Arrival – LFF Review

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Aliens have landed! But in emotional indie style rather than in exploding world domination fashion. Think Monsters rather than Independance Day and then forget I mentioned Monsters as Arrival is completely different. Where was I? Aliens have landed! And it is up to linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to figure out how to communicate with them, with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) at her side. Hurrying her along is the US army who desperately want to know if the aliens come in peace or war and want the answers before anyone else. Twelve alien crafts have arrived and Louise is tasked with communicating with the one ship hovering just above US soil. I can’t wait for the spin-off film around the ship that landed in Devon…

As Louise starts to learn the aliens’ unique form of communication she feels the pressure from military representative Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) as the army loses trust in her, the alien visitors, and the rest of the world. Interspersed with beautifully shot visits with the aliens and complicated exposition about sentence structures are flashbacks to Louise’s daughter. The flashbacks did not sit well with me initially; I was enjoying a sciency scene of a linguistic nature then suddenly we’re back with a little girl talking about something tangentally related. I thought the filmmakers were awkwardly crowbarring in some depth to the character but could not have been more wrong.

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The film’s use of flashbacks is so ingenious that I cannot really talk about them without ruining the film’s biggest treats. Let’s just say that the flashbacks come good in the end and I probably won’t appreciate them fully until I watch Arrival for a second time. Arrival is very deceptive that way. On first watch the film is a solid and beautifully shot science fiction that falls under the banner of good rather than great but in the days since I saw it my mind has been percolating and reflecting on what I saw. Maybe Arrival is great after all?

I definitely need to see it for a second time.

Director Denis Villeneuve has tackled a variety of genres from the surrealist Enemy, thrilling Prisoners, and recently hit the mainstream with Sicario. With Arrival he maintains a beautiful aesthetic alongside a structure that cleverly hides from the viewer what is happening even as they watch it happen. This is science fiction that doesn’t treat weaponry and creature effects as the be all and end all but prioritises the human element and the all important fictional science; the big idea. Science fiction should be about ideas; about a big “what if” and should explore that idea to its natural conclusion. Arrival does this wonderfully.

I did not immediately love Arrival on first viewing. With time and reflection it has really grown on me and a second watch is definitely needed.

And then surely soon:

Sully – LFF Review

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On the 15th of January 2009 Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was flying an Airbus out of New York’s LaGuardia airport. Following a massive bird strike Sully lost both engines and was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River for fear of crashing into New York city. The whole event took less than four minutes and Sully is widely regarded as a modern day hero. Seven years later Clint Eastwood has stretched and padded those four minutes to make them into feature film and thrown in a bad guy for good measure.

In Sully we get Hollywood’s favourite everyman Tom Hanks stepping into the lead role and bringing with him his reliable air of humble gravitas. Sully doesn’t see himself as a hero but the film forces him to defend his status as one as it shows the pivotal four minutes intercut with an investigation into whether or not Sully actually had to land in the Hudson; the alternative theory being that he could have safely made a return trip back to the airport. The bulk of the film is Sully wringing his hands about this disagreement and the wildly exaggerated depiction of the aggressive investigation into the crash landing. It seems than in making Sully a hero Eastwood decided he needed to make someone the villain. Clearly Eastwood is a fan of Unbreakable.

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Further padding out the film are flashbacks showing Sully’s past flying planes and scenes of his wife fretting at home. Feel sorry for Laura Linney who is reduced to looking concerned while talking into the phone and peering out of the window at photographers. Hanks’ Sully seems almost cold towards his wife so any emotional weight intended to be brought by their relationship is non existent. The flashbacks also add nothing to the film beyond showing us that Sully has always enjoyed flying and that flying isn’t always easy. Nothing revelatory there. These are mere distractions from the flight investigation which is itself a distraction from the crash which we get to see numerous times over from moderately different viewpoints.

It doesn’t feel nice to say that the story of Sully is too bland to make a decent film. There is no doubt that the real Sully did something brave and heroic but this very lack of doubt is why there is no drama in the rest of the film. Outside of the thrilling minutes of the crash the film is nothing but filler. Tom Hanks does his best but Sully, a wonderful man I’m sure, isn’t particularly interesting to spend time with. The resultant film is a completely non-cynical patriotic celebration of Sully and is just missing him standing in front of a slowly waving American flag to complete the canonisation.

Sully’s actions deserve celebrating but they do not deserve this lightweight drama. Never has a film based on true events suffered so much from a lack of material.

Christine – LFF Review

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The life and death of Christine Chubbuck has become a modern myth; the story of the newsreader who shot herself live on air at the age of just 29. Sadly this particular myth is not fiction and has now been brought to the big screen by director Antonio Campos with Rebecca Hall in a career best performance as the titular Christine.

Refreshingly Christine does not linger on the act itself but explores the character of Christine and what might have led her to take such a drastic action on live television. Christine is living with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), lusting after her coworker and lead anchor (Michael C. Hall), and struggling to get taken seriously by her boss (Tracy Letts). None of Christine’s problems are insurmountable but the film subtly shows how numerous issues can culminate in a drastic act. Without obliquely explaining why she took her life the film simply shows us the circumstances of her existence and leaves us to make our own conclusions.

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Despite the morbid subject matter Christine is not a bleak film. While it might have been easier to make a dour drama about a woman on the brink of depression, Campos has decided instead to celebrate the life of Christine Chubbuck. We get to see what drives her and are shown the passion she had for the local news. Christine took herself and her job seriously and thankfully the film mirrors this and does not turn her legacy into a freakshow. The delicate way the film balances humour and human insight is admirable. By the end of the film Chubbuck is no longer an enigma but a relatable person who just went one fatal step too far. Christine may be about a tragedy but the film itself is not tragic.

Responsible for portraying this complex character is Rebecca Hall; an actor not placed in the foreground often enough. Hall gives Chubbuck a heart and provides the soul behind the eyes of a reserved and seemingly uptight persona. The performance she delivers here should be seen as as a real achievement that will hopefully make her a firmer fixture in the cinematic landscape. Hall has come a long way since her part in Starter for 10 a decade ago.

Roughly 20 minutes too long Christine is otherwise flawless. What we have here is not just a tribute to a woman who died far too young but a showcase for an underrated British talent.

As enjoyable a film about suicide as there is likely to be.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe – LFF Review

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After a brutal mass murder in suburban America police uncover a corpse half-buried in a basement. Unlike other bodies littered throughout the house this corpse has no identification and no obvious signs of trauma. Baffled, and with half a dozen murders to solve, they take the mystery corpse to Tommy (Brian Cox [not that one]) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) who work as coroners in a basement beneath their funeral home. Tommy and Austin are tasked with finding a cause of death that night so set to work immediately. As they dig deeper (sorry) the more they reveal the more the mystery thickens. With a wry dark humour The Autopsy of Jane Doe gradually reveals itself to be the most terrifying film I have seen all year.

The beauty of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is that it is a film that evolves. Despite a consistently sinister tone to the score the beginning of the film is disarmingly chipper. We spend time with the father and son team, enjoy their interactions with one another and allow the combined acting power of Cox and Hirsch to create a convincing familial relationship that disarms and distracts from impending events. The comfort of the film’s beginning is undercut by the impressive prosthetics as the pair dissect a badly burned corpse. Little did I know that worse was to come.

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From these humble beginnings the film really does evolve. In imperceptible increments director André Øvredal nudges the film from dark comedy into full-on horror with real scares, endless tension, and a pervading feeling of claustrophobia. It has been a long time since a single film has had me squinting my eyes as I brace for the scare I know is coming, jumping out of my seat in terror, and chuckling to myself for how petrified I am. With effects as simple as the sound of a bell or a shadow where it shouldn’t be, The Autopsy of Jane Doe had me on edge throughout. For all the blood and gore in the tamer moments the film nicely holds back when it really wants to give you a chill. The suggestion of something sinister is frequently more nerve shredding than the sight of it ever is and Øvredal knows when to hold back and when to fill your eyes with horror.

Having such a strong pair of actors in Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch no doubt helps to elevate the film. It forces you to take the film seriously and they really help to sell the more outlandish moments. I don’t know what else to say without spoiling the film’s many delights/surprises/horrors but just know that it is an efficient, enjoyable, and devilishly humourous horror that rarely puts a step wrong.

I laughed, I screamed, I loved it.

La La Land – LFF Review

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Writer and director Damien Chazelle must really love jazz. His second feature Whiplash had jazz by the trumpet-load and his latest is a musical romance about a jazz musician and an aspiring actress. A musical in this day and age? What will they think of next?

The film opens on a big sweeping musical number. The camera floats around rows of cars in a traffic jam as their occupants burst out and join one another in song. There are bright colours, tightly choreographed dance moves, and even a band hidden in the back of a lorry. This is one big love song to old school musicals and a statement of intent for what is to follow. The opening number misleads in some ways as it raises expectations for a traditional musical plot that La La Land isn’t happy to settle for.

From that opening we meet our two protagonists: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is that very same jazz musician; a man so in love with the genre he dreams of opening his own jazz joint one day. His love interest is Mia (Emma Stone), a desperately auditioning actress and part time barista who sleeps at night under a giant portrait of Katharine Hepburn. They both have big dreams that nobody else believes in and from the moment they meet the only people who can deny their chemistry is themselves. What follows is an incredibly charming romance replete with songs and dance numbers. Neither Stone nor Gosling are singers but work with what they have and sing gently rather than belting out showstoppers. Their dance moves are impeccable and my mind kept wandering back to memories of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt dancing in a bank. The role of the well-rounded movie star is alive and well with this pairing.

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Like all romance it isn’t all song and dance. As their relationship progresses Mia and Sebastian find themselves compromising on their dreams in order to be with each other. As the fairy tale starts to fade so do the songs and La La Land evolves from being a mere musical into something deeper. It it here that the film takes a risk as the razzmatazz is replaced with mundanity and doubt. For a period we are not in the colourful wonderland that opening song promised us but somewhere a lot less fun to be. I started to doubt the film at this point and thought it had gone off course; a valid try but not a triumph.

But then… Wow! That final section! The film pulls the rug from under you and throws all your emotions at you at once. In his last masterstroke Chazelle brings the whole film together with a flourish. What seemed to be a mistake became a necessity and La La Land, while not the film I thought it was, cemented itself as a modern musical classic. I’m still humming along now as I type.

For someone brought up on The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this was just what I needed.