Tuesday, 27 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Player (1992)


Director: Robert Altman

When films turn their gaze on the 'art' of filmmaking, the results can be surprising. You would think that hagiography would emerge, with films about the genius of filmmakers, waxing lyrical about how hard they work. However this is not always the case, and the best films about filmmaking are often deeply self-critical. The Player is one of these, with its depiction of a sleezy Hollywood populated by anti-heroes, from the power hungry producers to the angry, frustrated writers.

The plot feels like something out of the head of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Griffin Mill, a film producer who is worried about his job being taken by a new producing talent, is the subject of abuse by an anonymous scriptwriter whose idea Mill rejected several months ago. He decides to go after the guy, offering him a job. Mill unfortunately picks the wrong disgruntled writer, and manages to kill him in a fit of anger. Now he is trying to keep his job, hide a murder, keep ahead of the police, and the blackmailing writer, and cheat on his girlfriend with the dead writer's girlfriend.

What could have been a farce is played with cyncism that is sharpened by the appearance of real Hollywood stars in the film. Every character in the film seems to have sold their soul to the devil, and we cannot help but watch intrigued. The performances are all wonderful. Tim Robbins' likeability keeps us from hating Mill, even as he does despicable things. The script is brilliant, pulling us into this sordid world, one we can't help but enjoy. It is also very funny; the plot involving the death penalty movie being made is hilarious, from the awful pitch, to the finished product.

I have found Altman hit and miss in his filmmaking; for me, this is his best. He always gets good performances from his actors, one of the film's greatest strengths. The plot is also kept nice and tight, and he has managed to film one of the most intimate sex scenes in film history, using only the actors' faces, and music. For full cynical impact, watch in a double bill with Sunset Boulevard.

Monday, 26 December 2016

I've Just Seen: La La Land (2016)


Director: Damien Chazelle

If you hate musicals or jazz, you are definitely going to struggle with Chazelle's new film. If Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone leave you cold, you are going to be in even worse trouble. And if romance and overly stylised worlds bug you no end, well, you probably shouldn't see this film.

Except you should.

For me, there are not enough superlatives in the world to properly describe how I feel about this film. I love musicals in general anyway, and all the films that inspired Chazelle are particular favourites of mine: those of Jacque Demy, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. While Ryan Gosling doesn't inspire swooning in me, he is rather lovely as Sebastian, a struggling-for-his-art jazz musician. Emma Stone, always watchable, is wonderfully fabulous as Mia, a struggling actor. La La Land takes us through their romance, with all the singing, dancing and emotions you could want.

I really loved everything about this. The cinematography is colourful, harking back to the technicolor worlds of 1950s musicals. The camera moves around the sets and characters, immersing us in this gorgeous world. The music is toe-tapping, shoulder-shimmyingly good. I am still humming 'City of Stars' days later, and the climatic 'Audition' is spine-tingling. The dancing is wonderful; as a dancer, I wanted to enter the screen and join them, particular when they dance at the planetarium. I loved Mia's wardrobe, I wanted to wear all her clothes. And best of all, there were so many references to other films, and each time I recognised something I couldn't help but smile.

Really, I cannot be objective about this film.  From the moment the film ratio expanded at the very start, announcing this was brought to us in 'Cinemascope,' I knew only a huge, honking mistake would spoil this for me. Perhaps it dragged in the last third a bit, but it ends perfectly. After a year which was sad and depressing both personally, and on a global scale, it is wonderful to watch something so beautiful, that has so much joy, and is also so poignant.

I left the cinema feeling that Chazelle had made this film for me, and if I had had someone with me, I would have danced out.

Monday, 19 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Innocents (1961)

 Director: Jack Clayton


In my mind I have a list of black-and-white films that would not work in colour, largely due to the beauty of the black-and-white cinematography. Clayton's The Innocents joins this list. Freddie Francis' camera plays with the shadows of Bly, the country estate where governess Miss Giddens is sent to to care for little Flora and Miles. The shadows are of two dead people, Peter Quint, a former valet, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. Miss Giddens becomes increasingly perturbed by these apparitions and the oddness of Flora and Miles, and her behaviour becomes unsettling.

All the elements of this film work to create a strong emotion is discomfort and creepiness. As I said, the cinematography is eye-catching. The lack of colour in the grounds gives everything the pallor of death, while at night you wonder what is lurking in the dark places of rooms. The widescreen is used to stage characters at different distances to the camera, creating a disconnect between them, particularly between Miss Giddens and her charges. The acting is top-notch. Both Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are suitably weird as Miles and Flora, especially Stephens. Deborah Kerr is great as Miss Giddens, whose desire to understand Bly's mysteries brings unknown tensions and desires to the surface. You start to think that the monster resides just as much in her as the children and the house. The script is very good, drawing out the ambiguities of the story, and hinting at deviances and wrong-doing, but leaving enough blank spaces for our imaginations to fill in.

Watching films like this makes me wish more modern horror films used black-and-white cinematography, and went for the creep factor rather than the gore and splatter. People's imaginations can be just as frightening.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The VVitch (2015)


Director: Robert Eggers

Eggers' film is not typical of modern horror. Not only is it historical, set during the 17th century, it forgoes jump-scares and loud sounds for atmosphere, intensifying the presence of something sinister with each new scene. The story follows Thomasin and her family, who strike out on their own in New England after a disagreement with their church. The patch of land they choose seems ideal, but their crops won't prosper, and something horrible lurks in the woods close by - or maybe even in their own house.

The majority of the film focuses on the dynamics of the family. Thomasin has entered puberty, something her brother has noticed, and with it comes more responsibilities. After her baby brother disappears while she was looking after him, Thomasin's mother Katherine can't forgive her, and her two younger twin siblings accuse her of being a witch - something Thomasin plays along with to scare them. All through this Thomasin's father William is trying to keep everything together.

The script is very strong. Eggers, who wrote as well as directed, uses authentic language which really helps evoke the period. You feel you are watching a folk tale. The actors are pretty good with delivery of the archaic dialogue, especially the younger children. The performances in general are all strong. Anya Taylor-Joy is really good as Thomasin. The gives her the right amount of fear of the strange happens, but with an edge of intrigue, a sense that Thomasin wants to know more about these strange powers.

Though this is story about the supernatural, it also about how fear of these events devastate human relationships. And you will never trust a goat again!

Friday, 9 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Invisible Man (1933)


Director: James Whale

If you come to The Invisible Man hoping to see a lot of Claude Rains, you will be disappointed. However, while his body may be absent, Rains' presence is felt throughout the film through his voice. He plays Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist who has discovered a way to make man invisible, using a substance called monocane, but its use comes with a side-effect: it makes the user go mad.

Whale's film takes no time to get the story going, beginning with Griffin already invisible and on the run. His odd appearance - he looks like a mummy wearing his sunday best - naturally raises the suspicions of townsfolk, who decide they don't want him in Iping. This leads to the unmasking of the invisible man, and displays some of the most impressive special effects in pre-CGI history.

These special effects are really the main reason to see the film. Though it is easy to figure out how they achieved some of them, others were clearly a lot more difficult, and required great creativity from Whale and his crew. This is especially true for the scenes where Griffin interacts with food or his clothes.

One can tell this is a Pre-Code film because of the implied nudity of Griffin. I can't imagine post-1934 Hollywood putting images of a invisible, naked Claude Rains roaming the countryside into audiences' heads.

The film as a whole has the charm such early special effects films have, a tribute to the ingenuity of early filmmaking. The story and the characters are not as developed as they might be, but this doesn't take much away from the story. Rains, despite not being seen onscreen makes his presence felt, much as Michael Fassbender did in Frank, when he acted under a giant, papier-mache head. 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Jerk (1979)


Director: Carl Reiner

Comedies that draw their humour from characters' stupidity don't normally make me laugh. Either they are mean-spirited, or go for the lowest common denominator. While The Jerk did not induce much actual laughter from me, I found that its utter silliness, with the right hint of knowingness, worked pretty well.

The story moves from one ridiculous setpiece to the next, opening with the surprising introduction of Steve Martin's 'jerk' Navin R. Johnson telling us his life story, beginning with when he was 'born a poor black child.' From there we see his rags to riches to rags story, involving defective cans, discovering the meaning of his 'special purpose,' falling in love with Bernadette Peters, and inventing some practical glasses, which actually make people's eyesight worse.

The film is overall gently funny, with some rather sweet moments of romance between Peters' Marie and Navin. Martin' gets Navin's character just right. We do laugh at Navin's ineptitude, but also at his luck; the scene where he get targeted by a gun-crazy mad man is hilarious. Peters gets to be funny in her role, not just blandly sweet.

Carl Reiner is good at managing comedy and romance in his films, and while this is nowhere near the level of The Princess Bride, I liked it well enough. It also interesting to see Steve Martin at the beginning of his film career before he become the go-to guy for comedy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Monday, 5 December 2016

I've Just Seen: Titanic (1997)


Director: James Cameron

It has taken until this year for me to see Titanic in its entirety. Twice before, many years ago, I started watching it at a friend's house, only to have to go home as the ship stuck the iceberg. Being younger, and not knowing this was a loooooong film, I thought that I had only missed half-an-hour; really, I had missed half the film!

Of course, no one born in the '90s could grow-up not knowing the famous lines and scenes from the film, and on the strength of those I thought I would absolutely hate this film. Yes, hate it! I am not one for smaltzy romance (comedy makes it go down easier), and I had seen the excellent and very moving A Night to Remember, so I wondered what new aspects of this event could Cameron show me.

Well, and I am glad to say, I was surprised. While the romance left me cold and occasionally cringing at the dialogue, I cannot fault the film's effects. Even after almost twenty years they are eye-catching, and raise feelings of jeopardy for the viewer. The thousands of litres of water, which engulfs entire elaborately designed sets, is pure spectacle, and does what good disaster movies should do: make it impossible to look away. In fact, all the elements of production design, from the sets, the props and the costumes are great - a blown-out budget well spent, and many well-deserved Oscar wins.

If only the story was as merticulously thought out, I would have enjoyed it more.

The issues I had with Titanic's story are the same I had with Avatar's script; way too cliched. Of all the Oscars it won, it was not even nominated for Best Script. More subtlety would have been welcome, and better developed characters. Cameron is good at giving strong roles to women, and Kate Winslet gets to do some fun things as Rose; she saves Jack a few times, and is no wimp, plunging into the rising waters several times, and jumping back on the sinking vessel. Jack is rather underwritten, more of a manic pixie dream boy who teaches Rose how to break out of her upper-class shell and live her life. He also gets to remain young forever, something which no doubt raised his appeal to young women watching the film. (He could definitely have fitted on that door). Kathy Bates was underused - the tale of the Unsinkable Molly Brown could (and should) have been in the film. The only thing Billy Zane lacked was a moustache to stroke as he embodied all the evils of rich men as Rose' intended.

I still prefer A Night to Remember over Cameron's film, but I have a respect for the art of its spectacle, something which places it in the tradition of films like The Thief of Bagdad and Ben-Hur. And of course, I have plugged a massive Titanic-sized hole in my film viewing.

Friday, 2 December 2016

I've Just Seen: Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) (2016)



Director: Matoko Shinkai

Body-swapping is usually used as a comedic gimic in films, forcing different people to live each others lives with 'hilarious' results. Shinkai's Your Name nods to these films for about half-an-hour, introducing us to Mitsuha, a teenage girl living in a sleepy Japanese village, and Taki, a handsome boy from Tokyo. We meet their friends and Mitsuha's family, who all find the personality changes of the two mildly strange; a running gag is Mitsuha's sister's bemusement at Mitusha's weird habit of fondling her own breasts in the mornings on which Taki wakes in Mitsuha's body.

The story and tone shifts suddenly in Act 2 after a revelation about a comet's progress through the skies over Japan. What happens comes as a shock, so I won't spoil it here. There are several twists and turns in the narrative, and the film comes close to losing all its threads, but thankfully doesn't, though I could have done without the last part of the ending.

While the story is aimed at a teen audience, the depth to the story and the artistry of the animation make this appealing to older audiences to. I saw a subtitled version (a first for my foreign-language averse local cinema), so I got the full energy of the characters' voices. The music is sweetly pop-y, and had some interesting lyrics, or translations at least; one was about floating in 'lukewarm cola' (is that a good thing?).

Your Name is sweet, quite funny and surprisingly moving. The animation deserves to be seen on a big screen, largely to appreciate the glorious shots of the landscapes and the awe-inspiring sights of the comet travelling through the sky.

Friday, 25 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Arrival (2016)


Director: Denis Villeneuve

I feel that Amy Adams is a shoo-in for a Best Actress Oscar next year, though whether it will be for Arrival or Nocturnal Animals I don't know; she might even be doubly nominated, though that usually spells death for your chances, as it spilts the vote. I don't mind which it is, she was fantastic in both, though much more sympathetic in Villeneuve's movie.

There are touches of Contact, Interstellar and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and well as a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey in Arrival, and if you enjoyed any of those films, you will like this one. It balances the science and sentiment better than Nolan's film (in my opinion), and has a similar poetry to Spielberg's movie. And like Contact, Arrival focuses on the story of a capable, intelligent woman battling more macho, absolute approaches.

The theme of the story is communication, both with an 'Other' and with each other. Adams is linguist Dr. Louise Banks, who is recruited to establish communication with some mysterious aliens (are there any other kind?), and is aided by Jeremy Renner's theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, and supervised by Forest Whitaker's Colonel Weber.

In a film like this, you need to establish a sense of awe about meeting the aliens, and Villeneuve does this wonderfully. The first time Louise and Ian go into the dark, hovering alien 'spaceship,' I felt their amazement and the overwhelming shock of it all. The black, curved, carved edges of the vessel, contrasted with the white light at the tunnel's end; the trippy way you get up into the ship (I won't spoil it); and most of all, the haunting sounds on the soundtrack, like whales moaning in the deep. From then on I was completely hooked.

Much like horror films, science-fiction relies on its soundscape, and Arrival's is superb. The aliens sound organic yet unearthly, with rumblings that sound a bit like the base notes on an organ. The whole film is presented in slightly muted, washed-out colours, as though it is permanently overcast. This adds a touch of melancholy, a continuation of the grief Louise experiences in the opening sequence, where her daughter dies from childhood cancer.

I must say that the ending rather pulls the rug out from underneath you, and I was left thinking 'Wait, what?'; but in a way that makes me want to see it again. Overall it is an affecting, beautiful film that feels uncomfortably timely in the context of current politics. Hopefully this will be seen by lots of people who take its message of talking and listening to heart.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

I've Just Seen: The Killing Fields (1984)


Director: Roland Joffe

I learnt a little at school about the Khmer Rouge in Modern History, but really only as a sidebar to the Vietnam War. I do remember learning that the numbers killed by the Khmer Rouge was around 2 million, and being disturbed by that, but didn't really know how it all fitted into everything else. Watching Joffe's film was both educational and deeply moving, telling the true story of two journalists, American Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian Dith Pran, two friends who covered the Khmer Rouge takeover, and were separated when Pran was forced to stay behind in Cambodia.

It is often a dangerous thing to learn your history from movies; truths are embelished, parts even fictionalised, and at worst the film becomes propaganda. The best ones give an insight into the experiences of people living through the period. The Killing Fields is one of the best, balancing the drama and the truth beautifully, and is not afraid to ask hard questions of its characters.

The first half is told from Schanberg's perspective, as he and other journalists, local and international, face the threats of the new regime. The second half is Pran's story, living a labour camp and trying his best to hide his previous life. This part was the most powerful and moving of the whole film. In one scene Pran stumbles upon the titular killing fields, swamps of decaying bodies, the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is graphic, but done in such a quiet way (no dramatic music or cuts) that adds to the horror.

The performances are all good, the two leads especially, and it was fun to see an early role from John Malkovich as a fellow journalist. Sam Waterston is very good as Schanberg, and he and Haing S. Ngor have a great chemistry together; you definitely believe their friendship. The star for me was Ngor, and the only quibble I have with his Oscar win was that it was for 'Supporting Actor,' not as a main; considering half the film is his story, I feel this nomination in this category was probably strategic. Ngor's performance is given greater poignancy because he was also in a camp and had to conceal his intelligence and skills (his was a gynecologist) like Pran. His life is worth reading about (it is incredibly sad), but he was rightly proud of his work on Joffe's film.

This is a great film on so many levels, and I feel it should be more lauded. It moved me more than many other war films, and I really appreciated that it told the story of someone who lived in Cambodia, who clearly loved their country, and had to watch it as it become a very real Hell. It is also a wonderful story of friendship, one that doesn't shy away from its complexity.

Monday, 21 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Alice (1988)


Director: Jan Svankmajer

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and its sequel, share a similar status in film to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula; having been adapted and adapted again, with each generation getting their own version of the story, often one that departs in some way from the original. If people felt that Tim Burton's recent version of the Alice story was too conventional and commercial (which I did), then Svankmajer's film is at the other end of the spectrum. It plays up the darkness and surrealism of Carroll's text, turning an absurd tale into a nightmarish scenario.

Svankmajer reminds his audience throughout the film of the story's origins as a book, with a voiceover instead of dialogue, and abrupt cuts to a close-up of Alice's mouth saying 'said the White Rabbit' or 'said Alice.' While Alice is played  Kristyna Kohoutova in the film, she is the only human, and at times becomes an animated toy like all the rest of the characters, in her case a doll. The scariest creature of all is the White Rabbit. Normally a fluffy buffon, Svankmajer instead created a stuffed rabbit with a hole in his tummy and bulging fake eyes that imply derangement. He spends much of the film trying to refill the sawdust leaking from his body, even at one time eating it with a spoon off the floor.

There are other motifs that appear throughout, including a writing desk, which pops up at different times, waiting for Alice to climb inside its drawer to go to another place, if only she can figure out how to open it; each time something happens, like the knob falling off, to heed her progress.

While clearly low-budget, with washed out lighting, the effects are good for their time, and have that charm that in-camera effects have. Kohoutova is fanastic as Alice, who meets all these strange things with curiosity but without surprise. As a whole, one believes that this is the imagination of a young child at work, one who not afraid to explore dark ideas in her playing. It is strange, unnerving and even horrifying. I really liked it.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Naked Lunch (1991)


Director; David Cronenberg

What did I just watch?

I have really liked Cronenberg in the past; The Fly is fantastic, managing to be sickening and romantic and terribly sad all at once. Videodrome was a clever reflection on our relationship to technology and our access to extremely violent and sexual images. Both films contain some of the best use of practical effects in film history, with all their gore and squishiness. While that aspect is present in Naked Lunch I felt revolted by it all more than anything. But my revolusion was largely drawn from the characters and the story.

I can't tell you the plot of Naked Lunch, nor even how the title refers to what I saw, except that it is the name of one of William S. Burroughs' stories; the film incorporates biographical details as well as the story's plot. There is something about bugs, drugs, homosexuality, writing and spying, but the several plots don't fit together. While the acting is good, I cared for none of the characters, and though the film is not long, I just wanted it to be over.

If Cronenberg had focused more on one or two ideas from the story it would have been much more coherent. It is not that coherence is always required to enjoy a film; I still cannot pin down what Mulholland Dr.'s plot is, or exactly how The Big Sleep all fits together, but something else drew me in. All I wanted to do after watching Naked Lunch was cleanse my mind of what I had seen. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Nocturnal Animals (2016)


Director: Tom Ford

The only part of Ford's film that didn't work for me was the opening titles sequence, which features very fleshy naked women swaying with abandon to music, with looks of defiance on their faces. While startling, the sequence jars with the rest of the film. We learn that is it part of an art exhibition launched by gallery owner Susan, played by Amy Adams, who is in a personal funk, dealing with a distant husband and questioning the importance of her work. She describes it as 'junk' at one point. The past enters her life when her ex-husband Edward sends her a manuscript, an American gothic tale which he has dedicated to her. The violent tale of revenge jolts Susan out her own world, forcing her to remember her relationship with Edward and the painful way it ended.

A Single Man showed that Ford was a master of style with film, and was adept at directing great performances from actors. Nocturnal Animals proves he is a complete filmmaker. The film looks wonderful, but not distractingly so, the performances are all great, especially Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and most impressive for me, the script by Ford is really, really good. He balances the moves between the three different storylines - present, past, and fictional - beautifully, connecting them through small details: a red couch, Susan's crucifix, even the casting of Isla Fisher. This pacing, aided by Joan Sobel's perfect editing, meant I was completely engrossed throughout the film. It also uses jump scares much better than many horror films do.

One could argue that the film is yet another story about violence against women that revels in the nastiness of its deeds, but I think it is attitude is much slipperier than that. The whole film is from Susan's perspective, with her reflecting on her feels about these things; even the dramatisation of Edward's novel is Susan's visualising of it. This aspect elevates the material beyond its pulpy origins into something more subtle and clever. Definitely one to see on the big screen.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Persona (1966)


Director: Ingmar Bergman

I approach films that appear at the top of 'must-see' lists warily, worried that this 'great' film won't be as great as claimed; at least in my opinion. In the case of Persona this was heightened by the long wait I had to see it. Quickflix said they had the disc, but it sat in the dreaded 'long wait' part of my queue, then was moved to the even worse 'reserve,' which means they may get around to getting another copy some day (but don't hold your breath). Then suddenly the film appeared on a local free streaming site, with only a few days to watch it. After several tries it finally loaded.

Was it worth the wait?
Definitely.

It had been a while since I had seen a film that captured everything I love about film. Persona plays not only with ideas of identity and performance, but even the fact that this is a film, with the famous shot of the film itself appearing to burn up, and the film stumbling to find where it was. This is a film that provokes thought as you try to figure out what is going on, and yet really defies being boiled down into words. It's meaning is slippery, as it constantly reminds us that everything we are seeing is a performance, that the characters of the characters are just personas they had adopted, not real, actual persons.

I've recently been thinking about films shot in black-and-white that would be completely different (and not work as well) in colour. Persona certainly falls into this group. The greyness on the screen makes the melding of Alma and Elisabet's characters more acute, particularly as when a split screen momentarily splices them together.

Trust one of the greats, Bergman, to reignite my love for film, just when I felt I had seen the absolute best film had to offer. Persona moves past Bergman's existential interest in religion, which features heavily in his 1950s movies, into questioning our very sense of self and our projections of those beliefs.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Nanook of the North (1922)


Director: Robert J. Flaherty

Much has been said about the many inaccuracies of Flaherty's documentary. How the people portrayed really had different names, weren't actually a family, and the practices they perform were already out-dated when Flaherty made the film (amongst other things). It is important to know all this while watching the film so one doesn't watch it thinking this is a slice of real life. And yet the film is still worth watching.

Its importance in film history alone makes it significant. This is one of the earliest surviving documentaries, and rather than someone just going out with a camera and filming what they see, Flaherty had a purpose to his ideas and what he wanted to present. The story of the film, while not as 'real' as Flaherty may show, is still a very engaging one. 'Nanook' (or rather Allakariallak) and his people are portrayed as skilled and intelligent, and their bravery and hardiness in navigating the harsh world of the Arctic is lauded by the film.

For me the biggest draw was the animal life. We see a walrus hunt with real walruses, and watch several men haul in one giantic creature. There are also seals, various birds, and the huskies who pull the sleds. Even when being killed or left outside in the cold, the animals are delightful to watch. The scenery is also wonderful, with from the glaring sunshine on the miles of ice and icebergs, to the blizzard that surrounds the tiny igloo in snow.


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Straw Dogs (1971)



Director: Sam Peckinpah

My sister often asks me, after I've watched a film, if I liked it. A surprising number of times my answer is 'this is not a film you enjoy.' Straw Dogs is one of these films. There is a grim sense of dread that hangs over the film's first half, a threat of the violence that is to erupt in the second half. We follow American mathematician David Sumner and his British wife Amy settling into their new life in a small village in Cornwall. The locals are suspicious of David, who is culturally and intellectually different from them, and the local men working on the shed are predatory around Amy, who doesn't think much of it until their cat turns up dead.

While Straw Dogs is classified as a thriller, the film and its story strays into horror territory. The main fears in horror films are about one's house, body, mind, spirit being invaded or penetrated by malignant forces; which is exactly what happens to Amy and David. The infamous rape scene in the film speaks to that fear, though it also plays with our fascination, and even enjoyment of it. Peckinpah received criticism for the scene because of its apparent ambiguity; Amy appears to give into Charlie, and the camera does occasionally eroticise parts of the scene. But Amy's sense of shame, guilt and fear afterwards are clear, and she certainly hates the second part of the rape.

Critics have misread the film for its supposed depiction of men defending their women, and how male machismo saves the day. David's defence of his home is not a revenge on Amy's attackers; she never tells him what happened to her, and David misunderstands her objections to his protection of pedophile Henry Niles. The double standards at play are also clear to the audience; the men who vilely raped Amy are trying to kill Niles for having sex and killing one of the men's daughters (Niles didn't mean to kill the girl, and she initiated the sex; they are really just out for blood).

This is a difficult film to watch, and the descent into murder and madness on both David's and the men's behalfs reminded me of The Hills Have Eyes. Both films are deeply uncomfortable, probing at the violent underbelly of seeming civilised people. But they are also both admirable for these reasons too.

Friday, 28 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Les Vampires (1915)


Director: Louis Feuillade

Each month I try to watch at least one silent film, something easily done thanks to YouTube and the public domain. The last few silent films I saw were not on the 1001+ list, and I noticed one of those unseen ones, Les Vampires, is one of the longest on the list. Finding a nice sharp version on YouTube, I settled down to make my way through the story's ten episodes (of varying lengths).

The film's title somewhat misled me; I thought I was in for a horror film of some kind. It wasn't until the second episode that I realised that 'the Vampires' is just a name for a gang who like to murder and steal from the wealthy. So that disappointment didn't help my patience with the film.

The story is very simple; a journalist called Philippe Guerande, assisted by a colleague called Mazamette, is trying to uncover the secret organisation/ gang known as "Les Vampires". It is headed by various Grand Vampires, each one supported by Irma Vep (gee, what could that be an anagram of?), a woman with a perchant for danger and murder. Over six-and-a-half hours we watch people get poisoned by pens, severed heads turn up in boxes, people getting captured from windows through the most hilarious means possible, and secret cannons used to launch surprise attacks.

This all sounds fun, and would be if it were packed into two hours. But everthing takes far too long. Cinema was still very much in its infancy, barely twenty years old, and the idea of compressing time had yet to catch on. Instead of a short few-second shot of someone escaping on a roof, we get the whole minute of them making their way across the roof, then down the drainpipe.

If you are trying to convince someone of the virtues of silent cinema, do not show them this film. Only watch if you want to see how far we've come in terms of editing speeds, or have a spare 6+ hours of time you need to fill. At best, it will certainly make you appreciate the craft of Fritz Lang and Buster Keaton all the more. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Juliet of the Spirits (Giullietta degli Spiriti) (1965)


Director: Federico Fellini

For a film about shallow people having arguably shallow experiences, it is appropriate my first response to the film was a shallow one. On the surface, Juliet is an arresting film. Having only seen Fellini's black-and-white films previously, the barrage of colour in this is staggering. Sets, locations and costumes are as bright as Hollywood Technicolor, with great pieces of coloured fabrics lining the walls of houses. The costumes are glorious, exaggerated in their finery, helping to create this heightened world we are in. Excess is the idea and even the lifestyle of several characters, and the look of the film captures this beautifully.

But what is the film about? In essence, a women dealing with her husband's adultery. She does this by looking internally, hence the heightened realism of the film, and looking at the behaviour of her free living neighbour Suzy. The story doesn't offer any real answers to Juliet's dilemma, except suggesting that her husband's infidelity is her fault (!), and that maybe Juliet should just relax and forget it, have her own affairs, whatever. The cruelty of this attitude is made worse knowing that Juliet is played by Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife, who likewise had to deal with Fellini's philandering.

The ambiguous ending has been argued over by Fellini and Masina, and the audience too is left to decide what Juliet does at the end. Is she mad? Has she choosen 'freedom'? Do you even care?

I didn't think too much about the underlying meaning of the story as I concerntrated more on the film's look. For that, it is worth seeing. But the story is meandering, and the characters lack some depth, except for Juliet herself. And the ideas about aging and beauty are very chauvinistic.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Rififi (1955)


Director: Jules Dassin

Dassin made this French heist film after being blacklisted in Hollywood by HUAC; and on the strength of this film, all I can say is America's loss was Europe's (and our) gain. While it is hard to call something the 'best' of its type, few heist films are as wonderful as Rififi.

The film takes it time to explain the situation and the characters, allowing us to see their strengths, their flaws, and most importantly, start to care about their fates. The character we spend the most time with is Tony le Stephanois, a recently released criminal who gets drawn into doing another job by his friend Jo. All the planning leads up to one of the most tense and brilliant sequences in cinema it is possible to have. There is no dialogue during the heist itself, amplifying all other sounds, like the hammering on the safe, and the footsteps of police outside the jewellery shop. The film is worth seeing for this part alone, but what happens afterwards, as a group of gangsters realise Tony and his friends are behind the heist, is also fantastic. It all leads up to a poignant ending, achieved through our investment in the characters.

This film is not included in the 1001+ films list, and it really should be. While not significant historically, it uses silence in such a clever way, and feels incredibly cinematic. The cinematography captures this unglamourous yet engaging side of Parisian life, and the story's pacing, which subtlely draws you into this worlf, is testament to Dassin's skill as a director.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963)


Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Well, I didn't think it would happen, but I have managed to find a Godard film that I enjoyed; or at least one that didn't leave me feeling completely alienated. Perhaps it's because this is the most conventional film of Godard's I have seen to date. While some things are not explained, the narrative is largely linear, and the editing and shot selections are not as arty, allowing one to get into the story and the characters. The film revolves around a production of Homer's Odyssey to be filmed by legendary director Fritz Lang (played by the actual Lang, maker of Metropolis and M). Michel Piccoli's Paul Javal is asked by Jack Palance's American producer to rewrite the script; he thinks things are getting too arty.

At Contempt's centre lies the mystery of Paul's wife Camille sudden aloofness to her husband. This part of the story could be frustrating, and there are several long scenes where Paul tries to discover the cause of Camille's 'contempt', but she herself can't articulate it (or doesn't want to). I liked that it remained unexplained, as many times one feels emotions, particularly negative ones, for reasons unknown. They may have no cause, or the cause would become negligible if spoken aloud, yet the emotion would still be there.

The rest of the film is a rather wry look at film production, with Jack Palance stealing all of his scenes as the sleazy, uncouth producer Jeremy Prokosch. There is also a lot of Bardot (though less of her clothes), and she is good as maintaining the underlying anger at Paul throughout the film. The third act was when I began to lose some patience with the film, and the ending is a shock. Sadly it feels like Godard didn't know how to finish the story, so just ends it brutally.

I have not be cured of my frustrations with Godard, but this film, about aloofness and contempt, made me feel less so towards its maker. Go figure.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Amy (2015)



Director: Asif Kapadia

I don't listen to much modern music, and only really knew about Amy Winehouse from the jokes people made about her, the commentary about her song 'Rehab;' and the fact that she died far too young at 27. In the same way he did in Senna, Kapadia takes the audience into Amy's world, allowing her humanity and talent to shine through. He also turns the spotlight back on the audience, asking us to consider how we talk about people who are spot-lit by the media.

The most astonishing footage comes early on in the film, with Amy (aged 14) at a friend's birthday. A few people starting singing 'Happy Birthday,' only for Amy's voice to burst into their midst. Her voice, which sounded old even when she was in her twenties, comes out of this young woman fully formed, with all its graveliness and power. It is arresting, even more so when you realise she would be dead in thirteen years.

Kapadia's documentaries are really portraits of his subjects. The footage is largely of Amy from various stages of her life. We get to know her face, her emotions, and her songs intimately. We also hear the voices of those who knew her, from her childhood friends, producers, managers, and even her father, who has since denounced the film. Their words are presented to us, allowing us to form judgments about what they thought about Amy's health and talent.

This type of documentary only works if you have hours of footage of the person, and sadly, there is of Amy, much of it intrusive spectating from the paparazzi. The film argues that the intensity of the spotlight was not something she asked for, and rather than help, people just watched as someone's life spiralled out of control. It is painful and sad to watch, particularly when you see how talented a singer-songwriter she was; something barely mentioned in the lurid tales and jokes made about her.

I was just as moved by this as I was by Senna, and am looking forward to future Asif Kapadia projects, knowing he will uncover the humanity of his subject. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Mad Max (1979)


Director: George Miller

Mel Gibson doesn't get enough credit for his ability to disappear into roles. I had to remind myself that this was the same man who played William Wallace in Braveheart, and Frank Dunne in Gallipoli. While his accent may drift into American occasionally, Gibson's Max Rockatansky is a much quieter role than Wallace, with Max's madness taking a while to fully unleash itself. And when it does, it is a cold rage driven by revenge.

Watching an action film set in the Australia landscape in the rural areas was slightly strange. I am not used to seeing such goings on in leafy green Victoria. Though the budget was clearly low, the thrown together quality adds to the sense of society disintegrating. Nothing is new or shiny, from the cars to the buildings and the clothes.

 The story is not new, but its familiarity allows the audience to focus on the action, letting them get swept up in it and not trying to remember how it all fits in. The editing is what really makes this film. From the heart-racing opening chase, we jump from one group to the other, without ever losing the overall arc of the scene. The high cut rate may be very common in action films today, but in the 1970s it would have felt new and exciting.

I decided to watch this series from the beginning, though by all accounts I should skip Thunderdome (I probably won't, but am wary of it), so I am yet to see the recent Fury Road. Mad Max is a great set-up to the dystopian Australia and the story of Max, leaving us at the end with a broken, grieving man who is no longer motivated by law-and-order, but by personal vengeance.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Repulsion (1965)


Director: Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve turns up in a lot of celebrated films from the 1960s, and it is not hard to see why directors such as Jacques Demy, Luis Bunuel and Polanski worked with her. Compare her performance in The Young Girls of Rochefort, where she is bright and breezy, with her role as Carol in Repulsion, and you can see the spectrum of her acting range. Here she is contained, her blank face giving tiny glimpses into the tumult of emotions under the surface, as Carol has violent, distressing reactions to the men in her life.

Parts of the film reminded me of Lynch's Eraserhead, another story about a person's repulsive reaction to sex and its consequences. The skinned, rotting rabbit that Carol leaves around her flat recalled the disturbingly deformed child from Lynch's film. The black-and-white cinematography highlights the grunginess of Carol's apartment, and takes us into the dark, shadowy recesses of her mind in the dream sequences.

I tend to like Polanski's film, and this is certainly one of my favourites of his. While cinema is littered with stories about female madness (in fact, it seems to be the state of most female roles in stories throughout history), Deneuve's Carol is one of the quieter descents into madness; even her rape nightmare are soundless.

Monday, 10 October 2016

I've Just Seen: King Kong (1933)


Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack


There is a great deal of charm in the special effects of old films. You can often figure out how they were done, and can occasionally look awkward, but their tangibility feels refreshing after watching so much CGI. It is also important to remember that these effects were the buildings blocks to what we see now. King Kong used its effects to show its 1933 audience creatures, like dinosaurs and a giant ape, on a scale most had never seen before. The modern equivalent is Spielberg's Jurassic Park.

Even if you are immune to the impressiveness of the special effects, the open display of sexuality may surprise you. Fay Wray's Ann Durrow spends a significant part of the film in lacy underwear, and her role on the voyage is essentially to be eye-candy for the camera. She eventually becomes a object of sacrifice as the 'Bride of Kong,' and the ape himself proves susceptible to her physical charms.

King Kong's significance in film history is very clear, and the simplicity of its story aids it cracking pace, packing in as many thrills as possible. It has aged much better than many old CGI films, and has a rather poignant ending, not unlike Frankenstein.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

I've Just Seen: The Blue Kite (1993)


Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang

The Blue Kite is a perfect example of why I enjoy watching 'world' films. I know very little of Chinese history, only that Mao's Communist Party took over mid-20th century. While Zhuangzhuang's film does not give an exact history of this takeover, it gives us a great insight into the impact this had on Chinese society, on a practical day-to-day level, and the emotional effect it also had on families. The story follows Tietou and his mother Chen as they try to make their way through this new world of strict party conformity in the absence of a patriarch.

The film is divided into three sections, the first named after Tietou's biological father, then his "Uncle" Li and then his Stepfather. We watch the tight, happy family unit slowly collapse as Tietou's father is betrayed, his 'Uncle's health fails, and his cold Stepfather try to save Tietou and his mother from the might of the Cultural Revolution.

There is a quiet tension to the story that becomes more prominent as Tietou grows up and realises what is happening around him. While the story is structured around Tietou's father figures, his mother Chen is strong presence throughout as she tries to keep her son safe. Liping Lu is fantastic as Chen, her youthful happiness giving way to despair.

The Blue Kite proved controversial in China and was banned. It is not loud in its damning of the spread of Communism in China, but its quiet power and emotive storytelling speaks volumes.


Thursday, 6 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Giant (1956)


Director: George Stevens

Giant is very much cut from the same mould as Gone With the Wind, but with more oil and a much more complex approach to racism. We follow two generations of the Benedict family, and James Dean's Jett Rink, as they live on a Texan ranch, discovering the oil that will make their fortunes: but will it make them happy? While it doesn't capture the sweeping national changes the way Gone With the Wind does, Giant looks at cultural and social changes in 20th century America, particularly around the treatment of Mexican workers.

The film has dated despite its ideas about racism. Violence is often used as the solution to problems, with concerned women looking on. The story becomes rather meandering, not helped by the over three-hour running time. The main character is not entirely clear, though Rock Hudson's Bick undergoes the most emotional change. Elizabeth Taylor is very good as his wife Leslie, whose more liberal ideas rub against (and eventually off on) Bick, and she handles the aging of her character really well. I was surprised to see she wasn't nominated for an Oscar. James Dean is more of a supporting character, and his storyline is not tied as strongly to the Benedict plot as it should be. His ongoing attraction to Leslie is not quite apparent until the climax. Still, he was an arresting screen presence.

If you like sweeping epics, you will find much to enjoy here. I liked parts, and I always enjoy Elizabeth Taylor on screen. But what felt daring for 1950s America feels soft in today's world.

Monday, 3 October 2016

I've Just Seen: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (2016)


Director: Ron Howard

The brilliance of Howard's documentary lies not in the story it tells - the Beatles during their touring years - but how it immerses us in the world of Beatlemania, taking you back to the early 1960s. We get to experience it from both sides, the fans and the Beatles themselves, all presented to us in archival footage and restored audio that reveals the Beatles music from under all the screaming.

As someone who loves the texture of film stock, Howard's film was a joy. Though not all the footage was restored, sometimes distractingly scratchy, it really helps place you in the early 1960s. The cleaned up stock is also lovely to look at. The sound is wonderful, and it is a marvel that the Beatles' live performances sound as good as they do; they couldn't hear themselves, yet they are all in time and tune.

The most enjoyable aspect is the time we get to spend with the Fab Four. They are articulate, charming and very cheeky, their strong friendship evident in the way they talk and muck around with each other. We also see the toll the touring took on them (it really looks like they fit eight days in one week!); Ringo's face when they are in Japan says everything!

I am not a massive Beatles fan, but this documentary gave me a greater appreciation of their music, and their impact on music in the 60s. This is the only film I have seen where no one left during the credits: this of course may have been because of the promised extra footage, but the music and funny banter over the credits was so engaging. See on a big screen with the best sound system available.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Braveheart (1995)


 Director: Mel Gibson

I am always weary of films set in the Middle Ages. I studied this period along with much of its literature at university, and know that most people's engagement with it is largely through its fictional heroes. Perhaps this is why Gibson's film, and Randall Wallace's screenplay, treats the historical William Wallace as an apparently real life Robin Hood. However, this treatment worked to remove all subtlety from the story, and several of writer Wallace's historical rewritings had me saying "Oh come on!"

Really, there is so much inaccurate with this film that I couldn't enjoy it. A few good scenes stood out, the much lauded battle scene at Stirling (with no bridge mind) is still good, and the acting overall is solid. But I kept being distracted by the kilts, which made it look like a 19th century film, and the amount of bare legs also had me wondering why the English didn't wait for hypothermia to kill the Scots. The righteousness of Wallace's campaign, and the devilishness of King Edward I was so black and white it was funny. Some roundedness of character would have been more interesting. Perhaps the biggest issue was the constant cries of 'Freedom!,' which would not have meant the same thing today as it did in the Middle Ages, where feudalism existed for most of the population, and your life was under the protection of your local lord, the court, the king or God, depending on where you were in the social order.

Historical epics are usually a chore anyway, but Braveheart proved too be almost painful, or hilarious, at times. This film works best if you don't know or care about the history, and just want a big action-packed war film, with a little romance thrown in.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

I've Just Seen: The Right Stuff (1983)



Director: Philip Kaufman

My first reaction after watching The Right Stuff was 'why is this film not more lauded?' It is a great story, its long running time immersing us in the early days of the American space program, and the effect of its fame on the astronauts involved. It also gives us Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, who, if he was anything like the portrayal in the film, was one of the coolest, bravest people to ever fly a plane (or even exist!).

The film is filled with great performances, and for a story that could potentially be all about the astronauts' work, pays a lot of attention to their private lives. This adds to the film's impact, developing the men as rounded people and amplifying the stakes - we sit nervously with their wives, waiting to hear if they have survived the mission.

While Kaufman's film is more about what happened on the ground than in space, the few scenes of space travel are still beautiful. John Glenn's orbiting of Earth, though perhaps not as jaw-dropping as Cuaron's Gravity, is a great moment in the film.

If you loved Ron Howard's Apollo 13, you will definitely appreciate this film. Though it has less nail-biting tension, it provides a fantastic background to other science-fiction films, giving us the story of where it all began.

Friday, 23 September 2016

I've Just Seen: Viridiana (1961)


 Director: Luis Bunuel

I am still not sure what I think of Viridiana. Unlike many other film bloggers, I hold some (though not all, I am not Catholic) of the beliefs that Bunuel is pilloring in his film. I was not offended by what he does in his film, but I was certainly unsettled by it. This clearly says much about me as a person and as a film viewer. However, after reflection, I appreciate the obvious power of Bunuel's filmmaking, that it can spark such feelings. It is good to be shaken up, and good art does this.

And this is art. This is my first proper experience of Bunuel, having only before seen clips from Un Chien Andalou (not the whole thing yet), and one cannot fault his eye for striking and beautiful imagery. The image of Viridiana in her aunt's crisp white wedding dress is arresting in both its illuminosity and its transgressive ideas.

I haven't been scared off by Bunuel, but am wondering what else I am to see and feel in his films.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

I've Just Seen: The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) (1953)



Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

The first time I tried to watch The Wages of Fear, I stopped halfway through, finding myself unengaged with the film. I don't know why: maybe I wasn't paying attention to it, doing other things at the same time. The copy I saw was also unrestored, the quality rather scratchy looking. But its on the 1001+ films list, so I knew I would have to try again.

And this time I was entralled. Though the quality was no better, I found myself interested from the outset, unlike last time where I wondered where the story was going. The film does take a while to get to the suspense-laden drive it is rightly famous for. But the long build-up allows us to see the lives of the men who undertake such a risky job. They are part of the diaspora who live in Las Piedras, and anything is worth risking one's life to earn money.

The conceit of the story is a simple one; driving explosive material across unforgiving terrain, and its simplicity works well in the film's favour. Clouzot paces the drive well, allowing time for the characters, and the audience, to breath after every dangerous scene. Many see Clouzot as the French Hitchcock, and that is high praise. Clouzot's film is more political than Hitchcock's take would have been, and there is a real grittiness to the journey.

This is a great suspense-thriller that is not just about rattling the audience's nerves. It also asks us what price is a man's life, and how much does he (or she) risk in pursuing money. Watch with something, or someone, to grip onto during the tense moments.

Friday, 16 September 2016

I've Just Seen: Women He's Undressed (2015)



Director: Gillian Armstrong

In the opening titles of my favourite film Some Like It Hot is the credit "Miss Monroe's Gowns ORRY-KELLY." I've been watching this film for years, and have occasionally wondered who Orry-Kelly was. Little did I know that Orry-Kelly, born Orry George Kelly, was Australian and grew up in Kiama, a beautiful town (famous for it blow-hole) two hours down the road from where I live. Kelly moved to the US originally to become an actor, but ended up becoming one of Hollywood's top costume designers, winning three Oscars and dressing some of the world's most famous actors.

Armstrong's film is a reasonably straightforward depiction of Orry-Kelly's life. Along with interviews from other costume designers about his significance in film history, we also hear Kelly's own thoughts, from the letters sent to his mother, and his diaries. The film moves onto look at some of Kelly most famous creations, and particularly focuses on his working relationship with Bette Davis. Throughout the film as well is the elusive figure of Archibald Leach, aka Cary Grant, with whom Kelly shared a flat (and apparently more) in the 1920s in New York.

Armstrong's documentary was largely made with an Australian audience in mind, acting as an introduction to this influential person from our shores. While the dramatisation of Kelly's letters and diaries doesn't completely gel stylistically with the interviews and clips of films shown, the film as a whole is a nice slice of film history, and does make one appreciate the art of costume design. Next time I see "Gowns by Orry-Kelly" in a film's credits, I will appreciate exactly what that means.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

I've Just Seen: Koyaanisqatsi (1982)



Director: Godfrey Reggio

It is almost impossible to describe Reggio's documentary in words. Its reliance on images, and specifically moving images, and its absence of traditional narrative make it a rare piece of pure cinema. Motion, movement, kinetic energy - from which the word 'cinema' comes from - is the focus of Ron Fricke's camera, whether it is the sped-up flight of clouds through the air or the swell of humans through a train station.

'Koyaanisqatsi' is a Hopi word for 'life out of balance,' and this acts the only real direction from Reggio as to how we should approach the film. Occasionally while watching, my mind thought about how the previous images related to each other, about how the movement of life in the city compares to nature's pace. Most of the time, however, I was simply transfixed by the scenes of recognisable life sped-up or dwelt upon, rendering them fresh and strange.

Reggio's documentary recalls Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, another silent experimental exploration of modern life. Where Vertov's film is political and playful in its treatment of 1920s Russia, Koyaanisqatsi is much more meditative, asking us the price of human expansion on the world and our lifes as people.

This is a bewitching film that pulls you in through the ambiguous beauty of its images. I wish I had seen it on an IMAX screen so I could be envoloped by the extreme wide shots. Come expecting anything, except a clear narrative!

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

I've Just Seen: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)


Director: Wes Craven

Even in films where boundaries are pushed, a balance needs to be achieved. The writer and/or director needs to decide how far to push things, and the good ones usually put story and themes before their desire to simply freak the audience out. Wes Craven is a master at this, and The Hills Have Eyes, one of the nastiest, most brutal horror films I have seen, is a perfect demonstration of his ability to keep us horribly transfixed on what we are seeing. While their is less blood splatter and even images of violence than we may see in modern cinema, the ideas presented to us are still shocking.

The story posits two families against each other: one is your typical middle-America, blonde-haired, slightly arrogant family who don't heed the warnings about not going off the road. The other is an even more feral version of the Mason family, with patriarch Jupiter schooling his family in the ways of cannibalism. What is interesting is the way our sympathies are employed in this film. The 'normal' family of the Carters, while rather self-centred and even unpleasant at times, don't derserve the awful things that happen to them. And yet, we watch them drawn into this dog-eat-dog world, eventually displaying the same monstrous behaviour of the desert family.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the famous Nietzche quote when watching Craven's film: 'Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.' Craven pushes the audience and the Carter family to experience such awful things to show us that such behaviour is a part of human nature (albeit at the extreme end). It also brilliantly skewers the idea of the incorruptibility of the family unit, for Jupiter's family is perhaps even more loyal to each other than the Carter family is. These ideas are what elevate this film from being simply an exploitation flick into something potentially even more disturbing.

My Favourite Soundtracks: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein is one of the best film parodies ever made. Taking the monster horror films of the 1930s and 1940s as its subject, its attention to the details and themes of those films tell us that this parodic approach is done with love. Using black-and-white cinematography and the original sets of the 1931 Frankenstein adaptation, viewers could be forgiven for thinking they have stubbled upon a previously undiscovered Frankenstein picture from Hollywood's Golden Age; at least until we meet Dr. Frederick "Fronkensteen" Frankenstein (and then "I-gor").

When people think of music from the film, most probably think of the hilarious 'Puttin' on the Ritz' scene, where the Doctor and the Monster sing and dance to the famous song. Instead of filling the whole movie with such musical levity however, Brooks had composer John Morris compose music that drew viewers thoughts back to horror.



Young Frankenstein's main theme is the one of the best pieces of horror movie music ever created. It captures the fear and terror of the scientific experiments committed in films like Frankenstein, or the skewering of nature in The Wolf Man. However it is the melancholic nature of the violin solo that stands out, which wails the pain and loneliness of the monsters in these films. Indeed, when I watched the 1931 Frankenstein I had Morris' theme in my head.

For a film that is constantly subverting its audiences expectations, going for humour over fear, perhaps the greatest rug-pulling comes the score which, even when used in Brooks' film to tame the Monster, never loses its power.

Monday, 22 August 2016

I've Just Seen: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)




Director: David Lean

Lean's film has sat upon our family DVD shelves for around ten years, and for eight of those years still in its clear-film. Despite its esteemed position in film history, I was reluctant to watch it, largely for the same reasons as my reluctance towards Ben-Hur: it is very, very long. I decided to overcome this as I did watching Gance's Napoleon; watching the film in installments, treating the intermission as the natural break. This technique (one I did not employ when tackling Ben-Hur) has proved a good one, as I was thoroughly impressed by Napoleon and now Lawrence, while Ben-Hur felt like a slog.

I let the overture music wash over me, which I believe added to my enjoyment of the film. The score is gorgeous, and has become one of my favourites, and no small part of that being the influence of Arabian melody on the main theme. The copy I watched of the film was not a good restoration, with some scenes looking washed out. The expansive wide shots of the desert are still jaw-droppingly grand, and I would love to see this on the big screen.

I was not familiar with this part of the history of World War I, and this slightly hinder my enjoyment of the story. However that is something that won't be an issue on repeated viewings. The performances are all strong, particularly from Peter O'Toole, who plays Lawrence with a quiet confidence, and it was lovely to see Claude Rains in a small but important role doing what he does best. The use of non-Arab actors to play the Arab roles is rather cringeworthy today, even if it is actors like Alec Guinness.

This is a beautiful film that possesses some of the greatest wide screen cinematography in film history. While Lean's much more intimate drama Brief Encounter will always be my favourite film of his, his skill at directing performance and balancing relationships within a film's story are on display here.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

My Favourite Soundtracks: To Kill a Mockingbird

Music has been an integral part of films since its beginning. Before there were sound effects, and talking, there was music. So I thought it only appropriate to celebrate my favourite film soundtracks. Some will be familiar and popular favourites, others perhaps a surprise. I will usually focus on the main theme for the film, but some times it will be about the whole score (because it is all so wonderful!).

I thought it best to start with one which, while being one of the most beloved films of all time, is rarely mentioned in best soundtracks lists. It is To Kill a Mockingbird.



The score was composed by Elmer Bernstein, who also did The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and Ghostbusters (and many others). The main theme, played over the opening credits of the film, is a perfect example of what makes a great film score: it captures the themes and ideas of the film and presents them to you before any line of dialogue is uttered. Nostalgic images of childhood are conjured, an innocence is evoked in the simple piano theme, which is then given full body by the solo flute and then orchestra. The simple piano motif comes back after the cresendo, a contemplative counter-point to the blossoming of sound we have just heard.

The film's themes of innocence, both of children and in the criminal justice system, are beautifully realised in this piece. The more minor chords that come after the swell of sound imply the hard lessons Jem and Scout are to learn, the pain of growing up and discovering the world is not as good as it should be. While it is one of the least talked about elements of Robert Mulligan's adaptation, with most praise being given to the script and the performances, Bernstein's soundtrack draws us into this world of 1930s Alabama and the joys and pains of childhood. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

I've Just Seen: Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West) (1968)

Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West) (1968)



Director: Sergio Leone

In general I am not a fan of Westerns, though I have enjoyed the odd one or two (The Searchers, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Unfortunately for me, they seem to populate film lists, especially the 1001 Movies list. Despite the regard Leone's film is held in, I approached it reluctantly, and found myself very surprised: I loved it! I didn't think Leone could better The Good, but Once Upon a Time in the West is a brilliant film in every respect. In fact the only thing that ruined it for me was the sound going out of sync on the Blu-ray copy I watched, and that had nothing to do with the film itself.

It is hard to pin down what it is that makes this film so wonderful, which means that it is a combination of all the elements of filmmaking that elevate this piece. The score is exceptional. It is not just one piece of music that stands out, but all of it, from the piercing harmonica theme that accompanies Charles Bronson's unnamed man, to the haunting, melancholic tone of the track that relates to Jill McBean. The cinematography is incredibly memorable, with its widescreen shots that cut to extreme close-ups on our character's eyes. The performances are all note-perfect, and the casting of Henry Fonda as the villain is a stroke of genius. It completely unsettles you as you discover that the lovely character from The Grapes of Wrath, The Lady Eve and 12 Angry Men has callously killed a whole family.

The story takes the well-known tropes of Westerns - the coming of the railway (and consequently civilisation), and the man with the unknown past (and name) - and turns it into myth; hence the film's evocative title. The film deserves its place on all those essential films lists, and has gone some way to curing my apathy to the genre. Watch this one the biggest screen you can to fully appreciate those dramatic edits of landscapes to faces, with the best sound system, so that the score is etched on your mind.

Friday, 5 August 2016

I've Just Seen: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)



















Director: Wes Craven

I didn't think slasher horror films would appeal to me, despite my enjoyment of body horror. If they are all as entertaining and wryly comic as Craven's film, then I may find myself eating my words. While Craven takes the tropes of the virginal heroine, and morality tale undertones as to who dies and who survives, he adds a truly terrifying idea around a vengeful child-killer haunting teenagers in their dreams.

The gory effects are still shocking and over the top, as well as the use of rotating sets to achieve the effect of possessed bodies flying around the room. The performance of Robert Englund as Freddie Kruger is incredibly memorable, his gleeful as iconic as the claws on his glove. The ending is slightly confusing, but does work as we spend much of the film wondering if what we are seeing is reality or a dream (it is not always easy to tell).

I was not 'scared' by the film, though if had seen it as a young teenager, I would have been shocked by it. However there is much to enjoy even for the more jaded film viewer, including the presence of an extremely youthful Johnny Depp.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

I've Just Seen: The Wind Will Carry Us (Bād mā rā khāhad bord) (1999)

The Wind Will Carry Us ( Bād mā rā khāhad bord) (1999)



















Director: Abbas Kiarostami

While Kiarostami's film is not strictly a documentary, the slow observational pace of The Wind Will Carry Us draws the viewer into the world of a Kurdish village hardly touched by the modern world (a hurricaine lamp here, a motor bike there). A TV crew arrive hoping to document the mourning rituals of the village, only to find that the old woman has not yet died. One crew member, known as the 'Engineer,' finds himself beginning to notice the life that surrounds him as he performs this strange death watch.

I found this compelling and beautiful, not least the wide shots of the Iranian landscape, with its hills and valleys with its shimmering, undulating crops. The people of the village are engimatic, their faces bearing signs of the hardships of this life, yet the social codes are so clear to them that they don't find themselves lost like the Engineer.

Don't approach the film seeking thrills or 'entertainment': The Wind Will Carry Us is more meditative, asking us to contemplate life, death, the old, the new, poverty, possessions, love, friendship and nature. It is a natural companion for The Tree of Wooden Clogs, another film that takes the modern viewer into a world lived for centuries by their ancestors.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

I've Just Seen: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)



















Director: Frank Capra

One might expect this post to contain much praise around the performance of Jimmy Stewart, who plays new senator Jefferson Smith with his usual reliability as the everyman. He is certainly highly suited to the role. However, I want to concentrate Claude Rains, an actor who I have enjoyed in every film of his I have seen. If you are a watcher of old classics, you will certainly encounter Rains many times, though never as the leading man. There is no one better to have as your ambiguous antagonist than Rains; he projects moral dubiousness, a particular charm and even a kindness at times. I can imagine no one else who could have played Senator Paine, a man who admires the incorruptible Smith, while recognising his own corruptibility.

Jean Arthur was the other performance that stood out. Her Clarissa Saunders, which could easily have been the dippy love interest, moves from cynicism to support for Smith's moral stand, and even instructs him on how to do it effectively. The whole film is filled with strong performances; say what you will about Capra's filmmaking, he knew how to get good performances from his actors.

The story feels like a courtroom drama, with its focus on the rule and process of law, and the centrepoint around a man's defence of his innocence and the truth. The only criticism I had was that the ending comes far too quickly, resolving itself rather suddenly, though it does so in a wonderfully dramatic fashion.

1939 was a stellar year in film history, and Mr Smith Goes to Washington is part of the reason. It is interesting to contrast the images of Lincoln and his famous speeches so often displayed in the film, with the popularity of contemporary film Gone With the Wind.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)





















Director: Woody Allen

Few people can mix existential philosophy and comedy together, and no one does it quite like Allen. In Crimes and Misdemeanors we follow two different men, each grappling with infidelity. Martin Landau's Judah Rosenthal has a mistress who is threatening to reveal her existence to Judah's wife, causing him to decide to get rid of her in the most thorough way possible. Allen plays Clifford Stern, a documentary filmmaker who can't quite commit to adultery with Mia Farrow's Halley. The cast, who are all brilliant, is dotted with many familiar faces, including Anjelica Huston as Judah's desperate mistress and a scene-stealing Alan Alda as Clifford's brother-in-law and rival (in all things).

This is top-tier Allen, up there with Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan. The central question - how much guilt can one man cope with? - is cleverly explored, with no easy answers given. A touch of Bergman is provided by Bergman's frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose camera calmly, almost coldly watches the action. The title is also a reference to the director, echoing Cries and Whispers.

Though not as laugh-out-loud funny as other Allen films, Crimes and Misdemeanors stays with you long after its finished. It is incredibly well-written, genuinely clever, and the jokes, when they come, are brilliantly sharp. As with all Allen's films, don't come expecting a 'happy' ending.

Friday, 22 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Girlhood (Bande de filles) (2014)

Girlhood (Bande de filles) (2014)

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Director: Celine Sciamma

Sciamma's film is the fourth of several films from recent years that beautifully explore the anger felt by oppressed women around the world (and have often faced for centuries). The others are Mustang, In Bloom and Wadjda (all directed by women too!). Sciamma's film is set in modern-day Paris, and follows Marieme, a black teenager looking for her place in the world. She joins a girl gang (bande de filles), and finds the friendship and support she doesn't get at home or school.

The film has been controversial for the non-moralising portrayal of this girl gang, who do things like steal, drink, do drugs and fight other groups. The story doesn't go for the obvious plot, where the girls are accused and pursued by police. Instead we stay within their world. We see them enjoying each other's company in their stolen wares in a wonderfully sequence where they sing along to Rihanna's 'Diamonds.' The beauty of this scene, and the film as a whole, contrasts interestingly with the subject matter.

The performances from the cast are very natural, and Karidja Toure as Marieme is particularly wonderful. She handles Marieme's arc well, from being slightly shy and uncertain to strong member of the gang, to a young woman on the verge of adulthood. There are several scenes where they are large numbers of teenage girls on screen, and it is a damning critique on cinema that such things stood out to me - especially as the girls were never sexualised by the camera. In fact, it is a male character whose body is lustfully lingered over (we share Marieme's viewpoint at that moment).

Clearly I loved this, finding myself drawn into a world that, when I was a teenager (and even now as an adult) I would never have paticipated in. The film's greatest strength is its portrayal of female friendship, and the positive force it plays in every girls' life.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Double Feature: The Evil Dead (1981); Evil Dead II (1987)

The Evil Dead (1981); Evil Dead II (1987)

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Director: Sam Raimi

It is a no-brainer to group these two films together. Though Evil Dead II doesn't act as a normal sequel to The Evil Dead, the two films feature Ash Williams being driven into madness by the horrors unleashed in a remote cabin the woods. While The Evil Dead is meant to have been a straight horror film, the utterly ridiculous amount of goo, and the over-the-top performances of the cast, sent the film into disgustingly enjoyable camp horror; a tone Evil Dead II takes as a starting point and exploits to great humour.

Raimi's brilliantly sick mind is on full display in both films. Only a sick mind would come up with a girl getting raped by trees, and well as brilliantly use a simple technique to create the iconic shots of the camera zooming along the forest floor, the viewpoint of some unknown terror. The use of stop-work animation is obvious, but I prefer it to modern CGI; there is something charming and also unsettling about its jerky movements. The make-up is also funny in its low-budget quality, but again feels real.

Of the two I liked The Evil Dead a tad more than its sequel, though both are great and really should be watched together. The greater amount of gore and spurting fluids may explain my preference. The sequel worked best when it is Ash by himself in the cabin, trying to overcome the evil spirits. This section strays into silent film comedy, when Ash's hand becomes possessed and starts beating him around the head.

These two films are a world away from the depressing darkness of 1970s horror, or the poetic sadness of Eyes Without a Face. Yet they are an immense amount of fun, with moments of true horror thrown in for good measure. If you are squeamish, don't watch on a full stomach.