The Hunt for Red October (1990)

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A muscular procedural thoroughly heightened by McTiernan’s piercing, prowling sense of space as well as Jan de Bont’s remarkable skills with light and shadow. The chess-like plotting and limited locations threaten to become tedious at several points making the film feel overlong here and there but the filmmaking and performances push through. Alec Baldwin, for instance, manages to make his reams of dry, term-heavy dialogue actually interesting and alive. Connery gets the meatiest role, though I would argue that his “villain” is perhaps a bit too likeable to be completely effective, and the confusing mix of attempts at Russian accents (Connery’s is non-existent, Sam Neill’s is pretty good) is distracting at best. As a mostly physical exercise in sustained tension which aspires to combine blunt action and psychological warfare with claustrophobic atmosphere, this has aged wonderfully. Very much a film of its time, but one which has taken on a certain level of sovereignty given the high calibre of talent and craft involved. Between Predator, Die Hard and this, McTiernan really had one hell of hot streak.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Le amiche (1955)

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Antonioni throws us into the eye of the storm, within a circle of love addicts personified by a clique of cruel women. When one of them tries to commit suicide to cure her broken heart, it is outsider Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) who comes to the rescue and from there on out becomes embroiled within the toxic collective. In Le amiche or The Girlfriends in its english translation, Antonioni looks at the faces behind the faces, zeroes in on personal betrayals and the whispers that go on when backs are turned.

This dig into the hypocrisies of Italian social norms in the 50s could easily get it stamped with the neorealist seal of approval but there’s a level of construct here that reaches beyond docu-realism showing Antonioni’s growing disinterest with that form and him pushing towards his own, signature language which would crystallise in 1960’s L’Avventura. Unlike that film though, the narrative here is neatly assembled, placing the troubled Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) in and out of the centre, letting us feel her plight and then be witness to the backroom whispers which torment her so much, and is bookended by suicide attempts.

It’s relatively conventional stuff for Antonioni, compared to his later work at least, but it’s still a supreme social drama, laced with a deep cynicism and written and acted beautifully. The ensemble of actresses is terrific, all visibly enjoying cloaking their bitchy hostility with smiling face facades. The images of Turin – all sharp edges and vast space – shimmer with silvery precision, showing that Antonioni’s love affair with environments and architecture didn’t just emerge in the 1960s. This is a marvellous and biting early work from Antonioni which may be more widely regarded as a major entry in his filmography if he didn’t change cinema so drastically in the decade that followed.

Watched on Eureka blu-ray.

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Privacy Setting (2013)

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This starts off like some awful student horror film about a voyeuristic creep, full of student film tics and non-flourishes. Then it takes a turn and becomes something else, something more playful and less insidious and a lot of the bad tics go away. It contains some interesting stuff but for the most part this is a tedious, ugly-looking effort from Swanberg, sorely lacking the on-screen presence of his regular actors who could probably elevate this into something more lived-in and credible. There’s a distance between the actors and the material which I don’t think is intentional, meaning the whole thing never locks into place. Would have probably worked better as a fifteen minute short, at best, as the puncline-like conceit which provides the narrative switch halfway through struggles to sustain interest to the very end. It feels more like one of Adam Wingard’s mumblecore efforts and Wingard would have probably made this somewhat tolerable. As far as Swanberg is concerned, this is about as minor as it gets.

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All the Light in the Sky (2012)

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This greatly benefits from Swanberg turning his lens on older, more seasoned actors. Jane Adams is deservedly front and centre and the film feels like her property. Like Adams, her character is a mature character actress trying to navigate a career in an industry obsessed with youth and vanity, a conflict which gains more clarity with the arrival of her younger niece (Sophia Takal) who is also a budding actress. It’s one of Swanberg’s sweetest films, mainly compromised of frank, sincere conversations between actors clearly comfortable with one another.

They bring out the best in Swanberg; the relaxed nature of their conversations rarely bubble over into hot-headed contention and remain breezy and pleasurable, if occasionally sad. Adams takes on a maternal openness in her scenes with Takal and where most filmmakers would be tempted to uproot their relationship with jealously and contempt for the sake of drama, Swanberg wisely goes in another direction. Their relationship becomes more about support than rivalry but it never makes a point to underline that fact.

Larry Fessenden turns in a lovely, gimmick-free performance too (though he does find room for an entertaining Jack Nicholson impersonation) showing that he can be a massively appealing on-screen presence outside of genre. Between Fessenden and Adams in here and Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies, Swanberg clearly found his groove mining the will they/won’t they cliches of romantic comedies (and Paul Mazursky movies) and instilling them into his own, understated filmmaking playbook. The results are delightful as both these films sit among his best. They glow with a warmth and kindness many of his earlier, more insidious works try so hard to obscure. You enjoy being in their company, which can’t be said for the majority of Swanberg’s legendary 2011 run.

As the title suggests, All the Light in the Sky is an optimistic, glass half-full movie, certainly one of Swanberg’s most tender. The empathy for the characters feels like a breakthrough for him and the simplicity in the filmmaking puts the interplay of his actors in the driving seat. The self-lensed digital cinematography may be Swanberg’s finest hour as DOP too. A Swanberg movie for those who hate Swanberg movies.

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Joe Swanberg deals with the consequences of his filmmaking in The Zone (2011)

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The ferocious realism of Joe Swanberg’s films often leave me questioning where the line between fact and fiction begins to blur. As seen through the pixelations of a low-fi digital lens, the intimacy can be so intense – the nudity and sexuality extremely raw – that I frequently wonder how the experiences of shooting these movies affects the off-camera relationships of the actors and filmmakers involved. For instance, how did Swanberg’s wife and mother of his child, Kris, react upon seeing Nights & Weekends, which many could mistake for being a very real document of an affair between Swanberg and Greta Gerwig? Gerwig and Swanberg are both actors, ofcourse, but they also share authorship credit on that film. The decision to pursue that kind of story, seemingly filmed in situations where the two may be the only two people on set, would surely lead to many uncomfortable tensions behind the scenes. Swanberg has always been an autobiographical filmmaker and this very issue – how the intimacy of his art infringes on personal relationships – is teased in a number of his films but never as explicitly as in The Zone, in which he confronts the issue head-on with terrifying results.

It’s easy to accuse Swanberg of being a masturbatory filmmaker with serious exhibitionist tendencies. The more movies of his you watch, however, the clearer his artistic intentions become. He seems to be obsessed with creating a new kind of sexuality on film, closer to that of every day life, where nakedness is just a mundanity and bodies of all shapes and sizes are exposed, in private and to others, all the time. Swanberg wants to dispel the shock of nudity and sex in cinema, to reclaim it from pornography and let it become a valid part of everyday drama rather than a kinky distraction. Frank sex and nudity remains a taboo in mainstream cinema – usually only there to titillate or to heighten an aesthetic – especially in America, but the nudity in Swanberg’s films is so matter-of-fact, his actors so open and exposed and the sex in which they partake so messy and genuine that you eventually get over any initial discomfort or surprise and just accept it as part of the storytelling.

On the other hand, many of the women who expose their bodies in Swanberg’s movies are attractive and their nudity often front and centre. Given that he himself will either share sex scenes with them or, at the very least, be closely involved in the documenting of it, you can’t help but wonder if Swanberg is merely using his art to either get himself off or experience the thrill of partaking in or documenting sexual acts involving attractive women – simulated or otherwise – without experiencing the emotional consequences. As I said before, the more Swanberg movies you watch, the more you begin to wonder about the methods behind the creation of these scenes.

The curtain is lifted in The Zone, which unfolds in two halves. The first a typically Swanbergian affair in which a stranger arrives at a house and proceeds to seduce the men and women living there. At a certain point, this is revealed to be a half-finished film and we find Swanberg and his collaborators reviewing the edit wondering how to proceed. At the centre of it all is the conflict between actress Sophia Takal and her partner, both on screen and off, Lawrence Michael Levine and the tensions that arise from seeing one other partake is sexually explicit scenes with other people. Discussions abound over the ethics of such filmmaking, with Swanberg himself asking his actors if he is pushing them too far and how no relationship is worth sacrificing for the sake of a movie. He mentions how this has been a problem in the past and, despite his best efforts, many friendships have been fraught in the wake of his filmmaking. Given the nature of his films and as their primary creator, Swanberg is given an intense amount of trust from his actors and collaborators; repeatedly wrestling with the prospect of abusing that power, here nine films into his career and finally making a film about it, is clearly taking an emotional toll on him.

We see attempts at filming sex scenes go awry as jealously and fury interrupt the drama and full-blown arguments ensue mid-scene. Given that the camera never stops rolling and the somewhat “too good to be true” nature of moments seemingly caught out of nowhere, it doesn’t take long for you to question the film’s authenticity. Are these re-created from real situations or is the entire thing a sneakily constructed work of meta-fiction designed by Swanberg to answer the questions he surely knows are swirling in the minds of his audience? That blurring of the line here being more blurred than ever. Either way, it doesn’t really matter.

The conflicts of The Zone are fascinating enough and so worthy of investigation that their on-camera authenticity is besides the point. It’s a provocative film, confrontational in its directness and suffocating in its intimacy. Swanberg and his cast open themselves up for dissection to the point where it is uncomfortable and, at times, scary. The film puts you in the position of voyeur in such close quarters to the filmmaking process, at its most confessional and exposed, that you wish you could just back away and look elsewhere, but Swanberg forces you to watch.

Given that The Zone was produced during a remarkably prolific period for Swanberg – he released no less than six completed self-funded features in 2011 – it’s refreshing to see a certain level of self-awareness suddenly dominate his work. When the director and his cast review the film within a film, Levine’s criticisms of the material echoed my own thoughts as I sat through the assembly – how a male on male sex scene is documented with a level of disinterest not present in those featuring the women, seemingly proof of the director’s worst tendencies – and Swanberg nods, agreeing. It shows that the filmmaker is not closed off to accepting his own shortcomings and considering the criticisms – whether valid or not – frequently levelled at him. Like all great artists, he is looking to improve upon past failures and avoid making the same mistakes. He clearly takes the work seriously and in one scene makes a plea to his cast to to do the same in the search for an emotional truth. In other words, he wants them to get in “The Zone” – a phrase which is never uttered aloud in the movie (I don’t think), but that’s what the title refers to and specifically how that zone can be a place of both exciting creation and oppressive, dangerous hostility.

The Zone might be the best Swanberg film I’ve seen to date, certainly the one which affected me most viscerally. The realism reached beyond the screen and made me complicit in the experience to an uncomfortable degree. I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a starting point for Swanberg novices, as the extra-textual layers do rely on some kind of understanding of the filmmaker’s MO via his other work, and your familiarity with the faces on screen – he frequently casts the same people – makes the film’s conflicts that much more intense and involving. But after you’ve made your way through three or four of his early films, fire up The Zone to see what a Joe Swanberg movie can really do.

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The Lady Without Camelias (1953)

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La signora senza camelie could also be translated as “Melodrama and Film Sets”. Antonioni’s scathing takedown of the Italian film industry follows an actress called Clara (Lucia Bosé) as she navigates a world of seedy moviemakers and greedy agents, exclusively personified by possessive men. Antonioni breaks the neo-realist mould as his knack for complex, isolating master shots frequently rears its head. The film begins tracking behind Clara as she enters a theatre, only to see her own film playing on the big screen therefore the first time we actually see her face is on that screen, projected twenty feet high. It all comes full circle by the end as we find Clara broken and compromised by the industry, culminating in a loaded final shot as she struggles to force a smile for the pack of wolf-like paparazzi feverishly snapping her photo. This is a more directly humane affair from Antonioni but even this early you can see his interest in conventional film language becoming distant, his shots getting wider and wider to convey disconnect in the spaces between his actors.

Watched on Eureka Masters of Cinema blu-ray.

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Sing Street (2016)

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A delightful speaker-blast of kitchen-sink escapism which further proves John Carney to be the modern master of the movie musical. Sing Street makes you feel good, it makes you tap your feet; it’s a vision of Irish streets in the 80s and a document of the music playing in bedrooms by someone who was clearly there, watching and listening. I wasn’t, but the observations are so acute that you don’t doubt their authenticity, even if they’re no doubt rounded off and tinted with a nostalgic slant. The young cast are wonderful, believably selling their musical chops – amateur and otherwise – making this the closest sibling to School of RockI’ve seen since that film came out fourteen years ago. The film’s musical centrepiece, a fantasised, 80s music-video rendition of a school disco, is one of the most unashamedly feel-good feats of mainstream filmmaking I’ve seen in a while. The kind of film you can pass on like a mixtape with a hand-written tracklisting.

Watched on Netflix.

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