Monday, 26 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Director: Charles Jarrott

Being a fan of Elizabeth Taylor entails becoming a bit of a fan of Richard Burton; the two acted several times together, and Burton was of course talented in his own right, particularly playing rather grand characters. And they don't come much grander than Henry VIII. This film covers Henry's relationship with his second wife Anne Boleyn, the first 'beheaded' one, from their meeting to Anne's execution.

As a young teenager I was very interested in the history of Henry and his eight wives. I didn't think much about the character of Henry himself, but instead thought more about the feelings of his wives. Henry, as played by Burton, is a tantrum-prone tyrant, a man who believes all he does is fine by God, and can think of nothing else but producing a male heir for his kingdom. His attraction to the lively Anne is portrayed as a tragedy, with the two having a brief time of blissful love before reality sets in. Of course, the tragedy is entirely due to his obsession with having a son.

Burton is good as Henry, striding around shouting his wishes aloud - 'I want Anne!' or 'I want a son!' - or whispering loudly sweet nothings to Anne. It is a big performance, which does work as Henry was a big character. Genevieve Bujold is wonderful as Anne; she had my sympathies from the start, and she moves so naturally through the character's arc, from hatred and anger to love and wistfulness. She is intelligent and clever, navigating her way in this harsh world, trying to get the best for herself and her daughter.

While the script is full of talk about lust, sex, incest and adultery, onscreen it veers towards stuffy; it doesn't throw off its origins as a play. The costumes are gorgeous, opulent in their details - Margaret Furse thoroughly deserved her Oscar.

I've read somewhere that Burton had wanted Taylor to play Anne; I would have enjoyed seeing these two once again spar with one another on screen, but Bujold is so good in the role that I don't regret the casting for a moment. While not required viewing, it has several good performances and is lovely to look at - and watch out for Taylor's cameo!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Shaft (1971)

 Director: Gordon Parks

It is impossible to talk about Parks' film and not mention the theme song. It is the first thing you hear, played over the titles as we follow John Shaft walking around his patch of New York City. On its own, "Theme From Shaft" is a great song, sticking in your head for the whole film and long afterwards. Combined with the film's opening shots, it works as one of the best introductions to character you will see in film.

John Shaft is a private detective with an uneasy relationship with the police and several gang members. He is hired by Bumpy Jonas, a gangster, to find his kidnapped daughter. This gets complicated as several groups have their own agenda, including the police who want to know what Shaft knows, fearing this dispute might look like the start of a race war (which is it not).

Shaft is, as the song tells us, 'a complicated man.' He operates in a world that means his loyalties are not clear-cut - he doesn't want to get caught up with Jonas' gang, but is also weary of the police: a classic noir detective. His 'complications' also extend to his love life. The most dated part of the film are its sexual politics, as Shaft cheats on his girlfriend (thought the song assures us she is the only one who understands him!), and is described by one fling as "pretty good in the sack" but "pretty shitty afterwards.' This is just how Shaft is, the movie says, part of his "sex machine" persona. Despite this, Shaft is an incredibly charismatic individual, and you can't help but enjoy watching him take on this case.

Parks' decision to cast a black actor in the role of Shaft (the studio and writers had originally wanted a white actor), is one of the best decisions in film history; I can't imagine anyone else but Richard Roundtree playing the role - he is fantastic.

This was my first taste of blaxploitation cinema, and I look forward to seeing other films in the genre (the horror films look particularly intriguing!).

Friday, 23 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

 Director: Tsui Hark

Foshan, the setting for Hark's film, is presented as an incredibly international city, at least was in the late 19th century. It is a giant melting-pot of various Asian and Western countries, including America and Britain. At the centre of this world is Wong Fei-hung, a martial arts teacher and healer, and his coterie of apprentices and his '13th Aunt,' related to him by marriage and the woman he secretly loves. Another talented martial arts fighter arrives in town with the theatre, Leung Foon, who also adores '13th Aunt.' Wong, despite wanting peace, finds himself fighting with local gangs who have dubious connections to Americans who run a human trafficking ring.

Really, the plot is simply there to facilitate the fight scenes, and there are enough of them to keep you interested, or from cringing at the acting of the 'Americans.' Jet Li is good as Wong, and his fight scenes are a joy to watch. I also liked his quiet romance with Rosamund Kwan's '13th Aunt.' The depiction of this uneasy multicultural city was interesting, though I didn't known the history behind each country's presence there.

I did enjoy watching this, but am slightly unsure why it is on the 1001+ list. I can only think it is because it sparked an interest in martial art films at the time. It is good fun, but lacking in depth regarding its characters.

Monday, 19 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Big Red One (1980)

 Director: Sam Fuller

Trust Sam Fuller to make a war film that doesn't feel like other war films. Following a group of men from the 1st Division in World War II, we get an episodic view of war; the tension, the boredom, the unexpected, the comradery, and the fear. Lee Marvin is the oldest of the group, and saw action in the First World War. His experiences there affect his experiences in this war, and Fuller reflects on what we really learn from one war to the next.

Fuller does not shoot his war film like others. Instead of gloomy interiors of bombed-out houses, or battle-scarred, dark landscapes, we get sun-drenched North Africa, Sicily, Omaha Beach, and sunny West Germany. The opening scene in WWI, which was shot in black-and-white, and the final scene at night, are the really noticeable moments of darkness. The effect is to expose everything about war, and it leaves a lot of the emotions to the audience to feel, rather than the film using darkness to provoke fear.

The cast is full of well-known faces. Lee Marvin is great as the leader of the squad, a man still haunted by his previous experience. Mark Hamill plays a talented shooter who suffers a loss of confidence and becomes something of a pacifist (as much as you can be in the depths of war). Robert Carradine is the narrator of the film, and his character is apparently based on Fuller himself; the film's stories are based on Fuller's own experience in the war.

This is a nice change from the usual war films one watches. It has moments of humour, pathos, real tension - the Omaha beach scene is really wonderful, very well paced - and the ending is a great call-back to the opening scene. The film feels like a whole picture of war, and doesn't continually dwell on the pain and anguish of war. There are lots of films that focus on those experiences, but Fuller's viewpoint seems to rarely get portrayed.

Friday, 16 June 2017

I've Just Seen : I Was Born, But ... (Otona no miru ehon - Umarete wa mita keredo) (1932)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

What a delightful film! I knew that Ozu's early work was rather different from his later films, which are wonderful and brilliant and all that, but rarely are they so sweet and funny as this. Perhaps its because I Was Born, But ... follows two young brothers and their problems fitting into a new school, and coming to a deeper understanding about the adult world; quite different from the sadness at the heart of Tokyo Story, but no less profound.

Keiji and Ryoichi have recently moved with their parents to a new suburb, one that happens to be close to their father's boss Iwasaki. The local kids, one of whom is Iwasaki's son, tease the newcomers, who decide to skip school to avoid trouble. Their father finds out, and tells them that they must go to school and stand up to the bullies. The two boys eventually do this, and everyone becomes friends, but things go awry when the boys discover that their father is seen as the office clown at work. The boys are distressed, argue with their father, and ponder the inequalities in the world.

From that synopsis you might think the film is weighty, but it really isn't. Instead, Ozu lets the boys' pain and anger simmer under the surface of the sweet humour. As a result, the film's profundity sneaks up on you. It is the behaviour of the two brothers that bring most of the humour. They have little quirks, like the funny game they introduce to their new friends, which looks like a variation on dead lions. One of the brothers also occasionally pulls a silly dance pose for no reason. Their interactions with one another are also very cute.

The politics of being a child are beautifully portrayed in this film, as is the earth-shattering discovery that your parents, who are the most important adults in your life, are usually less important in the world than you think they are. The film ends on a lovely note of hope for the future with an image that echoed the last in Chaplin's Modern Times. I really loved this, and unless you hate silent, black-and-white, and 'foreign' films, then you'll enjoy this too.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) (2001)

 Director: Michael Haneke

This film is not an enjoyable watch. It deals with an incredibly difficult character in Erika Kohut; the titular piano teacher whose oppressive relationship with her mother has ruined her ability to relate to anyone else. Her world is thrown into chaos when Walter Klemmer, a young musician, takes a romantic interest in her. Her previously hidden sexual proclivities, which are hardcore, come to the surface, as does her jealousy at others' musical skill. As I said, the unpleasantness of the characters makes this hard to watch, but I also couldn't helped being impressed by the film.

Most of that comes down to Isabelle Huppert's performance as Erika. The character is one of extremes, going from almost icy stillness to strong desire. Huppert shows us these changes with the smallest of gestures - sometimes it is just with the intensification of a stare. For the first part of the film she is largely cold, though you feel sympathy for her because of her overbearing mother. Then you discover her desire for hardcore sex, and feel slightly repulsed. I was hoping that her relationship with Walter would be a positive thing, but it being a Haneke film, Erika's vulnerability is rewarded with yet more pain and humiliation.

The hardest part of watching this was the violence that lurks in several scenes, the worst for me being the self-mutilation scene. If you've seen it, you will understand why I felt light-headed and crossed my legs, recoiling at what I saw. Even thinking of it now makes me queasy.

I didn't 'like' this per se, but I couldn't help but admire Huppert's skill, and Haneke's overall direction. The flatness of the light throughout the whole drains the colour from this world of competition and repression. The passion and beauty of the music played throughout is made ironic by Erika's own particular passions, which are not beautiful, nor is her understanding of human relationships. This is one of those films I would not recommend to everybody, or to most people, but if you think you can withstand the pain at its centre, it is worth watching.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

I've Just Seen: To Die For (1995)

Director: Gus Van Sant

If you ever wonder why Nicole Kidman is held in such high esteem in the acting world, you need only watch this film. As Suzanne Stone/Maretto, Kidman gets to flex her comedic muscle as the ambitious, amoral wannabe TV star. She also gets to be nasty and cruel, and completely sells the rottenness at the heart of the American Dream.

The story begins at the end - with Suzanne suspected of her husband's murder, and the Stones and Marettos recounting the ill-fated marriage of their children. Throughout the film we get interjects from what appear to be interviews with Suzanne and Larry's parents and Larry's sister Janice, who mistrusts Suzanne from the start. We also get Suzanne's own recollects told directly to camera. Suzanne wants to be a TV star, so she gets a job at the local TV station as the weather girl, and pitches a documentary series about teenagers. She picks three from the local high school and starts manipulating them, using them to kill her husband.

As I said, Kidman is great as Suzanne, who is similar to Amy from Gone Girl and Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Like Lou, Suzanne believes whole-heartedly in the American Dream, and she learns everything she can about being a TV star. She is so determined that she even comtemplates murder to achieve her goals. The supporting cast are very good as well. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck play two of the high school students, and Matt Dillon plays Suzanne's husband.

The film is not laugh-out-loud funny but may provoke a few dark chuckles. I really liked the script and also the film's look; Kidman's costumes, all bright colours and sharp lines beautifully express her character. Gus Van Sant has been a bit hit-and-miss for me, but I liked his choices with this. He gets great performances from his actors, and his juxtaposing editing works well. This is a rewarding gem of a film, and a large part of that is because of Nicole Kidman.