Sight and Sound Odyssey, pt. 1

OK, so the story here is I’m going to try and work my way through the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine critics poll, conducted once a decade, in which they ask hundreds of film critics to submit their selections for the greatest films of all time. I’m limiting myself to the top 50, around half of which I have seen before, the rest I’ll (hopefully) be enjoying for the first time. A lot of these films are well known, and as such shouldn’t be too hard to track down, but some are potentially harder to acquire so getting through the list might take some time. As I work through the list (in no particular order), I’m going to write up some thoughts, most likely at five film intervals.

And so, without further ado, here are my thoughts on the first five films I’ve been through so far…

VERTIGO (Hitchcock, 1958)

I figured I’d start this journey through the Sight & Sound list at the top, so I’m beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (#1). Almost everyone I know has a different opinion of what Hitchcock’s best film is, but for me Vertigo actually does hold the top spot.

The film, like so many of my favourites, is one which I’m not sure I fully understand. Having seen it perhaps half a dozen times over the years, the puzzle pieces have started to fall into place a little easier on each revisit, but there’s still much that confounds me. But it’s the quest for understanding that makes me love a film like Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s direction in Vertigo is obviously right amongst his best work. His use of colour in the film is so wonderfully expressive and evocative, and his love of using architecture thematically is fully in play. James Stewart gives a great, confused performance as John ‘Scotty’ Ferguson, and Kim Novak is, in my opinion, underrated in the dual role of Madeleine/Judy. There are so many masterful strokes in Vertigo, from the bizarre dream sequence or the chilling Bernard Herrman score (one of his best), to the famous dolly zoom shots, and it absolutely deserves its #1 spot on the poll.


TOKYO STORY (Ozu, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (#3) is a film I was introduced to in my first year of university, and made a massive impact early in my film analysis studies. It’s rather unlike any other film I’ve seen, and rewatching it again, more so than the enjoyment it gives, only reminded me that I have to seek out more of Ozu’s work.

Tokyo Story is such a minimalist film, being a very simple family story told through Ozu’s very steady and composed style. There’s almost no visual flair, the director choosing to simply place his camera at low angles (eye level as the characters kneel on the floor, which they do for almost the entire film), and lets the events unfold at a leisurely pace. There’s a very melancholic tone to Tokyo Story, but it’s not exactly a sad film, rather a basic catalogue of events involving the central, somewhat estranged, family.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Tokyo Story however is that no other film I can think of has the ability to make me feel as calm as this one. Ozu was known for his Zen-Buddhist beliefs, and it may be the infusion of his personal philosophies into the film that achieve the effect for me. This is a film that would be a hard sell for most viewers these days, but it manages to surprise with its simplicity and uniqueness.


THE SEARCHERS (Ford, 1956)

John Ford’s The Searchers (#7) is a difficult film to love. I have two conflicting feelings every time I see it, and as such it’s a film I can certainly appreciate, but have a hard time enjoying.

On the positive side, there is much about The Searchers that earns it such a high place on the Sight & Sound list, and indeed its reputation as the high water mark for the classical western genre. The film is visually breathtaking, owing to not only Ford’s remarkable gift for framing and how he stages the action, but also the iconic, majestic Monument Valley locations. Seeing this projected on the big screen would be a real treat, but even seeing it on blu-ray, it’s hard not to be massively impressed. John Wayne also delivers without question his best performance, famously surprising even Ford himself with his portrayal of Ethan Edwards. It’s a complex role that Wayne brings much more honesty to than his other iconic parts, but herein lies my problem with the film.

Edwards is far from a typical western hero. Looking at the film with 2012 eyes, it’s almost impossible to see past the shocking racism in how the native Americans are depicted, with Edwards in particular hellbent on dehumanising them to a despicable degree. Wayne’s excellent performance makes it even harder to swallow, as his vicious, vengeful motives become increasingly clear. As such, the eleventh hour change in his attitude rings a little untrue, a ham-fisted way of preserving Wayne’s heroic status. The Searchers is a much darker film than other Ford westerns I’ve seen, yet despite some of its more uncomfortable aspects, is essential viewing for its strengths.


SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Kelly & Donen, 1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (#20) might be about as close as you can get to a perfect movie. It’s arguably the best example of the classical musical, a genre where, for a time, Hollywood was untouchable. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s exuberant masterpiece is so packed with charm, romance and hilarious moments that it manages to keep me grinning like a fool right the way through, a feat which very few films can achieve.

The film moves at an incredible pace, but never feels rushed. Kelly really is the whole package; a performer who is perhaps more watchable than any other in history. The titular song-and-dance number is one of those magical Hollywood moments that nothing else can replicate, as Kelly sweeps down the street in such joyous fashion that you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved. Yet even such an iconic scene is almost overshadowed by so many other wonderfully choreographed and shot musical numbers. Ranging from the somewhat intimate to the impressively elaborate, Singin’ in the Rain delivers scene after scene of pure entertainment.

Not enough good things can be said about this movie. There’s so much energy and heart, an unbridled love of the cinema, and Kelly pushes every moment to its zenith, crafting the type of film that brings into harsh focus the glitzy but soul-less nature of so much that comes out of Hollywood nowadays. It’s a cliché I know, but they really don’t make them like this any more.


LA JETÉE (Marker, 1962)

Chris Marker’s La Jetée (#50=) is the first film on the Sight and Sound list that I’ve gotten to thus far that I hadn’t seen previously, and is a film I knew little about other than it was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, and was an experimental film told entirely with still images. So, what did I take from seeing it?

It certainly is an experimental film, one which I perhaps wasn’t entirely prepared for. It’s an odd little post-apocalyptic time travel story, something akin to a photo essay with voice-over narration, but on reflection I almost wish I had watched it first without any sound, just to see how I might have interpreted the imagery for myself. As it stands, the brief film (around 27 minutes) is a tight, complex story, a kind of doomed romance with some deeper existential themes which just hovered a little out of my grasp. However, although it’s a difficult film to completely understand, when the narrative circles back on itself the conclusion delivers one hell of an impact, and left me gasping.

Trying to get a sense of this top 50 list as a whole, it’s already becoming clear that a lot of these films are going to be valued for their uniqueness, something which La Jetée has in spades. It’s a different way to craft narrative, and as I sit considering it, I like the film more and more. I still wish I’d watched it without the narration however, and would recommend this approach to anyone who might like an interpretive challenge.

So, that’s the first five films down. It’s likely that I’ll be able to breeze through the first 20 or so quite quickly given their easy availability, so look for the next five soon!

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TOTAL RECALL (2012)

I have a very large soft spot for the original 1990 Total Recall. Somehow, director Paul Verhoeven managed to infuse a typical goofy 1980s-style action film with some legitimately clever ideas and themes. The movie had its tongue planted firmly in cheek, but achieved its iconic cult status for going beyond being just another Schwarzenegger vehicle.

Fast forward to 2012, where director Len Wiseman has stripped away that great combo of intelligence and goofiness, leaving an uninspired, overly serious, and, quite frankly, boring sci-fi action romp, barely held together by solid performances and a largely unaltered core story.

Wiseman’s update of Total Recall remains true to the original plot (and, I assume, Philip K. Dick’s novel) for the most part, with any changes an attempt to ground the film in reality as much as possible. Taking place wholly on Earth rather than travelling to Mars, Total Recall 2012 again follows Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a production-line worker frustrated by his unremarkable life, who visits the somewhat shady company Rekall in pursuit of memory implants which will offer a more exciting history than his own. All doesn’t go to plan however, when a malfunction at Rekall reveals that Quaid is in fact a secret agent whose memory has previously been replaced, kicking off a chase sequence that more or less covers the remainder of the film.

The always dependable Farrell commits himself admirably to a role that really doesn’t offer much development, and Wiseman surrounds him with a great supporting cast who unfortunately are given very little to do (Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy among others). Jessica Biel falls flat as love interest Melina, but Kate Beckinsale is something of a surprise, relishing her villainous role and chewing every scene she appears in.

Unfortunately, Total Recall‘s story and action can’t match the quality of the performances. Unlike the original film, there’s never really any doubt about the reality of what Quaid is experiencing. Verhoeven managed an ambiguity which created tension early on, leaving audiences to speculate whether everything was taking place in Schwarzenegger’s mind, but Wiseman simply spells everything out plainly. There are numerous references to the original here too, most of which are unnecessary, while some are either needlessly distracting or simply blow by so fast that you wonder why they even bothered.

The most egregious flaws however are in the action sequences. Wiseman crafts the film like a platform video game, with characters running and jumping endlessly, stopping occasionally to deliver the next story beat. Perhaps it speaks to my general disinterest with modern video games, but the action sequences feel over-long and repetitive, and at the moments when the film should be at its most fast-paced, it begins to drag.

So Len Wiseman’s Total Recall isn’t the worst remake to come along in recent years, but it’s just another gritty reboot that no-one asked for. It suffers in comparison to the original, can’t really stand on its own, and feels like an unsuccessful blend of Super Mario Bros. and Blade Runner. What could have been a slice of fun nostalgia is taken far too seriously by a director of questionable talent, leaving Total Recall, despite Farrell and Beckinsale’s best efforts, simply the next in an ever-growing lineup of failed retreads.

HOLY MOTORS

It’s going to be difficult to keep this short.

One of the darlings of the 2012 festival circuit, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors delivers a pure cinematic experience designed to confront and challenge our understanding of the art form at every level. At the risk of over-simplifying a film that is anything but simple, Holy Motors is a film about the cinema as it stands today, and the deft ways in which Carax explores various aspects of his subject, whether addressing film-makers themselves, we the audience, or even the debate over physical versus digital media, are so rich and dense that it is impossible to absorb it all after a single viewing. As such it is sure to alienate and infuriate perhaps the majority of viewers, yet those who find themselves swept up in the abstract beauty of it all are in for an inspiring, enlightening, and at times overwhelming two hours.

Holy Motors follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (a mind-boggling Denis Lavant), an actor whose roles seem to take place out in the real world rather than on the stage or screen. As Oscar is ferried from one assignment to the next by his faithful limousine driver Céline (Edith Scob), so too does writer-director Carax transport us to his next discussion point. Each surreal vignette is presented without much in the way of explanation, and Carax refuses to hold the hand of the audience, instead offering viewers the chance to piece the film together themselves. Similarly, Lavant’s remarkable performance can turn without warning, shifting the entire film’s tone from tragic to comical at a moment’s notice, further disorienting the audience. While some of Oscar’s ‘roles’ have illuminating punchlines to ease our understanding, the majority are much more conceptual, and will demand repeat viewings to unpack before Carax’s intentions for the piece as a whole will become clear, if they ever will.

In a year where chatter surrounding huge tent-pole releases is choking social media and online communities, Holy Motors is the film that most deserves to be discussed, and debates about the film amongst cinéastes are likely already in full swing. While the audience who will really connect with the film is going to be comparatively small, nothing has offered this much to chew on for some time, and its value to those who appreciate it will only increase over time. Holy Motors cannot really be approached effectively in a brief review such as this, as it’s not exactly an easy film to recommend or not given that each individual could potentially take something different from seeing it. But for those seeking a respite from the mindlessness of blockbuster season, seeing Holy Motors is a no-brainer. Carax almost forces the audience into an intellectual tug-of-war without ever feeling like he is talking down to us, rather that he wants us to reconsider the world of cinema, and not least of all our own place in it.

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Every so often a film comes along which offers a truly unique opportunity for actors to cast aside their commonly perceived persona and really show something new. While Sean Penn’s career has been more varied than most, This Must Be The Place shows a side of him we rarely see as the troubled, faded pop star Cheyenne. It’s a beautifully absurd character, and while the initial compulsion may be to laugh at him, very quickly Penn’s commitment to Cheyenne wraps its hands around your heart and draws you in like no other performance this year.

 Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place follows Cheyenne, an apparently briefly influential glam/goth musician (think Penn as Robert Smith from The Cure) trudging along in an existence of somewhat self-imposed obscurity. Following the death of his estranged father, Cheyenne picks up the reins of an unfinished odyssey begun by his father decades earlier. To say anything more would give away many of the wonderful surprises the film has to offer, as each quirky little vignette along the way is as unexpected and delightful as the last. Penn mumbles his way into the lives of a handful of idiosyncratic small town folk, picking up pieces of information to help him complete his father’s mission, with each segment functioning like a chapter in a book. There’s a very Jim Jarmusch vibe to the film (right down to the excellent one scene cameo by Harry Dean Stanton), and fans of and Broken Flowers, and also Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas should place this film right at the top of their must-see list.

While there are a couple of plot threads left dangling with no apparent purpose (another Jarmusch-ian touch), each bizarre moment adds so much to the meandering tone of This Must Be The Place. Sorrentino shows a singular gift with the camera, crafting some majestically fluid shots highlighting the varied landscape of the film, and the great original music from David Byrne (who also cameos) fits perfectly, another piece in this truly odd puzzle of a film. But the keystone is Cheyenne, an emblem of everything that makes this one of the best films of the year. There’s no explicit narrative reason for the character to be as specific as he is, but he is written and performed in such a unique way that the film transcends what could have been a perfectly entertaining piece and becomes something genuinely special. There’s a very fine line between quirky charm and annoying pretension, but Sorretino and Penn, not to mention the top-tier supporting cast and soundtrack, have managed to create the most heart-warming and moving film of 2012 thus far with This Must Be The Place, and there’s unlikely to be anything else quite like it for years to come.

Liebster Award Blog-a-thon

Circumstances haven’t permitted me from seeing many films lately, and as such I haven’t been doing any writing, however I have been roped into this game by delightful film geek Sam McCosh of anonlineuniverse.com. The rules are as follows:

  1. Each person must post 11 things about themselves.
  2. Answer the 11 questions the person giving the award has set for you.
  3. Create 11 questions for the people you will be giving the award to.
  4. Choose 11 people to award and send them a link to your post.
  5. Go to their page and tell them.
  6. No tag backs.

Unfortunately I don’t really have the network (at least as far as I’m aware) to pass this on to 11 people, but it was fun to answer these questions anyway, so here goes:

11 FACTS ABOUT ME

1. The last film I watched was The Deep.

2. I have several ‘tradition’ films that I watch on certain days of the year. Die Hard on Christmas, Robocop at Easter, Casablanca on my birthday etc.

3. In 2010 and 2011 my most anticipated film at the beginning of the year went on to become my favourite film at the end of the year (Scott Pilgrim vs. the WorldThe Tree of Life). The same unfortunately cannot be said for 2012 (Prometheus).

4. While I have a B.A. in film, really the majority of my cinematic education comes from the eight or nine years I’ve worked in various video stores.

5. My favourite film score of all time is Koyaanisqatsi by Phillip Glass.

6. While I do consider myself passionate about film, if I had to make a choice between film and music, film wouldn’t stand a chance.

7. My favourite book of all time is The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, and I hope I never see it adapted into a film.

8. I refuse to eat anything in the cinema, and I wish others would do the same.

9. The first film I remember seeing in the cinema is An American Tail. I revisited it a couple of years ago and, alas, it doesn’t hold up too well.

10. While I enjoy cinema from all eras and locations, the classical Hollywood period is without a doubt my favourite.

11. I think that Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is the worst film I’ve ever seen.

11 QUESTIONS FROM SAM

  1. Who would play you in the movie of your life?

Hmm, you appear to have started me off with a question I cannot answer. Sorry.

  1. What is your worst cinema-going experience?

I’ve been fortunate enough not to have too many bad experiences in the cinema. When I lived in Asia I pretty much stopped going to the cinema however as Vietnam has terribly strict censorship laws and many films would be cut to pieces, so I guess that kind of fits in with this question.

  1. Do you own a blu-ray player? If so, is it better?If not, why not?

I own a PlayStation 3, which functions chiefly as a blu-ray player/media hub as I don’t really play games any more. Sure it’s better, but I’m not sure it’s an essential thing for most people. I still watch many films on regular DVD and they’re fine.

  1. If you could attend any film festival in the world, which would it be?

This is a tough one. If it were for the glamour of the event and high standard of films, I guess it would have to be Cannes. If it was for the pure enjoyment and company, I think Butt-numb-a-thon sounds like a pretty good time.

  1. Which three people in the film industry (living or dead)would you have dinner with if you could?

Oliver Reed, Elizabeth Taylor, Stanley Kubrick.

  1. Which book would you like to see adapted?

I’m still holding out hope for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, although I’m not sure Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman are the ideal choices to do it. We’ll see if that one ever pans out though.

  1. 3D – A fad or something that could be/is exciting?

I think it certainly could be exciting, but at this stage, to me, it simply isn’t. It’s an unnecessary barrier between myself and the film, and I generally choose to watch 2D when I can.

  1. Who or what inspired you to write about film?

I’m not sure that any one person or thing did. A friend used to suggest it from time to time before I started doing it, but that’s all that I can think of. I think what started was I liked the idea of having an analytical outlet so I wouldn’t spend so much time inside my own dumb head.

  1. What is your most anticipated film for the 2nd half of 2012?

Is Terence Malick’s To The Wonder still scheduled for 2012? Anything he does instantly becomes my most anticipated.

  1. Which actor/actress automatically turns you off seeing a film?

I don’t really think there are any that do. There are certainly a few that I have yet to see in a good performance, but I’m willing to give pretty much anyone another chance to impress me.

  1. What is the most over-rated classic film?

Is it wrong that I’m not crazy about Sunset Boulevard?

 

So that’s that. It was fun to think about this stuff, so thanks to Sam for getting me involved. If nothing else, it’s made me think I need to get more involved with other bloggers so I might also have some people to pass the buck to!