Only God forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

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Only God forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2013).

Score: thoroughly uninteresting, unless you look at it from a very particular point of view.

Winding Refn is style over substance, always. That’s just what he does. Only God forgives could very well be a collection of neon-lit shots of Bangkok’s underbelly, and nothing more. And it would be a gorgeous collection indeed. The long, panning shots in overly saturated colours, everything bathed in a neon glow, renders the scenes unnatural and seedy. After all, neon is for cyberpunk megalopoli and brothels.

But a movie is not an art book: it must tell a story. Only God forgives follows drug queenpin Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her two sons, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling). After Billy gets killed for raping and murdering an underage prostitute, mother and younger brother try to avenge him and fall into the hands of vigilante corrupt cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). There’s not what you could call suspense or action, really. The movie not so much paces as slithers through ninety minutes that feel like two hundred. Two smartass Americans get their asses handed to them by a middle-aged Asian cop and that’s more or less the end of it.

Nevertheless, there is something that sets this movie apart from Drive or The neon demon: it is heavily laden with Freudian symbolism, which makes it not only the most aesthetically beautiful of the three, but also the one with the most hidden substance. Britt Hayes wrote a superb piece on it that made me appreciate a little more a movie that had me yawning for an hour and a half.

***SPOILERS***

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What we do in the shadows (Clement & Waititi, 2014).

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What we do in the shadows, written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (2014).

Score: bloody hilarious.

What we do in the shadows is a mockumentary that follows the everyday lives of four vampires who share a flat in present-day Wellington. Viago (Taika Waititi), 379 years old, was a German dandy and even to this day he is delicate and easy-going. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), 862 years old, was known as Vlad the Poker for his favourite torture method and still has his way with the ladies. Deacon (Jonny Brugh), 183 years old, is a young, wild, Bela Lugosi-like vampire who got turned by 8,000-year-old, Nosteratu-ish Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in their basement and is not very social.

The false documentary attests to how the flatmates argue over who has to clean the huge pile of bloody cups or to how Viago tries to convince Vlad to cover the couch with towels before eating someone so everything does not get messy. The vampires have real trouble clubbing because they cannot walk into any pubs unless they are invited in, and a running feud with a local pack of werewolves (not swearwolves).

What we do in the shadows is extremely genre-savvy: virtually every vampire trope you can think of is mocked, spoofed and deconstructed, all in the fragmented style of a reality show; ad-libs add to the hilarity and the special effects are pretty nice. Waititi looking meekly at the camera as Viago and smiling with his little fangs while everything goes to shit behind him cracks me up every time. Needless to say, there are copious amounts of black comedy, like Deacon’s familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) bringing her school bully and her ex-boyfriend to be eaten.

To wrap it up, totally worth it.

 

 

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

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Coherence, directed by James Ward Byrkit (2013).

Score: rather poor.

You don’t want to know a lot about the plot of Coherence, but so you get an idea of the kind of movie it is, it takes place almost entirely inside a house during a dinner party with eight guests. A comet is passing quite close to Earth that night and freaky things start happening.

Coherence has appeared in several lists for best 21st Century science-fiction movies, obscure science-fiction movies and low-budget science-fiction movies, but I find that it has a worldbuilding problem, is not very original at all and has maddening cinematography.

The movie was apparently mostly improvised, with the characters just given a paragraph with their character’s motivation, so the actors themselves were discovering the plot as they went. I’m sure it was terribly fun to shoot, but not so much to watch. That kind of experience is better suited for a room escape design or a roleplaying game, but not for a movie. If you want believable reactions, hire the best actors you can, but for goodness’ sake, don’t sacrifice watchability for that. The camera is shaky, unfocused at times and has terrible angles. Some reality shows are better shot than this, really. And apparently it was all done so the actors could move around freely.

***SPOILERS***

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Zwartboek (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)

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Zwartboek, directed by Paul Verhoeven (a.k.a. Black book, 2006).

Score: sober.

The Hague, near the end of Nazi occupation. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a young Jewish singer from a wealthy family; when the Christian family who was hiding her dies in a bombing, she is approached by police officer Van Gein (Peter Blok), who offers to take her to Allied territory. She takes a loan from her father’s lawyer Smaal (Dolf de Vries) and reunites with her family, but the barge they’re travelling in is raided by a nazi boat and everyone is killed except for Rachel. She decides to join the resistance, led by Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), dyes her hair and adopts the name Ellis de Vries. After some of her comrades are arrested by the Gestapo, she decides she must seduce SS Colonel Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) in order to save them.

On one level, Zwartboek is an exciting thriller with spies, double agents, deceit and strategy. Every character must make choices and take chances, not only in the context of war, but also looking at how their actions will be judged when the Allies eventually win the war. Ellis learns that the attack on the barge which killed her entire family was far from being a coincidence, but she can’t start to imagine how convoluted the truth about it is.

On another level, Zwartboek is a war movie, and one that focuses on a topic that is not frequently discussed, especially as World War II is frequently considered the good war: how in civil wars, or occupations, your friends, neighbours and acquaintances will make decisions you despise or show their true colours, and once the war is over and strife is no longer coercing people, there can and will be consequences.

Ellis’ feelings towards Müntze are not spelled out for us. Has she fallen in love with him? Does she just respect him, or feel sympathy for him? Does she think she’s a good man, despite the circumstances? Does she separate the personal from the political? When the war is over, she barely makes any effort to deny she was a collaborationist, despite the fact that she was in the resistance all along. One great virtue of this movie is the way it portrays grey and grey morality in the context of something as fucked up as war.

To wrap it up, an exciting thriller and an interesting reflection on the controversy between resistance and collaborationists in the occupied Netherlands.

The Handmaid’s tale (Season 1, 2017)

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The Handmaid’s tale, Season 1, created by Bruce Miller (Hulu, 2017).

Score: must-watch.

I first read The Handmaid’s tale back in December of 2013, over three feverish days. I recall myself gawking at my e-reader at the tram platform after a long day of work. I remember deep discomfort and gradual coping towards what was coming out of those pages.

In the wake of an infertility epidemic, a martial coup turns the United States into a totalitarian theocracy. Fertile women, dubbed Handmaids, are gathered, assigned as property to the regime’s elite and forced to conceive children for the Commanders. Failure to comply with the rules of the new order results in physical punishment, mutilation or leaving the house in a black van and never being seen again. The Handmaid’s tale follows the life of a woman formerly known as June (Elisabeth Moss), now forced to take the patronym Offred after the Commander she’s been assigned to, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). June is decided to be reunited with her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and young daughter, who went missing when they were trying to flee the country to Canada and she was captured.

Let’s go over the science-fiction mantra one more time: science-fiction is about the world right now and right here, not trying to guess the future or to issue warnings (except for warning about things that are actually happening). Publicity of the show has focused too much, for my taste, on reassuring people that the Free World will not become Gilead tomorrow, don’t be silly. Everyone’s like, oh my god, do you think this could happen to us? No way, we’re above that. It seems we’ve got our heads too deep inside our own butts to realize all this is happening, has happened and will happen again. Maybe not near our homes, but definitely somewhere out there, to other human beings. Is it so extremely distressing to entertain the idea that we may be complete barbarians? Even more important, is it completely unfounded?

***SPOILERS***

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La grande bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

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La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (a.k.a. The great beauty, 2013).

Score: contemplative.

Some works of art are born looking at another work of art. Admiring it, wanting to revive it, to make it eternal, to tell the world how much it meant to the creator. Some works of art are born grabbing the ankle of that masterpiece that came before: La grande bellezza came into the world grabbing La dolce vita’s ankle.

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a sexagenarian socialite in present-day Rome. He writes for a magazine, parties all night and sleeps all day. Forty years ago, he wrote a novel that went unnoticed and everybody keeps asking why he never wrote another one. It might be because he spent those forty years too busy trying to find trascendence in the unredeemably banal.

La grande bellezza is made of vignettes so brief and minimalistic they might as well be social network posts and lavish panning shots of Roman iconic locations so painfully beautiful they might as well be pornographic. We get glimpses of the life around Jep: his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), trying to make it big as a playwright and begging for the love of his abusive, narcissistic girlfriend; his Platonic romance with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the forty-something stripper; Botox parties, priests and nuns right next to drugs and orgies; children raised by butlers while their parents are out for dinner.

Unlike La dolce vita, La grande bellezza is ambiguous about whether it loves or despises the void debauchery it portrays. It’s probably both. The past century has really made artists lose interest in trascendence; we’ve become so hedonistic we look at these people drinking, smoking and arguing that they’re the greatest artist in the room and don’t think much of it.

For obvious reasons, the debauchery needed to be amped up. Having sex at a prostitute’s house is no longer enough, we need to introduce things like a middle-aged stripper who works at her father’s club; he’s disappointed she doesn’t like drugs, since they would have a hobby in common, then. The fake miracle scene is updated as an interaction with an elderly nun, clearly alluding to Teresa of Calcutta.

All in all, desperately beautiful and a love letter to the void, to all those things we desperately want to give meaning to our lives but simply won’t.

Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964).

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Les parapluies de Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy (a.k.a. The umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964).

Score: endearing.

Though The umbrellas of Cherbourg has consistently been on various Best Films of the 20th Century lists, it recently came back to the spotlight for being one of Damien Chazelle’s favourite movies and an essential influence on La la land.

It tells the story of Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), two young lovers in the small town of Cherbourg, Normandy. Guy works as a mechanic in a gas station, while Geneviève helps her mother (Anne Vernon) with the umbrella shop she owns. Being in a dire economic situation, Madame Emery would very much rather that Geneviève married rich and handsome jewellery merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Everything becomes more complicated when Guy is drafted for the Algerian war.

The umbrellas of Cherbourg is a very special kind of musical drama, in that every line of dialogue is sung in a recitative style, but there are no actual songs in it. Recitative is used in opera to accelerate narration and introduce a scene or aria; it’s not common to use it on its own because it gives the impression that the characters are going to start singing a song soon but they never do. This can make this film annoying if one was expecting a musical in its conventional mode; when all is said and done, it’s an artifact that the director decided to use in a certain way and achieves an effect. Nothing more, nothing less.

While La la land is very different, once you finish The umbrellas of Cherbourg, you can see very clearly what Chazelle lifted from it.

***SPOILERS FOR LA LA LAND AND THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG***

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Under the skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

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Under the skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer (2013).

Score: eldritch.

An unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) finds the corpse of another one and steals her clothes. Then, with the help of a mysterious motorcycle rider (Jeremy McWilliams), she drives a van around Edinburgh, preying on single men who live alone. Widely known for being the movie with full frontal nudity that Scarlett Johansson made, if you came to it out of curiosity, you will stay for its awesomeness.

If you want this film to challenge and surprise you, I suggest you stop reading now.

The opening sets up the tone for the movie. An outer-space, geometrical composition, very much like 2001 and then some long, naturalist shots, reminiscing of the opening scene of Invasion of the body snatchers. We have identified the science-fiction visual code: something alien is going on here, but we’re not told what it is.

The pacing is intentionally slow but the movie provides new information constantly. It’s one of those movies where you have to pay attention to what is going on, because there isn’t any exposition dialogue. Characters will not explain things to each other for your benefit, you need to watch and arrive at the correct conclusion. It has this charm that older, lower-budget science-fiction films have: since it can’t afford to show, it has to make an effort to suggest, and it works thousands of times better than actually showing. It manages to be deeply unsettling: I was watching it with the lights out since the photography is quite dark and had to turn them back on halfway in because I wasn’t feeling safe.

***SPOILERS***

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The neon demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

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The neon demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2016).

Score: insubstantial.

Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just arrived at Los Angeles to become a model. Apparently, she’s a natural talent and every door opens for her: model agency manager Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks) hires her right away and prestigious photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) agrees to take pictures of her right away. Fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) will do anything to bring her down and preserve their positions in the fashion business.

I love neon aesthetics and it is apparent that so does Winding Refn. The movie is visually beautiful, with an artificial and ethereal look to it. But the problem is, there’s nothing beneath to support it.

Cutthroat bitches in showbiz has been done to death. From All about Eve, passing through All about Eve with strippers, a.k.a. Showgirls, to Black swan; Glamorama to Zoolander. Laughing at the fashion industry is not funny anymore, unless you’re going to give it a twist, which isn’t the case here. The movie uses long, symbolic, ambient scenes that ultimately lead to a very trite conclusion.

***SPOILERS***

Unless the movie is a total trainwreck, when I don’t understand something about one, I assume the director or writer did things for a reason, and I try to guess what that reason is. So many weird things happen in The neon demon: a mountain lion sneaks into Jesse’s motel room; Sarah licks Jesse’s blood eagerly. Everybody tells her she’s a sublime model that has something, despite being inexperienced and naïve (which would mean she’s a total pain to work with and would need extensive training). She says, nonchalantly: “I know what I look like. Women would kill to look like this.” I kept thinking there was a reason for all that nonsense, and my money was on something supernatural. Like the actual demon from the title; that would explain those eternal, seizure-inducing scenes where she kisses herself, because she’s so pretty.

But the movie reaches the end and you’re left with that you had at the beginning. They’re all jealous of Jesse because she’s this natural talent and raw beauty and end up cutting her down. Period. It just goes downhill from the moment Ruby molests a corpse at work: it’s a plain non sequitur. A corpse is the complete opposite from what Jesse is supposed to be: the room is in winter and she’s the sun. Also, I don’t know whether Gigi and Sarah actually ate Jesse and I don’t want to find out.

Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)

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Sing Street, directed by John Carney (2016).

Score: heartwarming.

Dublin, 1985. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is the youngest of three siblings. The dramatic economical situation of his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) forces them to pull him out of the Jesuit school he was attending and send him to Catholic Synge Street instead. One day he meets a mysterious girl called Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who wants to be a model and would be interested in appearing in a band video. The only thing Conor needs to do now is form that band.

This movie is pure love for music for the sake of music. Conor and Eamon (Mark McKenna) are natural-born musicians. They live music and breathe music; they aren’t scared of failing, they just keep making music, even if their means and abilities are scarce. Music also vertebrates Conor’s relationship with his elder brother Brendan (Jack Reynor): they spend precious time together listening to records and watching musical programmes on TV. Brendan enjoys becoming a mentor in music for his little brother and watching Conor get excited about the new sounds that he had already discovered.

Music is a relief and a companion to Conor’s life: it helps him grow up and cope with harassment from the school bully, the abusive priest that runs his school and his parents’ failed marriage in a time and place where divorce is illegal and they can’t even afford to get separated. And of course, music is essential to his relationship with Raphina. Music is a means for Conor to sort out his feelings, get to know himself and become an adult, one step at a time.

In a society where everyone wants to be rich and famous at any cost, making art for oneself is too often seen as a waste of time. That’s why I love that Sing Street doesn’t address once the matter of the band going professional (though they do discuss leaving for London to seek their fortune). They make music because they love music, no strings attached.

Sing street is also exhilaratingly optimistic: in a dire social and economical situation, the characters make a place for themselves out of sheer force of will. Even though they aspire to see the world and live life to the fullest, they still look at the place where they were born and raised and recognise it as a shaper of who they are, full of fond memories.

All in all, Sing street is a sensitive and beautiful movie about what music can do for us and I definitely recommend it.