Atonement (2007)

Joe Wright | 2hr 3min

Perspective is a tricky, volatile thing in Atonement, fuelled by the whims of an individual’s fickle biases, yet wielding the power to manifest as reality and change the course of entire lives. Some are inherently more valuable than others too, especially given that the word of a young girl speaking to a subject as weighty as sexual assault is inherently treated with more gravity than the man she is accusing. Perhaps rightfully so, though it is hard to ignore how their disparate class backgrounds might have something to do with the ease with which the blame is pinned on him. Joe Wright studies the eyes of 13-year-old Briony Tallis in extreme close-up, catching the piercing blue of her irises and her sharp, perceptive squint, but these are also the vessel through which he interprets the apparent guilt of Robbie Turner, the son of her family’s housekeeper, thereby setting in motion a cascade of heartbreaking misfortunes.

Extreme close-ups on Saorise Ronan’s blue eyes – the perspective through which this story is filtered, and which ruins Robbie’s life.

Beyond Briony’s subjective experiences though, there is another story closer to the truth which clears up our confusion. Robbie’s interactions with her older sister, Cecilia, aren’t nearly as scandalous as they appear when we are given the full context of their romance, and throughout the first half of the film Wright delights in nimbly shifting between his and Briony’s points-of-view. Almost as if a reset button is being hit, multiple scenes play out twice over in succession, constantly challenging our own beliefs about whether Cecilia’s dip into the fountain was as erotic as it looked from a distance, or whether the shocking sight of her and Robbie splayed out across a bookshelf was actually rape. It is a stroke of formal genius from Wright to structure his narrative in this way, alternating between misunderstandings and reality, so that by the time Briony witnesses the brutal crime committed against her cousin, Lola, we can simultaneously understand how justified she feels in her accusation, and how completely wrong she is.

Beautiful form in the repetition of scenes from alternate perspectives.
Shock and confusion as Wright lands this shot, with Cecilia and Robbie’s limbs splayed out across the bookcase.

Saoirse Ronan is a revelation here at the young age of 12, delivering a performance that stands among the strongest any child has put to film, even while only taking up half the full screentime. It makes for an interesting comparison when we leap years into the future and see Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave take over the role, as even though we can see the mounting guilt on their faces, neither come close to capturing the heartbreak of Ronan’s bitter immaturity. As she faces up to the adults in the room and asserts her false conviction, we can see the wheels spinning fabrications in her mind, quickly turning “I know it was him” into “I saw him with my own eyes.”

Aside from being an innocent child and the daughter of wealthy parents, perhaps it is also Briony’s knack for storytelling which earns her the trust of others, allowing her to exert influence over their minds. As a child, she writes plays on her typewriter, and Dario Marianelli’s urgent rhythmic score of strings and piano skilfully works its percussive keys in like a constant reminder of her ability to produce destructive propaganda as easily as she can create imaginative fairy tales. Often paired with this persistent tapping is some surprisingly sharp editing too, breaking up Wright’s long, elegant takes with cuts that feel like abrupt disturbances inside Briony’s confused mind.

Wright has always been more engaged with his long takes and sweeping camerawork than his editing, but Atonement has a sharp rhythm that clicks along with the typewriter sound effects.

For the most part though, Atonement’s visuals are a brilliantly virtuosic display of the floating camerawork and lavish production design that Wright debuted two years earlier in Pride and Prejudice, crafting some delicate compositions out of pre-war British period décor. On sunny days before everything goes to hell, reflections gently ripple in ponds and pastel wallpapers form backdrops to Briony’s innocence, languishing in the excitement of her crush on Robbie. The four-year leap into the future does not dispense with this exquisite beauty, but the colours are just that little bit darker and more melancholy, situating us in the hospitals and battlegrounds of World War II. Robbie’s early release from prison comes with the caveat that he joins the British army, and although the two sisters have taken up nursing in London, there is a wedge driven between them which cannot be reconciled.

Joe Wright’s cinematography is the best it has ever been, creating delicate compositions from lavish interiors and dainty gardens.

Though the narrative urgency falls away a little at this point with dreams and flashbacks taking over, Wright’s visual style continues in vivid expressions of longing and regret, poured out most evocatively in the five-and-a-half minute long take navigating the beach of Dunkirk where Robbie finds himself stranded. As a symbol in European history, this famous event represents great hope, though as we run over a hill and the masses of soldiers come into view, all we can feel is the sort of despair one faces at the end of the world when all options are exhausted. Eventually, this shot detaches from Robbie and continues to explore the bleak setting on its own, watching men camp, sing hymns, put down horses, and play on rides left over from some nearby fair. A Ferris wheel looms far away against a golden sky at magic hour, but with smoke filling the air, there is no joy to be found here. The only film that captures this moment in history with as much sorrowful beauty is Dunkirk itself, but even that opts for an entirely different kind of artistic magnificence with its exacting montages and epic IMAX photography.

A five-and-a-half-minute long take traversing Dunkirk beach at magic hour. Like Robbie, we feel like we are at the end of the world, watching soldiers make the most of their last few days alive.

Meanwhile, the incriminating tapping of Briony’s typewriter continues to underscore her storyline in the harsh, sterile wards of St Thomas’ Hospital, where nurses walk down green hallways in symmetrical formations and tend to wounded soldiers. Reflecting on the shame of her false allegation, her flair for lying takes a more redemptive turn when one patient with a head injury mistakes her for his wife, and while on his deathbed, finds comfort in her presence. Even into her old age it remains her defining character trait, with Wright eventually pulling out a double twist – she has been the narrator of this story, and as a result, her trademark fabrications are riddled throughout it.

Green, sterile interiors at St Thomas’ Hospital where an older Briony works during the war.

In an ideal world, Robbie and Cecilia would be reunited after the war, and Briony would come forward with the truth to clear his name. They might still hold her in contempt and even go on to sever ties with her completely, but simply putting things right would be enough to set her mind at ease. Like all those who believed her the first time around, we are completely fooled into thinking that her version of events is the truth, without considering her ulterior motives – in this case, the desire to create her own fantasy redemption. Robbie’s death at Dunkirk on the last day of evacuation and Cecilia’s drowning in the London Blitz may still be on her conscience, but there is certainly at least some poetry in her using the same gift which denied them full, happy lives to immortalise them in history as committed lovers beating all odds. Whether that’s enough for genuine atonement is the provocative question that Briony may never find an answer for, and in Wright’s bold, ever-shifting structure, we too find it eerily winding its way all through this formal puzzle of lies, truths, and alternate perspectives.

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

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron | 2hr 41min

There are few films that have had as contentious a spot at the top of the box office as Avatar, financially topping James Cameron’s previous record-breaking epic, Titanic, facing backlash from those claiming it’s nothing but empty spectacle, and then in more recent years finding renewed support in the backlash to the backlash. There’s no doubt that it is a technological marvel as well, though when this metric is used as the sole arbiter of success then naturally it is easy to see how quickly such films can grow outdated – one simply needs to look at the latter half of Robert Zemeckis’ career to see how this prioritising of scientific innovation over art does not instil a movie with great longevity. Cameron may be uniquely suited to the ideal synthesis of both, recognising how the creation of photorealistic visual effects is not an end unto itself, but simply serves an incredible visual aesthetic that even the most CGI-heavy blockbusters of the past decade have failed to live up to. He has pulled off this smooth integration before in the Terminator franchise and Titanic, and Avatar belongs right alongside those as monumental achievements of genre filmmaking and world-building.

It is no wonder that it took Cameron fifteen years to develop the fictional creation of Pandora, given how exceedingly detailed and complex it is. Rather than writing out lengthy historical chronicles as J.R.R. Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings, he developed field guides around the alien ecosystem of the moon populated by the Na’vi. What we see in Avatar only covers a small percentage of that material, focusing predominantly on the Omatikaya clan and their surrounding jungle habitat, though the film’s immersive environment thrives on the small, otherworldly pieces hanging on the periphery which hint at a richer world than we can imagine. A blue, Jupiter-like planet dominates the sky, dotted with several other moons in orbit, and setting a gorgeous celestial backdrop that feels at least partially inspired by the dual suns of Tatooine in Star Wars. On the forest floor, the plant life is extremely sensitive to physical touch, withdrawing into pods and pulsating with light as characters run across its surface. Exposition is heavy in the opening, though once we are done with this Avatar’s visual filmmaking takes over, immersing us in its colonialist fable that regards the interconnectedness of all life with great, mystical reverence.

Celestial backdrops hanging in the sky. These aren’t just throwaway images – this is world building at its finest, and integral to our immersion in Pandora.

Cameron’s entire career is built on the mythological storytelling of historical legends and genre archetypes, so it is no outrageous statement that his talents as a writer are superseded by his bold direction. The flaws in the screenplay are evident, giving heavy-handed names like ‘unobtanium’ to significant plot devices and at times rejecting subtlety in favour of on-the-nose dialogue, but these are far from dealbreakers. This story is predominantly a visual one, representing the three main human characters outside of former Marine Jake Sully as icons of war, business, and science, and sending them to Pandora to invade the deeply spiritual Na’vi. It is telling that of those three figureheads, it is Sigourney Weaver’s exobiologist, Grace, who ends up siding with Jake in his defection to the native people, suggesting a harmony between science and faith which purely self-interested human endeavours cannot understand.

“There’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora … That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network – a global network.”

What Grace expresses as technical jargon here is something Cameron has already formally laid out formally in his world-building though, establishing the foundation upon which the entire setting of Pandora exists. On Jake’s first night stranded in the moon’s jungle, he discovers an ethereal elegance that stems from its sentient plant life, floating tiny, jellyfish-like spores through the air and settling them on his body – an auspicious sign in Na’vi culture, given that they are considered pure, sacred spirits. Even more visually astounding is the bioluminescence which lights up Pandora’s forests with a blue, green, and purple glow, not just demonstrating Cameron’s incredible talent for creating aesthetic beauty from purely digital effects, but demonstrating a greater point as well in humanity’s blindness. The artificial lights of the invaders’ machines have always drowned out this natural splendour, and it isn’t until native Neytiri puts out Jake’s fire that he can see it too, opening his eyes to the symbiotic relationship between the land and its inhabitants.

The bioluminescent forests of Pandora are more than just impressive displays of technology. Cameron aestheticises his digital effects in a way that few other CGI-heavy films capture in the same way, composing his night-time sets according to a gorgeous neon palette.

In opposition to the Na’vi, we have the RDA – a human corporation looking to rip up their gigantic ‘Hometree’ for the precious resources that lie beneath. Instead of gorgeous alien scenery, they are defined by heavy machinery and sterile, blue interiors, harshly imposing on Jake in its own bleak way. To the Na’vi, humans are simply “sky people”, inferring a race that is disconnected from the land and which positions themselves as gods looking down on those below. Their attempts to contact the native people involve assuming their form to avoid frightening them, though the journey that Jake goes on in understanding their philosophy turns the ‘avatar’ into a metaphor of a different kind.

The spaceship interiors aren’t what we remember most from Avatar, but even parts of these make for some visually impressive set pieces.

Between Jake’s two bodies, Cameron draws a distinction between his physical and spiritual self. One is limited in its movement, the other can run, ride, and fly animals. One is bound to a confined ship, the other can form a deep connection with an entire network of organisms. When he begins to neglect the material needs of one, he nurtures the other. Inside his mind, there is an awakening taking place that positions his avatar as his authentic self, leading to his eventual confession of the feeling that “Out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.” It is this duality that is the core tenet of so many tribal religions across the world, though in taking pieces of these and remixing them into alien culture, Cameron develops a philosophy that feels both rooted in familiar traditions and entirely unique to the ecological quirks of Pandora.

Unity and connection formally reflected in the imagery and traditions of the Na’vi.

Chief among these idiosyncrasies is the neural queue shared by many organisms in the moon’s ecosystems, enabling intimate connections that vary from psychic to sexual. Beneath the Tree of Souls where Jake and Neytira join their queues as an expression of love, Cameron drapes them in its glowing vines, shedding a delicate blue and purple light upon this significant development in Jake’s journey to enlightenment. At another milestone where he learns to bond with a flying banshee via his queue, Cameron brings another display of immense visual style in an even grander set piece – the jaw-dropping Floating Mountains, hanging suspended in the atmosphere with waterfalls cascading into the sky below. Much like the wondrous helicopter shots that fly across New Zealand’s glaciers and fields in The Lord of the Rings, Cameron’s cinematography expresses its own visual wonder at the impossible scenery, instilling in us a transcendent awe at every step of Jake’s transformative pilgrimage.

The Floating Mountains make for a dizzying, mind-bending set piece – a hugely inspired use of spectacle to inform Jake’s spiritual journey.
Just one visual highlight after the next, draping Jake and Neytiri in the glowing vines of the Tree of Souls.

With so much time spent immersed in Na’vi culture, the RDA’s destruction of Hometree feels all the more devastating, rendered as an apocalyptic disaster akin to the sinking of the Titanic. Not since we have been inside the human spaceship have we seen a palette so washed out as the aftermath, settling white ash across the burnt ground and leeching all colour from the once-vibrant jungle. Alongside the Na’vi retaliation though comes a resounding pay-off to their universalist philosophy, seeing Pandora itself come alive through the natural instincts of its native fauna uniting to defend its ecosystem – much like, as Grace might put it, a giant biological system activating its immune response.

This scene almost looks entirely black-and-white next to the bright vibrancy of everything else, desaturating the landscape at Jake’s lowest point.

Transposing familiar stories onto exciting new settings has always been Cameron’s strength, crafting classical redemption arcs, sweeping romances, and clashes of good and evil against spectacular canvases, and although Avatar may not be his most consistently flawless work, it is certainly at least his most purely ambitious. Such immense artistic aspiration is rare among directors with as large an interest in technological capabilities as him, but it is in his use of digital effects to create bold entertainment alongside rich, allegorical artistry that he fully realises its immense artistic potential more than any other working filmmaker.

Avatar is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

Xavier Dolan | 1hr 36min

The number of directors under 30 years old with film debuts that belong among the finest of their decade is limited. Paul Thomas Anderson was 27 when he made Boogie Nights. Orson Welles was 25 when he both directed and starred in Citizen Kane. Then there is Xavier Dolan, standing alone in his own category – at 19 years old, the Canadian teenager burst onto the indie cinema scene with I Killed My Mother, making waves with his remarkably mature, semi-autobiographical depiction of a troubled mother-son relationship. Like Welles before him, he takes on the lead role in his directorial debut, and yet this doesn’t distract him from doing some impressive work behind the camera. Dolan’s neatly composed visuals weave in bright colour palettes and expressive backdrops with a vivid sensitivity all through his film, delicately radiating his characters’ complex emotions out into the wider world.

Mirrored blocking like a Peter Greenaway film, arranged actors on either side of the frame.

At its centre we find 16-year-old Hubert, whose resentment of his mother, Chantale, burns him up with intense rage. When we first meet him, it is his most singularly defining quality, and may even come off as flat, one-note character writing, given how little else we know about him. For Dolan, this is entirely on purpose. When the two are together, Hubert feels entirely stifled, not just by his mother’s irritating habits, but also by his own blind contempt. Our introduction to her in a slow-motion close-up of her mouth biting into a cream cheese bagel is enough to irk anyone’s senses, but even more substantially, we can see for ourselves the ways in which she occasionally mishandles her son’s behaviour. She is not a bad mother, but through Hubert’s eyes as a teenager abandoned by his father, it certainly seems that way.

“When I try to imagine what the worst mother in the world looks like, I can’t do better than you.”

The camera placement is always precise – close to perfect balance in the mise-en-scène, actors on the bottom half of the frame, emphasising their rich backgrounds.

There is also often a symmetry drawn through Dolan’s mise-en-scène that places either Hubert or Chantale at its centre, or which at least balances out the other side of the shot with their scene partners. At the same time, this visual harmony is usually offset by a huge amount of negative space pressing down on them from above, forcing them towards the bottom of the frame. Pawel Pawlikowski would later incorporate this device into his own stylistic repertoire with Ida and Cold War, and here the effect serves a similarly oppressive purpose, threatening to push them out of sight altogether. Incidentally, it also gives Dolan the chance to craft visual expressions of their feelings above their heads, swirling a pattern of green, yellow, and red curves on a diner wall behind Hubert as he builds a connection with his teacher, Ms Cloutier, and later shooting a night sky of bleary city lights behind him on a bus as he mulls over his misery.

Expressive colours and patterns in Dolan’s backdrops forming shapes around his characters according to their mood.
Melancholia in Dolan’s cinematography – remarkable artistry for someone not yet 20 years old.

On the occasion that Dolan’s camera does shift away from his characters entirely, he often presents these diversions as montages cutting between specific items in their environment – ornamental butterflies in Chantale’s home, religious icons around Hubert’s school, or in one particularly joyous scene, the splatters of paint he throws up on an office wall with his boyfriend, Antonin. Not only do these cutaways become extensions of Dolan’s characters, but they imbue I Killed My Mother with a beautiful formal rigour, creating a structural rhythm that is further developed in Hubert’s recurring monologues delivered to his home video camera. Though these stand out as being the only scenes in black-and-white, the muted visual tone nicely fits in with his own sensitive musings, offering a counterpoint to his otherwise volatile characterisation. Only when he is alone can he speak of his mother with genuine sorrow rather than bitterness, and fully realise the intricacies of their relationship.

“It’s a paradox having a mother that you’re incapable of loving but incapable not to love.”

Rigorous montage interludes revealing pieces of these characters’ environments.
These black-and-white home video monologues reveal an empathetic side to Hubert we rarely see elsewhere – a beautiful formal touch to his character.

With a performance as nuanced and impassioned as that which Anne Dorval delivers here, it’s not hard to understand this contradictory sentiment either. Like Hubert, Chantale holds onto a great deal of anger and stubbornness, and yet as his mother, she is far more likely to channel that frustration into protecting their relationship. At the slightest hint from her son’s headmaster that he might benefit from having a male authority at home, she flies into a rage, rejecting the insinuation that it is her parenting which has driven him away, and instead redirecting the blame towards the patriarchal systems and negligent men who have failed them.

Tracking the back of Hubert’s head into the classroom, maintaining that formal symmetry.
A deeply sensitive performance from Anne Dorval, curling up in defence when under attack from her son though lashing out when it is another adult taking aim at her parenting.

It is a shame that Hubert never sees this side of her while she is afforded a glimpse of his sensitive home videos, but as Dolan posits, this is simply the nature of these family bonds. Parents are rarely flawless, but they possess a larger understanding of their child than their child has of them, and it is that imbalance which inflicts great pain on both characters in I Killed My Mother. Though this title explicitly refers to Hubert’s lie early in the film that his mother is dead, it is clear in Dolan’s exceptionally complex character dynamics that it is also something she torturously experiences every single day, ceaselessly driving them both deeper into the inescapable, unsolvable problem of their own contemptuous love.

I Killed My Mother is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Paul Thomas Anderson | 1hr 35min

Chaos defines Barry Egan’s universe in Punch-Drunk Love, reaching out across every aspect of his environment to diminish his lonely, meek existence. This isn’t world-building in the traditional sense, given that the term is typically confined to high-concept science-fiction films or epic fantasies spanning multiple hours. But what Paul Thomas Anderson accomplishes here in colliding multiple threads of Barry’s life into single moments of pandemonium fits the definition nonetheless, carefully seeking out the presence of some governing logic explaining the assortment of random puzzle pieces that don’t initially seem to fit together. He runs a struggling small business selling plungers out of a warehouse. A phone sex operator and her boss, the ‘Mattress Man’, are extorting him for money. Puddings stack up in his office after he discovers a loophole in a frequent flyer promotion. This isn’t to mention the constant harassment of his seven sisters chastising him for one thing or another. Where is the sense in any of this?

The hope that we might receive answers is conjured in a pair of entrances just as random as everything else in his life. Nothing can explain the sudden, violent car crash in the opening minutes that is immediately followed by a van unexpectedly dropping off a harmonium at the kerb. As its name suggests, this instrument will soon help Barry find harmony among the dissonance, though for now it remains just as much an unexplained mystery as Lena, the woman who later that day walks into his work and encourages him to pick it up off the street. Just as the harmonium arrives in a red vehicle, so too is Lena dressed in similarly coloured outfits, radiating a vibrant warmth that continues to echo through Punch-Drunk Love’s otherwise cool hues.

Forces of a chaotic universe bringing the harmonium and Lena into Barry’s life, shrinking him in the frame as a meek, unassuming figure.

To start discussing the specific palettes that emerge in Anderson’s mise-en-scène though is a slippery slope into lengthy essays on the depths and potency of its symbolism. Punch-Drunk Love stands proudly alongside Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy and Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued musicals as an exhibition of one of the most formally rigid uses of colour committed to film, even if Anderson lands his vividity with a subtler visual impact. While we learn from others that Barry’s blue suit is a new addition to his wardrobe, for us it is virtually synonymous with his character, encasing him in the same melancholy shade of cobalt as the walls of his large warehouse where he is frequently shot as a distant, lonely figure. Indeed, blue seems to follow him everywhere he goes, from the glow of street lamps outside to the pale sky that often dominates Anderson’s elegantly framed exteriors.

Rich blue hues hang in Anderson’s lighting and mise-en-scène, marking a significant formal achievement for Anderson in his use of colour.

As Lena gradually inserts herself into Barry’s life though, her pinks and reds begin to mix in with his side of the colour spectrum, offering a vibrant contrast that ties through virtually every scene. When he first takes in the harmonium and begins to play around on it, Anderson slowly zooms into a close-up from a low angle, and curiously begins to shed a warm, romantic light on his face that visually ties it to Lena. Much like his blossoming love life, he doesn’t know how to play or use it yet, but he knows that whenever he feels as if he is losing control, it will be there to bring him joy and comfort. At a certain point, he even adopts a red tie to go with his blue suit, embracing that striking palette as part of his own outward appearance.

A slow zoom in on Barry from this low angle as he plays around on the harmonium, curiously shedding a pink light upon his face and foreshadowing the relationship to come.
Warm and cool colours continue to echo through even throwaway shots like this, as Barry walks down a blue corridor to these red-dressed flight attendants, representing his destination in Hawaii where Lena is staying.

Perhaps the most formally brilliant use of this colour scheme emerges in the pink and blue lens flares that Anderson flashes up on the screen from time to time, ethereally capturing the film’s wistful and romantic qualities in a perfect tonal balance. When emotions swell to beautiful heights that the lens flares alone can’t capture though, Punch-Drunk Love sinks into vibrantly abstract interludes, hypnotically swirling its two dominant hues around in fluid watercolour patterns exquisitely designed by digital artist Jeremy Blake. Such dazzling visual displays as these are used sparingly throughout the film, but their consistency delivers a formal impact that sees each chapter of Barry’s personal journey culminate in a pure expression of his most passionate feelings.

An isolating opening shot of affecting melancholy, as Barry disappears into the corner of the blue warehouse.
Perhaps one of the best uses of lens flares on film, lightly touching scenes with the pink and blue colour palette.

The duality of chaos and romance that reverberates through Anderson’s narrative and mise-en-scène continues to manifest in Jon Brion’s eccentric musical score as well, with absolute anarchy layering Barry’s world in an eclectic, tactile dissonance. The sound of duct tape, buzzsaws, and combs unusually combine with syncopated percussion, digital synths, and a prepared piano that has had its strings physically altered with small objects, and the result is an incredibly unusual, polyrhythmic texture that never quite moves in the direction one expects. Just as the messy threads of Barry’s life fight for dominance, so too do these instruments drown each other out, at times even threatening the sound mix of the dialogue. Much like the wild musical experimentations by John Cage which influenced Brion’s score though, it all fits together in an offbeat way. When set next to the romantic waltz of flutes and strings attached to Lena’s gentle presence, suddenly everything feels as if it is all falling into beautiful harmony, drawing together all of Barry’s dreams and difficulties into a single, enchanting motif.

Jeremy Blake’s fluid mixtures of light and watercolours make for gorgeous interludes throughout the film, acting as eloquent formal markers.

In this way, there is a balanced coordination across every level of Anderson’s filmmaking, each one pushing Barry’s development towards the realisation that through love he can overcome the disorder and violence of an unruly world. From the director’s perspective though, randomness is simply an illusion created through precise arrangement of every cinematic element into superbly executed non-sequiturs. One conversation between Barry and Lena is perfectly punctuated by a forklift accident in the background, landing a punchline with brilliant comedic timing, while even within the dialogue itself, it isn’t uncommon for topics to jarringly switch from one line to the next like a confused, distracted poem.

The harmonium, the phone, the forklift, Barry’s sister, his love interest – Paul Thomas Anderson crowds a lot of visual information into this shot, colliding each thread of Barry’s life into a complex synthesis of ideas.
Punch-Drunk Love is full of wonderful camera movements keep us on our toes, but this is one of the best, combining a single, direct motion with superb blocking.

Casting Adam Sandler in the buffoonish role of Barry is an incredibly inspired move here, as Anderson isn’t just playing to his actor’s comic talents, but specifically the cultural icon that Sandler embodies. The awkward, emotionally stunted loner character takes on new dramatic dimensions in Punch-Drunk Love that few other romantic comedies have addressed with such self-awareness, as in this tightly composed narrative Anderson offers a sharper insight into the sources of the archetype’s crippling anxiety, as well as the process of developing a confidence that emanates outwards.

A Kubrickian level of perfectionism in Anderson’s colour-coding of these supermarket shelves, but there is also a lightness here in Sandler’s performance that brings it to life as he does a Chaplin dance down the aisle.

It is only when Barry stops passively accepting Lena’s affection and actively pursues her as a romantic interest that he discovers a willingness to take responsibility for his own actions, leading to his brave retaliation against the Mattress Man’s goons when she is caught up in their attack. In that moment, it almost looks as if a new man is born, willing to put himself out into a dangerous world to protect something other than his own ego. When he finally comes up against the Mattress Man himself, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a hilariously volatile shopkeeper, he is virtually unstoppable, conquering the chaos of the world through the sheer power of self-belief.

“I have a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”

The camerawork which once moved in jumpy, handheld tracking shots now moves with relaxed, decisive resolve, and even the harmonium which Barry could previously only draw out a few disjointed notes from now fluently accompanies Lena’s romantic waltz theme. Perhaps the most singularly affecting visual representation of his newfound peace though emerges in what might be Punch-Drunk Love’s most memorable frame, silhouetting his kiss with Lena in an open doorway against a sunny Hawaiian beach, while a faceless crowd moves past them in both directions. Gradually, the frenzy dissipates, and yet the two lovers remain rooted in position, united by their sincere, selfless love. In that glorious, blissful moment, everything fighting for Barry’s attention sinks away, and there is finally only one thing in the entire, senseless universe that really matters.

An elegant composition moving from chaos to peace, silhouetting Barry and Lena against the blue, red, and green of the Hawaiian beach.

Punch-Drunk Love is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Aviator (2004)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 49min

These days, the name Howard Hughes may not be as instantly recognisable as those famous actresses we see hanging on his arm throughout The Aviator, or the famous actors who surround him at parties. From Jude Law’s casting as Errol Flynn to Gwen Stefani’s cameo as Jean Harlow, Martin Scorsese’s ensemble is loaded with big names of the 2000s playing big names of Golden Age Hollywood, though none stand out so much as the two headlining this epic period piece.

Even in a supporting role, Cate Blanchett’s take on Katharine Hepburn shines bright, adopting the clipped consonants and elongated vowels of the star’s distinctive Transatlantic accent, and Leonardo DiCaprio makes an even bigger impact as the titular pilot, engineer, and director, Howard Hughes himself. This is a man with dreams as grand as his passions, often combining his two great loves of aviation and filmmaking to create spectacular displays of human ingenuity for the masses to enjoy, and as such there is something about his characterisation which captures the glory of the ambitious, creative culture he lived in.

A grand scale of filmmaking to match this larger-than-life figure – easily one of Scorsese’ most epic films.

Scorsese’s penchant for splendidly curated, period-appropriate soundtrack is particularly strong in evoking this era, using the Dixieland melodies of the Original Memphis Five and the swinging rhythms of Benny Goodman to surround Hughes’ ventures with an air of bold bravado. It is through Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Rob Legato’s visual effects though that Scorsese pulls together an even greater cinematic reflection of Hughes’ cultural figure, digitally colour grading his mise-en-scène to emulate the filmmaking technology of the time. As the young director rises the ranks of Hollywood during the 1930s, Scorsese recreates Multicolor, a two-color Technicolor process which Hughes himself owned, turning white to aqua, green to blue, and blue to a beautifully cool cyan. The visual impact is tangible in almost every scene for the first fifty minutes, though it is especially when he meets Hepburn for a game of golf that the grass catches our eye with its crisp, electric shade of turquoise.

Scorsese’s emulation of two-color Technicolor turns greens into blues, standing out in the bright colour grading of golf courses and the subtle tinting of peas.

As The Aviator’s epic narrative moves on into the 1940s, Scorsese’s colours settle into a naturalistic simulation of a more technologically advanced Technicolor procedure – the three-strip process, which captures a fuller range of the colour spectrum. This type of colour grading is also more recognisable from such monumental classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, forming a perfect bridge between Hughes and the technical innovation that surrounds him. Even more important than Scorsese’s practical understanding of film history though is the vibrant visual style that comes of it, shading his images with bright pigments that draw out early Hollywood’s lush, opulent glamour.

A transition to the three-strip Technicolor process bringing out a fuller range of the colour spectrum, beginning to emphasise the greens that were previously blue.

Credit must of course also go to Scorsese’s regular production designer though, as Dante Ferretti curates a handsome array of formal function rooms, bustling air strips, and studio backlots, often captured through crane shots and moving cameras endeavouring to keep up with the madness. For Hughes, this chaos is often overwhelming, and as his OCD worsens over time, so too does Scorsese’s style grow more agitated. On a red carpet, Thelma Schoonmaker’s rapid montage editing of flash bulbs and shouting journalists become an assault on the senses, and Hughes’ preoccupation with trivial matters similarly draws the camera’s focus towards his fixations.

Scorsese uses flash bulbs to great effect in Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Casino – and of course here in The Aviator, sharply punctuating Schoonmaker’s montage editing to disorientating effect.

As we move deeper into the film, Scorsese’s sets also begin conforming to more rigid architectural arrangements, embodying the extreme fastidiousness that comes with Hughes’ obsessive behaviours. In the public bathroom of one famous Hollywood nightclub, the exotic, green wallpaper and tiles suggest a clean rigour in their design, though being the germaphobe that he is, Hughes is still discomforted by the notion of passing a towel or touching a doorknob. So too do his luxurious mansion interiors surround him with beautifully patterned wallpaper and finely-carved, antique furniture, though even these eventually submit to his curious compulsions, with red and white streamers marking “germ-free” zones.

Kubrickian perfectionism in these set designs to match Hughes’ OCD, not unlike the bathroom in The Shining.
A degradation of previously ordered environments into complete disarray, with streamers marking the germ-free zones in Hughes’ house.

More than anywhere else, it is in cockpits and hangars that he often finds he is most at home, running his hands along the fuselage of his jets where we catch his reflection in warped close-ups on their shiny, metallic surfaces. When we step back, Scorsese relishes those bombastic aerial sequences that Hughes adores so much, sending a fleet of planes up into the sky like a flock of birds and even planting the camera in the cockpit with the man himself. Hughes’ directorial debut, Hell’s Angels, is very much founded on similar cinematic innovations, displaying an overwhelming excitement around the industry’s technological development, and even pushing him so far as to reshoot the entire film with sound after being inspired by The Jazz Singer.

Often running his hands along the shiny exteriors of his planes, and his face distorted in close-up reflections, binding the two together.
Truly impressive aerial sequences like those Hughes himself directed, and perhaps even a bit of Top Gun. Technically accomplished on every level, from the editing to the camera placement.

In essence, this rendering of Hughes is entirely Wellesian, as Scorsese matches the character’s grand ambition with equally spectacular visuals accompanying him through his rise and fall. Much like Citizen Kane, the glimpses we get of our protagonist’s childhood plants the seeds of the fatal flaw that will topple him later on, dooming him not to an early grave, but rather a sad, lonely life. Where Charles Foster Kane lacked any real passion though, Hughes is overwhelmed by it, almost literally flying too close to the sun before crashing back down to earth. He is the tragic centrepiece of Scorsese’s treatise on an industry that is both extravagantly pioneering and detrimentally controlling, and in its adventurous, colourful experimentations, The Aviator fully recognises both sides of this glamorous culture and the bright-minded pioneer it consumed.

A Wellesian rise and fall in this majestic character study ending in real tragedy.

The Aviator is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Panic Room (2002)

David Fincher | 1hr 53min

After crafting a magnificently daring crime film in Seven and a gripping thriller in Fight Club, David Fincher is evidently dedicating his talents towards something a little more modest with Panic Room, largely containing its action within the confined quarters of one family’s Manhattan townhouse. It says a lot about his success as a director though that a film as handsomely mounted as this could ever be consider one of his more minor accomplishments, especially given how much it carries through the consistent devotion to evocative, murky lighting that has largely defined his gloomy aesthetic. As darkness infiltrates the corners and stairwells of this claustrophobic home, so too does Fincher send three thieves inside with the intention of stealing money hidden in its secret panic room, carrying out a tightly-plotted home invasion story with exhilarating terror.

The titular panic room is soaked in Fincher’s fluorescent lighting design, and he uses its confined geography well to keep his staging inside it dynamic.

Jodie Foster leads here as Meg, a recently divorced mother looking to start a new life with her daughter, Sarah, played by a young Kristen Stewart. The townhouse’s layout and the functions of the panic room are economically set up during their inspection early on, though more than anything else it is the harsh, fluorescent lighting of this hideaway which establishes it as a grim yet impenetrable sanctuary, setting it apart from the rest of the home. Inside, high and low camera angles often feel like the only way we can possibly fit into the space with the actors, whose faces look even more terrified bathed in its dim, green glow. Throughout the rest of the house, Fincher’s lighting is a little softer in its warmer hues, though his smothering visual darkness remains as much a part of the environment as the infrastructure that all parties wield against each other in a Home Alone-style stand-off.

Fincher is a master of dim lighting and darkness, using it to create some imposing frames out of his walls, doorways, and furniture – this house would probably look entirely ordinary if it wasn’t lit like this.

The levity that came with the 1990 Christmas comedy is barely present in Panic Room though. The closest we get to any humour is a highly-strung, animated performance from Jared Leto as Junior, the grandson of the house’s previous owner now returning to claim his hidden money with two co-conspirators. His gang’s idea to pump propane gas through the air vents into the panic room quickly turns south when Meg cleverly ignites it from the other end, badly burning him and proving her to be a truly formidable opponent. Next to Junior, Dwight Yoakam’s psychopathic thug, Raoul, proves to be even deadlier and more unpredictable than any other character though, and Forest Whittaker serves well as Burnham, the most sensitive and empathetic of the group. Between all three criminals, there is more than enough character drama going on to sustain its own storyline, building tension in their interactions even beyond the primary conflict at play.

With such a rich ensemble of characters and a versatile set to play with, Fincher delights in pushing the creative limits of his camerawork all through Panic Room, angling it from positions that turn the space into a diorama of sorts, using walls to split frames right down the middle and view multiple rooms at once. Even more experimental are his simulated tracking shots, flying through floors, keyholes, pipes, and even the handle of a jug in long takes, probing crevices that no ordinary human or camera could possibly reach. In this way, Fincher playfully lifts us beyond the perspective of any one character, and instead positions us as an invisible, omniscient third party, free to independently roam the environment. Just as time often feels as if it is compressing in these break-neck camera movements, so too does it radically elongate in slow-motion sequences, at one point turning what might have been a mere few seconds of Meg’s brief dash outside the panic room into a nail-biting minute and a half, intensified even further by Fincher’s intercutting with the thieves downstairs.

At times the entire house is shot like a diorama, with the camera entirely ignoring the barriers of walls, floors, and obstacles in its way.

Not every narrative beat is played to perfection, particularly as Panic Room introduces a couple of artificial contrivances here and there to build suspense, but its classical Hollywood conventions are otherwise integrated with superb elegance, beautifully calling back to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a conclusively dramatic shot of the much sought-after money blowing away in the wind. It is in moments like these that Fincher’s manipulation of expressive lighting and pressing darkness thrillingly force the terror of this hellish night upon us, transcending the perspective of any single character to instil in us an even greater dread than any one of them experiences alone.

One of the strongest compositions of the film caught from this low angle, as flashlights and lamps shine down on Forrest Whittaker.

Panic Room is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 31min

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is a police officer and who is a gangster in The Departed. These characters are destined to die awful deaths from the moment they commit themselves to one cause or the other, caught in the crosshairs of the Xs which Martin Scorsese slyly plants all through his mise-en-scene. They are framed as steel beams in industrial settings, patterned in hallway carpets, and cast on walls in thin strips of light, but most of all they are consistently present at the demises of each key player. Scorsese is not the first to adopt this motif, as it was previously used to similarly excellent effect in the original 1932 Scarface, but The Departed even more fully realises it as the thread binding each character to their sad, inescapable fates, dealing out equally cruel sentences with no regard for the loyalties they held in life.

Carrying on this motif from Scarface, Scorsese uses the Xs in his mise-en-scène to portend death – a wonderful visual touch in a film that otherwise relies so much on its genius narrative.

Out of all of them, it is Irish-American mobster Frank Costello who recognises the futility of such allegiances, and plays the game the way that he alone sees fit – lasting as long as he can on pure self-preservation. Like so many others, he is marked by those deathly Xs right from his introduction, but his opening voiceover is also accompanied by darkness and camera angles which keep his face from view. Where we once reflected on Henry Hill’s childhood aspirations to be a gangster through his own eyes in Goodfellas, we now look back to the past through the perspective of the mentor grooming boys into his inner circle, revealing the sleazy underside of this lifestyle long before the children are old enough to see it for themselves. For all the cynicism present in these opening minutes though, Scorsese’s editing remains as sharp as ever, breezily whisking us through the parallel ascents of two young police officers, Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan, whose overlapping lives precariously hang on the rapidly narrowing distance keeping them apart.

Dramatic irony runs thick through Scorsese’s narrative on many levels, leaving only the audience aware of the shared coincidences and quietly significant developments drawing the two men together. On one side, Costigan is ordered by his superiors to ingratiate himself with Frank’s gang, while on the other, Sullivan is sent by Frank to infiltrate the police. Both are aware that within their own organisations there is a rat leaking information, and yet the closer they get to their targets, the closer they are to being caught out themselves, and Scorsese mines the enthralling suspense of this self-defeating quest for all it is worth. Victory and subjugation go hand in hand for these men, while above them they are outmanoeuvred by a figure more cunning than either. Acting simultaneously as a crime boss and FBI informant, Frank will happily play to both sides of the aisle, demanding loyalty from others while refusing to give anyone his own. With the reveal of his duplicity comes a demonic, red glow that Scorsese casts over him in an opera theatre, detaching him even further from any semblance of the organised religion he outright rejects.

Satanic imagery, bathing Jack Nicholson’s Frank in this red glow at the opera.

And yet despite all the complex machinations of this cat-and-mouse game, Scorsese draws a simple, powerful duality right down its centre, strongly suggesting traces of Michael Mann’s Heat in its study of two morally opposed minds obsessively circling each other. Like younger versions of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon offer up gritty, highly-strung performances as men trying desperately to gain the approval of their superiors, and yet who also share a common understanding of each other.

Highly-strung performances from both DiCaprio and Damon, a significant landmark in both their careers.

Evidently the paths to success as a man in either culture is paved with the same milestones of working hard, obeying orders, finding a girlfriend, and settling down, though the closeness of their trajectories is especially striking when they fall in love with the same woman, police psychiatrist Dr. Madolyn Madden. In effect, the two men share the same lives, and when they finally reach each other for the first time on the phone, a silent tension hangs in the air, drawn out by Scorsese’s suspenseful cutting to both sides of the call. As if realising that with the discovery of their adversary’s identity comes the exposure of their own, neither wants to be the first to speak, fearing the destruction of everything they have built for themselves.

Suspenseful cutting to either side of this phone call – excellent work from Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

For Costigan and Sullivan though, that single-minded compulsion to uncover the other rat first dominates all other survival instincts, and while The Departed does not exactly reach the stylistic heights of other Scorsese films, he still savours those thrilling set pieces which push them to their limits. Split diopters are used to great effect in building out the strained relationships of characters separated between layers of the frame, and the rock soundtrack heavily featuring Celtic punk band The Dropkick Murphys lends an aggressive Irish-American edge to their exploits. Among the most riveting sequences of the film though follows their chase outside a porn theatre where Scorsese throws them into smoke-filled alleyways of red and blue neon lights, setting up urban obstacles that offer plenty of hiding places and yet which keep both from catching glimpses of their opponent’s faces.

Scorsese returns to these split diopter shots a few times – wonderful depth of field.
A stylistic highlight of the film, sending DiCaprio and Damon through these smokey alleyways, and of course marking the scene with a giant red X.

For all these wonderful visual flourishes though, The Departed is clearly operating more on the strength of its narrative than the lively experimentations we witnessed in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. Its intricate construction of double-crosses and manipulations never get so convoluted as to become messy, but it rather propels this riveting story forward with impeccable pacing, leading these characters towards their inevitable graves. Frank may be the most purely evil of them all, and yet it is his nihilistic ethos which leaves the largest legacy, undermining every attempt to assert some grand sense of justice or meaning in the world. Just like Scorsese’s persistent Xs, the equal but opposite forces of Costigan and Sullivan essentially cancel each other out, and their realisations that they are not as exceptional as they would like to believe might almost be as shocking as the bullets which hopelessly reduce them to nothing.

Paying homage to the final shot of The Third Man with the superb staging in this cold rejection.

The Departed is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky | 1hr 42min

As monstrous as drug addiction is in Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky does not simply confine the film’s horror to the violent psychological, physical, and emotion effects substance abuse wreaks on human minds and bodies. For each of our four interconnected main characters, there is a sharp, sudden decline they all experience in the final act, turning them from barely functioning members of society to broken victims dismissed as junkies, whores, delinquents, and lunatics. The drug trade of this cinematic fever dream is simply one arm of a rigid class system used to placate those who grow too restless in their station, ensuring that any ‘cheating’ attempts at upwards social mobility only push them further in the opposite direction. In this downward spiral, Aronofsky’s kinetic style alternates between short, jerky rhythms and languid, groggy movements, absorbing us into a nightmare of purely disorientating maximalism that degrades every facet of its characters’ humanity.

It is a skilful hand that Aronofsky wields over his four threads of steadily diverging plotlines, locating them all in a web of social relationships destined to be ripped apart. At the point that we meet these characters, the deterioration has already been set in motion, with split screens dividing widowed Sara Goldfarb from her drug-addicted son, Harry, who has taken to pawning her possessions for money. Between him, his girlfriend Marion, and his friend Tyrone, the three earn a small profit through dealing heroin, looking to fulfil their grand ambitions, or in the case of Tyrone, simply escaping from the ghetto. For Sara, success manifests not as financial wealth, but in the glamour of fame and beauty, and an invitation to appear on her favourite, mind-numbingly tacky game show ‘Juice by Tappy’ is the shove she needs to start losing weight with help of prescribed amphetamines.

Split screens serve to divide characters and our focus, creating a chaotic sort of energy that makes each character feel totally alone.

Aronofsky is economical with his social commentary, rejecting the sort of didactic expositing that a weaker filmmaker might have opted for, and instead embodying his critiques of the American Dream within the very fabric of characters who operate on either sides of the legal fence, and who are variably disadvantaged by some intersection of class, gender, age, and race. More than being some anthropological or ethical lecture, Requiem from a Dream is a panic-inducing trip, clouding our long-term vision of these characters’ arcs by over-sensitising us to the immediate impacts of each high. Every time heroin is injected, cocaine is snorted, or pills are swallowed, short, rhythmic montages deliver swift barrages of disturbing close-ups against black backgrounds, manifesting as a dark precursor to the rapid editing style Edgar Wright would trademark a few years later with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Paired with these fleeting images are equally brief sound effects that amplify the volume of every movement a hundredfold, turning dilating pupils into rising electronic tones and rushing bloodstreams into intimate sighs, intoxicating us with pulsing, sensory overloads.

These rapid-fire montages are a great kinetic strength of Requiem for a Dream, breaking up scenes with sudden bursts of adrenaline set against dark backgrounds.

These mini-montages rarely last for more than a few seconds each, and yet they are ridden all through Requiem for a Dream, at times landing like punctuation marks in the middle of scenes. Each of these are imbued with great power, pivoting entire emotional journeys on the cathartic relief they provide. Harry’s emotional breakdown in the back of a taxi is easily forgotten in one scene when a quick flash of an injection wipes the anguish from his face in the very next shot, and Aronofsky goes on to extend this editing motif to the compulsive rush that Sara gets while watching her favourite television show. These fixes bring about feelings of elation for each character in their own way, turning jittery camera movements into dreamy glides circling dazed characters in overhead shots, divorced from any gravitational orientation.

The camera circles above its characters in a daze, with both the staging and movements divorcing us from any spatial orientation.
Punctuating a scene with a mini-montage, wiping Leto’s face clean of pain and misery.

As the hallucinations of Aronofsky’s characters intensify, so too does his agitated visual style, slapping us with fish-eye lenses, time-lapse footage, reverse point-of-view tracking shots, and even one sequence that sees Sara experience the world in fast-motion while she can only speak in slow-motion. Time moves irregularly around these characters, and each member of the cast does remarkably well to keep up with Aronofsky’s deliberate erratic pacing, though it is especially in Ellen Burstyn’s upsetting descent into insanity that we pitifully regret the debasement of something innocent. The doctor who prescribes her medication is little more than a state-sanctioned drug dealer, caring so little for her that he doesn’t even make eye contact with his patients, and resolving to simply give pills to whoever asks for them. As the oldest of the four characters, Sara is the one who lives deepest in a pit of fragile insecurity, and it is hard not to feel an ache of sorrow for Burstyn as she delivers a monologue on the cheap, shallow joy these new drugs have brought her.

“I’m somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they’ll all like me. I’ll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember? It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right.”

A Gilliam style close-up with the fish-eye lens distorting Burstyn’s face. Ahile she moves in groggy slow-motion, everything else moves in fast-motion.
Reverse POV tracking shots attaching to these characters as they wander around in shame and confusion.
Time-lapse photography blended with clocks, distorting time to raise these characters up to great highs and then bring them crashing down.

As despairingly delusional as Aronofsky’s characters have been up to this point, it isn’t until the final act that Requiem for a Dream fully sweeps us away on waves of surreal hopelessness, aggressively intercutting between each narrative thread driving towards what might as well be their graves. When Sara isn’t imagining television stars in her house or a monstrous fridge lurching towards her, she performs to her own mirror, with long dissolves melding several close-ups into a single deranged fantasy. Out in public, she draws pity and disdain from strangers as she raves maddeningly to herself, while elsewhere her son repulsively shoots up into an infected hole on his arm. When he and Tyrone are arrested, it is no surprise that it is the latter who is met with the full force of the law, being from a Black ghetto in New York, leaving Marion to fend for herself as a prostitute.

Long dissolves consuming Sara in her hazy dream.
The editing in the last act is just incredible – match cuts and parallel editing moving us between each storyline by drawing comparisons in the visuals.

In a psychiatric ward, Sara undergoes agonising electroconvulsive therapy, and the hallucination of winning the television game show no longer seems to be just a side effect of her mental illness, as it also becomes an escape from her ugly reality. While she pictures the future she always wanted for her and Harry, she remains unaware that he is lying in a hospital elsewhere, getting his gangrenous arm amputated. Match cuts aggressively flow from one character to the next, with a close-up of a feeding tube being shoved into Sara’s mouth leading into Marion applying lipstick, and the torches that shine brightly on her vulnerable body at a sex party becoming hospital pen lights beaming invasively into the camera’s lens.

Loud, daring filmmaking, as Aronofsky’s camera vibrates like static along with Tyrone’s scream.
Four fates tugging this small ensemble apart even as they all engaged in similar activities, and Aronofsky keeps up the devastating energy in cutting between these close-ups.

As each addict grows further apart, their stories intertwine even closer, and Aronofsky orchestrates his parallel editing to the agitated pulse of the titular requiem, with its strings and vocal chanting moving in circular rhythms like an angry, endless nightmare. Unlike traditional requiems which peacefully commemorate the souls of the deceased though, Clint Mansell’s score intensely evokes that mortal terror that immediately precedes death – or at least, the end of a life worth living. Within a mental health facility, a prison, a hospital, and a brothel, each character curls up into lonely fetal positions, lying in their final resting places. As Requiem for a Dream approaches its devastating climax in the final seconds, Aronofsky pessimistically conjures up a set of tragic fates worse than physical death, obliterating the souls of people who could see no other path to success in America than by transcending their biological limitations through destructive, mind and body altering substances.

The final shots of the film, each character curling up in beds as if in their graves, never to return to society.

Requiem for a Dream is currently streaming on Netflix and Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang | 2hr 53min

While three generations of the Jian family live in a comfortable home in Taipei, each dealing with personal issues that vary in relative significance, Edward Yang never condescends to any of them so much that they are made to appear less serious than others. They are bound by all the big events that any middle-class Taiwanese family goes through – weddings, christenings, funerals – but while these occasions lay the foundation of Yang’s formal structure, much of Yi Yi is spent chasing the stories that lie between them, separating husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters into their own lonely worlds. Whether these characters are wandering a pier on a business trip or gazing out windows through reflections of city lights, we remain fully engrossed in those long, static takes that let them move at their own pace, contemplating decisions that could mean the difference between life and death, or maybe just love and loneliness.

Shots of aching loneliness, most frequently portrayed in static long shots, though occasionally letting characters approach the camera in mid-shots, separating them from their backgrounds.

It is more in the scope of Yi Yi than its scale that Yang builds it out into a stirring domestic epic, drawing on the dominant influence of Yasujiro Ozu in both his thematic focus on familial relations and his painstakingly detailed mise-en-scène, shooting through doorways and windows to create the sort of framed compositions so reminiscent of the Japanese auteur. When the elderly matriarch of the family falls into a coma early on, a mournful gloom settles over the entire household, but it seems to be the women who are most affected. Her grown daughter, Min-Min, begins to wrestle with her faith, leaving for a Buddhist retreat to heal alone.

Meanwhile, her granddaughter, Ting-Ting, bears the weight of her heavy conscience – she was the one who was meant to take out the trash that her grandmother ultimately took care of when she unexpectedly collapsed. The side angle with which Yang shoots the entry into her bedroom where she lies unconscious drastically narrows the opening to a mere sliver, so that whenever Ting-Ting or any other character goes to visit their ailing loved one, they are visually squeezed out of the composition by the masses of negative space that lie on either side. There are many frames to be found in Yi Yi that purposefully isolate characters within their stifling environments, but few so suffocatingly oppressive as this.

A razor-thin frame slicing right through the centre of the shot, opening up into the grandmother’s room where she lays comatose.
Seclusion and despondency felt across all generation in Yi Yi, and depicted affectingly here overwhelming a classroom of children, visually split between frames in the mise-en-scène.
Interior walls and architecture captured like Antonioni here, dominating the middle of shot with negative space while characters are blocked off to the side in the background.

This isn’t to say that Min Min’s husband, NJ, or their son, Yang-Yang, aren’t grieving in their own way though. Unlike his sister, the young boy does not find comfort in speaking to his comatose grandmother, and instead turns to a camera he has received as gift. In it lies the potential to capture a range of perspectives beyond his own, which becomes a source of intrigue for him. In a delightfully amusing conversation between him and his father, he enigmatically asks “Can we only know half the truth?” When prodded further, he explains.

“I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind. So I can only know half the truth, right?”

The photos he later snaps of the back of people’s heads are justified by a similar line of reasoning. It is a point of view that everyone else in the world can have of us, except ourselves, and expanding the boundaries of our horizon in such a way is a mission that is quite unique to visual arts, whether through photography or, in the case of Yang, cinema. When the communication barrier is finally broken between grandson and grandmother, he confesses his own belief in her wisdom, which inspired him to chase this ability he has so passionately sought after.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you. I think all the stuff I could tell you… you must already know.”

Old and young generations sharing a wisdom that others lack.

Like the rest of his family, NJ also feels a crushing loneliness that seeps beyond his home life and into his professional work. His chance reunion with his first love, Sherry, leads to another meeting further down the line. As she follows him on a business trip to Tokyo, Yang’s camera drifts down the busy streets where city lights and office buildings glow an unnatural green colour, distinguished from the deep reds and soft pinks associated with the scenes in Taipei. What the two cities do have in common is Yang’s ever-present use of city lights bouncing off windows, whether we are looking in at corporate desks obscured by the reflections of car headlights, or gazing out at busy urban streets that clash with the mirrored glare of bright offices. Behind these harsh illuminations, members of the Jian family look like ghosts, only semi-present in images that blend interior and exterior worlds together in impressionistic renderings of an alienated modern world.

Green lights of Tokyo, far removed from the warm palette of Taipei.
City lights surround characters high up in office buildings and apartments, imprinted over their faces through the glass windows.

In scenes that see past betrayals and romances between NJ and Sherry brought to the surface in private, Yang cleverly intercuts the film with the blossoming romance of Ting-Ting and Fatty, the boyfriend of her neighbour, Lili. Between both couples we compare imperfect, incomplete affairs, both unable to fully commit to the socially transgressive nature of their relationships. Sherry’s suggestion that she leaves her American husband for NJ is less of a seduction and more a desperate deliberation, contemplating a life that might be better than the one she has, while Ting-Ting can’t quite shake off the guilt of knowing the heartache she will cause down the line should she submit to her impulsive feelings. Perhaps this is for the best though. Later in the film, we will discover a devastating culmination of twisted affairs that lie just outside Ting-Ting’s immediate view, and which she may have been embroiled in had she followed through on her attraction to Fatty. As it is, the segments that Yang keeps his main characters enclosed within are isolating but protective, holding them back from fully understanding the parallel trials of their neighbours and family members.

The lighting can’t be downplayed in immaculate compositions like these, letting the loneliness sink in.
Yang possesses real talent for shooting on location and drawing out the beauty of the urban scenery – the traffic post segmenting Ting-Ting from the rest of the shot, and the white umbrella that simultaneously draws our eye in her direction.

Despite the cold remoteness that draws dividing lines between characters and narrative threads, there is a warmth in Yang’s mise-en-scène drawn deeply through his production design in rich shades of red and pink. It emerges most prominently in the opening scene at the wedding of A-Di, Min-Min’s brother, where the family congregates in a function room draped in cherry curtains and lined with clusters of pink balloons. These colours continue to weave through the patterned carpets, tablecloths, and walls, where distinctly East Asian stylings ground these characters within specific cultural traditions and at a pivotal point in time before their experiences begin to branch out. Even when that separation does take place though, Yang’s distinguished red hues never fade, carrying through in the beautifully curated décor of the Jian family’s apartment building, bedrooms, and even in A-Di’s own home.

The Ozu comparisons are well earned, but Yang also has his own distinguished sense of warm colour palettes that defines Yi Yi.
Red is a dominant choice in Yi Yi, it is hard not to draw comparisons to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s own gorgeous work on Three Colours: Red.

Because even while these characters never quite come to fully grasp each other’s struggles, Yang does not see reason why this should keep them from holding back their desires and expressions of meaningful love. In a single, transcendent moment that breaks from reality and disappears into Ting-Ting’s fantasy, her grandmother awakens from her coma, and a scene of cathartic forgiveness takes place that releases the young woman from her guilt. Within one of Yang’s tightly framed compositions that forces his characters into the space of a single doorway, we which a family reunion unfold, though where this shot had previously served to segregate individuals, it now connects them under the mournful shadow of their grandmother’s death. Within the sound design, conversations and stories overlap in an Altmanesque manner, bridging the gaps in this tiny community.

One of many frames caught through a doorway in Yi Yi, though here the effect is unifying rather than isolating.

Yi Yi never quite settles on either side of that taut line dividing loneliness and company that it is drawn along though. Even in the final minutes as the Jian family grieves their loved one at her funeral, Yang ones again frames them as separate units, with the open windows visually splitting them up. On a broader level though, this oscillation is simply part of life’s cycles, just as much as the births, marriages, and deaths that the children, adolescents, and adults of Taiwan each experience through different lenses. Yang playfully suggests that the ability to adopt the perspectives of others is only limited to the youngest and oldest of this clan, but it is also evident in the very structure of Yi Yi’s multi-linear narrative threads that such tender open-mindedness is inherent within the film itself.

The funeral bringing the Jian family gatherings full circle, uniting and dividing them.

Yi Yi is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Steven Soderbergh | 2hr 10min

It takes more than a good actor to command the screen the way Julia Roberts does as Erin Brockovich’s titular beauty queen turned lawyer. This role could have only ever been pulled off by someone with the presence, charisma, and confidence of a true movie star, delivering whip-smart takedowns and monologues that simultaneously stretch credulity and inspire cheers. Steven Soderbergh may assert his own stylistic freedom every now and again, but there is no doubt that this biopic is primarily a showcase for Roberts, who is as profusely articulate as ever in her Oscar-winning role.

Brockovich herself is a cunning, self-aware character, fully understanding the ways in which her presentation can be used either against her or to her advantage. That she so effortlessly works her way into a job at a law firm with no prior experience already sets her up as a woman with a powerful authority, but as she follows a trail of real estate files and medical records, it is her shrewd mind which becomes her most admirable quality. In low-cut tops and heels, she drives out to the rural community of Hinkley where she puts on the act of a naïve secretary and charms local administrators into providing access to documents. Enemies are made along the way though, and even within her own firm she butts horns with co-workers who condemn her manipulative methods and abrasive personality.

Sparse as it is, Soderbergh does on occasion let through traces of his Alan J. Pakula influence, particularly in those low angles that captures rows upon rows of fluorescent lights lining the ceilings of offices and courtrooms, shedding a murky glow over his mustard yellow production design. The impact of these visuals is subtle but significant, casting Erin’s pursuit of truth in a dangerous light while remaining true to the era-specific décor, especially when she heads out to bars and city streets at night where green neon signs dimly illuminate her environment.

For the most part though, the menacing threat of Erin’s legal adversaries merely linger in the background. As a strong-willed woman in a profession that emphasises gender roles, she predominantly faces accusations within her own office of being emotional and erratic, as well making her work personal. From her perspective, she has every right to do so. Her holistic investment in her pursuit of truth and justice is both her greatest strength and flaw, and makes her passion all the more infectious and fascinating to watch. Together, Soderbergh and Roberts keep us in Erin Brockovich’s tight grip, and energetically drive the narrative towards its stirring, rewarding conclusion.

Erin Brockovich is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.