Vincent's Views

Ad Astra

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Science fiction is a highly derivative and recognisable genre. This is one of its main pleasures – one sci-fi film can recall another and there is enjoyment to be found on recognising the intertextuality. Even when a film is not based on previous material, as is the case with Ad Astra, its antecedents are easy to spot. James Gray’s meditative space odyssey echoes 2001, Contact, Event Horizon, Gravity and The Martian, as well as historical dramas such as Apollo 13 and First Man. What it reminded this viewer of most, however, is Sunshine. Like Danny Boyle’s retina-scorching voyage through the great void, Ad Astra boasts awe-inspiring visuals, nerve-shredding tension and a misguided search for salvation. Much of the film’s power is conveyed through its intimacy with protagonist Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, mesmerising), a professional astronaut whose commitment to the job has largely isolated him from connections on Earth, especially with his wife Eve (a sadly underused Liv Tyler). When strange energy surges start causing havoc on Earth, and a mysterious message from Roy’s father, presumed lost astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), points to human events at the edge of the solar system, Roy embarks on his own odyssey, both into space and into himself.

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Joining Roy on this journey is the audience, subject to awe and amazement as the protagonist would be if he were not so emotionally distant. Sequences are often visually and audibly expressed from within Roy’s helmet: sights are distant but dazzling while sounds are conveyed – often intermittently – through Roy’s radio. The narrative is constructed perceptually, as Roy’s memories of his father, of Eve, of his earlier missions, frequently punctuate the present with flashbacks reminiscent of Solaris, Interstellar and Arrival. Roy’s voiceover may sometimes grate but, while it tells the viewer much of what he is thinking, there is little expression of feeling. As a result, the film presents a very personal journey with a person who is hard to fathom. This dramatic choice could be alienating for the viewer that tries to engage with Roy, and could be read as autistic. Roy is insular, highly rational and emotionally restrained, and also displays little understanding of human emotion, which can be an autistic perspective. Thus his journey, cocooned within his spacesuit and the various crafts that he travels in, manifests his detachment and perhaps gives the audience a sense of what that detachment might feel like.

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This conceit speaks to the best way to enjoy the film – as an experience rather than a character study. Marvel at the expanse of space; strain to catch the distorted radio transmissions; feel the terrifying freedom of zero gravity. Along the way, consider isolation and difficulties with human engagement, and how we might learn more about such engagement. The film also potentially critiques the sub-genre of space films, as women are largely pushed to the side while the white heteronormative male is charged with the important task of interplanetary excursions. But women and people of colour are nonetheless significant even in their reduced role, especially in Roy’s encounter with Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) on Mars. Come the film’s resolution, there is a powerful message about our world and ourselves as a people, a message that also points to the problems with such male-centrism and a need for alternatives. Like many a space odyssey, Ad Astra is ultimately a film about our home and our world(s), and how different and precious these can appear when viewed from a distance.

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Crawl

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Crawl is an exercise in efficient narrative. The initial set-up clarifies the stormy relationship between swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and father Dave (Barry Pepper), while media broadcasts warn of further storms as a hurricane approaches the Florida setting. Despite the strained relationship, Haley doggedly searches for Dave as she drives through increasingly wet terrain. Thus the stage is set for claustrophobic terrors in a flooding basement and increasing numbers of alligators. Crawl will not win any prizes for originality, but it delivers tension and jump scares aplenty. Director Alexandre Aja makes great use of the threatening environment, both in terms of limited space and rising water. The alligators appear out of the darkness like malevolent shadows, and their lumbering forms allow for white-knuckle chases as Haley crawls over the mud. In addition, swimming sequences may have the viewer holding their breath as Hayley must simultaneously strive for the surface and avoid her more aquatically nimble adversaries. She makes for a brilliant protagonist: in a Q&A following the screening, star Skodelario described Crawl as the most feminist script she had read in a decade. It is testament to the strength of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen script that Haley has no romantic interest, and nor does she have to appear in her underwear (despite all the swimming). Rather, she proves herself a capable and relatable person to lead the film, with the resourcefulness and determination needed to be the apex predator she is described as. All of these elements add up to a brilliantly intense, visceral creature feature of claustrophobia, jump scares, family tensions and survival. Plus a bit with a dog.

Satanic Panic

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Satanic Panic is a somewhat baggy and confusing but still gleefully gory occult horror comedy of wealth, oppression and the power of bunnies. Samantha Craft (Hayley Griffith) is on her first day as a pizza delivery girl. After she is denied a tip for her delivery, she enters the opulent home that she delivered to. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a bad idea. Before you can say ‘Hail Satan’, she’s running for her life from a group of cultists with more than pepperoni on their mind. Perhaps due to its sprawling cast, the shocks and deaths in Satanic Panic carry only moderate weight, and there are longuers when Sam and fellow victim Judi Ross (Ruby Modine) wait around rather than run. This robs much of the film of tension while an element of sentimentality detracts from the gleeful cruelty. That said, director Chelsea Stardust delivers good jump scares as well as laughs, and the cast are certainly game with their material. Overall, while not a riotous ride, Satanic Panic is still a fun one.

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino loves film. He also loves television and music. He loves writing and actors. All of these loves are on display in his latest film, which works as two fairly charming if thinly related tales set in 1969. The first tale concerns fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose career in TV westerns has left him with little to do other than play bit parts in episodes. Rick feels used up and past it, Tarantino’s unsympathetic close-ups expose the slightly sagging face, wrinkles and overweight physique. Rick’s best friend and stunt double Cliff Bole (Brad Pitt) takes a more laconic view of the world, his body still in great shape as a shirtless scene emphasises. The second story concerns Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her seemingly carefree swan around Hollywood. The connection between the two stories is mostly due to location, as Sharon and her husband Roman Polanski live next door to Rick and their presence exacerbates his frustration. The viewer may also be frustrated as Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood is often meandering and, as is often the case with Tarantino, indulgent. Long sequences of driving coupled with longer sequences of actors playing actors acting add up to little more than Tarantino’s delight in this material. There are some strong set pieces – a visit to an old western set plays out like a western showdown, complete with tension; a brilliant action sequence that serves as the film’s climax, but these sequences punctuate an otherwise aimless meander through this landscape. Brief cameos from the likes of Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino allow these performers to simply spout a few pungent speeches, while side scenes involving Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Rick’s stint making spaghetti westerns add little. Ultimately the film adds up to very little, and while Tarantino’s love for his material is palatable, he is unlikely to engender similar affection in the viewer.

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My Credible Journey

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This is a digression from the usual offerings’ on Vincent’s Views. Rather than reviewing the latest film I saw, this is a review of my own professional trajectory. It may be of interest to some, especially early career researchers looking for academic employment.

They say that life begins at [insert age here]. For me it turned out to be true at the age of forty. In 2000 I set my heart on becoming a university lecturer. I remember my personal tutor at the time said that I was mad to want an academic career, and he was right, for academia requires a special kind of madness. I spent the next decade working towards a PhD, which I achieved in 2009.

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Over the next ten years I applied for over 600 academic jobs, literally all over the world. It took three years before my first interview, and over the next seven years the number of interviews increased but always resulted in ‘you have been unsuccessful on this occasion’. To make myself more employable, I published, I taught, I did outreach and engagement. But none of it seemed to make any difference, and whole years would go by with only a single interview. I became frustrated, experienced feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, was a nuisance and a burden to those around me, and eventually was diagnosed with depression. I sought advice and feedback on my applications, much of which was helpful, yet success still eluded me. Those nearest and dearest to me suggested other professions that I did explore, but all for naught, as I either failed to get into those fields altogether or did not derive the satisfaction I sought from them.

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Through all of this, I never lost sight of what I wanted, and the odd bit of hourly teaching kept me motivated. The first time I taught undergraduates it felt absolutely right, and subsequent experiences have felt much the same. Teaching is not always easy, and like any job can be frustrating and disappointing, but it never fails to raise my spirits by the sheer rightness of it. Be it seminar room or lecture theatre, the teaching environment is somewhere I always feel that I belong, despite the intermittency of my time there.

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In 2019 everything changed. I was offered what became a six-month maternity cover post. It was a very quick start and I had to hit the ground running, covering material both familiar and completely new, and with a new style of teaching. Despite that, I felt valued and useful, and that I was where I belonged. I continued the applications and later that year I was offered a twelve-month post at another institution. The longer contract and the greater opportunities of this second role allowed me to leave my day job of seventeen (!) years, which I never felt comfortable in.

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The shift was dramatic. After more than a decade of fruitless searching, suddenly I was offered two jobs in the space of six months. What changed? Rather than being a matter of ‘not what you know but who you know’, I think it came down to what I could offer. For years I taught the same few modules, offering little that stood out. Then I broadened my repertoire with courses in other areas, and what better way to develop one’s skills than by working with new material? It is through challenge that we grow, and I significantly improved my pedagogic skills by teaching new material, skills that I highlighted at the interviews in 2019.

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I feel that the key interview question was how I would teach students with a background different to my own. The answer is to find the commonalities: what are the links between film and politics, media and sociology, theory and practice? Links such as these are where teaching opportunities emerge and the soul of a teacher can shine. I developed because I spent time delivering new material and did the work necessary to engage the minds of students. A good teacher is adaptable, adaptable to different students, techniques, space and material. I know I have the power to teach and finally I can proclaim this reality to selection panels.

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This is my message to all PhD graduates and early career researchers struggling to get their foot in the door. The best things you can do is believe you will get there, and expand what you offer. It is an employer’s market, and you must offer as much as you can. If you don’t have much, search for and take further teaching experience, especially outside your comfort zone. You will get better, and you will look better.

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Much like a lead character in my favourite film, what I am is what I’m going after. For a long time, I was going after the job. Now I’m going after being the best teacher that I can be. It is not a final destination but an ongoing pursuit, so I’ll be going after it for a long time to come, and I will relish every minute of it.

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The Lion King

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The Lion King is a timeless classic. Released during a golden period for Disney Studios, it remains a touchstone for many viewers as a demonstration of what animation can do. Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic digital animation remake may also come to occupy a significant place in animation history, specifically in terms of its animation. As a visual feast, The Lion King 2019 is dazzlingly realised. Descriptions of the film as ‘live action’ are nonsensical – everything is animated here as surely as it was in the original. The difference is that it looks real – from the lustrous fur including lions’ manes that you want to run your hands through, to the textured skin of elephants and warthogs to rippling water and intricate blades of grass, the African landscape looks as rich and tactile as that in a documentary. Indeed, at times a voiceover would not seem out of place, recalling both BBC nature documentaries and Disney’s ‘Real-Life’ adventures of previous decades. Yet the illusion of reality is easily broken by the talking and singing of the photo-realistic animals, and this break is hard to get away from.

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The lifelike visuals are simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and its most crippling weakness. There is an inescapable disjunct as the visuals look real, but quite clearly are not. Similarly, the animals are anthropomorphised, but not by much. They speak and sing, but their faces remain largely blank and their movements are appropriate for animals. It is therefore hard to relax into the film, as one constantly marvels at the visuals and is then jerked out of the marvel by the obvious artifice. In addition, one may have to keep reminding themselves that of course lion social dynamics do not work that way, this being a fictional drama, but that concern never arose in the original, fantastical animation.

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A further problem is that this film does nothing new narratively. Previous Disney remakes elaborated on the previous versions, expanding characters, updating representation and, in some cases, reducing or omitting the songs altogether. Unlike Favreau’s previous Disney remake, The Jungle Book, which works as an entirely new adaptation of the source material, The Lion King 2019 makes almost no changes to the original story. The Lion King is an original story (borrowing some elements from Hamlet), and as an original story for an animated family adventure, it is hard to improve on. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson expands some scenes and provides some additional detail to a few characters, including Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This development of female characters does continue Disney’s greater diversity and improvements in representation, but because the rest of the film follows the original so closely, these expansions create a further disjunctive element. The end result is ambivalent, as the visuals are utterly stunning and incredible, but the film lacks soul and emotional engagement.

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Midsommar

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Midsommar is a film that defies easy categorisation. It can be seen as a horror film, a dark comedy, a relationship drama, and a tale of grief. As all responses are ultimately subjective, this reviewer sees Midsommar as a horror film, because it was horrifying (in a good way!). The opening act details the family tragedy of Dani (Florence Pugh) in a manner that is horrifying. Dani’s subsequent trauma inflects much of the film, with ingenious cuts demonstrating the inability to leave such experiences behind, and therefore lending the entire film as sense of horror and dread. Early scenes indicate to any seasoned viewer of horror that Dani, along with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) should run away, yet at the same time the allure and appeal of the midsummer festival that they visit is apparent. Gorgeous vistas of Sweden (actually Hungary) are captured in wide shots, these devices being the key tool of writer-director Ari Aster, along with deep focus and long takes. Within these broad, encompassing shots, much drama and indeed humour takes place, such as moments of embarrassment and the appearance of a bear. But the predominant mood is one of strangeness, dread and ever-escalating menace, extending even to the visual fabric of the film that morphs and pulses like a bad trip, as much of the film is. The overall effect is to create a horrifying atmosphere. Graphic gore is mixed with shocked reactions, a pervasive soundscape enveloping the viewer much as the characters are themselves immersed in this strange world. Come the end of the film, the viewer is likely to be left exhausted by the gamut of emotions inflicted by Midsommar, and with the wisdom that if anyone ever suggests going to a Swedish midsummer festival, far away from modern civilisation, don’t.

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