London Film Festival: Synchronic, Making Waves and Blackbird

This week, The Film Version is setting up at home at the BFI London Film Festival. I don’t usually focus on reviews here, but I wanted to share some of my first impressions with you. If you’ve been to #LFF, have seen the films elsewhere or are keen to see them soon, drop me a line in the comments.

SYNCHRONIC

Two paramedics treat victims of a legal high that has dangerous, supernatural effects in this gloomy, low-key horror from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Spring). From its first medical scene, Synchronic sets itself apart from the fast paced emergency rooms of medical dramas. There’s a lethargy to Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) as they arrive at the home of an OD patient; a blasé reaction to a stab victim they find bleeding in the kitchen. Benson and Moorhead create a foggy, slowed-down, almost blurry impression of the scene as it unfolds. It’s an interesting style: one that reflects the film’s wider interest in time as a dimension of our existence.

Lifelong friends Dennis and Steve are both dissatisfied with their lives. Dennis has a teenage daughter he struggles to parent and a wife he no longer appreciates. Steve is still single. Late night drinking and one night stands bring him little joy. A plot twist gives Anthony Mackie something to work with here, but the self-obsessed Dennis provides a thankless role for Dornan. His persistent moaning feels unwarranted even before the film’s neat reality check.

Benson and Moorhead work hard to put modern life expectations in perspective by exploring the agonies of the past. They have ambitious and laudable aims here but the result feels thematically light, scratching the surface of something deeper. Nonetheless, the film is crammed with good ideas. The editing, for instance, is characterised by match and jump cuts that connect and divide time, disturbing our experience of reality. With its paramedics turned investigators, Synchronic reminiscent of The X-Files, a show it lovingly references. And, while the film’s science feels a little hokey, there’s enough going on here to make Synchronic solid, stylish entertainment.


MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND

Cinema is an audio-visual medium but the amount of time and effort spent talking and thinking about sound work pails in comparison to the visual. It’s this imbalance that Midge Costin and Bobette Buster seek to redress in their informative and passionate documentary, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

The film opens inside a womb with the idea that ‘we emerged into consciousness using only sound’. Sight, by comparison, is the last of our senses to develop. That sound is therefore a crucial and instinctive guide to the world around us, is quickly reinforced by Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler, and master of cinematic storytelling, Steven Spielberg.  

Making Waves is brimming with industry talent and sharp examples of the craft illustrate the role of sound in our interpretation of story. The opening to Saving Private Ryan, for instance, is used to illustrate how audio and visual can be used to tell two different stories. While the narrow frame of the image reveals a personal story, the battlefield sounds tell a larger contextual one.

From here Costin and Buster return to the silent film era, charting the development of sound work through mono and stereo to Dolby. Anchored by interviews with sound work innovators, from Ben Burtt (Star Wars) to Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Making Waves makes an excellent case for the power of cinematic sound. Simple graphics ensure this largely hidden field becomes accessible, comparing it to an orchestra with voice, sound effects and music sections.

The film’s dependence on big name talent – from George Lucas to David Lynch and John Lasseter – means film buffs will inevitably have heard some of the film’s anecdotes before. Even so, it’s an enjoyable journey and one that opens up a male dominated industry to female voices too. Interviews with Anna Behlmer (Braveheart) are particularly enlightening about gender stereotyping in the industry. 

 By the end of Making Waves, Costin and Buster leave audiences in no doubt about the importance of sound work not only to a film’s realism, but to emotion, imagination and plot. Making Waves is a glorious celebration of an under-appreciated art.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is on general release in the UK from 1 November 2019


BLACKBIRD

Death is a journey in Roger Michell’s Blackbird. Susan Sarandon is Lily, a terminally ill mother who reunites her family for one last weekend before her death. Based on Danish film The Silent Heart (both penned by Christian Torpe) the material attracts a star studded cast. Kate Winlset plays uptight daughter, Jennifer; Mia Wasikowska takes on her erratic, butterfly sister; and Sam Neill is the supporting husband who’s already tired of being treated like a widower. As Lily’s lifelong friend, Lindsay Duncan reunites with Michell following their successful collaboration on of Le Week-End. The performances are predictably top notch.

With an eclectic filmography that includes Notting Hill, Hyde Park On Hudson and My Cousin Rachel, Michell balances the heavy subject matter with finely-tuned comedy. Weepy moments are injected with familial awkwardness and, occasionally, angry outbursts. The family dynamic is compelling and the near chamber piece feel is at times reminiscent of John Wells’ August Osage County

Of all the tantalising roles here, Wasikowska’s is arguably the most interesting: her internal struggle offers a powerful counterpoint to that of the main protagonist, Lily. Beneath the surface, the film explores the strength needed to live and to die: the resilience needed to make the most difficult life choices. This strength comes, says Blackbird, from love. But it’s here where Michell stumbles, throwing his film slightly off kilter by building to a twist we’ve seen coming all along.

Look out for more #LFF first impressions here at The Film Version this weekend.

For The Love Of Lovecraft: Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space Adaptation

In H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale, The Color Out Of Space, a meteor crashes into a remote farm. In the days that follow, the land becomes tainted by a strange colour, taste and smell. The family inhabiting it begin to go mad. Richard Stanley’s vivid and freakish adaptation of this eerie story screens at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. 

Lovecraft’s story about the peculiar effects of a meteor crash is bursting with visual description, textures and sounds. At first glance, it’s a rich candidate for film adaptation. You can almost hear the ‘most detestably sticky noise’ infecting the land; almost see and feel the ‘brittleness and hollowness’ of the ‘glossy’ meteor. But Lovecraft’s vivid descriptions offer only comparison and similitudes for disturbing effects that exist entirely outside our frame of reference. ‘The colour which resembled some bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all,’ writes Lovecraft. His stylistic choices highlight the limits of human knowledge and experience; the limits of our senses and language. Try imagining a new, undiscovered colour and you will appreciate the underlying challenges facing the filmmaker: how to physically present what can barely be imagined; how to make us see and hear what we are physically unable to perceive. Can visual reality ever live up to the terrifying ambiguity of Lovecraft’s figurative language? Could adapting his story be a doomed task? 

The challenge of turning imagination into reality – of manifesting fear which arises, ‘not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined’ – would dissuade many filmmakers. But writer-director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) seizes the opportunity. Stanley’s Color Out Of Space is Lovecraft on acid: everything is amplified, stretched, exploded.

Lovecraft writes that ‘no sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere were those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of the earth’. Stanley’s inspired response is to suffuse the screen with an intense purple hue and a vibrating, kaleidoscopic iridescence. By the chaotic climax, this pigment pervades everything and, as the visuals blur and warp, the beautiful becomes nightmarish. 

One glance at the electric pink opening of Stanley’s debut – the now cult cyberpunk film about a genocidal robot and a post apocalyptic New York, Hardware (1990) – reveals he had the creative vision to take on Lovecraft all along. The saturated colours, atmospheric skies and disquieting, electronic score take the artistry in Hardware to the next level. Colin Stetson, the composer behind Hereditary, echoes the elongated, synthetic sound of Hardware while low, vibrating rumbles also embody the spirit of Lovecraft’s descriptions: ‘Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds’. The film’s sound design is relentlessly unnerving. High pitched noises suggest the screaming of the meteor’s victims. Throaty animal sounds evoke something twisted and malformed.

While Lovecraft avoids labelling the menacing presence as ‘alien’, always maintaining an air of mystery, Stanley accepts that his audio-visual medium will inevitably show too much and opts for shock value instead. His film is weird in the extreme, overpowering in its sheer strangeness. The loss of Lovecraft’s creepy, past tense storytelling will likely be too much for some viewers, but the trade-off is extraordinary as Stanley sucks us into the rapid, cataclysmic present tense. Eerie recollections are replaced with nutty and repulsive body horror. The film’s slimy, squirming imagery is reminiscent of Eraserhead: mind-bending and introspective. While the plot leans rather too heavily into familiar horror beats, the atmosphere is so baffling it’s almost magnetic.     

Stanley adds to Lovecraft’s simple story a kooky sensibility. He updates the nineteenth century setting to the present day where it takes on the quality of a satire, poking fun at the middle classes who seek mindfulness in the rural landscape. How better to dramatise our essential fear of the outside (so prevalent in Lovecraft’s original story), than with affluent, low-key America whose idyllic existence is punctured and assaulted? Nicholas Cage is delightful as the unfulfilled patriarch of this picture-perfect family. His obsession with a herd of alpacas – the ‘animal of the future’ that was acquired at an exorbitant cost – provides a searing comic highlight. And, as the laughs add-up, Color Out Of Space begins to feel frenzied, jerking between tonal extremes.

Stanley’s interpretation of the material might be outlandish but a love of Lovecraft runs deeply through his picture. References to Hardware – ‘no flesh shall be spared’ is pasted on the teenage boy’s bedroom wall’ – go hand in hand with references to Lovecraft’s worlds. One character is seen reading Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows – a major influence on the author – while the book of black magic that appears in so many Lovecraft stories, the ‘Necronomicon’, plays a vital role in the film’s plot. Stanley infuses Color Out Of Space with witchcraft and pagan imagery, muddling it somewhat, but offering a deeply affectionate homage.

Color out of Space is that perfect blend of author and auteur. An unmistakable entry in the Stanley catalogue, it demands to be watched on the big screen. Even in its quietest moments, the film operates on a different wavelength to most in its genre. Those who let go and follow Stanley down his rabbit hole will enjoy Color Out Of Space immensely. The rest will be left asking, what on earth was that?

Color Out Of Space screens at the BFI London Film Festival on Monday 7th and Tuesday 8th October. See the full festival programme here.

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