Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019)

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Bait appears to have attracted nothing but reviews full of superlatives due to its timely themes of gentrification (about the economic threat to fishermen in a Cornish coastal village thanks to the influx of the urban middle-classes), and its form (shot on 16mm with a clockwork Bolex, hand processed, and with a soundtrack fully built during post-production).

It is certainly a striking piece of work. The cinematography, combined with the other worldly soundtrack – including the voices and sounds, as well as music – is folksy and feels timeless. It brings to mind, among other films, Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley (1975). I also thought of Requiem for a Village (David Gladwell, 1975). Had it been released a few years ago, clips from Bait could well have formed a part of the kaleidoscopic Arcadia (2018), Paul Wright’s documentary that uses an extraordinary array of archive footage as an ode to Britain’s connection to its landscape and suppressed anarchistic history (in which clips from Winstanley and Requiem for a Village feature).

The black and white, 16mm footage occasionally has a flickering, strobe like effect. The cracks, crackles, grain, and the odd hair are all particularly visible when blown up onto a big screen. It is wonderful to see the form so overtly in an age where the means of production are typically hidden and anathema to modern cinema. It makes the film look as if it has aged, and makes for perennial images that contrast beautifully with the contemporary and relevant story. The film looks like an enduring artefact, mirroring the architecture of the village and its way of life. But, like the community it depicts, it has its own life which the modern cannot, or should not, interfere with.

The editing, which utilises flash forwards, and the soundtrack of rolling waves, droning sounds, and loud dubbing of spot effects and dialogue, combines with the cinematography to form a hypnotic and hallucinatory effect. Jenkin shoots the film with mainly close ups and mid shots – waves, knots, fish, and fisherman’s boots seem to dominate. This creates a rhythm to the movie, rather than just a straight retelling of a story.

The middle classes, announced via a close up sequence of them filling their fridge with champagne and brie, are portrayed as clueless, chinless, and believing in their own inherent goodness. They don’t think they are helping to destroy the village, but instead consider themselves as part of the community, whose contribution through their tourism and holiday homes is instead supporting its continued existence. The struggle of the fishermen, some of whom have had to turn to cab driving or running tourist trips, is never romanticised as part of the contrast to the middle classes we are shown. But there is a definite commentary threaded throughout that reminds us that gentrification and tourism can take as much away from a community as it brings.

Like 2017’s Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo), it is another British film that takes a very low key, small story, and makes it cinematic through the use of such a dynamic form.

As a person who is also a filmmaker, for me Bait is an excellent and humblingly confident film.

 

Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019) – review

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Below are my thoughts on Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There are mild spoilers.

Midsommar is Ari Aster’s second wholly wonderful horror film, coming after last year’s Hereditary. It shares with his debut feature some stylistic, tonal, and thematic similarities. It stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who is coming to terms with a family tragedy and bereavement. So like Hereditary, the camera lingers on a character struggling with the aftermath of severe grief. Aster includes a very similar moment to one of the most affecting scenes in Hereditary, of Dani howling in anguish and being comforted by her partner after she has just received the most dreadful news.

It also includes some shocking and unexpected edits to close ups of deformed faces – both dead and alive, and there are several moments of blunt force trauma that are, if anything, more severe than that of the head collision in Hereditary.

The film is also about a cult/close community. But whereas Hereditary disguised this twist and revealed that it had been about a cult only at the climax, Midsommar‘s structure stays strictly within the formula of the folk horror movie/film about a cult from the beginning – using The Wicker Man as its template. (Though with its emphasis on flowers as a motif, May Queens, and with an errant boyfriend who is sexually tempted by other women in the community, it reminded me more of Robin Hardy’s belated, and maligned, follow-up, The Wicker Tree). That it sticks so closely to the Wicker Man‘s structure is not a criticism. The pleasure to be had in these films is the slow building of tension, and increasing weirdness, with the audience understanding exactly where it is all leading – typically to a final orgy of excess.

One way Midsommar foreshadows this eventual spill over into excess is through depicting tapestries and paintings hanging on walls that hint at some necessary bloodletting to come. Though one moment depicted in a tapestry, that recalls some disturbing self harm familiar from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, never arrives on screen for real.

Midsommar leads exactly where you expect it to (if you are familiar with this sort of film), and this is its strength. Aster plays with horror convention, but is not afraid to be formulaic where necessary, so part of the enjoyment is in seeing how those moments you know are coming are about to be delivered. And, also like his first movie, Midsommar is hilarious as well as being genuinely emotionally affecting (though the grief depicted in this film isn’t as impactful. There is no drama as effective as the dinner scene in Hereditary, for example).  The humour comes in a couple of very funny one-liners as well as in its moments of pure absurdity.

With only a couple of hours of daylight in the fictional community (supposedly Sweden), most of what we see is set in bright sunshine. Aster’s camera continually shifts perspective, from very high angles, shots that are upside down, and point of views (including of eyelids being closes). Later on he uses shots that are either super imposed or long cross dissolves (I will have to watch it again to see). The effect is frequently hallucinatory, to which the diegetic folk soundtrack contributes.

Overall, this is superb piece of horror, at once original and familiar.

 

 

Robin Hood (Otto Bathurst, 2018) review

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The latest version of the Robin Hood folklore story has been met by mostly poor reviews from critics. One of my film fan Twitter followers has claimed it has prompted her first ever cinema walk-out. The Telegraph reported on the 26th November that it is 2018’s largest box office bomb – the biggest flop, in fact, since Guy Ritchie’s similarly maligned King Arthur.

The comparisons to Ritchie’s movie are also relevant because Robin Hood takes a similar stylistic approach – CGI heavy, grungy, and a clear attempt to make the iconic hero ‘cool’ again. At times, the design approaches the steampunk aesthetic – as characters wear anachronistic clothing and work in what appear to be industrial revolution era factories. Nottingham itself is rendered as a sprawling, industrial metropolis, with high rise buildings, slums, and narrow streets.

It is this approach that struggles to convince, and stops the film succeeding. English medieval countryside and towns do not have to be enhanced and made modern to look fantastic on screen. In doing so, the film only sabotages its setting, one of its main potential selling points. The look is dark and artificial with little deviation in the brown and charcoal colour scheme – sometimes striking, but mostly preventing us from enjoying one of the exciting elements of the original story (stories) – its medieval locale. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with costumes that reflect the period, rather than the standard and predictable Nazi-esque clobber of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his soldiers.

Ironically, the most obvious attempt at modernisation also results in the film’s most effective scene. Robin is drafted to fight in one of the crusades, and Bathurst recreates a War on Terror style troops under fire action sequence, clearly reminiscent of news footage and documentaries following soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, for the only time in the film, the action is hard and spectacular, and effectively defines the character traits of three of the central figures in the story. It is the definite highlight. But the overall seriousness of it all undermines the other attractive element of the Robin Hood story – the tone of ‘derring do’. This tone is almost entirely missing.

The cast however, is terrific. Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, and Paul Anderson, are usually superb performers when working with the right material, and they struggle manfully with what they are given here. The film tries hard to be fun, politically relevant, and up to date – but doesn’t succeed in any of these endeavours.  The best cinematic Robin Hood remains the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn, and the Robin of Sherwood 1980s TV series starring Michael Praed could possibly the strongest and most interesting  version of them all.

Ocean’s 8 – review

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Ocean’s 8 is a sequel to the earlier Oceans franchise starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, among others. Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Clooney’s character, who has since died. Debbie is determined to pull off a heist she has been preparing for while in prison, ever since she was double crossed and set up by her ex-boyfriend. To help, she assembles a crew, including Cate Blanchett, Rhianna, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Mindy Kaling.

The most positive aspect of the film is the occasional use of rundown locations, such as disused and repurposed industrial buildings, a frequently unobtrusive camera, and scenes which are very often underlit. All this hints at the possibility that director Gary Ross was flirting with the style of seventies’ films such as The French Connection or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Most intriguingly, is the recurrence of shots through glass or which use reflective surfaces. Windows, glass panels, phone and computer screens, and precious jewels dominate the mise-en-scene.

These more interesting stylistic elements – the attempt at seventies style grit, combined with the dominance of shots which reflect the overall plot (the heist of a diamond necklace), are too tentative, and are drowned out as the film opts for the more predictable foregrounding of slow motion walking, or shots designed for no other purpose than to make the principle cast look cool.  These are the weakest moments of the film. Sadly, they populate the movie too often, and are clear attempts at creating a slick crowd pleaser which is at odds with the detached and restrained performances of Bullock and Blanchett in particular. This creates an uncomfortable fit between two stylistic approaches which ultimately fail to hold together.

It all falls apart during the climax, which resorts to having characters explain what has just happened out of the view of the audience – complete with flashbacks of events which the viewer previously knew nothing about. We are also not shown the ultimate fate of the villains, and due to the effortless criminal competence of the lead characters, there is very little tension during the heist and subsequent fall out. The film is compromised stylistically and narratively. This is a common problem for Hollywood films which are concerned above all else with making its cast look untouchable.

This is not to say that Ocean’s 8 is unenjoyable. The cast are all excellent, and a genuine double act is formed between Bullock and Blanchett. Any sequel which gave them a tougher task, or put them under a bit more narrative pressure, could work well. There are also several effective moments of dialogue, and some entertaining interplay which is entirely expected of a cast this strong. They look like they all had a good time during shooting, and while this is not always desirable, in an ensemble piece the spark and connection between the leads is necessary.

Ocean’s 8 is an attempt to create a low key Hollywood movie which is dependent on a quality cast, good writing, and solid directing. It succeeds in moments, but overall doesn’t quite achieve the promise of its earlier scenes.