FILM REVIEW: Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2003)

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An epic minimalist parable from prankster & provocateur Lars Von Trier.

The three-hour long Dogville is a hugely ambitious movie which plays out across a single, black and white set. There are at most three walls, one car and a handful of chairs to be found in the entire film: outside of that, there is almost nothing besides the actors and some chalk lines on the floor to tell us where houses and gardens are supposed to be.

The theatrical set design is unignorable. It’s the first thing any viewer of Dogville will notice, and it’s a quite brilliant concept. Von Trier stages his movie as if it were a play which the viewer was moving inside of, lending it a spontaneity and strong sense of presence. We feel right up close to Nicole Kidman et al as we watch them perform. But at the same time, this is juxtaposed with jittery camera movements and subtle editing cuts which deliberately strip away the illusion of film.

The effect is incredibly unsettling at first. We are left with almost nothing to cling on to except the actors and their performances, so it helps that these are uniformly fantastic. Nicole Kidman gives an astounding performance that is vulnerable, mysterious and thoughtful in equal measure, while Paul Bettany is also great as the idealistic and conflicted Tom.

By taking away so much, Von Trier asks us to consider more carefully the things that are left. There is lots of symbolism in Dogville, some very overt, some less so. In the prologue, Tom and Ben play checkers but realize they “can’t play the game with a missing piece” right before Grace arrives. When she does, she runs up the mountain but is warned prophetically by Tom that “it’s a very nasty drop”. Fall from grace, anyone?

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The religious undertones of the film heighten as it progresses. One later scene finds Nicole Kidman rather allegorically spread out on a bed of apples, signalling temptation. This develops into the central thread of the movie, as Dogville becomes a metaphorical Eden and issues of judgment and community, which germinate in the film’s first hour or so, pull back to a more universal scale.

The setup is fantastic, and the way in which Von Trier entangles each character in his web is fascinating and sometimes excruciating to watch. If I had one slight complaint, though, I do think some of the scenes leading up to Dogville’s gloriously nihilistic ending were a bit too heavy-handed with their philosophizing.

But any minor complaints are eradicated by those closing scenes, and the utterly evil credit sequence which follows. A montage of human poverty and suffering set to David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’? Are you fucking kidding me, Lars?

Dogville’s ideas might not be revolutionary, but the way in which it combines them is. It is something like a cross between Paradise Lost, Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Beckett, with a healthy dose of malicious wit and humour thrown into the mix. It is unlike any other movie I could care to name, and while it is certainly not an easy watch, Dogville is a groundbreaking and ambitious movie from one of the most instantly recognizable artists in modern cinema.

9.4/10

FILM REVIEW: Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014)

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A pure flight of imagination which tells a very grounded story of grief and loss.

I think animation might just be the perfect medium in which to tell a fairytale. The vibrant colours, the exaggerated expressions which are more readable for children, the relative ease of drawing as opposed to filming things like spirits and magic…they all lend themselves to stories which present truths and lessons about the world around us in a form that captures the imagination and stirs the sense of adventure inherent in both children and adults.

Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is one such story: a magical realist fairytale which contains no small number of fantastical creatures and landscapes. It is a pure flight of the imagination, but one that takes to the skies in order to tell a very grounded and affecting story about grief and trauma. There are all kinds of important lessons to be found within this movie about how human beings deal with emotions (including one beautiful scene in which literally bottled up emotions are cathartically released), and they’re just as applicable to children as they are to adults.

The level of emotional and narrative nuance in Song of the Sea can’t help but recall the work of Studio Ghibli, which is a clear influence here. This is a movie as steeped in Irish folklore and mythology as Ghibli films are in their Japanese counterpart: Gaelic songs, dusky pubs, Yeats poems, and a fantastic soundtrack with many elements of traditional Irish folk music.

But Song of the Sea has a visual and production style all of its own. Where Ghibli films are often very dynamic, Song of the Sea is graceful and highly composed. Visually it looks something like a cross between Gustav Klimt and a runic cave painting, full of swirling shapes, patterns, and flowing streams of golden blue. Many of the drawn backgrounds are 3D spaces flattened into a 2D plane, which creates a wonderfully disorientating and abstracted effect.

I found certain sequences within this film really just awe-inspiring: Saorsie’s midnight swim with the seals, the descent into the holy well and the ancient fairy’s nest of flowing hair, riding the spirit-dogs to the lighthouse, the approach to the old witches house, the entire ending sequence…Song of the Sea continually surprised and amazed me throughout its relatively brief ninety minute runtime.

My only teeny weeny complaint is that some of the voice acting on the incidental characters was a bit lacking, but all the main characters were very effectively brought to life. Aside from that, I have nothing but gushing praise for Song of the Sea and can’t wait to see where Tomm Moore and co go next. I’d really like to see them go in a completely new direction and get out from under the somewhat daunting shadow of Ghibli influence – I think they’re more than talented enough to do it. But even if they don’t, Song of the Sea is a unique triumph all of its own.

9.5/10

FILM REVIEW: Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

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A mesmerising expose of war’s unseen atrocities.

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is a searing and utterly relentless look at the intricacies of justice and power. Beneath its surface level of delicate and highly crafted conversations there bubbles a furious political anger of a kind we don’t often see in Kubrick.

Full Metal Jacket and Dr Strangelove are political movies, of course, but the former is a much more personal portrait of the horrors of war, while the latter mounts its attack with acidic satire. Paths of Glory, on the other hand, is an ambitious, top-down look at how persuasion and manipulation are the real weapons of power, not rifles.

In this respect it proves infinitely more horrifying than watching hordes of soldiers being torn to shreds by gunfire. The cold, detached manner in which human lives are weighed as percentage casualties, the General placing greater import on earning medals than the lives of his men…this is the bureaucracy of mass murder, and it is terrifyingly real.

There is an almost Kafkaesque quality in the way Paths of Glory portrays its characters as fruitlessly combating systems of power and law. The trial scene in particular is chilling to watch: a brutal cocktail of fear, misdirection and complete chance culminating in three men’s fate being awfully sealed.

Some war movies appeal to our sense of pathos by showing us the bloody reality of the front line and the trenches. They’re well within their right to do so: these are things which have to be seen to be fully comprehended for those who weren’t there.

But Paths of Glory is perhaps more horrifying than any of these movies in the way it reveals the unseen atrocities of war. It resists sentiment until its very last scene, in which one single moment of devastating emotional catharsis brings the movie to a rapturous and ambiguous end. I had to pick my jaw off the floor.

To me, this is Kubrick’s best film outside of 2001. It is not quite as visually daring and composed as many of his lauded classics, but Paths of Glory is sharp, nuanced, and economical, never putting a single foot out of line.

9.3/10

FILM REVIEW: Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)

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The feature-length debut from Hayao Miyazaki, who went on to found legendary anime production company Studio Ghibli, is really unlike any of his other films. Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro is a sparkling, highly stylised action comedy which doesn’t contain the same level of character/narrative depth we expect from Ghibli, but makes up for it in spades with energy and joyful abandon.

Lupin is a fantastic protagonist: charismatic and endlessly likable, able to weasle his way out of any hairy situation. While the arc of the action in Cagliostro is reasonably predictable, part of the joy of watching this movie is just going along for the ride with it. We know that if Lupin is captured he will escape, but the question is how: what brilliant scheme has Miyazaki devized to save his protagonist this time?

In this regard, watching Castle of Cagliostro requires suspension of disbelief to quite a large extent: the action here is silly, outrageous, and wildly imagined. Characters leap across buildings and grab onto moving planes just in the nick of time, or fall huge distances off cliffs and emerge with nothing more than a bruise. Things like this might serve to cheapen a lesser action movie, but they’re a perfect complement to the outlandish, flamboyant tone of Cagliostro.

The movies fantastic soundtrack does a lot to generate the carefree mood which oozes from its every pore, too. Yuji Ohno put together a jazzy, psychedelic and somewhat proggy score that really makes Cagliostro stand out from Miyazaki’s later movies, which often opt for more subtle and classical sounds.

It’s fascinating to see Miyazaki approach an existing manga/anime series and put his own spin on it with Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro.  The man’s brilliance was more than evident even from the beginning of his career, with a feature length debut that remains very different to every Ghibli movie that proceeded it. And one that, I would say, can rub shoulders with the best of them.

8.8/10

FILM REVIEW: After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

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Good morning, Paul.

Scorsese proves himself a master puppeteer of the unconscious with After Hours, his batshit insane, hilarious and genuinely horrifying descent into a dream/nightmare New York, filtered through the eyes of word processor Paul Hackett, who is having a really, really bad night.

What begins as an offbeat comedy quickly devolves into madness. Logicless, liminal moments of horror and hilarity rub up uncomfortably close together: Marcy recounts being raped, and then tells Paul about her ex-boyfriend’s Wizard of Oz obession. A phallic zoom+pan into a telephone as the prospect of sex appears hints at the movies impending dive into the psychological deep end.

But that’s just the beginning. Like many bad dreams, what starts off as a mundane and jumbled assortment of half-coherent moments becomes an avalanch of fear and insecurity. Suddenly, Paul finds himself on a delightfully inescapable dream-quest to do one simple thing: return home.

What is really intriguing to me about After Hours is just how carefully thought out all of the psychological elements are. It feels like there could be a whole second movie made to tell the story of guilt, repression, fantasy, abandonment and ice cream trucks which bubbles below the surface of After Hours.

And the real-life, working mechanics of dreams are captured so perfectly, too. After a scene in which Paul experiences a strong feeling of guilt, there’s a brilliant moment in which he tries to jump the barrier of the subway and gets caught by the guard. It perfectly illustrates the banal and anxious way that feelings like guilt really operate on the subconscious.

Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker go to great lengths to recreate that feeling in the film’s visuals, too. The roaming camera and subtly disjointed editing create an uncomfortable feeling of instability. And quick-cut moments like a pair of keys suddenly dropping to Paul out a window are jarring, maintaining an atmosphere of constant tension even during moments of levity.

It all comes to a rapturous, screwball climax in the film’s unpredictable last half an hour, leaving you rubbing your eyes in disbelief as the credits roll: did that really just fucking happen?

Much like The King of Comedy before it, I think After Hours is criminally underrated in Scorsese’s filmography. This is an ambitious yet hilarious psychological drama that has none of the codified twists and turns we associate with the genre (thats you, Shutter Island). Instead, After Hours is another unique and unforgettable film from one of cinema’s greatest living directors.

9.6/10

FILM REVIEW: Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

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David Lynch’s Lost Highway plays like a companion film in a lot of ways to Mulholland Drive, which the director would release a few years later and perfect his particular brand of surrealist nightmare-mystery. Here we have a lot of the same ingredients as that film and just as much ambition in the themes, ideas and images on show, but not quite the same level of execution.

Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway is a story that suggests more than it tells, and is full of seductive mysteries that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Who is the pale-faced man in the cabin? What happened to Pete on the night of the transformation? Did Fred really murder his wife? Lynch leaves all these questions unanswered and, in doing so, smears a gooey and inescapable layer of psychological intrigue all over his film.

The structure of Lost Highway is quite brilliant, too. The opening scenes act as a more traditional narrative set-up in the vein of a horror movie, but after a climactic (orgasmic?) point at the 40 minute mark, things start to unravel into a nightmarish sequence of half-cohering scenes which are tied together more by their psychological intensity than by any sense of a structured narrative. This is a key technique that Lynch developed in his later films, from the ‘entering the blue box’ scene in Mulholland Drive to the glorious marathon-nightmare-clusterfuck of Inland Empire.

But while the vision and the technique is all there, the execution is somewhat lacking at points. I find all three of the main actors a bit flat, to be honest: both Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty are trying too hard to be enigmatic while just coming across as a bit passionless, while Patricia Arquette isn’t really given much scope to be anything other than breathy and alluring.

It could perhaps be said, also, that Lost Highway leans on sex a bit too heavily in creating its atmosphere of seedy, glossy mystery. Where Mulholland Drive is full of richly imagined moments like Club Silencio or the encounter with the Cowboy, Lost Highway falls back a few too many times on psychodramatic sex scenes which begin to wear themselves out towards the end.

While not perfect, Lost Highway is a film that could only have been conjured out of the vivid, twisted and surreal imagination of David Lynch, and is a clear stepping stone towards his later classics that remain some of this century’s greatest movies.

8.2/10