Friday, 27 September 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 58. Love is Strange

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Love is Strange
Director - Ira Sachs
Country - USA
Year 2014
Runtime - 94 minutes

Love Is Strange is a subtle meditation on love, life, and loss, channeling Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow but updating the classic tale to feature an aging gay couple who live in New York. John Lithgow plays Ben, a world-weary painter who marries his long time partner George (Alfred Molina), a music teacher at a catholic school, who subsequently loses his job when the bishop discovers he is married to a man. Forced to vacate and sell the lavish apartment they have lived in for over thirty years, the couple fall back on their supportive friends and family whilst searching for a new home. Ben takes up residence with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), and wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), where he has to share the bunk beds in their son's room, whereas George takes the sofa at their friend's flat; two gay policemen known affectionately as 'the police women' who are constantly throwing late night parties. Separated from each other and living in different parts of the city, Ben and George struggle to adjust to their new surroundings and this strain takes a toll on their relationship and their health.

Ira Sach's sublime film exudes a warmth that is befitting of its charming characters. You cannot resist becoming embroiled in the trials and tribulations of Ben and George, the charismatic couple who possess a kind and supportive nature that is positively heartwarming. Lithgow and Molina are entirely believable as the separated lovers and bring Sach's creation to life in a way that has you firmly invested in their relationship.

A subdued classical soundtrack acts as a beautiful accompaniment to this touching story, with the delicate piano complimenting the gentle personas of Ben and George. This soundscape crosses over into the story more than once due to George's affinity for music, in scenes where he plays piano to his friends and teaches his pupils. George is deeply hurt by the decision the school's board takes to relieve him of his position, and the jaded views of those acting upon this is the catalyst for many of his (and Ben's) future woes.

Like Ben living at his nephew's apartment, we feel like a fly on the wall watching the unfolding
storyline as Sachs chooses to exhibit the mundane as much as he focuses on that which is significant, giving us a true understanding of the day to day sadness inflicted on the couple by this upsetting turn of events. Ben is exposed to the inner turmoil affecting his nephew's family, namely the testing relationship between rebellious teen Joey (Charlie Tahan) and his parents, and he inadvertently worsens the situation by using Joey's best (and only) friend as a model for his painting when the boys should be studying. Joey struggles to adapt to sharing his room with his dad's gay uncle, which is understandably one of the last things that a teenager would want imposed upon their private space. Tahan showcases this frustration exceptionally well; Joey clearly doesn't want to upset Ben but you can sense the unhappiness lurking underneath the surface.

Love Is Strange is a poignant and affecting character study; a small-scale drama exploring important themes that will resonate with people from all walks of life. Sachs carefully exposes his character's weaknesses in a graceful and respectable manner as Ben and George come to realise the world is moving along without them. The heartache and pain this causes is inherent throughout, although, like Ben and George, it is often pushed to one side in favour of the stories of other minor but fascinating characters in the film.

Sometimes films can provoke an immediate reaction in the viewer and others leave the audience in contemplation, reflecting on that which they have seen for a number of days. Love Is Strange lies firmly in the latter camp; whilst its stirring journey does elicit an emotional response from the viewer, it is a film that lingers on the mind long afterwards. Its measured approach to storytelling and gentle pace allow time for the viewer to consider its important message, and it may even inspire you to reach out to an older friend or relative you haven't seen in a while. We can learn a lot from those who have come before us and Sach's elegant film takes a beautiful viewpoint on this; highlighting the invaluable contribution older generations make towards a modern society that sadly may not always have the time for them.

If you take the time to watch Love is Strange then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Saturday, 14 September 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 57. Lawn Dogs

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.


Lawn Dogs
Director - John Duigan
Country - USA
Year - 1997
Runtime - 101 minutes

An innocent friendship between a young girl whose family have relocated to a tranquil suburb in Kentucky and a strange outsider who makes a living mowing the lawns of its rich residents is the focus of John Duigan's wonderful fantasy drama, Lawn Dogs. Mischa Barton makes her debut feature film appearance as Devon Stockard, a ten year old girl who is neglected by her parents, Morton (Christopher McDonald) and Clare (Kathleen Quinlan), and forms a bond with twenty-one year old Trent Burns (Sam Rockwell) after she stumbles upon his ramshackle caravan deep in the nearby woods. The Stockards would be horrified if they knew Devon had left the safety of their gated community so Trent returns her home, making sure to drop her at the border of the suburbs so as not to arouse any suspicion from Nash (Bruce McGill), the overzealous police officer who rules over the neighbourhood with an iron fist.

Like American Beauty and Suburbicon, Lawn Dogs holds a magnifying glass up at the inner workings of the American suburb, exploring the notion that all is not well behind the white-washed fences of a seemingly perfect community and its residents who masquerade dark secrets. Where Lawn Dogs differs is in its viewpoint of this unease that bubbles under the surface, as we see the cracks in the facade through the eyes of Devon, whose overactive imagination leads her young mind to retreat into a dream-like fantasy land. Devon takes inspiration from the classic Russian folk tale of the Baba Yaga, a story about an evil witch who dwells in the woods and eats children; applying this fable to her own parallel experiences as she has no friends of her own age to play with. The child-like and caring nature of Trent resounds with Devon and the two outsiders find companionship in an unlikely alliance, even if it exposes them to the inherent dangers that lurk within the model society they both turn their back upon.

Duigan's sharp deconstruction of blissful suburban life starts off as a quirky coming of age tale with shades of black comedy but descends into a tempestuous drama as the hot summer boils up the underlying tensions between Trent and two bored residents, Brett (David Barry Gray) and Sean (Eric Mabius) - who openly flirts with Trent whenever the two are alone. They make fun of Trent's dishevelled appearance and his run-down truck and inadvertently undermine his lawn-mowing services by tending to the gardens of lonely housewives who welcome Brett's lurid advances. The usually calm and composed Trent is pushed to breaking point by these encounters and Rockwell's biting demonstration of this change in his character's demeanour showcases why he was perfect for the role, with his upsetting retaliation causing friction in his friendship with Devon as she ends up in a precarious position. Trent intervenes and inadvertently sets in motion a series of events that provokes further aggression from his antagonists, who are joined by an angry Morton Stockard and a concerned police officer Nash.

As well as bringing a charged emotional depth to his performance Rockwell is the driving force for much of the film's humour; his cheeky grin as he stops traffic to dive naked into a river from a tall bridge after a hard day's work is a revealing scene for Trent, in more ways than one. Innocent nudity is also displayed by Barton in a scene where Devon tosses her clothes out to the wind as she curls up on the roof outside of her bedroom window in another moment of rebellion. These scenes serve to highlight the similarities between the two individuals as they vent their frustrations in ways that upset the status quo and demonstrates that they are not yet shackled by the loss of innocence that has ushered on the repression of others around them.

Barton is utterly delightful as Devon; she is completely believable as the sweet young girl who her parents take her for but equally convincing as the cunning child who tricks them into thinking she is staying at a friend's house overnight when really she is visiting Trent. Devon's occasional flights of fancy remind us that she is still firmly in the realm of childhood, even if her character is often the most mature and grounded of the adults she shares the screen with. Her perfectly natural kinship with Trent is the purest relationship we see, and it is heartbreaking when those who disagree with this union of damaged souls interpret it as something far more sinister, particularly as we are aware of the adulterous actions of those who condemn their friendship.

Lawn Dogs is a funny, frank, and surprisingly insightful take on the all American dream. The elements of a childhood fantasy are integrated incredibly well with the adult themes of deceit and unfulfillment, bringing a coarse but enlightening tone to the proceedings that gives Duigan's voice an imposing pedestal from which to be heard. He has crafted a poignant and touching American drama, which is pretty damn impressive for an Australian film director, and his stance on the trappings of its modern society is as satisfying to behold as a swathe of freshly mowed lawns on a superficially pristine American suburb.

If you take the time to watch Lawn Dogs then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Saturday, 7 September 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 56. The Eve of Ivan Kupala

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Eve of Ivan Kupala
Director - Yuri Ilyenko
Country - Soviet Union
Year 1968
Runtime - 71 minutes

The Eve of Ivan Kupala is a surreal adaptation of a Ukrainian folk tale that extends a hallucinatory gaze into a culture awash with age old rituals and spiritual connections to the natural world. Its eerie vision of a peasant, Piotr (Boris Khmelnitskiy), who makes a pact with the devil to obtain a mass of riches and the love of a woman, Pidorka (Larisa Kadochnikova) - whose father forbids them to marry - is a transcendental piece of film-making that is capable of bewitching audiences with its strange, ethereal delights. Familiarity with the cautionary tale this film is based upon is not a necessary prerequisite to bask in its otherworldly offerings as the hypnotic imagery delivers a wealth of evocative scenes that stir up a child-like fascination with Director Yuri Ilyenko's enrapturing creativity.

Ilyenko's dazzling camerawork conjures up a kaleidoscope of wonders as the enchanting colour schemes and spellbinding compositions take us on a magical journey that we hope never reaches an end. Although The Eve of Ivan Kupala belongs to the realm of fantasy there are unsettling scenes which tap into a primal horror where the dizzying camera movements disorient us as Piotr becomes encircled by supernatural beings. The inventive use of colour lenses warp our perception of these beguiling sequences in which the devil makes his appearance, enhancing the sensation of fear that engulfs Piotr, yet fails to over-ride his innate desire for untold riches and the incomparable beauty of the woman he lusts after.

Fireballs ricochet down hillsides in the background as villagers adorned in floral costumes and animal masks partake in ceremonial dances reminiscent of the pagan practices prevalent in The Wicker Man and Midsommar. These celebrations usher in a jubilant mood before casting a shadow over Piotr's designs on Pidorka as the playfulness of those participating passes and a sinister undercurrent begins to flourish. Those who dabble in the occult usually pay a hefty price for their sins and Piotr's attempts at retaining Pidorka's heart and his newfound wealth are met with twisted rebuffs from the Devil as the macabre manifestations start to consume him.

Like his fellow countryman and celebrated auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ilyenko has an unnatural talent for elegantly capturing the beauty of nature, instilling his film with a sublime artistry that transports us into his extraordinary vivid imagination. These serene moments are often interrupted by a cavalcade of absurdity and the unharmonious juxtaposition of these moods should be jarring but Ilyenko binds them together seamlessly, unifying the discordant themes with his adept command of the medium. The relentless stream of ideas that flows forth is communicated in an enthralling manner as the sumptuous set designs play host to madcap performances from a cast who relish the bizarre sensibilities of a production infused with unparalleled creativity. This is an astonishing piece of art; an unconventional masterpiece where its only shortcoming is its brevity, and it acts as the perfect gateway into the mind of an inspired auteur.

The intriguing narrative takes a backseat to the visual feast we are invited upon as Ilyenko drapes his fantasy with a swathe of symbolism. This is a feast of plenty encompassing folklore that is likely to be unfamiliar to many audiences but its potency is not lost in translation due to the painstaking craftsmanship of the delivery. The Eve of Ivan Kupala is not just a film; it's a breathtaking experience that leaves you in awe of its vigorous and energetic telling of an ancient tale using striking techniques to evoke a powerful sense of sorcery. Piotr's life is totally transformed by his encounter with the devil and, although your encounter with Ilyenko's masterpiece will (thankfully) not come with the same trappings that are thrust upon Piotr, it will undoubtedly be an experience that transforms your appreciation for the incredible mind responsible for this visceral piece of art.

If you take the time to watch The Eve of Ivan Kupala then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Friday, 23 August 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 55. The Boxer and Death

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Boxer and Death
Director - Peter Solan
Country - Czechoslovakia
Year 1963
Runtime - 120 minutes

The resourcefulness of those persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust coupled with the serendipitous nature of possessing a certain skill, craft or trade that helped the oppressed survive has been the central conceit for many profound war films. Roman Polanski's The Pianist and Stefan Ruzowitsky's The Counterfeiters feature protagonists who are saved from horrific fates thanks to their usefulness to the cruel authorities who oversee the concentration camps or ghettos they are detained in. Those who survived to see another day in such abominable places were destined to pay a terrible price as the guilt and remorse of seeing their close companions taken to the gas chambers inevitably weighed heavily upon their emotional state of mind.

An overlooked Czechoslovakian film that explores this very notion is Peter Solan's moving drama from 1963, The Boxer and Death. It tells a powerful tale of a Jewish pugilist, Jan Kominek (Stefan Kvietik), whose life is spared when a Nazi commandant fond of boxing, Kraft (Manfred Krug) - who is in charge of the concentration camp where Jan is captive - takes Jan for his sparring partner. Jan is given extra food to gain weight and increase his strength for these sparring matches but this advantageous position causes friction between the boxer and some of the other camp's inhabitants. As well as facing hostilities from his peers, Jan also struggles when facing Kraft in the ring. He understands that it is important not to overstep his mark when throwing punches and this proves to be a difficult undertaking. Jan is presented with the perfect opportunity to take out his frustrations on the commandant and his true feelings threaten to bubble up to the surface as the bouts increase in intensity.

A mutual yet tenuous bond of respect and, to a certain degree, friendship is formed between these two men as they train together. The vast differences in their circumstances prevents a genuine connection from ever being possible given the situation but it is fascinating to see how their time spent boxing together becomes an important release for both of them. It provides Kraft with a way to flex his power and indulge his domineering nature on a weaker man, whilst also allowing him to feel good about helping out someone in desperate need of hope, and it encourages Jan to quite literally fight for a chance to make it through the oppressive Nazi regime with his body and soul intact.

Kvietik imbues his character with an innate hunger for survival that is demonstrated wonderfully in an early scene where he defies Kraft by dodging punches which are being inflicted upon him due to a failed escape attempt. This is the incidental but defining moment that acts as a catalyst for Jan, bringing his attention to Kraft and initiating a gradual change in his outlook through the boxing that enables his strength and hope to return. Krug is equally as compelling as Kraft, showcasing a human side to a man who has been swept up by the spread of Nazism and begins to display signs of doubt surrounding the final solution. Both actors possess a natural skill in the ring that lends credence to their exceptional performances, and the vigorous boxing bouts are capable of holding your attention as much as the scenes which deal with the weightier themes of the Holocaust.

In addition to the exceptionally choreographed fight scenes where Jan faces up to Kraft, he is constantly portrayed as battling his own personal demons and this is represented by the stunning cinematography and direction by Peter Solan. Smoke engulfs Jan as he trains near the camp's chimneys in a sombre and haunting sequence, momentarily clouding his judgement and adding to his inner turmoil, whilst also serving as a stark reminder that he is clinging on to life by the smallest of threads. This is powerful film-making, rife with thought-provoking symbolism and poignant, evocative shots that allude to the horrors of war without resorting to depicting the full graphic extent of the barbarity that took place at these camps.

Like the aforementioned films which tackle a similar subject matter, The Boxer and Death is an emotionally draining yet essential viewing experience, albeit one that has sadly slipped into obscurity. It may be a harrowing tale about the atrocities of war but it is also a stirring sports drama, an intimate character study, and a thrilling struggle between two men with radically opposing views. Films as potent as this deserve to reach a much wider audience; the valuable lessons contained within are impressed upon the viewer with a deftness of touch that is rare given the provocative nature of the troubling time in history it depicts. Solan has crafted a memorable film with an important message and a gripping storyline that resonates on a deep level as we contemplate the eternal scarring suffered by those who survived through such a horrific, life-altering ordeal.

If you take the time to watch The Boxer and Death then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here