Whine On You Crazy Diamond: The Electric Cinema

Firstly, I want to apologise for this week’s blog being a few days late. Well, a week and a few days late. I know it’s an absolute no-no to blog about how you’ve been too busy in your ‘real life’ to blog, but that’s probably on the same list of rules that include “don’t name a column after a weak pun about an album that’s older than most of your readers” so I’m clearly a serial rule-breaker.

So yeah, I’ve been busy. Thankfully, I’ve also had time to watch some films and write up some reviews for the site, which along with some brilliant pieces from some of my favourite contributors has led to the most successful week in the site’s very short history. So thanks!

This week’s blog is a nice and easy one to write. It’s a simple recommendation based on the most delightful experience I had at the cinema yesterday. Sadly the film I watched was very disappointing, and if I had seen it in a bog-standard multiplex, or even the lovely, but familiar surroundings of my local arts centre I would have written an even angrier review. Luckily for my sanity I had chosen to watch it at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, the UK’s oldest working cinema.

The Electric is located just a couple of minutes’ walk from New Street, and houses two screens (with the largest of the two accessible to wheelchair users). The old-school ticket booth on your right as you enter took me back to a time I probably never really experienced. I wasn’t visiting a cinema from my youth; I was visiting a cinema that I had seen on-screen in my youth. Even my ticket was one of those tiny little stubs that sadly these days are reserved for booths exchanging them for tacky gifts on a seaside pier.

My standard seating ticket was a reasonable £7, although I was very tempted by the fantastic-looking sofa seating with waiter service for £12.80. If I hadn’t been on my own, I’m sure I would have splashed out. Concessions are priced at a budget £4.80 (including evenings and weekends), and in a nice touch the unwaged are also eligible for this price. The person who served me was friendly, polite, and seemed to genuinely care that I enjoyed the film. Good customer service costs nothing, and can make such a difference.

One inside the screen, and after being allowed to take my gin and tonic (Bombay Sapphire at just £2.50 a measure!) in a real glass with me, I settled in to a slightly rickety chair, with worn armrests, and not too much in the way of legroom. And I didn’t care – in fact loved it. It just felt like a cinema should. The projection was also perfectly handled. In short, I wish I could watch every film for the rest of my life here.

I’m even tempted to make the one hour journey from Leicester for one of their special events in the future. For example, earlier this month they hosted an evening of wine and film with a showing of Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, and hosted by The Wine Tasting Company – who paused the film “at opportune moments to take audience members through six excellent red and white wines from different regions of Italy”. Now that is the kind of interruption and consumption of drinks I can get on board with.

If you’re ever stuck for a few hours in Birmingham with time to kill, I cannot recommend visiting this cinema highly enough. Even if you see a poor film, you’l still have a great time.

Please note – I was not asked to write about The Electric Cinema, and I paid for my ticket and refreshments.

www.theelectric.co.uk

This week’s viewing:

DVD – There’s a number of big releases out on DVD this week, but the best of them in my humble opinion is Brave – Pixar’s first ever film with a female lead. It’s not as out-and-out funny as some of the studio’s other releases, but it is the perfect marriage of Pixar’s wonderful visuals and a classic Disney fairytale-style narrative.

TV – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Sunday 2nd Dec, 3.05pm, Film4. The perfect film to have on as you dig out old decorations, untangle what feels like three miles of fairy lights, and deck your halls with bowls of holly etc. A retelling of Dickens’ classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) and his bah humbug approach to the festive season. May contain loveable puppets.

Lovefilm Instant  – Easy A (2010). Brand new to Lovefilm Instant, Emma Stone stars as a high school girl who sees her life echoing Hester Prynne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and decides to manipulate the school’s rumour mill to improve her lot in life. Clever teen comedy also starring Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kurow, and Malcolm McDowell.

Netflix UK – 21 Jump Street (2012). One of the biggest surprises this year was not how genuinely funny this reboot of a long-forgotten 80s TV show was (it really is), but that Channing Tatum had a performance like this in him – out-funnying Jonah Hill no less.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy meets an auroch in Beasts of the Southern WildBeasts of the Southern Wild, from first-time director, Benh Zeitlin is apparently a heart-warming story of a child’s imagination and resilience in a world beset by disaster. At least, I assume that was the aim.

The film I saw must be different from the one the wowed audiences at Sundance Cannes earlier this year. While there are positives to take from a film that does admittedly look far more expensive than it’s $1.3m budget, most of those positives come from very good performances from the first-time actors in the central roles.

Quvenzhané Wallis is mightily impressive as the six-year-old girl Hushpuppy – a child who’s lived her whole life in The Bathtub; a community who live in the swamps and flood planes beyond New Orleans’ levee flood defences. However, the film lost me in the first 10 minutes, with its patronising white-liberal guilt portrayal of the wisdom of people who choose to live in the bayou.

As the film is told through the eyes of a child it can attempt to fool the viewer into admiring the struggle of these people – but while Hushpuppy’s voice-over describes how they are always having holidays while everyone else in the world has one a year, the harsh reality barely hinted at by the director is of a community beset by squalid living conditions, domestic abuse, alcoholism, and terrible life expectancy. Hushpuppy’s father has indoctrinated her into believing that she is happy here. This is the story of a six-year-old girl manipulated by her father, and who will likely die at a young age.

This attitude of ‘us and them’ continues as disaster strikes The Bathtub. A huge storm floods the area, and leads to the authorities ‘forcibly removing’ (or rescuing to you and I) Hushpuppy and her father to a hospital. The staff at the hospital are painted as insensitive and unhelpful (Hushpuppy is shown being told-off in a crèche in the only scene that features a childcare professional), and Hushpuppy and her father and friends ‘escaping’ is portrayed as a noble act, rather than the actions of a selfish parent blind to the harm they’re causing to their child.

While this is happening the mythical auroch (basically big pigs, as seen above) are making their way south from the Arctic having been woken from their slumber by the melting of the ice caps. I know this because that’s what passes for a science lesson at The Bathtub’s only school. They should be very concerned about their next Ofsted inspection. And as for the Lynchian strip club scene where a variety of women danced in their underwear with some runaway children…

I do have to commend the performances of Wallis and Dwight Henry who plays her father  – first-time actors from the area the film was shot. It wouldn’t be too big a surprise to see an Oscar nomination for Willis, but Henry has been overlooked in many quarters. In fact his portrayal of a father who loves his child, but rarely acts like it is more truthful than anything else in this film.

A recent review in Sight & Sound described this film as being like an Arcade Fire video. A different musical reference came to mind while I was watching it – that of the subjects of Pulp’s seminal Common People.

You will never understand,
How it feels to live your life,
With no meaning or control,
And with nowhere else to go,
You are amazed that they exist…

More awareness needs to be raised about the effects on children living in poverty, and the mind-blowing realisation that so many people  live as portrayed in this film – disenfranchised from a society that has forgotten them. But this sugar-coated childish viewpoint actually distracts the audience from some of the horrible abuses children suffer from in areas of extreme poverty.

A Decade In Film: The Eighties – 1981

A series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema and choose their favourite films from each year of that decade.

Matt Lambourne has lucked out with arguably the most entertaining, balls-to-the-wall decade of all. This week he takes us through his choices for 1981.

5. Condorman

Condorman“Have you seen this report on this Condorman? He is an AMATEUR, do you hear? He is NOT an agent of the CIA! He is a WRITER OF COMIC BOOKS!”

Every so often, a movie comes to the fore that is so inherently bad, that it ends up being brilliant. There are a few that I particularly enjoy as guilty pleasures, such as Streetfighter and perhaps more recently Iron Sky. However the original film from my childhood that falls into this category is ‘Condorman’.

The plot surrounds comic book writer, Woody (Michael Crawford), who insists that all his creations must be able to perform their talents in real-life before he commits them to paper. However he is struggling to legitimise his latest creation, a flying crime-fighter called Condorman – as depicted in the opening scene where he fails to fly with mechanical wings from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Hilarity prevails as Woody bumbles his way into the affairs of the CIA & KGB as he pushes the real-life boundaries of his Condorman creation too far, posing as the former’s newest top agent. The action is awkward, yet stupidly funny, imagine Jason Bourne played by Basil Fawlty and you have a good idea of where this ends up.

The movie is anything but cold-war espionage coolness personified; after all it is a Disney movie. However the cast somewhat legitimises the erratic nature of the subject matter with the late Oliver Reed playing the leading bad-guy as Krokov the KGB operative and the lovely Barbara Carrera (Never Say Never Again) as the film’s love interest. It also adds some entertaining action set-pieces and a very cool car-pursuit scene featuring a fleet of souped-up Porsche 911’s that even the Fast & The Furious would be envious. Condorman’s own vehicle would impress even Bruce Wayne!

It goes without saying that this film gets nowhere near the IMDB top 250, it even has a 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However it does hold a cult status amongst fans that keeps interest in the franchise alive and an updated version beckons as part of Disney’s new vision for the future. I personally, cannot wait!

4. Escape From New York

escape from new york“When I get back, I’m going to kill you”

Painted in the doldrums of a decaying future, revolutionists have hijacked Air Force One and crashed landed the jet into Manhattan Island. The island is now an impregnable fortress used to house all of America’s most dangerous criminals. The US authorities, unable to send in a mass force for fear of endangering the captive president’s life can only rely on one man.. Snake Plissken.

The role of Snake goes to Kurt Russell, who really shakes off his image as a pretty faced child actor as the down and dirty, super cool and unflappable ex-Special Forces operative. This movie is also a continuation of a mini love-affair between actor and the film’s director John Carpenter, the likes of which weren’t again seen until Tim Burton got his hands on Johnny Depp!

Escape from New York is all atmosphere. The film is shot entirely during the night time and danger lurks around every corner of the rotten Metropolis. It very much reminds me of the nihilist future as depicted in 1979’s ‘The Warriors’ and continued later this decade in ‘The Running Man’. The action is far from snappy, it’s somewhat clumsy and lacks finesse. But the slick nature of the characters, such as Isaac Hayes as the Prison Boss ‘The Duke’ allows you to really take in a rough 90min action ride.

Other notable performances come in the form of Western star Lee Van Cleef as the slimy police boss ‘Hauk’ and Adrienne Barbeau as the most distracting on screen cleavage for the whole year! It’s not hard to see why John Carpenter put a ring on it.

The Snake Plissken role sets a good model for movie anti-heroes, smooth lines, tough and fearless but ultimately doing bad things for good causes. The soundtrack adds to the dystopia portrayed nicely and encapsulates the period of time well.

The franchise spawned 2 sequels much further down the line, both with much bigger budgets, however Escape from New York delivers an unintended grittiness that can only be enforced by a lack of funds and ultimately delivers a much darker tone to the movie.

3. An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London“Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! Kill yourself, David, before you kill others”

Thoroughly British in it’s almost slapstick delivery, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ has everything, from awkward and uneasy comedy to brutal gore-scenes for hardened fans of the genre.

The film follows David (David Naughton), an American tourist who survives a Wolf attack that kills his best friend. Oddly some of the films most curious moments come from scenes were his dead friend re-visits him as a Zombie to warn him of his impending transformation into a Werewolf and that the bloodline must end for his victims to rest in peace.

Naturally, David does not take heed of the warnings, unsure of if his friend’s visits are a figment of his imagination or indeed the truth. Eventually the beast is unleashed upon London town and makes for a wonderfully cold trail of death that is uncompromising in its lack of fan-fare.

The whole movie is shot on location in the UK and I most admit that I find that the UK movie industry just does these movies far better than our Hollywood counter-parts, see ‘28 Days Later’ as an example. There is something far more sinister about the Middlesex moors and the cold, wet alleys of London than the steamy neon nightlife of New York for example.

No, AWIL does not over-complicate, it removes any unnecessary dramatics and creates frightening scenes of bloodlust, yet somehow you still feel charmed by our leading man. In a decade dominated by American Horror, this film collected an Oscar for it’s gruesome use of make-up and shows one of the most painful looking transformation scenes that I can recall. It’s very much a genre-defining classic and a must see for all horror fans.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark“I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am”

It goes without saying that Raiders could easily have been my #1 pick for 1981. Harrison Ford became probably the biggest Box Office star over a 5-year period in which everything LucasArts and Steven Spielberg churned out turned to absolute gold.

Ford plays the whip-wielding Indiana Jones, archeological & occult expert who is sent on a mission to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant before it falls into the hands of Nazi Germany. I should not need to go into itty-bitty details about the plot; we’ve all seen at least one Indiana Jones movie. Partly this misses out on #1 movie for 1981 mostly because it’s not actually my favourite film from the original trilogy.

Alas, however Raiders is a magnificent piece of action-adventure cinema. Shot in many luscious and beautifully exotic locations, it’s oh so easy on the eye. Ford brings charisma to the Indiana Jones character in equal measure as he did Han Solo, perhaps even more so.

The film is renowned for some of its action set pieces, such as the rolling bolder booby trap during the opening sequence and the hilarious standoff between Indy and the Sword wielding Egyptian soldier. It’s a great story of exciting action, peril in abundance and a story of good vs. evil, as the Nazis are ever willing to take up the bad guy role.

The now famous John Williams assortment is the final piece of the jigsaw although he sadly lost out to Vangelis’ score for Chariots of Fire in the Oscar prizes. The movie however did collect 4 Oscars and cemented the credentials of Spielberg and Lucas, setting up a golden area for the two during the early 80’s, as well as spearheading Harrison Ford for a career beyond StarWars.

Raiders takes its place high amongst its peers on the IMDB top 100 as one of the most memorable and fun movies of the decade.

1. Das Boot

Das Boot“Cheeks together, balls in their hands and belief in the Fuhrer in their eyes. They’ll calm down soon enough..”

It goes without saying that ‘Das Boot’ is one of the toughest watches of any film I’ve ever happily enjoyed watching. For starters, I am reviewing the extended version of an already epically long movie, weighing in at over 3 hours which for any film is a tough ask! However being a sub-titled movie it requires a certain dedication that adds to the viewing experience as you are slowly sucked into the despair felt throughout the movie.

The movie follows a German U-Boat crew who depart on a mission to intercept Allied convoys across an already faltering and mis-directed Axis line of blockades in the Mid-Atlantic. As the film begins we find the fledgling crew celebrating in a debauched leaving party, seemingly unaware of the miserable existence that awaits them under the Ocean’s surface. However, Ship Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) is starkly aware of the dangers that await his inexperienced crew.

The movie quickly plunges from indulgence to desperation as our crew is continually faced with overwhelming odds against the Royal Navy and mis-direction from their superiors. Gradually the viewer is proverbially grabbed by the throat and dragged into a nerve-wracking journey of strained human relationships and the mental breakdown of a threat that you can often only hear, but rarely see.

Prochnow is superb as the battle-weary Captain and director Wolfgang Petersen makes so much from so little real-estate in the claustrophobic metal tube. This would be regarded as Petersen’s 1st great work and perhaps his best ever before eventually working on more mainstream titles such as The Neverending Story, Troy and The Perfect Storm.

However it really is ‘Das Boot’ that delivers his most heavyweight punch and sets the benchmark high for other great Submarine movies that followed, such as Hunt For Red October and K-19: The Widowmaker. The movie ends on the most sombre of moments. After suffering heavy damage and effectively been sunk, the crew manage to revive the crippled boat and reach sanctum at La Spezia port, only to be attacked and destroyed by an Allied Air-Raid as they leave the ship.

The credits roll as the Captain lives just long enough to watch his boat sink at port and keel over and die with the rest of his crew. Like any good war movie, Das Boot reminds you at all times during war just when you think there is light at the end of the tunnel, all hope is brutally snatched away.

Das Boot is not just a great Submarine movie, it’s a fantastic movie in it’s own right which rightfully takes it’s place amongst the IMDB Top 100 and is my movie of 1981.

See the five films Matt picked for 1980 or check out the full A Decade in Film series so far.

Failed Critics Review: End of Watch

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña in End of WatchThis week on the Failed Critics Review we look at the cop film that French Connection director William Friedken described as the “best movie about cops ever made”. Can James get over the found footage angle? Can Steve suggest a way he would have done it better? Can Gerry get around to seeing it? (No).

Also on this week’s podcast we look at James’ future wife Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, and discuss films as varied as Network, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and The Devil’s Backbone.

Next week’s episode is the launch of the Failed Critics Hall of Fame, where we award some poor Oscar-less schmuck with some award I’ll try and rustle up on Photoshop.

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The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film that definitely isn’t about Scientology looks incredible and has two great (and at times, astonishing) central performances at its heart. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell – an able seaman recently discharged from the navy at the end of the war and struggling to hold down a civilian job due to his alcohol dependency. We’re not just talking too many beers and whiskys though – Quell is some kind of booze alchemist, creating potions and poisons from any drink and household chemicals he finds lying around. We’ve all known someone like Freddie Quell, and chances are we haven’t heard from them in the last ten years or so. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodds, the ‘Master’ of The Cause, who takes Freddie under his wing and struggles to ‘cure’ and control him.

Anderson creates a hugely believable world, with an interesting premise. Amy Adams puts in a lovely performance as Dodd’s wife, while the audience is also treated to a wonderful soundtrack from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.

Yet, The Master bored me immensely. In fact, I haven’t seen a film become less than the sum of its parts in such a drastic way in a very long time.

We’re presented with two fascinating characters, who when they’re talking to each other (and to the people around them) hold my interest and draw me in much like the cult they represent. The problem is neither character really goes on a personal or external journey of any real consequence. I could forgive the lack of a journey if I had some sense of the history of the characters, or some deeper insight into their motivations. Indeed, Quell’s lack of a personal journey is symptomatic of the failure of The Cause’s methods. But what makes Quell so different from all the other demobbed servicemen of the time? Does Dodds believe what he is teaching, and if not, what is leading him to deceive all these people? Over the course of the film’s 140-minute running time we see no great urge for money or power from Dodds.

The Cause is all about discovering past lives, and righting wrongs that may have happened billions of years ago. Perhaps it was Anderson’s intention to make the ‘current’ lives the viewer sees onscreen superficial and lacking in depth or context as a counterpoint to the teachings of The Cause. However frustrated me and felt like when I see singers get the crowd to bellow the lines of their biggest hit, seemingly unaware that the audience have paid to see them perform. Ambiguity has its place, but I demand my storytellers to actually tell me a story, and not rely on me to fill in the vast majority of the blanks.

There also appeared to be a TWENTY MINUTE training montage in the middle of the film. If you’re going to have a training montage, the least you can do is soundtrack it with something like “You’re the Best Around” from The Karate Kid.

Watching The Master felt like I was watching a film that I ‘should’ like. It did everything a great film should, and Anderson is clearly an incredibly talented director. I just couldn’t connect with this film at all.

It didn’t grab me here *points to heart*

Or engage me here *points to head*

Overall, there is plenty to admire about this film, but very little to love. Feels like a wasted opportunity.

Magic Mike

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.  

Morpheius, The Matrix (1999)

The blue pill, in the case of Magic Mike, is the marketing campaign for what I keep hearing is ‘the Channing Tatum Stripper Movie’. The same campaign that, when I told my mate I was reviewing the film, made him smirk and question my manhood. After all, isn’t it a bit…well, you know? The posters don’t help, featuring Tatum, Alex Pettyfer and Mathew McConaughey topless, with no mention of director Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar & Palm d’Or-winning director that brought you Ocean’s Eleven, Solaris, and Sex, Lies and Videotape.

This review is the red pill. In the words of Morhpeus: remember… all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

Despite the big budget trailers, the film immediately looks and feels wilfully independent. Soderbergh takes his cinema seriously, and it shows. Next you’re hit by a realisation that these actors, easy to write off as eye-candy cast to attract a certain demographic, can actually act.

Tatum is the titular Magic Mike, a thirty year-old entrepreneur / furniture designer who supplements his income by stripping. The film is apparently based on Tatum’s real life stripping exploits before he broke Hollywood. Even if this isn’t a particular stretch for him as an actor, he carries the film through sheer dint of his charm and movie star likability, also showing off his comic chops that appeared from nowhere in 21 Jump Street earlier this year.

The star of the show though is undoubtedly Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the Svengali of Mike’s ‘dance troupe’. This part-Peter Pan, part-Fagin is the stripper who can’t give up the thrill of entertaining the ladies, while throughout the film his surface bonhomie slowly peels away to reveal a quite sinister paranoia and survival instinct.

The film falls down on its familiar plotting (with every twist and turn sign-posted a mile away) and some weakly written female characters (Cody Horn and Olivia Munn do the best they can with archetypal ‘love-interest’ roles). Ultimately though, this film focusses on the men it’s portraying. Just not in the way you might expect.

Magic Mike is a funny, charming, and relatively unsexy film. It would be a shame if half the population disregarded the film based on the marketing. Indeed, there is far more oiled male flesh and homoeroticism in blokey favourite 300.

 

Magic Mike is available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray today.

Using Windows 95 to defeat aliens, and other plot holes

The podcast’s very own Steve Norman talks us through the various plot-holes, and narrative choices in films that beguile, frustrate, and bemuse him. BEWARE – HERE BE SPOILERS…


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Before he’s became president Abe was a vampire hunter going after the people who wronged his family. In his training he learnt that his weapon of choice had to be finished in silver to kill the enemy permanently.

Then when the vampires join the south during the civil war Lincoln seems to forget the fact that silver kills them for years, almost until it’s too late.

Surely such an experienced vampire slayer and one of the greatest men to have ever lived wouldn’t have overlooked such an important fact.

GOAL!

Mentioned in another article but a Mexican illegal immigrant living in the United States with no real footballing pedigree or background beyond an organised kick a bout would not be able to get a work permit to play for Newcastle United.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Robots are pretty clever in Star Wars. C3PO can calculate the odds of navigating an asteroid field quicker than Ladbrokes can work out the odds of your five team accumulator. He can speak 3 million languages and in those awful prequels robots made up the whole Trade Federation army.

So why would the Empire not blast a single escape pod out of the sky just because it had no life forms on board. You’d have thought some jobs worth would have pulled the trigger as it was an Imperial directive 7563.

The Shawshank Redemption

Not breaking any ground with this revelation so I won’t dwell on it too much but how did Andy Dufresne get the poster back on the wall?

Indiana Jones: The Raiders of the Lost Ark

Not really a plot hole as Indy didn’t know what he was doing but Indiana Jones is responsible for the Second World War and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. If he doesn’t stop the Nazis, the Ark of the Covenant will make its way directly to Berlin and Adolf Hitler. When history’s second famous moustache (behind Neville Southall) opens the big box he and the majority of his high command will have their face melted off.

War over.

Toy Story

The toys know they are a toy that’s why they act inanimate and like toys when humans, or even dogs, are around. But when Buzz Lightyear comes into the fold he thinks he is a space ranger. So why does he act like a toy when Andy’s in the room?

Inglourious Basterds

Hugo Stiglitz is so famous everyone in the German army has heard of him. His face is in the papers as a traitor. So why when the Basterds go to the Inn does nobody recognise him?

Independence Day

I didn’t really want to include it but it’s in the title. However how an advanced alien race is able to have their systems hacked by Windows 95 is explained in a deleted scene. On that basis I’ll let it slide.

Feel free to offer up explanations to some of the ‘plot holes’ above, or even let us know the plot holes that have annoyed you over the years.

Failed Critics Review: Zombie Special!

Zombies in Shaun of the DeadThe Failed Critics Review is packed full of moaning, shuffling, bad-smelling, and barely sentient beings this week…and we also talk about zombies!

James reports back on the 6th annual UK Festival of Zombie Culture, including the world première of the HD restoration of Zombie Flesh Eaters.

There’s a heated discussion on what constitutes a zombie movie, and whether the zombies that run are proper zombies. And don’t even get James started on Danny Boyle’s view that 28 Days Later isn’t a zombie film.

Then in Triple Bill the critics choose their favourite zombie films of all time.

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A Decade In Film: The Nineties – 1991

A new series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

Kate has chosen to relive the nineties, because she’s old enough to remember them in their entirety This week she revisits 1991.

Beauty & the Beast

beauty & the beast

‘Tie your napkin round your neck, Cherie, and we’ll provide the rest.’

The first animation to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, an honour which wasn’t bestowed again until Up got the nod some 18 years later, Disney present this classic fairy tale as a Broadway production. Notable voices provided by the delightful Angela Lansbury as kindly Mrs Potts, and the late Jerry Orbach, whose French accent steals the show as Lumière  the singing candelabra, in the same year he first appeared in Law & Order.

While other Disney offerings have some cracking songs, make no mistake, this is a musical. Indeed, in another Oscar first, this was the first picture to receive three nominations for Best Original Song.  From the big budget opening number, to Céline Dion warbling over the end credits, this film is all about the singing. ‘Be Our Guest’, performed by the ensemble cast of enchanted objects, is right up there with Little Mermaid‘s ‘Under the Sea’ for lyrical genius.

It’s difficult to find a huge amount of sympathy for the Beast, who really doesn’t do himself any favours considering his mission to ‘love and be loved’ is a rather time sensitive matter. Belle, our plucky protagonist, is sweet enough. But a carriage clock, a teapot & cup, a footstool and the aforementioned candelabra are the real stars. Anyone else find it really disappointing at the end, when they turn back into humans?

Father of the Bride

father of the bride

‘Our plane’s about to take off, but I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye. Thank Mom for everything, ok? Dad, I love you. I love you very much.’

A remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracy & Elizabeth Taylor romp of the same name, Father of the Bride is a simple tale of a daughter flying the nest. Like the Meet the Parents of the nineties, what makes it great is the stellar ensemble cast. Steve Martin portrays almost the same neurotic, fiercely loyal father he did in Parenthood two years earlier. Only this time he plays basketball and makes trainers for a living, so he’s pretty much the perfect dad.

Add to that the always great Diane Keaton, Kieran Culkin at the same age, and just as funny, as his older brother was when he starred in Home Alone, and Martin Short‘s inspired performance as the generically ‘European’ wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer. There is also a bridal couple but, as these things often go, the film is less about them and more about everything surrounding them. Indeed, Wikipedia notes that groom George Newbern is ‘best known for his roles as Bryan MacKenzie in Father of the Bride (1991) and its sequel’.

An enjoyable 105 minutes for anyone who has planned a wedding, owns a daughter, or likes looking at the ridiculously lavish mansions that seemingly pass for a ‘house’ in the United States.

Thelma & Louise

thelma-and-louise

‘Shoot the radio.’

You know that feeling on the last day of your holidays when you really don’t want to go home? This is the tale of what happens when you actually act upon those feelings, under the direction of Ridley Scott. The story obviously resonated, and gained writer Callie Khouri the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for this, her first produced film.

Geena Davis & Susan Sarandon star as sunglasses and head scarf clad best friends, heading off to the mountains in their dusty convertible. Thelma is instantly lovable as the ditzy downtrodden housewife, while Louise is bolshy and demanding, with hints of a hidden past which might make you warm to her. Such is the nature of long car journeys, spend enough time with a person in a confined space and you’ll grow to love them. Or kill them. (Spoiler.)

There’s a cameo from Michael Madsen, a ‘before he was famous’ sex scene with Brad Pitt, and Harvey Keitel as the cop with a heart who is rooting for our anti-heroes. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’re sure to know the oft-parodied ending scene. And while, at age 11 watching my mum’s VHS copy, it took me a while to comprehend the significance of the decision to ‘keep going’ in relation to the Grand Canyon, it was nonetheless pretty inspiring.

Backdraft

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‘You go, we go.’

Admittedly the initial appeal for me was the sight of William ‘Billy’ Baldwin in full firefighter get-up. But legendary director Ron Howard goes one better and makes burning buildings look sexy. Chicago’s emergency services never fail to impress on the big screen, and this depiction of their fire department is no different, gaining the auspicious title of ‘the highest grossing film ever made about firefighters’ in lieu of awards.

Baldwin and Kurt Russell are brothers and co-workers, who become embroiled in the work of a serial arsonist, the fallout of a mayoral campaign, and the deaths of several colleagues. One of them also has sex with Jennifer Jason Leigh on top of a moving fire truck. Have a guess which one. Elsewhere, Robert De Niro puts on a suitably geeky performance as an arson investigator, while Donald Sutherland is like Hannibal Lecter but with fire.

Backdraft has action, obviously, tension, and more than a little heart-wrenching family drama. Personally, nothing makes me sob like a baby more than some on screen reference to real life at the end of a movie. There are over 1,200,700 active firefighters in the U.S. today.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

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‘I’m not one of you, but I fight! I fight with Robin Hood! I fight against a tyrant who holds you under his boot! If you would be free men, then you must fight! Join us now, join Robin Hood!’

A thoroughly British affair, showcasing our rolling landscapes, our engaging folklore and our classic actors. Kevin Costner does his bit, by chucking in the occasional semi-English accent when he remembers to. Which is more than can be said for Christian Slater, as New York’s finest Will Scarlett.

Funny (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not so much) the film builds to the climactic final wedding/multiple hanging celebrations. Naturally Robin of Locksley saves the day, with a combination of arrow skills, sword fighting, and good old fashioned punches to the face. Alan Rickman is at his slimey evil best as The Sheriff of Nottingham, while Morgan Freeman’s Azeem is the person you’d most want to have your back in the woods.

The Bryan Adams rock ballad which featured on the soundtrack spent an epic 16 consecutive weeks at number one in UK charts, and somewhat eclipsed the film. Which is a shame because, to dismiss it, would be to miss out on the most amazing cameo/tribute to The Untouchables at the end.

 

See the five films Kate picked for 1990 or check out the full A Decade in Film series so far.

UK Festival of Zombie Culture – Report

The 6th annual UK Festival of Zombie Culture (and in true zombie film tradition it has another title it goes by – The Day of the Undead) took place, as it always has, at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. More than ever before, this year’s programme had a distinctly British feel to it, with four of the features (and many of the shorts on show) being home-grown affairs.

Scattered around the venue were numerous opportunities to meet the authors of zombie novels, buy various zombie games and DVDs, and even get yourself made-up to look like one of the undead horde. The real draw was the programme of zombie films on display in the state-of-the-art cinema.

First up was the world première of the HD restoration of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, known in the UK as ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’. This unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has been restored for a Blu-ray release (to be released next month), and it certainly looks fantastic. The images are clear, without ever looking too clean.

As a big fan of Dawn of the Dead, I went into this expecting a lesser film – and was actually very pleasantly surprised. Having seen some Italian giallo films recently I have started to get used to seeing dubbing in films, and if I’m honest – I wasn’t here to see realism. There’s plenty of melodramatic acting, and the musical cues almost parody themselves – but the real meat (if you’ll excuse the pun) is in the zombie effects, and the set-pieces.

Not only do the zombies look genuinely like decomposing corpses (sadly, many modern zombie films seem to think a bit of white make-up and a bloody chin will do) – but there are some genuinely horrific scenes of violence here, including the worst scene featuring an eyeball since Un Chien Andalou.

If you are a fan of Romero’s films this is a must for your collection. Actually, this is a must-own for anyone who likes the idea of a zombie fighting a shark.

Next up were a number of short-films, or varying quality. Ross Shepherd’s Victorian Undead certainly looked good, and would make a nice scene in a longer feature. However, as a short film it failed to convey much of a story or any characterisation. A local film made in Loughborough called The End also showed some promise, but the lack of a budget showed when the zombies finally appeared on-screen.

Velvet Road was my pick of the shorts, both stylistically and thematically head and shoulders above the rest of the unofficial competition. Set in the racially-charged US-south in the 1960s it certainly owned a visual debt to The Walking Dead.

The comedy side of the zombie genre was also well-represented. Smush, a short from the team that made last year’s Deadheads, was a rather sweet story of a young girl befriending a hungry zombie. We were also treated to a couple of episodes of  Bumbloods – a four-part web-series about a couple of room-mates trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. What it lacks in budget and story-telling, it makes up with in some great jokes and a home-made charm.

The headline film of the shorts section was Muralim (Poisoned), the first ever state-funded genre film from Israel. A ‘zomedy’ in the style of Shaun of the Dead, it tells the story of army base gardener (and son of a war hero) Danny who has to face down a horde of zombie soldiers on during Passover, while trying to win the heart of his high-school sweetheart. As well as being very funny, it is also an interesting exploration on the way the military can ‘poison’ the minds of soldiers into becoming a homogeneous group of mindless beings who follow orders without question. Deep.

Next up was new British zombie film Before Dawn directed by, and starring Paddy from the UK soap opera Emmerdale (Dominic Brunt, who introduced the screening), and his real-life wife Joanne Marshall.

It tells the story of an estranged couple getting away for a weekend in the country to make one last go of their marriage. Then, obviously, some zombies turn up.

The kitchen-sink set-up of the film actually works really well (as you’d expect from a soap opera veteran), and Brunt and Marshall are believable and sympathetic.

The fact that Brunt has gone for running zombies was always going to upset a traditionalist like me. It’s not that I don’t see them as ‘proper’ zombies, it’s just that I don’t find these modern zombies to be as scary as the shuffling hordes we know as ‘Romero Zombies’. I like the changing power dynamic you get in a film featuring the shuffling zombies. The fact that one or two of them would be reasonably easy to repel, and it’s only when you start getting overwhelmed that you realise the true horror of the monster.

Like most zombie films that don’t aim for all-out comedy, this is a pretty relentlessly depressing film. It’s a good-looking and well-performed piece though, although Brunt’s inexperience shows in the action/fight scenes which are more confusing in the shooting/editing than terrifying.

Before the next screening we were treated to a conversation with Charlie Higson, talking about his ‘The Enemy’ series of books for young adults. He admitted that he felt a fraud as the monsters in his books weren’t strictly zombies in the ‘risen from the dead’ mould, but rather an infected populace as in 28 Days Later. Of course, as he pointed out, I think we have come to accept that the definition of zombie in popular culture has changed to encompass a range of ‘changed humans’ in an end-of-the-world scenario. Higson is a friendly and engaging fellow, with a good-line in stories of scaring his own children.

Up next was The Eschatrilogy, an anthology of stories with a linking narrative arc set within the zombie genre. I was really looking forward to this, and I was sadly very disappointed. The opening 10 minutes of the film looks glorious, and the concept of a ‘watcher’ collecting stories from the zombie apocalypse intrigued me. The problem is that the film’s £15,000 budget is massively outstripped by the film-makers ambitions. Normally I would be able to overlook this, and even applaud it – but when one of the short-cuts they have chosen to make is in the acting department I just can’t get on-board. Nothing is likely to put me off of a film faster than amateur acting. The type of acting you see in the adverts that candidates in The Apprentice make. It didn’t help that the end of the film was cut short by technical problems with the Blu-ray. Unfortunately I don’t think I missed much.

Gangsters, Guns, and ZombiesFinally (for me anyway) was Gangsters, Guns, and Zombies. This low-budget film is basically ‘Lock Stock’ meets ’28 Days Later’. It’s derivative and unoriginal, but it does its best to win the audience over with some genuinely funny lines and some entertaining and sympathetic characters. One I think I might be tempted to watch again.

At this point I was zombied-out. I had to forgo Cockney’s Versus Zombies after 12 straight hours watching the undead, and I applaud anyone who made it to the very end. I really enjoyed my first UK Festival of Zombie Culture though, and I am sure I’ll be back next year.

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2001

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

As this is podcaster Gerry’s own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. In this article, he talks about his favourite films from the year we were supposed to have a Space Odyssey, 2001.

5. Donnie Darko

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I’m going to make an admission before we get started. This one made the list to annoy James, because he hates it and was disgusted that I didn’t like Amelie enough to include it on here (spoiler alert). On this last point by the way, I intend to watch it again as it’s a number of years since I watched it as a teenager and I suspect I might think differently on it now.

Anyhoo, the film that launched Jake Gylenhaal’s career is a moody 80s teenage tale about a young lad who imagines (or does he?) a 6 foot bunny rabbit called Frank, which adds to his already complicated life. Donnie, you see, is already seeing a psychiatrist and struggles to get on with his family, as well as struggling (like we all did) to get things moving with fellow oddball Gretchen who he has somehow managed to date. Richard Kelly explores time travel and mental illness with this cult classic debut, whose success he has never managed to match since either as a writer or director. This is the part where James rants about how deliberately indie this film is but it’s a bit more thoughtful than most teen films and, as a young teen, really hit a chord with me. It straddles genres and tones but somehow makes it work in my eyes – plus it has a deliciously creepy turn from Patrick Swayze. Captures the 80s vibe brilliantly as well as the stifling nature of suburban life which makes it a winner already but the outstanding soundtrack rounds things off nicely.

4. The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

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Guillermo Del Toro’s chilling ghost story is apparently inspired by his own experiences of his uncle’s reincarnation as a ghost. How true this is remains to be proven, but it is certainly filled with a sense of history and realism that adds to the thrills. A dream combination for me in terms of cast (Marisa Paredes, one of Spain’s finest actresses of all time) and crew (Del Toro directing, the Almodóvar brothers producing), this film has all the makings of a classic on paper. It duly delivers. Spine-chillingly brilliant, it tells the story of 12 year old Carlos as he settles into a remote orphanage in the closing stages of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces are closing in on them although the only signs of this are an undetonated bomb sticking out of the ground and Carlos’ being there at all – his father died in the conflict – as the film eschews portrayal of the conflict itself, instead using it as a backdrop, a pervasive feeling of dread and impending doom that permeates every scene.

Podcast regulars will know of my passion for this period in history (the subject of my Masters), this director and particularly his film Pan’s Labyrinth, which Del Toro describes as the ‘sister’ to this film, the ‘brother’ in the sibling relationship. Indeed, this is an exploration of a young boy’s grappling with how horrendous the real world is in much the same way as Pan’s explores a young girl’s struggles in this regard. To the filmmakers’ credit, the ghost story is often rather secondary to the very human drama and this is most certainly a far cry from the average Hollywood horror. Utterly tremendous. So tremendous in fact that just writing this article has made me decide to watch it again tonight.

3. A Beautiful Mind

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Russell Crowe was number one in my last list and he is outstanding again here as John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician whose brilliant intellect is unfortunately coupled with rather fragile mental health. Beginning with Nash enrolling at Princeton as an implausibly old-looking student and following his life and career, this is more than a simple biopic. Ron Howard manages to craft an engaging and exciting drama to go alongside excellent examinations of the characters and mental illness in general, as John’s grip on reality becomes less and less firm. There is a sense of genuine care and affection for the material throughout and the cast, including excellent performances from Ed Harris and Paul Bettany, keep the film grounded and engaging. Crowe is absolutely outstanding though and his keenly observed depiction of John Nash, who he met during filming, is consistently wonderful. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that the film was shot sequentially, so Crowe could maintain a sense of steady decline and progress further and further into Nash’s mental illness.

This film speaks to something in me that I can’t quite put my finger on, with Crowe’s emotional turmoil and despair often really affecting me (something films don’t do all that much to me to be honest – I’m half dead inside when it comes to celluloid). The recurring theme of love is dealt with in an even-handed way, building to a deeply emotional ending. A thoughtful exploration of mental illness from a big Hollywood director with a big Hollywood star (who the year before was iconic as Gladiator Maximus, let’s not forget) – who’dathunkit? Yes I know that lots of unsavoury elements of Nash’s life were left out (including homosexual affairs, which were left out to avoid mistaken connections between homosexuality and schizophrenia) but this remains an outstanding film. Even Roger Ebert says so.

2. Monsters, Inc.

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I didn’t get round to watching Monsters Inc until a few years ago, largely because I was at that stage where you feel too old to watch kids films and can’t appreciate them in the same way you do as an adult. What an error. The story of Mike and Sully, two monsters whose job is to scare children to generate power, and Boo – a child who wanders back into Monstropolis, where the monsters are in fact terrified of her thanks to their fear of being contaminated by a child. Pete Docter, the bizarre-looking genius who would later direct Up and write Wall-E, stepped up to directing this having written the first two Toy Story films. He got it bang on.

Visually stunning and setting new standards in animation (frames with Sulley in took around 12 hours to render due to his 2.3 million individually animated strands of hair), Monsters Inc is also brilliantly written. The most outstanding feature however is the voice talent. Unusually, John Goodman and Billy Crystal recorded together, as did Steve Buscemi and Frank Oz – see what I mean about voice talent? Crystal, as an aside, lobbied for this part after turning down a part in Toy Story, calling it the biggest regret of his career. Equally fascinating and reflective of the dedication to innovation at Pixar, the actress who played Boo was so authentically young that she would wander around rather than stand at a mic and perform her lines. Pixar simply followed her around with a microphone as she played, giving her speech a joyfully authentic feeling.

That joy and enthusiasm for childhood, evident in all Pixar’s films, saturates every frame of this. We’ve come to expect the attention to detail and cool trivia (numerous Toy Story references feature, as does Nemo two years before that film was finished. Oh and the pizza planet truck is in the shot of the trailer at the end, the same trailer from A Bug’s Life. METAOVERLOAD) but this really confirmed that outside of Toy Story, Pixar still had a genuine talent for identifying what it feels like to be a kid and to depict that in such a way that the viewer can’t help but be drawn into a world of nostalgia and happiness. I am massively excited about the sequel currently in development and yet simultaneously terrified it will be shit.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

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You knew this was coming. Don’t act like you didn’t. Peter Jackson’s epic saga kicked off with this and it was so outstanding, so visually lush, so joyously nerdish and cherishing of the source material, and so dramatically powerful that it seemed a certainty to clean up at the Oscars. As it was, despite thirteen nominations, LOTR won only (ONLY) four in technical categories, losing out to A Beautiful Mind for Best Picture and Best Director. That said, I prefer this film because despite its length, I feel it offers the most immersive cinematic experience since Star Wars. Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood weren’t big names beforehand but they certainly were after this, along with most of the cast. Ian McKellen is positively iconic as Gandalf and even Orlando Bloom manages to not be annoying for one of only two times in his film career (the other being Kingdom of Heaven). I’m reviewing this as if it’s the entire series because it is the basis for the two even better films that come after it and, despite being the ‘worst’ of the trilogy, was still the best film of the year.

I know a lot of people find it too long or boring or nerdy or whatever but frankly, I don’t care. This is an epic journey in the same tradition that stretches back through human history, a thoroughly British tale about fantastical worlds that is still universal (and helped boost New Zealand’s profile and economy considerably) thanks to its deeply human core. I have my reservations about The Hobbit but there is no doubting that this film is the beginning of a trilogy which sets the benchmark for epic drama. Plus, had this not been made in this way, would we have Game of Thrones on TV in a grand scale? I think not. And Game of Thrones is fucking awesome. So there.

Failed Critics Review: Argo

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The Sapphires

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It didn’t get off to a great start. I was tricked into attending a screening at the cinema which doesn’t have a bar. At least it was a free screening, courtesy of our television providers Virgin Media. We like to sit in the comfort of our own sofa and enjoy our critically acclaimed series links with a sense of moral superiority. Meeting our Virgin peers in real life is a difference matter. Waiting in  line, I felt like I was queuing for my X Factor audition. Only for that I would’ve needed significantly more than two cans of pre-mixed gin & tonic secreted in my coat pockets.

We merry band of Virgins queued near the food stand. My friend was late (because I’d sent her to the wrong cinema) so I stood on my own and pondered the big screen’s great questions. Do people really pay a fiver for a family size cup of Quality Street? Oh yes, yes they do.

‘They used to have a special offer where you could get a big drink & a small drink. They don’t have it any more.’ ‘I can’t eat salt popcorn. It’s so salty.’ – The people behind me successfully maintained small talk about a food stand for 18 minutes.

‘Have you had your tickets checked? What film are you here for?’ ‘Paranormal Activity’. ‘No that’s just a normal film, not a shit munchers film. You don’t have to stand in the lobby’s cheapskate area. You are free to enter your cinema screen immediately, like a fully functioning member of society.’ – Why do people just join queues without checking what they are for? What am I doing here?

I can’t tell you what happened for the first 20 minutes of the film, as Virgin give out free bags of popcorn to every customer. Which is lovely. Like having the full on cinema food experience in 3D.

So there are these Aboriginal sisters. They’re all a bit bolshy, as sisters are prone to be, but their mum keeps them in line by breaking into song whenever they have an argument. And that works, apparently! So, parenting tip: just buy Sing Star. Another parenting tip: if you’re the youngest of three Aboriginal sisters, and you have a small child but decide to jet off to Saigon on a singing gig anyway, your small child will be represented for the rest of the movie by your dad holding an enormous vaguely child shaped blanket. And that will be a little creepy.

Chris O’Dowd stars. At the start of the film he’s a drunk washed up old (Irish) cruise ship ents manager. However, before long he’s whipped The Sapphires into shape, taught them some dance moves and propelled them off to entertain the American troops. He returns from Vietnam a hero. Does Chris O’Dowd always play an Irish man? Genuine question, I’ve only seen him in two films and The IT Crowd. O’Dowd’s performance is pretty fine. It is also important to note that, thanks partly to his initial role as ‘drunken bum’, he appears in his pants no less than three times during the course of the film. If you’re into that kind of thing. (I am very much into that kind of thing.)

The film is set in 1968. You can tell that because the year flashes up on the screen at the beginning. And thanks to vague references to the Vietnam war. It doesn’t really feel like 1968. There is a war scene at one point, which is a bit like when you watch Band of Brothers and shout out ‘oh look, David Schwimmer’, and ‘hey, that’s the guy from The IT Crowd’.

The girls ditch their country and western routes and enjoy great success on the army circuit with their performances  of soul classics. It’s toe tapping, but there aren’t enough songs for it to be considered a musical. Amid the singing, there’s the requisite amount of family drama, kissing, and sparkly dresses. It’s just nice, you know? With a clunky bit of ‘based on a true story’ thrown in at the end for good measure. Just be sure to take your own Quality Street.

A Decade in Film: The Sixties – 1960

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

Editor James Diamond gave himself the shortest straw (or the most work) in handing the 1960s to himself. Here he chooses his favourite films from 1960 .

5. The Magnificent Seven

“Generosity… that was my first mistake. I leave these people a little bit extra, and then they hire these men to make trouble. It shows you, sooner or later, you must answer for every good deed.”

When it comes to Hollywood remakes of brilliant foreign-language films I’m usually first in line with a torch, pitchfork, and a burning sense of self-righteous indignation. However sometimes, on a rare occasion, such a remake produces a film with that stands on its own two feet. The Magnificent Seven is one such a film.

Directed by John Sturges (who went onto direct Steve McQueen in another ensemble cast in The Great Escape), this remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was loved by the Japanese director. Transplanting the action from feudal Japan to a border town in the Wild West, The Magnificent Seven pits seven gunmen (including Yul Bryner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn) with differing motives against an evil bandit terrorising a village (played with textbook relish by Eli Wallach).

The Western myth had already faced deconstruction a decade earlier in films like High Noon and The Gunfighter, but The Magnificent Seven was the next evolutionary step between the ‘traditional Western’ and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone that would go on to redefine the genre for some many people later in the decade.

This is still a great Sunday afternoon film for me – Elmer Bernstein’s score, wonderful interplay between the villagers and the gunmen, and the epic shoot-out towards the end make this one of the most enjoyable Westerns.

 

4. Breathless (A bout de soufflé)

“Patricia Franchini: What is your greatest ambition in life?
Parvulesco: To become immortal… and then die.”

Simply one of the most influential films of all time, and it’s a crime it took me until my thirties to actually sit down and watch it. I’d convinced myself that I just didn’t like French New Wave cinema on the basis of a couple of films I had to watch while at university. However, if like me you can’t watch a film without taking into account its historical context, Breathless is more than an example of French New Wave – it’s part of the DNA of all films that we watch today.

However difficult it is, you simply must watch Breathless while trying to forget everything you have seen in cinema that has come since. If you can do that you start to realise that without Jean Luc-Godard’s debut (and let’s not even think about the sheer audacity of this as a debut feature) there is possibly no Tarantino, no Spielberg, no Ridley or Tony Scott – maybe even no Michael Bay.

Even if we look past the technical triumphs of this film (the innovative use of jump-cuts, shot entirely on handheld camera, guerrilla shooting without permission on the streets of Paris) the film still works as a wonderfully cool character study of a morally bankrupt criminal, and the woman that loves him despite this. Parts of this film feel like they were written and shot in the last few years, such is the level of cynicism and moral ambiguity. For someone whose experience of 60s cinema growing up was the Carry On and Bond films, this came as quite a shock to the system.

And it is undeniably, seductively, French. So very French.

Available for streaming on Lovefilm Instant

 

3. The Apartment

“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”

Another film that took me a criminal amount of time to see, Billy Wilder’s film about a lowly office drone who rises through the ranks of his company by letting out his apartment for ‘extra-curricular’ activities is another example of a cynicism of the time that I missed when I was younger.

I was expecting a knock-about comedy in the style of Some Like it Hot from the director and star (Jack Lemmon), but while there are some wonderfully crafted lines and some beautifully subtle slapstick from Lemmon – the overall tone of the film is much darker than the cross-dressing comedy from the previous year. While watching it, I felt this was a spiritual companion piece to David Lean’s wonderful Brief Encounter – so it was no surprise to find out that Wilder had originally had the idea for this film after watching it.

C.C. Baxter is the kind of character you might find in a Kafka novel (thanks Owen from the Failed Critics podcast for that reference!), or possibly in a Vaclav Havel play (particularly something like the Memorandum). Everyone in his life takes advantage of him, and while the material benefits of his arrangements may be obvious – he is slowly dying inside every time he swallows his pride, or the truth, to protect someone who wouldn’t give him the same courtesy. It’s what makes Baxter such a sympathetic, but ultimately frustrating character.

It’s impossible to talk about Lemmon and his character without briefly allowing ourselves to wallow in the tortured beauty of his opposite number Fran, played superbly by Shirley MacLaine. With an endearing kookiness that makes Zooey Deschanel appear like a child who has had a can of Coke too many, and eyes you could swim in for an eternity, she manages to make us root for a woman that is sleeping with a married man, and allows Baxter to fall further and further into depression.

 

2. Peeping Tom

“I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.”

In early-1960, two of Britain’s greatest-ever directors released controversial ‘slasher’ films, full of violent imagery, morally ambiguous victims, and mentally-deranged killers with parental issues. For one of them it cemented their reputation as a master of their craft with the audiences of the time. For the other one it pretty much killed their long and illustrious career stone-dead.

By 1960 Michael Powell (along with Emeric Pressburger) had written and directed some of the finest British films ever made. In the 1940s alone they made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (hated by Churchill and hampered commercially for its anti-war sentiments on its release), A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. By 1960 they had gone their separate ways creatively, and Powell teamed up with writer Leo Marks for this story of a focus-puller on a film set who stalked women by night and filmed their deaths on the camera that he always carries with him.

Sadly for Powell, the film received a critical mauling on its release, with critics savaging it for its violence, and the fact that the killer Mark (played with an frosty creepiness by Carl Boehm) was a morally interesting character and arguably a product of his upbringing rather than being inherently evil. In wasn’t until the 1970s, helped largely by Martin Scorsese publicly lauding the film, that Peeping Tom came to be reappraised as a British classic. Powell himself rues the situation in his autobiography saying “I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.”

Available for streaming on Lovefilm Instant

 

1. Psycho

“Well, a son is a poor substitute for a lover.”

And onto the other film I described in my introduction to Peeping Tom, and the film that I have reserved the coveted Number One slot on my list for – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Unlike Powell, Hitchcock’s reputation was enhanced by this cynical, morally ambiguous slasher-film. This could be because Hitchcock, having seen what happened to Peeping Tom cancelled all press-screenings for his latest film (usually a sign of a sticker in today’s climate) and insisted the critics had to pay to see the film, and watch it at the same time as the general public. By the time their (still largely negative) reviews came out they were already irrelevant – Psycho was an undisputed box office success.

What is also clear with the benefit of hindsight is that it is a masterful film, and possibly one of Hitch’s best. In fact, it’s difficult to find anything negative to say about the film. Unlike Powell’s Peeping Tom where the killer is known from the start, Psycho features the ‘Master of Suspense’ at his best in leading the audience down the darkened alleyways of the film’s unfolding narrative.

Anthony Perkins puts in an outstanding performance (possibly too good, as he never seemed to be able to leave this role behind for the rest of his career) as Norman Bates – the mild-mannered motel manager who has serious ‘mummy issues’, and who finds himself attracted to the beautiful, but mysterious girl who turns up late one night to stay at his establishment.

That girl is of course Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who dies in the shower in the film’s most iconic scene. In yet another example of the cynicism starting to appear in the films of the 1960s Marion is staying in the motel while on the run from her employers and the police for stealing $40,000. For the first time in mainstream cinema we’re starting to see normal people doing bad things, and getting punished for it. Marion isn’t a gangster’s moll, or a scheming femme fatale from a film noir. She’s a normal woman, having an affair with a married man, who is presented with an opportunity and, in desperation, takes it.

Also well as the shower scene, the most famous aspect of the film is probably Bernard Hermman’s score. Almost ever-present throughout the film, it acts as a character in its own right – like an omnipotent narrator. Hitchcock was a fantastic director, but often his greatest strengths were in surrounding himself with the right people. Psycho’s key ingredients of the original novel and screenplay, the actors on set, and the score from Hermann were blended by Hitch with the magic of a medieval alchemist to produce one of the most incredible films of the 20th Century.

Failed Critics Review: New Star Wars!

Welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Review, where for numerous reasons (too busy being a vigilante, boarding up his house for the impending Zombie apocalypse, being asleep, and having scurvy) we didn’t get to the cinema.

Oh, and our planned review of The Master was shelved because it’s only showing in ‘that London’ for a fortnight.

Never fear though, we still manage to fill over an hour with what we’ve watched this week, as well as our reaction to Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm (and the announced new Star Wars films), and Steve does his best Anne Robinson as we go all Watchdog on the asses of the cinema chains we happen to frequent.

Don’t worry – we’ll be back to normal next week when we review Oscar-contender (it better be – James has backed it at 10-1) Argo.

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