Wednesday, 19 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Z (1969)

 Director: Costa-Gavras

Use the word 'political' to describe a film these days, and most people are likely to turn off. This was not always the case, as many 60s films can attest. Z is a political thriller (not an oxymoron!) in the same vein as The Battle of Algiers, following the political fate of a country suffering under oppressive government rule. A leader of the peaceful leftist party is killed in drive-by accident, a set-up by the right-wing government, and a magistrate and journalist work to undercover the cover-up.

This doesn't sound thrilling on paper, but Costa-Gavras' film is both passionate in its politics, and very entertaining. Like Pontecorvo's film, Z doesn't have a specific protagonist but instead follows the fate of the unnamed nation as a whole. We know the truth from the start - that the government was deeply involved in the murder, making it an assassination -  and are whipped up into energetic frustration at the prospect of the government getting away with it (why does this sound so relevant?).

The screenplay is superb, as it introduces us to this politically charged world, and to the people who live in it, from the corrupt elite government officials, the weary opposition, the law and media trying to discover the truth, to the citizens with their diverse opinions and loyalties.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this. It never talks down to its audience, trusting them to keep up with the story and the large cast of characters. The only reason you may not enjoy this film is if your politics is different to Costa-Gavras'; there is little doubt about his allegiances, though considering the recent history of Europe when the film was made (25 years since the end of WWII), it is not surprising.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Another Year Older ...

The 18th of July is my birthday, and to mark its occasion this year I thought I would look at few of the films that came out the year I was born: 1990.

While not as stellar a year as 1939 or 1959, 1990 does have a several great films, a few of which I watched recently and really enjoyed. So here they are:

An Angel at My Table

Jane Campion's biographical film follows the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, spanning from her childhood to her success as a writer. Based on three different memoirs by Frame, three different actresses play her at different stages of her life; all sporting the same bright, frizzy orange hair. The film, like its subject, is quiet, yet very sympathetic to Frame and her life, and finds moments of humour among the pain.

Edward Scissorhands

This was the first Tim Burton film I saw, and it is still my favourite of his. The story is a lovely modern fairytale with a sweet performance by Johnny Depp as the titular Edward, and a wonderfully constructed world of pastel suburbia and a gothic oddness.

Goodfellas

I am generally left cold by gangster films, finding all the wealth and crime unalluring. But Scorsese is a master of the genre, and from the opening scene you are thrown into this high octane world of drugs, guns and money. You know how it is going to end, with the American Dream turning into a nightmare, but the length of the film allows you to get to know these people and understand why they do what they do.

Misery

Lots of elements work so well in Reiner's film, from the script, the production design, the cinematography, to James Caan's performance. But what makes the film so good is Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes, one of the best villians in any horror film. She manages to be convincingly kind, then too kind, then terrifying with her sudden outbursts of anger. Authors beware: don't tick off your fans!

Metropolitian

Whit Stillman's film could easily have been pretenious nonsense, being set among the upper-class New York college students home for deb ball season. But the wry humour and affection Stillman has for these adolescent adults is clear and smooths any irritation. For a film that is largely people sitting in ornate rooms talking, it manages to be very cinematic and lovely to look at, with a melancholic nostalgia for the fleeting closeness of these friends.

Jacob's Ladder

This is a film I need to watch again. Its plot follows three different time periods: the Vietnam War, Jacob's current life working in a post office and living with girlfriend Jezzie, and his previous family and memories of his dead son. Things start to get strange when demonic beings start appearing in his life with Jezzie, leading Jacob to try and discover what is going on (as fellow soldiers in his platoon in Vietnam are experiencing the same thing). When you finally discover what is going on, it completely alters everything you've just seen, and shows how wonder film it at manipulating time.

Have I missed anything? Was your birth year a great year for film?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Born Yesterday (1950); The Girl Can't Help It (1956)


 Directors: George Cukor; Frank Tashlin

I've grouped these two films together because they essentially share the same plot: a gangster hires a professional man to help educate his blonde girlfriend, and the teacher and student fall in love. In Born Yesterday Judy Holliday is the blonde Billie, with William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall, while Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield are Tom Miller and Jerri Jordan in The Girl Can't Help It. In the first, Harry Brock wants Verrall to educate Billie as she embarrasses him in front of potential business partners; in Tashlin's film Miller is hired to make Jerri a star in order to reinstate Fats Murdock's reputation as a 'somebody' gangster.

In terms of the love stories of each film, Born Yesterday does a better job of convincing you that Billie and Paul are attracted to each other. The chemistry between Holden and Holliday is allowed to develop, and they get a number of scenes to talk to one another. The Girl Can't Help It tells us a great deal about Jerri's life, but Miller doesn't reveal much about himself: his attraction appears to be largely for surface reasons. The script for Born Yesterday is much better; it was based on a play after all!

That being said, there is much to enjoy in The Girl Can't Help It. As the first rock 'n' roll musical it has a fantastic soundtrack; Fats Domino and Little Richard feature among others. Jayne Mansfield made a career of being a Marilyn Monroe-type (or exaggeration), but she is a great screen presence. I couldn't help but be slightly mesmerised by her body shape: how did she get her waist that small! She is also a pretty good singer.

Judy Holliday as Billie won the Oscar for Best Actress in the same year that Anne Baxter and Bette Davis were nominated for All About Eve, and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. All I can say is that this is further proof that the Oscars are meaningless. All of those women gave such wonderful, and different performances, and Holliday thoroughly deserved to be named among them. She is clearly having fun playing brassy Billie but also gives her depth; she responds well to Paul's teaching, and shows a sweet if sad backstory for the character.

I like Born Yesterday more than The Girl Can't Help It, but both are very enjoyable. While they seem to trade off on the 'dumb blonde' stereotype, both also play around with it in interesting ways.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Thirst (2009)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Thirst is a modern vampire film merged with the plot of Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin. A Catholic priest in South Korea, Sang-hyun, becomes a vampire after becoming infected while volunteering in Africa. He returns to Korea and falls in love with the wife of a childhood friend. The two start an affair that threatens to kill everyone around them.

I really like Park Chan-wook as a director. He doesn't hold back in terms of violence and horror, and creates twisty plots that constantly challenge your expectations. Right from the start Thirst gives us a clever variation on the vampire story. Sang-hyun's infection is delivered through a blood transfusion, and actually saves his life (in a way). Park Chan-wook also focuses on character, and this particularly drives the plot of Thirst.

Sang-hyun, though he loses his faith after his 'conversion,' still maintains certain morals about his behaviour. He drinks from patients at the hospital who are on drips or steals bags of blood so he doesn't kill anyone. He is not above murdering his lover Tae-ju's husband, but does so believing him to be abusive. She on the other hand is much more bloodthirsty, despite not being a vampire for most of the film.

Thirst manages to be gothic and modern, harking back to nineteenth century literature, and stories of vampires, with some new ideas thrown in. It is sexy, gory and clever, even if the story lags at times during its long run time. There are several scenes of gore that stay with you; Sang-hyun haemorrhaging while playing his flute, to the oddly romantic yet gross way Sang-hyun saves Tae-ju's life. You certainly know you are watching a Park Chan-wook film.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)

 Director: Sacha Gervasi

Who would have thought a documentary about an aging, Canadian, heavy mental band would be so emotional, touching and ultimately uplifting?

Anvil is one of the those bands that are well respected in the industry, but have never managed to break out into the mainstream. The film starts with footage of a concert in Japan in the 80s, where Anvil played along with other bands who, the titles tell us, went on to sell millions of albums. We also have a few clips of interviews with people like Slash and Lemmy, explaining the impact of the band's album Metal on Metal on their music.

Rarely do you get the stories of the bands that didn't make it, and the rather brutal honesty of the film is one of the reasons why it works so well. We see lead singer "Lips" Kudlow working as a delivery man for a food charity, while the drummer works in construction. Interviews with their family and friends reflect on the heartbreak the band has experienced, having given their all and receiving little reward. The first part of the film follows a disasterous tour of Europe, including a rather Spinal Tap moment of missing a train, and playing in large arenas to handfuls of people. All this is painful to watch, as you see the strain it puts on the band and their friendships. The second half has the band working towards releasing a new album, one that is produced by Chris Tsangarides, who also produced Metal on Metal.

There are several moments that are truly lovely and/or heartbreaking to watch. First is Kudlow's sister lending him money to go to England to make the record with Chris. Lips cries on his sister's shoulder, and you clearly see the love she has for her brother. The other moment is when Lips and drummer Robb Reiner make up after a big argument. Lips tells Reiner that though they fight, he loves him like a brother.

A good story will make you invest in ideas you are usually not interested in. I know almost nothing about metal music, but found myself completely engrossed in the band's fate, and hoped that they would suceed. The spectre of This is Spinal Tap hangs over this film, but where that film brilliantly sent up the ridiculous side of band life and the music industry, Anvil lovingly celebrates the passion people have for this music.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

 Director: Roman Polanski

Polanski, as I've said before, is one of my favourite directors (in spite of his private life); Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion are some of the best films I have ever seen. The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck is a very different prospect from Polanski: a comedy, and a broad one at that. Starring Polanski's future wife Sharon Tate, the film follows Polanski's Alfred and his mentor Professor Abronsius, two vampire killers, as they seek to save Tate's Sarah from the clutches of a Transylvanian vampire.

This is not Polanski most sophisticated work, and you wouldn't know from watching it that it was one of his films - except that he plays the main character. However I did enjoy this. It didn't raise much laughter, but I chuckled a few times, and liked the apparent levity of the story. Sadly I couldn't watch Tate and Polanski on screen together and not remember what happened just a few years later. Tate doesn't have a great deal to do in the film except be the object of desire, and take a number of baths, but she does get a great end scene. Polanski is good as the bumbling Alfred, and Jack MacGowran steals the show as the Professor.

This is a fun little horror comedy that shows Polanski's humorous side. It has less bite than you'd expect, and much more slapstick comedy than you'd imagine.

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!