Friday, 28 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Les Vampires (1915)

Director: Louis Feuillade

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 October 2016

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

Director: Federico Fellini

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Rififi (1955)

Director: Jules Dassin

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

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

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Amy (2015)

Director: Asif Kapadia

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Mad Max (1979)

Director: George Miller

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Repulsion (1965)

Director: Roman Polanski

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

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

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

Monday, 10 October 2016

I've Just Seen: King Kong (1933)

Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

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

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

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

Sunday, 9 October 2016

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

Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Giant (1956)

Director: George Stevens

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

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

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

Monday, 3 October 2016

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

Director: Ron Howard

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Braveheart (1995)

 Director: Mel Gibson

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

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

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