Sunday, 28 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas (1984)

Director: Wim Wenders

Wenders injects his films with a huge amount of compassion. He appears to pass no judgement on his characters, looking at them as creatures who behave in ways that lead to unhappiness in themselves and their loved ones, yet ultimately have inherent goodness. We don't know exactly what Travis Henderson has done, where he has been or where he is going, but Wenders draws us in to care about his situation.

I did not know what I was going to get with Paris, Texas and know I shall revisit it in the future. It has been compared to The Searchers, particularly the ending, and the opening setting, where a man seems to appear out of the landscape of Texas. The cinematography is beautiful throughout, from the wide shots of the desert that almost swallows Travis' figure, to the intimate faux domestic settings of Travis and Jane's meetings. The performances are all lovely, especially Hunter (Carson), Travis' son. The development of their relationship is wonderfully understated, the moment of connection captured in a exchange of smiles.

Though it did not capture me in the way Wings of Desire did (though few films have) I am really loving the way Wenders approaches film. The care and love of the characters for each other is matched by the care and love Wenders brings to the project. Would be wonderful to see on the big screen.

I've Just Seen: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Director: Burr Steers

I am, in many ways, over-qualified to review this film. Not only am I a huge Jane Austen fan (and P&P is my favourite novel), I am a member of the Jane Austen Society of Australia; my fourth year Honours thesis was about fan-fiction, and one section was about the fan-fiction surrounding Pride and Prejudice, and I wrote about Seth Grahame-Smith's novel. The only lack in my knowledge base is regarding zombie films. As a result of knowing Austen back-to-front, I may have overthought my response to this film. What follows is rather more detailed than this film deserves. But hey, you don't have to read if you don't wish to.

The positive part of the films is the cast. All the actors were well-choosen for their parts, so much so that I rather wished I was watching a 'traditional' adaptation. Matt Smith as Mr 'Parson' Collins was the highlight for me, along with Sally Phillips as Mrs Bennet and Sam Riley as Darcy. Smith stole every scene he was in, and drew the most laughs from me. Riley was a great choice for Darcy, providing gravitas with touches of comedy through sly looks. He also has a fantastic raspy voice.

Lily James was a good choice for Elizabeth, but was let down by Steers who both wrote and directed the film. I shall demonstrate why: in Austen's novel, Lizzy's response to Darcy apprasial of her person as 'tolerable' is to laugh at his pride and high opinion of himself. She is miffed, but chooses to see him as ridiculous. In Grahame-Smith's version, she plans to follow him out of the room and stab him with her knife - a more vicious response certainly, but similarly proactive. James' Lizzy runs outside and cries - not good (and really, who would think the very beautiful Lily James merely 'tolerable' - it is the Keira Knightley problem all over again!). Indeed, Steers' script removed much of Elizabeth Bennet's famous wit, making her more emotional and grumpy. Steers doesn't seem comfortable writing a witty women (something shared by many male screenwriters unfortuntately).

The story deviates substantially in the third act, but that didn't annoy me. It seemed to reference several other fan-fiction tales (like the vampire inflected ones) with its portrayal of Wickham as a very bad man. The quotes from other stories are nice in-jokes for us Austen-philes. For a story that involves violent attacks, their is little blood to be seen, the white gloves of the Bennet girls remaining magically clean throughout.

Ultimately, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has fun moments, especially Darcy's proposal scene, but should have been a lot funnier. The cast are good, but deserved a better script. In short, I left thinking how I would have done things slightly differently if I were writer/ director, which means the movie didn't quite work.

If you like Austen and don't mind a bit of violence in your films, you will find things to enjoy in the film. If not, I honestly don't know what there is in it for you. 

Friday, 26 February 2016

I've Just Seen: The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) (1960)

The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) (1960)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Each Bergman film I watch makes me love the director even more. While The Virgin Spring is not one of his most famous filmss or his best, it is a natural companion to The Seventh Seal, being set in medieval Sweden, and involving a crisis of faith for a character played by Max von Sydow.

There is a moral complexity to this apparently simple story of parental revenge. The titular 'virgin' Karin is a slightly spoiled young woman, who falls foul of some herdsmen; they return her generosity (she shares her meal with them) with rape and murder. We the audience spend the whole time thinking "No, don't interact with them!' while she displays the Christian teachings her parents have taught her, teachings which would usually be applauded. Her parents reaction to her awful death is to kill as well, an understandable act that goes against their beliefs (turn the other cheek, do not kill).

The film was controversial at the time for its rape scene. Though some of the impactis now lessened, such scenes are not uncommon in modern film, the passive bystanding perspective of the camera, and the quietness of the act itself (Karin cannot scream) makes it insidiously shocking. I felt her fear without even seeing her face.

The ending reminded me of the end of Ordet with its apparent sign of God's presence. This gives the film a more positive ending than The Seventh Seal, where God remains silent. As always with Bergman the cinematography is beautiful, the black-and-film working to place us in the medieval period, and underscoring the moral dilemmas at the centre of this story. It is sad, beautiful and quietly powerful.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Spectre (2015)

Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes

I saw the most recent Bond film at the cinemas a few months ago. For the life of me I don't really know what to say about it. It's a Bond film, so it has lots of fantastical stunts, explosions, women in nice dresses, Daniel Craig in nice cars, shadowy lighting for the villians, and as it has been for the last few Bond films: a plot that goes over recent history.

I like Daniel Craig as Bond, and Lea Seydoux is serious and sultry as Madeleine Swann. I can't really remember much of the plot, except that it involves the titlular organisation Spectre, headed by Christoph Waltz's vengeful Franz (or is that really his name?). As I said, Bond's recent life is shown to be all tied up together. I do hope that the next Bond film decides to move past this continual revisiting of past events and characters: the other Bond films can be viewed in almost any order, while the Craig ones risk becoming sequels that only make sense if you know the whole story.

Good fun for a few hours, and I do hope Craig has at least one more Bond film in him.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014)

Director: Gillian Robespierre

As romantic-comedies have been treated appallingly by mainstream Hollywood, with its by-the-numbers plotting and forgettable characters, the better examples of this once great genre have been in the independent side of the industry. I cannot imagine Katherine Heigl, or even Judd Apatow writing a story quite like this (Apatow may appear to push boundaries, but his approach is distinctly male and ultimately traditional). We have a young woman deciding to abort a foetus, the result of a casual hook-up. The problem is that the young man likes her, and she rather likes him. So, does she tell him?

Billy Mernit, writer of the book Writing the Romantic Comedy, says that the central question of any romantic-comedy is will the couple get together. This question drives the plot, and creates the tension. While the central question for Obvious Child could have been 'will she get the abortion?', this is the one part of the film we, and Donna, are certain of. She is the person the title refers to, and is really not ready to be a mother. Instead we wonder if she will tell him, and will it stop them getting together.

The 'side' characters are also great, particularly Donna's best friend Nellie and Donna's mother, who happens to be Max's teacher. The moment Donna tells her mother about her pregnancy is one of the best in the film, and one of the best mother-daughter scenes I have seen on film in a long time.

Jenny Slate is nicely grubby as Donna; her comedy style is not really to my taste, but the film uses her sets well to explore how she reasons things out with herself. Jake Lacey is sweetly attractive as Max; you understand Donna interest in him, and her fear about telling him about being pregnant. I enjoyed this unique take on the romantic comedy. The best comedy often comes out of serious and dramatic situations, and Robspierre handles it well. There are some discussions about abortion, but this is not a political film, except for the matter-of-fact way it approches abortion, which is as something that some women will experience.

Friday, 19 February 2016

I've Just Seen: The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man (1956)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The scenario played out in Hitchcock's film is probably everyone's worst nightmare: that you would be falsely charged with committing a crime, and all the evidence stacks up against you. Hitchcock would later revisit this idea in North By Northwest, but in a more thrilling way which heralded the Bond films. The tragedy of Henry Ford's Manny Balestrero is that he is an ordinary man, and though not wealthy, stands to lose a lot.

The story is based on the true events of Emmanuel Balestrero and his family. Hitchcock elevates the material, giving the story a touch of noir to it, with the black-and-white cinematography, and shadowy movements of people at night. Ford is great at being the everyman here, moving around in an almost stupor as he can't quite believe what is happening. Vera Miles is equally good as his wife, who suffers a breakdown as a result of the charges against her husband.

Though not considered one of Hitchcock's best, this is a solid and surprisingly engaging story. There is little of the action of North By Northwest, but we get a very realistic depiction of the law turning against you. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

I've Just Seen: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Few Hollywood films feel as lavish as Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa. The colours are soft and clean, particularly the costumes by Fontana: the pink evening gown worn by Ava Gardner is gorgeous. The story reflects on the life of an actress plucked from obscurity, films a few movies, becomes a star yet is mistreated by many of the men in her life. The film could have been simply a melodramatic luvy-fest. While it might not have the bite of Sunset Boulevard or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the film does reflect on the sadness of many caught up in the Hollywood system.

Humphrey Bogart is great (when is he not) as a director and writer who has an almost brotherly/ fatherly relationship with Gardner's Maria Vargas. She too is equally good, capturing the strong spirit of Vargas, and the pain inflicted on her by those who claim to love her. The film is cleverly structured, moving from Vargas funeral (not a spoiler, it is the opening scene of the film), adding intrigue and mystery to the story. It also has a lovely depiction of an affectionate marriage between Bogart's Harry Dawes and Elizabeth Sellars' Jerry. While Dawes is the only one Vargas truly trusts, you never want him to leave his wife.

If you liked A Star is Born and All About Eve, I think you will enjoy this. On the surface it looks and sounds light, but the story has far darker ideas running through it.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) (1959)

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) (1959)

Director: Marcel Camus

Few films are as colourful, musically energetic and tragic as Camus' Black Orpheus. As someone who loves Greek mythology, and in particular enjoys the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, I had high hopes for this film, all of which were met. It sticks reasonably close to the myth, with some interesting adaptive choices.

The cast are all good, with the two leads, Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn, especially lovely. You understand their instant attraction, and believe that Dawn's Eurydice would inspire Mello's Orfeu to sing such beautiful love songs. And they are very romantic songs!

The film's highlight is surely the Carnival, which manages to be exciting and fun, yet full of menace and danger (mostly for Eurydice). The black sky makes the colours of the costumes pop, and the shadows hide the figure of Death who is pursuing Eurydice.

I enjoyed this film a lot. It reminded me of West Side Story, with its tragic love story and energy in telling its story. To me, Mello and Dawn are more believable as lovers, with their strong chemistry which makes us pardon Orfeu's lying to his girlfriend (her obnoxiousness helps too!). If you don't like musicals you may enjoy this one, as the songs are less theatrical than your typical Hollywood fare.

Monday, 15 February 2016

I've Just Seen: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

A Man for All Seasons does not quite lose the aura of play about it; it is based on Robert Bolt's play about Sir Thomas More and the legal predicament he finds himself in when he refuses to publicly support (or condemn) Henry VIII's new marriage. While the story moves around to different scenes, it is full of the type of speeches that populate plays. Despite that, because of the quality of the acting, and the moral and political intrigue of the story, the theatrical origins are not a problem.

While I was once very interested in this era of history, and can still tell you off the top of my head the names of Henry VIII's wives and the order in which he married them, I did not know about this story. Paul Scofield portrays More as the ultimate man of the law; one who understands the law so thoroughly, and uses it to try and protect himself as is his right. He is up against the might of Henry VIII and his court, which includes Cromwell, one of the major movers in the English Reformation. More is a devout Catholic, so there was no way the two were going to see eye to eye.

This is a very good film, with a strong script that makes all More's arguments clear and understandable; it is similar to 12 Angry Men, as it explores a complex legal idea in a coherent way.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn (2015)

Director: John Crowley

I loved Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn when I read it several years ago; the story of Eilis and her migration to America was beautifully described, drawing the reader into 1950s New York, and the pain of homesickness. Crowley's film is that rare type of adaptation: one that manages to be just as good, if not better than the source material.

A large part of that is the casting of Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part, Ronan is perfect. There is a maturity to her acting, which was clear from the outset: not many other actors could have handled the role of Briony in Atonement. In Brooklyn, we understand all the emotions Eilis experiences, from home-sickness to her first flush of love, to enjoying her new-found confidence, to the agonising pain of loss.

While the film is a romance, and a beautiful, old-fashioned romantic one at that, the most important relationship for Eilis is with her sister Rose. Rose is the one who organises for Eilis to go 'away to America' and make a new life for herself. Even though she has little screen time, Fiona Glascott's Rose feels present throughout the film, encouraging Eilis to settle into her new home and find out who she is away from home.

The love-triangle plot has rather been co-opted by YA stories, Twilight and The Hunger Games the most obvious examples. Here the choice for Eilis is not simply the two men, but the different lives they offer her, one of uncharted waters in New York, the other amongst the familiar in her home town.

The whole film is beautifully expressed with a quietness that heightens the more emotional scenes of love and loneliness. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, it feels like the film was made for me. I loved it.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

I love a well-written script: really, who doesn't. It is not just about the dialogue and characters, but the structure (formal and emotional), and the pacing (which a bad director can ruin). Spotlight has one of the best screenplays I have seen, and I shall definitely track it down to read. McCarthy and the cast handle it perfectly, with the cast clearly relishing the chance to act in something this good.

While the subject matter is now very well known, the story is no less powerful, reminding us of a time of relative innocence and illusion. The film is about that loss of innocence, about losing faith in an institution that claims to deal with ethics, morals and divine love. The culpability is shared around, with the newspaper itself having to do its own soul-searching, realising it overlooked tip-offs years earlier.

The cast are all fantastic, from the Spotlight team and Boston Globe editors, to the lawyers, victims and clergy the journalists meet with. No one's performance takes away from the others, in fact they all support each other. We learn little about the team's home life, only little pieces that demonstrate the toll the story takes on them.

Few films are so well-acted, well-directed and well-written.

Friday, 12 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977)

Director: David Lynch

One of the surprises of my film self-education is discovering that I really like the films of David Lynch (or at least the ones I have seen). I didn't know what to expect with Eraserhead, as I try to go into films as cold as possible. The result was similar to Under the Skin: a story where you are unsure where you are, and where you are going, yet enjoy unravelling the mystery.

One of the most curious aspects of this film is the fusion of dialogue and visuals. Never, not once, does the dialogue of the characters mention the bizarre goings-on around them. In fact, the speech (such as it it) feels like it wouldn't be out of place on a daytime soap. Instead, our confusion is expressed through Henry Spencer's facial expressions (Jack Nance). The black-and-white cinematography is deliberately grungy, making Spencer's flat look even more inhospitable (and the dead-looking grass in place of carpet doesn't help either!).

The film is not as obtuse in its ideas as Mulholland Dr., which people are still debating fifteen years later. The title, Eraserhead, refers to a scene in the film where Spencer has a dream (or does he?) where his brain is used to make erasers for pencil ends. This relates to the film's overall 'plot,' which explores a man's fear and disgust with women and his own offspring. Spencer tries to erase the existence of his child, freeing him from responsibility. One could write many essays on the symbolism and meaning in this film.

Like Under the Skin, there are not many in my immediate acquaintance to whom I would recommend this film to; it is strange, and weird, and unsettling. I can't find the right word to sum up my reaction to the film: liked, enjoyed, loved, and appreciated all miss the mark. I found Eraserhead a curiosity, a film I will certainly watch again, a further proof of Lynch's amazing ability to conjure up gripping imagery.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Breathless (A bout de Souffle) (1960)

Breathless (A bout de Souffle) (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

My feelings about the French New Wave are mixed. I can see how their introduction of new and different film techniques was important, and their influence is still observable over fifty years later. I also appreciate the light-hearted tone of some of the films. Truffaut's The 400 Blows is the one I have enjoyed the most (so far), and one of the reasons for that is the character of Antoine, whose listlessness mixed with childish youth made for interesting viewing.

I am not at all a cool person, and Godard's film is renown for its coolness, so I wondered if I would have the same reaction I have had to other 'cool' films; that of being simply an observer, detached from the film's detachment. My prediction was correct, and even more so, as the characters, especially Michel, rather got on my nerves (though not as much as the three leads in Jules et Jim).

The film doesn't probe into the characters of Michel and Patricia, and had little of a plot. This is not always an issue, but unlike the apparently plotless 400 Blows, I didn't care about the two main characters and what happened to them. Surface is what we are presented with, and though it is often beautiful to look at, and playful in its approach, after the film ended I found it hadn't touched me.

It is good to have crossed off another biggie of film history, and see the challenge to established, traditional cinema; breaking the rules can work. I am just not much of a rule-breaker.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself (2014)

Director: Steve James

One cannot really love films without knowing of Roger Ebert. His is arguably the most influential film critic in the world; the only others may be those of the French New Wave, who turned their hand to filmmaking (Truffaut, Godard). Ebert's most significant foray into movie-making was the trashy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Russ Meyer, a parodic sequel to Valley of the Dolls (both now cult classics).

James' documentary is an adaptation of Ebert's memoir, and happens to chronicle the last months of Ebert's life, and his death. There is a great poignancy to seeing Ebert in hospital, his body succumbing to various cancers. We see his ability to communicate through typing and gestures, having lost the ability to speak due to throat cancer a decade ago. I was most reminded of Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film about the human spirit being both trapped by a broken body, yet also transcending these limitations through their mind.

The film is moving and inspiring, showing us a life lived closely with film, and the joy of sharing such love (or otherwise) with others. The pairing of Siskel and Ebert has surely influenced many approches to film reviewing: Australia's own Margaret and David spring to mind. While you may not have agreed with all Ebert's reviews, there is no denying his love of cinema, and his immense talent in writing about films.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Journey to Italy (1954)

Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1954)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Reflecting on this film, I am of the opinion that it is a reverse of Wyler's Roman Holiday. Italy, and the real Italy, is the background to both films: Rome for Wyler, Naples, Capri and Pompeii for Rossellini. These Italian cities background the relationship of two people, which is causing a crisis of purpose for each person. The two stories move in almost opposite directions, with Roman Holiday following a new couple getting close to each other (before parting ways);  while in Journey to Italy, Alex and Katherine are drifting further apart, before realising their need for one another.

As I said, the ruins of Italy form the background to this 'story' about reconnection. The metaphor is not subtle, with the rubble and decay of the past following this disintegrating couple around. The black and white cinematography captures this historical past beautifully, particularly in the catacoombs scene, with the shadowy skulls all lined up in rows. The film is not without plot, but narrative does not drive the story. Instead the images take precedence, revealing character and theme to us. The seething pits that Katherine visits could mean several things in the narrative: the broiling tension between Alex and Katherine, the unsteady foundations of their life together, and the ugly, unseen things of life.

While not an entertaining film, Journey to Italy demonstrates the significance of location and metaphor in storytelling. Instead of relying on dialogue to thrash out the ideas, the lack of communication between the two requires the images to speak the unromantic reality of the characters.

Monday, 8 February 2016

I've Just Seen: The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile (1999)

Director: Frank Darabont

My sister loves Tom Hanks (or Otm Shank as she refers to him), and I too am partial to his presence on screen. Comparisons are always made between Hanks and Jimmy Stewart, as they often portray characters defined by their decency and all-American-ness. That decency is on display in The Green Mile, with Hanks playing prison warden Paul Edgecomb, who worked on death row at a prison during the Great Depression.

The film is a strange blend of violence, magic and sentiment, not all of which worked together. Michael Clarke Duncan is very good as mysterious John Coffey, though unfortunately his character is a textbook example of the 'magical Negro', a black character who has powers that, in the story, are used to help the white protagonists. The plot casts Coffey as a Christ-like person, who heals people and absorbs the evil of others.

The violence is rather confronting, and the scene of execution by electric chair, with a crucial step missing, is horrible and feels very realistic. The scene fully plays out the time it takes for the man to die, which is long and agonising. The whole film is really about suffering, both through illness, others' actions, and even mental pain (though this is the least explored).

I am not really sure how I feel about the film. It is surprising, its narrative moving in ways you don't expect, yet it also employs a few problematic tropes. The performances are all good, and the cinematography is good: it is a very handsome production. It is good, but I am not sure I will watch it again.

I've Just Seen: Wild (2014)

Wild (2014)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

I like Reese Witherspoon as an actress. Though I haven't seen that many of her films, she is a good screen presence, and in recent years has shown a great commitment to producing good roles for women (in and effort to shake off all those thankless comedy girl roles I haven't seen her in!). Her turn as Cheryl Strayed in Wild is one of the films produced by her production company Pacific Standard, a performance which, at the Oscars, was up against another performance in a film which she produced: Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.

Vallee is known for delivering Awards-attracting performances; his Dallas Buyers Club snaffled both male Oscar categories in 2013. He gets a very good performance from Witherspoon here. She is in basically every scene and pretty much every shot in the film, and takes us from Strayed's teenage years to her early thirties as she treks the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon takes us into Strayed experiences, particularly the anguish contained in her memories of her mother and her marriage. The pain of remembrance is mixed with the physical effort of the hike, and this pain works to both push and pull Strayed on her journey.

One of the great strengths of the script and direction is the portrayal of the trek purely from Strayed's perspective. We feel the moments of charged tension and danger with her. This is highlighted by the scene where two other (male) trekkers ask her for use of her water purifier. The scene is laden with unspoken threat, and we like Strayed are thinking 'Get out of here now!'.

I really liked this film, and hope Witherspoon continues to produce and indeed act in these stories with great roles for women. I now also want to read Strayed's memoir about the trek; judging from the voiceover, and various interviews I have heard of her, she is a good writer.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Room (2015)

Room (2015)

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

I have never seen a movie that has made me cry as much as Room. I have never been particularly lacrimose when it comes to films, though in recent years I have noticed I am becoming more moved by the films I see. Most of the films that have prompted tears have done so through particular moments: the 'Daddy, my Daddy' scene from The Railway Children comes to mind. That scene often leaves me on the verge of breakdown, as does the end of Toy Story 3 and Woody's loving 'So long, partner' to Andy as he leaves. However, my reaction to Room was very different from these.

I started crying about a quarter of the way through, and didn't really stop until the end. There were moments where I was not actively weeping, and the tears on cheeks had dried, but my eyes were moist throughout. The interesting thing is the film is not sensationalist in its depiction of the situation, something I could easily have been. There are also no violent or disturbing scenes, as the story is told from Jack's perspective, and his Ma (Brie Larson) protects him, and us, from all that. What made me cry was the emotional truth of the storytelling and the exquiste performances of Larson and Tremblay.

I cannot imagine any other performance being more moving than Larson's, and have no quibble if the Oscar goes to her (though I don't think they are an accurate measure of quality). We don't need to see all the suffering of body and mind she has gone through; we can see it on her face. The love she has for her son is also obvious. Tremblay doesn't play Jack as a angelic child, but neither is his performance forced. I believed the relationship between the two, including the arguments they have.

The film it most reminded me of was To Kill a Mockingbird. We have a child who is caught up in a very complex adult situation, yet manages to support their parent in ways they don't understand. Jack does not know that his very existence kept his Ma alive, and also becomes the way she escapes. 

The cinematography at first seems to be only to serve the performances, but Abrahamson and Danny Cohen cleverly use to the camera to make the space of the room feel large: which is how Jack sees it. This is his whole world, and has everything (he thinks) he needs.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. Seeing at the cinema added to the overwhelming experience, as you see each flitter of emotion cross Larson's face. Almost perfect, and utterly heartrending.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

I've Just Seen: A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born (1937)

Director: William A. Wellman

The story of A Star is Born has turned into one of Hollywood's favourite myths, and has been officially remade twice and clearly influences almost any film about life as a star. I had not seen any official versions of the story, so decided to remedy that oversight. I also though it would be a good idea to watch them in chronological order, so as to see the changes made in each version.

Wellman's film casts Esther/ Vicki's character arc as a Cinderella-type story; the young woman who emerges out of nowhere and becomes the most famous actor in the whole industry. Her rise is comparable to Jennifer Lawrence's in recent years. Half way through her story meets Norman Maine, who is experiencing one of those downward trajectories which seem to often happen to stars who become flavours of the month. While the story could be seen as tragically romantic, there is something here more damning of the system as a whole. The sacrifices it demands on one's life and privacy are clearly painful, as demonstrated by the huge sacrifice Maine makes for his wife.

The copy I watched was an old DVD that had had no restoration work at all. As a result the film looked much older than many of the silent films I have seen. While it did lessen the viewing experience, it did not stop me from admiring the performances of the Gaynor and March. They have great chemistry together, and their honeymoon scene is note-perfect. The film is full of in-jokes for those who are well acquainted with early Hollywood, particularly some choice impressions of leading ladies.

I would happily watch this again, though only as long as it was a cleaned-up copy. The Judy Garland version is meant to be even better, so my hopes are high for it; this film is a very good start.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

The premise behind this Lubitsch film is ripe for comedy: a man, recently died, makes his appearance in Hell's waiting room, believing himself to be a prime candidate for membership. 'His Excellency' is not sure however, and asks for the man's own account of his life so as the deem him worthy of entry. For the rest of the film Henry Van Cleve recounts his various loves and mischiefs, which all seem to revolve around sex (though that word is never mentioned).

The first half of the film is very witty and cheeky, full of that 'Lubitsch touch' that made the director's films so popular. Don Ameche has the suitable glint in the eye required for the role, particularly in the scene where he discusses the book How to Make Your Husband Happy with a very embarrassed Gene Tierney (who plays Martha). The script has the feel of an Oscar Wilde play, with many chuckle-inducing lines. The film's second half is not as tight, and did not really build to anything except the very last scene. The Hays Code also seems to have contained the more risque aspects of the plot; a pity considering what Preston Sturges did in his films.

A sweet and clever film, though not as good as the immaculate Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be.

Monday, 1 February 2016

I've Just Seen: Madame de ... (1953)

Madame de ... (1953)

Director: Max Ophuls

My first reaction after watching Ophuls film was, why is this considered so great? It appears frequently on must-see lists, and is clearly a French classic. While I do like a good historical romance, and this is a good historical romance, what made it stand out against the many others? The story is not particularly groundbreaking: a rather wealthy, frivolous wife whose life is shattered when she falls in love with a another man (in this case the famed Italian director Vittorio de Sica, who made The Bicycle Thieves, which feels like the opposite to this type of movie).

What does elevate Madame de ... are the details of the story and of the world the characters inhabit. The whole story turns of the movement of Louise de...'s earrings, a wedding gift from her husband. She sells them to help alleviate her debts, only for them to come back to her with a whole different meaning attached to them. They go from being purely mercenary (a bit like her marriage) to a token of love from her new lover. As the movie goes on more layers are attached to these earrings, shaped like hearts.

The most impressive scene of the film for me was the portrayal of the development of Louise and Donati's affair. A montage of balls blend into each other, as the two have almost the same conversation, but with a bit more intimacy each time. Donati at first asks about Louise's husband; at a later ball Louise pretends he has asked, making up for Donati lack of formality in their relationship. By the end of the sequence the two are the last ones of the dance floor, an occurrence not unnoticed by the musicians.

While I wasn't as blow away as some critics have been by this film, the skilled storytelling of Ophuls is great to watch. The characters and the sphere they move in (high society) threatens to make the audience cry 'who cares?' but the beauty of the filmmaking largely keeps that at bay.