Irreversible (2002)

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This one is going to be tough.

WARNING – BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF ADULT THEMES, VIOLENCE, RAPE AND MURDER.


 

When you make a film, you make a statement.

When you make a film which concerns the darkest of natural evils, it only succeeds if it accurately reflects those evils in the real world.

The reason why Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noé) is so terrifying, is because it feels so real.


 

But a film is not reality. And what this film does is take the human world, a world in which such awful acts and awful consequences can occur, and make it more real than real. And there’s two big ways that occurs. The first is the film’s structure, the story told from end to beginning in 13 scenes. It’s an experience equivalent to walking up a flight of stairs, the whole set of stairs moving rightwards but you’re walking up them leftwards. It’s a truly disorienting structure, akin to walking up(?) a flight of M. C. Escher staircases. It forces you to reverse engineer everything, something so abstract from our normal processes of daily life. Usually you start with thoughts, motivations, expectations which then lead to action, doing and consequences. But to be forced to refocus your mind, to not grow with and alongside the characters, but to witness their ending’s first and work backwards.  It’s a perspective which forces you to understand the events in a different way.

More than that, it’s a perspective which forces you to encounter the consequences of the actions, and their abhorrent nature, before you can use the framework of character motivation to talk about justice and justification. The film’s guttural, inexpressibly dark actions are presented as raw as can be understood, horrific actions that happen to the humans in front of us. Before we have gotten to know them, their motivations, their loves and fears and tensions and relationships, we witness what they’re capable of. And you are forced to bear witness to it, in some of the most uncompromising cinema and cinematography I have ever seen. You have to reconstruct the story, but not in the way you might in a film noir or crime story. You are not a detective working out a puzzle, because the ending is your starting point. All you can do is witness the strands slowly unweave themselves, as they become darkened by the knowledge of their ending.

It’s style is the other bastion of refocusing your mind, and it is delirious. The cinematography is mind-bending, the equivalent of starting off at the harsh end of an acid trip. It pays no attention to the traditional markers of human experience; scale, distance, orientation, perspective.  It rolls backwards, passing through the walls and skies of Paris with reckless, trippy abandon. It destroys your normal limitations of how you experience the world, but its power is volatile and explosive. It throws you into a cinematic typhoon at points, barreling through space and time completely lost, as a drunk might do on the edge of blackout. And then at other moments, it becomes still and clear, resolutely focused on witnessing the black, pulsing heart of humanity, rape and kill its way through the world.

It’s whole world is tainted,  tainted by the inevitability of its actions, but also as the film moves forward and backwards simultaneously, it’s tainted by the sheer horror of its actions. The irreversible actions you bear witness to, it is impossible for their effects to be irreversible either. There is no going back, no way to un-experience it, even as it moves into a time before those events. The hellish red, a colour which invokes blood, sex, violence, seeps into everything, practically bleeding through the films walls both literally and metaphysically. The scenes that happen earlier, become charged with sickening dread, charged with the knowledge that God might have of knowing how every story ends. And the sound of the film, explored here from pg 87 onwards, is one which matches that hell. One which through music and sound, is discordant, grotesque and nausea inducing (literally, through low-frequency sounds).

And you can’t talk about the hellish experience of the film, without invoking the actors, the human participants who you are anchored to. And never has that anchoring process, of aligning yourself with the characters of a story and sharing their experiences, felt so caustic and soul-destroying. As we watch Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) have their lives up until then obliterated, our empathy is assaulted alongside it, the waves of events crashing over us and rippling through us. The obscene violence, the degrading and unending nightmare of the rape, all of those are endured, channeled through the actors into our vision, experiences so brutal they can often not be lived through. Noé asked his actors to go further, to do more than almost every other film ever made. To put them through the knife-edge of darkness, and it is some of the bravest performances I’ve seen.

The whole film is one of disorder, the most violent assault of chaos on the human soul. And it’s nightmare is so violently unendurable, just like the nightmare of rape is for so many sexual assault and rape survivors. It’s an experience which creates a void space, something that can become impossible to process, reconstruct, to ever properly heal from. The phrase “Time heals all wounds”, feels pitiful and ironic next to Noé’s ending statement, “Time destroys all things”. The one thing I was terrified of, going into this film, was the potential for the films events to not be given the weight they truly represent. Rape especially has had a poor, often misogynistic treatment in cinema history, but violence itself has also become something cartoonish. Countless experiences of action films, superhero movies, war films and all the like, portray the aspects of violence we want to believe in. The thrill of the fight, the valiant defense, the fight against invisible and unknown enemies we don’t need to empathise with.

Irreversible does not do that. It forces you to encounter the colossal, unimaginable weight of the real life actions. The ugly, brutal, cruel and often unpunished nature of humanity’s most irreversible sins. It presents unflinchingly, the closest experience besides real life. And it is a film which sears itself into your consciousness, a film which gives screen violence and screen rape the core-shaking effects it has on the real human psyche. And for Noé to pull that blood-drenched heart out and expose it to you, to confront anyone brave enough to watch it with an experience that mirrors the trauma of real life rather than try to hide it or edit it out, it’s to be supported. Films should not just be made for entertainment, because life is not just entertainment. And art must reflect the world around it, through whatever stylistic forms it chooses. And while the legacy of this film will remain forever muddied, in its violations of normal good taste, decency etc, it proves one thing.

Fearless works of art are irreversible, for better and for worse. That’s the truth.

-Alex

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Irreversible (2002)

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Revolutions

In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final instalment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.


Questions are a lot more fun than answers. Questions involve your imagination, involve possibilities. Answers do their best to solidify in concrete and to collapse those possibilities into a form with a beginning and an end. Answers scribble out, cut away, and destroy those limitless possibilities in the hope of cutting down the crystal into a shape which is deemed best. And so the crystal of The Matrix, full of potentialities, is finally cut down in this last instalment, The Matrix Revolutions. Every which way you could have imagined the story going, is cut down into this last piece of the puzzle. Barring the realistic compromise that not everything is answerable, and the fact that the Wachowskis did not maintain complete 100% artistic control over their work, this film is the wrap up; the disparate threads finally being woven together.

As I said, questions are a lot more fun than answers. And the answers The Matrix Revolutions provides were never going to satisfy the hungry questions the original threw into the air. So what does it do instead? The Matrix set out to be a mix of ideas and a mix of action. If you can’t deliver on the reality making and reality breaking ideas, then you put your best foot forward and sucker punch the audience with action. Revolutions is a war movie, a culmination of the larger background conflict of the previous two films between humanity and the machines. An enemy so alien, so anti-human that there’s no need for any debate about the war, its ethics and it’s consequences. So the only questions The Matrix Revolutions has left to answer are who will win the war, and will Neo stop Agent Smith?

And with respect, these questions are just a lot less interesting than the ones posed by the previous installments. See, I can’t help but feel some of the backlash against the second and third films is partly down to the fact it focuses on the areas that only backdrop the first film, and when delving into the far more traditional sci-fi elements, it’s robot cities and mech-warriors etc etc, it’s just not the areas that the possessed the imaginations of those in the first film. People don’t remember the war against the machines, they remember the green code and the red pill/blue pill and those sunglasses. And sure, there’s a lot of bells and whistles going on to keep you entertained. The scales tipping back and forth between the machines and humans, Neo and Trinity’s final pilgrimage and the dangers they encounter. And the wealth of smaller side stories, of characters involved in the battles big and small help to connect the scale of the conflict to the audience.

But it’s too big. Too unwieldy, too much going on. And the characters we once attached ourselves to, have all graduated well beyond our understanding. Neo in this film plays the role of the enlightened mystic, and the problem with that role as a central protagonist is that they never feel the need to explain themselves, because everyone needs to trust them. Belief and faith is one of the deepest roots in this series that’s true. But faith, just like reason can only go so far.

And while everything that made the two previous films what they are, the strong visual design and expert audio design continue to back up the film and at some points overwhelm the senses, the film feels like it’s careering out of control and has to fall back on much simpler conventions to keep itself up. The continuity of Reloaded and Revolutions and the ambition of wrapping the series up in such an intense space of time (they released in the same year and were shot back to back) may have simply lead to burnout. The fleeting glimpses of clarity, Neo and Trinity breaking across the sky and seeing the sun for the first time, are stuck inside the swamp of story and it’s kind of sad to watch it all happen.

I said in my first post that I didn’t need to sum up my feelings on The Matrix series. That back then it was all a lot of questions, feelings, emotions and thoughts in flux (I’m saying that bit now). Well the time has come for me to collapse the possibilities, to narrow and cleave down all of it to a crystal that you can see.  So here goes.

The Matrix series itself is an overstuffed sci-fi mythical story, one exploding with enough elements of cinema that it genuinely acts as a fantastic channel for a lot of the best aspects of cinema. It’s full of homages and pastiches and subversions to other film genres, being one of the few Western blockbuster films to really bring a direct Asian influence from its fight scenes.  It’s got its head stuck in the heady world of philosophy and it’s not dumb. It’s commitment to its world visually and aurally is nearly unparalleled, just in sheer consistency and experimentation.

It’s characters fill primary symbolic roles, and this is a massive double-edged sword for it because as time goes on they feel less and less real. Like I said, mystic god Neo is almost as alien at points as the machines he’s fighting. The love story which is at the centre of Neo’s journey is also one of its more surreal parts, as the way it’s directed and acted consistently just comes across as ridiculous and unbelievable. It will forever be a stressful thing in my mind that the insane kung-fu/action sequences can feel so breathtakingly real, but the relationship at the heart of the story just feels anti-that.

And with Revolutions, while it’s not the downfall that many people continue to claim it is, it certainly is a fall from grace. Because this final film is the one that deals least with “the matrix” itself, it’s no surprise. And it still has that ambitious drive that powered the first two, especially with a dizzying last fight sequence between Neo and Agent Smith, which makes you dizzy and keeps you that way even after the film. So no, it is not the crowning jewel in the most perfect film series ever made, and the ending of Revolutions really does feel like a vague afterthought.  But after two and a half films exploding with ideas, should I be surprised they might run out of tracks?

The Matrix series endures for its’ striking originality and for its awe-inspiring execution. It’s a story by film  lovers for film lovers, and it shines in a lot of places while doing its best to cover up its weaker spots. It’s ambitious as all fuck, has left an indelible mark on modern cinema. So since questions are a lot more fun than answers, I’ll end this retrospective with this one.

What more can you ask for?

-Alex

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The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Star Wars Episode VIII : The Last Jedi – It’s Time to Grow Up

the-last-jedi-theatrical-blog

What if this was the last Star Wars film they ever put out? What if some godforsaken anarchy ensued and Disney abandoned the entire franchise, consigning it to some eternal limbo where it was only alive in the memories of those who chose to carry it, or those who discover it some time in the future. If there was eight films in the main saga and never another? What if Star Wars : The Last Jedi (2017, Dir. Rian Johnson) was the last film?

We’ll never have to answer that question, barring some atomic mishap. The behemoth of Star Wars will continue to steamroll its way across our psyche for who knows how long, the way Disney Inc. operates. Star Wars as an idea has been in our collective consciousness since 1977, 40 years since its first reception. It very easily could be around for another 40, 400 if Disney has it their way. Although I don’t like to comment on the meta-context surrounding the film industry, I do find it ironic that Disney’s recent behaviour is something akin to the Empire, and yet their best weapon is selling you the idea that you (and they) are part of the Rebellion. Enough with that then, and lets unlock The Last Jedi.

You can never escape “Star Wars” in the modern world, and this blog is no stranger to it. We did The Force Awakens (2015, Dir. J.J. Abrams) and Rogue One (2016, Dir. Gareth Edwards) respectively, and both writers here hold a special place for this mystical franchise in our hearts. So although I did my best to keep myself out of the hype cycle, I couldn’t help being excited for this one. The Force Awakens held some of the best but also some of the very worst tendencies of the franchise. Star Wars is so big, so beyond any singular vision at this point that its’ really got the room to maneuver around in how different aspects of Star Wars come to the foreground depending on who’s at the helm. So knowing Rian Johnson was there made me excited, unashamedly so, because I’m a big fan of his previous work. If you can’t escape it, at the very least having someone I love to bring it together can definitely inspire hope in me. In short, it’s real cinema magic.

I think the general format I’ve come to work with is discussions of style and substance, and it fucking thrills me to say The Last Jedi is bursting through its seams with both. Quite simply, it’s probably the best Star Wars film to have been made since the original trilogy, and with someone who has less of a monolithic attachment to the those original classics, for me it might be the best Star Wars film ever made. A bold stance, and one that I’m sure any dissenters will be ready to rip to absolute shreds. But my heart says what it believes, and The Last Jedi is a shotgun blast at close range, absolutely overwhelming even if not all of it hits.

Star Wars benefits from no expense being spared, and it just shows in every possible way. It looks breathtaking, it sounds breathtaking. That’s what you get with deep pockets, and my god it’s just continually gorgeous. It’s set designs, character designs and costume are simply a sight to behold. The same can be said of its cinematography (by longtime Johnson collaborator Steve Yedlin) is at moments breathtaking in the sense it was so beautiful I forgot to breathe. It’s sound design absolutely fills your ears, vibrant, resonant and impactful. There’s such a brilliant moment where the noise of the lightsabers fills the space, Kylo’s on one side, a harsh and discordant warped version of the original, and Luke’s vintage sounding shimmer of the his lightsaber. It’s a moment which bridges the legacy of the entire series, all in two different sounds. That is good sound design.

Honestly though, and I mean the least possible disrespect when I say this, but quite simply there was too much riding on this film for it not to look this stylistically strong. By its nature, the behemoth will soak up some incredible talent, and it shines here. Johnson pulls out such aesthetic wizardry inside the Star Wars formula, with a box that can only ever be 12 rated (PG-13 if you’re American), that its impossible not to commend it. But as I said, it’s too big to fail in that department. But one area it really could have fallen apart was in its substance.

Now its no longer chained to its love/hate auteur George Lucas, a Star Wars  film can’t be anything less than dumb and entertaining. What Rian Johnson does then, and what I found to be the same thing in Rogue One was the irrepressible desire to do something more than just make unthinking popcorn entertainment. While I ultimately enjoy Abrams work, it always treads such safe, Spielberg-esque ground. Spielberg was always the safest of the 70s movie brats anyway, which explains why he was such a bankable filmmaker, but ultimately after 30-40 years of exposure to that wholesome American chic, it get unsatisfying. So Johnson flipped the formula on its head, turning The Last Jedi into one of the densest and most narratively complex stories to grace the Star Wars universe. If anything the best analogy to it is found in its games, in the rather clear-cut Knights of the Old Republic and its more morally complex and developed sequel, Knights of the Old Republic 2 : The Sith Lords. One of them lays the basic framework, and the next one chucks everything but the kitchen sink at it to push that framework to its absolute limit.

The Last Jedi’s story is a constant and dizzying juggling act, of fully fleshed out characters each with their own arc of reversals, tests of character and moments of failure. Failure is one of its biggest themes, taking the best lesson from Empire Strikes Back (1980, Dir. Irvin Kershner) and applying it tenfold to a series of characters all unbearably human. This is by far the most existential peak Star Wars has reached in a while, as its characters go up and down the spectrum of good and evil, courage and cowardice, justice and mercy. So much of this is beyond a classic good vs evil narrative, the very origins of what pulled people into the original film, and no character good or bad comes out unscathed. Everyone makes dangerous choices, and it circumvents so much of the “I love it when a plan comes together” brainwashing that mainstream cinema is reliant on.

Honestly there’s so much going on structurally here beyond modern mainstream filmmaking that its hard not to just focus on that. There’s collisions with the stories of the originals and the prequels, there’s hallucinogenic dream sequences, there’s the birth of characters from nothing rather descended from great lineages, it genuinely feels like magic. There’s just so much to watch here, so many stories without relying on overwhelming location changes. Although a fair amount of locations are seen, often they are there for long periods of time, allowing you to adjust and soak in the sense of place before changing tracks again. It’s just…I don’t know what more you could want from a Star Wars film that tried to do something new. It could have rested and coasted on the laurels of cheap nostalgia which infects so much of modern culture (looking at you Ready Player One) but it’s not that.

It’s a film that doesn’t give you easy answers, it’s a film which requires you to keep track of it. It’s a film which contains bold and dazzling aesthetic choices, but also ones which are brimming with thematic resonance and meaning. A cynical person would say its a far more pretentious Star Wars film, but what do you want from this series now? For many its a childhood love they carry into their adulthood, but your childhood doesn’t stay the same. You can’t ever go back. There’s a continual churning out of unchallenging, simple hero journeys, why should we not celebrate films which want to chart new ground? Lucas knew that when he ceded control of the series to Irvin Kershner for Empire and it was because it needed to grow. And not everyone likes growth, but The Last Jedi is an infinitely better and more entertaining film because of its growth, even if it’s not easy.

The Last Jedi is honest to god everything I had hoped for when they said Star Wars was going to be rebooted. It functions as dumb cinema entertainment and clever film art. It’s wearing a mask of crowd pleaser and serious artist at the same time, and thank god its got that because without either side to balance it might be too silly or too serious. But its more than that, it’s a film whose philosophy is one of hard truths and real balance, about how the stories we tell each other are really sometimes stories, no matter how much we want them to be true. And that makes way for the greater truth, the one that maybe we need to construct our own stories rather than rely unquestioningly on the legends of old. There’s a continual struggle between good and bad, that goes beyond any one victory.But the battle between hope and despair is a real one, and its one that takes more than any one hero, be it Luke Skywalker or Rey, to win. It’s the antithesis of The Force Awakens, and in my eyes that’s a very good thing.

Ultimately it comes down to, do you want films responding to A New Hope, or do you want films responding to Empire Strikes Back? That’ll show you where you stand, and it’s why I cannot wait to see it again.

And my love/hate saga with Star Wars continues…

-Alex

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Star Wars Episode VIII : The Last Jedi – It’s Time to Grow Up

A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics