Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!

No 328 - The Truman Show
Director - Peter Weir

Empire's Twitter has pointed me in the direction of this blog here. Now of course, I'm slightly jealous that he has managed to get the magazine's attention without even trying (for I am a petty and bitter man) - but mostly I think it is awesome that other people are cracking through the films. It is a good little challenge.You may see from the Blog that this chap (I believe his name is Dallas) is going to try and watch them all in one year. A mighty feat indeed and it has encouraged me to get my act together. So... Witness... THE SECOND BLOG IN ONE DAY! Gasp! Egad! etcetera....

After a very early start for a morning at work, I relished in my free afternoon and sat down in front of the Truman Show. I don't know whether it is a guilty pleasure but I really like Jim Carrey when he is in his serious roles. Eternal Sunshine, Man on the Moon, Truman Show are all brilliant films. The Number 23 is completely ridiculous and too far the other way (I'm a KILLER! I! HAVE! KILLED!) but his restrained serious roles are really good and this story is a lovely showcase for him (considering it comes straight after Liar Liar, The Cable Guy and Ace Ventura).

The film is, in equal parts, genius and bonkers. The central themes are handled beautifully but the periperal details are so damned ridiculous that they just have to be overlooked. Let us begin by discussing what this film really is about. It is about freedom, about manipulation and about paranoia. It is also about how fucking ridiculous Reality TV has become. The fact that it handles those weighty themes with such a light touch is the film's key skill. It is a wonderfully charming film dealing with the imprisonment, delusion and puppetry of an innocent man... It is inspired.

Let us begin by looking at the ridiculous peripherals so that I can then discuss the genius behind it. Christof (I assume the man is a billionaire artist mad man, though it is never really said out right) has created an island encased in a dome. This has a controllable horizon, ecosystem and every single living person on the island is a character used to create Truman's world.
Truman is a man who has been filmed (without his knowing, and by 5000 cameras) since birth in a giant set created solely for him. Screw the Lost pilot, or Angel's death in Buffy, this is the most expensive bit of TV ever!

Truman begins to get suspicious when technical things start to go wrong. A star (a presumably monstrously bright stage light) falls out of the sky, a localised rain storm follows him along the beach. Traffic and people starts acting strangely. All these 'clues' are a bit silly, but there is one unforgivable moment. In Truman's wedding photos, Meryl (Truman's wife) has her fingers crossed. Now... as far as I'm aware, as an ADULT, crossing your fingers doesn't mean diddly. It certainly doesn't negate a WEDDING! If you were acting. In a TV show. Surely the wedding wouldn't be legit. It doesn't have to be. SO DON'T CROSS YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR WEDDING PHOTOS! You'll only look suspicious.
I've never understood the fingers crossed thing.

As an outsider, the entire of Truman's world is suspicious (of course, as Christof says, we accept the world we grow up in - so it would be normal for Truman) filled with a wonderfully strange sense of 1950s suburbia. Pastel shades and cheery smiles, a complete utopia filled with electric cars and angora cardigans. It is also a world filled with product placement and the most fantastic 'anti travel' propaganda - the travel agents is a pure unbridled delight, filled with posters showing the dangers of travel and recommending people just stay at home.

The film sets up this insane situation, but also introduces a genuinely sad and touching love story, because the story has much darker manipulation than merely controlling weather and neighbours. Truman falls in love with an 'extra' rather than a 'lead role' and therefore, Truman's object of affection is shipped away and Truman is introduced to Meryl. The flashbacks to the brief fling shared by Truman and Sylvia is interlocked with footage of Sylvia watching The Truman Show on her TV set.
It is his love which spurs him on to finally escape the Island.

For all the silliness of the film, the final sequence is fantastic... Truman's determination as he battles the elements and his fear to sail to freedom. The fantasy notions that the TV crew use to stop him (using the moon as a spotlight is a particular joy) and the final shot. As Truman walks up a staircase on the horizon. That is a beautiful and somewhat surreal highlight of modern pop culture.

I'd just love to see a brief follow up showing how Truman fares in the real world as the most famous person on Earth...

Paradise begins with the love we show each other here on Earth.

No 108 - L'albero Degli Zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs)
Director - Ermanno Olmi

I have had this sitting in my house for the best part of a month. The reason for this being, it sounded VERY heavy. Here is LoveFilm's definition of the film. The only definition or review of it that I had:
Ermanno Olmi's THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS presents a year in the life of peasants in northern Italy near the turn of the 20th century. A little boy breaks his precious pair of clogs, which he needs for his long trek to school. Desperate for wood to make a new pair, his father sneaks into a prized grove in their small village. When he's caught, the unfeeling, wealthy landlord punishes him severely for his transgression. This small incident, and the various viewpoints of the peasants, reveal in beautiful detail rural life under oppressive rule.

and the film is 3 hours long. I strapped myself in and decided to watch it.

I want to begin by saying I didn't detest the film, there were some bits I liked. I just found the slow pace and the lack of story meant that the film could be a lot of work and I fail to see why it is held in such high esteem.
I am truly prepared to be called a philistine, to be branded an uncultured twit - you are all probably right.

I don't want this to be a negative blog. I'm not a negative person. The film is very slow, to the extent of almost standing still and very little happens. It follows the lives of peasants who have very dull peasant lives so the film is very light on 'action' or 'plot', and whilst I normally am a fan of the slow and rambling film, I found it difficult to follow for the full 3 hours. These were the elements that I found challenging but there were a lot of little elements that I enjoyed.

Firstly the film is beautiful and feels very real. The performances are incredibly believable, especially impressive considering Olmi didn't hire actors, instead using villagers from the surrounding area. It makes everyone feel a bit more real. They have that gruff weather beaten look that is impossible to fake decently. The locations are just as gruff and weather beaten, and therefore just as beautiful and real. The film effortlessly makes the events unfolding feel real. The characters are natural, the settings are genuine - it could almost be a documentary, if it wasn't set at the turn of the 19th century.

Although I have already mentioned the acting, I want to focus on the character of Batisti, who is probably the nearest thing this film has to a protagonist and who has the greatest moustache I've seen in a long time. His character is fantastic, effortlessly juggling the stresses of living in the tough times with being an excellent father, caring for his children and showing definite interest to their trials and tribulations. The scenes of his family interacting with one another are joys. Little nuggets of homely camaraderie which were the highlights of the film for me.

It is through Luigi Ornaghi's beautiful performance (he looks on the brink of tears the whole time) that Batisti became my favourite character and the story about the clogs, and the tree became the story that I was most invested with (the film's finale, and only real moment of plot, is genuinely sad).

From the masses of intricacies of everyday peasant life, only one other characters shone through enough for me to feel invested. I have to apologise because I do not know any of the character names, but the I wish to talk about is the grandfather who uses chicken manure to tend his tomatoes (like I said, slow moving film!). His relationship with his granddaughter is lovely, and it is heart warming to see their secret experiment work allowing them to sell their tomatoes before any of the other villagers. When the film is so slow that growing tomatoes becomes a plot point it is impressive that they make the audience root for the little growing tomatoes.

If you can endure the three slowly paced hours, there are some moments of serene beauty and some wonderful tableaux of rustic European life. However, I found it very difficult to follow the film (not helped by the worst and most sporadic subtitles ever) and stay attentive for the whole running time.

I probably wouldn't watch it if I was squeamish. There are some very real scenes of very real animals getting (in my opinion) very really killed on camera.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.

No 418 - V for Vendetta
Director - James McTeigue

I really wanted to start this blog with V's exceptional introductory monologue... however it is far too long for the title bar. So I'm going to put it here:

Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin van-guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.
Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it's my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V.

It is a hell of a tongue twister and a beautiful tour through what should be quite a small chapter of the dictionary. It is also a superb introduction to V.
V for Vendetta is a revenge film of ridiculous proportions and V is the ultimate vigilante - going about his mission with an incredible level of zeal and a true single-minded dedication.

It has been a while since I watched this film and even longer since I read the graphic novel and even today, on my third viewing, I was surprised by the story. I think part of me categorises this as a dumb action film. That whilst it isn't Crank, it might fall into the same area as The Matrix (after all the Wachowskis did produce V) - I forget how story rich and how savagely dark the film is.

This is a real dystopian future. Not the fantastical worlds of 12 Monkeys, but a true world where the government has taken over and paranoia and torture is the key to keeping the public in control. The film updates the action of the comic, moving from 80s cold war paranoia and Tory rule to military dictatorship and fear of the war on terror. It is here that the film's bravest and most socking element comes in. The glorification of terrorism.

Let us not beat around the bush, V is a terrorist. Carrying out a number of very public murders and destroying London landmarks in order to create fear into a group of people for his own personal motivation. However, in this film the terrorist is the lesser evil. In this post 9/11 world it is brave and rare to be made to realise that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. It is like when BSG got us to root for the suicide bombers.
To see a horrific act of destruction through the eyes of the destructors, and to get us to empathise. That is a brave brave move.

When the following line was recorded to go into film, it had very different connotations and emotions connected to it then when it was written in 1982.
A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. A symbol, in and of itself is powerless, but with enough people behind it, blowing up a building can change the world.

What is truly remarkable about this film is not the controversial (anti-)hero, but the sheer nastiness of the villains. Take Prothero for example, played with perfect snarling hangdog vitriol by Roger Allam, his monologues are so filled with bile and hatred and prejudice that it is disgusting to watch.
The country's complete revulsion of anybody different to them and the ethnic cleansing followed by attacks on foreigners, immigrants, Muslims and homosexuals. It is a nightmare future where every single prejudice that we have fought to try and remove comes tumbling back with force. It is one where mass hysteria is the norm and where rape is used as a weapon. I'm kind of surprised that I saw this at the cinema as a successful date movie, because that really shouldn't be the case.

The persecution on the streets is bad enough, but the subplot about the containment facilities are awful. These emerge through flashbacks which explain (to a degree) what had happened to V in the past. It is never 100% clear what has happened exactly, V is a bit of an enigma. But the allusions to concentration camps are clear and bold. Larkhill was not a nice place to be and V will get his revenge on all who tormented him there.

There is one scene which makes this film. It is the boldest, the bravest, the most harrowing, the most beautiful. The scenes of Evey's torture. Notalie Portman's accent is somewhat ropey in the film (flitting from VERY posh English to a Billie Piper-esque twang) but there is no denying her dedication to the role. From the moment she has her head shaved, through her complete degradation and breakdown, to her emergence as a strong and shocked individual at the end. These scenes are a complete tour de force and allow Portman to show off some serious acting chops.
They also allow us to see more of V's back story, through the tale of one the other inmates at Larkhill at the same time as V. Valerie is a lesbian who is taken away to be experimented on as the government finds the ideal chemical weapon. Her story and her flashbacks are so sad and so truly beautiful. I deny anyone not to have a lump in their throat by the end.
It seems strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses, and apologized to no one.

Finally, I can start to talk about Hugo Weaving. I meant to begin by speaking about his terrific performance but got sidetracked by the violence and horror of the dystopian future. V is an amazing character. He is charming and witty and erudite and fantastically dressed. He lives in the most splendid home filled with exceptional art and medieval grandeur (admittedly the Shadow Gallery in the comic has extra mystique by not having any walls or boundries). The epitome of dandy chappism. He is also completely completely badass! Swooping down roof tops and swinging his daggers with exceptional skill and finesse.
This film even gives us dagger time! Watching the blades slice through rippling air - I know that it is wrong to celebrate violence but the bad guys in this are so... so... BAD they deserve to fall prey to V's mad ninja skills!

What is really impressive about V is that he remains masked for the entire film. Yet, Hugo Weaving manages to pull out an amazing and compelling performance from his limited expressionless face.
It is an excellent and a nuanced performance from a character who relies so much on performance and hiding away.

There are a number of other characters who deserve mention:
  • Adam Sutler, The Excellent John Hurt - Snarling, screaming and snapping at his government, he spends most of the film in complete isolation appearing only on TV screens and only really appears in company to be ridiculed on TV by...
  • Deitrich, the topical news comedy show host. Played by comedy show host du jour... Mr Stephen Fry. I love Stephen Fry and his closeted homosexual, art loving TV personality is wonderfully sad.
  • The elusive Rookwood... A minor character, but an ace little touch because in the shadows Rookwood looks a lot like V For Vendetta's original author, Mr Alan Moore. It is just a shame that Alan Moore is so disgusted by the film adaptations of his work he asks to be struck off the credits.
  • Finally... I'm very amused to find Martin Savage and Guy Henry appearing in small roles. Good old fictional comedy department from the fictional BBC.

And so... I wish to go full circle and finish quite near to where I began and speak about the unusual celebration of terrorism which successfully occurs throughout the film. Although it would be horrific in real life - the grand finale in this film is superb.

It brings goosebumps of joy to watch the Houses of Parliament explode. Maybe it is the cinematography. Maybe because I bloody love Tschaicovsky and I really really love fireworks. So watching it all go off is a delightful moment.

However, the comic's ending is better. For it is better for V to continue in Evey as a continued symbol for the parliament to be scared of and in the film she never dons the mask.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

I mean aside from the cheating, we were a great couple. I mean that's what high school was about, algebra, bad lunch, and infidelity.

No 361 - Clerks
Director - Kevin Smith

I wish to begin with a little dash of cinematic blasphemy. The first time I watched Clerks I was massively underwhelmed, and the sappy loser in me still believes that Chasing Amy is the best film in the View Askewniverse.
I went back to Clerks with an open mind - perhaps I would enjoy it now that I am older and allegedly wiser. Whilst it is very funny, I still do not think it is as funny as other people make out. However there is a lot in it that I do really enjoy.

What I love is the down and dirty feel of the film. Yest the dialogue is crude. But the film is visually crude too, distorted and grainy black and white. It looks fabulously when well used. See Pi as another classic example. But also see the brilliant opening scene to Clerks II in order to see a great play on that visual style.

The visual style of the film is simple and follows an equally simple 'plot' (of sorts).

The film follows two clerks in two shops (the clue is in the name). Dante, our protagonist works at the Quick Stop general store and is one of the most annoyingly pessimistic, lazy and petty people I've ever seen.
The film follows his day as he is at work on his day off (a fact we are constantly reminded of by the film's catchphrase of 'I'm not even supposed to be here today') as he interacts with his customers and with Randal, the clerk at the video store next door.

Whilst Dante represses his rage and therefore fills himself with negativity and doubt, Randal relishes in his hate of his fellow man. He spends all of his screen time provoking, baiting and insulting the customers at both his store and Dante's. The problem is that although Randal is very funny, neither of them are likable in any way, in Smith's later films he includes people for the viewer to relate to so that amongst the freaks, the weirdos and the raging madmen, there is an anchor for the viewer to tether themselves to. In this film we have a whining apathetic indecisive bastard who doesn't deserve to be caught in the love triangle he's put himself into and Randal, the most aggressively bad mouthed and cruel person imaginable. I don't really want to follow either of them as a protagonist. I even find Jason Mewes' Jay to be too outwardly aggressive in this film, preferring the softer 'cartoon' he becomes in later films. On a quick tangent. I haven't seen the animated series of Clerks, I'm sure this builds a lot on the characters and their roles in the View Askewniverse and might be worth watching. It may alter my view of the film completely.

Now... I know that that sounds like quite a negative start to this blog, but there are some aspects to the film that I really like. Mainly some of the writing and the scenarios and the customers. The customers in Quickstop are 90% insane but give Kevin Smith some excellent moments. What I like is that each moment seems very mundane but rapidly escalates into something Particular highlights include:

The customer who carries around a diseased lung and explains to anyone buying cigarettes how they are slowly killing themselves, how they can occupy there mouths with healthier alternatives - like chewing gum. The scene is a wonderful scene of victimisation as the customer whips the cigarettes buyers into a frenzy of rage directed wholly at Dante as a merchant of death, only for it to be revealed that the customer works for a gum company and is using the frenzy to improve sales.
These little scenes have fantastic punchlines and show Kevin Smith's skill as a writer - setting up the situation, letting it get utterly preposterous before the rug is pulled away from the viewer with the final punchline. As is Kevin Smith's reverence, love and dissection of Star Wars, discussing the political ties of tradesmen.

Hell - the film is worth watching just for the "Fucking a Dead Person" routine.

The problem is that, although the film has a fair share of excellent comic moments, the overall film feels uninteresting. Particularly Dante's love triangle. His outrage to his girlfriend's blow job admission is hilarious and petty but his obsession with his ex girlfriend gets increasingly tiring throughout the film. Now... I'm not saying Caitlin isn't attractive. Lisa Spoonhaur is very pretty (besides her atrocious 90s fashion sense) but Dante's obsession with her is so immature and is only rectified when Caitlin pretty much falls into catatonic shock.
Hell he is so rubbish that Jay and Silent Bob have to give him romantic advice. Jay's monologue is long, crude and rambling but is concisely summarised by Silent Bob. Kevin Smith (as always) giving himself the best and wisest line in the whole film:

You know, there's a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But they don't all bring you lasagna at work. Most of 'em just cheat on you.

Which pretty much sums it up...

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Don't you see? We are dying. I longed desperately to escape, to pack my bags and free, but I did not.

No 145 - Sophie's Choice
Director - Alan J Pakula

I went into this film mildly hesitant. Although I didn't know anything about the film, I did have a feeling that I'd spoken to somebody about the book before and therefore had an idea as to what the titular choice was.
It has to be said that a film in which a prisoner in a concentration camp has to decide who can live and who can die did not sound like the most fun way to spend a Friday afternoon.

However, the film started and all my fears were washed away by two magical words. Kevin Kline. I love Kevin Kline, there is something about his presence that just makes me smile. I think it is also linked to the large number of (quite bad) films I've seen him in. I really liked In and Out... I even thought Kevin Kline was quite passable in the crap that is Wild Wild West (Jim West. Desperado. Rough rider. No you don't want nada).

So when I see Kevin Kline I think of the charming witty man who appeared in De-Lovely, who has acted in Shakespeare and who voiced one half of one of the greatest animated double acts ever. In this film he plays Nathan. The violent, passionate, mood swinging, bat shit insane boyfriend of Sophie - and whilst I'm quite happy to believe his moments of joyful abandon, it takes me a while to see him as threatening.

However, I'm ahead of myself already - let us begin with what the film is about.

The film follows a promising author named Stingo as he travels up from the deep South and meets his neighbours Nathan and Sophie.
The first thing that drew my attention was the casting of Peter MacNicol as the role of Stingo. This isn't necessarily odd, I mean he has been in nigh on everything. Including many of my favourite films. However he always plays weird roles, oddballs, the slightly sleazy. I suppose this is the first role I've seen him in where he is taken as a serious sexual figure. Which is weird. However, all I've spoken about so far is the unexpected casting which really is the least important part of the whole process because, although I was surprised to see those actors playing those roles, once the film begins the relationships are perfect.

Peter MacNicol is perfect as the over ambitious, massively horny but equally naive writer who looks to his neighbours with respect, adoration and envy. Likewise Kevin Kline is a whirling dervish of destruction, stealing every scene he is in with his unpredictable and utterly ridiculous hysteria, flitting from anger to pure joy before collapsing into a pile and crying.
Throughout all of this he shows the most complete and utter adoration to Sophie (when he isn't screaming at her and accusing her of all sorts) and is unable to keep his hands off of her. He is a clear example of an all encompassing massive possessive love.
Which leads me to Sophie. Played, amazingly, by Meryl Streep (another person who I don't think I've seen as a young woman before). Her character is stunning, as fragile and ethereal as her porcelain white skin suggests. She contains an inner strength that is evident in all their fun adventures spent as a threesome but also a brittle delicate side which is permanently in the foreground due to her halting and broken English. It makes every line seem beautiful, poetic and tragic regardless of how mundane it all is.

It is certainly the best performance I have ever seen from Meryl Streep, but what is really impressive is how she changes the focus around. For the majority of the film, certainly the first 90 minutes, she is essentially a background character. She is always there, and she is an important part of the story, but that is because she is an important part of Nathan's story. Nathan, however, is the force behind the first part. His mood swings dictate what the group are doing each day (be it a fun and exotic adventure in 20s finery (because even the 40s had retro fans) or hiding in their respective rooms from a gun wielding screaming Nathan) or the slow discovery that perhaps Nathan isn't the well respected biologist he claims to be. Perhaps he is a paranoid schizophrenic who is trying to hide the point from the woman he loves, in order to save face.
The idea of hiding from your past is probably the key aspect to the film, it is what Nathan and Sophie have in common (though they don't know this as they're hiding their past from each other). We are introduced to the concept through Nathan's illness but when he goes AWOL we are left with only Sophie and Stingo.

Finally, Sophie comes into the foreground and begins to tell the story of what happened to her before she moved to America. This story is told in two parts, because even in her grand confession she doesn't want to face up to her darkest secret. The titular choice.
The story cuts from the moonlit window in which Sophie is talking (and which frames perfect the ethereal grace, fragility and beauty that Meryl Streep portrays in Sophie's character) to the concentration camp of Auschwitz and we hear the beginning of her tale here. How she is separated from her children, how one is killed and one is sent to the Kindercamp, how she becomes a secretary for the Commandant and of all the horrible things she has to go through.

Whilst this film doesn't linger or focus on the concentration camp for long (Sophie is soon in the house of the Commandant), it is impossible to see those signs without being shocked. The fact that people willingly treated other people so horrifically is an alien concept. It is too horrific for me to take it in. It creates a sense of detachment from myself, as the viewer, and those scenes because I can't believe that people could have acted in such a way. It is just so horrible. Impossibly horrible.
I'm glad that you're given the majority of the film to prepare for these scenes because they're so overwhelming. It is made all the more worse when we finally see the story of the titular choice. The final flashback.

As I said at the beginning, this is a film where a lady in a concentration camp has to decide who can live and who can die. The gut wrenching tragedy of that scene as she is forced to decide is Streep's high point. After the subtle delicate nature of Sophie in 1947 and her subdued broken English, to see her break down in passionate pleading fluent German is so so utterly tragic. It is an amazing scene and shows a choice that is horrific to live with. You can see why Sophie has run from this. Why she is so passionately in love with Nathan. Not only does he truly truly adore Sophie, but his unpredictable nature means she never has time to think about her past.

The characters of Nathan and Sophie are ultimately doomed figures running from an unhappy past. Stingo is just there to be the witness to their own self destruction. Both figures are so unhappy with their past and are so intent on keeping it secret that they'll never be happy. It is only natural for the film to end with both Sophie and Nathan wrapped in each other's arms after overdosing on cyanide.
Lover's suicide is the only obvious final point to a relationship that passionate and destructive.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?

No 70 - Stand by Me
Director - Rob Reiner

My first real experience with 'Stand by Me' was the song. I had to be the bass line for it in a Saturday morning choir (oh, my youth captured all the dizzy heights of excitement!) and therefore spent many a moment going "doo doo bum bum doo doo bum bum".

I had read the book though and as soon as I turned the DVD on I could see some familiar Stephen King traits. King loves the 50s and there have been several stories which use the 'flashback' technique in order to tell a story from an earlier decade. I think his fascination seems to stem from the 'oldies' - music from the 50s - and the romanticised violence of gangs in the 50s.
The film is very similar (visually and stylistically) to It - following the same idea of a group of young 'losers' on a mission whilst being pursued by a gang of older youths.

There are other similarities to It which I'm not going to go into detail about, but both stories have main characters who are mourning the loss of a brother as well as both stories having a fast talking nervous joker who wears glasses. There are a lot of similarities between It's Richie Tozier (seen here as Seth Green in the brilliantly bad 90s TV movie) and Stand by Me's Teddy Duchamp, played by Cory Feldman. But I think that these staples are just part of Stephen King's story telling.
This talk of Corey Feldman brings me (somewhat abstractly) to my first point. The youth. They are a powerhouse of acting and talk and act like children throughout the film. The child actors are fantastic in this film and it really makes you think about modern times. Of course... River Phoenix is no longer with us (it is very sad) but people like Corey Feldman are just not doing anything (except for things like Lost Boys 2).

Throughout this film, each character seems to be given a scene in which he can showcase his talents. There are scenes of high emotion for each of the 4 lead children. They show that not only can they deliver cutting insults with excellent timing. But they can also act. They do so in a way that doesn't feel precocious or 'screen brat' but in a way that feels genuinely child like.

The film works hard at successfully capturing the life of young boys, before they've discovered girls, and the subjects which were deemed important. Lines like "If I could only have one food for the rest of my life? That's easy-Pez. Cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it." fill me with absolute joy. It is such a beautifully innocent line, especially when you see the sincerity and thought with which it is delivered. It is also a wonderfully nostalgic line. Because I bloody love Pez. Surely everyone loves Pez. Or at least loved Pez (if they are boring adults) and it is wonderful to know that that adoration was there in the 50s. As it was there in the 80s as (I'd hope) it is there today.
It also captures the one-up-man-ship and 'your mum' jokes which are also a prevalent and timeless part of growing up.

But the film's real strength is that it can flit from the light hearted banter to more serious topics without feeling forced or hokey. It is in these moments that Rive Phoenix shines. He plays Chris Chambers, the group's leader, and therefore has to be the strong support as other characters break down around him.
His character is played perfectly and shows off the many excellent qualities in Chris. His leadership - a mix of taking no bullshit and being totally understanding and compassionate, and his understanding of his status. He might be a good kid (not perfect, but certainly a good kid) but he is from bad stock and he is poor. Demonised by the adults around him, he becomes a bad influence and has resorted to the fact that he'll never amount to anything.

And BAM. Just like that, we have the central crux of the film. This isn't a film about an adventure to see a corpse, this is a film about maturity, about growing up and about discovering yourself.
The children that go on the initial road trip are very different from the children that return back. It may be the long struggles that face them - the camping, the shortcuts, the leeches, the moments of self revelation. It may be the moment of finding a corpse which makes them come to terms with their own mentality. It may be when they have to face the fearsome Kiefer Sutherland and his gang of goons.
Each of these elements gradually toughen the group and get them in a position so that when they return home they are more adult. They are also (sadly) more solemn, more serious. It is also the last time that group are all together before they slowly drift together.

Incidentally, I like it a lot when the older gang of teens meet the younger gang of pre-teens (complete with flick knife, that old 50s weapon of choice) because we have a moment where Kiefer Sutherland meets up with Corey Feldman. It is like The Lost Boys all over again (only this film came out before The Lost Boys).

After the culmination of these events, Chris and Geordie go to college and remain friends and get proper jobs (until Chris dies... much like River...).
I think it shows a message which is delivered frequently in films - it is not the outside that counts, but what is on the inside. There are a lot of films in which people achieve more than their social standing allow - it is after all, the American Dream!
But this film does it in such a subtle way.

It is all about the way that we see our friends as children. We see them for who they are. Not for social standing - with no preconceptions and no bias... I think THAT is an important message to take from a film.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can't remember it.

No 339 - Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
Director - Hayao Miyazaki

I love Studio Ghibli. I love Miyazaki. He, and his studio, have rekindled a love and excitement about cartoons. It is almost the same thrill I got as a child watching Disney.

Like most Westerners of my generation (though by no means all), I came to discover Ghibli through the release of Spirited Away. It is by no means my favourite, but they're in the list so I can talk about them later. It is, however, my first Ghibli film and so it should be the first one I watch.

I've watched this film several times before in both English and Japanese. For while I have really strong views on dubbing, they don't cross over to animation and I frequently watch the dubbed cartoon (after all lip synch is less of an obvious issue). I have decided to watch the dubbed version this time for 2 reasons:
When I first saw it at the cinema it was the American dub, therefore this is the version that I believe would have been most seen.
Secondly Davigh Chase's voice is far far far less annoying than Rumi Hiragi who plays Chihiro as very screechy. I want to like Chihiro, not want her to be muted.

What I like about Studio Ghibli is that they never go out to make Kid's films. They go out to tell stories. Some of their stories (like the upcoming Ponyo) are more aimed at children, whilst others (such as Princess Mononoke or Grave of the Fireflies) certainly aren't. This one falls in the middle, as it is quite a simple and beautiful love story, but filled with a lot of complex Japanese folklore and mythology.

Simply paraphrased, the film follows a small girl called Chihiro, who is lured to a resort for spirits. Here her parents are turned into pigs, she is forced to work in the bath house until she earns the right to be freed.
There is a love story between her and a mysterious boy/dragon called Haku. There is also an awful lot of talk of spirits and witches and magic, aspects that are deep in the culture and mythology of Japan but are quite alien to my western eyes. However, as I watch more Ghibli films, I'm becoming a bit more experienced with the Japanese spirit world and I recognised familiar themes.
Spirits such as the Spring spirits (large lumbering chicks with vacant stares and hats made of leaves) remind me of Totoro, Ghibli's most famous spring spirit. Totoro's soot sprites also make a return in this. However, this is still a world with only one human character, and no real attempt at explaining who or what the other characters are.

The point I'm trying to make here is that despite an unusual central concept (or perhaps BECAUSE of an unusual central concept) the film captured the western audience and flung Ghibli's back catalog into the public's attention. I love Disney, I really really do - to probably quite an uncool degree - however come 2001, their animation department was pretty much dead (I believe Atlantis was their 2001 release... hardly a Disney classic). So this film came with an epic story, insane characters and beautiful animation and shook up the animation kings.
It bodes well that John Lasseter, one of the key brains behind Pixar and the now king and daddy of Disney's creative department, is a huge Ghibli fan and produced Spirited Away's anglification.

Disney believed that hand drawn animation was on the way out, and that all stories would be moving to computer animation. This is a belief not shared by Mr Lasseter (check out his new ideas for upcoming Disney. Including the proper old school feeling The Princess and The Frog) but was also trounced by Spirited Away.
The animation is beautiful. Truly stunning and should best be admired when checking out the backgrounds. I'm aware that this is a bit of a geeky thing to say, but the backgrounds are stunning. If you haven't seen the film, have a look at the trailer HERE. The animation is quite subtle, rather than the bold lines of Western animation, colours meld into each other and provide an almost watercolour feeling, contrasting boldly with the main characters. Also, check out the stink spirit in Spirited Away. Then go and check out the cursed boar in Mononoke, or the Shadow spies in Howl's Moving Castle or the collapsing giant in Nausicaa. Ghibli love drawing pustulous masses of slime, oozing all over the place and they do it so very very well. It is even more amazing when you think that everything is hand drawn as Miyazaki doesn't believe in using CGI enhancements. Hell, even ALADDIN was using CGI enhancements.

But the final thing I want to talk about, is the sheer imagination of the film (a point I've touched on several times). Without researching Japanese folklore, it is difficult to know what elements were adopted from existing stories, but the tale is incredibly brave. What I love about it is the sheer number of lavish and extravagant characters who appear to be there solely to be extras. The sheer amount of character design is incredible, it makes me think of Del Toro's market scene in Hellboy 2. Only spread out for most of a film.
The vast a varied cast of monsters, ghosts and freaks helps to fully engross the viewer in a surreal and yet believable world. A world where scale doesn't seem to mean anything or where people can travel as small strips of flying origami (paper cutting people to death) or where a love story happens between a child and a river.

Allow me to repeat myself. The central love story is between a small child. And a river.

Yet, whilst that is a very strange thing to type - it makes perfect sense in the film. Surely, that is the true magic of Spirited Away. It creates an elegant story full of fantastic witches and demons and spirits and frogmen. It paints this world in such a beautiful palette. But the true magic is, you believe a girl and a river could fall in love.

And that is one hell of a triumph.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

I told you he was a spirit. If you're his friend, you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him... It's me, Ana

No 93 - El Espíritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive)
Director - Victor Erice

This film was made at a time when Spanish cinema couldn't directly discuss politics, so it is fair to say that it is symbolic. An Allagory. I don't know if I'll ever know exactly what it symbolises. I don't know if it matters. What matters is one simple point: this film is beautiful.

The film follows a Spanish family in the early 1940's. The mother (who is never the most central of characters) appears to be unhappy with her lot and writes letters to a lover who is in France - a victim of a war, but never states whether it is the Spanish civil war or WWII.

The father tends to his bees and writes his essay on beekeeping and generally seems quite distant and tired. Distant from the rest of the village and distant from the rest of his family. He is played by Fernando Fernán Gómez and at times he looks so much like Pete Postlethwaite it is remarkable.

Whilst these two characters appear in the film. They are never integral. The film follows the adventures and thoughts of the two sisters. Therefore any time the adults appear on screen, the film quietens, the action lessens. It is almost as if the film is on its best behaviour. Rather than jumping around on the bed.

The elder sister is Isabel, played by Isabel Tellería, she acts as the source of all knowledge for the film. Imparting advice to her younger sister on subjects as deep as cinema, life, death and the existence of spirits (a theme which keeps her younger sister captivated through out the film). We, the viewer, then get to follow the younger sister as she makes her journey through life with this new knowledge.

Despite the film following the entire film, we have a true protagonist in Ana, the youngest daughter, played by Ana Torrent.

Ana is the most adorable screen child. She isn't self conscious, she isn't aware of the camera and (Rarest of all) she isn't a detestable screen brat. She is in fact cinematic magic. The whole film exudes a mystical and beautiful sense of magic. A sense of fairy tale where anything is possible. You get caught up in the fascination of the world and the limitless wonder because Ana is caught up in the fascination and the limitless wonder. She is the most captivating and beautiful character, and it is amazing when you remember she is only 7 years old and consider how effortless she carries the film and moves it along.
This is all the more remarkable because nothing really happens in the film. It is a film which celebrates the imagination of children and in order for that to work effectively, it has to be displayed in mundane surroundings. So we get pivotal scenes which amount to nothing more than a trip to the cinema or a day out gathering mushrooms. But these scenes are almost hypnotic in how beautifully they're displayed. The lingering shots of mushrooms and the explanations of which mushrooms are poisonous are which you can eat.

If there are any moments in the film that can be viewed as key moments, they would be the 'Frankenstein scenes'. These occur at the beginning and the end of the film.
Firstly, the cinema comes to town and almost the entire populous come to the town hall to watch Frankenstein. The children are fascinated by it and Ana is shocked by the deaths in the film. It is here that Isabel offers her sister the most important advice of the entire film.

People don't die in films. They're spirits who haunt the world and are given a physical body to appear in films.
If you befriend one, you can call it back to talk to at any time by closing your eyes and repeating your name.

She is then told that the spirit of Frankenstein lives in a disused house next an old disused well, every seemingly mundane scene is interspersed with another of Ana's visits to try and find the spirit.
When a fugitive from the civil war hides in the disused house Ana naturally assumes it is Frankenstein's spirit and begins to tend and feed him and keep him looked after (until he is shot).

After the soldier's death - Ana slips further into imagination, finally recreating the final scenes of Frankenstein and meeting the monster herself.

I don't feel guilty about essentially telling you the plot of the film, because this film isn't about plot. It is about the beauty in the tiny moments and the wonder of imagination.

It may be an allegory, but that isn't what is important. It may have some really unusual motifs (musical pocket watches? Surely the most annoying thing in the world.) bug again that isn't important.

More importantly than anything, this is a celebration of youth. Back when youth was about innocence and imagination rather than smashing up houses.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

I've never changed. It's like those sticks of rock. Bite one all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature.

No 241 - Brighton Rock
Director - John Boulting

I sat down yesterday afternoon to do some admin. The plan was to tot up my admin, with some crap telly on in the background and then maybe have a kip. However, to my shock... DAVE plays films!
I did not know this. So I dragged myself out of my semi asleep daze and settled in to watch this 1947 classic. Which is, of course, being remade - like everything these days.

The film is set between the two world wars and follows a gang of thugs trying to cover up a murder, which took place on the ghost train on Brighton pier none the less. There appears to have always been a ghost train on Brighton pier (even if it seems to burn down all the time). The gang has to blackmail, bargain and threaten their way out of trouble and results with the primary plot point - Richard Attenborough's character Pinky having to marry an eye witness in order to stop her from being able to testify.
What got me from the start was the Brighton setting. I've always been a massive fan of Brighton and so the joy of spotting locations was lovely. Especially as only parts of Brighton were recognisable - the city has changed in the last 60 years. As have clothes. I like the idea that gang members were gangsters. It makes sense, and means that people just look really smart all the time.
Pinky is an inspiration, always smart, and so polite.

The majority of my notes for this film focus on the characters. The plot is rather simple, and allows the characters to develop as the net of police and suspicion draws round them. There are a few people I want to talk about initially before focusing most of this blog on the mighty character of Pinky.

Firstly Pinky's gang, which contains a young William Hartnell. I've never seen William Hartnell be anything but the doctor, so seeing him as a rough and violent cockernee gangster was a bit of a shock.
His character is one of the most interesting minor roles as he has a big change in character. Moving from Pinky's most loyal right hand man, to being the one who eventually fingers him out to the police in the film's conclusion. The gang also includes Nigel Stock as Cubitt, who deserves mention mainly for his excellent series of natty outfits, but who is apparently too obscure even for Google Images.

The real surprise for me was the appearence of the character Ida, played by Hermione Baddeley - most famous (in my eyes) for being Ethel in Mary Poppins. I don't know why I get surprised by Mary Poppins bit parts appearing in old films... it was the same when I saw Mrs Banks in The Card.
She is another important character in that she is the only person who doesn't believe the all important murder is a suicide (as the police suspect).
She hounds the police, she speaks to witnesses and she gradually gets more information on Pinky's gang and starts to follow them - applying more and more pressure on to the group. It is Ida's influence and persistence which builds up Pinky's paranoia and stress over what should have been a simple murder.

But, all of these characters fade in comparison with Attenborough's Pinky. A truly fantastic and utterly terrifying character and one that is very very interesting.
He is only 17, and yet he is the leader of a gang of thugs who are considerably older looking than him. Not only that but the gang look to him with genuine respect and fear. Whatever he did to become leader of the group, it was totally deserved.
He doesn't drink or smoke (despite being constantly offered booze or cigarettes by everyone he meets), he appears to have no vices. Except murder.

The cold and underlying violence in Pinky's character is very much at odds with his little baby face (and Attenborough is a very handsome baby faced man) - but this is rectified when Pinky tries to set up another murder and ends up with a facial scar himself. This at least helps to make him more visually threatening!
It is not his violence or his temper which mark his cruelty. More so the truly savage cold hearted way he treats the important witness, naive waitress Rose - played by Carol Marsh (who appears by kind permission of J Arthur Rank, as the film likes to make clear. Must have been a time when certain actors 'belonged' to certain producers.)

Rose is so innocent. She speaks in dreamy vacant tones. She believes strongly in love and her catholic faith and she falls completely for the silent and mysterious Pinky. Pinky decides to marry her, in order to complicate any chance of her being made to testify against him. However where Rose sees it as an act of love, and is completely in love with him. Pinky sees it as just another nuisance ruining his murder plan. He even decides (in a gloriously petty moment) to make Rose a gift, a disc for her gramophone explaining exactly how he feels:
You wanted a recording of my voice, well here it is. What you want me to say is, 'I love you'. Well I don't. I hate you, you little slut...
However, he finally sees that that is too harsh and attempts to destroy it before Rose can find it.

Rose's neglect by Pinky is what causes the rifts in his gang. Whilst he may not care, other members of the gang want to protect Rose's innocence. Especially Hartnell's Dallow. So when Pinky plans to murder Rose (or trick her into suicide) - he finally snaps and sends the police in.

The real moments in this film showcases the real tragic beauty in the story. Pinky dies, shot down by Dallow and the police after attempting to get Rose to shoot herself. Rose is still hopelessly in love with Pinky and joins a convent. Her only memento of her loving husband being the sadly scratched record he had made her.
As she plays the record on her gramophone it skips at the most convenient place.

You wanted a recording of my voice, well here it is. What you want me to say is, 'I love you'.... I love you... I love you... I love you... I love you...

Film fades to black.
The End.

Next up More Top Gear (again....)

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then - explode.

No 383 - Serenity
Director - Joss Whedon

Some would say that I am a bit of a geek. And they would be right to do so. Just look at this site for an example. Hardly the actions of a non-geek. This is not a bad thing. Real Seth and Pretend Seth are just two examples of how geek is now chic. I like to think of myself as somewhat Chic.

I have, however, never watched Firefly. I feel this is a terrible slight to the world of scifi tv and it is one which I aim to rectify. Someone once said it was the best scifi show until Battlestar Galactica, and I loved BSG. In fact, as a tribute, a Firefly ship (of which the titular Serenity is one) is shown in the background of an early BSG episode.
This lack of experience in Joss Whedon's space world means I am going into this film blind. Without the prior back story and mythology to enrich the experience. Let us see what I can get from just the film. A pure experience.

I may not have watched Firefly but I watched a lot of Buffy. All of it in fact. I've also started watching Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's latest project. You can very clearly see the similarities in characters within these three works. So I wish to begin by discussing Joss Whedon's style and his 'voice' (for lack of a less pretentious tone).

The film follows the crew of petty thieves and mercenaries who fly a 'Firefly' class ship called Serenity. The group has a fantastic relationship and excellent chemistry, coming from working together for an entire season of the TV show (the film compresses and combines the plot elements for seasons 2 and 3).
The crew are harbouring a doctor (Dr Simon Tam) and his sister (River Tam) - a psychic who has been experimented on by the government, has mad ninja skills and is having repeated nightmares concerning a state secret the government would like hushed up.

The film follows this group as they deal with the state secret and the government operative on their trail (a fantastically polite, chillingly calm and wonderfully British Chiwetel Ejiofor). It focuses mostly on the ship's crew but also includes the wise Shepherd Book and the all seeing Mr Universe.

This group of key characters opens up some archetypes which are becoming staples of Whedon's work. Or at least ideas he likes to revisit.

Firstly let us begin with River. A calm and quite spaced out girl who has been primed to be an unflappable assassin when triggered by a key word.
This is not too dissimilar to Echo (or any of the dolls), from Dollhouse, a brainwashed woman who had had her memory wiped in order to have other memories and personalities downloaded for specific missions.
Both women are calm and subdued but have the potential to unleash deadly flurries of pain. It also reminds me of Robot Buffy who also spoke and moved in that slightly absent way.

Next I wish to flit to Mr Universe, who shares the same arrogant nerd status shared by Topher Brink, the programmer of the Dolls in Dollhouse. Both are very proud of there work and both seem to have given themselves epic levels of superiority and smugness. They are also firm in the belief that they are the sole people who can do their jobs.

Whilst River and Mr Universe seem like pretty clear influences for Whedon's later characters, others in Serenity just share behavioural similarities.

The character of Kaylee (played by the lovely, elfin and marvellously named Jewel Staite) seems like Willow. Placed in space as an engineer and desperately after some sex. Her language may be a little cruder than Willow, she may be less naive, but her tone, her worrying and her body language feels very similar.

Serenity's greatest character shares no traits from Whedon's back catalogue and is an homage to a different source all together.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds played by the marvellous Nathan Fillion. I love Nathan Fillion. I think he is superb. Go and find a way to watch Dr Horrible's Singalong blog and see his amazing turn as Captain Hammer. Then you too will see why he is so great. Bam! Said the Lady!

Malcolm's charm comes from his sarcasm, his surly expression, his reluctant climb to the status of hero, but also from the fact that his very essence is channelled through one of the greatest scifi pilots. Malcolm Reynolds is a contemporary Han Solo.

There are a lot of little points which lean towards this. They are both intergalactic guns for hire, rogues, deviants with a heart of gold - on the run from women and the law. In key scenes, built around a tense and menacing conversation, they both shoot first. Finally, look at them! Han.... Mal.... it is hardly rocket science! They could be brothers.

This leads me to my next point which could be seen as somewhat controversial. I think Serenity is the closest we have had in a long time in recreating the old Star Wars. Both films have taken the thrill and adventure of the Matinee and put it into space. Serenity takes the feel of the wild west, with war veterans and dusty sand planets and transfers it into an intergalactic chase story. Serenity may focus less on space ships and laser fights but the science fiction romp which was alive in Star Wars is very much alive in this. Far more so than in the overblown space operas of the new trilogy (regardless of whether you think they are good films or not, they are thematically and stylistically VERY different to the originals).

Both face an emotionless, relentless and terrifying villain clad in black who eventually sees the evils of the empire he worked for and changes their ways. Even the character of Inara in Serenity seems to be dressed following the same Eastern influences as Jabba's slave girls. But these little coincidences are not as important as the feel of the film. This film gives the same 'space romp' vibe that Star Wars has. The wild west feel to the intergalactic chaos which surrounds them.

What is truly special about this film is that it takes two quite flippant ingredients (a wild west science fiction matinee romp and a group of wise cracking sarcastic shipmates) and imbues it with quite a meaningful and harrowing tale about what happens when people try to control other people. Terrible shots of mummified corpses and the mutilated reavers which hang around the planet Miranda, a teraforming experiment gone wrong in which the alliance try to subdue people's desire to fight and ends up subduing their desire to do anything. At all. Thus killing them.

For whilst Joss Whedon is very good at writing for sound bite spouting smart alecs. He is far more impressive when he gives those smart alecs some really meaty subject matter.