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Friday, 31 October 2014

A Halloween Carol - Fiction

Introduction: What is Halloween? Why do we celebrate it? I have no doubt there are many intellectual answers to these questions but this is my gentle reminder of the fun this festival brings. Believe it or not, a lot of the story came from a dream I had recently.

“You want me to be a statue. That’s all I mean to you.”

Ian began to protest but lost all power of articulation as he struggled to keep up. Her heels clacked feverishly on the grey pavement slabs as she rushed away, back turned, hair bobbing in the prickly breeze. How could Abby be a statue? It was a total overreaction, a miscommunication. Damn it, he loved her. The last thing he wanted was to somehow restrain her vitality, her passion. Of course, he had never actually said how he felt about her. Tonight was meant to be the right moment. But she had read it all wrong. If only he had planned it right, Ian thought, perhaps chosen another day instead of Halloween. Now he was losing her in the swelling crowd of costumed revellers.

“That’s not what I meant!” he called out. His feet shuffled to match her short, punchy strides. “I was trying to be romantic but, look, I’ve made a mess of it, ok? I’m sorry.”

“No”, came Abby’s weak response, “I won’t stand still for you. I...I...want more than that.”

“I don’t think that! Just let me explain.” He let his fingers trail across her arm. It tightened, moving away from his apologetic touch. It would be the last time he could reach out to her. In a matter of minutes she would be dead.

Abby cried, “I don’t want to see you again!”

And yet, she would. Ian’s crumpled face would be the last sight her eyes gazed on as every drop of life seeped out of the bloody tears in her black cocktail dress.

Abby had been his girlfriend for a month, sort of. Her fiery intelligence had attracted him from the start, teasing Ian towards a gradual adoration of her quirky humour and sincere kindness. As everyone thought but never seemed to appreciate, her beauty was practical, modest, but no less striking. Almost like a tragic heroine from a Steinbeck novel, as Ian dreamily imagined. She was the only one who seemed to mellow him. When they were together, all the petty worries that clotted the avenues of his existence were gone. She freed him.

And yet he was the only one to have spotted this grace, or humble elegance, from the quiet girl in seminars, the one who always had an opinion but never seemed to air it. When she finally said yes to that awkward question, after the bashful compliment and Ian’s fumbling small-talk, he felt like every episode of embarrassment in his long record of humiliations had been instantly erased. A date (although it wasn’t cool to admit it) had been arranged with the enigmatic and fascinating girl. More followed. With every new encounter, Ian’s bond grew stronger to the object of his desire. 
Nevertheless, Abby remained as mysterious as ever, her emotions unreadable and elusive.

But now every chance was gone. He had wasted his shot at a romance with the shy girl of his pastoral fantasies. On this night Abby looked more like Holly Golightly, her back wildly twisting against oncoming crowds. Even in her sadness, that unrefined beauty still bore a striking allure. He could no longer see her face, but Ian could picture her tears accentuating each dimple in those soft cheeks. How could she get upset over something so stupid? How could she abandon him?

The sad, misguided fool had resumed his natural state; standing lost in the midnight street with the stench of stagnant urine encroaching on his gloom. Clubbers queued in their inebriated droves for hollow evening attractions. Witches cackled as they swigged the last of their vodka potions, while others persisted in empty thrills under names of ‘sexy nurse’, ‘playmate bunny’ or whatever else was meant to justify their meaningless disguises. On the other side of the road a tribe of lads marched in formation towards their next lewd encounter. Each partygoer swayed to a tuneless beat hollering into the cold, autumnal air. Any other night might have embraced Ian into its rowdy, boisterous and unconsciously fun carnival, but on this late October twilight hour, he found himself stranded from his only care – marooned in a sea of unthinking, unsparing partiers as his love grew steadily more distant, slipping ever further out of sight.

Hallow’s End is no longer just the holiday of the spirits. Nor is it the occasion for childish merrymaking of yesteryear. As Ian could see for himself, a much older crowd was using the superstitious event as an excuse to indulge in raids on sweet treats. The hedonistic contentment of such travails is merely a distraction, a ruse, from the true horror of the pagan festival. As a great malignance stirs forth in its annual release, evil fails to respect the pageantry of the living.

Finally Ian realised, it was not too late to lose her; he could still make amends (for what? He had done nothing wrong). He began walking along his departed lover’s trail, remembering her route home, desperately hoping their paths might cross.

He would reach her; but only when it was too late.
 
After leaving the main strip, Ian found himself in a dormant residential street, the buzz of the clubs replaced by a blanket silence. It lay thinly over the high, tiled roofs, where the occasional television peeked through clumsily-drawn curtains, splaying thin light into the urban sprawl. Up ahead, a street lamp flickered. Suddenly the television glares crept back inside their apartment windows. Faint flickers spread along the whole row of amber bulbs, gradually slowing until they died altogether. Darkness consumed the path. Then Ian heard it scream.

No animal could make such a fraught, pitiless sound. Its high, leering pitch echoed a barbarous aggression, like a berserker’s frantic bark as it charged into battle. Despite a helpless shudder of fright, Ian could feel his legs pound, muscle by muscle, as he raced towards the source of the noise. He had to get there... Had to, no matter what. Spurred on by a feeling of impending doom, he continued running, round one corner, then the next. The road ahead was invisible, masked by impenetrable darkness, yet he ran headless into the shadow.

Another scream flew out of the opaque black. It was closer, maybe only a few yards away. But this time it was not from the same source. A girl...Alone... Abby! The latent doubt that had caused his sprint now transformed into outright dread. The last few leaps sent jolts down Ian’s skeleton as he desperately bounded across the uneven concrete slabs. Then, in front of his path, forming blank silhouettes in the dim street, lay Abby, with something hideous at her side. It crouched over her feeble, motionless body, head titled back, transfixed by the few visible stars. It’s eyes were the only source of light on the dreadful scene. They shone with a manic intensity, directed upwards, ignoring Ian’s gasping horror.

Abby was almost gone. Her blood ran across the ground in thick pools from each wound. She was covered in them, slices here, cuts there, and worst of all, chunks of skin torn away on her neck and shoulder. With one last swell of life, her eyes confronted Ian directly. Even in his panic, he could not refuse her attention. Still, Ian could not understand her expression – what was she saying? Anger? Regret? Comfort? Love? Frightened, for certain, but the rest passed too quickly to sense. Slowly, gently, her head dropped, eyes remaining still, as she fell into an unshakeable slumber. Dried spots of tears were still clear on her sunken chin.

Then the creature with shining eyes stood straight and stretched back, as if he were inhaling all of Ian’s fear and distress. It was shaped like a man but had the stance and poise of another species entirely. Much of its face remained hidden in the shroud of darkness. Only the eyes stood out, alongside silver chains that tightly encircled its torso and arms. Abby’s blood dripped from thin, ghoulishly pointed hands, specks of scarlet falling back towards her limp remnants.

How could this be happening? She must be fine... Abby? She had to be alright... She couldn’t leave him again. And this... this... monster! It was not possible.

Terror had sent Ian into a fixed state, every nerve in his body refusing to fight as he commanded. They would not yield. His jaw locked in an iron grip. He wanted to cry for help, or to attack this figure, or even to weep. But his body would not allow any of those reactions to happen. Involuntary stillness imprisoned him.

The human beast fixed its attention on its sole spectator. Once again, its head arched upwards to the sky.

“I’ve seen them all,” it said quietly, “...So pretty”. It pronounced the last word with relish. “But so few still clear.”

Stepping over Abby’s corpse, the chains rattling in long clasping rasps, it stood a metre from Ian. He stayed frozen. Blood did not just cover the creature’s hands but also its face and torso. What had it done to her? Ian’s only response was a tremor in his hands, still tightly knotted to his sides.

“Do you think she suffered?” it whined. “Do you even care? It is you who should be bound by these chains, not I. An eternity in irons... But tonight I have liberty.”

The beast was too close. Life had finally been returned to Ian’s limbs. Every nerve in his body screamed to run. Too late. It seized his throat and lifted him off the ground. His legs kicked into empty air. Both arms grasped the long claws, trying to twist the chains, but they could not be gripped, the metal fell through his fingers like smoke.

With fading breath Ian coughed out “A-A-Abby”.

Its laugh echoed across the dark lane. “Your dearest departed? Don’t be foolish. She was a slut. Everyone has had her, apart from you. I killed her out of pity… I’ll do the same to you.”

Those glowing eyes narrowed to fixate on Ian’s choking face. All he could do in return was force all his strength on removing the monster’s grip. It reeked of dust and age. He was beyond the point of questioning this nightmare, panic was the only concern now. Nothing could save him.

Teeth gleamed in the sparse light. Sharp jaws, cut like daggers, smirking in sadistic joy. They too had crimson speckles swirling down their points. It leaned closer, jaw widening, awaiting its pleasure.

The chains rattled once again. “Sweet dreams… Sweet dreams. Your Halloween is no more.”

ST - A big thanks to Alex Smith for helping to edit this piece as well as the advice of Oscar McArthur, from which I took this title.

Friday, 24 October 2014

London Film Festival round-up: October 18

 - Heists, prison breaks, car chases, double-crossings, a twist ending – Son of a Gun features pretty much every staple of the action genre you can think of. Fortunately things don’t get too bloated thanks to a compelling relationship between protagonist JR (Brenton Twaites) and father figure Brendan (a typically watchable Ewan McGregor), who become criminal partners after meeting in prison.

Above all though this is a sleek, zippy action thriller with an emphasis on thrills over character, but with just enough personal interest to make you care about them


 - Crucially, David Alvardo and Jason Sussberg’s new documentary is called The Immortalists and not, say, ‘Immortality’. This subtle semantic difference confirms that the filmmakers’ interests are more geared towards the type of people who dedicate their lives to ‘curing’ aging and what drives them to do so, rather than the scientific possibility and the moral implications of living forever.

That’s not to say these fascinating questions aren’t raised at all – there are handy on-screen graphics to explain the more complex scientific theories, for instance - but that the film is more concerned with prompting us to consider the motives of people preoccupied with eradicating the aging process. Do they fear dying? Or the death of loved one? Or do they have the benefit of all humanity in mind?

As you’d perhaps expect the scientists documented are somewhat eccentric, especially the bearded, pint-guzzling Aubrey de Grey, the man who came up with the often quoted idea that the first person to live to 1000 might already be alive. They make for fascinating character studies and prompt plenty of poignant reflections that will occupy your mind long after the credits have rolled.  


 - In some ways Monsters: Dark Continent is a distinct departure from Gareth Edwards’ preceding film Monsters, with a shift in tone from subdued romance to macho warfare. But its positioning of the alien invaders at only the periphery of the story is very reminiscent of the original.

Where the first film used the sci-fi set-up to explore themes of immigration, Dark Continent imagines a war against the aliens to occur alongside the ongoing US involvement in the Middle-East, and in doing so raises questions of the effectiveness and morality of foreign military intervention. It’s an intriguing premise, but one that the film shows little interest for the first 2/3rds of its running time, where instead a bunch of bland, one-dimensional soldiers are introduced, and long kinetic sequences of them fighting that fail to draw us in.

But the final third becomes strangely contemplative and philosophical, while the characters are placed into scenarios that finally give them some overdue depth. This final part somewhat redeems the film, and offers something to mull over for those willing to stick with it to the end.


 - In Chinese film Shadow Days, Liang Rewei (Liang Ming) and his pregnant girlfriend Pomegranate (Li Ziqian) move from the city to a small rural village of his childhood, to find a lifestyle at odds with his fond memories. Director Zhao Dayong uses drained colours, a still camera, music-less soundtrack, long takes and sparse dialogue, that rids the enforcers of the government’s one-child policy of any of the glamour they perceive themselves as having.


The film can get bogged down in this sparse naturalism and at times fail to grab our attention, especially in scenes with little dialogue or narrative purpose, although the very occasional break into the realm of the supernatural are made all the more creepy for their disparity. The climax is devastating, but might have had a greater impact with more emphasis on building character.   

SP

Thursday, 23 October 2014

London Film Festival round-up:October 17

Stephen Puddicombe brings you the latest from the London Film Festival

 - There’s been countless coming-of-age films made over the years, but very few about black teenage girls growing up in France. As director of Girlhood Celine Sciamma says herself, black women are virtually ‘invisible’ in French cinema, while portrayals of them in the media are often negative.

Admirably, Sciamma tells her film from the perspective of a young black girl (Karidja Toure in her first feature film, whose excellent and natural performance carries the film) as she leaves school and joins an all-girl gang. By dramatizing her life in such an empathetic and non-judgmental manner, Sciamma humanises the kind of person who might be frowned upon or mistrusted if passed in the street.

Her life story is also moving and relatable, and does not suffer from being made exotic as some films about ‘others’ in society are guilty of. The politics of being an outsider are inevitably tangled up in the story and are handled very deftly by Sciamma, and makes for a fascinating counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s similar but white male-orientated Boyhood.


 - French house music in the 1990s was undoubtedly an exciting scene to be involved with, but the excitement never quite translates to the screen in Eden. The soundtrack is great, but we never get a sense for the craft and creativity that goes into making the music, nor the thrill of experiencing it in a club.

The characters are all quite dull and difficult to engage with, especially the protagonist (Felix de Givry), whose rise and fall shapes the structure of the film. The usual staples of heavy drug taking, world tours and romantic entanglements are present, but all unfortunately fall a little flat.


- Lisandro Alonso’s latest typically idiosyncratic film Jauja will intrigue some with its strange atmosphere and mysterious symbolism, and frustrate others with its deliberate pacing and thin plot.

That plot involves Viggo Mortensen playing a Danish engineer in Argentina taking part in the Conquest of the Desert, who sets out to find his daughter when she disappears. His search is more L’avventura than it is The Searchers, as dialogue gradually decreases and he is absorbed more and more into the landscape, before the film enters yet stranger territory in the final third.


Alonso shot on location in the extraordinary looking rural South America and manipulates lighting to give everything a stark, dreamy colouring, while the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio gives a great sense of depth to the vast landscape yet disarmingly offers little peripheral vision. It’s beautiful to behold, but any meaning or message is oblique.  

SP

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

London Film Festival round-up: October 16

Stephen Puddicombe brings you the latest from the London Film Festival

 - Whiplash is one of those great films that takes a very specific subject that most audience members will possess only a very limited knowledge of – in this case jazz drumming – and immerses us so completely in it that for the 1 hour 45 minute duration of the film we’re just as thrilled and obsessed by it as the characters on screen.

The title ‘whiplash’ refers both to the name of a recurring piece played by the conservatoire jazz band and to the sensation of watching it – it jolts us back and forth, constantly playing with our expectations and shifting the balance of power between the characters. Much credit must go to Damien Chazelle for his exhilarating direction, particularly the rhythmic cutting and detailed close-ups he uses during live performances.

He presents jazz as a craft to meticulously obsess over in the quest for perfection, and fascinates in doing so. Characters hear things that our untrained ears cannot pick up, yet convinces in its authenticity.

The sharpest ear of all is that of the band’s conductor Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simons), whose brutally perfectionist teaching methods and the effects it has on the aspiring drummer protagonist (Miles Teller) forms the crux of the film. Simons gives a virtuoso performance, at times hilarious, at times shockingly cruel, but always brilliantly charismatic. The film doesn’t fall either side of the debate it raises concerning the ethics of his methods, but gives convincing arguments for both, most of all in its astonishing finale – it’s up to us to evaluate the brilliant music it creates and the damage it inflicts, and make our own minds up.  


 - As a German film about a holocaust survivor seeking to integrate herself back into society, Phoenix is inevitably charged with plenty of profound social and political concerns,

Director Christian Petzold approaches the traumatic subject through a premise reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo. Nelly (an excellent Nina Ross), returning from a concentration camp, has undergone reconstructive facial surgery, so much so that her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) does not recognise her when she turns up at the Phoenix nightclub he frequents. But noting her resemblance to his wife, he offers her a room and moulds her appearance and mannerisms with the outward aim of pretending his wife is still alive and thus being able to sell her fortune, while she, longing for her old identity, plays along.  

Their unique relationship makes for a fascinating watch, and intelligently explores notions of identity and subconscious wilful forgetting that resonate profoundly in a country so burdened by the holocaust.


- Talking about his first feature length film in a Q ‘n’ A after its first screening at the festival, director Daniel Wolfe described Catch Me Daddy as a British western. And indeed, the landscape – here the Yorkshire Moors and provincial towns rather than the American West – is evocatively captured thanks to some brilliantly expressionistic cinematography.


But unlike a traditional Western, Wolfe’s film – about two young runaway lovers (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed and (Conor McCarron) pursued by one white gang and one South Asian gang - lacks compelling characters and an intriguing plot to hook you in, even when it develops into more of a straightforward thriller than the arthouse kitchen sink drama it had initially seemed to be. As a result we’re left a little disconnected from the film, so much so that the brutal final scene lacks the emotional bite that was clearly intended. Nevertheless, Wolfe demonstrates plenty of talent and great ambition, and with a little refinement could become a household name.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

London Film Festival round-up: October 15

Stephen Puddicombe brings you the latest from the London Film Festival


- When Westerns are made these days they’re usually imbued by modern perspectives and post-modern twists on the genre. Not Kristian Levring’s The Salvation, which is instead traditional to a fault – the grubby anti-hero (played by a perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen), sweeping landscapes, stylised violence, mythological tone, and a leading actress (Eva Green) who, after having her tongue cut off, quite literally has no voice, could all fit seamlessly into a Sergio Leone spaghetti western from the 1960s.

All this is beautifully shot by a director who clearly loves the genre, and the plot – about the aftermath of a Danish settler’s (Mikkelsen) avenging his wife and son’s murder – is straightforwardly entertaining.  It may not have much in the way of a fresh take, but is sure to satisfy genre enthusiasts.


- Set at the end of the American Civil War in what resembles a post-apocalyptic environment, The Keeping Room follows three young women hiding away at an abandoned farm.

From the very first scene an overtly feminist theme is established as the world is presented as hostile towards women, as lustful, cruel men, hardened by the war, prowl the landscape. Augusta (Brit Marling), Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru) are adept at survival, but are pursued determinedly by two runaway solders (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller).

The pace is ponderous and the tone foreboding throughout, with dark colours and ominous music ensuring a permanent sense of dread. Marling is particularly convincing in her empowered role while there are several moments of real horror, but proceedings could have done with being sped up from time to time.


 - The uproariously funny Wild Tales must surely be one of the highlights of the festival. Argentine director Damian Szifron constructs the film with six vignettes, all bound together by a mischievous, gleefully dark sense of humour.

The opening pre-credits sequence sets the tone – a mundane flight becomes stranger and stranger as the passengers realise the apparently freakish coincidence that connects them, before things go hilariously out of hand until a blackly comic climax.


Szifron takes on such modern concerns as bureaucracy, the super-rich and the fragility of marriage, all with an absurdist’s eye for the futility of people’s resolute efforts to amend what they see as unjust. The results are consistently hilarious, and outline the potential for this particular kind of episodically structured comedies. 

SP

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Top 5 Latin Americans Characters

Hispanic Heroes

It is easy to forget that Latin Americans make up the biggest ethnic minority in the United States. In films they are often ignored or secluded to minor supporting roles. And yet, on the rare occasions when a Mexican lead is portrayed, such as in Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil, their characterisation tends to be clumsy and - rather predictably - verging on racist. Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns are usually the worst offenders in this regard.

But, as Bob Dylan famously sang, the times are-a-changing, and new roles for actors from the land of Bolivar, Guevera and erm... Antonio Valencia are beginning to emerge. In a future article I intend to go into this subject in more detail. For now, however, let's treat ourselves to a run-down of the best Hispanic characters in film and television to date.  

Jaime Escalante - Stand and Deliver (1988)

Edward James Olmos, familiar amongst ardent nerds as Bill Adama from Battlestar Galactica, was nominated for an Oscar when he played real life maths teacher Escalante. In a failing downtown L.A. school, the passionate tutor raises the expectations of his pupils and inspires them to achieve phenomenal results in a rigorous Calculus test. The students do so well, in fact, that the exam board believe the kids somehow cheated. Escalante is not always sympathetic in the film but nobody can deny his determination to do what is best for his class.

 Gloria - Modern Family (2009-present)

She may not be a person of impeccable social standing, but Gloria proved that a Columbian female figure (and what a figure it is!) could be relatable and entertaining to mainstream global audiences. The thriving comedy show has catapulted Sofia Vergara to stardom and a contract which makes her the highest paid woman on American television. The majority of her fortune comes from lucrative advertising endorsements, proving she has a powerful appeal in and outside of her ethnic community. Indeed, it means Jennifer Lopez is no longer considered the only beautiful woman for Latin girls to aspire to.

Pedro - Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

This kid might look forlorn and gormless but he surprises everyone by running for Class President. Does he win? I can't remember; that is not really the point of the film. Dare I say it, Pedro is an ironic character, reflecting a weird perspective on the Latin American identity. Ultimately, the message is to be happy with who you are, however odd you might be. It may not be ground breaking stuff but, like the rest of Napoleon Dynamite, proves exceptionally funny. So do it now, vote for Pedro!

Carlito Brigante - Carlito's Way (1993)

Although Al Pacino is perhaps the most famous Italian American in the world, he was nothing short of wonderful in the role of a Puerto Rican convict. Carlito is the only character who ever thinks rationally in his tragic story and never loses his goodness, even when he becomes embroiled in a series of gruesome events. In the final scene we see things through the unfortunate protagonist's eyes as he is carried into hospital. There is an honest, soothing simplicity to his acceptance of fate. With another actor, Carlito might have become a criminal caricature - another Tony Montana wannabe - but Pacino presents this hapless human as a unique soul, indeed, a thoroughly decent guy.

Gustavo Fring - Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

Ruthless, efficient, unsmiling: the Bolivian meth distributor is a tough person for Walter White to negotiate with. On many occasions he has the upper hand, only to be beaten by bad luck and misfortune. Unlike the other cartel villains from the series, Gus is methodical and exact. He rarely makes mistakes and never does anything without a clear strategy. Most notably, this narcotics entrepreneur has painstakingly established a number of watertight fronts for his illegal activities, including fast-food chain Los Pollos Hermanos, which I am lead to believe makes some pretty good fried chicken. His business is the last place the cops would ever look. He even donates money to the DEA annual fun run, for goodness sake. Once again, one of our listed characters is not a moral exemplar to his ethnic community. Nevertheless, he certainly ensures a memorable screen presence for Latinos, in the same way Tony Soprano represents fundamental Italian American values, albeit in an unorthodox guise.

ST 

Monday, 13 October 2014

London Film Festival round-up: October 10

Stephen Puddicombe brings you the latest from the London Film Festival

 - Considering how much time the average person spends on the internet these days, the lack of movies that show characters regularly fiddling on their phones or browsing on their desktops feels somewhat anachronistic.

Perhaps that’s down to how dull a spectacle it is to watch people staring at a screen, but, through displaying the content of the characters’ devices on the cinema screen for us to see, Men, Women and Children manages to build engaging drama out of instant messenger exchanges and internet searches.

This drama usually involves the strained relationships between the ensemble cast of men, women and children in the film, as director Jason Reitman aims to explore how modern technology is shaping contemporary society. His observations are sound albeit predictable and, despite a distracting voiceover from Emma Thompson and a framing device that strives for a profundity that the film fails to earn, this is a warm, well-acted and gently entertaining affair.


 - In typically art-house fashion, Abel Ferrara rejects the usual traits of the biopic genre in his feature on the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. He intersperses mundane scenes of the protagonist living out his last day with episodic tangents into his creative imagination.

These scenes, which attempt to bring to life Pasolini’s unrealised projects, don’t really feel worthy of the late director’s talents and struggle to fit coherently into the film as a whole. There’s no doubting Ferrara’s integrity – Pasolini’s belief that ‘to scandalise is a right’ is one proudly practiced in his own films – but even the moments intended here to scandalise fall comparatively flat.

The film is at its most watchable when we witness the character of Pasolini unfold, thanks largely to a typically compelling performance from Willem Dafoe that exhibits intelligence, passion and inner-anguish. But the choice to document just one day of his life and the dissatisfying way the scenes from his imagination are rendered means we are never offered much access to his character.


 - Amidst the growing threat of Islamic State in the Middle-East comes Timbuktu, a heartfelt and exasperated plea for humanity over oppressive fundamental religion.

Abderrahmane’s Sissako’s films dramatizes the 2012 occupation of Mali by jihadists, concentrating on a collection of residents in Timbuktu as their enjoyment of basic leisure activities like football, music and socialising are clamped down upon by the new gun-wielding authorities. Rather than embarking on a sombre attack on such oppression, Sissako instead opts to point out the absurdity of the new laws – one fishmonger is perplexed by the new requirement for her to wear gloves despite the necessity for her to handle fish, while two jihadists puzzle over whether singing is a sin when it is done so in praise of God.

The tone is understated throughout which, for better or worse, resists an overly-emotional connection by using music only very sparingly and having its characters respond stoically to their compromised new circumstances. And juxtaposed with the tragedy of the events is Sissako’s beautiful direction, including one particularly stunning single take during the film’s dramatic apex. 

SP

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Gone Girl

Lurid murders, deceptions and betrayals, shocking twists – David Fincher is in familiar territory adapting Gillian Flynn’s hit novel Gone Girl. Following an unnecessary remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the ill-fittingly twee Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it’s a relief to see that Fincher is still masterful when it comes to noirish thrillers like this.

As reflected by its two-and-a-half-hour running time – which is nonetheless gripping thanks to a zippy pace and frequent twists – Fincher has been careful to retain as much of the source material as possible, whilst also solving the potential narrative problems of telling the story on-screen.

In the first section of the film, for instance, the contrasting points of view from husband Nick (Ben Affleck) and wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) are depicted through a division of scenes between the present, where he react to her  apparent abduction, and in the past via her diary entries, which document the earlier times of their relationship and marriage. Whereas Amy’s recollections present an idyllic view of love and marriage, it’s clear from Nick’s eerily cold, almost indifferent reaction to her disappearance that this early passion has since rapidly dissolved.

This first part of the film expertly builds tension as suspicion builds over Nick that he may in fact be responsible for the abduction. But this mystery is resolved surprisingly early, and the narrative focus lurches from ‘whodunit?’ to ‘what-happens-next?’, upon which proceedings become more and more melodramatic.

It’s important to remember this melodramatic tone Gone Girl appropriates when considering the question of misogyny in the film. An ungenerous reading of the film would state that it defends men who have been accused of violent crime, whilst redirecting the blame towards women via the worst kind of psycho-bitch, bunny-boiler stereotype.  

But the characters and plot are handled in a far more nuanced way than this reading suggests, while exaggeration and melodrama render it far more satirical than realistic. Instead, the film seems to be documenting a paranoid male fear of empowered women who call him out on his mistreatment of his spouse.

Tellingly, virtually all of the characters who interrogate him are women: the shrewd detective Rhonda investigating the disappearance (Kim Dickens), his twin sister Margot (Carrie Coon), the witch hunt-inducing news network host (Missi Pyle), his mother-in-law (Lisa Barnes), the formidable TV interviewer (Sela Ward). Most are portrayed sympathetically and Rhonda and Margot in particular are drawn as multi-dimensional, so that when Nick utters the line ‘I'm so sick and tired of being picked apart by women’, it sounds too self-conscious on the film’s part to be taken as a sexist stance against nagging women.

When defending herself against accusations of misogyny, author of the novel Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay) explains how she has ‘grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books’, and ‘mourns the lack of female villains’. It is certainly refreshing to see a woman given license to behave as villainously as, say, Kevin Spacey in Fincher’s Seven, yet she still retains certain clich├ęd traits that have burdened female characters for years – she twice resorts to the problematic ploy of faking sexual assault, while her motives are defined entirely by her relation to other men. 

It says a lot for the layers in Gone Girl that this question of misogyny is just one of several issues asking to be picked over. There’s a wry satire of media circuses and the way broadcast journalists like Nancy Grace work, and of course the institution of marriage and the delusions that surround it is a very prominent theme. With so much to ponder over after leaving the cinema, there’s plenty of substance to back up the glossy style and crowd-pleasing thrills. 

SP