For Sama is one of the most harrowing and powerful films you are likely to see. Filmed by Edward Watts and Waad Al-Kateab, documenting the work of Waad’s husband Hamza in the midst of Syria’s war, For Sama captures intense human suffering, both physical and psychological. As bombs rain down from above, Hamza treats injuries while his family squeezes into a tiny apartment, and Waad gives birth to the titular baby Sama, for whom in a sense all this is for. Set against the unbelievable hardship is incredible courage and fortitude, while Sama herself presents innocence in the most inhumane surroundings. For those who find conflicts too distant to engage with, For Sama provides a human face and soul that cannot be ignored.
Dark Waters begins with a group of teenagers sneaking into a private area where they swim in a lake, and are threatened by a deadly presence. Director Todd Haynes uses this trope of the horror genre to emphasise that this is indeed a horror story, but a true one of corporate power and public victims. For the deadly presence is not a masked killer, but chemical waste, waste from the DuPont company that would poison generations in the Parkersburg, Virginia. Seeking redress, the locals hire corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who fights a decades-long legal battle against DuPont. Haynes frames the events with a minimum of style, allowing stark images such as grim landscapes, storerooms filled with impenetrable documents and tiny gestures from the cast to express the immense weight of this true life story. Come the end, the viewer will likely be in awe of the indomitable courage on one side, and deeply depressed by the intractable greed on the other.
The Invisible Man is like Jaws, in the sense that the film is not about the object of its title. Indeed, the subject of Leigh Whannell’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel is a woman, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), who escapes from her abusive and controlling partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) only to find there is more to his influence than meets the eye. Across the film, Cecilia is made to question her perceptions and subjected to horrific psychological torture. Whannell make great use of negative space, making seemingly empty rooms terrifying while sudden appearances are both startling jump scares and nauseating gut punches. Moss dominates the screen with palatable fear as well as evident resolve and ingenuity, and the film’s constant sympathy for Cecilia, as well as its emphasis upon the predatory nature of the male gaze, enables it to be a damning indictment of toxic masculinity as much as a deeply disturbing horror film.
Since its inception, the DC Extended Universe has had recurring problems, largely relating to excess. Overly complex narratives, over-stylised but unimaginative depiction of abilities and drawn out set pieces have resulted in bloated and sometimes inelegant pieces like Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Aquaman. Perhaps appropriately, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn emancipates itself from the franchise’s conventions by having fun with being unconventional. Director Cathy Yan delivers a film that is knowingly witty and embraces the scrappy attitude of its characters. The titular figures of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) do not fit any easy definition of superhero or even supervillain, with little regard for any higher purpose, largely self-centred and yet, when push comes to shove, able to bring their significant talents together for some pretty impressive work. For these talented but unappreciated and largely underestimated ladies to fight against crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) gives the film’s gender (not to mention racial) politics a progressive slant, and BOPATFEOOHQ integrates this opposition smoothly into its overall milieu, delivering a hugely enjoyable crime action flick of smack ‘em whack ‘em delights.
The Lighthouse is a magnificent nightmare. Oppressive angles, stark shadows, crashing noise and roaring characters assail the viewer like an ocean maelstrom. The onslaught is never-ending, as lighthouse keepers Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) trade shifts, plates, bottles, insults and, increasingly, blows both psychological and physical. Meanwhile, the space around them becomes increasingly distorted, whether by mermaids, their own minds or demented seagulls is anybody’s guess. After the taught sparseness of The Witch, director Robert Eggers delivers something equally unsettling but far more overt. Yet the source of the discomfort is rarely clear, beyond the escalating certainty that the two men trapped together in a giant phallus are going stark raving mad. Come the end of the film, you can understand why, and might feel that way yourself.
Of the various words to describe Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, the first that comes to mind is vibrant. From the sparkling performances to Iannucci’s fluid and graceful camera, the film takes the viewer on a merry dance through the trials and tribulations of David Copperfield (Dev Patel). The gorgeous production design by Christina Casali brings the various quirky locations to life, including a boathouse on the beach, a factory of glass jars and increasingly cramped lodgings. While the film is more interested in whimsy that social realism, there are nonetheless dangers including oppression, violence and financial straits, ensuring that David’s difficulties balance the delights. Most entertainingly, the screenplay by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell makes references to the practices of fictionality and storytelling, through some aspects that are overt and others less so. Far from being a stodgy piece of heritage buckling under the weight of its own import, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a joyous romp through notions of family, identity and owning one’s story.