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.