Five of the best…Films I love but find hard to go back to

Warning- Contains plot details/spoilers

Perhaps I am an overly sensitive soul but do you ever watch a film for the first time, a film that grabs you emotionally, pierces through your heart and jumps straight into your list of all time favourite films? Then when you come to watch it again, you hesitate, your heart twitches and a melancholy wave creeps upon you as you remember the ache that you felt upon the first viewing? These are not to be confused with the type of films that are too arduous to watch again (yeah Dogtooth I am talking about you) but the type of films that cause a malaise inducing dilemma. Like Joel and Clementine ponder in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,-do they go through their relationship again knowing it will end badly just so they can experience the good moments, I, in turn, ponder the merits of getting a case of the blues to experience the beauty in certain films. Hopefully I am not alone in this quandary, that there is cinematic solidarity for this predicament, and so as a cathartic exercise I have listed five films that I absolutely adore but find it hard to go back to.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Any film that explores childhood, from the heady excitement to the realisation that something along the way will have been lost, will always edge on the side of melancholy but Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are absolutely floored me. Stirring up wistful memories of being a child, Jonze’s take on the beloved book by Maurice Sendak is not really a film for kids, despite the presence of giant furry creatures and is instead for those who have lived and lost their adolescence. We follow Max (Max Records), the boy who has behaved badly and is sent to bed without supper, who then escapes to a forest inhabited by the Wild Things, a journey that feels like one of those endless summer school holidays where you play all day, fall out with your best friends, make up again and go home at the end of it all, grubby from climbing trees and playing in the dirt but with a dreamy satisfaction as the sun goes down. Where the Wild Things are beautifully captures this feeling and more, through its spirited direction and its wondrous realisation of the wild creatures, created through a mix of Jim Henson’s workshop and digital face work, and all voiced perfectly particularly James Gandolfini’s lead Wild Thing Carol. And yet for all the joy that there is to behold, the abandonment that comes with childhood, there is also a looming sense of heavy-heartedness, from the autumnal palette of the film to the repeated hints that all things have an end. This is achingly realised in a scene with Max and Carol, as they walk across a desert, Carol exclaims ‘soon the whole island will be dust and I don’t even know what comes after dust’.  Karen O’s glorious soundtrack fits the mood beautifully slipping between the euphoria of the wild rumpus to the reflective nature of Carol’s hideaway and by the time her cover of Daniel Johnston’s Worried Shoes can be heard, I begin to get a serious case of heavy boots. This builds throughout the film to an ending that, despite having not watched the film since its release in 2009, is still etched into my soul, as Max leaves the island and in turn his new friends, Carol runs after his boat and the sight of Gandolfini’s Wild Thing crying at the loss of Max is truly devastating. Where the Wild Things Are is a bewitching capsule of childhood, one that whilst I am watching leads me to mourn for a time that I can never return to and so makes it hard to return to the film, it is only on reflection of a period of time that we can only hope we savoured every (bitter) sweet moment of it.

Inside Llewyn Davies (The Coen Brothers, 2013)

For their 2013 folk masterpiece, The Coen Brothers are firmly on melancholy form asking the wistful extensional question that many (struggling) artists will have to ask themselves at one point; whether they are going to continue, to persevere on or whether they consign their art to the back burner and get a ‘real’ job. For Llewyn Davies (Oscar Isaac) a folk singer working the Greenwich Village circuit in 1960s New York, there seems to be no choice, despite what the world is conspiring to tell him and we watch as he treads a weather worn path in pursuit of his passion, penniless, relying on the kindness of strangers and sometimes literally without a coat on his back. On the initial surface, Llewyn does not fit the mould of the lovable loser that we would usually root for yet it is his unfaltering commitment to non-conformity that provides a bittersweet connection to our anti-hero as the film unfolds. In one scene his sister hints to Llewyn that he should quit the music to which he replies ‘So I should just exist?’ a feeling that will resonate to anyone with a passion that will not diminish. And therein lies the rub and the reason I find this film a soul searching struggle, if life gives you lemons, what if you can’t even get anyone to take your lemonade? How many no’s does it take before you give in? The Coens reflect the narrative handsomely with the contrast of the intimacy of the warm hued folk scene to the harsh realities of a cold New York winter, again an autumnal palette is peppered through the film, which seems to be a precursor to my blues, the passing of seasons are a prelude to introspective behaviour. There is also a recurring motif with a ginger cat, which is at once amusing but becomes quietly devastating, in one particular scene, Llewyn is leaving the car he has been hitching a ride in and to which the cat has been his companion. He stops and looks at the cat, debating whether to take him any further, a moment occurs between them, a look that the cat portrays is remarkable and the emotion that this scene creates is almost too painful to recall. And that’s the Coen’s great trick, like a cinematic slight of hand, they misdirect you with unique brand of humour and amusing cameos and all the while they are building a beautiful brooding picture which creeps up on you and tenderly breaks your heart. The bastards!

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

We all want to believe that love can conquer all but sometimes it just…doesn’t and those love stories that begin rapturous and burn brightly are all the more devastating when they crumble. Such is the case with Derek Cianfrance’s beautiful bruiser Blue Valentine, a film about the relationship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a couple whose marriage begins to disintegrate through resentment and lack of understanding. The film tells their story in a non linear style, in two time frames, so we start at the decline of their marriage and piece together their relationship in flashbacks, the harsh reality of the present cut together with their meet-cute blossoming romance. And this is what makes Blue Valentine so cruelly bittersweet, by interplaying between the shifts in time; we see the destruction and long for the joy. It becomes even more affecting by the naturalistic chemistry that Gosling and Williams have and the intrusive camerawork that positions us close to Dean and Cindy relationship in all its rawness, this is a couple that despite their issues (for which there are several, they are not angelic chick flick characters) I want to succeed because I have been seduced by their initial happiness. This was a film that had me crying many times in many places, an early scene where Dean, working for a delivery removal company, transports an old man to a nursing home and decorates his room for him left me with teary eyes as did the scene where Dean and Cindy are flirting outside a store at night. As Dean plays ‘You always hurt the ones you love’ on the ukulele, Cindy tap dances and the tentative dalliance becomes even more poignant. The final scene shows the end of their relationship interspersed with the day they got married, as Gosling pleads with Williams and reminds her of the vows she took; we cut to the couple at the registry office, happy, in love, a bittersweet juxtaposition of what they have become and by this point I am a blubbing wreck. The film is also majestically scored by Grizzly Bear, a band I adore, which adds another sucker punch to my flailing heart. Most women will say that The Notebook is the Gosling weepie of choice but for me it is, and should, be Blue Valentine, a film that painfully makes us realise no matter how much we root for something, life, time and we ourselves sometimes find a way to destroy it.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Let me start by saying that I have a melancholy affinity with robots, which may have stemmed from early childhood viewings of the Short Circuit films (seeing Johnny Five write ‘I am dying’ on a wall is truly horrific) or may just mean I am a little strange, oddly wired if you will. But whenever there is a cute robot in a film, my first thought/worry is what is going to happen to the little guy/gal, making me wish there was a website equivalent of doesthedogdie.com to spare any potential heartache. Honestly if something bad happens to BB8 in the forthcoming instalments of Star Wars I am going to go turbo. Which brings me to Wall-E, a film I find to be absolutely gorgeous yet strewn with scenes and moments that make my soul wince and curl up into a foetal position, it is one that I hesitate to re-watch for the blues that it creates. The first part of the film is what kicks it to me, the wordless elegance for which Pixar should be applauded for featuring in a (supposed) kid’s movie, sees Wall-E as the last robot on Earth, tidying up the planet one piece at a time. But Wall-E has developed a personality and a home, littered with items he has found on his travels that creates a haunting sense of loneliness. In one scene as he wheels about the planet, he replaces one of his faulty parts with one of the many ‘fallen’ versions of him that scatter the Earth (Kids film? God it’s like Short Circuit all over again) which is eerie and saddening. Of course this being Pixar, the mood and narrative of the film lightens and becomes filled with adventure and Wall-E does find love with the sophisticated robot Eve, but not before being smashed in and (temporarily) losing his identity and uniqueness (God it really is like Short Circuit all over again). And it also doesn’t help that, despite being a ramshackle rust bucket, Wall-E has the most adorable expressive face and mannerisms that make my heart hurt every time something bad happens to him.  Perhaps I have said too much of my robot inclinations but Pixar have an innate way of, whilst entertaining the children, giving the adults a hefty tug on the heartstrings, from the fate of Bing Bong in Inside Out to the emotional devastation of THAT montage in Up, and Wall-E is no exception. The cute little robot had to wait 700 years for his Eve to arrive, a shorter time than it will take me to watch the film again, but still a time it will take for me to revisit that lonely planet.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

I deliberated with myself whether to include this film in my list for two reasons, firstly because I feel I include it in pretty much every list I tend to write (the reasons why may become apparent shortly) and two because it is a film I have watched many times but it is one that becomes harder to watch as the years go by, despite being in my top 5 all timers. But then I decided it had to part of this list because the film has become so intrinsic to my life, for which I cannot ignore and for which makes tough viewing. As with certain songs that can transport you back to a time and place, I find the same is true of films and none so more for me than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When the film was released I was just into the first throes of University (studying film of course) and I became a little obsessed with it, immediately influenced by the way it was filmed and wanting to be the next Michel Gondry ( I didn’t of course). I went to watch it five times at the cinema and endlessly played the soundtrack on repeat, but it wasn’t just the style and direction that I fell in love with, thematically the film spoke to me and I still believe it is one of the greatest representations of love to be depicted on screen. Despite its offbeat approach and inventive visuals Eternal Sunshine manages to be a wholly honest portrayal of relationships and how we often repeat the same mistakes over again, even though we convince ourselves that we won’t. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) may be doomed but they are willing to go experience the heartache to relive the golden moments, to bask in the sunshine of the early flourishes and promises. It is a question I often ask my (if you hadn’t realised already) melancholy self and the reason for this list of films. Would I go through University again knowing that I would not become the next Gondry (or Sofia Coppola as I also once hoped) and the answer is yes, because I still love film and despite the pain that comes with watching films such as Eternal Sunshine, it reminds me of my passion and why I love film, because sometimes films get me, and affect me, more than I can ever comprehend. I also realised writing this article that just because a film is one of my all time favourites, it does not mean watching it over and over again because they are already so ingrained into me, the pleasure and the pain, that the mere mention of them will stir an emotive response, one that I will never forget and one that does not necessarily need repeating. Although I cannot resist the chance to see Eternal Sunshine on the big screen again next week at Hyde Park so with my pack of tissues and my bag of malaise I will endure the heartbreak for the magnificence. Wish me luck dear reader.

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Review- Midnight Special (directed by Jeff Nichols)

midnight poster

In the short space of three films, Jeff Nichols has established himself as a director worthy of the term auteur, bringing emotional depth and lyrical storytelling to his work. From the anxiety inducing allegory of paranoia in rural America in Take Shelter (2011) to the Southern coming of age soul of Mud (2012), he skilfully blends heart with added dimensional undercurrents. With his fourth feature Midnight Special, Nichols continues to build upon his impressive cinematic catalogue, this time dipping his toes into the science fiction genre pool but without sacrificing his knack for emotive integrity.

The film begins with a news report of child abduction but the pieces of the story begin to form a different picture. A child has been taken, from a dubious settling known as The Ranch populated by a set of deeply religious members, but the child, eight year old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher),  was taken by his birth father  Roy (Michael Shannon) for his own protection and for Alton’s own purpose. It is revealed that Alton possesses otherworldly powers, his condition and capabilities grow and emerge further, a fact that makes him a target for both the Ranch, who believe he is their religious savour and for the FBI who believe he is a threat amidnight groupnd a potential weapon.

What follows is a race against time as Roy, accompanied by his former childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper who is affected by his predicament and who believes in Alton’s plight, head across the Southern landscape to reach a preordained destination  whilst being tailed by government officials and a couple of sinister Ranch members. If these narrative tropes seem familiar, those expecting bold brass sci-fi action may be disappointed because what emerges is something altogether different but all the more rewarding for it. The film adopts a slow burn journey that cares as much about the family drama at the heart of the matter as its bolder story arch and allows its actors to inhabit their characters. Michael Shannon who is Nichols go to guy, again displays why he is one of the best and most underrated actors around with a performance that speaks so much with so little words. His expressions and mannerisms belie the inner turmoil he is wrestling; every pained breath discloses the duality of Roy’s situation, his sorrow and his determination.  When Roy tells Alton ‘I like worrying about you’ Shannon echoes the words that many parents must feel, that it is their job to protect their child, no matter where the consequences will take them. Kirsten Dunst continues her semi renaissance after Fargo with a contrasting sensitive turn as Alton’s mother who was exiled from the Ranch and has a fleeting reunion with her son, avoiding sentimentality. Joel Edgerton is on solid form as the type of friend we would hope to have in a desperate situation-proactive and resourceful; his limited knowledge of Alton’s back-story doesn’t prevent him from believing in his purpose. Adam Driver portrays a sense of earnestness and heart that is a million galaxies away from Kylo Ren, his Adam Sevier is the type of government agent we would hope to have in a desperate situation, he wants to understand Alton and not merely contain him. Meanwhile Jaeden Lieberher sidesteps the precocious child act that Haley Joel Osment cornered once upon a time to deliver a naturalistic performance beyond his years/this world. midnight drive

The effects tend to serve the film rather than overshadow it, the early restraint gives way to a flourish in the final act yet we never descend into over reliance of CGI which is something to be commended and something to be thankful for in this cinematic age. The aesthetic and themes of Midnight Special have drawn comparisons to late 1970s/early 80s science fiction films particularly those of Spielberg and it is easy to see why, the DNA of Close Encounters and ET weave into its fabric, though Nichols should be celebrated for bringing his own vision and not merely emulating his peers. He has created a film of hope, of earnestness in a somewhat cynical time, one that will no doubt confound as many as it will attract, for it does not unravel all of its mysteries.

But the point is not to have all the answers, it is merely a snapshot of time, we as the audience experience what Alton’s parents do, the uncertainty of the situation, trying to form a grasp of the events-how and why did Alton come to be and where is he headed, yet we are not given the bigger picture. We can only go so far along the journey and the rest, like many things in life, has not been written.