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Film Review – Loving Vincent

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Firstly I have to thank the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle for putting on a couple of screenings of this film; you have no idea how much I appreciate it.

This film has been on my radar for a long time because Vincent Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. For once I was interested in seeing a film not because of plot or characters, which is what normally attracts me. It was something else, something that I’m not normally interested by, and something I usually scoff at if the story/character development or similar isn’t the selling point of a film.

I wanted to see this film because of the techniques employed to make it. In other words the special effects. Except unlike with supposedly ground-breaking films like Avatar (shudders), this film had something very special going for it.

That is because ‘Loving Vincent’ is the first ever full-length hand-painted animation to be made. Each frame is an oil painting. Even more wonderfully the filmmakers used Van Gogh’s paintings as initial references for putting together the story board, and then the 125 artists involved (who specialise in oil painting) used his aesthetic style to create the 65,000 frames of the film, which you can see here in the trailer.

And the result is one of the most unique and beautiful films I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Admittedly, I am bias due to my partiality for his work, however, anyone who appreciates how beautiful oil paintings are can appreciate this film. And if you don’t have that appreciation yet this film will show you why oil is such an enduring medium.

If you only know Van Gogh’s oil paintings via prints or digital images, and being able to see original Van Gogh’s in person isn’t possible (though if you can get to Amsterdam a visit to the Van Gogh Museum is a must), then I highly recommend you check out this film.

What you will be able to see then is the rich texture of his work. His paintings aren’t flat, they have a lovely flowing texture and using his style of painting for animating a story demonstrates the gentle grace and movement of the world he captured in his work. The wheat fields ripple; the crows flap hard as they fly up; the expressions of the characters are very natural and are more three dimensional than any 3D film I’ve seen.

If you know his work well, every now and then one of his paintings will leap out at you off the screen, but equally it doesn’t matter if you don’t either. The vividness of the colour employed is stunning, and contrasts very well indeed with all of the black and white flashbacks.

I was surprised at the use of black and white because Van Gogh’s later works are so colourful, but it made perfect sense to do so. It suited the narrative, which is an exploration into the death of the artist. The sombre palette complements the subject matter; depression and suicide.

However, the use of colour for the living world, the present moment, is a strong contrast to the past. The vividness of life is celebrated using the vivid bright palette Van Gogh is famous for using in his latter years.

While I have read in other reviews and I heard in the cinema from others there that the narrative could have been developed more, I don’t agree. Fine, while not much happens everything that needs to be said is said, and the narrative written is hardly simple. The mystery of his death is explored fully by the protagonist Roulin; I don’t see how adding anymore would have been needed.

I found the film to be very respectful of both the artist’s life, his death and the legacy he left behind. And more than that, as well as bringing movement to his landscapes, the film has brought the people he painted to life as well.

I highly recommend the film, and that you check out the film’s official website so you can learn more about this true masterpiece of technical achievement.

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Film Review – Murder on the Orient Express

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I really didn’t want to bother seeing this film, because the trailer put me off for a reason I will allude to in a moment, but my husband really wanted to, so I went. And ugh!

Note to modern day filmmakers, Hercule Poirot is not an action hero. He doesn’t chase down suspects. He manoeuvres other people to do that bit. He is all about ‘the little grey cells’.

Admittedly, I am coming from a very bias position. I adore David Suchet’s ‘Poirot’, and Joan Hickson’s ‘Miss Marple’, because they are adaptations of Agatha Christie’s book that are very respectful of the source material.

I can’t stand Alfred Molina’s film version of Murder on the Orient Express, because Poirot does not need to google the Armstrongs, he already knew about it all. I dislike Geraldine McEwan’s Miss Marple, because the producers felt it necessary to modernise the characters and stories in order to apparently appease modern viewers.

You don’t.

Agatha Christie’s creations are about brain power, using logic, using knowledge, using experience of human life. Their deductions aren’t as inaccessible as some of the leaps Sherlock Holmes makes to reach his conclusions. They don’t run – they sit and think, while they drink tisane or knit. They don’t run along a rickety bridge (which was the bit in the trailer that put me off), or stick a cane in the Wailing Wall (which made me actually physically shudder).

However, I come from a bias position, if it being slightly more action oriented doesn’t bother you, then in all fairness, Kenneth Brannagh has made a really good film, and apart from saying you should try the Suchet version, I would recommend it.

The all-star cast do a brilliant turn, the source material is respected, and the gathering at the end is certainly set very well in the mouth of a tunnel in the depths of winter. Very atmospheric, if a bit chilly, and it certainly set the tone of the raw emotions felt by certain characters. A few of the characters that are more prominent in the book get a bit lost along the way, especially the Count and Countess, but that is bound to happen with such a large ensemble.

Film Review – The Party

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Some Spoilers

Most unfortunately for The Party, it is a film that is on the cusp of being brilliant, but because it doesn’t quite make it, I can’t even say it is good. There are certainly elements of it I did enjoy, but I’m in no rush to see the film again.

I’d been attracted to see it because I like Kirsten Scott Thomas and Cillian Murphy. Their performances didn’t disappoint, and all of the actors were great. The black and white filming, with some fantastic lighting and well-chosen camera angles can also be commended as a brilliant example of good direction.

However, I’d mostly been intrigued by the idea of a dinner party, with shock revelation after shock revelation, and it is most unfortunately because of the plot that the film fell flat with me.

The only thing I found shocking was the thought that this film could be described as such when the twists were so obvious. The opening scene, which is in fact also the last scene, ruined the entire film for me, because once a few details of the plot had been revealed, I could have written the end down, put it in a sealed envelope, and waited to be proved right. I won’t say what the plot is, in case you are still interested in going, but if you pay attention, you could easily make an educated guess.

The film is also just too short. At 71 minutes, it didn’t feel rushed, but I certainly feel as if they just had a couple of more minutes of screen time, to fit in a few more sentences of dialogue  the emotional transitions of some of the characters would have been less jarred and would have worked better.

But they didn’t, and some of the characters seemed to just go on journeys and had twists of feelings which didn’t make sense, and because it didn’t it just irritated me instead.

I came away from watching this film annoyed because of a cardinal sin; the filmmakers wanted me to assume this is how people really are and how people really interact with each other. They wanted me to make leaps and assume feelings without giving me the justification to play along.

The film also was full of so many cliched characters, I do recall rolling my eyes; the banker who does cocaine; the gender studies professor who is of course a lesbian; her wife who is more into misandry than feminism; the husband of the powerful politician who has people whispering behind his back about whether his masculinity can cope with his wife outdoing him. Ugh! Using one or two is fine, but everything about this film felt as if it had all been done before.

And it is such a shame that this is how I feel because like I say it is just on the cusp of being really good, it just doesn’t quite get there.

Film Review – Call me by Your Name

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There are two ways a film can make me cry; it is either an instant effect during the film, or there is a delayed effect when I find myself crying later on. The first happens every now and then. The second is a lot rarer, and the one I much prefer, despite the strange panicked looks you do get from members of the public who are uncertain and unprepared for having to deal with a lone woman sat on public transport crying silently for seemingly no reason what so ever.

I must have seemed composed enough though as no-one asked what was wrong, but I wish they had because I was absolutely bursting to express that I had been touched in the very depths of my heart by a masterpiece. Call Me By Your Name cannot be described by any lesser adjective.

It is not a work of instant emotional gratification but a piece with slow and diligent persistence that will carry on wrapping itself around your heart long after you have finished watching it. For me truly beautiful things don’t need to make their brilliance obvious from the very first glance. Time will either erode beauty or strengthen it, and in this case, time will only ever made this film better.

That is why I cried. It didn’t upset me, though I do suggest watching it with tissues. For me the emotion comes because a film about love has been finally been made. It isn’t some slightly hyped up romantic comedy, where it is painfully obvious at times you are watching two actors get paid to do a job, with a plot that leads to the end and the idea that they will indeed live happily ever after.

This film slowly unpicks the of barriers people set up around themselves when they feel that sort of love which wrenches your heart, makes places hurt you didn’t know you had, leaves you yearning, frustrated, frightened and utterly helpless. It’s more awful when you think it’s unrequited and even more awful when you find out it isn’t, but you get closer any way, even when you know the bittersweet truth.

Love cannot have a happy ending…but it is worth it all the same.

I haven’t read the book by Andre Aciman, so I can’t comment on whether it is an adaptation which has respected its source material, but I can say that the hot Italian summer perfectly sets the scene. Things that go unspoken tell the story just as well as the words that are said. The quick switches between languages is so natural, most of the time I didn’t notice, and I only really did in a scene that had my sides aching I laughed so much.

But it will always be the utterly tender performances by both Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer will draw me back to this film again and again to watch Elio and Olivier’s enduring yet fleeting love affair.

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Film Review- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Warning: Spoilers

I’ve hesitated in talking about ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve been a bit withdrawn from the geeky world of the internet of late. I talked about this in my essay ‘My Many Selves as a Geeky Fan’. I’ve been talking about the MCU since January, but because I’m a bit ‘meh’ about Marvel at the minute it hasn’t been as badly affected because of who I have become as a fan in recent months.

Star Wars, however has been, because I am a massive fan, and withdrawing quite a bit from social media pushed ‘Rogue One’ off my radar in-between seeing it at the cinema and waiting for the DVD release. I had originally delayed my review of the film, for the same reason I did The Force Awakens last year; I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone. I’ve come to terms with this personal change in my approach to being a fan, but there was another reason for the delay.

I had a rather strange reaction to Rogue One that I didn’t think would make it difficult to talk about. In truth it should make it easier, but I wasn’t sure how to approach this admission. Let’s just go with head on, shall we?

Rogue One is my favourite Star Wars film.

I’m not going to duck for cover. At first, I was feeling a bit ashamed that the amazing seven episodes of the Star Wars saga so far have been upstaged by a one-off anthology film, whose intent was to tell a story where we already knew the ending in order to make Disney a bit of money. I can remember thinking that when it was announced the film was about stealing the plans for the original Death Star. It was a money making venture; like Titanic, we knew the ship would sink and we knew they would get the plans.

Except it is bloody brilliant. I mean it is a film that cannot work without the existence of the rest of the Star Wars franchise; it wouldn’t make any sense what so ever. I never thought it was a story that needed to be told.

Until I saw it that is, and in truth of all the Star Wars stories (by which I mean the films) that have been told, it is the most important. It is the one that anyone can relate to and for the most shocking reason of all (at least for me to internally process); it is the story most grounded in reality.

I am a fantasy writer and I write about magic. It is one of my favourite fantasy themes, and one of the reasons I love Star Wars so much is because The Force, which is essentially magic, is found within a science fiction setting. Yes, The Force still exists in Rogue One, and having faith in it is certainly one of the most important and prominent themes in the film, but that is all it really is; it is faith in its existence. Proof of it is only seen in the film twice, and never in relation to the main characters. Like Darth Vader, The Force only makes a cameo appearance.

Everything that happens in the main plot can in theory be explained by human ability. And what they are doing is using that ability to fight an oppressive empire bend on destroying freedom in the galaxy. There are so many examples in history of humans having done this for real, which are still inspiring us. Rogue One is a fictional version of fights real humans have made. It is a story of characters sacrificing themselves for the greater good. For hope.

It is the characters that make it the best film. Don’t get me wrong, the Star Wars Universe has many great characters. Very few of them have left me feeling that perhaps the writers and creators could have done a better job. My review of Force Awakens is really just a long talk about how great the new characters are, and when I talked about The Phantom Menace, I even defended Jar Jar Binks.

Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus, Bodhi Rook and K-2SO are just in a different league. They are some of the most conflicted and complex characters that have ever been created in the Star Wars films. They aren’t black or white; good or evil. They are grey, they have made questionable choices and they are fighting to make those choices mean something when threatened by defeat and destruction.

From the moment I first saw Cassian shoot his informant in the back in order to spare him from falling into the hands of the Empire I fell in love with the film. Strange moment I know, but it is the first indication the film isn’t just going to be a simple fight of good versus evil.

This isn’t just the story where we know the ending and know they succeeded. This is the story where all of their complexities, their choices, and their faith in the universe is laid out and bared to the audience. It is the story of how they did it, why they did it and what price they paid in order to do it.

It is a human story, grounded in the reality of what it is to be a human facing a seemingly unstoppable oppressive force. It isn’t about the Jedi versus the Sith; it is about everyone else who lives in that universe.

It is about a father sacrificing his life and risking everything to seek revenge for the destruction of his family.

It is about the daughter coming to terms with that and all the pain she has suffered in her life. Facing it again is one of the best character developments I’ve seen, because being brave about what’s going on inside rather than outside is something that needs to be seen more often.

It is about a rebel spy, a man with ethics, giving his life to fight for his beliefs, a fight that costs him the chance to live his life in line with his ethics. A man who carries his prison within wherever he goes.

It is about a pilot, who seeks to redeem himself after being a clog in the oppressive machine.

It is about a blind man maintaining his faith in the Force, despite his life being destroyed and having been every reason to think it has abandoned him.

It is about an enraged warrior, who finds faith again, after the world broke it, when his friend dies and faith is the only way he can find him again.

It is about a reprogrammed droid facing the reality that he has to overpower other droids and even kill living people (seriously with K-2SO the fact Asimov’s Laws of Robotics don’t apply is what makes him intriguing), while he also tells the truth. The sarcasm he does it with is a happy bi-product.

And they all die.

This film is about hope, and for the audience the hope isn’t that they will succeed, but who will survive the attempt. That is one of the most heart-wrenching truths; heroes don’t always survive. They don’t get to see their success; in fact they only have faith in their success. They don’t have proof in it.

Faith in hope carries on right to the last moment; faith in the fight even when Darth Vader brings the one of the few moments of ‘magic’ into the film in that corridor scene, where again everyone dies, and not even everyone who wasn’t trapped behind the door gets onto the escaping ship alive. They all had every reason to think it wasn’t worth it, but they fought on even when they knew it was hopeless for them as individuals. The greater good was what made it worthwhile for them.

No wonder this is my favourite Star Wars film.

Film Review – Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2

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I have ignored the hype about this film; I watched the trailers only a couple of times, and just generally avoided getting excited about the film. I’ve been using my tried and tested method of going into the cinema with low expectations (it worked remarkably well for Assassin’s Creed), and given I’ve not been impressed of late with the MCU, I wanted to try and leave the cinema without having been disappointed.

Well I sort of succeeded, but I have had it confirmed for me that the MCU has indeed lost its power over me, because not even a Guardians of the Galaxy film could get me excited. I still absolutely love the first film; I think after the awful Civil War film, the Guardians of the Galaxy have supplanted Captain America and become my favourites from within the MCU, but the second film is just not as good as the first.

Sadly though I knew this was going to be the case before I saw it. The first film was a fresh slap in the face, and of all the protagonists within the MCU I feel like Peter Quill is the most relatable. However, because it was so fresh and new, I knew the second film could never be as good.

The thing is I don’t think it is a bad film, I’m just not in any rush to go and see it again. Gone are the days when I would be leaving the cinema and buying tickets for a showing the next evening so I could see it again as soon as possible. Genuinely I don’t think I’ll see this film again until the dvd release.

It is certainly spectacular, and the settings wonderfully created. The plot of the film was even paced, though I would argue it doesn’t really have a defining moment where your heart ends up in your throat. That might be because I’m not easily stirred when emotional moments are a bit predictable (and seriously they seeded the final scenes right at the beginning of the film, so if you know what you are looking for when it comes to foreshadowing, then you know where its going to end up).

The characters as well all reacted as expected to the plot of the film, and they all have a lovely development within the film. Baby Groot completely steals the show; hands down the best thing about the film. Completely adorable.

It is a brilliant film, and I’ve sure over time I will grow to love it, but if you’ve sensed a distinct lack of enthusiasm from this review, then you’d be right. By all means go and watch it; I strongly suspect you will love it a lot more than I do. But now having seen it, it has confirmed for me that my love affair with the MCU is well and truly over.

 

Letters from Baghdad

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Whenever I read a book or watch a film, my ideal reaction is to be left speechless but also so full of profound afterthoughts that I struggle to then coherently explain myself. It doesn’t happen often, but I absolutely adore it when it does. There are many reasons why I want to recommend this documentary, not least because I got the rare joy of reacting to the film in this way, but for the sake of being concise I stick to just three.

‘Letters from Baghdad’ is a documentary by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl about the true story of Gertrude Bell. The film is made up visually of about 75% contemporary and previously unseen archive footage depicting mostly the Middle East where Gertrude Bell worked and lived in the early 20th Century. It is shown alongside stills of her own photographs from the archive at Newcastle University. The rest of the footage was created for the film, and mostly consists of interviews representing her friends, family and colleagues. The audio overlaying this stunning visual encapsulation of history is Tilda Swinton reading the letters written by Gertrude Bell to her friends and family in England.

The documentary is utterly stunning to watch and listen to, and my congratulations to both Oelbaum and Krayenbühl for their masterful creation. The first reason I have to recommend this film to people is because it has been so carefully researched and skilfully created. I had the good fortune of being able to be part of the question and answer session with the filmmakers, held after a viewing at the Tyneside Cinema here in Newcastle. The passion, hard work and dedication that these two filmmakers and their team put into the making of this film is to be commended. This is not just because of how wonderful the film about Gertrude Bell turned out, but also because her story is incredibly important to tell.

Being from the North East where Gertrude Bell came from, and a former history student at Newcastle University where the archive of her photographs and letters is held, I’ve been fortunate enough to gain awareness of her via public lectures and exhibitions. While I have never studied her in depth because I ended up specialising in earlier historical periods, it has never been lost on me that Gertrude Bell should be a great deal better known. She has seemingly been forgotten by history in the West, though as the filmmakers did point out, she very fondly remembered in places such as Iraq, where she is known as ‘Miss Bell’.

The documentary charts her life, highlighting at first her travels in the Middle East, in what was then the Ottoman Empire, before moving on to her being recruited by the British Government as a consultant in the establishment of the modern State of Iraq in the aftermath of the First World War. For a woman who achieved so much, at a time when it wasn’t something a lady would do, for her to have been seemingly forgotten by history is something I still struggle to understand.

I’m not an expert either historically or politically in commenting on her legacy or on the events that have happened in the Middle East since she carried out her work. However, her relevancy given the turmoil in current times is something that needs to be highlighted, and is the second reason I recommend this film. The events that she witnessed have remarkable parallels to the modern day, especially the importance placed by Western Governments of establishing ‘their’ control over oil over keeping their promises to help build administrations for the peoples of the Middle East to govern themselves. If anyone wants to understand better the historical reasons behind why this region is so troubled now, this documentary about a time when these troubles mirror the present day is very good place to start.

However, this film is not just a starting point for anyone wanting to understand the history of the region better. As wonderful as the archive footage used throughout the documentary is, this is a film about a remarkably complex woman. That is something that cannot be buried under other reasons to see the film. For me the most important reason why anyone should see this film is because of Gertrude Bell herself.

Women do tend to be forgotten by history, and this documentary is a vital demonstration that women of the past can be just as interesting, talented, important and as complex as their male counterparts. It was even suggested in the question and answer session that it is because she is a woman that this story of her life is all the more remarkable because of what she managed to achieve in a male dominated world. The interpretation of her life that I found most intriguing about this film was the idea of what defined her as a person.

She came across as a very intelligent and adventurous woman, who found travelling and exploring the world one of the only ways in which she felt like a ‘person’, by which I took that to mean, she felt valued in the same way a man would be simply by fact of his gender rather than through his accomplishments. Hearing her words and her viewpoint of the events of the world, via Tilda Swinton’s masterful readings of her letters, not only proves her historical importance as a first-hand witness to events, but is also a remarkable testimony to how complex a person is capable of being.

From the interviews scattered throughout the documentary, which were based on accounts from her contemporaries, her complexity becomes apparent. She was viewed as an arrogant woman, who was disinterested in the ‘normal’ activities of women, but nevertheless was also seen as incredibly capable, even if at times her place was questioned simply because of her sex. Even within her own correspondence, she had become to believe herself to be a sexless entity, and in that way had become acceptable. However, later in her life she acknowledged, with a heavy heart I felt, that the matter of her gender became unacceptable when the likes of Sir Percy Cox who valued her work, were replaced by men that did not view her as important.

The greatest insight into the woman that I got from the documentary was a remark she made about why she worked as hard as she did. Naturally of course her romantic relationships were discussed, and from her correspondence I was very much left with the impression that while all of her inner feelings weren’t necessarily seen by her contemporaries, based on what she wrote I would suspect that she felt very deeply indeed.

She was a romantic, struck by tragedy. Her work was to her a narcotic, because she wanted a distraction from other thoughts that she did not wish to dwell on. Because of those words alone I struggle to see the arrogant woman her colleagues saw. I don’t doubt she probably was arrogant, but she was also deeply fraught; a woman conflicted by the events she saw around her and by the events of her own life. This is why for me, Gertrude Bell is the most important reason to see this documentary, because she is portrayed as complex.

In a world where women are still fighting to be fully represented by the media, whether in fact or fiction, this documentary demonstrates that it is possible show to show the depth and complications of a woman’s life. More than that it can be done using our own words, our accomplishments and with an intricacy that cannot simply be summarised by whether we are wholly good or bad; feminine or not; or seen as successful or arrogant in our pursuits. We can be all of these, all at once, just like Gertrude Bell.

Also if we don’t fight for women like her was to be remembered, who’s to say that in a hundred years’ time, the women of our time will be remembered for their achievements?