Celebrating Great Films

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine#221 at time of writing.

Meh. This film is entertaining, I suppose. But top 250? Big meh.

I didn't engage with the characters, who were quirky for the sake of it. The set-pieces were terribly contrived. I felt like I was being unexpertly manipulated towards a squeeze of sentimentality. There was a devastating lack of originality (that beauty pageant scene was right out of Donnie Darko - now that's got originality! - and where have I seen the body-in-the-trunk gag before?).

Unmemorable. I'm disappointed that it's still on the top 250 so long after its release. Normally, when popular opinion so vehemently approves of a film that I didn't like, I'm tempted to give it a second chance. But in this case, I'm not sure I can be bothered.

An interesting aside - I always wondered what actors snort when they're supposed to be snorting cocaine on-screen. In this movie, Alan Arkin (playing Grandpa) snorted crushed up B-vitamins. Ew.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream#58 at time of writing.

This film made a massive impact on me. It haunted me for days afterwards. It's about four likeable, ambitious people whose addictions eventually get the better of them and ruin their lives. Gradually. Insidiously. Tragically. Brutally.

I was blown away by the pace and style of this film - and left stunned by its forceful message. I find myself craving to watch it again.

Darren Aronofsky's previous film, Pi, was just as menacing and mysterious, but more of a fantasy, a fairytale.

Requiem for a Dream is no fairytale.

Ellen Burstyn in particular deserved an Oscar for her role as elderly telly addict Sara Goldfarb, but unfortunately she lost out to Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich.

During Burstyn's impassioned monologue about how it feels to be old, the cinematographer Matthew Libatique accidentally let the camera drift off-target. When the director called "cut" and confronted him about it, he realized the reason Libatique had let the camera drift was because he had been crying during the take and fogged up the camera's eyepiece. That's how sad and brilliant this film is.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sin City

Sin City#68 at time of writing.

This film received very mixed reviews when it was released, so I didn't bother watching it at the cinema. Later, I was surprised to see it in a lofty position on IMDb's Top 250 list. Well, that piqued my curiosity, so I rented it out.

It's the most extreme example of style over substance that I've ever seen in a film. It looks awesome, it feels pitch dark, and it's absolutely rubbish.

I've always struggled with graphic novels. I love the idea of them, I love how much work and imagination obviously goes into the best of them, but I've always found them too disconnected - they don't flow. Too many interruptions and loose ends. This film felt exactly the same. So I understand why graphic novel fans might laud it, but it totally didn't work for me.

As if to emphasise the disconnects, some of the cast members did not even meet each other until after the film was made - for example in the scenes between Marv (Mickey Rourke), Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) and Kevin (Elijah Wood), Hauer and Wood were added in post-production - they weren't even cast when Rourke shot his scenes.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder#243 at time of writing.

This film was like an Agatha Christie novel - very clever, and quite satisfying, but not particularly deep, and populated with fairly stereotypical characters.

Hitchcock manages to keep the suspense and intrigue going throughout, as is his wont, but I disgree with all the people that say he is a master of the medium. He doesn't use the versatility of film to its full extent at all - he produces films that feel like stage plays (at least the ones I've seen).

That style doesn't sit easily with me, it makes me restless. So although this is a perfectly good film, with some surprising twists, I wouldn't rank it among my favourites.

Bizarrely, this was originally filmed in 3D, which explains the prevalence of low-angle shots with lamps and other objects in the foreground. There was only a brief original release in 3D, followed by a conventional "flat" release; the 3D version was reissued in 1980.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Rashomon#67 at time of writing.

By all accounts, this represented a revolution in filmmaking at the time of its release. In fact, it is often credited as the reason the Academy created the "Best Foreign Film" category.

It certainly has a lot of unusual elements to its structure - a non-linear story with unreliable narrators, and a thoroughly ambiguous conclusion. I enjoyed it for the most part, but I think you definitely have to be in the right mood to watch it.

It's slow and artful, which I think are typical features of Kurosawa films. The overblown, grubby Japanese characters make for amusing viewing. And the concept of re-telling the same story from different perspectives keeps the suspense poised.

It didn't blow me away, but I would definitely give it a second chance.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Basic Instinct 2

Basic Instinct 2Nowhere near the top 10,000 at time of writing.

I have never enjoyed a bad film as much as when I watched this. Not because it's so bad it's funny, no - I assure you that it is irredemably bad. But because I watched it with the "Bad Films Club," which is such a great concept that I thought I'd share it with you.

My local cinema is the Ritzy in Brixton, London. It's a wonderful cinema, with friendly staff and a kind of indie feel. You can bring your drinks from the bar into the screen, and when you're done watching the film you can retreat to the balcony café for some stone baked pizza.

The best part about it is that they often stray from the mainstream. The Bad Films Club was an example. The idea is that three comedians sit in the front row and take the piss out of an awful film. They encourage the audience to throw out cinema etiquette and get involved too. It's a combination of cinema and stand-up comedy, with the feeling of being with a bunch of mates in your front room.

And what a great film to have chosen! Wooden acting, idiot dialogue, wrinkly nudity, all directed with an enthusiastic lack of panache. I couldn't have enjoyed it more.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket#94 at time of writing.

The opening sequence of this film shoves its fist so far down your throat it's tickling your balls. The whole first half rides an exhilarating torrent of comically over-the-top verbal abuse and brutal dehumanisation, teases you with the promise of a shred of compassion, then smacks you in the skull for a finalé.

And this is definitely a film of two halves. The first time I watched it I was so revved up by the first part that I think the second part washed over me a little, but on repeat viewings I appreciate that the second part is just as worthy.

Kubrick blends the darkest of black humour with a none-too-subtle message of the madness of war to produce the most rollercoaster Vietnam War movie out there. You will enjoy it, laugh at it, and then be shocked and disgusted by it in equal measure.

"These are great days we're living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss not having anyone around that's worth shooting."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda#59 at time of writing.

This film has all the impact of Schindler's List, yet without the trademark Spielberg sentimentality.

The Rwandan genocide is told through the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a heroic hotel manager who risked everything to prevent Tutsi refugees from being wiped out by the Hutu militia.

This film left me ashamed. Ashamed because there was so much I didn't know (and should have known) about such a recent and horrific conflict. Ashamed that I and my government ignored this genocide at the time and let it happen. Ashamed by the human instinct to discriminate and persecute. And a little ashamed that I actually enjoyed watching the film! The fact that this works so well as a thriller makes the truth - when it finally hits you - land much harder.

One throwaway scene haunted my memory for a long time afterwards. Before the militia mobilise, two girls chatting in café are asked by a journalist if they are Hutu or Tutsi. One is Hutu, one is Tutsi, and it seems to bother them not one bit. I don't think we ever see the girls again, but the scene echoed in my mind as an almost metaphorical illustration of how pointless the whole conflict was and how tragically so many friendships and families were divided.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz#94 at time of writing.

This film is 68 years old. That's twelve years older than the first colour television broadcast. My grandfather probably saw this film at the cinema as a child. Yet it has stood the test of time fantastically well.

I was brought up with this film on Betamax and VHS, and I'm still happy to watch it now on the spectacularly digitally remastered DVD. It's such a perfect fantasy, replete with catchy songs (including "Over the Rainbow") and indulgently vibrant colour.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, considering it was made at a time where colour was relatively rare on film, The Wizard of Oz revels in colour at every opportunity. The Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, ruby slippers, even the "horse of a different colour."

But behind the scenes, the production of this film was not such a fairytale. The Tin Man's toxic make-up nearly killed Buddy Ebsen (he was replaced by Jack Haley), the Wicked Witch of the West and her body double were both severely burned in the process of disappearing in a puff of smoke, and Judy Garland was constantly hepped up on goofballs (the studio fed her amphetamines and barbiturates to help her cope with the hectic schedule). The turbulent production also got through a fair number of directors, including two of the directors of Gone With the Wind, another Hollywood golden age classic from 1939.

Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai#10 at time of writing.

The trouble with watching classic films is that they were often so influential that you feel like you've seen it all before. So when I sat down to watch this three-hour epic I expected to see a predictable story about brave, powerful and noble samurai warriors conquering all.


I was very surprised to see the samurai portrayed as poor, cowardly, desperate mercenaries. There are no heroes in this film.

In sixteenth century Japan a villager overhears a notorious gang of bandits plotting to ransack the village and steal all their grain. The village elder decides that they must try to hire samurai to defend themselves, but they have no money. It turns out that most of the samurai are so pathetic and desperate that they will work for three square meals a day - although the villagers can barely even afford that.

All this gives rise to personal battles of hope and pride and guilt, not to mention many wonderfully comic exchanges, while the villagers and the samurai prepare for the final showdown.

Many of Akira Kurosawa's films were remade into classic Westerns - in this case, The Magnificent Seven. I don't much like Westerns as a rule, but I liked this.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo#112 at time of writing.

A better children's film has never been made. Well, except for maybe Toy Story. And The Incredibles. And, well, you get the idea. Pixar rock.

I have been lucky enough to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. It was fantastic, the stuff of dreams. Coral so colourful it could have been designed by Walt Disney. Clams so big you could believe that they'd swallow you whole. The occasional troupe of reef sharks minding their own business. Big tubular things straight out of an H. R. Giger nightmare.

Pixar captured it all, and made it larger than life. But that's entirely incidental. The story and the characters are what make this film unforgettable - even to the extent that every now and then my girlfriend still flits around the house singing in Dory's voice, "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim. Ha ha ha ha ho ho..."

And what fun this must have been to research! The production crew were apparently all treated to visits to aquariums, and diving trips to Monterey, Hawaii and Australia.

As you can see, Finding Nemo doesn't just appeal to kids. And it definitely appeals to me.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cinemap 2006

You may have read my post from a few months ago showing a series of emails between me and the Head of Intellectual Property Rights at Transport for London. I was asking him for permission to adapt the London Underground map and sell the result to the general public.

He said no.

But I adapted the map anyway, for my own personal satisfaction. I allocated film genres to each of the Underground lines, and replaced all the station names with films. Each film fits into the genres represented by the lines it's on, and the films are grouped together in lots of other ways as well.

I've printed the finished artwork out poster-size, laminated it and stuck it up on my wall. I like it there. Lots of people who come and visit enjoy it too, and comment on it. It sparks off interesting discussions.

I thought I'd give you the opportunity to do the same thing. Here it is!

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Prestige

The Prestige#187 at time of writing.

I was extremely excited when I heard that this movie was coming out. It's about magic. I love magic. It's directed by Chris Nolan. Memento and Batman Begins are two of the best films I've ever seen. And it was getting rave reviews. Surely a winning formula?

When I finally got around to watching it, I was treated to an involving story about rivalry, risk and obsession in the golden age of magic, when a combination of Victorian sensibilities, boundless imagination and showmanship, and new technology that actually seemed magical, led to the most fascinating and inspiring conjuring there has ever been.

My appreciation of this film has grown further since reading Hiding the Elephant, which is a wonderfully told history of modern magic. Nothing to do with the film, but recommended all the same, especially if you have even a passing interest in prestidigitorial trickery.

The one complaint I have about this film is that I was slightly disappointed that the story resorted to a supernatural twist at the end after being so proudly realistic, or at least verisimilar, for most of its length. Having said that, the twist was deliciously dark, and absolutely fitting.

And hey, it's got David Bowie in it. That gets any film extra points.

Walk the Line

Walk the Line#200 at time of writing.

Hmm... maybe I wasn't in the right mood when I watched this - I'm starting to realise that the mood you're in makes a huge difference to your perception of a film - but this film didn't set me alight. It felt somehow derivative. Maybe I've just been spoiled with the spate of formulaic American biopics recently, but this one just didn't seem to have anything that stood it out among the rest.

It's a great story, with great actors, I just felt that the filmmakers knew they had those two things going for them so they didn't bother putting any extra effort into it. I guess I'm measuring this film by a high standard, but I suspect no-one's life was ever changed by making it or watching it.

Mind you, reading into the background of the film a bit more makes me think I might be judging it harshly. It's impressive that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon performed all of the songs themselves, and learned to play their instruments from scratch. It's impressive that Johnny and June Carter Cash themselves picked the actors who played them (although they died before the film was made). Maybe one day I'll give this film a second chance. But I have a few hundred other films to watch first.