Tuesday, 31 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Diner (1982)

 Director: Barry Levinson

Diner is one of those films about a group of people at a particular time of their lives, where subtle but monumental shifts are occurring. Here five guys are on the cusp of adulthood, though a few seem to have already taken the plunge and are now wondering if they lept too soon. Over the last week of the 50s, the group reconnects and tries to figure out what their futures will look like.

There is a bit of plot in the film, but this is really about the characters and their relationships to one another. The cast is made up of Steve Guttenberg, Tim Daly, the always recognisable Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, and unavoidable Kevin Bacon. They have great chemistry with one another as they reminisce about their high school days together at the titular diner. There are a few female characters too, most notably Stern's "Shrevie's" wife Beth, but the focus is mostly on the guys.

Diner is a good blend of comedy and drama, and nicely evokes the late 1950s without overdoing the period aesthetics: perhaps because many people still remembered those days Levinson felt it would have been overkill. This gives the film a timeless quality, that the concerns of these young men play out in each generation. The only difference between theirs and ours (or mine at least) is that the signifiers of  adulthood are nowdays put off longer (I can't imagine being married at 19!).

Monday, 30 October 2017

I've Just Seen: House of Usher (1960)

 Director: Roger Corman

I love a good Gothic horror film, and if it has Vincent Price in it I am bound to like it even more. Based on Poe's novella The Fall of the House of Usher, the story follows Philip Winthrop who comes to the House of Usher to see his fiancee Madeline. He meets her brother Roderick who tries very hard to dissuade Philip from marrying Madeline, arguing that the Usher family is cursed with madness, and that only will it stop with his and Madeline's deaths.

I really enjoyed this film. Vincent Price is a magnetic screen presence, and his Roderick is a wonderfully tortured soul. He belief that he and his sister will go mad is presented as tragic, but he is so determined that it will happen, and cannot accept giving Madeline a chance at happiness, that you wonder if the other Ushers simply drove each other mad.

In terms of pace and gore, this film is dated. A modern audience would get impatient with the time it takes to get crazy, and the blood is tame. However, the motivations underlying Roderick's behaviour are pretty awful, and if the story were remade today I'd imagine more emphasis would be placed on Madeline's character. I enjoyed the film, having a soft spot for cult horror classics.

Corman adapted many Poe stories, and if this anything to go by, I shall enjoy watching them. They are fun, and if a horror film doesn't shock or scare you, it is better that it amuse you than bore you.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Charulata (1964)

 Director: Satyajit Ray

Most of the Indian films I have seen are Bollywood-style films: melodramatic, musical, with lots of bright colours and gorgeous costumes. This is almost the opposite to Ray's film Charulata, with its quiet story of unspoken feelings that create painful changes in a small family unit. This is the first of Ray's films I have seen, and if they are all like Charulata, I am going to have another director to add to my list of favourites.

In the late 19th century, Charu lives with her husband Bhupati, who runs a newspaper dealing with politics. The marriage is friendly, but not close, and Charu is bored with little to do around the house. Bhupati's cousin Amal comes to stay, and Bhupati asks him to encourage Charu's interest in writing. Tender feelings start to bloom between Charu and Amal, though neither dares speak it aloud.

This is such a lovely film that deals with a small situation yet shows the devastating effects small breaches of trust can have on relationships. The black-and-white cinematography, along with the at times languid but interested position of the camera reminded me of Ozu's films, and the effect as a whole makes us focus on the faces and movements of our characters. The looks and gestures Charu, Amal and Bhupati give one another speak volumes. All the actors are wonderful, particular Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu, who has one of those faces that the camera loves.

It is always good to be reminded that a country's cinema is not made-up entirely of one kind of film. I do love the Bollywood musicals, but I also love this quieter, more character-driven style of storytelling. Both, when done well, are wonderful.

Friday, 27 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton

Science-fiction and Westerns genre mash-ups often make curious films. Science-fiction is usually focused on the future and technologies interacting with humans; Westerns almost invariably look to the past, and humans in a more primitive mode of survival. Westworld marries the two genres together in a really clever way, exploring these ideas around technology and survival.

The Westworld of the title refers to one of three themed worlds featured at the theme park Delos; the other two are Medievalworld and Romanworld. Each world gives he guests are immersive experience in either the American Old West, Europe in the Middle Ages or Roman Empire life (the last two are the experiences of the elite, naturally). Two guests to Westworld, Peter and his friend John (who is on a repeat visit) enjoy the life of a cowboy in the Old West, even having a duel with a cold-blooded gunslinger, played by a brilliant Yul Brynner. However, malfunctions starts happening, making the androids' "do not kill" function stop working. Guests start getting killed, and Martin finds himself being pursued by Brynner's vengeful Gunslinger.

So much about this movie works really well. The concept for a start is extremely good, and very fertile ground for storytelling: no wonder it has been turned into a TV series several times. The character of the Gunslinger clearly inspired the Terminator, with its relentless pursuit of its intended victim. The film was also rather predictive with its analogy of the systems malfunction to a virus. To modern minds this sounds obvious, but many in the 70s would have found it new, and no doubt frightening.

This is a very clever and thought-provoking film, one I am surprised Hollywood hasn't remade as a film (the TV series likely stopped that from happening). Its ideas are ones we are still grappling with, and it is potentially for horrifying for us as robots become more and more common in everyday life.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Natural Born Killers (1994)

 Director: Oliver Stone

American road movies as a genre throw up something interesting films. Natural Born Killers must be one of the most violence and visually frenetic ones out there. It follows Mickey and Mallory Knox as they make their way violently around the American south, becoming famous for their deeds after being profiled on a TV show. They eventually end up in gaol, where their separation leads to an extremely violent climax.

This falls into the "admire but not necessarily enjoy" category of films for me. The story is divided into sections, each with its own distinctive look and feel. In the first, Stone cuts between black-and-white and colour cinematography, making us feel the scene is being observed by more than one audience. In the second section the story of Mickey and Mallory's meeting is portrayed like a sitcom, though the laughs come incongruously, usually reacting to the awful abuse Mallory receives from her father. In the final section in the prison, one scene is split between two groups, and Stone shoots one group on green, while cutting to the other group in colour. We are constantly reminded that everything is a spectacle, that what we are watching is artificial.

The performances are very good across the board. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis have great chemistry together, and are truly terrifying as they go about their killings. Tom Sizemore is just as horrifying as Detective Jack Scagnetti, who enjoys killing as much as the Knoxs. Robert Downey Jr. is suitably oily as Wayne Gale, the TV reporter, and Tommy Lee Jones, who is great in everything, is on form too.

As I said before I admired this more than I enjoyed it. Its relentless violence is too much for me. The film is meant to be satirical, and pokes at the audience's enjoyment of the extreme action. While Tarantino only had a story credit, and I can see his influence on the film, though it is also clearly an Oliver Stone film. It is good, but I won't watch it again.

I've Just Seen: Barbarella (1968)

 Director: Roger Vadim

The chauvinism and sexism of Vadim's films is hard to stomach at times. I have seen a few of his movies now, and can't say I want to see anymore. Barbarella at least has some camp value, though the troubled production means that the film loses focus and all sense rather early on.

In a very distant future Jane Fonda's Barbarella, who is some sort of interplanetary special agent, is tasked with finding Dr Duran Duran, a scientist whose invention - a positronic ray - could be dangerous for Earth if one of the other planets get hold of it. So Barbarella goes looking for it, crash-landing on a planet supposedly more primitive than Earth (they have sex the "old-fashioned way"). Eventually she meets an angel, goes to Sogo where Dr Duran was last seen, and then ... things happen. Really, there is not point worrying about the plot of the film: the filmmakers started filming before they had even finished the script. This doesn't always spell disaster for a movie (Casablanca is a good example), but here it shows badly.

While the film is not great, it is campy enough to be vaguely enjoyable. The costumes are pretty eye-popping, and clearly inspired Paul Gaultier's costumes in The Fifth Element. The sets are also remarkable, especially Barbarella's spaceship, with its furry, carpeted walls. So 60s! Fonda is very good as Barbarella, and while the script subjects the character to several exploitative scenarios, she does get moments of comedy, and Fonda makes the most of them.

I am glad to have crossed a cult classic off my list, but feel that were I male, I may have got more out of this. As it is, I was impressed with Fonda's dedication to the role, the look of the film as a whole, and even some of the scenes are hilarious, like the demonstration of exaltation-transference pills (how future earthling have sex). But the sexism and cobbled together nature of the story and script are too big to ignore.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Monster (2003)

 Director: Patty Jenkins

There are several clever decisions Jenkins made with her film about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. There had already been two documentaries (one that came out the same year) about Wuornos made by Nick Broomfield which laid out the facts of the case and showed footage of Wuornos in court describing her life as a prostitute, as well as several interviews with her in gaol. Jenkins' film takes a more "inspired-by" approach, fictionalising parts of the story, and only focusing on Wuornos' life before she was caught. This allows us to get to know Aileen as a person, and her relationship with her girlfriend, and the circumstances of those murders.

Charlize Theron won heaps of awards for her performance, and deservedly so. Having watched Broomfield's films, I knew what the real Aileen was like, and Theron not only does a perfect impression of her, but also opens up her character as we see her personal life. Along with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, Theron's performance is one of the best portrayals of a real person I have seen.

Christina Ricci is also great as Selby Wall, a fictional version of Wuornos' real girlfriend Tyria Moore. Ricci's role is less magnetic than Theron's, but she makes Selby an interesting and complex character. She is looking for love, trying to find a place for herself as a lesbian in small town America, and for a time ignores the horrible crimes Aileen commits, even benefiting from them. Their relationship is very complicated but never feels artificially so.

I am glad that a woman directed this film, and wrote it too. While many a male director would have done a fine job, Jenkins treatment of the whole, particular the lesbian relationship at the story's heart, is not sensational. The gaze of the audience isn't directed to say 'Oh, look, two woman in bed together,' but 'Gee, having an non-hetero sexuality is not easy.' Also, it doesn't simply say "Wow, a woman who is a serial killer, that's rare', but instead explores the way Wuornos' gender leads to her killing clients.

The film gets remembered for Theron's performance, and it should, but it should also be remembered for how its story draws out the relationship between Aileen and Selby.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

I've Just Seen: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

 Director: William Castle

House on Haunted Hill has everything you would want from a horror B-movie. It is set in a strange, gothic mansion, there are skeletons, ghosts, secrets, hysterical screams, a pool of acid in the basement, and best of all, Vincent Price!

The story's set-up is that Price's Frederick Loren has invited a group of people, all in need of money in some way, to stay the night at the supposedly haunted mansion. If they make it through the night, they will get $10, 000. One of the guests is actually the owner of the building, Watson Pritchard, and he is terrified of staying, saying that ghosts haunt the house. The other guests are a psychiatrist, a pilot, a columnist, one of Loren's employees, and his wife Annabelle (the gathering is ostensibly a party for her. Some party.).Of course things start to go bump in the night, and when Loren's wife is found hanging dead from the rafters, things get really exciting.

This film is hoot! While not scream-inducing by today's horror standards, it does have a rather sinister ending. Overall it is pure camp, something I generally enjoy. Vincent Price is also a great screen presence, particularly with that voice of his. Few people project such an aura of malevolence as he does.

This is a great cult classic that is a huge heap of fun. It is short and sweet in its running time, and it won't leave you feeling bored. Its influence on Tim Burton's films and many episodes of The Simpsons are obvious, and only adds to the enjoyment.

I've Just Seen: The Company of Wolves (1984)

 Director: Neil Jordan

One must go into Jordan's film not expecting a typical Three-Act story structure. Instead, like the fairytales it is retelling, the film has stories within stories all based around the film's theme: beware of charming strangers.

Rosaleen, in modern day Britain, dreams she lives in the forest in a fantastical past. Her sister has recently been killed by wolves, and Rosaleen's grandmother tells her stories about dubious men with monobrows who turn out to be werewolves, including a man who disappeared on his wedding night, only to come back years later to visit his ex-wife. All this leads up to the Little Red Riding Hood story, as Rosaleen one day meets a hunter in the woods (one with a monobrow).

The special effects, particularly the wolf transformations, are on a par with those in An American Werewolf in London. They are gruesome and startling, and really well done. Sarah Patterson is great as Rosaleen; she reminded me of Helena Bonham Carter. Angela Lansbury is, as you would expect, wonderful as Rosaleen's grandmother: and she gets a rather spectacular end too!

The Company of Wolves is a fun and clever curiosity of a film. I do like my fairytales, and also Gothic horror films, and this brought the two together nicely. Its low-budget aesthetic also adds to its charms.

Monday, 23 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Dressed to Kill (1980)

Director: Brian De Palma

One could be rude and say that Dressed to Kill is for people who thought there wasn't enough sex and blood (or shower scenes) in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. For Dressed to Kill is very much a retelling of Psycho (thought not a shot-for-shot remake). However, saying that would be wrong, as De Palma's film is really a clever and highly entertaining variation on a theme of the famous film. It is Hitchcockian, but also entirely De Palma's own movie.

As in Psycho, the first part of De Palma's film follows a woman, Kate Miller, as she works through a morally dubious situation she has got herself into. In Dressed to Kill, Kate's dilemma is about having an affair, as her husband is not satisfying her needs. She tries her attractions on her therapist Dr Robert Elliot, but he turns her down, so she ends up going home with a stranger she finds in an art gallery. This part of the story is essentially a red herring for the audience, as we believe we are going to see the results of this affair. And then something unexpected, and seemingly unrelated happens: Kate is brutally attacked by a blonde woman in a black trench coat. Just before she dies a young woman, Liz Blake, sees her dying in the lift, and also spots the assailant. So she is next!

De Palma often receives criticism for his portrayal of woman, specifically the way they are sexualised while being mutilated or murdered. I think that criticism is warranted, but his female characters in Dressed to Kill aren't nearly as poorly drawn as many woman in films are. Kate may border on being a stereotypical 'nymphomaniac,' but she has a friendly and close relationship with her son and is a good mother. Liz is a prostitute but is clever, possessing both intelligence and street-smarts. She doesn't sit back and let herself become the next victim, nor relies on the police (in fact, they use her to find information).

There are lots of great scenes in the film, one being the gallery scene where Kate looks for a suitable lover for the afternoon. The whole scene, done without dialogue, is masterful, everything conveyed with glances and gestures and a good old-fashioned glove drop. De Palma uses some old film techniques, like split screens when characters' remember something; and the bright colours of the film are reminiscent of Hitchcock's Technicolor thrillers.

This was hugely enjoyable, the only real negative being the old-fashioned approach to transgender people. The ending is also a bit of a cliche, but I felt that it played to its classic Hollywood approach to the story. This is how you "remake" a film (if you really have to).

I've Just Seen: It Follows (2014)

 Director: David Robert Mitchell

It Follows is a slow-burn horror story with a very clever conceit: after having sex, a person suddenly starts being followed by ghostly apparitions, which only they can see. After an assignation with her new boyfriend, Jay Height finds herself in this situation, having caught the sexually transmitted hauntings, and must make the decision whether to pass it on and get rid of it, or try to end it with her.

Mitchell has filmed his story in a quiet way, with unobtrusive editing (it doesn't cut every split second), and uses Steadicam shots that revolve around a scene until landing on the characters. It is dispassionate but not uninterested. It ups the creepiness and seriousness of the hauntings, as it takes a while for us, and Jay, to see the person following her; and we become suspicious of anyone walking behind the characters.

While a lot of teenagers in horror films are stupid and/or annoying, Jay, her sister and her group of friends are portrayed as intelligent, and supportive of one another. Mitchell even includes some sexual tension between the group which doesn't necessarily lead anywhere, but feels realistic. The tone of the film is quite sincere, there are few jokes or light moments, but it maintains the oppressive fear throughout.

I was really impressed by the film. It has its own distinct style, and enjoys the ambiguity of its story, not giving the audience complete closure with its ending. It resembles Robert Eggers The Witch, with its slow-burn approach that heightens the horror of its story.

Friday, 20 October 2017

I've Just Seen: American Honey (2016)

 Director: Andrea Arnold

Arnold's film about Star, a young woman who joins a mag crew, is an American road movie that evokes other films in the genre - Malick's Badlands in particular - but also feels like a unique and fresh exploration of the subject.

The story and its running time made me a bit hesitant to watch it. I had never heard of mag crews before the film came out, and wondered how such a story warranted a two-and-three-quarter hours running time. Even the casting of Shia LaBeouf made me worried. But I should have trusted Arnold's talent as a filmmaker. The film is beguiling in its treatment of Star and the whole world of the crew. We get a small taste of her unhappy life, enough to understand why she would fall for the romance and adventure promised by LaBeouf's Jake. We watch as Star works to find her place in the group, though she always seems slightly aloof from everyone else (apart from Jake). Then the romance wears off, and the ugly side of life intrudes again.

Arnold often uses untrained, unknown people as her leading actors, and it works just as brilliantly here as it did in Fish Tank. Sasha Lane carries the whole film as Star - many shots are just close-ups on her face watching and subtly reacting to things  - and she more than holds her own against seasoned actors Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough (both of whom are wonderful too).

Epic road movies are usually shot in widescreen, but Arnold shot American Honey in Academy Ratio (4:3), and it works beautifully. The focus is on faces and close-up details, like the small insect trapped in the car (rather than the view out of the window behind it). It also increases the space the sky takes up in the shots, particularly behind Star, as though she is floating in some sort of dreamy world. The colours look slightly saturated, with a warm glow diffused over many shots. Again, it is beautiful.

The score is also great at evoking this particular world of travel, with the mag crew often having sing-a-longs in their van. I didn't recognise any of the music, but it works to create the camaraderie of the crew: the singing of the titular song is a particularly lovely scene.

American Honey joins Fish Tank as my favourite Arnold film, and is one of the best road movies you will see. I never lost focus or interest throughout the whole running time, and when I had to pause it to do other things, I as anxious to get back and watch more. Always a sign of a great film.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Badlands (1973)

 Director: Terrence Malick

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 October 2017

I've Just Seen: Funny Games (1997)

 Director: Michael Haneke

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

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

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

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