What’s this all about???

Posted: January 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

In a nutshell…. this book.

With an Amazon Gift Card burning a hole in my pocket I sat hunched over my keyboard surrounded by bits of junk, web design magazines, and geeky toys and tried to think ‘what can I use this to buy?’.  Browsing through the PS3 games section offered nothing of interest to me and I eventually found myself wandering into the books section to see if I could find something to pique my interest.  Considering it had been a while since I updated my copy of Halliwell’s Film, Video, and DVD Guide (2006 to be precise) and since it appears to no longer be in publication I decided to look for something else to steer me through the minefield of what films to watch and which to avoid and ended up stumbling upon this.

‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’ – it’s certainly a challenge and who am I to shy away from a challenge???  Even if the maths is, frankly, quite daunting – assuming an average of 1.5 hours per film that gives a total  of 1,501.5 hours / 62.5 days / 8.9 weeks / 2.2 months or 1/6th of a year just to watch these films; this is before you even factor in the effort to be exhausted trying to locate copies of some of them to watch.  I’m gonna give it a damn good try though.

You can keep track of my progress here.

The book is, as anything is, by no means perfect.  Like every list there are inclusions of classic films that you expect like It’s a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane, and the original Star Wars Trilogy but likewise you find yourself asking questions like – why does Beverly Hills Cop make the list whilst Lethal Weapon doesn’t???  Anyway, I digress, the challenge is set, the list is in front of me, now it’s time to get started… somebody pass the popcorn.

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Independence Day (1996)

Posted: February 19, 2012 in 1996, Action, American, Disaster, Sci-Fi

Roland Emmerich’s big budget sci-fi disaster action movie about an alien invasion of earth was the highest grossing film of 1996 and won an academy award for its special effects.  Despite this the film was met with a mixed reception upon its release and probably owes more to its advertising for its success than anything else.

Unlike most invasion films the alien’s of Independence Day don’t sneak on to Earth and hide before attempting to destroy humanity but instead choose to rock up in some pretty impressive, for want of a better word, flying saucers.  This was a conscious decision by Emmerich who came up with the idea for Independence Day whilst promoting Stargate and asked an interviewer what it would be like to wake up and find 15-mile-wide spaceships hovering over the world’s largest cities.

ID4 is very light on plot but makes up for this with impressive visual effects – in particular the scene when the White House is destroyed, a great supporting cast, and a few quotable, if not clever, one-liners.  Unfortunately by using an ensemble cast and blending so many personal stories together it suffers from not having a clearly defined star, Will Smith (playing cocky USAF Captain Steven Hiller) gets the most screen time but only slightly more than Bill Pullman (playing President Thomas J. Whitmore).  Named for the American holiday with which the invasion coincides the film displays over the top nationalistic overtones, the American soldiers being particularly gung-ho in their attitudes – launching a nuclear attack with little thought about the future consequences.  In addition to this the scene when President Whitmore addresses the pilots before the final battle and declares that the entire world will call July 4th its Independence Day positively reeks of camembert whilst the scenes of the worlds various armies when they get the news that the American’s are organising an attack seem particularly patronising… as if the world couldn’t win a battle if it weren’t for the American’s.

Despite the lack of depth to the plot, the absence of a central character, and the mass of self-propaganda for the American nation the film manages to be enjoyable throughout and remains one of those films that you can watch again and again and still enjoy.

Emmerich has said in the past he’s been interested in writing a sequel to Independence Day and in October 2011 he and co-writer Devlin confirmed that they had an idea for 2 sequels to film back to back and have expressed a desire for Will Smith to reprise his role in both.  Smith responded by saying he was interested but wanted $50 million for both films, personally I’m kind of hoping this means that a sequel won’t go ahead.

The Untouchables (1987)

Posted: February 17, 2012 in 1987, American, Crime, Drama

Set in 1930’s Prohibition-era Chicago The Untouchables is the semi-biographical story of Bureau of Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness as he tries to take down notorious gangster Al Capone.

Naive agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is tasked with bringing Chicago’s lawlessness under control by catching and convicting gangster Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) who controls most of the city.  Conducting his first raid on Capone’s alcohol smuggling operation with a large force from the Chicago Police Department leaves Ness a laughing-stock as the gang are expecting him thanks to the corrupt cops within the department.  Realising that he can’t trust anyone in the department, and after a chance meeting with veteran Irish-American beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), Ness recruits his own team of  incorruptible officers starting with Malone.  Rounding out ‘The Untouchables’, as they would later be dubbed, are trainee police officer and sharpshooter George Stone (Andy Garcia) and Forensic Accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) assigned to Ness by Washington.  Led by Ness and Malone, who takes it upon himself to show Ness what it really means to be a police man on the corrupt Chicago streets, the team wage war on Capone’s organisation raiding illegal liquor shipments and warehouses.  Wallace reveals to Ness that Capone hasn’t filed a tax return for four years meaning that if they can prove he has received an income from his criminal activities they can try him for tax evasion.

The film is beautifully realised, 30’s Chicago jumps off the screen as totally believable, and from the outset the score (written by legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone) creates a tense atmosphere that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.  Graphically violent (the scene of Capone with the baseball bat being a standout moment) the film subtly deals with aspects of morality, relationships, and redemption whilst keeping the story moving at a comfortable pace.

They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone.

Despite Costner being the star the film is stolen by both Connery and DeNiro; the former delivering a powerhouse performance and always seeming to have the best lines and the latter packing on 30 pounds to method act Capone as an enigmatic ‘rock-star’ who basks in the attention of the media and, despite his propensity for violence and criminal activities, is adored by the public.

Taught and well written The Untouchables is a modern classic in every way.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Posted: February 9, 2012 in 2008, British, Drama, Indian, Romance

Danny Boyle’s Oscar laden drama, adapted from the novel ‘Q and A’ by Vikas Swarup, is both disturbing and endearing as it tells the story of a young Chaiwalla (an Indian tea boy) from a call centre in Mumbai as he appears on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Jamil Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the show when he is arrested and accused of cheating, as he is tortured and questioned by the police he is forced to reveal how he knew the answers to the questions and in doing so he tells his life story.  Orphaned at a young age when his mother was killed in the Bombay Riots Jamil, his older brother Salim, and a young girl called Latika band together as they grow up on the streets of Mumbai.  The trio are taken in by Maman, a gangster who fronts an orphanage which he uses to send the children out on to the streets as beggars.  Salim discovers that Maman is blinding healthy sighted children in order to make them more profitable and saves Jamil from having this fate; the pair flee from the orphanage, Latika tries to run with them but is left behind when Salim doesn’t help her onto the train that they use to escape.  Travelling around India by train the boys hustle tourists as fake tour guides at the Taj Mahal, steal and sell shoes, and strip cars to earn enough money to survive before returning to Mumbai where Jamil seeks out Latika who he is in love with.  Jamil uncovers her whereabouts and both he and Salim go to rescue her and Salim ends up killing Maman.  Latika becomes a bone of contention between the brothers driving a wedge between them, Salim stakes a claim on her forcing Jamil to leave at gunpoint.

Jamil ends up on his own and some years later gets a job working at a call centre in Mumbai where he uses the computer system to find his lost brothers telephone number.  Meeting up on a building site he discovers that Salim has made a life for himself as a henchman for Javed, a local gangster, and is told that Latika is no longer with him.  Not believing what he’s been told Jamil follows Salim and discovers that Latika is living with Javed and is unable to leave, Jamil tells her to meet him at the train station and when she turns up she is abducted by Salim before the pair can be reunited.  Returning to the Javed’s house Jamil discovers it empty and thus decides to go on Who Wants to be a Millionaire as it is Latika’s favourite show.

Jamil’s appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire is not driven by the greed, as demonstrated by his indifference as to whether he wins or not, but instead by love.  Having spent most of his life trying to re-unite with Latika, the girl he loves, he’s at a dead end, he’s lost her once again and this is the only way he can think of to reach out to her.  The film is not just a rags-to-riches story but a romantic drama that deals with the themes of truth, love, and honesty whilst showing the harsh realities of growing up on the streets of Mumbai.  Slumdog demonstrates the two diverse paths that the Mumbai street urchins can take, having conned tourists to survive as a young child Jamil has managed to stay on the straight and narrow and has even got himself a legitimate job, regardless of how menial, whilst his brother has taken the alternative path and become a career criminal.   Part documentary, part fairy story, part crime drama, Slumdog Millionaire offers something for everyone and is ultimately deserving of the 8 Oscars it received.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Posted: February 3, 2012 in 1939, American, Drama, Romance

Set in South America, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a showgirl traveling by boat to Panama to audition for a show.  En-route the ship docks overnight in the small port town of Barranca to take on supplies and Bonnie disembarks to explore the town.  Whilst ashore she meets a close knit group of American pilots who fly for Barranca Airways, a struggling freight business owned by ‘Dutchy’ Van Reiter (Sig Ruman) and managed by Geoff Carter (Carey Grant).  Despite his brusque manner Carter is respected by everyone and it soon becomes clear that he tries to hide his emotional damage behind his macho attitude.

When a fatal accident kills one of the pilots Bonnie is horrified at the way the other pilots deal with their grief, choosing to drink and pretending that the pilot never existed in the first place.  Howard Hawk’s Barranca is populated by ‘real’ men who drink hard liquor, chain smoke, and hide their emotions, unless that emotion is anger.  Intrigued by Geoff’s ambivalence towards her and the emotional wall he’s constructed around himself Bonnie chooses to stay on in Barranca eventually falling in love with Geoff.  Over the course of the film Geoff’s actions belie his hardened exterior and by performing small benevolent actions he redeems himself in the viewers eyes allowing them to understand the bond formed by the brotherhood of pilots and their fierce loyalty towards their charismatic leader.

Angels is the first film Grant did for Columbia after being released from his contract with Paramount and is widely regarded as one of director Howard Hawks best films – particularly for the flying sequences.  In 1983 Donald P. Bellisario created the TV show ‘Tales of the Gold Monkey’ which was inspired by Only Angels Have Wings and in turn went on to inspire the Disney cartoon ‘Talespin’.

The Shining (1980)

Posted: January 30, 2012 in 1980, American, Horror

Adapted from the 1977 Steven King novel the plot of the film version differs quite dramatically from that of the original book.

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson the film tells the story of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer who takes a job as winter caretaker at The Overlook Hotel with the aim of using the time to write his new book.  During his interview at the beginning of the film the hotels manager, Stuart Ullman, makes a point of telling him about one of the previous caretakers, Charles Grady, who got cabin fever and killed his family before committing suicide.  Jack takes the job anyway and is joined at The Overlook by his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who is gifted with supernatural abilities.  When the family arrive on the last day of the season Danny meets the head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who also has the same abilities as Danny and explains that the ability is called ‘Shining’.  During their conversation Danny asks about Room 237, Dick tells him the hotel has a ‘Shine’ of it’s own and many memories, not all of which are good, and that he should stay away from Room 237.

As time goes by The Overlook get’s snowed in, becoming more secluded as the telephone lines go down and contact with the outside world becomes more infrequent.  Jack takes over The Colorado Lounge, a vast recreation room, to start writing his novel and becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to make progress.  Whilst trying to write Jack is frequently interrupted by Wendy until one day he snaps at her and tells her not to disturb him whilst he’s working, Jack becomes more isolated in the vast room reflecting the increasing isolation of The Overlook itself.

Danny amuses himself during the course of their tenancy by playing in the corridors and rooms of The Overlook but is plagued by visions and nightmares caused by his Shining ability.  Eerie music sets the mood for Danny’s ability whilst disturbing images of twin girls, mutilated corpses, and rivers of blood flowing through the corridors of The Overlook flash across the screen.  Kubrick plays on the viewers nerves through both the visuals and sound to create an uncomfortable atmosphere to the film rather than using shock tactics to scare the viewer.  Long tracking shots are used to great effect in The Shining creating long, drawn out scenes where you wait with bated breath for the pay off.  The most famous of these scenes is when the camera follows Danny as he rides his Big Wheel through the corridors of the hotel with the soundtrack alternating between virtual silence as the plastic wheels cross the carpeted areas before exploding with noise when they move onto the wooden floors.

Whilst Kings novel plays up to the supernatural forces existing in The Overlook which first effect Danny, then Jack and finally Wendy, Kubrick’s adaptation plays down this aspect seeming more that the isolation and frustration felt are the causes for Jack’s descent into madness.  It’s never made clear as to whether the party goers Jack encounters in The Gold Room in the film are actually spirits or manifestations of his madness and the only shared supernatural encounter is that of the woman in Room 237 experienced by both Danny and Jack.

The Shining has become a classic horror film and has been parodied many times since it’s release including The Simpsons – Tree House of Horror V episode, Family Guy, and 30 Seconds to Mars video for ‘The Kill’ and contains one of the most quoted lines in film ‘Here’s Johnny!’ which was actually improvised by Nicholson at the time and almost didn’t make it in to the film.

Metropolis (1927)

Posted: January 26, 2012 in 1927, Arthouse, German, Sci-Fi, Silent

I’ve had Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent movie epic on DVD for some time but have never seemed to find the time to watch it (there are some benefits to being off work sick).

Set in a futuristic dystopia the film explores the relationship between the oppressed Workers, who live in a vast underground complex and run the machines that power Metropolis, and the pampered Managers, who live in luxury in skyscrapers on the surface.  One day, whilst relaxing in the Eternal Garden, Freder Fredersen – son of Joh Fredersen the creator of Metropolis – encounters a beautiful young woman from the worker city, enchanted by her he follows her into the depths where he witnesses a terrible industrial accident.  He returns to his father telling him of the plight of the workers, not knowing that his father already knows, before returning to the worker city where he persuades a worker called #11811, Georgy, to trade places.  After a hellish 10 hour shift Freder follows the workers to an underground cavern where he finds the young woman he met earlier, Maria, preaching a message of peace and patience in waiting for the Mediator to arrive to unite the Head (the Managers) and the Hands (the Workers).  Freder realises that he is the Mediator and reveals himself to Maria at the end of the sermon when the other Workers have left.

Whilst this is happening Joh visits Rotwang, the mad scientist, about some maps that have been handed to him by Grot, a foreman for the Workers.  The two were friends but were rivals for the love of a woman, Hel, who eventually married Joh and died giving birth to their son Freder.  Rotwang reveals his creation, The Machine Man which he plans to give the likeness of Hel, to Joh and explains that the maps are of the catacombs below the Worker city.  Leading Joh through subterranean tunnels they secretly observe Maria’s sermon, not realising that Freder is in the crowd, and Joh commands Rotwang to use The Machine Man to clone Maria and incite the Workers to riot so that he can use force to bring them back in line.  Rotwang kidnaps Maria and holds her hostage whilst her clone goes about her work.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made Metropolis features brilliant cinematography, set design, and special effects that are stunning considering the technology of the time. The architecture portrayed in the film is based on Modernism and Art Deco, a new style in Europe which had not achieved mass production and as such was considered a symbol of the upper classes.  The effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created effects that were widely acclaimed for many years most notably The Schüfftan Process, which utilised mirrors to ‘place’ actors into miniature sets, and has been used by many other film makers over the years including Alfred Hitchcock in Blackmail (1929) and The 39 Steps (1935)  and as recently as 2003 when Peter Jackson used the technique when filming The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Metropolis has influenced modern cinema through both it’s imagery and storyline and without it we wouldn’t have films like Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, both of which borrow their visions of a future earth from Lang’s.  In addition the film’s imagery has been paid homage in various music videos such as Queen’s Radio Ga Ga (the majority of which uses clips from the film) and Madonna’s Express Yourself (which ends with the closing quote from Metropolis – “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the Hand and the Mind”) and was even, loosely, adapted to an anime by Osamu Tezuka in 2001.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Posted: January 25, 2012 in 1964, American, Comedy

Based on the Peter George novel Red Alert, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy satirizes the theme of a nuclear scare, in particular that of mutual assured destruction, in which each side is supposed to be deterred from a nuclear war by the prospect of a global cataclysm regardless of who actually won.

When Kubrick was writing the first draft of the script he did so with the intention of making it as a serious drama however changed to a comedy when he realised that ‘one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question‘.

Starring Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and George C. Scott the story concerns a deranged US Air Force General who, unknown to his superiors, orders a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia.  It then follows the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), his advisors, and an RAF Captain, Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again), as they try to recall the bombers and avert nuclear disaster.  The film separately follows the crew,  including James Earl Jones in his first film role, of one of the bombers piloted by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) as they attempt to deliver their payload.

Columbia agreed to finance the film on provision that Sellers would play at least 4 major roles, Kubrick accepted the demand but Sellers only ended up playing three of the four roles originally written for him.  He was originally scripted to play the role of Kong, despite being reluctant to do so due to the workload and feeling that he wouldn’t be able to do the role justice, and the role eventually went to Picken’s after Sellers sprained his ankle and was unable to work in the cramped cockpit set.  In the final version of the film Sellers played the roles of RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, US President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character Dr. Strangelove, who doesn’t actually appear in the book, an ex-nazi mad scientist who’s portrayal is an homage to the character of Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.  General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) was an over-the-top parody of gung-ho americanism, Scott wasn’t comfortable playing Turgidson this way so Kubrick got him to play the character this way for warm up shots before doing ‘real’ takes, ultimately Kubrick used these shots which led to Scott refusing to ever work with him again.

The film was shot entirely on set at Shepperton Studios in London as Sellers was unable to travel abroad at the time as he was in the middle of divorce proceedings.  There were 3 main sets, General Rippers office, the interior of the B52 Bomber, and finally the War Room which was a massive set some 40 meters long by 30 meters wide with a 35 meter high ceiling, walls covered with strategic maps, and glossy black floors – a design that was later recreated for the video for Muses single Time is Running Out in 2007.

Kubrick managed to insert elements of satire throughout the film from character names, President Merkin Muffley being a prime example (a Merkin is a pubic hair wig, the president is bald and his last name is Muffley which are both homages to a Merkin) to visual images, the soldiers fighting to take control of Burpleson Air Force Base against the backdrop of a billboard reading ‘Peace is our Profession’.