The Grammy Problem

Here’s a fun fact: Bob Marley never once won a competitive Grammy. Neither did Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. Nor did Kate Bush, Tupac or Queen. Nina Simone never won one, Diana Ross never won one, and Patti Smith never won one. Neither did The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, Grace Jones, The Who, Biggie, Björk, Iggy Pop, Dusty Springfield, Curtis Mayfield, Martha Reeves, The Supremes, Sly and the Family Stone, The Talking Heads, Buddy Holly, Thelonious Monk, Liz Phair or Chuck Berry.

Nothing, nada, zero.

Here’s another fun fact: Ed Sheeran, in a single night, has won (quite literally) infinitely more competitive Grammys than all of these acts put together…

Go figure.

The Rolling Stones never won a competitive Grammy until 1994. Pink Floyd never won one until 1995. Led Zeppelin never won one until 2014 with their live album “Celebration Day”. Lionel Richie’s “Can’t Slow Down” beat Prince’s “Purple Rain” to Album of the Year in 1985. Blood, Sweat & Tears’ eponymous album beat The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” in 1970. Tony Bennett’s “MTV Unplugged” beat Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” (which wasn’t even nominated) in 1995.

So why, oh, why do we take the Grammys seriously? Their track record is worse than Nigel Farage’s attempts at running for Parliament.

The New York Times ran a piece last week highlighting that of all the 899 Grammy nominees from the past six years, less than 10% were women. Despite living in a world full of interesting, challenging and inventive female artists, the Grammys seem completely blind to the enormous talent these women consistently display. This year, SZA and Lorde – the two artists responsible for the best albums of 2017 (“Ctrl” and “Melodrama” respectively) – both went home without a single Grammy between them.

And then we come to hip-hop, undoubtedly the most influential and radical music genre of the past 25 years. Yet, in the history of the Grammys, only two hip-hop albums – two! – have ever been awarded the top prize of Album of the Year – Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999, and Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” in 2004. (Sorry, Kendrick. “To Pimp a Butterfly” was genius – perhaps the best album of this entire decade so far – but it’s no “1989”.) At a rate like this, the Grammys will soon be battling it out with Trump’s “Fake News Awards” for the title of Most Inconsequential Honours of the Year.

In short, the Grammys, like most award shows, are a crock. They should be treated as a bit of fluff, a fun evening where the biggest names in the industry strut their stuff, put on a good show, and nab a few cheeky headlines. But that’s about it. Don’t go looking for judicious decisions or any level of sagacity. Occasionally, however, the Grammys might get it right, like “Sgt. Pepper” winning Album of the Year in 1968, or “Songs in the Key of Life” winning in 1977. But, more often than not, they award the wrong people and the wrong acts. If the Grammys don’t change their game, their ballot boxes will always remain stuffed with choices that are bad, safe, boring, or just downright crazy.

(I mean Phil Collins’s “No Jacket Required” beating Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” to Album of the Year? Give me strength.)


My Favourite Movies of 2017

I did something stupid, something I almost never do…

I made a ranked list.

Normally I don’t do ranked lists. I find them too definitive and reductive – much too calculating for something as arbitrary and subjective as “liking movies”. How do you rank a fluffy, knockabout rom-com with a gory, grisly slasher? Can you? Should you? I’m not so sure. What’s more, I have not seen – nor cannot see – every film released this year. Nobody has – not even close. So what’s the use in ranking?

But forget the logic for just a second. The reason for ranking this year’s list is because I was told by a few friends that if you rank something on the internet, people are more likely to click on the link. (Don’t ask. They probably read it off some ranked Buzzfeed article or something.) I don’t know how true this is, but I’m willing to give it a go. Hey look, I enjoy clicks as much as the next person. I may dislike clickbait, but, as long as I’m not the one doing the clicking, I’ll happily supply the bait.

So here we are. The end of 2017. Gosh, it just flew by, didn’t it? (No, of course it didn’t – it dragged like a jockey caught in a stirrup. But it’s almost over, folks. Only a few more days to go. Just breathe and relax, breathe and relax.)

However, despite the fact 2017 was a bit… well… terrible, it was still a pretty good year for cinema. Here’s a list of my 17 favourites from 2017 (I couldn’t even manage a top 15, never mind a top 10). By this time tomorrow I’ll almost certainly regret the order or want to change it completely. And by this time next year, I’ll probably look back and think I was crazy. That’s the way it goes. Also, like I said before, there are still hundreds of films released this year that I never saw – and probably never will (“Geostorm” for one… But somehow life just seems too short though, doesn’t it?).

Naturally enough, this list is restricted to films released in the U.K. and Ireland in 2017 – so there’s no “Lady Bird”, no “The Post”, no “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, no “BPM”, “Phantom Thread”, “The Shape of Water”, “Loveless” or “I, Tonya”. But I look forward to each and every one of those titles in 2018. Bring it on.

IMG_4658-feature-1600x900-c-default17. Personal Shopper

Dir: Olivier Assayas

Back in 2014, Kristen Stewart delivered the performance of her career in Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria”. But, with the arrival “Personal Shopper”, Stewart and Assayas’s second collaboration together, that’s no longer the case. Stewart’s performance in this film tops all her previous work. She’s one of the most interesting and intuitive performers in modern American cinema. Here she plays Maureen, a personal shopper to a wealthy, unpleasant socialite. But she’s also an amateur ghost hunter searching for her dead twin brother. This sounds like a jarring combination, but Assayas makes it work. The balance of the material world with the afterword is deftly handled and oddly complementary. Maureen occupies a space on the fringes of wealth, and a space between life and death. The film serves as a profound meditation on grief, notions of an afterlife, the interconnectivity of souls, and our strange, ghost-like relationship to technology.


16. The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

A fantastic script and a top-notch cast. Armando Iannucci satirises the dark, bumbling insanity that followed the death of one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th Century. Steve Buscemi is on top form as the gloomy, calculating Krushchev, a man that achieves more sour put-downs inside a minute than most of us manage blinks. It’s a terrific part for a sensationally talented actor, one that’s sadly often understretched these days. But perhaps the stand out is Jason Isaacs as the feared Red Army general Georgy  Zhukov. He plays him as a big, strapping, no-holds-barred Yorkshireman – sort of like if Sean Bean burst into the Kremlin with the bravado of Joe Pesci from “Goodfellas”.


15. Silence

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Adapted from Shusaku Endo’s novel, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is an exquisite, earnest movie about the nature of faith and the meaning of God. Those are big subjects, a territory of cinema frequented by arthouse giants like Bergman and Tarkovsky. But if any living director can handle it, Scorsese can. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two 17th century Portuguese Jesuits that travel to Japan to spread Christianity. It’s a deliberately slow and meditative piece, taking its time in exploring fascinating questions regarding faith, religion and the role of missionaries. It’s gorgeous, but also brutal – a beautifully ornate prayer book filled with doubt and melancholy.


14. Dunkirk

Dir: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s best film. The infamous World War II rescue mission is dramatized for the big screen with supreme craft and precision. The film is strikingly efficient – like a military operation. We breathlessly straddle land, sea and sky as tensions rise and knuckles whiten. But were as most war movies are about winning, “Dunkirk” is about surviving. It’s cinema at its purest. It’s Nolan at his finest. (See full review here)


13. Call Me by Your Name

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

“Call Me by Your Name” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival just days after Trump’s inauguration. In the midst of such a repressive climate, the movie calmed and soothed the festival’s audience. The film went down a storm – in the middle of a political storm. It was also a reminder that a gay love story, even a coming-of-age one, needn’t be overtly political to resonate. The romance between Elio (Tomothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) in 1980s Northern Italy is shown with little outside resistance. There are no disproving parents here; no bigoted bullies, concerned neighbours or cautious relatives. Instead, “Call Me by Your Name” is simply the story of a summer fling – a gorgeous, messy, exciting summer fling. But it’s also wise enough to recognise the power of such agonising, lustful encounters and acknowledge their lasting effects on an individual.


12. Elle

Dir: Paul Verhoeven

“Elle” is a bold, provocative rape-revenge fantasy from director Paul Verhoeven, one that showcases the great Isabelle Huppert at her absolute best (which means acting that’s better than anyone else on the planet). Here she is nothing short of astonishing as a cold, distant woman having to juggle her career and family life whilst dealing with horribly violent sexual assault. However, the way in which she deals with this assault is strange and disturbing. It’s a challenging film, at times maybe even inflammatory. For some, it might as well be called “Problematic: The Movie”. But I think that’s a little unfair. It’s much smarter and more complicated than it first appears. As a character study it’s completely fascinating, and it’s primarily down to Huppert. She may be the most powerfully instinctive and the most calmly intelligent actress working in cinema today.


11. Lady Macbeth

Dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth is no gentle period piece. There’s sex, murder, intrigue, secrets and lies. It features a sensational performance from Florence Pugh as Katherine, a woman of weak conscience but strong determination. It’s a chilling film, one that explores the wicked ways in which class and privilege can protect those in power from consequence whilst destroying the lives of others. It’s a beautiful-looking film too, each frame composed so carefully and deliberately. But there’s madness bubbling just below the surface, giving the film a frightening – but fascinating – air of menace. The tension tightens with every scene, gaining more and more friction, until finally exploding at the film’s devastating end.


10. Prevenge

Dir: Alice Lowe

“Prevenge” is a movie about a pregnant serial killer – written by, directed by, and starring (all-round genius) Alice Lowe. It’s a hoot. It’s also wickedly smart, dishing up a nightmarish satirical twist on antenatal depression. Lowe wrote and shot the movie while she was legitimately pregnant. Tired of not getting any acting gigs because of her condition, she decided to knock out her own project – quickly, cheaply and brilliantly. Lowe plays Ruth, a heavily pregnant woman with an acute awareness that, despite the all the cheery, tender hoopla surrounding it, pregnancy is a gruelling, unpleasant and painful experience. As a result, Ruth suffers from paranoid delusions that her unborn baby is instructing her to kill. And she dutifully obeys, time and time again.


9. Baby Driver

Dir: Edgar Wright

In terms of sheer directorial talent, Edgar Wright is the man. He’s a director with an impeccable instinct for cinematic craft. His latest pulpy vivacious exercise plays like a cinematic mixtape – a foot stomping, action movie musical. It takes archetypal genre characters – the badass driver, the callous boss, the stuck-in-a-rut waitress – and places them in fast cars, gun fights and groovy coffee runs. And it’s all set to the propulsive rhythmic soundtrack of energetic glam rock, vibrant prog rock and sweet, classic soul. The technique on display here is something else. Not a single shot is wasted. Gunshots become drum beats. Dialogue develops its own rhythm. Cars swerve and pirouette like Fred and Ginger. It’s a total blast from start to finish.


8. mother!

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

The 2017 film I’ve thought about maybe more than any other. It’s bold, bonkers and crammed with cinematic pleasures. Darren Aronofsky has created a movie rich in menace, paranoia, allegory and visual insanity. It’s one heck of a ride. It’s a messy, unrestrained (and surprisingly funny) mix of psychological horror, religious allegory, domesticity, gender dynamics, celebrityism and artistic creation. It’s not for everyone. Many will hate it. (Many already have.) But if you go with it, you’re in for a movie experience unlike any other big-studio release of the year. (See my full write-up here)


7. The Big Sick

Dir: Michael Showalter

I’m a sucker for a good rom-com. It’s one of the hardest genres to pull off: the chemistry needs to be perfect, the material needs to be funny, and the romance needs to be believable. Well, with “The Big Sick”, real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have written one of the best rom-coms in years. It’s the true story of how Kumail (who plays himself here) and Emily (wonderfully played by Zoe Kazan) first met and fell in love – and it’s an absolute delight. It’s sweet, it’s charming, it’s sincere and heartbreaking. But, perhaps most importantly, it’s also really funny. It’ll have you laughing, smiling and blissfully bawling all the way to the credits – and likely beyond.


6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. His films are like a cross between Luis Buñuel’s and Stanley Kubrick’s, but somehow drier, darker – deadlier. Here he tells a strange story of urban bourgeois guilt in the style of Michael Haneke, but with a demented deadpan delivery. It’s full of surreal logic, twisted relationships and bizarre social satire, constantly poking fun at societal conventions and obligations. It’s one of the darkest (and funniest) films of the year. And it’s all filtered through the alien-like poker-faces of his wonderfully creepy characters.

Film Review Get Out

5. Get Out

Dir: Jordan Peele

This was the most talked-about film of 2017. And for good reason. It broke box office records, spawned dozens of memes, gave the world new jargon, and proved to be a biting, whip smart exercise in social horror cinema. It was also the perfect film to arrive in 2017, putting its finger on society’s prickly anxieties about race and appropriation, only to poke at them again and again and again. Jordan Peele’s script is marvellous. It’s a masterclass of tone, managing to probe real-life racial paranoia in a smart, funny, entertaining way. The film feels like a scathing punchline (or gut punch) to the end of the Obama era. But it also felt like the first (albeit unintentionally conceived as such) true film of the Trump era.


4. Raw

Dir: Julia Ducournau

The feature film debut from writer-director Julia Ducournau puts a cannibalistic twist on the old “kid-goes-to-college” movie – meaning it captures the unique thrill and panic of leaving home in dark, devilish ways. “Raw” is an incredibly exciting film, one whose distinctive vision is present in every frame. But it can also be disturbing and downright disgusting (a certain scene involving a hairball and a toilet is positively stomach-churning). Although perhaps its greatest achievement is its complicated depiction of sibling rivalry. It’s an amazingly assured work from a filmmaker brimming with talent – a director playing with horror, humour and heartbreak with confidence and style. I can’t wait to see what she does next.


3. La La Land

Dir: Damien Chazelle

It’s big, it’s bold and it’s beautiful. “La La Land” was pure cinematic confection, a love letter to Old Hollywood written with in most gorgeous, elegant hand. Although it was also the ultimate love-it-or-hate movie of 2017, promoting many to pray it wouldn’t win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. (It didn’t. But boy, what a way to lose! The “Moonlight”/“La La Land” Oscar kerfuffle was perhaps the biggest blunder of 2017 – just narrowly beating Theresa May staring into a mirror, deep in thought, pondering all possibilities, until finally deciding… “Fuck it. General Election it is.”) Still, “La La Land” worked wonders on me. What else can I say? I’m predisposed to liking musicals with big numbers and a big heart. And when the world’s as gloomy and dark as it was in 2017, I’ll always be glad of another day of sun. (See my full review of it here)


2. The Handmaiden

Dir: Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook is one of the world’s best filmmakers, and “The Handmaiden” is one of his very best films. It’s a gorgeous, erotic, twisty thriller about a thief hired to convince an heiress to marry the wrong man. It was adapted from the Sarah Waters novel “Fingersmith” with the setting changed from Victorian-era Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Every frame of this film is a stunner, and the camera moves with the grace of its two central characters – women that wind up falling in love with one another but then end up betraying one another. There’s so much to enjoy here. And in the second half there’s a stage scene so raunchy you’ll forget that all the characters are fully clothed.


1. The Florida Project

Dir: Sean Baker

This film is a bittersweet gem. I am so grateful Sean Baker is alive and making movies today. He’s an extraordinary talent; a man who continually turns his lens to those forced into the fringes of society and gives them a place to shine. In “The Florida Project”, Baker explores a sector of society that rarely gets enough attention – the so-called “hidden homeless”. In Florida, these are often people forced to live in low rent hotels situated right next door to the biggest playground on the planet: Disney World. It’s therefore a strange (but fascinating) place for kids to grow up, which is why it’s told mainly from their perspective. They’re the heart and soul of the movie – particularly the rambunctious Moonee, impeccably played by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince (a kid who frankly deserves the Oscar for Best Everything at next year’s awards). For me, “The Florida Project” is the film of the year.

A few others I really dug:

“The Love Witch” (Anna Biller), “Free Fire” (Ben Wheatley), “Hounds of Love” (Ben Young), “The Villainess” (Jeong Byeong-Gil), “A Quiet Passion” (Terence Davies), “A Ghost Story” (David Lowery), “The Fits” (Anna Rose Holmer), “Okja” (Bong Joon-ho), “Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins), “Logan” (James Mangold), “The Lost City of Z” (James Gray).

mother! (2017)

Warning: Please see the film before you read this piece. It contains a lot of spoilers.


mother! is a film bursting with whacky, eccentric cinematic pleasures. For better or worse, it is truly unlike any big studio release of 2017. It’s bold, it’s audacious and it’s utterly bonkers – meaning it’s one heck of a ride. Darren Aronofsky has made a horror movie rich in mood, sonic landscapes, subjectivity and visual insanity. It’s a hot, messy (and surprisingly funny) concoction of psychological horror, religious allegory, Gnosticism, domesticity, gender dynamics, celebrityism and artistic creation. There’s a little bit of late-60s Polanski, a dash of Luis Buñuel, a smidgeon of Edward Albee, and a healthy dose of Lars Von Trier (particularly his film Antichrist, another horror movie about an unnamed married couple living in the Garden of Eden and grieving over the death of a child). At its most basic level, it’s a film about the eternal conflict between God (or “Him”, as played by Javier Bardem) and Mother Earth (or “mother”, as played by Jennifer Lawrence), and how the careless arrogance of God’s creations do nothing but disrupt and destroy Mother Earth’s beloved terrain – humans are the worst, aren’t they?

This biblical parable is by far the most common interpretation of the film. And it’s likely the most deliberate. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the forbidden fruit, the Fall of Man, the great flood, the saviour, The Book of Revelations – it’s all there (though not very subtly). But, whether intentional or not, it is by no means the only thing the film has to offer. It is as much about the act of creation as it is about the iniquitous ways in which women are belittled in marriage by men who see them principally – if not exclusively – as their muse. However, whether the film is actually successful at any of these attempts is another matter entirely. I’m still unsure how I feel about certain aspects of it. I respect its courage and I appreciate its daring, almost impudent, ambition (even if, for my taste, the film does become a bit too literal on occasion). However, it must be said that the cruelty inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence can be hard to stomach at times given the lack of acuity her character ought to have to justify such suffering – but, then again, that may well be the point.

The film has proved to be incredibly divisive among audiences and critics, incensing many viewers repulsed by its brutality. This is understandable considering the content. But I do think many of these claims are overblown. As I exited the theatre after the screening, a couple behind me said, “Well that was fucking terrible.” “Wasn’t it? Dear God, what a cruel film.” This sort of criticism – which I’ve also read elsewhere from other reviewers – seems a bit odd. Declaring to God how cruel you found a biblical allegory to be is incredibly ironic to anyone who’s ever read the Bible, one of the cruellest things anyone has ever written – a text so cruel it makes American Psycho look like YA fiction. The Bible is absolutely littered with appalling violence, genocide, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and a million other things far “crueller” than anything witnessed in mother! Honestly, if you want extremely violent, messy, batshit-crazy stories, then look no further than The Good Book.

I have to confess, however, that for about half the film much of the Bible stuff went over my head. It wasn’t until Domhnall Gleeson turned up and murdered his brother that it all began to click for me. But, up until then, I was under the assumption that the film was – among a few other things – a scathing critique of the pitfalls of modern fan culture and society’s obsession with celebrity. Fandom these days often involves more than just loving an artist; it’s about wanting to meet them, cherish them, stalk them, and ultimately worship them. But, as we’ve seen from some DC fanboys, Ghostbusters nerds, Marvel diehards – even Harry Potter lovers – things can turn ugly very quickly. Often fans nowadays want more than just owning a piece of art. They want everyone to know they own it – including the creator. Or, as one character says to mother as he’s destroying the wall of her house, “I want people to know I was here.”

mother! can be chilling and genuinely creepy at times, but it can also be perversely humorous – especially towards its insane third act. At first I was convinced I was laughing at the film. But when Kristin Wiig shows up as Javier Bardem’s zany publicist you know Aronofsky is in on the joke – he has to be. There’s no way a filmmaker would deliberately cast Kristin Wiig – the face of Bridesmaids, the face of SNL, the face of modern movie comedy – in a role that’s ostensibly a cameo without the intention of going for laughs. Seeing Wiig stroll around the room with a handgun murdering people execution-style is the moment you know Aronofsky is fucking with us.

In its approach to horror, the film is cleverer than many are giving it credit for. Horror is so often full of women brought to the edge of insanity or death; women convinced that they are either losing their mind or losing their life – or even both. But we, the audience, can’t look away. We perversely watch as these women teeter close to the end of madness and then get an enormous thrill when they eventually fall. It’s the basis of so much of horror cinema; it’s how the genre effectively works. It’s cathartic on one level, but it’s also rather sadistic on the other. We actually enjoy watching others suffer. It’s a horrible thought. But it’s true.

mother! is a clear member of the “let’s terrorise a woman” genre, but it’s also a perverted study in provocation, asking of its audience how much it is willing to tolerate seeing a heroine made to suffer so horribly – emotionally and physically. The fact that this heroine is Jennifer Lawrence also adds another fascinating angle. The sickening image of people beating her, abusing her, and tearing away her clothes is a difficult one to watch, but the implications are powerful – essentially because this is what the internet did to Jennifer Lawrence in real life merely a few years ago.

On the face of it, Lawrence’s “mother” is the type of hackneyed character that crops up in hundreds of movies. She’s the tired cliché of a young ingénue to an older, more mature, genius – she’s his inspiration, his muse. He’s supposed to know more about the world and the people in it than she does, and, by turn, he’s supposed to know more about the people staying in their home and invading their space. She, on the other hand, never once steps outside into the world.

Yet, every other film featuring this type of character sees her as disposable, someone who is quickly and inevitably brushed aside for the purposes of concentrating on the older male. She belongs in the background; a mere afterthought. In mother! though, this character is front and centre. The afterthought becomes the protagonist. The background becomes the foreground. And we’re the ones who can’t help but sympathise with her position: a woman destined for nothing other than tending to her home and taking care of her man; constantly renovating, repairing and restoring but never finding anyone willing to do the same for her.

After a certain point, Lawrence’s character is never thanked for any of the hospitality she provides for her guests. In fact, she is consistently met with scorn, derision, harassment and bullying. Yet her husband is treated like a saint, forever having adulation heaped upon him despite displaying zero hosting skills. Mother is the one that does all the cooking. She’s the one that makes the guests’ beds. She’s the one that helps them with their laundry. She’s the one that decorates the house. She’s the one that mends the house. She’s the one that built the house. And she’s the one – the only one, in fact – who spends every single second of the film inside that very house. Therefore it’s as much her house as it is anyone else’s. Yet everyone treats her like dirt inside it. Infantile people constantly ignore her modest requests (“Please get down from that sink, it hasn’t been braced yet”) and then expect her – and only her – to clean up the mess they’ve made. Surely this is as good an exploration of motherhood as any film in recent memory.

What makes mother! so unsettling is not the blood or the gore or the mounds of burning flesh, it’s the social horror of having continued hassle piled upon Lawrence by total strangers – strangers snarky and mean that consistently (and bewilderingly) act like she’s the one being unreasonable. It’s exhausting. But, as always with these sorts of domestic expectations, if the lady doth protest too much, there’ll be hell to pay.

Clowns, King and It

Full disclosure: I hate really clowns. They’re the worst. They’re a bunch of smiley-faced, brightly coloured, baggy trouser-wearing freaks that for some perverted reason love hanging around children’s parties. They’re weird, they’re creepy, they’re unsettling and I hate them.

How clowns ever became considered funny is beyond me. And how “clown” ever became a synonym for “comedian” is even further beyond me. I have never seen a clown get a special on HBO. I have never seen Netflix approach some Bozo wannabe wanting to produce his hour-long stint involving balloon animals and water-squirting posies. Why? Because: clowns… aren’t… funny. At best they’re annoying. At worse they’re terrifying. Sort of like the every Tory politician in government.

Even language normally associated with comedy doesn’t work when used in the context of clowns. In fact, it becomes downright horrific. Example: A comedian that “kills” on stage is a comedian whose jokes are landing. But a clown that “kills” on stage is the stuff of nightmares, prompting coulrophobes everywhere to go, “See? See? I told ya! I told ya!” A comedian that has their audience “screaming in the aisles” is a stand-up show surely worth your time. But a clown that does the same thing is the most terrifying circus imaginable. A comedian that causes the audience to “grab their stomachs in pain” sounds like a comic that’s refined their act to perfection. But a clown that induces the same effect sounds like the work of John Wayne Gacy.

Clowns are so astonishingly unfunny that they are more often associated with the exact opposite of what they’re trying to promote. They want to instil happiness and joy. (Bless them.) But more often they instil fear and unease. Their sole purpose is to make us laugh. Yet they just end up looking like unfunny assholes. Sort of similar to Ross’s role in “Friends”.

What’s strange is that few people find clowns legitimately funny, yet many find them legitimately are creepy. Even clowns are aware of this. Every time a clown is depicted negatively (i.e. accurately) in popular culture real-life clowns everywhere kick up a fuss with their big floppy shoes. The World Clown Association (yes, there’s a World Clown Association – though not to be confused the other World Clown Association, “The Republican Party”) always expresses severe dismay whenever a few bad-apple clowns risk giving the rest a bad name: “We’re not all axe-wielding psychopaths, you know?”

Uh-huh… sure.

So we can all agree then that clowns are horrid creatures capable of scaring the bejesus out of most people on the planet. Cool. But then why is it that the new adaption of Stephen King’s classic novel “IT” is not actually all that scary? And how come, dare I say, even the moments involving Pennywise the Dancing Clown (one of popular culture’s most truly disturbing clowns – and also someone who tragically never got the chance to properly prove himself as a hoofer), are not actually all that scary either?

Let me back up a bit. I like the new adaption of “IT”. I think it’s is a good film. It’s a very good adaption of a novel that’s incredibly difficult to adapt. But it’s not particularly scary. Nevertheless, I still think it’s a heck of an achievement and I commend it considerably. Let me put it this way: Picture you were a young, inexperienced, up-and-coming director. Now picture some hotshot producer walks into your office and chucks half a tree’s worth of fiction onto your desk (the original paperback of “IT” was 1,138 pages long) and says, “Hey kid, see that book? Make that into the biggest box office hit horror cinema has ever seen.”

If it were me, I think I’d pass. I’d stick to making “Insidious: Chapter 208” or whatever and hedge my bets.

But by Jove, Argentine director Andy Mushietti (of 2013’s “Mama” fame) has done exactly that. As I type, “IT” has shattered box office records across the world. It’s had the biggest box office opening in horror film history. Or, as another creepy, crazy-haired clown relentlessly harming vulnerable American children would say: “What a crowd! What a turn out!”

So rejoice, Pennywise. You may have reason to dance after all.

“IT” takes place in 1989: Bush Senior is president, the Berlin wall is coming down, it’s all kicking off in Tiananmen Square, and the woman who wrote the immortal lyrics “Look what you made me do. Look what you made me do. Look what you just made me do, look what you just made me do” is born. What a year!

In the town of Derry (Maine, not Northern Ireland – although Derry, Northern Ireland has its own fair share of clowns too, believe me) school is out for the summer. Cue Alice Cooper and texts books flung high in the air. As the school bell heralds the holidays, a bunch of nerdy, unpopular misfits step out of class hoping to spend their summer having fun and not getting beaten to a pulp by the local bullies – only one of these things is going to happen.

Among the crew are asthmatic mother’s boy Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), who appears to suffer from Munchausen syndrome; lanky Jewish kid Stanley (Wyatt Olef), whose religion makes him a minority in the town; wisecracking comedian Richie (“Stranger Things’s” Finn Wolfhard), whose name is almost always preceded by the phrase “Shut up!”; and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a smart, “New Kids on the Block” fan who enjoys a good library and late-80s pop (I can only, in good faith, approve of half of these things).

There’s also Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), one of the quieter, more thoughtful members of “The Loser Gang” – a term that sounds like something Donald Trump, with his renowned Wildean wit, would use to refer to the “Democrats”. Bill has a stutter he can’t control, and he’s still reeling from a recent family tragedy. His six-year-old brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappeared the previous year. Floated far, far away. The event is dramatised with chilling precision in the movie’s opening sequence. Georgie subsequently pops up here and there as kind of a spectre, taunting Bill by scurrying around in his yellow raincoat like some fresh version of the kid from “Dark Water”.

In the book, all the kiddy action takes place in the 1950s. But this is 2017, ladies and gentlemen. And therefore it is against the law to pass up on an opportunity to set a piece of popular culture in the 1980s. So here we are – 1989. Hit it Madonna!

Two more kids end up joining the band of outsiders. (For a bunch of unpopular kids, they are sort of strangely popular.) One is Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a kid who lives in a nearby farm, whose chores call to mind images of Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”. He’s a black kid and home-schooled, making him very much an outsider in an almost exclusively white town.

The final addition to the group is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in this cluster of misfits, and someone who’s living a very real nightmare back at home. At school, she’s labelled “fast”, despite no truth to matter. She’s simply an intelligent, considerate girl who likes to keep to herself.

Sophia Lillis gives perhaps the standout performance of the film. She’s instils in Beverly a wonderfully warm charisma, but also manages to completely sell the rawer, more unsettling scenes opposite her deeply ominous father.

Honestly though, all of the kids here deliver magnificent performances. They all seem destined to be stars. They’ve got… um… it. Beverly, however, has perhaps the best moment in the film. It’s a delightful little moment shared with Ben, the good-hearted “New Kids on the Block” fan, when they bump into each other for the first time. Ben clumsily spills his possessions all over the floor and she helps him gather them. She picks up his yearbook and opens it. But inside she finds no signatures (meaning no friends). She takes pity on him, pops a pen and signs it. But the film handles this moment in such a way that it never feels pitiful. It feels genial and charming. She taunts him about his taste in music and they flirtatiously throw “New Kids” song titles at each other. It’s very sweet and very genuine and both Lillis and Taylor play off one another brilliantly. In any other film this could have been a standard awkward-kid encounter. But here it’s handled with sincerity and warmth.

I have to admit, the interactions among the kids and the camaraderie displayed by each of them, are the best parts of the film. As a whole it’s an entertaining evocation of the way kids think and talk within their little cliques, and of the way they protect one another with fervid loyalty. But there’s evil lurking around this small New England town. (It’s Stephen King, so of course there is.) In fact, there are a few evils lurking around this town. (It’s Stephen King, so of course there are.)

The first is hot-headed psycho and River Phoenix lookalike Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of gangly hoodlums. Like most on-screen bullies, he’s pretty extreme. The nice person inside of you wants to think he’s just a misguided delinquent; railing against the rotten hand he’s been dealt by society – an angry youth who just needs someone he can talk to, open up to.

But then you see him carving his name with a pen knife into the stomach of a poor defenceless kid and you think, “Nah, fuck this guy.”

The second evil is more abstract: it’s a strange malevolent force that hides among the town’s shadows – the “It” of the title – that emerges every 27 years to prey on local children. This “It” normally takes the form of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a circus clown with menacing eyes who lives in the town’s sewer system, and whose presence is often signalled by a free-floating red balloon. Yikes.

Pennywise, as a figure, is wonderfully conceived. Scarlet stripes trickle down his cheeks like tears of blood. The first time we see him it’s genuinely unnerving. He pops his head out from the darkness to coax poor Georgie into the sewer. The whites of his eyes are so unnaturally bright that their sheer uncanniness makes it all the more unsettling. However, by the eighth, ninth, ten – eleventh – time Pennywise makes an appearance, stepping out of the shadow into the analytical light, the novelty begins to wear off.

Add to this the film’s unfortunate approach by way of eliciting scares. Apart from one genuinely creepy background scare that involves Ben sitting in a library flicking through a book, the film’s methods of inducing horror are generally pretty tiresome. Muschietti relies too heavily on “got-cha” jump scares, loud horror-signalling music, and unpleasant computerised special effects to frighten his audience.

And this is the problem with “IT”. Actually, it’s a problem with a lot of modern horror. What makes it frustrating is that, in the case here, “IT” does such a great job of setting up environments that have the potential for great horror. But almost every time it goes too far: breaking the spell, destroying the unease, and settling for over-the-top CGI visuals instead of subtler, more effective imagery.

Pennywise smiling at Georgie, with his big bright eyes and cunicular yellow teeth, taunting him, teasing him to reach for his precious paper boat, is way scarier than Pennywise’s mouth turning into some kind of extra-terrestrial creature from an episode of “Rick and Morty”. Stanley discovering that an eerie Modigliani-like painting has fallen off the wall is way creepier than the actual subject of that painting coming to life and gnarling at the camera in extreme close-up. Bill discovering Georgie huddled in the corner of the basement, trembling and whispering in the dark, is way scarier than Georgie subsequently walking into the light with a CGI-rotting face and leaving nothing to the imagination.

All of these setups are very strong. But each time Muschietti just goes that bit too far. I don’t blame him. Practically every modern western horror film does the same thing. It’s to be expected. But I wish the film had a bit more restraint, taking the time to breathe a little first before trying to scare us. There are a tonne of times the movie tries to scare you – which is great (I mean it’s a horror film after all) – but due to their sheer abundance the scares feel rushed. This is part of the difficulty with adapting Stephen King’s chunky source (of which only the first few hundred pages or so are depicted on-screen). The film feels simultaneously too long and too short. It’s too long in the sense of its running time (it clocks in at two hours and 15 minutes) but it’s too short in terms of its setups. No time is taken to properly dig deep into any of its scary moments – consequently, we rarely get the chance to dig our nails into the seats.

Stephen King’s novels – especially his more voluminous ones – with their multi-layered detail and meandering, entertaining asides, are difficult to adapt – even King himself has found this out. But whatever you do, staying true to the author’s tone is vital. Like “The Shining” or “Carrie”, the best King adaptations create a specific universe unto themselves. But they also tap into King’s boldness, his talent for exploring the darker regions of human nature. King is a master at probing humanity’s fear, laying bare our weaknesses and flaws every bit as often as our greatest nightmares. He can be sympathetic and he can be sensitive. And it is for this reason why he is a great writer. He doesn’t just write about scary things. He challenges the reader to ask why they are scary in the first place.

In the movie version of “IT”, however, we don’t quite reach these heights. The film’s still a thoroughly entertaining movie ride, but it’s one that doesn’t get to delve all that deep. Instead it skims along the surface and leaves little to the imagination. And when it comes to horror – when it comes to making an audience feel genuinely disturbed by the events on-screen – imagination is essential. Horror up close is never as terrifying as horror unseen. Great horror allows our minds to fill in the gaps – gaps deftly laid by the artist – with our own darker, much more personal, fears: fears that are tailored and highly specific to how each of us perceives the world. With “IT”, however, the film attempts to show you horror – lots of horror. But it rarely attempts to make you feel horror.

If Muschietti gets signed on to do the sequel, hopefully he can inject more of this feeling into the project next time. Everything else, however, seems to be working nicely. So I guess, Mr. Muschietti, what I’m trying to say for the sequel is this: Once more… with feeling.

Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017)

The opening of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s marvellous new feature, is near wordless. First, a few expository lines appear on-screen, briefly bringing the audience up to speed on the predicament of hundreds of thousands of British and ally troops during the early stages of the Second World War – men stranded at the very tip of northern France with an enemy fast approaching. But, soon after, the film does away with exposition; refusing to cut away to politicians arguing over policy, sweethearts praying for lovers’ safety, high-ranking officers debating strategy over maps, or even the backstories of any of its characters. Instead the film delves straight into the soldiers, the airmen, and the subsequent rescuing force of Operation Dynamo – the operation to save the troops from the horror that was Dunkirk; a situation famously described by Churchill as “a colossal military disaster”.

The film opens with a group of soldiers walking down a deserted street – one quaint and picturesque. Pieces of paper float above their heads like sleet. A soldier grabs one of the pages. On it is a map of the surrounding area. But it’s encircled with sinister arrows, all pointing to the beaches of Dunkirk. The British are surrounded. The arrows are encroaching.

The quietude is broken as shots ring out from behind. The soldiers scramble for shelter but are gunned down one by one. A frantic escape breaks out as bullets whiz by until we’re left with only one survivor. He scurries off to the beach and the camera follows. And there we’re greeted the sight of thousands of massed soldiers waiting for salvage; waiting for escape – waiting for a miracle.

It’s a fantastic opening. There are almost no words spoken but it communicates everything the film is about to explore: isolation, fear, desperation, and the callous brutality of war. Christopher Nolan emphasises the physicality of war through focusing on detail, forcing the audience to become aware of the simplest (sometimes even slightest) aspects of a scene – the sores of a man’s hands, the fumbling for a cigarette, the trickling of a garden hose – and then contrast that with the harsh, invasive crack of rifle fire and the ugly tumble of lifeless bodies.

The abrasive gunfire also introduces us to one of the film’s greatest technical achievements: its sound design. The sound in Dunkirk is imposing, aggressive and, even by modern standards, extremely loud. The screams of a Rolls Royce engine pierce the ear like a dagger. And that dagger begins to slowly twist as the tension is continually cranked up.

Christopher Nolan has always been fascinated with time. And since film captures time better than almost any other medium, it’s no wonder he is drawn to the light. He’s a filmmaker that is rarely given enough credit for the experimental narratives of his films. They twist, they turn, they jump back and forth, and, in the case of Memento, they sometimes even go backwards. The narrative of Dunkirk is every bit as elastic, but not nearly as gimmicky. It bounces back and forth between three sections; each of which, for the most part, takes place in separate locations and in different time frames. The events on the beach – called “The Mole”, in reference to the concrete jetty jutting out into the harbour – take place over a week. The events on the sea occur in one day. The events in the air transpire in an hour.

This narrative may seem complex – and, in a way, it is – but it is deftly handled by Nolan. The cutting between night and day is at first a little jarring, but it underlines the separation of the individual narratives, reminding the audience of the lines dividing each of these distinct storylines. As each section draws nearer to the point of convergence, Nolan still manages to keep them all in dynamic play with one another. And by constantly cutting from one story to the other, Nolan gives us little chance to relax before the next onslaught begins.

The section that takes place in the air focuses primarily on Tom Hardy’s character, a pilot for the Royal Air Force ordered to protect the British and ally troops below from enemy artillery. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy spends most of the film with his face obscured. This leaves his eyes to do all of the heavy lifting – and they rise to the challenge. At one point, Hardy has to communicate the dilemma of either heading back to base before his fuel tank runs dry, or to continue pursuing a German plane before it bombs more of his countrymen. And, in that moment, his eyes tell us everything we need to know. He grabs the leaver and presses forward.

The photography in Dunkirk is astounding. It was shot by Hoyte van Hoytema (the Dutch wizard who also shot Interstellar and Spectre) on 65mm, meaning it fell to Hoytema to have to appease the ridiculously ambitious demands of a director renowned for his extreme determination (“I want to put an IMAX camera in a real-life Spitfire while it’s in the air – chop, chop”).

But all the formidable work paid off as the results are really astonishing. The film is full of breath-taking aerial shots whereby sea and sky bleed into one giant, daunting, all-engulfing canvas. The picture is slightly saturated and the blue and beige colour scheme works wonders in conveying the dejection of the soldiers – and the swooping shots of the beach are simply gorgeous. These particular images of Dunkirk dwarf the lost souls stranded within it, further highlighting the soldiers’ dreadful isolation and seeming futility. The irony of the story’s geography further adds to the film’s impact. It is said that on a clear day you can see the shores of southern England from Dunkirk. Home is in sight for these men. Yet it might as well be a million miles away.

The backbone of Operation Dynamo was a rousing armada of around 700 tugs, skippers, steamers, ferries, fishing boats and pleasure boats. Many of these boats were captained by their owners – British citizens who journeyed across the treacherous English Channel directly into a warzone to assist military vessels in bringing their boys back home. It became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. Mark Rylance plays one such British citizen. He, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and local teenager George (Barry Keoghan), set sail on their own to join the civilian fleet – and, once again, Mark Rylance proves to be one of the very best actors working in cinema today. His character is no more talkative than any of the other players in this film – characters that seem either stunned by events or strained by determination. But Rylance conveys a muted vitality through the simplest of gestures. His manner is restrained, but his eyes always express a staunch nobility and a quiet spirit.

Almost any other filmmaker would have made Dunkirk with the sprawl and depth of a film like The Longest Day. And although that format of filmmaking is certainly welcome, what makes Dunkirk so interesting is how much of an anti-epic war picture it is. The film manages to be both expansive and intimate at the same time – a genuinely remarkable feat. As a result, the film is incredibly focused. It’s deft, supple and brilliantly lean, and its dialogue is wonderfully minimalistic (although admittedly perhaps a tad too heavy-handed at times). Nolan’s script for the film was seventy six pages – roughly half the length of The Dark Knight Rises screenplay – and the film’s running time is less than two hours – a full hour shorter than his previous feature, Interstellar.

The economy of storytelling in Dunkirk is one of its greatest strengths. It’s crisp old-school filmmaking with suspense sequences clearly indebted to the master himself, fellow Englishman Alfred Hitchcock. Nolan knows full well that suspense comes from anticipation. And the longer a director can draw that out, the greater the suspense – the greater the trill. There are plenty of times during Dunkirk where the only thing the audience sees is a close-up of a character staring at the sky. That’s it. But the longer they stare, the wider their eyes grow. And over these images we hear the blistering roar of German aircrafts, poised to drop explosives on all the sitting British ducks below. Nolan holds these shots for longer than modern audiences may be accustomed. The cacophony builds and builds like a prison siren slowly wailing to life. And then… at that moment… he cuts.

Of course a lot of the suspense has to do with the score; and whereas Hitchcock had Bernard Hermann, Nolan has Hans Zimmer. Zimmer’s score nicks a little from Elgar’s “Nimrod” (the most patriotically charged of the Enigma Variations), but, for the most part, the score serves to heighten the suspense of the film. The strings stammer like machine guns and resemble the ticking of a clock, as if ticking down to something – maybe a detonation.

Dunkirk is an ensemble piece in the truest sense. There is no main character here. It is a story told through soldiers and their lived (and near-death) experiences. What matters is the operation – the will to survive. Famous faces drift in and out of frame. There’s Kenneth Branagh as the commander who oversees the embarkation; there’s Harry Styles as Alex, an evacuee whose deliverance was undone by a German bombing; and there’s Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier found shivering on a capsized hull.

There are also plenty of unknowns here, too – primarily Fionn Whitehead who plays Tommy, a young Brit whom we meet in the very first scene. However, were it not for the end credits, I don’t think I would have remembered any of the characters’ names. This is because names here are unimportant. Words in general almost become superfluous as Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid. The word “Nazi” is never once uttered during the film. In fact, we never even see a Nazi for almost the entire movie. The soldiers know exactly who they’re fighting of course; but, in a sense, the enemy is still an unknown – nothing but a burry stranger in a field looking to kill them.

One of the most enduring images of Dunkirk arrives at the film’s finale. It’s a solemn shot of a British plane on fire as its pilot stoically stares into the flames. The pilot set the craft alight to avoid its capture by the enemy. Up until now, we’ve had land, sea and air – we now end with fire. It’s a sobering image – an image of clear conquest, for sure; but also an image of sheer defiance. For Dunkirk is not only a film about defeat. It’s also about realising that how we deal with defeat may, in the end, be what saves us. And that is a message that is every bit as stirring and every bit as relevant as it was almost eighty years ago.

Lady Snowblood (1973)

This was originally written for The Black List’s “Essential Martial Arts Films” series. See here

Born in a female prison on a snowy winter’s night, Yuki Kashima is told by her mother, “You will live your life carrying out my vendetta.” The child has no choice in the matter. It is her destiny. Stray snowflakes fall on baby Yuki’s cheeks and the screen becomes awash with red. Lady Snowblood is born.

Yuki grows up to be a relentless assassin bent on avenging the death of her family; a woman whose sole purpose in life is vengeance, pure and simple. But this bloody vendetta is elevated to the level of visual poetry by director Toshiya Fujita. He creatively employs sophisticated narratives and gorgeous expressionistic photography to produce an impeccable balance of violence and beauty.

Lady Snowblood is fantastically played by Meiko Kaji, an icon of ’70s Japanese cinema, whose enormous ebony eyes perfectly convey the quiet ferocity, ethereal beauty and tragic reluctance of her character. We first encounter Kaji walking alone in the snow, primly dressed and twirling an umbrella. However, hidden within her umbrella is a samurai sword (a marvelous visual metaphor for her character as a whole); and when forced to use that sword, her snowy, pristine exterior instantly becomes covered in the blood of her victims. For this is a film in which blood does not ooze, drip or seep. It sprays — like a garden hose. Bright scarlet streams gush from the torn throats and severed limbs of Yuki’s targets as she hunts down those responsible for her family’s death.

The violence in the film is beautifully balletic. But it’s also messy and ultimately shown to solve very little. Yuki’s desire — or, more accurately, her need — for revenge only results in an endless cycle of carnage; a cycle wherein the only possible escape is through death.

Sadly, LADY SNOWBLOOD is still vastly underseen here in the west. However, its influence can be found in many places; perhaps most notably in the work of Quentin Tarantino — particularly his own Japanese revenge saga KILL BILL VOL. 1. The style, themes and even cinematography of KILL BILL owe an enormous debt to Fujita’s original. Even LADY SNOWBLOOD’s theme song “Shura No Hana” plays over the end credits of Tarantino’s film. And the similarities between Yuki and Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii are especially striking — not just in appearance, but also in a fondness for gory, violent showdowns in the snow.

LADY SNOWBLOOD is a terrific piece of high-minded pulp — a martial arts movie that perhaps leans more towards the “arts” than the “martial”. But that does not mean it is any less entertaining. So do seek out this little rhapsody of revenge. Seek it out and savor the tale of a woman forever forced to tread the line between life and death — a woman who immaculately embodies the carnage of karma.

A Tribute to Jonathan Demme (1944 – 2017)

This piece was originally written for The Thin Air.  See here.

Paul Thomas Anderson was once asked by Criterion, the American home video distribution company, which three directors had influenced him the most. Anderson replied, “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme.”

Demme was one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation; and certainly one of the most talented. Few directors could shift as effortlessly between filmmaking styles – and as naturally between genres – as Demme, who dabbled fluently in comedy, horror, indie, drama and documentary. But, as well as being incredibly prolific, Demme was also enormously experimental with the medium, pushing cinematic techniques to new levels of sophistication and intelligence. He enhanced methods pioneered by the likes of Hitchcock, such as the use of subjective camera in The Silence of the Lambs, and he experimented with the documentary-style drama to great effect in films like Rachel Getting Married.

Demme is perhaps best known for directing the Oscar-winning masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs. The film was a sensation upon release and immediately established Anthony Hopkins as a movie star. It also proved that Jodie Foster was one of the best actors of her generation – the plucky, precious kid who spent years out-acting every other adolescent on the screen was now a fully-grown woman whose talent showed no sign of letting up.

The Silence of the Lambs is an exceptionally directed film. It’s a fascinating example of a filmmaker ushering his audience into the mind of a killer – or, more importantly, into the mind of its victim. Demme is forever playing with the audience, forcing them to see the world through differing perspectives, messing with our expectations and sometimes even forcing us to empathise with one of cinema’s greatest villains: Hannibal Lector. It’s a disturbing film; one that astutely depicts a world in which women are objectified in almost every aspect of life, highlighted again through Demme’s genius use of camera subjectivity and POV. (The shot of Clarice Starling in an elevator chalked-full of posturing, physically-dominating men is, in many ways, emblematic of the whole movie.)

Perhaps what made Demme such an inspired choice for directing The Silence of the Lambs was that he cut his teeth working with the exploitation schlock master, Roger Corman. Corman was an early mentor to Demme and imbued in him a profound work ethic and a tremendous respect for populism – one of Demme’s greatest attributes, incidentally; and one that so often gets overlooked when we assess the merits of an artist. His crowd-pleasing mentality, and experience working in low-budget constraints, paved the way for Demme’s indie sensibility of the 1980s – a host of films that mixed the screwball charm of classic ‘30s comedies with the darker, brasher tone of Reaganite America.

This early period of Demme’s career bore some of his best work. Bittersweet films like Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob showed that he was a filmmaker marked less by stylistic trademarks and more by a certain charitable spirit; a generosity that highlighted his warmness and humanity even when his films delved into darker, more sombre subjects. Something Wild is a great example of this, and to this day is still one of the most underrated films of the ‘80s. It stars Melanie Griffith as the freewheeling Lulu who takes an uptight banker (played by Jeff Daniels) away on a weekend adventure. But all their fun and games subside when Lulu’s husband (a pre-Goodfellas Ray Liotta) finds out what they’re up to. The film is, in essence, a madcap sex comedy – but one with a much darker edge, always delivering its laughs against a subtler, more emotional subtext.

Of course, this early period of Demme’s work also helped establish his marvellous gift for music. Demme was a cinematic shapeshifter – a trait common among classic Hollywood directors of the studio era. Demme’s style, approach and technique continually transformed throughout his eclectic career. However, his remarkable ear for music was perhaps the one factor that remained a constant.

Music was to Demme’s films what suspense was to Hitchcock’s. It was indelible. It was inherent. And it was utterly indispensable. Demme and music simply went hand-in-hand. But this musicality was far from exclusive to his fictional work. Instead it extended all the way into documentary where it flourished to an extraordinary degree. In fact, as this Slate piece by Sam Adams argues, Jonathan Demme was perhaps our greatest director of concert films (although Martin Scorsese is surely in the mix as well). Justin Timberlake + the Tennesse Kids and Neil Young: Heart of Gold are both wonderful examples of Demme’s ability to deconstruct the concert movie and reassemble it into something new; something fresh – something wild.

But Demme’s greatest achievement in this genre (and maybe his greatest achievement altogether) was Stop Making Sense, a concert film about The Talking Heads. Were it not for Prince’s Sign O the Times or Scorsese’s The Last Waltz it might just be the greatest concert movie ever made. The movie opens with David Byrne on stage with an acoustic guitar while members of the band slowly assemble around him, as if props in a movie or pieces of set dressing – again, Demme here being very much interested deconstruction; stripping the band bare and then rebuilding it before our eyes. In a way, this deconstruction was similar to the approach The Talking Heads were taking with regard to their own musical influences around the same time.

After the back-to-back success of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme turned to television, documentaries and shorts – smaller, more intimate projects, generally, although his 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a notable exception. Like so many films of Demme’s career, Beloved is vastly underrated. It’s an admirable adaptation of a book that, like most genius works of literature, does not automatically appear to lend itself easily to the screen. But Demme here does a fine job, injecting the film full of gorgeously powerful images that help bring the novel’s beating pulse to the screen.

“Underrated” is a word that always crops up in a conversation surrounding Jonathan Demme. It’s a testament to his talent and body of work that, despite all of his acclaim and admiration, many of us still feel that a lot of his work is underappreciated. Late-period Demme is a prime example of this. Rachel Getting Married is about a recovering alcoholic who is desperately trying to make it through her sister’s wedding without going insane. The film features perhaps Anne Hathaway’s best performance to date, and the film’s aesthetic was very much inspired by Denmark’s Dogma 95 movement. The film is full of anxiety and distress, but, in typical Demme style, in its final reels it turns into a musical celebration; one wherein its characters find opportunity to dance away the dark. It’s a marvellous film, and one that deserves a larger audience and a wider acclaim.

Rachel Getting Married bears somewhat of a resemblance to Demme’s final fictional feature, Ricki and the Flash: a film about an aging wannabe rock star (brilliantly played by Meryl Streep), who attempts to reconnect with the family she once left behind to pursue her rock ‘n’ roll dream. It’s a sharp, funny and surprisingly touching film that features great live music performances from its actors and a fantastic performance from Mamie Gummer as Julie, Ricki’s daughter (and Streep’s actual daughter in real-life). Like many of Demme’s films, the characters by the end are forced to reconcile with each other; to accept one another’s faults and perhaps find redemption therein. They have to face up to themselves and to each other – and, being a Jonathan Demme movie, that means having to face the music and dance.