Saturday, 30 April 2016

I've Just Seen: The Quiet Man (1952)

The Quiet Man (1952)

Director: John Ford

I love a good romantic comedy, particularly one from Hollywood's Golden Age. Seeing that John Ford was at the helm of The Quiet Man boosted my interest in the film; the man was one of the greats. Add to that the Irish countryside as the film's setting, and I was confident I was onto a winner.

Well, I liked parts of it, but the film has certainly not aged well with its gender politics. Wayne's Sean Thornton's manhandling of his wife is uncomfortable to watch now, though Maureen O'Hara is no shrinking violet. Indeed, her Kate rather shouts her way through the film, and her insistence that Sean go and defend her honour, or he gets no marital privileges, equally doesn't scan well these days. I do understand her reasons - the money and furniture were her mothers, and symbolise her independence from her father - but she comes across as unreasonable.

Despite this, the Irish landscape is the true star, with its gorgeous greenery, and Wayne and O'Hara do have great chemistry together; their kiss during the storm is old-fashionedly swoony. It is a bit of charming fun, and shows the audience that, like Scorsese with The Age of Innocence, Ford was not just a one-genre director.

Friday, 29 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Europa Europa (Hitlerjunge Salomon) (1990)

Europa Europa (Hitlerjunge Salomon) (1990)

Director: Agnieszka Holland

If the story of Europa Europa was not based on a real-life account, you would refuse to suspend your disbelief; indeed, even having seen the film I am flabbergasted that this really happened to someone. It has the feel of an 18th century picaresque novel a la Fielding's Tom Jones; a young man getting by in a corrupt world, with episodes of comedy, and drama. We follow Solomon Perel, a German Jew, as he is separated from his family, ends up in a Russian communist orphanage, the German army, and then the Hitler Youth Academy. And he does all this while bearing the signs of his Jewishness: a circumcised penis.

Holland manages to get the balance of comedy and tragedy right for the most part, though the death of Solly's sister early on felt almost passed over for the humour of Solly leaping naked out of a window. Marco Hofschneider's performance is very good; he moves from a naivety that helps him survive, but deny his heritage, to realising what awful fate he has escaped.

This is a war film unlike many war films, though it does have touches of Menzel's Closely Watched Trains. I like Holland as a director, though this is only the second film of her's I have seen (the other is The Secret Garden). This film could easily have had too much comedy, or too much tragedy, but she gets the majority of the emotional pitch right, with many moments of bittersweet connection amongst the ridiculousness of war.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

I've Just Seen: A Star is Born (1954)

A Star is Born (1954)

Director: George Cukor

Remakes are not a new phenomenon for Hollywood (though the number of them seems to be!). Cukor's film was adapted from the script of Wellman's 1937 film. While keeps the bare bones of the story, and the names of the characters, it focuses less on the politics of the film business, and more on the character of Esther, and her relationship with Norman.

How Judy Garland didn't win the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in this film, I don't know. We always knew she had an amazing voice, and was solid as an actress, but in Cukor's film she marries these two things beautifully together, and ends up acting James Mason off the screen at some moments. While Janet Gaynor's Esther/ Vicki was likeable, I never felt we really saw a complete demonstration of her often praised acting talents. With Garland, the scene of her singing at the club after-hours showcases her immense talent, and the audience, like Norman, want to see her receive wider recognition. She is also wonderful in the dramatic scenes at the film's end, her pain and grief feels very real.

I enjoyed the film, and felt its similarities to two other films I watched recently: Funny Girl and Coal Miner's Daughter. All three focus on the ascent of incredibly talented women (who can sing), and the effect it has on their relationships with their husbands. I am surprised we haven't seen a newer riff on this story, considering Hollywood's love of recycling.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Locke (2013)

Locke (2013)

Director: Steven Knight

Locke could easily have been defined by a single gimmick  - a film set in one location, with only one actor to be seen on screen the whole length of the story. It is about a man in his car, driving along a highway, talking to various people on the phone. In lesser hands the temptation to have the car stop, or turn around or even crash into a ball of fire would have undoubtably been great. Thankfully, Knight trusted his story and his actors to make the material as enthralling as possible.

The script is structured in a really clever way, feeding us little pieces of information with each phone call. We change our opinion of Ivan several times over the courseof the film, moving from sympathy, to judgement, and then admiration. Tom Hardy is wonderfully understated as Ivan Locke. He plays Ivan as Welsh, and the accent works to heighten the gentle determination of the character. His interactions with the other characters on the phone are delivered well. Each actor makes their character distinctive simply through their voice, though if we are really lost their name pops up on the phone as they ring.

Knight and his cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use the external street lights and the windows of the car to give texture to the images. The light moves through the vehicle, casting coloured light and shadow on Ivan's face, or obscuring it in the reflective windows.

The film this is most similar to is Rodrigo Cortes' Buried, but has less of that film's claustrophobia, and tension, and more of an emphasis on performance and character to maintain the audience's attention. It is a masterclass of acting from Tom Hardy, and demonstrates how a single setting need not hamper the visuals of the story.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) (1988)

Director: Isao Takahata

Grave of the Fireflies is one of those films that begins with the end: with Seita, a young boy poor and starving, dying alone at a train station a few months after the end of World War II. The whole film is essentially a flashback by the boy's dead spirit, showing us how a child could be left to die alone. Since we know the fate of the characters from the beginning, the weight of death hangs over every scene of the story, and every decision the characters make.

The early scene of Seita's village being bombed immerses you into this tragic story. I felt Seita's fear as he looked up to the sky to see many bombs silently dropping towards him, and egged him on to get to the hills where he and his sister wouldl be safe. The relationship between the siblings is perfectly portrayed. Seita grapples with Setsuko's ignorance about the world and the war, trying hard to feed her when she is hungry, entertain her when she is bored, and mostly keep her safe. When he manages to create a little idyll for the two of them, we watch knowing it won't last, but also admiring his deep love for his sister.

This is one of the most tragic films I have ever seen. It is not simply because of the subject matter, which is sad in itself, but the understated treatment by Isao Takahata. He equates these children's lives to fireflies, whose lifespan are short but they possess a light that has the power to break through darkness, however briefly. Though animated, this film is not just for children, or arguably not even for them: the heavy sadness may be too intense for some. It is moving, painful and beautiful, and reminds us of the many casualties of war who never put on uniforms, never receive training, and are never honoured for the sacrifice of their lives.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Room at the Top (1959)

Room at the Top (1959)

Director: Jack Clayton

In some ways this film is the British answer to A Place in the Sun: a young man determined to marry into a higher class finds himself in a love triangle between a wealthy girl and a poorer woman. Clayton's film, however, feels grimier in its outlook, and the emotional landscape is much messier than in A Place in the Sun. Joe Lampton has real affection for the downtrodden Alice, while wealthy Susan Brown is not a beacon of goodness, an ideal the way Elizabeth Taylor was for Montgomery Clift.

The film is full of great performances, with Simone Signoret winning Best Actress at the Oscars for her tender and melancholic portrayal of Alice, a woman simply looking for kindness and love. Laurence Harvey is equally good as Joe, a part where he has to struggle between being ambitious and cruel, yet also loving and tender. The black and white cinematography creates of world of shadowy streets, stuffy pubs, opulent yet cold homes. It also hightlights the actors' faces, especially Harvey's oft furrowed brow.

I wonder if Room at the Top had been nominated for the Oscars in any other year than in 1959, it would have swept the categories it was nominated in. Unfortunately it was up against the juggernaut that was Ben-Hur, which didn't engage me as much as this tight little story about the clash of ambition and love.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Double Feature: Ben-Hur (1959) and Hail Caesar! (2016)

Ben-Hur (1959); Hail Caesar! (2016)

Directors: William Wyler; Joel and Ethan Coen

I finally bit the bullet and watched Ben-Hur. For some reason, which I cannot explain, I decided to watch it around this year's Oscars ceremony; clearly one overblown pile of pomp was not enough for me. I would watch 45 mins of the film, then watch a bit of the awards, then go back to Ben-Hur. I did know also that I was going to go see the Coen brothers' latest film and, considering its many references to such Biblical epics, seeing the ultimate one made sense.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy Ben-Hur, and unfortunately my expectations were largely met. Out of the whole three and half hours, only two scenes and two performances were really of interest. Stephen Boyd's Messala gets the more complex villain role, moving from friendship (and maybe something more) with Judah to vengeance towards our hero. The other performance is Jack Hawkins' Arrius, whose relationship to Judah goes in the opposite direction to Messala; after trying to break Judah Ben-Hur's spirit, the two save each other's lives, eventually becoming family. The scene on the boat, full of whipping, semi-naked men and death stares, has the best acting the whole film. The battle between Judah and his captors is played wonderfully, and you can almost feel the aches and pains in the slaves' bodies.

The celebrated chariot race is still striking, partly because of its length, which manages to sustain the tension. The energy comes not from the super editing cuts that are a staple of modern action scenes; rather the constant pounding of the horses' hooves, and the cool way the violent crashes are depicted draw the viewer in. And I really wish the film had ended right there and then.

It may sound strange coming from a Christian, but the parts of the movie that bugged me the most were the religious parts, and the reason for this is beautifully depicted in the Coen brothers' film. Early on in Hail Caesar! Eddie Mannix gathers a group of religious leaders - Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican (?) and Jewish - to discuss the theology of Capitol Pictures' new Biblical epic. While a frank and funny discussion ensues about images and ideas about God according to the Old and New Testaments, in the end they all agree the film's theology is fine, and does not offer any challenging depictions of Christ. And that, for me, is the problem with Ben-Hur. It is far too tame and obvious in its religiousness (something one could not say about Jesus!), and the thunderbolt and lightning ending is almost laughable; like George Clooney's Baird Whitlock, we are expected to simply 'Squint at the grandeur!'. Give me the awe-inspiring, quiet miracles of Dreyer and Bergman over Hollywood religiosity any day!

After the ponderous seriousness of Ben-Hur, the fun of Hail Caesar! was a joy. I knew going in not to expect a strong plot, so instead sat back and let the story wash over me. I laughed throughout, a reaction few modern comedies provoke in me, and loved the glimpses of the meta-films; and someone really needs to cast Channing Tatum in a Gene Kelly-style musical as soon as possible. While I do understand that the lack of a clear plot could annoy some, I didn't really get the hate directed by people towards the film.

This was an interesting double-bill to watch, and if you have the time and the patient to try, I would recommend it.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

I've Just Seen: The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L'Albero degli zoccoli) (1978)

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L'Albero degli zoccoli) (1978)

Director: Ermanno Olmi

Slow cinema is not for everyone. For those of us who enjoy these films lack of narrative convention, and its replacement with an emphasis on atmosphere, image and emotion, we are also aware of the alienating quality they can have. After watching Olmi's portrait of peasant life in 19th century Italy, I could think of no one amongst my immediate acquaintance who I would recommend watching it; this is despite the fact that I found the film beautiful and quietly engaging.

My use of the word portrait to describe the film is deliberate; watching the life and movements of this community felt like seeing paintings come to life. As in art and literature, the life and experiences of the poor are far fewer than depictions of the wealthy. This for me was part of the charm of this film; observing people rarely documented on screen.

There is little by way of a narrative thread, though the title refers to a particular incident that has repurcussions at the film's end. Instead we get glimpses of the life of this rural community. They are at times humorous, sad, touching, and confronting (animal slaughter that was not simulated). Other than the clothes and some of the farming technology, we could be any century from the medieval period onwards. Only when a young couple honeymoons in the 'big city' does modernity, with its politics, noise and movement, appear. Even then, the couple do not engage with it.

If you find yourself watching this, don't look for a narrative. See it as an opportunity to experience a world that, if you lived in another era, would probably have been your reality; though it would not have had the luxury of being filmed with as much beauty as Olmi.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Dead Man Walking (1995)

Dead Man Walking (1995)

Director: Tim Robbins

I was interested to learn after watching Dead Man Walking that the story we see in the film is not a straight adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's memoir (which has the same title as the film). Her book reflects on the events she witnessed as spiritual advisor to two men on death row, and how it galvanised her advocacy against the death penalty. Robbins, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film, took inspiration from these events and created the character of Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who writes to Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) asking for support.

This approach is a good one; instead of being limited to the 'truth' of actual events, Robbins has decided to use fiction to explore the truth of the observations of Sister Helen Prejean. He doesn't have to contend with people nit-picking over details, but instead highlights the themes of forgiveness, love, goodness and evil. The fact that nothing struck me as narratively convenient, and the characters all behaved in understandable ways with a good deal of depth and complexity, speaks to the accomplishment of the film.

Sarandon and Penn are perfect in their roles, balancing the different aspects of their characters really well. The risk for a character like Prejean is that she come across as too perfect and angelic to be believeable, but she feels like a real person. She struggles with her commitment to Poncelet, feeling the judgement others have for him (and her support for him), and even at times judging him herself. Penn also gives Poncelet dimension, vulnerable in his fear about his own actions. The scene where the two spend the last few hours of Poncelet's life together is heart-breaking.

I was touched by this story. It could easily have been overwrought and too preachy, but the sympathy it has with angry families of Poncelet's victims, and the hard questions it asks of Sister Prejean, give its ideas nuance. It is also nice to an American mainstream film that engages in a clever way with religion, neither blindly spouting it ideas, nor condeming it completely; instead approaches Christianity's professed beliefs about life, good and evil and explores how they act in reality.

Monday, 11 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Tampopo (1985)

Tampopo (1985)

Director: Juzo Itami

It is often thought that comedies do not cross language and cultural barriers as well as drama does. While death and grief are sad in any language, what makes one laugh is not. Thankfully this is not true for Tampopo, a Japanese film that follows a man's mission to help a widow run a successful ramen shop. Food is central to the story, and one of the first sequences is of a man teaching a younger man the correct way to eat ramen; what order to eat the noodles, pork, egg and slurp the soup. It is very funny, and unless you have just eaten, will leave you hungry.

The significance of food, and the references to American Western films is what makes this film work so well. Alongside the main narrative are little vignettes that show how food operates in other people's lives. They are by turns funny (a young couple who use food during sex); poignant (a man who chases a woman manhandling good in a grocery shop); to the tragic (a mother cooking for her family one last time). I could easily slip into the cliched use of food metaphors to describe why this film is so good, as it understands that sweetness and savouriness are both necessary for a good meal, and that getting that balance right is vital. A lot of the humour also comes from the Western elements, with Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) wearing the cowboy outfit for most of the film, and a hilarious stand-off he has with Pisken, a rude customer.

There is so much to enjoy about this film, and the only problem with it is that it will leave you craving ramen, a craving hard to satisfy at night where I live.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour (2014)

Director: Laura Poitras

Learning about people through the news media rarely gives you a full impression of them as a person; they can sometimes come across as a fictional character, acting to a narrative, their behaviour commented on and criticised by anyone. Edward Snowden, leaker of material secretly collected by intelligence agencies around the world, is one such person; a person whose actions have polarised many, turning him into either a hero or a villian. The picture of Snowden presented by Poitras in her film is of someone quietly aware of the impact his actions are going to have on his life and those around him, feeling regret at the problems it will cause his loved ones, yet firmly holding on to the belief his is doing the right thing.

This is the great strength of Poitras' documentary, that it presents Snowden as an real person on the brink of doing something life-altering. We see him revealing to Poitras, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill the extent of the surveillance, and his fear of detection before he can release his information. A random fire alarm in the hotel they are meeting in triggers real concerns for the group, wondering if this is a ruse. Snowden also shares some private moments of worry he has for his partner, after she contacts him when some people from work turn up to his house.

This is quite amazing documentary that feels like a behind-the-scenes feature about the stories we saw in the news. Though Poitras is clearly in sympathy with Snowden, and gets followed herself after all the information is public, she lets the subjects speak for themselves: I sometimes forgot she was in the room filming these things, especially the scenes of Snowden in his room with the television breaking the news about his information.

Whatever you think of Snowden this is a must-see documentary that takes you into the mindset of a person choosing to jeopardise everything for the sake of the truth.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

I've Just Seen: 2046 (2004)

2046 (2004)

Director: Wong Kar-wai

I love the aesthetics of the worlds Wong Kar-wai creates, filmed with an eye for colour and light that aids the romance of the characters. In the Mood for Love rivals Brief Encounter in its depiction of restrained, yearning unrequited love, and 2046 acts as a sequel to that story. We follow Chow Mo-wan after the dissipation of his affair with Su Li-zhen. He has left his wife, moved into a new apartment, and embarks on a series of affair with other women while also writing a science-fiction story set in the year 2046.

After the painful beauty and restraint of In the Mood for Love, 2046 is a bit of shock. It is louder and more explicit, with a timeline that jumps around in time and between Chow's fictional story and his real life. The brooding melancholy that is presence in so many of Kar-wai's films is present, but Chow's character feels less sympathetic than in the previous film. Everything still looks beautiful and I would watch Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in anything, but it suffers from comparison with In the Mood.

Worth a watch, but be prepared to have your ideas about the ending of In the Mood for Love completely dashed.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année dernière à Marienbad) (1961)

Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année dernière à Marienbad) (1961)

Director: Alain Resnais

Resnais' aim when making Last Year at Marienbad was certainly not to entertain; rather it was to draw the viewer in a discussion with the film about the nature of memory, truth and reality. Two people staying at one of the grandest hotels I have ever seen spend time arguing over whether they know each; the man maintains they had an affair last summer, while the woman is adamant they have never met.

This is one of those films I admire far more than I enjoyed the experience of watching it. On a technical level I am in awe of Resnais' coverage, of the fluidity of editing, and his use of setting. Cuts occur as one character turns around, with the setting changing from outside to inside almost seamlessly. Alongside these cuts are languid tracking shots through the ornate hotel. There is a huge amount of mastery on show, and I can see why this film is revered.

However, the story that ties it all together borders on the insufferable. I don't really care about the predicament of the central couple, and no amount of beautiful surface is going to make me do so. The statuesque performances of the actors creates a cold veneer to precedings, though I occasionally felt Resnais was directing them with a sense of humour; only occasionally.

This is certainly a film to see if you enjoy experimental and arty filmmaking, which I do. However, I cannot see myself watching it any time soon, and would probably only do so with an interesting commentary over it.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

I've Just Seen: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Director: Robert Bresson

Your rarely see donkeys on screen. Horses seem to be in every second film, their presence prolific across film history. When they are not being extras in period dramas or winning races in biopics, they are developed or even central characters in many stories for children. Indeed, only dogs (and maybe monkeys) have had as great success on film. I wondered about this particular choice of animal for the central character in Bresson's film; it clearly points to the story's religious themes, donkeys featuring significantly in the Gospels. Donkeys also do not culturally possess the same nobility that horses do, being almost exclusively beasts of burden, adding greater pathos to this creature's plight.

While Bresson's devotion to realism and use of non-professional actors can be distracting (the donkey occasionally acts the humans off the screen), this is a very touching and at times depressing film of innocence abused. Balthazar's fate is linked to that of Marie, a young woman who once owned him, and is one of the few to show him kindness. Both Marie and Balthazar are abused by the same people, in particular a young man called Gerard. The cruelty is extra nasty because it is done simply to be cruel; Gerard ties a lit paper to Balthazar's tale for fun, and sexually humiliates Marie because he wants to.

The film is a strange proposition to sit down and watch, but it is beautiful and sad; and if the ending doesn't at least make you sigh with sadness then you probably don't like animals.

Friday, 1 April 2016

I've Just Seen: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)

Director: Preston Sturges

I count Sturges amongst my favourite directors. At the height of the enforcement of the Hays Code in Hollywood, Sturges worked hard to push against the boundaries set around depictions of sex, coming up with increasingly creative and hilarious solutions. The set-up for Morgan's Creek sent conniptions through the censors at the time, with its tale of a young woman left pregnant after getting married to a departing soldier while under the influence of alcohol. When Norval, her friend with a deep passion for Trudy offers to help, a race against time, parents and the law ensues.

While Trudy does drink and is pregnant, she and her beloved Norval are two of the most innocence characters in a Sturges' film. Trudy has none of Jean Harrington's sparkiness, nor does Norval have Tom's conniving from The Palm Beach Story. Instead, the two spend much of their time together shaking with nerves, often with very funny consequences: porches being broken, and a fake marriage falling apart.

While not as brilliant or sexy as The Lady Eve, this is very funny. Like many a Sturges film, I feel I will need to watch this again, having now grasped the strange turnings of the plot; and I know I missed some jokes. As pointed out in a recent (and excellent) article in the Guardian Sturges doesn't give his audience definite endings. Instead he leaves us hanging, wondering what will happen next. Morgan's Creek is no different, though the end card hints at yet more latent heroism in Norval.