Month: June 2015

The Message in the Medium

Seeing that there was a 35mm screening of Casablanca in the local independent theatre, I suited up and dragged a couple of friends along, insisting that they dress up to respect the film. I did not regret this decision when we walked into the auditorium to find a silver haired audience all in finest regale. Unlike the rest of the audience, who would mouth the words along and laugh together in expectation, my guests hadn’t seen the film before and so they were understandably devastated when in the dying moments of the film, Humphrey Bogart poised on the runway, the picture burned hot white and split across on the screen. I had only seen something like this in Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

gremlins

The projectionist came down to explain that a lot of restoration had to be done to get the print to work in the first place and that it was now irretrievable. A collective groan escaped the crowd, and as my friends sat there sullen, saying that we would need to find it online, an elderly gentleman wearing a wide grin leant over from the row behind. “A lot of films used to end like that when I was your age. You know, it happened when I watched this film! And we didn’t have a way of finding out what happened..”. In one fell swoop the romanticism had been restored by this mystical figure. This was truly a spectacle. (more…)

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2015)

Bad City, a comic book mesh of Iran and the US – like the film’s writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour – where pimps, whores and drug addicts fill the street at night, watched over by a lone girl in the shadows: a vampire in a veil.

girl

The genre is given new cultural significance in this middle-eastern setting despite being shot in the Californian desert. The chador becomes a cape. The meek silence of an impassive woman becomes more an ominous threat. The Girl isn’t lead around by men, she stalks them.

The vampire becomes an icon of female empowerment and violent revenge as the seemingly vulnerable girl walking home alone at night is actually the predator here. Yet still, after punishing a lowlife pimp who closely resembles Ninja from Die Antwoord, this moral avenger knows she has done wrong. She is bad. Sinful even.

Shot in black and white, spoken in Farsi, and with a sleek soundtrack comprised of indie, punk, traditional Iranian music and tinges of Ennio Morricone, the film is aware of how cool it is, or at least how cool it wants to be – take for instance our vampire’s penchant for skateboarding, or our James Dean modelled hero Arash.

The confidence of the film, reinforced by often beautiful composition, does allow certain scenes to unfold slowly and with greater impact. One truly beautiful scene sees Arash in The Girl’s room, dressed up as Dracula, very gradually approaching her back. A spinning disco-ball throws fractured light around the room, adorned with slightly off iconic music posters (think: Ghana’s bootleg movie posters), as the distance between them is closed so very slowly, lasting almost an entire song.

Unfortunately these slower, more deliberate scenes are dropped in favour of typical genre conventions, steering into something much more predictable with less flair and originality. There isn’t much to the story itself, and some crucial moments and character decision’s really don’t add up.

Overall the film does feel a little style over substance, but it sure is a sleek style worth paying attention to. At times.

Ex Machina; or, The Modern Frankenstein

While most reviews of Ex Machina (2015) reference Frankenstein, none that I read unpacked the idea fully. Here I want to focus on the character of Nathan Bateman, played by Oscar Isaac, and how he compares to the archetype of the mad scientist.

Ex-Mach

Just as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Nathan isolates himself from society and hides away in his research facility. He has a sole companion and servant – though trade hunchback gravedigger Fritz for android concubine Kyoko. And he dedicates himself fully to his work, the work of gods: creating life.

Victor Frankenstein’s first words upon reanimating his monster: ‘Oh God! Now I know what it feels like to be God.’ It makes sense then that his creation is constantly compared to Adam, the first man. Nathan takes the baton from his predecessor and endows his own artificial intelligence with sexuality, creating Ava (an Anglicised version of Eve) – the first woman.

Nathan playfully alludes to his godlike status when misquoting a remark made by Caleb, employee and human component of the Turing test, “I’ll never forget it, you turned to me and said ‘You’re not a man you’re a god.'” (more…)

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is a bold original horror that scares rather than startles – every moment carrying the unease of a dark underlying reality.

babadook

Amelia is struggling to cope with her manic son Sam on the run up to his seventh birthday – a date that also marks the death of his father. Sam’s disruptive behaviour swings wildly out of hand when he discovers a pop-up book that warns of an unstoppable monster in a ‘funny disguise’: Mister Babadook.

The book, a grim (with one ‘m’) fairy-tale, is beautifully crafted and a great centrepiece to the film. It comes to life not only through its eponymous character but in the production design, with hidden faces in the décor of each scene. The saturated blue, black and grey against white create a similar palette to the book and at times embodies The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – but Mister Babdook is no somnambulist, rather an expressionist inversion of the Spirit of Jazz, dressed in a top-hap hat and cloak.

This character is actually not so frightening outside of the book. Once he takes physical form and steps out of the shadows, he is just another bogeyman – drained of his symbolic potency. This is surprising though considering the chilling monster of the short on which this film is based. Even so, it is what Mister Babadook stands for that is so deeply disturbing.

Whilst the big studios remake classic horrors (Don’t Look Now! First Wicker Man now this…), and the new semi-independent horrors insist on reminding us how scary children are, especially when they suddenly appear with an orchestral crash,The Babadook flips the idea on its head. It explores much darker territory. It explores a very real horror but through this phantasmal figure.

The film is far from subtle. It lays out the direction of the story early on through the storybook, unpacking all of the symbolism and explaining away the subtext through exposition and sometimes unnecessary scenes. All of this it does in the first act and yet the idea is so haunting that it keeps you in locked suspense. It remains scary even when you know what’s coming – because you know what’s coming. This feeling doesn’t quite survive a second viewing but it remains impressive as an original.

The Babadook gets under the skin and unsettles – truly a scary film with a great concept.