Sunday, 24 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Director: Woody Allen

Few people can mix existential philosophy and comedy together, and no one does it quite like Allen. In Crimes and Misdemeanors we follow two different men, each grappling with infidelity. Martin Landau's Judah Rosenthal has a mistress who is threatening to reveal her existence to Judah's wife, causing him to decide to get rid of her in the most thorough way possible. Allen plays Clifford Stern, a documentary filmmaker who can't quite commit to adultery with Mia Farrow's Halley. The cast, who are all brilliant, is dotted with many familiar faces, including Anjelica Huston as Judah's desperate mistress and a scene-stealing Alan Alda as Clifford's brother-in-law and rival (in all things).

This is top-tier Allen, up there with Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan. The central question - how much guilt can one man cope with? - is cleverly explored, with no easy answers given. A touch of Bergman is provided by Bergman's frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose camera calmly, almost coldly watches the action. The title is also a reference to the director, echoing Cries and Whispers.

Though not as laugh-out-loud funny as other Allen films, Crimes and Misdemeanors stays with you long after its finished. It is incredibly well-written, genuinely clever, and the jokes, when they come, are brilliantly sharp. As with all Allen's films, don't come expecting a 'happy' ending.

Friday, 22 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Girlhood (Bande de filles) (2014)

Girlhood (Bande de filles) (2014)

Director: Celine Sciamma

Sciamma's film is the fourth of several films from recent years that beautifully explore the anger felt by oppressed women around the world (and have often faced for centuries). The others are Mustang, In Bloom and Wadjda (all directed by women too!). Sciamma's film is set in modern-day Paris, and follows Marieme, a black teenager looking for her place in the world. She joins a girl gang (bande de filles), and finds the friendship and support she doesn't get at home or school.

The film has been controversial for the non-moralising portrayal of this girl gang, who do things like steal, drink, do drugs and fight other groups. The story doesn't go for the obvious plot, where the girls are accused and pursued by police. Instead we stay within their world. We see them enjoying each other's company in their stolen wares in a wonderfully sequence where they sing along to Rihanna's 'Diamonds.' The beauty of this scene, and the film as a whole, contrasts interestingly with the subject matter.

The performances from the cast are very natural, and Karidja Toure as Marieme is particularly wonderful. She handles Marieme's arc well, from being slightly shy and uncertain to strong member of the gang, to a young woman on the verge of adulthood. There are several scenes where they are large numbers of teenage girls on screen, and it is a damning critique on cinema that such things stood out to me - especially as the girls were never sexualised by the camera. In fact, it is a male character whose body is lustfully lingered over (we share Marieme's viewpoint at that moment).

Clearly I loved this, finding myself drawn into a world that, when I was a teenager (and even now as an adult) I would never have paticipated in. The film's greatest strength is its portrayal of female friendship, and the positive force it plays in every girls' life.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Double Feature: The Evil Dead (1981); Evil Dead II (1987)

The Evil Dead (1981); Evil Dead II (1987)

Director: Sam Raimi

It is a no-brainer to group these two films together. Though Evil Dead II doesn't act as a normal sequel to The Evil Dead, the two films feature Ash Williams being driven into madness by the horrors unleashed in a remote cabin the woods. While The Evil Dead is meant to have been a straight horror film, the utterly ridiculous amount of goo, and the over-the-top performances of the cast, sent the film into disgustingly enjoyable camp horror; a tone Evil Dead II takes as a starting point and exploits to great humour.

Raimi's brilliantly sick mind is on full display in both films. Only a sick mind would come up with a girl getting raped by trees, and well as brilliantly use a simple technique to create the iconic shots of the camera zooming along the forest floor, the viewpoint of some unknown terror. The use of stop-work animation is obvious, but I prefer it to modern CGI; there is something charming and also unsettling about its jerky movements. The make-up is also funny in its low-budget quality, but again feels real.

Of the two I liked The Evil Dead a tad more than its sequel, though both are great and really should be watched together. The greater amount of gore and spurting fluids may explain my preference. The sequel worked best when it is Ash by himself in the cabin, trying to overcome the evil spirits. This section strays into silent film comedy, when Ash's hand becomes possessed and starts beating him around the head.

These two films are a world away from the depressing darkness of 1970s horror, or the poetic sadness of Eyes Without a Face. Yet they are an immense amount of fun, with moments of true horror thrown in for good measure. If you are squeamish, don't watch on a full stomach.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Gigi (1958)

Gigi (1958)

Director: Vincente Minelli

I like my musicals with a good dose of dancing to accompany the all the singing going on. If Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, or Anne Miller are in the cast, I know I am going to enjoy myself. Leslie Caron made her American debut in An American in Paris, which I enjoyed, and she was known for her dancing rather than her singing. So why was she cast in a musical where she doesn't get any big dance numbers, and all her singing was dubbed?

Sadly, that is not the only problem I had with this musical. Perhaps it has dated severely since it premiered, for the story of a girl being raised to be a high-class courtesan sits very uncomfortably today. It is all presented with an amount of Gallic charm (filtered through an 1950s American sensibility) that masks the story's seedy undercurrent (my sister didn't get the courtesan storyline until I explained it to her; and then she was even more put-off). Songs like 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls' make the atmosphere even more irksome.

The only positive is the art direction and costume design. It does look beautiful, and the use of real Parisian locations was a good idea. The house of Gigi and her mother and grandmother, with its plush red walls, is lovely, as are the costumes Gigi wears. Leslie Caron is sweet as Gigi, not really playing the coquette Gigi was in the original French film: she has a naivety, captured in her song 'I don't Understand the Parisans.'

I was not charmed by this, and can think of better musicals that could be on the 1001 Films list; and I would not have given this Best Picture either, by a long way. You will either love it or hate it; and I deeply disliked it. And have not found myself humming any of the tunes since seeing it!

Monday, 11 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Artists and Models (1955)

Artists and Models (1955)

Director: Frank Tashlin

Jerry Lewis is certainly an acquired taste: one I do not have. His antics - face-pulling, man-child dopey-ness - do nothing for me, and the only moments I found his behaviour funny was his attempts to run away from Shirley MacLaine's Bessie Sparrowbush, who has the hots for his Eugene Fullstack; and an amusing sequence involving massage. In fact, MacLaine is the standout in the whole film, giving her all to the physical comedy and the dancing, playing Bessie with a likeable amount of goofiness.

Other than MacLaine, the other enjoyable part of the film are the costumes, from the stylish blue leotard number for the 'Bat Lady', Eva Gabor's fur-trimmed purple leotard, to the dresses in the title song. Since they were designed by Edith Head, it is no wonder they are memorable. The film's plot is simply there to hang jokes off, and goes off into a completely different story in the Third Act (something to do with spies, and a secret formula: it is not really important!).

Now I know what Lewis' schtick was, I am apprehensive about seeing more of his films. Watching comedies that don't tickle your funny bone are worse than seeing drama that doesn't quite hit the mark; you feel that you are missing something that others get, that somehow it is your problem. The funny thing is, I watched King of Comedy not long after seeing Artists and Models, and was amazed at how great Lewis is in that film, playing the jaded late night comedian that De Niro's character obsesses over. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) (1960)

Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) (1960)

Director: Georges Franju

Scenes of surgery sometimes make me squimish, depending on how identifiable the body part is. So eyes and hands are deeply uncomfortable, while internal procedures are more curiosities (despite the greater amount of blood). The surgical scenes of Franju's film, face removal and transplantation, are deeply disquieting, (though for me not sickening). What is even more shocking is the reason for the surgery, and why women keep turning up dead with the skin of their faces missing, with the aloof, almost dispassionate camera enhancing this horror.

Dr Genessier, our surgeon, falls into the category of mad scientist, along with Dr. Frankenstein, but he does not spend the film raging around with furious energy. Instead he is almost preternaturally controlled, only expressing great emotion in the film's last scene. This sense of stillness pervades the film, giving it an uneasy atmosphere. This stillness is presented most horrifyingly in the form of the mask worn by Christiane Genessier; white and impassive, with lips that only slightly move when she speaks, the mask is one of the most frightening things I have ever seen in a film. I remember as a child seeing a painting in an art gallery of two figures with white fabric over their faces. It terrified me, and that same fear came back watching Franju's film.

The motivation for all the face surgery (and transplantation) is not the usual desire for continuing youth, but guilt; a father's guilt over destroying his own child's face. This gives the film a poignancy and even melancholy, particularly from Christiane, who is sick of hiding from the world.

Eyes Without a Face is deeply unsettling, and strangely beautiful, a perfect counterpoint to the tendency of modern horror films to go for big scares without much substance.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Rome, Open City (Roma citta aperta) (1945)

Rome, Open City (Roma citta aperta) (1945)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Italian neo-realism is the genre of film you watch when you want your heart broken. Not in the romantic 'Why can't they be together!' way that romance weepies do, but in their exploration of the lives of the poor and oppressed, and the occasional futility of life, particular in desparate times. Made during the months after the end of WWII, Rossellini's film follows a group of Italian resistance fighters during the occupation of Rome.

The most heartbreaking moment of the film comes half-way through, and is made even more shocking for the blunt and realistic way it happens. Pina, engaged to be married to Resistance fighter Francesco, and several months pregnant, runs after the truck carrying Francesco when she is suddenly shot dead. It is almost as much of a shock as Marion's death in Psycho, as Pina had been the film's heart up to that point.

The violence and torture increases throughout the film, as the Germans try to find out the others members of the Resistance. It is a depressing film in many respects, but it is tempered by the portrayal of decency and bravery of the resistant Italians, including the priest set to marry Pina and Francesco. We often think that wars are largely played out on battlefields, but Rossellini's film reminds us of the homefronts and the work of civilians to defend their countries.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954)

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

I've yet to watch a Kurosawa film I didn't enjoy or love. You know a director is great when the debate over what their masterpiece is includes about five or six of their films, and that is certainly true for Kurosawa. Seven Samurai, for me, is up there with Ran and Ikiru, my favourite Kurosawa's films so far (and I am yet to see Throne of Blood, which I am told is just as good).

This epic has a surprisingly simple story: a village seeks to employ a group of samurai to defend it from bandits. One of Kurosawa's greatest (and less talked about strengths) was his focus on character. A large part of the film is focused on the relationships between the samurai and the villagers, and the samurai themselves, all of whom has distinctive personalities. These parts are just as enjoyable to watch as the brilliant fight sequences; in fact, our interest in the unfolding of the battles hangs on our investment in these characters.

Another of Kurosawa's skills as a filmmaker is his ability to make films that are distinctly Japanese, yet are completely accessable to audiences around the world. Seven Samurai does not explain the laws of samurai, or the class system in medieval Japan, yet we understand the differences that strain the relationships between the villagers and samurai.

Despite its length, Seven Samurai never drags, never feels too long, and I can't think of anything that could be cut. All the praise heaped upon this film is well deserved: it is exciting, funny, beautiful in its visual composition, and ultimately moving in its melancholic finale. One to watch again and again.

Monday, 4 July 2016

I've Just Seen: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Director: Spike Lee

Both the best and the worst thing I can say about Lee's film is that after twenty-seven years since it was released, the film's questions around racism and violence in America are no closer to being answered than they were in the late 80s, therefore making the film painfully relevant. And clearly, this is not the fault of the film, but rather an indictment on how slowly societal change can move. This film details a very American experience of racism, but its contemplation of the value placed on black lives speaks universally; I recorded the film off Australia's dedicated Aboriginal channel.

I re-watched West Side Story not long after seeing Lee's film, and felt the two spoke to each over almost thirty years. It comes out largely through the art direction; the splashes of bright colour on the walls of the streets, which help create an atmosphere of tension and anger that is essential for both stories. Lee's film is less about plot and more of a portrait of this street in Brooklyn, with its different characters from different generations; people who were alive during the 50s and 60s civil rights movement, and the next generation who are trying to fit into the post-movement world.

The performances are all really good; Spike Lee is very quiet as main character Mookie, but his performance works to allow the larger characters to shine, and also explains he ability to work with Sal (it takes a lot to rile Mookie). While our sympathies are with the neighbourhood, Lee cleverly complicates things, with Sal explaining to his racist son why he likes working in the neighbourhood. The climax asks the audience to decide if Mookie does the right thing, and if there is even a 'right thing' to do; is the morality clear-cut, or does it depend on where your sympathies lie? 

The film starts off with a fantastic opening credits sequence of Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power' (which will get stuck in your head for days!). It is full of anger and frustration, and is utterly compelling to watch; setting the audience up for the rest of the film. Stylish, clever and (sadly) still highly relevant, this is a great film.