The Matrix (US, 1999)

They needed gun

They needed guns

The Matrix was a landmark special effects film; I still remember my awe when Trinity (above left) leapt in the air and froze as the camera tracked around her. Bullet time had arrived just before the turn of the century and CGI started its rule of Hollywood. The Matrix was more than a special effects extravaganza though, its subversive plot was seamlessly integrated with the digital wizardry and the knowingness of the action sequences justified their hyperbole.

I hadn’t seen the film for a number of years but it has stood up well. It was the Wachowski Brother’s second feature (after the superb Bound, US, 1998) and they integrated their cinephilia superbly into the mise en scene. The noir narrative is fully complimented by the set design. They haven’t managed much since unfortunately.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (US, 1931)

Interesting transformation

Interesting transformation

Apparently the AQA exam board in the UK claimed that their selection of 19th century novels (which students have to study for GCSE) all had good film versions. Teachers know that for many youngsters (and oldsters) 19th century lit teaching needs the extra help provided by visuals that bring to life the often torpid prose. Like the insistence that pupils be assessed on Shakespeare, this is class-based elitism that intends to ensure ‘culture’ remains the provence of the upper middle classes. There’s no reason why youngsters shouldn’t be introduced to the 19th century literature, or Shakespeare, but to insist they are assessed upon for their final grade is farcical. So how does this Dr. Jekyll stack up? Risibly I’m afraid though there is much to like in the film.

The performance style of early 1930s Hollywood; the pronunciation of Jekyll as Je-kill; the slightly ridiculous incarnation of Hyde; the aristocratic milieux so loved by Hollywood at the time… I could go on… are all off-putting. There’s nothing in the film that will help lower ability kids get their heads around Stevenson’s great novella.

However, as a pre-Code movie, starring the excellent Frederic March, with some adventurous camerawork from director Rouben Mamoulian, there’s enough to keep the cinephile interested. The transformation scenes are an absolute triumph; apparently March’s face was heavily made up in blue and then a blue filter was removed as March gurned into the monster. It still looks great. In order to set this up, so the character is looking directly into the camera, the opening shot is an ambitious, and rare, subjective shot including seeng March in a mirror. Technically brilliant at the time and now.

There are virtually no women in Stevenson’s novella (homosexuality repressed?) but Hollywood needs the ‘love interest’ and its provided by the ‘tinsel town’ trope of virgin (Rose Hobart) and whore (Miriam Hopkins). The pre-Code nature is evident when Hopkins’ Ivy tries to seduce Jekyll; she’s clearly naked and it’s so obvious what she’s after even my Year 10 knew. Despite its inauthenticity, this works to enhance Stevenson’s themes as the protagonist’s need for sex, his father-in-law won’t let him marry for eight months, serves as his motivation to become Hyde. Less successful is the moment when Hyde seems to be a black man; typical of the racism of the time (and now in ‘Trump’s America’).

However, as a film it will only confirm to youngsters that black and white movies have nothing for them and it will serve only to further alienate them from the text they are struggling to study. But then that’s the Establishment’s purpose isn’t it.

Carol (UK-US-France, 2015)

Love at first sight?

Love at first sight?

Fifties (set) melodrama; what’s not to like? Haynes’ Far From Heaven (US, 2002) sumptuously recreated Sirkian melodrama. Here his mise en scene is more restrained though the passion of the characters, perfectly played by Blanchett and Mara, sears the eyeballs. If anything, visually Carol is a little disappointing given the graininess of the super 16mm film; Haynes’ explanation, in December’s Sight & Sound, seems to be that he doesn’t like the sheen of digital film. I had assumed he was after a retro look however I just found it distracting. Enough cavilling!

Haynes’ framing reminded me of Fassbinder; characters are placed at the edges of unbalanced frames. This reflected the ‘forbidden’ love of the protagonists in the homophobic 1950s. The stupidity of those times might be laughable but when Trump is the Republican front runner it’s not funny as many people’s mentality obviously remains backward (to be polite).

I particularly liked Mara’s character; although she is a young woman finding herself in the world she refuses to be browbeaten. Blanchett’s Carol, too, decides not to be a victim of patriarchy and the final scene, with men almost swirling through the mise en scene, is extremely powerful. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

PS there’s an excellent Screen International article on the production of the film here.