It Follows (US, 2014)

It following

Horror is a genre that has the capacity to regularly renew itself, maybe because its defining character – the monster – is able to adapt easily to changing times. The writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, returns us to the monster without reason (Andrew Tudor’s ‘paranoid horror’), teenage sex and the suburban setting of the seminal Halloween (US, 1976). Like Michael the monsters of It Follows are unrelenting, however Mitchell doesn’t even try to offer an explanation about what’s happening (in interviews he happily accepts differing interpretations – https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/21/it-follows-teen-horror-movie).

The protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) ‘contracts’ a follower after having (first time?) sex with her boyfriend. He explains, after he’s drugged her and tied her, in her underwear, to a chair in a deserted multi-storey car park, that he’s not going to hurt but had to do it to pass on the curse from himself. Jay, too, will have to have sex with someone to avoid being killed by the followers. Very Ringu (Japan, 1999), and very effective dramatically.

Although it may seem to follow the reactionary trope of punishing young women who have sex, it also draws on the satirical Cherry Falls (US, 2000) in which only virgins were killed (that film floundered into reactionary politics by blaming the mother). The only way to survive is to have sex which is true from the perspective of the species.

Mitchell portrays teenage angst (here definitely justified!) beautifully and adults are barely evident, dramatising the solipsism of youngsters who are at a loss at what to do. The thrills and shocks are well paced and we do get to care for the characters which makes the suspense work. Unlike in many teen horrors old gits like me do not care whether they youngsters are eviscerated because their characters are undeveloped.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the film is the ‘confused’ production design; it mashes different eras, superbly explained here.

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Vertigo: An Introduction

I’ve just published a guide to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; one of his best films. Here’s the Introduction:

Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has made a long critical journey in the sixty years since it was first released. At the time critical reaction was cool and the box office for a Hitchcock movie was weak. However by 2012 it was regarded as the ‘best film ever made’ in the Sight & Sound magazine ‘once a decade’ poll of film critics. Some of the original reviews were positive; the New York Daily News called it ‘an artistic triumph for the master of mystery’ (Sandford, 2015). Others were lukewarm; Variety’s critic liked the film but she (identified only as ‘Stef’) also thought ‘the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long’; she also committed the sin of revealing the key plot twist.

Vertigo was one of five films that were not legally available for over 10 years until 1983; the others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After they had been on release for eight years the rights to these films became Hitchcock’s and it seems he kept them out of distribution to give his family a windfall after his death (Waymark, 1985). As Hitchcock had ordered all prints in distribution to be destroyed it was virtually impossible to watch them. Before videotapes became consumer items, in the 1970s, it was difficult to see films once they had completed their initial release unless they were screened on television. The inability to see Vertigo may go some way to explaining why it took so long for its greatness to be generally appreciated.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation was that during the 1950s it wasn’t usual to treat Hollywood films as art, they were seen simply as commodities designed to make money. It wasn’t until the intervention of enthusiastic critics during the 1950s, writing for the French magazine Cahiers du cinema, that it was widely understood that even commercial films could be regarded as art.

Francois Truffaut’s 1954 Cahiers article ‘Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français’ suggested that the best directors (auteurs) could make films that transcended the limitations of the Hollywood studio system and include personal statements in their films. Regardless of the genre, the same themes were present in the films of auteurist directors like John Ford; Peter Wollen suggested that Ford was ‘concerned with the problem of heroism [and] meaningful action in life’ (1972: 81). Auteurs were also likely to have a characteristic visual style in their mise en scene (what’s ‘in the picture’ referring to the content and composition of the image), camera position and camera movement. Ford, for instance, in his black and white films at least, favoured deep focus cinematography. Because of these traits, their films could be regarded as works of art as they were the expressions of a personality rather than simply movies made to make money.

Truffaut’s idea became the ‘auteur theory’ and has had a lasting influence on film culture and there is a widespread belief that the director is the key influence in most films. The problem with this ‘theory’ is it loses sight of many other vital contributions such as the script, cinematography and performance. There is no doubt, however, that Hitchcock is a director for whom the auteurist approach is useful, as we shall see in chapter four. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in the early 1960s about his films and the resulting book, Hitchcock (Faber & Faber), was very influential on filmmakers.

For audiences in the era of Classical Hollywood (roughly the 1920s to the early 1960s) the director of the film was of little importance. However they, even before the intervention of Cahiers, did admire Hitchcock and his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), short ‘tales of the unexpected’, made him a household name. Paramount liked him because he was profitable and a marketable name, much the same way as Christopher Nolan is now. Like Nolan, Hitchcock had a high degree of control over the films he made because he was commercially successful. Critics admired his technical finesse but because he made genre movies (thrillers apart from the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, and the 1949 melodrama Under Capricorn, UK), his movies weren’t regarded as the equal of those made by, say, Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang (his German films).

By 1972 Vertigo was 11th in the Sight & Sound poll so, despite its muted reception 14 years earlier, it was already considered to be a great film. Hitchcock died in 1980 and three years later, after a deal with Universal, it was re-released. In the first poll after this, in 1992, Vertigo had moved up to fourth. Such lists, while interesting, are only expressions of (albeit well-informed) opinion and the most important reaction is the one you have to a film. At the time of writing Vertigo is one of my favourite films. One thing for sure is that having spent months immersed in the film my admiration for it has increased. I hope that this book helps you enjoy this great film even more.

You can buy it here.

Blade Runner 2049 (US-UK-Canada, 2017)

Life?

After seeing Arrival (US, 2016) I did start to get excited about this sequel to the 1982 classic, one of my favourite films. Denis Villeneuve is an exciting director and it was co-scripted by Hampton Fancher (who’d also co-scripted the original) thus the outlook was promising. All involved have delivered a visually stunning and mind boggling film; there are spoilers ahead.

It’s difficult to know where to start as there are so many ideas, drawn from the original and placed in a 2017 context, which makes this a film that needs a lot of thought. One thing we didn’t have in 1982, of course, was the Internet so now it is easy to see and engage in the discussion about the film.

In 1982 the buzz was that the film, which in those days were always released in America weeks in advance of their UK distribution, was amazing to look at. As an SF fan, particularly of Philip K. Dick, I had to see it and wasn’t disappointed. Obviously I saw the original version with the tagged on happy ending and explanatory voice over. Apparently Harrison Ford read the voice over, which he didn’t want to do, in as a dead pan way as he could hoping it wouldn’t be used. However, the world weary delivery was perfect for a film noir protagonist so it worked well. As for the ending, I understood it to mean (as we didn’t actually see Deckard and Rachel in a green world, it is only suggested) that we’d better look after our planet or we’ll end up in the dystopian world of 2019. Of course (because capitalism reigns) we haven’t looked after our planet and although I don’t expect it to go ‘tits up’ in two years it’s clear we are heading to a climate apocalypse of some description. The production design of 2049 is phenomenal (take a bow Dennis Gassner), the enormous sea walls of the climax are quite chilling, and the world is convincingly 30 years more shit than in the original.

SF is not a genre of prediction because, at its best, it is always about now. By extrapolating trends it seeks to hold a mirror to our world. AI was SF in 1982; now it’s with us. 2049, where most of the protagonists are not human, brilliantly investigates the philosophy of AI, and therefore what it means to be human. K’s relationship with Joi, an AI holograph, is contrasted with Mariette, a ‘pleasure model’. The latter says to the former, after one of the most bizarre and fascinating love/sex scenes ever filmed, (I’m paraphrasing) “There’s less inside you than you think.” A division between different types of humanoid AI is a fascinating idea.

Joi is a male fantasy in terms of her looks, and domestic devotion, and there’s a degree of understandable feminist flak about the representation of women in the film. The film is representing a patriarchal world, though few would dominate Robin Wright’s Lieut. Joshi, and so sexist representations are going to be used. The final time K sees Joi could be particularly exploitative of the female body, the narrative freezes in the way Laura Mulvey describes as typical of Classical Hollywood, but then ‘she’ speaks to him and the point is made. Our understanding of Joi’s and K’s relationship is that it was one of love. However, when she calls him Joe here, and it was she who had named him, we are reminded that she isn’t real, she calls everybody Joe. K stares at her presumably grieving for her but also questioning whether the love was real between them. Hence the narrative isn’t freezing but giving time for the audience (and K) to think: was his relationship with Joi real or a fantasy?

Objectified gratuitously?

Ryan Gosling’s taciturn (he’s always taciturn isn’t he?) Joe K refers to Franz Kafka’s The Trial; the modernist parable of an absurd world. The reference is to the existential angst of a meaningless life which fuels the film’s narrative trajectory; ultimately K’s life has meaning through altruistic sacrifice. His death scene in the snow, where the ‘tears in the rain’ music beautifully infiltrates the soundtrack, is extremely moving. One of the advantages for those of us old enough to have seen the original in 1982 is that 2049 works on our memories through subtle references. Of course anyone who’s seen the original will get the reference however, particularly sitting in the cinema, in an almost Proustian way, the references trigger vivid memories of the first experience of the film; well, they did for me. I was taken back 35 years and watched it with my, now long dead, dad.

Seeking a father is a key narrative driver of both films and movingly, through K, portrays the angst (maybe) experienced by a cyborg; a being with no biological father (or mother). Unlike the original, 2049 is equally interested in mothers and (evil capitalist) Niander Wallace wants to appropriate the female prerogative of being able to give birth. His actual blindness is a metaphor for his inability to understand that women are not meant to be under male power; in that he stands in for the numerous exploitative men that inhabit the film industry.

Male hubris

His (literal) sidekick, Luv, is another type of cyborg, one with fascist tendencies. She relishes being the ‘best’, as she says after beating up K. She enjoys destroying Joi and is aligned with capitalism when she remarks that she’s pleased K was satisfied with their product.

Another strong female, the cyborg revolutionary named after a Norse goddess, is Freysa and although a sequel in the near future seems unlikely, given 2049’s poor North American box office, it does appear that the human race in the film are doomed. To be honest, from the perspective of the dystopia of 2017, we probably deserve to be.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is brilliant, particularly the way he’s shot water (which brings us life) whether it’s the drops running down windscreens or the gorgeous ripple reflections in Wallace’s lair.

Hollywood is primarily interested in ‘worlds’ which can be transformed into franchises so, in some ways, box office failure is good as it discourages exploitation of ideas for purely commercial gain. Earlier this year Ghost in the Shell (UK-China-India-Hong Kong-US) attempted to remake the brilliant anime (Japan, 1995) into an origin story and I trust its poor quality (and box office) means that won’t happen. However, it is disappointing that cerebral SF films, that require $150m to make, are not a box office attraction; although it’s performed well in the UK and not bad internationally.

I’ve mentioned a few of ideas that are raised in Blade Runner 2049 but there’s a lot more to say. The ‘father-son’ fight, K and Deckard, played out amongst malfunctioning holograms in a ruined Las Vegas, was a tour de force and the eerie red lit mise en scene was haunting until, bizarrely, the sky turned red in the UK a few days ago as the ex-hurricane Ophelia barrelled up the coast of Ireland. It is a film that needs seeing more than once and, for once, the long running time is a bonus because there’s so much to see and you get time to think.

Climactic apocalypse

One thing that I don’t think the makers have right about the world of the future and that is it will be dominated by Caucasians. Like the original, 2049 has been taken to task for its representation of race. Like the original, most white people have gone ‘off world’ to escape the hellish world. They do so because they can afford it; the ‘little people’ are left behind. One shift of the last 35 years is the declining influence of white American power, accelerating under Trump, and the rise of Chinese and Indian influence. The protagonists of international cinema in 30 years time won’t necessarily be American. However, while North America remains the world’s biggest box office it’s likely that the hegemonic white (and male) perspective will continue.

Blade Runner 2049 is a haunting film that asks big questions and is great cinema.

The Big Short (US, 2015)

You couldn’t make it up

Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short brilliantly explained how the financial system went tits up because of bankers’ fraudulent behaviour. I was sceptical as to whether a film could do the same especially when it needs to get a return on its $28m budget. It managed a $70m return at the North American box office and that’s an indicator that they’d made an entertaining movie; it’s also pleasing to report that it’s fully in keeping with Lewis’ book and makes no bones about the failure of capitalism.

So great credit to Brad Pitt’s Plan B company for producing it and the talent, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling – as well as Pitt – who appeared in it and made the film marketable. Unlike Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, which was more interested in physical rather than financial debauchery, The Big Short focuses on the financial machinations of the few who realised that the system would crash because the mortgages it was built on were shit. McKay throws as many techniques he can think of to make it interesting (too fast to see editing, direct speech to camera) to keep our attention through the financial details and he, most of the time, succeeds. It’s also funny because in reality the behaviour of bankers was farcical except of course the outcome was tragic for the many ordinary folk who lost their jobs and homes.

The ending is particularly good: it offers a ‘happy ever after’ where everyone learned their lessons and the miscreants went to jail; this, of course, is appended with an ‘as if’. The real ending is that the poor and migrants are being blamed for the ‘master of the universe’s’ faults and we are highly likely about to suffer another crash, except this time there’s no ammunition in central banks’ armoury (interest rates can’t get any lower). And what will the taxpayer think about bailing out the banks again? Head for the hills bankers!

mother! (US, 2017)

Anything for Him

Blimey!

Maybe I should leave my response to mother! at that.

There’s a lot of merit in being bludgeoned by a film; you know you’re alive. And I’ve no problem with a film that, at its ending, makes you think: “WTF?”. At least I’m thinking.

I like to think I’m pretty cine literate, and fairly literate generally, though religion isn’t my thing so I tend to miss those references. The LA Times insists the film is a religious allegory and it’s an intriguing argument. When I checked out imdb I saw all the characters are archetypes, (Mother, Man, Woman, Cupbearer, Damsel etc.) except for Javier Bardem’s poet (Him); in the film itself the characters are nameless but I can see how the archetypes suggest a religious reading. The title, however, doesn’t capitalise the ‘m’ of mother so that’s confusing.

There are spoilers ahead but it’s possible, such is the brilliance of the film, that spoilers are irrelevant. The film is a visceral experience both visually and through the Dolby 7.1 soundtrack. I’d assumed the latter was new, as I hadn’t noticed their credit before, but the system has been used since 2010 and is ubiquitous in mainstream cinema. I mention it because I think there are more sound close ups in this movie than I’ve ever heard. It’s centred on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) who’s clearly mentally unstable, like a Poe hero whose senses are hyper thus motivating the intensely detailed soundscape

The horror genre fits the film closest; Lawrence reminded me, in more ways than one, of Deneuve in Repulsion (UK 1965) as she listens to the walls of her home. There are a few frights as characters appear from ‘nowhere’ and make Mother jump. Toward the end, hundreds of characters appear from nowhere in a sensory onslaught that leaves the house, or is it the world?, a battle zone.

The way Aronofsky, Lawrence’s partner, shoots her is like the Dardenne brothers’ shoot the eponymous Rosetta (France-Belgium, 1999) (apparently he uses the same style in The Wrestler, US-France, 2008) with the camera tight on, following her obsessively. It is through Mother’s consciousness we experience the events.

I mention the relationship between the lead and director because it’s an unavoidable issue with this film. The central narrative tension is between Mother, who isn’t literally a mother at the start, and Him, a great poet who has writer’s block. She’s a generation younger than him (mirroring in age Aronofsky and Lawrence), hangs on his every word, and is a ‘domestic goddess’. She does everything for him; when serving dinner he insists on helping and then changes his mind. Some men’s lazy dependence on women is satirised.

Clearly Mother’s devotion is not reciprocated. It is hardly domestic bliss but when Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up the cliché ‘all hell starts to break loose’ is entirely accurate. Even I understood the Abel-Cain reference when one of their sons kills the other.

What’s great about the first section of the film is the allegorical nature of the narrative is rooted in believable interactions. Pfeiffer is particularly good a being a guest ‘from hell’ but manages to make her behaviour seem almost reasonable. Even the funeral party manages to appear possible but after the poet manages to produce another masterpiece, it took him nine months, then the wheels come off and the film enters a phantasmagoric realm.

At the party celebrating Him’s new masterpiece, Lawrence looks like a Greek goddess; he calls her a ‘goddess’ and her dress is classical in style. This seems key to me: Mother is his muse and gives him everything. Lawrence may be Aronofsky’s muse but he’s made many cracking films before so he is obviously not reliant upon her. It’s clear (I think) that he is making a film about creativity which may be on the level the LA Times suggests: Him is God and Mother is Earth. It could also be about the more ‘mundane’ level of art.

At this level it shows the artist to be entirely self-centred and our sympathies are certainly with his muse. The idea that great art requires great sacrifice is dramatized but it is the muse that suffers for his art. Although the muse embodies inspiration, it actually exists within the artists so splitting her from him doesn’t make sense: if she suffers, he suffers.

I am in danger of entangling myself in a film that may refuse to be unwound. That’s okay as it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen which is enough reason to see it even if, like many, you think it’s crap.

Deepwater Horizon (Hong Kong-US, 2016)

Disaster movies as reality

During the early 1970s there was a cycle of disaster movies including the Irwin Allen produced The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). In the 21st century disaster movies have moved into reality with Grenfell Tower and Deepwater Horizon reconfigures The Poseidon Adventure. The ’70s films relied on big budgets, all star casts and state of the art special effects for their appeal; Deepwater Horizon was modestly budgeted at $110m with a B-list cast (Wahlberg, Russell, Malkovich and Hudson – who were all great) and superb CGI; however, most importantly, its focus is on the human cost of corporate corruption rather than spectacle.

Mark Wahlberg’s Everyman persona fits his Mike Williams perfectly. We’re introduced to him as a doting family man and if, at first, this might seem padding, getting audiences impatient for the spectacle, its payoff is the ending were we see him suffering PTSD. Unusually for a mainstream film about heroics, rather than just focusing on the physical damage, the psychological cost is not ignored. I wasn’t expecting to shed tears watching a disaster movie.

It’s a pity the film didn’t do well at the (US at least) box office because it has an important message about how capitalism encourages profit above anything else. Malkovich, in villain mode as a BP executive, is suitably slimy and cowardly but also utterly believable. Peter Berg’s direction is skilful and the CGI, for once in my eyes, unimpeachable. The scriptwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, do a great job of making the technical details digestible and the scene where an oil covered sea bird wreaks havoc the control room of a ship succinctly summarises the ecological consequences of the oil spill.

Deepwater Horizon must have been one of the best films released last year.

Arrival (US, 2016)

The arrival of the uncanny

Arrival was one of the few films I saw in the cinema last year when I seemed to be incapable of enjoying movies. Thought-provoking science fiction; what’s not to like? And I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing.

First contact (with aliens) narratives is a staple trope of SF but what Arrival does differently, based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, is focus on the mechanics of communication. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) imaginatively used music to cross boundaries; Arrival, though, deals with how language makes meaning. If that sounds dry, Amy Adams’ linguist protagonist ensures we’re interested. I’m not meaning that Adams’ looks are what grab our attention, it’s her character.

The film also uses memories in a particular way that I can’t describe without spoiling; but it is utterly fascinating. Jeremy Renner’s a fine side-kick playing a physicist also deputised to try and understand the aliens. It is interesting to speculate how different the film might have been if they gender of the roles had been reversed.

Unsurprisingly, governments’ first responses are to wheel out the military; in an increasingly belligerent age I’m sure that would happen if only because they have spent too many years of watching ‘first contact’ movies where it’s necessary to ‘kick the aliens’ assess’ – assuming there is one. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) still has plenty to tell us about humanity.

Arrival, relatively, was a box office hit which surprised me because it’s far more a cerebral film than the popular SF that rely on special effects; though they are great in the film. After a summer where Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy is threatening its domestic box office, though not the rest of the world’s (yet), it’s heartening that an interesting, medium budget, independent film can still find an audience.

Canadian Denis Villeneuve, who directed, is undoubtedly a talent  (Sicario and Prisoners are both worth seeing) and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel suddenly becomes an enticing prospect.