Review: ‘A Silent Voice’

Beautiful and gut-wrenching, a portrait of adolescence.

A-Silent-Voice-Screenshot-01

[Content Warning: This film deals with suicide. If you need help please call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.]

A Silent Voice is a film that gently reaches in and shakes us awake. It may be beautifully drawn and elegantly stylised, but its subject matter is raw, tangible, and ever so real.

The film concerns a bully, named Shōya. He’s scruffy and rude, and the cruelty he inflicts upon his peers is absolutely brutal and almost difficult to watch. We shouldn’t be drawn to like him, but we are. This isn’t a two-dimensional villain, this a child coping with a lot of pain. One of the most confronting scenes involves his mother trying to burn his earnings out of desperation – she loves him, but she hurts him, because she herself is hurt, and so it goes around in circles. As a teenager, Shōya buries his own suffering by refusing to even form connections, never peering too closely at those surrounding him – indicated by the literal crosses scrawled carelessly over the faces of everyone he can’t see. The camera in this film mimics the claustrophobia of social anxiety – it skates dizzily past dozens of Shōya’s peers. The only time the camera pauses is when it captures a glimpse of the isolated-yet-charming Shōko.

Shōko is the other key character, a deaf girl who was Shōya’s primary victim as a child. She is bewilderingly kind despite her suffering, and bravely refuses to sink to the level of her tormentors. Her patience is the perfect bridge to teach Shōya how to become friends with others and to forgive, even if that is something she cannot do for herself. Her sweetness is something of a double-edged sword, however. At times, it is as though she has almost no agency, and for a character who ought to be a central protagonist, she is often sidelined. Similarly, the secondary character Ueno has a complicated developmental arch that doesn’t necessarily result in her redemption. She floats somewhere between enemy and friend throughout, but perhaps that is exactly the point. The film also has some difficulty with pace, occasionally feeling drawn-out, particularly towards the end.

A Silent Voice is a film of actions and consequences. The protagonists are so unable to forgive themselves that they both attempt suicide – and the topic is undertaken with extraordinary self-awareness. Suicide is not a mere plot-point, it is the film’s undercurrent, constantly threatening to rear its ugly head. From this pit of internalised hatred, the question is posed of whether one can be absolved of past misdeeds, and whether one should be. Nevertheless, this film is visually beautiful, with a springtime colour palette and appropriate scenic design. One of the most tragic scenes is Shōko’s clumsy attempt to convey her affections for her friend – an awkward manifestation, but a very true-to-life one. It seems strange that a film bound by the unreal conventions of animation could possibly be so palpable, but it is. A Silent Voice will tug at your heart-strings until there is nothing left. Its strongest point is that it never strays too far from its authentic vision of young people, their struggles and salvation.

Review: ‘Things to Come’ (L’Avenir) (2016)

“The future seems compromised.”

thingstocome

Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest directional accomplishment features none other than the esteemed Isabelle Huppert, proving that together they can do no wrong. Things to Come is an uncannily perceptible portrait of an aging woman whose domestic life is dramatically overturned. Hers is a transitional journey, marked by resilience in the face of an existential crisis.

The first thing we notice about our protagonist, Nathalie, is how much she values the study of philosophy. Academia gives her meaning, and her students gives her purpose. Notably, her house is littered with books – cramming the shelves, resting on cabinets, piled on tables. Yet her work is constantly interrupted by her unwell mother (played to perfection by Édith Scob) whose calls become increasingly frantic, increasingly frustrating, increasingly sad – until they finally cease. Then the husband is gone, and Nathalie is free, but alone.

The film is gently paced throughout. For instance, Hansen-Løve recognises that we don’t need to see the mother’s death – the look on Huppert’s face is enough. Show, rather than tell, seems to be the principle here. Nathalie grieves the losses in her life, privately, but refuses to be conquered by them. She focuses on other pursuits – bonding with her new grandchild and reconnecting with a radical ex-student of hers, refusing to fall in a heap. How impressive to be so strong, and how eye-opening that she had to be. Things to Come is a meditative reflection on middle-age, and, concurrently, a snapshot from the life of an intellectual. It remains confined to a singular vision; a vision which expands until it pulls us inside. This is a modern sensation, a tour-de-force from start to astonishing finish.

Review: ‘Colossal’ (2016)

Sometimes small actions create big ripples.

Colossal-Day06_00462.dng

Colossal is completely self-aware of the classic monster-movie format. It is humorously self-parodying, but wisely does not mock the genre. Instead, it chooses to redefine it. This time, audiences are not faced with a vengeful beast seeking to destroy a city, but rather a displaced giant unintentionally wreaking havoc. The giant is also, surprisingly, an unemployed train-wreck called Gloria (Anne Hathaway) – and what better way to humanise a monster than to literally render it as a person?

The film has an interesting definition of what it means to be hard-up – Gloria miserably wanders around a dilapidated-yet-impressive looking mansion, complete with a swimming pool – while Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Shake Sugaree’ plays unironically. Apart from this somewhat odd presentation of poverty, Hathaway is a believable alcoholic, complete with her slurred speech and washed-up appearance. There are a bundle of laughs to be had, mostly at her expense as she staggers hopelessly through each day, until a drunken display of bravado at the park turns tragic.

Tonally, Colossal manages to glide effortlessly from fun monster-rampage to sombre verisimilitude. Time is deftly telescoped, manifesting itself as changes in Gloria’s environment and attitude. This is a tale split between two worlds, each with an array of parallel consequences stemming from the same problem – an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. When Gloria does hold herself (and others) accountable, it is powerful, freeing and refreshingly feminist. For a film that supposedly revolves around a terrifying behemoth, Colossal stays sensibly grounded in the lives of its human protagonist. This is a film that knows people are much larger than giants – and more interesting, too.

Review: ‘The Neon Demon’ (2016)

As beautiful as it is horrifying.

neondemon

It’s an old tale from Greek mythology – when the handsome Narcissus saw himself reflected in the pool, he fell in love with his own image. In the twenty-first century, narcissism permeates our daily lives – in magazines, in selfies, in clothing. Somehow, vanity became a virtue – a concept that Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon brutally deconstructs.

Young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) is initially fresh-faced and eager, but is soon confronted with the bitter, sardonic personas of her new peers. It becomes increasingly obvious that the fashion world is one that fetishises youth, but Jesse quickly learns how to take advantage of her beauty. Indeed, her appearance is really all that she has – she is not particularly intelligent or skilled in any other way. In the world of The Neon Demon, beauty is truly all that matters, it is “the highest currency”. And from the establishing shot, beauty is interwoven with death – after all, what is dead can still be perfect to the eye, and the living counterpart is sometimes just as hollow. Men play a secondary role in the fashion industry – they are gatekeepers, photographers, but never the stars, and disappear entirely from the film’s second act. Women are allowed to triumph – but only if they fight tooth-and-claw in what is, transparently, a dog-eat-dog microcosm.

This is a surprisingly low-budget film, given the amazing visuals. Colour is used wisely; predominantly blue, like the pool of Narcissus, and red – the colour of menstrual blood and lipstick. And the entire film is held together by an exciting electro-synth score, designed by Cliff Martinez. Despite the heavy subject matter, there is also an amazingly dark sense of humour present, even if it is occasionally a little heavy-handed and overstated. We are never told exactly what the titular Neon Demon is, but we can ascertain that it has something to do with the cutthroat fashion industry, the lure of pride and the not-so-innocuous heroine herself. In the end, the real threat is posed by the other women, creatures of malice who would do anything to have Jesse’s enigmatic “thing” – the unattainable quality of innocence.

Review: ‘Under the Skin’ (2014)

An erotic nightmare.

undertheskin1

The opening sequence of Under the Skin is a pastiche of shape and colour, with faint babble in the background. It encompasses the beginnings of form, language and the creation of the eye; setting the scene for what develops into a transcendental piece of cinema.

The unnamed alien protagonist prowls Scotland in search of men, preying on them as coldly as possible. She is the observer, untouchable. Her remorseless is demonstrated in a disturbing scene where she casually abandons an orphaned infant. She is an outsider whose ability to charm men is both her asset and only advantage. Then, she makes the human mistake of tripping over, and everything falls apart. The film asks us whether one can imitate a woman without becoming one, and the more the alien tries to fight her body, the more it seems to engulf her. She begins to awkwardly demonstrate her vulnerability – perhaps unwillingly. And the more she feels at home in her female skin, the more unsafe she is. Skin becomes a motif which is threaded throughout the film, each time reminding us that what is on the surface is sometimes all that anyone can see.

In terms of presentation, Under the Skin derives a sense of genuine humanity from improvised acting by unwitting persons. Scotland is a muted hell, a “nowhere” where people can disappear, both figuratively and literally. The bleak landscape creates a disquieting atmosphere, aided greatly by Mica Levi’s fantastic score. Most impressively, Under the Skin subverts expectation with some bewildering and sensual scenes that are abstract enough to provoke questions, but centred enough to anchor the film in one place. There is a focus here from open to close, resulting in a very complete, if equivocal, piece of cinema.

Review: ‘The Fits’ (2015)

A powerfully hypnotic debut from director Anna Rose Holmer.

thefits2

It is rare to see a film in which each sound feels so carefully produced. In the first few seconds of The Fits, we hear but a whisper – a whisper which later becomes a voice. There is little dialogue here, most of which comes from secondary characters, and not the near-silent protagonist. The result is that her voice, when it does speak, echoes through the building and reverberates off the walls.

Rhythm is a key component of this film. Music, sometimes non-diagetic, compels our heroine Toni to dance – quite badly, each limb spasming out of control, her body exploding in every direction but without form. Her movements mimic the real seizures that play out over and over again, somehow always in the corner of the frame, far away. Toni isn’t afraid of the eponymous epidemic sweeping across her community centre; after all, she doesn’t behave like the other girls. There’s a distinctly masculine energy surrounding her, from her enjoyment of boxing with her older brother to the subtle moment she expresses disinterest at being told to pose with hands on hips. She isn’t scared, or maybe she is. But what of? This film has no clear villain, no obvious threat.

The intriguing thing about The Fits is the suggestion that the seizures are not out of the girl’s control. They somehow become a rite of passage, a test of one’s ability to belong to the selective clique of womanhood. Without this hint, the film would be an uncomplicated thriller; with it, the film treads a delicate line between ambiguity and reveal. The final moment of surrender is breathtaking and resonant. This is a film that hits every beat, and throws a few punches in along the way; a tale that has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

Visually exquisite, but haunted by its origins.

ghost-in-the-shell-trailer-comparison

What makes us human? Is it our thoughts, our sense of self, our mind? Or is it our bodies, our physiology? Ghost in the Shell (2017) touches on these questions in a superficial way, while delivering incredible action sequences set in a visually sublime postmodern Tokyo.

It is necessary to acknowledge the political shadow that has been cast over this film since the early days of production. Happily, the majority of the cast is international; there is a fair amount of japanese dialogue and the acting is engaging – from Kuze’s pitiful twitches to The Major’s intense stare. Mamoru Oshii, director of the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) believes that Johansson was right for the role. And yes, the fictional landscape of Ghost in the Shell complicates the idea of racial representation – bodies are just vessels to be modified, mechanical and almost obsolete. At the same time, our twenty-first century world is one in which race does matter, where lack of visibility continues to marginalise outsiders, and where representation becomes important. It is an issue which cannot help but leave an uncomfortable mark on an otherwise well-presented film.

Ghost in the Shell is also a remake. This inherently requires it to walk a delicate line between paying tribute to the source material and reinventing it. This is done quite well – die-hard fans will appreciate the nearly identical scenes taken from the first film, such as the garbage-truck shootout – and the new choices feel natural and build upon existing lore. With a saturated colour pallet and a techno-dirty aesthetic, Ghost in the Shell is thrilling and beautiful. Its weakest point is the plot, which requires a few leaps of logic and feels somewhat oversimplified. It lacks the intriguing philosophy that fans of the franchise may expect. Regardless, the development of a classic revenge-based narrative fits with the style of the film and delivers a satisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell survives the remake process mostly intact. It stands alone as an action-thriller with an intrinsic backdrop and well-choreographed fight scenes. It is a must-see for cyberpunk enthusiasts new and old.