Wednesday, 30 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella (2015)

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Disney's current trend of making "live action re-imaginings" of classic animations sound like a purely financial decision; squeezing new life out of stories already very familiar to children. On the other hand, fairytales (which most of the films are based upon) are the ideal stories to re-tell over and over again, each generation having their own version to enjoy. So rather than approaching this Cinderella with trepidation, I watched with interest.

The original Disney Cinderella film, from 1950, is my least favourite of the Disney princess films, with a Cinderella whose character is less developed than her mouse companions. And while the animation is lovely, particularly the transformation scene, it doesn't have the beauty of the Golden Age in the 90s. Branagh knows how to do visual spectacle, and his Cinderella has plenty of visual flair, from the costumes and sets, to the heighten colour of the image itself. Lily James is a sweet Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett gives depth to the Stepmother, whose nastiness is more complex than previous films.

The influence of other Cinderella films is apparent, from the early meeting of Cinderella and the Prince (Ever After) and Cinderella's final words to her stepmother (The Slipper and the Rose). The film is certainly aimed at young audiences, and did boarder on too sweet in places for my taste. However, I liked it overall, and it is definitely an improvement on the animation.

Monday, 28 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Predestination (2014)

Predestination (2014)

Directors: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

This is the type of film Australia rarely produces: slick science-fiction, set in another country (in this case, America). We meet Ethan Hawke's barkeep returning to work after an horrific accident that has required major facial reconstruction. One night he meets a man called John (Sarah Snook) who promises to tell the most amazing story, which starts with the line 'When I was a little girl ...' From here the movie becomes a time-travelling, identity slipping mystery.

Predestination's pace and tone is what stops the film's story from collapsing in a pile of incomprehensibility, as well as a brilliant performance from Sarah Snook, whose John looks a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio. There are few pauses in the action, so the audience doesn't have time to say 'Hang on, what?' Instead we are whisked away to the next section. The serious, dark tone also means that some of the more bizarre ideas don't stand out as much.

It is hard not to talk about the film without spoiling the story, but the big twist at the end was not as surprising as it could have been, and you a more likely not to have reached it because you were busy trying to keep up with the timeline. While far from perfect, it is a neat thriller with a great deal of style, and as stated previously, well worth seeing purely for Sarah Snook.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

I've Just Seen: The Flowers of St Francis (1950)

The Flowers of St Francis (Francesco, giullare di Dio) (1950)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

It often seems ironic to me that one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church, a hugely wealthy institution that is wedded to stiff hierarchy, is a man who espoused poverty and preached to the lay people whilst unordained himself. Perhaps this slightly anti-establishment tone to St Francis is what has made his character and life so popular, as it speaks to a tension within organised Christianity.

Rossellini's film is not a biopic of the saint, instead taking its structure from two books about St Francis and the Franciscan community. If anyone is our main character it is Brother Juniper (Ginepro in Italian) one of St Francis' younger followers. The film is a series of chronological chapters which have a small message running through them (parable-like). There are moments of humour, usually around the everyday functioning of a community, and a rather startling sequence where we see Juniper put Francis' teachings into practice; he approaches a village under rule of 'tyrant Nicalaio,' and finds himself manhandled by the warring men. In keeping with Italian Neo-Realism, most of the actors are non-professionals, and many of the monks, including the man playing St Francis, were actually Franciscan monks. I do wonder what they made of the portrayal of their founder.

This film will not appeal to everyone, but I found it rather sweet and moving. It is quite different to Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Son, Sister Moon which I do like, but boarders on parody with its portrayal of St Francis as a hippy flower child (complete with a Donovan soundtrack).

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Se7en (1995)

Se7en (1995)

Director: David Fincher

Fincher's films often have a coolness to their tone that contrasts nicely with their often extreme and pulpy subjects. Here it aligns us with Morgan Freeman's William Somerset, weary of his job and looking forward to retirement from years in the police force. His last case has him paired with Brad Pitt's younger and more hot-tempered David Mills. While this set-up sounds cliched, the script, direction, and performances elevate the material, making it a deserved 90s classic.

Freeman is the standout for me, playing everything, even the denouement, in a low-key fashion that draws you towards his character. The man carries visible emotional pain from his past, but we never learn precisely what it is. It is hinted at in his conversation with Paltrow's Tracy, but we are left to create his history from a few comments. Pitt is also good, grappling with this twisted case as he tries to adjust to the city.

The idea of the seven deadly sins forming the theme of the serial killings is less shocking these days, as many television crime shows have followed in the footsteps of Andrew Kevin Walker's script. However, the Biblical imagery is also present in the weather of the unnamed city, the Mills' apartment, and the desert of the final showdown. It seems to be always raining in the town, torrents of water falling on the moral decay of this city. Whether it is trying to flush it away, or aids in its decay is debatable. The Mills' home is so close to a train track, so it shudders every few minutes, like an earthquake that threatens to bring their new life crashing down. The desert setting of the famous climax is a wonderful contrast to the city; dry, hot and sunny, with large electrical towers and nothing else. One can almost feel the crackling in the air as Somerset and Mills are toyed with by Doe.

A great film that has lost only a little of its impact in the last few decades (can you believe it is twenty years old!).

Sunday, 20 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Few aliens come in such peace as those in Spielberg's film. Instead of representing fear of the other, they are a huge source of fascination, communicating with humans through light, music and images - art, not war. This idea is enhanced by the presence of Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, a scientist trying to unravel the mystery of all these events. Truffaut's approach to film was to view it as art that can bamboozle its audience as much as it can entertain, and his films ask the audience to participate. The aliens do this too, drawing Roy Neary and Jillian Guiler to them through a maddening single image of a distinctive structure, an image they use art (painting, sculpture with food and rubbish) to work out.

Family has been at the heart of many a Spielberg film, and it is no different here, but it is not all peace and harmony. Roy's obsession drives his family from him, and Jillian is separated from her son, an event that fuels her desire to encounter these aliens. It is interesting to note that Spielberg has said that if he remade this film now he would change the ending for Roy's story.

I really liked this, particularly the beauty of the visual effects, and the sustaining of the story's mystery. Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn take their time in the third act, spending time with the aliens, with a delightful scene of talking with music. Coming after the action/ horror of Jaws, this film shows the breadth of Spielberg's skill. 

Saturday, 19 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Ran (1985)

Ran (1985)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Every now and again you watch a film that is so great, that you know it to be so in the first ten minutes. By this point, the catalyst for the story is revealed, and even if you can see how it shall ultimately end (in death and pain), rather than switching off and groaning 'Boring,' you lean forward eager to watch it unfold. This is how I felt seeing Kurosawa's Ran.

Few films are so perfect in almost everyway. While the acting is different to traditional Western styles, the theatrical nature aids in reaping emotions from the audience. The story's similarity to Shakespeare's King Lear, with a suggestion of Macbeth, makes this even more pertinent. The music and cinematography are exquiste, giving operatic flair to this familial tragedy. The film's length is not a burden, but instead an opportunity to spend time in this world of loyalty, parental authority, passion and revenge. The famous battle scene at the film's heart is one of the best ever committed to film, with the combination of orchestral music, bold colours and Kurosawa's masterful compositions regarding movement: the horizontal arrows, the wiggling army banners, the swirling movements of the army phalanxes, the frantic scurryings of fear of Hidetora's entourage to the sudden stillness of death.

Clearly I loved this, and I can't imagine anyone at least not being impressed by the execution of a familiar story. There is no excuse not to see this. As perfect as film gets.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Philadelphia (1993)

Philadelphia (1993)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Other than the two main performances from Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, the most interesting aspect to Demme's film is the way it acts as a litmus test for how far Western society as come regarding gay rights. Released over twenty years ago, Philadelphia tackled the fear and outrage surrounding homosexuality, fear which was compounded by the AIDS crisis that so devastated the gay community in the 80s and 90s. While discrimination is still a huge issue, the wider acceptance of the fact that some people are gay, and that's okay (and are not going to give you AIDS), means the film acts largely is a reminder of the way things recently were.

Demme uses his penchant for close-ups on characters' faces (as seen in Silence of the Lambs) to confront the audience with the humanity of the characters, their strengths and weaknesses. Though done rather too often, it allows us to get close to the performances, seeing little flickers of expression pass over the actors' faces. Hanks is naturally good as Andrew Beckett, a man facing his own mortality who wants to see justice served, knowing it will help others. For me, Denzel Washington was the standout, a man who believes in justice, yet is repulsed by Beckett's sexuality. He does change, but it is not from one extreme to another; he comes to see Beckett as a person whose death will be a great loss to the world. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Gertrud (1964)

Gertrud (1964)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

It seems that Dreyer, at least technique-wise, never made the same film twice. After the close-ups and low-angle shots in Joan of Arc, to the slow moving pans of Ordet, in Gertrud we have long, long shot lengths with a huge emphasis on dialogue delivered by characters who seem to barely move. Of the three Dreyer films I have seen to date, this one was the most obtuse, and inspired none of the awe of the other two.

The film style may have something to do with that, but it is also the story. Gertrud, played by Nina Pens Rode, wants to be loved utterly and completely by a man who won't be distracted by his career or other people. While this is an understandable desire, most people know that it is an impossible demand, one that they would fail at, so demanding it of others is foolish, Gertrud ignores this, and coupled with her wealthy lifestyle, she comes across as spoiled. However, Pens Rode's performance is so subtle, with little fanfare or histronics, that she is not nearly as frustrating as she could have been. The men are painted with slightly broader brushstrokes, particularly Gertrud's young lover.

The film looks beautiful, as one would expect of Dreyer. As with the other films, white is the main tone of the image, with the shadows and dark tones appearing as intrusions on the clean light. I can see why this proved divisive on release, particularly coming so long after the wonderful Ordet. A bit of a disappointment.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Napoleon (1927)

Napoleon (1927)

Director: Abel Gance

Filmmakers, unfortunately, don't make biopics like this anymore. Rather than attempt to recreate every event in Napoleon Bonaparte's life, aim at historical verisimilitude, or try to probe into the psychology of this famous character, Gance opts for operatic mythologising. From the opening moments of this epic sweep, we see stirrings of greatness in young Bonaparte, a greatness not recognised by his (snobby) peers. As someone who grew up on English history and comedy, where Bonaparte was the butt of jokes, and the great enemy of Britain, this heroic depiction of the French emperor made my experience all the more fresh and interesting.

I saw the three hours, forty-five-ish cut of the film, with a fantastic score by Carmine Coppola. Incorporating themes from other famous composers, with "La Marseillaise" a constant throughout, the music helps strengthen the epicness of the story. It is particularly masterful in the scene where de Lisle teaches the masses to sing the anthem, their silent voices in time with this famous tune. With its use of French Impressionism techniques, Gance's film feels alive and fresh, the camera moving around with great energy; the scene of Bonaparte being swept around by a storm at sea intercut with scenes of discontent at the National Assembly represented by a swinging camera was a personal favourite.

I really liked this. While long, it rarely dragged, and though I know the ultimate outcome of this period of history, I was swept along by the bravado of the storytelling. It has been added to my list of films I want to see on the big screen, ideally with a live performance of Coppola's score.

Friday, 11 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Carol (2015)

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

I am relishing the recent renaissance of film stock use in modern cinema. While digital certainly has its positives (easier, cheaper), there is something truly beautiful about the texture of film. Its use of chemicals and light to compose an image are like art, like the Roman frescoes, both long lasting and yet fragile.

The beauty of the image is what most struck me about Haynes' Carol, filmed on 16mm stock by Edward Lachman. The colours of the clothes, the furnishings, the make-up and even the skin tones of the characters are wonderfully rendered, highlighting the world we are in: 1950s America. There is also a chilliness to the texture, aiding the wintry setting of the story.

As many have noted, the performances of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are very good, their facial expressions and gestures doing most of the talking. Mara intense eyes are put to good use, as she spends much of the film observing Carol, her friends and also herself, as she tries to work exactly what she is feeling. Blanchett's Carol has more at stake, and though her character is more experienced than Therese, there is a underlying level of vulnerability throughout her performance.

While I was not as blown away by Carol as much as many critics were, it is a wonderful piece of cinema about a seemingly familiar story that doesn't hit the cliches you would expect. And few films are as aesthetically beautiful as this.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Many films promise a shocking secret at the heart of their stories, a horrible event in the past that continues to haunt the remaining characters. Unfortunately, often the secret is not shocking, either because you have guessed it by the end of Act One, or it proves to be rather more limp than you had hoped. The secret at the heart of Suddenly, Last Summer is still a shock over fifty years later, and part of that is the centrality of topics we think of as taboo in 1950s cinema. If it sounds like I am tip-toeing around the subject, it is because this film deserved to be seen as clean as possible so the horror of the situation is able to sink in.

The performances of the cast as all great, particularly a wonderfully brittle turn by Katherine Hepburn as Violet Venable, a woman so deep in denial about the truth surrounding her son. Montgomery Clift is post-car crash here, but his subdued portrayal of Dr. John Cukrowicz works well as he gathers evidence about the truth, and exhibits genuine sympathy for Elizabeth Taylor's Catherine Holly. Taylor is the third part of this tense triangle, and arguably has the hardest job of portraying a young woman haunted by awful memories. While she occasionally threatens to fall into histronics, she is great in the third act, finally revealing the terrible secret.

The film doesn't seek to shake off its theatrical origins, with its many long scenes; the meeting between Violet and John in the garden goes for over twenty minutes. These allow the characters to breathe, telling us about themselves and each other, and increasing our curiosity over the unspoken secrets. Prepare to be frustrated and slightly creeped out.

Monday, 7 March 2016

I've Just Seen: The Madness of King George (1994)

The Madness of King George (1994)

Director: Nicholas Hytner

When watching British films, I like to play the game 'How many people do I recognise from the cast, and what else have I seen them in?' I sit there thinking "Oh, there's 'so and so' from 'that thing,' or 'Ha, those two were husband and wife in something else, here they are mistress and servant!' Hytner's film, with its expansive cast of British thesps provided ample opportunity for such games.

The film is lavish yet intimate, with its focus on the medical emergency of King George III, who eventually went mad and was replaced by his son as Prince Regent. Like all films about royalty, the personal and the political are inextricable, with choices about marriage, health, and friendship affecting the country (apparently).

The performances are all good, with Nigel Hawthorne managing a difficult role well: he at times has to move between madness and cognisance in one scene. The supporting cast are good at reacting with bafflement and concern, and Rupert Everett is having fun as the opportunistic Prince George (with a shockingly awful head of hair).

The script is naturally strong, coming from the pen of Alan Bennett, but I spent much of the film wondering how it would work on stage, and think that it would be more impressive acted in a small space where that confinement would intensify the story. This is a solid historical drama that, similarly to The King's Speech and The Queen, dramatises a real life crisis for the English monarchy. Enjoyable, if lacking great depth and insight.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Most villians in horror films, usually the personification of particular human fears, rarely scare me. I am aware they are a construct often carried to its extreme, and I generally admire their depiction rather than cowering at their presence. Though Gilroy's film is not in the horror genre, the character of Louis Bloom is a truly frightening creature, largely because he seems so very human. We know there are people like Louis Bloom in the world; people so determined in their pursuit of their dreams that they really will stop at nothing to achieve them. And even more concerning, society generally rewards such behaviour.

We are in a similar world to Philip Marlowe's 1940s L.A. in Nightcrawler: a dark, crime-ridden city populated by amoral types. These 'nightcrawlers' scuttle around the city like insects, looking for delicious stories (bloody car crashes, police shoot outs, drug busts - the more horrific the better) to satisfy the rolling News channels. Gyllenhaal's Bloom finds he has a good eye for capturing this footage, sometimes an even better eye than the real event itself - he moves bodies in order to emphasis their mangled state, and cuts out shots that don't work with the narrative he wants to tell.

Gyllenhaal performance is perfect. His natural charm and good looks are contrasted with an awful haircut and terrible clothes, which give him a creepy vibe. Gyllenhaal uses his strking eyes to full effect, as Bloom maintains an intense gaze throughout, a gaze that seems to be focused on his next goal, whether that be appraising a crime scene, or pressuring another character to do what he wants. Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed are wonderful as Bloom's closest colleagues, Nina and Rick. They bear the brunt of Louis' psychopathic behaviour, but have very different reactions to it.

This is a great film, and is particularly impressive in its depiction of a truly amoral character. Gilroy breaks one of the cardinale rules of screenwriting: the main character going on a journey, and some part of them changing as a result (usually for the better). Louis Bloom doesn't really change: he character simply gets stronger, confirmed in its own habits and beliefs. And that leaves the audience deeply unsettled.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

I've Just Seen: Knife in the Water (Nóż w wodzie) (1962)

Knife in the Water (Nóż w wodzie) (1962)

Director: Roman Polanski

I look forward to seeing Polanski films. Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby are favourites of mine, and Macbeth and Venus in Fur were very good adaptations of plays. He gets great performances out of his actors, a skill that is evident in this, his first feature film. Knife in the Water thrusts us into a triangular scenario, as a couple invite a young hitchhiker to join them for a day trip on their boat.

I was most reminded of Rene Clement's Purple Noon: the isolated setting of the boat, the tension that lies under every scene: whether it is murderous or sexual remaining uncertain. We don't know why Andrzej invites the young man onto the boat, or why the young man says yes. Triangles crop up in a lot of the shot compositions: a character framed through the bent arm of another, the three of them placed at different distances from the camera, and the shape of the sail boat itself.

For the first half of the film one corner of the shape is a mystery: Krystyna. She is largely silent for much of the piece, and appears to be throughly uninterested in the conversations of her husband and the young man. However, she is not nearly so absent as we believe.

While not as brilliant as many of his other films, this is a very impressive first feature, and points to many ideas and themes Polanski would return to over the years.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

I've Just Seen: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dokhtari dar šab tanhâ be xâne miravad) (2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dokhtari dar šab tanhâ be xâne miravad) (2014)

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Few films mix genres so readily as Amirpour's film. Part Western, part vampire horror, part romance, part gangster, set in a Iranian 'Bad Town,' all filmed in black-and-white. A Girl Walks Home moves through its story, giving its audience little sense of what is to come next; whether the next person The Girl looks at will be attacked, helped or seduced.

While I did not fall in love with the film the way many others have, it is was difficult not to be impressed by it. The film wears its feminism on is sleeve (or chador), but it fits naturally into the plot, and cleverly re-works the traditional male vampire/ female victim relationship we usually get. The cinematography is moody, most scenes taking place at night, lit by feeble street lights. The figure of The Girl walking around in the long, black chador already feels iconic, and she appears to float over the footpaths (at one point doing so on a skateboard).

I shall definitely revisit A Girl Walks Home, as it is a film that requires you to invest in it, with many scenes playing out without any dialogue at all. Gestures and expressions are the main forms of communication throughout the story, and can be missed if the film is watched casually. Dark and unique.