Tuesday, 26 February 2019

A Year in Film Pt. 4

A Viewing List for Twenty Eighteen

Gabbeh [Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996]:

Watched: Sep 25, 2018

Makhmalbaf's other films from this same period, Salaam Cinema (1995) and A Moment of Innocence (1996), are key works for me. In both films I was amazed by the director's blurring of the line between fiction and reality; the self-reflexive aspect of the work, in which the making of a film becomes a commentary, not just on the film itself, but on the role of the cinema, as a medium, to express ideas and emotions that connect the past to the present. There's a similar device implicit in the film in question, though here the "meta"-aspect has been replaced by something distinctly un-cinematic, but no less pictorial in presentation; specifically, the 'gabbeh' of the title. Referring to a type of Persian rug, the title of the film pre-establishes the role that the gabbeh will play in defining both the style and subject matter of the film, as well as the greater political commentary that Makhmalbaf suggests. In this respect, the elderly couple that we first meet at the start of the film - and who lead us on this journey through moments of recorded history - are both, in a sense, born from this rug; their shared stories woven into its rich, ornamental design. The rug is not just an object, or even a cultural artefact, but a piece of history; living history, in the way that it captures memories, associations and experiences that have been passed down through the generations. Like the cinema of Salaam Cinema, or indeed, the 'moment of innocence' that Makhmalbaf recreated in the film of the same name, Gabbeh is a story about stories; both in its representation (i.e. what the rug actually depicts) as well as in its relationship to time. It's worth acknowledging that Godfrey Cheshire's audio commentary on the Arrow Academy Blu-ray release of Gabbeh (available as part of the box-set, Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy) was indispensible here, contextualising many of the more specific political and sociological aspects of the film's construction; for instance, how the overwhelming use of colour was intended as a protest against the marginalisation of women among many Islamic communities.

A Cure for Wellness [Gore Verbinski, 2016]:

Watched: Oct 02, 2018

With a screenplay that feels like a patchwork of several different ideas sewn together, A Cure for Wellness is not exactly the most cohesive of films, nor one that could easily be termed a "masterpiece." However it does succeed, in part, due to the combination of the director's extraordinary visual sense, the tremendous atmosphere of its evocative mountain-top location and the ethereal, almost fairytale quality, which becomes especially powerful - and unsettling - as the story progresses. As a follow-up to the widely derided by actually quite brilliant The Lone Ranger (2013), A Cure for Wellness is further proof of Verbinski's position as one of the most bold and unusual filmmakers currently working within the confines of the Hollywood system. One could imagine how easy it would've been for the filmmaker behind the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films to continue to parlay that enormous success into directing a terrible Marvel™ movie (or some other disposable remake/reboot/sequel) but instead, Verbinski has continued down a markedly more eccentric path, producing a feature that is strange, indulgent and utterly uncompromising. While sold as a horror film, A Cure for Wellness is something that seems impossible to categorise, alternating as it does between scenes of corporate satire, psychological mystery, conspiracy thriller, medical horror, love story and gothic folk-tale. Verbinski had already proven his horror movie credentials with The Ring (2002) - a credible remake of Hideo Nakata's iconic J-horror masterpiece Ring (1998) - but A Cure for Wellness goes much deeper into the realms of the surreal, the startling, even the perverse. Casting Dane DeHaan as the film's protagonist and playing off the actor's inherently wooden ineffectualness, his character - the young financial executive Lockhart - becomes a man without agency. The horror generated by the film comes from the character's inability to control the circumstances he finds himself caught up in. At first he kicks against the system - as characters in horror films often do - but at some point there seems a suggestion on the part of the filmmakers that Lockhart is becoming complicit in his own destruction; embracing it as a kind of existential or fatalistic attempt to become closer to his father, who committed suicide when Lockhart was a child. There are suggestions and allusions here that I think will become clearer and more fulfilling with subsequent viewings, so for now let's just say A Cure for Wellness has all the makings of a future cult-classic; a striking, strange and decidedly eccentric nightmare of a film, which brings to mind certain elements of similar institutional-set curiosities, such as William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration (1980), Jan Švankmajer's Lunacy (2005), Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) and M. Night Shyamalan's Glass (2019).

The Grand Budapest Hotel [Wes Anderson, 2014]:

Watched: Nov 03, 2018

Out of the small handful of films by Wes Anderson that I've so far seen, only two have made a positive impression: The Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and this one. The rest were simply not to my tastes. The absolute nadir of my experience with Anderson's cinema was the doleful Moonrise Kingdom (2012); a film so mannered in its design, inauthentic in its construction and grotesque in its characterisations that I immediately abandoned any notion of ever seeing another of Anderson's films. Suffice it to say, I went into this follow-up with incredibly low expectations. Remarkably however, the film turned out to be a bit of a surprise, impressing me not just with its doll's house design and nested-storytelling, but in its strong characterisations and eclectic cast. Where I think The Grand Budapest Hotel succeeds over Moonrise Kingdom is that it's not attempting to be a humanist or sentimental film; its structure - a complicated 'Chinese box' or 'Russian doll' like folding of stories within stories - gives Anderson and his collaborators a context to play around with the cinematic form in a more directly engaging way. In short, it's a "novelistic" film, post-modern in both its structure and design, and one that often self-consciously reduces its characters to figures from memory. As people they're inherently unreal, so the over-the-top cartoon-like quality of the film isn't as jarring as it was in the aforementioned Moonrise Kingdom (where it felt as if the characters and their situations were meant to be endearing, if not romantic); instead, the film seems liberated from the necessity of reality, in much the same way that The Fantastic Mr Fox did. By structuring the film around a series of second-hand recollections from various characters - like Citizen Kane (1941), The Grand Budapest Hotel becomes an investigation into a perception of historical fiction - Anderson succeeds in turning his limitations into strengths. Here, the rambling, loosely plotted collage of narrative vignettes - which differentiate the various voices and time-periods depicted through a clever cross-cutting between different aspect ratios (like Peter Greenaway used in both The Pillow Book [1996] and The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1 [2003]) - take on a wonderfully larger than life quality, where, in keeping with its self-reflexive design, the entire film has the feel of sitting down to a conversation with some eccentric raconteur as they commit to the telling of an incredibly tall tale.

The Other Side of the Wind [Orson Welles, 2018]:

Watched: Nov 04, 2018

Initially I'd written an unwieldy seven-hundred word comment to accompany this particular title, outlining, as I have with the other works collated here, my personal opinions on the film, and other such observations and impressions related to the overall experience. On further reflection, I feel I should post this comment separately at some point in the not-too-distant future, so as to discuss the film and its significances in greater depth. For now, let's just say that The Other Side of the Wind is a difficult work to "unpack", critically speaking. Firstly, the film has been assembled decades after the footage was first shot and indeed decades after the death of its co-writer and director Orson Welles. Like earlier Welles films, such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958) among other, we're left with only the impression of a film that Welles had intended. As such, we have to question how closely the work presented here represents the filmmaker's original vision. Secondly, while the film may prove to be a fascinating time-capsule for some audiences - offering, as it does, a detailed recording of the changing trends of 1970s Hollywood - others may find a more problematic view of the filmmaker and his attitudes, specifically in how the central character - ailing filmmaker Jake Hannaford - often becomes little more than a mouthpiece for Welles to air his petty grievances, or to settle old scores. I think the film is also worth looking at in relation to contemporary discussions on the myth of the male genius, the narcissism of the director (as archetype) and the role that modern streaming platforms such as Netflix now play in the development and delivery of what we might call "film culture." If each of these particular threads could potentially be spun off into an essay-length discussion then so too could the film's dizzying stylistic abstractions, which once again show Welles operating far outside the reach of his contemporaries (or indeed, the filmmakers that followed in his footsteps). In this assemblage of styles and ideas Welles essentially deconstructs the conventional language of cinema and the relationship between images, breaking apart (often literally) the possibilities and limitations of the medium as a whole. As an experiment in the various schools of montage, reportage, pastiche, surrealism and cinéma vérité The Other Side of the Wind is not just an important work within the context of its filmmaker's career but a work that challenges the very idea of what a film is, was or could even aspire to be. In short, it's a kind of cinematic equivalent to "The Young Ladies of Avignon" by Pablo Picasso, "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce or "Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation" by Ornette Coleman; a watershed of form and expression.

First Reformed [Paul Schrader, 2017]:

Watched: Nov 09, 2018

As the film ended words like as 'urgent', 'prescient' and 'necessary' seemed to circle. The finale of the film, with its typically Schrader-like descent into primal male violence - where transfiguration is sought through punishment and self-destruction - gave the story such a last-minute surge of energy and bellicosity that the entire film became like a scream of protest and indignation. The rotating movement of the camera, encircling the characters in a moment that seems to exist outside of the confines of reality, rationality or even the vagaries of life and death, as well as that punishing cut to black - as the soundtrack's chant of devotion gives way to the silence of an absent God - left me with such a disorienting sense of confusion and anxiety that I immediately felt in-step with the characters on screen. In short, the experience of the film was disarming, provocative and unforgettable. While many have no doubt noted the similarities between Schrader's film and the legacy of earlier works, such as Diary of a Country Priest (1951) by Robert Bresson and Winter Light (1963) by Ingmar Bergman, I found the real value of First Reformed was in the way the film adapts the themes and interests of previous Schrader films - such as Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese, as well as Schrader's own masterworks, American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and Light Sleeper (1992) - to the fears and concerns of the modern world. Yes, the thematic presentation of the priest and his crisis of faith, the young expectant mother and the sense of being awestruck to the point of madness by the thought of a dying world, can't help but recall the intellectual concerns of Bergman and Bresson, but they also maintain a continuing interest for Schrader in films about loners documenting their experiences in handwritten journals, or the conflict of a narrative in which drama is created by the characters' inabilities to control or comprehend the chaos of the world around them. Similarly, the stylisations of the film, which again seem specifically designed to evoke the classical European cinema of the 1950s - with the statically held 4x3 shot compositions and colour pallet so carefully controlled that the imagery is almost black and white - are not simply an act of appropriation, tribute or even homage, but an attempt to create a line of influence. With First Reformed, Schrader is looking to the past in an effort to remind his audience that the cinema is still capable of more than just action and spectacle. It's remembering that if filmmakers like Bresson, Bergman, Dreyer and others were once able to produce films that took faith seriously, that took miracles seriously, and that engaged in the inner-struggle of characters in order to tell stories that were personal enough to communicate something of the experience of living, then the same is still true today.

Silence [Martin Scorsese, 2016]:

Watched: Nov 24, 2018

This was a marked contrast to the other Scorsese film I caught up with in 2018; the brash and vulgar true-life crime story, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). While entertaining in a perverse kind of the way, there was a feeling throughout The Wolf of Wall Street that the material was beneath a filmmaker of Scorsese's abilities. The titular setting - which had already been covered (twice) by Oliver Stone - and the general wallowing in greed and moral debauchery, had seemed better suited to the horror genre, as in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, than to the more generic rise and fall narrative of Scorsese's strangely celebratory film. As such, the commentary felt derivative, while the aesthetic 'tics' (voice-overs, slow-motion, montages) and narrative paraphernalia (drug-taking, violent coercion, domestic arguments) had carried a greater urgency when employed two-decades earlier in the masterworks Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Scorsese's better films from the current decade have tended to be ones that felt atypical to the context of his earlier legacy; Shutter Island (2010), with its gothic horror affectations and moments of genuine surrealism, and Hugo (2011), with its combination of big budget children's fantasy and earnest commentary on the importance of film preservation. Now Silence, an adaptation of the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, previously brought to the screen by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971, offers another example of Scorsese defying expectations, though this time with an earlier precedent. In the film's sensitive and contemplative commentary on faith and devotion, both religious and personal in nature, Silence succeeds in connecting its themes and presentation to two of the filmmaker's best and most overlooked dramatic features, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997). There as well as here the presentation of the film and its subject matter offers a very different image of Scorsese to the one best known for his violent and brooding films about male disaffection and organised crime. Instead, the general approach to Silence takes some obvious influence from the Japanese cinema of filmmakers like Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura and the aforementioned Shinoda, where the style of the film is measured, earthy, but almost lyrical in its use of the landscape to provide moments of drama and tension within the frame. While the second half of the film is perhaps more talkative and restrained compared to the powerful, visceral nature of the first, Silence still feels like a late masterpiece for Scorsese; a serious film that combines images of extraordinary natural beauty with intimate dialogues on belief, conformity and persecution. The question of how to maintain faith in a faithless world is pertinent, more so if you replace "faith", as a question, with other characteristics, such as compassion or integrity.

Perfect Blue [Satoshi Kon, 1997]:

Watched: Dec 09, 2018

The subjectivity of Perfect Blue, both in its storytelling machinations and actual stylisation, is so complete and immersive, that the experience of the film succeeds in making the audience feel as vulnerable, disoriented and ultimately exploited as its central character, the pop-star turned television actor Mima Kirigoe. Taking obvious influence from filmmakers such as Dario Argento, Roman Polanski and Brian De Palma, Kon's first feature-length work indulges in much of the same extreme or graphic imagery as its cult-movie forebears, but avoids accusations of empty sensationalism or provocation through its use of a clever narrative device, which is consistent with the subsequent self-reflexive aspects of later Kon films, such as Millennium Actress (2001) and Paprika (2006). This "meta" element is used to blur the recognisable line between fiction and reality (if not sanity and delusion), allowing the audience to better engage with its themes of performance (the role of the actor), celebrity, identity, agency, voyeurism (the viewer and the viewed) and the realities of systemic abuse. Seeing the film for the first time in the context of the recent Hollywood scandals and the resulting #MeToo movement only underlines what is so powerful and unsettling about the film; the victimisation of its central character, as well as her subsequent slow descent into violence and insanity, is only predicted after she's made to feel powerless by circumstances both in and out of her own control. It's a difficult film to enjoy in this respect, as the treatment and mistreatment of Mima is both harrowing and repellent, with each decision made by the character - or for the character, as it may be - resulting in humiliation and the eventual loss of self. The animation is astounding throughout, brilliantly conveying both the Argento-like stylisation of the murder sequences, as well as the dreamy, more abstract, more expressionistic sequences, in which the character's grip on reality begins to slip.

The Deep Blue Sea [Terence Davies, 2011]:

Watched: Dec 24, 2018

There is a moment in The Deep Blue Sea in which a character steps out onto a train station platform, only to be confronted by a sudden moment of painful reminiscence. The camera, intuitively, almost in response to this triggering of memory and the pain of the emotions bared, turns away from the character; this woman at the heart of a story full of sorrow and shame. At first it seems as if the filmmaker is forcing the audience to avert their collective gaze from this moment too private or tender to share, compelling us instead to retreat, to step back, to turn our faces in sympathy, and yet the scene continues to drift; travelling by means of a lateral tracking shot along the platform's edge; dissolving, not just spatially or geographically, but psychologically, through layers of time, memory, emotion. As a chorus of soon-to-be-seen voices fills the soundtrack, the movement of the camera has taken us back to this particular memory, creating with it a visual and aural aesthetic that can only be described as "pure cinema." Throughout the film moments like this occur and reoccur, as the past and present converge and collide in moments of intimate sensitivity, and where the memories are conjured as much by the atmosphere of a location, and the tactile sensations of sight, sound, touch and taste, as the by dramatic situations the characters are facing. It's this approach to storytelling and the emphasis on memory in particular that has helped to define the career of Terence Davies. A thematic and aesthetic preoccupation, wherein nostalgia is presented as a potent force, not just in the conventional sense of looking back on something with a bittersweet sense of reflection, but as something that has the malignant capacity to chip away at his characters' innate sense of self-being, or their own ability to engage with life. As a continuation of a particular aesthetic - which arrived, initially, in Davies's third short-feature, Death and Transfiguration (1983), before finding its clearest and most singular expression in the masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) - The Deep Blue Sea represents yet another creative success for a filmmaker who surely ranks as one of the most singular and important artists currently working. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Rachel Weisz as the central character, Davies has used the dramatic foundation of Terence Rattigan's 1952 play of the same title (the story of a volatile heterosexual love affair between its central characters, which was in fact a coded exploration of the homosexual relationship between Rattigan and his lover Kenny Morgan) to explore many of his most powerful and affecting themes, such as loneliness, grief and repression.

Annabelle: Creation [David F. Sandberg, 2017]:

Watched: Dec 22, 2018

Despite apparent flaws, I still enjoyed the first Annabelle (2014). Referring to that earlier film, I wrote the following: "While it's ultimately let down by the necessity of its ridiculous killer doll premise, there is actually a rather affecting and intriguing through-line about mental illness. The 'satanic panic' of the post-Manson family massacre, mixed with the anxiety of a changing world and the pain of postpartum depression, gives context to the film's most memorable sequences. Furthermore, the film's apartment-block setting and general 1960s aesthetic draws heavily on the influence of Roman Polanski - specifically Rosemary's Baby (1968) - which already puts the film ahead of its forebear, The Conjuring (2013); a film that suffered from the consistently artless direction of James Wan." This preamble brings us back to this film in question, Annabelle: Creation. While ostensibly a kind of prequel to Annabelle, "Creation" is a film that takes the franchise in a slightly different, but ultimately more satisfying direction. The film still suffers from the same ridiculous killer doll premise as the previous instalment, but this time its creators are better able to overcome the tired demonic possession tropes and instead engage with more interesting themes, such as childhood trauma, grief and disability. Like another great horror sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, Annabelle: Creation uses the vagaries of the horror genre to present a more nuanced story about loneliness and childhood alienation. Its central character, Janice - an orphan left severely disabled following a bout of polio - is, like Amy, the protagonist from The Curse of the Cat People, isolated from those closest to her. It's this alienation and the resentment of being the one excluded that leaves Janice vulnerable to the dark forces that eventually conspire against her. As with the first Annabelle, a bit of ambiguity might've gone a long way here, with a further psychological interpretation of events perhaps needed to deepen or enrich the supernatural one; however it's still a fine film, beautifully crafted and sensitive to the experiences of its central characters. The horror has a slow-burn, observational quality to it - quite different to the ramped-up bombast of Wan's "spook house" theatrics - and in this sense feels closer to the legacy of more subtle, emotional, even elegiac horror of films, such as The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001) and The Orphanage (2007).

The Fog [John Carpenter, 1980]:

Watched: Dec 30, 2018

The first shot - a close-up image of a pocket-watch brought eerily into the frame, as three children, draped in blankets on an unseen beach, look on from the other side of the screen - evokes something of the cinema of Raul Ruiz. Like the stylisations found in Ruiz's later works - specifically the baroque and often surrealist Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and City of Pirates (also 1983) - the image from Carpenter's film has a quiet magic to it. It's ornate, patently stylised and decidedly otherworldly - placing the story from the outset into the realms of the mysterious, the strange and the supernatural - and yet there's more to this shot than mere aesthetics. As an introductory image to the film and its various themes, it establishes, upfront, the concept of time, both literal, as if conjuring something from the past, as well as more figuratively, in the sense of the film's subtext on colonialist history. Placed within an obvious framing sequence, in which a grizzled sea captain character spins a fireside yarn for a group of attentive children, and the unreality of the image itself as a complex system of symbols, the shot suddenly seems intended to further emphasis the self-reflexive aspect of the scene and how it colours our interpretation of later events. In short, the relationship between the sea captain, as storyteller, and the children, as audience, provides a surrogate for the filmmaker and his own audience, in which the story we're about to see is quite literally the story being told. This, as a device, gives context to all the strange occurrences and ghostly encounters that soon follow, but it also establishes the film, in the tradition of classical folklore, as a kind of warning. While often dismissed as a minor entry for Carpenter, The Fog stands out for me as one of the filmmaker's most interesting and visually arresting works. While not as iconic or influential as the earlier Halloween (1978) and the subsequent Escape from New York (1981) - nor as groundbreaking in its ideas and presentation as his masterpiece The Thing (1982) - the film nonetheless contains several exceptional horror set-pieces, as well as a slowly unfolding mystery that hints at a variety of deeper themes. For me, The Fog feels like Carpenter's most European film; the slow pace, loose plotting and emphasis on atmospherics suggest Jacques Tourneur, but also Antonioni. While the narrative is admittedly slight, the nods to writers like Daphne du Maurier and H.P. Lovecraft hit the right spot for me, while the artistic qualities of the film – the drifting long shots, the ornate compositions and Carpenter's throbbing soundtrack – mark this out as a masterpiece of aesthetics.

Thursday, 21 February 2019


Still the best film with the title 'Roma'

 Roma [Federico Fellini, 1972]: 

 A Year in Film Pt. 4 should be posted before the start of next week. I haven't had a lot of time for writing recently. Apologies.