Sunday, 14 January 2018

Always | Steven Spielberg, 1989

“To us.” 

A lanterns sits precariously on the edge of a tables in a bustling dancehall. Two lovers, Dorinda and Pete, celebrate her birthday with friends. They’re both aerial firefighters, but she works ground control as he flies, dropping slurry on forest fires. Helium balloons float uneasily around the room, threatening to burst. They dance to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. One false move knocks a lantern to the floor and the place erupts into flames — but it never happens. She wants him to stop flying and teach. He won’t give it up. Danger is everywhere but elsewhere. The forest remains on fire. All who love are blind.

And they continue to be. Time passes. Minutes, days, months, all at once. Dorinda dances alone to The Platters in the dress Pete bought her for her birthday as his ghost watches on. She looks right through him now, but he can’t resist dancing with her again: without sight, without touch. There’s nothing to see anymore, nothing to feel. Only memories. He’s the fire, she’s the forest. When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes. Put it out and see the stars through the smoke. Treasure the past and live in the present. Find a new song with someone else.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Bridge of Spies | Steven Spielberg, 2015

American mirrors. The first, seen in the film's opening shot, is utilised for a self-portrait. There are two faces on screen, neither of them real, as well as the back of a man's head out of focus in the foreground. The painting is an impression of a mirror image, a copy of a copy. The man on the canvas wears different clothes to his counterparts. He's a faceless man, a construction of cold light, of dark paint. Every gesture studied and recreated. A Soviet spy.

The second mirror, from the film's closing moments, is in a bedroom. A woman checks on her husband, just returned from negotiating the release of two American men in East Berlin. He has collapsed from exhaustion. She faces him as he lays on the bed, unconscious, and her back is reflected in the mirror, invisible to her. No constructions, no copies. One face, a real one. A return to simplicity.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

This time last year I wrote a similar end of year roundup to this one, which is something I like to do even if nobody really needs to read it. I haven’t seen all the things I wanted to see from this year, and maybe I never will, so this type of writing is far from a definitive statement of the year. It's a process that provides closure. I’m never going to live in 2017 again, so I’m never going to experience the works that I’ve missed, from Bruno Dumont’s Jeanette to Paul Schrader’s First Reformed to Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera, in the context in which they were made and first shown. And that’s fine. I'm not writing this for any other reason than to represent what the year 2017 was to me as I lived it. I can’t really do more than that.

Inevitably, then, I have to start with David Lynch, a filmmaker whose work, or specifically one facet of it, has taken up the vast majority of my year. Before June, I’d never seen any of Twin Peaks. I knew that at least one scene in The Simpsons was supposedly a riff on it, and I knew enough about Lynch to accurately assume that this wouldn’t be a simple whodunit. I threw myself in at the deep end for the summer and watched every episode of the first two seasons. I’m so glad I did, however belatedly, and then I started to catch up with The Return, which, for the sake of simplicity, is what I’m calling it. As has been noted elsewhere, this isn’t an easy show to gain a steady footing with, and soon I found myself enthralled but totally lost. I kept thinking I was pulling the pieces together, only to lose them just as quickly. Characters came and went, stories were glimpsed and never returned to. The world spun. And then it all ended. Dark Space Low played and the curtains came crashing down. Before long, the sense of a tremendous loss began to form in the pit of my stomach. This wasn’t supposed to end in failure. How can someone so well-intentioned become so wholly and irretrievably lost? As I inevitably revisit this show time and time again, I'm sure the layers will peel back to reveal clues hidden in plain sight. Or maybe they won’t. But, at least for now, all I can say with any certainty is that Twin Peaks: The Return is the most moving "thing" I've seen in a very long time, and I'm still trying to articulate why that is. All I have are questions without answers, feelings without words, and the impression of something monumental.

This kind of evocation is something I look for in cinema but very rarely find. In a year sorely lacking in stand-out movies, there were, however, a few stand-out images that gave me a similar sense of majority, even if only for a moment: the awkward non-committal dance at the end of Valeska Grisebach’s Western; the sacrificial gift of humanity as the world ends through a hotel-room window in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish; the earth-shattering beauty of Abbas Kiarostami’s very last contribution to cinema in 24 Frames; the pointedly exhausting non-spectacle of a bloodbath that concludes Takashi Miike's Blade of the Immortal; a righteously violent rescue mission viewed through and refracted by a succession of CCTV cameras, Resident Evil-style, in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here; a tarot card reader speaking in increasingly vague circles to a knowingly hopeless romantic in Claire Denis’s Let The Sunshine In; and the brutal dismantling by several workmen of a huge statue of Marilyn Monroe in Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White. All of these images have, in some way, shape or form, stayed with me, even if their corresponding films have faded from my mind.

Perhaps I’ve not found much of note this year because I’ve been markedly less invested in keeping up with cinema than in recent years. I’ve barely seen a new movie outside of a film festival, and what I have seen has, with a few exceptions, barely left an impression. This lacklustre year, the first I can remember being this empty since I started taking cinema seriously in 2013, has removed from me the obligation of keeping up with contemporary cinema. I’m not a journalist. I have no professional incentive to catch up with certain films before the end of the year. I’m just someone who likes cinema, and someone who likes writing about cinema. The films that I’ve missed aren’t going away just because the year is over. I can watch Call Me By Your Name or Song To Song or Phantom Thread in a year’s time or a decade from now and they’ll still exist in the same way. The only difference is time.

Twelve works from the year, then, all, in some way, about changing perceptions of time. The past is the past. Make a future if you can.

In alphabetical order:

120 Beats Per Minute | Robin Campillo
24 Frames | Abbas Kiarostami
A Season in France | Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Before We Vanish | Kiyoshi Kurosawa
The Day After | Hong Sang-soo
Good Time | Josh & Benny Safdie
Let The Sunshine In | Claire Denis
Marjorie Prime | Michael Almereyda
Twin Peaks: The Return | David Lynch
Western | Valeska Grisebach
You Were Never Really Here | Lynne Ramsay
Zama | Lucrecia Martel

look at the sky tonight, all of the stars have a reason // 
a reason to shine, a reason like mine and i'm falling to pieces
Star Shopping | Lil Peep

I could reel off several much-too-personal anecdotes that illustrate the extent to which Lil Peep’s music has been a light in the storm for me this year. The idea that he’s gone is devastating.

As of writing, his discography is available for free here. Maybe it’ll help you as much as it helped me.

Mr Klein | Joseph Losey, 1976
The Boston Strangler | Richard Fleischer, 1968
Emperor of the North | Robert Aldrich, 1973
The River | Jean Renoir, 1950
Spontaneous Combustion | Tobe Hooper, 1990
Loft | Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2005
Light Sleeper | Paul Schrader, 1992
Solaris | Steven Soderbergh, 2002
The Beguiled | Don Siegel, 1971
Brigadoon | Vincente Minnelli, 1954

The movies I saw for the first time this year that spoke to me most clearly.

Memories: Feeling the cold of HNDRXX in Copenhagen; feeling the warmth of Flower Boy in Rome. But far and away my favourite thing to happen this year was seeing several people whose work I've known and loved for years finally getting the platforms they deserve. Good work rises to the top.

I can try harder.
I can do better.
I will.

Expect more from me in 2018.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters | Paul Schrader, 1985

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Limey | Steven Soderbergh, 1999

“She had a feeling about this last job, how long I’d get banged up for. Said she wouldn’t be around this time when I got out... and she wasn’t.”

Wilson, an Englishman just out of prison following a long stretch inside for armed robbery, flies to Los Angeles to investigate the mysterious death of his daughter, believing that she was murdered. He missed much of his daughter’s life because of his time in prison, never meeting her as an adult, and throughout his investigation, he's struck by memories of her. Echoes of their brief history as father and daughter flash into the present again and again but vanish as soon as they appear. A courtroom, a beach, a phone call, “daddy the friendly ghost”. Wilson is forced to re-live these moments of life as he confronts her death, the past bleeding into the present because there’s no way to change any of it now. He’ll never know his daughter as anything beyond these flickers, beyond photographs, beyond stories heard second or third hand. She’s all he had, and her absence leaves a void, a pain, a ghost to be avenged. His memories of her swirl together with his fantasies of killing the man he deems responsible, again and again, with slight variation. He walks through a crowded party, imagining himself pulling a gun on his daughter’s murderer: a shot to the chest replays as a shot to the elbow, and again as a shot to the head, blood spattering violently onto the wall behind his victim. Yet, now that he has the chance to do it, and however much he wants to, none of these fantasies are played out beyond his own mind. Is it the practicality of escaping a crowded room after shooting a man, or is he having second thoughts? An interior revenge story enriched by perspective and offering an insight into a grief-stricken psyche. Editing as emotion. Editing as empathy.

Monday, 16 October 2017

LFF 2017 | #2

“I’ve seen ages come and go.” In Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal, men live forever and grudges do too. Children avenge their parents. Brothers avenge their sisters. And men take revenge on the grandchildren of those who wronged their grandparents. An unending cycle of violence that reverberates through generations. Rin, a young girl whose parents are killed by a marauding clan of violent swordsmen, searches for a supposedly immortal warrior, Manji, to help her in her quest to avenge them. Eternal life is a curse. He can only dwell on his endless history: the murder of his sister and the hundred men he killed to avenge her. He’s the past, the present, and the future; an undying symbol of a stagnant age of eye-for-an-eye violence, the damage of which can only be viewed in retrospect and is doomed to ceaselessly repeat itself. And so it does. These swordsmen, attempting to overwrite all traditional values in Japan with their modern philosophies and destroy anyone who stands in their way, believe in fighting one on one, presenting a succession of tiring and tiresome enemies for Manji to overcome, his immortality rendering them all meaningless. There are no consequences for him. There’s no mortality. No winning, no losing. Just the gruelling and endless trudge of battle as a vessel for a young girl’s revenge, and a longing for a death that can never come. And when an opportunity for revenge arises, she’s not the only one seeking it — so then what? Ages come and go. Nothing changes. The only conclusion for a society governed by a code of vengeance is total annihilation. A pile of bodies. A river of blood.

In Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute, the Seine is blood-red and flows endlessly through Paris. The AIDS epidemic is at its peak, and activist group ACT UP are fighting for greater societal, political and medical understanding and investment in the disease, its causes, and the urgent need for treatment. Campillo, a self-proclaimed “ACT UP militant” in the 1990s, takes us to the heart of the organisation, showing us everything. The weekly meetings held in a nondescript lecture hall, in which any orders of business relating to the group, be it the media reaction to past acts, the planning of future ones, developing slogans to best communicate their messages, or testimonials to members who have died, are discussed, heard, debated and analysed in detail. The actions themselves, like storming the offices of a pharmaceutical company to cover the walls in fake blood, performing at pride festivals, and handing out condoms and safe-sex leaflets in schools. And people’s lives: living, loving, being in love, and the devastating impact of this disease on these lives and on all the lives we don’t see. People are dying from this epidemic and nobody with the power to do anything about it seems to care. “Our friends are dying. We don’t want to die too.” An urgent and vital fight for life. It’s too late for some but they fight anyway. Life is worth fighting for. “Parade my body through the streets.” A man dies and his ashes are wielded as a political weapon. Make them notice. Make them care. Be visible. Fight for life and the river will run blue again. We’re dancing. We’re alive.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

LFF 2017 | #1

Us against the world. In Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, two white guys, Connie and his brother Nick, dress up as black men to rob a bank. Connie is in charge while Nick, who is mentally handicapped and reliant on his brother, is there for support. “Do you think I could have done that without you next to me, being strong?” For better and worse, Connie is the single loving presence in Nick’s life. But he makes mistakes. He asserts dominance without ever having control of a situation. If he covers nine angles, he’s missed the tenth. A bank worker leaves the room to fill a bag with cash, as instructed, during which time Connie loses sight of her and has no idea what she’s doing. He takes the money without question and his world falls apart. Connie has to raise $10,000 to bail his vulnerable brother out of Rikers Island — “he could get killed in there”. There’s no time to think. All he can do is act: desperately, cunningly, sickeningly; and out of love. An elderly black woman caring for her ill husband and 16 year old granddaughter, his fragile girlfriend with access to her mother’s credit cards, a guy on parole with a hidden stash of LSD that’ll pay the bail if they can find it and sell it, a black security guard working nights at an amusement park. All of whom he manipulates, be it emotionally or physically, into helping him. He traps them and forces them to become part of his scheme, before abandoning them when they’ve served their purpose. Collateral damage, no regrets. Victims of a system rigged against them from the start, and a system Connie never has to think about. A damned man, he has the luxury of being able to act without consequence. He’s the king of an ugly world, if only for a moment, and everyone beneath him is expected to fall in line without question.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France views a similarly ugly system from the other side, as Abbas, an ex-schoolteacher from the war-torn Central African Republic, seeks asylum in France with both his brother Etienne and his two young children. Abbas sells fruit and veg at a market stall while Etienne, a philosophy lecturer at home, works as a minimarket doorman and lives in a shack under a bridge. Left in limbo by the bureaucracy of the asylum process and unable to make use of their skills, their lives are in a constant state of flux, left to wait for some kind of permanence that that never seems to come. As Abbas and a large crowd gather to learn if their asylum applications have been granted, a white Government official strides through the waiting room to place two sheets of paper on a noticeboard before leaving through a back door. Guards control the desperate crowd, only letting a few people in at a time to learn whether they’ll be forced to leave the country or not. It’s a brutally impersonal way of delivering life changing information necessitated by the sheer volume of people to deal with. But by focusing solely on one family, Haroun makes it personal. This is one of a million stories, and these are all human lives. There’s no end to this. There’s no solution. There’s only endurance and that’s not enough. Not even death is permanent. A cemetery filled with temporary graves, housing the dead for up to five years. Unless a new grave is found, these bodies will be dug up and cremated to make room for new bodies. “We don’t burn the dead at home”. A final insult from a country that doesn’t want them. Us against the world.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Crocodile | Tobe Hooper, 2000

Guns, knives, boats, cars, trucks and buildings. Human invention is no match for a furious Nile Crocodile. This lake is not yours to reign, so just be human. Know your place. Trust your instincts. Lay a trap. Arm yourself with branches and wait in the bushes for your chance. Accept the laws of nature and maybe you'll make it out alive.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Tobe Hooper will always be one of the great filmmakers. Films like Lifeforce and Spontaneous Combustion have had an extraordinary impact on me, and his work is on my mind in some capacity pretty much all of the time. I should do more to communicate why I think his films are so vital, and I will, but in the meantime, however belatedly it seems now, I'm re-publishing a brief Letterboxd write-up of Eaten Alive, written minutes after I saw the film for the first time earlier this year. I'm sure this will be the first of many appearances that Hooper's work will make here.

Eaten Alive | Tobe Hooper, 1976

A hotel on the outskirts of a twilit ghost town bathed in an artificial red haze, filled with a succession of rugs instead of carpet and illuminated by dozens of lamps instead of central lighting. This hotel is a failure of homeliness, a misuse of familiar elements (wardrobes in bathrooms, single beds in double rooms) that render it as inhospitable as its owner, a lonely, disturbed man who clearly wants to be among people but can't get close to anyone, reacting with brutal violence to any signs of the humanity he's been conditioned to reject — he's a man outside of nature, a wardrobe in a bathroom, an African crocodile in a tiny pond in Texas. He shouldn't exist in this loveless, monstrous form, but he does. And it's all just desperately sad.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Ghost Story | David Lowery, 2017

A friend delivers a pie to a grieving woman, who is not home. When she returns, she cuts a portion of the pie and eats it, then another, and another. But she's only eating the middle, hollowing it out to leave the crusts to encircle a nothingness, a space where a rich taste used to be. Eating in this way is to miss the experience. There's nothing to balance the sweetness, and it becomes harder and harder to swallow. You need it all, crusts and filling, to make it edible. To make it endurable. The blank ghost of her husband looms large, watching on from the background. And we only see fragments of life, before and after: a song, a party, an iPod. Times pass. People change. Spaces die. Then it starts all over again and the crusts bring clarity. A ghost watches a ghost and the daughter of a colonialist hums a melody that hasn't been written yet. The future is the past. History isn't what it used to be.