Shepherd (2021)

Written for RAF News February 2022

Struggling to cope after the death of his pregnant wife, Eric (Tom Hughes) escapes to a job as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island, becoming a prisoner to his own grief and guilt.

Taken to the uninhabited island on a small boat captained by an ominous, one-eyed woman (Kate Dickie) with a penchant for taxidermy, the ensuing horror couldn’t be more signposted until they reach his accommodation: a ramshackle cottage on the coast with no power or running water.

Eric must come to terms with what happened to his unfaithful wife (Gaia Weiss) and the impact it had on his relationship with his mother (Greta Scacchi), with only a journal and his dog Baxter for company. Eric’s repressed emotions will have him lose his grip on reality as dark hallucinations take shape – clues to the untold story that led him here. Thrown into the aftermath and having to make sense of the story through these visions, it is a simple story gradually told, but its power comes through the atmosphere and cinematography. 

The island itself is caught in breath-taking wide shots that capture the desolation, the hilly landscape becoming positively Martian in moments, whilst the interiors become creakier and crumbling. The locations perfectly reflect the themes of the film, and continue to do so as Eric spirals. Much like recent maritime nightmare The Lighthouse, it uses the isolation as a springboard into grief and past trauma, with certain horrific images punctuating the routine in a rather shocking and inventive manner. 

Chaptered like his journal, the film jumps to certain days on the island, although this stop-start rhythm does interrupt the momentum towards the end of the film. As it builds to a close, you realise that there wasn’t too much story to be revealed anyhow, and yet it manages to do a lot with such a simple idea.

The Lost Daughter

Written for RAF News December 2021

Olivia Colman stars as Leda Caruso, a middle-aged language professor taking her working holiday alone in Greece, finding a peacefulness that will very quickly evaporate. The fruit bowl in her apartment is mouldy, the apartment neighbours a working lighthouse, and some undesirables, from a villa just up the way, have taken over the beach.

Not shy of confrontation, Leda politely refuses when asked by the matriarch of this rowdy group of New Yorkers if she could make space for them, instigating a feud that underlies the rest of the film. Even when Leda helps to find the group’s young daughter when she goes missing, there remains an unshakeable tension.

Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her debut as writer and director on The Lost Daughter, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name. Through this complex central character, Gyllenhaal weaves together two timelines to explore reflections on motherhood, identity and regret.

Leda is self-assured, if not combative, so when she stands her ground, the young mother of the group, Nina (Dakota Johnson) takes an interest. This connection runs both ways as Leda observes Nina struggling with her young daughter, exasperated by her constant need of care and attention. These moments serve as a springboard into flashbacks, in which we see Leda 20 years earlier (played by Jessie Buckley), trying and failing to manager her independence and her two daughters. Through Leda’s exchanges with Nina, she is reckoning with her past self, offering reassurances, but edging ever closer to danger.

The film paints a picture of so-called ‘unnatural mothers’ enduring trials of parenthood that are messy and punishing, normalising these ideas and expanding the scope of female relationships on screen. An impressive piece of filmmaking with challenging characters and ideas, and solid performances across the board.

Power of the Dog (2021)

Written for RAF News November 2021

Jane Campion’s return to film after a decade is a Western set in the early 20th Century, digging into classic cowboy archetypes in a uniquely gripping drama. 

Two brothers, owners of a successful ranch, find their paths diverging as soon as a romantic interest enters the picture. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) toils in the mud with his hands and doesn’t care for using the tub in the house, favouring the stream. A brute who commands the respect of his workers and shares in the dirt alongside them. Then there is the younger, more put together George (Jess Plemons), who has the business acumen and social sensibility – who, when he sees the chance, pursues a marriage with a widow. 

Played by Kirsten Dunst, Rose runs a restaurant with her intelligent but sensitive boy, Peter. Kodi Smit-McPhee finds himself in another western since Slow West, though he remains out of place – picked on instantly by Phil and his gang of predatory cowhands for his effeminate demeanour. Cumberbatch appears to be having a lot of fun ratcheting up the villainy, tormenting anyone outside of the ranch purely to delight himself. So, when brother George weds Rose and brings her into their home, Phil becomes an insidious bully – mocking and taunting his new family.

A deeper facet of Phil is uncovered however when he talks about his late teacher ‘Bronco Henry’ – possessing such adoration that it borders on religious, or maybe even sexual. Power of the Dog offers a sly deconstruction of masculinity, becoming a comedy of manners with both humour and tension coming from the confrontational exchanges that take place in mixed company. 

The film is filled with stunning cinematography, of vast landscapes – green and gold hills, as opposed to sandy dunes – with powerful standalone images that shine with symbolic potency. A tense and deceptive film that keeps you involved but may still catch you off guard.

The Humans (2021)

Written for RAF News November 2021

When their youngest daughter moves to a ramshackle duplex in Lower Manhattan, the Blake family come over to celebrate Thanksgiving in full force – but the cracks are beginning to show.

Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) has just moved with boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) into the best place they could afford in the city. Out of towner parents Deidre (an incredibly precise Jayne Houdyshell) and Erik (a wonderfully preoccupied and safety-concerned Richard Jenkins) clearly haven’t come from money themselves and display a frugality that borders on hopelessness – at one point despairing that “it should cost less to be alive”. Amy Schumer gives an impressively real performance as Brigid’s sister Aimee, having been through a breakup and lost her job. And then there’s Momo (June Squibb), the grandmother whose dementia has her bound to a wheelchair that can barely fit through the doorway of the apartment.

Adapting his Tony award winning play for the screen, Stephen Karam crams his characters into the confines of a flat where the walls are covered in bubbled paint and water damage, showing us the detail of disrepair in frequent cutaways. Between the cramped hallways, and high ceilings, it almost needs to be filmed in a ratio more vertical. Instead most scenes are shot from neighbouring rooms, almost always framed by walls on either side. The claustrophobia is offset initially by the humour of the Blakes, who possess a familial nature that feels genuine.

That is until the jokes give way to the dramas underlying the evening – the secrets and judgements. It doesn’t matter what is said behind closed doors when the walls are so thin. With each personal revelation, and blown lightbulb, a tension builds to the point of horror – helped along by the sudden violent sounds of surrounding city life.

Settling us into the family dynamic with comedy, this familiarity is then turned in on itself, with the Blakes grinding on each other the way only a family can, even weaponising the words ‘Happy Thanksgiving’.

The Humans manages to be grounded in reality and yet is elevated to be cinematic – a film that feels fully lived in, with stupendous writing and casting to match.

Natural Light (2021)

Written for RAF News November 2021

In the icy woodland of Soviet-occupied Ukraine, Hungarian soldiers allied with the Axis, try to secure territory and root out the pro-Soviet partisans in the forests, in a slow and trudging test of morality.

Istvan Semetka (Ferenc Szabó) is an Hungarian farmer turned Corporal who appears hollowed out by his 8 months service. Quieter than most, more of an observer, it is no coincidence that he carries a camera alongside his rifle. Much of the film is communicated through silent exchanges, forcing us to interrogate people’s expressions and find the meaning or emotion.

Peasants in the village become hostage to these soldiers, forced to look down at the ground in deference for fear of arousing hostility. But when Semetka catches one of the villagers eyes, you get the impression that he sees them, that he is allowing himself to be empathic. Through a stony blank-expression and pained silence we understand that he is a man tortured. This is hardly the Hollywood heroics of Oscar Schindler, Semetka isn’t even a hero, he is simply a man reckoning with the deeds that he has committed, opening his eyes to the horror.

The stillness of the remote village plays against the occasional bursts of violence, of attacks from the camped out partisans – a reminder of the barbarism that is being resisted. Whilst Semetka’s impassive gaze may give an emotionless feel to the film itself, especially when shielded from the more ghastly actions off-screen, it draws you in to find the humanity. Dénes Nagy makes his feature debut with Natural Light, but his documentary experience bolsters the film in its use of observation.

If you have the patience, and find its stillness intriguing, it is an involving watch and shows how complex human emotions can be communicated without dialogue. 

Bull (2021)

Written for RAF News November 2021

Bull is the name of a London thug, enforcer and son-in-law to Norm, the boss of a local crime syndicate. But when Norm’s drug-addicted daughter wants to separate from Bull, and won’t allow him to take their son, things escalate: a caravan is set ablaze and he is left for dead.

We’re not sure of the details just yet, information is steadily doled out in flashbacks between visits from Bull to each member of the gang. If you’ve seen Neil Maskell on film before, you’ll know that it’s a mistake to cross him. Starring in Ben Wheatley’s films with a fury that sometimes explodes on screen in horrific barbarism, Bull keeps Maskell’s reputation firmly intact.

It’s easy to see why he was a valued asset to his father-in-law; where Norm (an intimidating and insidious David Hayman)

does the talking, Bull gets straight to action – unflinching and apparently unbound by morals. There is a bold matter-of-factness to the violence which sometimes tips into full-on gore. Whilst there is tension, there is no standing on ceremony, no conversation that needs to be had, just revenge to be enacted – which is probably why the film flies by with a lean 87-minute runtime. Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams (London to Brighton, Cherry Tree Lane) there are some clever stylistic touches that take us into Bull’s rage-fuelled mania – with one particularly haunting moment on a Waltzer that just keeps growing in intensity.

It’s in the final moments that things go a little awry, building to a reveal that doesn’t quite pay off. As a quick and brutal revenge thriller though it works fine simply as an excuse to follow this deranged antihero on a warpath.

Spencer (2021)

Written for RAF News November 2021

Christmas 1991, Sandringham is the setting for Spencer, a fabled telling of black sheep Princess Diana in a marriage beyond repair, struggling to find her place and pushed to breaking point.

The festive period is inverted here to be cold and uninviting. Family traditions appear more detached and ritualistic for the ruling class – each guest is weighed upon arrival, and once again as they leave, to prove their enjoyment in pounds. This the first of many alienating trials for Diana, who feels as though her eating disorder is being put on display.

Not simply taking liberties with the truth, but basking in the fantasy with joyous aplomb, Chilean director PabloLarraín (Jackie) sidesteps reverence and comes at an angle, skewering the subject with humour. Collaborating with writer Steven Knight (creator of Peaky Blinders) the film takes its ‘ghost story’ theme quite literally, committing so fully that it becomes enjoyably absurd. The royal residency becomes an opulent Overlook Hotel, with its roaming apparitions, long displacing halls and walk-in freezers. Food, as it turns out, will become the biggest antagonist of all, with scenes beginning below deck in the kitchen, run like a military operation with scrupulous attention to detail, and ending with the Princess on her knees beside the loo.

Fighting her own demons, Diana also has to contend with the rules of the manor, enforced by all but personified by Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) as the Queen’s menacingly watchful equerry. Treading a line between very serious and silly, it is grounded by the phenomenal performance of Kristen Stewart: endearing with her dry sense of humour, and tenderness with her children, but also amped up in terms of her unravelling.

The theme of duality is tackled head on, with Jack Farthing’s punishingly contemptuous Prince Charles explaining that there is the real person and the one for the cameras. The film then adds a third to the mix, the one behind closed doors but just as contrived. 

Spencer is a delight if you’re able to take it as seriously as it takes itself – with a pinch of salt, and shavings of white truffle.

Viva La Vida (2021)

Written for RAF News October 2021

Predicated apparently on the discovery of a large number of unopened trunks that contained Kahlo’s possessions, now on display in an exhibit at her home, the filmmaker explores some of these belongings and their significance in understanding the person who became the legend. 

Frida’s life is split into chapters, introduced with a fun and frenzied montage of graphics and stock archive footage. Herein her life is explored through interviews, primarily those running the exhibitions, though we also hear passages of Kahlo’s own words whilst watching actors interpret the artist, roaming about the mountains or looking longingly out of windows. This varied and unconventional approach is stitched together with narration from Asia Argento who appears between segments, talking intensely to camera in vague rhetoric as though introducing an episode of The Twilight Zone.

This confusion of ideas is messy: information is given at inopportune times, missing the chance to inform the viewer of the importance of themes when they would be useful. There are some elements of Mexican culture that caught with joyous observational footage, but it lacks consistency with the subject and tone. However frustrating, it is always a treat to revel in the powerful and challenging work of Kahlo, and appreciate the pain and hardship that she endured throughout her life.

Unfortunately Frida. Viva la Vida feels like a recorded walking tour through an exhibition, an invasive one at that, though this actually exists in more rigorous detail account looking at Kahlo’s life through her work as recorded by Exhibition on Screen just last year. An admirably artistic take on a documentary that gets a bit lost in its ideas.

In Full Bloom (2021)

Written for RAF News September 2021

In the wake of WWII, an American prize fighter with a string of losses competes in Japan against an undefeated boxer.

The politics in the background remains just that, as In Full Bloom avoids the path of Rocky IV and instead focusses on the meaning of the fight itself. It becomes less of a show for an audience or the media, and instead dives into the philosophy of boxing through the headspace of these two fighters.

It does this by taking an expressive, poetic form – earning obvious comparisons to Terence Malik through its use of whispered narration over the top of natural landscapes and stirring string compositions. This style is sustained for the entirety of the film, as we follow American Clint Sullivan (Tyler Woods) and the struggle he has in the locker room before the fight when his honour is questioned, or as we jump back in time to see the preparation undertaken by Japanese fighter Masahiro (Yusuke Ogasawara).

At a press conference, Masahiro is asked about his connection to a legendary figure – a former champion living out in the woods in isolation. Avoiding a collapsed montage with upbeat music, we instead see the ways in which this recluse becomes Masahiro’s very own Mr. Miyagi, stealthily honing fighting technique through various tasks and challenges, such as catching fish in a stream barehanded, or hunting whilst blindfolded.

The tone of the film seems to work more naturally with the Japanese characters, whereas dialogue feels a bit simple in the mouths of the Americans, perhaps losing something in translation. By the time of the fight however, none of this matters. 

The dialogue falls away, the crowd are blacked out and the camera circles the ring as we watch the first round play out in real time. In a dizzying whir of visuals and sound, this final fight is an explosion of style that pays off all of the films earlier meditations.

The Djinn (2021)

Written for RAF News August 2021

A mute boy finds a dusty leather bound book with a pentagram on the cover that says it can fill his heart’s greatest desire – surely nothing could go wrong.

Set in the 80s (maybe just to include some 80s style synth in the score), Dylan (Ezra Dewey) has just moved into a small apartment with his radio DJ father now that his mother is no longer around. Even though the dialogue is signed, it is still exposition heavy. They unpack and try to settle down before dad Michael (Rob Brownstein) has to head out for his night shift broadcasting.

This gives Dylan enough time to continue exploring his new digs, returning to the cupboard where he spied the foreboding Book of Shadows. Gathering the bits needed to fulfil this dark ritual, he lights a candle and signs the text from the book into the mirror – unleashing the Djinn. And so all the young boy needs to do now for his wish to be granted, is survive an hour in this cramped three room flat with the satanic demon he just invoked.

The Djinn is a shapeshifter, and so takes on different forms whilst pursuing the boy from room to room, though the most scary would have to be its natural ghoulish appearance which, used sparingly, is pretty unsettling.

Setting the film in this small space is clever in as much as we learn the layout quickly, knowing that if the monster is in the kitchen, there is only one way past it. However it does stifle variety and the cat and mouse chase can’t help but become repetitive, kept alive with the constant jolt of jump scares.

Simple to the point of feeling like one protracted scene, this house invasion horror gets a little stuck for ideas and leaves itself with nowhere to go.