Thursday, 25 October 2018

I've Just Seen: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

 Director: John Cassavetes

I don't really know what to say about this film because it didn't really make me feel anything. I may not have been in the right mood or mindset to watch it, but it just didn't grab me. I am not a fan of gangster films in general, but I do like interesting takes on genre, and Chinese Bookie is certainly different to other gangster films. But, for whatever reason, I just didn't go with it.

The plot is reasonably recognisable: Cosmo Vitelli, who runs a strip-joint, finds himself in debt to a powerful group of gangster who run a gambling club. To pay off his debt he must kill the titular bookie (actually the boss of the Chinese mafia), leading to Vitelli losing much of what he loves. What makes this different to other gangster films are small details. Vitelli's club is rather artsy, with a focus on themes and creativity, not just nudity. Vitelli's girlfriend is also black, and Vitelli has a close, tender relationship with her mother as well.

The cinematography and acting are low-key, making this a film that asks you to lean into it. Unfortunately I just couldn't get into it. I can see it was well-made, and the acting is good, but it is not my thing. I have appreciated other Cassavetes films but he is not a director I have enthusiastically embraced.

Much like the acts in Vitelli's club, the title promises something perhaps violent and action packed, but instead we get something a bit different. Our expectations are defied, and if you can't change them, you are left wondering what to think.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

I've Just Seen: 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

 Director: Adrian Lyne

Having watched a number of foreign language films, particularly French films which have no qualms showing male and female nudity, and living in an era where 50 Shades of Grey is a pop culture phenomenon, I found that 9 1/2 Weeks did not live up to its salacious reputation. And despite critics positive comments about the central couple, I saw some rather unpleasant sexual dynamics being played out (though I will concede, not without challenge).

Kim Basinger is really good as Elizabeth, who starts an affair with apparently compelling John Gray (yes, another one). Through a series of "erotic" games involving ice cubes, food, and the oh so fun game of staying locked up all day in your lover's house, not allowed to go anywhere, Elizabeth starts to wonder what it is she wants from the relationship beyond sex.

As I said, Basinger is really good as Elizabeth, balancing the character's fixation with John along with her misgivings about the relationship. Unfortunately for Mickey Rourke, I found John Gray really off putting. Maybe it was his smug smile, his job on Wall Street (which only emphasises his entitlement), his boring flat, or his constant ignoring of Elizabeth's opinions and wishes that turned me off him. From the moment he played "Strange Fruit" as a seduction song, my dodgy dude senses tingled (really, a song about lynching gets you going?).

The film also has a weird approach to Elizabeth's character. While we see her being capable and intelligent at work, the first few times she meets with John she is dressed and treated in childish ways: carrying a bunch of balloons, being locked onto a Ferris wheel, then being stranded at the top when John pays the guy working it to leave her there (oh, isn't he hilarious). It felt off to me, like it was equating her submission to him with being a child; never mind the Monroe-esque coos and squeals she makes too.

The sex scenes are positively tame compared to efforts from Europe and Asia, and as is common in American films, features more female than male nudity (and yet this film is ostensibly aimed at women). Not that you need nudity for a film to ooze sexiness (just look at The Lady Eve), but considering the film's reputation, I was expecting more.

As you can tell, this did nothing for me. If you want a really clever, funny and sexy version of this type of story, ignore this (and 50 Shades) and head straight for Secretary (also featuring a gray-named male lead). I do give the film kudos for its ending, showing the emotional toll such a relationship often has on people, and being realistic about its likely outcome (unlike 50 Shades). But it would have been a lot shorter if Elizabeth had just talked to her friends about the relationship; most would have told her to drop him sooner.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

I've Just Seen: Sherpa (2015)

 Director: Jennifer Peedom

After a fight broke out between Sherpas and a European climber during the 2013 climbing season at Everest, Peedom and crew went to Nepal to observe the 2014 season, focusing on the experience of the Sherpas. As it happened, she was there to witness on camera an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas, which led to an unprecedented response from the other Sherpas who refused to climb that year, shutting down the season.

The documentary provides a sympathetic insight into the lives of the local Sherpa people, focusing in particular on Phurba Tashi, who has climbed Everest 21 times. At the film's opening he is hoping to make it 22, a record, much against the wishes of his family, who fear for his life each time he goes away. Peedom also follows mountaineer Russell Brice, who runs one of the company providing Everest climbs. We learn that Sherpas are employed to not only accompany visitors on climbs, but to make many trips in order to set up several camps up the mountain, meaning they have to navigate the treacherous area, the Khumbu Icefall, which is climbed at night because during the day the ice melts and moves. It is here that the avalanche occurs early one morning.

The catastrophic event prompts union-style behaviour from the Sherpas, who don't want to climb, and are demanding the government give them better wages, protections and compensation for the dead workers' families. The Nepalese government makes a lot of money from foreign tourists climbing Everest, and the Sherpas see little of it. Brice is sympathetic to the Sherpas, but also wants to push ahead with the climb.

Peedom's film raises difficult questions about the employment of Sherpas as assistant climbers for Western and wealthy visitors, questions that certainly deserve consideration. While the Sherpas do get paid for their work, it is such a small percentage of the huge amount of revenue the government receives; yet they do the most dangerous work. And, it is to make life easier for mostly white, wealthy tourists. It does feel like exploitation, and the way Brice and others say "It's a tragedy, but we have to move on" feels callous considering the dangers they are asking these people to experience.

Most people think of Sherpas as smiling, happy and willing to assist, an image created by the most famous Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. But as his children note in Peedom's film, Norgay came to resent the slights and assumptions made by Western media about him and his people. This film certainly challenges that image, painting a portrait of a people fighting to be acknowledged and appreciated.