Monday, 26 September 2016

Bicycle Thieves

Year of Release:  1948
Director:  Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay:  Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, from a story by Luigi Bartolini
Starring:  Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Vittorio Antonucci
Running Time:  85 minutes
Genre:  drama

In post-World War II Rome, Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani) is desperate for work to support his wife Maria (Carell), his son Bruno (Staiola), and his baby.  He is overjoyed when he is offered  a job putting up posters.  However, on his first day of work, his bicycle, which he needs for his job, is stolen.  With the police either unwilling or unable to help him, Antonio, with Bruno in tow, is forced into an increasingly desperate search through the backstreets, alleys, black markets and tenements of Rome to find his stolen property.

During World War II, many Italian film studios were bombed, and many actors were called up to fight.  As a result, in the immediate post-war years, Italian filmmakers found themselves with very few facilities or actors.  However, they managed to make a virtue out of a necessity.  Filming largely on locations, with light-weight cameras, and using often non-professional actors, they developed a style which became known as "Italian neorealism", a semi-documentary approach, which continues to influence filmmakers today.  Bicycle Thieves is seen as one of them greatest works of neorealism.  This is a powerful look at poverty and desperation, with it's unflinching look at a man and his son, as their world crumbles around them, from the joy of morning to the despair of evening.  The film was cast entirely with untrained non-professional actors.  Lamberto Maggiorani was a factory worker, and 8-year old Enzo Staiola was cast when director Vittorio De Sica noticed him watching them on the street, while helping his father sell flowers.  Both of them turn in devastating performances, with the image of Staiola gazing into the camera towards the end of the film becoming an icon of Italian cinema.  It may be hard for some to understand how the loss of a bicycle can mean so much, but for the Riccis it's everything.  Without the bicycle, he can't work, if he can't work, they don't eat.  It's as simple and brutal as that.  This is a film that is as powerful and as relevant today, as it was nearly seventy years ago.

         Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani in Bicycle Thieves

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Magnificent Seven

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay:  Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, based on Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni
Starring:  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard
Running Time:  133 minutes
Genre:  Western, action

The year is 1879, and the small mining town of Rose Creek is plagued by ruthless industrialist Bart Bogue (Sarsgaard), who wants control of the entire town.  After Bogue turns a town meeting in the local church into a massacre, young widow Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband was killed by Bogue, and her friend Teddy (Luke Grimes) ride out to find gunfighters to help protect the town.  They find bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Washington), who has a personal grievance against Bogue, gunfighter and gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheux (Hawke), and his associate and expert knife fighter Billy Rocks (Lee), wanted outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), grizzled frontiersman Jack Horne (D'Onofrio) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier).  These seven have to protect a town of farmers against a ruthless army.

This is a remake of the classic 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, which in turn was a remake of the 1954 film Seven Samurai.  This is a hugely entertaining, classical Western, full of the traditional tropes of the genre, there is even a scene where the piano stops playing when a  character shoulders into the saloon.  I have to confess, I am a huge fan of Westerns, and this film left me with a big smile on my face.  It's a good old-fashioned romp, in the best sense, full of action, and daring-do, with a dash of humour and emotion (the final moments have real emotional weight).  Washington and Pratt provide real movie-star charisma.  Aside form a more diverse cast, this is very much a traditional Western, and doesn't really do much that hasn't been done before, but for old-school Saturday matinee fun, it certainly delivers.

Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee are The Magnificent Seven

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Year of Release:  2000
Director:  Joe Berlinger
Screenplay:  Dick Beebe and Joe Berlinger
Starring:  Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristine Skyler, Stephen Barker Turner
Running Time:  90 minutes
Genre:  horror, supernatural

Recently released from a psychiatric hospital, Burkittsville resident Jeffrey (Donovan) decides to cash in on the phenomenal success of the recently released movie The Blair Witch Project, set in and around his small home town.  Selling merchandise from his website, he also starts up a Blair Witch tour to take tourists on a camping trip around the woods to see the sites featured in the movie and associated with the Blair Witch legend.  Equipped with an arsenal of video and recording equipment, his first tour group consists of Stephen (Turner) and his pregnant wife Tristen (Skyler) who are writing a book about the Blair Witch phenomenon, Erica a Wiccan who wants to commune with the spirit of the Blair Witch, and Kim a Goth who claims to be psychic.  The first night they are interrupted by a rival tour group, but Jeffrey and friends trick them into going elsewhere.  The following morning they wake up with no memory of the previous night, to find up that Stephen and Tristen's notes have been completely destroyed, and Jeffrey's tapes have been buried.  However far more horrific discoveries await them, and their situation becomes more nightmarish as they try to find out what happened during the night.

This was rushed out exactly a year after the release of The Blair Witch Project.  It opens up with a disclaimer claiming that the film is based on a true story, and the director Joe Berlinger had previously, and subsequently, worked only as a documentary film-maker, but this abandons the found footage format of the original film for a more conventional style.  The film opens with a series of news reports about the success of The Blair Witch Project, and the negative impact that it had on the town of Burkittsville.  Initially, at least, it is almost a commentary on the first film, the groups represented by the tour group were all the most drawn to and affected by the original.

This was slated by critics and audiences on it's original release, and is widely seen as a failure.  When I first saw it in the cinema back in 2000, I loved it.  I thought it was cool, gory fun.  Watching it this evening, there is still a lot to like, but I think it could certainly have been better, and there are scenes in this movie where a much better film seems to be trying to get out.   Director Berlinger claimed that the film was originally intended to be much more ambiguous and really a psychological horror film, but it was re-edited by the studios, with additional scenes of gore added.  To be fair, it's not really a bad film.  It's entertaining and it moves along fast enough.  Some of the performances leave a lot to be desired, it doesn't make a lot of sense, and the second half in particular is pretty confused, but it is nowhere near as irritating as a lot of these "fractured reality/dream" horror films.  It does feel like very much a product of it's time, with the loud goth-rock soundtrack, and flashily edited gore.

  Stephen Barker Turner, Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan and Tristine Skyler in Book of Shadows:  Blair Witch 2

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Blair Witch

Year:  2016
Director:  Adam Wingard
Screenplay:  Simon Barrett
Starring:  James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson
Running Time:  89 minutes
Genre:  horror, supernatural

James Donohue (McCune) finds an online video which seemingly contains an image of his sister Heather, who disappeared twenty years previously in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while investigating the local legend of the Blair Witch.  Believing his sister may still be alive, James heads off into the woods, accompanied by his friends Peter (Scott), Ashley (Reid) and film student Lisa (Hernandez) who intends to film their search for a documentary.  They are joined by Burkittsville locals Lane (Robinson) and Talia (Curry) who uploaded the footage.  Before long a series of strange and frightening events befall them.  

This is the second sequel to the influential The Blair Witch Project (1999), following the unsuccessful Book of Shadows:  Blair Witch 2 (2000).  As with the original film, this is a "found footage" movie, where everything is allegedly filmed by the characters on screen.  While in the original this was novel and innovative, here it looks kind of tired, due to the flood of found footage films that unleashed themselves after the success of Blair Witch Project.  By and large this has the same basic structure as the original, except everything is bigger: instead of the original trio, here there are six people lost in the woods; whereas in the first film they had a couple of cameras, here they have an arsenal of DV cameras, spy cameras, ear-mounted headset cameras, and a drone.  Also, while the original film thrived on subtlety and ambiguity, there is nothing subtle here, with sudden jump scares, loud noises, crashing trees, and tents, equipment and people shooting into the sky and crashing back to earth.  This turns it into a fairly conventional horror film, also, unlike the original, you are left in no doubt that the threat is supernatural, and the Blair Witch feels thoroughly demystified by the end.  There are some tense scenes and some elements, such as the way time and space become distorted, are quite effective.  However, the characters are pretty much one dimensional and spend most of the time bickering or screaming.  The found footage style quickly becomes tiresome and frustrating, with the jerky, grainy images.

Valorie Curry runs afoul of the Blair Witch


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

Year of Publication: 2002
Length:  505 pages
Genre:  Fiction, fantasy, surreal

In present day Japan, fifteen year old Kafka Tamura runs away from home, under the shadow of his father's dark prophecy, in order to find his mother and sister, and finds refuge in a small-town library, with a mysterious boy and a beautiful middle-aged librarian, with a dark past.  Meanwhile, gentle elderly Nakata, who has never recovered fully form a bizarre incident in his childhood, supplements his disability allowance by tracking down lost cats, until a brutal murder sends him off on his own bizarre odyssey.  In this world cats can talk to people, fish and leeches rain from the sky, a forest hides soldiers apparently un-aged since World War II, the identity of a murder victim, as well as the killer, is unclear, people are haunted by the ghosts of the living, the boundaries between past and present, life and death, and parallel worlds blur and collapse.

This is a beguiling, surreal, dreamlike novel.  Often baffling, sometimes frustrating, occasionally funny, sometimes sexy, frequently infuriating and also heart-breakingly beautiful at times.   This is not a book that gives up it's secrets willingly, and it offers very few answers to it's many questions.   Reading it is at times like falling into a dream,  and it requires a lot of concentration from the reader.  It moves at a sedate pace, particularly the Kafka storyline.  Murakami fans will immediately recognise many of his hallmarks: cats, books, music (particularly classical and jazz) and food all appear frequently and prominently in the novel, as well as the typical Murakami protagonist, who drifts through the story, letting events transpire around them.

Murakami is, in my opinion, one of the greatest novelists around, and, while this may not be one of his best books, it is still heavily touched by his unique genius.  It's worth surrendering to this frustrating dream, to experience the uniqueness of his imagination and, most of all, for passages that will lodge in your mind and heart.


Sunday, 18 September 2016

Passport to Pimlico

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Henry Cornelius
Screenplay:  T. E. B. Clarke
Starring:  Stanley Holloway, Margaret Rutherford, Barbara Murray
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  comedy

This is a fairly early example of the so-called "Ealing Comedies", a series of films from Britain's Ealing Studios, which were notable for their gentle whimsy.  In Passport to Pimlico, an unexploded World War II bomb is accidentally detonated revealing an underground chamber full of treasure, and  a Royal charter stating that Pimlico, a small borough of central London, is legally part of the French Duchy of Burgundy.  The residents of Pimlico immediately decide to embrace their newfound status as Burgundians, and declare independence form the rest of Britain.  However while it is initially a lot of fun (they tear up their ration books and identity cards, enjoy unlimited opening hours at the local pub, and shopping on a Sunday), the necessity of supplies, not to mention law and order, prove to be serious problems.

This is a quintessentially cosy comedy.  There is some extremely gentle satire on postwar British life, but mostly it's the cinematic equivalent of a coffee and a biscuit on a wet Sunday afternoon.  While there are some solid laughs in the film, mostly it's very gentle whimsy.  It's entertaining enough to keep a smile throughout, but mostly that's about it.  It's the kind of film you can switch on and know that there's nothing to worry about in it, nothing likely to offend, and you'll have a couple of laughs.  There are good performances, and there are enough witty lines and plot developments to keep what is basically a one-gag going.  There could be more bite to the satire and some of the darker elements to the situation never get explored, although that's not really so much a criticism, sometimes it's great to have something completely light and funny, with nothing to worry about, particularly these days.  It is also a look at a bygone world, with bombed-out buildings, and rationing and so on.

           Barbara Murray and Stanley Holloway in Passport to Pimlico

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Blair Witch Project

Year of Release:  1999
Directors:  Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Screenplay:  Jacob Cruse and Eduardo Sanchez
Starring:  Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams
Running Time:  81 minutes
Genre:  horror

It's hard to picture, seventeen years on, the phenomenal impact that The Blair Witch Project had when it was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in late 1999.  It managed to split audiences among those who were caught up in the film's ambiguous chills and genuinely frightened by it, and those who thought it was 81 minutes of tedium, and annoyingly shaky camera work, that could have been made by anyone with a bunch of pals and access to some woods and a video camera.  The idea, as we are informed in the opening titles, is that in October 1994 three film students (Heather (Donahue), Josh (Leonard) and Mike (Williams)) go missing in the forests around the small Maryland town of Burkittsville while filming a documentary about a gruesome local legend.  A year later their footage is found, and it is this footage that is allegedly presented to the viewers.

The film made use of a very innovative marketing campaign, selling the entirely fictional film as if it was a true story, with the help of television "documentaries" and being one of the first films to really utilise the power of internet marketing, at a time when the Web was just becoming widespread, and also of course word of mouth.  The film was promoted by issuing "MISSING" posters for each of the three characters (all of whom shared the same name as the actor playing them) even the venerable Internet Movie Database got in on the fun, listing the cast as "missing presumed deceased".  Of course, the cat was out of the bag before long.  This small film became the most successful independent film of all time, and popularised the "found footage" sub-genre of horror although  Blair Witch Project wasn't the first to use the technique (that honor probably goes to Cannibal Holocaust (1980)).  The film keeps it's horror ambiguous, an approach that beguiled some viewers and frustrated others.  The ending in particular is open to interpretation.  It's even debatable as to whether there is anything supernatural going on at all.

Looking at it now, on DVD, away from all the hype, the film has lost a lot of it's impact, particularly after the glut of found footage horrors that came in it's wake.  It's not without it's merit though.  A good horror film needs a basic fear to latch on to in the viewer, with Blair Witch Project it's being lost, alone and frightened with no way out.  I would venture to suggest that most of us have had experience of being lost at some point in our lives, to a greater or lesser extent, I'm sure very few of us have been stuck out in the woods and tormented by a powerful supernatural force, but you may have been stuck out late in an unfamiliar part of town, or stranded in a strange place and unsure how to get back.

There have been two sequels to date:  Book of Shadows:  Blair Witch 2 (2000) which was released exactly a year later, and is widely regarded as a disaster, and Blair Witch (2016).

 Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Soft Skin

Year of Release:  1964
Director:  Francois Truffaut
Screenplay:  Francois Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard
Starring:  Jean Desailly, Francoise Dorleac, Nelly Benedetti
Running Time:  113 minutes
Genre:  Drama, romance

This French-Portuguese film from legendary French New Wave director Francois Truffaut tells the story of celebrated academic Pierre Lachenay (Desailly) who lives a comfortable life in Paris with his wife Franca (Benedetti) and young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin).  During a trip to Lisbon to give a lecture he becomes infatuated with young airline stewardess Nicole (Dorleac) and they strike up an affair.  Despite their best efforts, Pierre and Nicole drift towards tragedy.

Despite being nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and the fact that Truffaut was riding high on the international success of The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962), The Soft Skin was a major box office disappointment.  It's a pity because this is a very good film.  An essentially dark and somber drama, this still sparkles with Truffaut's style, albeit toned down from his previous works.  This is a morality play, a drama about the workings of adultery and it's devastating consequences.  You know it's going to end badly from the start, even with some humorous scenes towards the middle involving a horrible dinner party and Pierre trying to be polite to a host who just won't leave him alone.  The abrupt climax hist something of a false note, but it woirks due to the strength of the performances.  This film pays a lot of attention to the workings of the various deceptions Pierre uses to keep his philandering a secret from his wife and his friends and colleagues.  Jean Desailly turns in a fantastic performance as the weak but calculating husband, he manages to give heart to a very unlikable character, who is hard to warm to because most of what happens to him is his own fault, however Desailly makes him at least vaguely sympathetic, but Nelly Benedetti owns the screen with a searing performance as the wronged wife who gives a brilliant savage tongue-lashing to a man who harasses her on the street.

Francoise Dorleac (who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve) also gives a great, quiet performance as the mistress, giving some depth to a fairly under-written character.  Interesting art imitated life, because Truffaut left his wife for Dorleac.  Dorleac never got the chance to become the major star she could have been, because she tragically died in a car crash in 1967 at the age of 25.

       Jean Desailly and Francoise Dorleac in The Soft Skin

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Cafe Society

Year of Release:   2016
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott
Running Time:  96 minutes
Genre:  comedy-drama, romance

It always seems like with the release of any Woody Allen film the big question is whether or not he is once again back to his best.  In a career spanning almost fifty theatrical films, Cafe Society is not among his very best, but it is far from his worst.  Set in the 1930s, the story tells of naive, idealistic young Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) who moves to Los Angeles from New York City to work for his Uncle Phil (Carell), a big-time Hollywood agent.  Bobby soon finds himself in the glittering world of 1930s "cafe society", and falls in love with the beautiful Vonnie (Stewart), who happens to be already involved with a married man.

It's a comedy-drama film with the emphasis much more on the drama than the comedy.  It has some laughs, particularly a philosophical discussion between an elderly couple that walks the thin line between comedy and drama very well, and almost recaptures the feel of Allen's earlier works.  The trouble is that I couldn't shake the feeling, that, given another couple of drafts of the script, this could have been a really great film.  The performances are very good, Jesse Eisenberg managing not to fall into the trap of doing a prolonged Woody Allen impression as the lead, and Kristen Stewart once again showing that she is a great actress, lending real weight and heart to the role.

This also must be one of the best looking films that Allen has ever made.  Photographed by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, each location and period in the story has it's own distinct palette and feel.  For example, the Hollywood scenes are bathed in a kind of golden glow, like a late afternoon in summer, while the earlier New York scenes have a more monochrome washed out palette, punctuated by vivid bursts of colour.

As another love letter form Woody Allen to the 1930s to his beloved New York City, which surely has seldom looked lovelier than it does at the end of this film, it delivers.  While far from his best, this is sure to please Allen fans, and should engage those wishing to unfamiliar with his work.

        Jesse Eisnberg and Kristen Stewart enjoy some Cafe Society

Friday, 2 September 2016

The Usual Suspects

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Bryan Singer
Screenplay:  Christopher McQuarrie
Starring:  Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  crime, thriller

This became one of the iconic films of the 1990s, launching director Bryan Singer and stars Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro into the front ranks of Hollywood.  Following a horrific gun battle which leaves twenty seven dead, the sole survivor, small time con man "Verbal" Kint (Spacey) tells FBI agent Kujan (Palminteri) of the events leading up to the massacre, starting six weeks earlier in New York City, when Verbal met thieves McManus (Baldwin), Fenster (del Toro), Hockney (Pollak) and Keaton (Byrne) at a police line-up.  In the holding cell they come up with an audacious robbery, that brings them into contact with lawyer Kobayashi (Postlethwaite) who claims to represent the mysterious and legendary criminal mastermind Keyser Soze.

The film is mostly constructed in a flashback structure moving between Kujan's interrogation of Verbal and Verbal's telling his story.  It's a fast-moving and intriguing story that mostly seems to be moving one way, telling a story that will doubtless be familiar to any thriller fan, but then takes some real turns, leading up to what is one of the most famous final twists in movie history.  Writer Christopher McQuarrie won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award.

The film has some great performances, Kevin Spacey won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.  However, the casting of white English actor Pete Postlethwaite as the apparently Indian Kobayashi strikes something of a false note, although the false note might actually be intentional.  Also the only prominent female character, Keaton's lawyer girlfriend Edie played by Suzy Amis, barely has any screentime, and really has nothing to do.

The film is full of quotable lines, and Singer directs with a distinct style, creating some memorable images.  Several scenes have really entered the annals of pop-culture.  It's not a perfect film by any means, many of the characters are quite cliched and, aside really from Verbal and Keaton, the rest of the gang of crooks just seem to be there to fill up space.  It's worth watching though, because it is very entertaining, and the climax is still effective.

 Round up The Usual Suspects: Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio del Toro, Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey