Carl Strathie’s Dark Encounter

You can do pretty amazing things with lower budgets if your heart, storytelling technique and ambitions are in the right place and Carl Strathie’s Dark Encounter is a glowing example of that. This is a wonderful, emotionally devastating amalgamation of classic alien abduction/UFO stylistics and deeply heartfelt interpersonal family drama that wears its influences (everything from Nolan’s Interstellar to Spielberg’s Close Encounters) lovingly on its sleeve. It tells the story of a large family sometime in the 60’s or so who get home one night to find their young daughter missing. Flash forward one year later, they are still grieving her loss and trying to deal with the lack of closure, and as they all gather at her parent’s place to try and heal, strange things begin to happen. Lights in the sky and in the forests around their property, massive flocks of birds vacating the area en-massé, and mysterious spacecrafts hovering over their abode. Was their daughter abducted by aliens, who have now returned to torment the rest of her kin? I won’t say another word about the story beyond that except to say that at this point things get *really* interesting and completely unexpected. This is a beautifully made film full of unbelievably innovative special effects when you consider the budget, everything from iridescent strobe lights emanating from the floorboards to haunting points of light dancing on the edge of the forest’s horizon to a jaw dropping immersive sequence where our POV zooms out for a breathtaking visual voyage into the far reaches of the cosmos, a journey both inwards and outwards that reminded me, in spirit, of both Kubrick’s 2001 and Malick’s The Tree Of Life. I have to warn any viewer that this is a gut punch of a story that deals in subjects matter both tragic, disturbing and is tough to watch, but the process, execution and artistic forces at work are remarkable. The film’s score might be the best I’ve heard in a long time, an expansive auditory soundscape that encapsulates everything from the eerie to the experimental to the emotionally orchestral that digs your heartstrings right out of your chest. The cast are all perfect, with Laura Fraser and Mel Raido giving soulful work as the girl’s tormented parents, and an appearance by the always awesome Vincent Reagan, this role being perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen him in cinema without a sword in his hand. This is a fantastic film for anyone who appreciates spooky, atmospheric UFO themed storytelling, very well acted family drama and an unexpected, highly affecting narrative that I promise you will not guess ahead of time. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy

What’s the first R rated film you ever saw in theatres? For me it was Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, a gorgeous piece that has since stuck with me not just for the fact that it left a vivid, bloody impression on my young psyche but also because it’s quality filmmaking, no matter what anyone might tell you. Never mind the fact that Brad Pitt doesn’t quite fit the old world aesthetic or is out-acted by almost everyone in the film including the host of classically trained professionals he’s surrounded by. There is a lot to love here, starting with a narrative that is kind of not so common in big budget Hollywood; there are no real good guys or bad guys here, just people making decisions that lead to war. We witness compassion on both sides of the army, and cruelty too, but there are no clear cut heroes or tyrants, it’s all politics or emotion. This makes it pesky choosing who to root for but so much more fascinating once the swords start swinging and you have stock on either side.

Pitt may not have the accent down as mythical warrior Achilles but he sure gets a striking look going, streamlined physicality, epic spear throws and concise, satisfying sword fight choreography that he obviously put a lot of work into. Eric Bana is just as impressive as Trojan prince Hector, a rational, anti-war guy who resents his younger brother Paris (Orlando Bloom, wooden as ever) for basically screwing things up as badly as you possibly could. The romance between him and Helen (Diane Kruger, radiant) never feels authentic and definitely is not developed enough to start a war of this magnitude, but their relationships aren’t where we place out investment here anyways. It’s Hector, his princess (Saffron Burrows will break your heart) and their infant son as well as Achilles’s protectiveness over his cousin Patrocles (Garett Hedlund) that win over our emotions and make us care.

The siege on the beach of Troy is a nervous spectacle set up with anticipation in the air as a single bell rings out, signalling ships on the horizon. As spectacular as the war is cinematically I found myself wishing it wasn’t happening just because of the suffering inflicted on either side. It’s not a pleasant or glorious set of battles and no one really wins but rather comes to a collective bitter end, which is another unique factor here. Look at this cast they’ve assembled too, with bold turns from Sean Bean as Odysseus, Peter O’Toole as King Priam of Troy, Brendan Gleeson as the petulant king of Sparta and a loathsome, fantastic Brian Cox as the greedy warlord Agamemnon. Rose Byrne is soulful as the young Trojan priestess who serves as concubine to Achilles until he actually catches feels, and watch for James Cosmo, Tyler Mane, Julian Glover, Nigel Terry, Vincent Reagan and a quick cameo from the great Julie Christie, still beautiful as ever.

Petersen mounts an impressive production here, full of horses, ships, elaborate sets and gorgeous costumes, brought alive by James Horner’s restless, melancholy score. The set pieces are fantastic too, the best of which involves Pitt and Bana in a ruthless one on one fight to the death, each angry and lunging with sword and spear while their people look on, its well staged and genuinely suspenseful thanks to the hour plus of character building before. I couldn’t give a shit whether this is either historically accurate or follows the literature closely at all, that’s not the point for me in going into something like this. I want to see immersive, brutal battle scenes that thrill and I want an overarching story that makes me care about said battle, so every spear throw and image of carnage holds some weight beyond itself. Actors like Pitt, Bana, O’Toole, Reagan and especially Burrows sold me on it and had me legit worrying what will happen to them so that when the dust settles and the very tragic, depressing outcome is apparent, you are haunted by it after. It sure had that effect on me at age eleven or whenever. Great film.

-Nate Hill