Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 26min

In one of Goodfellas’ most iconic scenes, Henry Hill sits with his fellow wise guys in the Copacabana night club, listening to his good friend Tommy DeVito send the group into fits of laughter. “You’re really funny,” Henry chuckles. “What do you mean I’m funny?” As the uproar fades into dead silence, it quickly becomes apparent that Tommy’s fragile ego has taken it as an insult. “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?” The tension is thick in the air for a full two minutes, before the joke is revealed and everyone bursts into laughter again. Perhaps Henry can brush off the emotional manipulation easily, but Tommy’s instability is noted, and it isn’t the last time we will see him come down hard on those who offend him. The only difference is that in most instances, he is not joking, and we bear witness to his full, brutal anger being unleashed in extreme acts of violence.

“Funny how?” A solid contender for the best scene of Joe Pesci’s career, drenched in the red lighting of the Copacabana.

Tommy may be the best encapsulation of the gangster lifestyle’s volatility, though the backstabbing and bloodshed that comes with it extends far beyond the reach of his revolver. Henry is fully aware of its dangers, but while he is riding its sweet highs through the golden era of the 60s and 70s, he is more than happy to keep doing the mob’s dirty work. In this way, Martin Scorsese seems to be holding up a mirror to The Godfather films from two decades earlier, and it is even a curious turn of fate that Goodfellas was released in the same year as The Godfather Part III. Where Francis Ford Coppola’s series is operatic in its classical, sprawling narrative though, Scorsese’s film races forward with all the momentum of a live rock concert, transplanting the ‘rise and fall’ gangster storyline from high-flying mafia bosses to a true story based in the world of their low-ranking, blue-collar subordinates. Unlike the members of the Corleone family, our antihero Henry Hill was not born into any sort of privilege or destiny, as his very first line of voiceover following the opening scene informs us.

“As far back as I remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”

A forward tracking shot, red lighting, freeze frame on a close-up, voiceover, needle drop – a brilliantly stylistic way to launch this narrative into action.

With a brisk tracking shot swooping in low, a freeze frame on his face, and the big band number ‘Rags to Riches’ punctuating the transition, we are energetically brought into Henry’s innocent childhood, looking up to the mobsters who populate his borough of New York City. The scene we just witnessed of him, Tommy, and the third member of their trio, Jimmy, finishing off the half-dead man they have in their car trunk will be returned to later, but for Goodfellas’ first act Scorsese is all about setting the scene, revelling in the thrill, freedom, and community that this Italian American crime ring has to offer. Henry’s voiceover is there with us every step of the way as well, coating his memories in layers of nostalgia that are powerfully backed up by the wall-to-wall soundtrack of jazz, pop, and rock hits from the 50s and 60s, which at times even seem to comment on the action.

The narrative flies by in the opening scenes of Henry’s childhood, ingratiating himself with the gangsters and floating by on brilliant soundtrack of 50s and 60s hits.

As if in control of a television remote, Henry’s narration holds absolute power over the pacing of his story, pausing the tape to add extra information and flashing through montages of his youth with all the energy of a fresh-faced gangster. At this point in Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas clearly marks his most playful work yet, matching Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in its grittiness, though carrying a transcendently suave charm in Thelma Schoonmaker’s kinetic editing and Michael Ballhaus’ energetic camera that so many subsequent films would emulate.

Freeze frames…
…slow motion…
…and dolly zooms. Goodfellas is a hugely energetic in its pacing, but Scorsese’s cinematography and editing propels it forward as well.

It is especially through the virtuosic cinematography that small moments are given even greater weight with tracking shots in and out of faces, and that larger scenes become some of Scorsese’s greatest displays of visual style in his filmography. The first time he floats us through the night club to meet minor characters like Freddie No Nose and Jimmy Two Times, we adopt Henry’s perspective as a well-respected man, though by the time his future wife Karen is in the picture, Scorsese turns the allure up higher with an even longer take. The couple’s descent from the street, through the depths of the Copacabana’s restricted areas, and into the main dining area hangs our perspective right on their tail for close to three minutes, where the entire world looks as if it is falling into place right in front of them. Conversely, the red décor and lighting that Scorsese integrates all through his mise-en-scène here carries slightly darker implications – this is a figurative journey into hell for Henry and Karen, though for now they might as well be King and Queen of this infernal realm.

A descent into the depths of hell (or Copacabana) through one of the truly great tracking shots of Scorsese’s career and film history.

Beyond the famous Copacabana scene though, Scorsese is formally laying these blazing, aggressive hues all through Goodfellas as a dominant visual motif, shining it through bars where Tommy loses his temper and splashing it across the scenes of Billy Batts’ murder. Red light pours from the car trunk where the rival mafioso lies gasping for breath, and so too is it diffused through fog as they later dig up his body, silhouetting them in a demonic haze. The emphasis of this colour palette also accompanies us as we return to the opening scene, where its context becomes fully apparently within the narrative – this is the point of no return for Henry, whose assistance in covering up Billy’s death kicks off the erosion of his own relationship with the mob at large.

A stunning, infernal shot silhouetting Henry and his friends as they exhume the body they buried in the opening scene.

Joe Pesci may walk away with the performance of the film as the violently mood-swinging Tommy, though as Goodfellas moves into its final act, it becomes clear that Ray Liotta surely isn’t that far behind. Pressure mounts when Jimmy begins turning on his own friends and Tommy is brutally whacked by those who promised to initiate him as a ‘made man’, and as Henry picks up drug-dealing a side business to support his lavish lifestyle, Liotta’s demeanour grows noticeably agitated. By now his bright eyes and charming smile have faded away, replaced by a permanently nervous expression etched across his pale, clammy face, and Schoonmaker’s editing only drives up the intensity with jump cuts and a frenzied, paranoid juggle of his competing priorities. Most of all, that helicopter following him overhead wears away at his sanity, and with few friends left in the mob, any hope that he might get off lightly for a second time is well and truly gone.

A downward slide for Henry and his friends in the final act of the film. Ray Liotta becomes jumpy, nervous, and sweaty – far more on edge than the cool, confident Henry from before.

The Henry who decides to rat out his associates when cornered is a very different person to the one who, as a young boy, was praised for keeping his mouth shut in court. He is not content with his life as a suburban “schnook” under witness protection, but as his voiceover finally catches up to the present in a direct address to the camera, we see that it is all he has left. Henry’s fall from grace couldn’t be more different from Michael Corleone’s, who keeps his wealth yet loses his family. The fate of mobsters here is not tragic, but wholly pathetic, stripping these selfish men of their superficial riches and sentencing them to a mediocre existence. Scorsese’s agile, vibrant filmmaking meets both ends of this lifestyle with a spirited energy, though in his construction of such a purely compelling narrative as well, Goodfellas stands boldly next to Coppola’s gangster epic as the finest of its genre.

Goodfellas is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Out of Sight (1998)

Steven Soderbergh | 2hr 3min

The artistic reach of Pulp Fiction can be felt on an immense scale through the decades of cinema since its release in 1994, and yet it is just as fascinating to study its immediate cinematic offspring born of Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-stylised editing and non-linear structure. Out of Sight might feel familiar in this sense, and yet it is never derivative, demonstrating Steven Soderbergh’s mastery of an art form that is constantly reinventing itself under the steady hand of innovative creators. The similarities between these two leading directors of 90s independent cinema aren’t accidental either – just as Tarantino adapted an Elmore Leonard novel the year prior, so too does Out of Sight draw from one of Leonard’s most famous crime thrillers, and even tie in a cameo from Michael Keaton’s detective character in Jackie Brown, Ray Nicolette.

And yet despite all these parallels, it is still tough to imagine anyone other than Soderbergh directing something as uniquely composed and darkly comic as Out of Sight. Tarantino might have lightly experimented with freeze frames in Pulp Fiction, but Soderbergh takes them even further in this rollicking cat-and-mouse chase across several American cities, lifting characters out of time and lingering on the humour, pain, and longing of their expressions for just a few seconds longer.

A major achievement in editing with freeze frames in Out of Sight, lifting characters out of time and lingering on the humour, pain, and longing of their expressions for just a few seconds longer.

His finest use of this comes in early with the opening title, boldly announcing our leading man, bank robber Jack Foley, as he furiously tugs off his tie and throws it to the ground in a single blur of action. From this point on, it continues to land all through the film as a visual punctuation mark, frequently ending scenes before dissolving into the next. That Soderbergh was able to pull in veteran film editor Anne V. Coates, famous for her work on Lawrence of Arabia, is straight-out remarkable, and the collaboration pays off even further as we bounce between both sides of the conflict at the centre of the film.

Combining freeze frames with long dissolves as scene transitions, creating these powerful composite images.

All through Out of Sight, these parallel storylines wind each other like a dance, and leading both we find George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez towards the start of their acting careers, delivering a pair of enthralling performances loaded with romantic chemistry. Scott Frank’s smooth dialogue certainly makes up a large part of this too, as the interactions between Lopez’s U.S. Marshal, Karen Sisco, and her slippery target, Jack, hinge upon an effort to avoid their most natural instincts, as well as a universe that seems to be constantly running them into each other through chance encounters.

Jack and Karen brought together in this steamy dream sequence, leading to this dizzying overhead shot looking down on the bath.

The first time they are brought together is through a meeting of fates, where Jack’s prison break and Karen’s arrival at the gates collide. In a moment of panic, he pulls her into the trunk of his getaway car, trying to cover up any evidence of his escape. Forced into an awkwardly close position as the driver speeds away, she makes reluctant small talk with the man breathing down her neck, and Soderbergh spends the entire scene in tight close-up on their faces, squeezing us in with them. Physical intimacy and discomfort become one beneath the red light that he illuminates the scene with, as he generates a warmth that begins to wear away at their defences.

A bright, red light bathing the two adversaries and soon-to-be-lovers during their intimate first encounter.

By the time we reach hotel scene where both Karen and Jack fully give in to their mutual attraction, those inhibitions are well and truly gone. Even with some distance between the characters prior to this, Soderbergh still effectively builds a relationship based on tangential connections – a steamy dream sequence, an unexpected crossing of paths, and a brief flash of eye contact. All of this is to set up a truly artful sex scene that entirely earns its passion, delivered through a sensual intercutting of the lovers’ tantalising conversation at the bar, and the silent, physical consummation of their long-held desire that rolls beneath their lingering voiceover. Outside the large windows of both scenes, a stunning night sky of falling snow and city lights sheds an air of romance over them, and David Holmes’ bluesy score of electric guitar, keyboard, and drums settles into a slow, teasing beat.

A gorgeous city of lights and falling snow becoming a romantic backdrop to Karen and Jack’s sexual encounter in the hotel.

Of course, this is but a distillation of the non-linear structure Soderbergh employs all through Out of Sight, not quite shaking up the order of events to the point of becoming Pulp Fiction, but still frequently jumping between flashbacks and the present day enough to build out these characters’ backstories. This is not a convoluted story, but it is somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle in the way it sprawls out and pieces together into a gorgeously staged finale, sending each key player of this ensemble into a mansion where a cache of uncut diamonds is said to be hidden.

Nothing is by accident in Soderbergh’s framing, foreshadowing Jack’s prison break with the watch tower in the background of this shot.
Soderbergh maintains a strong sense of setting as we jump between American cities and suburbs, making the most of these gorgeous wide shots.

It is inside this magnificent set piece that Soderbergh is clearly most at home, as he sets his thriller caper against luxurious backdrops of olive-green walls, ornate wooden furniture, and gold-embellished ceilings. There is a through line of black comedy that runs through the scene too, most evident in the darkly ironic death of White Boy Bob tripping and shooting himself in the head. On a purely dramatic level though, Soderbergh is entirely committed to paying off on multiple character relationships through his action and suspense, spanning multiple betrayals, murders, and of course, one very complicated romance. In the end, it all comes back to that love forbidden by social convention yet spurred on by a fatalistic world driving the two ends of the law together. Only with as heightened a visual style as that which Soderbergh binds to his narrative in Out of Sight could this unlikely pairing make all the sense in the world.

A brilliantly staged finale in this manor of green walls, gold-patterned ceilings, and ornate wooden furniture, but he is also sure to emphasise these as part of the drama through both high and low angles.

Out of Sight is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Total Recall (1990)

Paul Verhoeven | 1hr 53min

At every step of Douglas Quaid’s journey into the Martian conspiracy of Total Recall, he is confronted with forks in the road, offering him one of two choices. To welcome the danger of new technologies, or to reject the call of adventure. To live out his deepest wish fulfilment as a monster, or to carry on an ordinary life as himself. To save a potentially fictional civilisation and risk death, or to let it perish and return home none the wiser.

One of these realities exists only in his head, but it is impossible to tell which, and from this ambiguity Paul Verhoeven draws out an identity crisis that follows Quaid to the depths of a strange, extra-terrestrial plot. If Alice in Wonderland’s bizarre trip down the rabbit hole met the retrofuturism and metaphysics of Blade Runner, then it would probably look a lot like this – an ambitious, off-kilter genre movie that unites its science-fiction, action, romance, and comedy elements under a space-bound adventure, and then tops it off with a riotous Arnold Schwarzenegger performance.

A very physical Schwarzenegger performance, almost pushing into the realm of comedy. He makes some big choices here that don’t all land, but it is tough to imagine anyone else in this role.
Precision in Verhoeven’s staging and camera angles, bringing artistry to the violence.

The Blade Runner comparison shouldn’t be all that surprising given that the source material of both films comes from the wildly creative mind of Philip K. Dick, equally questioning the nature of reality, perception, and identity in the context of futuristic civilisations. The influence of Ridley Scott’s seminal work of science-fiction extends far beyond character and themes though, as the sheer scope of Verhoeven’s visual world-building is stretched to magnificent proportions, crafting alien cities and landscapes out of imposing, expressionistic miniatures.

From there, it is impossible not to see a mix of other cinematic predecessors emerge as well, with talk of political revolution bringing Metropolis to mind, and the surreal madness evoking the distorted humour of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The choice between two different realities being boiled down to a single pill even remarkably presages The Matrix by nine years as well, setting a new standard for action sci-fi films with philosophical concerns. In its entirety though, Total Recall is very much a Verhoeven film in the vein of Robocop, hiding inspired reflections on humanity beneath audacious set pieces of bloody violence and extreme tonal shifts.

Total Recall is in a lineage of science-fiction films like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Brazil, building out a fantastical world of imposing architecture rendered through detailed miniatures.

It takes a little while at first for Verhoeven to arrive at these brilliant displays of spectacle though, as much of the first act is spent around Quaid’s home on Earth where he lives with his wife, Lori, and works a construction job. Televisions lining the walls of subway trains and giant x-ray walls that screen civilians both represent small but significant parts of a technology-dependent society, and Verhoeven maintains a strong narrative drive through it all in the staging of a heart-pumping chase. But as the story moves to the Martian colony ruled by tyrannical governor Vilos Cohaagen, it is evident that this planet is where Verhoeven is having the most fun as a filmmaker. Most importantly, he passes that joy on to his audience with some truly unhinged conceits as well – a fat lady disguise that encases Schwarzenegger in a shell-like apparatus, an underclass of mutants living in Mars’ red-light district, and even a revolution leader who lives as a conjoined twin growing out of his brother’s belly.

Solid world-building on Earth before we even get to Mars, lining subways with televisions.
Body horror rendered in grotesque practical effects, pushing the film’s style in unexpected directions.

Cronenbergian body horror abounds in scenes like these that push Verhoeven’s visual madness to its limits, even going so far as to render the bulging eyes and popping veins of characters doomed to suffocate on Mars’ uninhabitable surface through grotesque practical effects. Adding a sense of peril to these fervid designs is a persistent dedication to red hues all through the mise-en-scene, vibrantly lighting up interiors of rigid lines and steel beams, but even more dominantly hanging in the air of Mars’ rocky landscapes, casting a hellish glow over Cohaagen’s dominion.

Giant sets and the red light of Mars coming together to create brilliant backdrops and action set pieces.
An oppressive frame here with the giant fan obscuring a shot of total carnage.

It is almost too easy to be swept up by such outlandish visual fantasy, as much like Quaid, we excitedly invest our suspension of belief into his believed reality as a secret agent from Mars. Schwarzenegger himself too is a huge, physical presence onscreen that matches Total Recall’s deranged aesthetic, even if his throaty grunts and yells eventually grow tiresome. And yet every now and again, Verhoeven weaves in just enough doubt for us to wonder whether these thrills are simply one big distraction from a greater existential question lying beneath.

“What if this is a dream?” Quaid wonders in the final seconds, having remarkably solved all of Mars’ political troubles. “Then kiss me quick before you wake up,” his too-perfect love interest responds, right before the screen fades to white. Even in his escapist storytelling, Verhoeven still finds a way to let the uncomfortable ambiguities of reality linger in our minds, as Total Recall finally settles in that anxious space that exists between majestic, adventurous bliss and crushing, psychological despair.

Great work from Verhoeven in using his steel architecture to obstruct and divide frames.

Total Recall is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

A Little Princess (1995)

Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 37min

Like the fanciful stories that Sara tells her fellow students, her entire life within the context of A Little Princess takes the form of a fairy tale, as if wished into existence by her own imagination. The kind young maiden, her dashing saviour, the cruel monster that has imprisoned her – this is a fable of classic archetypes conjured up in a 1910s New York boarding school, and Alfonso Cuarón skilfully draws a light thread of magical realism through it all, adopting the fantastical point-of-view of his young, inventive protagonist. Lingering on the edges of her consciousness is a fear for her father’s safety while fighting in World War I, and through some clever intercutting it is evident that her stories aren’t just a form of escapism, but an indirect sublimation of that concern. For as long as she lives under the rule of cruel headmistress Miss Minchin, they are all she has to fight off the despair.

Being a film that focuses so heavily on child actors, it is not surprising that there are often awkward contrivances in their performances, and it doesn’t help that some of their lines tend to repeat the same mantras in ham-fisted variations. This is not a film of great subtlety or complexity in its construction though, nor is it pretending to be. Above all else, A Little Princess aims for bright, bold fantasy, evoking a nostalgia for childhood where even the worst evils can be overcome by the sheer power of will, and where evocative colours are weaved through emotional and artistic expressions with vivid, soothing elegance.

Fine detail in the set design make for some elegant compositions, drawing out the sensitivity in Sara’s closest relationships.

Throughout most of Cuarón’s films, it is often assorted shades of green which dominate his mise-en-scène, whether in the lighting, colour grading, or production design. Here in A Little Princess, his delicately curated period décor is steeped in them, not so much taking on a symbolic representation of any fixed idea than calling to mind abstract associations of fantasy, youth, nature, and perhaps in the case of the repressed Miss Minchin, even envy. In a way, what Cuarón does with colour here is comparable to what Ingmar Bergman accomplishes in Fanny and Alexander, crafting vibrant, plush interiors that insulate the imagination of their young inhabitants from those heartless grown-ups looking to force it out of them. Based on his superb world-building and classical narrative structure as well, it also isn’t hard to see why Cuarón was selected to direct Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban nine years later, given that both incidentally share a good number of the same fantasy conventions.

A distinct Ingmar Bergman influence in the Fanny and Alexander production design and narrative, crafting colourfully plush interiors around our imaginative young protagonist.
As the distance between child and parent widens, the sets become noticeably harsher – and again, this shot of Sara lying on the floor of the attic looks strikingly similar to a similar scene in Fanny and Alexander.

Certainly some credit must also go to Bo Welch, Tim Burton’s regular production designer, whose first and only collaboration with Cuarón here stands among his finest efforts. The girls’ olive-green school uniforms beautifully complement the building’s painted and wallpapered interiors, and within its carved, wooden doorways and high ceilings Cuarón often finds the most evocative angles from which to frame his actors. His gorgeous green motif continues to run through the tiniest props of balloons, candles, apples, and flowers, each arranged with care in scenes of birthday parties and meal times. When we move outside, this ambitious artistic vision only continues to reveal itself, with the building exteriors lining the Manhattan streets conforming to the colour palette as well.

A formal dedication to the colour green in every scene – the uniforms, the decor, even the food on the table at meal times.

A Little Princess does not just signal a promising career for Cuarón though, as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is also at work here developing his own distinctive style of gliding cameras and long takes, running along breakfast tables and through rooms with a graceful sweep. The effect is distinctly fantastical, even in those scenes which are otherwise grounded in reality, enthusiastically engaging with Sara’s mind that finds wonder and excitement in even the barest of environments. Within her tales of Indian gods and demons, Cuarón uses a strange, colourful mix of practical and computer-generated effects to create an expressionistic sort of artifice, visualising the wild imagination that has captivated her peers.

An even greater artifice in the design of Sara’s fairy tale interludes, carrying through the green motif in the surreal sets.

Quite significantly, Sara’s brilliant creativity is given tangible purpose in the parallels between her whimsical tales and her father’s fight in the war, finding a lighter, more digestible spin on uncomfortable truths beyond her comprehension. At the end of the day, she wins her freedom in the exact same way the heroes of her stories earn theirs – through courage, imagination, ingenuity, kindness, and love. In short, all those things that fairy tales value so highly, while sneering critics like Miss Minchin call them naïve. She is not disengaging from society, but rather making sense of its troubles in her own way, and it is through this empathetic curiosity that Cuarón paints out his own expression of wonder, recognising the creative potential of stories to inspire hope, bridge connections, and liberate prisoners of a cynical world.

The streets of New York have never looked so green as they do here, brimming with life and fantasy.

A Little Princess is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Philadelphia (1993)

Jonathan Demme | 2hr 6min

Throughout the history of filmmakers who have harnessed the full potential of close-ups, there are few so singularly focused on their standalone power as Jonathan Demme, and the trial that encompasses the final years of one man’s life in Philadelphia is the perfect canvas for such potent expressions of empathy. The camera is a vehicle of pure, emotional connection here, and even in spite of its consistently tight framing, there is a versatility in its placement which opens us up to Andrew Beckett’s full, complex characterisation, steadily built out through the court case that he launches against his former employer.

Tom Hanks’ accomplishment may arguably be even greater than Demme’s here, delivering a performance that fully capitalises on the close-ups narrowing in on his expressive face, growing paler and weaker the further along Andrew’s AIDS progresses. At the same time though, his intelligence and determination remain steady, pushing him to seek justice for his wrongful dismissal right up until his dying moments. At his most affecting, Hanks rolls pieces of both his physical vulnerability and moral strength into a sincere tenderness, expressing a deep appreciation for opera and its fleeting, lyrical beauty. As he closes his eyes and translates his feelings into words, Demme’s camera hovers above him at a high angle, capturing one of Philadelphia’s most transcendent close-ups at the point that the lighting fades to red and Andrew’s mind disappears into a realm of blissful, divine joy.

One of Demme’s strongest close-ups, hanging on Andrew from a high angle as he basks in the joy of his passion – opera.

It is a thin line between intimacy and intimidation though, and it only takes a slight shift in tone for Demme’s close-ups to turn on Andrew entirely, probing his personal space much like those lawyers and firm partners who bring his private life into the public eye. As he mixes with his colleagues at a function, the camera keeps wandering towards a lesion on his neck, looking at him through the eyes of the men whose suspicions of his homosexuality will soon push them to sabotage and fire him. When that meeting arrives, the cutting back and forth between Andrew and the executives sees the camera gradually push forward on Hanks from a wide shot, narrowing his world around him as he realises what is happening, until we finally arrive on his face in an isolating close-up.

The camera invading Andrew’s personal space, turning its probing eye against him.
Tracking the camera forward as Andrew realises he is being fired, ending in this tight shot of Hank’s face. Beautiful camera movement tied to the narrative.

Perhaps there is some solace to be found in Andrew’s lawyer, Joe Miller, who, while not exactly being any kind of LGBT ally, does offer hope as a representation of society’s shifting cultural attitudes. The road to progress is not perfectly smooth, as even after he decides to take on Andrew’s case there are still bursts of gay panic that emerge, and by the end of the film there is no sense of Joe entirely moving past those ingrained prejudices. Instead, it is simply the sweet friendship forming between them that brings understanding and acceptance – not just of another’s sexuality, but for Andrew, of one’s own mortality.

Denzel Washington and Hanks’ chemistry in these roles is helped along a great deal by Demme’s point-of-view shots, letting his actors gaze right down the camera’s lens and stand on the precipice of breaking the fourth wall. Even beyond the way he shoots their faces, he keeps subtly shaping our view of them with a gorgeously shallow depth of field, creating soft, impressionist backgrounds that lift the actors very slightly out of their immediate environments. Within one library scene, rows of green lamps make for a gorgeous display of mise-en-scène in wide shots, but even as we cut in close to Hanks and Washington, Demme is sure to keep the lights vaguely present behind them, shining a pale, sickly glow on their faces.

Green lamps in the library are eye-catching in wide shots, but even in close-ups Demme makes wonderful use of them in his soft, out-of-focus backgrounds.

Perhaps in less skilled hands, Philadelphia might have easily been lumped in with far more mediocre “issue” movies that tackle socially significant matters beyond the director’s grasp, but the cumulative effect of Demme’s empathetic visual style here does beautifully well to strengthen the film’s formal power. It is ultimately in embracing tightly framed close-ups of his actors that he reaches so deep into their impassioned performances and pulls out such raw anger, melancholy, and yearning, fully realising the complex emotional journeys hidden behind these bold fights for justice.

Demme’s close-ups are constantly versatile and never get so tired as to become repetitive, as here he uses a mirror to compose a two-shot of Hanks and the defence attorney.

Philadelphia is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle | 1hr 34min

There is a bitter contempt that burns through Trainspotting’s opening narration, moving with such repetitive vigour that it takes us a second to catch up to its derisive ridicule of middle-class Britain’s comfortable, monotonous lifestyles.

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, choose a big fucking television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.”

There is no waiting around for any opening credits or title cards here. In the very first seconds, we meet heroin addict Mark Renton on the run from security guards, spitting scorn at the pre-set pathways for conventional, material lives that have been drilled into his head from childhood, and which he and his friends now disdainfully reject. Ewan McGregor’s thick Scottish accent and heavy slang are steeped in the socioeconomic implications of lower-class living, and Renton isn’t one to keep quiet either. This voiceover runs all through Trainspotting like the first-person narrator of a novel, which shouldn’t be surprising given its literary source material. In this way, Renton is written like a more realistic variation of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, typifying a specific offbeat subculture of antisocial delinquents relishing freedom and spurning anything vaguely mainstream.

One of the great in media res movie openings, whisking the camera along with Renton and his friends as they run from security, and his cynical voiceover burns over the top.
Ewan McGregor gives one of the best performances of 1996, at times moving at 100 miles per hour and then pulling it all right back in moments of bleak despair and sobriety.

And like Stanley Kubrick’s own disturbingly uncompromising aesthetic, Danny Boyle does not hold back from indulging in his own audacious style to match Renton’s edgy manner, interrupting brisk camera movements around his characters with erratic freeze frames, and flashing their names up onscreen as introductions. Sick Boy, Spud, and Mother Superior are his mates, while Tommy and Begbie, an aggressive alcoholic, hang on the outskirts of the circle, abstaining from illegal drugs. “No way would I poison my body with that shite,” the latter declares with a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Boyle’s humour is often amusingly dark, and this talented cast of young British actors capably deliver it with a sting of irony, recognising the inherent comedy in the reckless overconfidence of these wild, young men.

Freeze frames punctuating Boyle’s brisk pacing, jumping out of its flow as characters are introduced.
Though the editing and camera movements may be Trainspotting’s primary strengths, Boyle still finds the time to insert these wide shots of his characters against gorgeous backdrops, grounding them in the rundown urban setting.

The string of vignettes that lead this small ensemble through petty crimes, surreal trips, and devastating deaths may offer Trainspotting a loose formal structure that complements the drifting uncertainty of its characters, but it is in Renton’s troubled rehabilitation that it develops a more sincere forward momentum. The carnal temptation of one lifestyle versus the clear-minded stability of the other is a constant battle for him, and Boyle’s frantic editing often cuts right to the agitated centre of it, amplifying each injection and simmering solution with brief sound effects and close-ups not unlike the rapid drug montages of Requiem for a Dream, sensitising us to their immediate physical effects. Match cuts eagerly whip us between scenes in peppy transitions, impatiently leaping forward in time towards the next big hit or escapade, and in one scene that sees Renton, Spud, and Tommy each go home with a woman at a club, Boyle efficiently intercuts between each sexual encounter back home. While Spud daftly falls asleep before even taking off his clothes, Tommy and his girlfriend panic that their sex tape has disappeared, making Renton the only one to successfully bed a woman, Diane – only to disturbingly discover the next morning that she is underage.

Transitions driven by the movements of his actors – a fall at the end of one scene turns into Renton landing on the ground at the start of the next.

To an extent, the kinetic pacing and intoxicating highs of Trainspotting are simply distractions from the crushing despair that lies just outside its bubble of energetic thrills. Perhaps more than anyone else, Renton holds the most self-awareness of where he stands in relation to this divide between reality and mind-altering distortions of it. More specifically, he recognises the cultural forces that drive him to occupy this lowly place in society, where such diversions are necessary to avoid living with the shame of his own identity.

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth, the most miserable, wretched, servile pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation.”

By pulling us between such extremes of tragic realism and light surrealism, Boyle tempts us to look away from Trainspotting’s more harrowing scenes, such as that in which Sick Boy and his girlfriend, Allison, discover their baby has died in its cot due to negligence. Rather than pushing them to reconsider their lifestyles though, it has the opposite effect, as Allison joins Renton in his next high to dull the trauma. In contrast, another drug-induced dream early in the film hazily slips from the extreme decrepitude of the “worst toilet in Scotland” into a blissful underwater fantasy, revealing the full power of these substances in putting a shine on even the vilest circumstances.

Literally submerging us into surreal interludes, challenging the realism of the setting with the detachment of Renton’s mind under the influence.

Bit by bit though, Boyle turns Renton’s hallucinations against him, sinking him into a grave-shaped hole in the carpet during a particularly bad trip, and eventually pushing him into a full-blown nightmare when his parents lock him in his childhood bedroom and force him off drugs cold turkey. As McGregor writhes in agony, the dimensions of his wallpapered room stretch and compress, and Boyle presses his wide-angle lens right up against his face in distorted close-ups. In the background we can hear dance music pounding to the illusory manifestations of his most shameful insecurities, as Diane sings to him, his friends taunt him, and up on the ceiling Sick Boy’s deceased baby crawls and spins its head like the demon from The Exorcist.

Wide angle lens distorting Renton’s face in close-ups and the dimensions of his childhood bedroom, as we disappear into the darkest hallucination yet.

Even once Renton is sober, Boyle’s editing finds a new language to express this strange shift in momentum, centring the reformed addict in a bar that moves around him in a time-lapse while he sits motionless, far from the dynamic, erratic force he previously personified. The journey to this new sort of freedom does not come easily, as old friends return and tempt him back to his abandoned life, but grounding him in his renewed purpose is also a recognition of their inherent selfishness, holding him back from becoming a version of himself he might actually like.

A sober Renton has all the energy sucked out of him, as he sits inert in a bar that moves in a time-lapse around him.

From the inside of a locker lined with mirrors that multiply his face across the screen, his future looks prosperous, and later the camera is tipped completely off its axis as he leaves the world of drugs and delinquency for the last time. For all of its fast pacing and vigour, Boyle still finds the right moments to inject Trainspotting with a dose of striking visual beauty in his blocking and backdrops, underscoring Renton’s search for health, stability, and self-assurance with a rousing wonder that makes all of life’s trials worth the pain.

A brilliant composition as Renton finally starts to get his life together, filling the frame with reflections of his face.
Boy tips his camera to the ground on its side as Renton enters a new world – a hopeful future, even if it is still a little scary.

Trainspotting is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick | 2hr 50min

Violent imagery does not always go hand in hand with the stream-of-consciousness editing and lyrical, whispered voiceovers we associate with Terrence Malick, but it is exactly upon this jarring contrast which The Thin Red Line hinges its condemnation of war as an ugly stain on the natural world. To call it an aberration wouldn’t quite be correct though. This brutality is just as much in humans as it is in the wild plants and creatures of the South Pacific islands where Private Witt and his Infantry Division have been stationed. When his superior, Captain Staros, is relieved from duty following a refusal of orders to lead men into a suicide mission, the gruff Lieutenant Commander Tall reprimands him, comparing his own unforgiving ideology to their lush, untamed environment.

“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around the trees, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”

But this is no Werner Herzog film, cowering beneath the monstrous overgrowth of rainforests and gazing with terror at churning, brown rapids. Malick’s reverent adoration of nature is the driving power behind his extraordinarily beautiful cinematography, and it is consistently evident that his style of shooting is far from perfectionistic. His camera remains largely improvisational as he captures natural light softly diffused across oceans and rolling, grassy fields, letting the beauty of his locations emerge organically and capturing those special moments whenever they choose to arise.

It goes without saying that any of Malick’s finest films are landmarks of natural lighting, but it is worth pointing out here just how beautifully it diffuses across oceans and hillsides.

With an abundance of coverage to draw from and a script that relies heavily on voiceover, Malick grants himself the freedom to play with the rhythms of his editing, stringing together images through long dissolves, montages, and cutaways that provoke a deep sensitivity to the film’s poetic musings. The nourishing beauty of the natural scenery gracefully arises in a small trickle of water in a stream, a breeze rippling through a cluster of leaves, and owls, bats, and lizards passing glances at our characters marching by, but Malick also spares the time for a baby bird crawling from its egg, badly wounded from the war unfolding around it. It is one thing to shoot the desolate destruction of an entire village, with the verdant greens of the landscape being washed out by the grey smoke hanging in the air, but his eyes rarely wander from the tiny devastations of the environment for too long, echoing the trauma of humanity’s ruthless conquest across macro and micro representations of life. In the thick of battle, Malick’s editing moves far more briskly, following in the school of Sergei Eisenstein with some shots last a mere couple of frames, and yet the way his camera glides also imbues the visual style with an elegance that can never quite be wiped out by even the most ruthless displays of cruelty.

Desolation wreaked across these villages, smoke filling the air in these heartbreaking images.
Malick employs cutaways with symbolic care, referring to these tiny creatures as representations of innocent witnesses and victims.

Most significantly, it is the recurring low angle regarding the light filtering through the dark imprints of forest canopies which sets up a stunning symbolic conflict between nature, signified by trees, and grace, as represented by the gentle sunrays. This motif reverberates all through the film, as even when days come to an end, Malick still emphasises the presence of a moon shining down upon the soldiers like a constant blessing. Immediately after the death of one young man, we cut away to three large, decaying leaves hanging from a branch, perforated with tiny holes through which the sunlight strains, framed as if we are glimpsing the heavens to which his soul is heading. With such incredibly impressionistic imagery opening us up to Malick’s contemplations, the film develops into a delicate meditation, drifting between sincere sentiments led by his own transcendental wonder.

Jaw-dropping photography also becomes a robust formal motif here, weaving these shots of sunlight and trees all through the film.

These affecting expressions of spirituality are similarly integral to the narrative’s grounding in Christian archetypes, threaded through the depiction of Guadalcanal, the island Witt has run away to, as an Eden-like paradise. In this small, idyllic corner of the Pacific untouched by war, there is no pain or suffering to be found, and Malick’s camera relishes diving beneath the ocean waves to watch the children play and the sunlight refracting through its surface. The next time Witt returns to this island, the dynamic has shifted drastically. With the introduction of human conflict, there is little peace to be found in the day-to-day interactions between locals, who now turn against each other and eye off Witt like an unwelcome stranger. Sin has crept into this paradise, and with this seal broken, there is no turning back.

War represented here quite literally as a stain on the environment, with half the hillside drained of its colour.

Malick’s allegory is built out further in the reflective voiceovers of his ensemble, passing through characters like a shared prayer for answers, wrestling with their own purpose and conflicted ideals. If war is a process of spiritual corruption, then there must be some source through which it infects the minds of the innocent, and from there it is only a short leap to draw parallels to the Christian concept of original sin.

“This great evil, where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What sees, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

Almost as if in direct response to Witt’s ruminations, Malick cuts to Private Dale taking sadistic pleasure in the slow torture and murder of a Japanese soldier.

“I’m going to sink my teeth into your liver.”

Meanwhile, Private Bell dreams of his wife back home, and just as Witt ponders the origins of sin, so too does he carry similar introspections.

“Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.”

None of these deliberations have straightforward answers, but it is very much evident that there is something inherent in humans giving birth to both the best and worst of everything they face. If the earth is nature and the heavens are grace, then to Malick, we are caught in between, presented with a moral struggle. The justification felt by the men of The Thin Red Line in taking the lives of others amounts to little in the face of this divine reckoning, as in one almost surreal sequence that sees Witt discover the half-buried face of a fallen Japanese soldier, a new voiceover is born, belonging to the deceased.

“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you lived goodness? Truth?”

Deeply spiritual yet melancholy imagery, as Malick gives voice to the deceased speaking from the other side.

As Witt wanders a burning village of Japanese men and women being rounded up and dehumanised, the sound design fades away to be replaced by the horns of Hans Zimmer’s swelling, sombre score, ringing through the air like a mournful eulogy for the countless lives lost at the hands of fellow humans. For some, like Sergeant Welsh, it is simple enough to reason one’s involvement in this carnage. The shrewd pessimism that Sean Penn carries as the voice of despair is set up well against Jim Caviezel’s gentle, softspoken Witt, whose blue eyes do not so much pierce the camera as they inspire a sense of wonder, constantly looking just past the lens is if awed by something we cannot see or comprehend.

A strong performance from Sean Penn, setting his character up as the voice of despair whose heart may be swayed.

In Witt’s early recollections of his mother’s peaceful manner in her final days of life, he likens her graceful exit to a form of immortality he longs to discover, and it is this which motivates him all through The Thin Red Line to uncover whatever secret provides this key to this “calm”. Whether it is through the connection he feels to the natural world, or his selfless sacrifice which lets others live on in his place, we can see in the last few seconds that awed expression once again pass over his face, not unlike the mystical lights caught in Marie Falconetti’s eyes in The Passion of Joan of Arc. That calm has arrived, and along with it comes the motif of heavenly sunlight through trees, as well as a fleeting return to Guadalcanal where Witt now swims in the water with the children.

Jim Caviezel’s awed gaze – simply haunting.
Malick’s camera is organic and intuitive, letting his actors play in the waves while he sits just below and watches them in these stunning shots.

Immortality manifests metaphorically in this imagery, but it is also present in his legacy, as we see something change in Welsh upon the sacrifice of his comrade. Having witnessed true selflessness, the constraints, malice, and lies of the military are more apparent to him now. With a single sacrifice changing the hearts and minds of the living, Malick frames Witt as Christ-like figure, and he conclusively reveals the primary advantage that spiritual grace holds over the ruthless carnage of the natural world. Just as the sunlight will persist long after the forest trees have rotted away, there is an eternality to humanity’s selfless compassion and sacrifice within The Thin Red Line, persisting long after our violent quests for total domination have faded into the depths of history.

Few people shoot natural scenery like Malick, whether his camera is up close focusing on tiny details, or basking in these picturesque establishing shots.

The Thin Red Line is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Delicatessen (1991)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro | 1hr 39min

It isn’t enough for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro to build a fully expressionistic vision of dystopian France, cluttered with decrepit décor and thick with a yellow smog that hangs ominously through its streets. They then go on to push the limits of Delicatessen’s outlandish set pieces to ridiculous heights, warping its sepia-tinted grotesqueries even further into a dark breed of absurdist humour that underscores the nonsensical hellscape, throwing all reason out the window. It is not surprising that the marketing at the time of the film’s release played more into Terry Gilliam’s association with the film than the independent creativity of its then-unknown directors, given its similarities to Brazil. Were it not for Jeunet’s illustrious later career proving his own artistic capability, it would have been tempting to assume that Gilliam played a part in more than just the film’s distribution. Despite his lack of direct involvement though, it is still his cinematic footsteps which Jeunet and Caro are effectively following in, constructing a meticulously fantastical world that, while unsettling in its decaying Gothic visage, savours the traces of wonder and innocence that seem to exist on the verge of total extinction.

An eerie, yellow dystopia set up with these wide shots gradually narrowing in on this lonely apartment building, founded atop a delicatessen.

Delicatessen’s premise is set up swiftly and suspensefully in the prologue, the camera tracking eerily past crumbling structures towards an apartment building founded upon a tiny butcher’s shop. It continues moving through pipes and passageways, all while the ever-present sound of sharpening knives rings ominously in the background. The source of the noise is Clapet, the butcher in question who invites and then kills new tenants so that he may sell fresh meat to the rest of the building’s inhabitants. His most recent victim has figured out the plot, and yet despite the young man’s best efforts to disguise himself among the trash and hide in a garbage bin, he is not quick enough to outsmart his hunter. Right after Clapet lifts the lid to his hiding spot and before he brings his meat cleaver down, he opens his mouth in a wide, gaping laugh – a caricature of a facial expression which we later learn he spends his spare time practicing, consciously aiming to draw out visceral reactions of terror from his victims.

This is expressionistic, silent film acting – it is almost as if these actors have been instructed to twist their faces into the most inhuman expressions possible.

Jean-Claude Dreyfus is not the only actor with a striking appearance to match Jeunet and Caro’s heightened style though, with virtually everyone in this cast possessing cartoonish faces that brilliantly twist into amplified expressions of horror, shock, adoration, and glee. Dominique Pinon’s simple-minded, unemployed circus clown, Louison, who becomes the butcher’s main victim in Delicatessen is no exception with his peculiar protruding jaw, and neither is Marie-Laure Dougnac’s romantic cellist, Julie, with her innocent, wide-eyed gaze. Together, both become a force of sweet, sincere love fighting Delicatessen’s misshapen world. Just as high, low, and canted angles exaggerate perspectives of Jeunet and Caro’s cluttered architecture, so too are they used to frame close-ups of their actors’ contorted expressions, further driving up the psychological insanity of this darkly comedic setting.

Jeunet and Caro are no doubt magnificent production designers, but their framing of close-ups are worth studying too. A significant influence from Gilliam in the angles, lighting, makeup, and costumes here.

With imagery as provocative as this, there is no need for Jeunet and Caro to lay into the blood and gore one might otherwise expect from a story about a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic butcher. Neither is social commentary their primary concern here either, though there is plenty to pick apart in regards to the use of food as currency and the crafty, brutal methods lower classes must resort to if they are to survive. At the forefront of the directors’ minds is building Delicatessen’s idiosyncratic, tactile world with brazenly maximalist stylings, absorbing us into the currents and cadences of these characters’ eccentric routines. Through a masterful combination of snappy editing and enthralling camera movements, Jeunet and Caro breathe life into this dilapidated complex, transforming its rooms, hallways, and sewers into visual reflections of their oddball inhabitants.

Each apartment reflecting the idiosyncrasies of its inhabitant, though all bound together within this dimly lit green and yellow world.

Rhythmic montages especially become a source of tender amusement in Delicatessen, becoming almost dance-like after Louison fixes a neighbour’s creaky bed and then sits on it with her, bouncing in time to a Hawaiian song playing on the television. The gentle pacing of this sequence exists in contrast to another more agitated one from earlier, which layers the sounds and images of characters all through the building playing a cello, beating a rug, clacking knitting needles, working a mechanical machine, pumping a bike tyre, and painting a ceiling. With each line of melody and percussion moving in unison to the editing’s gradually accelerating tempo, Jeunet and Caro build them all to a climax that sees them dramatically break down in frantically comical fashion. The scene is delectably exciting in its peculiar vigour, but even more significantly, it informs our understanding of every major and minor character present in the story, uniting them together in a broken society that condemns them to meagre, repetitive lives.

A feat of editing from Jeunet and Caro, crafting rhythmic montages that are purely absurd and simultaneously dedicated to world building.

The singularly greatest achievement on display here though is the compositional madness that is Delicatessen’s colourfully expressionistic production design, foreshadowing the whimsical designs that soon become Jeunet’s instantly recognisable trademark. Like Amelie, there is a consistent dedication to a specific colour palette, with murky shades of yellow sinking itself into almost every corner of the mise-en-scène while letting through traces of green, red, and orange. Rather than smoothing it over with a glossy sheen though, its texture is saturated with dirt and grit, seeping with the sort of moral corruption that thrives in this bleak city.

The sewers stand out as a particular well designed set piece with pipes crossing the frame in cluttered Sternbergian compositions, and the golden lighting bouncing off their wet surfaces.
Surrealism and expression are inseparable for Jeunet and Caro.

Every piece of set dressing here serves to crowd out the physical presence of the characters, as the bizarrely twisted angles formed by stair bannisters and sewage pipes obscure brilliantly cluttered compositions. Surreal anarchy is pervasive in these designs, right down to the disjointed function of two taps that can only be turned on by each other’s handles, and wearing away at the structure of the building until it is utterly destroyed in the final act, collapsing its floors in a display of total visual chaos.

The apartment building is its own character, crumbling away by the end of the film like its inhabitants.

In this way, it is only in demolishing the physical and social structures preserving humanity’s barbarity that Louison and Julie find any sort of peace in this nightmare. It is a sad state of affairs indeed that impoverished men and women are driven to savagely kill their neighbours just to get by, and although there are no pretensions that the ills affecting this world’s economy have been solved, Jeunet and Caro do relish the small wins for humanity’s kindness. Having survived an army of bloodthirsty neighbours, the two young lovers sit beneath red umbrellas atop the roof of their now-defunct apartment building, playing their unlikely pairing of instruments in a strangely romantic duet. As the cello and the musical saw ring out across the lonely wasteland, the yellow smog slowly begins to clear to reveal the dawn of a new day, finally shedding a hopeful light upon this small but meaningful victory for pure, unselfish love.

Perhaps the brightest shot of the film, as the yellow smog clears away to reveal this sweet, innocent love carving out its own place in the world.

Delicatessen is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on YouTube.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Edward Yang | 3hr 57min

The fact that the title of this Taiwanese film, A Brighter Summer Day, comes from an Elvis lyric underscores a notable cultural incongruity that is fundamental to its characters. The social and political turmoil laid out in its opening text telling of how millions of Chinese Mainlanders fled to Taiwan after the Communist Party’s civil war victory sets the scene for a culture ready to adopt the idealism of the West, and thus the song ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ becomes not just a symbol of hope, but an active obsession for one aspiring young singer, Cat. Through much of the film we find him translating its lyrics in hopes of eventually recording his own version, and up on his walls we even see Elvis posters plastered like venerated icons of worship. It is particularly that one line that he gets caught up on though, picking apart the melancholic recollection of some beautiful past era where young people might have thrived.

“Does your memory stray,

To a brighter summer day…”

As it is though, the teenagers of A Brighter Summer Day do not live in an Elvis song, but within the reality of 1960s Taipei, where tensions between Taiwan’s native people and Chinese immigrants run thick, splitting their young people up into gangs that offer security and identity. In this way, these groups essentially become buffers to the existential loneliness that eat away at their margins, which Edward Yang affectingly reveals in claustrophobically framed compositions.

A powerful opening frame, not of Si’r, but of his father meeting with the schoolteachers and learning of his son’s low test scores.

Though he is constructing a crime epic here as sprawling and dense in detail as The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, he is not aiming for some grand, mythological rendering of history based in legendary archetypes. The settings, characters, and relationships of A Brighter Summer Day are all extremely grounded in social realism, calling attention to those mundane lives that don’t necessarily define national cultures, but which rather slip by unnoticed right up until they inevitably make themselves known for the wrong reasons.

Strong form in returning to this school basketball court several times, a setting of competition of rivalry, but most importantly revealing the worn-out infrastructure of the school – peeling paint and ill-fitting uniforms visually rooting the film in realism.

The more personal story that Yang is exploring here is of the slow, bitter corruption of one teenager, Xiao Si’r, who comes from a family of Mainlanders yet winds up in a gang of native Taiwanese youths known as the Little Park Boys. The inspiration for this character comes from Yang’s own memories of a senseless murder that took place in his own community, though it isn’t until the final minutes of A Brighter Summer Day’s epic four-hour runtime that this event takes place. The rest of its lengthy narrative is spent seeking to understand the social, cultural, and economic forces that warp Si’r’s innocence into something ugly, all starting with his acceptance into a night school for struggling students. His father’s concerns that he might encounter some bad influences are initially brushed off by the staff, but they do serve as an ominous warning of what awaits his son just a little down the road.

As Si’r finds himself gradually absorbed into the gangster lifestyle, we discover a sizeable Goodfellas influence at play here, though Yang never lets us forget that these young men are still children, immature in their attitudes and egos. Their discoveries of emotions more complex than those from their childhoods arrive in the form of romantic attraction, sex, and hatred, and the lack of guidance they receive neglects to keep any of these under control.

Light and shadow composed perfectly through the fence slats at a train station where the Little Park Boys plot the massacre of the 217s.

The most important relationship present within this group is that between Si’r and Ming, the girlfriend of the Little Park Boys’ leader, Honey, who starts the film in hiding after killing a member from rival gang, the 217s. There is a sweet tenderness to Si’r’s support of her acting aspirations, and one movie studio set proves to be a source of soothing idealism for the two of them. As their relationship grows in affection, Yang hangs on a gorgeous frame of light pouring through the giant soundstage door into the pitch-black movie studio, silhouetting their figures as they dreamily wander the space. Above them, the wooden rafters prove to be a suitable hiding spot for these young dreamers, offering high and low angles that separate the distant worlds of disadvantaged students and successful actors.

Doorways are used to frame Yang’s characters all through A Brighter Summer Day, but few shots touch his wonderful manipulation of light here as Si’r and Ming visit a movie soundstage set after hours.

Throughout much of A Brighter Summer Day’s first act, Honey’s presence hangs in the air as an almost mythical figure, so much so that we might begin to fear what sort of fury he might besiege upon Si’r for taking his girlfriend. When he does finally appear an hour and half into the film, he does indeed strike an impressive figure, setting himself apart from the other Little Park Boys in his oversized navy coat and sailor hat, but he does not carry the same volatility as his second-in-command, Sly. Even Yang’s camera holds him in great esteem, reverently following him through a gorgeous pastel-coloured ice cream parlour and keeping his face obscured from our view, waiting for him to finally turn to us. That he only lasts twenty minutes before being brutally killed by the leader of the 217s comes as an utter shock, but it is also this murder which triggers the Little Park Boys’ massacre of their rivals, and subsequently Si’r’s total indoctrination into their violent methods.

Meeting Honey in the pastel-coloured ice cream parlour sets him apart from every other character right away, and then the staggering of actors in shots like these go further to draw our eye to him.

From there, it is only a descent into even deeper emotional isolation for the young gangster, his aggression growing with Ming’s revelations that she is seeing other men, leading to further violent outbursts and eventually expulsion from school. His own disconnection from his family often manifests visually in the placement of a wooden beam slicing meal times right down the middle, severing his connection to his parents and siblings. In this way, we begin to see how the careful arrangement of Yang’s mise-en-scène around him lets that isolation take hold, closing Si’r within halls and doorways directly reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s own geometrically precise visual style.

Yang slicing Si’r’s family dinner with a wooden beam, creating division.
Si’r’s father faces his own troubles being questioned by authorities for past connections to the Chinese Communist Party, and so he too becomes the subject of Yang’s isolating imagery in this superb arrangement of the mise-en-scène, stretching across the whole depth of field.

It isn’t just that Yang’s characters appear so tiny and shrunken within these barriers, but the frames themselves tell vivid stories of each environment. From the peeling green and white paint outside Si’r’s classroom, to the grid of elegant window glazing bars looking out to his family’s garden, and the wooden cased opening in Ma’s house opening onto a display of elegant painted flowers, Yang’s sheer attention to detail remains consistently remarkable between each composition, masterfully reflecting his characters in rich visual designs.

It isn’t just enough for Yang to insulate his characters in their staging, but the detail of the frames within which they are caught are just as important.
A grid of glazing bars opening Si’r’s family home up onto the garden, with a door opening right in the middle. Yang returns to this many times to create perfectly Ozu-like shots in their precise geometry.

Then there are those shots which let the camera drift entirely away from Yang’s characters altogether, letting their disembodied conversations continue while the worn-out architecture swallows them up. At one point, a close-up of a lacquered, white door catches just enough light for the reflected silhouettes of Si’r and Ming to bounce off its surface, reducing them to indistinct shadows within their school grounds. Through the lens of a Taiwanese society that pushes the issues of its youths off to the side, this is the visual manifestation of their neglect, robbing them of the physical space they inhabit.

Squint and you can catch the two silhouettes of Si’r and Ming reflected in this lacquered door, holding a conversation.
Another conversation carried out with one person out of frame entirely, simply represented by his voice.

There is often a distinction though in Yang’s cinematography when he begins to shoot them in larger groups, building out entirely organic environments with a marvellous depth of field reaching across layers of the frame. Even in those instances when the personal drama of primary characters is allowed to unfold in the foreground, the ensemble can often be found in the background playing games and occupied with other tasks, refusing to let the broader world fade from view. It is also in these thoughtfully composed scenes that Yang occasionally lets tones clash in jarring contrasts, particularly when Ming and the Little Park Boys mourn the recent death of Honey to the backdrop of their school marching band playing obnoxiously bold tunes. Eventually they are forced to shout over the music just to be heard, being denied the proper time and space to grieve their deceased friend.

Stories playing out in the background entirely independent of our characters in the foreground, building out a world where they aren’t the only people with fully vivid lives.

With the exception of the slow, methodical pans and dollies interspersed through the film, Yang largely comes at A Brighter Summer Day with a largely static camera, resisting the urge to cut to conventional close-ups on key emotional beats. The choice to maintain this distance is carried out with great formal rigour, leading us to the most impactful shot of the film in the seconds that immediately follows Si’r stabbing Ming in an outburst of anger. Yang sits at a wide of the Taipei street for almost an entire minute, centring a blood-soaked Si’r standing above Ming’s crumpled body, gradually coming to the realisation of what he has done. Behind him, locals conduct business as usual along a row of city storefronts, until one by one their heads turn to face the tragedy, projecting little more than confused intrigue in their expressions. The society that has failed to reign him in is there to bear nonchalant witness to the consequences of their neglect, seeing several lives destroyed in a single flash of violent anger.

A devastating culmination of two character arcs, witnessed by nonchalant strangers in the background.

Without the four hours of A Brighter Summer Day that preceded this scene, Si’r’s full, heartrending transformation simply would not be felt as acutely as it is, especially given how much it is tied to the social strife and degradation present in virtually every frame, whether explicit or implicit. Yang’s clear mastery over his craft as a cinematic realist is absolutely essential to the profound authenticity of this piece, carefully examining his nation’s overlooked adversities through a lens that seeks genuine understanding of its aching shame and sorrow.

Shame and sorrow in a single image, hiding their faces from view.

A Brighter Summer Day is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Light Sleeper (1992)

Paul Schrader | 1hr 43min

Between the two lonely, embittered night workers of Light Sleeper and Taxi Driver who resentfully lament the decay of New York City yet actively contribute to its moral degradation, it is notable how distinctly Paul Schrader writes both on inverted paths. Where Travis Bickle’s discontent manifests as a dark irony simmering through deluded voiceovers, here it becomes a hopeless, self-aware melancholy for Willem Dafoe’s drug dealing insomniac, John LeTour, reconsidering the unsavoury direction his life has taken. Years ago, he was among those helpless addicts itching for their next hit, but while he was able to eventually sober up, he was not able to depart from that world entirely. Now, he and his supplier, Ann, run a steady but shady trade, dreaming of turning it into a cosmetics business that might pull them out of the squalid pits of American society.

Matching Schrader’s austere character study is a dedication to darkly lit environments and grimy textures painting every surface of this city, illuminated only by the white beams of headlights and streetlamps that glance off rain-glazed windows. The choice to shoot on location imbues the setting with an unmistakably authentic urban grit, which is only further underscored by the piles of trash mounting on kerbsides as monuments to human filth. Like Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper is set at the peak of a garbage strike, leading us to consider what poor working and social conditions reach across the lowest rungs of society beyond LeTour’s immediate view. Corruption runs deep in Schrader’s superb visual direction, wrapping up these characters in a foul, contaminated bubble that sees a steady decline in any possibility of escape or, at the very least, regained honour. 

Schrader highlights the dinginess of New York City in its harsh street lighting, decor, and textures – a true visual accomplishment to go with his superb screenplay.

Stuck in a rut of self-disgust, it takes a chance meeting with his ex-wife for LeTour to start climbing his way out of his mental grind. Years ago, he and Marianne shared an intensely unhealthy relationship, both hooked on every drug they could get their hands on, and now with their paths crossing again, old feelings and habits begin to resurface. Given the way he records her name on her voicemail and plays it on repeat like an addiction, we can understand the sort of co-dependency that they once shared, and which now threatens to rear its head again. Still, there is no getting past the giant barrier which lies between them, which Schrader manifests visually in the architecture of a hospital café where they meet, dividing the frame right down its centre with a wide pillar that situates them on opposite sides. 

Direct inspiration from Antonioni’s L’Eclisse in this visual divider dominating the frame with a huge mass of negative space.

DaFoe’s usually expressive face is notably sullen here as LeTour, tempered by years of soul-sucking routine and little to show for his work. Like the few other actors fortunate enough to have landed a lead role in a Schrader-written film, he is given a wealth of emotional complexity and substance to work with, especially in voiceovers that sprout melancholic reflections from his diary entries. From within a messy apartment, he sits and writes under the dim light of a lamp, spilling out those private confessions and deliberations in voiceovers while we watch his interactions with clients and associates. 

This is one in a long line of Schrader character studies picking apart masculinity, guilt, and corruption. Robert De Niro, Ethan Hawke, and Oscar Isaac have all given some of their best performances with his intelligent screenplays, and Willem DaFoe is no different in Light Sleeper.

Schrader goes on to layer LeTour’s characterisation even further with a sharp intuition as well, not just in the faith he puts in the guidance of spiritualists, but also in his observations of others’ behaviours. The camera matches this with its own focused tracking shots moving through scenes like an acutely observant eye, studying the details of each environment and informing his gut instincts. Early on he picks out one undercover cop at a bar with ease, and later when a tragic death is officially ruled as a suicide, his suspicion that the blame lays at the feet of one his clients saves his life in a deadly confrontation.

The framing of the doorway paired with the blocking and lighting, projecting rays down from the ceiling – a thoughtful composition directing our eyes to DaFoe in the background.
This soft, natural light washing over New York’s graffitied walls and dirty streets could be a shot straight out of The French Connection.

As sharp as LeTour’s mind is though, Schrader hangs a constant cloud of drowsiness hangs over his head, with a lonely saxophone haunting Michael Been’s music score and long dissolves blurring transitions between scenes. It takes something drastic to motivate him to make any sort of move that might break this detachment from reality, but when it does arrive the moment is heralded with a new day dawning, and the garbage strike coming to an end. Quite literally, the streets are being cleansed of its scum, just as LeTour comes to a decisive conclusion about the course of action he must take. Travis Bickle might have come to a similar conclusion in Taxi Driver, but in place of corruption darkening LeTour’s soul, Schrader earns his protagonist a redemption arc that delivers the spiritual and moral resolution he seeks, even as he is damned in the eyes of the public. 

Long dissolves transitioning between scenes, creating dreamy imagery like this – New York City contained within LeTour’s diary.

Like the ending to Schrader’s later film, The Card Counter, the physical prison that his protagonist winds up in is insignificant compared to the emotional freedom he has won, and the close-up he holds on through the closing credits does well to illustrate the purity of that. Though not explicit within the text, Schrader’s Christian faith underlies the grace of LeTour’s redemption, recognising it not as a singular act but rather a process of constant atonement. The New York City of Light Sleeper may be caught in mindless cycles of transgression and shame, but for as long as there is the motivation of love to set things right, the path to reformation is always open.

Lingering on this final shot as the credits roll, not in a freeze frame, but rather letting the actors hold the pose – an image of redemption through love.

Light Sleeper is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes.