Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

Hello everyone, and welcome on back to Wrong Every Time. I have to admit, my film viewing hours have been diminished as of late, due to one obvious and embarrassing cause: Darkest Dungeon is taking over my life. I am not one of those people who plays a videogame casually, logging in a few minutes here and there throughout the week. Either I bounce off a game almost immediately, or I let it consume me entirely, thinking of little else until my trials are complete. My mind is now perpetually half-occupied with hardy adventurers and the trials thereof, but I fortunately managed to sneak in a sturdy collection of film viewings in the margins of the week. With a healthy mix of artistry, indulgence, and straightforward violence ahead of us, let’s dive into the Week in Review!

First up this week was VFW, which leans heavily towards the “violence and indulgence” end of the spectrum to offer an altogether riotous good time. VFW centers on a group of army veterans whose service spans from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, all of whom are enjoying their bartender Fred’s (Stephen Lang) birthday at the local VFW center. Unfortunately, their bar happens to be just across the street from a gang of no-good psyched-up gangbangers, and when a girl attempts to flee with their superdrug stash into the VFW center, our aging heroes find themselves in one last warzone.

VFW is an unabashed grindhouse throwback, drawing heavily on the narratives, aesthetics, and worldbuilding of John Carpenter’s ‘80s classics. The moment this film introduced its over-the-top drug den, we knew we were in for a return to the ‘80s “crimewave apocalypse” aesthetic – an era when folks were terrified that petty crime was going to rule the streets, inspiring films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York. VFW draws most heavily from Precinct 13, but its ominous synth score and gleefully messy practical effects could have come from anywhere in Carpenter’s oeuvre.

None of this to say that VFW is simply a Carpenter retread; it has many strengths of its own, building a charming rapport across its weary veterans, and delighting with all manner of messy kills. Ultimately, VFW’s over-the-top crimewave conceit disguises a far more relevant message: the ease with which veterans are discarded by society, and the misguided cruelty of blaming soldiers for the crimes of their leaders. But mostly, it’s just a great time for anyone who enjoys good friends and senseless violence.

Our next film proved to be a fascinating formal experiment, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. A Ghost Story begins with Lowery regulars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, a young married couple living in a small house in Dallas, Texas. Mundane domestic scenes illustrate the points of tension in their marriage, as we see that Mara wants to leave the house, but Affleck seems deeply attached to it. Then, in a scene conveyed as one slow pan to two crashed cars, Affleck is dead, and Mara is identifying his body at the morgue. She puts a sheet over his head, and walks away. The camera lingers. The camera continues to linger. Affleck slowly rises, still wearing the bedsheet, now with two black holes like a child’s ghost costume. Affleck is still here, but not here, separate from the world he knew. Affleck remains.

A Ghost Story proceeds at a glacial pacing, powerfully evoking the sense of stillness and alienation that now defines its protagonist’s life. Early on, it seems like he might still connect with his wife in some way; one triumphant moment involves her listening to a track he wrote, with his sheet dangling just inches from her outstretched fingers. But eventually, Mara moves on (the held shot of her driving towards the future is another standout), while Affleck remains. Through new tenants and destruction and renewal, he remains.

A Ghost Story is certainly not a horror film, and contains perhaps a third of a full character drama. It is instead a story about grief and memory, about how we attach value to spaces, and what that value means when those spaces are gone. Like all of the best filmmakers, Lowery understands the emotive power of cinema in the abstract, uncluttered by narrative distraction. The combined power of his stark, beautiful cinematography and Affleck’s unspeaking presence evokes a nostalgia sharper than words could describe; through his patient documentation, Affleck’s physical attachments and fear of change reveal themselves to be self-defeating instincts, a fundamental misread of the vitality this home once possessed. A dazzling formal exercise, a difficult philosophical question, and a beautiful, sentimental journey; A Ghost Story is something special.

After that, we turned the wheel back to the early ‘70s for Get Carter, a British crime drama starring Michael Caine as a man you absolutely do not want to fuck with. Get Carter was apparently produced shortly after a general restriction in film censorship laws, and it’s not hard to notice. Carter fucks basically everything that he doesn’t kill in this film, and boy howdy does he kill a lot of people.

The film’s plot involves the titular Jack Carter (a mob hitman in southern England) investigating his brother’s allegedly accidental death, and discovering a conspiracy more horrible than he could imagine. But as a viewed experience, Carter feels almost like a Hiroyuki Imaishi production, with the very first scene involving Carter detailing his plans while a porno plays in the background. Caine is steely-eyed and unrelenting, a large man who knows how to throw his weight around; as the film continues, any initial misconceptions of him being “the good guy” in this situation die as violently as his many opponents. He is an ugly man in an ugly world, and though there ultimately emerges a thread of righteousness in his behavior, you never really feel good about what’s happening.

Both Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie have touted the merits of this film, and it’s easy to see why. Get Carter effectively makes crime glamorous without ever sanitizing it, and the overall film possesses a nervous energy that mirrors Caine’s own barely-holstered fury. The contrast of dilapidated old homes and rising brutalist structures paints a portrait of social decay that Carter seems almost oblivious to, until you realize it isn’t obliviousness; it’s grim acceptance, the understanding that life is ugly and by all reports likely to get uglier. The moment when Carter is truly, fundamentally shocked by the horror of this world is the film’s centerpiece, a moment so sick and devastating it earns some content warnings all by itself. Carter is not the man to banish that darkness, and ultimately, his rage feels as powerless as this film’s common people, cowering as they are in Britain’s post-industrial squalor. A savage, urgent, and powerfully effective thriller.

We then turned the clock back even further, as we checked out one of the quintessential French New Wave classics, The 400 Blows. This 1959 production is the directorial debut of Francois Truffaut, one of the founders of the genre, and the film itself is considered one of the defining masterpieces of the era. Given its lofty reputation within the art cinema sphere, you’d be forgiven for expecting something obtuse and challenging, like Godard’s more experimental productions. But in point of fact, The 400 Blows is more impressive for its straightforward simplicity, incorporating the authentic, almost documentarian “cinéma vérité” perspective of the Italian neorealists, and using it to tell a story of adolescence unadorned by sentimentalism or nostalgia.

You could sum up The 400 Blows plot as “a boy is handed a nudie magazine in class, and is thus sent to the labor camps for life.” The film’s young protagonist Antoine is untrusted and unloved; his birth mother sees him as a nuisance, his stepfather treats him with indifference, and his teacher is certain he’s a bad seed. The issue of the nudie magazine snowballs into angry discussions at home, making the cinema and the streets of Paris his only escape from the cruelty of adults. Antoine finds fragments of joy in truancy and freedom, but the system eventually clamps down on his attempts at self-definition. In the desperate utilitarianism of post-war France, there is no room for a boy and his dreams.

The 400 Blows is dazzling in its realism, making it easy to see how it played such an instrumental role in the New Wave’s ascent. The film’s perspective offers an effortlessly convincing argument that cinematic drama need not be ornate to feel resonant, anthemic, or profound; as Antoine and his friends roam the streets, their authentic aimlessness and moral indifference capture the tenor of adolescence perfectly. Jean-Pierre Leaud’s central performance is fantastic, with his sullen, distrustful looks evoking the same minimalist universality as the film’s overt storytelling. Through his brief moments of joy and much longer silences, we see a flame of inspiration untended by the world, flickering brightly despite his society’s apparent disdain for childhood itself.

All of this is not to say that Truffaut succeeds purely by reduction, through disposing of anything that seems inauthentically theatrical. In retrospect, what is removed from this film feels indulgent from the start, artifacts of stage pageantry that only create distance between us in the characters. On the other hand, what remains is executed with the skill of a natural master, with The 400 Blows offering one gorgeous, perfectly populated layout after another. Revelatory in its simplicity and gorgeous in its form, The 400 Blows stands as one of the best statements on adolescence ever committed to film.

We finished up the week with a hard turn in the opposite direction, as we embraced all the artifice and pageantry the cinema can evoke in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! Where The 400 Blows is an exercise in minimalism, Moulin Rouge! is an exercise in excess, with even its title demanding to be belted from the stage to the bleacher seats. Starring Ewan McGregor as a young Parisian poet in 1899, and Nicole Kidman as the courtesan he falls in love with, Moulin Rouge! takes us through a tale as old as time, executed with an audacity that could only come from the director of Romeo + Juliet.

Moulin Rouge!’s aesthetic is like little else I’ve seen in film; the closest comparison would likely be the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, a film equally unconcerned with anything approaching cinematic realism. While Speed Racer’s look is intended to evoke a comic page brought to life, Moulin Rouge! styles itself as some kind of pop-up book, layering foreground and background objects into kaleidoscopic collages, with no real sense of solidity or depth. This is an intentional effect; Luhrmann deliberately avoids any sense of localized perspective or camera focus, going beyond any split diopter-style shenanigans to literally present every object at every distance as simultaneously in focus. As a result, he effectively constructs a dream world where the characters feel as unreal as their backgrounds, all joyously dancing in sequence like a goddamn Yuasa film.

Moulin Rouge! is worth watching for the aesthetic experience alone, along with the audacity of his choices in ransacking pop music to populate his musical (his use of Roxanne almost made me yell at the screen). McGregor somewhat wilts in his role as the lovestruck poet, but Kidman puts a hundred and ten percent into every goddamn scene, and is well-supported by a perfectly cast Jim Broadbent. The story (both the film itself and the play-within-a-play) is simplistic schlock that in no way embodies the characters’ alleged loyalty to bohemian theatre, but are you seriously watching Moulin Rouge! for its narrative pretensions? Obviously not, so grab a costume and start singing.

By admin