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

Ugh.

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.

Monday, 29 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Maggie's Plan (2015)


Director: Rebecca Miller

The main character of Miller's film, Maggie Harden, could easily have been really annoying to spend time with. She has her own ideas about how her life, and consequently others' lives, should be led, and plans accordingly. She decides to have a baby using donated sperm from an acquaintance, but finds her plans altered when she falls in love with fellow academic John Harding, a married man. The story then jumps several years in the future, and Maggie is starting to question her decision to live with John, and begins machinations to get him back with his ex-wife.

Maggie, despite being very meddlesome, is also very charming, and this is largely because she is played by Greta Gerwig. Her certainty about her ideas comes across as naivety rather than obnoxiousness, and she does care about the people around her while also being self-centred. Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore are both wonderful as John and his ex- Georgette; Moore especially revels in her role as the incredibly clever academic whose apparent cold exterior hides a warmth of feeling.

Parts of this reminded me of Jane Austen's Emma, another story about a young woman's certainty clashing with the world, and this is partly why I enjoyed it so much. The script is really good, focusing on a few families and the ways they interact with each other (a formula Austen also stuck to). The small stage allows for some lovely depth to the characters and story. It is funny and sweet, and much more aware of the messiness of romance than most modern rom-coms.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

I've Just Seen: 1900 (Novecento) (1976)


Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

In 1001 Films, the write-up for Bertolucci's film says it is 'not meant to be entertaining.' I don't require all my films to be entertaining, but devoting 5 hours of my time to a film that makes me work to engage with it it a tall ask. While not without some interesting points, 1900 was a film I finished simply so I could cross it off my list.

As I said, it is not all bad. The cinematography is rather beautiful, taking full advantage of the golden light of rural Italy. The greens and golds of the fields pop on screen, and there is an earthiness to the story, with many shots of animals (though I had to look away from the slaughter scenes). The performances are not bad either, though the English dubbing is distracting. Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Donald Sutherland are all good, though that is probably down to their being great actors rather than their playing compelling characters.

Almost everyone in this film is hard to like, being either too selfish or too wedded to their own political ideals to really connect with one another. The most human parts of the story are of Alfredo and Olmo's childhoods, where their friendship crosses the class divide. Spending five hours with unpleasant people is no fun.

This film was removed from recent editions of the 1001 films list, and I can see why. Its not as great as some of the films on the list and even less then some that have never been included. If you are a fan of Bertolucci's filmography, it is worth seeing, or if you are interested in representations of Italian political history on screen. I am not, and would much rather spend five hours watching Abel Gance's Napoleon, if I need a political history epic. Or Luchino Visconti's The Leopard.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Hunt For the Wilderpeople (2016)


Director: Taika Waititi

This comedy adventure drama follows a young foster kid called Ricky Baker, who goes on the run with his foster father "Uncle" Hec in the New Zealand bush when child welfare come to take Ricky away. Ricky is a kid from the city, who wants to be a gangster, while Hec just wants to be left alone, and mourn the death of his beloved wife Bella. Instead they find themselves dodging aggressive hikers, wild hogs, and seemingly the full force of New Zealand's police.

One could easily run out of words to praise this wonderful film. It is extremely funny, with all the quirk New Zealand humour is famous for (in Australia at least!); but it also knows that great comedy often comes out of very serious situations. Both Ricky and Hec are outsiders in society: Ricky is a foster kid who has known a lot of sadness, while Hec's past casts him as a dangerous man in the eyes of the law. Bella's death, which happens early on in the film, is heartbreaking, and her presence is felt throughout the whole.

Because it is set in the New Zealand bush, Waititi's film looks incredibly beautiful, much more than most modern comedy films do. The echoes of the scenery in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy are brilliantly alluded to in a few scenes. The dialogue is wonderful. Bella writes a hilarious song "Ricky Baker" for Ricky's birthday (which also plays over the end credits, so you will end up singing it), and Ricky makes up haikus to help express his feelings.

Sam Neill is lovely as the cantankerous Hec, and he and Julian Dennison have great chemistry together. Ricky could easily have been an annoying character, but Dennison is so darn charming that you can't help but love him.

As I said, you could wear out a thesaurus trying to describe the joy that it Hunt For the Wilderpeople. Thankfully, the film itself has its own word for such an event: majestical. Just watch the film, and you will understand.

Monday, 15 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Glory (1989)

 Director: Edward Zwick

The best films about history are often the ones that explore a little known event or character. Glory is about an all-black regiment during the American Civil War, naturally fighting on the Union's side. They were led by Robert Shaw, a young white man whose family were abolitionists, played in the film by Matthew Broderick. Most of what I know about the American Civil War is from films and the occasional reference to it at school, so this story was entirely unknown to me.

The main issue I had with the film, and which critics also mentioned in their reviews, was that the film about an all-black regiment had a white man as its protagonist. That is not to say that Captain Shaw is an uninteresting figure, and his choice to captain the regiment and train them is certainly commendable. However, it would have been interesting to have the story told from the perspective of ones of the soldiers. Shaw's friend Thomas Searles, a black man and scholar who was the first volunteer, would have been my choice. Despite this though, the film does give a lot of time to the soldiers, and follows a rather diverse group, two of whom are played by Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.

I really liked Zwick's film. The performances are all top-notch, not surprising with its cast, and they all get moments to shine. There is a particularly moving scene around campfire the night before the Fort Wagner charge, where the soldiers speak about why they are fighting and comfort another's fears. Like so many war films Glory expresses sadness at the monumental loss of life of the country's men, though here there is the idea of fighting for something greater, so it is not exactly an anti-war film.

Friday, 12 May 2017

I've Just Seen: The Stepford Wives (1975)

 Director: Bryan Forbes

When I watched the horror film Teeth, about a girl with a set of teeth in her vagina, I wondered how I'd react differently to the film if I were male. I found that film rather funny, and certainly enjoyed Dawn's exploration of her newfound power, but could imagine that the laughs coming from a man watching the film would be accompanied by winces and sympathetic leg-crossing for Dawn's victims (despite deserving punishment). With The Stepford Wives I often joined in the fear and rage of Katherine Ross's Joanna as she and her friends uncover the awful secrets beneath Stepford tranquility. But I was also curious as to what feelings the film would evoke in a man?

I'd imagine almost all would find the behaviour of the spouses in the film repulsive, but would it raise any conflicting feelings as well? Of course it all comes down to the individual's approach to women, but it is something I would be interested to learn.

As to the film itself, parts of it are dated, being made and set in the 1970s, but for the most part the film still feels very relevant. The 'Stepfordised' wives speak like women out of commercials - something that seems to have blighted internet discourse - and are sexually compliant, telling Joanna and Bobbie that their relations with their husbands are just perfect! The men themselves are perfectly happy with their wives, and even Joanna's husband only expresses a vague regret at what is going to happen - but does nothing to stop it, or even warn his wife.

While it is light on the normal horror tropes of blood, scares and only has one scene in a dark, spooky house, The Stepford Wives is one of the most horrifying films I have seen. Its story of a person losing autonomy over their mind, and consequently their body, is a universal one, and it is obvious why Jordan Peele looked to Forbes' film when he made Get Out. Enslavement to a society that values freedom is truly terrifying.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Get Out (2017)


Director: Jordan Peele

Australia finally got the chance to see Get Out, after listening to all the praise it received around the world. Comparisons to Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two of the most unnerving films I have seen, only whetted my appetite to see Peele's directorial debut. Thankfully, the film lived up to its reputation.

The only quibble I had was with the audience with whom I saw the film. Peele's film is very funny as well as frightening, but those sparsely seated around me didn't seem to raise even a chuckle; so I was left to smile to myself.

The story follows Chris as he meets his white girlfriend's parents, who live in a white upper-middle-class suburb on a large expanse of land. They appear to be extremely nice, but something is definitely off; a feeling Chris' best friend Rod warned him would happen. Things start to escalate when Rose's mother hynotises Chris (to help him give up smoking, apparently), and even more when Rose's parents invite their friends around for an annual party, and the guests say some very weird things to Chris. We start to realise something very sinister is happening behind all the liberal bonhomie.

Peele has directed a very sophisticated and clever horror film which feels very timely. The actors are all great, and the casting of Bradley Whitford, famous for his turn as Josh Lyman in The West Wing, is genuis. Catherine Keener is fantastic as Rose's mother, and the hypnosis scene between her and Daniel Kaluuya's Chris is brilliant. Allison Williams really sells Rose's bewilderment at her parents weirdness around Chris, while Kaluuya plays Chris with bemused humour that turns to fear and anger as the horror increases.

This is a wonderful example of intelligent horror, with a bit of comedy thrown in. It would make a perfect companion piece to the Ira Levin adaptations mentioned at the top, and even reminded me of Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle in its satire on how white people portray black people.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

I've Just Seen: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)


Director: Jack Arnold

This film is a great example of the ingenuity of pre-CGI special effects. The story is simple; a man, Robert "Scott" Carey, starts to shrink after encountering an unknown gas at sea. The doctors are at first baffled, then once they discover its cause, realise there is nothing they can do. Scott must reconcile himself to his fate. We travel down with him as the furniture gets larger, until a doll's house is his home, and the cat is a danger to his life (along with a tarantula).

This film is a lot bleaker than I thought it would be. Scott becomes depressed at his fate, making him are very realistic character: for some reason I assumed Arnold's film would focus on the action scenes inherent in the story. Instead, the images of Scott sitting a chair that's too big for him, and being stuck in the basement are coloured with his loss of relationship with his wife. We really care about Scott, and see how much of a nightmare his life has become.

The special effects really come into effect in the film's Third Act, where Scott is stuck in the basement of his house, a house his wife is leaving. A minor flooding of the floor becomes almost biblical, and the quest to get at some mouldy cake for food is as dangerous as scaling Mount Everest.

The final reflections of the film are poignant and much more philosophical than I was expecting. It really elevates the film as a whole, reminding us normal sized humans of our places on this earth - surrounded by microscopic organisms - and the universe, where we become infinitesimal ourselves. 


Thursday, 4 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Jacob's Ladder (1990)


Director: Adrian Lyne

It is hard to know what to say about Jacob's Ladder. Without its inclusion on the 1001+ list, I probably wouldn't have seen it. That would have been a shame, as this is a clever, terrifying, mind-boggling film. It is just so hard to talk about because saying too much may ruin the experience of seeing it cold.

The story moves between two timelines; one in the jungles of Vietnam, where Jacob Singer and his platoon are relaxing when they are suddenly attacked, to the present day, where Jacob lives in Brooklyn, works in a post office, and has seemingly left his family for his girlfriend Jezzie. Strange things start happening to Jacob in the present day; Jezzie gets demonically possessed at a party, but only Jacob notices, car nearly runs him over, and fellow members of his platoon are also experiencing similar horrors. Jacob also sees his deceased son Gabe (an uncredited Macauley Culkin) around as well.

In some ways this reminded me of Guillermo del Toro, though to say why is a bit of a spoiler (so look away if you don't want to know). The demons and devils in Jacob's Ladder are not simply horrible manifestations, but are actually trying to help Jacob come to terms with his fate; they are not the most evil part of this story.

This is a great mind-bender of film that mediates on spirituality and the mind in a very creative way. I can see why it took years for the screenplay to be produced and the film made; the story deals with heavy stuff in a complicated way. But it is worth the investment, and the film deserves to be as widely lauded as other mind-bending films like Mulholland Dr and The Double Lives of Veronique.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Requiem For a Dream (2000)


Director: Darren Aronofsky

Requiem For a Dream always crops up in conversations about great films you only want to see once, and having watched it, I understand why. Addiction narratives are always intense, and drug addiction stories seem to be particularly overwhelming. Aronofsky's film follows four different characters and their own slavery to their needs: Harry, along with his friend Tyrone and girlfriend Marion are addicted to heroin, while Harry's mother Sara becomes addicted to diet pills (amphetamines).

If the film was just about Harry, Tyrone and Marion it would be a very solid, well-put together story about heroin. But the inclusion of Sara's story elevates this into something even more startling and profound. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the best performances I have ever seen as Sara. She goes from ebing a middle-aged woman trapped in a funk, to a person with dreams and something to live for, only to have those dreams turn into hellish nightmares. Her lack of Oscar award is further proof of the ridiculousness of acting awards (at least she was nominated).

The other really notable part of the film is the editing. Some shots last less than a second, and the effect is to bypass thought and just conjure emotions in the audience. We experience the highs of Marion and Harry's drug-taking, but also the repetitive nature of such need. The film's climax, where the screen cuts frantically from one person to another over and over again, feels like a sickening spiral which we descend down with the characters into their lowest points.

Would I watch Requiem For a Dream again? Maybe, but not for a long, long time. It is very harrowing and hard to forget.

Monday, 1 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Serpico (1973)


Director: Sidney Lumet

'Rogue' cop stories mostly make-up the narratives of TV police shows, and usually involve a copper who defies authority and does his own thing (the more unorthodox the better). In Serpico, Pacino's Frank Serpico stands out for his anti-corruption stance, and his desire to do things by the book. His colleagues take against this, and Frank finds himself under pressure to just take the bribes and look the other way.

This is my favourite Al Pacino performance. Playing a real person comes with many pitfalls, but Pacino is able to make Serpico a recognisable person, and just the type of policeman you would want on the streets. Serpico excels as a plain-clothes policeman, seemingly getting right into character. As this is set during the 60s, his grows his hair and beard long, and is no above wearing beads and ponchos. This part of Serpico's character must have been a huge draw for Pacino. But Serpico outsider status is proved time and time again. He sticks out from amongst New York police, and also  in his social life; at a hippy party he attends with a girlfriend, where everyone else are writers, models, actors, etc., Serpico gets muted reactions when he says 'I'm a policeman.'

Serpico is quintessential 70s cinema. It boasts a great acting performance, along with a real story about one man against a huge, corrupt system, a conflict the film approaches with a resigned pessimism. The grainy cinematography adds a level of reality to Serpico's world, like we are watching a gritty documentary. The cinema of the American New Wave delivers yet again.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

I've Just Seen: Raw (Grave) (2016)


Director: Julia Ducournau


I was surprised to find my local cinema playing Raw; as I've said before, rarely do foreign language films get played where I live, and arthouse horror films are also thin on the ground. With the positive reviews for the film, naturally I had to go see it, but it wasn't without some trepidation. While my horror film education has meant I now really enjoy the genre, and especially body horror, cannibalism leaves me feeling queasy.

There were one or two scenes that did make me feel a touch light-headed, but it was mostly from seeing dripping blood (which also sets me off in reality as well). Ducournau doesn't go for all out gore where human bodies are simply viewed as food. Instead Justine's appetite for human flesh is bound up in her coming-of-age and even her sexuality.

At the start of the film Justine is virginal and vegetarian, and Ducournau links these two ideas together. Justine's cravings for meat are matched by her interest in her gay roommate Adrien. Complicating things further is Justine's relationship with her older sister Alexia, who is also studying to be a vet like Justine. Alexia is Justine's only real friend apart from Adrien, but it is very uneasy, as Alexia is more outgoing, and she occasionally pushes Justine too far. She also has a secret like Justine.

Raw is clever and oddly funny, as well as unsettling and even shocking. I wasn't sure what I thought about it straight after seeing it, but the film has certainly grown on me. If you like your horror, definitely see this. If you don't like horror, do not see it; it is rather intense.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

I've Just Seen: Metropolitan (1990)

 Director: Whit Stillman

It would be very easy to dislike the young people who live in the world of Metropolitan. These college students, all from upper-class New York, spend their nights wearing immaculate clothes - white gowns with gloves for ladies, suits for the men - going to fancy places to dine, and engaging in all too clever conversation. Yet under this beautiful, old-fashioned facade, these young people are dealing with the same issues and emotions as others their age, including romance, jealousy, annoying parents, university, and friendship.

I ended up really enjoying the company of these well-dressed, articulate people, whose bluster masks their vulnerabilities. There is no great overaching plot, though Stillman has borrowed group dynamics from Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park - another reason I loved this film. The main character Tom still has feelings for his ex- Serena, while Audrey, who loves Austen's work, develops a crush on Tom.

The screenplay is full of wonderful dialogue, including a hilarious scene where Tom explains to Audrey that he doesn't really read fiction, but does read criticism about, which he thinks gives him an even better idea about the text than if he actually read it. A poignant feeling develops as the film goes on, as the group known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, before so tight-nit, start to go their separate until only two are really left.

Stillman manages to make this story of fancy apartments and wordy characters cinematic, creating a world that very specific, yet doesn't have a stable place in history; the teens are preserving a something that may never have really existed. And this gives the film a depth other directors might have missed. It is comparable to John Hughes' films, with its sense of youthful ennui - just more snappily dressed.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

I've Just Seen: Barton Fink (1991)

 Director: Joel Coen

Barton Fink raises more questions than it answers. A playwright arrives in Hollywood with promises of glory and fortune, but finds himself blighted by writer's block. His hotel, The Earle, chosen to keep him honest, seems to ooze glue or wax from its walls; much like the sweat that pours off Barton's neighbour at The Earle, Charlie Meadows. Charlie seems to be a jovial, friendly man yet there is something off about him. Throw in an aloholic screenwriter, his female assistant, and a tranquil picture of a beach beauty gazing off into the distance, and you have one twisted tale of Hollywood non-success.

This would make a great companion piece with The Player, another story of amorality in Hollywood. The Coen brothers' film is much more cryptic; things are hinted at, like what's in Charlie's package (not a euphemism), what the significance of the beach picture is, and just what is the mysterious ooze. But nothing is concrete.

The acting is some of the best you will see in any film. John Tuturro makes Fink a nervous character who is not an innocent abroad, but is certainly in over his head. The two standout performances are Michael Lerner as Capitol Pictures head Jack Lipnick, and John Goodman as Charlie. Lerner talks at breakneck speed, with this veneer of largesse and openness, yet you are always aware that this could suddenly change if Fink says the wrong thing. Goodman is superb, saying more in his silences and listening looks than most actors do with many lines of dialogue. He could have been nominated along with Lerner for an acting award.

This is a great head-scratcher of a film, exposing Hollywood's seedy underbelly through mystery, much like Mulholland Dr. It defies genre, though there are trances of noir in its focus on the 'common man' against the machine of organisation, and horror, in the psychological implications of the The Earle hotel's portrayal. One of my favourite Coen Brothers' films.

Monday, 3 April 2017

I've Just Seen: The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

 Director: J. A. Bayona

Gothic melancholy runs through the story of The Orphanage. Laura, as an adult, returns to the orphanage she attended as child before being adopted. She plans to re-open it as a home for disabled children, and one of the attendees will be her own child Simon. Simon is also adopted, and HIV positive, though he doesn't know about it. All of Laura's plans are put aside when the horrible history of this orphanage emerges, and Simon suddenly disappears.

It is hard to say anything about this film other than 'Go see it.' In a similar fashion to his friend del Toro's films, Bayona marries supernatural and real-world horror beautifully. The ghosts of the orphanage are unsettling with their cries for help, while Simon's disappearance is surely a parent's worst nightmare.The ghosts are also not evil, but are a link to Laura's past; something she must reconcile with her present. The ending is a shocking and deeply sad twist which I didn't see coming, yet makes complete sense, and is likely to prompt a second viewing.

The acting is great across the board, particularly Belen Rueda as Laura. It is also a joy to see Geraldine Chapin as the medium Aurora, who bears witness to the suffering souls still haunting the orphanage. I can't say much more other than thanks to SJHoneywell at 1001plus for pointing me towards this film; I would have seen it eventually, but his recommendation pushed it up the queue!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Fantastic Planet (La Planete sauvage/ Divoka planeta) (1973)


Director: Rene Laloux

Laloux's animated science-fiction film is certainly of its time. Not in its story: an alien planet ruled by giant blue humanoids called Draags, who keep humans as pets (Oms), is used as an allegory for the dehumanising way humans treat one another - something common to much sci-fi. No, what really places Fantastic Planet in the early 70s is the eerie music, visuals, and the stilted, slow pace of the dialogue.

The copy I watched was an English dub from the original French, but also had subtitles which I couldn't turn off. The words spoken, and the words on screen, did not always match up - usually they were phrased differently. This made an already trippy film even more strange.

The animation is not like the bright colours we see in mainstream animation - this is not Disney, Pixar or Studio Ghibli. There is a flatness to the visuals as well. However, the opening scene really captures the scale of the world of the Draags. We follow a naked mother carrying her baby as she runs terrified from something unseen. Suddenly some large blue hands enter the frame and play with her like she is a mouse. When she dies, the hands pick up the baby, and then we see the hugeness of the Draags (and these are only the children) compared to the Oms.

From there we spend the first part of the film learning about the Draags world as the young Om Terr grows up - each Draag week is equal to a human year, so Terr quickly grows older than his child-captor. Terr learns the secrets of the Draags' knowledge under the Draags' noses - they believe Oms are too stupid to learn anything. The story eventually kicks in as Terr escapes and encourages other Oms to revolt. They learn about how humans got to the planet Ygam, and exactly what Draags do when they meditate (one of the weirdest scenes in the whole film).

This animation is not for children as it deals with some rather adult ideas, and its visuals are way more abstract than mainstream animation. The allegory is not subtle, but the skill of the images, particularly the attention to scale, and the disquieting music, are the reasons to see the film.

Monday, 27 March 2017

I've Just Seen: The Blair Witch Project (1999)


Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

I wonder if time has been a bit unfair to The Blair Witch Project. Modern teen horror films seem to be full of jump-scares, including the found-footage sub-genre that Blair Witch made popular. By contrast, Myrick and Sanchez's movie now looks like a slow-burner, like The Witch. While unsettling things start happening once the three characters are in the woods, we don't see the people/creatures that are tracking the young people, only the evidence they leave behind.

I actually liked this approach. While watching sudden attacks by horrifying can be frightening, but there is something deeply creepy about waking up in a spot and finding its been silently decorated with effigies, or a sample of your missing friend's DNA. The three young filmmakers felt like real people, and their mood swings that affect their dynamic work well. They aren't the greatest people to hang with, but hey, horror films usually don't have likeable at their centre.

Time, and the internet, may have altered how this film is received, but I can imagine very young teens, watching this as their first horror film would be creeped out. And as someone alive in the 90s, I felt a slight fondness for the crappy video quality of the kids footage.

Monday, 20 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Yojimbo (1961); and, Sanjuro (1962)



Director: Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune is one of the most watchable actors ever to be committed to celluloid. When he is on screen, you can't keep yours eyes off him. It is not so much to do with physical beauty, though he certainly possesses a rugged appeal; instead, he has that 'it' quality, where the camera just loves him, and consequently so does the audience. No wonder Kurosawa cast Mifune in so many of his films.

In both Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Mifune plays Kuwabatake Sanjuro, a samurai who wanders around Japan, taking an interest in local concerns. In Yojimbo, it is a town divided by two waring gangs, who both try to use Sanjuro for their own side. Sanjuro, a sequel to the former, the ronin helps a group of samurai take down their corrupt master.

While neither is based on a Shakespearean play, unlike other Kurosawa films, the two films have that intricacy of plot driven by characters and their decisions. Sanjuro is more honourable than other Mifune characters in Kurosawa's films but he has an air of mystery to him. We are never quite sure how he is going to behave. There are strong similarities to the characters played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's films.

These are great films, telling engrossing stories, with some of the best action scenes you will see in any film; no surprise really, since they are directed by the great Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune elevates Yojimbo and Sanjuro even further, with his impeccable acting and fantastic screen presense; I dare you to watch the opening of Sanjuro where Sanjuro goes out to fight the impossible battle, or the double-cross battle in Yojimbo, and not get shivers from Mifune's mere presence.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Bigger Than Life (1956); and, The Three Faces of Eve (1957)



Directors: Nicholas Ray; Nunnally Johnson

Films often gets accused of using mental illness in negative or frivolous ways: Split (which I have not seen) is a recent example. Ray and Johnson's films buck this trend, portraying the effect on the sufferer and their family very seriously. In Bigger Than Life, James Mason plays a school teacher who undergoes a personality change, a severe side-effect of a new, experimental medication. Johnson's Three Faces tells the real story of Chris Costner Sizemore, here called 'Eve,' who had dissociative identity disorder.

Mason as Ed Avery and Joanna Woodward as Eve White are both fantastic in their roles. Mason paces Avery's descent beautifully. Avery starts to lose his compassion, treating his son harshly, culminating in a horrible rejection of his family. Barbara Rush is also great as Avery's wife, watching her husband disappear. The colour cinematography adds an intensity to Avery and his family's world, and shadows are used to great effect.

Woodward's role requires her to change character quickly, often within a scene. At the film's beginning she is quiet and harried, and calls herself Eve White. During a visit to a psychologist, another personality, Eve Black, emerges. Black is the polar opposite to White: flirty and outgoing. Later, a third Eve arrives, who is much more balanced in her moods. As the film goes on we follow the investigation into what triggered Eve's personality split. Johnson filmed in black-and-white, subtly evoking the varying names of Eve. It also makes us focus on Woodward's face, watching the way her body language changes.

Both these films are slightly constrained by censorship at the time - these days a they would likely have darker films. However, Bigger and Eve approach their story and characters with a great deal of humanity, and don't shy away from the pain and horror mental illness creates.

If you want to make an informal trilogy, watch along with The Snake Pit (1948), which takes you into the institutions where Eve or Avery could have ended up.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Easy Rider (1969)

 Director: Dennis Hopper

I wasn't expecting to like Easy Rider; I don't usually find films about intoxication, whether drugs or alcohol, where the characters are having their own type of fun, enjoyable. But Hopper's film is about more than a couple of bikers drinking, smoking and road tripping. It captures a period of America, where the generation split was large, and the divide between small-town people and hippies was wide.

There is not much plot to speak of, and at one point we go into the drug-induced mind of the characters, where time is elliptical. The two bikers are joined by a third man on their journey, whose story adds a good of melancholy to the film, and displays the gentle humanity of Wyatt and Billy.

It is hard to say much more about Easy Rider, other than what everybody says when they see it: it has a cracking music score, which helps leviate the film. Hopper gives us a glimpse into a short-lived but very influential time in America's history, where the old life as many knew it had changed, the world lurching into modern life.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Teeth (2007)


Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein

Teeth is a horror film that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying at the same time. How could you not giggle at the image of a male doctor's hand stuck inside a teenage girl's vagina, as well as recoil in discomfort at both their pain as they struggle to extricate themselves?

Jess Weixler is fantastic as Dawn, a young woman who discovers a spare set of teeth on her body in an unorthodox spot. They make themselves known when Dawn's crush decides to force himself on her, and her body takes revenge. The film is very clever, showing Dawn's own fear at her unknown power, before she comes to appreciate its value. For men, this is the stuff of nightmares.

The film explores the fears (American, religious fears) around female sexuality. Dawn is a speaker for a purity group, encouraging people to make public pledges to wait until marriage. She has been taught to fear her own feelings about boys, as well as the act itself. The horror of rape is flipped on its head in this film: Dawn's crush finds his desire for sex is not tolerated by Dawn's body.

Lichtenstein has taken a feminist viewpoint with this film: one could make a film about the same idea, but make it entirely about men's fear of women's sexual power. Instead, we care about Dawn, sharing her fear as she gets forced into sex, treated patronisingly by a doctor and by a classmate, who really should have known better. And we cringe in anticipation as Dawn decides to punish her awful step-brother (who looks like Sid from Toy Story all grown up).

Teeth is clever, funny and horrifying. It doesn't punish the sexually promiscious girl, like many a teen horror film, and pushes the horror of rape onto men.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Moonlight (2016)


Director: Barry Jenkins

After its win at the Oscars last weekend, my local cinema finally decided to show 2016's Best Picture. Naturally I went, wanting both to support the film (and the cinema's decision to show it), and of course, to see what all the praise was for.

This is one of the most quiet films ever to be nominated for an Oscar, let alone to win the award. And this quietness gives the film its immense power. There is not exactly a story, more of a snapshot, or three, of the life of Chiron, a young black boy, then man, living in Liberty City, Florida with his drug addicted mother. He gets taken under the wing of drug dealer Juan as a young boy; has a deep and tender moment with his friend Kevin as a teenager, only to have his heart broken in a brutal way; and then as an adult, he confronts this painful, confusing episode from his past.

I am being deliberately vague, because this is a film to just let wash over you, like the water that makes an appearance frequently throughout the film. Chiron is one of the quietest character I have seen on film for a while, and I am not surprised that the more dialogue-heavy performances of Mahershala Ali as Juan and Naomi Harris as his mum were nominated (they are also fantastic as well). The three actors who play Chiron wonderfully portray the confusion, pain and desire that swell within him. Their performances also all meld together to create one character.

Moonlight is a film that grows on you, the depth of its emotions masked by the restraint of the filmmaking and performances. It is very beautiful, and very quiet in a way that requires you to pay attention and listen to it carefully. I loved it, but it took time for my feelings about it to settle. The story touches on other stories we have seen before - about being black, bullied, a drug dealer, or gay - and yet it approaches these things with a depth I haven't seen before. It is about coming to terms with who you are when choices seem limited, and accepting parts about yourself you can't change.

Friday, 3 March 2017

I've Just Seen: Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna) (1964)


Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Few stories are so simple, yet so strange as Teshigahara's film. It follows a schoolteacher who finds himself living in a house at the bottom of a sand dune valley with a woman whose job is to keep her house safe from the encroaching sand. From this intriguing and Sisyphusian scenario, we get a fable that is lyrical and surprisingly sensual.

The sand of the dunes is a main character in the film. There are close-ups shots of granules of sand tumbling over each other, this silent presence slowly inching closer. It also gets everywhere, even when the characters lie down inside the house. It informs every act the couple do each day, and even aids in consummating their relationship. The black and white cinematography strips the sand of its yellow-white colour, making it feel even more dry, and almost like Niki and The Woman are on another planet. When water does appear, its dark stain stands out in this pale grey landscape.

It is hard to say a great deal about the film because its plot largely occurs in the heart of its main character Niki, whose desire to escape this strange gaol changes as he and The Woman start a sexual relationship, and his own ingenuity is rewarded.

The quietness of the camera's approach to its subject reminded me of Ozu's work, but really,  Teshigahara's film is very singular. I didn't know what to think of it for the first few minutes, but by the end, the film had drawn me into its world of sand, sex, and seclusion. Further proof, as if it were needed, of the brilliance of Japanese cinema.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

I've Just Seen: Dark Victory (1939)


Director: Edmund Goulding

1939 really was a great year for films. Though Dark Victory is not in the same realms of cultural significance as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz or Mr Smith Goes to Washington, its well-acted, moving story is yet further proof of the talent that existed in late 30s Hollywood.

Dark Victory is a woman's picture about Judith Traherne, a young socialite who discovers a tumour on her brain. Defiant that nothing is wrong with her at first, Judith eventually begins treatment for her illness, and falls in love with her doctor. The title refers to the film's rather moving ending: Judith cannot be cured, and the signal that her life is about to end will be her sight going - everything going dark.

One thing that I really liked about the film was Judith's relationship to Ann, her secretary and her best friend. While the romantic storyline is given more emphasis, the women's friendship moved me the most. It is Ann who convinces Judith to see the doctor, and their last scene together is arguably the sadest in the film.

Bette Davis is, always, wonderful as Judith. The character undergoes several emotional upheavals, and Davis gives them nuance, especially after discovering her terminal prognosis (which knowledge she must keep secret). The intrigue around Judith not knowing or knowing the truth of her condition feels too melodramatic at times, though such things did happen, and it does add poignancy to the final scenes.

I don't generally cry in films, and didn't in this one, but for others this will definitely be a weepy. Davis may suffer from Ali McGraw's disease, but the love and care that surrounds Judith, and her knowledge of this, is what gives the film heart. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

I've Just Seen: The Arbor (2010)


Director: Clio Barnard

Barnard's documentary follows the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, who grew up in Bradford, West Yorkshire in England's north. She rose to fame in the 1980s with her first play The Arbor, an autobiographical play about growing up on a council estate. Scenes from this play are performed throughout the documentary, on sets on the real council estate in Bradford. If that doesn't sound meta enough for you, just wait. The majority of the documentary is about Dunbar's life, and her children, told through the memories of her three children, particularly through her first daughter Lorraine, who had an Asian father.

The point of difference with most talking head documentaries is that here the voices of Dunbar's real child are lip-synced by actors playing them. On paper, this sounds dreadful, but Barnard gets such wonderfully understated performances from her actors, that it took me a while to remember this device.

I won't detail the story that unfolds about the lives of Dunbar and her grown-up children. It is not a happy one, and the shock of some of the revelations make them very poignant. Barnard explores how poverty and even neglect affects each generation, forming a horrible vicious circle. For something that could feel very theatrical, the film is actually very cinematic, partly through the use of real council estates, and the subtle acting in close-ups.

I would highly recommend this, if you can find it. Barnard is one of the best modern British filmmakers, though her work is not seen, or shown, widely enough. Her films are full of compassion for people; there is no judgement cast. Instead we see a full depiction of all sides of the story, which only works to highlight the tragedy of their situations.