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…

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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.

No. 109 – Rebecca (1940)

Well, here is the first of the Hitchcock entries in the challenge. It’s the earliest of his films on the list (as well as being his first Hollywood picture), and you can definitely see a number of other influences at work here, unlike his later films which were almost completely dominated by the master of suspense alone.

I may keep banging on about it, but this film is yet more proof that a great story, acted well, will always make a great film. Some of the effects are laughable at times (the exterior shots of Manderley are clearly a model, when Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter are walking on the beach the background is moving quicker than they are, when driving in Monte Carlo Max pulls on the handbrake while the background continues to move), but everything else on screen makes you suspend your disbelief so much that you just don’t care.
A few years ago I went to see a theatre production of Rebecca starring Nigel Havers, and this film reminded me of that in a lot of ways. It’s a very theatrical film (as a lot of films from that era are), from the artificial sets, to the snappy dialogue. I was especially drawn in by the use of lighting to give the impression of fear and despair when Mrs Danvers is trying to talk the second Mrs De Winter (the film doesn’t give the heroine a first name, just as in Daphne Du Maurier’s original novel) into committing suicide.

The first half of the film is actually quite a light affair, and pretty funny at times – sometimes intentionally:

“Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper: Most girls would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte!
Maxim de Winter: Wouldn’t that RATHER defeat the purpose?”

And sometimes unintentionally, due to the difference in attitudes to gender politics between viewers now and in 1940, such as when Max proposes by saying “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”

The thing that really hold’s Rebecca together though the much darker second half, and stops it feeling too melodramatic or overlong, is the central performances from Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Fontaine has been a little overlooked in the decades since this film’s release, as most reviewers have focussed on the character of Mrs Danvers. However, Mrs de Winter’s transformation from her schoolgirl crush to near breaking point is heart-breaking. Apparently, Olivier was a complete bastard to her on set as he had lobbied hard for his then-girlfriend Vivien Leigh to get the part. The story goes that Hitchcock harnessed this, and persuaded Fontaine that everyone on set hated her. Whether this is true or not isn’t important – what is important is that her performance makes this story totally believable.

As for Oliver, it is simply a pleasure to watch such a master at work. I think this may well be the first time I have seen him in a film, and I can’t believe it took me 32 years to watch one of his performances when I claim to be such a lover of film/theatre. As my wife (watching with me) pointed out – he looks so ‘modern’. He has that timeless quality to his screen-presence, and at times almost looks out-of-place compared to the other characters. Not in an awful, jolting way – more like one of the ancient Gods having come down to play amongst the humans.

I find it a little ironic that the least ‘Hitchcockian’ Hitchcock film was the only one ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, and although it doesn’t really feature any of the usual Hitch trademarks of innocent people on the run, charming sociopaths, maguffins, or the audience as voyeur – it is still recognisably Hitchcock, and still recognisably a great film.

No. 199 – Ratatouille (2007)

I’m starting to run out of juice here. Not because I have written 4 blog posts in a row, or even because I have watched 2 of those films today. But because I was watching The Lion King and Ratatouille with my 14-month old daughter. She still tires me out in an exceedingly short time – mainly because her attention span is about as short as mine.

So I could tell you that the film looked gorgeous, and I swear you can see each of the 1.5 million hairs rendered on Remy’s body. I could wax lyrical over the films ability to make jokes for the grown-ups that aren’t actually crude double entendres, but fully formed universal jokes (my favourite being when Skinner tries to report the restaurant to the Health Inspector, who opens a large diary and treats this request much like the maître de at a top restaurant). I could also talk about the film’s moral code, and how it teaches children (and jaded thirty-somethings) that anyone from any background can succeed. I could also describe how hungry the film made me.

Instead I’ll leave you with this thought. My daughter walked off 30 minutes into the film, and I left it on and watched it to the end. Something I would have done regardless of this challenge, and something that I will never regret. Brilliant film.

No. 111 – The Lion King (1994)

First, a confession. I never watched The Lion King as a child. I remember my sister went to see it with some friends for her birthday, but I instead went to see Exeter City get beat 0-1 at home to Aston Villa in the FA Cup 3Rd round. Dean Saunders dived for a penalty. I’m still a little bitter.

Anyway, the reason I mention this (apart from the free, rather low-tech form of therapy) is because I first watched The Lion King in my cynical twenties, without the innocence of childhood. This also means that rewatching it, I am unencumbered by the fog of nostalgia.

And despite all that, I loved this film. I continue to love it, and I will until the day I die. It is the perfect argument for just making a film the best film that you possibly can, and trusting children, families, and cynical twenty-somethings to love it on its own merits. Take a classic story (one of the production team describes it as Bambi meets Hamlet), get some great actors in to tell that story, and that’s it.

Only two films have made me laugh with fart jokes. This, and Blazing Saddles.

Not that I want to simplify the sheer effort that the team behind this film made to get it into the cinemas. It is a landmark of animation, and it’s still simply beautiful to look at – even if these current times of digital animation, 3D, and other visual flim-flammery.

Take care of the film, and the multi-million dollar marketing opportunities will look after themselves.

No. 149 – Trainspotting (1996)

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television to watch Trainspotting in glorious HD, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers.

Choose finding out what the fuck happened to Robert Carlyle’s career after this defining role, Choose putting two songs by Sleeper in a film

Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning.

Choose feeling ever slightly so guilty over lustful thoughts of Kelly Macdonald, Choose to show this film to your kids at an early age to make sure they never touch heroin. Choose Ewan McGregor at his most lovable and charming (despite being a drug-addicted thief).

 

Choose vibrant, independent cinema that tells stories of people you know, people you pass in the street. Choose to support your national filmmakers, because they are to be treasured.

But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Michael Bay films?

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

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…

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