Sunday, 9 September 2018

I've Just Seen: Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

 Director: Robert Aldrich

Aldrich's film was originally intended to star both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, replicating the success of the three's previous film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. But the ongoing feud between the two made it impossible for them to contemplate being in the same room together (with some undermining by Davis with the crew) Olivia de Havilland was cast as the titular Charlotte's cousin Miriam.

The original idea behind the casting of Davis and Crawford was to switch the dynamics of Baby Jane, with Davis now playing the put-upon character, and Crawford as the scheming one driving the other insane. While it would have been interesting to watch that play out, de Havilland is really good as the evil Miriam. She is playing a little against type herself; many of her most famous roles involved being the gir-next-door, though they often had dark parts to their lives (particularly in The Snake Pit). Here she gets to be out-and-out bad, and seems to be relishing it.

While Davis is famous for playing "bitchy" characters, she also brought great vulnerability to many of her roles. While Charlotte is not one of her subtlest performances, she is a good fit for a character who people believe murdered her lover.

It is not as hammy and grotesque as Baby Jane, making it less memorable and not as great. That being said, there is much enjoyment to be had watching these older stars of Hollywood flex their acting muscles.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

I've Just Seen: The Wedding Banquet (1993)

 Director: Ang Lee

With The Wedding Banquet I have finally cracked 2,000 films watched in my lifetime. Thankfully this was a lovely film with which to achieve this milestone. I have enjoyed pretty much all of Ang Lee's films, and the progressive message about love and family at the heart of this one still feels relevant 25 years later.

Wai-Tung Gao is a Taiwanese man living in New York with his partner Simon. After receiving continuous pressure from his parents back in Taiwan to marry (particularly after his father suffers a stroke), Wai-Tung and Simon decide Wai should just marry a girl to get his parents off his back. Luckily one of Wai's tenants, Wei-Wei, needs a green card, so the three plan the wedding. But then Wai-Tung's parents arrive in America to see the wedding, forcing the celebrations to be bigger, putting pressure on Wai-Tung and Simon's relationship, and making Wei-Wei feel the separation from her family.

There is a generosity at the heart of the film. While some elements might have aged, as gay people have become more accepted in mainstream society, overall the film is still very sweet and touching. The cross-cultural element is something we in 2018 are dealing with as migration occurs. The Wedding Banquet shares similar ideas with My Big Fat Greek Wedding and more recently The Big Sick. Such romantic-comedies are not only about people finding someone to love, but also finding a balance between Western individualism and the more collective cultural philosophies of the East and Middle East. This adds more meat to the story and raises the stakes, creating a satisfying mix that goes beyond simple boy-meets-girl stories, and portrays the messiness of romantic life. The Wedding Banquet also has the added element of homosexuality, making the choice facing Wai-Tung even starker.

As a fan of the romantic-comedy genre, as well as someone who likes to explore other countries and cultures through film, I hope that future romantic-comedies continue to engage with such themes. To use a horrible word, such themes are more "relevant" than ever, and in a world that appears to be becoming more isolationist, surely focusing on love and relationships crossing divides is a good way to bridge gaps and generate understanding.

Here's to the next 2,000 films!

Saturday, 18 August 2018

I've Just Seen: Little Shop of Horrors (1960) (1986)

Directors: Roger Corman; Frank Oz

Of all the films to be give a musical makeover to, surely Little Shop of Horrors is the least obvious choice. The plot revolves around a nice guy, Seymour, forced to kill people to feed a carnivorous, talking plant named after the girl he loves (there is also a sadistic dentist thrown into the mix). If musicals have horror plots, they tend to be gothic (Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera), but Little Shop is a horror-science-fiction-comedy, making it rather unique. Corman's original focuses on the destructive relationship Seymour has with Audrey Jr., while Oz's films ups the stakes, fleshing out Seymour and Audrey's romance, and giving Audrey II a rather sinister motive.

Corman's film is pretty good considering the smallness of the budget. The weirdness of the plot suits the indie nature of Corman's filmmaking, and his abilities with horror shows. The cameo from Jack Nicholson, though small, is fun for modern audiences. The ending is rather bleak, but considering the strangeness of the whole plot, the story could have gone in any direction and it could have worked.

Frank Oz's film, which is based on the stage musical, is more polished by comparison, and it does develop the plot and some of the characters more than they were in Corman's film. Audrey is in a relationship with the sadistic dentist (played wonderfully by Steve Martin), who is abusing her, making Seymour's tenderness with her striking in comparison to what he does with Audrey II. The songs are brilliant, unsurprising as they were written by Alan Menken (who did the scores for many 80s and 90s Disney films). My particular favourite is "Dentist."

Of the two films I did enjoy the musical more, though I will note I did watch it first, making it the default despite being chronologically after (This is why I usually try to see remakes chronological, so I can see the development of ideas through the versions). Regarding the alternate ending to Oz's film, I honestly don't know which one I prefer. While I like the sweetness and romance of the theatrical version, the alternate is dark in a way most musicals are not. At least in this world of Blu-ray extras you can explore both.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

I've Just Seen: The Gleaners and I (2000)

 Director: Agnes Varda

Last year in Australia a TV series called 'The War on Waste' aired, showing the amount of waste created by a country of 24 million people, including horrifying statistics about the number of perfectly good bananas thrown away (something like 30 million a year out of around the 50 million produced). Why? Because they fall outside the strict requirements of the supermarkets. A similar scenario happens in Varda's documentary, with a truck load of potatoes dumped in a field. But as Varda shows, there are people who make use of these oddly shaped, discarded food.

Gleaning is an incredibly old practice where people collect items discarded by others. In the Bible Ruth gleans wheat from the fields of Boaz; poor people in 18th century England gleaned food from the hedgerows; a modern day equivalent is dumpster divers retrieving perfectly find food from shop bins. Varda's film focuses on many different people who practice gleaning in early 21st century France, exploring the many different reasons for doing so: poverty is one common reason, but not the only one.

The film approaches it topic with curiosity and appreciation of people's desire to combat the wasteful results of consumerism. I could imagine this topic could be tackled again today in another documentary, especially considering the expansion of the world's population (1.5 billion more people today than in 2000).

Varda is a wonderful companion on this exploration of gleaning. She lets her subjects speak for themselves, but also has reflective moments in the film where she speaks about recycled art she has seen, and even does a little gleaning herself. It is great to know she is still going strong today.

Documentaries allow you to explore parts of life you didn't even know existed, and while I knew gleaning had once existed I hadn't considered its modern iterations. As long as we continue to throw out perfectly good food and technology, gleaning (and films about it) will always have a place in society. 

Monday, 30 July 2018

I've Just Seen: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

 Director: Ol Parker

In Muriel's Wedding, Muriel loves ABBA's music and wishes her life was as good as an ABBA song. The first Mamma Mia! film was light and frothy, and a lot of fun, and felt like it encapsulated the spirit of songs like 'Waterloo' or 'Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight).' But as any good ABBA fan will tell you, so many of their songs have melancholic ideas or themes (they wrote great break-up songs). Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is much more melancholic and wistful than its predecessor, as it focuses on loss and heartbreak, as well as the deep bond between parents and children.

I was raised on the music of ABBA, with my parents playing it during long car journeys. As a result, I love their music, and saw the original Mamma Mia! three times when it came out in 2008. I watched it recently now having developed a more critical brain, and while its flaws are definitely there, it is still highly enjoyable. Here We Go Again improves on the first; it probes more of the emotions, fleshing out the backstory of Sophie's three possible fathers as we follow Donna trying to find where she is supposed to be, and with whom. We also follow Sophie coming to terms with Donna's death, trying to honour her mother and feel close to her.

If you hate ABBA's music, these films are certainly not for you; and I know a few ABBA fans hate the "butchering" of their songs. I however thoroughly enjoy these films. While Cher's inclusion feels  bit forced, the rest of it works really well. The songs felt better integrated into the story, and the female cast are darn good singers; the men are fun to watch, and looked to be having the time of their lives.

The ending is beautiful and heartfelt, and there were many sniffles from the mainly female audience in the cinema. The film demonstrates the joy and sadness of ABBA's music catalogue, music that has been the soundtrack to many people's lives, including mine. It may be silly, but it only offers love, and ultimately it is the love between parents and children that provides the backbone to the film. And that is a lovely message to be left with.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

I've Just Seen: Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929)

 Director: Luis Bunuel

Few pieces of art are still shocking 90 years after they were made. They lose their shock value because of changes in society's tolerance for violence or sex; or they are so famous that they become too familiar. While Un Chien Andalou is famous, and has influenced a great many filmmakers and artists, it still provokes a visceral reaction today. But while it is powerful, it is not a fun experience.

At film school you are told that if your film is going to be extremely violent, horrifying or just go plain crazy by the end, you need to put a little taste of it in the first act: you are prepping the audience for what is to come. Un Chien Andalou certainly adheres to this rule. The film's most famous scene, the eye being sliced, happens in the first minute, revolting the audience from the start. From there things become just plain weird, with ants crawling out of a wounded hand, and a man pulling along some dead donkeys and priests on pianos by rope (why? Who knows).

What does it all mean? According to Bunuel it is a cry for death, and the violence of many of the images implies a bloody ending is being asked for. While I like free association editing - it can be very witty - Un Chien Andalou is a hard film to like, or even admire. It is one of the purest examples of a film that doesn't care what the audience thinks, and doesn't even try to engage it for the ride - you have no story to hold onto to.

Much like Salo, I can now say I've seen the film, and have no intention for seeing it again.

Friday, 6 July 2018

I've Just Seen: High School (1968)

 Director: Frederick Wiseman

The late 60s must have been a weird time to be a teenager. The cultural gap between yourselves and your parents/ teachers (at least the older ones) would have been stark, as you grappled with ideas around race and sex. This gap is the focus of Wiseman's film, as he documents a day in the life of a typical high school, his camera capturing the "pearls of wisdom" cast down before the students by their elders.

High School is shot in black-and-white, and most of the shots are close-ups of the teachers talking to their students. While many of the encounters will be familiar to anyone who went to high school, it is the casual remarks of some of the teachers that truly shock: the sewing teacher commenting on a girls "weight problem;" a head teacher telling a boy to just take the unfair detention and then complain about is afterwards; a teacher reading a letter from a former student who is fighting in Vietnam in which he says he considers himself a mere "body" (ie disposable canon fodder), and then thanks the school for making him what he is. The sole focus of the teachers is to engender respect and compliance in the students, with little attempt made to develop them as people.

The situation is not entirely grim, and there are moments of comedy. The visiting gynecologist dishes out some good advice, and has a brilliant response to the question "Can you make a girl pregnant by just rubbing the vagina?" (I will admit he slightly lost me when he joked to the boys-only audience about being paid to put his finger inside vaginas all day, and calling the hymen a "cherry" because of what happens when you pop it). There is also a nice scene of the English teacher playing a Simon and Garfunkel record, demonstrating its poetry. It is fitting that the song is about people existing beside each other but not connecting, as that is the central idea of the film.

If one wanted to make excuses for the older teachers and parents, I would point out that most would have grown up during the depression, when survival was the most important thing, and life seemed precarious. They also watched the rise of ideas wreck havoc on Europe, and probably fear the same thing happening in America. But of course the fears of the students, around sex, race and death (Vietnam is still going) are quite different, and their hunger for more than just existing clashes with the values of the teachers.

Wiseman has made a lot of documentaries, and is still working today. After watching High School I would certainly seek out his other films; his first Titticut Follies looks particularly good.