Celebrating Great Films

Friday, June 26, 2009

There Will Be Blood

#128 at time of writing.

This film aspires to be a sweeping epic about family, greed, religion, and oil, centred around a turn-of-the-century prospector. It was released a week apart from No Country For Old Men (they were even filmed at the same time in the same area of Texas), and both films were seen as behemoths battling it out for Oscar glory. History seems to be favouring No Country For Old Men, and rightly so.

Daniel Day-Lewis turns in the performance of a lifetime as amoral Daniel Plainview (winning his first Best Actor Oscar for 18 years), but the rest of the film just gets swallowed up by him. If Eli the preacher had been cast as someone capable of facing up to Day-Lewis, the result would have been astounding - but Paul Dano fails to cut it. Who the hell is he anyway?

There Will Be Blood

The film progresses slowly, and somehow doesn't quite hold together. The characters do not grow and it's hard to care about any of them. There is nothing in this movie as big as Day-Lewis' performance, and the story remains off balance from start to finish because of it. I'm glad I watched it, it's a great film, but it's a hard film to enjoy.

Looking through director Paul Thomas Anderson's other films (in particular Magnolia and Boogie Nights), I'm beginning to suspect that I just don't like his style...

The fictional character of Daniel Plainview bears some resemblance to a real early 20th-century Californian oil tycoon named Edward L. Doheny. The monologue about milkshake delivered in the film is based on transcripts of congressional hearings concerning the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which Doheny had been accused of bribing a political official. The film's concluding scene was filmed at Greystone Manor, a California estate Doheny built as a present for his only son.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Don'ts and Be Carefuls

During the relatively socially liberal 1920s and early 30s, Hollywood was increasingly seen as a breeding ground for immorality.

Films frequently included such conservative vices as sexual innuendos, references to homosexuality, miscegenation, illegal drug use, infidelity, abortion and profane language. This reputation was made worse by stories of decadent dope parties, which were connected to the fall of silent film stars like William Desmond Taylor and Fatty Arbuckle.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (later renamed to today's MPAA) didn't yet have the clout to enforce censorship. That is, until Will Hays got into his stride.

In October of 1927, Will Hays published a set of censorship guidelines split into things that must never be portrayed on film, and things that required "special care". The Hays Code, which became known in the industry as the Don'ts and Be Carefuls, formed the basis of the guidelines that governed the production of almost all USA motion pictures until 1968, when age-related ratings were introduced.

Below, unadulterated apart from the comments in [square brackets], is the complete original list of Don'ts and Be Carefuls. How times have changed.


1. Pointed profanity - by either title or lip - this includes words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression, however it may be spelled. [Hence why Clark Gable's famous line in Gone with the Wind was so controversial. Frankly my dear, I think you should see The Aristocrats.]
2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity — in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture. [In silhouette?!]
3. The illegal traffic in drugs. [An odd choice for the one of the few crimes in the Don'ts.]
4. Any inference of sex perversion. [In other words, except for a man kissing a woman (who he's married to) on the cheek, don't show anything.]
5. White slavery. [Why is this at number five? Would portraying it encourage it? Or would it offend the white slavers?]
6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between white and black race). [The same people who supported rules like this have moved on to hating gays and barring them from getting married. And they'll look just as foolish when the history books are written.]
7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases. [Would that get portrayed a lot if it wasn't banned, do you think?]
8. Scenes of actual childbirth - in fact or in silhouette. [Fake childbirth ok then. Storks.]
9. Children’s sex organs. [Like, babies?]
10. Ridicule of the clergy. [Does the pope shit in the woods?]
11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed. [Isn't number 6 itself a willful offence to race?]

Be Carefuls

1. The use of the flag.
2. International relations (avoiding picturization in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry).
3. Arson.
4. The use of firearms.
5. Theft, robbery, safecracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron). [The moron! Ha!]
6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness.
7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method.
8. Methods of smuggling.
9. Third-degree methods. [ie torture]
10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime. [Perhaps if you're ashamed about showing it, you shouldn't do it...]
11. Sympathy for criminals.
12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions.
13. Sedition.
14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals.
15. Branding of people or animals.
16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue.
17. Rape or attempted rape.
18. First-night scenes. [Eh?]
19. Man and woman in bed together.
20. Deliberate seduction of girls.
21. The institution of marriage.
22. Surgical operations.
23. The use of drugs.
24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers.
25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy." [A what?!]

Of course, these days the list would be very different:


Be Carefuls
1. Two girls, one cup.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back#10 and #112 at time of writing.

I watched these two in quick succession today. The Empire Strikes Back is too... unfinished to watch on its own. It starts off slowly - the whole ice planet sequence is disappointingly reminiscent of the interminable desert planet scenes from the original Star Wars. But it picks up. A few buckles are swashed, sure enough.

It received mixed reviews upon release. Inevitable, I suppose, after the impact of the first in the trilogy - expectations were impossibly high. But since then it has come to be considered as the best Star Wars film.

Certainly, the emotional resonance of these two films is much more effective than the first film. They're packed with action, Henson muppets and glorious, glorious incest.

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the JediReturn of the Jedi is the best of the three, in my opinion.

The epic backstory is implied with such pizazz that there would be no need to actually make the prequels...

I wonder if episodes VII-IX will ever get made? Actually, I'm sure they will, even if it's over George Lucas's dead body.

During the 2001 Census there was a viral email campaign encouraging people to record their religion as Jedi. You can't be prosecuted for lying about your religion on the Census, so I thought I'd register as a Jedi myself. I wasn't alone. In England and Wales 390,127 people (almost 0.8 percent) stated their religion as Jedi on their Census forms, surpassing Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Ark

#19 at time of writing.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

This is a near-perfect film, from back when George Lucas still had new ideas. Actually, it is perfect. A script full of wit, cracking characters, wonderfully tongue-in-cheek hokum, truly creepy bad guys...

It's the king of B movies, with a depth of attention to detail that surpasses even the best high-budget flicks. This movie has it all: action, romance, comedy, and suspense. From beginning to end you are hooked. Critic Bernard Weinraub said it best: "Deliriously funny, ingenious, and stylish." Harrison Ford is at his best as Dr. Jones. Can you imagine Tom Selleck as Indy, as was originally intended? Hm...

It starts with one of the most memorable opening sequences of all time, lifted from old Scrooge McDuck comics. Then it sprints from set-piece to brilliant set-piece, packed with iconic moments from the red line travelling across the map to the warehouse full of boxes.

Matt Groening has said that the secret of designing characters is to make them immediately recognizable in silhouette. Indy's fedora and whip ensures that he fulfills that criteria. The original kangaroo-hide bullwhip was sold in December, 1999 at Christie's auction house in London for $43,000, and again in 2008 for $57,500.

Indiana Jones

The infamous scene in which Indy shoots a flamboyant swordsman was not in the original script. Harrison Ford was supposed to use his whip to get the swords out of his attacker's hands, but the food poisoning he and the rest of the crew were suffering from made him too sick to perform the stunt. After several unsuccessful tries, someone made the off-handed remark, "Why doesn't he just shoot him?" Steven Spielberg immediately took up the idea. (But, someone tell me please, hadn't this already been done in a Bond film? You Only Live Twice or something?) Another great ad-lib was Indy's line to Marion when they are on the ship - "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."

The music is fantastic - as good as Star Wars. But, unlike Star Wars, there are some scenes that dispense with music altogether (like the brawl in Marion's bar) and the tension is compelling on its own merit. The editing is ten times pacier than Star Wars. The cheesiness is a few Hobo Power units more tolerable.

Forget Star Wars. This is it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Star Wars

Star Wars#12 at time of writing.

Star Wars. You had to be there.

I don't doubt that for teenagers in 1977, it was an absolutely mind-blowing experience. It's ambitious, and peppered with iconic (and very parody-able) moments. The universe is thoroughly imagined. But, well, it's not actually very good is it?

I avoided seeing Star Wars until I was at University in 2000, and predictably it didn't live up to the hype. It starts off promisingly enough, but then there's an interminable series of arid scenes on the desert planet and it doesn't get much better from there.

The acting is horrible, the story is unoriginal, it has plot holes big enough to drive the Millennium Falcon through, and the dialogue is beyond silly. That's not to say it wasn't an important film. Most know that Industrial Light and Magic was formed to do the special effects for Star Wars, thereby ushering in the age of the special effect driven movie.

The special effects were mind-blowing at the time, and so was the marketing. George Lucas may be a hack director, but he is a master of marketing. Star Wars was the first film to successfully create a line of merchandise and toys. And they sold like gangbusters, even though the first action figures were an empty box with an IOU inside!

I'm sure I'm being unfair. But there are certainly more than 11 better films. For one, Raiders of the Lost Ark was twice as good. Mind you, Empire Strikes Back was a vast improvement, and Temple of Doom was rubbish.

Having said all that, I remember enjoying Flash Gordon on Betamax when I was a kid, and that's a fucking awful film.

Flash Gordon vs Star Wars

Believe it or not, several Star Wars characters are derived from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. George Lucas acknowledges this in the first conference room scene on the Death Star. Just as an Imperial Officer is saying the line "...the Rebel's hidden fort..." he is telekinetically strangled by Darth Vader, shutting him up before he can say the full title.

Shame that Carrie Fisher did a Judy Garland and ended up addicted to drugs and wishing that she had turned down the film that made her famous.

For interest, here's a review from 1977. And for fun, here's the Star Wars Kid. This trailer made me laugh as well - why wasn't Fanboys released in the UK?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Keep it on the QT, but...

You may recall that I was writing a couple of short-film screenplays.

The first drafts are done, and so far both are on track to be produced (one in England, one in Germany).

I received some very exciting news about the English one this weekend. A well-known British actor wants to star. I almost feel like I shouldn't be telling anyone in case I jinx it. But yes, I am excited. :)

I'm meeting my MA Creative Writing screenwriting tutor tomorrow, and I'm pitching a feature-length idea to him to try and interest him in co-writing it. Hollywood, here we come.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Hangover

The Hangover#130 at time of writing.

This is a very funny film.

It's a wonderfully obvious idea for a film, like it should always have existed. You know exactly what's going to happen, but the joy is in finding out how it happens - just like sharing morning-after tales with a group of buddies.

Pure entertainment, but I predict that it won't last on the Top 250. We're supposed to care about the protagonist's marriage, but he's missing for most of the film so we never truly engage with him. Thus, the heart is missing. Laugh-out-loud comedy works best when it surprises you with an emotional punch while your defenses are down. Superbad did it better. Juno did it better still. Why aren't they in the Top 250?

On a side note, the character played by Ed Helms had a missing tooth that was remarkably convincing. I couldn't see how it could have been done with effects or prosthetics. It turns out Ed Helms never had an adult incisor grow, so he just had to take out his fake one. What an odd casting call that would have been.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Best Year for Film?

I was musing the other day about how 1999 was a truly fantastic year for film. Fight Club, The Matrix, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, South Park... even Toy Story 2 was colossal. I used to love films, but after 1999 I became obsessed.

I wonder, what year was the best ever for film? 1939 also seems stuck in my head as a great year (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind). But what about the sixty years in between?

Geeky as I am, I decided to run the stats on IMDb's Top 250 list. Here's the rundown:

The earliest film on the Top 250 is from 1921 (The Kid). Since then, only seven years do not feature in the Top 250 at all: 1924, 1928, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1937 and 1947. (1947 misses out despite Miracle on 34th Street - which goes to show how many wonderful and well-loved films must fall just short of IMDb's Top 250.)

Years that appear once each in the Top 250:
The early 1920s is in danger of dropping off the list altogether.

Years that appear twice each in the Top 250:
Although 2009 may yet get promoted.

At this point there are only half a dozen years left before 1950. Does that mean that films didn't used to be as good? Or that our tastes have moved on? Or that the best early films just don't get watched any more? Most likely all of the above.

Years that appear three times each in the Top 250:
Well, this is a very unscientific measure, but there goes 1939...

(Actually, this is quite a scientific measure, but therein lies it's fault. You can't rightly judge great films using scientific measures.)

Years that appear four times each in the Top 250:

Now the big hitters. There are fifteen years left - the fifteen greatest years for film.

Years that appear five times each in the Top 250:
Good to see that plenty of golden oldies are still very much appreciated.

Years that appear six times each in the Top 250:
So 1999 truly was a great year for film after all. Yet 1994 was even greater - with The Shawshank Redemption in the #1 slot and Pulp Fiction at #5.

Finally, the top 5 years for film... drumroll please...

#5: 2004
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Hotel Rwanda
Million Dollar Baby
The Incredibles
Kill Bill: Vol. 2

#4: 2006
(Same number of films on the Top 250 as 2004, but higher rated on average, so more likely to stay there.)
The Departed
The Lives of Others
Pan's Labyrinth
The Prestige
Children of Men
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine

#3: 1995
The Usual Suspects
Toy Story
Twelve Monkeys

#2: 1957
The top ten years are all within the last decade and a half, except 1957. This defiance of the bias suggests that 1957 is our true winner.
12 Angry Men
Paths of Glory
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Seventh Seal
Witness for the Prosecution
Wild Strawberries
Nights of Cabiria
Sweet Smell of Success

#1: 2008
No fewer than nine films in the Top 250, with a very strong average ranking - although not as strong as 1957.
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
Gran Torino
The Wrestler
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Let the Right One In
In Bruges

Top 250 by year and sum of ratings