‘Let’s kill this thing’ – Alien: Covenant review

Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: John Logan and Dante Harper
Released: May 2017

i. Pros

All aboard the toned-down hype train. Prometheus may be remembered (/lamented) for many things, but its legacy is a current buzzkill for Alien: Covenant. Gone is the thrill of Ridley Scott returning for another Alien, gone is the adolescent nerd-gasm of replaying 80s youth. The irony is, Covenant is far better than Prometheus. If it came first, it may have proved to be a Force Awakens instead of the Phantom Menace Alien fanboys were served in 2012.

It’s a little bizarre to climb aboard an 80s spaceship in the sleek-shine days of Interstellar and The Martian. But what Guardians of the Galaxy does for nostalgia through its soundtrack, Covenant does through set design. The ship’s interface looks like NightRider meets Tron on neon-steroids. The block-iness of the ship’s corridors remind us of a simpler time. And the delightfully uncool trapper hats the crew wear on-planet lend the film a lo-fi charm.

Which is a weird coupling, as there is some decidedly hi-fidelity SFX on show too. We get to see at least three different incarnations of the least-zen xenomorph in the galaxy. From long-grass velociraptor version, to chest-burster’s long-lost cousin – aka spine exploder.  It’s a creative feat that this much Alien is allowed on screen and it still be this scary – perhaps achieved by doing the exact opposite of everything in Alien3.

What’s impressive about Alien: Covenant is its physicality. For locations based in the 22nd century, there’s a down-to-earth quality here that’s missing from much modern sci-fi. The incessant rain on Planet Alien helps this no end. Computers and high-tech gadgets are water-spattered, cloaked in permanent shower, which minimises their potentially ethereal body-lessness. The excellent quality of sound design is due big thanks too: every Alien screech, lander explosion and deep-ship mossy drip populates a dynamic and earthy soundscape.

covenant2

David (Fassbender): ‘Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair’

ii. Cons

While it blows recent Alien incarnations out of the water, Covenant is far from perfect. Perhaps the film’s biggest strength and weakness is the same thing: it looks the part.

While the charm of Scott’s vision holds sway for the first half, it starts to drag as we realise we’re supposed to care about the characters being picked off. The fact is, most of them are completely disposable. The only way we know they’re part of the same crew from the start is because there’s only one group of humans in the entire film. Katherine Waterston (as Daniels) does a great job at looking like the next independent-female-Ripley-re-tread, but is given precious little to build on in terms of actual character. Most of her emotional expression comes from crying – it’s not five minutes in that we see her partner die, and it seems like she doesn’t get to leave this grieving, shattered state of consciousness all movie. We aren’t even given enough time to get annoyed by Kevin McBride, which says something about how well we know these characters.

An exception might be made for synthetic tag-along Walter, played by Michael Fassbender. He pulls double time here, as we reunite with Prometheus’ sole-interesting crew member, android David. Seeing Fassbender compete with himself – first using a gruff, unrelenting American brogue, before switching to the Lawrence of Arabia aping, clipped-syllable candour of the late great Peter O’Toole – is sure to set ovaries alight across the universe.

It’s in these Fassbender-doppelgänger sequences that Covenant touches on its most interesting themes. The well-trodden Frankenstein model (man vs creator) checks in, but so does a discussion of Artificial Intelligence’s relation to creativity (not to mention the morals of species expansion). There’s points when one wonders if the AI argument might’ve made better subject matter for a Blade Runner sequel: strangely, the upcoming Blade Runner: 2049 instead sees Scott take a producer’s backseat.

All in all, it’s a satisfying outing. There’s glorious gore in the xenomorph’s ritual-picking-off of this turn’s motley crew. And Scott revels in reigniting his sci-fi roots in Walter/David’s internal battle. It’s just a shame the humans don’t get the same depth of treatment. It might not be a surprise to hear criticism levelled at Scott in the future, in the mould of misanthropic-master Stanley Kubrik, claiming that his direction neglects a story’s Human factor. Once again, it’s aliens and robots that stand out here.

 

Other films mentioned:


Lawrence of Arabia / 1962 / Lean
Tron /
1982 / Lisberger

Blade Runner / 1982 / Scott
Alien3 / 1992 / Fincher
The Lost World: Jurassic Park II / 1997 / Spielberg
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace / 1999 / Lucas
Prometheus /
2012 / Scott

Guardians of the Galaxy / 2014 / Gunn
Interstellar / 2014 / Nolan
Star Wars: The Force Awakens / 2015 / Abrams
The Martian /
2015 / Scott
Blade Runner: 2049 /
2017 / Villeneuve

 

The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer, 2015) W/Q&A by Louis Theroux

‘Human capacity for evil depends on our ability to lie to ourselves’

Joshua Oppenheimer, 2015

 

If technology has a ‘bleeding edge’, so does cinema. Films like ‘CitizenFour’, the Edward Snowden documentary, provide an analogous case for art, where the story’s telling poses substantial risk to filmmakers and their participants. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s diptych exploring the 1965 Indonesian genocide, The Act of Killing (2012) and its current companion The Look of Silence, we have a much bloodier, sharper edge.

It is the edge of a machete which Amir Hassan and Inong wish they had brought back with them to Snake River, so that they might re-enact their killing of innocent people more faithfully. It is the double-edged sword of memory, on one side repressed by the victim community, on the other, glorified and revelled in by the perpetrators. It is the veiled edge of government threats to the filmmaker and his subject’s family, who in daring to question the actions of a military dictatorship which committed genocide in the 1965-6 ‘revolution’, confronts a government which still rules today.

Oppenheimer’s subject is Adi Rukun, who discusses the murder of his brother, Ramli, with those who remember his death. Amongst them are his parents, his uncle, and most strikingly the men who murdered Ramli and a million others like him. Each party’s reluctance to talk is an attitude forged in 50 years of silence, enforced by victorious killers who continue to live amongst their victim’s families.

Both sides agree, the past is past, and at times we doubt alongside Adi that he might be mistaken in disturbing rested soil. But as he digs deeper, the necessity of revisiting the past becomes clear. In images mirroring those of Hassan and Inong, who Adi sees revisit Snake River on a small television at the film’s beginning, Adi and his uncle retread the same ground. The killers’ retelling is one of jovial observations and wistful remembrance, two old friends debating the details of shared experience. The victim’s response is the polar opposite – solemn, praying of their Gods to let the dead rest peacefully. In a later clip from the same video, the killers make peace signs and pose for pictures next to the site of Ramli’s death.

The murderers are shown to appreciate beauty, in nature – as they stop to admire a flower – and in human art – as they draw pictures to remember the massacre. As Louis Theroux observed in his introduction to the film, the ‘weirdest thing about weird people is how normal they are’. His quote is supposed to make us relate to the abnormal, and see ourselves in their supposed ‘otherness’. But after Oppenheimer’s film, empathy becomes a bitter pill to swallow.

Adi’s considered, pensive persona is all the more remarkable as a result. He is a man of quiet intelligence, who knows when to hold his tongue, but whose indignation is palpable as he conducts his interviews. Oppenheimer revealed afterward that Adi actually shot one sequence in The Look of Silence, where his father finally loses the memories of his family, his home, and his dead son; crawling around his room shouting ‘this is not my house!’ As Adi explains, this is moment it became too late for his father to achieve closure – where the victim and aggressor are both lost in the passage of time.

Adi looks on, with quiet reserve and enduring compassion

Adi looks on, with quiet reserve and enduring compassion

Oppenheimer shows us multiple methods of engagement with the past, and here the victims/perpetrators are in unlikely communion. Neither wishes to delve into what has already happened. Adi’s parents say there is ‘no use raising it now’. His uncle says ‘remembering is asking for trouble…the world has healed.’ On the flipside, these comments carry the threat of further violence. Amir Siahaan assures Adi that if he ‘keeps making it an issue, then the past will repeat itself’. In a moment which signifies the danger of the project, Siahaan asks his brother’s name and subdistrict, which Adi refuses to grant him for fear of repercussions upon his family. We are reminded of the singular nature of Oppenheimer’s project: cinema has never before captured a victim’s interview with murderers while the latter is still in power.

In a gracefully observed metaphor, Adi conducts eye examinations on his murderous interviewees. Their refusal to see through another’s eyes are in parallel with their declining powers of sight. Oppenheimer later explains the practical use for this mechanism, which decreases the risk of violence and threats by putting the interviewee in a weakened position. Their words, Adi hopes, will speak for themselves. He is proved right. Their statements are fraught with hypocrisy, changing goalposts at will, redefining sentences uttered as recently as several minutes ago. It the behaviour of unopposed victors, used to inscribing the past in accordance with their temperament. There are small victories to be had against them here, in succinct, oxymoronic lines like ‘Your questions are too deep… I know nothing of politics’ (this from a man who specialised in identifying ‘communists’); or most strikingly ‘Luckily I drank human blood, or else I’d be crazy now’ (highlighting the stomach-turning practise of the perpetrators, who believed it gave them the mental toughness to overcome personal atrocity. In a further level of irony, it appears to have worked.)

In these sequences, Oppenheimer holds close to the faces of both sides; Adi’s quiet mask of defiance questioning old men of power, who faces may twitch, but none flinch. These men have no trouble inhabiting the past. Neither does Adi’s father, who in his centurion senility claims he is 17 years old and sings of sexy girls who catch his eye. Oppenheimer claims after that, in some way, ‘the genocide is still happening’, and it’s not hard to see the why. The past has become a place for the infirm or the insane.

Both sides invoke God on their side. One asserts the perpetrators will suffer in the afterlife, the other abdicates their individual morality in pursuit of a higher calling (in this case, the ‘communist’ purge). Adi, who remains religious and exemplifies extraordinary strength in forgiveness*, seems ultimately discontent with this divine displacement. The younger generation of Indonesia more widely is increasingly willing to challenge the old order, and encouraging sounds were made after The Act of Killing was released to record audiences in Indonesia. Unthinkable even 10 years ago, The Look of Silence even received backing from two Indonesian government initiatives.

The Look of Silence is a tremendously brave act of political filmmaking. It highlights the vacuum of responsibility created by the governing officials’ continued rewriting of history in modern Indonesia. Instead of providing an objective account of the massacre’s effects, Oppenheimer structures the film like a poem. He uses layered metaphor to explore untouched levels of memory, which manifest themselves in a mother’s restrained grief, in Adi’s unspoken resilience and, most shockingly, in gross caricatures animated by deluded men of power. It is a mark of the film’s timeliness and the genocide’s continued atrocity that Adi and his family have been relocated 1000s of miles away from their aggressors, and that the cast list is dominated by the label ‘anonymous’.

Amongst the pain, there are reprieving moments of beauty: in Adi’s giggling little girl, symbol of hopeful youth and brighter futures; in the luscious scenery of Indonesia, which (in the manner of 12 Years a Slave) provides beatific counterpoint to instances of unthinkable human brutality.  In terms of cultural effect, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was said to lift a cultural embargo on speaking about D-day and its atrocities. The Look of Silence is in the process of creating another moment of collective remembrance. Though this time, cinema aims to set the record straight, to shatter half-a-century of silence and usher in some form of closure to the victims that remain before it is too late.

Adi's mother works her garden, a haunted place of beauty

Adi’s mother works her garden, a haunted place of beauty

 

*Q&A:

Q: ‘Do you forgive your brother’s killers?’

Adi: ‘If I was vengeful, it would be the same feeling which drove people to slaughter.’

 

Metropolis (Lang, 1927): Live! w/new score from Dmytro Morykit

‘There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator’

  • Maria, Metropolis (Lang, 1927)

Placing the heart at the centre of society, this famous quotation from Metropolis (which also opens the film) illustrates the need for compassion, goodwill and human kindness in the otherwise purely rational outlets of the state. Dmytro Morykit’s new score for Lang’s sci-fi-founding classic fully understands this sentiment, never afraid to tug at the heartstrings in moments of peril or poignancy. To call it a ‘new’ score might seem dubious, given that both the film and large sections of the music existed independently before this manifestation; any fears of mismatch or unoriginality are quickly dispelled however, as the two pieces align seamlessly.

The piano and the bustling city have a symbiotic on-screen history, with heaven-sent partnerships like Woody Allen and George Gershwin providing angelic precedent. Lang’s vertiginous, harsh cityscape has little in common with Allen’s artful Manhattan, and Morykit successfully avoids succumbing to the well-worn rhythms of the ‘big city’. His score is surprising, augmenting emotional undercurrents of a film most remembered for an inhuman inner-city and its robot inhabitants.

Newly restored to something like original greatness: 1/4 of the film is still lost

Newly restored to something like original greatness: 1/4 of the film is still lost

In Metropolis, society’s ‘hand’ becomes mechanical, where proletariat workers are reduced to screws and cogs of a vast, underground robotic process. Its ‘brain’ rules over all in the guise of lofty Joh Frederson, often shot alone in cavernous, bourgeois ruling rooms. His son, Freder, quickly becomes the main protagonist, wishing to trade lives with one of his father’s workers after being enticed by fleeting glimpses of underground saviour Maria. Freder’s pursuit of Maria sparks a fiendish plan to quash chances of revolt, masterminded by Joh himself and dastardly scientist Rotwing. Joh asks Rotwing to create a robot with the physical likenesses of Maria, and to supplant the real, peaceful protester with a predominantly violent version. Joh hopes to use the worker’s violence against the state as an excuse to exterminate them all.

Morykit helps us navigate this hierarchal future with brief preludes to scenario changes, relating lower tones to underground worker scenes and higher ones to the ruling class. It’s a structure that may seem restrictive, but which Morykit quickly adapts accordingly to the scene’s mood and texture. Morykit’s understanding of Metropolis allows for some extraordinary moments of synthesis, where character’s motivations are clarified or complicated by his mercurial piano.

Take, for example, the score following Freder’s witnessing of a machine explosion which opens his eyes to the horrors of worker’s lives. Upon return to Joh’s privileged dominion, Morykit beautifully elucidates Freder’s troubled conscience with a questioning refrain: Metropolis’ son and heir now plagued by perspective. The music manages to lace his torment with intrigue, his desire to refute ‘higher’ birth and join the working revolt.

The nuanced score sometimes felt reductive, as in Rotwing’s pantomime villain entrance. Given this character’s eventual ambiguity (he later claims to be working against Joh alongside the workers), perhaps such a black and white musical portrayal is inadequate. Where Morykit’s score shines is in moments of counterpoint, where hope and hopelessness intertwine in bittersweet abandon.

These moments arrive in abundance post-intermission, where competing philosophies battle it out in the streets of dystopia. As workers struggle against the clock (literally splayed out à la medieval torture wheel), clamorous, heart-wrenching harmonies build to revolutionary crescendo. Next, the tragic edge falls away as Maria’s revelatory presence lights the catacombs, her unblemished arias staving off impending darkness. Her tale of the Tower of Babel once more brings bittersweet emotion to the score, a tale wrought with sadness, a tainted dream dripping gold onto the faces of her onlookers. With Morykit’s score, its failure is beautiful but inevitable; the ending images of the dream-story fade into harsh reality, tragedy already etched across the soldier-workers’ faces and Morykit’s unashamedly sentimental piano.

As the film builds towards crescendo, Morykit establishes the mood of things to come. Those gentle, relaxing segments never last long, and are perennially invaded by discord. Morykit allows for a recoding of Metropolis’ tropes, where, in climactic peril, the messianic Maria is impersonated by a sexualised robot doppelgänger. Her pure image is defiled; as sexuality supersedes the saviour, Morykit’s score becomes worldlier, dirtier than the purity that lit the catacombs. Morykit’s tempo increases, the march of the workers now an uneven calamity instead of droning order. The score renders the self-destruction of machine destroying machine through carefully placed silence; when the heart-machine is destroyed, Morykit suspends the absence of sound, creating an audial death as well as a visual one.

Dazzling stills from the 1927 sci-fi classic

Dazzling stills from the 1927 sci-fi classic

The glorious fracas of anarchy continues soon after, the horde’s lack of leadership and mob mentality threatening to eliminate any chance at resolution, before the calming presence of real Maria is introduced. Numerous plot points and articles of emotion recur in the musical accompaniment to the final shots, as Metropolis’ key players hash out a satisfying synthesis. The score resounds as Freder becomes the mediator, his heart paralleling the sentiments of the soundtrack. Morykit pulls off a difficult trick here; rising keys and bold, untroubled rhythms could easily fall into silent-film pastiche, but instead provide a resolution impossible throughout the rest of the picture.

Two of cinema’s founding tropes are hashed out and complicated in Metropolis: the unattainable woman, and the conflation of man and machine. Like all great film scores, Morykit’s Metropolis does not simply exaggerate these themes but adds nuance, here interlacing them with doubting discord and recursive refrains. To augment a classic film such as Metropolis with acutely-observed subtleties makes for a rewarding, thoughtful experience, which always foregrounds the mediating ‘heart’ in amongst the clamorous discord of dystopian revolt.

 

More on Dmytro Morykit: http://www.dmytromorykit.co.uk/

 

 

Into the Woods (Marshall, 2015)

Into the Woods is a strange Witch’s concoction – a rarity from its inception, its old-school big-studio musical style places it in a genre from a bygone era. The plot is uneven, its emotional tones overlap too quickly, and its narrative intersections are too often painfully contrived. It might seem rich expecting more from a film based on fairytales, but the film’s subversive second half shows director Rob Marshall’s willingness to experiment with the drummed-into-the-ground fairytale character arcs and archetypes.

But let’s backtrack. Into the Woods is a hotchpotch musical throwback, based on numerous fairytales which intertwine, often tenuously, inside a mysterious woodland realm. Amongst the ensemble are the characters and segmented tales of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack (replete with Beanstalk) and Rapunzel, amongst others. It’s as if the local panto was inexplicably given fifty million dollars: instead of d-list celebs swanning about the stage in search of self-affirmation, it’s Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and co.

So what about the songs? Sondheim’s lyrics are reliably verbose and impressively erudite, managing a few moments of true mastery in the weaving of different characters into a common refrain. No one will claim the tunes themselves are classics however, and you’ll struggle to sing more than a few of them after exiting the cinema.

There is some saving grace however. Splitting neatly into two halves, the film becomes infinitely more interesting after the midway point. It looks as if the film is wrapping up to an entirely expected Happily Ever After, before ripping the pretence down completely. Refreshing and subversive, this re-appropriation is an adrenaline shot to the picture, and indeed the languishing audience. Post-midway, the songs click into place, their bite felt more with something original to seek their teeth into. The characters are forced out of their established roles, and progressive morals germinate from this most unexpected of fanciful flowerbeds.

After the point where most fairytales close the book, the characters of Into the Woods break loose from their chains: Princesses talk of female independence, peasants fraternise with princes (Pine’s Prince is revealed to be all surface: ‘I was raised to be Charming not sincere’), causality and the notion of personal blame is debated. It is in this fallen paradise that the film finds unique voice, delivering atypical, ascerbic humour which finally raises laughs (after an hour of titters at best).

There are moments outlying the norm in the first half – it is more darkly violent than anticipated, a nice honouring of the fairytale genre’s Grimm past – but they are inconsistent (fast becoming a theme). Depp’s Wolf is devilishly disturbing, but tempered by blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screentime, and hampered by a non-cohesive wardrobe and tone from the rest of the cast. Emily Blunt, playing the baker’s wife here in a narrative composed to bring all the others together, is the only thespian who strikes the correct tone all the way through. She lands between parody and melodrama without ever fully indulging each. The rest swing like metronomes between the two poles, sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes falling well short.

Emily Blunt and James Corden constitute an unlikely marriage

Emily Blunt and James Corden constitute an unlikely marriage

James Corden, Blunt’s baker husband, provides his second completely unnecessary, patronising narration in less than a month – the previous being in the BBC’s otherwise heart-warming ‘Esio Trot’ – which mercifully follows the film’s theme of inconsistency, not persisting, it seems, past about the two thirds mark. Otherwise, his performance is bearable (admittedly I’m not a fan) and he even raised a few chuckles somewhere in the mix.

Into the Woods’ biggest failing is its uneven register – the much darker source material does not take well to its Disney host, who rejects some of the material completely by cutting away from key scenes and letting the worst happen off screen. It is a cop out, unevenly squared with the continuing lyrical subversion of Sondheim’s superior stage production. There is much to love in the film, but there is much more to be frustrated by. I was eventually won round by the post-happy-end collection of aborted narratives, I just wish it had taken less time to get there.

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Iñárritu, 2014)

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is an intoxicating meditation on self-validation and the mechanism of fame. As the first of its two titles suggest, it discusses these topics largely through a pastiche of superhero films; seldom using tropes from the genre itself, instead focusing on what happens next for the actors who play them. Iñárritu’s muse is Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), an action hero has-been who strives for continued relevance in an increasingly disposable, viral marketplace. His chosen method – to direct, write and star in a Broadway play – brings him closer to the edge than sanity allows, his narcissistic personality spiralling in on itself in the face of younger, superior talent. Thomas strikes an increasingly tragic figure as the film develops, repeatedly striving for moments of meaning and imparted knowledge, failing hilariously. His key flaw, as his ex-wife describes, is that he ‘confuses love for admiration’. This failing is brought to the fore time and time again, as his attempts to connect with his compatriots circle back to discussions of him and his life. He is incapable of empathy.

Yet somehow Keaton makes him empathetic. His portrayal seems close-to-the-bone, as is Iñárritu’s camera more literally, as we remember his faded glory days as Burton’s Batman (1989). Here, Keaton is self-deprecating (never more so than in a hysterical walk through Times Square in nothing but tighty-whities) and honest, laid-bare by the demands of a new medium and a new time, his ego subjected to escalating bruisings. Through it all, he remains pathetically funny and fascinating in equal measure, from his fluctuating on-stage performances (which correlate so beautifully with his off-stage narrative) to his supernatural powers which can only be practised in solitude. Keaton’s troubled soul, not to mention his hilariously gruff alter-ego, is tremendously watchable.

Birdman flits between objective and subjective beautifully, and when we happen to find ourselves alone with Keaton, rare moments of quiet in a whirlwind production, the space is instead inhabited by another voice. Birdman is somewhere between Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Bale’s Batman, a fusion of the former’s demented, destructive narcissism and the latter’s more humane brand, in tandem with his grizzled, hyper-masculinised vocal range. This split is what happens when you have the inflated ego of a superhero without the powers to back it up, the black flip-side to Family Guy’s Adam West comedy caricature.

Keaton’s performance is just one piece of a rich cinematic jigsaw however. Iñárritu’s wonderfully weightless, unbound camera flows between one vignette to the next, like the unbound consciousness of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). It’s an entrancing visual style, which can inspire some strange reactions – some viewers report feeling weightless, literally ‘swept away’ by Birdman as it were. Personally, I felt a peculiar disembodiment. On walking out of the cinema, it seemed like the sounds of the street were the work of foley artists on set, that my walking rhythms were coordinated in the same manner as Iñárritu’s labyrinthine action paths. The seamless transitions, which surely must use CGI but I’ll be damned if I can spot the real/unreal barrier, work so well that they permeate a certain barrier of veracity, mimicking a continuous relationship to the real world which is universally shared. It’s breathless, heart racing cinema.

The film’s undeniable artiness is predictably polarising, and if you have an aversion to artworks which may be considered ‘pretentious’ then perhaps seek a narrative with more typical appeal; or better, hold off the cynicism while letting Iñárritu’s intoxicating camera lure you into this tale of a man struggling in vain for meaning and recognition. For in the end, I don’t believe the film to be pretentious at all – it has many things to say about the hypnotic vice of fame, the post-modern relation of an actor consumed by a role (a note on Thomas’ mirror ironically states ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of a thing’), and the crushing self-doubt inevitable in post-peak narratives. It delivers on its aesthetic promise with well-developed characters who satirise the industry and members of the Twitter generation simultaneously. Edward Norton’s turn as method-actor Mike Shiner is hilarious, and it’s a treasure to see two great, often forgotten American actors play off each other. Emma Stone delivers another solid performance as Thomas’ daughter, his pot-smoking PA who brutally reminds her father of his (indeed everyone’s) meaningless position in the universe. Not to mention the sterling support delivered by Zach Galifianakis’ smart-talking lawyer, Lindsay Duncan’s frosty critic and Naomi Watts’ confused co-star. Birdman is the sum of all these parts, and still more.

Stone and Norton share a moment on the theatre rooftop

Stone and Norton share a moment on the theatre rooftop

It is Thomas’ flawed, solipsistic spiral of evasion which remains the film’s most touching focus. He shies away from any outside influence which goes against his view of self, an exaggerated trait which may be found in the best of us. Couple Keaton’s sensitive, triumphant return with an adventurous and uncanny visual style, and the result is an entrancing film which has physical and emotional resonance on any prospectively open-minded audience. Be swept away.

Pride (Warchus, 2014)

Pride is a stirring rendition of little-known true story, set amongst the societal chaos of the 80s miners strikes. The maligned minority, represented by a Welsh mining town, receive a show of support from an unlikely, but similarly maligned, camp of the Gay and Lesbian community. The film shows how Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) rallies around another minority seeking representation, to the eventual public and private benefit of both parties. This is not to say their support is accepted whole-heartedly, with adverse reaction coming from both sides, initially and throughout, as tensions and prejudices run high.

There is much to admire here. Homosexual activism is shown to be considered, politically thoughtful and engaged, and pro-active in response to heavy criticism. In reply to a label of ‘perverts’ in the press, the pressure group adopt the label and wear it proudly, providing a link with ‘Queer’ activism which would explode in the following decade. Pride shows us just how useful utilising those words designed to hurt can be when used as part of one’s defence.

The characters neatly split down the middle, the gay rights activists from cosmopolitan London town, and the more conservative (definitely with a small ‘c’) Welsh citizens of the mining community. The two groups, one largely older and settled, the other primarily youthful and revolutionary, have a consistently interested and funny dynamic. On the Welsh side, Bill Nighy as Cliff is reliably brilliant, delivering an understated yet hilarious performance as part of the town committee – gradually graduating from apprehensive mumble to gleeful acceptance in the visiting presence of the ‘gays’ from London. Amongst the committee’s other members are Imelda Staunton as Hefina and Paddy Considine as Dai, each bringing warmth and humanity to their portrayal of their inspirational real-life counterparts. On the flipside, Dominic West also features in a brave turn as Jonathan, one of the first men to be diagnosed with AIDS in the UK. He remains irreverent, outspoken and fabulous despite this ‘death sentence’. His partner Gethin, played by Andrew Scott, will be recognisable for many as the face of Moriarty in the BBC’s hugely successful Sherlock reinvention. He’s a far cry from supervillain mode here, playing an anomalously quiet member of the activist group, a man for whom Wales is a site of recollecting past strife and exclusion, not an opportunity for positive social generation.

Tough sell: Dai explains the homophobic attitude of the miners

Tough sell: Dai explains the miners’ homophobic attittude

Of course the film benefits from the veracity of its subject, and so it should, raising awareness for this forgotten tale of solidarity against the tyranny of the majority. The film celebrates diversity, showing the LGBT community to be varied and non-conformist, even among its own members; towards the end, Gay and Lesbian for Miners are encouraged to join the ‘fringe’ groups in the huge Gay Pride march in London 1985. This is clearly shown to be a rich, thriving community which refuses to be homogenised.

While director Warchus’ style is admittedly simple, it allows the warmth and humour of Beresford’s script to shine through. Sometimes contentious issues need to be carefully told; and while the humour helps to un-demonise these often misrepresented groups, there can be no chance of equivocation when it comes to the film’s presiding message. The opposition to LGSM is infuriatingly dogmatic, often relying on Conservative (big ‘C’ this time) religious beliefs to support their stolidly non-progressive arguments. It is a decidedly liberal film, which is probably why I am endeared to it. It reminds us of the cultural diversity of Britain, and how this is a strength and not a weakness, instead an opportunity for unlikely alliances and affirmation of one’s own identity in comparison, but not against, those who are different. Pride provides a resounding refutation of Thatcher’s infamous anti-society proclamation, presenting two fringe groups who bind together out of common need and common decency, eventually choosing to ignore differences in lifestyle and generation for the greater good of all; a message worth remembering.

The Theory of Everything (Marsh, 2014)

A remarkable life, such as that of legendary scientist Stephen Hawking, deserves a remarkable portrayal. The astronomer can rest easy in his iconic chair after the release of The Theory of Everything, which sees his life brilliantly realised by Eddie Redmayne; he delivers a performance worthy of the great man himself, and will surely be rewarded with consideration for the cinema world’s highest honour. The young British star is overwhelmingly good. He fully assimilates himself into his onscreen persona, a role whose veracity is never in question. From Hawking’s fully-functional Oxford youth to debilitating middle age and beyond, it’s a performance that necessarily manifests itself in the minutiae of facial expression, in the twitch of a cheek and the raise of an eyebrow, and of course those wild, insatiable eyes. They are a symbol for the great man’s resilience and thirst for life, an inner showcase of his battle against his own body, which Redmayne impossibly captures. When his eyes fill with water, so do ours.

The film takes as its source material Jane Hawking’s memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’, (not Hawking’s own, decidedly less cinematic, ‘A Brief History of Time’), and the added focus on the relationship’s female part is a revelation. Despite being undeniably beautiful (played by the irresistible Felicity Jones) and intelligent, she strikes a tragic figure for the most part. She is the unappreciated devotee, dedicated to alleviating the mounting challenges of her husband’s Motor Neurone Disease. It’s a commitment she makes genuinely, but in the midst of her innocent, romantic youth, a position incapable of foreseeing the endless hours of housework and the menial tasks carried out in the shadow of her undeniably brilliant husband. She deserves huge credit for what she gives of her life to Stephen, which he seems to rarely give her, but she also deserves the right to a life of her own. Which he eventually, and reasonably, grants her.

Hawking (Redmayne) discovers the terrible depths of his disease

Hawking (Redmayne) discovers the terrible depths of his disease

In the mould of other growth-of-a-genius films (a la A Beautiful Mind), we have the youthful, fruition years at a prestigious university, the struggles for brilliance against balancing a ‘normal’ life, culminating in an illustrious hall full of adorning peers, applause reigning finally on our central subject, work vindicated, life affirmed. So far, so typical. But where The Theory of Everything adapts the formula, in addition to the special focus on Jane, is in the rendering of Stephen’s debilitating condition.

The film foregrounds bodies, making their most mundane actions appear miraculous – in Stephen’s eyes, which we are transposed into so effectively through Redmayne’s performance and Marsh’s sensitive direction, just raising cutlery to one’s mouth to eat dinner is an incredible feat. Hawking’s perseverance makes the audience thankful for what we have, even if it’s only conducting our bodies in a way that we have control over. It is of course a great cosmic joke that the man who redefined so much of our understanding of the universe, our collective exterior, struggles so much with what the vast majority find so easy. The first question Hawking asks post-diagnosis in The Theory of Everything is ‘What about the brain?’; not pausing to reflect on his body’s failings, instead savouring his essence, his true self. Marsh’s film posits a refutation of our bodies, their image and their failings, as defining who we are (as does Hawking’s life more widely). For a life and work so obsessed with what we can measure and prove, it is ironic that it prizes, above all, that which we cannot: the nebulous substance of human interaction, of insatiable desire, of the nurturing thirst for knowledge, and of unconditional love.

In addition to this wonderful counterpoint, the film features a heart-rending score from Jóhann Jóhannsson, which soars appropriately during the narrative’s peaks, capturing something of the nature of inspiration, even if it is an impression and not the artefact itself. The cinematography by Benoît Delhomme is sensitive and varied, taking us from the rustic warmth of 60s Oxonian halls and quads to the harsh, unforgiving light of the operating table with a beautiful expertise. The focus is often shallow, blurring figures in the distance, making the characters and their interactions immediate. We are forced to take each moment individually, each day as it comes, as Hawking is forced to in his unstable biological state. Overall, the film sutures us to Stephen so effectively, and so resoundingly, that it is hard not to be incredibly moved upon the narrative’s termination, which of course has the added emotional weight of truth. But even with this factor considered, it is a supremely affecting film in its artistry and extraordinary performances. Unconsciously, I barely moved during the duration, so natural did these characters seem, so genuine their torment, and so gratifying their enduring success. It is a wonderful film.