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.