Thursday, 24 March 2011

Don't talk to me unless you speak American!

No 460 - Crash
Director - Paul Haggis

I think this film is trying to tell us something.... however, it was so subtle I couldn't figure it out!


I made a joke.....

So.... Paul Haggis has toyed with the concepts of moving to America before, and whilst he might not have gone in as much detail in the past. He was certainly more subtle and more enjoyable.

Now... don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily think Crash is a bad film. Neither do I want to belittle its message - the inherent racism in people is an important topic to tackle... Just that it is far too po faced and heavy handed.

It meant that some of the messages got lost. One of the main victims of this was Anthony, played by Ludacris. His tirades about racism were SO serious that it felt farcical.

It meant that although I was hearing this:

Look around! You couldn't find a whiter, safer or better lit part of this city. But this white woman sees two black guys, who look like UCLA students, strolling down the sidewalk and her reaction is blind fear. I mean, look at us! Are we dressed like gang-bangers? Huh? No. Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared around here, it's us: We're the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the triggerhappy LAPD. So you tell me, why aren't we scared?

All I could really see was this:

Which I doubt is what Paul Haggis had in mind.

It is also a shame that so many of the characters seem quite one dimensional. Its a double shame because the film has such an immense cast who are essentially squandered on very slight characters handling weighty themes.
The issue is compounded when Haggis uses such immense Deus Ex Machina to try and resolve these issues or show redemption for the characters.

Some work.... Sandra Bullock's slow realisation of herself is well played and quite moving. Whilst some, like Matt Dillon's redemption, smack of a script leaning too much on coincidence.

And I love Michael Peña's story line, but most because it panders to the sickeningly saccharine romantic hiding underneath my bitter exterior. My only issue is that his strand directly involves Shaun Toub's shop keeper, a man who I found infuriating throughout (I suppose that was the point).

There are just too many stories and they don't slot together with the neatness of... say... Magnolia.

I feel bad criticising the film, because I do think that what it is saying is true. That deep down we are all a bit mistrusting of people different to ourselves, no matter how much we know it is wrong or unjustified.
However, watching this film feels a bit like you have been repeatedly hit round the head with a placard stating that fact.

When you could just listen to this.....

It does the same, and it's funnier.

We're not a respectable network. We're a whorehouse network, and we have to take whatever we can get.

No 100 - Network
Director - Sidney Lumet

Bloody hell, one entry a week! I'm being rubbish beyond belief at the mo! Must pick up the pace here or I'll never finish the list.

Network is an interesting film - It is probably one of the blackest of black comedies I have ever seen, to the extent that for a lot of it I wasn't sure whether it WAS a comedy or not.... I have also lost my notes for it so will go from what i remember.

What I mostly remember is Peter Finch's incredible performance as Howard Beale. A man who's complete mental breakdown is manipulated and broadcast to the masses. It seems strangely topical, as I couldn't help but watch his impassioned rants without thinking how eerily reminiscent it was of similar situation happening right now:

Beale remains an amazing and captivating character. His rants are amazing and clearly the highlight of the film.

All of the film's great moments stem from these rants. We see the TV companies not knowing how to react. On one level he is breaking all the rules of the TV Network... on the other hand he is getting ratings. Massive ratings.

And this is where the dark comedy comes into play. As one man's life, and fragile mental state, is massively abused and manipulated just for ratings.
The show gets more elaborate, the show's budget gets higher.... but the rants stay the same. And it is that performance that keeps us watching.

Oh sure.... there are some other things.

Robert Duvall is a bad man who plays god over TV

William Holden has an affair with Faye Dunaway - a character who is hilariously unable to view anything without putting it into a TV Synopsis

There is some political thing going on that seems pointless for most of the film and still only feels like it was a tacked on subplot to make the ending work.

But if you compare them to the central story of Beale.... they just merge into annoying distractions keeping Peter Finch off the screen.

For a film which manages to paint a brilliant, scathing picture of Television. And for one of the best breakdowns I've seen in film, Network is DEFINITELY worth a watch

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

"In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me

No 129 - Harvey
Director - Henry Koster

Never before has a blog quote basically explained the whole film. Because James Steward's Elwood is one of the nicest human beings ever put on film.
He seems to glide through life in a beautiful naive and friendly haze. He manages to be utterly unassuming, utterly approachable and yet bulletproof. No one seems to be able to take advantage of this man's delightful demeanour.

What I found most interesting (besides Frank Skinner doing the music.... not the same one I presume) was the ambiguousness with which they portray Harvey.
There are some little touches which are played near the start, which help to keep it hidden whether he is real or not - I noticed near the start a lovely moment as the scene cuts just before Elwood and Harvey pick up their drinks.

So we never know whether 1 or 2 drinks are drunk. Incidentally, I love that they sit in little old man pubs and drink martinis. It is such a weird juxtaposition. Or maybe it was a more common drink in the '50's.

Gradually as the film progresses, it becomes clearer whether Harvey is a figment of Elwood's imagination or whether he is 'real' (the explanation Elwood gives is that Harvey is a Pooka).

However... despite Elwood's questionable sanity, he remains the straight man in a film which embodies the classic farce structure and which is filled with mistakes, misdirection and mistaken identities. It also seems entirely populated by frantic and hysterical nutjobs. Special mention has to go to Elwood's sister Veta. A woman so annoying and so utterly selfish and stubborn (she basically wants Elwood institutionalised so she can have parties without him embarrassing her) that I spent the whole film wanting her to get her comeuppance. However this is a nice film and has to end happily, but in the hurry to end thusly, I found Veta's change of heart a bit rushed.
To be honest, most of the subplots feel quite slight and rushed - the romances in particular, just seem to happen with no real explanation (although at least Dr Sanderson and Nurse Kelly get a back story hinted at).

Luckily though, old Jimmy Stewart is fantastic. his performance is so delightfully light and frothy and perfectly, hysterically, timed. It really feels like he has a sparkling dialogue going on, even though we can only hear one side of the conversation.
Whilst Stewart is effortless to watch, where he really shines is where he begins to talk about his relationship with Harvey, and where - for one brief moment - that happy go lucky veneer fades away and you see a man who is quite sad. Either with himself, or with the state of the world.

Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, "We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella." Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us.

As he sits down, his face becomes more sombre, and it is just a lovely piece of acting. Just wonderful to watch.

In fact, the film manages to take a much sadder tone than I was expecting, made even more prominent when you realise just how madcap and farcical the rest of the film is. The institution offers to give Elwood an injection that will stop him seeing the spirit/imaginary Harvey. The final scenes all hinge on whether this injection will take place, and when asked why he should do it, Elwood is given the reason that he has to stop seeing the fantasy. Start seeing his duties and responsibilities.

And if that isn't the most poignant and depressing metaphor for growing up I don't know what is.

Mozart! Mozart, forgive your assassin! I confess, I killed you...

No 136 - Amadeus
Director - Peter Shaffer

Right, first things first...

Sorry - that has been in my head for hours. HOURS

But, on to the film itself.... as we learn the life of Mozart. However, this review is going to be shallow as a puddle in a drought. I mean we've already begun it with Falco, but I also want to discuss just how much I love the Georgian period. Everything from my hero to the town I currently live in was made brilliant by the Georgian period.
The clothes. The decor. The sheer opulence of it all. I wish, beyond wish that I was a rich Georgian man.

Amadeus is probably the most beautiful and sumptuous film I have watched on this list since Russian Ark - and whilst Mozart's wig seems a bit too bouffant or a bit too '80's - it is all countered out by the occasional moments of sheer sartorial genius. I mean just look at Jeffrey Jones, hero of the 80's and 90's (though definitely NOT a current day hero - such a crushing shame when legends become involved in bad and horrible things) and Emperor of Vienna. His opera suit is particularly boss.

However, as we move on, what I found was a film which manages to zip along at a pace which defies the fact it is close to 3 hours long. I think it is helped by the fact that it is a series of events interspersed by performances of Mozart's operas. There are enough changes of tone and changes of style to keep the film fresh and interesting.
I think this is important as Tom Hulce plays Mozart perfectly as an obnoxious and arrogant ass with the single most grating laugh in the world. If we spent too long following him we would go mad. As mad as Salieri ends up going over the course of the film... It means we can never trust Hulce's performance, it isn't accurate. It isn't supposed to be an accurate portrayal of Mozart. This is the legend told by a man who despised him. Respected him massively. But grudgingly.

All the performances are perfect, spinning a rich and wonderful story of two composers declining, one physically and one mentally. Not even the frankly cack handed shonky accent work manages to spoil the entertainment.

However, for me.... the real joy were the moments of opera. I understand the personal irony in this, because I hate opera. I have sat through many (including bloody CLASSICS) and I have never really enjoyed them. Yet, as we watch the performances in Amadeus I find my self utterly captivated. Maybe it is the opulence of the set or maybe it is just the extra nuances that cinema is able to add to the occasion.
This film finally made me sit up and take notice of Mozart's music. Has to be said.... it is beautiful.
I have picked this as my highlight

I am a sucker for big choral epic pieces of music.

You see... whilst the story and acting is superb, this is really a film for the eyes and ears. The music sounds beautiful... and it looks an absolute treat.

Surely... those two shallow reasons are good enough a recommendation for ANYONE.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Choose your next witticism carefully Mr. Bond, it may be your last.

No 166 - Goldfinger
Director - Guy Hamilton

I have been following the excellent Blogalongabond since its inception, and now as they reach their third month, they have finally come to a Bond film which makes my list... therefore I can jump onto The Incredible Suit's coat-tails and try to explain why Goldfinger is such an important film for the Bond canon; why it's the film in which Bond finally seems to find his voice...

The first two films in the Bond canon create a world of action and adventure - but they are still very much spy films, not necessarily obvious 'Bond films' compared to the structure which becomes so key to future episodes. And many of the elements which are now famous and integral to Bond tradition stem from this film.

This is the film where Bond becomes a lot wittier, dropping one liners and innuendo all over the place (though it would be 35 years before the undisputed peak of Bond's smutty rubbish puns). It is the film where we finally meet Q branch - a circus of destruction and organised chaos, overseen by the arch-eyebrowed genius of Desmond Llewelyn's Q - which is barely even hinted at when Q delivers a suitcase in From Russia with Love. Not only that, but a suitcase (even one with gas and hidden money) is nothing compared to the gadgets and gizmos which creep out of Q branch post-Goldfinger. The film's big toy is another Bond staple - The Aston Martin DB5; a car which will forever be linked to the Bond franchise.

Goldfinger secures the Bond tradition so tightly that it is still, after all these years, the go-to film for Bond parodies (You Only Live Twice being perhaps the only competition).
It is also so confident that it manages to give us the entirety of the new Bond structure in a mini adventure before the opening credits.

We don't get to see all of Bond's missions here. After all, they're not all as dramatic and dangerous as those that make it to film. So instead, we get to see one of Bond's missions which seems to go effortlessly. It is also here that we see how dangerous and how efficient Bond is as he whizzes through a series of events which include fights, visual humour, explosions, women, one liners and generally looking suave as hell. Everything that makes Bond Bond. Everything that is set up throughout the film. Everything which is now synonymous with Bond. It's all there in the 4 or 5 minutes before the credits roll and the film begins...

It is incredible... and yet before you have time to really appreciate it, you're hit by something else. Something all the more incredible:

Goldfinger is one of the most incredible songs. Not just an incredible Bond theme - one that has never been matched (though I do love Live and Let Die and would rank it a strong #2) - but an incredible song, a pinnacle of not just Bassey, but British pop. Full stop.

The following instalments have all tried to capture the passion, romance, seduction and danger which trembles so effortlessly throughout it. If the marvellous Bond film doesn't give you goosebumps, this song alone will.

It is just brilliant. A faultless bit of music.

Now I realise that I've spoken LOADS about this film without even getting into the main story, but hopefully what's clear is that to discuss Goldfinger, you discuss everything that is right about the Bond franchise - creating a unique entity in the spy genre but keeping it restrained enough that it doesn't ever become parody.

There are further elements of the film which I wish to discuss, but first:

An Intermission

Erno Goldfinger was an architect, a founding member of the modernist movement. He created a lot of cuboid concrete buildings. Those ugly buildings that are characteristic of 60's architecture. I appreciate design, but these aren't the nicest or most exciting buildings.
The issue arose when he wanted to create his own home, 2 Willow Road. In order to do so Goldfinger had to demolish some old cottages which stood on the grounds.

There were a lot of protesters who were against this. One of these people was none other than Ian Fleming. He was so outraged that he named his villain after the architect as a mark of his displeasure. Erno successfully sued and was paid damages and given six free books. As a final mark of anger, Fleming threatened to rename the character Goldprick...

You can still visit 2 Willow Road as it is owned by the National Trust. The perfect place for a Blogalongabond family day out.

End Of Intermission

The reason I gave Goldfinger such an excellent intermission is that, in the film, he isn't that great a villain. He isn't a terrifying physical presence (though he is a big man) and he isn't the Machiavellian plotter of say Blofeld... He is just an utterly ruthless and very intelligent businessman.

No, there is but one real star when it comes to the villains:

Oddjob has a lot of useful characteristics. Of course the main one is that if he is kneeling, most people can't see him in multi-player Goldeneye... but believe it or not, his skills go even further than that.

Firstly he is super iconic, mainly due to his weaponised bowler. Now, I like a villain to stay sharply dressed - but considering that his bowler hat is weighted enough to chop the heads off marble statues, it must be fucking heavy.

must have one hell of a sore neck.

Overall, he's just cool - he's a cracking butler and a fabulous villain. But his main triumph is being instantly recognisable; a sharp suited Korean who can kill you with a bowler hat. A smaller angry Jeeves.

Goldfinger manages to produce a lot of iconic images. Whether with Villains or with Bond girls, they are recognisable and immediately linked to Bond.

All in all, there are a fine variety of women on offer here. But I'm not going to talk about the Mastersons (after all, there is nothing more to add to Jill's character that hasn't been said in the above picture, and Tilly is hardly exciting) - instead we're going to talk about one of the most famous Bondgirls, and the first to really start the trend of ridiculously sexual, barely double-entendre names. Pussy Galore (seriously, who would name their child Pussy Galore?!)

Pussy is an interesting character for several reasons. Firstly, she is in a position of power, armed with her own air force of sexy jump-suited blondes. Secondly (and most importantly) - she has the weakest character arc ever.

Watch the sequence in the barn. This is the turning point, where Pussy goes from assisting Goldfinger in his villainous schemes to helping Bond.

You don't even need to watch the scene. Just look at the freezeframe Youtube provides. Bond's powers of seductions are, um, RAPE. It doesn't matter that Pussy learns to love it, and that they later have more willing parachute sex. This is just not a good set up.

I'm sorry to say this, and I know Bond has always been famed for his misogynistic views, but here he is frankly a borderline rapist....

Which kind of ends the blog on a sour note.

So let's lighten the mood, eh James?

Monday, 7 March 2011

To a new world of gods and monsters!

No 204 - The Bride of Frankenstein
Director - James Whale

There is not much I can say about this film that hasn't already been discussed in the amazing 'History of Horror with Mark Gatiss' - it was on tv a while ago. You missed it.... but its all on here in little sections. Not ideal, but its worth watching.

Episode 1 is about the 30's and the classic Univeral horror era - a genre and era which I know woefully little. So I sat down to enjoy this Universal classic and enjoy two of Universal Studio's classic monsters.

But before that we get an odd little recap. For those watching Bride who may not have seen the original film. So we get Keats (in the most ludicrous tights and with the most preposterous accent) recapping Mary Shelley's original story before she goes on with the new tale.

For a film of such short length (75 minutes), which includes a preamble recapping the last film, it moves with a surprising gentle pace.
Frankenstein is weary and weak. Bedridden as he prepares for his wedding. Meanwhile the monster is ambling around all grunty and confused. He is also the victim of a terrible curse, as who ever he gets close to WILL FALL OVER. This falling over will lead to one of two things. Drowning, or burning. Everyone seems to accidentally drown or burn themselves. Karloff is amazing, and you can see why this is the role which he is iconically known for - his monster flits between the wild, crazed, destructive force and the simpleton child. His hoots of pleasure seem joyfully ape like.

He just is Frankenstein's Monster.... His performance and the iconic make up from Jack Pierce has rippled through subculture to just utterly embody the character. Nobody will ever replace that. Not Johnny Lee Miller, Not Benedict Cumberbatch, Not Robert De Niro. It doesn't matter that Karloff doesn't really look like he's made out of dead people. His performance is incredible and his appearance is infamous.

I'm not even going to linger on the fact that the monster seems to learn a full grasp of perfect English in 2 or 3 days.... because it is a minor irk in an excellent portrayal.

So for most of the film he stumbles around and is persecuted - by comedy 'poor people' such as Una O'Connor's excellent Minnie. Who just seems to be in exactly the right place everytime so she can squeal and screech and be all chucklesome:

But noone is more chucklesome than Dr Pretorious. The saving grace of this film (for, with the exception of the Monster, all of the other characters are quite painfully dull) - Ernest Thesinger camps around with arched eyebrows, looking down his nose. He also gets the film's most preposterous moment as he showcases his collection of tiny homegrown people. The special effects are immense for 1935, but the scene is absurdly comic in a film that is largely serious (and at the time, I should imagine, quite scary).

The speech is in Italian, but deal with it - you're only staring at the little tiny people in jars anyway.

However.... the film's most surprising element is that the Bride herself doesn't actually appear until the final 5 minutes, which is pretty rude considering she is both titular and pretty big on the advertising...
However her performance in those final snatched moments manages to be both etherially creepy and depressingly pathetic.

It all builds up to a bleak as bleak ending that couldn't possibly leave the franchise open for a sequel....

....only.... it did