Film reviews

Under the Shadow.

under-the-shadow-pic-1

Under the Shadow is an internationally co-produced (UK/ Jordan/ Qatar) horror film that has been selected as the British entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Set in 1980s war-torn Tehran during the Iran-Iraq conflict, it follows levelheaded mother Shideh and daughter Dorsa as they become increasingly unsettled not only by the continuous air strikes on their city, but an apparent supernatural evil that resides in their apartment block…

The backdrop of Islamic culture immediately brings a fresh perspective to the film – as we’re so conditioned in the West to consider anything ‘supernatural’ to basically mean ‘demons and shit’. Here we see the Islamic equivalent, with Shideh and Dorsa haunted not by a demon, but by entities known as ‘Djinn’, who are said to “travel on the wind” and, while inhabiting an unseen realm, are capable of physical interaction.

Or not, as the case may be… Under the Shadow does not entirely reveal its hand in this respect. You’ll be left wondering (at least initially) whether anything supernatural is really going on, or whether it might in fact simply be a psychological trick; the result of a large amount of stress from the harsh war environment in which Shideh and her daughter are living.

This kind of ambiguity is present in a lot of my favourite horror films – the best ones from the past few years; The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch all shared the quality of not holding your hand to explain what exactly is going on. It helps the film ooze intelligence, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks, and it’s a quality worth treasuring.

Cheap jump scares are thankfully kept to a minimum (save for one scene in which its use is forgivable). Instead, the reliance is on slow-building atmosphere. While it may take longer than some viewers would like for the payoff to kick in as the film sets the scene and builds its characters, once it starts to arrive, the movie quickly gathers pace towards a nerve-wracking finale.

Straight up, this is one of the best films of the year – at least the smartest, something I can imagine informing the field of film study in years to come – and another home run for the horror genre. If you have the slightest interest in good storytelling, horror in particular, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch Under the Shadow.

10 / 10

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Quick (or not so quick) Update.

Here’s what I have planned for this blog in the near future, in case anyone thought I’d given up on it.

Video games: my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series is still ongoing. Next on my to-do list are two of the greatest horror video games of all time, and two of my favourite games in general: the original Silent Hill (1999) and its 2001 sequel. I figured it would be fitting to get both of these out – or at least one – by the end of the month, as we are in ‘Halloween’ month after all.

Speaking of which, around Halloween time last year, while I was making the case for why the horror genre is not only great but essential, I promised another film essay, focusing on The Babadook. Granted, I kind of slipped on this one, though it’s always been on the backburner, and hopefully I will also have it out by the end of October. Believe me, I’ve thought so much about this film – my top film of 2014 – that it won’t be too difficult getting a detailed analysis down in coherent words and clicking publish. I had in fact already started working on it around this time last year.

Looking back in my ‘film essay’ category I see that I haven’t in fact published one here since last July, which really is too long, especially considering I was going along at a pace of around one per month up until then. There are two others I have planned immediately following the next: Nightcrawler and Ex Machina, arguably two of the most overlooked films of the past couple of years, and certainly two of my absolute favourites, so I want to do them some justice.

Originally I had planned my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series to, like my plan for film essays, proceed along at a pace of around one per month. Obviously that hasn’t happened for various reasons – not that I’ve just been sitting around, rather I’ve had other things to focus on in the time being – so what I’m going to do with that is, at the very least, get out the two Silent Hill articles (because honestly writing about either of those is an almost limitless joy), then write up something about Final Fantasy VIII (1999), my favourite childhood game and one belonging to a series that frequently splits even its own fans. I’ll be making my case for why VIII, rather than its predecessor, was the peak of the series overall.

After those, I’ll assess whether it’s worth continuing ‘20 Years of PlayStation’ at all. In reality it will probably end with the year 2016 (as we will then technically be into 21 years and so on), and I’ll instead focus on more modern stuff again.

I’ve also been working on an article focusing on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sport, after a year in which we’ve seen a few high profile cases of doping offences and accusations. That one doesn’t entirely follow the politically correct narrative – I think along the lines of allowing some PED’s to be used in a controlled manner, rather than banning everything outright – but I’m writing it mainly to shed some light on the stuff that people tend to overlook when it comes to ‘cheating’ (the blanket term for any offence) in sport.

Otherwise, there are four other prominent ideas for articles that I want to finish and publish here by the end of the year. Those are, first: a piece tackling the issue of review ethics and people who deride critics for any reason, from simply being a butt-hurt fan to those who accuse us of just being ‘haters’ who don’t know how to enjoy stuff.

I have a strong belief when it comes to critique; that it should not tell you what to think about a film, video game, or whatever the product/ service may be, but rather it should help you develop how you think about them. Reviews above all should inform the consumer – they’re not about telling people what they should or shouldn’t enjoy as if there’s some objective standard. Something I love may be something you hate, because everyone has different tastes; but the detail I give about that thing should be enough to tell you how you’re going to feel about it, independent of my own opinion.

Linked to this but worthy of its own article, I’m going to go into the impact that films, video games and books have each had on me personally in terms of my own development. Certain aspects of modern society actively discourage critical thinking and open-mindedness – in fact, I think it’s always been like this, but today’s culture of political correctness means we hear things like “you can’t say that” more than ever, especially on social media (my advice: whatever kind of person you are, it’s healthy to have less of that in your life).

That’s why I think this is important. Art is vital for helping people think outside the confines of the masses; it’s why I value artistic integrity and freedom of expression so highly. Many people who have a single-minded approach to issues in life, on the other hand, don’t. I heard a statement recently that stuck with me: an open mind is a learning mind. Rarely has a truer statement been made throughout history.

My final two planned articles for the year have been an even longer time coming. They are: my Best Films of 2014, and Best Films of 2015.

Now, obviously I understand that most people who like to do this sort of thing prefer to do an ‘end of year’ list and leave it at that. It’s like a nice way to wrap up the year in film, but for me none of those lists are definitive. Not that I’m saying mine would be, though here’s the thing; I consider a film that comes out in 2014, regardless of where it first comes out, to be a 2014 film.

For example, a film released in the UK in, say, early 2015, yet features heavily in awards season, is undoubtedly a 2014 film (Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, for instance) – because the Academy Awards reward the best films of the previous year. Said film will have been out in the US a few months before, but many of us living elsewhere would not have had a chance to see it yet, and it is therefore, by default, left off the list.

From my perspective, then, to make a list at the end of a calendar year would feel a little silly, bordering on dishonest, as the best films released in the UK that year would only represent around half – if that – of the year’s best films overall. I like world cinema; films from Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. And usually it takes a year or so to catch up on films from those places as their releases gradually filter out across other regions. I prefer to include those in my lists, as I want the list to be as definitive and conclusive as possible.

The other thing to note is my dislike of limiting said lists to a ‘top ten’, again usually done for efficiency (I understand; critics are busy, and wrapping up a compact top ten list at the end of the year is simpler than the method I’m currently advocating). The ‘best’ films of a year may not be limited to just ten – or perhaps in an extremely dry year, there wouldn’t even be ten worthy of inclusion.

Now, most critics actually agree with this to an extent; hence why they do some ‘honourable mentions’ that don’t quite make the top ten. For me that’s curious (why name-drop if you’re not going to detail your reasons?) but again I sort of understand why one would – it saves time, and essentially a ‘top 10’ is more marketable than, say, a ‘top 13’. I have more flexibility in my personal schedule and don’t see why I would restrict myself in that way when I’m not required to.

So basically, my lists will feature the best films of each year, whether it’s 10, 12 or 15 movies long. The 2014 list is almost ready to go and realistically I hope to have that one posted here by the start of next month. 2015, hopefully by the end of the year, and as for my 2016 list, well, I’m thinking Summer 2017 at the earliest. The good thing is, as I’m about to hit another film festival – my second such event of the year – I’ll have a decent head start on a lot of the biggest films to feature in awards season coming up. I’ll probably be writing an article around Oscar time too that will give large hints as to the films I found most impressive over the past year.

One final thing… I plan to do brief film previews (yes I am capable of writing shorter pieces!) every Friday. This will give me an opportunity to look forward to some new movies that catch my eye – that won’t necessarily get the mainstream marketing treatment – and share it with you guys. I’m frequently finding new stuff to get excited about so there’ll be no shortage of things to write about here, and I figure it might be useful to have a category for which posts are regular and somewhat set in stone going forward. That way, one could turn up here every weekend and know they’re at least getting something new, even if I haven’t otherwise written anything of great existential meaning.

Speaking of existential meaning, I’m off to prepare for one of the best times of the year: London Film Festival.

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A quick word on “horror”.

Today of all days seems to bring out the people who suddenly have a lot more than usual to say about horror and what it ‘means’. The main word they throw around in relation to horror is ‘evil’ – because in the West, it seems, that’s all this rather broad term means to people.

It’s a genre in literature and film that carries with it this inherently negative connotation. I’ve heard people say they think horror films are literally evil. They don’t specify exactly which ones, or what type of horror film they’re referring to. Horror itself is just branded ‘evil’ and in their mind, that’s simply all there is to it.

Now to a certain extent, in a manner of speaking, I might be willing to agree, if we were judging the genre exclusively by what Hollywood regurgitates with its generic production line studio movies released year-on-year. People like to be scared, and audiences in the West, much to my disdain, seem to prefer demonic jump scares over other types of horror.

Yes, there are other types, you know. Horror is bigger than ‘demons’ and ‘monsters’; indeed often the most monstrous elements of some of the best horror films or literature have little or nothing to do with the supernatural – at least not overtly. There is such a thing as subtlety, after all.

Not that I’m saying there is any problem with art portraying the supernatural. It’s been overdone in horror, especially in the Christian-dominated West, but there is no problem with one enjoying it. A film portraying the image of a demon does not make that demon real, even if you otherwise believe they are so. It is a story – even if based on a ‘true’ account (and take such a claim with a pinch of salt, especially when it’s Hollywood doing the claiming), it is still merely a portrayal of something put together to provide some kind of entertainment. You may not find entertainment in it personally. That’s fine – when it comes to a lot of stuff Hollywood does, nor do I.

Someone else will, and someone else does. You know why? Because we’re different; we have different tastes and opinions, and someone who doesn’t share your own does not necessarily fall into the default ‘evil’ category.

I have always enjoyed horror from a young age. I kind of enjoy the feeling of being unsettled; of being on the edge of my seat; of smiling in satisfaction when a film or book is suitably frightening. A lot of people won’t quite understand that – if they say they do they’d usually say so in a somewhat condescending fashion – and I have no problem with that. I’ve never expected nor particularly wanted everyone else to share my tastes or opinions, because these are things that are personal to each of us. To spend your time trying to force them onto others is, in the end, to rob yourself of your own individuality. If everyone was like you, you wouldn’t quite be you any more.

My next film essay will focus on one of my favourite films of 2014, and what has become quite possibly my favourite horror movie of all time: The Babadook. I love this movie for many more reasons than its genre, yet its genre is central to its power as a film and the story it tells.

There is a monster in The Babadook – as its title states – though it is not your typical supernatural fare. It is instead very much a ‘psychological’ horror movie; one in which the true monster is suppressed feelings such as guilt, anger, grief, depression… These things are all very real, intrinsic in most of us, and yet they are things many of us do not like facing or even acknowledging. We go through life thinking we can ‘get by’ without truly dealing with certain issues because it may be too painful to do so. The Babadook, if nothing else (though there is a lot more to it), is a film about facing up to these things, and you know what? To do so is scary. It can be extremely frightening in fact. But in facing up to them, you’ll most likely come out the other side stronger; more comfortable and confident in yourself.

That is a side of horror that I think is often neglected. So yes, though Halloween was not really the central point of me writing this short piece, I for one hope the tradition continues for many generations to come. I hope horror in general continues to make people confront things they feel uncomfortable with. I hope we never get to a point where we’d rather brush it all under the carpet and walk around with sugar-coated smiles as we celebrate how blissfully ignorant we all are. Not on my watch.

The horror genre is, for me, the most raw, the most emotional of all genres. If more people gave it a chance I think it would help them learn a little more about themselves than they knew beforehand. But hey, if you’d still say it’s just not your thing, that’s cool. If you don’t have the same tastes as I do, I get it. Though at least now, having taken the time to glance through this, I’d like to think you won’t simply categorise me as someone who likes ‘celebrating evil’ or something.

That kind of dogma is the very thing good horror exposes, actually. Perhaps, deep down, that’s why they fear it.

Film reviews

The Gift.

Gift pic 1.

“You may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you.”

Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is the latest in a string of impressive directorial debuts over the past year. My two favourite films of 2014, The Babadook and Nightcrawler were also the debuts of their respective directors, as was Ex Machina earlier this year and most recently Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. These are genuinely excellent films for a new generation, from a new generation of filmmakers, and as someone who likes seeing fresh ideas rather than the same repeating patterns, it’s one of the few recent industry trends that I find exciting.

Does Edgerton’s movie belong in the same category as those other films? I think it comes close, and is certainly one of the more interesting cinema releases this summer.

Fresh off his portrayal of Ramesses in Exodus: Gods and Kings – arguably the best thing about that film alongside Christian Bale’s Moses – Edgerton emphatically proves with The Gift that he is much more than the proverbial one-trick pony, in both his acting ability and in an accomplished sense of direction which helps turn what could have been – indeed what starts out as – another generic Hollywood thriller, into something much more intriguing.

Having said that, its secret is actually quite simple: plotting. The Gift captures the essence of what makes you come back to any good story, winding one way and then another, before a surprising and satisfactory conclusion. It begins with a happily married couple, Simon (played by Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) moving to a new house, Simon having just secured a new job. They seem to have a picture-perfect lifestyle, though little details over the course of the film’s first half reveal that Robyn may have had recent issues with mental health and/ or drug addiction.

Once they’ve moved in, they soon meet Gordon ‘Gordo’ Moseley (played by Edgerton himself), a stranger who claims to know Simon from school. Gordo comes across suitably creepy at first; while he does not appear overly threatening, you get the feeling you wouldn’t want to leave him alone with your kids. He starts to leave harmless gifts on the couple’s doorstep as a way of welcoming them to the neighbourhood, and as the film goes on you begin to wonder when we’ll finally discover his true intentions. This undercurrent of slight unease from start to finish is one of the movie’s core strengths.

The Gift does a great job, exemplified through Edgerton’s ambiguous character, of luring you in with a seemingly formulaic set-up before turning certain plot elements on their head. As the story progresses, especially towards the final third, you begin to suspect Gordo might not be such a bad guy at all; while his presence unsettles the relationship between Simon and Robyn, you get the sense that might not be his fault, but rather an unspoken aspect of the past that gradually changes how we see one of these main characters.

Yes, this is a movie about how our past sins can come back to haunt us, but it also goes a little further than that; suggesting that our past sins or mistakes, if not adequately dealt with, are actually indicative of who we are today. We see, as more details are revealed, that said character is essentially the same person they were then – and their lack of remorse or ability to see themselves as having done anything truly wrong is eventually used against them.

The surprises don’t stop there with this film, though any further details should really be experienced in the cinema rather than a review. Needless to say, The Gift is one of my favourite films of the summer. It won me over with its simplicity, and I think it will likely do the same for you.

9 / 10

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 reviews

The Water Diviner.

"I did it! I became a Director!"
“I did it! I became a Director!”

It seems appropriate that The Water Diviner should get its UK release over the Easter weekend. A film for all the family, with a feeling of deep spiritual significance; it is one of the few truly conservative Christian-friendly recent movie releases. Even the most easily offended are unlikely to find something to hate about it. Aside from the fact, maybe, that it’s directed by Russell Crowe, ‘the guy from that Noah film’ last year which dared to take liberties with its source material.

This being Crowe’s directorial debut, one cannot blame him for coming up with what feels like a rather safe effort here. A ‘historical fiction’ drama, the film sees main character Joshua Connor, played by Crowe himself, going in search of his missing sons thought killed in conflict during the first World War. Upon discovering that one of them could still be alive, and led by an unknown (almost prophetic) compulsion which people will likely attribute to God’s divine guidance, Connor intensifies his search for the lost son in the same way a shepherd refuses to stop pursuing a lost sheep – even should that sheep not wish to be found.

Along the way Connor becomes romantically involved with a recently widowed Turkish woman (French actress and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko); a plot detail I would have found more believable had Connor himself not just buried his own wife before setting off on his journey, after she committed suicide in the film’s opening. This element contributes to an overall feeling of ‘going through the storytelling motions’ – I got the sense that the only reason The Water Diviner contained romance at all was because it is simply what one puts in the script for any typical big budget historical drama.

Interestingly my favourite parts of the film had little to do with the characters themselves or their relationships with each other. It has a couple of political statements in mind regarding war-time ethics and the fine moral lines that are sometimes crossed by those whom we would otherwise consider to be the ‘good side’, in order to get the best outcome for themselves. The film does have something useful and informative to offer about Turkish-British-Greek relations in the aftermath of the first World War, and Turkish cultural norms are also challenged, in this case predictably for the sake of love. But in truth none of these things are unique concepts that had me excited about this film.

That The Water Diviner tied with The Babadook for Best Film at this year’s Aacta awards (the Australian equivalent of the Oscar’s) was, I think, indicative of a certain conflict within some sectors of the film industry when it comes to pleasing their audience. On the one hand, it represents a great injustice that these two films are made out to be equal in their quality. As directorial debuts go, Jennifer Kent blows Crowe out of the water. Hers is simply the superior film by far…

Yet I know many in an average audience may disagree. Those who don’t like to be provoked to think too much about their viewing experience will perhaps prefer The Water Diviner; a film that wears its heart and all of its other components on its sleeve. You have here all the parts necessary for a typical ‘feel-good’ experience, with a conservative romantic subplot and a happy ending to follow a story of tragedy. If that kind of thing sounds good to you then, by all means, don’t let the fact that I found the film to be a distinctly average, unoriginal movie harm your enjoyment of it.

For the rest of you, The Babadook is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

5 / 10

My Top 25 Films

14. Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler pic 1.

Do you know what ‘fear’ stands for? False Evidence Appearing Real.”

Those who claim Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Nightcrawler represents a career best for the actor are not exaggerating. For all the talent Gyllenhaal has shown in the past – not least in 2013’s Enemy, which also appeared on this list at number 21 – his starring role here as the somewhat sociopathic but disarmingly charming Lou Bloom is a portrayal deserving of comparisons with a young Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976).

I stated when talking about The Babadook that it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the cinema. Well, my second viewing of Nightcrawler was perhaps THE most memorable cinematic experience I’ve had. During awards season recently, the film briefly appeared for a second theatrical run, late showings only, and it was courtesy of one of these late (and very sparsely populated) screenings that I experienced Nightcrawler the way I believe it should be experienced – at midnight, with little or no company. Curious as that may sound, it helps put you in a similar mindset to Lou Bloom himself, whose ‘profession’ in this film sees him literally crawling the streets at night in his car, with a camera in tow, hoping to film a newsworthy piece to sell to the highest bidding news station for broadcast on the morning news.

The film highlights the ethically grey environment of American broadcast journalism; stories are often added to or even largely fabricated, and of course sensationalised, to get people tuning in again. It is within this murky environment that the ambitious Bloom, whose interest in others relates to how they can further his own plans, is able to flourish. Nightcrawler takes you on this journey with him, from his first job through his gradual rise up the ladder. Every step of the way you can’t help but admire the man, though it is an apprehensive admiration due to his ambiguous moral compass.

Like The Babadook, I can see this film possibly rising higher on my list given time. Also like The Babadook, it is by a first time director in Dan Gilroy, and this was perhaps a factor in both films being overlooked at this year’s Oscars. Why is Nightcrawler currently higher on my list? Well, I’d say that has at least something to do with its soundtrack by James Newton Howard, which perfectly fits with its night-time setting and resonated with me more than any other from last year. Next time this film crosses your path, take the opportunity to invest a little time in it, and you too may end up with a new favourite.