September 27, 2015

Haunted instrument

The Wind Journeys (Ciro Guerra, 2009). I got to this late, via Embrace of the Serpent: like that, a long journey through haunted landscapes. Duels, challenges: the musical instrument as weapon, and cursed object. 

September 24, 2015

Down in the lab

The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983). David Bowie is a delicate, spectral presence in movies and just as that worked so well for him and Nic Roeg in The Man Who Fell to Earth, it also worked for him and Tony Scott in The Hunger. I hadn’t seen this since the late 1980s, on murky VHS on a small television, and given Scott’s love for shadows and dim light through billowing curtains or venetian blinds, it was like looking for figures in the fog. It’s better than I remember and it’s better than its reputation. The 80s high style is hazy and unreal, the mood is listless and eroticised Euro-decadence and the minutes that Bowie spends, abandoned and alone, ageing rapidly in a hospital waiting room, is the most affecting screen performance he ever gave. The Hunger appeared in April 1983 – the mass-appeal commercial breakthrough of Let’s Dance came in exactly the same month. There is something sad and significant in that timing as well, in seeing a reclusive and nocturnal Bowie die onscreen while out in the bright world he was being reborn as a popular entertainer. It was a transitional time: the unhealthy Bowie was on the way out and a healthy replacement was on the way in. With his wide hat and his limo rides, the dying Bowie of The Hunger even looks like the Thin White Duke of the 70s. The use of Bauhaus at the start was so obviously clever (as the band in the new wave club, they play their Bowie-influenced song about a dead movie vampire while Bowie and Catherine Deneuve hunt for warm bodies) but I had forgotten that another key scene is scored to Iggy’s “Funtime”, which was a Bowie co-write (“Last night I was down in the lab / Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew”). 

September 17, 2015

At war

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015). A tense, dark and gripping contemporary war film that is reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty – What is legal? What is illegal? What, in the end, does it matter? – set on, above and below the US-Mexican border where a shadowy group of law enforcers fights a vast and unwinnable war against brutal drug cartels. As in the Bigelow film, a woman (Emily Blunt) is our guide and troubled conscience in a morally confusing world. Blunt was too good, too serious for the risible Tom Cruise actioner The Edge of Tomorrow; here, she is powerful and sympathetic as FBI agent Kate Macer and both Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are excellent as the most enigmatic and cynical of the unofficial war on drugs/black ops team. With the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve turns Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay into a strongly visual story and amplifies a sense that this is just one small part of a much larger picture (it’s the flip side of Traffic). Following Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve shows that he is becoming a master of generating and sustaining ambient fear, even if the material has not always been equal to the mood. A Blade Runner sequel is next.  

September 7, 2015

Lost Pope

We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011). Everyone wanted something else: a farce, or a biting satire of organised religion, or the thoughtful exploration of a loss of faith that Moretti vaguely hints at in his film’s best moments, when the elected Pope gone AWOL (Michel Piccoli) takes a night bus through Rome or sits in on rehearsals of The Seagull, finally free of the burdens of being himself. His air of quiet disappointment and failure is the persistent tone. 

September 4, 2015

Guns and cars

The Rover (David Michod 2014). A heavily bearded Guy Pearce is easily the best thing about the second, less celebrated film from misanthropic Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michod; it is a physical, soulful, quiet performance as a man alone on desolate roads in South Australia 10 years after “the collapse”. Everyone will automatically expect the son of Mad Max, but Michod isn’t interested in that kind of fantasy (or, to be honest, excitement) – he prefers to show us a largely male, brutal world that is slowly breaking down and reverting to barbarism. It is another kind of animal kingdom, powerfully imagined and sustained, and the mood is melancholy throughout (Sad Max?). 

September 1, 2015

End of winter, first day of spring

Wes Craven, 1939-2015. With Drew Barrymore, talking knives during the making of Scream. Widely held to be the third of his three reinventions of American horror cinema, as though a career could be loosely mapped against the Vietnam 70s, the VHS franchise 80s and the post-modern 90s, it had the added side effect – good for him, maybe, but perhaps less so for us – of leading to remakes of his and Tobe Hooper’s original, almost unwatchably brutal 70s gore classics for a more flippant, less shockable age. But still, the first Scream would have to be in a Craven top five, with The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, the first Nightmare on Elm Street and the nearly too-conceptual-for-its-own-good New Nightmare. He was one of horror’s thinkers.