The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse (2019)

Written by Robert & Max Eggars. Directed by Robert Eggars.

As anyone who comes here regularly would know, I watch a lot of movies. Sometimes they are perfectly fine while up on the screen but don’t stay with me, and within hours I need to refer to notes made in the cinema to jog my memory into writing a review. Not so with Robert Eggars’ latest film – I found it truly memorable and cannot stop thinking about it!

The Lighthouse is many things, which makes it difficult to adequately describe without giving away massive plot spoilers – which I have no intention of doing. Suffice it to say, I found this seemingly simple story of two men alone in a lighthouse a riveting cinematic experience that becomes increasingly complex and deep. From the opening scene, this is a film that demands your full attention and becomes (at times) uncomfortably intense.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star in this two-hander and both are excellent. I’ve come to expect this of Dafoe, who never disappoints, but Pattinson is extraordinary here and has become an actor of depth and serious value. There is surprisingly little dialogue between them but that is delivered with intent and tension. For a relatively quiet film, it’s very loud, with superb diagetic sound and a score that weaves through this isolated and desolate world.

For film nerds (like me), the movie was shot on 35 mm black and white film stock, using vintage Baltar lenses, which required much stronger lighting for the interior scenes, creating deeper contrasts and also forcing the almost square 1.19:1 (or Movietone) aspect ratio. This makes so much of the film ultra close up and at times, downright claustrophobic despite being so isolated. There are many seemingly small things like this that combine together to make this film a cinephile’s delight – the haunting sound design, the very specific dialects used by the actors, the atmospheric score by Mark Korven, the brilliant cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and the superb editing by Louise Ford. All combine together to make a truly memorable cinematic experience.

Narratively, the story was drawn initially from an unfinished work by Edgar Allen Poe and a real-life incident from an early 19th century Welsh lighthouse. But at its heart, I think this has more in common with Greek tragedy – particularly Proteus, the prophetic sea god and Prometheus, the trickster who stole fire from the gods and was punished so horribly. Set in the late 19th century, this is a period piece that doesn’t exclude modern viewers. There are strong themes of the performative nature of work and masculinity, which are relatable audience entry points and become so very obvious as the layers of social norms are stripped away from the characters and their true natures revealed. And above all, the lighthouse – which almost becomes a character itself, in all its intense and claustrophobic isolation.

At times, The Lighthouse is a hard watch and if you’re not a fan of being challenged by a piece of cinema, I cannot recommend it to you. However, if you like horror that is cerebral as well as visceral, you’ve come to the right place. If there is a fault, it is a little over-long with a running time of 109 minutes, but I wonder now if that was intentional. Like Eggars’ previous feature, The Witch (2015) there are questions posed that are never answered. The existential horror at the core of this drama is arguably something that exists in all of us and here, Robert Eggars in concert with his excellent cast and crew, gradually peel away the artifice of societal expectations to reveal that dark heart.

The Lighthouse is currently in (relatively) wide release across Australia and I’d like to thank Monster Fest for the opportunity to see and review it.

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life (2019)

A Hidden Life (2019)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

Like a lot of cinephiles, I have something of a love/hate relationship with Terrence Malick. At his best, the trademarks of his filmmaking (voice over narration, sweeping landscapes shot at “golden hour”, extended tracking shots) work together to create something so much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m thinking here of movies like Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and parts of The Tree of Life (2011). But when Malick’s not on point, it can end up as a bloated mess, such as Knight of Cups (2015) or Song to Song (2017), which I found almost unwatchable. 

I went to a well-attended Members’ Preview Screening at the State Cinema last night and while my expectations weren’t terribly high, I was hoping for an improvement from Malick – and I got that at least! 

A Hidden Life is based on the story of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian-born conscientious objector who went to prison in Germany rather than swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. He left behind in Austria his equally devout wife Fani, his widowed mother and three daughters, who bore the brunt of discrimination from their village for his actions. In 2007 Jagerstatter was beatified by the Catholic church and the religious themes are writ very large across this movie

The film opens with black and white footage coupled with choral music that creates atmosphere as well as exposition for what’s to come. The cinematography by regular Malick collaborator Jorg Widmer is superb. Malick of course makes much of the glorious alpine scenery, the framing is utterly superb and many of those trademark tracking shots here are simply breathtaking in their beauty and as exemplary cinematic craft. It’s worth seeing for this alone. 

The two leads, August Diehl as Franz and Valerie Pachner as Fani are vibrant and engaging and there is a dream-like quality about the idyllic scenes of their simple life in the Austrian alps. However, as the ramifications of Franz’s decision not to fight begin to show, Malick employs increasing jump cuts to heighten their feelings of anxiety and it was more than a little too obvious, taking me right out of the movie. The music by James Newton Howard was alright but to my ear also became far too obvious, especially towards the end of the movie. 

This ends up as a film in two parts. The alpine idyll and the hell of prison, overlaid with narration from Franz and Fani’s letters to each other. This also features a beautifully understated cameo from the late and very great Bruno Gantz as Judge Leuben, who presides over Franz’s hearing in Germany. 

While I think this is a clearly better work than any of Malick’s more recent efforts, it still left me feeling like it didn’t quite work as well as it should. Once again, Malick is overly heavy-handed in key scenes, like he doesn’t trust his audience to be cine-literate enough to get the message, but (as in The Tree of Life) this only occurs in parts. Nevertheless, for me it undercut the overall emotional impact of the piece.

At just short of three hours, this is a long and at times, uneven examination of one man’s small act of defiance and its effect on his family but small acts of defiance are important and should be celebrated at every opportunity. Certainly worth seeing for the cinematography, but do go and see this on the big screen to get the full grandeur of the alps. 

A Hidden Life opens in Australia on the 30th January 2020.

Knives Out

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, LaKeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell, and Katherine Langford in Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out (2019)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson.

A few years ago, when I first started getting serious about studying cinema, I began listening to the podcast You Must Remember Thiscreated, written and narrated by film historian and critic Karina Longworth. (By the way, her book Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood is a really great read if you’re remotely interested in Hollywood history). One of my tutors told me Longworth was Rian Johnson’s partner and I must’ve seemed very dim. “You know, the guy who directed Looper”. This made me sit up and take notice, as I found Looper (2012) an interesting take on both sci fi and action genres. And I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed his handling of The Last Jedi (2017), so risky and refreshing after the very safe The Force Awakens (2015).

So, I feel I’ve come to this movie (and Rian Johnson generally) quite late and by a circuitous route. But as with all good things, it’s better late than never! And Knives Out is a delight in so many ways.

As someone who grew up reading crime fiction (everything from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), I felt right at home from the opening scene of the grand and incredibly Gothic Thrombey house. The overall production design was fabulous and the house interiors owed much to movies like Sleuth (1972). The soundtrack by Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) is excellent and the cinematography by Johnson regular Steve Yedlin delivers all the right atmosphere required for a film like this.

In a nutshell (and without spoilers) wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is discovered dead the morning after a family gathering for his birthday. His nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) seems to be the only one genuinely grieving – the rest of his family appear mostly concerned about money and inheritance.  While it’s presumed Thrombey committed suicide, famed detective Benoit Blanc has been called in because there are questions – and so the fun begins!

The ensemble cast are rock solid throughout and I found Chris Evans and Daniel Craig particularly endearing as the spoiled brat Ransom Drysdale and private detective Benoit Blanc respectively. Much has been said about Craig’s ridiculous accent but I think it’s all perfectly appropriate to the setting and dialogue Johnson has created for him. Indeed, it’s probably my favourite performance from Craig to date. As much as I’ve enjoyed him in Marvel movies, it was also great to see Chris Evans do something other than Captain America and this is a perfect break away role for him. But the heart of the movie is Marta, so beautifully played by Ana de Armas.

As much as this is a love letter to whodunit/murder mysteries and has all the story beats and twists to match, I also read this film as a statement about greed and our obsession with wealth – a timely reminder that it’s better to be a good person than a nasty rich person.

Johnson’s directorial touch is subtle and lighthearted for the most part, and it’s clear that he and the cast had a tremendous amount of fun making this – there’s already talk for a follow up feature for Benoit Blanc! It’s also showed in box office receipts and Johnson’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and I hope he wins. Despite being close to the end of it’s cinema release, my Saturday session at the State Cinema was well attended and there were many genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Incredibly entertaining fare and highly recommended!

1917

1917 (2019)

1917 (2019)

Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Directed by Sam Mendes.

For the last six years I’ve been studying film analysis and two of my favourite books I picked up in first year were ‘Narration in the Fiction Film’ by David Bordwell and ‘Film Art: An Introduction‘ (now in its 11th edition) by Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. I dip into both regularly and they showed me how many seemingly innocuous things can add together to make a visual narrative bold, memorable and above all, meaningful to audiences.

I’ve just got home from a session of Sam Mendes’ new film and 1917 offers classic examples of what Bordwell and Thompson have been impressing upon undergraduate Screen Studies students for well over thirty years. I’m in no doubt why Mendes won Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama at the recent Golden Globes.

The story is very simple, loosely based on a story Mendes’ grandfather (the Trinidadian novelist and WWI veteran, Alfred H. Mendes) told about two Tommys with a message that had to get through to the front line in order to save the lives of 1600 men. The entire film follows this quest, giving the illusion of a two hour long single take. It is superbly shot by Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers around, and edited by Australian born Lee Smith – and this is extraordinary work.

It is spectacular and bold in so many ways but there is an immediacy about this kind of film making that tempers the spectacle. That is, we discover scenes and information at the same time the protagonists do – and we see the horrors they experience as well. And here, the horrors aren’t sugar coated or played down. Throughout, the tension is enhanced by a fine score from Thomas Newman, which didn’t detract at any point. There are a few jump scares that bought gasps from the audience at my well-attended Sunday screening and also moments of surreal imagery, particularly the eerie lighting of a bombed out town and a river strewn with cherry blossom.

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as Blake and Schofield respectively are memorable and well-played, and the supporting cast is superb, with Mark Strong a standout for me.

All in all, this is a film that does nothing to glorify war but throughout shows the suffering and futility. But perhaps it’s the movie we need right now in 2020.

1917 is currently playing at the State Cinema North Hobart, and is in wide release across Australia and other countries. Go and see it on the biggest screen you can.

The Report

Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, and Adam Driver in The Report (2019)

The Report (2019)

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns

Adam Driver is hot property at the moment, with Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) still playing in cinemas, Marriage Story (2019) on Netflix and The Report (2019) available on Amazon Prime. He is undoubtedly a powerful screen presence and an actor that’s always worth watching.

In The Report he certainly has his work cut out for him, carrying a film that is both an important story and a complex one but is very ably supported by a fine cast, including Annette Bening, John Hamm, Corey Stoll and Tim Blake Nelson. Driver plays Daniel Jones, an FBI operative, who leads an investigation into the heinous Enhanced Interrogation program, established by the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11. There are scenes of torture and they’re intense and at times, harrowing but the majority of the film takes place in the sterile, closeted offices of the FBI, CIA and Senator Feinstein. The idealism of Driver’s Daniel Jones turns to frustration and simmering anger as almost everyone attempts to cover up or shut down his investigation.

Based on a true story, I understand Scott Z. Burns wanting to honor the incredible dogged determination of the real life Jones and Adam Driver brings commitment and sincerity to his portrayal, supported by a top notch cast. I love a good political thriller, but I felt throughout the whole film, this piece is just missing the mark and I think it is in the script and editing where the problems lay. At very nearly two hours, this isn’t a really long movie by today’s standards but by the end it felt like much more, which is disappointing in so many ways.

The Report is currently playing on Amazon Prime Australia. An interesting premise and worth watching if just for Adam Driver – but not as good as it could be.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Image result for portrait of a lady on fire movie poster

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Written and directed by Celine Sciamma.

I saw a trailer for this late last year and thought it would be worth my time. Since seeing it last night, I literally can’t stop thinking about this film. Like my last review Jojo Rabbit (2019), I find myself wondering if I’ve seen one of the best movies of my year at the start of January!

In a nutshell, this French period piece sees Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrive on an island off the Brittany coast. Her brief is to act as companion to young noblewoman Heloise (Adele Haenel) by day and paint her portrait by night.  During this time, they discover in each other friendship and love.

Of course, it is far more complicated and nuanced than this, and I found it much more than the sum of its quite straightforward parts. Sciamma’s script won the screenplay award at Cannes last year (as well as the Queer Palm) and it’s easy to see why. It is economical, almost minimal but even in translation, full of subtext and rich in meaning. Apart from being very beautiful, the two leads are incredibly powerful and have great on screen presence. They are ably supported by Luana Bajrami as the young maid Sophie, and Valeria Golino as Heloise’ mother, the Countess, who pines for a better life for both her daughter and herself in Milan.

The cinematography by Claire Mathon is breathtaking – from beautifully framed exteriors on the cliffs and beach to luminous interiors, full of candle and firelight. The costumes designed by Dorothee Guiraud range from the sumptuous to the simple and add a great deal to a film that relies so heavily on themes of art and painting. Like the screenplay, the sound design is also minimal, with very little incidental music. Most of it is diegetic, from within the world of the film – fires crackling, footsteps on floorboards, the ocean breaking on the beach. There is a particularly arresting scene of women around a bonfire singing, which I found especially moving.

Ultimately, this is a love story, a film made by, about and featuring women – there are no major male characters on screen but it does nothing to exclude male audiences. At just over two hours I can see that some people would find it slow but I loved the gradual build and found myself happily immersed in this female world. Overall, Sciamma offers us a quietly elegant and ultimately satisfying movie that takes period drama to the next level.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is currently playing at the State Cinema in Hobart but wherever you are in the world, seek it out! I wholeheartedly recommend it as a wonderful respite to the pace of modern life.

Jojo Rabbit

Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

JoJo Rabbit (2019)

Directed by Taika Waititi

I really like Taika Waititi’s films. Hunt For the Wilderpeople (2016) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014) in particular remain firm favourites and Thor: Ragnarok (2017) injected more depth in the titular character than two previous outings managed. But when JoJo Rabbit first came up on my radar I have to say I was skeptical. A movie about a 10 year old Nazi in late WWII with an imaginary friend who is Adolf Hitler seemed a little too off beat even for Waititi. I’m happy to admit I was utterly wrong. 

I saw this at the State Cinema in a fairly packed daytime screening and there were many laugh out loud moments. But the laughter is tempered by tragedy, loss and pathos. Adapted by Waititi from the 2004 novel ‘Caging Skies’ by Christina Leunens, (which I haven’t read but I understand is a very serious work) the screenplay is a total joy. There is a scene at the end of the second act that gives so much narrative depth through fairly innocuous dialogue that I was still discussing it an hour after I’d watched the movie. Without giving any spoilers, it involves Stephen Merchant, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davies, offering layers of information, drama and tension in a simple setting. 

The titular character is played with wide-eyed innocence by Roman Griffin Davies and his best friend Yorki, by Archie Yates and this was their first big screen experience – well done boys! Scarlett Johansson is Rosie, JoJo’s mother and I think this one of her best performances in a very long time – but I haven’t seen Marriage Story yet. Thomasin McKenzie is excellent as Elsa, the Jewish girl Rosie is sheltering and Taika Waititi is suitably outrageous as the Adolf of Jojo’s imagination. The entire cast works very well and special mention must go to Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant who are excellent supporting players. Much of the location shooting was done in the Czech Republic and it is beautifully filmed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. Some of the framing in the outdoor scenes are particularly glorious and I loved the costumes from Mayes C. Rubeo. As I expect from Waititi, the editing is precise and, at times reminded me of Edgar Wright, particularly in conjunction with the excellent music choices. 

After the phenomenal mainstream success of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi has proved he is no flash in the pan director and his handling of what is at times, very difficult material shows tremendous empathy and maturity – a director at the height of his craft. Along with many in the audience, I laughed often, but I was also moved to tears and Jojo Rabbit will stay with me for a long time. 

It’s really difficult when my first trip to the cinema for 2020 is something this good, and I already predict this will be one of my favourite movies of the year. I just hope the rest of the releases I see over the next 12 months are as brilliant.

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