You, the Living (Andersson, 2007)

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This astonishing 2007 Swedish film, presented as a series of serio-comic vignettes, is the work of writer-director Roy Andersson. It’s no easy task attempting to categorise You, the Living; simply put it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Each scene is short and sharp and virtually every set-up is a static one, but filled with fascinating, tiny details that speak of a meticulous attention to detail. It allows a painterly, dreamlike through-line to develop, like watching abstract works of art slowly come to life. Only twice in the entire film does the camera move.

The colours are muted and drab in this sunless world of mostly nameless, pasty-faced protagonists whose lives are played out in mournful, incremental advances. Andersson’s deadpan humour provides memorable surreal moments of suffering and joy, the avenging, repeating lines of these hapless, downtrodden souls insisting that “tomorrow is another day” regardless of their proximity to despair.

There’s a randomness of observation that borders on genius, and yet there are moments of perfect clarity too. Though a large ensemble of characters’ lives overlap without rhyme or reason, there is also the irreparable damage caused by acute isolation, more than one person bemoaning the fact that “nobody understands me!”

There are moments of poignant contemplation; in others, characters speak directly to the camera, whilst some seem to be speaking to a person who isn’t there. There’s a lovesick girl who pines for the lead singer of a rock group; an old doctor who’s fed up with unhappy patients he regards as beyond his help; a hilarious sex scene where a wife’s sporadic, ecstatic groans are drowned out by her husband’s continual dispassionate descriptions of the intricacies of his retirement funds.

There are dozens of others too, perhaps a few don’t come off, but nearly every one is a gem in its own way – and ripe for rediscovery in a film that demands multiple viewings to re-assess its subtleties and vagaries.

You, the Living is unique and unconventional, pulled off with such startling precision that I’m tempted to label it a masterpiece, and yet one simmering with barely tangible notions; a film so rich with minute, eccentric detail that it threatens to redefine the very nature of cinematic storytelling. Watch it and, like me, you’ll crave to see it again and again.

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Prizzi’s Honor (Huston, 1987)

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This wry black comedy was the penultimate film of legendary director John Huston, made just two years before his death in 1987. A master of the old school, he was also the member of a famous family which has left its mark on three generations of Hollywood filmmaking, beginning with his father Walter as an actor in America’s Golden era.

With landmarks like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951) decades behind him, Huston was still able to bring to the big screen a faithful, sardonic adaptation of Richard Condon’s bestselling novel. Condon himself collaborated with Janet Roach on the screenplay and it proves to a perfectly pitched one, with astute casting a major factor in its success.

It begins with Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson), a dim-witted hitman for Chicago’s dominant crime family the Prizzi’s, falling head-over-heels for a gorgeous blonde he spots at a wedding. She turns out to be the strictly non-Sicilian Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), and after a whirlwind romance of just two days, Charley impulsively proposes marriage!

Little does he know that she’s already married and his latest assignment involves carrying out a contract on her husband. Charley’s confusion at this turn of events almost overwhelms his limited mental capacities, and he confides to past girlfriend, Maerose (Angelica Huston), and granddaughter of Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), that he doesn’t know whether to “marry her or ice her!” Irene is full of surprises herself and turns out to be employed in the very same field as her new lover!

There are plenty of neat twists and complications along the way as Irene is secretly hired to carry out a hit, commissioned by a vengeful member of the Prizzi’s, on Charley himself. There’s also some stolen money to account for, a kidnap and extortion that leaves the family disjointed, and rancorous counter-murders from the Prizzi’s competitors to worry about.

Swept along by its clever narrative, witty observations and deadpan humour, Prizzi’s Honor is a pleasure to revisit. Boiling down to a contest between love and family, there’s really no contest at all, it seems, when murder – regardless of the target – can be shrugged off by the Prizzi’s as “business – only business!”

Nicholson is in great form, a tiny padding beneath his upper lip to make it protrude slightly – and combined with that dead look in his eyes – giving Charley the perfect combination of streetwise efficiency and witless malcontent.Turner, following her head-turning star roles in Body Heat (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), is absolutely luminous as the wily Irene who has more hidden depths and talents than our first provocative, persuasive impressions of her would suggest.

The staggering quality of the support cast is what aids the film’s enduring appeal as well, with John Randolph hilarious as Charley’s father Angelo, the eccentric William Hickey unforgettable as the corpse-like Don Corrado, and the director’s daughter Angelica – in her Oscar-winning turn – as the bitter and lovelorn Prizzi granddaughter with the classical looks who takes extreme countermeasures to win Charley back and circumvent his union with Irene.

It’s impossible to underestimate John Huston’s contribution to cinema. Even at the tail end of his career he displays the ability to keep pace with the times, and Prizzi’s Honor, made 44 years after his debut behind the camera, is a vintage black comedy/drama which has aged just as well as any other great film from this great director.

 

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.

 

Everything Must Go (2010)

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The hapless are a bountiful crew, existing as they do, in cinematic terms, for entertainment rather than enlightenment purposes. Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is just such a man; on the day he loses his salesman’s job, he comes home to discover his wife has not only left him but also changed the locks and dispersed all his worldly possessions on the lawn.

Written and directed by Dan Rush, Everything Must Go (2010) is not illustrative in any constructive way; it’s the Portrait of a Man as Open Wound, into which misery is piled in the hope we will empathise en masse, even offering a chuckle as salt is poured into the gaping hole where Nick’s life once was.

The alcoholic Nick exists only to be put through the wringer or exhibited like a circus animal. His is a mighty fall from grace, but Rush is sure to provide him with companions in the form of neighbours to share this soul-searching period in which he takes up residence on his lawn with little option but to sell everything off to passing strangers.

There’s the chubby black kid, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) who befriends him and whose bike is appropriated by Nick once creditors take his car from his possession leaving him immobile. There’s also the gorgeous new neighbour, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant photographer setting up house whilst waiting for her husband to join her from interstate. Overlooking his curiously uninhabited street, Nick sits in his luxury recliner that acts like a psychiatric tool after a while as he opens up to Kenny and vents his spleen upon Samantha.

Rush has the audacity to lean on the sliver of a short story by Raymond Carver (about 4 and a half pages long) to falsify literary credentials for his project. The connection between this ‘source’ material and Rush’s film is so tenuous as to be non-existent. Casting Ferrell against type is an interesting move but that deadpan look, so deftly utilised for a slew of moronic man-child comedies, fails to generate even a random spark of believability in its pretence of a man wallowing in human misery.

The film’s feeble moral decree is faintly etched around a half-hearted resolution: Beware – drinking to excess will doom you and carve your ordered life into tiny pieces. Long before the final selloff, the twist in the tale, the cathartic gesture of parting gifts disguised as largesse, and the empty, shallow offering of a vapid motto inside a card, Rush’s film has well and truly run aground in a narrative cul-de-sac, where hopefully it’ll remain forever.

 

The Band’s Visit (Kolirin, 2007)

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A film of beguiling simplicity, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit (2007) is a moving ode to the craft of storytelling in the purest sense, exemplifying with every frame the old adage of how a picture is worth a thousand words.

When an Egyptian police band – the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra – mistakenly stumbles into the remote Israeli desert town of Bet Hatikva, they’re marooned for 24 hours awaiting the next bus to perform at their original destination, Pet Hatikva.

The eight-piece band is led by the reserved and dignified Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai), a man whose reticence, borne of humility, is faintly alluring to restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz); craving distraction from the static emptiness of life in this place she offers her home and that of her friend to these curiously attired strangers whose presence marks a welcome and exotic alteration in the landscape of this place that time has forgotten.

Thriving on small but meaningful vignettes, Kolirin’s film, which he also wrote, is rich with subtle characterisation, transporting us to a world far away and yet not dissimilar to our own at all. The heart of his film is its seamless and varied observations of these people, allowing small moments to gather weight in an inspired accumulation of minutiae. With English as their common ground, these people discover the universality by which the means of communication, no matter how meagre, can flourish.

How Kolirin manages an elliptical, ethereal suffusion of, simultaneously, broken dreams and a pervasive optimism, is nothing short of remarkable. Somehow there’s an austerity, and a surprising gentleness, collated from this inhospitable land, where a look or gesture is used to convey more than mere words.

The acting is flawless, especially Elkabetz as the defiant and independent Dina, a woman whose boundless spirit and force of personality will never allow her to dissolve into the dead heart of this desert wasteland. There’s an almost mystical allure created by her presence, leaving you magnetized and hanging on her every word.

Gabai as the modest and decent Tawfiq is her perfect complement giving a subtle and moving portrayal; lending great support are Khalifa Natour as Simon, the timid sometime conductor whose unfinished concerto is a source of despair, and Saleh Bakri as the headstrong Khaled whose night out with some of the locals at their roller-skating rink and disco produces some sublimely brilliant scenes.

The Band’s Visit is that rare gift: a cinematic model of restraint in its writing and execution, full of compellingly fateful quirks, and a clarity of vision you can’t help admiring and achieved with the lightest touch. Not once does Kolirin’s film require the crutch of bold, grandiose statements to convey his humanistic intentions. Here is a true cinematic gem, infused with a poignancy that lingers like a spell: part sadness, part nostalgia, part quiet desperation. In brief, a magnificent ‘small’ film to savour again and again.

 

Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2009)

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Director Yorgos Lanthimos offers the ultimate example of parental control gone mad in the subversive, mystifyingly oblique Dogtooth (2009). In this amusingly minimalist work we’re transplanted behind the walls of a remote compound where a father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michelle Valley) have indoctrinated their children to accept a narrowly-conceived worldview of their own creation. This insulated trio of offspring – a son and two daughters, seemingly all in their late teens – has been denied access to the outside world their entire lives, relying on their parents to expand their minds through a very specific form of education.

This has succeeded in providing them with a warped, off-kilter perception of mundane things, often assigning very different definitions to concepts and objects. They have no idea what a cat is for instance and there’s a perversely funny scene where one strays onto the grounds before being beset upon by a fearful son with a pair of garden shears. Cat lovers look away!

Is it all for the purpose of satisfying some wicked sense of amusement? There’s little exposition or motivation imparted, denying us any rationalised justification for this forbidding environment’s existence. Lanthimos simply tosses us down the deep well of his imagination to fend for ourselves. He doesn’t even allow his characters to be humanized on a basic level; other than Christina – the blindfolded young woman the father sneaks from his workplace to ‘service’ his son – the family members aren’t even afforded the familiarity of names.

Dogtooth is inspiringly idiosyncratic, an ambiguous merger of absurdist humour and darkest, probing drama. Sometimes the absurdist vignettes reach beyond their grasp and come off feeling self-consciously excessive or silly. But the director’s aim mostly hits its mark, ensuring a compelling and uncomfortable night at the cinema.

Lanthimos, in a stroke of genius, doesn’t really allow his film, co-written with Efthymis Filippou, to settle into any predictable rhythm; he tweaks its tone like an obsessive, eccentric musician. He even flirts with taboos like boredom-alleviating-incest whilst inserting strangely clinical moments of sexual activity and violence into his evasive, unsettling narrative.

As the external world slowly begins to impinge upon the steady ratification of the parents’ universe and the meticulously manufactured facade becomes more difficult to uphold, Dogtooth makes you laugh and grimace, often in the same moment. It could almost be viewed as a twisted fairytale secluded between the pages of an ogre’s personal collection. It’s never possible to predict where this challenging film is headed and the strangely elliptical ending too revels in being an arbitrary point of cessation rather than fulfilling the conventional expectation of an easy conclusion.