Friday, 30 October 2015

I've Just Seen: My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Director: Stephen Frears

To understand this film, it helps to know the political landscape it was reacting to; Thatcher's Britain. Society, she said, no longer existed, and it was about the individual. Frears' film looks at this idea as it operates in a community of British Pakistanis and some fascist youths. The corruption of capitalism and racism on family relationships is explored through our main character Omar, who wants to be successful like his uncle, who runs a slew of local businesses.

Of all the relationships in the film, the one that is the most genuine and honest is that between Omar and Johnny, his friend from school who has since become a fascist. They put aside any differences, as Omar offers Johnny a job helping him refurbish a run-down laundrette, and become lovers again. Making the interracial, homosexual relationship between these two the film's heart would have been daring for the time.

The performances in the film are all very good, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Johnny and Saeed Jaffrey as Uncle Nassar as the standouts. The cinematography, with its grainy film, adds to the bleak and stark England presented by the film. The story is a clever one, supplying no simply black-and-white characterisations, but giving each character choices to make about how they act, and these choices have ramifications on others. A very good film that explores issues and ideas through well constructed characters.

I've Just Seen: The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were (1973)

Director: Sydney Pollack

I like both Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford as screen presences; they are very good actors, and I have enjoyed all of the roles I have seen Streisand do. Having both Babs and Redford together seemed to guarantee enjoyment. While they are both good in this, Streisand in particular, I had some major misgivings with the film.

Reading about the history of the film's production on Wikipedia, the unfocused story of The Way We Were made more sense. I thought I was in for a culture-clash romance; I got some of that, but also dips into McCarthyism and Hollywood. The film didn't seem to know which to focus on, the result being two rather undeveloped storylines. Mixing the two could have been done in an interesting way, but those who want a romance between Redford and Streisand might not want to see a film about the House Un-American Activities Commitee (or communism), and vice versa.

The film is romantic and Streisand and Redford have good chemistry together, but apart from that there is not much else to this film. The famous theme song, with its melancholic tune, hides the fieriness of the couple's relationship, but suits the film's ending. Watch for Babs being awesome.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

I've Just Seen: The Martian (2015)

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

I hadn't been to the cinema for a few months and was feeling the urge to see something on a big screen. The Martian had been on my radar, but I had not seriously considered it; unfortunately Ridley Scott's recent works have been disappointing. However, the positive reviews changed my mind, so rather than waiting to watch it sometime next year on my television, I went to see this in all its non-Vmax, non-3D glory.

I am glad I did. The Martian, like so many science fiction films, looks fantastic on the big screen. Mars, with its rich orange-red colour, was a great co-star with Matt Damon, whose Mark Watney was far less annoying to spend time with. The script was well paced, though I would have liked more time with the Ares crew (particularly as I am on a Chastain-a-thon at the moment). The special effects are wonderfully woven into the film; it supports the story rather than drawing attention to itself.

There is little room for existential crisis in this film; there is little doubt that NASA will not try to do as much as possible to bring Watney home, and the boppy disco soundtrack makes one too happy to think about how close one is to death. Science itself is an important part of the film, and proved less 'wha?' inducing than that featured in Interstellar.

I left the cinema feeling thoroughly entertained, which is what I expected to be. I also stayed to the end of the credits, and from them learnt that only did the film apparently create 15, 000 jobs, but a large portion of those were for Hungarian people; much of principle photography took place in Hungary as it has one of the largest sound stages in the world. Moral of the story: stay for the credits, you'll never know what you will learn. 

I've Just Seen: Camera Buff (1979)

Camera Buff (Amator) (1979)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Kieslowski's command of imagery bespeaks a deep love for the medium of film. One could imagine that this love vies with other loves in his life (as well as being a platform for him to explore them). Filip, the protagonist of Camera Buff, develops an obsession with making films. I couldn't help wonder if this was slightly auto-biographical, that Kieslowski was tapping into a part of himself that he is aware about.

Set in during Poland's Communist era, there are also ideas of censorship and self-expression in this film; about what one should and should not show, particularly making documentaries. Politics plays a huge part in the story, particularly its effect on personal relationships and personal integrity. Filip finds his attempts at telling the truth with his film curtailed, and the personal use - recording his newborn daughter - disregarded.

The cinematography paints 70s Poland as a drab place to live, with washed out colours and flat lighting. This is striking when one considers the significance of colour in Kieslowski's later films.  The performances are all good, Jerzy Stuhr particularly so as Filip. If you enjoy stories about filmmaking and the challenges faced in maintaining control over your vision, you will find Camera Buff a clever exploration of these ideas. It also offer an opportunity to see where the director of such beautiful films like The Double Life of Veronique and the Trois Coleurs trilogy started.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

I have found myself on a bit of a Jessica Chastain marathon of late; entirely unintentional but it is proving to be a treat. I've watched her in Take Shelter, this film, The Martian, Interstellar and Crimson Peak. Of them all, Zero Dark Thirty provides her with the most screen time, as it follows her character Maya's pursuit of Osama Bin Laden (or UBL as he is referred to in the film).

Chastain's performance is central to the film, and she is phenomenal. Her character has no other purpose in life than eliminating UBL; the few people she shares any moments of friendship with end up leaving or dead. The supporting cast are very good, particularly Jennifer Ehle as Maya's friend Jessica, and Jason Clarke.

The interplay of fact and fiction is woven together to create a story that places you in the emotions of those working to find UBL. I am less concerned with historical fact than if the story works, and its does here. I believed in the intensity of Maya's focus, and the pain and setbacks she experiences. Bigelow's direction is suited to the material; she has stepped back slightly to allow us to observe these people work. We a left to wonder about the choices they make; the infamous torture scenes a presented with little comment, and we are left to judge what they did.

A very solid film that takes us into the world of intelligence gathering, and presents us with the drive required in order to be successful, as well as the personal and emotional cost of such a journey. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Center Stage (2000)

Center Stage (2000)

Director: Nicholas Hynter

I had not meant to watch Center Stage; it just happened to be on TV, and before I knew it I had watched half of it. I love dancing: practicing, performing and watching it. I have a soft spot for dance films, which means that if the dancing sequences are good (and lengthy) I will overlook a movie's shallow acting and weak plot. Center Stage has both of the latter, but also has a lot of dance sequences that are great.

There is not much else to say about the film. If you like dancing in general, you will find something to enjoy. If not, there are other dance films that are more engaging; The Red Shoes, which is referenced in this film, is probably the best, followed by those of Bob Fosse, particularly All That Jazz

Sunday, 25 October 2015

I've Just Seen: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Director: Joel Coen

I wouldn't say that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Coen Brothers fan, but I have enjoyed many of their films. They clearly love cinema, a circumstance that enhances their films for people who have a similar love. The Big Lebowski, both in its title and convoluted plot, references the film noirs of the 40s, though aesthetically couldn't be much further from them.

The Coens are strong on character; 'The Dude' is a great creation, smarter than he looks (and much smarter than his friends), caring for his friends, but mostly looking out for himself. John Goodman's Walter Sobchak almost stole the film for me, with his hilarious tirades about his war experiences and his Jewishness.

As I said, the plot is deliberately incomprehensible, in a similar fashion to Hawks' The Big Sleep. Much like 'The Dude' we don't know why things happen, or who is responsible; we just roll with it. The script is very clever, with so many quotable lines (my favourite was "It really tied the room together." Like 'The Dude,' I love a good rug).

While I am not have loved this as many do, it is very funny and clever; I can imagine it being even funnier on repeat viewing as more of the speeches sink into my brain.

I've Just Seen: Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)

Director: Tod Browning

I had attempted to watch this film many months ago; unfortunately, the copy from my local library was severely scratched, and stopped dead three-quarters through. Since then I have seen two versions of Nosferatu, so this time was consciously comparing the three films to each other. Clearly the figure of Dracula looms large over cinema history, and for a character whose main motivation is 'I want to suck your blood,' he has been portrayed in many different ways.

Bela Lugosi's portrayal is famous for its theatricality. Unlike the melancholy of Kinski's Nosferatu, or Schreck's gleeful portrayal, Lugosi is aristocratic but clearly menacing, wearing a dinner jacket as he goes about his business. The close-ups on his face, with their strategic lighting, can only be described as entertainingly camp. It is understandably iconic.

The other star of the film is the production design. Dracula's castle is wonderfully gothic, its huge spider's webs dwarf Renfeld, making him the fly caught by Dracula. The catacombs of Carfax Abbey are also great, highly suitable for Dracula's needs.

The problem with the film is the direction from Tod Browning. He has the camera look away several times, drawing attention to the action he deliberately avoids: Dracula emerging from his coffin. Why, I don't know. Perhaps Browning couldn't think of a way of doing it without it looking humorous. Or he wasn't very imaginative. The ending is another problem: we are denied Dracula's death on screen, leaving us feeling unsatisfied.

See the film to see Bela Lugosi's performance and the production design, two factors that have continued to influence vampire films throughout film history.

Friday, 23 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Tabu (2012)

Tabu (2012)

Director: Miguel Gomes

I generally enjoy films that break with film conventions. Gomes' Tabu does this primarily through sound, and also plays with structure. The film has three parts: a prologue, Part One titled 'Paradise Lost,' and Part Two: 'Paradise.' The prologue is a slightly mythic story of lost love, giving us a thematic setting for the rest of the film. The voice-over narration is also introduced here.

The film is non-linear, as 'Paradise Lost' introduces older characters whose histories are revealed in 'Paradise.' 'Paradise' is recounted as a story, almost entirely narrated; the only change is the letters that the lovers send to each other. The whole film is in B&W, which along with the lack of dialogue recalls films from the silent era. The film, particularly 'Paradise,' set in Africa, feels like one is looking at a collection of someone's old photographs, or home movies. There are some interesting images, especially those involving a crocodile.

I don't know exactly how I feel about this. I got rave reviews by several critics, including Australia's own Margaret and David, which is why I watched it. I feel as though I missed something. All the elements didn't quite work together; the lack of closure for the plot involving Pilar (raised in 'Paradise Lost,' then never returned to again) left me confused. The fate of the lovers didn't grab me as strongly as it should have, which meant I wasn't as struck by the tragedy of it all. Tabu is a film I will probably re-watch at some point, in order to clarify what I think of it.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan (1979)

Director: Woody Allen

I had seen Manhattan several years ago, before I started to want more than entertainment from films. I had liked it, but much preferred Annie Hall. Having re-watched it, now older, wiser and generally more snobbish in my film tastes, this is now a close second for my favourite Woody Allen film.

From the opening sequence, one of the best in film history, to the melancholic but perfect ending, this film is a joy. Funny, romantic and painful, often all at once, it has some of the best acting in any Allen film. When I first watched it, I didn't really like Mariel Hemingway's Tracy (why I don't know). This time around, I see she is the most mature of all the characters, despite her relative youth. Her quiet pain when Isaac breaks up with her is the most moving moment in the film. Diane Keaton's Mary matches Allen's Isaac in the neurotic stakes, her disparaging comments about almost everything Isaac likes are hilarious.

The film looks beautiful, with its black-and-white cinemtography. Frankly, more romantic comedies (or just films) should be in BW. Here it shows off New York at its most beautiful, particularly in the opening sequence; it is the great love of Isaac's life. The music adds to the romance of the film; Gershwin knew how to elite emotions, and the swells of Rhapsody in Blue set the tone early on. Both these elements give an old Hollywood feel to what is a New Hollywood film.

After the recent disappointment of Magic in the Moonlight, it was a joy to revisit Allen at his heights. When he is off, he is average; when great, one of the best filmmakers in film history. Not bad for someone who delights in the much maligned romantic comedy genre!

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Take Shelter (2011)

Take Shelter (2011)
Director: Jeff Nichols

While this is classified as a drama thriller (according to Wikipedia), there are several elements that refer to the horror genre. The film's central character, Michael Shannon's Curtis, has dreams that provoke fear in him; fear of nature (particularly storms) and the people around him. The line between reality and dreams becomes blurred, implying a prophetic element to his visions. As he fears the change being threatened by these dreams, his family and friends see Curtis changing as well; this provokes fear in them.

Shannon is great as Curtis, who is trying hard to make of what he experiences, and protect his family. His fears revolve around his deaf daughter, implying a masculine fear of being unable to protect your vulnerable family. Jessica Chastain is equally great as Curtis' wife Samantha, who is working to keep their family together. There are overtones of the Biblical Noah story, with Curtis delivering a speech that warns of a storm coming that no one is ready for.

The quiet way the story unfolds actually heightens Curtis' anxiety. I moved between sympathising with Curtis' perspective to sharing Samantha's worries about her husband. The only part of the film that didn't quite work for was the ending; though unhelpfully, I cannot think of another way it could have ended. The story is well paced, focusing on character and mood, rather than shocks. Though the budget was low, the cinematography is very good; the dream scenes are suitably unsettling. This is well worth your time, particularly if you are looking for a different type of scare this Halloween.

I've Just Seen: Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

After I finished watching Under the Skin several thoughts were floating around in my mind; one of them was that there was no one from my family, friends or acquaintances that I would think of recommending this to. Not because I hated this; far from it. Rather, it is such a strange, utterly unmainstream film that I don't know anyone who wouldn't watch this, and then think 'what the *expletive* was that, and why did you make me watch it?' So, other than getting new friends, I am going to share my thoughts with you.

I would not say I enjoyed this film, for the film doesn't set out to be enjoyable or entertaining. But I was deeply effected by it; it made (and continues to make) me think, and to marvel. I haven't had this type of reaction to a film since I saw 2001. I did not feel empathy for the characters, but I was intrigued and beguiled by what I saw. And, just like 2001, I was left to figure things out for myself, to bring my own ideas to what was presented.

What did I see? I could write pages and pages about this film (but I won't). The images of human bodies are haunting. They are not erotic, though naked, but are presented as strange objects to live in. Scarlett Johansson's performance is powerful for its blankness; the fall of her face as she moves from engaging with people to watching them is compelling. The music adds much to the atmosphere, its strings straining and the drum beats recalling heart beats, or a ticking clock. The use of costume and location is masterful, portraying the evolution of Johansson's character.

The film is not perfect, but the problems didn't niggle at me. For others, however, I can imagine they would. Indeed, as I said at the start of this piece, this is not a film for everyone. My reaction is on the highly positive end, yet I can completely understand someone watching it and hating it with a passion. Watch it, knowing that you will have a strong reaction to Glazer's film.

(On a sidenote, if you want a truly mind-bending experience, watch this in double bill with Shane Carruth's Upstream Color. Would make Inception seem positively comprehensible). 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Director: Ang Lee

Ang Lee, in some respects, remind me of Billy Wilder; he has made a variety of films in his career, but each shows his ability to direct actors. In Eat Drink Man Woman, a family drama/ comedy, this is clear, and is also why his more visual films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi struck such a chord; the characters have depth and insight.

The central relationship in Eat Drink is between Mr Chu and his middle child Jia-Chien, who are similar in several ways, yet are distant with each other. Around this are the romantic relationships of Chu's other two daughters, and their neigbours, a single mother and her child. As with many of these types of films there are secrets and tensions that are revealed at several dinners the family shares throughout the film.

I enjoyed this; it is warm and often funny, providing an insight into modern Taiwanese society, while also achieving a universality in its focus on love and family. Don't watch it on an empty stomach. 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
Director: Simon West

This wasn't really my choice; my sister had asked me to record it, and when time came for her to watch it, ended up joining her. I think she was more entertained by my reaction to the film than the film itself. It has been a while since I have seen a Hollywood popcorn blockbuster, particularly one this old (14 years is old in terms of technology).

One of the few positive things I will say about the film is the commitment of Jolie's performance. Sure it verges on the edge of cartoon, but Jolie does it well, and holds her own in the action sequences. It also uses many in-camera effects; I can imagine today there would be a lot more CGI.

Apart from that, this is a mess. The plot is at a 'aye, what?' level of confusing; I cannot tell you what it was about other than something about Croft's father. It is clearly going for a similar style to Indiana Jones, but fails to be that entertaining. It dated, and is not that beautiful to look at; the production design should have been more engaging.

On a slightly different note, while Jolie is the toughest character in the film, she barely interacts with another woman; nor are there any other women as characters. I know that the target audience for the film would have been teenage boys, but it is still a problem. I don't think the filmmakers were going for a its-hard-to-be-a-woman-in-a-man's-world plot, so why not at least have some women in the crowd sequences and as part of the group excavating for Ian Glen.

Not good, with very little to recommend it.

I've Just Seen: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Director: Joss Whedon

I have always enjoyed Shakespeare, and have even enjoyed the odd film adaptation of his plays. While many don't rate his comedies as highly as his more serious fare, I really like both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, and would probably say they are two of my favourites (behind Macbeth). Much Ado feels like a forerunner for many of my favourite films: the witty banter between Benedick and Beatrice is echoed in It Happened One Night, Nick and Nora in The Thin Man series, Sally and Harry in When Harry Met Sally; really, any romantic comedy couple.

This is a smart and stylish adaptation. Oddly, it is similar in many ways to Susanne Bier's Love is All You Need, as it involves a group of people staying at a villa/ mansion who are dealing with small personal crises that shuffle around the guests. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are very good as Beatrice and Benedick, clearly on top of the language. Indeed, everyone wears their characters well. The black-and-white cinematography is lovely; it not only evokes films like The Philadelphia Story, but also allows for a greater suspension of disbelief. We are not in the 'real' world, but a fictional film world.

I really enjoyed this, and now have a great desire to visit the play again.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Love is All You Need (2012)

Love is All You Need (Den skaldede frisor) (2012)
Director: Susanne Bier

I really enjoyed Bier's After the Wedding so looked out for this film. The two are similar, dealing with the messiness of families as they meet for a wedding. Unlike After the Wedding, which was a Danish film in Danish, Love is All You Need has a mixture of English and Danish; Pierce Brosnan's Philip lives and works in Denmark, but still speaks English, while the other characters move between the two languages. 

Trine Dyrholm is the film's heart; she is dealing with revelations of a cheating husband, the end of her cancer treatment, and listening to the doubts of her daughter (the bride to be). Her Idassa is warm and dignified in the face of her situation, and her performance carries everyone else. There are several plots going on at the same time that didn't all quite work for me. Everyone at the wedding is facing some personal crisis that creates tension, but also threatens to confuse the plot. Thankfully, the film mostly holds together. I quite enjoyed it, and would recommend it if you want a romantic drama/ comedy that doesn't conform to the Hollywood standard.

Friday, 16 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Tyrannosaur (2011)

Tyrannosaur (2011)
Director: Paddy Considine

This film is one where the title is figurative; there are no dinosaurs on show, only the monstrous evil that dwells within humans. At the film's centre is a trio who are well acquainted with violence. Joseph (Peter Mullan), the protagonist, cannot escape his violent nature which keeps causing him grief and making him lonely. Hannah (the wonderful Olivia Coleman) is a Christian who is being badly abused by her husband (Eddie Marsan). Hannah and Joseph meet one day, and strike up a relationship that is tentative in its tenderness.

This is a difficult film to watch; the violence is savage and painful. The opening scene involves Mullan's Joseph accidently killing his own dog, an act that he instantly and horribly regrets. The domestic violence between Hannah and her husband is sickening. The performances from the main three are very good. Mullan is often scary on screen, but here there is a clear vulnerability to his character. Eddie Marsan, the least sympathetic of the three, arguably has the most difficult role, and is almost mad in his behaviour. He is very good though. Olivia Coleman is the standout, playing a woman who is wrestling with her faith and the behaviour of her husband, and trying to remain true to her kind nature.

Tyrannosaur is a very good film, certainly worth seeing. However, it is one that you may only watch once; it will stay with you, both for its violence and its performances.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

I've Just Seen: 20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
Director: Morgan Neville

This winner of the Documentary Oscar celebrates the backing vocalists on some of music most iconic songs, and looks at how several tried to break out on their own. The film focuses almost exclusively on black female backing vocalists, with women who sang in the 1960s up to now. We also have musings by the likes of Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen about what it was like to work with these women.

The film is good, showcasing the amazing voices of these women. Their voices powerful and rich, and the women clearly love singing. They talk about the struggles of the film industry; the most gasp-inducing tale is Darlene Love's story about Phil Spector signing her as a solo artist, then using a recording of hers, and releasing it as someone else's single.

While I think this is a great subject for a documentary, I didn't feel it delved deeply enough into its subject. Issues of gender and race are touched upon, but not explored greatly. The film also didn't have a strong narrative arc; it is more of a celebration of these relatively unknown singers' talents. This approach, though understandable, made for a slightly unsatisfying experience. Certainly one to see, if simply to listen to these women's voices, and wonder how they didn't manage to become solo artists.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Irma la Douce (1963)

Irma la Douce (1963)
Director: Billy Wilder

I have previously said that I haven't yet seen a Wilder film I didn't like. After watching Irma la Douce, that is still true; I did enjoy this. However, it is Wilder-lite, with less of the unsettling comedy of Some Like It Hot or The Major and the Minor, and mainly on the screwball/ farce aspect. I love Jack Lemmon, so watching him on screen is always a joy. He and MacLaine have good chemistry like they did in The Apartment.

The story is deliberately complicated. I was slightly surprised how much more overt in its sexuality than other Wilder films; in The Apartment, the more secretive approach makes the subject more dirtier (for want of a better word). There were a few nods to Some Like It Hot, including some of 'Sweet Sue's Society Syncopators' playing Irma's fellow prostitutes.

This was enjoyable fluff. I wouldn't recommend it as an example of Wilder's brilliance as a director, but for a couple of hours, it is good fun.

I've Just Seen: Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Director: Woody Allen

I would count myself a Woody Allen fan; I have seen many of his films, and find most of them very funny and clever, great vehicles for good performances by actors. Unfortunately, Magic in the Moonlight ranks as my least favourite of his works.

It is shame. The cast is incredibly good; I like both Colin Firth and Emma Stone, and the rest are all strong actors. And while their performances are fine, they are let down by a weak script. These types of stories may be fluff, but well done fluff is surprisingly satisfying. This is not. Also, as many critics have mentioned, the age gap between Firth and Stone is noticable, and the rather child-like clothes Stone's character wears only emphasis this difference. Stone may project maturity, but it doesn't do away with the unease of the casting.

I would also quibble with the use of wide shots in this film. We are distanced from the characters, and as we are trying to judge Stone's Sophie Baker's abilities along with Firth's Stanley Crawford, it would be nice to be able to look closer at her more often. Sadly, this was a disappointment.

Monday, 12 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Director: Stanley Kramer

Three hour films require a commitment of time and concentration. The good ones keep you till the end; the best ones make you think 'was that really three hours?' This is how I felt watching Judgment at Nuremberg; I was so caught in the story that in no time I found myself halfway through the film (I have a bad habit of looking at the time as I watch films at home).

This is a brilliantly acted, scripted, directed, designed and edited film. It takes us to post-World War II Germany as it is trying to move on from the horrible atrocities of the war. In order for justice to be served, distressing memories from the recent past have to be re-lived, threatening to distract Germany's attention from the future. This delicate and complex balance is beautifully presented through the film. I cannot think of many cast ensembles that are this great; I wish they had an award at the Oscars for the whole cast, not just singling one out (though I have no quibble with Max Schell's win).

Many of the stories presented, though fiction, are based on fact and are quite distressing. There is even actual footage from the death camps, taken by British soldiers. It would be impossible not to be affected by this film. It is worth devoting three hours of your life to, and will stay with you for days after.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)
Director: Stephen Spielberg

When one looks back over Spielberg's oeuvre, one notices that he doesn't stick to one genre, or make films for one type of audience. Lincoln fits closer to his war films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, than his more family friendly films (ET, Jurassic Park, Hook). While I can't see many saying this is their favourite Spielberg film, it is a very solid film that demonstrates his ability to direct actors.

Of course, having Daniel Day-Lewis as your lead is always going to elevate the story. Day-Lewis always disappears into each role he plays, and he does so here. His Lincoln is charismatic and very intelligent, and looks exactly like the many famous images of the president. Day-Lewis is supported by a very good cast, with Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones the standouts.

One could have a very interesting (and long!) marathon of The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, 12 Years a Slave and Lincoln, four films that would give you arguments from each side of the Civil War. I really enjoyed this exploration of the politics behind abolishing slavery. As with all these historically based films, one must take the story with a grain of salt, but as a narrative it was rather compelling.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

I've Just Seen: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1920)

Director: Robert Wiene

While I would never pretend to be a horror film fan, or possess a great knowledge of its history, I feel I have seen enough horror films to appreciate the genre's antecedents in Dr Caligari. Body horror is the sub-genre I have most enjoyed (perhaps because of its interesting relationship with gender), but I also find psychological horror enjoyably unsettling.

Unfortunately, the twist at the film's end was spoiled for me (from studying film history no less); a circumstance which I believe affected my experience. I won't be cruel and do the same to you. Despite that, I am glad it was included in the film; the original writers were apparently annoyed about the framing story's inclusion.

The production design is still quite impressive, setting the story in an abstract space. As a result, the highly stylised acting is more bearable as they are not aiming at realism. The copy I saw carried the Expressionism into the intertitles, which was at first made it difficult to read, but ultimately worked well.

This is not the ideal silent film to see as your first experience of the form. It also helps to know why it is considered so important in film history; just don't let your reading spoil it for you!

I've Just Seen: Wings of Desire (1987)

Der Himmel uber Berlin (Wings of Desire) (1987)
Director: Wim Wenders

Is it not wonderful when, as you are watching a film, you feel yourself falling in love with it? You are charmed, engrossed, eager to know where it is going, yet enjoying each moment for what it is. That is how I felt watching Wings of Desire, and it feels like a highly appropriate response, considering the amount of love and care there is in the story.

I was reminded of A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger's similarly gentle romance, where love between humans is presented as the greatest good in the world. I was not surprised to see others had also the connection. I love black-and-white cinematography, and it was used brilliantly here, making the colour sequences feel even more vibrant. The cast were all great; Peter Falk's performance is lovely, exuding a warmth that recalls his Grandpa in The Princess Bride.

There is so much one could say about this film, particularly about its reflective approach to Berlin's past, and the way certain quiet mysteries are revealed. I cannot recommend this highly enough; it is wonderful both formally and narratively, and made me think of other favourite films of mine in a very positive way. Beautiful.

I've Just Seen: Frank (2014)

Frank (2014)
Director: Lenny Abrahamson

In Australia, October is the month of Mental Health Week, a time to raise awareness and support for people living with mental illness. Frank is a highly appropriate film to review now, as many of its characters have experienced mental illness, and during the film, try to live in world they feel uncomfortable in.

I love both Maggie Gyllanhaal and Michael Fassbender, so I was looking forward to seeing this. I will say that the film was not quite what I expected, and I think I will need another viewing to fully appreciate everything it did. However, I did enjoy it. All the cast are very good, with Fassbender giving one of the most interesting performances I have seen in a while; and considering the paper-mache mask obscuring his face, that is saying something.

The musical is of an aquired taste, but the way Fassbender sang the lyrics was fantastic, particularly the last song, which was vulnerable and gentle. Lest everything I have said makes the film sound depressing, it is not. It has many moments of humour; the opening scene of Domhnall Gleeson's Jon trying to think of lyrics and music is a hoot. Definitely worth seeing more than once to truly understand world of Soronprfbs (the band).

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Director: Werner Herzog

Fitzcarraldo reminded me very much of Coppola's Apocalypse Now with dashes of The Mission: a man travels up a river on a boat with a questionable crew, pursuing an end that has no guaranteed success. This film is equally famous for its behind-the-scenes events as it is for its on-screen story. The tension on camera remained when Herzog called cut; I can't imaging it was much fun for anyone shooting the film.

The film is not perfect, but the iconic image of the steamship groaning it way over the hill is striking. You imagine that today it would been done with CGI (and in 3D!), which would still look impressive, but we would watch it without the knowledge that Herzog actually did this. His owe mad determination is mirrored in Kinski's Fitzcarraldo.

Klaus Kinski has one of the most striking faces I have seen on screen. It was wonderfully melancholic and monstrous in Herzog's Nosferatu; here it distances him even further from the crew and indigenous Peruvians. He surveys everything with his penetrating and manic eyes.

This is one of those films I appreciated rather than loved; I am glad I saw it, and am increasingly finding Herzog a most fascinating director. After seeing Fitzcarraldo, I am interested in seeing his documentary about Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend; their collaborations, though tense, were clearly fruitful.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014)

Director: Damien Chazelle

I watched the short film before I saw the feature length film; it worked as a good taster, showing J. K. Simmons' menacing Terence Fletcher in all his fury. The feature film intensifies the central relationship between Fletcher and Andrew, adding only a few characters to the mix.

I really enjoyed Whiplash; the editing was superb, its rhythm at times mimicking the drum beats Miles Teller's Andrew is trying to master. The close-ups on the vibrating drum skins and cymbals enhanced the sound, aided by the added element of sweat and blood that Andrew exudes. Teller was good, portraying the frustration and passion Andrew feels about his drumming. However, the film belongs to J. K. Simmons, who gives us one of the most angry and cruel characters I have seen for a long time. His fury is not the cold, contained evil of most villains, it is hot and loud, which is difficult not to turn into comedy; I never felt like laughing at Fletcher, demonstrating just how pitch perfect Simmons' performance is.

There is no reason not to see this film; it is clean in its storytelling, confident in its film techniques, and strong in its acting. If you heart doesn't race in the drumming scenes, you should consult your doctor, for you might be dead.

Monday, 5 October 2015

I've Just Seen: What If (2013)

What If or The F Word (2013)
Director: Michael Dowse

This film was released with two different titles: in some places the original title of The F Word was used; in others places, including Australia, it was What If. Not sure why it needed a different title; though maybe some producers worried about the sweary implications of the 'The F Word.' I wanted to see this partly because of my previously discussed fondness for Daniel Radcliffe. I had also enjoyed Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks, a rather smart romantic comedy I would certainly recommend.

This film bordered on being too quirky for me, but I managed to stay with it to the end. What If plays upon a similar theme to When Harry Me Sally: can men and women be friends or does sexual attraction always get in the way? The different here is that Wallace (Radcliffe) is attracted to Chantry (Kazan) from the start, and she seems to be as well but she is also attached to her boyfriend. Radcliffe and Kazan have a good chemistry together, so in my mind the film was ultimately successful.

The plot plays with some romantic comedy ideas (the airport run, being forced to spend a night together, reconciling in a public place), but doesn't break the genre. I enjoyed it, though I would have liked to have seen more of the subplot with Wallace and his sister. 

Saturday, 3 October 2015

I've Just Seen: McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)

McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)
Director: Robert Altman

This is the third Beatty and Christie pairing I have seen in film; the other two are Heaven Can Wait and Shampoo. This is arguably the least romantic and bleakest film of the three. Altman, one of the heavyweights of the American New Wave, here portrays a rather complex image of the macho American gunslinger who enters town a mysterious man. McCabe's image is challenged by Mrs Miller, a woman with actual business smarts; McCabe merely believes he has them, but is easily swayed by Miller.

The cinematography is deliberately aged to mimic photography from the early twentieth century. Things look slightly out of focus and unclear, much like the world the characters inhabit. It was stiking to see the new buildings in the film; most of the time, period films have houses and shops that look old (as they do to us), rather than how they looked to the people at the time.

McCabe and Mrs Miller is a film I would say I appreciated rather than enjoyed. Altman certainly has his own style, and clearly knew how to direct actors. I prefered MASH because of its humour, but both films have a similar melancholy underneath their stories.

Friday, 2 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Director: Stanley Kubrick

There are few films that are as beautiful as Barry Lyndon. Every scene, every single frame of the film is quite breathtaking. Kubrick's use of light in this film is famous; he had special lenses developed to capture the candle light, and though some artifical lighting was used, it was to help bolster the outside light from the sun. As a result the interior and exterior spaces feel different to how they do in most period dramas, where everything feels exposed so that the sets and costumes are shown off. That being said, the costumes are wonderful, from Lady Lyndon's opulent frocks, to the bright red dress of the soldiers. Kubrick's love of classical music comes into its own here; it is expertly used, with various versions of Handel's Sarabande used throughout. All in all of I felt like was watching the 18th century through its own lense, rather than with a modern sensibility.

However (you knew it was coming), all this beauty cannot hide the lack of emotion I felt watching this. Awe was present throughout, but I felt no great humour or pain or anger or sadness. There was moments; when Redmond Barry steals the horse from a senior officer (who seems to be having a romantic moment with a fellow soldier) raised a smile. Apart from that I was largely untouched by the story itself.

The story is from William Makepeace Thackeray's The Luck of Barry Lyndon which imitates 18th century novels like Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling and Defoe's Moll Flanders. Those stories are told with a certain amount of humour, either by the omnipresent but intrusive author, or the main character herself. I have not read Thackeray's novel, but think that the first person narration may have worked better in the film than the omniscent and judgemental narrator. Redmond Barry Lyndon's character is rather blank in the film; if he had narrated his own story I would have understood his character a bit more. Perhaps Kubrick thought he had done that in A Clockwork Orange and didn't wish to repeat himself.

I cannot say if I think this is a successful Kubrick film or not. The lack of emotion is a big problem, as I like to care or at least be interested in characters. I was interested in Alex DeLarge in Clockwork, and he arguably does worse things than Barry Lyndon does. However, the film's breathtaking visuals are (just) worth the three hour length. I always feel I learn something about filmmaking when I watch Kubrick, and I certainly did here. If you love Kubrick, or enjoy poring over art works for hours, then you should like this. If not, you might struggle after the first hour.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

I've Just Seen: The Last Wave (1977)

The Last Wave (1977)
Director: Peter Weir

Peter Weir made this a few years after the incredibly mysterious Picnic at Hanging Rock. While the mystery at the centre of that film is never answered, the events are understandable. In The Last Wave the unsolved mystery is far more inpenetrable; I still am not sure exactly what happened (and I watched this a few weeks ago).

While it is not as successful as Picnic, there is a lot to appreciate in The Last Wave. The bizarre weather sequences are wonderfully executed. A scene where Richard Chamberlain's David looks out his car to see the outside world drowned in water is striking. In fact, what I remember about the film is how it looked. The opening scene is one of the best I have seen, setting the unsettling mood from the get-go. The acting is pretty good, David Gulpilil the standout as Chris Lee, who tries to inform David about this world.

I had not really heard of this film before seeing it. It is included in the 1001 Movies, but seems to have been overshadowed by Weir's Picnic. The Last Wave is definitely worth your time, though if you can't cope with unanswered mystery you may find it frustrating.