is going to reveal her true identity, real gang leader Madame Butterfly (Céline Tran) instigates a prison riot to attempt to capture and murder Playboy, which leaves our team of police – including Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our and Tharoth Sam – to fight their way out of the prison complex and avoid being killed.

London-based stuntman and actor Jean-Paul Ly was on hand to introduce the film before its screening at the London Film Festival. He has an illustrious stunt career, recently working on Lucy, Doctor Strange and Now You See Me 2. His role in Jailbreak was two-fold. Not only did he star in the picture but he also trained all the stunt team involved. “There is no action film industry in Cambodia, which means that there is no stunt actor industry in Cambodia,” he said, recollecting the project. “I said ‘Where are all the stunt people?’ and (producer Loy Te) said ‘There’s nobody any, so you’ll have to train extras!’, which I thought was a joke but he was deadly serious.” They trained every weekend for sixteen hours and ended up with 80 extras all capable of performing in action films.

The results are incredible, especially considering the background to the production. The bokator fighting style, one of the oldest traditional fighting systems in Cambodia, features heavily in the action sequences.

Te and Henderson enlisted Cambodian MMA champion Tharoth Sam as the sole female police officer. She’s capable of holding her own in a fight and is also responsible for most of the best one-liners, using great comic timing to stop the all-male cast dragging the film back into the 1980s.

Céline Tran also appears in her first action film role, following a successful career in the pornographic film industry. She’s a great antagonist as Madame Butterfly and clearly has a lot of fun in the role, eventually getting a one-on-one fight with Sam towards the end of the film.

The Cambodian action film industry is, essentially, in its infancy. With films like this and Jimmy Henderson’s previous effort Hanuman leading the light, there is every chance that we’ll see an swell of quality films over the coming years that will help to grow the industry.

If they can do this for $260,000, we can only imagine what they could do with a Hollywood budget.

Film review – Arabesque (Stanley Donen, 1966)

“Our only hope is to make it so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. This damning statement by director Stanley Donan about the film ‘Arabesque’, as recalled by cinematographer Christopher Challis in his 1995 memoirs ‘Are They Really So Awful?‘, explains quite a lot about the final product. It had reportedly already cost $400,000 to have the script rewritten several times, partly due to the casting of Gregory Peck instead of the preferred choice of Cary Grant in the lead role. The result is a film that is almost the definition of style over substance, with a feeling of a real missed opportunity to something truly special.

The confused and therefore confusing script centres around Professor David Pollack (Grant), an expert in ancient hieroglyphics. He is approached aggressively by Middle Eastern Prime Minister Hassan Jena (Carl During) and his ambassador to Great Britain, Mohammed Lufti (Harold Kasket), who offer him £20,000 to solve a hieroglyph-based riddle, the answer to which is highly urgent. Pollack is forced to work inside the mansion of shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel), where he also meets the infinitely distracting Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), though he quickly realises that he will be killed once he has solved the riddle and decides to escape, with Yasmin in tow, triggering a chase across the brilliantly-captured 1960s London.

Stanley Donen had risen in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s following a prolonged successful run of musical films, primarily with MGM. Having made his name as a Hollywood choreographer in the 1940s, he helmed such classics as On The Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957) and The Pajama Game (1957). He was, by the end of the 1950s, regarded as one of the great directors from the golden era of Hollywood.

Donen then set his base in London, a move that coincided with the breakdown of his marriage to Marion Marshall. This film is one of a handful that were produced during Donen’s British period, which defined a decade of his career throughout the 1960s. The period was a fruitful one, yielding such films as 1960 ‘Once More, with Feeling!‘ and ‘Surprise Package’ (both 1960), ‘Charade’ (1963), ‘Two for the Road and ‘Bedazzled (both 1967) and the now-hard-to-find camp comedy ‘Staircase‘ (1969).

Arabesque‘ could be seen as Donen’s attempt to make a film in the style of Hitchcock, with the feeling of a political suspense mirror reminiscent of ‘Torn Curtain‘, which had been released in 1966. If it was, it was a failure, with any feeling of suspense being lost amongst a clumsy plot that is tricky to follow.

For all the failings of the plot, the sheer beauty of Sophia Loren cannot be escaped. Dressed in the exquisite fashion of Christian Dior, she is the perfect example of elegance in film. Indeed, it is a point the studio and director were clearly keen to underline, with a special note during the opening credits that reads “Miss Sophia Loren’s wardrobe specially created by Christian Dior”. One can’t help but contrast this with the epic failure of Donen’s final box-office release ‘Blame it on Rio’, which feels comparatively devoid of any artistic merit and relies on smut and nudity to progress the plot.

To begin to enjoy this film, one must suspend the entirely noticeable fact that there are a handful of Arabic characters that feature in the film, none of whom are of Arabic descent. It’s something that simply isn’t commonplace in 2017, which may be jarring to the modern viewer, though cinephiles will surely have to cope with much worse as they explore further back into the history of cinema.

Whilst the first two acts plod from plot twist to excruciating plot twist at a terrifying rate that feels both too fast and too slow to elicit any kind of positive response, the same cannot be said of the final act. It is here that we are finally rewarded for sticking with the film and are rewarded with a chase scene across some famous landmarks that feels as spectacular as any of Donen’s dance routines of his early career.

The question remains whether or not the audience should be made to work for around 90 minutes for such a pay-off, but regardless of this fact there is enough going on here to warrant a viewing. It’s not so much style-over-substance and style-then-substance. If you’re happy for this imbalance as the two factors are tragically compartmentalised, then you’ll find a fairly decent piece of cinema awaits you.

Film review – Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

WARNING: This review contains moderate spoilers of a good film. Just go watch it. Then come back.

Taylor Sheridan’s first mainstream foray into directing comes in the form of Wind River, a low-budget film that makes good use of some astute casting to harness a subtle script to leave an impact way beyond the sum of its parts.

Part murder mystery, part western thriller, it plods along at a pace that, at times, risks feeling simply like a better-than-average TV investigation drama. Then, with a well-executed flashback as the introduction to the final act, the film turns into a classic western, complete with Mexican stand-off and the resulting bloodbath. It’s the payoff for a steady build-up that is well worth the wait.

The plot centres around an unsettling and mysterious opening sequence, where we follow professional huntsman Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as he discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, USA. Her body is frozen in the snow and there are clear signs of rape. She is without shoes. FBI agent Jane Banner is brought in to investigate, quickly forming an unlikely bond with Lambert to trace and track the truth.

Wyoming is the unorthodox setting for the story, captured beautifully by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Much of the film is set in mountainous terrain and the snow-covered land becomes integral to the plot. But as picturesque as the environment is, the bloody and violent story playing over the top trumps it.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis team up again to provide a moody and fitting soundtrack, shadowing the film rather than becoming overbearing.

It’s a gritty conclusion to Sheridan’s trilogy – following Sicario and Hell Or High Water – and one that absolutely does its predecessors justice. It may not feel as brash and immediate as either film, but the three films feel like they are a strong body of work and wholly played out in the same universe. As a result, Taylor Sheridan is holding his own with both David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve – a sign he has the ability to keep delivering the goods.

Film review – The Circle (James Ponsoldt, 2017)

“Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.”

So says Eamon Bailey, Tom Hanks’s character in the new science-fiction thriller The Circle. Well, you should take his advice. Knowing that this film is one you should watch for yourself is better than believing the dismissive reviews, because the fast-tracking to direct-to-streaming does a vast disservice to film that is both thought provoking and well executed.

The film stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young woman who begins a career at the titular company The Circle, working as a help desk assistant. She is helped through the door by an old friend called Annie (Karen Gillan), who has a considerable level of seniority at the company. It is headed up by the Steve Jobs-like Eamon Bailey (Hanks), a believably powerful visionary and motivational speaker at the top of the company. We follow Mae as she journeys into the company, becoming the saccharine champion for its upcoming products and turning herself into a genuine celebrity by becoming “transparent” and having live videos of her life 24/7 on the platform SeeChange.

It’s like she looking in a Black Mirror

When I first saw the trailer for The Circle, I was sat in an AMC cinema in New York. It looked absolutely fantastic at the time and I’d already added it my my mental list of films I needed to see this year. I was, therefore, shocked to find out that it was side-stepping cinemas here in the U.K. and heading straight to Netflix. The production and distribution companies will certainly have their reasons for doing this – namely the critical planning and commercial failure in the U.S.A. – but I can’t help but think that it hasn’t been given a fair chance.

If you’re a fan of the Charlie Brooker series ‘Black Mirror’, you will be forgiven for feeling a sense of familiarity with the film. Not only is the story exactly the kind of thing that would be covered by Brooker’s brilliant series – indeed the recent episode Nosedive is a clear touch point – but the visual realisation feels like it is part of the same universe. As the page fills up with comments, likes, stats and charts, engulfing Mae as she carries on with her normal day-to-day life, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a common element across the two productions. That said, Dave Eggers’s original novel was released in 2013 so it is quite feasible that it served as inspiration to Brooker, though the visual similarities are inescapable.

Tom Hanks plays Steve Jobs

This is a film that utilises Watson’s undeniable talents as an actress to good effect. Her character goes on a journey and Watson’s performance allows us to join her on it, despite some convenient jumps in her development. Her changing relationship with her family and best friends Annie (Gillan) and Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) are the backbone of the film. There is, of course, an extra poignancy with her parents as both Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly unfortunately passed away after filming was completed.

John Boyega, through no fault of his own, is something of a let down. His character, Ty, is one of the more obvious loose ends in the film. There is almost certainly a cut of this film that exists with more Boyega included. Instead, we are left with a character that looks on with menace in the background as the plot develops around him. His character is a co-founder of The Circle but he has fallen out of love with what his company has become. There’s a lot to work with there. Why not have a meaty argument with Hanks’s Eamon to reinforce his feelings?

This is not the Star Wars and Harry Potter crossover you were looking for

Indeed, there also seems to be a whole segment dropped from the film where Annie spirals into depression following Mae’s developing successes within The Circle, which left me wondering if I’d missed a whole segment out of the film (I hadn’t). Her jump from focused career woman to nervous wreck happens in an instant, apparently in the space of one short seminar. It’s this kind of thing that makes me wonder exactly who was calling the shots on the editing and whether they’d be better suited as a tree surgeon.

The 18-35 market in the U.K. would have been excited by this kind of film and it’s a failing of the marketing research that this wasn’t spotted. Ironically, I’m confident they have looked at analytical data and spotted the popularity of ‘Black Mirror’ on U.K. Netflix, which has led them to releasing it directly on to the platform. It’s just disappointing that this will never be released at cinemas.

To look down the listings at my local cinema and see a summer schedule full of mindless sequels, I can’t help but think the audience’s lack of imagination is being encouraged and nurtured by the larger studios’ inability to take risks.

I’m sad for everyone involved that this film won’t get a wider audience and I’m sad it was critically panned. There is an important message about modern life and the role of social media here. It’s a warning. 

Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Film review – Headshot (Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, 2016)

Indonesian action film Headshot received its UK premiere on Thursday night at Mayhem Film Festival. It may have started late but the action came thick and fast, treating the audience to an experience typical of the directing duo.

The Mo Brothers – Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto – have carved out a unique blend of action-horror in their previous efforts Macabre (2009) and Killers (2014), both of which have received a lot of attention around the world. This film sees them casting Iko Uwais (The Raid) as a man who wakes up in hospital with memory loss and a past that is rapidly threatening to catch up with him.

It is a perhaps more Transporter than Bourne, with scant attention to the finer details of character development and more time spent with Uwais as he kicks, punches and shoots his way through an army of bad guys to get to the chief druglord Lee (Sunny Pang). It’s fun, albeit unrealistic – a fact underlined by the shooting ability of the henchmen (they really need some firing practice).

Headshot

Arguably this film isn’t really a horror, sitting more in the action thriller camp, but many of the scenes are littered with gruesome breaks and gory splats, from which a lot of the entertainment is derived. There were a few unfortunately humorous moments due to the over-zealous subtitles that often simply described what was happening on the screen, which broke up some of the more serious scenes.

It is a shallow film and one that probably won’t have much crossover appeal for people who don’t intentionally seek out non-mainstream Asian cinema. Those that do find it will be treated to a couple of hours of solid entertainment, though may struggle to remember any highlights shortly after the final credits roll.