Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What I've Been Watching: DVD

D1F21E11-1A54-4F7D-AE90-CD7FCEC1D44F.jpgVera Drake
Anyone fancy a cup of tea?

Probably the most well known of Mike Leigh's films, Vera Drake is about a woman who carries out back street abortions without the knowledge of her family. Set in the 1950s, it explores attitudes to sex, families and gender roles/identities.

As I mentioned when I reviewed another of his films, Meantime, Mike Leigh has a very individual way of writing and directing his movies. He starts out with character descriptions which he gives to each character, and dialogue is improvised based on how conversations proceed.

Vera Drake however, is probably the most clearly constructed of his films. There are the same dramatic rise and falls we associate with most mainstream films, as well as character arcs with clear beginnings and endings. The dialogue, however, remains just as realistic and insightful as one has come to expect from Leigh. With short sentences, and characters revealing so much with so little. For example, Vera Drake, speaking of her secret life tells another character:

"I help out young girls"

A4E2DB31-F85A-44D6-9D38-59D336D84044.jpgFrom this we see both Vera's attitude and motivation for what she does. As well as the fact she is unwilling to explicitly spell out she is terminating an embryo, whether for fear of judgement, or because she is unwilling to confront it herself.

Lines like this are littered through out Vera Drake, as characters attempt to say things without upsetting social norms, to give an appearance contrary to the reality of the situation.

The issue of abortion itself is handled in an interesting way. The women Vera meets have both understandable and more selfish reasons for approaching her. However, it is clear Vera wants to give them all the same opportunity, and does not see it as her place to deny someone this choice. If the movie does have a message about abortion, it is perhaps that women should have the right to choose it according to their own circumstances and conscience.

Regardless of whether you agree with that opinion, the movie is still worth watching, as the performances and dialogue are all brilliantly executed. If you took just a random ten minute sample of this movie, I reckon there'd be more insight and depth in that segment than most films manage in their entire runtime.

EA9E8473-7BC1-4F6D-B245-832A52482A86.jpgTo Sleep With Anger
The Trouble With Harry

After watching Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing for my film course, my lecturer recommended this movie as an alternative piece of black cinema. Where as most in this category concentrate on race relations or gangster culture, this movie is a much more sedate look at everyday family life.

The premise is a black middle-class family gets a knock on the door from Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend they haven't seen in years. He gets invited to stay, but soon his differing morals and attitudes cause tensions within the house.

The movie does a great job of slowly introducing us to Harry's true nature, from a friendly, charming stranger, to a much more vindictive and seductive force. It also subtly interweaves plenty of interesting themes: religion, civil rights, and family values.

The narrative should also be given credit for not wasting any scenes or lines. Each one having significance later on, as characters become engulfed in events without quite realising how they got there.

Overall then, this is a movie with a lot of depth, and a great performance from Danny Glover. A simple, but refreshing look at family life and values.

CBC4C65F-393A-4C17-963B-1BE97077F94F.jpgSkeleton Man
If it hadn't been for Cotton-Mouth Joe....

An old tradition in cinema is that of a 'short' being shown before the main feature. I have fond memories of watching a short Mickey Mouse story before re-released Disney classics like The Jungle Book and Cinderella. I assume this was done back in the day because those classics are only eighty as oppose to ninety minutes long.

In an effort to bring back said fond memories, some friends introduced me to B.O.I.D., a ten minute short they had made in their teens. The movie had a surprising amount in common with our main feature of the night, Skeleton Man. Both had barely comprehensible plots, antagonists with skulls that were obviously just masks, and killers with no clear motivation.

The difference of course was that Skeleton Man cost millions of dollars to make, and B.O.I.D. merely the price of the petrol used in one of the best chase scenes ever to be put to screen (where the serial killer, B.O.I.D., brakes to get over a speed ramp safely).

F70DFA4C-03B9-4AD4-934D-FA7938095036.jpgThe other difference is that Skeleton Man has explosions. Lots of them. Possibly more than all of Michael Bay's back catalogue put together. In the opening scene, a scientist is collecting artefacts from an Ancient Indian Burial Ground (never a good idea). Skeleton Man (aka Cotton Mouth Joe) comes in and kills our scientist and takes one of the skulls for his collection. He then decides to blow up the joint, including large parts of his ancestor's heritage you think he might be interested in protecting.

Likewise: lorries, cars, helicopters, power plants and chemical plants all meet similar fates. If it can be put on fire, the movies gonna blow it up.

Of course the irony of seeing such a train wreck is that you get much more enjoyment from predicting deaths, methods and plot twists than you could from an altogether more serious affair. Like the early rounds of Britain's Got Talent , there's something incredibly compelling about watching a perfect storm of dreadfulness.

Such are the obscurity of both To Sleep With Anger and Skeleton Man, I had to add in a plot synopsis to wikipedia for both of them. If you're interested you can read them here, although bear in mind there will be spoilers (although in the case of Skeleton Man, I'm not sure knowing the plot would impact the viewing experience in the slightest):

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