Skyfall (2012)

Sam Mendes | 2hr 23min

In an early neon-tinted action scene of Skyfall set inside a Shanghai city skyscraper, James Bond fights a henchman in hand-to-hand combat, as bright images of a giant jellyfish and coloured lights shine from screens and bounce off windows. Later, the dim, yellow illumination of lamps hanging in low-slung rows across a casino displays mise-en-scène brilliance, balancing out the structured nature of the organisation with suggestions of shady, covert dealings. Visually, Skyfall is on a whole other level to every James Bond film that came before, and though Roger Deakins must certainly get credit for the impeccable cinematography on show, there is no denying that Sam Mendes is an accomplished stylist detail-oriented craftsman in his own right. Together, both are bringing everything they’ve got this action franchise, crafting atmospheric locations within which 007 is simply a passer-by, ready to take on whatever environmental challenges each new set piece throws at him.

No Bond movie has ever looked like this before – neon-lit skyscrapers provide the atmospheric setting for this remarkable fight scene.
Even more perfect lighting set ups as we arrive at the casino in Macau.

But although he traverses a number of foreign settings, Skyfall also contains the most personal narrative we have seen for Daniel Craig’s version of Bond yet, forcing him down a painful path to his childhood home. As he drives through the grey, foggy Scottish highlands, Skyfall Lodge rises up from the barren landscape like a monstrous castle. It makes total sense that this is where Bond grew up as an orphan boy. It is depressingly lonely and cold, and even with as wealthy a background as him, this place would be enough to turn any impressionable young mind into a reserved, withholding adult. As it burns down, Bond isn’t sad to see it go. It fills the night sky with a warm, fiery glow, silhouetting 007 as he leaves it behind. Even in its destruction, it is still far more inviting than it ever was while it was standing.

A piece of gothic architecture that holds as much personal significance for Bond as one might expect from a structure this daunting.

Paired with this intimate narrative is an equally personal antagonist, reflecting all of Bond’s own doubts and insecurities right back at him. Javier Bardem plays Raoul Silva as an older, more cynical version of Bond, his narcissism and vanity established early so the reveal of the utter ruin that lies inside him is later delivered with even greater weight. As an ex-MI6 agent he once made a decision to sacrifice his life to protect M, and in the botched attempt accidentally burned his insides and horrifically scarred his face, paralleling Bond’s own near-death at the hands of M in the opening scene. She is just one careless decision away from turning Bond against her completely, like she did to Silva.
 
Though his arc isn’t directly tied to Bond’s, Silva acts very much like a Moriarty figure in mirroring his resourcefulness and talent, always remaining ten steps ahead while committing crimes in the broad light of day. He is a far more broken man than Bond though, putting aside the dreams of wealth that so many other villains possess so that he can exact personal vengeance. “Free both of us. Free both of us with the same bullet,” he pleads to M, begging for a murder-suicide that would erase them both from the world at once. This isn’t a villain searching for power – this is a trauma victim looking to end his suffering. In other movies of this franchise, there are times where it seems like the well of complex characterisation for Bond has run dry, and that he is nothing more than a vehicle for thrilling set pieces. But in the creation of one his greatest foes in Silva and gorgeous displays of atmosphere, Skyfall proves to be a thoughtful, emotionally compelling exploration of Bond’s deeply-entrenched self-doubt.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins leaves his mark on Skyfall in almost every scene, but most of all in this superb climactic set piece lit by the burning Skyfall manor.

Skyfall is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Mommy (2014)

Xavier Dolan | 2hr 13min

Orson Welles was just 25 years old when he made Citizen Kane. Paul Thomas Anderson, only 26 with his first big masterpiece, Boogie Nights. This may not be on the same level as either of those films, but Xavier Dolan still has them beat when it comes to age – he was a mere 24 years old when he shot Mommy and launched to international fame. It may be just as surprising that this is his fifth feature film given his relative youth, but the years he spent refining his artistic voice as a young adult are evident. Even as Mommy tunes into the unsettled malaise that hangs over emotionally disconnected generations of parents and children, there is little self-centred angst to be found here, as Dolan instead foregrounds the anguish of both widowed mother, Die, and her troubled son, Steve, on equal planes of empathy.

The concept of a near-future society where problematic children can be placed in hospitals under state care is a little bit of a ham-fisted addition into a drama which could have otherwise unfolded in the present with some minor tweaks, but nevertheless, it remains a constant threat that looms over Die and Steve all throughout Mommy. There is an Oedipal layer to their relationship in his expressions of jealousy and possessiveness over her, especially as he develops an attraction to another woman who looks strikingly similar. His ADHD and violent tendencies frequently land them both in tricky and dangerous situations, and yet for all of these issues that keeping driving wedges between them, their interactions also contain an abundance of tenderness and joy, brought vividly to life in a volatile but sensitive performance from Antoine Olivier Pilon. It is this warmth which Dolan delights in expressing through vibrant colours and blissful slow-motion sequences, letting his narrative briefly step aside for moments where Steve, Die, and their new friend, Kyla, break free from the pressures and constraints of their difficult lives.

Vibrant colours in Steve’s life, expressing an emotional journey of volatile anger, but also great joy.
An excellent use of the 1:1 aspect ratio in framing these extremely tight close-ups.

Whether or not one can fully get behind Dolan’s choice to let most of Mommy play out in the highly unusual 1:1 aspect ratio, it is hard to argue against the impact of its literal expansion in those moments of unhindered exuberance. Few filmmakers through history have experimented with shifting ratios in such formally exciting ways, so it is somewhat surprising that in 2014 we saw two directors at the top of their game literally push these boundaries, both here in Mommy and in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Where Anderson uses it to signify different historical eras though, here it confines Dolan’s characters in literal boxes, keeping our focus largely on their faces more than their surroundings. The moment where Steve physically pushes against the edges of the frame in an embrace of pure freedom is transcendent, bringing with it a hint of a happy future for this small family.

A transcendent cinematic moment – Steve pushing the aspect ratio outwards, physically expanding his world.

This device returns again later in a poignant vision of an alternate future dreamed up by Die where such prospects actually exist, and where Steve is led down a more hopeful path than the one he is on. But all throughout this heartbreaking sequence, faces remain just slightly out of focus, and much like we saw earlier, the fantasy comes to a sobering end as those black edges of the frame slowly creep back in, once again jailing these characters within Dolan’s restrictive aspect ratio.

It is a wonder that Dolan is able to find fresh life in such overplayed songs as Wonderwall by Oasis and Eiffel 65’s Blue, and yet in using cultural touchstones for his soundtrack, Steve’s journey is grounded in a shared experience understood by teenagers between the 1990s and present day. As much as Dolan has shied away from audiences noting how Mommy’s aspect ratio and poppy aesthetic evoke Instagram videos, it is hard not to draw the social media comparison in his stylish depiction of Steve’s volatile journey. But of course, this film is far more artistically rich and moving than anything one might find scrolling through content feeds, as Dolan finds both profound joy and grief in the difficult, strained relationship between a mother and son who can’t quite find the long-lasting happiness they once believed was possible.

Dolan is a magnificent editor on top of everything else, drawing out some beautiful slow-motion photography in musical montages.

Mommy is available to stream on Stan, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Margaret (2011)

Kenneth Lonergan | 3hr 6min

When Margaret wrapped shooting in 2005, it was its famously troubled post-production that began to take over its legacy. While studios insisted on a cut under 150 minutes, Kenneth Lonergan maintained that 3 hours was necessary to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision. Through countless delays and lawsuits, the battle raged on for years, until both versions were eventually released in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

So, is the additional half hour that Lonergan fought so hard for entirely necessary? Without having seen the studio cut, it is hard to say. This isn’t exactly a lean narrative, but the operatic weight of Lisa’s emotional turmoil can be felt in its epic scale, blowing up every emotion to larger-than-life proportions. Such wild fluctuations are carried confidently by Anna Paquin in this loud, effusive role, bringing a performative quality to Lisa’s attempts at artificially drawing meaning from senseless tragedy. As tiresome as her talking and arguing in circles may be, it strongly indicative of a young woman who values her voice above all else.

A big, emotive, and complex performance from Anna Paquin. Lisa isn’t always a likeable character, but she is fascinating in all her obnoxious flaws.

When it comes to Lonergan’s rich, layered screenplay, this is a film which belongs far more to the era of the mid-2000s than the early 2010s, as Lisa’s emotional journey of guilt, angst, rage, and growth speaks directly to a specific kind of trauma that unified New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11. She is not the only person implicated in or affected by the devastating death of a woman walking through the streets of Manhattan, but it does take on a much more dramatic significance in her life than many others involved. With the mindset of an emotionally immature, dismissive teenager she can keep denying responsibility, but as she comes to face up to her culpability, she finds her life intertwining with other strangers bound together by a common tragedy.

The deceased woman, Monica, has only a few minutes of screen time, and yet the big name casting of Alison Janney in this part effectively establishes her as the centre around which the rest of the drama revolves. Her death, set in motion by the recklessness of Americans, becomes Lonergan’s perfect metaphor for the 9/11 attacks, and the fallout is similarly messy. How much blame can one person alone shoulder for this? Must those whose lives have been cut short be held up as beacons of lost innocence? Monica’s good friend, Emily, speaks of her as a tough but kind person, and yet in an early phone call with her cousin, Abigail, she is painted out as difficult and selfish. It would be easy to offer unconditional sympathy to Monica and every other character who suffers so intensely, and yet contradictions such as these only serve to throw us off from any conventional expressions of grief. These are imperfect, thorny humans bearing obnoxious flaws, and while these often challenge our efforts to connect with them, they also effectively ground this story in a complicated, bitter reality.

Behind the camera, Lonergan is no great stylist, but the careful consideration he puts into repeating scenes of heated classroom discussions, opera, and cutaways of New York streets and architecture is crucial to the emotional resonance of Lisa’s story. Through these familiar beats, we tune into how parts of her identity shift over time, particularly in her attitude towards opera as an entirely dull affair. Perhaps it is the way she learns to wrestle with how other people’s emotional states are inextricably tied to her own, or the lesson she receives in listening to others speak, but there is a gradual appreciation that mounts within her for the unique experience of sitting in an audience of hundreds, and sharing communal feelings of pain, anger, and elation being expressed by a single person.

Marvellous shots of New York in cutaways throughout Margaret, reminding us of the larger world continuing to exist outside of Lisa’s immediate perspective.

While she certainly learns what it means to mature, there are some behaviours which remain intrinsic and unchangeable in Lisa’s being. This hot-headed student who we saw towards the start of the film arguing with a fellow classmate over the political causes of 9/11 is still participating in similar debates three hours later, just as fiery as ever.

By its very design as an educational safe space, the classroom becomes a microcosm of the world at large, allowing confrontations such as these over weighty subjects, while sheltering them from any real consequences. In one English lesson, Lonergan is very purposeful in his selection of a Shakespeare quote which compares humans to gods as “flies to wanton boys.” When one student offers his interpretation of this passage as signifying the inability of humans in grasping a universe beyond their comprehension, it is somewhat ironic that the teacher shuts him down so forcefully, instead asserting that his own analysis regarding its relation to the insignificance of the individual against the cosmos is the correct one.

As this quote applies to Lisa’s own life, there is truth in both readings. She may be both blind and inconsequential to the larger universe, but as she realises, at least one of those is fixable. All throughout Margaret, Lonergan draws our attention to the dialogue of strangers overlapping with the main drama in a sprawling, Altman-esque fashion, effectually pulling us away from Lisa’s “adolescent self-dramatisation”. Lisa may like to believe her life is an opera, as Emily so bluntly puts it, and this may indeed be a reflection of her own overwrought, self-centred hysteria. But it is only through this process of understanding how real trauma is experienced and managed that she can overcome such delusions of self-importance, and in the final minutes of this epic drama, finally allow herself to be moved by an emotion expressed by someone other than herself.

Lisa discovers an opera beyond her own life, finally in tune with her ability to empathise.

Margaret is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Raw (2016)

Julia Ducournau | 1hr 39min

It is not just the contents of Justine’s “snacks” that might cause one to cringe in abject horror; it is also the ravenous hunger with which she consumes organic matter, both living and dead, which churns the stomach. On its grotesque surface, Raw is a straight-up cannibal movie, albeit one that steps away from the arid American landscape of The Hills Have Eyes and instead lands us in an unruly French college campus. The Exorcist may in fact be the more apt comparison here, as Julia Ducournau’s psychological interrogation of Justine’s emerging demonic appetite turns the first-year vet student into the victim of a possession which can’t be expelled, but rather just temporarily satiated.

Ducournau’s provocative metaphor for a female sexual awakening underlies the formal strength of Raw’s narrative, pushing Justine down a path of increasingly horrific acts of consumption. With her vegetarianism and virginity both made explicit in early scenes, a link is drawn between the two – both states of being defined by the absence of something perceived to be a corrupting influence, either by society or Justine’s own family. She is a blank slate of purity for Ducournau to slowly corrupt over the course of the film, particularly challenging her in the rowdy college setting of hormonal young adults where, at least initially, she doesn’t fit in. When she enters a party early on, Ducournau tracks her for a full two minutes through flashing lights and scantily-clad bodies, the image of exposed flesh visually trapping her wherever she turns effectively setting up the inescapability of Justine’s budding sexuality in this hedonistic world.

A sexual awakening hitting like a demonic possession, terrifyingly captured in a cannibalistic metaphor.

Justine’s cannibalistic cravings are further tied to her budding sexual urges through the repeated emphasis of inserting another human’s body parts into oneself, underlining the feminine, carnal desire of these acts. In the broad light of day, both are considered extremely shameful, and so even as she discovers that these new impulses are not unique to her own journey, she simultaneously realises how those other women who are similarly affected learn to deal with them in secret. While one targets strangers, another treats her husband as a living charcuterie board, willing to let himself be mutilated to satisfy her needs. For all of them, the qualities of self-control and elegance which define traditional femininity makes their submission to primal urges all the more humiliating, especially as such traits are more akin to those of wild beasts.

“An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe. If he likes it, he’ll bite again.”

As for all the other young students living on college campus, Ducournau leaves a faint suggestion that they too may possess their own guilty pleasures we will never find out. While lumbering back to their dormitories after a big night out, they cloak themselves in blankets like vampires hiding from the rising sun, lest it should expose whatever shameful acts they performed under the cover of darkness. The awkward transition of learning to live with uncomfortable changes in one’s psychological state is always lurking within the subtext of Raw, but Ducournau’s ability to specifically bring formal complexity in drawing out the visceral body horror of female sexuality makes for a confronting descent into parts of the human mind that are entirely untameable.

The students make their way home after a big night, shielding their guilt from the world.

Raw is available to stream on Stan, Binge, and Shudder, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Neon Demon (2016)

Nicolas Winding Refn | 1hr 58min

In turning his provocative, neon-tinted stylings to Hollywood’s cutthroat fashion industry in The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn quite literally puts his cast of models and actors under the knife, carving out a hellish underworld of cannibalistic cultism kept hidden behind a façade of attractiveness. Elle Fanning is our entryway into this environment as newcomer Jesse, an underage girl from Georgia who quickly becomes the centre of attention in Los Angeles’ model community. In drawing the public’s gaze away from older, more experienced women, she disrupts a rigid structure that values “manufactured beauty” – a description usually worn as badge of diligence and personal sacrifice, but which is challenged by the natural beauty and relative innocence that she carries with pride.

“Are you sex, or are you food?”

Though this question that fellow models Sarah and Gigi pose Jesse upon their first meeting is in reference to the naming conventions of lipstick, it also suggestively boils down her identity into one of two carnal desires. If she is sex, then she is a woman who will engage directly in the ways others devour her beauty; if she is food, then she will be feasted upon and destroyed in the process. Either way, she is joining a community of women whose purpose is to satiate the appetites of consumers, and Refn fully recognises the body horror potential in mixing these two symbols within the setting of a menacing, erotic cult.

Refn is a master of lighting and colour, here blending the main colour schemes of red and blue to create this neon purple wash, all the while introducing his motif of mirrors.
Even beyond his lighting setups, Refn still finds such gorgeous imagery in his blocking and production design.

For those who decry Refn’s mixing of confronting violence, intense visual artistry, and self-serious, slow-burn narratives, this may not be the film to sway any opinions. What is harder to deny is his mastery over the fluorescent lighting and colours of every single scene, melding this audacious aesthetic with Jesse’s ascent to narcissistic glory, and her transformation into her “neon demon” alter-ego. Refn splits his palette and her identity into three Freudian segments – white representing her superego, a blank slate of innocence she presents to society; blue signifying her ego in its suggestion of reflective, watery surfaces; and red becoming the id, a primal force that embraces carnal sin and dangerous passion. The significance of the number three is echoed right down the recurring triangle motif, its repetition establishing it as a sort of occult symbol that underlies the identities of every woman who has entered this industry.

Jesse consumed in white negative space, an image of innocence.
Egos represented in blue, like reflections and refractions in water.
Mirrors continuing to remain a symbol of vanity as Jesse completes her transformation into the Neon Demon, bathed in red.

Yet even as Jesse becomes the attention-stealing star of Los Angeles, she never engages directly in the sorts of sexual acts that the other models do, instead choosing to uphold the untouchable, virginal image that sets her apart. Casting Elle Fanning in this role is a fascinating choice from Refn, as although she is indeed beautiful, she clearly does not fit the more conventional standards set by her co-stars. With such a discrepancy in their looks, Refn instead focuses on the ambiance that surrounds her, emphasised by his blocking of her centre-frame and often with a significant distance between her and everyone else.

A perfectly blocked composition from Refn, centring Jesse in a crowd of models.
The physical distance between Jesse and everyone else is important to Refn’s shaping of their relationships, but he is also still making sure to catch their reflections in mirrors here.

When one of Jesse’s associates, the make-up artist Ruby, attempts to initiate sex and is turned down, both immediately go looking for their release elsewhere – Ruby in a horrific setting that truly underscores the carnal dominance of her sexuality, and Jesse on her own, attaining pleasure in her self-absorption. In a meditative, hallucinatory display of parallel cutting, Refn unifies these two women who fantasise about each other and could be together at this moment, but are held apart by Jesse’s own pride.

The disconnection that becomes evident between these vapid, self-obsessed characters further carries through to their detached, controlled performances, as Refn is sure to accentuate the pauses between each line of dialogue. It isn’t too dissimilar to how Carl Theodor Dreyer directs his actors, draining them of emotion so that the visual power of their environments may speak for them instead. After all, maintaining this stoic demeanour is the only way one can rise up the ranks of The Neon Demon’s cult-like fashion industry. As for whether one chooses to submit to its patriarchal agenda and become “sex” or to maintain one’s independence and become “food” – therein lies the crux of success for any of these women looking to profit off their beauty.

Triangles in the mise-en-scène carrying through to the end. Simply remarkable visual form, always emphasising the three-pointed facets of these women’s identities.

The Neon Demon is available to stream on Stan, and available to rent or buy on YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Ash is Purest White (2018)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 17min

A monstrous volcano emerges from a landscape of flat, green fields, rising up in the background where mob boss, Bin, teaches Qiao, his lover, how to shoot a gun. “Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure,” she ruminates, gazing at its beauty, and Jia Zhangke thus draws up the central metaphor which defines the three chapters of Ash is the Purest White. She suffers deep losses and hardships for the sacrifices that she makes, but rather than letting this intense pressure corrupt or embitter her attitude, she becomes assertive, kind, and clever – the purest version of herself. Where the trifurcated narrative structure of Jia’s previous film, Mountains May Depart, was slightly weakened by its lack of formal consistency, it serves a much greater purpose here in capturing the three stages of Qiao’s emotional growth, each represented by a specific colour.

In the year 2001, green is chosen to characterise Qiao’s youth, naivety, and inability to fully grasp worldly matters. It is there in the painted walls, stained glass, and mahjong tables where Bin and Qiao spend much of their time, but it is also present in the open fields when she is taught how to shoot a gun and, more significantly, the principles of the “jianghu”. This Chinese term lacks any direct English translation, but in remaining the only Chinese word left untouched and “pure” in the film, it retains a unique cultural significance. Traditionally, it has referred to the martial arts community of wuxia tales, and in more recent times it has been used in reference to criminal underworlds. But most importantly, it is spoken of here as an ethical code, through which its adherents persevere until they either break or strengthen in spirit.

Green in the décor all through this chapter.
Green lighting in this incredible fight scene to end the first act, with a hint of the red to come.

Jia, still wearing his Michelangelo Antonioni influence on his sleeve, remains dedicated to the manmade architecture and natural landforms in his backgrounds, especially in his visual emphasis on the vast, green volcano protruding from a flat terrain. It forms a stirring backdrop to Qiao’s own grappling with the tenets of jianghu, reminding us of the intense pressure that may form within this otherwise isolated, apparently innocuous being. In an incredible long take towards the end of this chapter that showcases a tightly choreographed fight scene lit by neon green lights, we watch as Bin is violently beaten by assailants, this ordeal only coming to an end when Qiao interferes and puts herself at risk.

After taking that first step into the heat of the volcano, Qiao is whisked away from Bin for five long years, and takes the opportunity to mould her identity in the flames of hardship. Quite appropriately, this second chapter to her story becomes a passionate, fiery red. In a direct call back to Still Life, Jia returns to the Three Gorges Dam as the site of these ex-lovers’ reunion, once again using the slowly-flooding city to remind us that this is where cultural histories and personal memories come to die. Where this setting was permeated by a green haze in Still Life, it is now infused with a faint, yellow tint, and punctuated by bursts of red in furniture, flowers, costumes, and of course, the vivid Wushan Yangtze River Bridge, its façade appearing for a third time in Jia’s filmography.

Jia is continuing his brilliant use of architecture to crowd out characters, but he is far more active in curating specific colour palettes than we have seen from him before.
Red all through this second chapter of Qiao’s journey, as well as one of Zhao Tao’s best performances.

It is surely no coincidence that the film which marks perhaps Zhao Tao’s best performance to date also demonstrates a particular interest on Jia’s part in the way she is blocked against other actors. Jia’s muse has always been a reliable vessel in conveying ambiguous, internal conflict, but never more so than in Qiao’s eventual confrontation with Bin, where she just cannot summon the respect to make eye contact with him. Though seething with feelings of betrayal, Zhao also brings a quiet confidence to Qiao’s recognition that the issue lies in his own brokenness, having buckled under the pressure of the jianghu lifestyle. Even as the décor of the hotel room where they meet is still painted in vivid reds, a green, neon light shines through the window, subtly reminding the ex-lovers of the innocent past they once shared, and pushing them on to some sort of resolution.

In this tense reunion, we get a throwback to the green hues so abundant in the first chapter.
Then right after, we move immediately into the final chapter, marked by its blues.

The cool, blue hues of the final chapter emerge almost immediately after this meeting, as if Qiao’s impassioned disposition has been suddenly lifted out of the volcano and doused with water. It is in the shift to 2017 though, nine years later, that we meet Qiao in her final, purest form, sitting as a high-ranking member of the jianghu which Bin once governed. After suffering a stroke from his alcoholism, Bin is now bound to a wheelchair and comes calling to Qiao for help, recognising her as the strongest, most dependable person in his life. The relationship that reignites between them isn’t romantic, but rather protective and considerate. Returning to the volcano backdrop where he taught her about jianghu all those years ago, she now teaches him how to walk again, returning the favour in a touching moment that brings their relationship full circle. Perplexed by her persistence in helping him despite all he has done to hurt her, she recalls the self-sacrificing principles of jianghu which he has forgotten.

“In the jianghu we talk about righteousness. You’re no longer in the jianghu. So you wouldn’t understand.”

Jia using landforms to define characters, much like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

Though each chapter in Qiao’s journey is separated by Jia’s shifting colour palettes, they are bound together by his return to the more naturalistic style of camerawork that governed his earlier films. Whether he is moving between characters in mid-shots and close-ups to capture the heat of an emotionally charged moment, or setting it back to absorb the full architectural weight of their surroundings, his long takes effectively preserve the realism of each scene, letting the progression of moods emerge organically without the manipulation of overzealous cutting.

As we see in the inexplicable insertion of a reality-shattering UFO though, Jia isn’t always able to muster up the formal conviction that he has shown in his strongest works, especially as this exact same device was used to much greater effect in Still Life. But at the same time, this film still stands among his most structurally impressive, as he instils its sound design, music, architecture, and colours with a soothing repetition that echoes down through all three chapters of Qiao’s life. Many of Jia’s previous movies might be more accurately described as landscapes than portraits, and yet it is in his interweaving of several complex, recurring motifs in Ash is Purest White that he creates an epic character study of feminine strength, and its moulding in the fiery heat of adversity.

Jia using the social landscape of modern day China as a background to this emotional journey of love and hardship.

Ash is Purest White is currently unavailable to stream in Australia.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Taika Waititi | 1hr 48min

It takes a little while for the humour, sensitivity, and detail of Taika Waititi’s buffoonish Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit to settle in, but once it finds its footing, he effectively pinpoints and skewers the cowardice and superficiality of those hateful regimes which hide behind the trusting innocence of their children. This makes for a particularly effective blend with Waititi’s neatly-arranged, Wes-Anderson-inspired compositions, especially in the visual link back to the khaki utopia of Moonrise Kingdom. Small brown tents, scout uniforms, symmetrical compositions, and slow-motion carry through here into Jojo Rabbit, each of these stylistic elements serving to filter this rotten culture through the naïve eyes of a child.

A Wes Anderson-inspired composition, this could be from Moonrise Kingdom – if not for the swastika.

To dig further into this Anderson influence, there is even a touch of Fantastic Mr Fox in Scarlett Johansson’s characterisation of Rosie Betzler’s mouth click – an endearing sort of parental mannerism that holds little significance other than being a recurring, reassuring sign that everything is ok. In her stylish red-and-white shoes and wide-brimmed hat that sits high up on her head, she is set apart from the rest of Nazi Germany as a woman who refuses to fit into any subservient roles. She is maternal, yes, but not in the same way as someone like Fraulein Rahm, who just keeps pumping out babies to serve her nation. Instead, she shows her motherliness in the genuine care she shows towards her child, even in spite of his politics, as well as the example she sets in her self-confident individuality.

As Rosie Betzler, Scarlett Johansson has the charm and magnetism of a classic Hollywood actress, like an outspoken but graceful Marlene Dietrich type.

I still don’t believe every sketch in Jojo Rabbit hits the mark it is aiming for, most of all those concerning Rebel Wilson. It isn’t saying much that this is her best role to date, likely thanks to Waititi’s direction, although it is evident that she often tries to elevate her jokes above the rest of her dialogue. Waititi’s stupidly funny rendition of an imaginary Hitler does hit the mark in its broad mocking of the fascist leader’s cult of personality, but the comedy of this screenplay usually works best when the actors who are playing “real” characters elegantly understate their punchlines. It is evident that sophistication and cheek of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 black comedy To Be or Not To Be served as inspiration in Waititi’s screenplay, especially given the subject matter and nearly identical similarities between particular gags, and yet Lubitsch comes off slightly better here in landing each of his comedic beats a little more consistently.

Taika Waititi, a comedic force in front of and behind the camera, as well as a great eye for colour palettes and patterns.

As the film’s middle act moves into long stretches of conversation between Jojo and Elsa, the Jewish girl he finds hiding in his wall, the important pieces of character development which take place tend to play on rather repetitive emotional and comedic cues – Jojo making a ridiculous comment about Jews, Elsa teasing him for it, Jojo discovering a bit of her humanity, and the two growing closer. This isn’t to completely undermine the pathos of these scenes, because the poignancy that lies beneath them is indeed moving, but the impact is somewhat softened. 
 
With the bookends of German renditions of pop songs, Waititi musically paints out a social shift away from a culture not unlike the frenzied “Beatlemania” of the 60s and into the celebration of individuality that David Bowie became an icon for in the 70s. As Nazi Germany finally meets its end, Jojo can embrace a world that is calmer, more embracing of idiosyncrasies, and which gives him time outside of shouting slogans to think his own thoughts. Though Waititi’s fine balance of several disparate tones is occasionally tipped a little off-centre, there is no faulting this finale. At last, there is hope that Jojo will develop into a healthy, mature grownup.

Jojo Rabbit is available to stream on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman | 1hr 56min

Just when we thought Pixar had knocked off its serious mainstream competition, a superhero movie from Sony astounded us all with an animation style unlike anything we had seen before. The comic book influence shines through in its split screens, panels, and onomatopoeia, and the urban street art styling raucously announces itself in its bold, at times even abstract, imagery. It is a perfectly curated aesthetic to accompany Miles Morales’ Brooklyn-based hero journey, which fittingly begins in an abandoned subway station scrawled with colourful graffiti. It is here that he is bitten by a radioactive spider, and it is also where that radioactivity starts to colour Miles’ world with vivid fluorescence.

An animated comic book, right down to the onomatopoeia, thought boxes, and Ben-Day dots.

There is no need to explain the existence of this radioactive spider in Spider-Verse, not just because it seems like such a natural phenomenon to emerge from this luminescent vision of Brooklyn, but also because the origin of Spider-Man is so baked into our culture, it has essentially taken on mythological significance. Of course, the path to becoming Spider-Man is just one template of the traditional hero’s arc, but Spider-Verse demonstrates how broadly its conventions can be applied to a huge range of culture and identities, tying them together under a common set of values.
 
Several times we see alternate versions of Spider-Man introduce themselves and their backgrounds in the same format, beginning with some variation of the line “Let’s do this one last time”, as if to assume their own story is the definitive one. Though each of their lives varied greatly before they took on the mantle, we recognise from the patterns in their introductions that they all share a set of characteristics which led them to becoming Spider-Man: a bite from a radioactive spider, the death of a loved one, and growth from that grief to become a fighter for justice. Establishing each of their identities in these theme-and-variation montages is an exceptionally imaginative way to bring form to this ensemble of characters, effectively defining their individual and shared traits without getting caught up in over-exposition.

Great form in repetition of the same origin story – not to mention the deviation in genre and animation styles.

With an outline of the journey to becoming Spider-Man effectively sketched out, a path is set for Miles. Likewise, a similar shadow path is set for Wilson Fisk, AKA Kingpin. He too is imbued with his own complete emotional arc motivated by the death of his loved ones, and in his struggle with grief he proves to be an effective foil to Miles. Here is a man who has suffered immensely, just like every iteration of Spider-Man out there, but rather than growing from it to defend others, he has let it fester into bitterness. He would tear apart New York City if it means getting his family back, and that indeed becomes his plan, but in the process of enacting it he unwittingly becomes the sort of violent, resentful monster that they would have despised.
 
Miles, on the other hand, comes to a similar crossroads when faced with his Uncle Aaron’s cold-blooded murder. Aaron is also a fully-developed character, complete with his own set of affable quirks and tragic flaws, but our discovery that he has a dark side only makes his death all the more impactful. “The hardest thing about this job is you can’t always save everybody,” Miles is told in his mourning. Learning this lesson is a rite of passage for the path Miles is on, and it is only when he falls into the pits of despair and builds himself back up from it that he is able to reach the final stage of his transformation into Spider-Man, becoming a mature, confident, and empathetic hero.
 
The following scene where Miles dives upside down into the shining lights of New York City is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but there is also a good reason for why this specific image feels like such a significant part of his journey. From the moment Miles first gets his powers and meets Peter Parker, the cinematography starts to get more experimental with its off-kilter angles and lack of orientation, at times losing all sense of up and down as Miles and Peter walks across walls and hang from ceilings. Without any gravity to hold Peter or the other Spider-Men down, they perceive an entirely new world, and it is in this moment when Miles finally embraces the title and responsibility of Spider-Man that he fully grasps it too, gliding weightlessly through the city, untethered from the Earth below.

Weightless, powerful imagery meeting Miles’ embrace of his new identity.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a rare breed of non-auteur driven film that displays a genuine affection for the art form, and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can be given much of the credit for that. Their dedication to constructing its style from a blend of traditional and computer animation pays off immensely in the final product, lifting from conventional comic book styles while reinvigorating them with the sort of dynamic movement and effects that could only ever be rendered digitally. With one foot in the past and one in the future, Spider-Verse reflects its own deconstruction of the hero in its visual artistry, examining the patterns and core values which transcend cultures and generations to bind together those who engage in a common fight for justice.

The fluorescent colours in this finale – jaw-dropping pop art.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is currently available to stream on Netflix Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan | 2hr 28min

No doubt a landmark of visual effects, but even if all of these were taken out (and I would hate to imagine doing so), Inception would still be Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement in mise-en-scène. He had already established himself as a master of experimental narrative form by this point, and he continues to demonstrate that here in exploring the internal dream worlds of his characters through a nesting doll-like structure. But it wasn’t until he combined this with the sort of epic, ambitious visual style he first fully displayed in The Dark Knight that he became a generation-defining filmmaker, shaking the world with this mind-bending exercise in sheer imagination.

Clean, luxurious architecture and lighting. No doubt Nolan’s most beautiful film to date.

The lighting and set dressing of Nolan’s interiors are as sharply arranged as ever, announcing themselves loudly right from the start in a conference room lit by rows of hanging lanterns and translucent golden walls, providing a sullen backdrop to the meeting between Cobb and Saito. The two men and their surroundings are reflected in a giant, glass table, consuming them in this sleek, angular modernist architecture which continues to define the rest of the film’s luxurious aesthetic. It also helps us through some stretches of exposition, demonstrating the complex rules of the dream world in practical, reality-bending illusions not unlike those that Stanley Kubrick innovated in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kubrickian illusions, bending reality to create action sequences unlike anything else in modern cinema.

Nolan doesn’t stop there though. The epic establishing shots of Inception are among the best of his career, if not the decade, and the fact that this narrative just keeps moving from one expansive, detailed setting to the next gives him the perfect opportunity to keep building fully-detailed worlds in large-scale compositions. A military fortress on a snowy mountainside, a high-end hotel, an empty, crumbling city – as disparate as these locations are, Nolan continues to bind them all together with the parallel editing he has always possessed such a fine control over, and yet up until this point had never executed nearly as well.
 
The “kick” is an especially effective conceit that allows his intercutting to reveal the interactions between each dream layer, whereby obstacles in one echo further down the line. Nolan draws a direct line of impact from a car falling off a bridge, to a weightless fight in a hotel corridor, and further along to an avalanche erupting from a mountaintop, formally earning his set pieces by establishing the interconnectedness between them. On top of this, Nolan demonstrates the variable progression of time between each dream layer in playing out some of these set pieces in gorgeous slow-motion, stretching and manipulating time to let some plot threads take a backseat while new ones emerge, and eventually wrap back up in reverse order.

Gorgeous slow-motion, stretching and compressing time between parallel narrative threads.

Just as the smaller, more personal narrative thread concerning Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, serves the larger story in making his unresolved trauma a constant threat to his team’s mission, so too does it bring personal stakes to the act of inception, revealing the catastrophic damage that can be done in altering others’ subconscious. Nolan hasn’t always poised the personal against the epic so masterfully, but when he strikes that balance we get something just as moving as it is dazzling. As the growing number of plot threads of Inception emerge and intertwine, Nolan continues to keep his surreal vision of worlds existing within worlds all under precise control, thereby crafting the sort of imaginative, ambitious cinematic concept that only he could have pulled off.

Rows upon rows of golden lights in this beautiful opening set piece.

Inception is currently available to stream on Netflix Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.