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.

Monday, 2 July 2018

I've Just Seen: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Director: John Carpenter

I decided not to read the synopsis for Assault before watching it. I knew it was directed by Carpenter, whose films I have enjoyed, and that it was a thriller, so hoped I was in good hands. The result was a neat, clever story which deftly displays Carpenter's ability to sustain suspense, and outline plot with little need for exposition.

Three different story strands are set-up at the start. A local violent gang in Los Angeles is going around killing people; a bus with prisoners on board leaves to transport them to a new gaol; and a black cop is assigned to a station that is in the process of closing down (leaving it with little resources, like weapons or man power). The prisoners end up at the under-manned station when one becomes ill, and the gang members also turn up when a man, whose daughter they killed, runs to the station for protect.

There is no fat on this film, from its tight script to its cinematography and acting. While not doing anything new with the genre, it is a great example of a thriller. The story is really well paced, gently easing you into the different story strands. The characters, while not given great depth, are given enough backstory to engage the audience, and are well played by the cast.

While the film is not a horror film, and was made before Carpenter made Halloween and The Thing, you can already see Carpenter's talent for the genre. The famous scene of the young girl's death near the ice-cream truck could only be done by a director comfortable with horrifying their audience. The influence of Romero's Night of the Living Dead also adds this horror element, the gang members as unrelenting and seeming unstoppable as zombies.

The only mistake of the film may be the title, as the action does not take place at Precinct 13 but at Precinct 9, Division 13. But hey, you watch the film for the "Assault," not the precinct number.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

 Director: John McNaughton

So many TV shows, films and, these days, podcasts are devoted to exploring the sensational lives and motivations of serial killers throughout history. We want to know why they killed, what they were thinking, what they were feeling when they killed the person. McNaughton's film doesn't offer any answers to these questions, and doesn't really ask them either. The film is a "portrait", but one that doesn't interrogate its subject, it simply observes wryly.

Michael Rooker is now most famous for his role in Guardians of the Galaxy, and part of me hopes that new fans of his go back and watch his back catalogue. As the titular Henry he is a frightening figure, one whose never explains his many, many kills - though he does provide a rather funny insight into his method. Henry does exhibit a bit of morality regarding Becky, though this is incredibly murky and it is likely he is only feeling attraction, not love. Rooker is great as Henry, leaving us deeply unsettled by the character, yet also giving him a charisma that draws you in.

The look of the film is rough, with grainy film stock and "natural" lighting. This is an ugly world populated by morally repugnant people. The unshowiness of the whole makes this feel realistic. This is a horror film that has no supernatural element, a scenario that could (and frighteningly, has) happened.

While not an easy watch, with an ending that leaves you thinking "Oh crap," it is a clever low-budget horror film. It lives up to its title as the portrait of a serial killer, while also defying the audiences' desire for closure. Why does Henry kill people? We, and likely he, can only guess.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Lady Macbeth (2016)

 Director: William Oldroyd

We first meet Katherine on the day of her wedding, her face obscured under a net-like veil, her eyes wide as she looks around her in disbelief. She looks like a captured creature, forced into a marriage that is really a land sale: she is just part of the deal. Her new husband and his father are awful, treating her as an object and confining her to the house and utter boredom. But Katherine is a determined woman with a strong spirit, and both Mr Lesters and their household are to learn how far she will go to get what she wants.

Florence Pugh is wonderful as Katherine. She uses quiet and stillness brilliantly to convey Katherine's frustration, and there is an ambiguity to the character that keeps you wondering exactly how far she will go (which is ruthlessly far). In her hands Katherine is a modern character without feeling like an anachronism.

The smallness of the budget is used to the film's advantage. The house is stark, adding to its oppressive atmosphere, and also keeps your focus on the actors and their movements and looks. While I do love opulent period dramas, this one does feel fresh by comparison. The camera is a quiet bystander observing the escalating violence without getting frenzied itself. It lingers on uncomfortable scenes, drawing you into the situation.

Another difference to other period dramas is the presence of race. A few of the Lester's servants are black, most notably Anna who interacts with Katherine, and bares much of the brunt of Mr Lester snr.'s wrath. Katherine's lover Sebastian is also black; he is one of the hired hands working on the farm. The colour of their skin is not made a deal of, but plays into the story in interesting ways. Anna becomes mute after a particularly traumatising experience, and the story's climax is made even more devastating because of their colour.

Lady Macbeth is a great film, with one of the best central performances of the early 21st century. Pugh's Katherine reminded me of Jake Gyllanhaal's Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, another character whose single-minded pursuit works itself out to an astonishing conclusion.

Monday, 23 April 2018

I've Just Seen: The Descent (2005)

Director: Neil Marshall

While I love horror films, few of them actually scare me. I have been a little spooked by some, and love ones that have clever ideas and well-developed concepts; but rarely I am squirming in my seat. The Descent had this effect on me as it tapped into one of my basic fears: being trapped.

Set a year after a tragic accident that killed her husband and daughter, Sarah joins five friends to go caving. One of the friends was secretly involved with Sarah's husband, Juno, and another, Beth, was aware of it. The other three women are two sisters - Sam and Rebecca - and adventurous Holly. The group head off to explore the cave system, and find themselves facing a surprising adversary.

This is one of those films to watch without reading much about it beforehand. There are revelations halfway through that change the story, upping the already claustrophobic tension. The whole film is quite clever, giving us enough details about group dynamics and teasing us with questions only to answer them later in surprising ways.

The part of the film that got to me was not the twist halfway through (that was more terrifyingly thrilling), but the scenes of the women crawling through tight openings in the rock. I am one of those people who would have a panic attack in that situation, being highly conscious of the tonnes of rock and earth on top of me. The film knows this will be true for many in the audience and plays with this fear, having the cave partly collapse, trapping the group. That is one of my nightmares, so my heart-rate was well and truly raised.

The Descent answers the question "what would a female version of Deliverance look like?" Both are about a group entering the wilderness and coming across aggressive locals who don't want them there. They also feature characters pushed to their limits, doing things they would never believed possible, like cold-blooded murder. Survivors guilt also plays a role.

The Descent has one of the best endings I have seen in a horror film. It is veritable sucker-punch, leaving you gasping for air, much like the characters. The version I saw was the "uncut" one, which is bleaker than the original American cut, but makes more sense. It is a great horror film that doesn't make a big deal about its female-focused narrative, and is all the more powerful for it.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

I've Just Seen: A Quiet Place (2018)

Director: John Krasinski

I made the mistake of going and watching this during the school holidays, and on "Cheap Tuesday." As a result the cinema had the sounds of munching, crunching and loud murmurs of teenagers. While this would annoy me not matter what the film - you are in a public place, be mindful of others - A Quiet Place is based around the idea of silence as a survival method. I wish the aliens in the film had come out of the screen and removed some of the audience.

It is a credit to the film that despite this distraction I really enjoyed it. It felt like a 1950s B-movie in terms of its simple concept and short run-time, resulting in a tense and clever whole. There is little dialogue, and the characters talk to one another with sign language, as one of them is deaf, so there are more subtitles than speech.

Survival is at the heart of almost every horror film, but this one has a collective approach: the parents are working to protect and equip their children for an uncertain future. As a family they are also living with grief over an earlier loss in the film, a plot point that terrifyingly and heartrendingly establishes the world they are living in. 

Emily Blunt, who is a wonderfully charismatic presence on screen, is great here, her face brilliantly emoting her struggle to stay quiet as her body is trying to give birth, as well as protect her family. Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf herself, is also great, dealing with her grief and guilt, and growing up over the course of the story.

I am really enjoying the spate of clever and diverse horror films coming out in the last few years. A Quiet Place is another one of these, showing Hollywood that a good idea and a good story is what is needed to succeed, not a giant budget or shallow jump-scares.