Beyond the Door

Well, it’s October and in the run-up to Halloween I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies, albeit fairly obscure titles. I love cheesy horror films and it’s been a welcome distraction from the near constant pain in my hands and fingers. So the next few blog posts will all be reviews of some of the best worst movies I’ve been watching lately.

Beyond the Door Poster

Beyond the Door (1974)

Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis and Roberto Piazzoli.

This Italian/US made supernatural chiller leans heavily on Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). So much so, the original cut was subject to a lawsuit from Warner Bros against the producers for copyright violation, which was settled some years later.

It stars Richard Johnson, Gabriele Lavia and most notably, Juliet Mills who was looking for more adult, dramatic roles to take her away from the Mary Poppins image cultivated by her popular starring role in Nanny and the Professor (1970-71). Mills plays Jessica, wife of Lavia’s Robert and mother to two particularly obnoxious children. Johnson plays Dimitri, Jessica’s former lover who sold his soul to the Devil in order to survive an otherwise fatal car crash. Jessica finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and of course, from here all kinds of shenanigans ensue.

The look and feel of this film is really very good, with exteriors shot in southern California and interiors in Rome. Make-up artist Otello Sisi does an excellent job, as do special effects artists Donn Davison and Wally Gentleman, who famously made the spaceship models for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Unfortunately, the writing really lets this down, and the actors do the best they can with a story that doesn’t really have that much to say and a script that hasn’t aged well.

Worth watching and quite a lot of fun- but not a patch on the films that influenced it. Beyond the Door is available to watch on YouTube via the excellent channel New Castle After Dark.

Automata

Automata Poster

Automata (2014)

Directed by Gabe Ibanez. Written by Igor Legarreta, Javier Sanchez Donate and Gabe Ibanez.

On paper, this film should be really, really good. It has a strong cast, the cinematography is equal to many contemporary films, and the overall production design is really excellent, albeit a little too reminiscent at times of some other, better known films. The narrative premise (again, nothing new) is solid and offers the promise of a deeper interrogation of questions of value, the nature of life and so on.

So why doesn’t work?

By the end of the first act I found myself wondering why I was watching yet another dystopian sci-fi, with a jaded but essentially goodhearted male anti-hero at its core. Antonio Banderas is in the hot seat this time, just trying to do the right thing by everyone – the company he works for, his heavily pregnant wife and increasingly, a sex robot named Cleo and her group of fellow robots trying to escape human interference across an irradiated wasteland. Yeah, I know, I don’t get it either.

This sombre piece uses a faded colour palette, and often overbearing score, the age-old cinematic tropes around femininity and motherhood and some very clunky dialogue to hammer home its message of human frailty in the face of self-aware machines. All in all it’s incredibly heavy-handed and should have been much more fun.

Automata is available to watch in Australia on Netflix, but I’d suggest revisiting Blade Runner (1982) or Mad Max (1979) for better quality dystopian sci-fi.

The Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth Poster

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Directed by Frant Gwo.

This 2019 Chinese science-fiction film is loosely based on a novella of the same name from 2000 by Liu Cixin. Made for a relatively modest US$50 million, this made US$700 million world wide, making it the third highest grossing Chinese production of all time.

Narratively, it’s messy with too many side plots, but essentially, the sun is dying and in an audacious move, a newly formed world government decides to turn the earth into a spaceship, using multiple propulsion engines around the planet. The remaining inhabitants are sheltered deep underground in specially built bunkers, only returning to the now frozen surface to carry out maintenance activities. Leading the earth on its 2500 year voyage is a massive rotating space station, complete with a HAL-like computer, all eerily reminiscent of 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968). As the station and Earth pass by Jupiter things start to come unstuck and shenanigans ensue.

Directed by Frant Gwo, this is a big movie with big ideas and big themes. Everything about this film is over the top, with spectacular special effects, bombastic performances and frenetic pacing throughout. At times, it was really hard to keep up with the action and in many respects, it reminded me of an anime or manga.

Unfortunately, this was only ever released in the west on the streaming platform Netflix and I think it could have gained much from a cinematic release outside of China. Also, the science is frankly preposterous, and that did take me out of the action at times. Nevertheless, I had fun with this film and for all its flaws, found it quite enjoyable.

The Wandering Earth is available in Australia on Netflix in the original Mandarin with English subtitles, English closed caption or dubbed.

Out of Blue

 

Patricia Clarkson in Out of Blue (2018)

Out of Blue (2018) Written and directed by Carol Morley.

To the best of my knowledge, this existential neo noir never got a full cinema release in Australia, but I heard a very positive review by British critic Mark Kermode and had been listening to the excellent Clint Mansell soundtrack since it was released to streaming services. It seems to have divided audiences and critics, with some finding it boring and pointless, while others (like me) find it a satisfyingly open-ended examination of memory, belonging and our place in the universe that happens to be woven around a straightforward crime narrative.

I watched this last night and now (the following morning) I just want to watch it again! Like so many films that defy standard conventions, I think there’s a lot of subtext to be found on repeat viewing and this is one of those movies that’s really got under my skin.

British filmmaker Carol Morley loosely based her screenplay on the 1997 novel ‘Night Train’ by Martin Amis (a book I haven’t read) and from all accounts, turned the narrative on its head in order to bring this singularly thoughtful film to the screen.

At its core is the excellent performance of Patricia Clarkson as the troubled detective Mike Hoolihan. The stillness that Clarkson brings to this role provides a solid central point that makes it work so well for me. The fine cinematography by Conrad W. Hall and production design by Jane Levick bring tremendous atmosphere to the movie and the continued use of a red and blue colour palette work beautifully.

I can see that some viewers would be confused by what appears to be a standard crime thriller turning into a visual essay on metaphysics but I like films that challenge as well as entertain. Despite some critics finding this confusing or messy, I really enjoyed it. If you’re in the mood for something a little more abstract in narrative cinema, seek this out.

Out of Blue is available on YouTube Movies or Google Play to rent or buy.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet – Iso-Posts #8

I’ve been very overtired and surprisingly busy the last couple of days and, rather than ramble on a daily basis, decided to wait until I could form coherent sentences again. There’s been sadness too, with friends in hospital and another sadly dying – I can only presume from COVID-19 complications. Such is life.

It makes this Soviet-era movie all the more relevant, though the title is perfect – the dawns here in Hobart really are very quiet at the moment, and it’s a pleasant change from the usual early morning traffic noise! Hope you’re all well ❤

A zori zdes tikhie (1972)

The Dawns Here Are Quiet (1972)

Written and directed by Stanislav Rostotsky. Based on the novel by Boris Vasilyev.

This is a movie that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages but for one reason or another, just didn’t get to until it popped up on MUBI a few weeks ago. Despite being in self-isolation for weeks, I’ve actually found it hard to settle into a long movie. My concentration starts wandering after a mere 90 minutes and internet drop-outs have been causing more headaches than I could reasonably deal with. Here, the running time of 158 minutes was an issue and I decided to take the filmmaker’s advice and watch it in two parts over a couple of days.

As Russia’s nominee for what was then Best Foreign Language Film at the 1973 Academy Awards, this really is quite a remarkable work. Set in WWII, the story concerns a group of young women who are training to be an anti-aircraft unit, stationed at a remote outpost in Karelia near the Finnish border. Their leader (and the only significant male character in the film) Vaskov helps them adjust to their new lives and the first half of the film deals with them getting to know and appreciate each other as fellow soldiers and as friends. While I know it’s important character building, I did feel this section dragged a little for me. But his cameraderie comes into full play in the second half of the film, when one of the girls sneaks off to a nearby village to visit her mother and spots two German paratroopers. From there it becomes quite a well-paced drama, very Russian and at times, very dour.

Rostotsky was a protege of Sergei Eisenstein and here, it shows. The framing (particularly of the outdoor scenes) is glorious and mention must be made of the cinematography by Vyacheslav Shumsky. Also, great use is made of colour, with the day-to-day life of WWII being in drab (but at times atmospheric) black and white and the girls’ dream-like memories presented in full colour.

Some of the narrative rationale is a little on the nose in 2020, most notably that many of the girls’ dreams center around traditional heteronormative themes (they’re nothing without a good man who’ll look after them) and at times descends into a patriotic sentimentality that falls flat for me. But considering this was made in 1972 under Soviet control and the original book in the late 60s, I imagine it would’ve been considered quite radical at that time.

Filmically however, this is really worth watching if only for the beautifully framed shots around the lake. I understand the original theatrical release is just over three hours long but this cut has 30 minutes removed from its run time and is available on DVD. It was also remade as a feature film in 2015 and then extended to a four-part television series in 2016. This is currently playing on Amazon Prime AU but I haven’t seen this version so can’t comment. The unedited original movie is available on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2 both with English subtitles.

Look it up and let me know what you think.

 

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary – The Iso-Posts #6

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019)

A movie review today because, let’s face it, I’ve been watching an awful lot of movies lately!

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019)

Directed by Jack Bennett

I find it difficult to believe that it’s 21 years since Galaxy Quest (1999) was released. Although I was living in the bush at the time and going to the cinema was approximately a 280 km round trip (almost 174 miles), I do remember watching this on video and being instantly taken back to my childhood and youth.

The whole movie was a love letter to people like me, who were the nerdy sci-fi aficionados, who literally grew up with Lost In Space (1965-1968) and Star Trek (1966-1969) as the Friday night prime time viewing options and went on to love shows like Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and later Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and my personal favourite, Babylon 5 (1993-1998). Rather than talk down to the fans, Galaxy Quest celebrated them – and this documentary in turn celebrates the film and the profound effect it still has on audiences everywhere.

Many of the cast were interviewed for this and it was particularly lovely when they spoke about the late, great Alan Rickman. Other highlights for me were the interview with Sam Rockwell, who was a relative unknown when he played Guy Fleegman and interviews with Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton who were in Star Trek: TNG. It’s a very positive watch, which is a good thing right now in my opinion, and makes no apologies for any shortcomings one might find in the movie – also fine in my book!

I watched this delightful documentary last night. Because of the current situation with COVID-19, it’s gone straight to streaming rather than the promised cinema release. Here in Australia, it’s available on Amazon Prime.

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.

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