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.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Easy Rider (1969)

 Director: Dennis Hopper

I wasn't expecting to like Easy Rider; I don't usually find films about intoxication, whether drugs or alcohol, where the characters are having their own type of fun, enjoyable. But Hopper's film is about more than a couple of bikers drinking, smoking and road tripping. It captures a period of America, where the generation split was large, and the divide between small-town people and hippies was wide.

There is not much plot to speak of, and at one point we go into the drug-induced mind of the characters, where time is elliptical. The two bikers are joined by a third man on their journey, whose story adds a good of melancholy to the film, and displays the gentle humanity of Wyatt and Billy.

It is hard to say much more about Easy Rider, other than what everybody says when they see it: it has a cracking music score, which helps leviate the film. Hopper gives us a glimpse into a short-lived but very influential time in America's history, where the old life as many knew it had changed, the world lurching into modern life.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Teeth (2007)

Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein

Teeth is a horror film that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying at the same time. How could you not giggle at the image of a male doctor's hand stuck inside a teenage girl's vagina, as well as recoil in discomfort at both their pain as they struggle to extricate themselves?

Jess Weixler is fantastic as Dawn, a young woman who discovers a spare set of teeth on her body in an unorthodox spot. They make themselves known when Dawn's crush decides to force himself on her, and her body takes revenge. The film is very clever, showing Dawn's own fear at her unknown power, before she comes to appreciate its value. For men, this is the stuff of nightmares.

The film explores the fears (American, religious fears) around female sexuality. Dawn is a speaker for a purity group, encouraging people to make public pledges to wait until marriage. She has been taught to fear her own feelings about boys, as well as the act itself. The horror of rape is flipped on its head in this film: Dawn's crush finds his desire for sex is not tolerated by Dawn's body.

Lichtenstein has taken a feminist viewpoint with this film: one could make a film about the same idea, but make it entirely about men's fear of women's sexual power. Instead, we care about Dawn, sharing her fear as she gets forced into sex, treated patronisingly by a doctor and by a classmate, who really should have known better. And we cringe in anticipation as Dawn decides to punish her awful step-brother (who looks like Sid from Toy Story all grown up).

Teeth is clever, funny and horrifying. It doesn't punish the sexually promiscious girl, like many a teen horror film, and pushes the horror of rape onto men.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

After its win at the Oscars last weekend, my local cinema finally decided to show 2016's Best Picture. Naturally I went, wanting both to support the film (and the cinema's decision to show it), and of course, to see what all the praise was for.

This is one of the most quiet films ever to be nominated for an Oscar, let alone to win the award. And this quietness gives the film its immense power. There is not exactly a story, more of a snapshot, or three, of the life of Chiron, a young black boy, then man, living in Liberty City, Florida with his drug addicted mother. He gets taken under the wing of drug dealer Juan as a young boy; has a deep and tender moment with his friend Kevin as a teenager, only to have his heart broken in a brutal way; and then as an adult, he confronts this painful, confusing episode from his past.

I am being deliberately vague, because this is a film to just let wash over you, like the water that makes an appearance frequently throughout the film. Chiron is one of the quietest character I have seen on film for a while, and I am not surprised that the more dialogue-heavy performances of Mahershala Ali as Juan and Naomi Harris as his mum were nominated (they are also fantastic as well). The three actors who play Chiron wonderfully portray the confusion, pain and desire that swell within him. Their performances also all meld together to create one character.

Moonlight is a film that grows on you, the depth of its emotions masked by the restraint of the filmmaking and performances. It is very beautiful, and very quiet in a way that requires you to pay attention and listen to it carefully. I loved it, but it took time for my feelings about it to settle. The story touches on other stories we have seen before - about being black, bullied, a drug dealer, or gay - and yet it approaches these things with a depth I haven't seen before. It is about coming to terms with who you are when choices seem limited, and accepting parts about yourself you can't change.

Friday, 3 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna) (1964)

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Few stories are so simple, yet so strange as Teshigahara's film. It follows a schoolteacher who finds himself living in a house at the bottom of a sand dune valley with a woman whose job is to keep her house safe from the encroaching sand. From this intriguing and Sisyphusian scenario, we get a fable that is lyrical and surprisingly sensual.

The sand of the dunes is a main character in the film. There are close-ups shots of granules of sand tumbling over each other, this silent presence slowly inching closer. It also gets everywhere, even when the characters lie down inside the house. It informs every act the couple do each day, and even aids in consummating their relationship. The black and white cinematography strips the sand of its yellow-white colour, making it feel even more dry, and almost like Niki and The Woman are on another planet. When water does appear, its dark stain stands out in this pale grey landscape.

It is hard to say a great deal about the film because its plot largely occurs in the heart of its main character Niki, whose desire to escape this strange gaol changes as he and The Woman start a sexual relationship, and his own ingenuity is rewarded.

The quietness of the camera's approach to its subject reminded me of Ozu's work, but really,  Teshigahara's film is very singular. I didn't know what to think of it for the first few minutes, but by the end, the film had drawn me into its world of sand, sex, and seclusion. Further proof, as if it were needed, of the brilliance of Japanese cinema.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

I've Just Seen: Dark Victory (1939)

Director: Edmund Goulding

1939 really was a great year for films. Though Dark Victory is not in the same realms of cultural significance as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz or Mr Smith Goes to Washington, its well-acted, moving story is yet further proof of the talent that existed in late 30s Hollywood.

Dark Victory is a woman's picture about Judith Traherne, a young socialite who discovers a tumour on her brain. Defiant that nothing is wrong with her at first, Judith eventually begins treatment for her illness, and falls in love with her doctor. The title refers to the film's rather moving ending: Judith cannot be cured, and the signal that her life is about to end will be her sight going - everything going dark.

One thing that I really liked about the film was Judith's relationship to Ann, her secretary and her best friend. While the romantic storyline is given more emphasis, the women's friendship moved me the most. It is Ann who convinces Judith to see the doctor, and their last scene together is arguably the sadest in the film.

Bette Davis is, always, wonderful as Judith. The character undergoes several emotional upheavals, and Davis gives them nuance, especially after discovering her terminal prognosis (which knowledge she must keep secret). The intrigue around Judith not knowing or knowing the truth of her condition feels too melodramatic at times, though such things did happen, and it does add poignancy to the final scenes.

I don't generally cry in films, and didn't in this one, but for others this will definitely be a weepy. Davis may suffer from Ali McGraw's disease, but the love and care that surrounds Judith, and her knowledge of this, is what gives the film heart.