Tuesday, 31 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)


Director: John Schlesinger

There is no denying the strength of the performances in Schlesinger's film, particularly Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson. Their characters are two sides of a love triangle, the intersecting point being Murray Head's Bob, a self-centred modern artist who flits between the two, taking their attention while not giving them the same in return. The story follows a crisis their relationships as Bob wants to leave England for the US.

In terms of plot, Schlesinger's film is almost without a strong through-line; it is more a reflection on the situation in these people's lives. Of the three, Finch's Dr Daniel Hirsh is the most interesting and sympathetic character. He is Jewish and gay (though his family don't know), but there is no anxiety or even comment on this fact, except in a scene at a Jewish wedding where some well-meaning women try to set Daniel up. This approach to homosexuality would have been a shock for 1971 (I imagine - I was not alive!), and one could see this plot in a film today barely raising an eyebrow.

This film falls into the 'I admired it, but didn't like it' category for me, and it is largely for the performances. I didn't particularly like any of them other than Daniel, and didn't care about their situation. I was more moved by Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy.

Monday, 30 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Princess Yang Kwai-Fei (Yōkihi) (1955)

Princess Yang Kwai-Fei (Yōkihi) (1955)


Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

This is the second Mizoguchi film I have seen, and while is it not as powerful as Sansho the Bailiff, it has a similar interest in the plight of women, and their role in society. As many of my favourite novels are on this topic, I knew I would enjoy this film.

Princess Yang Kwai-Fei focuses on the goings-on of Emperor Xuan Zong's court, where the Emperor is grieving over the death of his beloved wife. The court is secretly scouting for a new consort for the king, and find her in the shape of Yang Kwai-Fei, a servant and distant relative of the powerful Yang family. The plan works, and the Emperor and Kwai-Fei fall in love, but an up-rising happens when the Yang family begin to exert too much power.

Though not an essential film to watch, Mizoguchi's film is a sweet and sad story which recalls Cinderella in its premise, and the darker versions of Western fairytales (where sacrifice and death are central to the plot).

Sunday, 29 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)


Director: Michael Apted

I always approach biopics with caution. They often rely purely on the success (or not) of the impersonation of the famous figure being portrayed, and a plot that feels more like a highlights reel of their life, with little in the way of insight into the person beyond the surface. That cannot be said about the Coal Miner's Daughter. Though it does follow the life of Loretta Lynn, and boasts an astonishing performance by Sissy Spacek, it also offers up insights into the poverty of her background, and her volatile yet supportive marriage to Mooney (played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones).

There can be little argument about the power of Spacek's performance as Loretta; from doing the actual singing herself, to portraying her from fourteen to middle aged, the character feels whole and real. We see Loretta go from naive girl to mother to superstar, growing in confidence along the way. The only problem with her performance may be how it overshadows Jones' one as Mooney. Their marriage is the heart of the film, with all its complexity presented to us. While Mooney was not always kind to her, there is no doubting his belief and love for Loretta, and the movie argues that it was he who first recognised and encouraged her talent. The sequence of them on the road together, working hard to get her record played is lovely.

Despite not knowing anything about Lynn prior to watching the film (other than that she was a country and western star), and not being a fan of country music, I was knocked out by this film. It is one of the best biopics I have seen, and Spacek's Loretta is one of the screen's greatest performances. It shows how ageist Hollywood is in its sexism that Spacek doesn't get really any great roles anymore.

I've Just Seen: Heat (1995)

Heat (1995)


Director: Michael Mann

The gangster film is far from my favourite genre, as its emphasis on greed and crime just does not appeal to me. However, Mann's film kept me interested from the beginning, as we are introduced to the disparate characters that we will get to know of the course of this long story. Perhaps it is the emphasis on the personal lives of these characters that drew me in, from de Niro's perennial loneliness, or Pacino's Hanna's troubled marriage.

The film has a wonderful colour scheme, lots of moody blues and greys, which challenge the passion implied in the title. 'Heat' here refers to the pressure of a situation, and how one's reaction to it is the true display of character. This is brilliantly discussed in the famous scene of de Niro and Pacino over coffee. It is not hard to see why this scene is so celebrated; the two clearly have a great deal of mutual respect for each other, and it peels back the roles of cop and criminal to reveal the humanity they share. The heist scene is unrelenting, and the audience feels caught in the line of fire along with the characters; the hissing of the bullets are terrifying!

This is a great film which managed to win over this reluctant viewer with its well-developed characters acted by two of the best actors to grace the screen, and its subdued cinematography that takes you into these people's conflicted lives.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle) (1967)

Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle) (1967)


Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Ah, another Nouvelle Vague film! I watch these out of a sense of duty than any real feeling of enjoyment. I know they are historically important, marking a new approach to filmmaking, breaking all kinds of rules, playing with the form; and that is great. But really, I like the films these films influenced, particularly those from America, absorbing the new techniques and attitudes into traditional filmmaking.

The film is presented like a documentary, following a day in the life of Juliette Jeanson, a nice bourgeois married mother who dabbles in prostitution on side, in between shopping for clothes and doing the dishes. However, the artificiality of everything we see is clear from the outset, as Godard in voice-over introduces us to the character ('This is Juliette...') after introducing us to Marina, the actress who plays her. He uses the same description for each, but changes the camera angle slightly for each shot. Amongst the depictions of Juliette's daily life are scenes of building with carefully arranged brightly coloured packaged food and household groceries. There are also scenes with people in the background whose lives we learn a little bit about through monologues delivered to camera.

What does it all mean? I am not sure, and to be honest I am not really motivated to probe further. There are certainly moments of humour, particularly the scene with the American man who wants Juliette and another prostitute to wear aeroplane bags over their heads. Other than that this is mainly of interest to those who are Nouvelle Vague enthusiasts, or film history completist (guess which category I fall into).

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)


Director: Philip Kaufman

I have not yet seen the 1956 film of which this is a remake, but if it is as good as Kaufman's version, I know I will like it. The 1970s version blends science-fiction and horror together, offering little by way of exposition, leaving us almost as much in the dark as the characters. The opening sequence shows us organic matter leaving a distant planet, making its way to earth through solar winds, and using plants to grow their own flowers. We then meet Elizabeth, a worker at the Health Department, who begins to notice changes in her boyfriend Geoffrey, who just happened to sleep near a small bouquet of these inter-planetary flowers.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers falls into the "bad" aliens type of close encounter films, though the alien themselves are not agressively hostile; they are simply acting on evolutionary impulses. Being gelatinous goo, they are rather undeveloped in terms of intelligence, and that is what gives this film is horrifying aspect. Humans, with our intelligence developed over many millennia, are so quickly reduced to basic impulses of procreating and consuming by these creatures, losing all emotions including empathy. This being the 70s, the ending is suitably pessimisitic, arguing for the power of conformity over an individual's fighting spiriting. While not the happiest of films, this is clever science-fiction horror, with good dose of gore to leave you squeamish.

And you won't trust pretty pink flowers ever again!

Sunday, 22 May 2016

I've Just Seen: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)


Director: Ernst Lubitsch

If the plot of Lubitsch's film, a man and a woman who dislike each other are secretly falling in love through anonymous letters, is familiar, it is because Nora Ephron took it for her film You've Got Mail. Instead of the central couple being Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, we have Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and instead of mid-1990s New York, we are in 1930s Budapest.

While it doesn't have the cheeky sexiness of Lubitsch's other films - Trouble in Paradise, Heaven Can Wait - it has the same charm in spades. The story is as much  preoccupied with the lives of the other workers in the shop as it is with Stewart's Alfred and Sullavan's Klara, and Felix Bressart's Pirovitch steals every scene he is in, dropping hilarious pearls of wisdom in the ears of our lovers.

While this is not included in the '1001 Movies List' it is certainly worth seeing, particularly if you enjoyed other Lubitsch films like the brilliant Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Moon (2009)

Moon (2009)


Director: Duncan Jones

Duncan Jones, in making Moon, wanted to recall the science-fiction films of his youth, the films that came out in the late seventies and early eighties which were about ideas with a streak of bleakness to them. He certainly succeeded with Moon, which follows a man, Sam Bell, working solo on the Moon, mining helium-3 from the rocks. Sam is nearing the end the end of his stay, and is looking forward to getting home to his wife and young daughter who was born after he left.

Sam Rockwell, known for his comedy, is fantastic as Sam Bell. Bell is lonely to the point of hallucinating, his only companion being a robot, GERTY, with the voice of Kevin Spacy, who expresses emotions through smiley and frowny faces which belie his more complex emotions towards Bell's existence. The plot has a great twist early on which is too good to spoil, and it raises questions around destiny, free will and the significance of human life. The design of the film is beautiful, with hints to rebel bases in Star Wars, and Kubrick's Discovery One in 2001.

If you love science-fiction you will love this film, not just for its story, but for the references and allusions to other classics of the genre.

Monday, 16 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Satin Rouge (2002)

Satin Rouge (Red Satin) (2002)


Director: Raja Amari

There are some films whose appeal lies in your personal interest in the subject matter. Satin Rouge is about belly dancing and the liberation a middle aged woman experiences performing it. Lilia is a widow who has shut herself away, and pores her energy into looking after her teenage daughter Salma, who is becoming distant. She follows the man Salma is secretly seeing one night, and ends up at a cabaret, a place she finds herself being drawn back to. By degrees she tries on the costumes and eventually dances for the audience, and even flirts (and more!) with the musician who is Salma's boyfriend.

While I am not a middle aged or have a daughter, I began belly dancing around eight years ago, and instantly fell in love with it. It not only added to my dance repertoire (I had already been doing ballet and jazz for thirteen years), but solved a few of my self esteem issues.

There are not many films about belly dancing, and when it does feature, it is almost always about the way the audience sees it: exotic and sexy. Satin Rouge focuses more on the experience of the dancer, highlighting the fun and joy of the movements. The plot is less strong, and goes into questionable territory when Lilia sleeps with Salma's boyfriend (he doesn't know Lilia is Salma's mother), but Hiam Abbass is great as Lilia. I did enjoy this, particularly the soundtrack, which had me itching to get up and dance. If you are not ensconced in the world of Raq Sharki, there are still parts to enjoy (the dancing), but don't expect a great deal from the story.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

I've Just Seen: The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises (2013)


Director: Hayao Miyazaki

I really love the worlds that Miyazaki creates in his anime films. They are so beautifully realised that I feel I could walk around in them, exploring the spaces which are a mixture of reality and fantasy. The Wind Rises is Miyazaki's last film, and while not his greatest, it does contain many of the themes he explored throughout his filmography, and feels like an appropriate swansong.

Studio Ghibli makes animation that is not easily classified as for adults or for children. Even in films like My Neighbour Totoro or Ponyo there are parts that would go over children's heads. The Wind Rises is a mature film, focusing on Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese engineer of aircraft used during the Second World War. He grapples with the ethics of being a designer of these machines which are beautiful examples of aeronautical design, but are used to kill people. There is more romance in the film than other ones, complicated by the health of Jiro's sweetheart.

This is definitely a film for people who enjoyed Miyazaki's films, with their focus on nature, childhoods and innocence in the face of danger. I liked it, though I wish I had watched the Japanese language version; the English voice cast felt slightly wrong for their roles.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Safety Last! (1923)

Safety Last! (1923)


Director: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor

While the 1001 Movies list is a great tool for those wanting to expand their viewing experience, it is very much weighted towards more modern films. Of the silents, comedies are largely drawn from the filmographies of Keaton and Chaplin, who are indisputably great, but many other popular stars are ignored; the main one is Harold Lloyd. Safety Last! deserves to be mentioned along with The General and City Lights, being as funny as those films, and featuring equally iconic images.

Like Keaton and Chaplin's characters, Lloyd's 'Boy' works for a living, and his aim is to marry his sweetheart. He has stretched the truth about his employment; his girl thinks he is the general manager when is only a humble sales assistant, and many shenanigans ensue. An irate policeman is also after our hero (a sub-plot common to silent comedies). All this leads to a great third act, involving stunt work that would make Keaton proud: Lloyd climbing the department store building to earn a tidy sum. As someone who is terrified by heights, the laughs come with a dose of fear as we watch Lloyd teeter on the edge of window ledges and hang from clock faces.

Silent comedies have generally aged better than more melodramatic fare from the era, and Lloyd is certainly one of the greats. While I have watched many Chaplin and Keaton, and love both for their different approaches to storytelling, I am looking forward to seeing more of Lloyd. Any suggestions?

Monday, 9 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)


Director: George A. Romero

Romero's Night of the Living Dead was a bit of a revelation for me, as it was one of the films that made me realise that I do like horror films. Dawn of the Dead is the follow-up, made a decade later, set in the same universe but with a new story and new characters. It manages the tricky issue of sequels almost perfectly; it expands the world we have already visited, and develops ideas Romero explored in Night.

Romero's sense of humour is more prominent in Dawn, evident from the opening shot of red carpeted wall, which looks suitably fleshy. The majority of the story takes place in a shopping mall inhabited by our heroes and a bunch of browsing zombies trying to negociate the escalators and stairs. The comparison to mindless shoppers may not be subtle, but it is funny. The script is clever in its areas of threat, for the living dead are not the only ones out for blood; unscrupulous humans are even worse adversaries. Ideas about race are joined by gender, with Gaylen Ross' Francine Parker demanding an active role in the group, and becomes the one who learns to fly the helicopter.

This is a great film that happens to be a sequel to another great film, and unless you hate horror, there is a lot to enjoy in Dawn of the Dead. It is clever and funny as well as being truly scary and at times stomach-churning.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

I've Just Seen: The Snake Pit (1948)

The Snake Pit (1948)


Director: Anatole Litvak

Olivia de Havilland is up there with Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy for my favourite actress of Hollywood's Golden Age. Unlike those two ladies, de Havilland was decorated by the Academy for her acting, and one of the roles she was nominated for was The Snake Pit. Parts of the film, including de Havilland performance, still feel fresh all these years later, though other parts of the script - particularly its psychology - are dated.

The Snake Pit starts wonderfully, placing us in the same head space as Virginia. We are detached from our surroundings, wondering how we got to this asylum. From there we learn about Virginia's life, and her traumatic experiences with the men in her life; the two important ones we see are her husband and Dr Kik. However, many of the most interesting scenes are between Virginia and the women in the institution, both the patients and the nurses.

de Havilland did her research for the role, and it shows. She has subtle mannerisms, and modulates her voice when the difference voices in her head come to the fore. The film is almost entirely from Virginia's perspective, and some scenes take us right into her mental state. The depiction of life in an mental institution was revelatory at the time, and even now is shocking to watch, particularly the room of women who are really, really sick, which is the titular 'snake pit.'

This is a very good film with a brilliant and rather underrated performance by de Havilland, who people seem to remember only for Gone With the Wind or being Errol Flynn's frequent romantic interest. As she is nearing her 100 birthday, surely it is time to look back at her filmography and acknowledge her place as one of America's greatest actors.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

I've Just Seen: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)


Director: Peter Greenaway

It is hard to know what to say about Greenaway's film. There is certainly no denying his sense of style. The camera sweeps through the sets of the kitchen and the restaurant, moving with an ease that tests the supposed barriers between these two classes of people. The widescreen wide shots allow us to take in this whole world. Greenaway and his production designer, along with Gaultier's costumes, look amazing, with the murky green of the kitchen contrasting nicely with the plush red of the restaurant, and the white of the bathroom. The music adds to this world, pointing to its Baroquian excess.

The performances are also very good, with Michael Gambon's Albert a standout. His is an utterly awful character, and in anyone else's hands could have descended completely into grotesque caricature. While he is still grotesque, Gambon is also mesmerising in his horribleness, and feels uncomfortably real; I can imagine their are people like Albert in the world. His comeuppence in the end is appropriate to his character - I can't imagine anything else getting to him.

This is definitely a film to admire, but not one I necessarily enjoyed, or am likely to watch again. Not only does all the scatology, nudity, violence and cannibalism make this an unforgettable film, it also makes it hard to like. Others have mentioned that this is Pasolini-lite, which makes me nervous about Salo. Don't watch while eating food.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Husbands and Wives (1992)

Husbands and Wives (1992)


Director: Woody Allen

Allen, as a director, knows how to get good performances from his actors. Of course, it helps if you cast very good actors in the first place, like Judy Davis, Sydney Pollack, Liam Neeson, Juliette Lewis, Mia Farrow and Allen himself. While he usually plays the same character with minor variations, few people play a neurotic Jewish writer like Allen. The script for Husbands and Wives is one of Allen's sharpest, with its observations about a group of couples, and the different crises in their relationships. It all starts when Davis' Sally and Pollack's Jack announce their separation, which in turn makes Allen and Farrow's Gabe and Judy question their own marriage.

While it is not my favourite Allen film - that would be Annie Hall - this is solid Allen. Here he has moved further away from his early slapstick-based comedy (which I do enjoy as well), with more drama and melancholy in this story. Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role, and she is very good as the brittle Sally; in another era I could imagine Katherine Hepburn playing the character. Farrow is also good as the fragile Judy, whose ex-husband describes her as the person who passive-agressively get what they want, while appearing to be very giving at the same time.

Allen does romantic comedies almost better than anyone else from his generation, and while its does not provide the loudest of laughs, this is still very funny, very clever, and surprisingly even-handed in its treatment of its characters.

Monday, 2 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)


Director: Otto Preminger

It is interesting to compare Preminger's film with Sidney Lumet's film 12 Angry Men. Both films look at the uncertainty surrounding facts in trials, but approach it with very different emotions. 12 Angry Men seeks to present the trial-by-jury process at its best, particularly the importance of reasonable doubt, with all persons eventually basing their decision on fact. Anatomy of a Murder, however, is much more cynical about trials, with Jimmy Stewart's ostensibly 'good' lawyer Paul Biegler advising his clients on how to influence the jury in their favour, and how to present facts in a way that supports their arguments.

Knowing Preminger's film came out in 1959, the discussions around the alleged rape and domestic violence are rather surprising. We are never given clear answer to questions, nor do characters necessarily act as we would wish if we want to believe them innocent. Laura Manion says she was raped, but her flirtatious behaviour and lack of apparent emotional trauma makes us question her allegations. We are meant to feel this, just as we are meant to question the spurious assertion that her husband Manny was temporarily insane when he killed Quill.

This is a murky journey into unscrupulous morality, both from the victims and the lawyers. Stewart is terrific as Biegler, a man doing his job - to get his client off - but grappling with the truth of events. George C. Scott is also great as a prosecutor Claude Dancer who is brought in to expose the holes in Biegler's case. Really, everyone delivers wonderful performances which maintain the complexity of their characters. The cinematography is also beautiful in its stark black-and-white, which highlights the grey areas of the story. Courtroom films are some of cinema history's greatest films, and Anatomy of a Murder is up their with the best of them (and has one of the best posters as well!).

Sunday, 1 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Funny Girl (1968)

Funny Girl (1968)


Director: William Wyler

For some reason I had seen the sequel Funny Lady before I watched Funny Girl, so knew the outcome of Fanny Brice's marriage. The story rather resembles A Star is Born, with its focus on the strains fame and fortune has on marriage. I do enjoy Barbra Streisand on screen; she has a confidence to her performances that is charming, and few people can deliver quips the quick way she does. The character of Fanny Brice allows her to show off all her skills, and it is almost impossible to look at anyone else when she is in frame.

The a few of the songs from the film were recognisable, especially 'Don't Rain on My Parade' which is sung smack bang in the film's middle. The scenes of Fanny performing vaudeville and the Follies are very funny, particularly when she undermines the creative choices, pretending to be pregnant in one such serious number about marriage. I liked the film less when it got more serious and dramatic in the second half.

While I do generally prefer my musicals with more dancing than singing, it is hard not to enjoy Streisand. Unless you can't stand her, or just hate musicals, Funny Girl is a bit of light and fun.