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.