Don’t Worry Darling, Olivia Wilde’s second feature as director, after Booksmart, which we loved, is an irredeemable mess of a psychological thriller. We pick through its carcass in an attempt to figure out which bit of it we liked the least.
We visit the MAC for a screening of the new 4k restoration of Psycho, one of the most analysed films of all time, and arguably director Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous. It’s a film we’ve both seen several times, but not for a few years, and in the cinema setting for which it’s meant, instead of the classroom, there’s a renewed and reinvigorated wonder to its imagery and editing.
We share our feelings about this screening, remark upon things we’d forgotten or had never noticed before, discuss how elements of the film have aged, and compare it to Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which was, shall we say, inspired by Psycho, and which we recently saw. We find plenty of room for criticism, but although we conclude that Psycho works for us more as a collection of a few iconic scenes than a thoroughly engrossing story from beginning to end, those scenes shine, and nowhere more vividly than on a cinema screen.
Gaspar Noé dials down his typical cinematic spectacle to bring us a slow and moving exploration of dementia and how it drives a loving couple apart. He still has one visual trick up his sleeve, however: Vortex uses splitscreen to show us two lives lived in close proximity but not shared. His cameras follow their subjects individually, sometimes observing them go about separate activities, sometimes occupying almost the same perspective as the characters sit together and engage in conversation, nearly giving us a unified widescreen shot that captures both husband and wife in the same frame – but never being able to. But while Vortex is given structure by its visual design, what it depicts is as crucial as how it depicts it. It’s not a sentimental film, but neither is it harsh – and it’s well worth your time.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut feature as a director, The Lost Daughter, paints a powerful portrait of Leda, a middle-aged woman for whom motherhood never came naturally, and whose exposure to a young family on holiday ferociously reminds her of her experience of raising two daughters. It’s a film that bravely and forcefully repudiates the notion that motherhood should be natural to women, the key expectation of them, and joyful.
We discuss Olivia Colman’s performance and the appealing ordinariness she’s conveyed on television and in film for two decades, and Gyllenhaal’s direction of a script she wrote, which arguably omits too much context for some of what we see, but which is at its core devoted to telling its story visually, taking opportunities to spend time exploring Leda’s state of mind – although it could work through some of Leda’s behaviour more convincingly. Nonetheless, The Lost Daughter is a striking, expressive film that tells a story we don’t often hear, about a kind of person we don’t often see.
As he did with 2016’s Jackie, director Pablo Larraín explores the life, image, and legacy of a woman publicly struck by tragedy in Spencer, a fabulistic biopic that imagines a Christmas holiday spent with the royal family at Sandringham, during which Princess Diana struggles with the knowledge of her husband’s affair and the watchful eyes of both the royals and the paparazzi.
We discuss our own relationships to both Larraín and Diana, and consider how the film draws on various aspects of the princess’s public image in painting a portrait of a woman losing her mind. The film is set squarely within that mind, and Mike argues that it uses several tropes and techniques common to horror in order to dramatise Diana’s fracturing mental state. José expresses his love for Kristen Stewart’s outstanding lead performance, one that doesn’t impersonate but evokes, and conveys differing stages of psychosis with subtlety.
We don’t agree on everything, and the film isn’t perfect, but Spencer is a really remarkable, expressive exploration of an iconic figure.
Edgar Wright’s highly anticipated psychological horror, Last Night in Soho, reaches cinemas, and we dive into its themes, its visual magnificence, its relationship to the era and environment it portrays… and its problems. It’s impossible not to admire this film for its lush cinematography, impressive special effects, and the best of its performances, but its screenplay leaves a huge amount to be desired, not just in how it conceptualises the world and people it portrays, but also, more simply, how clumsy it is in telling its story, bafflingly dropping entire character threads that seem like they obviously have places to go, and handling at least one secondary character’s entire subplot very poorly. We discuss the film’s dream logic, or lack thereof; its fear of the very lure of the grimy world it needs to show us, and the moralism that accompanies it; how it trades in nostalgia of Sixties Soho, despite being keen to exhibit is dark side; and the thematic simplicity of almost everything – things are good or bad, to be loved or feared, and room for complexity, there is none.
With all that said, it’s still a very enjoyable couple of hours, a discussion piece, and thanks to its fabulous imagery and in particular the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith, easy to recommend.
P.S. Mike would like to acknowledge that he is aware that in the course of speaking too quickly for his brain to issue timely corrections, he wildly overstated how much the ghostly figures in Last Night in Soho are referred to as “blank” or “blanks”. It happens maybe once or twice, if he remembers rightly, and in passing. But he asserts that nonetheless, their faceless, amorphous, anonymous design and relentless, zombie-like behaviour does make them a fair point of comparison with the Blanks in The World’s End. So nyah.
Horror tropes pervade I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s oddball drama about a girl doubting her relationship, but it can’t be considered a traditional horror. Instead, it turns these tropes inwards, likening a controlling, toxic relationship to an isolated, threatening, haunted house. It’s a fascinating and brilliant idea, but despite the film being well-observed and intriguing, it’s not engaging enough, and offers little opportunity for confident interpretation. Mike has little sympathy for its developing surreality; José wants more humour. Still, it’s an ambitious, interesting film, and worth delving into.
Adapted from Tracy Letts’ 1996 play of the same name, 2006’s Bug, directed by William Friedkin, sees two lonely people with traumatic histories connect and share a descent into madness. It’s a bit of an experiment, its theatrical roots obvious, some questions left unsatisfyingly unanswered, and it’s not until the final act that it takes off. But it’s interesting, features strong performances from Michael Shannon (who also played the role on stage) and Ashley Judd, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in Friedkin, Shannon, Judd or Letts.
Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a tale of two lighthouse keepers stranded during a storm, is a visual treat in black and white that stuns and engrosses us. A two-hander between Willem Dafoe’s irascible boss and Robert Pattinson’s secretive youngster, it invokes myth, gods, folk tales, the clash of male egos, compulsive psychosexuality, if not much, much more besides.
If its plot is simple, its story is complex, and we think our way through its characters’ personalities, wants, needs, and psychologies. José asks if the film is gothic, and we discuss the boss’s treatment of his assistant: is it just controlling, or abusive? Extraordinary imagery of mermaids, monsters, and gods suffuses the film with inescapable surreality and the turbulent minds of men overburdened with ego and sexual need. Eggers has an assured, confident sense of tone, layering the film with mood and atmosphere, making its remote island a pressure cooker.
The Lighthouse is a spectacular film, an audiovisual treat that you should not miss at the cinema. Its imagery is poetic, its characters complex – in its entirety, it is confusing but approachable, symbolic but not coded, allowing room for interpretation and emotional response. It’s brilliant.
Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 war epic, once renovated already in 2001’s Redux, now sees a second altered version, restored in 4K from the original negative, 40 years since it first came out – Apocalypse Now: Final Cut. And what an extraordinary film it remains. José has endless praise for the genius work of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – this film defines painting with light – and in the cinema it visually dazzles, iconic, bold imagery in every frame. The scale of Coppola’s production still amazes, particularly in those early scenes with Robert Duvall’s manaical Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore orchestrating helicopters, napalm, infantry, smoke, music and surfers to insane, theatrical effect. And in its long fades between images, superimposing almost abstract compositions over one another, José feels the influence of the avant garde and marvels at what was possible in that era.
Marlon Brando’s famous role as Kurtz at the end is shorter than José recalls, in part because the French plantation segment, not present in the theatrical cut, shortens it proportionally; in part because the film focuses on him as the target of Willard’s mission from the start, giving him ample time to settle in our minds; but mostly because Kurtz is so iconic, Brando investing him with such gravity and Coppola shooting and editing him with such care and confidence, that he defines our lasting impression of the film. Even when we finally reach him, far along the Nùng river, he still takes as long as he wishes to emerge from the shadows.
Mike finds issue with the film’s depiction of Vietnam, suggesting that in the film’s determination to adhere to Heart of Darkness, the 1899 Joseph Conrad novella on which it is based, it presents an inaccurate and problematic view of Vietnam as uncivilised, its people savages – but is quick to accept that such inaccuracies are far from unique to Apocalypse Now, and José argues that the USA found it impossible to deal with its loss in Vietnam. Mike also queries Willard’s motivations, asking what drives him and what his aim is, suggesting that alongside the psychological damage it wreaks, the film depicts an attractive aspect to war, a desire for it.
There’s no question that Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece of cinema. On the small screen one can appreciate its beauty and madness – on the cinema screen, one feels it. If and when it comes around, you cannot miss it.
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See below for about a billion screenshots Mike took this morning in his own manic episode. Some relate to things we discuss in the podcast, others are chosen for.. any other reason you’d care to mention. They’re just incredible images.
(Click to open them full size.)
A film that jogs memories for Mike, as in the process of revisiting Fight Club he realises what an impact it had on him as a teenager. David Fincher’s outrageously stylish and visceral story of a generation of dispossessed men finding purpose in violence has only increased in relevance in the twenty years since its release, drawing comparisons to incels and school shooters, but it also leads Mike to recall how it affected his interests and attitudes in his youth. José, who saw it on its release, was on the positive side of its mixed response and recalls trying to convince his friends of its greatness – and is proud to have been proven right in the years since, in which it rapidly became perhaps the defining cult hit.
Mike is surprised to discover a sexual dimension to it that he hadn’t quite realised was there – obviously, Tyler and Marla’s ceiling-shaking lovemaking sessions hadn’t escaped his attention, but it wasn’t until this screening that he saw Marla as desirable and human, rather than simply present and symbolic. She’s weary but hopeful, fiery and alive but constantly flirting with death, and with the benefit of knowing the film’s infamous twist, deeply sympathetic. Mike argues, too, for a strain of homoeroticism — Steve Erickson writes that Chuck Palahniuk came out as gay in 2004. The clues are everywhere both in his book and Fincher’s film — in the fighting and particularly in Brad Pitt’s appearance – more than powerful and intimidating, he’s attractive, the narrator’s ideal self (though we don’t, as José points out, see him topless and sweaty nearly as often as we might remember).
It’s not without its problems. The question of exactly what it says, and indeed how deliberately it says it, is dependant perhaps on the viewer’s mood and cultural context as much as anything. Fight Club wants to be thought of as a satire, that’s clear, but of what – and is it as much of a satire as it thinks it is? Mike suggests that much of what drives this problematic area of debate is the effectiveness with which the film brings us into the narrator’s mental state, conveying beautifully his attitudes, desires, repressions, regardless of whether we might think of them as positive or negative. Were the film more objective, more willing to offer judgement of its characters, these questions would be less troubling but the film would have none of its potency.
We agree that Fight Club is a considerable piece of work – José less enthusiastically, but it would be hard to be as turned on by it as Mike is. To have seen it on the big screen is a treat – every one of its compositions is electrifying, beautiful, considered and inventive – and the themes it explores have only grown in relevance since 1999. If it comes round, don’t hesitate to buy front row tickets. If it doesn’t, dig out the DVD, which you definitely own, and watch it again.
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A low-budget psychological thriller, Unsane is a less involving film than its subject matter and star deserve. Claire Foy is extraordinarily powerful as a paranoid prisoner of mental trauma inflicted on her by a stalker and bureaucratic malfeasance, distressed, knowing, sarcastic, resistant. The film fails her in other areas but is an intriguing experiment nonetheless. We find much to discuss, including its cinematography, relationship to termite art, Soderbergh’s recent efforts, potential audiences and whether the lighting of black characters in this film is inherently racist.
Recorded on 1st April 2018.
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