“A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…it sounds like a spy story” – Women in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock’s British Era

From the 1920s to the late 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock was establishing himself as a film director in London and working from a mixture of original scripts and adapted works.

Hitchcock revelled in the genres of melodrama and thriller and would begin to explore the themes which would prove to be dynamically synonymous with the Hitchcock name. Hitchcock’s formative years in Britain, as well as his time spent in post-World War I Germany, was the period in which he developed his unique filmmaking style as well as cultivating a reputation which would precede him in America. Filmmaking in Britain was still relatively unsophisticated when Hitchcock began to work as an art director under the formidable Graham Cutts (a hostile collaboration according to Donald Spoto in Spellbound by Beauty,  2009) and Michael Balcon of Gainsborough pictures with whom he made The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Generally regarded as the first picture which included the themes that would make Hitchcock famous and loosely based on Jack the Ripper, the treatment of women in his film was of great fascination. Film historian Philip Kemp notes:

“Like Hitchcock himself, the serial killer in The Lodger seems to have it in for blondes…[and] Hitchcock’s mischievous, semi-sadistic treatment of blondes hit its stride in Hollywood, perhaps provoked by the flawless glamour of its screen goddesses.” (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999).

Throughout Hitchcock’s early career, he would continue to direct stories which would reinforce the motif of the ‘blonde woman’ that would develop further prominence in his later films. Madeline Carroll as Pamela in The 39 Steps (1935) for instance typified this notion. Stuart Y. McDougal in Mirth, Sexuality and Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock’s Adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1975) describes how the film’s source literary material was transformed “into a quickly paced work of suspense, greatly simplified the plot…” which altered the structure, used the settings functionally and made the work an exploration of the nature of male-female relationships.

Richard Hannay’s (Robert Donat) interactions with Pamela and initially Annabelle (Lucie Mannheim), the mysterious woman pursued by gunmen who seeks refuge with Hannay, offer a dynamic opportunity to portray two different kinds of women in one quick-moving narrative. Annabelle (or “Miss Smith” as she calls herself) exudes sexuality and danger, and as Hannay remarks: “A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…It sounds like a spy story.” Annabelle soon meets a bitter end, but her few minutes on screen are indelible. Annabelle is “the archetypal femme fatale: dark, beautiful, mysterious and foreign” McDougal explains, and is the complete opposite of the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft) or indeed Pamela. Her active role in the plot of the film (the firing of the shots in the theatre in the opening scene and her shocking death) is the first of the three women in The 39 Steps who propel the story along to its dramatic conclusion- she after all, is the one who ‘picks up’ Hannay and invites herself to his flat. The narrative progress which Annabelle initiates, may involve her own death, but also vitally, persuades the protagonist out of a malaise.  The crofter’s wife for example, strikes out on her own against her god-fearing highlander husband and secures Hannay’s escape whilst Pamela’s initial distrust of Hannay results in one the most satisfying character transformations of the film. As Saptarshi Ray of The Guardian concluded in his appraisal of the film, “[though] this was an era of rampant male chauvinism…pretty much all the women are strong and smart.”

In Hitchcock’s first sound picture, Blackmail (1929), the subject matter within the film also indicate themes which have been noted as significant throughout Hitchcock’s filmography. Indeed as Tania Modleski in The Women Who Knew Too Much, 1988 claims, “Some critics have even argued that Hitchcock’s work is prototypical of the extremely violent assaults on women that make up much of our entertainment today.” Blackmail then, deals with an especially difficult subject matter in which a young woman, Alice (Anny Odra), defends herself against a rapist, resulting in his death and the subsequent investigation by her detective boyfriend. It is a dark subject for a commercial hit which took advantage of new technology, but is another example of Hitchcock’s early style permeating through a still youthful medium. The film also launches a debate about the “episode in the artist’s studio”. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 2000 by Donald Spoto, he shockingly describes it as “violent love” whereas Hitchcock, refreshingly frank for the time, simply called it as it appears to a modern viewer when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, as an attempt at “rape”. The film is rather uncompromising in its ability to demonstrate Alice’s immediate guilt, take for instance, the famous scene in which she listens to a gossiping neighbour discussing the knife as a murder weapon. The camera moves to Ondra’s traumatised face, and Hitchcock imaginatively distorts sound. The audience hears only the subjective impression of what the girl hears, as the neighbour’s words blur together until only word “knife” stabs out at her and at the audience from the soundtrack.

The film’s sympathy in dealing with the reaction of female guilt after experiencing the trauma of sexual violence also emphasises the female position in the patriarchy, especially in regards to the law, the accountability of crime and for the creation of identification with the female outlaw. The film does this at various moments in the film, in particular with the point-of-view shots which implicate the spectator in Alice’s guilt. The depiction of Alice is “hardly the one-dimensional vamp of so many films of the period”, as Modleski points out, making it impossible for the viewer to condemn Alice for her predicament. Indeed, Alice must exist at the mercy of the law-abiding (her detective boyfriend, Frank) and a blackmailer (Tracy), inciting a lack of resolution in the conclusion of the film, and as Modleski concludes, is a theme which we will see repeated again and again in Hitchcock’s work, attributing not a “sadistic delight in seeing his leading ladies suffer” but an obsession which takes “the form of a particularly lucid expose of the predicaments of and contradictions of women’s existence under patriarchy.”

In Richard Allen’s Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, 2007, Allen discusses the most successful of Hitchcock’s British films, The Lady Vanishes (1938) which uses the “joint quest narrative”, whereby “masculine reason and female intuition combine to yield knowledge of the criminal” and results in these cases, the wronged man/woman’s exoneration. Allen’s analysis of these narratives highlight a largely forgotten aspect of the feminine voice in many of Hitchcock’s films, saying how in Hitchcock’s “‘wrong man’ thrillers the hero is often much weaker: the wronged man needs the heroine’s help and her active agency, in order to clear his name and restore his identity…” for instance, in The 39 Steps.

Though the female character is often transformed into the male character’s romantic conquest by the end of the film, it is not without the female character first demonstrating some detective agency and intuition, a characteristic which Allen believes to be one of the distinguishing factors of Hitchcock’s British films. The female protagonist of The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is alone in her insistence that an older woman, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has disappeared from the train in which they were both travelling independently. Iris is met with disbelief at nearly every turn, even initially from Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris’ eventual love interest and partner in her investigation. The equalling of gender in Iris and Gilbert’s ability to solve an inexplicable mystery may even, as Allen deduces, “involve the realignment of traditional gendered epistemologies, and sometimes issues in an ambiguous stance toward the romantic resolution…”

The emergence of the feisty and determined female hero of films such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes it seems therefore, were the forerunners to the ‘guilty women’ film viewers would become accustomed to in the Hitchcock oeuvre from the 1950s and beyond.

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Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)

I broke the code to tell my cinema companion that the colon was in the wrong place on the BBFC titlecard, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this action ‘six-quel’ (which no one is calling it), Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

My relationship with the M:I series has been a rocky one. The first film was first viewed on VHS, thanks to a friend’s enviable video collection, while the second film lasted only in my memory thanks to it’s nu-metal soundtrack and for first making me aware of Thandie Newton. The Gillette advert opener with Tom Cruise scaling a cliff was not enough to save the rest of it. Fast-forward to the third installment, I eventually caught it on TV after an alarming number of people had claimed “it’s actually good, I’m promise!”

My personal favourite was actually Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, probably thanks to going into the film with zero expectations, other than vaguely hoping to see Tom Cruise once again scaling a building, a plane or some other death-defying stunt. The story was spy-lit lite but easy to follow, the villain (Sean Harris) was genuinely creepy at times, and most surprisingly of all, we had an interesting female character to encounter – Ilsa Faust played by Rebecca Ferguson. I could watch the scene in the Vienna opera house over and over again.

I was pleased then that this latest film, Fallout, continued the winning formula of the fifth, with Christopher McQuarrie remaining as writer and director (for the first time in the series) and hurrah, Ilsa Faust returning!

I’d recommend seeing Rogue Nation before tackling Fallout, but Fallout most definitely covers new ground, creating a whole new narrative despite picking up on tensions and emotional ties from previous outings.

The IMF spring into action again when nuclear weapons are stolen by a shady syndicate (of course) called the Apostles, hell-bent on chaos throughout the world in order to create a new world order. Ethan (Tom Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are tasked with reclaiming the bombs, taking them across Europe in quick lightning speed, and encountering a CIA operative (Henry Cavill) and a black market arms dealer (Vanessa Kirby) along the way.

Everyone in the cast gets their share of scenery to chomp and the action sequences were relentless but ingenious. Wringing my sweating hands as I watched Cruise race to the Tate Modern or motorbike through famous Parisian traffic, I gave myself over to the mindless thrill of seeing accomplished action scenes click effortlessly into place as if operated by clockwork. So many action/thriller films rely on fast cuts and shaky camera work to obscure the action and disorientate viewers, but the fight scenes, particularly the one in the silent club bathroom, was like a ballet of sinew and white-tiled fury.

Six films in and the series is now attempting to reflect on the destruction the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), namely Ethan Hunt, has created in the name of keeping the world and the people closest to them, save. When so many of the installments in the series have been individual ventures – thanks to idiosyncratic directors like Brian De Palma and John Woo picking up the gauntlet – the era of ‘cinematic universes’ has forced the producers to attempt to weave these wildly varying films together to create a narrative arc for Ethan Hunt. I appreciate the effort… just maybe for the next one they could resurrect Kristin Scott Thomas and complete the circle?!

M:I works best when it acts as an heist movie in the spy genre. Seeing a dastardly plan be thwarted or Ethan Hunt attempt another daring escape has always been where M:I excelled, even if the characterisation and plot was lacking. Ethan Hunt, in my mind, is just a cipher for a more palatable Tom Cruise. Less jumping on sofas more running across the roofs of London please.

 

Review: MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! a tissue, because Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is making me cry just thinking about it.

10 years ago, an awkward teenager not yet the age of a Dancing Queen, saw Mamma Mia! three times at the cinema, made a Dynamos t-shirt and ticked off another film on her epic list to watch every movie Meryl Streep ever made. A decade on and understandably nervous about the prospect of a sequel, I’ve been setting my fears to one side (“WHERE IS MARY LOUISE STREEP?” “HOW IS ‘FERNANDO’ GOING TO FIT INTO THE NARRATIVE?” “WILL HARRY HAVE A HUSBAND?”), ready to wear the platforms once again and enjoy a thin story held together by some of the greatest songs ever written.

We return to the island of Kalokairi to see Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) renovating her mother’s (MERYL!) hotel in time for a grand reopening. Old friends of her mother’s Tanya (The Great Christine Baranski) and Rosie (DAME Julie Walters) come ashore, once again in fine form to help her realise her mother’s Grecian dream  under the sun. In between scenes of Sophie’s estrangement from her partner Skye (Dominic Cooper) and touchingly heartfelt moments with her step-dad, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), the film flashes back to 1979, to see where Donna (Lily James) first got the idea to relocate to Greece and how she found herself enthralled by the three men who formed the dilemma of the first film – Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård)  and of course, Sam.

Ol Parker’s (Imagine Me and You) direction is spirited and fun manages to recreate the joy of the first film with added skill and panache. An early scene with Pierce had me welling up almost immediately, and it was then that a tidal wave of sentimentality rolled through to sweep me away. ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’ is briefly reworked in such a way that the lyrics take on a whole new meaning, proving the genius of a songbook that still enraptures the world over.

Speaking of the songs, we get a whole new collection of ABBA reworkings to enjoy, including what could have been an underwhelming interpretation of ‘Waterloo’, turns out to be one of the funniest set pieces in the film, while my disappointment at ‘The Name of the Game’ making an appearance on the first film’s soundtrack album but not in the final cut, was fixed with a dazzling rendition by Lily James. Fan favourite ‘My Love, My Life’ packs an emotional punch (well, more like a wallop across the head with the crying stick) and Cher doing a Cher version of ‘Fernando’ is surreal and absolutely fabulous.

But Lily James really is the stand out in this film. Having to convincingly bewitch all three potential fathers and embody the balls that would see a newly pregnant young woman stay in an abandoned farmhouse and transform it into a business…and after all the strange coincidences, unlikely situations and shoehorned ABBA songs, we just go with it. A special mention goes to Jessica Keenan Wynn who manages to exude the ‘big dick energy’ of Baranski’s Tanya, stealing nearly all over her scenes and has to be the best piece of casting in this sequel-prequel.

At the heart of this story has always been a loving, dysfunctional and unusual mother-daughter relationship and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again goes a long way to underline again that universal longing to understand where we come from and, most importantly, where we are going.  Seriously, MM!HWGA, just HOW can I resist you?

 

Review: HEREDITARY (2018)

When the posters proclaimed that Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary was as terrifying as The Exorcist, my first thought was: “Is The Exorcist actually as scary as we claim it to be?”

Side note: A school friend of mine gave me a copy of the extended director’s cut to keep and I was too afraid to watch it for years. Mark Kermode, I can assure you, I have watched it since!

This provocative statement works only as a way to make us remember our own ‘horror’ surrounding The Exorcist, as a ‘do we dare?’ sleepover movie option, or as a way to boast to friends in the school playground that we’d seen the infamous spiderwalk with our very own eyes. The hysteria that existed around the film in someways was more influential than the film itself. If the execs could harness even at little of that hype for Hereditary, they’d be onto a box office winner. No wonder they put it on the poster.

Where the two films can be compared is in the overwhelming feeling of dread that pervades throughout both pictures. And while I never particular found The Exorcist to be ‘terrifying’ as such, just creepy and incredibly atmospheric, Hereditary did seriously spook me at several key moments.

Horror and the cinematic themes of motherhood go hand-in-hand, just look to the modern Australian classic The Babadook or return to 1960s to see how Rosemary’s Baby tells very different tales of terrorised young mothers. In this way, both The Exorcist and Hereditary are insights to parents increasingly distanced from their children, with seemingly supernatural intervention setting a course for the destruction of the family unit.

While Regan and her mother Chris (played with steel by Ellen Burstyn) appear to be close to begin with in The Exorcist, despite Chris daring to have a successful acting career alongside motherhood in the 1970s, the Graham family’s disharmony in Hereditary can be felt almost immediately from the first scene. Tension flares merely from forgetting to take shoes off at the door or from asking to borrow the car. When the terror kicks into overdrive, we are truly left to wonder that if this family do make it out the other side alive and sane, will they even make it out together?

Toni Collette is Annie Graham, once again putting in a bruising performance as a neurotic, anxious artist, understandably concerned about the influence her distant (and recently deceased) mother has had on her quiet daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Collette recently admitted that she had initially wanted to work on lighter project that required less crying for a change, but that she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be in this film. And I am grateful she did. Whether it is a blistering rant at the dinner table that says so much about the way that grief can exacerbate unreleased anger, or her character’s faltering attempts to make herself understood to her family, Collette is stellar as an artist increasingly unable to occupy her stifling reality or find solace the artificial worlds she creates in her artwork.

Son Peter (Alex Wolff) appears to be a typical teenager, at odds with his parents, getting stoned at any opportunity and despairing at having to take his younger sister along to a party. When something horrible occurs that turns the family’s inner turmoil inside out, the Graham family is exposed to horrors that exploits their precarious power-keg existence to the limit.

For a debut film, Aster’s direction is exemplary and confident, while cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera work is manipulative and hypnotic. Jump scares, the go-to weapon of choice for horror films of late, are dispensed with, instead the slow creep of the camera far more terrifying, and a clever use of the 90-degree camera-tilt is the choice of a director unafraid to delve into the box of tricks to make his mark on the horror genre. The tone is uncanny, nervous audience laughter is borne of strange silences, stilted conversations and bizarre imagery, while the score is minimal but affecting. I can’t wait to see what Aster does next, and would love to see him continue his experiments in the horror genre.

Upon reaching the conclusion of the film, you either go with it or you don’t. I personally find horror films more unnerving when things are left relatively unexplained, as a little moments exposition in the certain moments feel a tad unnecessary. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or to scream by the end of Hereditary, and I have a shuddering, gnawing feeling that’s exactly the point.

Review: OCEAN’S 8 (2018)

To say I was anticipating this film would be an understatement. As a longtime fan of the first Ocean’s 11, well, Steven Soderbergh’s own reboot of the classic ensemble heist movie anyway, but less so of the subsequent sequels, an all-female spin-off was thigh-rubbingly exciting. And without the vitriol facing the all-female Ghostbusters film released the year Ocean’s 8 began principal photography, we were left to eagerly await the movie in peace. And quietly (or not so quietly, in my case) pray for the gay.

I’ve been always been happy to wallow in the subtext for my queer fix, whatever Ocean’s 8 would gift me, that’s just part and parcel of my film watching experience, and I was certainly happy to just enjoy an all-female cast in a big budget movie. And what a cast. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett is a combo I never knew I wanted, and as ringleader Debbie Ocean (George Clooney’s Danny’s sister and fellow swindler) and the effortlessly cool Lou, there was plenty to ‘squee’ over. Honestly, whoever decided to put Blanchett in all those suits deserves the Oscar for Best Costume Design. The collective sighs and swooning as set pictures were released during filming remain justified upon seeing the final film.

Making up the eight are Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Rhianna, Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina. I did get the impression that there was a lot that was probably left on the cutting room floor with this script, as each of the eight are given paper thin backgrounds and motivations, but once the heist gets underway, it’s all about the mechanics of the play at hand. The goal? To steal a diamond Cartier necklace from under the noses of security and celebrities at the New York Met Gala.

The motivation of Debbie, much like her brother’s in Ocean’s 11, and under the guise of it being “what’s she’s good at”, is in part to get revenge. While Danny sets his goal on reuniting with his ex-wife, it works less well in this instance. The greedy former lover is a distraction from the main narrative, and when Lou confronts Debbie about her need to balance the scales with the man who effectively put her in prison, you are never really convinced of Lou’s threat to walk nor of the plan being in jeopardy. It’s needless extra impetus in a film that is most successful when we get to see female con artists unable to resist the pull of doing what they do best, regardless of the possible gains at the end of it all.

Though an ensemble cast, Bullock and Blanchett do carry most of the film, as Clooney and Brad Pitt did in their first scheme together. Bonham Carter does great with what she’s given – another ‘kooky’ character, and Hathaway as the ludicrously annoying Daphne Kluger remains on the right side of believable. Rhianna, possibly the most surprising piece of casting, is great too, effortlessly snarking and hacking her way through tasks. Awkwafina and Kaling are instantly likeable, but again, many of the scenes that aren’t directly related to getting the heist on the road appear to be prematurely cut short.

And well, the gay isn’t overt, but Bullock and Blanchett do share enough glances and chemistry to make my heart flutter all the same. And not since Archie Panjabi and Gillian Anderson in TV’s The Fall did a motorbike scene scream: ‘GAAAAAAAAAAAAAY’…

Overall, Ocean’s 8 offers me everything I love about the franchise, but contains few surprises, despite a sprinkling of callbacks to the earlier films and a couple of heist-y (not a word) twists. The whole eight-sided package is watchable, popcorn, Saturday night entertainment that I can definitely see myself picking off the DVD shelf when I need a fun, girl-tastic, kick-ass caper to indulge in.

Ocean’s 9 anyone?

Review: A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Amazingly, my local cinema was truly engulfed in silence on Sunday night. Despite the optimistic purchases of popcorn and other confectionery, they were all but forgotten once A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s (of The American Office, It’s Complicated and Away We Go) debut horror feature took hold.

The concept is gripping one: you make noise, you die, which is essentially a movie tagline writer’s dream, and follows a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. What we do know is that most of Earth’s human population has been wiped out by an invasion of alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing.

All of this is expertly told without over-explanation or exposition. The streets of an already sleepy town are strewn with undisturbed leaves from passing seasons, drugstores have been raided and trails of sand have been marked so that surviving inhabitants can creep quietly without fear of detection. One such band of survivors are the Abbott family. They talk in whispers, but mostly by cannily using American Sign Language, in part due to the fact that one of the children is deaf.

Scenes of the family attempting to go about their daily lives are still somehow fraught with tension. Even an innocent game of Monopoly is dicing with death. Our discovery that the mother, played with steel and gumption by the always brilliant Emily Blunt, is also pregnant is gut-punch of a plot point.  The camera pans over the wall calendar to glance at the due date, and a wave of dread hits. The family wouldn’t survive an inadvertent clink of plates on the dining table, never mind the arrival of a screaming newborn baby.

Coming in at just 90 minutes, the film makes quick use of the premise, turning even the smallest of drama into an opportunity for the family’s devastating annihilation. The protruding nail on the stair scene in family romp Home Alone will forever now send me screaming back to the gory horror of A Quiet Place. And when the father, also played by Krasinski, takes his youngest to a nearby waterfall, it is an understated scene of catharsis for both his understandably nervous son and the audience.

I’m not sure I want to put too much weight onto the allegorical nature of the film’s themes, but the best horrors have always played on societal fears. That’s just Film School 101, right? A Quiet Place is equally ripe for unpicking. Pressure to keep quiet and obfuscate, plus our increasing acquiescence about being ignored in a world of noise and fake news are flipped on their head in this silent wasteland. Expression, the act that differentiates us from animals, is somehow now the method of our own extinction. So when Blunt and Krasinski come together to share an earphone rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon,  it is a touching moment, but its one that disturbs the silence we’re now all too comfortably complicit in.

As expected, the good old-fashioned tropes kick in wonderfully and the Alien-style cat and mouse chase across the family’s farm makes for an unbearable watch at pretty much every beat of the action. With multiple perilous set pieces to grip the armrest through  and a monster that is seemingly unbeatable, A Quiet Place is a sweat-inducing time in the cinema. Nerves are shredded and nails are bitten and as soon as it ended, I wanted to do it all over again.

Review: LOVE, SIMON (2018)

Occasionally, a film comes along that we not only want, but need. Love, Simon is such a film.

Watching this teen drama-comedy (more drama than comedy, but there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments), I wish I had been young enough to be the target audience. In my teens I made do with Napoleon Dynamite (genius), ripe-for-sleepovers high school slasher flicks and John Hughes’ body of work in the 1980s. But as fun and as formative as those films were, none of them were able to recreate or hold a mirror up to how it might be to go to school ‘in the closet’.

Without realising it for most of my youth, I was that closeted teen. I ‘admired’ my history teacher, I held Dana Scully up as simply a ‘great role model’ and saw Mamma Mia! three times because, well, ABBA plus Meryl Streep is just pure cinema gold, isn’t it? And I, like Simon, had a good group of friends who wouldn’t have cared at all if I was queer.

This is the point of the story where we meet Simon (Nick Robinson). He’s aware of his privileged home and school life, and isn’t particular ashamed of the fact that he is gay, but cannot quite bring himself to find the ‘right’ moment to relate this small aspect of himself. An amusing scene, doing the rounds on the trailers (SIDE NOTE: This film is being PROPERLY ADVERTISED! It’s a shame films like 120 BPM aren’t get the same time in the spotlight), imagines the heterosexual characters in the story having to ‘come out’ to their parents. It’s on the nose for sure, but it works, highlighting the ridiculous act we all still face, sometimes on a regular basis, no matter our age or circumstance.

As ridiculous as it is, Simon’s attempts to control how and when he comes out is a recognisable one, and is a privilege that is all too often taken away from queer teens or LGBTQ+ identifying people in the public sphere. I completely identified with Simon’s desire to wait until university, when are you are able to forge a new identity of your own and control the way you present yourself to the adult world for the first time. And in an amusing scene where Simon participates in a fantastical flash mob dance to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, we are witness to Simon’s adorable and completely relatable need to belong.

When his identity is about to be revealed against his will, it kick-starts a domino effect of events that challenges Simon to question how far he is willing to go to come out on his own terms. When the pieces come crumbling down (this is a high school drama after all), we’ve become so invested in these ice-coffee drinking, Panic At The Disco-loving teens that the real prospect of finishing high school alone without lifelong friends in tow is a true narrative gut-punch.

Robinson is ably backed up by a strong supporting cast, including Jennifer Gardner and Josh Duhamel as his liberal and soppy parents who both get opportunities to present a sympathetic portrayal of supportive parents who love their son, whatever the nature of his “secret”. The direction by Dawson’s Creek and Supergirl alumni Greg Berlanti gets the leafy, middle-class, middle-America down to a tee. All the characters reside in the kind of houses that LadyBird longed to infiltrate in Greta Gerwig’s vision of staid high school life. When Simon puts the record player needle down on The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, I couldn’t help but make a mental note to search for the pristine OST on Spotify. Millennial and proud.

The film’s tagline “Everyone deserves a great love story” could not be more apt. With Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country getting widespread acclaim, the teen movie deserved a chance at telling a gay love story, and Love, Simon is a confident and fun-loving success. It’s portrayal of an average guy that just wants to experience love for the first time is endearing and so tear-jerkingly touching that I couldn’t tell if my tears were tears of happiness of tears of relief at finally seeing a mainstream movie tackle this subject without any evasion or cynicism.

A film about trying to embrace who your are, pass your exams and all the while balancing the careful act of not getting your phone confiscated. Now if that’s not a universal teen experience, then I don’t know what is.

Love, Evangeline.

 

Review: ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

When a new film is helmed by an Anderson (Wes and Paul Thomas – sorry, Paul WS), it’s practically demanded that supposed film fans make a trip to the cinema to form their own opinion. And a new Wes Anderson film is just the sort of big budget ‘quirky’ film to whip us up into a frenzy.

Like the devotees of P.T. Anderson, Wes fanatics are a devoted bunch, declaring their favourite Bill Murray performance with ease and asserting that Luke Wilson is the best Wilson brother at the drop of a Steve Zissou red bobble hat. So upon hearing that Wes’s whimsical style has been shone through the prism of animation once again in the form of Isle of Dogs, I thought it better warrant a visit to my local cineplex (a shout out to Cardigan Fields in Leeds – leather-seated mundanity yet reliable as ever).

Isle of Dogs tells the tail (sorry) of a fictional Japanese city sometime in the future, where dogs have been outlawed and are infected with a debilitating flu-like disease known as ‘snout fever’. Mayor and angry-shouldered despot Kobayashi’s solution is to deport all dogs to Trash Island just miles off the coast – a festering waste land that acts as a rubbish-laden mausoleum to the city’s throwaway society.

We are introduced to a band of bedraggled canine characters, led by Bryan Cranston in a gravelly voice that rattles the speakers and is reminiscent of George Clooney’s own charismatic voice work in Anderson’s last animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). Anderson alumni Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Jeff Goldblum are Boss, Rex and Duke respectively – and though it is a delight to here them bicker as this mutt-ley (again, sorry) crew of dogs, it’s only Cranston who gets the opportunity to shine in the role and leave a lasting impression as Chief, the curmudgeonly stray. Once 12 year-old Atari Kobayashi crash lands on Trash Island to find his missing and much-loved guard dog, Spots, action takes the place of character development and the focus is placed on Chief and the frighteningly determined Atari, a former ward to the mayor. As they are embroiled in a seemingly impossible task to reunite the boy with his animal companion, implausible hijinks ensue.

Anderson’s work has always delighted in throwing together characters that are finely drawn to cause conflict and eke out emotional breakthroughs, see The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited for examples of this (with varying degrees of success), and Isle of Dogs once again plays with this narrative trope.

Back in the city, foreign exchange student Tracy is on the brink of discovering the conspiracy that has caused the whole dog population to be exiled. Voiced with riotgrrl determination by Greta Gerwig, nothing will get in the way of Tracy leading a teenage rebellion, fuelled by chocolate milk and armed with a trusty tape recorder. It could be said that the film is less interested in this side of the conflict, but the unfolding drama is cleverly told via anime-style newsreels and the Japanese dialogue is translated by Frances McDormand, at her best playing a competent, if slightly exasperated English language interpreter tasked with relating the mayor’s increasingly alarming doctrines.

The film is also served well by a welcoming narration by Courtney B. Vance (known perhaps for most recently playing the outrageously savvy Johnnie Cochran in The People vs. OJ Simpson).

Like Fantastic Mr Fox before it, Isle of Dogs is stunning piece of artistry that can be admired even if the film is not loved by all. There are rare moments of stillness within scenes that allow you the briefest of chances to inspect the fine hairs that form Atari’s eyebrows or notice the shade of iris blue chosen to illuminate Chief’s frenzied stares. When the four-legged adventurers let their animal instincts take over, the animation doesn’t shy away from bloody horror of the Mad Max-style battle for survival Trash Island can be either. Puppet dog ears be damned.

Infused throughout the film, the trademark ‘quirky’ humour remains, even when annihilation is threatened. A pug, whose handful of lines are voiced by Tilda Swinton is a hilarious minor detail and well deserved the chance to prolong the gag of her supposed psychic abilities.

Isle of Dogs is a lean, mean and yet admirable adventure story that isn’t afraid to be decidedly adult in its execution and themes. It succeeds where Fantastic Mr Fox occasionally failed, in balancing the family-friendly credentials of its source material while creating a film that Wes fans and even sometime Wes skeptics (like myself) can get enormous pleasure out of too.

 

 

Review: BLACK PANTHER (2018)

When I went to see Black Panther, it had already had been announced as Marvel’s most successful superhero film and as of April, was still showing at various multiplexes despite being initially released in February. It was also to go down in history as the first film to be screened in Saudi Arabia in 35 years.

Before it had even hit cinemas around the world it was marking its territory in our cultural history forever. Marvel, the comic book-film studio juggernaut that has currently 17 on-the-whole acclaimed film adaptations  in its ‘cinematic universe’ was considered to be at something of stalemate. Fans and cinema-goers alike were getting a tad battle weary from tireless Hulk smashes and clamours from Thor’s hammer. Though that didn’t stop us from flooding to the box office to witness the next installment.

The release of Thor: Ragnarok was a shot of much needed levity to the Marvel franchise however, bruised from an ambitious but overall disappointing Captain America: Civil War, and though it is naive to connect that the successes of Ragnarok had any influence on the universe follow-up, Black Panther, after post production on Ragnarok had barely begun filming, it did signal a left turn in Marvel’s cinematic journey.

Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) tells the story of T’Challa (played by an effortlessly regal Chadwick Boseman), crowned king of Wakanda following his father’s death. His sovereignty is soon challenged by a new adversary, Killmonger, who plans to abandon the country’s isolationism and initiate global revenge. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan, is equal parts terrifying and sympathetic as a maligned Wakandan descendant who was left fatherless and abandoned in Oakland, California as a child – allowing for plenty of time to foster a loathing of Wakanda and yet fantasise assuming its throne and destroying the country’s idealistic policies. Occupying a secretive existence in the world has sheltered T’Challa and his subjects to entrenched racism across the globe. You might not agree with his methods but it’s practically impossible to not understand the reason behind Killmonger’s quest.

The temptation to keep the sanctity of Wakanda’s status as a supposed ‘third world country’ (though in reality is a society transformed by the discovery of vibranium, used to develop advanced technology) , weighs heavily on T’Challa’s shoulders, and though the film falls back on Marvel’s tried and tested formula of superhero showdowns in the final third of the film, the main conflict remains whether to make Wakanda’s true status known to the world. The debate of intervention and globalisation are political and ethical decisons that we and our representatives (hopefully) grapple with at the hit of every new headline…so what to do if a history of humanitarian intervention and occupation has never existed before? Does that mean you ought to intervene in global crisis and injustice because you have the powers to do so? Is it really our place? The dilemma to reveal Wakanda’s true powers is the age-old superhero crisis of whether to come out behind the mask, writ large.

And for once, this superhero romp doesn’t dispense with its strong female characters just as the action starts. Okoye, leader of the special forces played by a powerful Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o as spy Nakia and the adorable Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s mischievous sister and very own ‘Q’, Shuri, are a breath of fresh air. The Dora Milaje, the battalion of spear-wielding women led by Gurira are a breathtaking sight, while the female characters remain integral to the story and are empowered, both physically and intellectually. They know how to use their power and wield it accordingly, and rarely for blockbusters,  sex appeal is obvious but secondary to personality and skill. Neither Okoye or Nakia consider their roles and cause as anything another than the most important things in their lives and remain so, even in the film’s final act.

It would be remiss of me to not point out just how significant this film is, goodness knows there’s been plenty of think pieces about it, and rightly so. Black Panther has opened up the conversation proving that films with an African-descended casts and African (albeit fictional, though don’t tell Trump) histories are box office draws. It’s important to point out however, that these stories have always existed waiting to be told, African American lives on screen should matter, it’s just that the powers that be in Hollywood have only caught on to that fact. Even if it the mirage of dollar signs that tempted them, I’m grateful Black Panther was made. Meanwhile, Dee Rees, Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele and the imitable Spike Lee are proving time and time again that box office and critical acclaim is in reach for black filmmakers. There’s still a long way to go to ensure that this becomes the norm, not the exception, but there is no better film than Black Panther to spearhead (pun not intended) this groundswell.

 

Review: PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017)

Spanking, bondage and S&M. Three things not immediately associated with Wonder Woman, but thanks to Professor Marston and the Wonder Women written and directed by Angela Robinson (up the women!), the curious hidden story of this iconic bastion of feminine superpowers, gets its own origin flick.

Starring Luke Evans as Professor William Moulton Marston, last seen chugging ales and four dozen eggs as Gaston in the incredibly successful Beauty and the Beast live-action remake, Evans is the centre, if not the emotional heart of this story based on true events.

Marston is married to the out-spoken and ridiculously talented Elizabeth (the always impeccable Rebecca Hall), who has been denied a psychology professorship at Harvard, despite being cleverer than everyone on campus, including her husband who leads lectures on his own theories as she looks on from the sidelines. Elizabeth is coarse, dynamic and striking – everything that grassy Ivy League Boston in the 1920s just cannot to get to grips with.

The marriage is a competitive partnership that is bonded by love, mutual respect and an endearing understanding of the other’s foibles. When the couple need a research assistant to help them test their early iteration of the lie-detector test (yes, it’s all still true), their quietly rebellious world is about to be infiltrated.

Enter Olive Byrne, played with wide-eyed intensity by Bella Heathcote. Initially we are party to Marston’s instant attraction to the young student, but as the three bright sparks begin to muddle along, it is Elizabeth and Olive’s increasing affinity for one another that offers a unique opportunity for the three leads to embrace a sexual as well as an academic, simpatico. The scene in which Elizabeth finally allows herself act on her passion for Olive is one of the most intense scenes in the first half of the film, and Hall and Heathcote’s chemistry throughout is one of the highlights of the whole piece.

When the scandalous relationship is uncovered, Marston and his wife, along with Olive are forced to leave the campus behind, and it is from here that the evolution of the character that would go on to be Wonder Woman begins. Inspired by his interests in bondage (all in the name of science, of course) and desperate to provide for his unconventional family unit, the iconic superhero takes shape. “Suffering Sappho!” cries Wonder Woman in the early editions – there’s certainly none of that in the wonderful Wonder Woman movie of 2017.

Throughout, the film cuts to scenes with Marston attempting to justify and explain his comic book creation to the influencers of 1940s domestic life, the Child Study Association of America, and as the film enters its latter half, we are shown the reactions to both the Marston’s “perverted” lifestyle and the amusing and ultimately harmless instances of bondage play scattered throughout a wartime comic book for adults and children. Instead, the gold tinted and warmly filtered scenes of intellectual and sexual bliss from early on in the film make way for starkly coloured scenes that portray how the family have to emerge from their self-created Eden within a picket-fenced US suburbia.

As Elizabeth and Olive, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote offer one of the most believable bonds on film this year, and Luke Evans as the titular professor is effortlessly charismatic as an ambitious chancer who was inspired by the women in his life.

I really admire how proudly this film wears its heart on its sleeve, even if the more convenient elements of the story have been conflated or altered to make a more palatable and narratively coherent version of events. It’s such a shame that this film disappeared completely under the radar, especially in the wake of the success of Patty Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman movie. The two features together make an incredibly satisfying double-bill.

Seek this one out if you’re in the mood for a heartfelt film that’s tantalisingly tongue in cheek at times and has plenty of rope-play. Now there’s a combo.