Celebrating Great Films

Saturday, November 08, 2014


#15 at the time of writing.

Wow. I continue to be in awe of the grandeur and ambition of Christopher Nolan's (and his brother's) vision and their ability to bring it to the screen in epic style. For me, Inception was impressive but ultimately unsatisfying. Interstellar is just as impressive if not more so, but with a stronger emotional core than catapults it into the highest echelons of cinema.

The film starts slowly, on a farm struggling to survive in a world suffering from lethal dust storms and chronic food shortages, and then shifts gear (almost too quickly) into SPACE! But out of the nearly three-hour running time of this film, I reckon I spent a good hour on the edge of my seat with tension and emotional tumult, to the point where I found myself trembling and exhausted - but desperately wishing for another hour to allow the story to play out. When we finally left the cinema it took me a good ten minutes to decompress before I could string a sentence together.

So, yes, I think it's brilliant. Clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also a better adaptation of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War than any adaptation of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War would have been. The representation of space as stark, brutal and indifferent to human emotion; the rigorous hard science fiction; and the unexpected, uplifting twists of hope that burned the story into my heart.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Paths of Glory

#61 at the time of writing.

The futility and irony of the trench warfare of WWI is shown as a unit commander in the French army must deal with a mutiny and a glory-seeking general. I was lucky enough to watch this early Kubrick masterpiece at my local cinema recently, and the film's story and message have lingered with me for days.

As the closing credits rolled I found myself both exhilarated and depressed. Could Colonel Dax have done anything differently? What would I have done in his situation? Who was most to blame, and to what degree was any kind of justice served? These questions roiled around in my head afterwards.

Kubrick's early reputation as a prodigy was richly deserved. There is no sentimentalism here, no "patriotism" clouding the absurdity and cruelty of war. It is simply but cleverly filmed. The long tracking shots build tension and heighten emotion. There is a subtle emphasis on the stark contrast of the safe and opulent château where senior officers planned the war, and the stinking trenches where men followed orders with fear and loyalty knowing that death was their ultimate reward. And the final scene was extremely moving - nothing to do with the rest of the story, but underscoring the message that war makes us forget our humanity.

Impressive also, is that Kirk Douglas was in his 40s when he starred in this 1957 movie, and he's still around today. One of the last remaining stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood

The brief essay at the Criterion Collection provides an enlightening insight into the film.

Some interesting trivia from IMDb and other sources (if you believe it):

Winston Churchill claimed that the film was a highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided workings of the military mind.

The epic battle sequence was filmed in a 5,000-sq.-yd. pasture rented from a German farmer. After paying for the crops that would have been raised that season, the production team moved in with eight cranes and as many as 60 crew members working around the clock for three weeks to create trenches, shell holes and the rough, muddy terrain of a World War I battleground.

For box office reasons, Stanley Kubrick intended to impose a happy ending. After several draft scripts he changed his mind and restored the novel's original ending. Producer James B. Harris then had to inform studio executive Max E. Youngstein and risk rejection of the change. Harris managed by simply having the entire final script delivered without a memo of the changes, on the assumption that nobody in the studio would actually read it.

Concerned by its negative portrayal of the French army, the French government urged distributors United Artists not to release the film, and so it was not submitted to the censors, and not shown in France until 1975. Switzerland also banned the film (until 1978), accusing it of being "subversive propaganda directed at France." Belgium required that a foreword be added stating that the story represented an isolated case that did not reflect upon the "gallantry of the French soldiers."

Director Stanley Kubrick met Christiane Kubrick (then Christiane Harlan) during filming; she performs the singing at the end of the film. He divorced his second wife the following year to marry her, and they remained married until his death in 1999.

Actor (and colourful off-stage character) Timothy Carey was fired during filming, allegedly for some disruptive attempts at self-publicity including a staged kidnapping. His final scenes were shot with a double.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

#58 at the time of writing.

Much like its predecessor Avengers Assemble, which I blogged about here, this Marvel comic book adaptation makes silliness into a virtue. It has all the wrong ingredients, yet somehow it manages to bundle them together into a witty, well-paced, ambitious and compelling story. You may even end up empathising with a talking raccoon and a fighting tree.

For me, this is the best Marvel film since Iron Man. Although I say that without having yet watched the other recent Top 250 entry X-Men: Days of Future Past. Meanwhile, the snob in me squirms at the readiness of the Top 250 list to embrace all of these brash big budget superhero flicks.

That snob impulse is mollified by the insider knowledge that director James Gunn cut his teeth making weird sexploitation films with Troma Entertainment.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

#123 at the time of writing.

I haven't seen many of director Wes Anderson's efforts. I recall not thinking much of The Royal Tenenbaums, but absolutely loving Moonrise Kingdom. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, his meticulous kitsch style reaches a pinnacle as he tells the story of a hotel and its legendary concierge, a delightful and quirky adventure through the stereotypes of interwar Europe.

When I walked out of the cinema the sensibilities of the film had rubbed off on me; I was seeing symmetry in everything, talking terribly deferentially and making only right angled turns.

A wonderful fantasy.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Lego Movie

#172 at the time of writing.

I was surprised to see this on IMDb's Top 250 - a brand cash-in flick just doesn't scream high expectations. But the trailer looked fun, so I went to see it with my wife yesterday (we are still children at heart).

So does it deserve the hype? Well... it's good... but I suspect it won't stay on the Top 250 for long. It's very high octane, with lots of laughs, and a sweet ending that caps it off nicely. The story follows a Lego construction worker, who always follows instructions in true Lego style, as he learns the value of occasionally throwing away the manual and unfettering his creativity.

Two things especially struck me: First, that the film is so fast and action-packed in its jerky Lego world that my head was left spinning (probably exacerbated by the 3D). A little too much for me perhaps. However, the amount of effort that the animators went to to make the world seem so expansive and... Lego-ey... is seriously impressive. The amazing attention to detail will be bliss for Lego geeks.

Second, the film is relentlessly po-mo, filled with references to other films, breaking the fourth wall, self-aware story elements and characters that knew they were part of a film, and shamelessly unsubtle cultural references designed to appeal to the cynical and surreal tastes of the Internet generation.

Nice to see that fifteen years later one of my favourite films, The Matrix, is still being parodied...

Saturday, February 22, 2014


#125 at the time of writing.

Way back when I blogged about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I said that if I had to choose a personal top 250 films, it would be full of films like that one. Except there aren't any.

Now there's one.

I enjoyed Her possibly more than any film since Eternal Sunshine (which is my favourite film of all time). I love any film that takes a clever conceit and explores its consequences as far as possible - and then stretches it even further, until your imagination is blown. This film does that wonderfully, with plenty of heart and humour.

Eternal Sunshine was written by my #1 screenwriter (with the possible exception of Terry Rossio), Charlie Kaufman - and two other films written by him (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) were directed by Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed Her. So perhaps it's not surprising that this film reminded me of Eternal Sunshine; the two men apparently share a certain kind of quirky creative sensibility that massively appeals to me.

This near-future sci-fi romance tells of a heartbroken and lonely man (played by Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system. Their relationship evolves through highs and lows, and meanwhile the depth and complexity of the AI's consciousness evolves (in a charmingly flawed way, echoing the fallibility of its human creators), and simultaneously society's attitude towards this new kind of intelligence evolves. These three threads build and intertwine slowly and subtly without ever taking the focus away from those intimate human moments that define love.

To top it all off, this film has one of the most intense and endearing 100% platonic male/female relationships that I've seen in movies (the main character and his friend played by Amy Adams).

The voice of the AI was originally Samantha Morton's. She was present on the set with Joaquin Phoenix every day. After the filming wrapped and Spike Jonze started editing the movie, he felt like something was not right. With Morton's blessing, he decided to recast the role and Scarlett Johansson was brought and replaced Morton, re-recording all the dialogue.

Hey Academy, are you listening? Never mind Gravity, pay no more than lip service to 12 Years A Slave, and give this film some love. (Yah, they won't listen…)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

12 Years a Slave

#90 at the time of writing.

This is the only slightly embellished true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in the mid-19th century American deep south. Director Steve McQueen's wife noted that there are more films about Roman slave Spartacus than about the far more relevant and immediate Atlantic slave trade.

It's interesting that it took a British-helmed film to really get under the skin of what it was like to be a slave in America - an unsentimental and unflinching portrait. There's all the brutality and abuse of Django Unchained (which I saw last year), but with none of the ridiculousness.

I was perhaps a little reluctant to go and see this, which reinforces my suspicion that my favourite reason to watch a film is escapism. This is the opposite of escapism. I'm not in a rush to watch Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed previous films Hunger and Shame.

Monday, January 27, 2014

City Lights

#34 at the time of writing.

A tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl, and woos her with the help of an unreliable millionaire friend.

My reaction to this (American) film was pretty much the polar opposite of my reaction to Metropolis, a contemporary German film that I watched last year. Metropolis felt messy, overacted, unsubtle - but awesome, epic, stylish. City Lights is neat, gentle, sweet - but... well... just a little bit dull.

The movie calls itself out as a pantomime, and it certainly excels at that, with Charlie Chaplin's wonderful comic timing, choreography and pathos carrying the story along. I watched it with my nearly three-year-old daughter and she loved it.

Anyway, I am clearly in the minority with my under-enthusiasm. Orson Welles said this was his favourite movie; Albert Einstein attended the American premiere and George Bernard Shaw the British one. The American Film Institute ranks it as the 11th best film of all time.

This was Charlie Chaplin's first film made during the sound era. He faced extreme pressure to make the film as a talkie, but such was his popularity and power in Hollywood that he was able to complete and release the film as a silent (albeit with recorded music) at a time when the rest of the American motion picture industry had converted to sound.

Charlie Chaplin, ever the stickler, allegedly re-shot the scene in which his character the Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower-girl 342 times, as he could not find a satisfactory way of showing that the blind flower-girl thought the mute tramp was wealthy.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

#53 at the time of writing.

I really enjoyed this film. It brims with relentless energy, wit and unfettered amorality. The mostly-true story of Jordan Belfort, an unscrupulous stockbroker who got phenomenally rich cooking the books in post 90's recession America, this movie is a tour de force.

The constellation of stars in this film deliver powerhouse performances, but Leonardo di Caprio particularly excels, delivering his wonderfully written lines with explosive yearning and gurning. Terence Winter's script, under Martin Scorsese's direction, is a masterclass in irony.

The film caters to a generation who grew up on Trading Places and Gordon Gekko, and has grown weary of stories about yet another rogue banker who has brought down yet another company too big to fail, with the main character more than once making a joke of skipping over the technicalities of his fraudulent activities - because we've heard it all before.

Greed, drugs, sex and debauchery are unabashedly glamourised (it has the dubious accolade of featuring the word "fuck" more than any other film in history), with the tone remaining comic and frenetic throughout the three-hour running time - no doubt masking considerable suffering and utterly failing to condemn some seriously bad behaviour. This analysis says it all.

Jordan Belfort, the real one, made $1,000,000 on the movie rights...