Tuesday, 27 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Player (1992)

Director: Robert Altman

When films turn their gaze on the 'art' of filmmaking, the results can be surprising. You would think that hagiography would emerge, with films about the genius of filmmakers, waxing lyrical about how hard they work. However this is not always the case, and the best films about filmmaking are often deeply self-critical. The Player is one of these, with its depiction of a sleezy Hollywood populated by anti-heroes, from the power hungry producers to the angry, frustrated writers.

The plot feels like something out of the head of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Griffin Mill, a film producer who is worried about his job being taken by a new producing talent, is the subject of abuse by an anonymous scriptwriter whose idea Mill rejected several months ago. He decides to go after the guy, offering him a job. Mill unfortunately picks the wrong disgruntled writer, and manages to kill him in a fit of anger. Now he is trying to keep his job, hide a murder, keep ahead of the police, and the blackmailing writer, and cheat on his girlfriend with the dead writer's girlfriend.

What could have been a farce is played with cyncism that is sharpened by the appearance of real Hollywood stars in the film. Every character in the film seems to have sold their soul to the devil, and we cannot help but watch intrigued. The performances are all wonderful. Tim Robbins' likeability keeps us from hating Mill, even as he does despicable things. The script is brilliant, pulling us into this sordid world, one we can't help but enjoy. It is also very funny; the plot involving the death penalty movie being made is hilarious, from the awful pitch, to the finished product.

I have found Altman hit and miss in his filmmaking; for me, this is his best. He always gets good performances from his actors, one of the film's greatest strengths. The plot is also kept nice and tight, and he has managed to film one of the most intimate sex scenes in film history, using only the actors' faces, and music. For full cynical impact, watch in a double bill with Sunset Boulevard.

Monday, 26 December 2016

I've Just Seen: La La Land (2016)

Director: Damien Chazelle

If you hate musicals or jazz, you are definitely going to struggle with Chazelle's new film. If Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone leave you cold, you are going to be in even worse trouble. And if romance and overly stylised worlds bug you no end, well, you probably shouldn't see this film.

Except you should.

For me, there are not enough superlatives in the world to properly describe how I feel about this film. I love musicals in general anyway, and all the films that inspired Chazelle are particular favourites of mine: those of Jacque Demy, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. While Ryan Gosling doesn't inspire swooning in me, he is rather lovely as Sebastian, a struggling-for-his-art jazz musician. Emma Stone, always watchable, is wonderfully fabulous as Mia, a struggling actor. La La Land takes us through their romance, with all the singing, dancing and emotions you could want.

I really loved everything about this. The cinematography is colourful, harking back to the technicolor worlds of 1950s musicals. The camera moves around the sets and characters, immersing us in this gorgeous world. The music is toe-tapping, shoulder-shimmyingly good. I am still humming 'City of Stars' days later, and the climatic 'Audition' is spine-tingling. The dancing is wonderful; as a dancer, I wanted to enter the screen and join them, particular when they dance at the planetarium. I loved Mia's wardrobe, I wanted to wear all her clothes. And best of all, there were so many references to other films, and each time I recognised something I couldn't help but smile.

Really, I cannot be objective about this film.  From the moment the film ratio expanded at the very start, announcing this was brought to us in 'Cinemascope,' I knew only a huge, honking mistake would spoil this for me. Perhaps it dragged in the last third a bit, but it ends perfectly. After a year which was sad and depressing both personally, and on a global scale, it is wonderful to watch something so beautiful, that has so much joy, and is also so poignant.

I left the cinema feeling that Chazelle had made this film for me, and if I had had someone with me, I would have danced out.

Monday, 19 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Innocents (1961)

 Director: Jack Clayton

In my mind I have a list of black-and-white films that would not work in colour, largely due to the beauty of the black-and-white cinematography. Clayton's The Innocents joins this list. Freddie Francis' camera plays with the shadows of Bly, the country estate where governess Miss Giddens is sent to to care for little Flora and Miles. The shadows are of two dead people, Peter Quint, a former valet, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. Miss Giddens becomes increasingly perturbed by these apparitions and the oddness of Flora and Miles, and her behaviour becomes unsettling.

All the elements of this film work to create a strong emotion is discomfort and creepiness. As I said, the cinematography is eye-catching. The lack of colour in the grounds gives everything the pallor of death, while at night you wonder what is lurking in the dark places of rooms. The widescreen is used to stage characters at different distances to the camera, creating a disconnect between them, particularly between Miss Giddens and her charges. The acting is top-notch. Both Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are suitably weird as Miles and Flora, especially Stephens. Deborah Kerr is great as Miss Giddens, whose desire to understand Bly's mysteries brings unknown tensions and desires to the surface. You start to think that the monster resides just as much in her as the children and the house. The script is very good, drawing out the ambiguities of the story, and hinting at deviances and wrong-doing, but leaving enough blank spaces for our imaginations to fill in.

Watching films like this makes me wish more modern horror films used black-and-white cinematography, and went for the creep factor rather than the gore and splatter. People's imaginations can be just as frightening.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The VVitch (2015)

Director: Robert Eggers

Eggers' film is not typical of modern horror. Not only is it historical, set during the 17th century, it forgoes jump-scares and loud sounds for atmosphere, intensifying the presence of something sinister with each new scene. The story follows Thomasin and her family, who strike out on their own in New England after a disagreement with their church. The patch of land they choose seems ideal, but their crops won't prosper, and something horrible lurks in the woods close by - or maybe even in their own house.

The majority of the film focuses on the dynamics of the family. Thomasin has entered puberty, something her brother has noticed, and with it comes more responsibilities. After her baby brother disappears while she was looking after him, Thomasin's mother Katherine can't forgive her, and her two younger twin siblings accuse her of being a witch - something Thomasin plays along with to scare them. All through this Thomasin's father William is trying to keep everything together.

The script is very strong. Eggers, who wrote as well as directed, uses authentic language which really helps evoke the period. You feel you are watching a folk tale. The actors are pretty good with delivery of the archaic dialogue, especially the younger children. The performances in general are all strong. Anya Taylor-Joy is really good as Thomasin. The gives her the right amount of fear of the strange happens, but with an edge of intrigue, a sense that Thomasin wants to know more about these strange powers.

Though this is story about the supernatural, it also about how fear of these events devastate human relationships. And you will never trust a goat again!

Friday, 9 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Invisible Man (1933)

Director: James Whale

If you come to The Invisible Man hoping to see a lot of Claude Rains, you will be disappointed. However, while his body may be absent, Rains' presence is felt throughout the film through his voice. He plays Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist who has discovered a way to make man invisible, using a substance called monocane, but its use comes with a side-effect: it makes the user go mad.

Whale's film takes no time to get the story going, beginning with Griffin already invisible and on the run. His odd appearance - he looks like a mummy wearing his sunday best - naturally raises the suspicions of townsfolk, who decide they don't want him in Iping. This leads to the unmasking of the invisible man, and displays some of the most impressive special effects in pre-CGI history.

These special effects are really the main reason to see the film. Though it is easy to figure out how they achieved some of them, others were clearly a lot more difficult, and required great creativity from Whale and his crew. This is especially true for the scenes where Griffin interacts with food or his clothes.

One can tell this is a Pre-Code film because of the implied nudity of Griffin. I can't imagine post-1934 Hollywood putting images of a invisible, naked Claude Rains roaming the countryside into audiences' heads.

The film as a whole has the charm such early special effects films have, a tribute to the ingenuity of early filmmaking. The story and the characters are not as developed as they might be, but this doesn't take much away from the story. Rains, despite not being seen onscreen makes his presence felt, much as Michael Fassbender did in Frank, when he acted under a giant, papier-mache head. 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

I've Just Seen: The Jerk (1979)

Director: Carl Reiner

Comedies that draw their humour from characters' stupidity don't normally make me laugh. Either they are mean-spirited, or go for the lowest common denominator. While The Jerk did not induce much actual laughter from me, I found that its utter silliness, with the right hint of knowingness, worked pretty well.

The story moves from one ridiculous setpiece to the next, opening with the surprising introduction of Steve Martin's 'jerk' Navin R. Johnson telling us his life story, beginning with when he was 'born a poor black child.' From there we see his rags to riches to rags story, involving defective cans, discovering the meaning of his 'special purpose,' falling in love with Bernadette Peters, and inventing some practical glasses, which actually make people's eyesight worse.

The film is overall gently funny, with some rather sweet moments of romance between Peters' Marie and Navin. Martin' gets Navin's character just right. We do laugh at Navin's ineptitude, but also at his luck; the scene where he get targeted by a gun-crazy mad man is hilarious. Peters gets to be funny in her role, not just blandly sweet.

Carl Reiner is good at managing comedy and romance in his films, and while this is nowhere near the level of The Princess Bride, I liked it well enough. It also interesting to see Steve Martin at the beginning of his film career before he become the go-to guy for comedy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Monday, 5 December 2016

I've Just Seen: Titanic (1997)

Director: James Cameron

It has taken until this year for me to see Titanic in its entirety. Twice before, many years ago, I started watching it at a friend's house, only to have to go home as the ship stuck the iceberg. Being younger, and not knowing this was a loooooong film, I thought that I had only missed half-an-hour; really, I had missed half the film!

Of course, no one born in the '90s could grow-up not knowing the famous lines and scenes from the film, and on the strength of those I thought I would absolutely hate this film. Yes, hate it! I am not one for smaltzy romance (comedy makes it go down easier), and I had seen the excellent and very moving A Night to Remember, so I wondered what new aspects of this event could Cameron show me.

Well, and I am glad to say, I was surprised. While the romance left me cold and occasionally cringing at the dialogue, I cannot fault the film's effects. Even after almost twenty years they are eye-catching, and raise feelings of jeopardy for the viewer. The thousands of litres of water, which engulfs entire elaborately designed sets, is pure spectacle, and does what good disaster movies should do: make it impossible to look away. In fact, all the elements of production design, from the sets, the props and the costumes are great - a blown-out budget well spent, and many well-deserved Oscar wins.

If only the story was as merticulously thought out, I would have enjoyed it more.

The issues I had with Titanic's story are the same I had with Avatar's script; way too cliched. Of all the Oscars it won, it was not even nominated for Best Script. More subtlety would have been welcome, and better developed characters. Cameron is good at giving strong roles to women, and Kate Winslet gets to do some fun things as Rose; she saves Jack a few times, and is no wimp, plunging into the rising waters several times, and jumping back on the sinking vessel. Jack is rather underwritten, more of a manic pixie dream boy who teaches Rose how to break out of her upper-class shell and live her life. He also gets to remain young forever, something which no doubt raised his appeal to young women watching the film. (He could definitely have fitted on that door). Kathy Bates was underused - the tale of the Unsinkable Molly Brown could (and should) have been in the film. The only thing Billy Zane lacked was a moustache to stroke as he embodied all the evils of rich men as Rose' intended.

I still prefer A Night to Remember over Cameron's film, but I have a respect for the art of its spectacle, something which places it in the tradition of films like The Thief of Bagdad and Ben-Hur. And of course, I have plugged a massive Titanic-sized hole in my film viewing.

Friday, 2 December 2016

I've Just Seen: Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) (2016)

Director: Matoko Shinkai

Body-swapping is usually used as a comedic gimic in films, forcing different people to live each others lives with 'hilarious' results. Shinkai's Your Name nods to these films for about half-an-hour, introducing us to Mitsuha, a teenage girl living in a sleepy Japanese village, and Taki, a handsome boy from Tokyo. We meet their friends and Mitsuha's family, who all find the personality changes of the two mildly strange; a running gag is Mitsuha's sister's bemusement at Mitusha's weird habit of fondling her own breasts in the mornings on which Taki wakes in Mitsuha's body.

The story and tone shifts suddenly in Act 2 after a revelation about a comet's progress through the skies over Japan. What happens comes as a shock, so I won't spoil it here. There are several twists and turns in the narrative, and the film comes close to losing all its threads, but thankfully doesn't, though I could have done without the last part of the ending.

While the story is aimed at a teen audience, the depth to the story and the artistry of the animation make this appealing to older audiences to. I saw a subtitled version (a first for my foreign-language averse local cinema), so I got the full energy of the characters' voices. The music is sweetly pop-y, and had some interesting lyrics, or translations at least; one was about floating in 'lukewarm cola' (is that a good thing?).

Your Name is sweet, quite funny and surprisingly moving. The animation deserves to be seen on a big screen, largely to appreciate the glorious shots of the landscapes and the awe-inspiring sights of the comet travelling through the sky.