Star Trek Beyond – The phaser, the furious


Insert captain here: Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk, with Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov

The rebooted Star Trek universe has become a curious success story. The first entry, 2009’s minimalist-titled Star Trek, gave the franchise new vigour, while breaking the series’ longstanding ‘odds are bad, evens are great’ rule, being the eleventh adventure, and one of the betters. The less said about the 2013 ‘Rehash of Khan’ Star Trek Into Darkness, a cine-cesspool I have already emptied into at length, the better, but it’s fair to say that both films played a major role in giving their director J. J. Abrams the impetus to resurrect the flatlining Star Wars saga with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Trek Beyond, the first of the series without Abrams in the captain’s seat, was likely to prove a challenge to succeed, and yet, here we are. It’s a fun ’un!

Originally set to be the directorial debut of Star Trek and STID (and, ugh, Transformers 2) co-writer Roberto Orci, that idea was thankfully jettisoned into space early on, like so much dead Spock. Justin Lin, whose revitalisation of the Fast & Furious franchise (entries 3 thru 6) will no doubt result in statues being built to his memory some day, was brought in to take the wheel. He’s suitably made it the most high-octane entry in the franchise’s history, no matter how much that jars with the legacy of a show about space diplomacy and thinly veiled arguments against racial prejudice. (Actually, come to think of it, given how racially progressive the Fast & Furious franchise became under Lin’s watch, maybe there’s a direct connection there…)

Lin directs from a script by Doug Jung and ensemble member Simon Pegg, which finds the crew of the Enterprise crash-landing on an uncharted planet, with an angry alien warlord hunting them. Our heroes Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are facing nicely paralleled mortality issues: Kirk has just passed the age his father was when he was killed in film 1; whereas Spock has just learned that his time-travelling alt-future self has died (allowing the film to delicately mourn Leonard Nimoy) – an intriguing metaphysical ball of angst that the film never dares dig into, but deserves much credit for addressing. The idea of the fear of death trickles in and out of the film, but it’s all just basic emotional dressing for the grander set pieces.

The first of these sees the Enterprise grounded as a fleet of compact armoured alien ships tears through its hull, whipping about in a swarm of black darts. It’s frightening stuff, although the speed of the ships (and their being black on black of space) does make it all a tad hard to see. That the starship’s fall to earth is with a crunching thud and not an enormous Bayhemic explosion is a rare but admirable show of restraint. The death toll unclear (thousands?), the villains seize most of the survivors, barring a few of our principles, of course. Scotty, absent for a sizeable chunk of STID, gets the most to do here; perhaps Simon Pegg taking advantage of his new status. He teams up with orphaned alien scavenger/engineer Jaylah (think Newt from Aliens mixed with, um, that guy Laurence Fishburne played in Predators) to help rescue the team and find their way off the planet. Jaylah, played by Kingsman henchman Sofia Boutella, is the film’s crowning glory – impish, stubborn, and extremely competent, never overly sexualised; she sits comfortably amongst the leading ladies of the recent feminist action hero wave.


You’ve got me on my knees, Jaylah: Sofia Boutella as alien newcomer Jaylah, with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban)

When the crew finally reunites, it’s a few skirmishes to take down the villain (although thankfully there’s room between them to breathe, which was the undoing of STID). Lin determinedly inserts a motorbike for Kirk to ride both fast and moderately furiously. The Enterprise crew then goes up against the swarm again in a delightful over-the-top (and LOUD) space battle that is one of the most joyous in recent memory. It’s dumb fun made by smart people.

Like too many recent blockbusters, the villain is the weakest element. Played by Idris Elba in alien Nosferatu makeup so thick you’d never know it was him, Krall is another angry-with-the-system rebel, whose rants against the Federation sound more BREXIT than ISIS. As cool as his army of hive-minded spaceships is, his sinister plan to kill lots of people with a bio-weapon is so old-hat you’d imagine it was outlawed in the future along with anti-gay prejudice.

The design is solid, especially the space station Yorktown, which is all crisp white futurism and glass, but toys with gravity like Norman Foster playing Super Mario Galaxy. Lighting is all too dark in some sequences, and the edits during the action can be a little sharp, but mostly it’s a pleasantly bright and thrilling adventure, a strong blockbuster in a summer of flops and stillbirths. Even the acting has gotten better. Pegg no longer grates as Scotty, and Pine finally begins to feel right for the role of captain. Once again, Karl Urban steals the show as Dr. McCoy, given the best of the bantery dialogue to snarl in Spock’s face. Sadly, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is largely sidelined, as is, more tragically, the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, a glorified extra in his last space adventure.


The old and the new: An iconic reference

It’s curious that the marketing for the film chose so strongly to reference the original 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the film in this series this latest least resembles. Beyond is a hyperactive adventure, contrasting sharply with the unjustly disliked but criminally overlong TMP, with its true-sci-fi mystery plot. But there are fleeting references, such as the villains in Beyond using old Starfleet probes for reconnaissance, while the “villain” of TMP was the Voyager probe made sentient. One shot, sped up to rapidly circle the entirety of the Enterprise in all its glory, seems to josh TMP’s notorious three-minute ogling of its famous model. Indeed, while Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk suffering the malaise of his mission, and considering relinquishing the captaincy to become an admiral, TMP saw Kirk’s frustration with the admiralty return him to his rightful place. With Nimoy, and thus Spock-Prime, now gone, the original adventure is truly brought to a close. Star Trek Beyond is just another bump on the new road, but it’s one that offers one hell of a thrill.


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2015 in review – You had us worried there for a bit

2015 best of

There was a moment when it looked like 2015 would be a pretty miserable year for cinema. A good few moments, to be honest. Battling through my final semester of college, my film viewing was restricted, and it wasn’t until May that I saw the first of the films to make my Top 20 of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road, if you’re asking).

Highly rated horrors It Follows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night proved to be effective diversions that thoroughly failed to live up to the hyperbolic heights of the Film Twitter opinion machine. Furious 7 was a delightful (and dumb, but delightful) way to spend my birthday and a night away from my thesis, but that franchise continues to move away from the success of Fast Five. After Mad Max summer descended into a farce of blockbusters: the paint-by-nostalgia monstrosity that was Jurassic World, the lopsidedly bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Roland Emmerich-lite San Andreas.

It was well into autumn before things picked up for me. Some early triumphs from the year made their ways to Netflix, and by then I was working on a project at the Museum of Modern Art, where keeping up to date with the better film releases became little more than a matter of staying late after work. In so many ways 2015 ended a lot better than it began.

It was Star Wars that sealed the deal. Not my favourite film of the year (in fact you’ll see it absent from the list below – but it was a close cut), The Force Awakens proved to have that little bit of magic that has been missing for all too long, a film the world can absorb the hype of that then manages to live up to expectations and be a genuinely terrific film. I saw a late screening opening night, and regardless of reservations, I left the cinema more charged than I can remember being in years.

There were, as always, dabbles in film history to charge me also. Painfully overdue, I finally viewed Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, which lived up to the expectations of that teenager who caught three minutes of White on the TV so many years ago. At the cinema, I caught some real masterpieces for the first time: The Naked Spur, A Star Is Born (1954), The Masque of the Red Death, Fires on the Plain, the five-hour cut of Until the End of the World, Touki Bouki, Lonesome, and a 3D screening of the delirious Kiss Me Kate. Nothing compared to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which stole my heart and exhausted my mind at MoMA in November, and instantly catapulted itself into the list of very greatest films I have ever seen.

Knowing 2015 would be a busy year, my annual movie challenge was intentionally a light one. Spying an obvious blind spot in my film knowledge – Bollywood – I took to forcing myself to watch one (long) feature a month. I only scraped the surface of course, but I’ve developed an understanding of and passion for this major branch of Indian cinema, its flamboyance, its love of twists and hatred of subtext. I watched essential classics including Zanjeer, Mother India, and Mughal-e-Azam, as well as recent hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and 3 Idiots, and even contemporary madness like Dhoom, Dhoom 2, and Enthiran. I’ll be watching more in future, and I can’t recommend enough that film fans who have yet to dip their toes in Bollywood streams take care of that, and see what a sixth of people on earth considers mainstream cinema.

So on to the films of the year. As always I missed a few things. Beasts of No Nation, despite being right there on Netflix, never got seen. Clouds of Sils Maria, Bridge of Spides, Magic Mike XXL, and Creed similarly got missed. Some lauded films were appreciated, but fell short for me, like Straight Outta Compton, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant. Films that narrowly didn’t make my Top 20 include Mistress America, Tangerine, Taxi, James White, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Song of the Sea, and The Big Short. The terrific farce 7 Days of Hell was considered, but rejected for the same reason A Very Murray Christmas, the worst thing I saw all year, doesn’t feature in my worst-of list – they’re both productions designed for home viewing and barely of a length to qualify as features.


Now, who enjoys a good list?


20. Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama about the breakdown of friendship between two millenial yuppies is peppered with nightmarish oddities that keep the viewer on their toes. It’s violently negative in its lack of faith in people supporting one another in need, but not unjustifiably so. Shot in bright airy spaces, but the focus is on intense close-ups that further alienate the characters from each other. Elisabeth Moss gave one of the year’s most committed performances.


19. Youth

Still struggling to recreate his earlier successes in The Consequences of Love and (the near-perfect) Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino has made his best film in seven years. It focuses on two elderly artist friends hiding from the world in a Swiss spa. Michael Caine is the retired classical composer who peaked too soon, Harvey Keitel is the Scorsese-like filmmaker who keeps pumping out films that cannot compare to the works of his youth. Finely acted and sublimely scored, and featuring a deluge of Sorrentino’s delicious, unexplained eccentricities, it is hampered only by its dialogue, which feels all too scabrously translated from Italian.


18. Ex Machina

As sci-fi continues to recapture the public imagination (2015 was quite a good year for it overall), this unexpected gem, a sexy Asimovian tale of A.I. versus real en-souled intelligence, became a surprise favourite for many. Written and directed by Alex Garland, known best for writing Danny Boyle’s sci-fi ventures, this was a slickly produced psychological thriller that brought together demi-perspex android Alicia Vikander and 2015 MVP Domhnall Gleeson’s computer expert for the ultimate Voight-Kampff test. Oscar Isaac’s untrustworthy tech billionaire, all creatine and superego, stole the show, along with the lush visuals. A mishandled finale was the only sour note.


17. Phoenix

Christian Petzold, the emerging master of German historical melodrama, weaves a strangely original yarn in Phoenix, in which a Holocaust survivor attempts to uncover if her husband served her up to the Nazis. Unrecognisable after reconsructive surgery, she is hired by her husband to impersonate his supposedly dead wife to claim an inheritance. The greater mystery is therefore known to us, creating a scintilating game of cat and mouse. Impressive period detail, Nina Hoss’s restrained performance and a jawdropping conclusion make it one to remember.


16. Sicario

What should feel overly familiar, another tale of cynical cops and murderous cartels, is given new life and energy in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The descent of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent from go-getting SWAT member, to toughened special forces volunteer, to exhausted, disillusioned survivor, stands as a superb metaphor for the bewildering War on Drugs. Smart dialogue and incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins (the night vision sequence was one of the year’s finest) saw it through clunkier moments; it leaves a lasting impression.


15. Goodnight Mommy

The old dark house of classic horror is here replaced with a soulless, polished modernist monolith, a bright white country house full of dark terrors. A pair of twins – spritely, Aryan-looking – begin to suspect that their mother is no longer who she claims to be. A nasty game of powerplay ensues, with the story cleverly shifting the viewer’s allegience. Keenly cut and often blackly comic, it’s a skin-crawling horror that reinvents torture porn as Oedipal nightmare.


14. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s stunning wuxia fable was one of 2015’s most beautiful and most frustrating films. With an intentionally obtuse storyline and an editing style that cuts away from the main action on a whim, it is not a film that satisfies a hunger for solid storytelling. What it does have however are exquisitely lush production values and, in its star Shu Qi, a remarkable feminine intensity. Many of the year’s most arresting images were imbedded in this work, in particular a dramatic cliffside confrontation slowly enwrapped in mist.


13. Inside Out

Pixar rarely let us down, but lately their hits have numbered their misses. But their hits remain some of the smartest, most charming and most universally appealing films to come out of Hollywood today. Pete Docter, responsible for Monsters, Inc. and Up, here takes us inside the mind of a young preteen, demonstrating her emotional turmoil through anthropomorphised emotions that dwell in a sci-fi wonderland; part playground, part bureaucratic stampede. The characters both inside and out carry the film’s hefty emotional punch, and the designs are handsome and witty. Only its repetitive, stop-and-start adventure narrative prevents it from being listed with the very top of the Pixar pantheon.


12. Brooklyn

Old-fashioned in the best possible way, director John Crowley’s take on Colm Tóibín’s novel, adapted by Nick Hornby, puts its money where its heart is. Saoirse Ronan beams as Eilis, a shy parochial Irish girl who moves to New York to better herself, and soon emerges from her shell, only to be torn between her new home and the one she left behind. Plus there’s an ideal romantic match on both sides of the Atlantic. Excellent period detail and finely paced, simple human drama create something traditional yet timely. Earnest, genuine, and unironic storytelling.


11. Spotlight 

Telling the story of how The Boston Globe broke the news of massive cover-ups of paedophilia within the Catholic Church, Spotlight repeatedly evokes the champion of the investigative news genre, All the President’s Men. While never quite reaching its forebear’s heights, it recaptures much of its energy, making the gathering of information or the biting of a new lead as thrilling as a gun battle or foot chase. It is functionally, unshowily shot, with some choice montage work, but it’s the slowly building story and the great performances, most notably Mark Ruffalo, that made this one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful dramas.


10. Anomalisa

Resurrecting a 10-year-old stage play, the unique surrealist Charlie Kaufman chose to visualise this tale of depression and isolation in stop-motion animation form. The antihero of the film, Michael, is so cut-off, introspective and self-obsessive, that he perceives every stranger as sharing the same, expressionless face, each bearing actor Tom Noonan’s barely shifting tones. A chance encounter with Lisa, wearing her own 3D-printed face and wielding Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet voice, evolves into a simple love affair with complex repercussions. At times hilarious, tragic, or nightmarish, it sculpts two incredible character studies as rich as the miniature universe built to house them. The shower scene alone guarantees this one immortality.

9. The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland has emerged as a late British Lynch, an artist who understands the film camera as a literal dream machine, producing deep truth from the illogical. In this, his third dramatic feature, he explores female sexuality through a series of twisting sexual games of cat-and-mouse, as a lesbian couple indulge in sado-masochistic role-play in opulent fashion. The lavish English country estate décor, sensuous lingerie and extensive all-female cast create a gratifying otherworldliness, while the rich cinematography, sharp cutting and unexpected insect imagery add to Strickland’s ethereal scenario an extra sexy pinch.


8. The Look of Silence

The companion piece to 2012’s untouchable The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence sees Joshua Oppenheimer turn away from the perpetrators of Indonesia’s anti-communist genocide to look at its victims, and the survivors. In a metaphor too perfect for fiction, clear sight is given to us through an optician (or supposed optician), a man whose brother was savagely slain by government-backed gangsters. He visits these older gangsters, now local big wigs, and while performing eye exams, has them probe their despicable pasts for reasonings and methods. Mixing gut-wrenching old video testament with brightly shot contemporary footage, Oppenheimer hints that an emotional cleansing is possible, but all too late for our protagonist and his withering parents.


7. Mad Max: Fury Road 

Just when reboots and remakes and all-too-late sequels were becoming old-hat, George Miller undid more than a decade’s worth of talking animal abuse to bring back Max Rockatansky from his shallow, sandy, post-apocalyptic grave. An adrenaline-pumping extended chase sequence of a movie, Fury Road has all the thump and energy of the finest post-’90s action cinema with the dedicated, unpatronising world-building of ’80s fantasy. Tom Hardy grunts as Max, while Charlize Theron stands a one-armed feminist archangel as Imperator Furiosa, a second-tier thug in a cultish tribe who decides enough is enough in the face of crippling misogyny and rape. With exquisite stunts and mind-boggling costume and vehicle design, Fury Road is that rare art film in blockbuster’s clothing. Indulgences in the thrill of the chase undermine the broader themes at times, but this is still exceptional filmmaking from start to finish.


6. The Tribe

Part gangster movie, part coming-of-age tale, part pitch-black parody of high school dramas, The Tribe is a monstrous and brilliant work. Set at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, the dialogue is entirely in sign language, without accompanying translation of any kind. The audience is thus forced to engage doubly with the material, to absorb what story it can while the thunderous, angered performances confront them head on. Extended shots without cuts for interruption draw you further in, only to be assaulted by a McDonagh-ian propensity for sudden, horrifying violence. Other sequences our ears pick up the important sounds that could mean life-or-death for the characters on screen. It is a hopeless look at an isolated, noiseless world, that milks the potential of cinema to both reveal and conceal for everything it’s got.


5. The Martian

Another story of survival in space – so what makes this one different? Well for starters, Matt Damon gives his finest performance in a decade in one of his greatest roles, as astronaut Mark Watney, a cocksure scientist whose wit and ego are enough to just about sustain him after he is abandoned on Mars in a dust storm. His quest to stay alive with limited resources is created with real (or at least believable) science and exceptional wit, through Drew Goddard’s bouncy screenplay and Damon’s sardonic delivery. The momentum jumps along at a solid pace, while sequences on Mars, Earth, and in space sustain the drama without an ounce of fat. Ridley Scott, working as a director for hire, commits to a great project, tying together excellent location shooting (in Jordan) and expertly deployed special effects. A testament to human perseverance, a uniquely smart blockbuster, and just a really good time at the movies.


4. Son of Saul

Shot on 35mm with needle-point-shallow focus, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature redefines ‘harrowing’, by bringing you into the whirling hell of a Nazi death camp and refusing to let you out. The sensational Géza Röhrig is Saul, a Jewish prisoner fit enough to be part of the team who assist in the mass murder of their own people, and thus an enforced collaborator. His impossible last chance for redemption is to save the corpse of a young man (his son, perhaps?) from the furnace, but escalating events in the camp block his way at every hurdle. An exhausting, frustrating and beautiful work, that dares to reveal the darkest, unwhispered barbarities of the Holocaust.


3. 45 Years

The year’s simplest, meatiest tragedy, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years feels like the untold not-so-happy ending to many of the greatest love stories. An older couple is about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when he receives a letter regarding a lost love from his past. The nostalgia and sadness bred in him stirs regret and paranoia in his wife, threatening not just the occasion, but the legacy of their relationship. Capturing beautiful moments of human interaction and shot from a permanently respectful distance, 45 Years is a remarkable story that triumphs through its two stars, the resurrected ’60s heartthrob Tom Courtenay, and the irrepressible Charlotte Rampling, at her very finest.


2. Carol

Todd Haynes’s sumptuous, delicious film of forbidden love in 1950s New York hits with an emotional wallop, as wide-eyed salesgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) meets older divorcee-to-be Carol (Cate Blanchett), and embarks upon a seemingly doomed lesbian romance. Made up of perfectly framed glances and erotically charged conversations, Carol highlights the cruelty of the attitudes of the time without preaching or descending into melodrama. The period detail and lighting astonish, while the score by Carter Burwell captures and holds the energy of the drama. But it’s the performances by the film’s two female leads that make this one for the ages. Heartfelt and empathetic, they carry their flawed characters with immense pride right through to the heart-stopping finale.


1. Hard to Be a God

One of the defining qualities of a great movie is that it either shows you something that has never been seen before, or tells a story that is unlike any you have ever seen. It has been too long since a film did both. Aleksei German’s final film (it was completed in post after his death), shot over six years, originates in a novel by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote the work on which Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. It is about a group of human scientists observing a world almost identical to Earth, but still in, and seemingly stuck in, the Middle Ages. In an explosive performance, Leonid Yarmolnik plays Don Rumata, a human observer succumbed to extraordinary hubris, encouraging the peasants of this backwards planet to treat him as a god. The themes of madness and decline are handled with the gravitas they deserve, but the film retains a casual cheekiness throughout, defiantly grotesque and dirty. The lengthy takes with roving handheld cameras get you right up in the thick of it; you can almost smell the sweat and mud. German has done the near impossible, rigidly blocking his scenes despite the wild camera movements, so that his frame is perpetually full, busy, and yet with no action obscured. It is monumental filmmaking, beautiful and hideous and deep.


Good god, man!



So as for the worst films of 2015, well, for a year that never seemed like it was going to be a good year for cinema until the last minute, it never looked much like a bad year either. I never saw Mortdecai or Rock the Kasbah or Pan or Terminator: Typo. End-of-the-world examples of cynical capitalist cinema in the guise of Jurassic World or Minions were so blandly efficient as to escape this list. Here’s what utterly disappointed or downright infuriated this past year.


5. The Good Dinosaur

One step forward and one step back is Pixar’s game right now. This mindlessly banal tripe is only a patch above Cars 2 in that studio’s canon. It’s utterly unbelievable, uncrafted world, with barely a dozen dinosaur inhabitants implying rampant inbreeding, its rehashed boy-and-his-dog plot that goes nowhere new, its lazy voicework and godawful twangy score, all add up to bad family entertainment. The backgrounds are, admittedly, extraordinarily illustrated, but that’s no use when the characters in front of them look like Aardman characters crafted from nasal drippings. The magic mushrooms scene was the most socially and ethically misjudged moment in an American movie all year, and I’m including Entourage in that.


4. Taken 3

Climbing its way up from the very bottom a few years back, the Taken franchise now no longer feels like an advertising campaign for ISIS, at least. But this remains truly exhausted action garbage, with growling and exhausted Liam Neeson killing all the Russians in America after his ex-wife is murdered in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes. The action sequences barely thrill (as they barely thrilled when seen in the trailers), and Forest Whitaker only serves to depress with his role-slumming. The dramatic ending is gloriously, unintentionally laughable.


3. The Editor 

Genre spoofs are not easy, and this attempt to lampoon giallo and B-movie horror manages to bungle everything from the get-go. The look, the rhythms, the acting styles are all wrong, as if no one involved actually bothered to watch a giallo beforehand, or thought a movie all about analogue film editing might wanna look like it’s being shown on old film. The murder mystery isn’t intriguing, the horror isn’t frightening and the gags just aren’t funny – desperate as it is to find comedy in old-timey Italian misogyny, it comes off as disinterested in appearing at all respectful to women. At least it tried, but it failed utterly.


2. Fantastic Four

The superhero reboot no one asked for became the film no one wanted, including, it would seem, the actors or filmmakers involved. Every step is so blatantly miscalculated, from the casting (Jamie Bell as tough guy Ben, Michael B. Jordan as lovable fop Johnny, Toby Kebbell as someone with an accent) to the overly realistic look, to the epic score played over characters crossing the street or typing things into computers. Supposedly plagued by production issues, its bipolar switch in the second act reveals that no one could quite agree what kind of movie they were making. For once with a messy major Marvel-based project, the box office reflected this.

1. The Loft

Erik Van Looy’s remake of his own modestly successful Belgian thriller Loft, this is an uncompromising study in bad filmmaking. An unengaging murder mystery, that doubles as a deeply unsexy erotic thriller, The Loft starts off on the most wrong foot by having its five male stars buy an apartment together in which to cheat on their wives. By the time a dead body turns up, we already want all these men locked away for it regardless of their role in the murder. Painful miscasting and excruciating dialogue build up to a pathetic series of convoluted twists. Men’s rights activist cinema, with all the talent you imagine goes with that.



And with that, onward into 2016…


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Crimson Peak – I’m not that Innocents


Goth chic: Mia Wasikowska and her poofy nightdress in Crimson Peak

I have this thesis on Guillermo del Toro. It stems from enjoying most of his films, but rarely loving any of them. There’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film I flat-out adore, and there’s Pacific Rim, a big dumb movie that shamelessly tickles all the happiest childish parts of me. Otherwise, I can take or leave his work. Parts of the Hellboys delight, and The Devil’s Backbone is a beautifully put together if frustratingly simplistic fable. His TV series The Strain, adapted from his trilogy of airplane novels, is the sort of trash I greedily ingest between episodes of HBO-or-similar shows, but still find myself half-watching my phone the whole time. Because let’s face it, Guillermo del Toro is a great designer, but he’s rarely a great storyteller. Scratch that. He might be the best designer.

If Guillermo del Toro wanted to be a production designer full-time, he could be the Edith Head of production designers. He could be the Paddy Chayefsky of production designers. He could be the Sven Nykvist of production designers. Look at the elven guards of Hellboy 2, or the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, one of the few things that kept Peter Jackson’s regrettable Hobbit trilogy watchable was the unexpected moments of bizarre design that clearly stemmed from del Toro’s latent role in their production.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, expectedly, del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, is a gloriously designed spectacle, but it is also in so many other ways a farce. Its DNA spliced from the core strands of gothic romance, the film begs to be given the dues of a Rebecca or The Innocents, but is really just a subpar Dragonwyck rolled in a tasty supernatural burrito.

So here’s the story. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the bookish daughter of a successful self-made Albany businessman and widower in the waning days of the Victorian era. Edith has aspirations of becoming a romance writer and a curious and unexplained tap into the netherworld that allows for occasional ghostly visitations. Tom Hiddleston is Sir Thomas Sharpe, a visiting English aristocrat whose vast family riches have been depleted, with a stately manor that has fallen into Money Pit levels of disrepair. With his caustic and pernicious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he’s in town desperately seeking capital to help mine the valuable supplies of blood-red clay that sit beneath their hilltop home. A few swoons and a murder later, Edith is off to England to see her new husband’s home.

If that bloody goo oozing up through the ground and the mother-shaped wraith warning her to keep away from some place called “Crimson Peak” weren’t enough to make Edith run for it, the house’s state of decay should have. Cartoonishly gothic, with a hole in the roof that Disney’s Haunted Mansion would blush at, the Sharpe Family home is as unwelcoming as its owner is dashingly handsome. Soon enough, del Toroan leaking ghosts are clambering through the walls, and someone is definitely trying to poison poor Edith.

On paper it’s the perfect project for the Mexican minstrel of the macabre. He has wildly elaborate sets to play with, drenched in saturated colours of dark hues, CGI-makeup-hybrid ghouls, poofy turn-of-the-century costumes, and even complex steampunk mining equipment to indulge his concerning clockwork fetish. As so often with his films, it’s a flimsy screenplay, co-written with Matthew Robbins, that leaves the film struggling at the best of times, and fails to attach any emotional or conceptual resonance to some finely realised imagery.

What the film does have, however, and all too rare in the del Toro canon, is a sense of camp. The film regularly simmers with it, and Jessica Chastain’s frantic performance spits it out in clots thicker than that visceral clay. If anything keeps the film aloft, it is the camp value (see the portrait of the late Mother Sharpe), but even this is abused by del Toro. Upon first arriving at Crimson Peak, Thomas advises Edith to take a bath, but warns (in the film’s most humourous moment) that the tap will briefly run red. It’s a wonderful play on an old horror cliché, but it’s undone moments later when, as Edith turns on the tap, del Toro plays its spluttering of bloody water for a scare, complete with Wasikowska gasp and musical sting. The director wants to have his cake and eat it too, and to watch the jam inside ooze everywhere as well.

On top of this, there’s surprisingly little tension to be had, nor mystery. The clumsily handled murder scene early on leaves no question as to whether the siblings can be trusted, and the underlying eroticism of Thomas and Edith’s romance flounders under his blatant Monsieur Verdouxism. Two achingly predictable last act twists are handled completely upside down – Edith takes the revelation that she is to be murdered with preposterous calm, and flees for her life upon learning a secret that should only add up to a serious breach of trust and an uncomfortable fireside chat. Any chance of going full Turn of the Screw and letting us wonder if our heroine is imagining things is mangled by the opening lines of the film; narrating from a position of post-film survival, Edith assures us “ghosts are real”. Well then, that’s that then. (The line seems all the more grating and unnecessary given how attractively inessential the ghosts actually are to the story).

The dialogue goes little better, often feeling jarringly twentieth century. Speeches about carnivorous moths and ghosts stories (or, stories with ghosts in them, hint hint) are the wrong kind of unsubtle. ADR (post-production over-dubbing) is evident throughout, especially whenever characters talk about Victorian-era technology, planting thoughts that the script as written was even more troubled than what has ended up in the finished film.

Despite itself, Crimson Peak is never quite boring (despite tertiary love interest Charlie Hunnam’s most valiant efforts to bland it into submission). Wasikowska is misguidedly directed, but she throws a good deal of energy at it, and Hiddleston is always modestly electrifying. Chastain, hamming it up to the nines, casts away her full house of Oscar-worthy performances and just goes for it with all the gusto she can manage.

An English-language triumph still evades del Toro, but he has once again produced a hauntingly beautiful, if painfully unsatisfying film. Too shallow to be high art, too confused to play as shocker, it will simply act as a stand-in film in his career while he searches for a truly personal project worthy of his talents. Perhaps, if we’re truly lucky, he might turn to design full-time and help make another director’s work look the very best it could.


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MoMA and its Amazing Technicolor Film Series – Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

MoMA’s ‘Glorious Technicolor’ series has come to a close, and it’s hard to imagine we’ll see a line-up quite like it until Technicolor celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2115. It’s harder, of course, to imagine anywhere, even an institution as diligently respectful to film history as the Museum of Modern Art, still screening Technicolor prints one hundred years from now. The moving image archival sciences suggest the films, properly stored, can survive until then, but who will still care to view film on film? Who will still care about these 200-year-old examples of “modern” art?

Pivotally, the audiences that exist now for these films, 60 years or 100 year old, suggest the future is not as grim as my fearmongering might imply. Many of the events I attended during ‘Glorious Technicolor’ were filled to capacity, even on some beautifully sunny days when being indoors for an old movie should be heresy (and especially on some exceptionally humid days when your skin just wants to crawl off your body and escape down the nearest sewer vent).


The first film I caught in the second half of the series was a pivotal one, if one that all but the purest cinephiles and factoid-devotees are still aware of: Becky Sharp. Rouben Mamoulian’s 1935 adaptation of Vanity Fair, focusing as the title suggests on the novel’s saucier anti-heroine, was the first feature film produced in three-strip Technicolor. It’s a rather dull affair overall, sanitised and gifted a happy ending, and the film, much like The Adventures of Robin Hood and A Star Is Born (Mark I) lacks the radiance of what we consider today true Technicolor. The reds of the dragoons’ jackets are not quite that luscious Technicolor red, but some of the background details, notably purple curtains, stand out as definitively Technicolor. The film was partially lost for decades after the 1930s, only restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in the ’80s; the most notable repercussion of this being the fate of the final reel. No 35mm materials remained for it, so as the film reaches its climax suddenly the picture quality collapses into two-colour Cinecolor, sampled from a 16mm print. It’s a sad fate for such a cinematic milestone, although the film’s dramatic and pacing weaknesses would likely have condemned it to obscurity either way.

More tragedy indeed could be seen in a 20-minute Technicolor lighting test for Becky Sharp which preceded the film. Mostly just footage of the actors trying to keep straight faces while standing perfectly still to see how their costumes and makeup would look in Technicolor, the clapperboards that preceded each take bore the name of Lowell Sherman, the film’s original director, who died of pneumonia just a few weeks into the production. The footage however is an interesting study of just how much care had to be taken to get Technicolor looking just right on its extended debut.

A Saturday afternoon in mid-July had to be given over to watching one of Technicolor’s greatest triumphs, Gone With the Wind. The film’s vast scope, incredible story and writing, its pitch-perfect acting, sweeping score, and still-controversial politics, often obscure the fact that it is an astonishingly beautiful film from beginning to end. Gone With the Wind is surprisingly unshowy with its use of Technicolor (well, given its length, that is). Certainly some of the costumes and décor burst with three-strip radiance, but often the browns and beiges and greys of the South before, during, and after the Civil War are hardly colours Technicolor is noted for. Even the film’s most famous gown, Scarlett O’Hara’s dress sown from curtains, is off-emerald green, so as not to completely leap from the screen and belie its pauperish origins.


When the film’s colour does excel, however, it is by playing Technicolor’s two strongest hands – deep reds and strong blacks. Most notable during the violent sunsets and firestorms that precede the intermission, the vibrancy of the red backgrounds with the film’s principals in thick silhouette before them are Gone With the Wind’s most iconic images. Seeing this on a 35mm print, this one courtesy of George Eastman House, is one of those screening opportunities all cinephiles should seek out, regardless of their opinions on this sometimes difficult movie.


Perhaps the purest artistic counterweight to Gone With the Wind in the Technicolor canon, Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944) is a 70-minute B-movie-ish South Seas adventure. One of Universal’s first Technicolor movies (hard to imagine in the year of Furious 7 and Jurassic World, but they were once lagging far behind the other major studios), it was also, somewhat ironically, perhaps the most pristine print I saw during the entire film series. The film is delightful trash, with Maria Montez vamping in dual-role as sexualised serpent queen and her modest mouse-ish twin sister. Lon Chaney Jr. plays a brown-faced mute, while Sabu plays that role that Sabu plays in everything (Black Narcissus excepted), swinging from every imaginable dangling object even when totally unnecessary. It’s a fascinating film (one of a number of adventures Universal made at the time) because it looks so incredible, despite its bare-bones plot and how it almost suffocates on its own camp. Film history tries to not let us associate Technicolor’s magic with such thoroughly minor fare, and yet here it is, more colourful and dazzling than many glorified colour movies; critical darlings and award winners. It was a delighting break after so many grand and important Technicolor triumphs, and as such proved a triumph in its own way.


A handful of Westerns played ‘Glorious Technicolor’, but I was only able to catch The Naked Spur. And very happy I was with that, it proved by some distance the best film I caught in the two-month-long programme that was new to me. “Packed with Technicolor thrills!” roared its poster back in 1953, and it certainly is, particularly because of how untamed the Technicolor in it is. As I mentioned previously, the Technicolor corporation controlled the studios’ use of their apparatus through regimented overseership. Thus all of The Wizard of Oz’s scenes were shot indoors – despite being mostly set outdoors – where Technicolor technicians could best control lighting and the appearance of their product. The Naked Spur, however, was shot largely on location in the Rocky Mountains, a sign of technological improvement that allowed for less bulky, more mobile cameras.


As such The Naked Spur looks like few other Technicolor films, with the barrage of natural greens and blues and greys out of the control of the designers. Gone are the rich reds and deep purples of the studio-based melodramas, here the colours of the wilderness are captured in a heightened realism that allows the locations to serve as a stage for a complex drama of greed and distrust. Colour cinema could finally roam the wild, instead of just lumbering into it and shooting whatever was nearby.


Of all the losses of the Technicolor age, none has been written about more than A Star Is Born (Mark II, 1954). George Cukor’s musical update of the early Technicolor classic infamously had half an hour ripped from it by studio bosses shortly after its debut. Much of that material is now lost, but much was restored in an acclaimed 1983 reconstruction, which filled in gaps with recovered audio played over on-set photographs. These scenes remain thoroughly jarring, with the lavish Technicolor replaced with its veritable visual antithesis: still black and white frames. And yet, they also reveal the degree of dedication to the restoration. Similarly evident of this was that A Star Is Born was one of the only films shown in the entirety of ‘Glorious Technicolor’ shown on a DCP (digital cinema package) rather than on 35mm, as the surviving elements have proven too delicate to strike new prints from.

The film itself is a strong remake, which becomes a little too much a beat-for-beat repeat in the final act. Still, the central musical number, Judy Garland’s ‘Born in a Trunk’, could rival many of Singin’ in the Rain’s finest big numbers for Technicolor opulence.


A Star Is Born’s James Mason was up again in the next film I saw, Disney’s 1954 take on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Another rather standard adventure film, this lacked all of the gorgeous lustre of Cobra Woman, and was easily the most disappointing film I caught during the series. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus has been imagined as a dull, rusty brown submarine, one of the only colours that the Technicolor process has proven slow to improve. With its gruelling length of more than two hours, only briefly surfacing for a beautiful Technicolor beach scene or a mildly thrilling giant squid attack, it’s hard to imagine 20,000­ Leagues could have been as popular as it was back in the day. I suppose it does have a comic-relief sea lion. Always a crowd-pleaser, that.


MoMA rounded out its summer of Technicolor with a weekend dedicated to animation. The backbone of this was a number of Technicolor prints of classics of Disney animation. I was lucky to have a chunk of spare time, and got to three of them. Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, I had not realised before, gets its unique, Grimm look from those teething pain days of Technicolor, before The Wizard of Oz and co. electrified everything. As such, its many muted fairytale colours actually help the lips red as blood and hair black as night to pop the way they do.

Fantasia, shown in all its original grandeur with intermission, could hardly look better than in a Technicolor print – it may represent Walt Disney’s ego at its most extreme, but the visuals that ego inspired are beyond compare. ‘Rite of Spring’, with its wide swath of colours and fiery reds as the world is formed, stands out dramatically, as do the bright tones of the centaurs, pegasi, and other creatures of Greek myth featured in ‘The Pastoral Symphony’ sequence.

fantasiariteofspring_zps14c3007brainbow pastoral fantasia

The final film I caught was a first for me, Melody Time (1948), one of Disney’s mash-up of shorts during those difficult post-Fantasia, post-War years. It’s colossally hit-or-miss, with some of the musical shorts delightful or charming, while others drag on ceaselessly (‘The Legend of Johnny Appleseed’, in particular). In some ways though, this saved the finest use of Technicolor for last. In one of the more middling segments, ‘Blame it on the Samba’, Donald Duck and José Carioca (that parrot you’ve seen in so many pictures but probably never seen in a movie) are brought out of a funk by the combination of alcohol and samba music. When the pair finds themselves in a giant glass of liquid samba, the sequence dissolves into a whirlwind of shapes and colours, an acid trip lava lamp, complete with live action organist and demented physical comedy courtesy of the Aracuan Bird. On the big screen, in all of glorious Technicolor’s glorious colours, it is quite a sight to behold.

I was very fortunate to see as many films as I did during ‘Glorious Technicolor’, and so often in prints of such superb quality. And yet, I missed many more than I saw (Leave Her to Heaven was a particular sore one for me). I was especially sorry to miss the great range of shorts programmes MoMA had running, from classic cartoons to travelogues, and fragments of early, mostly lost Technicolor features. What I did catch was the 1949 industrial film imaginatively titled Technicolor for Industrial Films, played before Cobra Woman, that is both sales pitch and triumphant example of what Technicolor can do. It’s also a great example of awful, awful 1940s voiceover work.

Powell and Pressburger’s magnificent 1946 afterlife drama A Matter of Life and Death is famous for inverting the colour stylings of The Wizard of Oz: its heaven is monochrome, its earth – life itself – is bursting with colour. As a heavenly messenger, played by Marius Goring, travels between worlds, he stares lovingly at a rose as it blooms into redness. “Ah,” he exhales, “one is starved for Technicolor up there.” In this age of digital desaturation, Netflix, and poorly calibrated TV screens, we’re all a little starved for Technicolor down here these days too. For one summer in New York in 2015, we feasted.

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MoMA and its Amazing Technicolor Film Series – Part 1

(the above trailer for ‘Glorious Technicolor’ has been removed since the series concluded)

Technicolor – company, chemical process, aesthetic. The word is part of our common lexicon, representing the bright, the luscious, an effervescent burst of colour. It transformed the look of Hollywood cinema, and, due to its high costs and complicated use and development, became a prestige product, akin today to IMAX. With no sizeable competitor for almost 20 years from the launch of the three-strip process in the early-mid ’30s and the arrival of the far cheaper monopack Eastmancolor in 1952, Technicolor reigned supreme in its time. Its patents were so locked down that no one could compete, and the company had its contracts allow its representatives creative control of lighting on the set of major studio films. At its height, Technicolor was as big a name as Universal or MGM.

Now celebrating 100 years since the company was founded (although it made little impact until two-strip Technicolor emerged in the mid-’20s and did not become an iconic term until 1937 saw the dual release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and A Star Is Born), Technicolor has a withered role in the industry today, but its name still carries that unmatched prestige. At the Museum of Modern Art, a summer-long series of Technicolor classics is currently running, and is the highlight of the season for most New York cinephiles.

Programmed by Josh Siegel, ‘Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond’ has some 80 films on show, mostly 35mm presentations, representing the earliest incarnations of Technicolor to the final three-strip films made in the U.S. in the mid-1950s.

While the series opened with La Cucaracha (1934), the opening night presentation was a breathtaking 35mm print of The Wizard of Oz, the film best positioned to be the standard-bearer for Technicolor. Oz is the ideal Technicolor film, creating a brightly coloured otherworld, but entirely within a studio, where the hulking Technicolor cameras could be best controlled to capture the choreographed action. Better still, that infamous transition shot from the sepia prologue to the dreamy Technicolor land of Oz is the perfect ambassador for the process, capturing in one shot what Technicolor brings to cinema. Beyond that, the film is actually surprisingly subtle in its use of Technicolor (its also way way funnier than you remember, go revisit that asap). The four leads are all dressed in pastels, dull earth tones, and silver, none of which (ruby slippers aside) are colours that pop in Technicolor. Because of this, the Land of Oz itself bursts forth, with its yellow road, and emerald city. The Munchkins’ town is all browns and greens, but when the Munchkins themselves emerge they are all dressed in bright reds, royal purples and deep blues. The Technicolor hits all the harder for the restraint shown.

If The Wizard of Oz represents a fantastical magic of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then Gene Kelly represents the pinnacle of Hollywood star power, a different but equally wondrous kind of silver screen magic. A Gene Kelly double bill took place at MoMA on June 20th, made up of his two greatest movies, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. Perhaps unwisely screened in that order for those double-dipping (Singin’s energy is locomotive throughout, while American dips in its final act but demands the awakiest of attention for its final Gershwin ballet, so drowsiness was inevitable), the two films showcase Kelly’s finest dancing, choreography, and comic chops, as well as the full glory of detail in Technicolor.

Singin’ in the Rain (I won’t discuss the story, you’ve already seen it. You have seen it, right? RIGHT?!) is relatively subtle with its use of three-strip at first, mostly waiting until ‘Beautiful Girl’ to show off its full range of colours as used in some horrendous 1920s fashion. But its Kelly’s glorious ego trip, the Broadway Melody sequence, that blasts the audience’s eyes with Technicolor like David Bowman travelling through a flamboyant Stargate. In its central dance number, there’s a divine fusion of colours, with the crimson background, Cyd Charisse’s emerald green dress, and Kelly’s pink tie and waistcoat so yellow it’d put a canary to shame (“It’s so yellow, I think I’ll kill myself,” a canary is said to have remarked at the film’s premiere).

By comparison, An American in Paris is far less showy with its colours (although far more showy with its ballet). Where the Technicolor really shows off is in the final scenes at the masked ball, where everyone is dressed in black and white. More so than any other colour process (including and especially digital), Technicolor gets blacks truly black, giving the scene a rich checkerboard look. It is one of the oft-forgotten ironies of the name Technicolor that black and white are two of its strongest colours.

A Douglas Sirk double bill was less successful, for a few reasons. Certainly his two most famous Technicolor films (All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind) were absent – Imitation of Life is Eastmancolor – so the choice of Magnificent Obsession and Captain Lightfoot seemed perhaps unwise. One of the great benefits of Technicolor is that the imbibition process used to stabilise the colour dyes has the effect of keeping the colours as they should be seen far beyond that of other film processes. Eastmancolor, by comparison, has been notorious for the colour fade in prints even within a decade of being struck. But no film is immune to physical damage, and the print of Captain Lightfoot MoMA presented had seen better days. The film itself is tremendously difficult to take seriously, with Rock Hudson trying his best brogue as an Irish highwayman who joins the Republican cause in the early 1800s. It regularly forced this Irishman to suppress giggles, while the final 20 minutes features more unnecessary plot twists than any film should have. The film was actually shot in Ireland, a country whose grey skies and greyer buildings don’t quite lend themselves as advertisements for glorious Technicolor, making it all the more curious a choice for the series.

Sirk is a filmmaker it took me a long time to come around to, until Written on the Wind helped me crack the code of his particularly brand of camp. I was loathe to give Magnificent Obsession another chance, but this time its melodrama-on-steroids and hysterical religious undertones actually worked for me, overall. But it’s far from Sirk’s brightest and most colourful work, with only small details in flowers and dresses blooming properly in Technicolor. What’s more, the print appeared to be quite heavily water damaged, distracting often from the cinematography (and occasionally garbling the soundtrack). In a series of numerous highlights, this was one of the few letdowns.

Rouben Mamoulian was the first filmmaker to shoot a feature in Technicolor (1935’s Becky Sharp), and his 1941 matador melodrama Blood and Sand is a fine example of his flair for colour cinema. (Although of his best movies were in black and white, no contest) Used to great effect in illuminating the costumes of Spain, and for highlighting the white gowns and red lips of arch-seductress Rita Hayworth, Technicolor is curiously not used to pronounce the reds in blood, until the final, groan-inducingly unsubtle last shot.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film series so far was a new print of Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, from a new restoration undertaken by MoMA’s Peter Williamson. The print looks completely different to almost any version of it seen in the past 75 years, with the colours far less saturated, and far less blatantly Technicolor – similar to its contemporary A Star Is Born. The film looks far more natural now, although the classic Technicolor triggers, especially purple, still pop in costumes during the archery tournament. It may be a disappointment for those used to seeing undiluted Technicolor on their Errol Flynn, but keeping to MoMA’s standards of film preservation, this is probably as close as we can now get to how it looked in ’38. (although probably not close to how things actually looked in the 1190s)

But if there was any surprise to demonstrate what Technicolor can do when masterfully deployed, it was Vincente Minnelli’s 1948 musical The Pirate. Yeah, don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it before either. The film, a charmingly slight comedy of mistaken identity, shown at MoMA in a spectacular print, would be largely forgettable if it weren’t for its stars, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. The pair, especially Kelly, show off everything they’ve got, while faking chemistry in a way that actors have since forgotten how to do. But the highlight of the film comes in its fantasy ballet, when Garland imagines Kelly’s womanising actor as a marauding pirate. Kelly, his legs limber trunks beneath his tiny black shorts, proceeds to dance, pillage and murder, in front of a glaring sky lit up in Technicolor red. On the big screen, on a glimmering print, it’s an intoxicating sight to behold.

Continuing for another month, ‘Glorious Technicolor’ still has a plenty to offer, and will culminate with a series of unmistakable classics from the early days of Disney. It’s the sort of film history kick that reminds cinephiles why we love the movies, and for those whose hearts still prefer celluloid to digital, a chance to get your yearly fill of 35mm in just a few weeks.

One of the most affecting moments of the series came before the opening night screening of The Wizard of Oz, when Josh Siegel made a few welcomes and thank yous while clutching a tiny girl in his arms. His daughter, not yet three years old, was there to see a film on the big screen before. Murmurs of terror rumbled through the audience at the thought of the tiny tot being scarred forever more by melting witches, flying monkeys, and effeminate manlions, but sure enough when the lights went up she was still there, and still awake. Chances are she may never remember the experience, but seeing The Wizard of Oz on the big screen, on a 35mm IB Tech print; that’s not just being introduced to the movies, that’s how lifelong love affairs with cinema begin.

Part 2

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The Tribe – Original Synaesthesia

This was the only image I could find for this film that did not contain nudity

Words With Friends: The Tribe’s cast communicates entirely through sign language

The Tribe takes no prisoners. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s latest film, set at a boarding school for deaf students, is told with no spoken dialogue, only in sign-language. Specifically Ukrainian sign-language, and just to make sure you’re fully excluded from this tribe from the get-go, there are no subtitles at any point.

The plot finds the new boy in school (Grigoriy Fesenko) swept up into a gang of hoodlums who, perhaps because of their language barrier, have developed their own morality code, a thuggish, brutal, apathetic way of life. Soon our protagonist shows himself to be as tough as the gang needs him to be, and he is put in charge of pimping his female classmates to truckers. Similarly indoctrinated into the tribe’s isolationist, self-righteous ethic, these teen prostitutes seem to delight in the rebellion that these sexual acts provide, and the easy cash that comes with them. When Fesenko’s protagonist falls for one of the girls, played by Yana Novikova, the young romance swiftly becomes dark obsession, and conflict within the group grows.

It’s ambitious storytelling, a new form of silent cinema. But does it work? Well, overall, yes. The gentle soundscape makes the viewer acutely aware of every sound, both innocuous and threatening, so that when violence erupts in the final act, and oh, does it erupt, it’s all the more deafening. Hyperventilated groans of pain become the closest the soundtrack has to musical accompaniment.

In addition to this, the listening viewer also becomes quickly aware of just how much the deaf students are missing. Out drinking stolen alcohol, they are denied the simple pleasure the joy of a popping champagne cork, or the calming liquid crumble-crunch of snow underfoot. In one of the earliest of the film’s several shocks, sounds only audible to us prophesy danger, which creeps forward relentlessly and unacknowledged.

The early scenes of the film in which our protagonist adjust to his new home almost serve as a parody of high school-set films – we understand everything without language because we have been to school ourselves, seen high school movies. There is a synaesthesiac reaction you get from seeing the constant gestures and hand movement that makes you somehow hear dialogue that is not there. It makes all the clever, timely teen wordplay in films like The Breakfast Club, Clueless, or Mean Girls seem oddly unimportant.

But the savage violence that dominates the latter half of the film has less to communicate, and it is here that the film slips. The unrelenting belligerence hits levels of gore worthy of Martin McDonagh, but without the cheeky dark humour. At the screening I attended, the film’s most gruesome, head-in-hands-burying scene, caused one audience member to faint (he came around shortly after), and several more to walk out.

From the outset The Tribe seeks to exclude you, to show you a world you can never be a part of. The first of its exhausting, unflinching long takes, shows a school assembly that we not only cannot hear, but also, separated from it by a glass panel, we are literally cut off from.

Bleak and disturbing, there is some extremely talented filmmaking at work here, but Slaboshpytskiy’s determination to shock and horrify is the film’s undoing in the end. It’s a joyless movie, but an original one, with a good deal to say about language, inclusion, and the follies of youth. It has to be seen to be believed, but should be avoided if you haven’t the stomach, or heart, for it.


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A rare excuse to make it look like my blog is active, it’s the 87th Academy Awards (liveblog)

Don't think I don't see you hiding inside that A, Oscar. You gotta come out, you've got a show to do!

Don’t think I don’t see you hiding inside that A, Oscar. You gotta come out, you’ve got a show to do!

Another year, another lengthy Oscar show. I’m your host for the Neil Patrick Harris Show. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, I promise I’ll try not to complain about films I didn’t like too much.

[All times are Pacific Time. Because I’m anal like that]

4:11pm – Just tuned in and Rosamund Pike’s dress has made me need to lie down.

4:18pm – Costumes montage! Better during the Red Carpet Show than during the Oscars themselves…

4:19pm – The hosts are discussing #askhermore. Which is the only thing other than dresses they’ll be discussing tonight.

4:24pm – Felicity Jones is wearing half an excellent dress. She’s also wearing half a shark.

4:27pm – Who’s the blonde Red Carpet host on ABC wearing the violently clashing pink dress? You had ONE JOB!!!

4:33pm – Julianne Moore is celebrating her guaranteed win by wearing a dress that resembles a veritable oyster holocaust of pearls.

4:35pm – This 50 Shades of Grey banter with mum and daughter Melanie and Dakota is like my dad explaining proper condom use to me awkward.

4:42pm – Chris Pratt and Anna Faris are here to make everyone else seem unlikable. Deal with it.

4:43pm – Benedict Cumberbatch is dressed as Sean Connery as James Bond. Classy fuck.

4:45pm – Holy shit Lupita Nyong’o is LITERALLY wearing the oyster holocaust dress! I spoke was too soon.

4:47pm – Team Oscar 2015. Nope.

4:50pm – ABC are now just stealing celebrity Instagram accounts for content now. I guess that stops them from having to #askhermore

4:50pm – This Aveeno ad is the only appearance Jennifer Aniston will make at the Oscars tonight.

4:55pm – J-Lo’s doing that thing where we can see so much cleavage it’s barely even cleavage any more. It’s just torso.

4:58pm – In tonight’s episode of Oscars, the role of Sex Goddess will be played by Scarlett Johansson.

5:07pm – Ethan Hawke looks younger than when Boyhood started. Naomi Watts looks like the world’s most incredibly beautiful garden wall.

5:20pm – Lady Gaga is doing The Sound of Music tribute. I assume she’s dressing up as sexy Rolf.

5:24pm – Only 6 minutes until the show and Chris Evans has already been mildly humiliated.

5:30pm – OK here we go there’s a show on or something!

5:31pm – Neil Patrick Harris just went right for it with an #OscarsSoWhite gag!

5:34pm – A few too many recent movies in NPH’s Moving Pictures song, but man it’s so good. And look, here’s Anna Kendrick and Jack Black!

5:37pm – Can we please bring back “moving pictures” as the term for films? Please?

5:39pm – Neil Patrick Harris nails it, the Oscars are a good time to remind ourselves we all love the movies.

5:40pm – Best Supporting Actor is up first. Gotta be a straight-up J.K. Simmons win.

5:43pm – And here’s J.K. Simmons! A huge ovation from the get-go! A witty and heartfelt speech. Great start to the night.

5:45pm – Neil Patrick Harris is doing an over-elaborate bit about his Oscar predictions and I’m loving it all.

5:48pm – Why is Liam Neeson introducing Grand Budapest Hotel. AND American Sniper?

5:50pm – Dakota Johnson deers-in-headlights her introduction of Adam Levine singing a song from Begin Again.

5:56pm – Neil Patrick Harris makes a gag on the huge swag bags at Oscars, just a week after John Oliver revealed how excessive they are.

5:58pm – Grand Budapest Hotel takes Best Costume, well deserved, even I will say.

6:00pm – Makeup time. Surely Guardians of the Galaxy.

6:02pm – Grand Budapest Hotel wins! I’ll allow it for sure (as much as I dislike that movie).

6:04pm – Channing Tatum looks like an Oscar with a goatee.

6:10pm – Best Foreign Language time. I think Polish should win. I mean Ida.

6:11pm – “This is the fourth Oscar and 10th nomination for POLAND.” Glad to see the entirety of Poland is a filmmaker now.

6:12pm – He just broke the orchestra!

6:14pm – Birdman, Boyhood and Theory of Everything introduced together. One of those films does not have a chance of winning.

6:16pm – Neil Patrick Harris is flirting with the seat-fillers. Kinda cute.

6:18pm – The Lego Choir begins a chorus of Everything Is Awesome. Nice!

6:19pm – Was that Will Arnett in a Batman suit singing DARKNESS?!?

6:20pm – That was the greatest thing I have ever seen.

6:25pm – Here are the shorts! I have no contributions to make! Everyone’s a winner!

6:26pm – Best Live Action Short is The Phone Call! I’m told it had famous people in it! Hooray!

6:30pm – Best Doc Short goes to Crisis Hotline. Important theme for sure. But really I think the producers are winning for those dresses!

6:32pm – Lifetime achievement award for Ohio Miyazaki, this year’s Japanese Adele Dazeem.

6:33pm – Miyazaki, Carrière, Belafonte and O’Hara. Those are some solid champions of cinema.

6:35pm – David Oyelowo vindicated for not having a nomination with a good gag and the world’s awesomest tux.

6:36pm – Country music! Country music is a thing! It’s at the Oscars! So it must be a thing!

6:37pm – This is nice, unless the stage falls down I don’t need to tweet anything for the next 4 minutes.

6:43pm – Elongated Birdman sketch in front of 1 billion viewers is pretty damn special.

6:44pm – Miles Teller and Margot Robbie are attractive people who are attractive and I hope they have beautiful babies together.

6:45pm – Sound Mixing. Who knows where this will go? Who did I even guess it’d go to?

6:47pm – Whiplash wins! Unexpected but wonderful.

6:49pm – OK now Sound Editing. Um… Birdman, right?

6:49pm – American Sniper draws blood. This is mixing the night up a good deal.

6:51pm – Neil Patrick Harris is the Duke in Burgundy.

6:52pm – Jared Leto looking like a homeless man in a tux is here to present Best Supporting Actress.

6:54pm – Patricia Arquette has it and it’s most deserved! First win for Boyhood. More to come…

6:56pm – Patricia Arquette shoots out a rapid-fire thanks to everyone including I hope me.

6:56pm – Plus bonus income equality declaration!

7:01pm – I hear good things about Beyond the Lights, but I remain very unsold on this song by Rita Ora.

7:03pm – Chloe Grace Moretz wheeled out an Andy Samberg mannequin to present Best Special Effects.

7:05pm – Best Special Effects goes to Interstellar. Hardly undeserved, though I was hoping for Guardians.

7:06pm – I am finally seeing Anna Kendrick’s dress and it’s magical.

7:07pm – Best Animated Short goes to… Feast! It’s so cute and I love it I want a puppy now. Maybe I should call my mum and ask for one.

7:10pm – Best Animated Feature is being presented by Zoe Saldana and The F’ing Rock! So much beauty and charisma.

7:10pm – I’m gonna cry and rage when How to Train Your Dragon 2 wins.

7:11pm – Big Hero 6 wins! Disappointed for Kaguya. But so happy HTTYD2 bit it hard.

7:19pm – The President of the Academy is asking us to be excellent to each other.

7:20pm – So many Chrises at this year’s Oscars. I’d argue… too many?

7:21pm – Production Design. Even I feel Grand Budapest Hotel should walk away with this one…

7:23pm – Grand Budapest Hotel gets it. Some nice short speeches there.

7:24pm – Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain ARE Cinemtography.

7:26pm – Emmanuel Lubezki wins for a second year running! The work on Birdman was incredible, very rebellious cinema. Bravo!

7:31pm – Meryl Streep is here to make us feel very sad…

7:36pm – Can’t decide if I like this water colour style of presenting the in memoriam. But man it’s all so moving… Bob Hoskins. Sigh…

7:43pm – Cumberbatch and Watts sounds like a political talk show. Awards for Editing now.

7.44pm – Whiplash takes Editing over Boyhood! Very deserved, but a real blow to Boyhood’s chances tonight…

7.48pm – Terrence Howard is announcing Whiplash and Selma. That’s the last of our big contenders this year. Home straight ahead.

7.50pm – Best Documentary. Citizenfour kinda needs to win this.

7:52pm – Citizenfour wins! So deserved, a remarkable work of journalism and presenting of complex information.

7:53pm – Dammit, Neil Patrick Harris just made my “Edward Snowden can’t be here tonight” joke as I was typing it!

7:58pm – OK, here’s Glory. It’s kind of a quality tune.

7:59pm – A huge recreation of the bridge scene from Selma for this performance. Pretty damn impressive staging.

8:01pm – What happens when they reach Common? Will they push him off the stage?!

8:03pm – Oprah drying David Oyelowo’s tears away after Glory is undoubtedly the sweetest moment of the night.

8:05pm – Idina Menzel and John Travolta just made up on stage! It was so fun until he started touching her face…

8:06pm – After a few great performances, Best Song goes to John Legend and Common for Glory! Properly deserved. Everything is still awesome

8:09pm – The audience had a moment of “do we clap?” when Common mentioned more black men being in prison now than enslaved in 1850. Eep.

8:13pm – I don’t want Scarlett Johansson to stop talking. Don’t show me The Sound of Music!

8:15pm – Is the colour timing all off on these Sound of Music clips?

8:16pm – Lady Gaga is doing a decent Julie Andrews here. But still, this is pretty bland staging so far…

8:18pm – No not Edelweiss, it’s a lovely song! But we’ve been here three hours!

8:20pm – Julie Andrews comes out to anoint Lady Gaga as the new Julie Andrews. That’s nice. For a while we have two now.

8:22pm – Julie Andrews morphs Sound of Music banter into a Best Score chat.

8:24pm – Alexandre Desplat wins Best Score, but for Grand Budapest Hotel rather than Imitation Game. I’d have given it for the other.

8:24pm – With all these wins, is Grand Budapest Hotel in the running for Best Picture again?

8:30pm – Hey it’s Norbitt star Eddie Murphy!

8:30pm – Eddie Murphy did not sound committed to that spiel at all.

8:32pm – Birdman wins Best Original Screenplay, which is pretty deserved (if we forget the final scene).

8:34pm – Oprah presents Best Adapted Screenplay. Could go anywhere…

8:35pm – Imitation Game wins… Sometimes it’s the film you didn’t imagine could be the film that wins the thing you didn’t imagine.

8:37pm – “Stay weird” says Graham Moore, writer of The Imitation Game. He said lots of other stuff but that’s basically it.

8:42pm – Ben Affleck to announce Best Director. This is a big decider…

8:43pm – Alejandro González Iñárritu wins Best Director! Biggest surprise of the night so far!

8:44pm – Iñárritu’s underwear smells like balls right now.

8:46pm – That makes it look like Birdman for Best Picture. Unless we get a third director/picture split in a row.

8:48pm – Cate Blanchett looks like a druid. I mean that in a good way!

8:51pm – And now Best Actor goes to… Eddie Redmayne! Truly deserved. Shame for Keaton, but a genuinely fair trade-off.

8:53pm – Redmayne holds his tears back so awkwardly it is truly endearing in a way that only happens at the Oscars every few years.

8:54pm – Hey look Matthew McConaughey has Bradley Cooper’s beard from American Sniper!

8:55pm – Hey if Julianne Moore doesn’t win does the earth collapse in on itself?

8:57pm – Julianne Moore wins Best Actress for Still Alice. I hear good things, but I daresay I know no one who’s seen it.

9:00pm – The audience reaction shots during Julianne Moore’s speech were very strange indeed. Her husband taking a photo was the oddest.

9:02pm – Neil Patrick Harris’s briefcase gag has surprisingly played off. A little bit of magic goes a long way.

9:03pm – Sean Penn is mumbling something. Is the show over yet?

9:05pm – Birdman takes Best Picture. I’m happy enough with it, but coulda done without that green card crack by Penn beforehand.

9:09pm – Well that’s it for this year. Some big surprises, overall an entertaining show. Strong final note for the ‘immigrant nation” from Iñárritu.

And we’re done folks, thanks for sticking with me!

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