Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Johnny Handsome | Walter Hill, 1989

A photo of dead men. A man with a new face and a new identity, sat with his mentor, a man double-crossed and murdered in a heist gone wrong. The past and present collide in montage. Memories drive reality. Johnny Handsome moves from his apartment to the strip club his betrayer bought with his and his partner's share of the money in a few quick cuts. He can only be there for revenge.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Some short impressions / reviews / whatever, written between June 2015 and last week, all taken from my Letterboxd, and all revised to be a little less fragmented. I like them, and I'd rather they were all in one place — so here they are.

Autumn Tale | Eric Rohmer, 1998

The way Rohmer shoots conversations between two people in this is fascinating. Characters talk objectively about their love lives together in a two-shot, before, usually as one of them says something the other doesn't agree with or want to talk about, one of them leaves the frame. The camera stays as it is, leaving one character alone in a shot made for two, while Rohmer cuts to the other in a shot of their own. The conversations continue as if nothing has happened, cutting back and forth between the two shots, and the characters generally reunite within one frame after talking a little more, but the distance between them in these brief moments, however small, feels enormous, suggesting a divide between them that bubbles under the surface of every word they're saying.

An Autumn Afternoon | Yasujiro Ozu, 1962

Calendars and clocks, usually placed right next to each other, seem to take up space on the walls of every building. One of the clocks, in the eldest son's small, modern apartment, needs to be wound to stop it from stopping, and the calendar in the hyper-Americanised bar shows two months on a single page. Ozu isn't just making us aware of time and its passing, but also how indefinite and imprecise time can be. That clock could have stopped hours, days, even weeks earlier, and the date could be represented by any of the numbers on the calendar. The present becomes harder and harder to grasp — an uncertain period between the past and the future, tradition and modernity, men and women, East and West, the old and the young.

The Color of Money | Martin Scorsese, 1986

A retired pool hustler turned whiskey salesman drinks a can of Coca Cola in a practice room after working on his game, as if to embrace the new-school, sugar-rush attitudes that have made him obsolete. His maniacally arrogant new protégé values the short term thrill of a victory over the long term reward of making people believe you're a loser and taking their money when you show them that you're not. There's no time to wait for craft anymore. It's about the rush. Quick money for a quick game. Coca Cola sells by the can while his whiskey fills boxes in storerooms. It doesn't sell anymore.

Homework | Abbas Kiarostami, 1989

A series of very simple 1-on-1 interviews in which Kiarostami (wearing sunglasses indoors, sat behind a desk) asks several schoolchildren about their homework that, collectively, paints a picture of a generation of children failed by education, both in school and at home. As the interviews mount up, patterns begin to emerge: stories of violent schoolteachers, illiterate and impatient family members, the importance of cartoons; and the accumulation of these similarities creates a sense of universality, that education in Iran is failing not just at this school, but across the entire country. Away from the interviews Kiarostami observes life in the school: in particular, a school-wide religious ceremony of remembrance that quickly descends into chaos. The students are asked to repeat the words of a religious song the headteacher is singing, but their attention drifts. They talk among themselves and play with their friends, not because they're disrespectful, but because they have no comprehension of why this ceremony should be respected. Dictation and repetition does not create understanding. Kiarostami emphasises this by silencing their singing ("out of respect for the ritual", an adult perspective), instead focusing on the indifferent, unknowingly offensive behaviour of the students, while the teachers simply continue, seemingly oblivious to the problem in front of their eyes.

In The Mouth of Madness | John Carpenter, 1994

Carpenter's tight framing and slow panning offers a world of potential horrors offscreen, forever out of sight: an unfathomable danger that may not exist, emanating from a place that's impossible to accurately comprehend. A town, not on any map, and only found following a bizarre transportive nightmare, is the source of a demonic plague affecting the readers of a smash-hit horror novel, and viewers of the smash-hit movie adaptation (a lot of people across America (at least)). But is it really happening, or is it a fiction? Nothing is concrete. It's an illogical movie, or one that at least has its own logic: roads impossibly loop back on themselves, people disappear in one place and reappear somewhere totally different. Something is making people do crazy, monstrous things, whether it's real or not. Cultural hysteria or supernatural force: what's the difference?

Lady in the Water | M. Night Shyamalan, 2006

Shyamalan loves closed-off, self-sustaining communities (the farm in Signs, the village in The Village, etc), in which some kind of unfathomable alien threat is closing in from outside. Here, the threat is so strange: a fantasy in real life, but taken seriously to the point that nobody questions it. A water nymph appears in the pool of an apartment complex, and the concern of the characters isn't "who are you really?", but rather "why are you here?" and "how can I help you?" The entire community runs with it, and everyone in the complex has a role that they take without question. Total, unwavering faith. Hearing is believing. Action is never in doubt.

Loft | Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2005

The stagnation of an award-winning author out of ideas, commissioned to churn out a generic, marketable romance novel and embroiled in a ghost story that may or may not be a fiction. "The eternal corpse," used here to describe a 1000 year old "mummy" preserved virtually intact by the mud of a swamp (mud that the author inexplicably coughs up, as if to reject the idea that preservation of past glories will be any part of her future), could be equally used to summarise a genre that, by 2005, had perhaps run its course for Kurosawa (his only other classifiable horror movie since then, Retribution, was released the following year as part of a J-horror series in the pipeline since 2004). A funeral of sorts, then, and what a send off it is — flitting gleefully between classic Kurosawa accretion of tension and an exaggerated, Twixt-like visual flare (swirling fog on a lake, cartoonish green corpses, incongruous whip pans and fade outs), this bizarrely constructed narrative, complete with flashbacks and dream sequences contained within blurred layers of fiction and reality, is significantly less concrete than its face value suggests. And then there's the devilish ending, only muddying the waters further. A bewildering line in the sand.

Masques | Claude Chabrol, 1987

Perhaps the quintessential Chabrol movie. Makes literal his interest in masks by presenting each character as a false version of themselves, generally used to hide their real, somewhat surreptitious motivations. The match-making for the elderly TV show, with its assertive "applaud!" signs and love-heart number cards being an interesting parallel to this idea of an ever-present falsehood clouding reality — although perhaps a more interesting one would be the game of tennis that the show's host and his biographer briefly play, if only because of tennis's unusual status as a sport in which a player can score more points and win more games than an opponent and still lose the match.

Private Fears in Public Places | Alain Resnais, 2006

Connections based on (literal) divisions: walls, windows, curtains, bars; relationships based on untruths: false names, sexuality, miscommunication, the difference between hearing and listening. If nobody is what they appear to be then nobody really knows anybody, and we're all doomed to be disappointed and alone, with or without another person.

PTU | Johnnie To, 2003

To equates respecting the police to respecting a violent gangster who could kill you for not bringing him a beer quickly enough in a restaurant — and why not, when the cops spend so much of their time covering up their own mistakes and incompetence by planting drugs on the innocent, stealing evidence from crime scenes, and torturing people for information, instead what they should be doing: solving crimes, catching bad guys; all under a misguided code of brotherhood. The fact that the absurd conclusion is a triumph for some and an embarrassing failure for others is particularly damning — people who slip on banana skins are invariably clowns.

Ready Player One | Steven Spielberg, 2018

The gamification of culture is the death of culture. No new ideas in 30 years, just commodified nostalgia, malleable avatars and usernames; cross-brand fantasies played out ad infinitum. The Oasis is a desert, a cultural wasteland, a "place" that Spielberg seems to simultaneously be wary of and have deep reverence for. Specially designed game suits translate digital sensations to physical ones, but they don't cover mouths and tongues — nobody can tell what's real anymore. A race for extraordinary IRL power quickly becomes a URL war for freedom, fought by regular people wearing VR headsets in the streets of a city but lost in a fake world, going through the motions of punching and kicking and shooting each other without physically connecting with anything.

The Unknown Girl | Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2016

Indigestion and vomiting, the benefit of release. Haenel's doctor encourages confession: her patients speak and their illnesses disappear, her ex-intern speaks and becomes a doctor again; but she processes her own guilt in silence, embarking upon a frustrating investigation that she's not equipped to handle while the world around her gets smaller and smaller: a promising career and a dead-end job, a spacious flat and a duvet on an office floor, and a literal hole in the ground that she can't climb out of without someone passing her a ladder.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Streets of Fire | Walter Hill, 1984

Sunday, 18 February 2018

L'Enfance Nue | Maurice Pialat, 1968

A young boy, Francois, is passed around foster homes. His mother, never shown on screen, doesn’t want him, but doesn’t want to let go of him either. There’s no permanence to his life, no security. He’s, in their words, treated fairly by his foster family. His foster sister sleeps in a newly-decorated room on her own. “Whatever she dreams at night she can see in the day.” He sleeps in a fold up bed on the landing. He drops the family cat from the top of a staircase to impress a group of kids but tries to nurse it back to health in secret. He steals. “He’s not like other children. You can’t tell what’s on his mind”. He buys his foster mother a gift to say goodbye. “Take him away.” They do.

A new home with new walls. Thick, garish paint forces colour into the rooms but nothing sits well together. A blue wall and a yellow door, floral wallpaper and yellow tiles. Forced life. He now lives with an old lady and her husband, married too late in life to have children of their own so they foster instead. They’re kind and strict and fair. But they know there can be no longevity to this relationship, and Francois is doomed to move on again. He tries to make friends with boys at school by doing what they do: smoking, fighting, throwing bricks from bridges onto roads. They tolerate him. He’s the slowest runner, the fall guy, quickly abandoned by the herd. Invisible and alone, he tries too hard to make people see him: kicking holes in doors, causing a car accident, killing the family cat. But seeing isn’t the same as loving. He’s a yellow door in a blue room. You always know where the exit is because it’s the one thing that doesn’t fit.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

In August last year, I decided to write about every film Clint Eastwood has directed. This project lasted just one night before I abandoned it, but in that night I wrote briefly, as I do, about three films, all serendipitously beginning with the letter "B". Maybe this is something I'll return to.

Breezy | 1973

A romance complicated by nothing and everything. A teenager with flared-jeans and a guitar, a middle-aged businessman with an empty house and an unused fireplace. Preconceptions evaporate, love blossoms. He gives her an ocean and they’re dwarfed by the waves; she’s drained by the day and he carries her to bed. Their love moves with the tide, back and forth, vast and tempestuous. Sometimes he’s too old, sometimes she’s too young. Tennis and hitchhiking, a vodka martini and a Shirley Temple, an age gap, a black cloud. But he lit the fire for her. There was no warmth until she arrived. She makes his house a home.

Bird | 1988

A tragic life remembered from a hospital bed, an extraordinary artistry rendered in fragments and destroyed by addiction, a lack of balance, a spirit drained. Charlie Parker is already the virtuoso, the myth, the man in decline. The physicality of jazz embodied by a man for whom failure is both unendurable and inevitable. His family is in ruins, his old haunts have been turned into strip clubs, jazz makes way for rock and roll. He’s never on time but people won’t wait for him anymore. His art doesn’t sell. It’s over. The end of a scene. The end of Bird.

The Bridges of Madison County | 1995

An all-consuming love-affair embalmed by letters, diaries, photographs; souvenirs locked away and found again years later by adult children who never knew. A nostalgic reverence, a memory so beautiful because it almost made it but never did. A bridge between eras. A time before and a time after, and a brief window in which they’re together, unsustainably in love. He stands in the rain waiting for her. She finds shelter in her husband’s truck. A film of objects and (in)actions that shape their world, imbued with the ghost of lost love. And then a shared cremation: two lovers together again, under the bridge, forever free.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade | Steven Spielberg, 1989

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Always | Steven Spielberg, 1989

“To us.” 

A lantern sits precariously on the edge of a table 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