No. 187 – Network (1976)

As I have mentioned before, I think context is inseparable from your enjoyment of a film as an isolated piece of art. You a film through any number of filters – including your preconceptions and prejudices, right down to where you watched the film, and who you watched it with.

And one huge filter you view any film through, and one that changes from generation to generation, is the world you live in. You can’t escape the fact that the audiences watching Network when it was released view the world, especially the news media, in a totally different way to the way we do today.

This, in my opinion, is Network’s biggest problem. I am meant to be shocked that a news network would put a deranged ‘prophet’ on the air, but that shock is lost when you realise that Howard Beale would probably only be the third of fourth most unhinged member of the ‘news’ team on Fox. In particular, Glen Beck seems to have based his entire shtick on the character of Howard Beale, and someone must have told him to dial it up.

I didn’t find Beale’s breakdown believable at all – it seemed to happen overnight, and is possibly one of the least-deserving Oscar-winning performances I have ever seen. After the first 15 minutes Peter finch is Hollywood at its most self-indulgent.

I'm as mad as hell...that this performance beat Rober De Niro's portrayal of Travis Bickle to the Oscar for Best Actor.

 

The film was at least 20 minutes too long (it’s never a great sign when you are checking how long of the film is left), and the whole ‘terrorism on television’ plotline again seemed dated. There were a few funny moments in the plotline (the scene where the leader of the Ecumenical Liberation Army was negotiating contract terms), but it felt crowbarred in for the sake of the ending – which in itself felt rushed and filmed because they couldn’t think how else to get out of the narrative cul-de-sac they had positioned themselves in.

There were some good points though. Some of the dialogue was razor sharp, and zipped along at a pace that made it obvious that Network was a big influence on Aaron Sorkin. It’s just that Aaron Sorkin does it even better. The acting of the supporting cast was also excellent – Robert Duvall was even better than in The Godfather, and William Holden and Faye Dunaway were mesmerising in a romantic subplot that I found far more satisfying than the main plot. And I’m the type of person who hates romantic subplots.

Some may think I’m a heretic here, but I really didn’t see the fuss about Network. In fact, I’d be willing to argue with anyone that if the IMDB Top 250 really needs a psychologically-damaged, renegade newsreader film, then I would prefer Anchorman

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No. 201 – Hugo (2011)

Now this is exactly why I decided to watch the IMDB Top 250. Old, safe me would have seen the trailers, noted the U certificate, and cursed the idea of 3D to hell and shunned this film completely. I may well even have had arguments with fans of the film telling them they were wrong and that Scorsese had lost it – despite never watching a single frame of the film beyond the press clips.

Old, safe me is a dickhead.

I am still not sold on the future of 3D cinema, by any stretch of the imagination. Mark Kermode gives a far better argument as to why 3D ruins films and is basically just an anti-piracy measure that adds nothing to a film in his brilliant ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Mulitplex’ – but my own personal experience is that 3D gives me a headache, darkens the screen by at least 50%, and is pointless in scenes where not much is happening.

Still, at least the lovely Phoenix Square cinema doesn’t charge extra for 3D films, and you get to borrow glasses for free as well. And you get to take a beer in with you, if you so desire.

Anyway, the film. I couldn’t help feeling that the gods of cinema were talking directly to me at times. Like Kingsley’s excellent Méliès, I too have fallen out of love with the movies in recent times, and tried to forget about my youth when I lived and breathed cinema. Whereas I had an oncoming midlife crisis and Mark Kermode to ‘fix’ me, Méliès has Hugo (an orphan played by Asa Butterfield who beautifully captures the fragility and street-toughness essential to the believability of the character) and his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz who manages to be precocious and almost pretentious, without being obnoxious). Both child actors more than hold their own amongst heavyweights like Kingsley, Ray Winstone (in a mercifully brief role), Jude Law (playing genuinely likeable once more – he should try it more often), and Emily Mortimer. They have a decent pedigree, so it shouldn’t be that surprising that they can act – but their performances have made me want to see The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas and Kick Ass as a matter of urgency.

Non annoying child actors. Wow.

 

The film itself looks amazing. I haven’t been as blown away by a film visually since Amélie, and to a lesser extent, 300. The opening 10 minutes actually make the pain of wearing 3D glasses worth it, and the recreations and reimaginations of Méliès films are the sign of a director absolutely loving his work. The story brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion, and there is very little to fault anywhere in this film. I even enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen channelling ‘Allo ‘Allo in his role as the Station Inspector. His scenes were handled with enough of a straight face, and with subtlety from both actor and director so as not to become annoying.

One more thing though. Dear Mr Scorsese, please don’t hang out with James Cameron anymore. I’m worried you might be thinking of re-releasing Goodfellas in 3D…

No.182 – V For Vendetta (2006)

It seems very apt that I should start my journey with a film about a masked protester, trying to inspire a nation to rise up against a fascist UK government ruling by fear. OK, it’s not exactly a story for right now, but the message I took from V For Vendetta was one of a nation’s weakness and apathy letting the devil in the back door.

People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

I was surprised to see this film in the IMDB top 250 – I’ll be honest and say that I had dismissed it previously as another piece of comicbook-adaptation fluff. It is only recently that I have properly investigated Alan Moore’s work (seen as arguably the most influential graphic novelist of all time), and so I came to this film with heightened expectations.
I am starting back on this trail to film criticism again, so rather than write an essay on the themes of the film, and the social commentary contained within – I will just tell you what I really fucking liked about it.
Hugo Weaving – you know, Agent Smith from The Matrix – spends the whole film in the mask. We never once see his face. This is a brave move by the director, and an even braver move by Weaving (who proved braver than the team behind the atrocious Judge Dredd film) Luckily his dialogue is more charming freedom-fighter than pretentious student. In fact, if Arthur Scargill had had V’s zest for language and general bonhomie then the minor’s strike could well have ended very differently. The reverse of that is the always-brilliant Roger Allam as ‘The Voice of London’ – a right-wing commentator that Fox would kill to have on the payroll. The only mystery is how anyone could vote for John Hurt’s High Chancellor. He exudes so much malice and venom that I certainly couldn’t imagine him on The One Show talking about the last CD he bought.
The cast in general were excellent. Portman showed a genuine confusion over where her loyalties should lie, and Stephen Fry did a more than passable impression of the nation treasure that is Stephen Fry.
The only problem I had for a while was trying to place where I had last seen the majority of the British cast. Half the film felt like an epic US blockbuster, and the other half like a Channel 4 regional police drama – but  feel the very English feel of the film was not only loyal to the original text, but also one of the film’s strengths.
Overall, I am very happy with the start to my project. This was a film that not only made me think, but also entertained. All too rare in modern film unfortunately. A worthy member of the 250 club.
Oh my!

The Failed Critic watches the Top 250 IMDB Films

What
The Failed Critic is planning to watch all films listed in IMDB.com’s ‘Top 250 Films’ list (as of 15th December 2011), including re-watching those he has already seen (approximately 105 – although he may have fallen asleep watching a few of those).

He will be recording his rambling musings about these films – partly as a testament to this goliath task, but mainly to act as an outlet for his thoughts so that he doesn’t bore his wife with inane chat about Kurosawa while she is busy doing important things like making sure their child is fed, clothed, and not throwing herself downstairs.

Who
The Failed Critic is, almost inevitably, a failed writer. He’s also a failed academic (ungraded Media Studies A Level, 3 weeks on a Film Studies A Level), although he did manage a year studying Media at University. A 32-year old husband and father of one, he is now into the third year of his mid-life kerfuffle (crisis is far too strong a word for the fluffy doubts we’re talking about here). Having ‘tried’ stand-up comedy, golf, and making friends – he is hoping that he can finally maintain a blog for longer than a month and renew his previous passions for film and writing.

Where
Most often: In the living room. Preferably watching the film on Blu-ray, and sat in his favourite battered Ikea leather recliner with a big fuck-off pair of headphones. There will almost certainly be a whisky or real ale.

Rarely: As a treat, and as schedules allow, the Failed Critic may get to watch a few of the films in the rather lovely Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. Somewhere he can have a drink, but avoid the sight and sound of popcorn, teenagers, and cardboard cut-outs of Chipmunks.

Hopefully never: The local multiplex. In the highly unlikely event that they decide to show one of ‘the list’ – an afternoon off will be in order to try and see the film before the schools kick out.

When
In 2012, and beyond. A realistic schedule of two films a week means this will probably go on until at least summer 2014. Due to the Failed Critic’s busy work-life, frenetic home-life, and general flakiness and laziness, this is as likely to happen as a new Kate Bush album appearing in that same timescale.

WHY?!
A few years ago TV, with its convenience and less time-intensive needs, seduced the Failed Critic away from the first love of his life – film.Combined with the ever-increasing cost of going to the cinema, and the reducing value and enjoyment for the money involved, the Failed Critic just walked away. As his 32nd birthday approached, he realised that he had only been to see two films all year, and one of those was a re-release of Spielberg’s last great film (Jurassic Park). Not only did that film give him the same thrills as when he was 13, but he realised how much he missed those thrills.

Not only that, but for the last few years, he had only watched films he was pretty sure he would like. DVDs stacked up in their cellophane – bought on a whim, and then never watched due to the fear of spending two hours watching something he might not enjoy. The very same fear of failure that had paralysed him as a writer, and had led to many aborted attempts at hobbies as soon as he found them difficult.

Then in late 2011, two things happened.

First, he saw Inception. It blew him away.

He had forgotten the feeling you get when a film creeps under your skin, and keeps asking you questions. The memory of the experience you have had being your companion for the next few days. Asking you questions. Reminding you of short shots, or snippets of dialogue. Making you want to go online and soak up everything anyone has ever said about the film like a sponge.

Then, the Guardian published an extract of the latest Mark Kermode book. It was an abridged version of a chapter which was asking why blockbusters can’t be more intelligent, and blew away the myth that audiences demand their event movies to be popcorn-eating, mindless fluff. He bought the book, and then started devouring reviews, trailers, and articles in the same way his 18-year old self used to. It was magical. But that is when he realised that there was a major hole in his film education. The Failed Critic is far from being a movie snob (he unashamedly loves 300, Team America, xXx for example), but even he can see that certain films are important cultural touchstones, and that he needs to see them at least once.

He has remembered that spending two hours watching a film, any film, is rarely a complete waste.

“But hey, enough of my yakkin’; whaddaya say? Let’s boogie!”

Home of the Failed Critics Film Podcast and blog, gaming podcast Character Unlock, and cult film podcast Underground Nights