REVIEW: American Honey

Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage girl with nothing to lose, joins a travelling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits (synopsis taken from IMDb)

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not a fan of overly long films. It’s rare that when I watch a film that crosses anywhere over the two hour mark, I sit back in my chair as the credits roll and opine: “well, every minute of that was completely necessary!”

It’s not because I’m a lazy film watcher. I just think stories benefit from being told at a certain pace, that having a restriction of, say, 90 minutes of screen time is a useful limitation for directors (see: Ingmar Bergman) who want to convey their message cleanly and subtly but still keep the audience engrossed from start to finish.

In many cases, the ‘coming of age’ movie gets away with having a lengthier run time, requiring the extra minutes in order to accurately convey the kind of complex changes happening within the protagonist during their long struggle into adulthood. In the case of American Honey, I barely noticed how long the film was (it clocks in at 2hrs 43mins) until it was nearly over, and this is surely a testament to how artfully director Andrea Arnold tells the story of its teenage misfit, Star.

Arnold manages to take a subject which (in my opinion) has been somewhat overdone by the movies – teenagers partying and having sex and breaking various laws – and make it utterly captivating, carving texture and meaning into every frame and pulling us into Star’s journey across the American Midwest with effortless ingenuity.

Part of Arnold’s technique is to find beauty in the smallest of moments; from a bug crawling up a wall (a symbol of Star’s own inability to ‘fly’) to a gummy bear stuck on a car window. Aesthetically, the camera is set to ‘handheld Polaroid-chic’ and makes use of naturalistic light wherever possible, making it feel wistfully nostalgic despite its present-day setting. This combined with the cast of relatively unknown actors, much of the time improvising their lines, gives the film its own special kind of sublime realism.

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It wouldn’t be a teen drama without a ‘first love’, a narrative element that’s already rich with emotion and the potentiality for disaster, but is especially alluring thanks to the eruptive chemistry between Sasha Lane and Shia LeBouf’s Jake. The scenes between the two of them positively melt off the screen, and their magnetic performances are the film’s core. Lane was unknown before starring in this, and her inexperience works in her favour; her facial expressions are natural, and her combined grit and vulnerability has an authenticity that makes her ultra-watchable.

The other main theme which runs through the film (and is present in all of Arnold’s work) is class divide; the sales crew travels through the wealthiest and most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, seizing on any opportunity to make money regardless of the moral implications in their methods. Although the film is underscored by marked social and economic inequality which is present in every scene, it’s not overwhelmed by it, this being a story that is focused more on Star’s inner journey and eventual blossoming.

The film’s final moments are some of the most quietly beautiful and sensual of the movie, and the story is left open, with Star emerging from the water triumphantly, having matured through the trials of pain and love and everything in between.

Top 10 of 2015

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Carol

Carol is a movie that breathes. Within each richly textured shot, meaningful glance, swell of music and elegant delivery of dialogue, director Todd Haynes has us by the heart strings and doesn’t let go until the final, exultant scene. It is not difficult to become fully immersed in the journey of these lovers, in particular Therese (Rooney Mara), as her self-discovery unfolds in a very organic and effortless way. The characters are nuanced, the story well-refined, and the style and direction striking. I loved, in particular, the director’s frequent use of characters shot through glass, a simple technique which perfectly allegorizes the flourishing transparency of Carol and Therese’s relationship, at a time when this openness would be regarded as greatly taboo.

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It Follows

We are in the upsurge of a horror renaissance, after so many years of disappointing and formulaic output within this tricky genre. It Follows is a lovingly crafted piece of filmmaking, clearly influenced by the master John Carpenter in its score, style, originality and overall suffocating sense of dread and paranoia, which grows slowly throughout. Director David Robert Mitchell employs a myriad of skillful and often genuinely surprising techniques to scare, and a fairly straightforward but well-executed premise. Like a Carpenter movie it is rife with subtexts, aching to be unpicked, whilst still being a thrilling and unpredictably fun ride. And like 2014’s The Babadook, its strong performances from a cast of understated actors catapult us far away from the one-dimensional torture-fodder of horror movies past, and into daring new realms. It’s an exciting time to be a horror fan.

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The Lobster

A bold and comically jet-black exercise in the most cutting-edge of satire, The Lobster is a wonderfully surreal exploration of modern romantic relationships and the lengths people will go to in order to formulate (or avoid) them. Although the film is set in a dystopian future, it is strangely and stiffly old-fashioned thanks to its Hotel setting and general ‘Britishness’, and its solid cast of mostly British actors sink with ease into their deadpan performances and the plot’s enveloping cynicism. Its somber integration of classical music is as unflinchingly jarring as its editing, juxtaposing shock and placidity in all the right places. It is warmer and more accomplished than director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous works, thanks to its self-aware sense of humour and energetic pacing. Easily one of the year’s most avant-garde pieces of cinema.

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Tangerine

Tangerine is a movie with genuine heart. On the surface it appears a totally mad, John-Waters-esque dramedy about transgender prostitutes seeking revenge on a cheating lover/pimp in Hollywood, however beneath all its frank lewdness and crazed characters is an honest story about friendship, and staying true to yourself. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film winds dizzyingly in and out of donut shops, brothels, motels, bathrooms, laundromats and the back seat of a taxi, to give us a completely mesmerizing and immersive experience. Real-life trans actors Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor plummet themselves headfirst into the spectacle and although their performances are completely in-your-face, both manage to bring heart and warmth to the film in its subtler moments. It’s a wild and expectation-shattering ride, but once you’re accustomed to the film’s slightly deranged flow, you’ll be laughing all the way through.

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a poignant, beautifully melancholic insight into one woman’s solitary existence, extending down a path of obsession and quiet madness. Kumiko escapes the bustling alienation of Tokyo life and plunges herself into a snowy adventure across seas; the story is strange and often very sad, but also punctuated with moments of childlike hope and humour. We see the world through Kumiko’s innocent eyes and introverted temperament as she interacts with those that try and help her along her quest. David Zellner’s direction and the film’s cinematography is stunning, with each frame composed in layers of dreamy minimalism and densely still atmosphere. The sound design and daring use of silence adds a deeper shade, and an atmospheric score encapsulates Kumiko’s personality, and loneliness. It’s a film that will no doubt stay with you.

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Whiplash

Unbridled intensity permeates Whiplash from start to finish. Like a drum solo, every moment counts, every beat adding a layer, every aspect of each performance a part of the film’s boundless energy. J.K. Simmons’ award-winning portrayal of a militant music teacher has already been showered in praise by critics and audiences, and it’s difficult to picture any other actor bringing the same level of strength and ferocity to the role. The screenplay, pacing and editing all add to the film’s dynamism, as does the sound mixing, which balances all the intensity and drama in the film’s louder moments deftly with the more subdued intervals. All of this makes for an incredibly visceral and unique experience, utilizing all of the elements of great filmmaking.

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Girlhood/Bande de filles

The bonds between teenage girls are some of the strongest and most life-altering, and director Céline Sciamma encapsulates this strength in its entirety with Girlhood, placing us right at the heart of a gang of no-hopes residing in a rough neighbourhood of suburban Paris. Our protagonist, Marieme, has to prove herself in order to place within an often vicious heirarchy, gaining in the process confidence, friends and battle scars. Her transition from innocent youth to swift adulthood is symbolized beautifully in the film’s lavish use of colour, with blues and turquoises through to reds and purples drenching every scene. The characters are fully realised, with performances that are grounded in effortless realism (the French, in my opinion, really do accomplish this best). Laughter and tears are likely upon viewing, as universal themes of love, maturity and friendship are stunningly depicted.

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Mad Max: Fury Road

Here is a film which subverts expectations, proving that big-budget action blockbusters can be creative, unconventional and intelligent. Mad Max: Fury Road is just that: mad and furious. Veteran director George Miller takes great care in constructing every frame and crafting mind-popping chase sequences, using practical effects and rapid editing to take us on a breathtaking journey. Aesthetically, the film has a pleasingly grimy look, insane costume and prop design and a rich colour palette, making it stylistically exhilirating. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron both bring their A-game, completely shunning action-movie archetypes and gender portrayals. Everything that’s great about the film propels it to a level of originality and unpredictability that has been missing from the genre for a long, long time.

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Sicario

The story of Sicario is one that has been explored in many different forms already, in film and TV: the war against drugs, told from the POV of an idealistic FBI agent as her task force takes on the Mexican drug cartel. The reason Sicario feels fresh, though, is its decision to make this a very human story; every character is given a face, the violence and death in the film is used sparingly and conscientiously, and ‘bad’ and ‘good’ is never clear-cut. Everyone is corrupt in some way. Everyone has an alterior motive. The tension throughout the film is built slowly, in layers like its characters, and the pacing and sound feels like that of a Western. The cinematography, too, implements a great sense of depth in its delineation of the richly sandy-toned landscapes and watercolour sunsets of the setting. The film is extremely slick, all of the actors involved playing it cool, and it is never immediately apparent what is around the next corner.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Multi-faceted characters, hallucinogenic animation and a sharply written script make for a joyous dive into the realms of girlhood and growing up in 1970s San Francisco. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is open, frank in its revelations about the teenage girl’s troublesome mind, and is likely to make some viewers a little uncomfortable due to its unabridged honesty. It is, however, a fun and endearing trip, and thanks to its strong cast (Kristen Wiig, in particular is excellent as Minnie’s mother) we are gleefully along for the ride. The film has a refreshingly feminine tone but its gender portrayals are grounded in equality and each character is well-rounded. There is genuine passion at its core, love in every scene, and director Marielle Heller expertly casts insight into Minnie’s haywire life and sometimes cringe-inducing difficulties with complete ease.

 


 

REVIEW: The Lobster

Its jet-black sense of humour and definitively European sensibilities means that the film won’t translate to ‘Hollywood’ audiences, existing in its own surreal bubble of dark moments and blasé shocks. It’s likely to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal for those who venture to see it.


‘The Lobster’ uses cuttingly dark satire and modernist surrealism to probe sharply into an age-old obsession: the search for love. In the film’s bleakly dystopian near-future, single people are arrested and imprisoned in ‘The Hotel’, where they have 45 days to fall in love or be turned into an animal of their choice.

The Hotel is laden with an erratic selection of potential partners, and couples are matched by their ‘defining characteristics’ (today’s dating websites and apps certainly come to mind). Olivia Colman is brilliantly detached as the Hotel’s manager, and Ben Whishaw’s ‘Limping Man’ is easily one of the funniest guests; with comedic timing that is on point, he delivers some of the best lines in the film (his casual ‘this is our new daughter’ induced the biggest laugh from the audience). Colin Farrell, too, is charmingly robotic and effortlessly entertaining as the film’s lead, managing to avoid the trap of bringing too much emotion or bewilderment to the part, instead allowing his character to simply accept his fate and put up little to no resistance, as his dwindling days left as a human are monosyllabically counted away by his alarm clock.

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The futuristic nature of the story is contrasted nicely with the old-fashioned, very British red-carpeted corridors of the hotel setting in which the first half of the story takes place (actually filmed in Kerry, Ireland). Avant-garde camera angles and shadowy, naturalistic lighting make for some lusciously layered cinematography, showed off best in the scenes that take place in the baron, rain-soaked woods which are populated by a poncho-clad band of ‘Loners’ and the wandering camels, pigs and flamingos that didn’t make it.

The rules of the film’s dystopia are seamlessly established and implicated without the need of excessive exposition. This is impressive for a world that is so dense and meandering in its basis and characters’ idiosyncrasies, but we quickly adapt to its rhythm as smoothly as the new visitors to the Hotel do. This is helped by Rachel Weisz’s deadpan narration which leads us nicely into the second half of the film, and although a love story develops, it’s still as wildly unconventional and oddball as the story that precedes it, with Weisz and Farrell communicating through limb-based code and being drawn to each other largely because of their shared short-sightedness. As love between the Loners is strictly forbidden (a rule fiercely enforced by a cool Léa Seydoux and stony Michael Smiley, both excellent), they are forced to disband, leading to a slightly rushed escape to ‘The City’ and a fittingly blunt ending.

What the film says about love, relationships and staying single is open to audience interpretation, although the film is pretty overt in its satire, with the cold, clinical detachment of the forced couplings and brutal savagery of remaining single (the Loners literally have to ‘dig their own graves’) both looking like pretty dire options. If it weren’t for the film’s brilliant, self-aware sense of humour it’s likely that we would exit the screening feeling pretty melancholic, but the balance of wit and cynicism, light and dark, is just right, and in fact I left the screening with a massive smile on my face and a desire to seek out all of writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous work.

‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ and the function of the ‘feminist’ film

There has been a recent surge in appreciation and recognition of that rare and elusive creative force: the female film director. Whether this is due to a brighter light being cast on feminism in general, or perhaps the amassment of collective guilt and unease at the lack of female directors in the industry/Best Director category finally boiling over and being scrutinized, it is certainly something to be celebrated and encouraged, because the more female directors are paid attention to, the more we get to go and watch films like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the ravishing debut of writer-director Marielle Heller, adapted from the Phoebe Gloeckner novel of the same name.

The film’s plucky 15-year-old protagonist, Minnie (Bel Powley), is an artist, and an avid explorer of her new and scary burgeoning sexuality, growing up in the beige-tinted boundary-transgressing landscape of San Francisco in the 1970s. She’s confused, emotional, and uncontrollably love-struck. Females watching the film will especially relate, and we subsequently find ourselves nostalgically thrown into the platform shoes of Minnie’s teenage predicaments. Heller expertly casts insight into this character’s haywire life and sometimes cringe-inducing difficulties with ease; if less care was taken in the film’s direction, or if Powley’s performance was a shade kookier, Minnie could’ve ended up being quite annoying, but instead we are empathizing with, and rooting for her from the get-go.

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Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) is a wild, experimental force of a character, and Wiig’s performance is one of the best things about the film, dominating every scene she is in. A less daring actress would have simply played the role for laughs, especially in the wake of Wiig’s Bridesmaids success, and she could have just given the audience what they expected (a stand-out scene where she pines for her younger years at the kitchen table stands out in particular as one that could’ve easily been more ‘comedic’ in its tone). But there is so much more strength in the subtle steeliness of Wiig’s character, which is balanced by a palpable love for her children and deep affinity with her daughter. She gives off the aura of an experienced, accomplished woman who is completely at ease in her own skin, yet she does this while making mistakes, getting jealous, and being human.

Her jealousy is directed at Minnie, who has started a conspicuous love affair with Charlotte’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Perhaps what makes this film ‘feminist’ is the equality in its portrayals of both genders; it would’ve been easy to make the men in the film (the central love interest in particular) stereotypical, one dimensional ‘bad guys’ who are just there to cause hurt to the female characters. The story’s message and tone, whilst female in its perspective, doesn’t fall into the trap of suggesting that ‘girls are better than boys’ or making the female characters out to be superior in any way (even Minnie’s empowerment in her superb closing line echoes her father’s guidance). Instead, it feels as though the men are as multi-faceted as the director can make them without pulling focus from the protagonist. Monroe falls in love with Minnie as equally as she falls for him, and he is the one who ends up getting hurt, and learning a harsh lesson in love. He’s as immature and unprepared for love as she is, with both characters just following their hearts.

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The animation which weaves its way through a handful of the scenes compliments the radical, hallucinogenic setting of the film and swims along with the progression of Minnie’s wild journey. Minnie’s pursuit of becoming an artist could be viewed as a metaphor for women’s pursuit of making themselves heard in the male-dominated film industry. Monroe looks at Minnie’s drawings unfavourably, telling her they will ‘weird people out’ if she tries to sell them. The boldness of this movie maybe will ‘weird’ some people out, even squirm a bit in their seats…but the warmth and honesty at its core is worth the trip, and comes as a breath of fresh (feminine) air.


The Diary of a Teenage Girl is in cinemas now.

REVIEW: The Salt of the Earth

In a documentary about a photographer, it’s easy to let the subject’s body of work take over the film’s central focus, and there are times in The Salt of the Earth when director Wim Wenders fills the screen with Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado’s powerful images and allows the ‘gallery’ to play out, with one image serenely fading into the next. Luckily, though, Wenders balances this with a thorough exploration of Salgado’s expeditions and the passion that drives him, intercut with first-hand commentary on the remarkable imagery from Salgado himself.

The film opens with a fairly standard (in documentary terms) account of Salgado’s beginnings growing up on a farm in Brazil, becoming a student of economics, and later moving to Europe with his wife. It was here that he ‘stumbled upon’ photography, and made the gutsy decision to dedicate his career, and life, to this newfound passion. Nobody could have guessed where it would take him, and the impact that his work would have.

Strangely, early-on in the film, Wenders decides to break the fourth wall and the documenting of him and his crew documenting Salgado is remarked upon; this is perhaps, as Wenders asserts, due to Salgado’s discomfort in front of the camera (‘I got a good shot of you, too!’) and divulges to us the photographer’s dignified, unassuming nature.

The story then unfolds to delineate Salgado’s journey across continents, through spates of long trips, and the underlying tale of estrangement from his children as a result. Considering the film was co-directed by his son, and allusions to his ‘rediscovery’ of his father are made during their Arctic trip early on in the film, more of a focus on their relationship (and a little more of Juliano’s perspective) perhaps could have benefited the narrative.

Wenders, at this point, takes us through an exhaustive and unremitting consecution of photographs from Salgado’s archives, which chronicle humanity in some of its ugliest forms; African genocide, starvation, the Kuwaiti oil fire and mass-migration are some of the contexts of the images outlined by Salgado’s commentary. This part of the film is not for the faint-hearted, and reveals the overall power and scope of the medium itself.

Ethiopia, 1984
Ethiopia, 1984

An extended monochrome talking-head interview with the subject plays behind the stills of Salgado’s nuanced and prodigious photographic career, and it’s through these that we really get to know this articulate, soft-spoken character. A lot of the rawness of the film comes from his direct emotional reaction to his photographs as they are shown to him, and he recalls each of his experiences with gentle, honest ease, giving us a window into the remarkable history which lies beneath the images.

Juliano Salgado commented on the decision to film his father in this way:

“We got him enclosed in a little room with black paper. In front of the camera, there were [projected] photographs. He would react to them. He would remember what had happened to him. He was confronted with his own images and lived his own emotions back. It was so powerful that in some places in the film, for instance in Rwanda, he could only bear to stay there for five minutes. That segment is almost real time. Suddenly, his subjectivity becomes an emotion that you feel.”

At one point, Salgado’s relaying of his experiences leads him to affirm:

“We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.”

When working in Rwanda and witnessing such brutality, through the extensive suffering of its people and thousands of deaths per day, Salgado became very ill and returned to his home in Paris. He had lost his faith in humanity.

This led to his breakdown, and subsequent return to Brazil. The redemption of his faith came in the form of the re-planting and restoration of his family’s farmland, which makes up the concluding section of the film. This proves to be the story arc that makes the documentary, with Salgado’s passion for the land and the flourishing of the nature reserve on which it now stands giving the final act a much-needed uplift through the metaphor of the assertion of man’s ability to rebuild; grow; make reparation. This message of hope is communicated through the photography of Salgado’s final monumental collection Genesis, which chronicles humanity’s connection to nature ‘from the beginning’.

The Salt of the Earth does justice to its fascinating subject, due to Wenders skilfully giving the photographs the respect and focus they deserve whilst painting a nuanced picture of the man behind the camera, and his courageous spirit. Although at times it’s certainly not an easy watch, its message of hope in humanity’s (and nature’s) integrity prevails, thanks to Salgado’s final, beautiful ‘love letter to the planet’.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in north-eastern Alaska is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States, covering no fewer than six ecozones and stretching some 200 miles (300 kilometers) from north to south. Along its northern coast, barrier islands, coastal lagoons, salt marshes and river deltas of the Arctic coastal tundra provide a marvelous habitat for migratory water birds. Coastal land and sea ice are sought by caribou seeking relief from insects during the summer and by Arctic bears for hunt-ing seals and breeding during winter. This photograph was taken in the eastern part of the Brooks Range, which rises to over 9,800 feet (3,000 meters); the rugged stretch of mountains is sliced by deep river valleys and numerous glaciers. The immense variety of microclimates results from the collision of cold air from the Arctic and hot air coming from the Yukon River  region of central Alaska. Alaska. USA. June and July 2009
Alaska, 2009

The Salt of the Earth is in cinemas now.

REVIEW: Amy

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When presenting a tragedy in documentary form, whether it be a case study of a tragic life which ended too soon, or the relaying of an event in which many people lost their lives, the only way that the story can be successfully told is if the film-maker remains as objective as possible and shows us the events in a fair and unbiased way. The audience is there to make up their own minds about the information which is presented to them, and Amy fails on this at the first hurdle.

Instead, we are treated to the utter demonization of Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, and ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. This demonization comes in the form of excessively repeated instances of ominous music played over slowed-down footage of a shifty-looking Mitch (who may as well have ‘NEGLECTFUL FATHER’ stamped across his forehead) and close-ups of Blake’s drug-addled, mottled face, whilst Amy’s lyrics float across the screen, like sad little symbols of foreshadowing.

That’s not to say that they had no part in her demise, but the fact that their contribution to the unfolding of such tragic events has essentially been made into a film is troubling. And misses the point. Winehouse was such a pure and magnetic talent (who ‘should be regarded along with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday’, as Tony Bennett puts it at the end of the film), yet the juxtaposition of this talent with a life of depression, drug addiction and alcoholism should have been handled with much more sensitivity and much less finger-pointing.

In fact, Amy’s music and rise to fame almost seems to be happening in the background of this film, and we only really get to marvel at, and celebrate, the purity and uniqueness of her talent in the film’s opening, through recordings of early-on performances. Once Amy moves to Camden and encounters Blake, Asif Kapadia chooses to almost exclusively focus on (and sensationalise) her breakdown, in the same way that the paparazzi did when she was alive. And although he doesn’t explicitly state whose fault Amy’s drug addiction was, we get Blake shakily admitting to introducing drugs to Amy in a voice-over interview, and so Kapadia oh-so-gently nudges us to blame him.

If we compare this to the recent Kurt Cobain biopic Montage of Heck, which presents a similar story, you could take the feeling of unease which Brett Morgen’s documentary musters and multiply that by about twenty. At least Montage made some effort to remain impartial by taking an amalgamation of home footage and interviews and putting it on the screen in (what seemed like) a sincere and tasteful way. Even Courtney Love came out of it looking OK. Amy feels more like the unofficial trial of Mitch and Blake with a jazzy soundtrack accompaniment.

Never have I seen a documentary which completely jettisons subtlety in favour of sensationalism, and the exploitation of the audience’s emotion, to such an extent. Even watching the film purely to appreciate Winehouse’s talent is a waste of time, because by the end you will feel so uncomfortable that you probably won’t want to hear another Amy Winehouse song for quite a while.

TOP 3: David Lynch films

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Like any meaningful relationship, my love of David Lynch’s work has not always been easy. Lynch’s work can be notoriously difficult to ‘get’ straight away, demanding tireless re-viewings and subsequent reflection in order to unravel the plotlines, and take heed of the clues which point to the larger allusions (I recommend Renegade Cut’s Understanding a David Lynch film for first-timers).

Each unconventional, genre-bending, narrative-twisting endeavour demands a certain level of patience, but once you submit yourself to the journey, it will reveal its rewards. Each film feels like a transcendence into the director’s soul, wrought with themes of duality, hidden worlds, reality and fantasy, fragmented dreams and unsettling nightmares. There is always a mystery to be unpicked and inspiration to be gleaned.

Every film created by Lynch, like all great art, is somewhat governed by the reaction and interpretation derived from its viewers. We are as much a part of each piece as Lynch himself.

Here are my top three, in no particular order:

ERASERHEAD

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Eraserhead is still as mind-bending, subversive and utterly disturbing as it was when it was made, nearly four decades ago (and this is coming from someone who, like most film audiences today, has been all but desensitised to contemporary ‘shocking’ cinema in most of its ugly forms).

Its timelessness owes to the fact that Lynch ‘disturbs’ in a different way. You can call it ‘art’ cinema, but really Eraserhead is ‘dream’ cinema, setting the tone for Lynch’s elusive, experimental style, blurring the lines between dreams and reality and confounding audiences in the process. The film is a surrealist, black-and-white, sexually charged and overtly unsettling brain-fuck, following Henry (played devotedly by a horizontal-haired Jack Nance) who resides in a dystopian cityscape, occasionally experiencing visions of a Lady in a Radiator whilst caring for his incessantly crying mutant child. Also, his world may or may not be controlled by a man in space, with levers. As with all Lynch films, it’s near impossible to adequately sum up the plot without sounding like you’ve lost every single one of your dwindling collection of marbles.

Funded mainly by its cast and crew, the AFI and Lynch’s paper-round money (no really…Lynch delivered papers during the day and shot the film at night), Eraserhead took five years to complete. A scene in which Henry enters through a door was superseded by a year-long gap before they could afford to film him coming through the other side. Once finished, it looked doubtful that distribution of the film would be widespread due to its complete bizarreness and marked unmarketability, but eventually it found its home on the midnight movie circuit in NYC, embarking on a slow rise to its ‘cult’ status after playing to empty theatres for some time.

The baron, charcoal-smudged industrial landscape in Eraserhead’s design is a setting that is quite different from Lynch’s later work; the blue-skied, small-town America of his childhood (and its seedy underbelly). Lynch shot Eraserhead while living and raising his first child in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Philadelphia, a ‘city full of fear’, and its dark influence on Lynch can be seen and felt in the final, Kafkaesque vision. Out of all of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead feels most akin to his photography and paintings, and comes with a raw, unpolished-ness which is a result of the freedom Lynch had over its shooting, script (or lack of script) and eerie sound design (the latter took a whole year to create, and often includes up to fifteen different sounds played simultaneously using multiple reels).

The experience of watching it will be unsettling, but the meaning to be taken from its many undertones and desire to explore it (and the director) in greater depth will stay with you long after the credits roll.


MULHOLLAND DR.

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“This is a movie to surrender yourself to. If you require logic, see something else. Mulholland Drive works directly on the emotions, like music.” – Roger Ebert

Ebert, famously, was not a fan of Lynch’s prior works (his ‘two thumbs down’ review was displayed proudly on some of the posters promoting Lost Highway), but Mulholland Dr. was the film that caused him to ‘forgive’ Lynch for his earlier transgressions, and I do agree with Ebert’s view that Mulholland Dr. is the film that Lynch had been ‘working toward’. It’s his most fully-formed, well-executed vision, balancing mystery with plot with dreaminess most skilfully. It endlessly keeps us guessing, and coming back for further viewings, in order to fit together the pieces of a beautiful, non-sequential puzzle.

The story (which is, once again, difficult to explain) is that of aspiring actress Betty Elms, whom we meet (after some bizarre, high-exposure jitterbugging) as she arrives in LA to pursue her dreams. She’s staying in her aunt’s apartment, where she encounters a mysterious, wide-eyed and rouge-lipped brunette who is suffering from amnesia. Together they embark on a quest to discover the self-named Rita’s true identity and story.

Along the way the girls encounter a bag stuffed with money, a blue key, a film audition, a dead body in a bed, and burgeoning lesbianism (which culminates in an avidly sensual love scene, not to be forgotten). Half way through the story, identities appear to switch, heartbreak and loss is revealed, a cryptic cowboy hints at something else.

Dreams? Illusions? Wish fulfilment? Parallel Universes? It’s really up to us to decide. The turning point in the film, a scene and a song in Club Silencio, has to be one of the eeriest and most powerful sequences ever shot by Lynch, and has stayed in my psyche ever since first viewing. After this point, the dream train de-rails, plucky Betty becomes out-of-luck Diane, and consciousness slowly manifests.

One of Lynch’s favourite films is the glorious Sunset Blvd, and its noir-ish influence is all over Mulholland Dr., colouring its subtexts and style in shadowy tones and faded Hollywood glamour. Both films deal with broken dreams and human putrefaction, the poison of fame in a ‘city of lethal illusions’. But Mulholland Dr. is not homage to Sunset, more of a capturing of its spirit, another chapter in Billy Wilder’s vision, and Hollywood’s murky history.

It’s a film that keeps on giving, with the chance to discover/realize something new with each fresh viewing. You will probably never understand 100% of Mulholland Dr., but as Lynch affirms…’the more unknowable the mystery, the more beautiful it is.’


LOST HIGHWAY

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When deciding on a Top 3, the first two were obvious, even predetermined, but it was difficult for me to choose between Lost Highway and Blue Velvet for the final slot. Lost Highway won by a margin, because it better encapsulates what I love most about Lynch: the way he plays with ‘mystery’. No director does it quite like him, and the film is a perfect illustration of this.

Watching Lost Highway is like going on a wild, sexy ride filled with thrill and uncertainty, creepy chalk-faced men and enigmatic headlights in the dark, remote desert. As the ride goes on it gets faster, crazier, more abstract, as we are plunged deeper into Fred/Pete’s subconscious. Classical noir elements are mixed with contemporary surrealism, although the film is packaged more as a ‘psychological thriller’, using a conception of the ‘psychogenic fugue’ principle at its core.

The first section of the story presents us with a character that is trapped in the confines of mundanity, and the latter is a complete deviation into danger and perversity, with Lynch once again switching identities and letting us come to our own conclusions about the meaning behind what we see on screen, the protagonist’s digressions and latent desires.

Lost Highway sprung from an idea that Lynch had when driving home from shooting the disappointing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Lynch collaborated with Barry Gifford (whose novel was the basis for Wild at Heart) on the screenplay and shot the film in 84 days. The film feels less laboured than some of Lynch’s other work as a result, and stylistically, is perhaps a more refined version of the overt trashiness in Wild at Heart’s core, making it all the more alluring.

The styling of Patricia Arquette as Renee/Alice in particular, is, jaw-dropping, who delivers a performance which oozes carnality. The sex in the film (and there is a lot of it) is shot in glorious, unabridged detail, with Lynch’s camera savouring every moment of Arquette’s goddessness. She’s the classic noir femme fatale, slinking about in clingy silk dresses and colossal heels and a doe-eyed expression, only to reveal a darker side and questionable identity later on in the story. She’s the perfect actress for the part, and commands every scene she appears in.

A mixture of industrial rock/D&B from Trent Reznor, Rammstein et al. and the slow, melodic synths synonymous with Lynch’s style from longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti for the score is a discordant clash of two worlds, and so matches the story perfectly. The soundtrack is designed to jolt, unsettle and bury us further into the darkness.

‘Freedom from mundanity’ is really the central theme of Lost Highway, and the ‘opposition of the phantasmatic horror of the nightmarish universe and the despair of our drab, alienated daily life of impotence and distrust’ (as summed up perfectly by philosopher Slavoj Žižek), is what Lynch leaves us pondering. Which universe is more horrifying?