Wednesday, 30 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Newsfront (1978)

Newsfront (1978)

Director: Philip Noyce

Noyce's film explores the era of cinema news, the 1950s in Australia, before television took over broadcasting such things. Different production companies would compete to film the best footage; in the film this is represented by the rivalry between Cinetone and Movietone. The movie incorporates actual archival footage of the historical events in the story (most of which are fact). There are also sections of the film photographed in black-and-white, and others in colour.

The film captures the era of Australia rather beautifully. We see not just the machinations of the news making companies, but the social and historical issues of the time are presented as well. Bill Hunter, one of Australia's greatest actors (familiar to non-Australians from his performances in Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is unsurprisingly good as the main character Len Maguire, a cameraman who watches the world change around him, leaving him behind. The rest of the cast are made up of other wonderful Australian actors who all wear the 1950s well.

A very good Australian film about a topic beloved by film: the media.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Your Sister's Sister (2011)

Your Sister's Sister (2011)

Director: Lynn Shelton

Some films are epic in scope and length, with a cast of hundreds or thousands, and with often a running time to match. Shelton's film is the complete opposite to that; three main actors, the entire film almost occurring in one setting, and the action predominantly made-up of conversations. The simplicity of the film belies the complexity of the situation between two sisters and a friend, as they try to hide important truths from each other.

Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt are all fantastic; this really is an actor's film. Parts of the script were improvised, and Shelton has clearly got the balance right in her direction. The result is natural performances that are funny, emotional and ultimately believable.

An intelligent film that proves the value of small budget films (and they don't come much smaller than this).

Monday, 28 December 2015

I've Just Seen: A Field in England (2013)

A Field in England (2013)

Director: Ben Wheatley

This film is an acquired taste. It follows a group of men who have moved away from an English Civil War battle, and are searching for a treasure buried in a nearby field. Hallucinogenic mushrooms are consumed by several in the group, and the plot and its characters descend into a strange and disturbing place where reality and fantasy become one.

The black and white cinematography helps to situate this in the 17th century, and Amy Jump's script mixes crass modern sweary dialogue with phrasing worthy of Shakespeare. The film adds to the unsettling mood with frequent tableau scenes which point to the events of the next scene. The editing reminded me of Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, using slow-motion, mirroring, cuts between characters to draw the audience into this hallucinogenic state that the characters are in.

Did I enjoy this? Perhaps it was too strange for my tastes. It is certainly an admirable film for its rather old-fashioned use of black-and-white and editing techniques (rather than special effects). The set-up should have been stronger so that the descent into madness was more shocking. You will certainly be disturbed by what you see, even if you don't quite understand it all.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Contact (1997)

Contact (1997)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Contact is a mix between Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Howard's Apollo 13, and clearly influenced the story of Nolan's Interstellar; there was little doubt that I would enjoy this. Add to that  Jodie Foster, who seems to have been born a good actor, and you have over two hours of clever, enjoyable science-fiction.

The visuals are little dated, but nothing compared to many other films of the time. The opening shot is still beautiful, as we travel back in time through space accompanied increasingly older music, until we emerge out from Ellie Arroway's eye. There is also joy to be had in looking at the old school technology of video, phones and even the computers.

Jodie Foster's Ellie is all you would want in a scientist: cool, collected but also passionate in her pursuit of knowledge. She may be too secure in some of her opinions, but so is everyone else. Matthew McConaughey's Palmer Joss is interesting, though his character felt a touch undeveloped.

The debates around science and religion raised in the film are interesting, and I could imagine such debates occurring were we to connect with intelligent alien life. The twist at the film's end is clever, and is left open-ended enough for us to wonder what Ellie really experiences.

Thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying.

Friday, 25 December 2015

I've Just Seen: The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Director: John Ford

Westerns are not a genre I gravitate towards, and I must confess, this is only my second Ford film (The Grapes of Wrath is the other). His films are clearly not all held in such high esteem as The Searchers, but on the evidence of this one, I shall have to rectify my ignorance very quickly. The Searchers' standing as one of the greatest films of all time is well deserved. There are so many elements that make this wonderful, and they have been raved about by better critics and writers than me, that it is hard to write about the film at all.

Cinematography often gets mentioned as a side element to a film, with story and acting getting the main pludits (or bashing). Here, the cinematography grabbed me from the opening shot, one of the most famous in film history; the black screen that is suddenly split by the light emanating from an open door that leads onto the harshly beautiful Monument Valley. The camera tracks behind the silhouette of a woman who watches the approach of a man on horseback. In the first shot, Ford introduces the centrality of women to this Western film, arguably the most masculine of all the genres.

The purity of cinema continues with the suggestion of affection between Wayne's Ethan and his sister-in-law Martha. Their exchanges are filled with restrained longing on his side, and wistful love on hers. Ethan's feelings help fuel his pursuit of his lost niece, who Ethan treats as his favourite.

I was surprsied by the number of suggestions of sexual violence in the film; we never see anything, but as is often the case, this makes it even more shocking. The audience is left to imagine the horror Ethan sees inside the chicken coop and the desert valley, or what Debbie has experienced as a captive.

Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a difficult character to like, but that is part of the genius of the film. We understand his anguish at what has happened to his family, but also find his violent, racist attitude hard to accept. The revelation of his true motives in his pursuit of Debbie is shocking. 

A wonderful film that has one of the best bookending shots in cinema. Definitely one to watch again, and learn from Ford about how to capture light, colour and unspeakable feelings on camera.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

I've Just Seen: The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Director: Michael Cimino

The Deer Hunter falls into the coming home-type of war film. It asks, how do people take the awful experiences they have had back into normal life? Is it even possible? We watch three different reactions, from the fearful, physically injured man, the one who comes undone mentally, and our main character Mike, who feels guilty about surviving and cannot move forward with his life.

The film is very good, and I can see why it is considered one of the best war films in cinema history. However, I couldn't help feel that I was watching a director's cut of a film that could have been shorter. I understand why Cimino wanted a long first act - to portray the bonding of the men, and the world they are leaving behind - but it did need an editor. The acting is top-notch, which you would expect from this cast; De Niro, Walken and Streep manage the complex emotional entanglements well.

The war scenes are incredibly tense, particularly the infamous Russian roulette scenes. I can see why they caused controversy, but the Vietnam War, like any other war, has attracted its own mythology and such scenes are emblematic of the unimaginable horror many soldiers witnessed. No wonder De Niro's Mike or Walken's Nick can't find peace.

The film is flawed, but very powerful. Do not look for political discussion or an even-handed exploration of a very divisive war. The Deer Hunter takes you through the loss of innocence of America, and how war, rather than cementing brotherly bonds, breaks the stability that such relationships rest on.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Now, Voyager (1942)

Now, Voyager (1942)

Director: Irving Rapper

Ah, the 'woman's picture,' a concept based around the fact that only women want to see dramas about women, unlike dramas around men, which are seen as more universal. Bette Davis was one of the queens of this genre, and this film is one of its exemplars. We have a woman, Charlotte, shaping and being shaped by the relationships in her life: her mother, lover and daughter figure.

Davis and Paul Henreid are very good together, their attraction palpable and believable. As with many child performaces of this period Janis Wilson is a touch overwrought, but that actually works with her character. The plot keeps going, and felt overwritten at times. The ending is so famous that the last line is become cliche, and almost induced a smirk.

I often like a bit of humour with my films that deal with relationships, and think Now, Voyager could have benefitted from a few moments of levity. Other than that a good film with a strong performance from Davis; though really, what else do you expect from her?

Thursday, 17 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe (1941)

Director: Frank Capra

Capra is not a subtle director. He wears his political beliefs on his sleeve, with his support of the everyman against the harsh, uncaring systems of modern life. Meet John Doe looks at the media and politics, and how it demands a comprise of the people who engage in it. Though the story gets a touch preachy at some points, and is too neat in its narrative, the film is touching, propped up by Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck's performances.

The film shifts tone about halfway through, from comedy at the situation Cooper's John 'Doe' Willoughby finds himself in, to the very real pain of the people who believe in his story. Cooper is really good as John, an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Stanwyck (as usual) is great, as her journalistc holds ideals but is not above exploiting the public's sympathy for her owns gains.

Classic Capra: finding significance in the everyday.

I've Just Seen: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J. J. Abrams

Well, what does one say? I haven't looked forward to something with this much excitement since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. And then, I knew the story; it was the execution I was interested in seeing. With The Force Awakens I, and everyone else, had no idea what tale we were going to be told, how this story would interact with the old one.  Unlike the prequels, we are not working towards a known end point, where every little piece tries to slot itself into the already existing narrative. No, this is fresh territory, and oh how pleasant it is.

The film is not perfect, but it is very, very, very good. The story zips along at a cracking pace (which is one of its faults), the characters are distinct and interesting, and most importantly, it all looks good. The Star Wars universe feels like the one conjured up for us in the 1970s, where things look tactile. The use of actual film (35mm and 60mm) is a great choice, adding to that sense of texture.

I won't spoil the story, but Abrams and Kasdan have made family the beating heart of the film, as it was with the original trilogy. That desire to follow in your family's footsteps (however that may be) drives almost all of the characters. I felt there were more humans in this film than there were in the prequels. The story is reliant on coincidences and would look rather holey if held up for examination, but like the others, it works as myth.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens had me from the moment the tile flashed onto the screen to John Williams' fanfare, and it never lost me. If you are a fan of British TV you will have extra joy in spotting the actor from this or that. All in all, a great start, and one I shall definitely see on the big screen again (in glorious non-3D, as I did this time).

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

Directors: Richard Starzak, Mark Burton

I, like many people my age, grew up watching Aardman Animations; the Wallace and Gromit shorts are my favourites. Shaun the Sheep first appeared in A Close Shave, and has since scored his own television show, which this film is based upon. The few episodes I have seen are very cute and funny, relying on slapstick worthy of Chaplin and Keaton.

The movie is basically an extended episode of the series, but it is so charming and funny and sweet, and the animation so detailed and gorgeous, that I do wish I had seen it in cinemas (I watched it on DVD). I spotted a reference to The Night of the Hunter, which is much more sophiscated than the usual adult-aimed reference that is inserted into kid's films.

I loved it, and laughed throughout. Watch with your inner-child, or a real one if available.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

I've Just Seen: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Director: Norman Jewison

There are very few films that seem to capture an era as well as The Thomas Crown Affair does the 1960s. It is stylish to a fault, with its fractured split-screens, trippy theme song 'Windmills of Your Mind,' fashionable costumes, and beautiful people. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway circle each other, as Dunaway's Vicki Anderson tries to catch McQueen's Thomas Crown for the 'perfect' crime he committed.

I really like Dunaway as an actor, and she is good as Vicki, pursuing Crown both morally and romantically. The famous chess scene from the film is the most memorable one, as the two flirt using only gestures, with intimate close-ups on their faces. McQueen is also good as the wealthy Crown, who's motivation for his crimes is the thrill of getting away with it.

As I said, the film is incredibly stylish but without much underneath, except a reasonably entertaining story and two good central performances.

Monday, 14 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Midnight (1939)

Midnight (1939)

Director: Mitchell Leisen

Ah, my favourite genre, the screwball comedy. I looking forward to this film; the cast is great, and it is written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, two of the best screenwriters in Hollywood's Golden Age. Well, I did enjoy the film, but found myself slightly underwhelmed.

The problem, I think, was the ending, which was rushed and included too many sudden switches. It did have a great start. Claudette Colbert (who has my eternal love for It Happened One Night) is fantastic as Eve Peabody, who meets the increasingly ridiculous situations with wry bafflement. She skips through the dialogue with ease. Don Ameche is quite gorgeous as Tibor Czerny (great name), the lowly taxi driver who takes a shine to our plucky heroine. John Barrymore and Mary Astor are also great, as Barrymore's George Flammerion hires Eve to steal his wife's lover away.

As it is with all screwball comedies, the plot twists itself around into increasingly absurd corners; the scene where Eve has convinced everyone else that Tibor suffers from a particular madness that means he makes up ridiculous stories is very funny. It feels almost blasphemous saying that the structure of the screenplay is a problem, as I love Wilder. It could be that Leisen didn't direct it well enough to make it work, it does feel rushed, which comes down to direction and editing. According to Wikipedia, Wilder disliked some of the changes Leisen made to the script, so I shall blame Leisen.

The lines are very witty and clever, and Colbert is at the top of her game, so it is certainly worth watching. I know I will see it again, with my expectations slightly lowered, which may render an even better response from me.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Early Summer (1951)

Bakushū (Early Summer) (1951)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Despite having only seen two Ozu films, he is becoming one of my favourite directors. While Early Summer is slightly more culturally specific than the beautiful Toyko Story, I found it very moving and as a woman very relatable. Noriko, played by the luminous Setsuko Hara, troubles her family and some friends with her apparent lack of desire to marry.

Ozu's style is one of observation, calmly standing back, letting characters reveal or conceal their feelings from each other - and us. Noriko doesn't speak of her reasons for not wanting to marry, leading to speculation. Her boss Satake asks her friend if Noriko is even interested in men, while her parents and siblings worry about her future, something Noriko is not focused on.

Ozu's approach to capturing the story is to include the threads of other people's lives, showing how interwoven everyone is. The meditative wide shots, capturing little domestic moments add texture to the story, elevating small decisions into significant life events - which is a lovely reflection on the truth of most people's lives in the world.

Early Summer shares Toyko Story's interest in the change happening in post-war Japan, as modernity and traditional ways clash. When having lunch with two married friends, and a fellow single friend, the clothes reflect their situations, as Noriko and Aya wearing modern dress, while the married two are dressed in kimonos.

I really loved this, and am eager to explore more Ozu. Early Summer and Toyko Story form part of an unofficial trilogy with Late Spring, so that seems the next obvious film to see. 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) (1966)

Director: Jiri Menzel

Comedy can often lose its humour in translation. Thankfully, I found Menzel's film very funny, despite knowing no Czech. Perhaps because the subject matter, losing one's virginity during a time of war (here the German Occupation in WWII), is not culturally specific. Milos, the main character, spends much of the film focused on his lack of sexual prowess, which causes him embarrassment and even episodes of depression; the war is the backdrop to these feelings. These emotions provide the black hue to the comedy, as Milos attempts suicide, all because he suffers from premature ejaculation. 

The less said about the film the better the viewing experience I think. I didn't really know it was a comedy, watching it on the strength of its inclusion in 1001 Films. I was pleasantly surprised, and would want others to have the same experience. I will say that the ending is a slight shock, but is perfect for the story. The humour is both character-driven and visual: my favourite was Milos leading in to kiss his beloved Masa, a train conductor. The gag is worthy of Keaton. 

I liked this, and am looking forward to more films from the Czech New Wave.

I've Just Seen: Victor Victoria (1982)

Victor Victoria (1982)

Director: Blake Edwards

I usually enjoy films with cross-dressing - Some Like It Hot is my favourite film after all. I also enjoy a good musical, and love Julie Andrews voice. And I like a good farce. So why didn't this work for me?

It started off well, with Robert Preston and Julie Andrews meeting in a restaurant which they proceed to hoodwink. And the concept of turning Andrew's Victoria into a man promised much hilarity. But Andrews in no way convinced as a man; an accusation that could be levelled at Lemmon and Curtis in Some Like, but they played it so broad that it worked. The songs weren't that memorable: I cannot remember any of them (not a good sign for a musical). The farce fell flat, with the people ending up in the wrong room at the wrong time barely raising a laugh.

In short, this did little for me. I was surprised by the very blatant discussions of homosexuality, as I thought the film was older than the 1980s, but it didn't feel naughty any more. A disappointment, sadly.

Friday, 11 December 2015

I've Just Seen: About Time (2013)

About Time (2013)

Director: Richard Curtis

I generally enjoy Curtis' films, and About Time was no exception. Like any British filmmaker (or indeed any filmmaker from any country), he has a particular version of England that he portrays in his films: one populated by rather wealthy British men, who have relationships with beautiful Americans. This film adds a science-fiction element, as Tim learns that time-travel runs in his family (purely a male skill). Also, the central relationship is not the love between Tim and Mary, but between Tim and his father.

The time-travel is not the focus of the plot, as it is largely played for comedy, and the rules around it are vague (does he always appear in the same place when he travels?). The script moves a bit clumsily from focusing on Tim and Mary's relationship to Tim's relationship with his father, but the emotions are played at a good register: not saccharine. It could have been a bit shorter which would have made it more focused. The cast are all good, and play the passage of time well.

A sweet film, which is apparently Curtis' last as director.

I've Just Seen: Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes From a Marriage) (1973)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

While this was broadcast as a television series, and the story is told in sections, I watched it as a (really long) film. Wikipedia tells me the theatrical version (which I watched) is 167 mins to the 281 mins for television; what was left out I don't know.

Over almost three hours we follow Marianne and Johan (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) as they examine the changes in their relationship; think the Before series of films. While the first few 'episodes' have other characters in them, the rest are just Ullmann and Josephson talking to each other. Their performances are very, very good; the changes in the dynamic of their relationship are beautifully moved through. How much of the dialogue was scripted and how much was improvised I don't know; they speak it so naturally.

The cinematography style is a very still camera, with many shots lasting for minutes with no cuts. There is little 'action' in terms of people striding around amazing sets. Instead we have intense conversations happening in small rooms, made to feel even smaller through the close-ups on Ullmann and Josephson's faces.

Each Bergman film I watch makes me appreciate him as a director. Scenes From a Marriage demonstrates how good he is with actors and characters; his eye for explaining characters through gestures and body language as well as dialogue. I am interested in seeing the five hour version, even though Marianne and Johan are not always fun to be around!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

I've Just Seen: In a World ... (2013)

In a World ... (2013)

Director: Lake Bell

Australian trailers generally do not have voice overs; they just rely on the highly emotive music which feels like it is shaking you and yelling "Feel the epicness!!!" Despite that, I was aware of the famous use of 'In a world ...' Even if you are not, the opening scene of the film is a blend of actual news footage and faux interviews with Don LaFontaine and those who worked with him. This world is very male, with very deep, resonant voices.

Lake Bell directed, co-produced, wrote and stars in the film, and based on this effort I hope she does more. The script is very witty, and Bell plays Carol well. The rest of the cast are also good, with Fred Melamed a standout as Carol's self-centred father. There is romantic intrigue is two of the sub-plots, but the main story revolves around the voicing of a new trailer for a film which is a very funny parody of all those teenage dystopian stories.

A very clever reflection on long-held normalities in the film industry.

Double Feature: Triumph of the Wills (1935), and The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Triumph des Willens (1935);   Le Chagrin et la Pitie (1969)

Director: Leni Riefienstahl; Marcel Ophuls

Yes, I actually did watch these two films as a double bill, albeit with a night in between my viewings; I needed time to digest what I had seen in Riefenstahl's film. Ophuls' film, originally made for television, is in two parts, which also allowed time to absorb what I was watching.

Riefenstahl's Triumph usually gets compared to D. W. Griffiths' Birth of Nation: a film whose technical sophistication complicates the horror of its theme. Riefenstahl's filmmaking abilities are unassailable; she clearly has an eye for image. She combines huge scale shots of thousands of faces, then cuts to close-ups of single faces of adoring people in the crowd, often children and women. In one shot of a rally, I could see the lift containing a camera (and camera operator) moving up and down behind Hitler. To be able to imagine such scope, and actually get that amount of coverage is highly impressive. If it weren't for the content and message behind those images, Riefenstahl would be widely regarded as one of the best directors in cinema history.

Watching Triumph des Willens with hindsight adds a horrible chill to everything you see and hear. Behind the speeches of Hitler and his faithful offsiders we see the concentration camps where countless people were murdered. I also saw the shame of the German people, most beautifully depicted in Judgement at Nuremberg, which casts a shadow on the happy faces of 1935. The film is still powerful, perhaps even moreso than Riefenstahl and National Socialism imagined.

To watch Ophuls film afterwards brings home the realities of life behind Hitler's grand vision. France's occupation is still something not really depicted in popular culture and film, and if it is, it is in relation to the Resistance. As Ophuls shows in his film, Vichy France was a complicated place. The title in French is 'Le Chagrin et la Pitie,' pointing to both sadness and shame; no one is showered in glory.

Ophuls interviews with people from all sides of life in Vichy France, without any of Riefenstahl's subjective approach. We hear from a Jewish-French politician who had to escape jail, a woman who had her head shaved for being married to a Vichy officer, a French fascist who supported Nazism, a German officer who was stationed in Vichy France, and a French man speaking about his experiences to his children. The later idea is what fuels the film: that young people don't know what happened in their own country within their parents' lifetimes.

Ophuls' mixture of contemporary interviews with archive footage is very effective, and felt very modern. While documentaries are not a genre you generally describe as enjoying, I was very engaged in Ophuls' film, and feel like I got an insight into life in Vichy France.

Watching the two films, the difference between documentary and propaganda is obvious. Riefenstahl's technical mastery provides no interrogation of her content, while Ophuls' movement between historical footage, some of which may have been propaganda, and interviews questions our own mythology about the past, and how important it is to seek out truth, no matter how complex it is.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

I've Just Seen: La Grande Illusion (1937)

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir

This film is one of the examples of poetic realism included in the 1001 Films book. While this movement is seen as being particularly French and dating from the 1930s and 40s, I was reminded of All Quiet on the Western Front, an American film from 1930. Poetic realism is often about characters facing death in some form or another, who are filled with bitterness and pain that costs them a chance at love. While All Quiet doesn't have the love story in its film, the bitterness and sadness of the characters is there, as is the painful beauty of certain moments between people that can't quite overcome the situation.

I felt the two films were comparable partly because of their context; the First World War. In Renoir's film, we follow two men as they move from prisoner of war camp to prisoner of war camp, as their attempted escapes are thwarted. The film doesn't move the way you think. The characters do things that bring about no real resolution; in the first camp they begin building an escape tunnel, but are moved on before they use it. They try to tell the new prisoners, but they (and we) never know if it was used.

Renoir clearly inherited his father's artist genes; the shots are subtly but beautifully composed, with unintrusive editing, which adds to the sadness of the tone, as though the camera itself lingers of the events with a sigh of pain. The acting is very good from everyone, and I was interested to see Erich von Stroheim as the sympathetic German von Rauffenstein, who befriends the equally refined Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). Class and nationality are interminged throughout the film, as Jean Gabin's more working-class Marechal and de Boeldieu never become friends, though they spend much of the film together.

As my first taste of poetic realism, I thought Renoir's La Grande Illusion was a quiet and beautiful film about war's effect on man's sense of society. Whether the illusion referred to in the title is the idea of human connection, happiness, war or 'civilised' society itself will require another viewing by me.

Friday, 4 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

2013 was a very good year for film. Looking at my list of films seen from that year, we have Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Past, The Lunchbox, Frances Ha, Frozen, 12 Years a Slave, Her, Nebraska, Upstream Colour, Enough Said, Under the Skin, and bunch o' others. I would add Dallas Buyers Club to that list of very good films from that year that should be seen. 

The acting is strong from all the cast; clearly McConaughey and Leto are the most eye-catching, with their physical transformations, but the true strength of their performances comes from the characters underneath the surface. McConaughey's Ron Woodroof does what he does for both mercenary and altruistic reasons, which brings him into contact with people he would never have chosen to associate. You believe this is a sick man, as McConaughey's face also verges on the skeletal. Leto also looks worse for wear, as Rayon struggles to get clean. This is unusual as sick people in films are usually denoted by coughs or sniffles, but still look good, sometimes even on their death-bed.

I knew little about this story before the film came out, and I think it captures the response to the AIDS crisis well. I was not alive until the 90s, and there was not aware of what had happened in recent history. The medical community are the bad guys in this film, which felt a touch exaggerated, but the need for these clubs clearly sprung out of a void of proper care. The cinematography adds a documentary feel to the story, appropriate for a 'based on a true story.'

A film to see for its acting and the very powerful story it has to tell.

I've Just Seen: 8 1/2 (1963)

8 1/2 (1963)

Director: Federico Fellini

I can imagine that a lot of people believe  European 'classics' of film history to be dry pieces of drama, trudges through tormented souls, filled with almost impenetrable symbolism and dourness. Why do I think this? Because I once believed this too, back when my film diet was devoid of the likes of Bergman, Kurosawa, Ozu, Kieslowski, and Fellini. Of the last of these, Fellini has a lot of comedy in his films, with his wry but sympathetic portraits of ennui. 8 1/2's Guido is a director who appears to be suffering 'writer's block' which has prompted a whole life crisis, particularly regarding his relationships with women.

The film is rather episodic, and there is little differentiation between Guido's inner and outer worlds, making the whole film a subjective experience. Guido's own mind seems to be chastising himself for his treatment of women. There is a very funny scene, which we assume is inside Guido's head, where all the women he has ever known meet in the bathing room of a villa and discuss their experience of Guido with each other (and in front of him). What starts out as general affection becomes critique, as a show girl speaks of how Guido treated her with dismissiveness.

This scene is expanded upon in the film's climax with a huge gathering of people who dance around with Guido with joy and smiles, including several dead friends and relatives. Again, the reality of this scene is dubious, and reminded me of Malick's Tree of Life, where the family are all reunited on the beach in Heaven.

The black and white cinematography is beautiful; we are in a shadowy part of Guido's life and mind, as he tries to figure out what to do with his life. The acting is good, though as was typical in the 60s, the actors have dubbed their voices, creating a disconnect between the image and the sound. This works for this story of disconnect and alienation.

I have liked Fellini so far, as he manages to draw comedy out of situations of self-investigation. This reminded me of some of Chaucer's lesser known poems, where protagonist's dreams take them on a journey into their psyches, presented with humour. Definitely a film I shall revisit.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Delicatessen (1991)

Delicatessen (1991)

Directors: Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Caro and Jeunet's film has elements that would be familiar to anyone who has seen Amelie (which is a lot of people). If that was too sweet for you, then Delicatessen, with its boarding house of cannibalistic tenants, might be right up your street. While most of the tenants eat human flesh out of desperation - some kind of disaster has occurred in France, leaving food scarce - the butcher who owns the building seems to get actual pleasure out of killing. The opening scene sets this up beautifully, as one tenant attempts to escape from the building without the butcher seeing him. It is both funny and terrifying.

As is typical of Jeunet's films, every character has a particular quirk or occupation that distinguishes them. One woman in the building is constantly coming up with elaborate suicide scenarios (which always fail); our protagonist Loulson, a circus performer, is constantly practicing his tricks; and Julie, who hates wearing her glasses in front of people, so plans her movements in an attempt to forestall collisions (which doesn't work).

The film is understandably dark in its humour, with Loulson's every encounter with the tenants underpinned by the knowledge that he is 'fresh meat.' There is a brilliantly funny scene when everyone in the house ends up in rhythm together, as the butcher and a tenant have sex (on squeaky bed springs), Julie plays her cello, an old woman knits, Loulson paints the ceiling, and so. All this climaxes together (in more ways than one). It reminded me of the Amelie scene about the number of couples who were all climaxing at that point (answer 15!).

Delicatessen's narrative climax is rather epic, involving bloodthirsty killers, vegetarian rebels, and a lot of water. The whole film is infused with magical whimsy, which creates a good tension with the subject matter. Good fun. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) (1974)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder is one of those male directors who makes interesting films about women. He makes grungier versions of Sirkian melodramas, and Ali works as a riff on Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. For me, this is the second in an unofficical trilogy of Sirk's film, Fassbinder's film, and Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven. All three are about a middle-aged woman re-exerting herself as a sexual being, and finding love with a socially unaccepted partner. Fassbinder adds race onto the class and age divide that Sirk had in his film, as Ali is younger, even poorer than Emmi, and a 'guest worker' in Germany from Morocco.

The copy I watched had been beautifully transferred onto DVD; the colours were vibrant, and the quality of the image was sharp. This was a contrast to the copy of Maria Braun I saw, which was not as sharp, despite being projected on a big screen. Fassbinder has a wonderful eye for framing and staging; the scenes at Emmi's work, where her group of 'friends' isolate one another during lunch were painful, putting you right in the situation of these judgemental people. 

Fassbinder approaches the ideas of gender, class and race with an even-handedness. Emmi is no saint as she befriends and loves Ali; she sometimes treats him as a object to be admired, while also being tender and loving towards him. Ali finds his new role as her husband uncomfortable, and he at times yearns for his old life with his friends.

We are privy to many conversations between Ali and Emmi, allowing us to see their affection and sympathy for each other. They offer each other something they lack, though Ali's friends seem to wonder what Emmi provides (her age and appearance clearly baffle them).

I found Ali: Fear Eats the Soul a moving film about a complex situation. The characters feel like real people, with all their contradictions and failings as well as their capacity for kindness and love. All this is captured beautifully by Fassbinder and cinematographer Jurgen Jurges. Its reputation as a must-see film is well deserved.

I've Just Seen: Une Partie de Campagne (1936)

Une Partie de Campagne (A Day in the Country) (1936)

Director: Jean Renoir

Renoir's short film feels like a novella, or a short story that encompasses the viewpoints of several characters about an afternoon in the country, whose effects ripple throughout the years. The film was not finished by its director, but what survives is a charming slice of romance and nostalgia, both in the story and for the time period.

The film follows two groups, one a party of Parisians out for a day, and two young men from the country. The two young men are attracted to the beautiful Henriette, and their instant attraction is one of the most lovely introductions in all cinema. It is not the first time we see Henriette, but we are thrust into the perpective of these two amorous young men.

There is mild comedy from the party, as the two parents jokingly squabbly and flirt with each other, the deaf grandmother mishears things, and Henriette's intended muddles around. There is a slightly twist to the film, which I shall not spoil, but it also helps mark the change in the tone of the film. The shots of nature, including a lovely floating shot of rain falling on the stream, add to the nostalgia of the piece.

A charming film that makes me wish Renoir had been able to complete himself.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

I've Just Seen: Jamon Jamon (1992)

Jamon Jamon (1992)

Director: Bigas Luna

I don't really know what to say about Jamon Jamon. I really enjoy watching Penelope Cruz, she is a very good actress who chooses interesting roles. This was her film debut, and perhaps the best thing I can say is that it shows how natural she was in front of the camera from an early stage (it clearly loves her).

I think some parts of this film got lost in translation; not literally, but it is a comedy and satire about Spanish society at a particular time, and I am guessing that a lost of it went over my head. The performances are good, but the characters are not terribly deep, and were people I didn't really want to spend too much time with. They treat each other terribly, with Cruz's Silvia being lusted over by three men who exploit her.

It is a very physical film, with the word lusty barely covering the way characters approach life. Sex and food (particularly the titular ham) are equated, as the men and women consume each other as they consume food (though not at the same time). Some of the scenes are now tinged with voyeurism as Cruz and Javier Bardem, who are now married in real life, flirt and eventually have very public sex.

This was not a bad film, just one I didn't enjoy watching. Though not as explicit as Cuaron's Y tu Mama Tambien, another film that seeks to capture the intersection of a country's history and present (Mexico), it doesn't have the melancholy and even joy that underpins most the sex scenes in Cuaron's film. It also lacks the sympathy of Almodovar's films, which tempers the outrageous lives of his characters.

Monday, 30 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Director: Robert Bresson

It is always interesting approaching a giant of film history. The question one must ask on viewing it is 'why is this considered an example of the form?' The answer in the case of Bresson's Pickpocket comes down to its simplicity, and its ability to provoke emotions through its minimalism. While I was not as enthused by it as some critics have been, it has prompted me to look forward to Bresson's other films.

The most striking and stunning scenes in the film are the pickpocketing scenes. The first one at a horse race is compelling; the camera cuts between Michel's blank face staring forward at the race, and his hand slowly unclasping a woman's handbag and taking her purse. We the audience project our tension on Michel's face, interpreting every small twitch and movement as an expression of his fear. The bounding of the horses' hooves growing increasingly louder doubles as the blood that would be pumping through his head. It is an exquisite scene.

Bresson used non-actors in this film, which leads to underacting rather than overacting. The characters are not demonstrative in their emotions, an effect that was clearly intended by Bresson. We learn little of what they are feeling, which makes the end scene a type of release.

This is a very beautiful film, one that deserves a re-watch from me. Don't watch it when you are even slightly tired (which I must confess I was), for its quietness requires the viewer to choose to pay attention. I loved the music, though that may partly be because of my general enjoyment of the Baroque style. The whole film is less about its plot than about the emotions it wants to rouse in you, making us reflect on our ability as human to trap ourselves in self-destructive behaviour that locks us off from being genuine with one another.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Working Girl (1988)

Working Girl (1988)

Director: Mike Nichols

I am surprised that this film garnered so much notice from the Oscars. That is not to say that this is a bad film, but I cannot think of a romantic comedy/ drama about women in the workforce being nominated for Best Picture these days, and even Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories tend towards the dramatic.

While Working Girl is now somewhat dated, the performances still hold up. Melanie Griffiths is quite lovely as Tess McGill, as she balances her character's class, gender and intelligence. It is not showy, but all the more striking because of it. Sigourney Weaver is wonderfully confident and snobbish as Katherine Parker, a woman who breezes through life assuming everything will go her way. The scenes between these two are filled with comedic tension. Joan Cusack plays Tess' friend Cynthia with relish and a lot of humour, but their friendship is also portrayed beautifully. Harrison Ford is almost in the eye candy role, but also gets his own moments of comedy, and has arguable never been more attractive.

The story falls into a few cliches, but the dialogue is good, and the women have conversations that would make Bechdel weep with joy. Nichols uses New York well, as the office spaces contrast to Tess' home in a more working-class area, to Katherine and Jack's up-market apartments.

While I am still amazed at the Oscars love this received, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a film whose many interesting ideas appear after you have seen it. Much of what I have written here only occurred to me as thought about it weeks after seeing it. Watch in a double bill with 9 to 5 for several hours of women smashing it in the workforce.

I've Just Seen: Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak (2015)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

I am glad that I saw this on the big screen, with the superb sound system most cinemas have. del Toro fills the screen with paraphernalia; pictures on the wall, gadgets on furniture, details on the costumes, and so. Though set at the turn of the previous century, there is a distinct Victorian feel to the story, mostly clearly displayed in the Sharpes' mansion. Its age is conveyed in the creaky, cranking movements of its structure, as though the house can hardly contain the evil it has witnessed, symbolised in the crimson clay oozing out of the walls, floor and earth.

Sound is obviously important in all films, but for science fiction and horror it is vital in creating the space and psychology of its characters. Aside from the music, there are creaks, crunches, cranks, clanks, slurps, scraps, and squenches in Crimson Peak; indeed, one of the most unsettling moments in the film is accompanied by Chastain's Lucille scraping a spoon on the edge of a cup with barely contained threat.

I was not 'scared' by the story, or even surprised by the twists; having studied English, and being a reader of a number of gothic romances, there is not much new here. However, the story is more of a homage to others gone before: Rebecca, Jane Eyre, The Mysteries of Udopho and even Austen's parodic Northanger Abbey. I liked this about the film, though I know others have accused it of being unoriginal.

The acting supports the story. Mia Wasikowska is good in the lead, convincing as a quite sensible woman who is being faced with a horrible situation. Tom Hiddleston is equally fine as Thomas Sharpe, a man who is caught between the two women he loves in the world (his wife and sister). Chastain is a bit too instense at times, but is clearly relishing her role.

I don't know whether del Toro would count himself a feminist, but he is one of the filmmakers I would count as making interesting films about women; the greatest tension in the film is between Edith and Lucille. Pan's Labyrinth also had women central to its story.

I really enjoyed this film, and flinched and squirmed several times during the gory parts. Its central idea about humans being far more terrifying than any ghostly apparition is a clever twist on a  sub-genre that seems to have become unfashionable of late.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

After watching Interstellar, my main thought was 'I wish I had seen that on the big screen.' I had a similar reaction to Inception, so clearly the next Nolan film that comes out is going to mean a trip to the movies. The visuals that Nolan has put on screen in this film are pretty impressive, even on my television screen, but I know that details were lost. The wonderfully beautiful shots of the spaceship flying past Saturn are worth watching the film for, and reminded me of Kubrick's 2001 (another film I wish I had seen on a big screen).

As Nolan usually does, he has gathered a cast of good actors who add depth to the story. Mackenzie Foy is fantastic as Murphy, out-acting everyone else in the film. Her goodbye scene with McConaughey is the most affecting in a film that is ripe with emotional conversations and goodbyes.

I would not count myself as a Nolan fan-person; I have appreciated his movies, but have not yet been bowled over by them. Memento is still the best of his that I have seen, as it showed his ability to handle a highly complex story, whose structure encourages the audience to figure it out for themselves. The problems I had with Interstellar are also the problems I had with Inception: the abundance of exposition. I got lost several times in both films, as characters stopped to explain things to each other, often too quickly for me to quite figure out how it all fitted together. Perhaps it is a reflection on me, and that I should re-watch both films in order to hear what I missed (something that I certainly shall do), but I find it rather frustrating that someone who is so adept with his visuals still resorts to heavy exposition to further the story.

Of course, part of the problem with Interstellar's exposition is that it discusses science that is very much over the head of this Arts student. The time-travelling and time bending parts were the most coherent for me; the idea of one hour on a planet equalling 7 years on the ship was intriguing and the way Nolan used familial relationships to convey time's passage was very good. However, I was bamboozled by the blackhole, and couldn't help but think 'Really?' at the answer to the mystery at the film's centre.

Science fiction is one of my favourite genre, and while this didn't knock my socks off, I enjoyed many parts of the ride, and found the amount of actual science in the story interesting. Hopefully one day the practice of re-issuing films in cinemas will become fashionable again in Australia, and I will get the opportunity to see this in all its projected glory, with a greater understanding of exactly what is going on.

Friday, 27 November 2015

I've Just Seen: The Big Clock (1948)

The Big Clock (1948)

Director: John Farrow

Hitchcock's influence is clear in this film, both from a story perspective and even the occasional visual flair. The normal, everyday character who finds himself in a situation where his own life is in danger, largely down to the actions of weathier, more powerful people is the plot here, and in North By Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window and a bunch of others. We learn early on this George Stroud is trapped in a building where police are looking for him, and is hiding behind the titular big clock, which sets the theme of time as a central element of the story. As we know that Stroud will end up where he is at a particular time, the story has an added impetus to its timeline; one can almost hear the clock ticking behind every scene.

This is a very good thriller that shouldn't be spoiled by too much beforehand knowledge. The performances are all good, with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton the standouts as two men both fighting against each other and time itself, and the cinematography surprisingly complex for its time (and from a director I am not familiar with). A Hitchcockian thriller not directed by Hitchcock.

I've Just Seen: Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan

I love Gregory Peck; though he doesn't always play decent, upstanding characters, there is a sense of trust when he is on screen. He is genuine in his acting, making us believe in the characters he portrays. While Atticus Finch is his most beloved performance (and rightly so) as a decent man, his Philip Schuyler Green is another demonstration of his conviction when he acts.

The acting in general is what makes this film so watchable, and more importantly, makes the story work. Kazan's film is not subtle in its approach to antisemitism, but the richness of the characters stops the film from becoming purely about the message. The complexities of the situation are effectively moved through, as Philip and Kathy try to stay together against the prejudices of middle America.

Of all the performances the one that stood out to me was Celeste Holm, who plays fashion editor Anne Dettrey. Hers is one of the best performances of the decade, as she befriends Philip and deals with his story about being Jewish. Honestly, it is worth seeing this film just to watch her reaction when Philip asks if he can bring Kathy to Anne's party.

This is a solid film that these days would be called 'Oscar bait, ' largely down to the message at the film's heart, and the across the board acting. But don't let that description stop you; this is well worth your time.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

I've Just Seen: The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Director: Raoul Walsh

Saying that Walsh is the director of this film feels slightly false; while he was the one who decided where the camera would go (wide shots the wise choice throughout), he wasn't the one who decided to write the story, act the lead role, or create the astonishing sets. The latter of the these belongs to art director William Cameron Menzies and his team; the former to silent film star Douglas Fairbanks.

There are several problems with this film, all to do with its age. Though set in Bagdad, the 'good guys' are all played by white actors, while the 'bad guys' are Asian; Hollywood actually did have a racially diverse cast, its just a pity it does so racistly. Anna May Wong, despite playing a deceitful servant to the princess is far more interesting to watch than Julanne Johnson, whose princess is rather forgettable.

That leads me onto another problem with the film, the acting. I personally don't have a great issue with silent film acting, but it doesn't make for psychologically compelling characters. In this story however it doesn't matter as much, for the story has the quality of folk lore and myth. Others, however, may find much to chortle about.

The biggest star of the film is the sets. They are still amazing to modern eyes, and arguably more so as you know that these days it would largely be CGI. Though it is not how Bagdad really ever looked, they are beautiful works of art; the shiny floors add to the lustre of it all. The leaping through the giant pots sequence was a standout. The special effects to, though it is obvious how they were done, are charming and show how inventive early cinema is.

One can't talk about this film without mentioning at length its leading man Douglas Fairbanks. Despite being in his 40s he bounds around the sets with such vigour and his famous winning smile. This was the first of his films that I have seen, and his star quality is obvious. He is the mastermind behind is gorgeous film.

For the problems with the film, I loved it. Unlike the human drama at the centre of The Son of the Sheik (another silent film set in the Middle East), The Thief of Bagdad is pure spectacle, but on such a breathtaking scale that it is hard not to enjoy. I reminded me of my favourite film from childhood, Aladdin, which clearly knew its cinema history.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter

I have previously said that the slasher sub-genre is not my favourite type of horror, though it appears to be the go-to film for teenagers wanting a scare; probably why I didn't warm to horror films until I was in my twenties and starting watching films from anywhere. Despite this, I found much to enjoy in Carpenter's film, particularly in the way he shoots his story.

Instead of dousing the audience in buckets of blood, Carpenter uses artful framing to create terror. Widescreen wide shots are deployed to make you look into the background, noticing small movements like doors moving. Shots also hold longer than you would expect, creating a sense of observation, paranoia and voyeurism.

Despite my relative lack of slasher film experience, even I recognised the various tropes of 'the final girl' and the morality tale-style killings of the more promiscuous teenagers. Having watched Scream before seeing this (they were a double bill on television), some parts were unintentionally funny, as I remembered the scene in Scream where one characters yells at the TV 'Turn around Jamie!'

I enjoyed seeing this, and even found the ending rather chilling. A question to you readers: should I watch any of the sequels?

I've Just Seen: Pandora's Box (1929)

Pandora's Box (Die Buchse der Pandora) (1929)

Director: G. W. Pabst

Louise Brooks has a magnetic screen quality similar to Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn and many others. It is not simply down to beauty or acting ability, but they all possess a certain something that makes it impossible to look at anyone else while they are on screen. This quality is perfectly used in Pabst's film as Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman whose sexuality seems to drive men to do incredibly mad things.

The story is melodramatic, with death, falls from grace and rioteous crowd scenes providing the plot turning points. Its origins as a play are still present onscreen in the form of intertitle cards announcing 'Act One' and so on. Pandora is grand in its stylistic excess; even the scenes of poverty feel large. While the other actors are good, none can compete with Brooks. She has a naturalness to her which rather highlights the performative behaviour of everyone else. Though Lulu is not a completely 'pure' character, you cannot but help sympathise with her; many of her problems are caused by the people having extreme reactions to her mere presence. This is no better demonstrated then in the famous court room scene, where Lulu is painted as either an angel or the blackest woman to walk the earth.

This is another example of the international appeal of silent film; the audience and the actors are not struggling through language barriers or adopting ghastly accents. It also shows us why Louise Brooks was one of the most significant actors in early cinema, and why Pabst went all the way to America to find his leading lady.

Monday, 16 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Jezebel (1938)

Jezebel (1938)

Director: William Wyler

Bette Davis films are woefully unrepresented in my list of seen films. Considering her standing in cinema history as one of the greatest actors to grace the screen, this is a huge blindspot for me. Jezebel is the first film I have seen from her early career, and is appropriately one of the roles that launched Davis into leading lady status.

While she is not classically beautiful, Davis has a wonderful face that captures one's attention when she is on screen, and though not tall she is a strong presence in any scene she is in. She wears the role of Julie Marsden well, giving her a vitality and independence that marks her as different from the other young women. Julie is a role that is similar to Scarlett O'Hara, a Southern belle set on getting her man. I like both these roles because they are flawed women, neither wholly bad or wholly good; I would not want to be friends with them necessarily, but I enjoy seeing complex, nuanced female characters on screen.

The other great star of the film is the costumes made by frequent Davis collaborator Orry-Kelly, an Australian who made it big in Hollywood. Though the film is not in colour, the red dress Davis' character wears is striking, its richness standing out against the white dresses of the other women. The white dress that Davis later wears is also gorgeous, contrasting wonderfully with the red gown, with all its lace and puffiness.

A great demonstration of Davis' acting, and an example of that genre of films referred to as 'women's pictures,' ie. a film where the main character is a woman (what a novel idea!).

Sunday, 15 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Ordet (1955)

Ordet (1955)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Religion's relationship with cinema fascinates me; to some extent this is because of my own beliefs, which are Christian with a huge tendency towards the philosophical and metaphorical side of things. I find the films of Bergman, Tarkovsky and even Kieslowski wonderful in their explorations of the human desire to make sense of the world and the at times miraculous and terrible things in it. I can now add Dreyer to this list as well.

I have seen Dreyer's Joan of Arc, which is a beautiful depiction of pure faith in its gentlest form. Ordet explores how the divine and extraordinary exists beside everyday existence. At the film's start the Borgen family are at odds with each other and another family, the Petersens. All have different approaches to religion: some are devout, one has been driven mad by it, one doesn't believe anymore, and the Borgens and the Petersens espouse different ways to God. The Borgens are more bright and liberal, while the Petersens are more strict and denying. The story could easily be a small family drama that borders on soap opera except for two aspects: the ending, and Dreyer's style.

Mark Cousins, and I assume many others, see Dreyer as the director most interested in white on screen. His films feel more like they are shadows playing on a white background, a rather beautiful effect. It is matched by the simplicity of the sets, which Dreyer apparently had dressed, then removed all but the essentials.

The ending is incredibly moving for a number of reasons. Dreyer stages the miracle in the most unshowy way, a simple movement of the hand with no sweeping music cue, greeted by gentle whispers of surprise and joy. What elevates it and makes it even more miraculous is the reconciliation this event has brought about between the two families. Before it happens the two heads of the homes ask for forgiveness, which is a miracle in and of itself, the everyday type that is just as life changing as the one that happens right after.

This is a very beautiful film that doesn't require you to believe in the religion of the characters. Its central idea is about how transformative and important love, understanding and forgiveness for people, and Dreyer presents this in a deep and profound way. Clearly I liked this, and much more could be written about the theological ideas presented in it. However, it is also a film that should simply be experienced, especially if you can do so without knowing the ending (so if you have read this before seeing it, I can only apologise for potentially spoiling it for you).

Friday, 13 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Director: Gene Saks

While I started off enjoying this romantic comedy about a young couple settling in to married life, I found myself rather disliking it by the second half. Why? Unfortunately it is largely down to Jane Fonda's Corie, the free-spirited wife to Robert Redford's 'stuff-shirt' Paul. The two had good chemistry, but their relationship lost much credibility when they nearly end it all because of a fight. Breakdowns in communication are usually the cause of tension, drama and occasionally comedy for couples in films (and life as well, obviously); however, I didn't find the childish behaviour of Corie funny or endearing, just plain annoying.

Other than that this is a well-acted film, though the plot felt a little thin, and a touch dated. The pokey space of the couple's new home is well used, though it doesn't quite shake its stage origins. Barefoot is fine, but one I am unlikely to revisit again.

Monday, 2 November 2015

I've Just Seen: Scream (1996)

Scream (1996)

Director: Wes Craven

As I move through my own film odyssey, the genre that I am finding myself enjoying more and more is horror. This is so much so that I no longer approach these films with reservation, but with an eagerness to see where they fit into this most diverse genre. Even in my relative ignorance, the figure of Craven was a famous one. Scream screened on a local channel early in October, around the same time as Craven died (whether just before or after I cannot remember). It seemed appropriate, it being both Halloween month and marking his contribution to cinema, to watch this film.

While the slasher genre doesn't appeal to me as much as gothic or body horror, I thoroughly enjoyed Scream. I enjoy self-reflexivity in films, particularly if it is done for comedy, and was given ample opportunities to chortle at the jokes (the 'Turn around, Jamie!' scene veers into slap-stick!). The self-awareness is very 90s, but still works today. The smart dialogue and non-patronising approach tot he teenage characters reminded me of John Hughes films.

This is very smart and clever, though the characters' knowledge of horror films doesn't stop them from being killed in many ways. The gore is gorey, with liberal amounts of blood covering our characters by the film's end. Having a similar knowledge of horror films, particularly slasher ones, to Scream's characters will make the film much funnier then it already is. Scream was screened along with John Carpenter's Halloween, a highly appropriate double-bill, as this is the most referenced horror film in Craven's film.

Enjoy with home-made popcorn (if you survive to eat it)!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

I've Just Seen: The Servant (1963)

The Servant (1963)

Director: Joseph Losey

The Servant explores the tensions between classes, exposing a young upper middle class man's pretensions, and the deviousness of his employee. The story almost exclusively takes place inside Tony (James Fox)'s newly purchased apartment, tended to by his secretive man-servant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bograde). Wooster and Jeeves, their relationship ain't!

The performances are top-notch, as you would expect from the cast. The black-and-white cinematography is moody and shadowy, reflecting the blurring of the roles between master and servant. It also adds to the sensuality of the film; the love scenes between Tony and Sarah Miles' Vera are dark and sultry, aided by Cleo Laine's song 'All Gone.' A distorted mirror is also used to good effect.

None of the characters in this film come off as nice but they are well drawn, particularly Tony. For some reason I was reminded of another British classic from the 60s: Powell's Peeping Tom. Not that they share visuals or storylines, but the exploration of the cruelty that resides behind veneers of British gentility.

Friday, 30 October 2015

I've Just Seen: My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Director: Stephen Frears

To understand this film, it helps to know the political landscape it was reacting to; Thatcher's Britain. Society, she said, no longer existed, and it was about the individual. Frears' film looks at this idea as it operates in a community of British Pakistanis and some fascist youths. The corruption of capitalism and racism on family relationships is explored through our main character Omar, who wants to be successful like his uncle, who runs a slew of local businesses.

Of all the relationships in the film, the one that is the most genuine and honest is that between Omar and Johnny, his friend from school who has since become a fascist. They put aside any differences, as Omar offers Johnny a job helping him refurbish a run-down laundrette, and become lovers again. Making the interracial, homosexual relationship between these two the film's heart would have been daring for the time.

The performances in the film are all very good, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Johnny and Saeed Jaffrey as Uncle Nassar as the standouts. The cinematography, with its grainy film, adds to the bleak and stark England presented by the film. The story is a clever one, supplying no simply black-and-white characterisations, but giving each character choices to make about how they act, and these choices have ramifications on others. A very good film that explores issues and ideas through well constructed characters.

I've Just Seen: The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were (1973)

Director: Sydney Pollack

I like both Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford as screen presences; they are very good actors, and I have enjoyed all of the roles I have seen Streisand do. Having both Babs and Redford together seemed to guarantee enjoyment. While they are both good in this, Streisand in particular, I had some major misgivings with the film.

Reading about the history of the film's production on Wikipedia, the unfocused story of The Way We Were made more sense. I thought I was in for a culture-clash romance; I got some of that, but also dips into McCarthyism and Hollywood. The film didn't seem to know which to focus on, the result being two rather undeveloped storylines. Mixing the two could have been done in an interesting way, but those who want a romance between Redford and Streisand might not want to see a film about the House Un-American Activities Commitee (or communism), and vice versa.

The film is romantic and Streisand and Redford have good chemistry together, but apart from that there is not much else to this film. The famous theme song, with its melancholic tune, hides the fieriness of the couple's relationship, but suits the film's ending. Watch for Babs being awesome.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

I've Just Seen: The Martian (2015)

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

I hadn't been to the cinema for a few months and was feeling the urge to see something on a big screen. The Martian had been on my radar, but I had not seriously considered it; unfortunately Ridley Scott's recent works have been disappointing. However, the positive reviews changed my mind, so rather than waiting to watch it sometime next year on my television, I went to see this in all its non-Vmax, non-3D glory.

I am glad I did. The Martian, like so many science fiction films, looks fantastic on the big screen. Mars, with its rich orange-red colour, was a great co-star with Matt Damon, whose Mark Watney was far less annoying to spend time with. The script was well paced, though I would have liked more time with the Ares crew (particularly as I am on a Chastain-a-thon at the moment). The special effects are wonderfully woven into the film; it supports the story rather than drawing attention to itself.

There is little room for existential crisis in this film; there is little doubt that NASA will not try to do as much as possible to bring Watney home, and the boppy disco soundtrack makes one too happy to think about how close one is to death. Science itself is an important part of the film, and proved less 'wha?' inducing than that featured in Interstellar.

I left the cinema feeling thoroughly entertained, which is what I expected to be. I also stayed to the end of the credits, and from them learnt that only did the film apparently create 15, 000 jobs, but a large portion of those were for Hungarian people; much of principle photography took place in Hungary as it has one of the largest sound stages in the world. Moral of the story: stay for the credits, you'll never know what you will learn. 

I've Just Seen: Camera Buff (1979)

Camera Buff (Amator) (1979)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Kieslowski's command of imagery bespeaks a deep love for the medium of film. One could imagine that this love vies with other loves in his life (as well as being a platform for him to explore them). Filip, the protagonist of Camera Buff, develops an obsession with making films. I couldn't help wonder if this was slightly auto-biographical, that Kieslowski was tapping into a part of himself that he is aware about.

Set in during Poland's Communist era, there are also ideas of censorship and self-expression in this film; about what one should and should not show, particularly making documentaries. Politics plays a huge part in the story, particularly its effect on personal relationships and personal integrity. Filip finds his attempts at telling the truth with his film curtailed, and the personal use - recording his newborn daughter - disregarded.

The cinematography paints 70s Poland as a drab place to live, with washed out colours and flat lighting. This is striking when one considers the significance of colour in Kieslowski's later films.  The performances are all good, Jerzy Stuhr particularly so as Filip. If you enjoy stories about filmmaking and the challenges faced in maintaining control over your vision, you will find Camera Buff a clever exploration of these ideas. It also offer an opportunity to see where the director of such beautiful films like The Double Life of Veronique and the Trois Coleurs trilogy started.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

I have found myself on a bit of a Jessica Chastain marathon of late; entirely unintentional but it is proving to be a treat. I've watched her in Take Shelter, this film, The Martian, Interstellar and Crimson Peak. Of them all, Zero Dark Thirty provides her with the most screen time, as it follows her character Maya's pursuit of Osama Bin Laden (or UBL as he is referred to in the film).

Chastain's performance is central to the film, and she is phenomenal. Her character has no other purpose in life than eliminating UBL; the few people she shares any moments of friendship with end up leaving or dead. The supporting cast are very good, particularly Jennifer Ehle as Maya's friend Jessica, and Jason Clarke.

The interplay of fact and fiction is woven together to create a story that places you in the emotions of those working to find UBL. I am less concerned with historical fact than if the story works, and its does here. I believed in the intensity of Maya's focus, and the pain and setbacks she experiences. Bigelow's direction is suited to the material; she has stepped back slightly to allow us to observe these people work. We a left to wonder about the choices they make; the infamous torture scenes a presented with little comment, and we are left to judge what they did.

A very solid film that takes us into the world of intelligence gathering, and presents us with the drive required in order to be successful, as well as the personal and emotional cost of such a journey. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Center Stage (2000)

Center Stage (2000)

Director: Nicholas Hynter

I had not meant to watch Center Stage; it just happened to be on TV, and before I knew it I had watched half of it. I love dancing: practicing, performing and watching it. I have a soft spot for dance films, which means that if the dancing sequences are good (and lengthy) I will overlook a movie's shallow acting and weak plot. Center Stage has both of the latter, but also has a lot of dance sequences that are great.

There is not much else to say about the film. If you like dancing in general, you will find something to enjoy. If not, there are other dance films that are more engaging; The Red Shoes, which is referenced in this film, is probably the best, followed by those of Bob Fosse, particularly All That Jazz

Sunday, 25 October 2015

I've Just Seen: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Director: Joel Coen

I wouldn't say that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Coen Brothers fan, but I have enjoyed many of their films. They clearly love cinema, a circumstance that enhances their films for people who have a similar love. The Big Lebowski, both in its title and convoluted plot, references the film noirs of the 40s, though aesthetically couldn't be much further from them.

The Coens are strong on character; 'The Dude' is a great creation, smarter than he looks (and much smarter than his friends), caring for his friends, but mostly looking out for himself. John Goodman's Walter Sobchak almost stole the film for me, with his hilarious tirades about his war experiences and his Jewishness.

As I said, the plot is deliberately incomprehensible, in a similar fashion to Hawks' The Big Sleep. Much like 'The Dude' we don't know why things happen, or who is responsible; we just roll with it. The script is very clever, with so many quotable lines (my favourite was "It really tied the room together." Like 'The Dude,' I love a good rug).

While I am not have loved this as many do, it is very funny and clever; I can imagine it being even funnier on repeat viewing as more of the speeches sink into my brain.

I've Just Seen: Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)

Director: Tod Browning

I had attempted to watch this film many months ago; unfortunately, the copy from my local library was severely scratched, and stopped dead three-quarters through. Since then I have seen two versions of Nosferatu, so this time was consciously comparing the three films to each other. Clearly the figure of Dracula looms large over cinema history, and for a character whose main motivation is 'I want to suck your blood,' he has been portrayed in many different ways.

Bela Lugosi's portrayal is famous for its theatricality. Unlike the melancholy of Kinski's Nosferatu, or Schreck's gleeful portrayal, Lugosi is aristocratic but clearly menacing, wearing a dinner jacket as he goes about his business. The close-ups on his face, with their strategic lighting, can only be described as entertainingly camp. It is understandably iconic.

The other star of the film is the production design. Dracula's castle is wonderfully gothic, its huge spider's webs dwarf Renfeld, making him the fly caught by Dracula. The catacombs of Carfax Abbey are also great, highly suitable for Dracula's needs.

The problem with the film is the direction from Tod Browning. He has the camera look away several times, drawing attention to the action he deliberately avoids: Dracula emerging from his coffin. Why, I don't know. Perhaps Browning couldn't think of a way of doing it without it looking humorous. Or he wasn't very imaginative. The ending is another problem: we are denied Dracula's death on screen, leaving us feeling unsatisfied.

See the film to see Bela Lugosi's performance and the production design, two factors that have continued to influence vampire films throughout film history.

Friday, 23 October 2015

I've Just Seen: Tabu (2012)

Tabu (2012)

Director: Miguel Gomes

I generally enjoy films that break with film conventions. Gomes' Tabu does this primarily through sound, and also plays with structure. The film has three parts: a prologue, Part One titled 'Paradise Lost,' and Part Two: 'Paradise.' The prologue is a slightly mythic story of lost love, giving us a thematic setting for the rest of the film. The voice-over narration is also introduced here.

The film is non-linear, as 'Paradise Lost' introduces older characters whose histories are revealed in 'Paradise.' 'Paradise' is recounted as a story, almost entirely narrated; the only change is the letters that the lovers send to each other. The whole film is in B&W, which along with the lack of dialogue recalls films from the silent era. The film, particularly 'Paradise,' set in Africa, feels like one is looking at a collection of someone's old photographs, or home movies. There are some interesting images, especially those involving a crocodile.

I don't know exactly how I feel about this. I got rave reviews by several critics, including Australia's own Margaret and David, which is why I watched it. I feel as though I missed something. All the elements didn't quite work together; the lack of closure for the plot involving Pilar (raised in 'Paradise Lost,' then never returned to again) left me confused. The fate of the lovers didn't grab me as strongly as it should have, which meant I wasn't as struck by the tragedy of it all. Tabu is a film I will probably re-watch at some point, in order to clarify what I think of it.