Monday, 29 June 2015

I've Just Seen: Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine (2013)
Director: Woody Allen

This is the film that 'Our Cate' (as Blanchett is affectionately known in Australia) won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and in her speech famously told Hollywood to make more female-driven films. After seeing the film I can understand why she won the award: I have seen three of the other nominees from that year (Amy Adams in American Hustle; Sandra Bullock in Gravity; and Judi Dench in Philomena), and Blanchett's performance does stand out.

Her character is certainly a person who wants to be noticed and listened to: like the woman on the plane at the film's beginning, Jasmine draws the audience into her world. Of the four performances of that year nominated, I would say Blanchett goes the furthest with her character: superficially, she looks utterly dreadful at times, a fact remarkable because of how rare it is to see an actress be blotchy, worn and tired. Blanchett also shows us the subtext of Jasmine's thoughts as she tries to make a change in her life. Her upper-class New York accent sounds near-perfect (though this is coming from a biased Australian). For me, it is one of Blanchett's best film performances.

At the centre of this film is a fraught sibling relationship between Blanchett's Jasmine and Hawkins' Ginger. Jasmine simply expects to be taken care of, and to dish out unwanted advice (and judgment), while Ginger defends her sister to others, and finds herself listening to Jasmine's advice. Blanchett and Hawkins are very good together as this mis-matched pair of sisters.

This is not one of Allen's greatest films, but it has some top-notch acting from its cast. The non-linear structure provides some intrigue and tension in the story, but the real pleasure is watching Blanchett's Jasmine's complete breakdown.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

I've Just Seen: Senna (2010)

Senna (2010)
Director: Asif Kapadia

In my movie odyssey I am trying to sample as many different types of films as possible. Along with the horror genre, documentaries were an area I had largely avoided. Why? I do not know, particularly when there are documentaries like Senna to be seen. I am not one for car racing, and really know next to nothing about cars; Kapadia's Senna had me invested in the races, immersing me in the world of racing during the 80s and 90s.

The film is essentially a character study of Ayrton Senna, considered by many in car racing as one of the best drivers ever, possessing a natural ability that he worked hard to maintain. In Kapadia's film Ayrton Senna is presented as a wonderfully complex person: as serious about his Catholicism as he was about his racing, a proud Brazilian at a time when many were not, a fan of the ladies, and a fierce competitor. His rivalry with Alain Prost is a highlight of the film, though it is not make it entirely clear how there relationship changed over the years (Prost is now a patron of Senna's charity). I would also have liked just a little more insight into just how popular Senna was in Brazil. However, these are minor quibbles.

If you don't know how Senna's career played out, don't read anything about him, but just go and see the film. I did know, but when the end of the film occurred, I felt shock, sadness and was deeply moved. This would be great in a double bill with Ron Howard's Rush, another film that works for car racing novices like myself.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

I've Just Seen: Secretary (2002)

Secretary (2002)

Director: Steven Shainberg

I could be wrong, but I don't think there are many films where sadomasochistic relations are portrayed in a positive way. Or at least, are seen as a healthy way for a young woman to express her complex relationship to pain, develop her confidence in herself, and find love. Secretary not only does this, but manages to be funny, clever and surprisingly romantic. And have a domineering male love interest called Mr Grey who manages to be a rounded character!

Both Gyllenhaal and Spader have a lot to get right with these roles, trying to make these two people understandable and believable. Spader's Grey could easily be seen as a creep, but he does a great job of revealing Grey's disgust with himself and his behaviour, and his utter fascination with Gyllenhaal's Lee's enjoyment of their relationship. We don't need some traumatic backstory to explain his behaviour; Grey just is this way. He must come to accept that he can keep doing it and have a meaningful relationship with that person. Gyllenhaal's Lee is now one of my favourite characters in film; her trajectory is very unique, learning how to deal with her addiction to pain, and oddly discovering an inner strength through being submissive. Spader and Gyllenhaal have great chemistry; I really wanted him to open up to her and see how happy they could be together!

The production design was another highlight: Mr Grey's office is a strange combination of sharp objects in 'just right' spots with odd but beautiful plants growing in his glasshouse. Lee's bedroom is full of plastic, girly objects that she slowly rejects as she grows in confidence. Her clothes change from childish jumpers and hairstyles to sophisticated office chic (to a soiled wedding dress!).

I really enjoyed this film, so much so that I may even add it to my favourite film list. The only problem is that now I feel I should watch the other S&M film with a Grey man in it, so I can compare the two stories. But of course, that would mean actually watching that film and listening to all its awful dialogue. Oh well: it will probably just establish how wonderful this film is.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

I've Just Seen: Woman of the Year (1942)

Woman of the Year (1942)

Director: George Stevens

The screwball comedy is arguably my favourite film genre. I love the battle-of-the-sexes and battle-of-wits that goes on, and often find the preposterousness of the plots a joke in and of itself. Of the many pairings in this genre, Tracy and Hepburn are legendary, and it was this film that they first met on. They have wonderful chemistry. The first time Tess and Sam meet is quite sexy, and their instant attraction is clear and believeable.

Some parts of the script are a bit aged; most women these days are able to keep working and be married. But the idea of making sacrifices for your relationship was nicely presented: passion alone is not enough to sustain a marriage.

This is a very sweet and funny romance from one of cinema's greatest screen couples. Watch it to see where it all began!

I've Just Seen: Jurassic World (2015)

Jurassic World (2015)
Director: Colin Trevorrow

I must make a confession: I haven't yet seen an original Jurassic Park film!!! (Please don't throw things at me!). In my defence, I was only three when the first movie came out, and I never got around to seeing it when it was on TV. And I hadn't planned to see this movie, but my lovely new friends from my film course invited me along, so I went. Did I enjoy it?


The visuals were very good, and the film sounded great (nice sound design for the dinosaur roars!). But the story was, well, 'unfocused' is the kindest word I can think of. I didn't really engage with any of the characters, and could feel the cogs of the plot cranking in certain scenes. The lack of a main character was a problem, though our group did decide that Indominus Rex might be a good candidate. Howard's running around in heels didn't bother me as much as the 'woman must learn to be more maternal' plot line. Really, the woman runs a huge dinosaur park full time, and yet she is supposed to take time out of her busy schedule keeping everything safe to walk around with her two nephews who are reasonably self-sufficient? Sigh.

The film overall feels more like a morality tale than a science fiction film: you can tell who is going to die by how nice they are to children. (Good-bye English nannie!).

This is a perfectly fine way to pass a Friday night after a hectic week, which is exactly what I used it for. However, I doubt that it will be considered a classic in years to come.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

I've Just Seen: The Red Balloon (1956)

The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge) (1956)
Director: Albert Lamorisse
Writer: Albert Lamorisse

What a delightful film this is! I really feel I don't need to say anything else, except go watch it! It won't take you very long; 35 minutes, tops. And share with a real child, or just your own inner one.

The plot sounds like it comes straight from a Pixar film (a high compliment, I assure you): a young boy is befriended by a sentient red balloon, who follows him around war-scarred streets in 1950s Paris. This simple idea is beautifully presented by Lamorisse, who uses music and visuals to tell the story. There is little dialogue, only a few shouts of 'Ballon rouge!' by the little boy. The special effects appear to be all in-camera, and are simple yet very effective.

As with many films like this, the balloon is symbolic: of what, though, is left up to the viewer. Is it the human soul/spirit? Innocence? Joy? Love? For me, it is all of these things. Again, I urge you to go and watch this yourselves. The last shot is one of the best in cinema.

Monday, 22 June 2015

I've Just Seen: This is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Director: Rob Reiner

I tend to like the films of Rob Reiner. The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally are two of my most favourite films, and really enjoyed Stand By Me. Spinal Tap was Reiner's debut feature film: a great way to start an amazing run of films.

The candid mockumentary style heightens the comedy, as the hilarious lines are slipped into normal conversation, catching the audience by surprise. Christopher Guest and Michael McKean get most of the best lines, though Shearer gets one of the funniest moments, getting stuck in a strange alien pod onstage: the ending of that scene is brilliant. The band getting lost backstage, and the discussion about the sexism of 'Smell the Glove''s cover are also fantastic. This is no great narrative thread, except that the band are making their way around America on tour. This aimlessness works well in the film: the band are as unsure about what is going to happen next as the audience.

The funniest parts of the film are the bands songs: 'Big Bottom' and 'Sex Farm' have wonderfully terrible lyrics. The songs from the bands history, particularly from the 60s and 70s are even funnier: 'Listen to the Flower People,' with its trippy-dippy clothes is a nice piece of satire.

This is Spinal Tap is very funny, even if you know nothing about heavy metal (I do not).

Sunday, 21 June 2015

I've Just Seen: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

This was a TV movie in America, but was released in cinemas in other parts of the world; for me, it counts as a cinematic movie. It was rather funny to watch this only a week after seeing Blue is the Warmest Colour; both are about same-sex relationships that end in tears, with one party unable to emotionally move on. However, the similarities end there; Blue focused on human faces (and bodies) and approached its subject matter with seriousness. Soderbergh revels in the famous opulence of Liberace, and many parts of the film are very funny.

Damon and Douglas have great chemistry together. Douglas' performance almost takes over the film, which works perfectly for the personality of Liberace. Damon is also very good, and we experience this strange new world along with him.

The production design, costume and make-up are the other big stars of the film. We see a lot of Liberace's house and every room is decorated with bling and fur and mirrors. The make-up both ages and reverses the ageing of the characters, sometimes in astonishing fashion: Douglas' Liberace looks almost unrecognisable after his plastic surgery. And of course, the costumes are fabulous.

The film's title, also the title of Thorson's memoir, points out how funny it is to look at Liberace with 21st century eyes. To us, it is so obvious that he was gay, with all the camp and kitsch he employed in his act; candelabra's are not well-known for their concealing qualities. But as is pointed out in the film, many of Liberace's audience chose not to see what was so obvious; and Liberace himself worked hard to preserve his privacy.

As someone who was born after Liberace's heyday, this was a fascinating insight into one of the most iconic entertainers of the 20th century.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

I've Just Seen: The Godfather Part II (1974)

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo (from his novel)
Notable Actors: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dianne Keaton, Robert Duvall

There is a cetain amount of satisfaction in watching a giant of the film world; and they don't come much bigger than The Godfather series. I saw the first one several months ago, and last week finally watched the second one. My first impression: I will need to watch these again. There is so much in these films that they really need to be seen more than once in order to fully appreciate all aspects.

I will confess that I was not utterly blow away by the these two films, largely due to the enormous amount of hype and love for them. They are great, there is no denying that, but I was not immersed in them. It pains me as an avid film lover to say that, but it is the truth, That is another reason why I want to see them again: perhaps I missed something the first time around, as I tried to absorb all that was on screen.

That being said, this is one of the best sequels in film history. We get to see the next phase in the Corleone family, while also learning about how their life in America began. We see how quickly the family flourished in their new world, and how the next generation is already losing their grip on their power.

When I have a spare six hours I shall go back and watch them, hopefully with a more attuned eye.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Where Have I Been?

Frequent readers may have noticed my most recent bout of inactivity. Part of this is because I have not been able to watch as many films as I usually do, and therefore have nothing really to write about (though I have got seven films I have seen but not written about. Watch this space!)

The reason for this absence is film related: I spent the last three weeks doing a film school short course (called the 'Three Week Film School'). It was basically a crash course in filmmaking, culminating this past week with our group making our own short film. I got the opportunity to be 1st Assistant Director, which meant my ability to speak loudly came in handy (I was boss of the set, keeping the schedule running on time (haha.)).

During the past year I have known that I want to work in the film industry, ideally writing and directing my own films. After this course, I still have this dream, but it is now coupled with a simple desire to be on set, any set, watching films being made. I love the process almost as much as the end result, being around the creative people who work so hard to put stories on the big (or small) screen.

As with any educational experience, what I learnt about myself was just as important as the content of the course. I surprised myself with my editing skills, making good choices about shots and compiling them (rather than the more technical aspects of the process). My story instincts seem to be good: all that film watching has paid off! (and made me look like an absolute swot!)

 Of course, the other important part was the lovely people I have met: my new filmmaking tribe! Our group all had skills that were put to good use, and we all encouraged and supported each other. And our wonderful tutor Lucy was the best teacher we could wish for.

So that's where I have been, and where I am going to be: making films. And the great thing about all this? I can classify my film watching as study!

I'll leave you with the video we watched on day one of the course to get us in the mood. Enjoy!

Friday, 12 June 2015

I've Just Seen: Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13 (1995)
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: William Broyles Jr., Al Reinert (from Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger's book Lost Moon)
Notable Actors: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton

I really like films set in space; the comparison between the vast universe and the confines of the ships we puny humans travel in is a fertile scenario for stories. These stories allow us to examine our place in the Solar System (and the universe). Apollo 13, despite having few exterior shots of the ship and the universe behind it, manages to capture this feeling of being adrift in space. It is incredibly tense.

The actual incident of the failed Apollo 13 mission was ripe for storytelling: there are obstacles aplenty, with a clear goal for our characters that the audience completely understands: get back to Earth safely. Hanks, Bacon and Paxton were great at fleshing out characters with their own distinct storylines; Hanks as the main character who has to keep the crew together emotionally, and reconcile himself with not walking on the Moon; Bacon as the last minute member of the crew, who feels he has to defend his choices; and Paxton who becomes increasingly sick during the mission. Their performances are vital to immersing us in the environment of Apollo 13.

You know a film is good when, despite knowing how it ends, you are on the edge of your seat, hoping everything works out. I felt this watching the film: Howard handled the story pace well, giving us a decent amount of build-up to the mission's launch, waiting til Act Two to go into space. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and would recommend as part of a double bill with Cuaron's Gravity (which has greater visuals, but weaker characters and dialogue).

Saturday, 6 June 2015

I've Just Seen: The Man With the Movie Camera (1929)

The Man With the Movie Camera (1929)

Director: Dziga Vertov
Writer: Dziga Vertov

I love watching films from the early years of cinema. Some of the most experimental films in the form's history date from this period; The Man With the Movie Camera is one of these. I found it utterly delightful. I must confess I didn't really clock the Marxist aspects of the film, which, considering the amount of vision of machinery efficiently working away, accompanied by images of happy, busy people exposes my sloppy viewing. However, this does show that The Man With the Movie Camera is enjoyable without engaging with its politics.

The film's self-reflexivity is one of its most charming aspects. We start with a cinema theatre filling up with an audience, welcomed by magical chairs that unfold invitingly. There are also several 'over-the-shoulder' shots of the camera filming the bustling city, and a lovely little sequence where the camera assembles itself and walks around.

The subject of this documentary is the cities of Moscow, Kharkiv, Kiev and Odessa and their residents, going about their daily lives. We see them rise in the morning, blinking their eyes against the sunlight like blinds on a window; going up buildings in lifts, and across town in trams. The tone is upbeat and celebratory, presenting the world of the everyday worker and their enjoyment of all aspects of life.

The film techniques employed by Vertov are many, and for me were not used as a gimmick. Vertov used double exposure to overlay an image of machinery with a a smiling female worker (how Marxist!); his tracking shots followed moving vehicles and (self-reflexively) his own camera perched on an open tram cart, immersing the viewer in the movement of the city.

This is a gorgeous documentary, one of the best in cinema history.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

I've Just Seen: Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adele - Chapitres 1 & 2) (2013)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Writers: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix (from Julie Maroh graphic novel)
Notable Actors: Lea Seydoux, Adele Exarchopoulos

Where does one start with this film? How do you reconcile all behind-the-scenes stories of an allegedly demanding director with the intense and beautifully crafted story we see onscreen? Or the questions about male gaze that the explicit sex scenes raise? Frankly, these things are distractions from what is one exceptional film. The acting from the two leads is wonderful: Seydoux is great, acting the older, more experienced woman in this dynamic (a dynamic reflected in 'real' life as well). However, Adele Exarchopoulos is the stand out: she is in every scene and basically every shot; she has to reveal all the confusion, pain, passion and grief to the audience and mature several years before our eyes. She does all this seemingly without effort. Definitely an actor to watch.

One could not review this without mentioning the infamous, explicit sex scenes. Ultimately, the question with all these things (really the question with every scene in every film) is 'Does it need to be here? What would be lost if it was not shown?' The answer is quite a lot. The scenes are instense and passionate, very different from the first heterosexual scene. Without them we would not understand what it is Adele has lost with Emma. You have to forgot all the things you've read about how they actually filmed it, and just absorb it. I could get riled up about whether it is made with men or women in mind, but really almost all sex scenes are filtered through the male gaze, so I chose not to go down that path.

This is a three hour film that avoided being cumbersome: it looked beautiful and presented a story that explored a complex relationship between two people, not just two women.