If you had blinked you might have missed Short Term 12 when it was released in cinemas here in the UK last year, but that comes with the territory with this kind of film. Small-scale, extremely American in its earnestness, and heartfelt almost to a fault, Daniel Destin Cretton’s film, based on his own experiences working at a facility for troubled teenagers, is a moving, lovingly-crafted little indie, its faults stemming only from its overzealousness to make you care about its characters.
A failure by conventional standards, Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is fascinating in the degree to which it goes against the grain of the Hollywood disaster movie. Entirely spectacle-driven, to the point that it has next to no interest in building blocks of narrative storytelling like plot and character, Edwards has created a film that works only on the level of mood and tone, conjuring up ethereal, almost serene images over and over out of the mass destruction of major cities, out of monsters beating the crap out of each other, out of countless lives being lost.
As it’s been noted elsewhere, Edwards was an interesting choice for this project from the get-go. His first film, the modest indie-hit Monsters (2010), demonstrated his ability to tell a story featuring giant monsters, sure, but it was nothing like a summer blockbuster, telling as it did a small-scale, character-based allegorical story against a larger-than-life, alien creature-filled backdrop. It didn’t quite work – its characters were never quite interesting enough to follow them around for 90 minutes – but it was easy to warmly recommend due to its atmosphere, its palpable tension tempered with a sense of wonder and awe. Godzilla both fails and works for the same reasons, only here both sides of the coin are magnified – the characters are wafer-thin, the plotting is harebrained, but it may be the most visually ravishing big-budget monster movie in recent memory.
When the first series of My Mad Fat Diary began, you could be forgiven for thinking it was another E4 teen drama, that like Skins and Misfits before it, the moments where its ideas come together to form something lovely would be vastly outnumbered by the moments where it fell flat on its face. So concerned with being provocative, clever, and gimmicky are our scripted dramas for teens that things like character and plot fell by the wayside, and much of the the promotional material for MMFD pointed towards a show about a day-glo portrait of a loud, brash, sex-obsessed teen girl who was going to be spending so much time shouting about how mad and sex-obsessed she was that we’d never really get to know her.
The reality was very different. For one, it being set (and soundtracked) in the mid-90s means that it avoids any pressure to shoehorn in any on-the-pulse references and music. And sure, Rae Earl is often loud, brash, mad, sex-obsessed – but she’s also a person. Over the two series of My Mad Fat Diary we’ve learnt a lot about Rae and how she responds to those around her; her complex, detailed relationships with her mother and her best friend Chloe; her increasingly complicated relationship with her therapist Kester; and the massive insecurities she faces when amongst her peers. By the time that series two ends we have a portrait of a young woman who is trying desperately not to be defined by her illness or by other people’s perception of her but by who she has the potential to be. What’s more, the despite the show’s forced, nearly totally subjective perspective, the focus is never solely on her. The show’s writers have let the supporting characters, in particular Rae’s egotistical, emotional mother, blossom into fully-fledged people in their own right, and in the show’s best episode they even shift the perspective to Chloe’s and reveal the world that’s going on outside of Rae’s head. In short, My Mad Fat Diary is the best TV show about adolescence since Freaks and Geeks, and maybe the best British show about adolescence ever made. Read more…
Like most, I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the first film in the latest of a long, distinguished line of megafranchises based on Young Adult novels. Fast-paced, smart and surprisingly edgy for a big family blockbuster, it borrowed liberally from predecessors such as Battle Royale and the Running Man books Stephen King wrote under the name Richard Bachmann without ever ripping them off, crafting an original story out of well-worn ideas. Those who have accused Susanne Collins’s novels of watering down their darker, more violent predecessors have confused grit with maturity – The Hunger Games Trilogy may be more tame in its depiction of violence, but it’s far more potent thematically and better plotted – Battle Royale may have more style, but The Hunger Games actually kind of makes sense.
A consideration of the politics of gay cruising and the relationship between sex and death in the gay psyche, Stranger By the Lake’s most remarkable quality is that it never comes to easy conclusions. Shot through with unbearable tension even when it’s at its most wildly erotic, director Alain Guiraudie simply and dramatically casts the cruising ground as a space that is both social and emotionally distant, sexually charged but monotonous, as steely and opaque as the water of the lake itself.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular visitor, arriving for the first time of the summer. He befriends a pudgy, ostensibly straight man called Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) who is only there for the view, and goes after a mysterious swimmer, Michel (Christophe Paou), who unfortunately has a possessive boyfriend. Later that night when no one else is around he witnesses the swimmer drowning his boyfriend in the lake. The day after, the swimmer approaches him, and despite what Franck saw the night before, they embark on a wild love affair.
That is the crux of the plot of Stranger by the Lake and also the central idea of the film – it makes explicit the truth that every anonymous sexual encounter is a flirtation with danger. This isn’t a judgement, merely a statement that here sex and death have become so inextricably linked that there’s little to distinguish the two. The film’s most tense moments come from the times in which Franck is torn between his magnetic attraction to Michel and his fear for his life, putting himself increasingly in harm’s way because death is implicitly part of the thrill.
Guiraudie intends to explore the uniqueness of gay attitudes towards sex, and the uniqueness of cruising grounds as a curious mix of public and private space. His camera is at times an impassive observer and at others a voyeur, exploring the space as much as it documents it and capturing the sensation of watching and being watched, to the point that key moments of the film are point-of-view shots. The cinematography by Claire Mathon is absolutely beautiful, shooting her make subjects with a powerful eroticism and the landscape with a cool, undeniably French detachment.
The film doesn’t shy away from the sex, either – in fact, I think it may be the most explicit film I’ve seen outside of porn and Shortbus. These characters relate to each other through their bodies – Franck and Michel have barely spoken a word before Franck has fallen hopelessly in love with him, but they have had fiery, passionate sex. The secondary characters populating the lake only serve to enrich this little world with pinpoint accuracy – the guys who do nothing but stand around jerking off, the guys who get angry at anyone who makes eye contact.
The only true outsider in the film is the inspector investigating the murder, and he is prone to judging where the film does not. The inspector does not understand how this world could be so dispassionate, how the lake could be buzzing again just two days after someone has died. One senses Guiraudie agrees with him to an extent, that the sex of looking for sex has become one of blinkered self-interest – even the friendly conversations that Franck has with Henri are promptly terminated as soon as Michel arrives on the scene. But where as the inspector does little to hide his disgust, Guiraudie accepts this place for what it is. The lake setting is cold and opaque, but it’s also something natural ancient – Henri talks of rumours of a fifteen-foot silurus beneath its surface, an easy metaphor for the primal danger that they all find so alluring.
It’s easy to cast Strangers By the Lake as a parable about post-AIDS gay sex culture, particularly as Franck and Michel don’t use condoms, but Guiraudie’s vision isn’t easily tied to the specifics of that crisis. It’s more about the danger of sex in the abstract, the slippery line between passion and violence, the erotic allure of death itself. Its final sequence is so tense not because of the immediate threat, but because of the way it’s invited in. Franck’s actions shock not because they seem insane, but because they perversely understandable. Stranger by the Lake understands that sometimes one plays with fire because they want to be burned.