Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of those films that seems to have cultural impact and name recognition that outweighs how many people have actually seen it. Selected imagery from the film has found fame outside the classic film bubble, but reducing the film to that overlooks its worth as a fantastic, stylish genre mashup.
Generally speaking, it takes time for a movie to fully captivate. The web needs to be weaved so to speak. But somehow Eyes Without a Face pulls you right into the mystery from the first few minutes. That’s a difficult thing to achieve. But through shot composition and overall mood driven by the scattered score, a car trip that just feels a little off lures us in. From there the film builds into a crime-horror hybrid that recognises that both mystery and shocks are important to overall success. Doctor Génessier has a real Doctor Frankenstein vibe about him as he yearns for the ‘mad-scientist’ solution to his daughter’s mutilation in a car accident. That probably makes the film and the character of the doctor a touch more whimsical than it is. The film examines how actions that can be grounded in supposed love, can be violent, misogynist and inexcusable. Indeed protestations of love can be used to excuse heinous thoughts, words and deeds. There is great mystery in the way the face of Christiane (the doctor’s daughter) is kept from the camera. This culminates in a literal unmasking that perhaps does not have the Phantom of the Opera (1925) level impact it was aiming for. As for the horror side of things, well for starters the film features one of the greatest masks in film history. Talking Jason or Michael Myers level of simple, terrifying iconography, though perhaps with more thematic weight to it, when considered in light of the focus on patriarchal possession of the female body. The doctor is imposing blankness and uniformity onto his daughter’s body against her will. A body he also touches and manipulates throughout the film without seeking her consent.
Also on the horror front, the film features a sequence of grossness that I didn’t believe existed in film until at the least the 80s. A slow, considered scene of a face being surgically peeled off. This main surgery sequence is methodical, almost silent to emphasise the gravity of what they are doing as a scalpel deliberately runs underneath face skin. These people are literally peeling a face off! And here, unlike in a lot of films, the audience really feels the impact of that and is forced to consider it. A lot of the great style of the film goes to the horror. In another sequence, documentary style still ‘mug-shots’ are used to show the rejection and failing of Christiane’s face transplant. Again this melding of documentary into the horror film for added impact and authenticity feels way ahead of its time. It is also measured and services the themes of the film, rather than just using gross photos to shock the audience, as it is sometimes used for such as in Adam Green’s otherwise pretty excellent Digging up the Marrow (2014). The final shot of peace after the chaos is a horror staple and Eyes Without a Face closes with one that is meaningful and almost physical in the way it soothes jangled emotions wrought by the 90 minutes that precede it.
It is quite amazing the grossness Eyes Without a Face creates quite simply through the well-executed practical effects. A thin mask, good acting, camera placement, shot length and positioning of the characters, all combine to make the scene difficult to watch because of its penetrative ickiness. Part of what makes this scene work so harshly watching it in 2017 is that we as an audience are so used to CGI for something like this. So when practical effects are used so well, it feels almost extra real. There are also a lot more subtle ways that the film injects unease into the audience than face peeling. The shot composition throughout is creepy, even when showing something mundane. It’s often symmetrical, an over-curated vibe playing into the surgical overtones of the film. This also speaks to the control of the doctor over all the characters, as though the films aesthetic is similarly restrained by him. The score is a wonderful mixed bag. A lot of it recalls Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock – scattered, jarring and disconcerts the viewer into a state of trepidation. But there is also a distinct sense of Wizard of Oz (1939) at various moments, potentially using some of the same music.
Verdict: The way that this film combines the mystery and horror genres makes it a must see. There’s a complexity to the themes and technical brilliance here which is filtered through simple, yet totally effective, style and stark early cinema grossness. Pint of Kilkenny
An extremely gruesome female directed feminist cannibal film is a unique sell. So perhaps it is unsurprising that Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) amassed a huge amount of festival hype over the past year. Even filtering out the usual bullshit about how many people fainted at each screening, this is a film that impressed and excited film fans, both horror fiends and otherwise. Festival hype can derail many a film and this seems particularly true of those in the horror genre. Thankfully though, Raw is as unique as it sounds on paper, meaning it is next to impossible for smug fans to dismiss it as something we’ve seen before. Whilst the film is notably gross and visceral, the overriding sense of the experience is deeply disquieting. The way a horse is manoeuvred whilst under sedation is as disturbing as anything far more gruesome that takes place.
Justine, a committed vegetarian, leaves home to attend vet school. There she undergoes a series of hazing rituals that culminate in her being forced (under pressure from her older sister who underwent the same rituals) to eat a rabbit’s kidney. Even before this moment the raucous college environment is confronting and unsettling. The sound design is oppressively loud and there is an inescapable intensity to the place that you desperately want to escape. Following the forced feeding, Justine develops a very gnarly rash which is the first step in a slide that will eventually lead to cannibalism. Ducournau builds this slide steadily as Justine makes small though increasingly disturbing decisions. But perhaps the two grossest, in your face pieces of body horror in the film actually precede the cannibalism. Firstly as the doctor peels away swathes of skin to assess Justine’s rash, and secondly as she brings back up huge amounts of her own hair she has been swallowing to satiate her forbidden desires.
Thankfully the thematic interest of the film goes a lot deeper than these forbidden desires being a cipher for pre-marital sex or some such trite rubbish. This is not to say consideration of taboos and the consequences of breaking them is not a very real interest that the film has. It is just that this is a really thematically dense film that does not settle for that. There is a heavy focus on sisterhood, both literal (her relationship with her sister who is attending the same vet school) and figurative (feminist empowerment). Justine does burst through the bonds that both herself and others have placed upon her through her life. And her actual sister plays a role in that. There is a sense of empowerment as she comes into her own. Much of that plays out in how she fights her sister, but also how together they fight a world that wants to dictate how they should act and what they should be. This is particularly stark as it all occurs in a vet school where the heavily ingrained misogynist culture is so well established at the beginning of the film.
One of the great achievements of Ducournau’s film is just how watchable it remains, despite the graphic flesh eating and faint-inducing hype. There is a character focus that helps with that. We never lose Justine as a young woman, finding her way in a frightening new environment that many of us have experienced, beneath the gore and chomping. The character is brought to life excellently by Garance Marillier, initially conveying the dual naïveté and drive of an ambitious uni student. Then later she is also great at conveying discomfort, embodying physical agitation in a way that is hard to watch. The film is shot beautifully, pulling your eyes into certain parts of the frame where the director wants to focus your attention. The characters move through this space at times like dancers. Early that’s ethereal, adding a strange dimension to that unsettling vibe, later it’s harsh and aggressive. The soundtrack, often coming in abrasive bursts, is noticeable from the start. It’s melodic, with the tiniest hint of malice always running underneath. The moment where Justine first tastes human flesh provides the best single piece of scoring in years, perfectly amplifying the exultant and triumphant feeling of that moment.
Verdict: Feminist, gross, dense, disquieting and still really watchable, Raw really does feel like something unique in a genre where it is so rare to say that. Even though I almost feel like I need a second viewing to properly process it all, I wholeheartedly recommend it on this first experience. Pint of Kilkenny
I’m generally a bit of an Oscars Schmoscars kind of guy. But even I can’t help being a little interested when Australia has a nominee for Best Foreign Language film. It certainly doesn’t hurt when Tanna (2015), the film in question, is a wonderfully tender and unique love story.
The film is a somewhat traditional tale of forbidden love, but imbued with some really interesting texture from the society that it takes place in. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean are able to ground and immerse the viewer in a naturalism, through the approach taken to the shooting. The story is based on an actual event from the tiny island of Tanna (where the film was shot), and all dialogue is in the local Nauvhal language. All the performances in the film are from the Yakel people, who were clearly involved in almost all facets of the film. The result is cultural immersion, but not in a bland, anthropological sense. There’s a real spark to the people and their interactions that shines through. This is a world of taboo, forbidden places and arranged marriage, and there is a feeling that all of the characters are genuinely impacted upon by these. But there is also plenty of lightness in the film, humour and playfulness abound. Pretty sure this is the first film I’ve seen that featured the line “get her! She stole my penis sheath”. Don’t go in expecting this to be all serious all the time. The film looks great, colour popping off the screen, which is a remarkable effort given the lack of formal filmmaking infrastructure in Vanuatu. It’s a pretty impressive feat to pull off from two debut feature filmmakers.
The plot itself is one of a couple choosing to chase their love against the backdrop of societal pressure for arranged marriage. You’ve seen/read it before no doubt, but not like this, not performed by these people and in this culture. The use of non-professional actors does not always succeed, but it does beautifully here. Especially from the two romantic leads Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain. Whilst most of the other cast members are essentially playing versions of themselves going about their daily lives, these two are able to convey an incredible amount of longing, intrigue, nervousness, deep joy and desire. This is often wordlessly achieved through stolen glances and simple physicality. It is so well realised that it is remarkable they are not trained actors. There is something really uncontrived about their love scenes together too. They are totally sweet, genuine and, for lack of a better word, loving. The film builds up the tenderness between the two of them very efficiently. From this central romance, the film circles out a lot, which gives you a really excellent sense of culture. Particular in terms of Kastom, the role that tribal law plays in everyday lives and how it impacts on our lovers. Perhaps more than anything else it is these tribal law elements that provide the extra layer of texture to this traditional plot.
Verdict: This film will immerse you and transport you wholly into the Yakel culture. From that starting point, there is a quite beautiful, poignant and classic love story being told here that is delightful and moving to go along with. Pint of Kilkenny
Like plenty of folk, last year I started doing #52filmsbywomen, attempting to watch at least a film a week directed by a woman. There is a huge range of great films to choose from and I easily filled my quota. But I was also keen to check out some older films directed by women, which are not as immediately findable as those on my Netflix queue. Which led me to the career of Ida Lupino, generally regarded as one of the true pioneers when it comes to female directors.
The Bigamist (1953) is one of Lupino’s most famous films and shows her willingness to take on material that is challenging, or was considered taboo at the time. The film subtly and effortlessly sets up the core plot machinations. A husband and wife, unable to conceive a child, are undergoing the adoption process. They are both presented with a form, allowing the powers that be to look into every detail of the private life. He’s aghast. She signs immediately. And from this simple, yet great sequence the audience is hooked, wanting to know where his hesitation stems from. The plot is not all that big on tension. When it is, the film plays like Double Indemnity (1944), but about adoption rather than insurance fraud. If the film does sag a little, it is during a very lengthy flashback. This is partly an issue because it sidelines the character of Eve Graham, played by Joan Fontaine who is perhaps the most interesting in the film or at least the character impacted by the events of the film in a most meaningful way. There is a lot going on in Eve’s relationship with her husband. Their inability to conceive a child and the business bent their relationship takes on because they work together. Perhaps most important is the fact that she’s so capable, better at his business than he is, a fact that clearly wounds his masculine pride. Fontaine delivers a great, emotional performance here, in a role that could have been kind of thankless in lesser hands.
Eve’s husband Harry is the bigamist of the title and Lupino delivers a very complex character. In a way he is set up as an almost sympathetic figure. Or perhaps more accurately a figure of pity. We see different sides to him – the doting enough husband, an annoying womanising cad – as the film progresses and depending on which woman he is with at the time. However for all the back and forth Lupino gives you with the character, it is clear that he is a weak scumbag and that is the overwhelming impression she wants to leave you with. In the end, the adoption inspector is the one who nails him and verbalises the audience’s feelings when he rebukes Harry by saying: “I despise you and I pity you.” The intricacies of the characters are one of the film’s real strengths. They are all interesting to some degree and Lupino establishes layers to them. The director controls the narrative in such a way that we are given fleeting peeks at these different elements when she chooses.
Verdict: The Bigamist starts out as a crime story with a difference, quietly morphing into a flashback heavy character study. The gender politics are pretty forward and Lupino excels at delivering complex characters that will challenge you as to exactly how you react to them. Pint of Kilkenny
As far as female arthouse directors go, Agnes Varda is right at the top of most lists. With a career that has stretched from La Pointe Courte (1955) to today, she has directed around 50 films. A remarkable achievement for any director, let alone a female one, given the system seems to be set up to deprive women filmmakers of multiple chances.
Perhaps her most famous film, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) is the first I’ve seen from Varda. It opens on a tarot reading, the cards on the table the only parts of the film shot in colour. From there it delivers a fantastic character study with a great sense of a specific time (the 60s) and a specific place (Paris). The latter two achieved in large part through the sequences of Cleo simply roaming the city. The main character is an increasingly famous singer, living in opulence and facing a health crisis of some form or another. For most of the run time, the audience is kept in suspense as to whether it is a legitimate illness or something minor exacerbated by hypochondria. The film is about a woman’s experience as she navigates a couple of tense hours but also a life. She may be a hypochondriac. But it may also be that she is merely being dismissed as whiny and attention seeking because she is a woman. It is notable just how much we see the action through a female lense, because it is so rare in film. There are interactions with cat calling bogans, brief loving portraits of toughass female taxi drivers and a focus on beauty and societal beauty standards. “When I am still beautiful, I am alive” Cleo reflects early on, intoxicated by her own beauty. But this is also the film pondering the importance of superficiality to this character, and women more broadly.
The greatest feat of Varda with Cleo from 5 to 7 is the way she conveys the inner state of her characters. This is done through form, style and music. A disconcerting camera with quickly repeated shots. Mesmeric reflections upon reflections. The settings providing a contrast between inner and outer spaces. Cleo ‘suffocates’ in her huge opulent apartment. The white, clear spaces not reflecting the tumult of her mind as she ponders her potential sickness and mortality. Similarly her aimless roving over the cityscape is evocative of the swirling, concerned inner life. The editing also helps reflect the place of a celebrity in society, everyone staring at Cleo. Again the discomfort the viewer feels as a result of these stares situates the film as emanating from the female gaze. The film is shot really nicely, the camera often situated closer than expected, putting us right in the action feeling what Cleo is feeling. This is helped by the great lead performance from Corinne Marchand – intense but at times charming, troubled and physically embodying the character.
Verdict: Totally focused on the female experience, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a study of character, time and place. Varda is a master of conveying the inner state of a character in a subtle, technically brilliant way that is well worth checking out. Pint of Kilkenny
There are plenty of issues with the world of cinema in 2016. But it is hard not to be a little optimistic when a new Toho Godzilla flick gets a good cinematic run, joining the western Godzilla franchise that Gareth Edwards kicked off a couple of years back. Personally I could handle two Godzilla series running parallel for years to come.
Shin Godzilla (2016) is the first Toho Godzilla film since Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). The film is a reboot, taking place in a modern day Japan that has never faced the beast before. Especially early on, this is a manic film. The opening 15 minutes is a cacophony of dialogue, characters, places and meaningless government taskforces. Although impossible to follow, this sets up what is at the heart of the human plot elements – a deep dive into the bureaucratic and ministerial response to a disaster. The monster arrives early, looking far from how I expected it to, but clearly evoking Godzillas past. Coming so fast on the heels of the relatively popular and well received American incarnation, there was a fear that Shin Godzilla could lack that distinctive Toho identity. The appearance of the main attraction is one of many pieces of evidence that prove we shouldn’t have been concerned, and that Toho have no interest in changing how they have always brought the character to life. Whilst the vibe of the monster is similar to what the company has given us previously, the evolving nature of the character is a great asset. The monster evolves as the film progresses, giving a different visual look, different powers and representing a different challenge to its human combatants. So whilst the film only features one monster, it essentially functions as a few different ones. Also nicely done in the plot is how the action escalates. The first extended military engagement is a highlight, the cool progression of weaponry brought to bear on the creature who happily saunters through it all. However the film does have too many stretches where Godzilla is dormant, which sucks a fair bit of the life out of the film.
If there is one moment that you will know for sure if Shin Godzilla is for you, it is the first appearance of the monster. Bug eyed, low to the ground and reminiscent of film monsters many years past, it is quite a unique thing to see in a 2016 cinema. My jaw swung open and I immediately fell in love with what this film was doing. But I could understand people rapidly assessing what they had gotten themselves in for as they copped a look at that. The monster is reminiscent of the rest of the film, both stylistically and thematically. Many elements of the film, the characterisation and destruction, share a schlocky, delightful throwback vibe to them. The mo-cap/CGI rendering of the monster mimics the man in the rubber suit vibe of films past, rather than the slick sheen of American iterations. Understandably given the ongoing horrors of Fukushima, nuclear concerns are situated at the heart of the film thematically. Complementing that focus are issues around laboured governmental decision making and the impact that has on making already dire situations even worse. Questionable international relations are also evoked as the USA decides, more or less unilaterally, to nuke Tokyo. The film is situated intelligently in the 20th century history of Japanese militarism. You can feel the weight of decisions made to take up arms and engage the might of the armed forces, the pall of WWII hanging over them. And of course the most important takeaway, as with all Godzilla films, is that “man is more frightening than Gojira”.
Verdict: Shin Godzilla is a proud throwback, not concerned with delivering a similar experience to what Edwards and co brought to screens. This is a film that will delight fans of the earlier Toho fans, and may also garner new ones with the astute social commentary complementing the schlock. Pint of Kilkenny
Wes Craven and the slasher just go together and he is probably the most creative exponent of the subgenre we have ever seen. He combined the prototypical teen slasher with supernatural elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), went meta with the same series in New Nightmare (1994) and even his lesser efforts such as Shocker (1989) or My Soul to Take (2010) toy with the genre in some way. However of all his films, it is Scream (1996) that is his most radical reinterpretation of the formula.
From the very start, Scream is about the dual goals of expressing a love for slasher films as well as delivering a bloody good one. The film opens with Drew Barrymore’s character just about to watch a scary movie. A phone call leads to a deadly game of horror film trivia and one of cinema’s more memorable opening sequences. From there the film shifts into a teen slasher with Neve Campbell on one front, and an interested media helmed by Courtney Cox on the other. There are the general tropes of partying and cool kills (getting mashed by garage doors an obvious highlight of the latter). But the media interest and hype around the killings also adds another dimension to the film. However most notable is the constant allusions to, and invoking of other horror films, including Craven’s earlier work. The film sticks hard to the high concept premise that it sets up and explores ideas through this such as the notion that a life is like a movie. Plus unlike some other meta-horror films, this one is constantly respectful toward the genre. At times it plays as exceptional homage to the genre’s greatest hits, such as the close-ups of people in the throes of terror. The meta approach to the film also means it is laden with references, that I am sure would open up more to me on a second viewing. There is a sense though that the film slightly loses the narrative thread a little as it goes along. The finale is perhaps not as well set up or magnetic as it could have been. Having said that, the final twist is a gem, especially if you have somehow remained spoiler free for the past 20 years.
The greatest achievement of Scream is the script, which may be the best horror script of all time. It is damn hard to be both as meta and as effective in the genre as this. Not to mention the level of tension achieved while all this is going on is quite remarkable. The choices made in terms of doing what’s expected are a pretty masterful manipulation of the audience. At times it’s exactly what you are expecting, whilst at others the expectation is totally subverted. It is a great way to engage with horror clichés. The assured hand of Craven is all over the film, with numerous small choices enhancing the overall experience a lot. The casting is nailed, with a funky mix of Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan, Henry Winkler and David Arquette combining for loads of fun, with the necessary acting chops to back it all up. The ensemble is important but Campbell is the clear star. It is a very good performance. She looks so tired and beaten down in a very real way by how her life has been progressing, and brings the audience along as she sinks even lower. The score (recently re-released on vinyl) is excellent, and fits into the overall approach of reverence to the genre’s past coupled with innovation. There is a real A Nightmare on Elm Street vibe to this element of the film, with a fair hint of Psycho (1960) too. The way that both score and sound design are used to punctuate everyday moments, with whooshes and emphasis creates great tension, without ever being cheap about it.
Verdict: If Scream is perhaps slightly below the standard of Craven’s very best work, that speaks more to the quality of his output than the film specifically. However it is one of his most interesting films, and as far as reflective and meta-horror goes, this is a classic. Pint of Kilkenny
It is absurd that Ghostbusters (2016) has prompted such serious conversations, becoming a flashpoint for the unbridled misogyny that has beset geek culture of late. Manbabies are railing against the film whilst simultaneously declaring they will never see it, whilst spamming IMDB with zero star reviews. This is all even more absurd because the only area in which Ghost Busters (1984) truly excels is in being really, really fun.
You can add another reason to feel sorry for the so called Ghostbros who are refusing to see this film – they are missing out on one of the year’s best times at the cinema. There are definitely things the film does not do particularly well. But much like the film it is based on, this is above all fun. Really well performed, well directed and spectacular looking fun at that. The story is pretty thin and will feel familiar to anyone who has seen the original. Two scientists posited a theory of the paranormal years ago. In the interim one has gone ‘legit’. They briefly feud early in the film. That is resolved very quickly, then with another scientist and a MTA worker in tow, they set up their ghostbusting enterprise. Fun ensues. And that’s what it is all about really. There are some flat spots. Early on particularly and it is a little exposition heavy at times. But it is all the other aspects – the acting, score, action, visuals – attached to this story that make this a very worthwhile watch. Where there is thankfully some depth is the paranormal mythology set up. It helps to explain the actions of the main villain and adds some malevolence to the goings on that are populated with somewhat silly looking CG ghosts in a way that actually works well. As for the controversy swirling around the film, it engages with that really well I feel. A couple of the script’s funniest zingers are one-liners about the internet trolls commenting on YouTube videos and railing against the fact that women couldn’t possibly bust ghosts. But the script never makes this a focus, rather getting in some good jokes, but never distracting itself from the main plot.
One of the major assets this film has going for it is that the best mainstream comedy director working today Paul Feig is at the helm. Not only is he good at the funny stuff, but just like in Spy (2015), though even more so here, he proves himself really adept at doing action. The large scale set piece at the end manages not to merely devolve into an effects-fest, but continues the narrative threads set up earlier. Also sprinkled throughout are a reasonable number of good smaller pieces of fisticuffs. We’ve seen how hard it is to tell compelling action with any sense of weight when it is a human performer facing off against a bunch of CGI sprites. But the director and his performers bring that to life well. There are some nicely done scary moments too, especially the haunted mansion style opening where the sound design and riffing on genre tropes makes for pretty effective stuff. The film looks exceptional as well. Not only does the 3D avoid the common traps of being totally dark or having that tacky diorama feel, it elevates what is on screen. There is a black border around the image which allows weaponry and lightning to go outside the frame. It’s a simple approach, but it feels fresh. Plus the slime and ghosts coming right for you is as fun as you would expect, without being overdone. I would definitely recommend making the effort to catch it in the 3D format.
On the performance front, all five of the leads are good at the very least. The patter between McCarthy and Wiig was the best thing about Bridesmaids (2011) and it is again joyful to watch here. They are both excellent performers. If anything there could have been more of that. Wiig does a lot with a character that could have been overwhelmingly boring, and her interactions with Chris Hemsworth are really charming too. Hemsworth is a lot of fun, subverting the traditional dopey receptionist cliché, though the writing of that character does on occasion veer a little too silly. Probably the best of the performers are the two relative newcomer ghostbusters. Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann is (rightly) getting a lot of the buss at the moment. Her energy is infectious and you could feel the cinema leaning in every time she was the focus. But I think Leslie Jones as Patty may even outdo McKinnon. She is my favourite character, getting a lot of the best moments and biggest laughs. The writing of some of the characters is a little up and down. Especially early on for McCarthy, she is subdued whilst the tokenistic beef between her and Wiig is sorted. But the script also provides the base for McKinnon and Jones to launch their winning performances from. The score of the film is a definite highlight. A film of this tone is hard to score and rarely done right. It is here though. It brings atmosphere to the more frightening scenes, but always just addingsome spookiness, not trying to terrify. Playful and spooky are hard to do without it sounding silly,but that is what is done really well here.
Verdict: Once again Feig, McCarthy and crew have delivered a comedy filled to the brim of laughs, fun action and really excellent performances. I certainly can’t wait to see this band of characters fleshed out on more ghostbusting adventures. Pint of Kilkenny
In 2016, the title 12 Angry Men (1957) is enough to send a shiver down the spine. There are too many angry men all around us, in real life, online and in the movies we consume. Perhaps Sidney Lumet’s best film though is thankfully not as infuriating as the title would suggest.
12 Angry Men is essentially a high-concept drama, taking place in a single room. The 12 of the title are the jury in a murder case, one that initially seems cut and dry, but that quickly becomes rather more complex. Henry Fonda gradually wins some of his peers over to his point of view, told through the camera as an isolated character gradually being joined in shot by more and more characters. The film functions as a reverse crime procedural – only it is not the police who are poring over the evidence and considering every angle of the case, but the jurors. The film argues both sides in terms of questions of what constitutes justice, can it be pure and how much respect the system deserves, through the simple plot. Unlike most other courtroom dramas, this film structurally starts at a very interesting spot. We do not see one second of the trial, rather it is deemed unimportant as the film starts as the jurors begin deliberations. Or rather than the trial being marked as unimportant, perhaps it is more accurate that in the end the power in the system rests not with the lawyers or even the judge, but with the 12 doing their ‘duty’. It’s a great script. Men sitting around a table talking about a case could go wrong in a multitude of ways. But this is sharply written with writer Reginald Rose delivering something that is simultaneously all exposition and none. It is layered and definitely talky, but never in a showy way.
It is difficult to make 12 dudes sitting around a conference table arguing look visually arresting. Or even moderately interesting for that matter. But from the get-go, Lumet uses the camera to both create interest and more importantly impart meaning. The film opens with awed shots of the courthouse where the action will take place. This reverence for the hallowed place of the law in our society will be both reinforced and challenged over the course of the film. Lumet is not afraid to put his close-ups right out there too, filling the entire screen with a face. The shooting is simple, but the use of these shots is astute, providing moments such as a change of vote with a jolt of meaning that other films may choose to deliver through sound design. For what is in narrative terms a simple story, there is a lot going on here. And as such every interaction, every shot, feels as though it is laden with meaning. The narrative focused on single murder is used to examine the whole of society in unfortunately still relevant ways. The film has a progressive bent, especially in terms of the examination of race. How white people look down on others, the dismissal of “slums” that are a “breeding ground” where undesirables are allowed to run rampant. White men discussing an ‘other’ that they (for the most part) have zero experience with or even any interest in. This culminates in a ridiculous rant about “them” and the accused’s “type”. Lumet wants us to see how foolish this crusty old man looks as he screams his backward ideas into an abyss as more and more people lose interest. Hopefully a whole society of them.
Verdict: With its high concept, single room location and unexpected narrative structure, 12 Angry Men is a pretty experimental classic. It works well as a crime flick, a courtroom piece as well as a thematic consideration of justice, the possibility of it and the role of it in society. Pint of Kilkenny
Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) is based on the iconic Australian novel of the same name written by Miles Franklin in 1901. It is one of those books that you are forced to read for school or uni that you dread, but then end up really quite liking (well at least that’s what happened for me).
This film adaptation may be one of the best reflections of a literary character onscreen that I have come across. The film, like the book, immediately inserts the writer into the action. The film is a character study, never wavering from the focus on Judy Davis’ Sybylla Melvyn, who may literally be in every single scene of the film. Both the writing and the performance of this character beautifully capture her sass and aspirational nature, as well as the rebellious streak and “illusions of grandeur” that she holds as dear to her as any other aspect of her personality. Some of this sounds cliché, but this is a rare idealist character that does not exist solely based on shallow braggartism. Rather that is balanced, undermined and heightened by the really well drawn element of insecurity and uncertainty of a person that age. Sybylla herself refers to herself as a “misfit and a larrikin”, her persona as an artistic dreamer content in her own world, never overwhelms her with an unnecessary self-seriousness. The film is certainly not plot-dense or dripping with incidence. It does have a perfunctory love story going on as well. Perfunctory in the sense that it really exists only to better illuminate the main character and what is most important to her. But it does that very well and the line of “I’m so near loving you … but I’d destroy you” perfectly captures the journey of the character, her coming to realise her shortcomings and how to best interact with those around her. Something she has been experimenting with and often failing at, throughout the film.
The performance of a very young, almost unrecognisable, Judy Davis is essential to the main character and by extension the film. There is a twinkle in her eye that so perfectly reflects how readers would have imagined the character and a cheek to her line delivery that charms no matter what she is saying or how she is behaving. In comparison, everyone else in the film exists solely to be acted upon by Sybylla, to bask in that force of nature. So the good performances of folks such as Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes and Robert Grubb are a little overwhelmed by the central character.
Thematically My Brilliant Career is a distinctly feminist film. Sybylla has a sense of social justice that she is not afraid to share with anyone around her. Perhaps even more than gender though the film is concerned with classism. Sybylla is righteous about the poor and their importance to society. This extends to an exploration of unnecessary class structures and high vs low culture, in particular the stuffiness of the former versus the ingenuity of the latter. Like everything, the thematic exploration serves to embellish the character of Sybylla, to tell the audience something new and interesting about her.
Verdict: My Brilliant Career really is a genuinely exceptional character piece. Sybylla is such a fleshed out and genuine character, whose journey is supported and reflected by a quite decent love story underneath. Pint of Kilkenny