Celebrating Great Films

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Kill Bill (1 & 2)

Kill Bill#90 and #116 at time of writing.

If you think you might have been desensitised to screen violence, Kill Bill will test your boundaries. Some of it makes uncomfortable viewing. But then you can't help getting swept along as the camera worships Uma Thurman's deadly character; her vendetta is so pure that you have to root for her as she racks up the body count.

Unstoppably cool set pieces, dialogue, and over-the-top comic book violence - with splendid gashes of colour and toe-tappingly funky music - propel this revenge epic as it rampages through your brain at a record rate of homages-per-minute towards its tense and satisfying ending.

It's films like this that convince me that Quentin Tarantino and his actor buddies have the best jobs in the world. He offered Uma Thurman the script to Kill Bill, and her role as "The Bride", as a 30th birthday present. How do I get me one of those?


Chinatown#44 at time of writing.

This late take on the film noir genre is renowned as having one of the best scripts of all time. The story is indeed clever, if a little complicated at first. Even if you do feel a bit lost at the beginning, it is definitely worth sticking it out while the scale of the conspiracy is discovered and the sense of menace grows.

The characters are wonderful, with Jack Nicholson playing private eye Jake Gittes, who manages never to be out of his depth simply because he has so much of it; and Faye Dunaway playing femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, cloaked in mystery, and eventually tragedy.

Amusingly, the role of Evelyn Mulwray was originally intended for the producer's wife, Ali MacGraw, but she lost the role when she divorced him for Steve McQueen.

This film manages to be an evocative noir despite being in full colour - the only darkness is provided by the characters themselves. And the atmosphere is underpinned beautifully by haunting trumpet solos throughout.

The bitter taste of injustice that you are left with at the end is all the more poignant because the scandals that inspired the story are based on truth.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The African Queen

The African Queen#136 at time of writing.

This film starts off slow, and shows its age, but give it twenty minutes and you're strangely hooked. The bulk of the story is taken up with the witty banter between Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart's characters while they meander down an African river to avoid - and then pursue - German soldiers during World War I.

There are many wonderful exchanges while Rose Sayer, the high-minded missionary, is brought gently down to earth by Charlie Allnut, the gin-swilling water-rat. A fine balance is achieved between comedy, realism and romance. This role deservedly won Humphrey Bogart the only Oscar of his career.

Behind the scenes, to show her disgust with the amount of alcohol that John Huston (the director) and Humphrey Bogart consumed during filming on location in the Congo, Katharine Hepburn drank only water. As a result, she suffered a severe bout of dysentery.

Duck Soup

Duck Soup#147 at time of writing.

Wow, I've never seen so many cringeworthy jokes reeled off without taking a breath. The whole film is one long stream-of-consciousness comedy routine from the Marx Brothers, particularly Groucho, with a vague bit of film weaved around it. By the time you get around to laughing at one joke, you've already missed five more.

Yes, this is not a serious film. The man has grease paint for a moustache for goodness' sake. The action moves from set piece to set piece without worrying too much about gelling it all together, delivering so many hideous puns and ridiculous slapstick that it is probably illegal in Utah.

There's no reason I can fathom for this film being called "Duck Soup". One rumour has it that Groucho Marx offered the following explanation: "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup the rest of your life." That rumour fits in perfectly with the film - irreverent, irrelevant and punnier than a punnet of pundits.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Rear Window

Rear Window#14 at time of writing.

I recently realised that I have read and watched hundreds of Hitchcock snippets, but - shamefully - never have I sat through an entire film. And there are no less than nine of his films in the IMDb top 250 list.

So I allowed myself a minor indulgence and bought a Hitchcock box set. OK, it was more than a minor indulgence - it's a large box set. 34 films.

This film is the highest rated Hitchcock on IMDb, and often considered his best and most thrilling picture. So I am told.

It strikes me as the ultimate movie for studying in film school. It could be analysed to death. It's a fascinating idea, light-heartedly executed, but many-layered. But it feels like a film for film students. At best, it's intriguing. At worst, it plods.

James Stewart's character is amusing, Grace Kelly's is luminous, and the insurance company nurse is hilarious. The idea is wonderful. The 1950's filmmaking is nostalgic, gentle and naive. I enjoyed it, but I don't think this movie would have made it into my own personal top 250.

Yet IMDb users rate it as the fourteenth best film of all time! I must be missing something...

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta#180 at time of writing.

We went to see this film at the IMAX at Waterloo last week. What a great film for the IMAX screen: a grandiose comic book melodrama of the highest order. Dark and satisfying.

The strength of vision behind this dystopian fantasy of a totalitarian Britain sweeps you along, so that you whole-heartedly believe in the ambiguous hero. His antics are gloriously theatrical, occasionally histrionic, but always entertaining. It's Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Zorro.

This is a welcome return to form for the Wachowski brothers after the woeful Matrix sequels. OK, V for Vendetta didn't blow me away as much as The Matrix on first viewing, but I have a creeping feeling that I will want to watch V again, and again.

It's a shame that the genius author of the graphic novel behind this film did not approve of this adaptation of his masterwork. Mind you, he hasn't yet approved of any adaptations of his comic inventions.

"A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having!"

Monday, May 01, 2006

Cinemap 2006: REJECTED!

From: Charlie Fish [mailto:charlie@fictionontheweb.co.uk]
Sent: 27 April 2006 14:36
To: Ellis David (Head of IPR Development)
Subject: Request for permission to adapt London Underground map

Dear Mr. Ellis,

I spoke to you briefly earlier - thank you very much for your help.

I have created the attached image, which is an adaptation of the London Underground map. This image has not been released into the public domain so please treat it as confidential.

I would like to apply for permission to publish this image on my website (www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/top250films), and potentially to sell this image (or a close approximation). If I was to sell it, the likely market would be a mainstream film magazine.

My telephone number is XXXXX XXXXXX, should you wish to contact me directly. Please let me know if you require any further information.

Charlie Fish

Cinemap Preview

From: "Ellis David (Head of IPR Development)"
To: [charlie@fictionontheweb.co.uk]
Subject: RE: Request for permission to adapt London Underground map
Date: Thu, 27 Apr 2006 15:29:29 +0100

Dear Mr Fish

Thank you for your e-mail requesting permission to re-produce the Tube map with names of stations presented as films.

We receive numerous requests to re-produce alternative versions of the Tube map and we have to judge each on its merits and after considering your request we are unable to grant you permission to reproduce the Tube map.

We have to be very careful when granting permission to change or adapt our famous Underground map as we have to avoid the risk of such activity possibly leading to a dilution of our rights, as well as ultimately devaluing its worth and integrity.

As guardans of an iconic design we hope you understand our position in this matter.

Yours sincerely

David Ellis

From: Charlie Fish [mailto:charlie@fictionontheweb.co.uk]
Sent: 27 April 2006 23:22
To: Ellis David (Head of IPR Development)
Subject: RE: Request for permission to adapt London Underground map

Dear David,

Thank you for your prompt response.

May I enquire as to the criteria you apply when judging whether to grant permission for adaptations of the Underground map?

I would be willing to work with Transport for London if you would like to use the image or the idea yourselves as well, for example to promote your Film Office.

If you cannot give me permission to use the image for commercial purposes, may I have permission to publish it on my non-commercial personal website at www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/top250films ?


From: Ellis David (Head of IPR Development)
Sent: 28 April 2006 08:17:51
To: [charlie@fictionontheweb.co.uk]
Subject: RE: Request for permission to adapt London Underground map

The one basic rule we have is that the Tube map cannot be altered in anyway. However, we will always look at the ideas people have and review them, but because of the possible risk in diluting the rights in our valuable map we are very cautious about granting permission to any new adaptations on our classic design.

We have had numerous ideas sent to us over the years based around changing station names and out of these only two have been granted permission in the last 30 years and longer and the first of these was Simon Paterson's Great Bear, which was short listed for the Turner prize around 10 years ago.

It is not therefore a matter of working with TfL or TfL wishing to use the your idea it is just that we are extremely cautious in granting permission for any adaptations of the Tube map.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Incredibles

The Incredibles#80 at time of writing.

Pixar are a phenomenon. They blasted into the box office with Toy Story, redefining what could be done with computer animation. They followed it up with A Bug's Life, which was at least as good as DreamWorks' contemporary computer-animated ant movie (what are the odds?), Antz. Then, against all odds, they outdid the first Toy Story film with its sequel. For an encore, they produced Monsters, Inc. - a triumph of imaginative comedy.

That's when they pulled out the big guns. Finding Nemo was mind-blowing. Beautiful, touching, hilarious, epic... and absolutely impossible to follow.

The trailers for The Incredibles aroused excitement and cynicism in equal measure. Yay! Another Pixar film! But superheroes? Surely they've lost their touch after a lucky run. Surely after their first five near-perfect films they'll slip up, or lose momentum.

Couldn't be more wrong. The Incredibles is just that. Incredible.

The sheer number and variety of characters, scenes and textures raises the bar sky-high for computer animated films. The idea is simple enough: a family of undercover superheroes, while trying to live the quiet suburban life, are forced into action to save the world. But the result is sublime. A supremely comic and stunningly imaginative blend of the mundane and the fantastic. It makes me want to get up from my seat and dance. Or double over laughing. Or shed a gooey sentimental tear.

This summer, Pixar's seventh feature film will be released, Cars. Yay! Another Pixar film! But cars? Surely they've lost their touch after a lucky run...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl#241 at time of writing.

This film swashes every single buckle out there. You might think you've seen a hundred pirate films before, but when you actually try and recall them you will realize you haven't. Peter Pan pretty much fixed the genre in our heads, and nothing since has really captured the full potential of swashbuckling buccaneers on the high seas.

Right from the off, this film makes you want to use words like "rollicking" and "rip-roaring". Becorseted breasts, roguish heroes and flamboyant villains abound, me hearties. Johnny Depp's wonderfully comic performance and Geoffrey Rush's extravagant gravitas steal the show. You can watch this again and again (indeed, I have) and you'll enjoy it every time.

It has to be the first film ever based on a theme park ride. It captures the atmosphere of the Disneyland ride, and even homages entire segments: the skeletal pirates, the jail scenes with the key-dog, the burning town with the red-headed prostitute (who slaps Captain Jack), and of course the song "(Yo Ho, Yo Ho) A Pirate's Life for Me" - among many others.

It was brought to life by screenwriting duo Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Terry Rossio is a bit of a hero of mine, thanks to the inspirational columns on his website, Wordplay. He admits that this is the first live-action film where everyone involved seemed to believe in what he and his writing partner were doing, right from the start - which was a truly great experience. And all it took was "10 produced features, three #1 films of the summer, $4 billion in overall worldwide sales, and an Academy Award® nomination."

Forgive the cheesy ending, and bring on the sequels! Arrrr...

Worst films of all time

I recently subjected myself to a second viewing of Batman & Robin. I have got drunk and set off a whole reel of film while the camera was still in my pocket before, and I enjoyed those photos more than I enjoyed this film.

It is not just an insult to the Batman franchise; it is not just an insult to the film industry; it is an insult to humanity. Why - how - do films like this get made?

It got me to thinking - what are the worst films of all time? I don't mean films that are so bad they're good (there was a film I saw on late-night TV in the early 90's called Eat and Run that I would put in that category - it was a no-budget film about an alien that descended to New York City and ate Italian people, leaving only their buttons behind). I mean terrible, agonising films.

It turns out that IMDb have a Bottom 100 list. Here are some of the highlights:

Personally though, Batman & Robin takes the biscuit for me. That's $125,000,000 that would have been better spent even if it was used to paint the moon red. Holy marathon, Batman! F*** off!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

#36 at time of writing.

"How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd"

Every time I watch this film I fall in love with it more, to the point where I can't help welling up with tears as soon as Beck starts crooning "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime" to the opening credits.

This is my kind of film. If I had to choose a personal top 250 films, it would be full of films like this. Except that there aren't any films like this.

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey are cast completely against type, and they turn in perfect performances. Michel Gondry is a visionary director, who comes up with the densest mosaic of artful scenes that has ever existed in a plot-driven movie.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

There's no denying that this film is the combined result of a rare unity of vision between a group of extremely talented people, but the champion for me is Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter.

I deeply admire Kaufman's style - turning genres on their heads by introducing a fantastical element, and then playing out that fantastical concept to breaking point. His collaborations with Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, were genius - the most original and subversive films for years.

Eternal Sunshine shows the same spark, but it has matured. The themes of love and loss are indeed eternal, and this film will certainly last forever.

Some links:

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver#37 at time of writing.

This film is extremely high up IMDb's Top 250 list. I was expecting to be blown away - not by CGI and melodrama, but by being forced to think and to reassess the world I live in - that's what makes a great film for me. But I didn't get what I expected.

Instead I got an understated, slow-burning, sinister film. A good film, but it probably would not have made my personal top 250. Then again, now that I am making more of an effort to watch the so-called classics, maybe I need to rethink my opinion on what makes a good film.

I also recently watched the classic films that made Jack Nicholson an A-lister: Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. They too were slow-burning, cynical, unexpected films that were undeniably very good, but perhaps not to my taste. But, a week or two later, I remember them. I remember the crucial scenes. They have made an impression on me. They linger. So maybe they are making me reassess the world I live in, in a subtler, deeper way. Maybe these nuanced films will blindside me, and by the time I get round to watching them again, I won't understand why I didn't always love them.

Robert De Niro has been rightly lauded for his infinitely sensitive portrayal of Travis Bickle, the insomniac Vietnam vet of limited intelligence whose job as a cabbie hides him from all but the seediest sides of society until it's all he knows. De Niro worked twelve-hour days for a month driving cabs as preparation for the role. And he was clearly under the character's skin - his most famous line from the film was improvised. I had always assumed "You talkin' to me?" would be scary and menacing, but it was dripping with sadness and isolation.

Cinemap 2006

Look what I'm working on at the moment...

Cinemap Preview

Each line represents a different genre, and there are a few extras thrown in.

I'll probably post the finished product here soon!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fight Club

Fight Club#32 at time of writing.

I think I am in an overly emotional mood.

I've just watched this film again and I'm hysterical. More than once, and especially at the end, I was laughing uncontrollably and even crying. Not in a funny way. In a nihilistic, abandoned, insane way.

This isn't a film, it's a kick up the ass.

Fight Club brings a dirty, aggressive dignity to the dark side of the male soul. The primal side that sometimes feels like biting someone's ear off just because you've had a bad day. The side that feels like life is just too much effort because everyone takes it so damn seriously. The side that fucking hates frilly cushions.

Chuck Palahniuk has created a Dice Man for the jaded Nineties. If you're not careful, it will make you reassess your priorities in life. And David Fincher has created a film that feels more like a manifesto for the revolution.

There's evidence that the actors and crew got into the spirit of the film while making it. According to the (unusually intelligent) DVD commentary, in the short scene when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are drunk and hitting golf balls, they really are drunk, and the golf balls are sailing directly into the side of the catering truck.


Hero#143 at time of writing.

This is a phenomenally beautiful film. Yimou Zhang's use of colour and scale paints a masterpiece visualisation of Oriental legend. It is an ambitious epic, with all the melodrama, over-the-top chivalry and infinitely meticulous action scenes that you could hope for from the wuxia genre.

It is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, using an impressive 18000 extras and 300 horses, but it is never gratuitous. It uses special effects in innovative and restrained ways, creating strong visual interest from such mundane things as a falling raindrop or a slight breeze.

The fight scenes and set pieces are grand and poetic, more than making up for the occasional borderline cheesiness. And the story wraps up with a tantalisingly ambiguous moral message.

Watch this film on the largest possible screen, and prepare to be awed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

How much does it cost to make a film?

$218. That's how much it costs to make a film.

At least, that's how much it cost Jonathan Caouette to make Tarnation, released in 2003. And it grossed well over half a million at the worldwide box office, making it the film with the second highest return on investment ever (the highest being The Blair Witch Project with a 354,614% return on investment - eat that William Hill).

Ironically, IMDb users rate Tarnation as a better film than Titanic, which is one of the costliest films ever made.

Face on Mars
The whole Mars Pathfinder mission cost
millions less than the film Titanic

A quick glance over The Numbers list of Movie Budget Records reveals what a terrifying risk studios take when they agree to spend a 9 digit sum to make a film. God knows how Warner Bros. is still solvent after losing some $96million on The Adventures of Pluto Nash. That's the same amount that Bush Senior and Clinton managed to raise for their entire Hurricane Katrina Fund.

And yet it's Warner Bros. that are about to release the most expensive movie ever made. The budget for Superman Returns is $250,000,000. A quarter of a billion simoleons. That's the Queen of England's whole fortune. No pressure, then, folks.

Personally, I quite like the idea of spending the $218 I have in my bank account on making a film.

Match Point

Match PointUnranked at time of writing.

Woody Allen has a talent for capturing those awkward moments that make up the bulk of real life and real relationships. He understands what makes people hate the people they most love.

And he does not shy away from allowing people to talk over each other, which creates a conversational atmosphere that makes you feel right at home - makes it personal.

This film has some moments of true genius. It is a very simple concept (a love triangle), with simple characters, but it's so artfully put together. At least until about the halfway point.

Now don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film. But the act of desperation that the protagonist resorts to midway through the film felt so out of character that I was left feeling skeptical. It may have worked if the character's past had been infused with a bit more mystery, or if there had been some other clues, but it fell short.

There was also an unnecessary indulgence towards the end; a violation of point of view that made the final story point seem contrived. I suppose I can forgive that, though, especially for Woody Allen who makes a virtue of breaking the rules.

Opera is used as a theme in this film, and the story excels as opera. However, as a film, I found the unexpected behaviour of the main character irreconcilable.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith#241 at time of writing.

Yes, the CGI is a little too slick for its own good. Yes, there are scenes that make you want to punch the screen and yell "NOOOOOOOO!" But it would be unfair to deny that this film wraps us the Star Wars story fantastically well.

I'm going to be controversial now and say I enjoyed this at least as much as Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back, and much more than the original Star Wars (Episode IV). And it goes without saying that it's in a different league to the first two prequels.

Anakin's descent into betrayal is persuasive, the fall of the Jedis is affecting, and the light sabre duels kick ass. My favourite has to be Darth Sidious literally tearing down democracy by throwing bits of the Senate chamber at Yoda.

Trivia for the day: which two actors have appeared in all six Star Wars films?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Box office musings

I've just been browsing through IMDb's list of films that grossed the most money in worldwide box offices. It makes for interesting reading.

The big three are represented right at the top, as you would expect: Star Wars: Episode I comes in at number four with $922,379,000 of box office receipts. That in itself is incredible - it's 15 cents for every single person alive.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone enjoys the number three spot with $968,600,000 - which approaches the GDP of Belize. Number two goes to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King with an astronomical $1,129,219,252. That's more than all three Indiana Jones films put together.

And guess how much the number one grossed. Nope, guess again. A little more... You're getting warmer...

Titanic stands alone with $1,835,300,000.

That's incredible. There are fewer than 40 films that have ever grossed more than half a billion, and then there's Titanic, which grossed nearly two billion. Look, I've put it on a graph so you can see how ridiculous it is:

Titanic spike

A Titanic spike indeed.

Adjust for inflation, however, and there's a different story. Titanic drops to sixth, according to Box Office Mojo's list. The number one, thanks to 67 years of inflation and a re-release or two, is Gone with the Wind.

Interestingly, there is almost no correlation between the films with that grossed the highest at the box office and the films that were ranked as best by IMDb users. In other words, no correlation between popularity and quality:

Popularity versus quality

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Batman Begins

Batman Begins#111 at time of writing.

This is what a Batman film should be. In fact, this film outdoes all other serious superhero films, ever.

Christopher Nolan hasn't made a lot of films yet, but he already proved his capacity for genius with Memento, and now he's risen to the challenge of a big-budget blockbuster.

I have to admit I was skeptical after the last two Batman films, particularly Batman & Robin, which easily makes it into my Worst 10 Films of All Time. But this film is something special. Based on the darkest and most grounded of the graphic novels, and infused with a compelling realism, this film gets a ten out of ten from me.

The film rewrites the history of the Dark Knight, giving us glimpses into Bruce Wayne's childhood, and his reasons for becoming Batman, without ever being schmaltzy. The resulting epic makes the possibility of a Batman more believable than ever before. And it makes for a thrilling ride.

And the thing that seals the deal is that every single supporting character could stand alone. A monumental achievement considering the first draft of the script was written in less than two months. And helped along by the all-star line-up cast, of course.

It makes me proud as well that a lot of this film was done with British actors and a British studio. Gotham City is largely a full-size indoor city built in a hangar in Bedford (which was previously used for building Zeppelin-sized airships). And the Batmobile is not CGI, it is a £500,000 monster built by Brits at Shepperton Studios.

Hope is reborn for the Batman franchise.

Almost Famous

Almost Famous#212 at time of writing.

"The only true currency in this bankrupt world... is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."

For me, this film is about what we do and what we say when our defences are down. And this film is about those rare wonderful times when we're surrounded by friends and there's nothing to do but have fun. Those times that you want to last forever - but they don't. However hard you try, real life gets in the way. Jealousy, guilt, responsibility.

Actually, this film isn't really about either of those things, it's about ROCK AND ROLL.

Nobody can fail to fall in love with Penny Lane (pictured, played by Kate Hudson); the scene that did it for me was after William Miller tells her that the band leader sold her for 50 bucks and a crate of beer. She smiles as she cries, and asks "What kind of beer?" Such beautiful vulnerability! Such optimistic willingness to fly in the face of real life! Such sadness!

The film is semi-autobiographical for Cameron Crowe, who started off as a reporter for Rolling Stone. That adds a level of the most genuine kind of sentimentality, in a way that makes you want to have been a teenager in 1973. And the film is littered with in-jokes and nods to bands.

It has a tear-jerkingly uplifting twist at the end, and the whole film is so optimistic and full of great music that you can't help but fall in love with it.

I almost forgot - one brilliant scene deserves a mention: the band leader being cowed by William Miller's mum (mom, I guess, as we're in America) speaking on the phone. I laughed so hard! "Your mom kinda freaked me out."

Oh - and the groupie running into the wall! Yes, this is a great film.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The mission

I love films.

Nothing beats the feeling of watching a great film. The credits roll and you feel a surge of adrenalin - as if reality itself has risen and changed to meet your wildest fanatasies. It can change your life.

For the most part I take an unashamedly populist attitude towards movies. I'll go and see whatever catches my eye at the cinema, rather than digging through the archives of an art house rental shop. I am not a film geek (although I am a geek in so many other ways), but I know what I like.

So I have decided to turn this hobby into an ambition.

There are hundreds of Top 10/100/250 Films lists. So why choose IMDb's?

Why the hell not?

So let the fun begin. Bring on the widescreen, technicolour, Dolby Surround glory!