Celebrating Great Films

Sunday, September 20, 2009

No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men#110 at time of writing.

This film's antagonist, Anton Chigurh as played by Javier Bardem, is the most uncompromising character ever to grace the silver screen. The story isn't about him - it's about the cop who chases him and the crook who's running away from him - but it's Anton Chigurh and his cattle bolt-gun that linger in the mind after the credits roll. He is the ultimate bad-ass. It must be true, Vanity Fair says so.

I've said before that I find the Coen Brothers variable, but this reasonably faithful Cormac McCarthy adaptation bolts the nail in the head. It's the most heavily Oscared Coen Brothers film, and deservedly so. (In fact, only two Best Director Oscars have ever been split between two directors - this one and West Side Story.)

The story is simple: A hunter in the middle of the Texan desert stumbles upon some dead bodies, a stash of heroin and more than $2 million in cash. He takes the money and runs, with a jaded cop and a motley crew of criminals in pursuit. The result is a wide-open Western-style film - full of deserts and death. It's bleak, violent, tense, blackly funny and meditative, with a creepy sense of fated inevitability. Pure cinema.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Kids In Mind

The MPAA and the BBFC give films age ratings so you know if they're appropriate for your children. And recently they've started giving a brief bit of consumer advice alongside, like the laughable "Contains mild peril" (Finding Nemo), or the ridiculous "Rated PG for non-stop frenetic animated action" (The Powerpuff Girls).

But Kids-In-Mind reckons that's not enough - parents need better information so they can make up their own minds rather than the MPAA deciding for them. Kids-In-Mind claims to provide "Ratings that work".

To this end, they've condensed all worldly vices into three categories: 1. Sex & nudity; 2. Violence & gore; 3. Profanity. And they've given every film a score out of ten for each. (Apparently, other morally dubious activities such as drug taking, theft, racism, etc. don't matter so much.)

So, for example, the recent remake of Halloween gets 10.10.10. The 10 for sex/nudity is for a variety of reasons including, shockingly, "A husband and wife kiss."

The Muppet Christmas Carol gets 0.1.0. The 1 for violence/gore is because "some of the ghost scenes are a little scary and may bother younger viewers."

Year One gets 8.7.5 - a high score despite being only a PG-13. The Favor gets 3.2.3, a very low score for an R.

For me, this just serves to highlight the absurdity of any supposedly objective ratings system. The idea of a bunch of indignant puritans subjecting themselves to ghastly movies just so they can warn other pious parents that there are 398 instances of the word "fuck" in Casino strikes me as hilarious.

This is all very harmless and amusing, but the fact that the official ratings organisations routinely cut material out of films before we can watch them is something else. Why should I be allowed to watch some of the rapey sex and wincey violence in Ichi the Killer, but not all of it? How is anyone qualified to draw that line for all sixty million of us Brits? What's the point if I can just get the uncut version anyway? Isn't the whole system deeply flawed and deeply hypocritical?

Kids-In-Mind might not be the right solution, but they're raising good questions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Up#37 at time of writing.

My wife and I attended a preview screening of Pixar's tenth feature at the BFI Southbank last week. My love for Pixar only grows.

There was a particular sequence within the first 15 minutes of the film that made me cry. Within the first 15 minutes! I can't think of any other film that has achieved that, ever. Beautiful, touching, bold, genius. It was followed by a good hour of belly-laugh comedy excellence, and then the end just about lived up to the beginning.

The plot of Up is (typically for Pixar) wonderfully left-of-centre. A 78-year old widower ties thousands of balloons to his home and flies it to the tepuis of South America, accompanied by an unexpected companion. I can't think of any Hollywood films that dare to have an old widower in the starring role since, I dunno, About Schmidt.

Director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera were in attendance for a Q&A after the film. It's wonderful watching a film alongside its creators - the audience was much more vocal than a normal cinema audience, clapping and cheering and laughing out loud.

Pete had lost his voice, so Jonas did all the talking. He spoke of many things. There were no new technical challenges in Up (like fur in Monsters Inc, water in Finding Nemo), which allowed them to focus on design. And it shows - Up is gorgeous. Although come to think of it, isn't being in 3D a new technical challenge?

Talking of 3D, the extra dimension is used subtly to add depth to the sweeping Venezuelan vistas, rather than to make things jump out of the screen. This was the first 3D film, as well as the first animated film, ever to open the Cannes Film Festival.

The producer admitted that they had trouble with the villain character, and indeed I think the villain's story is the weakest link in an otherwise flawless film. The villain Charles Muntz is named after Charles Mintz, the Universal Pictures executive who in 1928 stole Walt Disney's production rights to his highly-successful "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoon series. This led Walt Disney to create Mickey Mouse, who soon eclipsed Oswald in popularity.

Up with Pixar, say I! Bring on Toy Story 3, Cars 2, The Bear and the Bow and Newt! (And 1906!)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

District 9

District 9#44 at time of writing.

Hollywood (specifically New Line Cinema) took a punt on Peter Jackson, entrusting $270 million to him to film Lord of the Rings despite the fact that the highlight of his CV until then was Heavenly Creatures. The investment paid off in spades, and now PJ has a blank slate to do whatever the hell he wants with Tinseltown's seemingly infinite money and influence.

So what does he do with it? Well, OK, first he finishes his project that had been shelved since about 1997 - King Kong - a cheesy and indulgent all-American movie, right up the Hollywood executives' alley.

But then he throws a curve ball. District 9 is a movie about aliens - so far so Hollywood. But it's set in Johannesberg, presented (mostly) like a documentary, it stars complete unknowns, and it's a cracking story bursting with originality and imagination. Anti-Hollywood on all four counts. Well done Mr Jackson, you are now my hero.

It's not a perfect film. Its metaphors are not subtle, and the storytelling has some hideous point-of-view violations, but the sheer wacky bravado of the endeavour means that all can be forgiven.