15th March 2012
Tomas Alfredson's last film was the acclaimed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but his superlative 2008 effort was equally as unforgettable:
Alfredson's wonderful film shows that it is possible to tell a story about a teenager falling in love with a vampire and not be trite, cliched or boring. Let the Right One In is a quiet and uniquely disturbing film that uses vampirism not just as a tired and predictable metaphor for sex, but as a vehicle to examine violence, responsibility and power. Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel of the same name, Let the Right One In ranks among the best screen adaptations ever made. What is particularly brilliant about the adaptation is its use of ambiguity. In the novel, for example, Eli's adult companion has his own subplot, but in the film he is a far more minor, and enigmatic figure. Surprisingly, this works in the film's favour, drawing a cloud over Eli's past and thereby increasing her power over both Oskar and the audience. Even the Big Themes of the film are handled with a subtlety that was predictably absent from the 2010 American remake, Let Me In. In the year that The Dark Knight, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood was released, Let the Right One In managed to stand out as one of the year's best, and is a beautiful, complex and unnerving film. What then, could possibly compare to it? Well, I'd say this comes close:
Cronos is director Guillermo Del Toro's first feature, now know for the Hellboy films and for the brilliant Pan's Labyrinth. While not as technically accomplished as Let the Right One In, Cronos gives a new angle on the vampire myth that has never really been matched for originality. An elderly antique-shop owner comes across a strange scarab-like clockwork device. He activates it and it stabs him in the hand, after which he notices an increased vitality, but a worrying craving for blood and aversion to daylight. Where Let the Right One In appropriates the conventional vampire love story to explore co-dependent relationships, Del Toro combines the tropes of vampire mythology with his own aesthetic sensibilities to create something new and refreshingly disturbing. What many vampire films tend to forget amongst all the blood sucking and superpowers is that at the heart (forgive the pun) of the vampire figure is a ghastliness - becoming a vampire means being in a state of living death. Films like F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu or Todd Browning's 1931 Dracula captured that sense of the ghastly more so than almost any more recent vampire movies, but in refashioning traditional vampire narratives for modern audiences, Del Toro and Alfredson's films actually come far closer to the core of the vampire myth than many other, more traditional efforts, and are both emotionally complex, visually rich and intensely visceral films.
8th March 2012
Kicking off the double bill this week is Alfred Hitchcock's iconic 1960 thriller:
Arguably the first slasher film, Psycho is typically a masterpiece of suspense, tension and violence. Serving as the template for more or less every film in the nutso-killer subgenre, Hitchcock's film has directly inspired other notable slashers, including Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which, as well as Psycho, based its killer on real-life murderer Ed Gein), and Wes Craven's self-mocking Scream series. Hitchcock is working at full tilt here, producing one of his most technically accomplished works and achieving one of the greatest sequences of suggestive editing in cinema with the famous shower scene. Psycho somehow manages to break genre conventions whilst creating them, primarily by killing Janet Leigh's heroine, Marion Crane, in the first act; a trick Wes Craven paid homage to by bumping off his star, Drew Barrymore, in the very first scene of Scream. Aside from its historical importance in the slasher genre, Psycho is simply a tremendous film, with great performances, beautiful black and white photography, and that inimitable sense of Hitchcockian suspense. In fact, to match that tension you'd have to go a considerable distance:
Yes indeedy, Janet Leigh's claustrophobic shower-room scream may be iconic, but surely nothing is more terrifying than the cold, silent vacuum of space, a juxtaposition that the famous tagline of Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien plays with. Scott's film about a hostile extra terrestrial that gestates inside a human host, namely the unfortunate John Hurt, is ostensibly a seminal example of science fiction, and continues to inform the visuals and style of intelligent science fiction cinema, most recently with Duncan Jones' fantastic Moon. However, it's no secret that at its heart Alien is a good old fashioned slasher flick, complete with sexualised violence (phallic imagery, anyone?), and a, ahem, climax involving a lone, scantily clad Sigourney Weaver hiding from the beast in a cupboard. But the similarities to Psycho run deeper than a narrative connection to slasher films: like Psycho, Alien plays with the audience's expectations over who will survive by killing off what are set up to be the main characters - first Hurt's Kane, and then the ship's Captain, Dallas. That Ripley is a woman underscores the way the focus gradually shifts away from the other characters, and provides a nice counterpoint to Marion Crane's untimely death in Hitchcock's film. Both Psycho and Alien are intelligent and iconic examples of their genre, but beneath that they share a direct line of heritage, and make a violent, tense, and thrilling double bill.
1st March 2012
The first film on this week's double bill is George Stevens' 1953 classic:
The tagline boasts that 'There never was a motion picture like Shane', and there's no doubt that Shane is as unique as it is wonderful. Telling the story of a family of homesteaders in Alabama who are terrorised by a group of cattlemen trying to run them off their land, Stevens' film is a classic of tension, dialogue and performances. Shane, a drifter, finds himself embroiled in the dispute between homesteaders and cattlemen, before helping the homesteaders by returning to the violence that he once disowned. What makes this film what its are the three central performances of Alan Ladd, Van Heflin who plays Joe and his wife, Marian, played by Jean Arthur. Joe and Shane's friendship is developed sensitively throughout the film, but what makes their relationship so complex is that Joe is simultaneously desperate for and emasculated by Shane's help against the cattlemen. Moreover, there is simply the best unspoken, unconsummated affair in cinema, between Shane and Marian, the woman who loves her husband but cannot help falling for Shane's charm and talents. Meanwhile, Marian and Joe's son idolises Shane, telling his mother in one beautifully directed scene that he loves Shane almost as much as his father. In many ways, this is the polar opposite of the more visually iconic John Ford westerns, focussing more on character and less on landscape. Shane is a wonderful, heartbreaking and haunting film, and for anyone with even a passing interest in Westerns is an absolute must. The film's influence on Westerns and film in general is vast, with the climactic scene from Clint Eastwood's superlative Unforgiven lifted almost directly from the final showdown in Shane, and the love triangle informing many subsequent character studies, not the least of which is:
Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive was one of last year's best films, and despite its modern urban setting, 80s aesthetic and electronic soundtrack, shares many similarities with Shane. The relationship Ryan Gosling's unnamed driver develops with Carey Mulligan's Irene is extremely similar to Shane and Marian's, neither of which are properly consummated, though in both instances they are visibly in love with each other. Irene even has a son who bonds with the driver, and when her husband, named Standard, returns from jail, following a brief moment of tension (as Shane and Joe have on first meeting), become friends themselves, before the driver agrees to help Standard resolve a dispute with some gangsters he owes money to. Although Shane himself is named and has a fair amount of dialogue, that the laconic driver has no name is a direct callback to Sergio Leone's spaghetti western trilogy in which Clint Eastwood played the character who has come to be known as Man With No Name. Moreover, we know almost nothing of the driver's history, just as in Shane, wherein we are given only hints of the eponymous hero's violent past. Drive differs most significantly from Shane in its depiction of violence, which is mostly non-existent for the first half of the film before arriving in a shocking and graphic onslaught that dominates most of the second and third acts. What is particularly interesting here is that, except for the bar fight and shoot out in Shane, that character's propensity for violence is largely only hinted at. In Drive, by the time we get to the third act we have seen a full demonstration of just how well the driver takes to violence. The lift scene beautifully combines brutality, romance and tenderness, in a way I haven't seen done before, but in many ways brings out the thematic undercurrents laid out in Shane. Finally, Drive's climax, while not identical to Shane's, is a direct reference both to westerns generally, and to Shane specifically. Both of these films are wonderful, surprisingly emotional and masterfully directed. They differ enough so Drive is not technically a remake of Shane, but equally, Shane is a clear inlfuence on Refn's film, making these two a perfect double bill.
23rd February 2012
This week's double bill is another musical connection, beginning with:
Oliver Dahan's 2007 La Vie en Rose is one of the better biopics I've seen, following the life of the legendary French singer Edith Piaf. By structuring the plot non-chronologically, the film avoids the rise-fall-comeback formula that often characterise other biopics such as Ray, or the similar Walk the Line. Instead, La Vie en Rose presents Piaf's life as a chaotic, but unified, whole, juxtaposing late-career illness with youthful street-singing and boozing. The success of a biopic lies in the performance of the title character, and at the heart of La Vie en Rose is a tremendous, chameleonic performance by Marion Cotillard, whose embodiment of Piaf is simply astonishing. Notwithstanding their physical similarities, Cotillard invests Piaf with tremendous complexity and depth; in recent years, Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix acquited themselves admirably as Ray Charles and Johnny Cash respectively, but Marion Cotillard simply leaves them standing in the dust. The different periods in Piaf's life, jumbled together give a great sense of the chaos of her life, but at the same time underscores how diverse and nuanced Cotillard's Piaf is. But more than that, amongst the non-linear plot structure she gives us a picture of a complete human being, of a life in its totality. As Piaf ages, cultivating her image, which culminates in her staggering rendition of 'Non, je ne regrette rien', Cotillard increasingly begins to resemble Piaf, growing into her role, just as Piaf grows into her stage persona. It's a subtle, beautifully nurtured growth, and presents a fascinating and challenging insight into one of the twentieth century's greatest singers.
So what more natural way to conclude this double bill with a science fiction action film in the form of:
Ostensibly, Christopher Nolan's 2010 heist movie has little to do with a biopic of Edith Piaf, but stay with me on this one. First, the music that Inception's extractors use as an alarm during their dream raids is of course 'Non, je ne regrette rien', and the use of this music indicates more than a superficial connection to La Vie en Rose. Firstly, that Marion Cotillard is cast as Cobb's deceased wife is not only a nod to Cotillard's earlier role as the singer of 'Non, je ne regrette rien', but also provides a clue to the significance of that song. Inception's opening theme is the opening bars of the Piaf song slowed down, foregrounding the theme of altered time that runs throughout the film, and which is central to the denouement, where we learn that Cobb spent decades in dream time building imaginary worlds with Mal. Cobb must learn to accept that passage of time, a revelation framed by other 'dream levels' all running at different speeds. The way that Inception plays with the passage of time not only is reminiscent of the non-linear structure of La Vie en Rose, but also, mirrors that film's themes of chaos, memory and trauma. It is no coincidence that Nolan uses 'Non, je ne regrette rien' as his film's theme music and plot device, nor is it coincidental that he directly refers to La Vie en Rose in his brilliant casting of Marion Cotillard. With its dream and time motifs, Inception is a film that examines the experience of watching films themselves: as Cobb descends and ascends through the levels of his dreamscape, we descend and ascend with him, before leaving his company altogether as we ascend back into reality, out of the world of the film. Just as time and reality are distorted in dreams, so they are in films with editing and visual effects, both of which are used self-reflexively in Inception. It is unsurprising, then, that Nolan refers to other modern art forms to help tell his story, but what is surprising is that in referring to 'Non, je ne regrette rien' and La Vie en Rose, Nolan brings a fascinating level of complexity to his movie, whilst simultaneously asking us to return to Dahan's biopic with fresh eyes and a new sensitivity to the themes and the structure of that film.
16th February 2012
This week it's two particular favourites of mine, beginning with:
Along with The Jungle Book, Robin Hood and The Lion King, Dumbo ranks among my favourite Disney films. In many ways, Dumbo is one of Disney's boldest films: its main character doesn't have one line of dialogue, the animation is distinct from every other Disney production that I can think of, and in its own way, I think, rivals the Disney greats like Bambi, Snow White and Pinocchio. The pink elephants sequence in particular is one of the darkest, most frightening and engrossing pieces of animation I've ever seen, and the climactic song 'When I See an Elephant Fly' is simply terrific, but surely the most effective part of the film is here, after Dumbo's mother has been locked away. The animation, particularly of Dumbo's pained expression, is so well nuanced that I defy anyone's heart not to break at the sequence, and it's one of the reasons I do not do well with animated children losing their parents. Not well at all. Despite its brief running time of only 64 minutes, Dumbo is one of the crowning achievements of the Golden Age of Disney, and a wonderful example of an animation studio at their creative peak. Continuing with the cheery theme of child-parent separation, we have:
Clint Eastwood's 2008 film, based on true events, was a revelation, not least because it allowed Angelina Jolie to show off here considerable acting chops following about a decade of pouting through roles as diverse and interesting as Lara Croft and Mrs. Smith. In Changeling, however, Jolie is magnificent, bringing intensity and pathos to Collins, a woman whose son disappeared in 1928, only for the police to return a different boy to her, insisting that he was her son. Ron Howard was originally set to direct this film, but serendipity meant that it was ultimately Eastwood that took the directing reins, and boy, does he bring his A game to this one. The films stays remarkably close to the material facts of the real life case, but what, I think, is more surprising, is the way Eastwood manages to balance multiple sub-plots and a big Hollywood-style production, with incredibly personal emotional insight. For something that retells a true story, Changeling is a remarkably self-aware film; the composition and photography of the final shot are pure golden-age Hollywood, and the story itself is the stuff of Big Important Movies. So why the connection to Dumbo? Well, aside from the shared themes of parent-child separation, there is a wonderful, recurring, though very subtle reference to the Disney film throughout Changeling, despite the fact that Dumbo was not released until over a decade after the Collins case. I won't ruin it here, but suffice to say the reference, in many ways, encapsulates the tone of the film - its anachronism highlights the cinematic, glossy nature of homage, as well as the Big Hollywood feel of Changeling. But paradoxically, Changeling's reference to Dumbo is so pitch-perfect, and so well judged that it actually draws out an emotional resonance that would otherwise have been obscured. Eastwood's homage to Dumbo gets right to the heart of Collins' profound traumatic experience, thematically tying the films together in a way that I've never seen done before, or so well. In Changeling, Eastwood creating a strange and unexpected connection between a real-life abduction case and an elephant who could fly, but in doing so enriches both films immeasurably.
10th February 2012
The eagle-eyed among you will notice that today is not Thursday. Sadly, things got away from me yesterday so this week it's double bill Friday, with the theme being sequels. We'll start our double bill with:
Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3 is one of the best-loved sequels of recent times and undoubtedly the best of the Toy Story series. I've already discussed the merits of Toy Story 3 in this post, but suffice to say Toy Story 3 surprised everyone with its beautiful and often melancholy story, and was one of the best films of 2010. A really important part of the film's success was in being released a full eleven years after its predecessor. Pixar wisely chose to allow that gap to inform their story, setting the film just as Andy, last seen as a ten-year old boy in Toy Story 2, is about to leave home to go to college. As a rule, belated sequels suffer as a result of the passage of time; just see Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and the dreaded The Godfather Part III as infamous examples of pointless, years-later follow ups to beloved film series. Toy Story 3, mercifully, skirts the disasters of other sequels by using the elapsed decade to present a genuine examination not only of the passing of childhood, but also of the meaning of childhood attachment and nostalgia, something that is itself exemplified by the audience's affection for the first two Toy Story films. The themes of Toy Story 3 directly follow from those set up in its predecessors, but have also matured and, to an extent, darkened. Characters have grown up, and the simplistic, imaginative possibilities of youth have given way to ambiguity and emotional uncertainty. In this respect, the best dessert to the main course of Toy Story 3 must be:
2nd February 2012
|Iconic science fiction|
|Ridley Scott's metropolitan tour de force|
Surely the other science fiction film known for its incredible cityscapes is Ridley Scott's 1982 classic. Where Metropolis blends an art-deco aesthetic and Marxist imagery with speculative technology, Blade Runner combines detective noir with a dystopian futuristic city setting. In many ways Blade Runner is the late-twentieth century's answer to Metropolis, featuring intricate and unique set design, unrivalled (and never-bettered) visuals and photography, and a plot that blurs the distinctions between humans and machines. Another interesting connection between the two films is in both of their recent re-issues: in 2010 Metropolis was re-released in cinemas with 25 minutes of previously lost footage restored. Metropolis' restoration and theatrical re-release followed Blade Runner's theatrical and home video reissue in 2007, re-edited as 'The Final Cut' (the superior version, in my view), which was itself preceded by the so-called 'Director's Cut', the original theatrical cut and four other subtly different versions. It's common for silent films to have missing footage and different edits, due to degraded film stock and their existence in the public domain, but I think it's fascinating that Blade Runner, a film that so directly speaks and is indebted to Metropolis, has experienced a similar history of alternate versions and re-releases. Both Metropolis and Blade Runner are beautiful, strange and deeply influential films, making a wonderful pairing for this week's double bill.
26th January 2012
Don Siegel's seminal 1971 detective film is dark, gritty and spawned a thousand 'loose-cannon cop' films and shows. Often criticised as reactionary and right-wing as Detective Harry Callahan takes the law into his own hands, vigilante style, Dirty Harry is nevertheless a thrilling and sometimes disturbing crime film. Clint Eastwood dominates the screen with his immortal performance and over the top speeches about .44 Magnums, as he chases down a serial killer that identifies himself on as 'Scorpio'. Violent and brilliantly shot, with a great soundtrack, this is a fantastic and seminal 1970s cop thriller.
This brilliant 2007 crime film from David Fincher, while typically gritty, is a very different beast from Dirty Harry, opting instead for a slow, methodical pace as police, detectives and journalists painstakingly follow the activities of an enigmatic serial killer, who taunts them with anonymous letters. Where Harry ultimately gets his man, the case in this film, based on the real-life Zodiac killer who terrorised Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is never solved, and the killer is not caught. So why the double bill? The killer in Dirty Harry, Scorpio, was based on the Zodiac killer, and while Harry Callahan was entirely fictional, several of Scorpio's crimes directly refer to the Zodiac's. Dirty Harry was even released while the Zodiac case was still actively open, an event that is alluded to in Fincher's film, making these films a perfect and unusual fit for one another.