Film Preview: My Scientology Movie

Louis Theroux’s much anticipated My Scientology Movie, is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre cinema from 19 – 23 November. Previewed by Nigel Watson.

Louis Theroux is expert at producing documentaries that provide an insight into marginal subcultures (Weird Weekends) and the lives of celebrities (When Louis Met…). His method is to follow the subject and ask off-hand or seemingly innocent questions that lure the subject into revealing far more than their PR image presents.

He has always wanted to probe the secrets Church of Scientology that has such high-profile members as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, but not surprisingly they have refused to let him have permission to film them. To get round this problem, Louis in collaboration with director John Dower, produced the feature-length My Scientology Movie, which was premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2016.

Scientology was established in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Like many cults that arose in that period they addressed our concerns about atomic warfare, pollution, over-population, natural disasters, famine and disease. So-called contactees in the USA claimed they were given rides in flying saucers and had long discussions with the alien humanoid pilots of these craft who promised to save us from our materialistic and war-mongering ways. The contactees were the charismatic, self-promoting and self-proclaimed heroes of a new era for humanity. Some would establish their own cults or cult-like organisations with fanatical followers ready to do the bidding of the contactee.

Most flying saucer cults have fizzled away in the mists of history or have at least proved relatively harmless, but Scientology has proved to be more long-lived and continues to believe that we have to go through different levels of initiation. Their teachings state that the ruler of the Galactic Confederacy sent humans to Earth 75 million years ago, and immortal disembodied Thetan beings attached to our bodies. Even Hubbard called the scenarios described in these initiation levels as ‘space opera’.

Since access to the group was denied, Louis and his team filmed re-enactments of alleged events on soundstages in Hollywood. Actors for these scenes are auditioned and they are guided by ex-members of the cult, so this becomes a film about the construction of their memories. Their activities soon came to the attention of the church, and they pursued a campaign of stalking and filming the filmmakers. This underlines that, ‘They are behaving in a way that is so obviously pathological—you would think they would realise that other people would see that and think this is a religion of lunatics,’ says Louis.

FILM REVIEW: Under The Shadow

Under The Shadow is in the cinema from 11th – 17th November

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Throughout the years the Horror genre has gone through various cycles. From the religious horror of the seventies with The Exorcist, to the the torture porn era of the noughties with Saw, the genre has gone through a lot of changes. This decade however we seem to be going through an ‘indie’ horror cycle. There has been at least one unique film in each subsequent year. This year there has been two, Robert Egger’s The Witch and now Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, both directorial debuts and both utterly terrifying.

Under the Shadow is set in 1980’s war torn Tehran where there are regular bombings from the neighbouring country of Iraq. It primarily follows Shideh, played by Narges Rashidi and her daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi who has to deal with living in this fractious city alone whilst the father has been called out to war. After a missile crashes into the apartment building and does not explode, there are whispers around the more religious side of the community that the missile has brought an evil presence, more specifically a Djinn. A Djinn is (according to Islamic culture) a supernatural creature and in the film it is later revealed that one of them may be haunting the family.

The central relationship between Shideh and Dorsa is vital to the film’s success. In fact the male character’s barely feature in this film which to be honest is pretty normal for a horror film. Shideh and Dorsa’s relationship is very complex and she is often exasperated by her daughter’s behaviour. There is a particularly uncomfortable fight between the two towards the end and at some points it seems like they are siblings rather than mother and daughter. The film echoes some of the themes explored in the 2014 film The Babadook which focused on a mother and a nightmare of a son. Both father figures are absent and the mother has to deal with raising a ‘difficult’ child in extraordinary circumstances.

For a genre that doesn’t get the accolades or the respect as say Crime or War films, you can usually count on a horror film to deliver a strong female character. From Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the Alien films, to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, Narges Rashidi’s Shideh is no exception. From the very beginning she wants a better more independent future for herself which she attempts by applying to go back to university. She is mainly rejected because of her political actions during the Cultural Revolution. She also seems to reject some of the more traditional aspects of Iran. Shideh barely wears a Hijab and most of the time tries to avoid wearing one at all costs. When she has to flee the apartment from the malevolent spirits haunting it, she forgets to wear one and is chastised by the local (male) authorities. Shideh is also academic and level headed and mostly denies the existence of Djinn, unlike some of her more religious neighbours who state that they are mentioned in the Quran and in that sense they are a force to be feared and respected.

The scares in Under the Shadow are traumatic to say the least. Yes it relies on atmosphere and tension but it does utilise the ‘jump scare’ quite a lot. In more mainstream horror, a ‘jump scare’ can be a lazy way to manipulate scares from an audience, however this film uses the technique in a more abrupt and aggressive manner. It seems these Djinn spirits are relentless in their pursuit of Dorsa and soon enough they become a very real and dangerous threat. Some of the horror scenes are pretty disturbing and have a hallucinatory, dream like feel to them. I must admit I said a lot of expletives to myself during the film.

There is a lot going on and with the combination of war and horror it makes for an oppressive experience. It uses some of the usual genre clichés, creepy children, dolls and monsters under the bed but it is a challenging and thought provoking film, thanks to its exploration of the themes of feminism, parenting and religion. Under the Shadow reinforces the idea that the genre is best kept at a low budget, the scares feel raw and authentic and there are hardly any CGI shots. If The Babadook was the best horror of 2014 and It Follows for 2015, then surely Under the Shadow is the best horror of 2016, let the ‘Indie’ cycle continue.

Ben Cherry

@FilmCherry

Film Review: Café Society

Café Society screened in the Plymouth Arts Centre from 7th-13th October.

A new film by Woody Allen comes loaded with expectation; and Cafe Society is no exception. A period piece set in the 1930’s, it tells a simple story. Bobby Dorfman (played by Jesse Eisenberg) moves from his family home in the Bronx, and travels to Hollywood to work for his Uncle Phil. His uncle (played with relish by Steve Carell) is a big-time Hollywood agent. Bobby’s world is transformed into a series of star-studded parties, where he encounters the most influential players in town. But it isn’t until he meets Vonnie, Phil’s assistant, that life really begins to change. He quickly falls in love with the cool and stylish actress-turned-PA. There’s just one problem – she’s already in love with somebody else.

The film takes off, with comic misfires galore as Bobby tries to navigate his way through the Hollywood jungle. He gets the girl, and then he doesn’t. It’s a comedy of errors, and by making the most of his accomplished cast, Woody Allen has created a film that dances and sparkles. But Cafe Society doesn’t just leave you on a high; its bittersweet ending cuts through to the quick, cleanly and sharply. It’s a film that leaves you in no doubt about the cost of love.

In fact, my only issue with the film may seem quite minor, but once you notice it, there’s no escaping it. Cafe Society makes use of a narrator throughout the film. The voice-over is a New York, born-and-bred wise-guy, commenting on the action. It’s a stock character used many times over in the movies, but here’s the problem: Cafe Society isn’t your average gangster flick.  It’s a beautifully-nuanced film about lost love. The voice doesn’t fit – more than that – it’s grating, over-bearing and heavy-handed; entirely the wrong voice for such a delicate drama.

If you’re still not convinced about the importance of getting a voice-over right, just try to imagine Barry Lyndon without the exemplary performance from Michael Hordern. The world-weary, jaded narrator is pitch-perfect, and it makes an already great film even better.

The narrator in Cafe Society needs to be able to move between acerbic wit and mournful loss – the film is written so much in Woody’s voice, (indeed, Eisenberg’s mannerisms are so like Allen’s as to be uncanny) you can’t help but wonder why Allen didn’t take up the role of narrator himself. It may be a small detail, but when the rest of the film works so hard to get it right, it’s a shame that the narrator is so obviously mis-cast.

But where Cafe Society does excel is in its on-screen casting.  Eclectic casting is what Woody Allen is justly famous for; he collects and assembles talent from stage and screen with such aplomb that the cast feels organic every time – and that’s not easy to achieve. In the casting of the lead characters, Eisenberg and Stewart not only gel on-screen; they look like a couple brought together by fate, rather than design. Kristen Stewart is delightful as cool, clever Vonnie, while Jesse Eisenberg makes hapless Bobby immensely likeable.

The supporting actors, as you would expect with Allen’s films, are as satisfying to watch as the leads. Ken Stott as Bobby’s father (currently wooing theatre audiences in a UK tour of The Dresser), is one of Allen’s aces – taking us from kitchen-table comedy to wordless grief. Another stand-out is Corey Stoll who plays Ben, Bobby’s hoodlum brother.  Allen clearly rates Stoll – he also starred as the rambunctious, brawling Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris.

From the opening bars of clarinet, Allen’s brand can border on formulaic, but a sense of the familiar is overridden by the enthusiasm Allen clearly retains for film-making. The reason why Allen’s films are so hotly anticipated is because the next film could be his best – he is by no means treading water here. He has recently proved himself capable of reaching new heights with both his popular hits and his more serious work: Midnight in Paris was his most commercially-successful film to date, whilst Blue Jasmine wowed the critics and gave Cate Blanchett her third Oscar. While Café Society sits somewhere between the two, this return to form hints that Allen’s best work may yet emerge.

Allen and his films may divide cinema-goers and critics, but at his best, the neurotic charm can be hard to resist. What gives Allen longevity beyond that surface charm is his willingness to create films with bite. Heartbreak, emotional collapse and a startling confession – these are moments in his films that Woody has allowed to be felt at their deepest. For all their cosmopolitan glamour, Allen’s films refuse to shy away from the ugliness of life. There is an emotional reality that punctures the knowing winks and witty asides. Allen, like all great comedians, understands that comedy and pain are two sides of the same coin. To exploit one, you first have to deploy the other.

In summarising Allen’s recent work, while Blue Jasmine remains the high water-mark for the time being, Café Society’s warmth and wit has a lot to recommend it. Where the film succeeds is in its understanding that it is not the earth-shattering moments, but the near-misses, that resonate with us the most. There’s no happily ever after, but as Allen has been telling us since Manhattan – find the pain, and you’ve found your film.

Helen Tope

@Scholar1977

Film Review: Born To Be Blue

Film Review: Born To Be Blue

Born To Be Blue screened in the Plymouth Arts Centre from 30th Sept– 08 Oct 2016.

Music biopics can often be a mixed bag. Whilst they are almost always entertaining only a few are truly great. For every 24 Hour Party People you get The Doors. The former is a true one off, hilarious and plays fast and loose with the truth but proudly admits this. The latter is an interesting and occasionally enjoyable watch, but is a bit by-the-numbers as it goes through Jim Morrison’s life in chronological order.

Born To Be Blue on the other hand has been described as an ‘anti-biopic’ and tells the story of legendary Jazz musician, Chet Baker. Baker made it big in the 1950’s thanks to albums like Chet Baker Sings which includes the very famous version of ‘My Funny Valentine’. He was at the forefront of West Coast Jazz but his descent into heroin made him notorious and he was in and out of jail during the 1960’s.

Instead of a usual biopic which would start at his childhood, this film starts from Baker’s lowest point (at least in terms of the story) where he is in prison in Italy going cold turkey. There is a particularly arresting hallucination of a tarantula crawling out of a trumpet, which was just terrifying. Baker is then brought out of prison and cast in his own biopic. There are sequences of his ‘heyday’ shot in shades of blue that overtly glamorises that era of American history. It is on the set of the film where he meets the fictionalized actress Jane (who is playing his ex-wife in the film). A romance develops between the two and the rest of the film reveals more facets to Chet Baker’s life and career told through this relationship.

It is the performances from the two leads which elevate this film. Ethan Hawke is sensational as Baker and throughout the film he bears the burden of his past misgivings. His performance is very moving as he tries to make his musical comeback despite almost everyone going against him. Over the past few years Hawke has started to become of my favourite actors and seems to be starring in both big budget horror films like Sinister whilst still giving A-class performances in indie films such as this one and Boyhood. Carmen Ejogo is also a revelation as Jane and is more than a match for Ethan Hawke. Her character is a representation of the different women in Baker’s life and is very active in bringing him back from the brink of destruction. In essence she is our guide into the world of Chet Baker. We learn more and more about the Jazz legend through the growth of their relationship and it is this aspect that makes this biopic fresher and more open without the confines of re-telling real life events.

For a film about a jazz musician you don’t have to enjoy the genre to appreciate the film. I enjoy the odd bit of jazz but am not exactly a massive fan; however this film says less about jazz and more about the vice-like grip of drug addiction. Almost all of Baker’s past, present and future troubles are as a result of his addiction. Whether it is the fans who are trying to give him heroin or the torture of having to take methadone, it is a constant struggle for Baker. In addition, from a musical standpoint Chet Baker’s talent is second to none and despite his notorious behaviour a lot of characters still respect him as one of the greatest trumpet players to have ever lived. It makes it all the more tragic that his addiction ultimately killed him in 1988. This film is a fitting tribute to a jazz icon.

Benjamin Cherry

@bcherry90

Film Review: Weiner-Dog

Film Review: Weiner-Dog

Weiner-Dog screened in the Plymouth Arts Centre from 20th – 22nd September.

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Since streaming services became available and more widely used, there has always been a relatively healthy rivalry between Netflix and Amazon Studios. When it comes to their original film projects it appears that Netflix is gunning for a broad audience by producing Adam Sandler films. Amazon Studios, (more refreshingly) seem to be embracing interesting and unique independent films such as Love and Friendship and the fantastic film showing at the Arts Centre this week; Weiner Dog.

Weiner Dog is directed by Todd Solondz and focuses on a very cute Dachshund who throughout the course of the film, is owned by four different sets of characters who all have their own story to tell. Although the film is feature length, it is really four short films linked by one dog that has a varied impact on the owner’s lives. The starry ensemble cast is impressive and the four stories told are very entertaining and each has their own unique themes.

The first story involves a family who buy a Weiner Dog for their cancer surviving Son. The Son develops a strong bond with the dog and is rarely a part from his pet. This story’s unique theme is parenting and Julie Delpy (who plays the Mother) offers some very ‘dark’ but humorous reasons as to why Weiner Dog needs to be spayed. It’s this first story which is much more ‘dog-oriented’ compared with the rest of the film and there is some excellent ‘black’ comedy which would likely divide most audiences. Luckily the audience I watched it seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ‘dark’ humour.

The second story involves a mini-road trip with Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin (who has had a vastly healthier career than his older brother Macaulay) and focuses on drug abuse and alcoholism in an America where opportunity is a scarce commodity. In some ways it sounds depressing but there are parts of the story which are very funny, especially when the two potential love interests pick up three Mexican hitchhikers who miss their home and share their negative opinions on the USA.

After a short but amusing intermission with the catchiest song not on the Radio, titled ‘Weiner Dog’, the story is then told from the point of view of Danny DeVito’s College professor and aspiring screen writer. This was probably my favourite segment of the film (although I am biased as I do love Danny DeVito) but he was very good in this film. He definitely played ‘against type’ and the themes surrounding the story were loneliness, depression and the ‘fakeness’ of mainstream Hollywood. His conversations on the phone with his various ‘Agents’ are painful as it is clear that they do not have his best interests at heart. Although DeVito’s role is short (like everyone’s in the film) he delivers one of his most heart-breaking performances and one that is worth the price ticket alone.

The fourth and final story stars Ellen Burstyn, who has had a late in the day career resurgence by starring in House of Cards earlier this year but will forever be remembered as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist. Her story is quite short but a stronger offering than the first two stories. Her Granddaughter (played by Zosia Mamet) pays a visit with her angry but pretentious artist boyfriend called Fantasy (played by Michael Shaw). Ellen Burstyn is brilliant in her story and does so much with a surprisingly little amount of dialogue. The main highlight of the story is towards the end when she is faced with various forms of her younger self who tell her what they represent if she had done things differently, for example ‘if you’d married the man you loved’ or ‘if you had been kinder to your daughter’. Like the rest of the film it is both funny and starkly depressing. One of the themes dealt with in this story is ‘Choice’ and Burstyn’s character has to deal with the choices she has made in her life at the end of the film.

I wasn’t a big fan of the very end and some of the humour is a bit ‘on the nose’ but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, considering the director’s work is known for being divisive. Going back to the Amazon and Netflix rivalry, it appears Amazon is more than a worthy rival to Netflix by choosing to work with innovative and thought provoking film makers.

Benjamin Cherry

@bcherry90

Film Review: The Wave

The Wave – a review from Helen Tope

The Wave is screening in the Plymouth Arts Centre cinema until the 29th September.

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The Wave can claim the unique honour of being “Norway’s first disaster movie”. A box-office smash on home turf, The Wave was also submitted as Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards.

The film takes its inspiration from real-life events. The village of Tafjord was destroyed in 1934 by a tsunami, triggered by a rock-slide. Norway, thanks to its singular geography, is not only prone to such events – they are inevitable. The Wave asks the question- if such an event were to happen tomorrow, who would be ready?

The film’s screenwriters (John Kare Raake and Harald Rosenlow-Eeg) set the film in Geiranger Fjord, an idyllically beautiful part of the Norway Fjords. At the end of the fjord, is the small village of Geiranger; a favourite spot with tourists.

In Geiranger, a team of geologists monitor any seismic activity from the surrounding mountains. Their job is to monitor any movement that might suggest a rockslide is imminent. Any movement can trigger a tsunami; a catastrophic event for a town situated just above sea level. If the rockslide occurs, the geologists have the unenviable task of pressing an alarm, giving Grainger residents just ten minutes to get to higher ground.

At the centre of the film are Kristian and his family. Kristian is a 40-year-old geologist, who has worked with the geology team at the local monitoring station. Played by Kristoffer Joner (recently seen in The Revenant), Kristian is an expert in his field, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. Performed with great élan, a geologist may not seem the most obvious choice for leading man; but trust me – geologists: they’re the new sexy.

We meet Kristian’s family on the evening before they are due to move out of Geiranger. Kristian has a new job in the City, and it means big changes for the entire family. An uncomplicated village life will be swapped for the hustle and bustle of the urban landscape. The apartment they are about to move into is so fancy it doesn’t even need keys – just a smartphone app.

Kristian’s wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), and children Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro and Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), all have different takes on the move. While Idun is bursting with pride at Kristian’s new job, Julia is less enthusiastic. As night descends, Idun goes to finish her last shift, working at the local hotel. Taking Sondre with her, Kristian and Julia decide to spend one last night in their old house.

At his last day at the monitoring station, Kristian witnesses anomalies in the recording equipment. Unsure whether it’s a glitch or suggestive of something more sinister, his colleagues assure him it’s nothing. His former boss Arvid (played brilliantly by Fridtjov Saheim) dismisses Kristian’s fears. But as Kristian settles in for the night, he cannot sleep. Going back to check his research notes, his fears are confirmed. The anomalies are not from an expansion in the rocks, but a contraction – and a contraction indicates an avalanche. The residents at Geiranger have ten minutes to escape a monstrous 80 metre-high tsunami.

The build-up is underplayed so skilfully, that the horror, as the scale of the disaster unfolds, takes your breath away. It’s genuinely hair raising stuff. No gimmicks or cheap thrills: Hollywood, take note.

The denouement is achieved through solid characterisation; here the female lead is not an accessory, but a fully-fledged hero. Ane Dahl Torp plays her role to the hilt, and you will be cheering her on as she makes it clear that there’s no force of nature stronger than mother love. The Wave isn’t just a triumph of CGI; it works because it concentrates on the human aspect of the tragedy. The quality of the acting lifts the film, taking it to another level – and it makes for truly powerful drama.

In researching this film, it did become evident that not every critic loved it – but I’ll back the film that divides opinion over an out-and-out hit any day. The Wave isn’t a full-on Scandinavian angst-fest. It does borrow a little from the blockbuster rule-book, but it’s far from brainless. The feats of quiet heroism have the power to genuinely move; and the film’s resolution is left ambiguous. Not everyone gets their happy ending.

The idea that a film can entertain without patronising its audience still seems to be up for debate. But serious intent and heart-thumping action can co-exist on the screen; it just requires a strong grip on editorial balance. The Wave succeeds where other films have failed because it handles its subject matter with respect – it’s easy to scare cinema-goers, but making them care? Much trickier. Director Roar Uthang not only nails that balancing act, he proves that action movies can – and should – have a moral centre. It makes them far more interesting and crucially, it makes them relevant. The Wave is a disaster film that’s emphatically 21st century – and it’s a stunning achievement.

Helen Tope

@Scholar1977

REVIEW: The Big Lebowski, Open Air Cinema

The Big Lewbowski – Open Air Cinema

A review from Ieuan Jones

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Well it’s a sunny, balmy Thursday night, not unlike the sun as it sets over the old West in LA where Jeffrey Lebowski resides (and abides). All the dudes, dudettes, duders, and el duderinos (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) of Plymouth and beyond have descended on the Royal William Yard. They’re forgoing a night out bowling, going through business papers, or hanging at the In-n-Out Burger on Camrose, in order to come and chill out on picnic rugs that really tie the Yard together. And why? Well, to watch an absolute solid gold classic – The Big Lebowski (1998) – where else? – but where it deserves to be seen, on the big screen. There was even a White Russian or three going round (careful, there’s a beverage here…) and maybe even something stronger in the air in tribute to the Dude himself. Far out, man.
What is it that makes the Coen brothers’ arguably most popular film endure after nearly two decades? Maybe it’s the phenomenal characters, the endlessly quotable screenplay, the twisty plot that makes as much sense as the average Jackie Treehorn production. Or maybe it’s because it shows how the whole human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself. All I know is I laughed as hard and as long as Karl Hungus in Logjammin’ (“you can only imagine where it goes from here…”) and I must have seen this movie in the hundreds by now, surely.
Not only do we get perhaps the perfect trio in the Dude, Walter and Donny at the epicentre of the madness. On top of that we get a group of nihilists, a video artist, a spinal, a Brother Seamus, a marmot, a pornographer (who, frankly, treats objects as women) and, ahem, Jesus to boot, making it truly the brainchild of Raymond Chandler if he hit the bongs pretty hard one night. Frankly, I did not watch my buddies die face down in the muck so that it could have turned out any other way.
Well, that just about does her, wraps her up. And as the credits roll and we all file out of the lanes chanting the dialogue into the night we are reminded (as if that needed doing) exactly why the Dude truly is the greatest – that is, after all, what we pay him for. And if you don’t agree, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Ieuan Jones