what i watched last week

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964). A series of ghost stories so gorgeous it’s nearly impossible to get any perspective on the quality of those stories. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966 (it lost to The Shop on Main Street), Kwaidan demands our awareness not just of Kobayashi, but also of cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima and art director Shigemasa Toda. I don’t pretend to know who did what, but the result is stunning. Smartly, considering these are ghost stories, Kobayashi et al do not worry about an exact representation of the real. Instead, they use every available trick to augment the film canvas. The colors are brighter than those worn by circus performers, with the screen often particularly awash in the most dazzling reds. Often, I’ll see a movie like this and think of it as what I call a “coffee table movie”, something that looks so pretty you want to put it out on a coffee table for a friend to browse. But those movies are stagnant ... still photos as demo material. Kwaidan moves too much for a still to fully serve as an example. The format also works in its favor. As beautiful as it is to see, I might eventually get bored with 183 minutes of beauty. (There are alternate versions, including the original U.S. release, which simply removed one of the stories.) But the episodic nature of the film breaks those three hours into more manageable periods. And while this movie is slower, more patient, than the usual horror film, nonetheless the growing tension of each ghost story does mean you always want to know what is coming next (even though the plots don’t always make sense ... not sure they should, to be honest). It’s not easy for me to think of any movie that compares to Kwaidan ... at times I thought of Mario Bava’s anthology, Black Sabbath, but Bava’s style is nothing like Kobayashi’s here. Kwaidan is simply one of a kind, at least until someone points me in the direction of something similar. And I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, which is frequently so abstract I thought my Bluetooth earphones were broken. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

Pride (Matthew Warchhus, 2014). 7/10.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011). 7/10.


film fatales #15: we need to talk about kevin (lynne ramsay, 2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is only Lynne Ramsay’s third feature as a director. This should not imply that the film has the feel of someone still on their learner’s permit, for Ramsay has very specific ideas about what she wants to put on the screen, and she has all the tools to accomplish her goals. Writing about her debut, Ratcatcher, I wrote that it was “an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films.” Kevin is equally impressive, but for me, something is still missing. Ramsay is efficient and vague at the same time, leaving movies that are easy to admire but not so easy to like. (I pointed out about Ratcatcher that I didn’t think that was necessarily what she wanted, anyway.) We Need To Talk About Kevin is, in fact, very unlikeable, purposely so, which serves the purpose of forcing the audience to experience the fearful grating of the relationship between mother and son.

Kevin does need to be talked about, although ironically, no one in the movie ever actually does this. He is another one of those troubled teens who wipe out their schoolmates. On the one hand, we never get an explanation of why Kevin is a psychopath, yet even as the film seems to leave such analysis to the viewer, it points towards Kevin’s mother (Tilda Swinton) as somehow being the cause of the craziness. Whether Kevin is just a bad seed or a product of an unloving mother isn’t made clear, but both possibilities lay at least part of the blame on Mom (from what we can see, Kevin takes after his mother more than he does his father, leaving her responsible for his bad genetics).

Kevin is relatively sympathetic to Mom’s plight. Kevin is a truly monstrous kid, as a baby who never quits crying, as a youngster who refuses to be potty-trained, and as a teenage who regularly performs dastardly deeds. Mom is also burdened by Kevin’s ability to charm others into thinking he’s a fine fellow (Dad, in particular, falls for this, telling Mom “he’s just being a boy”). Ramsay pulls no punches: Kevin is sick.

But from the start, Mom is ambivalent about having a kid. If it takes her a long time to really hate Kevin (some might argue she never reaches that point), she can only pretend to love him ... all of her good intentions are constructed, not “natural”, and you get the feeling even Toddler Kevin knows that his mother doesn’t much like him.

The film seems like a mess, but it’s a studied mess, which is to say, it is no mess at all. As noted above, Ramsay knows exactly what she is doing, and the chaos of the splintered chronology of the movie reflects the inner turmoil of Mom. It also means the film is often confusing ... again, this is intentional ... Ramsay isn’t interested in a clear narrative as much as she wants to show us how Mom experiences her wretched life, an experience that isn’t any clearer to Mom than it is to the audience.

In my earlier review, I cited an excellent video essay by Tony Zhou, “Lynne Ramsay: The Poetry of Details”, which does a great job of showing one way to approach Ramsay’s movies. I remain intrigued by her work, I haven’t yet seen a movie of hers that seems a complete success. #359 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: pride (matthew warchus, 2014)

If you are going to make a feel-good movie, might as well go all-in. Pride features a boatload of fine British actors, some veterans you have heard of (Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West) and others newcomers, to me at least, who more than hold their own. Based on a true story of a group of gay activists who travel to Wales to support workers during the UK miners’ strike of 1984-5, Pride milks its material in rousing ways, encouraging the audience to identify with the strikers and their gay supporters against the evil power of the state (represented by Margaret Thatcher).

Some of us resist this kind of shameless audience manipulation, but admittedly, Warchus is so good here that resistance is largely futile. You might feel like a heartless fuddy-duddy if you don’t leave the movie with the titular pride in your heart, listening to Billy Bragg remind us that there is power in a union, followed by Jimmy Somerville’s ballad for his friend Mark, a major character in the film.

It’s a bit odd, though, making a feel-good movie about a strike that failed. Which may be why the film is less about labor issues and more about getting together, Kumbaya fashion, in a celebration of the commonalities among all humans. The film offers a powerful statement about the importance of pride in the gay community, emphasized when it concludes with the Lesbian and Gay Pride 85 parade.

The miners and their strike fall by the wayside. The miners themselves are used more as props to further the story of people coming together than they are presented as complicated workers involved in a complicated strike. I don’t pretend to be an expert on that strike, but I know there’s much more to it than what we see in Pride. Whether it’s the strike’s failure, or the decline of the coal industry, or the resulting victory for Evil Thatcher that changed the UK forever, the strike deserves to be more than a backdrop for a story about emergent gay pride. And it’s no surprise that the actual political affiliation of LGSM co-founder Mark Ashton is buried (he was a Communist).

Having said all of this, there is still no denying the way Pride makes us feel good, and does so without resorting to many cheap tricks to wring emotion from the audience. 7/10.