Sunday, 30 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Man on Wire (2008)

Man on Wire (2008)

Director: James Marsh

I am terrified of heights. I barely coped walking across the Harbour Bridge (not over the arches, just across the flat part!). I do enjoy looking out at beautiful scenery, be it from tall buildings or cliff tops, but one look straight down and I suddenly feel incredibly unstable (and begin internally freaking out!). As a result I had a rather physiological response to this film: I could feel my flight reflex kicking in, my heart beating faster, and I gasped several times. All this while watching this film on a small screen (computer): how I would have reacted watching this on a cinema screen I am not sure.

Taking all this into account, I was blow away by this film: it is an event made for cinema, it is so visual. The act itself is pure art: there is no practical application for this behaviour. Philippe Petit did it because he wanted to and knew it would be amazing. The jeopardy involved is not if he will survive the feat, but will he be able to set it up without being prevented by police.

There is a great poignancy to this film, as clearly the Twin Towers are no longer there. Petit is, and will always be the only person ever to do this feat, the only person who has stood between the two buildings. Though it never mentions the events of September 2001, Man on Wire is partly a love letter to these two buildings.

The film moves around its timeline. It starts with Petit and a group of friends breaking into the Twin Towers, still undergoing construction. We then flashback to Petit's learning to tight-rope walk, and several other walks he did leading up to the Towers walk. Act Three is all about the walk, and is startling to see. Petit is an engaging character, whose determination is quite remarkable; his skill is almost beyond human.

This is a wonderful, awe-inspiring documentary. It speaks to the same part of the human spirit that wants to climb mountains or swim long distances. While I will never be one of those who pushes the boundaries of physical achievement, I certainly appreciate those who can do such things. Watch in wonder.

Friday, 28 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl (2014)

Director: David Fincher

While I had largely avoided spoilers regarding this film, and have not read Gillian Flynn's novel, I had guessed the big 'reveal' that occurs about halfway through the film. If you wish to remain ignorant, read no further.

Gone Girl is about narrative and storytelling. Amy Dunne, a character who was fictionalised by her mother as a child in the 'Amazing Amy' stories, is the ultimate storyteller. She knows what her audience wants, and gives them enough to follow the narrative thread; her audience are the local people of her town, and eventually the media and the American public. She writes a diary and leaves clues about her life with her husband: he is a violent man who may have killed his beautiful, pregnant wife. Amy begins this extended exercise as a swipe at Nick, who has fallen in cliche; he is a frustrated teacher with publishing ambitions, who has started an affair with a young student. Even Nick's twin sister calls him out on this. Nick slowly learns he needs to step-up his storytelling, and begins playing game started by Amy, transforming back into the man she was attracted to when they first met.

When the film came out, many accused it of misogyny, as Amy Dunne's character embodies all the negative stereotypes associated with women: crazy and pretending to be the victim. However, this reading only works if you focus purely on Amy as the only female character. There are two other significant women in the film, Nick's sister Margot and the detective Rhonda Boney, neither of whom perform such roles. Margot stands by her brother, though not without telling him of his mistakes, and Boney is the most considered of the police, relying on evidence not just a gut-reaction (unlike the young cop who has a hunch about Nick). While Amy may use gender stereotypes for her own means, the film does not tar all women with the same brush. Neither gender comes out of the film looking great, as Nick is almost as bad as Amy makes him out to be.

Rosamund Pike is fantastic as Amy Dunne; such an accomplished actor was needed to portray the character, for Amy herself is a consumate actor. She is clearly a psychopath on the same level as Hannibal Lector, someone who is always several steps ahead of everyone else. Ben Affleck is very good as Nick, giving him a smug yet helpless quality. It is hard to feel sympathy or even like these two characters, yet they are compelling to watch.

Clearly I enjoyed this film. Fincher was the right director to adapt Gone Girl, giving it a cold, detached quality that elevates the material beyond its pulpy origins. It is stylish, smart and well acted.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull (1980)
Director: Martin Scorsese

Raging Bull has one of the best opening credits scenes in any film. The black-and-white cinematography is slowed-down as Jake LaMotta prepares himself for a fight in the ring. Cameras flash almost hypnotically, and LaMotta's moves are ballet-like. The music, from opera Cavelleria Rusticana is wonderful, its melancholic romance embodies Jake LaMotta's life; the music's delicacy also contrasts with the bloody violence and anger of LaMotta.

This is a 'biopic,' but is not presented as a 'best of' portrayal of a person's life, a trap many biopics fall into. Instead, Scorsese and De Niro have painted a portrait of a man whose violence leads him to the heights of his sport, and ultimately leaves him isolated from everyone he loves. I forgot that I was watching De Niro while watching the film: the physical transformation is complete. It is not just the broken nose that stays with him throughout the film, but the thickening of his body as LaMotta ages. All the performances are fantastic, but De Niro is clearly giving the best of his career.

I was surprised the read on Wikipedia that Raging Bull performed only so-so when it premiered; its reputation has deservedly grown over the years. Scorsese is great at portraying tortured masculinity, something he explored in many of his films; Taxi Driver feels like an ideal companion piece to this film (though that would be a tough double bill to sit through). One of best from one of the best.

I've Just Seen: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Director: Orson Welles

The visuals in The Lady from Shanghai are arguably more interesting than the film's plot. The film follows Welles' Michael O'Hara as he is used by a couple of rich San Franciscans who are all trying to bump each other off. There are several twists, but you get the feeling Welles was not really interested in them; when one character is killed instead of another, the logistics are never really explained.

The plot is really there to service Welles' vision, which includes recurring references to animals, water and mirrors. The aquarium scene, with Welles and Hayworth silhouetted against illuminated tanks, was a personal favourite. Not only did it look beautiful, it recalled O'Hara's early speech about sharks ripping themselves apart in a feeding frenzy. As it turns out, this is what happens in the film.

The scene the film is famous for is the hall of mirrors stand-off at the climax, and it is a great scene. Illusions have been shattered, and the double-crossing is finally dealt with. The broken glass carries on the idea of sharks, the shards the teeth that Elsa (Hayworth) and Arthur (Everett Sloane) use to kill each other.

The Lady from Shanghai gives you what you expect from Welles: a great visual set-ups with some good acting. Though not as great as Citizen Kane (what is!) or Touch of Evil, it is still worth watching.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)

Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)
Director: Carl Schultz

This is one of those films where the main character is a child, yet it is not a 'family film.' It is not full of violence or sex, but rather the themes of parental guilt, sibling rivalry and complicated adult relationships would go over a child's head. 'PS', the main character's nickname, is practically orphaned and lives with an aunt who is just above poverty (the story is set in the Great Depression, where almost everyone was poor). His life changes when his other aunt, the sophisicated Vanessa, comes to Australia, and seeks to better his life.

The plot could very easily have focused on the relationship of Vanessa and Lila, with PS' character only in the background. However, almost everything that happens is filtered through PS' perspective. He hears things that he shouldn't, and ends up coming to resent the actions of Vanessa. The story truly lies in their complicated relationship.

The performances are all quite good. Nicholas Gledhill, who plays PS, is pretty good with his facial expressions, though sometimes his talking is a bit strained. But hey, he was very young when he did this, and it is one of the better child performances. Definitely worth a watch. 

I've Just Seen: Jules et Jim (1962)

Jules et Jim (1962)
Director: Francois Truffaut

My favourite film critic Mark Kermode refers to the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague in French) as 'the New Vague.' While a joke on his part (he is not enamoured of the film movement), there is certainly some truth in what he says; these films have a vagueness about them. The characters are uncertain about what they want; the camera moves with a freedom that belies an unfocused approach to narrative. Catherine, the true star of this film, is a character unsure of what she wants. She loves both Jules and Jim, yet cannot have both. Jules and Jim are also wandering through life unable to articulate or effect what it is they want.

I enjoyed Truffaut's The 400 Blows more than this, probably due to the performance of Jean-Pierre Leaud. Perhaps the freshness that this style of filmmaking brought in has worn off. Movies have absorbed these techniques, mixing them with traditional shots; as a result, Jules et Jim looks less radical than it once did. It does still feel playful, and the image of the three standing at windows in a triangle shape was great. The three main characters are rather unknowable and often unlikable, though the camera clearly loves Jeanne Moreau's face.

There is always a feeling of satistfaction in seeing a film that is a giant of film history. I am not sure if I will watch this again, at least not anytime soon, but I do appreciate the effect the French New Wave had on cinema.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

I've Just Seen: The Imposter (2012)

The Imposter (2012)

Director: Bart Layton

Some real life stories defy anything fiction could come up with. The events portrayed in the documentary The Imposter are almost too amazing to talk about; you really should just watch this film. It starts with a missing child, Nicholas Barclay from Texas, who appears to turn up in Spain, and understandably is welcomed back into the family. However, it wasn't Nicholas, but an adult Frenchman called Frederic Bourdin.

I watched the making-of feature for The Imposter, and in it the director and producers talk about how ideal a story this was for film; they also noted that if you made this up, everyone would decry it as unbelievable. Layton interviewed as many memebers of Nicholas' family as he could, as well as Bourdin (the titular imposter), who looks down the barrel of the camera, directly at the audience. He is very charming, a characteristic that helps you understand how he managed to pull-off this trick (for want of a better word). The local Texan private detective is another interesting character, who seems to have walked out of the set of Coen brothers' film.

Many people will wonder upon seeing this film how Nicholas' family could accept Bourdin as Nicholas. Like the best documentaries, The Imposter exposes the strangeness of human nature. There is an element of Kurosawa's Rashomon, as everyone has their own ideas about the events and how others perceived things.

Even if you don't watch documentaries often, watch this one. Not only is it a great story, but Layton has told it in a really cinematic way. There are reenactments of the described scenes which add the to narrative. The casting for this section is great, with the actor portraying Bourdin looking eerily like him; he also has to impersonate Bourdin impersonating Nicholas. Go, watch, now.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008)

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (God Destined the Couple) (2008)
Director: Aditya Chopra

Religion rarely makes an appearance in Western romantic comedies, so I was rather surprised by its prominence in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. I probably should not have been so surprised, it is present in other Indian films I have seen, even Bollywood films. Like others, this film started with an image of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the city which is the film's setting. However, during the film, there is a song that references several different religions in India (Sikh, Catholic, Hindu and Islam) and the third act turning point is one character receiving a divine revelation about another.

The interesting part of the film is the insight into Indian culture. It is very much about the emerging middle-class, who have money and are interested in travelling, yet also uphold many traditional customs. The two protagonists have good chemistry, and Shah Rukh Khan plays his dual roles well. The costumes are nice and several of the songs are quite catchy.

However, the plot is one that could easily be done away with if the two characters (mainly Khan's Suri) were open with each other. What Suri does for Taani can be seen as sweet, but also rather unnecessary: just tell her you love her! The length also was an issue for me, though I know many Indian films are over 2 hours long. Maybe because the other Bollywood films I have seen were period epics the length wasn't a problem.

Should you see this film? Hmm. If you are interested in seeing films from other cultures, then sure. But there are plenty of other Indian films out there that I would recommend over this. But I am glad I saw it.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

I've Just Seen: All That Heaven Allows (1955)

All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Director: Douglas Sirk

This movie was going so well. It had beautiful cinematography, the glorious 1950s Technicolour with some lovely framing. The costumes are gorgeous, particularly Jane Wyman's red dress (the 50s were  restrictive, but the clothing was wonderful!). Though some of the characters are broadly drawn, especially Cary's daughter Kay who earnestly quotes Freud (sigh), they are well acted. Wyman and Hudson are great together, their mutual attraction very believable. The plot was an interesting exploration of 'older' women and their sexuality; about how overtly expressing your continuing interest in sex and handsome men is somehow unnatural. Though obviously dated in parts, I was enjoying All That Heaven Allows.

And then Hudson gets suddenly injured in an accident.

My issue was that it felt like such a huge cop-out and left no doubt about the end. Of course she is going to stay with him, he needs a nurse! No time for all that sexy romancing, there's sacrificial tending to be done. This is not to belittle the act of nursing at all. But it means that Cary's desire for Hudson's Ron has been funnelled into an appropriate outlet by the plot. I know that obstacles and barriers are necessary for tension and even plot progression, but why this one? The old random accident. It is meant to heighten the romance, and she does get to be the more active person in the relationship, but for me this was too much and rather marred my enjoyment of the film.

The film is still something you should see, though I know several fellow bloggers can't stand melodramas (a senitment I often share). But this is a beautiful looking film, and the shot of Wyman reflected in the television is quite heartbreaking. Watch with Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes' homage to Sirk, and has less groan-inducing plot twists.

Monday, 17 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Out of Sight (1998)

Out of Sight (1998)
Director: Steven Soderbergh

Out of Sight draws its story and style from several old Hollywood film genres: the noir, the romantic comedy, and the gangster film. The film it most reminded me of was To Have and Have Not. There is a similar type of chemistry between Clooney and Lopez (though without the off-screen mirroring of Bogie and Bacall): they trade clever, sexy dialogue, and exclude almost everyone else. In fact, when Foley and Sisco are locked in the trunk together, they discuss such old films, and find they both enjoy them.

The whole script is very well-written by Scott Frank, with well-drawn characters as well as witty lines. The plot is a touch convoluted, jumping around its timeline. Clooney is great as the charming bank robber, who is not as good as he thinks. Lopez is the best I have seen her; Karen Sisco is a great character, tough, smart and brave, and Lopez inhabits all these aspects of her character. The supporting cast is also wonderful, with Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames, Catherine Keener and Viola Davis all throughly enjoying themselves with the material.

Soderbergh's film is a clever homage to several 1940s Hollywood films with a great cast and a great script. Enjoy watching a younger Clooney and Lopez act together, and wonder about what might have been if Lopez has been offered similarly great roles.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu) (1954)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

The title of this film is slightly misleading. I was expecting a story about the exploits of a bailiff named Sansho; I had no other expectations, having decided to not look up what it was about before I watched it. I suppose, then, that it is my fault then for assuming this. That is not to say that the character Sansho isn't important to the story: he is vital. But it is like naming the Disney film Aladdin, 'Jafar.'

This was my first Mizoguchi film. I knew beforehand that he often films stories about women, and obviously his reputation as one of Japan's greatest filmmakers; he is mentioned in the same breath as Kurosawa and Ozu. I really enjoyed this film, though that may not be the right word for it. The story of Sansho the Bailiff is full of family separation and sacrifice. One by one the family is pulled apart by others' selfishness and cruelty, being exhiled, sold into prostitution and slavery. Perhaps I should say I was very moved by this film.

There is a lovely use of music in Sansho: Tamaki, the mother living on a different island to her children Zushio and Anju, sings a song that speaks of her longing for her children. Anju hears it, and the effect is to push the story towards the family's reuniting.

The central idea of the film is mercy: Zushio and Anju are told by their father to remember that 'Without mercy, man is not a human being.' Mizoguchi, who clearly believes this himself, shows that keeping this truth is difficult yet vital, having repercussions greater than you can imagine.

The film's final scene is incredibly touching. You care about the members of the family, who all care about each other. Though I didn't cry, I was definitely moved. I shall certainly re-watch this at some point; largely to pay greater attention to Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography.  

I've Just Seen: Cuban Fury (2014)

Cuban Fury (2014)
Director: James Griffiths

Of all the dance styles I have sampled, ballroom is not one of them. It is not due to a dislike of the style, but there is only so much dancing you can fit into your life when a child. One I am sure I shall try it; the Latin American styles look a heap of fun, if this film is anything to go by. In fact the dance sequences are the best part of the film, though a touch over-edited for my liking.

The plot is about Nick Frost's Bruce being drawn back to salsa dancing as a way to romance Rashida Jones' Julia. The comedy is Britishly broad, and has some rather dated gay gags. The character development is not great, the most notable being Jones, who gets to be adorable and clumsy, but is never given a scene to express how she feels about Bruce. She just likes him because of plot. Not that Bruce isn't likeable, he is, but she is given no real agency. Chris O'Dowd gets to deliver a number of crass jokes and be generally devious.

This is a harmless and forgettably enjoyable film, with no real surprises but some good dance scenes.

I've Just Seen: Ghost (1990)

Ghost (1990)

 Director: Jerry Zucker

Another re-watch prompted by the What She's Having's podcast. It would be very easy to sneer at this film, with its dodgy special effects and inconsistent rules (so he can't pick objects up, but can sit on furniture and move a penny up a door?). However, the story is sweet and romantic, with good performances from the cast. It is also funny, mostly because of Whoopi Goldberg and her interactions with Patrick Swayze.

The film references several genres in it: romance, fantasy, horror, mystery, and the catch-all, drama. The script balances these elements well, using them only when needed, producing humour, drama and character development.

The film is famous for the sexy pottery clay scene that happens early on in the set-up. Looking at it today, its interesting that it privileges the intimacy of the couple's knowledge of each other over very sexual shots of naked body parts. It is gently erotic, but mainly romantic because it about portraying character. It also makes us care about these two people, making the murder even more painful.

There is not much more to say about this film, except that it is a very enjoyable, and has aged better than other romances. Some people may react to the afterlife themes and sequences, but they are not central to the story. The film also doesn't have a cop-out ending (ie letting him come back to life). Enjoy with a loved one.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka (1939)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch

I loved this film. No surprise really: it's a romantic comedy from '30s/'40s Hollywood, directed by one of the best directors of the genre. Ninotchka stars Greta Garbo, who has one of those faces that the camera and human eye is drawn to. Garbo is playing against the public image of herself, as dour and serious. Ninotchka is this way at the film's beginning, but eventually breaks into laughter, revealing a lovely smile, that can't be suppressed for the rest of the story.

The communist vs. capitalist plot is treated with cheeky irreverence; communism's asceticism (and severity) is sent-up throughout, but Ninotchka is not completely converted to the capitalist way of life, and the idea of people helping each other is portrayed as a good thing. The plot turns on the selfishness of one character forcing Ninotchka to make a decision about her future. Really, though, this is not a critique of political philosophy; Lubitsch is cleverly showing how different aspects of human nature are represented in these ideals.

The screenplay is witty and clever, and much of the comedy comes from the characters themselves. Garbo gets many of the best lines, but Mervyn Douglas proves to be a good sparring partner, providing charming ripostes to her poker-face assertions. The three Russian men are funny as they indulge in the luxury of capitalist society.

Unless you hate romantic comedies, black-and-white films or subversive portrayals of politcal philosophies, you should enjoy this film.

Friday, 14 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie

I remember seeing the first two Mission: Impossible films many, many years ago. I did find the first one fun and exciting, with the vault scene a highlight. Of the second film, I only remember clocking the Sydney landmarks featured in the film ('hey, the Sydney Opera House! I've been there!' I was only twelve.). Based on Rogue Nation I will not rush out to see the others I missed, but would not avoid them either. This film is good fun, with a plot that is all over the place.

But really, who watches Mission: Impossible for the plot? The action set pieces here are quite good, particularly the opening sequence involving the plane. The piece at the opera reminded me of a Marx Bros. film, or even Danny Kaye, so it was inflected with unintentional humour for me. Cruise does what he does, though he looks a little tired in this film. Simon Pegg is the heart of the film; he is funny, and demonstrates genuine care for Cruise's Hunt. Rebecca Ferguson is very good as the main lady: she gets her own action pieces and is not reduced to being eye candy. She had an air of maturity about her that made her more convincing as a spy.

While this is not even threatening to replace Die Hard as my favourite action film, Rogue Nation is a fun romp that is all about the action scenes, with a decent role for the female character.

I've Just Seen: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero

I started watching Night of the Living Dead and was concerned that it would turnout to have aged terribly. The signs weren't great: the cinematography was grainy and the acting from Barbra (Judith O'Dea) was incredibly hammy. Would this be as unintentionally comic as Invaders From Mars? As the end credits flashed on screen, my opinion had completely changed: this is a game-changing horror film, parent to modern zombie films, and one of the few to actually make me feel ill.

The black-and-white photography works well, providing a verite feel to the story. The film approaches several themes, (race, the nuclear family, women, youth, government, science), and lets the zombies crush all in their path. The use of the media was clever, providing exposition in a palatable way.

If you are spoiler averse, don't read this paragraph. The ending is one of the best in horror (or at least my limited experience of it). While many films usually have one character survive, Night has our hero killed by defensive locals, who think he is a zombie. The matter-of-fact way this is portrayed adds an extra element of horror; I was slightly stunned by what happened.

How modern horror fans would view this film is something I cannot answer. How it was received when first released was detailed in an article by Roger Ebert, and demonstrates how shocking this film was to its first audience in the '60s.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Chokher Bali (2003)

Chokher Bali (2003)
Director: Rituparno Ghosh

Set in early 20th century India, the story of Chokher Bali revolves around the lives of widows who, after their husband's death, begin living an ascetic life. Remarriage if frowned upon, a heavy price for those widowed young. This is the case for Binodini, a widow after one year of marriage. She is similar to Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea; she finds herself needing physical affection, a need which draws her into an affair with the master of the house where she is nominally a servant (though a friend to his wife).

Many seem to think that the only films to come out of India are Bollywood films: lavish with much singing and dancing. Though highly popular, there are many different types of filmmaking in India (just like any country). Chokher Bali is a Bengali film; the most famous Bengali filmmaker is Satyajit Ray. While Chokher Bali has beautiful colours, costumes and jewellery, qualities common in Bollywood features, the drama here is quite intimate and quiet. Aishwarya Rai is great as Binodini; Ghosh, who directed her in Raincoat as well, knows how to get the best from Rai.

If your experience of India cinema has only been Bollywood films, you should see this film. Not only well-acted, it gives you a glimpse of a culture reflecting on its own practices. The experience of widows in India was also explored in Deepa Mehta's Water, a suitable double feature for Chokher Bali.

I've Just Seen: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Director: Charles Crichton (with some help from John Cleese)

This was a re-watch. I have seen it several times but was prompted to watch it again after listening to the 'What She's Having' podcast episode about it. I remember that I liked the film very much, but I couldn't for the life of me recall the plot (something about a heist?). Of course, the plot is the least important part of this comedy, simply there to support the hilarious performances of the cast.

I could imagine Ernst Lubitsch making these types of films today; Trouble in Paradise (1932) has some similarities with this. There are also elements of Warner Bros. cartoons, particular Michael Palin's attempts to off the little, old lady. The culture 'clash' between the American and British characters is funny, toying with but never quite buying into stereotypes. While everyone is bringing the funny, Kevin Kline steals every scene he is in. He is horrible and cruel but impossible to hate, probably because he is so self-deluded. The scenes between Kline and Palin are cringingly funny, as Kline insults, assaults and attempts to seduce Palin.

There is not much to say about this film, except that if you like witty lines, cartoonish violence, ridiculous characters and bit of '80s saxophone, then this is the film for you.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

I've Just Seen: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

This was one the films screened at the Film Club I attend, an interesting choice as the other nine films being shown in this program were made in the last two years. But I am certainly glad they did. This is the first Fassbinder film I have seen, and if they are all as interesting as this, I look forward to seeing more . Maria Braun is a character similar to Scarlett O'Hara: not necessarily easy to like, yet resourceful and clever. She is literally and mentally wedded to Hermann Braun, despite only spending one day of married life with him, due to the War. I won't say much more about the plot: I found it an enjoyable film to watch without knowing what would happen next.

Fassbinder was influenced by the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, stories that centre on the experiences of women in a constrictive world. You can see this in Maria Braun; the world isn't exactly hostile towards her, but she works hard to carve out a path for herself in the New Germany that is emerging out of World War II. Fassbinder link Maria's experiences to Germany. The country, which was called 'The Fatherland' in propaganda from Nazi Germany is feminised by Fassbinder.

Hanna Schygulla is rather memorising as Maria. She aware of how attractive she is and uses it to her advantage; she chooses when affairs begin (though not quite when they end). She changes over the course of the film, becoming harder and colder as she is constantly denied access to the man she loves. The ending still creates discussion, clever staged by Fassbinder to leave Maria's intentions a secret.

I've Just Seen: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
Director: Terence Davis

The title of this film refers to the situation Hester Collyer finds herself in during this film: she is trapped between the Devil and the deep blue sea. She loves Freddie, a lively ex-RAF pilot who has awakened passion and desire in her - the strength of which he doesn't share. He is the metaphorical Devil, who drives Hester towards suicide because of his relative carelessness (not a spoiler, it happens in the opening sequence). The deep blue sea is Hester's husband, judge Sir William Collyer, who is caring and kind (a fact Hester is highly aware of), yet excites no passion in his wife.

Plots like this run the risk of seeming melodramatic (which, for me at least, can be a problem); why doesn't Hester just rid herself of both men and start again? Or simply get over it, and stay with her husband, who does care for her? The film, and I presume the Terrence Rattigan play it is based on, have Hester answer these questions herself. For her, the passion she has discovered is essential for living; now she has tasted it, everything else is bland by comparison.

The Deep Blue Sea was filmed on actual film stock, with slightly saturated colours, evoking the melodramas of Sirk: it looks with beautiful. However, it is acted with greater subtly than those pictures, with Weisz giving one of the best performances of her career. She is also supported by Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale, and has good chemistry with both. The pace is a times languid, and the film is non-linear: though technically taking place over one day, Hester's birthday, we get flashbacks to important points in the affair and Hester's marriage.

Davis' film is a quiet yet wonderfully acted drama that explores the complex world of female sexuality. It manages to break-out of its stage origins, while maintaining the constricted environment Hester finds herself in.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Rust and Bone (2012)

Rust and Bone (2012)
Director: Jacques Audiard

It has been a long while since I have seen a film that focuses on physical pain in such a visceral manner. Indeed, it is the experience of physical pain that draws the two main characters together. Of course, they also have emotional pain, which they also hope the other will nurse.

Marion Cotillard is great, as always, showing us Stephanie's pain without words. She goes from being closed off to being vulnerable, needing to rely on Mathias Schoenaerts' Ali for help. Having recently seen Schoenaerts as the romantic and gentle Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd I was amazed at his performance here. He is a strong physical presence, who finds it easier to be violent than gentle. The fight scenes are full of blood and teeth bouncing on the ground, and Ali often sports bruises and patches as a result. Stephanie's reaction is one of interest: here is a man who understands what physical agony feels like, and she supports his fighting. The third relationship in the film is between Ali and his son Sam, which comes to the fore at the film's end, in one of the most striking scenes of raw emotional I have seen in a while.

This film has some confronting scenes, which are coupled with several of beauty; the most striking is Stephanie returning to the marine park and going through her routine with the killer whale. Without seeing her face, we know what she is feeling: she had momentarily gone back in time to when she was free and in control of her life, but has also resigned herself to her future. A very good film about the effect of pain, and the necessity of vulnerability.

I've Just Seen: Mr. Turner (2014)

Mr Turner (2014)
Director: Mike Leigh

The problem with many biography films is that they try to force a narrative into the unfolding of a person's life. Though many people have episodes that are asking to be made into a film (Apollo 13 is one such example), most people's lives are made up of disparate elements that sometimes overlap, but often occur in isolation. Leigh has approached J. M. W. Turner's life in such a way. The film arguably has not plot, and characters do not go around explaining their feelings and actions to each other, but appear to just live. As a result, Leigh's film doesn't have the typical feel of your traditional period drama, but acts as more of a portrait of one of Britain's greatest artists.

Timothy Spall is wonderful as Turner: he allows us to see the man at work, but also keeps some elements of Turner a mystery. Spall's Turner is a complex person, who is loving with his father, and shattered at his death, yet denies the paternity of his own children; a grunting, inelegant person who speaks eloquently and paints such striking art. The supporting cast are all great, each wears their character well and slip into the period setting comfortably. Dick Pope's cinematography is beautiful to look at, depicting Victorian England as a busy place brightly lit by the sun (the only unrealistic aspect may be the lack of rain that England is famous for; it seems to always be sunny).

If you like your films to have a clear plot with highly dramatic flourishes, this might not be the film for you. However, this is a very good portrayal of a man moving through his life, and the context for some of the most beautiful paintings in English art history.

I've Just Seen: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Directors: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones

This is a film that must be watched with friends; or, at least, make sure they have seen it, so you can quote it to each other all day long. The quotes have become almost a secret language, baffling the ignorant when dropped into everyday conversation: why would you get better from being a newt?

There is a great temptation to simply put quotes in this review. In fact, it would be easier to just attach the screenplay. But even that would not demonstrate how funny this film is; the visual gags of the Trojan Bunny, or the onslaught of flying farm creatures need to be seen to be laughed at. (Bet you are already smiling at the phrase 'Trojan Bunny')

I first saw this when I was eleven or twelve, the ideal age to be introduced to the Python universe. Seeing them from this age means that as you grow up you understand more of the jokes, meaning the film gets funnier as you get older. There is not much more to say about this film but that it is one of the funniest, wackiest films you will ever see. Oh alright, let's end with some quoting: 
King Arthur: I am your king. 
Peasant Woman: Well, I didn't vote for you. 
King Arthur: You don't vote for kings. 
Peasant Woman: Well, how'd you become king, then? 
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.
Dennis the Peasant: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

I've Just Seen: It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934)
Director: Frank Capra

I love this film. It set the benchmark for my favourite film genre, the romantic comedy, with its fantastic chemistry between the two leads, witty dialogue, and scenes of slapstick. The film also has a great grasp of its setting: America in the Depression, where people are moving around the country, looking for work. The 'Daring Young on the Flying Trapeze' scene is one of the most memorable scenes in all the film, creating a lovely sense of people's camaraderie; everyone joins in singing together, and even Ellie and Peter are kind to each other for a while.

There are so many scenes in the film that are a joy: that one, the striptease, the Walls of Jericho, the hitchhiking demonstration, the 'Quit Bawlin' dialogue, all of it is wonderful. The fact that it is Pre-Code makes this film all the more interesting: a year or two later and the striptease scene would not have been allowed.

I have noting negative to say about this film: it is a joy and is still funny and clever eighty years later. Unlike some modern romantic comedies that get the balance of 'rom' and 'com' wrong (and get too sentimental), this film is perfectly balanced, making us care for the characters so that we want them to be together. Another of my favourite films, Roman Holiday has a similar plot, but manages to distinguish itself from its cousin. Both would make a lovely double bill (though I would watch Roman Holiday first, so that It Happened One Night can pick you up after the other film's ending.)

Monday, 10 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Broken Blossoms (1919)

Broken Blossoms (1919)
Director: D. W. Griffith

One must always be aware of the historical and cultural context of a film. Otherwise you may find yourself judging it with modern tastes and ideas, and seeing it as utterly alien to you. This is a risk particularly with early films, especially melodrama. Though Broken Blossoms has moments that rankle (the alternative title 'The Yellow Man and the Girl' was the first instance for me), this film manages to surprise in its sympathetic portrayal of an interracial romance.

Though Cheng Huan is played by American actor Richard Barthelmess, he makes Huan the film's moral centre. He has come to London to spread the news of Buddhism, but has risked becoming corrupted by the uncaring city. He is brought back to his beliefs through he tender care of Lucy, who has escaped her abusive father. Griffith's direction shows an appreciation of Huan's religion, with several scenes of Huan praying before his statues, and speaking about Buddha's teachings.

Lillian Gish is one of the best actors of the silent era: the camera loves her face, and she can say so much with a subtle lip twitch or look. Some of the most affecting moments in the film are her character trying to force a smile:
 You can see the pain in her eyes, and how close she feels to giving up.

The boxing scenes in the film hark back to the earliest films, shown in Kintoscopes and Nickelodeons in the late 19th/ early 20th centuries. Such spectacle and action was see to work well on this new technology, and the continuing popularity of action films (and boxing as a subject itself) proves this to be true. 

Broken Blossoms would be a difficult film for anyone who is not interested in film history to watch; and even if you are, you may find it hard to enjoy. However, it is one of the few surviving feature films of the period, and shows yet again how significant Griffith was in developing the language of film. Though I much prefer his next film Way Down East (1920), this is of interest for its handling of race. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

I've Just Seen: In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)
Director: Nicholas Ray

I love a Bogie film: he is ridiculously watchable. His face is complemented by the black-and-white cinematography of Hollywood's Golden Age, and his voice is wonderfully distinctive. In this film he is at his best, a coiled spring of anger and menace. The tension that was reportedly between Bogart and Gloria Grahame on-set seems to have informed their performances for the better; the discomfort adds to the problems in their relationship.

The story is self-reflexive, as Bogart's Dix Steele is a screenwriter who hangs around with actors and directors. One of my favourite scenes was Steele listening to a young woman telling him the plot of a trashy novel; he bristles as she recounts the story, and makes comments dripping with sarcasm that go over her head. The script for the film is fantastic, with witty lines about the film industry. Here's one gem: 'What does it matter what I think? I'm the guy who tried to talk Selznick out of doing "Gone with the Wind"'

The camera shots add a layer of intimacy and danger in several scenes: one scene at a club has Grahame and Bogart sitting close. They both look over Bogart's shoulder, then Bogart turns back, and we can't see his face; only Grahame talking to him. She then nuzzles his neck as well. It is sexy and ominous, made more so because of its public setting.

This is a fantastic noir film with two career-best performances, from a director who did interesting things with his framing and shot construction. The script is also one of the best of the 50s. In short, there is no reason not to watch this. 

I've Just Seen: Magic Mike (2012)

Magic Mike (2012)
Director: Steven Soderbergh

You can tell this is a film not made by a mainstream American director. The shot choices give it away; lots of wide shots. While this makes sense in a film with several dance sequences, Soderbergh uses it for conversation scenes as well. One particular scene happens on a beach, where Tatum's Mike talks with Olivia Munn's Joanna and Cody Horn's Brooke. We don't cut to close-ups of their faces, and watch a series of reverse shots. Instead, Soderbergh holds an extended, wide shot. The effect is to make the audience aware of the characters bodies, and also distances us from the action: it is voyeuristic. It is telling that the final scene between Brooks and Mike has several close-ups of them speaking to each other.

The camera shots align us with the female audiences of Mike's shows, who go along to enjoy the bodies of fit, oiled (and sadly hairless) men. It also portrays the emotional state of Mike, who feels a bit separate from many in his life. He doesn't quite fit in with the other strippers, as he has ambitions outside this life, and doesn't want to fall into the dubious side of the business. Channing Tatum plays Mike really well; he is confident and charming, but imbues him with depth. Matthew McConaughey is a bit of a scene-stealer, with his quietly sinister Dallas. Cody Horn was also good, giving Brooke a streak of wry wit.

The dance scenes are the main highlight. As a straight feminist, the sight of a bunch of good-looking men doing body rolls, hips swivels and general gyrating is a great change from the usual cratering to the (straight) male gaze. While I would never go to one of those places to watch a show (for several reasons, one being that I am a confirmed introvert), I was more than happy to see it on screen: I love a dance scene. Tatum can dance extremely well; it was hard to take your eyes of him when he started.

This is refreshing approach to a story that could easily have been coy and sentimental is handled by a less daring director.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

I've Just Seen: The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game (2014)
Director: Morten Tyldum

I am a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch: I have even met him in person (he is not as tall as you would think!). The buzz about his performance in this film is well deserved: he is very good as Alan Turing, giving him reserved depth underneath Turing's socially-awkward surface. I wonder if the opposition to Turing's ideas was so pronounced as it was portrayed in the film, but you need tension to create drama, so it is forgiveable. Alex Lawther almost out-shines Cumberbatch with his performance as the young Turing, and the two performances edit together well. Keira Knightley was a standout for me, playing Joan Clarke with intelligence and compassion. The part felt slightly underwritten, but she makes Clark very interesting.

This is popular telling of history, giving its audience a very 'readable' version of events. For myself I would have liked a little more focus on the goings-on at Bletchley Park, and less on the relationships and espionage plot. But that is purely my own personal taste.

The computer Cumberbatch's Turing builds is the film's other star; it looks beautiful and I loved the many close-ups on its spinning, whirring cogs. Computers today may be smaller and far more powerful, but they are not nearly as visually compelling.

The film makes you want to find out more about Turing as a person, and is highly sympathetic to the barbaric sentence given to him for his homosexuality. He is now being rightly recognised for his work, which has contributed much to our tech-infused society.

I've Just Seen: Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
Director: Michael Patrick Jann

A female-led comedy before Bridesmaids made it cool again, Drop Dead Gorgeous sends-up the fuss around, and the people who participate in, beauty pageants. The humour is broad, and takes obvious swipes at hypocritical Christians, overly-sexed girls, US gun laws, and Mid-West America. I did find it funny, particularly the first half; the ending unfortunately felt haphazard.

The real joy here is the cast of young women, which includes Amy Adams, Brittany Murphy, Kirsten Dunst, and Denise Richards. They more than hold their own alongside Kirstie Alley, Allison Janney, and Ellen Barkin. The mockumentary format alludes to This is Spinal Tap Christopher Guest films, though this is not as good as Spinal Tap; it is not as straight-faced in its delivery.

This reminded me of Pitch Perfect in its approach; it shows that women can do broad comedy just well as men.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

I've Just Seen: A Very Long Engagement (2004)

A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiancailles) (2004)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

This came out a few years after the utterly wonderful Amelie. Long Engagement is infused with the same fast-paced editing, lovely cinematography and stars Audrey Tatou. We follow Tatou's Mathilde as she searches for her fiance, believed to have been killed in the war. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery, as he was one of a group of men killed by their own side for deliberately harming themselves. We learn more about this group as the film goes on.

The complexity of the plot is the only weakness of this film. I got rather confused at times, trying to remember which soldier's story we were following. It got even more confusing as the stories began to converge with each other. Other than that, this is a lovely romance, with dashes of humour and action. Tatou is great as always, and Marion Cotillard's role, though small, is highly memorable. There is also an appearance from an American actor which was a great surprise: watch it before looking it up!

I know I shall have to watch this again at some point: the plot will (hopefully) be clearer, especially as I now know how it all ends. This is definitely a must-see for lovers of Amelie and WWI films as well.