Saturday, 19 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

 Director: John McNaughton

So many TV shows, films and, these days, podcasts are devoted to exploring the sensational lives and motivations of serial killers throughout history. We want to know why they killed, what they were thinking, what they were feeling when they killed the person. McNaughton's film doesn't offer any answers to these questions, and doesn't really ask them either. The film is a "portrait", but one that doesn't interrogate its subject, it simply observes wryly.

Michael Rooker is now most famous for his role in Guardians of the Galaxy, and part of me hopes that new fans of his go back and watch his back catalogue. As the titular Henry he is a frightening figure, one whose never explains his many, many kills - though he does provide a rather funny insight into his method. Henry does exhibit a bit of morality regarding Becky, though this is incredibly murky and it is likely he is only feeling attraction, not love. Rooker is great as Henry, leaving us deeply unsettled by the character, yet also giving him a charisma that draws you in.

The look of the film is rough, with grainy film stock and "natural" lighting. This is an ugly world populated by morally repugnant people. The unshowiness of the whole makes this feel realistic. This is a horror film that has no supernatural element, a scenario that could (and frighteningly, has) happened.

While not an easy watch, with an ending that leaves you thinking "Oh crap," it is a clever low-budget horror film. It lives up to its title as the portrait of a serial killer, while also defying the audiences' desire for closure. Why does Henry kill people? We, and likely he, can only guess.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Lady Macbeth (2016)

 Director: William Oldroyd

We first meet Katherine on the day of her wedding, her face obscured under a net-like veil, her eyes wide as she looks around her in disbelief. She looks like a captured creature, forced into a marriage that is really a land sale: she is just part of the deal. Her new husband and his father are awful, treating her as an object and confining her to the house and utter boredom. But Katherine is a determined woman with a strong spirit, and both Mr Lesters and their household are to learn how far she will go to get what she wants.

Florence Pugh is wonderful as Katherine. She uses quiet and stillness brilliantly to convey Katherine's frustration, and there is an ambiguity to the character that keeps you wondering exactly how far she will go (which is ruthlessly far). In her hands Katherine is a modern character without feeling like an anachronism.

The smallness of the budget is used to the film's advantage. The house is stark, adding to its oppressive atmosphere, and also keeps your focus on the actors and their movements and looks. While I do love opulent period dramas, this one does feel fresh by comparison. The camera is a quiet bystander observing the escalating violence without getting frenzied itself. It lingers on uncomfortable scenes, drawing you into the situation.

Another difference to other period dramas is the presence of race. A few of the Lester's servants are black, most notably Anna who interacts with Katherine, and bares much of the brunt of Mr Lester snr.'s wrath. Katherine's lover Sebastian is also black; he is one of the hired hands working on the farm. The colour of their skin is not made a deal of, but plays into the story in interesting ways. Anna becomes mute after a particularly traumatising experience, and the story's climax is made even more devastating because of their colour.

Lady Macbeth is a great film, with one of the best central performances of the early 21st century. Pugh's Katherine reminded me of Jake Gyllanhaal's Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, another character whose single-minded pursuit works itself out to an astonishing conclusion.

Monday, 23 April 2018

I've Just Seen: The Descent (2005)

Director: Neil Marshall

While I love horror films, few of them actually scare me. I have been a little spooked by some, and love ones that have clever ideas and well-developed concepts; but rarely I am squirming in my seat. The Descent had this effect on me as it tapped into one of my basic fears: being trapped.

Set a year after a tragic accident that killed her husband and daughter, Sarah joins five friends to go caving. One of the friends was secretly involved with Sarah's husband, Juno, and another, Beth, was aware of it. The other three women are two sisters - Sam and Rebecca - and adventurous Holly. The group head off to explore the cave system, and find themselves facing a surprising adversary.

This is one of those films to watch without reading much about it beforehand. There are revelations halfway through that change the story, upping the already claustrophobic tension. The whole film is quite clever, giving us enough details about group dynamics and teasing us with questions only to answer them later in surprising ways.

The part of the film that got to me was not the twist halfway through (that was more terrifyingly thrilling), but the scenes of the women crawling through tight openings in the rock. I am one of those people who would have a panic attack in that situation, being highly conscious of the tonnes of rock and earth on top of me. The film knows this will be true for many in the audience and plays with this fear, having the cave partly collapse, trapping the group. That is one of my nightmares, so my heart-rate was well and truly raised.

The Descent answers the question "what would a female version of Deliverance look like?" Both are about a group entering the wilderness and coming across aggressive locals who don't want them there. They also feature characters pushed to their limits, doing things they would never believed possible, like cold-blooded murder. Survivors guilt also plays a role.

The Descent has one of the best endings I have seen in a horror film. It is veritable sucker-punch, leaving you gasping for air, much like the characters. The version I saw was the "uncut" one, which is bleaker than the original American cut, but makes more sense. It is a great horror film that doesn't make a big deal about its female-focused narrative, and is all the more powerful for it.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

I've Just Seen: A Quiet Place (2018)

Director: John Krasinski

I made the mistake of going and watching this during the school holidays, and on "Cheap Tuesday." As a result the cinema had the sounds of munching, crunching and loud murmurs of teenagers. While this would annoy me not matter what the film - you are in a public place, be mindful of others - A Quiet Place is based around the idea of silence as a survival method. I wish the aliens in the film had come out of the screen and removed some of the audience.

It is a credit to the film that despite this distraction I really enjoyed it. It felt like a 1950s B-movie in terms of its simple concept and short run-time, resulting in a tense and clever whole. There is little dialogue, and the characters talk to one another with sign language, as one of them is deaf, so there are more subtitles than speech.

Survival is at the heart of almost every horror film, but this one has a collective approach: the parents are working to protect and equip their children for an uncertain future. As a family they are also living with grief over an earlier loss in the film, a plot point that terrifyingly and heartrendingly establishes the world they are living in. 

Emily Blunt, who is a wonderfully charismatic presence on screen, is great here, her face brilliantly emoting her struggle to stay quiet as her body is trying to give birth, as well as protect her family. Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf herself, is also great, dealing with her grief and guilt, and growing up over the course of the story.

I am really enjoying the spate of clever and diverse horror films coming out in the last few years. A Quiet Place is another one of these, showing Hollywood that a good idea and a good story is what is needed to succeed, not a giant budget or shallow jump-scares.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

I've Just Seen: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

 Director: Hector Babenco

This is definitely a film I should watch again. It was not at all what I was expecting, and since I try not to read much about films before I see them, I was thoroughly unprepared. All I knew was that it starred William Hurt and Raul Julia. That was it.

The setting, the characters, the arc of their relationship, and the subplots involving a fictional WWII film make for a unique story. Raul Julia is Valentin Arregui, a political prisoner (from the left) and Hurt plays Luis Molina, a transgender woman with a love for German propaganda films. Naturally the two irritate each other at first, but slowly a relationship begins, one that eventually becomes sexual. Loyalties are created, and Molina's appreciation for the beauty in life starts to rub off on Arregui.

Considering the film's interest in identity and politics, I am surprised it hasn't become well known in recent years. It approaches the relationship between Arregui and Molina without judgment, and while Molina's double-agent role casts her as dubious (and she is in prison for assaulting an underage boy), it is much more complicated than that.

I was intrigued by the film, but also rather unsure about where it was heading, which made it hard for me to really  get into it. That being said, it was great to see Raul Julia in a different role to what I have seen (Gomez Addams) and he and William Hurt worked well together.

This is where the value of following lists lies: exposing you to films you would never have known about otherwise.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

I've Just Seen: Vampyr (1932)

 Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer's films have been hit-and-miss for me. The ones that I liked - Ordet, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath - I really liked or even loved. The ones that I didn't like so much were disappointing, though not without some interesting parts - Dreyer does know how to shoot beautiful images. Vampyr falls into the latter category.

The film is technically a "talkie" with characters occasionally saying lines, but overall Vampyr plays like a silent movie, with its intertitles and constant music. While this is fine in general, the film does rely too much on reading, particularly in its explanations of what a vampire is in this world. It also doesn't really follow a clear plot, instead wandering through a village of supernatural nastiness, often leaving this viewer wondering what was going on.

The most impressive parts of the film are the special effects and one particular scene where the main character imagines his death. While early special effects are primitive compared to today, I am always intrigued by the ingenuity of early filmmakers. Here there are shadow puppets, and double exposure to get that ghostly appearance of a character, something rarely scene in films today.

The imagined death scene is where the film reaches its eerie heights. The main character falls asleep and his spirit wanders away. He discovers his body and watches it being put in a coffin with a window. The camera then cuts between the character's face staring blankly out of the coffin and the view from the window. There is a real sense of being trapped, particularly as the coffin is moved out of the building and towards the grave.

Vampyr is not typical of horror films with its meditative pace and, for a vampire film, lack of fangs. It does have some interesting set pieces, but feels slightly unfinished, as though it was cobbled together, or even started without a script. It is visually impressive but will likely alienate modern horror fans.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

I've Just Seen: Lady Bird (2017)

Director: Greta Gerwig

I could wax lyrical about all the wonderful things in Gerwig's Lady Bird. It is a small film in its scope and deals with a familiar topic - a teenager becoming an adult - but it does so in such a brilliant way, naturally using the specifics of its setting, and primarily focusing on the female relationships of its female protagonist, particularly the one with her mother.

While I don't require characters in films to "relatable" in order to care about their stories, a few aspects of Christine aka "Lady Bird"'s life echoed mine. I went to a Catholic high school (though I am not Catholic), and though I started the year after Lady Bird finishes in the film, the world of her high school felt very familiar. I went to friend's houses and was slightly shocked at the wealth they apparently had (my family is not poor, but we do not have a waterside view or gigantic house). A few people had mobile phones, but that was not the primary way we communicated; hanging out and talking face-to-face still happened. All this felt like a gentle reminder of how quickly the world, particularly the teenage world, has changed.

The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother Marion is suitably complex and treated beautifully by Gerwig. Neither is perfect, and while they both clearly love one another, we see them constantly say the wrong thing. Christine is oblivious to the financial realities of her family, while her mother can't help but emphasis the negative aspects of Christine's behaviour. Yet we also see Marion being good at her job, respected by patients and colleagues, and also see Lady Bird connect with other adults.

The role of Lady Bird is a hard one to get right, and I cannot imagine anyone else other than Ronan playing her. She is confident to the point of overbearing, yet also has moments of fear about being a better person. Over the film she starts to become this. Along with her mother, Lady Bird's other relationship of note is with her best friend, and its trajectory is very realistic, almost at times painfully so. Friends put up with a lot from each other, enduring absences when one gets a partner or decides to find other friends. But unlike Lady Bird's boyfriends, Julie is the one who knows her and loves her best.

As you can see I loved this. It captures something about growing-up and does so with an apparent lightness of touch, a lightness that belies the astuteness of its observations about teenage growing pains. Whether you are female or male (or somewhere in between), grew up on the 2000s or the 1960s (or somewhere in between) there is much joy and truth to be found in Gerwig's film. Can't wait to see what she makes next.