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.

I've Just Seen: Barbarella (1968)

 Director: Roger Vadim

The chauvinism and sexism of Vadim's films is hard to stomach at times. I have seen a few of his movies now, and can't say I want to see anymore. Barbarella at least has some camp value, though the troubled production means that the film loses focus and all sense rather early on.

In a very distant future Jane Fonda's Barbarella, who is some sort of interplanetary special agent, is tasked with finding Dr Duran Duran, a scientist whose invention - a positronic ray - could be dangerous for Earth if one of the other planets get hold of it. So Barbarella goes looking for it, crash-landing on a planet supposedly more primitive than Earth (they have sex the "old-fashioned way"). Eventually she meets an angel, goes to Sogo where Dr Duran was last seen, and then ... things happen. Really, there is not point worrying about the plot of the film: the filmmakers started filming before they had even finished the script. This doesn't always spell disaster for a movie (Casablanca is a good example), but here it shows badly.

While the film is not great, it is campy enough to be vaguely enjoyable. The costumes are pretty eye-popping, and clearly inspired Paul Gaultier's costumes in The Fifth Element. The sets are also remarkable, especially Barbarella's spaceship, with its furry, carpeted walls. So 60s! Fonda is very good as Barbarella, and while the script subjects the character to several exploitative scenarios, she does get moments of comedy, and Fonda makes the most of them.

I am glad to have crossed a cult classic off my list, but feel that were I male, I may have got more out of this. As it is, I was impressed with Fonda's dedication to the role, the look of the film as a whole, and even some of the scenes are hilarious, like the demonstration of exaltation-transference pills (how future earthling have sex). But the sexism and cobbled together nature of the story and script are too big to ignore.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Monster (2003)

 Director: Patty Jenkins

There are several clever decisions Jenkins made with her film about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. There had already been two documentaries (one that came out the same year) about Wuornos made by Nick Broomfield which laid out the facts of the case and showed footage of Wuornos in court describing her life as a prostitute, as well as several interviews with her in gaol. Jenkins' film takes a more "inspired-by" approach, fictionalising parts of the story, and only focusing on Wuornos' life before she was caught. This allows us to get to know Aileen as a person, and her relationship with her girlfriend, and the circumstances of those murders.

Charlize Theron won heaps of awards for her performance, and deservedly so. Having watched Broomfield's films, I knew what the real Aileen was like, and Theron not only does a perfect impression of her, but also opens up her character as we see her personal life. Along with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, Theron's performance is one of the best portrayals of a real person I have seen.

Christina Ricci is also great as Selby Wall, a fictional version of Wuornos' real girlfriend Tyria Moore. Ricci's role is less magnetic than Theron's, but she makes Selby an interesting and complex character. She is looking for love, trying to find a place for herself as a lesbian in small town America, and for a time ignores the horrible crimes Aileen commits, even benefiting from them. Their relationship is very complicated but never feels artificially so.

I am glad that a woman directed this film, and wrote it too. While many a male director would have done a fine job, Jenkins treatment of the whole, particular the lesbian relationship at the story's heart, is not sensational. The gaze of the audience isn't directed to say 'Oh, look, two woman in bed together,' but 'Gee, having an non-hetero sexuality is not easy.' Also, it doesn't simply say "Wow, a woman who is a serial killer, that's rare', but instead explores the way Wuornos' gender leads to her killing clients.

The film gets remembered for Theron's performance, and it should, but it should also be remembered for how its story draws out the relationship between Aileen and Selby.