The Balloon

The Balloon (1956)

Directed by Yuzo Kawashima. Screenplay by Shohei Imamura and Yuzo Kawashima.

My favourite streaming service, MUBI have been doing a retrospective of Kawashima films the last few weeks and I hadn’t seen this one before.

Like much of Kawashima’s work, this black and white feature is a classic melodrama in the style of Powell and Pressburger or Douglas Sirk – that is, nuanced, complex, tragic but ultimately, uplifting. It concerns a successful camera manufacturer in post-war Tokyo and his family – adult rakish son, disabled but lovely daughter and his dutiful wife form his household. This is juxtaposed by the son’s mistress (who befriends the disabled sister), a shady nightclub owner (who knows the parents) and the femme fatale, who sings in the nightclub and becomes the son’s new lover. Complex, right? It gets better. The father once lived in Kyoto and returns there on a business trip, meeting the daughter of the family who helped him in a time of great need, immediately after the war, and he starts to dream of better days and a better future.

It doesn’t look much on paper, but Kawashima manages to pull all the threads of this most complicated narrative together in a way that is simply beautiful. Straddling the old and new ways of life, this is a film that looks back with regret but looks forward with hope. The framing and photography are lovely, much improved from his previous film Till We Meet Again (1955) and the script is surprisingly lean, yet gives opportunities for each of the characters to shine.

The delicate balance of gender and generational difference (a feature of Kawashima’s oeuvre of this period) is on full display here, and the ending is just gorgeous. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this film before!

Recommended for anyone who has an interest in Japanese cinema, film history or just enjoys a complex, well-told story.

Parasite

Kang-ho Song, Ik-han Jung, Hyun-jun Jung, Joo-hyung Lee, Ji-hye Lee, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Myeong-hoon Park, Keun-rok Park, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, Seo-joon Park, So-dam Park, Jeong-eun Lee, and Ji-so Jung in Gisaengchung (2019)

Parasite (2019)

Directed by Bong Joon Ho. Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han from a story by Bong Joon Ho.

I finally got to see this in a local cinema recently and from all the chatter surrounding this since it debuted at Cannes in May 2019 I knew I was in for a treat.

In hindsight, I don’t think I was quite prepared for what a sheer delight this movie is.

I’d seen two of Bong Joon Ho’s previous works, the brilliant and thought provoking monster movie The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), which didn’t really resonate with me. So I came to Parasite with more than a little reticence. It’s occurred to me since that a) maybe I prefer his Korean language films and b) I need to watch more of Bong’s films!

From the opening title sequence, it is very clear this is a superbly designed, framed, filmed and edited work. All kudos to Production Designer Ha-jun Lee, DoP Kyung-pyo Hong and film editor Jinmo Yang for their stellar work. The original music by Jaeil Jung is minimal, unobtrusive and unlike so many films, never dictates audience reaction but only ever compliments the action on screen.

Essentially, this is the story of two families, one living in squalor and poverty due to some catastrophic business decisions by the head of the household and the other in a designer built house that becomes (through some elegant and precise framing techniques) another character in the movie. Core themes of class and the disparity between wealthy and poor are never far from view. The cast, led by the always excellent Song Kang Ho are exceptional and realistic, taking the story from laugh out loud hilarity to tense drama in literally the blink of an eye.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some great films this year, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Knives Out, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Lighthouse but Parasite is going to be hard to better. I unreservedly loved this movie – perhaps all the more because it’s in the original Korean. Although I watch a lot of films with subtitles, Parasite isn’t as heavy on dialogue as many and would be a relatively easy watch for those unfamiliar with subs.

I would encourage every adult to go and see it in the cinema – don’t let the one inch barrier hold you back from a whole world of great cinema!

The Beast in the Jungle

 

The Beast in the Jungle (2019)

The Beast in the Jungle (2019)

Directed by Clara Van Gool. Written by Glyn Maxwell and Clara Van Gool

This debuted at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2019 and is an imperfect yet quite daring take on the Henry James short novel of the same name. Van Gool is a well-known Dutch director of television and short films and has a penchant for dance in her work. Here she uses professional dancers Sarah Reynolds and Dane Jeremy Hurst to play the leads. The story concerns May Bartram and John Marcher and John’s obsession with the notion he is destined for something that is going to pounce upon him at any moment – like the titular beast in the jungle.

The film is beautifully framed and shot in muted tones by DoP, Richard Van Oosterhout and the opening act in particular reminded me of Merchant Ivory films, such as Maurice (1987) and A Room With a View (1985). The production design by Rosie Stapel and Diana van de Vossenberg works brilliantly here too. These scenes gave me a distinct feeling of melancholy, very similar to the novella, which I found a positive sign.

But Van Gool and Maxwell’s script brings the protagonists into the 20th century while maintaining the same muted colouring, which gave these scenes a very drab feel. I can see how this would fit with the source text, the unrequited love and overarching sadness but the bouncing back and forth is confusing for the audience and does little to propel the story. A far better recent example of this technique would be Greta Gerwig’s wonderful Little Women (2019)

The dance elements of the film are probably its best feature. Reynolds and Hurst might not be the greatest actors delivering lines, but through their bodies provide all the longing, uncertainty and pure physical attraction of this most chaste of love stories. At 87 minutes, it isn’t an overly long film but I felt the story wasn’t strong enough to carry a feature length work.

Van Gool’s experiments with temporal shifts often don’t play out well but I can understand why she tried this. It’s another example of risk-taking in film to try and find a new way to visually tell a story – and for that I applaud her!

Ether

Eter (2018)

Ether (2018)

Written and directed by Krzysztof Zanussi.

This is the latest release from Polish auteur, Krzysztof Zanussi and is an interesting, and at times, quite disturbing watch.

Without spoiling the movie – all this happens in the first 10 minutes – this is a retelling of the Faust story, starring Jacek Ponidzialek as a doctor totally committed to science, who is experimenting with ether in early 20th century Russia. When one of his experiments (and attempted rape) goes wrong and the subject dies, he is sentenced to hang. This is commuted at the last moment to exile and he ends up as doctor to a garrison in the remote edges of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here the doctor continues to experiment and be fascinated by ether and its effect on his subjects.

The big takeaway for me was how beautiful this movie is and how that is juxtaposed by the doctor’s increasing fascination with control and his spiral into madness. DoP Piotr Niemyjski has done stunning work here, as have Production Designer Joanna Macha and Costume Designer Katarzyna Lewinska. The visuals are simply sumptuous and framed in many instances like a painting. This also offsets some of the more grisly aspects of the film and the increasing tension as Europe heads towards WW1.

However, this takes risks with the narrative that I’m not sure a lot of 21st century audiences will get. For me, the doctor becomes too much a mad scientist and a thoroughly unappealing lead I felt no sympathy for. While this is no fault of Ponidzialek who does well with what he’s given and brings moments of complexity, my lack of sympathy made me feel increasingly distanced from the film – I was never truly immersed in it as I have been with some of Zannusi’s earlier works (in particular the 2000 release Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease). And I found the ending a little over-blown and unnecessary – I’d already worked out who was pulling the strings – but maybe that goes over the heads of people not familiar with Goethe.

It’s flawed and some of the risks don’t pay off but I’d always rather watch something that dares to take a chance. For the cinematography alone, this is certainly worth watching.

The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse (2019)

Written by Robert & Max Eggars. Directed by Robert Eggars.

As anyone who comes here regularly would know, I watch a lot of movies. Sometimes they are perfectly fine while up on the screen but don’t stay with me, and within hours I need to refer to notes made in the cinema to jog my memory into writing a review. Not so with Robert Eggars’ latest film – I found it truly memorable and cannot stop thinking about it!

The Lighthouse is many things, which makes it difficult to adequately describe without giving away massive plot spoilers – which I have no intention of doing. Suffice it to say, I found this seemingly simple story of two men alone in a lighthouse a riveting cinematic experience that becomes increasingly complex and deep. From the opening scene, this is a film that demands your full attention and becomes (at times) uncomfortably intense.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star in this two-hander and both are excellent. I’ve come to expect this of Dafoe, who never disappoints, but Pattinson is extraordinary here and has become an actor of depth and serious value. There is surprisingly little dialogue between them but that is delivered with intent and tension. For a relatively quiet film, it’s very loud, with superb diagetic sound and a score that weaves through this isolated and desolate world.

For film nerds (like me), the movie was shot on 35 mm black and white film stock, using vintage Baltar lenses, which required much stronger lighting for the interior scenes, creating deeper contrasts and also forcing the almost square 1.19:1 (or Movietone) aspect ratio. This makes so much of the film ultra close up and at times, downright claustrophobic despite being so isolated. There are many seemingly small things like this that combine together to make this film a cinephile’s delight – the haunting sound design, the very specific dialects used by the actors, the atmospheric score by Mark Korven, the brilliant cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and the superb editing by Louise Ford. All combine together to make a truly memorable cinematic experience.

Narratively, the story was drawn initially from an unfinished work by Edgar Allen Poe and a real-life incident from an early 19th century Welsh lighthouse. But at its heart, I think this has more in common with Greek tragedy – particularly Proteus, the prophetic sea god and Prometheus, the trickster who stole fire from the gods and was punished so horribly. Set in the late 19th century, this is a period piece that doesn’t exclude modern viewers. There are strong themes of the performative nature of work and masculinity, which are relatable audience entry points and become so very obvious as the layers of social norms are stripped away from the characters and their true natures revealed. And above all, the lighthouse – which almost becomes a character itself, in all its intense and claustrophobic isolation.

At times, The Lighthouse is a hard watch and if you’re not a fan of being challenged by a piece of cinema, I cannot recommend it to you. However, if you like horror that is cerebral as well as visceral, you’ve come to the right place. If there is a fault, it is a little over-long with a running time of 109 minutes, but I wonder now if that was intentional. Like Eggars’ previous feature, The Witch (2015) there are questions posed that are never answered. The existential horror at the core of this drama is arguably something that exists in all of us and here, Robert Eggars in concert with his excellent cast and crew, gradually peel away the artifice of societal expectations to reveal that dark heart.

The Lighthouse is currently in (relatively) wide release across Australia and I’d like to thank Monster Fest for the opportunity to see and review it.

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life (2019)

A Hidden Life (2019)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

Like a lot of cinephiles, I have something of a love/hate relationship with Terrence Malick. At his best, the trademarks of his filmmaking (voice over narration, sweeping landscapes shot at “golden hour”, extended tracking shots) work together to create something so much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m thinking here of movies like Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and parts of The Tree of Life (2011). But when Malick’s not on point, it can end up as a bloated mess, such as Knight of Cups (2015) or Song to Song (2017), which I found almost unwatchable. 

I went to a well-attended Members’ Preview Screening at the State Cinema last night and while my expectations weren’t terribly high, I was hoping for an improvement from Malick – and I got that at least! 

A Hidden Life is based on the story of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian-born conscientious objector who went to prison in Germany rather than swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. He left behind in Austria his equally devout wife Fani, his widowed mother and three daughters, who bore the brunt of discrimination from their village for his actions. In 2007 Jagerstatter was beatified by the Catholic church and the religious themes are writ very large across this movie

The film opens with black and white footage coupled with choral music that creates atmosphere as well as exposition for what’s to come. The cinematography by regular Malick collaborator Jorg Widmer is superb. Malick of course makes much of the glorious alpine scenery, the framing is utterly superb and many of those trademark tracking shots here are simply breathtaking in their beauty and as exemplary cinematic craft. It’s worth seeing for this alone. 

The two leads, August Diehl as Franz and Valerie Pachner as Fani are vibrant and engaging and there is a dream-like quality about the idyllic scenes of their simple life in the Austrian alps. However, as the ramifications of Franz’s decision not to fight begin to show, Malick employs increasing jump cuts to heighten their feelings of anxiety and it was more than a little too obvious, taking me right out of the movie. The music by James Newton Howard was alright but to my ear also became far too obvious, especially towards the end of the movie. 

This ends up as a film in two parts. The alpine idyll and the hell of prison, overlaid with narration from Franz and Fani’s letters to each other. This also features a beautifully understated cameo from the late and very great Bruno Gantz as Judge Leuben, who presides over Franz’s hearing in Germany. 

While I think this is a clearly better work than any of Malick’s more recent efforts, it still left me feeling like it didn’t quite work as well as it should. Once again, Malick is overly heavy-handed in key scenes, like he doesn’t trust his audience to be cine-literate enough to get the message, but (as in The Tree of Life) this only occurs in parts. Nevertheless, for me it undercut the overall emotional impact of the piece.

At just short of three hours, this is a long and at times, uneven examination of one man’s small act of defiance and its effect on his family but small acts of defiance are important and should be celebrated at every opportunity. Certainly worth seeing for the cinematography, but do go and see this on the big screen to get the full grandeur of the alps. 

A Hidden Life opens in Australia on the 30th January 2020.

Knives Out

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, LaKeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell, and Katherine Langford in Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out (2019)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson.

A few years ago, when I first started getting serious about studying cinema, I began listening to the podcast You Must Remember Thiscreated, written and narrated by film historian and critic Karina Longworth. (By the way, her book Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood is a really great read if you’re remotely interested in Hollywood history). One of my tutors told me Longworth was Rian Johnson’s partner and I must’ve seemed very dim. “You know, the guy who directed Looper”. This made me sit up and take notice, as I found Looper (2012) an interesting take on both sci fi and action genres. And I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed his handling of The Last Jedi (2017), so risky and refreshing after the very safe The Force Awakens (2015).

So, I feel I’ve come to this movie (and Rian Johnson generally) quite late and by a circuitous route. But as with all good things, it’s better late than never! And Knives Out is a delight in so many ways.

As someone who grew up reading crime fiction (everything from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), I felt right at home from the opening scene of the grand and incredibly Gothic Thrombey house. The overall production design was fabulous and the house interiors owed much to movies like Sleuth (1972). The soundtrack by Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) is excellent and the cinematography by Johnson regular Steve Yedlin delivers all the right atmosphere required for a film like this.

In a nutshell (and without spoilers) wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is discovered dead the morning after a family gathering for his birthday. His nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) seems to be the only one genuinely grieving – the rest of his family appear mostly concerned about money and inheritance.  While it’s presumed Thrombey committed suicide, famed detective Benoit Blanc has been called in because there are questions – and so the fun begins!

The ensemble cast are rock solid throughout and I found Chris Evans and Daniel Craig particularly endearing as the spoiled brat Ransom Drysdale and private detective Benoit Blanc respectively. Much has been said about Craig’s ridiculous accent but I think it’s all perfectly appropriate to the setting and dialogue Johnson has created for him. Indeed, it’s probably my favourite performance from Craig to date. As much as I’ve enjoyed him in Marvel movies, it was also great to see Chris Evans do something other than Captain America and this is a perfect break away role for him. But the heart of the movie is Marta, so beautifully played by Ana de Armas.

As much as this is a love letter to whodunit/murder mysteries and has all the story beats and twists to match, I also read this film as a statement about greed and our obsession with wealth – a timely reminder that it’s better to be a good person than a nasty rich person.

Johnson’s directorial touch is subtle and lighthearted for the most part, and it’s clear that he and the cast had a tremendous amount of fun making this – there’s already talk for a follow up feature for Benoit Blanc! It’s also showed in box office receipts and Johnson’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and I hope he wins. Despite being close to the end of it’s cinema release, my Saturday session at the State Cinema was well attended and there were many genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Incredibly entertaining fare and highly recommended!

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