Great Films You Need To See – Safe (1995)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout April with the theme of ‘health and illness’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Todd Haynes’s underseen modern horror Safe.

There’s something horrifically unsettling about being eaten away by something neither you nor seemingly anyone else can fully comprehend.

Safe PosterReleased in 1995 but set eight years earlier, Todd Haynes’ sublime Safe was originally meant as an AIDS allegory. More than two decades later, the film feels even more prescient, even more nightmarishly potent as the pace of change continues at bewildering speed.

Safe is ostensibly about the meek and vanilla Carol (Julianne Moore) succumbing to what she and we later understand is ‘environmental illness’, a debilitating reaction to the various pollutants, chemicals and god knows what else that are as much a part of modern living as climate change.

However, Haynes’ first true masterpiece is also an unblinking critique of the emptiness of western suburbia as well as a quietly damning indictment of the fraudulent touchy-feely self-help racket that charges top dollar without the results to match.

SafeFollowing a series of warning signs (the first thing we see her do is sneeze), Carol is overcome by a coughing fit while driving her car. Her doctor is as befuddled and nonplussed as her husband (Xander Barkley), while her psychiatrist is equally clueless as to how someone whose seemingly stress-free and privileged life (the most worked up she gets is over an incorrectly coloured new couch being delivered) could physically deteriorate so dramatically.

The second half of the film sees Carol moving from her affluent San Fernando Valley home to a self-ascribed healing centre in the desert run by Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), a self-help guru whose true motivations we suspect are encapsulated in the mansion that looks down on the wood cabins Carol and her fellow residents stay in.

Although largely full of positive, friendly people collectively living with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), the retreat is just that, an escape from the outside world that allows for plenty of motivational talking from Peter but doesn’t appear to provide a magic wand. Indeed, her physical symptoms, if anything, deteriorate further while the death of a resident offers a sobering tonic.

SafeLikewise, the awkward, rambling speech Carol gives at her surprise birthday party near the end of the film about no longer hating herself and the importance of MCS awareness smacks of Kool-Aid platitudes to the extent that she literally runs out of things to say and ends up staring blankly at the others.

The film’s doom-laden tagline – “In the 21st Century, nobody will be safe” – and its theatrical poster featuring a spookily dressed resident of the retreat may seem like misleading marketing, but there’s a genuinely unsettling edge to the film.

Employing the austere aesthetic of Kubrick, Haynes and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy use slow, methodical tracks and zooms, while Moore is often shot at a distance, as if getting too close would pass on the illness she is struggling to understand.

SafeThere’s an industrial hum underlying the first half of the film that’s reminiscent of Lynch and bores into the brain like a form of tinnitus. The Lynch nods can also be found in the Angelo Badalamenti-esque score by Brendan Dolan and Ed Tomney.

Aftershocks from the earthquake that struck the San Fernando Valley in 1994 were apparently occurring during filming and that rumbling sense of foreboding seeps out of every frame, right until its ambiguous ending that finds Carol trying to hold on to a life that has been blighted by forces she doesn’t understand.

SafeDelivering one her on her very finest performances, Moore makes flesh and blood a part that in lesser hands could have been irritating and one-note. Carol is an empty vessel in many ways, a doll who at one point even resembles a shop floor mannequin at a birthday party she attends with other rich housewives. However, she is also a human being going through a terrifying ordeal and Moore garners our sympathy through a heartbreaking turn that’s imbued with loneliness and fear.

Even more of a cautionary tale now as on its release more than 20 years ago, Safe is a modern horror that doesn’t need the traditional tropes to scare us – modern life will do that job just fine.

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Great Films You Need To See – Valhalla Rising (2009)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout September with the theme of ‘the great outdoors’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Nicolas Winding Refn’s Vikings and violence drama Valhalla Rising.

If “art is an act of violence” as the uncompromising Nicolas Winding Refn has attested, then his vicious Viking abstraction Valhalla Rising must surely belong in the Louvre.

Valhalla Rising - powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn's ouevre so far

Valhalla Rising – powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s oeuvre so far

Cut to the bone in terms of narrative and dialogue, the only thing more harsh than the inevitability of (often brutal) death in Refn’s powerful and primeval journey into apocalyptic dread is the bleakly beautiful Scottish landscapes in which the film was shot.

Coming off the back of Bronson (2008), Refn’s penchant for anti-heroes takes us back to 1000AD and Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye, a mute Norse savage who wreaks a terrible vengeance against his captors and, following his escape, agrees to accompany a group of Viking Christians in search of the Holy Land.

One-Eye’s only companion is a young boy (Maarten Stevenson), who believes the silent warrior has been delivered to this godforsaken place from hell. The group’s devout leader (Ewan Stewart) is confident that, by accompanying them on their quest across the ocean, One-Eye can be cleansed of his sins. The land they finally arrive at, however, is far from holy and no amount of faith can prepare them for the dawning realisation that they are trapped in purgatory.

You don't want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising feels like a curious mash-up of the nihilism of Bergman and the bloodthirstiness of Mel Gibson, while its stark reminder of man’s hubristic folly in trying to conquer nature is Aguirre, The Wrath Of God-level Werner Herzog.

The film’s hellish, pared-back arthouse aesthetic is certainly not to everyone’s taste and might in part explain its disastrous box office returns, but such is the power of Mikkelsen’s towering central performance and Morten Søborg’s arresting cinematography that Valhalla Rising avoids becoming the cinematic equivalent of a coffee table book.

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The insanity that grips the Crusaders is most effectively portrayed during the film’s central chapter (it is split into six parts with self-explanatory titles such as “silent warrior” and “hell”), in which their voyage across the ocean is met with disaster when a thick fog shrouds both the boat and their collective reasoning.

A crucifix is erected upon finally arriving at this new land, but it offers no safety from the arrows that are regularly loosed at them from the forest by unknown assailants, while the dearth of animals or fruit also eats into their dwindling faith.

The drugs don't work in Valhalla Rising

The drugs don’t work in Valhalla Rising

Their growing despair is allowed to manifest when they drink a psychotropic brew and their base instincts are unleashed in a scene that has the look and feel of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor video and could well have served as an influence on Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013).

Mikkelsen is often filmed side on in extreme close-up, his immovable features set against the equally implacable landscape. Scotland has arguably never looked more alien or more beautiful and its unforgiving nature cruelly exposes the human weaknesses of the Christians, particularly the leader who is seemingly willing to sacrifice anyone in order to build the new Jerusalem he so blindly believes possible.

He's called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

He’s called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

Perhaps tellingly, the final two remaining Christians, when everything else is lost, take to following the heathen One-Eye, whether it be out of fear of death, an utter loss of faith or both.

The success of Refn’s follow-up Drive (2011) has cast a large shadow over the director’s career and sadly pulled the focus away from the likes of Valhalla Rising. It’s a pity as the film is powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of his oeuvre so far.

Great Films You Need To See – The Candidate (1972)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout May with the theme of ‘politics’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Robert Redford-starring The Candidate.

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the political process finally surrendered to the whim of the media machine and devolved into little more than a playground trade-off centred on bite-sized slogans and soundbites.

The Candidate - as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

The Candidate – as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

‘Playing the game’ has become a damning pre-requisite for those who seek to govern us, as Robert Redford’s idealist-turned-stooge Bill McKay comes to learn in Michael Ritchie’s expose of the business-as-usual cynicism at the empty heart of party politics.

Largely filmed as if US Senate candidate McKay is being shadowed by a documentary crew, often with the sort of overlapping dialogue you’d expect to hear under such frantic circumstances, The Candidate painstakingly (and painfully) shows how the hamster wheel of campaigning chips away at McKay’s principles.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) - guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) – guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

A respected community organiser who has never registered to vote (“he’s never seen the point of it”, according to his wife), McKay is assured by campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) that he can say and do what he wants because he doesn’t stand a chance against long-serving incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) – a deal Lucas seals by scribbling the words “you lose” on the inside of a matchbook.

However, before he can say “read my lips…”, McKay is being maneuvered from the liberal left to the safe centreground; be it getting a haircut, donning a suit and tie just like his retired governor father (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas), or having his views skillfully edited by media manager Howard Klein (Allen Garfield) for the purposes of ‘man of the people’ TV ads.

A better way? - Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

A better way? – Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

McKay may spout hot air about being stifled from saying what he really thinks (for instance, when Lucas suggests McKay’s opinion on legalised abortion that “every woman should have that right” be watered down to “it’s worth studying”), but he ultimately does what he’s told – especially when the polls indicate the gap is closing on Jarmon.

Inversely, the further McKay moves away from the principles he once had, the more accomplished and popular he becomes with the people, who spout back his slogan “A better way” in ever-growing numbers.

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Much like Warren Beatty, whose under-appreciated Bulworth (1998) is The Candidate turned on its head, Redford wears his politics on his sleeve. However, he cleverly undermines his liberal poster-boy image in his portrayal of a weak-willed puppet unable and ultimately unwilling to break the mould.

When real-life political commentator Howard K. Smith cuts to the bone of McKay’s campaign by exclaiming that “the Madison Avenue commercial has taken over as his standard means of persuasion; the voters are being asked to choose McKay as they would a detergent”, the candidate can only watch with the look of someone resigned to their fate.

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

The absurdity of the situation is encapsulated late on when a frazzled McKay self-mockingly starts jumbling his speeches together into one giant meaningless soundbite, while the lost boy look he gives Lucas when he asks “what do we do now?” after their unexpected election victory is priceless.

As relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon, The Candidate is a reminder should one be need one that the house always wins.

Great Films You Need To See – Secretary (2002)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout March with the theme of ‘sexuality’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case Steven Shainberg’s S&M-flavoured romance Secretary.

Long before the box office submitted to the inevitable adaptation of E.L James’ mummy porn juggernaut, another, altogether more fascinating Mr Grey indulged in a spot of big screen sadomasochism.

A film that doesn't allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

It helps that the Mr Grey of Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) is played by jittery genius that is James Spader, whose career has been mottled with sexually dysfunctional types, from his impotent voyeur in Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989), to his character’s penchant for amputees in Crash (1996).

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

His is the perfect casting for the eccentric attorney; an obsessive-compulsive misfit who finds his soul mate in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s equally damaged Lee. Fresh out of a psychiatric hospital following a long period of self-harm, Lee soon returns to her masochistic ways in the miserable company of her hard-drinking father and meek, downtrodden mother. She responds to a job advert for a secretary at Grey’s low-rent office (an oft-sought vacancy, presumably, due to the illuminated sign out front) and the pair slowly attune to each other’s wavelength; which just happens to involve acts of BDSM.

The film’s prologue features Lee in bondage performing menial office tasks, before flashing back six months to her leaving hospital. The sight of Lee stapling paper using her chin and fixing up a cup of coffee with her arms bound to a pole is treated matter-of-factly but nevertheless threatens the prospect of a nudge-nudge sex comedy (the misjudged poster also doesn’t help).

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

But Shainberg wisely avoids the trap of winking at the audience or going over-the-top thanks to a script that treats its characters with a tenderness and understanding they have been longing for all their lives and finally find with each other.

The Red (actually purple) Riding Hood cloak the wide-eyed Lee wears when she first enters what we assume is the wolf’s lair of Grey’s office is nicely subverted when we see him frantically checking his hair, asking awkward, inappropriate questions of his would-be employee and revealing his carefully manicured orchids; a none-too-subtle symbol of his own fragility.

Interesting...

Interesting…

The film is careful not to rush what is a complex relationship, with their guarded fascination with each other signalled by lascivious glances that suddenly explode into something more extreme as Grey’s dominant demands for perfection from the willfully submissive Lee play out in increasingly intense ways. This extends beyond the office, to the extent whereby he instructs her on how many peas to put on her plate, to the bafflement of her family.

There are other nice touches, particularly between Lee and timid childhood friend Peter (Jeremy Davies) whom she falls into a relationship with to the delight of their parents. Lee’s frustration with the unassuming Peter is palpable, while the look on her face when she spies his picture during a masturbatory fantasy about her boss is priceless.

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

In a breakout performance, Gyllenhaal takes Lee on an involving journey from a child-like waif controlled by her illness, to someone who knows what – and who – she wants and is more than prepared to do what is necessary to get it.

Spader, who reportedly adopted the same hot/cold demeanour with Gyllenhaal off set as Grey has with Lee, is typically hypnotic; all slow, hushed tones and coiled mannerisms that erupt into moments of sexual expression that appear to surprise and thrill him in equal measure.

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook.

Great Films You Need To See – Dark Star (1974)

Before he became a master of horror, John Carpenter went where no hippie had gone before with his gloriously goofy sci-fi debut that put the space into spaced out.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star's slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star’s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

In the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), science fiction had entered a new, grown up phase, one where contemplation and big ideas had replaced explosions and cheap entertainment.

For Carpenter and fellow University of Southern California student Dan O’Bannon, Kubrick’s masterpiece represented a summit they could never hope to reach. In response, they cobbled together $60,000 and made Dark Star, a film that may represent the mirror image of 2001, but has proved just as influential.

Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) - the crew of Dark Star

Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) – the crew of Dark Star

Without the budget to lavish on grand sets or grander special effects, Carpenter and fellow screenwriter O’Bannon came up with the inspired notion of injecting a dose of blue-collar mundanity to their vision of space travel.

Think about it for a moment; who would you expect to see being sent on a 20-year mission to blow up unstable planets in systems marked out for future human colonisation? Dark Star’s crew – Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Pinback (O’Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) and Talby (Dre Pahich) – are the other guys; the ones who do the donkey work so that others more glamorous and well-paid than themselves can take all the credit.

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

This ‘truckers in space’ approach has been used in numerous sci-fi movies since, most notably in the O’Bannon-scripted Alien (1979), while Carpenter himself has elaborated on the blue-collar Joe Schmoe concept in The Thing (1982). Anyone who’s watched Ghostbusters will also spot where that film got its idea for Murray and co’s jumpsuits.

The shorthand dialogue and bored, petty resentments between the crew, especially from the highly strung Pinback, are completely plausible, as is their unkempt appearance. After all, with only each other for company, why bother cutting your hair or trimming your beard?

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

Shoulder-shrugging observations about the deteriorating state of the ship are another nice touch, such as Doolittle’s ship’s log report about the Dark Star’s stock of toilet rolls blowing up thanks to a computer malfunction; a previous explosion which has destroyed their sleeping quarters; and the ship’s complement of talking bombs, which have become increasingly unpredictable and are responsible for the film’s darkly humourous final act.

The mind-numbing length of their mission also suggests itself in nicely observed exchanges and asides (“chicken again!”), with Doolittle’s admission that he can no longer remember his own first name being an amusing case in point.

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

With only a shoestring budget to play around with, the decision to use a beachball to represent a squeaky-voiced alien the crew have adopted as a mascot is brilliantly inspired. Pinback’s increasingly desperate efforts to first feed and then track down the mischievous creature is its own mini-movie; half-slapstick and half-dramatic that drives much of the film’s middle section.

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

The limited finances are also evident in Dark Star‘s wonky special effects, which have an old-school DIY aesthetic that gives the film an anti-establishment feel in keeping with its theme of sticking two fingers up to the Man. Meanwhile, Carpenter’s otherworldly score (a long-running constant throughout most of his oeuvre) harkens back to the sci-fi movies of his youth.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star‘s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre.