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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Blogathon Relay: The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

One of the more pleasant surprises I’ve had recently was to have received the baton from the lovely Ruth at FlixChatter for the 10 Most Influential Directors of All Time Blogathon relay.

The Blogathon was the brainchild of John at Hichcock’s World. It’s a brilliant idea and John sums it up nicely: “I have compiled a list of 10 directors I consider to be extremely influential. I will name another blogger to take over. That blogger, in their own article, will go through my list and choose one they feel doesn’t belong, make a case for why that director doesn’t fit, and then bring out a replacement. After making a case for why that director is a better choice, they will pass the baton onto another blogger. That third blogger will repeat the process before choosing another one to take over, and so on.”

The baton has so far been passed to the following:

Girl Meets Cinema
And So It Begins…
Dell On Movies
Two Dollar Cinema
A Fistful Of Films
The Cinematic Spectacle
FlixChatter (Thanks for the banner logo Ruth!)

The original list had plenty of incredible directors on it, but as the baton has been handed down the list has become pretty damned impressive:

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Georges Méliès, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick

Ruth’s addition to the list was Billy Wilder and her justification was thus: “I’ve recently seen one of Wilder’s best, The Apartment, and I could see why his films are so beloved. He imbued such wit in his films, a dose of cynical humor. He also has a way with actors, having directed no less than 14 actors to Oscar-nominated performances. He’s also a versatile writer/director, as he excelled in numerous genres: drama, noir, comedy as well as war films. He’s one of those directors whose work I still need to see more of, but even from the few that I’ve seen, it’s easy to see how Mr Wilder belongs in this list.”

So, Who’s Out?

Jean Luc Goddard

Jean-Luc Godard

Man, this was an almost impossible decision. Godard’s still making movies aged 83 and there’s no denying the influence of his work. Breathless remains a defining work of the French New Wave and his 1964 film Bande à part was stolen by Tarantino for the name of his production company. The more I think about it, the less I’m sure, but compared to the others on this list I feel Godard’s influence has slipped and, as such, he doesn’t quite make it. Sorry Jean-Luc, but I suspect you’d feel that lists like this are way too bourgeois anyway.

Now, Who’s In?

John Ford

John Ford

Reflecting on his masterpiece Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was asked who influenced what is still regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Welles’ reply was simple: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” He had reputedly watched Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach more than 40 times in preparation for his debut feature and he wasn’t the only one to have been drawn to the work of one of the most influential directors of all time.

An encounter with Ford proved to have a massive impact on a 15-year-old Steven Spielberg, who subsequently said of the great man: “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures.” Watch Saving Private Ryan‘s devastating D-Day landings sequence and War Horse and you’ll see Ford’s stamp front and centre.

Likewise, Martin Scorsese has cited The Searchers as one of his favourite films. Speaking about the film in the Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese said: “In truly great films – the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable – nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery. In this case, the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realises his goal, brings her back and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note.”

The list goes on. Ingmar Bergman cited Ford as “the best director in the world”, while Alfred Hitchcock declared that a “John Ford film was a visual gratification”.

From the earliest days of film, through to the invention of sound and the introduction of colour, Ford remained a cinematic pioneer. Although best regarded for his westerns, he also made another masterpiece that defined a nation – The Grapes Of Wrath; while his incredible World War Two documentaries The Battle Of Midway and December 7th remain quintessential examples of the craft. For all this alone, John Ford should be regarded as The Great American Director.


 

Well, that’s me done, so now the torch passes to… Fernando at Committed to Celluloid. Good luck Fernando; you’re gonna need it!

Great Films You Need To See – Red Rock West (1993)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about John Dahl’s 1993 western neo noir thriller Red Rock West 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.

Cinema’s dustbin is littered with movies that disappeared between the cracks or didn’t fit neatly into any easy-to-sell marketing category.

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

It’s a fate that befell the criminally underseen Red Rock West, John Dahl’s sophomore feature that, according to the late Roger Ebert, “exists sneakily between a western and a thriller, between a film noir and a black comedy”.

The film is worth seeing for the cast alone. Nicolas Cage gives one of his most hangdog turns as Michael Williams, an ordinary Joe on the road to nowhere who rolls into dead-end Red Rock and is immediately mistaken for “Lyle from Dallas” by bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh).

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he's "Lyle from Dallas" in Red Rock West

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he’s “Lyle from Dallas” in Red Rock West

Down on his luck, Michael keeps his mouth shut when he accepts $5,000 by Wayne to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). He’s then offered double by Suzanne to kill Wayne after telling her about the contract. The plot takes a turn for the perilous with the arrival of the real Lyle (Dennis Hopper), a psychopathic hitman who dresses like he stepped out of a Garth Brooks concert.

Dahl, who co-wrote the script with brother Rick, throws in more twists than a pretzel factory and has a ball in the process. There’s an amusing running joke that sees the exasperated Michael continually trying to leave Red Rock but, like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, is seemingly never able to escape.

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne's wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

There’s more than a little of David Lynch in the film, and not just because three-quarters of the main cast have worked with him. Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode, while Boyle exudes the sort of old school matinee seduction she displayed in Twin Peaks.

In a film of meaty performances, the tastiest is given by Walsh (who should have appeared in a Lynch film, but never did). In lesser hands Wayne could have been a stock villain, but Walsh imbues him with a banality that is all the more chilling for being so underplayed.

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dahl is one of life’s nearly men. Now predominately a director of high-end cable and network TV shows, his film career never garnered the commercial success it was due in spite of such entertaining fare as The Last Seduction and Rounders, the Matt Damon and Edward Norton joint that helped launch the current poker craze.

Released in the wake of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Red Rock West became a casualty of the rapidly changing landscape of American independent cinema post-Tarantino. Watched now, more than 20 years on, the film has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs.