Brick (2005)

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Sometimes, often films are windows. They hold up their glass lenses, capture the view(s) on celluloid or digital hard drives, and re-present that world up on a big screen for you. Your eyes watch the landscapes and the people or things put in front of it, and you get to see a filtered view of the world around you. But a window is something you look out of, and I don’t think you look out of Brick (2005, Dir. Rian Johnson) no, I think you look into Brick, you walk into and immerse yourself into Brick. In that case window is a bad choice of word.

A better one might be portal.


It’s difficult to put into words why Brick works so well, which is my favourite kind of feeling. It’s difficult, because to really understand it you have to see it and listen to it, film being an audiovisual medium not a written one. Try and write out Brick and you have a beautifully elaborate and winding detective story but with only a pale imitation of its deliriously crisp and sharp visuals. The Californian sun burns brightly over this world, hanging in a clear blue sky which overwhelms my eyes. Maybe Rian Johnson would’ve written something along those lines, but you get to see it instead.

So let’s use these words then, especially since the characters in Brick are so intent on using them. In fact, following along the purest noir fashions, the words flow like a torrent over everything. The words race through the air and through your mind, characters building and tearing down and outwitting each other within a few breaths. It was a bit of a revelation for me to be confronted with a script so dense, even most neo-noirs fail to capture that style of dialogue, much preferring to just regurgitate the 40/50s aesthetic style of the film noir. But that’s my starting point, a script which moves like a locomotion building steam, it’s furnaces getting hotter and hotter under that burning sun.

Unfortunately this is not a book, and a script only goes so far. So the camera picks itself up (with a little help from cinematographer Steve Yedlin I’m sure) and shovels coal into the train’s furnace, with reckless stylistic abandon. In fact all its stylistic elements, its dynamic and absorbing visual composition and it’s eclectic and wild sound design, are engrossing in a way I haven’t experienced in a long long time. The style of this debut is sheer visionary work, the deft handling of so many different elements of film was just a delight in my eyes, no doubt about it. It’s world is so cohesive that after recovering from the jarring shock of the film noir world transplanted onto a high school is gotten over, it descends into a daylight nightmare which captured me, spun me around and dropped me off at the end to some Velvet Underground. It’s a ride I would’ve paid good money to see, and to see again.

But why am I bringing this up now? I’m sure many other film lovers have put forward their views on what makes Brick exceptional, and many more on what makes Brick garbage to them. It’s a film with a bold and out there style, which is always confrontational for critics. But I think for me, it’s a film I really needed to see at this moment in my life. It has been sitting in an unwatched pile for many years of my life, and I can say it has managed to restore some of my faith in cinema. Almost like a state of the nation address, but to me and my obsessive film brain.

See a director or anyone making a film can never truly understand what impact the film will make on its audience, especially as time passes. All the production team can do is build the best film they can and hope it stands up to the winds of time and opinion pieces. But for me, who seems to be quite frustrated with the sometimes anemic and safe mainstream cinema environment, the film is a beacon of light for me. For a film site which was made to talk about films with some depth, especially films which weren’t just the modern slew of rehashes, reboots and relentless adaptations. And Brick is that for me. Brick holds many of the ideas I wanted to grow and explore in my time doing this. It’s vibrant, it’s bold and unafraid to commit to an aesthetic which many would like to declare dated or worse, dead.

Brick is not just a portal into the world of Brendan, underground heroin rings and fast talking smart mouthed criminals. Brick is a portal into the past, it lives in the history of film noir and couldn’t exist without it. And it also a portal into the best kind of future, one where filmmakers take the disparate elements of the world which interest them and mould them into films which breathe life into the real world, filling it with stories that entrance its audience members in a way beyond pure action spectacle.

In short, they make films which are good and cool. It’s a lot to ask apparently, so we all better get started.

-Alex

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Brick (2005)

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016)

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Poor people don’t have time to make animations which look like Disney films. This isn’t a dig at any of the marvellous and varied selection of PIXAR and Disney animated motion pictures which have filled our lives since the first fully digitally animated feature Toy Story (1995, Dir. John Lasseter).  What it explains is just the fact that the work required to fully render an animated motion picture on the level of detail and quality of the highest quality animated films of today requires a small army of concept artists, graphic artists and digitally trained animators, alongside an entire team to keep them all running along. If time is money, then animation on that scale is notoriously and obscenely expensive.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea (2016, Dir. Dash Shaw) is removed from that world of animation. That does not mean it did not cost tremendous amounts of money to produce, or that the time put in by Dash Shaw and his team of cohorts is any less valuable than that of a different more well-funded studio. It merely is not a film that is interested in replicating that same aesthetic that is funded by the wealthiest of animation studios.

Good.


My mum, when she briefly flicked her eyes onto the screen I was watching the film on, asked me why I was watching “a kid’s film” so late at night. Now I usually want to move straight onto the film and its contents but a brief digression is needed here. The history of animation, bar some outliers, has been almost exclusively wrapped up with entertaining children. Many reasons for this I imagine, the one I like to think of is the long history of illustrations in children’s books. Kids love pictures. But the very fact is, animation is starting to grow beyond that. Perhaps it has always been beyond that, but I think in the mainstream consciousness the boundaries of who can and can’t watch “cartoons” is slowly disintegrating, or at the very least becoming way more flexible.

But if this film floats on a sea of animation history, let’s focus on the high school floating in it, the film itself. What does Dash Shaw want to talk about? A lot to be honest, in a film people have termed ‘mumblecore’. The term amuses me a lot, it’s basically just shorthand for films which have verbose and idiosyncratic dialogue at this point and is definitely much more useful for critics and potential audiences than it is for the makers of the films themselves. I think they just want to make films about people as real people as opposed to stock characters or idealised ones. My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is about that, a fictionalised version of Dash and friends as their high school fractures off a cliff and sinks into the sea. They climb from layer to layer of this semi-allegorical high school, encountering loose political allegories and dangerous sharks.

More than that, they come to terms with the weird lessons of growing up, of checking your ego and of accepting the roles you give yourself. All this while not dying as the high school sinks. Honestly it’s not hard on first glance to mistake this as a weird remake of Poseidon (2006, Dir. Wolfgang Petersen or if you prefer the original The Poseidon Adventure: 1972, Dir. Ronald Neame) but set in a millennial high school. It’s definitely floating in a couple of inspirations, a cynical person would say it’s a Wes Anderson rip off. What a dumb criticism to make.

This is not a film which has the deepest darkest depths, high school students haven’t lived long enough to inspire that kind of focus. They wear their personalities on their sleeves, their desperation or delusional arrogance is one most people know all too well already. They grow, they realise they should try not to be cruel to each other and they do it with a far more subdued and surreal energy than most other exposés of high school life. That’s down a low-key but still very enjoyable voice acting cast. Still, you may have seen stories like these before if you’ve watched a lot of films, but that’s okay. Just because you’ve seen something similar before doesn’t ruin your experience of something new, in fact it usually enhances it.

I guess what made me talk about this though, is the boldness of Shaw’s low-key animation style. It is bold, it is simply drawn but wildly experimental and self-aware. Most importantly, it’s vivid. In a world filled with insanely detail and scarily lifelike CGI, it feels so comforting to have an animation which looks like a picture, a drawing. Something which has no interest in photorealism, and just is far more interested in exploring the bounds of what it can do as a picture, not pretending it isn’t one. Some of the colour sequences in it are just fantastic to be a part of, to see with your own two (or one) eyes. It’s animated style is one which does somersaults, electric somersaults exploding with colour and which delight you, even if nothing in the film threw me into the depths of feeling and emotion I could never recover from.

But then this film isn’t supposed to, I don’t think. This is the theme I’ve only just discovered now, is that almost all of this writing has been about what My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is not. It’s not expensive, smooth-edged, army built animation. It’s not a Wes Anderson film. It’s a testament to my failure that I’ve barely spent any time talking about what the film actually is. And that’s one of the points of the film! It’s not that big a deal to just be what you are, and once you get past that you can just appreciate everything for what it is.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is a film. That’s what it is, and so much more.

-Alex

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My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016)

A Quiet Place (2018)

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A Quiet Place (2016, Dir. John Krasinski) is a film I went to see. By seeing it, by hearing it, I experienced it. I used all my senses in that cinema, the smell of popcorn, the taste of coke, the feeling of the leather seat pressed into my back. Film might be a primarily audiovisual medium, but your other senses don’t stop working once you sit down to watch a film. Sensory experience never stops, unless it’s absent. A Quiet Place is dependent on that absence, it’s a horror film which depends on silence. It’s world is dependent on being well…a quiet place.

At least the title is easy to understand.


The horror film is becoming a strange genre to understand in a world where live killings can be streamed over Facebook. In a world where all of the world’s real terror, misery and dread can be uploaded and downloaded within seconds, where is the space left for a horror movie? What is left to scare the populace when for example, total annihilation seems commonplace? Luckily, what Krasinski has going for him is quite possibly the oldest feeling humanity carries with it; fear. Fear of the unknown is as old as us, and it’s not hard to exploit that no matter what generation you live in.

So A Quiet Place. A horror film made for a generation which can still be scared, don’t let anyone else tell you different. But what does A Quiet Place find scary, what does it think scares us? If its playing on the oldest feelings we have, then A Quiet Place boils it down to the oldest scenarios mankind encounters. Pure, brutal survival against nature. Every element builds into that. Its monsters are unknown, dangerous and very ready to kill our protagonists. Our protagonists are an archaic image, the family. A rough protective father, a caring and earnest mother, kids who are either wholesome, rebellious or cowardly. It’s an image which could be ripped straight out of the bible, hell that’s the template for Noah (2012, Dir. Darren Aronofsky). If you can’t find its inspiration in their however, try looking for it in The Simpsons.

Where A Quiet Place decides to innovate is in the senses. If everything in its structure is old hat, then where it decides things need freshening up is its big concept. Everyone must be very, very quiet. If people talk, if they make noise or sound, the acoustic hunters who hunt by sound will come find you and kill you. So what to do? Well, stay silent. As a result the whole film unfolds in almost genuine silence for large portions of its running time. It’s an impressive commitment to make in an overly saturated overly stimulated film landscape. The films’ silence is not just a cool technical trick though. Besides being woven into the story, it’s also woven into the characters; Regan (Millicent Simmonds) being deaf provides the film with one of the true moments of genuinely deep sympathy, as the agony of her condition continues to eat away at her. Honestly the film shines in its ability to breathe life into so much quiet space.

But I’m not gonna mince words on this one, I don’t like it. It brings to the table an idea which intrigues, captures the imagination. And then as the story unfolds it starts to shrink and crawl backwards, each clichéd beat washing over you, the water getting more foul each time. Because what does this film have to say? What does it want to communicate? That taking care of your family is important? That taking care of your children is hard and you have to sacrifice yourself for them? There is nothing wrong with telling us this, but to be honest so what. If these are the oldest characters in the stories of humans, we already know this. Krasinski doesn’t exactly wrap these messages up in a way which reminds us of something we’ve forgotten, he’s just telling us something we already know but without finding a way to deliver it to help remind us why we know this, why it’s the right thing.

Beyond this central idea, this idea that in the scope of things what Krasinski is saying is ideas seen before and done better, a whole host of way more grounded criticisms come into play. It’s cinematography is boring, dull and looking like it was shot for TV (bad TV). It’s score is so stock horror music, shrieking violins and jump scare music. It’s monsters do look wild and are handled well however, so it is not all bad. However less can be said of its human participants, who are given so little “acting” to do because their characters are simply so threadbare. The story gives almost everyone beyond John Krasinski as the father nothing to do but hang around and wait for things to happen. It poorly overused its characters being in danger to the point you’re not really worried, and finally goddamnit its’ ending is bad. I won’t spoil it, but it builds and builds a theme which it ends up ignoring because guns.

Honestly I’m not here to disparage a film needlessly. A Quiet Place gets at me because somewhere in there, is a genuinely great horror film which could last the test of time. But it’s not the film I experienced in the cinema. There are many many reasons, including some ludicrous and bizarre narrative jumps, but most of all it’s not that scary and not that revolutionary. It’s a horror movie, but there’s no way it’s a horror classic. I’ll say no more and be quiet.

-Alex

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A Quiet Place (2018)

The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water

This latest installment from Mexico’s Gothic master Guillermo Del Toro is a thing of true beauty. Del Toro has long stood in my mind as one of modern cinema’s great heroes, championing classic film storylines and longstanding traditions in a masterful way. He fuses fairy-tale wonder and brutal realism in a completely singular and brilliant way. Since his true breakout masterpiece Pans Labyrinth (2006) I have always looked forward to seeing what his macabre mind could create. With The Shape of Water I truly think he has come close to recapturing the magic and brilliance he mustered in Pans Labyrinth, a film which is at once childlike and brutally honest and mature.

The story follows Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaner at a highly secret government facility who is perfectly happy with her routine. She lives above a cinema with her disgruntled neighbour come best friend Giles, a struggling advertisement artist and spends most of her days working and her nights eating and resting.

This intolerance is brought into stark relief for Elisa when an ‘asset’ is brought to the facility in which she works. This ‘asset’ is accompanied by a model of upstanding 50s republicanism embodied by the ever brilliant Michael Shannon as the heavy hand of the decades morality Richard Strickland. He is a man who is obsessed by the status quo, drenched in protestant reasoning and staunch conservative ideals. Shannon thunders into Elisa’s innocuous world and remains a towering force of aggression and conservatism that the film plays with beautifully. Elisa is immediately drawn to the ‘asset’ and soon discovers this is not some object, rather a form of aquatic life the like no human has ever seen. Strickland believes the thing to be an abomination whilst Elisa see’s the humanity and the parallels between her and it and soon becomes wrapped up in an obsession that can only escalate for her.

What this film really excels at is creating a world in which you are drawn completely into, within minutes of the opening scene I knew that I was going to enjoy myself in Elisa’s world. I feel that a huge part of this is the stellar turn by Sally Hawkins who once again proves herself as one of the most underrated actresses out there. With the character unable to talk Hawkins pulls on every trick in her arsenal and uses each second she is on-screen to talk through her motions, past just the sign language. Every smile or furrow of the brow you feel is completely heartfelt and emotionally relevant to the character. Hawkins and her portrayal of Elisa is the vital beating heart of the film, a quietly powerful anchor upon which the film hangs its story.

To return to the narrative of the film, there is a huge figure I have only hinted at briefly. The ‘asset’ itself. This creature cuts a similar figure to Abe Sapien from Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) films if he didn’t have the wisecracks or a voice at all. Del Toro is clearly thinking back to this character, along with his love for HP Lovecraft’s similar creations. However Doug Jones as the creature is much more subtle than either of these influences suggest. In order for the audience to care for the creature as much as Elisa does we must believe in the humanity behind the scaly facade and the lightness of touch with which Del Toro demonstrates in the two outcasts interactions makes for a really beautiful sequence of encounters. This is a film of movement and feeling rather than straight ahead speech, the two main figures work in such a physical way you are reminded of silent film stars and the ways in which they would have to use their full body to express their own characters.

As is to be expected with such a high concept story and with Del Toro at the helm the production design is sure to sweep the technical awards categories at the Oscars with every scene clearly mapped out to perfectly reflect the fantastical tone of the film. Del Toro seems to take influence from a broad palate, however I was particularly reminded of the overlooked French curio Micmacs (2009, Dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet) which shares both thematic nods to The Shape of Water as well as visual echoes in it lighting and general imaginative sepia toned and expressionistic set design. Del Toro creates a film world which is full of nightmares and darkness but we as the audience are on board wholeheartedly due to the strength of the dreams he realises on-screen. The Shape of Water is his best since Pans Labyrinth by a country mile and is something I will treasure for a long time.

-Ed

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The Shape of Water (2017)

Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

The Producers

“Getting the audience to cry is easy, just kill the dog” – (Unknown, because I can’t remember)

Comedy, by its nature is something you should never take too seriously. To laugh and to cry, those are two of the oldest traditions in Western storytelling, with roots dating back to the Ancient Greek tragedians and comedians.  I spent some time last year doing university work on Ancient Greek theatre, and one thing I discovered has helped me greatly in understanding how to appreciate comedy. The thing I find endlessly fascinating about it is that it takes such considerable work and careful refinement to be funny, but you can never indulge in the big dramatics of emotional weight. Comedy is meant to appear easy, effortlessly done and at the end of the day, just a joke. And comedy depends so much closer on context, the jokes that split sides 50 years ago would be met with crickets today, but the enduring power of even the oldest tragedies still seems timeless. I’m sure there’s a few comedians out there who hate that word: timeless.

Comedy then, tragedy’s bastard younger brother, is seemingly condemned to not being taken seriously. Which always makes me smile in a sad way, because I honestly believe that to be a good comedian requires you to be a good tragedian. To really understand what’s funny, what’s a joke and what to take the piss out of, you’ve got to understand its opposite, what not necessarily can’t, but what doesn’t need to be laughed at the time.

And someone who seems to truly possess that skill, is Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is one of my all time favourite directors, yet a lot of his work rests on the backs of ripping into the genre trappings and clichés of movie genres, rather than any pioneering complexity in acting or storytelling. To pioneer in the area of parody, is to sling well-aimed tomatoes at the faces of its’ more serious siblings.

But that doesn’t mean respect is not due. To craft comedy, to craft laughter (genuine not canned) is no easy task. So I’m gonna take a look at his story The Producers, the original 1967 version written and directed by him, and the 2005 musical film counterpart to the 2001 stage musical revival of the original film. How does the comedy come to life, and how does the comedy survive its passage through time?


Then (Now?) – The Producers (1967)

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The Producers (1967, Dir. Mel Brooks) is a film which was made in one of the biggest crucibles in American history. One of Hollywood’s biggest jesters growing up in the same generation of those radical self serious New Hollywood auteurs. But this is a different type of molotov cocktail, one whose firebrand material relies on taking the piss out of the past, not trying to set fire to the present. Ripping into both the Hollywood establishment, and making a mockery of Germany’s Third Reich, The Producers was never a story designed to play it safe.

Approaching these films is interesting for me, since I watched them backwards (the musical first). It’s interesting how often the way a story (especially in film) can be fixed once its committed to celluloid. The Producers is one of those films that must have cast a long shadow over any potential later versions, or any film which carried characters found in this film. Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leopold Bloom are performances which just ooze with life. In a film landscape where characters are often flattened out and made generic, both their performances are so profoundly idiosyncratic and deep that regardless of the rest of the film, it would still be worth visiting.

Luckily there is more to The Producers than its central pillars of Mostel and Wilder. Although it was Mel Brooks first film, a project he both wrote and directed it gets away with it through sheer force of will. The Producers managed to beat films by both Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes, as well as Gilles Pontecorvo’s Battle For Algiers to win the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and listening to it is still a joy. Mel Brook’s eyes and ears for characters bursting with absurdity is incredible to this day, and the fun he has with them is a rollercoaster.

Comedy has a context though, and some of its edge has faded over time. That’s the thing with cutting edge, it’s very thin and very quick. The outrage over its objectionable content is lost on a modern audience. Making fun of the Nazi’s seems second nature in this environment of 2018, but its important to remember its shock value at the time. The jaws dropping in the screen would have mirrored those in the real audience. It’s hippie jokes as well, a character called Lorenzo StDubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) can only really reach an audience well versed in 60s culture (LSD wears a Campbell’s Soup can around his neck, an Andy Warhol joke) and its interesting to see how comedy can age.

It’s context is more than just the comedy though. It is by no means a cinematic marvel, not pushing the boundaries of fields like cinematography or editing. It’s opening credit sequence I find incredibly irritating for example. Or its ancillary characters can often take parody to extreme, so one-dimensional the joke sticks around longer than it needs to. It is a debut film to be honest, and to expect every piece to land and wow you is unreasonable.

Comedy is very easily wrapped up in only what’s funny and how funny it is, and it’s important to remember that a film is more than just comedy. What makes The Producers endure, at least in my opinion, is that it in a film filled with piss-taking and joy-riding the Third Reich, it asks you to jump on board earnestly with their hair brained scheme. Brooks puts you on board with characters you want to succeed, spectacularly. That’s a rare skill, rarer even than good comedy.


Now (Then?) – The Producers (2005)

 

The Producers 2005

Usually by the time of adapting old material comes along, it’s original creator is long since dead. What drew me then to this story, is that this version of The Producers (2005, Dir. Susan Stroman) was co written by Mel Brooks, alongside using his music and lyrics written for the original 2001 Broadway musical revival. Mel Brooks spirit and DNA is still running through this project like a spinal column. It’s very rare to see that in cinema, regardless of how this one turned out.

Mel Brooks’ films are always easy to love for cinema goers, because they’re often about cinema, consciously or not (mostly consciously). But The Producers is also about musical theatre, and for it to be turned into a musical seems remarkably and unsurprisingly natural, all at the same time. Things can often get lost in translation through adaptation, and it was interesting to chart those decisions backwards, not through the prejudice of it being immediately inferior to the version I already knew I liked. It’s fascinating how in a film which carries so much of the same characters, same plot points and even the same jokes, can still feel different. That’s the power of direction I guess.

If all the world’s a stage, then Susan Stroman takes that to its absolute limit in this version of The Producers. A lot of the popular criticism of the film at the time seemed to come from it feeling too “stage-y”, but I’d argue that in a film about a play revamped into a musical, it turning its environment into a stage would work in its benefit. Comedy has no issue bouncing between tones, and to not jump on-board with it is to miss the boat. When adaptations come out, it is very easy to look past the material and only judge what looks different to you from your first experience, but its important to remember that for some like me, this is the first exposure to the story of The Producers. Not everyone has seen Romeo and Juliet, yet.

It cuts and it fills when necessary. Ulla (Uma Thurman), the dumb Swedish secretary picks up more of a character in a romance with Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick). The tone is lighter, it’s characters more exuberant and joyous in their world, the world of musical theatre really is the brightest star it seems. It also is safer, sticking so close to a formula from over 50 years before will do that to any story. The Producers of 2005 doesn’t feel like a film that’s out to shock, it’s laughs are a lot cuter now. And it’s a trade-off that Mel Brooks was always ready to make, and rightfully so. If you’re not taking it super seriously, you might as well have a little fun with it. Especially when Nathan Lane is singing his bloody heart out, sweaty comb over and everything.


Now, Then…Who Cares? – The Producers (???)

One of my favourite stories of Mel Brooks is that he is the one who produced The Elephant Man (1980, Dir. David Lynch). For a man associated with comedy to produce a film about one of the most pitiable men who ever lived, I always find that story interesting and incredibly revealing. Mel Brooks is also the only director to win all four awards (Academy, Tony, Emmy and Grammy). For tragedy’s bastard brother, it’s not bad.

It’s easy to write off comedy, too easy. After all, it makes its mark off of the back of all those serious works. Especially The Producers, a story which is self-consciously in love with its medium. A film about producers on an odyssey through artistic lunacy is sure to attract the admiration of those artistic lunatics. It could also have very easily become a sycophantic ass-kissing ceremony, as the worst elements of art can sometimes produce (see: Andy Warhol, sometimes). It’s an amused romp through some of the insular elements of art, its crowd who make up the theatres and the musicals and the films. And to a lot of people, The Producers is unrelatable, boring and worst of all…not funny.

But then…who cares, honestly? Mel Brooks sure doesn’t, he’s dead. Everyone wants their work to do well, and I’m sure Mr. Brooks stayed up during the nights hoping it would do well, but if the joke doesn’t land you just keep going till the next one sticks. And Mel Brooks comedy might slowly get more and more defanged over time, as it looks safer and safer from a distance and people get more and more accustomed to a longer history of comedy. But who cares, someone’s still gonna sit down in front of these films for the first time for the next infinity until the human race has reached its end.

And as long as they keep finding it funny, it’ll keep working. And there’s nothing like seeing Leopold Bloom, be it Gene Wilder or Matthew Broderick or anyone else in the role, screaming in terror “You’re gonna jump on me!” while Max Bialystock, be it Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane or just an idea in Mel Brook’s head jumps up and down screaming in confusion.

Godamnit, it’s just funny. And it makes me wanna be a producer, and I hate producing.

-Alex

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Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards

This is a tough one. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018, Dir. Martin McDonagh) is a film which has had a real hype following it in the run-up to Oscar season. It will be weird to see how this film looks in retrospect, after the Oscar buzz, but McDonagh’s place in cinema culture at the moment is a bit of a weird one anyway. People still trip over themselves to acclaim his debut work In Bruges (2008), but opinions split around Seven Psychopaths (2012). His move to America did not seem to resonate with universal acclaim, even though I’m a big fan of Seven Psychopaths. Furthermore, McDonagh’s trademark of black(est) comedy, of violence wrapped up in bone crunching and rib tickling detail simultaneously, is one he continues to nestle into. A tiger can’t change his stripes, the only thing he can do is move around. That move around has come in Three Billboards, a murky rage filled revenge tale.

It’s a move which pulls no punches, regarding its subject matter or its humour. You laugh but feel bad. Moments of darkness are confronted with lilting southern belle ballads, McDonagh continues juxtaposing the light with the very dark, creating this awkward space for the viewer to sit in and feel conflicted. Should I laugh? Should I feel bad? Why do I feel both? In a story so bleak and often brutal, as Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) puts up three billboards calling out the Chief of Ebbing Police (Woody Harrelson) for not doing enough to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and murdered 9 months prior, the audience finds itself laughing and enjoying themselves. It sounds dissonant, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Darkness isn’t only just dark, and the humour itself becomes a breath of fresh air, but also a way to see the pain lurking underneath from a different angle.

That said, the tone of Three Billboards is like a game of darts. Not every one hits the board. And there are real moments of what I can only describe as ‘wonky-ness’ in its script and its performances. Characters deliver completely unrelated monologues to deliver a point with the subtlety of a shotgun spread, the most particular egregious example of this is when Mildred is laying into the well-meaning but hypocritical priest of the town (Nick Searcy).  The writing screams at us, delivering its one-two punches of attention in a pretty obnoxious way. It’s bad because it shows off quite simply. McDonagh’s a human, and while the through line of Three Billboards is intense and powerful, it’s side areas show chinks in the armour. There are moments of levity that don’t feel comfortable not because of intentional dissonance, but because McDonagh seems to not be handling the issue with the required weight it needs (see: racial violence and its “humorous” implications). It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just that some of the humour seems incredibly low-hanging fruit and as a result comes off as unthinking.

There’s no point dragging McDonagh across the coals for this, in my honest opinion. The film’s very attempt at bringing the racial backdrop of American society into the filmic landscape in a more honest way, in the fact that most people aren’t even aware of its nuances, is doing justice to the reality of the world. It’s not an idealised version of the world, where good guys win and bad guys lose. Three Billboards real strength is setting up a seemingly morally easy conflict, of the avenging badass mother and the inefficient dunkin’ donuts cops, and goes through its regular beats before quickly evolving into something much more “real”. Mildred’s declaration of war brings real consequences to the characters of the town, not just in terms of physical pain and scarring, but emotional and psychological wounds as well. An eye for an eye never looked so bloody, or so sad. The desire of revenge only brings about more violence, anger “begets” (you’ll know) greater anger.

The film has a beautifully human track running through it. At its best, it forces its audience to consider the complexities of humans, how monsters are really people, how heroes are really people, and how time can change both of those titles into little more than hollow words. An audience loves to play judge, but its hard to play judge when everyone’s hands are bloody.  The violence may be embedded with a line of humour, but it’s also awful and lasting. Characters may talk sharp, but sooner or later every one of them cracks visibly onscreen. It’s the equivalent of medical treatment in the field, medics pulling bullets out of you while your allies hold you down and you scream through the pain. Healing can sometimes be painful too.

I think Three Billboards is a very good, sometimes even great film. It’s cinematography is often functional, though moments of subtle framing work very well, while its musical motifs and art design are interesting without being distracting. It’s filmic elements have had to take a backseat for its main star though, the story. It’s humanistic brutal beauty is what carries it, even if it stumbles like a wounded soldier at times. Ultimately the film’s greatest weapon, the one which gets you to think and feel beyond your immediate assumptions, is the one you least expect:

It’s empathy.

Alex

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Possession (1985)

Possession

When a film gets labelled as a cult movie it usually means that the film doesn’t have a great reception on its initial release. It could have been badly reviewed but actually misunderstood, just plain bad or even banned upon its release. The most famous example of banned cult filmmaking is represented most starkly in the list of ‘video nasties’ which were titles banned from release in the UK for their gratuitous violence or dark thematic content by the sensitive 70s and 80s BBFC. Some of these were trash with titles like Driller Killer (1979, Dir. Abel Ferrara) or Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Dir. Ruggero Deodato). However other titles have gained huge popularity partially helped by the infamy of the list, films like The Evil Dead (1981, Dir. Sam Raimi) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Dir. Tobe Hooper) later being recognised as hugely competent and important examples of genre filmmaking.

Now, Possession (1985, Dir. Andzrej Zulawski) was one of these ‘video nasties’ and having seen it I can perhaps understand why it wasn’t received by a conservative ratings agency with open arms. Not an easily digestible 2 hours this one, but for sure a worthwhile one. The film has intrigued me for a long time and after finally watching it I have to say that this is one that if you enjoy extreme filmmaking, this is a must watch. Following the breakdown of his marriage Andrzej Zulawski embarked on a project that no doubt just added fire to the flames of his already messy divorce. Think Polanski and his response to the murder of his wife in through the violence of his Macbeth (1971, Dir. Roman Polanski). Zulawski is channeling similarly bleak feelings, screaming at the top of his lungs about his divorce.

Sam Neill plays Mark, a man sent back from a mysterious mission and it soon becomes clear that he has successfully and almost totally isolated himself from his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) who has been caring for their son in his absence. The details of his mission or his job are never fully explained and honestly I’m not sure it matters that much, what does matter is that Anna has cheated on Mark in his absence. This is news that neither of them seem very well equipped to deal with as soon the screaming starts. No sooner has Mark found out the infidelity than he is smashing up a café and holing up in a hotel room for 3 weeks on a crazy marital problem bender. The hysteria of the film really is both its strongest suit and also is its least palatable, what will turn off a huge amount of viewers. Watching Possession in light of having seen last year’s deeply divisive Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) you really understand exactly where he was looking for inspiration. Aronofsky does in that film a pretty decent impression of the extremity of expression that Zulawski nails in Possession. Divorce and marital strife are examined by Zulawski in broad strokes with neither the husband nor the wife being without blame for the events of the film.

To describe exactly what happens past the set-up is mute as the film is not ultimately about plot in plain terms. The couple go nuts in the first 10 minutes and only become more unhinged and extreme as the runtime counts down to the explosive final act. This is not to say that the whirlwind of emotions that the film expresses are done in an amateur way, it may be the most overwrought apocalyptic vision of this kind of story that you may ever see but Zulawski handles it all in his stride. He and DOP Bruno Nuytten swirl the camera around the action of the film with deft Steadicam and handheld photography only adding to the disorientation. The film is almost never still with almost every conversation being done in frantic movement with the camera following or preempting each movement almost working as a supernatural third character in the story. The virtuosity of the camerawork comes to a head perhaps the most well-known scene in the film. Set in an underground station walkway Isabelle Adjani’s justifies her Cannes best actress award in spectacular form. Her characterisation of her sheer descent into complete madness is almost balletic, the camera creeps around her as she throws herself around the harsh artificially lit space. The power of her performance is really crystallised in this scene and her commitment to the role is extraordinary, she seems to completely sink into he madness of the film and is powerfully effective in remaining a figure of shuddering possession and brutality throughout. I may seem hyperbolic in my reading of her turn but it really can’t be understated, it is very rare you see an actor commit in the way Adjani here does.

Andrzej Zulawski here places himself amongst the best examples of extreme filmmaking with his nightmare of marital problems and cart-wheeling madness, a truly brilliant piece of underrated European filmmaking. See this if you can stomach it.

-Ed

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Possession (1985)