18.5.19

Coffy

A 1973 blacksploitation classic starring Pam Grier as a nurse who exacts bloody revenge on the pimps, pushers, police and politicians who ruined her sister's life. The film is almost puritanical about the forces of corruption that are destroying the fabric of society, with Coffy advocating righteous violent justice as the only solution. Her aspiring politician boyfriend takes a more liberal attitude – arguing than addiction and crime are the products of hopelessness and oppression. The way out is to win power for "our people", i.e. the black community, which would be persuasive apart from the fact that by the moment he makes this pitch he is revealed to be a soulless shyster who's only loyal to the almighty dollar.


Coffy isn't quite a rape-revenge film, but it gets close. The character's modus operandi is to pretend to be a strung-out prostitute and infiltrate the inner circles of the crime bosses. Sex is a male weakness, and Coffy wields it as a weapon as much as the pistols, shotguns and razors she becomes proficient with. She is teased for being a 'liberated woman' but is happy to adopt the guise of docility in order to achieve her ends or get out of sticky situations. Given that this is an exploitation movie, the audience is implicated in the lechery of the gullible gangsters. But they, and perhaps we, get punished for it – Coffy's final execution in her killing spree is achieved through a shotgun blast to the privates.

6.5.19

Viva

A pointed send-up of 1970s sexploitation films, but with the script so clunky and the acting so stilted it becomes uncanny. Biller uses the same effect for The Love Witch, and after seeing this earlier film I wonder whether she can direct in any other mode. The film is purposefully bad, so what would a good Anna Biller film look like? Or is she incapable of moving beyond pastiche?


Because actually not all of Viva is purposefully bad. Biller works so slowly because she approaches her films as an artist might – designing the sets, artwork and costumes, as well as writing, acting, editing and directing. The texture of the film is therefore spectacular, and the clothes are amazing. There is also a very well-executed climactic (and unsettling) sex scene which uses psychedelic animation and outrageous focus pulls to great effect. At its best Viva is like no other film.

Biller sets her sights on unpeeling the complexities of the sexual revolution, with a plot lifted from Buñuel's Belle De Jour but with the consequences of female sexual liberation a tad more equivocal. At one point one of the male characters looks straight at the camera and confesses that men have never and will never have it so good – able to take advantage of the permissive society without taking responsibility for it. During the film, Biller's character is frequently sexually harassed, and at one point violently raped, by the free spirits around her. One of her prospective paramours fulminates against "women's lib" for the fact that Biller hasn't slept with him yet. Eventually, he tires of waiting, drugs her at a party and sleeps with her – hardly enlightened behaviour.


The only partners that treat Biller decently are her husband and a female lover. She eventually tires of the predators around her, but when she decides to go back to her marriage she doesn't refer back to the awful sexual violence she experienced. Instead, she says she became frightened of her own desires, and how she'd taken them too far. It's a strange inversion of where the guilt should actually lie. But maybe the film is being ambiguous on this point, and we should take her explanation at face value. Perhaps these sexual experiences were part of the fabric of her fantasies.

Biller's project, after all, is to reinsert the female gaze back into the history of cinema. The violent rape is transparently horrific, but her portrayal of the second rape at the party is the film at it's most erotic, which is a disturbing tone to strike. The starting point for the character, however, is a marriage where the husband isn't around – that's why she strays. The film ends with the tables turned – Biller's character feels truly free once the husband's liberty is curtailed. But even then that freedom is equivocal, found in the theatre production of the man who raped her. Throughout the film, female desire is circumscribed or channelled by men who don't have women's bests interests at heart. It's a fantasy barred on all sides by a culture that remains overwhelmingly sexist.

5.5.19

Nowhere

Towards the end of the film the main character Dark muses about how his generation is doomed. The Doom Generation was Araki's previous film, but it serves as an appropriate title for Nowhere as well – there is this same nihilistic sense of a culture in decadent decline, where life is so devoid of meaning that death (whether through active suicide or the rush of dangerous sex and drugs) is accepted as an impending inevitability. It's a vibe – Araki is a stylist rather than a philosopher. The title Nowhere is a badge pinned at the start by a voiceover that's as bathetic as it is profound – Los Angeles is a nowhere place where everyone is lost.


The film's plot is therefore appropriately a void around which the fleeting lives of the characters swirl. The only structure provided is that it's a day-in-the-life of a bunch of teens that all want to go to a bacchanalian party in the evening – most of whom make it. But that's just an excuse to indulge Araki's unique visual sense, where the camera's perspective is warped by an (often comically outrageous) impressionism and surrealism. The final moment pushes this to an extreme – turning the AIDS metaphor in the Alien film very literal. The horror of the moment is turned into a big absurd joke. Araki may be suggesting that perhaps that's the only way to deal with the truly awful nature of life in contemporary America.

27.4.19

The Doom Generation

"A heterosexual film by Gregg Araki" according to the credits – an in-joke aimed at a former producer who teased Araki about how gay people hated his queer punk movies so he'd be better off making a straight one instead. And even then, as Araki says himself, the film is extremely gay – with very long smouldering shots between the two male leads, who flirt far more with each other than with Rose McGowan. The campy sensibility may be what saves the film from otherwise being a prurient exploration of nihilistic 90s teenagerdom. The outrageous set design, cartoony violence and deadpan humour add a lightness to the film's tone, which otherwise would make the whole thing rather gruesome and unpleasant to watch.


Araki doesn't want to go into the details of what inspired the film when he reflects on it all these years later. He calls it his Nine Inch Nails movie, made in the aftermath of the anger and anguish caused by the AIDS crisis, which created a "warzone" mentality where you didn't know which of your friends would die next. Araki drove his location scout crazy trying to find suitably apocalyptic places in which to shoot. The Doom Generation works within the couple-on-the-run genre (Bonnie and ClydeBadlands) where the rejection of social mores creates its own kind of twisted celebrity. But in Araki's film, the people around the lovers are probably more bloodthirsty and deranged than the lovers themselves. There's hardly any notoriety to be gained when the entire world is spinning off its axis.

21.4.19

The VVitch: A New England Folktale

Although Mark Kermode strains very hard, ultimately I think it's difficult to sustain the interpretation that the witchcraft is all happening inside the family's heads. The subtitle highlights that this is a "folktale" – where magic and fantasy are used as instructive metaphors. The fact that the witch preys on the tensions and divisions within the family doesn't mean it's an apparition that grows out of those tensions and divisions. Belief in witches doesn't create the witch. The roots of the family's downfall are deeper than that.


They are probably doomed from the beginning. The father finds the Puritan plantation too religiously lax for his tastes and chooses exile for his family. They are forced to eke out a miserable existence on marshy ground at the edge of a wood, and it doesn't go well. All the rigours of the faith don't stop the father William from lying to his wife – selling an heirloom to buy traps when the crop fails. His weakness is revealed when he implicates his children in the lie. The mother also wishes to basically sell the eldest daughter Tomasin into servitude, partly to remove a source of temptation for her younger son Caleb – a cruel separation for the two children.

The inflexibility of faith is the central problem. William realises too late that by casting out his family he was himself guilty of the cardinal sin of pride. A rejection of society is a dangerous thing, and the witch doesn't give him enough time to correct the error. Caleb's developing sexuality doesn't have a healthy outlet, leaving him open to the witch's temptations, and he dies in a rapture praying to Jesus in the most lascivious terms.

Tomasin's dilemma is the most interesting. She is the most powerless member of the family – patronised, overworked and at risk of being cast out. In a key early scene, she finds that the idea of being the witch gives her a taste of power for the first time, which she exercises effectively against her bullying younger siblings. She is also aware of her parents' own inability to provide for her – telling her dad that he's only good for chopping wood. At least the devil offers richer rewards – butter, dresses and living 'deliciously'. Finally a patriarch that can deliver.


The extent to which this is a feminist parable is uncertain. The forces of evil destroy Tomasin's entire family before she turns to the dark side – she doesn't have an alternative at that point. But the final image in the film, where Tomasin ascends to the heavens, is one of sinister triumph against the restrictive family and society she was situated in when the film began. In contrast to her introduction as a character, where she's asking God to forgive all the sins she has committed in thought, at the Witches' Sabbath she is cackling along with the rest of them. The inhibitions fall away, bad faith is abandoned for a dark transcendence. The film's conclusion may be that the society of witches is the only route to self-actualisation for women in 1630s New England.

19.4.19

The Mask

I loved Jim Carrey's mid-1990s streak of comedies when I was a child. I didn't quite understand how cruel and offensive Ace Ventura was at the time, I just rolled with the slapstick clowning and catchphrases. It's notable that Carrey has a writer's credit on that film, and a lot of it feels like a succession of comedy routines bolted onto a mystery plot that doesn't make a great deal of sense. The Mask, on the other hand, is more coherent. The plot is equally ridiculous, but there is some shape and purpose to the film – one that is moulded to Carrey's strengths, even though he didn't actually write it.

As the ridiculous TV psychologist explains – we all wear masks that help us conform to the expectations of society and allow us to get on in life. Carrey's character Stanley Ipkiss wears one all the time. He's a self-described nice guy who finishes last, helpful to the detriment of his own interests or desires. The magical mask he finds, imbued with the Norse god Loki's mischievous spirit, allows the repressed id to come out and play. Wearing the mask means liberation from your inhibitions, and all those social masks you wear in real life.


Ipkiss is set up as a hopeless romantic obsessed with cartoons, and the superhero he becomes is a reflection of that bedrock in his character. There is an unexpectedly smart twist part-way through the film when the intrepid reporter who we think will become the genuine love-interest is revealed as a sell-out. Meanwhile, the mob boss's doll, who we suspect may be out to entrap Ipkiss, turns out to be just another hopeless romantic. This was Cameron Diaz's breakout role, and she's cast very well as a kind of modern day Marylin Monroe bedazzling all the shmucks around her. There's a winning earnestness to her character that the Farrelly brothers would seize upon for There's Something About Mary.

If anything, Carrey's buffoonery as 'the Mask' is the least enjoyable part of the film when watching as an adult. Far more fun is seeing how Stanley gets trod all over in his regular life while fundamentally remaining a decent guy – essentially the same set-up that would win Carrey plaudits for The Truman Show. While Ace Ventura is crude, mean and horrifically homophobic and transphobic, there's a fairytale quality to The Mask that makes it hold up far better 20 plus years later.

18.4.19

"The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and not from without—that he himself must work out his own salvation! He is there, and within him is the breath of life and a knowledge of good and evil as good and evil is to him. Thereon let him build and stand erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God, modelled like his poor self, but with a bigger brain to think the evil thing, and a longer arm to do it."
– H. Rider Haggard, She

14.4.19

The Thing

My wife and I spent the first 10 minutes of the film cursing the Norwegian sniper for trying to shoot the very cute dog running through the snow. Little did we know what evil lurked within. The Thing is a creature feature with excellently gross and gooey monstrosities bursting through animal and human flesh. Having watched Alien recently, I thought this had a pretty similar vibe. Like the xenomorph, the Thing is a ruthless and inexplicable killer preying on a crew stationed at the end of the world where nobody can hear them scream. There are some potential sexual undertones (unwanted penetration, a monstrous birth), as well as your standard cosmic horror of an unknowable being of incredible power warping humanity by its presence.


What's more interesting is the idea that the monster is a parasite hiding behind the masks of friends and colleagues. By its very nature it sows suspicion and turns people against each other. The film's ending majors on this theme – the two survivors facing one other uncertain if either of them secretly harbours the beast within. Perhaps that speaks to a kind of cold war McCarthyite paranoia about a communist fifth column within Western democracies. That point may have been stronger if it was revealed that the all-American hero Mac (played with typical swashbuckling style by Burt Reynolds) was an agent of the alien intelligence. As it stands, the political subtext is just suggestion, and for me, Alien holds richer symbolic significance.

13.4.19

A Clockwork Orange

Film lexicographer David Thomson sees this is the clearest evidence of Kubrick's "art director's cinema", where narrative is sacrificed on the altar of set design. I think 2001 is far worse in that respect. That film was state of the art and knew it – lovingly lingering over its innovations and making large sections ponderous and boring to this viewer. 2001's narrative is also less satisfying, being simply a series of repeating grandiose developments that obliquely mirror each other, and are too open to interpretation to really mean very much in the final analysis. The structure of A Clockwork Orange has a more satisfying circularity: the protagonist's actions in the first half of the film coming back to bite him in the second.

Anthony Burgess's Catholicism-inflected worries about the suppression of free will by new-fangled techniques of psychological manipulation come through in Kubrick's adaptation, but aren't as interesting now given that the mass use of aversion therapy for political control has not come to pass. In any case, the film isn't particularly interested in the causes of Alex's sociopathy and addiction to "ultraviolence" – something he shares with the majority of the young (male) characters in the film and seems therefore to be at least partly down to wider currents in the culture. It may reflect contemporary concerns that the lifting of social constraints on personal behaviour in the 60s would unleash the very worst in teenagers and lead to the collapse of all moral authority. Certainly Kubrick believed it – pulling his own film from being distributed in the UK after what looked like a copycat murder.


It's hard to conjure that sense of moral panic now, given today's teenagers appear to be more clean-living than their parents used to be at the same age. What's harder to grasp is the film's critique of both reactionary politicians' attempts to clamp down on lawlessness, and the liberal resistance movement who wish to utilise these new techniques of reforming criminals to institute a kind of inward tyranny, where the freedom to choose is eliminated and people are conditioned to be docile and non-violent. Alex is caught up within the conspiracies of these two tendencies, and the final image of the film is one of dark triumph, showing that neither the police nor the psychologists can dampen the antisocial passions raging in the heart of man.

5.4.19

Get Out

Get Out's title sequence includes a cute reference to the famous part in Dario Argento's Suspiria where the victim is driven through a haunted forest to the sounds of Goblin's demented yowling. That should clue us into what to expect. Argento's film was about a coven of witches lusting after the youth of young girls, and lashing out. Jordan Peele's update isn't really all that different – the family are just that bit more surgical about it.


But it's not just youth, strength and beauty that these villains are after. The blind and therefore (supposedly) symbolically unprejudiced art-dealer wants the talent as well. The most subtle and incisive aspect of the film is that the bad guys admire the social and cultural achievements, as well as the physique, of their black victims. Even when black culture carves out its own space, white supremacy has to carve it right back and get a piece of the action. Because what are the zombified domestic workers but a wry comment on white people trying to get into black people's heads and portray them back to a black audience – and not only failing but royally creeping them out? It's an experience that many black creators must know pretty well.


Peele initially wanted to end the film on a downer, but test screenings and the political context in the USA convinced him that he needed to give his protagonist and his audience a win for once – and one that celebrates black solidarity in the face of horrific and unexpectedly deep-seated racism. The scenes with Roy release a huge amount of tension – the comic relief almost slipping the film into the comedy genre before we return to the Hitchcockian unease of the parents' house. That little see-saw in tone and genre is excellent shorthand for the contrast between being a fish out of water, and being comfortable in your own skin.

2.4.19

   "Wonderful," Lepennon said, and his white skin paled further with pure excitement, "A human society with an effective war-barrier! What's the cost, Dr Lyubov?"
   "I'm not sure, Mr Lepennon. Perhaps change. They're a static, stable, uniform society. They have no history. Perfectly integrated, and wholly unprogressive. You might say that like the forest they live in, they've attained a climax state. But I don't mean to imply that they're incapable of adaptation."

– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest

24.3.19

Captain Marvel

There are risks to starting a story in medias res. The filmmakers do it in order to set up a very good twist midway through where the protagonist Carol Danvers has to re-evaluate her identity and allegiances, and a backstory is revealed. But it also makes the audience work quite hard in the first half hour in order to piece together a lot of information. And it also means that the relationship between Danvers and her childhood best friend Maria Rambeau is quite brittle when a huge amount of emotional weight is put on it. I found their reconciliation very difficult to buy into. The actors do a good job of conveying the turbulent emotions of the scene, but end up overselling it.


The biggest emotional whallop comes later, when Captain Marvel gets her hero moment and rejects the psychological subjugation of her adopted Kree culture. That's a product of the film spending a longer amount of time setting up those bonds before they are broken. The directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have been here before – Half Nelson was also a story of a young woman growing disillusioned with a charismatic mentor and substitute father-figure. A superhero film is not a perfect vehicle for the subtle shifts in relations that the indie drama can go to town on. And it's true that Brie Larson and Jude Law don't have enough screen-time together to flesh out their relationship. But Marvel movies are functional things – and it works well enough for the final fist blast to leave an impact.


As with Black Panther on race, Captain Marvel's feminism is deft but understated. Mixed in Carol Danvers's suppressed memories are moments of everyday sexism, and there's a rather nice touch when she blasts Schwarzenegger's head off a True Lies banner, leaving just the arm candy Jamie Lee Curtis standing. There is no love interest, although a bolder film may have pushed the friendship with Maria Rambeau in a more overtly romantic direction – that possibility is left open in the film. Given its success despite the best efforts of online trolls (who tried to manipulate the audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes) queer representation in a Marvel Studios product can't be far off.

15.3.19

Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

It's more interesting, and biting, if the superheroics aren't real. Iñárritu is very happy to have a thousand interpretations bloom, and keep his own intentions close to his chest. And in fact, the finale was drastically rethought after the original comedic ending featuring Johnny Depp being taunted by Jack Sparrow was abandoned. The writers of the film wanted something which focused on the father-daughter relationship and had more pathos. That provides the clue. Rather than repeating the motif of famous actors being trapped by their most famous character, instead the daughter of a famous actor becomes trapped by the legacy of the father. While he chooses death and escape, she is given the opportunity to profit from his notoriety – the viral tweets, TV interviews and book deals are hers for the taking. She looks down at the corpse and then looks up, imagining not a superhero sequel but social media stardom instead.


The best joke of the film is that our attempt to fulfil our personal life-project and achieve transcendence is always inauthentic. Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson does the play to escape his former blockbuster actor past and be more admired than George Clooney. Sartre was wrong – you are always in bad faith, no matter how much you risk and how much you fail. The film turns that bad faith into a character in Riggan's mind – the Birdman of his past tempting him to fly above the little people. But the other part of Riggan's mind is just as corroded – the glory of the theatre is riddled with as much sleaze, abuse and grim compromises as Hollywood. The dark secret at the heart of the film is that the only real freedom is death. That, and perhaps the heightened sense of the ridiculous which is the film's tone throughout. If you can't beat the system, you might as well laugh at it.


It's a triumph of engineering, put together almost back-to-front – the editing and post-production being planned out in advance so that the continuous shot effect could work. That amount of cinematic trickery masks the fact that in other respects this feels like watching a play: the setting mostly stays the same, there are only five or six main characters, and the action is built around set-piece exchanges of dialogue, of which Emma Stone's tirade about not being special is a particular highlight. But Keaton is also a bit of a revelation, as much as Riggan is for his theatre audience, although only we get to see his superb comic timing. Iñárritu should leave the ponderous dramas alone and do more funny stuff – it's a level above.

3.3.19

Boyz n the Hood

'Boyz' being the operative word – with the film starting out by introducing the main characters as 10-year-olds in order to give us the deep background to how they turn out as teenagers. Parenthood is the deciding variable in their contrasting fates, notwithstanding the conspiracy theories about black neighbourhoods being filled with liquor stores and guns purposefully so that the people that live there can kill themselves. The Atticus Finch-like Furious Styles, played with a winning intensity by Laurence Fishburne, is the one who preaches this stuff to an unconvinced audience of hoodlums. But it's the example he sets to his son that proves more influential.


Even that is almost not enough. The film builds to a climactic choice Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr in his first role) has to make between avenging his friend and stepping out of the cycle of violence. The film expertly pivots from one turning point to another in the dilemma, and the ending is wonderfully balanced between them, with Tre refusing to disown a shell-shocked Ice Cube after his night-time bloodthirsty raid on a rival gang. They are brothers, even though their different decisions send one to university and the other to the grave.


John Singleton's picture is full of passion for the subjects and the culture he is portraying, although he is also pulled in two directions – between documenting the texture of life in South Central LA with its community barbecues and porch-side drinking sessions, and the urge to create a sweeping romantic coming-of-age story for the hero with a heart of gold. Although I found the vérité parts of the film more effective, there's no doubt that the artificial 'cinematic' elements contributed to the film's success (and two Oscar nominations).

23.2.19

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

It’s true (as the Sight & Sound review points out) that the protagonist of this three-hour sun-dappled epic is a bit vacant. Amin is our stand-in and camera lens – an observer-participant who spends most of his time observing. The youthful romantic dalliances that drift around him on a holiday in the French Mediterranean are seductive and bewildering, but he never gets involved, even though he has ample opportunity to. When he voyeuristically spies on the sex scene at the start of the film, we assume that a love triangle is being set up between him, his cousin Tony and his childhood friend Ophélie. But although he flirts a little bit, he never actually gets with the girl. Instead it’s all photography to him. He’ll take photos of Ophélie naked as a way to develop as an artist, but he won’t sleep with her. The friend zone is maintained strictly throughout.


That's just the most obvious example of the director Abdellatif Kechiche sending up our expectations. When Tony chats up another girl on the beach called Charlotte we think that Amin, who's with Tony but is less confident picking up random ladies, will end up with Charlotte's similarly less confident Céline. But Céline turns out to be a total down-for-whatever-and-whoever party girl. Likewise that initial sex scene, which as in Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Colour is designed to establish in no uncertain terms the intense physical connection between the couple. The bond between Tony and Ophélie is subsequently pulled apart bit by bit by the rest of the film's portrayal of Tony’s irresponsible, philandering actions.

The biggest re-evaluation comes with Charlotte's character, who we dismiss as a fool and a drama queen for being hoodwinked by Tony, who is obviously an untrustworthy rake. But like Amin, she turns out to be an outsider, and they unexpectedly end up hanging out at the end of the film. Even though there is a strong connection between Amin and Ophélie, he decides not to act on it when he realises that she’s a bit too much of a party girl like Céline. Instead it's Charlotte, now estranged from the rest of the characters, that he decides to spend time with. Perhaps her wish for a more serious relationship with Tony is what appeals to Amin, who is also after something more serious than a summer fling.

I am being more patronising than Amin, perhaps. But the film constantly reinforces his sense of superiority. Perhaps it would have been a stronger piece of work without an outsider at the centre. Amin is very obviously a stand-in for the director – he writes screenplays, is an amateur photographer, and wants to date Russian literature students. He’s a social class climber, who loves his community and his roots, but ultimately ran away to Paris to be a student and still wants to go and achieve greater things than work at a family restaurant, drink at the beach and clumsily try to seduce pretty girls on holiday.


There is something very weird about Kechiche, who not only alienated the stars of his previous hit Blue Is The Warmest Colour for the way he approached the filming of a lengthy sex scene, but is also now under investigation for sexual assault, to make a film about what flirting used to be like in the good old days of 1994. Mektoub, My Love is a mostly sunny paean to a time when this kind of brazen lasciviousness was totally one hundred per cent not a problem. None of the women mind being ogled by the characters and Kechiche's camera. They find it charming. The ageing pissed lotharios who feel them up are just good for a laugh. But at what point does flirting end and harassment begin?

It's all OK in the world of the film – the women like it, accept it, or save each other from unwanted attention. But the risk of misreading what's going on in such situations is severe, and I for one am not too sorry that this kind of behaviour is no longer acceptable (if it ever really was). Kechiche seems to be hankering for a time before the complications exposed by #MeToo surfaced, and people could run the risk of being more playful with each other. It feels suspicious – like he's trying to make excuses for himself.


But there's something masterful about his technique. Some have found this film frustratingly long and aimless, and ultimately tedious. I was hooked pretty much throughout – the only dull stretch comes when Amin spends an evening trying to photograph lambs being born. But even that is to the film's purpose, in that it demonstrates how Amin finds this solitary activity more fulfilling than having fun with his beautiful friends at a nightclub. And it's those beautiful friends that are the source of intrigue and interest in the film. Incrementally figuring out their shifting relationships and allegiances makes for supremely watchable cinema.

20.2.19

"Men are strange in the city. I do not understand loving and hating, only being and knowing. But now I must learn how to love this child." – Sybel in Patricia A. McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

19.2.19

The Silence of the Lambs

Maybe one of the reasons why Lecter is so scary is that unlike Clarice or Buffalo Bill there is no one smart enough to analyse him. He always remains enigmatically one step ahead. He sees through Clarice extremely quickly, not just the tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars but the void in her life left by the death of her father – and so her need for replacement father-figures. Her boss Jack Crawford is one such candidate. Lecter realises that he could easily become another.


But the notion that Clarise finds men and sex tedious is perceptive as well. Throughout the film she is admired for her beauty in pretty crass ways, most shockingly when a neighbouring psycho flings cum in her face. Lecter's hint that the path of the serial killer begins with the urge to 'covet' is significant here. A miasma of stale male covetousness pervades the film. It just becomes concentrated and curdled in the case of Buffalo Bill (though it's a pity that the character's queerness is pathologised as well). In some sense, all the men in the film have something creepy about them – the serial killers are just at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Is Lecter devoid of this? Why does he kill and eat people? He seems to covet not just women but psychological insight. He savours Clarice's childhood trauma like he's breathing in a fine wine. Maybe he started out coveting the traumas of his patients and kept moving on to stronger fare. It's a more satisfactory interpretation that the revenge narrative provided in the sequels.


One of the joys of the movie is that the scenes between Lecter and Clarice mix up a police interrogation (where Clarice has the upper hand) with the therapy session (where Lecter rules supreme). It's an explicitly set out quid pro quo, with the two characters alternating roles and vying for supremacy. Lecter's pleasure at the playing of the game may be why he spares Clarice at the end of the film – he doesn't quite want it to end.

Another joy is the great use made of a drifting camera that keeps picking out incidental details in the frame that add texture to the story. A good (and funny) early example is a sign at the FBI training camp that reads 'HURT-AGONY-PAIN: LOVE IT' – which almost becomes an ironic alternative strapline for the movie. The technique forces you into the position of an FBI agent sifting through the shots for clues. But the camera isn't just an objective presence – it whirls around into flashbacks when you least expect it, or switches point of view to maximise tension, as in the final parallel montage. It's very well put together, and it can still creep you out 27 years after it was made.

24.1.19

The Passenger (Profession: reporter)

"Neither lucidity nor clarity can be counted among my qualities", says Antonioni when talking about this film. Yes, fine, but this is still a step forward from the inscrutable mysteries of Blow-Up for example. The Passenger actually has a plot and a sense of intrigue. Some parts almost feel like an arty version of James Bond – there are gun-runners, luxurious locations, fashionable clothes, and even the resemblance of a Bond girl. And while Jack Nicholson succumbs to the same existential ennui that all Antonioni protagonists go through, he adds a certain energy to the dissolution by virtue of being Jack Nicholson.*

Antonioni is very exercised by the notion of objectivity in this film – Nicholson is a news reporter who has to stand apart and detached from the material he is reporting on. But that attitude to reality leads to disengagement. He undergoes a "personal revolution" and changes identities with a man who does have skin in the game – supporting anti-government guerillas in an unnamed oppressive African country. But underlying this urge for connection with the world is a desire to escape banality, a personal one for Antonioni, who mentions the temptation to forget "my loves and my duties" and "begin another adventure". It's a paradoxical flight from the reality of the world, motivated by an urge to involve yourself more deeply in it. The disappointment comes in the realisation that the James Bond fantasy is equally compromised and unfulfilling.


Only death offers release. Antonioni is known for his endings but The Passenger provides his most epically elliptical yet – a technically complicated tracking shot that shows everything around the main event, but not the event itself. It's a signature move – the camera in Antonioni's films constantly drifts away from the characters and onto their surroundings, as if to emphasise the point that the universe keeps spinning regardless of their actions. For Antonioni, this "freedom" of the camera to go anywhere mirrors the freedom Nicholson gains in adopting a new identity. But the gambit catches up with him – and as he expires it's almost as if his soul finally becomes one with the camera and begins drifting outwards. But actually, you can't step out of the world, no matter how free you are from attachment. And the camera is never free from perspective either – it always tracks and records according to the (in this case, highly convoluted) whims of the person behind it.



* David Hemmings in Blow-Up and Alain Delon in The Eclipse were similarly more lively, which might be why these films are more palatable than the ponderous melodrama of The Adventure or The Night.

20.1.19

Mean Girls

Somewhere in the DVD extras, someone says that while adults can relax and laugh at the gags in Mean Girls, for young people it all still feels a bit too real. That must be why when I watched the film for the first time I didn't clock that some of the jokes were actually jokes – I was too wrapped up in the drama. Now it's obvious, and clearly Tina Fey paved the way for the likes of Juno or Adventureland to really push the quirk in people's faces. Although judging by the film's curious afterlife as a source of memes, it's not the understated ironies of the older SNL cast that that loom large in the collective memory, but the 'Plastics', who are mostly just foul-mouthed updates of the catty leads in 1995's Clueless.

Indeed I wonder whether Fey was unconsciously pulling on Amy Heckerling's creation when trying to formulate a plot. The film is based on a self-help book for parents, so there wasn't a story there to adapt. Like a lot of self-help books the pearls of wisdom aren't particularly original or profound (be true to yourself, don't be mean). The value for Fey came in the case studies used within it, which she found not only instructive but also very funny. From them, Fey constructs a set-up very similar to the one in Clueless – an outsider (played by Lindsay Lohan) is adopted by her new school's elite. But Fey makes the newbie the manipulative one, and in fact makes everyone mean to some degree, including the arty 'freaks' who are Lohan's true friends. Tensions are resolved in a somewhat deus ex machina way, with Fey as the Maths teacher convening a school-wide therapy session where the girls learn to be less mean. It feels like something out of a self-help guru's manual – and given the provenance of the film, it probably is.


The film is at its best when investigating the toxic notion of social hierarchy, which it suggests is the source of all the bitchiness and bad behaviour. The Plastics are like local celebrities who set trends and set women against each other, all to earn the favour of the 'queen bee' at the top of the pyramid. The most powerful scene, therefore, is when Lohan usurps that position, takes off the plastic crown she was awarded at the school dance, and breaks it up and hands it around. It's a gesture of social levelling – cultural capital spread evenly across the population – so that groups can co-exist in relative harmony with each other. Subcultures are an inevitability, but the tension between them can be drained away by an attitude of mutual respect. The film charts a course from schoolyard dystopia to utopia, with Lohan as the revolutionary catalyst – a Rousseauvian agent of change ending the heartbreak of obsessive emulation. 

18.1.19

The Beast (La Bête)

This film's reputation for containing the most outrageous and bizarre sex scene in the history of cinema is well deserved. The scene in question is a dream sequence, shot two years before the rest of the film and initially intended as an entry in Borowczyk's Immoral Tales. On its own it is a piece of very rude, ribald humour, but the film Borowczyk wraps around it is a rather grim tale of family secrets and aristocratic corruption, revealing an intriguing contrast between male sexual shame and female sexual freedom.

The short is pretty incendiary. An 18th century maid searches for a lost lamb in the forest, only to find it dismembered by a terrifying hairy beast. The creature pursues her and begins to rape her, but the maid takes control and brings it to a climax, after which it expires from pleasure. She then buries the body and flees. The central erotic idea – that the woman begins to enjoy her rape by a hideous monster – is obviously a disturbing one. 


Which is why the story added on top of the short is an important bit of framing. The dream is no longer just presented as a simple product of Borowczyk's perversities – he gives it to a character. And that character is a woman – the rape fantasy becomes hers. It inspires her to repeatedly seek satisfaction from her ugly husband-to-be, only to be rebuffed. In taking control of her desires, she also mysteriously slays her own beast (although Borowczyk has some fun suggesting that this was an act of God and a punishment for bestiality).

The power dynamic therefore is an odd one. Male sexuality is presented in a traditional way as violent and dangerous, something women must either tame or get devoured by. However the modern beast is a timid, ugly, underdeveloped man, who is too nervous even to speak to his fiancée. She is the one who takes the initiative, and it is her sexuality that ultimately proves the most dangerous. As with The Story of Sin, Borozczyk is ultimately on the women's side. And in this film he provides them with a narrow escape from the gruesome clutches of the venal, hypocritical and downright gruesome patriarchy.

13.1.19

Carrie

Stephen King started on the novel after feeling piqued by the criticism that he couldn't write about women. Naturally his very male imagination took him to a girls' shower room. Brian De Palma's too – and the opening scene of his adaptation is pretty heavy on the male gaze. Carrie is a victim of high school bullying, and therefore someone the creators sympathise with, and want the audience to sympathise with as well. She's a real, rounded character as a result. But then King also makes her the vessel for otherworldly dangerous powers – a female threat born of festering resentment and the psychological disease created by patriarchal religion. As such she is the manifestation of a peculiar male sense of guilt about male desire, and how it locks women up in the impossibility of being both a madonna and a whore. The stress that creates leads to a bloodbath.


De Palma links Carrie's menstruation with the development of her telekinetic powers – female sexuality is a threat. But unlike a lot of subsequent slasher films, where that sexuality is punished, King clearly wanted repression to be the dangerous choice, leading to unnatural abilities and the will to use them for murder. However, that softcore shower scene at the beginning of the film feels like a trap for the audience, still. It's dangerous territory for prying eyes to enter. A less voyeuristic director than De Palma would have abandoned the slowmo and soft focus and made the scene look real, not fraught with sexual tension. The problem isn't sex but Carrie's ignorance, but De Palma muddies the waters (sorry).

Sissy Spacek is magnificent in the role – spending much of the first half of the film looking like an alien, before being transformed Cinderella-style into a real princess. De Palma has some fun turning her house into a gothic ruin and her mother into a witch. He is less successful when it comes to the horror of the prom, where he starts deploying outré tricks like splitscreen to try to convey the sense of confusion, which now look dated. But the mood of the final mother-daughter confrontation is well-built, and the shock twist in the last scene is justly famous.

12.1.19

Legally Blonde

"Although Elle fits so many fifties stereotypes and although the relentlessly feminine fashions are Legally Blonde's most visible element, the film also has an agenda consistent with the politics of veteran feminists."
Says Carol M. Dole's in her article on the film – which to be fair then goes on to flag the various ways the film portrays the clash between second-wave and third-wave feminism. Reese Witherspoon's Elle is a fashion-obsessed blonde who only goes to Yale in order to bag a man. There she meet feminist caricature Enid, a humourless, obsessive women's studies major who mocks Elle's sparkly sorority girl demeanour. Enid isn't given a happy ending in the final moments of the film. Her patronising attitude throws her out of the sisterhood. Instead the film ends with the severe brunette female professor ceding the stage to the smiling blonde graduate – symbolising the transition from the rigours of the second wave to the open attitude of the third.


So much of that is down to Witherspoon's winning character and performance – where an almost naive good faith in people is tested by the grey, cut-throat world of the university and the law. Elle is an update of Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless – a bright woman who isn't taken seriously because she plays up to traditional norms of femininity. But while Cher has some lessons to learn, all Elle needs to do is believe in herself and her own go-getting positive attitude. That impervious sense of fair play and kindness, rather than the clothes she wears, is what makes her a feminist.

It's a preposterous film, and demands as much suspension of disbelief as any superhero movie. The acting is so over-the-top it borders on pantomime, with only Luke Wilson providing a sense of calm amidst the madness. It's almost as if the creators are daring you to dismiss the whole thing outright as a piece of fluff, adding neon pink opening titles and a saccharine teenpop soundtrack on to the silly outfits and impromptu dance routines. It's no surprise they turned it into a musical – it's pretty much one already.

6.1.19

Blame!

Am quite partial to the far future cyberpunk visions of Tsutomu Nihei. This Netflix film adaptation of his manga has him on board as writer and creative consultant, and is a good introduction to his particular grim style. Imagine if the Matrix sequels dispensed with the philosophical gobbledigook and focused on mood, action and the encroaching threat of the elimination of the species.


Much of the appeal here isn't plot or even character, which is rudimentary, but the gorgeous look and feel. And the studio Polygon Pictures have really gone to town on creating the sort of effects that throw you into proceedings – camera shifts and judders that reflect the shockwaves of the fireworks on screen. It's very enjoyable nonsense, but proof if any were needed of Nihei's unique imaginative gifts.

5.1.19

Air Doll

There's absolutely no doubt that Kore-eda can put a beautiful shot together. There's quite a lot of them in this film, which makes sense given it aims for a fairytale vibe – all slow pans and zooms over twinkly music. There's also no denying that this film drifts intolerably, and no amount of lovely camerawork can save it.

The premise is almost all there is. A sex doll is given life and a "heart", and wanders around the city observing the lonely souls that inhabit it. The very obvious point that these people share something of the emptiness and awkwardness of the doll is made early and often. As with other Kore-eda films, the stress is on the need for human connection. But unlike his other films, which major on how such bonds develop in adverse circumstances, here the doll is too alien to ever truly be able to bridge the gap and create a community among the misfits. That remains a dream she dreams as she's dying, although her death amidst the rubbish does appear to inspire another wastrel to mend her ways.


That incompatibility must be behind the most inscrutable part of the film, where the boy that has fallen in love with the air doll wishes to perform a strange sex act on her – letting out her air and blowing her up again. It it an indication of a sadistic sexuality? Or perhaps a way of asserting control in an otherwise powerless existence? Or perhaps an attempt to give pleasure? The film is enigmatic on the point, but firmer on the doll's desire to breathe something back into the people who look after her. She fails the first time – with disastrous consequences that recall Oshima's infamous In The Realm of the Senses. But her suicide does the trick, although even then the effect seems to be ephemeral. The big city doesn't allow for true, "natural" connections to be made. Yawn.

2.1.19

His Girl Friday

OK so imagine the scene in The Big Sleep where Bogart and Bacall prank call the police for no reason apart from to demonstrate the fact that they are soulmates. And then make a film out of it. Hawks seems to have missed the rapid back-and-forth from His Girl Friday and contrived to insert a bit of the same anarchic spirit into his Raymond Chandler adaptation. It sticks out like a sore thumb in that picture. His Girl Friday, on the other hand, is perfection.

You can tell that this is a film based on a play. Hawks was obsessed with getting the fastest dialogue of all time in the movie, and used unheard of studio tricks in order to achieve it. But the effect isn't something that can't be replicated in the theatre. And the film is quite theatrical – all on a sound-stage, shots held for ages, and the actors given the space and time to do their thing. Part of the fun is how the zaniness is turned up slowly throughout, so that you start with a relatively simple love-triangle and build to an utterly outrageous cacophony of noise at the end. It requires the same suspension of disbelief that Shakespeare's company relied on when strutting their hour upon the stage.


Half the original script was changed, and Hawks encouraged his actors to improvise and ad lib. Apparently Rosalind Russell hired her own scriptwriter to fill out her lines so she could match the size of Cary Grant's part. It was a good-natured battle off and on the screen. And although Russell's character fantasizes about settling down and becoming an obedient wife with a dopey husband, she can't resist the pull of the press room. It's a strange vision of an independent woman with a successful career, who nevertheless loses the war of words with Grant's shyster of an editor. Unlike her namesake in As You Like It, who has her man firmly under her spell, Hawks doesn't allow his leading lady to get the upper hand. The natural state of affairs is for the boss and husband to keep running the show.

1.1.19

The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks prided himself on being a 'straightforward' director, but as David Thomson notes The Big Sleep isn't a straightforward adaptation of Raymond Chandler's murky noir masterpiece at all. The trailer for the film has Lauren Bacall recommend the novel to Humphrey Bogart in a public library, and goes on to preview their romantic scenes, before acknowledging that yes there will be some snooping and shooting as well. Chandler's thriller is hijacked by Hawks and his two stars, who turn it into a love story – with the added frisson that the stars were already sleeping with each other.


So the labyrinthine plot, already difficult to follow in the book, is transposed without the effort to simplify or explain it. It doesn't matter really, it's just a pretext to throw Bogart into scene after scene in which he gets to flirt outrageously with every woman who crosses his eye-line. Bacall is only one of several options who fall for him immediately and inexplicably – the most baffling being a bookseller who closes her shop in order to take a drink and maybe a tumble with Ol' Bogie. That in itself is a strange reversal of standard noir tropes. Usually it's the femme fatale that has the men turning heads and serving her every whim. Here it's a guy that has all the ladies eating out of his hand. And it's all the weirder that he's pushing 40 and is no one's idea of a conventional hunk.

Even with the lascivious horse-racing metaphors, the film is less edgy than it looks. Bogart's character in Casablanca – supposedly a feel-good picture – is actually much darker, the heroism compromised by an environment in which men extort love from women in order to smuggle them to safety. Bacall's duplicity in The Big Sleep never feels dangerous because you know already that Bogart will put her in his pocket. The fact is established in a bizarre scene in which the pair improvise a prank call to the police. The two are already telepathic inseparable love-birds. It's cute, maybe, but it drains the tension and blasts the grit right out of the film.