Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Have you ever tried... not being a mutant?

No 432 - X-Men 2
Director - Bryan Singer

So, for the first time in this little blog, I jump straight into the middle of a trilogy as the original X-Men isn't deemed up to scratch. The only shame is we miss out on the wonderful little introduction to Magneto which I love because it sets a wonderfully bleak tone to the entire trilogy.
Instead, however, we get a truly epic assassination attempt in the White House as Nightcrawler whooshes in and attempts a presidential attack. The pace is super fast as clouds of blue smoke show the mutant getting ever closer to its prey. What is impressive about these opening scenes is that they really play with the idea of teleporting, the way that he can vanish mid kick and appear else where. It is an exciting dynamic which would be exhausting for a whole film, but for a few frantic scene setting minutes - it is brilliant.

Bryan Singer's X-Films have excellent introductions. And it is very pleasant indeed to actually see Alan Cumming in a good film (which seems to happen less and less often).
So, why is this superhero film in the top 500? It couldn't be just down to the excellent set pieces. And there are some truly amazing set pieces.
Lets look at what happens when Magneto manages to rip the iron from a prison guard's blood stream.

Moments in which Magneto manipulates the metal to create a travelling disc and two mental bouncing bullets'o'doom show the phenomenal powers these mutants can have and how dangerous a foe someone like Eric is. It also allows for some cool whizzing destruction within a beautifully minimalist perspex prison. Where everything is made of perspex, regardless of whether its needed or not. The serene minimalism of the environs just amplify the destruction. KABLAMMO
But mere set pieces alone won't be enough. What seems to be the real triumph for the X-Men trilogy are the villains. The X-Men themselves tend to be quite dull (even Wolverine, although that may be because the franchise is near enough DEMANDING I love him) but Magneto is a fascinating bad guy, and Mystique is also wonderful (and - in those few moments in the films where you see her out of the epic make up - Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is very pretty). However, there is one role in particular which shines like a beacon of mad and evil genius. May I introduce you to Stryker.
Brian Cox's secret military unit chief is so evil he becomes almost a cartoon. He is much more of a comic book villain than any of the mutants, regardless that he is the one without super powers. This is a man who lobotomises his own son to milk him for his mutation (a hallucinatory drug which makes people super obedient and which is the useful weapon of this film), this is a man who kidnaps the little mutant children just so he can watch the mutants die. He is a properly evil man because he is unscrupulous, bigoted and callous. You have to love a villain that embraces their villainy. There is no attempt in the film to humanise Stryker. There is no attempt to understand his motives. He just hates mutants and wants to rid them. His plot (which is cunning) to destroy the mutants is the central thread of the film, but there are at least three more littered throughout.
Firstly.... the plot which appears in every X-Movie, Wolverine wanting to discover his identity and his past. In this search we learn a little bit more about Adamantium (alas it has nothing to with this) and we meet Lady Deathstrike - who comes off looking like 'Lady Wolverine', in that she also has those claw hands - only she has catlike agility, rather than beserker rage. To be honest, her character is kind of dull and nondescript until the very end, where Kelly Hu manages to show a tragically beautiful resigned sadness - made all the more tragic by her little metal 'tears'.
The second plot is the teenager plot. With Rogue, Iceman and Pyro being whizzed about with the pivotal X-men in order for them to have that choice.... do they want to be goodies or baddies? To be honest, their little plight is boring in comparison with the maliciously campy villainy of Stryker.... None of the subplots ever feel as exciting as the film's villain. You want to be watching Brian Cox.
Probably the most exciting subplot is the Dark Phoenix subplot. It is mostly hinted at throughout the film, we see flashes of Jean Gray's power... we see some truly immense acts of telekinesis and even I, with my very limited comic book knowledge, was getting super excited about what was being promised for the third film.

It is just a shame that the third film is really rather pants. Besides the introduction of Ellen Page in that other X-Men subplot.... the changing faces of Kitty Pryde.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Have you got any plans, Jim? Do you want us to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck? Plans are pointless.

No 454 - 28 Days Later
Director - Danny Boyle

So, somewhere in the cruel laboratories of Cambridge Sylvester Stuart is Clockwork Orange-ing chimps for some reason (seriously... what is the experiment?) and the activists are not happy. Thusly they release the rage infected monkeys and all the shit goes down.

So begins this amazing little apocalypto-drama. For all the visceral introduction, cut editing, strobey lights and salivating primates, the post title moments are wonderfully still and quiet. Cillian Murphy (beautiful face wild wild eyes) plays Jim who wakes up naked in an isolated hospital. Looking at his hair he either had some kind of head surgery or he is a trendy Shoreditch wanker.
What appears to have happened is that Jim has woken up in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse (even though they're Rage infected.... and not zombies) - this fact is beautifully portrayed by shots of Jim walking through abandoned London. I know this has been done in America with I Am Legend and Vanilla Sky - but I'm a Londoner, and there is something truly haunting in seeing my local landmarks empty. It is haunting. It is unnatural. The scene in which Eros has been turned into a noticeboard is particularly gut wrenching. With no words and only one person, Danny Boyle has shown true despair.

Jim's confused questions are answered as he joins a rag tag group of survivors including Tia Dalma and Mad Eye Moody and the film, for a brief middle moment, becomes a bit Standard Zombie Survival film. Complete with all the cliches of driving into tunnels and splitting up and shit.
Where the film really picks up is when our protagonists meet up with Christopher Eccleston military gang. Featuring such luminaries as The Sweaty Suiter from Alice in Wonderland and Ronny From Eastenders. Here we face the truth that actually, the depths people are willing to go for survival can be just as scary, if not more scary, than the slathering disease riddled hordes. It is either that or the military are cunts. That could be the moral.

So a series of events occur within the human camp which feature murders and threats and lots of implied rape... this makes Jim go mad. You might say he gets in a bit of a Rage.
In fact, what is so great about this is that in those final scenes there really isn't much difference between the film's hero and the monsters which have been the scary villains. Cillian Murphy already has scarily wild eyes, and he can really portrayed the desperate man who's sanity has pretty much cracked. his actions are questionable and extreme - but he has been pushed to breaking point over a traumatic few days and left to die several times. You can kind of understand why he has decided to lay some serious smack down.
Cue some violent vigilante action as the military are taken down by a lone topless man with nothing to lose. The sequence is tense, at times horrific and frequently, oddly, beautiful (in how it is shot and that) - mainly down to the score.

In the House, In a Heartbeat by John Murphy is a masterful piece of music - it manages to take the intensity of the scene and build on the tension, layering the musical parts until it is almost unbearable, before finally dropping into a wild and distorted cacophony.
It is one of the best pieces of modern scoring and it is only a shame that John Murphy seems so content to whore it out on every film he scores.

What I love about this film is that it changes enough to keep you from getting bored... and that it does tell you a truly bleak story in which no one is really a nice person. There is even a little happy ending to try and cancel out the visceral intensity of the previous scenes.

It kind of works.

But I prefer the bleak ending of 28 Weeks Later (even though it is a weaker film)

Please wait outside. The council will now meet in secret, debate your personality flaws, and come to a final decision.

No 444 - Hairspray
Director - John Waters

At long fucking last! I had vague memories of a film in which a bomb was hidden in a wig. I watched it when very young and that moment was all I remembered. I should have realised it would be Hairspray.... John Waters is, after all, the batshit crazy king of very dark and filthy humour.
Before we go on. Can I just say how much I love John Waters. I mean, with his slicked back hair and his tiny thin moustache he kinda looks like a dapper paedophile from the 20's. But he is so sleazily cool.

Considering I can't think of John Waters without thinking of Pink Flamingos (or Selma Blair with insane breasts) I'm surprised by quite how sweet this film is. I think the main thing is that this is set in the early 60's - before Beatlemania and when we still enjoying the early days of Rock and Roll and riding the wave of the 50's. This means we get some excellent music, clothes and cars in bubblegum vibrant colour. It is Americana.
However, the film also conveys the darker message of the time... the message of segregation. What is great is that it uses the story of Tracy Turnblad and the story of racial inequality to put a wonderful spin on a really old moral. That it doesn't matter what you look like, it is what is inside that counts.
So the issues of racial segregation is a more heightened example of the bullying Tracy gets for being 'pleasantly plump' - and the film is about overcoming that negative attitude and loving people for who they are.

Now I love the remake - because, shame facedly, I love musicals.... but, good as Nikki Blonsky is, she isn't a patch on Ricki Lake who owns the part. She is absolutely spot on perfect and exudes a body confidence throughout that makes her eminently watchable. It also means that the 'pretty boy falls for overweight girl' aspect to the story isn't at all unbelievable. Tracy is cool - she could have any man she wanted, and she knows that. Incidentally - I think Michael St Gerard got the Link Larkin role because he looks like a pretty famous pin up of the time.

The crux of the film is a TV show called The Corny Collins Show - which is a dance show and which Tracy manages to become their newest dancing star, thus angering her rival the blonde and vacuous Amber Von Tussle.
However, the show's real issue is that it is a segregated show - and so the film's real story is how a small bunch of teenagers manage to change the structure of an institutional TV Show.

The ending is insanely uplifting. Just watching all those people dancing and being happy because of the actions of some children.
Whilst the kids are the stars (and also show some really impressive dance moves) the scene stealers are the parents.

Lets begin with Divine... who plays two roles. Firstly the wonderfully innocent and old fashioned Edna Turnblad (who John Travolta was never going to emulate as well) and then the fabulously cruel Les Patterson-esque TV Station owner, Arvin Hodgepile. It must be great fun to play two characters so diametrically opposed to one another. And while Divine is the scene stealing triumph of the adults (apart from John Water's insane cameo) the others are still excellent. Especially the wonderful Jerry Stiller as Tracy's superkind father and Debbie Harry in the most bonkers wigs as Amanda's Queen-Bitch mother.

Good, silly, campy fun. But hiding an important message about equality and tolerance. Great film.

Richard, I cannot go with you or ever see you again. You must not ask why. Just believe that I love you. Go, my darling, and God bless you.

No 18 - Casablanca
Director - Michael Curtiz

Another massive classic film that - for reasons unknown - I had never watched until now. I think I thought it would always be very schmaltzy and had therefore avoided it.

I love to be proven wrong. Which is good, because it happens a lot.

We find ourselves in Casablanca, the cultural melting pot and pretty corrupt town occupied by those wishing to leave Europe and those rotten Nazis. At the centre of it all - the place to be - is Rick's bar where everyone comes to have a jolly wonderful time and drink away their troubles. And there are a lot of troubles. It is a kind of 'limbo' town in that everyone there is just waiting to leave... and it creates a wonderfully strange atmosphere.
Into this limbo town come two people Laszlo - a concentration camp escapee - and Ilsa, his wife. Only.... Ilsa and Rick have a shared past.
Thus we have our story, a love triangle in a seedy lawless town.

But, this is a film where the characters draw you in and where the timelessness and beauty of the mood transport you. Bogart is amazing as Rick, dry, sardonic and cruel. He is selfish enough to be a really flawed human being without coming across as a bastard. Those initial moments where he first sees Elsa in his bar are wonderful. Little looks and notable tension manages to say more than any amount of exposition ever could. The fact that we manage to get it all condensed into one perfect miserable whiskey soaked line is even better, you can see the pain on Rick's face, and you know you'll eventually find out the whole story, but already you have an idea. The script for Casablanca is not only perfect, it has melded into the public subconscious. Whole lines of it are quoted wholesale. Like Shakespeare. I'm not really going to focus on Ilsa and Rick's relationship as it is the crux of the story and I'm making a new effort to avoid spoilers. It is however an excellent example of a holiday romance that burns too intensely for too short an amount of time. And at least the film acknowledges the age gap between Bogart (43) and Bergman (27) - that is all I ask.

Instead of this I wish to talk about some of the characters that crop up. Every character is stacked with back story. Just by being at the bar you know they are escaping the Germans and they all carry this hopeless desperation which is beautiful. There are some wonderful moments, some of them genuinely moving. This musical stand against the Germans had my hair on end (though it may have been my patriotic French side finally shining through) - I think it is the woman crying as she sings and the fact that Liberté, égalité, fraternité is the direct opposite of so many of the Nazi party's policies.
The big contradiction to this hopelessness is Captain Renault (Claude Rains) - the sleaziest, seediest, most corrupt bastard who has ever walked the streets and who ends that little emotional video with a classic bit of humour. He is a classic example of everything that could be wrong with law enforcement, but by God he is amazing. He is basically the film's comic relief as his shifting loyalties and caustic one liners help keep the mood light.... even when he essentially admits to forcing women to sleep with him for visas he seems to do so in a way that seems jolly and caddish - rather than rape. Rains' timing is impeccable and his facial expressions are divine. He is a masterclass in comic acting.

The other character I wish to discuss only appears briefly at the start, but is the reason that Laszlo comes to Casablanca and is therefore the film's catalyst. Ugarte may come off looking like a horrible bug eyed disloyal creep - but that is because he is. But the reason he is brilliant is that he is played by Peter Lorre... and we all love Peter Lorre (thank you The Incredible Suit for finding the video).
Even the Genie does a bit of a Peter Lorre impression when he is playing a zombie. How random.

So, we move to the ending and through glorious levels of double crossing, Rick says good bye to Ilsa in one of the most iconic and quote-worthy speeches ever. It is a wonderful little moment, and it is so emotionally intense.

Just a fabulous film...

SHIT! I forgot to mention Sam (Dooley Wilson), who is not only utterly awesome but he is the keeper of the film's most important memory jogger. That delightful tune - the love theme between M and Admiral Roebuck.... Play it Sam.

Martin, it's all psychological. You yell 'barracuda', everybody says 'Huh? What?' You yell 'shark', we've got a panic on our hands...

No 5 - Jaws
Director - Steven Spielberg

I recently went to see the marvellously stupid Piranha 3D (well worth a trip to the cinema, even if you will be shafted by 3D ticket prices for a film that is barely 3D) and I thought that there was only one film that you can really watch after a pretty stupid Jaws homage.

That film is Jaws.

I think, sometimes, I overlook Spielberg and forget that he is an amazing director. He just becomes one of these names, one of the 'brand' directors and you forget that his films are massive, fabulous and really very influential. Sometimes in less than obvious ways.
You also forget just how much violence (and nudity) Spielberg seems to be able to squeeze into his films without the ratings going up - and how many genuine scares there are (Ben Gardner's boat being the big classic example). But yet there are two aspects to this film which will remain Spielberg's triumphs (even though one of them isn't really his).
Firstly the dolly zoom. Yes it had been done by many other people before, but mainly to show vertigo (distances seeming longer) - Spielberg's shot focuses on Brody and thereafter became a massively influential camera flourish.
However, Jaws' real success story comes from the most glorious piece of minimalism. John Williams' beautiful theme. A wonderful lesson in how to layer in a truly horrific level of ominous dread. And remember, that is is mostly down to that 2 note central construct. Derr Dum. It is just chilling.

So we come to the film... and despite how it may have been advertised, this is not a film about a Shark terrorising a town. There are only a couple of short scenes in which the shark attacks, and even those scenes are mostly implied. Besides the occasional fleeting shot, we don't really see the shark until 80 minutes into the film. What we have are three men on a boat together who are out to catch a shark.
The film is as much about their male bonding (mainly through scar comparison) as it is about the shark. And the team dynamic works really well - with Hooper, the Shark expert, analytical and scientific; Quint, the Shark hunter, bat shit insane; and Brody, the city cop, practical and focused but scared of the sea. AND I AM SORRY, BUT... you wouldn't become the sheriff of a small island who's primary source of income is the beach if you were terrified of the sea. It makes no sense, and Brody's excuse of 'It's only an island if you look at it from the water' is frankly weak.

So after an introduction which sets the scene for an hour and then a lot of male bonding and firing harpoons with barrels attached we stumble into the film's final 15 minutes which is where the shit goes down.
It is also where we get the wonderful crossover - for when Hooper is put into the diving cage we are graced with footage of an actual shark. You can tell. It moves so much more naturally than the rigid beast of a shark which is used for the rest of the film. However the problems with the mechanical shark are well documented and it doesn't stop the film being amazing.

It is one of the perfect examples of the pulpy monster genre. Jaws (or whatever the shark's name is) is a fabulous 'villain', because Sharks are fucking creepy looking beasts.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!

No 350 – Planet of the Apes
Director – Franklin J Schaffner

The 70’s had a really set view as to what spaceships looked like (with the exception of Alien) – white and clean. If you set a film in a clean white ship, it looks 70s. Check the last few scenes of Revenge of the Sith where George Lucas finally remembers that the film has to lead chronologically into A New Hope and starts creating a 70’s sci-fi vibe.

So we’re looking at Charlton Heston, smoking a cigar in space (as one does) as he finalises his preparations for an auto-pilot journey home. There is also some mumbo jumbo about how time on Earth has travelled much further than time on the ship.
So the crew are in 'hyper sleep' and time passes... But it goes wrong and the ship crashes – the only female astronaut dies (bye bye pesky woman, don’t think you’re getting a line, or even particularly mourned by the characters), and the three remaining men find themselves on a mysterious planet about 2,000 years in the future. Whoops.

The vast deserts of this mysterious planet are really impressive, and Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse plinky plonky score makes it all feel even more empty and alien. I’d love to know where they filmed it – I’m sure Google knows but I can’t be bothered to check…

So let's cut to the chase. First, there's some wandering around during which the two other astronauts come off as soulless cut-outs, and Charlton Heston comes off sounding like an egocentric bastard. But what we want is the Apes.

I love the Apes in this film, and I think I like them because they are so rubbish. They walk and behave like humans, and the masks are essentially static. Meaning we have an army of identical apes with their mouths slightly open, making them all look gormless.
Yes, Tim Burton’s remake is awful – but the apes in it are brilliant. They move like apes and the advances in make-up create some realistic ape-men.

We don’t have this luxury here though: we have humans with monkey heads. But the film is brilliant so all is forgiven.

This film is a culture clash story. It is about Charlton Heston’s clash with the mute and unintelligent human race and his clash with the dominant Ape race. In order to do this we have to dispatch of the rest of the crew.
This film seems to hate diversity, so if you’re not a white man you will be killed (and left as either a mummy or a museum exhibit) – otherwise, if you’re Landon (the poor man’s Sean Connery) you can be lobotomised and gormless. This is necessary (if untactfully done) as it means Charlton Heston is the only human character able to talk (and what a marvellous moment when he first talks “Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty apes!”) and he can rail against the system which is totally against him.

You see the real culture clash is the clash of scientific progress VS the views of religion. Look at the film as a criticism of views which refuse to change when facing the evidence of science. It is played very well, with the chiefs of science (led by Dr Zaius – Defender of the Faith) being suitably belligerent and infuriating as they persecute Charlton Heston for being an abomination. His ‘mutation’, his ape like behaviour, shows that there might be a link between man and ape… and that would be heresy.
It is played brilliantly in the court scene where Heston tries to make his case and the three judges are locked in the classic ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ tableaux.
The main chunk of the film is the events leading up to the court case, and then Charlton Heston is rescued by his two ape ‘friends’, Cornelius and Dr Zira. Rescued alongside him is Nova, another human prisoner and Charlton Heston’s mate. Linda Harrison’s Nova is basically there to be pretty, wide eyed and innocent. The humans in this film are mute, so she gets no lines, and her actions do nothing to really move the plot along in any way. However, the relationship seems so weird to me - what with Heston looking quite ravaged and world weary (he was around 45 at this point, and the fact that he isn’t the young action hero is evident) whilst Harrison looks really quite young (she was only 23 after all) - that it makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable that the film doesn’t even question the age gap…
So, our ragtag band of apes and mismatched humans come to the beach, pursued by Zaius and a shocking twist is revealed.

I’m guessing you all know the twist. After all, nobody seems to think it is worth hiding any more – just look at the bloody artwork on the DVD – but it is a marvellous reveal.
Heston’s overacting in those final moments are funny more than anything else, but the twist itself is perfect. A massive step better than whatever the fuck was going on in Tim Burton’s parallel universe.

It is a different knowledge they need now, Clive. The enemy is different, so you have to be different, too

No 80 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I really love Powell and Pressburger. Another great things to come out of this little film challenge is that I have discovered so much of their back catalogue (and Billy Wilder’s – also excellent).

I went in to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp with high expectations, and I wasn’t let down – from the beginning the film has a wonderful sense of class. The film begins with a tapestry, into which are weaved the names of the principal cast, followed by the rest of the credits - which are presented in a way which was very much of its time and which makes me think of that wonderful period of cinema – of Errol Flyn and Arthurian legends. Of a time when everything was less gritty and a bit more fantastical. This vibe is also (though to a lesser degree) prevalent throughout the film, solely due to the stylistic touches of the age. I love films which are almost entirely shot on sound stages. They give the outdoor shots a wonderful artificial feel, like it's an escapist fantasy…

We crash straight from this air of nostalgia into something a bit more savage. There is a war on.

The troops are ordered to play some war games and attack London. War starts at midnight. Though they decide (rather arrogantly) that those darned deceptive Nazis would never wait until formally invited to attack. So, they arrive in London 6 hours early, ready to surprise the military top brass who issued the command and who are all preparing by having a relaxing lie down in the Turkish baths.

An argument breaks out between the soldier who has ordered this advanced attack and General Wynne-Candy, who had planned the simulations. Oddly, despite the fact that Candy is a high ranking officer, and despite the fact that he has clearly broken the rules, the soldier continues to attack and belittle Wynne-Candy, mocking him for his gut and his moustache (both of which are mighty fine things to own) and so Wynne Candy pins down this young upstart and tells him his life story.

And so Wibble Wobble Wibble Wobble – welcome to the flashback which makes up most of the film, starting 40 years ago in 1903.

Once we get to flashback and meet the young Clive Candy, it finally becomes clear that it is the fabulous actor Roger Livesey, best known (to me, at least) as Dr Frank Reeves in A Matter of Life and Death: as the film – and the ageing make-up - progresses, he remains recognisable, but when you face him as an old man, he isn’t recognisable straight away… a sign of good make-up.

It is in these flashbacks that we find out that Powell and Pressburger have managed to sneak a really bizarre love story into this film. In fact a two-pronged love story, as it is both a story of romantic love (which borders on the creepy and stalkerish) and a story of companionship, of love of friends.

Clive Candy is a Boer war hero, but he is also brash and impulsive and he goes to Berlin on the invitation of a Miss Hunter in order to correct some of the anti-British rumours which are being spread. Whilst there he manages to insult the entire German military and is challenged to a duel.

Whilst I’m aware I have massively paraphrased a fairly lengthy series of events, none of this build up is important. There are two things that I want to point out:

  1. How bloody awesome a time it must have been when arguments could legitimately be resolved with a duel.

  2. As the film progresses through World Wars 1 and 2, it becomes clear that the Boer War was the best time to be in the British military. Yes, the uniform isn’t a touch as practical as camouflage and khakis, but bloody hell all that red and polished brass looks pretty damned cool.

So, in the aforementioned duel, we meet his opponent - a randomly elected member of the German Military with the wonderful name of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (played by another P&P regular, Anton Walbrook). Both are injured and the pair develop a friendship as they recover in their hospital. It is this friendship which is pivotal for the film. Well, that and the fact that both Theo and Clive fall for Miss Hunter (played by Deborah Kerr).

The film underplays Clive’s love for Miss Hunter - mainly because he himself doesn’t realise it exists until it is too late and she has married Theo. what I love is that in modern romances, this love triangle would have been really played up, and could have really threatened their friendship. However, this is set in the times of The British Stiff Upper Lip, and of toning down personal emotions for the greater good - Candy realises that his friendship with Theo is stronger than his affections.

But... trouble is ahead, for whilst their friendship survives the romantic entanglements, there are much bigger challenges in store.

Clive Candy is a Brit but Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff is German, so come 1914 the two men find themselves on opposite sides of a fairly massive war. It is a really interesting conundrum, and one which I had never really considered before until it was raised in Jules et Jim… what do you do when your friend becomes your military opponent?

However, this question is another which isn’t raised until later, because Candy, our protagonist, is such a chipper man that it seems he hasn’t even considered it. He spends the whole time wandering around battle grounds and looking for his good friend Theo, making sure (one supposes) that he is still alive.

This is a film of sections, and the World War one section is a mixed blessing where we get one genuine delight and one big disappointment. Let's begin with the delight.

A Scottish soldier called Murdoch. Who is that wide-eyed Scot assisting Clive Candy on his misadventures? Why it's only bloody John Laurie! As the film moves from World War 1 to 2 - and subsequently the Home Guard - I like to think that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is really an epic prequel to Dad’s Army. The Life and Times of Private James Frazer. This thought makes me happy.

However, all the Murdoch joy is dampened by a properly racist ‘Yessir massah, oh Lawdy’ caricatured black solider in the American military.

I suppose it is a victim of its time but it seems a completely unnecessary and disappointing decision. At least the rest of the American military are also clichés, brash and cocky (a re-occurring theme as they also appear as such in A Matter of Life and Death’s heaven scenes).

During the war, Candy meets a nurse called Barbara Wynne and it is here that the slightly odder part of the film plays out - as Miss Wynne looks EXACTLY like Miss Hunter (well they would do, Deborah Kerr plays them both). Part of me thinks that this isn’t really healthy. It feels like Vertigo, it feels like a creepy obsession. He spends the whole time telling Theo that he’d love her… but I’m glad that the two never meet, as I reckon Theo would be pretty weirded out about how his friend married his wife’s IDENTICAL CLONE.

This obsession plays out even more, and even more creepily because when Barbara dies, Candy gets a chauffeur… a soldier called Angela 'Johnny' Cannon. A proper gutsy feminist tomboy soldier who happens to look EXACTLY LIKE MISS HUNTER. Again! Naturally Theo is a bit shocked by this but then, he comes to accept it fairly quickly.

If this obsession got any worse it would get to the point where Candy might peel Deborah Kerr’s face off and wear it as a mask!


Whilst the film does play with this idea of friendship on rival sides of the war, you have to remember that the film was made in 1943 and we can’t have a likeable major character (which Theo definitely is) be a Nazi.

So, World War 1 sort of strains Theo and Clive’s friendship – but Theo escapes Nazi Germany and goes to England where the two old men regain their friendship. It is here that the film covers some really bold and evocative points. In both of these we see the full acting prowess of Anton Walbrook, and he is really excellent. Firstly he delivers a wonderfully tragic and moving speech about why he wants to be allowed into England and then he speaks to Clive (who is still wonderfully arrogant) about how war has changed. It is a speech to Clive but it is also a speech to the audience of 1943 – it is saying that everything we, as a country, had experienced before paled in comparison to the Nazi threat. It is moving, it is passionate and it is a wonderful piece of acting.

It's these moments that really shine. The film doesn’t really have a story as we’re just following a life. We see how the characters and relationships blossom and develop but we don’t have the standard three arc structure. Yet the film remains fascinating and fresh through both the marvellous characters and the wonderful style of Powell and Pressburger. They really are great directors and have the most wonderful touches (see, for example, the taxidermy heads springing up around Clive’s den to show the passing of time). They invent fascinating characters and they tell very daring and complicated stories.

So by the end of the film, when we revisit the opening scenes through the eyes of Johnny and Clive we have a completely different alliance – we no longer want the cocky soldier to trick the pompous bloated aristocracy, we want him to have respect for the work that Candy has done. We also get to see the same scenes from different angles, telling the whole story of what has happened… it makes me think of the genius 50’s bit in Back to the Future 2 – only it was made 45 years before…

Powell and Pressburger really were ahead of their time.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.

No 43 – The Big Lebowski
Directors – Joel (and Ethan) Coen

When I was a lad, Nu-Metal was all the rage; and though it tickles me to think of it now (as my musical tastes fall much more in to the twee and lo-fi bracket), at the time I would take great pleasure listening to the big, loud, discordant, screamy people.

Besides the bands one might have listened to on Kerrang! there were also the local bands of Oxfordshire. Namely, Centre Negative (too weird, even for me) and Coma Kai (who I quite liked).

‘But how does this fit into a whimsical sweary comedy about identity?’ I hear you ask… Well, when I bought the Coma Kai EP, the first track opened (after a prolonged Peter and the Wolf remix) with Walter’s insane shouting.

“Do you see what happens Larry? Do you SEE what happens Larry? Do. You. SEE what happens when you FUCK a STRANGER in the ASS?”

So those tenuous elements of my fifteen year-old life lead to my first aural dabble with The Big Lebowski.

It was much later before I joined the Coen party.

Essentially, this is a film about mistaken identity and (like so many Coen films – if not all of them) about a bunch of idiots who are massively out of their depth. Whilst the synopsis of the film can be described in one line (blackmailers target the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski – approaching a stoned deadbeat rather than an old millionaire) the film is beautifully rich and layered. There is so much going on and it is portrayed with a wonderful cast playing fabulously odd characters.

That has always been a massive strength of the Coen films – they know how to get a really good cast together, and here they’re really playing to form. The film follows The Dude, Jeff Lebowski – as he gets caught up in a kidnapping that he really doesn’t want to be involved with.

He is brilliant and what is great is how his laid back groovy attitude shrinks away throughout the film – after all you can only stay so peaceful and relaxed for so long whilst people are pissing on your rug and dropping marmots on you. However, what is really interesting is how most of his stress stems from his friend Walter, played by John Goodman at the best I can remember him since The Flintstones (which – through the cloudy mists of nostalgia, and since I was about ten at the time – I quite liked), who is an angry, blustering fool of a man – and such a prick! He not only annoys me incessantly throughout the film, but he is the integral antagonist for events, messing up any attempts The Dude has to rectify his situation.

Of course, as the film progresses, we realise that everyone is being double and triple crossed and that actually Walter’s actions are not as inflammatory as we first assumed... but still he is a fool.

And there are so many instances of him flying off the handle and becoming really rather scary in his uncontrolled rage, that he could come out of it as almost a villain. However, this is where the script really shines – because, subtly, through occasional asides, you realise that Walter is a man with a lot of hurt inside him; a man who’s wife left him and who is clearly struggling to recover from the loss. A man who probably (though it is never expressly stated) drove his wife away. A man who has a lot of self-loathing and rage bubbling inside him.

It is just a shame that Donny, the final character in The Dude’s bowling trio, gets the brunt of the aggression, as he is the sanest person on that team. I love Steve Buscemi, I think he is a fabulous fabulous actor – however the fact that he is all skinny and bulgy eyed means that he often gets cast in weird kooky roles. Though I really do like it when he's just playing the timid, nebbish, normal man. His quiet awkwardness and his insecurity make his the performance which shines throughout Ghost World, and it is the same here. He may have very little to do in this film, but every time he appears it is an absolute joy.

In fact he's normally only there for the scenes which take place in the bowling alley. There are however a few of those, as the only two things which currently occupy The Dude’s time are the strange events he has gotten entangled with and the local bowling tournament (though this gradually becomes less of a priority).

Before we go back to the kidnapping and the double crossing (which makes up most of the film) I need to talk about one element of the bowling scenes, as it provides us with one of the greatest tiny roles in films.

Jesus… The sleazy bastard (and possible paedophile) in the most ridiculous bowling set up ever. From the very second he appears on screen he is destined to be a cult hero. This has as much to do with John Turturro’s amazing performance (it is always wonderful to see an actor really get into it and steal a scene with only two lines) as it does with the fact that he is scored with one of the greatest cover versions I have ever heard.

Hotel California by the Gypsy Kings. Really, go and check it out. It will make you smile. It is Spanish flair and twiddly guitars and hand clapping. It is marvellous.

Jesus’ appearance may be the best moment in the film, but it shows the Coen’s care in their characters, as every small role is brilliantly handled and wonderfully cast. We have the titular Big Lebowski; old, crippled, bitter and proud in his wonderful mansion, spouting utter rubbish and at one point even going into seclusion in the West Wing (incidentally, this is my aspiration in life – to have a West Wing in which I can be secluded… and also to be able to tell guests that they are free to go anywhere in the castle, except the West Wing as it is forbidden – and then if they go there I can tell them that they deliberately disobeyed me. And smash stuff up).

We then have Brad, Lebowski’s assistant, showcasing Phillip Seymour Hoffman at his sweaty, nervous, giggling best. He is very good at being nervous. Well, he is just very good full stop. Look in particular at how he crumbles into awkward nerves when The Dude meets Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid, who may not be the best actress in the world but she can certainly play sexual) who then offers to blow him for $1,000.

But this wonderful casting carries on – and there are just too many brilliant characters for me to sit down and describe them. Likewise there are too many plot strands for me to try and explain exactly what happens in the film. What is amazing is that it never feels overwhelming, and even though the Coen brothers add layer after layer of deceit and layer after layer of characters (see Maude Lebowski or the ridiculously fake-accented nihilistic German electro-rockers Autobahn), the film stays easy to follow and The Dude stays the pivotal central point. The main hub of the story.

I also like the easy, natural charm of the film. The story is preposterous but the humour is charming and genuine. It all feels grounded in reality, no matter how preposterous it all ends, but there are wonderful little moments where that reality is shattered.

Some of them are subtle – oh so subtle. Like Sam Elliot, playing a mysterious cowboy (of course) with a marvellous ‘tasche who not only narrates the film but speaks directly to us, the audience, and breaks the fourth wall.

Some of them are not subtle at all. And I love the fact that every time The Dude is knocked out by goons, we enter a little fantasy world.

I think the best place to end this blog is with a video…..

Enjoy one of The Dude’s fantasies: Gutterballs

Guibariane did not die of fear, he died out of shame. The salvation of humanity is in its shame!

No 285 – Solyaris (Solaris)
Director – Andrei Tarkovsky

I had been putting off watching this film for a while, for a number of reasons. Firstly because the first time I tried to watch it I had the world’s worst hangover, and subsequently lasted about ten minutes (I ended up watching most of a season of Arrested Development instead). Secondly, I was under the impression that it was a very serious film about death and that it would be sombre. I was pleasantly surprised, and just a little bit proven wrong.

Don’t be mistaken – this isn’t a comedy romp or a feel-good film - it is still about Space and Dead Wives - but it is a lot more agreeably presented, though it does seem to make no sense at all… to the extent that I do wonder if there may be a problem with my DVD.

We begin in the lush green countryside. A countryside which is so countrysidey that it seems almost fake – tremendously lush vistas of fields and trees and sparkling rivers. We follow our main character, Kris Kelvin (who looks an awful lot like David Cann from the Chris Morris world of dark dark comedy) as he enjoys his little walk; wandering around, occasionally seeing a horse.

He is very unhappy to be interrupted from his reverie by two scientist types. He seems to know one of them (or at least their children appear to be friends, one of whom is wearing the shortest short shorts I have ever seen), but the other is new - a man named Burton, who has a disturbing video to show.

The video features a younger Burton (who has a full head of hair, rather than the contemporary baldy Burton) as he describes a rescue mission he attempted for a spaceship called the Solaris.

The description is vivid and long and pretty remarkable. It talks about dense fogs and gloopy seas creating mystic gardens made of glass which bubble and melt away. It also talks about giant babies floating around (what was it in the 70s which made everyone obsessed with giant space babies?!). All of this may be pretty remarkable, but I was still sceptical. I did not believe that a film made in 1970 with a Russian budget (which must be substantially more humble than a contemporary American budget) would actually be able to present half of the stuff Burton describes. However, we would see none of it if Burton couldn’t be persuaded to go up there and check it out.

Now… This is where everything goes a bit weirdy weird. I mean, firstly there is the passage of time. Years appear to have passed between the video trial and the meeting (unless Burton wears a wig! That’d be a turn up for the books) – so why wait so long? Also Burton just goes home, not having convinced Kris, and spends the rest of the time chatting to them on his hi-tech video car phone.

But the most confusing bit of this first part (or ‘Part 1’ as the film likes to call it) is the colour. It makes no sense at all. Some scenes are in colour, some are in black and white. At first it was easy to follow: the video trial was in black and white, the 'present day' sections in colour... But then, other scenes also started becoming monochrome... whole scenes would flit from having colour to not having colour. I hope there is a reason for this which I just didn’t get. I hope there was a valid point for there to be some colour scenes and some black and white scenes, and not just arbitrary pretentiousness.

But then, equally, I sort of hope they just had two cameras and only one was in colour.

Now, I have to admit that I was getting a little bit obsessed with the inconsistent colour and I think I missed something pretty big, because with no warning at all, Kris was in a rocket (was the rocket in his garden?) and en route to Solaris.

We’re about 1 hour and 20 minutes in. End of Part 1. Please put in the next DVD.

So after a quick little siesta and a trip to the kettle for a cuppa tea…

Part 2.

So, Kris arrives on the Solaris and it is mostly empty, with detritus and bits kicking about everywhere. Something has obviously gone down… Now fortunately, this film is only a PG so I don’t have to spend the whole film on edge – worried that it might suddenly all go a bit Event Horizon (that shit is fucked up, yo) – but it doesn’t mean that the events make any more sense.

The ship only has two people on it – Snaut and Sartorious, both of whom are scientists and both of whom seem to be pretty far from sane. However it doesn’t take Kris long to go a bit bonkers too.

Because finally, we come to the famous bit of the film: Kris Kelvin wanders through space with only his dead wife Hari – inexplicably brought back to life – for company. And it is here that all my thoughts of Solaris are shattered… you see, this isn’t a sombre reflection on the nature of Death. It is a quite uplifting reflection on the nature of love. There are elements of it too which I feel must surely have been inspiration for the new Battlestar Galactica series… questions about what life is, and how you can tell what is real.

For Kris is initially baffled by the arrival of his dead wife; until he realises she isn’t a ghost.

It does upset me that the weirdness of Hari’s arrival is explained with pseudo science (the slurpy sea which the Solaris is hovering above is trying to make contact by using neutrino based life-forms sculpted from the memories of the ship's crew… yadda yadda yadda). However, the explanation that Hari isn’t Hari allows her to have moments of existentialism. This is a very existential film.

She realises that her memories aren’t really there, that she doesn’t know how to do simple things – like sleep - but most importantly, she realises that she does love Kris, and that he loves her.

And that is what the film is really about – a destructive relationship, since Hari is feeding off Kris’ mental activity. So the stronger she becomes, the more human she becomes, but the weaker and more ill he gets.

Even with this fairly straightforward premise, there are moments that don’t make sense. At one point a midget tries to run out of Sartorious’ lab, only to be pushed back in. He is never explained. He is never even mentioned again.

At another point, Hari is found dead on the floor – straight after a fairly nondescript scene. It is only after quite a bit of talking that we realise some time has passed, and that she drank liquid oxygen in a deluded attempt to force humanity on herself. This scene in particular pretty much sums up the film for me; bonkers and very badly explained, but beautifully presented and powerfully acted.

The film even has a surprising twist at the end to leave you with a little smile on your face.

An oddly uplifting film, and well worth a wee watch.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Look at me, jerking off in the shower... This will be the high point of my day. It's all downhill from here.

No 96 - American Beauty
Director - Sam Mendes

And so continues my tiny run of 'films narrated by dead characters'. Here we get to enter the gloriously misanthropic, seedy underbelly of suburbia. This is a film that celebrates the fact that nobody really likes anybody, including themselves. It is a film which has a great story, wrapped around a terrific cast. Even the tiny roles are exciting. See the likes of Scott Bakula, Allison Janney and Peter Gallagher crop up for mere minutes (if that) of screen time. It is a delight.
Then there are the larger supporting roles, and of those my favourite must be Thora Birch. Recently watching Ghost World (and then this) has rekindled a feeling I had about her for a while - she is just brilliant.

In both films she perfectly displays the self-loathing and exasperation of being a teenager, of being misunderstood. In this film she is just brilliant, especially when compared to Mena Suvari's character Angela Hayes.
Angela Hayes just bugs me. She may be pivotal to the story - the catalyst - and she may have a wonderful scene in which her character becomes richer, deeper, more interesting. But really, for the majority of the film I just find her really annoying. You can cover her in iconic rose petals as much as you want but it won't change a thing. She bugs me.

But she is the inspiration for this awesome bedspread. And I want this awesome bedspread!

What I think I like the most about Thora Birch - and more specifically her character of Jane Burnham - is her relationship with Ricky, her neighbour. They seem to share a romance which feels genuinely sweet and hopeful in a film which relishes the bleak and hopeless. Ricky is initially portrayed as weird but as you get to see more of him you realise he is a sweet man, a hopeless romantic and a desperate poet (though his 'most beautiful thing I've ever seen' video flirts with the wrong side of pretentious). His character is highlighted as even softer and more beautiful when compared to the walking coil of hate and vitriol which is his father. Colonel Frank Fitts is a horrible man - violent and aggressive, and a sickening bigot. But even he isn't allowed to be a two dimensional character, and Chris Cooper plays him beautifully. By the end of the film, the absolute breakdown which Frank Fitts goes through makes him the most important supporting character of the whole film.
He has a wonderful arc - even though most of it happens very quickly in the final ten minutes.

However, there is one mid-life crisis, one breakdown which is at the heart of the story. Which is the story. Lester Burnham - played by the mighty Kevin Spacey. As the film begins (after his death, with Spacey providing a voice over), I was reminded of something I'd first noticed with The Usual Suspects... Kevin Spacey just has a wonderful voice. It is the kind of voice that you can just listen to for hours. It is a perfect narrator's voice. Which is good, as here it is used to narrate.

What I love is the gradual shift in Lester's priorities. So he begins with a very general malaise about the futility of his life, but after an office blackmail scene (a sexually-themed stylistic echo of the violent Fight Club office blackmail scene) shifts his priority to lust, through the medium of under-age cheerleaders and crappy CGI rose petals. This in turn gradually leads to his realisation that life should be about the simple joy of being happy. Of having no responsibility.
And yes... whilst it isn't good to ditch everything and do whatever you want when you have a family and house etc, I have to admire that extreme level of selfishness for pure personal enjoyment. I think that if you are in a time of your life when you can do that (without hurting anybody else) then frankly you should.

It is that self-entertainment which then slowly moves towards nihilism - not in the same way as Fight Club (and I do think those two films make strangely fitting bedfellows) - but on a smaller, more personal level. All Lester wants is to work out and get stoned. His family is falling apart around him, their respective worlds are collapsing. But he doesn't care because HE is happy.

Considering how selfish he is for the entire film - and considering this is a story which hangs around his selfishness - it is quite nice to have a moment where he slips away from that. The moment where he almost sleeps with Angela shows him at his best. He is kind and compassionate.

And in the end, just before he dies, he is happy.

And as Elliott Smith's utterly beautiful cover of Because trickles over the end credits, that last happy moment of Lester's life leaves me feeling oddly hopeful, in what is essentially a very bleak film.

They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!

No 63 - Sunset Boulevard
Director - Billy Wilder

Man, I just love Billy Wilder. This film challenge has taught me that he is a really impressive talent, as yet again here he has written and directed a bloody wonderful little film. The other thing that is dawning me is quite how much the advent of sound shook up cinema and quite how much it upset the old school.
The transition is sort of explored in Singing in the Rain (another amazing film) but is played there more as a comedy (well, as a musical - though it's still very funny). Here we get to a more frank look at the terribly bleak after-effects of the transition to 'talkies'. Thematically, this film could be something of a sequel to Singing in the Rain (although a psychic sequel - as it was released two years earlier), perhaps looking at Lina Lamont 20 years later...

In order to discuss this transition, the film does something really quite brilliant. Now, I'm not very well versed on films from the 50's and earlier (so I may be wrong), but I think that sunset Boulevard's idea of having actors and directors cameoing as themselves was pretty new.
Certainly nowadays we have lots of shows in which people play themselves, but this film is 60 years old... which means that we get glimpses of legends like Buster Keaton, and although he only appears for about 4 seconds, he manages to look excellently resentful and bitter during his game of cards.
However the real surprise (after all, actors are actors and you shouldn't be too surprised to see them in films) is the appearance of Cecille B DeMille in an acting part, playing himself. After all, the man is a giant of early cinema, and it is brilliant to see him performing, and holding his own within the performances.
All these cameos flutter sporadically across the film's storyline. For whilst we follow the character of Joe Gillis (William Holden brilliantly playing an initially unlikeable selfish bugger who softens throughout the film) - and whilst he may be our main protagonist, it is Gloria Swanson's terrifying and heartbreaking Norma Desmond who is the film's true star.

Indeed, she steals so much of the film that the plot lines that don't include her (like the little love triangle Gillis gets mixed up in) seem dull and unnecessary. You just want to go back to her creepy old house.

So why is Norma Desmond such a great character? It's mostly attributable to the many layers Gloria Swanson gives her. In almost every scene we learn something new about her; something which casts her in a new light, something which changes how we feel about her. She begins as a wonderful Morticia Addams-type character - in her strange dilapidated house with her strange Germanic butler and her dead chimp. Her movements and facial tics are all over-dramatic, her expressions are frozen masks. She is the stereotypical over-exaggerated silent movie actress. She is proud. She is arrogant. And she has the potential to be dangerous.
However - as we learn more about her, you realise that she is really very tragic. Her pride and her arrogance stem from her naivety and her self-delusion, and whilst that begins as sad (the butler Max's speech about Norma's decline is particularly moving), it ends up more terrifying than her unusual performance at the beginning of the film.

So when we come to that final scene, and Norma's final iconic line - All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up - Norma has become much more than a funny deluded fool, much more than an insane woman. She is horrific because we don't know how to categorise her - we don't know how to react to her.

At one point, earlier in the film, she explains why the silent movie actors were better than their talking counterparts. Her explanation is thus: We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!
In the film's final moments, it is Norma's face that we remember. And it is the chilling face of madness.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.

No 135 - Duck Soup
Director - Lee McCarey

My knowledge of the Marx Brothers initially comes from Groucho Marx - as he is one of those comedians who are oft quoted on mugs and bookmarks. But it also stemmed from the Spitting Image Christmas performance of Peter and the Wolf - which was dead cultural and also really good. I didn't get any of the gags as a child. I just liked the puppets and the three Marx Brothers played the hunters. I have it somewhere on VHS - I must crack it out.

Well, this film is old, because here there are 4 (!) Marx Brothers. Though Zeppo doesn't really do anything besides turn up for the final song and dance number... I certainly don't remember him anywhere else in it.

What also surprised me was the sheer amount of exposition which occurs before any of the brothers appear. But eventually amongst all the glorious pomp and circumstance (because this seems to be a serious 30's film into which they've just plonked a bunch of anachronistic idiots)- out comes Groucho Marx.

Grouch Marx really is a pillar of comedy. He is so iconic that he became the blueprint for comedy disguises. In fact - a lot of the really great comedy comes from the fact that Groucho Marx is a really easy look to replicate. The scene in which Harpo and Chico are dressed as Groucho, and the three of them are creeping around trying not to be seen by the others is inspired. It culminates with a piece of visual humour that is still beyond genius. To think that 80 years on, this mirror routine is still a piece of comic perfection.

For all Groucho's excellent (and infamous) one-liners, the real comedy stems from the visual humour that is littered throughout - and most of this is due to the mute idiot shtick of Harpo. His humour is both surreal and timeless.
And whilst his penchant for cutting things and squeaking horns does seem odd, it gets funnier with repetition and by the end was making me laugh more than it was making me confused.

However the real triumph in this film is the visual subtlety and fabulous choreography that enables routines like the mirror or this scene of hat swapping to be completed with perfection.

Just a delight.

God knows what you've unleashed on the unsuspecting South. It'll be wine, women, and song all the way with Ringo when he gets the taste for it.

No 410 - A Hard Day's Night
Director - Richard Lester

Well, what a strange little film we have here. Essentially it is 'A Day In The Life Of The Beatles', but it is also a pun-laden surreal adventure - and it is joyously joyously happy.

The first thing that strikes me is what an absolute headfuck Beatlemania must have been. The opening scenes in which the boys have to hide from a tsunami of screaming fans may be fake and played for laughs, but isn't too far from what actually happened to them on a day to day basis.

Those first few minutes strike up some nice moments of visual comedy but the film really settles when the boys get onto the train. Here we have the introduction of the entourage (Norm and Shake) and of Paul's grandfather - John McCartney - played by the excellent (and excellently named) Wilfrid Brambell - a true icon of comedy. Brilliantly, the characters constantly note how 'very clean' Paul's grandfather is - thus cancelling out the 'dirty old man' reputation he had built up as Steptoe. Although Brambell is fabulous in it - a wonderful mix of judgemental and sleazy - he largely feels a bit surplus to requirements. For most of the film he is just wandering around on his own as the boys have their adventures - and whilst there are a couple of moments which centre on him (the casino, and more notably Ringo's little breakdown) - they could easily have been done without him.

So let's focus on the Beatles themselves. They are surprisingly good. The film has a lot of energy and a crackling chemistry which all stems from the great relationship they still had at this point. They also have some wonderful one-liners. Almost every line throughout the entire film is either a pun or a build up to a pun - which is epitomised by the press conference. Here the press ask stupid inane 'pop star' questions and the Beatles give wonderfully acerbic or surreal replies.
Check out this video - about 8 minutes in - to see the Press Conference in all its surreal glory.
What do you call your haircut? Arthur.

The real star of this film (and indeed the most non-musically successful of the Beatles) is Ringo. I think largely this is because he just has a funny face. Bless him. So here, Ringo feels a bit dejected and he goes for a little wander (the filming of which was helped in no small part by the fact that Ringo had come to the morning shoot direct from all-night clubbing) - and during his wandering around is essentially arrested for being 'suspicious looking'... which hardly seems fair.

The 'John McCartney being a pain' (albeit a very clean pain) and the little Ringo breakdown are the nearest things this film really has to a plot - essentially it is a loose and mildly chaotic framework for a collection of songs.

The best of these is without doubt the Can't Buy Me Love sequence, in which the boys escape from the TV studio and run around a lot. It is so free and so exhilarating... it is also probably the most iconic and famous part of the film.

Other (more directorially knowledgeable) people tend to agree. Here's Edgar Wright reminiscing about his strongest memories of the film:

The images that really stay with me are the aerial shots of the Fab Four in Thornbury Playing Fields. Most pop stardom films deal in some way with the prison of fame, but when "Can’t Buy Me Love" kicks in over the Beatles goofing around in a public park, it’s just beautiful; the bright young things running free on a stolen afternoon.

(Incidentally - Wright also puts Phantom of the Paradise as a favourite musical, so the man clearly has exceptional taste.)

Overall, the entire film is light and breezy - but it is also insanely happy and a joy to watch.
It probably isn't my favourite Beatles film (HELP! Is a guilty pleasure, and despite only featuring the Beatles for about 30 seconds Yellow Submarine is my outright favourite), but it probably is the best one.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Makes the film a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism

No 51 - 8 1/2

Director - Federico Fellini

It is a terrible thing to say, but as I watched 8 1/2 for the first time, I realised I had seen this premise before. And not in the musical 9. It was in an episode (a double episode to be more precise) of Frasier - Don Juan in Hell. Whilst it is named after the George Bernard Shaw scene, it has more than a passing resemblance to 8 1/2. As Frasier has a bit of a breakdown and faces a tough decision he is visited (and overwhelmed) by visions of important women from his past.

However, besides the visits from the women, I knew very little of what to expect - and so I began my journey into the mind of Federico Fellini.

The film is very hard to pin down and is difficult to explain. We are essentially following a film director named Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) as he tries to put together his new film whilst at the same time having a bit of a breakdown (well, that's how I see it). In order to illustrate this point the film flits between real moments and dream moments - like a hip 60's Inception, only the dreams have that actual fluid dreamlike state which is missing in Chris Nolan's (excellent) film.

Let's begin at the beginning. A car is stuck in traffic, and the man in the car is suffering; breathing heavily, struggling to get out of his locked car. Meanwhile, EVERYONE in the traffic is just staring at him. It is a very ominous start and is made all the more unnerving by the fact that it is essentially happening in silence. I forget just how atmospheric silence can be - and here we have only very quiet muffled drums to convey the dread of the situation. It all actually feels very Lynchian.

...Until he flies away to freedom.

The film proper then begins. What we have are a series of events in which Guido remembers moments from his past. Guido is very much a ladies man - you can see him flirting with everybody in the real world, and his obsession with ladies is showcased further with his trips into nostalgia, whether it be his mother, or the women who cared for him as a child, or his former lovers or childhood obsessions... whilst in Guido's childhood flashbacks - he got to BATHE IN WINE! If this is a true aspect of Fellini's youth, I am very jealous.

Gradually his mother and carers, former lovers, his wife and obsessions and even concurrent women he fancies (and may or may not have slept with) creep into his real world. They are there as parts of his subconscious, speaking to him and critiquing him and adding to the pressure that is already there as everyone seems to constantly want his attention (I must say, I could never be a film director).

He seems to have some control, and is trying to but these hallucinatory women into an order. See how he cruelly places the older women upstairs and the keeps the younger women around him. Or see the cruel way that in Guido's imagination, his wife is the traditional doting Italian wife, subservient and understanding - rather than the modern and opinionated (and rightfully angry) woman seeking a divorce, which she is in real life.

There are other aspects of this film. Guido is falling for Claudia, his actress - and this age gap echoes his friend's new relationship (he had left his wife for one of his daughter's friends) - and is also quite a cliché example of mid-life crisis.

The stress builds up to a point where Guido shoots himself (fairly sure this isn't real) and cancels the film. He has to pack everything away and escape. And it is here that we get a rather incredible speech from the film's writer. Which both excuses the actions of Guido and also sums up the mood of the film.

It is massively long, but throughout this speech Guido arranges and directs his memories into a dance and seems to look the least stressed he has looked all film.

It is chic and sexy (people in the 60's just looked fabulous and were effortlessly cool) - it is atmospheric and complicated. And I have no idea what is going on in it at all. I just don't get it.