January 29th: Thursday Evening Stars

37. Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg, 2004)

 In 1988 the economically depressed town of Odessa in Texas once again wound itself up for the start of another High School American football season with the expectations being firmly that their team would win the state championship. This film follows their season as Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) struggles to live up to the expectations of the entire town and guide his young charges through the most difficult period of their lives. Friday Night Lights may well be the finest sports film I have ever seen (I’ve not got round to watching Hoop Dreams yet so it may be a placeholder). This true story may not be the most fascinating in the genre, Coach Carter and Remember the Titans vie for that honour also, but it is by far the best presentation. And whilst the other films present social issues in conjunction with their sporting story they fall guilty of cliché far too easily and allow the story to ride roughshod over any attempt to create something more than a simple plot procession. By contrast Friday Night Lights is crafted with an altogether more intelligent hand. Peter Berg uses his now trademark ‘over-the-shoulder’ style for the character interaction which captures the studied intensity of the performances, Lucas Black’s self-doubting quarterback especially. For the games Berg leads in with beautiful, almost abstract, soaring camera shots of the stadia backed by the excellent score courtesy of Texan group Explosions in the Sky. The build up is matched by the action of the matches themselves as crunching tackles mix with huge hopeful ‘Hail Mary’ passes all framed against the sprawling open air pitches.

There’s much more to say about this film and I could go on but I think I’ll draw a line under it there but not before one more special point. The scene where star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) breaks down to his uncle was probably the most moving in any film I’ve seen so far this year. Really very upsetting in its emotional context.

Note. Special thanks to Nathan for recommending the film and waxing lyrical about it at every opportunity and to CEX for selling it at the ridiculous price of £1.50.

January 26th: Dark Serpent

36. The Black Cobra (Stelvio Massi, 1987)

I owe a great debt to the little black book 1000 Essential Movies on Video as published by Neon magazine way back in 1997. It’s introduced me to many films I wouldn’t have otherwise looked at. But occasionally it drops a bollock and in the case of The Black Cobra it’s a cheap withered bollock at that. It is a micro-budget remake of Sylvester Stallone’s terrible Cobra (George P. Cosmatos, 1986) except with cigar chomping blaxploitation star Fred Williamson in the lead role. He’s a maverick renegade Chicago cop with no time for bullshit law and order when he can exterminate the human scum of the criminal fraternity with his justice gun. Being an 80s film the final shootout takes place on the same industrial estate that every other film used and being an 80s action film the bad guy doesn’t really die first time around. Awful though it is The Black Cobra is unintentionally hilarious and even managed to spawn two sequels, both somehow set in the Phillipines.

Note: The Black Cobra is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Blaxploitation Movies’.

January 26th: Guess Who’s Coming to Town?

 

35. Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955)

 

Spencer Tracy embodies everything I envisage to be good about America. He is a superb watch in any film, I’d never go as far as to say that he was a great actor in the classical sense but, instead, I find him to represent a set of ideals that in him crystallize the strength, humility and progress of America in the time that he was acting. If you don’t believe me or aren’t aware of the man then watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where Tracy’s character embodies the struggling but open-minded and progressive white middle-class man, determined to overcome his own prejudices. Or watch Bad Day at Black Rock.

At 81 minutes Bad Day at Black Rock is a snip of a film by modern standards but it’s a simple story told in a lean, economical fashion – it needn’t last any longer. It’s a simple set-up; John J. Macreedy arrives in the small town of Black Rock to meet someone. He has 24 hours before the next train. During that one day Macreedy unravels the terrible secret kept by the people of Black Rock and in doing so he hints at some of the awful prejudices of wartime America and the mistreatment of immigrants during that time. But I don’t want to spoil it. Watch Bad Day at Black Rock, it won’t take much of your time but it is an effective thriller with solid message at its heart.

But hang on a minute. Don’t watch the version currently being shown on TCM. Because it’s been ‘pan & scanned’. It is quite the most annoying way of displaying a film because you only really get to see a portion of the screen at any one time. It’s the method used for people who get whiny about the black bars when a film is ‘letterboxed’ for widescreen presentation but it bloody ruins the experience in my opinion. For a pretty good demonstration of what’s happening in a pan and scan, and how much you’re missing have a look at this. Bollocks frankly (though possibly worth it if you’re being forced to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).

January 25th: Average Redux

 

34. Man on Fire (Tony Scott, 2004)

 

You know what you’re getting with Tony Scott don’t you? Rapid cross-cutting, sumptuous colours, filtered, bleached and… well… anything goes really. I watched the original adaptation back on January 1st and was a little under-whelmed by the pacing and style of the film. Well Tony Scott is all about a rapid pace and an abundance of style. But that’s it – there’s not much else on the go here. The story is very much the same except it’s now set in Mexico City giving the film an extra sun-bleached feel and making available whole barrios of nasty lawless Hispanic chaps. Again, and I may start sounding like a broken record about this, the film is preoccupied with torture. As Denzel Washington’s grieving bodyguard starts killing his way up the criminal fraternity there is no action save for the repeated capture/torture/kill method also recently used in Taken. Abu Ghraib hasn’t a thing on Hollywood.

 

Overall the performances are believable and the story is relatively uninspired. The kidnapping aside there isn’t any real sense of tension generated by the plotting and what tension there is dissipates upon the sight of the unnervingly precocious Dakota Fanning. Honestly, she doesn’t look quite real. I’m certainly not quite sure why this is tracking at 7.6 on IMDB, it seems more in line with the 39% at Rotten Tomatoes.

January 23rd: Broken Britain?

33. Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008)

Friday night is rapidly becoming a lads film night and so it was the case here. Unfortunately the first choice film was switched off after half an hour and I didn’t get to see any of it the next day. So my review of The Black Cobra will have to wait for a couple of days. So, after that false start we knuckled down to watching a bit of nasty – always good to start the weekend with the nasty.

Eden Lake is the cruelest film I have watched in some time. The slow build of tension and conflict is superbly handled by first-time director Watkins. Middle class lovelies Jenny and Steve are off to spend a weekend by the titular lake, a filled quarry, in what seems to be an idyllic forest. Their peace is shattered by the appearance of a group of obnoxious teens intent, it seems, on aggravating the couple. Things steadily go from bad to astoundingly shit before accelerating to batshit mental for the couple.

Heavily and positively influenced by Neil Marshall’s stunning The Descent (2005), Eden Lake is a tightly wound nightmare scenario. Eschewing the former films supernatural troglodytes for a very human threat gives Eden Lake a visceral sense of nihilistic cruelty. The ringleader for the gang, Brett (Jack O’Connell), is a convincingly brutish character whom O’Connell imbues with a kind of charismatic yet repellant ferocity. He leads the other young gang members down their path of increasingly depraved acts. This unflinching nastiness is set at odds with the seeming purity of Jenny and Steve’s relationship. Torture rears its ugly head once again as the couple are subjected to the latest installment of the current rash of captive maiming. It’s believable stuff though – not like Hostel’s gleeful gore, this is painfully gritty and disturbing. There is no respite either, Eden Lake has the courage of its convictions and it is powerful enough to remain with you after the credits roll. Forgive it the occasional character flaw and reason its class commentary as an explainable factor (violence begets violence rather than poverty begets violence – suggested by the early pre-lake encounter with the family), Eden Lake is gripping stuff.

Note: Director James Watkins is involved with The Descent: Part 2 which raises my otherwise low hopes for the unnecessary sequel.

January 22nd: On The Town

32. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)

A young gigolo travels from Texas to New York City to make his fortune, after being repeatedly ripped off he befriends Ratso a crippled drifter and the two of them attempt to make their way in the world. With Schlesinger’s cross-cutting, flashing back and forward, colour-tinting and black and white sequences Midnight Cowboy can be a little jarring at first. This was the style of the time though, the same year as Easy Rider and a greater ‘youth culture’ movement in cinema. The cumulative effect of these techniques married with an excellent soundtrack is that you are really drawn into the confusing nature of Joe Buck’s move to New York. The dizzying descent into debt and desperation bottoms out in the freezing winter when the unlikely duo resort to pawning what they can to eat. Both actors (Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman) are superb, enacting a kind of modern Lenny and George duo – and an equally doomed arc of friendship.

Midnight Cowboy was a smash hit but, as good as it is, it’s difficult to see why. Homosexuality and the life of a borderline homeless drifter gigolo and his crippled sickly friend is a difficult sell. Perhaps there was a window for that film that might not exist now.

January 20th: Mickey Rourke was gorgeous back in the early 80s

31. Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982)

Over the course of a week six friends make some pretty important decisions and go through a few life-changing events. Diner stars some very fresh-faced young talented actors Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon and Paul Reiser. Set in 1959 it takes in these friends as they begin to move into adulthood and the mistakes and confusion influence their choices. But that’s an incredibly dull way of describing the film. It doesn’t do it justice. What’s really impressive about Diner is the extent to which you can fall in with this group of friends, how far you feel part of their dynamic. It reminded me of the similar scope and effect of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused – shamelessly nostalgic without resorting to mawkish sentimentality. There is a genuine warmth and friendliness about the film that creates a sensation of belonging. It keys back into your life and reminds you of the dynamic you can have with a group of friends, with the lads (sadly I can only really approach this one from the male perspective folks). The films conclusion is the payoff, Levinson just lets the camera drift over the friends interacting. It’s beautiful and brilliant – it should remind you that your friends are a constantly evolving group and that every now and again you could look around them and just enjoy the banter.

January 19th: Somnambulist

30. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) #118 in IMDB top 250

Noir, filthy dirty noir. The Big Sleep is a stone cold classic noir film and it’s utterly disgraceful that I haven’t seen it up until now. All the clichés about American noir and detective movies came from this and a few other key films (Notably The Maltese Falcon). The Big Sleep takes place nominally in Los Angeles but this isn’t like any city in the real world. The city has a veneer of class shrouding a layer of sleaze and corruption that can seep out and infect the inhabitants at any point, and it frequently does. Humphrey Bogart, as Philip Marlowe, wades through this murky cityscape dodging and rounding the criminal underclass whilst charming every woman in sight. Lauren Bacall is the femme fatale whose involvement in the case expands at each twist and turn in the story Whenever Bogart and Bacall are onscreen at the same time the chemistry is palpable, they married shortly after the film wrapped. If you haven’t seen it – give it a watch and marvel at how much one film has integrated itself into our cultural consciousness and if you can fathom what actually happens in the film then let me know. Remarkably the author, Raymond Chandler, famously claimed to not know himself.

Note: The Big Sleep is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘LA Movies’.

January 18th: Tiny Incremental Improvements

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (Peter Richardson, 2004)

I continue to punish myself with dreary films. I wanted something funny and easy on a Sunday afternoon. Shame I put this on. The concept itself is amusing. The opening reveals that Winston Churchill wasn’t Britain’s brilliant wartime leader and genial drunk, instead he was an American G.I., played by the always watchable Christian Slater, who single-handedly brings down Adolf & chums inside the confines of Buckingham palace. His love interest is Princess Elizabeth Windsor, played by the rarely watchable Neve Campbell. Peppered with British comedy talent from Harry Enfield to Vic and Bob the film takes on the look of a poorly thought out series of sketches based around broad British stereotypes of how the Americans view England. Whilst trying to snare an American audience with the US cast members the film also attempts a sort of transatlantic humour; the satire of the concept meshes inadequately with the broad slapstick of the script. It just doesn’t work. Some of the cast look embarrassed about the whole thing and I was quite bored. Most of the comedy misses the sharpness of the individual talent involved – a fleeting glimpse of which is afforded in the out-takes played over the credits.

Time to up the quality levels methinks.

January 17th: Shite Rider

28. Bail Out (Max Kleven, 1989)

What? Why am I watching a David Hasselhoff film that went straight to VHS back in the late 80s? Well, why not?

Because it’s shit, that’s why not.

Partially funded by sportswear company Head, and, presumably, a cabal of coked up madmen, we follow a hapless twat called ‘Whitebread’ played by Hasselhoff. Alongside his ethnically diverse chums Blue and Bean, he completely fucks up every single thing he has to do in the quest to rescue the performance-handicapped midget Linda Blair. He even manages to do so with that shit-eating ‘I made Baywatch’ grin fixed on his annoyingly permed 80s head. In-between important plot developments you get some excellent slo-mo shots of the Hoff playing tennis in a variety of snazzy shell-suits.

It cost 97 pence from Tesco for a bloody good reason.

Thanks to Ed and Tom for putting up with this exceptional brand of shite with me. Particularly Ed who actually owns the thing.