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The Midnight Sky is a sleek, shiny film that could be cold and distant. However, it is also an emotional and moving drama about isolation and connection. Director George Clooney takes influence from his longtime collaborator Steven Soderbergh, with the design, editing pattern and pacing of The Midnight Sky often reminiscent of Solaris. Clooney plays Augustine, a scientist alone in a polar research station in the aftermath of an unidentified global catastrophe. His only hope of communication is with the Aether, a space vessel returning from Jupiter’s moon K-23. The crew of this vessel Sully (Felicity Jones) along with Adewole (David Oyelowo), literally and unknowingly carrying the future of humanity with them. Clooney’s focus upon these isolated groups of characters are the film’s strongest elements, as Augustine’s mind and body start to fail him yet he pushes on. Despite their rigid protocol, the crew of the Aether are never less than warm and human. Some flashback elements as well as final act decisions make the overall result messy and uneven, but the film’s emotional core maintains a powerful grip throughout.
2020 was a year of remarkable debuts, and few more remarkable than this absolute gem from Andrew Patterson. Set during one night in the late 1950s, The Vast of Night follows two high school students, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), who while operating a local radio station start to pick up something strange. The strangeness of the film comes from the events that may be taking place, as well as the beautifully assured delivery. Long takes track through the town for minutes at a time, and much of the action is delivered by sound, especially people talking through radios and telephones. This runs counter-intuitive to standard film logic of show don’t tell, yet The Vast of Night achieves a great deal by telling rather than showing. The intelligent script and strong performances are aided by superb period detail, both in terms of production design and social conditions, and while there is clear homage this never overwhelms the drama. The pacing is perfect and the film wonderfully atmospheric, leaving a genuine sense of mystery and pathos.
David Cronenberg is a filmmaker who puts a great deal on screen and implies even more. From the ‘plasma pool’ of The Fly to the gangster subculture of Eastern Promises, there is always plenty to consider beyond the copious amounts (often of body parts) that we see. In the case of Videodrome, we see pulsing TVs, organic video cassettes and altered bodies, but there is so much more implied beyond this.
TV channel president Max Renn (James Woods) wants to distribute edgy television, and his quest leads him to Videodrome, a show that ostensibly presents realistic, or even genuine, torture and murder. This raises questions both in the film and beyond it about the public appetite for sex and violence, always major topics for discussion. Notably, the film offers little judgement of this appetite, even Max’s pursuit of Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) is presented as sleazy and somewhat base rather than perverse or twisted. Nonetheless, the question is raised about the public appetite, something to chew over. From there we see the idea of life being improved by watching television, in stark contrast to moral guardians that might decry our square eyes and corrupted minds. Even when things get really weird, the film feels exploratory rather than condemnatory, pushing an idea to its logical conclusion. As Masha (Lynne Gorman) tells Max, ‘It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous’. Simply presenting sex and violence is one thing – attaching that material to a philosophy means the material can be believed in, and that is a different matter.
Key to this logical pursuit is Cronenberg’s style, often described as ‘cold’. It’s interesting to consider what this means, as other filmmakers such as Kubrick and Nolan are also described in the same way (strangely, I’ve never heard of a film style described as ‘hot’). Cronenberg’s camera is somewhat detached: the camera observes the changes in Max’s body much as a surgeon might exploratory surgery. And explore we do, as we get up close and personal with the changes in Max’s body.
This brings us to the issue of media effects (thank you, Marshall McLuhan). For decades, studies have argued that media can affect audiences, such as instilling blind acceptance or corrupting morality as already mentioned. There is the counterargument that audiences and media work together to produce meaning and reinforce each other. Videodrome asks what might happen if there were physical media effects, that media caused fiction and reality to blend, including our own bodies to incorporate technology. Answer: it would be gross. But why? If we feel repulsion of the new orifice in Max’s stomach and the merging of his hand with a gun, this likely comes from the plausibility of Rick Baker’s effects. These look and sound like real body parts, unapologetically squishy. The film doesn’t make the body disgusting, but we find it disgusting as if we were actually handling viscera. That’s an impressive feat – producing a reaction from the purely visual and auditory that would also be achieved by the tactile. But what disgusts us is our own bodies. Is that itself not somewhat perverse?
If we consider Max’s new orifice in relation to gender, then he effectively develops a vagina. Is this ‘feminisation’ a corruption of his body? Within aggressively patriarchal western society, feminisation is treated as a terrible nightmare for any man. However, Max is also gaining access to a new form of experience, the feminine, that could be hugely beneficial. What is the ideal body – one that conforms, or one that transgresses? The transgression goes further with the integration of technology as Max inserts videotapes and his gun into his new slit. The ‘new flesh’ could be a higher state of being as the organic and inorganic merge. Technology and humanity coming together is also a full embrace of humanity’s potential, combining the masculine and the feminine. ‘Death to Videodrome’ because that would be purely technological – the new flesh, the way forward, human evolution, is to bring everyone and everything together. With this in mind, Videodrome satirises moral panic over television by suggesting that the effects may be actual, but the result quite different. The ending of the film is deeply ambiguous as to whether Max is destroyed or if he transcends, perhaps because the long life of the new flesh is something Cronenberg leaves to our imagination.
The most remarkable thing about Videodrome is how prescient it proved to be. Replace the various references to the cathode and television with the digital and the computer, and we have a pretty fair description of the mediated and digitised reality of the 21st century. Were the film made today, ‘Digitaldrome’ might well express the same ideas that Cronenberg did in 1983. The smartest horror and science fiction say things about the world that might be. The most unsettling are those that get things right.
Science fiction and horror provide useful metaphors for social tensions and trauma. Drawing heavily on Steven Spielberg classics Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Dark Encounter merges horror and sci-fi into an absorbing tale of a troubled family. Beginning with parents Ray (Mel Raido) and Olivia (Laura Fraser) discovering that their daughter Maisie is missing, a journey takes us into the disintegrating lives of this extended family. Ominous excursions into the woods by Ray and his brothers Billy (Sid Phoenix), Kenneth (Grant Masters) and Noah (Spike White) lead to (close) encounters with strange lights and further disappearances, while the homestead proves far from secure. Writer-director Carl Strathie and DOP Bart Sienkiewicz use long takes and soft focus to express the mysterious events, the second act of the film proceeding almost as a continuous set piece. The film then culminates with an almost trance-like finale that transports the viewer into a world made very strange yet still recognizable, making it a truly uncanny and eerie family drama, suffused with melancholy, loss and schisms.
Those familiar with this blog were probably expecting this entry in my list of ten significant films, and it is one that will likely provoke eye-rolling and nodding in equal measure. A bold statement, but this film is the finest example of cinematic art that I have ever seen. I didn’t see it until I was in my late twenties, which is a good age to first encounter 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the film carries a ‘suitable for all’ certificate, it is a smarter child than I was who would sit through a very deliberately paced (read: slow) and often barely comprehensible film. By the time I did see it, I was sufficiently mature and experienced in film viewing to appreciate it. Not that that stopped me from finding the film utterly baffling on first viewing, and deeply beguiling and thought provoking since then. I had a rule that I would only watch 2001 at the cinema because I thought TV would not do it justice, a rule that led to me seeing multiple screenings, often with an introduction from experts on the film. However, when I watched it on DVD, I found it just as impressive. I regard this film as the greatest cinematic achievement I have ever seen because it is pure cinema. The plot would fit on the back of a postage stamp – birth of humanity to dawn of new species – but the attention to detail in the mise-en-scene and the extraordinary combination of cinematography and editing make it a genuinely transportive experience. Furthermore, one of the major criticisms that the film receives is for me a great strength. Arguably, the most sympathetic character in the film is a computer, the HAL 9000. I don’t particularly engage with HAL any more than I do with the humans, and therefore I am not distracted from the experience of the journey, the Odyssey, itself. As I mentioned in my post on Titanic, lack of character and characterisation is not a problem for me, because the less character there is the easier it is for me to project myself into the film. The most powerful cinematic experiences for me are not where I follow a character’s journey, but go on one myself. I have similar experiences with Avatar, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Gravity, which also attract criticism for their lack of characterisation. Through Stanley Kubrick’s exquisite direction, I feel myself part of the revelation when Moon Watcher starts to use bones as weapons, myself on the journey to and across the Moon, I also spin through space away from the Discovery, and most memorably, I travel through the stargate and beyond the infinite. This sequence is the film’s pinnacle, where sound, colour, emotion and reason and the divisions between them merge into pure sensation, in possibly the most profound and compelling sequence I have ever encountered in cinema. I genuinely find this encounter hard to describe beyond it being an incredible and transportive experience, cinema taking me to strange new places. In addition, it turns out that 2001 is a great teaching text: when I ran a student debate on the film, the session was so filled with insight, argument and students sparking off each other that I was reminded of why I love to teach. Thanks, Stanley.
DISCLAIMER: I have not seen any of the nominees in the categories of Foreign Language Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Animated Short, Live Action Short Film, so I have no view on them.
When it comes to the Oscars, one can pick what is likely to win, and what one would like to win (or, according to the more arrogant out there, what should win). On the first point, the easy answer is what has won so far. If a film has won awards at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, not to mention various critical awards and those of the various filmmaking guilds of America, it is likely to pick up Best Picture at the Oscars. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a tendency.
As previously mentioned, I predict that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will pick up Best Picture. What I would vote for, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is a different matter. Of the nine nominees, I was most impressed by Dunkirk, but World War II films are such clichéd Best Picture winners that I would not vote for it. In a year when focus is on gender relations in the film industry, I want to support a film that has something positive to say about women, and is also something outside the generic norm. Lady Bird and The Shape of Water fulfil those criteria, and the latter is also a fantasy film, extremely rare in these circles. Therefore, in my fantasy AMPAS vote, I would pick The Shape of Water.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (predicted winner)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a surprising lead contender for Best Picture because Martin McDonagh is not nominated for Achievement in Directing. If he were, I would predict a victory, but as he is not, I have the same dilemma. Much as I love Christopher Nolan, he has opted for a safe award genre with his World War II thriller. As impressively directed as Dunkirk is, I want to see him garner awards for science fiction films like Inception and Interstellar. Therefore, I champion another of my favourite directors, Guillermo Del Toro. Handily, I suspect he will actually walk away with the award anyway, which will make me happy.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water (predicted and preferred winner)
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
I have not seen any of these, but I would be flabbergasted if Coco did not bring Pixar another award.
The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson (predicted winner)
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman
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.
Amid great fanfare as only the Academy can deliver, the nominees for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were announced on 24th January 2017. As always, the AMPAS members have come in for sneering over their ‘snubs’ and everyone, their pet bandicoot and the bandicoot’s veterinarian (and probably the veterinarian’s tennis partner) believes that they know better. Well, I do not know better, I’m just a guy on the Internet with some views. Rather than declaring the most deserving winners, I find it far more interesting to analyse the nominees, consider what these nominations represent and make some educated guesses about what might win and, more importantly, why.
For this first post, let’s take a look at Best Picture. Drumroll, please! The nominees for Best Motion Picture are:
Generically, these nine films are an interesting bunch. A science fiction film (a rare nominee in itself); a domestic drama adapted from a successful stage production; a war film; a modern Western; a historical drama; a musical; a true life story; a bereavement drama; an LGBTQ drama. Perhaps these nominees show a certain self-reproach on the Academy’s part over the lack of diversity among previous years’ nominees. Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight could all be classed as ‘black films’, while Lion is also concerned with issues of race and racial identity. Moonlight is a film with LGBTQ concerns, a rare thing indeed for the Academy to take notice of. More cynically, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are typical Oscar fare featuring white men dealing with the problems of being white men. While these two films are fine examples of such dramas, they are hardly challenging in their subject matter. Whereas last year’s nominees included films critical of US institutions, only Hell or High Water and Arrival offer such a critique of current events.
Several of the nominees feature award-friendly subject matter, including American history (Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge), World War II (Hacksaw Ridge), nostalgia (La La Land, Hell or High Water), true stories (Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Lion), Hollywood self-love (La La Land). As I have commented previously, films with historical settings are frequently rewarded, which would work in favour of Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge and Lion (more recent history, but Lion is based on a true story, which the Academy also often rewards). However, according to various publications, the smart money is on La La Land to be the big winner, despite or perhaps because of its nostalgia for the ‘grand tradition of MGM musicals’, as well as having a record number of 14 nominations, equalling those of All About Eve and Titanic. Perhaps the light-heartedness of La La Land will work against it, while the weightier subject matter of Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea will carry them through.
Subject matter is not the only factor, however. Analysis of previous winners demonstrates that winners of the Best Picture award also win one or more of these other three awards: Directing, Film Editing, Writing (both Original and Adapted Screenplay). Five of the five Best Picture nominees are also nominated for Directing – La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival. Of these, Arrival, Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are also up for Writing (the first two for Adapted, the second two for Original). Furthermore, only Arrival, La La Land and Moonlight are also up for Directing and Writing. Combine these factors with the non-award friendly genre of Arrival, and the potentially controversial subject matter of Moonlight, and La La Land emerges as the frontrunner. Were I a member of AMPAS, I would vote for Arrival, my top film of last year, but I suspect come the night La La Land will be dancing all the way to Best Picture.
It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Or at least it should be on February 28th. As the 88th Annual Academy Awards approach, it’s time for me to look over the various categories and offer Vincent’s View on the nominees and likely winners.
I decline to arrogantly presume that I know best and say what the Academy got wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with the nominees and, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I would have voted differently. I had my own favourites last year but that’s simply my view – the assembled results of nearly 7000 people do not pale in comparison to my almighty judgement, or indeed anyone’s. What interests me is what the particular nominees say about tastes and trends about Oscar nominees, now and historically.
Beginning with the nominees for Best Picture, they are a rather surprising bunch. I have written before on the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture and the commonalities among nominees. The cliché is that biopics win Oscars, but more broadly historical films win Oscars. Historical films attract awards, presumably because the AMPAS members (not to mention other institutions) respond to the apparent gravitas of “history.” Furthermore, films “based on a true story” do well, as few things offer more “importance” than “truth.”
With that in mind, consider the eight nominees for Best Picture:
If the nominees were still restricted to five, I believe that the nominated films would be Bridge of Spies (based on real events), Brooklyn (literary adaptation), The Revenant (literary adaptation, based on real events), Spotlight (based on real events) and either Room (literary adaptation) or The Big Short (literary adaptation, based on real events). In addition, all of them are concerned with ideas of “America,” a common theme of Best Picture winners from Wings (1928) to Patton (1970) to Unforgiven (1992). The six films here are concerned with, respectively, the Cold War, the immigrant experience, frontierism, church and community, family, financial disaster. All of the key nominees present aspects of America in relief and highlight them to the world. Cinema has long been an important form of US propaganda, so it is unsurprising that the Academy reward films that effectively advertise the USA. And if the advertisements are about less than savoury events, like Spotlight and The Big Short, this shows a degree of self-reflection and introspection somewhat lacking in US foreign policy and election campaigning.
Two of the nominees are, however, anomalous: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw both films and enjoyed them very much, but to see them nominated for Best Picture is actually staggering. Both are science fiction films (space travel, post-apocalyptic), which makes them part of a very rare group. The only other sci-fi films to be nominated for Best Picture are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010) and Gravity (2013), so to have two such films nominated in one year is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie and a sequel, only the fifth to ever be nominated after The Godfather Parts II and III, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King. So for the first time, a sci-fi sequel is up for Best Picture! This is actually radical and groundbreaking for the Academy, and perhaps signals a possible shift in its members’ typically conservative tastes.