Friday, 25 June 2010

Hi Willie. Oh, I'm Mike Walsh. You've been expecting me, haven't you? Well I made it. I beat you. I got here in one piece... so far.

No 378 - The Goonies
Director - Richard Donner

I love 80's kids films. I also love 80's Spielberg. Both seem to be pushing the boundaries as to what they could get away with. Take the Goonies. Although it is a film about a group of kids, we begin by setting up the villains - The Fratellis (villains definitely from the Harry and Marv school of criminals). The set up involves a fake suicide (hanging... pretty dark) and a SWEAR. Very naughty. We've not even left the title credits yet... But there has been a jail break, and through a masterful sequence we get to see all of the Goonies.

So let's look at them. The two brothers have a genuinely nice family bond, and are played by young Sean Astin and young Josh Brolin. Which is pretty damned cool if you ask me (though Brolin is probably cooler than Astin). Gradually they meet up with other members of their little team - including the baffling and brilliant Data and the really annoying Chunk - even Chunk speaking is enough to piss me off. I find chunk really annoying - Iconic ironic retro cool or not.
However the team meet up and events move fairly quickly in order to get One Eyed Willie's treasure map into their hands.

And I'm sorry... One Eyed Willie? Is that really appropriate for a kid's film?

And so we move out of the Boom Docks and into a world of adventure. For whilst the Goonies may have a very noble motivation (to get the Pirate treasure, in order to be able to buy their estate and not have it knocked down and turned into a golf course by those evil rich folk) - The Boon Docks are not the nicest looking area.
Because hanging around in houses is fine and can be fun with your friends, but surely every child's dream is to find an ACTUAL functioning treasure map. That is pretty cool.

So, a bunch of children find themselves on a treasure hunt, which begins in a creepy restaurant (which I'll discuss later) and takes them down into tunnels and caves. Let us begin with what I love about these sets.

They are so so fake.

The adventures in the caves and tunnels involve children walking through obviously foam rock land fills and booby traps. It isn't real - it is hokey jokey matinee nonsense. It feels like the temples of Indiana Jones or the Pirate Worlds of Hook and Peter Pan. It is a jokey Disneyland landscape complete with ridiculously intricate Rube Goldberg machines (a theme we see throughout the film - thanks to the gadgets of Data and Willie's intricate traps) and conveniently skull shaped rock formations.
It is utterly preposterous - and yet it works for this romp adventure. You let the silliness wash over you so that even when the Goonies find the treasure (in a perfectly preserved, and still functioning pirate ship), you forget that the ship is over 300 years old and should be rotting. You just let it carry right on.

The film also continues in a wonderfully filmic way - by which I mean that there is no attempt at reality. In particular, the fact that each Goonie has their own task and skill which is necessary for the adventure.

So we have Mouth, who has the ability to read Spanish;
Chunk, who breaks things (convenient in a lot of situations);
Mikey, the leader, with his dogged optimism and perseverance;
Data, who has the gadgets;
Brandon, the muscles;
and Andy, who can play piano (which magically becomes relevant).

Together they use their skills to not only triumph against pirate terrors but also against some naughty counterfeiting criminals.
The Fratellis seem to take a lot of time and effort in trying to catch these children, when really they should be covering up their own criminal activity. They are bumbling and argumentative. They are scared of their mum... And they have a very strange brother.

Sloth - played by John Matuszak under crazy levels of make up.

Sloth is perhaps the weirdest bit of all in The Goonies. The film's official line is that Mama Fratelli dropped him as a baby, several times. Then, rather than pay for medication, he was neglected. This means that whilst he may be physically deformed and a bit mentally slow, he has also acquired superhuman strength. Of course - makes perfect sense.

His bellow of HEY YOU GUYS! brings shivers of nostalgic joy and just continues the film's silly adventure vibe.

I love The Goonies. This film will stay fun and stay exciting forever. After all, Goonies never die.

Incidentally - I couldn't spot a Spielberg cameo - anyone know of one?
Although I did notice that when the police list Chunk's prank calls - one is about a monster which multiplies when you get them wet. Which is a nice touch.

Monday, 21 June 2010

You know the difference between you and me? I make this look good.

No 409 - Men in Black
Director - Barry Sonnenfeld

This is such a brilliant concept - policing aliens who live secretly on Earth. However it needs to be handled just right, and this is why I think this film works so much better than its sequel (or indeed than the newly announced MIB3 (or MIIIB) doubtless will).

We're following NYPD cop James Darrel Edwards III, played by Will Smith in the early days of his action hero career. He meets a mysterious figure and is subsequently enlisted into this unusual organisation - The MIB.

Because, for all the Alien Hi-Jinks, this is actually a very standard film formula. Will Smith plays the cocky arrogant new recruit who is struggling to re-evaluate his preconceptions and fit into this new world. As his new partner says:
Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.

Agent Edwards is no more, for that is the title of an NYPD cop. He is now simply J. Or Jay, if IMDB are to be believed. He is joining the grizzled old agent K (or Kay). This is where Tommy Lee Jones really shines. He is an amazing actor, but his strongest talent is playing the world weary grizzled worker who is looking forward to retirement. Here he is the straight man to Will Smith's wise-ass disbelief.
I suppose, the part of the set up that I most enjoy is that Tommy Lee Jones makes the task of hiding aliens seem like a standard job, with the occasional exciting moment - like any other government desk job. There is a wonderful jaded undercurrent of 'just a job' running through his performance.

The recruitment process also proves to be interesting. I believe that (despite being made to look ridiculous) Jay actually passes all the tests.
The first test is a written exam where none of the recruits have anything to lean on. Jay (very noisily) drags a table across the room so he can use it. He has thus passed the test, as he is willing to work a room to his advantage and show initiative.
The second test is the shooting range. Where, if you watch it, I think Jay shows the ability to assess a situation and not make judgements based on physical appearance. Watch Rip Torn's reaction to Jay's explanation. There is a definite smile creeping across his mouth. And indeed, Rip Torn's character Zed only has one criticism - Jay doesn't respond well to authority figures. This would imply that he didn't balls up all the tests.

However, joining a new company is not enough to make a film. We need a plot, and it is here that a surprisingly dark plot comes in. Firstly there is a Galaxy and an Alien prince is guarding it. The alien prince is then killed by a 'bug' who wishes to steal the Galaxy.
But let us look at the Bug. An enormous cockroach who mauls a (rude and abusive) hick and wears his skin as a disguise. That is pretty creepy. We're talking Ed Gein inspired levels of creepiness. Especially the scene near the beginning where the Bug pulls back Edgar's skin to tighten around his sagging face.
Kudos to Vincent D'Onofrio who manages to play the character excellently. I especially like the portrayal of someone absolutely uncomfortable with the human body. His movements are rigid and irregular. He frequently has little muscle spasms and he also gets angry that he can't get his body to respond how he wants. It is a series of nice little touches which make the character far more rounded and realistic. Well, as realistic as possible.

The film shows a good Alien world. And yes the CGI might mean that everything looks a bit plastic and shiny, but it all seems to fit in with a wonderful 1950's view of sci-fi. Nowhere is that more true than with the 'Alien Technology' used by the MIB themselves. This seems to be a code word for Chrome. As we all know - Chrome is the metal of the future. And sure enough, everything that the MIB uses glistens with Chromey goodness.
The Alien world also allows cameos from two actors who get cast in these kinds of roles all the time. Carel Struycken (Sonnenfeld's go-to weird looking tall man) plays a freaky looking tall alien and Verne Troyer plays a little tiny Alien. Steven Spielberg also appears on a monitor showing aliens hiding all over the world. Therefore, like with Gremlins, he manages to cameo in films he produced. I might watch The Goonies today to see if he is in there too.

So, back to the plot. This one last mission is Kay's way of finding a replacement - he wishes to leave the MIB and offer his role to Jay. During the mission they have worked alongside a Dr Laurel played by the very beautiful Linda Fiorentino - She gradually gets more and more involved with the MIB - and in her coolest most bad ass moment she becomes an action hero, dishevelled and sporting a massive (Chrome, obviously) smoking gun.
And so, the film's coda is Kay retired and Jay and his new recruit L (or Elle - Laurel) in their MIB clothes. Now, there appear to be strict rules about the MIB. Let us quote Zed (can't be Z or he'd be pronounced Zee in the states):
You'll dress only in attire specially sanctioned by MiB special services. You'll conform to the identity we give you, eat where we tell you, live where we tell you. From now on you'll have no identifying marks of any kind. You'll not stand out in any way. Your entire image is crafted to leave no lasting memory with anyone you encounter. You're a rumour, recognizable only as deja vu and dismissed just as quickly. You don't exist; you were never even born. Anonymity is your name. Silence your native tongue. You're no longer part of the System. You're above the System. Over it. Beyond it. We're "them." We're "they." We are the Men in Black.

So despite their strict rules, the second Will Smith is left to his own devices he changes the dress code to look a bit more modern-cool. And loses the iconic chic of the smart black suit. It may have been used a lot. But it worked for the Blues Brothers and it worked for Reservoir Dogs. It works for the MIB. It is cool.

But let the Fresh Prince have his way.

His songs are just too infectious.

Friday, 18 June 2010

It'll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.

No 391 - Mulholland Drive
Director - David Lynch

After watching a few fairly simple films, I thought I would entertain myself by watching a guaranteed head fuck which I've never before seen.
Also Ultra Culture bloody loves this film - and they're an excellent blog with pretty reliable views on stuff..

I don't want to sit down and write a detailed essay explaining what I think the film is about (though I've found some great sites which have helped deepen my experience, which I'll list at the end... in case you guys need help) - I'm instead going to talk about what I though about the film. Looking at it as a classic Neo-Noir and as a piece of atmospheric wonderment.

We begin with a bungled assassination of a nameless woman (Laura Harring - the character later takes the name Rita from a Rita Hayworth movie poster), who escapes the site and crawls into an empty apartment.
Alas, the apartment is later occupied by Betty (played by Naomi Watts) who has flown to LA from Ontario and plans to become an actress. The majority of the film is about the wonderful relationship which blossoms between Rita and Betty.

However - I just want to add one thing here, which may or may not be relevant to anything (that's the problem with this film, you just don't know) - when we first meet Betty, she is in the airport speaking to an elderly couple she met on the plane. Strangely, her speech pattern is stilted and halting. It felt unnatural enough for me to make a note of it whilst watching.

So Betty meets Rita, and the two are naturally suspicious of one another but gradually - as they try to find out about Rita's identity - a really rather wonderful friendship begins to blossom, before turning into a fully fledged romance. Generally, couples never seem to fare that well in Lynch's films, so once you get over the titillation of their sex scenes (after all, they're both very attractive ladies) it is nice to see an unabusive, genuinely loving relationship.

There are many subplots throughout this film - for example, an assassin trying to get a black book, and a director being forced by a mysterious group to cast someone called Camilla Rhodes in his film. He refuses and is visited by The Cowboy (who also appears later, in what is arguably the most important single moment of the film), who explains how the director really doesn't have a choice. However, the best thing about this shadowy cabal is that it is led by the fabulous Michael J Anderson as Mr Roque. Mr Roque utters one word throughout the entire film, and is on screen for probably a minute, but he is instantly fascinating. Lynch clearly loves Anderson as he finds a way to crowbar him into a lot of his films - and his performance in twin peaks is beyond iconic. In one scene he essentially defines Lynch.

Also, on a brief tangent, is this the weirdest Lynch reference ever? Way to alienate your audience, Sesame Street.

Back to subplots. The one I wish to discuss is that of Wilkies Diner. The diner appears a lot, and each time is important to the film. For example, the waitress there is called Diane; and this reminds Rita that she knew a Diane (who alas is now dead and rotting - possibly the victim of the assassin). But the big scene for Wilkies is the dream scene. Two men discuss a dream that one of them has been having in the diner in which he is haunted by a horrible face. Whilst explaining the story, he retraces his steps and comes face to face with the *terrifying* dirt smeared crone (who glides out from behind a wall) and dies, clutching his chest.
It is clearly an important scene, but (like all the scenes in this film) if you take it at face value - it makes no fucking sense.

All these scenes actually take place and whilst it may be hard to see how they relate, they seem to follow their own logic. After seeing Diane dead, Rita starts to wear a Blonde wig much like Betty's hair - and the two begin to move (often in unison) from venue to venue in similar black outfits.

The climax of their relationship (for afterwards Betty just vanishes) occurs in the super creepy Club Silencia where Betty finds a blue box, which corresponds with a blue key, which was one of the few objects Rita had on her possession. Rita opens the box and ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE!

But importantly, The Cowboy returns and utters the important line:

Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up.

OK, I'm going to break this down into bullet points.
  • Naomi Watts gets up from bed, and we see that she has been asleep in the same position as the previously dead Diane.
  • For the rest of the film, Naomi Watts is referred to as Diane.
  • Laura Harring appears fleetingly (in what I assume are flashbacks), and is referred to as Camilla.
  • Diane and Camilla used to date, until Camilla said she didn't think they should do so any more.
  • Rita/Camilla is now sleeping with the director from the earlier subplot.
At this point the film's order goes all over the place - as several scenes occur during Naomi Watts' walk from the kitchen to the sofa.
  • We see her suffer a break up, humiliation.
  • We see her discuss Laura Harring's character with the assassin.
  • We see a regular blue Yale lock passed to her.
And just as things get really really weird (and this is a fabulous creepy weirdness which has been slowly building up for the past two and a bit hours), the dirt faced crone vagrant releases the elderly couple from a paper bag. They sneak in to Watts' house - under the door - and torment her until she shoots herself. Leaving a smoking bed.

A true WHAT THE FUCK moment, if ever I've seen one.

As a portrayal of mood it is wonderful. The film is deliciously tense. A true horror.

But what does it mean? I'll leave you with some heavy reading:
City of Nightmares - An In depth Analysis of Mulholland Drive

(I'm not saying this is right - Lynch himself refuses to divulge - but it is interesting, and a lot of the original points are similar to what I thought - only he goes in a LOT more detail and research)

Thursday, 17 June 2010

I'm a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman. You can have me for nothing.

#385 - Ace in the hole
Director - Billy Wilder

I have yet to watch Sunset Blvd, and therefore this is the first of Billy Wilder's films I've watched which isn't a comedy. And yet, it begins in a comically jolly way, with lively 50's music and a wonderful shot of our lead - Charles Tatum (played by a young Kirk Douglas - who looks a lot like Alex Winter in the 80's) - reading the paper in his car as it is towed.

Tatum is a typical New Yorker. Fast talking, aggressive and brash. However he is also reckless and arrogant - and this is how he finds himself fired from all the big city papers and working in a small local paper in Albuquerque. His motivation for the entire film is simple: find a story which is big enough to get him noticed and get his old job back in New York.

After a tedious year on the paper, Tatum gets his wish. En route to a rattlesnake hunt with his photographer he stumbles upon a man called Leo trapped in a cave-in. To make matters worse, none of the local native Americans will go into the cave as it is cursed - the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. This is Tatum's story.
The rest of the film is watching Tatum spin the situation to his advantage.

This is very much a film of its time - and I don't just mean the appalling and consistent casual racism directed towards the Native Americans - in the way that the news travels. It is very interesting to see how reporters worked in a time when phones were sparse, let alone mobiles. This type of monopoly on a story (Tatum manages to successfully negotiate no other reporters being allowed on site) could never happen in our world of mobile camera phones, audioboo, twitter etc etc. We're an immediate culture - when just fifty years ago it was all a lot slower.

So, Tatum takes control of the event and manages to manipulate the rescue, stringing it out into an elaborate charade:
  • Tatum can use a big story to reclaim his status and get his New York Job back.
  • Leo's wife Lorraine is planning to leave him anyway, but sees the media frenzy and public interest as an easy way to cash in.
  • Sheriff Kretzer needs a big public interest story and the positive spin from Tatum in order to make sure he is re-elected.
With the sheriff on side, Tatum can blackmail the engineers to use the slower rescue method (a massive drill boring through the mountain side - which will take a week) rather than reinforcing the cave tunnel and pulling him out (which will only take 16 hours).

The public face of Leo's suffering is not with him, but with his parents. We very rarely see Leo, as most of the film takes place outside the mountain, but the few visits into the heart of the cave show a man who quickly loses his chirpy attitude and then begins to lose health, gradually becoming a weaker shell of a man.
Meanwhile, on the outside, his parents have to deal with the circus (both media and literal) which has emerged around the cave. It is interesting that the film is also referred to as The Big Carnival (apparently it was renamed) - which refers to both the carnival set up outside the mountain (for the entertainment of the the hundreds of people coming to watch the spectacle event) and also to the horrible events which are unfolding, manipulating Leo's suffering.

It is a really uncomfortable film to watch - the exploitation of suffering and danger is so hideously inhumane that you're essentially watching it as car crash cinema. Not because it's a bad film, but because the subject matter is just horrific.
The worst character by far (in my mind) is Lorraine - after all, the Sheriff is just a corrupt policeman, a film archetype. And yes, Tatum may be the violent, abusive, racist misogynist who orchestrated the whole event, but he is just an amoral reporter. He has no stake in the people around him. He could not care less. Whilst Lorraine may no longer love Leo, and may even be planning to leave him, she allows her husband and her husband's family to be hideously manipulated and exploited just so she can make some money and attempt to seduce Tatum.

Of course, things go wrong - and whilst the final act is inevitable, you spend the whole film hoping that it won't fall apart, that Leo will be OK even if it means that the amoral bastards get away with it.

A fascinating look at the arrogance, greed and corruption of people. It is entrancing - if utterly uncomfortable - cinema.

Billy Wilder really is bloody good.

Two things are important in life: for men, women; for women, money.

No 125 - À Bout de Souffle (Breathless)
Director - Jean-Luc Godard

I was first introduced to the work of Godard through the film The Dreamers - which included footage of his films amongst the shots of sexual confusion and Eva Green's vagina (that sounds dismissive: it is a brilliant film. I highly recommend it).

Subsequently, my mother bought this film as it was on offer - she found it intolerably dull and couldn't believe that I didn't. So she gave it to me.

This film isn't dull... it is cool. Even though nothing really happens for the majority of the film (besides the important events which bookend it).

We follow Michel (played by the delightfully world weary Jean-Paul Belmondo - haggard, like a French Bogart); a petty thief who just wants to go to Paris and see the woman he loves. However, through the course of a series of events (brilliantly shown as three quick shots with no transition and no attempt at interconnecting them) he ends up shooting a policeman. Therefore rather than just going to Paris to see a girl, the plan becomes - go to Paris, see a girl, lie low.

This is the majority of the film. So it may not be the most action-packed film in the world, but the set up means we can begin to look deeper into Michel's character. What is interesting about Michel is that he is actually quite likeable, even though he is definitely an amoral, womanising bastard. He is also an incredible chain smoker (I can't think of a single scene where he isn't smoking - at one point he lights a fresh cigarette off his existing one so he can smoke continuously), and he is the horniest man I've seen in film in ages - literally obsessed with sex (like all good French men), and he is obsessed with money - reclaiming the debts that he is apparently owed. The rest of the time he just sneaks into the houses of women he knows and hides there.

The all-important central woman is Patricia: the woman he has decided he loves. The woman he has travelled to Paris to visit. The woman he wants to take to Italy to get away from his cop-killing accident - for which the press are now closing in on him. So let's focus on Patricia - after all, the main scene in this film goes on for at least 30 minutes and takes place in her bedroom. She is played by Jean Seberg - who was BEAUTIFUL, and who died tragically young. Although - like Michel - Patricia is another consistent smoker.

I suppose it is all part of life in France and life in the 60's. Certainly even now - with the older generation - smoking is a big thing in France (and I don't mean that as a crass over-generalisation, but as a genuine observation from having a lot of French family).
What this film does, though, is make it look cool. But then, this film makes everything look cool. It was one of the first films to talk directly to camera. It has suave characters who talk about deep topics. Yes, a lot of what they say comes off as quite pretentious, but it remains cool. It remains dripping with French Chic.

Let us refer back to The Divine Comedy and When the Lights Go Out Over Europe.
The line this time refers to when Patricia goes to a press conference led by Parvulesco, who may be an author or a philosopher (I didn't catch it):
And when she asks
Of his ambition
Jean-Pierre replies
"My mission
Is to become eternal
And to die..."

Once again, the name in this song refers to the actor rather than the character - Jean-Pierre, who plays Parvulesco. And why does his inclusion make the film awesome and cool? It's only Jean-Pierre Melville - director of such awesome crime flicks as Le Doulos and Le Cercle Rouge.
That would have meant nothing to me a year ago, but this film challenge has made me a total film boffin and I find facts like that exciting.

Now - don't be mistaken; this isn't just a film about two people sat in a room talking - it's a film about the gradual pressure which the police put on Michel. The tightening of the screws. And - much like Jules et Jim - it all builds up to a final moment which I don't want to spoil by discussing.

But I highly recommend that you sit down and watch this, because unlike Jules et Jim (which was set around 1914), this film gives you a two hour snapshot of just how bloody cool France was in the 60's.

Monday, 14 June 2010

We played with life and lost

No 338 - Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim)
Director - Francois Truffaut

Sundays. Lovely lazy Sundays. My plan for today was to mix the World Cup with some massively influential 60's New Wave cinema. My guide for this is the song When the lights go out all over Europe by The Divine Comedy, which mixes plot points from a whole range of different Nouvelle Vague films.

So what does Neil Hannon have to say about Jules et Jim?
Jeanne can't choose
Between the two
'Cos Jules is hip
And Jim is cool
And so they live together

The Jeanne in the song refers to Jeanne Moreau who plays Catherine - the film's key female lead. The song also manages to sum the film up in 5 short lines. However, I want to ramble on and on about it and therefore I will speak about it at much greater length.

The film follows 2 friends, a French man called Jim and a German called Jules and begins in Paris in 1912. The story falls into two halves, interrupted by the first World War. The first half is the most fun and jolly and exciting section, but it is the more serious, more depressing second half which is more important. So I'm going to discuss the two halves separately and speak about them as almost separate identities.

The film begins with the jolliest of circus music, to create a lively and exciting environment before plunging us into the giddy world of 1912. For these opening scenes, Jules and Jim are everything I aspire to be. They seem to live that romanticised French bohemian dream - whilst both being clearly wealthy. They seem to stroll around and drink coffee and/or wine whilst flirting with glamorous ladies. I can't think of a better way to live.
Let me put it in context. At one point they go to the tailors to have identical outfits made to go to the beach. I wish I had enough money to live out those flamboyances. It would be simply super!

I would also like to mention that at this point Jim looks the spitting image of Boycie from Only Fools and Horses.

During this period of being fabulously dressed and flouncing around Paris (a period I near constantly regret not being involved in) we follow Jules. As a German, he is new in town and is very keen to meet people. So we meet a few of his friends and we meet the first of his women - Thérèse - who not only lives the same hedonistic, decadent lifestyle of the male leads but also becomes a key figure in the glamorisation of smoking (something I'll discuss in more detail in my next blog) as she shows off her party trick - using a cigarette to impersonate a steam train.

During this period, Jim has to entertain a group of ladies and Jules falls for Catherine. He begins to see her a lot and the three of them go on some good adventures - they go to the beach and they have the iconic race across the bridge (where Katherine pretends to be a man), which I always get confused with Bande a part and the race through The Louvre.

However - nothing can last forever, and alas war breaks out. Jim - being French - and Jules - being German - end up fighting on different teams and both share the same fear that they'll accidentally kill the other person.

Sadly, even after the war ends and the pair rekindle their friendship, the characters have changed. They're still fun and jovial but there is a definite seriousness in their eyes. They have both lived through the horrors of war and life is different. Jim may still have the essentially single life (though he does have his constant on/off girlfriend Gilberte), but Jules is married to Catherine and has a child.

And herein lies the problem.

Because what this film shows is that friendship can overcome everything - massive lengths of time apart; war; families. But if both friends fancy the same person the friendship will be strained. It does not help if the person in question is a manipulative, selfish, borderline insane bitch.

Which is the only way I can really describe Catherine.

She gets bored of Jules and so frequently has affairs - and after a while decides she loves Jim. Jules can't cut himself away completely from Catherine so the three live together. Catherine uses this to her advantage and so whenever she is unhappy with Jim she will go and seduce Jules. This is really heartbreaking. You have spent the first part of the film falling in love with these two characters who are so full of life and recklessness, and now you see everything that made them fun and jolly being eroded away by the unjust demands of a selfish attention-seeking partner. The group still have their moments of fun, but the majority of the time they're just a sombre reflection of their former selves.

And that is NEVER a fun thing to watch.

Eventually Jim tires of Catherine's games and leaves her, and therefore Jules. Due to Jules' choice of female company, the pair can't see each other any more. And although you can see the friendship gradually crumbling, I promise that you will never see the ending coming.

It is a terrific ending. Which is the perfect coda for a story which starts so jolly and crumbles into heartbreak.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

I feel something important is happening around me. And it scares me.

No 69 - Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Three Colours: Red)
Director - Krzysztof Kieslowski

Rouge is the last film of Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy (Blue, White and Red - covering the themes liberté, égalité and fraternité) and even though the films aren't directly related (besides tone and style) I felt it was right to watch them in order, as I had never seen the Three Colours Trilogy before. The trilogy also managed to inject a bit of much needed culture after I shamefully watched the Big Brother launch and Team America.

As the film begins, I noticed an immediate stylistic different to Blue and White. The way that the camera whizzes down wires is far more stylised than the more naturalistic preceding two films - it almost feels Jeunot-esque. However, after that shot we're in far more familiar territory as we follow Valentine (the delightful Irene Jacob) living out her life. She has a boyfriend who doesn't care about her and she is introduced to a Judge who is a bit of a voyeur, listening to phone conversations and particularly relishing the sex calls. Irene struggle with morality, not knowing how to react - but in Irene the judge finds comfort and begins to change his ways.
During this story, we're following Auguste. His relationship with Irene is very similar to the relationship of the three films. Although they pass each other and often appear at the same moment at the same time, they never directly affect each other. His life also seems to draw parallels with that of the Judge: for as we watch the events unfold for Auguste, they correlate with the sad stories the Judge is telling.

I find it strange that this is the film which is viewed as the best; that this film got into the list whereas the other two didn't. For me, I found that Red was the weakest of the three. I found the story far too fragmented, and the characters not strong enough to pull it along. Now, the film is still wonderful, but I preferred the heart-breakingly tragic characters of Blue and the oddly whimsical story of White. It is all part of Kieslowski's bizarre universe - the reoccurring themes throughout the three films are strange, from the obvious (and masterful) decision of making sure the titular colour is prominent throughout the film through to the inclusion of the same elderly woman struggling with the same bottle bank in each film (whilst in Blue and White we watch the old lady struggle, in Red - Fraternity - Valentine assists her with her bottle). We also have the inclusion of Kieslowski's whimsy: the fictional composer Van den Budenmayer - who appears in all of his films.

Whilst the story seems to meander, it finally picks up in the end: A heart to heart between Irene and the Judge adds the final levels of richness and depth to those characters and turns them into real and fascinating people.
The wonderful coincidences in the end which allow the major characters of the three films to finally meet is a marvellous touch which I won't explain for fear of ruining.

So, yes... Red is nice, but in my opinion it isn't the best in the trilogy, and its powerful moments are most powerful when you can refer them back to White and Blue. They're only short films (about ninety minutes each) so do yourself a favour: watch the Three Colours trilogy, rather than just watching Red.

Friday, 11 June 2010

It's up to you, Fogell. This guy is either gonna think 'Here's another kid with a fake ID' or 'Here's McLovin, a 25 year-old Hawaiian organ donor'

No 487 - Superbad
Director - Greg Mottola

I like it when a film accepts what it is and doesn't try to be clever... This is a film which just accepts its own stupidity and embarks upon a fabulously ridiculous journey. The plot is incredibly simple: three teenagers try to supply a house party with booze - an act which will turn them into legends and probably get them laid. Ah teen comedies, sex is all the motivation there needs to be :)

Whereas the film may struggle with a narrative, it does manage the one important thing for a teen comedy: it accurately portray teens. These are swearing, sex obsessed idiots who lack the courage to act on what they talk incessantly about. What I also like is that the characters show different sides to what we'd expect. I've gotten used to Jonah Hill being a brash and foul mouthed character... but here, his arrogant potty mouth just hides his character Seth's insecurity. His masses of insecurity. Watch his drunken revelation to Jules about how he had to get drunk in order to get the courage to make a move... it is tragically sad and tragically real. We've all been in that situation.
Michael Cera, on the other hand, is playing Evan, who is the role he always plays - the nervous, awkward geek - but this time he swears like a trooper and talks constantly about sex. It just shows a different side to him - though I'm waiting for his turn as an action hero with masses of excitement.

Seth and Evan are desperate to seduce the girls of their dreams. Martha MacIsaacs' Becca, the typical girl next door, is delightfully sweet and perfect for the nervous Evan. So the scene in which she drunkenly propositions Evan is even more cringe-inducing than Seth's attempt with Jules. Though it does give us an excellent line, which manages to be both hilarious but also show just how inexperienced (and wasted) the people are in this scene: I am gonna give you the best blow J ever... with my mouth.
Emma Stone's Jules seems far more adult and far more confident. She is also the owner of a surprisingly husky voice for one so young (this film makes me feel old). She is the most adult character within the entire film. The sober centre point who is both the catalyst for the film's narrative but also its most grounded point.

However, really this film isn't about Seth and Evan. Even though they're the leads and even though they represent an augmented autobiographical tale of the script writers - Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg - they are not the story's shining star.
You see... Rogen and Goldberg initially wrote this when they were 19 or 20 - with the idea that they (or at least Seth) would play themselves. However... they grew up and had to write themselves adult parts instead. So we have the film's strongest (and stupidest) story arc, and the introduction of Fogell - another teenage character, who gets caught up with two cops.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse came from nowhere to become the supremo geek extraordinaire. Fogell is a spindly hilarious loser. But he is getting a fake ID, and is therefore essential to the operation. Unfortunately, Fogell gets the worst fake ID ever, with a singular name. He is McLovin.
Through a series of mishaps he is abandoned by Seth and Evan and questioned by the police: McLovin? Sounds like a sexy hamburger!

For the remaining majority of the film he gets up to ridiculous adventures with his new friends: Officer Michaels (the excellent Bill Hader) and Officer Slater (Seth Rogen, making sure he gets one of the most fun roles). They are idiots who enjoy drinking, shooting guns, spinning doughnuts and generally abusing their police powers. However, as soon as it becomes clear that they may get in trouble, we see a whole new side to the cops. Violent and brutal, they are willing to attack and stop anyone if it'll make them look better (and they can always fix it in the paperwork). They are the embodiment of corruption in the police force, and it is odd that the only person they're really nice to throughout the film is Fogell - they will happily attack and terrify a hundred teens, as long as the one that they're trying to impress stays impressed.

It is a stupid film. So serious respect that it can pull off a restrained and fairly moving ending. For all the vulgarity and idiocy it is quite cute. It targets the fear and worry of having to leave your school friends to go to college and the fear of how you should act with women.
It is a teenage film. On the surface it is a juvenile idiot obsessed with sex, but underneath it is a bag of insecurities.

Superbad? Supergood more like...

(I've been waiting the whole review to say that!)

That's what I'm trying to prove mother. Rod didn't kill Tina and he didn't hang himself. There's this guy. He's after us in our dreams.

No 162 - A Nightmare on Elm Street
Director - Wes Craven

One, two, Freddy's coming for you.
Three, four, better lock your door.
Five, six, grab your crucifix.
Seven, eight, better stay awake.
Nine, ten, never sleep again

Everything is scarier when it is accompanied by a rhyme. There is something about an innocent children's rhyme that just makes scary things scarier. I think it is the cruel cruel juxtaposition. It is like the Gentlemen - they were the SCARIEST Buffy villains, and that was probably helped by the accompanying chilling rhyme.

The thing that I find disappointing about this film is that it just fails to live up to the premise. The idea of a homicidal maniac with phenomenal God like powers terrorising you through your dreams is a genuinely terrifying concept, and yet it never lives up to its full potential. I think this is partly down to the special effects. As this is a film which relies a lot on special effects, the fact that they're dated does make the film feel slightly hokey.
And yet, that is what is all the more disappointing about the remake. Even though they have better special effects, they still haven't grasped the FUN you could have with such a concept. Almost endless fun.

And whilst Nightmare is slightly flawed as a horror, it is a wonderfully fun piece of film. Freddy Krueger is a genuinely chilling villain in the fact that he seems to just be really enjoying what he does. The gleeful way he torments his victims is both horrifically cruel but wonderfully joyous - his cackling face as the teenagers claw at him for freedom. He does also seem to have a slightly masochistic personality. Just before he uses his claw hands (such an amazing, instantly iconic, weapon) he likes to show off how sharp they are - cutting off fingers or slicing into his own skin. He just enjoys a bit of self mutilation before he attacks.
The fact that Freddy Krueger was a child killer is unimportant. The fact that he is clearly stark raving MAD is what makes him a dangerous villain. Just really not a scary one. I was going to say that he is like a clown trying to kill you - but that is terrifying... Freddy just isn't scary. Dead Tina is scary, wrapped in her bloodied sheets, but he isn't.
However, his character does allow for some amazing visual moments. Stairs which collapse and melt in crumbling squidgy marshmallow, individual flaming footprints and tongues which creep out of the phone receiver to lick your face...
And the deaths are phenomenal! An echo back to the 70's and the ridiculous over the top deaths of Dario Argento. Fountains of bright bright red blood shower out as limbs are severed and blood flies everywhere. It is gloriously over the top. It all helps to make sure you're never drawn into the film too much - it is all so absurd.

Another thing that keeps you from falling too far in are the number of recognisable faces looking so young... Look at young little Johnny Depp. Look at Lin Shaye playing the teacher (best known to me as Magda in Something About Mary or (even better) Mrs Bruce in the awesomely bad Detroit Rock City). And who is playing the doctor? Why it is the man I find infuriating... the voice of Roger Rabbit himself Charles Fleischer (I dunno why, I just find him REALLY annoying). All of these people rip me out of the story, but allow me to enjoy it for the camp violent stupidity of it all. And that is a good thing.

This is a film that for all its violence and gore, feels cosy. There is something jolly and fun about it, which is quite a feat considering it touches on some dark topics. It is a horror romp, but it is one which manages a wonderfully surprising ending that leaves you with a little buzz of adrenaline.


Monday, 7 June 2010

It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything

No 10 - Fight Club
Director - David Fincher

I am Jack's sense of joyous nostalgia. The end of my last GCSE consisted of two things - an epic water fight in my local park and the first time I watched Fight Club. Later, my 'coming of age' in a series of madcap adventures in Ecuador meant that whilst I watched Fight Club in a dingy and strange cinema bar we drank all of the venue's beer, gin and tonic water. This is a film which is firmly part of my journey to adulthood.

Which is worrying when you think how joyfully nihilistic it is.

Now.... if you haven't seen this film PLEASE DON'T READ THIS REVIEW. I can't talk about it without giving away massive and crucial spoilers which will ruin it for you...


Before we talk of plot and twists and stories, let's begin by talking about the visual aesthetic. There are some wonderful stylistic touches in this film and elements which I think were pretty new when Fincher did them. I certainly had never seen the exciting way in which the camera flies and darts through the CGI environs (a stylistic flourish he later made even more impressive in the otherwise unremarkable Panic Room). Even the opening sequence is amazing as the camera rushes out of Ed Norten's head and along the barrel of a gun.

We're then introduced to Ed Norton's narrator - a lead without a name - and from his first dead eyed look and dead pan voice over one thing is made absolutely clear. This film is cool. And it knows it is cool. This film KNOWS it is cooler than you. From every dry line and every piece of inspired casting (Meatloaf's Bob is particularly brilliant) it taunts you with its cool. But what is so interesting is that the narrator isn't particularly cool... he is plain, suppressed and he isn't happy.
Each piece of furniture is amusingly annotated with prices and descriptions as he walks through it. His house is an IKEA catalogue. He has no personality.

However we begin to see traces of the Narrator's other side... we're introduced to Marla Singer, who I'll speak about later. But we also get flashes of Tyler Durden. There are at least 3 times that I have seen... Firstly, in the office he appears standing by the photo copier. Secondly, he flashes behind the shoulders of his doctor and thirdly (if I remember correctly) when Marla Singer ousts him from his self help therapy. There may be more, and if there are I've not noticed them.

It isn't until on a plane that we meet Tyler Durden. Played with violent, anarchic panache by Brad Pitt. He is part Rusty Ryan - suave bastard, and part Jeoffrey Goines - total loon. He is 100% dangerous and a wonderful cinematic thing to behold. I'll let Empire describe him better than me...
This is where we discover the second thing about the film. Not only does the film know it is cooler than you. It doesn't give a fuck.

There are moments in this film which discuss how a film works (explaining 'cigarette burns' which I now notice all the time) and there are moments which (whether real or digitally created) seem to mess with the cinema. Whether it is splicing a penis in to the film for a pre-credit gag or shaking and distorting the film in an angry rant. I can't think of a film (not including Planet Terror's graininess and missing reel) that is as brave with the concept of film since Hellzapoppin' - though there probably are some...

Tyler is a destructive guru. He looks awesome. He reeks of confidence. He is too good to be true. That is the first clue we really get... from the ease with which he acts out his pretty misguided anarchic views all the way to his impossibly ripped physique. From his mind to his body he is almost too perfect. And in a film which is keen to press that nobody is perfect, that should be a warning that he might, just might, not be real.
He is also wonderfully nihilistic. He is true punk. He compliments perfectly the suicidal over-thinking nature of Marla... Her morbid character is so different to Tyler, who embraces life to a dangerous degree, but yet is also very similar. Both seem to attach little value to material things. Both are happy living in squalor. Both just want to feel. Whether it is the feeling of death for Marla (her own or someone else's) or the exhilaration of violence for Tyler (whether personal or vandalism) - it is all about having a genuine connection. It is probably also why they have so much sex throughout.

Norten's character is as entranced by him as we are, and soon the two join forces and the titular Fight Club is born. Surely everyone watching when Brad Pitt swaggers into the middle of his bloodlusting punters, and booms out the now immortal rules of fight club, is transfixed. I can't show you his performance... but even the script is perfect. Just wonderful.
What is interesting about the actual fight club is that it manages to show two contradictory things... at the same time. Firstly, the fights are horrible, savage and brutal. Secondly, those fights are wonderful; almost aspirational. The way that it's filmed and the reactions from the characters show how free they are. How happy. It makes me want to get into a fight - and I'm a fat cowardly pacifist.

What this film begins to show is how an idea can go too far. How the freedom of being in a fight and letting off steam (if somewhat violently) turns into a breeding ground for nihilistic terrorists. It shows how easily people are led by charismatics with a different view. It show how dangerous people can be and how dangerous organised societies can be. The cinematic portrayal of Project Mayhem is as much of an attack on corporations and capitalism as it is an attack on fundamentalist religion. For Project Mayhem could easily be considered a fundamentalist religion. This is a film that is far more intelligent than its title implies... This is a film which makes you think. If you go in expecting a film about a club where people get into fights you'll be sorely disappointed, as the actual club only features for the briefest moments.
This is a film about introspection, about our own personal demons and our own little misanthropic tendencies. It is a film about embracing who we are before we suppress it too far and snap. This is a film about violence. Just not always the punchy punchy kablammo kind.

So we come to the reveal... the twist... Ed Norton's narrator IS Tyler Durden. Of course he is. Tyler Durden is what any suppressed white collar depressed individual would want to be. A gorgeous bastard who could beat you up and doesn't care what anybody thinks. Of course he is an aspiration.

And yet he is still there and he is still very dangerous.

I think the reveal is great, and whilst it was beginning to twig as the events unfurled, I had never figured out the twist before the reveal (unlike, say... The 6th Sense) - and yes there are moments which become farcical (see the scenes in which Ed Norton fights himself) but the danger is still there - how do you kill off your other personality?

The film ends with the last of Tyler's plans coming to fruition. As the Pixies sound up, the skyscrapers fall and there is a joyous uplifting vibe to the whole thing. I haven't felt this happy watching terrorism since V for Vendetta.

It is a celebration of the little bastard in all of us that just wants to break things. And it is a warning that maybe we shouldn't always listen to it.

Baby wants to fuck! Baby wants to fuck Blue Velvet!

No 85 - Blue Velvet
Director - David Lynch

I do not own Speed or Easy Rider or Rebel Without a Cause and so when I heard of the death of the great Dennis Hopper I pulled out the two films I do own - this or Apocalypse Now. I decided it had to be this, as I have Apocalypse Now Redux, which isn't TECHNICALLY the film which was voted in...
It also meant that I could continue my tradition of watching completely unsuitable films over breakfast.

The film begins pretty innocuously with beautiful opening credits of elegant text against blue velvet (naturally) - it feels like a classic MGM film and that feeling's continued when the film pans into the middle American suburbia that Lynch is clearly fascinated by (see Twin Peaks for a small town version of the same theme).
But once we have been lulled into this false sense of security, the Lynchian weirdness begins. However, this is still a fairly (and surprisingly) standard story. There is none of the insanity of Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive. I kept expecting a strange angry dwarf to appear or some shocking nightmarish image. But there aren't any. The majority of the film fits the story. It is just that once we seep through the suburban exterior, we face the shockingly foul-mouthed violent underbelly.

Our protagonist is Jeffrey (an amazingly young Kyle MachLachlan) who discovers a disembodied ear in the middle of the woods. He then decides to investigate the ear himself - partly out of curiosity but also partly to impress the detective's attractive daughter.
Once there, he becomes embroiled with Frank; the insane, torturing, murdering psycho and the villain of this film. Also just an amazingly powerful and genuinely terrifying performance from Dennis Hopper.
I did not know that this was his 'comeback' film until I started doing a bit of research after watching, but what a comeback it is. Violent and abrasive he (literally) screams his presence and sears himself into the viewer's mind. It is made all the more scary by his unpredictable nature. Yes, he has goons, and yes, they all seem to be joyfully violent and vindictive - but they seem safe in comparison to Frank because they're not gassed up. Gas makes villains far more terrifying...
Frank's world is weird - but it isn't the nightmarish world which I was geared up to expect. Most of it is just cruel and unusual, and the only bit that genuinely doesn't make sense is that one of the cast appears to suddenly get a lobotomy. Is it a stray bullet? Or some kind of deliberate ploy to silence someone? Don't expect an answer. Just expect a stationary dribbling fool.

However, the best bit of Frank's world is that it includes a really effeminate Dean Stockwell as Ben (who is - to quote Frank - "One Suave Fucker"). Bloody love Dean Stockwell - he is great in both BSG and Quantum Leap! Certainly, the point where he starts singing is odd. But again, not as odd as Eraserhead.

This is a film which has touches of symbolism and the briefest hint of surrealism but is mostly quite realistic and a gritty return to classic film noir.

Whilst certainly not an easy watch, I found it quite enjoyable!

This cannot be "One of Those Things... ” This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can't. This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance

No 89 - Magnolia
Director - Paul Thomas Anderson

My apologies again, I have been on a bit of a roll with watching films (both on and off list) and have not been keeping up to date with my blogging. So, apologies if once again my views are less concise in these blogs, as several days have passed since I saw some of them.

I had only ever seen Magnolia once prior to this viewing and I remembered it being one of those films which I had to struggle through... I'm not sure if I hadn't been in the correct mind back then or if I have matured (ha!) but I found completely the opposite this time. I still found it long, but this time it was fascinating and captivating and full of characters who were incredibly interesting.
The key phrase here being 'full of characters' - this is a massive ensemble cast. Massive and powerful. But not only is it a massive cast, it is a phenomenal cast full of powerhouse actors (though several of them are P. T. Anderson regulars) John C Reilly, William H Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise. There are so many respected actors in this film that they even turn up in bit parts. Look at Alfred Molina sneaking in for a scene. This is clearly a film that a lot of people wanted to be part of. What impresses me is the balanced way that the film juggles such a large cast and allows each character to have their own story and to have enough time for that story to be told.
Most of the stories are terribly, beautifully sad. Look at Donnie for example - the tragic former child genius who no longer has a purpose in life. A strange and lonely man, you can see him as worrying premonition of the current young genius Stanley's future. However, there are some quietly uplifting stories scattered throughout.
Take John C Reilly - his Officer Jim Kurring is another lonely person (a definite theme throughout this film), but through mild bending of policing policy he manages to find happiness. And it is wonderful to see John C Reilly playing a deep and meaningful role rather than something silly.

However, the real star of this film is Tom Cruise. This film is further evidence that he should break away from his 'safe' action hero roles and play a bastard more often. After all, he is excellent as Lestat and even manages to be one of the more enjoyably silly elements of Tropic Thunder. Frank TJ Mackey is a wonderful character - allegedly based on Ross Jeffries, he blusters around full of arrogance and with a back story full of lies.
What is really interesting though is watching his defences crumble as he is interviewed by someone who knows his true back story - the way he moves from being charmingly contradictory, through to aggressive, and finally to a petulant silent bastard.
His final scenes with his dying father are generally beautiful and show a wondrous character arc.

It is a film which really takes care of its character but which puts them through a proper obstacle course of emotions. Whilst this film is emotionally tiring it stays grounded in realism; so the few times it moves away from realism have a powerful punch.

Let's begin with the montage of people singing Aimee Mann's Wise Up - this is something very easy to get wrong, to make look cheesy. Yet kudos to Anderson, he manages to make a montage which not only isn't jarring, but is actually moving.
It is also surprising that when Deus Ex Machina is literally used (a genuine biblical plague) in order to bring the characters closer together it doesn't feel forced. It feels surprising and strange. But it feels like it is handled correctly. And there is something sickeningly funny about watching the cars try to drive through the bloody piles of frogs in the aftermath of the storm.

There is an awful lot going on in this film. Even were the film to give each character a simple character arc, it would still be a long film - but its characters are flawed, complex and real, which makes a film that is both long and utterly captivating.

However, whilst this may sound like scant praise, the best bit of the film is the introduction: an amazing narration from Ricky Jay begins to explain the nature of coincidences and of freak moments. It also sets up the importance of suspension of disbelief. It sets us up for the strange cinematic moments amongst the tragic realism but it also ensnares the viewer. I found it fascinating and from those first moments I was hooked. I was prepared to go on the journey this film was offering. I was willing to believe or disbelieve whatever it takes in order to be in the world of the film (this doesn't always happen... sometimes I just can't suspend my disbelief and the whole film jars).
For while the film is grounded in realism, it still relies a lot on coincidence.

And to quote the narrator:
We generally say - 'well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn't believe it.' Someone's so-and-so met someone else's so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes. And so it goes.