Tuesday, 29 January 2019

A Year in Film Pt. 3


A Viewing List for Twenty Eighteen


Moulin Rouge! [Baz Luhrmann, 2001]:

Watched: Jul 06, 2018

In the back of my mind there is a memory of having seen this film before. Perhaps as a young teenager, or maybe even before that. In watching the film again, as an adult, I could still recall specifics of the plot; certain images that had the power to astonish and enthral, as well as the use of particular songs, which have endured in the memory, though largely because they remain iconic reminders of late-twentieth century pop-culture. However, I didn't recall how intelligent the film was in its self-reflexive presentation of fictions within fiction; the clever mirroring between the "in-film" audiences' relationship to what's on stage with the real audiences' relationship to what's on screen. There is also an incredibly rich inter-folding of narrative layers, as the creation of the show within the film - as written by the central character - becomes a commentary on the film itself. The combination of both high and low-brow elements - that post-modernist hotchpotch of influences (from opera, to Bollywood, to MTV), as well as the extended commentary on the nature of stories to express a reflection of something that can't otherwise be said - are genuinely bold and invigorating; placing the film's daring deconstruction of form and the layering of images upon images, sound against sound - moods, emotions and themes all crashing into one another - closer to the innovations of the avant-garde than any conventional Hollywood production. Moulin Rouge! is effectively a kaleidoscope of a film, where the techniques, the assemblage of influences and the presentation of events, each finds the perfect equilibrium between content and form. It's an engaging work that is brazen in both its romanticism and in its appeals to the bohemian "idyll", but there are still parts of the film that actually resonate quite profoundly with the recent discussions around the #MeToo movement, and how such scenes relate to the idea of systemic abuse. One subplot in particular involves an actress being effectively prostituted by her manager to a wealthy patron who exploits his position of power. You have to wonder if the filmmakers were trying to warn us about Harvey Weinstein. That such grim realities are allowed to permeate the otherwise escapist melodrama of the story adds an additional layer of depth to the film; one that illustrates how the casual dismissal of Luhrmann's work as empty spectacle feels pretty wide of the mark.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them [David Yates, 2016]:

Watched: Jul 14, 2018

2018 was undoubtedly the year that I stopped worrying and learned to appreciate J.K Rowling. Having never read the Harry Potter books I don't have the same attachment to her "wizarding world" that many others of my own generation seem to maintain. As such, a film like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them didn't really bother me in its blithe way of loosely cashing-in on the earlier franchise's long-lasting success, or even in its simultaneous attempts to "retcon" potential discrepancies within the series chronology as a whole. Instead, I found myself appreciating the film for its emotional subtext, which was sensitive and compelling. While the main storyline of Fantastic Beasts is undoubtedly imaginative and incredibly entertaining - filled as it is with all the strange creatures, action and adventure that audiences, for better or worse, now accept as "cinematic" - it was the personal themes and the film's unconventional deviations from the accepted blockbuster formula that felt genuinely thrilling. In terms of the film's subtext, Fantastic Beasts is essentially a story about how prejudice and abuse can create a level of harm and violence, which, if suppressed, can manifest in ways that are entirely self-destructive. This thread is most clearly realised in the character of Credence, whose arc is far more interesting and emotionally compelling than that of the boy wizard character in the author's other, more successful series of works. Through Credence - abused by his fundamentalist mother, raised in poverty and used by an older male character with nefarious intent - Rowling engages with a very real sense of exploitation; finding in it a way to explore deeper, more emotional themes (e.g. trauma) through the lens of magic and mystery. This is a device that Rowling has used to great effect before, disguising elements of autobiography and social commentary through a surface-narrative of pure fantasy (for instance, think of the way the evacuation of the infant Harry from the dark lord Voldemort mirrors Rowling's own escape with her young daughter from a potentially abusive partner; or how the Dementors become symbolic of mental illness), even if this is an aspect of her writing that only began to make sense to me last year. If we combine the moving and transformative arc of Credence with the film's positive commentary on conservation and its focus on heroic characters that are unconventional in their traits (pacifistic, inarticulate and socially-awkward), then we find in Fantastic Beasts, not just a film of great spectacle, but a work of compassion, imagination and genuine depth.


Serpent's Path [Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1998]:

Watched: Jul 18, 2018

Although far removed from the influence of the supernatural, Serpent's Path - Kurosawa's twisting and perverse film about revenge and accountability - seems to exist within the same ghostly, uninhabited universe as many of the director's better-known horror films; specifically Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). Like those films, there is a similar emphasis on long-held observations of decaying industrial spaces, where the rundown construction sites, abandoned lots, warehouses and factories provide a kind of external mirror to the ruined lives and broken nature of the characters' psyches. Shot back-to-back with the similarly themed Eyes of the Spider (1998) - both films produced quickly and cheaply with the same cast and crew - the success of Serpent's Path is a great testament to Kurosawa's continued ability to transform material that many would consider disposable or derivative, and instead imbuing it with something almost thought-provoking, even mythical. In this sense, he's comparable to many of the great B-movie studio filmmakers of 1940s and 50s; Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur. Cinematic formalists who cast a light into the darkened corners of society, and through an impeccable control of sound and image, took stories and subject-matter that could've been dismissed as generic-schlock, and elevated them with an intelligence or seriousness that is always mesmerising. Serpent's Path could've easily become as problematic as other revenge films, such as Death Wish (1974), Man on Fire (2003) or Death Sentence (2007), where there was an element of celebration to the violence; the filmmakers manipulating the audience emotionally, until the argument for vigilantism seemed sound. Kurosawa goes beyond this by creating a world that feels removed from reality. Life for these characters is like an unending purgatory, where they find themselves trapped in a cycle of violence and haunted by the pain of an unspeakable act. As a piece of cinema, it's ultimately more Michael Haneke than Michael Winner, with its focus on detached observation, video monitors and VHS tapes as shorthand for recorded memory; all seeming in some way reminiscent of a film like Benny's Video (1992) or the later Caché (2005), as well as other works by the film's screenwriter, Hiroshi Takahashi, for instance the horror masterpiece Ring (1998).


Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning [John Hyams, 2012]:

Watched: Jul 29, 2018

Having no great regard for the 1992 Roland Emmerich-directed original, nor its initial 1999 straight-to-video sequel, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by director John Hyams's first instalment in the UniSol franchise - the knowingly sub-titled Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) - when I first saw it on television back in 2011. Seeming to take its influence more from video games, such as the Call of Duty series (specifically the first game's battle of Stalingrad level) and Fallout3 (the abandoned factory-setting suggesting something almost post-apocalyptic), Hyams brought a gritty, stripped-down sensibility to the action and fight choreography, which grounded the film in a more authentic sense of physicality. Emboldened perhaps by the success of Regeneration on the home-cinema market, this sequel, Day of Reckoning, finds Hyams broadening his creative palette; pushing the narrative arc more towards a "Heart of Darkness" style descent into the depths of madness, where self-realisation and self-destruction go hand-in-hand. It's a film that seems designed to baffle and alienate many of its target audience, indulging in lengthy monologues of pop-psychology about the nature of existence, accountability and what it means to be human, while bludgeoning the audience into submission with a highly sensory audio-visual approach more suggestive of filmmakers like Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn; specifically works such as Enter the Void (2009) and Drive (2011). If Regeneration took its template from John Carpenter's cult-classic Escape from New York (1981), then Day of Reckoning is more Apocalypse Now (1979); with Scott Adkins taking on the role of the Captain Willard character (effectively on a mission up-river) and Jean-Claude Van Damme as its Colonel Kurtz (shaven-headed and spouting philosophy as he commands an army of renegade soldiers). The result is a more subjective, hyper-real experience than its predecessor, infused as it is with bold neon lighting, stroboscopic sequences and a pulsating soundtrack, all in the service of a bleak and elliptical story about manipulation and revenge.


A Quiet Passion [Terence Davies, 2016]:

Watched: Aug 04, 2018

"This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me. The simple news that Nature told, with tender majesty. Her message is committed, to hands I cannot see. For love of her, sweet countrymen, judge tenderly of me." - The words spoken by the character, after death, are accompanied by a time-lapse image of the author's portrait as it dissolves between the three faces of Cynthia Nixon, Emma Bell and finally Dickinson herself; presenting the poet at the two stages of life as depicted in the film, against the reality of the woman, whose words provide the epitaph. As a final moment, this sequence seems to encapsulate the film's central themes of time, permanence, identity, death and transfiguration; connecting it, as both poetic gesture and visual leitmotif, to an earlier sequence, in which a similar dissolve, from youth to middle-age, occurs before a portrait photographer's camera; a self-aware reference to the ability of the cinema itself to capture and record moments in time. Throughout his career, writer and director Terence Davies has cemented his reputation as one of the cinema's foremost formalists; his meticulous approach and controlled mise-en-scene always conspire to present moments as if they were expressions of still life. However, I would also argue that he's one of the cinema's preeminent humanists; his films are always concerned with the experiences of those marginalised by society; his focus on the repressed, the downtrodden; his style intimate, but somewhat reserved. In the lead role Cynthia Nixon is a revelation and I could listen to her speak Dickinson's poetry for the rest of eternity. Combine this with the sensitive aesthetic of Davies (a poet very much in his own regard; but a poet wielding a camera as opposed to a pen) and the result is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking and emotionally complex films of the current decade. A masterpiece that is at once a biographical drama, a character study, a feminist or 'queer' statement on independence, as well as an ode to the solitude of those overwhelmed by the experience of living.


The Woman in the Window [Fritz Lang, 1944]:

Watched: Aug 4, 2018

In the more than half-century since The Woman in the Window was first released, much of the critical discussion regarding the film has centred on the struggles of the filmmakers to appease the strict censorship regulations of 1940s Hollywood; specifically, how best to negotiate what should've been a fairly bleak and downbeat ending (in keeping with the film's general tone of pitiless desperation), when the necessity of the time was for a more sanitised conclusion. While it's easy to recoil at the audacity of how Lang and his screenwriter and producer Nunnally Johnson manage to get around these creative restrictions - engineering a last minute narrative rug-pull that is entirely manipulative, if not plainly illustrative of the idiom: "having one's cake and eating it too" - I personally found the film's ending enriched and deepened the overall experience; wrestling the film away from the more conventional thriller territory - best typified by the analogous films of Alfred Hitchcock - and instead suggesting something more analytical, if not genuinely Freudian. Without wishing to give too much away, the final twist here is somewhat reminiscent of that of David Lynch's great masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001), albeit, with the perspectives reversed. In this sense what we're seeing is effectively a projection; a sort of extended "what-if" scenario, but a what-if designed to pick apart the desires and neuroses of the central character, as the story itself becomes a personification of his own conflicted mind. There is an element to this that is also predictive of Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), wherein the entire narrative becomes a kind of nocturnal odyssey triggered by the central character's fragile ego and his crippling feelings of complacency and sexual inadequacy against a threat of infidelity. Lang's visual direction of The Woman in the Window is as brilliant as one would expect from the man behind such masterworks as Metropolis (1927), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) and Hangmen Also Die! (1943), as he reduces the film's complex themes of death, desire and objectification to a series of bold, iconographic images, which again suggests the influence of German Expressionism.


American Psycho [Mary Harron, 2000]:

Watched: Aug 14, 2018

The film succeeds, not just in its parody of 1980s corporate culture, but in presenting a world defined entirely by the subjective viewpoint of its lead protagonist, the New York City investment banker Patrick Bateman. The events depicted in American Psycho are not the reality of some brazen serial killer; the scenes of carnage and violence, while no less shocking than the average horror film, are not simply there to scare, but to provide a window into the neuroses and anxieties of a man eaten away by narcissism, apathy and self-doubt. Bateman's flights of fancy have a touch of Billy Liar (1963) about them, in the sense that they're an escape from the mundane; a rebellion against the order and conformity that his environment dictates. That "yuppie" lifestyle with its uniform of sharp suits, expensive haircuts, or the going-through-the-motions interactions with highbrow culture; not because it's enjoyed, as a genuine pursuit, but because it makes for a "better" person; it elevates, as an indicator of wealth and taste. However the violent fantasy of Bateman's private life is also an exploration of his very obvious narcissistic personality disorder, which becomes the prism through which the character views himself, and which in turn distorts his perception of the world around him. Much of this deconstruction of fragile masculinity, the satirical commentary on Wall Street conformism and the culture of 1980s excess, comes verbatim from the book by Bret Easton Ellis, but it's nonetheless brilliantly adapted by director Mary Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner. Their approach to the film is occasionally reminiscent of that of fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, in the sense that American Psycho has a slightly distant, antiseptic quality to it, which exaggerates the emptiness of Bateman's world. The tone throughout is off-kilter; interactions are generally stilted and certain scenes play-out with a kind of unreality to them; further blurring the line between what is "real" and what is an invention of the Bateman character. Later moments tip over into outright absurdism, which is startling, but it's all part of the character's projection of himself as defined by the influences of consumer branding, beauty regimes, tacky pop music, violent exploitation, dumb action movies and pornography. While much of the controversy that surrounded both the book and film was centred on the moments of extreme violence (or at least the suggestion of it), I think such critics missed the irony of Harron's adaptation (or even the book itself), and how brilliantly the film works as both a genuine character study and as a darkly-comic caricature of the kind of attitudes and behaviours that we would now recognise as somewhat "Trump-like"; or at the very least suggestive of someone who's a victim to their own delusion of masculinity.


A Ghost Story [David Lowery, 2017]:

Watched: Aug 24, 2018

I posted a short note about this film back in August under the title 'I Get Overwhelmed'; a nod to the title of the song by Dark Rooms which features extensively in the film; becoming a kind of surrogate voice for a character made silent through death. Ordinarily, I try to avoid publishing my immediate response to a film, preferring instead to let it settle for a period, until a fuller picture becomes clear. However, the experience of A Ghost Story was so overwhelming, so emotionally engaging and so thought-provoking in its themes and aesthetics, that I felt the necessity to share it with someone; even if that someone was just an ephemeral presence passing through the pages of the blog. Perhaps because so much of the film is about the intangibility of human connection - the loneliness of a modern world that has reduced us all to spectres; haunting and clinging to spaces and possessions, because it's where the memories are kept - that the need to express (on the blog of all places) was entirely appropriate. At the time of first seeing the film I wrote the following: At once a metaphorical examination of a relationship in collapse. The man can't come to terms with the potential loss of his "other", so he clings, as a literal ghost, to the memory of a place and to the grief of the one who left him. This is fine, as a general concept, but it's the way the film expands and unfolds into something deeper, more existential, that makes the film a masterwork. That later hallucinatory death-dream of a past, present and future is profound.


Fish Out of Water (BoJack Horseman, Season 3, Episode 4) [Mike Hollingsworth, 2016]:

Watched: Sep 18, 2018

I was slow to see the appeal of "BoJack Horseman", at least over the course of its first dozen episodes. For me, it wasn't until the second season that it began to deepen into something that could generally be categorised as more than just mildly entertaining. In terms of its humour and maturity, I still think it falls somewhat short of the bar previously set by a show like "The Simpsons" (at least during its classic-period) or even the related "Futurama", but I do like the way the writers sustains a narrative; maintaining long-running jokes and supporting characters from season to season, while frequently managing to balance moments of broad comedy with scenes of a genuine pathos. The show is never afraid to present its characters as flawed or even unlikable, but still remains entertaining, if not insightful. However, the fourth episode of season three, Fish Out of Water, is something else entirely. Presented without dialog for the most part - and featuring as its centrepiece a dazzling, almost surreal sequence of music, light and colour - it encapsulated everything the show does right; elevating its unique animation style even further than usual and expanding the world of the show in the best possible way. Along with Part 8 of David Lynch's Twin Peaks the Return (2017), as well as the key moments from the Wachowski's Sense8 (2015) in which the characters first synchronise, this particular episode stands out as one of the best and most startling examples of "pure television " (as an alternative to "pure cinema") that I've recently seen.


Kubo and the Two Strings [Travis Knight, 2016]:

Watched: Sep 22, 2018

The two strings of the title are literal, but also symbolic. Firstly, they relate primarily to the two broken strings of the title character's shamisen; an instrument that plays (no pun!) an important role in the developments of the plot. However, they also have a more figurative meaning, referring to 'strings' as shorthand for 'ties', or 'threads'; as in: the all important ties that bind and connect us to a specific place; to family, or to our own sense of self. With this in mind, the "two strings" are illustrative of the mother and father, and the influence that these characters will have on guiding their son - our protagonist - on his quest; binding and connecting him, not just to his ancestry - his heritage - but to a kind of destiny. It's this ability to read the film on different levels that really defines Kubo and the Two Strings as a small masterpiece; a film that mixes second-hand Eastern philosophies with the familiar tropes of "the hero's journey" (as defined by Joseph Campbell), but elevates them through a combination of impeccable stop-motion imagery and the pure emotions that are expressed, not just through the dialog and the performances of the voice actors, but through the film's extraordinary visual design. For me, I loved the way the later developments and set-pieces of the narrative become a mirror to the story told by the young Kubo to the villagers at the start of the film. It creates an element of self-reflexivity, where the filmmakers suggest a subtle level of uncertainty as to how much of the story is real, as a literal adventure, or simply a way for the child to make sense of their own disconnection and the tragic circumstances of his young life (that aforementioned need for stories to explore emotions, fears and concerns). While I loved the film for its more conventional storytelling, its imagery and its characterisations, it was the way the filmmakers explore the theme of overcoming grief, as well as the necessity to challenge violence, not through combat, but through understanding, that really impressed me.