Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Review: Samson and Delilah (2009)

Great films, really great films are hard to come by. Really great films produced in Australia are even harder to come by--lately.

It is thankful then when lyrical and beautiful films like Samson and Delilah are produced.
The words 'lyrical and beautiful' have to be taken with a grain of salt, though, because this film does cover some gritty issues that aren't glossed over nor should they be.

The film centres around two rural young Aboriginals, Samson and Delilah (played with realism and pathos by new-comers Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson). Their lives are fairly routine and very little changes during the first five or so days in which we encounter them. Then tragedy strikes Delilah when her grandmother passes away. Perhaps needing a change from their lives, Samson and Delilah move off to the city. There they find that they are just as isolated as they are at home. They struggle for food, find shelter underneath a bridge, endure hostile treatment from others and take salvage in petrol and in each other.

Some of the scenes are hard to watch because they're so confronting. Oftentimes you want to pretend that Indigenous issues don't exist. Very often one can go day to day and not think of such issues or care about them. The film depicts this and shows people--white people--looking down on Samson and Delilah and trying to shoo them away from their guarded society. Watching the film you find yourself despising these people, but then wondering if you're just like them. It can be unsettling. Such is the power of this film.

Warwick Thornton directed, wrote and photographed this film and he did a premier job at that. Although at times the film seemed initially slow-moving and so very quiet, but then the action and the emotions build up. The film gradually gains hold of your complete attention and then doesn't leave it until the credits roll. Before you know it, these characters and their plight are so important to you that whatever happens to them is going to deeply affect you.

The cinematography is beautiful. Thornton's camera captures beautiful sunsets and silhouettes. The rural area that Samson and Delilah live in looks simultaneously harsh and beautiful, depending on the scene. The camera also captures great close-ups of both characters, acting as a window to their feelings.

The end scene is one of the finest I've seen. In spite of all the brutality and despondency of before, Samson and Delilah give each other looks of hope and belief. I guess one of the film's ultimate message is that love, support and connection can be stronger than anything that goes against it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Reflections on A Clockwork Orange (1971)

I won't call this a review, cos I don't know how far into that territory it will go...also I don't know if I could really review this film or even just articulate what I feel about it. It's been two days since I saw it and it's still in my mind, not quite ready to be released into words.

It's the kind of film that comes along once or twice a year if you're lucky (and watch too many films a year). By that I mean, it's the special kind of film that sinks you right into its unusual world and then follows you wherever you go for a few days. The feeling is indescribable (or maybe that's a cop out way of saying 'I won't even try to understand my emotions towards this film').

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) leaves you with recollections of its music, colours and the kind of stunning cinematography you wouldn't except to find in one of the most violent and controversial films (the word 'violence' needs to be used carefully however--it's not the kind that makes you want to turn away, but it does make you uneasy and unsettled). And then you're left with mixed feelings about the main character Alex, and of the systems which keep humans in order.

Could you ever imagine feeling sympathy for someone who rapes and beats up people for kicks? You just may if you see this film. The person in question is Alex DeLarge (played so very convincingly by Malcolm MacDowell), a young man who's apparently still in high school. He goes from being a delinquent with an eerie, dominant presence with a fetish for 'ultra violence' to a prison inmate who takes part in the new 'Ludovico' experiment to get out of jail.

This experiment, however, doesn't end up being the simple procedure he probably expected. It involves him being held down by this electrical equipment, his eyes clipped open, while he watches images of the activities that used to make him feel good. However, as he watched this images again, he only feels pain, and you see him squirming unbearably since he can't close his eyes. Gradually he's reinforced to see violence as bad.

And interesting things happen to your belief system. You noticed that he's being subjected to the kind of torture he used to take part in. He's transferred from the perpertrator to the victim, gaining your initially stubborn sympathy in the process. Secondly, he's getting 'treated' against his will, in that he didn't get to make the conscious decision to be good. We might feel that criminals forsook their liberty when they committed their crimes, but 'A Clockwork Orange' nonetheless sways you to look at things in another way.

And along the way you discover--perhaps while Alex's creepy eyes from the beginning are still in your consciousness--that this young man can be funny and intelligent. And during the post-prison scenes where he comes back into society, the ill-treatment he receives actually makes you feel kind of bad for him. I know, I know, how can this be? It's these weird torn effects that make the film so enthralling.

Stanley Kubrick is often referred to as a 'visionary director' and you can see a unique, bizarre vision unfolding itself in front of your eyes. It doesn't turn out to be the film you'd expect by reading reviews and just looking at the dvd cover. Simply because what it turns out to be is nothing you'd imagine. I think it's brave of Kubrick to step so out of the square--risky, unconventional films either become rejected or they're placed above most other films. I think 'A Clockwork Orange' falls in the latter category.

It's also risky for another reason, which is its content: constant phallic symbols, rape, nudity, are perhaps hard to digest, and maybe it's even more jarring when Beethoven's music is in the background in these scenes. With such a content it's not the kind of film I'd expect myself to rave about, and I still feel a little weirded out by how much I liked the film, but it really is a film to wonder and ponder about.

Moving back to Kubrick, the other intriguing thing I found out about him is that he's a perfectionist. Apparently he likes to sometimes do up to 30 (or was it more...) takes for a scene. He often worked a considerable long time on each film, and as a result he made about 2-3 films in each decade from the 50s till the 90s. And if you go on Imdb, astonishingly, most of them are either in the top 250 or rated above 7.5. Which is kind of rare. I really look forward to seeing and reflecting on his other work.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Review: A Damsel in Distress (1937)

In spite of a varied and rich career in front of the screen, Fred Astaire will perhaps always be most remembered for his partnership with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s. It seems the audience knew it even then, if box office statistics are anything to go by. I say this because the one time Fred decided to break away and make a Ginger-less film, it sunk.

Up till this day I'm pretty sure that this 'infamous' film - A Damsel in Distress - is still most well known for being the only one out of Astaire's 1930s output to lose money at the box office. However, with its steady 7.0 imdb rating and its availability on TCM, perhaps all is not lost with this somewhat obscure gem.

The opening title sequence alone promises that this film will deliver. Aside from Fred Astaire, you have a strong supporting cast led by the beloved partnership of George Burns and Gracie Allen. You also have Joan Fontaine who would later become an accomplished actress most famous for Hitchock's Rebecca. Joan was only beginning her career at this point and in addition, she wasn't a trained dancer. So consequently, as people have noted, she seems like a fish out of water in this musical. Nonetheless, it's always intriguing to see actors in pre-stardom roles.

Then there is George and Ira Gershwin, composer and lyricist respectively of the film's soundtrack. George Gershin wanted to be considered as a serious composer at the time, meaning he didn't only want to be working for money, but also wanting to compose for art's sake. Thus, he rarely composed for film musicals. I think due to the sophistication of George's music and Ira's well fitting lyrics, the film has a touch of elegance. The songs 'A Foggy Day' and 'Things Are Looking Up' are particularly beautiful and romantic.

The other major drawcard of the film is the director, George Stevens. At this point he'd already proved his ability with the Katharine Hepburn vehicle Alice Adams and with a previous Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time. In his pre-war career he was an accomplished director of comedy which you see in the film through a lot of light moments injected into the film with ease.

Once the film gets under way, you find out (or at least I did) that the film lives up to the sum of the talents involved. I can't be objective or elaborate where Fred Astaire is concerned, so I can only say that his great dancing, singing and overall persona is in great form here. George Burns and Gracie Allen establish the fundamentals of their partnership - he is the straight man and receiver of her endearingly loopy personality. Just about all the laugh out loud lines are thanks to them and their delivery. In fact their wonderful exchanges could be devoted to a whole new entry. Here's but one example:

Fred Astaire (to Gracie): What's today [the date]?
Gracie: Well I don't know.
George: You could tell if you look at that newspaper on your desk.
Gracie: [picks it up] Oh this is no help George, it's yeserday's paper.

The other main reason to see this film is for the two wonderful dance numbers between Fred, Gracie and George. As I found out afterwards, Gracie and George did a lot of soft-shoe stuff during their vaudeville years and George even taught tap dancing once. Well it's no wonder then that they dance so well with Fred. The standout is a amusement park number called "Stiff Upper Lip" where they go into this swirly room with slides and distorted mirrors. It's both funny, inventive and a showcase for talent.

The slight letdown of the film is the convulted plot akin to that of the Fred and Ginger films; except minus the charm of the latter. It's a formulaic plot that centres around mistaken-identities and mis-understandings. It's supposed to be funny I guess, but having seen these devices already through Fred and Ginger films, they wear thin. Unfortunately, Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine don't have the best chemistry -- it's sweet and functional, but it doesn't sparkle.

Their dance number 'Things Are Looking Up', though more often maligned than not, tries to work around Joan's limitations: the garden setting blends in with her and Fred's clothing and they are filmed in medium-to long shot through a kind of low angle. You also don't see Joan twirling around much, but when she does she lands a little off-balanced. She's ok with the leaps, though, and there is some nice choreography framed around her strengths. But again, the dance number doesn't sparkle; it begins and ends with little emotion (one of Ginger's strengths) or technical consistency (which Cyd Charisse had in buckets).

However, I will give the romance one positive. The number 'A Foggy Day' not only utilises a beautiful song, but the cinematography too makes it the most profound moment of the film. It comes at a point where Fred thinks (again) that Joan is in love with him, but what he doesn't know yet is that another misunderstanding has occurred. While Joan looks down at him from her window, he's standing around the garden they danced in the day before. He starts singing in his melodic voice that blends as one with the music, and then he looks around himself, seemingly reminescing. All the while there's a sort of fog/light coming from the sky and it gives the whole sequence a magical look.

So in short, the film is delightful and charming in spite of some flaws. What you come away with is a film that holds up better than its box office stats would have you believe.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

a life in graphics

Making that Halloween-themed post reminded me of one of my on-off hobbies since 2007. I kind of like photo editing, even if it is arguably not a craft (though there are indeed graphic makers who can breathe in vivid new life into photos). I can't remember exactly how it began, but it sort of coincided with my budding enjoyment of classic films. As far as my sometimes unreliable memory goes, I was looking at google for classic-movie related stuff and I stumbled upon livejournal. I saw really cool icons and banners made of Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's and the like and saved as many as I could to my computer. I remember wasting days just doing this obsessively.

And then one day I decided to join livejournal and soon after I started creating my own icons. But I've only gone on lj sporadically this year so my graphic-making career has kind of died. I still get the urge though to edit classic film/general film photos from time to time. I thought I'd just post some recent efforts.

B a n n e r s

I c o n s

Halloween Fever

Halloween was technically yesterday here in Aus, but nonetheless I just wanted to post some Halloween-themed pics I kind of manipulated using a photo editing program called Photofiltre. I didn't do much editing, but it was fun nonetheless.

{edit: unfortunately the images have lost some of their quality during the upload, but oh well}

C'est tout.