Tuesday, 16 May 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Thursday, 16 February 2017
2016 saw me plug several large holes in my movie viewing. One of these was E.T., which it has taken me twenty-six years to see. Why, you may ask, did my childhood not include this landmark family film? Errrr... I will blame my parents (who did show me Star Wars at age seven, so go figure). I do wonder how I would have responded to it if I had been younger; in all honesty, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did seeing it as an adult. E.T. would have scared me as a child, but now I can appreciate his adorableness.
Spielberg knows how to balance entertainment and emotion in his films. Almost all of them have a moment of wonder, a scene that excites you but also moves the story on. That moment in E.T. is the flying bicycle across the moon, which naturally is the movie poster. It is still one of the most iconic shots in film history, and beautifully captures the film's themes of adventure in your own backyard, and the power of friendship.
The child actors in the film are all well cast, especially Henry Thomas as Elliott and Drew Barrymore as Gertie. Thomas has to give a performance of great emotional depth, and his scene at E.T. deathbed is something a few adult actors would struggle with. He handles it wonderfully.
Aspects of this reminded me of the way Pixar approaches films supposedly aimed at children. Both Pixar and Spielberg take the lives and emotions of children seriously, and trust them to cope with the sadder parts of life, like loss of loved ones. They also choose to see the world from the eyes of a child: a place of both wonderful things to discover, and fears to overcome.
Monday, 13 February 2017
Director: James Whale
People who say that Hollywood has become addicted to sequels of late clearly doesn't know their film history. Hollywood has always gone after the money if they see an opportunity to do so. And much like today's industry, the sequels are occasionally equal to or better than the original film. Considering the strength of the first film, this is saying something.
The Monster has always been a sympathetic character in all the tellings; the Mary Shelley's novel is even narrated by the Monster for sections (the scenario where the original story was written is alluded to at the film's start). Even when he kills people, we still understand his motivations, and care about him. Throughout The Bride we see the Monster naturally wanting a mate. This is nicely doubled with Henry Frankenstein's relationship with fiance Elizabeth. The most monstrous character of the film is Dr Pretorius, who wishes to continue Frankenstein's work.
The most iconic image of this film comes right at the end, that of the newly created Bride. She stands there in all her glory, both beautiful and terrible. It is a striking moment, though knowing Young Frankenstein as well as I do, I couldn't help but smile, remembering Madeleine Kahn's tribute to this scene. The film's ending is just as melancholic as you would want from a Frankenstein film.
Friday, 10 February 2017
Director: Tobe Hooper
'Bonkers' is the word that comes to mind when thinking of this film. This is a positive thing, as it acknowledges the ridiculousness of the film's plot, particularly in the strange narrative and tonal shifts the film has. Some moments are genuinely creepy, such as Carol Anne's 'They're here' scene with the television, while others are so over the top that they become funny.
The Freelings are your typical American family, with all the trappings of success - nice house, three children, merchandise galore, the parents even have pot to smoke. However, everything is thrown out of balance when some strange and malevolent beings start living in the house too. You could enjoy this film on several levels: a scary movie, but one with large amounts of humour, a slight satire on Regan's America, or even a scathing critique of capitalism's severe ignorance of anything sacred.
The strange tone of the film comes down to the almost co-direction of the film by Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw fame, and Steven Spielberg. It is easy to see Spielberg's influence in the many scenes about the family's bond, and the nods to Lucas' Star Wars feel like Spielberg's work too: he is a good friend of Lucas. However, the genuinely gross moments, like Diane's encounter with corpses in the swimming pool definitely come from the mind of a horror director.
One can't talk about the film without mentioning Zelda Rubinstein's medium Tangina Barrons, who steals every scene she is in. She, along with Heather O'Rourke's Carol Anne are the most memorable characters of the film. Rubinstein gets the best speech of the film, and manages to be both trustworthy and suspect as a character.
Poltergeist is an immense amount of fun, its slightly ramshackled storyline only adding to its many pleasures.
Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Pre-moon landing films have a different feel to more modern films. The images of men walking on the moon, or even seeing the earth from space were not yet part of modern culture. Filmmakers' imaginations roamed a little more freely. Special effects in these old films have a particular charm to them; these days you have the fall back of doing things in post-production if required, and some in the audience just think "That was done with CGI."
Couple these special effects with a clever adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, a wise-cracking robot, a thoroughly modern electronic score, and with a plot that is much more about humanity than aliens than you might think, and you have one of the best science-fiction films of the 1950s, and of the genre in general.
Seeing Leslie Nielsen being both young and serious was a slight obstacle at first - and in some of the more sexist 50s scenes with Anne Francis' Alta I half hoped for a wisecrack just to cut through my discomfort - but he is great as Commander Adams. He and his crew land on Altair IV and find the environment is the least hostile part of planet.
The sexism is what dates this film. Alta is portrayed as naive, not realising her self-designed clothes are making the earth-men uncomfortable; or that her physical interest in these men is unladylike. The male audience of the 1950s got to have it both ways: look at a pretty girl, and see her get reprimanded for being too showy. This, however, is the only negative things about this film. Forbidden Planet goes to some very dark places about the human subconscious and the way technology may one day interact with our thoughts.
Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Director: Drew Goddard
I put off watching The Cabin in the Woods until I felt I had seen enough horror films to give me context for the film's plot, and most of its jokes. I am glad I did, for while I knew of some of the horror tropes referenced in the story - the cliches about the group dynamics was one - the depth of the film's horror knowledge would have escaped me.
The Cabin in the Woods' plot is a very clever explanation for the abounding cliches or tropes in many horror films, from the isolated locations to the last-girl-standing. The beginning has two branches of the story: one the familiar group of young people off on a dubious holiday in the woods, the other shows a military-looking office of people monitoring the group's activities, and eventually influencing their behaviour. While we quickly realise what the office-bound group is doing, we don't know why.
Like so many parodic films that are fond of their subject matter, The Cabin in the Woods is both funny and genuinely scary, much like The Princess Bride is also romantic and swashbuckling, and Young Frankenstein occasionally melancholic. The deaths of the young people are gruesome and ridiculous; you recoil as you laugh. The climax is a boon for horror geeks (which I am not quite yet), warranting a re-watch just to catch all the references.
Good parody is hard to do, especially of horror, as the line between scary and silly is a fine one. The Cabin in the Woods works because of its clever writing, both of dialogue and narrative structure, something that is also true for that other great horror parody Scream. If your audience comes out from the film having laugh, screamed (or gasped) and with a smug smile of recognition at the film references, you know you've succeeded.
Monday, 6 February 2017
Director: Oliver Stone
Outrage is at the heart of Stone's film about JFK's assassination: outrage and disbelief over the fact that we still don't know why it was done, or by whom exactly. JFK doesn't seek to give us answers, and really leaves you feeling overwhelmed at all the 'facts' and supposition around that fateful day in Dallas.
This makes a strange double bill with Pablo Larrain's Jackie, which I saw a few days before watching Stone's film. Larrain's film grounds the event in personal grief, as well as reflecting on how to create a legacy for a president who served just under three of his term. Stone's film focuses on all the speculation and conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. We follow Jim Garrison, who become obsessed with discovering the truth, and spent years amassing as much detail about the day, seemlingly talking to anyone who had a theory about what happened.
Kevin Costner is very good as Garrison, and he must have salivated at the almost ten minute speech Garrison delivers in the court room at the film's climax. The rest of the cast is top-notch, with characters that only have one or two scenes in this almost three-hour film making an impact. Donald Sutherland's government man, known as X, is one such 'cameo.' The recreations of the period are good, with Stone mixing reconstruction with the famous Zapruder footage (which is still hard to watch, as you know it is real footage of a man being killed).
This is a film to admire for its scope and attention to detail. However, I don't think I would watch it again anytime soon. While I certainly agree with Stone's frustration at the lack of culpability for what was one of the most famous (and public) murders of the 20th century, I felt much more moved by Larrain's film, which reminded the audience that not only was a president killed that day, but someone's father and husband.
Monday, 30 January 2017
I like my horror films squishy, gooey and fleshy. I also like a bit of gothicness, either romantic or just purely horrifying. Watching Black Sunday, it didn't take long to realise I was going to thoroughly enjoy Bava's film. In the first scene, in 17th century Russia, we meet a crowd of shrouded figures condemning a young woman to death for witchcraft. Before being burned alive, the woman, Princess Asa, has the Mask of Satan - with large spikes on the inside - hammered into her face. It is a great start.
We then move 200 years ahead, and the Vajda family are still living under the shadow of their dead ancestor, especially Katia who bears a striking resemblance to Asa. When two doctors accidently awake Asa from her sleep, all hell threatens to break loose.
Gothic horror often has a campy quality to it. There is some of that in Bava's film, but because his horror goes further than the Hollywood horror films of the period, it never becomes ridiculous. The hammering of the mask is both over-the-top yet also truly gruesome. Princess Asa's regeneration is horribly imaginative. It just takes a drop of blood, and soon her skull is starting to cook up a new set of eyes for her, displacing the spiders that had lived inside her for centuries. The black and white cinematography helps contain the film's excess, as well as enhancing this world of shadows and ruins.
Some parts of the story are slightly confusing: Princess Asa is accused of being a witch, yet is referred to as a vampire as well, despite the lack of fangs (though this was a choice made on the set, as the fake teeth looked terrible on camera). As is often the case, the villians are more interesting than the 'good guys,' : the young naive doctor who takes a fancy to Katia is a bit wet for my taste. However, the film rests on Barbara Steele playing both Asa and Katia, and she is wonderful, giving a performance that distinguishes the two. Her Asa is vengeful and alluring, convincing Dr Kruvajan to give her his life essence, and even hoodwinking Dr Gorobec into thinking she is Katia for a while. Katia is a rather haunted young woman, her beauty acting as a curse.
Bava's film is both fun and horrifying, which is what I want from gothic horror. The end may seem happy, yet Bava leaves us with a sense of discomfort, as the 'modern' characters descend into the barbarity of their ancestors.
Wednesday, 25 January 2017
I've been on a bit of musical kick of late, sparked by La La Land. I've watched The Music Man, and rewatched Oklahoma and Kiss Me Kate, all standard (and fun) Hollywood musicals. Lars von Trier's musical is as different from these musicals as you can get. Deliberately so. Not in a way that condemns such fare, but instead looks at the impact a love of musicals can have on someone.
Bjork plays Selma, a musical-loving, am-dram singer who has migrated from Czechoslovakia with her son to America (nominally in the 1960s). She works in a factory and lives in a trailer on a wealthier couple's property. And Selma is going blind from a genetic condition. She keeps this, and her accumulation of money, from her friends, except from her landlord, Bill. This secrecy will prove to be a mistake, leading to a series of increasingly horrible events for Selma. Between these events, once Selma has gone completely blind, she begins to see and hear songs and dances in her head, like the musicals she loves so much.
This is a difficult film to like, but one that I found easy to admire. The documentary style of the "real life" parts - hand-held camera, natural lighting - are nicely contrasted with the musicals sequences. These are shot with multiple static cameras, and Bjork's voice gives them an appropriate dreamy quality. Bjork is great as Selma, not just in the singing, but also giving Selma a child-like quality and naivety. The rest of the cast is good too, especially the always wonderful Catherine Deneuve, a casting choice that recalls Jacque Demy's musicals.
My feelings about the plot changed as the film went on. So many hardships are laid upon Selma, some through her own stubbornness, that I occasionally thought von Trier had pushed the darkness of the story too far. Her self-sacrifice could have been avoided by trusting her friends. Yet by the end I understood Selma's actions, that she wasn't just reacting to the things that happened to her, but shaping them as well.
While many people think musicals all ended happily, this is certainly not always the case: Moulin Rouge has a romantically tragic ending, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is gently unromantic. Dancer in the Dark, however, goes beyond even Sweeney Todd in its brutality. Here is it emotional brutality, and its suddenness jars with you.
It is hard to say whether a non-musical loving would enjoy this more than a musical-loving one. And many film critics, who are musical-lovers, hated this film. In Australia, Margaret Pomeranz gave it five stars, while David Stratton awarded it none. Whatever it makes you feel, it is at least bound to make you feel something.
Friday, 20 January 2017
Director: Pablo Larrain
The assassination of JFK looms large over modern culture, with many returning to it again and again with a disbelief which manifests itself in all the conspiracy theories that surround the event. Larrain's film takes a different approach, centring us in the human story of the assassination: that on that day in Dallas, a woman and two children lost a husband and a father. The film also argues that history hung in the balance, and that Jackie was instrumental in creating the mythology around her husband's presidency.
Noah Oppenheim's script is very clever, moving backwards and forwards over what happened before and after the shooting, from Jackie's famous television special about the White House (or 'The People's House'), to the immediate aftermath, and JFK's funeral. The framing device, Jackie's interview with an unnamed journalist, allows us move around these events, following Jackie's reflections on this recent history.
Natalie Portman is absolutely fantastic as Jackie Kennedy. The film's success rests on the strength of the central performance, and Portman is never neither but compelling. Jackie was such an iconic figure, from her appearance down to her voice, that it would be easy to fall in parody. Instead, Portman gives Jackie a very human face. Her grief, pain and anger is real, and we get glimpses of a wry sense of humour. She is also portrayed as an intelligent student of history; it is she who decides to use Lincoln's funeral as a model for JFK.
The film's power has grown on me since I saw it. For something that has such a narrow focus, it delves deeply into the emotions of grief and loss. The film's score helps create the nightmare quality, with sliding, discordant strings on a black screen starting the story off. I loved the 16mm film Larrain used; it not only helped create the 1960s feel of the story, but its texture added to the rawness of the emotions on screen.
Thursday, 12 January 2017
The Hidden Fortress will be familiar to some for being one of the inspirations for George Lucas' Star Wars. The plot of Kurosawa's film follows two hapless peasants caught up in a war between two clans. They manage to fall in with Makabe Roturota, a General with the Akizuki clan, who is taking the Princess Yuki (and other family members) to a safe territory. Along with the princess, there is a large portion of gold as well. While Lucas didn't take his plot verbatim from Kurosawa's film, the influence is very clear.
While not as great as Seven Samurai (but what is?), The Hidden Fortress is very enjoyable. Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune plays Roturota, a much straighter role than usual; his nobility and loyalty is contrasted to the two mercenary peasants. The princess does feel like a prototype Princess Leia - she is not afraid to give her opinion, even though she is acting as a mute. The two peasants provide much of the humour, and rather reminded me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet.
Comparing Kurosawa's work across his filmography is an interesting exercise. On the surface the samurai films look like different beasts from his earlier dramas, which often focused around medical conditions. Yet throughout all his films, his deep interest in human beings is clear. It is even present in a film like The Hidden Fortress, which, while taking the audience on a rollickingly fun adventure, never forgets to populate the story with memorable characters.
Wednesday, 11 January 2017
For such a small filmography, Tarkovsky managed to make all the films he made count. Of his eight full length films, four feature on the 1001+ list; the only reason I can account for Ivan's Childhood's absence is that the list is only meant to give you a taste of a director's output. The story follows a young boy called Ivan, during World War II in Russia. He has become involved in army work after the death of the rest of his family.
This was Tarkovsky's first full length film, and few director have emerged so wonderfully developed. The story is filled with flashbacks and dream sequences (and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference), yet they slip into the modern story well, enhancing the nightmarish quality of the setting. The cinematography is beautiful. The film is set in darkened rooms and swamps (and one memorable scene in a forest), and the black-and-white stock emphasises the dankness of war-torn Russia.
This is arguably Tarkovsky's most accessible film, with a setting and emotions that are understandable, and have been tackled in films before. Yet it also gives you a flavour of this daring director who interrogated the Soviet Union and Russia's past. As in other Tarkovsky films, characters are at the forefront, yet perhaps because Ivan is a child, his motivations are clearer to us. We find ourselves immersed in this very adult world through the perspective of a child who has seen horrible things, yet who also retains an innocent naivety about the power he has. The last scene of the film is a tragic reminder the lost childhoods of many children as a result of war, sadly something still relevant today.