The Florida Project – A child’s view of the world makes for a vibrant, magical tale

•March 17, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Opening on a pastel pink backdrop and to the thumping strains of ‘Celebrate’ by Kool & The Gang, The Florida Project immediately sets a joyful tone for what’s to follow. It is an introduction that perfectly reflects the long fun-filled days Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends have ahead of them, the kids happily running around the cheap Florida motel they call home, making their own adventures and causing havoc for the other residents. Yet while this approach gives Sean Baker’s film its unique, endless charm, it is also something that makes the horrible reality of their situation all the more impactful when it does begin to rear its ugly head.

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in The Florida Project

Shot mostly from the kids’ point-of-view, we follow them around as they pass the time any way they can: playing hide and seek, eating ice-cream, even trying to get tips from passing tourists. Like Baker’s previous film Tangerine (2015), the writer-director keeps things loose and fun, obvious improvisation adding to the verisimilitude of these scenes and also accounting for most of the laughs. In particular any scene with Moonee is an absolute joy to watch, Brooklynn Prince an easy and mighty presence onscreen despite being only 6-years-old. She even holds her own against Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the kind yet fierce motel manager who the kids enjoy making life hell for on a regular basis.

While the laughs draw us into the story and the kids’ wonderful, playful world, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch begin to cleverly drip-feed moments in that reveal the full magnitude of the situation facing most of the residents there. From bedbug-ridden rooms, to the threat of evictions, we begin to understand how the motel is a literal last resort for them, each living hand to mouth and just barely getting by. Showing this through the children’s eyes makes this all the more startling to see, the normalcy of it for them revealing how long they have lived like this. A scene in which Moonee nonchalantly walks up to a charity van giving out free food shows how this is just a regular routine for her, as is helping her Mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) sell cheap, wholesale perfume outside a nearby bigger, wealthier hotel. Anything they can do to keep a roof over their heads.

Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project

That this is all happening within metres of these other, richer residencies and in the shadow of Disney World – one of the most commercial, profit-driven places in the country – is a sickening irony that Baker makes apparent. In a brilliant touch, on more than one occasion we see helicopters taking off practically in the motel’s car park, Halley and the kids often sticking their middle fingers up at them, making the unfairness of it seem almost like a cruel joke. The motel they live in itself is a cheap, vivid purple version of the Disney World castle – the kids’ own magical kingdom, as they could never afford to visit the real one. In these moments Baker’s energetic direction and Alexis Zabe’s vibrant cinematography show us the beauty the children see around them, even in poverty. Abandoned houses become open worlds ready for exploring and a field of cows their own private safari. And in one scene, Moonee takes her friends on a tour of her motel home, inventing fantastical stories about each of the residents that sadly sting with a hint of the truth. It is this childlike glee that not only keeps us hooked, but that gives The Florida Project an astonishing, affecting depth – a realism rarely felt in films portraying similar subjects.

Baker is careful to keep this lightness of touch throughout, even as the harshness of their lives becomes more noticeable to us. But moments where the dark reality does encroach on Moonee’s little bubble of imagination are the hardest to watch, the innocence on her face apparent as she tries to process exactly what is happening. This is also true for Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a girl living in another motel that is in a slightly better condition, but which still houses those with little money. The two find comfort in each other away from the adults, sharing secrets and their favourite places to hang out, their friendship a joy to see naturally growing onscreen. However, it is Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite’s brilliant onscreen chemistry that makes The Florida Project’s story that much more impactful, their mother-daughter relationship unconventional, yet no less poignant. Vinaite is exceptional as Halley, her no-bullshit attitude and rage against the hypocrisy of it all distressing to watch as she finds it increasingly difficult to make rent money. It is an endless cycle that is dragging them down, but which Halley will always strive to escape from for the sake of her daughter – no matter what.

The Florida Project - somewhere over the rainbow...

It is this striking realism that makes The Florida Project one of the rawest, affecting films you will see in a long time. Balancing laughs with graveness takes talent, however it is one Baker has bravely done to excellent effect. Building to a heartbreaking finale that revels in the power of the imagination, the feeling of terrifying desperation that follows the characters stays with you for a long time, something that is made all the more painful and real by showing it from the point-of-view of the most innocent of lives. Powerful, magical cinema at its very best, and absolutely essential viewing.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix:


square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Best Films of 2017

•December 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Every year it gets harder and harder to pick just ten films to name as part of the square-eyed-geek best releases of the year. And 2017 certainly was an excellent time for cinema, from big blockbusters, to smaller independent films, to straight-to-streaming releases. As previous square-eyed-geek top tens, the ones that make it into this list must have a UK release date in 2017 (hence no Lady Bird or The Shape of Water), but no other rules apply. So without further ado, here are the releases that made 2017 sparkle:

10. La La Land

La La Land (2016)

This was released so early in the year that it’s easy to forget it even existed. Yet cast your minds back and you’ll be reminded of a dazzling, toe-tapping, heart-warming piece of cinema that has one of the most astounding openings of any 2017 film. With great performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, this becomes more than just a touching boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love story, the memorable songs and superb choreography transporting us to Mia and Sebastian’s world and showing us the ups and downs of their growing relationship. Yet as Damien Chazelle’s film takes an unexpected turn later on, this transforms into a tale we can all relate to in one way or another, making its final frames all the more impactful to watch.

9. Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)

Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film is simple yet stunning cinema at its absolute best. This coming-of-age story which follows one boy from childhood to difficult teenage years to complicated adult life is mesmerising, Jenkins’ lyrical direction and beautiful cinematography washing over us and making us part of Chiron’s challenging world. As a tale of life and love, Jenkins nails every beat and moment too, deftly showing Chiron’s journey as he tries to understand his feelings and come to terms with his own true identity. The supporting turns from Naomie Harris as his drug-addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as a man who takes Chiron under his wing are just as entrancing, but it is Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes performances as Chiron at the different stages in his life that make the biggest impressions.

8. Okja

Okja (2017)

Bong Joon-ho’s film about a girl called Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) and her super pig friend is an irreverent delight from start to finish. Set in the not-too-distant-future, this tale about a newly invented breed of ‘super pig’ (basically giant pigs) leads Mija and Okja on an adventure to the big city after Okja wins a competition for being the biggest super pig in the world, a prize that attracts the attention of a villainous corporation (lead by Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal deliciously hamming it up – no pun intended) and a group of animal rights activists. From excellent action sequences, bizarre humour, and a scathing commentary on the food industry itself, Bong Joon-ho holds up a mirror to our own world and dares us to question our own eating habits, with a brutally honest ending that will punch you in the gut. But what really impresses are the little moments between Mija and the entirely CGI character of Okja, the poignancy just as touching as any real onscreen relationship this year.

7. Get Out

Get Out (2017)

Mainstream horror always receives tough criticism, particularly those films that have an aspect of social commentary about them. Yet Jordan Peele’s film is one that manages to do just that in an engaging, effective way while also becoming a huge box office success. Simple in its execution but daring in what it has to say, Peele’s story follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he takes a trip to meet his girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) at their lavish family home. Chris guesses that his being black will raise a few eyebrows with this white upper-class family, yet soon things take a turn for the even weirder, Chris wondering whether his increasing paranoia is all in his mind or something even greater. Peele’s expert writing keeps a steady pace while leading us down one route, before pulling the rug out from under us and delivering one of the creepiest and unexpected twists ever, resulting in a horror that unpleasantly sticks in your mind.

6. Raw

Raw (2016)

This terrifying, disconcerting film gets under your skin in the best possible way, from the very first frames up until its horrid conclusion. Justine (Garance Marillier) heads off to veterinarian school, soon finding that it’s more than just studying, the brutal hazing rituals putting her strength to the test on a daily basis, especially when she is forced to eat meat despite her being a vegetarian. Writer-director Julia Ducournau builds an uneasy atmosphere, dropping sly hints as to where this might be heading as Justine starts to feel unwell and develop terrible rashes on her skin. Yet even that can’t prepare you for Raw’s full twisted story. Filled with beautiful, yet disturbing imagery that will haunt you for days after, as well as a spine-chilling soundtrack, this is unsettling stuff that is made all the more horrifying by Marillier’s multi-layered leading performance. And as Ducournau’s first feature film, it is one of the most assured cinematic works this year.

5. Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Luca Guadagnino’s enchanting film takes us on a beautifully immersive coming-of-age journey alongside the young Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who finds his world inexplicably shaken by a visitor (Armie Hammer) who comes to work with Elio’s Father (Michael Stuhlbarg) over the summer. As Elio and Oliver’s relationship begins to steadily grow against the stunning sun-drenched Italian backdrop, Guadagnino wisely focuses on the quiet moments between the pair as much as the times when they do eventually bear their souls to each other, making for an almost mesmerising realism that is felt throughout. A magnificent film that revels in the true poignancy of its tale and which will have you fighting back tears towards the end, particularly during a hugely powerful scene between Chalamet and the incredible Stuhlbarg.

4. The Big Sick

The Big Sick (2017)

Written by Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Emily V. Gordon, this true story about a guy and a girl who fall in and out of love, only for her to suddenly become seriously ill, is as funny as it is touching. Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan’s great onscreen chemistry and director Michael Showalter’s lightness of touch make this unconventional rom-com surprisingly realistic, yet it is Nanjiani and Gordon’s perfect writing that creates a lasting impact, so much so that when it does end you feel almost lost. With Nanjiani proving himself to be a brilliant leading man able to handle both the comedy and poignancy of such a story, as well as superb supporting turns from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, this is an effective, moving film and one you’ll want to revisit time and time again.

3. Thor: Ragarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

While Marvel have always reveled in the fun moments of their films, Taika Waititi brings the humour to the front and centre of this entry into the Thor trilogy, allowing Chris Hemsworth to really let his hair down as the God of Thunder (or have it shaved off entirely). The plot might be the same old quest to defeat a big baddie after ultimate power (this time Hela who wants to take control of Asgard), but a new setting (the planet of Sakaar) and the return of some familiar faces (Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk) make this a blast from start to finish. Plus the new characters thrown into the mix are hard not to fall in love with, especially Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Cate Blanchett as the villainous Hela and (of course) Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster.

2. Free Fire

Free Fire (2016)

Ben Wheatley’s 70s set film about a gun deal gone wrong is a hilarious, frenetic action thriller that is perfectly and admirably constructed. The one location (a dingy warehouse) adds to the tension and the threat of those deafening shootouts, the humour becoming deliciously slapstick in some moments as each of the characters tries to save their own skin. A stellar cast adds to the fun, with standouts being Jack Reynor’s reckless lackey, Armie Hammer’s suave businessman and Sharlto Copley’s South African arms dealer. Expertly paced throughout and with superb direction from Wheatley, this is a film that is never less than gripping, and which demands repeat viewings.

1. The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017)

The power of childhood imagination is at the forefront of Sean Baker’s film, and something that makes this tale of life on the margins of society all the more devastating to watch. Following the adorable but mischievous Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) as they run riot around the motels they call home, Baker’s story revels in the daily exploits of these kids as they play and laugh, the threat of poverty hanging just on the peripheries and something they have obviously learnt to live with. Yet as Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite – astounding) finds it increasingly difficult to make the weekly rent money the motel manager needs (the incredible Willem Dafoe in a brilliant supporting role), Moonee’s sunny world starts to come apart at the seams, even if she doesn’t always see it. Filled with genuinely funny moments, mesmerising cinematography that shows the beauty of places we wouldn’t normally stop to look at, and a feeling of spontaneity which keeps the realism of the story of utmost importance, this is a stunning piece of cinema that builds to a magical, albeit harrowing conclusion – one that you will find it difficult to recover from. An incredible, captivating piece of cinema: which is why it’s my number one film of 2017.

(Those that just missed out on the square-eyed-geek top ten: The Disaster Artist, Dunkirk, Toni Erdmann, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, My Life as a Courgette, The Red Turtle, Lady Macbeth, Baby Driver, It).

So that’s it for another year. There’s already some films on the horizon in 2018 that are sure to light up our screens in the best way possible, such as Annihilation, Black Panther, You Were Never Really Here, Isle of Dogs, A Quiet Place, Ocean’s 8 and Avengers: Infinity War. Happy New Year everyone! And I hope that 2018 has lots of great things in store for you.

(Think something is missing from the top ten? Leave a comment below!).

The Big Sick – An unconventional love story with a big heart

•November 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

‘Rom-com’ is a genre term many still think of with contempt. Yet for a while now, modern productions have been reinventing this particular film world, turning the usual tropes upside down and delivering great films such as Knocked Up (2007), Bridesmaids (2011) and Trainwreck (2015) – films that manage to find that difficult balance between humour and poignancy. The Big Sick (2017) is the latest film that walks the fine line between laughter and tears, and is more memorable and impactful than any recently seen.

The Big Sick (2017)

A big slice of this is to do with the story itself – a tale that is not only effectively told, but very much true. Based on the real-life relationship between Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who both wrote the screenplay, this is the usual boy meets girl and falls in love deal, the couple soon finding inevitable obstacles getting in the way of their happiness. However the things preventing them from being together are more complex than usual here, with Kumail’s Muslim upbringing and strict family dictating that he must keep with tradition and marry a Pakistani girl, which to Emily’s horror has prevented him from telling them about her. Then things take a turn for the even worse when Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) falls suddenly ill and is placed in a medically induced coma. Soon, Kumail’s days are filled with long stretches in a hospital waiting room staring at the walls, all the while trying to decide just what the future may hold – a future that Emily might not even be a part of.

Those familiar with director Michael Showalter’s previous film, Hello, My Name is Doris (2015), will already know how adept he is at mixing comedy with drama. An unexpected delight that was hilarious and touching in equal measure, Doris was also striking for how it presented a version of romance not always seen onscreen, Showalter turning the idea of an older female protagonist wanting love into an attainable possibility, and one we very much rooted for. Showalter uses the same formula here for another unconventional narrative, beginning The Big Sick with general rom-com lightness as Kumail and Emily’s relationship is established and steadily grows, pulling us into their lives in an impressively natural way before the real issues come to bear. By then we are truly hooked into their world, invested in their story and tearing up at every heart-breaking bit of news about Emily’s condition that Kumail and her ever-attentive parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) are given.

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick

That plot obviously adds a powerful weight to the film, but it is actually the writing itself that creates the most impact onscreen. The relationship between Kumail and Emily is completely immersive, the dialogue easily zipping back and forth between them, as one would imagine the couple to be in real life. Everyday scenes at the start feel completely organic (and probably are), as if we really are opening a window into their lives and looking in as they carry out everyday activities like watching films or going shopping together. This is something wholly backed-up by Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Kazan, both brilliant presences and with an easy chemistry that makes scenes between them a joy to watch. Kazan makes Emily a grounded, believable character, preventing her from becoming too sweet or kooky, as often happens with female roles in rom-coms such as this. And Nanjiani is charming without being smarmy, even when he’s picking up women in bars with cheesy chat-up lines. He easily switches between the comedic and darker parts of the film, particularly standing out in the later, serious moments, his smiling face crumbling every time another setback is thrown his way, whether that be in his flailing career as a stand-up comedian or his family’s constant barrage of Pakistani women they want him to marry. Yet it is in the portrayal of his relationship with Emily that he truly shines, his heart visibly breaking every time her condition worsens or when he’s forced to the back of a room to listen in while Emily’s parents are given news he both is, and isn’t, entitled to hear.

Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in The Big Sick

It is when Emily’s mother and father enter the picture that things become even more complicated for Kumail, not least for the fact that these are two people he never expected or wanted to meet (which they are well aware of). It is also here that one of the film’s more unexpected relationships starts to flourish with a perfect, absorbing realism, Kumail slowly turning their contempt for him around and finding them to be a stark contrast to his own strict but loving parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff). Even Terry (Romano) and Beth (Hunter) have their own issues though, a point that could have felt tacked on to the story, yet with the emotional gravitas Romano and Hunter bring makes it necessary and realistic. Romano does caring, sympathetic Dad brilliantly, his monotone, dry responses making for some of the greatest laughs of the film, while Hunter delivers one of the best turns out of the secondary cast with a fiery performance that lights up the sad and the funnier moments equally (with one highlight taking part during one of Kumail’s stand-up shows).

While Kumail is trying to win over someone else’s parents, his own sadly seem about to push him away in the name of tradition. This is another strand to The Big Sick that makes it stand out from recent rom-coms, and an idea that could have unwisely been portrayed in an over-excessive, or even preachy way. Instead Nanjiani uses his own background and presence in the story to deftly explore these issues of culture clashes concisely and without prejudice, him and Gordon looking at it from many different angles. Although Kumail’s situation is devastating, no-one is demonised or admonished, Gordon and Nanjiani keen to show how arranged marriages can actually work for some – another option for people looking for love, however unconventional that may seem to others. In the same way, Showalter is careful to present these ideas without ever being patronising or resorting to easy stereotypes to get a quick laugh, something many comedies are often guilty of doing.

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick

With this, as well as the many other narrative threads, there could have been a danger of detracting from the bittersweet love story at the heart of The Big Sick. However, Showalter ensures these other plot points are kept in balance throughout, never losing sight of their relationship and using these other strands to better build a fully fleshed-out, realistic world onscreen. The obvious verisimilitude of Gordon and Nanjiani’s situation adds a great deal to this, as does their pitch-perfect writing which is at often times hilarious, and sometimes desperately upsetting. With superb performances added to the mix, and a strong lead in Nanjiani, this is an enchanting film from start to finish, so much so that when it does end, it is almost jarring. As the credits roll, you’ll find yourself eager to know what happened next, and then what happened even further down the line after that. And it isn’t often that a rom-com, even a great one, makes you wonder that.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix:

Mindhorn – “It’s truth time!” for Julian Barratt’s hilarious fictional detective

•September 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Mindhorn (2016) is a character immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with cop shows from the 80s. From his leather jacket and turtleneck sweater, to his flash, fast car and beautiful girl on his arm, he is the very epitome of these TV detectives, albeit with the added ability of a bionic eye that lets him literally detect lies (coining his wonderful catchphrase: “It’s truth time!”). It’s the perfect recipe for success, both for the show and leading man Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt), who is at the height of fame when we first meet him. However, a disastrous TV interview during which Richard insults the whole of the Isle of Man (the setting for the show) and an ill-advised decision to head to Hollywood, quickly sees his star begin its slow, inevitable descent.

Julian Barratt as Detective Mindhorn...

Cut to 25 years later and the actor is living alone in a tiny flat in Walthamstow, his age and weight has caught up to him, and his luxurious hair has been replaced by a cheap wig. It is this rock-bottom version of Richard that writers Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby recognise is ripe for comedy gold, as they show the one-time famous actor desperately and hilariously trying to reclaim some of the relevance he had all those years ago, whether that be by taking part in dubious casting calls, or advertising orthopaedic socks (a job now gone to rival John Nettles). So when Richard gets an offer from the Isle of Man police force to speak to a murderous criminal who thinks Mindhorn is real, Richard jumps at the chance, ready to squeeze everything he can out of this brilliant PR opportunity.

And squeeze he does as soon as he arrives back on the island, Barratt and Farnaby having fun with the notion of a man so bloated on his own ego and sense of fame that he can’t see how irrelevant he now is. Oblivious to the gaping mouths and incredulous stares that he induces, Richard swans around the police station (in glorious slo-mo and accompanied by the sax-ridden Mindhorn TV theme) making demands and treating it like his own personal dressing room, even though he’s only there to answer a phone call. Richard is so full of himself that he even believes he can slip back into the arms of his old flame and co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis), despite her now being with Clive (Simon Farnaby), Richard’s old stuntman. These scenes between Richard and Clive, or rather Barratt and Farnaby, are some of the funniest in the film, the two verbally sparring back and forth in brilliant moments that often seem unscripted (and probably were). The fact that Barnaby plays Clive with a ludicrous Dutch accent and often wears nothing but a pair of tight denim cut-offs only adds to the hilarity and the suitably bizarre tone felt throughout the rest of the film.

Clive (Simon Farnaby), Richard Thorncroft's new rival

With a sense of self-worth as big as his gut and the knowledge that he’d step on anyone to get back to the top, Richard Thorncroft could have easily been turned into a hateful character. But despite his dubious personality, Barratt excels at creating a man who is at once hilarious because of these flaws, yet also easy to sympathise with, a hint of pain and frustration often seen on his Richard’s weathered face as he comes across another setback in life. This tragi-comic tone is also noticeable throughout the rest of Mindhorn, particularly in the comparison of the Richard of the TV show era (recounted to us at the top of the film in perfectly grainy VHS footage) and Richard as he is now – a stark and immediate juxtaposition that while hysterical, adds a definite poignant edge as well. It is this undercurrent of melancholy that gives the film its heft, preventing it from becoming just another throwaway comedy.

Director Sean Foley is still keen to maintain a lightness of touch throughout the film however, keeping proceedings from becoming too dark and revelling in the many jokes that keep flying as Richard finds himself in more and more trouble. While the first two parts are entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny, there is a point towards the end of the second act when the film does lose momentum – a slight flaw in an otherwise tremendous film. This is soon forgotten about when we reach the last act though, the pace suddenly jumpstarted again as we begin to head to its superb side-splitting conclusion. It is here that Mindhorn really comes together, the film very much wearing its 80s TV influences on its sleeve as it descends into the usual fight scenes, car chases and shootouts, albeit in a brilliantly skewed way. It also features one of the funniest scenes of the whole film as Richard is given an unwelcome…update. Mindhorn 2.0 if you will.

Essie Davis as Patricia, Richard's old flame...

While this film is a magnificent comedy and one which is destined to become a cult classic, there will be many who compare it to that other famous British character whose life also had a rise and fall. Indeed, the comparisons to Alan Partridge are easy to make yet impossible to ignore. A man trying to reclaim his fame and alienating more people on the way? – very Alan. Even Steve Coogan himself appears here as a character who once played Mindhorn’s sidekick, and who now has his own inexplicably successful spinoff show. However Barratt is able to avoid the pitfall of repetition, here creating another iconic character who is all the more memorable for his funny yet anguished performance – something that adds a surprising layer of realism in amongst the more odd moments of the film. Barratt and Farnaby’s excellent script also makes this an instant hit in its own right, with the end result being a hilarious and endlessly quotable film that would more than hold up in repeat viewings, even if the pace does let it down in the middle. There hasn’t been any talks of sequels yet, but I sincerely hope that Mindhorn does return to the screen in the near future. I’d be more than excited for a little more “truth time”.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix:

The Hunt – A brutal depiction of small town paranoia

•August 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The main goal of the Dogme 95 movement was to create affecting, memorable films by focusing on story, acting and a natural filmmaking style in order to get to the truth of the narrative. It was Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) that was first created following this manifesto, this powerful portrait of a family with harrowing secrets given a startling ferocity by the organic Dogme style. Vinterberg wasn’t to have a film of similar success until The Hunt (2012), an Oscar-nominated piece that with its higher production values seemed to be a million miles from the Dogme movement the Danish filmmaker had founded. On closer inspection though, it still contains the same ideas and themes that would give Dogme its reputation – an aspect that has given it a chilling impact still felt when watching it today.

The Hunt (2012)

While Festen (aka. The Celebration) focused on a family unit slowly breaking down in the midst of accusations, The Hunt focuses on the unravelling of the life of one man in particular. Except this time the accusations are caused by a wrongly uttered word and the imaginations of both children and adults run wild. Writer-director Vinterberg is keen to slowly build to this devastation though, first introducing us to the small Danish town that serves as the backdrop to the story, as well as the close group of male friends at the heart of it who enjoy nothing more than hunting and drinking. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is one of this group, a teacher at the local nursery and someone well-liked and respected by the whole community. He also has a close bond with Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of the girls at the nursery and the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). This bond is suddenly torn in Klara’s eyes though when Lucas rejects a gift from her, and with her feelings hurt she unfortunately says something awful in front of the wrong person.

It is then that The Hunt becomes a film all about the spread of rumours and paranoia, the suspicions about Lucas suddenly causing the whole village to see him in a new, starkly horrifying light. That gradual build at the beginning of the film makes what follows all the more shocking, Klara’s misspoken words coming out of nowhere and setting into motion an avalanche that simply can’t be stopped, especially when further evidence of Lucas’ wrong-doings begin to pile up. Every new revelation is a punch in the gut to him and to us, Lucas at first hitting back and trying to clear his name, yet his resolve slowly crumbling as time goes on. Mikkelsen’s portrayal makes Lucas’ situation all the more tragic, his face a steady mixture of confusion, pain and fragility from the moment he first learns of the accusation, all the way through the film to a later scene during a Church service, which is both beautifully shot and unbearably tragic.

Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) is comforted by her mother Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing)...

Vinterberg and fellow scriptwriter Tobias Lindholm dig deeper than the simple story of one man disgraced though, choosing to make this as much about his accusers and how others close to him are irreversibly affected, such as Lucas’ son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) who is made into a pariah for merely associating with his own father. Vinterberg and Lindholm also focus on Klara herself, a child who is both naïve of the situation she has caused and knows she has done something wrong, but who no-one listens to when she tries to put her mistake right. This idea of her being an innocent child yet knowing more than people think is brilliantly backed-up by the strikingly natural performance Vinterberg coaxes from Wedderkopp, who seems wise beyond her years in some scenes and incredibly young and small at others, such as when she is first confronted about what she said, Klara simply sniffing and nodding along to the questions so she can stay out of trouble and go outside and play again. It is one of the greatest child performances ever captured on film, and another aspect that makes this dark and unflinching narrative all the more crushing – another person’s life ruined by the situation created, partly because of other people’s interference.

It is this scope to The Hunt’s narrative that gives the overall film a power that makes it impossible to forget, similar to Vinterberg’s portrayal of Festen’s tale. While that film’s impact was immediate due to its distinct style, to a certain extent that same Dogme method is present here too, albeit in a subtler way. Vinterberg treats each moment with a stunning naturalness in order to let the performances breathe, giving it a realism that often makes it difficult to watch. Scenes between Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen (a Festen alumni) particularly reflect this, their portrayals of two best friends slowly driven apart devastating and poignant. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography also has an interesting naturalness to it in some moments, the camera deftly capturing Lucas’ story alongside a pervading darkness that settles across every scene – a murkiness that hints at the communities own poisonous thoughts and responses to the situation, and a feeling that is present even in the final moments.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) shares a moment with his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm)...

Few films get under your skin in the way The Hunt does, its honest reflection of how a rumour can spread like a devastating virus shocking yet gripping. It is also an intricate look at a delicate subject, while at the same time a piece that is careful to hold no single individual to blame – a viewpoint that gives this a depth and verisimilitude rarely seen onscreen. Absolutely essential viewing that still packs a punch today.

Free Fire – Bullets and jokes fly fast in Ben Wheatley’s latest

•August 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Free Fire (2016)

A dingy warehouse in the middle of nowhere doesn’t seem like the most obvious place for an action-thriller shootout, or even the most ambitious setting for a film. Yet although Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire barely leaves the four walls of this abandoned building, his inventive story, brilliant cast of characters and superb direction has resulted in a riotous, exhilarating film that is a joy to watch from start to finish, even if you’ll sometimes be doing so from between your fingers.

Set in the 1970s, Free Fire takes place on one night in Boston, a group of nefarious individuals meeting up for a gun deal in said warehouse. Some are there because they’ve been ordered to, some are there to keep everything flowing smoothly – but all of them are there for profit. Tensions are high from the get-go, with an incorrect order, unreliable associates, and general ego boasting keeping them and us on our toes. Things are bound to go awry. And soon it’s shoot first, ask questions later, each trying to save themselves from becoming a moving target. “I forgot whose side I’m on!” screams a reluctant accomplice at one point, a line that perfectly and hilariously sums up the madness they all suddenly find themselves in. Question is: do the ‘sides’ even exist anymore?

Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer in Free Fire...

Free Fire is slow to build up to this anarchy during the first part of the film, however once it gets there it is tackled with reckless abandon by the director, bullets ricocheting off the walls, dust flying and blood spurting. Each gun fight is choreographed down to the minutest detail, Wheatley keen to not only maintain the plausibility of the action, but also to keep us hooked with the relentlessness of it all. The exquisite, realistic sound design is such that we feel every bullet whizzing past their heads and every walloping impact, Wheatley putting us at the heart of everything and leaving us shaking as much as his ten put-upon main characters. Couple this with his inventive direction and the result is some truly gripping action sequences – a surprising achievement for a film that barely leaves the one room.

Justine (Brie Larson) tries to keep a cool head as the bullets start flying...

What is also surprising about this aspect of Free Fire is that it often results in some unexpected darkly humorous moments, a signature element in all of Wheatley’s films. Characters throw themselves around in an almost slapstick (yet hilarious) way sometimes, trying to use any method they can to make it to cover intact, whether that be hobbling along behind a moving object, or trying to persuade somebody else to do their dirty work for them. While a lot of Free Fire’s comedy comes from the ridiculousness of the situation, it also stems from the idiocy of these hapless characters, who are larger-than-life often to the point of caricature, but still utterly believable. Great characterisation from writer Amy Jump and Wheatley (who co-wrote) helps achieve this, as do the superb performances from the stellar cast, each of them fleshing out these brilliant creations and clearly revelling in every second. Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor and Brie Larson are all standouts in a sea of excellent roles (with Larson adding some much needed gravitas to the OTT of it all). However both Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley steal nearly every scene they appear in, Hammer a dapper, suave professional with a touch of the psychotic about him, and Copley a South African arms dealer with a swagger to match his overly expensive suit – a bravado that is soon proven to be false when it’s him versus everyone else.

Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire...

With the laughs and endlessly quotable lines piling up as much as the lies and bullet casings, Jump and Wheatley’s perfect pacing ensures we are nothing short of engrossed throughout, with even the quiet moments of their narrative hinting at a wealth of character backstory and things left unsaid; something that deliciously comes together at the end. Along with the slick action, outstanding performances, thrilling direction and exquisite cinematography (from the ever brilliant Laurie Rose), you’ll forget all about that one location setting and simply lose yourself in Free Fire’s rampant, raucous world. And although the American backdrop and well-known cast make this Wheatley’s most mainstream film so far, this is absolutely up there with his best, a particular standout due to its pitch-perfect humour, which makes it well worth multiple viewings.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix)

Doctor Who – Leave your misogyny at the (Tardis) door

•July 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The world of Doctor Who is a place I haven’t visited since the beginning of Matt Smith’s portrayal of the character – around the same time the storylines started to become repetitive and trite. Even Peter Capaldi’s casting (who I’ve been a fan of since The Thick of It) couldn’t entice me back to a show that continued to be increasingly tired, despite a select number of later episodes that seemed to be getting things back on track. Yet now, with the announcement of the casting of the 13th Doctor, a monumental change is on the horizon which is well worth celebrating, whether everyone wants it or not.

The portrayal of gender roles onscreen is something that has always been at the back of my mind, ever since my time at University. It was there that three very happy years of Film Studies opened up my eyes to all sorts of representation issues, both on film and TV. However the results that I was presented with in relation to women onscreen were shocking and, as a woman myself, almost depressing. Continuously objectified, often portrayed via damaging, badly written stereotypes, rarely forwarding the narrative in any significant way (other than when they die, which even now is used as a common plot point), and regularly featured as secondary, nearly mute characters, or not at all. Even when films and TV shows do try and break this mould, it’s disheartening how these are almost always attacked by criticism that male-led productions are rarely faced with (specifically Bridesmaids and the first season of Girls, which were both unfairly targeted for their portrayal of men. Because keeping male characters out of the picture is paramount to a crime).

Jodie Whittaker will be playing the 13th Doctor

It is for all these reasons that I really do applaud the decision to hire a female actor to play one of the most iconic characters on British TV. No longer will a woman simply be the Doctor’s companion, they’ll now be calling the shots and saving the world, one time travel trip at a time. It is something that not only opens up the show to a whole realm of hitherto unexplored possibilities, it also opens up the discussion of positive female representation onscreen itself. Yes, we’ve had plenty of leading female characters in Sci-fi and Fantasy shows before (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Orphan Black, Jessica Jones and many more). But there are no such long-running TV productions (to my knowledge) with a lead consistently portrayed by a male actor, and for that ‘norm’ to then suddenly be challenged. That change itself is evidence of the BBC and new showrunner Chris Chibnall actively deciding to make a positive step towards the future and address the gender imbalance onscreen, one which if successful, could well mean other productions following its lead, both original and otherwise.

With all this in mind though, I do recognise and understand those with worries about the future of Doctor Who. I should add here: those with legitimate worries. Those making unfair, misogynistic comments can (and will) happily be left behind by the show – it will flourish a lot better without ‘fans’ such as that (and judging by some of the harsher, sickening responses, this is a change that needed to happen, and one that should even have taken place sooner). No, the fans I understand are those who wanted a man to be chosen again for the role – those ones looking forward to seeing who would be picked next, and hoping for the series to stay as it was. Indeed, my wish list actually had three male names (Tim Roth, David Thewlis and Paddy Considine) and only two female actors (Zawe Ashton and Natalia Tena) on it. A man would have been a perfectly valid choice for the 13th Doctor, albeit a frustrating one for those celebrating last week’s news of Jodie Whittaker’s casting. However I believe these fans will be more that won over by the interesting road the series will now be taking – one which will certainly shake up a show that was rapidly running out of steam.

Similarly, I also understand and sympathise with those annoyed that a WOC hasn’t been chosen to play the Doctor. A decision such as this would have been immensely positive for representation of race onscreen (another current sorry state of affairs), as well as gender. The companion’s race has been challenged before, and recently their sexuality too, so why not the Doctor’s? While it can only be speculated as to why the BBC didn’t push the envelope even further, I believe they may have feared being labelled as ‘politically correct’, a description that has been unfairly attached to them even after Whittaker’s casting. The only minor positive that could potentially come from all this in relation to race, is that the success of an unconventional choice for the 13th Doctor will hopefully open up many more doors of diversity further down the line.

Doctor Who

There are plenty of others happy with the decision though, recognising this as a great time for the series and for female roles. However even some looking forward to what the show now holds are concerned as to whether it may simply be used as a gimmick to draw back viewers long since bored with it. That the writing and plots will remain as dreary as they previously have been. It is true that many of the naysayers will certainly be watching and waiting for them to slip up – a justification of the gender ‘issue’ that they are against already. Obviously whether it is a triumph is something that will only come to light next year, when we see exactly what Chibnall and the team of writers, directors, etc. have created for our eager eyes. Yet with a refreshing vision and a fantastic force in Whittaker at the helm (if you’ve not seen her in Rachel Tunnard’s excellent film Adult Life Skills, I highly recommend you do) I really am hopeful for the future of the Doctor and excited to see what comes next.

The one positive thing that few can (or shouldn’t) argue against, is what this casting means for young viewers everywhere. After all, although there is a huge adult audience for the show (myself included), at its heart Doctor Who’s core viewers are those younger few – those it has the most influence on. The Doctor has always been about treating everyone with kindness and helping others different to you. That although the world isn’t a fair place, you should always respect it as such. And now, young girls and boys can see how a strong female presence can promote this too. That they are just as capable of saving the Universe. I didn’t watch Doctor Who back in the 90s when I was young, but if I was a child now I can guarantee that I would have been obsessed with it. And my little self, who was so in love with Ghostbusters and X-Men back in the day, would have been over the moon at having someone just like me finally be the front and centre of such a big TV show. So forgive me if I actually shed a tear at the casting news – because THIS is what it is all about.