Wain: They Came Together (2014)

They Came Together is a parody of romantic comedies from the director of Wet Hot American Summer and, like Wet Hot American Summer, it’s as much a series of loosely connected, brilliantly inspired sketches as a coherent or self-contained film. It opens in a restaurant, where Joe (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) are on a double date whith their friends Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Klemper). When Joe and Molly are asked that perennial double date question – how did you meet? – they take us through a  series of flashbacks that occupy most of the film, and which poke fun at the lineage of New York romcoms with a comprehensiveness and detail that’s quite cinephilic. For the most part, it's much broader than American Summer, but it embraces its goofiness with a lack of self-awareness that often gravitates it towards the repetition-compulsions of the Zuckers, and the Naked Gun franchise in particular, as everybody continually takes everybody at their word, with catastrophic consequences. However, what’s perhaps most striking about the film is that the romcoms it’s parodying have fallen out of favour long ago, to the point where it feels as if the very gesture of parody is somehow also an effort to bring back their peculiar brand of breathless credulity, their lost power to mediate dates, meet-cutes and even whole relationships. As both a parody and an elegy for credulity, then, the more or less direct address to the audience doesn’t ever feel grating, knowing, or even especially self-referential. Instead, it’s merely a cipher for that capacity romantic comedies might once have had to reach out, touch you and involve you in their world, a series of contagious poses and postures that are now somehow only available through parody, even if parody is well and truly redundant by this point in time. In that sense, it’s quite a bittersweet gesture, reiterating and celebrating the canon of (New York) romantic comedies as much as it parodies it. And that’s an ideal vehicle for Poehler and Rudd, who are great at tempering their comic presence with just the slightest touch of melancholy, perfect for characters whose best is almost behind them.


Polanski: La Vénus à la Fourrure (Venus in Fur) (2013)

Roman Polanski’s second film in as many years is once again a stage adaptation and, once again, disinclined to conceal the fact. If anything, it revels in its staginess even more than Carnage, doing very little to adapt David Ives’ Venus in Fur beyond removing any semblance of an interval or break in the action, making for one of those rare adaptations where the film ends up obeying the classical unities of time and place even more than the play. Set in its entirety in a dilapidated Parisian theatre over a single stormy night, it’s about the burgeoning relationship between Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Almaric), the author of a theatrical adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, and Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mysterious actress who turns up to audition for the main part. At first she seems completely ill-suited, but as the night progresses it becomes clear that she’s perhaps more attuned to Wanda von Dunayev than Thomas previously thought, as their joint rehearsals take them in and out of his script, and in and out of their fantasies. One of the great strengths of Polanski’s adaptation is how seamlessly this movement occurs – it’s often quite unclear whether or not they’re reading from the script – and that’s partly due to the rigorous theatricality of his vision, which occasionally recalls Sidney Lumet’s earliest films in the conviction with which it regards cinema as a new kind of theatre, or an extension of theatre, rather than a replacement or alternative to it. For another director, that brand of late work might suggest a kind of exhaustion, a diminution or attentuation of cinematic ambition. However, as Carnage made clear, the constrictions of the theatre might be the best way for Polanski to express his enduring rages in old age, as well as the best way to come to terms with the excommunication that has returned to haunt his recent films, especially those produced in the wake of his 2009 arrest at the Swiss border. And Venus in Fur constricts you with the peculiar theatricality of masochism in ways that a more cinematic (or graphic) depiction could never manage, until the whole film feels like a fetishistic accoutrement or point of access to Seigner, who also happens to be Polanski’s wife. Like the most seductive masochistic contracts, it stifles you with promises of escape that become ever more elusive and elastic as it proceeds – you can’t ever quite believe that cinema could be this theatrical, this ceremonial, until that incredulity simply is the film and everything it arouses, ensaring and disciplining you in your own unbelief.


Reeves: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The second film in the rebooted Apes frachise, Dawn is set several months after Rise. By this point, the simian flu has well and truly conquered the planet, leaving small enclaves of genetically immune humans and genetically modified apes in its wake. When two of these enclaves come into contact on the outskirts of San Francisco, a series of uneasy conciliatory gestures gives way to full-blown warfare, and a more traditional action-adventure film than Rise. Although the battle is long and bloody, the drama’s really driven by the backdrops, which make over San Francisco with the post-apocalyptic tastefuless of some of the best recent video games – The Last of Us comes to mind – taking particular advantage of its canyons and undulations, which feel quite interchangeable with the vertiginous trees and mountains where the apes make their homes. Against that gamescape, movement and apprehension tends to be vertical – at least half the film consists of people and apes looking up or down at each other – while the emotional kernel is also vertical, a succession of climaxes and catharses that continually propels us up to the next emotional platform. As heavy-handed and overwrought as that can be, it results in some of the most startling moments of simian melodrama since Gorillas in the Mist, as we’re continually brought face to face with faces that seem to defy the distinction between real and animated footage, or between human and animal expression. That was also what made Rise so memorable, but it’s somehow more lurid and spectacular here, precisely because the emotional range and sophistication of Dawn is far more limited and prepackaged – at its strongest, it is like seeing the most predictable blockbuster emotions, emotions so streamlined that you hardly register them, played out in their entirety by a cast of hominids. And there’s something quite audacious about how blithely it assumes your affinity with the ape universe, how matter-of-factly it extracts sentiment from even the most synthetic apescapes, building upon the originality of Rise even as it achieves a completely different kind of originality.


Bahr, Coppola & Hickenlooper: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)

Such is the sublimity of Apocalypse Now that it’s almost unbelievable it was ever made. Like Kurtz, it’s a grand idea of a film, a concept that would seem to defy any execution. It’s a tribute to Hearts of Darkness, then, that it makes Coppola's labour of love seem even more unbelievable, improbable and singular. Edited from footage and interviews that Eleanor Coppola gathered during the filming process – sometimes without Francis’ knowledge – it takes you through one unfathomable complication, crisis after another, as well as a series of out-takes that rival anything that the film has to offer (including the French Plantation sequence which, at this point in time, had never been edited into a theatrical release). Part of what makes it so engaging is that Eleanor started shooting from the earliest casting sessions – it’s clear that everyone was prescient that this was going to be a massive project, and that Francis himself wanted some record in case it never reached completion. At the same time, that also allows you to witness how often the scale of the project exceeded everyone’s expectations, quickly ballooning to a point where Francis could quite comfortably describe it as “the first film that would win a Nobel prize.” In Eleanor’s eyes, at least, it’s clear that Francis simply became Kurtz,  immersing himself in the agon of his artistry in a completely unprecedented way, at least for a director. Interestingly, the film opens with an excerpt from Orson Welles’ radio play of Heart of Darkness, which recurs at key points throughout the film, reminding us that Conrad’s novel was originally going to be Welles’ first film, before he settled for making Citizen Kane instead. The implication is clear - too ambitious even for Welles, Apocalypse Now is the film Kane wanted to be. That might sound hyperbolic, but the film gathers you up into its momentum, not least because of how passionately both Coppolas believe in film as a visionary medium, meaning it's also a film about American Zoetrope, the Coppolas’ production company. By the end, you feel as if the convocation of “artists, musicians, filmmakers and directors” that they dreamed of has really come to pass, if only on this one occasion – and that makes Hearts Of Darkness as exhilarating and intoxicating a companion piece to Apocalypse Now as The Godfather Part II was to The Godfather, suffused with “a kind of powerful exhilaration in the face of losing everything…like the experience of war.”


Morris: Vernon, Florida (1981)

Vernon, Florida started life as Nub City, a documentary about a collection of Vernon residents who amputated themselves to collect insurance money throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, after reputedly receiving death threats from some of the subjects, Errol Morris opted for a more general portrait of the town, making for one of the most restrained, refined films of his career. For the most part, it consists of long, lyrical tone poems to Vernon and its environs, interpersed with quiet, contemplative monologues that perhaps feel more cryptic than they really are, just because the film presumes so little about how we should approach them, scruplously refraining from what one local preacher describes as “therefore experiences.” Even at this early stage in his career, it’s clear that Morris is able to utterly relax his subjects, engaging them in the most casual, candid way, until it’s feels like they’re talking to themselves, or thinking aloud, rather than addressing him or the camera. That allows them to retreat into their most mystical and apocalyptic mindsets, until it feels as if everyone in the town is preaching, testifying  or bearing witness to an interminable waiting that soaks into the pores and pauses of Morris’ montage sequences, making the film feel much longer than it actually is. Everything visionary about the American vernacular is distilled here, spoken in tongues touched with a strange grace, voices that are not their own. Morris may have gone to Vernon in search of eccentricity, but Vernon, Florida is too esoteric to be eccentric – it exceeds it, touching the very tip of what a documentary can do.