Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

The title of Peckinpah's film is eye-catching, making you wonder who is Alfredo Garcia, what did he do to risk losing his head, and who will go and get it. Being a Peckinpah film you can expect the answer will come with a lot of violence, including multiple shoot-outs. The story focuses on the getter of head, Bennie, and the cost this expedition has for him.

I haven't warmed to Peckinpah's style. I do admire the way he shoots violence, which is impressionistic, with its slow-mos overlaid with loud gunfire, disorientating you as though you were part of the action. He does also focus on interesting characters. My problem is the story is often not as compelling as it could be, and as someone who tires of too much violence quickly (unless it is in horror), I get tired watching his films. All this is true of Alfredo Garcia.

I can't say much more about the film because it didn't grab me. I watched it a few weeks ago, and haven't thought about it since. Peckinpah clearly has his fans, several of his films appear on the 1001+ Films lists, but he doesn't do much for me.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Antichrist (2009)

 Director: Lars von Trier

I honestly don't know what to think about Antichrist. I can't say I enjoyed it, and I don't believe von Trier meant it to be an enjoyable experience. But I am still not sure what the film was trying to say. Is it a decrying of misogyny, or is misogynistic itself?

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe play a couple who are working through grief at the death of their child. Gainsbourg's character (unnamed) feels particularly shattered by the loss, and Defoe's character decides to treat her (being a therapist himself). They go to a cabin in the woods (never a good idea in a film) and Gainsbourg's character starts to really unravel, aided by a surprisingly aggressive natural world.

The central idea of the film is that "nature is Satan's church," and Gainsbourg's character argues that since women are more ruled by nature than men (menstrual cycles, pregnancy, etc.) they too are evil. What makes the film frustrating to watch is you are not quite sure if it agrees with this idea. Defoe's character at first disagrees, and works to try and convince his wife too. He also points out that her study of gynocide appears to have affected her thinking. But as her behaviour spirals out of control, and the wood becomes more aggressive, you feel the film agreeing with Gainsbourg.

The film's opening - a black-and-white, slow-motion, silent (with the aria 'Lascia ch'io pianga' playing) depiction of the couple having sex while their child falls out a window - is extremely well done. It sets up the mother's horror that crescendos throughout the film, and leads to a revelation later about the mother's knowledge of their son's predicament (though we don't know if this is her projecting after the fact). Both Gainsbourg and Defoe completely give themselves to the roles, something I don't think a lot of actors would have done, considering the subject matter.

This falls into the "not going to watch again" category, not because it is the most disturbing film I have seen (it is disturbing, but not as much as, say Salo), but mostly because I don't think its knows quite what it is saying about women and misogyny. Lars von Trier has written some really interesting roles for women, and has shown sympathy for female suffering, but this film feels like a weird distortion of that idea.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

I've Just Seen: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

 Director: John Cassavetes

I don't really know what to say about this film because it didn't really make me feel anything. I may not have been in the right mood or mindset to watch it, but it just didn't grab me. I am not a fan of gangster films in general, but I do like interesting takes on genre, and Chinese Bookie is certainly different to other gangster films. But, for whatever reason, I just didn't go with it.

The plot is reasonably recognisable: Cosmo Vitelli, who runs a strip-joint, finds himself in debt to a powerful group of gangster who run a gambling club. To pay off his debt he must kill the titular bookie (actually the boss of the Chinese mafia), leading to Vitelli losing much of what he loves. What makes this different to other gangster films are small details. Vitelli's club is rather artsy, with a focus on themes and creativity, not just nudity. Vitelli's girlfriend is also black, and Vitelli has a close, tender relationship with her mother as well.

The cinematography and acting are low-key, making this a film that asks you to lean into it. Unfortunately I just couldn't get into it. I can see it was well-made, and the acting is good, but it is not my thing. I have appreciated other Cassavetes films but he is not a director I have enthusiastically embraced.

Much like the acts in Vitelli's club, the title promises something perhaps violent and action packed, but instead we get something a bit different. Our expectations are defied, and if you can't change them, you are left wondering what to think.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

I've Just Seen: 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

 Director: Adrian Lyne

Having watched a number of foreign language films, particularly French films which have no qualms showing male and female nudity, and living in an era where 50 Shades of Grey is a pop culture phenomenon, I found that 9 1/2 Weeks did not live up to its salacious reputation. And despite critics positive comments about the central couple, I saw some rather unpleasant sexual dynamics being played out (though I will concede, not without challenge).

Kim Basinger is really good as Elizabeth, who starts an affair with apparently compelling John Gray (yes, another one). Through a series of "erotic" games involving ice cubes, food, and the oh so fun game of staying locked up all day in your lover's house, not allowed to go anywhere, Elizabeth starts to wonder what it is she wants from the relationship beyond sex.

As I said, Basinger is really good as Elizabeth, balancing the character's fixation with John along with her misgivings about the relationship. Unfortunately for Mickey Rourke, I found John Gray really off putting. Maybe it was his smug smile, his job on Wall Street (which only emphasises his entitlement), his boring flat, or his constant ignoring of Elizabeth's opinions and wishes that turned me off him. From the moment he played "Strange Fruit" as a seduction song, my dodgy dude senses tingled (really, a song about lynching gets you going?).

The film also has a weird approach to Elizabeth's character. While we see her being capable and intelligent at work, the first few times she meets with John she is dressed and treated in childish ways: carrying a bunch of balloons, being locked onto a Ferris wheel, then being stranded at the top when John pays the guy working it to leave her there (oh, isn't he hilarious). It felt off to me, like it was equating her submission to him with being a child; never mind the Monroe-esque coos and squeals she makes too.

The sex scenes are positively tame compared to efforts from Europe and Asia, and as is common in American films, features more female than male nudity (and yet this film is ostensibly aimed at women). Not that you need nudity for a film to ooze sexiness (just look at The Lady Eve), but considering the film's reputation, I was expecting more.

As you can tell, this did nothing for me. If you want a really clever, funny and sexy version of this type of story, ignore this (and 50 Shades) and head straight for Secretary (also featuring a gray-named male lead). I do give the film kudos for its ending, showing the emotional toll such a relationship often has on people, and being realistic about its likely outcome (unlike 50 Shades). But it would have been a lot shorter if Elizabeth had just talked to her friends about the relationship; most would have told her to drop him sooner.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

I've Just Seen: Sherpa (2015)

 Director: Jennifer Peedom

After a fight broke out between Sherpas and a European climber during the 2013 climbing season at Everest, Peedom and crew went to Nepal to observe the 2014 season, focusing on the experience of the Sherpas. As it happened, she was there to witness on camera an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas, which led to an unprecedented response from the other Sherpas who refused to climb that year, shutting down the season.

The documentary provides a sympathetic insight into the lives of the local Sherpa people, focusing in particular on Phurba Tashi, who has climbed Everest 21 times. At the film's opening he is hoping to make it 22, a record, much against the wishes of his family, who fear for his life each time he goes away. Peedom also follows mountaineer Russell Brice, who runs one of the company providing Everest climbs. We learn that Sherpas are employed to not only accompany visitors on climbs, but to make many trips in order to set up several camps up the mountain, meaning they have to navigate the treacherous area, the Khumbu Icefall, which is climbed at night because during the day the ice melts and moves. It is here that the avalanche occurs early one morning.

The catastrophic event prompts union-style behaviour from the Sherpas, who don't want to climb, and are demanding the government give them better wages, protections and compensation for the dead workers' families. The Nepalese government makes a lot of money from foreign tourists climbing Everest, and the Sherpas see little of it. Brice is sympathetic to the Sherpas, but also wants to push ahead with the climb.

Peedom's film raises difficult questions about the employment of Sherpas as assistant climbers for Western and wealthy visitors, questions that certainly deserve consideration. While the Sherpas do get paid for their work, it is such a small percentage of the huge amount of revenue the government receives; yet they do the most dangerous work. And, it is to make life easier for mostly white, wealthy tourists. It does feel like exploitation, and the way Brice and others say "It's a tragedy, but we have to move on" feels callous considering the dangers they are asking these people to experience.

Most people think of Sherpas as smiling, happy and willing to assist, an image created by the most famous Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. But as his children note in Peedom's film, Norgay came to resent the slights and assumptions made by Western media about him and his people. This film certainly challenges that image, painting a portrait of a people fighting to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

I've Just Seen: Independence Day (1996)

 Director: Roland Emmerich

I vaguely remember this film being released, but was too young to see it at the cinema. I believe it was played a few times at school, but I don't remember watching it. If this film holds any significance today, it is as a barometer for how much blockbusters have changed in the last two decades. Other than that, I can't think why it is considered a must-see film.

The film is incredibly stupid in so many ways it is impossible to go through them; perhaps the most glaring is the use of the internet to download a virus onto the alien aircraft using Earth internet, but several thousand kilometres away from Earth (what the hell!!). None of the characters have much character development: the president is suitably bland - we get no sense of his political persuasion, only that he is thought to be too young for the job. One woman is shown to work as a pole-dancer, for no reason other than that's something male screenwriters seem to think is a big employer of women (tagent: I'd love to do a survey of all the jobs women are depicted having in films: I bet sex worker and stripper would be disproportionately high compared to actual jobs women have in real life). The disparate characters all eventually and predictably end up meeting and working together. And, of course, America saves the day.

While the film's visual effects have aged, I don't really have a problem as this happens to pretty much every film. And 22 years later they don't look that bad; other films have fared less well. However, the overwhelming Americaness of the whole endeavour (it just happens to be set around America's Independence day) just put me off. Apparently the rest of the world was just along for the ride.

Compared to the recent Arrival, Independence Day looks immensely stupid and violence heavy. If it shows any thought, it is in the rather pessimistic way it depicts conquering forces as destructive. But even this is giving the film too much credit. Its stupid, shallow and ultimately unsatisfying.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

I've Just Seen: Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

 Director: Robert Aldrich

Aldrich's film was originally intended to star both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, replicating the success of the three's previous film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. But the ongoing feud between the two made it impossible for them to contemplate being in the same room together (with some undermining by Davis with the crew) Olivia de Havilland was cast as the titular Charlotte's cousin Miriam.

The original idea behind the casting of Davis and Crawford was to switch the dynamics of Baby Jane, with Davis now playing the put-upon character, and Crawford as the scheming one driving the other insane. While it would have been interesting to watch that play out, de Havilland is really good as the evil Miriam. She is playing a little against type herself; many of her most famous roles involved being the gir-next-door, though they often had dark parts to their lives (particularly in The Snake Pit). Here she gets to be out-and-out bad, and seems to be relishing it.

While Davis is famous for playing "bitchy" characters, she also brought great vulnerability to many of her roles. While Charlotte is not one of her subtlest performances, she is a good fit for a character who people believe murdered her lover.

It is not as hammy and grotesque as Baby Jane, making it less memorable and not as great. That being said, there is much enjoyment to be had watching these older stars of Hollywood flex their acting muscles.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

I've Just Seen: The Wedding Banquet (1993)

 Director: Ang Lee

With The Wedding Banquet I have finally cracked 2,000 films watched in my lifetime. Thankfully this was a lovely film with which to achieve this milestone. I have enjoyed pretty much all of Ang Lee's films, and the progressive message about love and family at the heart of this one still feels relevant 25 years later.

Wai-Tung Gao is a Taiwanese man living in New York with his partner Simon. After receiving continuous pressure from his parents back in Taiwan to marry (particularly after his father suffers a stroke), Wai-Tung and Simon decide Wai should just marry a girl to get his parents off his back. Luckily one of Wai's tenants, Wei-Wei, needs a green card, so the three plan the wedding. But then Wai-Tung's parents arrive in America to see the wedding, forcing the celebrations to be bigger, putting pressure on Wai-Tung and Simon's relationship, and making Wei-Wei feel the separation from her family.

There is a generosity at the heart of the film. While some elements might have aged, as gay people have become more accepted in mainstream society, overall the film is still very sweet and touching. The cross-cultural element is something we in 2018 are dealing with as migration occurs. The Wedding Banquet shares similar ideas with My Big Fat Greek Wedding and more recently The Big Sick. Such romantic-comedies are not only about people finding someone to love, but also finding a balance between Western individualism and the more collective cultural philosophies of the East and Middle East. This adds more meat to the story and raises the stakes, creating a satisfying mix that goes beyond simple boy-meets-girl stories, and portrays the messiness of romantic life. The Wedding Banquet also has the added element of homosexuality, making the choice facing Wai-Tung even starker.

As a fan of the romantic-comedy genre, as well as someone who likes to explore other countries and cultures through film, I hope that future romantic-comedies continue to engage with such themes. To use a horrible word, such themes are more "relevant" than ever, and in a world that appears to be becoming more isolationist, surely focusing on love and relationships crossing divides is a good way to bridge gaps and generate understanding.

Here's to the next 2,000 films!

Saturday, 18 August 2018

I've Just Seen: Little Shop of Horrors (1960) (1986)

Directors: Roger Corman; Frank Oz

Of all the films to be give a musical makeover to, surely Little Shop of Horrors is the least obvious choice. The plot revolves around a nice guy, Seymour, forced to kill people to feed a carnivorous, talking plant named after the girl he loves (there is also a sadistic dentist thrown into the mix). If musicals have horror plots, they tend to be gothic (Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera), but Little Shop is a horror-science-fiction-comedy, making it rather unique. Corman's original focuses on the destructive relationship Seymour has with Audrey Jr., while Oz's films ups the stakes, fleshing out Seymour and Audrey's romance, and giving Audrey II a rather sinister motive.

Corman's film is pretty good considering the smallness of the budget. The weirdness of the plot suits the indie nature of Corman's filmmaking, and his abilities with horror shows. The cameo from Jack Nicholson, though small, is fun for modern audiences. The ending is rather bleak, but considering the strangeness of the whole plot, the story could have gone in any direction and it could have worked.

Frank Oz's film, which is based on the stage musical, is more polished by comparison, and it does develop the plot and some of the characters more than they were in Corman's film. Audrey is in a relationship with the sadistic dentist (played wonderfully by Steve Martin), who is abusing her, making Seymour's tenderness with her striking in comparison to what he does with Audrey II. The songs are brilliant, unsurprising as they were written by Alan Menken (who did the scores for many 80s and 90s Disney films). My particular favourite is "Dentist."

Of the two films I did enjoy the musical more, though I will note I did watch it first, making it the default despite being chronologically after (This is why I usually try to see remakes chronological, so I can see the development of ideas through the versions). Regarding the alternate ending to Oz's film, I honestly don't know which one I prefer. While I like the sweetness and romance of the theatrical version, the alternate is dark in a way most musicals are not. At least in this world of Blu-ray extras you can explore both.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

I've Just Seen: The Gleaners and I (2000)

 Director: Agnes Varda

Last year in Australia a TV series called 'The War on Waste' aired, showing the amount of waste created by a country of 24 million people, including horrifying statistics about the number of perfectly good bananas thrown away (something like 30 million a year out of around the 50 million produced). Why? Because they fall outside the strict requirements of the supermarkets. A similar scenario happens in Varda's documentary, with a truck load of potatoes dumped in a field. But as Varda shows, there are people who make use of these oddly shaped, discarded food.

Gleaning is an incredibly old practice where people collect items discarded by others. In the Bible Ruth gleans wheat from the fields of Boaz; poor people in 18th century England gleaned food from the hedgerows; a modern day equivalent is dumpster divers retrieving perfectly find food from shop bins. Varda's film focuses on many different people who practice gleaning in early 21st century France, exploring the many different reasons for doing so: poverty is one common reason, but not the only one.

The film approaches it topic with curiosity and appreciation of people's desire to combat the wasteful results of consumerism. I could imagine this topic could be tackled again today in another documentary, especially considering the expansion of the world's population (1.5 billion more people today than in 2000).

Varda is a wonderful companion on this exploration of gleaning. She lets her subjects speak for themselves, but also has reflective moments in the film where she speaks about recycled art she has seen, and even does a little gleaning herself. It is great to know she is still going strong today.

Documentaries allow you to explore parts of life you didn't even know existed, and while I knew gleaning had once existed I hadn't considered its modern iterations. As long as we continue to throw out perfectly good food and technology, gleaning (and films about it) will always have a place in society. 

Monday, 30 July 2018

I've Just Seen: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

 Director: Ol Parker

In Muriel's Wedding, Muriel loves ABBA's music and wishes her life was as good as an ABBA song. The first Mamma Mia! film was light and frothy, and a lot of fun, and felt like it encapsulated the spirit of songs like 'Waterloo' or 'Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight).' But as any good ABBA fan will tell you, so many of their songs have melancholic ideas or themes (they wrote great break-up songs). Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is much more melancholic and wistful than its predecessor, as it focuses on loss and heartbreak, as well as the deep bond between parents and children.

I was raised on the music of ABBA, with my parents playing it during long car journeys. As a result, I love their music, and saw the original Mamma Mia! three times when it came out in 2008. I watched it recently now having developed a more critical brain, and while its flaws are definitely there, it is still highly enjoyable. Here We Go Again improves on the first; it probes more of the emotions, fleshing out the backstory of Sophie's three possible fathers as we follow Donna trying to find where she is supposed to be, and with whom. We also follow Sophie coming to terms with Donna's death, trying to honour her mother and feel close to her.

If you hate ABBA's music, these films are certainly not for you; and I know a few ABBA fans hate the "butchering" of their songs. I however thoroughly enjoy these films. While Cher's inclusion feels  bit forced, the rest of it works really well. The songs felt better integrated into the story, and the female cast are darn good singers; the men are fun to watch, and looked to be having the time of their lives.

The ending is beautiful and heartfelt, and there were many sniffles from the mainly female audience in the cinema. The film demonstrates the joy and sadness of ABBA's music catalogue, music that has been the soundtrack to many people's lives, including mine. It may be silly, but it only offers love, and ultimately it is the love between parents and children that provides the backbone to the film. And that is a lovely message to be left with.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

I've Just Seen: Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929)

 Director: Luis Bunuel

Few pieces of art are still shocking 90 years after they were made. They lose their shock value because of changes in society's tolerance for violence or sex; or they are so famous that they become too familiar. While Un Chien Andalou is famous, and has influenced a great many filmmakers and artists, it still provokes a visceral reaction today. But while it is powerful, it is not a fun experience.

At film school you are told that if your film is going to be extremely violent, horrifying or just go plain crazy by the end, you need to put a little taste of it in the first act: you are prepping the audience for what is to come. Un Chien Andalou certainly adheres to this rule. The film's most famous scene, the eye being sliced, happens in the first minute, revolting the audience from the start. From there things become just plain weird, with ants crawling out of a wounded hand, and a man pulling along some dead donkeys and priests on pianos by rope (why? Who knows).

What does it all mean? According to Bunuel it is a cry for death, and the violence of many of the images implies a bloody ending is being asked for. While I like free association editing - it can be very witty - Un Chien Andalou is a hard film to like, or even admire. It is one of the purest examples of a film that doesn't care what the audience thinks, and doesn't even try to engage it for the ride - you have no story to hold onto to.

Much like Salo, I can now say I've seen the film, and have no intention for seeing it again.

Friday, 6 July 2018

I've Just Seen: High School (1968)

 Director: Frederick Wiseman

The late 60s must have been a weird time to be a teenager. The cultural gap between yourselves and your parents/ teachers (at least the older ones) would have been stark, as you grappled with ideas around race and sex. This gap is the focus of Wiseman's film, as he documents a day in the life of a typical high school, his camera capturing the "pearls of wisdom" cast down before the students by their elders.

High School is shot in black-and-white, and most of the shots are close-ups of the teachers talking to their students. While many of the encounters will be familiar to anyone who went to high school, it is the casual remarks of some of the teachers that truly shock: the sewing teacher commenting on a girls "weight problem;" a head teacher telling a boy to just take the unfair detention and then complain about is afterwards; a teacher reading a letter from a former student who is fighting in Vietnam in which he says he considers himself a mere "body" (ie disposable canon fodder), and then thanks the school for making him what he is. The sole focus of the teachers is to engender respect and compliance in the students, with little attempt made to develop them as people.

The situation is not entirely grim, and there are moments of comedy. The visiting gynecologist dishes out some good advice, and has a brilliant response to the question "Can you make a girl pregnant by just rubbing the vagina?" (I will admit he slightly lost me when he joked to the boys-only audience about being paid to put his finger inside vaginas all day, and calling the hymen a "cherry" because of what happens when you pop it). There is also a nice scene of the English teacher playing a Simon and Garfunkel record, demonstrating its poetry. It is fitting that the song is about people existing beside each other but not connecting, as that is the central idea of the film.

If one wanted to make excuses for the older teachers and parents, I would point out that most would have grown up during the depression, when survival was the most important thing, and life seemed precarious. They also watched the rise of ideas wreck havoc on Europe, and probably fear the same thing happening in America. But of course the fears of the students, around sex, race and death (Vietnam is still going) are quite different, and their hunger for more than just existing clashes with the values of the teachers.

Wiseman has made a lot of documentaries, and is still working today. After watching High School I would certainly seek out his other films; his first Titticut Follies looks particularly good.

Monday, 2 July 2018

I've Just Seen: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Director: John Carpenter

I decided not to read the synopsis for Assault before watching it. I knew it was directed by Carpenter, whose films I have enjoyed, and that it was a thriller, so hoped I was in good hands. The result was a neat, clever story which deftly displays Carpenter's ability to sustain suspense, and outline plot with little need for exposition.

Three different story strands are set-up at the start. A local violent gang in Los Angeles is going around killing people; a bus with prisoners on board leaves to transport them to a new gaol; and a black cop is assigned to a station that is in the process of closing down (leaving it with little resources, like weapons or man power). The prisoners end up at the under-manned station when one becomes ill, and the gang members also turn up when a man, whose daughter they killed, runs to the station for protect.

There is no fat on this film, from its tight script to its cinematography and acting. While not doing anything new with the genre, it is a great example of a thriller. The story is really well paced, gently easing you into the different story strands. The characters, while not given great depth, are given enough backstory to engage the audience, and are well played by the cast.

While the film is not a horror film, and was made before Carpenter made Halloween and The Thing, you can already see Carpenter's talent for the genre. The famous scene of the young girl's death near the ice-cream truck could only be done by a director comfortable with horrifying their audience. The influence of Romero's Night of the Living Dead also adds this horror element, the gang members as unrelenting and seeming unstoppable as zombies.

The only mistake of the film may be the title, as the action does not take place at Precinct 13 but at Precinct 9, Division 13. But hey, you watch the film for the "Assault," not the precinct number.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

 Director: John McNaughton

So many TV shows, films and, these days, podcasts are devoted to exploring the sensational lives and motivations of serial killers throughout history. We want to know why they killed, what they were thinking, what they were feeling when they killed the person. McNaughton's film doesn't offer any answers to these questions, and doesn't really ask them either. The film is a "portrait", but one that doesn't interrogate its subject, it simply observes wryly.

Michael Rooker is now most famous for his role in Guardians of the Galaxy, and part of me hopes that new fans of his go back and watch his back catalogue. As the titular Henry he is a frightening figure, one whose never explains his many, many kills - though he does provide a rather funny insight into his method. Henry does exhibit a bit of morality regarding Becky, though this is incredibly murky and it is likely he is only feeling attraction, not love. Rooker is great as Henry, leaving us deeply unsettled by the character, yet also giving him a charisma that draws you in.

The look of the film is rough, with grainy film stock and "natural" lighting. This is an ugly world populated by morally repugnant people. The unshowiness of the whole makes this feel realistic. This is a horror film that has no supernatural element, a scenario that could (and frighteningly, has) happened.

While not an easy watch, with an ending that leaves you thinking "Oh crap," it is a clever low-budget horror film. It lives up to its title as the portrait of a serial killer, while also defying the audiences' desire for closure. Why does Henry kill people? We, and likely he, can only guess.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Lady Macbeth (2016)

 Director: William Oldroyd

We first meet Katherine on the day of her wedding, her face obscured under a net-like veil, her eyes wide as she looks around her in disbelief. She looks like a captured creature, forced into a marriage that is really a land sale: she is just part of the deal. Her new husband and his father are awful, treating her as an object and confining her to the house and utter boredom. But Katherine is a determined woman with a strong spirit, and both Mr Lesters and their household are to learn how far she will go to get what she wants.

Florence Pugh is wonderful as Katherine. She uses quiet and stillness brilliantly to convey Katherine's frustration, and there is an ambiguity to the character that keeps you wondering exactly how far she will go (which is ruthlessly far). In her hands Katherine is a modern character without feeling like an anachronism.

The smallness of the budget is used to the film's advantage. The house is stark, adding to its oppressive atmosphere, and also keeps your focus on the actors and their movements and looks. While I do love opulent period dramas, this one does feel fresh by comparison. The camera is a quiet bystander observing the escalating violence without getting frenzied itself. It lingers on uncomfortable scenes, drawing you into the situation.

Another difference to other period dramas is the presence of race. A few of the Lester's servants are black, most notably Anna who interacts with Katherine, and bares much of the brunt of Mr Lester snr.'s wrath. Katherine's lover Sebastian is also black; he is one of the hired hands working on the farm. The colour of their skin is not made a deal of, but plays into the story in interesting ways. Anna becomes mute after a particularly traumatising experience, and the story's climax is made even more devastating because of their colour.

Lady Macbeth is a great film, with one of the best central performances of the early 21st century. Pugh's Katherine reminded me of Jake Gyllanhaal's Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, another character whose single-minded pursuit works itself out to an astonishing conclusion.

Monday, 23 April 2018

I've Just Seen: The Descent (2005)

Director: Neil Marshall

While I love horror films, few of them actually scare me. I have been a little spooked by some, and love ones that have clever ideas and well-developed concepts; but rarely I am squirming in my seat. The Descent had this effect on me as it tapped into one of my basic fears: being trapped.

Set a year after a tragic accident that killed her husband and daughter, Sarah joins five friends to go caving. One of the friends was secretly involved with Sarah's husband, Juno, and another, Beth, was aware of it. The other three women are two sisters - Sam and Rebecca - and adventurous Holly. The group head off to explore the cave system, and find themselves facing a surprising adversary.

This is one of those films to watch without reading much about it beforehand. There are revelations halfway through that change the story, upping the already claustrophobic tension. The whole film is quite clever, giving us enough details about group dynamics and teasing us with questions only to answer them later in surprising ways.

The part of the film that got to me was not the twist halfway through (that was more terrifyingly thrilling), but the scenes of the women crawling through tight openings in the rock. I am one of those people who would have a panic attack in that situation, being highly conscious of the tonnes of rock and earth on top of me. The film knows this will be true for many in the audience and plays with this fear, having the cave partly collapse, trapping the group. That is one of my nightmares, so my heart-rate was well and truly raised.

The Descent answers the question "what would a female version of Deliverance look like?" Both are about a group entering the wilderness and coming across aggressive locals who don't want them there. They also feature characters pushed to their limits, doing things they would never believed possible, like cold-blooded murder. Survivors guilt also plays a role.

The Descent has one of the best endings I have seen in a horror film. It is veritable sucker-punch, leaving you gasping for air, much like the characters. The version I saw was the "uncut" one, which is bleaker than the original American cut, but makes more sense. It is a great horror film that doesn't make a big deal about its female-focused narrative, and is all the more powerful for it.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

I've Just Seen: A Quiet Place (2018)

Director: John Krasinski

I made the mistake of going and watching this during the school holidays, and on "Cheap Tuesday." As a result the cinema had the sounds of munching, crunching and loud murmurs of teenagers. While this would annoy me not matter what the film - you are in a public place, be mindful of others - A Quiet Place is based around the idea of silence as a survival method. I wish the aliens in the film had come out of the screen and removed some of the audience.

It is a credit to the film that despite this distraction I really enjoyed it. It felt like a 1950s B-movie in terms of its simple concept and short run-time, resulting in a tense and clever whole. There is little dialogue, and the characters talk to one another with sign language, as one of them is deaf, so there are more subtitles than speech.

Survival is at the heart of almost every horror film, but this one has a collective approach: the parents are working to protect and equip their children for an uncertain future. As a family they are also living with grief over an earlier loss in the film, a plot point that terrifyingly and heartrendingly establishes the world they are living in. 

Emily Blunt, who is a wonderfully charismatic presence on screen, is great here, her face brilliantly emoting her struggle to stay quiet as her body is trying to give birth, as well as protect her family. Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf herself, is also great, dealing with her grief and guilt, and growing up over the course of the story.

I am really enjoying the spate of clever and diverse horror films coming out in the last few years. A Quiet Place is another one of these, showing Hollywood that a good idea and a good story is what is needed to succeed, not a giant budget or shallow jump-scares.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

I've Just Seen: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

 Director: Hector Babenco

This is definitely a film I should watch again. It was not at all what I was expecting, and since I try not to read much about films before I see them, I was thoroughly unprepared. All I knew was that it starred William Hurt and Raul Julia. That was it.

The setting, the characters, the arc of their relationship, and the subplots involving a fictional WWII film make for a unique story. Raul Julia is Valentin Arregui, a political prisoner (from the left) and Hurt plays Luis Molina, a transgender woman with a love for German propaganda films. Naturally the two irritate each other at first, but slowly a relationship begins, one that eventually becomes sexual. Loyalties are created, and Molina's appreciation for the beauty in life starts to rub off on Arregui.

Considering the film's interest in identity and politics, I am surprised it hasn't become well known in recent years. It approaches the relationship between Arregui and Molina without judgment, and while Molina's double-agent role casts her as dubious (and she is in prison for assaulting an underage boy), it is much more complicated than that.

I was intrigued by the film, but also rather unsure about where it was heading, which made it hard for me to really  get into it. That being said, it was great to see Raul Julia in a different role to what I have seen (Gomez Addams) and he and William Hurt worked well together.

This is where the value of following lists lies: exposing you to films you would never have known about otherwise.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

I've Just Seen: Vampyr (1932)

 Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer's films have been hit-and-miss for me. The ones that I liked - Ordet, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath - I really liked or even loved. The ones that I didn't like so much were disappointing, though not without some interesting parts - Dreyer does know how to shoot beautiful images. Vampyr falls into the latter category.

The film is technically a "talkie" with characters occasionally saying lines, but overall Vampyr plays like a silent movie, with its intertitles and constant music. While this is fine in general, the film does rely too much on reading, particularly in its explanations of what a vampire is in this world. It also doesn't really follow a clear plot, instead wandering through a village of supernatural nastiness, often leaving this viewer wondering what was going on.

The most impressive parts of the film are the special effects and one particular scene where the main character imagines his death. While early special effects are primitive compared to today, I am always intrigued by the ingenuity of early filmmakers. Here there are shadow puppets, and double exposure to get that ghostly appearance of a character, something rarely scene in films today.

The imagined death scene is where the film reaches its eerie heights. The main character falls asleep and his spirit wanders away. He discovers his body and watches it being put in a coffin with a window. The camera then cuts between the character's face staring blankly out of the coffin and the view from the window. There is a real sense of being trapped, particularly as the coffin is moved out of the building and towards the grave.

Vampyr is not typical of horror films with its meditative pace and, for a vampire film, lack of fangs. It does have some interesting set pieces, but feels slightly unfinished, as though it was cobbled together, or even started without a script. It is visually impressive but will likely alienate modern horror fans.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

I've Just Seen: Lady Bird (2017)

Director: Greta Gerwig

I could wax lyrical about all the wonderful things in Gerwig's Lady Bird. It is a small film in its scope and deals with a familiar topic - a teenager becoming an adult - but it does so in such a brilliant way, naturally using the specifics of its setting, and primarily focusing on the female relationships of its female protagonist, particularly the one with her mother.

While I don't require characters in films to "relatable" in order to care about their stories, a few aspects of Christine aka "Lady Bird"'s life echoed mine. I went to a Catholic high school (though I am not Catholic), and though I started the year after Lady Bird finishes in the film, the world of her high school felt very familiar. I went to friend's houses and was slightly shocked at the wealth they apparently had (my family is not poor, but we do not have a waterside view or gigantic house). A few people had mobile phones, but that was not the primary way we communicated; hanging out and talking face-to-face still happened. All this felt like a gentle reminder of how quickly the world, particularly the teenage world, has changed.

The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother Marion is suitably complex and treated beautifully by Gerwig. Neither is perfect, and while they both clearly love one another, we see them constantly say the wrong thing. Christine is oblivious to the financial realities of her family, while her mother can't help but emphasis the negative aspects of Christine's behaviour. Yet we also see Marion being good at her job, respected by patients and colleagues, and also see Lady Bird connect with other adults.

The role of Lady Bird is a hard one to get right, and I cannot imagine anyone else other than Ronan playing her. She is confident to the point of overbearing, yet also has moments of fear about being a better person. Over the film she starts to become this. Along with her mother, Lady Bird's other relationship of note is with her best friend, and its trajectory is very realistic, almost at times painfully so. Friends put up with a lot from each other, enduring absences when one gets a partner or decides to find other friends. But unlike Lady Bird's boyfriends, Julie is the one who knows her and loves her best.

As you can see I loved this. It captures something about growing-up and does so with an apparent lightness of touch, a lightness that belies the astuteness of its observations about teenage growing pains. Whether you are female or male (or somewhere in between), grew up on the 2000s or the 1960s (or somewhere in between) there is much joy and truth to be found in Gerwig's film. Can't wait to see what she makes next.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

I've Just Seen: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

 Director: Rian Johnson

Well, I liked it.

So much has been said about Johnson's installment in the Star Wars trilogy, and a lot of it is divisive, that it is hard to formulate your own individual response. You end up answering the criticisms of others. And as I heard a few of the general criticisms before I saw the film, I had them floating in my mind while watching the film.

I am not someone who engages with any of the non-films storylines of the Star Wars saga. So for me the films have to work with the other films; you can't explain away any plot holes or inconsistencies with "Oh it is explained here in this story, or comic, or wherever." They have to work as a whole, which is one of the reasons the prequels don't work; they created more answers, and I do wonder if Lucas actually watched the first three before he scripted them.

I was excited to see the new Star Wars films, having enjoyed The Force Awakens with its new characters, well-constructed script and polished and rather beautiful cinematography. And for the most part, The Last Jedi delivered similar levels of brilliance. The only area I thought needed work was the structure of the script regarding Finn and Rose's plotline (a criticism others have made).

I enjoyed the focus on the nature of The Force and the platonic attraction between Rey and Ren. The "good guys" and "bad guys" in Star Wars are usually so diametrically opposed that it is hard to imagine a "good" character going bad (hello Anakin in the prequels). But Johnson cleverly explored this through the Force channel between the two, as well as Luke's fall from grace.

I could say a lot about the film, but simply saying I overall enjoyed it feels enough. Seeing Carrie Fisher on the big screen one last time was bittersweet. She is wonderful, and though it was not intended to be a farewell the film does provide a lovely last arc for Leia's story.

It is certainly a different Star Wars than what we are used to seeing, but for me that is fine.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

I've Just Seen: The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions Barbares) (2003)

Director: Denys Arcand

I usually try to watch sequential films in their correct sequence, but in in the case of The Barbarian Invasions the first film The Decline of the American Empire wasn't available on the same streaming service. So I broke my rules and watched this before it disappeared. That was probably not a good idea.

At times it felt like I was at an event where everyone else knew each other and had private jokes that went over my head. This made it hard to really get into the story and its characters, who I also found slightly tiresome. The generational "war" between Sebastien and his father Remy is almost too broadly played, with the younger man displaying all the intellectual shallowness of a neoliberal Gen X, while Remy's lefty politics hasn't moved on to embrace modern feminism

The film is not entirely on the nose. The development of the two men's relationship is nicely played, and the ending is suitably moving. But my frustrations with the characters stopped it from really touching me. Perhaps if I had watched the first film I would have cared a little more, though from what others have written about The Decline of the American Empire, I may find it even harder to enjoy.

Friday, 12 January 2018

I've Just Seen: Son of Saul (Saul fia) (2015)

Director: Laszlo Nemes

There are so many films about the Holocaust that you would think that all aspects of its existence had been covered, in all possible ways. Yet Nemes' film touches on a perspective I didn't know about: sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners who were forced to clear the gas chambers after they were used. Naturally this is a grim subject yet Nemes has compassion for his characters, and takes us into their morally awful situation.

The most remarkable aspect of the film is they way it is shot. Using the tight framing of Academy ratio, and shot on actual film, the audience spends almost all the film with main character Saul as he goes about his soul-crushing work. His perspective is ours, with many shots filmed over Saul's shoulder. Action often happens just off-screen, and the background is frequently out of focus. We see intimately the emotions move across Saul's face as he believes he has found his son among the dead and tries to find a rabbi to perform burial rites over the body.

The film's references to the violence we all know took place is quietly presented, almost matter-of-factly; we watch Saul looking through piles of bodies, but because of our limited view, we only realise after we look a little harder. The shock is not in-your-face, but none the less harrowing as a result.

This is an impressive film which manages to say something new about the Holocaust. It is a moving film, though an extremely difficult watch (as it should be).

Monday, 8 January 2018

I've Just Seen: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

 Director: James Foley

Note: I watched the film and wrote the review before the allegations about Kevin Spacey came to light.

Few films' cast lists are as starry as Foley's. Scripts adapted from plays often attract top-quality stars because the writing is so good. What makes Glengarry Glen Ross feel different is that every role is a plum one, giving the actors something to really get their teeth into. While the setting doesn't change much from the real estate office (and doesn't entirely escape the story's theatrical origins), the scenario and the acting make this a great watch.

It is hard to single any one actor out for their role. Alec Baldwin almost walks off with the film in his one scene. His "pep" talk is hilarious and frightening, putting the fear of God into the sales team. Jack Lemmon is an actor I would watch in anything, and he is wonderful here, playing around with his charming everyman persona, twisting it to show the desperation the fuels his Shelley "The Machine" Levene.

Listening to well-written dialogue, said by well-drawn characters, played by some of the best actors in the busineses is always a satisfying experience. The play may not be world-changing, nor is the cinematography particularly ground-breaking. However, something this well-done is hard to get right, and Glengarry Glen Ross gets pretty much everything right.