Skip to main content

A Year in Film Pt. 2

A Viewing List for Twenty Eighteen

Married to the Mob [Jonathan Demme, 1988]:

Watched: Apr 16, 2018

Once again, it's the personality of director Jonathan Demme that enlivens and enriches the experience of the film. From his eclecticism - that bold mishmash of colours, fashions, music and settings, so vibrant and diverse - to the unwavering humanism already evident in previous films, such as Citizens Band (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980) and the preceding Something Wild (1986), the attitudes and relaxed stylisations favoured by the filmmaker succeed in charming the audience at every conceivable turn. Even when his characters are shady, or when the social milieu is suggestive of a particular threat of violence and criminality (as it is here), there's always a resolve and determination to these people, which is infectious. As such, the film becomes a celebration, with Demme allowing his actors the space to define and develop their characters through an expression of their own individual personalities; their quirks and idiosyncrasies on full display. The ensemble cast is incredible throughout, with standout turns from Michelle Pfeiffer as the film's strong-minded protagonist Angela, Dean Stockwell as the slimy mob boss Tony 'The Tiger' Russo, and Matthew Modine as Mike; a boyish FBI agent-cum-love interest.

Ghost Stories [Andy Nyman & Jeremy Dyson, 2017]:

Watched: Apr 19, 2018

Pitched in its promotional materials as a kind of horror anthology - a film in the same tradition as Dead of Night (1945), Spirits of the Dead (1968) or Tales from the Crypt (1972) - the eventual presentation of Ghost Stories soon expands into something far more character-driven and cohesive. Framed around the attempts made by a paranormal investigator to debunk three supernatural cases that led to his former mentor's disappearance, the individual vignettes presented by the investigation soon begin to suggest a different type of story; one that eventually propels the film towards its revelatory third-act twist. While the general nature of the three cases and the over-reliance on conventional jump-scares does initially seem to promise only modest thrills, it's the film's later sequences - and their clever dismantling of the fourth-wall between the supernatural and the psychological - that opens the film up to a more emotional interpretation, as well as moments of genuine surrealism. Co-written and co-directed by lead actor Andy Nyman and the former "League of Gentlemen" collaborator Jeremey Dyson, Ghost Stories is a film that riffs on the well-worn clichés of the horror genre; playing with the language and iconography that we've come to expect from other supernatural works - from The Shining (1980) to The Sixth Sense (1999), etc.  - but distinguishing itself through a kind of post-modernist deconstruction. It's a film rich in atmosphere, visually inventive and one that creates a palpable sense of fear throughout. However, the most disturbing aspect of Ghost Stories is the sense of loneliness that comes to define the character's journey as the film draws to a close.

Force of Evil [Abraham Polonsky, 1948]:

Watched: Apr 27, 2018

The film noir as art film; elusive, inscrutable and rich with allegorical interpretation. The two brothers representing Cain and Abel; a descent into subterranean worlds as a kind of figurative "Dantean" inferno; Faustian pacts and capitalism as a literal black death. The love story seems like an afterthought, but it's the performances, heightened and emotional, like the great American theatre, and the dialog, which has a kind of poetry to it, that are entirely gripping. Most movie dialog is merely perfunctory. It attempts to evoke naturalism; finding in its construction the awkward pauses, lack of cadence and layman's vocabulary that define the ordinary, or the everyday. Force of Evil however presents something far more interesting in its use of dialog. There's an "ornate" quality to the language here; a certain grandeur, though a grandeur that belies an undercurrent of violence and betrayal. In this sense, one could argue that the film is something of a precursor to the work of the American playwright David Mamet. Like Mamet's best writing, the dialog of Polonsky's screenplay has a rhythmical, almost musical quality to it. It has repetitions and reiterations that continually shift the emphasis from word to word; changing the subtleties and meanings of sentences in a profound way; finding subtext and insinuation; expressing everything and nothing simultaneously. The direction and cinematography are also incredible, utilising the full creative arsenal of post-German expressionist cinema to create a world full of atmosphere and emotion.

Secret Beyond the Door [Fritz Lang, 1948]:

Watched: May 1, 2018

Unfurling with an inscrutable dream-logic rife with visual symbolism, Lang's enigmatic, proto-Lynchian mystery, ties the Gothic intrigues of classic novels like "Jane Eyre" and "Rebecca" - with their similar presentations of lost girls, damaged men and figurative allusions to rooms that are off limits - to something comparatively more modern in its psychology and approach. From the very start of his career, Lang's cinema seemed preoccupied with matters of the subconscious. Think of the vengeful inventor Rotwang in Metropolis (1927), driven insane by grief, or the titular master criminal at the dark heart of The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), casting his insidious influence over the city, like a veritable plague. Using the bare necessities of his routine genre assignments to explore more interesting ideas perhaps closer in presentation to the form of the psychodrama, Lang's greatest works frequently dealt with this conflict between the inner and outer self. This is most apparent in the film in question. While considered a poor effort by many critics, Secret Beyond the Door is nonetheless a film where Lang takes his Freudian/psychoanalytical interests to the absolute limit. The entire film has an internal quality to it, where the use of voice-over monologues establish the notion of a character looking back on their own experiences. Not merely 'from the past', in the conventional sense, but as if suspended; hovering above the narrative, trancelike; as if recalling events through a form of hypnotic suggestion. It's a film full of mirrors and mirror imagery, suggesting ideas of replication, doppelgängers, self-reflection and the fragmentation of the self. It's also one of Lang's most visually inventive and expressive films.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time [Mamoru Hosoda, 2006]:

Watched: May 16, 2018

As with Blade Runner 2049 (2017), this is another film that I didn't manage to make any notes on after my initial viewing. As such, I'll try to extract from memory the things that most impressed me, though again, I feel it's a film I'll need to return to in the not-too-distant future. Nonetheless, the animation here is stunning. Unlike American animation, which is often loud and hectoring - an endless blur of action, colour and movement that always seems to be in a great rush to get to the next big set-piece - Hosoda's film is quiet and reflective. While there's a definite high concept at work here - a presentation of time travel and repetitions of chance and coincidence that seems to owe a debt of influence to the film Groundhog Day (1993) - The Girl Who Leapt Through Time doesn't allow its science-fiction elements to boil over into action or spectacle. Instead, it remains focused on the relationship between its characters; the moral concerns and personal considerations, which are engaging throughout. It's a film that seems content to focus on the small, seemingly inconsequential daily routines and activities that define the lives of these characters. The emotions are overwhelming.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 [David Yates, 2011]:

Watched: May 20, 2018

Harry began the story as an innocent. During the course of his childhood a war breaks out. As a result, the youth must radicalise; preparing themselves for battle and the uncertainties ahead. As the series drew to a close I was struck by how much this parallels the experiences of its own audience. Those that came of age with the franchise: roughly speaking, millennials, or "Generation Potter"; these children of Marvel and J.K. Rowling. Like Harry, these kids would've experienced the relatively more colourful adventures of The Philosopher's Stone (2001) in a state of complete innocence. As the fall of the Twin Towers brought terrorism and tyranny on a global scale, the subsequent instalments - beginning perhaps with The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) - saw the battles at Hogwarts coincide with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; the books' subtext of 'in-world' prejudice (the slurs against the "mud-bloods") or the characters displaced by war, connecting with the grim realities of the migrant crisis, racial intolerance and an overwhelming climate of fear. This probably sounds intensely pretentious, but I couldn't help seeing a connection. As the film's final moments found its characters framed against a landscape of death and destruction - ruined buildings and the soil still black from war - I felt the films had somehow become a mirror to the experiences of a generation, and the wider cultural events that surrounded their formative years. Not in the sense of the themes being inspired by these events- which would be impossible, given that the books predate both the films and the political climate - but adapted in responseto them; giving this culmination to the seemingly disposable film series an incredible weight and depth.

Lunacy [Jan Švankmajer, 2005]:

Watched: Jun 16, 2018

Combining a number of possible inspirations - from two texts by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Premature Burial", and more significantly, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether", to the writings of the Marquis de Sade - Švankmajer's fifth feature-length film, Lunacy, is perhaps best surmised by the well-known idiom: "the lunatics have taken over the asylum." Set mostly within the walls of a decaying psychiatric hospital, the early scenes of Švankmajer's film are a bizarre and sometimes alienating experience. As an audience we witness these early scenes through the eyes of our protagonist, Jean; a young man that has been suffering from night-terrors following the death of his mother. We share his bewilderment and sense of disbelief as he's initially taken in by a man who claims to be the embodiment of the aforementioned de Sade, and who allows the patients at his hospital to run riot as a part of some bizarre form of behavioural therapy. However, as the film progresses and more revelations become clear, we begin to recognise where the influence of "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" is eventually leading us. Without giving too much away, the satirical crux of Lunacy is a depiction of society under both the left and right-wing systems of government; a political commentary that feels somewhat relevant to the world of 2018, in which the perception of society is now torn between the two extremes of the modern left, with its social-constructs, micro-aggressions, identity politics and safe spaces, and the modern right, with its rhetoric of intolerance, ignorance and hate. For Švankmajer's, both systems are inherently flawed. Too much order leads to oppression, censorship and abuse; no order at all leads to chaos. As such, the argument of the film seems to be this: that to find true freedom one must accept a compromised middle-ground between the two extremes of anarchy and totalitarianism. It's a bold and provocative supposition, but one that is intelligently conveyed.

The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque [Éric Rohmer, 1993]:

Watched: Jun 19, 2018

Conversational to the point of didacticism, Rohmer's extended rumination on the political divides of a small village and its questions of commerce and redevelopment in the face of a changing cultural identity is exhausting, but also quietly adventurous. While much of the film is presented in the characteristic manner that one associates with Rohmer's work - familiar as it may be from earlier or even subsequent films, such as The Aviator's Wife (1981), Pauline at the Beach (1983) and A Tale of Springtime (1990) - there are nonetheless several bold deviations from the typical "Rohmerian" aesthetic. These deviations include 1. moments of actual documentary - comparable to some extent to similar sequences found in the filmmaker's earlier and no less brilliant Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987) - 2. a sub-plot that feels more befitting of a Hollywood romantic comedy, and 3. a later sequence that can only be described as a kind of folk-musical. The last of these deviations was the most surprising, not least because it broke from Rohmer's typically relaxed sense of naturalism; aligning the work instead to the stylised historical opera of something like Moses und Aaron (1973) by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet. Arriving at the end of what is otherwise a kind of dry cinematic discourse on the themes aforementioned, this coda felt entirely remarkable; connecting the film, in some small way, to the legacy of one of Rohmer's most bold and unconventional earlier efforts, the masterful Perceval le Gallois (1978).

The Whispering Star [Sion Sono, 2015]:

Watched: Jun 19, 2018

If we were to attempt to simplify the experience of the film, then The Whispering Star is essentially The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) remade by Andrei Tarkovsky. Again, it's a simplification. However, like The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Whispering Star involves a non-human character who travels to our planet to fulfil a specific task - in this instance, delivering packages to the scattered pockets of civilisation - and invariably becomes a kind of witness to the folly of mankind. Aesthetically, it's more modern - if not post-modern - than any of Tarkovsky's films, particularly in its transformative final scenes, but nonetheless, the film shares an affinity for Tarkovsky's contemplative tracking shots, monochromatic  imagery, ruined locations that suggest the collapse of civilisation, and an interest in the elements; the rain, wind, sand and fog. Apparently filmed in and around the district of Ōkuma - the site of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster - the authenticity of the film's desolate locations and its depiction of humanity clinging to the last semblances of contemporary existence while poverty and desperation take hold, is quite extraordinary. Like Jia Zhangke's brilliant Still Life (2006), a film where the writer and director set a fictional relationship against a real backdrop of the village of Fengjie - at the time being destroyed by the building of the Three Gorges Dam - the placement of the science-fiction story into this particular setting suggests a clever blurring of the line between fiction and documentary. It also gives an added weight to the central character's observations on human experience, perseverance and survival.

Amour Fou[Jessica Hausner, 2014]:

Watched: Jun 21, 2018

Hausner's control of the formalist elements of the film are impeccable. In terms of the aesthetics - the art direction, costume design, cinematography, etc. - Amour Fou is a complete work. However, there is much more to the film than just stylisation. In telling the story of the relationship between the writer Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel - a courtship that resulted in the pair committing to a murder-suicide pact in the winter of 1811 - Hausner views the events through a modern lens; inviting an element of irony (even cynicism) into this retelling of history in order to challenge the audience's perceptions of Kleist, German Romanticism and the myth of the male genius. In keeping with this ideological approach, the film's depiction of Kleist is not that of the romantic dreamer, the sensitive soul or even the vulnerable adult beset by crippling neuroses, but a cold, aloof, ineffectual figure; a man-child who doesn't so much die as an attempt to express some fatalistic sense of devotion, but instead, selfishly kills Vogel and then himself out of a state of manic depression. In presenting the story in such a way, Hausner creates an intentional indictment of Kleist and a sardonic dismissal of romanticism in general.


Popular posts from this blog

Running Wild

Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard
"In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom."
The problem with being prescient is that sooner or later the rest of the world catches up with you, leaving your predictions, once innovative and shocking, entirely out-of-date. It could be argued that such a fate has befallen "Running Wild."
Written by J.G. Ballard as a response to the Hungerford massacre, "Running Wild" outlines, in forensic detail, the peculiarities of a strange killing spree. The entire adult population of a gated, upper-middle-class, suburban enclave along the Thames valley, is dead, their children abducted. Over the course of the book, a psychiatric advisor from Scotland Yard will piece together the various clues and oddities surrounding the case until the shocking truth becomes clear.

Running Wild [J.G. Ballard, 1988]:
When Ballard wrote the book in the late 1980s, the concept of the "spree killing" was something of a rarity in the U…