Thursday, 19 December 2013

150W: Hannah and Her Sisters

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Hannah and Her Sisters (Dir. Woody Allen/1986)

Breaking the mirror into three pieces, Woody Allen uses himself, Michael Caine and Max Von Sydow to depict the regretful, lustful and intellectual sides to his personality respectively. The sisters that bind these men together are central to the story as we find how Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters (Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest). Elliot (Caine) is married to Hannah and falls for her sister Lee (Hershey); Lee is romantically involved with Frederick; Holly (Wiest) is the final sister who’s restless as her partner-to-be (and Hannah’s ex-husband), hypochondriac Mickey (Allen), is undergoing a crisis of faith. Such personal themes regarding faith and love are tackled sensitively and balanced well with measured comedy that shows maturity and intellect. Allen is confident in his direction, framing moments from obscure angles and capturing the drama within the context of three Thanksgivings. Well-written women and weighty ideas prove how impressive Allen truly is.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, 15 December 2013

About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)

About Schmidt is About America. Jack Nicholson is front and centre in Alexander Payne’s 2002 dramatic comedy about a man coping with retirement and the loss of his wife. As Election became a bigger and bolder statement about democracy, About Schmidt is a reflection on much more than one man’s life. It manages to comment on the very definition of friendship and love. It tackles honesty and openness – attributes that surely define a successful marriage. Or can a 42-year marriage be based on a mutual understanding towards sensitivity and considered conversation? About Schmidt is told from the perspective of an American who has lived the dream and yet remains unsatisfied. Like the poster, a dark cloud hangs over this lone soul.

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) retires from an executive position in a life insurance firm. His send-off includes a speech from a young “hot shot” that seems to be more interested in introducing himself rather than bidding farewell to a valuable member of “Woodmen” insurance. Leaving the party, Warren speaks to his daughter who was unable to attend. His wife, Helen (June Squibb), waits on him and keeps him “in check” before a sudden death in the home days later. But not before Warren has decided to send money, and a revealing letter, to Tanzania to support the life of 6-year Ndugu. These letters reveal Warrens true feelings; his frustration and anger towards what could be his son-in-law; how he has fallen out of love for his wife; how he fears death. After the death of his wife, he is on his own and has to figure out where he belongs in this crazy world.

The letters to Ndugu is the literary glue that holds the film together. Not only does it offer us an insight into Warren’s world but it reminds us of the gross disconnect and injustice between western affluence and third world poverty. The term “first world problems” is bandied around on the internet as a play on Westerners complete lack of appreciation for the privileged society we live within. Warren’s complete lack of awareness towards Ndugu’s age and understanding is a hint towards our own selfishness in a consumer society.
Warren Schmidt is in a unique, sobering moment in his life. Do we truly know Warren at all? Considering the specific set of circumstances between his retirement, his mourning and his detached relationship from his daughter, it is clear this is not Warren in his prime. Maybe the picture at the University of Kansas is his hey-day. By the same token, Helen is much more than a standard wife. She has clearly had her own frustrations and challenges within their marriage, but kept it hidden. Payne has managed to craft a film that hints at deeper stories and weighty themes a nothing is overt and bold. We relax in an ocean of thoughts and ideas that fester long after the film finishes. He pines after brutal honesty from his deceased wife – he wonders whether she was disappointed in him. On reflection, meeting the brash and bold - but brutally honest - Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates stealing every scene she is in), we realise that the considered demeanour of his wife suited Warren better than he realised. 

Framed amongst branded stores and restaurants in Nebraska and Colorado, About Schmidt reminds us of what America is – and what it may have lost in the process. Locations are separated by vast country that Warren road-trip’s through in his top-end camper-van. This beauty is ignored. Warren has enjoyed a successful life with a well-paid job, a loving spouse and an intelligent daughter. Yet he is ashamed of his mundane profession, despises his key-using wife and explicitly tells his daughter how he feels about her husband-to-be. The audience are left to consider who is truly at fault. Is it the old man and his selfish tendencies? Or is it the vast landscapes that separate families? And the tall buildings that look over cities to dominate the meaning of success? A child in Tanzania appreciates the $22 Schmidt sends, so we should appreciate the houses we’ve built for ourselves and the love we receive. The challenges in later life is captured effortlessly by Alexander Payne and About Schmidt becomes the polar opposite of the youthful, ambitious folks in Election, as Nicholson’s Schmidt is past his prime – and knows it. A stunning follow-up and a thought-provoking success, About Schmidt is about so much more.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

Is it real or is it all in your mind? When Deborah Kerr’s Governess takes on the position in Bly Mansion, she slowly loses her mind as she becomes convinced the children are possessed. The brilliance in The Innocents is not just within the spooky story but within the sprawling grounds and the gothic architecture that surrounds the fractured family. Inspiring films as diverse as The Orphanage and The Woman in Black, Jack Clayton’s psychological horror rarely uses jump-scares to shock and instead transcends this through shrieking sounds that pierce the ear as moody lighting covers the shadows and ghosts that lurk in Bly Mansion.

A bachelor (Michael Redgrave) who cares not for his niece and nephew (and yet was orphaned with them) hires inexperienced Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) as Governess with the explicit intention not to contact him if problems arise. The young children are Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Miss Giddens is taken with Flora but introduced to Miles when he is unexpectedly excluded from school. Bly Mansion’s housekeeper (Megs Jenkins) reveals that the previous Governess and Valet had an illicit love-affair that was flaunted amongst the staff and young children. Miss Giddens is convinced that, though both deceased, the ghost of Governess Miss Jessell (Clytie Jessop) and Valet Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) still haunt the house and control the thoughts and attitudes of the children.

For over fifty years, The Innocents has been widely considered one of the scariest movies of all-time, with Martin Scorsese placing the film 11th on his own list of horror films. It’s cult following could be attributed to the deeply sinister portrayal of Miles – a role that is unsettling in the hint of what this boy could achieve in the future with such affluence and freedom. Miss Giddens relationship with him is also fascinating as he seems to stir a demon deep within her. Quint’s reckless abandonment towards sex, she believes, is transferred onto Miles as Miss Giddens is drawn to the young boy. To balance such mature themes and play the role so strongly is a credit to his talent. Deborah Kerr equally stands out. Her desperate intentions fall on deaf ears and her own morals and ethics seem to overshadow her own sense of duty and care – and we struggle to know whether it is her madness or the crazed kids.

This is an unforgettable film. The hint at darker themes regarding isolation, class and social divide could surely be the topic of a different article, but there is clearly a wealth of subtext wrapped within the film. Based on the novel The Turning of the Screw by Henry James, with a script co-written by Truman Capote, The Innocents is a story that has emerged from a startling quality of literary sources and a wealth of undertone can be drawn from the source material alone.

Combining the story with the soundscape, we are left with Freddie Francis’ cinematography creating an atmosphere akin to a Caspar David Freidrich landscape, complete with misty moors and high arches. Certainly worth watching at the cinema, Miles and Flora won’t lose their appeal any time soon. If you are keen to see a film that carries such credibility and additionally still stands up to modern audiences, you cannot go wrong with The Innocents.

Originally written/published for Flickering Myth  on 13th December 2013

Thursday, 12 December 2013

150W: Deconstructing Harry

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Deconstructing Harry (Dir. Woody Allen/1997)

Rewind, edit and re-run. Remodel, reconstitute and reconfigure. Memory and films hold many parallels. In Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen toys with memory and the inspiration one finds for their art. Opening credits is an edited sequence of a woman stepping out of a cab. It’s disorientating, as the film can be, as Deconstructing Harry flips between fictional stories written by Harry (Woody Allen) and Harry’s life itself. This current incarnation has a crisis of identity – he is older and single with one child he can barely visit. The different “stories” he has written, which we see, are “Woody Allen” scenarios. Robin Williams plays an actor who is literally out of focus in one story while Julia Louis Dreyfus and Richard Benjamin are the hyper-sexual lovers interrupted by a blind Grandmother mid-session. Assuming you have asked whether his films are autobiographical in any way, this would be Allen’s insightful, considered answer.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. So the age-old saying goes. Election, Alexander Payne’s second feature, hit cinema screens in 1999 and immediately found a fan-base by deconstructing this mantra and showing it in all its school-emblem colours. Kicking off Reese Witherspoon’s career and reviving Matthew Broderick’s (with a neat play on his Ferris Bueller role from the mid-eighties - rather than a student who bunks, he’s a teacher who adores education), Election is also a triumph in combining four-narrations that equally highlight our own different attitudes towards ambition and success while portraying how they are often incompatible.

We are first introduced to keen-o student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) and her teacher Mr McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Tracy is a hard-worker and ambitious student, focused on becoming school president. Mr McAllister – winner of teacher of the year three times (a school record) – on the other hand overlooks Tracy’s high-raised hand, and dislikes her approach to education. He also knows of a dark secret that Tracy is not keen to share. Mr “M” wants her crown of victory to fall and advises recently-injured sports-student Paul (Chris Klein) to run for president. Finally, we meet Paul's lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) who has revealed her love to best friend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia). Lisa rebuffs her and runs to Tammy’s brother, Paul. So Tammy runs for President too.

For the time period – and considering where Reese Witherspoon and Chris Klein ended up, this could become a teenage-comedy akin to American Pie or Cruel Intentions. It could be a film that simply capitalises on awkward sex and unnecessary nudity in the context of parties, school corridors and poster-clad bedrooms. Thankfully, this is not that film. The role of Mr McAllister ensures that, though three out of four narrations are the diverse teenage stereotypes, he is equally held as a figure of ridicule – someone who has his own flaws and desires as his teenage pupils. In some respects, we gain such a deep perspective of the three teenagers that it hints at the adults they will become. Tracy Flick will become successful and remain intelligent; Paul will remain likeable and positive about his achievements; rebellious Tammy will become a role model, yet remain refreshingly honest and comfortable about who she is. Mr McAllister is already an adult; we assume he has learnt most life lessons – but we are yet to see his true feelings bubble up to the surface.

Alexander Payne BFI Retrospective - ElectionThe innovative techniques to introduce character are playful and insightful. Introducing Tracy (from the perspective of Mr McAllister), it catches her in an embarrassing millisecond, hinting at a corrupted character underneath her “perfect” visage. Paul, on the other hand, is introduced when caught in his skiing accident – something foolish but brave, summarising his character entirely. All the characters are inspirational but deeply imperfect, as we all are. But Mr “M” is the man in a position of assumed responsibility; he should be the one role that lives up to his reputation. In fact, all the teachers seem to get a raw deal. Whether they are considered predatory men, old-dears or corrupted, insincere head teacher’s, none of them fit the bill. The perspective of a rebel teacher who does inspire, and lives up to the role of an educator (despite having their own cross to bear of course), could’ve made a fairer depiction of the profession. Then again, perhaps I have a bias on this one element of the story.

Fast-paced plot development means you are never bored and remain interested as to what will happen next. You never know who will win the election and a subtle insight into the votes cast by the candidates themselves hints at further thought provoking outcomes. In that manner, Election raises more questions than it answers. The questions could be as small as the influence of parents and teachers through to national Presidential elections and the purpose of democracy and politics itself. To encompass such profound points in a high-school voting-system is a testament to Payne’s deft use of camera and intelligent script-writing. Election, in 2013, stands up and holds its own next to 1999’s roll-call of outstanding films including Magnolia and American Beauty. But Election wears its heart on its sleeve and against the Academy Award candidates, it holds no sense of self-righteousness or pretention – and for a film about ethics and morals, this is a feat unto itself.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on December 9th 2013

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

150W: Bananas

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Bananas (Dir. Woody Allen/1971)

Woody Allen, in such a light, comedic tone, takes on politics. “It’s all over for El Presidente” as the beginning depicts an assassination on the news with sports-style commentary before introducing Fielding Mellish (Allen), an invention tester. Marvin Hamlisch’s Mexican music sets the scene as Mellish is caught up in a revolution when attempting to woo a lovely lady in Nancy (Louise Lasser). Amongst the highlights is an homage to Chaplin’s Modern Times, as Allen is caught up in an exercise-in-the-workplace invention while a trial reveals J. Edgar Hoover as large, black woman. Bananas, like Sleeper and Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex, is Allen having fun. Poking fun at fashionable revolutions and using one-liners to nab every opportunity for a gag, Woody knows how to toy with us but flounders when sewing the story together. Also includes a small role Stallone playing a thug tops off Bananas.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)

Remaking an established, classic, staple of German expressionist cinema in 1979 must’ve been a tough sell. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, primarily a re-telling of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece, is also a deeply eerie, unsettling and haunting film in its own right. Herzog is not averse to remakes, as he has proven recently with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Unlike Bad Lieutenant, Herzog chose Nosferatu so he could play with Murnau’s story and expand upon minor-moments in his own unique manner. Combining elements from Browning’s Dracula and the original novel by Bram Stoker meant that Herzog could develop his work to potentially become the definitive story of the Count.

The standard story sets the film up. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is an estate agent, sent by his boss Renfield (Roland Topor), to visit Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) in Transylvania. Dracula is due to buy a house in Bremen and Harker needs to ensure he signs the deeds. Harker is hesitant at first as he does not want to leave his wife (intensely played by Isabelle Adjani) but decides to go anyway so that he can buy her a house. Arriving in Transylvania, he is warned of the demons that lurk in the castle but dismisses them as he doesn’t believe in such supernatural occurrences. Harker meets Dracula, a bald rat of a man with long white fangs for his front two teeth. In a moment of terror, Hawker cuts himself and Dracula, to help, sucks the blood. Harker’s locket falls free and Dracula is transfixed by the beauty of Harker’s wife, Lucy. The Count has claws and, as Harker sleeps, Dracula sucks his blood and soon after leaves Transylvania locking Harker in his castle so Dracula can have Lucy for himself.

As Dracula makes his way to Bremen, we begin to see the first of the white rats that will plague the city. Within simple, but sinister coffins full of soil of Transylvania, these rats will unleash a new misery on the town. On the ship itself, one-by-one, all human life ceases to exist and only Dracula arrives on the ship in Bremen. Harker does manage to break free from the castle and travels by horse through the vast landscapes. With decreasing energy and slowly moving closer to death, he returns to Bremen a gravely ill, shell of a man.

The lead performances by Ganz, Kinski and Adjani are complex. Rather than merely a heroic man, to save the day, Harker is conflicted and his decaying body brings with it darker demons that spoil his mind. Lucy, alternatively, will not give her love to Dracula – but she is willing to give her life. Dracula despises life and, though pained when faced with death, believes death is an escape from his morbid existence. Herzog holds steady a sinister pace with a deeply unsettling cold atmosphere. Shots linger for longer than they need to and the slow arm reaching across the room – a direct reference to Murnau’s masterpiece – continues for an awful amount of time. Will he reach out to get us in the audience? The expansion on the use of coffins and the plague is grotesque. In one sequence white rats infest the square and friends gather round a table celebrating their imminent death. One cut, and the family are gone as the rats eat the leftover food. There is no sharp, shock moment; there is no gore; there is just the knowledge of their dreadful deaths.
The vast landscapes, akin to Aguirre, Wrath of God, on widescreen is breath-taking. Horses chop across the muddy roads and a juxtaposition between the beauty in nature of Transylvania is against the horror that happens behind the closed doors of the castle. The story of infestation, blood-sucking and lust is timeless. Herzog’s interpretation is littered with meaning and subtext, purposefully challenging us as viewers to correlate the gothic themes to our own society. Though slow-paced and using a controlled, pastel-palette of colours, Herzog’s Nosferatu is surely the way adaptations should go. Respectfully self-aware and reverential to the original, Nosferatu is. But it also remains relevant and develops the story so that it holds its own, whether you have seen Murnau’s or not.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

You cannot watch Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Awkward releases on DVD that are difficult to get hold of either cost a princely sum or are cropped to a mere 115-mins. Napoléon, in its original form, was 9 hours and 22 minutes long. Shown at The Apollo Theatre in Paris in 1927, it was known as the “version definitive”. Abel Gance’s classic film, screened with the Philharmonic Orchestra at The Royal Festival hall last night was the product of fifty years’ worth of restoration by noted film historian Kevin Brownlow. This 5-hour 32-minute version, separated by 20-min intervals and a 100-min dinner-break, due to rights issues is difficult to track down. Kevin Brownlow himself autographed copies of his book and maintains that this current-version is the closest we will get to Gance’s “version definitive”.

But what a joy to behold!  This sprawling epic charts Napoleon Bonaparte’s (Albert Dieudonné) rise from youthful school days involving snowball fights through to his part in the French Revolution and his invasion of Italy. Broken into four acts, the first immediately showcases Gance’s technical skill and strong sense of creativity. Pillow-fighting splits the screen in four, and then nine, as feathers fly. In another sequences, the fast cutting and speed of snowballs elicits a sense of chaos that pre-figures the wars he will fight as an adult. His part in the French revolution begins in Paris as he witnesses the mob dominate the city, before he returns to his homeland of Corsica and is forced to defend the island from British rule: "Our fatherland is France” he tells us. After a chase across the blustery, rocky sea, (and a cameo from Horatio Nelson) Napoleon escapes, with his eagle returning by his side. The second act is considerably shorter as Napoleon is promoted and leads an attack on the port of Toulon, a French town that has been held by 20,000 English soldiers. The scenes are busy and wet, rain is endless and the ground is muddy. Though they succeed in taking back the port, their ships are burnt down by the English.

Part III, a longer-sequence, feels weaker as Napoleon is offered positions in the military and turns them down. Romance blossoms between upper-class victim of the French revolution, Josephine (Gina Manès), and Napoleon. We see Josephine briefly in Part I and flashbacks remind us of the moment they met. In a strange conclusion to their romance, Napoleon decides to invade Italy and rushes his wedding to ensure he can leave quickly. His wedding is an awkward affair as he demands the registrar to “skip” bits of the service so it is concluded faster. The final act is where Gance truly proves how important Napoléon is. Bonaparte meets the ghosts of the revolution, effortlessly portrayed through half-exposed shots, and he travels by carriage to battle. The screen then trebles in size and three projectors’ reveal a screen that has never been so wide. The slight gaps between each projector remind you of the time period and how innovative Gance must’ve been to set-up three cameras and shoot the moments simultaneously. Sometimes it is a wide-screen shot; sometimes a symmetrical triptych. Then it changes into a visual collage of past, present and future exploits of Napoleon – each screen is different and Gance cuts and layers images on top of one another exceptionally fast. This is until the three projectors become the French flag while waves appear on screen. The sheer scale is unbelievable and Gance knew how impressive this sequence would be in a cinema. It is a marvellous finale to a marathon of cinematic accomplishments.

Three decades before Cinerama, and Abel Gance was there first with his Poly-vision in that final act. So many techniques prove how Gance was reimagining the art form of cinema. Using a camera to swing from the chandeliers above and through a party; attaching the camera to the horse; somehow speeding alongside. How he managed to be so versatile with the camera is a book unto itself (See Kevin Brownlow’s Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film) – and indeed, Gance was proud of his silent-film roots and their dependence on innovative camera techniques to tell a story.

This is not The Royal Festival Hall, just an example of the scale
Watching Napoléon is an event unto itself, and Carl Davis’ magnificent music combines Holst, Haydn and Beethoven with Davis’ own proud, defiant themes that are as bold as John William’s thematic scores. The last time Napoléon was presented in the UK was 2004. In a time whereby everything is accessible on DVD, it is satisfying and greatly humbling to be a part of a cinematic event that has such deep roots in cinema history. Abel Gance broke the mould in 1927 and, though he failed to be fully acknowledged in his own time, now is the time for appreciation – as he was clearly one of the best.