Tag Archives: Irreversible

Under the Shadow (2016)

In Tehran, after the revolution but still in the middle of conflict, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) pleads with the director of her medical school. She left to be an activist during the revolution and now wants to return to her studies, but because she chose the wrong side is not allowed to re-enroll. Heartbroken, she goes home only to find out her husband, also a doctor, is being drafted to help the military. Tehran is a major target for bombings, so he advises that Shideh take their daughter Dorsa and go to his parents in the north where they will be safe. Upset and stubborn, Shideh says she will stay. She soon learns that there is more to be afraid of than the bombings.

Under the Shadow is a multilayered film and builds fear with each additional wrinkle. There is the physical threat of bombings that constantly looms over the characters, but Shideh is also dealing with her own failure and is questioning her ability to protect Dorsa by herself. On top of this, there are the supernatural elements. Why is Dorsa’s doll missing? Why won’t her fever break? What are the things she and Dorsa keep seeing? As Shideh tries to deal with these fears, she begins to crack under the pressure. Everyone in her building starts leaving the city so she has the additional fear of being alone in the building. Each of these aspects increases the baseline level of fear. Even if they are safe in one respect, there are still several other dangers to be afraid of.

Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.
Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.

Director Babak Anvari adjusts the camerawork to match the emotion of the film. Rather than maintain the same shooting style throughout the movie, he shifts his approach as needed. In pivotal sequences when a character is exploring the source of a noise, he uses perfectly fluid movements to indicate the danger lurking around the corner. When characters are scrambling in fear, the camera shakes softly reflecting their unstable state of mind. Anvari also deserves praise for creative framing. He films common scenes in portrait rather than landscape, allowing a character’s posture, and the sentiment it communicates, to dominate the screen. His expertly controlled cinematography precisely manipulates the audience’s emotions.

The sound design is also a major factor in the film’s success. Horror, more than any other genre, is reliant on audio cues to maintain tension. Normally this is limited to the interplay of quiet and loud that forms a jump scare but Anvari uses background noise to make the audience constantly uncomfortable. There is always rumbling, like the sound of heavy winds or the shaking of an earthquake, and it subtly increases as the film progresses. Low frequency noise like this creates a physiological response of unease. Gaspar Noé used this to great effect in Irreversible and Anvari is able to even eclipse that. The noise, like a tightening in the chest, gently suffocates any hope of relief.

The true nature of Under the Shadow sneaks up on you. It initially seems like a family drama about separation caused by war, but soon reveals its horror roots. The strength of the film is how it successfully combines disparate types of fear. As Shideh’s situation spirals out of control, she is not only sympathetic, but clearly unreliable. In most films, this would be counterproductive, but because of the very real threat of bombings, it only adds to the suspense. The physical dangers become interwoven with the psychological and even though we suspect she may be misinterpreting her surroundings, we can’t relax because there are other risks around her. The lack of release is almost unbearable and the tension escalates to the point of asphyxiation. Under the Shadow melds internal, external, and supernatural fears into a terrifying whole.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Top Films of 2015

Yes, I realize it’s almost halfway through 2016 already, but I wanted to be thorough and make sure I watched as many of 2015’s output before finalizing my list. The year end onslaught of Academy Award-ready films can be difficult to keep up with when you have another full-time job to attend to. Without further ado, here are my favorite films of the previous year.

11. Shaun the Sheep the Movie

Immaculately detailed and expertly choreographed, Shaun the Sheep is yet another great stop-motion film from Aardman Animations, the makers of Chicken Run. The film pulls from the best silent movies to produce an endearing, slapstick comedy with endlessly entertaining visual gags.

10. Predestination

presdestination1“What if I could put him in front you, the man that ruined your life?” Ethan Hawke plays a temporal agent traveling through time with his recruit Sarah Snook to prevent the bombings of a terrorist known as “The Fizzle Bomber”. The plot doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead makes use of the strong performances from its leads to explore the nature of cause and effect. Predestination is fun, twisty sci-fi at its best.

9. The Gift

The directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton is a psychological thriller masquerading as a horror film. After Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) move to Los Angeles they run into an old friend of Simon, Gordo (Edgerton), who begins making unannounced visits and giving overly generous presents. Slowly the relationship dissolves and the past between Simon and Gordo is brought into question. Edgerton’s film draws heavy influence from Michael Haneke’s Caché in that it focuses on the guilt and repercussions of the past. Does time really heal all wounds? The Gift has a response to that question.

8. Meet the Patels

Meet the Patels is a heartfelt, often hilarious, documentary about the issues faced by 1st generation Americans caught between the culture they experience every day and that of their heritage. Co-directed by brother and sister Ravi and Gita Patel, the film shows Ravi as he takes the plunge into finding a spouse through an arranged marriage. Instead of making this overly serious, Meet the Patels affectionately focuses on the importance of bonds between this charismatic family.

7. 99 Homes

Centered on the 2008 housing crisis, 99 Homes looks at the human cost of financial disaster. Andrew Garfield plays a young construction worker kicked out of his family home by Michael Shannon. What ensues is an unexpectedly tense exploration of both the winners and losers of the collapse. It shows what greed, desperation, and even success can do to the relationships we value most.

6. Spotlight

Spotlight features news reporters tackling a deep rooted problem deliberately hidden by the powers that be. The year’s best ensemble cast featuring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo deal with the struggle of not only finding the truth but clashing with the culture of a city and a religion. Always somber and honest, Spotlight treats its serious subject matter with the respect and attention to detail it deserves.

5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This film follows a boy and his friend as they begin a relationship with a girl who has just been diagnosed with cancer. While it falls into many of the standard Sundance tropes, it elevates above these with the gravity of its subject matter. The main character has to come to terms with his friend’s condition as well as his own changing life. Part coming of age story and part tribute to cinema (the film features “sweded” parody versions of classics a la Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind), Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is an expertly directed film about dealing with loss during adolescence.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller revives his classic franchise with some of the best vehicular combat ever shown on screen. The film is a 2 hour long car chase that uses incredible practical stunts that put the standard CG effects to shame. With breakneck pacing and surprisingly poignant quiet moments, Mad Max: Fury Road is the automobile action movie we’ve been waiting 30 years for.

3. The Tribe

Filmed using only deaf actors signing and lacking any subtitles, The Tribe is an experiment in visual storytelling. At first, the decision seems troublesome as it immediately alienates the audience, but as the film continues the subtleties of each scene begin to tell the story. The gait of a character, the way they stand next to others, or the speed at which they sign all convey the actions taking place. As The Tribe explores an underground crime ring at a school for the deaf, it uses its purely visual approach to wordlessly express complex emotions.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

2. Wild Tales

Composed of six unrelated humorous revenge stories, Wild Tales showcases scenarios exaggerated just slightly beyond the realm of reality but not out of its reach. The characters, while seemingly normal, always overreact to their situations leading to ridiculous outcomes. The film is bursting with manic energy and earns its laughs through creative set ups. Easily the funniest film of the year.

1. Love

When Gaspar Noé announced his next movie was going to be called Love, I thought the title must be ironic. Surely the man who directed Irreversible and is often accused of nihilism wasn’t actually covering that territory. Yet, that is exactly what he did. Love is simultaneously Noé’s most personal and most indulgent work. There are characters named both Gaspar and Noé with the latter played by him and some scenes are exercises in unnecessary exhibitionism. Most of the news covering the film has focused on the details of its production and its explicit nature, but that is missing the point of the movie. Love, flaws included, is exactly the film Noé wanted to make. It’s a film that explores all aspects of the titular emotion. The spark of a new relationship, the heartbreak that can follow, and, unlike other films, physical desires. In other movies, intimate scenes between characters are unnecessary and voyeuristic, almost like a requirement needed to show how “adult” a film is. Here, Noé builds the entire film around these scenes. The physical contact is an extension of the emotions felt by the characters. With only a few exceptions, they are meaningful scenes that develop the characters and build their relationships. Combined with Benoît Debie’s beautiful visuals and an entrancing soundtrack, the film casts a hypnotic spell, pulling the viewer into the feelings – both physical and emotional – that love brings.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

Honorable Mentions:

  • Sicario
  • Brooklyn
  • About Elly
  • Steve Jobs