Monday, 26 June 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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 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 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 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 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
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.
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.