Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Favourite (2018)

 Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

The Favourite follows Abigail Hill, a genteel woman fallen on hard times, who comes to the residence of Queen Anne to seek employment from Lady Marlborough, her cousin. Lady Marlborough (also known as Sarah Churchill), is the Queen right-hand woman, exerting a huge amount of influence over the sickly, often befuddled monarch. Abigail sees an opportunity to rise from her current destitution, and works to replace Sarah in the Queen's affections.

Lanthimos' film is similar to Amadeus in its approach to history. It is not about educating people regarding a particular person or moment, but instead takes a situation - here, the close relationships Queen Anne had with these two women - and spins a darkly funny, beautifully designed tale of ambition, power and friendship. It does not matter whether Olivia Colman's Anne is at all like the historical person, or whether she had sexual relationships with Abigail and Sarah. What does matter is the depth of the performances, and the gorgeous crafting of the world of Queen Anne's court.

The three main performances are wonderful - not unexpected from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone or Rachel Weisz, three of my favourite actors working today. The shifting dynamics between their characters feels like a beautifully choreographed dance, as Stone's Abigail and Weisz's Sarah seek to outwit one another. Olivia Colman is absolutely brilliant as Anne whose life is beset with physical pain (an attack of gout happens early on) and deep emotional trauma (17 dead children, some miscarriages, some dead in infancy; that is going to scar you).

All the elements of this film work really well together, from the witty script which feels true enough to early 18th century England, without being stilted, to the beautifully detailed costumes. The score has period appropriate music as well as avant-garde strings, which adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

The Favourite is not a history lesson, nor is it your typical costume drama (though there is nothing wrong with those). What it is is a humorous, at times shocking tale of ambition, desire, and the lust for power that lies behind politics. It is arguably Lanthimos' most accessible film to date, but that does not mean it is any less captivating or complex in its themes than his other films.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

True Grit (1969)

 Director: Henry Hathaway

If you are going to make a Western called "True Grit" it seems impossible you would cast anyone other than John Wayne in the lead role. Perseverance, or stubbornness, is a trait shared by many of the characters he played: Ethan Edwards in The Searchers immediately springs to mind. Here he plays "Rooster" Cogburn, hired by Mattie Ross to avenge the murder of her father by one of his workers. As with many of Wayne's roles, his steeliness of resolve is contrasted with the tender feelings he develops towards Mattie, becoming a father-figure for the fatherless teenager.

The film as a whole is entertaining and really well acted. Wayne is clearly enjoying the material, and he reportedly loved the script for the film. It is certainly a meaty role for him. Kim Darby is energetic in her portrayal of Mattie; one could argue she has the most "grit" of any of the characters. The scene where she haggles of the buying and selling of horses is good fun. The cinematography is lovely, along with the Colorado geography, despite it being set in Arkansas and Oklahoma (though being Australian I didn't notice the difference).

The only glaring flaw in the film is its pacing. It takes a long time for Cogburn, Mattie and La Boeuf to set out on their journey, with much discussion about who will and will not go. This doesn't really build tension, as you know who the three people going will be, and it just delays the inevitable. I imagine the remake is more economical in its first act.

While there is nothing ground-breaking in True Grit, it is a solid, well-made Western that has a rather sweet ending. It is hard not to enjoy a film where all the elements - writing, acting, directing, cinematography - are so good. It will be interesting to compare to the Coen Brothers' version.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Salute (2008)

Director: Matt Norman

Salute tells the story behind one of the most famous images in the world: the Black Power salute performed at the 1968 Olympic Games. In the photo John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood each with one hand in the air,, wearing a black glove, providing a powerful statement in support of the civil rights movement. Standing with them is Peter Norman, a white Australian runner, who is wearing an "Olympic Project for Human Rights" badge along with Smith and Carlos, evidence of his support for their cause. The film, made by Norman's nephew, tells the untold story of one of Australia's most successful runners who is still sadly rather unknown in Australia (I did not know about him until I watched the film).

Salute explores the context of civil rights in both America and Australia in the 60s, drawing parallels between the two to explain Norman's sympathies with the American situation. It also outlines Norman's life, particularly his Christian faith, which for him meant that all people were created equal, which lead him to abhor the racism in Australian society at the time (we had something called the White Australia Policy, and it was despicable). Carlos and Smith speak with great love and gratitude for Norman, with both delivering heartfelt eulogies at Norman's funeral.

This is one of those films that works to show us how far we have come in regards to human rights, and also how much more still needs to be done. The response in America to black footballers taking the knee (a peaceful and rather respectful protest which was met with a furious blacklash from some) shows that people still bristle at sport and politics mixing. Salute is a reminder of the need to stand up for what it right, even thought the cost may be terrible; all three runners suffered set-backs in their careers after the event. It also encourages us to reach out to one another over things that supposedly divide us - gender, colour, sexuality, even nationality - and recognise the inherent humanity that binds us all. It is an inspirational film about three inspirational men.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

 Director: Peter Bogdanovich

In The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich deliberately filmed the story in black-and-white, really emphasising the down-and-out texture of the world of Anarene, a small town in Texas. The lack of colour takes us back in time to 1951, and a externalises the lack of excitement and joy that exists in the characters' lives.

The film follows the lives of several of the towns inhabitants, focusing particularly on Timothy Bottoms' Sonny, and his friends Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd). They try to inject joy, excitement or even just emotion into their lives, often in destructive ways; Jacy works at losing her virginity (and finding a potential husband), while Sonny begins an affair with the older wife of the school's coach.

There is a great deal of pain and bitterness in this film, with occasional moments of humour (the naked pool party scene is uncomfortably awkward). The contrast between the lives of the characters and the worlds of the films they watch at the cinema cut through the cinematic fantasy of the 1950s, while at the same time making us wonder about the need for such fantasies. Two films that characters watch during Bogdanovich's film are Father of the Bride and Red River, one an aspirational comedy about an extravagant wedding, the other a Western about the clash between the old ways and the new, with Montgomery Clift's character Matt trying to strike out a different path from John Wayne's Dunson. Sonny and Duane desire something more than the world offered them in Anarene, something like that offered in the films they watch (it is no coincidence that Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend not long after watching Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride). Yet they find themselves stuck where they are, surrounded by bitter or defeated adults.

In the end Duane has to leave by joining the army, risking his life in the process (he will end up fighting in Korea). Sonny, who has spent the film searching for a genuine human connection, loses the one that had meant most to him, and goes back to Ruth, the coach's wife, who he had thrown off for Jacy. The film's ending is ambiguous. It feels both hopeful and yet hopeless at the same time. Ruth clearly loves Sonny, and yet she is stuck in a marriage she likely can't escape; how will they give each the love and companionship they need? The film doesn't give us an answer.

Bogdanovich clearly loved Golden Age Hollywood films, but he wasn't above pulling apart their rose-coloured view of reality. There is a wryness in his films, and here a pain that comes from watching people make decisions that draw them further away from being happy. The script is wonderful, the acting is superb (with a cast like this you wouldn't expect it to be anything else), and its cinematography emphasises its melancholia. It is a great film.

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.