I was commissioned to write a programme note on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival for Glasgow Film Theatre.
You don’t actually see the arrival in Arrival. This is a film about the sudden appearance of unidentified alien crafts in twelve different points around the globe, yet the moment they appear plays out offscreen. Instead, the audience watches Amy Adams and her near-empty linguistics class as they react to footage of the event on the news. From the very start of the film it becomes clear – this isn’t about the aliens as much as it is about the humans involved with them.
Cinema has long had an uneasy relationship with aliens arriving on earth. Early sci-fi cinema, typified by Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, was about exploration, discovery and realising strange new worlds in the exciting nascent medium of celluloid. Five years before Méliès’ groundbreaking film, however, the groundwork was laid for fear of outsiders in H.G. Wells’ novella War of the Worlds. Wells wasn’t concerned with travelling to other planets – he was wondering what would happen if other planets visited us.
I wrote a feature on the acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai for cultural magazine The Skinny, ahead of Scotland Loves Anime.
One of the most common epithets given to Japanese director Makoto Shinkai is ‘the next Miyazaki.’ As the Ghibli co-founder puts down his paintbrush, the search for his spiritual successor takes on a new urgency for anyone seeking mature, wonder-inducing anime that it’s OK for the ‘serious cinephile’ to enjoy. The comparison is a trite one, however, as the two directors share only a few things in common: they both work in animation; they are both Japanese; they are both masters of their medium. That’s where the comparisons end, however, as Shinkai’s preoccupations and style feels a world away from Miyazaki.
I’ve been writing some of the programme notes for Glasgow Film Theatre, including this essay on Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship.
“For almost as long as cinema has been around, people have been adapting Jane Austen novels for film and TV. There have been the big hits – think Colin Firth in a wet shirt or Alan Rickman’s soulful portrayal of Colonel Brandon. Then, there have been the more obscure retellings, films such as From Prada to Nada, a Latina version of Sense and Sensibility. Laurence Olivier even starred in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, although arguably that hasn’t really entered the Austen canon for devotees of the author. Then there are spin-offs, reimaginings and films about the lady herself such as Becoming Jane, Lost in Austen, The Jane Austen Book Club. Culture has become saturated with all things Jane. As a result, her razor-sharp writing and incisive cultural commentary – the reason she has attracted so many fans – becomes somewhat lost or sanitised.”
I was part of the blogging team for Glasgow Film Festival, writing about the programme in anticipation of the lively celebration of cinema. Click the link to go through to one of the blogs.
Recently I’ve been writing more for VODzilla, an online magazine dedicated to all things you can stream online. Click below for TV recaps of Shadowhunters, reviews of some terrible Christmas films and a column dedicated to Netflix’s notorious kid’s films. In the meantime, here is a section of my review of Aloha.
The critical hammering and box office disappearance of Cameron Crowe’s latest film in the US meant that Aloha never made it to UK cinemas. In the UK, it’s now furtively appearing on streaming services for fans of Bradley Cooper or Emma Stone.
The US critics were right about this one: Aloha is a dud of such tonal awkwardness that Stone’s infamous ethnically mixed character is the least of the film’s problems. The story, as such, is about Cooper’s pilot, Brian Gilcrest, who worked for NASA before returning to a sleepy post on Hawaii. While there, he reconnects with his old flame, played by Rachel McAdams, and sparks fly with his fellow officer, Allison Ng (Stone). Gilcrest’s job is to try and persuade Hawaii’s indigenous population to let them send a rocket into space, or something. Bill Murray potters in and out spouting something about the future and Danny McBride substitutes moving his hands around a lot for a real character.
I wrote about the symbolism of the hotel in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, for Glasgow Film Theatre.
Not unlike the recent surreal comedy The Lobster, Youthtakes place in a hotel where life moves at its own rhythms. Here, communication is stilted, patrons watch others with keen interest and this one luxury resort in the mountains becomes a microcosm of life itself. Or, at least, life for the world’s supposed geniuses. An aging, celebrated composer (played with wit and delicacy by Michael Caine), a disillusioned actor (Paul Dano), a fading director (Harvey Keitel) and an eclectic selection of the rich and famous (including Diego Maradona) all linger in this mountainside retreat, wandering in and out of each others’ lives.
As far as the narrative of the film goes, this is, to all intents and purposes simply a hotel. People come and go as they please, with regular trips into the nearby town to buy medication for their aging bodies. The simplest explanation of this film is that the hotel is merely an escape for the world’s richest people in a beautiful part of the Europe, and everyone acts a little oddly while they are there. This would placeYouth firmly in the realm of a comic drama, mining the intergenerational interaction for the meat of the story. To an extent, that’s exactly what Youth is, and it does this marvellously. However, dig a little deeper and it seems as though this hotel may be more than that, as elements of fantasy gently worm their way into the otherwise real-world story.
I wrote about the changing attitudes to war in cinema for Glasgow Film Theatre’s screenings of A War, by Tobias Lindholm.
Cinema is often a mirror to cultural preoccupations; cinema about war doubly so.
After World War I, the big screen was an outlet for a collective horror at the worst conflict on a global scale the planet had ever seen. Films like La Grande Illusion, A Farewell to Armsand All Quiet on the Western Front looked at this evil wrought upon the world and showed the human impact in heart-wrenching detail. However, after World War II the tone of war cinema shifted with more films acting as a celebration of heroism and an honouring of the people who fought. John Wayne made a conscious pro-war effort, appearing as a noble patriot fighting for his country in lively films with titles like The Green Berets and Flying Tigers. Anti-war films made it into cinemas, too, in the shape of Gregory Peck in Pork Chop Hill and David Lean’s phenomenal Bridge on the River Kwai. In both kinds of film, the audience response to the war was dictated by the tone of the film.
This tone turned to anger in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, when a disillusioned generation had to wrestle with the concept of a ‘just’ war; nobody disagreed that America should have been in World War II, but Vietnam was a disaster. Platoon seethed with anger at the corruption of innocence and the violence rent upon a nation, while Apocalypse Now, one of the finest war films ever made, turned the jungle into a psychological hellscape where people disappeared into madness. Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter and even MASH lampooned American involvement in a messy, brutal war.
I wrote a fairly theology-free summary of the year in cinema for Think Theology.
The best performance I saw this year was Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, a film that sets itself up as a melodrama – love triangles and long-distance relationships form crucial plot points – but undercuts it with a subtlety that makes every development seem very real and credible. Ronan is mesmerising in the central role and the camera knows it, lingering on her face as she conveys a wealth of emotions using only the smallest gestures. The rest of the ensemble is equally strong, and it is rare film that manages to be funny, sad and romantic in equal measure without any one of the elements undermining the other.
I was also moved by the study of Martin Luther King in Selma, a film anchored by David Oyelowo’s phenomenal central performance, and Italian beekeeping drama The Wonders. This one is perhaps a little more niche, but fans of slower paced dramas, Victor Erice’s films and coming-of-age tales will undoubtedly fall for its hazy, sun-baked charms. Finally, little-seen World War I drama Testament of Youth has lingered long in my memory since I first saw it in February. It’s a war film that never shows a single shot fired, instead depicting the aftermath with heart wrenching detail. It’s a film that captures the monumental loss wreaked upon Europe in the Great War with subtlety and grace.
I wrote about 45 Years as a kind of horror film for Glasgow Film Theatre’s programme notes.
‘I always hoped that it would feel like some kind of strange existential horror movie except in a mundane, ordinary setting.’ Andrew Haigh’s description of his film might not be what you were expecting from a drama about a middle-aged couple going through some marital difficulties, yet as the week of their life progresses with escalating tension, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from – 45 Years might just be the most unexpected horror film of the year. The terror, here, is made up of figurative, not literal, ghosts. Trust and contentment are slowly worn away as a couple are haunted by memories and, most poignantly, regret.
I wrote about the Christian film industry for theology site ThinkTheology.
No non-Christian is going to see one of these films and think ‘hey, I should follow Jesus now.’ They will watch them and either laugh, or nod off. I’m yet to see a ‘Christian film’ that isn’t creatively bankrupt. I was provoked to think more about the relationship between God and suffering – the kind of honest discourse that you see in Job and Ecclesiastes – from a film like A Serious Man. I engaged more with doubt, faith and the place of the church in Calvary. I thought more about God as our creator in The Tree of Life and Noah. These films aren’t made as ‘Christian’ films, although some of the directors may have faith. They are made by directors who want to make good films with interesting themes.