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Review

Review: Animals (Dir. Sophie Hyde, 2019)

Laura is 32 (Holliday Grainger) and has spent the last decade writing a novel, and still only achieved ten pages of content. It’s about a spider caught in its own web and the woman – one in love with the idea of being in love – who tries to rescue it. An analogy for the ages it has to be said. Laura lives with her best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who learns of her father’s death at the start of Animals (and just prior to her thirtieth birthday). While we never learn much more, it’s safe to assume there is no love lost there.

Taking its inspiration from the pages of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Manchester-based novel of the same name (she adapted her own work for the screen), the film plays out like a long extended night out complete with wraps of coke, gallons of Sauvignon and several brain-mushing hangovers. As for plot, there isn’t much of one per se as Laura and Tyler navigate their drunken, oft directionless way through life and the pressures that society places upon women (and ergo themselves) to conform to this ideal model of womanhood, i.e. successful, a wife, a mother, settled, and that darn necessity to ‘behave’.

Gladly, neither do, and what could have been a one-note comedy about women seeking love – Laura flirts with it briefly after meeting talented pianist Jim (Fra Fee) – children, marriage and ‘finding their way’ actually becomes that little bit darker. Do women have to settle for all of these things if they’re not deemed successful in a career? This film says nope, and acts instead as a celebration of women, their flaws – bad decisions and all – the complexities of female friendship and a glorious defiance against expectation.

While the novel’s location is replaced by the fair city of Dublin – Manchester is represented in the form of screenwriter Unsworth and Grainger – it loses nothing as the Irish capital is a wonderful alternative, fusing art, nightlife and creativity, and is just as inspirational as the themes it presents. It also acts as a perfect city buffer/juxtaposition to the suburbs; a place which has no sound; “they sell it as peace but really it’s death.” The recurring images of foxes and cats also fail to be seen in the suburbs – animals which nod not only to the film’s title but also act as visual representations of our leading ladies; on the prowl, sometimes feral, independent creatures surviving.

There’s a wonderful moment when Laura, Tyler and Marty the Poet (Dermot Murphy) are standing against a wall outside of a house and he asks the question: “What’s an animal’s primary need?” All three answer differently – food, sex and safety. That’s what the film is about, searching for your primary need outside of expectation, looking for shelter within yourself and longing to be exactly who you are without of all the exterior noise, whether that be ‘society’ or the unsolicited opinion of your best bud.

The film depicts loneliness and the pathos that goes with it in a compelling way; as a fight for independence and inspiration while embracing hedonism.. It’s funny and furious and led by a couple of splendid performances. Grainger proves she has more than (lovely) cheekbones and a pout to her repertoire and quite the emotional dexterity to inhabit a leading role and Shawkat, who is widely known for more comic roles brings a poignancy to Tyler’s acerbic wit. The character is a staunch feminist who refuses to acknowledge how lost she actually is, while ensuring her thoughts on everything are expressed and heard. There’s even an old Hollywood glamour to her character and her costumes (gorgeously designed by Renate Henschke), as if she is lost in time in this, a delightful depiction of modern femininity.

Animals is a breath of fresh air. It depicts fully rounded characters who are empathetic and credible in a current climate where women are having to defend their rights to choose how they live. It’s an insightful, fun and defiant celebration of female friendship and creativity (made by a largely female crew under Sophie ’52 Tuesdays’ Hyde’s direction), finding your place in the world and not settling. Emma Jane Unsworth’s next novel is called Adults. Although not a sequel, perhaps the animal phase comes after tween, coming-of-age with full maturation (allegedly) hitting at, say, 40.

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DVD Review

DVD Review: Chernobyl Diaries (Dir. Brad Parker, 2012)

The Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in history and its alienation zone in Pripyat is the setting for Brad Parker’s, distasteful, Chernobyl Diaries.

Following a tour of Europe, friends Chris (Jesse McCartney), Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Amanda (Devin Kelley) travel to Kiev to visit Chris’ older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). After sampling the nightlife and encountering some contrived Russian male stereotypes, Paul persuades his kid brother to sample “extreme tourism” and along with Michael (Nathan Phillips), Zoë (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and their tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), they try their luck through the guard-patrolled Pripyat exclusion zone.

When they are refused entry, the tourists choose an alternative route and soon find themselves stranded, trapped in a van, surrounded by the vast, desolate waste ground. Predictably, they are not alone, the only sound breaking the silence – aside from their occasional yells – is a Geiger-counter that crackles within the diegesis reminding them, and the audience, that they are inhaling radioactive fumes. This narrative may have had the potential to be a rational premise if, in fact, the “othered” being (in addition to the invisible, ionizing radiation) that is tracking them is actually revealed at a reasonable moment. Alas, it is not and we have to wait until the last five minutes and by this time any interest has completely waned. The premise of a horror film usually is for it to actually scare, or at the very least, make a viewer’s heart-rate pulsate – again, something which is severely lacking here.

It is increasingly difficult to summon enthusiasm for films such as this one especially since the runaway success of [Rec] (2007, dir(s). Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza), which was excellent and clearly the inspiration for this, with its handheld cinematography, low-key lighting and similar plotline. Unfortunately, an aspect within the mise-en-scène is where the similarity ends. This film is just 84 minutes which should give some indication as to how woefully under-developed the screenplay is (co-written by Paranormal Activity’s writer / director Oren Peli; Carey and Shane Van Dyke – grandsons of Dick). Perhaps, had the audience been made to care for these characters then greater empathy would have been experienced when they are picked off one-by-one. Or perhaps not, as the case may be.

There is nothing new here just more clichéd drivel which Hollywood insists on recycling – specifically using found footage as a plot reveal (a mobile phone fills in the gaps when two characters disappear) if this mode of representation is to be utilised then at least make it somewhat credible and not as a further display of writing limitations. At one point a main protagonist actually narrates so, it would appear, to avoid confusion.

This film is dull, tedious and despite its generic label of horror it is anything but scary. All moments which are included to make the audience react are cued so minutely that predictability and mediocre acting prevent any viewer participation or interaction.

Chernobyl Diaries is about as authentic as the Van Dyke Snr’s Cockney accent in Mary Poppins (1964, dir. Robert Stevenson).