Thursday, 11 February 2016

On the Bloodstained Road to Joyful Childhood

I don't believe I've done a review of a thoroughbred horror film here yet, even though it is one of the genres that I very much enjoy. For that reason, let's start with a delightfully surreal recent addition to the indie-horror genre: Southbound.

Along with It Follows and The Guest, Southbound joins the ranks of the contemporary craze for late seventies horror classics and most notably the work of John Carpenter. This link becomes especially clear in the use of music, think mainly along the lines of the hypnotic and dreamlike score of a film like Halloween, re-created with vintage synthesizers. It gives these films a joyful nostalgia, something undoubtedly ironic, yet thoroughly respectful in relation to its forefathers. It is clear that we're dealing with a generation that grew up with these masterpieces of glorious horror. Southbound is no exception and its group of directors, the film is a horror anthology of sorts, all fit into this mould.

When compared with the earlier V/H/S trilogy, created by many of the same directors, we see the same connection to horror nostalgia, in this case to the medium that early eighties horror films would mostly be seen on: a tattered copy of VHS tape rented from the local video store. Although certainly enjoyable, what the V/H/S trilogy sorely missed was a coherent atmosphere, understandably caused by the involvement of so many creative voices. Southbound, however, does not have this problem as much and this seems mainly due to its use of music as a binding factor. Throughout the film we continuously return to the setting of the car and its inseparable car radio, forever playing the same radio station with its recognisable jockey, sporting a gruff, worn and southern-accented voice, not unlike Reservoir Dogs' K-Billy super sounds of the seventies. This evokes the idea, which is echoed in the narrative, that the characters are forever trapped in the same unknown area somewhere in the desert along the highway going south, a place that must be some version of hell.

It is this set-up of having landed in a parallel universe that reminded me very much of The Twilight Zone series. By realising at the start that something is very off, we cannot help but view all these supposedly mundane settings with an ironically bemused grin on our faces, such as the dinner party hosted by two faintly fifties looking couples and the inbred-looking identical twins, slurping soup at the same time. Or when the two men covered in blood, for unknown reasons, enter a dust-covered diner by the side of the road, while the gum-chewing attendant in mint-green dress shouts at them: "the sign says customers only!" It is this very American setting that speaks to our childhood and the times we spent in front of small grainy screens revelling at the products of devious minds. It makes Southbound into a very successful film, which unlike the recent work of Quentin Tarantino doesn't make its nostalgic referentiality forced or joyless. Instead, we are treated to hilarious scenes where no gore is spared that still maintain their inherent surreal quality, in this way creating the much needed layering that makes the film into more than just a visually pleasing copy of seventies cinema.  Sure, the film is trashy and sleazy, but no one can deny the sheer delight provided by the memory of our secret video-nasty childhood combined with genuine hypnagogic madness.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Hating The Hateful Eight

For anyone who missed it, Quentin Tarantino's latest film was released last week. Despite being his eight project (as is momentously announced during the 70s-styled opening credits), of the purportedly ten films that he will make, its setting and set-up seem to be thoroughly reminiscent of his breakthrough film, Reservoir Dogs. However, there are also a great many differences with his early work. For starters, the film has none of the speed, energy or vibrancy that was present in his first films. This film is overindulgent and loves itself so much that it takes 167 minutes (187 in the 70mm version) to reach its conclusion. Especially the dialogue scenes, for which Tarantino is famed, take their sweet sweet time, often without adding any greater dramatic effect.

Although there are some great performances (particularly by Bruce Dern), this might be Tarantino's most overacted film. Along with its single-location setting of Minnie's Haberdashery, this makes the film extremely theatrical and not in a good way. The film often alienates its viewer by tearing him or her away from the immersive movie-going experience with its unnatural acting, odd casting and artificial and unnecessarily repetitive dialogue. This is not an intellectual or self-reflexive exercise by its director, but a result of some very ill judged choices. One striking moment is the unfortunate cameo by stunt-driver turned actress Zoë Bell, who previously worked with Tarantino for Death Proof, another fiasco of a film. Her acting is so ridiculously chipper, completely over-the-top and awkwardly grating against the style and tone of the rest of the film, that it made me behold the scene in what can only be described as appalled shock.

Her presence, fortunately, is very brief, as is that of two other women who appear in this film. The only woman who has a part of some significance is Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. And here we arrive at the film's most onerous problem: its intrinsic misogyny. From the very first scene Daisy is horrifically beaten, bashed and knocked about. This while receiving various forms of verbal abuse, often by means of the ubiquitous use of the word "bitch". In fact, Tarantino has stated that he wanted to break one of cinema's last taboos, that of hitting a woman in the face. To shock the audience is an admirable intention, yet what happens here is that her beatings are being played for comedic effect. This panders to the misogynist "let's punish the woman who talks back"-feeling that is consciously or subconsciously present in a mostly male audience, guffawing while the rebellious woman is dealt with in a way "she deserves".

It has been said that the character of Daisy should be seen alongside the other mistreated character in the film, Marquis Warren, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Marquis is just as frequently verbally abused with the n-word, yet unlike Daisy, he gets his revenge in a glorious ten-minute monologue of violence and delirious excess. Daisy never gets a similar moment of retribution. In fact, her character's death is the only one that is revelled in, purposefully prolonged, while other characters, with which we are supposed to identify, rejoice. Why should we celebrate a woman's torture and death in this way? Supposedly because she is "hateful", just like the other characters in this film. She is a racist, it's true, but so is over half of the characters in this film. It is implied that she has done terrible things, yet none of these are ever expanded upon. The crime that she has been convicted of is merely being a gang member.  Unlike the ridiculously gory effects, the obviously laughable racism, the other aspect that is played for shock, its sexism, takes a much more sinister form. It actively encourages the audience to feel enmity towards this woman above all other characters. She is a strong, tough and defiant woman, the only female role of substance in this film, who can therefore be identified with womankind as a whole. The film becomes hateful in a way that is no longer funny or exploitative in a grindhouse-film-style, it becomes precisely what misogynist means: it vigorously hates women and promotes the hatred of women. 

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Looking to Find the Truth

Beautiful to look at and intensely moving, more than anything, the film Carol by Todd Haynes is a film about looking, spying and voyeurism in general. It is this aspect that makes the film a perfect ode to cinema and its photographic origin.

It starts from the film's material feel; the film has a grain to it that makes it seem, along with its gorgeous costume and set design, like celluloid coming straight from the 1950s. This is due to it having been filmed on super 16 mm film, which can be enlarged digitally to 35 mm (the standard cinematic film size), in this way giving the film immensely textured visuals adding to the authentic 50s feeling. There are various moments in the film that make a clear reference to film, such as a scene early on, shot from the projection booth of a cinema, where we get a brief glimpse of Sunset Blv., one of the most knowingly self-referential films from that era.

Furthermore, the obsession with its medium comes back in the main character Therese's interest in photography. There are various scenes that involve looking through a lens, focusing on the apparatus of the photo-camera as well as the gradual development of the photograph in its solution. Especially in this last scene we can find endless cinematic references to the mid-century era of film, from Peeping Tom to Blow Up. It is also no coincidence that her photography reminded me very much of Vivian Mayer, on whom her work is apparently modelled. A shy photographer, Mayer's work was only discovered after she died, yet the photos showed a keen eye for humanity, to which one conversation in the film clearly points.

However, besides the technical aspects and references in the film, the looks performed by the two main characters, played brilliantly by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, are amongst the most intense you'll ever encounter on the silver screen. It is the act of looking and being looked at that comes back in the very narrative of the film, with an important tipping point in the story relating to being spied upon. There is one particular scene at the very start of the film that is repeated at the end with added context, which has incredibly powerful tension, enhanced by the sound briefly falling away. Something very rare happens at this moment:  for just a few seconds the film becomes pure cinema. The characters are just looking at each other, we only see them and feel a whole raging storm of emotions hiding behind their perfectly composed exterior. The film becomes a pure powerful image without sound or melodrama, to which the immensely involved spectator adds everything. Through this activity we become spectators with agency and it is a wonderful feeling indeed.

There are various moments like these in the film that focus on looking alone: by showing a close up of a gloved hand on the radio, the texture of a fur coat, lipsticked lips, or when viewing someone going home in the distance while the frame is partially covered by the dark curved hood of a car. It shows a world so constricted and superficially beautiful, a place of endless artificiality and pretence, where a look is the only thing that remains when one is desperate to find a shimmer of truth.

Friday, 30 October 2015

An Ode to Pervy Old Men (and the Problematic Female Stereotype in Cinema)

"Human beings really know how to be pathetic when they want to be," is one of the first lines we hear from Jane Fonda's Brenda, a glorious what-ever-happened-to-baby-Jane-type specimen of faded Hollywood femininity. However briefly present, she also happens to be the best thing about the film Youth, Paolo Sorrentino's first foray into the English language.

Many things that were fabulous about his previous film, La Grande Bellezza, are sorely missing from this somewhat underwhelming new work. Clearly referencing 8 1/2, Sorrentino has no problems with Fellini-esque excess, adding melodramatic pathos and lots and lots of visual affectations whenever he can. He does this knowingly, of which the above quote is proof, but not always with clear intention or a necessity to the scene. It nearly always seems to be a frivolous addition to the theme of lost youth and general decrepitude that appears to be present everywhere in the ultra-luxurious Swiss spa where the film is set.

A very problematic moment in the film is the hallucination scene experienced by Harvey Keitel's character featuring every cringeworthy type of female stereotype from cinematic history, from a barbarella-type scif-fi lady to an awful Marilyn-Monroe-like child-woman. It highlights the strange, distanced view on women in the film that is equally problematic in the presence of Miss Universe. Whether clothed or unclothed and apparently "much smarter than you thought," it is suggested that she is DEFINITELY not there for looks alone, despite being an object of pervy visual indulgence not long after. She becomes a cliché that is simply insulting to all womankind.

Which leads me to vomit-inducing Paul Dano, of whom I'm normally a fan, who plays the sycophant to both Michael Caine's and Keitel's character, and proclaims with great sincerity: "you're not a great women's director, you're a great director". His role is to stand by either's side and mildly smile when a joke is made or congratulate either man for being so incredibly successful and yet knowingly cynical about it. He is one of the most infuriating characters with no apparent function apart from being the recipient of one of the most unbelievable lines uttered in the film, by a young girl who supposedly likes one of his more unfamiliar works.

Again Dano's character highlights just how many of the surreal or just plain silly additions are mostly just there for their own sake and don't provide a real contribution to the story or character building. Another example of this is the forcibly 'creative' use of a candy wrapper, which is supposed to suggest musical creativity but mainly becomes highly irritating. It shows the film's very sketchy use of music, which, although sometimes used successfully, often fails completely by being incongruous or worse. Such as in the final scene where we finally hear the much talked about "Simple Songs" that turn out to be torture to listen to. The music, filled with schmaltz and sentimentality, suitably concludes a film that seems not to have very much to say but is desperate to make us feel emotional about it.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Takes Her Revenge on Patriarchy

Sometimes it can be easy to forget what a glorious cinematic spectacle black and white film can produce. With A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour has delivered a dazzling, highly stylized film, in the most beautiful black and white stock I've seen for a while. The film is an ode to cinema starting with its beautiful soundtrack consisting of Ennio Morricone-like sweeping orchestral pieces, 80s-style pop and fabulously moody Iranian songs. The main characters, a young vampire girl in Nouvelle Vague dress covered by a large veil that effectively becomes the ominous black shape of a traditional vampire cape, together with a young man in James Dean getup create a marriage of the classic cinema of the 50s and 60s, with perhaps a touch of silent movie horror.

The titular girl has hilarious stand-offs with men of various ages and characters, creating a wonderful mix of Western, Horror and Film Noir. The movie is mostly set at night in the abandoned streets of an Iranian town. Together with its fondness for slow-motion and very present soundtrack, the film presents a dreamlike yet very intense atmosphere dead-set on pursuing its victim, much like its main character. In Iran, a world not known for its progressive treatment of women, the young vampire girl becomes a meaningful symbol for wreaking vengeance on men who disrespect women.

Just like the visually referenced Rebel Without a Cause, a classic film about youngsters resisting the status quo, the 50s car provides the main tool of independence as it cuts through the landscape of a dilapidated town and endless oil fields. As the car is taken away from the young man and returned by the actions of the vampire girl, the young man regains his power for acquiring distance from his deadbeat father and the bad habits of his friends.

It contains almost graphically stylized scenes with plenty of lens flare of Fellini-esque transvestites, dancing prostitutes and the ever-present dark silhouette of the titular Girl looming in the background. Not only great to look at, the film is filled with dark humour and the most patient cat in movie history. This film deserves to be seen, not just because of its fantastic style, but also because of the great importance of having strong women in film, in front of the camera in the form of young vampire girls, but most of all as incredibly talented female Iranian film directors.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Fill-in-the-Pun

Well, I finally had a chance to see the much anticipated "erotic" drama Fifty Shades of Gray tonight. I must be honest, I never felt any urge to read the books nor was I particularly excited about the prospect of seeing this film. What made me watch it in the end was my curiosity about the involvement of director/video artist Sam Taylor-Wood. I enjoyed Nowhere Boy, for the easy entertaining flick that it was, although I expected something more experimental from someone who started out as well-respected artist. This film will not help anyone to take her very seriously in the future, although, in this case, I cannot imagine the source material gave her a great deal to work with. Let's not forget that it is a project that was burdened from the start with an ever-changing cast and various rewrites.

Dakota Johnson is suitable as the demure and inexperienced Anastasia, but I cannot believe anyone could have been very convinced by Jamie Dornan's portrayal of Christian Grey. What a curious choice of casting this was. His sufficiently convincing role as a rapist-murderer in The Fall might have been the inspiration, here he is uninspired, inexpressive and worst of all, completely unattractive. His ostensible sexiness is something the film desperately tries to make us believe during the multiple moments he randomly takes his shirt off and in the scene where various female bystanders can't help but express how incredibly sexy he his. To me it seems hardly surprising that there is absolutely no chemistry between the two main protagonists. The sex scenes are mild and often just plain boring, made even worse by the terrible dialogue that precedes them. How can anyone in their right minds take a stranger seriously who tells them "if you were mine, you wouldn't be able to sit for a week"... Honestly, we are supposed to believe that Christian is a conflicted man, but there is no expression of emotion in Dornan's acting that requires us to do so.

But let's go back to what it is that makes most people go and see this movie: the sex and bondage scenes. Everything feels like a caricature created by someone who fantasizes about what S&M could be like, never the real thing. I couldn't help but be reminded of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, which was ten million times as visceral as this film (surely a vital element for a so-called erotically stimulating film). There are plenty of moments where we are shown female nudity, although always "tasteful" (I would say, to the point of being kitsch), but nowhere is there a penis in sight. How could this even be called a heterosexual erotic film with this extremely significant lack? For the most part it felt like an early-nineties film not dissimilar to something like Indecent Proposal, swooning over the ridiculous wealth and conspicuous consumption of its main male protagonist. Endless private helicopters are flying us everywhere, while we stay in luxurious hotels and are given exuberant gifts. This is what we women want, after all? The bad taste that all these scenes leave behind cannot even be equaled by the even more ridiculous scenes where we are made to believe Christian's sensitive side. Is there anyone who didn't burst out laughing when we discover that Christian is an accomplished piano player, who can't help but express his feeling of sadness during midnight private renditions of various pieces of melancholic classical music? What a profoundly vintage melodramatic feel this film had, with not a hint of irony in sight!

There must be people leaving the cinema thinking that what they have just seen is a risqué piece of art. To those people I just want to say that there are many films out there that you should watch now, if only to rinse away the taste of the expensive cheapness that has just been washed over you. Watch Polanski's recent Venus in Fur, Shainberg's Secretary, or even better, wait a few weeks to watch Peter Strickland's Duke of Burgundy, but please, do us all a favour and do not spend any more money and encourage the makers of this terrible film.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Believable Boyhood

Is there any praise that hasn't yet been given to this film? I went into the cinema with great expectations and for more than two and a half hours I couldn't give a damn about any of them, lost in the story as I was. This is a film as close to real life as it gets without becoming a documentary or without losing its luscious cinematic qualities. As you probably know it was filmed over twelve years with the same core of actors. We can see influences from some of Richard Linklater earliest films, such as Dazed and Confused and Slacker, the same laid back view on youth culture, a bit like Kids without the terrible bleakness. Later on the film takes on some qualities of his philosophising films like Waking Life, without ever losing the natural flow of the story or becoming too forced like some of his later films did. 

Everything just happens to the characters as we take the ride with them, as one of the characters describes it: "You don't seize the day, it seizes you." What I found particularly interesting was how involved the audience got with these characters. With all of them, but particularly with the main focus of the story: Mason. As we see him physically grow up we become his parents when we see him behaving stupidly playing with saw blades in a construction yard and we just want to shout at him to make him stop or he'll hurt himself. We become his best friend as he confides his doubts and insecurities about what he wants to do with his life. I just wanted to hug him and tell him that everybody experiences this and that nobody knows anything for sure. And then there are the small moments that shine through the main story, like a waiter telling the mother how she helped him with some advice she had given him years ago. Absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking.

The film made me remember what a fantastic actress Patricia Arquette is and how we haven't seen nearly enough of her glorious performances since True Romance. Her easygoing attitude along with Ethan Hawke's awkwardness and sketchy facial hair matches the flow of the story so wonderfully, it feels like they are Mason's real parents, and just try to make do with all their flaws and failings.

It would be impossible for anyone not to identify with at least one of the characters in this film. From the hardworking pushover mom, the well meaning but immature musician dad, the overachieving quirky sister to Mason himself, the confused slacker with a longing for constancy in his family life, desperately trying to finding a purpose. I can only recommend you see this film for yourself and take out of it what you need. By finding the moments that feel familiar and truthful to you and give a new resonance to your own struggle just to try to do the best you can with the moments that seize your life.