Little Joe (2019)

I’ve been doing a themed week focused on ‘foreign’ science-fiction, due to the recent release of French film Proxima in cinemas, but once again today’s film is one I’m rather squashing into that remit, being a British film (albeit a co-production with Austria and Germany) in English with British stars. However it’s directed by the wonderful Austrian director Jessica Hausner, one of my favourites, especially for her recent films like this one and Amour Fou. She creates a very controlled and threatening atmosphere in this dystopian sci-fi about genetically modified plants.


I see that this film has been pulling in fairly mixed reviews, probably on account of blending Jessica Hausner’s very particular style, honed over the course of a number of inscrutable dramas about alienation and resentment, to a generic form (broadly speaking, a sort of sci-fi horror thriller). Of course, Hausner’s 2004 film Hotel has a not dissimilar general feel, but she has developed quite a bit as a director since that film, and Little Joe has a supremely polished style. The camera glides around, quite often moving in to focus on the intangible space between characters as much as the people themselves. The threat here, then, is an unseen one in the air, particularly apropos for this particular historical moment one might say (mid-2020), and feels reminiscent of Safe (along with a dissonant score and subtly alienating sound effects), though this film is more directly about the dangers of messing with Nature.

Emily Beecham (sporting a shock of ginger hair reminiscent of earlier iconic roles by her co-star Kerry Fox) is Alice, a scientist working with Ben Whishaw’s Chris on a new houseplant which they hope will promote happiness via some genetic modifications, but… things start to go awry, and eventually it just seems to be Alice who questions the potential dangers of this new plant. Unlike in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the way that others become infected are subtle and deniable, such that Alice finds herself questioning her own experiences; the allegorical danger the film raises is not simply that of interfering with nature, but implicates the recognisable contours of our own current workplace culture. It’s stylish and atmospheric, building tension impressively without resorting to hysteria.

Little Joe film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Hausner; Writers Hausner and Géraldine Bajard; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Monday 22 June 2020.

Okja (2017)

Okay for my science-fiction week I’m going to have concede the ‘foreign-language’ aspect is really that most of them are from non-English-speaking directors or produced in other countries, because this is largely an American production, albeit by the noted Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose rather more famous recent film Parasite will eventually come up in my Criterion Sunday series).


Tonally, this film is very odd. There’s an almost childlike sentimentality around animals and farming, which is altogether too clean (the genetically mutated pig-like creature at the film’s heart never seems to be caked in sh!t like real pigs usually are). And then there’s the corporate satire, all gurning faces and ridiculous over-the-top performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV scientist and Tilda Swinton as the evil company CEO, going several steps beyond Gilliam to full comic book. Indeed, I’d say this is the closest film has got to capturing the feeling of one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, although by virtue of visually depicting the nasty stuff adults get up to, its 15 classification puts it rather beyond children. It heartens me to see this much mainstream attention paid to the way animals are treated by the meat industry, though this is hardly vegetarian propaganda. And if ultimately it’s an emotional story about a country girl and her animal best friend, it’s an affecting and effective one with some excellent CGI.

Okja film posterCREDITS
Director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호; Writers Bong and Jon Ronson; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی‎; Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 10 July 2017.

Paradise Hills (2019)

I had promised a week of foreign-language science-fiction films, but though today’s film is Spanish, it’s in the English language. This creates a strange tonal dissonance, which doesn’t exactly distract from the film — being a bit weird and distanced is sort of what it’s all about — but does create a peculiar frisson.


This is a deeply odd film in many ways, one of those strange English-language hybrid foreign films (it’s a Spanish production) which is toying with big ideas in sometimes inspired ways, and sometimes rather more clunky ones (I’m reminded of the Kirsten Dunst sci-fi Upside Down which has a similar tonal oddness while also being a film largely buried by distributors, or in terms of plot the French weirdness of Innocence). The plot itself is fairly silly, and holds together only in the vaguest of ways, while the big reveals are well telegraphed up-front so most people will probably see what’s coming. However, clearly all the budget went into set and costume design, and it all looks fantastic, putting a queer sci-fi twist on fairytale aesthetics. It lands on a sort of dreamy romantic dystopian vision and sustains this atmosphere throughout, even when the plot itself is getting a little trying. A director to watch.

Paradise Hills film posterCREDITS
Director Alice Waddington; Writers Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo and Waddington; Cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui; Starring Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Jeremy Irvine, Eiza González, Milla Jovovich; Length 95 minutes.
Seen on a flight from Singapore to London, Friday 13 March 2020.

流浪地球 Liulang Diqiu (The Wandering Earth, 2019)

A recent release (to cinemas! I wonder what those are like) has been the French science-fiction film Proxima from the director of Maryland. I’m very intrigued by it, even as I’m rather less comfortable with returning to a cinema, but this week I’m doing a science-fiction themed week. I’ll try to keep them all in a foreign language if I can, but I’ll start with Chinese blockbuster epic The Wandering Earth, which is on Netflix.


Recently my friends and I have taken to watching a silly, distracting film every Thursday; the week before we watched the baffling, bonkers and honestly quite bad Geostorm, which naturally led onto this week’s choice. It’s a Chinese action sci-fi film that mines, if you will, some of the same rich seam of nonsense, even if it’s all wrapped up in fairly believable scientific hokum about environmental catastrophe (albeit here it imagines that human civilisation actually manages to survive long enough for the Sun to die, which is the real stretch).

I’m not sure what’s specifically Chinese about it, given how earnestly (and successfully, in my opinion) it attempts to ape the form; perhaps it’s the rather dark and morbid cutaways that occur every so often, or the brazen willingness to sacrifice huge chunks of the world’s population in order to achieve the larger goal of survival. Like many a film before it (Armageddon comes to mind, if I’m recalling it correctly, though honestly it doesn’t exactly linger in the memory), it deals with a wearied yet rebellious dad (Wu Jing) who bucks the system (and MOSS, the HAL-like computer system) to sacrifice himself so that his estranged son (Qu Chuxiao) and billions of others may live. There’s also a quasi-Blade Runner aesthetic, the underground caverns recall Total Recall, and there’s a Starship Troopers vibe to the classroom scenes.

I guess I just don’t mind any of this frantic cribbing so much here (unlike in Geostorm), perhaps because it’s in Chinese (I’m a sucker for subtitles), but perhaps because everything is just pushed to ridiculous extremes. Like many, my highlight was the machine gunner who turns his bullets on distant Jupiter when it looks as if all is doomed. In other nice touches, the voice of international politics is French, and the voice of the evil computer MOSS is English. This film is genuinely utter nonsense, but I found myself increasingly drawn into it, even if there were still plenty of times I turned to group chat to ask yet again, “what the hell is going on now?”

The Wandering Earth film posterCREDITS
Director Frant Gwo 郭帆; Writers Gong Ge’er 龚格尔, Yan Dongwu 严东旭, Gwo, Ye Junce 叶俊策, Yang Zhixue 杨治学, Wu Yi 吴荑 and Ye Ruchang 叶濡畅 (based on the novella by Liu Cixin 刘慈欣); Cinematographer Michael Liu 邁克爾·柳; Starring Qu Chuxiao 屈楚萧, Li Guangjie 李光洁, Ng Man-tat 吳孟達, Zhao Jinmai 赵今麦, Wu Jing 吴京; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 7 May 2020.

बार बार देखो Baar Baar Dekho (2016)

This film is a bit of an oddity, a Bollywood film which takes the form of a sci-fi romance. It’s also the debut film from a woman director, Nitya Mehra, and though it wasn’t a big success, it still has plenty of its own distinct charms I think.


It seems it’s hardly been a critical hit, and to be fair it has plenty of silliness to its premise: that a man with doubts about his future (Sidharth Malhotra) gets to see a version of that future and thereby change his selfish behaviour (all a bit Groundhog Day I guess). However, it’s a multi-generational romance, so I think it’s fair to judge it by what it sets out to be, and I found it to be likeable and charming, even for lapses into occasional sentimentality (the film had earned it). There are sci-fi elements to some of the future settings which are nicely integrated, along with fetching touches (like a bus map suggesting Cambridge is just an outer suburb of London by the mid-21st century). The film uses — if I’m not mistaken — Glasgow for Cambridge, which doesn’t quite work but it’s less egregious than some British location work I’ve seen in other Bollywood films. It also goes through fewer tortuous tonal changes, sticking to its romantic central premise faithfully. All in all, it was sweet.

Baar Baar Dekho film posterCREDITS
Director Nitya Mehra नित्या मेहरा; Writers Mehra and Sri Rao श्री राव; Cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran रवि के चन्द्रन; Starring Sidharth Malhotra ਸਿਧਾਰਥ ਮਲਹੋਤਰਾ, Katrina Kaif, Sayani Gupta সায়ানী গুপ্তা; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 12 September 2016.

Criterion Sunday 304: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

I guess I really want to love Nic Roeg’s films more than I do (not that I’m about to start a list of ‘overrated filmmakers that I dislike and you should too’ because that kind of thing is corrosive to cinephilia), but I just really cannot seem to connect with them fully; I liked Bad Timing and Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, but in an admiring sense more than loving them. Indeed a lot of passionate words have been penned about this particular film and perhaps that’s down to the star being David Bowie (who passed away a few years ago), but I imagine it’s just that Roeg’s vision of the world gels with a lot of people more than it does me. The Man Who Fell to Earth is surreal and it’s frantic at times, thanks to Roeg’s customary vivid editing. It sustains a sort of weird prelapsarian spirit both in its central character — there’s something about the gaunt, alabaster Bowie gliding through all his scenes which suggests innocence, though all accounts indicate this is likely because he was deep into a narcotics addiction — and its setting, an American landscape soundtracked in an almost rustic way, but combined with guns and alcohol and corruption and copious sex (sometimes quite roughly physical sex, but never particularly exploitative). It’s about an alien called Thomas (Bowie) who is looking to transfer resources from Earth back to his desert-like home planet but who falls into a lifestyle that seems to prevent his making progress, and maybe that would be a spoiler but the film seems genuinely more interested in the rhythms of his life; the ending, when it comes, just sort of happens, but then suddenly you realise that the title isn’t just because of his alien origins, it’s because of his inability to achieve his dreams, despite every resource available to him. It’s a cautionary tale, after a fashion. I admired it, but I did not love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel by Walter Tevis); Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond; Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Buck Henry, Candy Clark; Length 138 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 29 March 2020.

Fast Color (2018)

Catching up on my films-on-Netflix theme, we come to this striking outing from Julia Hart, a sort of supernatural superhero film albeit one very much grounded in a recognisable world.


This is a film that builds slowly, but it has a sense of atmosphere and mystery that I found beguiling and which really drew me into this story, reminiscent somewhat of NK Jemisin or Octavia Butler in putting across this recognisable future world of hardship and environmental breakdown without belabouring the dystopian qualities in a simple way or building societal collapse into some art-designed fascist nightmare. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a confused young woman just trying to piece things together as she travels across these wide, barren landscapes, and the film follows her and reveals things to us as she discovers them. It’s clearly not had a huge budget (like a number of other recent future dystopia films) but it uses its effects in a sparing and expressionist manner, and draws out the drama happening amongst primarily three characters.

Fast Color film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Michael Fimognari; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Saniyya Sidney, Lorraine Toussaint, Christopher Denham, David Strathairn; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 December 2019.

High Life (2018)

I’m doing a week theme around Polish films, as today sees the UK cinematic release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film Mr. Jones. It’s an English-language co-production, and so is today’s film, which I’m including for that tenuous reason. One of the co-producing companies is from Poland and Agata Buzek co-stars, but aside from that there’s not much particularly Polish in it, although there’s something about the film’s very weirdness that puts it up alongside Has or Żuławski or other out-there auteurs.


Claire Denis has made two of my favourite films of two successive decades (that’s Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum, and a few others I adore besides), but yet I guess I’m not fully subscribed to this latest one. It’s not that it’s broaching new experiences — science-fiction setting, English language screenplay — because a lot of the idiosyncrasies that lie within it are vintage Denis, but I think it may need more time to work itself into my psyche (like L’Intrus, another film of hers that I feel I’ve slept on). It primarily feels like a mood piece, evoking an extraordinary atmosphere of isolation, in a story of one man (Robert Pattinson) and his baby — its helplessness and reliance on him only magnifying the starkness of their situation — as they live on a prison spacecraft flying out towards a black hole. His story is intercut with flashbacks both to his childhood life on Earth (the 16mm photography evoking the infinity of time having since passed), and to a time when there were others on the ship with him, and how he has come to be on his own. There are some really quite indelible scenes, and some incredibly outré setpieces, but always there’s that sublime atmosphere, with its grinding Stuart A. Staples score adding to the mystery, a mystery that never quite resolves but extends outwards, a film drifting inexorably (like the spaceship) towards its own event horizon.

High Life film posterCREDITS
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 164: Солярис Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein Фридрих Горенштейн and Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk Наталья Бондарчук; Length 166 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017).