Tag Archives: IMDB Top 250

A Decade In Film: The Eighties – 1983

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema and choose their favourite films from each year of that decade. Matt Lambourne has lucked out with arguably the most entertaining, balls-to-the-wall decade of all. This week he takes us through his choices for 1983

. 5. Superman III

Superman3“Well I hope you don’t expect me to save you, ’cause I don’t do that anymore.”

Often disregarded by fans of the ‘Reeve Quadrilogy’, Superman III is in fact my favourite of the series. At the heart of the story is computer programmer, Gus (Richard Pryor) who is taken under the wing of Lex Luthor stand-in, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) who is keen to utilise Gus’ more unscrupulous computer skills for financial world domination.

To do so, Gus hacks into a US weather satellite to create storms in Colombia to destroy their coffee crop, however this is thwarted by Superman early in proceedings. Webster, realising he must remove Superman from the equation, instructs Gus to create a synthetic Kryptonite using computer analysis of its core elements.

The movie deals with some darker themes not seen previously in the series. The synthetic Kyrptonite not only weakens Superman but, due to its corrupt Earthly ingredients, makes Superman become evil. Christopher Reeve is excellent at playing the ‘Dark Superman’ and the film features a particularly violent battle between the Dark Superman and Clark Kent who is attempting to break the harmful grip the Kryptonite has on our hero.

The film is most memorable for the climatic battle where the villains hide out in a base at the Grand Canyon, armed to the teeth with missile defenses and a powerful computer designed by Gus that has taken on a mind of its own. The machine takes captive one of the villains and forcibly entangles her in metal and wire creating a powerful cyborg adversary for Superman, a very graphic and shocking scene for a family movie and one that certainly leaves a lasting impression, even if she does look like a zombie Dot-Matrix from Spaceballs!

Pryor doesn’t get to unleash the more effective adult nature of his comedic genius, but he does provide suitable comic relief to the movie. Reeve shows some diversity in the role by being able to portray a sinister side to his nature as the Dark Superman in a very enjoyable performance. A much grittier rendition of the classic Superman adventure, this is a more than sufficient warm-up for the fanboys awaiting this summer’s ‘Man of Steel’.

4. WarGames

MSDWARG EC001“How about a nice game of chess?”

Continuing with the theme of mis-use of computers, WarGames is a tale of a curious teenager whose skills in computing lead him into big, big trouble with the US government and the potential launch of World War III.

The main protagonist is David (Matthew Broderick), the one and only person who knew how use command-based operating systems to do anything remotely interesting back in the early 80’s. In fact he’s clearly a genius, as we see him hacking his high school network to alter his grades and book flights to Paris to show-off his skills to love-interest, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy).

Unfortunately David’s curiosity leads him to unwittingly dial into an anonymous computer offering him the opportunity to play games such as Black Jack and Poker, but David naturally is more interested in the option for ‘Global Thermonuclear War’ and assumes the role of the Soviet Union. After being summoned by his parents to do some chores he exits the game, however when he awakes the next day he is startled to see that the US military responding to an actual threat of nuclear attack from the USSR.

Where this film really shines, particularly in hindsight, is that it was way ahead of its time. The movie prominently features hacking, phreaking and dial-up remote access; all subject matters that few would have believed would have existed in 1983. I can imagine seeing WarGames as an 80’s kid it must have seemed incredibly far-fetched, yet time has proven that the techniques used in the movie were entirely legitimate and have become incredibly common-place.

Yep, the antics in WarGames would be an InfoSec worker’s worst nightmare. It’s easy to see how this has influenced films that have come after it, particular 1995’s ‘Hackers‘ and 2001’s Swordfish but it does so in such a manner that it will appeal to a family audience, not just those who are fascinated by the technology. Broderick presents the cool persona that he later repeats as Ferris Bueller and is a wholly likable lead for the film. How did someone with so much 80’s cool end up marrying SJP?

The film spawned a low-budget sequel, yet it’s the modern reboot continually hinted at that will garner the most interest in the legacy left by this excellent thriller.

3. Return of the Jedi

ReturnoftheJedi“You cannot escape your destiny. You must face Darth Vader again.”

Following along nicely from my 1980 movie of the year, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, ROTJ is the final piece of the original trilogy, as the all-star cast return to stop the Empire’s construction of an all new Death Star.

Originally titled as ‘Revenge of the Jedi’ the film deals with much darker tone than the previous 2 movies. This is best illustrated by Mark Hammill, returning as the now fully trained and qualified Jedi, ‘Luke Skywalker’. He is entirely confident, almost somewhat arrogant in his abilities and manipulation of ‘The Force’.

His personality is somewhat chilled following his first encounter with Darth Vader; the loss of his hand and Vader’s revelation have removed some of the positive aura that surrounded the hero. He seems more steely, colder, calculating and I think this makes him a much more believable handler in the art of death than he has ever depicted at any point during the trilogy.

However, ‘Jedi’ is probably often most criticised for its use of (often annoyingly) peripheral characters, such as the Ewoks which was a clear warning shot from George Lucas for what we’d see in the modern prequel trilogy.

That said, all the ingredients that make the previous movies so successful feature again here. There are some more sinister cords in the score from John Williams, particularly whenever the Emperor is on screen, that are used to dramatic effect.

The action set-pieces are fantastic, the battle between the rebellion and Imperial forces on Endor is highly satisfying, particular when that Ewok is crying over his dead comrade!

Jedi wraps up the trilogy in fine fashion, it’s not the strongest part of the series but it does feature the most appealing incarnation of Luke Skywalker. However it is a great shame that Mark Hammill was never able to shrug off the shadow of this character for the rest of his career.

2. The Fourth Man

The Fourth Man“The essence of my writing is, I lie the truth”

The inner circle behind Failed Critics are all too aware of my admiration for the direction of Paul Verhoeven. ‘The Fourth Man’ is Verhoeven’s final piece made for Dutch cinema before venturing off to Hollywood and my goodness it is some piece to sign off with.

The film starts off as it means to go on. The main protagonist, Gerard, awakes with his hands shaking due to the effects of his alcoholism. He stands up, wearing only a t-shirt to greet the audience to a full frontal male-nudity scene. You could be forgiven for thinking this is a little unnecessary and distasteful. It’s merely a means for Verhoeven to inform the audience of what they are letting themselves in for; a fully adult-orientated psychological experience.

This is why I love Verhoeven films, he makes films strictly for adults, there is rarely a silver lining or any inkling of morality in his movies. Gerard is an alcoholic, bi-sexual and a writer. Everywhere he goes he sees metaphors for death. He constantly battles against those which are meant for him and those that are meant for others but he struggles to interpret what he is seeing and what it truly means.

Gerard travels by train to host a lecture on his writing and meets a handsome young man at the station, whom he is instantly attracted to. He is frustrated at not being able to talk to this man as he watches him depart on a train to Cologne. Gerard travels to his destination where he meets the beautiful Christine, a widow who is a fan of his writing, and they spend the night together.

At Christine’s home, Gerard discovers a picture of Hermann, the man he saw at the train station, and realises he is Christine’s lover. He plots a means to bring the three of them together so he can seduce him for himself, but in doing so discovers that Christine is actually a three-time widow and that she is offing each of her husbands. Gerard struggles to find the meaning of the premonitions he has been seeing of late and how they relate to this bizarre love triangle and if it is he, or Hermann, who is intended to be Christine’s ‘Fourth Man’.

Jeroen Krabbé is sensational as Gerard, he is as charming and playful in character as he is sadistic and desperate for that which he desires. Renée Soutendijk plays the simply luscious Christine and I’m regretful to see that she has done little outside of Dutch Cinema, other than a little known Sci-Fi film ‘Eve of Destruction‘ which I remember seeing on Sky Movies a very very long time ago.

The film is classic Verhoeven and much of it is repackaged for Hollywood in 1992’s ‘Basic Instinct‘. It’s humorous, it’s intelligent, and sexy. Yet, its perverse undertones will seriously challenge the comfort zone of most mainstream cinema goers, this is very much one for the serious world cinema fan.

Speaking of which, the film ranks in Empire magazine’s top 100 films of World Cinema, and earned the 1983 International Critics’ Award at the Toronto Film Festival as well as the 1984 Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Foreign Language film.

I wanted so very badly to put this as my number 1 movie for 1983, however there is a very special film to top it… barely. The Fourth Man is a diamond of a movie that will sit anonymously on your DVD shelf, a dirty little secret for yourself to enjoy that has escaped the attention of the masses for 30 years. The fact it has done this makes it all the little bit more special.

1. Scarface

Scarface“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women”

I did say it would be a very special movie to top ‘The Fourth Man’, I do hope I did not disappoint. Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a remake of a 1932 gangster movie, re-badged and re-packaged for the 80’s in spectacular style.

It follows the exploits of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a Cuban refugee who struggles to make a life for himself in America, cleaning restaurants and committing petty crime until his big mouth earns him the attention of some local big-time gangsters. From petty criminal to the king of the drug trade in Miami, Tony’s rise to the top is as violent and brash as it is meteoric, but it is only a matter of time before Tony’s greed and constant yearning for more power results in his undoing.

Beautifully shot with constant contrast between 80’s Neon and the bleak reality of life on the street and the criminal sub-culture, Scarface is not only highly decadent entertainment but it lives on with a strong legacy on modern pop-culture. This is most notably evident in the Urban/Rap music culture, whereby the movie is often used as a source of inspiration for those trying to escape their mundane lives, and often those seeking to ruin it.

Pacino is remarkable as Tony, the maniacal underdog that you know you shouldn’t root for, but cant help getting attached to. It is no doubt equal to his most famous role of Michael Corleone in its grandeur. It also features some excellent supporting roles from Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to provide some female balance to what is otherwise a very male dominated movie.

The film is primarily driven by male characteristics, love, lust, money, greed, power, betrayal, and they all feature in abundance. Scarface sets the template for the popular anti-hero and any crime epic that has followed it.

One of my very favourite films and featuring at a very respectable number 128 in the IMDB Top 250, Scarface is a must see for all film-fans, and my movie of 1983.

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A Decade In Film: The Eighties – 1982

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema and choose their favourite films from each year of that decade. Matt Lambourne has lucked out with arguably the most entertaining, balls-to-the-wall decade of all. This week he takes us through his choices for 1982.

5. Space Adventure Cobra

spaceactioncobra“So, are you taking any bets on how this is going to end?”

Space Adventure Cobra is perhaps the oldest in a line of 80’s/90’s Anime that adorned my Video shelf as a teenager. Being released only a few years after the original Star Wars, it steals from the source material incessantly even beginning with a large Starship flyover, however it is far from a film for all the family.

The story follows Cobra, the most wanted man in the galaxy who is on a voyage to protect a beautiful female bounty-hunter whom is being hunted by the evil ‘Space Mafia Guild’. Cobra himself is the happy go lucky, overly confident macho hero who is very much Han Solo crossed with Mega Man, due to the ability to morph his left arm into a powerful Psycho Cannon.

The aesthetics of the movie certainly complement the era it’s trying to imitate, with vivid colour and a Vengelis-esque soundtrack, it may lack the polished animation that later Manga will trademark yet is still so easy on the eye.

Every Star Wars wannabe needs a bad guy and that comes in the form of the seemingly indestructible ‘Lord Necron’, who resembles more Dr. Doom (of the Marvel Universe) or perhaps even the camped up bling-bling diva that is Emperor Xerxes from ‘300’ more than the Sci-Fi baddie archetype Darth Vader.

The film is a charming love-story, brilliant sci-fi and hypnotic psychedelica all crammed into the right running time for easy viewing. The saga continued in a popular anime comic and has spawned a cult following. If a movie has ever paid a better tongue-in-cheek homage to classic sci-fi then I’d very much like to see it! Cobra provides a bite-sized action adventure that defies its age and leaves a lasting legacy that it is ‘Love’ not good, that will conquer all.

4. Tootsie

TootsieI was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man. You know what I mean?

The 80’s did two types of movies better than any other decade, action movies and great comedies. Tootsie is a delightful example of taking a ridiculous concept, adding a great ensamble cast and making on screen hilarity ensue. The focus of the film is on Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) an actor who is a notoriously difficult to work with, as he struggles to line up his next big role. He takes matters into the extreme by creating a female counter-part, Dorothy Michaels to enable to find work. However he never banked upon falling in love with the lovely fresh faced Jessica Lange or the number of men who’d fall for his less than classical feminine character!

The cast really makes this movie so watchable. Aside from Lange and Hoffman, you have a typically funny supporting role from the legendary Bill Murray, a creepy TV actor has-been in George Gaynes (better known as Commandant Lassard in Police Academy) and a very early mini role for Geena Davis. Hoffman is quite brilliant as Dorothy, much more so than he is as Michael. His no nonsense approach to his professional and personal life which rendered him so unemployable as a male makes him a prime candidate for a full time soap opera role as powerful leading lady.

This allows him much closer access to Lange’s character who is a single mother being taken advantage of by the show’s creepy producer, she slowly gains a remarkable liking for the mysterious and refreshing hard-nosed approach of Dorothy, wishing she could emulate her. Dorothy begins to spend more time with Lange outside of work and there is a particularly disturbing heart to heart part way through the movie whereby you actually wonder if Lange’s character is falling in love with a transvestite, unbeknownst to her! It’s an awkwardness so convincing that it landed her the Oscar for Best Supporting actress!

It goes without saying that Hoffman really delivers when thrust into extreme roles, such as that he will later take up in Rain Man. This movie really sets a blue print for those that follow in the 90’s such as Mrs. Doubtfire, but even that does not match the innocence and delight of Tootsie, which was 1982’s 2nd highest grossing film behind E.T!

3. First Blood

first-blood-knife-rambo“I could have killed ’em all, I could’ve killed you. In town you’re the law, out here it’s me. Don’t push it! Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go. Let it go!”

It’s the movie that defined the action hero archetype. Sylvester Stallone is John Rambo, vagrant Vietnam veteran, passing through a sleepy mountain town that simply does not want him spoiling their idyllic scenery. He crosses the path of Teasle (Brian Dennehy), Sherriff of the town who makes it clear on no uncertain terms that he should leave town immediate and escorts him to the town borders. However when Rambo marches back the wrong way, he is taken into custody having committed no crime.

He eventually escapes into the wilderness and begins a one man guerrilla war against the inept local law enforcement. It likely encouraged a generation of youngsters to enter into their local woods planting booby-traps and getting gimped up in camouflage face-paint, or was that just me and my friends?

Unlike later Stallone action romps, the action here is subtle and realistic; it’s a stealth war against meandering nincompoops. It’s also one of the few movies where Stallone talks fairly eloquently, it would seem he perhaps dumbed himself down for many roles he played later.

Whilst the action is clever and satisfying, it poses a greater moral concern to the American viewing public as to how veterans are perceived upon leaving service, particularly those deployed to Vietnam. It demonstrates a common disregard for soldiers who served in a messy war, something that Hollywood was slow to highlight. Later efforts such as Born on The Forth of July picked up the mantle, though it is arguable that that ‘First Blood’ is more mainstream friendly, thus ramming home the undeniable truth to a wider audience.

The Rambo character does for the action-movie genre what Hoover did for Vacuum cleaners. It became the synonymous figure for the unstoppable one-man army genre that dominated the 80’s. It spawned 3 sequels, non of which live up to the original in my opinion, but First Blood was the movie that established Stallone beyond Rocky and saw his career go supernova!

2. Blade Runner

Blade Runner“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

It was a difficult decision in regards to the positioning of my favourite two movies of 1982, both are worthy of the grandest title of them all. I think you’ll approve of my final choice, however there is much time to discuss the grandeur of my number two choice.

I was fortunate to only see Blade Runner for the first time in my twenties, a good 25 years after its release. I feel much of its subtle appeal and nuances would have passed me by at a younger age. Co-produced by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner is sci-fi indulged on the most epic of scales. From the monumental soundtrack by Vengelis, to its dark and wet Urban backdrops dashed in Neon lighting creating a Future Noir masterpiece. Blade Runner is easily one of the most visually impressive movies ever created.

The film follows Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is a Blade Runner, a group of specialist police assembled to hunt Replicants, which are near perfect human duplications with enhanced strength and tolerance to pain. He is assigned one last case to hunt down 4 recently escaped Replicants and ‘retire them’ before they cause havoc on the LA populous and ultimately meet their maker.

Ford puts in a great performance as the care-free and seemingly nonchalant Deckard, who shows no sympathy for those he is trying to hunt, or those whom his spiteful tongue might disturb, namely that of the seemingly emotionless Rachel (Sean Young) who is introduced to Deckard as test subject for Replicant interrogation, yet she is unaware that she is even a Replicant.

Lining up for the Replicants is Darryl Hannah and a career defining performance from Rutger Hauer, whose soliloquy as quoted at the beginning of this piece brings together a fitting finale that ties up many of the movies deeper residing themes,  which can be easily lost when distracted purely by the visual brilliance of the film.

A particularly favourite piece of eye-candy during this film is the scene where Deckard shoots one of the escaped Replicants following a chase from a strip club, A a rather stunning young lady is fleeing her would-be assassin wearing nothing but spiked boots and a see-through PVC rainmack.  The moment that she is shot in the back by Deckard as she crashes through several panes of glasses, all of which are illuminated by an abundance of neon is one of my all time favourite scenes for sheer visual impact.

The greatest gift the movie leaves for the viewer is that of an ending open to interpretation, is Deckard a Replicant or a human is ambiguous at best with strong cases for either. Fortunately this is one classic movie whose legacy has not been destroyed with a meaningless sequel meaning you can decipher the evidence and make your own conclusions.

It’s yet another IMDB Top 250 for Harrison Ford who was really at the top of his game during the few years either side of this movie, Blade Runner resides as a Science Fiction hall of famer and one of the best films ever made.

1. Gandhi

Ghandi Ben Kingsley“The function of a civil resistance is to provoke response and we will continue to provoke until they respond or change the law. They are not in control; we are.”

There are few movies that have stirred me as much as watching this movie for the first time. Directed by the mighty Richard Attenborough, the film follows the tribulations of Mohandas Gandhi, an English educated lawyer and Indian immigrate who is assigned to a practice in South Africa and is immediately subjugated to horrendous treatment due to his ethnicity. He leads a minor rebellion against the white British establishment, seeking equal rights for all races in South Africa and becomes a national hero back in India.

Upon returning to his home nation seeking peace and tranquillity he finds the problems of subjugation have not eluded him and the rape of his country’s resources prompt him to become the spearhead for India’s claim for independence from the British empire. This is accomplished using a innovative tactic of ‘peaceful rebellion’ or more accurately referred to as ‘non-cooperation.

Ben Kingsley is brilliantly cast as Gandhi and is entirely convincing in playing the hero of the movie, both in terms of aesthetic suitability and the humility he brings to the screen. It’s very difficult to take your eye off Kingsley during the whole film, it’s almost as if you’re watching the real Gandhi and it is truly a remarkable performance considering he’d done very little outside of TV roles at this point in his career.

It leaves a somewhat nasty taste in the mouth to see Kingsley selling himself short in movies such as 2012’s ‘The Dictator’ playing a somewhat stereotyped and foolish middle-eastern politician, it removes some shine from the legacy he build for himself in the Gandhi role and directly insults the magnitude of his performance. That said he deservedly bagged himself the 1983 Best Actor gong at the Oscars and the movie itself taking a tremendous haul of 7 further Oscars. It really is a heavyweight of a movie and is a must see for fan of history, particularly that of the civil-rights movement or the British Empire

In regards to the latter, it opens up some scar tissue and painful memories of how the British treated their colonial Empire. This is particularly emphasised in the excruciatingly merciless killing at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre where up to a 1000 men, women and children were trapped and shot by the British army during a peaceful protest. The movie closes out with the crushing division of Indian Territory following independence prompting the founding of Pakistan and the eventual assassination of Gandhi himself.

A lifetime of defiance in the name of justice, Gandhi established himself as one of the most important persons of the 20th Century and this movie more than does him worthy and is an incredible addition to the IMDB Top 250 and my best movie of 1982.

The Failed Critic…An Unexpected Journey

It's our birthday - time to party!
It’s our birthday – time to party!

A year ago today I started a blog called The Failed Critic. It was the latest in a long line of attempted blogs and aborted hobbies that I tried to define my personality with. I planned to watch every film on the IMDB Top 250 list (including the ones I had seen) and record the whole experience for posterity.

Since starting the blog I have managed to add only about 30 films to my ‘watched’ list. But the year I’ve had has been one of the most fun and exciting I can remember.

The blog started off very slowly, with a few friends reading the odd post if I badgered them enough. That is until I ‘met’ Steve, Gerry, and shortly after that Owen. That’s when the Failed Critics podcast was born.

We’ve since recorded over 40 episodes of “the slightly shambolic weekly film review podcast”, and one of those episodes has been described as “pretty good”. It even attracted the attention of Carol Morley (director of the brilliant Dreams of a Life). The podcast has been through a number of reboots and guises, but it’s currently better than I ever hoped when we first sat down on Skype and shyly said hello to each other. Despite having never met them, I’d describe each of the team as a friend – and without them I’m pretty sure I would have given up on Failed Critics like I have every other blog.

I’ve been to the cinema 68 times in the last year, which is a lot more than I managed in the entire decade previously. I’ve attended the first ever Sundance London as a patron, the first ever Bowiefest as a ‘blogger’, and the première of Prometheus as a competition winner (although I ended that evening as personal friend of Jason Flemyng and Benedict Wong). In a year I’ve managed to get Charlie Higson to record an introduction for our podcast, completed a short-film script of my own, and gone from the cine-illiterate idiot who wrote that shockingly bad first post to someone a Guardian critic described on Twitter as a film snob.

One of the greatest pleasures I’ve had has been reading some fantastic writings from people who just wanted to get involved. It’s been a genuine honour to be able to publish the work of these great writers. In the next twelve months I hope that even more brilliant writers will want to get involved with what I’ve been lovingly building here. We’re not professionals, and pretty much everything we’ve reviewed has been paid for with our own hard-earned pocket money. We’re just fans of films – and I hope that comes across.

It’s been an amazing year, and we’re only just getting started. I can’t wait to see what 2013 holds for me, and for the Failed Critics readers.

A Decade in Film: The Sixties – 1960

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

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

5. The Magnificent Seven

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

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

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

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

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

 

4. Breathless (A bout de soufflé)

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

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

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

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

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

Available for streaming on Lovefilm Instant

 

3. The Apartment

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. Peeping Tom

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

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

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

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

Available for streaming on Lovefilm Instant

 

1. Psycho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed Critics Review: New Star Wars!

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

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

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

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

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The Departed (2006), Infernal Affairs (2002)

There are some films that you just know you’re going to like even before they begin. The Departed was one of those for me.

How could it not be good? Directed by Martin Scorsese. Big names like Matt Damon, Leonardo Di Caprio, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen.

Even Mark Wahlberg was supposed to be good in it.

And so it proved. The plot can sound a lot more complicated than it really is. It’s cops, led by Sheen, versus gangsters, led by Nicholson. Each side has a mole in the other camp, Di Caprio the cop turned mobster and Damon the opposite. And each mole is trying to identify their rival mole, in order to protect their own cover.

It’s a black and white tale really. Di Caprio has spent so long on the wrong side of the law that it’s beginning to eat him up. You can see in every scene how passionately he wants to draw a line underneath his undercover days, go back to a normal life. All he has to do is deliver Nicholson. Meanwhile, Damon, for want of a better phrase, is a sneaky piece of shit. I couldn’t help taking an immediate dislike to his character.

One thing that does take a bit of getting used to is the Boston accent on show. Before this film I had no idea there was such a thing, and it can take a minute or two to tune your ear to it. But it’s almost a character in itself and really adds to the pace and the rhythm of the dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue, Wahlberg’s performance is one for the ages. It’s not just the foul content of his lines, but the venom with which he spits them out (and no, that’s not a reference to his hip hop days as Marky Mark).

It’s not Scorsese’s greatest film, by any stretch, and you’ll never hear a worse Irish accent than that attempted by Ray Winstone. But it’s a fantastic way to spend two and a half hours

Or at least, that’s what I thought before this week, when I sat down to watch Infernal Affairs on Netflix.

Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong film from 2002, and was the ‘inspiration’ for the Departed. It’s basically the same story, but in Cantonese. And it is out-of-this-world brilliant.

For starters, there’s the sheer speed at which the story rattles along. The Departed’s running time is 151 minutes. Infernal Affairs gets the job done in 101 minutes, the best part of an hour less. There’s no dawdling about, it gets on with it and sucks you in immediately. The placing of the respective moles is over within a matter of minutes, before we even see the title of the film.

I thought that Di Caprio’s performance was the very embodiment of quiet desperation, an undercover cop on the edge. I was wrong – Tony Leung is on a different planet. It’s a heart-breaking display, a guy watching, absorbing everything, in the hope that he can take down the top Triad – Sam, played by Eric Tsang – and get back to a life he knew before.

Any time his secret identity was at risk of being exposed, my heart was in my throat, pounding, even though thanks to the Departed I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen.

Tsang is another who puts his American successor in the shade. Nicholson is smarmy and charming, but I never really bought him as a ruthless gangster. Tsang on the other hand oozes charisma and quiet menace. His eyes were utterly chilling.

And what of the Triad’s man inside the police, Inspector Lau (Andy Lau)? It’s a very different performance to Matt Damon’s. Here is a man fighting himself – and his Triad leaders – to find out who he really is, whether he wants to be defined by his relationship with the Triads or move beyond it. I found him a far more sympathetic character, one who is aware that his mistakes have caused the deaths of good people and who feels genuine remorse for that.

There isn’t the clumsy love triangle that the Departed attempts, and the film is all the better for it.

According to IMDB, the Departed is the 52nd best film ever made, with an average rating of 8.5, compared to Infernal Affairs’ rating of 8, leaving it in 210th place. If everybody who rated the Departed were made to watch Infernal Affairs, I fully expect that positioning would be switched.

Great films stay with you long after the credits have ended. I enjoyed the Departed, but once it was over, I didn’t think about it (beyond the odd delayed chuckle at a Wahlberg line). In the 24 hours since I finished Infernal Affairs, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I implore you to watch it. You won’t regret it.

John Fitzsimons is the editor of personal finance website lovemoney.com and writes about things other than money to keep him sane. His wife still hasn’t forgiven him for subjecting her to Green Street simply for the chance to hear Frodo sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”.

@johnthejourno

Oldboy (2003)

It’s looking like Park Chan-wook’s tremendous revenge-thriller, Oldboy, is set to be remade in 2013 by American film-maker, Spike Lee. I’d go on to say how disappointed I am by another needless remake, but frankly, it’s not going to detract anything from the original, however disappointing or surprisingly good Lee’s rendition turns out.

Oldboy is a film that caught me by surprise. I’d seen the film recurring on lists of ‘best foreign films’ and the like, but didn’t pay attention to the curiosity-catching plot and quite how much it appealed to me. The story follows Oh Dae-su, a man imprisoned for 15 years, with no knowledge of his captor or the reasons behind the new life he lives.

His room has a bed, a desk, a television and a bathroom cubicle. The door contains a slot, large enough for a food tray to slide through. But no slot necessary at eye-level. Daily, an incapacitating gas is released into the room and upon Dae-Su’s awakening, the room has been cleaned, his clothes changed and a new batch of dumplings delivered. He scribbles writings into a journal, ferociously beats his fists against the walls that contain him and uses television to stay connected to humanity in what diminutive way he can; it is simultaneously ‘a clock and a calendar. It’s your school, your home, your church, your friend… And a lover’.

Until one day, a news-piece reveals that his own blood and fingerprints have been found at the scene of his wife’s murder; that he has become a wanted man.

Oh Dae-Su is soon released from his prison and equipped with money, a phone and expensive clothes. He is given five days to seek his revenge. At a sushi restaurant, he meets Mi-do, who offers her sympathy, cares for him and joins him on his search for meaning.

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.

While staying with Mi-do, it quickly becomes apparent that Oh is out of touch with the subtleties of human nature, and immediately desires Mi-do; a much greater lover than he previously considered his room’s television. But his physical infatuation does not deter him from finding his former captor. Years of disciplined physical repetition has left Oh Dae-Su’s body strong, but his mind is focused only on vengeance and a quest for answers, regardless of what brutality it takes to get them.

Oldboy is not violence for violence’s sake, but it is brutal. Punishment is in the film’s core and it is shown with a gritty style that won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, the film is also very authentic. Choi Min-sik plays Oh Dae-Su and is mesmerising; portraying slips into madness and the need for a human connection, as a result of his tormented, cut-off past. Oldboy has many shocking scenes that aren’t in for shock value, but regardless how believable or ‘justified’ it feels for Dae-Su’s savage character, watching and hearing the claw-end of a hammer go at another man’s set of teeth is hard to stomach.

However violent it seems, the film remains artistic at its core. A scene where Dae-Su fights off several of his former jailers, with a knife thrust into his back, is extremely well choreographed to show the overpowering rage and determination that fuels him, while also remaining stylish and fast-paced.

Watching Oldboy, I was caught up in the mystery of the plot and the style of the film, rather than letting the violence take a front seat. The film offers many moments of humour and humanity, which make it feel completely genuine. Oldboy is powerful, not just for the impact of the visceral violence, but more-so because of the depths of human depravity it portrays. Unlike a lot of recent thrillers, this is a film whose stylish, gritty violence feels like it is serving the equally dark plot, rather than vice-versa.

My name is Jonny Stringer and I’m a journalism student in Sheffield with a growing interest in film. I’m no expert, but know that I’d love the chance to write about film for a living, so I’m hoping practice makes perfect.

I’m a big fan of thrillers, dark humour and the odd bit of stylish violence, but that’s not to say I don’t watch the occasional Disney film from time to time.

Like many, I’m aiming to get through the IMDb Top 250, while also keeping up-to-date with upcoming releases but on a student budget, I do tend to lag behind.

I occasionally write about film on http://jonnystringer.wordpress.com/ and can be tweeted at https://twitter.com/jonnyzomg 

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2000

The first in a new series of articles where  Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favoruite films from each year of that decade, and give us a little insight into the legacy those years have left us.

As this is Gerry’s (from the Failed Critics podcasts) own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Today he counts down his favourite films from 2000.

5. Meet the Parents

A remake of an independent film from 1992 and essentially little more than a comedy about families, Meet the Parents is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Ben Stiller is his usual self and brings some good laughs, but it’s Robert De Niro who is the real star here with a wonderful comedic performance. It hasn’t aged as well perhaps as the likes of American Pie and Zoolander but these are situations we can all empathise with and it is this universality that makes it so consistently funny.

It’s more slapstick and slightly less gross-out than the other comedies of that era, making it more of a family-friendly and arguably complete film than most of its ilk. The sequels which followed it never quite reached these heights but it’s always worth a watch and at the very least helped inspire American Dad, Family Guy’s sister show.

4. Battle Royale

Brutal, violent and shocking, Battle Royale somehow manages to be genuinely thought-provoking despite its subject matter. Now a cult classic, it tells the tale of a class of high-schoolers who are forced to battle it out to the death on a remote island by their sadistic teacher, the iconic Takeshi Kitano.

The obvious inspiration for The Hunger Games, the film and the novel it was adapted from sparked massive controversies both in Japan and worldwide, with the Japanese Parliament trying to ban both. They succeeded only in generating more interest and the film has become one of the most successful in Japanese cinema history. Tarantino counts it as the only of the films released since the beginning of his career that he wishes he had made, and there is certainly a Tarantino-esque flair for combining violence with social commentary.

The Hunger Games made a big splash this year and James talked about this genre here. In my opinion this is basically a far superior original that was copied and made for Western consumption by Suzanne Collins 9 years after the Japanese novel’s release (Collins denies copying Battle Royale, for the record). If you’ve seen the Hunger Games and not this, go and rectify this immediately. Harrowing but brilliant, Battle Royale is that rarest of things – a violent action thriller with a deeper message that’s well communicated.

3. Snatch

Building on the success of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s frantic cockney gangster film managed to combine comedy and brutal violence so perfectly that he practically spawned a new sub-genre. The cast is large and features the likes of Brad Pitt as an Irish-gypsy boxer and everyone’s favourite platform diver Jason Statham (seriously, look it up – he doesn’t just bang hot models you know) among many others. Ritchie’s supreme ability to manage such a large cast and juggle so many sub-plots is what makes the film so outstanding – all the characters end up being well developed and the world created is utterly believable.

Visually, the film is also great – fast paced, brilliantly edited and with an almost constantly moving camera. Whilst the film is very similar to its predecessor, the characters are brilliant enough to distinguish themselves, even if some of the actors are the same. With a whipping 163 usages of the F-word, Snatch’s dialogue could have been crude and boring; instead, it is consistently funny and created a cult following whose only downside is that your mate always quotes the film to you in certain situations. Must-see viewing for all Brits and surprisingly successful across the pond, this film helped put British cinema back on the map. Takings of £12m+ domestically and $30m+ in the US, from a £3m budget, certainly helped make our filmmakers an attractive proposition for studios.

2. Memento

Christopher Nolan’s mind-boggling thriller was made for just $5,000,000 and was only his second feature-length outing. Having garnered a lot of critical acclaim following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film was a major success around Europe when it was released towards the end of the year; however the project struggled to find a US distributor initially and was passed up by the likes of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Once the film found a distributor and made its way onto US screens in March 2001, eventually grossing $25,000,000, Weinstein and his pals realised their mistake. Nolan hasn’t struggled for work since and went on to make some brilliant blockbusters.

The plot is complex, as Guy Pearce’s Leonard tries to overcome his amnesia and discover who murdered his wife. Running two strands of the storyline parallel to each other, with one moving in normal chronological order and the other in reverse, was a brave decision which put off the likes of Weinstein. It paid off massively. Memento was a breath of fresh air and managed to find the right balance of complexity, thoughtfulness and thrills.

I’m quite a fan of Nolan, as most of the world seems to be now, but I still think this is one of his finest films. I probably even prefer it to Batman Begins, and as you know I’m a big Batman fan. Accomplished, compelling and innovative, Memento launched the career of one of the biggest figures in the industry today with very good reason.

1. Gladiator

If one film dominated the box office in 2000, it was Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals epic. Russell Crowe is iconic as Maximus, Joaquin Phoenix is brilliantly sinister and scheming as Commodus, and Connie Nielsen is captivating as his sister Lucilla. It’s the casting outside of the three main protagonists where I think Gladiator really excels though – Oliver Reed famously died during filming and some scenes were added using CGI, but he’s absolutely fantastic throughout; Marcus Aurelius is played convincingly by Richard Harris; Djimon Hounsou launched his career off the back of his turn as Juba, Maximus’ companion in the arena. The characters have become so recognisable thanks to the excellent performances of all the cast.

That said, this was not an easy shoot by all accounts. Harris, at 70, could not be bothered to learn new lines when re-writes were made, although he reportedly became good friends with Crowe. Reed, on the other hand, is purported to have offered Crowe out at one stage having taken an instant dislike to the gruff Australian. Similarly, Crowe emulated Harrison Ford in clashing frequently with director Scott and the writers, and criticising the dialogue (as James mentioned on a recent podcast). The schedule was punishing and shoots went on so long that the film was altered significantly by the long days: the blurring in the opening battle sequence was necessitated by the light running out and everyone being too tired to come back again the next day, while the usage of CGI to replace Reed was preferred to going back and shooting scenes again by the now exhausted crew.

Despite all these difficulties, Gladiator is a cinematic triumph. Shying away from the clichés of the genre such as the Emperor languishing in a chair being fed grapes, Scott nevertheless builds on classic elements from films such as Ben Hur and gives them a vibrancy and reality that those productions never achieved. This Rome feels real, gritty, crawling with corruption, greed and malice. The North African setting looks dusty, hot and uncomfortable, the sets look lived-in rather than freshly constructed. The battle scenes are amongst the best I have ever seen and have set a benchmark, in my view, for all that has followed. We’ve probably all seen it, we all know it won 5 Oscars and it’s one of the most quoted and spoofed films in recent history, but we can’t forget just how great Gladiator is. Undoubtedly the best film of 2000.

Honourable mentions:

American Psycho
Amores Perros
Billy Elliot
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Road Trip