Stray

A wonderful documentary following three stray dogs through the streets of Istanbul.

On one level this is just a lovely documentary about the lives of dogs. Istanbul had tried for years to get rid of the city’s stray dogs, with culls and inhumane tactics, until mass protests made it the first city in the world where it is illegal to put down or hold captive stray dogs. Thus the city’s strays now just wander free, and Stray shows us their world. It is beautiful. There is no narration or ‘interpretation’ for the audience. You just go where they go, see what they see. And it is beautiful. A city of lights, smells of food, the lap of the ocean in the harbour, green grassy parks, architecture both ancient and modern, awe-striking and derelict, a world replete with treasures. Unlike the complicated human drama they might wander through, the dogs care only if in this moment they are warm, they are dry, they are fed, they are safe, they are among friends. And they have all they need.

The tone of the film is a meditation, in following the dogs you are asked to see the world as they see it, to think not on any big picture, but to experience the world all around us. To look, without searching for purpose, upon the world as it is.

On another level, this film has a philosophical nature. Accompanied by quotations from Diogenes, who is known to have espoused the virtues of dogs, the film asks why human life is so contentious when dogs live among us as though the world were an untroubled bounty. As you watch the dogs walk along the water of the harbour, their life is undarkened by past memories, undisturbed by worries for the future, and unfettered by want in the present. Why can we not all live like a dog?

This perspective gives the film a unique viewpoint. The dogs occasionally hang out with a group of homeless refugee street kids, and whereas in any other documentary they would be portrayed as victims without agency on the lowest wrung of society, Stray shows them as rich with everything they need, sheltering in abandoned buildings, sleeping surrounded by friends, wrapped up together in blankets with the dogs, finding and sharing food together, and always glad to see each other, a endless wealth of kindness.

Just a lovely film.

Possessor

The first scene of this movie is of a woman searching with her fingertips along her scalp for a small scab, through which she then pushes what looks like an audio jack into her skull. As she twiddles a dial on the attached contraption, she looks in the mirror and her face cycles through from smiles and joy to tears and despair. And that one scene pretty much tells you what you are in for with this movie.

Yes, there is some gruesome physical horror. The violence in this is violent. But that’s not the heart of the horror. Watching the face of someone as the passively experience something horrifying, are made to display or suppress their deepest emotions at will, the lack of control of it all, is disturbing.

Despite being high concept, this is actually a really simple movie. Once you accept the premise – there is an assassin who can, through the use of technology, take control of people and use them to kill targets, then commit suicide, leaving no trace of outside involvement – the plot is very straightforward. A hit goes wrong, and the possessed person comes looking to take revenge on the assassin. It’s a straight murder-revenge.

But that is not to deny all the beautiful nuance instilled into the story by Cronenberg’s directing or by Andrea Riseborough’s performance as the assassin Vos. In fact, it’s the clarity of direction in the story that allows the complexities to be explored without any distractions to cause confusion.

This is just a beautiful film. Contrasting the dull, recognisably familiar, realism of Vos’s home life, with these extravagant, otherworldly sets where she murders the rich. These opulent venues pour through these sumptuous shots, reminding me of stuff like Neon Demon, or even in some ways, the sinisterly colourful Logan’s Run. The use of light, colour, shadow, and distortion expertly creates this crocodile-brain level of discomfort with the abstract experience of being invaded, violated, suppressed, and possessed. The horror of being a passenger in these scenes of orgiastic violence, where bright red blood and white teeth go flying over these elegant surroundings, is conveyed so viscerally.

And enough praise cannot be said of Andrea Riseborough’s performance. After the movie finished, I was surprised to think of how many scenes she’s actually in. The majority of the film focuses on her in the body of actor Christopher Abbott, she only gets about 20 mins at the beginning to establish her character, then she is mostly just a haunting presence, a disembodied voice, or something he sees out the corner of his eye. So how in 20 mins, does she manage to totally hold this film in the palm of her hand?

Here’s the weird thing about Possessor, your sympathy, weirdly, is with the assassin. This film shouldn’t work. That’s not how you tell a story, giving the audience a morally bereft character, who makes no attempt at any redeeming acts, and expect people to root for them. Also, Vos isn’t some charming maverick, or loveable villain, quick-witted and entertaining, someone you love to hate. Vos isn’t trying to win you over despite her flaws. And there’s no apology for the violence she enacts – the horrendous violence, which is much more than her job requires. She’s supposed to just walk up and shoot folk in the head, but she seems to revel in their suffering, stabbing and bludgeoning them. Vos should not be sympathetic.

Yet. She is. Andrea Riseborough makes her seem fragile, vulnerable, barely holding it together, losing her self to the nature of her job. Her tiny island of domestic happiness is something she seems to hold cupped in her hands like the last flickering light of her humanity. And how protective of it she is, makes the audience feel protective of it. Whatever becomes of her, this little house with husband and child, must not be imperilled. And this especially hits home when you see characters walk out of their over-the-top MTV mansions and unreal lifestyle, into the ordinary street of her terraced house. It’s like they’re walking out a high adrenaline action film and into the real world, where real people live. Where the casual violence suddenly becomes horrifying and unacceptable.

Excellent film.

If you like this…

Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers is an amazing animated film about Robyn, the wolf hunter’s daughter, who meets Mebh, a wolfwalker, who is a girl when she is awake and a wolf when she dreams. Their meeting is a clash of worlds, and the possibility for a new future and freedom for both of them.

The animation style is just gorgeous. The forest and Mebh is full of flowing lines, art nouveau style, and Celtic designs. The town is Robyn’s world and it is full of rigid lines, a sharp art deco, soldiers are drawn square-shouldered, reminding me a little of the character design in the 90s Batman animated series. The visual theme of town is of squares, repeated in bars, chains, helmet guards. It is a visual representation of this world where everything is considered to have its place and everything must keep to that place, and how that rigid thinking creates a prison for us all.

Meanwhile Mebh’s wolf pack flows like liquid through the forest, the skeins of smells guiding them by scent, through curtains of cascading leaves, until they curl up in their yonic cave, safe as a womb, surrounded by their magical carvings, in the heart of the woods.

There is a stark dichotomy drawn, to underline the themes of domination throughout the film. This is about an English settlement imposed on the Irish countryside, about Christianity imposed on a pagan people, about civilisation imposed on nature, about male control and oppression imposed on women and girls. And about the ability for those things to slip like liquid through the rigid squares set out for them.

The soundtrack is absolutely banging, with hits like Running With The Wolves given their own spin, and a subtle, intricate score. The voice work is just great, with particular shout-out to Simon McBurney, who brings such a weasley villainhood to the Lord Protector.

Just a brilliant movie, go see.

This Is Not A Movie

Documentary on Robert Fisk and his career as a British foreign correspondent, initially working in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, but most famously covering the Middle East for 40 years. The film is made up of historical footage as well as contemporary filming of him padding around his flat in Beirut and being interviewed.

It has a weirdly fractured quality, struggling to find a narrative through-line. It bounces around time periods, showing Fisk’s reporting on the subject seemingly as and when they come up in conversation. Had there been a linear or even thematic ordering, maybe it wouldn’t have felt so disconnected and jolty.

The Other Lamb

The Other Lamb is about a religious cult, a society of women gathered around the worship of their Shepherd. It has the veneer of idyllic fulfillment until Shepherd, trying to keep their commune one step ahead of outside interference, takes them all to find a new settlement site. This is effectively a forced march, where all the sheen comes off the apple, and the main character, Selah, is forced to see Shepherd and her life for what it is.

Okay, so the first thing you gotta accept about this film if you are to enjoy it is the pacing. This is a slow nightmare. So there’s lots of shots staring intently into the woods, or gazing longingly at Shepherd. Once you get into its rhythm, the film is this slow burn of tension, as you wait for the other shoe to drop. Will Selah submit to a life she is increasingly aware masks dark truths because it is what she has always wanted up until this point? Or will she leave, turn towards the complete unknown?

The film deals heavily with Christian symbolism, the sheep, the sacrifice of the lamb, menstrual blood as the physical manifestation of Eve’s sin and the weakness of women towards corruption. You can see echoes of things like The Handmaid’s Tale, with the ‘wives’ all in red, and the ‘daughters’ all in blue. Shepherd tells them he has given them sisterhood, reminiscent of how Gilead is described as a society of women. Their status and power struggles take up most of the focus of their society, disguising the lie at the heart of things, that everything they do is for the attention, approval and comfort of a man.

Saleh has only ever known life in commune, being brought there as a young child, and now as she reaches sexual maturity, she aches with longing to become Shepherd’s wife. His gaze is seen as profoundly erotic, his touch seems to cause physical ecstasy. Saleh is devout, like a sunflower turned towards him as the sun. She sees being with him as complete religious, emotional and sexual fulfillment.

Then she gets her period on the same day a lamb is stillborn while she tends the flock. And the experience is so traumatic for her, she begins to question everything, herself and Shepherd included. And as the forced march to a new settlement site brings all of Shepherd’s worst character out into the open, the question of what will she do with this new-found knowledge and experience begins to burn.

Many films will try to make cult life weird enough that the actual religions they are based on get off scott free, so divergent are they from the ‘true’ religion. The Other Lamb is not life that. This is Christianity in microcosm. Shepherd might not be THE Jesus, but he certainly acts like it and desires the same worship. All the regnant hardships the women face are in the Bible, the shunning of menstruating women, the notion of their inferiority, their submission to their husbands, their lack of protection from marital rape and domestic abuse. Christianity is not let off the hook in this story.

Another thing I like about this movie was the use of visual themes. Obviously there is repeated use of the image of the sheep and the ram, the blood of sacrifice and menstruation. But also just stuff like the church being a cordoned-off section of the forest, shaped with string wrapped around the trees. From a distance it is almost transparent, and gives the illusion of freedom, but up close there is no possibility of going in any direction other than that established by Shepherd.

Kudos to Michiel Huisman (of Treme, Orphan Black, and Game of Thrones fame) on making a profoundly erotic and subtlety malevolent Shepherd. And Raffey Cassidy, who makes Selah’s inner journey vividly apparent with sparse dialogue.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Jim Cummings is back with his second film after the success of Thunder Road. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is an odd film, parked squarely across a couple of genres. It’s definitely a horror – a werewolf movie – but also a crime procedural, with lashings of humour, while having a strong dramatic storyline about struggling with addiction.

Like Thunder Road, Cummings stars as a small town cop hanging by a thread, but unlike his previous character who was worn out with grief and regret, in Snow Hollow he plays John, a recovering alcoholic who medicates himself with drink to deal with his anger. I know, angry cop on the edge, it’s a trope, but the writing and the performance just fleshes it all out into a three-dimensional person, someone you sympathise with even though they’re not very likeable. He’s struggling to follow in the footsteps of his father, the ailing sheriff, and balance his duties as a father whose relationship with his ex-wife has all but broken down. He wants to be a leader and someone to be respected, but he gets in his own way all the time, his anger is ever-present and his undoing. The writing balances the humour that comes out this ridiculous human condition with the genuine frustration and sorrow at being stuck as your own worst enemy.

Meanwhile, back to the werewolf, the gore and horror is beautifully done, with classic horror shots of the full moon reflected in a bloody paw print. Great watch for Halloween.

If you like this …

Monsoon

Monsoon is about Kit, who left Vietnam as a child with his parents as refugees, returning home after a life in England, to scatter his parents’ ashes. The sense of dislocation he feels in the economically booming and modernising Saigon is tempered somewhat by the company of Louis, an African-American entrepreneur, who he meets for a hook-up, but which deepens into something more.

The film starts with this real feeling of alienation, as Kit tries to retrace his steps through barely recalled memories to sites important to him and his parents, only to discover they are unrecognisable. He visits a cousin and is unable to speak any Vietnamese to his aunt. Instead of a homecoming, he feels just like any other tourist.

And that playing with in/out idententies is a theme throughout the film. He brings his cousin shortbread in royal wedding biscuit tin, and then cringes at himself for being such a Westerner. He gets clocked as Vietnamese by a white French guy, who speaks in slow and clear English to him, despite English being his one and only language. And he feels like the war is almost irrelevant to who he is now, but rankles when Louis makes a typically American remark about how hard it was on American soldiers.

As the movie progresses however, that sense of dislocation from the past is replaced more and more with connection in the present. Vietnam is a place with a future, as is possibly his relationship with Louis.

If you like this …

Max Richter’s Sleep

First film back at the GFT since coronavirus lockdown, and this is exactly the type of film I wanted to see. Totally weird, an unknown entity, and best appreciated in the cinema.

Max Richter’s Sleep is a documentary about an 8-hour piece of music meant to be experienced while sleeping. Never heard of it. So I was looking forward to coming to this knowing nothing.

Now, I love pretentious shit, you just have to set your wank tolerance quite high. This is a deeply beautiful piece of music, so just let go of the Instagramming audience members doing yoga, and Tai Chi, and journalling, and meditating, and rollerblading.

The idea was to compose a piece of music that spoke to a universal human experience. It uses only the same frequencies the sleeping mind processes, the same ones fetuses can hear in the womb. It ebbs and flows with the slowing of brainwaves through the cycles of sleep. It is bookended with movements intended to guide you in and out of sleep. It uses our cultural and scientific understanding of sleep to create a piece which the listener interacts with on a non-conscious level.

Which makes staging the live performances quite the task. First you gotta find a venue that will let you book an overnight 8-hour gig. Then it has to sleep an audience, literally on campbeds or mattresses or bunks.

And the performances have this real ritualistic quality to them. Max’s wife Yulia, who took a lot to do with the piece, talks about how her family were refugees, and in this deeply divided and unempathetic time, she wanted to create something which emphasised the universal human experience, to be experienced collectively. So you have these really basic beds, where people come and sleep in their hundreds next to total strangers, place themselves in a state of absolute vulnerability and trust in an unfamiliar environment, and then collectively experience this music about something which unifies them all.

Please ignore the exclusive and expensive nature of participating in such an event (which number 7 in total so far).

The film itself oscillates between giving a serious interview explaining the philosophies and practicalities in making the piece, giving time to actually listening to the music, and presenting thoughts on the piece in a dreamlike fashion, to mimic the experience of the sleeping listener. It kinda works best when it sticks to the first thing. But to be commended nonetheless for trying to showcase, explain, and translate a musical experience intended for the sleeping mind, which is not the easiest subject for a film.

Worth sticking your head round the door to see what’s happening.

Color Out of Space

So, we’re in quarantine, all the cinemas are closed and several festivals have had to cancel or cut themselves short. Does this mean I won’t review new films I desperately wanted to see at the cinema, but are now available on demand? Does it fuck!

Just watched Color Out of Space. It’s actually really good. The direction manages to steer away from the goofy, and create this atmosphere of ever increasingly malevolent warping by an unseen hand.

The trouble with adaptations of Lovecraft is that his horror hinges on the incomprehensible, something so beyond your ken that you would go mad just to see it. And movies are all about seeing. You couldn’t make a movie in which no one could comprehend what they were looking at, and it still be a successful movie.

In some ways what the director does with Color Out of Space is a happy medium. The colour appearing on screen always preludes something fucking awful happening, but it is not, in itself, the thing you are afraid of. Whatever the creature is, all we can see of it in our dimension is the colour.

The female lead, Madeleine Arthur, is excellent, and conveys the sense of horror and helplessness in the face of cosmic forces utterly indifferent to your tiny existence. Like death, they are unstoppable, unnegiotable, and unconcerned with how they impact you.

Thumbs up.

If you like this

Eminent Monsters

It is an examination of the invention and propagation of psychological torture techniques. As you can imagine, grim.

It starts with the experiments carried out by Scottish psychiatrist Ewen Cameron on Canadian mental patients in the 1950s. God only knows what he was trying to do, but his ideas for rewiring the brain were taking vulnerable, fragile people who came to him for help, and immobilising them in a state of sensory depravation for months and years, with tapes of disembodied voices forced into their ears all day or night. No one was told they were being experimented on or consented to be part of the experiments. Needless to say, it was a good way to drive people mad.

His ideas got picked up by MKUltra, and were disseminated between Canada, the UK and the USA. In the UK, these techniques were picked up and used against Irish detainees during the Troubles in the 1970s. Basically British soldiers just lifted you, put a bag over your head, and kept you in stress positions, sleep-deprived, naked, and drugged. The media labelled the victims ‘The Hooded Men’ and they are still trying, to this day, to get what was done to them recognised as torture.

When the Hooded Men took their case to court, the European Court of Human Rights declared that what they experienced was “inhumane and degrading treatment” but not officially torture. And this has set the legal precedent around the world that psychological torture is not really torture. It is quoted in the document drawing up the legal basis for the torture of Guantanamo detainees.

The film is very interesting and illuminating in the genesis and the ‘selling’ of psychological torture as an acceptable and effective form of less-than-torture. I could have done with a less stylised presentation, but I guess they thought no one would sit through such grimness were it not presented with a little bit of a flourish.

Wish I could say any of this was in any way surprising but we are currently living through a bit of a renaissance for torture and it is actively endorsed by Western heads of state. But one positive thing to take away from it is, the Powers That Be only do what they think they can get away with – so don’t let them get away with anything. Don’t let the fear of the Other, the madman, the terrorist, the Islamic extremist, all these bogeymen, dampen your empathy for a human being in pain. Don’t allow it to be done in your name.