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Tense and haunting
When I think of witches, I think of Halloween and Harry Potter. I remember cartoons on TV about plucky young girls casting spells and saving the day, before speeding away on a broomstick. Excitement, fun and melodrama. I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too! My point is that witches no longer frighten us. Homicidal maniacs and evil spirits tend to terrorise the protagonists of horror films today, while the witch is considered so harmless she appears almost exclusively in stories that we tell to children. The original meaning of witches, and the sinister source from which they were thought to take their magical abilities, has largely been forgotten.
The Witch succeeds as a horror movie, because instead of attempting to modernise the witch, Roger Eggers' debut film reminds us of what witches once signified to people and of how very real they seemed.
The year is 1630. William and Katherine are devout Puritans who have recently emigrated to New England with their five children. Living alone on the outskirts a vast wood, they want to find the kingdom of God. When their infant son vanishes one day, the parents are distraught. They pray. They repent of their sins. But the family has unwittingly entered the domain of a witch, and evil closes in around them.
The fascinating thing about The Witch is that most of the story and the dialogue is taken directly from 17th century documents and reports, meaning that people claimed to have actually witnessed the horrifying things that we see on screen. The film's events unfold to chilling music, with such a matter-of-factness and at such a steady pace that the overall effect is not only one of dread, but of mounting despair. On his knees in the rain, William pleads with God to save his children. But just like that, due to no obvious fault of their own, God has forsaken the family.
Immersed in the tense, haunting world of the film, I found myself suddenly understanding the hysteria that once surrounded witches a lot better. The family disintegrates, because of the belief that witches are not born, but created when a human being pledges themselves to the devil in exchange for power. They begin to suspect that one of their own could have become a witch. Fear ultimately conquers love.
Visually striking, but ultimately uninspiring
The royal court roars with laughter. A group of jesters grin and jeer at one another, do cartwheels, breathe fire. In the midst of all this mirth, the Queen sits sad and silent on her throne. Her eyes fall on one of the players and suddenly she runs off, distraught. The King chases after her, shouting that he is sorry, that he did not know. His apologies fall on deaf ears.
So begins Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone's visually striking, but ultimately uninspiring adaptation of the Pentamerone, a book of Italian folk stories collected in the 17th century.The film cuts between three separate narrative strands, linked together by the unifying theme of all-consuming obsession. One tale centres around a monarch mad with lust, and two crones in his kingdom who desire only to be young again. Another depicts a woman who will do anything for motherhood. The third tale introduces us to a king's unhealthy fascination with a flea, and an ogre unable to set free his reluctant and unhappy bride.
Fairy tales these may be, but their delightfully disturbing content ensures that they are not meant for children. (At least by modern, if not by 17th century standards the Pentamerone, just as full of sex and violence as Garrone's 15 rated film, was subtitled 'Entertainment for Little Ones'). Yet even though Tale of Tales is too graphic and gruesome for kids and is clearly aimed at older audiences, it remains too childishly straightforward to be captivating. I would have needed either more nuance or more mystery and suggestion for the film to draw me in and immerse me in its world. There are, for instance, scenes where characters morph into a different physical shape. Had these transformations remained unexplained by the narrative they would have evoked a sense of wonder and significance, like visual poems hinting at some elusive but compelling underlying idea. Instead, the characters transform because a magician cast a spell, and there is nothing to think about. It is the kind of simple cause and effect storytelling with a clear moral for all three narrative strands put forward the idea that 'obsession is not good for you' which works so well for children's stories, but is too obvious to really interest adults.
To be fair, it was never Garrone's intention to prompt intellectual engagement with Tale of Tales. 'Don't try to understand it. Just feel it, like when you are standing in front of a painting. Follow the characters, take the journey, feel the emotion,' the director said in a Guardian interview. But the characters are too one-dimensional to seem real, and I found it hard to care about their lives or fates. They also speak far too much to function well as figures onto whom one can project emotion, like when one is standing in front of a painting. It should have been show not tell, with the camera lingering on the characters' facial expressions, and allowing spectators to empathise and identify with them. Instead, feelings, from love to longing, are spoken 'He's like a brother to me', 'I want to be young again' and the action moves forward.
Less would have been more, with Tale of Tales. The power of the film lies in its visuals, which are beguiling, gorgeous and grotesque. The dialogues and narrative explanations serve only to trivialise the images, lessening the overall effect of the film. The trailer for Tale of Tales, a succession of visuals set to nothing but music,is better than the film itself.
A brutal and beautiful film
Justin Kurzel's Macbeth is ferocious. The film has things to say about the play, and it says them with such insight that Shakespeare's Macbeth a work so famous its mere nickname has a dedicated Wikipedia page is once again made unpredictable and raw.
The film is faithful to the Scottish Play from first to last, but this is no straightforward adaptation. Instead, the movie interprets the work and does so beautifully, not bending or construing the original narrative, but rather taking up the uncertainties and hints already present in the play and weaving them together into a compelling and persuasive modern take on a much-told story: Macbeth, an 11th century nobleman, meets three witches who predict that he will become king of Scotland. Spurred on by his wife, Macbeth assassinates the current monarch and then crumbles under the psychological cost of murder.
But Shakespeare's tragedy itself is full of ambiguity and open questions, not the least of which is the murder itself. The witches have proved themselves to be reliable, so it is certain that one day Macbeth will rule. Then why the urgency to kill the king and 'catch the nearest way'? The film succeeds due to the visceral, emotionally stirring explanations that it offers. A brief line in the play alludes to Lady Macbeth having once had a child, and boldly, the movie begins with the funeral of the infant in question. Fassbender and Cotillard proceed to give wonderful performances as a couple who still love one another, but are struggling to fill the emptiness that has arisen between them. There is a new-found poignancy in Lady Macbeth's assertion that she feels 'now the future in the instant'. These are more than ruthless villains driven by ambition they are people who can see no other future, and who are fighting for meaning in a life 'signifying nothing'.
And then there is war, ravaging Scotland, and Macbeth the soldier, forced to kill. There are echoes of Apocalypse Now in the film's treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the way humans respond to violence. 'I wept,' says Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. 'I wanted to tear my teeth out and then I realised my God the genius of it!' A similar idea is palpable in the way Fassbender's Macbeth is simultaneously wounded and enraptured by his own acts of brutality.
Shakespeare's Macbeth, like one of its most famous lines, is full of 'sound and fury'. To this verbal and thematic intensity Kurzel adds striking cinematography and gorgeous visuals, themselves smacking of significance. This is, however, both a strong point and a problem. The movie overwhelms. The images complement the dialogue for the most part, but there are times when script and visuals both seem so deserving of attention they distract from one another and before one has time to consider either, the movie has moved on. The pacing is relentless. There are no pauses in the action, and hardly any shifts in the mood. The joking porter of the original play, coming on stage to provide the audience with a welcome break, has been cut out completely.
Had the film let its images linger on screen for a little longer, and taken things a little slower, it might have been less intellectually and emotionally exhausting. As it stands, it does not allow enough time for one to consider the ideas it puts forward, which is a shame, precisely because the insights it delivers are so worthy of consideration. Ultimately though, Macbeth is a brutal and beautiful movie with a persuasive point of view, and two exceptional lead actors. Its atmosphere lingers, long after the final credits stop rolling.
A dark and inventive subversion of coming of age stories
The dead man's daughter is the only one who notices the stranger. He is standing some distance away from the funeral, watching her. Later, at the reception, her mother is immediately charmed. 'India,' she beams, 'come and say hello to your uncle Charlie'. The stranger turns around, smiling.
What follows is a dark and inventive subversion of the coming-of-age genre, as eighteen year old India realises that there is something menacing about this uncle that she never knew existed, and that it is precisely this suggestion of the dangerous which draws her to him. 'Have you ever seen a photograph of yourself,' she explains, 'taken from an angle you don't get to see when you look in the mirror. And you think, that's me! That's also me!' In her father's younger brother India finds echoes of herself, and what she comes to understand about the two of them both fascinates and disturbs her.
This tension of being attracted to something that you know is wrong is masterfully expressed through a camera which keeps zooming in as it moves away, and zooming out as it draws closer. Like India, we linger when we should be leaving. We hesitate as we approach. And the images that we see on screen are very beautiful, showing us the world from an original, compelling point of view. The opening of an eye is matched to the opening of a piano lid. Long hair transforms into long grass waving in the wind.
What you end up thinking of Stoker largely depends on whether or not you agree with something Oscar Wilde said (about books, but he was writing before film was invented). According to Wilde, 'there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.' To say that Stoker is a well shot film is an understatement, but the subject matter that it renders so beautifully is as perverse as can possibly be. Violence is not only aestheticised, but sexualised. And those compelled to hurt others are presented as unique, almost elite human beings. 'I wonder if you too' Charlie tells his niece, 'can hear what others cannot hear, see what they cannot see'. Blood drips off small white flowers.
Worst of all, Stoker ultimately concludes that destructive urges run in your blood for India's mother is an outcast who can never truly belong to the family that she married into and that the mature thing to do is to give up individual agency and simply accept your own biological determinism: 'Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be,' India whispers in the opening monologue. 'Only once you realise this do you become free. And to become adult, is to become free'.
Nevertheless, I think those who decry Stoker for glorifying violence are missing the point. Chan-wook Park's film is really about seduction, and it is us the viewers who are being seduced. Wilde was writing at a time when an 'immoral book' was simply one with a hint of sex. Today, sex is all over the screen, and the bar for immorality is lower. But seduction is at its most thrilling if it has an element of transgression. What can a film still show us nowadays that, to our dismay, makes us realise that we like what we see? I suggest you watch Stoker for yourself and find out. I for one enjoyed it immensely.
Game of Thrones: The Door (2016)
Game of Thrones at its best
A riveting episode, with a twist that left me speechless at the end. 'The Door', in many ways, highlights how pervasively the past lingers and colours the present, especially for members of the Stark family. This adds an element of poignancy to what is an ultimately shocking episode. We are introduced to new, compelling characters, the highlight among which is a Bravosi theatre troupe twisting the events that have previously occurred in Westeros. But plenty of time is devoted to more familiar faces as well, as we begin at The Wall, proceed to the Iron Islands and to Vaes Dorthrak, before we enter into Bran's mind, and learn the secrets that he learns. If you were disappointed with the start of Season 6, don't worry - this is where the plot thickens and the tension rises, while the action picks up.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Bold, Beautiful and Incredibly Sensual
First and foremost a confession: I have not yet read Anna Karenina and therefore can't judge how well Joe Wright's interpretation captured the spirit, style and message of Tolstoy's novel.
What I do know is that I have just seen a daring and immensely powerful film. Clever use of tableaux, surrealist elements and breathtaking visual images bring out the character's emotions so strongly that halfway through the film I felt like I wasn't a mere spectator anymore. I WAS Anna, so completely and utterly was I engrossed in her world.
Knightley performs well. For years I was convinced she could only play one single type of role - the pretty girl who stands around and bats her eyelashes - but "A Dangerous Method" and now "Anna Karenina" have changed my mind. Knightley's matured as an actress, and now manages to give a depth to her characters that makes them utterly believable.
Though many have criticized him, I think Aaron Taylor-Johnson works as Vronsky. He's charming and seductive and it's easy to see why Anna cannot resist him.
And as for Jude Law, his portrayal of passionless, prudish, but oh, so decent Karenin was nothing less than Oscar worthy.
Wright's "Pride and Prejudice" is mediocre, his "Atonement" is good. His "Anna Karenina", however, is sensual and stunning and I can only recommend it.
J'ai tué ma mère (2009)
Clever, innovative and honest
She: like most mothers she cares for her son and looks after him. She drives him to school, she washes his clothes, she cooks.
The downside: She uses these things as excuses to constantly make him feel guilty, make him feel like he owes her for loving him. She keeps accusing him of being ungrateful (though she never says it directly, but implies it in almost every conversation).
What's (arguably) worse: she refuses to listen to him. When she does listen, she doesn't take him seriously. She avoids confrontation, barring occasional hysterical outbursts.
He: makes it perfectly clear that he doesn't expect her to do all the material things for him that she does, and that he'd much rather fend for himself if that means not having to be made to feel guilty all the time.
She: is a struggling single mother, working each day to try to give him a better future. She has to face self-important people who judge her, but who have no idea about the kind of life she leads.
He: does not understand this. He does not see past her awful taste (in clothes and interior design). He thinks she's superficial. He refuses to let her be a part of his life, he criticizes her every word, her every move. He screams at her, insults her.
She: loves him.
He: loves her too. So much.
J'ai tue ma mere is an unflinchingly honest, masterfully shot portrayal of a strained mother/son relationship. Great actors, beautiful images and, I cannot emphasize this enough, absolutely spectacular technique.
Bravo Xavier Dolan! You have created a true work of art.
Nim's Island (2008)
Nim's Island - a must-see movie
'Nim's Island' is, in my opinion, a hugely entertaining, funny and captivating movie with beautiful scenery, fitting music and a stunning choice of actors. Especially Jodie Foster, who plays her role to perfection.
Most people aged from 6 to 16 will enjoy this hilarious and touching film. The storyline is original although some scenes in 'Nim's Island' are slightly unrealistic and the end is somewhat cliché.
Animal lovers will also be pleased. Turtles, seals, lizards and several birds all make repeated appearances. I strongly recommend everyone to see this movie!