Wednesday, 29 June 2016

I've Just Seen: House of Flying Daggers (2004)

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Director: Zhang Yimou

If you enjoyed Ang Lee's Crounching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you are almost guaranteed to like House of Flying Daggers. Not only is its another wuxia film (though this time without the flying, despite the film's title), but its also stars Zhang Ziyi who was so brilliant in Crouching Tiger. Here she plays a blind dancer called Mei, who is believed to be the daughter of the leader of the outlawed group House of the Flying Daggers, who are battling the corrupt Tang Dynasty. She is arrested, then freed by Jin, who is acting as a double-agent, pretending to be sympathetic to the group's cause in order to infiltrate it. He falls in love with Mei, who seems to return his affections, while remaining weary of him.

This is one of the most visually stunning films I have seen, and if you can watch a Blu-ray copy (or even better, see it on a big screen), do so. Yimou uses colour to breathtaking effect; action scenes are set in autumnal orange forests, serenely green bamboo forests and the climatic encounter is staged as a blizzard turns everything white. The costumes are also eye-catching, particularly the robes Mei wears during her drum dance. The action sequences are as balletic and beautiful as the dance Mei performs early on, with each setpiece distinctive from the other.

This is a great film, both narratively and stylistically. It puts many Western action films to shame with its emphasis on the beauty of the images, especially the fight scenes, and its selective use of CGI; knives, arrows and beans are animated, but humans perform the action scenes. It is romantic, funny, intelligent, exciting, and incredibly gorgeous to look at.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

I've Just Seen: Ivan the Terrible (Parts I & II) (1944)

Ivan the Terrible (Parts I & II) (1944)

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

The advent of sound was a largely a boon for the film industry, but any film buff will tell you that it destroyed the careers of many who couldn't quite change their approach to films with sound. While my experience of Eisenstein was limited to Battleship Potemkin, that film was such a great expression of the power of silent films that I had looked forward to seeing more of his work. Ivan, with its attempt to tell a historical story based on characters, is so different from Battleship, that I almost cannot believe the two are by the same director.

Few people would call Ivan the Terrible a good film, based on modern sensibilities, and even for the time it came out, it feels incredibly dated. There is no subtlety to the performances: the baddies are all shifty-eyes and murderous scowls, and the 'good' characters leave little impression (I can't remember any except Ivan's wife). Ivan's move from young, ambitious Tsar, to hooked-nosed brutality is told with no depth; the cartooning of his form passes for character development. If there is anything of value to the film, it is the composition of several shots, which occasionally recall German Expressionism; and some of the images, like the newly crowned Ivan being showered in gold coins, are memorable.

However, this is really only a film (or two films if you want to get techinical) for film history completists, or film list completists (1001 Movies, Roger Ebert Great Films, and They Shoot Pictures Lists all have this on them). It is not a good film, but sometimes it is good to watch something terrible (pun definitely intended) in order to appreciate greatness.

Friday, 24 June 2016

I've Just Seen: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Director: Mike Nichols

Oddly enough, the film that I thought of when contemplating Virginia Woolf was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Nick and Honey acting as Brad and Janet who get drawn into the weird, hilarious and sadistic world of George and Martha (and their engimatic offspring). I also thought of that other boozey couple Nick and Nora Charles, who simiarly baffle onlookers with their games with one another. The big difference is that the Charles' clearly adore each other, while George and Martha have a much more complex relationship.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are brilliant as Martha and George, and I cannot imagine anyone else playing them. Wikipedia says that Bette Davis and James Mason were seriously considered at one point, and while that version would have been very interesting to see, the chemistry between the actually married Burtons brings something extra to the material. At once we can see why they got married, while they are still together (just), and why they constantly play awful games. There is a moment early on, when its just the two of them, where they end up giggling together on their bed, and a look passes between them, full of intimacy and affection. Martha moves to kiss George, who says no, and it feels like that is the catalyst for the night's escalating war.

Haskell Wexler's cinematography is gorgeous, taking a script that could have been very stagey, and giving it a cinematic quality, with its stark black-and-white lighting, and swinging close-ups on the actors' faces. Two-shots are given dimension, with one actor often closer to the camera than the other, removing them from each other's eyes. The score is also wonderful, melancholic and almost tired, acting as a soothing balm over the violence and fury of the characters.

Clearly I think this is a wonderful film, and it has sparked a great interest in me about the life of Elizabeth Taylor, and obviously, her relationship with Burton. They were never better than in this film, and both should have won the acting Oscars for 1966 (only Taylor won).

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

I've Just Seen: In Bloom (Grdzeli nateli dgheebi) (2013)

In Bloom (Grdzeli nateli dgheebi) (2013)

Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß

In Bloom is set in Georgia (country, not the American state) in the early 90s, shortly after the country's independence from the Soviet Union. The story follows two teenagers, Eka and Natia, as they grow up in this new society. Eka is the quieter of the two, and dealing with her father's absence (he is in gaol), while Natia says what she thinks, and is popular with young men. A gun moves between the two, passed on for protection from the boys they know.

This is a very good film, and forms part of my own quartet of recent films that beautifully portray female anger and frustration (the others are Mustang, Girlhood, and Wadjda). Eka is the main character of the film, watching her best friend end up married at fifteen, threatened with ending up stuck in a traditional, constrictive female role. The film in style reminded me of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, and I was chuffed to see that the two films share a cinematography, Oleg Mutu. The shots run for minutes without cuts, the most striking and beautiful of which is the scene where Eka dances at Natia's wedding. Her shy gaze (along with a black eye) is contrasted to her quiet confidence as her adolescent body becomes comfortable with the strong stances of the folk dance, a dance of celebration mixed with defiance, coming so soon after giving Natia the gun to protect herself.

I am loving the stories coming from non-Western, non-English language female directors about women. Their stories focus on the character's desire for real choice in their lives, moving beyond the conservative, restrictive cultures they live in. Their anger and defiance is largely missing from Western coming-of-age stories about young women, partly because we are not as conservative. But I would love to see more of it in mainstream films, or that young girls are able to see films like these.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival: The Childhood of a Leader (2015); Fukushima mon Amour (2016)

Sydney Film Festival: (My) Day Four

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Director: Brady Corbet

Have you ever imagined what Hitler, or Mussolini was like as a child? Corbet's film, about a young boy whose parents are deeply involved in the Treaty of Versailles, tries to answer this questions. During the period of the Treaty being signed, the boy begins to display midly disturbing behaviour, though it doesn't become truly alarming until the last ten minutes. The boy's frustrations are largely focused on his mother, played by Berenice Bejo.

This is an interesting film which has a mysterious quality to it, or at least it did for me, and with a rumbling string soundtrack that adds an uneasy, almost horror inflected quality to proceedings. The acting is good, particularly from Bejo, but the antics of the child, though certainly naughty, don't quite have the impact I think Corbet wanted. He starts off doing things like throwing rocks, locking himself in his room, and being rather inappropriate with his young French teacher. He is a brat, but some children are like that. A solid directin debut.

Fukushima mon Amour (Grüße aus Fukushima, or Greetings From Fukushima) (2016)
Director: Doris Dorrie

A young German woman, who performs as a clown, travels to Japan to perform for the people displaced by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Struggling with her own guilt over a past relationship, she finds herself helping Satomi, an older woman who has moved back to her home in the previously closed area near the Fukishima plant. 

Filmed in black-and-white, Dorrie films has two lovely performances from Rosalie Thomass as Marie and Kaori Momoi as Satomi, who bounce off each other in funny ways. The majority of the film is in English as the common language between the two. The film is about facing your guilt over past behaviour, with Satomi feeling guilty over the death of her geisha student during the tsunami (who appears as a ghost at night). It is a sweet film, but the story's ending is no great surprise.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival: Goodfellas (1990)

Sydney Film Festival: (My) Day Three

Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese

My attempts to watch this classic film are almost farcical. When it was at the library, I didn't borrow it, choosing something else instead. Then, it wasn't there. So I tried the DVD service I subscribe to; both the ordinary DVD and the Bluray copy were marked in the dreaded 'Reserve' section, meaning the company is waiting to purchase a new copy (which usually takes months). Was I ever going to see Scorsese's movie?

When I saw this year's festival was having a Scorsese retrospective, and that Goodfellas was at a great time at the Art Gallery, I knew I'd be there. I am so glad I went. For one thing, the film was an actual film projection, with all the scratches and dots that add lovely texture to the experience, and reminded me of going to the movies in the 90s (I miss the dots in the corner, telling the projectionist to change the reel!). This is also a great film, though you probably didn't need me to tell you that.

While gangster films are one of my least favourite genres, it was easy to get swept up in this world and with its characters. Joe Pesci's DeVito steals every scene his is in, being both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. De Niro plays Jimmy the Gent at a quiet level which disguises his real menace, and Ray Liotta is suitably baby faced as Henry Hill, the guy brings us into this world. Lorraine Bracco is also great as Henry's wife, who finds herself entranced by the money, power and familial ties of Henry's friends.

The film has many of Scorsese's traits, with pop music being used to place us in time and provide energy to the scenes; the freeze frames and voice overs giving the audience a god-like view of the story; and, of course, the film references.

Goodfellas has not knocked Taxi Driver or Raging Bull off the top spot of my favourite Scorsese's films, but it is darn close to these two. Though clocking at around two-and-a-half hours, it doesn't ever drag, and manages to inject a lot of humour into the story, even if the laugh is a nervous one. See it anyway you can, but if possible, do so on a big screen from a film print.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival: The Commune (2016), Mustang (2015), High Rise (2015)

Sydney Film Festival: (My) Day Two

My eyes put up resistance to my constant sitting in a dark room and staring at a bright screen during the first film I watched yesterday; when I finally saw myself in a mirror later that day, each had its own burst blood vessel. But my itchy, dry eyes were worth it for the films I saw.

The Commune (2016)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Vinterberg's film follows a family who decide to open their house as a commune in 1970s Denmark, welcoming friends and strangers into the fold. The central couple, Erik and Anna, have a close marriage at the film's beginning, but after they open their doors, Erik's attention begins to stray, taking an interest in one of his architect students. This causes huge rifts in Erik and Anna's marriage, as they try to figure out what are the boundaries one needs in open living. All the performances are strong, but Trine Dyrholm is the standout as Anna, capturing her break-down over her fizzled out marriage. It is overall good, with moments of humour and sadness, though perhaps had too many narrative threads.

Mustang (2015)
Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven

I had been looking forward to seeing this debut from Erguven, and was not disappointed. The story follows five adolescent sisters who are locked in their house with their grandmother and uncle (their parents are dead), after see engaging in "lewd" behaviour. The action is see largely through the youngest, Lale, who watches as her sisters are married-off, and decides she doesn't want this life for herself. This is a wonderful film, and reminded me of Wadjda, In Bloom and Girlhood, recent film which take seriously the anger and frustration of young women. A must-see

High Rise (2015)
Director: Ben Wheatley

I have not read J. G. Ballard's novel, but after seeing Wheatley's adaptation, I am interested in doing so. A recently completed tower-block, meant to meet every need for its inhabitants, is the setting of a descent into class warfare which exposes primeval desires beneath the middle- and upper-class facade. Not all the elements came together, and I did sometimes feel at sea regarding the story. However, it is beautifully designed, and Tom Hiddleston gives a clever, slippery performance as Robert Laing (and wears suits incredibly well). The film's enigmatic tone won't please some, but I do think it is worth seeing.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival: Certain Women (2016); Julieta (2016)

Sydney Film Festival: (My) Day One

When the program was released for the Sydney Film Festival several weeks ago, I decided to force myself out of my usual laziness and homebody lifestyle and actually attend a few sessions. $155 later I had booked 10 different films, and today watched the first two: Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and Pedro Almodovar's Julieta. Here are my thoughts.

I had been impressed by Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, which followed a group of pioneers moving through the Oregon High Desert, so seeing her new film was a no-brainer. Certain Women is played at a similarly understated level, as it follows the lives of three separate women, played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone. Their stories quietly connect, but don't affect each other directly. Dern's character, a lawyer, is caught up in the mess of a client's anger over his work compenstation case; Williams' Gina appears to be frustrated in her marriage and has a strained relationship with her teenage daughter; Gladstone's rancher develops a slight obsession with Kirsten Stewart's young lawyer running a local class about school law. If you like Reichardt's quiet approach, you will enjoy this, and the performances are all great, particularly Gladstone.

I had read that Julieta received mixed reviews, and it is certainly not top-tier Almodovar. However, it has a clever, mysterious plot around a middle aged woman and her estranged daughter, who left her without explanation at eighteen. The role of Julieta is played by two actress for the different times of her life; Emma Suarez middle-aged, and Adriana Ugarte as a young woman. The two don't quite look like each other, but it is a clever way to visual way to demonstrate the transformative pain of grief.

Overall, my first day of the festival was good, and it was great to see two films that focused on women, and middle-aged women in particular, taking their lives seriously and not focusing on their romantic relationships with men.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Double Feature : Aileen Wuornos Documentaries

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993)
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)

Directors: Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill

The only thing I knew about Aileen Wuornos going into Broomfield's films was that she is considered the first female serial killer in America, and, coupled with being lesbian, meant she was ideal for the media to write salacious tabloid stories about her activities. Most documentaries about crime tend to pick over the offences, asking questions about the truth of the evidence. Broomfield's films take a different approach. There is never any question that Wuornos murdered seven men; instead Broomfield looks at the media and law circuses surrounding her trial, and argues that she was wrongly given the death penalty.

I had originally watched Selling first as it is part of the 1001 Movies List, and only realised there was a second one after looking it up. The two should really be watched together, as Life and Death complicates the already complicated events of Selling. Selling follows Broomfield's attempts to meet with Wuornos face to face, coming up against Wuornos' lawyer Steve Glazer, and her adopted mother Arlene Pralle. It also briefly explores the accusations made against the police investigating the case, that they were speaking with Hollywood about selling the story to the highest bidder. Life and Death is Broomfield returning to meet with Wuornos a few weeks before her execution, and we see several interviews with her that suggest she is not mentally stable.

Both films are quite personal, with Broomfield a significant person in the story; Life and Death begins with him giving evidence at a hearing about Wuornos' case. Though the craziness of the American gaol system is touched on, Broomfield focuses largely on Aileen as a person, allowing the audience to hear in her own words, and learn about her background and the frankly awful life she led.

These two films are a fascinating depiction of a very complicated and messy situation. Broomfield gets us to sympathise with Aileen one moment, then remind us of the terrible crimes she committed. I have yet to see Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning portrayal of Wuornos, but she would have had to work hard to embody all the contradictions of this human being.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

I've Just Seen: Love Story (1970)

Love Story (1970)

Director: Arthur Hiller

I am not one for romantic weepies; I much prefer my romance served with a good dose of comedy, or if serious, in extravagant costumes. When girls my age were sighing over films like A Walk to Remember, I was laughing at Some Like It Hot. So I approached the most famous of all weepies, Love Story, with great caution. The result is that I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated.

Of course, there are huge problems with the story; we never know what ails poor Jenny, what with the doctor advising Oliver not to tell her she is dying, and then the couple never talking about it onscreen together. Also, at the very end, I had absolutely no idea Jenny was on death's door: she looked fine! The film also dated itself with its approach to Jenny's music career. There was never a question that Oliver should come with her to Paris while she studied music, oh no; she had to give it up so he could do law. I know that law is more likely to be a money-earner for them, but really, some imaginative thinking could have let them both pursue their careers.

Despite all that, I liked spending time with the central couple; they had more spark than I am used to seeing in such films. It was nice to see Ray Milland, though he wasn't given much to do. The famous quote 'Love means never having to say you're sorry,' which has always irritated me no end, actually worked better in context, referring to Oliver's guilt over denying Jenny a chance to do her music now rather than later. Still, it is a terrible line.

I liked it for what it is, though the Ryan O'Neal film to watch from this period is What's Up, Doc? which has a brilliant answer to the 'never having to say you're sorry' line.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

I've Just Seen: Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

Director: George Sidney

I watched Annie Get Your Gun on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the perfect climate for seeing a 1950s Technicolor musical. While not as polished as Calamity Jane, the Doris Day vehicle released by Warner Bros. in response to Annie's popularity, Sidney's film is a huge amount of fun. I recognised many of the songs, not realising this is where they orginated; 'There's No Business Like Show Business' and 'Anything You Can Do' are just two of them.

Betty Hutton's is not subtle by any means, but she plays Annie Oakley with such gusto and enthusiasm that I was charmed by her. Knowing that filming was difficult for her makes her performance even more impressive; many of the cast and crew were cold towards Hutton because she replaced an unreliable Judy Garland. As brilliant as Garland is on screen, I can't imagine her playing Annie with the same energy.

Some parts of the film have aged badly; the racial politics are cringeworthy, particularly the 'I'm an Indian, Too' sequence. If you hate musicals this is not going to change your opinion of them. I enjoyed myself, and would happily see it again, particularly the next time a lazy Sunday afternoon comes by.