A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Iranian-American filmmaker’s Farsi-language vampire film is unusual in all the right ways.

a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-nightUSA
4*

Director:
Ana Lily Amirpour

Screenwriter:
Ana Lily Amirpour

Director of Photography:
Lyle Vincent

Running time: 100 minutes

The gorgeously greyscale landscape of a noir reality that seems familiar yet distant, sweet yet mysterious, even mystifying, is the setting for a Farsi-language vampire film that is certainly unlike your average Iranian film. With major themes of drug use and prostitution, and even a very revealing scene in the bathtub, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is as unusual as it is entertaining, and while the filmmaking is minimalist rather than schlocky, the Farsi-speaking female vampire is as appealing as any femme fatale.

Set in Bad City, the two threads of the narrative – involving a lonely vampire on the prowl and a young man whose father has drug problems – come together when the two main characters meet late at night. As usual, the girl, who always walks home alone at night, is on the hunt for a fresh jugular vein, but when she sees the young Arash, dressed up as Dracula and crashing after an Ecstasy high, looking up in wonder at a street lamp, she has second thoughts, and that is when the magic happens.

The magic is an unexpected moment of audiovisual bliss, as a static camera captures the two slowly moving toward each other in the girl’s subterranean dwelling while a disco ball inexplicably keeps spinning, throwing little spatterings of light on the wall behind them. All the while, the music on the soundtrack, the White Lies’ “Death”, is infectious and can easily rouse the viewer out of her seat. But even this scene is just a forerunner to greatness, as a few minutes later, a prostitute, a balloon and an unbroken take from a mobile perspective come together to create the most poetic and poignant moment of the entire film.

Director Ana Lily Amirpour, a British-born Iranian-American who collected money for her film online through Kickstarter in 2012, has crafted a film that doesn’t seek to subvert the conventions of the vampire genre as much as it wants to play with those conventions to tell a story of two unusual individuals who find love in a way neither of them ever would have expected.

The girl’s black-as-night waist-length hijab, which looks a bit like a fashion accessory, suggests mourning, and she is certainly not a barrel of laughs; on the contrary, she barely says a word. But it is this silence that makes her so mysterious, and while we might have our suspicions that she is up to no good, we are also very happy when one of her first victims is the drug dealer who is keeping Arash’s father in crushing debt. She also appears to care a great deal about the prostitute, Atti, who just wants to get by but is tormented by loneliness, and she becomes a friend of sorts to her.

Despite the Farsi-language signage on the street, Bad City is very obviously neither in Iran nor in the United States. It forms part of a filmic reality that suits the genre and functions remarkably well, because there is always a feeling that we don’t exactly know what to expect.

While the characters speak Farsi, the film’s sexual imagery – which includes, among others, fingers that find their way to mouths, and pumpjacks that piston in and out of the ground across the desert landscape on the outskirts of the city – is wholly unexpected for an Iranian production and contributes to the pleasure of watching something wholly unorthodox. The film was shot in the United States and was produced in part by Elijah Wood.

Director Amirpour has a light touch when it comes to the use of the vampire genre conventions, and while the title character only drinks blood, doesn’t eat and doesn’t appear during daytime, she does have a mirror (all the better to put on her lipstick) and there is no mention of garlic or stakes or coffins that serve as night-time sanctuaries of repose. Amirpour’s use of music is equally laudable, with the soundtrack, ranging from Western-like and Morricone-inspired to British post-punk, impossible to fault and thoroughly enjoyable.

The girl who walks home alone at night is a vampire, but that doesn’t take away from her romantic timidity, and when she finds a man willing to love her in spite of her immortality and thirst for blood, we readily share her initial reluctance to pursue the affair. The character, whom we still don’t know much about by the end of the film, suggests enough complexity for the viewer to keep watching.

The result is very different from the noirs or the Westerns we may know (and it very well may not live up to the expectations of fans of the latter), and although there are small quibbles with the development of the story, this heavily stylised film is comical, moving and sexy, and it will entertain many a moviegoer.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

In snow-swept Wyoming, the temperature rises quickly when a group of gun toters is forced to stay indoors.

hateful-eightUSA
2.5*

Director:
Quentin Tarantino

Screenwriter:
Quentin Tarantino

Director of Photography:
Robert Richardson

Running time: 175 minutes

The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film. It is another Western, just like his previous, devious Django Unchained. It is another work of drama whose flamboyant dialogue has memorable, comedic turns, just like almost every single one of his previous films. And just like all of his previous seven films, this one is not for the faint of heart, as the climax is drenched in blood, guts and pieces of brain. But The Hateful Eight is also Tarantino’s worst film.

Running close to three hours, it is almost entirely contained to a single location, not unlike his début feature, Reservoir Dogs. But while Reservoir Dogs was nearly half the length, it also pulsated with energy throughout, whereas The Hateful Eight spends more than an hour percolating, keeping the audience in less-than-rapt attention before the first shots are fired, and the violence quickly escalates into a bloody avalanche.

Shot in magnificent widescreen and screened in the unusually wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, which even surpasses CinemaScope in width, this film looks magnificent at the outset. Shortly after the American Civil War, a stagecoach with a bounty hunter and his female prisoner, an alleged murderer, picks up another bounty hunter stuck in the cold without his horse, and then a sheriff. The sweeping vistas of Wyoming are covered in thick white snow, and a blizzard is moving in fast. The four unlikely traveling companions make their way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they join at least four others and wait out the cold. But this is where things get bogged down.

It is a long slog, even with more than eight people present inside the open-plan building. Despite tension so thick that even the strike of a sword would not suffice (which, perhaps, is why so many guns are drawn), there is little atmosphere until this talkie turns into a good ol’ murder mystery. The reason things feel so static is because we are dealing with a single location, and because Tarantino’s script is short on quips and more into long-form conversations between the numerous characters.

The other problem is the aspect ratio, as we never get a shot of everyone together, and there are no suitable landscapes to be found inside the wooden building. The only time when the vast amount of screen space is utilised judiciously is during shots obtained with a split diopter, in which foreground action is in focus in one half and background is in focus in the other half.

A quick rundown of the dramatis personae suggests ample room for action, which turns out to be minimal: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who alleges he is a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln; John Ruth (Kurt Russell), the bounty hunter with the stagecoach; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his prisoner; Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the town’s dimwitted new sheriff; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a Brit by birth and an executioner by profession who is this film’s version of a Christoph Waltz character before he inexplicably takes a backseat; Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican with little to do in the story; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a soft-spoken rancher visiting his mother; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a quiet man who fought for the South and is one of those whites who cannot stand blacks, making the presence of Warren all the more inconvenient.

Jackson has by far the juiciest role in this film, which reminds us time and time again that he is the only black man in a cast of whites. As in Django Unchained, the n-word is casually thrown around, but so is the b-word with reference to the screaming Daisy, who has a disturbing penchant for getting roughed up by her male companions.

But in this film the racial epithet does not have the same stinging quality it did in Tarantino’s previous film, and its use is therefore not only questionable but downright offensive. Nonetheless, and perhaps not at all by chance, Jackson and Jason Leigh are the two stars of this show, which transforms from a theatre play into a murder mystery into a veritable grand guignol, while Tarantino harks back to his Pulp Fiction days by playing ever so slightly with the timeline.

This latter maneuver feels like nothing more than a gimmick, however, and emphasises the element of surprise rather than suspense. By contrast, consider how adroitly Tarantino managed the suspense in the dialogue-heavy but gorgeously staged opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. In his latest film, he dispatches with such poetic terror and instead gives us pages of dialogue before bullets rip through bodies and characters start vomiting ghastly quantities of blood.

The Hateful Eight does not live up to its title, as almost all the individuals trapped inside the haberdashery have their gentle sides and try, mostly in despair, to get the upper hand on those around them. Far from being hateful, they are mostly just bland, and moments like when Joe Gage’s face is revealed in a classic Sergio Leone close-up simply do not match this lackluster depiction of cabin fever.

Tarantino has great fun sticking it to those characters that are racist crackers, but in a film that takes nearly 90 minutes to gain speed, he is really trying his viewers’ patience, and even the rowdier second half does not do much to improve the tedium of the first. Although The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s eighth, it is not hateful, but it sure ain’t likeable either.