Tuesday, 28 February 2017

I've Just Seen: Dark Victory (1939)

Director: Edmund Goulding

1939 really was a great year for films. Though Dark Victory is not in the same realms of cultural significance as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz or Mr Smith Goes to Washington, its well-acted, moving story is yet further proof of the talent that existed in late 30s Hollywood.

Dark Victory is a woman's picture about Judith Traherne, a young socialite who discovers a tumour on her brain. Defiant that nothing is wrong with her at first, Judith eventually begins treatment for her illness, and falls in love with her doctor. The title refers to the film's rather moving ending: Judith cannot be cured, and the signal that her life is about to end will be her sight going - everything going dark.

One thing that I really liked about the film was Judith's relationship to Ann, her secretary and her best friend. While the romantic storyline is given more emphasis, the women's friendship moved me the most. It is Ann who convinces Judith to see the doctor, and their last scene together is arguably the sadest in the film.

Bette Davis is, always, wonderful as Judith. The character undergoes several emotional upheavals, and Davis gives them nuance, especially after discovering her terminal prognosis (which knowledge she must keep secret). The intrigue around Judith not knowing or knowing the truth of her condition feels too melodramatic at times, though such things did happen, and it does add poignancy to the final scenes.

I don't generally cry in films, and didn't in this one, but for others this will definitely be a weepy. Davis may suffer from Ali McGraw's disease, but the love and care that surrounds Judith, and her knowledge of this, is what gives the film heart. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

I've Just Seen: The Arbor (2010)

Director: Clio Barnard

Barnard's documentary follows the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, who grew up in Bradford, West Yorkshire in England's north. She rose to fame in the 1980s with her first play The Arbor, an autobiographical play about growing up on a council estate. Scenes from this play are performed throughout the documentary, on sets on the real council estate in Bradford. If that doesn't sound meta enough for you, just wait. The majority of the documentary is about Dunbar's life, and her children, told through the memories of her three children, particularly through her first daughter Lorraine, who had an Asian father.

The point of difference with most talking head documentaries is that here the voices of Dunbar's real child are lip-synced by actors playing them. On paper, this sounds dreadful, but Barnard gets such wonderfully understated performances from her actors, that it took me a while to remember this device.

I won't detail the story that unfolds about the lives of Dunbar and her grown-up children. It is not a happy one, and the shock of some of the revelations make them very poignant. Barnard explores how poverty and even neglect affects each generation, forming a horrible vicious circle. For something that could feel very theatrical, the film is actually very cinematic, partly through the use of real council estates, and the subtle acting in close-ups.

I would highly recommend this, if you can find it. Barnard is one of the best modern British filmmakers, though her work is not seen, or shown, widely enough. Her films are full of compassion for people; there is no judgement cast. Instead we see a full depiction of all sides of the story, which only works to highlight the tragedy of their situations.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

I've Just Seen: E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

 Director: Steven Spielberg

2016 saw me plug several large holes in my movie viewing. One of these was E.T., which it has taken me twenty-six years to see. Why, you may ask, did my childhood not include this landmark family film? Errrr... I will blame my parents (who did show me Star Wars at age seven, so go figure). I do wonder how I would have responded to it if I had been younger; in all honesty, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did seeing it as an adult. E.T. would have scared me as a child, but now I can appreciate his adorableness.

Spielberg knows how to balance entertainment and emotion in his films. Almost all of them have a moment of wonder, a scene that excites you but also moves the story on. That moment in E.T. is the flying bicycle across the moon, which naturally is the movie poster. It is still one of the most iconic shots in film history, and beautifully captures the film's themes of adventure in your own backyard, and the power of friendship.

The child actors in the film are all well cast, especially Henry Thomas as Elliott and Drew Barrymore as Gertie. Thomas has to give a performance of great emotional depth, and his scene at E.T. deathbed is something a few adult actors would struggle with. He handles it wonderfully.

Aspects of this reminded me of the way Pixar approaches films supposedly aimed at children. Both Pixar and Spielberg take the lives and emotions of children seriously, and trust them to cope with the sadder parts of life, like loss of loved ones. They also choose to see the world from the eyes of a child: a place of both wonderful things to discover, and fears to overcome.

Monday, 13 February 2017

I've Just Seen: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale

People who say that Hollywood has become addicted to sequels of late clearly doesn't know their film history. Hollywood has always gone after the money if they see an opportunity to do so. And much like today's industry, the sequels are occasionally equal to or better than the original film. Considering the strength of the first film, this is saying something.

The Monster has always been a sympathetic character in all the tellings; the Mary Shelley's novel is even narrated by the Monster for sections (the scenario where the original story was written is alluded to at the film's start). Even when he kills people, we still understand his motivations, and care about him. Throughout The Bride we see the Monster naturally wanting a mate. This is nicely doubled with Henry Frankenstein's relationship with fiance Elizabeth. The most monstrous character of the film is Dr Pretorius, who wishes to continue Frankenstein's work.

The most iconic image of this film comes right at the end, that of the newly created Bride. She stands there in all her glory, both beautiful and terrible. It is a striking moment, though knowing Young Frankenstein as well as I do, I couldn't help but smile, remembering Madeleine Kahn's tribute to this scene. The film's ending is just as melancholic as you would want from a Frankenstein film.

Friday, 10 February 2017

I've Just Seen: Poltergeist (1982)

Director: Tobe Hooper

'Bonkers' is the word that comes to mind when thinking of this film. This is a positive thing, as it acknowledges the ridiculousness of the film's plot, particularly in the strange narrative and tonal shifts the film has. Some moments are genuinely creepy, such as Carol Anne's 'They're here' scene with the television, while others are so over the top that they become funny.

The Freelings are your typical American family, with all the trappings of success - nice house, three children, merchandise galore, the parents even have pot to smoke. However, everything is thrown out of balance when some strange and malevolent beings start living in the house too. You could enjoy this film on several levels: a scary movie, but one with large amounts of humour, a slight satire on Regan's America, or even a scathing critique of capitalism's severe ignorance of anything sacred.

The strange tone of the film comes down to the almost co-direction of the film by Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw fame, and Steven Spielberg. It is easy to see Spielberg's influence in the many scenes about the family's bond, and the nods to Lucas' Star Wars feel like Spielberg's work too: he is a good friend of Lucas. However, the genuinely gross moments, like Diane's encounter with corpses in the swimming pool definitely come from the mind of a horror director.

One can't talk about the film without mentioning Zelda Rubinstein's medium Tangina Barrons, who steals every scene she is in. She, along with Heather O'Rourke's Carol Anne are the most memorable characters of the film. Rubinstein gets the best speech of the film, and manages to be both trustworthy and suspect as a character.

Poltergeist is an immense amount of fun, its slightly ramshackled storyline only adding to its many pleasures.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

I've Just Seen: Forbidden Planet (1956)

Director: Fred M. Wilcox

Pre-moon landing films have a different feel to more modern films. The images of men walking on the moon, or even seeing the earth from space were not yet part of modern culture. Filmmakers' imaginations roamed a little more freely. Special effects in these old films have a particular charm to them; these days you have the fall back of doing things in post-production if required, and some in the audience just think "That was done with CGI."

Couple these special effects with a clever adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, a wise-cracking robot, a thoroughly modern electronic score, and with a plot that is much more about humanity than aliens than you might think, and you have one of the best science-fiction films of the 1950s, and of the genre in general.

Seeing Leslie Nielsen being both young and serious was a slight obstacle at first - and in some of the more sexist 50s scenes with Anne Francis' Alta I half hoped for a wisecrack just to cut through my  discomfort - but he is great as Commander Adams. He and his crew land on Altair IV and find the environment is the least hostile part of planet.

The sexism is what dates this film. Alta is portrayed as naive, not realising her self-designed clothes are making the earth-men uncomfortable; or that her physical interest in these men is unladylike. The male audience of the 1950s got to have it both ways: look at a pretty girl, and see her get reprimanded for being too showy. This, however, is the only negative things about this film. Forbidden Planet goes to some very dark places about the human subconscious and the way technology may one day interact with our thoughts.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

I've Just Seen: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Director: Drew Goddard

I put off watching The Cabin in the Woods until I felt I had seen enough horror films to give me context for the film's plot, and most of its jokes. I am glad I did, for while I knew of some of the horror tropes referenced in the story - the cliches about the group dynamics was one - the depth of the film's horror knowledge would have escaped me.

The Cabin in the Woods' plot is a very clever explanation for the abounding cliches or tropes in many horror films, from the isolated locations to the last-girl-standing. The beginning has two branches of the story: one the familiar group of young people off on a dubious holiday in the woods, the other shows a military-looking office of people monitoring the group's activities, and eventually influencing their behaviour. While we quickly realise what the office-bound group is doing, we don't know why.

Like so many parodic films that are fond of their subject matter, The Cabin in the Woods is both funny and genuinely scary, much like The Princess Bride is also romantic and swashbuckling, and Young Frankenstein occasionally melancholic. The deaths of the young people are gruesome and ridiculous; you recoil as you laugh. The climax is a boon for horror geeks (which I am not quite yet), warranting a re-watch just to catch all the references.

Good parody is hard to do, especially of horror, as the line between scary and silly is a fine one. The Cabin in the Woods works because of its clever writing, both of dialogue and narrative structure, something that is also true for that other great horror parody Scream. If your audience comes out from the film having laugh, screamed (or gasped) and with a smug smile of recognition at the film references, you know you've succeeded.

Monday, 6 February 2017

I've Just Seen: JFK (1991)

Director: Oliver Stone

Outrage is at the heart of Stone's film about JFK's assassination: outrage and disbelief over the fact that we still don't know why it was done, or by whom exactly. JFK doesn't seek to give us answers, and really leaves you feeling overwhelmed at all the 'facts' and supposition around that fateful day in Dallas.

This makes a strange double bill with Pablo Larrain's Jackie, which I saw a few days before watching Stone's film. Larrain's film grounds the event in personal grief, as well as reflecting on how to create a legacy for a president who served just under three of his term. Stone's film focuses on all the speculation and conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. We follow Jim Garrison, who become obsessed with discovering the truth, and spent years amassing as much detail about the day, seemlingly talking to anyone who had a theory about what happened.

Kevin Costner is very good as Garrison, and he must have salivated at the almost ten minute speech Garrison delivers in the court room at the film's climax. The rest of the cast is top-notch, with characters that only have one or two scenes in this almost three-hour film making an impact. Donald Sutherland's government man, known as X, is one such 'cameo.' The recreations of the period are good, with Stone mixing reconstruction with the famous Zapruder footage (which is still hard to watch, as you know it is real footage of a man being killed).

This is a film to admire for its scope and attention to detail. However, I don't think I would watch it again anytime soon. While I certainly agree with Stone's frustration at the lack of culpability for what was one of the most famous (and public) murders of the 20th century, I felt much more moved by Larrain's film, which reminded the audience that not only was a president killed that day, but someone's father and husband.