30 March 2010

Tuesday Title: Session 9

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Session 9 (Brad Anderson/2001)

'Fear Is A Place' says Session 9's strapline, and the title shot from its opening title sequence sets the scene and backs up this statement effectively. The film opens on a long, upside-down shot of a dilapidated wheelchair at the end of a dark hallway in an abandoned mental hospital (the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts - the sole setting for the film), where a five-man asbestos clean-up crew are working alone. The camera slowly tilts clockwise, accompanied by increasingly unnerving music, which seems to echo with the sounds of far-off screams, as if they're emanating from one of the hospitals many empty rooms. The title gradually appears (in an inverted version of Joseph Coniglio's typeface Carbon 14 - a type used to create plastic labels with Dymo tape markers) as the camera continues to tilt.

The typeface is perfectly chosen considering the themes of the film's plot: whilst working, the team discover a collection of nine tapes left in the hospital that contain recorded interview sessions with former patients (eight are of innocent patients - the ninth is a mysterious unknown) - the kinds of tapes that would've very likely been labelled with Dymo tape. The shot, in one camera move, brilliantly sums up the truly unsettling tone of the whole film. After the title fades, and several scenes later, the main character Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullen) stumbles upon the scene of the wheelchair: as he stares at it in a curious manner, he hears a voice from out of nowhere very creepily say, "Hello... Gordon." The voice belongs to the patient on the tape marked 'Session 9'.

27 March 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #2: Katalin Varga

Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland) Romania/UK, 82 mins.
with: Hilda Péter, Tibor Pálffy, Melinda Kántor, Norbert Tankó

Out of the debut films last year, there were several that indicated a real fresh and unique talent behind the camera. Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York), Marek Losey (The Hide), Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), Eran Creevy (Shifty), Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury (Inside), Samantha Morton (The Unloved), Gerald McMorrow (Franklyn), Armando Iannucci (In the Loop), Duane Hopkins (Better Things), Neil Blomkamp (District 9), Courtney Hunt (Frozen River), Mark Tonderai (Hush) and Duncan Jones (Moon) all made their mark with worthwhile or great first features in '09; and I've mentioned Gideon Koppel (sleep furiously) and Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) in detail for this top ten already. But one first film stood out as far and away the most surprising, accomplished and bold of all that I saw: Peter Strickland's Katalin Varga, a unique revenge drama set in the Székely area of Transylvania in Romania.

It's an independent British film (though dialogue is in Romanian and Hungarian) in the truest sense. Strickland used a £25,000 inheritance and years of struggle and hard work to get it made - proof that believing in your vision and sticking to it can pay off. Katalin Varga was released in October in the UK last year and garnered some great reviews and a clutch of awards (including the Silver Berlin Bear award for Outstanding Artistic Contribution, for its sublime sound design, at last year's Berlin International Film Festival). The film opens with Katalin (Péter) telling her husband (László Mátray) that their son, Orbán (Tankó), who he thought was his is actually someone else's - a man from her past who Katalin, after being ostracised from her hometown by her husband, now intends to visit in order to gain answers. Katalin and Orbán travel on a horse-drawn cart (the film is set in present day, despite initial appearances) through the fields and forests of the Carpathians to Jádszereda where things get just a bit more complicated for Katalin.

From the start a deeply forbidding atmosphere sets a tone that the film carefully maintains at a constant unsettling level throughout. Bad things are afoot and not knowing what they'll be or from where they will arise creates an intense aura around the narrative. We know Katalin is bound to track down the man, Antal Borlan (Pálffy), who raped her eleven years ago, but we aren't so sure what she'll do once she finds him (though if the killing she commits, of one of Antal's co-assailants, on route - an act that comes back to haunt Katalin in unexpected ways - is a bar by which to measure her revenge tactics, it clearly ain't gonna be an amicable reunion).

The entire film is permeated with this creepy and elusive sense of dread - it's evident Strickland has a sure foot dipped in the horror genre. He has referenced the influence of Eraserhead (1977) on his debut (especially in the design of the sound and music), and there are perceptible hints of Jaromil Jires' Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960) (and by association, though to a lesser degree, Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave (1978)), also. But equally Strickland carves out his own style, and gives his film its own unique flavour. There are parts of it that feel akin to another forest-set exploration of allegory-tinted female fury from last year, Lars von Trier's Antichrist. But I found Katalin to be far more atmospherically alluring, and vastly creepier, because it only barely hints at the unknowable threat lurking within the dark trees that surround the characters. Strickland's open, chartless terrains are vaporous with uncanny fear, unlike the contrived, enclosed Eden of psychosis seen von Trier's film. (But to give Antichrist its due, each frame of it was stunningly composed and photographed.)

Hilda Péter gives an astounding performance as Katalin. For me it was the best by an actress all last year. We are never deliberately let on to any of Katalin's interior thoughts or feelings - her motivations, despite what's apparent from the outset, are kept cloudy and near impenetrable for the duration of her travels; she never explicitly mentions the reason for the journey to her son, and therefore the audience. We follow her closely but little is given away as to her true state of mind. Throughout she slyly alternates between being the practical, caring mother to Orbán and a guileful, fierce-tempered hellcat pushed on by her yearning for vengeance. Péter never lets Katalin appear as a victim at any point, and we have to work hard to sympathise with her at times. She is, by turns, fretful and barn-storming in the role, propelled by the knackered remnants of nervous energy.

At one point Katalin stands at the edge of a forest opening, and the camera - accompanied by the baleful drone of the immaculate sound design - mimics her hard stare into the depthless unknown; Katalin's eyes are blankly fixed on some unspecified point, or perhaps a memory or intention, beyond what we are able to fathom. She's rooted to the spot, almost possessed and statue like. It's unnerving, arouses curious mystery, and hints at a possible otherworldly layer of reality occurring alongside the world we can see. It's moments like this that Strickland and his crew - chiefly cinematographer Márk Györi, editor Matyas Fekete and musicians Geoffrey Cox and Steven Stapleton - exhibit their ingenuity and skill in creating visually and aurally textured sequences of a beautifully porous quality, and which I had trouble shifting from my mind long after the film came to its shocking end.

Strickland is already in pre-production on his follow-up feature, tentatively titled 'Berberian Sound Studio'. As far as I know this one will be a strict horror film about a sound engineer working in an Italian film studio. It's a premise that makes the Argento fan in me leap for joy. If Strickland applies here what made Katalin Varga so memorable then it'll surely be one of the must-see films for next year. And I'll bet that in five-or-so years, and after a few more films of the quality of his debut, Strickland will be properly mentioned alongside other singularly artful auteurs such as Lynch and von Trier. Although I think he deserves high enough regard already.

23 March 2010

Tuesday Title: 28 Days Later...

Each Tuesday I'll post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

First film is: 28 Days Later... (Danny Boyle/2002)

Simple. No fuss. Direct. White sans-serif type on black. No capital letters. Positioned to the lower right-hand edge of the screen like a footnote or a prompt to 'turn the page'. Unassuming, yet ominous. Danny Boyle's film's title (designed by Creative Partnership) appears after an intro scene where animal activists release a caged chimp not knowing it's infected with a deadly 'rage' virus which will turn people into bloody-eyed "zombies". It tells us: twenty-eight days have elapsed, now what? The ellipsis is the key; it suggests bad things are to come, and it's gonna get much worse. And much worse it got. What I like about the way this title is used (apart from the fact that it avoids the usual horror film clichés of fractured lettering or red to denote blood) is that after the main part of the story finishes, it appears again - after the freeze frame of the surviving characters in the back of the taxi - before the film's epilogue: another twenty-eight days have gone by and this is what happened next. It's a great, minimal title which is all about dreadful pauses and menacing what-ifs. It's entirely apt in setting the right tone and then helping bring closure to the film.

22 March 2010

Triple Female Trouble: My Current Favourite Film Three

If you're looking for a triple bill of the elegantly evil variety then the trio of films below, with these women...

Fiona Shaw (who is surrendering all notion of sanity. And styling)

Grace Zabriskie (who wants to know if there's a murder in your film)

Catherine Bégin (who is about to begin a black-hearted beguine)

...will serve you well. You may have a hellish time of it, but hey, it's worth the experience.  

The Black Dahlia (2006), Inland Empire (2006) and Martyrs (2008) currently make up my favourite triple-bill of frightful female fiendishness. If you have, say, a spare 400+ minutes then I suggest you line this trio up for a long night-of-the-soul's entertainment. While away the witching hour with these malevolent matriarchs, why don't you.

All three appear in their respective movies as almost otherworldly figureheads of unthinkable cults; overseeing murderous events in opulent, probably haunted houses. (Well, in Zabriskie's case it ain't her house, she lives "just down the way, tucked back in the small woods"; she's just popped around Laura Dern's for a nice morning coffee and a light... premonition of doom.) They appear gargoyle-like, spout menacing, ridiculous words of warning and may all very well be madder than a bag of badgers, but I wouldn't say it to their faces: one will throw one hell of a shitfit over dinner; one will scream "BRUTAL FUCKING MUHR-DHER!"; and the other will strip the skin from your bones. Literally. You wouldn't want to meet them in a darkened room - or even a daylit street for that matter - but on screen they make for a fine evening's company.

They're so fearful and mysterious, in fact, that a couple of them don't even have names: two merely go by Mademoiselle and Visitor #1. (The third goes by Ramona Linscott, which admittedly could be the nom de plume of an ageing English crime writer.) But all three deserve more credit than they received for such towering, monstrously good performances. Each made more of an impact on me in under fifteen minutes of screen time than many lead performances have in recent films; Shaw and Zabriskie indeed made my top acting lists for '06 and '07 respectively; Bégin was just outside the top ten in '09.

But if Judi Dench can win an Oscar for just showing up on set dressed as Queen Elizabeth I for Shakespeare in Love - with Helen Mirren winning gold for a full reign as The Queen mark 2, and Meryl Streep honoured for "having her certainty" and eating it (along with the scenery) in Doubt - then, I say, this sinister sisterhood should be getting recognition as well. If you want fierce female scene-stealers, these three rob their films dry - and leave you baffled, rattled and quivering in their wake. Also glad that there are still juicy roles for talented actresses over the age of 40 to be savoured.

They all trip well over the top performance-wise, and each one ratchets up the camp (with a side of ham) to absurdly villainous heights, but they make an indelible mark in the dark corners of their films. If Brian De Palma, David Lynch and Pascal Laugier all recognise a good (bad) woman when they see one, then so should we. I'd say watch them in chronological order. That way, you get to see the performances get more diabolically delicious as the night draws to a close.

14 March 2010

Ten Reasons Why I Like the Dawn of the Dead Remake

Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was a great film. Romero's original is one of my all-time favourite films, so it had a lot to live up to. But it worked for me - here's why:

Sarah Polley has more than car trouble to worry about

1. As I mentioned above, it's a remake of Dawn of the Dead (1978), one of my favourite films of all time. There was always a high chance that I was going to like - or at least appreciate or give the benefit of the doubt to - any revamped version of it, unless the person responsible royally messed it up. On the whole I’m not a remake basher (the original versions are still there: remakes accompany, they don't replace). I don’t think to be so puritanical as to feel that the '78 version shouldn't ever have been remade (unlike the many, many Psycho (1998) detractors). On the whole, the more zombie films getting made the better. Even if the quality level is variable, I’m willing to give them a chance. I can take it - I positively encourage it. Why can't it be good news?

2. Along with the excellent Shaun of the Dead (2004) it, in some way, helped get Romero's Land of the Dead (2005) off the starting blocks. To reiterate: it assisted in helping Romero make more films. Good news, again.*

3. The first ten-or-so minute intro scene, before the opening title sequence. It’s a great set-up: solidly paced, crisply edited and contains a real desolate feel for what's to come. Its gradual building of a tense atmosphere sets a standard that is sustained throughout the film. It's apparent from the start that Snyder's not messing around.

4. The decision to cast Sarah Polley as the main protagonist, not some randomly selected work-a-day actor (see any number of bland actors cast in Michael Bay-produced horror rehashes). It's a good sign when refreshing, capable actors get cast in projects such as this.

Generation kill: left - Sarah Polley, right - Jayne Eastwood

5. The actress Jayne Eastwood (as truck-driving Norma). In her small and limited role she managed to add to the film a few brief moments of melancholy. She's great in the film - it was a shame she, er, exited too early.

6. It was basically Aliens (1986) (one of the best, most efficiently-executed action films of the '80s/to date) only with zombies instead of acid-dripping xenomorphs. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

7. What seemed to be a possibly risky, untested choice for director (in Zack Snyder) actually turned to be ideal. I was hoping that he may go the way of someone like David Fincher, and go on to carve an interesing and varied filmography**. Remember that Fincher began with a sci-fi-horror that displayed a rather deft and detailed exploration of the genre flick (with Alien³ (1992)).

8. The opening title sequence at the beginning - and at the closing credits at the end. Perfect scene-setting and apt, effectively handled closure. Such a good use of a Johnny Cash track that Breck Eisner pulled a similar trick (with 'We'll Meet Again') for his recent Romero remake The Crazies (2010). (The Dawn titles are designed by Kyle Cooper, who of course did wonders for Se7en nine years earlier.)

The cast of Dawn of the Dead signing for help from the rooftops

9. The odd, descriptive and inventive use of language/text - printed and/or written - throughout the film. There were many shots of titles, words, slogans and so on that seemed to, either consciously or subconsciously, comment on the action, or were used to highlight modes of communication in a world where the usual channels to communicate are near obsolete. The banners and wipe-boards that the characters made or displayed, and the type used for shop names, come to mind. I tend to watch out for how typography is used (with)in films and it was interesting to see this taken into consideration in such a subliminal manner.

10. It's a zombie film. I love zombies. And films. True, it's not a staggeringly great film by some folks' standards, but for what it is it works remarkably well. And then some. I can put it on anytime I want a quick zombie fix. (That is, after I've returned to Romero's original first.)

* although he should have stopped before Survival of the Dead (2010).

** Snyder has followed up Dawn with 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009) so far (regardless of what folk think of them, they both got their fair share of attention, for good or bad reasons). There's Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Sucker Punch to come.

12 March 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #3: Timecrimes/Los cronocrímenes

Timecrimes/Los cronocrímenes (Nacho Vigalondo) Spain, 94 mins.
with: Karra Elejalde, Candela Fernández, Bárbara Goenaga, Nacho Vigalondo

My reason for chalking up a list of at least thirty-or-so films each year is simply an indicative way of saying that I liked them more than the many others (the total for 2009 was roughly 320, not counting rewatches). Giving them order helps me define what I like and why: it's my personal barometer of how my tastes might change, or even remain the same. It acts as a shaping tool for possible future selections of what to watch or which filmmakers to keep up with: I now know I'll go out of my way to endeavour to see what Gideon Koppel does next; I'll continue to include straight-to-DVD titles if they are as good as The Signal. This way a qualitative order can hopefully necessitate my growth in film watching. And that all sounds just dandy to me. Enough pre-amble - on with the matter at hand.

I watched Timecrimes twice on the same day (as I did with another entry in the ten, Martyrs): once on my own during the day; the second time with my partner, who I was staunchly certain needed to see it too. It had an addictive aura about it. This same-day repeat viewing should've tipped me off that it was destined to be a favourite; it helped me properly absorb and iron out a few of the plot's effectively tricksy loops, too - the bare outline of which goes something like this: Héctor (Karra Elejalde) and his wife Clara (Candela Fernández) have just moved into their new house. That evening, Héctor spots a girl through his binoculars stripping in a nearby forest. When he goes to investigate he finds the girl (Bárbara Goenaga) laying naked on some rocks; a mysterious man with a face wrapped in pink bandages appears and stabs Héctor in the arm with a pair of scissors. Héctor runs off and the man gives chase. Héctor arrives at a laboratory-cum-silo perched on a hillside, and inside meets a scientist (played by the film's director Nacho Vigalondo) who hides Héctor in a strange tank filled with a milky liquid so he can escape the stranger in the bandage. When the scientist opens the container, Héctor emerges precisely one hour in the past: the container is some kind of time travel device - now there are two Héctors in two one-hour-apart time zones. To set things straight Héctor mark 2 has to attempt to replay the events leading up to this moment so all goes back to normal. But things don't, inevitably, go smoothly.  It may, or may not, solve who the bandaged man is, and what he wants with Héctor - and maybe why there was the naked girl in the woods in the first place.

The first watch opened up many questions as to what was happening, and when. But I never got lost in all the contorted time-warping shenanigans. The events of the plot are surprisingly clearly laid out, despite including two or three time zones, repeated sequences and identical characters. Vigalondo evidently thoroughly planned out what would happen, and in what order, to a fairly concrete degree. Without it the intricate chain of events in the film may not have been half as expertly carried out. Each little detail fits the rest perfectly, and every scene dovetails with the next in a pleasingly effective way; scenes detailing the main plot elements that drive the story are well placed to arouse maximum coherence (praise should too go to editor Jose Luis Romeu who surely must have had a tricky job to do). The world Vigalondo maps out actually kind of adds up, and makes its own kind of sense - as much as a time travel film can make any sense (some suspension of disbelief is obviously required here and there).

At first glance Timecrimes doesn't appear wholly original, but it does its own thing in a unique way all the same. It's certainly a better time trip than Shane Carruth's impenetrable debut Primer from a few years ago (which mistook smart-alec incomprehensibility for integral mystery), and, although I liked it a lot, last year's Triangle (also on my best-of list for '09, though at #17) was essentially a retelling of many of Timecrimes' key ideas; also Jet Li's sci-fi martial arts flick The One (2001) used a similar alternate reality/multiple protagonist theme seen here. A few lifts here and several borrows there are discernible, but they seem to come more from older examples of horror cinema than from recent science fiction. The giallo mark of Mario Bava and Dario Argento is apparent too. And everyone's favourite influence, Alfred Hitchcock (particularly Psycho (1960) and Rear Window (1954) - spying on girls through binoculars always gets a man in deep water), is quite clearly alluded to. And from the film's comedic elements it's likely that more lighthearted examples of time travel films, such as the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-89) and the Bill and Ted movies (1989, 1991), didn't pass Vigalondo by either, though they're only barely noticeable (in the same way that, say, Michel Gondry has also referenced such films in the past).

Also, the sack-headed villain has recently been a trope du jour in both English language and world cinema (here it's recreated with bandages, though the effect is the same): Batman Begins (2005), The Strangers (2008) and The Orphanage (2008) have all featured bad guys wearing potato-sack headgear to assist in scaring the bejesus out of the audience. It's almost becoming a device for scary movie grotty-chic. However, I was more reminded of Charles B. Pierce's cheap, moody murder tale The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1977) where a woods-dwelling serial killer dons a hooded sack to carry out his killings. Although in Vigalondo's film there's an effective narrative reason for the mysterious bandaged man to appear as he does, and it's both surprising and funny.

Despite all this though, Timecrimes still feels entirely fresh. Its smart style doesn't tip into too-clever knowingness, and its desire to entertain remains constant - it's kept footsure and confident throughout. There are many genuinely impressive shocks and surprises that aren't overtly signalled and come at unlikely, well-timed moments: when the bandaged man turns to camera and mimics Héctor's looking-through-binoculars stance it's properly unsettling; a repeated car crash sequence newly reconfigures familiar assumptions and unearths fresh clues on the central mystery; and the use of several seemingly inconsequential everyday objects (scissors, telephones, binoculars, a keyring and - most amusing - the Schrödinger's cat-like print on the girl's t-shirt) have either a significant bearing on the plot or resonance within the film's themes, resulting in even more layers of efficacious meaning in retrospect.

Since seeing Timecrimes I've searched out all of Vigalondo's previous short films, and they're every bit as good as his debut feature. He was nominated for an Oscar for his 9min. comedy 7:35 in the Morning/7:35 de la mañana (2003), about a girl who enters a restaurant and his met with silence from its patrons, and Crash/Choque (2005) - where a couple's date on a bumper-car ride gets ruined by a group of teenagers - was a great deal of fun. More recently Sunday/Domingo (2007) was a great one-shot sci-fi short; and Marisa (2009) detailed a man's love for one woman who appears to morph into other women over time and space. Vigalondo has already created a bold signature style for himself, and I look forward to what he does next. (A brief search says it'll be a meta-videogame-themed film called Gangland.) Right now, I'd say that he's shaping up to be one of my favourite new filmmakers. He knows that the limits of genre cinema can be tested to creatively inspiring ends, whilst not making them feel as if they're above genre filmmaking (a big bonus in my view - the flipside of this being M. Night Shyamalan's entire filmography of quick genre ideas coated with the disingenuous sheen of arthouse filmmaking).

I watched a festival Q&A clip on YouTube of Vigalondo discussing Timecrimes, his career so far and future aspirations that confirmed how passionate and committed he is to his profession. He's also amiable, good-natured and funny. It's clear that he knows what he's talking about. In thinking about Timecrimes for these lists, rewatching certain scenes and revisting the earlier short films, it's clear that from the moment the end credits rolled on that first viewing, Timecrimes was always destined to be high on my year-end list. It's a fine, engrossing and addictive film. And I'm now ready to watch it all over again for a third (or is it fourth?) time. I don't know, it gets tricky.

8 March 2010

One or two reasons why Japanese Story is one of the best films of the last decade

Japanese Story is one film I've always wanted to see get more praise. The '00s saw a healthy and much-needed rise in female filmmakers making films, but Story's director Sue Brooks is rarely mentioned among them and she should be. (She's only made two films in the past ten years, admittedly.) Her direction is by turns both beautifully unfussy and immaculately focused. The film's leisurely pace allows time for firm characterisation to take hold (solidly realised characters in love stories are essential in terms of identification, often more so than in other genres) and an atypically affecting exploration of Australia's harsh outback terrain that we don't tend to usually get to see, or that we have seen numerous times before, but here it's shot in a wholly invigorating way.

It's one of the most romantic films I saw in the last 10 years, too (this may sound initially odd if you've seen it, however - but it isn't woefully doom-laden in any flaky, trendy way which was particularly ubiquitous in many '00s love stories). Although its feel for romance is supplemented with a gut-wrenching tone of loss that creeps in halfway through, it nevers loses its aim in conveying how two people, finding the right fit in each other, interact affectionately: here, love is furtive and concretely felt.

Toni Collette gave one of the performances of the decade, without question. She is matchless in the scene by the creek (you'll know the one if you've seen the film). Ian Baker photographed deserts, small-town bars and airports as if they were more than the quick-stop transitional places that they are. (The film features one of the best uses of an airport in cinema, too.) Its prolongued use of the traditional Japanese folk song 'Chinsagu No Hana' is spellbinding, crushing and incredibly well utilised all at once. And the last lines, spoken in voiceover, universally sum up that whole darn messy falling in love thing in less than twenty words... and then painfully reverberate right back through the preceding two hours perfectly. Japanese Story needs to be seen by more people: it's an exemplary film.

7 March 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #4: Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt) USA, 80 mins.
with: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton, Will Oldham, and Lucy the dog

Kelly Reichardt's second film - the laid-back, minimalist, Oregon-set road movie Old Joy (2006) - made my top films list in 2007. Her third feature Wendy and Lucy (again set in Oregon), another small-scale film about getting in the car and disappearing into the horizon, makes my 2009 list at #4 (I'm guessing I'd like her first one, 1994's River of Grass too, but as yet haven't had the chance to see it). Wendy and Lucy started as 'Train Choir' (the title of its source material - a short story by Jonathan Raymond, who also wrote the short for Old Joy and is again collaborating with Reichardt on her next film, Meek's Cutoff, also starring Michelle Williams and due later this year) from his 2009 collection 'Livability'. The story was a concisely detailed and deftly written character piece; much of what happens in it is interpreted almost verbatim in the film.

The two reacquainted male friends taking a late shot at driving into the Great Wide Open in Old Joy got to where they were going (a hot spring in the Mount Hood National Forest), but Wendy and her dog Lucy barely reach the halfway mark: on route from Indiana to a job at an Alaskan fish cannery, cash-strapped Wendy's car stops working. From this single seemingly inconsequential diversion, and because of her rapidly diminishing funds, a barrage of further set-backs occur - not least losing Lucy to the dog pound when she's late to retrieve her from outside a store (due to being arrested for shoplifting dog food). The gradual snowballing of these needless events come with massive physical and emotional drawbacks for Wendy, which have painful consequences by the end of the film. Getting on the road to the American dream doesn't even get off the starting blocks. That whole 'it's the journey, not the destination' adage is taken as some kind of bad joke and flipped around to reveal a sad and tired truth behind it. It's not the journey or the destination: the entire film simply charts an unfortunate, though life-changing, pit stop.

Reichardt is a filmmaker I can easily admire. One reason of many being that she creates beautifully precise and streamlined drama in her work with little fuss, and without any needlessly protracted scenes of dawdling narrative or character exposition: you get gently ushered alongside her protagonists at an indeterminate time and place, with the bigger picture hazily stencilled in. The finer details are all present, though half hidden, and ready to be pieced together as the story winds itself forward. (It helps having instinctive, naturally gifted actors such as Michelle Williams, Will Oldham and Daniel London etc crafting subtle and note-perfect performances for her.)

Reichardt's concerns appear deceptively minor at the outset, but they contain intricate layers of clear-focused detail and social urgency on closer examination. It's clear that money is the root of Wendy's problems - not having it directly causes the downturn in her life - but there's also an interwoven commentary on miscommunication reverberating throughout the film (crossed wires and miscommunication form part of Old Joy's narrative, too - where one friend's fond remembrance and hopeful rekindling of a long-ago relationship is the other's largely-forgotten, now casually re-established acquaintance). Whether it's Wendy's phone call home to reluctantly ask her brother to wire her some money (only to be met with vague dismissal at the other end), the incomprehensible babbling of a strange homeless guy who stumbles upon Wendy sleeping rough, or the jobsworth store clerk's deliberate refusal to listen to Wendy's defence of her shoplifting. No one in the film seems to relate on the same plane verbally or socially.

There are (semi-ironic?) near-invisible divisions not just between those with resources - be it money, car parts or even dog food - and those without, but those with easily resolvable issues (however minor they appear) and those who lack the capacity to merely entertain an understanding of someone else's needs. And miscommunication breeds on facts, circumstances and right-place-right-time scenarios becoming skewed. In the age of instant communication and access to any and all information all the time anywhere right now, somehow even knowing, say, precisely when a garage will be open (and arriving at the correct time to simply get news on a car repair), or getting the timing right in being able to speak to the very person responsible for the re-homing of your lost dog, is akin to extracting blood from a stone. These situations are of course particular to the film, but such cases of ill luck randomly dished out may well feel familiar. Simply getting stuff done means compromise and conversation conducted in good order. Reichardt, via Raymond, is keenly attuned to how awry this can go from the most uncomplicated of starting points; her intuition for the desperate and finer details of everyday life resonates in a wholly universal way.

All aspects of Wendy and Lucy are exquisitely handled - whether they are major events or throwaway moments. The only person who Wendy has any halfway meaningful interaction with, outside of her affectionate bond with Lucy, is Wally (Dalton), an elderly security guard who offers her use of his mobile phone (and, in one truly lovely, totally heartbreaking scene, a token gesture of some money). Reichardt doesn't make him the typically kindly grandfather figure that might be expected from a much less perceptive, more sugar-coated treatment of this kind of character perhaps found in the Hollywood model. He is merely someone who happens to be in the same place, at the same time, and, more significantly, the one person without an agenda.

The ending - which I don't want to reveal to anyone keen to see the film - not that it contains a massively unguessable plot turn as such, but because it is so carefully and effectively put together to warrant running the risk of ruin - is both an apt and unvarnished resolution and a perfectly-arrived-at and unexpected end point of the journey. It's one of the very best sequences in the film; Williams' wonderful performance is never better than in these last scenes. Wendy's travels continue, but Reichardt has given us all the story we need. This small-scale tale of one woman and her dog tells us more about recession-era America (and invariably elsewhere) today than many a film double its meagre length. There is truthful sentiment in Wendy and Lucy, but nowhere are there sentimental untruths. Think of it as a condensed, bullshit- and sugar-free Marley & Me if you like.

6 March 2010

All Roll-Up and Rollin for Fascinating Imagery!

One of my most very favourite images from a film: Jean Rollin's 1979 Euro-vampire film, Fascination.

From IMDb (this is actually as good and as fitting a description as I've read about the film, and this image in particular): 1905. April in Paris. All the fashionable Parisian ladies partake of the current cure for anemia by stopping at the abattoir for their therapeutic glass of ox blood...