Tuesday, 10 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Badlands (1973)

 Director: Terrence Malick

I am rather ambivalent about Malick's films, which slightly baffles me as I don't object to spirituality in films. Even more strangely, I am one of those who found Tree of Life to be a marvellous piece of cinema (dinosaurs and all). But some of his others have left me a bit, eh. Don't get me wrong, his films are absolutely beautiful to look at, and there is a lovely dreaminess to them, but I just don't get swept up in them.

Badlands was Malick's debut, and it is a very impressive one. The road trip film follows teenager Holly and her boyfriend Kit as they move around the Midwest of America, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Holly narrates the film, starting off rather enamoured of bad-boy Kit who seems to promise a life of excitement. Throughout their adventures Holly starts to see Kit's behaviour in a new light as the romance wears thin.

Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen are fantastic as Holly and Kit. Their growing attraction and eventual separation feels natural. This is a particularly poignant scene where Sheen's Kit tries to reignite their romance by dancing in the car's headlights to 'A Blossom Fell.' Holly's dissatisfaction is clearly written on her face, hidden from Kit as he gently sways her from side to side. The music in the film is also great, from the music the two listen to, to the Carl Orff score. The cinematography, as you would expect, is gorgeous, from the sweeping expanses of the Montana badlands, to the romantic lights peeping out of the night sky.

Writing this review has made me appreciate the film a lot more. Malick gets great performances from his two leads, and his story is anti-romantic in a way; Holly's projection of James Dean onto Kit is punctured by the reality of actually living with a bad-boy. The violence and killings are a shock but they don't break the tone of the film, as though it, like Holly, is unable to fully comprehend what anger resides in Kit. I can see echoes of Badlands in Andrea Arnold's American Honey which simiarly takes a dreamy, poetic approach to teenage disaffection.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Funny Games (1997)

 Director: Michael Haneke

Most horror films deal with some sort of supernatural idea, be it monsters or spirits. Or if it is a human character, they are painted as monster-like themselves, and we usually get some kind of explanation for their behaviour. What makes Funny Games one of the most terrifying films I have seen is that the "evil" of the film is unexplained, and it is dealt by two young men who seem, on the surface, pleasant and even helpful.

Haneke's film falls into the category of admirable but not enjoyable. It is hard not to admire it. Haneke uses extremely lengthy shots to allow the story to unfold in a slow-burn way that ratchets up the tension. Two in particular really standout: the first is the one where the mother Anna is trying to give Peter some eggs, which he breaks, then ruins her phone, then drops some more eggs. What starts out as slightly comic becomes threatening, and you start thinking "Get him out of the house." The second one comes right after a horrifying death, and holds on Anna as she, and we, try to overcome our shock at what has happened.

The story is a clever one, defying our expectations, and even breaking film rules as a scene is re-wound to change its outcome. The central question of "why" regarding all the violence and horrible games is never answered, leaving us with little closure. All this is incredibly admirable, but is also used to deliberately make the film really unlikeable.

Like with Requiem For a Dream, I won't be watching this again anytime soon. I don't think I can take the tension all over again, especially knowing what is to come. Haneke's films are never easy or comfortable, but you will never forget them.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Boom! (1968)

 Director: Joseph Losey

The things one does for love! I love Elizabeth Taylor and am trying to watch all of her films. Not all of them are available in Australia, but one of those that is is Boom!, which is about ...

Honestly, I don't know. This film is so bad, and part of that badness is the terrible handling of the story. Taylor plays a dying "old' woman who is meant to be seduced by a "youthful" fortune hunter, played by Richard Burton, infamous for being around wealthy old women when they die. For some reason it all happens in a modern house perched precariously on a cliff on the Mediterranean. Stuff happens, often with Taylor wearing rather elaborate costumes (the best part of the film: they do look great on Taylor).

This film has apparently got camp value, and Taylor's performance is rather over the top: Burton doesn't seem to be even trying. None of it makes sense, and I was rendered bored by the whole thing. Burton and Taylor could be dynamite on screen, but here the chemistry is missing: they look like they weren't speaking to each off screen for the whole shoot.

Really, you don't need to see this, unless you share similar taste in films to John Waters, who loves this.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Re-Animator (1985)

 Director: Stuart Gordon

I love it when a horror film goes utterly crazy. It is both horrifying and hilarious, leaving you almost breathless with glee. Re-Animator, with its short running time, goes brilliantly mental very quickly (I'd say somewhere around the re-animated cat), and just when you think it can't get more ridiculous, it does.

Jeffrey Combs is perfect as the 'mad scientist' Herbert West, whose invention - a reagent that reanimates people - has horrible side-effects on the reanimated corpse. He is obsessively focused on his invention and can't help using it, even when doing is a really bad idea (like reanimating he man trying to take credit for his invention). Combs' West's bluntness and inability to suffer those he sees as foolish make him appear almost the most sane, or at least calm, character in the film.

The story follows West as he tries to fine tune his invention in America. He takes up with a follow medical student, Dan Cain (owner of the cat), and somehow Dan's girlfriend Megan's father ends up as one of the corpses. Into the mix is West's nemesis Dr Hill, who also has a thing for Megan. The film's ridiculous plot adds another layer of humour.

The other great element of Re-Animator is its opening titles sequence and theme, which is iconic enough to be parodied in The Simpsons. It is reminiscent of Psycho, and points to the coming madness and chaos of the story.

Re-Animator has everything one wants in an 80s cult horror film: humour, gore, an iconic central performance, a brilliant theme, and a nice chilling ending to round it all off. Great fun!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) (1972)

 Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cries and Whispers, like Persona, looks at the complexities of female relationships. In this film the relationships are familial, between three sisters and a maid. Unlike Persona, where the two women seemed to be blurring into one another, two of the sisters in Cries and Whispers, Maria and Karin, struggle to overcome their own lives in order to support the dying Agnes. Only Anna, the maid, responds with complete love and devotion to Agnes in her pain.

The film doesn't follow a linear storyline, instead flashing back in time to memories of Agnes' childhood, Maria's infidelity, Karin's horrific episode of self-mutilation (which made me queasy), and Anna's reflection on her dead child. There is also a scene, which could be a dream or a real shared experience for the women, where Agnes comes back to life and begs her sisters to comfort her. This engimatic approach makes this a film one experiences and then pieces together afterwards.

The cinematography is utterly beautiful, with its etheral white costumes contrasted with the plush red furniture and decoration in the house. It keeps us entralled in this emotionally complex situation, as the sisters and Anna grapple with their own fears around death, their bodies, and questions of happiness and faith.

Like almost all of Bergman's films, I want to watch this again to see what a second viewing reveals about the characters. The film's overall tone is one of deep introspection that reveals many painful truths for the women (and the audience), yet the ending is one of quiet hope and joy for sisterly togetherness. As devastating as it is beautiful.

Monday, 18 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Coma (1978)

 Director: Michael Crichton

Coma is not strictly a horror film, but its subject matter - patients being left braindead after routine operations - plays on common fears about medical procedures, and questions our complete reliance on doctors to always do the right thing. Genevieve Bujold's Dr Susan Wheeler starts investigating these supposedly random events and uncovers something sinister.

This is the third film starring Bujold I have watched, and she is a good here as she was in Anne of the Thousand Days and Dead Ringers. She radiants intelligence, and her doggedness in pursuing these irregularities is not painted as a caring, female quality, but a rigorous desire for the truth. The studio apparently had thought about casting a male in the lead (Paul Newman), but part of the tension of the story comes from Susan's gender. The senior male staff ignore her findings, and even her partner, fellow doctor Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) complains about her working too hard, and wants a more traditional relationship.

This is a neat little thriller film that engages with medical ethics in a clever way. While it gets a little melodramatic in the final third, Genevieve Bujold is also a joy to watch.

Friday, 15 September 2017

I've Just Seen: mother! (2017)

 Director: Darren Aronofsky

Every review you read about mother! is going to say 'This film will divide audiences' or 'This film is not for everyone.' And it is true. Aronofsky has created something that hard to explain and makes no apologies for its allusions and themes. You will come out of the film feeling something, be it stunned, angry or confused (or all three).

I don't want to say much about the film, as it is one that benefits going in as cold as possible. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her poet husband Him (Javier Bardem) in a house in the country. She is fixing it up while he tries to write. One day Man (Ed Harris) arrives and stays, much to Mother's chagrin. Then his wife (Michelle Pfieffer) turns up, and things start to get weirder and weirder.

There is a clear allegory in the film, though I only pieced parts together hours after seeing it. You could read it through a feminist lens, with an environmental view, or even with a Biblical eye. Lawrence is wonderful as Mother. The whole film rests on her performance, and a good portion of it is close-ups of her face as she reacts to the chaos ensuing around her. She keeps us anchored as the film's dream logic takes us to extremes.

I really liked this, but know others won't. As I was leaving the cinema, the woman in front of me was telling the usher it was a 'shocker' (Australian for "shockingly terrible"). Like with many films I have seen, I don't know anyone in my immediate acquaintance I'd recommend this to, but am looking forward to seeing it again and noticing new things about it.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

I've Joined Letterboxd!

Here is my profile.

If you are on it too, please follow me, and I'll more than likely follow you (in some sort of weird circle!). If you are not on Letterboxd, you can look at what I have (and have not) seen, and what I think about it; and judge me for my poor and/or good taste!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Black Christmas (1974)

Director: Bob Clark

Black Christmas has one of the best ending for a horror film I have seen. Without giving too much away, it leaves the viewer with a deep sense of unease, wondering what on earth is going to happen next, and slightly shocked that the film managed to trick us into imagining a different ending.

The film is set in a Canadian sorority house just before everyone leaves for Christmas. The sorority has been receiving creepy phone calls from a rather disturbed male caller; we assume it is from the same person we saw climb into the house in the film's opening scene. Our main character is Jess, who is dealing with a grumpy boyfriend, and her unwanted pregnancy to said boyfriend. Margot Kidder is a fellower sorority sister, and the whole group are overseen by housemother Mrs Mac (who is more loose than some of the girls, with her stores of booze hidden around the house). After one of the girls, Clare, disappears, a search starts around the university, until other girls start to disappear: and the phone calls get more and more violent.

The start of the film is a little slow, but it gets more and more tense as it goes on, leading to its brilliant ending. The editing in the slasher scenes is nicely jarring, emoting violent rather than showing it. The first-person camera work used for the killer is effective in its creepiness, as the man sneeks around the house, glimpsing future victims as they wander around. The film's famous image of the girl suffocated in a rocking chair occurs early on, and is used throughout the film to show how close, yet how far the women and police are to solving this case.

I really liked this. It is just as much a psychological horror story as a slasher film, doing what Hitchcock describes as suspense: the killer is the "bomb" in the story, and we wait anxiously, hoping someone discovers him before he "goes off" (kills) again (and so we can find out who it is).

Friday, 8 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Girl Shy (1924); The Freshman (1925); The Kid Brother (1927)

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor (for the first two films); Ted Wilde, J. A. Howe, Harold Lloyd, Lewis Milestone

My local library recently added a free film streaming service to its online resources. Because it is meant to be an educational resource, the service has a great deal of early cinema classics, as well as foreign language films. This, naturally, suits me perfectly. A large number of Harold Lloyd films are included, and seeing as he appears briefly in the 1001+ list, I thought I'd check them out.

I can see why Lloyd was such a star; he is incredibly likeable. While he started his career imitating Chaplin's tramp character, Lloyd went on to develop his own persona. Where Chaplin is Dickenesque in his exploration of poverty through his tramp, and Keaton is stony-faced as he deals with the chaos going-on around him, Lloyd's Harold plays with ideas of masculinity. In Girl Shy he is just that, playing a tailor unable to speak to women without a considerable stutter; The Freshman follows Harold's attempts to be popular at college, using quirks he has copied from a film; and in The Kid Brother he is referred to as the boy of the family, and his often compared to his burly brothers and father. He even does the domestic work in the house. This underdog status, along with his sweet, shy smile, make him a rather adorable romantic lead.

Like Keaton, Lloyd was renowned for his athleticism. He scales the branches of an immensely tall tree just to keep his beloved in sight; he gets constantly tackled by football players; and in Girl Shy performs one of the most impressive chase scenes in film history. These three films cast him alongside Jobyna Ralston: they were in six films altogether. They have great chemistry, and Ralston sometimes gets to be part of the joke, not just the object of desire.

Only one of these films is included on the 1001+ list - The Kid Brother - the only entry from Lloyd's filmography. This is a shame, because any one of these, along with Safety Last! could be included; they are all funny, clever and impressive, showing the joys of silent comedy as brilliantly as Chaplin and Keaton do too.

Monday, 4 September 2017

I've Just Seen: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)

 Director: Eli Craig

Well, its three from three for SJHoneywell's horror recommendations. A mixture of parody and homage, as well as a subverting of the stereotypes of horror films, how could I not enjoy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil!

Like The Cabin in the Woods, Craig's film plays on the horror staple of a group of college students going on a trip into the woods, and a rather eerie cabin with references to previous owner's violence. However, the owners of the cabin are Tucker and Dale, two hillbillies with pure intentions for their weekend getaway: fishing and clear-up of the cabin. The college students take against them after an awkward (and hilarious) encounter at the local petrol station, and it gets even worse when one of them, Allison, ends up unconscious in Tucker and Dale's cabin.

The deaths in this film are both gruesome and hilarious, all of them accidents that incriminate Tucker and Dale. The woodchipper scene was a highlight, its slapstick a more violent type of Buster Keaton sketch. The relationship that develops between Dale and Allison is sweetly handled, and nicely draws out more of their characters than one usually gets in a horror film.

This really works if you love horror, and have seen enough horror-in-the woods American horror films to get all the references. I also like that its skewers stereotypes about its characters: that the attractive, 'educated' characters may actually be the "evil" ones, not the supposedly creepy country folk.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

I've Just Seen: Dunkirk (2017)

 Director: Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk, as an event, seems to occupy a similar space in British history that Gallipoli does in Australia. It is used as an example of national character, where the country's defining characteristics were displayed not through victory in battle, but in its determination to keep on going, despite the odds. This is certainly the approach Nolan takes in his film.

While I have liked Nolan's films in the past, and cannot say anything against the look of his films, I haven't been entirely convinced by his storytelling. I feel that sometimes he relies too heavily on exposition to propel his twisty plots. While the dialogue in Dunkirk is not earth-shatteringly great, and is arguably the weakest part of the film, Nolan doesn't lean on it. Instead, the actors are often left to simply act with their faces, letting us see or wonder at their feelings. The story is really well-structured, as we jump between three different stories - land, sea, and air, over one week, one day and one hour respectively. The three gradually converge as the move to get over the Channel becomes more desperate.

The film looks wonderful largely due to Nolan's use of film stock. The blue of the water almost pops out of the screen in some scenes, and the lack of digital manipulation makes the air battles in particular look and feel real. The sound design and the music are what really brings the whole thing together. The roar of the Spitfires' engines vibrates in your body (with the help of the cinema's sound system), as does Hans Zimmer's score, with its clock-ticking motif and very emotive use of Elgar's Nimrod, a beautiful, stirring piece of music.

I am really glad I went and saw this on the big screen, and wish there was an IMAX cinema near me. While the film would be impressive on a TV screen, you wouldn't get that immersive quality that the big screen gives you. The loudness of the sound was a good thing, particular as the people sitting next to me saw fit to read out the words on the screen, and talk throughout (argh!); it was so loud that I mostly couldn't hear them.

Monday, 7 August 2017

I've Just Seen: In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida) (1976)

 Director: Nagisa Oshima

I am no prude when it comes to nudity and sex in films: one of my favourite films is a French adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which has full frontal, equal opportunity nudity, and several long sex scenes. It also has a plot with character development in between the love scenes; something that cannot be said for Oshima's film. Oh, there is a story: a woman working as a maid in a hotel begins an intense affair with her boss Ishida. The woman, Sada Abe (is it a coincidence that her name implies sadism?) used to be a prostitute, and does resume her former trade, but just can't keep away from Ishida.

If you were to play a drinking game, imbibing each time the two have sex, you would be sloshed within the first 15 minutes. Really, very little happens onscreen other than the two having sex and/or talking. And it gets boring rather quickly. Even when those two aren't having sex together, when we see them they are usually having sex with someone else, sometimes encouraged to do so by the other. Some of the activities they engage in, while not as revolting as those seen in Salo, are still unpleasant: eggs being inserted into unorthodox places, forcing others to watch them, forcing others to sleep with them, and finally a member being cut off.

Of course, what makes this all the more confronting is that much of the sex is non-simulated (well, I can't speak for Eiko Matsuda ecstasy, which may be Sally Albright levels of acting). To be honest, I had forgotten this fact as I started watching, and even found myself naively wondering how they did certain things (answer: they just did them).

The plotline of the story appears to be "I love you, and that is why I have to kill you," as the film culminates with a rather violent act, one of the few unsimulated parts of the film. While I didn't care for what I was seeing on screen, it does have some top quality cinematography (something I also said about Salo), so it does have a veneer of sexiness; it just loses it very quickly through repetition.

I am glad I have ticked this off the list, and will hopefully never need watch it again. While sex scenes are fine in films, character development and a good story is what makes them interesting and even sexy. Not continuous money shots.

Friday, 4 August 2017

I've Just Seen: Bullitt (1968)

 Director: Peter Yates

Bullitt feels likes a precursor to 70s films like The French Connection and Serpico, with its bleak approach to police work. Frank Bullitt, a policeman who is popular with the public and the media in San Francisco, is choosen to protect a Chicago defector. The man, Ross, gets killed, and Bullitt finds himself pursuing a major case of subterfuge. The plot allows for several exciting chases, including one of the most famous car chases in film history.

Steve McQueen really was one of the coolest guys to move across a screen. He was never a demonstrative actor, and here his understatement works well. You can feel the frustration building in Bullitt through the smallest flickers across his face. The other great character in this film is San Francisco, particularly during the famous car chase scene (despite it ending outside the city). Those famous hills and streets add a different feel to the chase, breaking the long scene into two parts (the second on a highway).

The editing in this film puts many modern chases to shame. It lingers a little longer with its shots, letting the audience feel motion of the cars dipping up and down the hills, and it helps elongate the tension of the whole scene over 11 minutes.

While this film does point to the bleakness of the 70s, its jazzy, snazzy soundtrack is pure 60s, and it is another element that makes this film so enjoyable. Really, look it up and listen to it; you'll imagine yourself walking around San Fran in the 1960s, or gliding around in your car, with a stylish coat on, and a hard stare searching out trouble.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

I've Just Seen: Wake in Fright (1971)

 Director: Ted Kotcheff

So many Australian films set in the outback have an aura of horror around them. There is no supernatural creature in Wake in Fright, with the horror instead comes from the aggressive friendship of the characters of Bundanyabba, who welcome city-raised teacher John Grant into their world of drinking, gambling, roo-hunting and fighting. Grant, well-educated with a suitcase full of books, waiting for a flight to Sydney to see his girlfriend, finds his whole person being completely pulled apart by this oppressive masculine world.

The view of Australia is from an outsider's perspective; we are looking at this culture through the eyes of John Grant, played by English actor Gary Bond, and the director is Canadian. The scenes in the RSL feel almost like a study of a foreign culture, from the bar etiquette to the sudden silence during the Ode. As someone who has grown up in this culture (or parts of it, I don't live in the outback) this makes for interesting viewing. When the film came out in the 70s many Australians found the film hard to stomach: it doesn't paint us in a great light!

There are many memorable scenes in the film, from the aforementioned RSL, to the two-up game, and the rather harrowing kangaroo hunt that takes place over a whole day and night. Throughout all the scenes there is an underlying menace from the locals, particularly from policeman Jock Crawford, and Doc, played by Donald Pleasance, who has a tendency to stare at one too long, and stand too close as he speaks to you. The nightmarish quality to John's experience also comes out in his inability to escape the town: he loses all his money in two-up, so no plane journery, and even a hitch-hiking attempt takes him back to the Yabba.

While not displaying Australia at its best, this is one of the great films about the Australian outback, and how alienating life can be living in the middle of nowhere. It is a horror film about the nasty side of mateship, turning the ideals of the Anzac spirit on its head, and asks Australians to think about just how friendly we really are.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Slither (2006)

 Director: James Gunn

I watched this on the recommendation of fellow blogger SJHoneywell; we share a similar taste in horror films, a trend which continues with Slither. Comedy-horror can be difficult to pull off, but Slither is both hilarious and horrifying, and often at the same time. It also cleverly references other horror films, but without being derivative or lazy.

We are introduced to the town of Wheelsy, a typical mid-America small town which is visited by an Invasion of the Body Snatchers' style parasite which infects local car dealer Grant Grant (played by the brilliant Michael Rooker, reminding me of his role as serial killer Henry). Soon the alien life is changing Grant, making him hungry for meat and growing long tentacles. His younger wife Starla is suspicious and enlists the help of policeman Bill (who has a crush on Starla). The plot follows the usual trajectory for these type of films, but has fun playing with the audience along the way.

As I said, this gets the balance between funny and frightening pretty much perfect. The comedy comes through the interactions of the characters and their bemusement at what is going on. The horror is genuinely gross at times. The scene where Brenda, used by alien-infected Bill as his human womb, bursts open, releasing millions of these parasites into Wheelsy. The bath scene, made iconic from its inclusion on the poster, is also memorable, and cleverly moves the plot along as well. Grant's final transformation, as the primary organisism that the infected seek to absorb themselves into (with orgasmic joy) makes you laugh out of revulsion as well as humour.

I don't know why this film was poorly received by audiences in 2006, despite critical approval. Watching it now, the special effects haven't aged that badly, the writing is sharp, and many of the stars have gone on to become even more famous in recent years. Unless you hate gooey, slimy, even silly horror, there is so much to enjoy here.

I've Just Seen: The Last Battle (Le Dernier Combat) (1983)

Director: Luc Besson

Besson's debut film is not strictly a silent film; it has a lot of sound and noise on its soundtrack, from whistling wind, to pelting rain, and clanging gates. But there is not dialogue, apart from one word -  'bonjour' - and the post-apocalyptic setting implies some sort of event has happened rendering humans speechless; the characters work very hard to say this one word. The black-and-white cinematography gives this science-fiction story a timeless quality: it is set in the future, but also harks back to early cinema.

The story follows 'The Man' around this desolate world of urban ruin and environmental bleakness. The first we see of him is having sex with a blow-up doll in a dilapidated apartment, the first of many striking images in this film. He leaves this place after some unknown men pursue him, flying in a handmade aircraft. The Man eventually meets with 'The Doctor,' a man living a another town, who has a secret that another man, 'The Brute' (played by Besson regular Jean Reno), is trying to get at. The Doctor fixes The Man after he crashes, and eventually reveals his secret to him. In the final third of the film The Man and The Brute battle over this secret.

As I said, this film has several interesting images in it. The most startling is the scene of fish falling along with rain on the town, and The Man gleefully gathering them up in a giant pile. Later pieces of rock fall like rain on The Man and The Doctor. The Man's first "home" is an old office block and he sits at a desk, still with some paraphernalia on it, but instead of carpet there is sand on the ground. We never learn what has happened, yet we know that it is something cataclysmic.

I was really impressed by this film, particularly knowing it was a debut feature. Besson has become well known for weird, brightly coloured and fast-paced science-fiction, so watching where he started off is very interesting. We are given few answers as to why the world has been all but destroyed, and instead experience the brutal level of survival the characters are living.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Z (1969)

 Director: Costa-Gavras

Use the word 'political' to describe a film these days, and most people are likely to turn off. This was not always the case, as many 60s films can attest. Z is a political thriller (not an oxymoron!) in the same vein as The Battle of Algiers, following the political fate of a country suffering under oppressive government rule. A leader of the peaceful leftist party is killed in drive-by accident, a set-up by the right-wing government, and a magistrate and journalist work to undercover the cover-up.

This doesn't sound thrilling on paper, but Costa-Gavras' film is both passionate in its politics, and very entertaining. Like Pontecorvo's film, Z doesn't have a specific protagonist but instead follows the fate of the unnamed nation as a whole. We know the truth from the start - that the government was deeply involved in the murder, making it an assassination -  and are whipped up into energetic frustration at the prospect of the government getting away with it (why does this sound so relevant?).

The screenplay is superb, as it introduces us to this politically charged world, and to the people who live in it, from the corrupt elite government officials, the weary opposition, the law and media trying to discover the truth, to the citizens with their diverse opinions and loyalties.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this. It never talks down to its audience, trusting them to keep up with the story and the large cast of characters. The only reason you may not enjoy this film is if your politics is different to Costa-Gavras'; there is little doubt about his allegiances, though considering the recent history of Europe when the film was made (25 years since the end of WWII), it is not surprising.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Another Year Older ...

The 18th of July is my birthday, and to mark its occasion this year I thought I would look at few of the films that came out the year I was born: 1990.

While not as stellar a year as 1939 or 1959, 1990 does have a several great films, a few of which I watched recently and really enjoyed. So here they are:

An Angel at My Table

Jane Campion's biographical film follows the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, spanning from her childhood to her success as a writer. Based on three different memoirs by Frame, three different actresses play her at different stages of her life; all sporting the same bright, frizzy orange hair. The film, like its subject, is quiet, yet very sympathetic to Frame and her life, and finds moments of humour among the pain.

Edward Scissorhands

This was the first Tim Burton film I saw, and it is still my favourite of his. The story is a lovely modern fairytale with a sweet performance by Johnny Depp as the titular Edward, and a wonderfully constructed world of pastel suburbia and a gothic oddness.


I am generally left cold by gangster films, finding all the wealth and crime unalluring. But Scorsese is a master of the genre, and from the opening scene you are thrown into this high octane world of drugs, guns and money. You know how it is going to end, with the American Dream turning into a nightmare, but the length of the film allows you to get to know these people and understand why they do what they do.


Lots of elements work so well in Reiner's film, from the script, the production design, the cinematography, to James Caan's performance. But what makes the film so good is Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes, one of the best villians in any horror film. She manages to be convincingly kind, then too kind, then terrifying with her sudden outbursts of anger. Authors beware: don't tick off your fans!


Whit Stillman's film could easily have been pretenious nonsense, being set among the upper-class New York college students home for deb ball season. But the wry humour and affection Stillman has for these adolescent adults is clear and smooths any irritation. For a film that is largely people sitting in ornate rooms talking, it manages to be very cinematic and lovely to look at, with a melancholic nostalgia for the fleeting closeness of these friends.

Jacob's Ladder

This is a film I need to watch again. Its plot follows three different time periods: the Vietnam War, Jacob's current life working in a post office and living with girlfriend Jezzie, and his previous family and memories of his dead son. Things start to get strange when demonic beings start appearing in his life with Jezzie, leading Jacob to try and discover what is going on (as fellow soldiers in his platoon in Vietnam are experiencing the same thing). When you finally discover what is going on, it completely alters everything you've just seen, and shows how wonder film it at manipulating time.

Have I missed anything? Was your birth year a great year for film?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Born Yesterday (1950); The Girl Can't Help It (1956)

 Directors: George Cukor; Frank Tashlin

I've grouped these two films together because they essentially share the same plot: a gangster hires a professional man to help educate his blonde girlfriend, and the teacher and student fall in love. In Born Yesterday Judy Holliday is the blonde Billie, with William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall, while Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield are Tom Miller and Jerri Jordan in The Girl Can't Help It. In the first, Harry Brock wants Verrall to educate Billie as she embarrasses him in front of potential business partners; in Tashlin's film Miller is hired to make Jerri a star in order to reinstate Fats Murdock's reputation as a 'somebody' gangster.

In terms of the love stories of each film, Born Yesterday does a better job of convincing you that Billie and Paul are attracted to each other. The chemistry between Holden and Holliday is allowed to develop, and they get a number of scenes to talk to one another. The Girl Can't Help It tells us a great deal about Jerri's life, but Miller doesn't reveal much about himself: his attraction appears to be largely for surface reasons. The script for Born Yesterday is much better; it was based on a play after all!

That being said, there is much to enjoy in The Girl Can't Help It. As the first rock 'n' roll musical it has a fantastic soundtrack; Fats Domino and Little Richard feature among others. Jayne Mansfield made a career of being a Marilyn Monroe-type (or exaggeration), but she is a great screen presence. I couldn't help but be slightly mesmerised by her body shape: how did she get her waist that small! She is also a pretty good singer.

Judy Holliday as Billie won the Oscar for Best Actress in the same year that Anne Baxter and Bette Davis were nominated for All About Eve, and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. All I can say is that this is further proof that the Oscars are meaningless. All of those women gave such wonderful, and different performances, and Holliday thoroughly deserved to be named among them. She is clearly having fun playing brassy Billie but also gives her depth; she responds well to Paul's teaching, and shows a sweet if sad backstory for the character.

I like Born Yesterday more than The Girl Can't Help It, but both are very enjoyable. While they seem to trade off on the 'dumb blonde' stereotype, both also play around with it in interesting ways.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Thirst (2009)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Thirst is a modern vampire film merged with the plot of Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin. A Catholic priest in South Korea, Sang-hyun, becomes a vampire after becoming infected while volunteering in Africa. He returns to Korea and falls in love with the wife of a childhood friend. The two start an affair that threatens to kill everyone around them.

I really like Park Chan-wook as a director. He doesn't hold back in terms of violence and horror, and creates twisty plots that constantly challenge your expectations. Right from the start Thirst gives us a clever variation on the vampire story. Sang-hyun's infection is delivered through a blood transfusion, and actually saves his life (in a way). Park Chan-wook also focuses on character, and this particularly drives the plot of Thirst.

Sang-hyun, though he loses his faith after his 'conversion,' still maintains certain morals about his behaviour. He drinks from patients at the hospital who are on drips or steals bags of blood so he doesn't kill anyone. He is not above murdering his lover Tae-ju's husband, but does so believing him to be abusive. She on the other hand is much more bloodthirsty, despite not being a vampire for most of the film.

Thirst manages to be gothic and modern, harking back to nineteenth century literature, and stories of vampires, with some new ideas thrown in. It is sexy, gory and clever, even if the story lags at times during its long run time. There are several scenes of gore that stay with you; Sang-hyun haemorrhaging while playing his flute, to the oddly romantic yet gross way Sang-hyun saves Tae-ju's life. You certainly know you are watching a Park Chan-wook film.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)

 Director: Sacha Gervasi

Who would have thought a documentary about an aging, Canadian, heavy mental band would be so emotional, touching and ultimately uplifting?

Anvil is one of the those bands that are well respected in the industry, but have never managed to break out into the mainstream. The film starts with footage of a concert in Japan in the 80s, where Anvil played along with other bands who, the titles tell us, went on to sell millions of albums. We also have a few clips of interviews with people like Slash and Lemmy, explaining the impact of the band's album Metal on Metal on their music.

Rarely do you get the stories of the bands that didn't make it, and the rather brutal honesty of the film is one of the reasons why it works so well. We see lead singer "Lips" Kudlow working as a delivery man for a food charity, while the drummer works in construction. Interviews with their family and friends reflect on the heartbreak the band has experienced, having given their all and receiving little reward. The first part of the film follows a disasterous tour of Europe, including a rather Spinal Tap moment of missing a train, and playing in large arenas to handfuls of people. All this is painful to watch, as you see the strain it puts on the band and their friendships. The second half has the band working towards releasing a new album, one that is produced by Chris Tsangarides, who also produced Metal on Metal.

There are several moments that are truly lovely and/or heartbreaking to watch. First is Kudlow's sister lending him money to go to England to make the record with Chris. Lips cries on his sister's shoulder, and you clearly see the love she has for her brother. The other moment is when Lips and drummer Robb Reiner make up after a big argument. Lips tells Reiner that though they fight, he loves him like a brother.

A good story will make you invest in ideas you are usually not interested in. I know almost nothing about metal music, but found myself completely engrossed in the band's fate, and hoped that they would suceed. The spectre of This is Spinal Tap hangs over this film, but where that film brilliantly sent up the ridiculous side of band life and the music industry, Anvil lovingly celebrates the passion people have for this music.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

 Director: Roman Polanski

Polanski, as I've said before, is one of my favourite directors (in spite of his private life); Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion are some of the best films I have ever seen. The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck is a very different prospect from Polanski: a comedy, and a broad one at that. Starring Polanski's future wife Sharon Tate, the film follows Polanski's Alfred and his mentor Professor Abronsius, two vampire killers, as they seek to save Tate's Sarah from the clutches of a Transylvanian vampire.

This is not Polanski most sophisticated work, and you wouldn't know from watching it that it was one of his films - except that he plays the main character. However I did enjoy this. It didn't raise much laughter, but I chuckled a few times, and liked the apparent levity of the story. Sadly I couldn't watch Tate and Polanski on screen together and not remember what happened just a few years later. Tate doesn't have a great deal to do in the film except be the object of desire, and take a number of baths, but she does get a great end scene. Polanski is good as the bumbling Alfred, and Jack MacGowran steals the show as the Professor.

This is a fun little horror comedy that shows Polanski's humorous side. It has less bite than you'd expect, and much more slapstick comedy than you'd imagine.

Monday, 26 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Director: Charles Jarrott

Being a fan of Elizabeth Taylor entails becoming a bit of a fan of Richard Burton; the two acted several times together, and Burton was of course talented in his own right, particularly playing rather grand characters. And they don't come much grander than Henry VIII. This film covers Henry's relationship with his second wife Anne Boleyn, the first 'beheaded' one, from their meeting to Anne's execution.

As a young teenager I was very interested in the history of Henry and his eight wives. I didn't think much about the character of Henry himself, but instead thought more about the feelings of his wives. Henry, as played by Burton, is a tantrum-prone tyrant, a man who believes all he does is fine by God, and can think of nothing else but producing a male heir for his kingdom. His attraction to the lively Anne is portrayed as a tragedy, with the two having a brief time of blissful love before reality sets in. Of course, the tragedy is entirely due to his obsession with having a son.

Burton is good as Henry, striding around shouting his wishes aloud - 'I want Anne!' or 'I want a son!' - or whispering loudly sweet nothings to Anne. It is a big performance, which does work as Henry was a big character. Genevieve Bujold is wonderful as Anne; she had my sympathies from the start, and she moves so naturally through the character's arc, from hatred and anger to love and wistfulness. She is intelligent and clever, navigating her way in this harsh world, trying to get the best for herself and her daughter.

While the script is full of talk about lust, sex, incest and adultery, onscreen it veers towards stuffy; it doesn't throw off its origins as a play. The costumes are gorgeous, opulent in their details - Margaret Furse thoroughly deserved her Oscar.

I've read somewhere that Burton had wanted Taylor to play Anne; I would have enjoyed seeing these two once again spar with one another on screen, but Bujold is so good in the role that I don't regret the casting for a moment. While not required viewing, it has several good performances and is lovely to look at - and watch out for Taylor's cameo!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Shaft (1971)

 Director: Gordon Parks

It is impossible to talk about Parks' film and not mention the theme song. It is the first thing you hear, played over the titles as we follow John Shaft walking around his patch of New York City. On its own, "Theme From Shaft" is a great song, sticking in your head for the whole film and long afterwards. Combined with the film's opening shots, it works as one of the best introductions to character you will see in film.

John Shaft is a private detective with an uneasy relationship with the police and several gang members. He is hired by Bumpy Jonas, a gangster, to find his kidnapped daughter. This gets complicated as several groups have their own agenda, including the police who want to know what Shaft knows, fearing this dispute might look like the start of a race war (which is it not).

Shaft is, as the song tells us, 'a complicated man.' He operates in a world that means his loyalties are not clear-cut - he doesn't want to get caught up with Jonas' gang, but is also weary of the police: a classic noir detective. His 'complications' also extend to his love life. The most dated part of the film are its sexual politics, as Shaft cheats on his girlfriend (thought the song assures us she is the only one who understands him!), and is described by one fling as "pretty good in the sack" but "pretty shitty afterwards.' This is just how Shaft is, the movie says, part of his "sex machine" persona. Despite this, Shaft is an incredibly charismatic individual, and you can't help but enjoy watching him take on this case.

Parks' decision to cast a black actor in the role of Shaft (the studio and writers had originally wanted a white actor), is one of the best decisions in film history; I can't imagine anyone else but Richard Roundtree playing the role - he is fantastic.

This was my first taste of blaxploitation cinema, and I look forward to seeing other films in the genre (the horror films look particularly intriguing!).

Friday, 23 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

 Director: Tsui Hark

Foshan, the setting for Hark's film, is presented as an incredibly international city, at least was in the late 19th century. It is a giant melting-pot of various Asian and Western countries, including America and Britain. At the centre of this world is Wong Fei-hung, a martial arts teacher and healer, and his coterie of apprentices and his '13th Aunt,' related to him by marriage and the woman he secretly loves. Another talented martial arts fighter arrives in town with the theatre, Leung Foon, who also adores '13th Aunt.' Wong, despite wanting peace, finds himself fighting with local gangs who have dubious connections to Americans who run a human trafficking ring.

Really, the plot is simply there to facilitate the fight scenes, and there are enough of them to keep you interested, or from cringing at the acting of the 'Americans.' Jet Li is good as Wong, and his fight scenes are a joy to watch. I also liked his quiet romance with Rosamund Kwan's '13th Aunt.' The depiction of this uneasy multicultural city was interesting, though I didn't known the history behind each country's presence there.

I did enjoy watching this, but am slightly unsure why it is on the 1001+ list. I can only think it is because it sparked an interest in martial art films at the time. It is good fun, but lacking in depth regarding its characters.

Monday, 19 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Big Red One (1980)

 Director: Sam Fuller

Trust Sam Fuller to make a war film that doesn't feel like other war films. Following a group of men from the 1st Division in World War II, we get an episodic view of war; the tension, the boredom, the unexpected, the comradery, and the fear. Lee Marvin is the oldest of the group, and saw action in the First World War. His experiences there affect his experiences in this war, and Fuller reflects on what we really learn from one war to the next.

Fuller does not shoot his war film like others. Instead of gloomy interiors of bombed-out houses, or battle-scarred, dark landscapes, we get sun-drenched North Africa, Sicily, Omaha Beach, and sunny West Germany. The opening scene in WWI, which was shot in black-and-white, and the final scene at night, are the really noticeable moments of darkness. The effect is to expose everything about war, and it leaves a lot of the emotions to the audience to feel, rather than the film using darkness to provoke fear.

The cast is full of well-known faces. Lee Marvin is great as the leader of the squad, a man still haunted by his previous experience. Mark Hamill plays a talented shooter who suffers a loss of confidence and becomes something of a pacifist (as much as you can be in the depths of war). Robert Carradine is the narrator of the film, and his character is apparently based on Fuller himself; the film's stories are based on Fuller's own experience in the war.

This is a nice change from the usual war films one watches. It has moments of humour, pathos, real tension - the Omaha beach scene is really wonderful, very well paced - and the ending is a great call-back to the opening scene. The film feels like a whole picture of war, and doesn't continually dwell on the pain and anguish of war. There are lots of films that focus on those experiences, but Fuller's viewpoint seems to rarely get portrayed.

Friday, 16 June 2017

I've Just Seen : I Was Born, But ... (Otona no miru ehon - Umarete wa mita keredo) (1932)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

What a delightful film! I knew that Ozu's early work was rather different from his later films, which are wonderful and brilliant and all that, but rarely are they so sweet and funny as this. Perhaps its because I Was Born, But ... follows two young brothers and their problems fitting into a new school, and coming to a deeper understanding about the adult world; quite different from the sadness at the heart of Tokyo Story, but no less profound.

Keiji and Ryoichi have recently moved with their parents to a new suburb, one that happens to be close to their father's boss Iwasaki. The local kids, one of whom is Iwasaki's son, tease the newcomers, who decide to skip school to avoid trouble. Their father finds out, and tells them that they must go to school and stand up to the bullies. The two boys eventually do this, and everyone becomes friends, but things go awry when the boys discover that their father is seen as the office clown at work. The boys are distressed, argue with their father, and ponder the inequalities in the world.

From that synopsis you might think the film is weighty, but it really isn't. Instead, Ozu lets the boys' pain and anger simmer under the surface of the sweet humour. As a result, the film's profundity sneaks up on you. It is the behaviour of the two brothers that bring most of the humour. They have little quirks, like the funny game they introduce to their new friends, which looks like a variation on dead lions. One of the brothers also occasionally pulls a silly dance pose for no reason. Their interactions with one another are also very cute.

The politics of being a child are beautifully portrayed in this film, as is the earth-shattering discovery that your parents, who are the most important adults in your life, are usually less important in the world than you think they are. The film ends on a lovely note of hope for the future with an image that echoed the last in Chaplin's Modern Times. I really loved this, and unless you hate silent, black-and-white, and 'foreign' films, then you'll enjoy this too.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) (2001)

 Director: Michael Haneke

This film is not an enjoyable watch. It deals with an incredibly difficult character in Erika Kohut; the titular piano teacher whose oppressive relationship with her mother has ruined her ability to relate to anyone else. Her world is thrown into chaos when Walter Klemmer, a young musician, takes a romantic interest in her. Her previously hidden sexual proclivities, which are hardcore, come to the surface, as does her jealousy at others' musical skill. As I said, the unpleasantness of the characters makes this hard to watch, but I also couldn't helped being impressed by the film.

Most of that comes down to Isabelle Huppert's performance as Erika. The character is one of extremes, going from almost icy stillness to strong desire. Huppert shows us these changes with the smallest of gestures - sometimes it is just with the intensification of a stare. For the first part of the film she is largely cold, though you feel sympathy for her because of her overbearing mother. Then you discover her desire for hardcore sex, and feel slightly repulsed. I was hoping that her relationship with Walter would be a positive thing, but it being a Haneke film, Erika's vulnerability is rewarded with yet more pain and humiliation.

The hardest part of watching this was the violence that lurks in several scenes, the worst for me being the self-mutilation scene. If you've seen it, you will understand why I felt light-headed and crossed my legs, recoiling at what I saw. Even thinking of it now makes me queasy.

I didn't 'like' this per se, but I couldn't help but admire Huppert's skill, and Haneke's overall direction. The flatness of the light throughout the whole drains the colour from this world of competition and repression. The passion and beauty of the music played throughout is made ironic by Erika's own particular passions, which are not beautiful, nor is her understanding of human relationships. This is one of those films I would not recommend to everybody, or to most people, but if you think you can withstand the pain at its centre, it is worth watching.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

I've Just Seen: To Die For (1995)

Director: Gus Van Sant

If you ever wonder why Nicole Kidman is held in such high esteem in the acting world, you need only watch this film. As Suzanne Stone/Maretto, Kidman gets to flex her comedic muscle as the ambitious, amoral wannabe TV star. She also gets to be nasty and cruel, and completely sells the rottenness at the heart of the American Dream.

The story begins at the end - with Suzanne suspected of her husband's murder, and the Stones and Marettos recounting the ill-fated marriage of their children. Throughout the film we get interjects from what appear to be interviews with Suzanne and Larry's parents and Larry's sister Janice, who mistrusts Suzanne from the start. We also get Suzanne's own recollects told directly to camera. Suzanne wants to be a TV star, so she gets a job at the local TV station as the weather girl, and pitches a documentary series about teenagers. She picks three from the local high school and starts manipulating them, using them to kill her husband.

As I said, Kidman is great as Suzanne, who is similar to Amy from Gone Girl and Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Like Lou, Suzanne believes whole-heartedly in the American Dream, and she learns everything she can about being a TV star. She is so determined that she even comtemplates murder to achieve her goals. The supporting cast are very good as well. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck play two of the high school students, and Matt Dillon plays Suzanne's husband.

The film is not laugh-out-loud funny but may provoke a few dark chuckles. I really liked the script and also the film's look; Kidman's costumes, all bright colours and sharp lines beautifully express her character. Gus Van Sant has been a bit hit-and-miss for me, but I liked his choices with this. He gets great performances from his actors, and his juxtaposing editing works well. This is a rewarding gem of a film, and a large part of that is because of Nicole Kidman.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Candyman (1992)

Director: Bernard Rose

When it comes to horror, I am slightly ambivalent regarding slasher films. I don't need my horror films to have a great deal of plot, and don't mind a lot of gore, but I do like to care a little about the characters being ripped apart. Candyman, while nominally a slasher film, is full of plot and character, and also sets its story in unconventional settings - the academic world, and a housing project. It also focuses on the way horror legends work in culture, and even spares some time to touch on racism and the legacy of slavery. All this adds up to a clever and scary horror film that should be more well known.

Part of what makes this film horrifying is the way the plot wrong-foots you at several turns. It starts as a creepy murder mystery, as grad student Helen investigates the connection of the Candyman legend to some real-life murders in the projects. Then, just as we think we've solved the mystery, the film brings in the titular character and we are suddenly in a North By Northwest-style 'You've got the wrong person' plot, as Helen tries hard to prove she didn't commit murder, that Candyman is behind it all. At this point I was completely hooked, and could think of several ways the story could go - that maybe Helen did do it, or that someone else was framing her (looking at you, Rotten Husband!).

Virginia Madsen brings a maturity to Helen that contrasts with the hysterical teenager who usually leads these stories. She has a nice chemistry with Kasi Lemmons who plays Bernie, her best friend and colleague. It is great to see female friendship portrayed onscreen - it feels rare, sadly. Tony Todd is wonderfully imposing as Candyman; his height and voice leave a lasting impression as the spectre with a terrible past.

Candyman would make a great complementary piece to Jordan Peele's Get Out, another horror film that deals with racism and fractious relationships between black people and white people. While Rose's film is a complex story with several elements going on, it never loses focus, and it has a good amount of gore and blood - very important in a slasher film.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Look of Silence (2014)

 Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Despite Australia's geographical nearness to Indonesia, I known very little about the country's history. I even studied the language for a time in high school, but only picked up small details about modern life. This film is a sequel to Oppenheimer's 2012 The Act of Killing, which followed a group of men who carried out the killings of thousands of communist during the 1960s.. The Look of Silence is a film in conversation with its predecessor, focusing on the experience of a man whose older brother was killed in the 60s.

Much like The Act of Killing, this film offers harrowing details about these killings from the very mouths of the perpetrators. None of them express remorse for their actions, even when confronted with the pain of the family. The only person who seems upset is the daughter of one of the killers, and you can see how torn she is between hearing what her father has done, and trying to focus on the present.

The anonymous interviewer is shown in almost every scene of the film, but we never know his name. We get a good slice of his life with his elderly parents and his boisterous daughter. He uses the excuse of eye exams to interview his subjects (he is an optometrist). He proves to be a thoughtful, and brave, interviewer; he really wants these men and their families to face up to what they have done, and continues on despite the hostile reception he receives, even from a member of his own family.

As with Oppenheimer's first film on the subject, the accounts of the killings are hard to listen to, as is the denial of the killers, most of whom are still in positions of power. As the audience, you end up experiencing feelings of anger and despondency, as well as admiration for Anonymous and his family. The greatest achievement of these two films is their capacity to record and bring to light these awful crimes that risk being forgotten by history. What impact the film will have on the perpetrators - the people who need to heed the message the most - I fear it will be minimal.

Friday, 9 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Kwaidan (1965)

 Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan is described as a horror film, but it is not a jump-scare type of horror. Instead, Kobayashi's film goes for an eerie mood coupled with supernatural elements, and some of the best production design you will see in film. The almost three hour film is not one story, but four different folk tales, each featuring something ghostly or spectre-like.

The first, 'The Black Hair,' is about a samurai who regrets divorcing his first wife and marrying a rich, selfish second one. 'The Woman in the Snow' follows a young woodcutter whose life is spared by a snow spirit, and is charged to never mention their encounter. Later he falls in love with a young woman who resembles the spirit. The third and longest story, 'Hoichi the Earless' is about a blind monk, known for his storytelling abilities, particularly regarding The Tale of the Heike, who is employed by the ghosts of that story to perform for them. The last tale, and the shortest, 'In a Cup,' tells of a samurai who sees a man in his tea cup, and after drinking from the cup, is visited by the man's spirit.

The approach to the stories is slow, with some sequences having no dialogue for several minutes. It creates a dreamy quality to the film as a whole. The opening credits are interspersed with images of ink floating in water, adding to this dreaminess, and alluding to the folktale origin of the stories.

My favourite was 'The Woman in the Snow,' partly due to its amazing production design; the backdrops of the sets have eyes painted into the sky, which reminded me of Dali. The use of lighting was clever in this tale, the sharp blue of the winter contrasted nicely against the warm gold of summer.

While not to everyone's taste, I liked Kobayashi's film. Its stillness is only interrupted by violence and noise occasionally, but when that happens you really notice it. Unlike many European folktales which have been sanitised for modern children, these folktales are more mature, dealing with desire, sex, war and nasty punishment.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Trollhunter (Trolljegeren) (2010)

 Director: Andre Ovredal

I mentioned in my Blair Witch write-up that that film reignited the found-footage technique for horror films. It clearly inspired Ovredal's Trollhunter. This film, like Blair Witch, follows a group of college-aged filmmakers as they are on the trail of a mysterious creature; Ovredal even starts the film by saying that the footage was anonymously given to the Norwegian film board, and the people featured in the film haven't been seen or heard from since.

The subject of the three students' documentary becomes Hans, a trollhunter who works for the Norwegian government, managing the secret troll population of Norway. The students are naturally sceptical at first, but a couple of nighttime encounters convince them otherwise.

The film is very clever, and while it plays its story straight, there are elements of humour amongst the thrills of being chased by trolls. What I know about trolls comes from fairytales and Tolkien's The Hobbit, and its the same for the young students. They ask Hans questions about the trolls, separating myth from reality, and discover a scientific reason behind why they explode or turn to stone when exposed to sunlight.

While the special effects are a bit ropey in places, the sound design is really good. I was entralled during the chase sequences, as well as a tense scene inside a troll lair in an abandoned mine. I also liked the shots of Norway's countryside, which is beautiful.

If you can get into this, there is much to enjoy. It builds upon the formula of Blair Witch, containing much more action and layers to its plot. Trollhunter also works so well because of Otto Jespersen's Hans, a wonderful character with surprising depth. He reflects on the awfulness of his work, and some of the horrors he has seen and had to commit.

I've Just Seen: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

 Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini


I finally subjected myself to this film. I had been putting it off, dreading its contents, but didn't want to get to the end of my journey through the 1001+ list and still have it left (oh the pain of being a list completist!). So I gulped, added it to my Quickflix list, and hoped it would come on a day when I was alone at home. That was today.

Like many countries around the world, Australia banned Pasolini's film for several decades after its release. Even now, it is only available if it comes with extensive special features which explain the context for the film, and stress that these horrible things were not real. It can't be shown in a cinema without them. I didn't watch these extras because I didn't want to spend anymore time with this film.

I have developed a taste for horror films lately, body horror especially. While this is classified as a horror film, with pretensions towards art, this is beyond horrifying, and is something I never, ever want to see again. The 'story' is an allegory for the ghastliness of fascism, how it objectifies and perverts people's treatment of one another, but instead of focusing on the gas chambers or tortures of war, we get a thorough list of the sexual proclivities of a group of fascist leaders and experienced prostitutes.

I really don't want to explain exactly what happens. It is so deplorably awful, and weirdly boring as well. The sexual activity is so joyless, and often filmed at a distance (a small mercy), that you sit there waiting for it to finish, while also wondering how much worse it can get. The girls get a rougher deal than the boys, some of whom seem to enjoy the attentions of these middle-aged men (though not all).

Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography is really the only thing I can praise about the film - and maybe the costumes the older women wear - but even then, the skill of the composition is thoroughly overridden by the disgusting things we see, and hear.

Well, its done. I never have to see it again, and unless you really, absolutely think you need to, you can give it a miss.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Excalibur (1981)

 Director: John Boorman

I guess the reason Boorman's film was recently shown on TV was to tie-in with the release of Guy Ritchie's King Arthur film. Despite not having seen Ritchie's version, only the trailer and reading reviews, I can't think of two more different approaches to Mallory's tale. Boorman's film greatly condenses the Morte d'Arthur, focusing on the rise and fall of Arthur's kingdom, through both the affair of Guenevere and Lancelot, and Morgana's treachery.

The most memorable part of the film is its look: its incredibly shiny! The knights' suits of armour, the clothes of the women (especially Guenevere's wedding dress), the castle of Camelot, and even Excalibur itself all shimmer and glow onscreen. This is not the dirty, dark medieval world we usually see, but one really of myth and imagination.

As a whole the film is uneven in places, and the theatrical acting doesn't help this. Helen Mirren is great Morgana, and Nicol Williamson is fierce as Merlin, but the others vary. The Lancelot/ Guenevere plotline is rather soppy, and is finished rather abruptly. The swiftness of the story makes it hard to get to know the characters, and they don't have great depth. While this is rather in keeping with the source material, where psychological explorations of character motivation was not the point, it doesn't make for a satisfying film.

This is a nice addition to the huge number of Arthurian imaginings, and it is visually stunning. But it is largely surface, doing nothing truly new with the well-known story, but also not being definitive either. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

I've Just Seen: Hairspray (1988)

 Director: John Waters

I love the 2007 musical version of this story, and was interested to see Waters' original vision. While certainly the most mainstream of his films, there is still something very subversive about the story, which revolves around a "pleasantly plump" teenager, Tracey, becoming famous and championing civil rights.

While not a musical per se - no one sings a whole number - the film is saturated with early 60s music, and there a number of scenes of dancing. This won me over, as I love a good dance sequence in a film. The pastel retro look, from the costumes to the sets of the Corny Collins Show, is great fun, as is the over-the-top hair styles. For a film with so little singing, Waters got a few big names from the music industry in his film. Watch out for Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono.

While the plot gets rather too ridiculous towards the end, I really enjoyed the nostalgic fun of the film - both for the 60s and the 80s. The film's message is still a pertinent one, and Tracy's whole-hearted joy at being herself still feels unusual all these years later. Sadly, the backwards views on race shared by some of the characters are still alive all these years later. This is a cult film, but it is one of the more happy, celebratory ones out there.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Harder They Come (1972)

 Director: Perry Henzell

I am loving the free streaming service offered by my local free-to-air channel. It has over 900 films, and in keeping with the brief of its TV channel SBS, many are foreign language, cult or old (or all of the above). The Harder They Come was added recently, and after realsing it was on the 1001+ list and it only being available for a few weeks, I naturally watched it.

The film is ostensibly in English, but had subtitles as the characters speak sometimes in Jamaican Patois. I am glad it wasn't dubbed and preserved the sound of the speech. This film introduced the wider world to Reggae music, as well as giving it a glimpse of life in Jamaica. Though I know almost nothing about Reggae music, I really liked the songs featured in the film, particularly the title song sung by Jimmy Cliff. It and 'You Can Get It If You Really Want It'  play several times throughout the film, and several days later they keep floating through my head.

The story is not ground-breaking, dealing as it does with crime and the toughness of life lived in urban poverty. Cliff's Ivanhoe is a naive character from the country, hoping to find opportunity in Kingston. Other than kowtowing to a hard-minded priest or music producer, the only real place to make money is in the drug trade, but even this is rigged in favour of the guys at the top. Ivanhoe's dream to become famous happens in an unexpected way for him, as he becomes an outlaw with a hit record.

It is always great to see cinema from countries not known for their filmmaking. Cliff is a charismatic presence on screen, and the cast as a whole are very natural in their roles. The most memorable part, though, is the music.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

I've Just Seen: The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

 Director: Jack Arnold

This horror-science-fiction monster movie about an aquatic gill-man who terrorises a group of scientists has aged since it was released. Parts of it are still interesting, but it is much less action packed than other 50s sci-fi films, and its plot isn't much more than an excuse for lots of underwater shots - particularly of a swimsuit clad woman.

The underwater shots, and the look of the gill-man are the reasons to see the film. The film was originally shot in 3D, and this would have been most effective in the underwater scenes. There is a dreamy quality to them, with the shimmering light coming from the surface, and the pockets of bubbles rising from the scuba gear of the characters. One shot has the bubbles dance into the camera, and it is great to look at. There are also shots looking up at Julie Adams' swimming silhouette that reminded me of Jaws.

Gill-man's costume is also impressive. We do see it in its entirety early on, but only get real close-ups of it later in the film. The fish-like head does look quite scary, though it doesn't have much movement or expression, beyond a stunned mullet look (which is appropriate). The science talk in the film is rather fun, especially the opening explanation of evolution, with its depiction of a pre-human world - all tempestuous water and mysterious mist!

I did enjoy this, but the slow pace, and the smallness of the story does lessen its horror, and its feels like it is straining to fill its eight minutes running time. I missed the melancholy of The Incredible Shrinking Man, or the darkness of Forbidden Planet. Still, its worth seeing.

I've Just Seen: Paper Moon (1973)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Bogdanovich's skills as a director lies partly in his ability to marry 1970s filmmaking with his love of Hollywood Golden Age movies. I loved this combination in his film What's Up, Doc?, and similarly enjoyed it here in Paper Moon.

Casting real father-daughter duo of Ryan and Tatum O'Neal works beautifully in Bogdanovich's film. The story, and much of the two characters' dialogue rests on Moses Prey (Ryan)'s resemblance to Tatum's Addie, despite his protestations that it is impossible that they are father and daughter. We never find out for certain if this is the case; instead the focus is on how the two come to rely on each other, and Addie's attempts to keep them together - excluding all others.

The cinematography is lovely. The black-and-white look of the film adds a starkness to the already dreary world of the Depression-era South, and there are lots of wide shots of the empty plains of Kansas and Missouri, or empty, decaying towns.

Tatum O'Neal won the Best Supporting Actress award for playing Addie, and she is very good (though she is really the main character!). Addie is tough, standing up for herself early on, demanding Moses give her the $200 he swindled out of Addie's mother's killer's brother. The easy chemistry between the two O'Neals is fun to watch, particularly as they bicker together.

I really liked this. It paints the Depression as an era that encouraged invention in many of its citizens, often in criminal ways, in order to make money. In the end, the money is less important than having someone around who cares about you, but the film never dips into sentimentality, just letting this idea gentle come through.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

I've Just Seen: The Sissi Trilogy (1955-57)

 Director: Ernst Marischka

This trilogy of films follows the early career of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known to her family as 'Sissi.' The first film, Sissi, is about Sissi meeting and falling in love with the Emperor Franz Joseph I, her cousin, and coming into conflict with her aunt and subesequent mother-on-law, Sophie. The second film, Sissi -The Young Empress, is again about further problems between Sissi and her mother-in-law over who looks after Sissi and Franz's first child. Sissi - Fateful Years of an Empress sees Sissi suffer from TB, while also helping her husband forestall war with Hungary.

The plot for each film are not that different; each features a plotline involving Sissi and Franz renewing their love for each other after separation, and Sissi and Sophie disagreeing about something, with Franz in the middle. The real draw with this trilogy is the look of the films. They were filmed on location in Austria, one of the most beautiful countries in Europe, both in terms of its buildings and its landscape. Winter barely features in any of the films; everything is so summery and lush. The costumes are also gorgeous to look at.

Romy Schneider is a very pretty, sparkly and even sparky empress, and the actor's real mother Magda Schneider plays Sissi's mother Ludovika, adding extra sweetness to their scenes. I recognised the man playing Franz, then realised it was Karlheinz Bohm, who I knew from Peeping Tom. He is a much happier man here.

Marischka had planned to make more films in the Sissi series but Schneider was sick of playing the character, so the story doesn't go into the more interesting parts of her later life. While I really enjoyed these, I do understand Schneider's wishes to leave off being Sissi: it is not the most meaty of roles, and she risked being type-cast.

If you like period dramas or romances, you will enjoy this. And if you want to watch them at the right time, see it at Christmas, along with Germany and Hungary where the trilogy is its a Christmastime staple.