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The Year in Film 2019 - Part Four

Happy as Lazzaro [Alice Rohrwacher, 2018]:

Watched: May 04, 2019

The furious social commentary of the film put me in mind of an old quote attributed to the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard; or more specifically, to Godard's character in his own great masterpiece, First Name, Carmen (1983): "When shit's worth money, the poor won't have assholes."The sentiment reverberates throughout Happy as Lazzaro, where the saintly nature of the central character, held, along with the rest of his fellow villagers, in a perpetual cycle of poverty and subservience, like hostages to their own employers, gives an added weight to the film's condemnation of capitalist exploitation. Like M. Night Shyamalan's much maligned but brilliant The Village (2004), Happy as Lazzaro plays with the perception of time and the idea of characters imprisoned, not by lock and key, but by manipulation; by the intentional withholding of information by those in positions of power. In both films, the subsequent revelation as to the true nature of events hits the audience like a sucker punch. It breaks the spell of the film's earlier, more pastoral or otherworldly sequences, and has the potential to leave its audience disarmed and disoriented, unsure of where we are or what we're seeing. Supernatural elements surface as the film does something extraordinary with its central character, the titular Lazzaro, who, like his near-namesake, rises literally from the dead to become a living mirror to the heartlessness of people, and the unending cruelty that defines us as a species. With Happy as Lazzaro, writer and director Alice Rohrwacher announces herself as a clear descendant to filmmakers like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Robert Bresson; finding an analogous push/pull between unscripted naturalism, bordering on the documentary, and something more artificial, stilted and austere.

Us [Jordan Peele, 2019]:

Watched: May 04, 2019

Like the director's first film, the zeitgeist capturing horror commentary Get Out (2017), writer and director Jordan Peele's second feature, Us, never really betters its amazing prologue. Finding a balance between contemporary horror movie cliché and social satire, this opening sequence creates an atmosphere that is unnerving and pervasive, perfectly evoking a feeling of plausible suburban dread, both in its fairground setting – itself a kind of self-aware acknowledgement of the film as "thrill ride" – and in its observation of the family dynamics; the curious child, the distracted parents and the constant threat of something insidious existing just beyond the frame. The sequence is also necessary in establishing many of the key themes and characteristics that develop throughout the film. The hall of mirrors, set as it is in the façade of a fairytale kingdom, connects back to everything from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1865) and its follow-up "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There" (1871), to films like The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Orphée (1950); that notion of the 'magic mirror' that transports a character to a literal underworld, as well as the usual connotations to self-reflection, identity and duality of the mind. While the subsequent home invasion sequences and the third act twist into something more elaborate if far-fetched are clever and brilliantly executed, they pale in comparison to this opening scene. With Get Out, I thought Peele's ideas, both in his subversion of conventional genre iconography and his engagement with the current politics of identity, were brilliant, but the film was let down by a bland, televisual aesthetic. Working here with cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, best known for his excellent work with directors David Robert Mitchell and M. Night Shyamalan, ensures that Peele's imagery is now as powerful as his ideas. Despite some obvious flaws, Us is a bold and singular experience, confirming Peele's reputation as an exciting and ambitious new voice in American genre cinema.

Unicorn Store [Brie Larson, 2017]:

Watched: May 05, 2019

In a year when Brie Larson would go on to achieve enormous pop cultural significance with her starring role in the blockbuster superhero movie Captain Marvel (2019), it seems especially incongruous to be discovering her first feature-length work as director; the small and defiantly unusual Unicorn Store. Representing a complete creative antithesis to the kind of cinema typified by Marvel's flashy, big-budgeted CGI adventure, Unicorn Store is an intimate, heartfelt, visually creative comedy drama film that combines genuine twenty-something existentialism with more fantastical or magical realist elements. Scripted by Samantha McIntyre, Unicorn Store captures something of the millennial experience in a way that feels genuinely authentic, at least in regards to the experience of middle-class suburbanites who leave the supposedly liberating institutions of college and university only to find themselves back at home, living with parents, and struggling with low-paying temp jobs that offer little outlet for the kind of creativity and expression that childhood promised. As a contrast to much of the current crop of American independent cinema, which is blandly shot and unremarkable, looking more like television movies than something directed with personality and style, Larson's film has a bold visual aesthetic that practically bursts with glitter and rainbows. The stylization extends from the personality of the central character, the struggling artist Kit, meaning that in this instance the content dictates the form. However, the result is still a confident and exciting work that suggests Larson could have potential to be a bold new voice in American cinema. I found the film both funny and moving, connecting with the character's sadness, her sense of failure and disillusionment, and her eventual move towards something approaching hope and self-acceptance. Ultimately, it's a film about belief and the need to believe in something greater than the world around us; about having a purpose, no matter how personal or irrational it might seem, which draws and connects us to other people.

The Usual Suspects [Bryan Singer, 1995]:

Watched: Jun 06, 2019

It's hard to believe there was ever a period when films like this would dominate the cultural discourse. In a world where hundred-million-dollar blockbusters are expected to gross billions in revenue, and predictably lead to the creation of an actual franchise of follow-up installments that run and run until the series exhausts itself, only to then be remade and rebooted as the process begins again, it seems entirely alien that a film that cost $6million to produce and grossed only $34million world-wide, once impacted the popular culture as significantly, if not more so, than The Avengers (2012), Wonder Woman (2017) or Joker (2019). While the creative success of the film and its legacy has been largely tainted by the separate sexual assault allegations leveled at both director Bryan Singer and the film's co-star Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects nonetheless holds up as a fantastic piece of comic book noir. From the very first frame the film grips the audience with a sense of mystery as we find ourselves faced with a seemingly senseless crime, conflicting timelines, an unreliable narrator and a character who acts as a surrogate for the audience, piecing together the clues. The screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie is brilliant; it's clever without being conceited, and compelling without becoming unnecessarily convoluted, always finding the right balance between tone, story and the playful manipulation of the audience. In the presentation of the mysterious Keyser Söze there is a touch of Dr Mabuse: the criminal mastermind created by Norbert Jacques and made famous in three films directed by Fritz Lang between 1922 and 1960. This similarity works to connect the film to the influence of German expressionism and by extension the legacy of the American film noir.

The Coming of Sin [José Ramón Larraz, 1978]:

Watched: Jun 15, 2019

The inference of the title, The Coming of Sin, creates an inherent tension within the presentation of the narrative and in the relationship between its three central characters. By seeking to personify "sin" as a characteristic in the flesh and blood form of a living person, co-writer and director José Larraz succeeds in taking his story out of the literal reality and creates instead a figurative representation that suggests something symbolic, almost mythical. By turning "sin" as a concept into a physical harbinger, Larraz cuts the film free from the restrictions of conventional drama and instead suggests something closer to the psychodrama. In this sense, it's a film in which characters become representations; where the struggle that exists between the protagonists is meant to externalise an internal point of view. Like his earlier film, Vampyres (1974), The Coming of Sin is a work that straddles the line between the arthouse and the grindhouse, proving itself to be another hard sell for both factions as it appears too salacious or leering for high-brow audiences, and too esoteric or languorous for the populists. On one level, the film is filled with scenes of soft-focus, softcore erotica, suggestive of analogous works by other European provocateurs such as Walerian Borowczyk and Tinto Brass, and films like The Immoral Tales (1974) or Salon Kitty (1976), where sex and depravity were treated as selling points, but packaged with creative cinematography and appeals to historical or psychological depth. The Coming of Sin undoubtedly takes great pleasure in depicting its lengthy scenes of sex and nudity, but it also features intelligent themes, strong emotions and an emphasis on smaller, observational scenes, which establish the world of the film and the relationship between the characters. The psychological subtext is as rich here as anything found in a film by Ingmar Bergman.


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