Palindromes (2004)

Palindromes

Films are easy, but that’s only because they’re hard. They’re easy because you can put them on and no matter the film, whether it is a light piece of popcorn fare or an intense vertiginious dizzying rollercoaster through the very depths of human experience, everyone (with exceptions) gets the same assembled piece of film to draw from, the same well to drink from. Hundreds and thousands of individual choices; lines, shots, sound effects, takes and performances, they all sculpt a film from thin air, from a story inside someone’s head to a written, formatted text, to an audio-visual chain/superstructure which is packaged and shown and most importantly, seen.

But they’re hard, films are not the same. The eyes and minds of the world are many, and the films which are sculpted into being are not always of the same shape, the same order, the same schools of thought or design. Films are experiences which resonate with people, and the resonations that ripple outward from any film great or small affect people differently. And those affects are not simple and isolated, but films often evoke a great deal of perspectives, feelings, and movements simultaneously, engaging like an explosive rippling out onto the suspecting and unsuspecting alike.

So we come to Palindromes (2004, Dir. Todd Solondz).


 

I’m struggling already with Palindromes, simply because I always feel that no matter what I write about it, I’m not properly capturing the vertigo-inducing complexities of it. In short, Aviva (played by eight different actresses of race, gender, and age) is a 13 year old Jewish girl, who wants to have a baby, and falls into a dark Americana labyrinth, crossing the landscape and the people in a journey which stares unblinking into a world of abortion,  Christian evangelicism, and underage and pedophilic sexual encounters. Aviva travels down a polluted river, and stares innocently into it for most of the film’s runtime.

Having Aviva played by different actresses is the film’s mechanical wondershow for the audiences, forcing most people to interact with a constructed film world which people rarely encounter. The film’s construction forces you to keep Aviva constant even as everything about her physical appearance changes. It creates a relationship to the film which at once distances you and brings you closer. Watching different physical bodies portray the same character created more than just an internal resonance with Aviva, it pushed me to start thinking about how we can carry different versions of ourselves inside us. How our past selves can stay with us, old clothes stuffed inside the new ones. The film never does more than wryly comment on the technique once or twice, and by taking itself seriously it punishes an audience which would like to turn its head, to try and create some distance from the uncomfortable closeness to the dark heart of America.

Because portraying the world through Aviva’s eyes and truly being committed to it, means experiencing her world without the kind of moral stabilisers and framework that the adults would like to believe they possess (which sometimes they do, sometimes). Aviva is a child, and Solondz was never interested in constructing a how-to-guide for society why all of the things Aviva sees are wrong. In fact, Solondz stays truthful to Aviva’s point of view in that as a child, it is often hard to fully understand why adults do the things they do, and the consequences of their actions. This leads to what feels at first like a moral vacuum, as Solondz’s script doesn’t blink at how truly ugly life can be, but also leads to a perspective of life from inside what society has deemed evil as it is experienced in life. The unplanned pregnancy is an act which nearly tears Aviva’s family apart, and the ironic cruelty of events after is not a replacement for being confronted with the murky murky depths of human life.

Palindromes understands that everything stays the same, even if you think it gets different. But also everything is different, even if you think it stays the same. It is locked in its’ own paradox, just like films being both easy and hard. Because Palindromes is not the film you walk out of, raving about it’s obviously gorgeous cinematography, or any of it’s more conventional stylistic flourishes. It is uninterested in Hollywood stars, or facades of reality which cash in on cheap entertainment values. I’m not saying those things are inherently bad either, merely that the perspective it contains is one which travels a less well-trodden path. But it is a film anyone would come out of with lots to say, a film which provokes and presents the world around it in a light devoid of a romantic sheen. And the thing about Palindromes is that it might occupy the same space, the same time as many many other films. It’s only one hour and forty minutes, and there are hundreds of thousands of films which run for the same amount of time. Palindromes, like every film, is just a film. Palindromes, like every film, is so much more than just a film.

And that is the end of what I have to say about Palindromes. And it is also only just the beginning.

-Alex

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Palindromes (2004)

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

War and Peace

Cinema. Cinema, in all its forms is an unusual thing. Because what can you do with it? Bring images, captured from the real world or made from other sources, to the eyes. Bring sounds, made in studios or recorded on location, into the ears. You can cut the images together, or you can play a singular shot. A “film”, can be a short that is shown to friends or yourself, or it can be a spectacular Hollywood blockbuster with rip-roaring effects. Hell if you’re wild, you can do one of those 4-D experiences, which have 3-D spectacles as well as some activating some of the other senses, the spray of the sea with a mist of water or the smell of something in particular.

Or maybe, with the backing of an entire nation’s government, you use cinema to create an adaptation of what is considered one of the finest artistic and literary achievements in human history. And you do it in four parts. And you spare no expense. And it’s just under seven hours.

Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.


When you have epic literature, and by extension epic cinema, the world becomes a different place. Main characters exist, but they exist in an encompassing world, a world which has multiple levels of orbit. Characters exist in multiple levels of strata, of layers of social status or decorum or class or gender or faith or in fact, all of them. Epic literature is not viewed from the ground, it is viewed from well…everywhere. War and Peace as a story, while it may not literally view the world from God’s eyes, certainly does its best to force you to surrender yourself to such an experience. The shift of the world and all its inhabitants, is one of great moments of voluminous experience, and the gradual unyielding shift of time slowly but surely moving on. War and Peace takes place over the scope of 10 years or so of Russian history in an extremely volatile period, that of the Napoleonic Wars. 7 hours doesn’t seem so big when you consider that amount of time to force into the frame of a film.

What catalyses in the brain of any reader or viewer of any true ‘Epic’, is the sheer scale, the sheer volume of what occurs. An epic may not need 10 years (Homer’s Iliad doesn’t take more than 55 days), but what is needed and what is conveyed, is a true sense of the story beyond any one individual. A story of people, not a person. Because life from the fixed perspective of any one person, can only see so far. So by far, the best and most breathtaking technique employed throughout the film, is scale. And Bondarchuk had an opportunity like no other. Thousands, thousands of extras fill up the space for miles on end, armies moving across the landscape like little blocks, seen from a commanders perspective. But the sheer volume of them is something unseen, something which I can only imagine being matched by the experience of modern-day stadiums of just physically seeing that many people. But those marching blocks soon are involved in the hideous, fascinating art of war. The seemingly endless bloody fields of soldiers, a number in the film so small in comparison to the real battles (At Borodino, 70,000 men died in a single day) is not only unrelenting, but they push you to see the war only as a force, like the wind. The merciless slaughters are only accentuated and revealed by time, never made better.

But the scale of the warfare is only half, albeit an unbelievable, colossal and deeply deeply overwhelming half. The nature of the story can only reach its fullest heights, when war is complemented by its intertwined sibling, peace. And the scale of peace is not something to be brushed aside in favour of the sticky blood spilled across the fields. For the world of this story, is operating under a grand sweep of time across its landscape on all its levels. The rich, vast halls of the aristocracy tower over the parts I & II, an environment for gods and giants to exist in, where every room is a chasm and a theatre simultaneously. Palatial estates are only complemented by the extravagant and unending decorations; the food, the clothes, the ornaments and chandeliers and furniture and more, endless endless arrays of the excesses of the well-to-do of history. The scale of their wealth is staggering, and overwhelms the senses. To really capture extravagance, there is nothing else to do besides show it, and Bondarchuk’s infinite reservoirs of it are a wonder to behold.

A story and a film which runs along the knife-edge of history, especially an aristocratic one, can only do so much for the poor underneath them. For most of history has been written for those above that level, and the voiceless left without a coin to wish upon in history’s fountain. But war, and peace, affect everyone. And the scenes where Pierre spins through Napoleon’s war-torn Moscow, encountering the masses, hold the same spiritual resonance they must do in the original story. For the only thing the poor truly possess in these times is held up as a valuable, dusty and grimed covered object; their spirit. For a story as grand as this, more than blood must be seen, we must look at the chamber that holds it. The heart.

And the film more than many I’ve ever seen, possesses such a wealth of spirit. The story itself is by far the baseline of all that resounding human experience, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and everyone cascading through your mind and imagination. But also Bondarchuk’s cinematic spirit, is so fantastic to be a witness to. Although often the camera is convinced to play a scene straight, long shots for rooms and close-ups for important conversations, there is some beautiful cinematographic experimentation bursting through the edges of the story. Camera shots which run vertically forward across the battlefield, deep expressionistic smoke-filled backgrounds, completely absorbing you into the gun-powder hell of cannons and mud. A location jump through a transition through a rainy window says so much. One of the most dreamlike and quietly painful executions to ever fall into an image. The camera roves through the landscape, searching among the blown out ruins and palatial spaces picking up whatever it can find, occasionally finding time to ballet around its elements. Covered in blood, it dances.

What more can I ask of War and Peace? What more is there to get from a film? It charts a journey across time, love, war, peace, and everything in between which makes up the rich feast of life. It manages to capture most of the eternal human spirit, it shows us the most significant stories we encounter during a lifetime on Earth. And it does it with such a dizzying, magnificent spectacle of various elements. Of space in its vast expanses of world. Of riches and extravagances, or of poverty and the unyielding mud. The film’s hands pick up the gemstones and the soil alike, and hypnotises and absorbs you into the deeply reverential, deeply mythical, but ultimately deeply human world. And like life’s arching and winding course, it ebbs and flows along a current of events where varying degrees of fate and free will collide and intermingle with each other.

To do this with the mechanics of cinema, to use it to reveal the greatest highs and greatest lows that we can understand, not necessarily through any one particularly overpowering element, but a continual blend and mix, foundations building upon foundations, is cinema on a level that personally I have nothing but the deepest admiration, and reverence for. I could never commit to some of the inevitable brutalities of the film’s arduous and gruelling creation, but Bondarchuk’s sweep is a vast expanse which makes the world feel infinite, overflowing on all sides with the wealth of human lives, ugly or not. Stories and films can exist for infinite reasons, but I find it so brilliant that a film this tectonic, a film which pushes cinema to its absolute limits, really exists at all. It elevates cinema to the highest point of art, to reveal and reflect our understanding of the world, and to take us beyond it.

Truly, what more is there to say with cinema, than to take us on that journey? To make us part of their company, to make us walk through their halls in fine footwear, and walk in soldier’s boots through the mud into the abyss. To climb a mountain, step by step upwards and upwards as life begins to take on a greater and fuller meaning until the story itself ends, regardless of whether any of its characters continue to live and die. For it is cinema. And it is life. And in a rare moment, in this beautiful piece of art, they are the same.

-Alex

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P.S – This post will be updated in the future, once I take the time to watch the new Criterion Release with Janus Films, a 2K restoration of the entire project. It can be pre-ordered here, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you can!

 

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

Girlhood (2014)

Girlhood.jpg

Céline Sciamma made Girlhood in a recent, but rich tradition of French films concerned with the reality of life in some of France’s sharper corners. It was my experience with La Haine (1995, Dir. Matthieu Kassovitz) in a French class at age 11 which first exposed my mind to the soulful, harsh worlds of French estate or banlieue life. But that style for a long time, has only been fully understood from the world of those angry teen boys, hyper charged and pinballing off the concrete walls of an oppressive, bleak world. Any moments of real joy, you had to look over your shoulder, because it wasn’t going to last.

But life goes on. Céline Sciamma knows that the real journey, is not just in an explosive climax, but in the moments in between as well, the moments where the sun peaks through the grey cloud cover and manages, just for a second, to shine ever so brilliantly.


Cinema has always been able to transport us. To pick us up out of our lives and replant us somewhere else, for a fleeting breath in time.  And so is the story in Girlhood, which plants us in the company of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16-year-old girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, with all of the trappings and the preciously rare benefits of that transition. For the world that Marieme and her friends inhabit, is one which is spiky and filled with hard-edged falls. The concrete jungle is not just an environment, it is a maze to be navigated, filled with dead ends and dangerous obstacles to be overcome or at the very least to be sidestepped. Academia is unable to support her. The quietly punishing and grinding cleaning work is a path she does not want to walk, as she watches her mother walk quietly through empty office halls. But a life of crime has its own thorns to stick in her side as well, as she is forced to contend with her identity as a woman and the possibility of her being sexually objectified becomes a disadvantage to possess.

In short, and in long, life is tough. The journey which Marieme charts is one of fiction, but one which holds an uncomfortably close reflection of the atmosphere and choices available in a poorer environment in the city. If the poor have been voiceless throughout most of history, then Girlhood is a swing back at the narrative, as Marieme’s inner identity and external world take center stage, not in a way linked to the highest echelons of power, but in the real world and the real connections around her. She must slip between the hostile societal forces, omnipresent and invisible, and the hostile personal forces in her life, very real and very physical threats to her.

What propels the story forward, gently at first but with increasing urgency later, is her continuing to rise up underneath the weight of the world. Her conditions change like the tides, but she continues to ride the waves under the increasing stresses of life. And she refuses through stubborn persistence and self-respect, to be pushed under those waves and drown. Marieme finds moments of joy, moments of power, moments of love. And when each of those moments is undone by another moment of violence, of inequality, of pain, she absorbs it and continues to step forward. Uneasy, but definitely moving. And what is powerful about it, is that Sciamma’s direction does not engage in showing either of the moments gratuitously. There are no verbose speeches written about the power of friendship, and there are no extended sequences of replicating some of the brutal physical and mental violence Marieme endures at times. These forces are alluded to continually, in the looks friends give each other, the looks family give each other. Because meaning in this world is precious, and furthermore what is the point of intellectualising those feelings, when Marieme and her friends just want to feel them? The subtext churns under the sea of Marieme’s life, and its power to envelop your attention grows with each passing minute.

All of this is captured by Sciamma’s and Crystel Fournier’s camera, one which lets every scene breath for a couple of moments before it starts. The quiet, growing pace of the film can be a little low-key at the beginning, as Marieme segues through the environment we’ll become deeply acquainted with by the end of the film. But each scene, through these moments of silence and personal solitude, speak in a way which dialogue or more obvious/dramatic ways of staging might work. The drama in Marieme’s life comes from the world around her, not from the way she sees the events. There are no virtuoso flourishes of the camera, no distracting effects only there to induce sheer cinematic spectacle. But when the camera decides to synchronise with a moment of true resonance, such as the girls dancing to Rihanna’s “Shine Bright Like a Diamond”, it sinks you under the murky seas of the world to show you the incredible, beautiful and dangerous human circus going on underneath.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a lot of films I’ve seen like Girlhood, and that’s really refreshing for me. Different/original does not always equal good, but it would be foolish of me not to really accept or understand just how striking Girlhood is as a piece of art. To take a journey like Marieme’s, and show it to the world and have faith that it will resonate with people. For Marieme’s life is the life a lot of us would like to ignore, of a life which is slipping through the cracks of our supposed “civilised” societies. But the film is not an attack, it’s not a sharpened spear to cut through the bullshit like La Haine was, a volatile fireball thrown into the cinematic environment. Girlhood is something much more reflective, more soothing, and ultimately more hopeful. It is not a film driven by anger, but by love. Love, despite the sufferings of the world.

And that’s a beautiful message to wrap up in such a beautiful film.

– Alex

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Girlhood (2014)

Suspiria (2018)

Suspiria 2018

To remake Suspiria is a bold move, the original is such a vivid slice of Giallo at its purest form it’s difficult to imagine how one would be able to do the original justice. Luca Guadagnino was named as the director of this remake of the Dario Argento shocker, Guadagnino hot off the back of his much-loved tender romance Call Me by Your Name (2017). You couldn’t help but think that these two names, Suspiria and Guadagnino were hardly a match made in heaven, one renowned for its violence and the other renowned for their deft and classy dramas. Having only recently seen the original (reviewed here by Alex), and loving it for its schlocky otherworldly expressive brand of witchy horror I felt that whilst it is clearly a great piece of horror cinema, it wasn’t perfect and I was interested to see where a retelling by such a different director would take us. From the first trailers it was clear that Suspiria (2018) would be a drastically different beast. Could this be a rare remake that succeeds in justifying itself as a standalone film and not just a clamouring homage? Having seen it now I can safely say that for me it has succeeded and bring so much more to the table than I could have imagined.


Luca Guadagnino has done a lot with Suspiria but has kept the basic framework of the original. We still have a naïve Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arriving in Berlin to join a prestigious dance academy under the tutelage of the brilliantly played Madame Blanc, Tilda Swinton is loving every moment of this film in one of three roles she fills in the film. The setting itself is what sets this film so apart from the original however. The opening scenes of the 1977 original had Berlin appear an utterly alien landscape with the dance academy being the only tangible reality, along with a few choice encounters outside its baroque walls. Gone is most of the expressionistic lack of reality, instead we are firmly rooted in Cold War divided Berlin. Guadagnino even places the film around the real-life turmoil the country was going through with the actions of infamous far-left radicals the RAF (Red Army Faction) and their abduction of a former SS officer come powerful industrialist. This is not to say that the film becomes overtly political, at its heart it is still very much a horror film with a penchant for gore, the director has just taken the story into a very necessary different direction. If Guadagnino had just aped the originals colour palate and story overtly the film would be effectively worthless. However, Guadagnino is much more astute and has created a different beast that slowly and surely seeps into your bones.

The beiges and browns of Berlin 1977 are brought out through the Bauhaus-esque dance studio, all wood and sparse modern dance studios. Colour is rarely seen in vivid tones unless Guadagnino wants you to be shocked by them. He keeps the colour central to the story and yet uses the sense of space and time so much more to root the film with some deeper meaning than just a slasher tale based around some creepy dancers. If the original was prog rock, this is much more post-punk, less Goblin and Yes, more Joy Division or Bauhaus (surprisingly) in tone. More screen time is given to the actual dance within the film as well, whilst the original may have had a little it was much more a background for the story to unfold on top of, in this remake however it has become a central point of the plot. Some scenes put the dance front and centre creating some incredible visuals, with the spastic movements of the contemporary dance being performed echoing a darker underbelly of the institution. Guadagnino is clearly drawing inspiration from the art scene of west Germany in the choreography used, echoing the work of Pina Bausch (See Pina, 2011, Dir. Wim Wenders) who would have been working in West Germany in the time frame of the film.

The pacing of this film is not on a par with the original I do have to admit, the originals 90 minutes rips by and Guadagnino has added a whole lot into the story. I found it much more slow burn than some have given it credit for, and for all its plot I must admit I never found it boring. The scope of the film is much wider than the original and I wonder that the fact this is such a drastic departure from the original is more of an issue for some than it needs to be. The acting in the film is also given much more space with everyone able to justify their character motives through backstory, no longer is Susie the blank slate that she is in the first film… Well she kind of is still but Dakota Johnson does a good job in imbuing her with a sense of willing ignorance and obsession. This however is clearly Tilda Swinton’s film, with her work as Madame Blanc along with two more central characters being almost more of the central focus of the film. She is such a mercurial talent, a fact that Guadagnino is clearly very aware of this due to his utilisation of her talents in three overarching roles throughout his Suspiria.

I found this possibly overlong and maybe pretentious art horror film to be a true highlight of the cinematic year. Whilst it may not always be scary in the conventional sense, there are high levels of creepy throughout and the focus by the director on the film and not just the bravado moments made it pop for me. A worthy and brilliant remake of an already revolutionary film, although I sense I may be in the minority on this one.

-Ed

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Suspiria (2018)

City of God (2003)

City of God

Why do you make a film? It’s only a relatively new medium, one which has a history now of over 100+ years, but the written word has been around for thousands, same with paintings. And City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund) or Cidade de Deus, was originally a recounting by author Paulo Lins first, in book format. But there are millions of books, and millions of stories. So why do you make a film? Why tell a story with images, with sounds and sights and do you best to create and reflect a world to an audience?

If I could answer those questions, I wouldn’t be asking them. But I think City of God has some of those answers. Because one of the things a film does, is communicate. It’s an arrangement, a mosaic of thousands of pieces arranged in order to present a picture, a view. And a mosaic can be described with words sure, but it is at its best when it’s seen. And City of God, needs to be seen. Forever.


It’s a film which if you ever needed to blow away someone’s common understanding of the world, the laws and rules and moralities which seem to govern the world you might live in, this film holds that understanding down and puts a gun into its mouth before pulling the trigger. Everything in the film destroys those boundaries, ripping apart their flesh. There’s no delicate innocence placed in this world, no societal halo’s applied to anyone. Criminals, kids, police, adults, drug runners and drug takers, every citizen in the City of God is a warrior, fighting the inhabitants or even the space itself. Every crime, every act damned by the law and society, takes place here. And not just takes place, but is encouraged, celebrated and becomes the reason for living. If this is God’s city, then God is more akin to the bloodiest Roman emperors than a benevolent caring father.

It’s also a film which gets to some of the darkest understandings of the human condition. That life can be cheap. That violence can be continuous, brutal and explosive, spilling all over the city like oil, coating its inhabitants in its sticky darkness. That your life can be upended by power, by chance, by accident, by anything with enough force to suddenly put a knife in your back when you’re not looking. And how witnesses, become participants, become casualties, and give rise to more witnesses who get caught in the same gravitational pull of time and action. And furthermore the film itself is a witness to it all, because the story it tells is of the city and its inhabitants and they both fed back into each other, a feedback loop splattered and distorted by the violence and struggle of a world turned upside down.

But even the residents of a hellscape live, and City of God is a witness to the life in all its perspectives. Even its most violent residents need to relax from time to time, and to see the favelas here only as places of violence is a mistake that the film refuses to make. The people who live there are just that, people. And they spend their time doing what every one else does. Working, eating, playing. The world is vibrant and sunny, and everything is soaked up, blood of the dead mixed with the blood of life. If life is short and uncertain, then it must be lived while it is still there. And through Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues)  primarily, we see how the space of the city works, how its’ heart beats.

But the heart supports the body, and the body of this film is one bursting at its seams. A dizzying, continually multiplying cast of characters spread over the city’s landscape, reminding me that in the real world everyone is their own protagonist, and their aims and ambitions sliding and crashing against each others. And the blood that pumps through the film, the racing, vibrant music is whips you through the landscape itself. And that’s balanced against the film’s cinematography, the films’ eyes, a camera which never dares to look up for fear of getting shot. A camera which keeps close to the ground, caught and trapped inside the winding and looping close quarters of the streets, a camera which is caught in the multiple currents of the film’s river. It strongly evokes war footage, captured first hand on the ground by journalists who put their lives on the line to present the images of what happens in a field where lives are staked.

I could go on about this film forever, it’s one of my favourites. But, if I had to put some kind of resolution down, to answer that question from earlier; why do you make a film? And I think one of the secrets is in the film’s tagline: “one man will do anything to tell the world everything”. One of the most powerful things a film can do, is present a world, real or fictionalised. And to show a world like City of God to the world, a world of spirited and electrifying danger, of adrenaline, of exhilaration moral and amoral, is one of the most incredible things you can do with a film. City of God transports you to the place, the time, the lives. And it does so by all accounts except by actually living there.  And to even catch a glimpse of the things which make us different, and the things that make us the same, in the eyes and hearts and stories of these characters, is a pretty fucking powerful reason to make a film.

-Alex

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City of God (2003)

American Animals (2018)

american-animals-poster

I have always loved heist films. I find it tough not to get wrapped up in them, a story which is an intricate puzzle, a crossroads of crime and justice and  an adrenaline filled real time (usually) injection as the theoretical heist becomes a real one. Each heist film, good or bad, is an act of chinese spinning plates, never fully comfortable and requiring constant focus and attention. If it’s not the outside forces, it’s the inside forces of the participants and their minds which may cause things to unravel. And usually, the unravelling seems almost inevitable, as time after time we watch heist movie after heist movie where ultimately the robbers meet their comeuppance, the long arm of the law putting them in handcuffs. In fact if cinematic history is anything to go by, a heist is something almost always doomed inevitably to failure.

That doesn’t stop people from trying though.


 

Bart Layton seems like a shrewd filmmaker. He seems like a man whose vision for the film is one of complexity, both technically and artistically. For American Animals is not a straightforward film. A fictional recreation of the events of the narrative intertwine and bleed through into documentary interviews with the subjects of the film. Four men, in their college years of 2004, planned and executed a heist of some priceless books from Transylvania University, Kentucky. Among them a copy of The Birds of America, a work by James Audubon which contained elaborate prints of America’s wildlife. The symbolism already rife in the story, Layton uses and blends film techniques together to not just show an unknowing audience what happened, but also why it happened from the source themselves. But to hold a story up like this under the magnifying glass, you can see the complexities and multiple stories vying for control underneath the surface.

Memories can change over time. Memories can be misremembered. They can be distorted, flipped, shifted or even confused with others. And that’s right before you get to any sort of conscious denials or lies. Through sometimes nauseatingly intense testimonials, we can see the real life players of the events do their best to remember why and how they did the things they did over 10+ years ago. We can see them do their best to explain, confront, justify and explore the things they did, how they came to solidify their past into a path which pushed them to pull off a heist. Layton and his collaborator, Ole Bratt Birkland, push an unflinching camera and cinematography into your world, one which sees many sides to these robbers. We explore their perspectives, their ambitions, their defenses. All the big and little traits which make up a personality really.

And alongside this, we see a filmic re-enactment of the events in question, as they are explained in real time to us. And to have both the real life people and actors share the same space on the screen (sometimes literally, as stories overlap and fight each other), creates a viewing where you have to acknowledge the film as a fake, after all it isn’t real documentary footage of the actual heist from 2004, but also a film which feels more real as the real life Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk explain the actions and behaviours and mental states of what you’ve just seen, and what you’re about to see happen. It’s a really fascinating and unconventional way to watch a film, half aware of its construction but also feeling more connected and involved because of it. It’s a bold and refreshing technical choice to see for sure.

The fictional half of the film has no slack either, it is arresting and gripping. The performances/performers are very open, very easy to hang onto. You watch them with the same amount of close inspection you apply to their real life counterparts, and it’s hard to convey the range on show here. It’s soundtrack is carefully sculpted from a broad spectrum, it’s use of movement in space is frenetic and at times genuinely nail-biting. The performances I mentioned earlier build to a compounded finish of intensity, as events spiral. Of course one tool Layton has on his side is the truth, as the real life oddities of their heist make the story more unexpected than any written and telegraphed script.

Look, a lot of what makes this film really good is just the river it flows down, the journey it takes you on. And while there’s so much to love about this film, it also offers only a coda of reckoning, as the silence of guilt and trauma hangs over them, as the damage they’ve done to themselves and the people in their lives is brought up. And it is hard for me to come to a conclusion on this heist, other than what it is. And I think the symbolism of the film collapses to the real life narrative as well, the final battle of the stories. And any technical flamboyancy evenutally has to quiet down to the plain, unpleasant truths. They tried to make and execute a successful heist, they failed and paid a heavy price for it. Their ambition got cut down. Nothing melodramatic about it, only the true weight of their consequences crashing down on their lives. And so it goes on.

And maybe someone else down the line will see this, and think it might be their turn. That maybe they can do it right.

-Alex

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American Animals (2018)

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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Spike Lee is not a subtle filmmaker, I don’t think im stepping on many toes by saying this. He specialises in issue led films which have clear and important messages often centred on American racial division. Here however Lee uses his anger at the racial segregation being pushed by the POTUS (Agent Orange as he calls him) to craft a powerfully prescient story of the importance of overcoming racism and the spread of hateful language in modern culture. However Lee is no fool and knows he needs to make it entertaining and oh is BlacKkKlansman fun to watch.

Lee uses the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black policeman in the Colorado Springs Police force who at first is overlooked because of his race. However when he is transferred to the intelligence section of the force he quickly begins to use his wit and intelligence to ingratiate himself over the phone with the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. As he is obviously not the desired recruit for such a group it falls to another undercover officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to visit and delve deeper into the Klan to monitor them and see how dangerous they are to public safety. John David Washington and Adam Driver as Stallworth and Zimmerman are a really effective duo, with Stallworth taking the job as a subversive crusade to fight racism from the inside, whilst Zimmerman slowly begins to understand that the investigation has more and more poignancy for him than he first realised. The two actors are perfectly cast, having not seen John David Washington in anything before he was immensely impressive, and seems to have picked up all the charisma and chops of his Oscar-winning father Denzel Washington. Meanwhile Adam Driver yet again teaches a masterclass in understatement and empathy. Lee uses this true story to craft a kind of buddy cop movie where the two men most identify with each other over their status as minorities in America and in definition by the Klan themselves.

Lee treats the Klan as both comic figures and as people who are genuine threats to America there may be braying bumbling idiots in the organisation but there are also more cunning and measured racists who are the real threats. Topher Grace as David Duke, the then grand wizard of the KKK plays him with a creepy self-assurance. Duke is more bank manager than racist monster but the language he uses gives him away. Lee is also very clearly drawing parallels between one monster and another, our current POTUS. Duke is responsible for the phrase America First after all, Dukes own political motives are viewed as a ridiculous pipe dream in the film, a cringe inducing exchange that really hammers home how dark America is right now. The power of language is really called to the forefront in the film, whether it’s from civil rights activists speaking truth to power, or from the bigots of the Klan spewing bile at every opportunity. Honestly the language that the Klan do use in the film became hard to hear after a while, the sheer abrasiveness of their speech really brings the power in those words home (if that was needed to begin with).

Somehow Lee balances the moods of this film very delicately whilst still being able to hammer home its political message. The film is challenging and yet incredibly fun to watch, it zips along with a real verve and is funny to boot. The pace and wit of the film may come from Lee’s clear influence he’s taking from the Blaxploitation films he namechecks within the film. Their slightly overwrought action and soundtracks make an appearance in the film as well as their humour. Lee has always managed to do this balance of humour and serious discussion, think of Do the Right Thing which is an incredibly funny film but also has a strong seam of pathos running through it. The 70s aesthetic of this film is all-encompassing, Lee is clearly drawing our attention to the period and trying to say that whilst this might seem like another world filled with beige and olive clothes and massive Afros, the issues are still the same and are actually getting worse in our current world. The world is incredibly well realised, with everything from the editing techniques to the spot on period detail and costumes.

The films ending is another strong point of this film but do not worry I am not spoiling the overall plot of the film, there is just a moment in which we are pulled out of the past and planted in the here and now which was immensely affecting. Lee uses a short montage of footage from the white power marches in Charlottesville North Carolina to reflect back on us the reality of what the film has been talking about, these bigots that may have had to hide before are now marching in the street with the support of the President, once again Lee is asking us to ‘Wake up’ and get woke to what’s going on. A message that after a film this good, is hard to say no to.

-Ed

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BlacKkKlansman (2018)