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.

Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe | 2hr 2min

Almost Famous rolls along with all the thrust and exhilaration of a rock concert, as steeped in 70s pop culture as Cameron Crowe himself. Fifteen-year-old William Miller is his surrogate, and in his naïve, coming-of-age ventures following famous band Stillwater as a wannabe music journalist, we see traces of the director’s own origins. With such an autobiographical approach to the subject matter, a loosely structured flow between nostalgic hangouts, and hints of an existential, ever-encroaching adulthood, there is a great deal of Richard Linklater’s influence milling around this screenplay. In the examinations of fame and celebrity ridden through Almost Famous though there is a star power that Linklater has always rejected, and which Crowe fully embraces in drawing lines between past and present representations of pop culture.

Patrick Fugit as William may be the biggest unknown here, and even as the lead there is little he can do to stand up against the big names listed alongside his in the opening credits. Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman steal scenes in their supporting roles, and in smaller parts Zooey Deschanel, Anna Paquin, Jimmy Fallon, Jay Baruchel, and Fairuza Balk also make memorable appearances, each putting a charismatic shine on the glamourous lifestyle that lies far beyond William’s home. Carrying him through on a swell of sincere compassion and love though is a radiant Kate Hudson, playing a fictional take on socialite Pennie Lane – a self-proclaimed “band aid” who follows bands for the music, thus differentiating herself from groupies who are there for the sex.

William’s loneliness seeping through the imagery, though often paired with a whole-hearted dedication to his work.

About as prolific as Crowe’s cast is his boisterous rock soundtrack featuring virtually every 70s pop icon under the sun from The Who to Simon & Garfunkel, and additionally becoming the cornerstone of scenes that let the cast become part of the playlist. One joyous bus ride takes off with a singalong to Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, and even beyond those instantly recognisable classics, Nancy Wilson contributes original tracks ‘Fever Dog’ and ‘Lucky Trumble’ to further carve out this fictional corner of the culture inhabited by Stillwater and their fans. Crowe’s pacing surfs along on these songs like waves, only ever pausing long enough to contemplate the disappointment, heartbreak, and danger of the industry before wholeheartedly leaping back in.

A bus singalong to ‘Tiny Dancer’ a musical highlight of the film, and realising what he’s got Crowe brings the song back at the end of the film.

This seems to be the cycle experienced by musicians and fans alike, and despite the warnings from older journalists not to consider these people friends, William still finds himself by Stillwater’s side, riding their highs and lows. The way this lifestyle is depicted almost seems like a drug addiction at times – right from the moment he first drops the needle on a record his sister gave him when he was 11, Crowe fades the scene into a series of long dissolves of the vinyl, the cover, and his ecstatic face, looking as if he has been transported into an entirely new world.

Music records sweeping a young William away, self-discovery rendered via long dissolves.

With such potency in Crowe’s characterisations and soundtrack, it is not hard to understand the concerns of Elaine, William’s mother, played by McDormand as a sympathetic hard-ass. This is the time of her son’s life that he is most impressionable, and the worry lines that crease her brow appear permanently etched into her face. When she overhears a girl on the other end of the phone talking about hydroponic pot and later asking if William wants to see her feed a mouse to her snake, we can easily forgive those times that she comes off as unreasonable. The comedy lands brilliantly in this screenplay, but beneath it all Crowe maintains a layer of drama, rooting his adolescent protagonist to his unshakable core relationships.

A sympathetic performance from Frances McDormand, crushed by her worry for her son.
City hopping all through the film, from San Francisco to New York City.

At times, this light brush of comedy only barely conceals the industry’s deeply entrenched misogyny and objectification of women, consistently drawing out the tragic undercurrent to Pennie’s character in scenes that see her gambled off or overdosing on quaaludes. Elsewhere, the repressed darkness of these characters is played for laughs when a cascade of grim secrets and confessions tumble out into the open on a plane that briefly appears to be crashing, before stabilising and forcing its passengers to sit in a painfully awkward silence. For Crowe, it is a skilful tonal balance that he conducts all through Almost Famous, propelling this narrative through its tensions, trials, and trans-American travels, and tying each set piece together into a nostalgic reflection on a musical era as joyfully uninhibited as it was potentially soul-destroying.

Almost Famous isn’t a highly stylised film, but Crowe does relish the natural light in these shots of the band bus travelling across the country.

Almost Famous is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.

The Yards (2000)

James Gray | 1hr 55min

Recently paroled gangster Leo Handler finds himself at a similar turning point in The Yards as the one which Michael Corleone faced many years before in The Godfather. The decision to either follow in the footsteps of the family business or turn against its patriarch is absolutely pivotal to both journeys, and one that James Gray chooses to examine even closer than his predecessor, Francis Ford Coppola. In placing the dilemma under intensive moral examination, a pervasive unpredictability underscores Gray’s dramatic tensions, constantly ready to tip over these family dynamics into full-blown antagonism. Even if The Yards is not a wholly original crime drama, it still retains a freshness in moving its study of classical corruption and redemption arcs in inverse yet complementary directions.

Perhaps in 2000, three years out from Boogie Nights, it might have seemed that Mark Wahlberg was destined for a career trajectory that would place him among the best actors of his generation. He is by no means weak here as the morally conflicted Leo, but within this well-rounded cast of established and newer talents, he is not afforded a lot of chances to dominate the screen. It is his young co-stars, Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix, who often carry greater urgency in their performances, and Phoenix especially whose disintegrating integrity as Willie sets in motion some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments.

An exciting early performance from a young Joaquin Phoenix, who would go on to collaborate with Gray several more times.

On the older end of the spectrum, it is surely no coincidence that Gray calls in James Caan from The Godfather to play the equivalent Marlon Brando role, bearing more than a striking resemblance to the Don with his thin moustache and slicked back hair. Frank Olchin heads this shady crime family from the dim light of his office which itself looks modelled off Vito Corleone’s, and in his close circle of confidantes Gray pulls in the talents of veteran actors Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn. It is almost as if Coppola acolyte himself is setting in motion a passing of the torch between older and younger generations of Hollywood stars, lending an even greater weight to the ensuing havoc wreaked upon cultural traditions.

Frank’s office and character very much styled off Vito Corleone from The Godfather, and played by none other than James Caan, Sonny Corleone.

It is fitting that we first meet Leo leaving prison on the same railway that his family exerts corrupt control over, heading towards a welcome home party where each key player is introduced one by one amid joyous celebrations. Gray lights this world with murky yellow and green lighting, not unlike that which David Fincher was innovating at the time with Seven and Fight Club, and the visual impact is tangible. Through hospitals, houses, and train yards, moral ambiguity dominates our characters’ journeys, wrapping them in an uneasy atmosphere crafted by their elders as if to test their loyalty and fortitude.

The train yard is a gorgeous set piece in its staging, lighting, and narrative power – the inciting incident upon which this story hinges.
Much like The Godfather, an attempted assassination taking place in a hospital, though here it is our protagonist setting out to kill.

As Leo and Willie travel along divergent paths from the inciting incident that sees them accidentally hospitalise one man and kill another while out on a vandalising job, The Yards grows progressively gloomier in its lighting, accompanying them with an ever-encroaching visual darkness. Guilt weighs heavy on both their consciences, and yet most of the blame lands squarely Leo. Perhaps this is partially what motivates him to seek some sort of redemption, while a relatively unscathed Willie submits to his angriest, most jealous impulses.

Superb dim lighting concealing pieces of the mise-en-scène, or otherwise forcing us to pick out key pieces of information. Visual comparisons can be drawn to the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness, on The Godfather, as well as David Fincher.

Ultimately, it is not just the actions of one man speaking the truth that brings down this crime family. It is just as much the reckless impulsivity of its own loyal children that sees them fall from glory. If Leo is who Michael could have been had he turned against the family, then The Yards might as well be an alternate proposition to The Godfather’s statement of generational decline. Whether it is by corrupting old traditions or bringing them down through the force of justice, the ties of family are not destined to last long in these modern worlds. At least in The Yards, the youth who survive retain some dignity.

Much like Coppola before him, Gray loves his long dissolves of faces over wide shots, making for slow, thoughtful scene transitions.

The Yards is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Amores Perros (2000)

Alejandro Iñárritu | 2hr 34min

Amores Perros opens in media res with a car speeding through the streets of Mexico, a wounded dog bleeding to death in the backseat, and a yellow truck right on its tail. At this point in time, we know nothing about the men in the front seat, Octavio and Jorge – who they are, where they have come from, or where they are going. And then all of a sudden, just as we get our bearings in this frenzied chase, there is glass shattering, metal splintering, and smoke filling the air.

The places that Alejandro Iñárritu takes his debut film from here goes far beyond the immediate questions we might have about this car accident. Its effects spread out to strangers from across class boundaries, and bit by bit a landscape of violence, disloyalty, and abuse begins to form in this urban ecosystem of decay and moral depravity.

The same car crash from three different perspectives, a literal collision of narrative threads creating a formal masterwork.

Though it is structured around three separate narrative threads, Amores Perros is not as rigidly segmented as one might initially assume. Iñárritu certainly makes good use of titles bearing the names of his characters to open new chapters where our focus dramatically shifts, but bits and pieces of each plotline also obtrusively bleed into the others. In the first, “Octavio y Susana” which follows an affair between a man and his sister-in-law, it is not immediately clear who the haggard, bearded man is that pursues and kills a stranger without hesitation, nor do we understand why Iñárritu keeps cutting to Daniel, a magazine publisher cheating on his wife with a supermodel. In time, the justification for the inclusion of both will be revealed in their own chapters, within which Octavio and Susana will appear in reduced capacity. But for now these two subplots remain unsolved mysteries, running beneath a more dominant narrative set in a working-class neighbourhood and an underground dog fighting ring.

A superb blocking of faces in this conversation between Octavio and Susana.

When it comes to those depictions of animal abuse, Amores Perros proves itself to be a particularly confronting experience. Sure, there is a lot of vicious imagery to flinch at all across the board, especially in one shot where Iñárritu’s camera closes in tightly on a splash of fresh blood aggressively sizzling across an open grill. But the torture which is continuously inflicted upon dogs through all two and a half hours of its run time is truly testing, and much of the moral substance of these characters can be gaged by who we see inflicting it, who is trying to fight it, and who can do nothing but simply empathise with their pain.

A sizzling trickle of blood dripping down a grill, fresh from a murder.

In Octavio’s decision to let his dog, Cofi, fight another, Daniel’s choice to leave Valeria’s dog trapped beneath the floorboards, and her selfless attempts to rescue it, we witness this running metaphor become the source of some brilliant character work. Especially when considering canines not just as representations of innocence, but also as symbols of loyalty, a broader picture begins to form of a city that places such little value in any of these, with affairs and betrayals running rampant in virtually every relationship.

In reflecting this urban hellhole, the grittiness of Iñárritu’s rapid-fire editing and grainy visual style feels almost entirely inverse to those films from later in his career, Birdman and The Revenant. Both those movies flow smoothly in long takes even as they wrestle with similarly existential questions and, in the case of The Revenant, viscerally violent imagery. The masterclass of filmmaking in Amores Perros is of an entirely different kind though, in which he presents us with an environment of utter chaos, and then dedicates himself to sorting through the madness to find some sense in it. A skilful balance and wide scope is achieved not just in editing between each of the three main storylines, but even in the skilful parallel cutting contained within these individual strands, contrasting Octavio and Susana’s affair with the one her husband, Ramiro, is simultaneously conducting with a co-worker.

We occasionally get these beautiful formal cutaways to the city streets at night, the headlights of cars bouncing off the wet tarmac. A reminder of the physical landscape these characters inhabit.

Through these constant juxtapositions between plot threads, Iñárritu constructs a pattern of deterioration brought about by selfishness and cruelty, which continues to reverberate outwards. Even Valeria, one of our most noble characters, is not immune to this, as her efforts to counteract Daniel’s malice simply worsens her condition, right up until she hits rock bottom with a leg amputation, cutting short her illustrious modelling career. In poignant correspondence, her perfume ads stuck up high on billboards around the city are similarly torn down, her fall from grace writ large in this wretched environment.

And then as Amores Perros reaches its finale act, “El Chivo y Maru”, there is an unexpected shift in Iñárritu’s pattern in the place we least expect. Where Octavio and Valeria are involved in the car crash out of pure bad luck, hitman El Chivo is simply a witness, and chooses to involve himself in rescuing Cofi from the wreckage. The bond that forms between the two is unlike any other human-pet relationship we have seen yet. Like El Chivo, Cofi has been trained to kill, though it is not in his nature – it is a learned instinct as a result of an environment that has told him it is the only way to survive.

A wonderful recurring use of mirrors in the mise-en-scène.

From the great sorrow that El Chivo feels for this corrupted creature there emerges an indignant anger, but also a huge amount of remorse. Unlike Valeria, his deliberate reaction against the decay of the world is not directed outwards in attempts to fix it, but rather inwards to his soul, so that he may fix that which is broken in his own life. After all, it is from there that we have seen reverberations ripple outwards, dictating the paths of lives beyond these characters’ immediate understandings. And with just one extra force of goodness out there in this city, Iñárritu pensively leaves us with some shred of hope for its future.

An ending like Casablanca or Modern Times, only with a man and man’s best friend walking off into the distance, offering a shred of hope.

Amores Perros is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Platform (2000)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 34min

Unsatisfied with the escapist, expressionist Fifth Wave of Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhangke burst onto the scene in the 1990s leading the more grounded Sixth Wave, and with his second film, the neorealist epic, Platform, he turned to China’s recent history to bring in the new millennium. This “epic” descriptor is only really applicable in the way it might be for a film like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – not much “happens” in any individual moment, but the sheer span of time which we spend with the same characters reveals an accumulation of small changes set in motion by an increasingly globalising culture, pressing in on their lives and pushing them in separate directions.

Jia’s long shots are always impressive in their minimalist beauty, formal power, and attention to cultural detail.

As the 1980s dawn upon the young performers of the state-funded Peasant Cultural Group, they collectively ruminate on what sort of future lies ahead for their country in the year 2000. “The four modernisations: industry, agriculture, defence, science,” one of them conjectures, and he’s not wrong, though clearly they are unprepared for the sort of social and artistic shifts which will impact them in a far more personal manner than anything else. Three years after chairman Mao Zedong’s death, his likeness still adorns the walls of their homes, but in the coming years it is the new Paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, whose influence and embrace of consumerist policies will come to dominate their lives.
 
Even when we first meet these characters though, many of these changes are already in motion. There are no pivotal turning points in Platform for Jia’s characters, but their lives are rather made up of miniscule shifts in cultural behaviours towards western trends. Foreign films and fashion fads are considered bad influences, and as early on as the ten-minute mark we see one of the group’s central performers, Cui Minliang, being scolded by his parents for wearing bell-bottomed jeans – an attitude he simply puts down to “the generation gap.” 

Recurring generational conflict, set against a backdrop of social and cultural decay.

In choosing to shoot on location in China’s Shanxi province, Jia makes the most of the region’s dilapidated architecture, dwarfing his characters beneath these towering, crumbling buildings in an abundance of wide and mid-shots. The lack of structural maintenance is evident, as we return twice to the same set of half-constructed stairs which turn this part of the city into an obstacle course for Jia’s characters to navigate, leap across, and climb. Much like Cuarón would do in Roma 18 years later, Jia often pans his camera around his scenes, soaking in the detail of the dirtied interiors and streets of 1980s China. Early on, a trivial conversation between two performers, Zhang and Zhong, is set right next to a political rally for the newly-imposed one-child policy, and although the two affairs don’t directly collide in this moment, it paints out a politically-charged landscape of cultural turmoil that is slowly seeping into the everyday lives of its citizens.

Jia always plays out scenes of personal drama in wide and mid shots, and never close ups, often using his architecture to divide characters just like Michelangelo Antonioni did before him.

Later, Cui and Yin, a performer with whom he shares a mutual attraction, meet on the ramparts of a grey brick fortress to discuss their relationship. With the camera planted just halfway around a protruding corner, we are only ever privy to one side of the conversation at a time, as both characters alternate positions into our scope of vision to deliver their own perspective. In doing so Jia effectively creates the same isolating effect that cutting to either side of the conversation might have, and yet through his patient, static camera, he instead uses the imposing architecture of the city to come between his characters. 

Splitting his frame right down the middle during this breakup scene, and then only ever letting us watch one side of the conversation at a time as both actors alternate positions.

Eventually Yin finds herself slowly dragged away from her friends and passion to enter a planned marriage. “Everything’s arranged for me,” she quietly laments, and yet even in falling into this traditional custom, she too finds herself swept along a separate strand of consumerism which dominates China’s workplaces and private homes. Though she is bound to her stable, middle-class station in life, even she still can’t help bursting out into a small dance when she finds herself alone in her office, reminiscing on her nostalgic past.

Constructing a composition from architectural lines and shadows, painting a picture of isolation and hardship even as Cui and Lin stand right in front of each other.

The inevitable privatisation of the Peasant Cultural Group plays out in such understated moments, we might almost hope along with the characters that it won’t affect things too much. There is a brief reflection from one performer on how putting them up for sale effectively cheapens their livelihoods, but it is quickly cut short by the leader’s reassurance that he is making as much of a sacrifice as them. Regardless, we do witness a drastic evolution taking place in Jia’s sprinkling of their performances all throughout. While touring into an urban area, they are requested to “play concerts of light music” as opposed to their more traditional fare, in a bid to appeal to the more worldly city types. Later, Zhang returns home from an overseas trip with some new cassette tapes featuring euro disco music, and the song “Dschinghis Khan” quickly becomes a hit within his social circle. 
 
Bit by bit, the Peasant Cultural Group’s repertoire of Chinese folk music shifts to pop and rock, their muted outfits are replaced by colourful spandex and double denim, and they are eventually renamed the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band. They have spent their careers spreading the state-approved message that a bright future awaits their generation, and yet by the end these promises are revealed to be utterly empty. 

“Young friends, this spring will be yours. Yours and mine. The new generation of the 1980s!” 

Musical performances all throughout Platform, the shifting culture evident in the song choices, energy, costumes, audiences, and locations.
A huge difference between these two performances, one from the start of the film and the other towards the end.

When it comes to the source of these promises, we turn to the older generations who, while not a significant focus of Platform, do find representation in the form of Cui’s troubled parents. Despite all their moral and ideological reprimands, they are far from sinless, as Cui’s father’s affair is only briefly confronted before it becomes a natural part of life, slowly fragmenting the family over the years. 
 
This is the way relationships come to an end in this new modernised culture – not with a farewell and a hug, but a silent tapering off, disappearing before anyone realises it. This set pattern pays off in an especially weighty scene towards the end, as Cui and Lin run into each other again after years of unresolved separation. Though they ruminate over the old days, the interaction remains morose. The closure they find in this moment together is special, but they also recognise it is not a privilege that they were granted with their other friends, recalling the last times they were together. 

“Leaving without a word. And since then, no news.” 

These losses and adjustments are incremental yet irreversible, and it is in this slow, gradual development over ten years that Jia’s melancholy reflections on China’s modernisation comes into focus. He isn’t exactly full of praise for the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s either, as he exposes the superficiality which lay beneath its nationalism and deification of Mao, but he rather expresses a nostalgia for the blissful hope and ignorance of youth that seeps away with time. Though we can appreciate the immediate impact of Jia’s stark, minimalistic aesthetics giving visual context to these characters’ struggles along the road to modernity, it is only by the end when we look back at his formally ambitious construction of China over a ten-year span that we realise the full extent of the loss that has taken place.

An image of loneliness, loss, and nostalgia – there isn’t a lot of non-diegetic scoring in Platform, but a poignant strings motif plays a few times, and returns here to underscore this tender moment.

Platform is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.