Raise the Red Lantern – Conspiratorial Delight

Raise the Red Lantern – Conspiratorial Delight

Raise the Red Lantern tells the story of a young university dropout who marries an ageing clan elder with multiple wives. The red lanterns are raised outside the home of the wife with whom the master chooses to spend his night. It becomes clear early on that the wife whose home the Master chooses most frequently controls the household. This unquestionable masterpiece was filmed by Zhang Yimou and completes his Confucian trilogy which opened with Red Sorghum and Ju Dou. All three of these films starred Gong Li who was propelled to superstardom. She is considered one of the most successful actresses in China today. Raise the Red Lantern is an unquestionable masterpiece and I shall now elaborate on, as Fry & Laurie put it ‘the whyness’.

No film had a more startling effect in the west than Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, which rushed Gong Li, a star after Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, into the superstar league. Li plays a student in northern China in the 20s who agrees to become the fourth wife of an ageing clan leader. Only 19, she finds herself confined to the old man’s palatial complex, where his other wives conspire with courtiers and intrigue is permanently in the air. Derek Malcolm

I am working my way through Derek Malcolm’s Top 100 Movies. I decided quite by chance to watch the oldest one on the list. Malcolm describes this film as “a marvellously structured, richly imagined and well-acted piece of work, with a central performance that holds the attention throughout.”. For me, this is spot on, though I would add that each of the performances were immaculate. Saifei He as Meishan (Third Wife) blew me away consistently, especially during her two or three opera performances.  Cuifen Cao as Zhuoyan (Second Wife) was wonderful as the conniving outwardly friendly yet power hungry player. I was especially moved also by Lin Kong as Yan’er, robbed of place as Fourth Mistress by Songlian. Their enemy status confirmed early in the film, they would ultimately be each other’s demise.

Moreover, by filming mostly in long shot in lingering deep-focus takes, Zhang sought to suggest the isolation of the Chinese authorities and their entrenched positions regarding reform, while the consistent use of delimiting framing devices reinforced the overall sense of repression. However, this was also very much a film about both the historical and contemporary status of Chinese women. For all the delicate artistry of the décor and visuals, this is an uncompromising study of the part that women play in their own subjugation within a society that denigrates them from birth. Empire

In addition to a stellar cast, the location was absolutely stunning. The picture was filmed in the Qiao Family Compound. The tourist map is included below just to give you a scale of the thing. Throughout the film we get to see a lot of the compound, my favourite moment in the film being up above (near the Climate and Season part of the below map) where Gong Li hears the Young Master (her stepson) playing flute. There is a wonderful shot when they are parting where they turn around from outside both entrances and stare back at each other through the building.

This is a tale of power and the lengths to which people are willing to stoop to obtain it. It is told beautifully, and colourfully. The shots are long and do indeed exacerbate the loneliness of the principal characters in view of the enormity of the sacrifice they are making. The cinematography is outstanding, the music is wonderful and the moral is unclear. This is a monumental film which exhibits a wide panoply of human emotion. I encourage you to read Derek Malcolm’s review of this, which does it true justice. There is a reason why it appeared in 36 polls of most important films of the 1990s!

The Disaster Artist – Moving Tribute to a Piece of Cinematic History

The Disaster Artist – Moving Tribute to a Piece of Cinematic History

There are two distinct period in my life: Before The Room and After The Room. Widely considered the worst film of all time, The Room is a piece of cinematic history. I believe it is a masterpiece, not one of exquisite taste, plot or cinematography, but one of commerciality. Wiseau, who directed, produced, and starred in The Room set out to make a hard hitting picture of betrayal and its effects on the human psyche but ended up making something so dire that it was brilliant. This now consistently sells out midnight screenings all over the world and provides the lion’s share of both Wiseau and Sestero’s incomes. The Disaster artist is an excellent exploration of Greg Sestero’s ((“oh hi”)Mark in The Room) book of the same name. James Franco directed and starred alongside his brother, Dave Franco and his wife Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men, Glow).

The Room is a bad movie. No question. Whether or not it is officially The Worst Movie Of All Time is a matter of taste (countless films, from Sex Lives Of The Potato Men to Superman IV, could easily jostle for that crown of thorns), but cult status and midnight screenings have turned it into something else entirely: a latter-day Plan 9 From Outer Space, an icon of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, reaching beyond its meagre ambitions to become a timeless slice of outsider art. The question at its heart: how could a film so oddly incompetent ever exist in completed form? Empire

The Disaster Artist answers this question. It tells the story of how Sestero and Wiseau met at an acting class and became fast friends, ultimately facing mass rejection after moving to Los Angeles and getting the idea of making their own film. This is where the Room begins. One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Wiseau hands Sestero a script of The Room in a diner, Sestero’s expression goes from excited to frightened when Tommy asks him to read the entire script there and then!

Franco allows himself the occasional snark, mostly through Sandy Schklair, the weary script supervisor played by Seth Rogen, hat-tipping the irony that the original film is usually viewed through. But elsewhere, it’s a surprisingly serious ode to the Quixotic chase of the Hollywood dream. It’s like La La Land for losers, where following your dream leads to failure and ridicule instead of romance and success. Empire

The film’s making is unusually excessive. Wiseau spent some $6million on the production, choosing to purchase filming equipment instead of renting it, construct a set of a back alley identical to one directly outside the studio and hiring a full crew for the film’s production. The filming took place over 58 days and The Disaster Artist makes us privy to the beautifully incremental tension which builds between the two main protagonists during those days.

Ultimately, The Disaster Artist culminates in a screening of The Room, initially taken seriously but quickly succumbing to the unintended comedy (for example Lisa’s mother getting breast cancer “I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer.” – never to be mentioned again in the rest of the film). This comedic take on Wiseau’s work sustains it to this day and makes it the legend of B movie excellence that it is.

Overall, this is a moving tribute to one of the best worst films of all time. I cannot recommend this enough.

John Wick – Guns, Cars and Explosions, the Perfect Isolation Flick

John Wick – Guns, Cars and Explosions, the Perfect Isolation Flick

Have you ever asked yourself the question; is there such a thing as artful violence? John Wick answers this violently in the affirmative. Perhaps I am late to the party reviewing this film, but I was so astounded by John Wick that I could not but extol its virtues. Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (the former being Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrix), this film offers excitement, excellent acting and explosive beautifully co-ordinated fight scenes.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to go when it comes to fight sequences. The first is to bust a few moves then use lively camerawork and quick edits to make an indifferent pugilist look like The Grandmaster. The more challenging route is to choreograph an extended sequence, sit back, frame a nice wide shot and let the actor carry the can. Given that first-time directors Stahelski and Leitch are both veteran stunt co-ordinators, that fact that they opt for door number two is not surprising. The assured proficiency with which they conduct John Wick’s symphony of gunplay, however, is. Empire

Interestingly, while both Stahelski and Leitch directed this film, the latter is credited as a producer due to MPA regulations only allowing one director. (It may well be another regulatory body but the point is the same).

In terms of plot, John Wick tells the story of an ex-assassin whose wife passed away and sent him a puppy in lieu of marriage. No, in seriousness, Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of mobster Viggo Tarasov (Ian McShane), decides he likes the look of John Wick’s 1969 Mustang. He asks Wick his price “у каждой суки есть цена” to which Wick replies “не эта сука”. I’ll let you translate for yourselves. Iosef, not content to take не эта сука for an answer, decided to storm John Wick’s house, beat him up, murder his new puppy and steal the Mustang. Iosef did not bet on Mr Wick being an ex associate of his father’s and merciless killing machine.

From the use of colour and music to the scenery-chomping by supporting players Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane, these are guys bursting with a love for genre cinema but aren’t too enslaved by affection to let in a little air. There’s a wonderful free spirit with the use of New York City locations that ditches verisimilitude for storytelling. The Surrogates’ Courthouse downtown is actually a Bosch-ian dance club with an interior of Scarface-esque hot tubs? Who in their right mind would disagree! Guardian

Overall I liked this film because it was mindless violence, portrayed beautifully and with some heart. One could look at this film as a vengeance tale for a small puppy, but I see it as a well-crafted ode to the beauty of vengeful violence. Every move in every fight scene is beautifully choreographed and seamlessly executed by Reeves, a veteran of the action movie genre. The plot is hearty and there are some wonderful scenes, most notably in the Red Circle club. I do so hope you will enjoy John Wick, allow him to transport you to a world of wonderful violence, far removed from the current agony in which we find ourselves.

 

Douglas – Hannah Gadsby Shoots and Scores Again

Douglas – Hannah Gadsby Shoots and Scores Again

Self deprecation is a go-to for comics, this much goes without saying. In her first Netflix special, Nanette, Gadsby blew up the form of comedy and took self deprecation to its logical conclusion. Comedians will often address humorously crippling anxieties and life struggles in order to satirise them but Gadsby went further, using her platform to address directly the mechanisms in place which allowed for her suffering to occur in the first place. This is something which is seldom done in comedy for the purest reason that it is seldom funny. But it isn’t meant to be. Gadsby realised this and repeated the formula of her last show in this one, Douglas, where she once again taught all of us who appreciate comedy a stern lesson.

[It’s] a more approachable set than its predecessor. Gadsby is obviously having fun – which isn’t something you could say about Nanette – but it’s in no way a climbdown. The show (her 1oth – but also her “difficult second album”, she admits) is perfectly judged, a 75-minute set that proves self-deprecation is a thing of the past for Gadsby, that blazes with well-earned confidence, and that hitches her crusading, patriarchy-bashing humour to great jokes, meticulous set-building – and a new cause. The Guardian

I will applaud Gadsby for in the first instance, doing something which I have never seen in comedy – she told us exactly how her set was going to go. The initial 12 or so minutes of the set were an instruction guide on what was to come, and one joke in particular which we were all to look out for (the one about Louis CK). This is a big ‘stuff you’ to the form and exemplifies why Gadsby is a cut above the rest.

Another highlight for me was her announcing she was diagnosed with Autism in 2015. This, she tells us, was to be an excellent joke coming up in the show! This deferential blasé style of comedic writing is so excellently delivered by Gadsby throughout that she is a real pleasure to watch.

But overall Gadsby manages to provide us with her difficult second album which I am sure will be a hit. Her style, delivery and breadth of subject mater are unique and vast. She is a law unto herself and weaves art history into her sets seamlessly, with a disparaging twist which is so fun to watch. Please go to Netflix as soon as you can and watch this masterful artist at work. You shan’t regret it.

 

Mucho Mucho Amor – Astronomical Docu-Film 2020

Mucho Mucho Amor – Astronomical Docu-Film 2020

Starting with nothing but dreams, Puerto Rican born Walter Mercado found tremendous fame as an astrologer and is responsible for the popularity of astrology which we see today. He brought astrology to the masses through extraordinary daily shows, viewed by millions. This docu-film charts his journey to fame, the plague of the greedy which surrounded him at his peak and his eventual recovery from his qualms. This ark is of course predictable and safe, however the presence of Walter Mercado himself makes this docu-film truly exceptional.

I was once a star, now I am a constellation.

Walter Mercado

Walter Mercado was and remains an icon. Not only because he was so flamboyant and extroverted but also because of what he represented. His life’s work was to spread as much love and light to other people’s lives as possible. This is why he ended all of his shows with the title phrase of the docu-film itself. Mucho mucho amor (much much love). Considering his message of love, one can also not help but notice how Other Walter was. He is noted in the film to have star quality and stopping power. Walter was striking not only in appearance but also in context. He was an affectionate explosive and bright loud character, starting his career in Puerto Rico of 1969. To be adored and almost worshipped in the following decades in such a regressive, as it was, hyper masculine environment is an astonishing achievement.

Costantini and Tabsch quickly dispense with the suspense. Within minutes, Mercado, now 86 and as handsome as ever, welcomes the camera into his home in San Juan, whose tangerine- and mango-painted Moorish exterior hints at the glamour within: oil portraits, costumes, awards statues, personalised Ken dolls and a doting assistant named Willie who fetches his vitamins and fixes his makeup. Says Willie, he’s not merely Mercado’s right hand, “I’m the left one, too.” Vanity Fair

Walter with Lin Manuel Miranda, writer and star of Hamilton

Throughout the docu-film we see many celebrity cameos, most notable Lin Manuel Miranda, whose admiration for Mercado was decades long. It is difficult for us Brits to understand the enormous effect Mercado had. He was on television and radio daily telling horoscopes to a captive audience of millions of people. He touched the lives of up to 120 million Latino viewers and at his peak, was broadcasted from Holland to Puerto Rico, achieving global celebrities. He met presidents and other notables. Throughout all of this he presented an image of light and a message of love.

I particularly admired Walter for his stance on religion. He takes parts from every religion and incorporates them into his shows, holding that no single religion should have the monopoly. In a way he is right. While I am a self confessed Catholic, I recognise that it is and must be an arrogance to believe there is one true God and we have found Him. All religions point to the same central tenet: be nice to one another and use your life well to the benefit of others. Walter recognised this and spread his message of love most wonderfully.

Walter at the opening of the HistoryMiami Museum

The docu-film culminates with Mercado at the opening of the HistoryMiami exhibition, celebrating 50 years since his first show.

Overall, this was one of the most moving, touching productions I have watched in a long time. Kudos to directors Costantini and Tabsch who managed to allow Walter an opportunity to tell his story in his own words shortly before his death, aged 87, in November 2019. Walter represented all that is bright and hopeful and spread a wonderful message. He was unabashedly Other but never discussed his sexuality. He defied expectations, gender roles and time itself. Walter’s body might be gone from this Earth but his spirit lives on and will always live. Please watch this wonderful heartfelt documentary and be enriched by a small glimpse into Walter’s world.

 

The Lighthouse – Near Perfect Horror

The Lighthouse – Near Perfect Horror

It is New England in the 1890’s. Two lighthouse maintenance officers, Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Dafoe) arrive on a remote island for a month long secondment which turns quickly into a nightmarish haunted and very wet situation. Their tenuous grip on reality slips away slowly in what I can only describe as one of the most brilliant and gripping horrors I have seen in a decade.

It is explosively scary and captivatingly beautiful in cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s fierce monochrome, like a daguerreotype of fear. And the performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson have a sledgehammer punch – Pattinson, in particular, just gets better and better. Guardian

Director Robbert Eggers (The Witch) has created something beautiful and maniacal here, deliberately intending to nauseate the audience. This film was shot in a nearly square 1:19:1 aspect ratio, and monochrome, which immediately throws one off. To add to this, most of the scenes are insular and claustrophobic. Their intensity increases incrementally which only adds to the excellence. Their roles are established quickly; Wake plays the stern weathered superior whose duty is to care for the prater Promethean light atop the lighthouse, whose enclosure Winslow is not allowed to enter. Winslow in the other hand is a ‘wickie’, a lower ranking officer who does all the menial tasks, including purifying the water and fending off rude seagulls.

The Lighthouse is itself a tall tale, the kind sailors might have once told over a frothy tankard of ale with a faraway look in their eyes. It is a folk tale deeply rooted in that tradition, soaked to the salty skin with superstition and sinister iconography. And yet… The Lighthouse is an altogether taller tale than most. There are plenty of moments where you’ll have no bloody idea what you’re watching. Other times it feels like an endurance test — like you’ve been stranded on an island in a storm with little chance of rescue. But surrender yourself to its strangeness and you might also find some enchantment in its light. Empire

The development of each character is masterfully portrayed, keeping one on the edge of an ever present precipice. The cinematography is bordering on art, with shots presented bluntly, without needing to resort to descriptive narrative or even words at times. My personal highlight of this movie was the scene where both Wake is talking down to a drunk Winslow, some time after a ship was supposed to come and pick them up for their next assignment. Of course, Winslow decided to beat a seagull to death, and seagulls contain the souls of dead sailors who revolted and created a storm so violent that no ship could reach them. The intensity of the scene and the way the camera looks up at Wake as he is berating Winslow gives us a really stunning perspective on both protagonists but also of the mastery of Dafoe’s acting capacity.

Dafoe’s mercurial movements, his rippling face and spooky smiles, dovetail beautifully, articulating Wake’s moods and adding to the destabilisation. He barks orders, sings a shanty, indulges in sentimentality and turns his yowling mouth into an abyss. NY Times

Overall this film scores a perfect ten for me. This is as much an inner as an outer horror. The direction, acting, cinematography, production and concept were all astonishing and tied together beautifully. The Lighthouse portrays the limits to which the isolated mind can be pushed, and the effects on those who go beyond those limits, making it a perfect film for our isolated times.

How long have we been in lockdown? Five weeks? Two days? Help me to recollect.