At Eternity’s Gate 2019 ****

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Films about artists have an advantage over any attempt to chronicle the development of a writer; at least we get to see what the artist sees, and the art that they make. Vincent van Gogh’s life has been tackled before, but Julian Schnabel’s film goes for the ‘last days’ route, with the artist poor, ill and ostricised by society. Of course, the audience can see his brilliance, even if the other characters can’t; Schnabel does a neat job in capturing both the dourness of the company and the light of the paintings. But At Eternity’s Gate would be nothing without the presence of Willem Dafoe, who can make something out of nothing, and presented with a substantial role, can conjure an Oscar-nomination from a tiny budget film. The victim of bullies and feral children alike, his van Gogh is a grimly tortured figure, and yet it’s obvious from his conversations with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) that artistic failure has not crushed his humanity. At Eternity’s Gate is a portrait of an artist wronged on all sides, and while Schnabel, working from a screenplay by Jean Claude Carrierre, may play fast and loose with established facts, it makes for a satisfying medidation on the nature of art, artistry and eternity.

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Pasolini 2014 ****

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The death of the brilliant Italian film director Pier Paulo Pasolini is something of a JFK moment in Italian culture; conspiracy theories about as to the circumstances that led to his body being found, murdered, apparently run over by his own car. Abel Ferrara is not a director knows for his sensitivity; films like Bad Lieutenant make a virtue of their brutality, but he shows considerable skill in marking out this sympathetic portrait of a creative mind at the end of its tether. As played with customary precision by Willem Dafoe, Pasolini is shown somewhat spent after the catharsis of making Salo in 1975, and one of the novelties of Ferrara’s film is that it evokes colourful scenes from a film Pasolini planned, but never got to make. The presence of some Pasolini regulars including Ninetto Davoli adds to the authenticity, and Pulp Fiction’s Maria de Mederios captures the elan of muse Laura Betti; perhaps this film aims for a niche audience, but that’s no bad thing. Rather than a biopic, Pasolini offers a concise portrait of the artist as a middle aged man, short of love, but still burning with questions that would not be answered in his too-short lifetime. It’s certainly a subject that brings the best out of both director and star.

Aquaman 2018 ****

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Not much about Aquaman suggested anything good; springing from an appearance with the Justice League in a truly awful film that didn’t inspire confidence. But director James Wan seems to have swagger to burn, and builds a spectacularly goofy and enjoyable romp around the happiest of centres in Jason Momoa. As Arthur Curry, he serves up an endearing performance that feels honest and camp at the same time, right from an outrageous ‘Permission to come onboard!’ introduction that, to coin a phrase used elsewhere, the gayest man on earth might think was over-the-top. A game Nicole Kidman shows just the right kind of style for this in a lengthy prologue about Aquaman’s origins, and the various adventures seem far from the conventional Marvel template. The visuals look like a Meatloaf album cover brought to life, and perennial MVP Willem Dafoe does his usual inimitable job as Aquaman’s mentor. Throw in Dolph Lundgren for giggles and your brainless Saturday night is set; this is a very silly film, but it restores the genre to it’s 1930’s Saturday-morning serial heyday with brisk storytelling and shafts of wit.

The Life Aquatic 2004 ****

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Wes Anderson’s films have often been divisive; his studied quirkiness can come off as annoying or smug, and the potential for visual tweeness is sometimes at odd with his willingness to confront the darker side of life. Starting out as a cheerful homage to the underwater adventure of Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic ducks and dodges down a number of surprising side-lines, and mixes bright character comedy with dark shafts of poetic realism. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a bobble-hat sporting oceanographer who is searching for the shark that killed his friend. His crew, including Ned (Owen Wilson) and Klaus (Willem Dafoe) have anxieties about Steve’s mission, and when the adventure leads to mutiny and an encounter with pirates, Steve’s ability to hold his crew together proves crucial. The colourful depiction of on-board life allows Anderson to showcase his gift for comedy, while a selection of David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge add to the whimsical charm. But The Life Aquatic builds to stark tragedy; the bitter-sweet comedy of Steve Zissou’s life is perfectly encapsulated in an early scene in which he carries a fish in a glass through the streets. Caught in a bubble of visibility, he wrestles with his own inner demons in a public way, and earns the respect of his brothers for the way he internalised the cruelty of nature and learns to find his own personal accommodation with death. A little knowledge of Cousteau’s own life is the key to Anderson’s darkly comic masterpiece.

Tom & Viv 1994 ***

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Biopics of writers have an inherent problem; how to dramatise the prose. Brian Gibson’s 1994 film deals with poet TS Elliot and his relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Adapted from Michael Hastings’ play, Gibson astutely casts two excellent actors, Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson as Tom & Viv, and focuses on how her gynecological problems caused havoc with their understanding of each other. The 1915 setting is carefully depicted, less for the period detail as the attitudes conveyed, with Viv’s mood-swings hard to explain in the polite society of the Bloomsbury group, and Tom’s writings not seen as a viable career. Tom and Viv is a delicate, realistic love story.

The Hunger 1983 ****

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Tony Scott’s vampire movie was critically lambasted on its release; style over content was the common phrase used. In retrospect, The Hunger has lashings of style, but it’s all in tune with the content, which is way more interesting than a run-of-the-mill studio picture. Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is a six thousand year old vampire, while John (David Bowie) has been her lover for three hundred years. John is beginning to show his age, and goes for a consultation with Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon); the scene in which he ages rapidly in her waiting room has genuine poetic power. Sarah gets involved, but makes her a target for Miriam’s affections. With a small role for Willem Dafoe, The Hunger skillfully uses vampirism as a metaphor for not only for addiction but also sexual politics; a meditative look at how lovers prey and are preyed on by their own fear of aging.

Shadow of the Vampire 2000 ***

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The appearance of actor Max Schreck in the original silent film Nosferatu is so bizarre that urban legend has it that he was actually a vampire, coaxed into appearing before the camera. This fanciful idea gets a playful treatment in director E Elias Merhige’s clever film, in which the controlling FW Murnau (John Malkovich) attempts to wrangle Schreck (Willem Dafoe) into his role, a battle of wills with Schreck holding a surprise in check. Gleeful in its take on cinema history, Shadow of the Vampire is an ingenious black comedy about the early days of cinema, and a smart, articulate horror film to boot, with Dafoe and Malkovich excellent, and Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes and the perennially sinister Udo Kier in support.