Saturday, 25 September 2010

I know it hurts. That's life. If nothing else, It's life. It's real, and sometimes it fuckin' hurts, but it's sort of all we have.

No 393 - Garden State
Director - Zach Braff

This is what the film challenge is about, it is about discovery. Or, in the case of this particular film, rediscovery.
I think I Garden State has suffered because it came out, and I saw it, around the time I first discovered Wes Anderson and I thusly spent the whole time comparing it to The Royal Tenenbaums - which is probably my favourite film in the world. I admit that this is an unfair thing to do, however Braff hardly makes matters easy for himself. The films share a lot of common ground:
  • The Comi-tragic tone which leans a lot more towards tragic.
  • The sense of existential ennui
  • Father Issues
  • Visual Quirks
But, whilst I'm searching the film for these similarities, I miss out on what made this film good, and there are some really great moments in it. Things that need to be lauded and celebrated. Let us begin which some of the visual choices that Zach Braff has chosen. There are some wonderful moments such as motion sensors triggering a line of taps that go off as Zach Braff's Largeman walks past them. Or the doctor who has so many qualifications that the final one is attached to the ceiling, having run out of wall space. These little genuinely inspired moments are placed between some very deft camera moves (watch as they scream.... just amazing) and transitions which prove that Braff has a lot of talent as a director - he has some impressive ideas.

He also has great taste in music. And whilst I don't think the Shins will change your life (although New Slang is a lovely song), I will always appreciate any situation which plays me the Iron and Wine cover of Such Great Heights. It is a beautiful song made even more beautifuller - and that is coming from someone with an unhealthy love of plinky plonky synth (still prefer the original though).

And when you factor in some of the casting decisions (you have to love Ian Holm - he narrated one of the best things ever), you'd think you'd have a classic film which I'd adore for all eternity.

But the thing is, whilst the film is much better than I had given it credit for in the past, it still leaves me a bit cold. This is because, I do sometimes think that it tries to hard. Especially with our two main characters.
Sam, can be quite annoying at times. There are moments (such as her family life) which are warm and adorable, but there are moments (such as her 'original dance') which feel cringe-worthily forced and unnatural. Like they are trying to pull out every last possible drop of kooky, and occasionally they are just left with someone being a bit weird. Or worse.... a bit wacky. Luckily, Natalie Portman is insanely cute and charming. So she manages to pull it off and make Same a likable character.

Whereas Largemean suffers from the opposite - I just find him (for most of the film) whiny and narcissistic. A bit like JD in scrubs who I've never really liked because he is a self centred git. Now, I'm aware that in Garden state he is supposed to be whiny and narcissistic - that it is his journey, but these things do make me naturally a bit 'meh' about Zach Braff (The Last Kiss is the only film I've ever walked out of at the cinema) - as he seems to play a lot of characters who whine about their wonderful lives.

The fact that this film manages to get through my preconceptions and prejudiced apathy shows just how good it must be. And although elements do feel forced, and although none of the characters who appear frequently will match the warmth and joy seen in the short appearance of Albert's boat based family, it is still quite a touching drama that manages to address that modern phenomenon of the quarter life crisis, and give us jokes about dogs masturbating.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Oh, wouldn't it be great if I was crazy? Then the world would be ok

No 465 – 12 Monkeys
Director – Terry Gilliam

The future world seen in 12 Monkeys feels like a natural follow on from the future of Brazil. Industrial insanity and large magnifying lenses appear in a world that seems mostly bureaucratic and authoritarian. It is what we want from Gilliam and it is the visual style which is carried on with Jeunet and Caro in their sci-fi worlds. But here we also get to witness the artistic skill of Terry Gilliam. The stark beauty of the isolated snow dusted city – the visual insanity of a lion prowling the roofs of long abandoned state buildings. This is a beautiful post-apocalypse.

The apocalypse in question is the release of deadly chemicals by a group called the 12 Monkeys – and Bruce Willis’ Cole (a prisoner for an unstated crime) is sent back in time to try and find the source of the disaster and infiltrate the 12 Monkeys.

I want to play it a bit carefully, because once Cole goes back in time the plot gets VERY complicated and I don’t want to spoil it by describing in too much detail.

However, Cole is drugged up, 4th dimensionally jet lagged and talking about the future. He is, rather naturally, institutionalised. However he is put in one of the coldest and most savage asylums I’ve ever seen in a film. Its all pretty bleak. Also locked up is Brad Pitt's skew eyed Jeffrey Goines. A sort of mega-mad proto-Durden. His rants about public perception, power and consumerism put Goines in the same class as Durden, just without the mental stability to be able to hold it in or handle it. The two speak and a series of Paradoxes occur. So, from this point on I refuse to speak about the plot besides saying, that what happens is that Cole begins flitting in and out of time at certain points in order to make sure he can catch the terrorists.

He also spends time trying to warn the head of a large animal testing plant that someone will steal their biological warfare samples. It is here we meet Captain Von Trapp and, my personal favourite character of the whole film: David Morse in a very fetching ginger wig.

The film has to be applauded for having some great ideas, and whilst the execution of some of those ideas has dated, most of the film is still really fresh and exciting. There are some weird bits (the 'raspy voice' seems a bit of a strange one) - but it handles time travel in an understandable way.

And it has a gloriously fucked up ending.

No sir, YOU are the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I've always been here.

No 52 – The Shining
Director – Stanley Kubrick

It is hard to describe quite what it is that makes The Shining such a visually incredible film. As the film begins we’re greeted by breathtaking vistas as a camera flies over Jack Torrence’s car, driving down narrow winding roads. It isn’t the first time I’ve seen this film, and it certainly isn’t the first time I’ve seen helicopter shots over vast landscapes, but yet… it is still wonderful to look at and it still takes my breath away.

The single take tracking shots continue throughout the film, usually following Danny on his tricycle as he makes his way through the Overlook hotel. However, where the initial helicopter shots show vast isolated landscapes, the shots in the hotel feel cramped and claustrophobic.
This is Kubrick’s great skill – although congratulations also have to go to – he creates scenes in vast open hallways and they become just as tense and claustrophobic as the scenes in the narrow corridors of the hotel or the hedge-lined pathways of the LARGEST MAZE EVER.

This is a film which brilliantly plays with the idea of slowly growing mad. It doesn’t feel like a western horror because there are no real cheap scares. Its all about the slow build of tension.
The famous ‘All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy’ scene is chilling, not (in my opinion) for the repetition but for the way that those repeating words are phrased, broken up into paragraphs and text. This is not mindless tapping. This is a piece of meticulously crafted work…. It is a deliberate fall into insanity that echoes throughout the whole film.

This is a film about claustrophobia and about prisons. How even the largest prison will close around you… will create cabin fever. But then, this is also a haunted house movie which has been the inspiration for hundreds of haunted house films and almost as many direct parodies.

At this point, let me break out a bit of a confession. I really like Stephen King. I’m aware he isn’t the edgiest or most innovative of writers (however, read the Dark Tower series and let that get you nice and Meta) but when he hits the spot, he really does make a wonderful story.
King’s books often deal with possessed entities, and the more he tries to explain the demonic forces, the weaker they become. Here, the haunted house is never really explained. It is only the fact that other people see things (Danny with his ‘Shine’ and at one point – later in the insanity – the entirely unpsychic Wendy) which quashes the theory that all of this is in Jack’s head. In fact one of the film’s most famous and most mimicked and homaged shots moves from being a metaphorical warning to being an event Wendy actually witnesses.
We only get one flippant line that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground (ah that old cliché) to explain what might be the cause of all the weirdness.

The Shining is one of King’s best books, and this is one of the best King adaptations – but even so, I wish it could have included elements like the topiary animals (a wonderfully creepy concept, which is now mainstream thanks to Dr Who and the Weeping Angels).

Lets look at Jack…. As the film is about whether Jack would crack in the wilderness…. Unfortunately by casting Jack Nicholson, they remove any of the surprise. Nicholson is a man who looks unhinged the best of the time, so when we see the early Jack Torrance - before he’s sold his soul to the hotel for a bourbon – he already looks like the kind of man who would hack up his family into tiny pieces and stack them up in a room.

However, by the time he has gone mad, Nicholson’s face is perfect. That same freaky unhinged chaos which made him the choice for Burton’s Joker – he is a walking nightmare, and although the little 20’s sequences are pretty, they’re not really needed. Jack’s face is evidence alone that the hotel has its talon’s into him.

The final photo is the final proof. Not only does it introduce the chilling concept of being trapped in time, but it also has the chilling demonic face of a fully cracked Jack Torrance.

And I have to end by sharing this excellent example of editing. It is old but it is very good.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

There's a cure for everything except death.

No 194 - Ladri Di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves)
Director - Vittorio De Sica

A man has his bike nicked and then he and his son go and look for it.

I really don't have a lot more to say about this film. I only wrote about 4 lines of notes throughout it. I'll admit that there are a couple of things which did limit my enjoyment. Firstly, I don't know much (if anything) about Italy in the 40's - I'm aware they were probably suffering post war, but I don't know what the hardships were and as this film is very much about that era's financial struggles, I felt slightly out of the loop.I'm all up for films making you have to think, but I don't think you should have to do research before sitting down to watch a movie (although, I'm aware that at the time of release it was all culturally relevant)
Secondly - I don't know who does the subtitling for Arrow Films, but they seemingly assume that everyone must be able to speak SOME Italian. As for large chunks they wouldn't bother subtitling anything being said. So I sort of guessed some bits and just went along for the ride of a man looking for his bike.

I found most of the film quite dull - however Enzo Staiola shines as the son Bruno. He seems petulant and a bit camp and oh so very passionate about that bike. Throughout the film he shows far more of an emotional arc and a display of acting than the protagonist (Lamberto Maggiorani's Antonio) manages until the end.

It is an ending which is both unfortunate and inevitable and leaves the film ending on quite a powerful and bleak note.

If only the rest of the film could have had the drive and passion of those last few scenes.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Monsters belong in B movies.

No 450 - King Kong
Director - Peter Jackson

Right, sorry for the gap. I've been in the middle of nowhere for a little while and therefore far from my DVDs and LOVEFiLM.

This is, to my enfeebled memory, the only film on the list which appears as both the original and as a direct remake. Let me begin by saying the original is better. There are some good moments in Peter Jackson's version, but it suffers from being long and self indulgent. Whereas the original is a leaner and tauter creature feature.
Lets begin with my main negative gripe: The film doesn't seem to know when to reign it in, it seems that Jackson is so excited by the concept of remaking the film that he just throws everything he can afford and think of onto the screen. This is most evident on Skull Island when the film becomes nothing but a series of set pieces.
Now, I am usually quite fond of set pieces, but we have a seemingly unending series of events for about an hour (a third of the too-long film) which don't really move the story in any way. Because of everything happening in this middle hour, the special effects suffer too. A lot of the action (specifically the dinosaur stampede) shows how the green screen doesn't gel between the live action cast and the dinosaurs. If Jurassic Park could do it ten years prior, Jackson shouldn't have an excuse.

But, worse than the bad visual effects is the fact that after the third set piece you just stop caring. By the time the film had got to the massive bugs sequence I just wanted the sailors to capture Kong and move to America. Please. Even weird toothy monster penis worms couldn't save the sequence.

However, once Kong gets to America we're still prone to too many unnecessary sequences. This time, the film suffers when Jackson moves away from the action. I love seeing a giant gorilla attacking 1930's America. It is brilliant cinema. Whereas I really couldn't give a shit about seeing a gorilla sit on the ice. I nearly wrote ice skating - but I'd love to see a gorilla ice skating! Give Kong some skates, and that scene would have been a lot better.

The only real good thing to come out of the over egging of these set pieces (be it 'look at the sailors in peril' or 'look at the touching relationship between Ann and Kong') is that the film's final line "Was Beauty killed the Beast" is clearly signposted with all the irony and misunderstanding.

So, that was a bit of a negative start, let me talk about what I like in the film. Firstly, Jackson knows how to make some amazing visuals, and here whether it is the glamour and poverty of New York or the terrifying surroundings of Skull Island's tribal village we get a wonderful world to explore.
Secondly, I like the little nods to the original film. The inability to hire Faye Wray is a good touch. As is the fact that the stage show looks a lot like the 30's film. Including the frankly horrible racially awkward savages of the original film (I'm glad that the remake creates a much more realistic and much scarier remote isolated tribe).
However, like almost any film he is in, the film's real hero is Andy Serkis. The man is brilliant - and usually the best thing - in any film he is in. Whether the films are brilliant, flawed or just a bit rubbish.
Here, he plays two characters - and whilst Lumpy the cook is a brilliantly gruff and mysterious character who can shoot bugs with a machine gun and rustle up ship food - He isn't the star of the show.
That honour goes to Serkis' portrayal of the titular Kong. And it is with Kong that this film triumphs over the 1933 original. Motion capture and Serkis' remarkable character work means that Kong is fully rounded. Menacing and tough at times and childlike and ridiculous at others. He acts, like a proper ape.
The film's most amazing scene (in my opinion) is when he repeatedly knocks down Ann as she performs a slapstick routine. The sheer joy on his face is both wonderfully real, but also the foundation of his affection for Ann. That cements the bond in place far more than any ice pond skating sequence. The puppet Kong always seemed to either look angry or surprised, so the real triumph of this film is giving Kong a whole range of emotions. Seeing him begin the terrifying beast and end up this scared and pitiful giant fish out of water searching for the one thing that will make him feel safe.

That is this film's triumph. I just wish it didn't use such a meandering 3 hours to do so.

And I wish to end with this old video.... just in case anyone has any doubts about Andy Serkis' general brilliance.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

She's 17. I'm 42 and she's 17. I'm older than her father, can you believe that? I'm dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father.

No 76 - Manhattan
Director - Woody Allen

The thing that I like about Woody Allen is that, as unlikely as it sounds, he is a massive ladies man. I kind of like that, because he really doesn't look or act like he should be.

And so, a certain part of me assumes that his films are a form of wish fulfilment, that he can use them to cast beautiful women around him. But no, this happened in real life too. Yet he seems such an unappealing prospect - in this film maybe even more than others.

Woody Allen is famed for being whiny and neurotic, it is his shtick. However, his character Isaac is REALLY whiny and neurotic, even more so than usual. Or maybe it is the fact that Manhattan is a little bit more serious in tone than some of the other Allen films on the list. Therefore, his neuroses aren't countered by the oddness of the humour and subsequently come out into the foreground.

The film follows Isaac, who has recently gone through some awkward divorces and is now dating a 17 year old called Tracy. The two have a seemingly healthy relationship (besides the mahoosive age gap) which involves meandering around the place and eating Chinese food out of those little boxes that we don't get in the UK.
However, the relationship with Tracy is all part of his existential dilemma. He doesn't like his job, he is uncomfortable in his love life. He needs direction. He seemingly finds it in Mary and the two have a little relationship together. The relationship is littered with some wonderful iconic shots of New York - the real star of the film.

The wonderful shots of New York are made even more magical by the choice to film it in black and white, it makes it feel timeless and a bit ethereal, which is nice because I really felt nothing for the characters.
I've already noted that Isaac's neuroses outweigh his over perks, but Mary feels equally unlikable. She lacks the charm of Annie Hall and instead seems a bit pretentious and pseudo-intellectual. A bit like every conversation with her would be a game of one-up-man-ship in which she would have to remind you - multiple times - that she is very beautiful.

It took me about 30 minutes to realise what it takes Isaac the entire film to realise. He would be better with Tracy. Regardless of age. She is the only character in the film that comes off as likable and sound. She is the only character who makes Isaac less whiny - and that can only be a good thing.

One last thing..... Check out young Wallace Shawn! AMAZING!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

New York, New York, a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery down. The people ride in a hole in the ground

No 277 - On The Town
Directors - Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Well thank you Channel 4, I was just wondering what to do with my afternoon and then this cropped up....
This film follows three of the campest sailors in the world as they run around New York, excited with their 24 hours of shore leave. They're planning a fun filled day seeing all the sights and a fun filled night macking all the hunnies. I don't know much - if anything - about Jules Munshin, but the other sailors are Swing God Frank Sinatra and song, dance and falling over hero Gene Kelly. So we're in good musical hands.

Within one tiny musical montage, Gene Kelly's Gabey has fallen in love. With a girl on a poster. Bless the poor old sap. Vera Ellen plays Ivy Smith, the star of Miss Turnstiles, though we don't know quite what that title means. But we do get to see inside Gabey's campy imagination as he ponders the information on the poster. I love how it starts quite mundane and gradually gets more ludicrous. So Gabey is in Love and he is on a mission. He has to go and find his Miss Turnstiles.
In face the first half of this film is designed to set up the sailors with their women. During the quest for Ivy Smith, Sinatra's Chip is set up with the very forward taxi driver. This relationship needs to be quickly looked at because it starts with one of the most gloriously casually sexist lines ever. As Chip sees that the taxi is being driven by a lady he asks:

What are you doing driving a cab? The wars over!"

The fact that this line is never questioned and life continues feels a bit dated, but then it all gets reversed when Brunhilde the cabby (Betty Garrett) attempts the most uncomfortably forward 'seduction' I've seen since that horrible rape-y Pepsi advert. But it all works out well in the end as the two fall madly in love.
I fear that all this post may be is me linking to youtube videos - but I have to comment on the excellent song which Chip sings to Brunhilde. Just because it has super clever lyrics, and I'm a sucker for super clever lyrics.

Our final sailor, Jules Munshin's Ozzie, is a bit of a weird one. He seems to just make weird noises and be a bit odd the whole time. But he does meet the very beautiful Ann Miller and manages to seduce her by looking a bit primitive.
For this is a film from the 40's and if the casual sexism hadn't already pointed out these dated times, allow me to hit you with something so cringe worthy it hurts.
Now, I know that INITIALLY they're talking about ancient civilisation, but by the end they're just being racist. It is like a little racist montage... I can't see any other way to describe it. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't seem to be in the stage show any more.

But, the convoluted songs and dances happen and the sailors all couple up and go for a night on the town (as the name implies). But there are a number of other events which mean that things don't go quite as smoothly as anticipated.
Firstly the museum and the police are after the sailors and secondly there may be more to Miss Turnstiles than initially thought. This leads to a couple of chase sequences and also to a dance re-interpretation of the entire film. As if they needed to fill up some space in the film and didn't know what to do....

Of course the film ends happily. Or does it.... after all, what we've seen here is 3 couples having a very intense 24 hour holiday romance. Chances are they may never see each other again, or at best it will be months before they're next in New York. So our happy ending is a bit more tenuous than thought.

Or I'm a jaded old bugger.

All in all, I think this film has dated pretty badly with too many moments coming off sexist, racist or just a bit uncomfortable for it to be a real classic.

I'd still rather watch Singin' in the Rain.

You cannot change fate. However, you can rise to meet it, if you so choose.

No 488 - Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)
Director - Hayao Miyazaki

So, I started the day with a tricky little decision, and I think I chose the controversial choice when i sat down to watch this film with the English dub. But.... I have my reasons and let me explain them.
1) The subtitle translation on my DVD is a bit weird and obscure at times.
2) The English dub was written by Neil Gaiman, and whilst this may only be a rewriting, rather than an original story, the man is still a fucking legend and one of the great fiction writers of our time. The fact that this is a film about man trying to advance forward and negate the work of the ancient Gods is also a very Gaiman idea.

The film is set a very very very long time ago and is about the early settlements of Japan - how they had to clear the forests to make way for their lives and how this affects the spirits and Gods who reside in the forests. I love the spirituality of the Studio Ghibli films and how, although they're all set in different worlds, they share this beautiful history and fantasy. The idea of man coming and disrupting the ancient spirits is something that Ghibli had visited earlier with Pom Poko. Although Princess Mononoke is a lot more serious.... and has less magical scrotums.

But I digress.... war is breaking out in the woods as Iron Town has been creating more and more efficient rifles in order to kill of the Gods and giant beasts in the woods. As they kill off the Gods, the giant beasts become smaller and dumber - more like the beasts of today. But, it also fills the Gods with rage and turns them into demons. This is where we fall into the story.
If there is one thing Ghibli do especially well (and they do a lot of things well) it is creating weird gloopy fluid monsters. They appear in enough films to be a bit of a Ghibli theme:
What I love is the attention to detail. The way that each little slimy tendril moves independently, the way that the grass and plants burn and die as the tendrils touch. It is a massive beast made of thousands of little parts - and it must have been a bitch to animate. Our protagonist - Prince Ashitaka - gets cursed by the demon as tires to defend his clan. He is subsequently, reluctantly, banished into the woods in order for him to find a cure from the great Spirit of the forest.

Ashitaka gets roped into the battle between man and spirit and is generally mistrusted by everybody by his crazy hippy views that they can all get on together. During this war we are introduced to a lot of characters who have a lot of little subplots which aren't vital enough to discuss but which all help drive the story of this central battle.
There are some great flourishes, you can see the spirits becoming less powerful: by the end of the film the apes are essentially normal apes, the boars are getting more dumb, more brutal - it is only the wolves who have managed to survive. Even then there are only 3 of them, but they introduce us to San - the titular Princess Mononoke (Mononoke is a type of Japanese spirit - one of the Yokai) - a girl who has been raised by the Wolf spirits, and - despite her human for - who considers herself one of the wolves.
As San and Ashitaka look about the same age (I'd say mid to late teens....) it is only natural that they fall in love. In fact, even when he is 90% he still has time to tell San that she is beautiful. It is his love which helps drive him on on his quest for good and which helps show the humans (and the spirits) the error in their ways.

Life can be less destructive and more beautiful.... as what is the point in waging a war on nature itself?

The film is long for a cartoon, and it can occasionally feel a bit too serious. It lacks the joyousness of My Neighbour Totoro, but it is still a fascinating watch.
You get to enjoy the mysticism of Japanese culture but also get the grittiness of War in feudal Japan. And there is grit. This may be a PG rated cartoon but arms and heads get lopped off and fly about with remarkable abandon.

But, we do have the lovely little tree spirits who are quite cute in their weird gormless way. Look at them.
I've already got a Ponyo and a Catbus.... I reckon I need me some tree spirits though.