Friday, 12 January 2018

I've Just Seen: Son of Saul (Saul fia) (2015)

Director: Laszlo Nemes

There are so many films about the Holocaust that you would think that all aspects of its existence had been covered, in all possible ways. Yet Nemes' film touches on a perspective I didn't know about: sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners who were forced to clear the gas chambers after they were used. Naturally this is a grim subject yet Nemes has compassion for his characters, and takes us into their morally awful situation.

The most remarkable aspect of the film is they way it is shot. Using the tight framing of Academy ratio, and shot on actual film, the audience spends almost all the film with main character Saul as he goes about his soul-crushing work. His perspective is ours, with many shots filmed over Saul's shoulder. Action often happens just off-screen, and the background is frequently out of focus. We see intimately the emotions move across Saul's face as he believes he has found his son among the dead and tries to find a rabbi to perform burial rites over the body.

The film's references to the violence we all know took place is quietly presented, almost matter-of-factly; we watch Saul looking through piles of bodies, but because of our limited view, we only realise after we look a little harder. The shock is not in-your-face, but none the less harrowing as a result.

This is an impressive film which manages to say something new about the Holocaust. It is a moving film, though an extremely difficult watch (as it should be).

Monday, 8 January 2018

I've Just Seen: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

 Director: James Foley

Note: I watched the film and wrote the review before the allegations about Kevin Spacey came to light.

Few films' cast lists are as starry as Foley's. Scripts adapted from plays often attract top-quality stars because the writing is so good. What makes Glengarry Glen Ross feel different is that every role is a plum one, giving the actors something to really get their teeth into. While the setting doesn't change much from the real estate office (and doesn't entirely escape the story's theatrical origins), the scenario and the acting make this a great watch.

It is hard to single any one actor out for their role. Alec Baldwin almost walks off with the film in his one scene. His "pep" talk is hilarious and frightening, putting the fear of God into the sales team. Jack Lemmon is an actor I would watch in anything, and he is wonderful here, playing around with his charming everyman persona, twisting it to show the desperation the fuels his Shelley "The Machine" Levene.

Listening to well-written dialogue, said by well-drawn characters, played by some of the best actors in the busineses is always a satisfying experience. The play may not be world-changing, nor is the cinematography particularly ground-breaking. However, something this well-done is hard to get right, and Glengarry Glen Ross gets pretty much everything right.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Diner (1982)

 Director: Barry Levinson

Diner is one of those films about a group of people at a particular time of their lives, where subtle but monumental shifts are occurring. Here five guys are on the cusp of adulthood, though a few seem to have already taken the plunge and are now wondering if they lept too soon. Over the last week of the 50s, the group reconnects and tries to figure out what their futures will look like.

There is a bit of plot in the film, but this is really about the characters and their relationships to one another. The cast is made up of Steve Guttenberg, Tim Daly, the always recognisable Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, and unavoidable Kevin Bacon. They have great chemistry with one another as they reminisce about their high school days together at the titular diner. There are a few female characters too, most notably Stern's "Shrevie's" wife Beth, but the focus is mostly on the guys.

Diner is a good blend of comedy and drama, and nicely evokes the late 1950s without overdoing the period aesthetics: perhaps because many people still remembered those days Levinson felt it would have been overkill. This gives the film a timeless quality, that the concerns of these young men play out in each generation. The only difference between theirs and ours (or mine at least) is that the signifiers of  adulthood are nowdays put off longer (I can't imagine being married at 19!).

Monday, 30 October 2017

I've Just Seen: House of Usher (1960)

 Director: Roger Corman

I love a good Gothic horror film, and if it has Vincent Price in it I am bound to like it even more. Based on Poe's novella The Fall of the House of Usher, the story follows Philip Winthrop who comes to the House of Usher to see his fiancee Madeline. He meets her brother Roderick who tries very hard to dissuade Philip from marrying Madeline, arguing that the Usher family is cursed with madness, and that only will it stop with his and Madeline's deaths.

I really enjoyed this film. Vincent Price is a magnetic screen presence, and his Roderick is a wonderfully tortured soul. He belief that he and his sister will go mad is presented as tragic, but he is so determined that it will happen, and cannot accept giving Madeline a chance at happiness, that you wonder if the other Ushers simply drove each other mad.

In terms of pace and gore, this film is dated. A modern audience would get impatient with the time it takes to get crazy, and the blood is tame. However, the motivations underlying Roderick's behaviour are pretty awful, and if the story were remade today I'd imagine more emphasis would be placed on Madeline's character. I enjoyed the film, having a soft spot for cult horror classics.

Corman adapted many Poe stories, and if this anything to go by, I shall enjoy watching them. They are fun, and if a horror film doesn't shock or scare you, it is better that it amuse you than bore you.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Charulata (1964)

 Director: Satyajit Ray

Most of the Indian films I have seen are Bollywood-style films: melodramatic, musical, with lots of bright colours and gorgeous costumes. This is almost the opposite to Ray's film Charulata, with its quiet story of unspoken feelings that create painful changes in a small family unit. This is the first of Ray's films I have seen, and if they are all like Charulata, I am going to have another director to add to my list of favourites.

In the late 19th century, Charu lives with her husband Bhupati, who runs a newspaper dealing with politics. The marriage is friendly, but not close, and Charu is bored with little to do around the house. Bhupati's cousin Amal comes to stay, and Bhupati asks him to encourage Charu's interest in writing. Tender feelings start to bloom between Charu and Amal, though neither dares speak it aloud.

This is such a lovely film that deals with a small situation yet shows the devastating effects small breaches of trust can have on relationships. The black-and-white cinematography, along with the at times languid but interested position of the camera reminded me of Ozu's films, and the effect as a whole makes us focus on the faces and movements of our characters. The looks and gestures Charu, Amal and Bhupati give one another speak volumes. All the actors are wonderful, particular Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu, who has one of those faces that the camera loves.

It is always good to be reminded that a country's cinema is not made-up entirely of one kind of film. I do love the Bollywood musicals, but I also love this quieter, more character-driven style of storytelling. Both, when done well, are wonderful.

Friday, 27 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton

Science-fiction and Westerns genre mash-ups often make curious films. Science-fiction is usually focused on the future and technologies interacting with humans; Westerns almost invariably look to the past, and humans in a more primitive mode of survival. Westworld marries the two genres together in a really clever way, exploring these ideas around technology and survival.

The Westworld of the title refers to one of three themed worlds featured at the theme park Delos; the other two are Medievalworld and Romanworld. Each world gives he guests are immersive experience in either the American Old West, Europe in the Middle Ages or Roman Empire life (the last two are the experiences of the elite, naturally). Two guests to Westworld, Peter and his friend John (who is on a repeat visit) enjoy the life of a cowboy in the Old West, even having a duel with a cold-blooded gunslinger, played by a brilliant Yul Brynner. However, malfunctions starts happening, making the androids' "do not kill" function stop working. Guests start getting killed, and Martin finds himself being pursued by Brynner's vengeful Gunslinger.

So much about this movie works really well. The concept for a start is extremely good, and very fertile ground for storytelling: no wonder it has been turned into a TV series several times. The character of the Gunslinger clearly inspired the Terminator, with its relentless pursuit of its intended victim. The film was also rather predictive with its analogy of the systems malfunction to a virus. To modern minds this sounds obvious, but many in the 70s would have found it new, and no doubt frightening.

This is a very clever and thought-provoking film, one I am surprised Hollywood hasn't remade as a film (the TV series likely stopped that from happening). Its ideas are ones we are still grappling with, and it is potentially for horrifying for us as robots become more and more common in everyday life.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Natural Born Killers (1994)

 Director: Oliver Stone

American road movies as a genre throw up something interesting films. Natural Born Killers must be one of the most violence and visually frenetic ones out there. It follows Mickey and Mallory Knox as they make their way violently around the American south, becoming famous for their deeds after being profiled on a TV show. They eventually end up in gaol, where their separation leads to an extremely violent climax.

This falls into the "admire but not necessarily enjoy" category of films for me. The story is divided into sections, each with its own distinctive look and feel. In the first, Stone cuts between black-and-white and colour cinematography, making us feel the scene is being observed by more than one audience. In the second section the story of Mickey and Mallory's meeting is portrayed like a sitcom, though the laughs come incongruously, usually reacting to the awful abuse Mallory receives from her father. In the final section in the prison, one scene is split between two groups, and Stone shoots one group on green, while cutting to the other group in colour. We are constantly reminded that everything is a spectacle, that what we are watching is artificial.

The performances are very good across the board. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis have great chemistry together, and are truly terrifying as they go about their killings. Tom Sizemore is just as horrifying as Detective Jack Scagnetti, who enjoys killing as much as the Knoxs. Robert Downey Jr. is suitably oily as Wayne Gale, the TV reporter, and Tommy Lee Jones, who is great in everything, is on form too.

As I said before I admired this more than I enjoyed it. Its relentless violence is too much for me. The film is meant to be satirical, and pokes at the audience's enjoyment of the extreme action. While Tarantino only had a story credit, and I can see his influence on the film, though it is also clearly an Oliver Stone film. It is good, but I won't watch it again.