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I haven’t done a Watching Movies post for a while, somehow life got in the way of taking myself to the cinema, but I thought I’d make up for it by seeing four films over two days. This post, therefore, will be short reviews of each of the four films, in the order that I saw them.

The Wind Rises (2013)

The first of this weekend’s celluloid dreams was Studio Ghibli’s latest offering ‘The Wind Rises’ at the Cinema Nova in Carlton. From director Hayao Miyazaki, whose other films include ‘Ponyo’, ‘Spirited Away’, and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, ‘The Wind Rises’ is an animated feature which focuses on pre-WWII Japan. The film’s hero, Jiro Horikoshi is an aeronautical engineer who designs planes which will eventually be used by the Japanese as fighters, the Zero. Jiro and many of the other characters are historical figures, however my Japanese history is pretty sketchy so I just have to trust that the film is accurate-ish.

Miyazaki’s films often involve quite surreal sequences; high fantasy and exaggerated characters which work well in an animated film. While ‘The Wind Rises’ has a couple of dream sequences in which conventional reality takes a back seat, I was surprised by how much of the film was done as realism.

I chose to watch the English dubbed version, over the Japanese language version with subtitles for two reasons; firstly, dubbing jars much less in animated films because they don’t really talk anyway, and secondly, while there will be translation anomolies either way, one can get more words in a dubbed version than in a subtitled version and hopefully that results in a more faithful translation. That being said I’m also not a big fan of having to read the subtitles. The English voice cast was full of people who I recognised, which was also fun; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Mandy Patinkin, John Krasinski, and Martin Short.

In terms of the plot, this film was a poignant exploration of the life of Jiro leading up to WWII (which is actually not mentioned in the film, but is implied). It was a very interesting portrait of the time period; Japan was quite poor, they were occupying Korea (also not mentioned in the film), it was an interesting time of cross over between traditional Japanese lifestyles and Western influences from clothing to aeronautical designs. Given the film’s time frame, I should have been ready for it to be a sad story, but having seen a couple of Miyazaki’s other films I was expecting it to be a light children’s story. It might be rated PG but I think this is a film made for adults. My friend said he managed to only cry a little bit, and I was very close to tears as well.

Beautifully drawn, in particular the backgrounds are spectacular, and beautifully written; there is surprisingly little dialogue, and it’s all important, this is a moving film well worth a watch. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Rear Window (1954)

The first Saturday night’s double feature at the Astor in St Kilda was ‘Rear Window’. A classic thriller from Alfred Hitchcock, this is the story of the L. B. Jeffries (Jeff), who is stuck in his apartment, in a wheelchair, with a broken leg for what feels like an eternity over a sweltering Manhattan summer. Pre-television, Jeff’s boredom leads him to spend his days watching his neighbours; his apartment faces the back, the rear windows, of several other apartment buildings. In one of these buildings, he sees some suspicious activity and we follow his story as he tries to convince his friends and the police that he’s not just a paranoid curtain twitcher.

To make this film, Hitchcock built all of the apartments on a sound stage. Each apartments has actors playing the inhabitants and they were all given activities to perform. The whole thing seems to have been run more like a play than a film; in particular some of the opening shots are of the camera, set in Jeff’s apartment, panning over each of the apartments giving us a glimpse into the life of the people living there.

Based on a short story, ‘It had to be murder’ by Cornell Woolrich, ‘Rear Window’ has been spoofed and references many, many times. I went into the film without knowing the ending, but assuming it would be similar to ‘The Simpson’s’ version; which it was and wasn’t at the same time.

Despite having been made 60 years ago, the film was suspenseful, and believable. Some of the cinematography dated it a little, particularly the heavy use of soft focus for Grace Kelly, and some of the attitudes and pass-times of the characters placed it at the time, but generally speaking it could easily have been made recently. I did notice the age difference between Stewart, 46, and Kelly, 25, but unfortunately that hasn’t really changed all that much.

All in all, I can certainly see why this film has had such a profound impact on popular culture and is considered a classic. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Rear Window poster

Rear Window poster

Vertigo (1958)

The second of the Astor’s double feature was ‘Vertigo’ – another Hitchcock film starting James Stewart. This psychological thriller makes ‘Rear Window’ seem like a comedy – it is much darker, and without giving away spoilers, the ending is horribly unsatisfactory. In this film, James Stewart plays a retired police detective who suffers from acrophobia, fear of heights, and gets vertigo, dizziness, whenever he’s somewhere high.

The opening titles of ‘Vertigo’ are a distinctive sequence of receding and advancing spirals. It’s a visual that stays with you and has a certain similarities to a Bond film opening (although with the first Bond film in 1962, ‘Vertigo’ was probably an influence on Bond, rather than the other way around).

Based on a novel, ‘D’entre les morts’, a French crime story by Pierre Boileau, Stewart’s character ‘Scottie’, John Ferguson, is hired to investigate the strange behaviour of the wife of an old college buddy. As the investigation progresses, Scottie falls in love with the woman, played by Kim Novak, and that’s about all I can tell you without spoilers.

Again there are a few interesting gender issues in this film; specifically Kim Novak is also 25 in this film, but Stewart is now 50. Additionally Scottie’s friend Midge is an interesting portrait – a woman who is in love with him, but she seems to be too ambitious, or capable, or career driven, or not pretty enough for Scottie to notice. She’s also supposed to be a college buddy, but actor Barbara Bel Gedes is only 36 and doesn’t quite pull off the concept of being the same age.

The film’s ending is unexpected and not a little distressing. I would be extremely surprised if an ending like that made it past a test screening nowadays! It speaks to Hitchcock’s influence in the industry and to the changing expectations and tolerances of the movie-going public.

Despite the unusual ending and consistently dark tone, this is another classic well worth watching. I’m giving this one 4 out of 5 stars (I dropped it from 4.5 for being a bit long and having an annoying ending).

Die Besucher (Visitors, 2012)

The final film in this epic weekend was ‘Die Besucher’, a German film, which I saw as part of the Goethe Institut Festival of German Films at the Palace Como in South Yarra. The film follows a family as the patriarch, Jakob, tries to break some news that will have an impact on all their lives. The three adult children, Karla, Arnolt, and Sonja, live in Berlin away from the family home in rural Germany. The younger two of the three are still heavily financially dependent on their parents.

This is a character driven film, much more than a plot driven one. The film quietly explores the unspoken conflicts between the six members of this family. Directed by Constanze Knoche, and co-written with Lies Bagdach, this film was made with a very modest budget. They spent several years working on the screenplay and getting the funds together to make the film. It would be easy to assume from watching this, that it was a big budget studio production; the acting is first rate, particularly from Uwe Kockisch who is a prolific and well-respected German actor, the screen-play is extremely tight, each moment of dialogue or silence is perfectly crafted to carry forward the character exploration. It has also been made with high production values, that is to say the the cinematography, sound recording and soundtrack, bear none of the dodgey hallmarks one might associated with a low-budget feature.

My biggest complaint about this film is the ambiguity and apparent tidiness of the ending. To me, it felt like the characters forgave too quickly and the reconciliation seemed unrealistic, however my friend disagreed with my interpretation and didn’t think there was a reconciliation. I can see how both interpretations could be correct. I think there was a part of me that identified strongly with a family whose conflict is unspoken, and so perhaps I was more appalled by the ability to forgive and forget than she was.

Overall a lovingly crafted film which left both of us feeling quite unsettled. It’s not an easy film to watch for reason’s I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the result of a built up of tension over the 90 minutes which does not have a satisfactory release. Even so, this film deserves 4 out of 5 stars.

Unfortunately I can’t find a trailer with subtitles, but this should give you a feel for it: