The Seventh Seal (1957)
May 29, 2015, 9:55 am
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The Seventh Seal (1957)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

The hardest films to review are the ones considered masterpieces. There are a lot of words on the internet; a lot of fevered opinions. Average-Joe-Film-Buff spouting off with authority on a film like The Seventh Seal? There’s no real authority there. It’s just hollow words wearing a mask of authority. And those words hide behind ‘personal opinion’. Because you can’t argue against that. (“You can’t say that my review is wrong, because it’s just my opinion.”) But your opinion can be wrong. Your opinion can also carry no weight.

Keep that in consideration going forward.

The Seventh Seal has some of the most striking imagery on film. It tells the story of Antonius Block, a knight returning from the Crusades. He finds his country pervaded by plague. Death appears to take him, but in a plea for respite he convinces Death to play for his soul. The two begin a game of chess that will determine the knight’s fate.

The respite affords Block and his companions time to navigate the plague-lands. They encounter people dying of disease, of starvation and of man’s fear.

The central theme is direct in questioning the absence of God. It is angry in knowing that every man must face the inevitability of death, with no knowledge of what, if anything, comes after. In the scene of his confession, Block remarks “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.” And Death responds “But He remains silent.”

For a film of grand philosophy, Bergman punctuates it with detrimental comic relief. There are times when it is witty, or when it is in keeping with the irony of death. And there are times when it is inappropriate to the tone of the film. The spindle ticks back and forth in tonal shift between bleak and comedy. This is the only let down in a film that is otherwise a meaningful exploration of faith.

The film ends with one of the most arresting images of the danse macabre. As Death leads the trail of companions into the unknown. “We must make an idol of our fear, and call it God.”

Sexy Beast (2000)
May 28, 2015, 9:52 am
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Sexy Beast (2000)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Sexy Beast opens with Gal (Winstone) soaking up sun by his villa pool. A boulder rolls down the hill and misses him by an inch, landing in the water. It crushes his heart, laid out in tiles. He was an inch away from death, but it missed him. Death blew past him. An immovable object, buried at the bottom of the pool.

This is the film.

Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is the boulder. The immovable object. Death. He is spite. He is volatile, ferocious, unflinching hate. He is a trained attack dog. Sits calm, but at any moment he will snap. You see it in his eyes. Any moment. Everyone in the room is overcome by the tension of this monster’s presence. It is in the atmosphere.

Gal is retired. He just wants to soak in the sun and drink and eat with his wife and friends. Logan represents a heist-job. The criminal world that Gal left behind. Logan travels to Spain to recruit Gal for one more job. It’s not an inspiring premise, but the film is not about the criminal world. It’s not even about the heist. It’s about Gal and Logan. Driven by the performances of these powerhouse characters and the struggle between them.

As angry and erratic as Logan is, it is with his words that he becomes true terror. He wheedles his way into the mind. He plants manipulative seeds in the roots of the brain. We get the impression that simple things in life, become conflict for Logan. He is a tornado that sweeps up the world, tosses it around and then. The boulder gives a hint to how his story ends.

Sexy Beast is not a flashy film. For a film about gangsters it is sparse of the usual violence and hangs on tense dialogue. Glazer has filled the screen with subtle absurdities that are true of his style. They either bark forth from Kingsley’s mouth or wisp in on a dream sequence. The film is tight and concise and Winstone and Kingsley pull it off.

Themes of Cinema: Cruelty to Children


Six films.

Magnolia. Grave of the Fireflies. The Night of the Hunter. Lolita. ChinatownEmpire of the Sun.

On the surface they are each different. Family dramas. War films. Hard-boiled detective noir. But they each have a core theme that permeates the bones of the film. Cruelty to children.

For some, this is an extension of The Loss of Innocence story. In Grave of the Fireflies, the war (and loss of their mother) forces the children to grow up. To become parent figures to each other. Empire of the Sun runs a similar theme. A child separated from his parents and forced out into a horrific world. In The Night of the Hunter the two children lose their parents and set out across country. In each of these examples the children all find themselves in an adult world. Alone. All adult figures around them are indifferent to them or look down on them.

Magnolia, Lolita and Chinatown focus on a different manner of cruelty. Active cruelty. Predatory cruelty (The Night of the Hunter fits here too). Their cruelty is action rather than the absence of action. In Magnolia a father forces his child to play game-shows for cash prizes. An impersonal environment to raise a child. We see the fate of a similar character, now grown up and the lasting damage. In Lolita we see the perverse hunt of two predatory men on a young girl; a long downward spiral.

It might not be the core theme of the film, but as a theme or a sub-theme it is there.

But why? Why do we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children? Are we supposed to? Film-makers have tapped into a nerve. Watching cruel things happen to children makes our guts turn. It makes us sad. But it makes us interested. It is a conflict. And conflict makes stories.

It would be a mistake to think that the sole purpose of film is entertainment. That is one purpose. Other purposes are to make us think. To help us reflect. To provide perspective. And more. It’s not that we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children. But it resonates with us as humans because we are protective of them. This is why the scene in Under the Skin where Laura leaves the crying baby abandoned at the beach is so powerful in proving how alien she is. Because no human with conscience could do that.

It evokes emotions in us that are stronger.

The Loss of Innocence does not presuppose cruelty. Or even relate to the children. But cruelty to children is a direct relation to it. Watching children endure suffering on a road to destruction. We invest. We hope that these children will grow, become strong and withstand. When they don’t, it hurts us. And we reflect on this. We think about ourselves as a society and how we treat other people. Or, we think about the nature of harming innocence. We see struggle and hardship from a perspective that we might not relate to. And we hope that things might be better. And maybe we become better for thinking this.

Bottle Rocket (1996)
May 27, 2015, 8:26 am
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Bottle Rocket (1996)
Directed by: Wes Anderson

Bottle Rocket is the first film by Wes Anderson. He has come a long way since. Bottle Rocket has none of the signature charm or visual style that came later. The obsessive symmetry is not noticeable here. But the film does serve to show how Anderson has evolved as a writer/director. It does have dysfunctional characters putting themselves into wild situations (or not so wild).

The film opens with Dignan (Wilson) breaking Anthony (Wilson) out of a mental hospital. A volunteer mental hospital where the patients are free to leave. The two then pull off a burglary. A burglary of Anthony’s own house. They are the masterminds of unnecessary crime.

Though it isn’t all for nothing. The two characters are building up to the big-time. It is all for practice, and all to impress a local crime organisation. The middle third of the film becomes a little confused. The character’s go on the run after pulling off a local library heist. The film slacks into a romance. Like most of the film’s internal crimes, it is unnecessary. It meanders, but comes together again for the end.

With such a low budget, everything rides on the script. Everything rides on the performances of the Wilson brothers. It rides on dialogue. Bottle Rocket is a great low-budget first film. But it pales in comparison to everything Anderson did after.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
May 26, 2015, 10:03 am
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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Directed by: Isao Takahata

It is rare to find a film that hurts the heart in as direct a manner as Grave of the Fireflies. There are films that bait emotion. And then there are films that provoke genuine heartbreak. Grave is the latter. It is heartbreaking. I think it is the saddest film I have ever seen. And it is a true story.

Grave of the Fireflies is an animated film that tells the story of two young children. It takes place in Japan at the end of the second world war. After losing their mother to a bombing raid, the two children move in with their Aunt. They stay for a while, but the Aunt fills them with guilt and makes them feel a burden. She sells off the belongings of the children’s mother for rice, but keeps most of it for herself. She berates the children for not contributing to the war effort and begrudges feeding them. So they leave, becoming homeless and living in a hillside bomb shelter.

But there is no illusion of hope for the children. The film opens with the death of the oldest child, Seita. Before the opening credits roll, we see his spirit reunited with his younger sister. We know how it ends before it even starts. Yet the film takes it’s time to wrap around to this ending. It is lingering on moments of true beauty between these two children. And in these slow lingering shots we watch them succumb to hunger and malnutrition.

There is a beautiful scene where the children collect fireflies and use them to light the cave where they sleep. The next morning Seita finds his sister burying the dead flies. “Why must fireflies die so young?” she asks. We ask the same question.

The most painful of all is the feeling that all the while, this tragedy could be prevented. If the people who surrounded the two children were a little more caring, maybe they would have lived. But it becomes about pride and about self preservation. For Seita, he could never return to his Aunt. An apology to her might have saved them. But pride prevented it. Seita tried to carve out a personal heaven in the hillside cave, but it became a tomb instead.

That being said. You can’t begrudge a child their naiveté. But you can begrudge every adult who showed no care for them. To the world, these children are nuisances, thieves, burdens. Even those who show slight compassion do nothing to help. Their inaction condemns these children to death.

Grave of the Fireflies is a war film. But it is not a film about war. It’s not about politics. It’s not even about soldiers or the military. It is about the impact that war has on innocent people. It is a beautiful, painful, emotional masterpiece.

Delicatessen (1991)
May 22, 2015, 12:53 pm
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Delicatessen (1991)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro

Jean-Pierre Jeunet tapped into the nerve of the mainstream with Amelie. The easy-listening of French cinema. But before this, he worked with collaborator Marc Caro. Together they put out two surrealist, Gilliam-esque, dystopian black-comedies. The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen.

Delicatessen is a hard film to categorise. Sci-Fi? Horror? Comedy? It’s all and none of them at the same time. At it’s heart though, it is a love story set in a dystopia where food is sparse.

Louison is a circus clown who takes up the job of local handyman after the last disappears. He moves into an apartment above the delicatessen. Here he falls in love with the butcher’s daughter.

It doesn’t take long for the truth to come out. The reason the butcher is so rich in meat in a world where food is rare? And the reason the last handy-man disappeared? The strings tie together.

This conceit is a simple bare-bones structure. It serves to hold together a cast of bizarre characters. The way they interact with each other in this post-apocalypse carnival world. That is the real charm of the film.

Jeunet has an unparalleled cinematic style in all his films. A style that he cultivated here. And it’s clear that the character’s are characters of heart. They are ripped from the pages of children’s books. These are the inventions of Jeunet. They carry forward into all his future excursions.

But Caro brings a head to the film. He brings a surreal, dream sci-fi that isn’t seen in any of Jeunet’s solo work (and it is missed).  It’s the collaboration of this heart and head that makes Delicatessen work. It’s not crucial that the film is set in this desolate garbage-world. But it adds to the film’s style in a way that separates it from the film it could have been.

Jeunet and Caro make their best work together. Delicatessen is part of the minuscule body of  work that proves that.

Under the Skin (2013)
May 21, 2015, 10:29 am
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Under the Skin (2013)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

It’s finally time to talk about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. A science-fiction road trip through Scotland. Told from the perspective of an alien in the skin of a human woman. Laura is a predator, driving a white van around the streets of Scotland. She seduces men by showing only the vaguest interest in them. In return they follow her into a dark nightmare.

Science-fiction. But Under the Skin is a film about real people.

It all hinges first on the girl. Laura. Scarlett Johansson. A Hollywood face in disguise, dropped into the realms of Scottish civilisation. Filmed with hidden cameras. Interacting with real people. True reactions.

Even the opening sequence reflects the dual nature of the film. In the context of the story, we hear Laura practicing her dialogue. She makes vowel sounds and practices the way words form in her mouth. But this is actually a recording of Johansson practicing her dialect for the role. It’s a clever idea, reflecting the nature of the film as a form of method acting.

The first half of the film is sparse of exposition. We follow Laura on her road trip, in her interactions, ensnaring men. She lures them back to a derelict house. Inside is only a dark abyss; a haunting abstract plane. The men descend into this darkness. Willing to do so as they are so captivated by this siren. And something invisible in the darkness pulls the meat from under their skin. Leaving only a hollow shell behind.

The film indulges itself in letting this half of the film play out in slow pace. It is slow because we have to witness the length of time that Laura allows humanity to impact upon her. She is not human. This is never more clear than a particular beach scene. It is a gut-wrenching emotional play that she witnesses, and is completely indifferent to. But over time, the effects of humanity do seep in under the skin. There is no galvanising moment of realisation. It is a slow process.

Yet there is a galvanising moment that shifts the focus of the film. We find a narrative in the second half. As Laura finds a twinkling of humanity, the perspective turns. She experiences the world not from the perspective of a predator, but as the prey. She finds herself in an unfamiliar abyss (a deep forest). She experiences the dark, predatory nature of the human in the film’s climax.

Under the Skin is bold. It is clever. It is beautiful. It provokes thought. It pulls the viewer out of their comfort zone. Jonathan Glazer has made a film that realises his cinematic vision. A guerrilla documentary on the nature of people. The cinematography and soundtrack are haunting. And Scarlett Johansson is ethereal as Laura.


A personal note: While watching the film I was unsure. It took time to fall into it. But when the closing credits rolled, my mouth was agape and I sat for a while in the dark just to catch my breath. The more I think about and talk about this film, the more it becomes one of my favourites. It’s hard to put these kinds of emotions into a review without it becoming too masturbatory. But I wanted to add this short note to say this film had quite a profound effect on me.