Mark Jenkin’s experimental Cornish horror Enys Men (literally “stone island”) is likely to thrill and frustrate equal numbers of viewers. Its retro filmmaking is a fascinating throwback, Jenkin shooting on 16mm film using a hand-cranked camera, with post-synchronised sound. The result is heavy grain with boldly saturated colours, close-up shots of individual objects, and intrusive sounds like a clattering generator and overbearing radio static contrasting the natural stillness of the island. Mary Woodvine is the only actor in the majority of shots her bright red anorak standing out against the island’s green and brown hues even in long shots. There are thematic similarities with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse — waiting on an isolated island for a boat, whilst questions arise about the reliability of what we see and a character’s sanity, though there is less a sense of claustrophobia on the open island. However, Jenkin is deliberately obtuse in his storytelling, providing little direct information beyond the fact that Woodvine’s volunteer is on the island to observe the growth of a flower. Her repetitive days provide the film’s baseline (early on the camera sits with her while a kettle boils) with viewers free to draw their own inferences from an emerging theme of grief. One’s willingness to accept the role of interpreter and simply absorb Enys Men’s ominous — though never truly scary — atmosphere will likely dictate enjoyment as Jenkin makes no concessions to accessibility. Although it is never made clear precisely to what extent we are seeing memories or apparitions, the titular standing stone seems to gaze back impassively throughout the film, as if absorbing the experiences of all those who lived and live in its vicinity over the ages.
With Saul Goodman typically on the receiving end of violence in Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk is an unexpected choice for an action hero, particularly as he was nearing 60 when making Nobody. Yet he is perfect as frustrated family man Hutch Mansell who finds himself in conflict with the Russian mob after protecting a stranger. In the lead-up, Nobody portrays but never fully explores the crisis of masculinity Hutch faces when perceived as weak in his son’s eyes, followed by the desire for a violent outlet to reassert himself, dangerously inviting aggression. Penned by the same writer, and with Odenkirk just two years older than Keanu Reeves, John Wick is an obvious parallel — visually Nobody is less stylised than Wick’s world of luxury hitman hotels, but their violence is similarly visceral. Hutch’s victories lie largely in his ability to keep getting back up, no matter how battered and bruised. Like Wick, Hutch is aided by colourful side characters played by veterans like Christopher Lloyd, RZA and Michael Ironside. Nobody is perfectly paced, its crescendo leading to a climax that is perhaps more rousing than such realistic violence ought to be. It is darkly enjoyable, then, and its reception has been warm enough to earn a sequel filming this year.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s third feature film is in some ways an amalgamation of her first two: the striking A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight and the frustratingly uneven The Bad Batch. When it comes to protagonists, Amirpour certainly has a type: strong, laconic women — survivors in a strange world. Blood Moon follows Mona over a several nights after she escapes a mental institution and finds herself in New Orleans. Louisiana may be my second home but this version of the city is unrecognisable — an oversaturated hyper-reality that seems to exist almost entirely by night (actually that part might be accurate). Mona’s overpowered mind control is revealed in the opening scene, meaning that the audience is never really concerned for her safety, driven more by a morbid curiosity as to how much havoc she will wreak. Since she barely speaks, the void is filled by a handful of colourful supporting characters, most notably Kate Hudson’s avericious stripper and Ed Skrein’s sensitive dealer. Amirpour’s writing retains the ability to surprise, with humour derived from absurdity, like a low-speed chase between a cop in a leg brace and a stripper shuffling in platform heels. From these ingredients, Blood Moon’s concoction is an improvement over the The Bad Batch but is still style over substance.
“It creates an illusion of motion. An illusion of life. Out there, they just see a beam of light. And nothing happens without light.”
Empire of Light has been marketed as Sam Mendes’ ode to cinema, and that can been seen in its setting — an ageing independent cinema on the English south coast — and the poetic lines about the medium intoned by Toby Jones as the fastidious projectionist. This is all set dressing, however, to a story that really focuses on the relationship between Michael Ward and Olivia Colman’s characters, unfolding amidst the racial unrest of the early 1980s. Unfortunately the characters are all written as one-note sketches — the entire cast works admirably with the material but even a titan like Colman can only do so much with the cliché of an emotionally unstable older woman enamoured with a younger man. This is Mendes’ first solo writing credit and it seems, at least for now, his writing cannot match his directorial skill. He is most effective in portraying racism in varied guises, both direct and insinuated. Empire of Light is all beautifully presented in the hands of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has now collaborated on around half of Mendes’ films) accompanied by a gently moving score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. With so much talent involved, it seems harsh to judge the film based significantly on the script alone, but this kind of quiet, emotional picture is ultimately dependent on quality writing. My impression from the trailer was that Mendes was looking to emulate Cinema Paradiso and I feared he might engage in too much navel-gazing about the importance of cinema. In truth, I could have done with more.
“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in the summer of 1959-a long time ago, but only if you measure in terms of years.”
Rob Reiner’s classic coming of age drama has retained potency through its simplicity. Adapted from Stephen King’s novella The Body, the plot — four twelve-year-old boys hiking to find the dead body of a missing child — is less relevant than the relationships between them. Rob Reiner has said the key to unlocking the adaptation was making Gordie the central character, his older self narrating as a stand-in for Stephen King. Stand By Me succeeds primarily because of the performances that Reiner, still early in his directing career, draws out of the young actors. River Phoenix and Corey Feldman’s naturalistic delivery stands out, particuarly for child actors, despite the fact that it was Jerry O’Connell and Wil Wheaton who would go on to have longer-running success. The recurring theme of mortality holds greater significance since River Phoenix’s early death (seven years after Stand By Me was released), particularly in addressing Gordie’s trauma following his older brother’s death. There is also a wider sense that each of these boys have been failed by the authority figures in their lives, leading them to cling so tightly to one another. The film’s influence on Stranger Things is undeniable as a blueprint for the friendships between the show’s adventurous children. Although the dialogue can be crass, it realistically reflects the boys’ interests, with their interactions varying from supportive to jovially insulting to openly adversarial. Stand By Me is at its most tender in the sequences where Gordie and Chris plainly feel protective of one another but are clumsy in their efforts to show it.
“I came to Japan to be alone. Sometimes being alone isn’t about other people.”
There is a certain type of film that only makes sense to watch late at night, like this psychological drama set in the seedier side of Tokyo’s nightlife and love hotels, following a Canadian woman on a downward spiral. Alexandra Daddario’s performance as Margaret is superb, often wordlessly communicating her gradually unravelling state through expressive eyes and body language. Unfortunately everything around her feels like a poorly sketched caricature from her relationship with a gangster to the bizarre ending that feels like a Westerner’s fetishised wish fulfilment. Catherine Hanrahan adapted the screenplay from her own debut novel so she is familiar with the material but perhaps the psychological aspects were better suited to prose — the film contains only passing references to Margaret’s ruminations on her past and fears about her sanity. It may also have been easier to empathise with a fundamentally irresponsible and self-involved character in that medium. My impression is that Lost Girls & Love Hotels wants to be a grittier, sexier Lost in Translation, and yet William Olsson’s direction seems unwilling to commit to its darker themes — many of its sex scenes are surprisingly coy and its characters frequently sound insipid (“Everything goes away, I know. Nothing lasts. I get it.”). Most of my criticisms made more sense upon discovering that the film was shelved and recut between 2017 and its eventual release in 2020, apparently excising a significant quantity of bleaker and more explicit footage in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. This evidently neutered the tone and, whilst it is unclear whether the original cut would have resolved all the film’s issues, I would be fascinated to see it. The strength of Daddario’s performance alone makes Lost Girls & Love Hotels watchable but this shallow and underwhelming experience is worthy of a short rest rather than an overnight stay.
“And trust me, I know bad: I used to moderate for Facebook.”
Steven Soderbergh’s post-lockdown thriller is beautifully shot and frequently tense, though its increasingly implausible third act loses its way. An agoraphobic protagonist is a smart way cheaply to accommodate COVID restrictions, with many scenes consisting of just a single actor communicating with others by voice or videocall. Coupled with Soderbergh’s tendency to act as his own cinematographer and editor, it presumably enabled a rapid shooting schedule with a small crew. The premise is that Angela, a low-level employee working on a voice assistant smart speaker (“Kimi” standing in for Siri/Alexa), hears a user recording that appears to capture a murder, something that the company would prefer to ignore. Kimi draws considerable inspiration from Hitchcock’s masterful Rear Window, designed around similar constraints, paying homage through frequent shots peering into the windows of the apartments opposite. The film makes passing criticism of Big Tech’s casual disregard for privacy and informed consent, as well as the danger of widespread surveillance, but for the most part technology acts merely as a plot device. Zoë Kravitz imbues Angela with both steely determination and vulnerable anxiety, compelling enough to command attention when she is the only character on screen for extended stretches. Aside from Angela’s vibrant blue hair and the pink glow of Kimi’s light ring, the apartment is softly lit in warm and invitingly subdued hues, contrasting the harsh brightness of the outside world. Kimi is a fine example of a trimmed down thriller with efficient storytelling, the type of mid-budget filmmaking that is becoming increasingly rare, though perhaps a rich vein for streaming services to mine in future.
Kevin Smith’s return to the Quick Stop in Clerks III is as self-indulgent as the abysmal Jay and Silent Bob Reboot but is considerably more successful, even if its comedy is inconsistent. Rejoining the eponymous clerks after 16 years, the theme is mortality as Randal suffers a heart attack and — whilst re-evaluating his life — decides to make a movie of his life that is essentially the original Clerks. The result lies at a cross-roads between nostalgic fan-service and a meta-textual examination of Smith’s own life. Opening with some full-colour recreations of key sequences from the original black-and-white Clerks, Smith explains during the credits that this reflects his memory of shooting the cult film 30 years ago. Meanwhile, Dante’s support for Randal’s film out of concern for his health mirrors Smith’s real-life touring podcast as a way to support Jason Mewes’ sobriety. Fans will recognise shooting stories brought to life, like Jay/Mewes’ shy refusal to dance in front of the crew. Whereas Randal was originally written as the person Smith wished to be — with open disdain for customers and not caring what others thought — his maturing perspective is more critical of the character. Filmmaking provides Randal with a productive way out of the arrested development in which we have seen him for 30 years whilst Dante remains fixated on the past, echoing competing aspects of Smith’s filmmaking over time. Clerks III’s humour may only land sporadically but it still manages to feel poignant, its last third committing to a more serious tone befitting the recognition of one’s mortality and the evaluation of Dante and Randal’s friendship. It would have been an interesting coda with which to draw a line under the View Askewniverse, but we know that a sequel to Mallrats is still under way. Instead Clerks III is another marker in a career that now spends more time looking backward than forward, in strange contrast to the film’s own message.
The Whale is emotionally manipulative in its presentation of a shut-in who has become morbidly obese, an effective tearjerker but less profound than Aronofky’s previous work. Charlie is presented sympathetically, using impressive prosthetics and shot predominantly in soft light that delivers an often beautiful appearance despite the comparative squalor in which he lives. Swelling music makes every movement feel like a heroic effort though the camera seems largely impassive even as Charlie gorges himself inside the single-location set that reveals The Whale’s roots as a stage play. It has been heralded as a return for Brendan Fraser but, although his sensitive portrayal of Charlie — augmented by audience knowledge of Fraser’s fallout with Hollywood — may be the lead, the straightforward blend of kindess, shame and regret is less interesting than the supporting characters who surround him. Hong Chau is particularly compelling as Charlie’s friend and nurse, tied to him by a tragedy but frustrated at his refusal to get help and left hollow by the knowledge of his likely demise. The script bears a clear grudge with religion though it is less well-developed aside from a distinction between saving someone and preaching salvation (“I don’t think I believe anyone can save anybody”). Repeated references to Moby Dick cast Charlie as both Ahab and the whale, chasing his own destruction. Sadie Sink’s most high profile performance following Stranger Things is impressive as Charlie’s estranged daughter, seeming at first mercurial and capricious until we perceive pain and purpose, her defiance competing with curiosity about her father. Yet, a late in life attempt at redemption and reconcilliation with a daughter is something Aronofsky presented with greater subtlety in The Wrestler.
Alex Garland’s latest film crafts impeccably tense atmosphere in an isolated English village, with its unusually verdant palette of bold greens and blacks distinguishing it visually from the horror pack. Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a woman escaping to the countryside after a personal tragedy, but finds herself being harassed by a stranger. Whilst it begins with the unease of being alone in an unknown place, particularly as a woman, as the title suggests Garland uses this to examine the female experience of being subjected to various demands of men: to stay with them, to entertain them, to take advice from them or to fear them. Men’s subject matter is primed for a post #MeToo world, though its metaphor becomes rather blunt by the end, like a priest who overtly blames Harper for his own thoughts. Rory Kinnear is astounding in a role that requires considerable range, whilst Jessie Buckley’s performance captures the caged need to scream as a release, a parallel to Anya Taylor-Joy’s role in The Menu depicting female anger precipitating in an outburst rather than the common depiction of subdued silence. Men succeeds more on atmosphere than depth, and its grotesque conclusion may not be to all tastes, but it is frequently thrilling nonetheless.