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.