Wednesday, 30 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Duel in the Sun (1946)

Duel in the Sun (1946)
Director: King Vidor

My problems with melodrama were rather irritated by this film. It is technically classified as a Western, but the scenery often vies with the overwrought emotions of the actors. The film is comparable to Gone With the Wind; a rather sweeping story, with a young woman torn between two very different men at the centre. The two films also had David O. Selznick as producer, and looked gorgeous in Technicolor. But where Gone With the Wind succeeded, with its acting, Duel in the Sun faltered.

The attractiveness of the images (and people) on screen were the most enjoyable parts of this film. The costumes are lovely, though at times barely managing to cover Jennifer Jones in some scenes. Gregory Peck is the meanest I have seen him, but I could see why Jones' Pearl was attracted to him. Of the actors, Lillian Gish was the best, showing a subtle to her acting that she had in her silent films.

Ultimately I didn't really like this; characters swung from one extreme emotion to another, without any real explanation about how they got there. While Pearl's predicament is hard and she is judged by all for the way she looks, the film handled that plot without any depth. A disappointment, despite the cast.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

I've Just Seen: I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Director: Howard Hawks

The presence of Cary Grant in a film is big drawcard. He is incredibly watchable, being both highly attractive and a great actor. He seemed to have chemistry with almost all of his co-stars, and it is certainly true here; Grant and Ann Sheridan spark off each other, making their eventual romance more believable.

The plot didn't quite progress how I thought it would, which was rather a nice surprise. I always think that the ridiculous plots of screwball comedies are part of the fun. The joy lies in Grant's Captain Henri Rochard's frustration with being close to Sheridan's Lieutenant Catherine Gates. At the film's beginning he is too close, finding himself locked in her bedroom one night. Later the pair are constantly thwarted in their attempts to consummate their marriage, ending up on the opposite side of towns. There is also a lot of jokes about gender roles, something that greatly appeals to me. One is Rochard being classified as a 'war bride,' as a 'war groom' is not catered for under law. It is quite a clever script.

I clearly enjoyed this. A screwball comedy with Cary Grant at his snarky, sexy best (with a bit of cross-dressing thrown in): what's not to like?!

Monday, 28 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Wild Strawberries (1957)

Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman

I feel like I have completed an unofficial trilogy of films that view life from its end: Tokyo Story, Ikiru and now Wild Strawberries. Each film has moved me in different ways; Bergman's film is the most existential of the three, examining Professpr Isak Borg's life from inside his own head.

The title in Swedish is an idiomatic expression that refers to a place that is a quietly significant for a person. For Isak, it is both a literal place where strawberries grow, and a place in this life he associates with his lost love. The film spend much time in the past, as Isak relives many happy and unhappy memories from childhood. The past interacts in the future, as Isak's thoughts are sparked by a physical resemblance between a young hitchiker and his love, both called Sara.

I seem to always approach Bergman's films expecting them to be sombre and difficult to sit through. I don't know why, particularly after seeing The Seventh Seal. While less light-hearted than that film, this was very moving and 'easy' to watch. Hopefully I will stop having this feeling with Bergman, whose status as one of the greatest directors ever is certainly finding no argument with me. A lovely reflection on a life lived (though whether well is up to you to judge). 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Stalag 17 (1953)

Stalag 17 (1953)
Director: Billy Wilder

I haven't yet watched a Billy Wilder film I didn't enjoy, and I have seen quite a few. I can't think of anyone apart from Kubrick who is able to so deftly move between genres. One of Wilder's great strengths is his handling of actors, which is again on show in Stalag 17. Everyone in the cast is wonderful, particularly William Holden.

Like 12 Angry Men, Wilder manages to move the story beyond its stage origins. The cramped conditions of the camp and the hut allow the suspicions and anger of the men to fester. The mystery of who the informant is draws you in, and the revelation is really well done; I have to admit I guessed wrong, and internally went 'ahhhhh' when it was revealed.

I don't want to say much more for fear of spoiling a potentially wonderful viewing experience. I really liked this, and find my love of Wilder being cemented by each new film of his I see. In my opinion, he is criminally underrated as a director and writer, perhaps because he could do any genre, and often opted for characters over style. See this film, and enjoy a master at work.

I've Just Seen: After the Thin Man (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936)

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

This film proves that sequels don't always suck. While the detective story is a touch confusing, these parts of the plot were never really the reason to watch the films, and act as a justification to spend more time with Nick and Nora. And really, who wouldn't want to do that?

I can't think of a modern equivalent for the chemistry of Loy and Powell. For me, they are better than Bogie and Bacall, and Tracy and Hepburn (and I really enjoy seeing those two couples on screen!). You can feel the trust between Loy and Powell, that their acting supports and enhances each other. Though the Hays Code removed some of the subtly sexiness of the first film (which came out just before the Code was enforced), the two still sparkle together.

There is no reason not to watch this; there is even an early performance from James Stewart, playing a significant character in the murder story. The screenplay, again written by the Hacketts, is wonderful and was nominated for an Oscar. Here's a taste to whet your appetite:

Nick: Did I ever tell you that you're the most fascinating woman this side of the Rockies?
Nora: Wait till you see me on the other side.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Short Term 12 (2013)

Short Term 12 (2013)
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Short Term 12 relies heavily on the central performance of Brie Larson as Grace, a supervisor at the titular home for troubled teenagers. If played by anyone else, I cannot imagine the film being as good as it is. Larson is great at understatement, and gives Grace a complexity that made me want to know more about her story.

The film's script ends a little too neatly, and some questions still remained. This unfortunately dilutes some of the emotion the film had built up to. However, it is quite moving at times, and the kids are very good. We learn at little bit about their situations, and the film is clearly compassionate towards them.

I did enjoy this, and expect that Larson will be turning up in more films in the coming years. Her most recent one, Room, recently won People's Choice at Toronto.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Based On: The Thin Man

Based On: The Thin Man
(The Thin Man: novel and film: 1934)

The differences between Hammett's novel and Van Dyke's film come down to the portrayal of the marriage of Nick and Nora Charles. The outcome of the murder (both its victim and perpetrator) remain the same, though the film opens earlier in the story than the novel does, providing some background to the titular 'thin man.' It does alter Dorothy Wyman's character, giving her a fiancee and a good relationship with her father. In the novel we start at Dorothy's bumping into Nick at the bar, and asking him to help find her father.

The novel is a first person narrative from Nick's perspective. Hammett's Nick seems like the cousin of Chandler's Philip Marlowe; slightly cynical, though quite funny, hard-drinking and a little tough in his opinions about women. This is rather different from the Nick in Van Dyke's film. William Powell's Nick manages to be both sophisticated and clownish. His does drink a lot, but it is played for laughs in the film. Regarding women, Powell's Nick seems to look no further than his wife, who he clearly adores and is very comfortable with. In the novel, Nick never pursues other women, but there is a casualness to their relationship (apparently mirroring Hammett's own relationship with his lover Lillian Hellman).*

The reason for this difference in Nick and Nora's relationship largely comes down to how Nora is portrayed. In Hammett's novel, the first person narration means that Nora is depicted entirely through Nick's perspective; we have no access to her feelings. She is also rather in the background, having conversations with other characters that are not reported. Nora plays no major role in the murder investigation, and Nick interactions with Mimi and Dorothy are reported more than those with Nora.

This contrasts significantly with Myrna Loy's Nora. She actively participates in the murder investigation; when Nick puts her in a taxi in order to go do something else, she does some detective work of her own. There is more dialogue between the couple, and the banter clearly shows Nora's great affection and playfulness with Nick; their marriage is incredibly strong. While the novel ends with Nick explaining the whole case to Nora, the film shows them on their way back to San Francisco, happy to be finally alone with each other again. Loy's Nora is not seen through Nick's perspective, but instead stands as her own character.

Nora's greater prominence in the film comes down to the script. It was written by husband and wife writing duo Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and some critics have argued that the screen relationship between Nick and Nora mirrors their marriage. Van Dyke had asked the writers to give him five scenes of Nick and Nora together, demonstrating the shift from the detective story to the couple's relationship. Goodrich also felt it her duty to make Nora a well-developed character.*

This is one of those rare instances where the film version of a story is equal to (or even better than) the novel source. Nick and Nora are a lot of fun to be around, something Van Dyke realised and decided to emphasise in his film.

*Much of this information (and arguments) come from Rosanne Welch's article 'Giving credit where credit is due: Frances Goodrich Hackett and Albert Hackett and The Thin Man,' Journal of Screenwriting, (January, 2012), Vol. 3, pp. 157-176

I've Just Seen: Candy (2006)

Candy (2006)

Director: Neil Armfield

One could make comparisons between Candy and Lost in Translation. In both films we follow two people who feel like they are detached from the rest of the world, finding in each other a bond that sustains them. In Candy the two characters, Candy and Dan, are bound through their use of heroin as well as their love for each other; in fact their love and drug-taking seems to be inextricably linked.

The film is structured in sections called 'Heaven,' 'Earth' and 'Hell.' We see their descent from the heights of joy in each other and their highs, to the rather painful realities of life as addicts, to the disintegration of their love. Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish are very good as Candy and Dan, though occasionally they appeared to look rather well for malnourished heroin users. Some critics disliked the film, saying that Candy and Dan were too self-absorbed to be sympathetic. This seems a strange criticism; they are drug addicts, surely it is no surprise that they focus purely on each other and their situation.

This is a very good Australian film with two strong lead performances. I would always encourage people to watch Australian films (unless they are terrible), and this is one that I would certainly recommend.

Monday, 21 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Lost in Translation (2003)

Lost in Translation (2003)
Director: Sofia Coppola

This is the first Sofia Coppola film that I have seen. There is no denying she knows how to create beautiful images. Many of her shot compositions wonderfully capture the ennui of Bob and Charlotte, particularly those where the two characters share the frame, like the famous image of them sitting in front of the zebra-skin wall. Coppola also clearly knows how to get what she wants from her actors; Murray and Johansson (both at the top of their game here) have a different energy to almost everyone else in the film. Johansson's Charlotte is particularly contrasted to Anna Faris' movie star, whose vacuousness plays to every stereotype of Hollywood actors.

The biggest problem I had with Coppola's film is that for all the accomplishment on show, I don't know if I actually cared. The substance behind the images felt a bit shallow. It wasn't the acting, but rather the lack of context for why Bob and Charlotte are so unhappy. Some background is given - distance loved-ones - but it didn't feel quite like enough. The film teetered on the edge of self-indulgent navel-gazing. That is not to say that being materially comfortable in life precludes you from having problems or being depressed; rather, this part was not probed enough for me. The wry distance of the camera clearly didn't draw me in; considering my love for Kubrick, I find this a bit interesting (but only a bit).

Coppola is clearly a very good filmmaker, and I will be happy to watch her other films. But I feel as though I have missed something; this film was so lauded that perhaps it is just me, and my insensitivity to such stories. Or, since this has come out, it has been imitated by other filmmakers so much that its power has been diluted. For me, a good but not a great film.

I've Just Seen: Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

The ending of Cinema Paradiso is wonderful love-letter to cinema, showing us how it enhances our own experiences of life. The whole film is itself one long celebration of cinema-going, as the cinema in this film sits at the centre of life in Giancaldo; people grow-up in front of the films, meet each other, learn more about the world and ultimately come together as a community. Salvatore ('Tolo') experiences all these things at the cinema, accompanied by the projectionist Alfredo, who teaches him that real life and cinema are inextricably linked.

I watched the international cut of this film; apparently there is a longer version that follows the romance between Salvatore and Elena. In all honesty I am not sure I want to see the extended cut; the story didn't feel incomplete. The lack of closure to Salvatore and Elena's romance felt more realistic and portrayed the film's wariness of nostalgia.

While my own experience of film watching is not nearly as communal as Salvatore, I certainly understand that love of film. I have had experiences in a cinema similar to some that he experiences, particularly with all the kids laughing at the comedies. I imagine that anyone who loves films will recognise themselves in Salvatore. This film also made me feel nostalgic for film stock; digital just is not as beautiful or romantic (though I am incredibly fond of my DVD collection!). A lovely film for film lovers everywhere!

Friday, 18 September 2015

I've Just Seen: The Major and the Minor (1942)

The Major and the Minor (1942)
Director: Billy Wilder

I generally enjoy or love the films of Billy Wilder; Some Like It Hot shares top spot as my favourite movie. When I saw this listed in Wilder's filmography, and read the synopsis, I was certain I would like this. Clearly, I know myself very well. The Major and the Minor was Wilder's first American film as director, and shows how talented he was.

The humour is subversive, as it follows a young woman who disguises herself as a 12-year-old girl in order to get a cheaper train ticket. As with Some Like It Hot Wilder portrays male sexuality through a female perspective, though in this film many of the 'men' are actually boys. Ginger Rogers is great here, showing she was more than simply a brilliant dance partner. She gets to play three different roles: tough-minded Susan, a rather childish 'Sue-Sue' and even her own mother. While it is as difficult to accept Rogers as a 12-year-old as it was to see Curtis and Lemmon as women, the film plays with this fact (it is probably why all the young boys like her so much!). At first it seems that Ray Milland's role is only to be handsome (which he does well), but his Major Kirby is grappling with his growing attraction to Sue-Sue. The moments when he tries to justify or ignore these feelings are uncomfortably funny.

There are many great one-offs jokes, including one about Veronica Lake that I won't spoil. Though one could easily dismiss this film as light and frothy, and ultimately it is, The Major and the Minor plays with the boundaries of acceptable sexuality, adding a bit of spice to the froth. I loved it, and if you liked Some Like It Hot you will enjoy this too.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Ikiru (1952)

Ikiru (1952)
Director: Akira Kurosawa

My sister is studying to be a radiographer, so she was intrigued by the opening shot of this film: an image of protagonist Kanji Watanabe's cancer in his stomach. As a result she stayed to watch the film with me. I am glad she did, for this is a great film, and should be watched by everyone. Many think of Kurosawa as a director of action, but like his compatriots Ozu and Mizoguchi, his is really interested in humans struggling to create meaning in often neglectful or hostile worlds.

This is a beautiful film in every way possible. The story is moving, following a man coming to terms with his terminal cancer, and the choice to grieve or to live as much as possible. The acting is quite affecting: Takashi Shimura is great as Watanabe, often still and quiet, and yet we see the depth of his sadness. The song he sings at a nightclub is one of the most touching moments in the film, as his pain is made public for the first time. The cinematography is also wonderful; the scene on the swing is one of the most beautiful shots in cinema.

As you may be able to tell, I loved this film. It was not sentimental but rather affirms the importance of living a 'good' life, whatever that means to each one of us. The last act is a wonderful demonstration of Kurosawa's filmmaking abilities, as we see the impact of Watanabe's actions on other people. Truly wonderful.

I've Just Seen: Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)
Director: David Cronenberg

I enjoy body horror as a horror sub-genre, and I really enjoyed Cronenberg's The Fly, so I was looking forward to Videodrome. I am not sure how I feel about it. I think it is a film I shall revisit; the plot was a touch confusing, and hopefully a second viewing will clarify some points for me.

As with The Fly the prosthetic work is really good. I am definitely someone who prefers in-camera effects to simply using CGI for everything (not that it doesn't have its place). The tactility of the prosthetics adds to the grungy, fleshy ideas presented in the story; the pulsating television is an arresting image.

This film is very much of its time, and I can imagine some young people in the next few years watching this and not really understanding the culture of video. For me, video was the way I watched films for the first eleven years of my life, and I felt strangely nostalgic for the grainy image on the screen. An interesting film certainly, and one I will re-watch at some point.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

I've Just Seen: The Mission (1986)

The Mission (1986)
Director: Roland Joffe

While complex portraits of religion and faith are not alien to European cinema - Bergman, Dreyer, Tarkovsky all explored such ideas with great insight - American cinema seems to rarely attempt such interrogations of faith. This is one of the reasons The Mission is a bit of a revelation (pun intended). It explores the gulf between institutional religion and individual faith, as a small mission of Spanish Jesuits work to convert and help a community of Guarani people in South America.

There are several layers of complexity in this story: the Jesuits are part of the colonisation of South America, but their clear love and care for the people complicate the image of meddling foreigners. They stand with the Guarani when threatened, opposing the wishes of the Portuguese and the Catholic Church, who have opted for political gain over love and justice. However, Cardinal Altamirano is aware of the goodness of the missions, and even imagines that the Guarani would rather everyone just let them be. There is also tension between two of the monks, one who's background is as a slaver and fighter, while the other believes in passive resistance and gentleness.

I really enjoyed this film; like Quiz Show there is an intelligence here I feel is missing from many modern films. The score is one of the most beautiful you will hear, written by Ennio Morricone. The main theme is lovely, a hopeful yet also melancholic piece. Not matter what your religious beliefs are, I think you will appreciate The Mission.

I've Just Seen: The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953)
Director: Vincente Minnelli

I had not watched a musical for a while, so I was looking forward to seeing The Band Wagon.  Sadly, for me, the film fell short. While it is unfair to compare anything to Singin' in the Rain, this film's chronological and thematic similarites invite such comparisons. There was only one song from this film that I remembered after watching it ('That's Entertainment'); the plot feels less focused, and the love story is rather undeveloped. I also didn't laugh as much as I would have wished.

Despite those flaws, there was some enjoyment to be had. Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire are wonderful to watch dance, both doing solos and together; and the Noir/pulp number at the end is great. While not memorable, the songs are good, and the triplet song is incredibly well done. The gentle satire around the financing the play is funny; Jack Buchanan's pretensious director is a hoot!

I did enjoy this, but when one film reminds of just how great another one is, something is clearly not working. Perhaps if I had seen this during childhood I would like it much more.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Romper Stomper (1992)

Romper Stomper (1992),0.jpg

Director: Geoffrey Wright

While watching this film I was reminded of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange; a connection I am not alone in drawing. It is largely down to the ultraviolence of the gang of young men, though unlike Alex, who is not driven by any real political ideas, these men are proud Neo-Nazis. As with Kubrick's film, Romper Stomper was controversial for its alleged uncritical depiction of such violence.

Russell Crowe is a magnetic terror in this film; almost bestial as he snarls at the world. The other performances are good, but none is as good as Crowe's.  He is the true believer in the group, ultimately beyond the reach of human emotions like love. The cinematography paints Australia as grungy and ugly, reflecting both the perspective of the racist gang, who see this new multicultural Australia as ugly, and the ugliness of their ideas.

I wouldn't say I liked this film, but it is always good to become better acquainted with the filmmaking from one's own country. Also demonstrates how great Russell Crowe is as an actor.

I've Just Seen: Quiz Show (1994)

Quiz Show (1994)

Director: Robert Redford

To say that Quiz Show is a solid movie may sound like I am damning it with faint praise; far from it. Few films have the combination of a very good script (well-structured), supported by very strong performances from all the actors, and great production design. The shots may not be ground-breaking, but they capture the complex relationships between many different characters. Redford is clearly very good at directing actors (being one himself probably helps!). The three main characters are three-dimensional people, with clear motivations and distinct personalities.

The alleged historical inaccuracies are not a worry when the script is this good. Though the film comes close to pushing one to ask the question 'does it really matter, it's just a quiz show!,' the human drama is what keeps you interested.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and wouldn't mind seeing it again. I was never lost as to where we were, or why characters acted in certain ways. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997)
Director: Wong Kar-wai

I have really liked the films of Wong Kar-wai; he captures the intimacies and irritations of relationships, and tells stories that are quietly romantic and melancholic. Happy Together is another example of Kar-wai's talents. It portrays a highly strained relationship between Ho and Lai, who young men who are working in Argentina after spending all their money while there on holiday. They have an on-again off-again relationship, with Ho constantly leaving Lai, then coming back when he is desparate. It is Lai's perspective we follow, as he works to save money to go back to Hong Kong.

The film this reminded me of was Blue is the Warmest Colour. Not just because both films follow a same-sex couple, but because of the focus on the introverted character in the relationship. Lai and Adele live much of their stories in the shadow of their passionate relationship with the more outgoing Ho and Emma. We see them try to move on, but not really succeeding.

The title of Wong Kar-wai's film could be read as ironic; Ho and Lai verbally pick at each other so much that you wonder if they are ever truly happy. However, Wong Kar-wai himself said that the title could refer to Lai and his past, and being at peace with what has happened, allowing him to move forward and find love again. My interpretation was slightly different. While together they are volatile, we do see Ho and Lai happy together; the dance scene in the kitchen is one such moment. When they are apart neither is happy.

A great film from Wong Kar-wai, who is now one of my favourite filmmakers.

I've Just Seen: Les Amants (1958)

Les Amants (The Lovers) (1958),-Les_1.jpg
Director: Louis Malle

Les Amants caused a bit of controversy when it was screened in America in the late 1950s; according to Wikipedia, it was the 'allegedly obscene material' the film contained, ie. sex scenes. While these sex scenes are no longer shocking (though quite romantic in their lovely black-and-white cinematography), I can see why they shocked censors in the 1950s. Not only are the couple having sex (and a lot of it), but are committing adultery at the same time.

The plot of the film is what I would call 'very French.' A young married woman, Jeanne, is having an affair with a man in Paris, and is feeling highly unsatisfied with the whole situation: neither her husband or her lover inspire get passion in her. After several moves to change the situation, she ends up in the arms of yet another man, a second lover who she falls in love with during one night of love-making.

The plot isn't a great one, and none of the characters are really that likeable. However, they and the film look beautiful. Jeanne Moreau (Catherine from Jules et Jim) does play Jeanne well, and I liked her a bit better after she had a laughing fit half-way through the film.

The film is fine, neither great nor terrible. I did like it more than Jules et Jim but it has less importance for film history than Truffaut's film. I don't know if I would recommend it, but also cannot say anything really negative about it either. If my description has piqued your interest, you should see it; if not, then you needn't bother.

Friday, 11 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights (1997)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

While I would not call myself a P.T. Anderson 'fan,' I really respect him as a filmmaker, and appreciate his ability to balance the broad scope of a story, and the intimate relationships of characters. Boogie Nights demonstrates this particular ability, as it spans over two decades, and follows are large number of characters as they navigate the changes to the porn industry from the 70s to the 80s.

I haven't seen Mark Wahlberg in much, but I cannot think he could be better than he is here. His Eddie 'Dirk Diggler' Adams is a great mixture of confidence, naivety and innocence, as he moves through his career and attempts to make his own mark on the world. Anderson is clearly a great director of actors, and regular collaborators Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and William H. Macy gives memorable performances. Burt Reynolds is also good as the father figure of this rather motley family.

The production design of the film is one of the highlights. The 70s are evoked with some great costumes and hair, and Jack Horner's Californian home. Anderson and Robert Elswit's cinemtography is decidedly modern, with its stedicam long takes that glide through this world. These shots contrast with the small glimpses we get of the porn films being made; filmed to resemble the 70s films of the time. Part of the plot involves the move to videotape, which causes a crisis for the porn industry, as it opens up the opportunity for anyone to make porn (and cheaper too), without the production values that Jack Horner prides himself on. It is interesting to think that the advent of digital cameras has done the same for maintstream film industry (to say nothing of the Internet's influence on the modern porn industry!)

While this is not a film I would say I loved, I am glad to have seen it; Anderson is one of the best modern filmmakers working today, and watching his films is a lesson in smart storytelling. I may not re-watch this anytime soon, but I look forward to seeing Anderson's other films.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Mon Oncle (1958)

Mon Oncle (1958)
Director: Jacques Tati

Tati's comedies stand between the silent comedies of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd (amongst others), and Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean. While the former three were silent largely through historical context, Tati's disregard for dialogue is entirely through choice. But one thing that makes Tati's films great is that they build on the comedy developed in the silent era, and add sound to enhance or undercut what we see on screen. Though there were subtitles on the version I watched (French with English subtitles), I can barely remember any dialogue; but I do remember the neighbour's ridiculous laugh, the clip-clop of the women's heels, the whoops and doops of the plastic-making machine and the whoosh of the garage door.

All these sounds help develop the architectural spaces Tati created for the film. The Arpels' modern house is so overly designed to the point of being practically unliveable, while Hulot resides in a crumbling flat that requires a walk encompassing almost all of the building (and certainly all of the stairs). We are never left in doubt who is the target of Tati's comedy: the Arpels are as hollow and manufactured as their house is, only turning the fountain on when they believe someone important is visiting. While Tati's Oncle Hulot is silly and bumbling, we do not care about the objects he ruins, and enjoy the chaos he brings into his relations' lives.

The title refers to the relationship between Hulot and Gerard Arpel, his nephew. This is no Hollywood sentimental film about family connection; Hulot and Gerard hardly exchange words. Instead, Gerard clearly loves the fun and freedom he experiences with his uncle, who does even sillier things than Gerard. Though not a large part of the film, it provides some sweet moments.

The question with any comedy is: did you laugh? I did, though not loudly or often. Rather, the film is amusing, and I found myself appreciating how clever it was, rather than being surprised into laughter. It is very enjoyable, and certainly shows that production and sound design are just as important as script and acting in comedy.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

I've Just Seen: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc) (1928)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

I often think of the court-room drama as the product of the era of the talkies, as such plots tend to have scenes of great speeches and people incriminating themselves through accidental slips of the tongue. Dreyer's film is ostensibly this type of film, portraying the historical event of Joan of Arc's trial after being heavily involved in the Hundred Years' War. However, as it is silent, the actual speech of the characters are less prominent. It is their facial expressions that reveal the loyalties and deviousness of some, and the simple but profound faith of Joan.

When I was around eleven or twelve I was fascinated by the story of Joan, this young woman whose belief led her to move outside the restrictions of her gender and poverty and become acquainted with the Dauphin and participate in several battles of the War. Whether you are religious or not, Joan of Arc is an incredibly person from history.

Dreyer's film is sympathetic to Joan's plight, the camera holding her face in close-up throughout the film, capturing the despair and belief that moves across her face, and the tears she quietly cries. Renee Jean Falconetti is wonderful as Joan, and you feel each accusation with along with her, as well as the disappointment with herself after signing a confession.

Dreyer's camera placement is quite beautiful, and the simplicity of the sets emphasise the humans who occupy the spaces. The camera angles are rarely level with their subjects, either high- or low-angle. The last section of the film has Joan almost exclusively in low-angle: she is above the audience, already given the status of matyr and saint by the story.

This is a very beautiful and moving film that shows that silent films were not always comedies or melodramas, or needed huge, epic scenes to make them cinematic. It shows film's ability to reveal character through close-up, without having to rely heavily on dialogue.

Monday, 7 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Bugsy Malone (1976)

Bugsy Malone (1976)
Director: Alan Parker

This was my sister's choice; we had not watched it for a while, and she had had one of the songs stuck in her head, and took this as a sign to watch it. If you are unfamiliar with this film, it is a musical set in the 1920/30s in New York. It follows two gangs who are battling over their turf, a circumstance complicated by the emergence of a new gun that 'kills' more accurately. The entire cast of Bugsy Malone happens to be all under the age of 17, with dubbed adult singing voices.

This premise sounds like the film could be awful; it is not. While the decision could have simply been a silly gimmick, there is something incredibly enjoyable in watching these kids play adults. The acting is a touch uneven, but by and large quite good, with Jodie Foster demonstrating her wonderful talent as Talullah. The film also shows how puberty visits the genders differently: the girls generally look the part with their make-up and hairdos, while the boys can't hide their boyishness behind their pencil moustaches (or their comparative lack of height).

The songs are incredibly catchy, and I defy anyone to watch this and not be singing 'You Give a Little Love' after watching the film. Bugsy Malone is a fun film that works for any age, and is arguably one of the few kid-friendly gangster films around.

I've Just Seen: Stoker (2013)

Stoker (2013)

Director: Park Chan-wook

If Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton got together to make a movie, I imagine that Stoker would be the result. There is the slightly cool 'blonde' from Hitchcock; here that role is filled by Nicole Kidman's Evelyn, who is grappling with the death of her husband, a cold, distant daughter and a life of unfulfilled ambition. There are also shades of Shadow of a Doubt, as Matthew Goode's Uncle Charlie has an air of threat and villainy, and also a close bond with his niece. It is Mia Wasikowska's India who brings the Burton-esque oddness, though it is rather more adult than Burton would portray.

Park Chan-wook's direction is very stylish, almost distractingly so. He creates a great sense of menace. The over-saturated colours are deliberately oppressive, giving the film an overall old-fashioned feel, like it was a Technicolor thriller from the 1950s. The costuming also adds to this, with Evelyn's elegant dresses, and India's cardigans and skirts (the setting is actually contemporary).

The sexuality that simmers under the surface in many of Hitchcock's film is openly expressed in this film, with a very incestuous love triangle as the film's heart. Park Chan-wook turns a piano duet into a erotic moment between Charlie and India, and uses shoes as a metaphor for sexual maturity.

While not as good as Oldboy, Stoker is a deeply unsettling yet visually wonderful film with three strong performances from Wasikowska, Goode and Kidman.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) (1953)
Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Tokyo Story is at the top of basically all lists of the greatest films of all time, often alongside Citizen Kane, The Godfather(s), 2001: A Space Odyssey and few others. Ozu's film is arguably the quietest of them all, without dynamic editing, action packed stories, amazing special effects or extreme characters. Instead, it follows an elderly couple who go to Tokyo to visit their adult children who live in this modern city. Two of the families treat them as a bit of a nuisance, while the widow of their son cares for them and even takes them into her modest home.

The greatness of Ozu's film lies in the small moments shared between people, whether it is the rather heartfelt conversation the elderly mother and daughter-in-law share one night, or the reflections of the couple as they try to relax at a holiday resort. The relationships between all the characters are beautifully drawn, revealing different aspects of each as they all interact. There are no substantial, dramatic changes; in fact, even a sad event fails to truly alter some people's hard-heartedness.

While these themes and ideas are "universal," the film reflects on the cultural shifts that were taking place in Japan in the 1950s. Most of the young people wear Western style clothes, while Shukichi and Tomi wear kimonos throughout. Tokyo is also a bustling city, and Shukichi and Tomi's children are too busy to spend time with their parents. This posterity and work is seen by the parents as understandable and a sign of their children's success, but these thoughts are tinged with melancholia.

The cinematography is some of the best you will see in cinema. Everything is filmed from around belly button height, changing the way we experience the space of people's houses. Shukichi and Tomi spend much of the film sitting on the floor, while their children are often up and moving around. The camera barely moves, and Ozu and his cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta frame people beautifully, through door frames or around windows.

As you can see I loved this film. It is moving in its depiction of family life, portraying a divide that occurs in many families the world over. If you balk at black-and-white cinematography, or subtitles, then you have only yourself to blame for missing out on such wonderful explorations into the human condition.

Tangentially, I have recently watched three films from three different Japanese directors from the 1950s: Mizoguchi's Sansho the Baliff, Ozu's Tokyo Story and Kurosawa's Ikiru. I have loved them all, and would definitely recommend an excursion into post-WWII Japanese cinema.