Friday, 20 October 2017

I've Just Seen: American Honey (2016)

 Director: Andrea Arnold

Arnold's film about Star, a young woman who joins a mag crew, is an American road movie that evokes other films in the genre - Malick's Badlands in particular - but also feels like a unique and fresh exploration of the subject.

The story and its running time made me a bit hesitant to watch it. I had never heard of mag crews before the film came out, and wondered how such a story warranted a two-and-three-quarter hours running time. Even the casting of Shia LaBeouf made me worried. But I should have trusted Arnold's talent as a filmmaker. The film is beguiling in its treatment of Star and the whole world of the crew. We get a small taste of her unhappy life, enough to understand why she would fall for the romance and adventure promised by LaBeouf's Jake. We watch as Star works to find her place in the group, though she always seems slightly aloof from everyone else (apart from Jake). Then the romance wears off, and the ugly side of life intrudes again.

Arnold often uses untrained, unknown people as her leading actors, and it works just as brilliantly here as it did in Fish Tank. Sasha Lane carries the whole film as Star - many shots are just close-ups on her face watching and subtly reacting to things  - and she more than holds her own against seasoned actors Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough (both of whom are wonderful too).

Epic road movies are usually shot in widescreen, but Arnold shot American Honey in Academy Ratio (4:3), and it works beautifully. The focus is on faces and close-up details, like the small insect trapped in the car (rather than the view out of the window behind it). It also increases the space the sky takes up in the shots, particularly behind Star, as though she is floating in some sort of dreamy world. The colours look slightly saturated, with a warm glow diffused over many shots. Again, it is beautiful.

The score is also great at evoking this particular world of travel, with the mag crew often having sing-a-longs in their van. I didn't recognise any of the music, but it works to create the camaraderie of the crew: the singing of the titular song is a particularly lovely scene.

American Honey joins Fish Tank as my favourite Arnold film, and is one of the best road movies you will see. I never lost focus or interest throughout the whole running time, and when I had to pause it to do other things, I as anxious to get back and watch more. Always a sign of a great film.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Badlands (1973)

 Director: Terrence Malick

I am rather ambivalent about Malick's films, which slightly baffles me as I don't object to spirituality in films. Even more strangely, I am one of those who found Tree of Life to be a marvellous piece of cinema (dinosaurs and all). But some of his others have left me a bit, eh. Don't get me wrong, his films are absolutely beautiful to look at, and there is a lovely dreaminess to them, but I just don't get swept up in them.

Badlands was Malick's debut, and it is a very impressive one. The road trip film follows teenager Holly and her boyfriend Kit as they move around the Midwest of America, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Holly narrates the film, starting off rather enamoured of bad-boy Kit who seems to promise a life of excitement. Throughout their adventures Holly starts to see Kit's behaviour in a new light as the romance wears thin.

Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen are fantastic as Holly and Kit. Their growing attraction and eventual separation feels natural. This is a particularly poignant scene where Sheen's Kit tries to reignite their romance by dancing in the car's headlights to 'A Blossom Fell.' Holly's dissatisfaction is clearly written on her face, hidden from Kit as he gently sways her from side to side. The music in the film is also great, from the music the two listen to, to the Carl Orff score. The cinematography, as you would expect, is gorgeous, from the sweeping expanses of the Montana badlands, to the romantic lights peeping out of the night sky.

Writing this review has made me appreciate the film a lot more. Malick gets great performances from his two leads, and his story is anti-romantic in a way; Holly's projection of James Dean onto Kit is punctured by the reality of actually living with a bad-boy. The violence and killings are a shock but they don't break the tone of the film, as though it, like Holly, is unable to fully comprehend what anger resides in Kit. I can see echoes of Badlands in Andrea Arnold's American Honey which simiarly takes a dreamy, poetic approach to teenage disaffection.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Funny Games (1997)

 Director: Michael Haneke

Most horror films deal with some sort of supernatural idea, be it monsters or spirits. Or if it is a human character, they are painted as monster-like themselves, and we usually get some kind of explanation for their behaviour. What makes Funny Games one of the most terrifying films I have seen is that the "evil" of the film is unexplained, and it is dealt by two young men who seem, on the surface, pleasant and even helpful.

Haneke's film falls into the category of admirable but not enjoyable. It is hard not to admire it. Haneke uses extremely lengthy shots to allow the story to unfold in a slow-burn way that ratchets up the tension. Two in particular really standout: the first is the one where the mother Anna is trying to give Peter some eggs, which he breaks, then ruins her phone, then drops some more eggs. What starts out as slightly comic becomes threatening, and you start thinking "Get him out of the house." The second one comes right after a horrifying death, and holds on Anna as she, and we, try to overcome our shock at what has happened.

The story is a clever one, defying our expectations, and even breaking film rules as a scene is re-wound to change its outcome. The central question of "why" regarding all the violence and horrible games is never answered, leaving us with little closure. All this is incredibly admirable, but is also used to deliberately make the film really unlikeable.

Like with Requiem For a Dream, I won't be watching this again anytime soon. I don't think I can take the tension all over again, especially knowing what is to come. Haneke's films are never easy or comfortable, but you will never forget them.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Boom! (1968)

 Director: Joseph Losey

The things one does for love! I love Elizabeth Taylor and am trying to watch all of her films. Not all of them are available in Australia, but one of those that is is Boom!, which is about ...

Honestly, I don't know. This film is so bad, and part of that badness is the terrible handling of the story. Taylor plays a dying "old' woman who is meant to be seduced by a "youthful" fortune hunter, played by Richard Burton, infamous for being around wealthy old women when they die. For some reason it all happens in a modern house perched precariously on a cliff on the Mediterranean. Stuff happens, often with Taylor wearing rather elaborate costumes (the best part of the film: they do look great on Taylor).

This film has apparently got camp value, and Taylor's performance is rather over the top: Burton doesn't seem to be even trying. None of it makes sense, and I was rendered bored by the whole thing. Burton and Taylor could be dynamite on screen, but here the chemistry is missing: they look like they weren't speaking to each off screen for the whole shoot.

Really, you don't need to see this, unless you share similar taste in films to John Waters, who loves this.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Re-Animator (1985)

 Director: Stuart Gordon

I love it when a horror film goes utterly crazy. It is both horrifying and hilarious, leaving you almost breathless with glee. Re-Animator, with its short running time, goes brilliantly mental very quickly (I'd say somewhere around the re-animated cat), and just when you think it can't get more ridiculous, it does.

Jeffrey Combs is perfect as the 'mad scientist' Herbert West, whose invention - a reagent that reanimates people - has horrible side-effects on the reanimated corpse. He is obsessively focused on his invention and can't help using it, even when doing is a really bad idea (like reanimating he man trying to take credit for his invention). Combs' West's bluntness and inability to suffer those he sees as foolish make him appear almost the most sane, or at least calm, character in the film.

The story follows West as he tries to fine tune his invention in America. He takes up with a follow medical student, Dan Cain (owner of the cat), and somehow Dan's girlfriend Megan's father ends up as one of the corpses. Into the mix is West's nemesis Dr Hill, who also has a thing for Megan. The film's ridiculous plot adds another layer of humour.

The other great element of Re-Animator is its opening titles sequence and theme, which is iconic enough to be parodied in The Simpsons. It is reminiscent of Psycho, and points to the coming madness and chaos of the story.

Re-Animator has everything one wants in an 80s cult horror film: humour, gore, an iconic central performance, a brilliant theme, and a nice chilling ending to round it all off. Great fun!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) (1972)

 Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cries and Whispers, like Persona, looks at the complexities of female relationships. In this film the relationships are familial, between three sisters and a maid. Unlike Persona, where the two women seemed to be blurring into one another, two of the sisters in Cries and Whispers, Maria and Karin, struggle to overcome their own lives in order to support the dying Agnes. Only Anna, the maid, responds with complete love and devotion to Agnes in her pain.

The film doesn't follow a linear storyline, instead flashing back in time to memories of Agnes' childhood, Maria's infidelity, Karin's horrific episode of self-mutilation (which made me queasy), and Anna's reflection on her dead child. There is also a scene, which could be a dream or a real shared experience for the women, where Agnes comes back to life and begs her sisters to comfort her. This engimatic approach makes this a film one experiences and then pieces together afterwards.

The cinematography is utterly beautiful, with its etheral white costumes contrasted with the plush red furniture and decoration in the house. It keeps us entralled in this emotionally complex situation, as the sisters and Anna grapple with their own fears around death, their bodies, and questions of happiness and faith.

Like almost all of Bergman's films, I want to watch this again to see what a second viewing reveals about the characters. The film's overall tone is one of deep introspection that reveals many painful truths for the women (and the audience), yet the ending is one of quiet hope and joy for sisterly togetherness. As devastating as it is beautiful.

Monday, 18 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Coma (1978)

 Director: Michael Crichton

Coma is not strictly a horror film, but its subject matter - patients being left braindead after routine operations - plays on common fears about medical procedures, and questions our complete reliance on doctors to always do the right thing. Genevieve Bujold's Dr Susan Wheeler starts investigating these supposedly random events and uncovers something sinister.

This is the third film starring Bujold I have watched, and she is a good here as she was in Anne of the Thousand Days and Dead Ringers. She radiants intelligence, and her doggedness in pursuing these irregularities is not painted as a caring, female quality, but a rigorous desire for the truth. The studio apparently had thought about casting a male in the lead (Paul Newman), but part of the tension of the story comes from Susan's gender. The senior male staff ignore her findings, and even her partner, fellow doctor Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) complains about her working too hard, and wants a more traditional relationship.

This is a neat little thriller film that engages with medical ethics in a clever way. While it gets a little melodramatic in the final third, Genevieve Bujold is also a joy to watch.