Thursday, 19 March 2009

Before I kill you, I'm going to throw your baby out the window.

No 376 - Zodiac
Director - David Fincher

This film had to be good. For one simple reason. It is a film with a post rehab Robert Downey Jr and in this day and age he has been consistently brilliant in everything. And yes, he continues his trend of being brilliant in this and he gets most of the (relatively sparse) funny moments.

For this is a slow film. This is a slow burn about obsession and about trying to crack codes. This is an intense exploration of police work and reporting taking place over around 20 years. It is not the easiest film to watch. But it is very interesting....

The film follows three groups of people as they try to get to the bottom of the Zodiac Killings. You see how the police try and do it, you see how the San Fransisco Chronicle try to investigate into it and you see how Jake Gyllenhaal gets gradually obsessed with trying to crack the code. In this film Jake Gyllenhaal plays a cartoonist for the Chronicle and he is imbued with magical powers. These powers allow him to never age. For you see, the film takes place over 20ish years and yet he doesn't age a single say. Throughout the whole thing he remains a man is his late 20s.... What is his secret?

The film has a very interesting premise, which is nicely explained in the tagline:
There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer
but the film is so slow moving that it takes over an hour to reach this element of the film. The first half of the film is more akin to your standard serial killer film. You see the grizzly murders (although not in lurid splattervision) and then you see the aftermath, the police enquiries. It is a man hunt, a slow and calculated manhunt but it is fascinating to watch. It slowly explains what has been happening in the background, it explains how it how has Piqued Jake's interest and also how his funny little adventures with Robert Downey Jr help get him more involved in the situation.

The manhunt aspect of the film is very interesting until you remember one point. A point that greatly flaws the second half of the film.
This is based on truth. And in truth, they never caught the zodiac killer. So, we have a whodunnit, a suspense film, with no Who, no reveal, no resolve, no meddlin' pesky kids to save the day.
Sadly, it makes Jake Gyllenhaal's story quite dull. There are a few key suspects that the film hints at... but overall there is never a resolution. Every time you get to a juicy lead, it is just a lead to a dead end.. and after close to 3 hours (oh yes.... this is a long film.... Fincher seems to love them) it does get a bit disheartening.

I also wanted the Zodiac Killer to be a criminal mastermind.... and the clever tricks used to avoid detection do sometimes hint at that (writing letters with his left hand so that handwriting can't be traced). However, all the suspects are proper redneck hicks and the letters are written in a really weird way, like the scribblings of a child.
So we're left with a 'villain' who may be one person, or a group, or maybe just a bunch of copycat killers and with a cartoonist who is obsessing with catching the killer(s). Yet, we know he never will.
The story itself is not that compelling, but watching Gyllenhaal's (ageless) progress through life is absolutely compelling. The tragedy of his life as he begins socially awkward, finds a girl, marries, has children, only to lose it all as he refuses to notice anything besides his obsession.

I suppose that the film has the problem of being mis-advertised. It is a film that defies standard genre roles, so if you go into it expecting a police drama or a serial killer film, you will be disappointed. But as a study of obsession it is fascinating and just a little bit tragic.

And very long.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

I don't go to the movies much. If you've seen one you've seen them all.

No 8 - Singin' in the Rain
Director - Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen

After watching The Red Shoes yesterday, Phil and I decided that we were up for a more jolly, more wholesome, more funny film about dancing. So, from the depths of my DVD collection came this beautiful MGM Gem.

Every time I watch a Technicolor film, the vibrancy and beauty astound me. I wish gritty realism hadn't won out in the end (a pining that I also share for the GTA series of games) and everything could keep looking so full of glory and splendour.

The other thing that this film brings to mind is the art of prat falling. This film has some amazing fooling about in it, and there is an unprecedented amount of skill and grace needed in order to successfully look like an unskilled clumsy oaf.

There are very few actors, if any, that I can think of that would be able to truly embrace the notion of making a twat of yourself. But in Donald O' Connor there is a truly amazing physical comedian. It is not just the superb prat falling (see Make 'em Laugh for what might be the best bit of prat falling on celluloid) but O'Connor's excellent facial comedy and general timing just mean that he steals every scene he is in.
It is almost like he has no bones in his body. And instead of a skeleton he is being held up by 20,000 volts of electricity running through his rubbery limbs. Not the neatest analogy in the world but I think it just about holds it's own.
I would quite like to see what other films he is in, I will investigate.

In fact it seems that actors were much happier embracing the tomfoolery of the vaudeville show. Special kudos to Gene Kelly who seemed to have it all. He is a handsome chappy, who can quite happily pull off the part of a leading man, a heart throb. On top of that, he can sing, he can dance (a variety of dances), he can tap, he can act. Oh.... and he co-directed this film.
You can see why he was such a big name in the old days. He is a truly fascinating character. What is really impressive is how he flits from each of these. He can be an effortlessly smooth one second, entertaining a swarm of adoring fans. The next moment he is in a garish theatre outfit twitting about with a violin. The fact that this transition is essentially seamless and that the same characteristics shine through in both moments show just how versatile Gene Kelly is.

If you think of the number of celebrities these days who get by playing the same character in all films (this is a lot of actors, even ones I really like) you'll see just how much Kelly crams into one role.

Whilst we're discussing the cast. Let me discuss the final of the three main roles. The delightful Debbie Reynolds. When she gets into her singing, she is so adorable. In a time when 'sweet innocence' is packaged into annoying drivel by Disney it is so refreshing to watch a film of yore where one of the leads is just cute. Very lovely and very cute. She is so endearing there is no questioning why Gene Kelly's character falls for her...

But.... what of the film itself? There must be a reason it is rated so highly in the top 500, and it can't just be because of the quality of the cast (after all, they did a lot of films together).... luckily the story is inspired genius.
Telling the tale of 2 actors (Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen) from the silent era who try to survive the transition into Talkies. The comedy comes from Jean Hagen (who looks exceptionally glamorous) and who has the best 'made for silent cinema' voice I have ever seen.

Her story, the story of Reynolds (as her 'voice replacement') and the story of Kelly and O' Connor mix so brilliantly together. The characters are all so wonderful and lovable (even Hagen, who is just a megalomaniac idiot, but adorable with it) and the story so exquisite and the songs and dances are show stopping.

Just watch it.....

You'll thank me for it.

Then you can get down to the Mint Royale remix and the clever little car advert.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.

No 149 - The Red Shoes
Directors - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger

I would like to begin with a story. When I was a young boy, one of my favourite places to go was The Museum of the Moving Image (or MOMI) on South Bank. Sadly the museum got closed down... I think this is because they never seemed to update it. You got to 'present day' but found yourself stuck in the 80s. Surrounded by cybermen and spitting image.

What I loved about the place was the fact that everything was themed. So you would go through the early Victorian section through the 20s and 30s to modern day. All the staff would be in costume and in character. Best of all there was an old war era American Odeon there. It would play old films and it was there that I first saw part of The Red Shoes. It was the central ballet sequence and I remember being somewhat disturbed by it.

However, times have changed. I have matured (slightly) and am more aware of Powell and Pressberger. I remember my dad saying exceptionally good things about the film and I saw a BONKERS theatre production of it by Kneehigh Theatre. All of this made me want to watch it again.

The film is a very slow starter. It introduces the two protagonists of Julian and Vicky and slowly explains their situations, their relationships, their story. It is nice to see, quite a simple story of progression and fame told elegantly over a long period of time (nothing really happens for the first hour). It is especially nice as that isn't common place in films these days.

The character of Julian is cool for many reasons. Firstly, he is the French Heavenly agent from A Matter of Death. But, he is normal looking and very British. Secondly, I like him because he is so damned precocious. He is a music student and he gets hired to work for the most important ballet company in the world. He is then asked to edit and rewrite sections of a score they're going to use. What a break! Or... not. He sulks about it and then rewrites the entire score. Like I said, precocious!

In fact, all the men are terrible people. Arrogant, selfish, child like bullies. It must be hard to be poor Vicky. On one side Julian, the man she loves, demanding she gives up dancing and go with him. On the other side is the Ballet, demanding she gives up Julian. Neither side seems willing to compromise and include her needs. It is no wonder the poor girl suffers.

But then, this was a different time. A time when women clearly were expected to do as they're bally well told. And a time when ballet was the biggest most exciting thing in the world.
I don't understand quite how excited EVERYONE gets about the ballet coming to town. It must have been the cultural highlight of the 1940s....

However while the story may be nicely simple and whilst the characters may be beautiful creations (Ljubov, the choreographer is comedy gold. He was played by Leonide Massine who apparently was a wonderful choreographer in real life) the main focus of the film for me is the ballet of the Red Shoes itself.

The film transfers from a set to a sumptuous town. The colours are so rich and vibrant it is wonderful to look at. The whole ballet has a dark and ominous tone to it too - I can see why it may have concerned me when I was younger. The story gets progressively darker and progressively abstract. All the while continuing to mirror the main plot of the film.
This section also seems deeply symbolic. I don't feel intelligent enough to pretend I'd know but as a guess it must be about Vicky's desire to dance and her love for Julian.

The need for dancing pushes her and pushes her. Until she is tired, her romance is strained and ragged. And still she is pushed and pulled in all directions.

And what happens in the end?..

Sunday, 8 March 2009

This is Hollywood - We change everything! We've got teo!

No 178 - Hellzapoppin'
Director - H.C Potter

The Universal Studios introduction revolves and we fade to a chorus line singing elegantly as they move down the stairs. The stairs end, turning into a slide, the chorus line go tumbling and the set explodes.

Then everything explodes.


This film is pure bonkers anarchy. After those few minutes I was left in a position where I had no idea what to expect. But, I think that that is the best way to watch such a film.

Hellzapoppin' began life as a vaudeville stage show in the 1930s. It was constantly updated to remain topical and was meant to be a sort of anarchic sketch show combining songs, skits and audience participation. It was not something that would translate well in a film structure... and yet, fair play to Olsen and Johnsen for attempting. The film may have a more standard 'story' structure than your average revue but it is still a hotch potch ensemble of strange sketches and throwaway jokes.

The film is decidedly postmodern and I'd be interested to know how many films had tried what it had tried before this one. But, made in 1941, I wouldn't be surprised if this was one of the first truly post modern self referential films.

The audience not only speak directly to the audience, they speak to the director, they speak to the camera crew, they even talk directly to the projectionist in the cinema.

At one point, the projection puts the wrong reel on and the film changes, transporting Olsen and Johnsen into the wild west. Eventually they get back to their own film but they are joined by a native American chief.... it is all quite odd.

Somehow, the film manages to have a plot and as well as the constant stream of gags from Olsen and Johnsen there is a love story. Why a love story? Because all films have a love story of course!

So we face the odd little love story of Kitty (who is a very pretty Jane Frazee) and her two men suitors. She is engaged to Woody, they are both rich, it is all good. Except.... Kitty loves Jeff, Woody's playwright friend who is putting on a revue with Kitty, and Kitty is secretly in love with Jeff too. Of course Jeff is too much of a gentleman to make a move.

Very convoluted... as one would expect, but luckily the plot isn't really crucial to the film... instead it simply acts as a catalyst for the pratfalls and insanity.

The jokes are somewhat hit and miss... I personally find the more surreal moments work better than the other gags. The most dated humour comes from Hugh Hubert's private detective, a master of disguise who has an annoying habit of punning and then doing a little squeaky giggle to the audience... however, comedy genius comes from Martha Raye playing Johnsen's sister Betty. Although most of her humour comes from her indecent and unstopping quest to bag her an eligible fella. She does however have excellent comic timing, superb facial expressions and she throws herself into prat falling with amazing gusto.

While she is the star when it comes to the humour, the film fills the whole 'variety show' structure with some amazing dance acts. Special mention must go to Whitey's Steppers who are truly phenomenal dancers.

And while the set up has terribly dated racism (or at least gross stereotyping) the end result is some amazing and nigh on jaw dropping lindy hopping.

It is difficult really to fully explain the atmosphere of the film without listing all the gags... and that would ruin it for you, the viewer. So all I can say is buy it... or rent it.
We in the UK are in the lucky position of there being a region 2 DVD available... and you need to experience the sheer madness of HELLZAPOPPIN'

My definite 'favourite find' of the challenge so far (sorry Into The Wild)

Saturday, 7 March 2009

I shall call him Squishy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Squishy. Come on, Squishy Come on, little Squishy

No 413 - Finding Nemo
Director - Andrew Stanton

I'm surprised that this is so low in the top 500 as it is one of Pixar's best films. The best is quite obviously Toy Story 2, but this is close.

This film follows the standard Pixar buddy template however adds a certain layer of bleak despair over the story. If you look at the key elements of the story it really is depressing. Especially for poor Marlin.... the guy deserves a break
This a film that refuses to talk down to the audience. It may be a kid's film but the themes in it are quite adult. In the opening scene, in the first 5 minutes, Marlin's wife and their huge collection eggs get eaten.... leaving only one eggy survivor, Nemo. We now know the importance of Nemo in Marlin's life and why he is such an over protective father.
So when Nemo gets kidnapped.... Marlin sets off in a fratic desperate chase against the kidnappers....

Of course, Marlin couldn't do this on his own and the film manages to lighten the bleak story with the excellent cast of characters. Marlin may be a bit of a whining sap but he is the perfect foil to the stark raving bonkers Dory. Dory has the advantage of stealing almost every scene that she is in. With her inane rambling and her equally inane songs, Dory has the most memorable lines and the most amusing scenes.
However, there are other character that can easily hold their own against her. In typical Pixar style, all of the characters have been given a fascinating character. I'm going to talk about some of my favourite fish in the Pixar Sea:
  • The Teacher - this is John Ratzenberger's role in this film (as mentioned before, he gets a role in every Pixar film). A giant Manta Ray, which the children ride on the back of as he sings about the ecosystem which surrounds them.
  • Bruce - and indeed all three of the sharks in his little troupe. They are truly menacing characters, with their anatomically correct rows and rows and rows of teeth. However they have given up eating fish and now hold regular meetings - think AA for carnivores. They are an amusing little group, and once Bruce gets the Blood Lust, he becomes truly terrifying (I think it is just the subtle change as his eyes become black dead pits....) a chomping, charging, mindless tank of death.
  • Crush - I think Crush is the ultimate scene stealer in this film. The turtles are depicted as complete stereotype surfers with typically bizarre lingo "Saw the whole thing, dude. First you were all like "whoa", and we were like "whoa", and you were like "whoa..."" - He is one of a group of turtles riding the Oceanic drift and it is Crush's easy going parental skills that has the biggest effect on Marlin... showing that it is possible for a child to have a perfectly safe upbringing without Marlin's trademark overbearing nature.
  • You then have the myriad of creatures that don't have names.... the frankly hideous and scary Angler Fish, and the brainless hive mind of the seagulls being particular favourites.
  • Finally, the Whale... whilst the whale may not be doing anything particularly exciting it allows Dory to show off one of her key skills - being able to talk Whale. Which is baaaassssiiicccccccaaaaaaalllllllly speeeaaakkkkkkkiiiinnnnnnggggggg ssllloooooooowwwwwwllllllyyyy....
This isn't just a simple rescue buddy movie, it is also important because of Marlin's character development.... as he it is possible to be a good father and still embrace life. The characterisation in the film is excellent, but also.... the film looks so damned good!
The way that seaweed moves, the way that sunlight dapples - apparently the creation of realistic water was Pixar's biggest challenge for this film but it is a challenge they rose to admirably.

All of this is without even talking about what is happening on Nemo's side of the story. Trapped in a fish tank at a dentist's office the story introduces another smorgasbord of fascinating characters. From the scarred Gill to Jacques the comedy french prawn, Pixar manage to introduce dozens of characters which the viewer generally care about. Very impressive when you think that some films fail to provide a single captivating character.

This might not be the deepest film in creation, it is a glorious thing to watch. I apologise that all this blog really is is me talking about moments that I really liked.
However, that should be a clear sign that I love the film and tat it is really interesting....

Do watch it if you haven't

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Love can make an ugly man beautiful. Love can turn a man into a beast.

No 292 - La Belle et La Bete
Director - Jean Cocteau

The arty farty part of me has wanted to see this film for a very long time, something which was reinforced when I found out that it used to scare my mum as a child. So, through the awesome power of LOVEFiLM (really appreciating this system) I was able to get it through my door.

The whole film is very strange and ethereal, looking back at my last review (Russian Ark) it once again echoes the dream like state.
I think that one of the main reasons for this state comes through the movement of the two main characters. Belle and La Bete both move in a very stylised theatrical manner. At first, I thought it may be because the film is still in the early days of transition between silent (which was much more theatrical) and talkies. However, 20 years is not 'early days' in cinematic terms, and the fact that Belle's family move in a natural manner makes me think this was deliberate. This would certainly connect to the fact that Cocteau never saw himself as a film maker, instead he saw himself as a poet, using his films (and he only made 6 films in 30 years) to reflect personal aspects of his life.
The overtly theatrical manner in which the titular characters move work best when in La Bete's castle. It is here that the true nature of Cocteau's fantasy world come into play.

Statues express shock as they watch what unfurls. Lamps and vases are held up by mysterious hands which emerge from rich black walls - an element which is neatly parodied in The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse's House of Dr Pea. It is also here that we see how this film has massively influenced the Disney telling of the story. The house is vast and cavernous and Belle is seemingly left alone by La Bete, however her furniture speaks to her. Sure, we don't have the all singing, all dancing crockery found in Disneyland, but you can see how it may have been an initial influence.
The house, doesn't seem to have a set size or structure. Most of the interior sets are huge cavernous black rooms with a few props in the middle. This allows La Bete to glide from the shadows and make an impressive entrance but it also means that the house is separate from the 'real world' and adds to the strong theatrical dream like feel of La Bete's domain.

There is only one element of this film that could be viewed as a serious flaw (and I, personally, don't think this is the case). This is the lack of reason in the film. There is never a good reason for explaining why the handsome prince has been turned into a Beast (it was a punishment against his parents), neither is there really an explanation on why La Bete changes back, nor why poor Avenant becomes a beast himself. However I think this lack of explanation is key. It is a fairy tale, and fairy tales have rules which apply to themselves and which don't apply to our 'real' world. This is the first film which I have ever seen which begins with a disclaimer asking for a childlike suspension of disbelief. Here is the perfect example of why it is needed. I shouldn't question the events. Just accept they have occurred. And by not explaining it, they haven't opened the enormous can of worms which I tried to dissect in the Disney film.

I briefly mentioned Avenant in the above piece but I want to talk about the actor who played him - Jean Marais. Not only is Jean Marais and Avenant another clear influence on Disney (Avenant pretty much looks and acts like a less twattish Gaston) but he plays both Avenant and La Bete (and therefore subsequently, the Handsome Prince). Avenant is a difficult character to portray. At times he is desperately in love with Belle, and at other times he is a money loving jerk who wants to kill La Bete and steal his treasure.
It is made all the more strange by Avenant becoming a beast and La Bete becoming a prince who looks exactly like Avenant. The fact that Belle is so happy to see him transformed kind of detracts from the film's theme of inner beauty. However, I can hardly use that as a criticism of the film. Unlike Disney, it follows the original story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and that is the ending she has in her tale.

I can't believe that I have got this far into the tale without really discussing La Bete. He is a truly marvellous cinematic creation. His eyes glisten from a beautiful outfit which seems part feline and part bear. He wears a glorious outfit (which adds to his theatricality.... robes, cloaks and huge ruffs) and the 'Beast' makeup is truly amazing.
What is more special about the Beast is his shame. Here we have a character far more tragic than Disney (and I'm using Disney as my comparison as it is the only other interpretation of this story which I have seen... to my disgrace). Rather than answering back to his curse with rage, this Beast is upset, ashamed, disgusted with his looks. He pleads with Belle not to fear him, he skulks around the castle looking dejected and he speaks in a small timid voice which contradicts his monstrous appearance. His character is tragic but he is also beautiful. A true gentleman and a clear display of his gentle heart.

The film does such a good job of making La Bete a likable character, that you can't help but feel disappointed when he transforms.

And doubly so when Belle so graciously accepts the new Prince's advances.....