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 – 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 – The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘satire’. 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 ex-Python Eric Idle’s music mockumentary The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.

Hardly ones to take themselves too seriously, the Fab Four nevertheless provided the perfect foils for the grandfather of music mockumentaries.

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof

Before This Is Spinal Tap (1984) there was The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978), a Beatles parody given form partly thanks to its lead guitarist George Harrison.

Originally conceived as a throwaway sketch on Eric Idle’s post-Python BBC comedy series Rutland Weekend Television (1975-76), the skit took on a life of its own when it was shown on an episode of the long-running gag show Saturday Night Live that Idle was hosting.

Eric Idle's presenter in deep water in The Rutles

Eric Idle’s presenter in deep water in The Rutles

With Harrison’s encouragement, Idle’s partner-in-crime on Rutland Weekend Television Neil Innes knuckled down to turn what was an affectionate parody of A Hard Day’s Night into an alternative history of the world’s most successful and beloved band that spawned a whole new cinematic sub-genre.

Written by Idle and Innes, The Rutles charts the story of the Prefab Four – Dirk McQuickly (Idle), Ron Nasty (Innes), Stig O’Hara (Ricky Fataar) and Barry Wom (John Halsey) – from their humble Rutland roots to becoming “bigger than Rod [Stewart]” and creating “a musical legend that will last a lunchtime”.

The Rutles' take on I Am The Walrus, Piggy In The Middle

The Rutles’ take on I Am The Walrus, Piggy In The Middle

Modelled on the traditional to-camera documentary presenter style (Idle again), the film’s less-than-serious approach is apparent from the get go, with the former Python’s walk and talk becoming a sprint and gasp as the vehicle he’s following decides to hit the gas.

The presenter follows in the tight-trousered band’s footsteps from Der Rat Keller in Hamburg to the Ed Sullivan Show, Che Stadium (“named after the Cuban guerilla leader Che Stadium”), their spiritual quest to Bognor to meet Surrey mystic Arthur Sultan and Ron’s sit in the shower for peace with his soul mate Chastity (played by Gwen Taylor in a Nazi outfit in a hilariously near-the-knuckle mickey take of Yoko Ono).

Ron Nasty (Neil Innes) and partner Chastity (Gwen Taylor), aka Yoko Ono in The Rutles

Ron Nasty (Neil Innes) and partner Chastity (Gwen Taylor), aka Yoko Ono in The Rutles

The Beatles’ musical evolution is playfully parodied (Doubleback Alley is a take on Penny Lane; I Am The Walrus becomes the equally nonsensical Piggy In The Middle, among many others), while the band’s foray into the world of movies is also lampooned, with Ouch! a send-up of Help!; Yellow Submarine Sandwich (complete with surreal animation) and The Tragical History Tour, in which the Prefab Four play Oxford history professors going on a hitchhiking tour of tea shops in the Rutland area.

The SNL connection led to cameos from Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi, while Michael Palin appears in one the film’s most amusing scenes playing opposite Harrison’s silver-haired interviewer as Rutle Corps’ headquarters is plundered.

Ex-Beatle George Harrison interviews Rutle Corp press agent Eric Manchester (Michael Palin) in The Rutles

Ex-Beatle George Harrison interviews Rutle Corp press agent Eric Manchester (Michael Palin) in The Rutles

Roped in to give the film some extra fizz by Harrison, a game Mick Jagger and Paul Simon deliver old Rutles tales with admirable brio, probably because most of the stories they were telling were actually true and involved the Fab, rather than the Prefab, Four.

The Rutles adheres to the most important rule of mockumentaries, in that everyone plays it straight despite the silliness going on around them. It also helps that Innes’ songs are catchy in their own right and different enough from the originals so as not to sound like a carbon copy.

The Rutles go all showbiz

The Rutles go all showbiz

It’s a testament to the film’s legacy that not only did it influence Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest when approaching This Is Spinal Tap, but also remains both a cult favourite among as many Beatles fans as those who still follow The Rutles on their sporadic live tours.

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof.

Great Films You Need To See – Seconds (1966)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. This piece about John Frankenheimer’s 1966 paranoid classic Seconds was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Paranoia is a commodity rich with cinematic potential, but few pictures have mined it with such bleak and powerful unease as Seconds (1966).

A work of cinema so far ahead of its time, Seconds is as topical now as ever has been

A work of cinema so far ahead of its time, Seconds is as topical now as ever has been

Ostensibly a work of science fiction, John Frankenheimer’s chilling dystopian nightmare addresses themes that, if anything, are more timely now than they were in the so-called Swinging Sixties.

Our fear of aging and irrelevance are front and centre in this adaptation of David Ely’s novel, as are themes of lost identity, unwitting conformity and a belief in the promise of self-entitlement sold by politicians and advertising firms.

Just one of the surreal images from John Frankenheimer's Seconds

Just one of the surreal images from John Frankenheimer’s Seconds

Seconds marked the final pessimistic entry in Frankenheimer’s unofficial ‘paranoia trilogy’ (after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days In May (1964), but rather than reflect the growing political cynicism that was gripping a country still coming to terms with Kennedy’s assassination and the spiralling war in Vietnam, it instead highlighted the growing crisis of masculinity that was unfolding in lock step with the burgeoning feminist movement.

The man in question is Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a banker bored with his marriage, job and suburban existence who signs up (after some coercion) to the promise of a new life by a shadowy organisation referred to only as ‘the Company’. Following a faked death and extensive plastic surgery, Hamilton is ‘reborn’ as Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson), a successful artist living the American Dream. For all intents and purposes, Wilson can begin again; however, the one thing he can never change is himself.

Wilson (Rock Hudson) questions his identity in Seconds

Wilson (Rock Hudson) questions his identity in Seconds

Seconds grabs your attention from the moment Saul Bass’ surreal and unnerving title sequence kicks in with a series of distorted close-ups of a person’s face, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s highly strung organ score.

The seeds of alarm sown by Bass bloom in the hands of James Wong Howe’s deliberately disquieting cinematography (the film’s sole Oscar nomination), which uses all manner of weird camera angles, extreme close-ups and tight tracking shots to keep the viewer on edge.

Hamilton (John Randolph) is 'reborn' in Seconds

Hamilton (John Randolph) is ‘reborn’ in Seconds

Meat is a notable theme, the meaning of which becomes clear as the film nears its climax. Hamilton is led through a slaughterhouse filled with carcases to attend  his rendezvous with the mysterious organisation, while in the film’s most blackly comic scene, chirpy Company salesman Mr Ruby (Jeff Greer) tucks into a crispy chicken dinner while explaining matter-of-factly the circumstances of Arther’s ‘death’.

Company employee Davalo (The Manchurian Candidate‘s Khigh Dhiegh) explains to Wilson: “You don’t have to prove anything anymore. You are accepted. You are alone in the world, absolved of any responsibility, except to your own interests.” The blank canvas we later see him staring at  in frustration in his beachside home suggests the interests he thought he had are just as fake as he is, however.

Wilson (Rock Hudson) comes full circle in Seconds

Wilson (Rock Hudson) comes full circle in Seconds

The point is underlined when he encounters the enigmatic Nora (Salome Jones), who describes Wilson as a “key still unturned” and urges him to throw off the shackles and embrace life. Wilson toys with the idea, but the straightjacket he’s sought to free himself from is tighter than he first thought.

Most commonly thought of as a leading man in frothy comedies, Hudson gives arguably his best performance as the tortured Wilson. It’s a canny bit of casting; Hudson was one of the world’s most desirable men at the time and the actor does an admirable job of undermining his pretty boy image, most notably in the shocking final scene.

The film’s influence can be seen in the likes of Total Recall (1990/2012) (based on Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, also released in 1966), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1984) and David Fincher’s The Game (1997), while its theme of masculine crisis is the driving force behind a string of serious television shows, from The Sopranos to Mad Men.

A work of cinema so far ahead of its time, Seconds is as topical now as ever has been.