Friday, 25 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Arrival (2016)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

I feel that Amy Adams is a shoo-in for a Best Actress Oscar next year, though whether it will be for Arrival or Nocturnal Animals I don't know; she might even be doubly nominated, though that usually spells death for your chances, as it spilts the vote. I don't mind which it is, she was fantastic in both, though much more sympathetic in Villeneuve's movie.

There are touches of Contact, Interstellar and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and well as a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey in Arrival, and if you enjoyed any of those films, you will like this one. It balances the science and sentiment better than Nolan's film (in my opinion), and has a similar poetry to Spielberg's movie. And like Contact, Arrival focuses on the story of a capable, intelligent woman battling more macho, absolute approaches.

The theme of the story is communication, both with an 'Other' and with each other. Adams is linguist Dr. Louise Banks, who is recruited to establish communication with some mysterious aliens (are there any other kind?), and is aided by Jeremy Renner's theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, and supervised by Forest Whitaker's Colonel Weber.

In a film like this, you need to establish a sense of awe about meeting the aliens, and Villeneuve does this wonderfully. The first time Louise and Ian go into the dark, hovering alien 'spaceship,' I felt their amazement and the overwhelming shock of it all. The black, curved, carved edges of the vessel, contrasted with the white light at the tunnel's end; the trippy way you get up into the ship (I won't spoil it); and most of all, the haunting sounds on the soundtrack, like whales moaning in the deep. From then on I was completely hooked.

Much like horror films, science-fiction relies on its soundscape, and Arrival's is superb. The aliens sound organic yet unearthly, with rumblings that sound a bit like the base notes on an organ. The whole film is presented in slightly muted, washed-out colours, as though it is permanently overcast. This adds a touch of melancholy, a continuation of the grief Louise experiences in the opening sequence, where her daughter dies from childhood cancer.

I must say that the ending rather pulls the rug out from underneath you, and I was left thinking 'Wait, what?'; but in a way that makes me want to see it again. Overall it is an affecting, beautiful film that feels uncomfortably timely in the context of current politics. Hopefully this will be seen by lots of people who take its message of talking and listening to heart.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

I've Just Seen: The Killing Fields (1984)

Director: Roland Joffe

I learnt a little at school about the Khmer Rouge in Modern History, but really only as a sidebar to the Vietnam War. I do remember learning that the numbers killed by the Khmer Rouge was around 2 million, and being disturbed by that, but didn't really know how it all fitted into everything else. Watching Joffe's film was both educational and deeply moving, telling the true story of two journalists, American Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian Dith Pran, two friends who covered the Khmer Rouge takeover, and were separated when Pran was forced to stay behind in Cambodia.

It is often a dangerous thing to learn your history from movies; truths are embelished, parts even fictionalised, and at worst the film becomes propaganda. The best ones give an insight into the experiences of people living through the period. The Killing Fields is one of the best, balancing the drama and the truth beautifully, and is not afraid to ask hard questions of its characters.

The first half is told from Schanberg's perspective, as he and other journalists, local and international, face the threats of the new regime. The second half is Pran's story, living a labour camp and trying his best to hide his previous life. This part was the most powerful and moving of the whole film. In one scene Pran stumbles upon the titular killing fields, swamps of decaying bodies, the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is graphic, but done in such a quiet way (no dramatic music or cuts) that adds to the horror.

The performances are all good, the two leads especially, and it was fun to see an early role from John Malkovich as a fellow journalist. Sam Waterston is very good as Schanberg, and he and Haing S. Ngor have a great chemistry together; you definitely believe their friendship. The star for me was Ngor, and the only quibble I have with his Oscar win was that it was for 'Supporting Actor,' not as a main; considering half the film is his story, I feel this nomination in this category was probably strategic. Ngor's performance is given greater poignancy because he was also in a camp and had to conceal his intelligence and skills (his was a gynecologist) like Pran. His life is worth reading about (it is incredibly sad), but he was rightly proud of his work on Joffe's film.

This is a great film on so many levels, and I feel it should be more lauded. It moved me more than many other war films, and I really appreciated that it told the story of someone who lived in Cambodia, who clearly loved their country, and had to watch it as it become a very real Hell. It is also a wonderful story of friendship, one that doesn't shy away from its complexity.

Monday, 21 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Alice (1988)

Director: Jan Svankmajer

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and its sequel, share a similar status in film to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula; having been adapted and adapted again, with each generation getting their own version of the story, often one that departs in some way from the original. If people felt that Tim Burton's recent version of the Alice story was too conventional and commercial (which I did), then Svankmajer's film is at the other end of the spectrum. It plays up the darkness and surrealism of Carroll's text, turning an absurd tale into a nightmarish scenario.

Svankmajer reminds his audience throughout the film of the story's origins as a book, with a voiceover instead of dialogue, and abrupt cuts to a close-up of Alice's mouth saying 'said the White Rabbit' or 'said Alice.' While Alice is played  Kristyna Kohoutova in the film, she is the only human, and at times becomes an animated toy like all the rest of the characters, in her case a doll. The scariest creature of all is the White Rabbit. Normally a fluffy buffon, Svankmajer instead created a stuffed rabbit with a hole in his tummy and bulging fake eyes that imply derangement. He spends much of the film trying to refill the sawdust leaking from his body, even at one time eating it with a spoon off the floor.

There are other motifs that appear throughout, including a writing desk, which pops up at different times, waiting for Alice to climb inside its drawer to go to another place, if only she can figure out how to open it; each time something happens, like the knob falling off, to heed her progress.

While clearly low-budget, with washed out lighting, the effects are good for their time, and have that charm that in-camera effects have. Kohoutova is fanastic as Alice, who meets all these strange things with curiosity but without surprise. As a whole, one believes that this is the imagination of a young child at work, one who not afraid to explore dark ideas in her playing. It is strange, unnerving and even horrifying. I really liked it.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Naked Lunch (1991)

Director; David Cronenberg

What did I just watch?

I have really liked Cronenberg in the past; The Fly is fantastic, managing to be sickening and romantic and terribly sad all at once. Videodrome was a clever reflection on our relationship to technology and our access to extremely violent and sexual images. Both films contain some of the best use of practical effects in film history, with all their gore and squishiness. While that aspect is present in Naked Lunch I felt revolted by it all more than anything. But my revolusion was largely drawn from the characters and the story.

I can't tell you the plot of Naked Lunch, nor even how the title refers to what I saw, except that it is the name of one of William S. Burroughs' stories; the film incorporates biographical details as well as the story's plot. There is something about bugs, drugs, homosexuality, writing and spying, but the several plots don't fit together. While the acting is good, I cared for none of the characters, and though the film is not long, I just wanted it to be over.

If Cronenberg had focused more on one or two ideas from the story it would have been much more coherent. It is not that coherence is always required to enjoy a film; I still cannot pin down what Mulholland Dr.'s plot is, or exactly how The Big Sleep all fits together, but something else drew me in. All I wanted to do after watching Naked Lunch was cleanse my mind of what I had seen. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Director: Tom Ford

The only part of Ford's film that didn't work for me was the opening titles sequence, which features very fleshy naked women swaying with abandon to music, with looks of defiance on their faces. While startling, the sequence jars with the rest of the film. We learn that is it part of an art exhibition launched by gallery owner Susan, played by Amy Adams, who is in a personal funk, dealing with a distant husband and questioning the importance of her work. She describes it as 'junk' at one point. The past enters her life when her ex-husband Edward sends her a manuscript, an American gothic tale which he has dedicated to her. The violent tale of revenge jolts Susan out her own world, forcing her to remember her relationship with Edward and the painful way it ended.

A Single Man showed that Ford was a master of style with film, and was adept at directing great performances from actors. Nocturnal Animals proves he is a complete filmmaker. The film looks wonderful, but not distractingly so, the performances are all great, especially Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and most impressive for me, the script by Ford is really, really good. He balances the moves between the three different storylines - present, past, and fictional - beautifully, connecting them through small details: a red couch, Susan's crucifix, even the casting of Isla Fisher. This pacing, aided by Joan Sobel's perfect editing, meant I was completely engrossed throughout the film. It also uses jump scares much better than many horror films do.

One could argue that the film is yet another story about violence against women that revels in the nastiness of its deeds, but I think it is attitude is much slipperier than that. The whole film is from Susan's perspective, with her reflecting on her feels about these things; even the dramatisation of Edward's novel is Susan's visualising of it. This aspect elevates the material beyond its pulpy origins into something more subtle and clever. Definitely one to see on the big screen.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Persona (1966)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

I approach films that appear at the top of 'must-see' lists warily, worried that this 'great' film won't be as great as claimed; at least in my opinion. In the case of Persona this was heightened by the long wait I had to see it. Quickflix said they had the disc, but it sat in the dreaded 'long wait' part of my queue, then was moved to the even worse 'reserve,' which means they may get around to getting another copy some day (but don't hold your breath). Then suddenly the film appeared on a local free streaming site, with only a few days to watch it. After several tries it finally loaded.

Was it worth the wait?

It had been a while since I had seen a film that captured everything I love about film. Persona plays not only with ideas of identity and performance, but even the fact that this is a film, with the famous shot of the film itself appearing to burn up, and the film stumbling to find where it was. This is a film that provokes thought as you try to figure out what is going on, and yet really defies being boiled down into words. It's meaning is slippery, as it constantly reminds us that everything we are seeing is a performance, that the characters of the characters are just personas they had adopted, not real, actual persons.

I've recently been thinking about films shot in black-and-white that would be completely different (and not work as well) in colour. Persona certainly falls into this group. The greyness on the screen makes the melding of Alma and Elisabet's characters more acute, particularly as when a split screen momentarily splices them together.

Trust one of the greats, Bergman, to reignite my love for film, just when I felt I had seen the absolute best film had to offer. Persona moves past Bergman's existential interest in religion, which features heavily in his 1950s movies, into questioning our very sense of self and our projections of those beliefs.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Nanook of the North (1922)

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

Much has been said about the many inaccuracies of Flaherty's documentary. How the people portrayed really had different names, weren't actually a family, and the practices they perform were already out-dated when Flaherty made the film (amongst other things). It is important to know all this while watching the film so one doesn't watch it thinking this is a slice of real life. And yet the film is still worth watching.

Its importance in film history alone makes it significant. This is one of the earliest surviving documentaries, and rather than someone just going out with a camera and filming what they see, Flaherty had a purpose to his ideas and what he wanted to present. The story of the film, while not as 'real' as Flaherty may show, is still a very engaging one. 'Nanook' (or rather Allakariallak) and his people are portrayed as skilled and intelligent, and their bravery and hardiness in navigating the harsh world of the Arctic is lauded by the film.

For me the biggest draw was the animal life. We see a walrus hunt with real walruses, and watch several men haul in one giantic creature. There are also seals, various birds, and the huskies who pull the sleds. Even when being killed or left outside in the cold, the animals are delightful to watch. The scenery is also wonderful, with from the glaring sunshine on the miles of ice and icebergs, to the blizzard that surrounds the tiny igloo in snow.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

I've Just Seen: Straw Dogs (1971)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

My sister often asks me, after I've watched a film, if I liked it. A surprising number of times my answer is 'this is not a film you enjoy.' Straw Dogs is one of these films. There is a grim sense of dread that hangs over the film's first half, a threat of the violence that is to erupt in the second half. We follow American mathematician David Sumner and his British wife Amy settling into their new life in a small village in Cornwall. The locals are suspicious of David, who is culturally and intellectually different from them, and the local men working on the shed are predatory around Amy, who doesn't think much of it until their cat turns up dead.

While Straw Dogs is classified as a thriller, the film and its story strays into horror territory. The main fears in horror films are about one's house, body, mind, spirit being invaded or penetrated by malignant forces; which is exactly what happens to Amy and David. The infamous rape scene in the film speaks to that fear, though it also plays with our fascination, and even enjoyment of it. Peckinpah received criticism for the scene because of its apparent ambiguity; Amy appears to give into Charlie, and the camera does occasionally eroticise parts of the scene. But Amy's sense of shame, guilt and fear afterwards are clear, and she certainly hates the second part of the rape.

Critics have misread the film for its supposed depiction of men defending their women, and how male machismo saves the day. David's defence of his home is not a revenge on Amy's attackers; she never tells him what happened to her, and David misunderstands her objections to his protection of pedophile Henry Niles. The double standards at play are also clear to the audience; the men who vilely raped Amy are trying to kill Niles for having sex and killing one of the men's daughters (Niles didn't mean to kill the girl, and she initiated the sex; they are really just out for blood).

This is a difficult film to watch, and the descent into murder and madness on both David's and the men's behalfs reminded me of The Hills Have Eyes. Both films are deeply uncomfortable, probing at the violent underbelly of seeming civilised people. But they are also both admirable for these reasons too.