“As awful as people might be, nothing is going to change the fact that we are all we’ve got.”
Unfolding during an impromptu vacation to a remote hamlet outside New York, this apocalyptic tale bears thematic similarities to White Noise in its examination of the affluent middle class response to events outside of their control, displaying complacency, mistrust, and terror. Sam Esmail rose to prominence after creating the superb Mr Robot (he directed 38 of its 45 episodes), a meticulous audiovisual experience of paranoia and isolation. In Leave the World Behind, adapted from a novel by Rumaan Alam, Esmail reunites with Mr Robot cinematographer Tom Campbell, who deploys unnatural framing like overhead shots and frame-filling geometry, or gravity-defying camera angles, drawing out the ominous from the mundane. This is coupled with stunningly captured modern apocalyptic imagery — an oil tanker run aground, fleeing autonomous vehicles, and migrating animals invading human spaces. Although the score’s vibrating strings can become unnecessarily overbearing at times, Esmail delivers a masterclass in ratcheting tension through slow release of information and calmer sequences that foster a growing sense of fatalism. A recurring suggestion is that our perception of society as functional and logical is simply a communally accepted delusion. Leave The World Behind has already proved divisive and there is plenty to critique — the character interaction often feels hollow despite the acting calibre of the leads, and the film is undoubtedly overlong; ultimately, however, viewers’ enjoyment is likely to depend on whether they appreciate Esmail’s pervasive cynicism about the modern world.
“I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”
Amleth, The Northman
The Northman’s thin plot takes the barest bones of Hamlet — a son sworn to avenge his father and kill his usurper uncle — but succeeds in transplanting this revenge tale into a compellingly foreboding world of Norse mythology. Robert Eggers seeks verisimilitude not only in bringing to life Viking reality but also their mythology and ritual practices. Atmospherically akin to The Green Knight, the pacing requires patience though Viking violence provides more action. The budget and scale may have increased dramatically from Eggers’ previous projects like The Lighthouse, but The Northman retains the same intensity through personal conflict. Alexander Skarsgård is a brooding presence, hulking and animalistic, humanised through his gentler interactions with the wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy as an understanding counterpoint. The characters are (or feel themselves to be) pawns to the whims of fate, and the cinematography reflects this with vast Icelandic vistas that dwarf individuals in the frame. It may be difficult to find joy in the world Eggers has created but the uncompromising experience is more gripping than most big budget modern cinema.
“Ellison, we didn’t move in a few houses down from a crime scene again. did we?”
Sinister delivers an atmospheric horror experience by starting out more like an detective thriller as true crime writer Ellison investigates a grizzly murder, with the supernatural only encroaching later. This provides a novel take on the “found footage” concept as he pieces together murders from a box of old Super-8 reels containing amateur snuff films. Although the plot draws together derivative elements from other films, like The Shining‘s struggling author who has dragged his family across the country, it remains compelling until cast adrift by the rote supernatural elements. Ethan Hawke is Sinister‘s lynch pin, unravelling believably as Ellison, his desperate desire for another hit novel clashing with his duties to his family, while his alcohol use renders the viewer’s perspective unreliable. Sinister manages to maintain its tense atmosphere and is routinely unsettling, though it still falls back on predictable jump scares and diminishing returns in repeated sequences of Ellison watching old footage in a darkened room.
“It’s never too late to be who you might have been.”
Predestination is a cerebral, tightly constructed science fiction film from the Spierig brothers who created the refreshingly original vampire world of Daybreakers (also starring Ethan Hawke). Telling a good time travel story requires leaning into the paradoxical nature of causation rather than believing oneself smart enough to write around it (even if you are Robert Heinlein, on whose short story the film is based). Here, as the title suggests, the question is whether there are immutable events that are destined to occur. The film’s central mysteries are not overly complicated and those paying attention should be able to predict several story beats in advance. Watching the neat arrangement unfurl remains satisfying and in fact the explicit reveal in the final few minutes may feel rushed for those not already up to speed. Although she may receive second billing, Sarah Snook is arguably the film’s true lead, with the most nuanced and varied performance. Another interesting choice is the alternate 1970s setting, reflecting Heinlein’s then-future setting for the story. It is remarkable that Predestination fits into a running time of just 97 minutes, and its strict focus on the essential can leave it feeling a little sparse. However, for fans of thoughtful science fiction, this is a hidden gem that deserves greater recognition.
“I may look like a nice, well-adjusted English lady in a sensible cardigan, but these days it’s a thin veneer, and it’s started to crack.”
Based on the book by Nick Hornby, the film’s first hurdle is the preposterous premise of a woman inadvertantly connecting online with the rockstar recluse with whom her partner is obsessed. Provided you can suspend your disbelief, however, there are some great performances to enjoy in this light British romantic drama. Rose Byrne swiftly earns the audience’s sympathy with gentle charm, whilst Ethan Hawke shows aspects of his performance in the Before trilogy. The real theme is less romance than how we respond to regret either by remaining tied to the past or by looking to future possibility. Juliet, Naked may not offer any deep answers, but it is enjoyable to watch unfold and ends with a hopeful tone whilst avoiding the saccharine endings that plague most romcoms.
“You read the newspaper? Every day there’s people shooting each other. You know what I do when I see that? I look to see what guns they’re using, and I ask myself: why not my guns?”
Lord of War succeeds in portraying the ethical apathy and mercenary attitude that fuel the arms trade. Following the fortunes of an ambitious Ukrainian American entering this world ought to heighten the tension through personal stakes, but it unfolds in a fashion largely predictable to anyone familiar with crime drama. For such an extravagant character, Nicolas Cage’s performance is surprisingly muted, resulting in large swathes of the narrative being communicated in a flat voiceover monologue that lacks the energy of, say, The Wolf of Wall Street. Whilst its subject matter is important, in focusing on Yuri’s competing conscience and ambition, Lord of War fails to engage in the political complexity of this world, simply alluding to the powerful connections he has made. The film is bookended by its most powerful messages: first, an impressive opening sequence that follows a single bullet from a munitions factory all the way to its eventual use against an African child; and secondly, presented in passing with closing text, the bleak fact that the world’s five largest arms dealers are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
“A soldier will always choose death over humiliation.”
Commander Arun Filitt
After some interesting initial worldbuilding with hints of Avatar, this bloated space opera swiftly buckles due to its shallow story and disengaging lead characters. Although it all looks fantastic, and there are some exciting sequences, ultimately its running time is far too long to support a largely predictable story, and many scenes feel present purely to show off special effects. There might be a little more artistry than other generic effects-heavy blockbusters, but it is a far cry from Luc Besson’s past foray into space opera with The Fifth Element.
director: Richard Linklater starring: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Lorelei Linklater running time: 97 mins rating: 15
“Things have been tough lately for dreamers. They say dreaming is dead, no one does it anymore. It’s not dead, it’s just that it’s been forgotten.”
Man on the Train
Less like watching a film, and more like eavesdropping on a selection of philosophical conversations, Waking Life is a mind-blowing piece of pop-art cartooning, both provocative and inspirational. In this groundbreaking film, Linklater plays with the notions of dreaming, conceptually and visually, in what becomes a form of lucid dream (where the dreamer knows they are dreaming and are thus able to control some aspects of the dream without waking from it). Using new animation styles to reflect this, he has crafted something unique in both content and style.
The central character is a teenage boy [Wiley Wiggins] who is never named. We see him meandering aimlessly through a dream he is unable to wake up from, meeting a series of characters who engage him in amateur philosophical discussion, or simply rant in frantic, and occassionally profound, monlogues. He is often very detatched from the proceedings, seeming as much an observer as the audience themselves.
While playing with deep concepts, the film itself remains vibrantly alive, partly through the bright animation palette, but also through its quirky characters. While they are of hugely varied ages, they all come across like students in their passionate attempts to vocalise their ideas, beliefs and viewpoints. Indeed, perhaps the aim of Waking Life, at least in part, is to stir up such passion in its viewers, since it seems to have left the modern world outside of universities. Rarely does a film seem so passionate about its own ideas.
The animation style may at first seem like a poor gimmick with a varied quality of appearance. However, the results match the Waking Life‘s core perfectly, lending fluidity and intensity as an extension of the film’s own notions. It resembles reality, yet also breaks its boundaries with freely-floating elements laid over a backdrop. There is a constant state of flux about the universe presented, something is always changing, growing. The technique utilised is to shoot the entire film live-action and then overlay computer-aided inking in an almost watercolour style. The result is animation that is sometimes super-realistic and others utterly surreal. The variety of styles (over 30 animators were involved, sometimes working on different shots in a single scene) represents the freedom of this dream state, while the most intriguing result of this animation technique is actually the incredible realism of the motion. Watching the subtle manerisms of the speakers perfectly portrayed by a cartoon is intriguing.
The abstract intellectual concepts come thick and fast, and on the first watching it is only possible to engage with half the dialogue. Not all of this dialogue is actual as deeply meaningful as might first appear, much as with those who consistantly spout philosophical arguements in the real world. It is for the viewer to extract the useful ideas from the barrage of concepts displayed in the film. The discussions on the dream state are easier to follow, since the structure of the film seems to follow the boy’s discovery of his own lucid dream state. One of the film’s best moments is as he flicks a light switch while leaving a room in which he has just been told the easiest way to tell if he is dreaming is that he will find himself unable to turn lights on and off. When he hits the switch, of course, nothing happens.
There is an irritating disjointedness to the proceedings, not enough to seriously mar the quality of the film, but means its intriguing concepts are not always delivered in a logical fashion. However, it will undoubtedly be remembered for its unique visual style rather than its content, and in this it is undoubtedly a huge achievement.