Sight and Sound Odyssey, pt. 3

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.

Here we go with the third set of films. See the first five here, and the second here.

SEVEN SAMURAI (Kurosawa, 1954)

Well, this is a film that I would count among my absolute favourites of all-time, if not possibly my number one. Anyone who finds themselves reading a blog post of this type has probably either seen Seven Samurai (#17) or knows they should see it, so I don’t even know what I can say.

At a basic level, almost all action cinema in the past 60 years, in particular team-based action films such as this years Avengers, owe a tremendous debt to Seven Samurai. It’s a template setting film, as Kurosawa flawlessly structures the film into three distinct acts, beginning with the introduction of plot and characters, followed by a perfectly paced set-up towards the electrifying final showdown. Few movies in history have had this kind of lasting influence, and it’s an undeniable game-changer for action cinema all across the globe.

Yet, for me at least, the real beauty of Seven Samurai lies with Kurosawa’s treatment of his characters. Similarly to his genius with plot structure, the characters of the samurai themselves again created a mould still used to this day. Each brings their own spark to the team, whether the nobility and leadership of Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the pure calculating skill of Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), or the buffoonish antics of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) which somehow hold the team together. Nowadays they might seem like well played-out character tropes, but having an understanding of where these things started is crucial for any cinema lover, and for these reasons (and so many more), the first port of call needs to be Seven Samurai.

 

 THE GODFATHER (Coppola, 1972)

Yet another film that I don’t even know where to begin with. It’s The Godfather (#23) for heaven’s sake!

I think what always stuck out for me with The Godfather was, while this is unquestionably a key film in the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s, it stands apart in terms of style. When so many of his peers were experimenting with form and storytelling technique, Coppola boldly chose to treat the film in a very classical manner, pulling influence from German expressionist films of the 20s and 30s for some of the most fantastic lighting ever committed to celluloid. Few films are this visually and thematically rich, from the stunning chiaroscuro in the opening scene to the terrifying climactic confrontation between Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay (Diane Keaton).

The performances are electrifying across the board, but for me this is absolutely Pacino’s film, and maybe his strongest ever work. It’s a bit of a shame that nowadays most of his acting is so predictable and over the top, but in his younger years he had such impressive range, all of which is on show in The Godfather. His journey from timid outsider to ice-cold puppet master is a wonder to behold every single time, and while Marlon Brando’s role perhaps gained a more iconic status from the film, It’s Pacino who holds the whole thing together.

There’s really no surprise that The Godfather is one of the most beloved classics of all time. It’s like a textbook on how to craft a successful film, with every masterful element coming together into a flawless, awe-inspiring whole.

 

 PSYCHO (Hitchcock, 1960)

I really need to start breaking up my viewing of this list and scatter more of the lesser known films in with the widely seen and discussed classics. Oh well, here’s my thoughts on Psycho (#36).

The second Hitchcock film on the list, and probably his most famous work, Psycho is a smaller scale picture than many of his masterpieces, but is no less powerful. Personally speaking, the real draws here are Bernard Herrmann’s fantastically evocative score (maybe my favourite of all time) and Anthony Perkins’ dynamite performance of Norman Bates. He blends timid innocence with a deeply unsettling creepiness, and his famous “People always mean well…” dialogue still chills me after several repeat viewings.

Almost as interesting as the film itself however is the story behind its production and release (which bodes well for the upcoming film based around the making of Psycho). Hitchcock’s decision to make the film was seen as an odd choice by most at the time, and the plea he made to audiences to keep the film’s twist a secret showed a degree of interaction unheard of at the time. Sadly, the story goes that Perkins’ homosexuality led to him being shunned at awards time, and in Hollywood in general, yet for my money it’s one of the most riveting performances I can remember.

 

 THE GENERAL (Bruckman & Keaton, 1926)

The work of Buster Keaton is something of a shameful unknown quantity for me. I’m pretty sure I saw Sherlock Jr. (or at least parts of it) many years ago, but other than that I’ve just never caught up with anything else. So I was quite excited as I sat down to watch The General (#34), which is available on YouTube in its entirety.

The General is a charming and sweet little story about Johnnie (Keaton), a timid railway engineer who embarks on a mission to rescue his beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack), who is taken hostage by a gang of Northern soldiers during the Civil War. The potential for excitement in a relatively slow-paced train chase is somewhat limited, but Keaton finds inventive ways to disrupt the chase, keeping the film surprising and clever, and allowing him to display some of the fearlessness he’s remembered for.

That said, I didn’t exactly love The General. Keaton himself is fascinating to watch, and his ability to express so much with a largely expressionless face is mind-boggling. I think the film is perhaps a little longer than it needs to be though, and, possibly because of my hazy memories about Sherlock Jr., I expected it to showcase more madcap action than it actually has. It is a lovely story though, and Keaton manages to use the limiting locations to their fullest potential, and the titular locomotive becomes an important character in itself.

 

 THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Dreyer, 1928)

Wow, this film knocked me for a loop. As I’ve mentioned before, there are certain commonalities between many of the films on the Sight and Sound list, and what seems to be considered valuable in some of the very old films is what I can only assume is revolutionary (for the time) formal technique, such as with The Passion of Joan of Arc (#9).

Dreyer’s film is a marvel of minimalism, as the director eschews any flash and crafts a relatively by the book retelling of the trial of Joan of Arc leading to her execution as a heretic, and the idea of martyrdom. The sets Dreyer works with are sparsely decorated, with simple white backgrounds, geometric lines, and little in the way of expressive lighting. The technique fits perfectly however, and allows Dreyer to place total focus on his star, Maria Falconetti as Joan. Completely exposed by masterful close-ups, Falconetti delivers a performance for the ages, conveying the fragility of a terrified 19 year-old girl, but also the bravery and faith in her purpose bubbling just below the surface. Watching Falconetti, you really feel that this young woman could inspire defiance and revolution in the oppressed masses, and makes the tragedy of her martyrdom all the more affecting.

For me, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the most eye-opening film on the list thus far. It’s heart-wrenching, but also inspiring, and just amazing to see how a gifted film-maker can do with so much with so little.

PANDORA’S BOX: WHY I REFUSE TO GIVE UP ON JAMES CAMERON

Over the past couple of weeks, director James Cameron has been out on the publicity trail, promoting the remastered 3-D blu-ray release of his classic 1998 film Titanic, and unsurprisingly talk has turned to his progress regarding the development of his two, possibly three, Avatar sequels. While it’s true that a significant backlash has built up over the past 15 years, the legacy of Titanic endures in the hearts of many; however the same could seemingly not be said for Avatar, the most financially successful film of all time.

Despite a respectable reception from critics (as well as its unprecedented box-office success), Cameron’s environmental opus quickly fell victim to the vitriolic blogosphere, dismissed by many as little more than a didactic and derivative spectacle. Given Cameron’s recent appearances, the ire of the internet has been raised again as many have jumped on the anti-Avatar bandwagon, lobbing complaints at the sequels before writing has even been completed.

This type of early judgement is nothing new in the online world, however it is reaching obscene levels. The films are two years away at the absolute earliest, yet anonymous pundits are already decrying their inevitable failure. While I personally wouldn’t consider Avatar to be amongst Cameron’s best work, I simply refuse to put any stock in what faceless haters may claim about films they cannot possibly have any knowledge of, but instead offer up a more optimistic viewpoint.

Nothing I might write here is based on any kind of knowledge of what Cameron is cooking up for the world of Pandora. I know nothing more than anyone else at this point. This is purely theoretical musing, taking what I know of Avatar, and, more importantly, Cameron’s career as a whole. And that’s the whole point. I hadn’t read anything hopeful about the prospects for Avatar 2 & 3, so I figured I should come up with something myself.

So why should I (or anyone) be optimistic about the future of Avatar? After recently sitting down and taking another look at some of Cameron’s work, I was reminded of something that many seem to have forgotten: the man gave us two of the finest sequels ever made. Whether continuing a series started by another film-maker (Aliens), or a story of his own (the Terminator films), Cameron managed to take hold of what made the first entries great and expand everything, adding more depth and thematic richness to characters and story years before he would try to do the same with visuals. This is why I’m excited for Avatar: once he has an established idea, Cameron is uniquely unafraid to take it to the absolute limit.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Cameron’s Aliens is better than Ridley Scott’s Alien, although it is a close one. The two films are about as different as any consecutive sequels that I can think of, so much so that the debate over which is superior is more or less redundant. What Cameron was able to do however was take the bones of Scott’s moody and pensive original and reanimate them as an action-packed juggernaut, and by seeing the potential in the Ellen Ripley character, develop her into the tough-as-nails heroine that we all remember. Some may see it as a controversial claim, but Cameron is unquestionably more responsible for the Ripley that audiences love than Scott.

In Alien, Ripley is an evolved version of the final girl trope seen in many horror films, certainly more independent and strong-willed than most, but still a narrative device as much as a fully fleshed-out character. With Aliens, Cameron maintained the strength and determination, yet introduced so much more. Ripley, emotionally wounded after learning her own daughter has grown to old-age and passed away during the 57 years she drifted in space, has a reason to fight beyond her own survival instinct, as Newt becomes a surrogate for the child she lost. While arguably a manipulative move, the introduction of a Newt upped the stakes from the basic haunted house structure of Scott’s original film, showing a powerful maternal side to Ripley’s character and adding much more weight than might be expected from an action-heavy film such as this.

Never claiming to be anything other than a populist film-maker, the director also deftly tapped into audience fears and sympathies, showing a rare understanding of his audience. At a time when multiplexes were filled with testosterone-fueled action fare (some of which Cameron himself had a hand in) and repetitive slasher movies, Aliens gave pumped-up, macho male audience members something to truly fear in the terrifying alien queen, a symbol of unrestrained feminine maternalism. If Ripley embodies the acceptable, culturally validated version of motherhood, the queen is a purely primal animal monstrosity, spawning wave after wave of enslaved offspring, all powerful and unencumbered by any semblance of patriarchal oppression. The significance of the final battle, in which the two poles of motherhood clash in brutal hand-to-hand fashion, allows Ripley to defeat the monstrous side of maternity, returning equilibrium for audiences yet still maintaining a potent feminist individualism. For Cameron and Sigourney Weaver to craft such a layered and unique character went against the Hollywood grain, and Ripley remains the film’s greatest asset, something we can thank Cameron for.

The Terminator, Cameron’s break-out picture, doesn’t really hold up as well as many people seem to think. Famously conceived following a nightmare involving a robot walking out of an inferno, the film works best when embracing its exploitation core, but gets bogged down about two-thirds of the way in, only to salvage a tense and memorable conclusion. This is clearly the work of a man who, confident in his idea, saw a chance to announce himself in a big way. Exploding out of the gate, Cameron moves the film at breakneck pace, so much so that the later, tender moments between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese don’t deliver the emotional hit they should, but grind the film to an unnecessary halt. However, the central conceit of a cyborg assassin sent back through time remains powerful, aided by the inspired casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ground-breaking effects work of Stan Winston (a collaboration that would continue right up until Avatar).

If Aliens is Cameron’s motherhood film, then Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an interesting companion piece about fathers. Taking another early idea ripe with potential and expanding it, T2 saw the film-maker raise the bar on visual effects once again, with revolutionary use of CGI which to this day looks as good as or better than many modern blockbusters. The effects, excellent as they are, are essentially audience bait however, with the real rewards from the film coming from the story, most notably the relationship between John Connor and the terminator. John, having grown up in numerous foster homes and never experiencing the feeling of security a father can offer, latches on to the machine’s ceaseless protective nature, whilst taking on an oddly paternal role himself, teaching the T-800 the value of human compassion and empathy. Schwarzenegger excels in the role he was born to play, yet it is Cameron who masterfully interweaves the thoughtful and philosophical themes with the complex special effects. Allowing audiences to not only distance their feelings from the terrifying T-800 of The Terminator, but to cheer for, even cry over, the tragic story of a machine (over a decade before Pixar’s Wall-E did the same), is a Herculean task that Cameron pulled off with panache.

So where does Avatar fit into all of this? I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that once he has an established idea to work with, history would suggest that Cameron delivers his best. Alien and The Terminator introduced us to concepts and characters, allowing Cameron’s sequels to branch out beyond their predecessors’ comparatively limited scope. Even with Titanic he was working with a story audiences were already familiar with, and simply placed a highly relatable Romeo and Juliet story on top. With Avatar, for better or worse the story perhaps wasn’t the most important part of the film, which seems to be the biggest complaint.

I’ll agree that the narrative of Avatar isn’t the most original writing of Cameron’s career. We’ve seen the same type of story countless times, with some of the most common comparisons being to films like Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Re-watching the film as I thought about writing this however led me to the belief that Cameron very deliberately gave us the most familiar story he could in order to ease the acceptance of the many other unfamiliar aspects of the film. Avatar‘s stunning technical achievements, most notably the huge volume of performance capture/CG character content coupled with the heavy promotion of 3-D, were for the majority of audiences unknown territory. Therefore, in order for audiences to be able to process the state-of-the-art visuals fully, the story unfortunately suffered. I’m not sure that this approach worked all that well in terms of artistic value (as I said earlier, the film didn’t really work for me), but it seems to me that this was the approach Cameron decided to take, and the massive success of the film is clear evidence that the man knows how to please a mainstream audience.

Think of Avatar as a hugely elaborate and expensive test reel. In 2009, 3-D and performance capture were still relatively new, at least in their current incarnations. In 2012, they are a much more common and widely accepted facet of blockbuster film-making. With the proposed Avatar sequels, Cameron doesn’t have to concern himself with how audiences will respond to the technological advancements he was largely responsible for introducing.

And (finally!), this is why I’m choosing to be hopeful about the future of this film series. Cameron’s track record with sequels is stellar, and now that the world of Avatar is established, not to mention the method of presentation, nothing would make me happier than to see him dive deep into the mythology of Pandora and the Na’vi, and show the world that he hasn’t lost his knack for creating thoughtful and thematically rich blockbuster entertainment. Will he do it? Obviously I’m in no position to say, but at this stage no-one else is either. All I’m saying is that the potential is there. Whatever your thoughts on the first film, it’s far too early to give up on Avatar

Sight and Sound Odyssey, pt. 2

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.

This is the second crop of five films, the first post can be found here.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (Wilder, 1959)

I don’t know what it is about Some Like It Hot (#43) that has never really grabbed me all that much. As much as I love Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and certainly Marilyn Monroe, the film to me just isn’t the classic that most people seem to think, and doesn’t even come close to reaching the heights of Wilder and Lemmon’s other masterpiece, The Apartment.

As fascinated as I am with Marilyn, even she seems a little off for me in Some Like It Hot. When she’s on point she still lights up the screen, but much of her performance seems disinterested and is delivered without much of the energy she was capable of. I guess that, this being only three years before her death, her personal problems were already in play, and there are well-known stories about her becoming very difficult to manage during this portion of her career. That said, she absolutely comes alive during her final song, “Through With Love”, delivering one of those moments that reminds you why she is such an enduring icon, likely to never be matched. Perhaps the sadness of the song allowed her to tap into something more authentic from her own tragic life.

So Some Like It Hot is an enjoyable, madcap film with a touch of the dark undercurrent that showed up in so much of Wilder’s work, but for me it’s never going to be a classic. I personally would have liked to see The Apartment in the top 50, or certainly ahead of this film, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

TAXI DRIVER (Scorsese, 1976)

Martin Scorsese has a pretty miraculous track record. I haven’t yet seen everything he’s done, but I think the only film of his that I don’t really enjoy is Hugo, and even that is a film which I could probably watch again. Taxi Driver (#32) really does stand out though, not only as his most important work, but as the film that really defined him as one of the greatest filmmakers we have.

I always thought of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) as like the Terminator without a target. He prowls the filth of New York City by night in his taxi, endlessly scanning the wretched, neon-soaked environment, not so much searching as absorbing the world around him and letting his disgust and rage build. It’s such a stylish film, as Scorsese drenches the city with bold colours reflecting off the rainy streets, and with Bernard Herrman’s jazzy noir score setting an incredibly uneasy mood, there’s never any doubt that things are going to get ugly. De Niro is electrifying, building his character to it’s inevitable, yet still somewhat surprising conclusion.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968)

Hmm, I’m not exactly sure what I can write about 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6). I love it and can see its importance not only to science fiction, but cinema in general. But more than anything else, I’m kind of in awe of it. I don’t pretend to understand the ending (the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence), but I’ve been told that the sequel

2010: The Year We Make Contact might shed some light on what it means. Yet, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want the ending explained to me, so I’m yet to decide whether I’ll watch 2010 or not.

2001 is a film that took me several viewings to unpack and enjoy. I can see some of what Kubrick was getting at; the dangers of technological reliance, the human need to explore and conquer, but every time any theories I might have come completely unspooled in the last 20 minutes.

And that’s what I love about 2001 more than anything else. I want to try and figure it out. I enjoy tying my brain up in knots thinking about the white room and the space baby. I’m sure I’ll never form any solid conclusions, but it doesn’t matter to me. A film that still poses questions after a dozen viewings is such a rarity that, rather than frustrating me, which I know it does some, it just makes me more involved. It’s not my favourite Kubrick film, but I completely understand why it’s the one film on this list from arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (Lynch, 2001)

Looking back over the films I’ve watched so far over the course of this project, I already mentioned that there seems to be a theme of uniqueness amongst the top 50. What’s becoming clear, in terms of my personal reactions, is I tend to be most involved with and affected by films that I don’t altogether understand. Certainly that’s the case with Mulholland Drive (#28), probably my favourite of the bunch thus far.

In truth, having seen Mulholland Drive several times previously, I think that I do have a pretty decent understanding of David Lynch’s dark, surreal masterpiece, although what someone sees in it is probably very different from person to person. The film veers from absurd to terrifying better than any I’ve ever seen, and Lynch, never one for audience hand-holding, keeps you scratching your head right through his bleak tale, the rotten heart of the American dream. Critiques of Hollywood don’t come more savage than this. Naomi Watts throws everything she has at a difficult character, by turns adorable, naive, and pitiable, and is supported by a ravishing Laura Harring as the epitome of Hollywood glamour, the ambitious film director Justin Theroux, and the usual assortment of Lynchian oddballs.

Mulholland Drive really requires at least three or four viewings to decipher, yet (for me at least) it’s brilliance grows each time. It’s not pleasant, but for those who haven’t yet experienced it, or dismissed it as too offbeat after a single watch, it’s absolutely a must-see.

THE 400 BLOWS (Truffaut, 1959)

Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (#39) is the second film of the list I hadn’t previously seen, and, as I kind of expected, I wasn’t all that crazy about it. I’ve watched several French New Wave pictures over the years, and for whatever reason it’s just not a movement I really connect with. The only example I can remember enjoying is Godard’s Jules et Jim (which I actually really love).

The 400 Blows is at times charming and funny, but really it’s a pretty grim story of how a young boy’s life is affected by his disinterested, self-involved parents. The film feels very personal, and I was wondering how much of Truffaut’s own childhood was in play when he was conceiving the story, although I know nothing about his personal life. It hinges on a remarkable lead performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, and he’s so natural and truthful that you simply believe in what he’s experiencing. Several moments in the film reminded me of other films released decades after this, so I guess I can see its influence and importance, but really what I’ve seen of the French New Wave just doesn’t do it for me. 

OK, so after 10 films, I’m maybe beginning to see a few patterns emerging. Hopefully sometime in the next week I’ll get through 5 more and will have another post up.

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!

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!

The Top 5 Films Set In… VIETNAM

The following is a post I wrote for anonlineuniverse.com‘s regular “Best Films Set In…” series. Be sure to check out the link for a great film blog! 

THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA (Mùi đu đủ xanh)

Director Tran Anh Hung is without doubt the most gifted film-maker in the relatively brief history of Vietnamese cinema, having garnered awards at numerous festivals, including two at Cannes in 1993 for his debut feature The Scent of Green Papaya. The film tells the story of young servant girl Mui, beginning with her initial employment at age 10 (played by Man San Lu) before skipping ahead ten years at the halfway point as she goes to work for Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), the object of her adolescent affections. The two acts of the film stand more or less distinct from one another, with the first being a meditation on mourning and loss, and the second a delicate and sweet Cinderella tale. Khuyen and the adult Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) co-exist in an almost wordless world of mutually silent longing, with the music of Khuyen’s piano delivering all the emotional beats that are otherwise missing given the lack of dialogue. The Scent of Green Papaya is also a marvel of set design, offering a glimpse at Saigon before the impending destruction and massive influx of people during the war. In later sections the roar of jet engines foreshadow the coming conflict, yet Mui’s beautiful poetry reading in the closing scene can be read as a hopeful metaphor regarding the state of the city, and indeed Vietnam itself.

 

 CYCLO (Xích Lô) 

For his second film, Cyclo, Tran reached even greater heights of critical acclaim, picking up the Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice International Film Festival. Where his debut was more concerned with the passage of time, Cyclo is all about place, and the Saigon of 1995 is a far cry from the peaceful city of The Scent of Green Papaya. Early on, Tran captures the spirit of the city with startling accuracy, and the social realism style of the film, not to mention the plot itself (concerning a young cyclo driver [Le Van Loc] who becomes embroiled in the gang lifestyle following the theft of his rickshaw), takes huge influence from Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette. The fabulous location details build the film’s grounded tone, offering a bleak look at the realities of post-war Saigon, and as such Tran’s two films work as interesting bookends to the war period. Tran once again uses his wife Yen-Khe in a major role, and she delivers a beautiful, tragic performance alongside a young Tony Leung as the local gang leader. Cyclo‘s circular narrative paints a harrowing portrait, with many shadowy references to the war, and how it has shaped the city the Tran so clearly feels an affinity with.

 

 THE QUIET AMERICAN 

The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene’s classic novel, is in truth a somewhat mediocre film, yet at its heart lies a shadowy story of deception and intrigue, flashes of Greene’s wonderfully expressive writing, and a tremendous central performance from Michael Caine. Obviously some things have been changed from the source novel (published in 1955) to reflect the horror that was to come in Vietnam, yet the prescience shown by Greene in his critique of increased American involvement in Indochina during the last days of French colonialism is fascinating. Perhaps the largest problem the film has lies with Brendan Fraser as the titular American, Pyle. Fraser is just a little too wholesome and innocent to pull off the character, who in the novel was much more mysterious, and when the moment comes in the film for Pyle to show a little edge, Fraser just doesn’t have the range. It’s another interesting snapshot of the city however, and there’s enough in The Quiet American, particularly with Caine in career-best form, to make the film worthwhile. Incidentally, there is a 1958 version of the film directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which I was unable to track down.

 

 APOCALYPSE NOW 

As much as I wanted to avoid war films specifically in this list, to not mention Apocalypse Now in a list about great films set in Vietnam would be an egregious oversight. Chances are if you find yourself reading this then you’ve already seen Coppola’s troubled masterpiece, so I won’t go too much into detail. Using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the framework for a Vietnam war film was a stroke of genius for screenwriter John Milius, as he and Coppola strip away much of the controversial politics surrounding the tragic conflict and leave audiences with one of the most poignant anti-war films ever created. Personally I prefer the original 1979 cut, as several of the additions in the 2001 redux seem largely unnecessary. The French plantation sequence in particular is a divisive insertion, offering some interesting historical insight into the days of Indochinese colonialism, yet it grinds the already lengthy narrative to a halt for such a long time that it begins to feel a little overindulgent. That said, it’s hard to diminish such a unique and powerful film, especially in light of the tortuous conditions involved in its production (see the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness for the full story).

 

 RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PT. 2 

Finally, just to prove it’s not all introspection and subtlety where Vietnam is concerned, we come to Rambo: First Blood, pt. 2. From a script by James Cameron at a time where he was less concerned with conservationism and romance, the second in the Rambo series jettisons the thoughtful and gritty tone of the first film in favour of outrageous 80s action lunacy. The decadence of the decade most obviously manifested itself in action cinema, and First Blood, pt. 2 is up there with the nuttiest films the time had to offer. Stallone returns as ex-special forces soldier John Rambo, supported by the hilariously deadpan Richard Crenna as Col. Trautman and a gallery of 80s character tough guys including Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, and Martin Kove. The Rambo of the Reagan era has evolved into a superhuman killing machine, and as such the film is a rippling, blood-soaked romp filled with wonderfully cheesy lines, unrestrained pyrotechnics, and a whole basketful of questionable racial politics. It’s difficult to imagine a time when this type of film was taken seriously, and as such the bang on parody in Hot Shots Part Deux is now strangely redundant. This film doesn’t need to be spoofed; it’s already funny enough.

Sidebar: Looking Back as I Hit 30.

As some of my readers may know, just a couple of days ago I hit a somewhat frightening milestone: I turned 30 years old. The ever-increasing speed at which the calendar pages seem to be turning left me in the last couple of weeks, perhaps not fretting about my mortality or analysing the various things I’ve accomplished thus far, but rather, as expected knowing my particular interests, reflecting on the various cultural touchstones that have led me to where I’m at. 30 years of watching films and television, reading books, and listening to music has had more of an effect on me and my personality than anything else, and as such I got all nostalgic and wanted to write about four things in particular that stick out as being of undeniable importance to me at 30. The following post is a departure from my usual practice of simple film reviews, and whether or not anyone reads it isn’t really important. Thanks to all the people who read what I write, and to the people who exist in my tiny corner of the world, but this one’s for me.


The Film: STAR WARS

OK, so it’s not really an unconventional choice. And I’m probably referring to the whole original trilogy rather than A NEW HOPE specifically (in fact, it’s probably RETURN OF THE JEDI that sticks out most in my memories of childhood), but there’s no doubt in my mind that without STAR WARS I would be in a very different place. Like so many others who grew up in the 80s, it’s difficult for me to imagine a world without these films being so deeply ingrained in our culture and society. For me, they represent the earliest memories of film that I have, and remain to this day the films I’ve rewatched more than any others by a massive margin. I could probably run through all three karaoke style, parroting the lines with minimal errors, and know every camera move, sound effect, and musical note intimately. STAR WARS began my fascination with the cinema, and opened up the world of not only science fiction, but the epics of Kurosawa, the westerns of Ford, and many others. Even after 35 years of troublesome tinkering by Lucas, with the damaging prequel trilogy on top, STAR WARS remains impossible to shake for me, and while it might not be my favourite film anymore, it’s without question what I would consider the most important.


The TV Series: THE SIMPSONS

Again, I know I’m not alone in this one, but few things have managed to generate the level of obsession in me that THE SIMPSONS did in the 90s. I had it all: stacks of VHS tapes with episodes recorded off TV, comic books, trading cards, a Homer Simpson watch, anything I could get my hands on. It’s been a number of years since I watched any new episodes, but for eight or nine years, from around season 4 to season 12 or so, the show was untouchable. A shining beacon of postmodern western society, THE SIMPSONS at its best held a mirror up to us all, confronting us with real issues in a cel-shaded world of absurdity that was only one or two steps removed from our own. There’s never going to be another show like it and nor should there be, for when you look past the show’s weirder aspects, THE SIMPSONS captures the world in which it was created so astutely that, while the genius of some episodes is a little intimidating in its accuracy, it was never mean-spirited or cynical, and delivered laughs on a weekly basis better than anything else.


The Book: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

This is a more difficult one to write about as it has been a while since I read the whole thing. I came to THE CATCHER IN THE RYE fairly late, I guess when I was around 18 or so, but it made such an impact that I know nothing is ever going to replace it as my favourite book. At its most basic level, the novel benefits from having what I am convinced is nothing less than the greatest central character in literature, Holden Caulfield. His strange journey from the privileged world of private school through the seedy streets and night clubs of New York is narrated with his occasionally vicious but always genuine observations as he struggles to make sense of the world and his place in it. Author JD Salinger slips effortlessly between hilarious anecdotes and poignant pondering, and you’re never sure whether your heart will be bursting with joy or aching with despair. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is a manifesto for the misfits, and Holden gives a voice to so much of the frustration one can feel as a fringe-dweller. And if you’re a fan of punk rock and you haven’t read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, then you’re missing a key piece of the puzzle.


The Record: SMASH by The Offspring

The previous entry in this list ties up pretty well with this final one, as it served as the gateway to my appreciation for music and how profoundly it can affect one’s life. I was 12 years old when SMASH was released, and while I had developed a love for some music around that time, nothing really grabbed me and shook me like punk. The record was a massive hit, unprecedented for the style, and its wide penetration of the market, while considered unfortunate by punk rock purists obsessed with keeping the scene underground and free from corporate intervention, allowed me and many others to discover a new and exciting world. I have a very early memory of seeing a couple of leather-clad people with neon mohawks walking down the street in my home town, and being informed by one of my parents that they were punk rockers, but beyond the striking image I had no understanding of exactly what that meant until after SMASH arrived. It saddens me that a lot of people still think of little more than that image when confronted with punk rock, as it really is a misunderstood style of music. Sure, there is aggression and anger, but there is so much more, and so many of my favourite songs are just as simple and romantic and bubbly as the most mainstream pop music, just infused with a characteristically raw edge and often breakneck pace. The Offspring aren’t a band that I have much time for anymore as my taste has developed over the last 15 years or so (and some of their more recent work is more or less unlistenable), but I’ll still give SMASH a spin from time to time and remember that initial feeling of excitement and discovery, and I never forget that for me, it all started with SMASH.

 So that’s that. I enjoyed writing this, although it’s far from the most insightful thing I’ve done. But hey, you only turn 30 once, so I’m allowing myself a little self-indulgence.