Franz and Loura

I wish that I was Franz.  He is tall and has an angular face and a lean body and a haircut that is synchronised with the shape of his head.  His arms reflect those of a working man, broad and capable.  He spends time with his grandmother and has friends who respect him, and a wife who loves him.  Loura.  I wish that I was married to Loura.  She has a beautiful face that is plain.  She wears the same clothes every day and you cannot tell from her voice where she is from.  When she kisses Franz, it is always a surprise.  It is like an explosion across a river where the vibrations are felt seconds later.  Franz and Loura turn heads.  They are adored by the elder statesmen of their family and placed upon a pedestal by their niece and nephews.  At Christmas, during annoying parlour games, Franz and Loura are an unbeatable couple.  People are not jealous of them.  Their home is in the hills and they live off the land, sowing fields and collecting chicken eggs.  When Loura’s sister was sick, Franz invited her to live with them until she got better.  They are planning to have children soon.  Loura’s pregnancy will be a graceful one, and their children will not scream in public.

Franz is the kind of man who hugs a friend when their father dies.  He gives good advice and lets other people get on with their business.  In the morning he stretches, then makes a coffee for his wife.  He does not drink coffee.  His one anxiety is a fox coming to kill his chickens in the night.  He does not meditate but is happy to sit doing nothing.  Sometimes he loses track of time, and Loura has to remind him of an appointment he has made.  Since meeting Loura, Franz has not been late for anything.  They met in a beer garden.  It was a warm spring day when Franz accidentally poured his beer over Loura.  She took the glass from him and finished the drink.  They share an ability to never be drunk.  Loura will never be bored of him, but she can see that his skin is beginning to itch, and so her encouragement is becoming persistent.  You need to make the home proper, by abandoning it, she says in a language that only the two of them understand.

It is winter and I am watching them, and my feet are cold.  I am not sure they know of my existence, nor their existence.  Franz and Loura live amongst the clouds, up and away from the village in a wooden house that hangs off the edge of a severe incline.  A path leads you there.  They take every precaution to make sure their home never burns down, and Loura keeps the path from getting too overgrown with weeds.  Franz tells her to let the weeds grow.  He is going away soon.  I cannot remember the name of their closest neighbour, but he is a friend to them.  He gives them flour from his flourmill.  It is operated by a water mill, that is attached to open funnels that trickle along the weedy path.  They have no worries that soiled water will contaminate the flour.  I am worried for them.  The parasites are so small, and the grains so big.  Loura’s sister has died and she is grieving quietly.  Franz read a poem at the funeral service that was well-received by all.  The church pastor tells them they are welcome into his castle anytime for an unloading of secrets.  Franz is grateful.

The mourning of Loura’s sister has extended on longer than expected.  She was not the favourite sister.  People in the village must be upset because of Loura’s sadness.  She is not talking as much as usual and has stopped visiting the flourmill.  Franz delays his exit, and Loura falls pregnant.  The child is born at home, and the grief within the walls fades away.  I have little interest in their children.  They have their second and third almost immediately after.  Franz comes to me with a broken watch, and I cannot fix it.  His trip is scheduled soon, and it is set in stone.  Before leaving he visits the church pastor.  He goes in the night without saying goodbye.

This is my chance.  I have kept my eye on this marriage for a long time.  The problem I am having has something to do with my own sentience.  If I can just achieve a state of mind where I am aware of the breath leaving my mouth, I can reach the heights of Franz and Loura.  The man of the house will return with a treasure to place on the mantlepiece of a burned down home.  It will make him stronger.  In his absence, Loura has taken to tending to the farm alone.  The children have grown so much and are able to help her.  She rarely thinks of her sister.  Her mind is occupied with Franz’s deep-sea adventures on the other side of the world.  His wetsuit is as tight as her apron, in the realm of dreams.  I want to see him dive eternally, an endless mirror falling into the abyss.  The town misses him too.  He is the glue that brings his friends together, and their conversation now moves slowly in the biergarten.  The pastor has taken to drinking with them, even passing on the wine.

Be honest, the watch will not fix itself.  One hand, then the other.  With concentration, perhaps I can make the clock turn backwards.  Loura has received a letter from a tropic address, signed by Franz.  She is not convinced it is from him, there are inconsistencies in his prose.  The camera keeps cutting away from the main themes.  His handwriting looks under duress, like bullets are whizzing past the fat that rests between his index finger and his thumb, grazing whips of a red along his now tanned skin.  Loura reminds herself of the blue sky, and I remind myself of the truth.  Loura is not her name, but simply the one I gave her.  She is an actor, a poser, an evaporating oil in a scorching hot pan.  Franz does not know.  I should be the one to tell him.  The train station would be a tremendous ambush location.  Or a leap from the trees as he races down the dirt road on his bike.

I am edging closer.  Franz is searching deep under the sea for something.  To complete a contract, to capture a lost piece of history.  I wish I had the bravery for that.  My cowardice has no boundaries.  Loura receives a visit from the pastor, and she hates the way that his nose moves when he talks.  It crinkles from side to side, like puppet strings yanking at the corners of his mouth.  He is dripping saliva onto their lovely wooden kitchen floor.  Loura is polite and offers the pastor more tea.  He refuses but asks if he may use the bathroom.  More fluid on the bathroom floor then.  Loura and I share a thought together, unbeknownst to the two of us, a thought of the pastor slowly decaying from an illness caused by an empty church.  Franz is the only true believer.  I cannot commit myself to a belief right now.  The pastor leaves a trail of slime behind him as he goes.

Communication had a simple life in those months.  The days hardly passed one another, without bookends every twenty-four hours.  I retreated.  Franz’s bike assaulted the dust on the road when he returned.  He appears at the end of the path, and Loura hears his feet on the ground.  She leaped on him when he got to the house, knocking them both to the grassy hill, with an all-time surprise embrace.  They elongated their kiss, until Franz, out of breath and flushed, asked Loura where the kids were.  Inside, she said.  One of the three children was not present in the dining room, but that didn’t seem to bother them.  Franz showed them the treasure.  An invaluable golden bear was in his hands, then an invaluable golden bear was on the table.  It is ugly and gold.  I hope it is not flammable.  Loura cannot let go of Franz.  She is putting her arms into any gap that she can find.

The fictional Loura continues to disguise herself well.  Franz still thinks that she is real.  He goes back to work on the farm, and he sees his friends and the pastor.  There is no change inside him.  Both Franz and Loura have not realised that one of their children is missing.  They are preoccupied with the position of the golden bear in the house.  It is moved to above the fireplace.  It is moved to the foot of their bed.  It is moved to the window above the sink.  The pastor requests that the golden bear be donated to the church, and Loura denies that request before Franz can agree to it.  It is quite an embarrassing few minutes.  There is some tension when Franz comes back to me to collect his watch.  I have forgotten all about it.  It is made even stranger by the fact that he cannot see me and that I am not there.  He is standing in the shop mumbling to himself, shaking the watch in his hand.  This is the first time I have seen him weak, but I cannot see him either.  I am worried about my ability to save him from the great pretender that is his wife.  The conflict is dwindling because she is a mighty fine actor.  Five stars across the board in that department.  There must be a way to buy petrol without blood in my veins.

In the village a summer festival is ongoing.  Franz and Loura are not in attendance, instead they are trying to catch raindrops from the clouds as they stand on their roof.  The festival has joy and justice for anyone who brought an overcooked cake.  Loura’s pastries are always baked to perfection, she could have at least rolled one down the path to the buffet table.  For the first time in a while, I remembered that I cannot taste food.  I am mentally pouring salt down my throat.  Nothing.  The festival lasts for nine days and Franz and Loura are on their roof for the entirety of the nine days.  They have collected enough water to boil a rain soup.  During their hand waving to the god’s escapades, another one of their children has wandered off, presumably to join their sibling in a world with fewer insecurities.  The man from the flourmill is coming down the path.  He is knocking on the door.  He is welcomed inside but is dismissed quickly when Franz mistakes him for a charity worker.

Months that morph into years pass with only one child left in the house.  The golden bear has been moved around again, and can often be found in the large front pocket of Loura’s apron.  Franz cannot lift anything up anymore.  He has completely lost the skill of picking up.  His arms tense up and he drops whatever item he was trying to carry.  There are shards of material on the floor of the house.  I have given up watch fixing, and my aspiration to have a beating heart.  All I need now is fuel, oxygen, and heat.  Surely science works for the non-conscious as well.  The final child is leaving, except this one says goodbye.  They even have a farewell party.

The argument has been presented, now for poetry.  Franz and Loura have not seen a single soul for an eternity.  They are wrapped in tin foil on their wooden kitchen floor, with the golden bear looking over them.  Franz has cuts on his cheekbones, and Loura has lost half of her bodyweight.  The pastor was the last person to speak to them.  He told Loura of Franz’ confession, the lurid confess of all-knowing.  Franz knows that Loura’s face is plastic, that she sits across from him shaking because she was put there by a painter, or a film director, or a writer.  He has always known.  Loura’s satisfaction with her station is gratifying to him.  She kisses him on the cheek, and he was ready, and he flinched.  Franz reaches for the box of matches.  My banging on the window is futile.  You cannot hear when there is no sound.  Loura looks away from Franz towards the mantlepiece and sees the dripping yellow of the melting golden bear.

 

Florence in January

‘No one cares if you like the place, or hate it, or why.  You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species, which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree.’ – Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937)

The people are still here.  Of-course they are.  Even the wet and cold cannot keep the people away.  Are there more Americans than Italians here?  Or are they just louder?  I am surprised to see a subcategory of the American tourist, one different from the bootcut jeans, blonde, slightly overweight group of young women finding their true selves in Europe.  This subcategory falls somewhere between bro, jock and prep school, and they not all strictly male, though mostly.  They are dressed shockingly well and appear to be in town for the beer rather than the culture, which in an American is very odd to see.  I am a hypocrite.  The bells are ringing at 18:40 for some reason, and I am on my second glass of wine.  On the way to the apartment from the train station, I passed through the square where the great black and white cathedral complex sits.  It is a three-dimensional chessboard, and a daunting monolith both night and day.  Whilst straining my neck gazing up at the chunks of dome and rot on white, I contemplated when climate change would take it.  It was a blessing to get this out of the way whilst in motion, rushing past remarkable human achievement to make the check-in time.  The greyness of the sky made the bell tower incredibly ominous in its peering over the amateur photographers beneath it, sickened by the queue waiting to get inside its stomach.  I imagine whatever is inside is worth queuing hours for, but there was no chance I was doing that.  The wine is not great, and I picked it up from tiny supermarket on one of the narrow streets that sits below Piazza del Duomo, and making my way to the apartment I scouted for somewhere to get a pizza later on.  I am in Florence, Tuscany, Italy.

The apartment is pleasant enough in its design, with white walls and oak furniture.  It is in the shape of a fork – the left prong a narrow hallway to a square kitchen, the middle prong a small bathroom, and the right prong a spacey bedroom.  The window in the kitchen is at an angle whereby the inside of the apartments across the way are fully visible, which is unsettling rather than alluring.  It is clearly a place for a couple and not a single man.  The wine really is not great, I think I may abandon it, close my laptop, and go for dinner.

I walked to one of the restaurants I noted as a possibility earlier.  It was a cramped place that had no speciality, but it was quiet, affordable and had a welcoming décor.  In my hand I carried The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, which is the ultimate cliché given what I’m writing, but my ego is not too large to not know that very few people deeply inspect the title of the book that you are reading, nor am I under any pretentions that the general reader is aware of the Everest of travel fiction.  The most striking thing about the book is the description Byron puts into everything he sees, with such detail and poetry, however he is documenting the middle east in the 1930s, not a honeypot in the twenty-first century where Assassins Creed and Instagram exists.  There is a sadness to a world uncovered, touched all over, and violated, but it may allow for new avenues of description, such as selfie stick sellers or families wearing surgical masks because of the Coronavirus.  I cannot believe Microsoft Word is not spellchecking that.  It was not only Eastern Asian’s paranoid about air pollution, but whole groups of Europeans, and North Americans looking like they were heading into a seven-hour triple bypass.  When walking past them, fear of not having my own mask would arise for a fleeting moment, then I’d go back to stressing about my usual problems.  It became more concerning when I saw a sales assistant in the Gucci store wearing a branded mask.  Those stores are horrifying enough already.

In the restaurant I was surrounded by some interesting diners.  Ahead of me by the window was a group of four – two slobby bald men with two attractive blonde women ten years younger than them, eastern European, who gave me a few ‘pathetic young man on his own’ looks.  To the left of me was an American couple, the guy keeping his baseball cap on, asking odd questions like: ‘What’s in the Ravioli?’  I wished Tony Soprano was in the restaurant too.  When eating alone, you can drift away into other people’s conversations without them knowing, and usually you are irritated by what you hear.  Though even the thought of hearing back my own conversations makes me want to die.  The pizza was fine, got better as it got cooler, and its best quality was that it cut well under the knife into neat slices.  I made the common mistake, albeit a happy one, of choosing somewhere in an unfamiliar city that looked accommodating and was, more importantly, cheap.  Florence is certainly a town with somewhere to walk after dinner, and I walked a little drunk through a couple of the main centrepieces.  At night these grand attractions are surrounded by far fewer people, and still visible thanks to floodlights attached to the buildings opposite them.  An attractive couple was stood in front of the old chapel of Il Duomo in perfect composition, and I tried to take a photo of them, then they moved, and I awkwardly acted like I was taking a photo of something else.

Travelling alone is a peculiar experience.  I did not feel lonely, but I did crave the ability to share what I was doing with someone.  Having your own routine and schedule is relieving, and there is zero pressure of being bored or going somewhere disappointing.  With no-one to talk to, however, you find yourself thinking a lot, and I probably wrote this thing a thousand times over in my head, and probably massaged a few Wagyu cows of doubt to greater levels of muscle density too.  The Friday night after dinner walk was better than the Saturday night one, because I was more optimistic, there were fewer people and there were a couple of buskers that I spectated that were not terrible.  Food digested, I felt like sleeping.  A couple of doors down from the apartment is a night club, and at four am when it closed, I was woken up by the leaving customers.  In a daze I thought it was the morning and got up.  My watch told me it was four and for a moment I was genuinely lost somewhere.  I went back to sleep.

The beginning of a tour outside the window was my alarm clock around mid-morning.  People interrupting my peace again.  I had decided I would explore the town via bookstores, which in Florence creates a lovely circular route that touches the corners of the city centre.  Some of these bookstores were glorified stationary stores, and one of them was essentially an elderly guy’s office where it was possible that I had walked into an estate agent’s by mistake.  Nestled on an alleyway is a bookstore that has a large collection of English language books, and I picked up a book of Virginia Woolf essays and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  I was satisfied and ended my bookstore route.  The truth is I struggle to get excited about historic landmarks, or museums, and they are always a bit disappointing.  This led to a rather aimless session of wandering.

I have been thinking about why I decided to take this trip.  There does not need to be a reason, but I want one.  Perhaps it is because of the solo trip Greta Gerwig takes to Paris in Frances Ha.  It turns out to be a bit of a depressing catastrophe in the film, and my trip would probably end in the same fashion, at least emotionally, and what will I have learned?  The discovery of a new place is arbitrary if you take nothing away from it, whether that’s good food, an original photo, or whatever.  As of right now, it has solidified a few things in my mind, rather than create new ones.  It is like a twisted form of confirmation bias: yes, I am sad, yes, I am worried, yes, I think sightseeing is basically meaningless, yes, tourists are annoying, yes, pizza.  It could be because I wanted to write something like this, though really the inspiration only came when I got to Florence.  Keeping in constant transit to take your mind off things is a flawed hypothesis and it takes constant activity instead.  Walking around a town alone does not provide this, and on the second day I slipped into a deep melancholy.  Only the destinations of grandeur could save me, which meant going to Piazza Della Signoria, somewhere I frequented as it was a couple of roads down from the apartment.  The Palazzo Vecchio’s clean brownness is less disconcerting than the Duomo.  Its clock, an angel at the top of the tree, shows the wrong time.  At its foundations are a collection of sculptures, men and women alike locked together, statue of David-esque, and a freebie view at some of the heritage of the town.  To truly respect the artistry, I ate a sandwich sat below one, dodging photographers, and shifting my eyes from the square to the palace.  The focaccia and speck did not match with the soft cheese, but I have had lunch in worse places.

Geographical locations rarely let me down and the river in Florence is about the only thing I saw and thought: wow I am glad that I am looking at this.  Naturally, the infamous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is littered with people, but still remains pretty.  The river water is green, and the flow appears artificial, like they are pumping a limited supply of water in from the grassy banks.  It expands through many bridges and does manage to weed out some of the crowds, as the other side of the bridge has to be where the people in the know go, surely.  That’s the thing about Florence, there is no separation, no districts or areas that divide class or age and it is all close in together, which makes it difficult to find the best spots on first arrival.   Resisting the urge to throw myself off one of the bridges, I returned back to the apartment where I wrote most of this, hence the confusing tenses.  Fuck it.  Did David Foster Wallace care?  I mean he hung himself, but in his writing, what rules did he play by?  None of it matters.  There is this Vaccines song called No Hope on their second album Come of Age, and it’s a great tune about being in your early twenties, anxious about where your life is and where it’s going.  I like the song because it has the line ‘I find my life ever so moving,’ indicating a self-awareness of the self-pitying, I’m special my experience means something, that I think about and write about constantly.  It is this built-in romanticism of a chosen one mentality where the whole world is on your shoulders, when really it is not that deep.   I headed back out in the evening because I was thinking too much.  I had done some research on where to get the best pizza and settled on a place not far from the apartment.  It was a buzzier vibe than the restaurant the night before, and a much better pizza.  Eating it, I actually felt like I was enjoying something.

I had a second glass of beer because of my change in mood, and a queue began to form at the door to the restaurant.  A good sign, and a good time to leave, so I finished my drink with a couple of big gulps to free up a table.  It was raining somewhat heavily outside, and there was a deep puddle in the crevice between the path and the road.  My shoes were already filthy.  There is some cover where the market resides in the daytime, and at night it’s illuminated by the fluorescent sign of an H & M, a shop that gives me PTSD.  A presumably homeless painter was sat on a stool in front, taking shelter from the rain, leaning his canvas on a limestone pillar.  I watched him work for a while, then ventured back out into the rain.  These towns full of people continue to puzzle me.  I often wonder if normal people with normal jobs live in these towns.  There must be some – there are universities and offices.  I feel bad for those people.  The florid ideal of living in Florence would soon be crushed by the daunting realisation that the endless stream of tour guides never ends, and only increases year by year.  Florence is effectively a massive outdoor museum.  I did not get a feeling of real life in the town until my six am walk to the train station to leave back to France.  This is where I saw regular dog walkers, and people still faded from the night before.  Until then, it had been an insight into the world of taking a photo of your husband in front of old shit, and I had seen enough of it.  Take me away.

I have an answer as to why I took the trip: It was an exercise of progressing time, progressing moods.  Running scared rather than escaping.  I do not want the power to go back in time and change things, I want the power to go forward in time, to a point of non-dwelling.  What I have to remind myself is to make the time useful.

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1917 – Film Review

Sam Mendes returns from the world of James Bond (after the absolutely awful Spectre) with a World War One movie, in memory of his grandfather who fought in the conflict.   It’s an Oscar favourite, the kind of film that ticks across several categories, and its being sold as a triumphant achievement in filmmaking that has to be seen on the big screen.  The chances of the film falling under its own weight, and ‘one-shot’ style, were very high going into this one.

It’s 1917, and two young soldiers who have already seen their fair share of action are given the mission to get behind enemy lines to pass a message on to a commanding officer.  That simple, effecting plot, pushes the film forward with great force in the film’s opening.  Before learning how insane the job is, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Prince Tommen from Game of Thrones) picks partner Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Pride) to go with him, and they set off in haste after receiving the orders from a chubby Colin Firth.  The commanding officer they need to get to is in charge of a company that is unknowingly walking into a German trap of great armaments, and it is a company Blake’s brother is a member of.  And so, despite Schofield’s hesitations they rush to jump over the trenches into no man’s land.  This set up allows for a thrilling first twenty minutes, where the two men hurry through the trenches, the Steadicam pulling in front of them.  Going over the front line, the stress of moving across no man’s land is inevitable, and Mendes evokes a lot of tension with his fluid camera, like the mission they are on, however, this has a time limit.

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The one-shot, unedited, constant rolling picture is thankfully not a gimmick here, at least for the first half of the film.  It is a very effective technique when characters are walking towards something, and there are variations in height and scenery to keep it interesting.  Probably the most mind-boggling shot of the film is in that first sneak to the German line, where the camera goes down into a crevice, tracking the two men across a body of water.  It is an exciting build-up, that is unfortunately let down once they have made it past the German trenches.  Not to say the film is particularly dull from there on, but certainly the highlight of the film is that gripping, daring hop over the front line.  Then comes the one cut in the film, that’s right, an obvious unhidden cut in a one-shot movie.  This is not a problem; however, it does signify a big slice down the middle of the film.  In this second half, Mendes slips into one of his classic characteristics – over-sentimental, florid imagery that comes across as incredibly pretentious.  Schofield dashes through a film set playground of catholic church iconography, that looks so fabricated that it cannot repeat the tension of the opening act.  Then the energy of the Steadicam is lost in a silly and melodramatic central scene that stops the plot dead in the tracks.

Mendes’ emotional connection with the story is obvious, and what he does manage to capture is the absolute horror of war, at times replicating the same feeling that The Thin Red Line does – the feeling of fear and hopelessness of the soldiers.  This is a respectable viewpoint to take, though it leads to a flawed film, whereby Mendes floats too long in mushy motifs and makes the one-shot idea pointless for a good chunk of the runtime.  Luckily, he has crème de la crème of Hollywood cinema Roger Deakins shooting for him, meaning there are some extraordinary shots towards the end of the film that stop the film from being boring.  The inclusion of the odd huge star popping up throughout the film was welcome as well, which is usually distracting, but here it added some gravitas, and a new lease of life at times when it really needed it.  George Mackay does his best with some awful lines of dialogue, and Mendes should have really kept the focus on the camera rather than the actor.  It is possible to achieve empathy in a war movie, rattling along, not worried about having scenes of quiet to prove it cares about the people too.

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The forceful nature of those quiet scenes really tarnished the anticipation of the initial conceit of the film and leaves it nowhere near greatness.  It is one of those films, where it’s curious to wonder about those who have been completely amazed by it.  The film has a fine pacing and fine message, and is expertly well constructed, but there is nothing extraordinary about it.  Its nomination in Best Editing at the Oscars is a strange one (one in your face cut, and a few covert ones) and its nomination in Best Original Screenplay is even stranger.  The script is a bad one, and a World War One film working on the memories of a family member is not entirely original concept, whether Mendes (and Krysty Wilson-Carins) penned it from scratch or not.  Although it is hard to dog on a film this noble, it is another example of a product sold to mainstream audiences as a filmmaking feat, where really it is just extremely unremarkable.

Top Ten Films of 2019

I’ve been living in France since September, so I’ve seen both UK and France releases this year, which means that this list is properly dodgy, as there are films that would usually be in next year’s list (like Parasite, which doesn’t come out till February in the UK).  To not lose any in-between films, I’ve kept it to 2019 releases in either France or the United Kingdom.

Firstly, here is 20-11:

20. Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)

19. Us (Jordan Peele)

18. The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard)

17. Midsommar (Ari Aster)

16. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

15. The Edge (Barney Douglas)

14. Ad Astra (James Gray)

13. Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson)

12. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

11. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

  1. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

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A skateboarding documentary, which like all the best documentaries it’s not really about the main subject matter.  The skateboarding acts as an aesthetic and a backdrop to stories on troubled youth, race, and toxic masculinity in places forgotten by the American establishment.  Where the film becomes something special is a gentle reveal of how much the director plays a part in the lives of the people on screen, and his own battles to get where he is now, thinking about the friends that made him.

  1. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)

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This film is much higher on most people’s lists, and rightfully so, it is just about perfect.  I found love in other films from the year, however this is a masterful piece of work, even aside from the actual content of the movie.  It is a South Korean auteur picture that has managed to be marketed in the US, seen by huge audiences, which in itself is a hopeful thing.  The film is best seen without knowing a single thing about it, all you need to know is that you will be engrossed from start to finish.

  1. High Life (Claire Denis)

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Every year these lists are very personal, and the films that make it are usually ones that inspire me or shift my emotions in some way.  Claire Denis’ English language debut did both of those things, and it made me write THIS.

It is a space sex dungeon existential crisis orgasm and I fucking love it.

  1. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)

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The depth of this film is quite outstanding, telling the story of an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight in World War Two.  It asks questions about faith, resistance and protest without recognition, leading to a moving experience, and a mature ending.  Unsurprisingly it is ridiculously well shot, with wonderful Austrian countryside vistas, in a peaceful and mechanical setting.  Valerie Pachner as the left-behind wife Fani is one of my favourite performances of the year.

  1. Burning (Lee Chang – Dong)

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A transcendent work of fiction that works like a great novel does.  For a while it is a sort of love triangle movie, building to a stunning central scene, where the film changes completely to a noir-esque thriller.  You can take multiple interpretations from it, and I always enjoy it when an artform questions itself through technique, and metaphor, not being too concrete.  Steven Yeun’s performance as a massive smarmy bastard is great fun, amongst a film with endless meaning.

  1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

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It is amazing that Scorsese even got this made, and it shows that he is still one of the greats, managing to pull a story this vast together.  Robert De Niro carries the film right through to the bitter end, the crushing phone call scene at the peak of it.  Joe Pesci’s performance is remarkable considering he’s hardly worked for twenty years, finding a character presentation in this film that is higher than being a simple gangster tough guy.   The film winds down to a profoundly sad ending, where Scorsese offers an idea about dying without epiphany – creating all this and it means nothing!

  1. Varda by Agnes (Agnes Varda)

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As a filmmaker and a human being Agnes Varda has given the world so much, and in this documentary, she reminds you of it all step by step.  She is giving lectures on her work, cutting to parts of her filmography, telling stories about her process.  The level of genius she has produced for the image and moving image is hard to comprehend, when you view the variety and sheer amount of work that she has done.  Every legendary artist should do this before they die.

  1. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

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Again, perhaps another perfect movie.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson disappear into these roles, moulding themselves around an excellent script that balances both sides of the argument in an honest way.  Johannson’s monologue on her initial meeting with divorce lawyer Laura Dern and Adam Driver singing ‘Being Alive’ are two of my favourite scenes of the year.

Full review HERE.

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

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I’ve never quite a cinema experience like this, for a multitude of reasons, including my mental state and the person I was with.  Barry Jenkins is a sublime filmmaker, and this is a beautiful, heartbreaking adaptation of a James Baldwin novel that captures the essence of Baldwin’s writing.  The soundtrack from Nicholas Brittle is one of my favourites of all time, and I can’t listen to ‘agape’ without breaking down.  When the credits rolled, I was audibly blubbering.

One of the few things that I have written that isn’t actually bad HERE.

  1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

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This is a special film.  An entrancing rhythmic symphony of storytelling.  A tactile, physical, romantic, loving experience.  Meta, and intelligent in its nods to the original author of the book.  Gerwig imagines the story in a baseline gorgeous way, then adds subtilties that raise it to interesting high art.  I was falling off the Timothee Chalamet bandwagon slightly, but after this film, I am firmly back on it, some of the things he does with his face! And Saoirse Ronan as well is unbelievably adorable, and relatable in a role that she brings so much life to.  It is one of those films that I did not want to end, and I will be watching it continuously in the foreseeable future.

Wrote something about the film HERE.

Little Women – Subtle Poetry

Something fresh that filmmaker Greta Gerwig brings to the Little Women story, in the new adaptation, is the elements of meta.  Her screenplay weaves in biographical details about Louisa May Alcott, the original author of the classic novel, creating a sense of reverence for the writer that establishes the real-world accomplishments of the source text.  It is a wonderful notion, that doubles the meaning of the work, in both a fictional and historic manner.  Aside from that, Gerwig presents a further meta about writing and directing, whereby the plays of Shakespeare are discussed in the film in terms of work that managed to be both poetic and popular.  Little Women 2019 is the perfect example of a repeatedly told story, that is newly remarkable because of talented authorship, and the reach to artistic achievement in a sellable mainstream affair.

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The undeniable brilliance of the original story is important, and it’s why the book keeps getting adapted, and why it keeps working.  Writer and director Greta Gerwig is faithful to the material, and never really messes with the intricacies of the plots, just plays around with the camera, setting and character.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March in an utterly gorgeous performance, splitting the timeline between childhood and adulthood, hued memories and bleak realities.  Her sisters are all given as much development as she is, in slightly less time: Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.  Their mother, played by Laura Dern, is a piece of all of them, in her clothes and the shades of colour in her hair.  In a film full of moving scenes, it would easy to overlook the quieter moments where the sisters are bickering in their family home, talking over the top of each other rhythmically, all written exactly by Gerwig.  This is when you fall completely into the setting and are happy to stay there.  Across the road, in a much larger home, lives Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence, again beautifully performed by Timothee Chalamet, who lives with his austere grandfather, played by Chris Cooper.  In contrast to the warmth of the March house, the Laurence manor is far more masculine and impersonal, only brought to life when the girls visit.  One of the stunning extracts of the film is when Laurie is stood on a chair undergoing a teaching lesson from tutor John Brooke (James Norton), when he spots Amy outside the window, saying to John excitedly: “There’s a girl out there.”  Soon all the sisters are in the study, catching the boy’s infatuation, bringing a spark to the spacious mansion.

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It is in this scene when the little details of acting and directing prowess are ever-present.  Jo gallops into the room inspecting the vast collection of books, and Laurie tracks her with his eyes, in love with her of course, Chalamet has it all over his face.  It’s a look we have all given, and Chalamet’s recreation on screen is a constant, building this mesmerising chemistry he has with Ronan.  Their movements seem almost in sync, dancing together, rubbing each other’s hair, embracing tight and long, agonising for Laurie and comforting for Jo.  If you know the story, then you’ll know that at the heart of the romance is this pair, how perfect they seem for one another, yet it cannot work out.  Ronan and Chalamet’s time on screen together encapsulate this, and the inevitable confrontation they have is truly astonishing cinema.  Due to an excellent screenplay that loses all silliness and exaggerated chivalry, the crescendos confession from Laurie and subsequent rejection from Jo is neither melodramatic nor pretentious, instead feels contemporary and honest to life.  Thanks in part to the tactility, and closeness to their friendship, where it is an absolute joy to see Jo punch Laurie on the arm whenever he is being particularly stupid.  Away from the bonds between characters, the film has modern sensibilities because of the style of the players when they are viewed singularly, such as Jo’s hairstyle, or the way Laurie wears his American Civil War era clothes.  Even Saoirse Ronan’s running has a twenty-first-century beat to it, like the way Gerwig runs herself in Frances Ha.  All of that being said, it is in the editing where Gerwig really brings the story to the now, and the choice to have two narratives side by side throughout is an effective one, being bound only by the families it has the impression of separate readings.  It traverses as expected from a New York trained indie filmmaker, whilst keeping tight with the time period, and it is difficult to not be seduced by its charm.

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There is genuine and sincere poetry in this film.  It has ideas on female recognition, love, contentment, childhood, and writing that are fledged out to a base level.  The film is funny and heart-warming, treats its sadder moments with respect and allows each character to act out in meaningful ways.  And it is all packed into a story that is important to so many and will be seen by huge audiences across cinemas all over the world.  Greta Gerwig has achieved poetry in the mainstream, with subtleties and intelligent casting, matched with a cinematographer (Yorick le Saux) who gives energy to each shot and lighting choice – every time it cut to a new location, I was excited to see what my eyes saw next.  I think we are lucky to have a film like this, one with such magic.  I do not believe the film is radical, nor groundbreaking and I’m not about to try and understand the complexities of a feminist message.  Little Women is ultimately about a level of compromise, and you do not have to squint hard to see Gerwig herself sacrificing a perhaps more impactful protest by succumbing to the pressures of producing a film that can be easily adored.  When you have a film this special, that imagines impossibly strong emotive reactions, at least from myself, you get a free pass into greatness, placed into a column titled: what makes life worth living.

 

 

 

 

The Report & Marriage Story – Film Reviews

The Report

Films on the retrospective history of the Iraq War are coming, and The Report is one that makes sure it picks the right side.  Adam Driver plays real person Daniel Jones, an FBI office dork working for Californian senator Dianna Feinstein (Annette Bening), performing an exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists in that awful post 9/11 era (still pretty bad now).  The narrative consists of a lot of reading by Jones, cut to the torture happening, then Jones taking the information back to Feinstein where they have a conflict on whether it is pertinent to publish the discoveries.

This is one of Amazon Prime’s attempts at credibility for their original titles, a drama with recognisable actors and a fair enough budget.  Unfortunately, at times the film does have the feel of a TV movie (something that Netflix is moving away from), with a terrible title sequence font and some fluff lines, Driver literally says ‘I’ll start at the beginning,’ early on in the runtime.  The direction is competent enough, and screenwriter by trade Scott Z. Burns does whatever he can to make the paperwork reading and keyboard tapping more intriguing to watch, such as including explicit torture scenes.  These moments are effective in that you are disgusted by what is happening, however they make the film unremarkable and formulaic.  It takes you out of Jones’ headspace, because we can see the torture, but he cannot, leaving the film empty of character.  One of the strengths of the 2015 film Spotlight is that director Tom McCarthy never shows any of the abuse, yet the emotion is still there, because of the scope, and weight of how the journalists cope with hearing the stories.  More ambiguously The Report is most powerful in the proceedings before the torture methods were sanctioned, where phony psychologists are pitching their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in a cosy meeting room in Washington.

It advances at a polite pace, and never stagnates, though it is probably twenty minutes too long, and the outcome is clear after it moves past a welcome Tim Blake Nelson cameo as a whistleblower.  At first, the impression is that Driver is playing this in a low-key manner, he’s pragmatic and calm.  Then the film becomes less about him and more about the work, so he eventually shows a great deal of frustration and anger.  This is fine, there does not always have to be a three-dimensional protagonist, it can be about the work, and effectively that’s the film: it’s about the events, not the people surrounding it.  It is placid grey colour tones and a one-sided historical presentation, which is usually a bad thing, but here it stands as worthy because it is the correct side.  Even though the film is forgettable, it is a necessary telling of a story in a mature, intellectual, fact-based way that serves as a catalog to recognise mistakes made by the US government.

Available on Amazon Prime NOW. 

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second feature with Netflix, and one plagued by Twitter discourse and awards buzz is one of the best films of the year.  It is based on Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with some of the truth in the story being relevant, and some of it not.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take on the respective roles, as trendy artist couple Charlie and Nicole, separated and going through a divorce.  The film acts as part procedural, showing the effects of the technicalities of the law, whilst also handling the delicate problem of arguments and communication in long term relationships.

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The entire film is not as formal as that description and is ultimately a full-fledged weepy.  There has always been a sweetness to Baumbach’s work, that soft-boy cuteness that you would see in an Éric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert) or a Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) film.  In the past Baumbach has a sharp New York City wittiness alongside this sweetness, which can leave it slightly too biting, but with Marriage Story he dives headfirst into the heart and soul of the characters.  The film is definitely still witty, and extremely funny, it’s just more endearing and moving than some of his other work because he has embraced the romance.  It’s an upsetting film, with an agonizing climax, full of dramatic moments to go with scenes of levity and honesty.  You are allowed the melodramatic if you are true to reality and have space for the more absurd aspects of life, like one moment where Adam Driver has a gruesome accident with his arm.

The script is incredible, highlighted in a scene where Johannson meets divorce lawyer Laura Dern for the first time, and monologues about the problems of her relationship, seemingly in a stream of consciousness, though all preciously written by Baumbach.  It is important to note that after this scene, about a third of the way through, the film switches almost completely to the perspective of Driver, and this a strength of the movie rather than a weakness.  Baumbach is not pretending to totally understand Johansson’s character, perhaps being true to his own experience, instead he is focusing on Driver’s inability to leave his ego behind and accept his wife’s vacancies about him.  It creates an accurate depiction of a long-term relationship, the barrier that will never be broken down, that you need to let go of trying to have all the answers.

Both main performances are great, and you really forget that Johansson is an avenger and Driver is Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy or whatever.  They are acting!  Johansson in particular really pulls you onto her side, and though Driver gets to shine towards the end, she is perhaps more well-rounded in the film.  Then you have Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the sleazy lawyers, used as pawns by Baumbach mostly, but are highly entertaining, not to mention Alan Alda stepping in for some much-needed transparency to the American divorce system.  The result is a film of expert moving parts: a tight – meaningful screenplay, poignant direction, and grounded character acting, whilst having some space to explore into less serious details.

Available on Netflix NOW, and some cinemas across the UK (probably other countries too). 

 

2016, 2013, 2017, 2012

The coldness of an ascending order rank, or is it descending?  A pastime of listing, where personal satisfaction outweighs any relevance.  IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU MR REVIEWER.  There are too many ideas, and not enough talent.  Bong Joon Ho made an entire movie and you wrote an eight-hundred-word article explaining it.  I’m deleting all of this.  If a writer deletes his work in the woods, was the work ever there?  Hot take: there are good films and bad films.  Orange, blue, pink, violet.  And there are other films, the ones that mean something to you, the ones that transport you to a void of personal gratification.  Now to fight through the snow of endless agonising hypocritical minutia.

PATERSON (2016)

Two separate dreams about actor Adam Driver:

  1. Somewhere along the French Riviera, except the topography is disjointed. An extended family are holidaying in the summer, and they are joined by a new member – American actor Adam Driver.  He’s somehow managed to end up dating an aunt or a cousin of our narrator, who is of course a massive fan.  The narrator is the guide for the trip, and he wants Driver to like him, so much so that he is scared to do or say anything wrong.  It’s an anxious chess game of trying to be cool.
  2. Memory loss.

A film about creativity in everyday life, contentment to return home to the one person you love the most.  Simply living and breathing, instead of chasing something that does not exist. 

UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

The water before you is somehow special, it is better than anything you have ever tasted, each drink is better than the last, take a drink now.  With extreme precision, a minuscule bug is crawling through a vein like it is going backwards up a waterslide.  It’s quenching its first.  Push away, come close, small kiss, intense embrace, the beginnings of explanations destroyed under the pressures of a countertop.  Their hair is almost the same length, connected in a masterplan of irrelevant stakes that is too much to handle.  All roads lead to the bath.

A film about control over your path, about the chemistry behind love and attraction.  The end result a twisted fate of wrapping yourself up as warm as you can, to prepare for the disappointing answer.

A GHOST STORY (2017)

Being immortal is a great privilege, said the joker to the thief.  Twenty-one is a quarter done already, but those first ten didn’t count, right?  That is such a selfish notion when you are surrounded by spectres every way that you turn.  Imagine the amount of death floating around you in a city apartment building.  It’s either comforting or disturbing, and what of memory acting as reality?  If you close your eyes and see a loved one’s hand can you reach out and grab it?  Too many questions, and that is why it has made it here.

A film about losing the only true connection you have in the world.  The only thing you have left are the images of all sides of them, sweet and ugly, hovering over you. 

RUBY SPARKS (2012)

Joy!  Sunshine gleaming down onto this fucking graveyard.  Zoe Kazan’s doting and critical words that do not embark into cringe.  Writing!  The death of the author, postmodernism, all that jazz.  Selfishness and the old ego are hard to ignore with this one.  The enjoyment comes from reflection, and the fading romanticism of growing to a point of no return.  Pragmaticism must be respected, as tall as the mountain might seem.  This whole thing clearly cannot get past the summit.

A film about seeking perfection in life and art, where leaping just far enough will grant you enough enchantment to keep you hopeful that it’s not all numbers, and biology. 

 

‘Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,’ – Masatoshi Nagase, as the Japanese poet, in Paterson.