Thursday, 6 April 2017

I've Just Seen: Metropolitan (1990)

 Director: Whit Stillman

It would be very easy to dislike the young people who live in the world of Metropolitan. These college students, all from upper-class New York, spend their nights wearing immaculate clothes - white gowns with gloves for ladies, suits for the men - going to fancy places to dine, and engaging in all too clever conversation. Yet under this beautiful, old-fashioned facade, these young people are dealing with the same issues and emotions as others their age, including romance, jealousy, annoying parents, university, and friendship.

I ended up really enjoying the company of these well-dressed, articulate people, whose bluster masks their vulnerabilities. There is no great overaching plot, though Stillman has borrowed group dynamics from Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park - another reason I loved this film. The main character Tom still has feelings for his ex- Serena, while Audrey, who loves Austen's work, develops a crush on Tom.

The screenplay is full of wonderful dialogue, including a hilarious scene where Tom explains to Audrey that he doesn't really read fiction, but does read criticism about, which he thinks gives him an even better idea about the text than if he actually read it. A poignant feeling develops as the film goes on, as the group known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, before so tight-nit, start to go their separate until only two are really left.

Stillman manages to make this story of fancy apartments and wordy characters cinematic, creating a world that very specific, yet doesn't have a stable place in history; the teens are preserving a something that may never have really existed. And this gives the film a depth other directors might have missed. It is comparable to John Hughes' films, with its sense of youthful ennui - just more snappily dressed.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

I've Just Seen: Barton Fink (1991)

 Director: Joel Coen

Barton Fink raises more questions than it answers. A playwright arrives in Hollywood with promises of glory and fortune, but finds himself blighted by writer's block. His hotel, The Earle, chosen to keep him honest, seems to ooze glue or wax from its walls; much like the sweat that pours off Barton's neighbour at The Earle, Charlie Meadows. Charlie seems to be a jovial, friendly man yet there is something off about him. Throw in an aloholic screenwriter, his female assistant, and a tranquil picture of a beach beauty gazing off into the distance, and you have one twisted tale of Hollywood non-success.

This would make a great companion piece with The Player, another story of amorality in Hollywood. The Coen brothers' film is much more cryptic; things are hinted at, like what's in Charlie's package (not a euphemism), what the significance of the beach picture is, and just what is the mysterious ooze. But nothing is concrete.

The acting is some of the best you will see in any film. John Tuturro makes Fink a nervous character who is not an innocent abroad, but is certainly in over his head. The two standout performances are Michael Lerner as Capitol Pictures head Jack Lipnick, and John Goodman as Charlie. Lerner talks at breakneck speed, with this veneer of largesse and openness, yet you are always aware that this could suddenly change if Fink says the wrong thing. Goodman is superb, saying more in his silences and listening looks than most actors do with many lines of dialogue. He could have been nominated along with Lerner for an acting award.

This is a great head-scratcher of a film, exposing Hollywood's seedy underbelly through mystery, much like Mulholland Dr. It defies genre, though there are trances of noir in its focus on the 'common man' against the machine of organisation, and horror, in the psychological implications of the The Earle hotel's portrayal. One of my favourite Coen Brothers' films.

Monday, 3 April 2017

I've Just Seen: The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

 Director: J. A. Bayona

Gothic melancholy runs through the story of The Orphanage. Laura, as an adult, returns to the orphanage she attended as child before being adopted. She plans to re-open it as a home for disabled children, and one of the attendees will be her own child Simon. Simon is also adopted, and HIV positive, though he doesn't know about it. All of Laura's plans are put aside when the horrible history of this orphanage emerges, and Simon suddenly disappears.

It is hard to say anything about this film other than 'Go see it.' In a similar fashion to his friend del Toro's films, Bayona marries supernatural and real-world horror beautifully. The ghosts of the orphanage are unsettling with their cries for help, while Simon's disappearance is surely a parent's worst nightmare.The ghosts are also not evil, but are a link to Laura's past; something she must reconcile with her present. The ending is a shocking and deeply sad twist which I didn't see coming, yet makes complete sense, and is likely to prompt a second viewing.

The acting is great across the board, particularly Belen Rueda as Laura. It is also a joy to see Geraldine Chapin as the medium Aurora, who bears witness to the suffering souls still haunting the orphanage. I can't say much more other than thanks to SJHoneywell at 1001plus for pointing me towards this film; I would have seen it eventually, but his recommendation pushed it up the queue!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Fantastic Planet (La Planete sauvage/ Divoka planeta) (1973)

Director: Rene Laloux

Laloux's animated science-fiction film is certainly of its time. Not in its story: an alien planet ruled by giant blue humanoids called Draags, who keep humans as pets (Oms), is used as an allegory for the dehumanising way humans treat one another - something common to much sci-fi. No, what really places Fantastic Planet in the early 70s is the eerie music, visuals, and the stilted, slow pace of the dialogue.

The copy I watched was an English dub from the original French, but also had subtitles which I couldn't turn off. The words spoken, and the words on screen, did not always match up - usually they were phrased differently. This made an already trippy film even more strange.

The animation is not like the bright colours we see in mainstream animation - this is not Disney, Pixar or Studio Ghibli. There is a flatness to the visuals as well. However, the opening scene really captures the scale of the world of the Draags. We follow a naked mother carrying her baby as she runs terrified from something unseen. Suddenly some large blue hands enter the frame and play with her like she is a mouse. When she dies, the hands pick up the baby, and then we see the hugeness of the Draags (and these are only the children) compared to the Oms.

From there we spend the first part of the film learning about the Draags world as the young Om Terr grows up - each Draag week is equal to a human year, so Terr quickly grows older than his child-captor. Terr learns the secrets of the Draags' knowledge under the Draags' noses - they believe Oms are too stupid to learn anything. The story eventually kicks in as Terr escapes and encourages other Oms to revolt. They learn about how humans got to the planet Ygam, and exactly what Draags do when they meditate (one of the weirdest scenes in the whole film).

This animation is not for children as it deals with some rather adult ideas, and its visuals are way more abstract than mainstream animation. The allegory is not subtle, but the skill of the images, particularly the attention to scale, and the disquieting music, are the reasons to see the film.

Monday, 27 March 2017

I've Just Seen: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

I wonder if time has been a bit unfair to The Blair Witch Project. Modern teen horror films seem to be full of jump-scares, including the found-footage sub-genre that Blair Witch made popular. By contrast, Myrick and Sanchez's movie now looks like a slow-burner, like The Witch. While unsettling things start happening once the three characters are in the woods, we don't see the people/creatures that are tracking the young people, only the evidence they leave behind.

I actually liked this approach. While watching sudden attacks by horrifying can be frightening, but there is something deeply creepy about waking up in a spot and finding its been silently decorated with effigies, or a sample of your missing friend's DNA. The three young filmmakers felt like real people, and their mood swings that affect their dynamic work well. They aren't the greatest people to hang with, but hey, horror films usually don't have likeable at their centre.

Time, and the internet, may have altered how this film is received, but I can imagine very young teens, watching this as their first horror film would be creeped out. And as someone alive in the 90s, I felt a slight fondness for the crappy video quality of the kids footage.

Monday, 20 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Yojimbo (1961); and, Sanjuro (1962)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune is one of the most watchable actors ever to be committed to celluloid. When he is on screen, you can't keep yours eyes off him. It is not so much to do with physical beauty, though he certainly possesses a rugged appeal; instead, he has that 'it' quality, where the camera just loves him, and consequently so does the audience. No wonder Kurosawa cast Mifune in so many of his films.

In both Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Mifune plays Kuwabatake Sanjuro, a samurai who wanders around Japan, taking an interest in local concerns. In Yojimbo, it is a town divided by two waring gangs, who both try to use Sanjuro for their own side. Sanjuro, a sequel to the former, the ronin helps a group of samurai take down their corrupt master.

While neither is based on a Shakespearean play, unlike other Kurosawa films, the two films have that intricacy of plot driven by characters and their decisions. Sanjuro is more honourable than other Mifune characters in Kurosawa's films but he has an air of mystery to him. We are never quite sure how he is going to behave. There are strong similarities to the characters played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's films.

These are great films, telling engrossing stories, with some of the best action scenes you will see in any film; no surprise really, since they are directed by the great Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune elevates Yojimbo and Sanjuro even further, with his impeccable acting and fantastic screen presense; I dare you to watch the opening of Sanjuro where Sanjuro goes out to fight the impossible battle, or the double-cross battle in Yojimbo, and not get shivers from Mifune's mere presence.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Bigger Than Life (1956); and, The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

Directors: Nicholas Ray; Nunnally Johnson

Films often gets accused of using mental illness in negative or frivolous ways: Split (which I have not seen) is a recent example. Ray and Johnson's films buck this trend, portraying the effect on the sufferer and their family very seriously. In Bigger Than Life, James Mason plays a school teacher who undergoes a personality change, a severe side-effect of a new, experimental medication. Johnson's Three Faces tells the real story of Chris Costner Sizemore, here called 'Eve,' who had dissociative identity disorder.

Mason as Ed Avery and Joanna Woodward as Eve White are both fantastic in their roles. Mason paces Avery's descent beautifully. Avery starts to lose his compassion, treating his son harshly, culminating in a horrible rejection of his family. Barbara Rush is also great as Avery's wife, watching her husband disappear. The colour cinematography adds an intensity to Avery and his family's world, and shadows are used to great effect.

Woodward's role requires her to change character quickly, often within a scene. At the film's beginning she is quiet and harried, and calls herself Eve White. During a visit to a psychologist, another personality, Eve Black, emerges. Black is the polar opposite to White: flirty and outgoing. Later, a third Eve arrives, who is much more balanced in her moods. As the film goes on we follow the investigation into what triggered Eve's personality split. Johnson filmed in black-and-white, subtly evoking the varying names of Eve. It also makes us focus on Woodward's face, watching the way her body language changes.

Both these films are slightly constrained by censorship at the time - these days a they would likely have darker films. However, Bigger and Eve approach their story and characters with a great deal of humanity, and don't shy away from the pain and horror mental illness creates.

If you want to make an informal trilogy, watch along with The Snake Pit (1948), which takes you into the institutions where Eve or Avery could have ended up.