Celebrating Great Films

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Life of Pi

#227 at time of writing.

A boy (the eponymous Pi) and his family are migrating from Pondicherry to Canada on a large container ship, with all of the animals from their family zoo on board. The ship wrecks and Pi is stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The film is an aesthetic marvel, presented absolutely beautifully, just on the right line between reality and fantasy (reminiscent of Amelie - indeed Jean-Pierre Jeunet was attached as director before Ang Lee took over). The animals, for example, feel completely genuine even though they must be largely CGI.

M Night Shyamalan was originally slated to direct. Good thing he didn't because, well, he's rubbish.

Pi's narrative is interwoven with various musings on faith and religion, but the quirky nature of the story obscures any deeper meaning. However, the tale is always compelling, carried along with beauty and charisma until it reaches a crescendo of fantasy and then comes crashing back to reality.

The lifeboat is named Mignonette after the one in the real-life case of R v Dudley and Stephens - a fascinating and macabre story in its own right.

Yann Martel, the author of the Booker prize-winning book, has said he was inspired by a book review of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella Max and the Cats, about a Jewish-German refugee who crossed the Atlantic Ocean while sharing his boat with a jaguar.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Lion King

#79 at time of writing.

This film announces itself as something special in the first five minutes. A sweeping panorama of the African savannah with swarms of animals gathering to welcome a newborn lion prince, set to Elton John and Tim Rice's beautifully crafted song "The Circle of Life" - and then, boom, the title screen. Awesome.

The visuals are stunning throughout, but what really makes the movie is the dramatic story (inspired by Hamlet) and the thoroughly musical sense of humour.

It's very telling that the recent re-release of the film in 3D has seen it rocket more than 20 places higher in IMDb's ranking - a sign that this (mostly) hand-animated marvel has endured into the age of ubiquitous CGI.

Arguably the peak of the 90s Disney Renaissance, and one of the best (non-Pixar) Disney animated features ever.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Unranked at time of writing.

Wow. I have a massively high opinion of the previous two instalments of this trilogy, and this is easily their match. You have to admire the scale of Christopher Nolan's ambition and his uncanny ability to pull it off.

Granted, it's a bit expositiony at times, but the bad guy's ruthless build-up to power reaches such an intensity that you're glued to the screen. The story reaches a point where you cannot imagine the good guys ever recovering - and then it gets even worse... and then the blood-curdling villain Bane really gets going.

Top off that drama with some wonderful twists (so unexpected, yet so fitting), a couple of charismatic female leads, and a bevy of breathtaking and immaculately crafted set pieces, and you have pure blockbuster cinema at its very best. I wonder how this will stand up to a second viewing given that the twists will no longer be a surprise - but if the previous two instalments are anything to go by it will just keep getting better.

Chris Nolan has said that there will not be a fourth film. I'm sure there will. The question is simply whether the franchise will degenerate into second-rate spin-off sequels (or be annoyingly re-re-booted like Spider-Man and Superman), or he takes the helm himself.

As soon as the Dark Knight trilogy is released on DVD, I'm buying.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


#42 at time of writing.

I watched Prometheus a couple of days ago, billed as a prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, so I had to re-watch the film that started it all.

In Alien, the crew of a mining vessel are woken from stasis to find that rather than having returned home to Earth, they've been roused to investigate a mysterious distress signal emanating from a dead planet. They land and discover an alien spaceship with a long-dead captain, and a roomful of hibernating eggs. Unwittingly, they bring one of the eggs back with them. Bad move.

Much has been said about how nail-bitingly tense and sinister this film is. The twists are shocking, and H. R. Giger's notorious alien delivers the ultimate horror kick.

Prometheus was entertaining, but one wonders why (beyond cynical profiteering) filmmakers feel the need to detract from the artful implication of backstory by actually showing the backstory as a separate movie (I'm looking at you and your crummy prequels, George Lucas). Alien was breathtakingly original - 33 years later, Prometheus delivers nothing new.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Princess Mononoke

#99 at time of writing.

After enjoying Howl's Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro, and especially Spirited Away, I was excited to watch the highly IMDb-rated Princess Mononoke.

A demonically possessed hog attacks the town of a forest tribe and infects a young prince. The prince, doomed to suffer a drawn-out and painful death, travels to a faraway land to seek the help of a forest spirit. But the matriarch of the local mining town is in conflict with the forest spirit and its animal denizens, including the eponymous wolf-princess Mononoke, and our hero's fate becomes entwined.

This is a much darker and bloodier affair than the other Studio Ghibli films I've seen, and in my opinion not quite as satisfying. The characters were fun, but I found it hard to empathise with them. I enjoyed the story, but certainly less compelling than it could have been. I watched the English dub (as written by Neil Gaiman) - I wonder if anything was lost in the translation.

The animation is lush and beautiful - the last major animated motion picture to be filmed on plastic animation cels - and the film was phenomenally successful in Japan, the highest-grossing film since E.T. until Titanic came along.

One of the things that most charms me about Studio Ghibli films is the visualisation of Japanese animism. The cute clockwork forest sprites were a highlight.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Highest rated films on Amazon

Today I asked myself, "I wonder what are the highest rated films on Amazon?"

Amazon sells more films than any other organisation ever, and collects more reviews. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people rate each film 1 to 5 stars. So which are the most consistently highly rated films of all time?

The answer is surprising.

In the UK, most of the top spots are taken by TV series box sets, with Firefly and Band of Brothers being the highest rated. I've discounted TV series and picked out the top ten films.

On Amazon.co.uk... (current IMDb rating in brackets)

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Extended Edition Box Set) (8.8, 8.7, 8.9)
2. Tangled (7.8) (!)
3. Spirited Away (8.6)
4. Downfall (8.3)
5. Threads (8.0)
6. Monsters, Inc. (8.0)
7. The Gruffalo (7.3)
8. Labyrinth (7.3)
9. My Neighbour Totoro (8.2)
10. Goodnight, Mister Tom (7.9)

In the USA, they love their HBO dramatisations!

On Amazon.com... (current IMDb rating in brackets)

1. Temple Grandin (TV film) (8.3)
2. Mean Girls (6.9)
3. Ben-Hur (8.2)
4. Something the Lord Made (TV film) (8.1)
5. The Road to Independence (straight to video) (9.0)
6. The Shawshank Redemption (9.2)
7. Taking Chance (TV film) (7.3)
8. Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (documentary film) (7.7)
9. A Christmas Carol (1984) (TV film) (7.7)
10. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (7.8)

Bizarre. Clearly the Amazon-rating audience are very different from the IMDb-rating audience.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Avengers Assemble

#124 at time of writing.

Back in 2005, an enterprising Marvel Studios executive (Avi Arad) decided to produce a slate of films about individual super-characters, to establish their identities and familiarize audiences with them, before merging the characters together in an epic Avengers movie.

They got off to an excellent start with Iron Man, which was followed in quick succession by The Incredible HulkIron Man 2Thor and Captain America. And now, finally, the motley crew are brought together.

I must admit that I expected this film to be poor. For one thing, the concept is a huge example of what Blake Snyder calls double mumbo jumbo. A god-alien in the same movie as an artificially enhanced soldier from the 1940s and a giant green id monster? Sounds dubious.

But whilst it is indeed silly, this film is never cringeworthy. Rather, it is thoroughly pacey and entertaining, gloriously irreverent, and often laugh-out-loud funny. This quote from director Joss Whedon sums up the spirit of the film: "The whole movie is about finding yourself from community. And finding that you not only belong together but you need each other, very much. Obviously this will be expressed through punching."

Legal rights issues prevented a number of "Avengers" characters from being included in this film, such as Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch, villains Magneto, Doctor Doom and Norman Osbourne/Green Goblin. Though all characters are owned by Marvel/Disney, the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters were licensed to Fox Studios, and those of Spider-Man to Sony, before work began on an Avengers film. Marvel has said that in the future they hope to regain the rights to all licensed properties, that the aforementioned characters might have a role in subsequent Avengers films.

Monday, February 06, 2012

These go to eleven

Did you know that the IMDb rating for Spinal Tap goes to 11?

So cool.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Forrest Gump

#28 at time of writing.

A nostalgic history of the latter half of 20th century America through the eyes of Forrest Gump, an endearing simpleton who happens to find himself involved in a surprising variety of key cultural moments, all the while dreaming about his elusive childhood sweetheart Jenny.

Disguised beneath the cheery sentimentality and catchy contemporary music is a cutting indictment of American society, and for all its quirky lightheartedness this film is an immensely moving tragedy. Like every fairytale, it has its dark side - yet Forrest Gump himself retains his innocence throughout.

This sixfold Oscar winner is flawlessly acted (except maybe for the dated CGI that reanimates some long dead historical figures), endlessly quotable and wonderfully directed.

Allegedly, Tom Hanks wasn't paid for the film. Instead he took percentage points which ultimately netted him in the region of $40 million. And despite earning over $350 million at the box office, Paramount claimed that they were still $62 million out of profit due to the costs of promotion, distribution and interest. Sheesh.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Gone with the Wind

#161 at time of writing.

The idea of sitting still for a four hour film might seem daunting, but the running time of this masterful epic somehow flies past (helped by the enforced interval and "entr'acte", which allows for a natural break).

The film tells the story of a despicable, manipulative, but very charming woman (Scarlett O'Hara played by Brit Vivien Leigh) who is obsessed with a man she can't have. A host of suitors throw themselves at her - and some stick for a while - in particular, a charismatic self-confessed cad who is cockily confident that she will fall for him eventually (Rhett Butler played by Clark Gable).

Meanwhile, the American Civil War reaches a crescendo and Scarlett's wealthy friends and family find themselves facing the consequences of being on the losing side. This provides a compelling historical backdrop and sparks off plenty of drama, but essentially the story never veers from exploring the ever-worsening consequences of spoilt little rich kid Scarlett's exploitative behaviour.

And therein lies the genius. Somehow, director Victor Fleming's most successful film (the highest grossing film of all time ever if you adjust for inflation) has us sympathising with a pair of truly atrocious characters. Time and history marches on - the film often jumps ahead several months in the blink of an eye - and yet these two repeatedly fail to redeem themselves. Couple this with an unusually sentimental portrayal of life in the Confederate South, and frame it all in gorgeous cinematography. Gloriously unconventional, and brilliantly executed.

There's some fascinating trivia about the film on IMDb, worth a read.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Artist

#224 at time of writing.

This film is proof, if any were needed, that you don't need colour, sound and spectacle to keep an audience entertained. This nod to the golden age of cinema tells its story in black and white, without dialogue, widescreen or CGI.

Set in 1920s and 30s Hollywood, this is the story of a fictional silent film actor; the peak and fall of his career and the people whose lives he touches. It brims with charm and humour, with characters that you will enjoy spending time with.

It is both wonderfully naive (the story) and yet thoroughly knowing (the loving homages). Very refreshing to see a movie so unabashedly dramatic, romantic, funny, visual. Deservedly collecting many awards, and bound to catch an Oscar or two as well.

Thank goodness profiteering Hollywood studio execs aren't the only people who can get films made; well done to Michel Hazanavicius for persisting with his dream of making a silent movie. This is a gem.