May 27th: Oirish

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117. The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952)

John Ford’s picture postcard vision of Ireland sees John Wayne as a disgraced American boxer attempting to woo Maureen O’Hara’s local beauty in the face of resistance from her overbearing brother. Lavishly photographed scenery and a thick splash of melodrama are infused with so much faux Irish sentiment you’d think that the film stock was dipped in Guinness. Try to ignore the rampant misogyny and romanticised lack of sectarian tension and you’ve a glimpse at how the second generation American/Irish remember the old country, all raucous comedy punch-ups and sing-a-long nights down the pub

Note: The Quiet Man is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Irish Movies.

Note: I’ve set myself the challenge of doing a 100 word review for this.

May 26th: Genocide Pt.3

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116. Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004) #104 in IMDB top 250

First Schindler’s List then The Killing Fields and now this. Hotel Rwanda completes a triumvirate of true stories about genocides of the 20th Century. In 1994 amidst the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi minority a hotel manager called Paul Rusesabagina sheltered and helped to save 1,268 people from the ensuing massacre. Rusesabagina is played by Don Cheadle in a performance which scours his awful Oceans 11 cockernee accent from the memory. He is matched every step of the way by an excellent supporting cast – especially Sophie Okonedo as his wife and Nick Nolte as the commander of the UN forces. It seems that the film has been compared favourably with Schindler’s List beforehand. Whilst this isn’t a cinematic achievement on a par with Spielberg’s opus it is an important and well made film. It gives you the important details leading up to the beginning of the genocide in a swift series of scenes at the outset of the film. The madness that follows is given alongside a kind of potted history lesson.

Essentially, and this is a massive oversimplification for the sake of expediency, the differentiation of the Hutu and Tutsi people was exacerbated by the Belgian colonial forces during their ruling period from 1923 to the late 1950s. It was a case of continual retribution until a peace agreement was to be signed in 1994 by the President. The President was killed when his plane was shot down on its way to Kigali to sign the peace agreement. The Hutu militia used this as a reason for the subsequent mass killing of Tutsi’s and any moderate Hutu’s who would have peace.

The level of cold hearted violence that took place in Rwanda in 1994 is unfathomable by any standard. This film touches on it but it can’t reveal the true extent of the misery and hate involved. It has inspired me to spend a lot of time reading about the events and understanding the shameful lack of international intervention. Regardless, the bravery and resourcefulness of Paul Rusesabagina is incredible and this film stands as a testament to it.

It is worth noting that there is a kind of cultural backlash against the film in certain areas of Rwanda. Some of the press believe Rusesabagina’s claims to be exaggerated and that he is profiting from the genocide. It would seem that his story is corroborated though, especially by those whose lives he helped to save. The films producers don’t have the same kind of alibi, it would appear that they have used the notoriously labyrinthine accounting methods of Hollywood to wrangle out of donating any profits to the Rwandan survivors fund.

If you would like an idea about the Western reaction to the Rwandan genocide then please watch the excellent Adam Curtis short film on media representation… here.

As for me, no more genocide or depressing ‘Western involvement in foreign affairs’ films like The Constant Gardener or The Year of Living Dangerously for a few days. I need some lighter stuff for a bit.

Walken the Line

Last week I decided to write a response to a Guardian article by David Thomson, a writer I’m full of respect for having really enjoyed his work on Hollywood cinema – especially The Whole Equation. Initially I was going to stick it as a comment attached to the film blog on their website but as I was writing it and looking for clips the whole piece of writing just grew and grew. I submitted it as a piece of freelance but they haven’t replied. I don’t blame them especially, re-reading it is an exercise in self torture but I suppose it’s all a step in the right direction. Anyway, here’s the article I sent. It’s heavy with Youtube links if you want to check out a prime slice of Chris Walken as any number of bad guys…

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The Case for Walken

The Guardian recently asked for our favourite screen villains – the bad guys we love to root for. It’s been frequently said that we, the British, make the best villains. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest it is true as Alan Rickman, Ian Mckellen, Ralph Feinnes and Gary Oldman have excellent screen antagonist calibre. But it is America that can lay claim to the greatest of the modern screen villains.

Under a variety of guises Christopher Walken has become the proprietor of a most impressive rogue’s gallery. From Aryan sociopath Max Zorin in A View to a Kill, nonchalantly dismissing his workforce with a machine gun, to Archangel Gabriel in straight to video classic The Prophecy, trying to tear open a little girl to get at the soul within, one thing is constant; Walken is the magnetic and malevolent presence that ties the films together. He supersedes everything else that has occurs in a film, the drawn reptilian features, the thin lips and haunting dark eyes, they all combine to create someone who is, put simply, different. He carries a sense of something alien, as if he is experiencing this world for the first time. And that’s before he starts talking.

The Walken voice is a gift for comedians and actors, many of them from have an impression (Kevin’s Spacey (@4.30) and Pollack are among the best) but none of them are close to the real thing. Henry Rollins describes the time that Walken appeared on his TV show as the meeting of a legend. On his arrival at the studio a group of admirers, including Rollins himself, fell about starstruck – much to the dismay of Walken’s Press Officer. The power of his voice comes over in one of Walken’s most villainous performances, as The Man with the Plan in 1995’s Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Despite only moving from the neck upwards he manages to convincingly intimidate everyone he comes into contact with, spitting bitter condescension and insults with impunity.

Things get even better when Walken starts moving though. Every movement appears to be part of an elaborate dance, set to a rhythm that only Walken can hear. He’s made no secret that he has tried to fit a jig into every role he’s taken, as an “homage to Broadway.” But like another famous American hoofer turned screen villain, James Cagney, when these smooth gliding movements come attached to those features and that voice it’s a heady cocktail. In Donald Cammel’s little seen Wild Side, Walken combined all three to delirious effect especially whilst he threatens to sodomise his chauffer in order to prove he loves his prostitute/mistress.

The villains have waned as Walken has aged past his golden streak of the 1990s and taken more cameos and comedic roles. But he remains my choice as greatest screen villain and if you ever want conclusive proof – remember the infamous scene from True Romance. Dennis Hopper is wonderfully solemn and resigned but Walken’s Vincenzo Coccotti makes good on his promise of being ‘the Anti-Christ, in a vendetta kind of mood‘ stealing the film from everyone else in one solitary scene.

May 25th: Calm like a nuke.

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115. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Ted Post, 1970)

After the events of the first film this sequel follows on directly – showing Charlton Heston’s astronaut, Taylor, with his squeeze, Nova, heading into the ‘forbidden zone’. Chuck falls through some weird wall and disappears. Cue the arrival onto the planet of Brent played by James Franciscus, another astronaut who looks a lot like Charlton Heston, an awful lot like him. Brent meets Nova and she shows him the Ape City. Then, after his capture and a bit of assistance from returning liberal ape Zira he makes his way to the site of Chuck’s disappearance. Then things get a bit weird. Brent is captured by an underground race of telepathic mutated humans who worship an active atomic bomb. Yep, that’s a whole plate load of weird.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is pretty damn interesting as far as sequels go. It makes a genuine attempt to say something on a number of issues. There is a go at political ideologies, the civil rights movement, the campaign for nuclear disarmament and gender politics. There’s no massive insight on display but it shoe-horns enough interesting bits and pieces in to keep a wry smile on your face.

May 24th: Isn’t it ironic?

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114. Snakes on a Plane (David R. Ellis/Lex Halaby, 2006)

The B-Movie is a treasured bygone of cinema yore, notable by its rare existence in modern cinema.*

The modern ironic B-Movie has yet to attain this sort of status.

Snakes on a Plane is in the latter category. As the title suggests this is heart on sleeve material. Rabid snakes are released on plane that is carrying a star witness in an important murder trial. Multiple snake deaths ensue. That’s it. High-concept, nudge-nudge, wink-wink stuff. The snakes kill the people in a variety of painful and ludicrous ways whilst Special Agent Samuel L. Jackson tries to protect the witness and the surviving passengers. The only remarkable aspect of the film is the extent to which the internet played a part in its development. Following a building of anticipation New Line cinema actually extended the shooting schedule in order to incorporate suggestions made on the website – suggestions such as snake deaths and character traits. The resultant effect is disappointingly like watching a procession of scenes that could have been suggested by an excitable internet community.

Funny that.

 

* I may be alone in this but I think the purest B-Movie of recent times was The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. It had nothing to do with the others in the series and should probably have just been called Tokyo Drift. Anyone else watched it? Here’s the excellent first race – which took me a disproportionately long time to find on the internet.

May 23rd: People are Strange

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113. The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)

What an infuriating film-maker M. Night Shyamalan is. Of the films of his that I’ve seen (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village) there are flashes of beauty that suggest he might be better suited as a cinematographer. He conjures up sumptuous colours and compositions repeatedly in The Village to surround the fantastic cast. He also crafts an interesting premise with a clear direction as to what the reveal or twist will relate to. But this has clearly become the M. Night Shyamalan signature and millstone by this point. He has to have his twist and it comes at the expense of actually telling the story. The Village strikes me as an excellent hour-long film, the likes of which grace the Masters of Horror series, stretched to 90 minutes. I’m unsure if it was internal or external pressures on the man but it seemed at this point that the twist ending might have been written into his studio contract.

Regardless of this The Village is an entertaining distraction that’s easy on the eye but the formula is tired and the execution is a little laboured in stretching the story.

May 23rd: Imagine, all the people.

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112. The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé, 1984)

A few years ago I saw Lord Puttnam give a moving speech at the BAFTA’s when accepting a fellowship into the Academy. Prior to the speech there were clips from the films he has been involved in during the course of his distinguished career, one of these films was The Killing Fields. I made a mental note there and then to see the film. Shortly afterwards I was watching a documentary on the cold war which referenced the Khmer Rouge and their activities in Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnam war. “I really must watch The Killing Fields,” I thought to myself. Recently I’ve watched The Constant Gardener and The Year of Living Dangerously. It suddenly seemed appropriate to continue a kind of ‘tour of duty’ by looking at more Western characters in foreign climes – in this case it’s the true story of journalist Sydney Schanberg and his friendship with Cambodian journalist/translator Dith Pran.

It is a harrowing story, if you aren’t aware of the Khmer Rouge and what they did then I’d advise a quick read around the internet. It is one of the worst examples of political extremism in the history of the world, easily rivalling the Nazi holocaust or Stalin’s purges in sheer brutality as well as in terms of the amount of people killed (estimates vary from 750,000 to 3 million).

The film follows the lead up to the Khmer Rouge taking control of the country and the journalists attempting to cover the story and stay alive. For Sydney and his group Pran is a saviour – his intervention seemingly saves their lives, allowing them to escape to the safe haven of the French embassy when the invasion takes place. Schanberg has already evacuated Pran’s family to America but disaster strikes when they cannot get Pran along with them. Instead he is turned over to the Khmer Rouge and left to survive. There follows the story of Pran’s involvement in the working camps and Schanberg’s unfailing attempts to find out about him. It is a glimpse, only a filmic glimpse, at the horror that occurred at the time – the imagination struggles to comprehend the scale of human suffering and this film only shows the experience of one man. The story cannot help but be deeply affecting. The path that Dith Pran had to take to reach freedom was a torturous one and the role is leant added gravitas by Haing S. Ngor, who himself survived the concentration camps – though his wife did not.

There are problems with the film, sometimes the Mike Oldfield score is too intrusive and the structure has a first section that is probably too lengthy compared to the second. But these are minor complaints in what is otherwise an exceptional and important work.

Note: The last four links are to wikipedia for a little more info on the people and events that I’m talking about. Reading about the Khmer Rouge is incredibly sad but compulsive – I spent an hour on the internet reading about it, be warned.

Note: The Killing Fields is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Journalist Movies’.

May 22nd: Old School

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111. Á Bout de Souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

I probably should have watched a French new-wave film before. This seems like an appropriate place to start though. Godard’s film is quite difficult to watch for the first time. It must have seemed like an exciting and fresh way of telling a story – jump cuts, fractured narrative. It’s all Bogart imitators and Hepburn ciphers, cigarette smoke and sunglasses. Unfortunately the cultural cliché and repeated imitation have dampened the effect somewhat. It’s become irretrievably dated by its own success in much the same way I suggested Soylent Green had. There was even a Fast Show sketch.
Note: A Bout de Souffle is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘French New Wave’.

May 22nd: How do you like them apples?

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110. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) #51 in IMDB top 250

In 2002 China had a smash hit film on its hands with Infernal Affairs. The Hong Kong film industry got the international visibility it had been waiting for since the departure of John Woo and a couple of, apparently decent, sequels were swiftly pumped out. A remake was inevitable. What wasn’t inevitable was that the remake would have this kind of director and this kind of profile.

Two men graduate from the Massachusetts State Police Academy, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent undercover to infiltrate the Irish mafia whilst Colin (Matt Damon) is already a mole for the mafia inside the police. The web of deceit creates an increasingly tense game of cat and mouse where each man strives to outwit the other.

This film has one stellar cast – it is brimming with talent at all turns. It’s adapted from an excellent source and it has at the helm one of the finest directors in modern American cinema.

Why then, is it mildly disappointing?

Mainly it’s because of Jack Nicholson. I love Jack, we all do. I just don’t think he has any great performances left in him. In The Departed he just does another impression of himself but with a Boston accent this time, enjoyable but not quite right for a film. Each raised eyebrow from Jack threatens to send him over the edge to high camp, moustache-twirling villainy.

Next, poor Vera Farmyga as Madolyn, the love interest for both the moles. Her role is ridiculously under-written, rendering her absolutely incapable of taking any positive action throughout the course of the film – there is simply nothing independent in the part. This might not have made itself apparent if it weren’t for the advertising of The Departed constantly referencing Scorcese’s other gangster films, notably Casino and Goodfellas. Compared to the parts played by Sharon Stone and Lorraine Bracco, respectively, in those films – this is a joke.

I didn’t dislike The Departed, although it might sound like I did. It entertained me and overall the performances were strong. Mark Wahlberg had a dream role and seemed to have fun chewing the scenery. The music is used fantastically well and the opening montage is a great introduction to the characters. Unfortunately this is a lesser late work of a master – certainly not in the same league as his earlier criminal epics. The rat symbolism is peculiarly heavy-handed and the pacing is a little screwy in the last third. It’s good. It’s just not great.

May 21st: Gender bending

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109. Twelfth Night (Trevor Nunn, 1996)

Trevor Nunn is a big name in theatre. He’s made a few contributions to the cinematic lexicon of Shakespeare too. But I doubt that this is the best of the bunch. Twelfth Night is a comedy of the most typical Shakespearian circumstances, mistaken identities, switched genders and misplaced affections. Nunn’s wife, the elfin Imogen Stubbs, is Viola. Separated from her twin brother during the course of a storm at sea she washes ashore and disguises herself as a man setting off a series of bizarre comedic events before the inevitable resolution. Whilst the performances are pretty strong, Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter especially, the whole production feels a bit flat. I really struggled to get involved or interested in the film. Transferral of Shakespeare to screen is a tricky business but it can be successful and interesting – I really enjoyed Roman Polanski’s Macbeth for example. This translation seems to lack a sense of the cinematic, it isn’t much of a surprise to see that this is Nunn’s only film – the remainder of his work is predominantly stage or television. I suspect his strengths lie elsewhere.