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.