It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

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First watched and reviewed June 30, 2015

Surreal, funny, tragic, and profoundly moving, I can’t think of any film that takes you on such a long journey in such a relatively short amount of time as It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Hertzfeldt makes perfect use of the illustrative medium and, though I usually find myself very much aligned with the André Bazin / Dudley Andrews way of thinking (that animation, by definition, cannot be cinema), the 35mm medium and bewildering and beautiful in-camera effects of which Don Hertzfeldt makes most skilful use renders Beautiful Day an exception to this rule, creating new examples of what we considered lost in the age of CGI: Cinema Magic. Old school and entirely new all at once,Beautiful Day is already an historical treasure that will surely only gain more praise and followers as time rolls on.

*****

As Above, So Below (Jon Erick Dowdle, 2014)

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As Above, So Below actually has quite a few things going for it. First things first: it’s a treasure-hunting adventure movie in the vein of Tomb Raider, National Treasure or perhaps most appropriately, Les Adventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc Sec done as a horror film, and manages to avoid pretty much all obvious references to films such as The Mummy and The Relic. Also, something that’s always rather important for the found-footage sub-genre, explanation for the constant filming is handled pretty well. Perhaps the most important distinction between As Above, So Below and a great many other horror films (or films, just generally) is the fact that it manages to establish every character as likeable and worthy of your attention and care for when they come to a sticky end. That’s a pretty winning formula, especially when you have a genuinely interesting premise thrown into the mix.

But good god, the ending. I’m going to avoid spoilers here, but the ending really is a brilliant explanation as to why so many writers like Arthur Conan Doyle made a habit of writing their stories backwards: a great and reasonably original first and second act does not necessarily guarantee your story will simply evolve into a great and original third. Sadly, As Above, So Below does come across as a pretty classic example of what happens when you have a bunch of good ideas, with no plan. I understand why many would simply write off the film on this basis (and, goodness knows, many have) but, just as good sex is not centred around the orgasm, perhaps a good film should not be centred around the ending, so I still enjoyed this film enough to give it a 3 star rating, and do feel really rather tempted to give it another half, out of admiration for its spirit.

There are a couple of funny flubs before the ending, but ones that I personally believe add to its charm (George translating an Aramaic script directly into a quaint AABB rhyme for instance) – whilst I certainly don’t consider it to be as good as other found-footage horrors like [REC] or The Last Exorcism I found this film a great late-night watch and I’m pretty positive I’ll do so again.

***

Drive (Nicolas Windig Refn, 2011)

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(Rewatch)

 

On second viewing, my thoughts are pretty much the same – in terms of nice little exploitation movies of the current era, Drive is pretty much king. It has that visual-narrative cinematic purity that has since been exaggerated upon to even greater, more epic success in Mad Max: Fury Road but I think Drive manages to create and re-create tension, beautifully paying off with just the right level of ultraviolence to make it an eye-watering, uncomfortable experience, but not too much that it stops being a stylish romp. My one complaint is that I wish there had been a little more driving! The chases are filmed fantastically and the film could easily have done with one more. Otherwise, a great, fun film that balances extreme playfulness with palpable tension and some great, Noé-esque brutalism in a way so few films manage.

****

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

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I first heard executive producer Elijah Wood mention “a black and white vampire film, shot entirely in Farsi called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” in, I think, a promotional interview for Maniac like, two years ago. And then I somehow completely missed the opportunity to see it at the London Film Festival, like, one year ago. So the anticipation to seeing this film, as it slowly gathered more and more stellar reviews as it tried to get widespread distribution, was pretty intense. With such a build-up, it could only be absolute perfection or a total disappointment, right?

Well, not quite. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is good. But not great. It’s beautifully shot, with a really interesting mixture of Killer of Sheep-esque post-italian-neorealist aesthetics, gothic expressionist inflections and a considerably more modern Indiewood vibe. The soundtrack is great and it plays with the diegetic / non-diegetic binary in a way I’ve rarely seen happen. The horror element is sporadic but strong and the sound design is intense – most cinemas’ speakers have been really struggling to handle the bass. The only problem is the relatively 2-dimensional quality of most of the characters. The Girl announces at one point that she has “done many bad things,” but there is no real evidence for this – the promotions for this film say she “preys on men who disrespect women,” but then she goes and kills a rough sleeper for no reason whatsoever and traumatises a small boy who has done nothing wrong. However, despite these inconsistencies, it’s a fine film.

I do, despite disappointment I pretty much knew was coming, anticipate a second viewing. However, there is a strong chance that it might result in a lower rating.

 

***

Beckett On Film: Breath (Damien Hirst, 2000)

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Rewatched June 14, 2015

 

Though I almost always agree with the sentiment that the success of a film adaptation should not be predicated – especially not solely – on its fidelity to the original source, adaptations of Beckett tend to be an exception to the rule, on the basis of the nature of the auteuristic qualities of Beckett’s work being so singular that any attempt I’ve seen to distance the text from the source has always ended up feeling distinctly ersatz. (I am, however, very interested to see how the auteuristic giant of expressionist theatre Robert Wilson manages to tango on stage as actor and director of Krapp’s Last Tape in a matter of weeks! UPDATE: It was godawful. Never mind, then.) Unfortunately, Damien Hirst clearly didn’t get the memo.

Hirst’s take on Breath, in removing the opening birth-cry, in replacing the “miscellaneous rubbish” from the script with hospital detritus, complete with upended trollies breaking the “no verticals” rule, by filming the scene with OTT swooping crane shots and – most ridiculously of all – adding ashtrays with cigarettes placed deliberately in swastika patterns, takes what was Beckett’s attempt at a living, breathing vanitas painting (I strongly recommend Claire Lozier’s wonderful essay “Breath as Vanitas: Beckett’s Debt to a Baroque Genre” for more information on the subject) and turns it into a sophomoric and facile cartoon of an anti-smoking ad (which seems the most likely explanation for what is going on here), starkly reminiscent of the Vivienne Westwood parody’s clothing range in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge.

Damien Hirst manages to remove so much of Beckett’s vision, it is almost unrecognisable from the source text, whilst those god damn swastika cigarettes are so offensively paltry, I doubt one could find a single GCSE art student who would be so void of self-awareness as to use them as a motif. The ridiculous use of the camera seems to be an attempt to emphasise the scale of this piece – trying to blow up Beckett’s fleeting yet haunting memento mori to some apocalyptic, 28 Days Later scale (Keith Allen’s trick or treat voice work does not improve matters) – only manages to remove the theatrical, whilst failing completely to add the cinematic.

The end result of Damien Hirst adapting Samuel Beckett looks like a wannabe David Firth trying and pitifully failing to adapt Sarah Kane.

By far and away, the worst part of the Beckett On Film series.
If I ever become an actor, following the Stanislavski system, and need to drawn on my experiences of murderous rage for a role, I’ll just remember what Damien Hirst did to Samuel Beckett’s Breath.

I would, personally, desperately like to see Peter Greenaway doing Breath: this play needs someone who understands how to film a Dutch painting; not this. Good God, not this.

0 stars.

Sea of Love (Harold Becker, 1989)

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A real pleasant surprise of an erotic thriller, Sea of Love boasts a great soundtrack (based around the brilliant song that gives the film its name, which keeps getting creepier, every time it’s played), a perfectly neo-noir ambiance of psychosexual urban paranoia, and a refreshingly nuanced portrayal of female dominance and openness to regularly re-negotiated roles of gender and sexuality that I’ve rarely seen in a mainstream film before or since. Seriously, speaking as a trans girl, seeing Pacino’s protagonist Frank respond to the question “would you ever go for a babe with a dick?” with “it really depends on her personality,” joke or not, was a really nice experience, however fleeting.

What carries this film is the performance – Pacino and Ellen Barkin have onscreen chemistry that is rarely matched in a modern thriller. The uneasy combination of absolute lust, possible love, and deep-rooted suspicion recalls Hitchcock at his finest. (Side-note: I’m still trying to work out if it holds some significance that Barkin’s character’s first name is Helen, whilst Pacino’s surname is Keller, or if it’s just a happy coincidence.) John Goodman as the humorous partner who manages, through the force of his own acting, never to be simply relegated to the role of “comic relief sidekick” helps balance the film and retain interest in the police-procedural element.

Though Sea of Love does lose a star for the rather unsatisfactorily ad hoc revelation/resolution to the serial killer plotline, the choice to end the film with a genuinely pretty touching scene regarding Frank and Helen’s relationship was absolutely the right choice and shows the extent to which the film-makers had their priorities in order. However, Sea of Love, however good, is not Twin Peaks and thus I do slightly resent it turning the murder-mystery plot into quite such a macguffin.

What makes Sea of Love so interesting is the fact that it takes a very formulaic premise – recently divorced detective, who is one bourbon on the rocks away from becoming a full blown alcoholic, falls in love with his prime suspect, big whoop – and holds it up to the magnifying glass. It refuses to let us consistently take Frank’s side: he drinks majorly to excess and, unlike many other noir/thriller protagonists, it affects him. Not just his social life, but his work, too: a number of times, he is shown accidentally breaking character whilst undercover, drink in hand. Also, it is revealed how his plan for catching the killer (putting out a lonely hearts ad matching those of the vics’ and then going on multiple dates a night, collecting fingerprints as he does so) actually potentially hurts many of the women who respond. However, he is not some simple idiot for entering a relationship with a potential serial killer; it seems entirely clear that he sees this as the legitimate personification of his addiction (obsession-compulsion at its most self-destructive) and of his mental state. He would rather potentially die at the hands of Helen than retire – maybe than live at all. At the same time, through Helen, the classic femme fatale figure is explored and given depth few films bother to add.

Seriously, for what could have been yet another run of the mill thriller, Sea of Loveturned out to be something really pretty special. I can’t wait to put it on as a double-bill with Cruising – or maybe even So I Married an Axe Murderer – sometime soon!

****

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014)

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A sombre, disquieting and anxiety-ridden neo-neo-noir located in northern China in 1999 and 2004, Black Coal, Thin Ice manages simultaneously and deftly to make the spectator both engaged in the narrative and desensitised to the content. I must admit, the trailer did make me assume I would be watching something considerably more akin to the South Korean I Saw the Devil in nature, but Black Coal, Thin Ice operates more as a police procedural in line with Danish TV series The Killing than anything more fast-paced. Much like The Killing, this film’s main concern is the people investigating and surrounding the crime, albeit with its cards considerably closer to its chest as far as emotions are concerned.

Whilst the acting is impeccable all-round, combined with the notable average shot length and depth of focus to feel highly reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism, the biggest star of all in this film is the camerawork and lighting. The use of colours in this film is breathtakingly beautiful, managing somehow to combine the intensity of Nicolas Winding Refn’s signature look with the soft, warm glow of cinematographer Agnès Godard. The latter comparison strikes me as particularly relevant, given this films willingness to linger on small details on the floor or in the snow, contributing an atmosphere of the haptic visuality we have come to expect from Claire Denis’ later works (and, notably, collaborations with Godard) like Vendredi Soir. Most telling of all, though, is the strange dance scene near the very of Black Coal, Thin Ice that seems to be a strong and direct reference to the ending of Denis’ film Beau Travail with, in my opinion, similar metaphorical implications. For those of you who have seen neither film, I’ll say no more.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is perhaps too slow a burner, but one should be able to let go and accept the murder and murderer’s identity as something of a mcguffin in the face of a stylised, yet intensely realist, tale of a desperate last-ditch attempt at redemption on the part of an alcoholic cop in a bleak survivalist part of the world he barely understands.

****