Category Archives: Film

BFI & Radio Times Television Festival – BFI Southbank

Radio Times Festival - Tom Hiddleston

Television is still (rather unfairly) seen as the poor cousin of most other creative arts. If you say you go to the theatre all the time or spend every weekend in art galleries it’s seen as a respectable past-time, but admitting to watching a lot of TV – regardless of what you’re actually viewing – is still met with derision, especially from those who claim they don’t own a TV at all. Yet, the last few years has felt like a golden age for drama in particular, and despite radical changes in the way we view and consume programmes, appointment-to-view television still exists building communities of people all sharing the same experience at once.

The Radio Times has long celebrated the art of television and the skills of the actors, writers, producers, directors and technical teams that make the programmes listed in its pages. In its articles, features and interviews, The Radio Times champions the intellectual and cultural value of television, making a strong case each week for its acceptance as a recognised and dignified art form. Yes the schedules are awash with repeats and mindless content but for every reality show there’s a Broadchurch, for every soap or tired sporting event, there’s a Night Manager, Planet Earth or Inside Number 9. All art forms have their churned-out nonsense, but like theatre and art there’s also bold new writing and innovative approaches.

After a very talks-based inaugural Festival in 2015 in various marquees in a field near Hampton Court, it makes sense that The Radio Times’s second weekend outing should decamp to the more suitable surroundings of the BFI – itself no stranger to holding exceptional festivals. And as you would expect from a magazine that loves telly, the schedule was packed over three days with something for pretty much everyone – from Call the Midwife, Dr Who and Line of Duty to interviews with Michael Palin and Maggie Smith, from Strictly Come Dancing to Sherlock, Poldark, Victoria and becoming a Youtube star there was much to see and learn. But I restricted myself to four key events.

One of the headline sessions, announced long before the rest of the programme, was a 90-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who died last year, comprising a panel interview with some of the people that knew her well, clips from her many shows and songs, as well as an opportunity for the audience to share favourite lines and memories. Piers Wenger from BBC Drama sat on the panel alongside Maxine Peake and Julie Walters with a slightly too abrupt Paddy O’Connell as compere who cut people off and interrupted as though he were interviewing lying politicians instead of much loved actors discussing a missed national treasure.

Although slightly marred by the rather haphazard questioning, the warmth and affection for Wood, as well as her genuinely unique observational comedy shone through. Again and again the same words associated with her writing were repeated – “authentic”, “real”, “truthful” and “genuine” – as her friends and colleagues discussed her generosity in sharing great lines, as well as a style of writing that Peake and Walters described as musical, with each sentence honed and word carefully chosen to create the proper effect. Mixed with clips that bare endless re-watching, it was a celebratory as well as an emotional event as Peake wanted to give thanks for a role that launched her career while Walters poignantly remarked that she is constantly surprised at her loss, frequently wondering “where are you”. But it was an event, they all agreed, Wood would have been delighted to be part of having loved telly so much.

With programme-making now so diverse, the RT Festival also made time for one of the biggest success-stories of the past year broadcast entirely online – The Crown produced by Netflix. The astonishing series which covers the accession and early reign of Elizabeth II was discussed by Director Philip Martin, producer Suzanne Mackie and lead actor Claire Foy, in an excellent and insightful panel discussion overseen by ITN’s Tom Bradby who spent a brief period as royal correspondent.

While there was some talk about the mechanics of filming and the role of platforms like Netflix, much of the discussion actually took on a more philosophical consideration of our engagement with the monarchy, as Foy considered the way in which we project a picture of what they ought to be, that they then respond to as times change. The sense of responsibility to create something human and true to itself was clear, which, Martin explained would have been muddied by appropriateness of broadcast slots and their particular expectation had it been aired on terrestrial TV, while Foy spoke with real insight on the process and wider impact of playing such a well-known figure. And for audience members looking for series gossip, they did find out that the current cast will be replaced after Season 2 as the characters age, writer Peter Morgan has mapped out as far as Season 4, but intends six and we will meet Camilla Parker-Bowles in Season 3.

Returning on Sunday, the first session was an interview with Mark Gatiss discussing his career from The League of Gentlemen to Sherlock as well as his engagement with TV growing up.  Interviewed by the marvellous Alison Graham, TV Editor for Radio Times, Gatiss explained that meeting Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson was “love at first sight” and it was a shared discovery that in entirely different locations they’d all missed bonfire night to watch Carry On Screaming that drew them together. Graham was unaware that the League are to reform next year for an already commissioned show to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Royston Vase, and while nothing has yet been written, Gatiss hopes it will revisit old favourites as well as introduce new material, before shocking everyone with the idea that Pauline would now be almost 70.

Much of the Sherlock discussion hinged around the idea of a ‘backlash’ with criticism of more recent episodes, but Gatiss neatly battered this away, suggesting instead that the British like to have a lull so they can then describe things as being “back on form”. He also confirmed that Sherlock’s future is open but scheduling Series 3 was so difficult given the success it brought to everyone that there are no immediate plans to write another.

Finally, thoughts turned to TV influences, and like Victoria Wood in the previous day’s discussion, Gatiss admitted to having watched huge amounts of television as a child being particularly influenced by horror writers like MR James and EF Benson. It was clear from Gatiss’s stories that well-made TV can leave a life-long impression, which led nicely into a final session on arguably the finest drama the BBC has made this century – The Night Manager.

Not many actors would have the power to necessitate a change of venue at a TV Festival but the late announcement that Tom Hiddleston would join a panel on adapting John le Carre for the screen meant swapping the 100 seater NFT2 for the 450 seat Imax which promptly sold out – and such is the appeal of Hiddleston that even a BFI mouse scampered down the stairs mid-session to get a closer view.

Last year The Night Manager proved that TV could be every bit as lavish, beautifully crafted and artistic as film, while keeping the nation home every Sunday night for 6 weeks. Led by journalist Samira Ahmed, this fascinating panel emphasised how completely the visual style and the raft of complex and troubled characters came largely from le Carre’s pages, and although it was modernised and relocated, it was the original novel to which they turned again and again for inspiration and insight.

Hiddleston quoted from memory a passage that described the character of Jonathan Pine with all the personas and contradictions that formed the basis of his interpretation, and le Carre’s exact words were something he returned to several times in discussion, giving an insight into his process as an actor and his ability to recall it in such detail a couple of years later. And Hiddleston spoke with energy about the “malleability of character” which attracted him to the role, particularly the soldiery in Jonathan’s past that is broken open and tested by the events of the story.

As expected some secrets were revealed – particularly by Alistair Petrie who played Sandy –  including the numerous work-arounds that the technical crew accomplished to make things look considerably more expensive than they were by moving lightbulbs to mimic the sun and fashioning a private jet from cardboard, while le Carre himself who appeared as a disgruntled diner enjoyed improvising his annoyance so fervently that Hiddleston wasn’t sure he could placate him. Although a joke about Tom Hollander unexpectedly “manhandling” him during that scene got the biggest laugh and clearly made it into the final edit. And on the rumoured Series Two, Executive Producer Simon Cornwall wasn’t giving much away – it is being discussed but nothing has been decided and it will only happen if the proposed idea can live up to the extraordinary quality of the first he insisted.

Teaming-up with the BFI meant this second Radio Times event felt considerably more at home on the Southbank. What was clear from all the sessions is that the people who make TV really love it and have spent a lifetime watching it, are able to chart the influence of particular shows and genres on the type of performer or creator they became. This event celebrated the dedication, enthusiasm and pure craft that goes into making programmes, and made a strong case for recognising television as a proper art form. More than anything, the Radio Times is there to reassure you that if you watch 5 hours a day or one a week, there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.

The Radio Times Festival was at the BFI Southbank from 7-9 April. Look out for other TV-related events at BFI including episode previews and Q&As throughout the year.


Jackie and the New Art of the Biopic

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The biopic remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring genres. Fitted with expected ideas of heroism and triumph over adversity, the chance to play one of history’s most important figures is often irresistible for an actor and whether dressed-up in period costume or shedding light on more recent times the biopic reinforces the centrality of individuals in shaping particular events. In the last few years, however, several directors have sought a fresh approach, moving away from the traditional biopic model of birth > hardship > greatness > death > immortality, to something considerably more complex and time-limited, exploring the fallibility of their subject and the cost of their determination.

In Jackie Pablo Larrain joins this new wave of biopic directors with his multi-Oscar nominated tale of America’s most famous First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy which examines the week following the assassination of her husband. Cutting back and forth between various days, we’re shown the fractured and uncertain period that led to President Kennedy’s funeral, watching as Jackie sees her husband murdered next to her – an act that in a second took her from most important woman in America to powerless private citizen – making plans to leave the White House with her children and taking control of the Kennedy legacy with an elaborate funeral procession and an interview with a leading journalist, though none of this takes place in order.

Watching Jackie as a concept, there are striking similarities with Danny Boyle’s 2015 Steve Jobs which, although not a major hit at the box office, was highly critically acclaimed and will come to be regarded as something of a modern masterpiece so adept was its shake-up of the genre. Biopics have long been about the lead actor having an opportunity to bid for award glory, and while the setting can be period-perfect, there’s not always that much meat on the secondary characters or exciting directorial elements to distract from the leading role.

But Steve Jobs was very different, not just in limiting its focus to three product launches but utilising a more theatrical approach to character and inserting the lead into a series of semi-recurring duologues with the fully-fleshed out people he had been close to. Character flaws were writ large, not swept under the carpet, as he bombarded and bulldozed his way through people’s objections and needs, and at no point do you think the character of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) presented in this film was any kind of hero as a traditional biopic would try to paint him. But what you do understand is that unpleasant though that was these particular traits were a fundamental precursor to his business success that came with a personal cost. You could hate him, most of the people he interacts with in the film don’t like him very much, but they admired him nonetheless.

Larrain has achieved a similar dynamic with Jackie as Natalie Portman’s character strives to create and defend a mythology in the hours and days after the assassination. It’s a film that also has much in common with Peter Landesman’s 2013 film Parkland which used a number of similar techniques to cover exactly the same period but followed the doctors, Secret Service agents and ordinary people of Dallas, including the man that captured the famous footage of the shooting, in the week after the assassination. A companion piece to Parkland then, we first see Jackie as the nervous but sweet Mrs Kennedy hosting a documentary tour around the White House on television, introducing the American people to the furnishings and historic artefacts she has taken some trouble, and great expense, to restore. Beneath the sugary resolve there is steel however and Portman excels at portraying a woman shocked and overcome by grief but still able to take the necessary steps to preserve their three year image as fairy-tale leaders. This is not the sweet fashion horse we’ve come to know but someone who is aware she has a tiny window of opportunity to create the Camelot myth and preserve her husband’s legacy amidst the White House treasures, before she and her family are unceremoniously turfed out.

As with the presentation of Steve Jobs, Jackie herself is highly imperfect and while there are tender moments as she breaks the news to her children, washes blood from her hair, is comforted by her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) or discusses her two lost children with her priest (a brilliant John Hurt in one of his final performances), she is also capable of incredible calculation at the most surprising moments. In one key scene, arriving back in Washington, her attendees offer to help her change but Jackie insists on stepping off the plane to meet the journalists and crowds, as well as walking back into the White House still wearing the splattered Chanel suit from Dallas, with her husband’s blood thickly smeared across the skirt from holding his dying head in her lap.

In her scenes with The Journalist, an excellent Billy Crudup, a week later she is the epitome of rehearsed calm and poise, but still slightly deadened from the shock. Yet she’s still playing-the-game, giving him morsels of juicy gossip and then refusing to let him use them; she wants him to know she knows the truth about her husband’s adultery and dodgy friends, but she chose to be somebody important and his philandering was just the cost of that. Portman and Larrain have cleverly detached Jackie from the years and layers of JFK’s own personality, death and conspiracy theories, to give her life and purpose of her own, not just the politician’s wife, but a woman who eventually breaks down in private, drinking, smoking (which The Journalist is not allowed to report) and saying goodbye to all the dresses and occasions she’d known as First Lady. Like Steve Jobs, Jackie was creating something that would exist beyond herself and the way character is revealed to the audience in both these movies is an important new direction for the biopic genre.

Central performances aside, what also separates these films from the pack is the way in which Boyle and Larrain avoid twee period-drama to give their characters a dynamic and richly detailed thematic setting. One of the joys of Steve Jobs as a film was the integration of visual elements of theatre and design that give insight into Jobs’s aesthetic concerns with beauty and simplicity, alongside the technological images that made aspects of the film seems as though they were taking place inside a computer. For example, backstage at the Opera House in the second launch, Jobs talks to his daughter on a gantry above a sea of cables and coloured lights, while at other times Boyle shows light reflecting from acoustic diffusors and through screens which feel like an operating system. Every image, every single detail has been carefully crafted to shape our perceptions of character, to see a fusion of art, culture and technology that was important to Jobs and his success. This attempt to couch the themes of the film in something other than the central character’s dialogue, allowing us to see the hand of the director, is an important shift in biopic production.

Larrain achieves the same effect in Jackie creating a visual world around her that aptly reflects and reinforces the semi-fictional image of her marriage she wants to present. In the vast maze-like grandeur of the White House, historic and beautifully appointed, Jackie must be worthy of it and make herself part of its history. But it’s a rather austere home, almost clinically clean and preserved, yet it reflects who Jackie becomes by the end, beautiful and perfect on the surface but home to a collection of painful experiences, of deaths and constant endings. Here, as with the borrowed home she meets The Journalist in, everything is remote, not quite relaxed. “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep” Jackie explains at one point, and you see that in the house too, no one ever stays for long, there’s always someone else to come, and Larrain gives that same sense of transitory ownership, of the White House dwarfing Jackie as she wanders around its corridors alone. For the new biopic then, setting is carefully created as character study, not just a factually accurate creation, but intrinsically part of what the film has to say and how it reflects the personalities and themes under discussion.

The new biopic is then all about scrutiny, not allowing its complicatedly human subjects to escape the critical glare of the viewer. Heroism isn’t the point anymore and while we may still appreciate an individual’s value and importance at the end of the movie, it is balanced by ideas of their frailty, darkness and blindness as well. These dynamically-directed, time-limited complex character-studies are far more than blanket tributes to the achievements of the famous, instead their newly fractured form, tells us that people are difficult, that they achieve great things but they lie or behave badly to cement their place in history. Steve Jobs and Jackie are important markers of a new wave of biopic production that not only examines the power of the individual life, but in the combination of various artistic and story-telling techniques, become a skilled and insightful piece of film-making as well.

Jackie is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1      


Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

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Grief is a difficult subject to tackle in films, and it can often become histrionic or mawkish. Yet it’s something that everyone experiences at some point, usually multiple times, and the ways in which people respond to the loss of a loved one is incredibly varied. Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival considers the impact of a sudden death and how difficult it is for individuals to hide from their past.

Lee Chandler works as a handyman / caretaker in a residential block in the city. He fixes showers and replaces light bulbs, makes small talk with residents but lives a life of bleak isolation, an existence he seems to accept uncomplainingly. Out of the blue Lee’s brother, Joe, dies and Lee has to return to his hometown of Manchester – a cheerlessly bleak seaside town – to take care of Joe’s teenage son Patrick and settle his brother’s affairs. While here, he encounters his ex-wife Randi and the reason why Lee left Manchester begin to emerge.

Lonergan’s story is an unusually compassionate one, and offers a variety of more restrained perspectives on grief than often portrayed on screen. Rather than expansive emotional breakdown, we see a group of family and friends in small town America struggling to come to terms with a tragedy but having to maintain a front for each other, supressing their emotions in order to transact the various funereal and administrative procedures that necessarily accompany death. And while that may all sound rather bland, Lonergan adds depth with the slowly unfolding story of Lee’s life and an even earlier tragedy that set him on his current path.

Lonergan approaches the story in three distinct sections; we see Lee’s life in Boston at the beginning, the man he has become and the colourless existence he accepts; we also see his return to Manchester in the present day and the reluctant but growing not-quite-but-almost fatherly relationship Lee develops with Patrick after Joe appoints him guardian; and finally all of this is interspersed with memories of Lee’s earlier life in Manchester as a happy married man with two children. Much of the tension and emotional resonance comes from knowing that somehow, somewhere Lee’s life changed irrevocably, losing everything he had, becoming a shadow of the man he was both emotionally and in terms of his social interaction.

Much of the success of the film lays in Casey Affleck’s taut and matter-of-fact performance that effectively shows Lee as a man who has withdrawn from life, defeated by bad luck and bad judgement. But actually this is a film about relationships and it starts by reflecting on the happy, supportive interaction between two siblings as we see Lee and Joe fishing with Patrick on the surrounding sea, drinking together in a group of friends at Lee’s house and eventually Joe helping Lee when he moves to the city. This warm brotherly affection is a brutal contrast with Lee’s withdrawn and isolated state at the start of the film.

Golden Globe winner Affleck is particularly effective at displaying the contained grief that follows, no histrionics or lengthy shots of him gazing longingly into the middle distance, but instead we see a man just quietly and conscientiously accepting the latest in a long-line of blows life has aimed at him. There are practical matters to attend to – arranging the funeral, buying food for his nephew, meeting with lawyers – which Lee just gets on with. There’s no time for breakdowns or recriminations, and while he is certain he is in no state to support his nephew long term (despite his brother’s will), he just gets on with the domestic tasks ahead of him. Affleck’s performance is already attracting attention and is sure to appear on the Oscar list later in the year.

Likewise Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi seen briefly in the modern and flashback sections of the film. She’s not on screen for very long but her short appearances are significant and powerfully portrayed. Williams has long been a favourite with awards panels, and here she, like Affleck, has a dual role to play as the once largely contented mother, frustrated by her husband’s thoughtlessness when he has boozy nights with his friends, but in a stable happy home.  Again in the modern sections we see the results of a tragedy that separated, as Williams brings an affection for her former husband marred by a slightly embarrassment at the obvious presence of her new life. It’s a pivotal role, demonstrating how people who were once so close have become permanently divided, and set on different paths, without any lasting ill-feeling between them.

Lee’s relationship with his nephew is also central to the film, and from the flashbacks we see that they’ve long had a close connection. After a lengthy absence, returning home at the start, the now teenage Patrick is a little more awkward than the sweet child Lee used to fish with, and although they make some progress in re-establishing a closer bond it’s a continual trial for both of them which forms much of the drama in the central section of Manchester by the Sea.

It’s initially quite hard to grasp that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t as affected by the death of his father as you would expect and wants to spend time with his girlfriend, see his friends and avoid awkward conversations – fairly typical teenage behaviour – but Patrick’s detachment is more surprising and less explicable than Lee’s seeing as the boy had a seemingly good relationship with his dad, who cared for him when his mum walked out. Additional nuance is added by a burgeoning relationship with his now reformed alcoholic mother who tries to reach out and integrate her son into her new family which leads to some incredibly awkward dinners that feel real and familiar.

As well as the controlled performances from the leads, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography is suitably bleak, capturing beautiful but almost colourless images of the cold Manchester seascape, which reflect the emotional desolation of the film. Lonergan takes his time with the plot, allowing events to unfold slowly and building a sense of the community. Despite its critical praise and award-hopes, it will be a divisive movie for some, largely because grief is so often portrayed hysterically that it may be difficult for audiences to warm to Lee’s restraint and root for him when he deliberately shuts out the world, and our sympathies.  And while we uncover Lee’s secret this is not a film that sets any of its characters on new paths, leaving them almost entirely where we met them – again something viewers will either love or find impossibly slow. Either way, you’ll be hearing a lot about this film in the weeks ahead and with Oscar and Bafta nominations round the corner, Lonergan’s subtle story is sure to feature.

Manchester by the Sea was premiered at the London Film Festival in October and opens in UK cinemas on 13th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

Image result for 2017

Very few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2016, politically and socially it’s been a tough year all round. But it hasn’t been all bad with London’s cultural output thriving in uncertain times and at the start of 2016 there was much to anticipate. While 2015 theatre was all about five big male performance, 2016 was a time for some of our leading female actors to take to the stage with powerful productions of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory on devastating form as Rattigan’s desperate heroine, while The Young Vic’s Yerma cemented Billie Piper’s growing status as a very fine stage performer, and closing the year, The National’s innovative Hedda Gabler with a brutally savage turn from Ruth Wilson as the suffocated society wife.

Some other good but not perfect productions also heralded some noteworthy for roles for Gemma Chang in Jamie Lloyd’s exciting take on Pinter’s The Homecoming, for Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart (review to follow next week), Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Not to be outdone notable male performances including Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder which was one of his finest ever stage roles, shamefully overlooked by the Olivier committee, as well as the lead in a notable Richard III at the Almeida. Later in the year Kenneth Branagh defied comparisons to deliver a moving and powerful interpretation of The Entertainer while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith found new depth in The Dresser, not forgetting Kit Harrington cavorting about in his pants and making a decent job of the leading role in Jamie Lloyd’s controversial but resonant Faustus. But my favourite was Mark Strong’s incredible performance in The Red Barn which earned a first professional five-star review from me.

For theatre 2017 is already promising a host of hotly anticipated male roles and having opened 2016 with another chance to see his magnificent Richard II at the Barbican, David Tennant returns to the Wyndhams stage in March for Patrick Marber’s contemporary adaptation of Don Juan in Soho which promises a great deal. Also in March Daniel Radcliffe returns to London in an Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in April star-director Ivo van Hove’s version of Obsession opens at the Barbican with film-star Jude Law. The National also revives its production of Angels in America with Russell Tovey which will be one of the big openers in 2017.  But the show to watch next year is a hotly anticipated version of Hamlet at the Almeida which opens in late February staring Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Jessica Brown Findlay and rising star Luke Thompson. Comparisons with Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are inevitable but the Almeida is a much smaller space and Robert Icke’s vision may yet surprise us.

Art and exhibitions have noted a major change in presentation and style since the 2015 Alexander McQueen show which really altered the way items are presented. Utilising the success of this the V&A called on their design experience to present a lively examination of 60s popular and political culture in Records and Rebels which you can still see a little while longer. In a similar vein Vogue celebrated its 100th birthday with an excellent exhibition of its fashion photography which emphasised its role in reflecting the changing world around the magazine, while the Barbicans show about The Vulgar collected some excellent exhibits but misused them in over-intellectualised structure. And Somerset House celebrated fan-art inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Kubrick films.

From July the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme offered two of London’s most successful shows focused on very different aspects of conflict. The Science Museum’s Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care was an eye-opening and well researched examination of a little known aspect of the First Wold War, while the Imperial War Museum comes very close to show of the year with its excellent Real to Reel exhibition on war movies. That accolade actually goes to the Royal Academy for its Painting the Modern Garden show which collated so many beautiful paintings that wandering from crowded room to crowded room was never less than a joy.

Looking ahead and the headline show for 2017 is the Tate’s David Hockney retrospective from February which is set to unite his UK and US work for the first time. After a stunning 2012 show at the Royal Academy, a proper examination of Hockney’s work is long overdue and this is sure to be a big hit for Tate Britain after their disappointing Paul Nash and Empire shows. This will be followed by a show on the impressionists in London from November.

Meanwhile other American art comes into focus with big shows on post-1930s art at the Royal Academy from February and Pop Art and the American Dream at the British Museum from March. In February Kensington Palace opens a guaranteed money-spinning crowd-pleaser with a showcase of Princess Diana’s dresses set to run for two years, while at the tail end of next year the Queen’s Gallery launches its examination of Charles II’s art.

London’s 2016 Film Festival was once again lived up to anticipation and seems to be going from strength to strength. As well as the Amy Adams double bill of linguistic sci-fi adventure Arrival and Tom Ford’s stylishly dark morality tale Nocturnal Animals which have already opened in the UK as well as Andrea Arnold’s superb American Honey, the Film Festival also showcased a number of significant films due to open here in the early part of 2017. Best among and them already earning countless award nominations is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which is in cinemas from 13 January and is an exceptional clash of the classic Hollywood musical and modern grittier experiences of trying to make it in LA. It is beautifully realised and its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, have never been better.

Out in the same week is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (review to follow shortly), a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt with its stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams certain to dominate the acting honours in February. Although full release dates are not yet announced theatre director Benedict Andrews’s adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, now retitled Una and starring Rooney Mara deals with the difficult issue of abuse and its consequences. Although the film’s approach does undermine its purpose to a degree it will create talking points on release, and a review will follow when that date is announced. Finally Adam Smith’s first film Trespass Against Us, starring Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender is scheduled for 3 March, with both playing members of a Gloucestershire traveller community, replete with local accents, who account for much of the local crime rate. Premiering at the Film Festival, it offers some impressive low-budget car chases and great black comedy moments, as well as fine performances from its top-notch cast.

So as we swiftly kick 2016 away it may not have been a great year but it has offered a number of cultural highs. With plenty of potentially excellent theatre, exhibitions and films in the works, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Reviews are posted every Monday at 12.30pm.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Film Review: Arrival

Arrival

Many of the biggest blockbusters of recent years have been about life beyond the stars and since the first space expeditions of the mid-twentieth century popular culture has continually celebrated ideas of space travel, whether larking through time and space with Dr Who or fighting the forces of good and evil in Star Wars. Yet while we may think that these are all about our desire to encounter alien life, space films are actually all about humanity. Wondering what’s out there focuses our fears of loneliness and isolation while imagined encounters with other beings helps to clarify what it means to be human.

Nowhere is this more true than the latest space blockbuster, Arrival, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival and considers how the use of language and science contributes to our way of interpreting the world. Now a film about linguistics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Arrival neatly integrates existential chat about the meaning and expression of life with the very human story of two academics bringing a restraining hand to the world’s trigger-happy military leaders.

In Denis Villeneuve’s film 12 mysterious spaceships arrive one day at seemingly random locations across the world. These tall cylindrical objects imply a mass alien invasion and a threat to the population of the world’s largest countries. Each contains two enormous squid-like aliens who have a message for the earth, yet, in order to understand their demands, scientists in each country must learn to interpret their language, and for that America, at least, calls on Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a leading academic linguist who must work with mathematician Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to develop a relationship with their two invaders in order to decode their purpose and save the world.

The most notable thing about Arrival is seeing not just a female lead, who takes precedence over the numerous male military figures and experts, but one who is both intelligent and entirely credible – nicely written by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story. Adams plays Louise as a normal woman, albeit one who appears to be suffering from some kind of painful memory intrusion, who is excellent at her job, authoritative in her advice, increasingly brave and always appropriately dressed for her life. Thankfully, as is the wont of many of these kinds of film,  we don’t see her tottering around in tight skirts and high heels, but she looks and feels the part in comfortable combat trousers and checked shirts, minimal make-up and tied back hair – in short a breath of much needed air in the presentation of women in action films.

Louise is there and respected entirely for the professional experience she brings to the team and when her theories prove sound again and again, the surrounding men, for the most part, accept her superior knowledge and do as she asks. Now none of this is shoe-horned in, and it’s not a film specifically designed to present a female lead in this light – the movie is telling a reasonably straight-forward story of an alien landing and the subsequent interaction – but in plethora of Hollywood films, Louise stands out as one of the very few realistic and thoughtfully created characters whose gender is entirely irrelevant to her ability to do her job as well as anyone else in the room.

And all of this is in no small way down to Adams’s interpretation of the character, and, given she largely carries the film, brings a sensitivity to the role that adds considerably to the audience’s engagement. We see things from her perspective so from the early confusion created at the university to the slow process of gaining the alien’s trust and gently probing their understanding and use of language, we experience her wonder, frustration and sense of achievement as time passes.

By contrast Jeremy Renner has very little to do as the military mathematician side-kick and his character is rather less well fleshed out. Naturally he bumbles around at first emitting masculine certainty about the importance of science but as time and experience with the aliens begins to prove, Banks’s way is the right one, Donnelly softens considerably towards her. Renner does what he does well and as the relationship between the leads becomes increasingly involved you begin to root for their success, but other than a providing a contrast to Louise’s easier style, the role is a reasonably thankless one.

Similarly Forest Whitaker and the rest of the military crowd are expectedly bolshie and self-important. The contrast between the force of military might and insistence that the aliens must only have dastardly intent, with Louise’s softly-softly approach is well drawn, but as ever in these films the homogeneity of military force feels as faceless and instant as usual. This is equally played out across the world as the affected nations initially share data via video conference but soon begin to fracture as their own scientists make discoveries that scare them into potentially dangerous action. How this evolves is one of the key messages of the film and again reiterates the central importance of Louise’s approach in resolving the confusion presented by the random appearance of alien craft.

Villeneuve’s direction is most valuable and subtle in the encounters between the humans and the aliens, which takes place within their ship, separated (or protected) by an impenetrable barrier that keeps them for doing each other harm. These become surprisingly affecting moments as Louise and Ian’s initial fear of the alien form becomes a more scientific fascination with unearthing the root of their language and developing an unexpected bond with them.

Arguably they cut too frequently and too sharply between these interactions and life back at base, so the prolonged contact with the visitors is sacrificed to a need to show the rapid passing of time, but Marc Reichel’s special effects are incredibly atmospheric. The physical shape of the aliens in their form of part-squid part-tree-trunk with long spindly roots will invariably disappoint some but it’s a good decision to cloud them in a smoky fog which should allow the special effects to last longer without looking too dated, while adding to the sense of mystery that propels this film.

Far from being a film about the appearance of aliens, Arrival is more about the human approach to solving a particularly important and complex riddle. Part of that is about science and knowledge, painstakingly constructing all the information you need to make an informed decision while constantly rethinking your approach. Yet what this film really wants to emphasise is the importance of working together and sharing more unusual ideas in order to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems. And whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change, poverty, financial crises or any other world-level problem, Arrival is a space film that’s full of heart about the world we know.

Arrival received its European premiere at the London Film Festival. It opens in the US and the UK on 10 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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