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.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)


What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Directed by: Taika Waititi, Jermaine Clement

When Taika Waititi and frequent collaborator Jermaine Clement released the film Eagle vs Shark, they struck out into the world with a comedy charm that was subtle, refreshing and completely unlike the saturated Hollywood fare. Taika’s style is that of heart and deadpan comedy. A tragic-sweetness that carries from Eagle vs Shark to What We Do in the Shadows. The premise of the film is a novelty. Four vampire house-mates and a documentary film crew. We follow these characters in the run-up to the undead social event of the year. The Unholy Masquerade. Each of the vampires is representative of a specific time in vampire history. Viago is the classic, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula of the group.  Vladislav sits more in the style of Bram Stoker. Deacon is evocative of the 80’s Lost Boys. And Petyr is the silent (a nice throwback to the films that birthed his character) Nosferatu. Later they add Nick to the group, a contemporary vampire who walks through the city streets shouting “I am Twilight!” The comedy is punchy and sharp. On the subject of why vampires prefer to drink the blood of virgins, Vladislav says “Think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” All these subtle plays on the nature of being a vampire in the real world build into a funny film. To repeat them en masse here would diminish their potency. What We Do in the Shadows is a film that is worth a watch. Maybe even a re-watch. Especially for those who are fans of the collaborators previous works (Flight of the Conchords!).

Killing Them Softly (2012)
May 20, 2015, 9:46 am
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Killing Them Softly (2012)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik

Killing Them Softly is a film that showed brief (emphasis on brief) moments of being something greater than it was. If it had a braver editor. It’s not a long film, clocking in at 97 minutes. But so much of that was aimless, meandering dialogue that should be dead on the cutting room floor.

When the film does hit, it hits hard. There are some powerful visual scenes. A brutal beating in a rainy car park. A drive-by execution. A drifting, kaleidoscopic heroin interrogation. But these are the gems in a rough of film that is unsure about what it is, and what it wants to be.

In the end it’s hard to feel like the film is not trying to cash in on your nostalgia for the better performances of it’s actors. Pitt, Liotta, Gandolfini. It’s a patchwork, cut together from pieces of crime films past. Hard to feel like you haven’t seen the film before in it’s contemporaries. Reminiscent of other modern crime films; Revolver (Another Liotta piece) or Lucky Number Slevin. But they are smarter and braver and have a more cohesive style.

Killing Them Softly is a film unsure of itself. And it’s noticeable.

Badlands (1973)
May 19, 2015, 2:07 pm
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Badlands (1973)
Directed by: Terence Malick

This begins a Terence Malick love affair that will stretch for decades. Badlands is a film of strange personal morality. A beautiful road movie through the waste of America, following the killing spree of two drifting souls. Holly and Kit are creatures of vague motivation. Bored of the tedium of civilisation they break out into the wilderness in a violent spiral towards death. Framed in the macro-beauty of nature. For Holly it is unclear why she is so willing to follow Kit down this path of self-destruction. This is no Mickey and Mallory relationship. It becomes clear these characters hold no true love for each other. Only an interest (or fascination?). But for Kit it is about forging an element of fame or iconography of himself. He leaves a constant trail of ‘himself’ as they go. A trail of his morality, recording messages to tape for potential child fans who look up to him as an idol. “Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat em like enemies.” he says. This whole ordeal is a quest to find importance. To impart a mark on the world. Kit punctuates each action with strange justification and reasoning that Holly accepts. She doesn’t question him, but doesn’t understand him either. The two blaze out into this personal heaven, knowing that it is all temporary. Knowing and preparing for the explosive end. Malick as a director has a way of splashing human brutality onto the frame of nature. A film about killing where the takeaway imagery is an aching, fading sun through grass and leaves. Badlands marks the beginning of Malickian cinematography. Film-makers have imitated and emulated this aesthetic style (but never as well) to an extent where it has become pastiche. But it began here. This is a beautiful film about brutal, disconnected people.

It Follows (2014)
May 19, 2015, 9:10 am
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It Follows
Directed by: 
David Robert Mitchell

How has a film about a sex-ghost been so well received?

The premise of It Follows sounds so… dumb. It’s a premise built on dream logic. To put it in words is selling it short. A film about a relentless walking ghost, slow, but persistent, always walking. Wherever you go, it follows. You can’t kill it, and running only buys you some time to breathe. It is always in pursuit. And when it catches you, you die.

The only way to end the nightmare is to pass it on to someone else like an STD, through sex. Get some strange and it’s their problem now.

It’s hard not to find an allegorical message about coming-of-age teens and the long-term consequences of rampant fucking. In reality though, this is not an important part of the film. What is important is creeping you the fuck out.

There are no cheap shocks in It Follows. Ominous dread builds through long, drawn out camera work and the knowledge that somewhere out there, ‘it’ is following. There are no surprises because all the while you know what is coming. And that is the most terrifying.

There is a scene where the main character jumps in a car and drives with her friends to the coast for respite. The audience gets a brief glimpse of normality. Then, while the main character relaxes on a deck chair, on a beach with her friends, we see it. It emerges from the bushes behind her, slow moving, we see it coming. For so long you see it coming. The tension is in your desperate want for the character to turn around and see it too.

There is a cinematic quality to the film that is reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Part of the credit for this goes to the soft-haunt-neon-synth ambient soundtrack, but the rest of the credit must go to cinematographer Mike Gioulakis.

It Follows is about as perfect a horror film as there is. And that’s because it is subtle, and it indulges itself the time to pull you in. Because it cares about you as a viewer. It doesn’t want you to shock you. It wants to terrify you.