Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.

No 101 - Raising Arizona
Directors - Joel and Ethan Coen

I'm so very sorry.

I saw this film AGES ago - like over a week ago. But then I got super busy with work and then I got raucous at Secret Garden Party. There hasn't been a blog.

I'm ashamed...

Allow me to attempt to rectify, but please be aware that this will be quite rough and ready now as the ravages of time (and Magners) have taken their hold.

The first thing this film reminded me of is that Nick Cage is brilliant. I know that I should be aware of this - he is great in Con Air... and Adaptation.... and I love him in Face/Off even if he is ridiculous.
But recently, he has been letting his hair do most of the acting and appearing in some preposterous nonsense with AWFUL tag lines.
So it is nice to be reminded of his skills.

The Coens are very good at creating 'Noble' Ne'er Do Wells. People who we relate to - despite them being bad 'uns or corrupt in some way.
Nicolas Cage's Hi is the perfect example.
He can't stay out of prison for long and doesn't seem to particularly bothered by the entire process. In fact, he uses his regular arrests to form a strange semi-flirty relationship with the police photographer.

Finally he proposes and goes straight.
As you may be able to fathom, the 'going straight' aspect fails in a spectacular fashion.

The film itself is really quite bonkers and focuses on a surreally twisted version of our reality. The comedy itself isn't surreal, more the people and situations are so twisted and distorted that the turn into caricatures and cartoons.

It seems quite right, that the only two people that are given any kind of 3-dimensional depth are the protagonists:
Ed - played fantastically by Holly Hunter. Her character is so frail, delicate and naive looking. A very homely beauty to her that all helps to defy the mad obsession for having a baby. Because Ed is so sweet and unassuming, it is generally quite scary to see her snap.
Hi - played by Nicolas Cage and again playing quite a sweet and gentle man. Just one who only knows how to stick up shops.
And before he went straight, Hi had amazing sideburns.

In fact, sideburns are an important point. The whole film seems somewhat timeless, because it seems to be trapped in a contemporary 1950s. The men are either pastel wearing preppy nincompoops or rough and ready rockabillies. The scenes and environments share the same 50s pastel palette as Edward Scissorhands, only feels far less suburban.
The whole films has a strong 50s vibe, which I suppose helps to carry the gung ho 'rock and roll' vibe of the film.

The film also plays up to cliches of the Midwest. Mainly that they're all gun toting hicks who shoot first.
A failed store robbery (for some nappies) ends in an excessive gun fight as various yokel looking members of the store staff fire ever larger, ridiculous and destructive weapons at Hi. Eventually destroying the majority of two stores.

This could be viewed as quite un-PC or quite insulting. But in my opinion all it does is reinforce the cartoonish nature of the film. No one gets hurt from the gunfire so it is just another bonkers layer to the film.

This point is exemplified by the Hell's Angel bounty hunter. Who may be real. Or who may be a metaphor for the rampant anger of Mrs Arizona or who may be some kind of subconscious element of Hi's psyche (they both share a Woody Woodpecker tattoo, which hints at some kind of connection). However, this film aint Fight Club, and that isn't something that gets explored.
He is a wonderful character (as is John Goodman's show (and baby) stealing cameo) and the scene where he explodes is played far more as Tom and Jerry than Scanners.

I'm aware that this is a very brief and flakey review, but it is similar to how I feel after the festival...
All in all... I liked it!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past - someone dead - can enter and take possession of a living being?

No 40 - Vertigo
Director - Alfred Hitchcock

This film made me feel stupid. I went in with very little knowledge of the plot, I only knew it had a dream sequence designed by Dali (another memory carefully stored from my wonderful times at MOMI). It DOESN'T have a dream sequence designed by Dali! Spellbound does.... and Spellbound isn't even on the ruddy list.

So, as I didn't know the plot of the film I was very surprised when it is unveiled that Gavin Elster would like retired detective John 'Scotty' Ferguson to follow his wife because he thinks she is possessed by a suicidal ghost.
That is a bit of a bonkers plot. It certainly isn't what I was expecting from a Hitchcock film.

Now yes, there is a twist that explains it all in a logical way. It also cancels out the main crux of my bugbear with this film.... However, as the twist isn't revealed till about 20 minutes before the end, I have lots and lots of notes which talk about one thing:

Jimmy Stewart is a bastard! I like Jimmy Stewart, how can you not... he is Elwood.... but, in this film he is just a horrible man.
I want to focus on his mission:

He follows Miss Madeleine Elster (played by the lovely Kim Novak - hooray for Hitchcock's obsession with glamorous blondes) and even saves her life. However an attraction forms and soon Scotty is courting her, kissing her, in love with her!
Now this is wrong for a number of reasons. Well, 2 big reasons which I have decided to focus on:

Firstly.... it is just wrong! Scotty was hired in a professional capacity by an old friend to watch someone. Someone who is clearly going through some form of mental trauma and is clearly vulnerable (she is suicidal... which I think makes it fair for me to jump to these conclusions).
So, what does he do? He courts her. Invites her out for dinner. Slowly the pair fall in love. That is not only terrible professional misconduct but what a shitty way to treat a friend.
Gavin must be sat at home worried about his poor wife who may be possessed with a ghost or just have a strange mental condition. Who could commit suicide at any point. All the while she is getting it off with old Jimmy Stewart.

As I have mentioned, there is a big reveal near the end that makes the above argument a bit of a moot point, however.... my second point still stands firm:

The age difference. There is one hell of an age difference there. Kim Novak was 26 when this film came out, and the film states that her character is 25. Now I'm not sure how old Scotty is meant to be but Jimmy Stewart was a nice neat 50 by the time the film came out.
He is looking good for his age, but he isn't looking so good that he can pass off as someone half his age... Regardless of how he looks - that is one big old age gap.

It is made worse when we know about Midge. Poor sweet lovely Midge. Firstly, Barbara Bel Geddes is 11 years closer to Jimmy Stewart's age than Kim Novak. So already, we're looking at a more reasonable age gap. But also... Midge is clearly so in love with Scotty. She drops hints all the time, she is constantly trying to organise a date. All to no avail.

Initially I hoped she would triumph and get her man. That Scotty would see the error of his ways and go back to Midge (it is implied that they dated... or at least were drunkenly engaged). However by about half way through the film I'd completely changed my mind. "Move on Midge" I thought "You're better than that cheating bastard, find yourself a nice man who'll treat you well and appreciate your skills in painting and bra design!".

You see... I got a bit distracted by the romance subplot and the mystery element went on the back burner as I obsessed over the way the women are badly treated.

However the film continues and the plot thickens and tragically Scotty is unable to stop Madeleine from committing suicide, just like Carlotta, the ghost that possessed her.

Now, we find out that all of this is a load of bollocks (and whilst I may be heavily implying everything I don't want to tell you exactly what happens. I'm not Lord Henry Spoiler after all.) and although Scotty is plunged into depression at losing his true Love (though she was Gavin's true love first) he soon meets the scarily identical Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak).

The final third of the film is about Scotty trying to overcome losing Madeleine. He sees Judy as a big part of that. Dressing her in Madeleine's clothes... taking her to the same places he took Madeleine.
Judy realises and gets more and more distressed. She finally stands up to him when he asks her to dye her hair blonde. Here Scotty replies with no logic at all:
"I need this Judy, it can't matter to you". I'd argue that it very easily could matter. Firstly she has to dye her hair - that is a semi permanent change that she might not want. Secondly she has to dye her hair so that she looks like the dead ex girlfriend of the man she loves.

That is pretty fucked up.

And Jimmy Stewart shows no remorse or even thanks at the sacrifices Judy has gone through.
When Judy has finally been tweaked and adjusted and changed so that she looks like Madeleine, and the music swells and they kiss. It feels like the film is telling me "This is a Happy Ending" but it isn't. I felt heartbroken to see Judy's soul utterly destroyed. To see her broken down and rebuilt in the image of a man's obsession. It is tragic.

Despite (or maybe because of) the tragedy, the film is amazing and I specifically want to mention the Vertigo shots.
Scotty has Vertigo. That is why he retires from the police force and is hired as a free lance detective. That is why he can't save Madeleine (she throws herself off a church tower and Scotty freaks out half way up) - it is the perfect weakness for his character and the dolly zooms (I think that is the name of the effect) are beautiful.

It may be a bit of a cliche these days. But it is just a nice cool effect and Hitchcock shows how it can be done to masterly perfection!

And after watching this and Black Narcissus I feel that I have learnt a valid lesson. Never go anywhere high up with a nun.

You will plummet to your demise.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Monsieur Hulot. H-U-L-O-T

No 218 - Les Vancances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot's Holiday)
Director - Jacques Tati

This was apparently the first film to unveil Mr Hulot, Jacques Tati's comedy alter ego and a sort of predecessor to Mr Bean.... However, this film didn't have a lot of the subtlety or excellent timing that Rowan Atkinson manages to squeeze out of his latter creation.

I have to say that I don't understand a lot of the older French Comedy. I found the slapstick in this was too crude, too basic, too obvious to be really funny, and I found the same when I saw another staple of French comedy - Les Bronzés. Although both of these films have their moments of comedy, the majority of it was too broad for me.
Saying that, more recent French films seem to really play the subtle and sarcastic humour that I love. Please don't take me to be dissing my Frenchie heritage... I may be L'Anglais by name but I still embrace my froggie half, just not their older comedies. However, L'auberge Espagnole, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis and St Jacques la Mecque are all examples of how recently, the French have cracked really good comedies.

So with that disclaimer out the way, let me begin my blog.
The film follows a bunch of holiday makers at a beach somewhere. One of which is Mr Hulot and then some stuff happens. None of this stuff seems to be linked or have any kind of set up or explanation. Once you accept this and let the film run its course it becomes a lot easier to follow.

That may seem harsh, but I don't mean it in a derogatory way. There are some very good moments within the film. but no real connection. It is almost like the film is a beach themed sketch show. Some of the sketches (such as Mr Hulot painting his boat and then going rowing) are wonderful and subtle little moments. Whilst others seemed plainly odd, or - worst of all - not funny.
It is probably a worrying sign for my own personal state that the bits that I found really funny were the bits where people get hurt:
Somebody standing on a loose tow rope which then gets tightened laungching them into the air? Classic
Horse kicks a car casing the roof to cave in on the driver? I laughed

Inexplicitly appearing in a shed full of fireworks with a lit firework which then causes all the fireworks to go off? I was too confused by the absolute lack of set up. Mr Hulot just appeared there with a lit firework.

At times it almost seems that he is going out of his way to cause chaos, whereas the best slapstick comedy stems from ineptitude and a clever set up... not merely ineptitude.

The other thing that I didn't understand was the bizarre use of sound and language. Now everything had a weird sound effect tied to it - doors would 'boing' shut, the squeals of a tyre would sound like a child screaming. They were weird little touches that I liked, it tickled the nonsensical bit of my humour.

However there is also a bunch of English speaking holiday makers who appear to be there for no reason. In true 'Brits Abroad' stylee, they also refuse to speak French. Breaking up the (scarce) French dialogue with their posh English accents. They do seem to understand French though.... they're just being lazy. I suppose that is still the case these days with them there British, they just don't respect culture.

Jacques Tati's saving grace is that he has created a wonderfully naive and inept character, and maybe the humour develops over the films (this was the first of a series)... however, at this early point, there just isn't enough there to make a really funny film.

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks

No 26 - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Director - Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick is a very impressive fellow. I'm sure this is something I've mentioned before, but just look at his back catalogue. He very rarely tackled the same genre twice. But whatever film he makes be it sci-fi, horror, epic or Comedy, he makes a pivotal film of the genre.

Of course, when doing a comedy, it doesn't hurt to have the very excellent (though somewhat temperamental) Peter Sellers. What I love about this film is the initial subtlety of the comedy and how that subtlety is gradually blasted into tiny pieces over the course of the film.

The opening credits set the tone of the film as scenes of ships refuelling in the air are shown with sensual music playing over the top. The end effect is almost pornographic and begins to illustrate one of the key points of the film. Lust and war and sex and violence are all mingled together and this becomes increasingly evident in the thoughts and actions of the military.
In fact, the military are not well portrayed in this film (with the exception of Group Captain Mandrake who is gloriously British and possibly the only sane person in the film) - I would be surprised to hear that Kubrick was staunchly anti-war as the film does illustrate the Cold War as a futile and ridiculous endeavour.

As well as the Military, Kubrick seems to have a problem with fool proof plans. Mainly the idea that creating a fool proof plan, or a failsafe... seems to be tempting fate and asking for trouble. Te plot comes into play when the insane General Ripper activates Plan R, a retaliatory battle plan which allows the military to perform nuclear strikes without the permission of the president. The plan is also designed to be next to impossible to stop, just in case the Russians try and sabotage.
So the entire American and Russian governments are left with a Nuclear strike which they can't avert all because of this foolproof failsafe plan.

As this becomes clearer, General Turgidson refuses to accept any responsibility from the president who becomes more and more frustrated at this clearly flawed procedure. You have to be impressed at General Turgidson's refusal to accept that Plan R was not a good idea. His backtracking and spin is enough to make a politician proud.
President Merkin Muffley: General Turgidson! When you instituted the human reliability tests, you *assured* me there was *no* possibility of such a thing *ever* occurring!
General "Buck" Turgidson: Well, I, uh, don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.

All of this causes the situation to become more and more desperate as Armageddon seems likely. It also allows the film to completely lose the fragile grip on reality that it had been maintaining....

This film is famous for Peter Sellers' multiple characters. However the first two are very restrained. General Mandrake is very stiff upper lip, the straight man in a sea of fools, he is both a strong character and a serious character. Whilst still a straight character, the much weaker President Muffley is a Woody Allen-esque nervous jittering man trying to handle the fact that his world is falling to pieces. Most of the true insanity comes from the other characters, that Sellers gets to riff off.
Whereas in Pink Panther he was the fool, in this film he is the straight man.

Except.... About 2/3 of the way through the film we meet the titular Dr Strangelove. A creation which is so stark raving bonkers it is impossible to figure out how he came to be.
A definite former Nazi (he occasionally slips into 'Meine Fuhrer' and the odd Nazi salute) the real oddness comes from what is described as an 'Evil Hand'. Whilst Dr Strangelove comes from a Nazi background he is now the scientific advisor for the President. His begloved 'Evil Hand' still has traces of the Nazi in it and Dr Strangelove seems unable to control it. The hand frequently tries to slow Strangelove down and on one occasion even tries to kill him.
I always thought this was the silliest most random bit of the film, but to my astonishment it is an actual condition!

As Armageddon seems surer and surer (due to retaliations and anti-retaliatory precautions) the Americans start planning on how they could survive living underground in mineshafts until the fallout clears.
Eventually - Plan R is averted and all but one plane return to the states. But one plane is enough to trigger the Russian Doomsday machine which could mean the end of the world.

The film ends with us not really knowing what has happened. There is just a montage of nuclear explosions and Vera Lynn singing we'll meet again. The original song choice was apparently going to be We Will All Go Together When We Go... but whilst I think Tom Lehrer's song is a perfect ending tune, We'll Meet Again is just a bit bleaker....

And this is a film that relishes in the comedy in tragedy

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Vice, Virtue. It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality.

No 65 – Harold and Maude
Director – Hal Ashby

Elliot Biddle has tried to persuade me to watch this film for a while and this always makes me wary. After all, he did the same with Taxidermia, Grave of the Fireflies and A L’interieur. The first two I found highly traumatic (though Grave of the Fireflies is beautiful in that Ghibli way) and the latter I refuse to see. However, this film was then referenced in the brilliant 30Rock and even the flimsiest of research makes it quite evident that it doesn’t fall into the ‘bleak and disgusting’ category of films that Elliot so enjoys.

The film sets the tone perfectly from the first scene in which Harold meticulously tidies his room, prepares his outfit and hangs himself (reminiscent of the opening scene to Wristcutters: A Love Story). As his body hangs there his mum walks in, has a phone conversation and tells Harold not to be late for dinner.
A fantastically odd opening scene that shows a key point about this film:
Whilst it is certainly based on the real world, there are a lot of liberties taken. Minor moments that require suspension of disbelief.
Harold’s increasingly elaborate and meticulously staged suicides are one such element.

Once you accept this top coat of cartoon-esque liberties, you are faced with quite a beautiful film about humanity, life and death.
Harold is an unnaturally pallid teenager with an obsession with death. Maude is a 79 year old with a firm understanding of life and a love of every moment. They meet at a funeral and the film follows Harold’s progression as he begins to learn from Maude and gradually they fall in love.
And whilst it is a love story that features (implied) sex between a couple with a 60 year age gap, Harold and Maude’s relationship never feel gratuitous or even particularly shocking and I think that is down to the excellent characterisation. Harold is so dour, so sombre and so smartly dressed that he is far older than his years. Meanwhile Maude’s fascination in the world, her joie de vivre makes her seem considerably younger. If it wasn’t for the ‘wrinkle factor’ the age gap would hardly be evident at all.

I think that the other reason that the other reason Harold and Maude’s partnership seems so right is that every other main character appears to be a gross cartoon character, an exaggerated stereotype of any real person.
The main characters also conveniently all fall into Harold’s family.
Firstly, Harold’s mother, played by the brilliantly named Vivian Pickles. She is every stereotype of the upper class English toff. Her voice is plumy to the point of perfection, her priorities are bonkers and her ignorance of her son is very very funny. This is most clearly seen when she decides that Harold needs to get married and therefore signs him up to a computer dating club. As she answers the questionnaire for him the answers stop being Harold’s and become her own very naïve rightwing views.
(on an unrelated note…. Considering the answers Harold’s mum enters into the questionnaire, he gets a very varied and strange list of potential dates.)

The other family member is Harold’s military uncle, a character who bashes through the cartoon bonkersness and emerges in plainly surreal.
He is the military stereotype talking about how the army can Make You A Man, Build Your Self Respect and the importance of Serving Your Country. His statements are a bit silly, very clichéd and delivered in such a stern manner that it is hard not to laugh. His one arm is the source of the bizarre – a series of pullies and toggles mean he can pull a chord to cause the armless sleeve of his jacket to snap into a military salute.
It is an ingenious touch which utterly undermines the severity of his words and displays him as a complete joke. Probably the same way that Harold views him.

If you also factor in the fact that Harold is impossibly rich and seems to have any and everything available to him. If you factor in the effortless way Maude gets away with her crimes, or the fact that despite living in an old train carriage her home seems Tardis-like with constant new areas appearing for different scenes. These little elements help to create the unreal feel to the film’s background. Which, rather than undermine the story, seems to heighten the reality in Harold’s evolution as he becomes a more rounded person.

It is also made the more moving by a wonderful 70s score. I do quite like 70s country pop and Cat Stevens’ songs are the perfect accompaniment. It was also joined with some beautiful Vivaldi (I think it is summer from the 4 seasons) which I’d recently seen used in Don Hetzfeldt’s ‘Meaning of Life’ and which makes me a bit goosebumpy.

The change from big booming classical music to sweet pop ditties reflects Harold’s change of character, as does his change of wardrobe (something I was certain to notice), moving from dour austere suits to a much lighter more fashionable (for the time) series of outfits.

It is best described in the symmetry of the film – starting with Harold’s faked hanging and ending with Harold trying desperately to keep Maude alive. A beautiful progression of the character’s new found love and respect for life, specifically the life of this one lady.

I just find it weird to think that Bud Cort who played Harold was also the bank stooge in the Life Aquatic...