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A Film Diary

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Watched: 10 November

Insyriated (released as In Syria in some countries) is an intense family drama by Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw that’s set in the war-torn city of Damascus. The action takes place within one appartment, into which a matriarch and another young family have barricaded themselves while opposing forces battle on the streets below. I’m not sure whether the intention was to accurately describe a typical situation that a family may have faced or may currently be facing in Syria to those of us watching from outside the country – and to that end I have no idea whether the director himself has ever set foot in the state – but it’s certainly a well-acted, claustrophobic and tense chamber piece, while the narrow focus and single setting seems to bring the best out of Hiam Abbass in the lead role. Let’s just forget about the terrible pun made by the title. (***)

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Watched: 9 November

Taika Waititi’s superhero comedy is often a lot of fun: for a sustained two hour period, silly slapstick has been combined with surrealism and the usual hero-v-hero one-upmanship to create a film that is funnier than James Gunn’s brace of Guardians Of The Galaxy movies, which have hitherto been considered the benchmark for laughter-inducing MCU fare; it also shares with those films, and last year’s Doctor Strange, a good grasp of Marvel’s more cosmic, vibrant, acid-y leanings. I chuckled a fair few times during this, and I think Chris Hemsworth has proven his chops as an excellent comic actor during the past couple of years; the majority of his scenes here as Thor work well, whether he’s opposite Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) or Waititi himself (sort of – he voices a gladiator named Korg). I also enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok’s colourful, Flash Gordon-style campness, perhaps best personified by Jeff Goldblum’s oddball turn as the leader of a garbage dump planet, as well as Cate Blanchett’s scenery-chewing big bad. Sadly, though, there’s yet another rote plot about potential world destruction to contend with (in this case Asgard, Thor’s home), which is a concern that Waititi wisely ignores for long periods, and I’ve lost count of the number of times the undefeatable villain trope has been trotted out before said character is taken down by a plucky combination of heroes during a final battle. You know what you’re going to get by now, though. (***)

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Watched: 9 November

Calm, meditative and experimental slow cinema, Le Quattro Volte comprises four separate stages, or ‘turns’, a structure that has been inspired by a theory developed by Pythagoras (though I must admit this reference went completely over my head at the time of watching). We see life in a mountain village in southern Italy, first concentrating on an elderly goatherd who drinks a potion each night containing dust from the floor of the local church, which supposedly has healing properties (this represents the human realm). The cycles that follow depict the town after local residents have left for a procession and goats have ‘taken over’ (the animal realm), a lone fir tree standing tall throughout the seasons (the plant realm) and then finally a kind of mineral realm as the tree is chopped down and made into charcoal for the fires of local people. There is little-to-no dialogue, so we mostly hear the bleating of the goats, the ringing of their bells and natural sounds. It’s all very relaxing and the way in which we return to different scenes at different points in the year is reassuring. (***½)

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Watched: 8 November

Mamoru Hosoda’s anime was a huge box office success in Japan during 2015, though typically it took a couple of years before making it to the UK (and even then there was just the usual blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cinema release). It’s a charming story of a young boy named Ren who ends up homeless on the streets of Shibuya after his mum dies and he decides not to live with his step-father. One night Ren meets with a warrior beast – called Kumatetsu – who comes from a kingdom that exists on another plane, in which a fully-functioning society is populated by anthropomorphic animals. Much of the subsequent action, which involves Ren taking a position as apprentice to Kumatetsu as the latter fights for control of the realm, takes place within this beast world, though Mamoru switches the focus back to Tokyo as Ren finds himself being drawn back during the second half of the story. Though the film’s scenario is strange, the plot is disappointingly predictable once set in motion, but it’s certainly nice to look at and worth a watch if you like the way Japanese animated films often fizz to-and-fro between reality and fantasy. (***)

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Watched: 7 November

I sometimes feel that Steven Soderbergh’s films can seem a little rushed, and as a result certain entries in his filmography are a little rough around the edges (that’s part of the appeal for many people, and it’s hardly surprising anyway given the amount of films he directs and/or produces each year). Anyway, I think that’s the case for Contagion, a supposedly-realistic depiction of an outbreak of a deadly virus, which spreads quickly across China and the US (though not, apparently, anywhere else). Concentrating on a number of different characters in various locations, it zips along at a fair old lick, successfully capturing the sense of panic caused by both misinformation and shortages of medicine. There are implicit and explicit criticisms of bloggers, the media (who are quick to let any old voice appear as an authority on a subject without properly vetting their credentials), the nepotistic actions of those in government and large organisations and of human behaviour generally, but the film does strike some positive notes by the end. Matt Damon’s the only Soderbergh regular among the cast, playing a grieving family man, though Jude Law – an oily conspiracy theorist with a wide reach on social media – has worked with the director since this movie, on Side Effects. Elsewhere it’s a bit of a Hollywood who’s who, with the likes of Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet popping up (before abruptly popping off in some cases). Soderbergh’s own muted cinematography – employing that slight yellow tinge on occasion – isn’t something I’m particularly fond of, and it sometimes feels as if there are too many stories crammed in together here to do justice to any of them at all. But it has things to say about the world, and it says them in a reasonably clear and concise manner. (***)

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Rewatched: 6 November

I hadn’t seen Joe Dante’s Gremlins for years before this viewing, and though it shows its age somewhat with the whole early 1980s Asian-American faux-mysticism thing (see also Big Trouble in Little China and The Golden Child), it’s undeniably a lot of fun, cleverly combining the cosiness of Rockwellian small town America at Christmas with a more malevolent, mischievous and violent streak. The gremlins, once they begin to appear, are pretty amusing and remain so, while Dante’s constant homages to the cinema of his youth – particularly 1950’s sci-fi – are rather sweet and infectious. There’s a keen sense of anarchy in the film, culminating when the director blows up an entire cinema during the big set piece, plus it features Phoebe Cates and one of the Coreys (Feldman), which is always cause for celebration. In fact, Gremlins makes for a pretty good summation of the era, a statement I will attempt to back up by pointing out that it’s also clearly supposed to be an allegory for the spread of Communism within the USA, or rather a satire on long-held fears of a ‘Red Menace’. (****)

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Finished: 5 November

An incredibly thorough and informative documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynne Novack, who combine archive footage and interviews with an excellent soundtrack – which balances Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score with obvious but expensively-licensed late 60s/early 70s hits – and some stunning still photography. I appreciated the attempts to provide a balanced view of events, with talking-head screen time divided equally between American and Vietnamese survivors of the war. It’s frequently moving, with facts presented clearly and simply, and as per Burns’ earlier series on the American Civil War and the Second World War it’s a must if you’ve any interest in military history. I should note that I watched the 10-hour BBC edit, rather than the 18-hour PBS original, simply because the former was the only version available for me to watch in the UK. I will try and seek out the latter someday. (*****)