Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Harold and Maude (1971)

Director: Hal Ashby

I had watched Harold and Maude a number of years ago, before I started recording my thoughts about films. I remember enjoying it on first viewing, though I was also slightly thrown by the odd turns the plot takes. Films that have strange plots and and tones often prove richer on second viewing, and as the film was available for free on SBS Movies on Demand (I cannot praise this local service highly enough), a re-watch was in order. 

One could argue Harold and Maude is a twist on the plot of The Graduate. Both films feature a listless young man with parents and adults around him who don't understand what he wants - though if you were to ask him, he wouldn't be able to articulate it either. He then meets an older woman who provides something new and different in his life, eventually forcing him to make a decision about his future. Of course, the big difference is the nature of the older woman: in The Graduate Mrs Robinson is the same age as Benjamin's parents, and they never manage to open up to one another. In Harold and Maude the gap is at least two generations, and Maude's considerable life-experience, and brushes with real tragedy, draw the youthful Harold out of his death-obsessed shell.

The film is very 70s, with its fashion and political climate - not the mention the lovely Cat Stevens' soundtrack. For viewers today this adds to the film's charm. The rarefied, upper-class lifestyle of Harold's mother is beautifully contrasted to Maude's life in her converted train carriage house. The first feels like a museum, the other a comfortable, ramshackled place demonstrating a life well lived.

Recently I've been pondering what makes a film a "cult" classic. It is one of those things that is hard to define: broadly it has to do with the film's subject matter being somehow contrary to the mainstream, or that the execution of its ideas is unconventional. Or it can be about an audience's reaction to the film. Whatever makes a film "cult", Harold and Maude has it in spades.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Apollo 11 (2019)

 Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Having been born over twenty years after the Moon landing took place, the event always had a sense of "of course we did" about it. As a child I had no idea about the level of scientific achievement needed to make it happen, nor the political and historical context surrounding it. As an adult, having learned these things, I was amazed that such a thing was actually accomplished, knowing how little computer power was available in the 60s, but that didn't still give the full picture. Miller's documentary, made using only contemporaneous footage and voice-recordings, immerses you in the whole event, filling you with awe and amazement about the scale of the endeavour.

The opening shots are of the wheels of large machines slowly rolling along tarmac, the vehicle groaning and clunking, dwarfing the people walking beside it. The next shot reveals what is being carried: only Saturn V, the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 into space! From there we meet the three astronauts who manned Apollo 11, and the Mission Control Centre in Houston. The film follows the complete journey of the mission, from launch to the return of the astronauts to Earth.

Apollo 11 is not a documentary designed to walk you through each step of the mission, and it offers very little by way of explanation for the science behind it. The most it does is provide simple animated sequences that demonstrate the maneuvers performed by the craft: one example is the lunar module reconnecting with the command module. Instead the footage - of Saturn V launching into space, of the lunar module gliding over the surface of the Moon - is allowed to play out for long periods, drawing you into the moment, making everything feel immediate and full of tension. The result is that by the film's end an historical event you knew the outcome of becomes vivid and emotional. You are connected to the hope and optimism of the spectators shown in the film, the people who turned up 50 years ago to witness history. You are as invested in the outcome as the scientists and engineers watching and listening with bated breath in Houston, despite the knowledge all will be well.

I can imagine this becoming the definitive documentary about the first Moon landing, in part because of the previously unseen footage included in it. It deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the best sound system available. It captures the profound achievement of this moment in history, and draws viewers into the emotions felt by many at the time.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Battleground (1949)

 Director: William Wellman

It is the end of 1944, and a group of American soldiers are sent to Bastogne to hunker down in the town's outskirts during what became known as the 'Siege of Bastogne,' part of the larger Battle of the Bulge in World War II. We follow Private Jim Layton as he joins the squad and works to make a place for himself in this tight-knit group, as they battle the onslaught from the German forces, the dwindling supplies, and the harsh winter.

Paul Vogel's black-and-white cinematography really immerses you in the bleak environment of war-torn Bastogne. Most the scenes are set outside in the snow and fog, shrouding the characters in white as they camp in their snow-covered trenches, emphasising the bitterness of the weather. The acting from the ensemble cast is really good; with such a large number of characters it could be easy to lose track of who's who, but with actors like Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and James Whitmore this doesn't happen after initially meeting them.

While this is not as famous as many other WWII films, it is certainly worth watching. You really feel bedded in with the troops, spending time with them as they wait nervous and bored for something to happen, or facing death as they return sudden enemy fire. The deaths are done poignantly, without much display of emotion, and yet they do sink in. This film may be quiet and at times look subdued, but it is infused with a nervous tension throughout that draws you in.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

 Director: David Lean

A group of British POWs arrive at a Japanese-run camp during WWII, led by the stoic Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, who develops a complex relationship with the Japanese commandant Colonel Saito. While the British are put to work building the titular bridge, an American prisoner escapes, only to return to the camp as part of a mission to blow-up the infrastructure.

There are some films that are so well-made, with all its elements so perfectly balanced together, that it is hard to say anything about them, other than "Watch it. Now!" This is how I feel about David Lean's film. You could speak/write volumes about the greatness of the film, but none would properly capture its true brilliance, which lies in the perfectly pitched performances, the dynamics between the characters, the meticulous script which never drags, and the colour cinematography that portrays this harsh world.

While many have complained that the film is anti-British and anti-Japanese in its stance (including members of the cast and crew), I feel it is overall anti-war (as so many films in this era were). There is a bitterness to the ending that leaves you with the feeling 'what a waste of human life.' The most interesting character is Alec Guinness' Nicholson, who is the perfect-to-a-fault soldier. His stoicism and devotion to convention and order is played as a form of madness, and yet I couldn't help but admire him and his desire to find meaning amongst the madness, giving his men a purpose while imprisoned. His loss of perspective is difficult to watch, knowing what is going to happen to the bridge.


The Bridge on the River Kwai is up there with Casablanca as one of the best films that won Best Picture at the Oscars. It is one of the few films that completely justifies its considerable running time, and its ending is emotionally devastating. Films don't come much better than this.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Favourite (2018)

 Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

The Favourite follows Abigail Hill, a genteel woman fallen on hard times, who comes to the residence of Queen Anne to seek employment from Lady Marlborough, her cousin. Lady Marlborough (also known as Sarah Churchill), is the Queen right-hand woman, exerting a huge amount of influence over the sickly, often befuddled monarch. Abigail sees an opportunity to rise from her current destitution, and works to replace Sarah in the Queen's affections.

Lanthimos' film is similar to Amadeus in its approach to history. It is not about educating people regarding a particular person or moment, but instead takes a situation - here, the close relationships Queen Anne had with these two women - and spins a darkly funny, beautifully designed tale of ambition, power and friendship. It does not matter whether Olivia Colman's Anne is at all like the historical person, or whether she had sexual relationships with Abigail and Sarah. What does matter is the depth of the performances, and the gorgeous crafting of the world of Queen Anne's court.

The three main performances are wonderful - not unexpected from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone or Rachel Weisz, three of my favourite actors working today. The shifting dynamics between their characters feels like a beautifully choreographed dance, as Stone's Abigail and Weisz's Sarah seek to outwit one another. Olivia Colman is absolutely brilliant as Anne whose life is beset with physical pain (an attack of gout happens early on) and deep emotional trauma (17 dead children, some miscarriages, some dead in infancy; that is going to scar you).

All the elements of this film work really well together, from the witty script which feels true enough to early 18th century England, without being stilted, to the beautifully detailed costumes. The score has period appropriate music as well as avant-garde strings, which adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

The Favourite is not a history lesson, nor is it your typical costume drama (though there is nothing wrong with those). What it is is a humorous, at times shocking tale of ambition, desire, and the lust for power that lies behind politics. It is arguably Lanthimos' most accessible film to date, but that does not mean it is any less captivating or complex in its themes than his other films.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

True Grit (1969)

 Director: Henry Hathaway

If you are going to make a Western called "True Grit" it seems impossible you would cast anyone other than John Wayne in the lead role. Perseverance, or stubbornness, is a trait shared by many of the characters he played: Ethan Edwards in The Searchers immediately springs to mind. Here he plays "Rooster" Cogburn, hired by Mattie Ross to avenge the murder of her father by one of his workers. As with many of Wayne's roles, his steeliness of resolve is contrasted with the tender feelings he develops towards Mattie, becoming a father-figure for the fatherless teenager.

The film as a whole is entertaining and really well acted. Wayne is clearly enjoying the material, and he reportedly loved the script for the film. It is certainly a meaty role for him. Kim Darby is energetic in her portrayal of Mattie; one could argue she has the most "grit" of any of the characters. The scene where she haggles of the buying and selling of horses is good fun. The cinematography is lovely, along with the Colorado geography, despite it being set in Arkansas and Oklahoma (though being Australian I didn't notice the difference).

The only glaring flaw in the film is its pacing. It takes a long time for Cogburn, Mattie and La Boeuf to set out on their journey, with much discussion about who will and will not go. This doesn't really build tension, as you know who the three people going will be, and it just delays the inevitable. I imagine the remake is more economical in its first act.

While there is nothing ground-breaking in True Grit, it is a solid, well-made Western that has a rather sweet ending. It is hard not to enjoy a film where all the elements - writing, acting, directing, cinematography - are so good. It will be interesting to compare to the Coen Brothers' version.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Salute (2008)

Director: Matt Norman

Salute tells the story behind one of the most famous images in the world: the Black Power salute performed at the 1968 Olympic Games. In the photo John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood each with one hand in the air,, wearing a black glove, providing a powerful statement in support of the civil rights movement. Standing with them is Peter Norman, a white Australian runner, who is wearing an "Olympic Project for Human Rights" badge along with Smith and Carlos, evidence of his support for their cause. The film, made by Norman's nephew, tells the untold story of one of Australia's most successful runners who is still sadly rather unknown in Australia (I did not know about him until I watched the film).

Salute explores the context of civil rights in both America and Australia in the 60s, drawing parallels between the two to explain Norman's sympathies with the American situation. It also outlines Norman's life, particularly his Christian faith, which for him meant that all people were created equal, which lead him to abhor the racism in Australian society at the time (we had something called the White Australia Policy, and it was despicable). Carlos and Smith speak with great love and gratitude for Norman, with both delivering heartfelt eulogies at Norman's funeral.

This is one of those films that works to show us how far we have come in regards to human rights, and also how much more still needs to be done. The response in America to black footballers taking the knee (a peaceful and rather respectful protest which was met with a furious blacklash from some) shows that people still bristle at sport and politics mixing. Salute is a reminder of the need to stand up for what it right, even thought the cost may be terrible; all three runners suffered set-backs in their careers after the event. It also encourages us to reach out to one another over things that supposedly divide us - gender, colour, sexuality, even nationality - and recognise the inherent humanity that binds us all. It is an inspirational film about three inspirational men.