Sunday, 31 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) (1972)

Director: Werner Herzog

I really love the care and passion Herzog brings to his work. He clearly loves film and cinema, and thoroughly respects its history. Aguirre was one of Herzog's early films, and while it is a bit rough in places, his skill and talent is clear. The film is thematically similar to Herzog's later film Fitzcarraldo, as it follows the hubris of man as he tries to conquer nature. This was Herzog's first collaboration with Klaus Kinski, a partnership that was as difficult as it was compelling to watch.

The journey down a river story is a common one in cinema history. Scenes and images from Herzog's film reminded me of Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and Joffe's The Mission (according to Wikipedia I am not the only one to make these connections!). The heavy threat of menace creates the tension in the film, and a lot of the fear is not knowing where the greatest threat comes from. Is it the native tribes who are naturally afeared of these conquistadors, from the group themselves, or the river?

While not exactly enjoyable, Aguirre is certainly striking, and the film's final image, though not inherently scary itself, is a wonderfully unsettling note of ambiguity.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Hysteria (2011)

Hysteria (2011)

Director: Tanya Wexler

This is a strange film. It looks at the treatment of hysteria in the late Victorian period, treatment which was manually administered; a subject which is ripe for comedy, what with its wrong-headed medical ideas which argue that the convulsions experienced by the women in the treatment are not pleasurable, or that hysteria was a result of womb-wondering. Wexler and the writers tie this story to a B-plot that looks at the seriousness of the charge of hysteria from a law perspective; a woman accused of committing a crime was likely to be diagnosed as hysterical, and therefore have her womb removed, and maybe be sent to an asylum. Not really funny, unless you are a sadistic misogynist. 

The two plots don't work well together. One is comic, utterly played for laughs as the middle-class women line up for their treatment, and Dr Mortimer Granville gets cramps from all the massaging. The other, which follows Maggie Gyllenhaal's Charlotte, is very serious, or at least would be if it wasn't tied to the other plot. The film was marketed as being about the invention of the vibrator, but it really only features briefly compared to the story about Charlotte. It lacks subtlety, and its message is clear from the beginning.

The funniest parts of the film involve Rupert Everett, who is having a blast playing Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, Dr Granville's friend who helps him develop the first vibrator. Lord Edmund is one of the first people in London to own a phone and spends much of the film yelling into the machine at strangers who also own a device.

Apart from that I wasn't really amused, and felt that the 'oh err' approach to the subject was too predictable. It would have been much better if more focused on one or other of the stories, deciding to be completely humorous, or very serious.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Casino (1995)

Casino (1995)

Director: Martin Scorsese

There are a bunch of Scorsese films included on the 1001 Films list: nine in my edition. This puts him in the same class as Bergman, Hitchcock and Kubrick, which I would never argue with: Scorsese is a modern filmmaking master. Taxi Driver is a wonderful portrait of seething masculinity, and Raging Bull renders an ugly subject utterly beautiful. Regarding Casino however, I find myself unable to enthuse about the film as I could with the other two.

I am not a fan of the gangster genre; while many of cinemas' greatest movies are about these complex worlds of family and death, I don't find the lifestyles portrayed in them appealing in the slightest. The result is that I am unable to enter into the hedonism often presented, even if it comes with the downfall, and have even felt bored by what was going on on scren.

Apart from my lukewarm feelings to the subject matter, I can see the craft and skill Scorsese put into this film (as he puts into all his films). There is a tactility to story, presented through the shiny bright lights of Las Vegas, and the excessive wardrobe of pretty much everyone on screen. This facade is fragile, something the characters don't discover until it is too late.

The film is funnier than the other Scorsese's films I have seen, with the mulitple voiceovers from Ace (DeNiro) and Nicky (Pesci) explaining how things got to where they are working well with the images we see. The film is close to three hours, always a huge commitment to make to a film, and I was slightly exhausted at the end: the excess never stops!

A good film, but not my cup of tea.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Snoopy and Charlie Brown: the Peanuts Movie (2015)

Snoopy and Charlie Brown: the Peanuts Movie (2015)

Director: Steve Martino

Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts comics are the only comics I read as a child (apart from the occasional Garfield one). I loved Snoopy's adventures fighting the Red Baron, Charlie Brown's inability to have life meet his expectations, Linus' attachment to his blanket, Lucy's bull-headedness, and so on. As a child the antics of the kids are funny, but it is Snoopy's behaviour that really pulled me in. As an adult, the melancholic humour shines out much more, through the characters awareness (or not) of their failings.

Martino's film was made with the involvement of two of Schulz's children, resulting a tone that is very close to the innocence of the original comics. The narrative is bifurcated, following Charlie Brown's infatuation with the 'Litte Red-Haired Girl,' and Snoopy's imagined adventures with the Red Baron. The second plotline feels added on, having no real bearing on the rest of the film, but it is sweet and does provide a few laughs.

This is one of the more talky children's films I have seen in a while. By that I mean the language used is not dumbed down, particularly when it comes to Linus' character, who at one point gives a stirring speech in class that surely went over the heads of most kids in the cinema audience. However, there is plenty of slapstick to giggle at, and the beloved/hated kite-eating tree makes an appearance.

If you love Peanuts, as I do, there is much to enjoy. Only small gestures have been made to up-dating it for a younger audience, most obvious in the bland pop songs used on the soundtrack. The animation technique works quite well, adding a level of dimensionality to the images, without losing the iconic movements of the characters (the way they lift their heads to laugh or cry; Snoopy's happy dance). Sweet and fun.

Friday, 22 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)

Director: Jacques Tati

Tati's films rarely induce loud laughter; the most is a chuckle, or chortle. Generally the reaction is a wry smile, and an 'Oh, that is clever' thought. Playtime is considered Tati's best film (and is coincidentally his last). While I don't entirely agree with that opinion (Monsieur Hulot's Holiday tickled my fancy the most), I can understand why others think so.

There is no arguing with the scope of the world Tati has created here. The sets are huge, placing us in 'modern' Paris, and we only know it is Paris because we occasionally see reflections of the Sacre Coeur and Effiel Tower in the glass doors of the modern buildings. Tati is an expert at using spaces and architecture in his comedy; for me it reaches its zenith in the scene of identical apartments with their open plan living spaces (they essential live in twin glass boxes). The two families appear to watch each other living their banal lives (though really it is their televisions). I couldn't help but be reminded of reality television, and the desire to see one's self reflected on screen.

The funniest sequence in the film is the opening night of a restaurant which is so new that the kitchen is not finished, and floor tiles have fun sticking to the shoes of patrons. Of course, Tati's Hulot brings his own brand of chaos into the place, turning the pretensious establishment into a place of spontaneity and joy.

Modernity and its narrow-minded blandness was Tati's favourite target, and this is no more clear than in Playtime. While a long film, and one without a strong central narrative to grip onto, it is a great demonstration of the power of visual comedy, and the important of sets and timing in creating gags.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Holiday (1938)

Holiday (1938)

Director: George Cukor

Cary Grant is often the best part of any film he is in; or at least share it with others. Here he is matched again with Katherine Hepburn, who he got entangled up with in Bringing Up Baby. While this doesn't reach the dizzy heights of comedy that film does, an hour and a half spent in the company of these two is rarely boring.

Grant is the lower-class Johnny who has found himself engaged to a member of the wealthy Seton family. Hepburn is sister to the fiancee, Julia (and I must say, I did smile at hearing Grant say my name in that lovely accent of his). While Johnny's ambitions reach only as far as enough money to go on holiday and discover the meaning of life, his fiancee has other plans. Hepburn hates the moneyed drudgery the Setons live under, and finds Johnny's wishes inspiring.

Of course the ending is clear from the beginning, and the right people will eventually find themselves with one another. Though the script isn't full of witty lines it allows Grant and Hepburn to shine, and the supporting characters are all quite funny, especially Johnny's academic friends who laugh at the Seton's grandeur.

Good fun.

Monday, 18 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Secrets and Lies (1996)

Secrets and Lies (1996)

Director: Mike Leigh

Some film titles are metaphorical, an attempt to sum up the film's themes with poetical imagery. Others are to the point, like Snakes on a Plane, which is exactly what the story is about. Leigh's film is certainly about secrets and lies. It follows a family whose deeply held secrets are revealed when Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is contacted by the daughter she adopted out.

Secrets and Lies is often in the lists of best films of all time. Like Ozu's Tokyo Story, it is a quiet family drama that stands out against the more visually and narratively loud and dynamic films that usually tops those lists. It reminded me most of Asghar Farhadi's films, particularly A Separation. A group of people entangled with one another, with little judgement passed on their characters' actions. We are not asked to judge Cynthia's decision to adopt Hortense out, but simply to look at the results. We can understand Hortense's need to connect, after the death of her adopted mother. We understand the desire of Maurice and Monica's secret about their childlessness; the pain and shame accompanying it makes discussing it too hard.

The risk with this type of story is that it would stray into soap opera territory, but the performances hold back the melodrama, allowing us to see the depth of the ramifications of the revelations. The scene where Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time and talk, a long shot that holds the two together in the frame with both facing the camera is one of the most compelling pieces of cinema you will see. We see each expression on the characters' faces, even the ones the other doesn't see. The two central performances are superb, and the other character are also wonderful.

I am liking Leigh's filmmaking. His unorthodox approach to creating the story would not work for everyone, but it allows the actors to make the characters their own, infusing them with a humanity that cannot but draw us in.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Blackfish (2013)

Blackfish (2013)

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Cowperthwaite's documentary explores several fatal incidents involving killer whales kept in captivity in American SeaWorlds, in particular a male killer whale called Tilikum and the death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau. It is not a balanced investigation of the situation at such places; SeaWorld is painted as the bad guy, with its demands on the animals and trainers, and its alledged lies it has told to the public.

This is a very distressing film for a number of reasons. There is a lot of footage of the whale shows and training sessions, and Cowperthwaite uses some of the more horrific incidents in the film. We see a whale dive onto a trainer, another trainer being dragged under the water several times by another whale (and nearly drowning), and one female trainer who struggles to get out of an enclosure after being caught amongst several animals. I gasped several times at these scenes. The death of Brancheau was caught on film, but was not used in the documentary.

The other scenes of distress were to do with capture and treatment of the whales. Early in the film we see a whale hunt, and learn that the hunters would seperate the mothers and babies from the males, then take the babies. The sounds of the creatures can only be described as crying, and almost made me do so as well. Whale injuries, inflicted by other whales, are also seen.

For me however, the most uncomfortable scenes are those of the whale shows. I do believe that the trainers love the creatures they work with, and feel connections to these animals who have such developed emotions. But watching them standing on the whales, on their bellies and snouts, making them perform tricks sat very uneasily with me. These are some of the most amazing and intelligence animals in the world, and we use them purely for entertainment purposes when in captivity. I realise that one use this argument regarding dogs and cats, but (usually) we don't force them to live in an environment that is a fraction of the space they have in the wild, and not much larger than them.

The film is biased in its approach to its subject matter, and does set out to manipulate your response: the scenes of whales swimming in the wild are accompanied by happy music and idyllic lighting. However, I cannot imagine a positive side to this situation. One of the more startling facts presented in the film is that in captivity, these whales live for around 30 years, while in the wild females usually live 50 or more years (males a bit younger). If you love animals, and believe their welfare is important, this film will enrage you; it certainly shocked me.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Vale Alan Rickman 1946-2016

My sister woke me around midnight last night to tell me about Alan Rickman's death, a event as shocking to me as David Bowie a few days earlier; that fact that they were both the same age and died from the same awful disease, cancer, makes his death even more painful. As I knew it would, my Facebook feed was this morning full of mourning for the great man.

His voice is one of the most recognisable in acting history, with its silken tones which could be deployed to seduce, scare, or sneer. It was a gift, and he used it well. It even helped make him a surprising sex symbol among women, who would gladly have listened to him read from the phone book for hours on end. Rickman also had a wonderful face, with eyes that could narrow with sinister intent, and a smile that was surprisingly warm and kind.

To many of my generation Alan Rickman is and will always be Severus Snape from Harry Potter. There is good reason for this, as he played the role so perfectly that no one can imagine anyone else being Snape. While that certainly ran through my head as I lay thinking about all his films, I remember him from a bunch of others roles that showed just how great his range was. Here are some of my favourites.

Snape in Harry Potter
The ambivalence that Rickman could use his voice for was well suited to the role of Snape, the most conflicted character in all of Rowling's story. There are many memorable Snape moments from the series ('Turn to page three hundred and ninety-four.'), but the one that stands out for me is when Harry has accidently injured Malfoy in the sixth film,  and Snape comes in and recites an incantation over Malfoy's injuries. Rickman's voice is at its most purring and gentle, and the care in it is a surprise.

Hans Gruber in Die Hard!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/original_620/hans-gruber.jpg
This is the film that launched Alan Rickman's career in America. His Gruber is a wonderful comic villain who gets the best lines of the film, and arguably the best of any action villain in film history; 'I will count to three; there will not be a four.'; 'Mr Takagi will not be joining us for the rest of his life.' While there was nothing redeeming about Gruber's character, Rickman made him charismatic and witty.

Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply
While villains were his most memorable roles, Rickman apparently wanted to play the romantic lead (as I am sure many women did too) and Minghella's film allowed him to do that. Jamie comes back from the dead to help his girlfriend get over his death. The cello features strongly in the film, played by Jamie; surely a perfect match for that beautiful voice.

Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility
I don't love this version of Austen's novel, but Rickman's Brandon is a lovely example of the warmth and kindness he could bring to roles. The moment when Brandon first sees Marianne playing the piano is a lovely, quiet moment of love at first sight.

Sir Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest
Rickman's comic abilities were always underrated, but he got to use them in this loving parody of the madness that surrounds Star Trek and other science fiction worlds. Though Tim Allen is the lead, Rickman's Dane undergoes the greatest change in the film, from decrying the series that has overshadowed all of this other work ('I was an actor once, damn it..') to embracing the Spock-style role of Dr. Lazarus of Tev'Meck ('By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged!')

Obediah Slope in Barchester Chronicles
This is my favourite role of his. One of the earliest of his acting career, Rickman played Slope, as odious and slimey as his name suggests, who is a clergyman who has his sights set on more earthly matters. He woos a rich young widow while also playing court to another, a beautiful but 'lame' woman who sees through his pretensions to piety (she was played by Susan Hampshire). The scenes between those two are brilliant.

There are many other roles that he played, from caddish Harry in Love, Actually, the Sheriff in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves where he stole the film from Kevin Costner, to the truly awful Judge Turpin in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

I never got to see him perform on stage, which is a huge shame, as theatre was his first love; he would turn down movie roles so he could do more plays. I can imagine how thrilling it would have been to be in the same room as him, with that wonderful voice of his resonating throughout the room.

Farewell Alan Rickman; you are missed.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) (1967)

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) (1967)
I want one of those hats!

Director: Jacques Demy

This is the second Demy I have seen. The other, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is a lovely melancholic musical, which has all the dialogue sung to music, but without any lyrical flourishes. The Young Girls of Rochefort is a much more traditional musical in the American style; we even musical interludes as well as dancing scenes which characters use to explain who they are. We also have a rather gorgeous Gene Kelly doing what he does best on the pristine streets of Rochefort.

I can imagine that for some this film does nothing but irritate; as for myself I loved it. I like musicals anyway, and listening to French being sung to snazzy tunes is something I didnt' know was missing from my life. The only 'downside' to the film is that it uses so many coincidences in its plot: Catherine Deneuve's ideal man happens to draw a picture of her without having seen her, Francoise Dorleac falls in love with Gene Kelly without finding out that he is the man she is meant to be meeting. It is the type of plot that could be cleared up if people only shared more information with each other, like their names.

But really, you don't watch this for the plot. You watch for the unadulterated joy that shines from the screen throughout. The songs are catchy even if you don't speak French, the dancing is great, Gene Kelly's French is convincing (when he talks, the singing is dubbed). and the costumes are all from the pastel end of the colour spectrum, adding a lovely confectionary quality to the whole thing, There is no depth to anything, but that is entirely intentional, and it is all so very charming that I couldn't help but enjoy it. Deneuve and Dorleac, who are actually sisters, are great together, performing everything with matching costumes and energy levels. I was sad to read that Dorleac was killed in a car accident not long after the film was released. From seeing this film, it was a great loss for us.

Friday, 8 January 2016

I've Just Seen: The Selfish Giant (2013)

The Selfish Giant (2013)

Director: Clio Barnard

Non-period drama and non-royal/ aristocratic films about Britain do not do well outside the UK. The more grimy, grungy worlds depicted in many British films do not collerate with the image many people have about the country, who seem to think that life in Britain is very white, very posh and stuck in pre-World War II. This approach to British cinema robs many of seeing some incredibly beautiful and tragic films, including Barnard's The Selfish Giant.

The title refers to Oscar Wilde's child story of the same name, about a selfish giant who builds a wall to stop children from playing in his garden and having fun. This causes him to miss joy and love in his life. Barnard's film is inspired by this idea, as she explores the movement of selfishness around a young boy called Arbor, and his friend Swifty.

The image of a giant is born out in Barnard and her DP Mike Eley's establishing shots, which are breath-taking. They are mixture of pastoral (sheep, horses, grass) being overshadowed by industrial infrastructure (powere lines, chimneys) surrounded by mist. This combination of the natural and man-made is also presented in Swifty's affinity with horses; his nature is more gentle than Arbor's, who have behavioural issues. The two child actors are perfect in their performances, their friendship especially is very convincing.

The film is very beautiful, with a tragic ending that shocked me. Though the two main characters are children, this is not for children. It reminded me of Fish Tank, another British film about poor youth making their way in the world.

I would definitely recommend this; however, if you are not au fait with regional British accents, find a copy with subtitles, as the Bradford accents of the characters are strong and could make it hard to understand. But don't let that stop you from seeing this. 

Thursday, 7 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)

Director: James Whale

It is hard to watch Whale's Frankenstein without being constantly reminded of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, one of the funniest films ever made. Brooks matched the aesthetic of his film so closely to the old horror films, and parodied many of the tropes, particularly the angry mob, that it could be very easily for this film to simply be unintentionally humorous. Thankfully, Boris Karloff's performance as the monster is so perfect that one cannot help taking his predicament seriously.

Karloff gives the monster a wonderful blend of humanity and monstrosity. His desire to escape is natural, considering the treatment he receives from Frankenstein and Fritz (no Igor in this film sadly). He has a curiousity that is human, coupled with a child-like ignorance about the consequences of his actions; this leads to one of the saddest moments in the film. The penultimate scene, where the old mill is set on fire, leading to a type of old-fashioned burning at the stake, your sympathies lie with the monster.

Frankenstein came out the same year as Dracula, and Dwight Frye was in both as a mad sidekick to the main villian. I preferred the more dynamic energy of Frankenstein, with its many set pieces, including the search on the mountains for the monster. Karloff's monster, like Lugosi's Dracula, is so iconic that many people who will never see the films associate the characters with their performances. That is a pity, for these films should be seen in order to fully understant why they have become legendary.

Monday, 4 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Pepe Le Moko (1937)

Pepe Le Moko (1937)

Director: Julien Duvivier

When I first read about the French film movement poetic realism, I knew it would be something I would enjoy. This is the second example I have seen (the other is Le Grande Illusion, also starring Jean Gabin), and so far it is two for two.

Jean Gabin is wonderful as the elusive criminal Pepe Le Moko, who taunts the authorities by staying just outside their jurisdiction. Gabin plays him with such charm that you forget his crimes and want him to escape. He is matched with the very beautiful Mireille Balin, whose love threatens his safety. The setting, the Casbah in Algiers is perfect for this cat and mouse game, with its narrow streets and secret rooftop routes.

I really liked this; it was lovely to look at, with an undercurrent of langorous sensuality that draws you in; it sounds wonderful in both its soundtrack and French language (I always regret not continuing to learn French when watching French films); the acting is great and most of all the story is very entertaining. C'est magnifique!

Friday, 1 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg

I never saw the original Jurassic Park films before seeing Jurassic World in 2015. I was slightly underwhelmed with Trevorrow's film, as the visuals could not mask the story problems (the main one being the lack of main protagonist). Having now seen Spielberg's film, I can see what World was referencing in regards to characters and setting.

Throughout my watching of Jurassic Park the two films were in a dialogue in my head, though in a different way than it was for most people. Park is smaller in scale, and therefore arguably more tense, as the emotional investment is not diluted. Jeff Goldblum is scene-stealingly great for the first half, and Dern and Neill are reliably good. The kids are just like kids would be in the situation: scared out of their wits.

The visual effects have held up well considering the time the film was made. I now have context for Trevorrow's film now, and why Claire's character is the way she is. I don't know how I would have responded to this film if I had seen it as a child; obviously, if I had seen it when it came out, and I was three, I would not have coped. As an adult, I enjoyed the action scenes and Goldblum, and am glad to finally tick this off my to-see list.