Film essays, Film reviews, LFF 2016

Best Films of 2016.

Here it is: my provisional list of 2016’s best films.

“But we’re already a couple of months into 2017” – a fact of which I am aware, but I don’t feel it entirely necessary to stick to end-of-year timelines for something like this. As you’ll see, I have my reasons for not rushing it. While we’re on the subject of what may appear a little different about my list, I’ll lay out a few rules I’ve applied before we get started.

There will be no 2015 releases on this list. Basically that means any film from last year’s awards season – like Room, for example – won’t be included just because they were released in UK cinemas in 2016. Room clearly isn’t a 2016 film if it was rewarded for being one of the best films of 2015, after all. This also extends to world cinema; films that were released previously in their native country before arriving on our shores later. Last year’s examples of foreign films that may otherwise have been included if I didn’t apply this rule include Son of Saul, Embrace of the Serpent and Victoria, all of which were first released in their respective countries in 2015.

I’ve also decided not to include films that were screened at film festivals in 2015 before being widely distributed in 2016, such as The Witch, simply because within this list I’ve already included at least one film that I saw at festival premieres last year, and I therefore count them as one of my favourites of the year, rather than waiting to declare it one of my favourite films of 2017 instead. If I saw it in 2016 and it wasn’t first screened officially in 2015, basically, it qualifies – even if it wasn’t scheduled for release in the UK until 2017.

Perhaps you can see now, with this criteria, why I typically like to delay my lists. Now, bearing these rules in mind, obviously this list is hindered by my doing it almost two months into 2017. Many of the best films of 2016 I still haven’t seen yet – such as the five nominees for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, including acclaimed German comedy Toni Erdmann.

With this in mind, I’ve adapted my own rules a little this time round, to stick exclusively to 2016 films I watched in 2016. This is partly just to make it easier for myself, as with the recent flurry of Oscar contenders released in UK cinemas, my list would be changing daily if I didn’t apply some sort of restriction. So, for example, films like La La Land, Silence, Hacksaw Ridge and some others, while being 2016 films, will not be included on this occasion. This serves to limit the list somewhat, but I’ve still ended up with 20 films on it (or technically 21, as I’ve decided on a joint placing for two films in one case).

Many critics like to include ‘honourable mentions’ when they compose arbitrary end-of-year top ten lists, which for me is like saying “these would’ve been included if I was allowed more than ten” or “if I thought your attention span would last that long”. I realise I may have a longer than average attention span, but I’d rather know why something qualified for an ‘honourable mention’ over a place on the actual list. If it’s not one of your favourite films of the year, why just throw its name out there? And if it is, why not explain why you’d like to include it? I understand many of us are busy people with other stuff we could be doing, myself included, but simply name dropping a bunch of films is not critique and, in my case, I like to think decent critique/ analysis is what I’m offering.

Still, if you’d prefer a top ten and think this overall list is far too long (that I couldn’t blame you for), skip ahead to my top ten below and consider the rest simply ‘honourable mentions’. But understand that every film on this list is there because I can make a case for it being one of my favourites of the year. A few others were in contention at one point or another, but I tried to rule out anything for which I couldn’t make as strong a case, or anything in which I found annoyance despite its qualities. Their ‘ranking’ on the list is simply down to personal preference and, really, I consider all of them pretty great – or they wouldn’t be here at all. So let’s get on with it, shall we?

20. Your Name

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The style and beauty of Your Name’s animation is something to behold, but what pushed it into this list was an original (if totally ‘Japanese anime’ style) narrative that built up an impressive amount of suspense towards its conclusion. That narrative focuses on two teenagers – Mitsuha and Taki – who undergo a frequent ‘body switch’, whereby their consciousness inhabits the other’s body, and end up learning a lot about each other’s lives through the process. From there it becomes an equally unconventional romance.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for raising their eyebrows at the premise, especially if foreign anime isn’t the first thing that pops to mind when you think of entertainment. But this is the world of cinema; a place for imagination, which Japanese anime is notable for and this film has in abundance. Give it a chance, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the depth of its story and characters. Or at least marvel at the gorgeous animation on display.

Your Name is also unique in that it’s an adaptation of a novel written by its director, Makoto Shinkai, who himself adapted his book into the screenplay for this film; novel and film were released within two months of each other in Japan last year. This film then enjoyed a limited successful run in the UK and US in late 2016.

19. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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Suspense. Tension. That’s what 10 Cloverfield Lane executed as well as any other film last year. This was arguably one of the more underrated films of 2016.

While the original Cloverfield was an ambitious monster movie occasionally side-tracked by its handheld camera gimmick, this loose sequel is considerably smaller scale and more confined, shot almost entirely inside a bunker with no handhelds in sight. As a result it is actually more accessible than its predecessor, not to mention a better film overall. No kidding, I think this is one of the very best sequels I’ve seen in the past few years.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead puts in a fine performance as the strong-willed yet vulnerable protagonist whose unease and confusion we share, though the real star of the film is John Goodman as the seemingly unstable Howard. While his methods are questionable, the movie does a brilliant job of leaving the question open: are his mad theories about what’s happening in the world outside the bunker merited, or just the anxious ramblings of a PTSD sufferer? The film even threatens to leave the question hanging until the end…

18. Indignation

We come to one of the more understated films on this list, but by no means less deserving of a place on it. Indignation is the directorial debut of American screenwriter James Schamus and based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth.

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It’s set in the early 1950’s, amidst the backdrop of the Korean War, as central character Marcus (Logan Lerman) leaves his Jewish family home to attend a conservative college in Ohio. There his conviction to atheism provides a source of conflict with the school’s dean over the role of religion in academic life. That alone was a refreshing element to this film; lack of belief in God is something that cinema in general is rather unwilling to portray at face value as a ‘reasonable’ position to hold. The (rather childish) debate over declining Christian values in American mainstream cinema is one thing, but rarely do we see a film tackle the issue of religion/ atheism itself with such honesty and insight as is seen here. Credit for this must go largely to Roth’s source material, of course, though Schamus’ strong style of direction communicates the novel’s message with authority.

Another vital theme this film tackles is that of mental illness; an issue misunderstood to an even greater extent back in the time period in which Indignation takes place. It won’t be the last film on this list to touch on mental health in a thought-provoking fashion, which I consider a fantastic thing for cinema and cultural attitudes around that area. Sarah Gadon embodies the character of Olivia Hutton, who suffers from some form of ’emotional’ problem, having previously attempted suicide, and equally struggles to find her place in the college environment because of this. That Sarah Gadon is also currently one of my favourite actresses may have had something to do with my liking for this film – on a deep emotional level, obviously.

17. Divines

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Another debut here, from Houda Benyamina, Divines is a French-Qatari co-production that screened at Cannes before being released worldwide on Netflix in November – one of a number of high quality Netflix exclusives in 2016. Divines belongs near the top of your watch list.

It follows the experiences of Dounia, a girl living with her mother in a shanty town on the outskirts of Paris, and her friend Maimouna as they fight off the prospect of a life without purpose by hustling and shoplifting. Dounia’s looks and desire to better herself financially soon help open up further opportunities for the pair, as they fall deeper into a potential life of crime, eventually leading down a murky path neither of them envisaged.

The film is directed with an intimate style and fits right alongside other ‘coming of age’ movies of recent years, most notably 2014’s Girlhood, which was one of the very best films of that year. If you already have a Netflix account, you’ve no excuse not to check this out!

16. The Coming War on China

Time for a change of pace. The Coming War on China is anything but small-scale and intimate; rather it’s a fitting documentary with an urgent global message. But perhaps not the typical narrative you’d be used to hearing about in mainstream media.

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Prolific documentary filmmaker John Pilger is no stranger to tackling such topics. This time he tackles what might be his most urgent yet, exposing the truth behind US foreign policy towards Asia throughout the 1900’s, and the threat they see in China to their ‘divine right’ to lead the world economically, politically and morally; a perceived threat that could lead us to the very real, frightening possibility of all-out nuclear war. He also looks at the attitude of Western media towards the Chinese in recent history, showing how easily public perception can be subtly manipulated.

While some may find Pilger’s style grinding (occasionally we see only his face on screen as he explains an issue to us), this is more a typical case of substance over style. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a political piece; he’s not directly attacking any current political figure, though he has much to say against US foreign policy in general. He instead portrays China from a point of view that seems more fair than many others we get from other sources, while acknowledging clear issues that the country undoubtedly has.

It’s a fine educational piece. But of course, its closing message is the most vital one: that nuclear war between the US and China, and by extension the rest of the planet, seems closer now than ever. It ends, not by coincidence, in the same vein as my favourite film – Dr Strangelove (1964) – with the same recording of We’ll Meet Again. Come on, for that alone, how could it not have made this list?

15. I, Daniel Blake

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The British winner of 2016’s Palme d’Or, Ken Loach’s new film was welcomed by many amidst a tide of growing dissatisfaction towards the UK government. Its politicisation and ‘in your face’ message put some off before they even gave it a chance, which I find to be a shame, because this was one of the best British films of the year.

That’s not least due to the central performance of Dave Johns as Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old joiner who isn’t fit to work due to health reasons. However, when a review of his benefits determines that he is eligible for work – for arbitrary reasons like being able to raise his arm above a certain height – he’s told he must begin searching or lose his only source of income. It’s clear that Loach intended to show the benefits system from a perspective that exposes its rather antiquated requirements of job seekers, and its treatment of those who find themselves honestly unable to work; the film does this very well.

I’ll offer a few further thoughts on why I, Daniel Blake seems to have stricken such a poignant chord with so many people. Obviously it’s not universally representative of everyone’s experience. Yet the case of Daniel Blake simply represents what many vulnerable individuals have experienced within the UK’s social welfare system, which, in an effort to crack down on people who’d rather not pull their weight in society, has increasingly introduced measures – such as the disability review system to which Blake falls victim – to help weed out anyone who may be ready to find work but needs the extra ‘motivation’ to do so. We’ve heard this a lot from the UK’s current government in the past couple of years; they want to ‘encourage’ job seekers to find work (hint: they’re referring to those who can’t be bothered working and would rather take what they can get for free).

However, the government’s form of encouragement is a bunch of antiquated extra measures designed to make it more convoluted for anyone claiming benefits. While it’s certainly true that there are still claimants who try to push their luck, there are also people like Daniel Blake who end up on the wrong side of a system assuming everyone claiming needs to be hounded off it. These are the people this film speaks up for, giving them a much-needed voice through its protagonist. For those without experience in the system, ‘just be willing to take anything’ is often the prevalent attitude for finding work. As this film illustrates perfectly, it’s often not that simple.

14. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s latest film is a wonderful 145-minute story of lust and betrayal that spans three acts, all of which feature clever plot twists that make you look at the rest of what you’ve just seen in a different light.

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The premise we begin the story with is: in Japanese-occupied Korea sometime during the early-to-mid 1900’s, a conman hires a pickpocket to become the maid of a Japanese heiress, with whom he plans to be wed before committing her to an asylum and claiming her inheritance for himself. Though with the twists and turns we take along the way, the film ends up in a very different place from where one might have expected.

It’s fantastically written, and is a fine addition to Chan-wook’s film catalogue, further boosting his reputation as South Korea’s best director working today. Also features the most intimate, intense lesbian sex scenes since Blue is the Warmest Colour. I would say ‘not for the faint-hearted’, but this is the director of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003) we’re talking about, so it should go without saying at this point. The Handmaiden is an epic reminder that Chan-wook still has much to offer; it’s among his best work.

13. The Nice Guys

Is it possible for a mainstream American movie starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to under-perform at the box office and be considered underrated? In 2016 I think The Nice Guys proved that it is.

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Which is a shame, because it’s really quite hilarious, while being a somewhat comforting throwback to 1970’s period detective dramas. I challenge anyone to watch this movie with a straight face. Even if all of the humour doesn’t quite resonate (and at least some of it will for most audiences), its retro, smooth 70’s soundtrack surely will bring a smile. Gosling and Crowe play the two leads very well; for me it’s Crowe’s best role in years, and Gosling continues to impress as the awkward, alcoholic detective Holland March, who regularly finds himself taking advice from his young daughter Holly (played by Angourie Rice, in another impressive bit of casting).

There was brief talk of a sequel to The Nice Guys, and in this case I would’ve liked to see it, but considering its underwhelming performance at the box office – and due primarily to its release date, a lack of attention at awards ceremonies – it looks unlikely to happen. That we can’t get a sequel to a film like this while the industry becomes overly saturated with more Transformers and superhero movies is a crying shame.

12. Julieta

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Pedro Almodovar’s wonderful new film Julieta explores themes like grief, forgiveness, and family. It stormed the international scene in 2016, competing with I, Daniel Blake for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, nominated in numerous categories at the European Film Awards and winning Best International Film at the San Diego Film Festival.

Among those accolades was a deserved Best Actress at the Goya Awards (basically Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) for Emma Suarez, who plays the older version of protagonist Julieta in this film. Via flashbacks the story takes us back to Julieta’s past, showing how she met the father of her daughter, who at the beginning of this film has been missing for some time due a to series of events gradually revealed over the course of the narrative. Adriana Ugarte also puts in a brilliant performance as Julieta’s younger self, and Almodovar perfectly distinguishes the difference between the two time periods in his costume choices, hair styles and colour schemes. The present-day Julieta is surrounded by grey, while her past is filled with hazy bright colours, capturing her feelings of the time.

It can be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, while the poignant note on which the film ends is likely to stay with you for some time. Julieta is one of the best European films of 2o16, and the latest intriguing project for its veteran director.

11. Ma’ Rosa

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Jaclyn Jose won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes for her performance as matriarch Rosa in this Filipino drama; a portrait of poverty and police corruption in Manila. This was one of the surprising gems I discovered at London Film Festival last October. It left an impression on me as one of the best films I’d seen there.

Ma’ Rosa feels similar to Victoria, in that while it doesn’t share the ‘one take’ device, it takes place across one night and is shot in an intimate fashion, taking you up close to the characters and following them as they move. Rosa and her family live day-to-day, on the edge of poverty; she owns a small corner shop and helps provide for them by selling hardcore drugs such as crystal meth on the side. But on this night, the Filipino police raid Rosa’s shop while she and her family are having dinner, having been tipped off by someone in what is otherwise a tight-knit community. Rosa and her husband spend the night in police custody while their kids try to raise the money demanded by these 3/4 police officers in return for Rosa’s release; otherwise, they’ll press overly harsh charges.

There’s something about the late night, rain-swept streets of Manila that makes this film oddly compelling. Watching it on a big screen, in high definition, one finds a strange beauty in its rough, harsh environment. That’s how I’d recommend seeing it. Ma’ Rosa was one of two strong contenders for the Filipino nomination for Best Foreign Language film; though it secured the nomination, it didn’t make the final shortlist.

10. Paterson

A film that celebrates the ordinary. A simple blue collar lifestyle; getting up early and eating cereal every week day; walking the dog and enjoying a drink at your local bar every night. Where small pleasures are provided by the conversations you overhear at work and the biggest ‘crisis’ is your dog getting his teeth into something he shouldn’t have.

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These are the daily experiences of modest poet and bus driver Paterson, played by Adam Driver in a widely contrasting starring role to his previous one in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here he shows extra depth to his abilities as an actor, and brings a curious watchable factor to this otherwise unremarkable movie – though in this rare case, ‘unremarkable’ is no bad thing.

Paterson is an American film that represents a refreshing change of pace to the usual fare. You spend part of the film wondering if there is some kind of twist coming; some big moment of crisis or disaster or emotional turmoil that will turn the whole experience on its head. Ultimately there is a ‘crisis’ as such, but it’s one in which you can almost tell director Jim Jarmusch was playing on and responding to our false expectations. He ends up giving us something that should be disappointing, but instead… It fills you with relief. You leave the film satisfied. Because you didn’t really want to see a big crisis here. The experience doesn’t need it. Yet in the turbulent year that was 2016, I think we needed an experience like this.

9. Manchester By the Sea

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Deservedly a main contender for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is unlike any other film released in 2016. It’s a film that brilliantly portrays, better than any other I’ve seen in recent years, the struggle to communicate feelings to those closest to you, and the effort of simply ‘getting by’ following unbearable grief.

Casey Affleck’s role as the sullen main character Lee Chandler doesn’t appear to be an overly challenging one at first glance, but there is good reason he’s the favourite to walk away with a Best Actor prize this year. It takes a certain amount of skill to play a character who doesn’t say much, with Affleck helping us get to know this character not through the use of any great monologues or show of emotion, but in his downtrodden mannerisms and dry sense of humour.

It’s best to go into it without knowing the real reasons behind Chandler’s temperament. While the movie opens with the death of his brother (the film gives us frequent flashbacks to offer a glimpse into their relationship), forcing Lee into a situation where he’s suddenly guardian for his teenage nephew, it’s soon clear there’s something deeper going on. Coming to the realisation of what that is provides some of the most emotional cinematic moments of 2016. Don’t be surprised if this dark horse snatches Best Picture on February 26th; were it not for La La Land’s presence as a heavy favourite, Lonergan’s touching film would represent the ‘safe’ pick of the bunch.

8. Moonlight

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If Manchester By the Sea was unlike anything else released last year, think of Moonlight in a similar vein – though in certain other ways, the two couldn’t be more different. Like the aforementioned film, it is alarmingly insightful and honest, and it deserves its place contending for Best Picture.

This movie is exceptional, even before we consider its story, characters or soundtrack. It has an exclusively black cast; it portrays realistic images of drug dealing in the back streets of Miami; and it revolves primarily around the theme of unrequited or misunderstood homosexual love. Whereas a previous film on this list, The Handmaiden, featured lesbian sex scenes as if they are an entirely normal part of life, Moonlight is more about the self-denial of those experiences out of a mixture of shame and lack of comprehension. This, let’s remember, is an environment in which homosexuality is extremely taboo, and the film portrays black/ masculine identity in a way we’ve rarely, if ever, seen done before.

So for the more conservative among you, rest assured there’s nothing overly ‘offensive’ here, any more than there is something offensive about other stories exploring identity. The film is split into three acts in the life of Chiron; we see key experiences in his childhood and adolescence that lead to him becoming the rough, muscular man we see in act three. All three actors who play the lead (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) are impressive, as are Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali in their respective roles as Chiron’s mother and a drug dealer who somewhat takes the father-less Chiron under his wing in the first act. Ali is deservedly expected to take home the Best Supporting Actor award at the upcoming Oscars, while Harris has also been nominated in what is probably her best role. Challenge yourself by sitting down to watch this film. It may affect your overall attitude on an emotional level – that’s how powerful Moonlight is.

7. Weiner

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Perhaps documentaries shouldn’t feel as entertaining as this, especially when it’s dealing with the very real and pertinent collapse of a man in front of your eyes, but damn, Weiner is one of the year’s most watchable films. There’s something about former Congressman and Democrat Anthony Weiner that gives off a ‘love him or hate him’ vibe, even without taking into account the ‘sexting’ scandal around which this documentary (following his 2013 mayoral election campaign and supposed comeback) is partly based.

Taking a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach, the film introduces us to the high beginnings of Weiner’s successful career as a loud-mouthed Democrat on the Senate floor, the lows of his initial sexting scandal and resignation in 2011, before picking up proper with the electoral team as they prepare to launch a campaign for his return to politics as mayor of New York. A campaign that starts well and initially looks triumphant… before the proverbial shit threatens to hit the fan again. When it does, you won’t want to turn away for fear of missing the latest cringe-worthy development.

From a certain point of view, one has to feel for Anthony Weiner in the making of this documentary. When he agreed to full access to his campaign, he did so with the mindset that it would be a successful one; allowing it to be completed and released with the hope (as he himself says in the film) of being given yet another chance after the public saw him in a new, more personal light. But in Weiner’s case, as with the Democrat party as a whole in 2016, it seems a lot of people got fed up with the message.

In light of the US election result and an FBI investigation that dogged Hillary Clinton during her campaign (one that re-opened in October, just a few days before the election, due to files found on Anthony Weiner’s computer), this entertaining film has perhaps taken on even greater poignancy and significance.

6. Chasing Asylum

A documentary whose filmmakers literally risked imprisonment to make, Eva Orner’s Chasing Asylum focuses on Australia’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers and side-swipes the country’s rather ‘curious’ (some might say backward) politics.

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You may have heard President Trump recently complain about the ‘terrible’ US deal with Australia regarding the resettling of asylum seekers – well, this film directly references the cause of, and shows events leading up to, that very deal, offering us a glimpse of what potentially awaits if the deal is scrapped without an alternative solution. It’s one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen in recent years.

Politically, many people jumped to conclusions and threw labels at each other last year. The UK’s vote to leave the EU was portrayed very much by the media as Britain saying to immigrants; “we don’t want you”, even though many voted leave for different reasons. Chasing Asylum shows Australia as being considerably more blunt about the issue, their Prime Minister repeatedly and clearly reiterating on camera to anyone seeking asylum in Australia; “your boats will be turned away… WE DON’T WANT YOU”. His justification is that they are carrying out the will of the Australian people. But what is revealed in this documentary – such as ‘refugee camps’ not unlike prison camps, revealed via undercover cameras, and children driven to the brink of madness and starvation – is a harrowing reminder of the things politicians may feel morally justified in doing, without necessarily being open about it, because it’s all in the name of ‘carrying out the will of the people’.

5. Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, was one of the best films of 2014. Here the French director re-teams with Stewart for a contemporary ghost story and classy psychological thriller set in the murky world of high fashion.

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Stewart plays Maureen, a ‘personal shopper’/ assistant to a demanding supermodel, who enjoys trying on her employer’s new dresses (hey, someone has to) and spending nights at her luxury apartment when she’s out of town. She also spends her free time attempting to contact her recently deceased brother. In fact, the film’s opening scene has Maureen staying overnight in a supposedly haunted mansion, by herself, hoping that said brother will reveal himself to her.

It isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds… yet in a weirdly intelligent and atmospheric way, it kind of is. Maureen and her brother were both mediums before his passing, setting some context as to why she believes she’ll be able to contact him. The entire experience is grounded in reality; Maureen herself comes across as a healthy sceptic, someone who didn’t share her brother’s positive ideas of the afterlife but is now nonetheless hoping that he was right.

It may technically be a ghost story, though this isn’t your typical horror movie. Ghosts are an almost normal part of its universe, and even then, most of their involvement is left unseen. There isn’t a jump scare in sight. Atmosphere and subtlety seeps from every scene; including the 20-30 minutes in which the main focus is a bunch of mysterious texts Maureen starts receiving on her phone, and the resulting text conversation she proceeds to have with an unknown recipient.

Having been released in France in December, Personal Shopper is due for general release in North America on March 10th and in the UK on March 17th.

4. Nocturnal Animals

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Tom Ford’s second film (following 2009’s A Single Man) may have been a long time coming, but Nocturnal Animals feels like the kind of film worth waiting for. Starring Amy Adams in one of two career-best roles last year (alongside Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival) and Jake Gyllenhaal in what is another interesting project to add to his colourful resume, this is a film that will imprint itself on your memory from its opening scene featuring… Well, if you’ve seen that opening scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Its introductory nod to the grandiose and excessive nature of ‘art’, while feeling somewhat tongue-in-cheek, sets the tone for a film in which life and art appear to take the place of the other. It would seem nothing in this film is there just to fill space; it constantly commands your undivided attention. Adams’ character, Susan Morrow, is the rich owner of an art gallery, while Gyllenhaal plays her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, who we only see in flashbacks and as the main character in a manuscript he has written and sent to Susan. As she reads his story, we see its contents play out on screen in real time; a realistic, gritty thriller that contrasts with Susan’s surface-level, stylish life of excess. The sense of irony is entirely intentional, though there is still more going on in this film, a level not unlike the deeper meaning of Edward’s manuscript, that I’d love to analyse in future. A few short paragraphs isn’t enough to do it justice here.

Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play memorable characters from the fictional world of Edward’s novel; itself an atmospheric thriller that could’ve made a fine movie in isolation. But to take it as part of this film’s larger context is vital. Nocturnal Animals is definitely one of the 2016 movies I’m most likely to revisit. There’s even a little something about love and soul mates thrown in there, for those of you who like that sort of thing.

(I’m joking, I like that sort of thing too, when it’s executed well).

3. Christine

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Rebecca Hall was criminally overlooked for a Best Actress nod at the Oscars, despite her role as troubled newscaster Christine Chubbuck being the peak of her career so far and one of the performances of the year, but it’s not a big surprise. A harrowing film about a woman who shot herself live on air in 1974, without getting the adequate help she required, isn’t something the Academy Awards are ready to draw attention to. Only if the narrative had a feel-good ending or similar vibes – as that’s still often the only way people can process the topic of mental health – do I think she might have had a chance; there’s no such thing in this true story. Yet, it was both one of the most insightful, and one of the most important films of 2016.

In 1974 ‘bipolar disorder’ wasn’t established as a mental illness. From all accounts – and we don’t have very many – of Christine Chubbuck’s personal life, this appears to be what she suffered through. But Antonio Campos’ Christine goes further than this, humanising her in a way that most people will never have seen before; indeed, many people have never heard of this story at all, because there is no circulating footage of her live suicide. Christine Chubbuck, in the years since her death, has become somewhat of an urban myth.

Christine shows her tragic story from a piercingly honest perspective, revealing her to be a flawed individual, frustrated with the lack of understanding others showed her but intensely focused and committed to her job as a news reporter. In the end it was these qualities that led to her implosion.

I understand mental health is still a touchy issue – but at least we know enough about it now for it to even be an issue. In years past, this wasn’t the case. Today we’re overly worried about language used, or how mental illness is portrayed in media. What I liked most about Christine is that it wasn’t so concerned with dancing around the issue, nor does it fall into the trap of romanticising her story. It gets straight to the point, portraying Christine Chubbuck frankly, with all her human faults rather than as the tragic heroine. The truth is, she wasn’t a tragic heroine at all. She was a sad, lonely person not unlike many of us – and that, I suppose, is the real tragedy.

3.5 Kate Plays Christine

I’ve included this unique docu-drama as a .5 because I think it works well as a companion piece to Christine, setting some context around the story of Christine Chubbuck and delving a little more into our responsibility as its audience.

It’s worth bearing in mind after all – as those arguing against the telling of it would say – that there is a risk of ‘sensationalising’ this story; a direction in which news media was heading around the time of Christine’s death and which undoubtedly played a factor in the very public nature of her suicide. In her final speech on air, she spoke of the ‘blood and guts’ aspect of broadcast journalism, which she found fundamentally at odds with her own integrity as a journalist, and declared that her live suicide was ‘in line with’ this, thereby giving the audience what they wanted, though it was also a desperate final form of protest against the absurdity of it.

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Kate Plays Christine asks whether the portrayal of her story perpetuates the very thing – this ‘blood and guts’, sensational style of journalism – that partly caused Christine Chubbuck’s mental downfall in the first place, and whether it’s right to do so for entertainment’s sake. Your personal answer will likely depend on whether you perceive films as purely ‘entertainment’, or you think they’re capable of something more. This film seems to be an advocate for the latter, as its primary intention is to make us think about what we’re watching.

That’s not to say it risks putting you to sleep; its process of discovery is actually rather entertaining at the same time. It follows actress Kate Lyn Shiel as she prepares to play the role of Christine for an unspecified production, taking us through her process of learning more about the woman behind the myth. Throughout that process we gain extra insight into the attitude of Christine’s peers towards her and her actions, helping Kate form an opinion not only on the woman herself, but on the morals of stepping into this role for the sake of telling a story in which interest only exists because of what Christine dubbed the ‘blood and guts’ attraction of broadcast media (and, by extension, films themselves).

The question of “what’s the line between exploration and exploitation” of issues like mental illness, among others, is interesting. Of course, films are free to go down either path, and be judged accordingly on a case by case basis. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer. But establishing a line between one and the other, if possible, is important for classification purposes at least.

My advice here is to watch Christine first, then Kate Plays Christine to add an extra layer of context.

2. My Life as a Courgette

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My pick for 2016’s best animated film has refreshingly been nominated in the corresponding category at the Oscars, despite being a ‘foreign language’ French-Swiss co-production. I found it emotional and almost magical, it evoking the same kind of feelings in me that I had when watching 2015’s Inside Out. To even consider the two a fair comparison is extremely high praise, as Inside Out set the bar so high. Make no mistake, My Life as a Courgette belongs in the upper echelons of animated movies in recent years for the way in which it tackles mature issues with a sensitivity that can resonate with adults and children alike.

Those mature issues include, in the opening scene, the accidental death of a young boy’s alcoholic, abusive mother, leaving him orphaned and subsequently sent to a children’s home. He meets a group of other orphaned children in the process, all with similarly tragic stories to tell of how they ended up there. But this isn’t a particularly depressing story. It has its sad moments, but entirely necessary ones that can resonate with children. Again, reminiscent of how Inside Out made me feel watching it.

The stop motion animation is beautifully created and finely executed. Plus, at a compact run time of only 67 minutes, you can burn through it quickly, with little chance of attention waning. An accessible movie for all audiences; try to take my word for it even if the ‘subtitles’ thing puts you off. In fact, even if they do, this may be one case where the fascinating animation alone gets you through.

1. Under the Shadow

My favourite film of 2016 should come as no surprise to anyone who knows my appetite for a good, original horror story. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (his directorial debut) feels like a throwback to the peak of the atmospheric, patient, suspenseful and ambiguous days of Asian horror.

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It isn’t alone either, following a number of other impressive recent horror movies including The Babadook (my 2014 film of the year), It Follows (2015), and The Witch. While series’ like Insidious and The Conjuring continue to deal with recycled demonic tropes (even if quite well in some cases), the above films are notable for utilising more original ideas, themes, and approaches to horror. This particular one, though, feels most like the spiritual successor to some of my favourite J-horror films of the past. Think Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) for reference.

That isn’t to compare it directly to anything else. Under the Shadow (a unique Persian-language UK-Jordan-Qatar co-production), set in post-revolutionary Tehran in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, is undoubtedly its own, highly original film. It takes spiritual reference not from Christianity, as is often customary with Western horror, but from Islam. The main antagonist ‘force’ here is the Djinn, basically the Koran’s equivalent of demons, and the film builds up a glorious amount of suspense in its first third leading to their introduction to the narrative.

Even then, main protagonist Shideh, stubborn mother of Dorsa, is a logical sceptic, in a cultural environment where spiritual scepticism is frowned upon and belief in ‘Djinn’ is accepted as the norm. The film has feminist undertones for sure – at one point Shideh is arrested and harshly scolded for venturing out in public without being ‘properly covered’, with the phrase “are we in Europe now?” thrown at her as a mocking insult – but there’s certainly no heavy handed agenda in sight.

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Shideh and daughter Dorsa have been left alone in their apartment as the man of the household, Iraj, works away from home. In this (a mother and child left alone to tackle a force seeking to come between them) we see the most obvious similarity to both Dark Water and The Babadook, though the shared themes between these films is something I aim to tackle in more detail another time.

As the physical attacks on their apartment increase due to bombing on the city of Tehran by Iraqi forces, the spiritual attacks on Shideh and Dorsa also seem to become more frequent. Gradually, residents of their apartment block evacuate the premises while Shideh, initially out of stubbornness, refuses to do so, as it would mean accepting the hospitality of her mother-in-law. Eventually, the strong will to leave is what may be the only thing that can save the mother-daughter duo from becoming trapped by the spiritual haunting surrounding them.

Obviously this movie has the same atmosphere and tension I’ve mentioned before on this list; I’m admittedly partial to these attributes in my cinematic preferences. Of all the films on my list, Under the Shadow came closest to that sweet spot for me, executed in a way that fits my main tastes. Another one of those is ambiguity; a film/ story that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers with which to spoon-feed you. This wonderful film leaves open the possibility that what you’re seeing might not be everything to know, with a suitably ambiguous ending. I recommend it as the best horror film of 2016. Did I mention it’s a British production too?

Film essays

Revisiting Enemy.

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Warning: this post contains significant spoilers and I believe it shouldn’t be read if you have not yet seen Denis Villeneuve’s film Enemy (2013). If you like good movies, especially those that make you think, then you could love it and will at least find it interesting. I promise.

Now, trusting that you have watched the film and are keen to know what I thought of it, let’s continue.

Enemy was perhaps the most surprising entry in my Top 25 list a few months ago, coming in above the likes of Jacob’s Ladder and childhood favourite Jason and the Argonauts at number 21. Various other big name contenders to make my list didn’t quite make it in the end, while this recently released, sparsely distributed Canadian film somehow did. The main question I’ll now tackle is precisely why.

It’s not a question one can answer in just a few words; this is one of those movies whose qualities must be dissected from its depths, while on the surface it can (sorry, will) leave you puzzled, especially on first viewing. For that reason, I don’t simply presume others will share my affection for Enemy, particularly if you prefer your films with little more than popcorn and coke on a typical Friday or Saturday evening with friends.

To be fair, though, I think the film does have the ability to be entertaining even if you don’t initially ‘get it’. I can safely say I didn’t on first viewing, but I did enjoy it enough to know I wanted to return to it later. This is one of its strengths – being compelling even if you couldn’t grasp what the hell it all meant. Equally, for those who do like to think about what the art they consume really means, one need not look any further than this movie.

Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role that couldn’t be further from the one he played in last year’s Nightcrawler. Whereas that film’s Lou Bloom was a quick thinking, determined and ambitious man who was unmistakably sociopathic, the character Gyllenhaal plays here is a downtrodden history professor who seems generally tired with life and the relationships with those closest to him.

You get the immediate sense with this character, Adam Bell, that he is not happy with the seemingly humdrum routine of his life. His apartment appears almost bear, minimalistic, as if he does not use it for anything other than sleeping in. He lectures students about historic dictatorships – talking about how they controlled their citizens with different methods to retain power – during the day and makes casual love with his girlfriend in the evenings.

The first line of dialogue we hear in the film (aside from an ambiguous answering machine message from Adam’s mother in which she thanks him for showing her around his ‘new’ apartment, says she’s worried about him and wonders “how can you live like that?”) is during one of these lectures; “Control… It’s all about control”. Adam Bell finishes this opening address to his students by saying, “it’s important to remember this; this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” Bearing this detail in mind is vital for understanding the film as a whole – the director, Villeneuve, is equipping us for what’s to come, essentially hinting at the central theme for his entire movie, so the last thing we can accuse him of is randomness.

The other central character in the narrative is a man called Anthony Claire, a bit-part actor who Adam discovers in the background of a scene in a film recommended to him by a work colleague. Gyllenhaal plays both characters, who appear identical to each other. Adam, upon discovering this apparent doppelgänger, seems to become obsessed with discovering more and sets out on a quest to track him down.

Now, while Adam and Anthony may appear physically identical, it’s important to note the differences between the two. While Adam appears dishevelled and lacks motivation (at least until he sets out trying to find this ‘twin’, a task about which he seems both excited and nervous in his mannerisms), Anthony comes across more confident, wearing more stylish clothing and generally looking after himself better than Adam does. The two are clearly not in the same mindset as it pertains to their respective lifestyles and attitude. Adam has a casual relationship with a girlfriend (played by Melanie Laurent) whom he clearly does not care much for outside of physical attraction, while Anthony is married and his wife (Sarah Gadon) is six months pregnant.

Twins? While Adam and Anthony may appear identical, their personality traits are what set them apart.
Twins? While Adam and Anthony may appear identical, their personality traits set them apart.

It’s intriguing that Adam does not initially notice this doppelgänger in his first viewing of the film (entitled “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”) – it is only after he falls asleep that he then recalls the details of the scene in a dream, before abruptly waking up and going back to view it again, at which point he sees Anthony properly. From this point on we begin to see a slight change in Adam’s mannerisms; with a new task at hand to distract from a day job that he perceives as monotonous, his complexion goes from visibly depressed, to rather more energetic and focused.

The next day he goes online, having gotten Anthony’s stage name from the credits of the movie, and starts researching other movies that his new-found ‘double’ has been in. When he finds what he’s looking for, he immediately heads to the video store with some new movie titles in mind. One of those films provides a clearer close-up of Anthony’s face. Adam, needing to be sure, digs out an old ripped photo, clearly from a past relationship best forgotten (as half of the photo is missing), and finds that his face does indeed match up with the one staring back at him onscreen.

In the process of searching for Anthony, Adam discovers his phone number, having visited the former’s acting agency (and finding out that Anthony has not been there himself for six months). Adam proceeds to call his home. Anthony’s wife picks up. Thinking it is her husband she’s talking to, Helen – the wife – initially believes Anthony is playing some kind of game with her. Feeling slightly spooked, and now realising that they not only look exactly the same but also share the same voice, Adam hangs up without trying to explain.

Later that day, Adam calls back and this time Anthony answers the phone. He tells Adam to ‘never call here again’, yet is clearly intrigued by the conversation, perhaps slightly spooked himself, as afterwards we see Anthony write down Adam’s name on a piece of paper, along with the words ‘History teacher’; a piece of paper which his wife then finds in his pocket later.

This is where some hints can be found as to what’s actually going on here, though these details are easy to miss first time around. Having overheard the phone conversation, Helen begins to question her husband, not believing him when he says he was talking to ‘the same guy from earlier’ and asking “are you seeing her again?” suggesting that Anthony has struggled to stay faithful in the past. When she also asks him, “are you lying to me?” Anthony can’t answer, though we know he was in fact talking to Adam on the phone because we saw both sides of the conversation. So why then does Anthony have the look of a man lying?

Later we see Anthony doing his own internet search to check that Adam is who he said he was, but the information he manages to find is limited. The next day, he calls Adam back and says he’d like to meet, suggesting a location outside the city.

Meanwhile, that same day, Helen decides to go to the school where Adam works, to see for herself the man claiming to look and sound exactly like her husband. She appears visibly distressed upon first seeing him; despite looking and sounding like her husband, this is clearly a different man in his mannerisms. During a brief conversation between the two, she stares at him in disbelief, seeing that this man apparently does not know who she is, as he asks her, “how many months are you?” to which she replies, “six.”

The conversation between Adam and Helen at the school is one of the film's most subtly revealing scenes.
The conversation between Adam and Helen at the school is one of the film’s most subtly revealing scenes.

Note that the length of Helen’s pregnancy correlates directly with the time passed since Anthony’s last visit to his acting agency – six months. What has her husband been doing in the meantime, if not picking up acting jobs from the agency? It’s interesting to think that we do not actually see this part of his life. The closest we get to see of Anthony’s personal life is finding out that he goes running in the late afternoons, as later that very same day he gets in from one such run, and subsequently asks his distressed wife, “where are the blueberries?” A seemingly insignificant detail but one that is repeated in a revealing scene with Adam’s mother later on.

That’s one of this film’s finest attributes – no line of dialogue is wasted. Paying attention to every detail in every scene is vital for grasping what the movie is trying to communicate. For as much as we might praise someone like Tarantino for his inclusion of dialogue that doesn’t necessarily advance plot, instead making his characters feel more natural and organic, there is also something admirable about a film in which every line of dialogue, it seems, is carefully crafted and expertly timed for a certain reason, and you lose track of it at your peril.

It’s in the dialogue, along with the general mood and atmosphere of the film (which is shot through a yellowish hue that seems to drain the environment of other colours, creating a somewhat lucid and dream-like effect), that we see the more obvious differences between Villeneuve’s movie and the novel on which it’s based: The Double, by Jose Saramago. In a way, Enemy isn’t really an adaptation at all; more a re-imagining, taking the basis of Saramago’s idea (that being: a man discovers his double and sets out to track him down while in the midst of an identity crisis) and re-interpretating its overall meaning for the characters involved. However, to understand this fully one also needs to understand the story Villeneuve is truly communicating in his film.

So eventually, we get to the meeting between Gyllenhaal’s two personas; the actor (Anthony) and the History teacher (Adam). They meet in a hotel outside the city, presumably to avoid being seen together by anyone else – though at this point it is worth remembering the imagery of the inner city ‘web’ we have seen forming in brief, ambiguous cuts throughout the film so far. The spider and intricate web imagery is something I’ll return to towards the end, but in a sense we’ve already been given the answer near the beginning; “…it’s all about control”.

Their meeting is appropriate for the mid-way point of the film, as it is here that we see a slight change in the two characters. Adam, initially the seeker in this situation, appears nervous and apprehensive as he reaches their meeting place first and awaits Anthony’s arrival. As Anthony opens the door and Adam sees him in person for the first time, he says “I told you” with a sense of relief as it appears he has been proven correct. However, Adam has clearly not considered what he should do next, or how this meeting would proceed, and Anthony quickly becomes the more curious one. For Adam, it seems merely confirming Anthony’s existence, so he could know for sure, was his sole intention up to this point. He has given little thought to the subsequent consequences.

Anthony approaches him, asking him to hold out his hands, and Adam suddenly starts to lose whatever motivation he originally had to come to this meeting and find out more about this man. When Anthony asks if Adam has the same scar that he does on his chest, lifting up his shirt to show it, Adam backs away, saying ‘this was a mistake’. He retreats from the hotel room, leaving behind an envelope addressed to Anthony which he had previously picked up at the acting agency on his behalf and used to find his address. The contents of this envelope, and the fact that it was left for Anthony at the agency rather than sent directly to his home address, is a telling detail that will become important at the end of the film.

Adam and Anthony's motel meeting starts weird and proceeds to get weirder...
Adam and Anthony’s motel meeting starts weird and proceeds to get weirder…

There are two main things to note from this scene. First, as I’ve said, it sees a change in the characters – a role reversal in a sense, as Anthony becomes more curious and from this point on will become the seeker, while Adam now seems to want nothing more to do with his supposed doppelgänger. The second thing to note is precisely how this change takes place. There is an overriding sense during this scene that Adam experiences some kind of revelation, though he does not voice it. When Anthony suggests, “maybe we’re brothers”, Adam swiftly replies that they’re not. His voice catches as he says it, but we sense it is not because he is lying. There is something else, something deeper, perhaps as simple as the thought occurring that ‘if we’re not brothers… what exactly are we?’

Adam leaves. Driving back to the city in his car, we see Anthony overtaking him on the motorway, on his motorcycle. He glances in at Adam on the way past.

On what we can presume is the following day, we then see Anthony watching Adam as the latter leaves his apartment for work. Adam’s girlfriend accompanies him to the car, before setting off for work herself. She walks toward the bus – and as she does so, Anthony follows her on his motorcycle, before parking up nearby and getting on the same bus. It becomes clear that Anthony, despite being married, is quite taken with her, as he observes her from behind and the camera pans down to her ankles. We see a look of lustful temptation on his face, along with a hint of knowing opportunity… at this point we can already guess what Anthony might be planning: to take Adam’s place and sleep with his girlfriend, with lust being his primary motivation behind the deception. This is not out of character for him, as one may recall the questioning by Anthony’s wife after the phone call with Adam earlier in the film – we already know he has been unfaithful in the past and are now seeing firsthand just how easily tempted he is.

Interestingly, the very next shot we see is of Anthony sitting at home, his wife asleep on the couch beside him, appearing to be in deep thought. If one didn’t know better, it would seem that the entire scene we have just witnessed – of Anthony going to Adam’s apartment and stalking his girlfriend to work – has been taking place in Anthony’s mind.

There is another revealing question we should be asking ourselves, though it is one you can easily miss: how exactly did Anthony know where Adam lived? The school directory he looked up online does not give out the personal addresses of its teachers, and the only logical assumption one can make is that Anthony followed him home the previous day – but we already know that Anthony overtook Adam on his motorcycle that day, before speeding on ahead, which would seem to rule out that possibility.

In the following scene, Adam visits his mother, and they have one of the most revealing conversations of the film. Adam has clearly went to her with his concerns about recent events, telling her the story of meeting Anthony and what has recently been happening to him. His mother (played by popular Italian actress Isabella Rossellini) brushes off his claims and says “the last thing you need is to be meeting strange men in hotel rooms… you have enough trouble sticking with one woman don’t you?” suggesting that Adam has also struggled to remain faithful in past relationships. She offers Adam some blueberries, but he says he does not like them – to which she replies, “of course you do”.

His mother then says arguably the most revealing line of dialogue we’ve heard so far: “You have a nice apartment, a respectable job, and personally I think you should quit that fantasy of being a second rate movie actor”. By this point you may have worked out what’s really going on here, but I will continue on with my analysis of the final few scenes before giving my reading of the characters and their story, as there are still further small revelations to come.

Following this scene, we see Anthony practising a routine in the mirror, asking himself, “did you sleep with my wife?” as he tries to appear convincing. Thinking himself a good actor (one could say ‘thinking himself better than he actually is’), he prepares to confront Adam with this accusation. We can easily conclude that he is doing so because he plans to use the excuse of ‘revenge’ when he then sleeps with Adam’s girlfriend in return.

Turning up at Adam’s apartment door, Anthony begins his act, though the former’s reaction is not as expected. When asked “did you sleep with my wife?” Adam does not answer directly, hinting that perhaps he is not so sure himself whether he has anything to feel guilty or sorry about. Anthony explains that because Adam brought his wife into the situation when he first called his house, they are now going to switch clothes and he will take Adam’s girlfriend away for the night, posing as Adam, and then “you’ll never see me again”.

After making the switch, Anthony, now looking uncannily like Adam with his scruffy outfit and having also removed his wedding ring, leaves the apartment. Adam is left sitting in deep contemplation, but there’s an undeniable sense of some weight having been lifted off him.

Gradually, he begins to put on the clothes Anthony left behind, and leaves his apartment. We see him apprehensively make the journey back to Anthony’s place, where he is let in to his ‘new’ home by a neighbour after claiming that he forgot his keys.

Upon arrival, we see Adam attempting to adjust to his surroundings as he awkwardly tries to fit in to the life Anthony had been living. He cringes slightly when he opens the refrigerator to find the packets of blueberries that Anthony usually consumes after one of his daily afternoon runs. We get another subtle reveal in the form of a photograph; Adam sees a photo taken of Anthony and Helen – it is clearly the same ripped photo Adam dug out in his old apartment earlier in the film, only in that version, Helen had been cut out of it.

When Helen returns home, Adam appears to keep up the illusion of being her husband. Or is it really an illusion any longer? Was it ever one? Ultimately, my conclusion is that the only person under an illusion was Adam himself, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Eventually, after awkwardly asking Helen if she needs anything and once again drawing attention to the fact that she’s six months pregnant, Adam proceeds to get into bed with her. Helen seems to have some idea that this man is not the husband she knew before – but her reaction is one of silent longing for this new version of him, rather than shock or disgust. Another question mark is raised when she asks him a seemingly routine question; “did you have a good day at school?” Adam appears taken aback and cannot answer. She tells him to “forget it”. I think Sarah Gadon deserves great credit for her understated performance in this role.

This scene is interspersed with the corresponding events taking place in a motel between Anthony and Adam’s girlfriend that night. Anthony is successful in enticing her to have sex with him, but while they are in the act of doing so, she notices a mark on his finger, left by the wedding ring he had removed beforehand. Knowing her boyfriend did not have this mark, she understandably freaks out (possibly the most normal reaction of all the characters thus far) and demands that Anthony take her home without waiting to hear an explanation.

On the drive home, the two get into an argument which intensifies when Adam’s girlfriend claims that Anthony is “not a real man”. “Oh, I’m not a man?!” Anthony retorts, his pride hurt, as he is experiencing something not typical of his usual success with women, and he tries to open the door of the car in order to throw her out. Taking his eyes off the road, they veer off into a wall and the car, travelling at high speed, flips multiple times, presumably killing them both. The camera zooms in on the shattered windscreen – revealing what appears to be a spider’s web on the cracked surface, caused during the crash.

Meanwhile, Adam has trouble sleeping. He gets out of bed and moves to the couch, where he begins to cry. The way these scenes are edited together, cutting between each other, seem to suggest that he can sense what is concurrently happening between Anthony and his girlfriend. As the other scene approaches the crash, it becomes strangely quieter despite the increased intensity of the argument between those two characters, almost as if they are starting to fade. Eventually, Helen comes to join Adam on the couch; when she wonders why he’s crying, he can only say “I’m sorry”. She then tells him that she “wants him to stay”, before they make love.

"I want you to stay". Adam slots into Anthony's place as Helen's husband - and even knowing the truth, she seems fine with it.
“I want you to stay”… Adam slots into Anthony’s place as Helen’s husband – and even knowing the truth, she seems fine with it.

We then arrive at the final scene of the film, and I think it’s necessary before getting to it that I first give my conclusions to this story as a whole. I hope my detailed description of each scene so far means that it is now less of a surprise to make the claim that Adam and Anthony are, in fact, the same person. Throughout the film we receive numerous hints toward this – the fact that Anthony knew where Adam had been living, that Helen already knew the school at which Adam worked (because Adam was, in fact, her husband – a teacher and failed actor), the revealing conversation with Adam’s mother in which she makes comments that could apply to either character, the identical photo (one torn and one of a happily married couple) owned by both Adam and Anthony; to name a few examples.

Nonetheless this still leaves certain questions, and indeed this revelation is actually the most obvious of the film’s secrets. What about the significance of spiders and the web? Or the talk of dictatorships and control? Is Gyllenhaal’s character simply suffering from a form of mental illness, torn between two different personalities?

The answer to that last question is not a simple one, for even if it seems that is the case, we must then ask what caused it, and I believe the film tells us that exact thing. We know from the conversation with Adam’s mother at the very least, that he does not have a history of such behaviour, because if he had, she surely would have thought this a likely cause for the apparent doppelgänger her son tells her about.

To sum up the premise in rather simple terms; Adam/ Anthony is a man who feels controlled by his wife’s pregnancy – and to a lesser extent marriage, which inhibits his ability to sleep with other women. The pressure of this situation, combined with his natural tendency to avoid commitment to anything whether it be a woman or career or even lifestyle, results in his mind splitting between two personas who react to it in different ways. One (Adam) appears dragged down, resigned to the monotonous pattern of life and using sex with his girlfriend/ mistress as a way of distracting himself from it. The other (Anthony) appears more rebellious and is far from resigned to what awaits him, staying with his wife but seeming intent on avoiding the reality of her pregnancy the same way he avoids her questioning about the phone call.

Anthony has appeared in movies, but knowing the parts that he has played (small background roles), it’s safe to say he hasn’t been lighting the world on fire and this career path has perhaps not worked out the way he would have been hoping. Considering it has been six months since he last visited his acting agency, it’s also safe to assume there was either not much work coming in for him, or he had been forced to give up on it by that point – which coincided with the beginning of his wife’s pregnancy.

Adam, meanwhile, has a seemingly secure (described as ‘respectable’ by his mother), if significantly less exciting job as a History teacher. This is a career more likely to help him provide for a growing family, but lacks the glamour of acting in movies. From Adam’s complexion at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that he has lost his passion for the job, if it was ever truly there in the first place. We see two separate shots of consecutive lectures to students on the same topic – dictatorships and repeating patterns throughout history. The second shows Adam struggling to maintain his enthusiasm shown in the first. He himself has become part of a repeating pattern in this sense, under the perceived dictatorship of his future family, for whom he needs to provide having been forced to give up his own pursuits (his ‘freedom’) in life.

We can assume it was somewhere along the line of this process, between letting go of what his mother calls his ‘fantasy’ of being a movie actor and instead focusing on his career as a history teacher, that the split happened. Part of him refused to give up on this fantasy, while the other became depressingly resigned to the dullness of reality. Even sex with his girlfriend does not appear to give Adam any kind of fulfilment – showing that he somehow knows it is only a distraction from something else.

Interestingly, it is when Adam encounters a different kind of distraction – a movie – from this pattern of sex, that he then comes across himself (or Anthony) for the first time. From there, Adam’s mind begins trying to reconcile the two parts of himself, in the process seeking out the thing (his wife and her pregnancy) he had been distracted from. We know it is something in his mind that does this, as Adam does not notice himself in the film initially; it is only when he is jolted from his sleep, having seen the scene repeated in a dream, that he goes back to focus more closely on it. Subconsciously, his mind has begun the reconciliation process, though it ultimately requires conflict between the two personas so that one of them can be taken out of the situation, as Adam’s mind becomes one again.

So where does everything else fit into this equation around Adam/ Anthony, in particular his wife Helen? She clearly loves her husband, having chosen to stay with him despite past experience of him having had an affair (explained by the question, “are you seeing her again?” when she is asking him about the phone call) and lingering doubts that he can stay faithful now. From Sarah Gadon’s portrayal, we see that Helen does not entirely trust her husband, perhaps due to Anthony’s apparent unwillingness to fully accept that she is six months pregnant and therefore requires more attention from him than he is giving.

Helen’s reaction when she encounters Adam in person, at the school, is interesting. Her shock at first is understandable – as anyone would be if they saw the supposed double of their husband, him not recognising her. The clever way in which this scene is shot (with Helen holding the piece of paper on which Anthony had written Adam’s name along with the words ‘History teacher’), as with much of the movie, does not clearly reveal Helen’s thoughts on the situation – she could be in one of two mindsets. We assume at first that Helen is merely shocked that her husband was right about having a double.

But the other, rather obvious (in hindsight) possibility is that Helen knows this is her husband, and knew the school at which to find him because it is where her husband works. Her shock is due to his change of complexion and of course, the fact that he does not seem to recognise her, even asking “how many months are you?” in reference to her pregnancy. There is one subtle clue hinting at this conclusion in the scene, in a certain look she gives Adam; a look of disbelief that says “you really don’t recognise me…?” just after he asks the question regarding her pregnancy.

Later on that same day, she mentions this to Anthony, realising again that he has no recollection of her coming to visit him – yet she still does not seem sure that her husband is being completely honest about this, telling him “I think you know” after asking him what is happening. Helen is clearly distressed at her husband’s psychological state, but is not yet sure whether part of it is just an act on her husband’s behalf. Anthony himself does not give the impression of being entirely sure, and we are constantly uneasy about how much he really knows about the situation.

These suspicions are exasperated by what we saw in the opening ‘prologue’ scene of the film; Anthony in what appears to be a sex club, where he watches through his fingers (as his hands cover his face) a woman crush a spider with her heel. With the frequent hints that Anthony knows more than he may be letting on, we are led to believe that this prologue scene is directly linked to the situation between Adam, Anthony and his wife, perhaps taking place just before his mind had split in two.

However, we are never given a resolution to this prologue scene – Anthony’s death towards the end means he doesn’t revisit the sex club nor does he receive the key for it that was waiting in the envelope handed over by Adam (which he had received at the agency) earlier in the film. The key is instead ‘passed on’ to Adam when he then re-discovers it in what was Anthony’s jacket in the film’s final scene.

This final scene shows Adam turn off a radio as it reports on the car crash from the previous night, perhaps signalling that he has finally cut Anthony, along with his mistress, out of his life and is ready to move on. Helen shouts from the bathroom that his mother called. He appears more relaxed in his surroundings, settling in to being a husband and expectant father. That’s at least until he finds, in his pocket, the envelope he had previously given to Anthony when they first met in the motel. A strange light enters his eyes as he looks at the key. He asks Helen, who has moved to the bedroom; “are we doing anything tonight?” before adding “…because I think I need to go out”.

She doesn’t answer. Adam calls her again, before approaching the room to check on her. As the camera follows him at shoulder level into the room, we see (to our shock) a giant spider in the space where Helen was. When it sees Adam, it cowers in fear of him. His reaction is not shock, or even the slightest surprise; he merely registers the sight for a moment, before sighing in resignation. The film abruptly ends on this note, leaving the audience somewhat disorientated. If you thought you had the film worked out up to this point, the final shot is likely to throw you off once again.

Spider City... What is the meaning of the giant spider that we see roaming Toronto?
Spider City… What is the meaning of the giant spider that roams Toronto?

Now, I must admit the spider, for me, in this case represents something of a red herring. This isn’t a monster movie by any means. Make no mistake: it’s still a film about a man struggling with infidelity, and finding his way back to his wife as he learns to deal with commitment. The spider is not there to make you suddenly revaluate everything you’ve seen up to that point, as can often be the case with such shocking endings in other movies. Rather it is there to help communicate a subconscious sub-plot regarding control – to add an extra layer to the story. Remember the film itself gave us this hint at the beginning, with Adam’s own statement: “control… it’s all about control”.

In this film, the main thing Adam feels controlled by, the thing that drove him to the breakdown he seems to be in the midst of, is women – whether that be his mother, who doesn’t support his ‘fantasy’ of acting in movies, or his pregnant wife, who wants him to stop messing around with other women and commit himself to her. This is, in a sense, the ‘web’ in which Adam finds himself. Once you are caught in it, it is not so easy to escape from. Subconsciously, Adam’s mind has tried to escape it by splitting in two, but even that is not ultimately successful, as we see him eventually arrive back home, ready to continue living his role as the husband his wife desires at the end of the movie.

But the story does not end there. It does not leave us with a simple resolution any more than it sits us down to overtly explain the meaning of its symbolism and metaphor in the way that I have attempted to do here. Instead, we witness the whole process starting again. Adam finds the key which will lead him to the sex club we saw in the prologue. He has missed a call from his mother – and the first lines of dialogue we heard in the film was an answering machine message from her.

Adam may have purged himself of Anthony by the end of the movie, but those character traits are still a part of him. Though he has come back home to his wife, he remains susceptible to temptation. Recall Adam’s concluding line in his opening address to his students; “It’s important to remember this… this is a process that repeats itself, throughout history.”

This is also the film’s conclusion. The process will repeat itself, as it has done throughout history; men feeling controlled and inhibited by marriage and family, while feeling tempted by other women, often resulting in infidelity and the subsequent break-up of the family unit.

In Enemy, Helen isn’t willing to let her marriage be broken up; she has forgiven her husband for his past infidelity and when his psychological state becomes apparent to her, she is willing to be patient and let him work out his issues so he can eventually be the man she longs for him to be. Adam is, in a sense, caught up in her web throughout; he senses it even when he is distracting himself with school work and sex with his mistress in the first third of the film. This web prevents him fully breaking away from his marriage and impending child, eventually leading him back to its centre.

Yet it cannot change who he is. This remains the part of him that it cannot control; it can only distract him from it for as long as his focus is kept elsewhere – similar to the dictatorships Adam talks about, which used entertainment or other methods to distract their citizens and maintain control over them.

When Adam finds the key again, he momentarily remembers that he still has a choice. And he decides that once again he is going to escape from what he sees as his wife’s control by going behind her back, returning to his habitual instincts. This is why the spider – a metaphorical representation of his wife – then reacts in fear, knowing its control has been broken… but, like before, the process will continue, and though Adam can distract himself from it, he won’t be able to fully escape the web of control in which he has become trapped at this stage of his life. For the first time, he faces this realisation head on. Hence, his resignation and acknowledgment, in the final shot of the film, that ultimately he cannot escape the reality of his situation.

Though Villeneuve has openly admitted in interviews about Enemy that it is about infidelity and a man coming back home to his wife after a crisis, he has intentionally been less clear about the symbolism of the spider imagery, so this element of the film is somewhat more open to interpretation. We can at least be sure that there is not literally giant spiders roaming the streets of Toronto, though, as it would be a very different kind of film if that was the case. I would hope that my reading of this aspect of the movie makes some sense, even should someone else have a different view. In addition I think the spider presence and its meaning could probably be read into even further and in more depth than I have done here.

My intention was only to talk about a film I very much enjoyed, and one I think others should make a point of seeking out and enjoying, as it’s probably one that most people missed first time around during its limited theatrical run. It really was one of the best films I saw during the whole of last year – and certainly one of the few that felt like a genuinely special, refreshing cinematic experience.

Film essays

Portrayals of mental health in film.

Memento pic 2.5

We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” – Leonard Shelby

Everyone has mental health issues. For as long as we humans are an emotional, fickle and mindful species who share the same world despite each being unique in our own way, we’ll experience differing psychological reactions to that world and to each other.

Yet these differences often drive us apart. We can also be a prideful people who find it difficult to grasp why everyone else doesn’t think or act like us. How is it possible that person holds such a different opinion to myself, or this person promotes beliefs I don’t share? This is the type of thinking we can fall into almost by default, and it leads to the formation of taboos, bigotry and ultimately even bitterness toward others.

Such thinking patterns are usually reinforced by habitual circumstance. One simply does not have the time, especially if working a job to provide for one’s family or to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle, nor might one have the motivation to think differently from their social group, to then stop and consider the bigger picture; why they might think a certain way, whether or not it is wrong to deride other groups for whom such treatment may have typically just been thought of as ‘normal’ in the past. Some prefer to be told how they think, while others might prefer just not to think about it at all, letting events run their natural course.

Artists tend to be neither. You could say they like to think themselves part of the ‘enlightened’ few – as arrogant as that sounds – with which comes an inherent desire to share, attempt to change patterns of thinking and perhaps even help change the world. Artistic portrayals of worldly or personal taboos, for all the controversy they may occasionally stir, can help to lessen a harsh collective attitude towards something and challenge imbedded notions without necessarily confronting individuals at face value. They provide opportunities for reflection, though within all of that you’ll get some effective and (probably more) less effective ways of doing so. As with many things, in this case the trying is at least the most important part; a process of trial and error the most effective learning experience.

Of course throughout history many were misunderstood, even by themselves. Van Gogh and Picasso’s depression (famously reflected in the latter’s ‘blue period’ between 1901-04) was only properly appreciated and contextualised in their work long after their deaths. The message their art conveyed, the way it made others feel, unquestionably ahead of its time and, as its continuing popularity shows, transcendent. It reflected a reality not yet fully explored in the ‘real world’ itself – nor would it be for many more years to follow.

Picasso's Blue period was known for its melancholic, haunting imagery - and in turn helped blue become depression's signature colour.
Picasso’s Blue period was known for its melancholic, haunting imagery – and in turn helped blue become depression’s signature colour.

Nowadays things are quite different. Film, television and digital media have all made storytelling and multiple forms of art more accessible than ever before, while they are also more open to critique than ever before. This critique is about more than simply determining whether something has value or not, deciding whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it is about extrapolating some sort of meaning from the surroundings we’re exposed to. It is ultimately about asking why, and the most insightful among us can often see into the soul of an artist by observing the work they produce.

Granted it is sometimes true that one can read meaning into a piece of work that was not originally put there by its author, and it is obvious that the sheer accessibility of critique means the best of it can get lost in the maelstrom. But these arguments do not negate the need for it. None of us can be expected to always get things right (some just appear better at it than others). Making mistakes does not necessarily mean we were on the wrong track to begin with, while one could argue that finding meaning in a piece of work does not require its creator to have meant it. Many of the most memorable works of art mean different things to different people depending on their personal taste and background.

I can watch a film like The Babadook (2014) and consider it a masterpiece for its unique depiction of loss, grief, and the gritty realities of chronic depression. Someone else may view it as another generic horror movie and little else of note. Neither of these opinions is ‘wrong’ (though one may have been formed with more thought than the other) – they are subjective, dependent on the experiences and point of view of the individual, and it is up to the next consumer to make an informed decision on whether they will like it based on the critique provided them by various accessible sources. I don’t wish anyone to simply take my word for it, but I would like to think my word can at least help with the decision-making process.

Now, the reason I go to such lengths here to make a point about subjectivity is not only related to how we approach art; it is in fact a major factor in how we approach mental health as well. However much we split others into personality groups, categorise them introvert or extravert, male or female, the fact remains: no two people share the same mind. That may sound obvious, overly simplistic; bordering on patronising even. But for all the complicated concepts humanity has advanced in its time, this ‘simple’ idea is still too often falling through the net.

We want others to conform to our idea of how things should be done, and the most charismatic have often succeeded at bringing other people round to their own way of thinking while the rest essentially complain that it wasn’t them who were able to do the same. ‘Our way is right, yours is wrong’. This black and white picture is what continues to drive traditional thinking patterns in a postmodern culture, as the basic argument for it (and we could debate whether it’s a valid one) is that without such a structure we would lose our ability to decipher the difference between the two.

Mental health, rather like the artist among the conformists and anarchists, falls into neither category (black or white, good or bad), and this is where the challenge seems to lie for most people. As I said at the beginning, we all have it. We all occasionally struggle with it – from the disappointment of having to get out of bed on a Monday morning, to grief over the death of a loved one – though some considerably more often and more intensely than others.

So I think now I must at least get to my overall point, before I begin to lose you in an abundance of barely relatable context. But you should know I would not have led you down this path had I not first held some idea of our destination.

Certain movements in cinema history have their roots in mental illness – Expressionism, for example, owes a significant debt to surrealist paintings and, in particular, the work of Van Gogh. Part of me wonders whether my affection for old German Expressionist films have quite a bit to do with this; their distorted, atmospheric imagery at the time induced a curious, evocative unease not unlike how one may view the world through depressive eyes.

But those films, rather like Van Gogh himself, do not seem to have intended this connection I now make. Van Gogh’s art was a reflection of self – the part of himself he did not fully understand. A compulsion to explore what was on the surface unseen, was what subsequently drove his desire to create. Had he set out with the intention of forming the legacy he ended up with, I daresay it would not have felt half as organic or genuine, and it certainly would have happened differently. History’s greatest artists are regarded in hindsight for their tragic sense of not quite knowing what they had, but conversely it was this ‘not knowing’ that paved the way for the rest of us to understand a little bit better.

German Expressionism may therefore have succeeded in capturing the unspoken essence of a condition, but the actual content of some of their films shows they did not fully understand it either. Indeed, one could argue they did more harm than good for the public perception of mental health.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, featured a final twist calling into question the sanity of the film’s narrator, showing him to be a patient of a mental asylum at which Dr Caligari is the director. This narrator, Francis, who had previously told us the story of Caligari – portraying him as a shady, controlling character who himself eventually ended up in the same asylum – is placed in a strait jacket amidst the screams commonly associated with such an environment.

While I have no problem with the film or its twist (it did, after all, appear on my Top 25 list, and should be taken within the context of its time), this did reflect what was a relatively normal perception in society back then – that those with some form of mental illness were not to be trusted and somehow feared; best put in a strait jacket and confined within a cell to protect the rest of us from harm. This perception covered not only the most extreme forms (in which case a person may indeed become a danger to others and require some kind of confinement), but also the lesser ones. To even suggest or show that you weren’t entirely ‘sane’ brought with it this stark imagery, and such broad labelling became a fear that is secretly harboured by many to this day.

Its imagery may have captured a spirit of unease, but mental illness was ultimately nothing more than a caricature used to advance the plot in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Its imagery may have captured a spirit of unease, but mental illness was ultimately nothing more than a caricature used to advance the plot in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

This film was also one of the first cinematic examples that utilised mental health issues (albeit rather extreme forms of them) as a potent narrative tool. This has continued consistently throughout film history, and you can probably name at least a couple yourself without my input. While one could argue this has been helpful in raising awareness of certain conditions, more often than not I think they are exaggerated (and to an extent, romanticised) for dramatic effect. Though I would not necessarily claim that’s a negative thing.

My favourite film for portraying the issues of which we now speak is 2001’s Donnie Darko. This movie bears many other qualities besides this aspect and, in a way, that’s precisely its strength. It doesn’t take mental illness and use it purely as its main narrative device or concluding twist; instead mental health is shown as a thing that just ‘is’ a natural part of central character Donnie.

He meets a girl (Gretchen) in the film who soon becomes his girlfriend, yet as they’re still just getting to know each other they have a telling conversation about her family. Gretchen explains how she, along with her mother, had to flee from her father and change names so that he couldn’t find them again. She describes him as having ’emotional problems’. “Oh really?! I have those too!” Donnie blurts out before asking, “what kind of emotional problems does your dad have?”

Her reaction is not what one might expect. She does not hear this admission and suddenly become fearful that Donnie might therefore be exactly like the man her father was. Because after all, they are different people, and having taken a little time to talk to Donnie, Gretchen can see who he really is – rather than the caricature one may have attached to him due to his condition.

In addition to characterisation, some details of the film’s plot can easily be read as representative of how mental illness works in a broad sense; what it can mean for individuals and their loved ones. For example, the timer counting down to the end of the world, given to Donnie near the start of the film by his imaginary friend Frank, seems to have deeper significance than the fantastical time-related aspect of the narrative. I found it comparable to the feeling of inevitability regarding the destructive qualities of mental illness. You can’t outrun it, you can’t hide from it, and if you try to avoid it, it will soon catch up and ‘end your world’ as you know it.

His portrayal of flawed teenager Donnie remains one of Jake Gyllenhaal's best roles.
His portrayal of flawed teenager Donnie (behind whom stands ‘Frank’ in this picture) remains one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best roles.

Ultimately, this countdown leads to Donnie’s death, the ‘end of his world’, or rather his ‘turning back time’ in order to undo all the wrong actions he took and all the pain he had caused to others over the course of the story. Though the film was of course steeped in backstory about time travel, its resolution arguably proves more insightful than any other movie for showing how some are ultimately driven to suicide, feeling in the end that it was perhaps an inevitable outcome for them and, in a warped sense, actually beneficial to their loved ones, to whom they may feel no more than a burden due to their illness.

Donnie Darko was an alarmingly insightful film for its time, though ‘its time’ was of course only 14 years ago. How far have we come since then? I think quite far, actually. In the same way that last year’s Pride and Oscar contender The Imitation Game (in tackling the story of Alan Turing, himself branded a criminal in the aftermath of World War 2 for being homosexual despite his help with the Allied victory in the war) reflected the gradual lessening of a taboo towards homosexuality in modern society, 2015 has so far seen three films which I believe achieved something others have previously failed at. That is; tackling the issue of mental illness head on, honestly and candidly, without the need for ambiguous metaphors.

They’ve done this by not approaching the subject as if it is limited only to ‘special’ or ‘unfortunate’ people who belong comfortably out of sight, out of mind alongside the issues they struggle through. They haven’t been agonisingly patronising. Yet they’ve also reflected the existing flaws still inherent in how many of us approach the topic.

British film X+Y, released back in March, is a comedy-drama about a teenage Mathematics prodigy (Nathan) who has difficulty forming relationships and understanding people in general. When his father – the person he felt closest to – dies at a young age, even his mother finds it hard to form a connection with her son. Though they find that he has a gift for Maths, and with the help of a flawed tutor bearing his own issues, Nathan is trained up for the International Mathematical Olympiad. But along the way he encounters a Chinese girl through an exchange program and finds himself falling in love.

A not-so-typical romance helps keep the story of 'X+Y' fresh amidst potentially tough subject matter.
A not-so-typical romance helps keep the story of ‘X+Y’ fresh amidst potentially tough subject matter.

Seeing Nathan trying to make sense of his emotions through the equations he knows so well is as sweet as it is awkward at times. Crucially however, the film never lets itself get overtaken by sentiment; there is not a feel-good ‘happy ending’ per se, though it is hinted at. It is, to simplify the story, a tale of what it is like to live and cope not only with autism, but with the feeling of being told you are ‘special’ and not really understanding why. Nathan’s mother is also given equal portrayal in the film, as we appreciate her own struggles in loving a son who doesn’t always return that love or show appreciation for what she does for him. This is the reality for many carers and close family members of those who suffer from this kind of condition.

While at Belfast Film Festival in April, I saw another film which did something very similar. Patrick’s Day followed a young schizophrenic man named Patrick, whose condition means he requires constant supervision. Cared for by his mother, who understandably feels over-protective of her son after being his carer for over 20 years, their lives are disrupted when Patrick meets and falls in love with a woman who herself secretly harbours suicidal tendencies. Believing her son can never possibly have a normal life of independence, his mother does all she can first to break up the relationship, and then to convince Patrick that this woman was no more than an imaginary person, projected by his overactive mind.

Irish film Patrick's Day portrayed schizophrenia in a more authentic, 'real' way than most other films.
Irish film Patrick’s Day portrayed schizophrenia in a more authentic, ‘real’ way than any other movie I’ve seen.

It sounds harsh I know, but thanks to the film’s even-handedness, we never judge Patrick’s mother too harshly. We see things from her point of view, as much as Patrick’s, and we see that her path as carer is, in some ways, just as difficult as the condition her son lives with. At the same time we fully appreciate Patrick’s condition, and the film communicates well the difficulties of trying to lead a relatively normal life with such a potentially serious illness. But in the end its message is a hopeful one that says: it is more possible than you might think.

Finally there was The Dark Horse, a New Zealand film released in the UK last month. Based on the real-life story of New Zealand chess player Genesis Potini, who suffered from bipolar disorder which disrupted his career and required frequent stays in hospital. This film picks up after one such hospital stay, and we see Potini go to stay with his brother and nephew, the latter of which is about to be unwillingly ‘inducted’ into a motorcycle gang. During the film we see Potini’s everyday domestic struggles exasperated by his fragile mental state – though ultimately we see that he is psychologically stronger than others would give him credit for – as he ends up homeless and attempts to provide direction to a group of disadvantaged teens by coaching them in chess.

You don't need an appreciation of chess to appreciate The Dark Horse... but it does add a nice extra layer to the film.
You don’t need an appreciation of chess to appreciate The Dark Horse… but it does add a nice extra layer to the film.

What I liked most about The Dark Horse was probably its juxtaposition between mental health issues and the hardcore ‘biker gang’ domestic environment in which it is predominantly set. These are two things that would not appear to mix – one does not think of large, bearded ‘hard men’ bikers or their social group as typically susceptible to such issues. But they are, just as much as the rest of us, and the film indirectly challenges you with this thought. Do we still think of mental illness as affecting only a certain ‘type’ of person?

Taking these three films as a collective, the best way I can sum up how they handle the topic of mental illness is with one word: maturity. They don’t make sweeping statements nor do they try and draw a comparison between ‘us and them’. Each individual story was treated as, first and foremost, a human one. Because of that, and due to the increasing awareness of these conditions in modern culture (itself reflected by the fact that these films have even been made in this way), audiences are crucially able to feel empathy with the characters. Certainly that signifies we’ve come a long way from the days of mental illness being confined to the asylum’s walls.

Now you may say I have been generalising in a lot of this and, aside from the specific examples I’ve given to illustrate my points, you’re right. I do so not because I buy into the use of generic labels (such as ‘mental illness’, ‘artists’, among others) as it pertains to every person who falls into the category, but partly to exemplify how easy a trap it is for the rest of us to fall into. To blame me for using generalisations in this way is to blame me for how humans communicate – indeed it is to blame me for being human in the first place.

Also understand that when I use a term such as ‘artist’ I am not, in fact, talking about any particular person or group; I am attempting to communicate the heart of what I believe that term means. Many may adopt it, or find the label unjustly attached to them without meeting this criteria. I don’t think I should be held responsible for their doing so, though I’d gladly debate them on which of our definitions might be considered more objectively accurate.

Am I obliged to be entirely original in my approach, completely authentic in my delivery, and should I just give up if I cannot yet achieve such a thing? I think my overall narrative here goes along the fault lines of an emphatic ‘no’! But that does not excuse any of us from striving for it steadfastly, in our thinking, actions and attitude.

Film essays

The Pleasantly Surprising Greatness of Blade Runner.

Blade Runner pic 1.

Replicants are like any other machine; they’re either a benefit or a hazard.

When 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) recently experienced another brief theatrical run I jumped at the chance to see what is probably my favourite sci-fi movie on the big screen for the first time. It was glorious, exceeding my expectations, and also exceeding most other cinematic experiences I’ve had before or since (though that does have something to do with the fire alarm that was inconveniently set off during the screening).

Blade Runner has followed the trend this month, being shown in select cinemas over the past week. If you haven’t seen this film on the big screen, it’s one I would certainly recommend provided you have some free time and are fortunate enough to live near a cinema showing it.

I went into it myself having only previously seen the movie once, on DVD. It didn’t exactly blow me away on that first viewing – but then again, a lot of my favourite movies haven’t been immediate hits with me. Still, when it comes to this genre I’ve always been a bit of a snob, insisting Kubrick’s 2001 is not only the best sci-fi film ever made but also my personal favourite. I must say, seeing Blade Runner on the big screen has at least made me doubt my attitude on that.

Though I’m in no position to offer analysis approaching any kind of academic credibility on this great film, I can still offer a brief summary on why exactly it is considered such a significant piece of work.

Notably, the film touched on the concepts of identity, morality, and essentially what it means to be human; what ‘it’ is that makes us human; whether that really makes us more valuable than something that isn’t. The quote above is spoken by Harrison Ford’s character to another person who, as we soon discover, is unknowingly a ‘replicant’ herself. Replicants in this film are basically androids – for lack of a better term – which look and act exactly like people, and as Blade Runner opens we are at a point in our near future when a small, highly developed group of these replicants have gone renegade.

Rick Deckard (Ford’s character), a former blade runner – whose job it was to literally hunt down and ‘retire’ (in other words, destroy) replicants – is sought out by his old boss to perform this one last job: eradicating a group closely resembling humans, whose only real crime is that they are not.

It soon becomes clear though; this job isn’t exactly like those he was used to before, as these replicants are newer models, closer to human than ever, not only in how they look but also seemingly in how they feel. They are concerned about how long they will live; why they exist; where they came from – questions that bring them uncomfortably close to humanity on an existential level.

Though we know, of course, they are not. They are only having these feelings because of their advanced programming… right? And if so, then surely Deckard’s two-dimensional outlook towards them is fair? Even if his phrase above is technically true, does this make it existentially true? Is there any real difference outside of sentimental reasoning?

These questions are only part of what the film offered its audience upon release (what was initially a subdued one) in 1982. For those less interested in its philosophical ponderings, there is still much to be found in the film – exciting action sequences, a nuanced performance from Harrison Ford among others, and beautiful visual effects.

Considering this is also the ‘Final Cut’, thought to be the definitive version closest to director Ridley Scott’s vision, I’d say it comfortably matches – in most cases outshines – any contemporary Hollywood blockbuster you could otherwise find in cinemas any time soon.

Therefore if you’re any kind of movie fan, even the curious type that likes to give money to the Transformers film franchise, I recommend grasping the opportunity to watch Blade Runner on the big screen if and when you can.

Film essays, Theology

A balanced perspective on Fifty Shades of Grey.

"I'm just going to sit here and watch you as you read. 'Cos I'm creepy."
“I’m just going to sit here and watch you as you read. ‘Cos I’m creepy.”

Judging from some of the outraged reactions Christians have been having towards the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, released on Valentine’s Day, you’d be forgiven for thinking it signals the end of wholesome cinema (such a thing never existed) and/ or will somehow lead all females everywhere to actively seek out abusive relationships (just as certain video games actively encourage little boys to be violent, right?) – and most of all, is a terrible way for couples to use their day of ‘celebrating love’ if they should go and see it.

Wait a minute… I’m pretty sure Christians have traditionally degraded that last one because of the commercially driven way in which Valentine’s Day is typically viewed. Or does this secular ‘celebration of love’ (kept alive mainly by the outlets that want you to buy their flowers and chocolates) suddenly become your best friend when you have something more negative to compare it to?

Now, I could have written a number of different pieces on the topic here. I could have dissected not only the above points, but also discussed how, no, there doesn’t exist any evidence to suggest that abusive relationships have suddenly risen in the past few years since the Fifty Shades of Grey novels first appeared on the market.

Even if abusive relationships had risen in this time, correlation does not equal causation. What I mean by that is: just because a woman who may have read these books also happens to be in an abusive relationship, does not automatically mean the two are directly linked, or that one caused the other. While I can understand why you’d be eager to make this link (after all, abusive relationships are a horrible thing and you may feel emotionally charged about the subject to the point where you’ll look to find the nearest possible cause to blame), that’s a very big jump to assume.

I’d hope most people can see that, but it seems many don’t, including this article. Some would look at that situation and say such a conclusion is ‘so obvious’ that you have to either ‘be completely blind’ or ‘living on another planet’ not to see it. Actual evidence usually has little effect on such a closed mindset.

Those who are genuinely concerned about the kind of message these novels give, along with its subsequent film adaptation, understand that I’m right there with you on that. I don’t think the books had any great literary value and the film, while I likely won’t be giving it my money, is apparently, according to early reviews, actually an improvement on them. In fact, if anything I’d daresay it lessens the worrying tone of the books that came before it. Take this quote from Total Film’s review of the film, which it awarded with a distinctly dull two stars:

“What makes Fifty Shades so anticlimactic is that it actually starts promisingly: the light-touch first half is actually pretty funny, to the extent that it feels like a good movie-within-a-movie, a smart parody of the source material. It wills you to laugh at some of the dialogue and scenarios the book wants you to take seriously: a line like “I don’t make love – I fuck. Hard.” was surely designed for ironic whoops rather than genuine cooing.”

This film is not promotional material; it’s not something that’s going to lead every female watching to think the kind of sexual bondage it features is some dreamy thing to actively go out and seek; it doesn’t portray itself as taking any moral high ground. It sounds rather more like some kind of caricature of our society’s fascination with sex. And all Christians have that fascination as well. Don’t pretend you do not. You may approach it differently, you may contextualise it differently, but sex is a natural human instinct, important to all of us in some way whether we’re abstaining from it or actively enjoying it.

That’s the heart of the real frustration here for some people: the fact that others have different tastes to them. Believe it or not there are people out there who do find the bondage thing genuinely kind of sexy. There are many women who love the idea of a ‘bad boy’, if not the reality of him. It is these individual preferences to which this film (very clearly a fiction narrative) primarily appeals, and that it has reached such a large audience should tell you there’s a lot of them out there. Yes, even among Christians; hence why the more conservative see this text as such a danger. They don’t think these individual tastes are things other people should have.

Again, I reiterate that underneath the exterior, I don’t think the Fifty Shades story carries positive undertones for men, women, or storytelling in general. It pained me that the books became so profitable, and it pains me further still that the film gets a big Hollywood release. Even more, it pains me that everyone is giving it the attention it wants by talking about it. I debated whether I should do so myself, wary of giving the film extra publicity that it could really do without. As I have also mentioned before: the best way to prevent others becoming more interested in a particular film, book or video game (if this is truly what you want) is simply to starve it of your attention. For many things that rely on making a profit, this is the best way to stop supporting it.

However, that’s not really my point here. The reason I’m not going to write a fully detailed piece on this whole affair is because I’ve coincidentally already covered everything I have to say in a previous article: my piece about freedom of expression, which I posted just over a week ago. In that I also touched on how and why violence in video games is not in any way related to violence in real life (despite what American sensationalist media has tried to spoon-feed its society); there is quite simply no existing evidence to support such an audacious claim.

But now, some are latching onto Fifty Shades of Grey in the same way. Now they’re going beyond saying “I wouldn’t recommend you see this movie for these reasons” to saying “this movie is a downright evil piece of trash that sets out to destroy the lives of all women”. I’m sorry, I can’t agree with you there. Any criticism of the movie should be made with integrity at least, and from all reasonable accounts, it doesn’t come with ulterior motives to win innocent girls round to its seductive ways. It is instead, from what I’ve heard, rather dull. Though from the point of view of some critics, that makes it worse than the somewhat tempting, sensual piece some of you would prefer it to be.

So what do I consider a reasonable account? One that is balanced, for starters, one that looks at both sides and takes more things into account than just “I think this and am going to win others over with passionate words”. A good article is one that shows it has been researched, that its facts and arguments have foundation outside of the whims of its author. Passion is great, but not more important than truth. And I’m afraid a great many of you often use the former to exaggerate or even fabricate the latter.

My final point is simple, and it is pertinent to those Christians who misinterpret this movie as another form of ‘us against secular society’. Actually, there are a great number of negative reactions to the whole Fifty Shades saga from that end as well. This is generally considered a ‘lowbrow’ story, and isn’t exactly being celebrated by secular critics. It is quite far from a broad secular attack against Christianity or sexual values (which, despite your feelings to the contrary, are subjective to each individual) and, frankly, would have been a more interesting film if it were.

Short of asking you to be more tolerant of other people’s opinions and possibly, even for a moment, expand your horizons beyond your own individual tastes, I don’t know how much clearer I can say it… Though I’ll try simplifying the dilemma for those who may be confused by the stance I’m taking on it:

If you’re a Christian, there are some who recommend you don’t go to watch Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m one of them. I don’t think you’ll enjoy it – in fact I don’t think many people in general will enjoy it – and you’ll have to deal with the derogatory looks and comments you may be on the receiving end of from certain other members of your congregation next time you’re in church. But ultimately I would also say, if you were overly curious to see what all the hype is about, then it’s fine for you to go to watch this movie. You have a choice, and it’s your own personal responsibility to ensure it’s an informed one. This film’s not out to destroy your soul, or force you into the type of relationship you’d otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Not enjoying it really is the worst thing that can happen in this case. Nothing more, nothing less. Though as it is an 18-rated film (at least here in the UK), I trust you won’t be taking your young sons and daughters along.

Film essays, Video Games

Two Months, Four Hits: The 21st Century fight for ‘freedom of expression’.

creative expression pic.

It was a significant Christmas/ New Year season for this thing we call artistic expression. Over the months of December and January we’ve seen a petition succeed in getting Grand Theft Auto V withdrawn from certain outlets in Australia and New Zealand; The Interview have its initial release cancelled due to terrorist threats from a group linked with North Korea; Hatred get pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation from its service users in an unprecedented act from Valve; and of course, the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in response to an offensive printed cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

Two of these I have previously touched on – the second in another article I wrote at the time. The third received least mainstream attention out of the four, due no doubt to the much smaller scale of its publisher. The last has been written about, spoken about, dissected and argued over at length over the past month and hardly needs my input to say anything that hasn’t already been said.

Together, though, all of these situations form an interesting narrative of where art, and the artists producing it, stand going forward into the rest of this century. On the one hand you may argue recent events show greater attempts at control and inhibition; a subsequent lack of freedom to say what one truly feels needs to be said. But conversely I think the reactions to all of them are what the future will focus on – what it will see, is an outcry in defense of things like decision-making and the right to hold your own individual thoughts and opinions. What some perspective will show is, in fact, a victory for the sides that came under attack in these instances.

That’s not to say it didn’t come with a high price. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, their freedom of expression came at the terrible, unjustified price of eleven lives. Yet if those same journalists who were murdered could be given the choice, I’m not sure they would’ve changed anything about what led to their deaths – to do so with such foreknowledge, would have been to say this sort of violence actually works. Whether or not you agreed with their decisions or their opinions, you must realise that for them to have then changed their opinion on threat of death, if they had been given the option, would not have been a victory for anything but fear.

It all sounds so absurd. You can’t force someone to change an opinion to suit your own – sure, you can try fooling them into it using propaganda, and if you must do so that’s certainly the classier method, but there is a good reason this hasn’t led to lasting success for those groups or governments that have relied on it. Sooner or later, people wise up to it. Sooner or later they begin to see behind the curtain. At that point they will arrive at an important choice; whether to form (and act on) an opinion of their own, or stay quiet for (perhaps) the sake of their lives, at the expense of all that makes them a unique individual.

However, I’m jumping ahead of myself there. And I don’t want this post to bear too much of a condemnatory tone, as the best way to fight the forces you disagree with is not through empty threats or angry, isolated statements, but rather with balanced, persuasive arguments and (ideally) evidence to back them up. Such conviction is what drives me to use my free time to do this kind of thing, after all.

Let’s start at the beginning – of December, that is, when the first of these newsworthy topics emerged.

December 3rd/4th: Target AU, K-mart and a major retailer in New Zealand pull Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves because it is apparently “not a product our customers want us to sell”. This was due to a petition started on 29th November and clearly written by people who had never played the game but were keen to sensationalise its contents to suit their own ends. By 3rd December, this petition had 40,000 signatures. On 4th December, Target AU withdrew the game from its shelves as requested, though precisely why they were doing so remained unclear. If it was to protect the ‘little boys’ whom the petition claimed this game was having such a bad influence on, then they should not have been marketing a clearly 18-rated game towards that demographic in the first place.

Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market...
Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market…

In their subsequent statement in response to the petition, Target AU seemed to imply they were making this decision to satisfy their customers following “extensive community and customer concern about the game”. However, this petition did not actually represent the majority view of their customers, and there was no indication given that Target had widened the net to take other views into account.

Moreover the woman who started the petition did so after seeing clips of the game on YouTube. One does not need to look too closely at it to get a sense of the offence caused by said ‘YouTube clips’ (we can’t account for the possible bad taste of the gamer who posted them, nor can we really know whether they were in bad taste or if the petition is simply exaggerating, and forgive me for being cynical but I’d place my bets on the latter). It claims in the opening paragraph that “the incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points”, going on to say “GTA V literally makes a game of bashing, killing and horrific violence against women”, while it “links sexual arousal and violence”.

Wow, that sounds like a pretty horrific game. Maybe I’d sign a petition too if such a game was really being marketed towards boys. The trouble is, that description is not representative of Grand Theft Auto V in the slightest. While it is possible to kill people (men and women) in the game, this alone is not its overall ‘incentive’. Furthermore I’m confused by the use of the term ‘sexual violence’. True, you can choose to sleep with prostitutes. True you have the capability to commit violence against them if you really wish (just as you can do so against most other people in the game world).

However, this is not encouraged or seen as mandatory in order ‘to proceed’, and the two acts are not directly linked at all. It is possible to have sex (though the act is never explicitly shown) and commit violence but to commit ‘sexual violence’? It sounds like you’re making up your own narrative there.

GTA V’s ‘health point’ system, if that primitive term is what we’re using, isn’t linked to killing or violence in the game, nor is there any special reward for treating women as the petition describes, and in fact there is much more violence committed against men than women in the overall plot.

Also I must clarify, if further clarification is needed, that in my own experience of a very enjoyable play through of Grand Theft Auto V, at no point did I myself feel outwardly violent, or abusive towards women, and certainly not sexually aroused by such things – nor did the game ever intentionally try to spark these connections in the mind of its player. If other gamers have these experiences while playing then I’d daresay they have certain underlying issues that have nothing to do with the game itself and should probably seek help, or at least have a (presumably) much-needed conversation with someone they trust. And as an actual player and consumer of this product, frankly I feel more qualified than the petition’s author, who is neither of those, to determine its potential qualities and the effects it can have on other gamers.

Basically I’m trying to highlight that this petition is blatantly misrepresentative of the game, and this kind of thing is especially important to me because it itself is representative of a larger consensus that video games serve no better purpose than playthings for little children and adolescent boys. Furthermore it tries again to link violence in video games with violence in real life (for which there is literally no evidence in support). This is all summed up in one seemingly authoritative yet grossly misleading statement from the petition; “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women”.

You may be one who also finds the content of GTA V to be crude and offensive. You may find the very idea of what it lets you do through your own free will to be abhorrent. That’s your opinion, and it’s fine. You don’t have to buy the game or expose yourself to it if you have no wish to do so. However, when you then see a petition like this you may feel excited by the fact that other people agree with you, and more than that; they are claiming this game is a great burden and possible danger to your sons and daughters. Future generations are at stake and it requires action! And when it’s put to you like this, your inclination of not liking this game, or any game in general, could be only one small step away from subsequently branding them all evil and thinking you need to ‘protect’ future generations from their influence.

See how easily people can get caught up in something because it was presented to them in a convincing way? But make no mistake: this petition is based on no evidence, therefore should not have been successful, and the only way it got so much support was through fear-mongering in its use of sensationalised wording.

...don't you agree?
…don’t you agree?

In normal circumstances sales figures would tell a retailer whether or not customers are happy with a particular product. After all, if you don’t like a product, you don’t buy it, and by not buying it you are not supporting it, and this is ultimately the deciding factor for any business when it comes to the decision-making process of which products they should continue selling. I realise that high sales figures don’t necessarily correlate with the best products (as someone who still loses sleep over the fact that the general public contributed to Transformers: Age of Extinction becoming 2014’s highest grossing film, it hurts me as much as anyone), but it is still the right of the consumer to decide for themselves what they give their money to. In this case the consumer’s decision was taken out of their hands, and that’s the main problem.

Having said that, this decision – even more curious considering it came over a year after GTA V’s original release on PS3 – by these few retailers on the other side of the world will have no lasting impact on the game’s success in the long run. Grand Theft Auto V is still the bestselling entertainment product of all time, and that will be its legacy. What’s important here is the principle of the matter – what it could mean for smaller publishers and studios who don’t have the kind of commercial success behind them that the GTA series has. Which brings me to our second case study…

December 15th: A video game called Hatred, developed by the appropriately named Destructive Creations, is pulled from Steam Greenlight after briefly appearing on the service. Now, for those who are not PC gamers, this will need a little explanation; Steam Greenlight is a service through which gamers can help choose which games are added to Steam (hence being given the ‘green light’). Steam itself is a digital distribution service – basically somewhere gamers can go to download current releases. So Greenlight is kind of like a preview service to the real thing, partly to gauge how a game may be received but mainly just to check that it actually works gameplay-wise.

Developed by a company called Valve, Steam is very much a service for the users. However, on this occasion, Hatred was pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation with its users. So the users, who usually decide which games to approve, were for some reason (which remained unclear) not allowed to make the decision for themselves this time around. This was a pretty unprecedented move by Valve, as far as I know.

Further context gives us a hint as to what they may have been thinking. Hatred is, after all, a pretty unprecedented game itself, at least as far as its content is concerned. In it you play as a merciless serial killer who goes on a ‘genocide crusade’ for no reason other than that he passionately hates humanity. Sounds tasteless, I know, and probably not a game I’ll be investing my time in at any point soon, but I’d still argue that it is important for games to be able to touch on these kinds of things without people suddenly concluding that gamers “can’t handle it”.

Hatred pic 1.

Psychopaths have been portrayed in movies for many years, so why are games seen as inferior in the topics they’re permitted to tackle? You could argue it’s different because a game actually puts you directly in control of a character rather than observing from a distance, but I think this makes games more effective, not less, at tackling taboo issues. The idea that one is going to turn into a serial killer purely from playing this game is rather absurd, considering how unattractive the experience is, and someone who has the capacity to genuinely enjoy killing other people will have, as I said before, other issues that will be present regardless of the media they’re exposed to.

If anything, allowing one to experience the effects of such things first-hand, in the direct shoes of a character, is more likely to put you off ever wanting to try it in real life, providing it’s done effectively courtesy of good game development (as a side note, there is actually closer evidence to suggest this kind of thing than there is for the ‘video games cause violence’ argument).

Think of rape, for example. Yeah you may cringe at my mentioning it and you might not like even thinking about it, but that taboo right there is precisely why so many rapists get away with their crime, and predominantly why so many people are disgusted when video games even dare suggest approaching it. To tackle the issue, to show the horrible impact it can have on a woman, or indeed a man, is a very good thing if it helps to educate those who perhaps don’t appreciate the awful psychological effects it can lead to in a person’s life. Video games have the potential to explore this in even greater detail than films ever could, if they’re given the freedom to do so, precisely because they do put you directly in the shoes of a character.

I firmly believe video games must be given this liberty, to achieve these kinds of effects and truly take their place alongside books and films as a respected artistic medium. Yet despite being at a development stage where they do have the capacity to tackle such topics, they’re being creatively stifled by a mainstream society that still thinks any game which doesn’t appeal to children or teenage boys is somehow inappropriate. For as long as that mode of thinking persists, publishers and developers are going to be much less confident in their creative freedoms.

Curiously, on December 16th, only a day after Hatred was removed from Steam by Valve, it reappeared with a personal apology from Gabe Newell (co-founder and managing director of Valve). Was he not involved in the original decision? What were their reasons for taking it down in the first place? Such questions remain unanswered, leaving us to fill in the rather obvious blanks, and the game was subsequently approved to Steam on December 29th. As far as its sales figures go, time will tell on that one. But whatever the reaction from the industry, the least this game will do is get people talking about issues they could easily have gone without talking about, and I think that can only be a good thing in the long run.

You're up, Kim Jong...
You’re up, Kim Jong…

December 16th/17th: Sony pulls American ‘action comedy’ film The Interview from theatrical distribution before it’s even released. Another somewhat unprecedented move that I have already covered, though there is some helpful further context I could set…

In June 2014, the North Korean government, having gotten wind of the film’s production, threatened ‘merciless action’ if the film’s distributor (Columbia Pictures) went ahead with the release. Thus release was delayed from the original date of October 10th to December 25th, while the film was apparently edited to make it more ‘acceptable’ to North Korea (this itself, if true, was an absurd concession, though the planned Christmas day release was perhaps a sign that certain powers sought to maximise profits from their headline-making film). In November, Sony’s computer systems were hacked by a group believed to have ties to North Korea, the “Guardians of Peace” (GoP), who branded the film a “movie of terrorism”.

On December 16th, the GoP threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that dared show the film. No evidence existed to suggest they even had the means of carrying out said attacks, though the threat alone was enough for a number of North American cinema chains to cancel screenings ‘in the interest of safety’ on December 17th. Sony it seems had ‘no choice’ but to cancel the film’s release – after all, they would have been left with a pretty farcical situation if they had went ahead with it but cinemas refused to actually screen it.

Despite initially saying it had no plans to release the film, Sony has since done so digitally and opened the film in a limited run in selected cinemas. It has consequently become Sony’s most successful digital release, earning $40 million in digital rentals alone. While they may still ultimately lose out on the money they could have gained with a full theatrical run, there’s no question that The Interview’s unorthodox publicity has played a large part in boosting sales for what is actually, from all accounts, a rather average movie. So ultimately, we could justifiably ask: who’s the real victor in this situation?

The film has also, somewhat abruptly, arrived on UK shores (literally; it opened theatrically today). I inevitably feel inclined to see it myself for a review, at which point I will give my final thoughts on what it potentially means for a film industry in which an average movie can become the most talked about of the year, while something like The Babadook goes largely under the radar. In that sense there is an injustice here.

In another sense, though, it was incredibly encouraging to see prominent public figures, including President Barack Obama, stand up for the right to make such a movie as this, even though it does contain offensive content from North Korea’s point of view. While we could question whether someone like Obama was speaking up more because the precious pride of his country was at stake (it was, after all, a little humiliating that North Korea was essentially holding their film industry at ransom), this vocal support for ‘freedom of expression’ was nonetheless a heartening reminder of how highly regarded movies have become in modern culture. They can now offend entire countries and be defended for their right to do so.

To be ‘offended’ in this way is perhaps not quite the great injustice some make it out to be – in fact usually we can learn a lot from sensing it within ourselves – and even if it was, this again represented a simple case of “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it”. We know ultimately, of course, North Korea didn’t want the film to be shown only because it could harm the god-like status their leader holds, thanks to the intense propaganda created by their government. Is showing this status to be potentially false an ‘offence’? From some within North Korea, it certainly is. Does this make it wrong for a movie like The Interview to contain such provocative suggestions?

Whether you think it wrong or not is beside the point; being permitted to make this distinction for ourselves in the first place is the real point. And it is the very idea of this kind of conversation happening at all that North Korea found inherently offensive, which represents the real problem. This leads on nicely to my final case, which actually bears a few striking similarities to this one.

Now before I continue, perhaps it is best that I preface the following with a caution. I know some of you reading this may feel stronger about the Charlie Hebdo situation than you felt about the previous cases. I am no exception.

Not only would I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right of freedom to print the offensive Muhammad cartoon that led to this tragedy, I also unequivocally think it was the right thing to do artistically, for similar reasons as I have detailed above relating to how North Korea views its god-like leader. The situations are largely similar; the main difference here is that we live among Muslims in our own country. It can be a little more difficult when those voicing their offence are somewhat closer to home.

But when it comes to how we view religion there exists another taboo, both inside and out, that says their own respective god-like figure should somehow be immune to the critique and (dare I say) satiric mockery that we would apply to most other things deemed more ‘acceptable’ targets. This is largely due, I think, to the negative arguments, insults and bitterness that already exist in interactions between certain groups and their subsequent need to become vigorously defensive over their own beliefs – some of which dictate that all others must be wrong. If Charlie Hebdo has shown us anything, it is that this current climate has to change (and ‘Je suis Charlie’ may just be the spark that triggers it) – because these murders ‘in the name of…’ are exemplary of how dangerous it can be.

I’m not saying you need to simply ‘get used to it’ or that you have to like opposing views to your own. The same rules apply to the likes of a Charlie Hebdo magazine as in any other situation; if you find it offensive, you’re under no obligation to give it your support or your attention. But you must accept that other people will, and other people do, and this is within their freedom of choice to do so. You have no right, for as long as you are human like the rest of us, to take that away from them. You’re welcome to give them reasons why they shouldn’t support something or give it their attention, but when you start using unnecessarily dramatic language and picking things out of thin air to pass of as ‘facts’ in support of your own biased argument (as was the case in the above GTA V petition), you are being dishonest not only with that other person, but with yourself. I understand it’s tempting to do this kind of thing when you feel passionate about a particular subject, but in relaxing it a little more, it’s not unthinkable you could actually learn something new from those you would otherwise consider your opponents.

This train of thought all stems from an incident on January 7th at 11.30am: two masked gunmen, armed with assault rifles, force their way into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They fire 50 shots while shouting “Allah Akbar” (Arabic for ‘God is the greatest’), killing 11 people and injuring 11 others.

On January 11th, about two million people including more than 40 world leaders gather in Paris for a rally of national unity – a further 3.7 million people joined in demonstrations across France. The phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ became a common slogan to show solidarity and support for those involved in the tragedy and communicate one clear message: our freedom of expression is worth defending in principle, even when we don’t necessarily agree on how to use it.

The remaining Charlie Hebdo staff team has continued weekly publications; issue No. 1178 sold out a print run of seven million copies in 6 languages. This is in contrast to its typical French-only 60,000 run. Again this is exemplary of the aggressor’s tactics backfiring on them; in the modern era, with the news coverage that a story of this kind receives, a tragic story inevitably turns into profitable publicity. Sentiment is a powerful marketing tool, after all.

Many more people have witnessed the Muhammad cartoon now than would ever have been the case otherwise. Those who killed in his name have only succeeded in degrading it further, rather than instilling the fear they sought to create. Ultimately, Charlie Hebdo has become a kind of martyr for free speech; in the end it seems quite the opposite of the death knell for ‘freedom of expression’ that some have made it out to be.

Yet in their first issue after the attack the remaining team didn’t call for any reaction except forgiveness, alongside a tearful cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover. No, this wasn’t a stubborn sign that they wouldn’t back down; it was a sign of solidarity, not against Islam, but with it (albeit in their signature satiric style, which looks likely to remain intact going forward). For all the criticism that has gone their way since this incident happened, I think it was the classiest response they could’ve given. Not one of fear, but of forgiveness, humour and even an offer of friendship, from a team that have lost many of their own closest friends.

But I don’t find their ‘humour’ funny, you may respond. And here’s a little secret: neither did I. The cover that provoked this whole situation isn’t exactly hilarious, or even well drawn (perhaps that was the problem). Heck, like most of you I had no idea this magazine even existed until a few weeks ago. I didn’t care before all of this happened and I’m not suddenly rushing to buy a subscription now. They can go back to their own niche market when all of this has subsided and none of you have to endorse them or pay them any more attention. Ironically, I think religious extremism has already done enough of that in this case.

Whether their style is to your own personal taste or not is, again, beside the real point. This entire post covers my best attempts to explain why, and moreover, what that real point actually is. But perhaps one final ironic comparison will help, both to punctuate what I’ve been trying to illustrate and to eradicate any suspicion of bias you may have of me.

You see, I’m far from the only one to have realised the ignorance of that GTA V petition. It was exemplary of how much you can distort the image of something when you take certain parts of it out of context. And there were some hilarious tongue-in-cheek responses to it, as many other people started coming up with absurd petitions of their own to highlight the faults of the original (satire once again proving it’s the best mode of cutting through that mythical curtain).

None of them highlighted this to better effect than this petition to ‘withdraw the Holy Bible from shelves’, which uses much of the same language as the GTA V version (and incidentally has 62,000 supporters to GTA V’s 48,000). Like its GTA counterpart, it takes the Bible completely out of context, portraying it in a way that seems more bloody, more violent and more abusive to women than GTA V could ever be. And you know what? When you decide to play by these rules, that’s exactly what the Bible becomes; a bloody, violent, misogynistic text.

If you’re a Christian yourself, you can probably recall a point when you’ve been left frustrated by others labelling the Bible in this way. Gamers who’ve played and know GTA V well, will feel a similar way when people put the kind of ignorant labels on video games that this GTA V petition did. If you can understand that thanks to such a tongue-in-cheek illustration, then we likely find ourselves on the same page in relation to everything else I’ve talked about here. Or maybe not, and that’s fine too.

Conversations are fine, and many opinions have been changed because of them. But one must understand that for someone else to have a different opinion to you is also fine, and changing it accordingly should be their choice to do so. If they do that because you’ve won them round with a persuasive case, that’s great; certainly a better victory than if you’d done so through deception.

I think most of us would agree on that. But if, perhaps, you’re one who thinks you already have all the right answers to which you must only ‘win others round’ using the occasional scare tactic, word trickery or verbal abuse, I’m afraid you may be left frustrated, even disappointed, by the direction society is heading in.

Film essays

Misjudging Mockingjay: Why it pays to think twice.

Something around here had changed since last time... Katniss just knew it.
Something around here had changed since last time… Katniss just knew it.

I’m not usually one for end of year ‘top 10 films’ lists (mostly because a lot of very good films tend not to come from Hollywood and I’ll likely still be discovering some of them a year from now), but if I had been then The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1 would have been a shocking late entry on my list for 2014.

Shocking, because only a few weeks ago I gave it a humble 6/ 10 in my rather negative review of a film I now consider one of the most underrated of the past year. What constituted such a drastic change of mind? Well, over the festive period I saw the film for a second time with a different audience, and I found myself… somewhat more open-minded, shall we say, compared to my first time around. Sometimes that second viewing can be so much more important than the first, both for forming a more objective critical opinion and to discover possible strengths you may have originally missed or unintentionally glossed over.

In the case of Mockingjay I did overlook some of its strengths due to certain feelings I bore going into it. These two predominant feelings came through in my review, and were as follows:

1 – This is, of course, the first part of a film that I felt (and subsequently argued) should not have been split apart. On some level I still feel this way, though I have backtracked upon learning the second part of Mockingjay will actually have considerably more action than the first. What this means is; these two parts could be much more like Tarantino’s Kill Bill (within reason, of course) than I first gave it credit for, and that’s something I’m interested to see when the time comes. However, this is not really the point.

My point is, whether I felt Mockingjay should have been split in two or not, this feeling should not have had such an influence on my objective review of the standalone part 1. After all, most people involved in the making of this film would have had little to no say on the decision to do it in two parts; in the end they had to work with what they were given. I should have judged this movie on its own merit, regardless of whatever questionable decisions I felt the studio executives imposed in an attempt to boost their profit margins. Granted, the decision to split Mockingjay in two did have a certain impact on the film creatively – but not to the extent I had previously made out and, as I have already hinted at, I no longer think this business decision will turn out to be a wholly negative artistic one. So from that point of view at least, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt currently.

2 – I made the point in my review that The Hunger Games would not have been such a resounding success among young adult audiences in the West if they had been equally aware of what is generally considered its Japanese equivalent, Battle Royale (Fukasaku, 2000). While this is indeed a valid point worth making, again it should have no real effect on my overall critical opinion of The Hunger Games trilogy in their own right (I should perhaps save it for an essay in which I’ll compare the two, which may yet be coming soon). I still admit a certain preference for Fukasaku’s cool action thriller, though I couldn’t have expected author Suzanne Collins’ young adult American series to match it or even be comparable to it; Collins herself claimed never to have heard of the Japanese film before people started comparing her story to it, and one can’t deny they carry distinctly different themes, each relevant to their own culture. Closer inspection on any level shows that The Hunger Games deserves more respect than to be simply labeled a Battle Royale clone.

All well and good, you may say, but when am I going to get to the part where I talk about what was actually so good with this particular film? What’s the real reason I’ve changed my tune? In my review I did give Mockingjay credit for its themes, political subtext and great performances by its primary cast. Though to stop there, at merely ‘giving it credit’ for select parts of what is actually a very accomplished whole, was itself an injustice to the film.

The biggest problem with my review was not its contents, in fact, but rather what I left out of it. I didn’t mention director Francis Lawrence and the frankly excellent job he did in directing the film, nor the accomplished soundtrack that included the song ‘yellow flicker beat’, which was nominated for Best Original Song at the Golden Globe awards.

While I don’t want to go so far as to re-write an entire review, I will highlight something to look out for if – or should I say when – you too end up seeing the film for a second time. That is, again, the directing: there are numerous moments where Lawrence seems to be leading his audience in one direction before surprising them with something else. One particular scene towards the end, when Katniss comes face to face with Peeta again, highlights this to great effect.

This was not just a consequence of good writing; it takes equally good, if not better directing to adequately pull off on screen what may have sounded great on paper. Lawrence perfectly executes so many of Mockingjay’s dramatic sequences, though of course his job is made easier by the talented ensemble surrounding him.

Those who go into it directly off the backs of the previous two films, perhaps expecting something similar to those, will no doubt feel initially underwhelmed. This does, after all, go in a very different direction from its rather more simple predecessors. True, it may seem light on action. But it makes up for that in almost every other area.

In the end my only real problem with this movie remains its own false ending; those final shots could, I think, have been executed differently. Though I am glad to have seen and enjoyed this film again. It has been useful in humbling me to an extent; a reminder that we don’t always get everything right first time around, and first impressions can be awfully fickle.

Granted, seeing a film more than once is not always possible, practical or even preferable in some cases. The next review I plan to post is of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, a film that has had a fairly limited theatrical release in the UK and therefore one that I probably won’t see again until I can get my hands on a hard copy DVD or Blu-ray. Furthermore, unlike a professional critic, I have to pay money for every film I watch, and while I’m not complaining as I enjoy cinema trips as much as anyone else, this means I’m usually less willing to pay twice (let alone once) for a film that I may not consider good enough to warrant it. Indeed I sometimes feel they aren’t worth my precious time, never mind my money.

Mockingjay part 1 may have been an example of such a case had I not been subtly coerced into going to see it again, whereupon I gave it that second chance and was pleasantly surprised. I’m reminded also of when I liked Inception (2010) better second time around; of how I like Dr Strangelove (1964) better each time I see it; of how my enthusiasm for Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2009) was tempered slightly when I spoilt myself on multiple viewings.

This is not a promise from me to see every film twice before reviewing it. Nor will I be revisiting all of my other former reviews. I don’t have any immediate plans to re-invest my time and money on Interstellar, for example, so it won’t be getting the same treatment quite yet (and please, no-one force me to sit through The Battle of the Five Armies again).

But it is a gentle reminder to all those who are sometimes quick to criticize without first examining your reasons for it. Are these reasons objectively informed? Do you allow for the possibility that you may be wrong? And once you suspect that you are, would you be willing to stand up and admit as much? Or simply twist things around to fit your original opinion? Most of all, do you like how I’ve tried to compensate for Mockingjay part 1’s unsatisfying conclusion by attempting to come up with a deep philosophical one of my own?