Saturday, 26 July 2014

Blogathon: 6 Degrees of Separation


It's been some time since I wrote anything film related but a tweet overnight from Shane at Film Actually invited me to participate in a blogathon started by Myfilmviews called 6 Degrees of Separation. The rules are simple. Each participant must connect one actor/actress/director/movie to another actor/actress/director/movie in six connections or less. Have a look at what the previous participants have done.

A Fistful of Films
Cinematic Corner
And So It Begins
Surrender to the Void
Movies and Songs 365
The Cinematic Spectacle
Film Actually 

Shane presented me the the task of connecting a director synonymous for his fight against racism with a film that is most famous for it - Spike Lee to The Birth of a Nation. So, here it is.

1. In 2002, Spike Lee directed 25th Hour starring Edward Norton.

2. A year earlier Edward Norton appeared in the underrated The Score with Robert De Niro.

3. Robert De Niro starred in Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear in which Robert Mitchum, who starred in the original, had a small role. 

4. Back in 1955, Robert Mitchum appeared in The Night of the Hunter with Lillian Gish.

5. Lillian Gish was a darling of the silent era and acted in the controversial the Birth of a Nation.

I'm passing the baton to Jason of the excellent Life Vs Film and tasking him with getting from The Birth of a Nation to Daniel Brühl. Good luck.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Safety Last!




Anyone who knows me or has regularly perused my blog will be well aware that I’m a huge fan of the silent comedy from the 1910s to 1930s. Of course this isn’t entirely true though. My love and knowledge only extends as far as the two behemoths of the era, to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Aside from the occasional foray into the likes of Laurel and Hardy and non-Chaplin Keystone, my understanding is limited. For a long time I’ve wanted to get a hold of some of the films of Harold Lloyd, the man who probably came closest to Chaplin and Keaton both then and now. Unfortunately, unlike my two comedy heroes, his oeuvre is harder to come by and much more expensive. I’ve started then with what is in my opinion his best known work; Safety Last! A film famous for its iconic still of Lloyd hanging from a clock face several stories up a skyscraper, I thought I’d start with the obvious and work my way back.

The movie opens very strongly with a set up that seems to suggest that the lead character, named Harold Lloyd, is behind bars and being visited by his sweetheart and a priest. In the background, a hangman’s noose looms. As the camera zooms out though, we learn that he’s merely behind a fence and is in fact awaiting the arrival of a train that will take him to the big city in search of his fortune. Lloyd promises to make good within the year in order that he and his girl (Mildred Davis) can marry. The establishing scene expertly sets up the next sixty-five minutes by introducing us to the characters and their motivations as well as giving us a great sight gag. From then on, the film goes from strength to strength.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Two Faces of January



The Two Faces of January is an interesting little film written and directed by Hossein Amini, a man best known for penning the script of Drive. Here Amini delivers another taught script set in early 1960s Greece. American tour guide and part time swindler Rydal (Oscar Isaac) gives tours to unsuspecting travellers in the Greek capital Athens and one day comes across an American couple with whom he strikes up conversation and a brief friendship. The tour guide is charmed by the couple and drawn to their wealth and beauty but when it becomes apparent that the couple aren’t quite as well refined and put together as they first appear, Rydal helps them to evade those hunting them before becoming embroiled in their strange and murky circumstances.

There were two things that attracted me to this movie. The first was the name Amini. I was curious to see the screenwriter’s directorial debut and was interested in his script. The second factor was Viggo Mortensen. At this stage in the actor’s career I feel as though I can pretty much trust that if he’s agreed to be in it, it will be good enough to see. Mortensen does indeed impress and his choice of role is once again solid. The movie is about surface and sheen and the attraction that bright and beautiful things hold while under the surface bubbles something more sinister. There’s an uneasy feeling which envelops the film and it stabs through the false surface from time to time in a wonderfully calm but out of control manner.

Godzilla



Sixty years after his debut screen appearance, Godzilla is back on our screens in his second American guise. For anyone who remembers the 1998 Roland Emmerich version, this news may legitimately cause trepidation. My interest in the picture came about when I heard that the new film was to be directed by second time director Gareth Edwards. For nearly half a decade since Edwards’ first film, I’ve been telling anyone I can get my hands on to watch his film Monsters. That movie was outstanding; an ultra low budget monster-thinker which Edwards wrote, directed, shot and edited himself besides doing all of the FX work in his bedroom. In comparison to that movie, Godzilla is a let down.

Things start well with an interesting and attractive titles sequence which gives a slight spin on the traditional Godzilla back story. The film postulates that the atomic tests of the 1950s were in fact not tests at all but an elaborate attempt to destroy the gigantic titular beast. Fast forward several decades and we find Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) hard at work as the supervisor of a Japanese Nuclear Power Plant. Brody is concerned by strange seismic patterns which are unlike any earthquake he’s seen before. In fact he’s convinced there are no earthquakes at all.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

To Catch a Thief



A beautiful if underwhelming film, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief marked the director’s third and final picture starring Grace Kelly. Joining the actress is another actor in his third Hitchcock movie, Carey Grant. Grant plays John Robie, a once jewel thief turned French Resistance fighter who now retired, tends to his vineyards high above the Côte d'Azur. When a series of robberies which display Robie’s hallmarks are committed, the police come looking for the man known as ‘The Cat’ and in order to clear his name, he gets hold of a list of potential targets in the hope of out witting and out manoeuvring the real thief. First on the list are Mrs. Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Kelly).

To Catch a Thief lacks some of the dramatic tension and edge of the seat thrills of Hitchcock’s finest films but what it lacks in tautness, it makes up for in other ways. Hitchcock cleverly gets passed the Hays/Breen censors with some fantastic sexual innuendo and half hidden imagery. The romantic side of the plot is much more developed than the dramatic side and Hitch wows his audience with sexual fireworks (literally) and a John Michael Hays script which while leaving little to the imagination, somehow feels clean and moral. Coupled with the spectacular beauty on display, this is a movie which is worth investing time in.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Stand Up Guys



Stand Up Guys is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Stuck somewhere between a geriatric sub Apatow production and 70s crime drama, it’s lost perilously at sea with a precious cargo of acting royalty desperately trying to steer around an iceberg. Despite pulling in the same direction, they go down with the ship. The S.S. Good Riddance. Directed by Fisher Stevens and penned by Noah Haidle, the film has at its centre an interesting premise but tonally it’s all off beam. Twenty-eight years after a job that went badly wrong, Valentine or “Val” to his friends (Al Pacino) is released from prison and into the welcoming arms of his former partner in crime Doc (Christopher Walken). Having served half a lifetime after a stray bullet accidentally ended the life of their bosses only son, Val is keen to make up for lost time, lost steak and lost sex. He’s acutely aware however that his time is limited and is expecting a hit on behalf of his still grieving boss. The bullet he’s expecting is due to be expelled by the gun hidden in his old friend Doc’s pocket, something Val also suspects.

With Alan Arkin joining an already illustrious cast and a premise that sets up so much, the film still somehow disappoints. The comedy is absolutely dire and produced just one laugh (admittedly a large one) in the entire 95 minute runtime. Time that could have been spent creating dramatic tension or allowing the great actors to spit thick, gloopy dialogue is instead devoted to nob gags and wave after wave of “Oh aren’t we old” jokes. I don’t know who is supposed to be enjoying it. If you’re young and have no love for the actors then it doesn’t work. If you’re young and have a great affinity for the actors then it’s simply sad and embarrassing and if you’re older then you just aren’t going to be interested in the Viagra stealing, Russian prostitute visiting humour. This is a movie aimed at fifteen year old fans of forty year old movies. A lot of movies have been produced recently which try to put a twist on the frat boy comedy by introducing an older cast but it’s just uncomfortable. Seeing Michael Corleone, Sonny Wortzik, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, Frank Serpico, Tony Montana, bloody Al ‘8 Oscar nominations and 1 win’ Pacino pretending to go to hospital because he can’t get rid of an erection? No. Just stop it. Enough.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

At The Back At The Tribeca Film Festival



Late last month, a scheduled trip to New York happened to coincide with The Tribeca Film Festival. When I discovered this a couple of weeks before crossing the Atlantic, I immediately looked into the possibility of going to see some films and was fortunate to find the time to squeeze three in. With only six days in the greatest city on the planet, I wouldn’t have been able to justify any more than this. Tribeca was my first film festival and overall I had a positive experience. The event was well run by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff while the locations were excellent. The cinemas themselves were less desirable however. The three screenings we went to were situated in two theatres, both multiplexes and both with very shallow seating rakes. At 6’ 3” I still struggled to see through the heads of those in front of me and was very conscious of the views I was obstructing behind. I’m not sure if this is consistent with all American cinemas but on the only other occasion that I’ve seen a film in the States, in the same city, a year before, there was no issue. Anyway, I digress.

The first film we saw was Night Moves at the AMC Loews Village 7 on 3rd Avenue. Both my girlfriend and I were excited and nervous about our first film festival experience and eagerly joined the long line outside the theatre. Night Moves is a drama with a political edge. Directed by Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) It stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as environmentalists who plan to blow up a dam in rural Oregon. The film initially reminded me of The East, thematically at least but it soon becomes apparent that this is a significantly smarter film which takes a different direction. It doesn’t bombard the audience with back story or justification for the crimes. It assumes that the audience is clever enough to understand their motivation. The central characters also remain half hidden and you’re never sure if they’re showing their real selves to each other or the audience. The planning and preparation are interesting and the execution of the dam’s destruction is incredibly tense. What follows soon after is rather predictable but the character’s transformations surprise.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Scarface



Based on a 1929 novel and inspired by real events, 1932’s Scarface was one of a series of pre-code gangster pictures which shocked and enthralled its viewers. Opening with a written disclaimer, damming the government for their lack of action regarding the threat that modern gangsters pose, the film nonetheless glamorises the life of crime while shaking a stick in its vague direction. It follows the ascent of young arrogant Italian immigrant Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as he rises through the Chicago underworld by bumping off bosses and rivals who stand in his way and intimidating speakeasy proprietors into taking his booze. Aided by his right hand man, the quiet coin flicking Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), Tony reaches the heights of underworld overlord but finds that being at the top is even more dangerous than the climb to the summit.

Arriving two years before the Hays Office began imposing much stricter censorship on Hollywood; Scarface was able to get away with a lot more than many films which followed it. Inside its ninety minutes you’ll find brutal murders, gunplay and revealing costumes worn by the female characters, things which just wouldn’t be permissible from 1934 onwards. Even still, the film troubled the censors and the ending was changed to suit their tastes. Overall the movie contains a ‘crime doesn’t pay’ theme, something which you expect from the opening credits disclaimer but it’s slow in coming. For the most part, the theme appears to be ‘crime gets you everything you want’ and it’s this which the censors must have taken issue with. The glorification of the central character is also something which the Hays Office was unhappy with. This is something which film makers and censors would lock horns over for the next forty years.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Out of the Past



1947’s Out of the Past is widely considered to be one of the greatest examples of 1940s film noir. Set around a convoluted plot, the film twists and turns through double, triple and quadruple crosses, landing surprise blows on its dumbstruck and occasionally confused audience. Based on the novel Build My Gallows High and originally released in the UK under the same title, the picture stars Robert Mitchum as freelance Private Detective Jeff Bailey. He’s hired by rich and shady businessman Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down a dame, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) who Stirling alleges has disappeared with $40,000 of his money. Told partly in flashback and with a voiceover to match that of Sunset Boulevard’s, the film twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing, through several cities, two nations and a long, albeit undisclosed, period of time.

It took me a little while to get into Out of the Past but when I did, I enjoyed it greatly. Unfortunately my patience wore off towards the end thanks to the elaborate nature of the narrative. This isn’t a film I’d suggest watching after a long day at the office and a couple of martinis inside your stomach. Although a large part of the movie’s charm is its strong story, the frequent double crossing did begin to confuse me as we crossed the hour mark. This isn’t entirely a bad thing however as half the fun is in guessing who has the upper hand and who will strike next.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms



Predating the more famous Godzilla by a year and being a major influence on that movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a 1953 creature feature that is home to a series of firsts. It was the first movie in history to feature a monster awakened by a nuclear blast and also contains Ray Harryhausen’s first solo special effects work. It spawned a plethora of imitations and ushered the dawn of a golden age for monster movies.

The plot sets a pattern which will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen a creature feature before. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, a team of scientists and military personnel are carrying out a nuclear test. While out collecting samples soon after, physicist Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is shocked to eye a giant beast, lurking in the icy gloom. Back in New York City no one believes the young scientist but when strange tales come down the Atlantic seaboard towards Gotham, others begin to treat Nesbitt’s claims seriously. Unfortunately they’re too late and the beast makes devastating landfall in the city itself.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier



Captain America (Chris Evans) returns in his second solo outing to sniff out the rotten core at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. When an attempt is made on the life of a senior S.H.I.E.L.D executive, Captain Steve Rodgers finds himself on the outside of a conspiracy and on the run. With the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and newcomer to the series, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap’ must hunt down those who have sworn to protect and comes across a figure from his past in the process.

When the first Captain America movie came out in 2011, I expected it to be the Marvel film that I’d enjoy most. I’m a lover of history and am fascinated by the 1940s, especially the Second World War. It was surprising then that I enjoyed it far less than any other of the Marvel films to that date. I’m glad to say that Winter Soldier is an improvement on the original but still lags some way behind the likes of Thor and Iron Man for me.

I’ll start with what I enjoyed about the movie as that will take less time. I think that the themes are strong and well realised. By turning S.H.I.E.L.D, or at least elements of it, into the bad guys, the film holds a mirror up to the intelligence community. After years of reports about NSA bugs, CIA phone tapping and MI5 interference, the writers pick up a strong idea and run with it. By putting those who are meant to protect us under the spotlight, we get a glimpse into a shady and easily corruptible world. The positioning of S.H.I.E.L.D’s headquarters, high above the Washington skyline, is also a strong visual metaphor. The movie asks us, who is really in charge? What are their powers and if they’re watching us, who’s watching them?

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Double Indemnity



I had only been a few months since the last time I saw Double Indemnity but today’s watch of the noir inflected The Lost Weekend made me want to step back a year earlier to revisit Billy Wilder at the height of the genre. Double Indemnity could be described as the archetypical film noir. Although the genre stretches back further than the film’s 1944 release, it was Double Indemnity which provided the blue prints from which later titles took their queues. Famous today for its voice-over, use of venetian blind lighting and provocative femme fatale, at the 17th Academy Awards the picture was nominated for seven Oscars. Although it ultimately left that ceremony empty handed, the movie’s reputation has gone from strength to strength and it currently sits inside the top thirty on the AFI’s poll of 20th Century movies.

The film is told in flashback and voiceover by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). Neff is a talented insurance salesman who becomes an active participant in a murder plot following a chance meeting with the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Neff is at the Dietrichson household with the hope of persuading Mr. Dietrichson to renew his motor insurance when he’s presented with the beguiling temptress that is the lady of the house. Blinded by love or at the very least passion, Neff agrees to help the lady to murder her husband and share in the insurance pay out. Having constructed an elaborate murder plot, Neff’s firm and in particular the capable Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson) are charged with working out how the supposed accidental death of Mr. Dietrichson occurred.

The Lost Weekend



Billy Wilder’s multi award winning The Lost Weekend was one of the first movies to tackle the pull of alcohol head on. The fantastic script details four days in the life of long time alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) who despite his best intentions to stay sober, ends up down an ever spiralling path of addiction. The winner of four Oscars and nominated for three more on top, The Lost Weekend was one of Wilder’s most lauded films and has lost little of its potency in the near seventy years since its release. Opening in the apartment which Birnam shares with his long suffering and devoted bother, Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry) is attempting to get his brother out of the city and away from the temptation of liquor for a few days. He hopes that the cold turkey approach will aid in his brother’s recovery and allow him the time and clear head to write – a career which Don attributes to himself with little evidence of success.

This first scene displays Don’s dependency through the use of the first of several hidden bottles of rye. Whilst packing, Don tries to slip into his case a bottle which he has attached to a rope swinging outside his window. This, unlike many other bottles is soon discovered but Don still manages to wriggle out of the booze free break and instead settles in for a weekend of petty criminality and hard drinking. Don’s first act of cruelty in the pursuit of his fix is to steal the $10 which his brother has left for the housekeeper. He lies to her that the money (her wage) isn’t waiting for her and purchases two bottles before heading to the bar for a drink. The look on Don’s face when he is presented with the short glass of light brown liquid tells us all we need to know about his addition. He’s like a child of Christmas Day, eager, excited, unable to wait. The first drink is downed and swiftly followed by several more.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Double



Richard Ayoade’s second film and follow up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Submarine is The Double, a dark comedy based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s satirical novella of the same name. Set in a subterranean hinterland of unknowable time and location, the film follows the life of lonely, ignored and unseen data imputer Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). Simon floats through life unnoticed by those around him, stating that he feels as though people could almost reach through him as though he wasn’t there. When a new co-worker is introduced, Simon is shocked to discover that he looks and sounds exactly like himself. His doppelgänger though is everything he is not; cocky, outgoing and highly visible.

The Double could easily have been a film that was known for its story. Based on the work of one of the literary greats of the nineteenth century, the film has the narrative already safely mapped out and it indeed delivers an interesting and complex story. In the hands of Ayoade though, this film will be remembered for more; chiefly its design and sound. Richard Ayoade has constructed a magnificent film that evokes so much but remains unique. It’s beautiful and funny, grim and depressing all in equal measure.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Pain & Gain



I watched Pain & Gain. I don’t know why I watched Pain & Gain but I did. I watched Pain & Gain. My favourite critic, Mark Kermode, ranked it as his least favourite film of 2013 and I dislike the entire back catalogue of director Michael Bay. But still I watched Pain & Gain. And do you know what? It isn’t the worst film ever made. I don’t even think it’s the worst film of 2013. It isn’t however a very good film. It’s Pain & Gain. Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain.

Based on true events, something which the film ‘amusingly’ reminds the audience of after a particularly unbelievable scene, Pain & Gain is the story of body building jackass personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who in 1994-5 along with two accomplices, successfully kidnapped and extorted a Miami based businessman, taking all his money and possessions. After months of living the high life, the trio decided to try their hand at a second kidnapping but by this time the police were on their trail.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Escape Plan



It was only natural that I became curious when I heard of a forthcoming film featuring the two super-heavyweights of 80s action. As any man who grew up in the 90s can attest to, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are part of my childhood. VHS copies of Commando or Cliffhanger might have been some of the first we owned and while most of their output has aged even worse than the actors themselves, I still get a little tingle at the thought of seeing them on screen. Escape Plan marks the pair’s first appearance as co-stars although they were seen on screen together in Stallone’s The Expendables. The pairing might have come twenty years later than most fans would have liked but it certainly draws more attention to this movie than it would have if only one man had featured. Joining Arnie and Sly are the likes of Vinnie Jones and 50 Cent so Citizen Kane, watch out!

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who is paid by the US Government to break out of maximum security prisons; a job he excels at. The movie opens with a long, dull sequence in which the audience discovers just how good he is. He’s very good. He gets out. Although he barely has time to change out of his prison jumpsuit, he’s offered double his normal fee to break out of an undercover, off the grid, top, neigh, super-duper top secret facility. He literally grunts at the chance and is soon back inside. Immediately Breslin discovers that this is unlike any other jail he’s seen before and when his emergency escape code is laughed off, he realises he’s going to need all his skills (as well as fellow convict Emil Rottmayer – Schwarzenegger) if he’s going to escape. Breslin develops a plan – an Escape Plan.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Under the Skin



It’s been ten years since Jonathan Glazer’s last film and nearly a decade and a half since his wonderful screen début Sexy Beast. His third film, Under the Skin, is a dark and chilling science fiction horror, loosely based on Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name. It stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on men, using her siren like looks and charm to pull them towards the rocks and to their demise. The movie is incredible, at times getting close to the best I’ve seen in cinema. It veers wildly though towards the opposite extreme with passages of nothingness which reminded me of the torrid time I had while watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Extremes exist elsewhere too with sequences which wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery side by side with almost documentary style shooting, filmed with hidden cameras.

The film opens with an abstract scene, perhaps the formation of an eye or the creation of a being. It signals birth or re-birth and sets us up for what is to come. From the very first moments we know this is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen before and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The opening establishes the link between the known and unknown, creating tantalising glimpses into who or what we are about to be confronted with before concluding on the recognisable image of an eye, at first still, then moving, depicting consciousness. Although it – or she – may well be aware of her surroundings, the alien shows no emotion regarding what she sees. She’s a cold machine, showing not even contempt for her victims. She’s focussed and has a singular task. In one of the film’s most horrifying scenes, a baby is left stranded on a beach. Though screeching for help, she’s ignored by the strange visitor who acts coldly, even blindly to the presence of the child. As humans we want to protect and mother the infant but to the alien, its screams don’t even register. It’s a scene that sent chills down my spine.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari



Often sited as one of the greatest horror films of the silent era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920 German movie and a prime example of German Expressionism. Written by first time screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, the script is generally considered to feature the first twist ending in cinematic history. The main thrust of the story is presented in flashback in which a young man called Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recounts a series of terrible murders that took place in the small town of Holstenwall. His story speaks of a Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) who, at a local fair, unveils a fortune telling somnambulist (sleep-walker) whom he is able to control using hypnosis. When murder strikes the small town, the finger is pointed at Caligari and his attraction.

This movie is one which I’ve wanted to see for several years and heard nothing but good things about. It’s with regret then that I have to report that I was often bored by the story. Ending aside, I found it dull and was too often confused by developments. I’m certainly going to pin some of the blame on a poor quality DVD which I bought from the normally reputable Fopp but even seeing through this, I didn’t fall in love with the film. Despite my lack of enjoyment with regards to the plot, the film has much to offer even the most casual film buff.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel



The latest picture from auteur director Wes Anderson is in my opinion, his finest to date. A typically lavish and exquisitely designed movie, it stars Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustav H, a respected concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel. Pitched as a sort of cross between a Palatial residence and the hotel from The Shining, The Grand Budapest is seen in all its splendour during the majority of the film. The movie opens however around thirty years after the events to be depicted in, at a time during which the grand old hotel is but a shadow of its former self. The action is depicted in flashback, from the memories of Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a once Lobby Boy and apprentice to the aforementioned Gustav H.

In 1932, Gustav H. is seeing off one of his many elder lady friends, a rich widow by the name of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). Gustav’s charms have lead to an on off affair which has lasted for many years and she is upset to be leaving the hotel over which he holds sway. Days later the woman is dead. Gustav H. rushes to her Estate in the hope that his romantic efforts have written himself in the will and sure enough discovers that they have. The deceased’s son (Adrien Brody) is outraged at the reading of the will and accuses the concierge of murder. Gustav H. is soon on the run and ends up under lock and key inside an intimidating maximum security jail.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes



Comedy musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes arrived in cinemas in the summer of 1953 on the back of a successful Broadway run. Set largely aboard an Ocean Liner and Paris, the movie follows the fortunes of two beautiful showgirls. Although the best of friends, the two women couldn’t be more different from one another. Blonde bombshell Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) is a childlike airhead, desperate to marry rich. Her friend Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) is much smarter and more down to earth, interested in love not money. The two head to Paris with Dorothy sent along as a chaperone by Lorelei’s rich and naïve fiancé (Tommy Noonan). Also aboard the ship is a handsome P.I (Elliot Reid), who’s there at the behest of Lorelei’s potential father-in-law.

The film is famous today for Monroe’s iconic and much copied rendition of Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. Along with this song, there are several others in which the two stars sing seductively, strutting across the stage in glamorous and often revealing attire. Many of the songs weren’t to my liking but I had no complaints about the visuals. Around the pair is some excellent choreography. Russell’s rendition of Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love is set inside the ship’s gymnasium and she’s surrounded by the American Olympic Team of whom she makes interesting and amusing props. The actress looks to be in her element. The number also features a mistake in which the actress is knocked into a pool. Director Howard Hawks liked the take though and kept the accident in the finished film. The opening number I’m Just a Little Girl From Little Rock is well staged and sets the film off to a flying start.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Bend of the River




Bend of the River is a serviceable 1952 James Stewart Western. Directed by Anthony Mann, Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, a remorseful ex border raider who is leading a band of settlers from Missouri to Oregon. Following a treacherous journey and a brief stop in the quiet town of Portland, the group reach their isolated destination but when their much needed supplies don’t arrive, McLyntock journeys back to the town to find it very changed. The film features themes of redemption, trust and romance and while it held me attention for its 91 minutes, it’s far from a classic and not quite as good as Mann and Stewart’s 1950 collaboration, Winchester ’73.

Many of the landscapes and sets become interchangeable and the film manages to deceive the viewer by switching between location and studio shots. The on location shooting is back dropped by beautiful vistas and unspoiled landscapes. This is certainly a good looking film and the beauty is exaggerated by the vibrant Technicolor. The costume design is also very good and I enjoyed the first visit to the tiny settlement of Portland, a mere dot on the map compared to the large city it has become. The difference between McLyntock’s first and second visit is also well done if not a little over done.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Touch of Evil



Touch of Evil is only the second film I’ve seen to be directed by Orson Welles but both are amongst the most beautifully constructed I’ve ever seen. Based on the novel Badge of Evil, legend has it that Welles challenged producer Albert Zugsmith to provide him with the worst script available, which Welles promised to turn into a great film. Whether true or not, the second part of that sentence is utterly correct. Welles turned out a terrific picture which is handsomely directed, tightly written and wonderfully acted. 

The movie opens on a famous three minute and twenty second tracking shot, a shot which has been copied by and influenced scores of film makers since. A car is loaded with a bomb and is then driven across the Mexican border, into Texas. After exploding on the American side of the crossing, a newlywed Mexican drug enforcement official named Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) is one of the first on the scene. After ushering his wife (Janet Leigh) to safety, he quickly assesses the crime but is soon pushed to one side by the old, dependable local Police Captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan and Vargas chase the leads but soon Vargas begins to believe that his American counterpart isn’t playing fair.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Gangs of New York



It’s been a couple of years since my last viewing of Martin Scorsese’s historical epic, Gangs of New York. It’s a movie I’ve seen several times since I first saw it in 2002 as my first ‘18’ rated movie at the cinema. It’s a film I’ve always had a lot of affection for. I found it strange then that on this particular viewing, the movie had lost a lot of its charm.

Loosely based on the 1928 book of the same name, Gangs of New York is a dirty and blood-soaked account of the various gangs which vied for control over New York City’s Five Points in the middle of the 19th Century. Focussing specifically on two characters, it takes historical context and real names, mixing them into a world of fact and fiction with some glorious set pieces and cinematic design. Having witnessed his father’s death at the hands of Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) as a young child, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio) comes back to the Five Points as an adult to reap revenge. He finds the Points much the same as he left it; a squalid and rat infested mismatch of languages and races, the very thing which Cutting despises about the area in which he is King.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Big Sleep



The Big Sleep is a 1946 film noir starring the married couple of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart plays Private Detective Philip Marlowe who is employed by a retired General to help resolve the gambling debts of one of his two attractive daughters. Marlowe soon discovers that there is more at stake than simply some unpaid debts and a confusing and ever deepening plot unfolds, one which contains blackmail, duplicity and murder.

The movie is powered along thanks to some great dialogue and obvious chemistry between the two leads. Its plot however is as impenetrable as a Nun’s chastity belt and just gets more and more confusing as it progresses. The story throws out leads and clues which subsequently lead to more leads and clues, many of which ultimately end nowhere. Raymond Chandler, the writer of the novel upon which the film is based, famously stated that not even he could answer some of the questions the plot places in front of the viewer.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Her



Spike Jonze’s Her is a sweet, poignant and yet gently chilling romantic comedy about a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, it’s been met with critical acclaim. It features a fascinating conceit which is deeply explored and contains some beautiful set and costume design as well as some exceptional performances. Why is it then that I found it as cold as a hibernating laptop?

It’s 2025 and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter writer in Los Angeles. His marriage has failed and he’s delaying the signing of his divorce papers, holding out for a second chance which he knows is never going to come. Desperately lonely, he’s become a slight recluse, distancing himself from friends while maintaining a false sunny disposition in their company. One day Theodore sports a newly released operating system (OS) in a mall, one which promises to learn and adapt, whose artificial intelligence is designed to be more than a computer but to be a friend. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) as the OS calls herself, becomes Theodore’ friend and soon, his lover. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

The LEGO Movie



Before I compose my thoughts on hit animation The Lego Movie, you need to know a little about me. I quite like Lego. OK, that’s a slight understatement. You could say I enjoy Lego more than the average person. To be perfectly honest, I’m days away from my twenty-eighth birthday and live in a house in which the spare room is begrudgingly titled ‘the Lego room’ by my long suffering girlfriend. I love collecting the stuff, building it, looking at it and have even dabbled in stop motion animation. Hello everyone, my name’s Tom and I’m a Legoaholic. Attempting to put aside my love of the brightly coloured Danish bricks, I saw The Lego Movie and came to the conclusion that, it. is. awesome.

Bought to life via the minds of the wacky duo behind the insanely fun Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, The Lego Movie combines stop motion and GCI animation. Injected with copious amounts of wit and childish humour, it’s unleashed on an imaginative world, packed full of recognisable characters. One of Lego’s strengths in recent years has been its ever expanding universe, creating tie-ins with popular movie franchises. Added to the company’s long history of inventive subjects and sets, the film is given a blank canvas to fill with all manner of characters and creations. The movie’s central theme is that of creativity and individualism and no toy typifies this more than Lego. The main narrative is as unoriginal as a knock-knock joke but it’s surrounded by a colourful universe into which all manner of surprises and joke are crammed. Like a cardboard box surrounded by an acid trip, it’s expanded, melted, twisted and contorted until something hilarious plops out of the backside of a psychedelic aardvark.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Wadjda



Wadjda, a German-Saudi Arabian co-production was one of the films I missed last year which I most wanted to catch up with. The first feature film shot entirely in the KSA and the first to be directed by a Saudi woman, Wadjda was a film which I had hoped would wipe away my preconceived ideas about a nation I know little about. Unfortunately it acted to strengthen those ideas and actually add to them. It is however a thought provoking movie with a lot of heart and allows a glimpse behind the curtain and into a rarely seen land.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a sprightly and industrious eleven year old girl living in Riyadh. It’s her dream to own a green bicycle which she spots in a local shop but more than that, she dreams of the freedom which would accompany owning the bike. Constricted by rules and religion, Wadjda is a rebel, wearing Converse trainers and listening to foreign pop music, she’s often at her School Principle’s office or causing her equally troubled mother concern. In order to earn the money for her prized bicycle, Wadjda enters a Koran reciting competition for which she studies (ahem) religiously.

Inglourious Basterds



Set in Nazi occupied France, Inglourious Basterds is a film that took Quentin Tarantino over a decade to write and produce. Multiple plot threads, an ever expanding script and difficulty with the movie’s conclusion meant that from first to final draft, a decade had elapsed. The completed script is one of pure Tarantino penmanship. Featuring ideas of revenge, duplicity and malice while scattered with pop references, albeit from a different era, Inglouious Basterds is as Tarantino as a Mexican stand-off in a Big Kahuna Burger Restaurant. Nominated for eight Academy Awards and taking over $320 million worldwide, it is also one of the director’s most successful to date.

Split into five chapters, the film focuses on the efforts of two sets of people to bring down the Third Reich. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is a young Jewish woman who, early in the film, escapes death at the hands of the gifted ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Having dodged an early grave, Shosanna relocates to Paris where she runs a small cinema which we shall come back to later. Meanwhile, elsewhere in France, the Basterds, a group of American Jewish soldiers, led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) are scouring the countryside in search of Nazis to bludgeon and scalp. When the Basterds hear that the entire Nazi high command will be in Paris for the Premier of Goebbels latest propaganda film, they set in motion a plan to end the war the very same night.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club



About four or five years ago, I couldn’t imagine being excited about a Matthew McConaughey film but then came his McConaissance and on the back of tremendous performances in the likes of Killer Joe, Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street, he’s quickly becoming one of my favourite actors of recent times. I still can’t believe it. His latest provides us with perhaps his finest performance to date and accompanies a terrific film which instantly becomes one of my favourites of the young year.

Based on a true story, McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan rodeo cowboy come electrician who enjoys women, beer, drugs, women and women. Having been obviously sick for a while, he is taken to hospital and when wakes, is given the shocking news that he has HIV. This being mid 1980s Texas, Woodroof is, shall we say, taken aback by the news but more worried about accusations that he’s homosexual or ‘faggot’ as he rather ineloquently puts it. After denial and some research plus a stint in a hospital south of the border, Ron discovers that he can help himself and fellow HIV patients by smuggling unapproved medicine into the USA, a decision that puts him on a collision course with the FDA and the American Justice Department.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

It Happened One Night



It Happened One Night is a Pre Code romantic comedy/road movie directed by Frank Capra. At the 7th Academy Awards in February 1935, the film won an unprecedented haul of awards, becoming the first film to win ‘the big five’ of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. The feat went unmatched for over forty years and has only ever been matched twice. Although slow to catch on with critics and the public alike, word of mouth turned it into an unstoppable box office hit becoming Columbia’s highest grossing movie up to that point. Eighty years on from its release, the film remains an irresistible picture, combining drama and romance with a sizable dollop of Pre Code sentiment and behaviour.

Based on the short story Night Bus, the plot concerns a young heiress called Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her comfortable lifestyle after her father attempts to have her marriage to a newly met aviator annulled. Aboard a bus to New York City she meets a down and out reporter called Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Warne is cocky and carefree and soon discovers there’s a story in the runaway girl. He agrees to help fund her journey to New York in return for cooperation on his story and the two begin a series of adventures on their way to the city.

The Touble with Harry



It’s not often that I finish an Alfred Hitchcock picture unable to take something away from it but I feel like I wasted my time with The Trouble with Harry. A departure from the type of mystery that made his name, this is a black comedy with thriller elements. Set during a crisp autumn in Vermont, a retired sea captain discovers the recently deceased body of a man while out hunting on a hill. Believing to be responsible for his death, the captain attempts to hide the body but various passers by happen upon it and react in unusual ways. It turns out that several people believe themselves responsible and the small community at the bottom of the hill attempt to discover exactly what happened to the man and what to do next.

The use of the body, which turns out to be that of the titular character, is a clever Macguffin which is used to unite two couples in what turns out to be a romantic black comedy. Ordinarily when a Hitchcock movie opens on a corpse, you’d be expecting a whodunit but here that isn’t important to the director. For me, that’s one of the problems. I wanted more excitement and intrigue from the film. Although billed as a comedy, I didn’t laugh once and was barely amused. The film just washed over me with a plot that didn’t grab me in the slightest. More disappointing than the plot is the cast who are as wooden as the corpse they attempt to cover up.

The Seven Year Itch



Having recently realised that I’ve loved almost every Billy Wilder film I’ve seen, I’ve been seeking out more of his work. It suddenly dawned on me earlier today that I owned one of his films which I hadn’t seen for a few years but remembered fondly. That film was The Seven Year Itch. I first saw the romantic comedy about five years ago and it had been on my shelf ever since. Unfortunately for my memory and for my love of the film’s director, I’d remembered it as a better film than I actually think it is.

The Seven Year Itch is based on the Broadway play of the same name and stars Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman, a slightly awkward man on the cusp of middle age. An abject worrier and daydreamer with an overactive imagination, Sherman sends his wife and young son off to Maine for the summer in order to escape the New York heat. When returning from work that night he meets a beautiful young woman (Marilyn Monroe) in the hallway of his building and begins to have thoughts that belie his faithful and honest nature.

Wreck-It Ralph



Walt Disney Animation Studios 52nd feature and my personal favourite for nearly twenty years, Wreck-It Ralph is a love letter to the video game. Expertly combining cutting edge animation with 8-bit, 2D and classic arcade styles, the film is chock full of references and in jokes to the thirty or so years of the video games industry which it celebrates. The film tells the story of an arcade game villain who wants to be liked and leaves his own game, travelling to others in the hope of winning a medal. It’s this medal that he hopes will aid his inclusion with the good guys of his own game, Fix-It Felix, Jr. While outside this game, he enters the candy themed cart game Sugar Rush in which he meets a glitch who has struggles of her own.

Wreck-It Ralph is a sweet and funny film that rewards concentration and multiple watches but doesn’t alienate the casual viewer or gamer. As well as being targeted at those with specific game knowledge, it also features a surprisingly emotional plot and some likeable and well drawn characters. It cleverly appeals to both boys and girls with its combination of gender centric games and characters while mums and dads will get a lot of the references to gaming history that will go over the heads of younger audience members.

Paperman



Paperman is a 2012 animated short and the first Disney animated short film to win an Oscar since 1969. Released alongside the feature length Wreck-It Ralph, it’s a seven minute movie about a chance encounter and longing for love. Set in 1940s New York City, George is waiting for his elevated train to work when a gust of wind throws one of his papers into the face of a pretty girl waiting on the same platform. Her lips leave a lipstick imprint on the paper and the duo laugh coyly at the incident before she gets onto her train. Later the same day, George is thinking about the incident while looking out of his office window when he spots the woman in a room on the other side of the street. In an attempt to draw her attention, he makes paper aeroplanes, launching them towards her open window.

Paperman is beautifully drawn with clean black and white lines and wonderful period detail. It’s reminiscent of the Hollywood Golden Age and features lovely period design. The animation is elegant and very much in keeping with classic Disney. Both central characters appear to have been taken from the stock character cupboard at Disney with Meg taking the form of a Disney Princess in mid century attire and George as the affable and harmless Prince in a suit. Although the animation is very ‘Disney’, it also smacks of realism. The expressions and movement speaks of the animation we all know and love but the background, tone and environment are much more realistic looking than in the cartoons of Disney’s heyday. The use of light is also evocative and adds to the sense of romance that the short exudes throughout. It also helps to capture that Golden Age vibe.


The plot is simple and sweet and something everyone can relate to. It’s based on the idea of a brief connection or spark between two people, something that those of us in large cities must feel often. I think that most people would have spotted a look or glance or caught eyes with a stranger and wondered what they might be like or how you’d get on. This takes that idea and runs with it. Like a lot of recent animated shorts, it’s incredibly simple but brilliantly effective. My only complaint is with the anthropomorphism of the paper in the final moments. It works well but I enjoyed the realism of the earlier stages. Overall though, this is yet another example of the kind of talent and creativity that Disney Animation Studios has to offer and like so many recent shorts, I enjoyed it more than its feature companion.   

9/10 

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Friday, 7 February 2014

Kid Auto Races at Venice



Five days ago I got a little giddy with excitement over the one hundredth anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s debut screen appearance. Today, February 7th 2014 marks another centenary; the anniversary of the first screen appearance of Chaplin’s defining character, the little fellow, his tramp. Released on this day a century ago, Kid Auto Races at Venice was Chaplin’s second film to be released but wasn’t the first film for which he had donned his famous costume. Shot a few days earlier but released two days later, Mabel’s Strange Predicament is technically the tramp’s first film. In that film though, the tramp is very much an also ran, part of a small cast of characters who cause a ruckus in a hotel. Here Chaplin stands alone, as he did through much of his film career.

Just eleven minutes long, though the version I own is seven, filming took place during a soap box derby race in Venice Beach, California. Chaplin plays a bystander, nestled in amongst the sizable crowd who stand respectfully at the side of the track. When the tramp notices a camera filming the event he becomes infatuated with it, making numerous attempts to get in front of it and generally cause a bit of trouble. This isn’t appreciated by the director who bats the tramp away. Here in his debut film, the tramp is very much that. He’s a mischievous vagrant with no better place to be. His cruel streak isn’t really evident but neither is the kindness of his later feature films. He’s a character whose personality is very much still being formed. He’s not bad and not really mean, he’s just annoying. The tramp remained an annoyance for many of his early appearances, taking some time to develop into the more sincere and sympathetic character he would later become.