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.