Wednesday 25 November 2020

Freaky (2020)


Director: Christopher Landon

Freaky is classic high-concept film: a body-swap story with the twist where the swappers are a shy teenage girl, and a serial killer straight out of a slasher film. Not high art certainly, but what could have been simply stupid and disposable is actually very funny, with two surprisingly plumb lead roles for Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn. And most astonishing of all, a considerable amount of sweetness.

I am not a Vince Vaughn fan, and am not sure if I've even seen any films his been in, except maybe Dodgeball (not my kind of comedy). So take that into account when I say it is a great turn from him. He is convincing as the murderous Blissfield Butcher, but really makes the teen girl stuck in a middle man's body work. He doesn't over play the "girliness" of the character Millie, and to me stayed on the right side of camp. There were several moments of comedy gleaned from his height and strength, and a scene in a car between Millie (as Vaughn) and her crush that goes further than you'd expect, and doesn't make it gross. Newton clearly relishes playing the murderous persona in the body of an innocent-looking girl. The revenge visited on several revolting teenage boys, and a bullying teacher, is particularly enjoyable.

Freaky is a fun spin on a constantly re-hashed concept, and manages to be funny, nasty and sweet all at once. Someone could probably write a fun thesis on the film's comments on gender, but you can also just enjoy it as a great diversion from a crappy year.

Saturday 21 November 2020

Breaking the Waves (1996)

 Breaking the Waves (1996) - IMDb

Director: Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier offers an interesting conundrum for me. On the one hand his films provide actresses with unusual and meaty roles to play, much more than the usual wife/girlfriend (or mother) roles they get in Hollywood. And yet his films put his female characters through the ringer, exacting rather extreme punishments on them. He would likely argue that he is simply reflecting the cruelty of life and the universe, but a lot of this cruelty is visited on women.

Breaking the Waves centres on Bess, a young woman who lives in a remote Scottish village and is part of the stern Calvinist church there. She is gentle and rather naive, and well-liked by many in the village. She marries Jan, an oil rig worker, who she loves dearly and has a active sex life with. After an accident leaves Jan paralysed, Bess is bereft of being physical with Jan; he encourages her to have sex with other men, then tell him about it so they can feel closer to each other. Bess, who speaks to God and replies to herself in His voice (or what she at least believes He is saying), tries to reconcile her behaviour and her faith.

Emily Watson convinces as the naive Bess. It is a hard role to do well, as any sign of knowing-ness would destroy the character's depth of innocence, making her appear duplicitous. Watson won plaudits for the role, and they were deserved. I certainly felt sympathy for Bess, and believed she believed what she was doing was right. 

I am not overly fond of films that use a naive, innocent character as a contrast to others. I'm thinking of Being There in particular. So often the character is just a symbol for others to bounce off, and it feels exploitative. Here at least von Trier shows us Bess' inner life, giving her depth. However, does this make the exploitation worse, now that we understand the knots she is mentally tying herself in?

While not as horrible an experience as Antichrist, Breaking the Waves is a hard watch. I doubt I'll be re-watching anytime soon.

Sunday 29 September 2019

Martyrs (2008)

 Director: Pascal Laugier

Fifteen years after escaping captivity as a child Lucie, accompanied by her friend Anna, breaks into an apparently normal middle-class home and murders the mother, father and two teenage children in a brutal killing spree. We know that this family is somehow related to Lucie's earlier captivity, which was extremely abusive and traumatic, but we are left wondering what exactly was their role, and why they kept and abused a child. Was it sexual sadism? Some form of horrific parenting? The film offers few answers, and raises even more questions as Lucie sees visions of an emaciated human-like creature that appears intent on killing her. At the halfway mark of the story, something happens that completely changes our ideas about what we have just seen, and unleashes a rather different plot, one that is extremely difficult to watch in its brutality.

I am being hazy with the details of Martyrs as it is a film best going in not knowing what will happen, as I did. The film is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and offers no real let-up from the horror it presents to the audience: no moments of humour or levity. I imagine this could be too much for even some of the keenest of horror fans. It is bleak.

That being said, it is not just torture porn (though it veers close to it). The shifts in focus in the storytelling are well done, and the central mystery at the film's heart is seeded from the beginning. It is just that once you find out about it, it carries through its painful implications to the end. This is a glimmer of hope at the end that it is not all in vain, but it is a dim one.

If you have the nerves and stomach for it, this is an interesting horror film, one of the more smarter torturous stories out there. But it is uncomfortable, deeply unpleasant, and will remind you of the horrible things humans are capable of doing to one another. 

Sunday 15 September 2019

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

 Director: Wes Anderson

Gene Hackman gives one of his best performances as Royal Tenenbaum, the self-centred paterfamilias who decides to reconnect with his estranged family after several decades. His not quite ex-wife Etheline is getting married to her accountant, which makes Royal jealous. The three Tenenbaum children, who were all gifted in their youth, have lost their ways as adults, dealing with grief and pain in their relationships, and a lack of progress in their careers. Royal's re-entrance into their lives brings chaos that threatens to break things apart, and possibly mend them too.

I am not a Wes Anderson "fan-girl" but I do like his films and certainly appreciate the coherency of his vision, and his ability to execute said vision without it getting in the way of the narrative. The idiosyncratic style and story generally feed into each other rather seamlessly. He also gets great performances from his cast, though if you cast your films this well, that isn't so hard to achieve. As I said Gene Hackman is fantastic here, managing to engage in some truly awful behaviour and yet still be charming and hilarious too. I also enjoy watching Anjelica Huston in anything, and she is good as the rather harried mother of the family. The deadpan delivery of Stiller, Wilson and Paltrow as the children adds a human equality to the absurdity of the whole story.

Wes Anderson doesn't tend to deviate from his film style, so when you see one of his films, you know what you are going to get. The Royal Tenenbaums is quintessential Anderson, and if that's your thing, you'll love it.

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Harold and Maude (1971)

Director: Hal Ashby

I had watched Harold and Maude a number of years ago, before I started recording my thoughts about films. I remember enjoying it on first viewing, though I was also slightly thrown by the odd turns the plot takes. Films that have strange plots and and tones often prove richer on second viewing, and as the film was available for free on SBS Movies on Demand (I cannot praise this local service highly enough), a re-watch was in order. 

One could argue Harold and Maude is a twist on the plot of The Graduate. Both films feature a listless young man with parents and adults around him who don't understand what he wants - though if you were to ask him, he wouldn't be able to articulate it either. He then meets an older woman who provides something new and different in his life, eventually forcing him to make a decision about his future. Of course, the big difference is the nature of the older woman: in The Graduate Mrs Robinson is the same age as Benjamin's parents, and they never manage to open up to one another. In Harold and Maude the gap is at least two generations, and Maude's considerable life-experience, and brushes with real tragedy, draw the youthful Harold out of his death-obsessed shell.

The film is very 70s, with its fashion and political climate - not the mention the lovely Cat Stevens' soundtrack. For viewers today this adds to the film's charm. The rarefied, upper-class lifestyle of Harold's mother is beautifully contrasted to Maude's life in her converted train carriage house. The first feels like a museum, the other a comfortable, ramshackled place demonstrating a life well lived.

Recently I've been pondering what makes a film a "cult" classic. It is one of those things that is hard to define: broadly it has to do with the film's subject matter being somehow contrary to the mainstream, or that the execution of its ideas is unconventional. Or it can be about an audience's reaction to the film. Whatever makes a film "cult", Harold and Maude has it in spades.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Apollo 11 (2019)

 Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Having been born over twenty years after the Moon landing took place, the event always had a sense of "of course we did" about it. As a child I had no idea about the level of scientific achievement needed to make it happen, nor the political and historical context surrounding it. As an adult, having learned these things, I was amazed that such a thing was actually accomplished, knowing how little computer power was available in the 60s, but that didn't still give the full picture. Miller's documentary, made using only contemporaneous footage and voice-recordings, immerses you in the whole event, filling you with awe and amazement about the scale of the endeavour.

The opening shots are of the wheels of large machines slowly rolling along tarmac, the vehicle groaning and clunking, dwarfing the people walking beside it. The next shot reveals what is being carried: only Saturn V, the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 into space! From there we meet the three astronauts who manned Apollo 11, and the Mission Control Centre in Houston. The film follows the complete journey of the mission, from launch to the return of the astronauts to Earth.

Apollo 11 is not a documentary designed to walk you through each step of the mission, and it offers very little by way of explanation for the science behind it. The most it does is provide simple animated sequences that demonstrate the maneuvers performed by the craft: one example is the lunar module reconnecting with the command module. Instead the footage - of Saturn V launching into space, of the lunar module gliding over the surface of the Moon - is allowed to play out for long periods, drawing you into the moment, making everything feel immediate and full of tension. The result is that by the film's end an historical event you knew the outcome of becomes vivid and emotional. You are connected to the hope and optimism of the spectators shown in the film, the people who turned up 50 years ago to witness history. You are as invested in the outcome as the scientists and engineers watching and listening with bated breath in Houston, despite the knowledge all will be well.

I can imagine this becoming the definitive documentary about the first Moon landing, in part because of the previously unseen footage included in it. It deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the best sound system available. It captures the profound achievement of this moment in history, and draws viewers into the emotions felt by many at the time.

Sunday 19 May 2019

Battleground (1949)

 Director: William Wellman

It is the end of 1944, and a group of American soldiers are sent to Bastogne to hunker down in the town's outskirts during what became known as the 'Siege of Bastogne,' part of the larger Battle of the Bulge in World War II. We follow Private Jim Layton as he joins the squad and works to make a place for himself in this tight-knit group, as they battle the onslaught from the German forces, the dwindling supplies, and the harsh winter.

Paul Vogel's black-and-white cinematography really immerses you in the bleak environment of war-torn Bastogne. Most the scenes are set outside in the snow and fog, shrouding the characters in white as they camp in their snow-covered trenches, emphasising the bitterness of the weather. The acting from the ensemble cast is really good; with such a large number of characters it could be easy to lose track of who's who, but with actors like Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and James Whitmore this doesn't happen after initially meeting them.

While this is not as famous as many other WWII films, it is certainly worth watching. You really feel bedded in with the troops, spending time with them as they wait nervous and bored for something to happen, or facing death as they return sudden enemy fire. The deaths are done poignantly, without much display of emotion, and yet they do sink in. This film may be quiet and at times look subdued, but it is infused with a nervous tension throughout that draws you in.