In 1979, cinema audiences were informed in no uncertain terms that ‘In space no one can hear you scream‘. For nearly forty years we have been reminded of this universally acknowledged truth, with varying degrees of success. In the case of Alien: Covenant, it seems everyone needs to hear you PANIC! because the film is so overloaded with PANIC! that I wondered if the various gruesome deaths were redundant in the face of surely inevitable heart attacks. From an opening space accident that introduces the viewer to far too many indistinguishable characters to set pieces in a medical bay and a field of tall grass to a climax followed by a climax followed by a climax, Alien: Covenant delivers far too many reasons to think ‘Don’t go off alone’, ‘Don’t look at that’, ‘Exercise more caution’, ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Slow down, Ridley!’ I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott and think Prometheus is pretty good, but it is telling that Covenant‘s best scene is a quiet moment of two characters playing a flute, captured in a long take of beautifully chilling serenity, helped by the wonderful Michael Fassbender who is easily the best thing(s) in the film. A crucial element of the original Alien is its slow pace, the longueurs of drip feed menace steadily creating an atmosphere of dread. Here, we charge headlong into danger because that way we can get to the PANIC! all the sooner, or perhaps this reckless charge is an attempt to disguise the general lack of narrative or thematic coherence. The conclusion of the film points to a further instalment, so it seems we’ll be reminded once again that in space, no one can hear you scream ‘Enough!’
Humanity’s inhumanity is a common feature across many cinematic genres, often contrasted with compassion and sympathy. The Zookeeper’s Wife joins the sub-genre of Holocaust dramas, at times feeling like an odd combination of Schindler’s List and the first act of Life of Pi. Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) is the eponymous spouse of Dr Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), curators of the Warsaw Zoo before and during the Nazi occupation of Poland, who hide Jews in the zoo’s facilities. The early scenes of the film are the most effective, as director Niki Caro presents the zoo as an idyllic setting and Antonina as an ideal maternal figure both to humans and animals. A bombing sequence is presented from the perspective of the zoo animals: tigers, camels and zebras (among others) panicking and escaping, before being shot by soldiers in genuinely distressing moments. Unfortunately, the film fails to draw effective parallels between cruelty to humans and animals, perhaps limited by the true events upon which the source novel by Diane Ackerman is based. The subsequent concealment of Jews and the network of resistance allows for some tense moments, but antagonist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) is too peripheral to be more than occasionally menacing. The final act of the film also drags and, while there are moving moments such as Antonina comforting a victimised girl with a rabbit, the end result is uneven. The story is remarkable and much of the film is handsomely mounted, but Caro’s handling of it is ultimately unsatisfying.
Just go. Go and see The Handmaiden. To describe the film in any detail could temper it for you. This is a film that benefits from knowing as little about it as possible. So stop reading this review, go to the website for your local moving picture venue and find a suitable time to see it.
Still here? Alright, what CAN I tell you? In the vaguest terms possible, Park Chan-Wook’s latest film is an exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Park’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith explores (among other things) identity, friendship, love and sexuality, through gorgeous production design and an intricate visual pattern that demonstrates an intensely intelligent use of cinema. Jae-bum Kim and Sang-beom Kim’s edits are carefully spaced to reveal key pieces of information, Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography precisely explores Seong-hie Ryu’s beautiful sets, while the performances of the whole cast are note perfect, balancing inner turmoil with outer expression. Park balances multiple tones across the film, including excitement and sorrow, narrative wit and slapstick humour, erotic intrigue and outright horror. Do yourself a favour and make a point of seeing what is likely to be one of this year’s best films. Come on, what are you waiting for?
Imagine if Ben Stiller had encountered hypnotism and brain surgery when he went to Meet The Parents. That is a fair description of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a gripping, thrilling and at times shocking horror film about social attitudes and the power of privilege. Writer-director Peele structures the film carefully, as an opening sequence is conducted almost entirely in a wide angled, single long take, that echoes Halloween and the more recent It Follows. Such composition sets the scene of menace and danger as part of the overall picture if not seen immediately. The viewer is then introduced to likeable couple Chris Washington (David Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), taking a weekend trip to Rose’s parents Dean (Bradley Whitford, whose character echoes his from The Cabin in the Woods) and Missy (Catherine Keener, turning her usual comforting presence to more sinister ends). Chris is concerned about the Armitages’ attitude towards his race, but despite Rose’s assurances a sense of unease rapidly develops as the family sees too clean cut and their African-American servants are clearly strange. As other guests arrive for a party their racial attitudes shift from initially grating to increasingly creepy. Past traumas and emotional vulnerability are exploited as things become ever more sinister, with scenes of direct mental manipulation proving especially unnerving. In its final act the film moves away from psychological scares to more physical ones, becoming increasingly hysterical and ultimately less effective. Although a potentially devastating plot twist is avoided, Get Out contains more than enough atmosphere and dread to leave one feeling shaken and disturbed.
Rupert Sanders’ remake of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal anime, itself an adaptation of Shirow Madamune’s manga, plays like Blade Runner crossed with The Fifth Element on steroids. Set in a future where cybernetic ‘enhancements’ are commonplace, the eye-scorching Ghost in the Shell focuses on Major (Scarlett Johansson), a special agent of Section 9 that tracks a mysterious cyber-terrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt). Sanders’ film creates a visually arresting vision of the future, with huge buildings sharing the skyline of (presumably) Tokyo with giant holograms advertising the latest technology from the ubiquitous company Hanka. Shots capture the city in the background while the officers of Section 9 perform superhuman feats, the cumulative effect hinting at the uncanny nature of this world, like and unlike our own, while other startling images include Kuze connected to a dense mesh of cables that imply infinite connection. Unfortunately, the film lacks faith in these visuals, often resorting to telling rather than showing with an over-reliance on exposition and laboured storytelling. A more fluid directorial style might have helped, such as that of Luc Besson or the Wachowskis, or indeed the original anime. Further comparisons with the earlier film hurt this one also, as Johansson’s Major forgoes the cynicism of Atsuko Tanaka’s Motoko Kusanagi and the film as a whole lacks the nihilism of Madamune’s version. In the earlier film, cybernetic enhancement is a given and the questions posed look ahead to explore new understandings of life consciousness. This screenplay, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, looks backward as Major attempts to piece together her past. Glitches in Major’s perception hint at this past in cumbersome ways, Sanders’ style often buffering the content rather than delivering a steady data stream of plot, theme, character and world-building. Slo-mo and lingering shots of bodies have their place, but here they emphasise artifice rather than express the fusion of biology and technology. While the film does raise many interesting ideas about memory and identity, especially in relation to the controversial ‘whitewashing‘, the end result is a case of too much shell, not enough ghost.
Life is an original film that lacks original ideas. While it is not based on any previously published material, its narrative and themes are familiar to any fan of science fiction or horror. Obvious references are Alien and Gravity: the initial shots of space and the slow appearance of the International Space Station seem to deliberately echo the credits of Ridley Scott’s classic, while the opening action set piece is conducted in a single shot, reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s award magnet. Xenomorph references continue as the appropriately diverse crew members of ISS have a close encounter of the dangerous kind with a single-celled organism brought back from Mars. Nicknamed ‘Calvin’, experiments with this globular entity quickly turn grisly and gruesome. But Life‘s lack of originality does not stop it being an entertaining ninety minutes, as director Daniel Espinosa delivers a gripping romp, making smart use of the zero-gravity environment and the classic dangers of space. Depleted oxygen, dropping temperatures and loss of communication with Mission Control are all handled with aplomb, with the added tensions of medical drama, as Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) reminds us of the various safeguards to prevent alien contamination of Earth. Calvin itself is commendably intriguing and revolting in equal measure and the different responses of Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) provide an effective progression through the drama. There are plenty of jumps and a good dose of tension, and part of the fun is predicting who will die, when and how. However familiar it may be, Life ticks all the boxes for an enjoyable orbital journey.
Here’s a wild thought – Bill Condon’s remake of Disney’s animated classic, that arrives complete with songs, talking candelabra, clock and tea pot, not to mention a mo-capped Beast (Dan Stevens) as well as Belle (Emma Watson) in the expected attire, is a parable about Donald Trump’s America. Wait, come back! Condon devotes a good portion of the film to the Beast’s enchanted castle, surrounded by perpetual winter and occupied by all manner of eccentric characters, but equal attention is paid to the ‘provincial town’ where Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) reside. The villagers are a varied bunch, but share narrow beliefs and easily thralled by Gaston (Luke Evans), a charismatic local celebrity with great force of personality, who is self-centred and conceited, contemptuous of women and expects everyone to adulate him. Sound familiar? More tellingly, the villagers are easily swayed by Gaston’s charisma to (spoiler alert) go after someone different. The Beast is the most obvious example, but Belle herself is a social pariah while Gaston easily convinces the townsfolk that Maurice is mad, while the minor yet significant character Agatha (Hattie Morahan) is similarly ostracised for not adhering to social mores that Gaston exploits and epitomises. And yet it is these different people, those who are ‘Other’, that display the humane qualities of empathy, kindness and compassion. While the overall story arc is of course about love, a central conceit of not judging by appearances and instead accepting and embracing difference pervades the film. Beauty and the Beast therefore continues Disney’s progressive streak that includes Zootopia and Queen of Katwe. Long may the House of Mouse continue this open door policy.