Tuesday, 22 November 2016


Newt Scamander’s never quite tough enough
To catch his pet niffler who snaffles stuff.
Well-meaning, sincere,
And not quite all here:
In other words – typical Hufflepuff...

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

I'm a sucker for a French movie [Review: Evolution]

Nicholas is a young boy, probably eight or nine. He lives with his mother, and other young boys and their curiously pale-skinned mothers, in a town of concrete cube houses on an isolated island. Nicholas' very presence is an enigma - like the other boys, he bears no physical similarity to his mother, and also he likes to draw places and people that he cannot have experienced on the island. He starts to look for answers, but is whisked away to a sinister hospital where he makes an unlikely friend and discovers something truly horrific about the island.

This film has restored my faith in French horror cinema, and I can finally forgive our international neighbours for Eden Log. It's short, at about une heure et quart, and it's beautifully shot in stark colours, interspersed with awesome nature photography. The motif of the starfish recurs throughout the film and adds mystery and menace to the atmosphere - in one scene where the symbol appears in the operating theatre lights, I was dumbstruck.

Evolution is nightmare fuel of a subtle, quiet type. It's not a gore-fest, although some of the scenes in the hospital are bloody enough. It's more of an atmospheric chiller, with a surprisingly tender story at its heart about the unexpected friendship Nicholas finds at the hospital. Meanwhile the precision with which the plot unwinds, and the equally precise cinematography, gives the impression that everything in this enigmatic film is there for a reason, and I suspect I will be returning to it over and again trying to solve the puzzles.

I should point out as a public service that this is a French movie, directed in 2015 by Lucile Hadžihalilović. If at any point a youthful David Duchovny appears on your screen, you are watching the wrong film.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

They're Here! They're Here! [Review: Arrival]

Monolithic alien spaceships appear in twelve seemingly random locations across Earth's continents. The military call on linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams) for an opinion, and she quickly talks her way onto the contact team and finds herself leading the contact mission alongside physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner).

What follows is a beautifully low-key first contact movie with echoes of both Contact and Interstellar, as the team races against time to decode the aliens' language before the fragile pax between involved nations breaks down. Adams stands out with a melancholy and human performance as a scientist plagued by memories of loss, and this is very much her movie - Renner is here in a supporting role although there's some good chemistry between the two.

Overall this is a well-scripted movie, and there's lots to enjoy - not least the alien language which is realised in depth, and the tension that builds between nations as teams at different sites become suspicious of each other.

There are however a couple of minor shark-jumps. Louise's first successful communication with the aliens is based on such a simple idea, I had trouble believing this hadn't been tried already. Later, despite being set in a military camp with tight security, one soldier manages to connect to a fundamentalist website on his laptop without triggering any alarms. These do not spoil the movie which stands on its performances and eerie atmospherics. The big twist, which I won't reveal here, is a narrative gamble with internal logic that in my opinion just about holds together. I liked it but it may well divide viewers.

The theme of interpreting alien languages is a science fiction favourite, although it can also get swept under the metaphorical carpet (yes, Babel fish, I'm talking to you) and it's a potential pitfall if and when we make contact with aliens in the real world. Of the many sci-fi novels that take up this theme I particularly enjoyed Jennifer Foehner Wells' Fluency, which features a scientist hero not unlike Amy Adams' character in Arrival, and Embassytown by China Mieville, a particularly bizarre tale of aliens who recruit humans to become metaphors in their language.