A short directed by Bi Gan. A strange black cat does a scarecrow a favour and burns him to death. The black cat puts on the scarecrow’s coat and hat and goes on a journey to investigate three “weirdoes” who might know what “the most precious thing in the world” is. He recharges a robot who dispenses heartbreak candy to orphans, gives an eye to a woman who eats special noodles to delete her memory (a stunning, surreal image of memory regained, here), and a demonic slot machine balanced on a drum that eats souls one note at a time has a secret. And the cat’s quest is not what it seems. There are wonderfully unexpected visual tricks all over this piece – it’s a delight of invention. A scene that slowly starts to seem like a David Lynch bit turns out to have forced perspective stunts and a great colour-filter gag in it. Every moment is richer than you expect. I watched it on MUBI, but I’m sure it’s knocking around elsewhere, and it’ll be the best ten minutes of your life that day.
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Adapted by writer Conor McPherson, staged by Ian Rickson and directed for film here by Ross MacGibbon. It showed up on BBC Four one night, and I clicked over to it because it features my previous collaborator Richard Armitage, and he’s always revelatory when he stretches a bit. UNCLE VANYA was at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2019 – I have a feeling I knew about that? Turns out this was shot during lockdown, when Covid closed the theatre it was being performed in. They decided to preserve the staging and performances by forming a bubble and shooting the play in a hybrid of theatre and film. The hybridity is seen in examples like breaking the fourth wall — when members of the cast address the audience, they would have stepped forward, perhaps been isolated, but film allows for the close-up, making those fourth-wall monologues more intimate and fluid. The shifting between methods is often electrifying, and creates a real dynamism in crucial scenes like Vanya with the gun.
The set is stunning. Autumnal glory, both beautiful and promising decay. Toby Jones is magical, Richard Armitage pairs his intensity with some carefully-observed, heartbreaking little motions. and Roger Allam is, as ever, a delight to watch. But the writing! The adaptation is timeloose – sometimes with the sound of the nineteenth century, sometimes explosively contemporary. This fits VANYA, a turn-of-the-century piece sitting on the pivot point between past and future. And, my god, it flows and crackles and surprises.
A lyric essay in film form, directed by Jessica Beshir, exploring the use, rituals and grim realities of and around khat culture in Ethiopia. It is a remarkably beautiful, hazy film, shot entirely in monochrome, moving around its world in slow stoned tread. The film’s intoxicated lens makes for an impressionistic swirl of lives and experiences, rather than a documentary’s focus and hard edges, and is all the better for that.
There are moments that made me just sit still and be in the lives of the people recorded here: the man explaining in slow drugged cadence that the taste of coffee has changed since they started growing more khat, for some reason, transfixed me.
Two people are locked in a blacked out apartment for ten days to cure lazy-eye. “The hallucinations start on day two.” Seems like overkill for lazy-eye, but whatever. ‘Day two” is when the image goes from black and white film to black and white animation. Written and directed by Thomas Hardiman and animated by Chris Cornwell, this short piece is clever and eccentric. The animation relates to the twin monologues wittily, and evokes Kim Deitch and Renee French and some names I’m not recalling right now. It’s a fun seven minutes I want to revisit.
I watched it on MUBI, but it also seems to be on Vimeo.
I found the above online. There were so many shots I wanted to save and study, but MUBI, understandably, blocks screenshotting. So I will have to wait for this marvellous film to be made available on physical media one day. I really wanted some shots of the nuclear plant model that looks like a set from JOE 90.
The film is a tour of a Lithuanian nuclear power plant in the process of being decommissioned. As the director herself says here:
The project takes a geological approach – it reads things that compose this flat landscape as a stack of stratigraphic layers. Burial is an intertwined section through the current entanglement of identities, spatial practices, infrastructures and geological resources.
There are long takes of control panels, banks of buttons and dials, documenting the immense invention that went into keeping a piece of the sun in bondage. This plant is a twin of Chernobyl: the sister that lived. But, as part of the terms of Lithuania joining the EU, it was ordered to be decommissioned. Nobody had ever immediately shut down and dismantled a nuclear plant of this size before. It takes decades. In the years 2010 to 2022 the process had generated 64000 tons of waste. It’s ongoing. It won’t be done till 2038, by which time that tonnage will at least triple.
It is a beautifully shot film. Technically a documentary, but using the tools of art film and fiction, creating allusions, magical images, dream logics. It moves through uranium mines, underwater atomic mausoleums, mountains under which nuclear waste will be sunk, soars over forests of pylons. The firm dissolves into an imagistic nuclear fugue. The sound design is excellent, and the whole thing is powerfully eerie.
I watched BURIAL on MUBI, but it may be available elsewhere.
Ana Vaz’ THE AGE OF STONE is a thirty-minute short. It opens with a slow cinema conceit – a steady gaze at the sun rising over Brasilia. Then long takes of ants, structurally complex flowers. There is the constant sound of insect life, bugs flying around the lens, determined handheld camera work – a sense of the organic, the real, in all aspects. A man arrives at a quarry, in a close-up reminiscent of early cinema, eyes glistening with unnameable emotion. Traditional stonemasons cut slabs from the belly of the quarry. Slow pans reveal the presence of strange stone structures. Piece by piece over the next fifteen to twenty minutes, we get to see the whole thing – the excavation of the quarry has revealed an ancient structure in the ground. The extraction and mining have exposed the bones of the thing, standing in the sun like the bleached skeleton of a whale or the ruins of an upturned boat’s hull.
It is, in the end, a simple thing: its overt attempts at message perhaps less successful for me (being a person of a different background and identity) than the flash-fiction-like surrounding of a single speculative-fiction concept that is revealed very affectlngly and cleverly. Its slow estranging of the scene is something to study.
I watched THE AGE OF STONE on MUBI.
This film got a bad rap in reviews, and I suspect it’s because BULLET TRAIN is that rarity in action films: it’s for writers and actors. It’s all about structure, in a very defined way.
Chekhov’s gun is a writing principle that states that everything in a story should be there for a reason. Chekhov’s famous example is that if we’re told a rifle is hanging on the wall in chapter one, then someone needs to fire it in chapter two, otherwise why tell us there’s a rifle there? Chekhov tells us not to waste time with details that aren’t important. Talk about only what is in service to the story, no matter how irrelevant it may seem at the start.
Pretty much everything we see (and hear) in BULLET TRAIN is there for a reason. Every detail fairly quivers with potential energy after a while, when we start to realise what’s being done, and we wonder what’s next to explode.
It’s based on a novel I haven’t read, MARIA BEETLE by Kotaro Isaka, so I can’t speak to how faithful the treatment by screenwriter Zak Olkewicz is. Obviously, one assumes that almost all the original characters were Japanese, though Isaka himself contests that, and a big international adaptation means characters become international visitors to Japan. My biggest takeaway was how odd it is, in a way we can usually only get away with in books or graphic novels. If you came for a film by a JOHN WICK director (David Leitch) and got a mini-chapter about the adventures of a water bottle (!), you too might get a bit moody about it.
Brad Pitt has a whale of a time. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is currently one of the best “supporting” actors of his generation – look how completely convincing he is in TENET – and Brian Tyree Henry pulls off a pretty good English accent as an assassin obsessed with Thomas The Tank Engine. Nobody in this film looks like they’re not having fun. Pretty much everything in the script slots together so neatly that every scene is its own set-piece., the bridges between them held up by Pitt as a hitman with anxiety puking his trauma out to Sandra Bullock over the phone. Immensely enjoyable, and enjoyed, performances with a script that’s all about structure, revelation, surprise and clicking over a very carefully designed maze of dominoes.
It’s really worth a watch, just to see how they do it.
BULLET TRAIN seems to be available on all formats.
Happened upon this METROPOLIS gif at Experimental Cinema. I’ve read the original novel by Thea von Harbou a few times over the years. It’s a good deal weirder than the film. She also wrote the film, directed by her husband Fritz Lang, which is a remarkable adaptation of her own work, given how much it cuts from the novel.
Von Harbou had a weird, confusing life. Her marriage was troubled by Lang openly chasing women, apparently, although the cause of the marriage’s dissolution was reportedly that she was caught by him in bed with a young Indian journalist, Ayi Tendulkar. Who she later married in secret, because the Nazi regime – which she otherwise appeared completely loyal to – was not about to let a high-status Aryan woman marry a brown man. Lang bugged out of Germany, Tendulkar was sent back to India, and von Harbou stayed, ending the war in a prison camp making hearing aids and later insisting she only became a Nazi to aid Indian immigrants. There, she received a medal for saving people from air raids.
Immediately after the war, she became a “rubble woman,” a member of the female teams that cleared bombed-out German cities. One imagines her underground like the workers in METROPOLIS. One wonders if she felt like Maria, transformed back from a Nazi robot into a virtuous worker.
The throat singing in this scene is performed by Michael Geiger, and I found a video interview with him, usefully chaptered in the notes under the video. It gets right into the technical stuff of both recording the piece and the operation of the vocal system in achieving it.
I actually sat forward, the first time I saw this bit, saying, “holy shit, that’s Tibetan throat singing.” I love this bit so much. Probably my favourite part of the film, both visually and sonically.
There’s an excellent BBC documentary about Hans Zimmer, who composed the DUNE soundtrack, saying of it: “I don’t think anybody’s ever won an Oscar for a score that blatantly is bagpipes, heavy metal guitars and a woman screaming at you.”