The Failed critic goes aural…

Lloyd Dobler's Boom Box
The Failed Critics podcast - perfect for wooing your girlfriend loudly outside her house

Just a quick post to let you know that the inaugural Failed Critics podcast is being recorded this evening, and will be uop on this site on Wednesday evening.

I will be joined by almost total strangers Gerry and Steve as we discuss this week’s big release – The Cabin in the Woods.

We will also be discussing our top 3 ‘Desert Island Films’, the good and the bad movies we’ve seen this week, and who would play us in our inevitable Weinstein-backed, Oscar-nominated biopics.

I’m really excited for you all to hear this.

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Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001)

At some point in your life, you’ll be tasked with arranging a hen night which includes a private film screening of Amélie, and accompanying French themed party. This is statistically likely to happen to most people, and in no way highly specific to my own personal situation. However, since I’ve been there, I am able to offer some top tips.

Tip One: Run. For. The. Hills.

The associated admin of said event will fill you with such rage that you will come to hate: the film Amélie, Gmail, Delia Smith, the character Amélie, the staff of your local card shop, camping, star of Amélie Audrey Tautou, January, Ikea and, inexplicably, Danish pastries.

It’s just not worth it. Instead, google the couple who had an incredibly stylish Amélie themed wedding, and become friends with them. They look cool. I bet she never had to put up with this shit.

Amélie is wonderful, magical film. For those people who find it wonderfully magical. Others hate it, for the very reason the first lot love it. The third group of people haven’t seen it, or are ambivalent. Such is life. Me? When it’s not inspiring social occasions which ruin my life, I love it.

On paper, the film is cheesy as fuck. It’s full of lines like ‘a surge of love, an urge to help mankind engulfs her’. There are talking passport photos, winking statues, and endless silly faces. It’s a whimsical boy meets girl. But it works. What elevates it high above all the other love stories are the details. The supporting characters. The cinematography. The entirely perfect score.I’m not going to try and break it down any further than that because that’s just not how it’s meant to be experienced. And also because I’m kind of busy. Did you not read the first paragraph?

Director Jeunet‘s god like genius aside, the main reason this thing looks so good is Audrey Tautou. Brass tacks: she’s exquisite. From the opening shot of her in the cafe, to the closing shot of her dicking around on a moped. The smile, the enormous eyes, my god the hair! Seriously, it’s worth watching for that bob alone.

The fans adore Amélie fervently. Try googling anything about the film. You can’t, since every parent on the planet from 2001 onwards named their baby girl Amélie. And then posted every minute detail of her life into the first page of my google search results.

I hope the haters hate it because it’s too quirky. Because they’re not into the music. Or some other genuine reason like they got dumped during a screening of it. I really hope they aren’t dismissing it because it happens to fall into the category ‘non-English language’.

I saw a mention of the film in a women’s magazine last week, which said something along the lines of ‘Audrey Tautou is so memorising and stylish as Amélie it’s worth putting up with the subtitles’. I can’t quote it exactly, because I stabbed the moronic magazine in the face. Similarly, the second message board post on its IMDB page is from someone desperately searching for a dubbed version. Don’t even get me started.

Watch Amélie if, like me, you need momentary respite from hating every person on Earth.

Kate likes: polishing mirrors, overhearing private phone conversations, eating the end piece of a sliced loaf of bread.

 

No. 53 – Wall-E (2008) and No. 246 – Beauty and the Beast (1991)

After the hugely depressing ‘Battle Royale of Battle Royales’, I got to spend the entire Easter weekend with my 18-month old daughter. Now, I used to worry that my children wouldn’t like the ‘right’ kind of music, but it’s only since I’ve been a father I’ve realised bad films are far worse than bad music.

I can take the worst tweeny nonsense Simon Cowell has to throw at me in my stride. Bad music is easy to tune out from; but I can’t look away from a bad movie.

And when you are a parent, you better get used to sitting down and watching the same film about a hundred times. My daughter already has her first crush – on Macaulay Culkin. I’ve seen Home Alone so many times over the past six months I can recite it pretty much word for word (favourite quote this week – “You’re what the French call Les Incompetente). It’s a good job Home Alone came from the mind of John Hughes (RIP), and is actually a pretty decent kids film. Culkin is a genuinely charming performer, and he is ably backed up by Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara, and John Candy (RIP, again). Compare this to the pretty awful Marmaduke, which made a brief appearance for a week, and has now been conveniently lost…

Anyway, this weekend gave me the chance not only see two more films from the list, but also to lay some more good film foundations for the future.

First up, we watched Wall-E. And although my daughter walked off a few times during this film, I was enraptured. The opening 40 minutes or so are some of the most beautiful, touching, and charming images ever committed to film. I am struggling to do justice to this section of the film with my flabby and poorly created words. I know it’s lazy, but you really have to see it for yourselves. It finds beauty in human creation – the tiny artefacts that we take for granted and throw away every day.

Director Andrew Stanton (he of monumental Disney flop John Carter) claims that the inspiration for Wall-E can from a pair of binoculars at a horse racing meeting. Hmmm, I do suspect this might be an invention to stop the producers of Short Circuit suing for image rights. Wall-E is one Johnny 5-looking muthafucka.

Interestingly, this is the first time Pixar have used live-action footage in one of their films – with the always-watchable Fred Willard playing the president of Earth who orders the evacuation of the planet after humankind pollutes it to such an extent that it becomes uninhabitable.

The second-half of the film can never quite live up to the pure genius of the first half, and fades into standard Pixar fare. Although, even ‘standard Pixar fare’ is still better than most films produced in any given year.

Beauty and the Beast was the second half of our double-bill. This is the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (it lost out to The Silence of the Lambs), and shares the record with Wall-E of 6 nominations (it won 2 – Best Score, and Best Original Song).

This is a whole different kettle of fish to Wall-E, but still very enjoyable. I remember seeing this film when I was still at school, but cynically dismissing it (as cynically as a 12 year-old can). I’m now older, wiser, and a lot more susceptible to a big opening musical number.

I’d forgotten how good the songs are (and I’m surprised that I wasn’t aware of the Broadway stage version – this seems far more suited to a stage adaptation than The Lion King for example), and the animation looks glorious on Blu-ray. This is one of the last great ‘classic’ Disney animations, and genuinely feels timeless.

The little one struggled to sit and watch both films if I’m honest, and she is already showing signs that she prefers live action to classic animation. That said, I had a great weekend and I’ve hopefully started the brainwashing early enough.

The Battle Royale of ‘Battle Royales’

This week I’ve decided to do something a little different. The IMDB Top 250 can wait, as I decide to put 5 portrayals of dystopian futures where people fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses into a figurative arena to…well, fight to the death. And yes – I wanted to go and see The Hunger Games and therefore have to justify it as some kind of research so I can avoid the hypocrisy inherent in the insults I throw at adults who enjoy things like Harry Potter and Twilight.

Firstly, I had to select the films and set some ground rules. These were:

• The film must be set in the future, even if it’s only a few years in the future
• It must recognisably set on Earth
• Death must be the primary aim of the ‘contests’, not just a by-product
• The ‘contests’ must be state-sanctioned and legal in the film’s universe

After asking on Twitter, I received a number of suggestions. One of the most popular suggestions was the original Rollerball, but this was disqualified due to the third rule. I also had suggestions for The Condemned and The Tournament, but I discarded these because they were either set in the present, or they featured an illegal tournament. Plus, they both looked fucking terrible.

The five I eventually decided on represent a wide-range of cinematic work. We have a couple of cult indies, a couple of Hollywood blockbusters, and a foreign-language film. And while they fit the same template above, the contests themselves fit into a few different sub-genres of the Dystopian Battle Royal movie.

We have the Gladatorial films, where innocent people are thrown to the lions of state-sponsored murderers. These films clearly have their roots in the tales of Rome and the Coliseum. These films pit people trying to survive against people encouraged by the state, and the public, to kill them.

And then we have the Senseless Murder Contest films – where innocent people are chosen (usually at random) to enter an ‘arena’ and kill each other until only one remains. The participants in this film are not professional killers, and some will adapt quicker than others.

So, without further ado – let’s meet our contenders.

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Type: Gladiatorial (from the point of view of the gladiators)

Plot: In the titles that look like a 14 year-old’s art project, we learn it’s the year 2000, and the annual Trans-American Death Race is the best thing on television. Brought to the masses by Mr President (holidaying in the film Flash Gordon by the looks of it), the idea is for some professional drivers and their navigators to race across America in crazy modified cars. The twist being they earn extra points for killing pedestrians. It’s basically Wacky Races with decapitations.

Stars: David Carradine (straight from Kung Fu) plays the anti-hero Frankenstein. The best driver in the history of the race, and the president’s favourite. Sylvester Stallone is his arch-rival Machine-Gun Joe – who comes across like an adult turned away from the Bugsy Malone auditions. It also has a number of crazy, groovy baby casualties from the Woodstock Generation

Best Kill: For some unexplained reason, a lone spectator decides to play matador with one of the drivers. Things don’t end well…

Example Line: “I don’t need a nurse. I need a navigator”

This is the best thing about the film. Honestly.

Verdict: Let there be no doubt, this is a dreadful film. It’s badly written, acted, and put-together. There are enough plot-holes to power a small-town (if plot-holes give off energy – which they might), and just one example of this is when Machine-Gun Joe kills one of a road-works crew early on in the film. This is the biggest event of the year in these people’s lives – why the fuck would you be working on the roads when the Death Race was taking place? Luckily, the film zips along at a fair pace (as I get older I becoming increasingly grateful for any film shorter than 90 minutes – this is a breathless 79 minutes long), and it never takes itself too seriously. In fact, by the end I was positively drawn into this ridiculous world.

You know you’re in a presence of something special when a film makes you stand up and yell “what the fuck?!” at the television. There is also a scene where David Carradine dances in just his pants, a leather glove, and gimp mask. Michael Bay doesn’t give you that!

I’m not sure whether to give this film a 2/10, or a 7/10. I enjoyed it more than Warrior though.

The Running Man (1987)

Type: Gladiatorial (from the point of view of the ‘Christian’)

Plot: According the Commodore 64-inspired pre-credits sequence, it’s 2017 and two years have passed since the collapse of the world economy. That alone sent a small shiver down my spine – I can easily see this film being the basis for the next Conservative Election Manifesto. Ben Richards is framed and wrongfully imprisoned for the massacre of hundreds of protestors (which the pre-credit scene shows he tried to stop). He escapes from prison and goes underground with the help of Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa. Yes, really. But he gets caught and is forced to become a contestant on The Running Man – the US’s most popular TV show where convicts fight for their lives against armed Gladiators.

Stars: Arnie in his usual 80s role, Richard Dawson as the Noel Edmonds-inspired blood-thirsty game show host, and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura (the former wrestler who became a US Governor before Arnie and is now a raving right-wing loony)
[EDIT: Car Hole from the Football365 Forum has pointed out that Ventura is nothing like my description there. I realise I have confused him with The Ultimate Warrior. Who really is a nutbar these days.]

Best Kill: Not a kill from the contest, but from the prison break at the beginning of the film. A rogue prisoner makes a break before the defences are completely shut-down, and his neck-tag blows up – completely decapitating him. Nice.

Example line: This actually has a very high number of Arnie one-liners (although the quality is hit and miss). The one that stayed with me is when Arnie takes the ‘attractive female he is destined to kiss at the end’ hostage and warns her “Remember, I could break your neck like a chicken’s”. When Killian the evil game show host yells “Get me the President’s agent” we know that there is at least a seam of satire running through this film.

So Arnie, the banker is offering the Governorship of Utah. Deal, or no deal?

Verdict: This film ticks most of the boxes for our genre. A small underground resistance. The nation dived up into paramilitary zones. The entertainment of death onscreen as an opiate of the masses to quell rebellion. Check.

What is interesting, although a little disappointing, is that almost all of the ire of the film and of Ben Richards is aimed at the television show. The resistance’s sole ideal is to force the show off the air, and hope that solves things. There are obvious underlying reasons for the show existing in the first place and these remain unspoken.

This is a very flash and 80s film – at times it is as though even future dystopias can carry product placement (this one is brought to you by Adidas). Sadly (as I remember loving this film in my youth) there is little more to the film than flashy visuals and violent deaths – with any attempt at social commentary being superficial at best.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Type: Senseless Murder Contest

Plot: In a future US known as Panem, the Capitol forces the twelve districts to offer up a boy and a girl (aged between 12 and 18) to fight in the annual Hunger Games. A fight to the death in a specially-created arena, with additional Miss World touches. Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games in place of her sister, and has to fight to survive so that she can return home to look after her family.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class) as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson as her potential love interest, Stanley Tucci as the extravagant televison host of the games, and Donald Sutherland perfectly cast as the scheming President Snow.

Best Kill: Interestingly for a film of this type, the kills aren’t played out with any kind of relish. Kills are best remembered for what they mean to the characters, rather than how they happen.

Example Line: “Face the probability of your imminent death, and know that there’s absolutely nothing I can do to help you”

Only one of these is even close to pulling off this look...

Verdit: Have you heard the joke about what the French call The Hunger Games? Battle Royale with Cheese. Clever, funny, but not really very fair. I was as dubious as most people. For a start, I tend to stay away from teen-fiction and its associated film versions. But when I found out that instead of wizards or vampires this was a sci-fi story about a dystopian future when children are forced to kill each other? Ok, I’m in. I didn’t read the book before going to watch the film, as I wanted to watch it on its own merits (plus, I am really too lazy to read something I can watch instead) – so I can only judge this film from an independent film fan’s point of view. And I really liked it.

Jennifer Lawrence has an incredibly difficult job of carrying the film, and she does so with a touch of vulnerability, and a truck-load of bad-ass attitude. I have never seen Stanley Tucci having so much fun, and Donald Sutherland is quiet menace personified. What really struck me as being different to the other films I had been watching though was how much I cared about the characters. Every single death actually means something in this film, and there is no need to make it bloody and violent as the loss of some of these characters is gut-wrenching enough.

The film presents a world that, although fantastic and futuristic, is very recognisably this world. It is a world of the 1% versus the 99%. A world where powerful people really can do pretty much what they like. There is a real revolutionary feel to this film, and I hope it continues in the following films. I know the books do, as I have almost finished the trilogy since watching this film.

Battle Royale (2000)

Type: Senseless Murder Contest

Plot: In the not-at-all distant future, the Japanese government enacted the Battle Royal Act in order to clamp down on an increase in unruly behaviour in classrooms. A random school class is chosen each year and taken to an island where they are forced to fight to the death with a variety of weapons. All the winner gets is their life, and years in therapy I imagine.

Stars: Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano. No relation of Takeshi from Takeshi’s Castle. Plus some kids.
[EDIT: Afflikonig from the Football365 Forum pointed out that Takeshi Kitano ACTUALLY IS the man from the brilliant Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle. Enjoy a little here.]

Best Kill: To be fair, there is some brilliantly choreographed violence in this film. This is another one where my favourite happens before the games begin. By a teacher. With a throwing knife. I won’t say any more.

Example Line: “Here’s your list of friends in the order they died

Teacher Kitano didn't see the OFSTED inspector in the corner. This could downgrade his school to satisfactory.

Verdict: Bleak. Bleaker than watching the BBC adaptation of Bleak House in the arctic tundra with only Christine Bleakley for company. There are some funny moments, and they mainly stem from either the cartoon violence, or the deadpan behaviour of Kitano as the class’ former teacher. This is the only film of this collection where we aren’t really shown how the media covers this event. For all intents and purposes this is a closed contest, with only the result mentioned in the media. And thinking about it, that makes it even more senseless. We don’t even have the horrible logic of the contest being essential to keep the masses distracted from rising up against a totalitarian government.

In fact, it is played so straight and almost in the present that it is too difficult to watch at times. The idea that children should be forced into state-sponsored murder to teach them some respect is a vile proposition. But is it that big a leap from suggesting that all children should do enforced National Service upon leaving school?

While the film is a fascinating commentary on a society frightened stiff by its teenagers and determined to have its revenge, once the action gets going it falls a little flat. There are simply too many characters to form any kind of emotional bond, and the kills come so thick and fast that there is little time to ruminate on what is actually happening on this island.

Series 7 : The Contenders (2001)

Type: Senseless Murder Contest

Plot: Filmed in the exact style of a US cable show – the Contenders randomly selects US citizens and forces them to fight for their lives in suburban America. Dawn is heavily pregnant and has won 2 series in a row – if she can win this series she will earn her freedom.
Stars: Brooke Smith, some other people, and Arrested Development’s WILL ARNETT (for about 2 minutes)

Best Kill: The shopping centre massacre was shocking and well-shot

Example Line: “He is in intensive care following a self-inflicted knife wound to the back

Dawn was sick of the local convenience store not putting the good booze in the fridge

Verdict: I remember really liking this as a hipster student. Ok, I wasn’t a hipster, but I hung out near hipster types. But as an older and, possibly, wiser man I struggled to find anything of any substance beneath the surface of this film.

The opening 10 minutes are brilliant. It feels like a Chris Morris sketch and the attention to detail in presenting this film as a reality Survivor-style show is impeccable. After that though, the joke starts to wear a little thin. It’s not funny enough to carry the film as a comedy, and the drama feels like a student film at times.

There’s no context for the existence of this show. The film-maker is essentially saying “imagine if reality TV just went to the next level and had people killing each other!”. But you find yourself questioning how and why the government has allowed this to happen. This is a pretty funny joke, but it’s not grounded in any kind of reality or even any internal logic. It fails at drawing you into its world and making care what happens to its characters.

And the winner is…

Firstly, I am going to need to take a shower after this. And maybe only watch Pixar animations for a week. This was a horrible, bleak experience. But at the same time, it was fascinating to see the differences in the worlds portrayed in these films. It was also nice to see that an idle idea at the start has turned into a piece of work that has started to recognise that these films are a genre of themselves. There are generic conventions, and rules that must be adhered to if the film is to resonate with the audience.

So, five films walked in and only one film can leave. And that film is…The Hunger Games.

Cutting for a 12a certificate and aiming at a teen demographic has put a lot of people off the idea of this film. But Hunger Games proves that you don’t need to use explicit violence to convey the horror, dread, and senselessness of violence. The Hunger Games was intelligent, and featured a strong female character in an action film which is still sadly a rarity these days. It’s not perfect, but it’s done enough to walk out of this arena battle-scarred and victorious.

No. 44 – Alien (1979) and No. 59 – Aliens (1986)

So this is the first post that attempts to get all conceptual on your collective asses. Over a week I decided to watch the first two films in the ‘Alien’ series, and not only look at their individual claims to belong in the IMDB Top 250, but also look at what they told us about the future directions the two director’s would take in their career.

The Alien series is a very interesting, and pretty rare, example of different directors being able to work with a consistent source material – but also get to put their own personal stamp on the end result. Unlike the recent Mission Impossible series (which gave these opportunities to a couple of very experienced directors in Brian De Palma and John Woo), the Alien series has helped to really launch the careers of directors who had only made one or two films before their shot at an Alien film.

Alien was Ridley Scott’s second feature (after The Duellists), James Cameron got the Aliens gig before The Terminator was released (it was his third film), and Alien 3 was David Fincher’s first feature (after which he went on to direct Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network, and the vastly underrated The Game).

And while Jean-Pierre Jeunet had already made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children before he made Alien: Resurrection, it was still only his third feature and came four years before he would make Amelie.

So, Alien then.

The film opens with a long sequence looking around what appears to be an abandoned space ship. We soon discover that the crew are not missing, merely sleeping. They are woken early by the ships computer to investigate a distress beacon coming from an uncharted rock. The sci-fi equivalent of the ramshackle house on the hill, or the forest where all those teenagers died 25 years ago…this very day.

The first thing that strikes you about this crew is how many bloody great actors they’ve got on board this ship. I kept having to remind myself that Sigourney Weaver was pretty much an unknown as this time – and she had to keep up in the acting stakes with a laconic John Hurt (who just makes acting look so easy), an ice-cold Ian Holm, and a demented as ever Harry Dean Stanton.

The fact that she emerges from this film not just as the fictional last-person-standing, but also as the last actor standing is the reason this film is so successful in everything it sets out to achieve.

Groupon were struggling to shift their 'futuristic facial' vouchers

I love everything about this film. The steady drip-drip of the building terror. The fact that things aren’t explicitly spelt out to the audience (clues are mentioned to the audience, and then left for the audience to decode). The design of the set, the SFX, and most importantly of all, the HR Giger Alien creation just wow you in every frame. This is the second 10/10 I have given to a film on the list so far.

Which probably explains why I didn’t love Aliens as much as I remembered. James Cameron’s crack at the Alien franchise is the only instalment that was written and directed by the same person. But Cameron isn’t an auteur in the true sense of the word, and I honestly think he needed someone with a little distance from the project to at least tidy up some of the clunky dialogue and exposition we get in the first hour or so of Aliens.

I also found it harder to empathise with the characters, and in one particular case I would have fed him to the Alien myself if I had been on-board the ship. Whereas Aliens had genuine acting talent, with each actor portraying a fully-rounded individual with hopes, dreams and fears – Cameron’s marines lack the vulnerability of the Nostromo’s crew from the first film, as well as being meat-heads with few redeeming features. It doesn’t help when (no offence to the actors involved) you replace the likes of Hurt, Holm, and Stanton with Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, and Lance Henriksen. They do a good job, but they just haven’t got the gravitas of the Alien cast.

The other big difference between the two films was in the special effects. And the is the film that was made 7 years earlier that surprisingly comes out better in this comparison. I watched the original theatrical release for both films, and far too often during Aliens I was watching effects that looked like out-takes from Flash Gordon. I know it’s unfair criticising a 26 year-old film’s SFX – but Scott managed to completely suspend my disbelief for Alien despite having a smaller budget and less technology available to him.

I can only conclude that Ridley Scott knew the technological limitations of making a film set in space, and thus used more traditional film-making craft to work within those constraints. Whereas James Cameron was more ambitious and was determined to show massive explosions, and ships crashing, and didn’t mind that they didn’t look very believable.

It might sound like I didn’t enjoy Aliens, but I honestly did. That’s mainly because the last hour of the film is popcorn-eating, ass-kicking action of the highest calibre. There are three or four timeless action set-pieces which ratchet up the tension, before paying off the build-up in spectacular style. We also actually give a shit about Ripley and the abandoned child Newt, and we are desperate for them to survive.

When the film finished I was elated, and it was only after I started to analyse what I had seen that I realised how weak the first half was in my opinion.

And that I think is the difference between the two directors. Ridley Scott has gone on to direct a lot of very different films, and is able to work with different budgets and actors to make interesting stories. He can produce brilliant performances from his actors, and realises that his best work is done from behind a camera – and is happy to leave the writing duties to people who do it for a living.

The James Cameron we saw making Aliens has gone onto to make films where the budget seems to increase with every movie. He seems to see actors and scripts as important parts of the film-making process – but no more important than SFX or his overall vision for the film. Everything good about Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar can be seen in Aliens, but everything horrible and clunky, sentimental, and down-right awful can trace its origins back to Aliens as well.

No. 179 – Warrior (2011)

Sometimes I need to remind myself that I am watching what the general public regard as the best 250 films ever made.

Because while Warrior is a perfectly acceptable way to pass two hours (and another twenty minutes), I am stumped as to how this can be seen as any kind of milestone in the history of cinema.

When Warrior was first released, I shunned it. The world doesn’t need another Rocky-wannabe so soon after The Fighter I thought to myself. Then friends who I respect (and some I don’t) wouldn’t shut up about it. Then I noticed its rating on the esteemed Internet Movie Database and added it to the high priority pile on my Lovefilm list.

And it’s this betrayal that has made me angrier every day that has passed since I watched the film. I dismissed the film and unimportant cinematic fluff, then got excited about only to find out I was right in the first place.

The basic story revolves around two estranged brothers, and their inevitable encounter in an MMA (Multi Martial Arts) tournament with a WINNER TAKES ALL $5 MILLION CASH PRIZE!

I am now going to talk about the film in a way that means I cannot help but spoil it.

If you don’t want to spoil the film for yourself then either bookmark this page and return once you have seen it, or alternatively just read on and don’t bother to watch the film. The choice is yours.

Are you ready?

Right, what annoyed me most about the film is that while on one hand it tried to be gritty and neo-realistic in places – the plot hinged on some totally unbelievable plot points that totally undermined the tone of the rest of the film. Imagine if Nil By Mouth had a scene where someone wins the lottery, and then get’s voted in as Prime Minister on a populist anti-Domestic Violence ticket. Or if in Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes Paddy Consandine was actually a British special agent with the back-up a rogue cell in the style of Mission Impossible?

For example, the top 16 MMA fighters are really going to put their body and health on the line with the prospect of getting NOTHING in return. Sport doesn’t work like that! All of these fighters would have demanded at least an appearance fee to cover the costs of training/travel/not being able to walk again. This appearance money would have probably been enough to solve Tommy and Brendan’s assorted financial problems – which explains why the film doesn’t pan out that way.

While on the subject of the tournament, it is more than just convenient that Tommy and Brendan both manage to blag a spot in the most talked about MMA competition of all time. I just don’t buy it.

Tommy’s past as a marine is badly handled in my opinion. First we’re meant to believe he ripped the door off of a tank with his own hands. Why couldn’t it have been a more believable form of heroism? Then, when outed as a deserter not only do the military police decide to wait until the end of his participation in the tournament before arresting him, but thousands of marines turn up to cheer him in the stadium. Cheering for someone who deserted his squadron in Iraq? Really?

How he got home from Iraq to Pittsburgh is probably best left in the imagination of the writers as well – lest they decide to bring out a Bourne-esque prequel. Actually, Tom Hardy would make an excellent character in the Bourne series, but I digress. The fight sequences are pretty impressive – but if you are a MMA fan and want to see decent MMA fight sequences, you might as well watch the real thing.

I usually love Tom Hardy, but he was surprisingly one-dimensional in this role, and I got really fucking annoyed at having to keep turning up the volume to hear him and Nolte try and out-mumble each other. I was far more emotionally invested in the Joel Edgerton character, and I think a pretty decent and more entertaining film could have been made just showing his side of the journey. It would have been shorted, funnier, and overall more enjoyable in my opinion.

The film was too long, unoriginal, and took itself too seriously. I’ll trust my gut instincts a little more in future.

No. 225 – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby was Roman Polanski’s first US film, and is the film that launched Mia Farrow and that haircut into stardom. It’s based on a novel by Ira Levin, and apparently Polanksi followed the novel almost to the letter as he was unaware that he could take any liberties with the source material. Ah Hollywood, if only you had retained that innocence…

Farrow plays the titular Rosemary – and the film follows her and her actor-husband (played by John Cassavetes) as they decide to move into a new building (complete with horror-staple warnings about it having a spooooooky history) and deal with nosy neighbours, suicides, and Rosemary’s pregnancy and the impending birth of their child.

Without wanting to give too much away, Rosemary gradually starts to suspect that all is not right with her neighbours – and she starts to genuinely fear for her life, and that of her unborn child.

Actually, fuck it. This film has been out for over 40 years and I don’t think I am really ruining anything is I say that Rosemary thinks that her neighbours are a coven of witches and that they want her child for a sacrifice.

The genius of the film, and the reason I had a knot in my stomach for the majority of it, is that because we only see events from Rosemary’s perspective we are constantly questioning whether or not her suspicions are true, or whether they are the product of her paranoid mind. In a scene where Rosemary is trying to convince one of the few outside-parties in her life, I still found myself not quite believing her despite everything I had already seen.

Despite being billed as horror film, Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t really fit the conventions of the genre. There aren’t really any ‘jump’ moments, and most of the film takes place in very normal surroundings, and in the daylight. What Polanski does however, is just keep dripping fear and dread into every scene – like some kind of Chinese Water Torture. Towards the end of the film I felt suffocated not by unexpected shocks and frights, but by the horror of the situation apparently being confirmed to me. This was compounded by an extraordinarily performance from Farrow who not only uses her acting chops, but physically transforms before our very eyes.

Maybe this is a personal thing but despite not being a religious person I have always been most disturbed by the glut of films that appeared in the 60s/70s that dealt with the religious supernatural, and the human followers of these practices. I’m talking about classics like The Exorcist and The Omen, as well as a much under-looked ‘favourite’ of mine Race with the Devil (starring Peter Fonda). Actually, I may write a top-5 ‘Devil-Worship’ films in the near future…

I have a few minor quibbles – it feels a little dated in parts, and there’s a couple of moments in the build-up that just feel silly – an example being when Rosemary and Guy spend their first night in the new house making love (their words) on a wooden floor before finishing their dinner. But overall the screenplay is brilliant in the art of making sure that every word counts, and means something to the story – and despite being about 20 minutes too long in my opinion, there is not a lot of waste onscreen.

So, a brilliant film made by an exceptional craftsman. Then why do I feel like I never want to watch it ever again? I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but something about this film just felt wrong, and almost other-worldly. Don’t watch it just before bed.

And don’t have nightmares…

No. 175 – Drive (2011)

Released last year, Drive is the stylish, and often very brutal, neo-noir story of an LA stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. Although it is the very definition of critically acclaimed (it currently has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it is a film that has really divided my friends and peers.

It stars Ryan Gosling as ‘The Driver’ (his lack of a moniker arguably a tribute to Clint Eastwood’s prototype antihero) who crashes cars for a living by day, and operates like an uber-strict Taxi service for criminals at night. In the opening scene of the film we see The Driver talking to a client:

“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?”

I can’t imagine The Driver telling you “I’m just coming down your road. Honestly. Two minutes tops”. Pretty sure he also wouldn’t tell you what’s wrong the country these days or answer your questions about how busy he’s been tonight.

About that opening scene though. Wow. I don’t think I have been as mesmerised by the opening 10 minutes of a film since the first time I saw Heat – which is ironic as the director Nicolas Winding Refn manages to photograph (rather than merely film – it’s all about the light) LA in a very Michael Mann-esque way. Added to the gorgeous visuals is a pumping, doom-laden synthesiser soundtrack and some small snippets of stylised dialogue. When the titles come up, I could not help think of the seminal console game GTA Vice City – and I honestly mean that as a massive compliment. In fact, I think the plot of Drive would have been perfect for Vice City (despite being the wrong city).

The performances are almost uniformly excellent. It’s great to see more of Bryan Cranston (as I have only just started Breaking Bad – very poor, I know) and Carey Mulligan can do no wrong in my eyes (see Shame). Ryan Gosling is interesting as The Driver, and at times seems almost ‘too cool’. For a start, he chews on a toothpick. Now, Eddie Izzard talks about the ‘circle of cool’ in Definite Article – and his theory is that ‘coolness’ is a circle, and that is you go too far round the circle you get cooler, and cooler, and then you go too far and you’re “back to looking like a dickhead”. He actually uses toothpicks as an example – one toothpick, looking pretty cool. But add a second toothpick.

There are moments in Drive where Gosling straddles that circle, and one of those moments actually involves a toothpick. He’s stood in the kitchen of his neighbour’s (Mulligan) flat chewing a toothpick. Pretty cool. Then he offers a toothpick to her son. Not cool Driver. Toothpicks aren’t gum. Or Tic-Tacs. Or segments of Satsuma.

I can’t find anyone who doesn’t like the first half of the film – it’s the second half that loses a lot of people. Basically, a heist goes wrong and all of a sudden the Driver is fighting to protect himself and the people that he may love, but certainly feels honour-bound to protect. And at this point the violence really takes over. It’s not long and sustained, but it is brutal and shocking – like a punch to the stomach. I personally felt the violence was justified by the situation that the Driver found himself in – and although it may appear out of character, the character that we ‘know’ is based on the actions of a man that we only have a few days history of. We don’t know his backstory, and where he has come from – which is why I personally don’t think you can say it is unbelievable.

What say we go back to mine and split a pack of toothpicks?

Nor do I think the violence was gratuitous. It is raw, and uncomfortable – but the people on the receiving end deserve it, and that is the sole justification for allowing the audience to be a voyeur of Driver’s actions. I have seen less obviously visceral violence portrayed on screen in some of the ‘torture porn’ films like Hostel, Saw, and 8mm – but they make me far more uncomfortable as I think the directors in those cases are not really ‘saying’ anything, but are offering up the violence as entertainment. I also think it’s less gratuitous than Winding Refn’s previous film ‘Bronson‘.

This is by no means a perfect film. For a film called Drive, there was only one real car chase of any substance, and a few scenes didn’t quite have the pay-off I wanted (specifically a scene on the beach at the start of the 3rd act for example).

That said, I woke up this morning and wanted to watch it again. I’ve seen people refer to it as a homage to 80s Road Movies, but to me its tone felt closer to nihilistic 70s thrillers like Get Carter, The Getaway, and The French Connection. Either way it’s one hour and forty minutes and stylish entertainment – and if you can get past the violence it is just great cinema.

No. 185 – Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting. You know the one. Ben Affleck & Matt Damon. Won the screenplay Oscar (and Golden Globe) even though they were, like, 20 when they wrote it! The one about maths that isn’t A Beautiful Mind. It’s so well written even the title is a play on words. I think. I never could quite work that bit out.

I didn’t remember a huge amount of the film from my original viewing. There was a blackboard, Robin Williams, and a killer Ben Affleck line. I’d forgotten Minnie Driver. That was a pleasant surprise. If by pleasant you mean that feeling when you stumble into the kitchen on a Sunday morning with a raging hangover to find there’s no milk for a cup of tea, so you drag your half dead self to the corner shop for milk, only to discover the shop burned down, and then finally arrive back home empty handed and dry mouthed to find you’ve locked yourself out.

Still, best original screenplay Oscar winner must be worth a punt. It beat Woody Allen, for crying out loud. What quickly becomes clear, however, is that this screenplay is less about the story and more about the killer lines. It’s almost like they were playing at film making. You can imagine Affleck & Damon in a writers’ room, tossing a football around and brainstorming. Fair play, this resulted in some great speeches, which made for some pretty great film scenes. It also resulted in one of them saying “Hey, apropos of nothing, we should totally have a slow motion fight scene set to Jerry Rafferty’s Baker Street!” And the other one agreeing.

Snappy lines: check. Clever speeches: check. Class commentary: check check check. Now we’ll just fill the rest with some vague character set pieces and a large amount of Matt Damon slumped on an otherwise empty subway carriage, staring into space. Will’s a thinker, you see. That’s what thinkers do. He may hang out with socially disadvantaged Chuckie (Affleck: wears a tracksuit, says ‘fuck’ a lot) and cronies (zero distinguishing features) but he’s got something special. He cleans the corridors at MIT, where some fancy professor posts maths problems on a chalkboard, and people try to solve them. For kicks! Damon mops and polishes through his mental arithmetic, to the point where no one else has much hope of standing upright on that particular piece of flooring, let alone solving a tricky batch of algebra anywhere near it. Basically, he wins by default.

In order to avoid jail for the aforementioned incident (crimes against Scottish singer/songwriters), Will is instead forced to hang out with the fancy professor, cultivating his talent for high fiving over equations and generally making maths look cool. He also gets free therapy thrown in. To sort out the fact that he’s emotionally dead inside. Indeed, although the great therapist eventually cracks him, Will shows more passion about free education via public library than he ever does to his girl.

So to the love story. With Minnie Driver. The extent of Will & Skylar’s relationship is this: one date to a fancy dress shop (she’s so wacky!), a post coital conversation in which she uses a Magic 8 ball extensively (so very wacky!), a drinking session in a Tavern where she meets his mates and tells a knob gag, and a kiss in an outdoor café which is awkward to the point of actual physical discomfort. She then compounds viewer squirming by Dick Van Dyking the line “It’s not fair, I’ve bin ‘ere for four years, and I’ve only just found you.” This character is badly written and poorly acted. Will’s breakdown and self-destruction hinges on the fact that he’s desperately in love with Skylar. Only I don’t see it. Where was it? Behind the comedy glasses in the junk store? At the end of that god awful blow job joke? For the purposes of the Top 250 challenge, I was willing to give Driver a chance. But, frankly, I find her Best Actress Oscar nomination bemusing.

Full disclosure, I won’t hear a bad word against Robin Williams. (Unless, maybe, that word has four letters, begins with ‘J’ and ends with ‘ack’.) He’s a cuddly, cardiganed, hairy masterpiece. The delivery of his speeches in this film are on par with Jed Bartlett, proliferation of the term ‘chief’ notwithstanding. It’s a fucking good job they got him. He’s great at playing a world weary academic, and you can bet Ben Affleck was screaming “O Captain! My Captain!” from his folding chair the day they filmed the “It’s not your fault” scene. Williams steals the show. Sean and his dead wife are an infinitely better love story than Will and Skylar.

Really? REALLY?!

Once he’s set up his pal with the girl, Affleck’s Chuckie barely gets a look in the rest of the film. But when his big speech finally comes, it is suitably heart wrenching. “You know what the best part of my day is? For about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb until I get to your door. ‘Cause I think maybe I’ll get up there and knock on the door, and you won’t be there.” That’s the stuff great screenplays are made of. When he delivers this line at the dumpster, it’s angry and poetic and paints an emotional picture. But at the culmination of the film, when Affleck actually gets to act out those ten seconds? Honestly? It’s all a bit gummy. Don’t worry Ben, you’ll get another chance next year when you save the world from a Texas sized asteroid. Don’t let Bruce Willis totally steal your thunder, will you?

I know you’re not supposed to speculate on what happens after the film finishes. You’re supposed to trust the fact that Jerry Maguire got his fair share of that final 11.2 million dollar deal, that Garland Greene enjoyed his new found freedom without making any more human hats, and that Danny & Sandy’s flying car didn’t crash into a nearby power plant as the credits rolled. But I’m concerned Affleck & Damon didn’t think this one through. Will didn’t want to spend his life “sittin’ around and explaining shit to people.” And ok, Skylar has money so he’ll never need to work again. But he’ll be bored out of his amazing, genius mind. That’s not what Chuckie wanted him to do with his winning lottery ticket. I secretly imagine a Five Years Later epilogue, where he’s ditched Skylar for the screeching Brit harpy that she is, and is running some kind of academy with Robin Williams in India. One with exceptionally shiny floors.

 

No. 162 – The Thing (1982)

In the interests of full disclosure – John Carpenter is one of my all-time favourite film-makers. His work had a massive influence on me as a younger man, and I honestly don’t think the man can do any wrong. He basically invented the slasher-movie template with Halloween, and his 1980s science-fiction films helped to define the genre. Even his apparently poor films thrill me.

So here is why you absolutely MUST watch his 1982 masterpiece ‘The Thing’.

Firstly, it stars Kurt Russell exuding effortless cool. He plays MacReady, a helicopter pilot for a US research station based in Antarctica. He drinks a lot, has access to weapons, and trashes primitive computers when they beat him at chess. Exactly the kind of man you need hanging around a scientific establishment.

Kurt Russell as MacReady in The Hangover 3: Aliens in Antarctica

The beginning of the film opens on some pesky Norwegians following a dog in a helicopter and trying to kill it with rifles and a fair few hand grenades. We’re immediately on the side of the dog at this point – cute little thing. Plus these Norwegians are useless with the grenades and haven’t bothered to learn English which obviously means we’re not meant to be too sad when they get themselves killed by the staff of a US research base.

But don’t you know – there’s something not quite right about that dog. He’s a nosey fucker for a start, and starts swanning round the base like he owns it. He doesn’t take to kindly to finally getting put in a kennel for the night with the other dogs. Mainly because he’s not a dog, he’s a shape-shifting alien who absorbs living creatures and takes their form. Ah, that explains it.

The rest of the film descends into a tale of survival in isolation, against a beast from the unknown. Standard stuff, but the genius of The Thing is that it doesn’t actually need to show it’s monster. The real monster in the camp (cue pretentious over-reading of the film) is the team’s paranoia and suspicion of each other. The ‘blood test’ scene is up there with Hitchcock at his best in terms of building up tension, and allowing the characters onscreen to psychologically unravel before our eyes. Much like the recent (and excellent) film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t about spying, but rather about suspicion and paranoia – The Thing isn’t about an alien shape-shifter, but about the fact that no one in this camp can trust each other. Trust is the thing that keeps order in society – and if trust was totally removed then society would collapse.

And society in the camp definitely collapses. As does the camp itself, mainly due to weapons, explosives, and flame-throwers that I assume are commonplace in all scientific research establishments. Hell, CERN probably has an Apache gunship in the car park.

As I said, this film would work without ever showing the ‘true’ form of the alien. But it would be a lot less fun. Some of the effects in The Thing put today’s computer-generated graphics to shame. There is a soul to these hideous creations that can genuinely terrify you.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but this film is bleak and nihilistic in its tone from start to finish. There’s certainly no easy tying up of loose ends and the hero doesn’t get the girl and crack a joke at the end. Mainly because there is no girl. John Carpenter lives on a higher plane than gender politics, so let’s not go there.

Like so many films that are now considered classics, The Thing was a critical and commercial flop on release. It’s taken over 2 decades for it to complete its rehabilitation as one of the defining films of modern sci-fi – so the least you can do is set aside a couple of hours this month to watch the film that John Carpenter describes as his favourite example of his work. And John Carpenter is never wrong.

No. 64 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

This film was written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and was the break-through feature from director Michel Gondry (Human Nature, and some of the most incredible music videos ever made including ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ and ‘The Hardest Button To Button’ by The White Stripes, and ‘Star Guitar’ and ‘Let Forever Be’ by the Chemical Brothers).

And I tell you what, it certainly picks you up by the scruff of the neck and lets you know it is the deranged love-child of Kaufman and Gondry. This film is one of the purest and most natural collaborations of writer and director of the last 30 years.

The plot revolves around the broken-down relationship of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), and their decision to wipe their memories of each other (and every aspect of their relationship) through a company that specialises in this sort of thing. This is a Charlie Kaufman film, remember.

The film opens however, in a very un-Gondry style. In fact the first 16 minutes (the first reel of the physical film) contain no credits, and a very subdued, realisticl visual style. The lighting is natural, and the only visual wonder comes from the beauty of the physical locations of the isolated beach in Montauk and a ethereal frozen lake upon which our star-crossed lovers have a very kooky and ‘indie’ night picnic and fall in love. Unbeknownst to them however, they have done all of this before.

Then the credits roll, and we are thrown into full-on Gondry mode as we are shown the story that led to Joel and Clementine finding each other (again). The history of their relationship is shown backwards as Joel’s memories are slowly erased one by one. While this is going on, Joel’s sub-conscious self is racing through his mind trying to save the memories having decided that he doesn’t want to lose the good ones. Sadly, it’s all or nothing in this science.

There are some breath-taking visual set-pieces that include cars raining from the sky, as well as some more subtle touches where, for example, adult Joel is inserted into his own childhood. The fact that Gondry achieved most of this without a hint of CGI is testament to the imagination at work here. In a scene where Joel walks in on his consultation with Dr Mierzwiak (played with typical pathos and gravitas by Tom Wilkinson – the British thespian who’s excellent American accent has allowed him to carve out a career in the US in exactly this type of role) rather than use a bit of simple camera trickery to have two Joel’s in the scene – Carrey physically played both roles at the same time by standing up and putting on a hat.

Despite all this, it’s the performances that really lift this film into the upper reaches of cinematic brilliance. Jim Carrey plays the vulnerable and understated everyman that he showed us in The Truman Show. The kind of performance that makes you want to give him an almighty slap when you see him turn up in ‘comedies’ like Me, Myself, & Irene. And Kate Winslet is a revelation, in a roll that she has previously stated is her favourite performance. She actually plays it very much like a more Jim Carrey character, but with the depth and mystery of an Oscar-winning actress. She is funny, and flighty, and exasperatingly kooky – but you can’t help but fall in love with her. Just like Joel.

No snarky comment, just one of my favourite shots from a film ever.

My one small criticism of the film is that at times looking back through their relationship you wonder why Joel is bothering to try and save the memories. The bad times seem to out-weigh the good, and at times they magnify their very worst instincts in each other.

[SPOILER ALERT]

 

 

 

It makes you wonder why they decide to give it another go, despite knowing that they will almost certainly make the same mistakes again. By wiping their memory, they are doomed to make the very same mistakes all over again and we are going to be in the same place in another 2 years time.
But maybe that is the point. That no matter what mistakes you make in a relationship – isn’t the existence of the relationship alone worth something? In a universe where we are mere specks of insignificance, is finding a few moments of happiness together with a fellow speck really what life is all about?

The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius)

Although I am writing this up as a new release post, I have already noticed that The Artist has already climbed to number 178 in the IMDB Top 250. Two birds with one stone – nice.

Anyway, I am probably already the fourth or fifth person to tell you to go and see this film. That’s right; I’m not going to bother stringing out what I think of this film for a few paragraphs. I loved it, and I am going to tell you why.

The plot itself is nothing hugely original – in fact, it’s very similar to the plot of A Star Is Born. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, one of the biggest silent movie stars in the world, and a ridiculously charming and handsome son of a bitch. His audiences love him, as well as his dog co-star. His wife seems a little up-tight, but life isn’t perfect – even in LA.

Then a chance encounter with Peppy Miller (an absolutely radiant Bérénice Bejo)- a young woman who dreams of becoming an actress – leads to Valentin giving her a helping hand into the world of show business. Soon she is becoming a star in her own right, while Valentin’s career crumbles with the advent of the ‘talkies’.

James Cromwell brings a beautiful dignity to Clifton, Valentin’s aide, and John Goodman revels in his role as a Hollywood big-shot producer. Uggie the dog is an absolute scene-stealer as well – and it pleases me so much to see an animal perform in such and old-school way without a drop of CGI in sight. This film is beautifully shot, and zips along at a fair old pace that meant I didn’t check the time one. I also shed a tear more than once.

Do, do, do believe the hype!

Oh yeah, and it’s silent, black and white, and filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Apparently this has caused some morons with the brain capacity of plankton to demand refunds. I will happily give another £10 to each of these idiots never to darken their local multiplex ever again. Without wishing to sound pretentious, elitist, or snobby – cinema doesn’t want, or need you. It is because Hollywood feels that it needs to aim films at these omnicretins that we end of with trash like Transformers, or needless remakes of excellent foreign-language films because these cunts can’t read.

By the same token, I really hope that some of the smug self-congratulatory arses who were present in the showing I went to actually use this as an opportunity to discover more silent cinema classics. I’ll be honest; I am not a silent cinema buff by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve probably only seen 10-15 of them, and I have convinced myself that I won’t like Chaplin or Keaton. The Artist made me laugh, gasp, and cry – and I am annoyed at myself for being so closed off. Sadly, some of the comments I have seen on Twitter and Facebook suggest that a lot of people went to see this for the novelty factor, and judged their enjoyment of it thus. It reminds me of the Susan Boyle phenomenon, and how people patronised her by basically patting her on the head for being a bit ugly, weird, and still being able to hold a tune. Well, I worry that people’s enjoyment of this film is with similar caveats – “bless this little film – it made me laugh and it didn’t even need any words!”

Then again, who am I to tell anyone how and why they should enjoy their films. Ultimately this is a victory for clever, independent film-making, and more importantly for the little cinemas and arts centres who rely on a crossover hit like this every few years to keep going, and to subsidise the rest of their other excellent, although overlooked programming.

I realise I haven’t said much about the actual film. I think that’s because I would struggle to add anything new to everything currently being written about this Oscar favourite. I am content to be the fourth or fifth person to tell you that you MUST see this film.

No. 68 – The Third Man (1949)

Okay, confession time. I decided to watch this film after a day of exercise, hard work, and having already watched the charming and surprisingly good Whip It beforehand. Towards the end, I did feel my eyelids dropping and my notes ran out – but I would hate to give the impression that this was the fault of the film.

Sir Carol Reed’s film (written by Graham Greene) is a taut, paranoid thriller – possibly the finest British example of the film noir genre. The basic premise is that Holly Martins, a broke US pulp novelist is invited to Vienna for a job by his best friend Harry Lime. However, upon his arrival Martins discovers that Lime has been killed in an accident, and that he was also suspected by the police of being a racketeer.

The beginning was a little tonally odd for such a film though. First there is the instantly recognisable theme (written and performed by a local zither player named Anton Karas who Reed apparently discovered playing in a Viennese beer garden while on location). It’s a jaunty little number – but the more you listen to it, the more you notice little bits of the tune that don’t quite fit. In fact, it seems to dip in and out of tune in places. You could argue that this perfectly encapsulates the aura around Harry Lime through the eyes of his best friend.

We also have an exposition sequence narrated by the director which with its montage cuts and relaxed, personal narration really reminded me of the work of Adam Curtis (documentary film maker whose work has been seen on Panorama and Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe – example here). The music, along with these scenes of Holly Martins arriving in Vienna felt like a silent film comedy at times. The tone shifts however when Martins gate-crashes Harry Lime’s funeral.

Soon Martins is drawn into a murky world of double-crossing, murder, faked deaths, and mysterious females who possibly shouldn’t be trusted. All noir staples.

What lifts this film above its peers for me though, is the way it puts the viewer firmly in the shoes of our protagonist. Not only do we learn significant plot points only when Martins learns them, but the location of Vienna also proves to be a stroke of genius in keeping the audience in the dark. In most scenes in the film someone is speaking German, or very bad English, and instead of subtitles we are left hoping that characters onscreen will translate for us – as is Holly Martins, the American outsider.

Who, me?

Those of you with prior knowledge of the film will already be aware of the fact that Orson Welles plays Harry Lime, and that his screen time is actually very limited. I found an intriguing parallel between the shadow that Harry Lime casts over the story and the experiences of Holly Martins in Vienna, and the shadow that Orson Welles casts over this film. I was enjoying the film, but in the back of my mind at all times was this sense that soon I was going to see what all the fuss about Welles in this role was about.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen)

A few people who know about my self-imposed challenge to watch the IMDB Top 250 have asked me why I am watching films that aren’t on the list. As if I should treat this like a weekly shopping list and just tick the films off and get the whole thing over and done with.

The reason for me doing this is primarily to reignite my love and watching (and writing) about films. It is a catalyst, an educational experience, and it isn’t meant to be a chore.

That’s why I have decided to expand the scope of this blog slightly, and also include my thoughts on notable new releases – and Shame is the first film in this series.

Shame has already gained some notoriety over its NC-17 rating in the US due to its explicit sexual scenes. I went to a preview screening last night knowing little more than this, and the fact that it starred Michael Fassbender (who I have heard of, but had to ask my friend if I had actually seen him in anything) and Carey Mulligan (who must get sick of all the nerds like me who fell in love, deeply and uncontrollably, with her in the classic Dr Who episode ‘Blink’).

The first 10 minutes or so of the film in concerned with setting up Brandon (Fassbender) as a sex addict. At least I think he is – the worrying thing is that I recognised more than a little in Brandon of myself. And this is the disturbing element of McQueen’s film (although to call it McQueen’s film I no small disservice to writer Abi Morgan who research the subject matter and co-wrote the script with McQueen), the fact that sexual addiction, unlike drug or alcohol addiction is something that most of us will experience for brief moments all through our life. Morgan spoke at a Q&A after the screening in which she pointed out that sexual addiction is the one addiction that you cannot truly give up if you want to be a living breathing part of this greater society.

That said, although on the surface this is a film about a sexual addict – the film works brilliantly as a study of the consequences of addiction and what happens when someone lets that need, the overriding need for pleasure – or release, take over their life.

Fassbender and Mulligan are extraordinary as siblings Brandon and Sissy – playing polar opposites in terms of their personality, dealing with a common troubled past that the film leaves unspoken for us to speculate on. The film doesn’t try to explain how or why Brandon became the person he is, because ultimately that isn’t the point. This is a film set in the here and now.

The film is beautifuly shot, as you would expect from a Turner Prize-winning artist-turned film-maker, and it paints a picture of a New York that I have never really seen on film, but that is still most-definitely New York.

By the end of the film Brandon and Sissy have laid their souls (and bodies) completely bare, and the viewer has been present in their most uncomfortable and intimate moments. Surprisingly, the scenes that sear themselves onto your mind are not the sex scenes (which are in some cases explicit, but never gratuitous), but moments like the single close-up shot of Sissy’s haunting rendition of New York, New York, or Brandon and Marianne’s (Nicole Beharie) walk to the subway after their date – full of awkward poses and ‘will-they, won’t they’ suspense.

The ending may not sit comfortably with everyone, but the third-act incident felt natural to me, and the ambiguous ending leaves many question unanswered – but those questions are mainly posed to the viewer, and it is only our answers to them that are really important.

No. 222 – Let the Right One In (2008)

I’m glad I waited until the next day to write this post about the Swedish vampire love-story Let the Right One In. Some films defy instant analysis, and need time to sink in.

This film, like a bite from the 12-year old Eli, leaves you shocked, stunned, and assaulted. Overnight you struggle to sleep, and when you wake the next morning all you are certain of is that you now have a craving that you can’t quite explain…

Oskar is a 12 year old boy, struggling with the twin horror staples of living in a single-parent family and being bullied at school. The poor bastard never really stood a chance. A girl who appears to be his age moves into his apartment block, and despite warning Oskar that they can’t be friends, they gradually form a bond over a jungle gym and Rubik’s Cube. Hey, it’s early 1980s Stockholm, it’s not like there’s much else for a scrawny young boy and a pale girl, who only appears at night, doesn’t feel the cold, and has dark red stains on her fingertips. Wait a minute…

Yes, this is a vampire story – but not as we know it. Eli (the young bloodsucker) isn’t cool or sexy. She doesn’t have fangs, or a cape. This is a depressing kitchen-sink drama of a vampire story. That said, the director Tomas Alfredson still shows a keen eye for vampire lore, and the conventions of a vampire movie.

The way to a girl's heart is through her love of cheap plastic puzzles.

At the start of the film, Eli has a guardian in the shape of an old man names Hakan. Now, how Eli hasn’t developed a vegetarian diet while waiting for this incompetent to bring blood home for her I don’t know. He does manage to successfully kill someone, and then proceeds to try and drain this poor chap’s blood from a tree in the middle of a forest. The problem is, people tend to walk their dogs in forests and Hakan has to flee the scene leaving the blood behind. A second attempt to obtain blood is equally flawed – plus he hangs around outside school gym windows, and drags uncovered dead bodies through the same woods. No wonder Eli has to take matters into her own hand. You do wonder where the local police are in all this as well.

Anyway, the crux of the story is the growing friendship between Eli and Oskar, and Oskar’s growth into a someone who will stand up to his bullies – the leader of whom struts about with the leather jacket and attitude of someone twice his age who was brought up on gangster films. These truly are star-crossed lovers, and the choices they have to make are gut-wrenching at times.

Horror is often derided as one of the poor generic cousins of cinema. However, Let the Right One In is not a movie, it is a cinematic work of art. Beautifully shot, and with a pace that allows the plot to develop without needing to hold your hand. And, and it’s one of the creepiest films I have seen in a long time.

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