The Philadelphia Story (1940)

George Cukor | 1hr 52min

It is nothing short of remarkable that George Cukor managed to unite Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart in one film and capture such fine performances from each, though the brilliant comedy of The Philadelphia Story goes beyond its raw star power. Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenplay is marvellously constructed in its romantic entanglements and sophisticated wit, as over the course of 24 hours preceding the wedding of one wealthy socialite, Tracy Lord, he entwines and then unravels a knotted web of fiancés, divorcees, crushes, and affairs. The end of her previous marriage to magazine reporter C.K. Dexter Haven is captured in a brief, wordless prologue, with each step, push, and snap of a golf club playfully punctuated by Franz Waxman’s jaunty score. The terms they depart on are far from amiable, and it isn’t until thirty minutes later that we see them reunited once more with Grant’s delightfully dry greeting.

“Hello friends and enemies.”

Dexter’s intentions seem shady at first, as he is bringing his colleagues Mike and Liz undercover for a report on Tracy’s wedding to posh aristocrat George Kittredge, though soon enough he reveals his true motive of distracting his boss from the bigger story regarding her philandering father. Meanwhile, Mike’s opinion of her as a “rich, rapacious American female” softens upon their meeting, and soon another romance begins to blossom between the two as he begins to see her instead as a “radiant, glorious queen,” obliviously disregarding Liz’s own feelings for him.

Delicate beauty in this romance between Tracy and Mike, eventually turning into a hilarious drunken fling.

All across the male ensemble, Tracy comes across similarly narrow views that reject her humanity in favour of simplified stereotypes which, however loathsome or adoring, do bear at least some semblance of truth. To her father, she lacks an “understanding heart” and behaves like a spoilt goddess, casting judgement upon those she deems beneath her. To George, the “beautiful purity” of her demeanour is exactly what attracts him, worshipping her like a statue to be placed on a pedestal. As for Dexter, it is that perfectionistic intolerance which drove him to drink during their marriage, resulting in their divorce.

“You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman, until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime – but your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact.”

Of course though, she isn’t a goddess, and after a series of upsetting conversations revealing the way these men view her, she downs three cocktails, setting in motion a drunken night that pulls back the curtain on her imperfections and insecurities. Still, this doesn’t stop an equally inebriated Mike from falling even deeper into his infatuation, and Cukor relishes every comedic beat from Stewart as he slurs and hiccups his way through a confession of love for Tracy to a weary Grant. Cukor’s elegant camerawork serves the humour here well as it navigates interactions between characters with a nimble lightness, often moving away from those dominating our attention to amusingly reveal others eavesdropping from just outside the frame.

A meeting of two great actors, Cary Grant and James Stewart, both at the top of their comedic game.
Wonderful camera movements shifting our focus to eavesdroppers, emphasising the web of fantastic characters and their dynamics.

Visually though, Cukor is clearly much better suited to large-scale musicals with bold production designs like A Star is Born, and while we can see traces of that style seep through the handsome décor of the wedding reception’s white tablecloths and candles towards the end, The Philadelphia Story rests its creative strengths on its sharply pointed screenplay. Given his profession as a writer, it isn’t surprising that Dexter seemingly has no limit to the number of barbs he throws Tracy’s way, and Grant’s deliveries never fail to land with pure, cutting ferocity.

“I thought all writers used to drink and beat their wives. You know, I always used to think I wanted to be a writer.”

Handsomely mounted production design in these last few scenes as the dynamic between Dexter and Tracy softens into a sweet romance.

Then there is the passing of specific phrases between characters, each one serving to strengthen their bonds and development. When Tracy chides Mike at one point for his apparent prejudice, she finds herself using the same words that Dexter used against her earlier, and stops herself mid-sentence in recognition of their shared perspective. Most notably of all though, the two ex-lovers frequently recall the nautical term “yar” from their past sailing on boats, defining it as “Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot.” In effect, it embodies the flexibility, kindness, and patience one shows towards their partner in a relationship, and the metaphor grows even more apparent each time it arises, leading to the final declaration of love between the two divorcees-turned-fiancés.

“Oh, Dexter, I’ll be yar now. I’ll promise to be yar now.”

“Be whatever you like. You’re my redhead.”

Of the three potential lovers Tracy has been caught between over the previous night, it is clear she has made the right choice. Where someone like George cannot stand to see her fall from the pedestal he has placed her on, and Mike remains obstinately blind to her flaws, Dexter is the only man who fully understands and accepts her as she is, yar or no yar.

A wedding with no groom saved in the last minute by the ex-husband, tying up loose ends with a sweeping romantic gesture.

With a wedding ready to go and the groom no longer around, the setting is perfect for Dexter to step into his shoes, inviting the impromptu bridal party of Mike and Liz to escort them down the aisle. And of course, the tabloid photographer is right there waiting for them at the altar, giving Cukor his perfect ending with a freeze frame of their shocked faces looking straight at the camera. With such insurmountable charm and refined form as this, Cukor’s relative lack of visual style is easy enough to forgive, as The Philadelphia Story’s lightly pointed comedy cleverly picks apart the complex dynamics of troubled romances and the humility that can turn them into flourishing relationships.

A perfect, charming union of each main star in the final wedding scene.

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

The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 31min

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Heat (1949)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 54min

Before there was Norman Bates and his psychotic mother, there was Cody and Ma Jarrett – two halves of one criminal mind, operating illegal schemes from within their small mob and sharing a co-dependent love which stretches our belief in its platonic foundations. Though Cody is married to the wily, blonde Verna and places full trust in his right-hand man, Big Ed, both associates recognise that their respective relationships with him will never approach the same depths as this mother-son bond, which holds sway over virtually every aspect of his life. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this stunted maturity which erodes their faith in him, pushing them to eliminate Ma when her back is turned and thereby robbing him of his greatest source of comfort. The law’s concerted efforts to track him down may be directly responsible for Cody’s eventual downfall, but it is only when Ma is finally out of the picture that he finds himself truly defeated.

Not that Cody would ever admit that. He’s on his way to the “Top of the world,” according to his Ma, and her early death only sees him cling closer to that idea than ever. White Heat might almost be a tragedy if its central character was not such a despicable human being, though with an actor like James Cagney in this role commanding a heavy, magnetic screen presence, Cody begs for at least some of the audience’s pity. With a jaw that juts out from a scowling face and the physique of a stocky brawler, Cagney’s gangster looks like a tougher, more violent take on the classic Wellesian antihero, not unlike Charles Foster Kane in his great ambition, or George Amberson Minafer in his Freudian inclinations. For Cody, it is not one fatal flaw earning his place among the greatest cinematic characters of the 1940s, but a whole multitude of them, each one tied back to that insecure, volatile ego which places his mother on a pedestal and punishes anyone who even hints at threatening their unhinged relationship.

Great staging of bodies and faces, placing Cody and Ma in their own shared world.
A well-placed long dissolve over Cody and Ma’s faces, visually and psychologically binding the two together.

Raoul Walsh’s slick direction is well-suited to the abundant subtext of this twisted dynamic, blocking his actors in compositions that insulate Cody and Ma in their own lonely world, and later blending close-ups of both their faces in a well-timed long dissolve. This childlike bond brings a surprising layer of vulnerability to an otherwise harsh character, especially when Cody finds himself dolefully separated from his Ma in prison. The scene in which he learns of her death from his fellow inmates was originally going to take place in a small chapel due to the cheaper setup, but Walsh’s push for the mess hall set filled with hundreds of extras brilliantly pays off as the humiliating location for his hysterical breakdown. As the camera follows the whispers along a table in one long parallel tracking shot, we anxiously anticipate the reaction that awaits it at the other end, where Cody’s agonising screams and sobs finally destroy the hardened image he had cultivated over the years.

Cody’s breakdown upon learning of Ma’s death is set against this backdrop of hundreds of extras, blowing his emotions up to a magnificent scale.

As a crafter of truly spectacular set pieces such as these, Walsh expertly matches the huge emotions of his characters with kinetic pacing and an impressive coordination of action, bookending White Heat with a pair of robberies that, on some level, both send Cody soaring to the “top of the world”. The first is a resounding success for his gang, offering this mobster film a hint of the western genre as they hold up a train, kill its crew, and leave with their earnings, setting an extraordinary level of ruthlessness in its characterisations and tightness in its editing. The final set piece closing out White Heat is even more explosive, as Cody sets out to infiltrate a chemical plant with a tanker full of his men to steal its payroll, while unwittingly collaborating with an undercover police officer, Hank, whose plans steadily derail his own.

A superb depth of field in Walsh’s blocking, building excellent character dynamics via the levels in his frame.

Some brisk intercutting and a swift barrage of long dissolves efficiently narrow the police in on Cody’s “Trojan tanker” while this narrative drives towards its climax, and when the two sides of the law finally converge at the plant, Walsh makes remarkable use of its labyrinthine layout and industrial architecture to stage the thrilling final showdown. From high and low angles alike, frames are crowded by winding, metal pipes, and Walsh exhilaratingly sends Cody hurtling through offices and corridors, until he reaches a field of gas storage tanks.

A barrage of long dissolves in a montage driving towards the climactic conclusion.
An excellent use of industrial architecture in the final pursuit between cops and gangsters, combining thrillingly staged action with shadows and sharp editing.

Though he is the last man standing and finds himself surrounded by police, Cody is still dementedly giggling as he climbs one of the globe-shaped structures, elevating himself above everyone else. “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” he madly shouts as he shoots at the tank beneath his feet, going out in a literal blaze of glory. The following line which virtually explains the metaphor to those who missed it is an unfortunate misstep, though it only barely dulls the impact of this dazzling finale. In Walsh’s tight construction of this marvellously compelling character study, White Heat recognises that such ambitious, extravagant grandeur will only ever be fleeting for men as vile and deeply troubled as Cody Jarrett.

One of the great endings of the 1940s – violently and explosively poetic.

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

Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock | 2hr 10min

At a certain point in Rebecca, those unfamiliar with the novel might pause and realise that the young, blonde woman we have been following does not have a name. Initially “Madame” appears to be the most common moniker given to her, like a blank slate of vague respectability, and it is only by the time she marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter that she is finally given a proper title – Mrs. de Winter, the second to take the name after his deceased wife, Rebecca. Stepping into her shoes as the first lady of the majestic Manderley manor leads to some initial confusion and disdain among the staff, and while she eventually starts taking more active ownership of the identity, the ghost of its previous owner still lingers. Even when not directly mentioned, Rebecca’s deathly shadow hangs thick over the manor, implicitly present within the very first line of Mrs. de Winter’s opening voiceover.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

As she recounts her sleeping vision, we approach the wrought iron gates at the edge of the estate, float through its bars, and navigate our way down its winding road in a single, long take. There, at the end of it, the burnt husk of Manderley imposes itself upon the lawns and silhouetted trees with a dark, Gothic beauty, bathing in the misty moonlight. Drawing the first-person narration directly from the prose of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, the writing has a romantic, lyrical quality to it, but this alone would not guarantee a successful film adaptation. It is rather through Alfred Hitchcock’s elegant camerawork and evocatively expressionistic mise-en-scène that Rebecca conjures the eerie memory of its unseen title character, imbuing the raw, suspenseful filmmaking on display with her elusive spirit.

After the montage of the misty grounds through the opening credits, Mrs. de Winter’s voiceover accompanies us as we float through the iron gates and down the road to Manderly, emerging behind gnarled trees like a haunted house.

Hitchcock approaches his narrative much the same way one would a ghost story, only ever revealing the artefacts of Rebecca’s post-mortem presence rather than her physical visage. The initial “R de W” marks diaries, pillows, and handkerchiefs, becoming a powerful motif of her enduring ownership over the estate, while the dour grief that persists in her wake is personified as the sinister Mrs. Danvers. Against Joan Fontaine’s naïve, anxiety-ridden Mrs. de Winter, Judith Anderson’s black-clad housekeeper is a force of unsmiling severity, never failing to remind her of whose shoes she is trying to fill – or in one particularly cruel scene, whose evening gown she is dressed in.

A remarkable camera movement much like Notorious, starting up close on the serviette marked with Rebecca’s initials, drifting to Mrs. de Winter’s face, and then pulling right back into this magnificent wide shot.

It is through the complex formal characterisations of the two Mrs. de Winters that Hitchcock’s investigation of their mystical connection manifests as a compelling, psychological paradox, simultaneously blending their identities while recognising the irreconcilable differences between the two. When the second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim move into the East Wing of Manderley, Mrs. Danvers notes the lack of an ocean view, positioning it in stark contrast to the West Wing where we learn Rebecca previously resided. It isn’t that Mrs. de Winter is restricted from entering those quarters, but she does silently realise that it would not reflect well upon her if she did, given others’ perception that she is trying to replace her beloved predecessor. Still, when she sees a light on coming from that section of the manor and movement in its window, the curiosity is too much to bear. The mesmerising suspense that Hitchcock is so known for takes hold here as we apprehensively approach the West Wing’s door, cross its threshold, and discover the shrine to Rebecca de Winter’s memory that Mrs. Danvers maintains and worships as if she were still alive.

“Everything is kept just as Mrs. de Winter liked it. Nothing has been altered since that last night.”

Rebecca’s untouched room kept like a shrine to her memory, appropriately gorgeous in its production design and Hitchcock’s manipulation of its lighting.

Outside of that untouched, opulent chamber, Hitchcock shoots the rest of Manderley with a handsomely menacing decay, carving out ornate sculptures, immense arches, and lavish furniture within its cavernous interiors. Perhaps even more visually sumptuous is his low-key lighting of the space, throwing shadows of flowers, bannisters, and even the pouring rain up against decorated walls. Further adding to the uncanniness surrounding Mrs. de Winter in her paranoia are those wonderfully Hitchcockian camera movements which anxiously creep around doorways, punctuate dramatic beats, and elegantly shift our focus between characters and their sophisticated environments.

Cavernous, Gothic interiors curated with haunting sculptures, chandeliers, and archways – cliche as it is, but the architecture of Manderly is very much its own character, embodying the spirit of Rebecca.
Expressionistic shadows thrown up across walls, a brilliant touch to Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène.
The shadow of rain pouring down the walls of Manderly when Mrs. de Winter first arrives, drenching it in a gloomy atmosphere.

At the point that Maxim finally reveals what unfolded on the night of Rebecca’s death, Hitchcock resists the urge to slip into a flashback, as he instead pushes his camera away from his actors to linger on the negative space she inhabits in his recount. Upon the lounge where she once taunted him, the same tray of cigarette stubs present from that evening still sits there, and as she rises and walks across the room, so too does the camera follow the invisible figure, manifesting her in its captivated movements.

Hitchcock’s camera lingers on this negative space as if watching a ghost as Maxim recounts the night of Rebecca’s death, tracking the camera across the room as he describes her movements.

Hitchcock is also among the few great directors who can place a cut just as well as he can move his camera, and the dreamy long dissolves in Rebecca that set gorgeous close-ups against Gothic interiors are a testament to this. Along with this inspired choice, he continues to build an air of mystery around the deceased woman in cutaways linking her to the angry, choppy ocean outside the West Wing windows, foreshadowing its significance as her resting place. Given this figurative association, it is a poetic exorcism of sorts which finally drives her out of Mrs. de Winter and Maxim’s lives, effectively killing her twice by opposing elements – once left to rot in the water, the second time burning in flames, destroyed along with the entire Manderley estate.

Cutaways to the ocean become a strong formal motif, foreshadowing the reveal of Rebecca’s ultimate fate.

Through a series of gripping twists in the final act, it becomes apparent that Rebecca is a far more complex figure than we could have ever guessed, transcending the vague symbols and hints which were previously our only reference points to her character. Perhaps even more than the devastating fire ripping through Manderley, it is the destruction of her incorporeal, enigmatic façade which finally affords the married couple peace in their union. On that note, Hitchcock puts Rebecca to rest with an understanding of the past which neither glorifies nor despises it, but which recalls it simply as it understood itself – a flawed, complicated being, destined to have its historical legacy twisted into simple but powerfully sensitive memories.

Sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and then burnt in a fire – an exorcism of Rebecca’s spirit that ultimately destroys her hold over Mr. and Mrs. de Winter.

Rebecca is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa | 1hr 28min

Akira Kurosawa has never shied away from the cutthroat cynicism of Japanese history and mythology, but as dark rain beats down heavily upon the dilapidated city gate that we return to all throughout Rashomon, one might feel as if he is sinking us deeper than ever into an apocalyptic world of total ruin. Even with half its roof caved in and an array of broken wooden beams exposed to the elements, it remains an impressive piece of ancient architecture, obstructing frames inside its walls with the debris that has accumulated over the years.

The sombre mood of the woodcutter and priest sitting silently under its feeble shelter equally suggests a decay that has taken over the land, though as they begin to explain the reason for their dismay to a passing commoner, it becomes evident that the form of degradation they are concerned with is more that of a senseless, moral corruption. Both have just observed the trial of a bandit who assaulted a woman on the road and seemingly killed her samurai husband, though what initially seems like a clear-cut case of truth and justice soon gets muddled as three conflicting stories emerge.

An impressive piece of dilapidated Japanese architecture drenched in rain, setting the scene for the narrative’s almost apocalyptic framing device.

By containing these flashbacks within the larger flashback of the trial, Kurosawa keeps us at a significant distance from each version of these events, recalling them not necessarily how they unfolded, but rather how the individual witnesses would like to believe they happened, presenting them to an unseen, silent judge. Each seated centre frame, the bandit, wife, and a medium channelling the spirit of the deceased samurai present their case directly to the camera, cutting any representation of lawful judgement out of the equation to position us, the viewers, as the sole arbiters of truth. This is not such an easy task though, we soon discover. While each witness agrees that the bandit confronted the travelling couple, tied up the samurai, and raped his wife, the renditions of subsequent events see each respective storyteller curiously frame themselves as the true murderer.

The witnesses in the centre foreground, the priest and woodcutter off to the right in the background as spectators to their recounts.

Despite this, each recount still sees its own narrator come out looking the most honourable among them, or in the case of the bandit, the bravest and smartest. Only in unlocking the fourth perspective of the woodcutter who secretly bore witness to the whole thing do we discover what we might assume is the truth, bookending the trial flashbacks with two of his own. We initially have no reason to doubt the first, which explains how he discovered a trail of strewn possessions leading to the samurai’s body while venturing down the road, though by the time we reach his final confession of how the confrontation really went down, we have been thoroughly conditioned to question the words of anyone with some connection to it.

Sure enough, the woodcutter admits he lied in court to cover up the fact that he stole the jewelled dagger from the scene of the crime. In his final version of events, the samurai humiliated his wife after she was raped by the bandit, and it is only after she challenged their masculinity that they were provoked into a pathetic, clumsy fight, proving that neither were particularly skilled with their weapons. The bandit’s win was not secured by skill or bravery, but sheer luck, and frightened by what just took place, the wife ran away in fear.

A master of blocking at work in static shots and action scenes alike, using his deep focus to draw our eyes around each composition.

Within their conflicting fabrications, all three witnesses are being sincere to some extent, and the only common lie among them is the presence of some courage, honour, and moral conviction in each narrator. Now with the woodcutter going back on his initial story, one has to wonder whether what he proposes is actually the objective truth, especially given that there are still holes in his tale – how did the dying samurai know the dagger was stolen if it was simply taken from his side and not drawn from his chest, for instance?

The point of Kurosawa’s complex structure here is not to lead us towards a single, definitive answer, and neither is it to simply reveal the difficulties in our search for truth. More than just being a bold exercise in narrative form, Rashomon is a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself, recognising it as an inherently subjective form of communication through which we understand the egos, insecurities, and shortcomings of other humans, and following on from that, our own as well. Framed within the meeting of three men whose identities are distributed across a spectrum of spiritual faith and nihilism, Rashomon even more broadly applies this study to the dramatic conflict between them, watching the priest’s faith in humanity dwindle right next to the commoner’s pessimistic taunts.

The beams and debris of the Rashomon gatehouse obstructing these frames, throwing off their balance.

Significant to the thread of despair running through the modern-day storyline is that angry storm which continues to pelt down around them, as if dolefully conjured up by the moral failings of the four dishonest witnesses. Kurosawa is unquestionably of a master of using weather formations to bring rich depth to his characters and an effervescent energy to his cinematography, but it also serves a formal purpose here in marking a striking contrast between the present day’s gloomy rain and the recurring low angles of the sun in the flashbacks, rendering the canopy’s branches as dense, black silhouettes. When he isn’t turning our eyes upwards, he will often instead cast the forest’s shadows across the faces of the bandit, samurai, and wife, setting up an intriguing conflict of light and darkness in both his scenic landscapes and intimate close-ups.

Formally recurring shots of the sun poking through the trees, brilliantly tying style to narrative.
And of course, Kurosawa extends this motif to the faces of his characters, casting shadows across their faces like a battle between truth and darkness.

Even within Kurosawa’s screenplay, the impact of weather is quietly influential, with the bandit claiming that the only reason he awoke from his nap and noticed the passing couple was the cool breeze ruffling the leaves above him. In this way, these atmospheric conditions become forces of a volatile, chaotic universe, shunning any belief that there may be a higher power guiding humans along a single true path by splitting itself into multiple realities, each one born in the dishonest minds of its inhabitants.

A real influence from John Ford with shots like these – the placement of the horizon and the inventive use of legs to frame characters in the background.

Kurosawa’s dextrous camerawork and editing are particularly integral to our navigation of these uncertain worlds, both working in tandem to offer multiple spins on the bandit and samurai’s thrillingly choreographed sword fights, and expertly blocking each narrator as the heroes of their own stories. Especially remarkable is the agile camera movements which nimbly adopt the perspectives of the individual storytellers, often moving in close on their faces before rapidly swinging the camera around to view the objects of their focus. It is no surprise that between the multiple characters who claim our attention with these superb close-ups, it is Toshiro Mifune’s bandit who transfixes us the most, pulling off wild mood swings, fits of manic laughter, and eventually an emotional strain which sees beads of sweat cling to his long, black hair and beard.

Inspired camera movements taking on the perspective of each character.
He’s just one part of a larger ensemble, but Toshiro Mifune is by far the stand out as the bandit. Kurosawa’s close-ups serve him well here – we can see every drop of sweat on his face and in his beard.

Whether he really did kill the samurai or not amounts to very little in the end. It is not so much the murder than the cowardice and duplicity of the entire ensemble which stokes Rashomon’s cynicism, and the discovery of an abandoned baby in the gate house at first simply seems to confirm the inherent evil of humanity. But just as the violent storm is not a permanent fixture here, neither is corruption an inevitability for those possessing the self-awareness to reflect on their own fallibilities. Along with the emergence of the sun from behind the clouds comes the woodcutter’s decision to take the baby in as his own, marking what might be the first truly selfless act in the film. There may not be any undisputed truths to uncover here, but for Kurosawa, the next best thing is to at least use the imperfect perspectives of others to reflect on the self-serving lies in our own. It is only with as daring a narrative structure as the one which he builds here that Rashomon’s ruminations on subjectivity, truth, and storytelling can find such peaceful resolve in the acceptance of an uncertain, chaotic world.

The baby emblematic of humanity’s potential for either good or evil, and for all his cynicism, Kurosawa doesn’t falter ending Rashomon on a hopeful note.

Rashomon is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Pinocchio (1940)

Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske | 1hr 28min

It shouldn’t be surprising that the artistic peak of Walt Disney animations can be narrowed down to the period that the entrepreneur himself was alive, overseeing the production of each feature film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs up until The Jungle Book. It is there that the studio flourished with artistic ambition, driven by the vision of Disney himself who, quite unusually, exerted his influence as auteur from the position of producer rather than director. So caught up in the nostalgia of childhood, every single one of these beloved films have at some point been claimed as the definitive best for some sentimental reason, though none quite reach the magnificent stylistic and narrative heights of Pinocchio – just the second feature film to come from Disney, marking the pinnacle of his cinematic innovation.

To praise the landmark in animating mechanical motions and weather effects that Pinocchio exhibits is not to simply boil its triumph down to its technical advancements, though Walt Disney certainly belongs in the same conversation as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, all being filmmakers who push boundaries in the realms of both technology and art. Where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs possesses a more primitive, picturesque splendour though, Pinocchio feels tangibly alive in its movements, orchestrating an entire symphony of cuckoo clocks that chime, click, and dance in polyrhythmic, mechanical beats. A mother spanks her child, a hunter shoots a bird, a bee flies off a flower, and a love of whimsical contraptions bursts forth from Geppetto’s beautifully anarchic workshop, where the old woodcarver plays with his creations. All around this space, Disney layers and obstructs his compositions with those random assorted pieces, detailing some of the finest hand-drawn illustrations captured on film, and specifically evoking the expressive, cluttered mise-en-scène that Josef von Sternberg pioneered a mere decade earlier.

So many compositions like these in Geppetto’s workshop, obstructing frames with toys, clocks, and shelves, evocatively layering his mise-en-scène with a delicate visual touch.

From the tiny perspective of Jiminy Cricket, this crowded Italian cottage might as well be a playground blown up to a magnificent scale, turning countertops into cliffs and bookshelves into caves. Toy Story would take some inspiration from this 55 years later by expanding a simple kid’s bedroom into an entire landscape of possibilities, and there is even the common thematic thread between the two of toys wishing to be real, though Pinocchio is especially active in using its camerawork to stretch the eccentric wonder of its world. As Jiminy Cricket heads towards the workshop to seek refuge for the night, Disney adopts his point-of-view, energetically hopping up and down with him, and later we watch Geppetto dance with his newest marionette from inside the bowl of his goldfish, Cleo. There, the curved glass playfully distorts Pinocchio’s movements, comically stretching his face to fanciful effect.

You don’t find this sort of experimentation in other Disney films – playfully refracting the image of a dancing Pinocchio through Cleo’s goldfish bowl.
Like Toy Story 55 years later, a single room becomes an entire world for its minuscule inhabitants, blowing up its tiny pieces of decor to magnificent proportions.

It isn’t until after Geppetto’s wish is granted by the Blue Fairy and finds that Pinocchio has sprung to life that we depart his workshop for the wider world, and the film steps up its rich stylistic immersion once again with a shot that might just be Disney’s finest moment. The multiplane camera his studio developed years earlier allows a robust depth of field comparable to live-action film, but it is put to especially excellent use here in the sheer coordination of its multiple moveable layers, together simulating one long take gliding across rooftops and under bridges of this humble Italian village. As we descend from the bell tower, watching doors fly open and children running through the streets, it is evident that Disney is specifically using this shot to mark an exciting new chapter in his narrative, introducing Pinocchio to an entire world of possibilities.

An unusually long take for animation lasting almost a minute, descending from the bell tower and flying through the town. Technically accomplished animation from Disney, making excellent use of his multi-plane camera, but also so artistically potent, making a new chapter in the narrative.
Townscapes like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), with expressionistic warped roofs and mountains.

Scattered through the film are similarly dynamic camera movements making the most of the gorgeous townscape, notable among them being the inspired overhead tracking shot that passes buildings and trees through the foreground as Pinocchio skips off with his shady new friends, Honest John and Giddy. Even when Disney isn’t dollying in on the two sleazy foxes over the stairs of a greasy bar or pouring down needles of rain upon Geppetto searching for his lost boy, we are often left to sit in glorious, still images that seem carved from wood with their tactile, grainy textures.

Another skilfully executed long take, this time watching Pinocchio through the streets with the foxes in ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ from a high angle, passing buildings and trees through the foreground.
Disney’s using of ornate mise-en-scène to frame his characters all through Pinocchio is a huge visual success of the film, especially as the camera dollies in and out of scenes.

By the time the boy puppet arrives at Stromboli’s travelling show as his newest act to sing the musical number ‘I Got No Strings’, the central allegory driving Pinocchio’s narrative has properly settled in, using these “strings” to represent the parental restrictions that slowly ease up as a child grows older. Becoming human, or to become “real” as the film posits, is not just a matter of claiming one’s independence. To be human is to be guided by one’s moral conscience, embodied here by our narrator, Jiminy Cricket, whose asides to the camera turn him into a one-man Greek Chorus. His attempt at explaining the complex concept of morality in simple terms to Pinocchio leaves him a little lost for words, and so it is only when each test of integrity comes around that he can offer advice for the puppet to either accept or ignore.

It follows then that if a child can become “real” by proving they can be trusted with responsibility, then the opposite will see a transformation of a different kind. As Pinocchio tries to fib his way out of accountability, his nose grows and grows, eventually springing a nest with eggs and birds on the end of it. It is a humiliating physical transformation that distances him even further from his dream of being human, though compared to what awaits him at Pleasure Island, it is a relatively tame punishment.

Pleasure Island – treacherous in what it represents, and terrifying in its crowded, Art Deco visage, heavily inspired by F.W. Murnau’s carnival from Sunrise (1927) or perhaps even The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

It is upon this strange isle that Disney essentially creates a mini-horror film for children, sending a boatload of boys to a carnival where they can indulge all their wildest impulses. Once again, cluttered mise-en-scène dominates the scenery, and its visual transformation from bright, Art Deco-inspired amusement park to dystopian ruin over the course of one night also signals the degradation of these boys’ souls. If one submits to their most base animal instincts, Disney reasons, then their outside might as well match what’s inside, and as such the children on this island are transformed into donkeys and shipped off to work in mines and circuses. It is a horrific thing to watch, so much so that even the camera looks away at the final stage of Lampwick’s bone-creaking metamorphosis, rendered through haunting shadows cast against a wall. For all the magic and whimsy present in Pinocchio, it is strikingly grounded for a Disney film, giving real weight to the choices its young protagonist makes.

More silent expressionism here, this time Nosferatu (1922) with the shadows depicting a horrific, bestial transformation.

There is some unfortunate narrative hand-waving leading into the film’s final act, which while being a resplendent sequence in itself, is not terribly well set-up, as the Blue Fairy intervenes for the third time to let Pinocchio finally prove his worth. Geppetto’s search for his lost boy has led him into the mouth of the fearsome whale, Monstro, and in the underwater battle with the beast, Disney concludes his magnificent experiment in animating truly invigorating action. Geppetto’s dying lamplights bounce off the surface of the water inside Monstro’s cavernous belly, and as he and Pinocchio make their decisive escape, Disney creates powerful visual movements in his waves, currents, bubbles, and splashes, each one intricately sculpted through the precise arrangement of visible droplets and streams of white foam.

Framing Geppetto’s boat using the whale’s innards – there’s certainly no criticising his visual creativity.
A landmark in water animation, with each drop, stream, ripple, wave, and current intricately hand-drawn and moving with such visceral realism.

With this dazzling whirlwind of a set piece closing out the film, Pinocchio’s astonishing scope and scale effectively exceeds virtually every other Disney animation that came before and after, building a world that seems to never stop shifting around its characters. Purely within context of their emotional arcs though, the pay-off carries a sweet tenderness to it. The lesson that Pinocchio learnt much earlier in the film after obliviously playing with fire returns here in his rescue of Geppetto, using his new knowledge to rile up Monstro and make a quick escape. Even more rewarding than that though is how this deed demonstrates his innate selflessness, finally validating him as a ”real” boy with a conscience.

For Geppetto, the anxieties of parenting prove to be worth it, as he finally gains a son no longer under his control, and yet who is fully active in loving and protecting him. To be “brave, truthful, and unselfish” – that is what it means to be human, Disney suggests, and the dynamic visual expression of this moral fable in all its dark, whimsical temptations backs it up as a staggering accomplishment of both meticulous hand-drawn animation and rich, allegorical storytelling.

Josef von Sternberg in the cluttered mise-en-scène, out of focus but still leaving a tangible imprint on these detailed shots.
The animation of rain bringing such tactility to these scenes. It is hard to believe the leap Disney took from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just three years earlier to this.

Disney Plus is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)

Halina Reijn | 1hr 35min

Bodies Bodies Bodies delivers a perverse thrill in seeing its ensemble of cynical, self-sabotaging 20-something-year-olds tear themselves down over the course of one bloody, wild party. Among them, a killer lies in secret, waiting for the opportune time to claim their next victim, though at times we may wonder whether this person is truly worse than any of the two-faced narcissists who fall prey to the mounting body count. Halina Reijn is a couple of decades older than her cast, and yet her Gen Z twist on the classic murder mystery format packs a cynical punch its dry satire, stripping back the superficial buzzwords and layers of irony that these characters have built their superficial identities on to expose the fraught insecurities that lie beneath.

With a hurricane on its way to inevitably shut down the power of the grand mansion the guests are partying inside, all the conditions are ripe for a classic horror film to unfold. Throw in a flat car battery and a lack of mobile reception, and the setup of Bodies Bodies Bodies almost feels a bit too trite in its well-worn tropes, though fortunately we find richer material in the intricate web of relationships set up between all seven key characters. Bee is the audience conduit here, played by Maria Bakalova right off the back of her success in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and though we are tempted at times to suspect her given the mysterious backstory she offers, we believe that we can rule her out early on. She is the outsider in this group, and when the first death takes place, we can confidently confirm her alibi.

Among the rest of the cast, Bodies Bodies Bodies amusingly plays on recognisable archetypes of young, affluent adults, and finds the perfect casting for each. Bee’s girlfriend, Sophie, is played by Amandla Stenberg as the friend in the chat who lurks but never replies, while bringing a huge amount of baggage in her personal struggles. Pete Davidson is the insufferable asshole, threatened by the presence of other men in the group. Rachel Sennott builds off her success in Shiva Baby as a daft podcaster, standing out as one of the film’s greatest sources of comedy.

Further rounding out the ensemble is the older guy who lives vicariously through his younger friends, the aspiring actress with vanity issues, and an old friend of Sophie’s who is acting strangely hostile to the new couple. The first time we meet them, Reijn dips her camera underwater in the backyard pool where they are suspended in stasis, and though they are evidently competing to see who can hold their breath the longest, the visual foreshadowing of their eventual deaths is wryly delivered.

When we return to this shot towards the end of the film, the mood has significantly changed. No longer are these men and women sitting passively beneath its sparkling, blue surface – those who are still alive engage in a violent struggle, splashing through the now-muddy water. Even through the film’s darkest moments though, Reijn never lets go of her film’s dark humour. When presented with a choice to reach for either a gun or a phone containing damning secrets, it is clear which one these characters are going to fight over. They thrive in an economy of data, and so when there is a mystery killer on the loose, whoever holds the most information has the greatest advantage.

It is a thin line though between deducing the identity of the killer and cruelly calling out a friend’s flaws, and even at the height of the murders, these characters can’t help twisting the knife into each other. Awkward laughs and playful jabs barely mask the cold indifference that lovers hold towards each other, or the outright loathing between old schoolmates. Although the premise of awful people being killed one by one in an isolated location is clearly influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Gaspar Noé’s aggressive nihilism can be felt even more in Reijn’s devastating disintegration of seven once-stable lives, calling to mind the devastating chaos of the party in Climax. All it takes a single push of a domino to topple the rest over, and soon this small group of friends, partners, and enemies are ripping themselves apart, stealing the spotlight from the actual killer.

Reijn continues lifting cues from Noé’s regular cinematographer, Benoît Debie, in her illumination of the mansion once the power goes out, accessorising her characters’ necks and wrists with glow sticks to offer a permanent light source wherever they go. It is a small but effective touch, subtly underscoring the manic frenzy with neon blues, greens, and purples, all of which stand out even more when they enter the mansion’s gym, now entirely washed in a red emergency light. Reijn’s finely executed suspense also mounts in an ill-fated attempt to escape, panning the camera 360 degrees through a car and capturing the panicked faces of the remaining survivors realising they are hopelessly doomed.

In true murder mystery fashion though, the real stinger is delivered right at the end of Bodies Bodies Bodies, and how could it close out any other way? The plotting to reach this conclusion is a little too conventional at times, but the work Reijn puts into building these characters earns the biting, final pay-off, leaving us to realise – perhaps there is a greater threat to these young adults than mysterious, violent serial killers.

Bodies Bodies Bodies is currently playing in theatres.

Prey (2022)

Dan Trachtenberg | 1hr 39min

In an age when endless reheats of cinematic intellectual property feebly cater to the most conventional audience expectations, this Predator prequel, Prey, is entirely refreshing to see, building a new world with its own rules around the deadly creature at the franchise’s core. There is no need to complicate the simple concept of an extra-terrestrial hunting humans for sport – for all intents and purposes, the only real twist here is that which blends the science-fiction premise with a historical time period, landing the monster in the Northern Great Plains of 1719. It is through the region’s fields, forests, and swamps that one Comanche woman, Naru, suspicious of some unfamiliar threat lurking in the wilderness, sets out from her village to prove herself a capable hunter.

This assorted blend of genres offers up some wonderful opportunities for director Dan Trachtenberg to flex his creativity, musically fusing tribal chants and percussion with electronic sounds to underscore the primary conflict at play here. Even more astounding is the enchanting beauty with which he captures the lush woodlands and grassland panoramas that Naru and her fellow tribesmen venture across, often caught in magnificent helicopter shots that offer up an awed reverence.

At times, Trachtenberg even seems to be drawing direct comparisons to The Searchers, not just in those shots which turn the entry of tepees into gorgeous frames separating darkened interiors from the bright outdoors, but it is even present in one scene which offers a gruesome twist on the field of bison John Wayne once came across in Comanche territory. In terms of more contemporary influences, The Revenant also looms large here. Trachtenberg skilfully manipulates natural lighting through campfires and ashy, grey fog in many scenes, but he also relishes those dialogue-free sequences which push his narrative forward, seeing Naru silently navigate forests and, at one point, even fend off a violent bear attack.

Above all else though, this film is a survival story built on the primal relationship between a hunter and its prey, developing the Predator as an otherworldly extension of the animal kingdom. When Trachtenberg briefly leaves Naru’s storyline to watch a mouse eat an ant, a snake devour the mouse, and the Predator spear the snake, he economically sets it up as a beast looking to assert its position atop the food chain by defeating whatever it deems the most dominant creature in an ecosystem. As others try to kill it, Trachtenberg uses our knowledge of this to suspensefully anticipate their downfalls – one man is marked for dead the moment he kills a possum, and we can see the clear flaws in the plans of some French voyageurs who believe they can tie up Naru and use her as bait. The Predator inadvertently saves her life more than once in situations such as these when she is under immediate threat from others, but in doing so it also inadvertently reveals its pattern of behaviour to her for easy manipulation later on.

After all, this is what it means to be a hunter, Prey importantly realises. It is not about being the strongest or possessing the most advanced technology, but as Naru proves, resourcefulness, patience, and an ability to scope out one’s enemies are far more valuable qualities for survival and dominance in the natural world. As we approach the climactic showdown between human and alien, Trachtenberg economically works back in elements of the environment that almost defeated Naru earlier, and true to her character, shows her cunningly use these against her target. Really, the film’s title could very well refer to the Predator itself as much as it does Naru, her tribesmen, or any number of animals we see slaughtered by more competent beings. Whether one accepts that position in a food chain or not ultimately comes down to whether they are capable and willing to force it upon others instead.

Prey is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Giuseppe Tornatore | 2hr 53min

Cinema Paradiso bleeds the sort of pure, unassuming love of film that greater movies may have tackled with keener self-reflexivity and more ambitious visual artistry, and yet Giuseppe Tornatore’s majestic coming-of-age tale nevertheless inspires an intoxicating sentimentalism which erodes all traces of cynicism in even the harshest critics. The childhood of his surrogate character, Salvatore Di Vita, is partially defined by those moving images that flicker across the giant screen in his tiny Sicilian town, ranging from the Hollywood westerns of John Ford to the arthouse fare of Federico Fellini. Within that darkened movie house, virtually every facet of his identity is born – the vibrant cinematic worlds that inspire his imagination, the communal gathering of odd townsfolk in the audience, and even his first sexual experiences on the floor of the theatre make the establishment a landmark for many personal milestones. Most significantly of all though, it is the friendship that he forms with Alfredo, the middle-aged projectionist, that marks his sentimental memory most deeply, evoking a nostalgia for the days they spent in his tiny room up the back playing movies for the village of Giancaldo.

In the present day, Salvatore is a famous film director, emotionally cut off from his hometown, though still affectionately remembered there as Toto, the sweet but troublesome projection assistant. Cinema Paradiso’s extended childhood flashback dominates the film like a more innocent version of Once Upon a Time in America, as Tornatore sweeps us into a long-gone era similarly distinguished by Ennio Morricone’s light, fantastical score of flutes, eventually swelling into a full, grand orchestra. Much like the movies that Toto joyfully escapes into, Cinema Paradiso’s narrative becomes a fable of escapism, drifting along on waves of vignettes that progressively reveal the pieces of history intrinsically embedded in the man he is today. Some romantic flourishes of style in Tornatore’s dreamy camerawork gliding across packed audiences and the fantastical roaring lion head sculpture through which movies are projected do well to carry a delightful charm through these scenes, though for all its sentimentality, this is not a film that possesses the same cinematic grandeur as its artistic inspirations.

Still, this is not to suggest that Cinema Paradiso lacks emotional punches in its epic, decade-spanning narrative or rich characterisations. The town square that the theatre sits on is frequented by one raving homeless man who claims the territory as his own. Light tension builds in scenes highlighting the local priest who sits in the theatre ringing a bell at any sign of intimacy, forcing Alfredo to censor the reel of its lewdness. Most movingly of all, Alfredo himself is revealed to be a truly selfless character, paying back Toto’s entry fee to save him from getting in trouble from his mother, and eventually teaching him how to work the projector itself.

A slick transition of the older man running his hand over a young Toto’s face smoothly slips us a decade into the future, revealing the features of an adolescent still helping behind the scenes. In the years since the fire that burned the theatre to the ground and its reconstruction as Nuevo Cinema Paradiso, he has taken over the duties from his now-blind mentor, and yet their friendship does not fade. Just as Tornatore will often shoot Toto centre-frame from low angles as he gazes in awe and delight at the cinema screen, so too does he carry a similar reverence for the movie house itself in exterior shots, letting it dominate symmetrical compositions like a monument to human imagination.

As Cinema Paradiso floats along with teary-eyed wistfulness, super-imposed images of black-and-white films over their captivated audiences continue to settle us into the mind of the young projectionist, drawing a direct connection between his work and the emotional impact it has on large crowds. That feeling that he is the one making them all forget their troubles is one that is evidently passed on from Alfredo, and above all else, it becomes the most rewarding part of the job.

The next step that Toto takes when he finally grows old enough to leave home is only logical – the film industry waits for him beyond the borders of Giancaldo, and Alfredo realises better than anyone that this is where he belongs. The meagre pay and scanty life of a projectionist is not one he wishes upon his young, bright-eyed friend, and neither does he wish for him to ever look back to where he came from.

With Alfredo’s passing and Toto’s return though, Tornatore begins tying back in those remnants of childhood memories that have aged and matured over the years. The girl he never quite worked it out with is still there, though given how much has changed, rekindling those old flames does not come easily. Similarly, Nuevo Cinema Paradiso is now nothing but a derelict remnant of the town’s past, sitting on the verge of demolition. As Toto re-enters the site of his childhood wonder for the first time in decades, Tornatore continues to consume him in its architecture, though the effect is now entirely different. While he has moved into the future, his childhood has simply been left to gather dust, and that joyful nostalgia is now overwhelmingly melancholy.

Still, there is one final gift left behind for him by Alfredo. Among the late projectionist’s old possessions is an unlabelled film reel, splicing together all those censored shots the town priest used to ask him to remove from romantic scenes. In those missing pieces, Alfredo finally creates a film of his own, relishing a love of life and art that has unconsciously guided Toto in all his endeavours, and which now overflows with overwhelming passion. Only an ending as profoundly in tune with film editing processes as this could tie off Cinema Paradiso’s tribute to the artform with such affectionate catharsis, as Tornatore wistfully closes the semi-autobiographical book on his first, great love.

Cinema Paradiso is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Gravity (2013)

Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 31min

“Life in space is impossible,” Alfonso Cuarón tells us in the opening seconds of Gravity, and there is little that unfolds over the next ninety minutes of tight, suspenseful storytelling that would suggest anything different. Up in this hostile, black void where space junk moves faster than bullets and the slightest technological malfunction can lead to instant death, Earth is further away than ever, and yet it rarely leaves our sights. All through the film, it sits there in the background of Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous IMAX shots, offering a distant promise of safety to those astronauts at the centre of this tale navigating an unfriendly universe.

Beautifully composed symbolism with the interior of this space shuttle, wrapping Ryan up in this womb.

For Dr. Ryan Stone, crewmember of the Space Shuttle Explorer, it is a world she has deliberately run from, numbing herself to its joys and tragedies by consuming herself in a desolate emptiness. Gravity spells out its metaphor of depression and rebirth with little ambiguity, and yet this does not imply that there is a lack of nuance in Ryan’s characterisation or Cuarón’s thrilling narrative. Rather the opposite – it is in its heavy symbolism that Gravity reaches back to our most primal instincts, evoking the warmth of a womb as Ryan curls up into a foetal position, tethered to the space shuttle she has sought refuge in by what might as well be an umbilical cord. Later, the sound of crying babies over a radio signal inspires a connection to her own past as a mother, and her eventual emergence from water to land is attached the archetypal image of evolution, tying her back to the very roots of her humanity. Much like Cuarón’s previous effort, Children of Men, Gravity displays a philosophical approach to visual storytelling, opting for bold images and rich, humanistic allegories.

Mimicking each step of evolution, emerging from the water and learning to walk again. Gravity’s critics have called this symbolism heavy-handed, but they often fail to mention how potent and earned it is within the film.

The other significant similarity worth drawing between the two films is the collaboration between Cuarón and Lubezki, who together unravel scenes of action and mayhem through marvellously choreographed long takes, refusing to release us from the grip of the narrative. No doubt the most impressive and engrossing one of all is the opening shot lasting 13 minutes, slowly drifting the Explorer into view above the Earth while its passengers float around its exterior on a spacewalk. Here, there is no sense of spatial orientation in the camerawork, which rolls and spins in wandering motions and latches to characters as if connected by an invisible bungee cord. Ryan and her playful commander, Matt Kowalski, are given just enough time during this setup to reveal their polar opposite personalities before the reveal of satellite debris hurtling their way. Chaos dominates as the ship is ripped apart, and it is only when Ryan’s connection is severed and she is left spinning into the depths of space that Cuarón finally cuts, physically marking the point in his narrative that a new complication emerges.

A bold 13-minute long take to open the film – the collaboration between Cuarón and Lubezki continues seven years after Children of Men with remarkable ambition and execution.

As we grow more familiar with our leading woman, the visceral vulnerability of Lubezki’s cinematography continues to extend beyond disorientating camera movements, and eventually fixes itself to Ryan’s face in an anxious close-up, helplessly tumbling further away from home. When her breath starts to fog up the glass, the camera drifts inside her helmet to take her perspective, effectively bridging the gap between the cold objectivity of space and the sensitive subjectivity of her own mind.

Cuarón is heavy on the close-ups of Bullock all through Gravity, moving his camera inside her helmet and taking her perspective. It is certifiably her best performance to date.

Emphasising this tension even further is Cuarón’s unique approach to sound design, fully realising the chilling potential of a vacuum where the only existent noises are those which reverberate through radios and within one’s own helmet. The sound of giant ships colliding with sharp, metallic objects and being violently torn to pieces amounts to nothing but silence here, confronting us with the merciless indifference of the universe. Instead, it is voices, breathing, and heartbeats which meet our ears, accentuating the most human elements of scenes that otherwise threaten their survival. Given the minimalism of these soundscapes, there is additionally a lot of heavy lifting done by Steven Price’s music score in coordinating suspense, blending orchestral and electronic sounds while emitting any percussive instruments that throw off conventional rhythms.

Even within Gravity’s screenplay though, Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón, develop a propulsive narrative which is simple enough in its structure, and yet holds us tightly in its vacillation between pitiless violence, heartbreaking sorrow, and hopeful anticipation. For as long as Ryan remains in space, the orbiting space debris will just keep hitting her in waves, effectively setting multiple 90-minute deadlines for her to make it from one safe refuge to the next. Much like the grief she carries for her deceased daughter, this recurring threat traps her in a cycle of destruction, formally tying her immediate circumstances to her larger character arc, pulling her from the depths of despair to a rediscovered taste for life.

For a film that is largely stuck in one location, Cuarón’s scenery rarely gets boring – a combination of his moving camerawork and shots like this that peek the sun over the horizon.

For Sandra Bullock, the ability to carry such an emotional journey through scenes with no other actors is a truly impressive feat indeed. George Clooney is just present enough as Kowalski in early scenes to offer a light-hearted counterpoint to Ryan’s despondency, revelling in the extraordinary delights of their work that she carries out with routine monotony, and it is in his eventual death that she undergoes yet another process of grieving that she is well-acquainted with at this point. The difference in her reactions to both instances of traumatic loss make are notable though – rather than distancing herself from humanity and escaping into space as she did following her daughter’s passing, the grief she finds in Kowalski’s sacrifice reinvigorates her desire to ground herself once again.

Cuarón’s trademark green lighting making an appearance every now and again, most notably here as she hopelessly submits to her fate.
Re-entering the earth’s atmosphere like a falling angel – truly epic, spiritual imagery.

In this way, the black void Ryan tenuously navigates through Gravity becomes a potent visual rendering of her depression, pushing Cuarón’s narrative beyond the genre trappings of science fiction and into the realm of profound spiritual allegory. It is not through dialogue that he draws these parallels, though there are certainly pieces of mystic curiosity that are present in pieces of dialogue that ponder the value of prayer. It is rather within its restless, floating camera and graceful symbols that Gravity evolves into a cinematic wonder, teasing out that compelling tension between bleak, barren emptiness and a determined embrace of life.

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