nobody does a soundtrack better than Gregg Araki
Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
The meticulous framing of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse illustrates everything you need to know: human connection is impossible in a world lived on the internet. Kurosawa’s characters are generally a secondary element in each shot, with the focus placed on empty spaces, background images or objects blocking the frame to reflect the lives of the characters: they’re unknowable and antisocial, and as long as computers are taking the place of human interaction this isn’t going to change. Kurosawa’s pessimistic perception of society is captured with beautiful irony by the film’s final line, "now, alone with my last friend in the world, I have found happiness", spoken by a lone survivor as her companion fades to ash.
London Film Festival 2013
One day, hopefully this weekend, I’ll get round to writing some more reviews and a proper round-up piece from this year’s LFF, but, as for right now, I’m too tired to do anything. Instead, I’ve put together a list of my ten favourites from the festival, all of which I’m hoping to write about in some form or other over the next few weeks.
Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (Sion Sono)
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo)
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
Blue is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
If you care, a full list of everything I saw is on Letterboxd.
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)
Once hailed as the “godfather of mumblecore” and one of American independent cinema’s brightest young talents, writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s popularity has waned in his five year absence from filmmaking. This is hardly a surprise considering how quickly the term mumblecore has fallen out of fashion in the past few years. But upon seeing his new film, Computer Chess, it’s clear Bujalski’s talents have evolved beyond the confines of his extinct sub-genre and into something fresh, exciting and totally out of left field.
Set over three days in the 1980s, Computer Chess follows teams of computer programmers as they compete against each other to find the best chess simulation software of the year. As the tournament heats up and the drugs come out (of room 420, obviously), paranoia sets in, and the competition takes a series of bizarre turns. Shot in soft black and white with a portable video camera, and with every detail tailored to emulate the look of the time, Computer Chess begins as a fairly straightforward period comedy about computer nerds. But surreal flourishes soon begin to emerge: cats appear all over the hotel, a man undergoes a strange re-birthing ritual and one of the computers shows signs of developing a mind of its own.
By casually inserting bizarre imagery and avant-garde shooting techniques - including a jarring switch to colour late on - Bujalski throws his film into narrative and formal chaos. Why? Because this is a film about the blurred lines between technology and humanity. The chess tournament is plagued by glitches, with the computers applying self defeating strategies to lose their matches seemingly on purpose, while the competitors struggle to function as people, having awkward and uncomfortable encounters with each other, including one sequence involving a middle aged couple unsuccessfully attempting to seduce a young college student.
This odd dichotomy is what gives Computer Chess its eccentric charm. It’s a bold step up for Bujalski to make something so unique and bizarre, but if this is the level he is now able to work at the future of American cinema is in very capable hands. Mumblecore is dead. Long live Bujalski.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo, 2013)
Korean writer/director Hong Sangsoo is a relatively unknown quantity on British shores. Making his debut in 1996 and releasing thirteen films since then, Hong has garnered a reputation as one of the most consistent directors on the festival circuit, even winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes for his film Hahaha in 2010. But none of his films have ever received any kind of distribution in the UK - until now. His almost-latest, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, will be the first, and it’s a deserving first. Set over three inconsecutive days in March and April of 2012, the film tracks the delusional Haewon, a film student who dreams of becoming an actress, as she is forced to grow up after her mother emigrates to Canada.
Haewon and her older on/off boyfriend Lee Seong-joon, her married film professor, are both stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, enjoying the vices of adults (alcohol, cigarettes, sex) with the emotional maturity of teenagers. This kind of story is very much Hong’s realm, with the majority of his films following weak or vulnerable characters as they awkwardly navigate their mundane lives. Here, Haewon is lonely, vulnerable and looking for some kind of human interaction, while Lee Seong-joon is struggling with the responsibilities of being a husband and a father. They have no idea how to make their relationship work and when they turn to (ridiculous amounts of) alcohol they make some very bad decisions.
And it’s watching them make these decisions that makes Nobody’s Daughter Haewon such an emotional film. Hong nails the awkward comic rhythm of drunk people hanging out, and Haewon’s goofy antics are a constant source of amusement, but underneath its light exterior is a deceptively complex and fascinating film about the immense sadness of two people struggling to cope.
We Own The Night (James Gray, 2007)
Ostensibly, James Gray’s We Own The Night is a straightforward cops versus mobsters crime drama, nailing most of the contrivances that have plagued the genre since The Godfather came out, but look closely and you’ll find a riveting study of ethics and family that place it in a league of its own. Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) entertains the city’s Mafioso in the Brooklyn nightclub he runs for the Russian mob while Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is the decorated NYPD Captain trying to bring them down, forcing his brother to pick a side in the city’s escalating drug war.
Phoenix’s rangy performance as the conflicted-then-assertive club owner is sensational, as is the growing sense of desperation created by the progressively dulled colour palette and quietly intrusive score, but it’s Gray’s assurance as a director of spectacle that impresses the most: a near-silent, rain-soaked car chase and a chaotic, tinnitus inflected shoot-out in particular stand as proof that Gray’s is a name to watch very closely.
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013)
About halfway through The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s masterful take down of generation 2.0, two teenagers drive around Los Angeles in the middle of the night in a stolen sports car, snorting cocaine and rapping along to Kanye West’s All of The Lights, a track playing on a seemingly never ending loop. This scene, possibly the greatest I’ve seen all year, perfectly summarises the film’s mentality: these kids are living a life that doesn’t belong to them, without any idea what comes next. They’re lost in a sea of celebrity, social networking and status, and they’re loving it.
It’s safe to say The Bling Ring marks the perfect marriage between director and material, with Coppola’s pre-existing obsession with privileged boredom lending an edge to the story of a group of teenagers who break into the houses of celebrities and steal their stuff. In fact, The Bling Ring is the most incisively written, shot (by the late Harris Savides) and soundtracked (by Kanye, Sleigh Bells and Frank Ocean among others) film of Sofia Coppola’s career, as well as one of the defining portraits of a generation in transit.
"Windsor is an unusual design cut by Stephenson Blake in 1905. Windsor is a bold face with heavy rounded serifs and strong diagonal stress. Capitals "M" and "W" are widely splayed, "P" and "R" have very large upper bowls. The lowercase "a" "h" "m" and "n" of the Windsor font have angled right hand stems, "e" has an angled cross-stroke. The overall effect is one of friendliness and warmth."
- Description of Windsor, the typeface used in all but one of Woody Allen’s movies since Annie Hall, taken from Linotype
The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)
"I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy" says Jordan Baker, one of the many socialites who flock to the extraordinary parties of the enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby. But nobody at the party knows who Gatsby is. They know where he lives (a palace on the shores of a lake on the outskirts of New York) and they know how he lives (excessively), but no more. And, as long as the drinks keep flowing, they don’t really care to know him either.
And neither does Baz Luhrmann, it seems, whose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rightly heralded novel is more concerned with the life Gatsby leads than the mysterious character at the heart of it all. The bombastic approach to style he employs glosses over the novel’s narrative richness and all but kills the film as a faithful adaptation, but it does bring the money soaked lifestyle of the upper class - so beautifully described by Fitzgerald - to life in an appropriately excessive way.
The party sequences, for example, set to the music of Jay-Z and Kanye West - a choice which, against better judgment, works incredibly well - and exquisitely shot by cinematographer Simon Duggan’s elaborately sweeping camera captures a world buoyed by financial security and obsessed with status, class and money in a way other adaptations of Gatsby simply don’t, and that’s what makes Luhrmann’s film such a fun, modern and exciting proposition: the comic wildness of it all is rendered perfectly on screen without having to resort to tired and antiquated notions of the past.
Yes, The Great Gatsby may be a large party with no intimacy, forgetting substance in its quest for style and a breathless momentum that inevitably dies out two thirds in, but as a stylistic exercise it’s in a league of its own. If more literary adaptations were as brave as this the boring idea of textual faithfulness will disappear for good, and that can only benefit cinema in the long run.
Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2013)
Opening and closing with boats hurtling along a river, Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a film bookended by a desire for freedom. On one side, two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone, go looking for grown-up adventures to pass the time of summer, while on the other a mysterious fugitive, Mud, hides from gangsters on a secluded island, waiting for his chance to escape.
Nichols is a natural storyteller in a natural world, and Mud, like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter before it,sees him offer a richly detailed cross section of American families, only this time they’re fishermen, divers and scrap yard owners struggling to make ends meet on the river. These are the people left behind as the world changes, with their houses sold for development and their jobs made suddenly irrelevant.
Their way of life is quickly coming to an end, so it’s understandable, then, that their kids are trying to find something to do. It just so happens that their dealings with the titular fugitive give them more than they bargain for: stealing from junkyards, lying to the police and fighting hitmen are all par for the course, but they’re intentions are good. They’re trying to help a man in need, without judgment, and that’s what Mud is most obviously about: the moral growth of two boys in the backdrop of the American South.
But this is just one of the threads that make up this densely woven film. After all, Mud isn’t just a coming of age story. It’s about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, the pain of love, youthful adventure and a life lived on the river, but Nichols, as he has before, balances this richness of theme with a rare simplicity that renders Mud simultaneously complex and straightforward, calm and tumultuous, and an early frontrunner for American film of the year.