Whether the Tendency of the Letter Published is to Deprave and Corrupt Those Whose Minds are Open to Such Immoral Influence

The Video Nasties – a hysterical censorship phenomenon in the United Kingdom during the early years of the 1980s video recording industry that saw prosecutors determining the extent of cuts certain graphically violent movies would need to be deemed suitable for home viewing – do not have a one-size-fits-all aesthetic to them, outside of featuring graphic violence (which would often vary in amount still). It was an arbitrary motion made towards an arbitrary selection of films. So when Censor – the debut feature film by Prano Bailey-Bond – hardly resembles the Video Nasties which it takes as its screenplay’s subject matter (co-written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher), this doesn’t feel as much a failure as it seems certain people would like to pronounce it. No, there is no less of a huge amount of fascination with the movies that were subject to this certainly publicity-boosting act of committee on top of the minutiae regarding that process in itself.

The censor whose process we follow most closely is Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), who takes her job very seriously, spending long hours in a room watching violent grisly material and noting what must be cut before she and her colleagues can determine to allow the film to be exhibited on the streets or if the movie must be banned for the safety of the citizens. She seems mostly stable enough in the first few scenes, if still alarmist, as she argues on decapitations and eye-gougings to be removed from a film and if the introduction of her traumatic past very early on invites doubt, she’s still relatively well-adjusted to receive a bombast of gruesome images of murder and rape and maiming and treat the matter professionally. The traumatic past, as it were, is a young memory of watching her child sister Nina (Amelie Child-Villiers) disappear in the woods and it appears that Enid’s stability about 2 decades later is at risk from three sides.

First, Enid’s parents (Clare Holman & Andrew Havill) approach her with a death certificate finally created for Nina, despite Enid’s objection that she might still be out there. Then there’s a shocking domestic killing that imitates a violent sequence that was passed by Enid in her assessment, bringing a lot of public attention to the censorship office and Enid herself. And finally, while reviewing the latest submission by an elusive and notorious filmmaker Frederick North (Vincent Schiller), she spots the face of the lead actor Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) and is so very sure that she has to be Nina, beginning an personal investigation towards North’s production that only promises an unstoppable spiral down to something beyond the limits of the television screen.

I did very little in that synopsis to hide how Censor slides into psychological thriller territory and if Censor does not resemble a video nasty in any particular way – sure, there is gore and violence in the film but much of it is backloaded or archive footage from infamous banned Video Nasties with ironic cutting at the most visceral moments to “leave it to the imagination” as Enid suggests – it does resemble the unreliable atmosphere of a giallo with its choice of colors and spacing between the office workplace and Enid’s boxy apartment home, in the modern homage fashion of Cattet & Forzani or more closely to fellow British arthouse horror stablemate of Bailey-Bond’s Peter Strickland. And certainly this has extratextual purpose as well in indicting the sort of hang-ups that somebody might have imposing their restrictions on art, even art as disreputable as these violent pictures.

Censor is a movie that’s easy to chop down into three acts that slide well into each other, though I will admit there is a distinct difference in quality or engagement for that middle half interrupting the regularity of Enid and her colleagues staring at dismemberments between notes, researching their filmmakers, and having debates about what could possibly be going out to the public in between slimey producers waltzing into the offices to discuss those results (the producer particularly showing up in pivotal ways being played by resident screen creep Michael Smiley, which is of course an excellent casting choice*). Anyway, everything up until Enid visits a video store trying to solicit a Frederick North picture to clerk’s reluctance despite it being obvious he stocks banned videos is transparently a conduit for Bailey-Bond’s love for the movies, their attached notoriety, and a close interest in the process that brought them that notoriety. But that sequence is far enough into the middle investigation once Enid sees Lee’s face on a work assignment that we’re already beginning to segue into aimless meandering that is brought by slack and less interesting editing and once she leaves that video store, it’s not coming back for a while.

But that’s all fair since editor Mark Towns is saving his best for last and that can be argued for the rest of the crew as that meandering finally leads to the climactic final third where Enid finally finds a direction to take on in finding Alice and finding out if she’s Nina and her tenaciousness starts to affect the visuals in a tremendously exciting way. The frames of the aspect ratio begin to close at a snail’s pace so you can hardly notice the walls closing in on Enid, the colors by Annika Summerson’s camerawork become more saturated than the more grounded hues within the first hour, and video effects slowly corrupt the visuals in a way that disguise the segue between Enid’s perspective on things and the camera’s without particularly telling us what is the truth until the very final minutes. It doesn’t take a deep dive to recognize the events in terms of narrative, but it remains the sort of translation between a subjective perspective and the cinematic form that makes me giddy when encountered in the wild. And it all just brings us back to the interest in that video nasty aesthetic with a moment that particularly seats us as viewers into watching something ostensibly artificial and beastly before Enid finds ways to disrupt it in shocking ways.

So there one has it. Deep in the midnight screenings of Sundance 2021 birthed a cryptic horror yarn on a moment in pop culture that come from a place of deep admiration. Censor, which I have to assume is a continuation of ideas from Bailey-Bond’s earlier short film Nasty (which I haven’t seen), is a fairly confident feature debut that presents the filmmaker’s personality with aplomb and it is very easy to see how Bailey-Bond’s interests and my interests align enough that I’m excited for whatever she comes up with next, genre or otherwise.

*I was also convinced for a minute that Matthew Earley, who plays a co-worker of Enid’s, was actually a cameo by Ben Wheatley at first glance. Apologies to Earley.

Come, It is Time to Keep Your Appointment with…

 

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I wonder if I can credit Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man for initiating my interest folk music, given it constantly stops its own narrative investigation in order to indulge in a festive performance of traditional songs arranged by Paul Giovanni. It’s present to the degree that Hardy himself called the film a musical during production. It’s either that or Yusuf Islam back in his “Cat Stevens” days that brought this in me, but I was more or less exposed to both of them around the same time in high school and The Wicker Man seems the work of art that made a more significant impact on me. For The Wicker Man also initiated my interest in storytelling that focuses within an isolated location or community, particularly when the resultant development is a suspicious eerie atmosphere hidden underneath surface pleasantries with its inhabitants. And it is in that particular aspect that I think it was tough for me to figure out what I meant when I used “cult” to describe The Wicker Man.

You see, The Wicker Man is of course a film that explores the existence of a pagan culture within the fictional agronomical society of Summerisle that sits in the Hebridean Archipelago, based in Celtic history, as police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent there to investigate the sudden disappearance of a little girl named Rowan Morrison. So “cult” describes the subject.

But “cult” also describes the object. The film has only slowly developed more and more of that status than the already low-key but unanimously positive reception it had as a rough horror classic in the late 2000s when I first saw it and both of those elements – the reception and the version – are based in the same thing: a mind-bendingly convoluted set of rights disputes and poor handling of the print (sometimes apparently deliberate spite by producer Michael Deeley who famously hated the film, sometimes incidental) that led to the 102-minute cut that Hardy was satisfied with being turned into an 88-minute compromised cut that was released (as a double feature with fellow horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now) and most commonly seen. Meanwhile, a 99-minute version closer to Hardy’s preference was sent to Roger Corman to later be used as the basis of Hardy’s restoration to a Director’s Cut that was a bitch to find back in the day up until a Blu-Ray in 2013 was released of one more attempt by Hardy – whose previous decades of optimism that his original cut was still existent had now been disabused – into a 91-minute Final Cut from all the surviving resources.

I told you it was convoluted. All that combined made The Wicker Man a tough enough find in worthwhile quality to turn it to cult semi-obscurity.

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Having seen the 88 minute, 99 minute, and 91 minute versions, I do feel most qualified to say that any version will easily get you to a significant amount of brilliance. For no matter which cut one watches, you’re still going to get the abnormal slow boil of the Anthony Shaffer’s mystery script coming together real nicely in any arrangement, probably thanks to Hardy being involved in each cut (even in reluctance) and so having an idea of where to deal with whatever’s removed or moved around. And while the Final Cut is my preference – it’s the one where the pacing feels tightest and confident in where it slips away, while also spreading the musical numbers spread enough (with the addition of the brilliantly dreamy “Gently Johnny” to truly pay off in Hardy’s attempts to create The Wicker Man as a musical – I particularly love the idea the theatrical cut had about opening right when Howie arrives on Summerisle in a seaplane without any foreplay in the mainland as in the other cuts. It gets us on quite the disoriented foot with the setting. Though I must say the original opening with Howie performing mass does so much to establish what position he is entering this conflict from.

The second of which he steps out of the plane, he’s given a hard time by the smiling harbor master just for requesting a dinghy. The harbor master tries to deflect as much as possible by claiming the harbor is closed until Howie insists long enough. And so the majority of the movie is witnessing Howie’s fluster as he is continuously directed around in a circle by several individuals or authorities, including being told by the mother and classmates of the child that Rowan never even existed. Howie’s a dutiful and thorough investigator who pushes through the continuous lies and mishandled records – all delivered in the most bothersomely polite manner and off-putting brightness – to find proof of her existence and evidence suggesting a misdeed of some sort. It’s often just enough clue at the end of a scene to augment the frustration out of every interaction Howie is involved in and understand why he must push his bemused way through every misdirect he’s given.

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The direct obstruction of his policework is not the sole thing that takes Sgt. Howie aback. His firm appeals bring him eventually to the leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who charmingly informs Howie of the island’s pagan philosophies, rooted from his grandfather, as well the fruits of which the island bases its economy and why these two elements are intertwined. And even before Lord Summerisle lays it out for him, Howie has already witnessed strange unorthodox things happening around such as an open air orgy in the night (including an naked woman in a graveyard whose weeping over a grave resembles quiet orgasms), and the attempts of the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Eklund, dubbed in an excellently weird way by Annie Ross) to seduce him behind the door by singing and dancing naked in a waking trance.

Howie, we learn extremely quickly, is Christian of a conservative and pious sort, establishing an impossible-to-miss battle of ideologies deep within the film. Shaffer and Hardy, to their incredible credit, deliver this fight in a difficult complex manner: Howie is there to investigate a potential murder and everybody in the island is throwing him the most uncannily suspicious sensation in all their twisting grins and lackadaisical attitude to learning of a child in danger. And yet Howie is also imposing of his Christian judgment onto the citizens of the island, at one point forcing a makeshift cross over a grave regardless of whatever religious beliefs the deceased may have had and outright calling Summerisle’s religion fake to the Lord’s face which is taken with the same unstressed casual receptiveness as anything else thrown to Lee’s face. Lee has long had glowing love for the performance he gave here, almost single-handedly keeping the film’s memory alive while it was essentially lost in the 1980s, and it shows with the clear amount of fun friendliness he exudes in perfect foil to Howie’s disgusted sobriety. It’s affecting to have the closest thing we have as a direct antagonist (as opposed to the entire community) such a welcoming air about him.

It’s off-putting to have such an intolerant character we are forced to align with by our moral sense of what he’s trying to do and yet this very island is so queer – personably as well as visually in flat focus, which is uncomfortably close for a setting so based in stone and trees dressed by a handicraft and populated by faces that look like they’ll squeeze your hand until you show them your teeth – that it’s just as much a natural orbiting to Howie’s point of view despite the aggressiveness of his rhetori. It’s miraculous that Hardy’s direction is able to frame Howie in such a way as to really pull out muted contempt for the character yet still treat his ultimate fate as utterly tragic (which I’d assume you know if you’ve even heard of the film, but if not I’m gonna go ahead and wave a big ol’ SPOILER WARNING up in here). It is indeed a strange land that the stranger has entered and sometimes what’s most familiar is what we’re going to gravitate towards.

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About that strange land: I’m not sure, with a wide variety of Scottish Isles and cities in which it was shot, one can say The Wicker Man subscribes to Werner Herzog’s ideal of the “voodoo of location”, but for someone like me who was totally ignorant of the geography of Scotland at the time and to this day have never actually experienced the country firsthand, The Wicker Man feels transporting. Indeed, Lee in his autobiography Lord of Misrule appears to suggest that their experiences within those distinct areas of Scotland “stitched together a plausible island” and it’s believable enough to fool me. And what gives it that further out-of-place vibe as a setting is Harry Waxman’s vibrant whites making the place seem so overexposed in an eerie way. A visual approach that further provides menace and trepidation to how unfailingly cheerful Summerisle is as a community.

About the culture: well, the very handworn element of the costumes and the festivities leaning into the imminent May Day celebration that the film’s climax takes place (and of course, if you have heard of The Wicker Man, you know how it ends just about as well as you know how Planet of the Apes ends but I repeat SPOILERS once final time if you are of a lucky sort.) are of an uncivilized sort, even by the means of a culture portrayed as tying naval strings to graves and such. The costumes and instruments of their celebration are introduced in one of the latest montages of investigation, strewn together in earthy ways from earthy materials. But not least of all the Wicker Man himself, revealed to us at the last possible moment as a towering madness of straw that really calls attention to the inhumane sacrifice to be made inside of it. And when it dawns on Howie what their plans are for him and his helplessness, the film intensifies rapidly into a more unambiguous horror than everything that preceded it. In a way, the point of the ending of The Wicker Man is not what happens but how it happens and by the mood of Woodward and Lee in this climax is where the complex battle of ideologies has to introduce ambiguity to the final notes of their performances: Woodward as Howie goes through several modes of disbelief and terror in the knowledge of what waits for him and how easily he was manipulated for all his steadfast authoritarianism and trying to declare his faith with various levels of dubiety invited of the viewer, landing on a moment of truly cracking prayer before the flames that will take his life in seconds and undermine by the pained shrieks and cries of the animals dying with him. Lee as Summerisle, meanwhile, is confident and self-satisfied by his plan working as expected until Howie suggests a potential turn of events that knocks that perennial smile off his face and suggests his own level of ambivalence to the practices he mandates of the isle’s people. Shaffer as a writer pulls out all the possible stops with this final turn of events, amplifying the cheeriness of the people at their most religiously violent with their final chant “Summer Is Icumen In” battling with the cries of the animals for dominance on the soundtrack while this ends up being – now that the secrets are all spilled out – the moment that Waxman and Hardy opt for an overcast set of shots as we watch the titular construction burn and collapse to reveal the setting sun.

So yes, the staying power of The Wicker Man may be the loves it brought to be in folk music and quietly unsettling horror movie atmospheres. But it also delivers them in a remarkably intelligent package, mapped out by one of the best writers working in Britain in the early 1970s and executed by two terrifically polar performances by actors at the very peak of their abilities. It’s one of the earliest cases of a movie I watched truly sticking in my head and making me consider what I just watched beyond the hard genre shocks it delivers (it may be a foundational part of my atheism, if I’m being frank), in an unassuming way that does guide me on WHAT to think. And it’s probably based on that that The Wicker Man had the sort of longevity that get it being restored and worked on to be introduced by generations further on alongside me as I constantly engage with its rewatchability.

Like I said, it takes a really great movie to work wonders on people when the most popular thing about it is its ending.

Another Green World

Probably my biggest regret of this past Sundance 2021 was not finding the time or ability to review even a single one of the multiple features I saw during that single week (though I am glad I was able to cover the short films selections), until far enough since the end of the festival that there was no relevance or point anymore. Maybe I can turn that around as they are wide released stateside, especially as it would give me a chance to refresh movies that were already fading by the time I could sit down and write again.

But one movie didn’t fade all that much. One movie, above all others, stayed embedded in my mind as I kept turning around it over and over until it finally got its expected release here (one of the movies that already had a distributor before it arrived to Sundance). And that was Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which heralded a return to form for Wheatley that rivals his early greatness (barring Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, which is my only gap among his features as it’s not yet released in the US).

In fact, it’s a movie that most feels in line with A Field in England, his 2013 rural period-based psychological hallucination that I frankly was not as impressed on first viewing with, but I do feel like I’d revisit with newfound appreciation in its untethered atmospheric madness. That movie begins with a sense of distance brought by its time setting and dreamy black-and-white and minimalist production design, In the Earth starts way differently. Its starting point is in fact extremely relatable to a viewer in early 2021, set in the middle of what is not identified as the COVID-19 pandemic but sounds eerily similar from how it’s discussed in dialogue (as one of several movies developed and produced during it) as scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) prepares to move further beyond a unnamed government outpost into its neighboring forest with a local park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). And if I’m being honest, that “a virus is happening” starting point may pull the viewer into the world but it’s also not particularly a committed element and the more In the Earth follows Martin and Alma through the woods… the less we have that virus as an urgent element. There’s more pressing matters to worry about.

The central matter is something I wouldn’t want to spoil, for a lot of In the Earth is trying to get us lulled into the rhythm of a quiet isolated trek through the woods – perfect for a film production made at a time where few people should be in close proximity to each other – and then have that violently swerved into something we couldn’t imagine. And Nick Gillespie’s soft photography of the oppressive greenery and shade does phenomenal work laying a tired shadow to Martin and Alma’s hike, seeking out Martin’s former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) and getting more and more nervous as they run into abandoned tents and a random habitant of the forest Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who gives off a plenty irregular enough vibe to make us prepped for something bad to happen.

Well, this IS a horror movie so something bad happens. And Wheatley’s work as his own editor does so much to make the bad things interrupting the slow-running expedition truly feel discombobulated by the later shifts it takes, inviting us to expect some contagion-set Blair Witch material what with Alma’s explanation of an folklore by the name of Parnag Fegg and campfire lit sequences taking up the first third. But In the Earth is headed towards something more eagerly aggressive in its aesthetic that Gillespie (who at one point of heightened disorientation and terror utilizes diagetic bright strobe lighting that makes this impossible to tough for the photosensitive but for myself I found absolutely thrilling), Wheatley, and the soundtrack (eager to bring us aware of how impossible it is to truly have quiet in the woods, your isolation surrounded by rustling and chirps) all crank up with enough measurement to give the kaleidoscopic indulgences a true sense of climax by the final moments.

Arguably the only constant to In the Earth‘s shifts is Clint Mansell’s droning score which fits smoothly into the preceding worshipful nature footage and slides into the abstract madness that lives deeper and deeper in the runtime. The closest I’m willing to provide as a plot spoiler (and frankly something easy to predict with that plot summary) is how Squires and Shearsmith’s arrival on screen truly marks the moment things change gears. The two actors together are contradictory guides to the narrative context of what weirdness Wheatley and his crew throw at our face, both grounded in their own awe of the invisible cosmic horror atmosphere. Shearsmith, absolutely unrecognizable to me from the few previous works I’ve seen him in (his prior collaborations with Wheatley, Doctor Who), resembles what I’d expect a dark version of a Taika Waititi performance while Squires carries the concept of hard science-fiction and procedural to the uncertain tension surrounding them.

So basically Alma begins as our guide into the woods, but really this movie slips away from her control and ours. It belongs to Ben Wheatley finally finding himself back in the zone of surprise horror scenarios that he always did best flexing between Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. I’m sure the past few years of him getting more of a budget to play with have been satisfying to get out of his system, but they didn’t result in very interesting or good movies. Sometimes all a person needs is a few humans, a vast space, and a limitless collection of sounds and filters to truly show us something terrifying. Looks like Wheatley and his crew made the most out of little.

A Period Film

Autumn de Wilde’s debut feature film Emma., adapted from the same eponymous Jane Austen novel as the second-to-last movie I covered (with an added punctuation to the title that de Wilde has explained by the means I alluded to in this review’s title), has a very special place in my heart for me. Outside of Tenet, it became the very last movie I saw in a cinema during its release the night before AMC shut down as part of the measures taken in the early days of the coronavirus when the country pretended to care. And it is a comfort in the following days that my last two movies in a movie theater while I refuse to step in one for the foreseeable future were among the very new releases I had seen over the past 12 months.

I like to think none of that sentimentality has a hand in my positivity towards the movie. Even if I hadn’t seen Emma. in that contest, it is certainly the case that it has retained my favorite quality of all of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations: a refusal to be nice to its characters. Including and especially Emma Woodhouse, played by Anya Taylor-Joy as the lead in a phenomenal cast that finds a way to import a much modern attitude in their performances as they can do without feeling out-of-time with the setting. That modernity is how de Wilde and her cast are able to hash out as much nasty teasing from Austen’s source material and Eleanor Catton’s screenplay adapting it from Emma’s place of extremely noted privilege with wealth and background to her ostensible new recruit as a best friend, the much lower class Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a relationship that we have enough distance to regard as pretty shitty and enough engagement to hope that Emma will recognize her snottiness and develop as a better person.

A trick that is of course at the heart of Austen’s work – as I mentioned in that aforementioned Clueless review – as her judgment of her judgmentally presumptuous protagonists and the judgmentally presumptuous social norms they engage is what animated her literary storytelling and it seems that cinema finally caught on to that with a vengeance in the mid-90s, even if Emma remains “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Well, Taylor-Joy’s Emma delivers sarcasms and snipes like a second-language and even in the understanding that she’s being mean, it ends up being absolute fun to listen to as dry comedy and restrains from foreshadowing any future thawing though it remains a believable character arc. In the meantime, Goth and Miranda Hart (as the very talkative and excitable neighbour Miss Bates) are wonderful sports as the most frequent recipients of these meddling while acting as the secret weapon for Emma.‘s humanity and bringing us to root more for the idea of Emma making amends with Harriet and Miss Bates and earn their friendship than for Emma making amends with potential suitor George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) or Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and find love. I expect it is just as much the fact that Goth and Hart are both clearly the best performances in the movie that the power of friendship is more appealing than the power of love in an ostensible Regency romance story, but it does not feel inadvertent on de Wilde or Catton’s part nor like a bug.

The cast and script are of course only one level through which Emma. was so enjoyable as a late-night watch. As expected of any period film worth a damn, the production and costume design use the Regency accuracy as an opportunity to explore the chance to act as extensions of what drama is happening inside them. Most particularly the complete polarity between Kave Quinn’s decision to make the palaces and mansions throughout feel elaborate and overindulgent in its lines and curlicues and Alexandra Byrne’s desire to restrain as much as possible in the attire of these characters. The latter seems to function all the better to define the social differences between Emma, Harriet, Miss Bates, and the rest as well as really stress that stuffy rigidity that Emma and her father (Bill Nighy) seem to embody in their style just as much as their personality. In the meantime, the whirly Englishness of the sets is particularly a starting point for de Wilde (who clearly showcases a developed eye from her background as a photographer and music video director) and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt to exaggerate the fussiness with similarly rigid compositions that nonetheless lend to imbalances (especially in Blauvelt’s camera movements) and add rosy tints to even the least compatible colors while softening the focus so that everything just a tinge unnatural and off-putting (an act that makes way for a visual surprise later in the film). Which feels no less a sarcastic manner to present an ostensible time and place of pageantry than it does to use the heights of the English language to give unbecoming snipes and actions.

In any case, Emma. happily embodies all the brittleness of the time it was made to translate effectively Jane Austen’s critique of a time that was while still indulging in all the visual splendour that makes worthwhile period pieces a treat to look at. It would be tempting to claim that the latter is what makes it an easy and appealing watch while performing the former, but the fact is that the same biting attitude of the content informs a lot of how the movie looks and so it intertwines together into the sort of knowing joke on the time and place that at least this viewer loves to be a part of. And the sort of movie that I satisfied me enough as a farewell to the cinema for the time being.

I Love Vinnie

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So, there is a grand ol’ two-prong consensus about the Polish animated Vincent Van Gogh crypto-biography Loving Vincent by this point that’s beaten me down since my initial enthusiasm after seeing it well back in October and it is this: On the first part, the movie is wonderfully gorgeous, absolutely miraculous to see on the big screen (and I pity those who will only have the opportunity to see it on a laptop or something at this point in their life). It has to be. For a long while it was anticipated by some (including yours truly) as a… not-revolutionary (despite the marketing’s insistence on Loving Vincent being the first of its kind) but highly unique animated experience on the basis of its craft.

Let me get the unpleasantness element out of the way first though, because the second part of that consensus deals with the content of the film and it’s an unfortunate blunt one: the script is bad. In this world of a narrative-focused cinematic experience, when you keep hearing that the script of a movie is bad, that’s a dealbreaker regardless of how brilliantly the craft is. My attitude of the script by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman & Jacek Dehnel (Kobiela & Welchman perform double duty as co-directors, Welchman TRIPLE as co-producer) is not nearly as damning, but it’s certainly not enthusiastic.

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The concept of a Rashomon-esque attempt at individuals attempting to deal with the aftermath of a suicide and trying to rationalize why somebody so gifted would be brought to the point of killing himself, spurred on by the young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) being tasked by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver the painter’s (Robert Gulaczyk) last letter to the art dealer brother Theo van Gogh (Cezary Lukaszewicz), only to discover Theo himself had passed away suddenly in the wake of his brother. And in his waiting game, Armand begins to take an interest in the circumstances of Vincent’s last years in suspicion of the how he died.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel beaten down by the continuous pointing out that the script quickly de-evolves, despite its attempt at structual exercise, into a cyclical series of talking heads all coming to the same dead end in how the late 1800s had no understanding of clinical depression and how because of that repetition, every inch of the movie’s 95 minutes is felt. And I understand that but the one piece of the script that really irks me (other than its overbearing coda and garbage ending credits song very labored) is how it attempts to give a finite answer to the source of van Gogh’s desperate depression and is weirdly satisfied about that answer. Given the subject matter, it feels icky to me.

So there’s that. That’s the script. If you’re a content-over-form type of person, you will more likely than not hate Loving Vincent and I’m sorry that you would. I am not at all that type of person and I found myself totally wowed and affected by the execution of the film’s core style.

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Directors Kobiela (a painter herself) & Welchmann overlooked 125 painters working on 65,000 frames intended to imitate the style of the legendary Dutch painter’s impressionistic oil works for its modern day, including pencil sketches for flashback sequences. A portion of these paintings are rotoscoped, but enough of them are from scratch to seriously impress upon anyone even slightly interested in the matter of fine art or even just the works of van Gogh (I can’t imagine how the two interests aren’t correlated though. Are there art hipsters?)

And maybe that might seem like a gimmick to some, but for someone like me who has never had the opportunity to witness any of Van Gogh’s works in person (but one dreams), seeing it on the big screen as opposed to a trailer on my computer makes me more aware of the physical element of the art short of actually reaching out and touching the thing (it’s something that makes me kind of wonder how the film would look in 3D, possibly akin to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams). It’s impossible to ignore the inadvertent contours of the art, the gloopy swirls and strokes that maps all around the frames. Kobiela & Welchmann did very well with photographer Tristan Oliver to translate that beyond the flatness of the screen, they want you to feel the depth of the lines, like the landscapes extend beyond the frame, like the portraits betray the wear of the individual’s face.

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And then there’s the fact that you’re witnessing this in motion. Very little of the shots are stilled in place, you are literally watching art’s textures move little by little. This is obvious in sequences where water is on-screen and most especially obvious in sequences with rain pattering on its steps. And because this isn’t really frames so much as flat-out paintings being presented as frames, you feel the shifts in colors (and idiosyncratic colors doesn’t seem to cut describing van Gogh’s works – he seems to have a dark earthy sensibility to the colors of the world and a lack of scrutiny in using different shades and the film captures that beautifully) and contours being presented more as a visual progression than standard animation’s necessity to turn movement fluid and seamless. It’s fascinating work and while I was just dismissing the marketing’s claims of it being the first of its kind, I can still happily claim that the movie is unlike anything I personally have ever experienced in a cinema.

So therein is a choice to be presented to the prospective viewer of Loving Vincent, one that certainly lives inside an audience member since they began watching movies: Are you looking for content or are you looking for form?* I mean, the answer is pretty obvious to me, given I had just recently defended Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, so it’s no surprise I pretty much loved Loving Vincent. Because if you’re there to see some out of the box storytelling and intelligent storytelling, Loving Vincent is incapable of making most people very happy on that end and I am sorry to say that you might be happier selecting another movie. But if you’re sitting in that theater seat** because you’re an animation or fine art enthusiast or scholar and you’re looking for something to change the way you look at the works of one of the most influential painters in history (excusing my admittedly limited knowledge of the art form), you’ve made the right choice.

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*Ignoring the understanding that in a medium as aesthetically based as film and especially animation, content IS form sometimes.
**Assuming it will have a second-run thanks to its Oscar nominations pls

Hey guys, it’s me, videogameDunkirk

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This late after its initial release (though there is indeed the possibility of an Oscar season rerun given its certainty in the Best Picture slate at this point in a weak year), it doesn’t really matter to housekeep what format exactly I saw Christopher Nolan’s World War II picture Dunkirk or what I’d recommend it in. But just for formality’s sake, I may as well state I was lucky enough to catch it in both regular 70mm projection and in IMAX digital format*. And celluloid purists be damned, after watching it in IMAX, I cannot imagine living without bigger format accommodating the full breadth of most of the imagery (one of the storylines most obviously was not shot on IMAX due to the clear logistics of the scene and so it’s in a 2.20:1 format opposed to the rest of the IMAX 1.90:1. The switch may be jarring to some, but what isn’t kind of jarring about Nolan and editor Lee Smith’s choice of editing style, anyway? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I just want to point out that while most of the imagery cut by the popular 70mm 2.20:1 version of the film is essentially empty space of sea and sky, that goes a long way in implying the length and distance our characters have from safety. Which ratchets up the tension in an anxious way.

That tension coming from portraying the real-life 1940 evacuation of British soldiers from the French shore of Dunkirk as the unseen German forces surround them during their invasion of France in World War II. And being a Christopher Nolan film, one of the mainstream filmmakers most fascinated with playing around narrative structure, the story of Dunkirk’s desperate waiting game and evacuation is told through three different strands and timespans: The Mole, following a week of the novel-named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find a way out of the mass of sitting ducks that is British soldiers trapped on the beach with on-edge private Alex (Harry Styles) and the uncommunicative Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The Sea, following a day of the civilian ships commissioned from Weymouth to help the evacuation effort, amongst them Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who end up finding a shell-shocked soldier stranded in the ocean (Cillian Murphy) who tries to force them to turn away from Dunkirk. And the Air, following three spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and an uncredited Michael Caine in order of importance) as they fly for an hour to give air support to the departing ships and protect them from the hawking German stukas.

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The intention is clear – Nolan wants a comprehensive look at the experience of the fearful lives in one of the most fearful moments in European history – made all the more clearer in the fact that none of these characters have much to inner life within them except the desire not to die, leading more to audience proxies for experiential intensity than any deep entities. Such was the source of much criticism towards Dunkirk and while they’re entitled to their opinion, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m sure most audiences can relate to not wanting to die.

I’d be lying if I said I found the exercise a complete success, though To begin with, I can’t really read a logic to Lee Smith’s cross-cutting between the timelines. There’s not enough incident to the Mole storyline to believe the whole thing spans a week without narratively jumping a few days while the Air storyline is just an extended flight sequence with occasional interruption by Stuka fire. Neil Fulwood at Agitation of the Mind made mention of peripheral moments in the Mole storyline such as the bodies returning with the changing tide that could have been given more room to allow a tapestry of experiences, rather than just keeping it entirely restrained to two points of view – Tommy or the frustratingly patient commanding officer Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Smith doesn’t lose all that much momentum, but the temporal parameters just aren’t well-suited by his cutting.

That said, there is payoff. Significant payoff, one of the highlight sequences in 2017 summer cinema where the film is aware of the exact timepoint where the three storylines will be colliding and not only is the moment heightened and intense, but the movie’s anticipation of this begins to double down on pacing into the moment like a quickening perception of time, the sort of “holy shit!” fright you get entering a car crash. And boy oh boy does somebody have to give Smith all the credit for that.

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Credit as well given to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in providing the sober reality of the entrapped situation with sandy greys and browns and blues without ever losing the sharpness of the imagery with the delicacy of a war photograph. The blues only inhabit the empty distance when Bolton declares how easily he can see home from the port. And aiding that photography in filling in the atmosphere is a sound mix of distant booms and explosions to jolt the viewer’s heart for every time the Germans thwart the desperate British troops’ runs for safety for punctuation or promise an endless chaos even beyond our characters’ occasional apparent safety. Or the stuka sirens alone signifying the dread growing in the coming gunfire to rain on our helpless subjects, doing a better job of that than the atonal paste of noise that Hans Zimmer’s score attempts to provide and then tries to pile on the hamfisted nature by establishing a progressive beat click. Beyond Zimmer’s work, Nolan and company have provided a comprehensive observation of the terrors of Dunkirk that pulls every clear technique short of gore to interject anxiety and stress into the film.

Dunkirk is truly not a waiting game of a movie, it’s full of motion and energy in a despairing and dire premise. And that energy forces the sort of violent shakes that an audience must respond to. It’s the sort of detached presentation that you forget the whole context until its second-to-last note of a bored reading of Churchill’s speech, but it’s not devoid of sentiment when it opens with a character who we are meant to assume will wipe his ass with Nazi propaganda or a character who we sadly witness die is venerated by his local paper. And it’s not as though the actors don’t do what they can to allow their sense of self shade the characters’ response as human (best performed by Rylance, Styles, Branagh, and Keough in that order). But it is a schematic adaptation of a historical event transformed into a vehicle for audience fright without any nationalism or patriotism (probably ideal in the context of Brexit). Some may find that a bit exploitative, but for me, at least on my first two viewings, I found it thrilling enough to bring me to empathize with every single face in the crowd of soldiers on that beach.

*I was indeed frustrated that the sole South Florida IMAX at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Science and Discovery didn’t have it in IMAX 70mm, but there’s a very embarrassing rumor that explains why.

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25 for 25 – Put on Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues

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Nowadays, movies are saturated all the way through with stories about struggling artists and that has been so since the nascency of the very artform (the oldest I can think of on the spot is the historical Jazz Singer from 1927, but you can be damn sure that’s a great underestimation on my part) and because every artist takes their art seriously, even if they’re talking about different artforms and mediums, they all essentially have some sort of emotional investment in the struggles of the artist. Life struggles, physical struggles, psychological struggles, financial struggles, it’s oh so very hard to be an artist but worth it because of what you create and how it obviously affects others, these are all the revelations each one of these movies discover over and over and over again.

And so I suppose on the very genesis of it, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger aka The Archers (always getting duo credits for director, producer, and writer, but  were not doing anything special when they decided to make a movie about a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Red Shoes”, but the execution behind it… it leaves most of those other movies in the dust. The Red Shoes seems more intent overall as a movie to utilize as many of the tools of cinema as it can to make the psychological state of its lead dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) into a complete abstraction and succeeds marvelously. Powell and Pressburger are responsible for some of the inarguably most beautiful movies of all time and I sincerely think The Red Shoes‘ design is easily their best. Meaning that I think The Red Shoes is one of the best-looking movies to ever exist, fuck it. And a lot of that praise from revolves around its central scene.

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I’m not sort of guy who subscribes to the idea that only one element being masterful is enough to carry a movie to pantheon-level. I like to think of film as collaborative and needing every element to work perfectly before it can get better. But if I end up talking exclusively about the ballet close to the end of this, I want you to understand: this is a movie shot by Jack Cardiff, the Archers’ regular, and designed by Arthur Lawson and Hein Heckroth and even the mundane one-on-one discussions are set in such aristocratic palatial interiors that it’s all wonderful to look at. But that ballet is why this movie is a masterpiece, just everything else around it is great. But first the context to that scene:

In the development of that very ballet adaptation of the Anderson story, the impresario of one of the most acclaimed ballet companies in the world Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook based essentially on Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russes) has employed the dancer Vicky whom he finds an arresting amount of potential in and the young conservatory student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) whom he hires after discovering that one of the company’s composers has in fact been a professor of Craster’s and plagiarizing his work. There’s hardly much more beyond backstage drama going on within the film leading up to the ballet, but one of those very threads of backstage drama wraps itself around Vicky’s ankle and tries to tear her apart. And that thread is the romance that blossoms between her and Craster in their preparations and artistic arguments for the upcoming show that begins to disturb Lermontov. Not of a romantic jealousy, though. Lermontov is of the strict opinion that there is no room for domesticity in the hunt for artistic greatness and we earlier see him dismiss his prima ballerina Irina (Ludmilla Tcherina) for her imminent marriage. The gendered factor aside, it’s very clear that Vicky wants to be able to live her life in love with Craster AND wants to reach her full potential as an dancer under Lermontov’s guidance, but Lermontov absolutely will not allow her to have both and it leads to a domestic clash of attitudes between Craster’s young anger and Lermontov’s stubborn classicalism with the helpless Vicky in between unable to use her autonomy to truly pick one or the other and all three of the leads are superb on this front.

But Shearer gets the best most showy role and she gets to do it in the middle of one of the all-time greatest dancepieces ever put to film, particularly because it is the sort of dancepiece that could only be set to film. Scored by the Brian Easdale’s composition conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic, the scope of Lawson and Heckroth’s sets and backgrounds to the play do not fit into any reasonable proscenium scale, there is no way this production can work within a stage, but because The Red Shoes is a movie and not a stage production, it gets to cheat at it and have all these angular, surrounding expressionist village sets full of depth despite their artificiality and the superimposed easy on the eyes skies of red and blue to begin heightening our emotional reactions to these colors and at the center Shearer and Leonide Massine (playing the Shoemaker within the play) pantomime essentially the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov, the Red Shoes being the most obvious metaphor for Vicky’s desire to dance and once they’re on her shoes in a magical movie trick of stop motion, she dances oh so elegantly and wonderfully and then precariously and then interminably and it turns from blissful to frightening just from the curtness of Vicky’s movements and the stamina Shearer must have and then the world keeps spinning around her and we witness that with her sways and the backgrounds now becoming easy light colors that would be so comfortable if it wasn’t obvious how much it pains the girl in the red shoes until the ballet itself climaxes in a manner that foresees the tragedy of the drama behind the production itself.

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The bad news is that it tells the story of the movie already in the most overt manner and once The Red Shoes reaches those heights, it never ever returns to them. Everything after seems mundane in its aftermath despite being made two of the least mundane filmmakers in all of 1940s British filmmaking. And it almost ends up being a waiting game for the rest of the movie to get to the ending you already know it’s heading towards, but maybe that’s just if you’re me and prefer your storytelling by such overt visual abstractions rather than by narrative drama. Because by god, do Shearer and Walbrook and Goring still do their best in their performances to match up in the Archers’ scripted melodrama what that ballet was able to do in craft and I personally find it worthy of a cool down. The Red Shoes feels like a complete challenge to Musical Cinema beyond, the 1950s being plumfull of centerpiece dance numbers like An American in ParisSingin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon trying to match up to Powell and Pressburger’s daring marriage of film and dance and music and stage to become the ultimate artform, but there can only be one pair of Red Shoes and it looks like Powell and Pressburger are wearing them. I guess they can split it.

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