Tuesday, 30 May 2017

I've Just Seen: The Sissi Trilogy (1955-57)

 Director: Ernst Marischka

This trilogy of films follows the early career of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known to her family as 'Sissi.' The first film, Sissi, is about Sissi meeting and falling in love with the Emperor Franz Joseph I, her cousin, and coming into conflict with her aunt and subesequent mother-on-law, Sophie. The second film, Sissi -The Young Empress, is again about further problems between Sissi and her mother-in-law over who looks after Sissi and Franz's first child. Sissi - Fateful Years of an Empress sees Sissi suffer from TB, while also helping her husband forestall war with Hungary.

The plot for each film are not that different; each features a plotline involving Sissi and Franz renewing their love for each other after separation, and Sissi and Sophie disagreeing about something, with Franz in the middle. The real draw with this trilogy is the look of the films. They were filmed on location in Austria, one of the most beautiful countries in Europe, both in terms of its buildings and its landscape. Winter barely features in any of the films; everything is so summery and lush. The costumes are also gorgeous to look at.

Romy Schneider is a very pretty, sparkly and even sparky empress, and the actor's real mother Magda Schneider plays Sissi's mother Ludovika, adding extra sweetness to their scenes. I recognised the man playing Franz, then realised it was Karlheinz Bohm, who I knew from Peeping Tom. He is a much happier man here.

Marischka had planned to make more films in the Sissi series but Schneider was sick of playing the character, so the story doesn't go into the more interesting parts of her later life. While I really enjoyed these, I do understand Schneider's wishes to leave off being Sissi: it is not the most meaty of roles, and she risked being type-cast.

If you like period dramas or romances, you will enjoy this. And if you want to watch them at the right time, see it at Christmas, along with Germany and Hungary where the trilogy is its a Christmastime staple.

Monday, 29 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Maggie's Plan (2015)

Director: Rebecca Miller

The main character of Miller's film, Maggie Harden, could easily have been really annoying to spend time with. She has her own ideas about how her life, and consequently others' lives, should be led, and plans accordingly. She decides to have a baby using donated sperm from an acquaintance, but finds her plans altered when she falls in love with fellow academic John Harding, a married man. The story then jumps several years in the future, and Maggie is starting to question her decision to live with John, and begins machinations to get him back with his ex-wife.

Maggie, despite being very meddlesome, is also very charming, and this is largely because she is played by Greta Gerwig. Her certainty about her ideas comes across as naivety rather than obnoxiousness, and she does care about the people around her while also being self-centred. Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore are both wonderful as John and his ex- Georgette; Moore especially revels in her role as the incredibly clever academic whose apparent cold exterior hides a warmth of feeling.

Parts of this reminded me of Jane Austen's Emma, another story about a young woman's certainty clashing with the world, and this is partly why I enjoyed it so much. The script is really good, focusing on a few families and the ways they interact with each other (a formula Austen also stuck to). The small stage allows for some lovely depth to the characters and story. It is funny and sweet, and much more aware of the messiness of romance than most modern rom-coms.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

I've Just Seen: 1900 (Novecento) (1976)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

In 1001 Films, the write-up for Bertolucci's film says it is 'not meant to be entertaining.' I don't require all my films to be entertaining, but devoting 5 hours of my time to a film that makes me work to engage with it it a tall ask. While not without some interesting points, 1900 was a film I finished simply so I could cross it off my list.

As I said, it is not all bad. The cinematography is rather beautiful, taking full advantage of the golden light of rural Italy. The greens and golds of the fields pop on screen, and there is an earthiness to the story, with many shots of animals (though I had to look away from the slaughter scenes). The performances are not bad either, though the English dubbing is distracting. Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Donald Sutherland are all good, though that is probably down to their being great actors rather than their playing compelling characters.

Almost everyone in this film is hard to like, being either too selfish or too wedded to their own political ideals to really connect with one another. The most human parts of the story are of Alfredo and Olmo's childhoods, where their friendship crosses the class divide. Spending five hours with unpleasant people is no fun.

This film was removed from recent editions of the 1001 films list, and I can see why. Its not as great as some of the films on the list and even less then some that have never been included. If you are a fan of Bertolucci's filmography, it is worth seeing, or if you are interested in representations of Italian political history on screen. I am not, and would much rather spend five hours watching Abel Gance's Napoleon, if I need a political history epic. Or Luchino Visconti's The Leopard.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Hunt For the Wilderpeople (2016)

Director: Taika Waititi

This comedy adventure drama follows a young foster kid called Ricky Baker, who goes on the run with his foster father "Uncle" Hec in the New Zealand bush when child welfare come to take Ricky away. Ricky is a kid from the city, who wants to be a gangster, while Hec just wants to be left alone, and mourn the death of his beloved wife Bella. Instead they find themselves dodging aggressive hikers, wild hogs, and seemingly the full force of New Zealand's police.

One could easily run out of words to praise this wonderful film. It is extremely funny, with all the quirk New Zealand humour is famous for (in Australia at least!); but it also knows that great comedy often comes out of very serious situations. Both Ricky and Hec are outsiders in society: Ricky is a foster kid who has known a lot of sadness, while Hec's past casts him as a dangerous man in the eyes of the law. Bella's death, which happens early on in the film, is heartbreaking, and her presence is felt throughout the whole.

Because it is set in the New Zealand bush, Waititi's film looks incredibly beautiful, much more than most modern comedy films do. The echoes of the scenery in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy are brilliantly alluded to in a few scenes. The dialogue is wonderful. Bella writes a hilarious song "Ricky Baker" for Ricky's birthday (which also plays over the end credits, so you will end up singing it), and Ricky makes up haikus to help express his feelings.

Sam Neill is lovely as the cantankerous Hec, and he and Julian Dennison have great chemistry together. Ricky could easily have been an annoying character, but Dennison is so darn charming that you can't help but love him.

As I said, you could wear out a thesaurus trying to describe the joy that it Hunt For the Wilderpeople. Thankfully, the film itself has its own word for such an event: majestical. Just watch the film, and you will understand.

Monday, 15 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Glory (1989)

 Director: Edward Zwick

The best films about history are often the ones that explore a little known event or character. Glory is about an all-black regiment during the American Civil War, naturally fighting on the Union's side. They were led by Robert Shaw, a young white man whose family were abolitionists, played in the film by Matthew Broderick. Most of what I know about the American Civil War is from films and the occasional reference to it at school, so this story was entirely unknown to me.

The main issue I had with the film, and which critics also mentioned in their reviews, was that the film about an all-black regiment had a white man as its protagonist. That is not to say that Captain Shaw is an uninteresting figure, and his choice to captain the regiment and train them is certainly commendable. However, it would have been interesting to have the story told from the perspective of ones of the soldiers. Shaw's friend Thomas Searles, a black man and scholar who was the first volunteer, would have been my choice. Despite this though, the film does give a lot of time to the soldiers, and follows a rather diverse group, two of whom are played by Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.

I really liked Zwick's film. The performances are all top-notch, not surprising with its cast, and they all get moments to shine. There is a particularly moving scene around campfire the night before the Fort Wagner charge, where the soldiers speak about why they are fighting and comfort another's fears. Like so many war films Glory expresses sadness at the monumental loss of life of the country's men, though here there is the idea of fighting for something greater, so it is not exactly an anti-war film.

Friday, 12 May 2017

I've Just Seen: The Stepford Wives (1975)

 Director: Bryan Forbes

When I watched the horror film Teeth, about a girl with a set of teeth in her vagina, I wondered how I'd react differently to the film if I were male. I found that film rather funny, and certainly enjoyed Dawn's exploration of her newfound power, but could imagine that the laughs coming from a man watching the film would be accompanied by winces and sympathetic leg-crossing for Dawn's victims (despite deserving punishment). With The Stepford Wives I often joined in the fear and rage of Katherine Ross's Joanna as she and her friends uncover the awful secrets beneath Stepford tranquility. But I was also curious as to what feelings the film would evoke in a man?

I'd imagine almost all would find the behaviour of the spouses in the film repulsive, but would it raise any conflicting feelings as well? Of course it all comes down to the individual's approach to women, but it is something I would be interested to learn.

As to the film itself, parts of it are dated, being made and set in the 1970s, but for the most part the film still feels very relevant. The 'Stepfordised' wives speak like women out of commercials - something that seems to have blighted internet discourse - and are sexually compliant, telling Joanna and Bobbie that their relations with their husbands are just perfect! The men themselves are perfectly happy with their wives, and even Joanna's husband only expresses a vague regret at what is going to happen - but does nothing to stop it, or even warn his wife.

While it is light on the normal horror tropes of blood, scares and only has one scene in a dark, spooky house, The Stepford Wives is one of the most horrifying films I have seen. Its story of a person losing autonomy over their mind, and consequently their body, is a universal one, and it is obvious why Jordan Peele looked to Forbes' film when he made Get Out. Enslavement to a society that values freedom is truly terrifying.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Get Out (2017)

Director: Jordan Peele

Australia finally got the chance to see Get Out, after listening to all the praise it received around the world. Comparisons to Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two of the most unnerving films I have seen, only whetted my appetite to see Peele's directorial debut. Thankfully, the film lived up to its reputation.

The only quibble I had was with the audience with whom I saw the film. Peele's film is very funny as well as frightening, but those sparsely seated around me didn't seem to raise even a chuckle; so I was left to smile to myself.

The story follows Chris as he meets his white girlfriend's parents, who live in a white upper-middle-class suburb on a large expanse of land. They appear to be extremely nice, but something is definitely off; a feeling Chris' best friend Rod warned him would happen. Things start to escalate when Rose's mother hynotises Chris (to help him give up smoking, apparently), and even more when Rose's parents invite their friends around for an annual party, and the guests say some very weird things to Chris. We start to realise something very sinister is happening behind all the liberal bonhomie.

Peele has directed a very sophisticated and clever horror film which feels very timely. The actors are all great, and the casting of Bradley Whitford, famous for his turn as Josh Lyman in The West Wing, is genuis. Catherine Keener is fantastic as Rose's mother, and the hypnosis scene between her and Daniel Kaluuya's Chris is brilliant. Allison Williams really sells Rose's bewilderment at her parents weirdness around Chris, while Kaluuya plays Chris with bemused humour that turns to fear and anger as the horror increases.

This is a wonderful example of intelligent horror, with a bit of comedy thrown in. It would make a perfect companion piece to the Ira Levin adaptations mentioned at the top, and even reminded me of Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle in its satire on how white people portray black people.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

I've Just Seen: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Director: Jack Arnold

This film is a great example of the ingenuity of pre-CGI special effects. The story is simple; a man, Robert "Scott" Carey, starts to shrink after encountering an unknown gas at sea. The doctors are at first baffled, then once they discover its cause, realise there is nothing they can do. Scott must reconcile himself to his fate. We travel down with him as the furniture gets larger, until a doll's house is his home, and the cat is a danger to his life (along with a tarantula).

This film is a lot bleaker than I thought it would be. Scott becomes depressed at his fate, making him are very realistic character: for some reason I assumed Arnold's film would focus on the action scenes inherent in the story. Instead, the images of Scott sitting a chair that's too big for him, and being stuck in the basement are coloured with his loss of relationship with his wife. We really care about Scott, and see how much of a nightmare his life has become.

The special effects really come into effect in the film's Third Act, where Scott is stuck in the basement of his house, a house his wife is leaving. A minor flooding of the floor becomes almost biblical, and the quest to get at some mouldy cake for food is as dangerous as scaling Mount Everest.

The final reflections of the film are poignant and much more philosophical than I was expecting. It really elevates the film as a whole, reminding us normal sized humans of our places on this earth - surrounded by microscopic organisms - and the universe, where we become infinitesimal ourselves. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Director: Adrian Lyne

It is hard to know what to say about Jacob's Ladder. Without its inclusion on the 1001+ list, I probably wouldn't have seen it. That would have been a shame, as this is a clever, terrifying, mind-boggling film. It is just so hard to talk about because saying too much may ruin the experience of seeing it cold.

The story moves between two timelines; one in the jungles of Vietnam, where Jacob Singer and his platoon are relaxing when they are suddenly attacked, to the present day, where Jacob lives in Brooklyn, works in a post office, and has seemingly left his family for his girlfriend Jezzie. Strange things start happening to Jacob in the present day; Jezzie gets demonically possessed at a party, but only Jacob notices, car nearly runs him over, and fellow members of his platoon are also experiencing similar horrors. Jacob also sees his deceased son Gabe (an uncredited Macauley Culkin) around as well.

In some ways this reminded me of Guillermo del Toro, though to say why is a bit of a spoiler (so look away if you don't want to know). The demons and devils in Jacob's Ladder are not simply horrible manifestations, but are actually trying to help Jacob come to terms with his fate; they are not the most evil part of this story.

This is a great mind-bender of film that mediates on spirituality and the mind in a very creative way. I can see why it took years for the screenplay to be produced and the film made; the story deals with heavy stuff in a complicated way. But it is worth the investment, and the film deserves to be as widely lauded as other mind-bending films like Mulholland Dr and The Double Lives of Veronique.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Requiem For a Dream (2000)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Requiem For a Dream always crops up in conversations about great films you only want to see once, and having watched it, I understand why. Addiction narratives are always intense, and drug addiction stories seem to be particularly overwhelming. Aronofsky's film follows four different characters and their own slavery to their needs: Harry, along with his friend Tyrone and girlfriend Marion are addicted to heroin, while Harry's mother Sara becomes addicted to diet pills (amphetamines).

If the film was just about Harry, Tyrone and Marion it would be a very solid, well-put together story about heroin. But the inclusion of Sara's story elevates this into something even more startling and profound. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the best performances I have ever seen as Sara. She goes from ebing a middle-aged woman trapped in a funk, to a person with dreams and something to live for, only to have those dreams turn into hellish nightmares. Her lack of Oscar award is further proof of the ridiculousness of acting awards (at least she was nominated).

The other really notable part of the film is the editing. Some shots last less than a second, and the effect is to bypass thought and just conjure emotions in the audience. We experience the highs of Marion and Harry's drug-taking, but also the repetitive nature of such need. The film's climax, where the screen cuts frantically from one person to another over and over again, feels like a sickening spiral which we descend down with the characters into their lowest points.

Would I watch Requiem For a Dream again? Maybe, but not for a long, long time. It is very harrowing and hard to forget.

Monday, 1 May 2017

I've Just Seen: Serpico (1973)

Director: Sidney Lumet

'Rogue' cop stories mostly make-up the narratives of TV police shows, and usually involve a copper who defies authority and does his own thing (the more unorthodox the better). In Serpico, Pacino's Frank Serpico stands out for his anti-corruption stance, and his desire to do things by the book. His colleagues take against this, and Frank finds himself under pressure to just take the bribes and look the other way.

This is my favourite Al Pacino performance. Playing a real person comes with many pitfalls, but Pacino is able to make Serpico a recognisable person, and just the type of policeman you would want on the streets. Serpico excels as a plain-clothes policeman, seemingly getting right into character. As this is set during the 60s, his grows his hair and beard long, and is no above wearing beads and ponchos. This part of Serpico's character must have been a huge draw for Pacino. But Serpico outsider status is proved time and time again. He sticks out from amongst New York police, and also  in his social life; at a hippy party he attends with a girlfriend, where everyone else are writers, models, actors, etc., Serpico gets muted reactions when he says 'I'm a policeman.'

Serpico is quintessential 70s cinema. It boasts a great acting performance, along with a real story about one man against a huge, corrupt system, a conflict the film approaches with a resigned pessimism. The grainy cinematography adds a level of reality to Serpico's world, like we are watching a gritty documentary. The cinema of the American New Wave delivers yet again.