“We can start over”

Like Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chungking Express (1994) before it, Wong Kar-Wai’s 1997 film Happy Together tells of the torment of a dysfunctional relationship in decline.

Focusing on the fractious exchanges of Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung), a gay Chinese couple in Argentina trying to save their failing relationship, Happy Together is something of an ironic title; both men seem to be better off with others – be them close friends or promiscuous strangers. They live together in a tiny apartment in Buenos Aires, with Ho, jobless and severely injured following an apparent fight, reliant on Lai for everything: bathing, cooking, buying cigarettes. This coupled with his destructive personality often becomes too much for Lai, causing friction between the two. But when Lai kicks Ho out and tries to move on, he simply cannot resist Ho’s pleas of “we can start over”, and the cycle starts all over again.

Happy Together is a devastatingly beautiful film, visually and thematically. Wong Kar Wai’s hyper-stylised direction has become a staple of his films, and his use of music is almost unrivalled in contemporary cinema – only Paul Thomas Anderson comes close. But it’s in the richness of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography that this story comes alive. The way in which Doyle allows the colours of Happy Together saturate and burst from the screen works wonderfully, layering the film in claustrophobia and placing the audience uncomfortably close to the couple; during both their intimacy and their violence.

Another trait of Wong Kar-Wai’s films is a lack of narrative drive, and this is certainly apparent in Happy Together. Kar-Wai is far more interested in the visuals than the story, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing like many of his critics suggest; his films aren’t about answering questions, they’re about posing them. With Happy Together, he asks what’s best: staying in a relationship where you love the person but constantly fight, or leaving the person you love behind because you can’t hurt them anymore.

Maybe Happy Together isn’t as ironic a title as I first thought.

“Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here but it sounds better in French”

Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 musical An American is Paris is widely regarded as a high point of Gene Kelly’s illustrious career, one that includes such great films as On The Town, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Singin’ in the Rain. Whilst Minnelli’s film never quite reaches the same standard as these great musicals, it’s still a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile entry into the genre.

An American in Paris follows Jerry Mulligan, an American war veteran working as a painter in 1950’s Paris who falls in love with a young French girl. Unbeknownst to him, she is already dating a singer and their relationship is surely doomed from the start; or is it?

The nature of traditional musicals suggests that a comprehensive narrative is often secondary to the singing and dancing, and this film is certainly no different. The story of Mulligan’s entry into the art world is barely developed and is only mentioned when the plot needs to progress, like when the two romantic leads and their rivals need to be in the same room together – an art exhibition – to conclude the film. It is this that separates An American in Paris from the aforementioned great musicals; they all have satisfying stories, something that this film sorely misses.

What the film lacks in plot, however, it more than makes up for in theatricality. Gene Kelly was a great movie star, and his natural exuberance for musical cinema makes An American in Paris a thoroughly entertaining film. The dance sequences are wonderfully choreographed and performed – especially the concluding seventeen minute ballet, heavily influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes – and the notion of romance is perfectly communicated through dance; particularly Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing to “Our Love is Here to Stay” under a Parisian bridge.

For the most part, this wonderful visual storytelling makes up for the film’s poorly handled narrative, yet, as with all musicals, it’s not the plot that matters. The singing and dancing on show here is of the highest order, and An American in Paris is a much better film because of it.

“When your wait is over this room will still exist and it will continue to hold shoes and dresses and boxes and maybe someday another waiting person. And maybe not. The room doesn’t care either.”

As eloquent as it is befuddling, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a film of great vision. Building a city in a New York theatre district warehouse, tortured genius Caden Cotard, a brilliant theatre director longing for an opportunity to put himself into his work, is nothing if not ambitious.

Plagued by an ever increasing fear of death (be it injury or illness, or the deterioration of material objects: fax machines, taps, milk), Caden attempts to direct a theatrical interpretation of life and its mundanities, no matter the personal and monetary cost. Whilst the financial burden of the production is lifted by Caden’s reception of the MacArthur Fellowship, the personal implications of his work are catastrophic: both his wives leave him, his parents both die in horrifying ways (his father; cancer. His mother; murdered during a home invasion) and his estranged daughter dies despising him. Deeply affected by these various tragedies, Caden puts them into his play, allowing himself the opportunity to explore – and wallow in – his failings as a husband, a father and a son.

Synecdoche, New York has drawn comparisons to Federico Fellini’s 8½, another film about a tortured genius looking to direct his masterpiece, and these comparisons are appropriate. But Kaufman isn’t concerned with the dangers of a lack of ambition like Fellini was. He was interested in quite the opposite: the dangers of over-ambition. With 8½, Fellini showed how family problems can affect a director’s work – with the character of Guido, the director, struggling to find a reason to work on his film due to the impact of his marital problems. Kaufman shows us how a director can lose everything he loves for the sake of his art, and he seems troubled by the dangers of this balancing act, and his film shows this. The nature of Caden’s ambition is what, eventually, causes the deaths of many people in his life, be them cast members or family members. Eventually, even he succumbs to his own artistic endeavour and dies, just as he thinks up a new idea for his play.

At one point in the film, Caden says to his actors: “I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t”. This heavyhearted speech perfectly sums up Synecdoche, New York: It’s a film about the transience of life and the inevitability of death. In Kaufman’s world, wasted life is the ultimate tragedy. Death is absolute, and it’s what you do with your time that matters.

Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Wings of Desire, is, almost certainly, one of the most thought provoking and poignant films ever committed to celluloid. Following Damiel, an angel observing life in pre-reunification Berlin, as he wanders the streets of the city listening to its citizens’ innermost thoughts, Wings of Desire is a hugely reflective piece of work.

The angels can hear people’s thoughts, but they can do nothing more than observe or silently comfort, and the troubles and tribulations affecting Berlin at this time only serve to make this worse, with many of its residents living in various states of suffering. This frustration is the crux of the film; what if listening simply isn’t enough anymore? This is apparent in Damiel and, after he falls in love with a beautiful but lonely trapeze artist, he wants something more than the ability to listen; he wants to be heard.

Damiel’s decision to abdicate his supernatural powers to live as a human is one born from love, but one influenced by a painful inability to connect with people. This is a decision that proves to be a good one; he experiences everything he envied in humanity – he is finally able to live. When he meets the woman he abdicated his power for, he is finally able to love – everything he ever desired.

Many critics have drawn comparisons between Wings of Desire and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death but, despite featuring a vastly similar plot to that somewhat overrated film, Wenders’ masterpiece has more in common with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), both of which are deeply introspective examinations of humanity and spirituality.

Wings of Desire doesn’t attempt to dig as deep as either of these films, but is quietly affecting in its own way. Wenders creates a meditative, elegiac tone throughout his film with rare patience; he takes the time to set the atmosphere without the burden of plot. Without plot, there is nothing to occupy ourselves with and we let the perfectly formed atmosphere wash over us, giving us space to think and time to reflect.

I should say up front that there may be spoilers for Halloween in this review.

“It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare”

“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say “I’ll be right back.” Because you won’t be.”

These are the so-called “rules” from Wes Craven’s 1996 meta-horror Screamoutlined by Randy, the film buff of the film’s group of high school friends. It’s no coincidence that, at the moment he reels off this list, Randy is watching John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Halloween, the film that established the clichés he’s talking about, and one that, with its devastating and visceral take on the genre, turned horror cinema on its head.

Halloween opens with an extraordinary point of view shot, showing the perspective of an as yet unnamed character. We follow this character around the outside of a house, looking through a window at a teenage couple kissing on a sofa. The camera lingers. So do we. As the unnamed character enters the house, he waits for the boy to leave and heads upstairs, picking up a knife from the kitchen. He gets to the door of the girl’s bedroom and picks a discarded Halloween mask off the floor, putting it on. The camera is masked, too, with the only vantage point being through the eye holes. The character approaches the girl and stabs her repeatedly, killing her, before heading outside. The character is met by a couple who remove the mask. The character is a young boy. He looks blank, empty. A monster. This is Michael Myers, his victim was his sister, and we’ll see more of him later.

This is the moment we realise that this isn’t simply a horror film, but a horror film made by a director who knows exactly what he’s doing. Take the moment Myers watches his sister and her boyfriend on the sofa. Why does the camera linger for so long? As it’s a point of view shot, we presume the reason is that the young boy – later noted to be six years old –  must be fascinated by the sexual encounter happening in front of him. But as we are there with him, what does that make us? Even the film’s title card is privy to these voyeuristic themes. As the carved pumpkin slowly fades onto the screen, the camera gradually moves into its ever flickering eyes; are we watching a film, or is the film watching us? Is it the voyeuristic nature of cinema that keeps us coming back? It’s hard to say for sure, but Carpenter certainly wants us to think about it.

Fast forward fifteen years and Myers has escaped from the mental institution in which he was incarcerated and has returned to his hometown with a taste for the blood of teenage girls. One of these girls is Laurie Strode, an intelligent, wholesome babysitter, who, on Halloween, seems to see Myers everywhere she goes: in her neighbour’s garden, behind a hedge, in a car. Myers seems to be stalking her, giving the film a powerful sense of foreboding.

As I said earlier, Carpenter knows exactly what he’s doing in terms of direction, and this is reflected in his scare tactics. Carpenter takes an almost Hitchcockian approach to Halloween, drawing particular influence from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – a film that stars Janet Leigh, the mother of Halloween’s star, Jamie Lee-Curtis.

Carpenter’s use of music is particularly impressive; the eerie score sets an atmosphere of palpable intrigue from the start, and manages to sustains it throughout the film. It acts as an indicator that something is going to happen, and something always does. The real beauty of using music is how it’s perceived by the audience; if music is used to soundtrack a murder scene, it’s immediately given negative connotations that we relate to when the music is used again.

Carpenter, like Hitchcock, uses music to draw suspense out of what turn out to be innocent scenes. For example, the scene with Myers stalking one of Laurie’s friends, also a babysitter, at the house she is working at is, quite frankly, terrifying. The atmosphere is established through the use of music and the way in which we are shown occasional glimpses of Myers in the background. But, for a very long time, nothing happens. The girl is simply doing her laundry. At one point, we see Myers in the window of the door and the next moment, the door is locked and the girl is trapped in the laundry room. She tries to climb out the window, but gets stuck. She’s a sitting duck. We assume that she’s about to meet a gruesome end. But she doesn’t. At least, not yet. Like Hitchcock did in many of his films, Carpenter draws out the tension for as long as possible, and strikes when the audience has all but decided that if the Myers was going to kill the girl, e would’ve done it already. Of course, she eventually is killed, but Carpenter’s restraint in showing this makes the scene far more terrifying.

More terrifying still is the apparent invulnerability of Myers; he simply cannot, or will not, die. Myers seems impervious to pain and seems to get straight back up again after sustaining seemingly mortal injuries – he survives being stabbed in the neck with a knitting needle and, more impressively, being shot six times and falling out of a first floor window. This only serves to ramp up the terror: how can you possibly stop something that cannot be stopped?

Like all good horror villains – Freddy Krueger is a good example of this – the killer always has the last word. Here, after Myers falls out the window after being shot, Dr. Loomis, his psychiatrist and apparent killer, looks out the window to see if Myers is dead. He’s not there. Loomis looks on, horrified, but not surprised. He knows Myers is a monster, and he knows it’ll take more than that to stop him. Following this, the camera cuts to different locations around the house, all of which are deserted, and the ever-increasing sound of heavy breathing can be heard. Myers will always be a threat. Constantly watching his victims. Waiting to strike.

Often imitated but never surpassed, Halloween is, quite possibly, the greatest, most influential horror film ever made. John Carpenter’s film is a masterpiece of horror cinema, and one that will be tremendously difficult to surpass. It hasn’t been beaten yet, and it almost certainly never will be.

I should say up front that there may be spoilers for The Shining in this review

“Hi Lloyd. Little slow tonight, isn’t it”

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining represents something of a turning point for the director: it was the last truly great film of his spectacular career. Never again would he reach the highs of this, his one and only foray into the horror genre. The strange thing is, The Shining was critically panned upon its initial release, even being nominated for two Golden Raspberry awards for Worst Actress and Worst Director.

The Shining is a film that reveals its secrets the more times you watch it. First time around, you’d be forgiven for missing the significance of Wendy’s reference to the hotel as being like a maze, or the story of the previous caretaker, a man who succumbed to the seclusion of living so far from civilization and brutally murdered his family with an axe. These stories go a long way to shaping the plot of the film, subtly hinting at the nature of the narrative, and they certainly require more than one viewing to fully appreciate. Thankfully, The Shining is a film that not only requires repeat viewings, but demands them.

Kubrick’s trademark use of tracking shots, lingering close-ups and an almost constantly moving camera help to develop an atmosphere of dread; one that runs throughout the film. Starting with a dazzling aerial shot of a secluded mountain road, ending with a slow track up to a photograph hanging on the wall of the hotel, the majority of the film’s power is drawn from these moments, particularly his use of extreme close-ups, lingering on their subjects for just enough time for the audience to become ill-at-ease with the face on screen. The look of horror on Danny’s face following the death of Mr. Hallorann is devastatingly effective.

Aside from his use of the camera, Kubrick’s main influence to The Shining is its setting, the Overlook hotel. An odd mixture of space and a lack of space, the Overlook is, when in season, a busy mountain hotel, yet in its off-season, the hotel is an expansive, labyrinthine building that, due to its oddly decorated interiors, resembles not one, but many different locations.

Take the famous scene of Danny riding around the corridors of the hotel on his tricycle. The scene features the look of numerous different hotels: in one corridor, the halls are decorated with bland white walls, brown doors and a brown, orange and red hexagonal print carpet. In a different section, however, the hotel is decorated differently, with the painted white walls making way for flowery wallpaper and the hexagonal carpet making way for a thin blue carpet over wooden floorboards. You would think that a normal hotel would have a consistent design, but the Overlook isn’t a normal hotel, is it?

This seemingly off-kilter approach to set design begs the question: why does Kubrick make such an effort to present the hotel as having such a wildly varied design?

One interpretation of this is that Kubrick is trying to explore the theme of duality. As in many of his films, Kubrick presents his lead characters as two parts of the same whole: Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket (1987) both undergo drastic transformations throughout the course of the film. With The Shining, Kubrick introduces Jack Torrance as a seemingly intelligent, mild-mannered family man, but, as the film progresses, he turns him into a psychopathic murderer, an altogether different character than the man we meet at the start.

Of course, there are many interpretations of Torrance’s transformation: is it the influence of the bloody history of the Overlook hotel? All three members of the Torrance family encounter ghosts at some point in the film, specifically Jack, who is convinced by the old caretaker of the hotel to kill his family. But are these ghosts real or are they simply visions caused by cabin fever, due to the requirement of living in such isolated surroundings?

No one but Kubrick can really say for sure, but it does make The Shining that little bit more interesting. A deceptively deep film, The Shining is certainly the work of a director at the top of his game, and a true classic of the horror genre.

I should say up front that there may be spoilers for Suspiria in this review.

“Susie, do you know anything about… witches?”

With its garish, lurid colour palette, distractingly prominent soundtrack and miniscule plotting, Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria could have quite easily been a catastrophe. Nothing as bold this had ever really been done within the film world, at least outside of the art-houses and within the horror genre. So it came as something of a surprise when Suspiria became not only a critical hit, but one of the most infamous cult classics of all time.

Suspiria follows Suzy, an American dancer moving to Germany to study at a renowned dance academy. Once she arrives, weird things start happening and Suzy starts to realise that something is wrong in the school. It would be redundant to discuss the plot of Suspiria any further, as there simply isn’t anything else of note to say, and the plot is entirely irrelevant to the film’s success; it acts merely as something for the audience to hold on to whilst Argento delivers one of the most frighteningly abrasive films the horror genre has ever seen.

There are two things that make Suspiria such an intense viewing experience: its use of music and its use of colour. Anything else is, much like the plot, almost entirely irrelevant.

Argento’s use of music is utterly extraordinary. The score of the film was recorded by Italian prog-rock band, Goblin, hired by Argento to create a soundtrack to match his nightmarish vision; they couldn’t have done a better job.

There aren’t many directors who use music in their films like Argento, and the two that come to mind are Mike Nichols, specifically in his 1967 masterpiece, The Graduate, and Paul Thomas Anderson, specifically in his massively underrated 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love. Much like Anderson’s film, the soundtrack of Suspiria is played at such ear-splitting volume in scenes that, in many films, wouldn’t even have music. Argento is presenting his film as a literal nightmare, with music strewn almost illogically and played at such intense volume that it’s incredibly difficult to not be intimidated, even terrified by its sheer, unadulterated power.

The same can be said for his use of colours. Argento uses a variety of disgustingly vivid colours throughout his film, flooding even the simplest scenes in deep blues and sickly reds. On top of this, his sets are painted brightly in these very colours, with the filtered light hitting the walls of the dance academy in such a way as to suggest the presence of a nauseating, nauseated rainbow.

Again, another point of comparison would be Punch-Drunk Love, which revels in its beautiful use of the colour blue. Anderson doesn’t use colour to nearly as profound an effect as Argento, however, and whilst Suspiria is not a film that revels in its colours, it certainly thrives on them; as with his sound, Argento orchestrates his colours to suggest the presence of a nightmarish reality, one that the audience simply cannot resist getting caught up in.

The true horror of Suspiria lies in the dreadful atmosphere created by its fascinating, overwrought use of music and colour, and, in the hands of a lesser, more sane director, the film could easily have been a disaster. An astounding visual masterpiece and as disturbing a horror film as you are ever likely to see, Suspiria is, despite its complete lack of any discernible plot, a captivating, enthralling film experience.

Just don’t expect to have any idea of what’s going on.

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